You are invited to participate in -
2018 Auctionof Promises For Parkinson`s And The Tango Effect
More than an ironic aside on unseasonal weather, I discover that Flaming June is also a painting - a portrait of artist Frederic Leighton's muse, actor Dorothy Dene, wrapped in a frock which positively blazes passion, eyes closed in what looks like bliss. I'm wondering if she might have been a secret tango dancer.
So, a fantastic achievement with funding so far - in the dark days of winter, I really couldn't imagine we'd ever see 62%! And of course it's thanks to all of you who have given so generously - most recently Jo, Norma and Sari.
But... almost 6 months in, I'm finding myself low on energy and inspiration, and aware that we need to recover momentum. Add to this the fact that Unbound is experiencing technical problems related to the new data legislation which has meant that the update for 1st June still hasn't gone out - hence its appearance here. Fortunately, Aileen is there with another brilliant idea.
You are invited to participate in -
2018 Auctionof Promises For Parkinson`s And The Tango Effect
An open auction of promises - which might be a single event (a guided walk) or experience (an afternoon`s bird-watching, kayaking on the Cam), an offer of help (a couple or hours ironing or gardening, an evening`s baby-sitting), sharing a skill (photography, knitting) or a taster session (lindy hop, life drawing), from the modest (how to make a paper aeroplane) to a flight in a real one... Contributors are encouraged to give generously of their time and expertise....
The auction website is now live and it’s quite straightforward to contribute promises and bid online by following the link above. Please do get involved and encourage others - I'm hoping for lots of envelope-pushing in the next few weeks! It would be particularly helpful if we could draw in to the bidding people who haven’t been involved before - so do please spread the word far and wide. The auction will finish with a grand finale the weekend of 14/15 July - still at the drawing board stage but something along the lines of an extended Garden Party Spectacular. I'm thinking readings, live music, dancing, dance performances/demos and taster sessions, refreshments of course, perhaps a celebrity or two... So please, in addition to promising your promises and getting the bidding started, do offer whatever you can to help make this happen - a band? a portable dance floor? (and there is also the small matter of the garden?! - almost sorted, but any offers of a back-up very welcome.)
I'm very aware of that ticking clock and also of the need, in addition to all the above, for that single substantial sponsor - ideas on a postcard please. But meanwhile let's see if we can ready to go out in a blaze of glory.
So April was a month of anniversaries. The 14th, the day following my birthday (a milestone I’m more than ready to forget) marked the day my dad died 16 years ago, and five days later, the second anniversary of Mum’s death. When I look in the mirror, often these days I see one or other of them looking back at me. I wonder what they would make of all this, unsure whether I’m meaning the personal or the mess that characterises so much of the wider world. ‘All this’ has me looking up at the poster above my desk advertising a 2006 exhibition of Samuel Beckett manuscripts at Trinity College Dublin, which I went to with my friend Maxine at just about this time of year. The exhibition took its title, ALL THIS THIS HERE, from the last poem Beckett wrote. In July 1988, 18 months before his death, a fall in his kitchen left him with what were thought to be the effects of a stroke or, strangely for me, Parkinson’s. Whatever the cause, he experienced temporary aphasia, a disturbance of the brain’s speech centres. In hospital, as he gradually recovered the ability to speak and write, he began work on ‘Comment dire’, described by one critic as ‘a representation and exploration of… the fruitless compulsion to search for words’:
what is the word –
seeing all this –
all this this –
all this this here –
folly for to see what –
seem to glimpse –
need to seem to glimpse –
afaint afar away over there what –
folly for to need to seem to glimpse afaint afar away over there what –
what is the word –
what is the word
In an even stranger postscript, some hours after writing this I wake screaming from a nightmare to my own experience of aphasia, five minutes of slurred speech and nonsense alternating with a complete inability to form words at all which sees me spending half the night in Addenbrookes, the cause as yet unclear. Beckett - like me he was born on the 13th April - died on 22 December 1989, eight days before Jack was born. And so now I’m also remembering a fabulous production of Endgame with Michael Gambon and Liz Smith, which Jack & I saw at the Albery in the spring of 2004 and waited at the stage door afterwards for a glimpse of its stars.
Anglia Ruskin can lay claim to its own success stories over the years although I’m not sure that any of the glittering back catalogue still living made it along with me to the 25rh anniversary celebrations of university status the last weekend of the month. I scroll through the list of alumni, wondering as usual too late why I didn’t ask if i was in the company of famous names. Here are David Gilmour and Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd, of course, rubbing shoulders with Labour Party politicians Sue Hayman and Kim Howells, writers Chris Beckett and Grahame Davies, and artists and illustrators Edward Bawden and Ronald Searle, the last best known to me for the delightful Molesworth series. I learn there is a lot more to him. Born in Cambridge, son of a post office worker and a student of what became Parkside School and then Cambridge College of Arts & Technology (later ARU), he spent much of World War II as a prisoner of the Japanese, documenting the brutal conditions of his incarceration in a series of drawings that he hid under the mattresses of fellow prisoners dying of cholera. He said afterwards that his experiences gave him a ‘measuring stick’ for the rest of his life. Other heroes emerge: I’m excited to find myself in the company of the very fine poet and author John Burnside and the wonderful Alberto Manguel, now Director of the National Library of Argentina. I first discovered Manguel through a gift of ‘The Library at Night’ from my Norwich friend Richard who also alerted me to Manguel’s new book. Packing my Library, on the power of reading and the importance of libraries. Our books, Manguel says, are ‘accounts of our histories, of our epiphanies and of our atrocities… They are also reminders of better things, of hope and consolation and compassion and hold the implication that of these too we are all of us capable…’
The last week in April sees me out and about a bit. I travel to Norwich twice in the space of three days, the second time to dance. This is the first time I have been to a milonga in Norwich and I’m disarmed by the warmth of the welcome. I have persuaded Richard & Felicity to call in, envisaging a quiet drink while we watch the floor but unaccountably there are lots of opportunities for me to dance and somehow I feel more relaxed and calmer, more confident than I sometimes feel in Cambridge. Which i’m afraid turns me into rather a distracted host, shooting onto the floor at a moment’s notice and then returning to excitable explanations of the virtues of tango – shades of my dad’s overweening enthusiasms there. I also have an afternoon in London for my first meeting as adviser to People Dancing’s Dance for Parkinson’s Partnership. I’m pleased that I will be able to contribute to the planning and development of this programme. I’ve lost my early antipathy to specialist provision and know from my own experience as well as observation that the classes can be a powerful and joyous experience. Crucially, participants are able to leave their Parkinson’s at the door: Interviewed in the fabulous film ‘Capturing Grace’, Reggie Butts sums this up nicely: ‘There are no patients,’ he says. ‘They’re dancers.’ I discover at the meeting that the last day of the month is World Dance for Parkinson’s Day. I explore the web pages created by the Mark Morris Dance Group/Dance for PD and the video made by English National Ballet to mark the occasion and find myself feeling rather proud to be a person with Parkinson’s. Although my first love and my passion remains tango, of course, made possible by the inclusive approach and support of my local tango communities.
On the 30th I switch on the radio to find that the afternoon’s ‘Gardeners’ Question Time’ comes from the Sainsbury Laboratory in the Botanic Garden here in Cambridge. I calculate: an incredible five years since I began my residency there one Monday in May. It has been much on my mind recently and the reminder blows through the day like a serendipitous ghost. Somehow I feel I have lost touch with that side of myself and my writing recently. The final question for the panel comes from Steve Coghill, Senior Horticulturalist at King’s and concerns the ‘amazing’ Ellen Ann Willmott who famously sprinkled seeds of Eryngium giganteum sea holly amongst the borders of gardens she visited. The experts were asked what ‘calling card’ they would choose to leave. Miss Willmott’s name is familiar but I can’t find any reference to her among my notes so I resort to Google and discover she was indeed quite a character. A traveller and a plant collector, wood carver and photographer, she was a fellow of the Linnean Society and contributed more than 15,000 specimens to the Cambridge Herbarium. She also funded Ernest ‘Chinese’ Wilson’s expeditions which definitely ring a bell and I recall tracking down his find Sycopsis sinensis Chinese fighazel before other distractions intervened and I abandoned the trail. Reputedly a demanding employer, Ellen Willmott became increasingly cranky as she grew older, carrying a revolver in her handbag. I wonder what, if any, echoes of my residency remain, among the roots or along the paths of the Garden, perhaps fleetingly in the memories of staff or visitors. I did make one physical deposit, a sliver of slate engraved with a spiral and with the word ‘envoi’ and a web address on the reverse, this from my Cumbrian friend and artist Liz Clay, now sadly no longer with us. Liz gave all her friends a similar piece of stone whenever they were travelling, with instructions to leave it in a significant spot and bring something from that place back to her. I placed my envoi in the rock garden and for years I visited it every time I was passing. Sometimes it was hard to find but it hung on for years - until one day it simply wasn’t there any more. Fortunately, thanks to Kaddy the poet, there is a photographic record. Is it too fanciful to imagine the ghost of Liz joining ‘Miss Willmott’s Ghost’ to call my own shadowy presence back to finish what I started? Perhaps. Still, I find myself revisiting one of the stories from the Writing the Garden collection, the story for May. A quick edit and ‘Paradise’ is on its way to the US as a competition entry. Later that day, I receive news of the Garden Museum’s first Garden Writing Competition and I’m keen to get started, the compulsion to write returned after months of absence. Whether the search is fruitless - well, we will find out.
'What Is the Word': Beckett's Aphasic Modernism was published by Laura Salisbury in 2008
The omnibus edition of Alberto Manguel's Packing my Library, read by Oliver Cotton, is available on BBC Radio iPlayer for one more day.
For an exciting taste of inclusion in tango, check out el abrazo verdadero
So. This is Parkinson’s Awareness Week and today, rather than naming of parts, today we have World Parkinson’s Day. I’m uncertain how to approach this. I want to write something to mark the occasion although I’ve written so much about my take on the condition in recent months I’m at a loss for a new angle and aware that my long-suffering friends may be feeling all too aware of the P thing as a result. I’m unsure, too, how I’m supposed to feel… Defiant, perhaps? Some weeks ago, over coffee with my friend Rosie, we were excited to discover a social media campaign started by Florida’s Tonya Walker to coincide with the day and to raise awareness about Young Onset Parkinson’s. All that was required was to post a photo with the hashtags #HeelsOnHeadUp and #GoTeamFox & tag 3 friends… Easy. Even when I learn that Tonya’s initiative dates back I think to 2016, I’m up for it: photo taken and posted. But as I pick my way through the proliferating acronyms, I’m wondering just who this day is for.
So I’m interested to read Martin Taylor’s blog ‘Parkinson’s Awareness Week – Part IV’. As he approaches the fourth anniversary of his brush with the ‘fickle finger of fate’ which saw him diagnosed with this ‘elderly person’s’ disease at the age of 32, he aims a ‘swift left hook’ at the concept of ‘awareness’, challenging the effectiveness for the wider community of highlighting how awful our lives are and suggests instead a change in focus, a ‘re-branding’. ‘Parkinson’s Empowerment Week’, he feels, would be a more useful approach, enabling us to concentrate our efforts on sharing within the Parkinson’s community knowledge and research which will help us live well.
The image of the boxing gloves in Martin’s post caught my eye after my taste of life on the ropes this time last week, courtesy of the charity Spotlight YOPD and Rooney’s Boxing Gym. As well as an eye-opener for me on the added challenges of early onset, it was great to meet new people (including author Pete Langman whose book Slender Threads I’d enjoyed. although our projected tango round the boxing ring sadly didn’t happen) and network a bit. And of course to experience the satisfaction of hammering that punch bag. If I lived a bit closer to London, I’d definitely be back – I can certainly see myself benefitting from a good workout once or twice a week. A personal treat at the end of the day came when I bumped into John Conteh, World Light-Heavyweight Boxing Champion from1974 to 1978 so already a local hero by the time I began teaching in his native Kirkby in 1975 and was able to spend half an hour revisiting old haunts in his company and setting our corners of the world to rights.
Back in my comfort zone (more or less), I’m grappling with stride length. Although these days I no longer sign up for workshops on a regular basis, tango is still something I have to work at. One slight hiccup post-DBS has been a tendency to wobble more on the dance floor and as a result my steps have tended to shrink, which restricts my partner’s movement and limits the flow and enjoyment of the dance generally. So I practise, both on my own and with the help of two long-term supporters. It’s not exactly training. But the wonderful tango ‘medicine’ which has sustained me for almost 10 years has crucially been found, as my friends in Cambridge know, in regular local milongas attended by the whole tango community rather than in special classes for people with Parkinson’s and I’m hoping to keep it that way for as long as I can. Tango still seems to me to tick all the Parkinson’s boxes: physically and mentally challenging, it also opens up channels of communication emotionally and socially and I’m keen to share the good news with whoever will listen. In the spirit of sharing, I’m inspired by a new facebook friend to tackle the whole diet issue and am interested to receive a research alert, from the same source, about neuroprotection from infrared light.
So. #UniteforParkinson’s is this year’s hashtag. Awareness-raising or empowering or both, this seems like a good slogan. I watch the video & find a couple of seconds of me dancing somewhere in the middle. As usual when I watch something like this, by the end I feel a bit tearful although I’m not entirely sure why. Is it something to do with the fact that I have a birthday in a couple of days and am not convinced that 68 is something to celebrate? But yes, the desire to celebrate is in there somewhere and, bizarrely perhaps, I feel more than a little proud: to be part of something, a worldwide ‘web’ of a different kind.
You can watch the short Unite for Parkinson's video here: https://uniteforparkinsons.org/
Slender Threads: a Young Person's Guide to Parkinson's Disease was written and published by Pete Langman in 2013 & is available from Amazon.
The poem 'Naming of Parts' by Henry Reed was first published in 1942
“Because of that need to belong, I returned home to Cumbria, not a return to people but to a place - the Eden Valley” [Lorna Graves]
The journey: how many times have I landed on the platform at Newcastle, tottering under an overambitious collection of luggage, looking for the stopping train that will rattle its way west along the South Tyne valley to Brampton? This, though, the first time since I sold our small house in Hallbankgate: so is this a home-coming, or something else?
Met at the station by my oldest and best Cumbrian friend, I spend the weekend at Low Luckens, their farm out beyond Hethersgill. The weather is mean, constant snow flurries whipped horizontal by a wicked wind, the house without central heating, but the kitchen has a wood-burner, another in the sitting room. I sleep under three quilts with a hot water bottle and in the whole-heartedness of the welcome I am warm as the proverbial toast. Rather than home to roost, though, I am perched: not that tentative and temporary state that is ‘perching’, poised for departure, but washed up on this foreign hillside, among its bare branches or atop this crooked wall of crumbling stone, at least 50 shades of grey in its lichened surfaces. Not quite a stranger, still the tremors of recognition are absent now: you can only stay away for so long before you are forgotten. And why not? You made your choice, preferring the flat fields and watery reedbeds of the south-east to these northern hills. The rangy uplands and blunt openings and sharp edges have their own geography, answerable only to themselves. It’s not so much that they keep you out; rather they shrug you off, busy with their own rhythms, uninterested in those who like you, in passing through, expect more than their due.
And then, just when you are thinking your ghosts are laid and you have cut loose the ties that bind you, here is a face once known, now an accent familiar as your own voice – ‘dawn’t really knaw’ – ‘and then the snaw, eh?’ The bus labours up beyond Milton – new lambs – a lapwing displaying – scrubby grass spread skimpily over the coaly earth. The posh hotel nestles smug on the flat ground before the last climb. The lane end to Kirkhouse and Farlam – the sign for The Belted just ahead of the sharp bend – and here memories one after another thickening like the slender trunks of the pines immediately before the village boundary, one then another then another. Past what was our house, the anticipated emotional tug surprisingly absent, and into the shop, transformed now into the Hallbankgate Hub with an impressive selection of cakes, I'm surprised by old friends, one rendered almost speechless by my arrival unannounced, squeezing my upper arm repeatedly.
We walk the familiar circuit: Clesketts, skirting Howgill along a still snowy track to Forest Head, the empty dwelling virtually collapsed now. Up the hill past Whinny Fell, the sky clear blue, sun warming our shoulders with the promise of spring. There is dereliction everywhere: the hotel on the edge of the tarn roofless, its top removed in a cynical ploy to avoid council tax, windows boarded or gaping, the pinkish stone visibly disintegrating; the burnt-out remains of the Richardsons’ house still screened by metal fencing. Alongside the road, the hedges and dog roses brutally ripped back to ease the passage of tractors, the raw ends smacking of a mean spirit.
The next morning an early lift to Penrith, the town dour and chill. Women sit smoking outside Costa Coffee where the Bluebell Bookshop used to be. They watch narrow-eyed as I pass.The museum remains firmly shut long past its opening time. I swallow an odd version of a soya cappuccino in the Three Crowns Cafe (banoffee cake on the counter top, the menu boasting all-day breakfasts and home baking). Browsing the Benetton shelves, I linger over a vivid blue merino wool cardigan until the museum opens at last for ‘Memories of Belonging’, an exhibition of Lorna Graves’s work. Lorna is the reason behind my visit; or rather, my friend Clare the poet who has written a memoir about this local artist whom we both knew.
Amongst other local exhibits, a small square room is packed with Lorna’s work: paintings, hand-written notes but mainly the ceramics: the boxed shapes, the human figures and the animals, arranged as in her piece ‘Migration’, all heading in the same direction. Strung along the back wall, a line of ‘museum labels’, written by local school-children who were asked to choose their favourite piece of Lorna’s work, give it a name & explain their choice. Several had chosen her artist’s palette – ‘Could this get any more messy?!’ I think Lorna would have loved this. I am pulled up short by a familiar name amongst those who have lent work for the exhibition. I take more photographs, buy all but one of the available postcards: not the usual overpriced reproduced-for-the-exhibition selection, these must date from when Lorna was alive, her telephone number ghosting the back of each card below the artist’s name.
Later, back in the George, still dogging Lorna’s footsteps, coffee slides into lunch, the revolving doors admitting a steady stream of what I imagine are regulars: ruddy-faced big-bellied men, women hunched in fake fur, stick-wielding, bag-toting, voices raised in jovial greeting or hushed for confidences - ‘aye… aye...naw… aye… mm… aye’. The board opposite the entrance advertises ‘LIVE music every Saturday, Sunday Jazz, a 70s-80s-90s Party & Buffet and 2 for £12 cocktails’. I order a goats cheese & beetroot salad and a glass of red wine, let the murmuration of Penrith’s earthbound starlings wash over me, touched (thank you Lorna!) by so many signs of homespun tenderness, belying perhaps their domestic realities of indifference or, worse, casual cruelties.
The next morning, up before the rest of the house is stirring, seduced by the unexpected sunshine I head into Brampton and then back over the Moat - not a circle of water as the name suggests, this is in fact is a motte, as in motte-and-bailey, a castle mound. It’s steeper than I remember, and dizzyingly precipitous at its edges, but there are great views over the sprawl of this small town and the house where we lived. I continue onto the RIdge Walk. I’d forgotten the wonderful way the path takes you high enough so that the land to either side falls away: to the left, the outskirts of the town on the valley bottom and, to the right, snow-streaked Cold Fell. I head into the wood, Dylan Thomas’s words keeping time to my footsteps:
O may my heart’s truth
Still be sung
On this high hill in a year’s turning.
It’s the end of ‘Poem in October’ so quite the wrong season; a birthday poem, though, so in that respect almost perfect timing. Sadly, I fail to find the stele, the memorial to Lorna which was the other reason behind my morning’s walk. It seems I turned back just a few steps too soon.So thanks to Nicky for chivvying me out again mid-afternoon and helping me find the spot.
The book is launched: a crowd of familiar faces have assembled to send it on its way. In some ways the event is an anti-climax: all those plans and rehearsals unbalanced by non-functioning tech stuff and an overall feeling of disarray. There were moments, though, when Lorna herself - a fragment of her singing, a phrase from her diaries - seemed to hover in the room, on the edge of sight, just beyond reach.
My Cumbrian visit ends with a couple of nights in Carlisle, staying with Francesca and Nick, and Sherbert, mistress of the feline pirouette. We walk and talk, books and films, mooch round the city in uncharacteristic spring sunshine, have supper at Gianni's. I find I’m revising my starting point: something like ‘a return to people as well as place’. The nature of what we call home is on my mind again today when, back in Cambridge, I hear Syrian artist Issam Kourbaj, who left his homeland, ‘the country formerly known as Syria’, in 1985, speak about his life and work. He begins with a piece he calls 'Emigration', drawn from his visit to Cuba where he found people desperate to get to Miami, pulling apart their tables and chairs to build boats, his raw material gathered from the stock of old theatrical furniture at the back of the ADC theatre. Most striking for me is his account of the exhibition ‘Another Day Lost’, a series of installations representing refugee camps with ‘fences’ of burnt matches, another match added each day to mark another day lost since the Syrian uprising, its people forced to become ‘citizens of a tent’; a home of a kind, I suppose.
The exhibition 'Memories of Belonging' continues at the Penrith Museum until June.
Winter Flowers: The Life and Work of Lorna Graves 1947-2006 a Memoir by Clare Crossman is published by and available from Bookcase, Carlisle
You can see work by Issam Kourbaj at Kettles Yard Cambridge until 2 April
I have been listening to tangos, rather than dancing them. I’m not sure what’s going on here and it’s immensely frustrating as I long more than anything to be dancing, as I dance in my head, beautifully. Sometimes, the gap between the aspiration and the reality is just too great to ignore. Tango is great mood music, though. By a roundabout route yesterday I found myself trawling through different versions of ‘Mariposita’, ‘Little Butterfly’ until I found Goyeneche’s 1979 gravelly recording and from there a CD (yes I still have CDs) of recordings he made with Troilo’s orchestra in the 60s and 70s. They were a bit of a legend as a team, ‘the Polack’ and the band leader and bandoneonista El Pichuco, ‘Cry Baby’, famous for his emotional playing and his tendency to be moved to tears – but never ‘for trivial reasons’, he insisted. One of the tracks on the CD is ‘En Esta Tarde Gris’, a mournful piece which perfectly suits this grey day. ‘Mariposita’, though – many of you will already have shared my discovery of a charming version by De Los Dos Tango Dúo (accompanied by various birds and a barking dog!)
A long way from the Buenos Aires park where I imagine their version was recorded (although it could be anywhere), I’m deep in crowd-funding territory and it’s not a welcoming landscape, dominated as it is by figures and percentages – well, one percentage in particular, that critical proportion of the funding target already achieved. Even if I don’t check a dozen times a day, it’s squatting there like Larkin’s toad on my ‘author dashboard’ in an unopened tab at the top of the screen. Don’t get me wrong: I’m committed to the cause, optimistic of its outcome and enormously grateful, of course, to all supporters. But the travelling itself is such hard work! For a while I managed to keep it small: if I got up an hour or two early, I could have my five-a-day emails out of the way before breakfast. Soon, I was waking earlier and earlier and the email traffic had grown to fill the spaces between until they became the thing itself. If you’ve been here before me, you will recognise the signs. Digging deep into my reserves of resourcefulness, I type articles, letters, blogs, all with one end in view until I worry I’m becoming unable to write about anything else. It’s exhausting. I begin to lose sight of the benefits of recent surgery and my troublesome tum, always on the watch for a weakness, is quick to get in on the act. Nights are disturbed by my default anxiety dream: back at school as a teacher, I have made a complete hash of the whole thing. The details vary: lessons unprepared, classes running wild as I fail to find the classroom, staff cold-shouldering me. Always, though, the same headmaster is the one I must face. Last night he was sympathetic. He isn’t always. Jittery to say the least, I become careless, make rash decisions, upset at least one good friend. "I meant well," is really no excuse. I should have known better. "I like you, Kate," my friend Brigitte once said as she drove me home from a milonga. "I think you’re well-intentioned – " A chorus of "buts" hung in the air.
Like Troilo, I could so easily give in to those too-easy tears! Instead, this morning I brush off the dust of the road and give myself a break. Reverting to my resolution (one of the regular 13) to read hard stuff before breakfast, I polish off a couple of back numbers of the London Review of Books which have been piling up in accusatory fashion. It feels good: a poem about tree-planters, a sobering article about the destruction of the ancient city of Palmyra, an Emily Dickinson pastiche. I avoid my desk, sitting in a different chair with a different view. Sadly, I have finished my two recent reads, equally absorbing: Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life which literally plays out different outcomes possible – "What if we had the chance to do it again and again, until we finally did get it right?" – and Pete Langman’s Slender Threads, subtitled A Young Person’s Guide to Parkinson’s Disease. The slender threads of the title are those on which, according to Langman, we are "suspended,/restrained, or mended" and suggest, I suppose, the tenuous nature of our hold on reality. Much of what we are, what happens to us, is beyond our control, as arbitrary a spin of Fortune’s wheel as his narrow escape on the M25, an account of which ends the introduction – especially if you find yourself, as Pete did, diagnosed with early onset Parkinson’s. It’s perhaps not surprising that I find this book utterly compelling. It’s raw and a tad uneven perhaps but has a cleanness and an honesty which make me wish my own Parkinson’s story was more like his.
Then I make the time to read an article which has landed in my inbox under the misleading subject line 'Hope' and which makes me look out instead of in. Written by Tommaso Sagantini, a volunteer with Care4Calais, 'Calais after the Jungle: a living nightmare' is a grim account of the realities of life for the hundreds who have washed up at the French border (which is actually the UK border, and one of the most supervised on earth according to Tommaso), and a scorching indictment of our governments' actions – deliberate actions – to make the problem go away. It's hard to read without feeling guilty and defeated, in that order, as the writer recognises: "Refugees’ presence is uncomfortable because it breaks the veil of hypocrisy about our sense of righteousness, and makes certainties about our moral superiority crumble. Refugees force us to question our privilege, breaching our comfort zone, instilling doubts in our minds, and troubling our conscience.
"This is why helping and welcoming refugees is more than asking for gradual reforms. It is a powerful political act. Fighting for refugees’ rights means repudiating the wars, the economic devastation, the climate disruption that caused them to leave their homeland; it means demanding European governments and citizens to be up to their historical and moral duty of giving refuge to those knocking on their doors; and it means making a statement of unconditional solidarity with every vulnerable and oppressed human being, calling for a more just and humane world.
"The global refugee crisis is a horror story of trauma, shattered lives, torn apart families, stolen childhoods, broken dreams. We, the privileged of the world, have the moral obligation to open our doors wide open, and try making this human tragedy stop."
On a practical level, Cambridge does offer various opportunities to work towards change. Last weekend saw 'A Tale of Two Cities', a sponsored sleep-out to support refugees in Calais and the homeless at home, raise an incredible £10,000. One cute initiative enabled me to spend £17.50 on a warm and rather stylish hand-made poncho in the knowledge that this would fund 3 of the same to be delivered to those battling the cold in Calais.
Yesterday afternoon to a talk – actually quite a wide-ranging series of talks, hosted by Ordered Universe as part of the e-Luminate Festival (only in Cambridge!), a ‘celebration of the infinite possibilities created by light at the intersection of art and science’, about mediaeval scholar, philosopher, scientist & theologian Robert Grosseteste. It’s fascinating, particularly his work on light, called by Augustine the ‘queen of colours’. Grosseteste, if I’ve understood this right, saw light as the building blocks of the universe and divided it into two, lux and lumen – ah, at that point brain and memory give out. It seems he was pretty revolutionary, though, reaching understanding through observation rather than experimentation. And it leaves me better equipped for a second reading of Joanna Kavenna’s A FIeld Guide to Reality The afternoon ends with the energetic Seb Falk, mediaeval science historian, talking about starlight and astral navigation and demonstrating the use of an astrolabe from models he has made. Annoyingly, I can’t get out of my head the picture of him running the London marathon some years ago in aid of the Cure Parkinson’s Trust, in an 8-foot-tall home-made bright green gherkin suit.
This morning my projected tango practice doesn’t happen and I’m left feeling bereft. It’s a sobering reminder, oddly, of the days when Parkinson’s & the Tango Effect was little more than an embryo (at 13 weeks, an unborn baby is about the size of a kiwi fruit, my friend Aileen tells me). Then I was prone to feeling every disappointment as a disaster, every slight as a rejection and I’m aware that I have to guard against the slide into darker waters. Fortunately I do have rather more in my armoury these days. Pete Langman’s book, though, ends with a reference to the Switzerland conversation – I imagine most of us with a long-term degenerative condition have one at some point. Mine was some years ago now and ended with a cautious agreement that, if it came to it, I wouldn’t have to go alone. I’m wondering (not in a morbid way, I hope) if that still holds good. On a more general note, Pete reminds his readers of the counter to the debilitating feelings of isolation that come with Parkinson’s: "All that time I’d spent feeling alone when all I needed to do was talk. All I needed to do was to let people in." Not as straightforward as it sounds. Or is it? A visit to the doctor’s earlier in the week with what feels like a problem I can’t share is followed by coffee with a friend who, it turns out, has endured something similar for years.
The day ends on an up, with a late tango practice after all and the promise of more to come. There’s a walk in prospect for tomorrow, an out-of-town walk which I suspect might take us along the banks of the Mel, and a forecast of fine weather. Even in town, though – full of green spaces, Cambridge also offers a different kind of solace in its lovely botanic garden, especially lovely at this time of year.
'Don’t let me be misunderstood’ was recorded both by Nina Simone and the Animals (with an impossibly young-looking Eric Burden on vocals) in 1964.
Back in the Jug Agane by Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle, Nigel Molesworth’s own version of being back at ‘skool’, was published by Max Parrish in 1959.
A recording of the author reading ‘Toads’, first published by The Marvell Press in his collection The Less Deceived in 1955, is available here
Life after Life by Kate Atkinson was published in the UK by Doubleday in 2013 and A Field Guide to Reality by Joanna Kavenna by riverrun in 2016.
Pete Langman’s Slender Threads (Pete Langman, 2013) is available from Amazon.
All the photos were taken on a January visit to the Botanics when the Daphne Bholua was at its fragrant best.
And of course Parkinson’s & the Tango Effect is currently funding with Unbound.
A difficult time of year, I find myself repeating to various friends, in what I fancy is an attempt at empathy. Or perhaps I’m projecting my own disquiets? There’s aftermath, of course, and the weight of expectation: all those resolutions – this was the year we were going to be healthier, kinder, more environmentally friendly, more focused, less time-wasting, assertive when it matters, better writers, better dancers, better people… Then there’s the weather, similarly all over the place but with a prevailing impression of blank white skies. The world news continues laughable and appalling by turns. The weeks seem to race by, but spring is a long time coming.
A couple of things have given me pause for thought. I have been a little unwell. Not in any major way; in fact, the DBS has lived up to its reputation of being a life-changer. Since I was ‘switched on’ in mid-November, thanks to the wonders of medical science and the amazing NHS, my newly-stimulated deep brain seems to work fairly normally. The rigidity has melted away, the exhausting involuntary movements a thing of the past. I seem to have boundless energy. Dancing is interesting: much freer, certainly, but some recalibrating is needed! Also swimming is not straightforward. I’d heard of one individual who ‘couldn’t swim’ after the surgery. I found I could manage breast stroke without too much difficulty but, flip me onto my back and I struggled to stay afloat! When a friend found an academic paper reporting several instances of drowning post-DBS, I now swim switched off. The current illness, though, so minor it barely deserves the name, is a variant of my constant struggles with my tum. A low-level unease which has been rumbling on since before Christmas erupted this week into a feverish couple of days when I finally had to admit defeat and go to ground. One of our cats – Whiskas, I think – years ago, went missing and was found eventually fast asleep on the top floor of the tower block in which we lived. So, Whiskas-like, I have slept a lot, have drunk a great deal of water and, when a throbbing head makes reading hard work, have found myself reaching for stitching.
I’ve never thought of myself as much of a fan of crafts. There's something too homely, too domestic about the whole thing which doesn't quite square with my image of myself as – well, smart? Edgy, even? Still, there is the Aran sweater which I have been labouring over for more than three years – I had to take it back to the shop once when I lost track of the pattern completely, and in the final throes there was a good deal of unpicking needed – but which is finished, and warm, its many mistakes instantly forgiven. Yesterday, confined to quarters, I dug out the tapestry kit which I embarked on more than ten years ago I should think. It’s a beautiful design, one of several produced by my artist friend Raymond for Ehrman Tapestry. It’s fiddly work but, as I sew, I think of Raymond at work in his studio, painstakingly painting each individual stitch. And last year there was the upholstery project, completed in an unlikely eight weeks due largely to the immense generosity and kindness of the class tutor Hong. I am reminded how activities like these are satisfying in quite a different way from reading, or writing, as they allow – encourage, even – the mind to wander. Craft work. Kraftwerk: I remember the name from the 70s and 80s – the same era as Whiskas the cat – although I don’t think I ever heard them perform live, but I’m surprised to discover they are still a force to be reckoned with in electronic music.
The wandering takes me to writing, and the various new starts and old edits I’d promised myself would be my main focus this year. In fact, not surprisingly, much of my energy has been taken up with the tango and Parkinson’s book and its funding. It’s hard not to become preoccupied with percentages and targets and, whilst I believe that this little book is worth the read, the whole crowd-funding thing is variously nerve-wracking, exposing and generally uncomfortable. I did agonise for some weeks before committing. A friend this morning suggested he felt some of his friends were ‘bruised’ by his appeals for support with a recent project which is at the heart of it I think. I have been overwhelmed sometimes by generosity in recent months, both from friends and strangers. But what matters in the end, of course, are the friendships, which I have to hope will come through the process unscathed; and the writing. By this time I no longer have any clear sense of how good it is. What I am absolutely sure of is that it is in essentially the right place: where the personal encounters the general and art meets science. With my friend Tim to a fascinating exhibition of art-science collaborations by Cambridge-based Spanish researchers just before Christmas. The programme quoted writer and science historian Arthur I. Miller on the emergence of a third culture ‘artsci’ where both nurture each other, boundaries dissolve, the results ‘changing forever the way we perceive the world’.
In the run-up to Christmas I was absorbed in the first volume of Virginia Woolf’s diaries although I wouldn’t have wished to be viewed with her lens: Freda Major is dismissed as ‘merely a toy dog enveloped in human flesh’ whilst novelist Mrs Humphry Ward was ‘as great a menace to the health of mind as influenza to the body’! Aside from her ruthless pen, though, I was inspired by the discipline of the journal, which I have flirted with in the past but never quite kept at it. VW is clear about the pay-offs: writing for ‘my own eye’ she believes ‘loosens the ligaments’. More than this, though. She is aiming, she says, for something ‘loose knit, & yet not slovenly, so elastic that it will embrace any thing, solemn, slight or beautiful that comes into my mind. I should like it to resemble some deep old desk, or capacious hold-all, in which one flings a mass of odds & ends without looking them through. I should like to come back, after a year or two, & find that the collection had sorted itself and refined itself & coalesced, as such deposits so mysteriously do, into a mould, transparent enough to reflect the light of our life, & yet steady, tranquil composed with the aloofness of a work of art. The main requisite, I think on re-reading my old volumes, is not to play the part of censor, but to write as the mood comes or of anything whatever; since I was curious to find how I went for things put in haphazard, & found the significance to lie where I never saw it at the time…’ According to my friend the historian David Kynaston, when we met for a cup of tea after his event at the last Cambridge Literary festival, she is the greatest English writer of the twentieth century and her diaries are her finest achievement. All of which you would think would surely be persuasion enough for my lazy fingers?
One very exciting spin off from the crowd-funding process has been the way doors have opened unexpectedly: an invitation from a neighbour, an opportunity to apply for a position as adviser to the Foundation for Community Dance’s Dance for Parkinson’s Practice Groups and an email from a friend about a project for a dance-centred ‘provocation’ which moves on from binary divisions of abled and disabled towards a ‘third space’. A key aspect of the healing power of tango for me has always been the opportunity to dance with others in a mixed community rather than in a group specially created for people with Parkinson’s – indeed, that was the reason behind my initial suspicion of the English National Ballet’s Dance for Parkinson’s programme. Although I will hang on to my place in tango’s mainstream for as long as it will have me, my involvement with the Dance for Parkinson’s classes in Ipswich has taught me that specialist provision isn’t necessarily a bad thing; that it can be quite a profound experience to be part of a community based on commonality. It’s something about identity – what we share, as well as what separates us. When I switch off my ‘stimulator’ to swim, is this the ‘real’ me? Is the raw state of Parkinson’s always a bad thing, or can it ever be something to celebrate? I have to admit that the well-intentioned cheeriness of much of the Parkinson’s-related web content makes me cringe. But I stumbled upon something rather different recently which made me howl, and simultaneously made me proud to be that clumsy acronym, a PWP: https://youtu.be/TDGNkXNowIA
Also pre-Christmas I devoured Ali Smith’s Winter, almost in a single sitting, was intrigued by Fiona Mozley’s strange Elmet and reread and enjoyed B.K.Duncan’s Foul Trade. On the last Saturday in December I saw The Jungle at the Young Vic. The play, written by Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson, recreated an uncannily realistic version of the Calais camp and the history of its last days, by turns (and sometimes all at once) shocking, hilarious and heart-breaking. There were moments when it didn’t quite work. In the main, though, I liked it best for its complexities, for the many questions it raised without trying to answer them. I cried a lot. A very sobering moment at the end when a video from one of the Help Refugees team reminded us that the ‘crisis’ was still very much with us. Into January and my enticing pile of new reads: so far I have been both baffled and engrossed by Joanna Kavenna’s A Field Guide to Reality, been charmed by the early stages of Judith Ellis’s Two Points East and entertained by the opening chapters of Edward St Aubyn’s Dunbar. Gillian Rose’s Love’s Work needs more time, whilst Sarah Winman’s Tin Man, Nicola Barker’s Happy, Ann Bronte’s Agnes Grey and Jenni Diski’s The Sixties remain waiting to be opened along with a copy of Jonathan Taylor’s collection Musicolepsy… No flowers on the balcony yet and the weather expecially grim. But the bulbs are showing. There are buds a-plenty. And a robin sang as I walked home from yoga. What larks, Pip!
I still think of myself as a regular blogger but how easy it is to let things slide! I’ve had a few emails recently from friends worried or puzzled by my silence – one arrived yesterday, in fact, from a friend who used to like the photographs as it enabled her to ‘picture you where you are’. I recognise that desire to keep track of those we love and wish I were more like Raymond, who has managed to sustain his morning habit of letter-writing – real letters – into the 21st century. Last month my son Jack ran his first half marathon, raising over £1,000 for Parkinson’s UK. Keen to offer parental support, I downloaded a tracker app which enabled me to follow his progress round the course. It didn’t really help. Whilst I could watch on my phone his little symbol inching its way along in the intervals between crashes (the app not the runner), despite my scampering I managed to miss him at all of the five or six instances when he should have been plodding past. I even missed the finish. Somehow, between creaking technology and ageing brain, the tracking failed. Or perhaps, at each key moment, I was locked into virtual reality instead of the ‘real’ thing. Anyway, away from the Royal Parks 13.1 miles, there is nothing significant behind my absence, only the way that life has of getting in the way.
My world view has altered, though. After years of banging on about houses – the one I couldn’t sell in Cumbria and the Cambridge one I really couldn’t afford even though I spent several very happy years there – as if by magic I have been ‘translated’. Still, no ass’s ears here: my extraordinary good fortune has delivered me to the top floor of a block of flats around the corner from the Albert Street house. So, new lamps for old: and indeed, the new place is full of light. Smaller, but more space; both a room of my own, and a room with a view. Views, actually: from the kitchen table where I work, I can see past the pines where I think the magpies nest to the tops of the buses moving along Gilbert Road. One regular visitor, an exotic thug of a jay, has just flown past. The other balcony, at right angles, looks out across Victoria Road to the tops of King’s, John’s and the University Library – rather more than the tops now that the trees are de-leafing into autumn. The development stands on the site of the old Cambridge City Football Ground where, in one of those satisfying coincidences, on a chilly afternoon some years ago Andy and I watched Jack play in a charity match. Curiously, each flat comes with a brass-plated ‘Thunderer’ whistle in a glass case, a memento of the last game the club played on its Milton Road Ground in April 2013 and of the ‘lost sound’ of the crowd. Our whistles are to remain silent, the accompanying notes tell us, save only for the Saturday closest to the April anniversary each year, when they may be blown once during the 90 minute afternoon slot, before being returned to their boxes.
You might think my writing has been silent in sympathy. For sure it hasn’t taken flight with the rest of me, remaining for much of the time fairly bogged down, or at least that’s how it has felt. In fact the spring began with the news that The Station Master, an exploration of our responses to the refugee crisis, had won Adventures in Fiction’s Spotlight First Novel competition. The prize? A full manuscript appraisal – exactly what I needed at exactly the right moment – except that I had let myself believe that the novel was further forward, more nearly finished than it was. My amazing appraiser, Marion Urch, helped me to stand back for a long hard look at what was needed to translate the book from a manuscript ‘rich with themes, thoughts and ideas’ (elsewhere she suggested I had the ‘bare bones’ of a book!) into a ‘wonderful’ novel. Together we developed a series of tasks designed to develop the narrative and characters more fully: essential work, although at the time I felt as though I’d been put on hold – or even on rewind. The most frustrating part of the process, albeit the most crucial for a sharp focus, was the premise, during which Marion became my self-styled ‘tormentor’, returning all my best efforts as not quite good enough. I’m immensely grateful for her insight and her persistence. The results (so far) can be seen on the profiles section of the Adventures in Fiction website. For the rest, I’m somewhere deep in rewriting territory, with a clearer sense of where I’m heading and two exciting new contacts. Dimiter Georgiev of Neophron Tours is on board to help me experience migration in the bird world, especially with regard to raptors, on a visit to Bulgaria in autumn 2018. And Chris Bailey, author of Railways of Bulgaria, has kindly agreed to be my consultant on local and technical matters. I know my timing isn’t great – obviously I would have preferred the book to be available to readers at the height of the recent crisis – but whilst the geographies may have shifted, the issue is undoubtedly an enduring one.
For the tango and Parkinson’s book, it’s a different story: not exactly airborne, but beginning to shake out its wings perhaps. Since we began putting it together six years ago, it’s undergone several changes and a series of different titles. The most recent version, Parkinson’s & the Tango Effect, documents the impact of the Argentine tango habit on my Parkinson’s over the course of a year. A slimmer volume, it still has contributions from John and Ellie, key partners in my experience of writing and dancing tango in Cambridge, as well as outlining the relevant research. I believe – have always believed – that it will prove interesting reading for tango dancers and people with Parkinson’s alike, as well as carers, family and friends and most particularly those with an interest in the therapeutic potential of dance and hence makes a valuable contribution to the debate. The difficulties of securing mainstream publication, however, led me to approach the crowd-funding publisher Unbound and I am delighted to report that they like the book and I am currently waiting for costings. It’s going to be quite a challenge to raise the funding but I’m keen to get started and very excited indeed to think that, in a year or two, Parkinson’s & the Tango Effect might be on your bookshelves.
The Parkinson’s itself has demanded more attention during the last year or so, the meds working less efficiently and the side effects more troublesome even with regular doses of the tango medicine. Fortunately I was deemed to be a good candidate for Deep Brain Stimulation and after some lengthy hoop-jumping the operation was scheduled for mid-October. Six hours of surgery (cutting edge?), a full head shave, electrodes planted, battery inserted, some very tidy stitching and an impressive scar became in surgeon-speak an ‘uneventful procedure’ on my discharge notes. Everything has healed nicely and I’m feeling pretty good though as yet not much has changed. At present I’m still between worlds, waiting for my poor old brain to settle down and taking the medication as usual, before my ‘switch on’ in a couple of weeks. Whilst DBS won’t cure the disease or reverse its progress, if it works it should maintain me as I am at best, rather than with the current peaks and troughs. I should also be able to reduce the drugs and hence the side effects. Potentially life-changing is what they say. Meanwhile, I’m massively grateful: to the NHS, of course, as always, to the neurology and neurosurgery teams at Addenbrookes, and to all those who have raised funds for Parkinson’s research. I’m also surprised not to be missing my mop of blonde curls. In fact, I’m rather enjoying my new svelte profile and contemplating making it a permanent feature although again my timing’s questionable, given the season.
My mum is uppermost in my mind as I head off to the Botanics in search of the autumn colours she loved so much. As the month begins with the Day of the Dead, I’m in reflective mode, playing through my pile of requiem masses, lighting a candle or two and remembering not just the dead but those I haven’t seen for a while. It’s my first visit to the Garden for some months and it’s quite strange to reacquaint myself with the exact spot where individual stories in Writing the Garden were born. Here is the bench where Walter sat and waited in ‘Pigeons’; here the cottage which I gifted with an unlikely squatter for 'Inside'. I’m also delighted to bump into my first friend at the Botanics. ‘It’s the same,’ Marek says, ‘all same.’ In fact, though he still works in the café, since we last met he has learnt to drive, bought a car, had a holiday in Malta and moved in with his girlfriend. When I reach the Brookside Gate, I come upon a ‘farewell’ to the black walnut, with a section of the trunk on display. Juglans nigra, one of the garden’s oldest trees, was planted in 1846 and grew to almost 25 metres in height before it succumbed to honey fungus and had to be felled. The word puts me in mind of Hopkins’ lament for his beloved Binsey Poplars, ‘all felled’ and his poignant certainty that ‘After-comers cannot guess the beauty been’. As the nights lengthen and we plummet towards winter, it feels right to keep track of our losses and be thankful for what we have, not least those autumn colours.
This year's Royal Parks Half Marathon was the 10th, and is already taking applications for next year.
Railways of Bulgaria by Chris Bailey was published by Mainline and Maritime Ltd in 2016. Unfortunately it is now out of print but I understand Chris is working on a second edition.
All photographs were taken in Cambridge University Botanic Garden on the morning of 5th November.
Despite plenty of weekend sunshine in this loveliest of cities in the loveliest of seasons, I have been missing the hills: both the Cumbrian fells (who’d have thought it?) and the Yorkshire Dales, a later discovery. So it’s good to be reminded of the pleasures of being in Cambridge in the spring. Nasty Women is (are?) I think newly arrived here. A few weeks ago a friend winked as she passed me a flyer calling for placards “in the spirit of resistance”. An exhibition of responses, variously humorous, angry, thought-provoking, passionate and engaging opened on Friday with a great buzz at Cambridge Artworks. All pieces are for sale – many sold already – with proceeds going to local women’s charities. The exhibition closes with a spoken word and music event next Sunday.
The season also sees Cambridge’s annual spring Literary Festival. I’ve been a volunteer steward for several years now. It’s a great chance for a writer to rub shoulders with others, both well-established and those just starting out on what promises to be a successful career. This year for the first time I was on duty in the Palmerston Room in St John's College, a first chance to wander through the grounds and across the Bridge of Sighs and soak up some of that atmosphere. Of course I’ve always picked out my must-see events beforehand but stewarding often provides an introduction to previously unknowns. This year Turkish writer Elif Shafak was new to me despite her international reputation, highlighted by my encounter with Manal, a young Lebanese student writing a PhD on Shafak's English-language novels. Manal had travelled from Dubai in the hope of a conversation with the writer. Sitting in on the session, I began to understand why. So impressively articulate on her country and its history and on a range of topics - nationalism, patriotism, politics, feminism, religion, as well as writing. PEN and threats to freedom of expression – Shafak is now on my list of essential reading.
My last shift finished on Saturday so yesterday was pure pleasure. I enjoyed hearing about First Light, an anthology edited by Erica Wagner celebrating the life and work of Alan Garner, with contributions from Paul Kingsnorth and Ali Smith. I came to Alan Garner’s books late, as an adult in fact, but I loved them and managed to pass on that love to one friend in particular – Red Shift was our favourite – and to my son. I remember sitting terrified with Jack in front of a vivid television adaptation of Elidor. I was interested also to listen to Dan Kieran talk about the success of the crowd-funding publishing venture Unbound and delighted along with the rest of the audience by Ali Smith’s debut writers. A regular event, it’s a must for me every time but this year’s had the added bonus of providing lots of laughs and one really inspiring anecdote: short story writer Eley Williams was approached by her publisher whilst reading one of her stories in a ‘particularly dank pub’ and invited to submit. The rest, as they say – and absolutely the stuff of dreams for those of us who haven’t made it yet. The event was so successful, in fact, that it led to the longest queues of the weekend at the Heffer's bookstall in the Old Divinity School and a complete sell-out of all three books.
The high point of the festival for me, though, was an hour in the company of Sebastian Barry. I’ve only just come to Barry – rather ashamed to admit that I had muddled him with Sebastian Faulkes and so thought I knew who he was. I devoured ‘Days Without End’ – read the first eight chapters so quickly that I had to go back to the beginning and start again because I was loving it so much I was afraid I might have missed something – and felt a keen sense of loss on finishing. I knew that the story at the centre of the novel – the friendship between two young Irish soldiers in mid-nineteenth century America which grows into love, literally, the love of a lifetime – had been inspired by his son – the book is dedicated to him, in fact – but it was even more moving in the telling. Barry read two passages, full of passion, drama, humour, even song – Thomas McNulty’s voice different from how I had imagined it – but an amazing experience. In fact, I teetered on the edge of tears throughout the hour although it was in no way a sad event, and narrowly avoided sobbing all over him when I went to get my book signed. ‘It’s the wrong book, but –’ I said as I offered him The Secret Scripture. ‘Don’t worry – it’s the same author,’ he said. I mumbled some other incoherent stuff about how wonderful the book was and how I wasn’t Irish or gay but I was a mum – what in god’s name makes us capable of such inanities at such precious moments? I would prefer to have said – as one reader wrote on her blog apparently – that Barry had ‘ruined her life’ because now nothing less than this great love would do. But I didn’t. I did come home inspired, though – he spoke about the ‘intoxication’ of writing, and the importance of making stuff up, even if we get it wrong. So I have more things to write, and Days Without End to reread – although I may tackle the Secret Scripture first, along with other purchases that I couldn’t resist.
Other reverberations from the weekend: I was mistaken for Madeleine Bunting. Two women stopped me for a photograph of my ‘amazing’ hair. I was reminded, courtesy of Rose Tremain, of the horror that the idea of exile can mean, and that the past is not simply past but lives on with us – to ‘entwine’ us was Paul Kingsnorth’s phrase I think. I was reminded, too, that we must write without fear – or was it to feel the fear and do it anyway? Meanwhile the sun is not far away and the avenue of bird cherry is prettily and fragrantly in flower across Jesus Green. So thank you Cambridge – on balance, it’s good to be here.
First Light, edited by Erica Wagner, was published by Unbound in 2016.
Ali's 3 debut writers this year were Luke Kennard for The Transition, Sally Rooney for Conversations with Friends and Eley Williams for Attrib. and other stories
Days Without End by Sebastian Barry was published by Faber and Faber in 2016
Today is World Parkinson’s Day. A friend sends a link for a news story on brain cell therapy. Trials in mice suggest that replacement cells can be coaxed to take over the dopamine-producing work of the damaged neurons. There are many such promising stories – another is the topic of this evening’s Gretchen Amphlet Memorial Lecture at Fitzwilliam College, where Doctor Alistair Noyce from University College London will speak about his study Predicting Parkinson’s. I have a ticket but the venue is a bit of a stretch for me at that end of the day, particularly since it eats into tango time and will then entail getting across to the other side of town so I’m unlikely to make it. My personal money is on Deep Brain Stimulation: since it was first mooted almost 18 months ago I’ve been lost and then found in the system and the next stage of my assessment – to check if I am suitable – is due at the end of the month. It can’t come too soon. I am more tired more of the time and suddenly a prey to severe dyskinesias, those all-consuming writhings and twitchings which are a side-effect of the medication. How sweet it would feel to be still!
I’ve been thinking about the term ‘grounded’, the way it’s migrated from the negative connotation of being prevented from flying or run aground, high and dry to the now more familiar sense of being mentally or emotionally stable: to have your feet on the ground; to be in the here-and-now. There are apparently techniques to help manage intense anxiety, and responses to feeling knocked for six by life’s vicissitudes which involve building, or rebuilding, a relationship with the earth. Whilst emotionally I find myself on fairly secure ground just now, the literal sense of trusting the earth beneath my feet is lost to me. I don’t want to make too much of this. Remembering my mum’s propensity for falls in her last year or two, her face more often than not a spectacular array of livid colours, or watching the elderly and infirm clutching the rails of the Jesus Green footbridge as they inch their way across, I recognise that by comparison I’m a model of equilibrium. It’s provisional, though. ‘Postural instability’, one of those cumbersome terms that have attached themselves to Parkinson’s – as if the clumsiness of the condition weren’t annoyance enough! – is a fact of life now. I’m careful not to look up or turn quickly in the shower. I watch out for anything which might trip me up when I’m out and about. Increasingly, I’m prone to falling over my own feet. Cycling must be timed to coincide with periods when the medication is likely to make me relatively safe; it doesn’t always work.
My hold on life feels especially precarious at the moment since I’ve set myself in motion, pulling up my Cumbrian roots and then, as if that weren’t enough of a destabilizer, my Cambridge roots too. Yes I know I’m only moving round the corner but the time factor has confounded me rather. I’m not sure how long it is since I packed my first box of books but I’ve become so used to living surrounded by the things that somehow this state of impermanence has become the new permanent. It feels as if I’m on hold, caught up in one of those interminable telephone conversations interrupted at intervals with the hollow assurance that ‘your call is important to us’, unable to settle to anything productive, forever marking time. When I do eventually receive the keys to the flat, most of a year will have gone by.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, I’ve been drawn to reflect on what endures. I’ve recently discovered Sebastian Barry. How have I missed him for so long?! This from the sequence in his latest novel which gives it its title, Days Without End:
Time was not something then that we thought of as an item that possessed an ending, but something that would go on forever… The heart rising, and the soul singing. Fully alive in life and content as the house-martins under the eaves of the house.
I trawl my memories for such moments of joy. Grief lasts too, I suppose, the awareness of loss persisting like a drip of water on stone, always eroding, never done. Hurts can linger too although may be susceptible to the desire to forgive, or be forgiven. What we try to have and hold for the safety and security of ourselves and our children, though, these are the things which most elude or defeat us. A house can soak up all our resources, literal and emotional, and be destroyed in an instant. Health? A given, until it’s taken away. Careers we build our lives around are lost overnight. Trees planted, lawns laid, investments made, plans drawn up, money saved, partners and friends claimed – all ephemeral, the more we invest emotionally in these things the more vulnerable we make ourselves to despair. Hope can sustain us until it disappears without warning: ‘I have of late,’ Hamlet says, ‘– but wherefore I know not, – lost all my mirth...’ Life itself can be ripped from us just when we feel it will last for ever. So where should we lodge our hearts? What game is worth the candle?
The process of packing has rendered the past very present for me. My dad was an inveterate record-keeper, taking photographs of every family occasion and, strangely it seemed at the time, every new house or car, as if these material acquisitions were markers of our purchase on or progress through the world. He filled album after album of such snaps and produced laboriously typed lists – antique furniture bought, classical music tapes recorded. In his last years, the digital revolution only took him as far as transferring the lists to his computer – he still printed out the results. Our piano, the biggest challenge in my many moves, was his piano, bought, so the story goes, by his dad for half a crown from a man they saw pushing it on a bogie up the road in Aspull. It bears the scars of its many journeys and is irrevocably out of tune but I have to find a way for it to accompany me to my fifth-floor flat. I have been pretty ruthless with other leavings: a clock presented to him on his retirement has gone to my friend’s brother, one of his watches to my son, another to an old boyfriend. But other relics still surface, in particular the trappings of a railway life. When he died, we rashly got rid of the thousands of slides, though the memory of stifling Sunday evening slide shows still lingers, one locomotive after another appearing on the screen as we yawned and fidgeted our way through the sequence, lulled almost to unconsciousness by the hum of the projector and the sound of his voice. On the shelf above my desk there is a tray with a teapot and hot water jug, silver-plated and much tarnished, from the old railway restaurant cars which my dad brought home one day from a sale. I’ll never use them, but I can’t bear to throw them away.
The first anniversary of our mother’s death will be just after Easter. My dad died almost 15 years ago, the day after my birthday, which this year falls on Maundy Thursday. And then Good Friday and what has become a family tradition of queuing for the annual Ante-Communion and Veneration of the Cross in King’s College Chapel. On Saturday, also at King’s, tenor Mark Padmore leads the Britten Sinfonia in Bach’s St John Passion. Writing in Saturday’s Guardian, Padmore contrasts what he describes as our ‘age of anxiety for preserving things’ with Bach’s world, where 11 of his 20 children died before he did and all his four performances of the St John Passion had to accommodate changes according to availability of instruments or players, or changes in theological fashion.
Last week I saw ‘The Olive Tree’, an absorbing exploration of family and friendship, what we need to keep and what we can afford to let go. The thousand-year-old tree of the title has been sold. The film traces the effects of the loss on the grandfather and its repercussions on the rest of the family. Granddaughter Alma’s hare-brained scheme to recover the tree is never going to succeed – or perhaps the way the story unfolds encourages us to reconsider notions of success and failure. It’s told with a lightness of touch and lots of humour, and a reminder that uprooting is not necessarily the end of growth.
Don’t know why
There’s no sun up in the sky
Recently back in the swim after a week in the Doldrums, I’m reminded of an artist friend’s tale of a telephone conversation with his elderly aunt, when builders replacing the roof slipped and broke through the ceiling into his studio, filling the house with soot and plaster dust. ‘I’m phoning you from chaos!’ he complained. Her reply: ‘Oh I didn’t know you were in Greece, dear.’ Curious, the way we make a geography of states of mind; as if despair or delight were foreign countries we could visit and as easily leave behind. ‘In heaven, I’m in heaven’ the song goes – but only when ‘we’re dancing, cheek to cheek’.
So there I was, stuck*, on the same spit of land I’d foundered on many times before. The view was achingly familiar: a few scrubby bushes, a grey expanse of sea merging into a grey sky. The occasional frigate bird loomed overhead; otherwise, only the rippling, the sough and hiss of the sea. I was alone, with no prospect of, or desire for, company. I couldn’t write, the words there, somewhere, but out of reach. My sleep was broken or invaded by strange dreams of loss and failure. High and dry: not just stranded, but out of the water for some time and likely to remain so: hence, without hope of recovery or rescue. Apparently beaching can be deliberate, either for maintenance and repair, or prior to breaking up. I was unsure which applied to me.
It turns out the ‘Doldrums’ really is – are? – a place: a low-pressure area in the Atlantic around the equator, where sailing boats might be stuck for weeks for lack of wind, where ‘becalmed’ equals frustration, an inability to move, back or forward, rather than flooded with sweet peace. It’s the perfect metaphor for the low ebb – ‘a state of weakness or depression, lacking vigour’ – in which I found myself during the last ten days or so. I’m guessing ‘low ebb’ is also originally nautical: if the tide is at a low ebb, is there simply not enough water to stay afloat? At its extreme, I suppose, a craft is ‘beached’, grounded in shallow water.
The Doldrums are also prone to sudden squalls, thunderstorms and hurricanes. The few who ventured near me last week will recognise the signs: unpredictable dips in atmospheric pressure and outlook, banks of glowering cloud, explosions of sound and fury, the odd downpour giving way to persistent drizzle. I’m not proud of these outbursts, wish I could head them off before they materialise. I came upon an unlikely co-traveller at the weekend when I heard Bruce Springsteen talking on the radio about depression and the coping skills he’s developed. With what I discover is characteristic humility, he spoke about recognising the beast for what it is: ‘This is something that comes, it’s also something that goes, you know and maybe something I have to live with for a period of time… But if you can acknowledge it, and relax a little bit with it, very often it shortens its duration… sometimes it’s just time… or the right drugs… these are all things that can pull you back into your life.’
I'm wondering what pulled my fragile little bark off the sand this time. Being outside certainly helps, and the Botanics is beautiful, even on days as wintry as today. Mainly I think there were three stages. First, a series of frantic attempts to shift myself off the shingle interspersed with hopeless MAYDAY – ‘m’aidez!’ – signals. The only result: digging myself in deeper. Next, accepting the situation, battening down the hatches and sitting it out: cold and lonely it may be, but it’s not dangerous, certainly not likely to be fatal. Last, looking up, looking around and out beyond my little patch of shore, trying a different direction. We inch ahead through the shallows until, with a scraping sound, we slide into deeper water.
Perhaps the gloom is seasonal. In Old English the month of February was Solmonath – ‘mud month’. In the real world, it’s certainly rained enough recently to turn the firmest ground to mud. Thanks to the persistence of my birding brother, I’m warming to the stuff. Mudflats are great for watching waders. I’m even learning to distinguish one kind of godwit from another although my bird-watching more usually takes the form of gazing across glistening saltmarshes in search of the metaphorical – until reality draws me back. Last Sunday was the 10th anniversary of the deaths of 23 Cockle Pickers whose boat was cut off by the rapidly rising tide in Morecambe Bay, not far from where I did part of my growing up. The tragedy drew attention to the plight of migrant workers: their gangmaster sent them out across treacherous quicksands with no warning. They couldn’t speak English. Some couldn’t even swim.
We’re more familiar with other migrant stories these days. Suddenly 23 comes to seem a drop in the ocean in comparison with the thousands who have drowned in their search for a safe haven. With these in mind, I return to the word ‘foundered’ which I used so lightly of my own small upset. Checking, I find that despite its casual sense of stumbling or coming to grief, originally it meant to fill with water and sink – to the bottom, presumably, since it derives from the Old French fondrer to submerge from Latin fundus bottom. Run aground I may have been but not quite sunk and, although depression is not helped by feeling guilty, of course there are always many worse off. I catch the end of Eddie Mair’s Monday interview with Steve Hewlett whose ‘cancer journey’ has been shared with listeners over the last few months. Faced with the stopping of treatment and the news that he may have only weeks to live, he was married in his hospital room at the weekend. As always his honesty, humour and courage are sobering. What’s strangest is that he doesn’t seem to have lost sight of gratitude – for his family, friends, doctors, and his radio audience. For Bruce Springsteen, coming out of depression puts him in touch with ‘how blessed my life has been’. A literary hero of mine, John Burnside, puts it differently: writing, he says, is what he ‘steals’ from ‘the usual flow of things, from all the noise and interruptions…’ along with happiness, and ‘grace’. The notion of grace stays with me as the wind fills my sails. The rain has stopped. The sun may be out tomorrow.
* Beached but not stranded, unlike the hundreds of pilot whales who beached themselves on Farewell Spit in New Zealand's Golden Bay, their deaths made more poignant by the irony of the names.
Thanks to Raymond for his Auntie Margaret story
Bruce Springsteen's Desert Island Discs and Eddie Mair's Monday inteviews can be heard on BBC iPlayer
John Burnside's My writing day was published in The Guardian last Saturday 4th February
You can listen to Etta James sing Stormy Weather here
All photos (except the whales) were taken in Cambridge University Botanic Garden on 10 February
As Writer in Residence, thoughts from the garden