So despite the frosty start to the morning's run, with the Equinox behind us and the clocks having gone forward at the weekend, it seems that Spring is here. (Who would have thought that, after all those long-distance runs were firmly consigned to my pre-Parkinson's past, I'd be casually mentioning 'the morning's run'?!) Days of heavenly blue skies and, after the early chill, warm sun. One morning a fabulous walk through Grantchester Meadows for lunch in The Red Lion. In a pot outside my window there's a clump of delicately buttery primroses although a visit to a friend round the corner puts my small spread into perspective. In her beautiful garden primroses have sprung up everywhere, along with a blaze of yellow jasmine and a sea of clear blue periwinkle by the gate. Even so, almost everything on my balcony seems to be coming into leaf or sprouting new growth, with last year’s birthday clematis armandii a riot of almond-scented flowers and lots of grape hyacinth below the birches. Only the Christmas tree (Mark 2) is struggling so it’s looking likely that we’ll need a Mark 3 for next Christmas.
My dad is always lurking on the edge of my mind at this time of year, due in part to his St Patrick’s Day birthday and partly to poet Philip Larkin, whose seasonal marker ‘The Trees’ I read at my dad's funeral, almost 17 years ago. Which makes it almost 3 years since we lost Mum. Larkin’s poem is characteristically double-edged: the poet finds in the new green ‘a kind of grief’. Still, the trees' ultimate message, if they have one, is hope in the possibility of new life, as they ‘begin afresh, afresh, afresh’. My dad, Fred, died in April, the day after my birthday, Mum (Clarice) later in the month. In the light of yesterday's Mother's Day Di and I agreed, as part of our Mapping Memory project, that we would each write a letter to our mothers. Yesterday afternoon a further reminder landed in my inbox: a Youtube link to poet Alice Willitts reading in her garden a poem for her mother from her new pamphlet 'Dear'. The pamphlet, on the theme of mothers and daughters, is based on the last years of her mother's life with Parkinson's.
Parkinson’s is something of a preoccupation at present, not least as a result of the generosity of Cambridge poet Diana Brodie who recently donated her remarkable and extensive collection of poetry to our Amnesty Bookshop. I wasn't familiar with Diana's work although I knew of the award recognising her work on behalf of Parkinson's UK and the fact that she drew inspiration from her experience of the condition. Our poetry stock has been somewhat depleted since Christmas so the arrival of lots of new titles, from vintage Auden to the best of contemporary writers, all evidently well-cared for, has brought a breath of spring to our shelves. Watch this space for a 'Gone but not Forgotten' window display celebrating twentieth century poets.
Parkinson's is rarely a cause for celebration. So the launch of the Mark Morris Dance Company's UK Pepperland tour at Sadler's Wells on 20th March was an occasion of especial joy and reaffirmed their commitment to Dance for PD. From their first class for people with Parkinson's in Brooklyn in 2001, Dance for Parkinson's has grown into a worldwide movement. It's years since my discovery of English National Ballet's involvement in the programme and my initial negative response. Taking part in their two-day training for dance professionals was enough to convert me and subsequently participating in the Ipswich classes taught me some of the bonuses of being part of a 'special' group. In 2018 I was one of seven people living with Parkinson's to become an adviser to the Dance for Parkinson's Partnership UK Practice Group and on 21st March this year I attended as a delegate a one-day international symposium on the theme of 'Looking Ahead'. I'm still processing the experience, a challenging and thought-provoking one. The evening saw an extra event hosted by dancer Danielle Teale in partnership with the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, which offered a window on ongoing research in the context of a regular dance class at the hospital. I was inspired by the collaborative nature of this enterprise – Danielle is 'still asking the dancers what they want the research question to be' – and also by the news that she is working on other projects incorporating performance work with dancers with Parkinson's. I'm very much hoping to become involved myself at some point.
I'm rather at a loss, though, how to share what seem to me significant experiences although I'm feeling I want to share them, and not just in writing. Or perhaps it's how to integrate them into the rest of my life? Much of what I do and am is separate and also solitary: I live alone, read and write alone (usually), run alone. I'm excited that my book Parkinson’s & the Tango Effect is happening at last – an online conversation with Unbound's editors about the cover this week – although this is something else I struggle to talk about openly. What's more, increasingly I'm finding it difficult to take part fully in social events. This weekend found me perched on the edge of a gathering of friends, unable to contribute even when the conversation turned to something I'm well-practised in: 'me time' or the art of being alone. It begins to feel as if I am the embodiment of the proverbial elephant! I've mentioned before that sinking sensation as my confidence ebbs, an echo I fear of my mother's difficulties in engaging socially as her dementia took hold. Coupled with my troublesome gut, a source of endless low-level misery which threatens to capsize potential travel opportunities and even my tango habit, I can only scuttle away with barely a polite goodbye.
Well. As my own birthday and its small gathering approaches, at least I will be on home turf. I'm looking forward to the Tulip Run on the Sunday morning and to more early miles along the river as spring becomes summer. Weirdly, as my symptoms generally become more taxing, my stability more precarious, I’m finding that running, rather like dancing, seems to take me to a Parkinson’s-free zone. I’m also counting down now to the end of Lent – I'm already thinking of a glass of very good Italian red! – and to reading some of what promise to be wonderful books which have accumulated around me over the last few weeks, Ali Smith’s latest Spring about to be added to the top of the pile. For the rest? I hope for the continued patience of friends. And whilst I can't claim any residual faith in whatever might be 'out there', I will be in the queue as usual outside King's on the morning of Good Friday for the annual 'Ante-Communion & Veneration of the Cross' music & readings and hope that Easter might bring just a taste of what Hopkins described as a 'crimson-cresseted east’.
As usual my first recourse is to other writers. My battered school edition of Eliot’s poems is not much help –
what is actual is actual only for one time
And for one place
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.
The Daily Stoic Journal has a different angle: today’s prompt is ‘Where am I a loud mouth?’ Well..! At risk of sounding smug (although self-satisfaction is absolutely not in play here: rather the opposite) last night I was so troubled, or disappointed, or dissatisfied – with myself, my lack of courage, my loss of confidence, my social laziness or ineptitude, evoking vivid and disspiriting memories of our mum in her later years, making absolutely no effort to take part in the conversation, that I googled ‘symptoms of dementia’, inconclusively. Some days I fear I am becoming my mother, or at least taking on some of her least appealing characteristics. I’m not sure which were more off-putting: those occasions when her lack of engagement took a surly turn – I recall in particular an episode with a Norfolk neighbour – or others when she smiled vaguely, as at the supper table in the Hythe hotel on our last Music at Leisure weekend together, making no attempt to join in. The mother of another friend, now also sadly no longer with us, often disappeared into her own world. Sometimes she could be brought back with a word, or a touch of the hand; often it felt like an intrusion. Really, I think I have to take responsibility for my own actions at the time, rather than succumbing to inertia and its resulting dismay and then beating myself up afterwards… something about inhabiting the present moment fully, keeping a lid on petty resentments and minor discomforts but also perhaps being a little more forgiving towards myself? I could certainly take a leaf out of the book of one friend and practise smiling more!
So: this is the day when we are reminded that we are dust and to dust we will return: good to remember that our time here is temporary and, however big a noise we feel we make in our own worlds, our impact in the greater scheme is negligible. Still, there is the ‘Look Away Now’ factor which has been preoccupying me recently – of which, more later. Meanwhile, Allegri’s Miserere plays in the background, another reminder: how many almost-Easters have we stood in the queue outside King’s with our cups of coffee ahead of the Good Friday liturgy? Useful also I think to take a day to consider how and where we have gone wrong. When I followed such things, Ash Wednesday always felt like a rock-bottom day, a time for confronting – confessing, I suppose – ‘sins’ or shortcomings, and preparing for a period of sober reflection. What was it the school’s bandleader used to say? – ‘You’re only as good as your last concert.’ I seem to remember one year actually following the liturgical framework for the period of Lent – or maybe it was just for Easter week! At any rate, almost entirely selfishly and to benefit my overindulged waistline, this year I am resolved to give up alcohol for the entire 46? – yes, I make it 46 – days (gulp!) – excepting only 14th April when I hope to celebrate my birthday a day late by completing the Tulip Run for Parkinson’s UK in the morning and allowing myself a ‘Refreshment Sunday’ afterwards. I am aware of some slightly out-of-reach awareness that this might be a salutary period of giving myself permission to feel what I often shy away from: there is a cold core of loneliness and isolation – no, it’s loneliness – that is exacerbated when I allow myself to give in to feelings of isolation and return eagerly, and too soon, to this high-level bolt-hole. I think of one friend who has vowed to practise being on her own, without panicking. Virginia Woolf reminds we must ‘face the fact, for it is a fact, that there is no arm to cling to, but that we go alone’.
Maybe Eliot was some help, after all: perhaps this is a time to ‘commune with your own heart and in your chamber’ and be still.
(Only 45 days to go….!)
DAY TWO: LOOK AWAY NOW
In town this morning, I almost fell over a very substantial all-weather pile of sleeping-out kit, on the corner of Emmanuel Street where a regular Big Issue seller with her cloying greeting has also to be negotiated. On a bench outside Boots, a man who decades ago you might have described as a ‘gentleman of the road’ sat, head in hands, roaring – literally. I could make out the odd word – ‘fuckers’ was in there, for sure. Drunk? Or simply enraged? I didn’t get close enough to tell but, like the rest of the Thursday morning crowd, gave him a wide berth. I wasn’t around for long though long enough to register the untidy straggle of discarded blankets and bits of cardboard or, in other doorways, couples and singles apparently sleeping peacefully. I saw one teenager look curiously at one such nest; others, like myself, hurried by, tamping down any sense of shame or sympathy or outrage that threatened to make itself felt.
This is, after all, the new normal. 50 years ago, when i was a student in London, late nights on Thursdays saw me with a dozen others hunting down the city’s rough sleepers as part of our soup run. Then, you had to hunt: the handful of men – it was mostly men, middle-aged or older – hidden away under the arches by Waterloo Station or round the back of the Strand Palace Hotel, out of the public gaze, resigned to being moved on by police. Twenty years later, Ian McEwan’s novel The Child in Time begins in a dystopian future where licensed beggars patrol the Westminster streets with their ‘bright badges’ and their ‘regulation black bowls’. Now – I’m disturbed by the way in which homelessness has become so visible and so all-embracing – women, young, old, alternative and apparently ordinary, ‘substance abusers’ and the squeaky clean: on any corner, in almost every other doorway, you come upon someone who might well be your son, your sister, your mum, yourself. Not that the homeless should feel the need to hide themselves away; but that we have inured ourselves to their pain and their presence to such an extent that we can walk on by with barely a blip in our blood pressure…
(44 days remaining…)
DAY THREE: WALKING ON BY
I’m remembering Francesca, talking about the last weeks and days of her grandmother: ‘I do what I need to sleep at night.’ And another memory, unbidden: on a street somewhere in Buenos Aires, as we walked back in the early hours from a milonga, Francesca gently tucking a sizable note under the pillow of a doorway sleeper. Last time I was there, real poverty was all too visible: the massive sprawl of Villa 31, the shanty town of 120,000 you pass en route to Tigre, the cartoneros picking through the trash for cardboard to sell, the encampments which have grown up beneath bridges and flyovers, kids who tout for business at traffic lights. I'm remembering too how those who scratch a living from selling or performing on the Subte are treated with courtesy. Some in Argentina, though, recognise that in these respects theirs remains a third world country. Whereas we –
(43 days left)
DAY SIX: ENCOUNTERS
Over the past few days, a series of chance encounters. As I rounded the corner of Westbrook Drive late one morning a tall man, well-dressed, beer bottle in hand, stood on the opposite pavement, swaying slightly. As I approached, he turned to face me and observed me as I walked past. Turning onto Milton Road, I was greeted in friendly fashion by a youngish man I’ve seen before but have never spoken to. Scrawny, with long yellow hair and a grubby white cap, he appeared wired. On my way back from the shop, I saw him again waiting at the bus stop, shifting and pacing, unable to be still until suddenly he took off and marched across the road, oblivious to traffic. By this time the first man had progressed the few yards to the end of the street. The following morning, as I waited for a bus, I watched a woman on the opposite side of the road pacing up and down outside the Co-op, looking along the street in both directions, as if expecting a lift. Smartly dressed, with dark hair, perhaps in her forties, she held a single red rose. Was she waiting for a blind date or just a meeting with someone she hadn’t met before, who wouldn’t recognise her – perhaps a potential employer? Given the romantic connotations of the flower the former seemed the more likely. Infuriatingly, my attention was distracted by a young woman who came out of the Old Spring after a birthday lunch for her mother, keen to tell me all about it and the next time I looked, the woman and her rose had vanished. Late that night, as I waited for yet another bus, a young man – late teens, early twenties? – picked bits of litter off the pavement and put them in one of the roadside bins. I watched as he disappeared into the distance, still collecting. Then, yesterday morning, another bus stop, another chance meeting, which began when Chloe, who I later learnt was approaching her 16th birthday, slapped me lightly on the shoulder twice and was reprimanded by the couple I assumed were her parents. They alternately murmured endearments and told her off. The girl was silent. Eventually after a long and affectionate goodbye, the girl left with the man. The woman explained that he was in fact her brother and had looked after Chloe, who had severe learning difficulties and was unable to speak, since birth as she, the mother, also had learning difficulties.
Yesterday a Skype chat with Di in Brittany, revolving mainly around our Mapping Memory project, leaving me thinking about connections across place and time. Soon after we first met, in Carlisle, Di and I discovered so much in common in terms of our past lives, not just in coincidences of place but also in place-time conjunctions, so that it seemed possible that we might have actually brushed shoulders as we passed each other on some pavement years earlier – which is where our project began. One of the first non-teachers I met in Cumbria was poet Clare Crossman, who set up a reading group with me and a fellow teacher. Ten years later, I started my own reading group in Hallbankgate, by which time I had also been part of a production of ‘Top Girls’ which Clare directed. Soon afterwards, Clare married and moved to Meldreth just outside Cambridge. Eventually I followed her in her path south.
My first visits to Cambridge as an undergraduate, in the company of Ron, RIchard – and once, I believe, the other Richard – around 1969 and 1970. I remember walking across grass – Jesus Green probably – punting down to Grantchester and The Orchard, and swimming off the side of the boat in the Cam. Almost 30 years later, in 1997, I was again in Cambridge, this time for a week with Gordon and Jack. We stayed in the Ferry Path house whilst Andy and Susannah were away on honeymoon. Whilst here, we visited Kettle’s Yard where I discovered Winifred Nicholson for the first time, standing in front of her painting of Bank’s Head, a stone’s throw from our house in Hallbankgate. Back in Cumbria, I came to love her work and rubbed shoulders with various bits of her family.
I didn’t know – until very recently, via Cambridge poet and friend Kaddy Benyon – of her friendship with poet Kathleen Raine nor that, for a time Kathleen Raine rented a cottage in Hallbankgate, this last uncovered by Clare Crossman when researching Winter Flowers, her biography of Cumbrian artist Lorna Graves. (I’m wondering if I heard somewhere it was one of the houses along the road at Coldfell, or whether I’ve invented that?) I have two Kathleen Raine books on my shelf: a first edition somewhat marred (or enriched?) by its sojourn on the shelves of Hackney Library, of the first volume of her autobiography Farewell Happy Fields, published in 1973. My copy is an Amnesty Bookshop find from some years ago but I first came upon the book on the bedside table in the small bedroom upstairs in Kettle’s Yard. Unaware then of the don’t touch instruction, I opened it at this passage from the Introduction:
I once read somewhere that it is a mark of
the perfection of the wise to arrive at the
place they should be, at the time they should
come; but such correspondence does not belong to lives less perfect. If we ever sometimes, momentarily, arrive at the time and the place, it is already much. The marvel is that we ever do arrive at what is our own; and then with such a sense of homecoming, as though the long waste of time stretching before and after had never existed at all.
Which seemed to me then, and seems now, a perfect evocation of that sense of ‘homecoming’ (echoed beautifully in Simon Armitage’s poem of that name).
The second book, The Lost Country, also a first edition, is a volume of poetry published in 1971. It includes poems entitled ‘By the River Eden’ and ‘The Roman Wall Revisited’ and one, ‘A Painting by Winifred Nicholson’, signed ‘Bank’s Head, October 1968’. It’s not entirely clear, but perhaps the ‘friend’ who appears in the second stanza is the painter? A year before the book’s publication, I met the poet herself in Ron’s room in 13 Woburn Square. The event: a postgraduate discussion group, my presence explained by my friendship with the host (the book has no inscription, unusually; even so, I imagine it came from Ron). I recall nothing of the evening, only that I sat on the floor at Kathleen Raine’s feet. Another detail belonging to that evening comes in a pencilled note from Richard, written probably 6 or 7 years ago. He remembers bumping into the poet (and the house cat Theo) on the steps of Woburn Square as he went off to a rehearsal. Apparently Kathleen Raine said something along the lines of ‘Met by a cat and a young man with a cello. What a moment.’ Richard’s memory was pricked by a hand-written copy of her poem ‘Rock’ which fell out of Jacquetta Hawkes’s The Land. The book had belonged to Richard’s Aunt Marjorie and was sent to me as part of the ‘flotsam and jetsam’ which surfaced during Richard and Felicity’s house move. ‘Rock’ had been interleaved in Jacquetta Hawkes’s book for the past 60 years, so they must stay together, Richard says, adding ‘can it even be in the hand of K. R. herself?’
This weekend saw me returning to Kettle’s Yard for a presentation ‘A Painter and A Poet: Art and Poetry in Response to Winifred Nicholson and Kathleen Raine’. The collaboration between artist Miranda Boulton and poet Kaddy Benyon is evidently a fruitful one and I’m vicariously excited by the prospect of their research visit to my old stamping ground of north-east Cumbria. Their partnership, doubled by the relationship between Winifred Nicholson and Kathleen Raine is further augmented by writer Victoria Best and I feel myself drawn into the web of connectivity they have created. I‘m very much looking forward to the publication of their book later in the year.
(…and I make that 40 days of abstinence remaining!)
Cambridge, January, the dead of winter. Sometimes, when the weather is fine, I’m tempted after swimming to walk along the river rather than head straight home. These days I rarely swim anywhere other than in a chlorinated indoor pool and it’s 50 years since I had a dip in the Cam but early mornings along its banks can be magical and I like to think that its water still holds a part of me. Although geography has never been my strong point, I let my mind wander upstream to Grantchester and south, following the Rhee to the point where it receives the River Mel at Malton and then tracing the course of the Mel towards its source in Melbourn. Along the way I might meet my friend and poet Clare Crossman walking the dog or perhaps film-maker James Murray-White with his camera and I imagine the Cam reaching out to welcome the waters of the modest stream.
I’ve only walked Meldreth’s river a couple of times but the Waterlight Project's website provides a compelling multifaceted picture of this small waterway, its flora and fauna, its geology and history. Poems and photographs, anecdotes and reminiscences and conversations come together to create a living map of memory and connotation which takes the reader beyond this particular chalk stream. Like Clare, I spent much of my adult life in Cumbria: not the Lake District, though that was within visiting distance, but close to the Eden Valley, a more remote north-eastern corner of the county where I learnt to dread the winter, its short days of horizontal rain and near darkness, cloud sitting stubbornly over the fells. The streams there spill over sandstone rather than chalk, carving a pathway through the soft red rock and there is Roman graffiti on the cliffs above the Gelt and the Irthing. I remember skinny-dipping in the Washpool near Tindale and the briefest splash in the River Gelt at Jockey Shield. Even though it was midsummer, the water was cold enough to turn my limbs blue.
A hundred years ago a stroll along the Mel would have been a very different experience, passing osier beds and mills, the steam laundry and brewery. Like its larger cousin in the north, it has also been subject to flooding, with hindsight attributable in large part to human activity or rather the lack of it. As the mills and brewery closed and arable farming replaced water meadows and osier beds, there was no longer a vested interest in maintaining the waterway. Back in Cumbria, rivers burst their banks three times while I was living there, with devastating consequences for thousands of residents across the county. Although each instance was prompted by record rainfall, there were clearly problems arising from large-scale development on the flood plain and an overloaded Victorian sewage system, compounded by inadequate flood defences. Families hit more than once struggled to afford the rising cost of insurance, so suffered a double impact. I vividly recall driving the long Warwick Road into Carlisle years after the 2009 floods, past skip after skip still standing outside ruined houses. Before I left Cumbria for good, I rented out my house to a family who had just finished refurbishing their property when they again fell victim to flooding in 2015.
Globally, flooding is one of a number of indicators of our changing climate, with particular communities under repeated threat of losing their homes if not their lives and with wildlife especially vulnerable. I recently attended an evening of poems on the theme of Climate Change, hosted jointly by Cambridge Conservation Initiative and Magma Poetry. The event celebrated collaborations between eight poets and eight scientists and conservationists. As well as highlighting the damage we have inflicted on the planet, the outcome celebrated ‘the way arts practice can challenge and reshape approaches to contemporary conservation’, according to author and environmentalist John Fanshawe. Much of the work expressed a strong sense of loss: Jos Smith asked ‘Would you hear/The silence of lapwings, of thrushes?’ Claudine Toutoungi said, ‘the last kittiwake has/no comment’. Nancy Campbell’s photograph ‘Greenland Dogs No Ice’ pictures the two animals looking rather lost in a snow-free environment. And whilst Kathleen Jamie stresses the importance of advocacy in our response to nature, giving voice to aspects of the natural world, she has found her ability to write poetry silenced in the face of climate change.
John Kinsella is anything but silent, regarding poetry as an opportunity for protest and an integral part of his activism, which affects every area of life. He stands fast and roaring in the face of the bulldozers which raze the forest to the ground in the development of Western Australia’s Wheatbelt. Here he describes ‘the chainsaw effect’:
It is not subtle. It is not ambient…
blazon, overconfident. Hubristic
to the final cut, last drop of fuel.
Kinsella comes from the Swan River area of Perth in Western Australia, familiar to me at one remove in the person of Georgiana Molloy who, in 1830, arrived there from her native Cumbria with her new husband to establish a colony. I came upon her first in the herbarium in the Sainsbury Centre at the Cambridge University Botanic Garden and her extraordinary story, emerging from a stifling religious Victorian background into an independent pioneer with a passion for plant-collecting, became the subject of one of the short stories inspired by my residency. Kinsella enabled me to see her from a different angle: rather than a first-rate if undervalued botanist, here was a representative of a colonial past responsible for the wholesale theft of land from its indigenous peoples. For Kinsella, Swan River is also the site of damaging pollution, its population of dolphins dying tangled in fishing line or poisoned by toxic chemicals.
A quieter response to climate change came from Polly Atkin who also, coincidentally, lives in Cumbria. Her sequence ‘Notes on a Transect’ echoes her conversation with British Trust for Ornithology’s Blaise Martay in form as well as content and reflects the joy in our relationship with the living world that both ‘kept returning to’ in their exchange. Polly also records Blaise’s excitement – at the return of ospreys and beavers, for example – and the importance of excitement in building connections and instigating change. I found both excitement and joy in Anna Selby’s ‘Flowers in the Volcano':
At my feet, the impossibility
of three purple violets
shaking in the dark.
As I make for home along the Cam I’m thinking that these two qualities, excitement and joy, are also reflected in the Waterlight project. I love the way it marries the essential nourishment we gain from both words and water. Underpinned by dialogue between the arts (poetry, prose, image), considered and heartfelt responses to the natural world and a practical commitment to the messy business of effecting change, this local project is inspiring in its reach and its achievements.
Falling in love again Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuss
What am I to do? Auf LIebe eingestellt
Never wanted to - Denn das ist meine Welt
I can’t help it Und sonst gar nichts
‘eingestellt’ – ‘focused’? ‘set’? ‘tuned in’? The German is better: a sense of being entirely given over to the business of loving, hard-wired for love: because ‘that is my world and absolutely nothing else’. Even so, the English version captures the deliciously involuntary nature of the experience, that precipitous toppling into the altered state which makes surrender so irresistible – or madness to resist. For who would turn away from the opportunity to lose oneself in another, to be enfolded in the arms of the beloved, especially in the later years?
I seem to have developed a falling habit; only the love aspect is missing. A couple of spills from my lovely New Hudson (almost as old as I am now), one unbalanced by a massive bag of shopping, always from standing, although there have been several near misses while moving. I am especially vulnerable when attempting to get going on even the slightest incline and my wobbles haven’t escaped the attention of frustrated motorists. One morning I fell at home when transitioning into ‘Warrior Two’, simply tipped sideways and en route to the floor crashed onto the stool which held my glasses and a mug of cooling tea; yoga not always the healthy option, it seems. Floor, mug and spectacles all survived more or less intact – and bones, thank goodness. Then, late last week, after an overlong wait at a cold and windy bus stop, crossing the street on the way to the Picturehouse. I landed in true old lady fashion at the feet of a handsome young man who hauled me to my feet and dusted me down with considerable charm. I had a little cry in the dark while waiting for the film to start!
My friend Aileen tells me that we used to use ‘fall’ for autumn in this country, before we came to regard it merely as an americanism. It makes sense, I suppose. Lovely as the season is, though, its mellow fruitfulness is somehow always tinged with melancholy, as if the downward direction of the falling leaves has a similar pull on the spirits, unlike the upward thrust of spring, all that new life emerging into the light as the days lengthen. Or is it just my inability to stay upright which disheartens? I don’t know: the glass falling is a sure sign of worsening weather; a fall from grace has negative connotations across a range of contexts, religious and otherwise. If falling into disrepair is what buildings do, I’m beginning to feel architecturally challenged.
Perhaps it’s unwise to dwell on such things although there is much to be said for being prepared, I think. A recent conversation with Cumbrian friends, all of us in our sixties now, drifted inevitably perhaps to how we make ourselves ready for whatever challenges might lie in wait for us. ‘Don’t leave it too late,’ seemed to be the consensus which I’ve heard repeated several times since. With this in mind I succumbed to impulse at the start of the weekend and bought a large red three-wheeler, a potential solution to the cycling problem. The transaction, in the dark outside the sociology department on Mill Lane, was a sobering affair which rendered me infuriatingly shaky, too shaky in fact to try out the bike – trike, I suppose – properly and subsequently side-swiped by a brief burst of sobbing on the way to the cash machine. Fortunately Jack was there to soak up the worst of it. I’m still rather cowed by its size and its shiny redness, although it’s not unlike the tricycle which was my passport to five -year-old freedom. It reminds me of a long ago bid for liberation when I bought a motor bike from a colleague. Not huge by motor cycle standards – it was a Honda 175 – I never conquered my fear of it and, after a few secretive sorties up and down outside the garage, I sold it back to its previous owner. Now, I’m hoping I’ve found my big yellow taxi (‘you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone’) in time.
So yesterday Hudson and I embarked on what might be a last outing together for a while. Not really a sentimental journey although pedalling along the river into town and then across Midsummer Common and along Riverside was pleasant enough in the autumn light despite my wobbles. The outer limit of the expedition was the Cambridge Retail Park, my destination B&Q for a tub of tile grout. Not the way I would normally choose to spend a Sunday afternoon – years of Sunday tango practicas have saved me from such a fate – but it wasn’t pleasant being reminded that this is what a large proportion of the population do with their precious free time or being part of that throng. Not much of a journey in real terms but by the time I headed home I was exhausted. ‘Don’t get old,’ I overheard a woman trying on sports shoes advising the young assistant. I know what she means.
And then there’s my beloved tango. Whilst I’m not exactly falling out of love with her, she’s never been a forgiving mistress and she doesn’t get any kinder. These days I have to dig deep to muster the energy to get myself to St Paul’s on a Tuesday evening. I don’t always make it. When I do, my balance has become so wonky that reluctantly I’ve had to settle for flat shoes much of the time and even that doesn’t guarantee safe passage round the floor although I haven’t actually fallen mid-dance yet. In my head I still dance beautifully, of course, but the reality is frustrating in the extreme and naturally the number of partners I can rely on to take the risk is shrinking. I have absolutely no patience with those followers who rock up and sit on the edge of the floor looking miserable and then go home complaining that they don’t get any dances but I’m aware I’ve found myself in that position a time or two recently. Hanging on to confidence and dignity in the face of attrition is a challenge but the possibility of losing what has been a lifeline looms large and feels more than anything like an impending bereavement. So, like a lover slow to accept the inevitable, I’m clinging on.
Something I’ve read recently hovers on the edge of my mind: something along the lines of how life sometimes seems to last for ever, whilst at other times, like a shirt hanging on a washing line, it’s whisked away by the wind and gone in an instant. I love that image and I’ve tried and failed to track down the source. Meanwhile I’ll take my cue from a Nick Pemberton favourite, Prince Buster’s recording of ‘Enjoy Yourself’ which he chose to play him out, as it were, at his funeral. Whilst the words carry a sober enough warning, it sounds like a party. Thanks to all the incredible support from friends, family and strangers, the book is happening: definitely something to look forward to and a dedicated celebration and thank you is coming soon. This morning I was up with the birds and out for a jog round to the pool before breakfast without disasters. And later today I might just go and get the red monster out of the bike store and give it an airing. ‘Big yellow taxi’ is a bit of a mouthful for a nickname. Perhaps I’ll call it Grace (as in ‘Saving…')?
'Falling in Love Again' was composed (in German) by Friedrich Hollaender in 1930 (English lyrics by Sammy Lerner) and performed by Marlene Dietrich in the film The Blue Angel, after which it became her anthem.
Having seen myself as predominantly a fiction writer for the last ten years or so, I’m finding myself increasingly drawn to reality. Not that I no longer believe in the necessity of fiction for telling truths, just that I seem to have to lost the taste for making it. Is this just laziness on my part? Or an inevitable preoccupation with health and ageing? At any rate, I’m reminded of my mum (again) this morning as I spoon marmalade onto an oatcake. In her last weeks, she took to ‘ordering’ toast and marmalade at random hours through the day (and probably night) from the harassed care home staff as if she were in an exclusive hotel although by this time she had given up a life-time’s dedication to the impeccable manners which would have served her well in the Ritz or the Savoy and had taken to scooping the orange goo out of the plastic container with her finger. Not an inspiring end to a life or an enviable one although much is made these days of the importance of being ‘authentic’, of the ability to be yourself and know yourself. And much to be said, perhaps, for contentment, for the ability to let go of what no longer serves us well.
I have my eye on that ticking clock this morning. Partly this stems from conversations last week on the edge of the dance floor. One friend recounts his mother’s comment as she potters round outside the home she has lived in for more than twenty years – ‘I’ve no idea whose garden this is’ – and we discuss the challenges of dealing with the ageing process and not just in relation to our parents.
An odd consequence of the tango culture is that the perceived need to ‘get dances’ above all else means that there is rarely space to chat with fellow followers. Last week was an exception although tales of a summer spent travelling or staying happily at home in the heat both left me feeling rather out of sorts, having been strapped for cash and lacking the energy to do either. I’m inspired by one suggestion of the Canaries in autumn before I remember my growing credit card bill.
Not everyone has had the best time, of course. I approach someone with whom I have never before exchanged more than the briefest hello, to find that she lost her husband a month ago. I knew that he had been ill for some years and that she cared for him at home. As she spoke about his last months, the inroads of the illness, and the happiness of almost 50 years of marriage – ‘I’d been with him since I was 14’ – what shone through was her extraordinary strength and the remarkable gift of love which she’d been able to give him. I snivelled my way through the conversation, moved by a detail here, an anecdote there, recognising that she evidently felt loved in return. As she spoke about the final days, I remembered singing to my mother as she lay unconscious, an odd departure for two people who never in life shared an interest in music. Our conversation ended with an update on another older friend with his own health issues. ‘He’s determined to die on the dance floor,’ she said.
This morning an email introduces me to Paul Mayhew-Archer, diagnosed with Parkinson’s seven years ago. Deciding he could either laugh or cry, he chose to laugh and took his stand-up show ‘Incurable Optimist’ to the Edinburgh Fringe this year. An English graduate and an ex-English teacher like me, Parkinson’s has given him a ‘greater sense of purpose’ than ever before and he is now working on a romcom set in the Oxford Dance for Parkinson’s class which featured in the documentary he made for the BBC in 2016.
I have recently been suffering another crisis of confidence about my capabilities as a dancer. Part of the self-doubt no doubt familiar to most tangueros, the ‘P’ thing adds an extra edge. Today I’m hovering somewhere between feeling motivated by the lives of others and heading for the marmalade. But how hard can it be, really, to get over myself and just make the best of what I have and can do? Time to follow Fred and Ginger and pick myself up, dust myself off, start all over again:
Before the fiddlers have fled,
Before they ask us to pay the bill,
And while we still have that chance
Let’s face the music and dance.
Stephen Moss's interview with Paul Mayhew-Archer 'I wanted to show people with Parkinson's can do comedy' was published in The Guardian on 20 July. The documentary 'Parkinson's: The Funny Side' is available at BBC One Inside Out South.
'Pick Yourself Up' was written in 1936 by Jerome Kern (lyrics by Dorothy Fields) for the film 'Swing Time', which features a Fred Astaire whose 'two feet haven't met yet' apparently struggling to learn to dance with teacher Ginger Rogers
'Let's Face the Music and Dance' from the film 'Follow the Fleet' with Fred and Ginger was written by Irving Berlin, also in 1936.
If you're travelin' in the north country fair
Where the winds hit heavy on the borderline...
For all that I’m a northern girl by birth and habit, sometimes the north, like the past, feels like a foreign country. Our first morning in Grassington, we are charmed by vivid blue skies and sunshine but also by an old-fashioned gent who holds open the car door for us as we squeeze out of the narrow space. Only when we’ve thanked him several times and are marching off down the cobbles does he confess self-interest: the gleaming white Mercedes parked next to us is his.
The past is never far behind us, though. Echoes of earlier visits chatter at our booted heels as we head along the grassy track towards Parceval Hall and on to the Skyreholmes. Like last time, we follow the flight of steps down behind the cottages, marvel at the gardens which drop steeply to the stream and afterwards peer longingly in through the front windows. At the far end of the terrace there are nests – swallows? house martins? – in
the top corners of the highest window, the glass crusted with accumulated droppings. As we walk, earlier pasts crowd in on us, the ghosts of friends and lovers and children shadowing our progress.
On our second morning we drive to Litton and stop for coffee at the Queen’s Arms: a chance to pore over maps and change our minds about our planned route. We attempt to book for dinner the following evening and C suggests the table by the window. The landlord explains that he can only reserve a table for ‘medical reasons’, citing the ‘lady with the stroke’ as an example. So, ‘unless you have the side of your face paralysed,’ he clarifies, we will have to take pot luck. Really.
We take the road past Halton Gill and the quaint honesty-box arrangement that is ‘Katie’s Cuppas’ and leave the car in Fox-Up. From here we climb across the fields and head right along the wide track which skirts the base of Plover Hill towards Horton-in-Ribblesdale. We fall into the familiar pattern, C striding ahead and then pausing for me to catch up, perhaps sketching whilst she waits, I plodding in her wake, spinning tales in my head. I have just finished reading Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore and the novel is still very much in my mind: memories, the choices we make, the weight of our pasts and the presents we shape for ourselves. How much is metaphor? Like Kafka Tamura, I follow the path ahead because I must, because it’s there, because I need to know. And the future? There’s no prospect of an end to my solitary state and, whilst I’m happy enough in my own company and still relatively able-bodied, I can’t claim to be approaching the years ahead with optimism. For now, though, this will have to do – and, looking around me, there are definitely worse places to be.
On the one occasion when I get ahead, I miss the point where the path climbs to the left and we have to scramble up through boggy ground and over a gap in the wall to find it again. As the landscape opens out, a curlew calling to my right becomes visible for a moment, pale body gliding away from me. The table-top of Ingleborough appears in the distance as the blunt shoulder of Pen-y-Ghent takes shape on our left. We stop to eat our sandwiches at a junction of paths, sunlight on the far quarry. We don’t quite make it to Hole Pot, our intended destination, turning back to allow time for a cup of tea before we meet R, ex-landlord and old friend of C, in The Falcon.
We are the only customers and settle in the back room, looking out over the garden and the hills beyond. The pleasantries out of the way, the conversation meanders through reminiscence and anecdote, peppered with laughter and a touch of gallantry. I’ve only met R on a couple of occasions but I’m intrigued and – yes, charmed, again – by his warmth and by that heady mix of dogged old school resistance to change – no email, the sense of generations rooted in the place – and a contrasting openness – to ideas, art – which somehow seems more contemporary. Or is this my southern stereotyping?! There’s a love of words, too – and a kind of caress in the sliding cadence and rhythms of his speech which cuts through the distance between us, creating a suggestion of intimacy. (Of course this could have something to do with the quantity of wine he insists on buying for us.)
The following morning the bush outside the kitchen window is littered with raindrops which sparkle in the early sunlight – as if someone has sprinkled the leaves with glitter. After yoga in the garden and a leisurely breakfast, we set off along the Hawkswick road, past the larches which dance along the river bank, skirts scooped high, before branching left on the track to Kettlewell. I’ve spotted the track from the road, from where it looks like a gradual ascent on a wide grassy track. Which it is, at least at first. But I’ve forgotten my stick and an emergency replacement we find is too thin and whippy to be much use. Soon the path narrows to an uneven rocky thread with a bit of a drop to our right, sending me into a wobbling mode which I struggle to shake off. The descent is a scramble, steep in places and I’m reduced to sliding down on my bottom or accepting the offer of C’s hand. I’m touched, and a tad surprised though I don’t know why, by her patience. Even so, the two-mile stretch feels more like 22 and the prospect of walking back is daunting, not least as we have to pack up ready for an early start tomorrow before our date with the Queen’s Arms. Nowhere to buy a new walking pole – apparently the outdoor clothing shop closed last year. No buses, no decent coffee shops and the village store is shut, although they open up for us to buy cheese and oatcakes and we manage a surreptitious picnic round the back of an ice cream parlour. On an impulse we decide to hitch a ride. Whether it’s another example of that northern charm, the kindness of strangers or the effect of C’s shorts, we’ve no sooner stuck out our thumbs when a chap pulling out of the car park raises his thumb in reply and we pile in. Turns out he’s driven over from Halifax in nostalgic mood, revisiting the area where he camped as a cub scout. He explains away his generosity as an example of northern hospitality – which of course it is. And which is replicated later in Litton, when we find the table in the window reserved for us, after all.
'The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there' is the opening of L.P. Hartley's The Go-Between, published by Hamish Hamilton in 1953
'Girl from the north country'was written by Bob Dylan, recorded in 1963 and released the same year as the second track on The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan
Between the devil and the deep blue sea suggests two equally undesirable, even dangerous alternatives but there is little that’s devilish about Cromer on this June morning and the sea, not blue at all but a delicate shade of khaki fading to palest mushy pea and then to a very dilute milk chocolate, keeps up its hypnotically soothing motion. The place’s other colours are predominantly primary, plastic blue and yellow buckets, the seductive array of sherbet fruits and pineapple chunks, liquorice torpedoes and dolly mixtures (and remember cherry lips?!) in the jars in Amy’s Sweet Shop window on West Street (the shop boasts over 200 types of sweet), the crimson of the beach huts replicated in sun-reddened skin.
I’m not quite in step with the majority here, my waterproofs and thermal layers out of place beside bare shoulders and flip-flops but there’s a brash friendliness which is hard to resist and a kind of – is it innocence? There is still the pier, of course – Cambridge House, my B&B of choice, looks directly out at it. It claims to have the only end of the pier show, complete with ‘sumptuous costumes’, in the world. There are several tattoo parlours and caravan parks, lots of dogs and a preponderance of well-tanned shaven heads and beer bellies. And northern accents, of course. On a long-ago visit, when Jack was quite small, we watched a car-hauling event in the annual Strongest Man competition (apparently there is also a ‘truck pull’) although this is not just a celebration of brute strength: the contest raises huge sums for Sport Relief.
Now the middle classes are claiming territory here – witness the article in The Guardian’s travel supplement a couple of weekends ago which actually prompted my visit. It mentioned the Rocket House Cafe which I’m proud to have discovered for myself some years since and which would be perfect for watching the sun go down over the sea if it were only open in the evenings. Also the No.1 fish restaurant, owned by Michelin-starred chef Galton Blackiston, with its international ‘Upstairs at…’ On both recent visits, I’ve settled for the plain and simple fish and chips on the ground floor. Next to Cambridge House, the Red Lion has stepped confidently into the twenty-first century with a huge choice of beers, gins and whiskies and an innovative menu: my baby aubergines with lentil dahl and bhajis are both unusual and delicious. Most recently Grey Seal Coffee Roasters of Glandford have added Cromer to their list with a smart new coffee house next to the Co-op supermarket on the High Street.
It’s not just recent gentrification, though. My visit to the deli (eat your heart out Burnham Market in terms of size alone!) has me excitedly choosing from an impressive range of local teas – I go for Norfolk White Lady, a blend of Pai Mu Tan white tea with pomegranate and cranberry. I’m surprised to learn that the business has been there for 13 years. On my last evening I stumble upon three second-hand bookshops, two of them at least clearly also long-established. I really wish I’d found them sooner.
Arriving at the station on my way home takes me past Bouncers Nightclub and bar, still boarded up since my last time here, a reminder of the frequent dilapidation of coastal resorts like these. I toyed with the idea of buying a house here a year or two ago, actually found an affordable Victorian terrace on the main street into the town. It looked quite appealing online but I turned up to take a look on a cold grey day, the handful of tourists struggling to make the best of it. It reminded me most of those north-east Cumbrian outposts, not overtly hostile but faces turned into the wind, preoccupied with the business of survival. I’d had enough of that. This time, the weather kinder, the walking satisfying, it feels less daunting. Still I am saddened to see the art and sculpture trail along the concrete wall of Sheringham’s sea front faded almost to invisibility although I gather inland it’s a different story and appropriately-named artist Colin Seal has again been busy. I love the boldness of these places, though! Seeming to defy gravity, with flights of steps precipitous enough to turn my legs to jelly and bay windows suspended high over the ocean, they perch on the cliffs with a confidence that is surely bravado – how long before they slip into the sea?
In part I suppose it’s a question of where we put our money. The Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s Cley Marshes Visitor Centre just along the coast, built at a cost of £650,000 and opened in 2007, seeks to minimise its impact on the surrounding area through a variety of ‘green’ technologies and materials. It has recently benefited from a £2.6 million revamp involving the purchase of 140 extra acres of marshland, creating the Simon Aspinall Education Centre and a new outside viewing deck, and has some 100,000 visitors a year. There’s surely no contest. Despite today’s runners and walkers and the clean beaches initiative, historically Cromer can’t really claim to be eco-friendly – indeed the impulse behind the 19th-century development of the town was more about overcoming the challenges presented by the natural environment and establishing a foothold than looking after it – and it’s just not posh enough for some. But its egalitarian aspect suits me. Between the hordes of elderly visitors hunkering down for a night of bingo in the Hotel de Paris and the chap who enjoys a can of beer and a cigarette breakfast below my window on my last morning, somehow I have space to breathe. Or is it that my own persistent sense of dislocation, of being lodged somehow on the edge betwixt and between, sits easier on these lone and level sands? Though there’s no wreckage in sight, unreconstructed man is not always pretty but ‘the thing itself’ – at least it’s real.
Back in Cambridge: the guy who pushed past me on the ‘replacement bus’ pushes past me again on the station platform. As the Citi 1 pulls away, from the window I spot a figure with a huge backpack, not unlike mine, slumped against it where he sits on the pavement, head in his chest, red sun hat pulled low, a Sainsbury’s orange carrier at his side, outside one of the swish new hotels. Despite his luggage, he’s not going inside, or indeed anywhere else, any time soon. Cambridge’s smug middle-class exclusiveness leaves me feeling out of step and really rather reluctant to step back inside the bubble. Until, that is, we reach the city centre and the bus is invaded by a motley crew, ten or twelve in all, a handful of loud men who head to the back of the bus, kids all armed with mini-machine guns on repeat fire who climb upstairs and a selection of young women with smaller children in buggies who commandeer the front section. Military metaphors? Yes I know, it does feel slightly threatening, if only for the sense that they seem entirely comfortable in their own skins, keen to claim their space and oblivious to others. Somehow you wouldn’t want to cross them. Or is it just that they are in high spirits having spent the day at the Town and Country Fair? The women proceed to share their picnic – sandwiches, crisps, sausages – amongst the families (my healthy-eating sensibilities squirming squeamishly!) When I stand up for my stop, almost clunking the nearest woman with my rucksack, she turns to grin at me with a mouthful of ruined teeth.
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
As Writer in Residence, thoughts from the garden