I wonder what the Anglo-Saxon for shout-out might be? I guess I’ll find out as I plough through Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Primer. I’m starting with the alphabet which is quite easy because most of it is like ours, although they have some different letters such as thorn and ‘eth’ (I think that’s what it’s called, though OH will correct me if not) both of which represent the voiced and unvoiced ‘th’ in English – ie ‘th’ in ‘thing’ and ‘th’ in ‘seethe’. Anglo-Saxon is a delight to listen to, such a mouthful of juicy consonants accompanied by goblets full of ringing vowels, you can practically taste the mead and feel the table under your hand. It’s interesting also to put this together with Sutton Hoo – though 500 years separate the dig from Beowulf – to create a picture in the imagination. Beowulf – I’ve read it now – is essentially a tale of shield-bashing men from the time when men were men, wrestling monsters from the deep (and their mothers) and fiery dragons. But what interests me is what it says about the society; the life of the barn where people sat in the mead-hall while wardens were placed outside; how status was dependent on prowess on the battle-field, and above all the importance of exchanging gifts. At the end of Beowulf the eponymous hero, having died destroying a dragon, is buried with much of the haul they recovered from the dragon’s den and placed inside a huge barrow on the cliff-top. Having finished the poem I have an enduring vision of ships crossing ‘whale-roads’, great halls, flowing mead and long speeches – one or two of which are given by women. Though undoubtedly second-class citizens and traded as freely as gold or silver, women are not as silent in Beowulf as I had expected and one, the wife of the lord, makes a lengthy speech of welcome to the Geats (people from southern Sweden) who have come to Denmark to free the people from the monster. It’s interesting to imagine the great mead-hall of Beowulf strewn with the found objects from Sutton Hoo; the shoulder-clasps of gold inlaid with garnet, the helmets laid aside while the heroes eat and the great cauldron hanging from the roof of the barn with perhaps a meaty stew inside. These were already sophisticated people with customs, trade, religion, seafaring routes and a social hierarchy. It’s just a pity that all they seemed to think about was war. Hey, ho – it’s tough studying Anglo-Saxon as a Quaker…
‘Want to go and make a snowman?’ I asked my 24-year-old son yesterday, fully expecting the answer ‘Nah’ or a reminder that he was no longer six years old. Instead I got a thumbs-up, so fully hatted and scarved we went out into a day as brilliant white as Dulux ceiling paint and started to shovel snow. We made a heap with a smaller heap on top but didn’t have time to shape it properly; I was trying to recall how I used to make snowmen as a child but could only remember the winter of ’63 when my Dad shovelled a pile of snow for me which froze and stayed frozen for weeks before abruptly thawing. After 1947, the winter of ’63 was the coldest on record; we had deep snow in central London and that hardly happens now. The Son declined to engage in a snowball fight but instead invented a game of snow-baseball using a shovel as a bat and splatting the snowballs into a million pieces. I also scooped up the snow on the garden table and made it into a crowd of little people like Easter Island statues (with a great deal of imagination) which reminded me of a Peanuts cartoon where Snoopy makes a lot of snow people and then says, ‘I expect you’re wondering why I’ve called you all here today.’ I can’t find that one, so here’s another:
That was fun, and I went back indoors feeling as invigorated as if I’d been for a run. Probably more so.
I also wrote a snow poem which began as a descriptive piece (see yesterday’s post) but ended up as polemic about people who use the term ‘snowflake’ as an insult. This is one of my pet hates.
So all in all a good day. We’ve still got plenty of snow here, have you? If not, do you want some of ours?
Last night we watchedWho Do You Think You Are?a programme which explores the family history of famous people. I don’t often bother with it but this one features Daniel Radcliffe so I was interested. It’s a fascinating watch; he comes from Jewish ancestry and there were letters from his great-great-grandparents, some of whom were killed in the war, and a touching suicide note from someone facing bankruptcy. In those days it was deeply shameful to be a bankrupt and his widow changed her name shortly afterwards; the letter referred to suicide as ‘the coward’s way out’ which is how they used to think of it. So that was interesting and I was also, as ever, impressed by Daniel Radcliffe’s ordinariness and lack of vanity.
We have snow here; about three inches of it fell steadily yesterday and today it remains. Snow covers everything – rubbish, dirt, grime and junk; it softens hard outlines and falls like forgiveness on the land. Snow two-tones trees and silhouettes webs; it sits like abacus beads on our trellis and balances improbably on the washing line. Snow scooches up on rooftops and huddles thickly while icicles of Damocles hover below; it sits like icing on the garden table or heavy jewellery on the Christmas fir. Snow makes antlers of forgotten twigs; snow follows the line of everything but rounds it with a sleep – and when it thaws, snow sifts from branches like a second fall, tinkles down to earth as silent song.
I’m cold, but it’s totally worth it for the poetry it affords – and now, as I go off to write the poem I have thus begun, I’ll leave you with this wonderful passage from James Joyce:
Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, further westwards, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling too upon every part of the lonely churchyard where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
Beautiful.And just for laughs, here’s a picture of a snow Dalek someone made yesterday:
Stay safe, and remember, boots may warm the feet – but only poetry can warm the soul.
Like millions of people I was glued to yesterday’s inauguration of President Joe Biden. There’s lots to say about the event but perhaps the most important thing is not what happened but that it happened. The transfer of power took place peacefully, with dignity and decorum and without a single protest, violent or otherwise; a fact which was celebrated throughout by all commentators. I don’t normally watch these events; they’re rather too heavy on God, flag-waving and my fellow-Americans schtick for my liking, but this time was different. Completely different. First of all, there was the sheer heartfelt relief of waving goodbye to the little orange would-be dictator and seeing him head off into the sunset not having got the send-off he wanted and about to see many of his key policies reversed. Phew. Then there was the event itself. Disregarding a lot of the ‘we are the fathers and upholders of democracy’ – ahem! I think you’ll find that’s us (though just don’t enquire too closely into what sort of democracy we had) it was nevertheless important to state and restate that the democratic process had been upheld in spite of strenuous attempts to topple it. This was underlined by the presence of past Presidents including Bush, Clinton and Obama and not least by the attendance of Mike Pence. Reactionary Trump-enabler though he was, he at least understood that the first rule of politics is to show up: show up when you win and show up when you lose – and the handing over of Vice President Pence to VP Harris as Pence and his wife left after the ceremony was almost as moving as the ceremony itself.
There was a great deal of good stuff here; anthems sung by Lady Gaga and Jenifer Lopez and humorous introductions by Senator Amy Klobuchar but I’m just going to mention two things; the poem and Biden’s speech. The poem was written and delivered by Amanda Gorman, the youth Poet Laureate, and was the highlight of the entire ceremony. And there could hardly be a more important keynote speech than this one, delivered on the steps of the Capitol building and setting the tone for the years to come. Biden did not disappoint. He avoided triumphalism, saying this was a victory not for a candidate but for the process of democracy. He called out racism and misogyny, mentioning Native Americans (who don’t often get a look-in) and heralding those women who marched for the vote; he flagged up climate change and the virus as the most serious challenges and called for a moment of silence for the victims of C19. But perhaps most importantly of all were two key features of his speech, the call for unity and the call for truth. It should not need saying but after the last four years it does: there is truth and there is untruth. There are truths and there are lies. I can’t think of a thing he said that I disagreed with, nor a single thing he left out that he should have included; the speech was bang-on. The full transcript is here.And video highlights of the event can be found here.
Biden has hit the ground running – as indeed he needed to – signing a slew of Executive Orderson rejoining the Paris Climate Accord and the WHO and on immigration, Covid and the environment. But there is much more to do and it causes me to wonder: could Biden under these circumstances be a better President than he would have been in other times? History will show; he may be too timid and his best instincts may yet be stymied by the Republicans in the Senate, but as the phrase has it, well-begun is half done and Biden has begun well.
Here’s the brilliant poem by Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman.
I’ve been learning some new words today, the first of which popped up in today’s Friday poem by Annie Freud (I can’t find a link to the poem but here’s the author) and the word is Mondegreen.OH will probably pop up in the comments and say I already knew this from a conversation years ago but if so I have forgotten it.As you probably already know, mondegreen defines a misheard song lyric which is better or at least funnier than the original: examples include ‘scuse me while I kiss this guy’, ‘just a bit of stockwater tea’ and ‘there’s a bathroom on the right’(from Purple Haze, Evita and Bad Moon Rising respectively.)
Trump has been learning some new words too. True, they don’t include the much-needed words ‘sorry’ or ‘concede’ but they are significant nonetheless. Late, inadequate, self-serving as it was, in his latest video he condemned the riots he himself incited without claiming responsibility for them, and acknowledged that there would be a peaceful transition without actually admitting defeat. Well, it’s not great but it’s something and hopefully now his supporters will stand down to allow that peaceful transition. Whatever his motives – and I imagine the threat to invoke article 25 and remove him from office will have concentrated his mind wonderfully – he has moved out of the way, at least for now. He seemed to signal that he would come back in 2024 but we’ll see. I think he’s dished himself but I may yet be proved wrong.
Another new word I’ve learnt today is apocalypse. Well I did already know this word of course but what I didn’t realise was that it doesn’t mean disaster so much as a massive upheaval, one which leads to a revelation. To put it in the words of Elizabeth Bishop:
The art of losing isn’t hard to master/though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
As beetleypete has so consistently pointed out, the blocks on WordPress are a bloody nightmare. It’s an answer to a problem nobody had, an idea which solves nothing but creates loads of barriers, particularly when it comes to editing. Every time you press return it creates a new block, a sort of uber-paragraph, which has to be formatted separately from everything else – and when it comes to poetry, as you can imagine, this is practically impossible. The poem ‘Spike’ below is not one document but consists of dozens of individual blocks, each of which has to be edited separately. There is no way, for example, to select the whole document and make it bold – which I do for those of my readers who struggle with the inexplicably faint font – nor, I’ve just discovered, can I select the whole poem for deletion. I was going to do this but now I shan’t bother – deleting ninety-one lines individually one by one is not my idea of fun.
I did Spike yesterday at a Quaker songs and poetry gathering, and it went over well. Singing carols on Zoom is a tricky business; you’d think everyone could just unmute themselves and sing along but apparently the echoes and feedback turn it into an infernal shrieking. Not what you want. So we all had to sing separately along to the music and clap silently. Incidentally, did you know that Quakers don’t generally applaud? I can’t remember why, I’ll have to look it up. We also don’t say ‘yes’ when asked if we agree with a minute in a meeting, but ‘Hope so’ – the idea being that… hang on, I’ll have to look that up as well. Quakers can come across as being quite obsessive, but there are a couple of fundamental practices that I’m totally on board with. The first is not swearing oaths or making promises. The idea behind this is that your word should be your bond, whereas if you make a promise you are setting up a double standard of truth and saying ‘I’m telling the truth now but I might not be on other occasions.’ I never thought about this before but it makes perfect sense. The other thing I agree with is not gambling because it’s unearned income. This is thought to be wrong – a prohibition which extends to charging interest or playing the stock exchange, not usually thought of as gambling, though that’s exactly what it is. Charging interest in particular leads to vast swathes of unearned income, as does locating your company somewhere you don’t have to pay tax. If you think about it, our whole system is based on charging interest and that’s a system which makes the rich richer and the poor, who have no choice but to pay higher interest on their debt – I know whereof I speak as my overdraft charges have nearly doubled – poorer.
So there we are. I’m going to leave it there as I’m trying not to think about the news, but I send a special thought to you if you’re going to be alone at Christmas, particularly if you had plans which you’ve had to cancel.
There’s an interesting analysis here of why Quakers don’t clap.
I had a better night last night (thanks for asking) and another vivid dream. This time I was on holiday somewhere with another woman, someone older than me who I didn’t know very well. We were on our way to the beach (at least I was) when I lost my car keys. She was much more anxious about this than I was and gave me a lift back to our holiday home to get the spare keys. I missed out on going to the beach twice but managed to get on with some very satisfying work in the meantime.
It doesn’t take a genius to work out that this is about lockdown. I didn’t get to go to the coast this year, though we had a couple of dates pencilled in; I’ve hardly used the car at all and I’ve done lots of really good work. In many ways lockdown has been like a holiday for me, though I do recognise it’s been awful for many people.
The novel, having been finished in draft form, is now gently simmering on the back burner while I get on with other stuff. Yesterday I sent off a poetry pamphlet to Mslexia and I’m getting another one together for future use. I expect I’ll get back to short stories but in the meantime I’m doing a lot of what I call ‘diary’ writing.
I don’t keep a diary in the usual sense as a record of events. It will not surprise readers of this blog to know that I can’t keep to one topic but go off in dozens of different directions, and that’s how it is with my diary. Though I do record some events in it (it’s my daily practice to write something at the end of each day) it’s more about how I’m feeling and what I’m thinking. But it’s also a place for ideas, snatches of poetry, dialogues (especially recording some of the whackier things OH comes out with) plans and anything else I haven’t yet thought of. I never go away without it and I always know where it is should I need to write something down in the middle of the night.
I’ve kept a diary like this since 1984. Sadly I don’t have the original notebooks as I found I was re-reading them too much and threw them out, but I do have stacks going back at least to the 90’s. I’m trying to keep them in some sort of order now and even though I rarely look back at them, they are a record of my life and thought. I can pull one out and read where I was at, say, ten years ago: what was I thinking? What were my preoccupations? Often they reveal anxieties that are now long-gone, things I’ve grown out of. It’s like looking at old photos. Who was I hanging out with in 1995? What were my hopes and fears? What was my daily routine? It’s good to have these diaries because you forget so much.
I’ve been thinking about the lines inNo Man is an Island, that we are all diminished by one person’s death. What exactly does it mean? That we are all mortal? Or that a little bit of us is chipped away when someone we love dies?
Therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.
It’s true; every time someone we love dies we feel a little bit of us is chipped away; a part of us cut out and thrown into the fire. It reminds us, too, of our own mortality – something most of us would rather forget, and yet we are never more alive than when we are aware that life is limited. If we had endless time, imagine what we could do – yet what would we do? I suspect we’d simply sit around like the Captain of the Golgafrincham ship in HitchHiker’s, order another G&T and put some more hot water in the bath. Mozart died at 24 and look how much work he did! We should act like there’s no tomorrow. Then again, as this Peanuts cartoon points out, that doesn’t work for everyone.
It was Lynne’s funeral yesterday. Because of lockdown we weren’t able to go; attenders were limited to 25 in the church and nobody was allowed to sing, so those of us on zoom had to belt out the hymns – which we did, though I’m not sure if anyone could hear us. It was a very moving service and surprisingly cathartic – for us at least. They also had one of my favourite poems: Wordsworth’s heartbreaking sonnet Surprised by Joy.
Everyone deals with grief in their own way and everyone has their own ideas of how to go about it. You mourn, then when you think you’re done mourning, you mourn some more – and then some more. But then we must live. If death teaches us one thing, it’s this:
I’m trying to think of something coherent to say about the death of two friends in the same week. Both were expected; both were a shock. Both will be missed; both leave a hole. It doesn’t matter how much I tell myself that death happens all the time, that some people lose their parents, their children, their entire families; that we are lucky to have lived so long and lost so few – none of that matters. Two people we loved have gone and they’re not coming back. I try to imagine how it would be if OH had died instead of them: I can’t. There’s really nothing coherent I can say. We’re not even among those most affected by their loss – and yet we are affected. We feel it.
I’ve been listening to this beautiful version of Barber’s Adagio this week, and reading this by John Donne, one of my all-time favourites:
Comedians by and large used to be terribly happy people. Tony Hancock excepted, they usually presented as cheery, cheeky chappies whose life was one long laugh. Ken Dodd even went so far as to sing about it; Happiness was one of his favourites. Of course underneath the smile there was often a life of depression, as Robin Williams sadly demonstrated. Nowadays comedians are generally more real, more cynical, even dystopian – and now I can’t remember where I was going with this, except to mention how exceptionally crabby I was yesterday. There’s only so much sleep deprivation a body can take and like Popeye I went around muttering that’s all I can stands, I cain’t stands no more! Sadly spinach did not do the trick so if anyone came near I’d growl at them – and were they rash enough to attempt conversation I’d snap: ‘Back off! I’m feeling really crabby!’ Thankfully crabbiness doesn’t last all day and by the afternoon with a sizable nap under my belt I was merely feeling exhausted. I’m happy to report that last night was better.
While we’re talking about happy songs, though I can’t stand the Ken Dodd one I do like this:
I didn’t get much work done yesterday as the brain simply refused to function so in the afternoon I turned instead to knitting. My latest project is a jumper in twiddly wool, by which I mean it has lots of colours woven into the thread and comes out a sort of variegated autumnal mix. I’m liking it very much, though you have to pay attention when you’re knitting otherwise the fibres tend to separate. I’ll post some pics when it’s done.
It has often occurred to me that wool and knitting are potent metaphors, both to use in poetry and as metaphors for the poetic process itself. I’ve written poems about the yarn-bombing (though we didn’t call it that then) at Greenham Common, and using knitting as a metaphor for life – and it’s like poetry in that you’re creating a pattern: poetry has lines, knitting has rows; they both have different stitches, they both add up.Besides, there’s something meditative about the process: in-round-through-and-off, in-round-through-and-off, knit one, purl one, drop one… and you can do it while watching TV.
Speaking of which, we tuned in for the first episode of the much-trailed Doctor Foster spin-off, Life, starring Alison Steadman. So far it looks highly intriguing.