There are very few writers, even those with published work on the shelf, who can say that they earn a living wage solely from that writing. A few articles, the novel-in-progress or in my case the fund-raising anthology don’t pay the mortgage. Very few websites or books advising would-be authors suggest you throw up employment before you see how far your work will take you. I was made redundant almost two years ago now, and if it hadn’t been for a husband on an average to good salary and a couple of freelance administration jobs I couldn’t even have afforded the proverbial garret to starve in.
A poem I love, but which I find a little troubling at the same time (possibly because I don’t understand it well enough, or am not a middle-aged slightly alcohol dependent man) is Aubadeby Philip Larkin and most particularly the last lines:
The sky is white as clay, with no sun. Work has to be done. Postmen like doctors go from house to house.
I am not a one for ‘meme’s as a rule. Not because I don’t like them – lists have always fascinated me. As a child there was a ‘Book of Lists’ that came out to a great fanfare (these things still having some sort of novelty in the ’70s and 80s) and I was glued to the brick sized volume of endlessly useless and often inaccurate facts. However I have that gnawing feeling as I start to compile my own list of favourite albums, children’s books, green vegetables etc etc that I am going to be a lot less interesting than everyone else. So there are just two on my blog.
But this morning I read on the fabulous Diary of a Desperate Exmoor Woman (writer Jane Alexander’s blog) her response to another blogger’s meme, ‘7 things you never knew about me’. It was written a year ago, and I know lots of others have taken this meme on since but Jane had come up with some really original ideas (helped by having interviewed David Byrne and Phil Collins). Having promised in my last post to take opportunities, get writing and risk failure, I have decided to use this as a prompt to get tapping away and expose myself to the derision of my peers (see no. 2).
Having felt a little in need of cheering up recently and browsing the wonderful Spotify I quite randomly came across The Best of Jake Thackray. His biography describes him as a ‘singer-songwriter in the French tradition’ firmly rooted in the English countryside. But that seems too mild a description for a poet who sang songs that are funny, sad, rude, irreverent and satirical. He poked fun at all that was self-righteous, self-important and hypocritical. The French influence is definitely there and his lugubrious expression has more than a suggestion of pavement cafes and Gauloises about it.
This time last year I wrote a post wishing all those good enough to give No more wriggling out of writing their time a very merry Christmas, celebrating the fact that I had been blogging for a whole five months. As I am away over new year now I had a little review of 2011 and twelve months further on I am, remarkably, still at it and my blog has come a long way. Lots more people pay a visit and the list of topics I cover has widened. It has been a good year and a huge ‘thank you’ to you all for your comments and interest.
I have a GoogleAlert which regularly sends me links to items that relate (even obliquely it seems) to John Keats and yesterday it included a link, not only to my recent post Blog infidelity, but to the following video that has been put up on YouTube by EzraWelser. It is Steven Brown reading ‘You say you love’, a poem that has proved hard for experts to date, but which is generally thought to be an early attempt by Keats to write love poetry. It wasn’t published until well after his death.
Tempting though it is to relate everything Keats wrote to an incident in his intense relationship with Fanny Brawne, this is thought to have been written well before he met her. It was probably addressed to Isabella Jones, an older woman Keats was involved with in 1817, at least a year before he met Fanny. Indeed it seems most concerned to describe the physical demonstration of love and perhaps suggests a youthful, slightly petulant response to a lack of commitment from a beloved.
Watching the video below, however, I discovered a new, fresh intensity in the poem which for me was created by the tone of voice in the reader (I don’t actually know who Steven Brown is I am afraid), the background music and the seemingly random images that accompany the poem. It gives the words a very contemporary feel.
The Thames is a river that takes me on imaginative journeys, some of them reflecting my real life and others a dream world that I have inhabited regularly since I left London in the late 1980s. From the Oxfordshire countryside around Abingdon where I used to sit dreaming, gazing upstream through the gently waving branches of willow, down to the murky Dickensian bankside I explored during my brief attempt at nursing in Whitechapel I have always felt the presence of its personality. A great river in a wonderful capital city, it threads its way through the history of rural England, London and out to the seas my wonderful naval ancestor Dominick Addison protected in the early 1800s. There are more than 200 bridges up and down the length of the Thames, but those that span the width of the river in central London have offered their own special perspective on the city. Scenes of love, tragedy and contemplation are crossed every day by thousands of commuters without a thought to the history that flows around them. It isn’t always a beautiful stretch of water, but it is always atmospheric and it has inspired writers, artists and musicians for generations
One of the paintings of London I admire most is Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Old Battersea Bridge by James Abbott McNeill Whistler, completed around 1875. For me, it captures the atmosphere of the river and of London in a unique way. No busy wharves or warehouses, the water not packed with boats. It is a quiet painting dominated by Battersea Bridge, with Chelsea Old Church and the lights of the Albert Bridge in the background. Whistler wrote ‘when the evening mist clothes the riverside with poetry…tall chimneys become campanili [bell towers] and the warehouses are palaces in the night and the whole city hangs in the heavens and fairy land is before us’.
As you travel from London by train as evening draws on, the reflected light from surrounding buildings and street lamps does indeed seem to ‘hang’ over the water, creating a romantic view of the city that for many on those trains out to the suburbs is the scene of daily drudgery.
However, as the night wears on and the light changes in the early hours the river inspires in a different way. William Wordsworth captures that sense in his sonnet ‘Composed upon Westminster Bridge’ written in 1802. It is a surprising description of the city from a poet most closely associated with the joys of natural beauty:
Earth has not anything to show more fair: Dull would he be of soul who could pass by A sight so touching in its majesty: This City now doth like a garment wear The beauty of the morning; silent, bare, Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie Open unto the fields, and to the sky; All bright and glittering in the smokeless air. Never did sun more beautifully steep In his first splendour valley, rock, or hill; Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep! The river glideth at his own sweet will: Dear God! the very houses seem asleep; And all that mighty heart is lying still!
Wordsworth wrote this poem recalling his view of the river as he crossed the bridge with his sister Dorothy early one morning at the start of a journey to Calais. The scene surprised him, and his response surprises us perhaps until we realise that it is nature that is offering this rare view of the smoky city. The city is asleep, its heart – and all the pumping, lively noise that it creates -is still. There is little doubt that later in the day the poet would not have crossed Westminster Bridge with the same sense of calm, but at this moment the city is personified as something of a benign spirit, not entirely at one with the natural world but not in conflict with it.
Charles Dickens was of course regularly writing about the river and the wharves around the best known of the London bridges. In Oliver Twist Nancy meets Mr Brownlow on the steps of London Bridge, a place frequented by David Copperfield and Dickens himself, who regularly stopped to watch the characters of London pass him by. Southwark Bridge features in Little Dorrit and Vauxhall Bridge in Our Mutual Friend
In Pickwick Papers Sam Weller suggests he may have spent some time living underneath Waterloo Bridge, widely believed to offer the best view of London from the ground. Charles Dickens Jnr in his Dictionary of London 1879 describes it as:
…..the earliest of John Rennie’s three, and beyond measure the cheapest, is also commonly considered the finest. As to this there may perhaps be a question, some critics preferring London Bridge, or even Southwark, as grander if less ornate. The perfect level, too, of the roadway in the case of Waterloo, whilst the first of all merits from a practical point of view, somewhat narrows its artistic opportunities; whilst the uniformity of the arches is considered by some to give it too much the air of “a length out of a via-duct.”
The poet Wendy Cope wrote After the Lunch about finding love on Waterloo Bridge which includes the lovely lines On Waterloo Bridge, where we said our goodbyes/The weather conditions brought tears to my eyes./I wipe them away with a black woolly glove,/And try not to notice I’ve fallen in love. But Waterloo for me is most reminiscent of a song that has been one of my ‘Desert Island Discs’ ever since I first heard it in my teens in the early 1980s. Released years before, in 1967, Waterloo Sunset by The Kinks is one of their most popular songs. The story of Terry and Julie, and the romance as they ‘pass over the river’ has inspired other music, stories and additional work by Ray Davies, The Kinks frontman who wrote and produced it.
This is three minutes that for me sum up the reason why I love London. I was born there, lived there for 25 years, spent three years studying in Holborn and had many happy evenings in central London with my boyfriend (now my husband) when he lived and worked at Guy’s Hospital. For me it was passing over London Bridge that then made me feel ‘safe and sound’ and still today, as the train crosses a bridge and clatters into whichever mainline station I am arriving at it still feels like coming home.
You’re dreaming. Someone has asked you, a complete novice, to sing at a festival in front of thousands of people. Live, with a band. What song would you choose to sing in public? (given the necessary vocal talent of course). Would it be one you hear over and over again from your kids room, or a Take That standard that will get everyone singing along? Would you like it to be a song that speaks of who you are as a person, or who you would like to be – a protest song perhaps?
I had this dream. Anyone who knows me would say that me singing in public is my- and indeed everyone else’s – idea of a nightmare rather than a dream come true. But when it came to going on stage I made a pretty good job of singing this…
It is a song I have always loved (and annoyed my children with over the years as ‘mummy’s miserable music’) and I do indeed sing along to it in the car so I expect there was nothing too significant about my choice.
But thinking about it, I reckon this has got to be one of the most seductive songs ever written. I am a huge fan of Portishead and Beth Gibbons’ voice is sexy as hell anyway, but she really surpasses herself on this track.
What do you reckon? What might you have sung? What do you sing when no-one else is listening (after all we can’t all get the chance to sing at Glastonbury…)
Its daft I know, but I felt the need to share it on my blog because in a funny kind of way I feel proud of myself for getting up there on stage and giving this fabulous song a go.
Blue Grass? Isn’t that a flowery perfume grannies used to wear?
Well if you are a music buff no, obviously not. Bluegrass music is a little bit of country, a smattering of folk, a hint of jazz and blues with some gospel soul thrown in. It’s usually played on acoustic stringed instruments – mandolin, banjo, bass, fiddle and guitar – and has inspired the likes of Alison Krauss and Counting Crows to record whole albums of the classics and play at the many bluegrass festivals across America. Most recently it hit the mainstream in the Coen Brother’s film,O Brother Where Art Thou? starring George Clooney. In it he and his prison mates play in a bluegrass music band called the Soggy Bottom Boys. I’ve not seen it, but I know a fair few George Clooney fans who swear it is one of his best films. Ten years on it is still doing its bit to bring bluegrass music to the masses.