Sunday, 30 April 2017

Northern Powerhouse? - Northern Poorhouse! Reality in the North

Remember that great Tory initiative, the Northern Powerhouse, blazed abroad by George Osborne? Want to understand why so many people up here voted for Brexit?  Just come and take a look.  My local town, Penrith, is a prime example.  It's a small market town of about 15,000 inhabitants with a long history. There are Viking graves in the churchyard and a very substantial sandstone castle opposite the railway station which was the Northern residence of the notorious Richard III.  Bonnie Prince Charlie stayed in the George Hotel in November 1745 while marching south to face the Duke of Cumberland's army at Clifton (3 miles away) for the battle that would end the Jacobite Rebellion. The small department store at right angles to the hotel, Arnison's, was owned by Wordsworth's mother's family and the Wordsworth children spent a lot of time there after they were orphaned.
Market Square with Arnisons (top facing) and George Hotel on the right.
The main sources of employment are tourism (we're 3 miles from the Lake District National Park), farming and service industries for the population.  There used to be a big bakery, but that closed. Building and transport have also been big employers in the past but house-building has been in the doldrums since house prices rose beyond the reach of local people and the transport industry has been badly hit by cuts. Even so there's almost full employment around here and staff have to be recruited from elsewhere for the hotels and restaurants in the summer (usually eastern Europe). Cumbrian ambulance services were also short of 27 paramedics which had to be recruited from Poland. Our health services are challenged by the geography (big distances and fells and lakes to be navigated). You can wait for at least an hour for an ambulance around here - and that's for an urgent call-out. GPs are also in short supply (my practice has only part time doctors and a long waiting time for appointments) and there's only one hospital with a fully functioning A&E and that has been (until a few weeks ago) in special measures.  Food banks are booming as the cost of accommodation eats up the low salaries of young families.  You get the picture.

Empty arcade - A vision of the future?
Before the financial crash there was a big 'Rural Regeneration' initiative, bolstered with European money.  Their idea of rural regeneration was to create more shops.  If this sounds absolutely bonkers, then it is!  We have a reasonably static population with limited funds - wages are low around here.  If you build shopping malls the same amount of spending money is going to be spread around these new outlets as well as the existing ones.  The plans were put on hold when the financial crash of 2008 happened, but then revived as a sure fire solution to 'Rural Recovery'.  Nothing anyone said in opposition did any good.  So rows of little shops were bulldozed down and their proprietors put out of business. A large car park also vanished.

We've got streets of empty shops
A big shiny new shopping mall was created - Penrith New Squares - as well as two new supermarkets.  We got a Booths (northern Waitrose) and a Sainsburys. Predictably two or our existing supermarkets went out of business as a result. One of them was a Coop department store which was very good value for money and could also cater for any household need you could think of.  You now have to go to a big city to get things like that. Only Aldis is thriving here.

They're all 'To Let'
That was 2011 - now, 6 years later the shopping mall still lies empty.  It has an eerie feel to it as you walk through. Who is going to rent these shops?  Certainly not the businesses that were bulldozed down - they can't afford to.  And there aren't the customers to justify anything else.  A couple of units have been occupied - Sports Direct has moved in, but seems to have a permanent sale.  And we have a Boots opticians that is usually empty. There are empty shops and offices in the old town centre too. I mourn the money that has been spent, the small historic streets that were demolished,  and the political ideology (which makes no economic sense) that shopping is somehow the answer to our contemporary ills. You can only spend your way out of a recession on huge amounts of borrowed money and look where that got us in 2008.
Angel Lane is still standing, but others were demolished to make way for New Squares.
The north is not thriving - it's hanging on by its fingernails with low-paid, seasonal jobs and zero hours contracts. There's an increasing elderly population as people from the south sell their expensive real-estate and retire to cheaper houses in the north.  Some areas are already referred to as 'God's Waiting Room'.  The Brexit vote was intended by many (though not all) as a slap in the face to the government's increasingly south-facing policies (summed up by a recent cartoon 'Weather Warning: Snowfall affecting the unimportant 70% of the country may hit London') .  In an area with a sitting Tory MP who has a huge, unassailable majority, there's little anyone can do to protest at the ballot box and that is democratically dangerous. What's the solution?  I really don't know.  Certainly some form of proportional representation (as in Scotland) and more autonomy for the North.  Anyone got any good ideas that don't involve shopping?

Monday, 24 April 2017

Tuesday Poem: - Mapping Emily (and Wuthering Heights)

“I have to remind myself to breathe – almost to remind my heart to beat! . . . I wish I were a girl again, half-savage and hardy, and free.” 
Emily Bronte - Wuthering Heights

My lungs refuse to breathe.
I struggle; visualise the bronchi
as the diagram of an estuary, or a tree
branching out towards the open sky,
veined by the dark shadows of vessels
carrying the bright oxygen of the blood.
The intake and output of necessity.

This is my heart, thudding like the wing-beats
of the red grouse that startled
from the bracken. The pulse of it against
the bone – a metronome beating time.

My eyes are on the horizon, confused
by sky, the complications of path and rock,
pillows of gaudy sphagnum, the microscopic
yellow suns of Tormentil, bracken unravelling
like knitting, the burnt skeletons of heather and
the ruined steadings burying themselves
under turf and nettle. This is truth.

This hand, knocking on the window;
the angular knuckles, fingers that can tear
meat and sinew from the bone, no gentleness,
but a strong grip on the pen, dipping its sharp nib
into the well, inking hard words in a small space,
needling the pages into a book, giving an identity
to this passion coffined in five feet six
by sixteen inches wide.

© Kathleen Jones 2017

From Mapping Emily, published by Templar Poetry, 2017

Emily Bronte painted by Branwell Bronte

I wrote  several of the poems for 'Mapping Emily' at Ponden Hall - the original house that Emily Bronte used for Wuthering Heights and Anne Bronte for Wildfell Hall.  The two younger Bronte sisters spent a lot of time at Ponden, partly because it had a good library, but also because Branwell was friends with the son of the owners.  Ponden Hall is where the Bronte sisters took refuge after the Crow Hill Bog Burst, an explosive landslide on the moor that terrified everyone in the vicinity.
Charlotte's Stone

The waterfall they often walked to.
 Ponden is on the edge of the moors, a wild enough location not far from Haworth, and it's easy to walk the paths the Bronte sisters took to the waterfall, and to Top Withens, which is identified so often as Wuthering Heights the Bronte Society have erected a plaque categorically denying it.  Ponden was named as Emily's inspiration by both Charlotte Bronte and her father.  A (now withered) pear tree in the garden was apparently planted by a member of the Heaton family, its owners, to please Emily, who declined his advances.

Ponden Hall as it was, and is now. 

Many of the original features remain.  Upstairs there's a box bed you can shut yourself into, with the small window that Cathy tapped on when she returned to haunt Heathcliff.

Staying there is a wonderful experience.  I was lucky that Sally Wainwright's 'Walking Invisible' was being filmed while I was there and I was able to walk round the set they had built up on the moors, representing the Parsonage, the graveyard and the centre of Hawarth as it used to be in the Bronte's time.

Rambling the paths that Emily walked daily was magical.  I suffer from asthma and walking uphill is sometimes a struggle for my damaged lungs; but it also gave me an insight into the challenge that Emily faced, walking the moors with advanced turberculosis.

Emily was fearless, writing poems of passion and fury such as 'No Coward Soul is Mine', and a novel that transgressed the Victorian moral code with incest, illegitimacy and extra marital love at its core.  She was the most physical of the Bronte girls, kneading bread, chopping meat and bones, beating her dog with her bare fists until they bled.  Yet those hands wrote some of the 'tiny books' you can see at Haworth parsonage museum, with minute print and delicate stitches to sew the small pages together.  She was the tallest of the Brontes, but almost unbearably thin - her coffin was only sixteen inches wide.

I'm launching 'Mapping Emily' at Keats' House in north London at a reading with Irish poet Olive Broderick, on Tuesday 25th April, at 7 pm.  The event is free and there is wine!

You can buy the book from the publisher, Templar Poetry, on this link and eventually on Amazon.

The Concept of Leadership - and the mess it's got us into

Another round of elections, none of which seem to make life any better, and I can hear that word being bandied around on every TV or radio channel and it leaps out at me from every newspaper article on the stand.  Leadership.  That's what it's all about isn't it?  That's the most essential quality to look for in the top job. The reason we should be going for anyone except Jeremy Corbyn. Right?
Corbyn - an honest man?
It seems it's not enough to have integrity and a set of rational, humane and economically sound policies.  You also have to have this elusive quality that gets you on TV and across the front pages of newspapers and has everyone trooping after you like the Pied Piper, no matter how daft or draconian your politics. Why are we so sure that the attributes of ruthlessness, cunning, speciousness, and ability to dominate others that we require of a leader are desirable qualities? I can't help but think that 'Leadership' is the last thing I'm looking for at the moment.  I just want someone intelligent and capable, with some kind of vision for a better future for my kids. Someone I can trust not to blow up the planet, who might just try to make sure there's still a planet there with a tolerable environment for my grandkids to grow up in.

A supreme leader
When you begin to think about it, leadership isn't exactly something to be admired.  Mrs Thatcher had it in spades.  Presumably Donald Trump has it, since so many people were conned into voting for him.  Tony Blair had it, and he followed Leader George Bush into one of the most damaging wars of the 20th century. Hitler had it;  Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi, Stalin, Lenin, Pol Pot - almost certainly Attila the Hun.  So now you can see why I'm not sure it's a desirable quality. Look where it gets us.

Not a poster boy, but a very effective prime minister
Before the age of TV and mass media a glamorous image and a corporate reputation weren't so necessary in a politician.  One of our most effective prime ministers was Clement Atlee, who won a huge Labour majority just after the second world war.  He laid the foundations for rebuilding the shattered UK economy and established the National Health Service.  Atlee was not a natural public figure - a shy, clever man who, as Deputy PM in Churchill's administration, had been the one who handled the detail behind the scenes, with a tremendous depth of knowledge.  But a poster boy he certainly was not. Yet he has had a great influence for good in shaping our lives throughout the second half of the 20th century.  Michael Foot, another intellectual with no public image, didn't fare as well, nicknamed 'Worzel Gummidge' in the press.  He led Labour into an election they lost spectacularly and was quickly replaced. He is sometimes referred to as 'the best prime minister we never had'.
Gordon Brown being humiliated by the Daily Mail
Gordon Brown was vilified by the media for his lack of leadership skills and polished image.  Yet his record as a Prime Minister will bear scrutiny for a long time into the future and his integrity and honesty were impeccable.  The Tories have also had their PR problems.  They ditched Alec Douglas Home, not because he wasn't clever enough to do the job, but because he looked like Skeletor on television.

Another question that bothers me - we're supposed to be a democracy, not an autocracy or dictatorship -  rule is by cabinet committee.  So why do we need a Supreme Ego to lead us?  Why? I'm beginning to think  that until we deal with this, we're doomed to keep on electing the politicians we deserve - leaders like Donald Trump.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Tuesday Poem: - Remember to be Kind

You have no idea,
absolutely no idea.

Sixteen, all imagination and deceit;
you can play anyone
except yourself.

It won’t go well; there will be times
you’ll wish yourself dead, somewhere else, anywhere
but the place you’re in.

Wanting to belong you’ll plant yourself
in foreign soil, sending your roots down deep

only to tear yourself up, bleeding, time after time, moving
your tent like a nomad across the world.

(Remember to read the instructions, the small print,
never hope for the best. )

Refuse to be seduced by roses, fast cars,
their owners, sentimental music, sunsets.

(Love, like belonging, is an uncertain partnership).

Claim your own space, never be afraid
to step out into unknown territory, armed only
with words.  They will serve you well.

Love fearlessly, give everything,
and never, never regret the consequences.

Listen for your own inner music:
it has something important to tell you.

Laugh, dance, drink wine and always
remember to be kind.

© Kathleen Jones 2017

I've been dipping in and out of NaPoWriMo.  I find it impossible to write a poem a day - sometimes it's a prompt I don't like, often just too busy/tired, but I'm trying to write something every day, even if it's only a few jottings.  The prompt 2 days ago was to write a letter.  I've also been asked to write a 'letter to my younger self' for the Royal Literary Fund website, so it's been in my thoughts for a while without me doing anything about it.  So I sat on a train and did a freewrite, starting with the first words that came into my head when confronted by my sixteen year old self,  'you have no idea' - and this is the result.  Still needs knocking about a bit, but I'm daring to share. 

On the left is a picture of me at 16 - all romance and no sense!!

Saturday, 15 April 2017

Leading a Double Life and the Carpenter of Lampedusa

Writers are supposed to be good at leading double lives.  'We write to taste life twice,' wrote Anais Nin. 'In the moment and in retrospection.'   But I not only have a writing life, I have an English life and an Italian life.  I'm always amazed at how easily I slip into my Italian skin.  There's a slowing down, a tendency to linger over sensual moments - food, wine, the sun slipping into the Mediterranean, conversations with friends, sliding your fingers through a rack of silk lingerie (ridiculously cheap) in a street market, shop window displays that are colourful works of art, a stucco building just catching the pink and amber rays of the setting sun.. . .  perhaps I'd better not go on.

I'm a small part Italian, on my mother's side, so perhaps the susceptibility is in my genes.  The Italians are a more sensual people than we hardened northerners. And then, Italian life is so attractive, centred as it is around the table with family and/or friends.  So much of life here is sitting in the piazza with a coffee or a glass of wine (depending on how broke you are) chatting to people.  Then there's the alluring workman's lunches, the 'pranzo di lavoro', with home cooking to die for and the local wine thrown in.
'Pranzo' with friends on our terrace
Because my partner works in a community where almost everyone is an artist or a technician, or makes their living in some way from sculptors and painters, there's always a gallery opening with free prosecco and nibbles and much hugging and kissing, and often live music as well.  There are pop-up exhibitions, and impromptu affairs in people's back gardens.  Life is more sociable than you can ever imagine.
Neil at work
But under all this conviviality beats the dark heart of Italy - a precarious banking system, a political and economic system as corrupt and crony-ridden as any in the 3rd world, a massive unemployment issue among young people, taxation at 50% of everything, an increasingly unstable climate, and a refugee problem that dwarfs any other European country.

Most of them are from northern Africa.  The ones who have made it this far north, make their living from selling trinkets to tourists, or parking cars in the chaotic car parks in town.  Very rarely do you see anyone begging.  But they do hassle you and many people give them money to go away.
My favourite street trader, Mortela, who never hassles!
Further south, in the poorer 'Mezzogiorno' (roughly translated 'afternoon') of the country, the problem is much worse. Hundreds, sometimes thousands of refugees are rescued from sinking boats every week. Hundreds more die.  Anyone who has read about the optician of Lampedusa and his courageous actions, while out for a quiet afternoon sail, will have been moved by the decision he had to make. 'How do I save them all?' the optician asked, faced with hundreds of drowning migrants he knew could not be hauled aboard his little boat that would hold only 10.  That he saved so many, at risk of sinking his own craft, is a tribute to human courage.  But he is still haunted by the others he couldn't help. 'We were terribly traumatised afterwards,' he said, and his wife had to be hospitalised. Since then he has worked to help the refugees, whatever the personal cost.

Italy is more charitable than many other countries - but one does wonder when that will begin to crack under the pressure of numbers in a region that is already one of the poorest in Europe.

In the small museum in Pisa, among the precious medieval icons, there is a single rough cross on a pole.  This was made out of two planks from wrecked boats by Francesco Tuccio, the Carpenter of Lampedusa, who has made memorials for each of those who died in the crossing.  Its simplicity brings you up short among all that gilded inconography.  The values of Christianity and Islam - the two religions that straddle the Mediterranean, are charitable and compassionate.  They have been undermined by fear and overtaken by the brutal, uncaring values of property, wealth, and the pursuit of power through oppression and dispossession.  While the Un-United Kingdom inspects its own entrails with a magnifying glass and shuts the door on a few hundred orphaned children, Italy's generous people are opening weary arms to embrace desperate people every day of the week.  That's only one of the reasons why I love this country.

One of our spectacular sunsets over the Mediterranean
How much longer, given the UK government's chosen Brexit path, will I be able to live a double life? Probably not much longer, which is unbelievably sad.  My partner is already packing up, affected by the new and horrible exchange rate, anticipating the withdrawal of health care and visa problems that are in the pipeline.   He hasn't booked the flight home yet though, so there's still hope! 

Monday, 10 April 2017

Tuesday Poem: Revolution - Tatlin's Flight


It is machine, eviscerated, just
a grace of polished ash and canvas

the elegant equivalence of flight

I stand under its shadow
watching the cage of  ribs
rotating dark and light

on a white screen; a metaphor
for all our airborne dreamings.

Long spokes - the aluminium pin feathers
of its wings - scissor across
the backdrop simulating naked aviation

the fish-shaped tail tilts up, nose down,
a structure arrested
in beautiful fall, what is left

of himself and the revolutionary music
trapped - a gigantic insect - revolving
in the moment of its execution.

© Kathleen Jones 2017

Photo Hettie Judah, Instagram.

It's NaPoWriMo - and I can't write a poem a day.  Maybe a poem a week.  This poem (still in progress) came out of a visit to the Revolution exhibition at the Royal Academy.  Tatlin's Glider, 'Letatlin', suspended under the dome and lit so that images are projected onto the canvas backdrop as it rotates, was one of the most interesting things I saw.  I could have sat for hours watching the images changing, in a silent simulation of flight.

Vladimir Tatlin was a Russian artist and architect and is usually mentioned alongside Malevich as one of the most influential artists of the revolutionary period, though the two had violent disagreements.  Tatlin became a 'constructionist'.  He was fascinated by the flight of birds and constructed many 'gliders' in an effort to facilitate human flight.  He called them 'Letatlin' - a play on words.  'Letat' is the Russian word for flight and he combined it with his own name.

There were many other wonderful things at the exhibition - film footage by Eisenstein, a lot of paintings and sculptures by Malevich, Kandinsky, and other major painters of that period. There is some wonderful photography, and propaganda, as well as ceramics and textiles, showing the struggle that artists had to conform to the political agenda and still make a living. There are portraits of Anna Akhmatova and her lover, the artist Nikolai Punin, who was sent to the Gulags by Stalin and died there. One of the most moving parts of the exhibition was the Memory Room where you can sit and look at a screen projecting images of some of those unfortunate people Stalin sent to the camps. Civil servants, teachers, doctors, workers, writers, artists, students. Some of them survived, but many of them were shot or died of ill-treatment.  It's not often that an exhibition is able to give you a glimpse of a whole culture, but this one does.  It's a chilling taste of what it is like to live as a creative being under authoritarianism.  Let's just pray that it never comes back. 

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Tuesday Poem: Thirteen Shades of Black

There is the black of a young raven
which is blue;

and the event horizon at the centre of a galaxy
beyond which is an absence of light;

the fluttering fabric of a hijab in the courtyard
of the women’s mosque, a dark sail
‘veiling human-kind from God’.

The bones of a tree, inked
on a winter horizon.

A Jaguar; all burning eyes, white teeth and darkness
in the Amazon rain forest.

The dress my mother treasured
Chanel style; the one every woman
should have.

The dark sink-hole at the centre of an eye
you disappear into
upside down.

The purple-black of a bruise
after the failure of love.

The mildewed winter coat my grandfather kept
for funerals and weddings
green at the cuffs and pockets.

Malevich in Lenin’s Russia, painting his revolutionary square;
a black symbol of the new art.

The bloated corpse floating in the loch;
the faceless killer, child abductor.  This is NOIR.
You are too afraid to sleep but
can’t stop watching.

The almost seen, out-of-the-corner-of-the-eye
dart and flutter of a bat – a flitter-mouse
of fur and leather, writing its character on the dusk.

New school shoes; their black Cherry Blossom shine.

Blacking out. An absence of consciousness,
the spinning vortex of the fall.  Which is gravity.
Which is black.

© Kathleen Jones 2017

How many of you have been doing NaPoWriMo?   National Poetry Month - that good intention to write a poem a day for a month?   I definitely can't keep up - my life has been so busy I haven't even managed to blog for a couple of weeks now.  But I am trying to at least think around a subject every day.  I found Jo Bell's 'A Month of Poetry Prompts', which she created for the 52 project, very useful and I've been having a go at some of them.  

Yesterday was a command to write a new take on 13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird by Wallace Stevens and the response by RS Thomas, Thirteen Blackbirds Look at a Man.   So this is my version of thirteen ways to look at something - written appropriately in the middle of the night.   Some bits are contentious:  does gravity have a colour?  But if gravity is associated with dark matter then, yes, it's probably going to be black. Unconsciousness certainly is.  And there will be some who question my inclusion of no. III. on the grounds of cultural sensitivity.  But one of my most potent memories is sitting in the women's mosque in Shiraz and watching a billowing hijab against the light - the quote in the third line is taken from a Muslim text explaining why it might be necessary to wear one - the idea of covering one's head in the presence of God is also common in Judaism and Christianity.  As children we had to wear a dark head covering to enter a Catholic church.  In Spain and Italy women still do.

Someone is bound to point out that it should be 50 Shades of Black, but then I'd have been up all night!!

Jo Bell is also posting a poem a day this month, with commentary, on her blog - and very good they have been.  This is the link.