It came into my head the other day that whenever I moaned or wept on Julia’s shoulder about how unconfident and dissatisfied I felt about my writing, she’d say ‘Good. That means you think you can do better!’
She always managed to find a way to turn a negative into a positive. Her memory and voice is still strong in my mind and in everyone who knew her. It’s coming up to the announcement of this year’s Julia Darling Travel Fellowship award winner - June 4th at Ouseburn Farm in Newcastle 4.30 - 6.30. Tickets include a cream tea and a glass of fizz - very Julia.
Last year’s winner, Michelle Green will be talking about her award, that took her to Hayling Island. I’d never heard of this tiny place, off the south coast, until friends moved there, and they were as surprised as anyone that a writer should want to visit and write about it. I went there myself in April, before a trip to the Isle of Wight (another of Julia’s old stamping grounds). Hayling’s a bit like Stepford Wives country, apparently stuck in the 1950’s, but some of the seaside amusement parks have died, leaving it like a piece of flotsam after the tide’s gone out, rather sad and dilapidated in places. But it’s on the rise; with London house prices so prohibitive, people are buying in Hayling and commuting. Who wouldn’t want to live surrounded by huge skies and wide seascapes filled with an ever-changing vista of tankers, liners, yachts and ferries and a hazy Isle of Wight on the horizon? I’m sure I’d swim every day if I had the sea literally on my doorstep. But, like the Isle of Wight, it feels a little like Deep England, which is, to quote the Guardian Pass Notes:
“The Good Old Days, the home of decency and sportsmanship. The home of well-kept lawns. The home of leaving your front door unlocked. The home of Kiplings, both Rudyard and Mr…Deep England is a term coined by academic Patrick Wright, but the notion is being resurrected in the hearts of the villages and market towns that voted to leave the EU.”
The thing is, it’s possible to live a sort of head-in-the-past type of lifestyle down there. The world looks unchanged, and feels far away from the problems of deindustrialisation and a shifting cultural demographic.
So I think - If parliament has to quit the Palace of Westminster for a few years while it undergoes a refurbishment, let the MPs come and base themselves up here in Newcastle or Hull or Leeds. Let them see a different sort of Deep England at close hand.
Julia may have lived in Winchester and holidayed on the Isle of Wight, but she never lost the desire, or let an opportunity go by, to be subversive. And I quote from one of her early poems ‘Janet’ in Modern Goddess:
the tourists have complained about me and you
the music, our faces, cracked hard with make up
pop up at the windows when they take their photos
we are the mosquitoes who buzz round the cattle
the lazy fat tourists, the boys in their gowns
So I urge anyone to buy a ticket and come down to the Ouseburn Farm on Sunday 4th June and celebrate writing, travel, Julia and subversion, before the 8th when who knows what will happen.
I’m reading online articles and newspapers, morbidly avid for information to get a grip, some clear understanding, on the turbulent times we live in - Brexit, Trump in America, the rise of the Nationalist Right in Europe. There’s a lot of anecdote and ironic joking mixed in with polemic out there, and some serious thoughtful stuff too. I don’t know quite what to think anymore.
Writing is some sort of answer, like a conversation with oneself, and so is reading. I read Ali Smith’s Autumn, described as the ‘first post-Brexit novel’ which is a fascinating attempt to anatomise and explore the ‘nation’s psychology’ I suppose:
“All across the country, there was misery and rejoicing. All across the country, what had happened whipped about by itself as if a live electric wire had snapped off a pylon in a storm and was whipping about in the air above the trees, the roofs, the traffic. All across the country, people felt it was the wrong thing. All across the country, people felt it was the right thing. All across the country, people felt they’d really lost. All across the country, people felt they’d really won.”
I’m also reading Writing Motherhood, a creative anthology, edited by Carolyn Jess-Cook. I have a poem in it among many other wonderful women poets, but it also has essays and interviews. It is a real attempt to get under the skin of what it means to be a mother and a writer. I wish I’d read it when I was a young mother, struggling with my own doubts about writing alongside the difficulties - the cast-adrift sensation of being in a lonely boat of two - me and the baby.
This important book says the ‘unsayable’, reveals the deep-seated contradictions of wanting to be a mother and then being appalled at the reality. It also gives hope and strategies to live through those life-changing first years.
By the time I was pregnant with my second child, I was having my work published in the Poetry Virgins’ anthology Modern Goddess, and I was au fait enough with babies to scribble beginnings of poems while peacefully breastfeeding (which was the only time my second child stopped crying). I was forty-one: a late starter, a slow reader, always trying to catch up with the rest of the class.
I particularly liked the article from Zoë Brigley who asks and I quote:
‘Does creativity have to be incompatible with domestic life?”
She argues that being a mother doesn’t have to mean being conventional or boring, and:
“The tortured male genius with the sensational life is a dead end as a productive route to creative success.’
Julia Darling always said she wrote as a way out of the slough of motherhood, a creative response. Finding myself a single mother, I didn’t have the luxury of being a ‘tortured genius’ - angry and tortured though I was. In the end I found writing was the only response, the only life-affirming, positive answer to circumstances that were crushing me. It’s the old cliché - you just keep on keeping on.
I read my first review of Ren and the Blue Hands today - it can be found at:https://readingbeingread.wordpress.com/2017/02/06/ren-and-the-blue-hands/
It's a link to an event I'm doing with Sheila Wakefield and Red Squirrel Press at the Central Library on Saturday 18th February 11 - 4pm, called Reading and Being Read, and I quote:
'The last few years has seen an explosion of new small presses and independent publishers around the country, publishing new and exciting fiction and poetry. If you are a keen reader and want to know more about the difference being a small press makes to how they work and what they publish, come along to hear from two local independent presses, Myrmidon Books and Red Squirrel Press, and two of their writers..'
Also, I'm running a Creative Saturday workshop for Newcastle University Saturday 11th Feb, called Finding Your Character's Voice. I think there are still places left if anyone's interested. Contact Melanie Email: email@example.com
Phone: 0191 20 87619
Hope to see some friendly faces at one or the other.
doesn’t mean giving lots of expensive presents - it means generous with yourself.
You don’t always get a chance to say the things you want or think you should say to someone. With Julia, I managed to say both - I apologised for all the times I must have whinged and annoyed her! and I got to say goodbye. That was because Julia was so generous and gave space for people to approach her, she opened up herself and acknowledged she was dying, so we could share in it.
In a New Yorker article Patti Smith wrote
“When my husband, Fred, died, my father told me that time does not heal all wounds but gives us the tools to endure them.”
She found this to be true - and the tools are ourselves. The pain is a well inside that gets topped up with every new loss and sadness - we draw on it for empathy and learn to understand others’ suffering. When you’ve had pain, you try not to judge other people’s behaviour so harshly, to make assumptions about their actions and motives. If you open yourself up, then you give others the space to drop their defences and admit their worries or anger, and that leads the way to forgiveness - both self-forgiving and forgiving of others - and allows a change of behaviour.
Christmas is an especially difficult time when we’ve lost someone or have family difficulties; the spotlight is on ‘happy families’ full strength, throwing into relief all that might be wrong with our own.
Our little blended family, with its missing loved ones, and its complicated relationships, is full generous tolerance, we make it work. Modern life fractures us and love is the plaster cast that knits us back together. My grandson loves his new brother and says he has ‘two daddies’. And I adore my new grandson, who has three Nanas. I feel lucky.
Even if we stumble, like Patti Smith, it serves to show our human frailty, and if we acknowledge that, it makes us stronger, not weaker. This sounds like a sermon, I don’t mean to preach. But like the lyrics of A Hard Rain’s A’Gonna Fall - What’ll you do now, my blue-eyed son?
I'll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it