Writing in your swimsuit

As an ex-fashion student, I’m already convinced that the clothes we wear have an impact on how we feel. It’s an interesting dilemma these days when I write mostly from home and don’t need to make any attempt to impress. Hmmm. I don’t think so. Comfort is the king here.

Cor… look at those elasticated leggings and cosy slippers.

And yet, and yet… the last thing I want in my writing is comfort.

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Being involved in the Bespoken Project with ace tailor, Nathalie Limon led me to write more about clothes and fashion recently. And it’s been fun. And exciting to see how much clothes can tell, how many memories are connected with clothes, and just how much emotional resonance they have. Here’s one of the writing prompts that was written for Bespoken:

LUCKY CLOTHES

There is a paragraph from one of my favourite novels, The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge, that gave me a frisson of recognition when I first read it as a child and still does. It comes when Maria Merryweather is on her way to live with her mysterious cousin, the Lord of Moonacre. She’s understandably nervous but finds a surprising source of comfort:

And the boots she had on today were calculated to raise the lowest spirits, for they were made of the softest grey leather, sewn with crystal beads round the tops, and were lined with snow-white lamb’s wool. The crystal beads, as it happened, could not be seen, because Maria’s grey silk dress and warm grey wool pelisse, also trimmed with white lamb’s wool, reached to her ankles, but she herself knew they were there, and the thought of them gave her a moral strength that can scarcely be overestimated.

Write about a fictional character who gets much-needed strength for a particular situation from something she or he is wearing. Ideally this should, like Maria’s boots, be invisible to the outside world. Some examples could be ‘lucky interview pants’, a particular pair of socks, or even a scrap of material hidden in a pocket. Try and describe the garment as lavishly as possible, bringing in the senses as much as you can. Give us the history of the garment, why does it have this magic power? Why does this character need it? You could write this also as a piece of memoir. If you would like a line to start, try… ‘It should have been just a normal day…’

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I think lucky clothes is a concept the psychologist Karen Pine, who amongst other things has a title to die for, Professor of the Psychology of Fashion, would understand. I’ve just finished her book, Mind What You Wear which is full of research, notes and anecdotes that kept me reaching for the pen.

… in a world where people endlessly try to work out what others are thinking, many interpersonal forces operate beyond consciousness. Impressions, aesthetics, judgements, prejudices, desires all work beneath our mental radar, cunningly dodging our awareness and conscious understanding.

The most startling research project for me was by Barbara Fredrickson. She conducted an experiment in which 42 women and 40 women were given a maths test while wearing either a swimsuit or a sweater. The result? While it made no difference to the men’s results what they were dressed in, those women who wore a swimsuit had a significantly diminished score. Fredrickson put this down to the fact that the women were so consumed in worrying about other people evaluating their body that this used up their mental resources.

Men, it seems, just got on with the test, not caring what they looked like.

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So, in an effort to add some edginess to the short story I’m struggling with at the moment, I am sitting here writing this in my bikini…

Nah, only kidding. BUT I must confess I did dress up a little this morning as a result of reading this book. I’ve been a big fan of Dr Pine ever since I discovered her Do Something Different project, and I can see the benefits of her fashion-based programme – what fun to receive an instruction every day to dress a little bit differently. It certainly seems to work for some of the case studies she quotes in the book, and as she says:

After two weeks of wearing something different, participants’ life satisfaction scores had gone up. More importantly, their negative mood levels had gone down. Simply breaking free from their usual wardrobe habits, experimenting a little, dressing more consciously and less automatically, improved their positive emotions and feelings about life in general.

So here’s one of the Do’s that I’m going to try tomorrow –

‘Do wear the oldest item in your wardrobe today. You loved it once, why not wear it again? Dig deep and resurrect an old favourite’.

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And if it’s a swimsuit, at least I’m going to make sure it’s a Superman one. Dr Pine also found out that wearing a Superman t-shirt led to students gaining better exam grades.

Armchair exploring, part 2 – Czech Republic and Norway

Who on earth arranged this travel itinerary??? Geez, you could almost believe I didn’t do very well at geography in school.

1. First stop on this whizz-bang tour is The Czech Republic. HOW I CAME TO KNOW FISH by Ota Pavel.

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There’s a great interview with Ota Pavel here which gives a clear description of his life and works. But really I imagine you could just read this book. It’s autobiographical, and quite devastating in the simple way it’s told through short chapters.

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Pavel was born to a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother in Prague. He was eleven when the WW2 broke out, and most of his family were arrested and imprisoned. By the time you reach this in the book, you know the family, and you know how central fishing is. So it’s fitting that the craziness of the world situation is introduced through a simple remark about fish:

At the beginning of the occupation they confiscated Papa’s pond in Bustehrad.
“How can a Jew breed carp?” the mayor asked.

The same stark simplicity is given to Ota Pavel’s own situation in the epilogue.

I went mad at the winter Olympics in Innsbruck. My brain got cloudy, as if a fog from the Alps had enveloped it. In that condition I came face to face with one gentleman – the Devil. He looked the part! He had hooves, fun, horns, and rotten teeth that looked hundreds of years old. With this figure in my mind I climbed the hills above Innsbruck and torched a farm building. I was convinced that only a brilliant bonfire could burn off that fog.

I’m not sure when I have read a better description of what it must feel like to be mentally disturbed. The cold – almost rational – explanation for this behaviour. The biography at the beginning states that he “spent much of the rest of his life in various mental hospitals, during which time he wrote the marvellous How I came to Know Fish.”

But that suggests this book is ‘therapy’ or will somehow be disturbing to read, and it reads as neither. It is an absolute joy, with humour, wry characterisation and some beautiful descriptions of both landscape and women, such as: ‘Papa was in the maarket for a pond, a very particular pond. This pond of his soul would be surrounded by leaning willows and marsh marigolds with yellow blossoms, and basking in its waters would be carp the size of calves.’

And then there’s the incomparable boss’s wife, Mrs Irma: ‘As she turned, you could see her gorgeous plump buttocks and slender legs which tapered down into high-heeled snakeskin shoes. The elaborate curls in her hair suggested a magnificent butterfly about to escape the musty stairway of the boring academy.’

Oh Irma. After she is disappointed, she ‘never wanted to see my dear Papa again. She remembered how he had eaten chicken with his hands.’

How perfect is that? Or this?

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It’s these little touches of humanity and humour that I loved in this book. And somehow the fact that the memories came from a man dreaming of this childhood from a mental hospital just made the details more poignant. How about this list, to sum up the man who taught him to fish:

With Prosek we were burying a real English soccer ball, cold buttermilk, pickled fish and marinated deer meat, Prague sausages, Holan the dog, and the phonograph recording of ‘A Thousand Miles’.

We’ve got to know Prosek throughout the book, right from the very first paragraph in fact:

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How I Came to Know Fish is translated by Jindriska Badal and Robert McDowell.

2. And now to Norway, for The Blue Room by Hanne Orstavik, translated by Deborah Dawkin.

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This has this rather unpromising – for me – line at the start of the book:

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Hmmm. Actually, it resembled more The Story of O, a book I first read when I was 18 with my then-boyfriend as we walked in the snow in Hyde Park, taking it in turns to read pages out to each other, and circling the Serpentine again and again. A strange and rather wonderful memory.

So I did want to love the book, especially as the publisher, Peirene Press are one of my crushes at the moment, and probably the reason behind this project in the first place. I’ve read so many DELICIOUS books in translation from them. However, despite the fact that I was able to see the similarities between this book and my own, Tell Me Everything, this one didn’t do anything for me. I felt as trapped in its pages as Johanne is in the story.

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Perhaps I was missing something. It just all felt a bit distant and mannered for me, although it has had rave reviews. Anyway, I’m planning to come back to Norway later, because now I’m moving on to Japan.

I told you I was no good at geography.

Reading My Way Around the World in 2015

It’s like a New Year quiz. How many countries in the world are there??

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Well, here’s a thing. No one is quite sure. But I’m going to go round the world in 2015.

Not really of course.

Better than that. My resolution is to read one book from 50 different countries over the next year. I’m looking forward to exploring the literature of Slovakia, Palestine, Nepal as well as South Africa, Australia, Canada. Oh, and heck yes, Wales, Ireland, Scotland and England as well. All suggestions of books I should/could read are very welcome.

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I haven’t set myself any rules. I can read books I’ve read before. I can read short stories, poetry, fiction and memoir.

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It’s a celebration of the translators, as well as independent publishers such as Periene Press, And Other Stories, and Dedalus Books, and inspired by proper reading bloggers such as my friend, Ted Altschuler.

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Can you tell I’m excited?

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Of course, I’m also going to lose weight, save the world, and be a better person….

… after I’ve finished this chapter.

Sharing confidences like this is our last night alive….

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There has been something special about nearly every writing group I’ve been part of, or indeed led. Often I won’t even know the ‘normal’ facts about the other writers – whether they are married, what job they do, how many children, if any, they have – BUT by the end of the session I may probably know something about them – and they will know something about me – that very few people do. This isn’t to say that writing groups are therapy groups, or confessionals, but the very act of writing together can feel special. In fact, the best writing groups generate their own energy so you end up writing something that surprises even you.

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So I have counted myself very lucky this year to meet some extraordinary writers in the groups I have run – whether it be for the University of Kent at Tonbridge, in my own house, and even outside as much as I can (luckily mostly in the sunshine)!

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We have written haikus, sonnets, novels (or parts of). We’ve shared knowledge about volcanoes, silences, photo-journalism, architecture, continuity, bees. We’ve written letters we’ll never send and letters to people we admire that we do send (and get replies from). We’ve written about food, places we’ve never been to, adventures, wishes, regrets. We’ve pretended to do things we’d never want to do and happily told lies about ourselves, some of us have committed murder (on paper) and others have turned innocent bystanders into people you would never ever want to meet in real life. It’s exhausting, fun and surprisingly brave to get words down on paper. Sometimes we’ve even told them out loud.

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I’ve been teaching writing for some years now but I still can’t tell you how much it means to get comments like this one (as I did this morning): “This year, therefore, I shall cherish forever.” Or to be told that the writing group has changed someone’s life.

Sometimes I think it’s easy as writing tutors to take what happens in a group for granted BUT that’s because we all know is that it isn’t really us, standing or sitting at the front talking about poems or setting topics for writing (really it’s a hard life) but the group that takes off and makes magic happen. All we need to do is let it go and marvel at what happens.

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I’ve been thinking about this because of this wonderful post from a writer I very much admire, Anthony Wilson, and also because I’m still crumbling a little inside at having to send an email about my writing classes next year FOUR TIMES because I kept getting it wrong. I almost gave up third time thinking that no one would ever trust me to lead any group ever again, but then I got this kind reply straight away from one of the writers: “Please do not cry, it’s only numbers. You are awesome at words!!!!!!”

It’s only numbers. Yes! And this is exactly the kind of support I value from other writers – knowing just what to say and when to say it. Because it’s the words that matter. So here’s a poem from one of the writers I’ve written alongside this year, always admiring her grace and determination to really get across what she wants to say. It sums up writing groups – not just mine but many – much better than I can, not just the phrase, ‘we will not be judging you’, but also the fun, skill and comradeship of all those involved.

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Here’s Yasmin Khan Murgai’s poem. Enjoy!

We are ladies and one man who meet before lunch

If you arrive on a Tuesday with your cashmere slightly askew
or your hair escaping unbrushed, we will not be judging you.
Between ten and twelve we search for words
to take us from heart to page and brain,
words which will then take the journey back again.

Wonderful!
we say to readings from a book
or new writing from the group
“I’ve had something published,” says one.
“But it isn’t any good.”

Elegant women will write how this Christmas
they wish to find a white horse
tethered to a tree,
and with the next moment smile and ask
“Would you like coffee?”

We struggle to see the meaning of what it is to write.
Our teacher suggests “You could try this …”
and even more gently “You might …”

We work like spies on a mission
sharing confidences like this is our last night alive,
and yet, like bounty hunters, we keep a cold eye on the prize.

“My novel is a movie playing
in an abandoned cinema
in a forgotten town.”
I announce when suddenly I see.

Wonderful!
my smiling group agrees.
We are ladies and one man who meet before lunch.

“I am an expert orienteer”, our factual expert offers,
“in case you lose your way”.
“And I have a specialism in volcanoes”, the clever lady says,
“they’re very important day to day.”
“And I am a scarf!” says the writer opposite. We smile because
we know.

All so difficult I suggest, with work and family.
Someone gives me a sideways look
and I sigh.
And that evening work on a writing plan
so I can finish my book.

Note: The writing classes I run from my home on in Tunbridge Wells on a Tuesday morning and Tuesday evening are – despite my lack of admin skills – full, but I do keep a waiting list so let me know if you would like to be on it. Realistically, there probably won’t be a place until summer though so I’d be happy to suggest other local options for you. I’d really advise anyone wanting to write to join a group, and let the magic happen!

Sharing ideas and stepping outside your comfort zone…

The subject line of this post is a quote from the application of Francesca Stocker, the new Poet Laureate of Bendenden School. Here she is with Abegail Morley.

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I was lucky enough to judge the competition this year, and announce Francesca’s appointment at morning prayers. It was a little daunting to be honest – imagine this hall filled with people!

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But better than that… imagine a school filled with poets! Here are some of my favourite lines from the students who applied for the post.

The capturing of a moment here:

My heart beats like the subway,
blood pulsing with pedestrians…

And another… “a lullaby to the/hum of the streetlights..’ ah…

We swung slowly on the swings, your feet just touching
the ground; the creak of the chains a lullaby to the
hum of the streetlights…

And then this sharp observation. I loved this!

You scale that social ladder like
there’s an unattainable you at the other side.

And this one, heartbreaking but so beautiful I hope the poet won’t mind me sharing it – it’s a real reminder that poetry can help us when we can’t find comfort anywhere else…

The seasons fade and merge into one but the pain in my soul is a constant anchor into despair that neither the spring of tomorrow nor the snow of today can reach
.

Beautiful, eh?

Of course, the school is lucky in their librarian, the wonderful poet, Abegail Morley, who runs a regular poetry workshop. I had a little smile too when I saw the poetry aisles in the library….

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Hidden messages and what’s your weirdness standard?

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It was probably hard to avoid the launch of William Gibson’s book, The Peripheral in London this week even if you wanted to. From Start the Week to the 30th anniversary of Neuromancer, a book, he said, he had little hopes for:

My fantasy of success, then, was that my book, once it had been met with the hostile or indifferent stares I expected, would go out of print. Then, yellowing fragrantly on the SF shelves of secondhand book shops, it might voyage forward, up the time-stream, into some vaguely distant era in which a tiny coterie of esoterics, in London perhaps, or Paris, would seize upon it, however languidly, as perhaps a somewhat good late echo of Bester, Delany or another of the writers I’d pasted, as it were, on the inside of my authorial windshield.

Amazingly enough, my books somehow emerged, hopefully not yellowing too fragrantly, for him, and we met in Vancouver a couple of years ago when he invited me to join him for a CBC broadcast (podcast here).

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And so I was lucky enough to go to several of his events this time round and also meet him over a full English breakfast. As you do. Well, he had the full English, the lovely Mrs G and I had pea fritters. Much more delicious than they sound, and I imagine far far nicer than this…

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Anyway enough about food. Here are just some of the many writing-ly thoughts I’ve come away with. I was too busy listening to make full notes so this is my interpretation, hopefully accurate…

1. I was struck by the idea of writing in the hope that some people will recognise some of the references (from W H Auden to clothing fabrics) and be rewarded by that moment of connection between author and reader. I love how this can mean we don’t have to explain everything, but hope that we will be lucky enough to make at least one of those connections (as both writer and reader). But also that not everyone will get every reference, and different readers will get different references. It makes me want to sprinkle my manuscript with hidden messages to YOU, yes you, my beloved reader in the future.

2. He talked about the advantages of studying anthropology and economics. One economics module about multi-national corporations apparently had a big effect (which you can see in the books). I’ve been thinking about what he said about multi-national corporations quite a lot – as one example he talked about a war situation, the corporation might divide to service both sides of the war, and then come together afterwards. Stronger, and probably much stronger than the countries at war. Now I’m wondering why we’re not all writing about this.

3. What’s the cross-over between science fiction and classical Westerns? This was one of the questions at the BFI, and I keep thinking about it. It’s not just about new worlds and crossing boundaries, but perhaps more about the search for a distinction between good and bad. Do we need this at certain moments in history more than others? I’m still brewing on this one, particularly as my dad, one of the most complicated men I’ve known, was always hungry for Westerns and even as a child, I could see he was remarkably relaxed afterwards. (To be fair, the last meanderings are mine, not WG’s!)

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4. “It’s harder to imagine the past that went away than it is to imagine the future.” This is a quote from William Gibson in his Paris Review interview, and which he touched on several times in his talks. There’s much in here, not least how impossible it is NOT to keep rewriting history, especially with different angles.

5. What’s your weirdness standard? I loved how WG said he found the world was much weirder than his books. Therefore to think about the future he needed to ‘recalibrate reality.’ Writing about brands was essential, and he wasn’t worried whether these went out of date or not. His books are of their time, even when they aren’t (if you see what I mean!)

6. And I almost cheered when he admitted he never thought he was writing an original, revolutionary work with Neuromancer. Writers often seem scared to admit their influences, but he included Raymond Chandler and Dashiel Hammett amongst his which interested me, that detective element. I also liked how he credited Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, and in another talk, he mentioned Steely Dan. Too often we forget music.

7. Another influence was E M Forster’s Aspects of the Novel which he studied at University, particularly Forster’s claim that a writer fully in control of his characters is not doing his job right. So reassuring for me at the moment as one minor character of mine will keep chatting, while the main character refuses to do anything or say anything no matter how much I try to prod her.

And if you’re wondering whether it’s worth reading the book, here’s a paragraph that should persuade you. Beautifully done. All of it.

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Remembered

On our most recent WW1 Writers’ Trip to the Somme, I tried to deal with the overwhelming grief of seeing gravestone after gravestone by concentrating on the individual scripts written on each headstone. It was heartbreaking how much personality can come across just from a few words, and how much thought must have gone into exactly how families wanted their loved ones to be remembered. Here are some:

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Snapshots from the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival

Given that I’ve finally managed to immerse myself into writing my fourth novel, it could have been a strange time to experience my first ever Aldeburgh Poetry Festival. But so many people have raved about it over the years and as I value every minute I can spend with my host, Pamela Johnson and fellow guest, Mary Hamer, it seemed too good a chance to be missed.

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The whole weekend went by in a blur so here are some impressions – as much for me to remember as to share with you!

* The first night’s candlelit supper held in Aldeburgh’s extraordinary arts centre right on the beach, The Lookout, with white tablecloths, soup and introductions to many of the poets who’d be reading over the festival, organised by Daphne Warburg Astor (and thanks to Caroline Wiseman.) As the wind howled around us, and you could hear the sea and birds outside, I finally got what Aldeburgh is all about, although I’m rather abashed to find I have a ‘listening to poetry’ face…

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* ‘Everyone you meet is a poet at Aldeburgh’, I’d been told, and as well as the poets reading from the stage, there were extraordinary poets in the audience just there to listen and think. It seemed so generous in a way I can’t actually remember from other literary festivals where ‘stars’ are airlifted in and out just for their own performances. Interesting what a difference that made.

* Being lucky enough to find friend and Festival blogger, Anthony Wilson, standing by the bookstall one morning and following ALL his recommendations (and a few more). That joy in discovering new poets and poems I wouldn’t otherwise have found. And learning AGAIN to read everything Anthony suggests. He has excellent taste.

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* Poetry crushes – of course! This time it was the South African poet and novelist, Finuala Dowling. I’d signed up to her workshop on the Friday telling myself I’d use the prompts to write prose, to uncover snippets I could add into the novel, and ended up in exactly the right place to write a poem about something that had only recently happened but which I hadn’t been able to let myself even think about before. Everywhere I went over the festival, I found people quoting things Finuala had said, so here’s a few from my own notebook – ‘Poets end their own lives, but politicians have to be shot’ (I’ve taken that out of context by the way, she wasn’t advocating that we all go out and shoot politicians!) – * on the importance of wit, ‘wit is always subversive’ – * to avoid ‘the mossy stone school of composition’ – * ‘by making yourself vulnerable, you become invulnerable’ – * ‘People judge us all the time, poetry can be a place to fight back.’ – *’self-pity can be an interesting place to go’ – and the all-important ‘What have we left unsaid?’

* Kathleen Jamie’s reading – ahhhhh, and also her comments during the Masterclass she ran. I’d never been to one of these before, it felt uncomfortably like a trial with the three poets whose work was being discussed sitting at a table facing the audience. But interesting. My scribbles include * ‘What am I being asked to see here?’ * If you get others to read your work out loud, you can’t gloss over what you don’t want to engage with. * Have you thought about the left hand margin of your poem? * Apply dowsing rods – where is the energy of the poem? * Is the poem at war with itself? *And lastly that beautiful phrase, the geography of space.

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* Walking at Snape and at Aldeburgh. The skies, the skies.

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* Stuttering into some kind of meaning for myself during Hannah Silva’s talk about how if the ‘voice’ is actually all about the body then how rarely we let that out during readings, and finding Amy Wragg and John Prebble on exactly the same wavelength – and at the same time! I love these strange moments of connection.

* Listening to poetry in German, not understanding an actual word of it but understanding everything.

* And then one night, after a day crammed with readings and short takes and workshops and discussions, going back to Pam’s house and over whisky and chocolate, taking it in turns to read out poems from our newly purchased books. Reading ‘just one more’ until too late, and then going to bed with so many voices in my dreams.

* Back to Finuala – ‘Write what you yourself were not expecting.’ I wrote FOUR poems over the weekend – how? – and reading them now, I am surprised. I may do nothing with them, but that surprise is worth everything.

* Snippets of conversations, from the sublime, ‘Let me tell you what really matters to me..’ to the ridiculous, ‘You’re writing a novel? Oh well, never mind.’

* A quiet considered intelligent 15-minute talk by Togara Muzanenhamo on Poetry and Disobedience, and his year spent in a derelict house in Manchester discussing line breaks. And sitting next to exactly the right person to share the beauty in this.

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* And then hovering round the bookstore at the last minute – you don’t need any MORE books, but I do, I do – buying Rosemary Tonks’s collected poems, and not being able to stop reading it since. And now thinking again of the whole weekend through the prism of her words about what real poetry is:

Dealing with the things which really move people. People are born, they procreate, they suffer, they are nasty to one another, they are greedy, they are terribly happy, they have changes in their fortune, and they meet other people who have effects on them, and then they die; and these thousands of dramatic things happen to them, and they happen to everybody. Everybody has to make terrible decisions or pass examinations, or fall in love, or else avoid falling in love. All these things happen and contemporary poets don’t write about them. Why not?

Grateful. Grateful. Grateful.

Thank you especially to Naomi Jaffa and the Poetry Trust for putting this festival on. Join. Support. You can even find yourself a new best friend.

And I’m sure that my fledgeling novel will say THANK YOU too as it gets filled up with tastier verbs, dynamic nouns and all the things we’re not supposed to say.

Once I can tear myself away from reading my new books, of course.

diary of a rebel