“GIVE ME BOOKS, FRENCH WINE, FRUIT, FINE WEATHER AND A LITTLE MUSIC PLAYED OUT OF DOORS BY SOMEBODY I DO NOT KNOW.”
If you have been visiting blogs recently you may have seen the meme, the Next Big Thing, floating about, and I’m happy to have been nominated by the poet, Anthony Wilson, to write mine. Anthony has written very movingly about his own ‘next big thing’, his memoir, Love for Now, of being diagnosed on Valentine’s Day, 2006, with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system. He’s a wonderful writer, and you can read about it here. His poetry collection, Riddance is lovely too.
To be honest though, I have been tagged several times before but wasn’t sure what I had to write about. But then, when Anthony got in contact, I thought hey, why not write about what I’m writing about!!! So here you go… it’s an account of where I am with my Writer in the Garden project.
Where did the idea of the Garden Journey come from?
I started writing a portrait about Kent through its gardens when I was Canterbury Laureate. This was to tie in with the county being known as the Garden of England, but along the way, I learnt two things – firstly, the ‘slogan’ actually began as the Guardian of England (not garden) and secondly, not much in many of the gardens – the plants, the designs, even the gardeners – is actually English. This was fascinating for me – I love how these shifts happen, and what that can mean at a deeper level.
I was visiting each garden to understand what I wanted to write about from it – not an account of plants or history, but what resonated for me on a creative level. There had to be a connection, and often this was deeply personal and surprising. I wanted to open myself up as a writer, and by doing so, to explore the private/public nature of gardens. I felt that a website would be good for this, using video, podcasts and photographs as well as the poems. I’m not sure if it will be a book yet because I haven’t worked out how, if at all, these things can be shown on paper. I like the idea of readers of the website going on a virtual tour as well. I’m working on a map for this, but it’s a case of learning every step of the way and that takes time! I’d much rather be in the garden, to be honest!
What genre does your website fall under?
The website was a finalist in the Garden Media Guild ‘New Talent’ awards, so I guess gardens and, of course, poetry. But then there’s local history too, and psychogeography. Is there a genre for ‘muddly’?
Although, maybe given the weather, ‘muddy’ might be a better description for my garden visits last year!
I like to think of it as exploration – because every time I visit a garden I find a new space within myself. It’s a kind of alchemy.
In fact, one of the routes the garden visits have taken me is to start a detective novel, with Capability Brown featuring on the side. I don’t want to talk too much about that yet because it’s still very much in progress, but a detective novel – and historical at that – was unexpected genre-shift for me.
Although perhaps not as much as founding a touring music and poetry promenade group with two writing friends. We performed already during the Canterbury Festival and are now branching out to perform at gardens and outdoor events.
What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a film version?
Oh, there are so many attractive gardeners on television now who are almost like film stars (in my eyes anyway)! But I think that Hugh Jackman would be a great Lancelot Brown (and this isn’t just so I can stick a hunky photo up here.)
Here’s the real one…lovely eyes, eh?
As for who would play me, hmmm… she’s a little older than me but I would watch anything with Harriet Walter in, and look, here’s her with Michael Fassbender. Wouldn’t they be pretty together in a garden?
How long is a piece of string? I have in my files, photographs and notes of gardens I visited back in Spring of last year and I can’t get the right voice or form for them. Others come almost fully budded as I’m walking round. It’s the first time I’ve done something like this – with such a strong theme – so I’m taking care it doesn’t become formulaic. I hope it hasn’t. And won’t. I really try to keep open before each visit, although I will do some research so I normally have a couple of points that have piqued my curiosity. I have only visited one garden and it was so groomed and soulless that I really didn’t want to write anything. Most of the time, you understand the joy of gardening – perhaps it’s one of the few things nowadays that we can’t quite control. That and the weather. (And it seems the banks but that’s another story…)
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
My mother was the garden historian and writer, Elizabeth Peplow. I’ve written about her here. So I grew up with gardens, and as much with the stories in the garden. I think the initial inspiration to write about them in this way was a sadness at seeing some people go round National Trust gardens without engaging at all. As if the garden was just something to tick off the list, and they had no ownership at all. Well, I think that’s wrong. One of my favourite stories was from one man who had opened his garden as a commercial enterprise, but still obviously had a deep personal love for it. He noticed a woman coming every day to the garden to knit, and when he approached her one day, she basically told him to go away. He was left wondering whose garden it was – and it made me think how, even in a busy public park, we mark out our own little spaces. It must be a primitive thing, and maybe these poems are my way of marking my space! They certainly help me look deeper at each garden I visit, and that’s a privilege.
A virtual poetry promenade through the English garden, and all things gardeny!
What else about your website might pique the reader’s interest?
It’s been wonderful to hear from people who have visited gardens because of the website, and who write to me with their own feelings after. The Margate shell grotto seems to be a particular favourite for this, and the wonderful Quex Gardens too. But not all the gardens are visitable – I was so moved at finding a book of the fictional garden backdrops American prisoners used to have their photographs taken against, I wrote a piece about that too.
At the moment, I’m very happy to be getting involved with the Chelsea Fringe in May this year – watch this space! I am also continuing to visit and write up gardens, although the inspiration seems to be coming from unlikely places at the moment. A visit to the Manet Exhibition in London sparked off a very happy hour of creative daydreaming – he painted many of the outside portraits actually in his studio. I love this idea of a true artist’s garden of the imagination…
So who’s next? Well, dear readers, I’d like to invite you to take part and tell me what is your next big thing! Please leave links and comments if you take part so I can follow your journeys too.
“I began to realize how important it was to be an enthusiast in life. If you are interested in something, no matter what it is, go at it full speed ahead. Embrace it with both arms, hug it, love it and above all become passionate about it. Lukewarm is no good. Hot is no good, either. White hot and passionate is the only thing to be.”
One thing I’m loving from my 2013 resolution to listen to new music (to me) every week is how I’m finding a different way to discover each new piece of music. I’m very happy, for instance, to now be exchanging music with the writer, Dan Powell so do shout if you’d like to do a swap with me too.
But this week’s CD came via a very unlikely route – a TED talk. Here’s Natalie Merchant introducing herself!
I can’t recommend Leave Your Sleep highly enough – apparently it began as a record for children, and yet there’s a lyrical soothing rhythm to it that makes it perfect for writing to. Interesting! Plus the more I looked into it, the more fascinating to became to think about the process involved for Natalie to make this music.
My main research for writing at the moment is the 18th century, particularly English landscape gardening and one gardener in particular (no surprise there) so it’s a treat to get the chance to travel even further back in time.
To the 11th century in fact!
As part of the writers’ collective, 26, I’m working on a project to mark Norwich being named a UNESCO City of Literature. Twenty six of us have been paired with 26 famous writers from Norwich’s history, and I’ve been given Herbert de Losinga, Bishop and founder of Norwich Cathedral to write about.
At the moment, I’m in a reading phrase, and going through his own writings (although it’s not a particularly portable book as you can see above!) I’ve got a research trip ahead to Norwich and the cathedral in particular, although bizarrely they recommend I visit Canterbury to see a more accurate representation of a library of that time. I’m not sure what angle I’m taking yet, but this particular section about St Etheldreda gave me a shiver down the spine.
When I was a boarder in Etheldreda House, part of Kings School, Ely, we had to wear a blue cornflower on St Etheldreda’s day as a sign of respect for her (and our) purity. Can you even begin to imagine the ‘friendly teasing’ we got all day? A particularly fine torture for self-conscious teenage girls, especially given that it was a mostly boys school at that time!
But there’s something else in this book too. How beautiful is it that in the letters he wrote to his students he addressed them as ‘well beloved’?
It’s an expression that feels so curiously old-fashioned and yet never fails to warm me every time I see it. Particularly that third syllable it gets in pronounciation which distinguishes itself from the plain (but still nothing to be sniffed at) ‘Loved’.
And it gave me another shiver because just yesterday I was looking out that Vonnegut clip from You Tube about the shape of stories and I came across this article about the class-letters he used to write to his students, referring to them as ‘beloveds’.
I am so tempted to put them together in my piece. What if Vonnegut had been reading Herbert de Losanga too? Maybe wearing a cornflower…
There will be an exhibition of this work from the 26 Collective and the 26 writers we have been paired with from UEA’s MA in Writing programme this summer at the Writers’ Centre in Norwich.
Ah but the Sarah party was a GOOD DAY!
Anyway good to have a mini-Sarah-fest here, especially as Sarah Butler has written a brilliant book. Ten Things I’ve Learnt About Love is inventive and passionate, it made me cry, made me laugh and made me fall even more deeply in love than ever with London. Just look at the Pinterest board for the novel to get some of the atmosphere that comes off so well from the pages.*
And great cover too.
And perhaps it’s not surprising that Sarah is so good at place, because she runs the consultancy, Urban Words, which manages the website, A Place For Words amongst much else to do with creative writing and regeneration.
So, even if she hadn’t written such a great book, it would be a pleasure to welcome Sarah on to the site. And here are her sentences…
When you were small, you wanted to … be a writer, and a ballet dancer – one out of two isn’t bad I reckon…
The one thing you can never resist is … buying notebooks. I buy considerably more than I fill…
You may not say it aloud but… My partner reckons there’s no filter between my brain and my mouth – I pretty much say everything that’s in there!
The last time you went ‘WOOP’ with excitement was … when I went to Mackays printers to see my novel come off the press – there was a bit of a gulp and a sniff in there too.
Your five favourite words are ….
gin and tonic
Thank you, Sarah!
I tried to find you a gin and tonic drinking ballet dancer as a present, but he kept falling over so here’s something exciting.
Gin and tonic soap. Now you can carry the scent of it with you all day. Especially when you’re dancing….
* I think Pinterest boards are a fascinating insight into how authors work visually – I look forward to more. I’m currently doing a private one for my new book because it’s still a baby and a little shy.
I am still buzzing after spending Saturday morning listening to Patricia Debney talk about the challenges – and benefits – of writing memoir as part of the first meeting of the Kent Writing and Wellbeing Network. One of the things Patricia said was that, when she was writing her memoir of her childhood, even though the memories she was writing about were not unknown, it was only in the process of writing that she came into a position of ‘knowing’.
Now I’ve heard that before – I will even say I write to understand things – but Patricia went on to define this more closely. She understood through writing what real ‘knowing’ was, not because she got the facts down, but because she had never before really assigned or clarified the emotion held inside those memories for her.
I find this fascinating. We tend to think of it the other way round – that we write to relieve ourselves of a particular emotion – grief, or loneliness, say – rather than write to understand what we are feeling. But of course it makes sense that feeling follows articulation. And once we can have a clear grip of that, then we can understand better what has happened to us. It isn’t about just the facts.
Her understanding, she said, comes with pen in hand, and never from merely thinking about what had happened. I love this – to write yourself into a place of realisation.
And because we tend often to think of any kind of therapeutic writing as writing about a place of pain, it was interesting to hear Patricia say that the more she wrote about the goodness of her grandparents, and the more she understood what this had meant to her, ‘the better it became.’
Real deep ‘knowing’.
Another take on writers transforming their experience into creative gold is shown in this superb video from Clare Best about how she evolved her personal story of a double mastectomy into her poetry collection Excisions. I am still stunned by Clare’s realisation that ‘there was nothing between my heart and the world.’ Beautiful. As is she.
Every new year we have this little routine in our family whereby we all make resolutions for each other. Not the ‘lose weight, do better’ things, or even brush your hair every day, but mostly about trying something new. One of mine this year is to listen to a new CD every week, so I thought I’d record these on here – not least to prove I have done it!
This week is Mecoustic by Tarrus Riley, something I would never normally pick up and certainly my first Reggae album ever. Surprisingly beautiful and stripped back. And haunting to write to.
Now, I can get music from my library and I’m relying on stealing my kid’s collections too, but I’m aware that even so, 52 CDs is A LOT. So… if there is anyone reading who wants to consider CD swaps, then do contact me or leave a message below. Probably better to stick to the UK for postage etc. All genres considered – and if we do a mystery package, rather than picking and choosing then it’ll be a fine way to find new music too.
A new friend came for tea the other day, and pointed out how many sun-catchers I had at my windows. Hard to believe I hadn’t noticed before but once she’d pointed it out…
And all worth it though this frosty morning when I’m happy to welcome any little bit of sun into my house. Particularly when it looks like this…
Two Serious Ladies is my first Jane Bowles novel, and I would say it won’t be last except it’s the only one she wrote. So I shall just have to read it again and again.
Which won’t be a hardship for sentences like this, if nothing else…
“Mrs Copperfield was amazed at her husband’s vivacity. He had washed and gone out to buy a papaya.”
Or this description…
“I loved her as much as a man can love a woman. She had a smooth forehead, beautiful blue eyes, and not so good teeth. Her legs were something to take pictures of. Her name was Mary and she got along with my mother.”
Ahhh. Doesn’t that tell you as much about the man describing Mary as it does about Mary? Perfect. The ‘not so good teeth’ gets me every time.
And then there is the story which is … incredible. In all the best ways. A true original.
Here are some photographs of Jane (who was, of course, wife of the more famous Paul.)