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7 Maltese (K)nights

in Orta reducedNormally early October brings the delights of the Poetry on the Lake Festival at Orta in Italy. Like a number of others, I first attended this festival when I was successful in one of their competitions – and then became addicted. This year, because of other potential arrangements, I wasn’t able to commit to Orta in advance, so decided to take a break from my normal pattern of revising my rudimentary Italian and heading south in the camper van as soon as the first whiff of autumn blew in my direction.

The expected appointments didn’t materialise, so at the last minute we made a booking to join our grandchildren and their parents for a half-term holiday week in Malta, which we had never visited before. The weather was perfect all week with temperatures in the mid-30s, and the sea was deliciously warm, so we enjoyed the luxury of swimming several times a day as well as visiting some of the interesting sites on the islands. And, of course, we had lots of fun with the lovely family. We had also made some new friends earlier this year, and it turned out that they are Maltese and spend quite a bit of time back there; so we were able to spend two happy days with them as well.

Museum reduced

One of the striking features of Malta is the pale honey-coloured limestone which is quarried on the island, and from which everything, from ornate cathedral to humble dwelling, is built. It gives a gentle relaxed feel to the towns, and looks beautiful from the air. Like our sandstone in places like Lindisfarne, the stone is soft enough to be sculpted by the elements, and takes on fascinating decorative patterns as parts are worn away.

Of course, much of the history of Malta revolves round the Knights of St John. Like so much other history this tends to be rather macho and it’s sometimes tempting to think that the islands were uninhabited by women. However, the knights have left behind some beautiful cathedrals and churches. Like so much from this Baroque era, the insides of these buildings are incredibly ornate, and on entering Valetta Cathedral one is almost dazzled by the extensive gold. But most of it is not as over-the-top as one might have expected. I’ve seen far more excessive Baroque buildings in other countries, especially in Spain, Austria and Brazil. My taste in ecclesiastical architecture normally tends towards the simplicity and grace of the Romanesque; but on this occasion to my surprise, I actually liked much of what I saw, especially in Valetta Cathedral.

Mdina cathedral reduced

The picture on the right is of Mdina Cathedral. Mdina is a beautiful city, surrounded by walls and is so much of a piece that it feels extremely harmonious. It is, of course, highly preserved for tourists, but also seems to operate as a real place as well.

Another impressive church building was in Mosta, which has a huge dome, said to be either the third or the fourth largest in the world. Mosta dome reduced


Apparently the inhabitants of the town were all sheltering in this church in the war, when a bomb was dropped and fell straight through the dome and down to where all the people were. By an amazing stroke of good fortune, or what many would call a miracle, the bomb did not explode and nobody was hurt. A replica of that bomb is now on display in the church. Malta suffered terribly during the war, and the whole island was awarded the George Cross by King George VI.

The friend we spent some time with was a child in the war and remembers it quite clearly. The experiences of the Maltese people came alive so vividly for us as he talked: in particular his stories of how his family spent the nights down a large well for safety, and how one uncle who decided he’d had enough of that left the well one night and was killed.

Moving further back in history, St Paul was shipwrecked on Malta, and we passed St Paul’s Island when we took the boat to Comino and Gozo on what turned out to be the only day when the wind got up. It was still sunny and warm, but the seas became pretty rough, and gave us a taste of what St Paul might have experienced a couple of thousand years ago. The story goes that when St Paul landed, he had an unfortunate encounter with a viper, so the locals all expected him to keel over and die. Instead of that, however, he simply shook the viper off into the fire.
Once safely on shore, we found out that the island was called Malta. The islanders showed us unusual kindness. They built a fire and welcomed us all because it was raining and cold. Paul gathered a pile of brushwood and, as he put it on the fire, a viper, driven out by the heat, fastened itself on his hand. When the islanders saw the snake hanging from his hand, they said to each other, “This man must be a murderer; for though he escaped from the sea, the goddess Justice has not allowed him to live.” But Paul shook the snake off into the fire and suffered no ill effects. The people expected him to swell up or suddenly fall dead; but after waiting a long time and seeing nothing unusual happen to him, they changed their minds and said he was a god. (Acts of the Apostles chapter 28).

St Paul reducedThere’s a large statue of St Paul and the viper outside the church in Mellieha (see right).


The other treatment of this theme, which I’ve always loved, can be found in St Anselm’s Chapel in Canterbury Cathedral, where the twelfth century artist captures so much of the movement and drama and of the story.

Travelling even further back into history, Malta has some rather impressive pre-historic temples, which are far older than Stonehenge. As with many such early structures in Britain and France, they appear to be aligned in such a way that the sun striking certain stones marks the solstices and equinoxes, thus giving shape to the year and guiding the timing of agricultural activities.

A in templetemple stones


Winchester blog 4: October


I’ve now made my last visit to Winchester before the Festival starts in earnest at the end of this month. This visit was to finalise the venues and formats for all my poems that form the Poetry Trail through the Cathedral, and then to meet Stephen Boyce to make plans for my Poetry Reading on the evening of November 1st.

My next blog will probably be on something completely unconnected with the Winchester Festival, but after that I hope to be able to post a final Winchester blog with lots of pictures of the various artworks in situ. The Cathedral is going to be bursting with new and interesting art in the festival, as is the whole city of Winchester. If you can possibly get there between 26th October and 3rd November, I highly recommend a visit.

Festival map

As on all the other days I’ve made preparatory visits to Winchester over the last few months, the weather was beautiful and I was able to sit on a bench in the peaceful Cathedral Green to eat my sandwich. I then wandered round the side of the cathedral, to visit the Barbara Hepworth sculpture of the Crucifixion. I’ve always loved this piece: it’s one of three casts, and was originally situated against a backdrop of the sea in St Ives, down in Cornwall. The autumn leaves were drifting gently down, there was no sound of traffic and the great ancient cathedral formed a fitting backdrop to the colour and quiet drama of Hepworth’s sculpture.


It has been a very stimulating and enjoyable process working with the artists who will be represented in the Cathedral during the 10 days Festival, including Sue Wood, Lisa Earley, Michael Weller, Lucy Cass, Penny Burnfield and Anna Sikorska. It was easier when I could meet the artists, particularly if I could see something of what they were working on for the Festival. The two poems that came most easily were Listen, for Sue Wood’s sound installation in the Triforium and Sitting for a Portrait to go with Michael Weller’s paintings in the Morley Library. It’s not so very surprising that this latter poem came quite easily, given that I had hours to think about little else as I sat while he painted my portrait.

The most difficult poems to write were those for which I hadn’t met the artist and didn’t have a very clear idea of what the finished artwork was going to look like. The last poem I was asked to produce for the Trail was in response to a huge polystyrene float that will be suspended above the nave. The work is to be called ‘You are very near to us’; and the artist Anna Sikorska sent the following guidance:

The title of the swimming float, lowered through the roof, hovering and waiting, was overheard at the Cathedral as a response to intercessions. It is part of a body of work describing and playing with surfaces and substance, particularly in this case the chalk of the surrounding land, thinking about directness, cleanliness and simply the desire to reach and bubble upwards.
Mark 2.4  (also Acts 10.11 although this is just a coincidence and was not inspiration for the work).
The chalk lands of Winchester and surrounding areas.
Being underwater, and looking/rising up
He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners.  (Acts 10 v 11).

All that presented something of a challenge, but I’m glad to say that after several attempts I did manage to reflect most of these themes in the poem, though with its final focus on music, it turned out to be about something very different from what I first anticipated. One strange result is that this piece is the only one of the poems that has a recognisably religious theme, as it reflects on some of the difficulties of prayer. I am told that this particular artwork is likely to be the most controversial, so it’s rather fun that it should turn out this way. I’d like to include a picture of the float here, but as it’s not finished yet, that will have to wait until my next Winchester blog in November.

There will be maps showing the positions of my poems in the Poetry Trail just inside the Cathedral, and Lucy Cass has produced a series of postcards of some of my poems alongside photographs of her artworks. I shall be doing a couple of ‘walk-abouts’ in the Cathedral in the second week, and running a poetry reading and writing workshop at 2.00pm on Thursday 31st October. You need to book for this workshop, but it is free.

Then on Friday 1st November I shall be giving a Poetry Reading in the Epiphany Chapel at 7.00pm. At this event, the musician/performer June-Boyce-Tillman will give a short performance before I read, and afterwards Stephen Boyce will chair a conversation with me and some of the artists with whom I’ve been working. We will talk about our collaboration, and invite comments and discussion with the audience. Do join us if you can.

There is going to be SO much going on during this 10 Days Festival. You certainly won’t be able to get to everything, but I do urge you to try to visit Winchester at least once during the ten days.

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Winchester blog 3: September

10 days header banner

The last month has seen more exciting challenges on the Winchester Poet in Residence front.
I had a message from the organisers asking if they could set up a trail of my poems round the cathedral, with a map showing where each one is situated. It was suggested that as it’s a 10 Day Festival, it would be appropriate to have a trail of ten poems. At that stage I had written only four, so I took a deep breath and started to write more and also to look through my files to see what existing poems I had that might be suitable. Last week I met Trish Bould, the Creative Director of the festival, in the cathedral to discuss where they should all go, and to plan the route for the trail. I have at least three more poems to produce, in response to some more of the artists, and will do my best to come up with something suitable. There are a couple of points in the Trail that will have more than one of my poems as part of the same installation.

Lisa in Barcelona '13My poems for the Fishermen’s Chapel are now finished and incorporated into the artwork by Lisa Earley (pictured left). This chapel contains the attractive altar shown below, and also a memorial to Izaak Walton, who wrote ‘The Complete Angler’. Both Lisa and I are concentrating on the working people who go to sea to catch fish for us to eat, rather than leisure anglers who sit beside rivers with fishing rods.

Lisa had already started working on my poem Those who go down to the sea when I last visited the cathedral. This poem was recently published in the anthology about the sea published by Grey Hen Press, ‘Running before the wind’, and it seemed a suitable choice for a chapel dedicated to those who work in the challenging conditions of sea fishing.

 Those who go down to the sea

They hardly ever cross my mind,
certainly never keep me awake
and tossing through the dark hours of the night

wondering if they’ll make it
or whether this time the fury of the open seas
will overwhelm the frailty of their vessel.

Even when I eat fresh fish,
the costly silver harvest
torn from the thundering waves,

I can continue a conversation
as if the delicacy placed before me
had been casually plucked from a bush

by a land-lubber
pausing in a cottage garden
on the way home for tea, unaware

of the raw flesh and watering eyes,
the constant taste of salt,
of fear.


Lisa asked if I would write another poem for her, bringing in the ripples that figure in her installation, and also alluding to the fact that fisherfolk have for centuries made pilgrimages to this chapel in Winchester Cathedral. I therefore wrote a new poem entitled Ripples that will also be incorporated into Lisa’s work and displayed in the Fishermen’s Chapel. Lisa’s plans for the chapel sound really exciting, using textiles to suggest nets with fish that gradually morph into footsteps; and she’ll be using bits of my poems in the installation. I look forward to seeing the finished pieces.

img291ad1FINAL The next artist with whom I was invited to collaborate is Lucy Cass, a recent graduate from Winchester University College of Art. Lucy works with acrylic and resin to produce amazing pieces of sculpture such as this one. This piece will (all being well) be the inspiration for my next poem for the Poetry Trail. The Muse, however, can be remarkably fickle, especially when deadlines are approaching, with the result that all sorts of poems are now competing for my attention. One of the most recent, written at 4.00am on the morning after my visit, was a rather feminist poem inspired by Jane Austen’s tombstone in the cathedral; but as I’m limiting myself to 10, I don’t think that will make it into the final selection.

Lucy is also designing and producing four postcards that incorporate some of her images and some of my poems from the project, and these will be available at various venues in Winchester during the festival.

One of my commitments during the actual week of the festival is a poetry reading in the cathedral on the evening of Friday 1st November. As this event will start with a short performance by the musician June Boyce-Tillman, I had a meeting with her to discuss our plans for the event. After June’s piece, I’ll give my reading, and the evening will conclude with discussion with the poets with whom I’ve been collaborating about our experiences of the process. The Arts Adviser for the festival, Stephen Boyce, will chair this event.

I concluded my visit to Winchester last week by attending a poetry reading by four poets in the Winchester Discovery Centre. Three of the poets had been shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize recently: Annie Freud, David Harsent and Daljit Nagra; and they were joined by the aforementioned Stephen Boyce, as a representative of local Hampshire poets. All the poets gave good readings.

I’ve got more artists to meet and more poems to write, so there’s no time to waste. The dates of the 10 Day Festival are approaching fast: 25th October to 3rd November.

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Winchester blog 2: August

10 days header banner

I spent another day in Winchester as Poet in Residence for the Winchester 10 Days Festival, and once again the sun shone and the city was buzzing with life.

Brassey Road Studio 1The artist, Michael Weller, had asked if he could paint another portrait of me, so I sat for him in his studio at Brassey Road in the morning. The studio, which is shared with various artists, is light and airy, and Michael had selected some recordings of poetry readings to play to me while I sat for him. They included many well-known poems, and a few that I hadn’t come across before. It is extremely rare to get the opportunity to sit for two and a half hours doing nothing but listen to poetry, and the time passed quite quickly. This portrait, in any case, took less time than the last.


Once again I didn’t see the painting until it was finished. It is very different from the first one, and I’d be interested to know which people think is the best. I prefer this one, which I think captures my eyes better, but one of my daughters thinks the colour is better in the first. I’ll put the two together (chatting to each other?) at the bottom of this blog, so that you can judge for yourselves. I hope some of you will respond with your considered judgement, as I think the artist would appreciate some feed-back.

In the afternoon I spent some time with two of the other artists with whom I’m working in preparation for the festival. Sue Wood is preparing a sound art installation, for which I have written a poem; and she has now made this into a poster to display as part of her installation in the Triforium. As it describes the project, I’ll include it here in full:

  Sound installation in Winchester Triforium

Listen! you probably won’t hear
monks chanting plainsong in the choir
– there are no monks –

nor pad of ghostly feet ascending
and descending night stairs linking
their dormitory and prayer.

If you’re standing, your ears are on are a level                  Triforium arch
with other visitors talking face to face,
admiring the purity of the exquisite arches;

and if you were to lie down on
the stone floor, monk-like
prostrate yourself, perhaps your ears

would pick up faint reverberations
of passing feet, as a rabbit
bends her ear to catch

vibrations of dog or human
through the earth. But better still,
if you sit awhile, here on this bench,

and close your eyes, your inner ear
will start to catch a rich
cacophony of sounds:

perhaps the clank of workmen
mounting and dismounting

a mobile telephone that somebody
forgot to turn off, tinkling an inane
tune deep within a pocket,

the drone of a deep authoritative voice
explaining the iconography
of early English architecture,

a girl and boy who’ve found a quiet
corner in which to hide and whisper
secrets of human love and beauty,

the organ playing far away,
footsteps on stone steps, the muffled cry
of a baby, filtered through the stone.

Then in that stillness you may become aware
of the music of your own life-giving
breath, the spirit within, as when

on a still blue summer’s evening
you hear the beat of swallows’ wings
as they fly overhead

and realise that what you’re hearing
is the sound of flight.
That’s right: just pause awhile and listen.

After leaving Sue in the Triforium I peeped into the Morley Library where my portrait will be exhibited during the festival, spent a few precious moments in the cathedral library poring over the beautiful Winchester Bible pages on display, then went downstairs to the Fishermen’s Chapel to meet Lisa Earley. Lisa is a textile artist, and she’s got some exciting plans for our collaboration. She’s already using one of my poems, and I might well write another for her.

I’ll write about Sue’s ideas and the development of her art work in my next blog. There are still some more artists I need to meet, and quite a few more poems that need to be written.

Finally, here are the two portraits. Which do you prefer?




Festival frenzy in Edinburgh

Edinburgh skyline Once upon a time there was an international festival of the arts that took place in Edinburgh during the summer. Although it had a good name and drew performers from many countries,it became fiendishly expensive, so another festival, the Fringe Festival, started up. Unfortunately, this soon became too expensive for many people too, so the Free Fringe Festival was born, with hundreds of free events in the city. But that is not all. Edinburgh in summer has become a place (and season) in which many festivals flourish, including the International Book Festival, the Just Festival (formerly the Festival of Peace and Spirituality), the World of Dance Festival, the Political Festival, the Film Festival, the Jazz Festival and, new kid on the block, the Edinburgh e-book festival. So now the city erupts with festival-fever each summer, and there are probably far more events than there are people to attend them.

A walk down the Royal Mile gives a frenetic taste of what is going on. It is fun, lively, crowded gold womanand mostly good-natured. There are jugglers, actors, musicians and every other sort of entertainment imaginable – and many of them are touting for audiences for their shows; so unless hands are firmly kept in pockets, they are soon filled with leaflets about the many and various delights on offer.

saw-playing 2               balloon-making clown

              Indonesian statue    break dancersJuggling with fire 1
 Despite the lively atmospere, I have to admit that there is something vaguely ridiculous about thousands of events being promoted, worked for and in some cases paid for, and then many of them playing to audiences that would shame any self-respecting artist, musician or poet. But having said that, everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves, and as long as one could escape from the crowds after due immersion, it was fun.

Poems to order 1It was something of a relief, on moving on to the Meadows, to find a quiet poet sitting at a small desk, offering to write a poem to order on a subject chosen by the passer-by. Her name was GennaRose Nethercott and, naturally, I stopped to talk to her and order a poem. She asked me for a subject and, as I was writing about arches myself at that point, I suggested a poem about arches, went off for a coffee, and returned about 20 minutes later. Here is the poem she had written:
A stone giant bows,
its arms bent like a tulip stem
in wind. Such a strong beast –

how gently it tilts,
like a cat’s arched spine,
like the tip of a paintbrush.

This leviathan is more prayer
than canyon. Brick alight
with wind. Can grace infect
even the hardest of us?

The heaviest rocks?
Soft, even with such a weight?

I thought GennaRose was extremely brave to sit there accepting whatever subjects were thrown at her, and producing fairly decent poems on those subjects in so short a time.

St John's

thanking childrenMy own reading this year was as part of the Just Festival, and took place in St John’s Church at the west end of Prince’s Street. This is an exciting festival of music, dance, poetry and art, with an international and inter-faith flavour. I read for an hour and sold some books; and it was a particular delight when my grandchildren donned animal masks and joined me for the final poem of the afternoon.

Marquees in Charlotte Square provide the venues for all the events of the International Book Festival. Audiences are in general large, enthusiastic and intelligent.
I booked in advance for two events and, as the large tent theatre was completely full on both occasions, I was glad that I had done so.

images The first event was an interview with the wonderful neurophysicist, Susan Greenfield. Susan has written a novel, ‘2121’, which is a dystopian vision of a world in which virtual technology has taken over from reality. But most of the interview, ably conducted by Ruth Wishart, concentrated on Greenfield’s work on Alzheimers and the efforts by her team in their search for a way to stop the destruction of brain cells in that dreadful disease. The hour flashed by, as Susan spoke with passion, erudition and charm.


The next day the theatre was again full to capacity for a conversation between Rowan Williams and Julia Neuberger. I have long been an admirer of Rowan’s and it was good, as ever, to listen to someone with such a huge brain and a gracious manner.  Many subjects were covered in the hour, but of particular note, perhaps, were his reflections on the word ‘spirituality’ (which for him involves connectivity with others), the distinction between knowledge and scientific facts (on which he took a fairly Platonic line), and the robustness that should be part of the Christian’s response to criticism (in regard to which he quoted one of his lecturers at university who declared that a good religion is one that trains its own critics).

In the afternoon we took a coach out to Hopetoun House where students from St Andrews were performing ‘The Tempest’ on the beach. The parts of Ariel and Prospero were particularly Prospero & Miranda well-played, but all the actors caught the spirit of this wonderful final play of Shakespeare’s; and the waves of the Forth beside us added to the atmosphere. We moved, enchanted, to various points on the beach as the action progressed; and we drank in the wisdom of the bard, filtered through the modern approach of the young performers.

Amazingly, we had reasonable weather throughout our stay in Edinburgh. Each night at 10.30 the peace was shattered by bangs as the fireworks marked the end of yet another Tattoo performance, and we were even able to catch a glimpse of them from our window.

On now to my next poetry reading, which will be in Norfolk next week.
As ever: ‘Poetry is always moving’.

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Winchester blog 1: July

images-1Earlier this week I made my first visit to Winchester as Poet in Residence for the ’10 days: Creative Collisions Arts Festival’ to take place this autumn. The three purposes of this visit were 1. to sit for a portrait by the artist Michael Weller; 2. to meet the festival organisers in the cathedral; and 3. to meet one of the artists with whom I shall be working in the coming months, to discuss her project.

One of the major aims of the festival is to bring together artists from different disciplines. Over the coming months I shall be working with a few visual artists, but it also seemed like a good idea to agree to have my portrait painted.

???????????????????????????????I spent the morning in Michael’s studio. I’ve never had my portrait painted before, so this was a new and interesting experience. I sat for nearly three hours, with a few short breaks to avoid getting a stiff neck, as I was requested to maintain the same position throughout. An extremely comfortable chair was provided, and some lovely mp3 tapes of poetry. In the company of John Donne, Tennyson, and then Richard Burton’s wonderful performance of Under Milkwood, the time did not hang heavy, and I really appreciated the unusual luxury of sitting in enforced idleness. The only slight problem I had to struggle a little with by the end of a very hot morning was the tendency to become drowsy.

Michael, who paints in oils, uses a limited palette of black, white, cadmium red light, yellow ochre and ultamarine blue, and with those colours produces a whole world of colours and shades. It is strange to sit under the intense gaze of someone for such a long period of time – very different from being the focus of attention when lecturing or reading poetry. Like a medical practitioner, the artist’s gaze is detached and academic. From time to time Michael would take the painting off the easel and hold it to a mirror in order to see it from a different perspective; and he would periodically clean his palette to avoid the colours merging into each other.

???????????????????????????????At the end of the morning I was shown the portrait. That, too, was a new experience. It is something of a shock to suddenly come face to face with oneself, and for some reason which I haven’t quite fathomed yet, it is very different from looking at a photograph. After my initial dumbfounded response, I realised that it is a very good portrait, and I actually like it. I’d be interested to know what other people think of it. Michael reckoned that I looked ‘reflective’; but I wondered what else anyone could look if they sat still for three hours. One can hardly grin at the artist for all that time!

Michael would like to do another portrait of me, so we arranged a date for later in the summer. This is likely to be rather different as I’m due to have my ‘annual haircut’ before then! The paintings will be displayed in the cathedral during the festival.

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I went on to the cathedral, where I met the organisers and curators of the festival: Trish Bould, Angela Peagram and Jo Bartholomew. A ceramics exhibition was being mounted in the cathedral, so there was quite a lot of noise and activity. It is an exquisite building, and I’m thrilled to be working there.


I mounted to the triforium with Sue Wood, who is one of the artists I shall be working with. Sue’s piece is a sound installation called ‘Listen’, and her intention is to provide a space and incentive for people to sit and listen to the sounds of the cathedral. We spent some time discussing how Sue’s piece will work, and how much she should be present and/or visible while people experience the artwork. I have started writing a poem about her installation, and this, too, will be on display in this space in the triforium during the festival.



Bath time

Royal Crescent 5 cropped

Sue Boyle cropped

I’ve just returned from Bath, where I was involved in various events at the Week of Good Poetry organised by Sue Boyle. Before I go on to describe my stay in Bath, I’d like to congratulate Sue on her wonderfully efficient yet relaxed organisation of the festival, and thank her for inviting me to take part.

Unfortunately I was able to go to only the second half of the week, so missed readings by R V Bailey, June Hall and Anthony Fairweather. I did, however, manage to get along for the presentation by Wendy French and the Lapidus team on Words for Wellbeing, in which they talked about their work with some of the unwell and disadvantaged.

Saturday was fairly busy. It began with a joint presentation on publishing by Patricia Oxley, talking about getting published in magazines such as Acumen, and me talking about how to go about attempting to be published by Oversteps Books. The audience was interested and appreciative, and fully understood the difficulties faced by poets trying to make their mark.

Patricia & William cropped

I enjoyed working alongside Patricia, and we agreed afterwards that as we complement each other so well we should do joint presentations again. In this picture she and William were not, despite appearances, on board a ship, but were sitting in the sunshine in Bath Central Library.

Peter Charters, Jeremy Young and Ewan McPherson did a group reading of Poems of Faith and Doubt. There was more faith than doubt, but that is not necessarily a criticism of what was a lovely reading. This was followed by a reading by William Oxley himself, which I was glad to introduce. He read poems under the title of ‘Places of Spirit’, and this was of particular interest as his new book, ‘Isca’, had just been published. This he calls a ‘coffee table book’, as it contains poems about Exeter by William alongside lovely photographs by his son-in-law.

me in flight cropped
My own reading was in the afternoon, and I was given plenty of time to include both serious and humorous poems. Once again, the audience was warm and enthusiastic, and it was good to be introduced by William.

I stayed with some lovely friends in Bath, who welcomed me warmly and made me feel completely at home. I also took the opportunity to explore Bath, which I didn’t know.

Rooftop-2011I had decided in advance that I would love to swim in the roof-top thermal baths, so duly presented myself there on Friday morning. The price of a ticket for a swim nearly sent me racing for the nearest river, but having looked forward to it for so long I decided to close my eyes and pay. The swimming pool was really warm, and it was, indeed, extremely pleasant to float around in warm water with a view all over Bath.

Street through arch 2

There was much to explore, from the Georgian terraces and the tiny streets to the magnificent abbey.

Bath Abbey 1 Bath Abbey 2

The other great beauty and fascination of Bath was more arboreal than architectural, for the whole city was like a giant arboretum, with every park, square and crescent adorned with the most beautiful trees. I’ve included a couple of photos of trunks that caught my attention, and one scene from the Circus; but I could have pointed my camera in any direction and made a record of yet more delights.

tree trunk in St James's Square 2 tree trunk in St James's Square

Trees in the Circus

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Happy ending to a little country tale

We spend part of our time in a flat in a remote part of the West Country. There are nine flats in the house, and we share a communal garden. We also rent an adjacent meadow, where we have developed a wild flower meadow and a potager where we grow most of our own food.


Life in the country can sometimes resemble a soap opera, and we could supply plenty of material for the Archers of Ambridge. As an illustration of this I thought I’d share a series of events that made up quite a satisfying little saga the other day.

Sadly, the husband of our neighbour downstairs died last week, and this story takes place the afternoon and evening before his funeral.

Part 1.

Two small dogs, rather more rat-like than canine, were seen loose in our garden. The lease of the house discourages dog-ownership, and insists that any dogs must be on leads. A quick check in the other flats brought me to the conclusion that the dogs belonged to visitors who were staying in the barn next door; so I arrested the dogs and returned them to their rightful  owners, outlining the rules of the house regarding dogs, and explaining that as small grandchildren play in the garden, we are particularly averse to the depositing of dog poo.

Part 2.

The level of noise in our quiet garden suddenly started to increase exponentially, and looking out of the window we espied six boys and one man, complete with cricket set, enjoying a noisy game of cricket on our lawn. Two of our neighbours from the other flats were up in arms, particularly as the game was taking place just outside the window of the woman who was getting ready for her husband’s funeral. I watched one neighbour go to remonstrate with the uninvited guests, assuring them that she wouldn’t dream of going to play in their garden and that they shouldn’t help themselves to ours without permission. So off they went.

Part 3.


I went over to the meadow to do some hoeing, but the hoe was nowhere to be seen. What WAS to be seen (and heard) was a group of young boys thrashing through the bushes, making dens. I called them out and suggested that they should play in their own garden, rather than colonising everyone else’s land. I also asked them if they’d seen our missing garden tool.
‘No’ they replied, rather sheepishly.
‘No one else comes to the meadow’, I said, ‘so who is likely to be the prime suspect if tools go missing?’
‘Yes, exactly’.

It didn’t escape our notice that a large patch of rough ground had been bashed down, and we mused over what they might have used to do that.


Part 4.


A thorough search of the meadow did not reveal the hoe – or to give it its proper name, the swoe. It was a rather good one, that belonged to my parents-in-law, and I was not best-pleased that in order to sow seeds that afternoon I had to use an old stick to loosen the earth and make a drill for the seeds.

I therefore decided that a visit to the boys’ parents was called for, and went round, to be met by two extremely embarrassed mothers, who apologised for the dogs and the cricket, and were alarmed to hear about the meadow and the swoe.  One of them insisted on giving me a cake as an apology, and the boys were summoned to apologise – which they did very graciously.

I said that we couldn’t find the hoe, and one mother remembered that they had brought a garden tool back to the house, saying that they had ‘found it’. She had eventually had to stop them playing with it when it looked as though they were going to decapitate each other with it. Three of the older boys were sent out to retrieve the tool, but didn’t return by the time I left, so presumably they had gone back to the meadow for it.

This could have been an issue that led to neighbourly discord, except that all of them were extremely charming lads, and they seemed genuinely sorry for their misdemeanors. I can’t vouch for the father, as he seemed to have gone into hiding; but he’s probably very nice too.

I raided the rather bare chocolate and sweet cupboard in our kitchen so that I could give the boys something when they returned the hoe. They didn’t turn up that evening, but brought the hoe round the next morning. Apparently they had searched for over an hour before they managed to find it, and they had enough nettle stings to keep arthritis at bay for many a year. They were overwhelmed to be given chocolates, and effusive in their thanks and, again, in their apologies.

It’s not often that life throw up little stories that are so neatly rounded off with a satisfying closure. Everyone was happy and friendly, we are now enjoying a ginger cake, I got to know two extremely nice young mothers, and the boys have probably learnt quite a useful lesson about trespassing, pinching and fibbing, without anyone having to punish them.



Politics on your plate

I don’t usually talk about why our family doesn’t eat meat; but since a number of people have expressed an interest in our reasons, I’ll attempt an explanation here. It isn’t primarily about animal welfare, although I abhor cruelty in any form; nor is it a question of preference: I can remember thoroughly enjoying roast lamb and mint sauce and can still get an enthusiastically rumbling tummy when I smell bacon frying or chicken roasting. The reasons are political and environmental.

It’s now over forty years since we became vegetarians. Young, idealistic, slightly off-beat, and
Borough-Market-007up for changing the world, we read in the New Internationalist that if everyone stopped eating meat there would be enough food to go round the whole world’s population. Looking back,
I suspect that the evidence for this might not have been quite as conclusive as we believed at the time; but somehow, having taken the information on board, it just became rather difficult to walk into a butcher’s shop and buy meat. It also happened to be the case that we were
impecunious kids just out of university, so cutting out meat also reduced our food bills and allowed us to survive.

Fruit-and-vegetable-market-stallWe received occasional warnings that we risked missing vital nourishment, especially when we started to bring up children; but as we all enjoyed consistently excellent health, we took no notice. We never tried to convert others to vegetarianism: it was just a personal commitment to consider the poorest people in the world through the way we ourselves lived. Nor were we strict, so although we have never bought meat since then, we have certainly not made an issue of it when being entertained by others; so if anyone reading this has served meat to us at some point in the intervening years, please do not be dismayed: we almost certainly enjoyed it. We just wouldn’t want to make a habit of it.

Initially we decided to adopt a monastic style and serve meat only when we had guests. images-8However, word got round that the meals we cooked when alone were of a high culinary standard, and people began to demand vegetarian food when they came to dinner. So we abandoned the ‘special meat meals for guests’ idea and began to explore the infinite range of delicious vegetarian cuisine.

In recent years, there has been a subtle but undeniable sea change, for it has increasingly become evident that animal husbandry is a major factor in the run-away production of CO2 that is threatening to destroy our planet. In 2006 the United Nations published a report claiming that raising animals for food generates more greenhouse gas than all the cars and trucks in the world combined. It is one of the greatest sources of carbon dioxide and the single largest source of both methane and nitrous oxide emissions, and these are the very gases that cause the vast majority of global warming.

Since raising animals for food is a primary cause of land degradation, air pollution, water shortage, water pollution, loss of biodiversity and global warming, the report concluded that “the livestock sector emerges as one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global.

Animal agriculture takes up 70% of all agricultural land and 30% of the total land surface of the planet. In the drive for more animal pasture and feed areas, huge areas of prime forest are slashed and burned, so destroying the vital carbon sinks which we rely on to absorb carbon dioxide from the air. Vast areas of what used to be prime Amazon rainforest are now used as pastureland or for growing animal feed crops to fatten meat for rich nations. Animal agriculture also uses vast amounts of water, emits two-thirds of the world’s acid-rain-causing ammonia, and is the world’s largest source of water pollution, killing entire river and marine ecosystems, destroying coral reefs, and bringing sickness to some of the world’s poorest communities.

This diagram illustrates the different amounts of water used in producing food. water use

According to a study published in New Scientist, producing 1kg of beef releases greenhouse gases with a warming potential equivalent to 36.4kg of carbon dioxide. This is more than would be emitted by going for a three-hour drive while leaving all the lights burning at home. On top of this, it is also responsible for producing the equivalent of 340g of sulphur dioxide and 59g of phosphate, and consumes 160 megajoules of energy.


Carbon dioxide is responsible for about half of human-related greenhouse gas warming since the industrial revolution, and methane and nitrous oxide are responsible for another third. These gases come primarily from farmed animals’ digestive processes, and from their manure. In fact, while animal agriculture accounts for 9% of carbon dioxide emissions, it emits 37% of the world’s methane, and 65% of its nitrous oxide. Methane has 23 times, and nitrous oxide has 296 times, the warming power of carbon dioxide. These horrific statistics do not include emissions from managing farm equipment or for transporting meat, so the real damage is actually significantly more than these figures suggest.

These are all inconvenient facts, and it is tempting to ignore them. But the truth is that food is no longer a private matter. It is political, and it is of life-and-death importance. I’m afraid this is rather bad news for dyed-in-the-wool carnivores; but I’m sure many of them would want to know the facts, in order to make an informed decision about what they should do.

In deciding what and how we eat, there are three basic options:

* Jonathan Porritt has claimed that the most dramatic change one could make to cut down
carbon emissions, more dramatic even than changing a gas-guzzler SUV for a Smart, would be images-4to adopt a vegan diet. I myself have not yet taken this final step, though I know plenty of people who have, and they are contributing more to the effort to arrest climate change than most of us can manage with our low energy light bulbs and resistance to unnecessary car journeys. Veganism is worth considering.

* Given the fact that producing one calorie of meat protein involves burning more than ten times as much fossil fuel and emitting more than ten times as much heat-trapping carbon dioxide as a calorie of plant protein, vegetarianism can no longer be viewed as simply a
private images-2and personal choice. It is an essential and vital step in our efforts to save the planet. So hiding behind politeness, shyness or a desire not to intrude on other people’s life-styles is no longer a reasonable choice. Uncomfortable as such a role is, we should now be trying to persuade our friends and relations, and anyone else who might listen to us, that it is simply not acceptable to rely on meat as a major form of food.

* We are unlikely to stop meat production completely; and in reality, if people were prepared to eat meat occasionally rather than regularly, livestock production would probably be sustainable. For those who feel they cannot give up meat completely, there is some comfort in images-5 a Swedish study conducted in 2003, which claimed that raising
organic beef on grass rather than feed reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 40% and consumed 85% less energy. So those who are not prepared to be completely converted to vegetarianism, should at least limit their meat consumption to organic produce.


I think you’ll all agree that a display of vegetables beats a slab of meat on a blood-soaked butcher’s block any day! … And perhaps you’ll also acknowledge that there is enough variety, taste and excellence in the beautiful vegetable kingdom to satisfy the most committed epicure.



Food, Glorious food

Given the number and seriousness of recent food scares, one might be tempted to ask who needs enemies if one’s friends, the food producers on whom we all have to rely, can endanger us so much. But actually there is nothing very new about these crises. Slipping parts of horse into beef products, with the attendant risk of introducing bute into the human food chain, or discovering that consuming popular processed products such as bacon and sausages tends to shorten life quite significantly, are but the latest unpleasant revelations. The DDT used on food crops a generation ago was eventually found to be unacceptably dangerous to the consumer, and many (most?) of the food items sold in shops have long been laced with varying amounts of poison as a result of the pesticides, hormones and enhancers used on livestock, fruit and vegetables.

Yet, apart from the obvious fact that we can’t live without eating, the very metaphors of food and eating are deeply embedded in our acts of loving, our religious rituals and our celebration of life.Image The Jewish Seder meal, the Christian Eucharist, the offerings of food left in various forms of Hindu puja: all these and many more indicate that feasting and sharing food are basic to our religious instincts. And the opposite, fasting, also has a part to play in many people’s religious practice -– particularly, for Moslems, in Ramadan, which culminates in the feast of Eid.

Even limiting the palette to Christianity, the Scriptures and tradition are steeped in stories and metaphors of food: the Heavenly Banquet, the wedding at Cana, the feeding of the 5,000 and the Last Supper to name just a few.

ImageAnd moving away from the religious, many, perhaps most, of our celebrations and rituals involve special food and drink: Christmas pudding, hot cross buns, Easter eggs, Pimms in summer, mulled wine and mince pies in winter. The list is endless. Relationships rely on the giving and sharing of food: from the initial shy gift of a box of chocolates or the grubby sweets shared in the playground, to the hospitality extended to friends round our dinner tables and the celebration party (complete with special cake).

   Image         Image

Probably most of us could describe ‘memorable meals’ we’ve shared over the years: a romantic candlelit dinner for two sitting on deck chairs beside a pasting table in our poverty-stricken youth, an al fresco meal of fish on a wave-lapped Greek beach, or a simple sandwich consumed on top of a mountain after a vigorous climb.

Among my own treasured food memories are some from when I was working in poor parts of the world when I was chief executive of an NGO. One picture I still treasure is of a simple but delicious feast provided for me in a Tanzanian slum and served with royal grace; and another is the gift of a live chicken that was thrust into my arms as I left a remote African village. This latter fluffy passenger quite quickly adapted to travelling by car over bumpy roads, and I gave it to the next people I visited.

When my husband accompanied me on a visit to Siberia, we travelled in two stages from Moscow to Beijing on the Trans-Siberian Railway. For some reason the caterers ran out of food and  we were ‘reduced’ to dining on smoked salmon and extremely inexpensive 
champagne for breakfast, lunch and dinner. There was also, of course, a samovar at the end of each carriage, which supplied an inexhaustible stream of tea.

And then there was the time we were guests of honour at a banquet in the far north of Thailand. On our plates were some unidentifiable lumps of a black substance. Having detected that these were not chunks of delicious aubergine, I quietly moved mine to the edge of the plate; but my vegetarian husband, ever curious, speared a chunk and asked our host what it was. When he was told that it was ‘congealed chicken blood’, I watched his smile fade as the piece of food slowly descended back to his plate where it was surreptitiously slipped under a pile of rice to hide.

Drinks come in various interesting forms, as well. When I was lecturing at a college in Fiji I was given a coconut shell full of cava, which I was required to down in one. It was not particularly unpleasant, as long as one didn’t mind the gritty sandy texture, but I think it probably spiced up my subsequent talk.

ImageCézanne’s translucent paintings often capture the spiritual beauty of food and remind us that food is for sharing, enjoying and celebrating. It’s no wonder that the Letter to the Hebrews exhorts us to show hospitality to strangers, ‘for in doing so, some have entertained angels unawares’. It’s easy to believe this when looking at one of Cézanne’s wonderful (wonder-full) studies of comestibles.

There are gloomy statistics that tell us that even in our wealthy country many homes do not have a dining table and that food is often consumed in front of a television without the need for conversation or laughter. Such information should alert us to the fact that while food is important as a personal, social and religious entity, it is also deeply political. 

And that will be the subject of my next blog. For the moment, I hope you enjoy your food, and are able to share, celebrate and entertain angels.