Thanks to the irrepresible Ian McEwen, Bedford has become one of the places to go to for poetry in this part of the world. He has a great line up for current Ouse Muse season; including Claire Crowther, Jon Stone and Hannah Lowe.
Last Thursday I and Vanessa Gebbie were the invited poets, reading to an appreciative audience in St Peter's chapter house in Bedford, which is not their usual venue but a lovely space in which to read.
Back in 2012 when I first visited the Vis en Artois memorial where Percy Honeybill is remembered I applied for a copy of his birth certificate. If you look online you will find the year of his birth given in various places as 1888 or 1887. The message I received then was that no record could be found.
My new year resolution was to try again with success this time. Here is his birth certificate which arrived in the post this morning.
By eerie concidence he was born on the twentieth of May which is the same day as my mother's birthday although they were born forty six years apart. My mother was someone to whom family were important so I'm not surprised that I thought of her when I was at Thiepval and decided to look for a Honeybill.
This is another retrospective post about the good things of 2014. Amongst these was the 'Sensing Spaces' exhibition at the Royal Academy, which I will remember long after the rest of the year has been forgotten.
The gallery let architects loose on the gallery spaces to see what they could come up with. What they produced was very different to the usual exhibitions of paintings. This was art for all the senses, a wooden staircase to climb until you were eye to eye with gilded angels; black velvet curtains through which you could pass to find a room lit by pin pricks of light and circled with slender bamboo poles and smelling of damp wood; a maze with a white floor leading to a mirrored room with a shingle beach; a dimly lit room which seemed full of smoke or was it light drifting down from the ceiling and a do-it-yourself artwork of hundreds of long bendy plastic straws in bright primary colours and a cave in which to hang them.
The spaces kept drawing me back and the hazelwood maze became my favourite of all the rooms, with a different aspect every time I went. The Royal Academy had asked a group of poets - Patricia Debney, Sasha Dugdale, Ian Duhig, Martin Figura, Vanessa Gebbie, Emer Gillespie, Helen Ivory, Maureen Jivani, Edward Mackay, Abegail Morley, Robert Peake Catherine Smith, Tamar Yoseloff - to write poems inspired bythe architects' work and selected poems by myself and Julie Maclean. This turned what could have been a solitary experience into a shared response to all those spaces, rather like bats sending out signals and waiting the clicks to come back.
Shuffle forwards, rely on sonar like a bat. Reach out and press blind, palm to palm, against smooth glass. Martin Figura
I still think about the exhibition and how it is long gone from the galleries so you cannot climb up to be with the angels on the ceiling but those spaces still exist in the words of the poems. So all I have to do is to take out the anthology to read or you can catch glimpses on youtube of the poets and musicians in the exhibition.
With a rush of blood
to the head just before Christmas I signed up for the postcard
exchange being organised by Amy Souza. She runs the Spark project
which pairs writers and artists and gives each party a chance to be
inspired by the other's work.
Her plan for January
2015 is to put together groups of six people to create and send each
other postcards during the month. Briliant idea...
But wait – that
means I have to make the cards – collage was mentioned in the
introductory email and other art-related stuff. To misquote the
lyrics of The Specials Rat Race
I don't have one Art O level.
In fact I was
hopeless at art at school. Whatever came over me! Writing the poems
to go on the back of the card will be fine but what about the
I scared myself even
more by looking for DIY art postcards and similar on the internet.
There is some serious art with a capital A out there.
But I have been
thinking very hard and may have some ideas.
My five companions
in this adventure are from the USA and are scattered all over the
states. I've been learning more about US geography, courtesy of
google maps. If you start in New York, go via the New Jersey Turnpike
to Arlington VA, then Poplarville MS, then Minneapolis and finally
Beaverton, OR (OR = Oregon I think) you will have covered 4,150 miles
taking 60 hours or about 60 days on foot but more importantly you
will have visited the towns and cities of my fellow postcard
Now I have not one
but two ideas for cardsand the post office in Wing sells blank postcards in paxks of 25 so I have scope for some experiments.
As the year draws to a close I wanted to mention some of the
lovely things that have come my way in this mostly unlovely year for me personally.
One of my favourites of the autumn was Leaving the line –
Images and words of War and Wondering. This is a Bristol based project created
by Tania Hershman, writer, flash fiction creator, poet and Jeremy Banning,
military historian and battlefield guide extraordinaire. Their idea was to
create a series of twelve postcards inspired by images and stories from the
First World War.
They were gathering material while we were out in France and
Belgium in October on the fourth writers trip organised by Vanessa Gebbie – Tania had that bright eyed, cocked head look of a Robin that has
just spotted something worth investigating and turning over. So I was
interested to see what the postcards would be like.
When the set of cards dropped through my letterbox in
November my reaction was Wow.
There have been many commemorative projects during 2014 but this one was special.
The words on the cards are written by Jeremy (four cards)
and Tania (eight cards) and there is more information on the back of each card about the context. They are an example of what poetry does best; some
poems will make you want to cry, Kaddish,
others will teach you something The
things they carried, and they will all - Unmemorial,
If he was here now he’d say - make you think about what commemorating the
war can mean.
You can see all of the cards here and listen to Tania
and Jeremy talking about their collaboration and about stepping into each other’s
navy memorial at Tower Hill is a
melancholy place to go to. My visits always seem to coincide with dusk…
‘And each slow dusk adrawing-down of blinds’ as Owen put it and the light was dying last Friday as a
friend and I walked around the memorial garden. The plaques are arranged in
order by ship and there are men who I make a habit of visiting to pay my
respects. The first, young Peter Chamberlain was little more than a boy, aged
nineteen and on his first voyage on the SS Cornwall. He was in the radio room
and was killed on 31st August 1940 when the ship was straddled by
Thanks to the seamanship of her master, Francis Pretty the Cornwall did
make it to Malta.
Francis Pretty then became captain of the Nottingham whilst
the badly damaged Cornwall was awaiting repairs. The Nottingham was lost with
all hands in the Atlantic on 7th November 1941. So Pretty’s name is
on the walls too not far from Chamberlain’s.
Last Friday we also paid our respects to some the ships lost during
Operation Pedestal in August 1942. There is the MV Glenorchy whose crew did
manage to take to the lifeboats, apart from those who had already been killed.
Glenorchy’s captain G Leslie refused to leave his ship and went down with her.
Then there was the Waimarama which like all the other ships in the
convoy was carrying aviation fuel which exploded when she was hit.
“The biggest explosion I have ever
seen. The flames were hundreds of feet high and agreat expanse of sea was
covered in roiling smoke and flames” RogerHill, H.M. S. Ledbury
There would be more names on the plaque under Waimarama had Roger Hill
and his crew not braved the inferno to rescue as many as they could. But among
the names of the dead is that of Bowdory, a man in his sixties who had joined
up because his sons were serving in the armed forces and he wanted to play his
part. He’d befriended the young Fred Treves but there was nothing Treves could
do to save Bowdory who could not swim when the raft he was on was dragged back
in the flames. You can find an interview with Treves as a much older man on
youtube recounting what happened and weeping.
The Lusitana is there too. She went down with 1,153 passengers and crew off
Kinsale on 7th May 1915.
So the Tower Hill memorial is a place of great sadness but as important
as many of the other better known memorials, like the Cenotaph. These seamen
have no graves except for this sea and this at least is somewhere to remember
I often wish that the powers that be could spare the funds to set up a
visitor’s centre or similar, to provide those who pass by with more information
about these ships and these men.
Earlier in the summer I mentioned taking part in the annual
Poetry Postcard Festival organised from the United States by Paul Nelson and
others. This has improved my grasp of the geography of the US as even when the
card itself wasn’t specific to the local I did look up where it had come from.
After the rush of brightly coloured cards and vibrant poems
coming through the letterbox I’ve continued to get the occasional card during
the autumn but I think we must be done now. So wanted to say thanks to all the
poets who brightened my days and the dining room door
Kay Kinghammer, Ann
Hudson, Linda Barnes, Courtney Birst, Laurel Radzieski, Tamesa Williams, Joanne
Diaz, Shayla Hawkins, Rebecca Fullan, Jennifer Lemming, Jamie Robinson, Tanya
Neumeyer, Carolyn Everett, Bette Lynch Husted, Allyson Boggess, Elizabeth Aamot,
Dheepikaa Balasubramanian, Terry Holzman and the four unknown poets who sent me