Thursday, 11 December 2014

The seamen at Tower Hill

The merchant navy memorial at Tower Hill is  a melancholy place to go to. My visits always seem to coincide with dusk…

‘And each slow dusk a drawing-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 bombs. 

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” Roger Hill, 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 them.

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.

Friday, 28 November 2014

Are we there yet?

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 cards.

I'm looking forward to next year. 

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Robert Victor Davies – 10th June 1897 – 31st July 1917

He was the uncle that my father never knew, as Dad was born two years after he was killed. My great aunts, Bena and Edie could have told me about him had I known to ask while they were still alive.
On a recent Writers trip to the battlefields I went to look for Victor. I knew he was one of the thousands of missing who have no known graves although I can’t help  hoping that he is somewhere in one of the cemeteries, even if all the headstone says known unto God. The only place to find a trace of Victor is amongst the names on the Menin Gate in Ypres. We visited late on a Saturday evening after the crowds had dispersed. The Royal Welsh Fusiliers are on one of the side panels, up the first flight of steps with the night sky above. It was drizzling with rain and quite dark and there he was, R.V. Davies. So easy to miss and so far from home.

The next morning I went to a florist’s in Poperinghe and bought him a rose, in creamy white with green edges to the petals. I’m sure none of the immediate family,  neither his mother nor any of his sisters will have had the chance to visit. I sat in the quiet of the chapel at Talbot house and wrote him a poem to go with the rose. Then in the evening before all the coaches arrived for the daily ceremony of the Last Post, my friend Vanessa and I put the rose in place beneath his name. 

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Poetry Postcard Fest

Although I am working on a second book as well as doing a full-time day job and various other things I thought I would join in with the annual August  Poetry Postcard Fest organised by Paul Nelson and others.
The idea is that each day during August you write a poem on a postcard and send it to another poet who is also writing poems and sending them out. By September you will have written 31 poems and hopefully have received a similar number of poetry postcards through the post. I always loved receiving postcards as a child and still  do as an adult although it has become something of lost art. After all why would anyone write something by hand and then entrust it to the mercies of the postal service to deliver when they could just zap off an email.

It is proving to be tremendous fun. I have been obeying the rules and writing original poems, mostly inspired by the pictures on my cards. There is not much room on the back of a postcard but that seems to make it easier.

“It is an experiment in composing in the moment and your poem has an audience of one.” Paul Nelson.

Somehow knowing that only one person is going to read the poem makes it less daunting and more personal. There are over 400 poets taking part this year, most of them are in the USA so all the poems will be in English. I have a couple of non-US folk on my list, a Canadian, a couple of Brits and a person from Germany.

So far I’ve received one card which is of cowboys from Pendleton, although on closer examination I can see they are statues of cowboys not moving which the poem on the back makes great play of. I can’t remember the last time I was so pleased about receiving an item of post. The poems I’ve sent out have been on familiar themes, peace, war, a sense of home but the idea is that as you start receiving cards you should try to respond by letting the card linger before you write your next one.
Speaking of which….

Saturday, 12 July 2014

The ultimate bookshop - Albion Beatnik in Oxford

For a long time I've been promising myself a trip to Oxford to go to the Albion Beatnik and last night thanks to Cinnamon Press I finally got there. 

I thought that  the bookshop would be a nice place, rather like Ottakars in Milton Keynes before it got taken over. What I had not expected to find was a small piece of heaven in North Oxford and more like finding yourself in a friend's well stocked library.

I was frazzled when I arrived having only got off a plane from Athens a couple of hours earlier and subsequently having failed to leave my car at the park and ride since their machines expect payment in sterling rather than Euros. I'd abandoned my car somewhere in the vicinity of the Woodstock road and hot footed it to the bookshop, convinced I'd be late. 

The bookshop owner, Dennis Harrison, took me in hand, providing tea, conversation, introductions to various people drifting in for the evening reading and a calmly reassuring presence. Who needs Costa coffee when 'builder's tea' magically appears in front of you on a hand-decorated table.

Unlike many of the far larger chain bookshops the Albion Beatnik has shelves and shelves of new poetry books plus new fiction and also second hand books.

It is a more intimate setting than the above photograph might suggest and a fantastic place to hold a reading. I was pleased to meet up with my fellow Cinnamon authors for the launch of Hazel Manuel's novel Kanyakumari and to hear selections from the novels of Lindsay Stanberry-Flynn
 Mary Howell, more of Jan's Slate Voices and a preview of the memoir being written by Catherine Coldstream.

If you should visit Oxford then do not leave without going to the bookshop. It is at 34 Walton Street. And do buy a book or two, as without customers bookshops like the Albion Beatnik will cease to exist. 

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

One year on….

I came close to calling this blog post  being a ‘proper’ writer as it’s a year since Convoy was published and so I’ve been reflecting on the past year.

In lots of ways life goes on just as it did before publication; there’s still laundry to be done, children to be collected from school and the day job at the Open University with its many and varied demands.

So has anything changed? Well I can answer that in one word – confidence.

There is nothing quite like having someone else believe in the strength of your writing enough to publish it, to make you realise you might actually have joined the ranks of ‘proper’ writers. Then there’s the readers who send me enthusiastic notes and comments about Convoy. This is a recent one

‘In Convoy, I appreciated this glimpse of foreign-to-me bravery, foreign because this happened before my time, and is a part of the history of that war I knew little to nothing about. It's a lovely gift to have created a platform for those voices. My father spoke in a similar way about his war experiences in the Pacific arena. By that I mean with few words, but a sense that a lot that doesn't need to be said, while still conveying loss and the wonder of self-survival. Such haunting words and images, 
"I am more than tired, keep seeing things, 
friends who died on previous convoys 
reaching out to shake my hand."

Poetry books don’t generally get many reviews so I have been grateful to the people who have ventured onto Amazon or Good Reads to post their opinions.

The other change is that people now ask me to do things… as a writer. This has included running a village writing group, originally under the auspices of our community library. They are a delight and are so enthusiastic about writing and learning and have made me realise how much I know about the craft. Of course we are all still learning…. then there’s taking part in readings… the Sensing spaces, Wandering words event at the Royal Academy, which provided an adrenaline rush.. it was like doing my fist parachute jump all over again… but with fellow poets alongside.

Having been through the process of putting together a first collection I’m spending 2014 as a mentor to poet Becky Cherriman under a scheme set up by my publisher Cinnamon Press. She has recently had poems published on the Mslexia blog as part of Michelle McGrane’s Against Rape project on Peony Moon.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

My Writing process

Rebecca Gethin (Liar Dice, A handful of Water and What the Horses heard ) has kindly asked me to take part in a blog tour of writers where we all answer the same questions and tag other writers who will do the same the following week. A nice way to keep in touch and learn about new people!  Becky posted her writers blog tour last week.

I have one person to tag at the moment and this is:
  • Judi Moore:

Judi’s novelIs Death really necessary is available on the kindle. As befits the author of a novel set in 2038 Judi lives in the new town of Milton Keynes with several (hard to be specific - they don't stand still) black and white critturs in an old Tardis-like cottage.

Now for my answers to the questions:

What am I working on?
I have several writing projects on the go at the moment. Social media friends will have noticed my current pre-occupation with London’s statues and I’m working on a top secret collaborative venture with another writer. I’ve also returned to writing prose as I have a couple of characters, a  father and son who want me to tell their story. 

How does my work differ from others of its genre?
I’m not sure that it does. But I do mostly write poems that are based on things that have actually happened in the past, even if I do invent a lot of the details.

Why do I write what I do?
This is a difficult question to answer because I write what I’m moved to set down and I don’t tend to examine why I’m doing it. It would detract from the writing if I started navel gazing about the whys. That said, many of the poems in Convoy were about the stories we are at risk of forgetting. So there was an element of capturing lost stories and as I was writing the collection it felt as if I was doing it for all the merchant seamen who are the unsung heroes of the second world war.

How does your writing process work?
I wait until I can hear the character’s voice or the voice of the poem. But I wouldn’t want it to sound as if I sit around waiting for inspiration to strike. You’d never get anything written that way. I’ve discovered that you can put yourself in the right place, usually just by sitting down with a blank page.

I’m just about to go off to North Wales for a writing retreat and based on previous experience I know that I will get lots written away from the distractions of home and the day job.