Sunday, May 29, 2011

Sound of the sea

In the morning early
I go down to the sea
And I see the mist on the shore;
I listen and I listen.

I was brought up near the sea and have listened to it all my life.

My junior school was an Edwardian edifice called Rockcliffe, and the name describes well its positioning above Browns Bay near Cullercoats on the North East coast. In winter the windows were streaked with salt, and at break we'd huddle behind the playground walls thinking of the fishermen in peril who were a regular subject of school assembly. One of my earliest memories is playing dare with the swell as it drenched the railings on the lower cliff path.

My mother was a teacher at Rockcliffe. One evening she wrote a song using chime bars to tap out the tune. Later that night she allowed us down from our bedroom to try out the verses and the next day her class sang it in school. By coincidence the school was preparing for a radio broadcast and the producers asked if they could use the song to introduce the show.

That song is now published across the world. It's been a staple of the BBC's Songs for Schools and Come and Praise for forty years. Despite this, my mother received only a few pounds from royaltes until she learned a recording was being used by the BBC as a radio theme tune. She contacted the performing rights society, was given a substantial backdated compensation, and now receives a small, but not to be sniffed at, income from royalties.

A few weeks ago I told this story to some friends on a writing course; one of them remembered the song from her childhood. I sang it in faltering voice, the first time in years. And as I did so it was clear why this simple hymn has been so popular. It is a primary teacher's dream - the perfect musical accompaniment to a project on the seashore. But it also has that quality of drawing our attention to something we're not always aware of, and yet is vital to the experience.

Yesterday my middle son was fifteen. After giving him his presents we went for a walk from Porth Clais on the Pembrokeshire coast. The sky was streaked with plane trails, a sharpness to the air after a morning of rain, the swell on the rocks, ice white. After a mile or so we lay down in a hollow and I sat watching the tide run through the reef between us and the bird island of Carreg Fran.

We must have been there half an hour: Daniel flat out in seconds, Mike cradling his girlfriend, Dylan's imagining himself a Jedi knight and Jane snoozing in the heather. I counted boats (five), watched a cormorant steal a fish from a gull, and tried to remember when I'd last kayaked this stretch of coast. But most of all I listened to sea.

Our thoughts about the sea are tied up with the view, the horizon, our history and memory -  the taste and the smell too. So many things. But I'd defy you to experience the sea without hearing its voice; indeed the sea without sound would be a strangely dead place. Yesterday, with my family on the cliffs above Porth Clais and the wind sucking at the swell, I hummed my mother's song. As the words came back to me, the sea felt more alive than ever - and, just for a moment, so did I.

Here is the song in full.

In the morning early
I go down to the sea
And I see the mist on the shore;
I listen and I listen

When I go to the rocks
I go looking for shells
And I feel the sand beneath my feet;
I listen and I listen

When the stormy day comes
Waves crash on the cliffs
And the wind whistles through my hair;
I listen and I listen

And at night when I sleep
And the sea is calm
The gentle waves lap the shore;
I listen and I listen

I sometimes think that God
Is talking to me
When I hear the sound of the sea;
I listen and I listen

                                  Hazel Charlton

Monday, May 23, 2011

Objects of desire

On Friday I bought a water jug. It's quite large as jugs go, stoneware with an earthen finish, glazed green inside; it was made by a potter whose name I've forgotten but I recall sounded Swedish. The jug was on display in the David Mellor factory in Hathersage. As we browsed the shop I kept going back to pick it up, judge it's weight and feel the curve of the handle; when Jane walked back to the car I quickly bought it.

'That's a lot for a jug,' she said, when I told her the price. A little defensive, I pointed out that our dinner for three (in a Beefeater steakhouse) would likely cost as much and we'd not think twice about that. And whereas the dinner would be forgotten by tomorrow, I might use the jug for years; keep it for life even.

For me, this is an increasing state of mind. As I get older I find myself buying objects that I don't as such need, but that strike me as beautiful, and useful - items that might give me pleasure every day. Not many are as pricey as the jug; I bought an antique toffee tin the next day for two pounds and the most gorgeous writing slope for forty (it will house my laptop and a plethora of 12volt chargers). Few cost more than a fill of petrol.

I'm conscious that to some that last comment might appear flippant; lots of people can't afford to fill their car at a whim, and I'm deeply fortunate not to have to count every pound. I could give all manner of justifications but deep down I suspect I'll always be sensitive to the privileges I enjoy; hard earned or not. And in truth I'd not wish to change that - it's a safety valve that helps me take as much pleasure in owning (relatively) simple things as some seemingly get only from way more expensive purchases.

In my loftier moments I like to think that I'm following in an Arts and Crafts tradition; surrounding myself with objects that exhibit a truth to materials and a sense of craftsmanship that makes life a greater a joy. Certainly, there's an honesty and utility to jugs and the like that you seldom find in the fine arts - much though I love paintings, they are by their nature 'on display' rather than in use. But in truth my purchases are less consistent philosophy and more that I'm periodically confronted by objects of desire I simply can't resist.

Years ago my father in law said to me that the best thing about becoming a headmaster was being able  to afford any book he wanted. His point was that not sweating the smaller pleasures was a greater delight than affording a bigger house or a new car, the so called and more stereotypical trappings of success. It has always struck me as a healthy approach.

I like books too and Amazon's 'buy now with 1-click'  could easily be one of my more serious vices. Thankfully I have it under control. So too is my buying of pottery. Or at least I thought so - for the next day, when Jane wasn't looking, I bought a jar for no other purpose than to look at!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Books I'm reading # 10

After a rather fallow winter I've been catching up with some better reads this spring - my enthusiasm renewed by the purchase of a garden swing seat that I've taken to lounging on; book in one hand, beer in the other, teenager doing the lawns... ah, that's better.  Here's a small selection.

First up is True History of The Kelly Gang by Peter Carey, a one time Booker Prize novel and the best fiction I've read in ages. It's written as a first person narrative, as if it were the 'authentic' voice of Ned Kelly, using little punctuation, a crude dialect and a disarmingly simple narrative style. The genius of this bold approach is that by chapter three I was so taken in I'd ceased to regard it as fiction.  Still now, it feels like its literal title - the true history of the Kelly gang.  A fabulous book and a monumental achievement.

I was delighted to be given an advance proof of Rory Maclean's, Gift of Time. This too is a story of which we know the ending, for it chronicles the last months of his mother's life after a diagnosis of terminal cancer. The book is presented as a diary of three voices - Rory, his wife and his mother -  each coming to terms with the inevitable. Paradoxically, it is a hugely hopeful story as each voice, in its own way, reaffirms what is most joyful and important in life. And its hopeful too in standing at odds with the modern tendency to relinquish old age and dying into the hands of others. The book is available for pre-order on Amazon or at book shops and I'll write a fuller review nearer its publication.

Jan Fortune Wood was one of the first women to be ordained into the Church of England. Stale Bread and Miracles is a series of prose poems that tells the story of how, from inspired and expectant beginnings, she came to leave the church, disillusioned with its politics, misogyny and plain lack of care. This is not a hopeful book, and typically not something I'd chose - but in fact I loved it.  By the end I wanted to clap and cheer- thank God you left, at last you saw the light.

On the subject of politics, I read James Whyte's, A Load of Blair in an afternoon on the sun lounger. I like Whyte, he's a rigorous thinker with the ability to make logic entertaining. His better known book, Bad Thoughts: A Guide to Clear Thinking, targets the nonsensical assertions of religion, the press and Government.  A Load of Blair, as the title suggests, takes a particular look at the spin of New Labour (with Blair as its master craftsman) and more generally the vacuous claptrap of modern political rhetoric. I guess most of us like to think we know, or at least can sense, when we're being duped - but this book dissects political rhetoric at a whole new level. It is relevant, funny and recommended if you like that sort of thing.

Winston Smith (not his real name you understand) was the winner of last year's Orwell Prize. A link to his blog is on my sidebar - it you haven't read it before, then prepared to be shocked, angry and a little lost at the desperate state of social care for young people in Britain.  Generation F is the book of the blog; an insider's account of (in his view) the counter productive, bureaucratic and wasteful madness he encounters as a care-worker on a social housing scheme. Smith paints a picture of a system so driven by political correctness and its own funding structure, that it is singularly failing at all levels - particularly its ability to offer any hope or answer to the most antisocial contingent, which he describes as 'feral brutes'. If I have one criticism it is the absence of a clearly articulated alternative - Smith's views on the current system are self evident, but a chapter setting out his vision for an alternative structure, funding and objectives would have raised the book to another level . You may not agree with all he has to say, but the Generation F is an eye opener nonetheless.

And finally Roald Dahl - never my favourite children's author, I'd always thought his books to be overly long and full of cliches. But what do I know; Dylan loves them. And together we pretend they are written especially for him. So we've read aloud Dylan and the Giant Peach, Dylan and the Chocolate Factory, Dylan the Champion of the World, The Giraffe the Peli and Dylan, as well as Fantastic Mr Fox (real name Dylan) and others. And in so doing I've come to appreciate Roald Dahl a little better; it's not so much the writing that matters - its me and my boy, reading together, hatching plots, flying peaches, poaching pheasants and squashing baddies; what stories should be I suppose.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Ty Newydd - and the importance of place

The view from the garden, Ty Newydd, North Wales

Last week I completed the final assignment of my creative writing degree. It marked the end of an nine year journey that began when I noticed my sketch books were more full with words than drawings. In that time I've progressed from the vague idea that I might have something to say, to well... what you're reading now.

It was appropriate that I put down my pen - or more accurately, clicked the save key - in the garden of Ty Newydd, the last home of Lloyd George and now of the National Writing Centre, Wales. I first came here shortly after I started writing, having enrolled on a course with the Open College of the Arts but looking for additional support and, in truth, some validation that I had the latent ability to make it worth carrying on.

What I found would have a profound effect, not just on my immediate work but on my confidence and sense of worth as a writer. For Ty Newydd is that sort of place. I remember my first visit, a 'tutored retreat' facilitated by the poet Janice Moore Fuller. I'd sneaked a last minute place and felt entirely out of my depth, especially when she said, 'we'll come together each evening so we can share what we've been working on'. I wasn't sure what I was going to write never mind read it aloud.

But I loved it. I worked from seven till seven, barely stopping to eat; the atmosphere was inspiring, the feedback supportive, the evening get togethers, intelligent, creative and boozy. I was gutted when I learned the centre would soon be closing for a full year's renovation - in fact I squeezed in another course just before it did.

And over the years I've returned time and again. I've attended courses on landscape, short fiction, science and writing, journeys and journals, nature writing; a host of retreats too. I try to come whenever my work is at the stage it needs some real focus and the creative input that a shared commitment seems to bring.  In parallel with my degree tutors, it is the support from Ty Newydd that has shaped my writing and brought me to where I am now.

Last week I not only completed my last assignment, I went to visit my soon to be publisher, Cinnamon Press (I can hardly believe I just wrote that). That too has a connection with Ty Newyyd, for the introduction was made by Jim Perrin, a tutor on an early course and whose mentoring and friendship, has encouraged me more than any other.

Other tutors and readers too: John Latham, Mark Cocker, David Constantine, Celia Brayfield, Ruth Padel, Niall Griffiths, Carol Anne Duffy, Christine Evans - where else could I have worked with and learned from writers like these?  To be fair, the Arvon Foundation runs similar courses and I've attended a few, but it's Ty Newydd I come back to. Partly that's preference; more objectively I'd argue Ty Newydd is a genuinely special place - the house itself, its connections to Wales and the landscape, history and culture.  It's no coincidence that these are recurring themes of my writing.

Places like Ty Newydd need our support. At time when arts funding is tight it's understandable that questions are asked, that the value and efficacy of its output is reviewed. But how do we measure the success of a national writing centre? Should we look the hundreds of school children who come here and measure the difference it makes to their exam results? Should we count the number of published writers, or review the course anthologies and assess the quality of work produced?

Or should we, as in my case, consider too the friends I've made, the help I've received, the wider impact on my motivation, my degree, my book, my blog... and indeed my life.


Post Script - completing the circle, I'll be tutoring a course on Blogging for Writers at Ty Newydd this autumn. My co tutor is the acclaimed travel writer Rory Maclean, and the guest reader, prolific blogger and author, Fiona Robyn.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Route finding on Snowdon

Snowdon from the Deiniollen quarries - it was sunnier last week.
On Friday, when half the nation was watching 'that wedding' I walked up Snowdon. It wasn't so much an act of protest as a simple opportunity to climb a great mountain on a fabulous day. Hundreds, possibly thousands of others, had the same idea.

Snowdon (or Yr Wyddfa) is of course the highest mountain in Wales. The massif consists of three distinct summits, arranged in a horseshoe formation, but it's the central peak that most climbers aim for. From the summit there are some of the most spectacular views in the UK.  I realised it was fifteen years since I'd last stood there.

My route took me up the old Miners Path, returning by a variant known as the Pyg track. Both are now scars on the mountain; their routes passing the industrial detritus of a lost age, as well as the disgraceful hydro electric pipes that are today's equivalent. On the final slopes is an incongruous and yet somehow not inappropriate funicular railway line, and to top it all is a dull, box-like, summit cafe. It must be one of the ugliest mountain tops in wales.

Snowdon then, is a magnificently flawed mountain. It has sweeping views and hidden corners that leave me breathless, yet within yards there's as much that brings me to rage; huge tracts are untouched wilderness, a small proportion so tramped that the rock steps need replacing. It reminds me of what a colleague said about Wales when I first came here, the ugliest and most beautiful place on earth.

Friday had its share of diversity too. I passed a man travelling barefoot, another in a ceremonial kilt; there was a lady whom, I assume for reasons of faith, was wearing an ancle length black hessian dress and matching headscarf (notably her husband wasn't burdened with this inappropriate garb). Finally, there was a couple carrying golf clubs to play pitch and put on the summit.

Actually, that finally isn't correct.  For there were hundreds more walkers in fleeces, families in shorts, lads in hoodies and girls in not much but tattoos. There were Welsh and English and Japanese and Dutch and Eastern Europeans and Americans. A toddler was having a strop because she wanted the picnic now!; a chap who looked at least ninety was swaying in the wind - he gave the impression that if he stopped he wouldn't start again.

And yet amongst all this it was someone else who was in my mind.

Almost thirty years ago, on the day that Charles and Diana were married, I walked with my grandfather up Windy Gyle in the Cheviot hills. It was the last proper mountain we'd climb together. I remember us arriving at the summit cairn to find a group of about half a dozen disaffected blokes all smoking pipes, you've escaped as well, they said.

We saw an adder on our way down and I recall my grandfather explaining how to use the intersection of the horizon as guide to your height on the mountain. I showed him where I'd camped wild when walking the Pennine Way and how I'd found water in a hidden gully. We had a shared love of the landscape that transcended other differences; obvious ones like age, but also attitudes to politics and ways of seeing the world. He was scientist; I'm a... well at that time I was probably all of a muddle.

And it was walks like those that helped me become a little less so. Twelve years later, when my grandfather died and soon after I first climbed Snowdon, I asked for his compass; it couldn't be found. No matter, for in a sense I'd already inherited it.

They say we don't change much beyond our teenage years, at least not our  personalities. It's the experiences we have as young people, what we are given and what is taken away, which fundamentally shapes our inner self. And thereafter, no amount of life's wear and tear can make much difference.

I'm not sure if that's scientifically correct. But sheltering under Snowdon's trig point on Friday, it felt about right.  And as I looked across its scarred slopes, over my half adopted country, towards the north and east, to the land of my father, it felt as true of this place as it was of my granddad, and ultimately of me.