Art in The Algarve

Taking Shape

Stranger’s faces begin to form: a long nose

painted lips, a small smile, crow’s feet.

A pony tail hangs down. A fringe stands out.

There are drawn brows, classical

cheek bones. The group is beginning to take shape.

 

After touching down in Faro, Portugal, I pinpoint

Accents – Monaghan, Chicago, Donegal –

in the narrow, cobbled, sun twisted streets.

We have come to Olhao to paint in a place

where the sun softens, shadows sharpen light,

blue seas glaze and glint. Here, our paint

brushes and pencils are poised over thick gram

paper to create characters and colour.

En mass, our group divides, multiplies

shoals of silver

in cobalt blue, or would it be aqua marine?

 

The Child

Out of this blue, whatever its hue, I discover a child

Escaping old haunts: A fear of inadequacy begins to glide,

Over my wrinkles, like the ripples of the ocean I stare at this morning,

while I write and drink expresso.

The fear vibrates and glistens with sickening familiarity.

It is unexpected after forty years.

I try to rationalise:

The group provides a reason for my existence

I am here to take part in its shifting pigment

to be a vermillion green mixed from a primary yellow and red

It doesn’t matter that I am learning.

I am not inadequate.

No one is too old to appreciate a new perspective.

 

Market Day

Thirteen places, laid for breakfast: white square plates

Serviettes, invite the fresh of day to step forward.

Bread rolls, croissants, bananas, berries, eggs, fruit and yoghurt.

One by one, people come, greeting morning, go to and fro

Table to kitchen, in and out, scattering. Re-assembling.

 

Outside, in the sun, on the sea front, farmers’ crates are piled

with dried lavender, cheese, fresh flowers, kumquats,

live hens, and lanky rabbits, spicy cakes, fruit and vegetables.

Crowds drift, peer and point, gossip. Brown fingers

gesticulate. In all the excitement, the glittering sea stretches

beyond, unremarked, no longer dominant. On the cobbles,

In the lanes, around the squares, people parade, sit in cafes

baskets brimming with beans, potatoes, carrots and conversations.

 

A Demonstration

‘Squint your eyes to see light and dark.

Your muscles are your tools.

Adventure and discovery must be fixed.

There’s no hiding in watercolour.’

 

On the roof top terrace, Michelle loads a squirrel,

she twists its flourish and paints a flower:

a two-tone Iris, blue and yellow. From the tower

where the storks nest, the church bell chimes,

embellishing the calm of the afternoon as we perform

Art in the Algarve. Somewhere, a dog barks.

 

FADO Evening

Castanets in tune to Strauss.

Not all that nice. Bottles of wine

stand in lines, like soldiers, and we dance.

 

A Day Off

I sit on my terrace, smoking. It is coloured with clematis

Wound around wrought iron. I look out over tiny cobbled

lanes, white shining squares. Bins too.

I observe waif like people ravaging through.

 

On the promenade, waiting for the ferry, I watch women

parade and children scamper. We board. Joanna says

I’ll sit here. I don’t want to hooray henry all over the boat.”

I smile, make a note. She is in good humour.

 

The Rio Formosa National Park

On the beach, tall tussocks of yellow and green grass

Billow in the salted sea breeze, planted, I believe

To prevent erosion. They create a landscape

Over the sea, prettily ringed with delicate strings

of brown sea weed. Ribbed white clouds, like silver sardines

swimming the sky. The extraordinary light flattens the earth

stretches as far as the eye can see.

 

We have a jug of sangria and a ‘dose’ of chips.

Later, on our way home, I sit outside Café Convivio

my toes in the sand, listening to birdsong, admiring

the succulents.  The sky is quilted with pools of light.

 

 

Time for Murder

We are thirteen around the table. The perfect number

For a mystery murder, victims and killers.

Suddenly, Belgian detectives stalk the cobbles

Between courses of pasta and shrimp

Octopus and black pudding, chicken wings

Chocolate mousse dissolves into

Tears, stomachs nursed in howls of laughter.

 

Breakfast

Melon, strawberry and pineapple breakfast

With rolls of cheese, hubbub of dreams

Regaled, making nonsense of days where we

Brush in birdsong: mine flat and stark.

Colours sing in conversation creating dynamics

 

Portraits

Shapes and lines turn into eyes and noses

Unaligned, too close but a stance is caught

A curve of cheek captures a face, a nail on a

Hand draped on a knee, still life, moving

Poetry.

 

Vera paints cheek in pink straw. Carmel decorates with haiku

Grainne constructs with long quiet lines. Joanna draws attention.

Colleen pinks her sparkle. David paints in contemplation.

Sue discovers pencil. Damien draws a diary.

Dorothy shows how it’s done.

 

Dinner

Rare bloody beef, pale cream veal

Refreshing white wine, gateaux de caramello

A broken chair. We conclude

Dancing on tables.

 

Last Day

The glow of the blue and yellow Iris has dimmed

Petals are dying on the chrysanthemums. We

Give thanks to our brushes and materials

with poems and words that glow

and go out to dinner, yet again.

 

Leaving

It is early morning. Suitcases are packed

One taxi has left. On the neighbour’s terrace

Life hangs on the line, still in the light:

blue t shirts, a pink camisole, stripy pants.

I bow a goodbye.

 

Aeroplane

I watch a woman in a blue cardigan. She holds

A plastic fork and plucks round green of grape

From a plastic container and pops it in

Her mouth. The squares of orange and melon

She places with care in a bowl beside her.  I

Wonder why. Does she not like the colour?

 

I think how individual postures and actions are

only ever questioned by a stranger’s difference.

This week, I rediscovered a quiet me. I remembered

How, as a child, I found conversation difficult.

Unless I felt passionate, I preferred to listen

drift into dream –  as all my teachers

complained. In my twenties, I lived for my

passions:  justice, words, eating and drinking

I didn’t stop talking. then in my thirties and forties

It was all work and rearing children.

 

I didn’t notice the quiet go.

It took a landscape of strangers in a foreign place

to acknowledge the young in me again.

 

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Poetry in Cork

Sunshine lanced the streets of Cork last week as I dashed across rivers and grand parades and malls between the butter market, Nano Nagle house, the library and theatre, discovering poems – specifically in markets, libraries, theatres but also metaphorically in the river, the streets, the cobbled lanes, churches and art galleries. Cork is a fine city, indeed, and last week it was a cornucopia of poets, poems, and performances and the perfect setting for The international poetry festival organised by Pat Cotter and James O’Leary of the Munster Literature Centre.

It was a fabulous week of words – both poetic and conversational. Every morning, over fruit, museli tea and toast, Geraldine Mitchell and I waxed and waned over Pat Boran, Sasha Dugdale, David Harsent, Kim Addonizio, Jessica Traynor, Kim Moore and other fine poets, too many to list.

My days began with the workshops in the beautifully renovated Nano Nagle house. The Wednesday facilitator was Pat Boran. My poem was up first for discussion. Well, it was less of a discussion and more of an opportunity for Pat to take the poem, hang it upside down and shake out its flaws, using them to discuss the importance of shape, sequences and trajectories. He said he thought my poem was written by a young girl. Now since I am a woman hitting 60 this year, with all anxst and grumpy jaundice associated with that age, I was thrilled to know my poem still had bounce, innocence and naivety! I joke. All the facilitators (I don’t like the word ‘master’) were interesting, informative with very different styles. The men were confident and assertive, the women were attentive to detail. Tout ca change.

The poetry sessions in the afternoons in the library had a raggle-taggle, bohemian flavour. People drifted in and out, to and fro, and the beloved poems tripped around the book shelves and library patrons in excitement and glee. The hard listening came in the evening at the Cork Arts Theatre. The poetry was delectable, compassionate, dialectical, heart rending, real, humorous, but you need to listen hard to appreciate its pleasures. So, at the end of the day, I staggered back up the hill to the Buttermarket B&B and fell between my sheets, exhausted, but exhilarated and excited for breakfast when I could mull over the strengths and foibles of the poems and poets I had heard with Geraldine.

The highlight of the festival for me was Tomasz Rozycki, a polish poet whose book I ordered immediately from Zephyr Press in the States. I got so excited by his poems. They were tense, political, emotional, dark, light, beautiful and clever. His performance was magical. I also loved Kathryn Maris whose book I couldn’t buy as I had run out of money…but I will track it down again. Billy Collins performed the grand finale. His poems have a special place in my heart. He makes me laugh and leaves me chastened at the same time.

Now, I am back in Cavan, living the Brexit nightmare  and already missing my Cork breakfasts and poems! But Poppins is happy to see me,  the sun is still shining and I still have the cheeses from the English Market to eat!poppins in cavan

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The Perils of Wisdom and Brexit.

I write best early in the morning. It’s when my brain is at its most creative i.e. half asleep. However, recently I have been only scrapping at poems and barely snatching at stories because I have found a position in the centre of my queen sized bed with the folds of my duvet all but crowning my head. My face is feather nested in a goose down pillow which is resting between two other pillows so that feathers and cotton tumble around my ears giving me a sense of floating amongst heavenly clouds. It is an extremely comfortable position, and particularly difficult to wrest myself from in order to face the blank of a page.

By the time, I do emerge to do battle with kettles, fish food, dog biscuits, lap tops and get the pillows restructured to provide the correct support for writing, the morning is half gone and other activities are pressing: dog walking, life admin, workshop prep, swimming, reading, news, cooking and sprawling. My brain has disengaged with its creative side and checked into the pragmatic and practical ‘to do’ section of the day. It’s as if my brain is on a conveyor belt and the hours are the machinists fine tuning its operation. I don’t write in the afternoon. I edit, but if I’m not writing, there is nothing to edit. I wonder if this routine is an ‘age’ thing. As you get older, change becomes more alarming. For instance, travelling never bothered me. I got my passport, ticket, got on a bus to the airport, moved through security and looked forward to eating mixed nuts at the Gate. Now, suddenly, I have become aware of everything that could go very wrong. Wisdom has got the better of me.

The only poem I have written, recently, is about this feeling I have that a ‘mantel of wisdom’ has descended upon me since my mother died. I feel as if I have absorbed her perception, insights and acumen about the world (sadly, much of which was negative) and it is rather disturbing. I preferred being a child of learning which had a more positive, naive perspective. Maybe this is all nonsense and it is only Brexit, the EU, Trump, and Facebook playing with my head. Nothing to do with getting old and cranky, or descending mantels of wisdom. However, it is unsettling because what do you do with wisdom? It is appreciated by no-one!

I have also been dabbling with painting, this year as I got paints for Christmas. I have been trying to draw flowers and copying Ravilious’ water colours. It doesn’t tax my brain as much as writing, but the end results are alarming. The flowers are flat, my Ravilious bridges and trains are wonky and the South Downs positively misshapen. I always knew my perspective on life was a little weird, but when it comes to art, it is frightening. Very Brexit. I do like the colouring, though, and I while away the hours, content. It also distracts me from my new-found wisdom! Focusing on shadows and depth, I don’t have to think.

And, may be that is what I like at the moment. Not thinking. And that is why I am not writing because writing forces me clarify my thoughts. After all, this year I celebrate 60, and thirty years of marriage, and, surely, that is clarification enough! And really, who can think about Brexit anymore?

kate at writers centre

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A Review of the Year: Life, Death, and Parties

Another year has darted past – the quickest yet. It feels as fast as the flicker of a glittering fish tail. However, it’s been good. I’ve been busy, but because of the death of my mother and mother in law, I have felt wary and cautious about going forward, and so have stopped to rest often. In January, after celebrating mum’s life in London with old friends, I decided to spend the year doing ‘stuff’ and ‘seeing’ people. I decided to use the bit of money she left me to go to festivals, visit friends, go to the theatre, and travel. I ended up travelling to England a good deal as my beloved mother in law also died, just before her planned 100th birthday celebrations, so there were funerals and birthday parties to attend, and then anniversary masses to mark. So, my year has been spent doing trips to London, Sheffield, Manchester, Galway, Cyprus, Paris, Armagh, Lebannon, Carlow, Limerick, Clare, Monaghan, Oxford and a fair few weekends in Dublin, either at festivals or in mourning. As I say, busy.

The latest and one of the best of these adventures was in Dublin this week when I went to Jay Gatsby’s party at The Gate. Feathers and beads abounded in the ballroom, the library, backstage, the green room as we pirouetted around, mesmerised by the melancholia and whimsey of Gatsby (in a fabulous pink suit), and the glorious, egotistical self-obsessions of Daisy, Jordan, and Tom who guided us under their wings, hither and thither. The Great Gatsby is such a glitteringly sad story but the party was performed, and choreographed beautifully. I loved it. The immersion technique of theatre is a great tool as the audience experience just how easy it is to get sucked into the splendour, wealth, and minutiae through corruption and greed – topical now too!

gatsby

The other theatre high light this year was Richard the 111, with King Richard played by Cavan man, Aaron Monaghan. It was the best Shakespeare play I have seen in years (though I didn’t see Hamlet which was raved about by others this Autumn). Monaghan performed the part brilliantly. He brought the lines alive, spat and gilded his words, applying his crippled leg with such menace and acuity. Brilliant. I should also mention Dermot Bolger’s Ulysses at The Abbey. It was fun and witty, the mad cap revelry on stage encouraged me to down load and listen to the book. I wrote Dermot a poem to thank him, and he responded with his usual charm, which was lovely.

Odyssey
For Dermot Bolger

Out of a painting with a tug of ocean drift
Of Irish Sea. Reciting an island of
Magnificence. Half-witted, wedged flesh
Rock hard and crossed, pointed
Carved clods of earth, salted. Chewed
Over and spat, spitting, hissing
Accompanied by sound of still – trill, drill, hillock, pillock
Hattie McDaniel petticoat red. Azure blue
Clip clop. Animals bred and blinkered
Graves, and status, streets of cobbles, of Christ
With glints of urchins, sausage makers
regaling tales of woe and winnings
Regalia, of popes and kings
Girded men and women in panty hose
Winged children with blooming skins
Lawyers, hacks, accounting bills
Drunk and harnessed, vain and varnished
Spent soldiers and story tellers
Acrylic. Unconquered Legend.

As well as listening to Ulysses, this year I have taken up listening to podcasts while I walk Poppins (my dog). So, as I drift over the swards of the golf course, or scramble through the forests, or sit by the rippling lakes watching the swans and ducks, I listen to the New Yorker fiction podcast, The Audio Long Read from the Guardian, the political update, Focus Today, the world service’s The Inquiry, Guardian Books and the World Book Programme. As I result, I have enjoyed many new writers and short stories, learned new scientific and historical facts and discovered much more about the corrupt political activities we humans will engage in to achieve wealth and power than I ever thought possible. Fortunately, my ageing brain discards much of what it hears, but I find I am much more knowledgeable than I was. Listening, I am often horrified by the extremes of life today, and then grateful for the quiet life I lead here in Cavan. Sometimes, I feel guilty for doing so little in response, but then I try to justify myself, citing age. I am 60 next year, thirty years married, and have earned the right to be cranky.

The other high light of my year was the weekend at the Festival of Creative Writing and Ideas in Borris. A friend and I stayed in an Airbnb in Graiguenamanor where I walked along the river early in the mornings before drenching myself in the sunshine and words of beloved authors while stuffing myself with organic chips and lobster. Another highlight was visiting Beirut and discovering the roman ruins of Baalbec; a third was staying in Paris over the Armistice weekend with my daughter (we loved the Picasso Museum, the Marais, the Latin Quarter, les atelier des lumieres and The O’rangerie, not to mention the Chablis and Sancerre) and hanging out with my in laws, nephews and nieces at the 100th birthday party of my mother in law, putting the world to rights was fun. I don’t put the world to rights much anymore and I miss it.

fits

 

I enjoyed Cuirt last April, in particular the reading and workshop given by Imtiaz Dharker. I am thrilled to have discovered her poetry. The Doolin Festival was a first (I return next month), and Hinterland in Kells has become a regular feature in my festival calendar, as has Bray Festival, which I was thrilled to read at this year.

Unexpectedly, I had my second collection of poetry published (it was not intended), and I was delighted and excited by the reviews it received in The Blue Nib and North. I have not written much this year (a few poems only), nor have I published too much (lots of rejections) though I was delighted to have poems and/or short stories in Crannog, Boyne Berries, North West Words and The Blue Nib. It was enough not feel quashed by total failure.

So, it has been a good year, but as I wrote to my brother on the first anniversary of my mother dying, I feel as if I have been on show, a front-line dancer in the can-can maybe, but no-one else is there and no-one is watching me. Maybe that is what losing your mother means. There is no-one who is as interested in you and what you do as your mother.

And now, a quick review of the books I have read, for aside from festivals and funerals, my daily life is very domestic: I wake early, write, read, walk, swim, cook, read, and watch TV. I have read over 50 books this year, so just a few lines about my favourites.
I found Pachinko by Min Jee Lee fascinating. It is set in Korea/Japan in the 20th century and covers three generations of a family. I enjoyed the Rachel Cusk books. I like the contrast of sketched outline and intense detail. David Grossman’s A Horse Walks Into a Bar is funny, but very painful: an agonised cry of a Jewish stand up comic. I enjoyed The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz which described in detail the violence and misery in the Dominican Republic during the Trujillo dictatorship.

I read Madame Bovary for the first time: sumptuous, ornate, unwieldy passion, with exquisite lies and exaggeration. It took me a long time to read. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nihisi Coates was a visceral experience. It is an enlightening read on the impact of racism on the individual character and personality of people, both black and white, let alone the physical violence and damage it causes. Through my library book club, I was introduced to Sarah Winman. We read the Tin Man: beautifully clear, lucid and poignant writing. The Mars Room, by Rachel Kushner, whom I saw in Borris, was a depressing, powerful depiction of the American penitentiary system. I loved the discussion between Margaret Atwood and Ann Enright in Borris too. I also enjoyed reading JG Farrell’s Troubles. It was an extraordinary book on the effects and breakdown of British colonialism. His use of language, simile and metaphor was very rich. I saw David Parks at the John Hewitt Summer School talking about his book, Travelling in a Strange Land. It was beautifully delicate (the book, not the talk). I also loved An Atlas of Impossible Belonging by Anuradha Roy – she captures the vast, never ending depths of the sorrow and loss of love and family. Similarly, in The Emigrants by WG Sebald which has a sepia feel to its pages. Amateur by Thomas Page McKee is a fascinating story detailing the experience of a Trans woman to man and her learning how to be a man through boxing. Milkman, the booker prize winner by Ann Burns is an intense read: powerful, hard going but so clever in its construction. I read in the London Review of Books that it had a happy ending. This is what kept me going. I loved Lotus by Li Jia Chang. I didn’t know about the ‘migrant’ issue in China. I loved how she directly translated the Chinese idioms into English – such beautiful phrases and adages. Talking of language, I also adored Christopher Reid’s The Scattering, recommended by Enda Wyley at the Bailieborough Poetry Festival. It is about the dying and death of his wife. But, in terms of poetry, my happiest discovery this year was Imtiaz Dharker. Her poems are original, express the pain of love and joy through the every day. So many of her poems stick a finger in my belly button. It was so good to meet her, and, also, very exciting to meet Billy Collins in Borris (see poem below), Mchael Longley and Carol Ann Duffy in Dublin two weeks ago.

me n billy collinsSo,

So now, next year, it’s time to be a little more active. Last month I volunteered with Fighting Words in Dublin and so I am looking forward to engaging with other, younger poets. I joined Freedom to Write, a small group from the Irish Writers Centre, highlighting those writers who are imprisoned for their work. I am also on a committee at the Irish Writers Centre which is looking at running a series of talks/events on the impact of Artificial Intelligence. This is so important and topical for the future of the human race. So, in 2019, a little more action. And, also, maybe a little more writing. I am asking Santa for sharpened yellow pencils. I am hoping to get into the forests, find nests of eggs and scribble a trail of ants.

Drooling Admiration

Saliva sluices my gums, pools
Distastefully under my tongue
itself now misshapen and lumpen

in line, razor-edged, tears prick my eyes
My aorta stutters, taps fast at my heart which flutters
Like a caged yellow canary

I sing, ‘I think you’re brilliant’
Flap Billy Collins his book to sign
Drooling admiration all over him

Happy Christmas, everyone!

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Theresa May’s Brexit Deal

The Thinker
This feels very odd to say, but I think the Brexit Deal of Theresa May should be supported by the British Labour party.
Before the referendum, I struggled to decide how I would vote (if I had had one). I played devil’s advocate everywhere I went, testing out the Brexit argument. I disagreed with ‘austerity’. I didn’t like the corporate influence that held sway, nor the celebrity politicians. I was uneasy with the ‘powerlessness’ that people felt, and I didn’t like the jargon and growing distance between the EU and ordinary people. I did feel excluded. I felt the EU needed reform, and wondered if the threat of Grexit, Brexit or whatever country’s exit might bring about change. Eventually, I couldn’t align myself with the forces of Nigel Farage or Boris Johnston and I was relieved that I didn’t have to vote, though I think I would have ticked remain had I been in a voting booth. I stayed up all night listening to the results on my laptop. I was in on holiday in a tiny studio in Thessaloniki in Greece while doing a writing workshop with the British Council. I will never forget the dark heat of that night, the whirr of the circulating fan, the square of blue light from my netbook, my growing disbelief in what I was hearing, alongside a growing excitement, dread and fear as the results came in.
The shock in Thessaloniki the next day was palpable. When we opened our mouth to order food, buy stamps, get a drink, people would ask us why. One Italian young women in the post office broke down in tears, fearful for her future. It is hard to imagine a 21 year old in Brighton crying over the EU, even if they were ‘Remainers’.
So, as a result of that referendum, we have all had to endure the last two years of Brexit Mania in Britain. Over time, it has been soul destroying to watch the various egos at battle. It has been a little like watching a tenth century jousting. Politicians have reared up, charged, and fallen. Heads have rolled. There has been so much noise, screeching headlines, and bitter speeches. It has been hard to understand what is going on.
First it was the cost of Brexit, billions of pounds. Then all the Brits abroad were going to be forced home and, of course, the foreign nationals in Britain were going to be ejected. Then there was going to be nobody to do the work the Brits didn’t like to do. The fruit picking and sea food industries were going to collapse without the exploited, underpaid immigrants to do the work. Business interests would be threatened. There was news of British companies shifting their HQs or opening new offices in other European countries. Then there was talk of stockpiling and the M20 becoming a lorry zone. There would no access to medicines. The voice of the Brexiteer became shriller and shriller as the complications of leaving the EU became more and more entangled. It seemed the Brits were on roller coaster, spiralling downwards, in a vortex of inevitability over which no-one had control. I was reminded of Germany in the 1930s and began to understand just what the ordinary decent German citizen might have gone through.
In the middle of all mayhem, Theresa May decided to call a snap election to underline her prowess as leader and bolster her majority. Her manifesto was appalling, her attitude worse and in the maelstrom, Jeremy Corbyn soared forth. Party politics became exciting as Jeremy swept across the shoulders of the crowds of Glastonbury. The face of Theresa May at her count when she realised she was not likely to have a majority in Parliament, reminded me of a plaster of Paris mask. Her sharp features were pale, her expression was rigid and her words rang empty. I almost felt sorry for her. Then, as the election pot continued to boil and the final ingredient thown into the witches brew of Brexit was the Democratic Unionist Party, I did feel sorry for her. And as the year has gone on, as she has been ridiculed, rejected, and isolated by her own members of the Tory Party and EU colleagues, I found myself beginning to admire her tenacity. And it is this tenacity and determination that has drafted a Brexit agreement that I think meets, for the moment, the concerns of everyone, and, as I understand it, is not too different to the agreement the Labour Party would seek
So, as I understand it, the UK would remain in the customs union. Northern Ireland would remain in the Customs Union and Single Market and it gives the UK the right to legislate as it wishes to in relation to immigration. The UK will be able to choose who and who it does not let into the country which it seems was the main reason for the Brexit vote in the referendum.
The Agreement is a beginning. It will provide some security and the opportunity to pursue further, calmer negotiations and a No Deal Brexit would be a disaster. I shiver to imagine how that will look (crashing aircrafts come to mind). I understand that the Labour Party want an election, but that’s unlikely to happen. The most that will come to pass is a leadership election in the Tory Party and the country could end up with a Boris or Rees Mogg as prime-minister.
I understand the Labour Party do not want to support Theresa May. I am sure members are anxious about being seen to support Brexit Deal, or keeping the Tory Government in power. Having no whip on the parliamentary vote (as in 1975) could get around this problem. The Labour party has a choice. The six tests are a good idea, but I also think they are not the tool to gauge a Brexit Deal at this point. I think ensuring that there is no hard border in Ireland, that the UK remains in the Customs Union, and that there can be calm, effective negotiations further down the road is more important.
There has to be an election in 2022. This is going to be an extremely signficiant time in the transition period. The Labour Party must be ready. Let the Tories deal with Brexit now. The Labour Party needs to work together and assemble itself to deal with what is likely to be a challenging future.
kate garden

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Armistice In Paris

Paris glistened in the soft rain. The boulevards and architecture, the columns and statues undulated, illuminating the grandeur and glory of the city. It wasn’t cold, so Roisin and I meandered through the silvery sheen, drinking in my old haunts, admiring the hauteur and the glamour. St Michel, La Bastille, St Chappelle, Notre Dame, Pompidou, L’Orangerie, Tuileries, Opera, Le Marais, the beautifully restored Picasso museum, and of course the solitude of the Monet’s lilies.

She has such style, Paris. Walking along the Rue Francs Bourgeois in the Marais, we gaped at the boutiques, the fine clothes, the designer jewellery, the leather, the patisseries. The lanes of the latin-quarter were thronging with restaurants, bars, cafes. The walk by the Seine was masked with golden leaves and draping willows. The Tuileries gardens were shaped, formal and glowed golden in the haze of the rain and sandy puddles. The Rue de Rivoli boasted the tradition of Printemps, BVH, and other well-known Parisian department stores rising into the oval slated rooftop attics. Well appointed, Christmas trees guarded the sapphires and emeralds of the tastefully lit, jewellery palaces in the Place Vendome where we had afternoon tea in The Ritz.
ritz

And, at the moment, Paris is full of Picasso. All his masters are gathered there: in the Picasso Museum and in the Gare D’Orsay. Picasso has featured greatly in my life, though it is only recently that I have realised this. The portrait of Dora Maar used to hang on the stairs in my best friend’s house when I was a child. It used to frighten me a little. When my mother lived in Paris, I used to visit the Picasso gallery around the corner. Then it was small and intimate, and I used to take my book and my time. At the Picasso exhibition at Tate Britain (in 2012), I inched around the paintings, forced into a thick weaving line by a crowd of Londoners, a line that Picasso might have painted himself, examining in detail the musical instruments and faces hidden in the art. It was a very sociable line and I wrote a poem about it which was first published in Skylight 47. And last year, I really enjoyed the bawdiness and excitement of the Picasso exhibition at the Tate Modern. This weekend, I loved re-vising all my favourite paintings which had gathered there. Imagine, I know enough of Picasso’s work to have favourite paintings – which I have to say are not the Harlequins. They are so terrifying that I pass by quickly.

But, in terms of art, the coup de grace of the weekend was probably the Atelier des Lumieres which Susan Miller du Mars and Kevin Higgins recommended. It was truly electric. We were half an hour early, so we sat with an aperitif (un ricard, s’il vous plait), watching late Saturday afternoon play out on the rue St Maur. The children returning from an afternoon party, dressed in batman and superman capes, holding hands with their parents. The good-humoured refuse collectors negotiating tight street corners. A beautiful Van Gogh light spread across the evening. Then Róisín and I, along with a hundred other shadows, surged into the ‘Atelier’. Light and electricity poured across the walls, the floor, our faces. The portraits and pictures by Gustav Klimt undulated, weaved, spread, shimmered, limbered to music. They were reflected everywhere, and over everything. We sat, entranced, on the floor and watched and listened. It was glorious.


I say the Atelier des Lumieres was the coup de grace of the weekend, but maybe not. After extensive late night existentialist discussions about the meaning of life on Saturday night prompted by eating in Les deux Magots (the hangout of Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir), on Sunday morning, I simply sat and stared at Monet’s lilies in the Orangerie. It was an appropriate way for me to commemorate the 100 years of the Armistice of the WW1 with the bells of the Paris churches and cathedrals ringing in the background.
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Welcome to Beirut

After an epic dodgem like drive through the streets of Beirut following ten hours of travel, we arrived at the hotel, Le Bristol, to be greeted by top hatted door men and shiny glass doors. We entered an echo chamber of lurid purple, ornate furniture, mirrors and marble floors. Heavy metal and Lebanese Red popped into my mind. The reception staff were austere, with wide painted mouths and long faces, but they were helpful, and occasionally, they would smile.

Our room was more muted, grey and pink, a vast white bed floating in a sea of mauve, and green pillows. As we pushed open the door, there, on the brown glass table, stood a bottle of Lebanese white, a large slice of chocolate cake and a card to welcome us, ‘Mama and Dada, Happy Anniversary, love Róisín’. We found the culprit on the roof, stretched out by the pool, itself a sun rippled square of blue. Around us zoomed tower blocks of curved glass and white concrete. Car horns tooted below. We poured three glasses and toasted each other. “Welcome to Beirut.”

Róisín had, that day, been on an Alternative Walking Tour, so felt she had grasped the lie of the land. She took us by the hand, and guided us through Hamra to Down Town, past the lit-up palace, many militia points, the Christian Church, Mosque, both minaret and steeple touching dark skies, vying for glory, side by side. Beautiful.

The traffic was mad: It careered, braked, screech stopped, raced and dodged, hooting horns. Beiruties don’t walk, and park where they like – in the middle of the road, but at the same time are courteous to pedestrians. If you step out, they will perform an emergency stop, and wave you across.

We ate that night at restaurant City Chef, recommended because its cheap and famous for feeding the poor. The food was simple but fine, like the Lebanese wine. After dinner, we wandered around the trendy Gemmayzeh bars, tasting cocktails. We watched and gazed, welcomed everywhere. I tried out my French, but because of the Mandate set up after the war, everyone speaks English. They want to know why we are here and are filled with disbelief and delight when we say we are tourists. Welcome.

The next morning, I got up early for a refreshing swim, plowing up and down amongst the top of deserted buildings. Then out to explore, find breakfast and a walk to the national museum. Róisín and I set off, following the blue dots of google. We were staying in the Hamra neighbourhood, mental with banks and high-rise towers, many empty, with no windows. There were also beautiful houses, broken and ruined, ornate brickwork and tumbled down balconies, laced with bullet holes. The streets are a maze of concrete and dust, cars and lorries, but every so often, I caught a glimpse of the old world, the faded glory. We crossed the Green Line (now a highway) into the Christian side where life is less tumbled. It seems hip, richer, less noisy, trendy with shops and restaurants – though all of Beirut thrums with neon fast food.

We came across the Jewish cemetery, an oasis of silence, and a ravaged building held together by bullets, now an arts centre, but it was closed. We drank citron pressé through glass straws in a tiny French café by the museum.
There, I discovered death and destruction, necropolises and resurrection. The Phoenicians, Egyptians, Romans and Turks, tombs and sarcophaguses, bowls with the burnt human bones, mummies and mosaics – all magnificent. You are welcome.

We then walked the Corniche, a prom by the Med, edged with tall tower blocks of apartments, presumably with fabulous views, but burnt out, devastated, empty. Occasionally, there was a period house, or a new building that I loved with straight, clean lines that reflected a truly gorgeous horizon. Sadly, as the huge red Middle Eastern sun set, it was on hillocks of litter on pebbled beaches. It was plastic bottles on rocks that glittered. Beirut has a huge issue with its collection of rubbish. We were told it was because of political corruption. You are welcome.

For dinner, that evening we met Aisha, the daughter of an old friend, who lives in Beirut and works with Syrian refugees. Over tapas we talked of the Middle East, its joys and difficulties.

The next day, we met Ali, a taxi driver, who drove us across the mountains behind Beirut to Baalbec in the Beqaa Valley. Here is the Quaa – a wondrous site of temples and ruins dating back to 37 BC. Welcome. The first temple was completed under Nero in 36 AD, and more were erected over the following centuries by different peoples. It is truly amazing that, despite the invasions over the centuries, the bombing by the Israelis that these magnificent stones still stand, glorious and breath taking. It was amazing to be able to scramble and perch our bums, run our hands over columns and temples created by people over thousands of years ago.

Back in Beirut that evening, it began to storm: flashes of sheet lightening and bulbous drops of water exploded, drenching the city and us in seconds. We ran to a bar full of hubble bubble and cushions, ordered wine and tapas and settled down. Welcome.

The next day, Róisín was gone and I set off to do her recommended Alternative Walking Tour of East and West Beirut. I took an Uber to the meeting place. The driver was concerned that an older woman alone was going for a walk in the city on her own. He tried to persuade me instead to walk the Corniche, where he said it was safe. Eventually, he dropped me where I wished, at the bottom of the steps of St Nicholas. Welcome. The first person I met was also Irish, from Kildare, but living in Tyre. In the end, there were sixteen of us – Spanish, Italian, Australian, French and Swiss. Mustapha led us through the Christian district of Sodeco, through a well-tended garden of one of Beirut’s oldest families. It seems there are very few such houses left in Lebanon. Only 30,000 exist, not bombed or abandoned. Welcome

As I mentioned, the tour was ‘alternative’ and group hugs were encouraged (partly to protect us from the traffic) and politics discussed. Mustapha regaled us with economic facts and stories of corrupt politicians, the high cost of living, the soulless new build built by Solidaire, (the Dublin Docklands equivalent). He went through the history of wars and incursions, his home being bombed by the Israelis in 2006 and him rescuing his mother, brothers and sisters, and how his mother is still a refugee. She will not return from her sanctuary; I think it is in Jordan, but I could be wrong for he had so much to say, so much passion, arrogance and anger (he was young).

That night, Jerry and I booked a table at an Armenian restaurant, the Mayrig, and dined in splendour, surrounded by shrubs and green leaves. After walking the streets and dodging the traffic, the peace and Lebanese wine was a wonderful relief. Welcome

Food has been a joy on this trip. I’ve had chick peas that melt in your mouth, meat that falls apart on your tongue, cheese and spices that explode with taste, peppers, beetroot, tomatoes, chili hors d’ouvres that have been really delicious.
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On Sunday, in Down Town Beirut we went to The Egg, a bombed out building, the shape of a dome, perched in the midst of the soulless new build. We were visiting an exhibition, Plastic, by an unknown artist who wishes to remain incognito. His/her art displayed the penury of cult. There were video portraits of famous people, graffitied, exposing their shame. It was clever and got great acclaim.

Our last day, Ali took us North to Biblos – where humans have lived for the last 7,000 years. It had a tiny harbour, full of boats, and a castle, a lovely fish restaurant and expensive souks. On our way, we had planned to cable car up to Harissa, where the Virgin Mary looks out over the sea. But the cable cars were being repaired, so Ali drove. There stood the cathedral on top of a mountain whose roof rippled like waves in the sky. I stood and looked down on Beirut, spread like a banquet, a city of white, full of friendship and history, of people with troubles, and knew that one day, I would like to return.

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