A Meandering Grand Tour

It’s a rainy day in August.  I have just arrived in Victoria. I pop up to the mouth of the station just to see the sprawl of red double decker buses, the people in bars after work, the queue of black cabs, the tower blocks and watch the smokers huddle in puffs, the commuters flow down escalators, all umbrellas and bags. A far cry from Main St. Cavan. Then I wend my way back through tunnels of rubber, hoardings, machines, platforms of wind, catch a tube to Finsbury Park where I climb a spiral stair of 87 steps, lugging my case to the top and arrive at a ridge of torn and dirty mattresses under a bridge where shrouded figures try to sleep. I make my way across broken pavements, pubs, and people drinking.

I arrive at Maria’s gloriously light, cathedral-like kitchen that flows through floor to ceiling windows and slate tiles into her beautiful London garden. Malcom, her husband, is making a deconstructed niçoise salad, tossing cherry tomatoes and tiny potatoes in a pan, and cooking fresh tuna. Maria takes me upstairs and shows me a fluffy cloud of white linen bed where I can rest my head later and pours me a glass of Brandon Estate, a New Zealand wine, one of my favourites. I have arrived at the start of my grand 60th Tour.

The next day, Maria and I walk around Hampstead Heath, around the ponds, up to Kite Hill where we study the view alongside the Sunday afternoon hoards, the children, the dogs and we reminisce. It takes a little time to refract an old friendship into the ray of light it used to be. It takes time to blend after 25 years of brief meetings over restaurant tables and at funeral homes. Now we are sixty instead of twenty. Our children are grown up and the world is at war with itself. We are no longer it’s life blood. We need to deconstruct before we rebuild, so, unconsciously, it seems, we go back to our beginnings to walk and talk. My life began on the Heath. We amble around, relaxed, pointing out places where we were caught mitching, ponds we met at to smoke and drink, the bush where my bike was stolen, where I played the drunken game of tennis with my dad, where I had my first kiss with Martin.

On Monday morning, I go to Clapham to see the brothers. We go for breakfast in Pimlico, at the popular Regency Diner where the queue of people stretches out of the door and Marco yells at a customer for grabbing a table before getting their food. Later, we catch a train from Kings Cross to the South East Coast, to a small sea-side town where the boys have rented a fine house with a garden. They live half their week there.

Deal is a small seaside town in Kent and an assortment of architectural design: Georgian, Victorian, Fifties and Sixties.  Small two and three storey houses face a sparkling golden red shingle beach, and the pier is a brutally beautiful, concrete structure. The town is crammed with fish and chips, tea shops, organic butchers, restaurants, hanging baskets. The banks are closing, M&S has gone but Sainsbury thrives and is situated next to the station which, as my brother says, is handy.

I had a lovely time with the bros. We ate, meandered and I watched the sun rise at 5.37am both mornings. I got up early and strolled down the prom, studying the different shapes and structures of the buildings, and watching the sea gulls scavenge the bins for breakfast, screeching. Where the prom meets the golf course, I leaned on the railing and watched the sun emerge from the sea, casting its red and golden light across the sky. It’s probably been forty years since I have watched a sun rise. I couldn’t believe how fast it was. I thought, if it continued to race like that throughout the day, evening would be here within three hours. I know time speeds up as you age, but this seemed ridiculous.

Later that morning, the soaring sunshine sadly vanished and was replaced by monsoon rains. I left Deal to keep a lunch date with my oldest friend, Mandy. We met in the first pub I ever frequented as a child: The Old Eagle in Camden. It used to have lovely red flock wallpaper, comfy leather bench seats and a bar billiards table. Now everything is hard wood, guitars hang from the ceiling and the bar billiards has gone. Mandy has blossomed from a quiet, timid child into a fabulously raucous woman with strong opinions. She is an active trade unionist, a socialist, and like her mother, attracts trouble which she then faces with an up-front, in your face, no nonsense response, the results of which provide excellent drinking stories which Mandy tells with Oscar winning performances. One such story was about her lodger, who, refusing to acknowledge his developing cancer, died, leaving a room full of hoarded rubbish including rifles, hand grenades, live ammunition and Semtex. The house was cordoned off, the bomb squad called, and Mandy was evacuated to her VW camper van outside the front door (really).

Four hours later, at 5 o’clock, laughing and crying, I leave the pub and Mandy and Barry (her partner) to meander (I use the word again, purposefully) up to Manor House to begin my visit with Lesley, my beautiful, teetotal, vegetarian friend who travels the world, visits exhibitions, goes to the theatre, and reads prolifically. She listens to the stories of my visit so far, makes sure I eat a proper dinner and puts me to bed.

The next day, Lesley and I go to the Moon in glorious sunshine. The Moon is hanging out in Greenwich as the central feature of a lovely exhibition. Back in the day, Greenwich was an awkward place to get to from North London, but now transport links are so extensive (when they work), it takes less than an hour. There is lots to do in Greenwich. There are more fabulous views from the National Observatory (itself a wonderful building), the Cutty Sark, a lovely, twee market selling jewellery and royal Doulton plates with pics of the royal family, and the National Maritime Museum where we found the Moon.

Did you know that the moon is a place where all that is lost on earth can be found and that there is a Sea of Crisis and a Bay of Rainbows there? Apparently, Apollo landed in the Sea of Tranquillity. I hoped these places were more exciting that the massive housing estates built in the boomtime in Ireland and so similarly named.

Having explored Greenwich to our satisfaction and lunched at a lovely Indian restaurant where I had my first lassie drink for years (sour yoghurt, delicious), we caught the Clipper boat West up the river to London Bridge. How London glitters and shines these days. The docks and wharves are converted into sparkling luxury flats and offices shaped like diamonds, gherkins, cheese graters, walkie talkies, domes. From London Bridge we caught the bus traversing the City, past St Paul’s, through Hackney, Dalston, Camden into Haringey – repeating the journey of my younger days. Except then, I never knew where I was in my London. It was grimy, exciting with adventure and love on every corner. This time it was cleaner, and I knew the way.

Thursday night, although still staying with Lesley, I was meeting my second oldest friend, Susie whom I have known since primary school. She still looks like she could be attending Gospel Oak. We met in a wine bar in Finsbury Park and went for grub in Stroud Green Road where she regaled me with stories of her love life. Yes, she still has one aged sixty plus and it is still as fraught as when we were sixteen. It was great to see her, but a relief, to meander again up to Manor House and seek refuge with Lesley.

The following day, I said my goodbyes to Lesley who was about to take herself off to Jordan and set off for Oxford by way of the bus which I got on at Marble Arch. It was raining again, so when Ruth picked me up at the station, she took me to  charming The Perch pub on the banks of Thames where she knew a fire would be roaring. It was, and there were candles everywhere as, for some reason, the power had gone. After a quick pint and a fish plate, we went home and snuggled up, drinking lots of tea, chatting to Sam, her son, cooking, welcoming Phil her husband back from an arduous day in London – all very domesticated and relaxing. I felt like the old Kate. The English Kate was beginning to peek out from behind the visitor’s visor.

On Saturday morning, after sharing tea in bed and dreams with Ruth, just like in the old days, I got on a bicycle for the first time in six years, since my hip operation. I wobbled merrily along the river paths and parks of the Oxfordshire flatlands to the open air, heated, swimming pool where children played in the shallow end and an older age group swam in sedate watery lanes. Then a bike ride home for breakfast, a tour of the garden and allotment, and off for a walk to meet Maria who was joining us. Maria, Ruth and I lived together for three years at university in Norwich forty years ago. On our way back, we popped into the Tap Social which is based in an industrial estate (opposite the foodbank) behind Ruthie’s house, and lo and behold, it was carnival time! At Ruth’s insistence, we got pints in, sat outside in glorious sunshine listening to DJs flip steel bands and west African music. We managed to return home to eat Phil’s pork belly and beans but then went back to Carnival and danced, hot, sweaty, hip searing steps like it was 1981. Old Kate was in her element. That night, Maria and I shared a bed, whispering quietly about our day.

On Sunday, Maria returned to her London life, getting ready to pick up her daughter from her camping holiday and her husband from his weekend of mother care. For our 60th birthdays, Ruth and I had booked four hours of an art workshop on Sunday doing acrylics and watercolours with an artist who lives in the Cotswolds. I had forgotten how pretty those villages are. He taught us about vanishing points and showed me how put things in perspective. I have been trying to learn this for 60 years – and not just on paper! We returned home, Ruth cooked a Sunday dinner of roast of chicken, carrots, chard and potatoes from the allotment and we adjourned to watch Poldark before bed. Monday morning, Ruth and Phil left early for work, I went off to catch my bus to Gatwick and their two sons stayed in bed. The world felt it was as it should be. I was returning home to Ireland, to my Cavan life of words, walks and water. I was looking forward to seeing Jerry, Poppins and sleeping in my own bed in my own home. But the 60th grand tour was wonderful. Not only did it give me perspective on my life, but it showed me how lucky I am,  and reminded me who I am and where I come from. Like Bill Anders, the astronaut said

“We come to explore the moon and the most important thing we discover is the earth.”

 

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A Muse

Last week as I negotiated the uneven pebbles and stones on Wicklow beach in my sandals, I saw the surf rise from the sea. A flotilla of floating gulls flew away one by one. Poppins Dog barked at the shore as sprays of white lifted from the waves, broke apart, drifted away on the wind, directionless, leaving the ocean behind, grey, without motion, ripples, nor undercurrent. As if with no lunar pull.

I remembered this yesterday watching the Boris show. Why I don’t know. His mop of hair, maybe, like a sea gull?  He stepped up to the podium, triumphant. Made a speech of hope and glory amid cheers, roars, shouts of protest. Then, as usual, Open Sesame, the door of No Ten admitted him, except, did you notice, Boris also knocked to get in. That amused me.

Which is why I am in two minds about Boris as Prime Minister. It has been truly sad to see the old country torn whipped, wounded on its knees after swallowing the poison dished by Dominic Cummings, now appointed by Boris, to stalk the corridors of British power.

I’m sorry, but Brexit has turned Britain into a performance. But, what is a show without Knaves? Without a simpleton puppet who thinks he can fix everything by waving his sceptre? Like the prince in Shrek One. I hope Boris will precipitate the end, the final scene, the culminating battle. Let’s hope it is more entertaining than Games of Thrones and that Jeremy Corbyn can be the Saviour, though I must admit, John McDonnell is my true hero, my Brave Heart, which, oddly enough, was filmed on the beaches of Wicklow.

braveheart

 

 

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Life Goes On

Sicily is already a faded footprint. There is no trace of the lava rock and ash that dirtied and bloodied my feet as I climbed Mount Etna in the flimsiest of sandals. It is hard now to imagine another person lying on my bed beneath the beautifully painted fresco on the ceiling. The poems of the paper machié girl suspended, swinging, beneath the vast moon have disappeared. The heat of the sun beating down on my skin as I walked across the marble piazzas are intangible memories. The noise of the traffic and trains outside my window in Catania have receded.  Sicily has almost vanished, simply because I am not there.

Yet, the woman whom I watched most evenings ply her trade beneath my balcony stays with me.

The Street Walker at 10pm

I watch as she adjusts her black hair in the dusty rear window

Of a black escort van parked by the zebra, her fingers

Push, twizzle, curl and flounce.

She seems momentarily satisfied and turns.

Her high silver heels totter her step, legs carved

into tight fitting hot pants, she prowls

up and down. When a man in a white van stops,

there is no talk. She gesticulates.

Four fingers. A thumb.

He passes on. She returns to the escort, fine tunes

A hair, turns back to the flow, the roar of the cars,

I can feel the rhythm. Edgy as hell.

 

We were staying in Catania, the second city of the island on the South Coast of Sicily. On one of the days, we went on a single gauge train into the interior, around the foothills of Mount Etna. I couldn’t understand why the first half of the journey was pitted with black, jazzed lava rock with barely any growth yet the second half was an oasis of grasses, camomile, whin bushes, mimosa, lemon and orange trees, olive groves: a glory of colour and scent flooded the tiny dusty carriages. There were bells ringing at crossroads as we rumbled past, people worked in the fields, tended the land by hand. The pastoral scene looked like an impressionist painting. Massimo, who guided us around Mount Etna a few days later, told me that lava is full of nutrients, sulphur, copper, iron and after a hundred years, these nutrients feed the soil. The terrain on the first part of the journey was the result of the 2005 eruption. In another seventy years, it would be lush, if Etna does not erupt again in a major way. When we went up to the top of Mount Etna, the ground was rocky and  black. It reminded me of a quarry. The terrain was like a moon scape – craters and peaks, black and grey. In the winter, it is pure white, and a skiing resort, with gentle blue, green and red slopes. It must be magnificent.

 

My two favourite Sicily days were visiting Ortigia, Syracuse and going to the Norman Castle built on lava rock at the edge of Catania. Ortigia is an island of alleyways, with an astounding white marble Piazza and Cathedral which I am sure is polished daily. We wanted to go by train but were given a bus ticket at the Statzione. The trains were not running. Massimo (our later guide) informed me that sometimes, in Sicily, it is simply too hot so that the train drivers get too tired!

My favourite meal of the holiday was after visiting the Norman castle where a man regaled me with tales of Cyclops throwing rocks. Lunch was huge, shiny, black mussels, a salad and a bottle of Sicilian white wine in a small café in a tiny square which we shared with fifteen Maltese holiday makers. Then back to the frieze for a siesta.

So, aside from the drinks in cafes, walks in the park, shopping in air conditioned stores to get cool, that was Sicily. Since returning two days ago, I have read the PEN Case Study list which is an immensely depressing list of imprisoned writers to try choose three or four to focus on campaigning for in 2020,  immersed myself in a seminar on human values (we prioritised respect, social justice, freedom, and equality), participated in a new Peace IV project called A Cavan Convergence (what do borders mean), and went to see Float Like a Butterfly with the Cavan Traveller Movement which was charming. And I have been preparing for my two day weekend writing course, photocopying materials and planning the lunches. And so, Sicily has gone.

My next adventure is a marriage in Manchester the weekend after next. It is the first of the younger Fitzpatrick Clan to wed. Yes, life goes on, each day leading to another, and then quickly disappearing, however immediate and important we believed it to be at the time.

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“Writing is Like Walking into a Room and Dancing with a Complete Stranger”: The heightened emotion of my 60th Celebrations:

There was no dancing during my 60th birthday celebrations, so this piece of writing is as close as I will get to the Nabokov simile which I heard three times at the Borris Festival of Creative Ideas and Writing on day six of my birthday celebrations. On the birthday itself, I felt prickly and anxious. My stomach was a kaleidoscope of different patterned beads. Dancing was not an option. I was more concerned that old age might come barrelling out of a corner, hunch backed, wart faced with 300 dernier flesh coloured stockings. However, when I glanced in the mirror,  I looked the same as yesterday, maybe a little paler. What did come barrelling out was a worm, inveigling its way through my intestine, slippery with what felt like a lascivious grin on its face. However, with a taut lip, and a determination as grim faced at Teresa May’s, I started baking cakes and experimenting with cocktails in preparation for the start of the celebrations. There was certainly no dancing with strangers.

On the day of the party, I discovered that cocktails and cakes are good ingredients for a celebration. Gluten free flour is less successful (my beautiful cakes crumbled), but what did work was the limited number of friends who, because they all lived in the same county, knew each other, or of each other, and were happy to chat and gossip. My hostess skills were not necessary and, very quickly, I found myself surplus to requirements. I was able to retire to the outer ripples of the party and enjoy the Sangria amid the hubbub of natural chatter and laughter.

The next day, however, not wanting to risk the sudden appearance of the wart faced, hunchback with flesh coloured stockings, I followed the last guest out the door and hot tailed it for Limerick.

Limerick is a licorice all-sorts kind of city. I love the wide, elegant Georgian streets that rise out of the chill of the narrow alleyways. Giant, foreboding, grey stone warehouses overhang and shadow the flower laden bridges. Tiny red bricked terraced houses line up to the grandeur and rotundity of St John’s Castle. It is a city with no airs and graces and is full of fluidity and light. I love the splendour of the Shannon, the fast pace of the Abbey River; the way water  of the rivers and canal weaves itself around the flow of the city. It has few pretensions. Limerick combines ancient with modern and thrives on itself, its history and seems to have no need of the outside world.

We walked in Clare Glens for the first time, climbing up alongside a gushing, rushing, swirling river and through swishing ashes, rain laden oaks and birches. The rhodendrums shimmered a purple haze. We got back to town just in time to go to hear a Brahms and Beethoven recital at a lunch time concert in the ancient,atmospheric St Mary’s Cathedral. Then off for Pizza and back for an official tour of the Treaty Beer brewery in Nicholas St, except it wasn’t the brewery. It was more a show house ( a very fine one with a beautiful, 13th century ‘Rembrandt’ wall). Steve, the proprietor/showman, stood at a classic walnut and cherry bar and, declaimed to Joe and myself, the glory of Limerick, his ancestry and the history of Treaty Beer. Great craic. Other Limerick highlights were the young women in the Social Democrat branch meeting I accompanied Joe to. They were excited, enthusiastic, and committed. In the pub after, we discussed setting up work plans, goals, how to reach further into the local community. Meanwhile, the young Social Democrat men huddled together, over pints discussing stats, data, and political gossip.

The Borris Festival of Writing and Creative Ideas was next on my celebratory schedule.  Joe drove me across rolling pastures of sheep, elderflower and hawthorn, past sombre mountain ranges, through small towns and villages with strange names and odd ancestry, deeper into a lush green unknown. As we were using Google Maps, I had no reference to where we were passing through, or what the mountains were. However, eventually, Joe and Google dropped me off (“Dada will pick you up on Sunday, have a good time, have you got your sandwiches?”) and waved me away, no doubt relieved to have fulfilled his filial duties.

I began stage four of the celebrations listening to William Dalrymple interview Simon Schama, sitting on a damp chair, in a mizzling rain, outside the Borris Ballroom for 25 minutes. I haven’t read any Simon Schama books, and I couldn’t see him, but he obviously hails from the upper English class as his talk was littered with Oxbridge, and art or literary references which flew between the quadraphonic speakers over my head. After a while, shivering, I felt ready to go to the Step House Hotel for ‘A Living Hell’, a discussion about Yemen between Ben Anderson and Lindsay Hilsum, two war correspondents. It was an aptly titled session (but, happily for us in a warm, comfortable surroundings). I was impressed by the knowledge, and passion of both journalists. In a sense, their dedication reflected the grim determination of both the Huthis and the Saudi backed men and child fighters, to fight to the death despite the cholera, famine, death, starvation, and homelessness that is wreaked on their family and peoples. War is a terrible thing and seems to be the corollary to man.

In contrast, the Julian Barnes session next was like listening to liquid gold. Instead of the crude bang of land mines and bullets, there was English reserve, understated, gentle humour, and a deft handling of the interview with Alex Clark. I liked his idea that a novelist will never know all the sources of their writing, even when the book is finished. Writing is like memory, as time passes, it changes complexion and colour. Both Barnes and Hisham Matar (The Return), who I saw interviewd later, referred to the importance of changing perceptions and imagination in both fiction and non-fiction.

Borris is a great combination of politics and literature, and I like mixing and matching the two. The MisInformation Age session featured Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame, Misha Glenny, the ubiquitous Simon Schama and Fintan O’Toole. It was an interesting discussion on the Mexican narcos, corruption, globalisation, Trump, Brexit but the male hormones were flying up on the stage, and it became a bit of a pissing contest as to who knew the most. Also, at the end of it, I felt that I had listened to the gloom and doom of this subject matter long enough, and wanted to hear more about possible alternatives.

I had, by now, met up with my partners in crime and we ended the day picnicking with pizza, wine, olives, hummus, crisps sitting in foldable picnic chairs, drinking out of wine glasses, in the shelter of the car. They had come prepared.

I went to Afghanistan and Libya the next day with Christina Lamb (war correspondent) and Hisham Matar who were discussing non-fiction. Both authors felt that non fiction writing was motivated by the need for truth, but Matar felt that imagination was absolutely crucial to non-fiction as non-fiction is a selection of life, coloured by enthusiasm. While Christina Lamb nodded, she felt that her books were underscored by the rhetorical questions of ‘why do people have to die and for what?’. She reflected on the question that is never considered by any army, what happens next?

‘Heightened emotion’ is a core ingredient in every piece of writing, fiction, non fiction, reportage, but it is particularly so in the gothic novel as discussed by Joe O’Connor and Sarah Perry. I was intrigued by this discussion as I hadn’t really thought about the inversion of right and wrong in gothic writing, the bargain between the individual and the other, the multiplicity of selves, the fluidity of identity, the exaggeration of the rhythm and the spotlight of the tone. I’m going to read both Joe O’Connor and Sarah Perry’s latest books, Shadowplay and Melmouth, respectively.

Donal Ryan and Nicole Slattery were both charming and fluid and provided a relaxing interlude to the war torn realities and heightened emotion of the writers that had made up my day so far. The whispered, undulating vowels, soft consonants, the gentle praise and the pretty surroundings of the chapel had a lovely soothing effect. I was also interested that Nicole Slattery perfects each paragraph before she moves on to the next, as indeed, I discovered does Hishmar Matar. When I dance with my total stranger, I step on toes and twirl in the wrong places. Only after getting the feel of him, do I get his rhythm.

Martin Amis and Julian Barnes were in perfect rhythm discussing Christopher Hitchens. Between the two and fro of them, they drew a wonderful caricature of the once editor of the New Statesman and supposed life-long Trotskyist. Hitchens came from the British upper class, attended Oxford, was loud, acerbic, arrogant, a brilliant thinker but, apparently, a terrible writer. He believed he didn’t have the musicality to write and that it was ‘frivolous’ to invent someone who wasn’t real. Julian Barnes thought it was more because he probably couldn’t write women characters. His female descriptions would have been more in the PG Wodehouse mode of ‘fragrant’. As they discussed Christopher Hitchens and regaled us with anecdotes, it sounded to me like Hitchens was like many well educated, upper class men: arrogant, cruel, witty, and irrational. Amis agreed that he took positions that were difficult to justify – like being an anti abortionist on the premise that his mother had had two abortions, one before he was born, one after. Apparently, Hitchens railed “It could have been Hitch!” Both Barnes and Amis agreed that he was a ‘self shackling Houdini.”

On the last day of Borris, I discovered a new heroine in actor, Fiona Shaw. She was interviewed by Olivia O’Leary. I found myself gazing up at her in the Ballroom, mesmerised by her humour, wit, intelligence, vivacity and I was totally engrossed in her anecdotal stories about rehearsals, props and accents. She has given me a template to take me to my 70th birthday: props need to be done away with and if you are engaged with what you do, your heartbeat goes up, and so does your audience. Also, Shakespeare doesn’t work with a Cork accent.

So, finally, that afternoon Dada did pick me up and took me home. Great 60th celebrations and I want to thank everyone who shared them with me. If you travel with me to the 70th, look forward a racing pulse! I’m looking for dance partners. I hope you feel highly emoted.

 

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Before by Pat Kinevan

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I went to see Pat Kinevan’s new play, Before, last weekend at the Ramor Theatre, Virginia. Once again he was brilliant, and so was the play. The central theme was a father who is refused access to his daughter but the play also touches on rural isolation, the modern image of men, and the growing superficiality of love – all that achieved by one man. It is extraordinary.
Pat Kinevan’s one man performances are always startling. I have blogged about him before, back in 2014. His writing is deft. He dovetails everyday banter with such dramatic pitch, tone and expression. One minute he is having the craic with the audience and the next minute he fills the stage with shadow, light and pain, all through his voice and body movement, with maybe a hat for a prop. He fills the theatre with presence, sound and shape.
I also love how Pat seeds his work. In Before he scatters Hollywood dreams of love and romance by referencing the musicals we all grew up with (love ‘em or hate ‘em, you know them). Then, with the story of Pontius (yes, named after Pontius Pilote), he shines a light on the real misery and loneliness of life. He is the master of contrast. He plants, waters and suddenly you see a glaring issue blossoming. In Before, as I mentioned, it is ‘father’s rights’. In other plays, it has been homelessness, mental heath and suicide.
I think Pat is only brilliant. Truly. I used to love musicals as a child, so I enjoyed the references he tossed about the stage. However, as I mentioned to him in the bar afterwards, I didn’t catch any reference to Mary Poppins whom some of you may know is my role model in life. He confessed that he hadn’t made one. Horrified, with appropriate Mary Poppins style and manner,I suggested that he rectify this, after all, you may remember, she is practically perfect in every way. He smiled, kissed me on both cheeks and thanked me effusively, delighted with the idea. So when you catch the play, which you must, listen out for Mary.

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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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