Poetry, by Chance

Some years ago a chance conversation between two editors standing by the coffee machine at the publisher Pavilion resulted in these books.

It is probably safe to admit now that, at the time, I hadn’t read much poetry since school. I’d bought poetry collections and anthologies. I’d even left them in conspicuous places in the fond hope that I’d get into the habit of regularly reading poetry. And, for a time, I would. But then, gradually, the book would move down the pile until, a few weeks or even months later, I would rediscover it and start again.

Being asked to compile an anthology seemed like a dream come true. I was (and still am) very fond of London, I was curious to discover the city in verse and I wanted to read more poetry. Now working on my eighth collection, I am so glad I said ‘yes’ when I was asked. Actually pretty well all the occasions I’ve said ‘yes’ and taken a slightly blind leap into the dark have been good decisions. It’s mostly the ‘no’s’ that one regrets.

Friends, A Poem for Every Day of the Year has just been published and I’m at the stage where I regard it as a favoured child. There is a joke amongst my friends that I can walk into a bookshop and spot my books at fifty paces. This one is, I think, particularly pretty. I can say that as I had no hand in the design other than to say ‘Oh yes, that’s beautiful, thank you.’ The brief was that the poems had to be about friendship, rather than love, which was far harder than I had expected. Most poets are obsessed with love (or the lack of it); a seemingly innocent verse would end up with the poet looking at his muse lying naked in bed or the charming subject of the poem would suddenly open the buttons of her blouse to reveal……well, you can imagine. Fairly soon I realised that the people we love should, ideally, also be friends, which widened the scope. It was a delightful anthology to compile. I deliberately chose poems that were uplifting and spent my days reading about life-long friendships, faithfulness and fun. I hope the collection will do the same for readers.

This may be my new favoured child but I am still fond of its sibling, Nature, A Poem for Every Day of the Year. Particularly since they look so charming together.


Making Week 13: A Hive of Creative Activity

This week Lily, my god-daughter, came to make papier mâché. As we only had an afternoon, I realised that the drying times were going to need to be speeded up. I discovered that wallpaper paste dries beautifully in a low oven (Gas ¼) cutting the time from several hours to about thirty minutes. Research revealed that it isn’t possibly to dry acrylic paint the same way as it bakes rather than dries. A slow speed on a hairdryer works here, drying the paint in minutes.

As we also had to fit lunch, chatting and afternoon tea into the time, her box only got its first layer of paper but it has joined the ranks of my half-made pieces to be finished at a later date. I sewed (and ate scones) while she pasted and the sewing room / studio felt like a gentle hive of creative activity – apart from Matilda who spent the entire afternoon asleep in the only comfortable chair.


Each Month in my Garden: September by the Seaside

September is one of my favourite months. Partly because it is ‘autumn’ but nearly always behaves as if it is still summer; it feels like stolen time, a sort of permanently sunny bank holiday. At the end of the month I went to Devon and, driving there, I was surprised how autumnal the countryside looked. It may still have been summer in London but the fields and woodlands of Hampshire, Dorset and Somerset all had a distinctly golden tinge. It was lovely but in a slightly wistful way. As I was driving, in the interests of safety, there are no photos.

My friend lives by the seaside and this too had tipped from the buckets and spades of summer to deserted expanses of sand. But it was still warm enough to paddle.

This has nothing to do with gardens but it was one of the best puddings I’ve had for a long time. It was called something like ‘Every Child’s Worst Nightmare’ and tasted every bit as good as it looked. Thank you Relish in Ilfracombe



Making Week 12: Looking as Good on the Back as the Front

As a child I loved playing shops with Mum’s sewing basket. As this was a ‘basket’ which actually consisted of a basket, an old wooden chest and two huge wicker hampers full of fabric, a cabinet of cotton reels and an extensive button box, there was plenty of scope for stock. I would set everything out on the table and then solemnly ‘sell’ her whatever she needed. Transactions were carried out with buttons as currency so, while it may have been the deciding factor in my spending much of my life working in shops (a fabric shop as well as all the book shops), it didn’t make me rich.

When I moved on from playing shops, Mum taught me to sew. She made most of my clothes and, more importantly for me, clothes for Dodie and Betsy, two rabbits who were called after my god mother and her twin, and accompanied me everywhere. I passed them on to my god daughter and recently got them back as she had (long since) outgrown playing with rabbits. Here they are modelling summer and winter dresses, everyday coats and party coats. Dodie, the favoured rabbit also had a ‘Little Grey Rabbit’ dress, and a velvet party frock but she also had to undergo an operation to have her tummy fur replaced when I wore it out with too much affection. Betsy had a simple summer frock. Aged four, it is easy to see the importance of child and rabbits wearing matching dresses.

Mum sewed beautifully and was adamant that the back of any project should always look as neat as the front. I couldn’t see the point of this; after all, the back was nearly always hidden. It was only when I started quilting that I realised the importance of her lessons. I have finally finished quilting the patchworks I made during the summer – yes, I have been eating off a half-made tablecloth and sleeping somewhat precariously under a quilt held together with pins rather than stitches. While the backs are not quite as neat as the fronts, they aren’t bad. And now I can leap in and out of bed without the risk of impaling myself on a pin.


Making Week 11: Portable Sewing

I went away last week and I wanted a portable project to take with me – and the papier mâché boats are not portable. It’s a great palaver just to move them to the garden as every stage involves lots of bits. I wasn’t sure how keen my friend would be if I arrived with masses of ripped-up newspaper and a bowl of wallpaper paste. Also she has four very large, extremely inquisitive cats. Matilda has at least established that the boats are boring and best ignored.

The little patchworks were the perfect project to take. The hexagons don’t quite come out at 6×8 inches but I’ll worry about that later, once I’ve worked out what I’m going to do with the mini quilts.


Each Month in My Garden: August

For the last few years the kerria has overtaken my long shady bed. In spring it looks wonderful and it blocks next door’s conservatory but by mid summer it has always grown too tall so the yellow pom-pom flowers are on stems 10-12ft tall. From a single stem it has spread the length and, more crucially, the width of the bed. Nothing else really grows here apart from some Welsh poppies and an aquilegia, which wasn’t very happy this year. The neighbours have ‘done’ their garden and we need a proper screen above the wall between us. When asked, I tend to say that flowers are the priority in my garden, followed by places to sit but, if I’m honest the order is privacy, seating, flowers.

On two sides ivy, kept reasonably under control, provides the garden with a beautiful green screen above the walls. Some years, when I’m organised, sweet peas, morning glory or cucumbers grow up the front.  The plan for the gap above the remaining stretch wall is ivy (kept very under control) with a rose in front which will the arch over the summer house roof, meeting the one that is already there on the other side.

The bed is not deep; about a foot down it turns into impenetrable rubble, so large plants go into bottomless flower pots to give them a bit of extra soil. I picked out every single piece of kerria root, leaving just a thin row of stems at the back of one end of the bed. Some of these stems probably won’t survive as I’m sure I will have damaged their roots but I’ve left enough, and the plant is tough, so I hope I’ll retain a slim, wafty screen.

The list of requirements for the rose is rather alarming: shade tolerant, soil tolerant, climbing but not too rampant, repeat flowering, fragrant, ideally not pink (the other one which arches over the summer house is a mixture of pink and yellow). David Austin’s ‘Claire Austin’ does all these and, by good luck rather than good management, the flowers are exactly the same shade of cream as the edgings on the ivy leaves.

I’ve replanted the aquilegias, alchemilla and a rather sorry-looking hardy geranium I found lurking between a mass of kerria stems. None of them looked particularly happy but with watering, food and a layer of mulch they have all recovered.

I have a very small shed, roughly the shape of a sentry box. The theory is that all my gardening paraphernalia lives in it, thus ensuring that the summer house does not become a dumping ground. Slowly, over the last three or so years, the roof of the little shed has disintegrated. I botched a repair with a couple of bin bags weighted down with old hoses. It worked but was not very sightly and clearly wouldn’t last for ever. Thanks to my friend David it now has a new roof which is waterproof and attractive. The photos show the spectacular difference between before and after.


Making Week 10: Miniature Patchworks

Originally patchwork quilts were an economical way of keeping warm. Old scraps of fabric were used and often the paper templates were left in for additional insulation. My fabric cupboard is testament to the fact that, for me at least, patchworks are not an economy. I don’t think I’ve ever made a quilt without buying some fabric, in most cases far too much. Rather than run out at a crucial stage, I buy ‘a bit extra’ and every time I go into a fabric shop I am seduced by a something. Often by several patterns, which then form the basis for a patchwork to be made at some unspecified point in the future. At the end of every patchwork there are always bits of fabric left, often too small to be of much use but far too precious to just throw away, which are pushed back into the cabinet. I’m not complaining, far from it, I love my fabric cupboard but every so often it needs a bit of a clear-out.

I am now making little patchworks. I’m not sure yet what I’m going to do with them as I don’t know that many miniature people (they’d need to be about 8-10 inches tall) but they are using up the scraps brilliantly and are also an unexpectedly good way to experiment. Each pattern is 6×8 inches with a 1 inch border. So far, I haven’t bought any extra fabric for them.


Making Week 9: Freezer Paper

A couple of weeks ago Ann Wood had a free tutorial for applique bats with very pointy wings. I’ve been fiddling with pointy boat sails so I read it with interest (thank you Ann for the tutorial – it was great). Stage 1 specified ‘freezer paper’. Being a Brit I had no idea what this was. Frozen baking paper? Waxed paper of some sort? A little research revealed that it is paper that is plastic coated on one side and that Empress Mills stock it. The problem is that Empress Mills’ website is very well laid-out and full of all sorts of enticing fabrics, some of which were even in the sale. Of course I bought more than the freezer paper.

The wavy lined fabric will be perfect for the sea, the green stripes for sails and the boats were in the sale and looked useful. The blue and white pattern, complete with beach huts and a light house was too charming to leave.


“Istanbul, A Tale of Three Cities” Bettany Hughes.

Istanbul is, for the adventurous, one of the best cities in the world. Bettany Hughes’ book about the “Three Cities” of the book’s title  is a delight to anyone who has enjoyed visiting that wonderful city straddling Europe and Asia. It has successively been known as Byzantium, Constantinople and finally Istanbul: the three cities of the book’s title.

Hughes describes how settlements of sorts have existed on the site of Byzantium, otherwise known as Byzantion, for some 8,000 years. By 670 BC it was a recognisable part of the wider Greek world, and by the fifth century BC was mentioned by Herodotus as the site of a pontoon bridge linking Europe and Asia.

She tells the story of how Byzantium became increasingly linked to Rome as the centuries passed and was formally incorporated as a province of the Empire in AD 73 by Vespasian. Constantine’s victory at the battle of Milvain Bridge in AD 312 was a turning point in its history. By 330, it had become Constantinople, capital of the Eastern Roman Empire and subsequent seat of the Orthodox Christian church.  Its empire went through complex and brilliantly outlined cycles of growth, decline and humiliation before its final conquest by the Turkish Emperor Mehmet in 1453. However, throughout all its travails it preserved a remarkable Imperial court, distinguished by amazing and complex ceremonial.

She analyses the process by which Byzantium’s Turkish conquerors brought not just death and destruction but new vigour to the fallen city, so, as Istanbul or Stimboli it became the centre of another great power. The Ottoman Empire at one stage was so powerful it threatened the existence of the entire Christian West before it gradually decayed until its final defeat and dissolution as a consequence of the First World War.  Modern secular Turkey, under the leadership of Gamal Ataturk, emerged from its ruins after even more appalling bloodshed and hardship. Only thereafter did Turkey’s administrative capital move to Ankara, an efficient modern city, albeit one that has never had the slightest impact on the human imagination.

The book relishes not just the history of events in Istanbul but the enduring myths of which it was the subject: their imaginative strength inspired W B Yeats to write Sailing to Byzantium, “Into the artifice of eternity..” to “become a golden enamelled bird, in preference to any natural thing” singing “to keep a drowsy emperor awake of what is past, or passing, or to come.”

Hughes is a serious academic, a successful television historian and vastly experienced as an archaeologist. These qualities help her make sense of a city where numerous different physical remnants and cultural symbols and signifiers lie jumbled over, above and alongside each other in great confusion. She records, explains and popularises the long and eventful story, and the enveloping myths, of a city that has been a key element of world history for most of recorded time.  She writes “But, for me, Istanbul’s cultural and emotional strength comes from the fact that city’s narrative is not confined by lines in time. It is a place where people are connected across time by place, which is why I embarked on the Heraklean, sometimes Augean, task of using clues in the landscape to tell a story of this city from prehistory to the present”.

She dissects the Roman Via Egnatia from the debris of time. From its construction in the second century AD and running from Dyracchium on the Adriatic (modern day Durres in Albania)  to Istanbul the road, now often hidden or buried, has survived as a trade and invasion route for nearly two millennia.  The Milion, that old milestone, that still, just, survives in central Istanbul, marks its eastern end as a mere historical curiosity and indicator of distances in the fallen Empire. More importantly it is an enduring symbol of continuing trade, invasion and change over nearly two thousand years.

Istanbul fascinates us not only because it is beautiful and wonderful to visit, but also because it continues to be filled with events and personalities that are at the centre of Middle Eastern life and politics. Bestriding two continents, and straddling many different nations, beliefs and ways of living, Istanbul is certainly not going to go quietly into the night as President Erdogan of Turkey tries to enforce an increasingly hard political, religious and cultural line on what has for much of its life been seen as a liberal and inclusive city.   Hughes’s achievement is to make sense  of the ways in which Istanbul’s past and present, like Yeats’s verse, elide, conflict and influence the future of what is very much a continuing work in progress as well as home to many millions of people and a source of fascination and pleasure to all those who have visited it or know it in their imaginations.

Chris (more…)