Take a break and read a poem today…

Today is National Poetry Day in Britain. Here in the US we have National Poetry Month in April, and as part of that there’s a Poem in Your Pocket Day – April 18th next year, and I’ll try to remind you…

The theme for this year’s National Poetry Day is stars, which I like, because one of my sons has turned out to be an astrophysicist – nothing to do with me, needless to say. I’m all about the liberal arts, so poems about stars are perfect.

There are poetry events all over, including a big one in London where they’ll give people a chance to visit one of the Poetry Peace Camp inspired by Deborah Warner’s commission for London 2012 Festival: Artichoke’s Peace Camp. There’s a rolling programme of free readings by top poets, including Dannie Abse, Christopher Reid and Helen Mort.

Kelly Grovier

They’re not being parochial about this either, and are including American poets in their recommendations. You can hear Kelly Grovier reading his poem, The Stars, by clicking here. (I’d reprint it, but I don’t want to infringe on copyright.) So here’s my out-of-copyright choice about stars:

In The Train

By James Thomson

                                                                 As we rush, as we rush in the Train,

                                                                 The trees and houses go wheeling back,

                                                                 But the Starry heavens above the plain

                                                                 Come flying on our track.

                                                                All the beautiful stars of the sky,

                                                                 The silver doves of the forest of Night,

                                                                 Over the dull earth swarm and fly,

                                                                 Companions of our flight.

                                                                 He will rush ever on without fear;

                                                                Let the goal be far, the flight be fleet!

                                                                While the earth slips from our feet!

It’s an old poem – the poet died in 1886, but it still resonates for me. Well, perhaps not when I’m on the train to New York City 🙂

Do you have a favorite?

Sailing above London in a boat of your own

What’s wrong with this picture? Could it be that there’s a boat perched on – not to say about to fall off of – the top of the Queen Elizabeth Hall at the South Bank Centre in London?  What the heck is it?

Photo: Charles Hosea

It’s a gorgeous one-bedroom ‘installation’ with two decks which provide incredible panoramic views of the Thames and famous London sights like the Houses of Parliament and St Paul’s cathedral. It was built by Living Architecture and designed by David Kohn Architects in collaboration with the artist Fiona Banner, and is designed to stay ‘afloat’ through 2012 as part of the London 2012 Festival. It’s called A Room for London

View from the loo – Photo: Charles Hosea

Why?  It’s a studio retreat for artists, musicians and writers – just one at a time. Each month a different writer checks into the Room and spends several days writing a new work. Then the writer records his/her work and it’s available to listen to as a podcast from the Guardian or on this website. There’ll be twelve readings in all under the umbrella title of A London Address.

Projects include a one-off performance by British actor Brian Cox of Orson Welles’ unmade film “ Heart of Darkness” based on the novel by Joseph Conrad.You can watch the video here until June 30th.

International writers, including Caryl Phillips, Jeanette Winterson, Sven Lindqvist  and Michael Ondaatje, have stayed there and written new works under the banner : A London Address, which you can hear via podcasts here:

One of the chief sponsors is Artangel,  a London-based not-for-profit that commissions art projects and installations by contemporary artists around the UK. Here’s what they had to say about the idea behind the boat:

The original Roi des Belges

An intimate space in a cultural quarter with a sweeping view of one of the world’s great cities, A Room for London is more than a hotel room: it’s an observatory, a retreat and a studio, whose design was inspired by the Roi des Belges, the boat that Joseph Conrad navigated up the River Congo in the late nineteenth century, before writing Heart of Darkness. There is a deck, a crow’s nest and a cabinet of visual curios – and a centerpiece bed which slides on rails to make the most of the views over London. Before departure, guests will be invited to fill in a logbook in the ‘bridge’ of the boat, detailing what they have experienced during their stay, out of the window as much as within themselves. An octagonal library with a carefully curated selection of books and twin desks looking out across the river enables visitors to use the Room as a remarkable studio space.

And members of the public have been able to rent it for a one-night stay. They’re sold out now, of course, but there are plans afoot to place it somewhere else next year, so there’s hope.

Time for the Christmas edition of this blog…

When I first started writing this “Christmas” letter it started “It’s November, and…. Then it morphed into “It’s December and…”

Fact is, you’ve probably noticed that, in fact, “It’s January and…although I’m sitting here looking at a deceptively placid and sunny lake, we’ve already had at least a foot of snow here in New Hampshire. And that was quite a shock for us when we returned from our longest vacation ever in early November. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

As I think I mentioned last time, Jay and I had taken a cruise to Alaska last year (2010) and Jay liked it so much he booked another for the whole family to go to the Caribbean in February. And so we went. Fifteen of us. Actually, Freddie and Bertie couldn’t make it, since they had to stay at their respective universities. When we said we would be traveling with six grandchildren, they seemed somewhat less disappointed to be missing the trip…

Here’s a picture of the band of seafarers, and considering it was taken at 11 at night, it’s a miracle that everyone looks more or less awake!

It turned out to be a great trip. We visited San Juan (very Spanish), Grand Turk (very sandy), and St Maarten, which Jay and his daughters had visited regularly in the 1970s. Determined to recreate this past paradise, Jay rented a truck (sorry, minivan) and we set off to find the fabled beach house of yore. After several wrong turns and dead ends, we found the beach.  

It was a stone’s throw from the airport, which in the 1970’s didn’t matter, because the planes were small and relatively infrequent. Now, the roar of jets probably drowns out the local birds. Still, the view was lovely, and Amanda (left) and Heather (right) had fun trying to decide which of the now huge beach houses had once been the cottage they rented.

Back on dry land (in Florida) Jay and I decided we needed a vacation, so we drove down to Key West, the most southerly point of the continental United States. Key West is famous for Ernest Hemingway (who spent most of his time in a local bar or fishing), Harry Truman (who spent his time gambling – either playing poker or taking important policy decisions) and Key limes. We ate a lot of Key lime flavored things – pie, of course, ice cream, barbecue sauce, dips, crisps, crackers, soap…oh, no, wait, we didn’t actually eat the soap. But you get the drift.

And talking of drift, our next stop was Sanibel Island, also off the Florida coast, and famous for its shells. When people told me they went shelling on Sanibel, I had visions of dangerous military activity, but the American verb, ‘to shell,’ means to look for shells. I dutifully did this, wandering up and down the beaches and coming home with a few bedraggled samples. Jay did much better than I did. He walked into the nearest shell shop and bought several magnificent specimens (probably from Thailand, of which more later).

From March to July, we more or less behaved ourselves, but we got itchy feet again in August, and decided, on the spur of the moment, to drive to Canada. We spent our first night in Ottawa, a city I had seriously prejudged. I think I expected it to be a completely modern city, purpose built to be the capital. I was probably mixing it up with Canberra or Brasilia. Anyway, it turned out to be delightful, historic (the changing of the guard with real Coldstream Guards) and beautiful. We’ll go back, I’m sure.

Next we visited our best man and his wife in Toronto. I had always told Carl that I thought he might actually have been the best man, but that since he was already taken… We had a wonderful time before we set off for Niagara Falls, which Jay and I had never visited together. All the hotels there now have windows facing the Falls, which meant we had a terrific view, and even though I managed to prevent Jay from shopping in Niagara itself, he managed to discover the tiny town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, from which he came away with armloads of Christmas presents for the family.

On the way home, I noticed we weren’t travelling in the right direction. I put this down to the fact that Jay’s sense of direction leaves something to be desired, and hinted that if we travelled east rather than south we might get home sooner. “Hall of Fame,” he muttered under his breath. And I thought he’d forgotten. He knows it has been a lifelong dream of mine to go to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY, and so he was taking me there. Wasn’t that sweet of him?

After we returned I was off again for my third visit to my indomitable 91-year-old mother in London. Bertie decided to come too, and due to our impeccable talent for organization, we left on separate planes one day apart. We saw each other briefly in London, but while we were there, Hurricane Irene terrified the airports into closing, and we ended up flying home two days late. And in fact, we flew home to Montreal (about three hours drive from New Hampshire) because there were no flights available to either Boston or New York. Jay drove the three hours to meet us, which was noble of him, and the four hours back, since we got lost in Montreal’s one way system for an hour on the way out of the airport…

September saw us at a Yankee Red Sox baseball game in Boston. This is dangerous turf for a Yankee fan (Jay) especially if he’s taken there by his daughter Amanda, her partner Barb and their family (avid Red Sox fans). The Yankees had been losing all season long, and I had prepared myself for a stressful game by downloading a copy of War and Peace onto my cell phone to read when the going got tough. To my surprise, Napoleon had barely decided to invade Russia when the Yankees started to win, and continued to do so until the end of the game. Rejoicing ensued, especially on my part, since I would have had a two hour drive home with a despondent Yankee fan, and that’s no fun.

Just as the leaves were turning their usual gorgeous colours here in New England, we left for Indochina. Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand, to be precise. Now that we’ve got the cruising thing down, we decided to try a couple of different kinds of boats, One was a junk on Ha Long Bay in Vietnam, a unique part of the world (UNESCO says so). Another was a trip down the Mekong River from Cambodia to Vietnam in a new river cruiser, something like to paddle steamers of old to look at, but with all mod cons. (Air conditioning, hot water, fitness center – where, by the way, people stuck their heads in to laugh at me as I desperately tried to shed the pounds I seemed to be gaining on board). It was a good thing we were traveling by boat – Cambodia and Thailand were both suffering from the worst floods they’d had in a long while. It was a fascinating trip and we were glad we’d been able to see Vietnam and Cambodia in particular, before they become industrialized and their old way of life is lost.

Jay was thrilled that we managed to get some clothes made in 24 hours, and that he succeeded, after much haggling, in buying two huge marble lions, which he expects will be gracing our front doorway any time now.  Ernest and Mabel are shown at left…

It turns out that Jay is a firm believer in feng shui – no, I didn’t know that, either – and the lions are going to improve the chi flowing into our home. So long as they keep Jay from breaking anything else, that’s okay with me. Maybe it’s working already, since this is the second break-free year in a row!

In Thailand, we went to visit some elephants, and soon (rather too soon, in my opinion) found ourselves riding them bareback around a large paddock. The mahouts were kind to us and didn’t laugh too much, though they did take quite a lot of photos, which was rather mean, since we looked incredibly silly. The high spot, however, was painting with the elephants.

Hearing about this, I visualized the elephants slapping paint on a large wall, with us looking on and feeding them the occasional Danish pastry. Au contraire. They painted with paintbrushes, watching our hands as we sketched the design on an easel, and copying it with the paintbrush. Jay got a bit carried away as you can see here. I am not even going to attempt to explain what it’s meant to be.

While in Vietnam, we hit the first of November. This is significant, because I had signed myself up to write a 50,000 word novel in the 30 days of November, and if I were going to succeed I’d have to start on vacation. So there I was, in the back of the bus, typing away on my laptop. Unbelievably I did it. I now have a printed copy entitled Horrible First Draft. Funny title for a novel, you might think, but I maintain it has a certain ring to it. And maybe the next version will be called Slightly Better Second Draft.

Two weeks after our return I was off to London again, which is one reason this letter is so late. My mother is battling on, living on her own, criticizing the Tory government and attending the vicar’s coffee mornings and afternoon teas. The assistant vicar got married while I was there, and my mother and I went to the wedding. But only after she’d insisted on having a new hat. Well, one must dress for a wedding, it goes without saying.

Then came Christmas and the New Year. My daughter Helenka and her children went back to Connecticut, and our other daughters Amanda and Heather and their families came for New Year’s weekend. So it was a very busy week (meals for 12 every day…)

However, my reward for this virtuous life was that we left on January 5th for a cruise through the Panama Canal and on to South America and Machu Picchu. I had my fingers crossed that Jay wouldn’t fall off this fabulous Inca ruin high in the Andes. And told him he’d better not buy a llama, either, no matter how nice a pet it might make. Progress report next year, or sooner if you sign up to follow this blog. 🙂

Here’s hoping you have a very happy and healthy 2012!

London: gone to hell in a handbasket?

Yesterday I was laughing at my husband’s relationship with his laptop. Today I’m sitting at my desk watching my home town burn on Youtube.

I grew up in a leafy genteel suburb of London. Ealing was known then as the Queen of the Suburbs, a title we mocked in public, but secretly appreciated since it was always a safe, clean, friendly place to live. Since I left for the States over 30 years ago, it has changed. So has the world. But each time I go back, I find the atmosphere a little more charged. People are still friendly, and I feel pretty safe on the streets. But I’m constantly being told by my friends there that I’m too laissez faire, too lacking in awareness. They see me, as they see themselves, as a potential victim.

I have vowed not to be one of those people of a certain age who think the world is going to hell in a hand basket. But I do think that the cycle of lack of parenting, false expectations of wealth and fame, and lack of rewarding work (or maybe work of any kind) are proving to be a combustible mix. Even more repressive laws are not the answer. You cannot legislate good behavior.

The British Government has put in place many measures to deal with potential terrorism threats. Closed circuit TV means you have over 300 chances per day to be caught on camera in London. And local governments, desperate for more income, have adopted a draconian fine system for any infraction of the law. Parking tickets start at $150. Leaving your garbage unsorted or with the lid of the garbage can open can elicit a fine. Be a day late paying your property tax and the fine is around 40%. It makes for a very confrontational mindset. People like my 90-year-old mother, hate opening their mail because it will contain threats from the utilities and other companies that she deals with. These used to be reserved for the reminder invoice. Now they’re standard. Government offices are plastered with signs telling you that threatening or abusive behavior towards government officials will be prosecuted. When did those reserved, polite British people begin to threaten and abuse people they voted for?

Growing up in this sort of world is bound to take its toll on young people. Instead of looking forward to college and work, many of them spend their days trying to collect ASBO’s. These are Anti-Social Behavior Orders – a sort of legal parenting done by the police for kids aged 10 and up. You can get an ASBO for yelling at the neighbors, throwing bottles or otherwise behaving inappropriately in public.

And now we can add economic distress, government cutbacks, and cell phones to the mix, and suddenly there’s an excuse to start fighting the police, setting fire to cars and busses, torching shops, smashing glass and looting.

The 21st century has overwhelmed a Britain that was chugging along using the mores of the 1950’s as a benchmark. The government has tried to legislate a new way of behaving. Instead, it has simply given people an excuse to rebel against measures that would seem repressive in a dictatorship.

Okay, enough. I’m beginning to sound like one of those old farts…