Archive for June, 2017

Sifnos Blue

Last week, after flying to Athens (and sheltering from Zeus’s thunderbolts at the Acropolis), we caught the ferry to the island of Sifnos to spend a week in a villa with friends. It was lovely. Homemade greek coffee, watermelon, yoghurt, honey and spinach pies for breakfast. Sheltered beaches where we’d pause from splashing about with the kids for seafood lunches by the shore. Fish flickering around your ankles, and a real live octopus pulsing in the waters by a pier. Gruff had two little boys to run around with: firing water-pistols, making dens, building sandcastles and investigating the lizard in the bathroom. The adults got to sit up late in the terrace eating slow-cooked lamb or beetroot and feta salad, playing card games and drinking raki. One night a small owl perched on the telephone line and watched us, like Athena’s owl.


I usually blog about my own holiday reading, but keeping Cate out of trouble meant I only managed one book this year and I’d partly read a borrowed copy already whilst teaching an Arvon – Maggie Nelson’s radiant Bluets. Still, I enjoyed absorbing it properly in such a blue place, where every shutter or shop sign or banister is blue against white, and the sky was blue and the sea was like sun pouring through aquamarine glass. My favourite of her propositions is 157: ‘As one optics journal puts it, “The color of any planetary atmosphere viewed against the black of space and illuminated by a sunlike star will be blue.” In which case blue is something of an ecstatic accident produced by void and fire.’

The book I feel impelled to recommend from this holiday though is the Usbourne Illustrated Stories from the Greek Myths. I bought it for the boy’s’ bedtime stories and was worried it was a bit old for them, but it’s pitched just right and is totally enthralling – every night the adults took it in turns to read again and again the stories of Hercules’s twelve tasks, Pegasus flying towards the Chimera, Odyseuss tricking the Cyclops, and Theseus with his magic string defeating the Minotaur. I even ended up reading all the stories again last night in the airport at 11pm, waiting for our heavily-delayed flight to show up.

Back in the UK now anyway, and looking forward to a busy poetry week, including an Idler Dinner with John Lloyd and Rowley Leigh, the Northern Writers Awards and a workshop for Mslexia at Ledbury. First though, an early night with no raki.


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The Shrinks

It is funny how we habituate ourselves to things. Last week it was Cate’s christening and we had a lovely day. We dressed her in a frothy family gown for the service. She was given keepsakes: a Moomin moneybox, a jewellery box with a dancing flower-fairy, silver necklaces from her godparents. My in-laws had made a buffet in their beautiful garden, with salmon and salads, lemon and chocolate-cherry tarts. Prosecco flowed. And the next day, Cate took her first hesitant steps across the kitchen floor and promptly applauded herself.

Now, of course, I barely look up from my iphone when she walks. A week, and it’s become an ordinary miracle.

We get used to other things too. On Saturday night I was babysitting in our temporary flat near London Bridge and went to bed early. It was humid and our windows were open. I was woken by my sister trying to call my phone. I switched it off on impulse (I was sharing a room with a sleeping baby who’d taken hours to lull asleep) and then realised I could hear helicopters very close by; sirens going off. I checked twitter. I checked Facebook. I saw friends marking themselves safe and knew it was another terrorist attack. A van. Knives. Breaking news. Broken heart emojis.

In some ways it’s a survival skill, how we normalise things. We manage to process them. We can’t live in perpetual wonder or terror. But at other times it’s a trap. I’m thinking of the wonderful Adam Curtis documentary Hypernormalisation. I’m thinking of the anti-Trump rallying cry: this is not normal.

I’m reading Roald Dahl’s The Twits to my son at the moment. He got it for his 4th birthday and he loves it. Yesterday we read the bit where Mr Twit tricks Mrs Twit. Every night he adds a tiny bit of wood to the bottom of walking stick and a tiny bit to the bottom of each leg of her chair. Because it happens so incrementally, she doesn’t notice. And then, after a while, when they’re up to Mrs Twit’s shoulders, he tells her ‘you’ve got the Shrinks!’ Mrs Twit dribbles with fear and turns white. ‘It’s a terrible disease,’ Mr Twit adds. ‘The worst in the world.’

England thinks it has the shrinks at the moment. The papers have convinced us. Slowly, bit by bit, they’ve built a mountain of lies to dwarf us. Telling us we can’t afford to help the disabled, care for the elderly, pay for further education, provide a safety net when people lose their jobs, police our streets adequately. We can’t afford that local A and E, the pay rises for nurses, the textbooks for schools, the libraries, the Sure Start centres, job security, sick pay, legal aid, local museums, swimming pools, meals on wheels, housing, food for children who haven’t eaten all day, human rights. Until England has started to believe these things are impossible, and we don’t deserve them anyway. We’re so vulnerable and scared and small, and if we don’t do what they say maybe we’ll shrink even more. Maybe we’ll disappear.

Listen, it’s a trick. A trick that works because slowly we get used to our diminished state. We cope as best we can. We carry on. We tell ourselves it’s fantasy to imagine it being any other way. But it doesn’t have to be like this: every cut the Conservative government has made has been an ideological choice. The people of this country don’t have to stand back and watch it being starved, divided, dismantled, fracked and sold off.

You haven’t shrunk, believe me. Think of your family, your friends, our children. Think of London Bridge and Manchester and all the bravery and kindness. Vote tomorrow, and in the polling booth make sure you stand up to your full height.

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