The first spilled secrets in filthy school loos.
The second gave ginger cut to the chase.
The third made love, death and crime on Ward 5.
The fourth shared The Sound of Silence.
The fifth fell into a snow drift.
The sixth surrendered beautiful on the banks of the Tyne.
The seventh gave a wedding ring and split lip.
The eighth made excellent chicken soup.
The ninth gave gin massage on hot lawns.
The tenth offered midnight lifts to therapy and falling stars.
The eleventh staged punctures in motorway service stations.
The twelfth gave tarot card readings.
The thirteenth banned the Bomb and taught self-defense with a spanner, sickle and hammer.
He slept with his socks on.
The fifteenth performed impressions of Richard Gere.
The sixteenth gave empty, like Dire Straits.
The seventeenth cracked my zoom lens.
The nineteen rowed my boat to the island of woolly mammoths.
The twenty second shared Victoria Sandwich and arson.
The twenty eighth gave life drawing. He jumped off the High Level Bridge.
The thirty sixth sent crocodiles under my floor.
The one after him played a mean pianissimo and made the top forty.
The last one believed in the theory of reincarnation.
These found poems are based on the real letters of Annie Mackay. She spent her brief life working the small family croft in a remote area of the Highlands. Sadly, she developed cancer and died at the age of 21 in 1957. Her orphaned six month baby boy was left to be raised by an aged uncle. At the time illegitimate children were considered social outcasts. No-one ever discovered the identity of the baby’s father which might be hinted at in these letters. They were written to Annie’s married sister Violet who had moved to Edinburgh. I love these letters because they are full of joy and humor even though Annie was already aware of her illness. They also paint a picture of the preoccupations of a country girl and life in the 1950s.
I sold eighteen turkeys
so we can have a night
out in the pub,
going from bad to worse (puff).
Ronald says Ray is a born lunatic,
that was his opinion when he saw
the photos and then the blue jersey.
Your hair looked very nice,
is that a new dress you had on?
I hope it’s nylon
I’m not in favor of wool.
Lots of love and kisses,
I can tell you about it. There was turkey for dinner, then at 3 o’clock tea.
I had my cake with 21 candles. All the family were there listening to Lux
and singing The Railroad Runs Through the Middle of the House.
I think its super, don’t you? Lena brought the record Walking in the Rain.
I like it do you?
Jesse gave me £5 and Connie £2 and Grandad two aprons and Mary a nylon underset
and Margaret a necklace, sparkles all colors and Donald a mohair scarf (awfully warm)
and Sheena nylons and Jane a cameo brooch and Granny a Terrylene blouse.
I’m not in favor of blue.
And from Julie a ‘Le Page’ compact and from Johnny, Black Rose perfume,
very good of him and from Lynn a Coty lipstick, nearly ruby and from Alan a purse.
What a present, not much use with no money and then of course, your presents.
Johnny stayed till midnight… everyone else went off at six.
Lots of love and kisses,
PSA Separate Special Instalment for your Eyes Only:-
BURN AFTER READING
My first experiences of poetry happened early in childhood. My maternal grandfather wrote a poem for me each year to commemorate my birthday. It would be penned carefully on the back of his birthday card. I am sad today that I did not keep these special tokens of his love.
My first poetry book was A Child’s Garden of Verse by Robert Louis Stevenson. A beautiful blue leather bound copy with gilded page edges was presented to me at Primary School as an Attainment Prize. I was nine years old. Again it reinforced the idea that poetry was something precious. I began to write my own poems. I recall a gem that began with the lines, “I was playing in the dairy/when I first saw the fairy”!
At the age of sixteen I was initiated into contemporary poetry (together with sex) by my Glaswegian boyfriend. He introduced me to the music and poems of Leonard Cohen. As a Christmas present he bought me a little book of his poetry and I still have the battered copy on my bookshelf. Cohen’s poetry is often overlooked as he is best known for his songs. I like his short poems which seem to have a mysterious double meaning. Here is one of my favourites called I Heard of a Man:-
I heard of a man
who says words so beautifully
that if he only speaks their name
women give themselves to him.
If I am dumb beside your body
while silence blossoms like tumors on our lips.
it is because I hear a man climb stairs and clear his throat outside the door.
I read Cohen’s romantic and political poems over and over again, learning some of them by heart. At the time I had no idea poetry would become such a vital element of my life as it is now. For me, poetry is therapeutic but more importantly, a way to communicate difficult emotions and experiences to others.
What were your first tastes of poetry? Were they positive or negative? Did you learn poems by rote in the classroom? Or did your parents read to you? Do you remember your first ever poetry book? I would love to hear how you were initiated into the wonderful world of poetry.
And here is a YouTube video of Leonard Cohen singing one of his most famous and poetic songs:-
groovy French name,
eyes cool as mud,
In teenage shade
U left your cabbage
heart 4 me,
white as paper.
in my book.
Note:- Before the age of Facebook and digital ‘likes’ adolescents used autograph books with pastel colored pages to collect signatures and messages from their friends. These often included humorous rhymes.
My lady waits in the wall
papered over by skeletal hands.
She withers lilies with one eye
and blue ivy winds her hair.
Her holy cheeks crumble
like old plaster of Paris
but not her secret vows.
Restless but unseen, she stirs
death to do our parting.
She doesn’t look up, swaddled in pink toweling. Dinner in the Day Room, haddock on a tray,
the old queen who lost her soldiers slumps an empty table.
Above her head the TV plays silent memories,
survival of the fittest in exotic locations.
A lioness stalks prey while another dies.
She doesn’t look up when I speak.
Lips rotate, chewing, tasting the sins of the world
cut up in pieces. Her hand trembles as she adds salt.
My absent presence, invisible bones on the edge of her plate.
She starts on the sponge pudding with custard.
She doesn’t look up when I leave.
She doesn’t look up when I leave.
She starts on the sponge pudding with custard,
my absent presence, invisible bones on the edge of her plate.
Cut up in pieces, her hand trembles as she adds salt.
Lips rotate, chewing, tasting the sins of the world.
She doesn’t look up when I speak.
A lioness stalks prey while another dies,
survival of the fittest in exotic locations.
Above her head the TV plays silent memories.
The old queen who lost her soldiers slumps an empty table,
dinner in the Day Room, haddock on a tray.
Swaddled in pink toweling,
she doesn’t look up.
The Day Room is an example of a specular poem – the second stanza mirrors the first. Please see a-poem-for-remembrance-day for another example.
Cars have always played a positive role in my life so the inevitable news that petrol and diesel cars are to be banned in the UK from 2040 fills me with nostalgia. Of course it’s an essential step towards decreasing air pollution and global warming but the internal combustion engine will be missed by many of us. Technology keeps moving on with the advent of electric and self-drive vehicles (the latter being a terrifying prospect when I think how often my laptop crashes). The traditional petrol car has been a cool cultural icon for nearly a century, a symbol of personal freedom, style and aspiration. It has featured in many wonderful movies:- Rebel Without A Cause, The French Connection, The Italian Job, The Driver, Thelma and Louise, the list is endless. Can you really imagine an exciting car chase in an automated electric car? Would Thelma and Louise make their heroic stance against conformity and authority while sitting passively in a car with no steering wheel? Is this new technology a sinister portent of a future where citizens lose control over their lives?
I grew up in the sixties when petrol was cheap and motoring was a carefree, guilt-free experience. Cars were affordable even to many working class families and it allowed them to escape industrial towns to explore the countryside and the coast. Our first family car was a second-hand black Ford Consul. I remember the smooth, comforting contours. It felt safe and reassuring long before the compulsory seat belts, inflatable air bags and zero tolerance of drinking and driving that we take for granted today. We lived with a certain amount of risk and people didn’t stress about all the horrible possibilities of what might happen. That said, there were far fewer cars on the road and people were more respectful of each other. No-one had ever heard of road-rage.
Nearly every summer weekend we would pack up provisions and our little orange tent and head for the seaside together with numerous friends. In the cooler months we would go for long drives around the countryside and have picnics in the back seat or bravely shivering in a lay-by. We couldn’t afford garage repairs so my father maintained the car himself and took great pride in his immaculate standards. It was typical for many working class men to repair their own cars. Before the digital era and the concept of built-in obsolescence it was relatively easy to replace parts. Our Ford Consul lived to a great age and was eventually sold on. We replaced it with a two tone, blue and cream Humber Sceptre with curvaceous chrome trims and sculpted wings. My father was devastated when the bodywork was damaged in a minor scrape with a dry-stone wall. He took to his bed for a week and didn’t speak or eat. The car had to be scrapped because he couldn’t find a replacement panel.
Now I live in a remote rural area where once upon a time there was a petrol station in every village. Like the village shops, the petrol station was a focal point for the community, enabling human contact and the exchange of information. Buying petrol used to be fun. There were free gifts such as drinking glasses, (I still have one chunky tumbler at the back of my cupboard!), coasters, sunglasses, sweets, posters. As a little girl I remember being thrilled with a free kite. In the UK there were Green Shield stamps, paper tokens you were given with petrol purchases that you collected and glued into a book. The books were exchanged for gifts at a Green Shield Centre. Petroleum companies had jolly slogans such as ‘Put a Tiger in Your Tank’ by Esso. All that has gone. In the eleven years since I moved to this area the few surviving petrol stations have closed. The only remaining one is part of a large supermarket chain. We now have to drive over fifty miles to obtain fuel and you need to plan ahead. Life is becoming more difficult and more isolated. There are no local jobs selling petrol, work that suited many women and students as it was part-time.
It’s sad to see the derelict petrol stations at the side of the road. In recent years I’ve photographed the decaying buildings, old signs and rusting pumps. Grass and weeds are reclaiming the former concrete forecourts. I find them bleakly beautiful. Many of the old designs had an Art Deco influence. Will the new electric charging points of the future have the same sense of design? I fear not. The future is less concerned with aesthetics and humanity. There will be no-one to chat to about the weather when you plug your car in to an impersonal machine.
So I hope you enjoy my photographs of the bye-gone petroleum era entitled Ignition Switch. There are more to come.
And if you are a bit of a petrol-head or have any memories to share of motoring experiences in the past I would love to hear them. Please leave a comment. Times must change but sometimes you can’t help wishing they would stay the same!
“Everything looks more beautiful in retrospect”. So says Michelle Monaghan’s character in the 2011 science fiction thriller Source Code. The film, directed by Duncan Jones, stars Jake Gyllenhaal as a US army captain who is repeatedly sent back into a virtual parallel universe in an effort to prevent an explosion on a Chicago commuter train. He tries to change history and many of us would love to do that when looking back on our own lives.
Alas, time travel and parallel universes are still the stuff of fantasy. The relationship between the present and the past is complex. Looking back can feel like being lost in a mist where the edges of reality become blurred. Memory is unreliable. Research has shown that after a while we do not remember the actual past event but more a previous memory of it. Our perception of the past changes over time, shape-shifting and misleading. The Czech-born French writer Milan Kundera described it thus; ” We pass through the present with our eyes blindfolded. We are permitted merely to sense and guess at what we are actually experiencing. Only later when the cloth is untied can we glance at the past and find out what we have experienced and what meaning it has.”
The process of writing can help our recollection and understanding of our personal histories. Time unravels like a piece of knitting. But there are still blind spots. I’ve realized that memories of some painful events from my past have been erased or diluted. Perhaps this is a defense mechanism. I have to work really hard at remembering them, removing the blindfold. As I grow older I’m periodically overwhelmed by a sense of nostalgia. Its tempting to believe that life was more real, more authentic, more fun in the past. Perhaps the younger we are, the more intensely we experience events but the fact is life was never perfect. Each day we are confronted with problems and difficulties. Satisfaction and happiness are derived from how well we rise to the challenges of life.
I took this photograph at Wick harbour. Wick is a small fishing town about thirty miles from my home in northern Scotland. In the 1800s it was one of the busiest and most prosperous herring ports in Europe. The bay was filled with hundreds of boats, the quayside lined with thousands of barrels of herring. The shouts of fish wives mingled with the cries of sea gulls and the howling wind. Today it holds the silence of abandonment. But decay can be beautiful. The old paint, fading colors and streaks of rust in the photograph are evocative of some strange interior landscape, peeling back the layers of time.