September 21, 2016


Staying at the White House

Stylish, confident: through a mizzling Melbourne rain

cool Footscray edges sideways into spring.

Sticks of the backyard grapevine show infant shoots

near a hopeful carnival of party lights.

Trees still bare stake out this rain-shiny street,

except for a petticoat froth of leaf green on the desert ash

vibrant outside Christine’s bedroom window.

Fraxinus angustifolia.

Where are the dockland gangs now? The sweaty thugs

with their seedy whiff of booze and death?

In the artfully-named corner cafe,

the Footscray Milking Station, casually trendy,

helmeted Sunday morning cyclists pause for coffee;

waitresses busy in bright green and white;

the coffee grinder whooshes white noise –

the exhilarated morning fills

with a familiar settling into relief and calm.

Outside, wide streets and old iron lace –

all coming back up in the world.

Some Things I Forgot to Bring on Holiday

August 3, 2016

– at the Barn in Central France

  • a hairbrush
  • antihistamine tablets
  • my Epi-pen
  • insect repellent
  • moisturiser and hand cream
  • stickers for the car headlights
  • my little French dictionary
  • those two DVDs from the rental company, left at home on top of the telly

Some of these matter more than others.  There was a wasp in the kitchen just now, for example, which did make me think of the epipen.  Then again, I’ve bought some remarkably expensive antihistamines at the Pharmacie – so expensive, and so strong, I hardly care to use them.  Which proves I never needed them in the first place.

Gary, my kind NHS counsellor, says I put myself down too much, so here are:

Some Things I’m Glad I Remembered to Bring

  • binoculars
  • swimsuits
  • cash
  • courage
  • better command of spoken French than in previous years
  • chargers for the laptop and the mobile (yes – sometimes people forget those!)
  • enough pairs of shoes – in my case four, not counting flipflops which are already here.
  • last week’s Saturday Guardian (23rd July).  (Unbeatable articles by Hadley Freeman and Tim Thingummy)
  • my dog, Bandit (never at risk, actually, as he knows when I’m packing)

Now I’ve thought of Another Category

Things I’m Glad that Others Brought

  • last week’s New Statesman (brought by Michael).  I think I’ll start taking the NS regularly.
  • themselves – Mike, Anna, Holly and Raf
  • the game of Botticelli – haven’t played it in years, and never so well as the other evening


Poetry Chain 4

April 17, 2016

I thought I had seen all the poems that were coming my way – obviously most people opted out of the process – but that didn’t matter, as you can see.

– and now, just when I thought it was well and truly finished – came this wonderfully apposite poem from a complete stranger.


If ever there were a spring day so perfect,
so uplifted by a warm intermittent breeze
that it made you want to throw
open all the windows in the house
and unlatch the door to the canary’s cage,
indeed, rip the little door from its jamb,
a day when the cool brick paths
and the garden bursting with peonies
seemed so etched in sunlight
that you felt like taking
a hammer to the glass paperweight
on the living room end table,
releasing the inhabitants
from their snow-covered cottage
so they could walk out,
holding hands and squinting
into this larger dome of blue and white,
well, today is just that kind of day.



Norway in November – Nordkapp

April 5, 2016

Day 6 of my voyage on the Lofoten

The English seafarers of the sixteenth century were amazing people of great courage. Even so, how surprising that they reached so far into the Arctic Circle.  So Nordkapp has been known for centuries.  Surveyed in 1553 by the captain of the Edward Bonaventure, North Cape is the northernmost point in Europe – or so they thought at the time.  In fact the real northernmost point is close by: the neighbouring Knivskjellodden point, a little to the west, actually extends 1,457 metres (4,780 feet) further to the north.  From Nordkapp, one can look out over the Barents Sea, a name remembered from that childhood fascination with names and facts, and a part of the Arctic Ocean: a name to conjure with.

Nordkapp – a snowy, bleakly beautiful headland that the sea and the winds and storms have roughed out of solid rock -marked with a globe.

2015-11-16 11.18.02

Volcanic cliffs jutting into the sea – with an image of the world standing proud.


2015-11-16 11.18.11

To the West, the slightly more northerly point.

At last we have found good snow in this remarkably mild winter of 2015.

But who would want to quibble, after all. Between the two points there are scary crevasses – don’t worry: there was a good fence between me and those cliffs. The sunset light you see here, gently altering, lasted from well before midday onwards through the short afternoon. Pinks and apricots are the light palette of the sky, above this harsh rock and snow.

2015-11-16 11.20.30

The cliff has jagged inlets – mini-fjords, I guess – dramatic in their abruptness.


2015-11-16 11.22.34

2015-11-16 11.24.52

We all took one another’s photos by the globe.  It seemed like the right thing to do.


2015-11-16 11.23.40

On the steps of the North Cape globe: a pair of sandals and a message.

The sandals speak to me directly – I can’t help listening to them – they ask me to take them further on their journey around the world – I wonder whether anyone else will feel that responsibility. . . .  and I leave them there.   For now.

I wonder how far they have come.  Remember the gnomes in Amélie? who sent all those postcards?  It felt like that.

travelling gnome

Given that I’m inclined to address inanimate objects anyway (and emphatically not in a twee way) I knew that it was me they were speaking to.  But, for Pete’s sake, I’m on holiday: fresh responsibility is the last thing I want.  Maybe someone else will adopt them, and I’ll be off their hook.

It’s getting colder, and a low inviting building might offer coffee.

2015-11-16 11.31.40

Sunrise. Or is it sunset?

In fact, inside there is a sophisticated visitor centre, with good coffee and a café; displays about Arctic bird life;  a kind of son et lumière response to the changing seasons of the Arctic Circle;  a film of the Northern Lights (which last I missed – ran out of time).  Perhaps I’m not going to see any Northern Lights at all – but I don’t mind that.  I know better than to set up great big goals for myself.

2015-11-16 11.35.55

Inside the visitor centre: someone has a sense of humour.

I ran out of time then because I was transfixed by simplicity: a narrative series of posters on a wall – the story of the naval Battle of Murmansk.  They call them the Arctic Convoys here, but for some reason I know them as the Murmansk Convoys. The Arctic Convoys and the sea battle when the Scharnhorst was sunk with nearly all hands.  I was moved to tears, reading it, and thought of my father.  How he cared about it all so much and tried to tell us the detail, even in the sixties.  How little I grasped then, or bothered to grasp, back in the day.  But now the terrible story, the awful courage and the dark, cold deaths – I weep for them all, long gone.   Here, at Nordkapp on a clear calm day, it was suddenly poignantly easy to imagine those big fierce vessels in the black dark in a force ten gale, violently and blindly beating towards one another through huge waves, with their appalling firepower and blazing hellish explosions.  When the Scharnhorst went down into those terrifying December seas, only 36 men were saved out of her entire crew of nearly 2,000.

Shaken by maps and facts, I heard the call go out for the bus, so I seized the last moments, as I always will.  This time I lumbered out, crunching the snow, and salvaged those sandals from the steps of the globe: the image of a unified and generous world.

Day six held much, much more – I’ll continue it next time.


Poetry Chain 3

April 2, 2016

Next came a poem from my lovely daughter, and after that, one from her friend who lives in France.  Kate reads this one to her little boy, but it is really for all ages.


Made a boat
from sticks and cloth –
put it on the water
to see it float.
Go boat, go boat
sail across that sea.
Go boat
and sail on back to me.
It’s sea and sky all the way over
my boat flies out across the water
but always comes on back to me.
It’s a good boat
go boat.
She’s a sail boat
my boat.
Go boat, go boat
sail across that sea.
Go boat
and sail on back to me.

Michael Rosen.

It reminds me of – it answers, perhaps – the Alexandria poem, with a loss that is recovered.  The boat is let go willingly, and comes back again in that satisfying, enclosing circle  – the embrace – of the last line.  Might that be because it was released with pleasure and grace?  Perhaps because the poem came from my daughter, and my grandson, I begin to think about the ways in which one’s children go out, go free, and then somehow return, changed and yet the same.


The next poem was in French, and, kindly, my daughter’s friend didn’t translate it for me.

Vert, orange, rouge
les feux sont des fruits,
des coeurs qui scintillent,
des yeux qui s’allument
au coin de ma rue.
dans les soirs de brume,
les feux sont des songes
au bout des trottoirs.

Pierre Gamarra, “Les feux”, La ville en poésie.

Coincidentally, another French poem came in that same day – this time I was glad of the translation, as then I could retro-fit the English back onto the French and find unusual ideas.


L’huître, de la grosseur d’un galet moyen, est d’une apparence plus rugueuse, d’une couleur moins unie, brillamment blanchâtre. C’est un monde opiniâtrement clos. Pourtant on peut l’ouvrir : il faut alors la tenir au creux d’un torchon, se servir d’un couteau ébréché et peu franc, s’y reprendre à plusieurs fois. Les doigts curieux s’y coupent, s’y cassent les ongles : c’est un travail grossier. Les coups qu’on lui porte marquent son enveloppe de ronds blancs, d’une sorte de halos.
A l’intérieur l’on trouve tout un monde, à boire et à manger : sous un firmament (à proprement parler) de nacre, les cieux d’en dessus s’affaissent sur les cieux d’en dessous, pour ne plus former qu’une mare, un sachet visqueux et verdâtre, qui flue et reflue à l’odeur et à la vue, frangé d’une dentelle noirâtre sur les bords.
Parfois très rare une formule perle à leur gosier de nacre, d’où l’on trouve aussitôt à s’orner.

Francis Ponge – Le parti pris des choses (1942)

The Oyster
The oyster, the size of an average rock, is rougher in appearance, less uniform in colour, brilliantly pale. It’s a world obstinately closed-off. However, you can open it: to do so, you have to cup it in a rag, and employ a dull, perforated blade, and go at it several times. In doing so, curious fingers get cut, nails broken: it’s a dirty job. The blows you rain down upon it mark the casing with white rings, like halos.
Inside you find a whole world, to eat and drink: under a firmament (to be precise) of nacre, heavens above give way to heavens below, to create no more than a puddle, an oily olive-tinged squelch, that ebbs and flows, the smell and the sight, fringed along the edges in black lace.
On very rare occasions, scree collects in its lustrous throat. Those who find this immediately decorate themselves with it.

I suppose it’s the crustacean theme, but I find myself thinking of that film ‘The Lobster’ which I saw recently.  Human beings displaying aspects of an animal nature – a specific animal’s nature.  That intersection of the human, the stereotypical view of a creature (our projection, if you like) and the reality of the creature’s existence – seems to me to illuminate all three.

So far, no further poems.  Perhaps that’s my lot?  And what a marvellous lot they are. Thank you, world, for these gifts.

Poetry Chain 2

March 29, 2016

A feature of this chain is that you don’t get poems from friends, but from the friends of friends.  (Given that you – and they – have had to find twenty people to BCC, they won’t necessarily be really close friends-of-friends.)
Last night I received a clutch from Italy – someone has kindly chosen poems in English for me.  Or can it be that Europeans now use English so readily that this just feels normal?  She sent me one in Italian, as well, which will be a useful exercise.  Reading it aloud is wonderful, even if you don’t speak Italian.

Dear Jill,
I could not make my mind up so I am sending you a few of my favourite poems instead of just one!
All the best,
W. Shakespeare Sonnet 23
As an unperfect actor on the stage,
Who with his fear is put besides his part,
Or some fierce thing replete with too much rage,
Whose strength’s abundance weakens his own heart,
So I, for fear of trust, forget to say
The perfect ceremony of love’s rite,
And in mine own love’s strength seem to decay,
O’ercharg’d with burden of mine own love’s might.
O, let my books be then the eloquence
And dumb presagers of my speaking breast,
Who plead for love, and look for recompense,
More than that tongue that more hath more express’d.
O, learn to read what silent love hath writ:
To hear with eyes belongs to love’s fine wit.
Sonnet 15
When I consider every thing that grows
Holds in perfection but a little moment;
That this huge stage presenteth nought but shows
Whereon the stars in secret influence comment;
When I perceive that men as plants increase,
Cheered and check’d even by the self-same sky,
Vaunt in their youthful sap, at height decrease,
And wear their brave state out of memory:
Then the conceit of this inconstant stay
Sets you most rich in youth before my sight,
Where wasteful Time debateth with Decay
To change your day of youth to sullied night,
And all in war with Time for love of you,
As he takes from you, I ingraft you new.



Dall’immagine tesa
vigilo l’istante
con imminenza di attesa –
e non aspetto nessuno:
nell’ombra accesa
spio il campanello
che impercettibile spande
un polline di suono –
e non aspetto nessuno:
fra quattro mura
stupefatte di spazio
più che un deserto
non aspetto nessuno.
Ma deve venire,
verrà, se resisto
a sbocciare non visto,
verrà d’improvviso,
quando meno l’avverto.
Verrà quasi perdono
di quanto fa morire,
verrà a farmi certo
del suo e mio tesoro,
verrà come ristoro
delle mie e sue pene,
verrà, forse già viene
il suo bisbiglio.
C. Rebora  Dall’immagine tesa (1920)

The Poetry Chain

March 27, 2016

Not many people like chain emails, but I received one that really made me want to take it on.  I just had to find a poem and send it to the person at the top of a two-person list.  Then copy and paste the email into a BCC list of twenty friends.  So far – totally innocuous.  I did the sums: I’ll get four hundred poems back (or is it twenty?).  Anyway, I really like the idea of being sent some poems that I might not have seen before, so I cheerfully set off to choose a poem for Dave (name at the top of the list, husband of a good friend – should be easy).  Half a day later I finally settled on a bit of ‘Lycidas’.  Then I had two emails from friends telling me they don’t like chain emails.  Heart sinks.  Then a lovely email from Crete – and an even more lovely poem by Cavafy to go with it.

The God Abandons Antony
At midnight, when suddenly you hear
an invisible procession going by
with exquisite music, voices,
don’t mourn your luck that’s failing now,
work gone wrong, your plans
all proving deceptive – don’t mourn them uselessly:
as one long prepared, and full of courage,
say goodbye to her, to Alexandria who is leaving.
Above all, don’t fool yourself, don’t say
it was a dream, your ears deceived you:
don’t degrade yourself with empty hopes like these.
As one long prepared, and full of courage,
as is right for you who were given this kind of city,
go firmly to the window
and listen with deep emotion,
but not with the whining, the pleas of a coward;
listen – your final pleasure – to the voices,
to the exquisite music of that strange procession,
and say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.

Constantine P. Cavafy —
It makes me think of all our Alexandrias – all the things that we say goodbye to, as we grow up, or grow old.  I think of today’s conversation, when we talked about how to find out what we are acquiring, as we leave other things behind.  How childhood loses spontaneity and cuddliness, moving to the teenager’s clearer sense of self and of protectiveness and personal space; how adults and parents lose independence but gain pride in responsibility; how now, as we age beyond that, we lose jobs and status but gain in dignity and a relaxedness about our place in the world.  Not everybody in the same way, of course, and all of us a different speeds.  Some age into anger, I suppose, while others mellow into insight and a willingness to explore.
Next comes an email from someone who sends a poem but doesn’t plan to join the chain.  (Now I guess I’ll get seventeen times twenty – at most – but one mustn’t be churlish.  That’s still a terrific number of poems.)

“As it is Easter Day, how about the second ‘Burnt Norton’ lyric?” – said my husband’s friend.

Time and the bell have buried the day,
The black cloud carries the sun away.
Will the sunflower turn to us, will the clematis
Stray down, bend to us; tendril and spray
Clutch and cling?
Fingers of yew be curled
Down on us?  After the kingfisher’s wing
Has answered light to light, and is silent, the light is still
At the still point of the turning world.


Do you all think as I do?  (I think: Why have I let it be so long since I last read Eliot?)  Thank you to the ether, and the banality of the internet for giving me this moment of stillness and transcendence.  Thank you to the moment when I went forward with the poetry chain (now my poetry chain), though I could so easily have turned away and clicked ‘delete’.

I hope there will be more poems to post here, over the next few days and weeks.

North Cape – Day Six

December 12, 2015
Iron grey sea and sky: warm gold ship

Iron grey sea and sky: warm gold ship

In the night we stop, with the usual screeching and grinding, at Hammerfest: at 70 North, plus a bit, it is the northernmost city in the world.  I wake much later to see the wharf at Havøysund: ‘We call it Hawaii – sund,’ the Tour Guide jokes.  He’s good: he says it as if he’s never said it before, and what’s more it’s an idea that sticks, and is really helpful with the pronunciation.

Havoysund = Havaiisnd

Havoysund = Havaiisnd


a pale dawn is breaking

a pale dawn is breaking


street lights, dawn and painted houses

street lights, dawn and painted houses


more painted houses

more painted houses


- and the ship's lights -

– and the ship’s lights –


- by the cold pier. Damp, and slushy rather than icy, though, and not much snow here

– by the cold pier. Damp, and slushy rather than icy, though.  There’s not much snow here.

Lunch is early as we will be going to the North Cape from Honningsvåand need to be back promptly for the 2.45 departure.  Lofoten has a schedule to keep, expectations to meet.  Some people leave the ship here and take a coach connection over to Kirkenes for their flight back; others are taking a different coach to see a fishing village: Skarsvåg.

the crane comes out, and the cargo is unloaded

the crane comes out, and the cargo is unloaded

So this is where the Christmas trees were going

So this is where the Christmas trees were going

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We head off to the coaches - under a bare rocky mountain. A few trees have been cultivated up there.

We head off to the coaches – under a bare rocky mountain – still looks like a Bund cake with its sprinkling of icing sugar snow.  A few trees have been cultivated up there- but maybe they’re just not big enough to cut yet.

Nordkapp - North Cape.

Nordkapp – North Cape  – Nope: this isn’t it.  Just the word, not the thing itself.

Nordkapp.  A wonder that defies words.  Nothing daunted, I will have a go at it in my next post.

The map can be found back at: – or click on the word map.

Day Five closes: on the MS Lofoten

December 11, 2015

A pale day.  Low, pale grey cloud, a pale shine on the sea.  Only a thin line of darker land lies between cloud and sea.  These are the colours dogs are supposed to see.  On the fore-deck we are transporting Christmas trees still: surprising in their intense, rich green.  In this pale wide world, how startling, how precise and welcome they look.  Maybe I can forgive this ritual execution, after all.

Thrum, thrum.  Everywhere on the boat comes that soothing deep heartbeat of the huge engines.  I feel that nothing can ever go wrong while they are beating.  Through the heavy doors to the interior, spectacularly out of place in this iron landscape, a glowing nugget of gold-brown warmth.

Things are under control.

Very tired.  Hard to find a place to be alone.

Day 5 – Finnsnes and the Gisund Bridge; Tromsø and the unmentionable Huskies

December 7, 2015

We stopped at a couple of places in the night – I could hear strange rattling, screaming and grinding sounds from my cabin, but I decided that we were most unlikely to be sinking, and went back to sleep till breakfast.
A steadily changing readout near the upper lounge shows the bearing (the white line) and the planned route (the dotted red line). It also shows the speed in knots, as the water pounds behind us.

2015-11-15 09.20.27

Norway has so many lovely bridges across sounds, across fjords – lots of places.  This is one of the finest.

a distant view of the Gisund Bridge from the ship

A distant view of the Gisund Bridge from the ship.  I liked placing that delicate tracery next to the lumping steel in this image – a trick of perspective, of course.


Two large dark birds - but what are they? Cormorants abound around there.

Two large dark birds – but what are they? Cormorants abound around there.

Running across smooth sea into Finnsnes.

Running across smooth sea into Finnsnes just after eleven am: the sky is pinker, and the Lofoten is as punctual as you could possibly imagine.

A short half hour in Finnsnes gives all of us passengers the chance for a quick walk on the dock, while the loading and unloading takes place.

Cargo waiting for loading. it's raining in Finnsnes

Cargo waiting for loading. It’s raining in Finnsnes with a fine drizzle.

Those little lamps in the windows are characteristic of many Norwegian houses.  I asked one guide what it was about, and he told me that it harks back to old times, when a person out in the open in winter would freeze to death unless they saw a light, a haven.  Nobody would turn a stranger from their door.  Still, today, the custom of keeping lighted windows persists even in the cities and towns.

Huge tractor tyres line the wharves as fenders - this is what makes the screaming, dragging noise, as the ship comes alongside. Clamking occurs in those places where the anchor goes down. (I didn't see that happen.)

Huge tractor tyres line the wharves as fenders – this is what makes the screaming, dragging noise, as the ship comes alongside. Clanking occurs in those places where the anchor goes down. (I didn’t see that happen.)


Here follows one of my little symphonies of adoration for the Lofoten, the most beautiful and wonderful ship for a sea voyage ever.

MS Lofoten

2015-11-15 10.31.17


Bridge, boat, wharf.

Bridge, boat, wharf.


fine lines of the bow.


Bowline, bridge, shore

Bowline, bridge, shore

blue light, portholes, reflection

blue light, portholes, reflection

I believe my cabin is somewhere below that waterline.  I know I can hear the waves and the wash beating past in the night.

we move towards the Gisund Bridge

we move towards the Gisund Bridge

- going -

– going –

-going -

-going –


a strange effect of the evening light - around 2.00pm, approaching Tromsø

evening light on snow and low cloud – around 2.00pm, approaching Tromsø

We have a four hour stop in Tromsø.  (Morten the Tour Guide gives the name impeccably clear pronunciation: the ‘r’ is well rolled, almost a syllable in its own right, the final is ‘er’ as in Bodø.)  

Some of us had booked to see huskies.  It was dark, with icy slush.  Two hundred dogs were kept on short-ish chains in outdoor kennels.  And my God, how it did stink!  These dogs are kept for the sport of sled racing, in which ‘mushers’ try to cover long distances at great speed.  They are not actually Huskies, but a mixture of Alaskan Husky, greyhound, German Pointer, anything that will be both fast and enduring.  Some collie.  It’s not really a breed as it doesn’t breed true, and though I asked, I couldn’t get a proper answer about the principles of the breeding.  This was the moment when my cultural tolerances started to waver.  OK. It’s a different world, harsher climate, where survival is crucial.  OK, Huskies happily bed down in snow. But I still think that a chained up pack of two hundred is problematic.  The photos (for once) look worse than the reality, partly because my camera doesn’t cope very well with low light. We didn’t meet the owner, who is called Tove: bizarrely the same first name as Tove Jansson, the wonderful Finnish writer and creator of the gentle Moomins.

Easier to get a photo of the puppies

Easier to get a photo of the puppies: they were pretty cheerful and friendly – and better lit.

They are fed on fish – hence the unimaginable stink.

some border collie in this one I think

Some border collie in this one, I think.  Very cute.


another pup - they all have names

Another pup – they all have names.  Yes – we did try to smuggle one home.  It would never have worked out.

I don’t think the Moomins would have treated Sorry-oo quite like that, though.  Wait for a later post, where you will see a proper Husky. (Siberian?  Alaskan? – I forget.)

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