Saturday, 2 May 2015

Charleston Farm House and Berwick Church - another Literary Ladies outing

WI book group outing this week to Charleston and Berwick Church.
     All ten of us met up at the excellent Middle Farm for essential refreshment stoking-up before embarking on serious stuff. Battleaxe and Philosopher used to go there when grand daughter Eve was very small. She used to love the chickens and other farm stuff. Or perhaps, looking at this old photograph, maybe she didn't love them quite as much as fond Granny remembers!
Eve at Middle Farm 2003
    Today's Middle Farm has a greatly expanded farm shop, an amazing cider shop and a great selection of plants as well as the farm, and the cafe is good too. We devoured their entire stock of cheese scones.
     Next, to Berwick Church. Have never been there before.It is a pretty little church, heavily restored after bomb damage in 1940s (Bomb? Out there? How?).
Berwick Church
     It is best known for the murals, painted in the 1940s, 50s and 60s by the Bloomsbury set, Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell and Quentin Bell.
     This is the second church decorated by prominent twentieth-century artists I have seen recently. When we were in Cornwall we visited St Hilary Church, near Marazion, decorated by artists from the Newlyn Group, including Dod and Ernest Proctor, Norman Garstin and Harold Knight. Although I much prefer the Newlyn artists to the Bloomsbury Group, in fact Berwick Church is more attractive and interesting. Both churches had to face difficulties both with their dioceses and their parishioners in relation to the paintings, which were seen as over-ornate and un-Christian, and both churches suffered vandalism.

Paintings in Berwick Church
     The churchyard was interesting and pretty - lots of wild flowers, great views of the Downs.
View from the Churchyard
     After that, we clocked in for our guided tour of Charleston. To be honest,  The Bloomsbury Group have never really captured Battleaxe's imagination. Despite their left-wing and pacifist credentials, I get the impression that they were not very nice people. The atmosphere at Charleston must have been riven with hurt, rejection and anger running alongside the devil-may-care Bohemian freedom. Somehow, the underlying tension seemed to linger in the house, despite its bright colours and rich furnishings. It felt very cold (and indeed it was a cold day after all the unseasonal sun we have had), but there was an underlying chill about the place, and the colours somehow seemed flat.
    They clearly enjoyed decorating, and painted many of the walls, doors, fireplaces etc. as well as the furniture. There was plenty to see - pottery, textiles - all sorts of things either made, designed or commissioned by the occupants of the house.There were many interesting paintings, by artists such as Walter Sickert as well as many works by Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, Roger Fry etc.  They seemed very fond of painting each other.
    Like many nineteenth/early twentieth century creatives and social reformers, the Bloomsberries were not short of money. As even our guide to the house remarked, it is much easier to be Bohemian and free-living if you have servants to look after things for you.
Grace, who worked at Charleston for most of her life, painted by Vanessa Bell
    I was very conscious of this when I was writing an earlier blog post about Barbara Leigh-Smith Bodichon. Although Barbara appeared to have achieved an enormous amount both as an artist and a pioneer of the Women's Suffrage Movement, she did not have to waste any energy on the basics of life - all was provided for her.
    Unfortunately, by the time we had finished the tour, it was raining quite hard, and we did not really fancy spending time in the garden. However, most of the rooms in the house had garden views, so we had a good idea of it.
    We occupied the tea-room, and ate a late lunch. 
    Not surprisingly, photographs were not allowed in the house, so here are a few pictures of the interior, and a few paintings, taken from the internet.
    It was a good day out.

Virginia Woolf - Vanessa Bell

Vanessa Bell - Duncan Grant

Angelica Garnet - Vanessa Bell

John Maynard Keynes - Duncan Grant

    I have just read that the BBC are producing a new drama series, much of it filmed at Charleston, based on the lives of the Bloomsbury Group. Life in Squares will be broadcast later this year.


Monday, 27 April 2015

Battleaxe tries to be a poet

Battleaxe is getting into writing poetry, and last week was particularly poetic. On Wednesday I went up to London to read some of my poems at the Poetry Cafe in Covent Garden.

     I was part of a team of six poets representing the Hastings Stanza Group, together with our MC and group leader, +Antony Mair.  Stanzas are a nationwide network of groups under the umbrella of the Poetry Society, and are for poets at all levels to meet to share and discuss their work.
     We were competing informally against another group from Cambridge. It was all a bit scary but in fact it was fine. We thought that coming from Cambridge, the other group would all be desperately earnest, academic and talented. Beautiful, intense young people doing PhD's in  Poetic Forms in Renaissance Italy or whatever. In reality, they turned out to be ordinary people like us. Better still, it turned out that as well as being a talented and diverse group, our team included two experienced, and very cool, performance poets. I'd never done anything like this before but I don't think I let the side down.
     The Poetry Cafe, in Betterton Street, turned out to be a friendly, informal little place with cafe upstairs and performance space in the basement - not daunting at all.

     Despite messing about trying to write for most of my life, I had never written a poem before moving down here and joining the Hastings Writers' Group in 2012. 
     A good thing about the Writers' Group is that the regular internal competitions encourage you to try genres you would never otherwise think about. I wrote my first poem to enter one of these, and it came fourth in that year's competition. I didn't write another one until the following year, and that, to my surprise, won first prize. After that, I thought I might try a bit harder....
     I heard that Antony Mair was starting up a Hastings Stanza group, so I joined. Antony lives in the Old Town and is a talented poet. Our group meets monthly, upstairs at JD's Bar in Claremont. Here's an article from Antony.
     To digress into Local Reviewer Battleaxe mode for a moment, JDs is  a friendly little place that does perfectly OK, reasonably priced food.
JD bar
     When we are reading out our poems we often get strange looks from bar customers who come up to use the loos and pass our earnest little huddle.  Battleaxe is very conscious of strange looks when it comes to poetry. I'm actually very anxious about my efforts. Each month we have to bring a poem of our own, read it to the group, and then it is discussed and dissected. I find the group  challenging but very helpful, as most of the others are more experienced poets than me, and certainly more 'serious'. However, they are very encouraging and positive.
     As you can probably tell from the style of these blogs, Battleaxe tends more towards the light and distinctly un-serious, and this is reflected in my poems. It is only gradually dawning on me that humour could be a valid poetry 'voice', and I sense that in the poetry world, humour is not valued as highly as work that is perceived as serious.
      Finding good examples of humorous verse is hard. Most is filed under 'comic' or 'funny' verse, and I don't want to be like Pam Ayres, or write about hippopotami in the bathtub or suchlike. Search Amazon, and you mostly find mostly children's stuff. I don't want to write that either. I like American poet Billy Collins, former US poet Laureate, but I see that even given his popularity and his many poetry accolades, he attracts this sort of comment:

      'It is appalling to me that this man was awarded the highest poetry honors in the land, with lines that seem to be exploring banality and passionless, inconsequential chatter.'

      So what of Battleaxe's poetry? 
      I find writing poetry very absorbing - too much so. I can look at one of my efforts when I turn the computer on in the morning, thinking I'll just spend a few minutes on it, and the next thing I know, two hours have passed and I am still sitting here in my dressing gown.  I can spend half an hour just searching for one word.
      I was a very solitary, introspective child, living mostly in my own imagination, and I do sometimes think that the busy, outgoing, person most people see as me now is actually an acquired, learned construct I developed as I grew up, to enable me to 'fit in'. As I become an older woman, I wonder if this construct is slipping, and if I am beginning to revert.
      Writing poetry seems to make this reversion more pronounced, and spending hours sitting in my dressing gown lost in my head does not fit with the rest of my life. The adult me has a husband, a family, many friends, and umpteen other activities including being WI President.
       Talking of the WI, the next poetry-related ordeal I have to face is going to the WI national Centenary AGM at the Albert Hall in June, and walking out on stage to collect something called the Lady Denman Cup, in front of over 5000 women in the hall, and thousands more watching in cinemas round the country.
       I won the cup for a poem called 'What my WI means to me.'  I did think my poem was possibly a bit...banal, and was quite surprised to win even the regional heat, and then gob-smacked to win the whole thing. I first thought the judges were probably the likes of Olive Ponsonby-Fortesque from Heckmondwike WI, who would have had a poem published in 'People's Friend in 1959 or something, but turns out they were Oxford University academics and poets Jenny Lewis and John Ballam.  
       Anyway, to finish, against my better judgment, here are two of the poems I read out last week. One is quite serious, and the other plain ridiculous.


I tipped her gently, folded into waiting earth.
A quiet day, no ashy cloud drifting on the breeze
To shock the neighbours, who watched us plant
A tender yellow rose, well-staked and watered in.
‘Yellow means Remember Me,’ they said.

I threw away the flimsy plastic urn,
Unable to forget those final, painful years
Trapped in a body that betrayed her.
Blessedly, her mind departed, until, at last,
Nothing but an empty husk remained.

Next spring, the rose was shrivelled, brown.
I snapped off brittle, bone-like twigs
And threw them on the bonfire.
At first, the earth lay bare, reproachful, then
Shrugged on a shroud of soft green weeds.

Uninvited, a spiky star of leaves appeared.
An alien stranger, it pushed aside the shroud,
Erupted, expanded, a mass of glossy green
Dark plant energy, with soaring from its heart,
A triffid wand, a twisted whorl of flower.
Acanthus. Old familiar of its damp Victorian bed,
Or ancient sun-warmed stones, tumbled in an olive grove.
On dank Byzantine basilicas, soaring Gothic spires.
From leafy frames for letters in Medieval Books of Hours,
To William Morris fabrics in ‘Country Living’ homes.

Acanthus. Apollo’s healing helper at celebrations for the dead.
Pagan symbol of renewal, the eternal wheel
Of life. Ash to Earth, earth returned to life again.
Vibrant, strong and spiky, it now dominates its space.
‘Forget that feeble rose,’ it shouts. ‘Remember Me instead.’


I need to write a poem today. In fact, I have to find 
Up to forty rhyming lines. The deadline’s near, it niggles, cold. 
A wet patch on the mattress that passes for my mind. 
Where thoughts, like naughty children, tumble, roll and play. 
I try to pin them down, but they laugh and run away.

I feel Ghasal’s hot breath. ‘Forget Pantoum,’ he hissed. 
‘Triolet, Villanelle, Sestina, let me touch your Terza Rima…’ 
‘Another Chant Royal?’ ‘Large one, darling, with a twist…..’ 
It’s all too hard. A-B-B-A… Was I once the Dancing Queen? 
Young and sweet and seventeen?

I’ll check my emails. Junk, delete, home insurance due. 
Shall I go ahead and pay? Or ‘Go Compare’, the prudent way? 
No time, I have to write. Click the box that says ‘Renew’. 
New messages appear. Delete. This junk’s a pain… 
What’s this now? News from old friend Sal in Spain.

She poses, white teeth and crepy tits, beside a villa pool. 
Glass raised, brittle bright against the blue. Is that stranger, 
Strident, tango-tanned, the skinny girl I knew at school? 
The scorching Spanish sun has made her skin just shrivel. 
Get back to the poem. How can I write such drivel?

Too late. Slippers slopping down the hall, the fridge door closes. 
Ice cubes chink against a glass; a pause, and then he’s calling: 
‘Your G and T’s outside, and there are greenfly on the roses.’ 
‘I’m coming down,’ I shout, ‘I’ll find the spray.’ 
Save, shut down computer. No more work today.

I have to write a poem, it’s true. Tomorrow I must find 
Up to forty rhyming lines. The deadline’s near, it niggles cold… 
Hang on, I’ve said that once. That repetition undermines. 
Or does it strengthen? Looks alright, but I don’t know.
Where did I put that greenfly spray? Downstairs I go.