Friday 16th June 2017: As it turned out, painting the edges of those 400 diary paintings was the best thing I could have done, because on Monday 12th June, when I installed the entire work at Chichester Cathedral with the help of Martin, the edges of each painting showed, just as I’d feared – only more so! All extra work had paid off, and I was more relieved than I can tell you. The paintings read from left to right like a book. The first day, 28th November 2015, is in the top left corner, and the last day, 31st December 2016, is bottom right. The colour, the shades of colour, and movement of the paint describe the way I felt about events and happenings each day, and my reaction. Yellow is happy, blue is calm and free, white is almost meditative, black is bad, red is painful and fresh and bad, grey is being exhausted, brown is usually constraint and commitment, orange is friends, green is usually writing……….some of the most difficult days produced some of my favourite paintings.
This is the moment I’d placed the last painting; each one had to be fastened onto a massive wall made by Tony, Clerk of Works at the cathedral, who has done an incredible job. This was the first moment that I had seen my 400 paintings together. On Tuesday 13th we hung the new work, and paintings from ALTERNATIVE VALUES, on display panels that directed the viewer towards 400 DAYS, and suddenly, it was all done and we were in the middle of the private view – my thanks to all who came and made it a really brilliant evening!
Friday 12th May 2017: At last I have finished painting the edges of my 400 daily paintings. It has taken weeks, and the relief is enormous; next, I must photograph them for the website – no small feat in itself. When the paintings go up on their massive ‘wall’ at Chichester Cathedral for my June to August exhibition, no white edges will show between the paintings and I’ll feel that the installation is as finished as I can make it.
On Tuesday my framer delivered the frames for the other new work that is going up in the exhibition, and the feeling that time is running out is increasing the pressure. A month from now, my 400 DAYS project, the other new work, and the images from my latest poetry collection ‘Alternative Values’ will be on display. Then maybe I can finish the book I’ve been writing about rearing my magpie and living with owls…………..
Monday 24th April 2017: 371 Down! 29 to go! Since I last wrote anything here, I have done very little else but paint the edges of my 400 canvases. There is nothing I can think of to describe the monotony of mixing all the colours again, to paint the edges of each of 400 paintings to carry over the colours and match the ‘face’….and the backache from sitting so long in one position. Yesterday I stood outside in the front yard in the sun for two minutes, just to feel the air on my face and have a look at the dozens of miniature azaleas that are flowering pinkly in the garden. Then I had to return to the task of painting; I have ten brushes on the go, all steeped in different colours. The rest of life has gone ‘on hold’ except for the most urgent of commitments – and designing the invitations for the up-coming exhibition. But I’m almost there. This is what the first finished half of the job looks like:
Monday 27th March 2017: I have tried to look objectively at my 400 daily paintings, ending on 31st December 2016, and each depicting, in abstract, my day. I have placed them side by side and on top of each other on the wall easel in my studio, and I have tried to imagine them in their entirety, in the North Transept of Chichester Cathedral, where they will be from Wednesday 14th June this year. And I have noticed that it is possible to see strips of unpainted canvas edge between them, which annoys me! In fact, it annoys me so much that I am painting all the edges of all the pictures – something that couldn’t be done when I first painted them, as the face was wet, which made it too difficult.
It is a sort of self-imposed endurance test because it is terminally boring – I can’t dress it up any other way to tell you how exciting it is, because mixing all those colours up again, and attempting to get as good a match as possible, is mind-numbing for a dozen; stultifying for fifty – imagine 400! I have done about 135 so far. This is my new evening task. A single colour edge (like a nice, pale grey) won’t do, as the images are too varied and bright.
The reward is the result: Each of the paintings with an unpainted edge looks unfinished; normally that unpainted edge would be concealed by a frame – but not if the paintings are naked, and place next to, or on top of, each other; those slithers of canvas edge glint bleakly at me from the narrow gaps between the pictures. Whereas when finished, the paintings look somehow solid and three-dimensional and I feel they are complete. Only 265 to go……
Thursday 2nd February 2017: My next exhibition and poetry reading: Today M and I met with the Chancellor of Chichester Cathedral to have a look around; I have been invited to exhibit there in June. It is a stunning building, with extraordinary stained glass windows, one of which is designed by Chagall. The cathedral combines the ancient with the modern in a blaze of colour and intricacy. Art throughout the ages meets in this building, and merges into a representation of us.
The astonishingly colourful and modern John Piper tapestry hangs behind the High Alter, it’s central blaze of red draws the eye, and is the background against which the Holy Trinity is represented by a central green triangle, not solid, but an outline that reaches out to encompass three other elements: God the Father, represented by the white disc of the sun; the Son of God represented by the purple tau cross [Greek letter T], and the Holy Spirit represented by a feathered flame. Piper used the tau cross for authenticity because only Roman citizens were crucified on a ‘traditional’ cross and Jesus was not a Roman citizen. (See their website for more details: http://www.chichestercathedral.org.uk/about-us/delve-deeper-1/john-piper-tapestry/ )
I will be exhibiting in the North Transept – a generous space with the Great Window on the north side, beneath which are a series of paintings of the Bishops of Selsey and Chichester, commissioned by Bishop Robert Sherborne from St Wilfred in the 1530s.
In addition to other recent work, my paintings from my most recent poetry collection, ALTERNATIVE VALUES, will be exhibited here, together with my mammoth project, 400 DAYS. A stand measuring approximately 13ft high by 29 ft long will accommodate all four hundred 10 x 14 inch canvases, and I can hardly wait to see what that really looks like. I’ve never been able to see more than thirty or so canvases at once, when there were placed in block-fashion together in my studio on my wall-easel. Virtual reality allowed me to show 96 on a Power Point page (shown below, here) but June this year will be the first time that all 400 paintings will be shown together as one single installation.
The exhibition is scheduled to take place on Wednesday 14th June until Thursday 17th August, and will coincide with my poetry reading, which is on Thursday, June 29. 7.30pm at the Poetry & Jazz Café, Edes House, West Street, Chichester, PO19 1RW.
(Music – Jazz, Blues, Folk, World; Spoken Word – see their website for more details: http://festivalofchichester.co.uk/whats-on-daily/ )
29th January 2017 – Belated Burns Night at the Mid Wales Arts Centre in Caersws. Poetry amid paintings and the most extraordinarily delicious food – particularly the haggis. Normally January 25th marks the annual celebration of Scotland's national poet Robert Burns, but sometimes artistic licence must be applied if it’s not possible to celebrate on the actual day, and I wouldn’t want to argue with the cook! Fabulous food, fabulous company. Time off painting and back to working on poems; my next collection is a ‘selected’ called OUT OF THE ASHES, which is published this autumn by Bloodaxe, and draws from four of my previous collections, WOOROLOO, STONEPICKER, WAXWORKS and THE BOOK OF MIRRORS.
Sunday 22nd January 2017: Daily painting project – 400 DAYS. On the 31st December, last year, I painted my last painting for my Daily Painting project. After seeing the New Year in with friends, when everyone else had gone to bed, I was still awake, painting, painting, painting, knowing that I could lie in the following day, and would be able to avoid the sleep-deprivation that was a by-product of my project for months.
The project is now a single artwork that runs from 28th November 2015 to 31st December 2016 – since the first three paintings of the original 403 became too difficult to include in an exhibition format. I call it simply: 400 DAYS.
The first 96 consecutive images look like this:
Sunday 4th December 2016: Daily painting project: On the 31st December I will finish the project that has ruled my whole year – my project began as a challenge: to paint a single 10 inch by 14 inch abstract oil painting of the way I felt about my day, every day. In fact, there will be more than 365 paintings because this year was a Leap Year, and, on November 25th 2015 I decided to get a feel for the project and do a few in advance to see if I could ‘commit’ to a calendar year. As a result, there will be 403 paintings.
What am I going to do when I have 403 ten-inch by fourteen-inch oil-on-canvas paintings to exhibit? This is a thought that’s bothered me during the year, because they will require a vast amount of wall space. Also, should I exhibit them as individual paintings, nicely framed, in double or triple rows, in something the size of an aircraft hangar? Or as a mass, clustered together confusingly, but brightly, almost as a gigantic single artwork.....?
On the wall easel in my studio where I set them out to dry they look like this:
Friday 11th November 2016: Armistice Day. The move into my new studio is almost complete, but it is taking time as every day I work on my book about the magpie, George, AND my daily 10 inch by 14 inch oil painting on canvas, which take priority. In my daily paintings I reflect how the day influenced my moods; was I happy? Frustrated? Efficient but bored with chores? Did I feel free – or trapped and obligated? Day by day I’m creating a painted diary of internal landscape: A day where nothing happens can produce a very soft, mellow painting, and a day when, for instance, I crash a motorbike at low speed pulling out of a junction (last week) on a brand-new rear tyre in front of an unmarked police car, because the roads were salted and the salt, being slightly oily, gave the tyre nothing to grip on to, can produce something quite interesting in a painting. The policeman who helped me lift my motorbike up and get it out of the road confirmed that I’d been slow, steady and had done nothing apparently wrong, which went some way to assuaging my feelings of embarrassment – although it could be argued that I had done something wrong, since I crashed in the first place. Motorbike tyres must be ‘run in’ for 90 – 100 miles before they are considered reasonably safe. But the salt didn’t give me a chance…… In addition to the tyre I had to buy a new mirror and indicator, but crash bungs saved the rest of the bike.
Sometimes I’m so tired when I paint it that I can hardly move my arm, so then I tend to paint tiredness. Sleep deprivation is a problem because sometimes the paintings take a long time, and I work into the early hours, then I still get up at a reasonable time to feed the animals and owls. But come 31st December, I will finish my last ‘daily painting’ and I will be free of the commitment!
Monday 10th October 2016: At last, I’m moving into the new workshop. The old studio will be my drawing studio, but this new building – this ‘shed’ - is for all my oil paintings, canvas, stretchers, frames and storage. Sometimes I ask myself why I didn’t take up painting miniatures, which would have meant that I could save myself a lot of time, effort and money. Years of accumulated art-related furniture and artefacts are going into my new workplace; cupboards full of oils, easels, rolls and folds of linen, bundles of stretcher pieces, and I am walking miles to carry out the move. What struck me is the number (about 30) of unfinished paintings I had – unfinished because as my old studio became more and more cluttered as I painted myself into a corner (literally) I had to stack canvases and frames in inaccessible towering columns, and it really was a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’.
Friday 16th September 2016: The summer vanished in the building of my new studio-workshop. It began as a shed to store my canvases, stretchers, wheelbarrow, hedge cutter and cement mixer. Then the idea grew; it sprouted out of a useless strip of garden beside the house that I only ever weeded, and was overgrown and dark. Now it is a light, airy space with a paved terrace between the new ‘shed’ and the house: there is something completely absorbing about building work; the number of things that go wrong, the roofing materials, cladding, doors, windows and sand and cement that have to be organised, scaffolding that must be arranged, paving that must go down, and of course the slab for the building which has to go in first….which was when it became apparent that someone had misinterpreted my feet and inches footprint drawing for a two-foot-shorter version in metric measurements. Another couple of tons of concrete later, and a quick re-calculation of the wooden frame that was to go on top, and it was okay. Now, all that’s left is the last of the woodwork – the finishing touches; architrave, skirting board, door handles and locks, before the painter can finish. Then the flooring can go in; I’ve chosen something simple and washable.
Friday 26th August 2016: I have recently been given a snowy owl with a defective wing today; he is only three months old and called ‘Wyddfa’; he came with the name, which is also the name of Mount Snowdon (Yr Wyddfa – The Tomb). He will never fly; his wing has been x-rayed and it seems that the joint in the ‘elbow’ never developed. I’ve been told that if I’m not selling owls then maybe I shouldn’t mention them in this commentary, but they are part of my life, and I paint them and write poems about them. I see my owls – and other animals – as models for my work, although I have been ‘helpfully’ informed by friends that people might not be interested in large paintings of ferrets.
Wednesday 20th July 2016: ALL BECAUSE OF GEORGE – the book: I have been working on this book for a very, very, very long time. Years actually. And now I find that the need to finish it is so strong that I have had to cancel things – my social life is non-existent at this point. I keep telling myself that as soon as the book is finished and I have delivered it to my agent, I will be free. But aspects of life get in the way – even if it is going to collect two boxes of frozen day old chicks for the owls (who feature in the book) and some formula milk for the baby ferrets to give their mother a bit of a break.
Saturday 9th July 2016 – Ledbury Poetry Festival: poetry reading 12.45pm at Burgage Hall: It was a spirited motorbike ride to get to Ledbury. My apologies to the poet giving a reading in the churchyard when I pulled up near the venue; I couldn’t see what was going on behind the high churchyard wall until I got off the bike. I like to arrive early for my readings, find my bearings, then sit to go over what I am going to read and what I would like to talk about, while drinking copious amounts of tea. There was a handsome buffet for the performers, although the room allocated was somewhat deserted when I got there, so it was easy to graze, and change out of my motorbike gear and into something visually easier on the eye (for the audience). The heavily beamed room was in an extremely aged building, which was listing enough to make sitting on any chair a case of facing very much uphill or downhill. After a brief journey through a few poems from my previous collections I read from ‘Alternative Values’ with a power point of the artwork that went with each poem. The book sold out at the end, and I extend my thanks to all those who were at the end of the queue with the last of the books, who waited so patiently for me to sign them.
Saturday 25th June 2016 – Ted Hughes Poetry Festival: 6pm at the Mexborough Business Centre: As I had to take books to sell I drove there in the car, rather than on the motorbike, which was possibly a good idea, since the journey home included a heavy storm in the dark, and the sat nav took me over the Trans Pennine Way. Very picturesque in the gathering gloom as the rain increased and the tight bends in the road shone blackly beneath a thick, slippery, watery coat. (Memo to self – ignore sat nav; use map.)
Somehow I had missed the fact that the Business Centre is actually my father’s old school, and one of his school friends was there to tell me all about it – with girl he met back then, who is now his wife. The idea that my Dad had, as a boy, run through the main hall where the event was taking place, and had played in what was now a car park outside, escaping to the fields and hills beyond at every opportunity, was a poignant one. I found myself blocking those thoughts out for the duration of my reading because they made me so sad that he wasn’t with us. I have to remind myself that if he was, he’d be 86 now, so might want to stay at home…..But the audience and organisers were warm and welcoming and the whole event had a sense of being a great gathering of friends and fellow poetry-lovers. It was a delight to read there.
8pm on Tuesday 7th June 2016 at the Salisbury Literary Festival:
I was ‘in conversation’ with Matthew Stadlen, something I have never done before; there was no poetry reading around which to base my discussion of subject matter – I was the subject, feeling a bit like a butterfly on a pin. Matthew mentioned the suicide of my mother, the suicide of the mother of my half-sister – she also killed the child, my brother’s suicide at the age of 47; I felt as if I was listening to a misery memoir, but Matthew used this information (from which there is no escape since it is embedded in my history) to introduce me as a positive human being, more akin to the way I actually feel. Things happen to all of us in life, things that are often beyond our control, and it is up to us – me, in this case – to determine how we react and carry on. I don’t believe happiness is a right, or easy to come by, but I believe it can and should be worked at. As I was signing copies of my latest book ‘Alternative Values’ at the end of the event, a book that contains poems about Love, Marriage, Life, Death and other aspects of living, I heard the words that every writer dreads: ‘Sorry, we’ve sold out’, at which point the writer privately thinks WHY DIDN’T YOU STOCK UP? WHY DIDN’T I BRING SOME MYSELF? RATS! One can only hope the disappointed prospective purchasers go home and log onto Amazon.
Libby, who has ready pretty much all my poetry, observed how much more personal my latest poetry collection, ALTERNATIVE VALUES, is. While the paintings accompanying each poem in this book are my emotional response to (and visual record of) my poems, the subject matter is ever closer to the bone for me. I have always processed my feelings and experiences through the prism of my poems and paintings, but more so than ever, I find I am able to ‘tell them as they were’ rather than exploring them through allegory and metaphor – to date two of my favourite disguises. There is something a little unnerving about the accompanying feeling of exposure…..
7.30pm on Friday 8th April 2016 at the Cambridge Literary Festival: poetry reading – Frieda Hughes and Andrew McMillan: It was really great to share a stage with Andrew; his poetry, both moving and personal, in a library stacked with books and people. It was afterwards that I realised our age difference really did make a difference, when I left him at the ‘after-party’ because all I could think of was driving home (alcohol free) to Wales and a bevy of owls, which were being looked after by my long-suffering partner.
2pm on Saturday 2nd April 2016 at the Oxford Literary Festival: poetry reading –: I had to take two owl chicks to Oxford with me to stay overnight, as they were only just ten days old (too young to entrust to anyone else’s care at that point) and needed feeding with ground up defrosted day old chick bits every four hours with tweezers. So my reading and preparations were interspersed with vanishing to feed two tiny, squeaking birds.
8th January 2016 – My series of small daily paintings (over sixty so far) threatens to overrun the studio. By the end of the year I may have to build a small extension to house the overflow. The diary of basic daily events that I keep is quite matter-of-fact and does not always explain my feelings about the day that I’ve had: but I look at what I’ve painted and realise that while my written words describe what happened, my painting really does describe my resulting mood – a day with very little going on can be full of light and joy because I get to work on what I want, whether it be painting or writing – and maybe I get to take the motorbike out for a ride, or spend some time with the owls, dogs and ferrets. Whereas a day of unrelenting paperwork and filing in the office, as necessary as it is, can make me feel trapped and frustrated – although I feel immensely efficient when it’s done.
In the meantime the baby Eurasian eagle owls, Charlie and Max, that I hatched last April, have grown up – every night they come in from the aviary to spend a couple of hours with me, because the kitchen is still ‘home’ where they were reared – this is what they look like now:
18th December 2015 – I’m already working on another series of small paintings based on my daily reactions to events – the paintings have to be quick and specific and are mounting in number as the weeks pass. I have been offered a figurative art exhibition in Shropshire in October 2016, but here I am painting more abstracts….. Quite soon I may have to direct my attention to sheep and owls…..
6th November 2015 – While getting back into the pattern of working on new paintings and a couple of book ideas, I’ve started counselling at a local high school one day a week; I don’t want my recent qualification to atrophy! And it goes a long way towards reminding me that there is a whole other world outside my studio and office walls.
18th October 2015 – It’s a relief to be home with the owls, ferrets and dogs (not to mention the rabbits, chinchillas and chickens….) But the paperwork that I have studiously ignored for months in order to complete a/ my exhibition and b/ my counselling course assignments can’t wait any longer. But I think I’ll just sleep for the next month….
13th and 14th October 2015 – The two private views for the exhibition at the Belgravia Gallery in Maddox Street, London, were packed and I want to thank everyone who came and all those who bought paintings! The private views doubled up as the book launches for my poetry collection, ALTERNATIVE VALUES, and the paintings for sale were the originals of the images in the book. Some of those images have poems actually painted into them – one person was moved to ask if it was possible to ‘lift’ the white patch on which the lettering was painted (my oil-paint script with brush) and see ‘the rest of the painting’ underneath. Maybe I’ll think about that for the next time…..
4th October 2015 – Today I read from my new poetry collection, ALTERNATIVE VALUES, at the Cheltenham Literary Festival in the Salon in Montpelier Gardens. It was fantastic; I had a power point backdrop of the paintings that I have spent the last two years working on (and in the case of some of the paintings – eight or ten years) to accompany the poems. These paintings are my emotional response to the content of each poem – if I were to paint them now, they would be different, since I’ve changed already from the person I was when I finished them. It has been a real joy to put the two driving forces in my life, together. And since I last wrote, I’ve qualified as a counsellor – but as Martin would say ‘Frieda, you have to explain to people that it doesn’t mean you are giving up being a writer and painter!’ And of course I’m not. The counselling is very part-time.
Now I’m framing the last of my Alternative Values paintings for the exhibition next week….
4th May 2015 – 4.30 am: the last painting for ALTERNATIVE VALUES IS FINISHED! In all honesty, I despaired of finishing in time for the Bloodaxe deadline; in the end I stopped going out and lived on whatever was forgotten at the bottom of the freezer, didn’t go for motorbike rides, didn’t to the gym, put friends off, only checked the computer for emails once a week, didn’t open the mail for days at a time, and didn’t get a lot of sleep. Feeding the animals and owls was the only non-negotiable, and now I have two new chicks that I hatched from Eurasian eagle owl eggs that I was given. The two male chicks, Charlie and Max, are now almost a month old. In this photo they are fifteen and twelve days old.
At last I can get back to a more sensible life-timetable, in which I can also take on one or two more clients for CRUSE, the bereavement counselling body.
24th March 2015 – At last I was able to deliver the manuscript for my next poetry collection, ALTERNATIVE VALUES, to Bloodaxe Books. BUT that is only half of the book – each poem will have an image to go with it. The images are based on my response to each poem at the time of painting, adding colour, and a very personal visual description of my emotional reaction. These mostly small paintings are well on the way as I’ve been quietly working on them for many months, but as there are sixty poems and time is running out I feel as if I am climbing a sheer rock face without being able to see the top of the cliff yet.
6th March 2015 – Today was the last day with my general counselling clients; I have completed in excess of the necessary 100 hours required to go towards the completion of my counselling course later this summer.
For almost a year I have been stepping out of my own world on a weekly basis, leaving whatever concerns me personally at the threshold, so that for a few hours only those issues that my clients bring are of any importance. It has been both a privilege and a humbling experience. Now I need to concentrate on the final stages of my next poetry collection, ALTERNATIVE VALUES. The deadline is racing towards me and I am short of time.
28th February 2015 - I took part in a tribute event at the Bath Literary Festival for my late father, Ted Hughes, with Kate Tempest, David Robb and Tom Paulin, hosted by Bel Mooney, one of the original founders of the festival.
I read a selection of poems that I had written about my father over the years; ‘Birds’ from Wooroloo, ‘Conversation With Death’ from Stonepicker, ‘Prometheus’ from Waxworks, ‘Poet With Thesaurus’ and ‘Things My Father Taught Me’ from The Book of Mirrors.
Kate Tempest’s delivery of her poems from her collection, Brand New Ancients, for which she won the Ted Hughes Award in 2013, was breath-taking.
3rd November 2014 – The second Private View at Halls Fine Art Auctioneers took place yesterday. Thank you to all those who came, and for those who bought paintings, I hope they bring great joy! The exhibition was a marvellous success and now there are three days open to the general public for the remaining artworks. The temptation to give a home to a couple more owls is almost irresistible, my excuse being that I can use them as new models. Also yesterday one of my four chinchillas gave birth to two babies, so if anyone is interested in a four-foot high portrait of chinchilla mother and babies…..there may be one in the offing.
25th October 2014 – Yesterday Martin and I hung the exhibition of my latest work at Halls Fine Art in Shrewsbury, ready for the opening this coming week; it looks fantastic! The two big Bengal eagle owl paintings of Arthur (on the left) and Gwynnie take centre stage – and here they are in the studio just before I packed them up, with one of my other models perched on top of Gwynnie’s head: Caspar, the burrowing owl – can you see him?
7th August 2014 – The weeks are passing by far too fast while I try to finish paintings for my October/November exhibition at Halls, near Shrewsbury. I find myself unable to take anything else on at all – but still have an assignment to complete for my college course in counselling, and I am still working as a volunteer counsellor to accumulate the necessary hours to qualify at the end of my course. Time management has suddenly become a serious consideration.
24th May 2014 Today I gave a talk about my painting and writing as dual disciplines at Somerset House, the Strand, London, as part of a symposium to coincide with an exhibition of paintings by the writer, Beryl Bainbridge. Increasingly, I find that I am asked to discuss the correlation between the two disciplines. I am currently working on a poetry collection for publication in 2015 in which the poems will be accompanied by a series of related abstract images.
12th May 2014 – BBC World Service: Outlook’s Matthew Bannister interviews Frieda Hughes. “The Trouble With Death…..” http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01yjjc0 My interview with Matthew Bannister followed my ‘Bliss’ lecture at the Bath Literature Festival, where, during my talk I mentioned that I was training to be a counsellor (Person Centred) and that I had also trained with CRUSE in bereavement counselling – although they call their counsellors ‘volunteers’. http://www.cruse.org.uk/ I didn’t choose to study with CRUSE because of the suicide history in my family (my mother and brother), or even the other untimely deaths of other members (my father included), but because I felt it would be an area where, when I qualified, which I have now done, I might be able to help someone else in some small way, to face their own losses. We cannot escape loss, because by the very nature of being human we come into contact with others and will care about them in some way, and in varying degrees. So when they die, or move on in their lives, or circumstances change, we feel bereft. But to avoid loss we would have to avoid love and how empty a life would that be?
26th April 2014: MUCH WENLOCK POETRY FESTIVAL
Being local to Much Wenlock in Shropshire, although I am actually over the Welsh border, they put me to work: in the morning I gave out the prizes for the children’s poetry competition winners, with Daljit Nagra who was responsible for the adults’ awards. One of my six ferrets, Lizzie, accompanied me.
Daljit, if you read this, I’m really sorry that you had to share lunch in the festival café with my ferret, Lizzie. She’d just had surgery so I couldn’t leave her unattended for any length of time. She did, however, have almost faultless table manners. Oddly, very few people appeared to notice the presence of a ferret eating its lunch on a table with a plastic cone over its head to prevent it nibbling its stitches.
In the early afternoon it was a case of: INSPIRATION OR APPLICATION? WRITING POEMS TO A BRIEF, with Philip Monks as chair, Geraldine Clarkson, Jane Commane, David Boyles and me, in discussion.
Finally, in the late afternoon it was: MY DESERT ISLAND POEMS: Fiona Talkington interviewed me in front of the audience about the poem that I felt would be most important on a desert island. I could have chosen a poem by someone else, but someone else’s poem wouldn’t matter to me on a desert island – but my own poems would, and the poem that would be most like having a verbal Swiss Army Knife for useful jobs is ‘How it Began’. This is a poem from my collection ‘The Book of Mirrors’ published by Bloodaxe, and it is about the time in 1994 when I first developed Myalgic Encephalomyelitis, better known as M.E. or Chronic Fatigue.
The reason I chose this poem is because of the process I went through in order to write it, having been diagnosed with M.E. and while finding myself unable to read effectively. It describes the very symptoms that made its conception so difficult. It also reminds me of what I did to get around this new obstacle (M.E.) and I felt it would inspire me with finding ways to cope with being stranded on a desert island.
5th March 2014: BATH LITERATURE FESTIVAL – Bliss Lecture.
This was an opportunity to do something I hadn’t done before: I gave a BLISS LECTURE based on my poetry collections, exploring how my desire to create something out of raw materials – even if the raw materials are my own experiences – drives me, and how that drive has ploughed a furrow through my exploration of who I actually am. I believe that finding our passion is one of the ways in which we can drive ourselves through life with considerable energy, if we wish to do so.
5th March 2014: BATH LITERATURE FESTIVAL – Poetry Reading.
The poems that I chose for this reading were drawn from Wooroloo, Stonepicker, Waxworks and The Book of Mirrors, which is my most recent collection. I wanted to take the audience on a journey not only through my own life, but the lives of the characters in my poems who have made certain choices……..
January/February 2014: Almost a month in New South Wales, Australia, renting a motorbike and riding 2,000 miles, was a source of more material for future art exhibitions. In a town many miles from Sydney and surrounded by nothing but rolling countryside-cum-wilderness, I found a shop that sold evening dresses and ball gowns. Astonishingly, not only did they exist in what appeared to be the most unlikely environment (apparently all the schools have summer balls), they were open at six thirty in the evening when my partner, Martin, thought it was safe to go window-shopping with me. The evening dress that I couldn’t resist wouldn’t have been out of place at Buckingham Palace and I managed to squeeze it into the top box on my hired motorbike by sheer willpower, ejecting some more practical items such as bottles of water.
19th November 2013: An invitation to Buckingham Palace for a poetry event resulted in an unexpected handshake with Her Majesty The Queen and a conversation about my Bengal Eagle owls with Prince Philip. It was only after the event that it struck me how odd it really was that I hadn’t imagined for one moment those two meetings might take place, this was, after all, their home.
A BIT ABOUT THE POETRY:
15th October 2013: The next poetry book is in the making – as the years pass I add new poems in various states of completion to one of several files, and out of that bank of poetic effort I gather one collection after another. When forming a new collection it’s like an archaeological dig; I find out where I was at different times in my life both physically and emotionally, my poetry reflecting my environment and my emotions, describing me back to myself and to others – that’s one of the reasons my most recent collection was called ‘The Book of Mirrors’.
‘Wooroloo’, my first collection, was written when I was living in a hamlet of that name in Western Australia from 1994 to 1997; it was one of the only two places I have really loved, the other being where I am now. In the grip of Chronic Fatigue I had limited time awake and could only write short pieces in a race against the next period of unconsciousness. The book was forged in battle against something over which I felt to have no control – the book was my rebellion against my own incapacity. The fact that it came to exist where I could have done nothing but lie inert while the weeks and months passed I believe aided my recovery; the positive exercise of dragging effort from the well of exhaustion helped to alleviate the depressive aspects of the illness. It was like living beneath a black sky and finding a way to stagger up a ladder and stab holes in the very fabric of the sky, as if punching out stars which, one by one, increased the available light.
The painting on the front of the book records the Australian sunsets that I loved so much, over the open landscape that I found so appealing; where a single rock or tree or outcrop became a thing of interest and where the mind and eye could wander without rules or bars or regulations (or wind turbines). ‘Wooroloo’ is published in the UK by Bloodaxe Books and in the US by Harper Collins.
‘Stonepicker’, my second collection, was a continuation of ‘Wooroloo’; it built up on the ideas derived from my exploration of myself and of others; increasingly, my view turned from my surroundings and the things that happened to me, to the people around me and the things that happened to them. The death of my father is addressed in the last two poems in the book, while the title poem was the inspiration for the painting on the cover of the book; it is a picture of the woman who collects grievances in her barren landscape of stones. ‘Stonepicker’ is published by Bloodaxe Books in the UK. Harper Collins in the US published ‘Stonepicker’ and ‘The Book of Mirrors’ together as a double book in the US, where the double collection became ‘Stonepicker and The Book of Mirrors’ – which is also a poem in which she meets her reflection.
‘Waxworks’ was something different: life in allegory. I had already experimented with putting my observation of situations in my life into allegory, since making them obvious made me feel as if I had no skin on – raw and all too visible, something that may come easier with time and practice but wasn’t easy then, but the allegorical poems were mounting up and it seemed sensible to give them a home together. They were coming thick and fast as my father’s death, family disputes and my resulting relapse into Chronic Fatigue under the strain, put pressure on me. Even politics seeped in – the Dome was in the news at the time, for being useless among other things, and that became a ‘palace’ in the Nebuchadnezzar poem. ‘Waxworks’ is published in the UK by Bloodaxe Books and in the US by Harper Collins.
‘Forty-Five’ is a collection of 45 autobiographical poems, one for each of the first forty-five years of my life, which were the basis for the series of paintings shown here on the website; the 45 panels each measure four feet high and five feet long and they form an image that is 225 feet long in total. Harper Collins published the collection in the US.
‘The Book of Mirrors’ is where many autobiographical poems that arose when working on 45 now reside, along with new members of Stonepicker’s family and two poems that address my brother’s unexpected death. There are poems about imaginary dogs, real crows and dead pheasants among other subjects too numerous to mention; I have lived through this book.