This month’s Guest Editor is Jenni Calder. Jenni has published 28 books on literary and historical subjects, including biographies of Robert Louis Stevenson and Naomi Mitchison and several books on aspects of Scottish history and Scottish emigration, and - as Jenni Daiches - fiction and poetry.
She has edited and contributed to many more, and published in many journals and magazines. Her most recent publications are: Borrowed Time (fiction), Essence of Edinburgh: An Eccentric Odyssey and The Burning Glass: The Life of Naomi Mitchison.
Jenni’s two guest writers for the Autumn Voices Magazine are Faith Pullin and Val Greaves.
A Walk in a Storm
Dog and I step out of the back door into wind and rain. In the lane there are rushing rivulets of water. We take the steps down into the Ferry Glen – they are also running with water. It’s more sheltered in the glen but trees are creaking ominously and there are bits of tree on the path. Dog is untroubled. She climbs to the top of the bank and patrols the boundary fence of the primary school where sometimes a lost ball is to be found. Sure enough, a few minutes later she descends with an unmistakable air of satisfaction and a tennis ball in her mouth.
Below us the burn is in spate and the waterfall is spilling downward, brown and foaming. The churn of the water competes with the wind’s roar. I make my way carefully. The path is eroded in places and ever since I slipped on wet grass and broke my wrist I’ve been cautious on dodgy paths. Dog drops the ball and looks expectant. I pick it up and toss it ahead for her to chase. I can bend without too much trouble but when I straighten up my hips remind me that they are not wearing well.
We emerge from the glen onto a paved path and a gust of wind stops me in my tracks. We skirt the edge of a newish housing development, big brash houses with double garages, and go down onto a footpath and cycle track, a former railway line that once led to a thriving naval base. We’re walking parallel to the shore now, and with the trees bare of leaves I can see the water and the bridges. What was it like for the people of this little town to watch that first extraordinary bridge emerge from the water? The firth is stitched with white. We follow the path to the east, dog on the lead here as she is inclined to dive down the steep slope to investigate the bins at the back of Harry Ramsden’s. And if pickings are not rich enough there, she can proceed to the Railway Bridge restaurant and the Hawes Inn. Past the danger zone, I let her off and we take the steep steps known as Jacob’s Ladder that take us down to the shore.
I walk, careful again, down the slippery cobbled ramp beside the lifeboat station. The tide is on the ebb leaving tangles of kelp and bladder-wrack mixed with the inevitable plastic as well as more interesting fragments of sea-worn glass and bricks and shards of pottery. We walk on the wet sand, marking it with prints of boots and paws. There’s no protection from the violent gusts of wind throwing cold rain into my face. We walk under the rail bridge as far as the rocks which I no longer attempt to climb. We can see the tugs neatly parked at Hound Point but there are no other vessels out on the water.
We retrace our steps, the wind at our back, and a train, dwarfed by the massive bridge, rumbles overhead. Dog sniffs among the seaweed, then runs down to the water’s edge and splashes in and out. In spite of the wind and rain there are a few visitors braving the promenade and others sitting in their cars staring out at the weather or at their phones. A minibus draws up and a handful of tourists tumble out long enough to take pictures of the bridges and themselves. A couple in long coats and hoods and scarves are standing hand in hand by the railings. A band of oyster catchers scuttles through the air with their familiar screech. There are eider and gulls out on the water.
Dog and I trudge on. My worn-out hips are complaining and getting home requires climbing steps. We pass the ‘Spirit of the Forth’, a sculptured mosaic sea beast inappropriately dubbed the ‘Loch Ness Monster’ by local children. We pass what was once the Seal’s Craig restaurant, more recently an Italian bistro, now, I’m told, about to become ‘luxury apartments’. We pass two ice cream parlours, a betting shop I remember as a post office, an empty building containing the ghost of the Clydesdale Bank which closed three years ago. The museum, under-resourced and under-staffed, is not open. We cross the road and I tether dog and go into the Town Crier where I buy a paper from Mushtaq and wonder, as always, how he manages to keep the place going. The two butchers’ shops, the bakery, greengrocer’s, fish monger have all gone. Then up the Vennel steps, past the kirk which is now a private house and past the kirkyard full of interesting dead and eroded commemorating stones.
It’s more sheltered here. I pause to admire the newly-opened community garden and the lovely mosaic on the high back wall, a vivid panorama of houses and shops and people and boats. Then along a narrow lane with gates into the long back gardens of High Street houses. At the end of the lane the cottages where builders of the rail bridge once lived are long gone. Up more steps. There are no traces of the train station that served the town, but the foot bridge over the old railway line survives. We cross it and look down on a single cyclist in Lycra battling the wind. I imagine late Victorians alighting from a train, emerging from a cloud of steam, bending into the wind as they walk the short distance to handsome villas.
We pass the bowling club and the little park planted with rhododendrons and roses, spaces formerly occupied by the burgh reservoir. Dog diverts to check out an abandoned polystyrene box that probably still smells of chips.
Everything changes, Peggy Seeger memorably sings. Sometimes the changes are so slow and subtle we hardly notice. Sometimes they leave us suddenly bereft. We need to adapt to change, of course, but we also need to understand what is missing, what perhaps can be reclaimed or re-created or re-connected. We need to understand how and why change happens, and how we’ve got to where we are. Everything changes, but the bridge, built out of human ingenuity, toil and sacrifice – many died in its construction – the bridge will last long after I’m gone. From the history it contains and the wider history it represents you can travel back many hundreds of years.
Children, ill-protected from the storm, are going home from school. What do you know about this path you’re walking on, I want to ask them, where it leads, where you’re going? And if I should ask them, they will look at me in puzzlement. What is this old person on about?
Dog turns in at the gate. The rain has stopped but the water has hollowed out channels in the lane and the wind has blown over the bins at the side of the house.
A peek through my window
I woke early yesterday after a night which had followed a very boozy long lunch. My friends were returning to the heat of an Australian summer. Here there was hoar frost on the tree branches and on my decking. The temperature was below zero. Did I really want to get a train to Gorebridge so that I could join my Sunday morning group for a five mile run/ walk or did I want to have a lazy day?
I have to push myself more these days and it is so worth it because by the time I got to the run the sun was out and it was a perfect winter’s day for exercising in the countryside. When I returned home eventually I was exhilarated.
In childhood photographs my head was either in a book or I was upside down (I loved standing on my head or doing handstands which left me in the crab position.)My favourite book as a small child was The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton. She was not an acclaimed writer but she really stimulated my imagination as I imagined lands far away from the little village in Derbyshire where I lived. I also climbed many trees.
Books and sport have always been my two obsessions and health-wise this has stood me in good stead. At retirement it was obvious to me that I should fill my life with those two loves literature and sport. I try to do pilates for 20 minutes every morning. It gets rid of any aching bones or muscles. But first there is the morning cup of tea…an absolute must. Wherever I go I carry teabags!
I love people, more than places, so I’m not a good tour guide. How long does it take to get from Singapore to Malaysia by bus? I don’t know because my head would be in a book or I would be talking to a Malaysian fellow traveller. A Malay taxi driver once gave me a free ride to my friend’s house because he could tell that I loved his country and its people. ‘Unheard of,’ said my Chinese friend. ‘A taxi driver here would never do that.’ Well, he did.
In France, summer 2019, the temperature in Lyon was 43 degrees. There was neither aircon nor fan in my room. I had four showers each night (at least). Through living in the heat and humidity of Malaysia for 10 years and hardly using aircon I knew how to cool down my adaptable body.
I have many friends both male and female. I like men because they provide the detail in life that I so lack, sometimes to the point of boredom. My younger friends call it Mansplaining.
Nothing much has changed, since childhood, in my reading habits. My parents sometimes used to come home and find me in tears because I was reading a sad book. In Sydney a few years ago my friends found me in tears in their garden. I was reading Still Alice. Even more poignant now that I have a friend with Alzheimer’s. Later
I wrote a short poem about a possum’s visit to their garden. I can write about an animal (my friend hates possums even though I find them cute) but I can’t write one about the mental blight that is Alzheimer’s.
This pantoum is not perfect because the third last line should be an exact copy of the third line. Poetry, like me, is adaptable.
When able to write what I like,
I have an obsession with trees.
I study them on foot or by bike.
I can write about them with ease.
I have an obsession with trees.
Pantoum, Villanelle, I can rhyme.
I can write about them with ease
it just takes a considerable time.
Pantoum, Villanelle, I can rhyme.
French words then appear in my mind.
It just takes a considerable time
but l’arbre and les feuilles I find.
French words appear in my mind.
I would love to compose a French song.
L’arbre and les feuilles I find
but my notes go horribly wrong.
There is no-one to help ma chanson.
I hum words when on foot or on bike.
I wish I could make this a song,
when able to write what I like!
Are We There Yet?
These poems come from a collection called Tour d’Horizon in which I confront issues of aging and loss of status and function. As someone for whom work was very much a part of my identity, giving up my place as a participant in the public world has been traumatic. My attempted solution has been to make the home a locus of creativity. Much of my current work has focused on the possibility of meaning in the experience of the end of life.
Place seems to have been a crucial element in my writing and I have lived a life in which contact with other cultures has been vitally important. My first job was at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria and my time there had an indelible impact on my values and world view, coinciding as it did with the Nigerian Civil War.
I have also taught in China and have undertaken research for many years in Universities in the USA.
Lack of family ties has made friendship central to my well-being. My friends are my family.
Technically, my poems vary from virtual short stories (‘Behaving badly in a pyramid’) to simple exposition and a deeper lyrical response to landscape. Above all, I write to try to understand my life and the lives around me.
Are We There Yet?
Are we there yet?
Wherever it was we wanted to be.
Life just happens while we are
Thinking of something else.
It has all been most interesting
Though no discernible pattern can be seen.
Patterns seem to have no place
In the confusion of the everyday.
More and more, we concentrate
On the essence of the moment
Its taste and texture – its individuality supreme.
Living pared down to the bone.
What is it to be on borrowed time?
Is it a privilege or a curse?
Should we savour every drop of life
or seek to avoid something worse?
Should we cling to objects,
the acquisitions of many years,
passing on to family and friends remnants
to be treasured or disbursed?
Borrowed time was never likely –
only the strength to live through years.
And yet one yearns to start all over
in spite of fears.
Age gives a startling perspective
upsetting hierarchy, rearranging values and ideas.
Death alone gives meaning, resolving error,
and contemplating misplaced tears.
I Am Proud of the Lines on My Face
I am proud of the lines on my face.
I suffered to get them.
I endured to get them.
I loved to get them.
They are a badge of authenticity.
Bitter-sweet. No need for disguise.
I am what my life has made me.
People are disappointing, but so am I.
In the end, work alone matters.
Work never lets you down. It is
Sanctuary; making the quotidian
Meaningful, though it has no meaning in itself.
Simply the doing of it is enough.
'The principal thing in this world is to keep one's soul aloft' (Gustave Flaubert)
Flaubert counsels keeping one's soul aloft;
mindfulness over matter,
being rather than doing,
living in the moment,
emphasising the positive.
Fling your souls aloft, my dears,
reject your gender script.
No performance today.
What do my friends mean to me?
Their tolerance, empathy, wit,
Bulwarks against angst, boredom and fear.
Do they know me or
Simply the me I am with them?
To each a sliver, but never the whole shebang.
A complex mix of opposing impulses
Where style and substance don’t cohere.
The more laid-back, the more unclear.
Friends decode the news from a psyche
Damaged and disturbed, illuminating
Experiences and offering unimagined worlds.
Sunday Morning in Essex
Apollo in the garden, bounded by creeks and mile wide fields;
we meander lanes where Boudicca's chariot was once supreme.
Time telescopes, unravelling as we cruise landscapes from Constable;
Dedham and Frinton, Harwich, Little Bentley, West Mersea and Pin Mill.
Heat reveals lost sites, farm settlements and burial mounds.
Nothing is lost; geography is all. So much past converging on
present reality. Insistently, my ancestors call me back from exile
in the far north.
Drifting, with friends,
Down the canal at beautiful Suzhou,
Suddenly, the boatman started singing
In praise of the city.
On the banks, girls posed,
Dressed and photographed before their weddings.
It was at that time that a woman priest agreed
To conduct my funeral.
Behaving Badly in a Pyramid 4pm
Climbing the greasy pole into interior darkness,
We navigate a harsh reality.
There's no way out without going the whole way in.
Suddenly, it becomes too much, too much heat, too much sweat,
Too much fear.
We will never get away; stranded, eyeless in this black moment.
Claustrophobia closes in like a suffocating wall.
History compels us to endure, and so unwilling,
Paralysed and hopeless, I submit to a traumatic fate.
Suddenly, my companion assumes the mask of hero,
Destroying the line and doubling back, dangerously active.
I am dragged to the entrance and, hysterical and fainting,
Am revived by the guide fanning me with his shirt.
Tourism can have hidden dangers.
Do you remember the trip to Nantucket,
How lovely it was, cranberry bogs, sea captains,
Pineapples? It was like being in a portrait,
Crisp, cool, faded. We were in company with
Melville, Eliot, Robert Lowell :
You could cut the brackish winds with a knife.
In our own company too, and so in tune.
We were young then, not knowing it would lead
To friendship of 40 years; a case of carpe diem,
But the day has turned into a lifetime.