Poetry publication in The Woven Tale Press

I had a wonderful childhood. Sometimes, I wonder if it was too good – I remember struggling with the idea that it was finite and that I would (if lucky) live three or four times longer as an adult than as a child. When I was forced into reaching the inevitable accommodation, aside from all that other life, I discovered other consolations. One of those was memory. Sometimes, when I can’t sleep, I walk around my childhood house in my head or I revisit a particular time, a certain event, a special place. There’s one such place that a cousin and I have agreed feels may be the strongest and most coherent memory we’ll ever be able to hang onto. (We’re not talking entirely out of our hats here; I think we both wonder if we’ll succumb to the dementia that took our grandmother.)

The place is Wales: North Wales and, specifically, the Lleyn Peninsula, where the Irish Sea boils up against a small spur of land that hangs off the side of Snowdonia. I grew up close enough to the place to feel some kinship or belonging anyway, but it was the annual holidays our families spent on a hill farm that really cemented my feelings. I’ve written plenty about Wales, and those holidays, in that writerly, appropriating fashion that I tend to fear must be at least mildly irksome to anyone else who regards the same places and incidents as as much theirs as any old writer’s. And, for that, I suppose I apologise – although I’ve done it again and, this time, The Woven Tale Press, a cornucopia of literary and artistic loveliness, has published the result.

My poem, At Dinas Dinlle, is available through here, together with the other contributions that make up the issue. You can subscribe (for free!) to the online version here. It is also possible to purchase a glossy printed version. My thanks to Sandra Tyler and her team for all their support and encouragement, and for producing such a beautiful and stimulating publication.

The sun-drenched elsewhere: Puig de Maria

For five summers the hill looked down on us. I imagined it chuckling to itself as, on nearby Port de Pollença’s beautiful white beach, we chased toddlers with bottles of sun cream, wiped small faces clean of ice cream and endlessly shook sand-encrusted raisins from bags.

But 2016 was The Year. No more nappies, pushchairs or My First Shoes. We assembled the children and announced a short walk before swimming. One of them – what a little star – said ‘hooray!’, one said ‘no way’, one asked if there would be ice cream, one looked as if she might cry while the not-quite-three-year-old carried on rifling through someone else’s handbag. We had a rethink and left the two smallest with Grandma.

Guidebooks describe the Puig de Maria as an easy forty minute climb. At the top is the sandstone Santuari de la Mare de Déu del Puig, a monastery and chapel dating back to the 1300s and dedicated to the Virgin Mary to plead protection from the Black Death. The Bishop of Palma ordered out the original inhabitants in the mid-1500s and different religious orders have used the place sporadically ever since. In the 1980s, twelve cells were converted to bedrooms for overnight stays by ascetics, peace-and-quiet seekers (possibly parents of young children) and those averse to ensuites, air conditioning and other fripperies.

Lined with pine, olive and holm oak trees, the path is patched with shade. It makes for hot, thirsty walking but the views are matchless: westwards, the Tramuntana mountains rise dark and rocky above Pollença town, while to the east, Cap de Formentor and the bays of Alcudia and Pollença give way to the blue expanse of the Mediterranean. The children enjoyed seeing “their beach” from this new viewpoint, although, it must be said, displayed similar enthusiasm for the biscuits my brother-in-law produced from his rucksack.

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Starting as well-maintained tarmac, the path becomes rough cobbles closer to the top. Sturdy-soled though they were, I regretted my Birkenstocks (my only footwear option; I pack light) and wished for my trekking sandals, relics of another life. The children, however, scampered back and forth, probably covering twice the 2km distance, while discussing ice-cream options for the top, where there’s a small restaurant, apparently serving some of Mallorca’s best food, as well as that promised ice cream.

A goat, leaping across the rocks that flank this upper reach of the path, welcomed us to the summit. It posed for photographs, with the casual aplomb of the well-practised, before disappearing between the stone gate-posts. We followed, variously seeking shade, the incense-scented chapel and ice-cream. In our different ways, we were all disappointed. The sun was high and shade scarce to nil, both chapel and monastery were closed and locked and, despite a garish ice-cream sign, the restaurant, too, was shut. And yet, with air rich with resin, wood smoke and sea-salt, our hands gripping a warm honey-coloured stone wall – and, everywhere we looked, that incomparable view, it seemed impossible to expect more.

 

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The sun-drenched elsewhere: Serengeti blues

 

The Serengeti was blue. Not only the sky but also the acacias; squares of vivid indigo material crowded out the leaves.

‘Tsetse fly traps,’ our guide explained.

I checked my trousers (dual purpose khaki: camouflage for game viewing and, supposedly, an unappealing colour to tsetse flies) were pulled down over my ankles and my shirt buttoned to the neck.

Tsetse flies and the parasitic disease they transmit – sleeping sickness – is something of a mixed blessing for the Serengeti. European colonisers avoided the area, sparing the wildlife the worst of the ravages it was subjected to elsewhere. However sleeping sickness still troubles the inhabitants of the villages hemming the park edges. Easy to treat if caught early, it is difficult to diagnose and impossible without appropriate healthcare. Hence the traps in this remote eastern corner of the park.

Perhaps the migrating herds are as big an attraction for the flies as for the tourists. Silent in our open-top jeep, we watched as wildebeest kettled themselves on a broad lip of earth overhanging a chocolate-brown river. The biggest and boldest tarried hardly at all, crashing through the group to hurtle into the water below, where they kept to the centre of the crowd of swimmers. Meanwhile, the current was bearing smaller animals sideways, dragging them closer to flotillas of log-like crocodiles and further from dry land. The hot air was thick with the cow-like calls of separated mothers and calves.

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In the long, yellowed grass on our side of the riverbank, a lioness swivelled her head left, right and left again as wildebeest after wildebeest, streaming water, charged past her. Here and there, uneaten corpses showed it is not only foxes that get carried away in the presence of such plenty.

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When the sun was half-gone below the horizon, we started the engine to drive past the stragglers – young calves, mostly, still calling with hollow desperation for their mothers. I tried not to think of the lioness on the riverbank. The road took us away from the great herd, which was heading north towards the greenness of the Maasai Mara, but not from all of their hangers-on.

I heard the buzzing first, beside my left ear, and flapped a hand at the sound. Silence. And then I looked down and saw the fly settling on my trousers, somewhere below my hipbone. When it scissor-closed its wings, I knew what it was. I raised my hand again to swat at it but the creature dipped its head as if in prayer, and bit through my trousers and underwear in one quick lunge.

There was blood – a surprising amount – and the bite hurt out of all proportion to the size of the fly but, as the evening deepened into the same indigo-blue as those tsetse fly traps, I counted myself lucky. I’d be watching for the symptoms, I had no fears about the quality of the medical care available to me – and I was not alone with lions on a riverbank.

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[These events happened almost ten years ago so I’m guessing I’m safe from sleeping sickness. The piece was inspired by a sort out of my photographs on a cold day, when the heat, dust and indigo blues of the Serengeti seemed like a lifetime and another world away. Sadly, sleeping sickness continues to be a threat in much of sub-Saharan Africa and, to my knowledge, the campaign against tsetse flies is ongoing.]

The sun-drenched elsewhere: Agapanthus and Aye-Ayes in Jersey

The little boy on the aeroplane looks out of his window. ‘I can see our holiday!’ he says. For a moment, I miss my own children. Mournful at not being invited on this 40th birthday trip, they’ve requested a souvenir. I ponder the Jersey new potatoes on sale at the airport, imagining them coated with chives and butter, but I doubt they’re what the children have in mind.

In St Helier, we walk along the esplanade to the bus stop. Blue agapanthus grows liberally on World War II fortifications. If anything can beautify concrete pill boxes, it’s these flowers.

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Agapanthus on WWII fortifications in Jersey

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Continuing the theme, the bus has a fake grass floor. An orang-utan swings above the driver’s seat while a kaleidoscope of tropical birds perch in the luggage racks. Birdsong and the call of howler monkeys accompany us on the journey inland. Outside, plump Jersey cows, brown as caramelised sugar, graze in small fields, roadside honesty boxes invite passers-by to have potatoes for dinner again and the garden of almost every house is alive with spikes of yet more agapanthus.

The bus deposits us at our destination: 32 acres of green loveliness celebrating and preserving Gerald Durrell’s “little brown jobs”. Durrell is an unusual zoo, not only because of its exhibits, which tend towards the less glamorous end of the zoological spectrum, but also because of its founder’s aspiration that, one day, it will no longer be needed.

Not all the animals are small. The gorillas aren’t. Everything about them is large, including their smell – like a locker room no-one’s cleaned. Even so, they attract a crowd that would thrill many sports teams.

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Western lowland silverback gorilla at #Durrell

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After lunch, we browse the shop but I can’t see anything beyond the usual soft toys and plastic dinosaurs for the children so we adjourn to the aye-ayes. With their bright orange eyes and strange, elongated fingers – to winkle grubs out of bark – these lemurs are feared as omens of death in their native Madagascar. In Durrell, they’re housed in two mellow stone buildings. A woman shoves through the swinging door. ‘Can’t see anything,’ she says. ‘What’s the point of that?’

Inside, the darkness drops like a sack. It’s almost threatening – or would be without the musky smell and a dim red light I don’t at first notice. Silent, we wait, pressing our noses to the glass. There’s a shuffle and a scuffle, and then an animal with gremlin ears and a tail like a terrified cat’s passes in front of our faces. It’s only a shadow but it’s enough. It’s enough. It’s there.

Out again in the daylight, I spot a wooden collection box with a slot for coins and, beneath, what looks like a pile of sticks. There’s a notice: Bamboo chewed by an aye-aye. £1. It’s just the thing! I pick through the pile and, choice made, wrap two lengths of bamboo in a scarf and drop money into the box. I hope the children appreciate them more than they would the potatoes.

The sun-drenched elsewhere: Learning to fly in Mozambique

Recently I wrote a poem following one of Jo Bell’s 52 poem prompts. The prompt was “first time” and, easily discounting the obvious, I wrote about a time, almost ten years’ ago, in Mozambique’s Quirimbas Archipelago, when I found myself at the controls of a small plane. My friend Amanda, over at Amanda’s Circus, who is also following the prompts, read the poem and wanted more details. So, adapted from my diary at the time, Amanda, this is for you:

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I don’t much like flying – especially not in small planes where there is so little separating one from all that empty space. This pilot, with his clipped South African accent, young man’s confident grin and long fingers picking at a plate of peri peri cashew nuts says he has the answer. What I need, apparently, is the joystick in my hand.

His plane is a Piper Cherokee, a tiny thing that might have been plucked from a toy box and dropped here, on this sandy strip of runway between the Indian Ocean and the palm trees that seal off Pemba’s old town. Somewhere out there, across the glassy water is the Quirimbas Archipelago. I wonder if I mightn’t prefer to stay in Pemba, even if it means no migratory humpbacks, turtles or dugong. But the pilot is quick to dispatch us to our places: my husband to the seat behind his; a big man with a smile that’s too small for his face, to the back; and me to the co-pilot’s seat. In front of me is a joystick which, it transpires, isn’t a joystick at all but a thing called a yoke.

The switch-flicking that comprises the pre-flight checks is followed by the roar of the engines, so loud and physical it seems to set every cell of my body vibrating. We bounce along the runway, blurring the sea to turquoise opacity. Just as it appears that we must run out of sand, the nose of the plane lifts and, halfway to vertical, the rest follows.

Levelled out again, between blue sky and green sea, the pilot lowers his visor against the glare of the sun striking the water. He twists round in his seat and assures the passengers the hardest part is behind us. The smile on the man at the back of the plane becomes rictus-like. He’s guessed what is to come and is rightly terrified. From somewhere I hear the words: put your hand on the yoke.

It thrums with the movement of the plane and resists more than I expect. Turn it to the left, I’m told. I do so and the aircraft rolls beneath us, the space that its fuselage shaded giving up two dhows, their white sails catching the same air that holds us aloft.

Below, lines of green so dark they’re almost black are the deep water channels along which the humpbacks migrate. Pushing the yoke forwards, as instructed, the darkness lurches towards us, shoving the sky out of the way. I shake my head and the pilot, still grinning, pulls back on his own yoke to lift the plane. Released, I look down at the patchwork of tiny islands Mozambique’s civil war so long kept for the cartographers. Soon one of them will resolve into the mangrove-fringed, baobab-studded bit of earth where we are to land but for now, for once, I’m happy here, suspended between sea and sky – and resolutely not at the controls.

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