Poppies are probably my favourite flower. I love the technicolour brightness of them. I love their furry, sexy, serrated leaves. I love the way the fat buds lurk in a mass of foliage, waiting, waiting, waiting…. for their moment to BURST out, in full technicolour, one lucky and glamorous day in May. Perhaps most of all, I love that they are both powerful and fragile, all at the same time. It seems, every year, that the minute my poppies come into bloom, they are savaged by sudden winds and rains, and resort to bending their gorgeous heads – bloodied, unbowed – as long as they possibly can, before shedding, dropping, disappearing for another year, sometimes after just a few days of flowering. They are a wonder.

I still wait for this year’s beauties to appear. Spring has been slow in its dawning. I stalk them in the garden, day by day, inspecting for buds, stroking their camouflage greenery, willing them to come out and join in the party, to break suddenly and stridently into song. The picture here is from last year’s crop. They are Tim’s poppies: grown and then transplanted from my old house, to the allotment, to my new house, all from a small plant given to me years ago by my husband, as a present for Mothers’ Day. So they hold a special place in my heart. They live on, though he couldn’t. They seem to shine in his honour, his memory, holding his curious mix of shyness and belligerence. And aren’t they bonny, with their red-orange skirts, their bold black hearts? Real warrior flowers.

This Bank Holiday weekend I have hardly been in my garden at all – though I feel fingers and toes itching to do so, the minute I finish writing this – because I have been up to my neck in a theatre festival, TRANSFORM 2015, at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. It was a wonderful event – full of international artists and cross-cultural conversations – which will form the seedbed (gardening term unintended, but entirely appropriate) for future collaborations between Leeds and the cities and countries of the world. The thing about theatre folk, however, is their tendency to talk. To be LOUD – if not onstage, then certainly off it. So now I want to be silent for a while. Now I am turning, once again, to the quieter form of theatre right outside my kitchen window: the green stage and sweet scenery of my own city back garden.

Everything is looking very lush and verdant now: the acid greens of the euphorbia, the sharp sword leaves of Crocosmia Firebird – which will, come July, rival the poppies with its sharp, scarlet, trumpeting blooms. The birds are going crazy for the birdseed: hungrier than ever, now that they are making their nests and raising their young. Swarms of warring sparrows swoop and squabble over my birdbath every morning; blue tits and coal tits swing insouciantly from the fat-filled coconut shells; and my favourites – the blackbirds – hop and bounce across the grass, in search of the juiciest grub, the fattest, sleepiest worm.

Every week I go walking in Roundhay Park, north east Leeds, with my dog friend Badger, whom I borrow for the day each Thursday. Last week we suddenly found ourselves caught inside a great shaggy circle of shining black crows, all intent on their foraging, down at ground level, on a large open slope above the glittering lake – and quite oblivious to the hapless dog and human trapped momentarily in the middle of them all. What would they be, this gathering of satanic masters: a convention, a concatenation, a coven? Whatever the word, they had a certain pleasing menace about them: and a natural dramatic presence. Theatre in the round. Black crows in Roundhay Park. Theatre, said Augusto Boal, quoted by a Lebanese activist at the TRANSFORM festival this last weekend, must be a “rehearsal for the revolution”. I just wonder what those birds – never mind the humans – are plotting to overthrow first?

Walking Back Home 1

This worn-out, regal, fin-de-siecle staircase, pictured above, is one I have tramped up and down many times over the past few years. It is the entrance to  my dear friend István’s top floor flat, in the VIIIth district of Józsefváros, in downtown Budapest. In 1988 and 1989, I spent a lot of time in Hungary, working in two of their big country theatres as a movement coach. It was still a communist country, very hidden and mysterious, and utterly beautiful. I fell in love with the place in an instant. But after returning home in the summer of ’89, just before the Berlin Wall came down – and when Hungary was already secretly opening its gates to neighbouring Austria, for the East Germans to pour quietly through in peaceful defection – I met my future husband Tim, and domestic life took over.

It took another 20 years for me to return to Hungary. But when I did, in 2009, I fell in love with the place all over again. So much had changed, in the meantime, with international capital (and now a determinedly rightwing government) having marched in, with chaotic gusto… But underneath the concrete, the new highways, the Mcdonalds and the Tescos – the smell of the earth, the passion and character of the people, the glorious musical cadences of the language, and the intricacies of its native culture – remained the same. It is a singular place.

Over the past five years, I have returned again and again to visit István, and the rest of the theatre community in Budapest, and to travel down to the south west country town of Kaposvár, where I used to work and live. I am grappling with the (fiendishly difficult) language, inching my way forward in conversations, plotting and planning, both to return for longer periods – and maybe to bring some of the Hungarian artists over to the UK, too: to showcase their astonishing, visceral, physical theatre.

Hungary, for all its foreignness, has somehow always felt like a second home to me. When I returned after such a long absence, I was welcomed so warmly, was folded in such a familiar, invisible embrace, that it felt hard to leave again.

But the “walking home” I am doing this year is much closer to home. After travelling so much – in my head, through such intensive language learning, and in reality, hopping on and off the plane to Budapest –  what I need to do now is feel the ground beneath my feet, here, in my own back garden, in  Yorkshire, in England.

Part of my plan, throughout 2015, is to simply walk myself back to health. Last year, in 2014, I started to feel very unwell. The symptoms slowly accrued, until a diagnosis finally came, of B12 anaemia (pernicious anaemia), and I crashed to the floor in a mighty tumble. For the first time, after years of caring for other people – my husband, through his ten years of cancer, my daughter, through her childhood and adolescence; and then, seeing both sets of parents, and several dear friends, fall ill and die – I succumbed myself to physical incapacitation.

B12 vitamin deficiency is dramatic. It makes your muscles ache and spasm, creates pins and needles in hands and feet, causes you to lose balance and strength. I am a dancer: but suddenly all movement tired me out. B12 also affects the nervous system, cognition. I am a writer: I couldn’t think clearly, let alone form coherent thoughts and patterns upon the page. And then there were my ears – inflamed and deafened from repeated infections, and painfully sore. I couldn’t sleep. I was anxious. Work, health, energy…Everything leaked slowly away.

But “in every winter’s heart there lies the seed of spring.” So it says in my meditation book. And nature indeed points the way forward. When my husband Tim died in 2004, I started digging in my garden and allotment – and wrote about that process in ‘A Handful of Earth’, a gardening diary of bereavement and recovery.

Now something similar is at work. I am no longer ill – simple injections can regulate the anaemia – but still feel in some kind of slow convalescence. The garden again provides a welcome haven. And the simple act of walking – in the park, in the countryside – offers strength and well being.

I’ll be writing about some of these walks – waxing lyrical about the garden – on this site, as the year progresses. Meanwhile, “home’ in Hungary remains a strong beating heart within. And “home’ in Leeds is a beautiful green landscape of new possibilities, new discoveries, new freedom.

“A Handful of Earth” (John Murray) is available on Amazon and elsewhere.

And here’s a link to a little piece I wrote about my garden a couple of years ago….


A Breathing Space

When I first trained in dance, in 1987, everything was about action and speed. All my Laban teachers were fast, and most of them half my height – so when they did tricky choreographies, going down to the floor and suddenly up again, I was still hitting the ground when they had bounced back up again and were off, like the White Rabbit, down an ever-disappearing corridor, and into something new…It was bewildering, such frantic, perpetual motion, for this long, lanky body of mine.

But the same year I lost my soul to movement and music, I also began training in T’ai Chi, with a wise, calm, Greek man called Andreas Demetriou. He saved my giddy soul! He still teaches in Brixton and remains my slow-movement mentor. Because T’ai Chi (literally peaceful energy) is everything that a lot of contemporary dance, and indeed contemporary LIFE, is not. It is grounded. Considered. Balanced and quiet. Like swimming through the air, it brings mind and body into an altogether more even and harmonious state.

T’ai Chi has followed me, for the past thirty years, through personal crises, changes of home and direction, through losses and re-discoveries, and offers a sweet, wordless philosophy, encapsulated in the reliable twenty minutes of its beautiful, graceful form.

It works for all the people I have taught – from jumpy drama students at the Oxford School of Drama, to mercurial actors in Hungary, to all shapes and sizes of folk who have come to me in draughty village halls – and now at West Yorkshire Playhouse – to learn its ineffable magic. The oldest person I’ve worked with has been well into her eighties. And Gerda Geddes, the person who first brought the T’ai Chi, Yang Style Long Form (the style  I practise) over to the UK in the 1950s (and was my teacher’s teacher), was still passing on its bodily treasures when she was over ninety. At 58 years old, I take great comfort from that.

Just look at the elderly Chinese people calmly practising their movements in China’s early morning outdoor spaces, and know that old age doesn’t necessarily mean getting hunched over, smaller, tighter, stiffer. It can mean just the opposite. Graceful movement and fluidity need not be confined to the very young!

Breathing Space. That’s what T’ai Chi offers. It brings our “monkey minds” into stillness, brings our worried selves closer to our own silent centres, and gives a little respite from the onward competitive survivalist surge.

The picture accompanying my post is me dancing. Not doing the T’ai Chi. Just having a play in a recent dance class. But even when improvising – or skipping the light fantastic! – the spirit of calm and breeziness first learned from my quiet Greek teacher somehow stays with me and reminds me… mostly… that it’s OK to expand into the present moment,  to simply enjoy being on my own two feet. Still standing. Still breathing. Moving steadily into spring.

Old Dog’ by Barney Bardsley is published by Simon and Schuster (£7.99)

Barefoot in grass

A few words about the title of my new blog. I love my feet. I love being barefoot. I was scandalised when a doctor told me, a few years back, that in fact these feet have a deformation…The second toe is bigger than the big toe. But I am undeterred. To me, they are my two favourite things.

When I was about eight years old, my mum, who was brilliant at marching me off to all things theatrical, took me to see a touring dance company in our local college hall. It was the standard ballet stuff in part one, all tutus and point shoes and frilly frou frou music. But part two was something else entirely… Two dancers came bursting on, one the Sun, the other the Moon, and did a wonderful, atavistic, stomping, earthy piece of choreography, set to loud, cacophonous, rambunctious music. I was thrilled. But the thing that mesmerised me most was their feet. They were BARE. Strong and determined. Connected, powerfully, to the ground. Something clicked in my child’s brain, and it was stored away for further reference. I forgot all about it for years.

But when I was in my late twenties, working as a freelance journalist, recovering from a debilitating illness, and about to embark on a new and demanding training in dance at the Laban Centre London, I felt the echo of this eight year old’s experience. To run, jump, twist and spin around a studio, to drums, to a pulsing rhythm, with loose swinging dance clothes and nothing at all on your feet, was pure heaven to me. (Walking down the streets of Brixton, where I then lived, with no shoes on, was possibly less inspired and just a little eccentric, but the point remains….) Feet. Earth. Connection.

There is a school of thought that says that standing barefoot on the earth has deeply nourishing effects on your health, physical and mental. I can believe that. Trowels and spades can inflict some unpleasant injuries while gardening – so I do wear sturdy boots then. But I try to remember to kick off the shackles, both indoors, and outside, as often as I can.

I came to gardening when I was 40. I’d lived in a top floor flat in London up till then. When I moved to Leeds and got a little front garden and a big rambling allotment, I felt entirely blessed. In 2005, a year after my husband Tim died, after a long struggle with cancer, I wrote an article for the Guardian Magazine about gardening. It was my return to writing after a long absence: it was also my entry into the green, and into a new nourishing cycle of life. The last line of that article remains true for me still, ten years later, barefoot or otherwise. “Let the garden hold you, and it will.”

from “Blooming in the Shadows”


Welcome to my garden

Hello. I am a Leeds writer, gardener, dancer and teacher. So many things to say. But all that will have to come later. This is just my First Post – and is by way of a cheery initial greeting…My blog space will be about various tiny adventures in my garden and much bigger adventures from the inside of my head! There’ll be some dance and theatre colour, too, as I work down at West Yorkshire Playhouse, and there is always some arty venture bubbling away in that gorgeous place. I have posted a picture of the buddha at the bottom of my garden, as a guiding spirit to the venture ahead. Peaceful. Steady. Ever watchful. He keeps a good eye on me and on the world around him. If you want an initial clue to my writing, look out for ‘A Handful of Earth’, published in 2007, and ‘Old Dog’, published in 2013 (Simon and Schuster). I write about things that I have a passion for – the first book was about my garden and allotment; the second about my beloved dog and soul companion, Muffin!  More later. Happy Spring!