Elizabeth Sings



Elizabeth sings

Too long her voice was silent

Her throat swells open

The image here is of a Clematis Montana ‘Elizabeth’ in my May back garden in Leeds. It has taken a few years to establish, and its flowering was delayed by a long winter. But now, here she is! The haiku celebrates the May blossom. It also commemorates my beloved paternal grandmother, who had the most beautiful contralto voice. I am named after her. I, too, sing.    My grandmother and I, each in our very different ways, were silenced for long periods of time, by circumstance, sex or (in her case) class. Difficulties not withstanding,  both our voices have been heard. To all Elizabeths everywhere: sing on!!


Flowers of Spring

THE CLUMPS of snowdrops in the garden and in the park. Stems of daffodils, standing to attention on the high banks, yellow crocus in fat bud, lining the avenues. Even the squat and star-shaped leaves of bluebells, already lying in wait for their moment, later in May,  in the little local wood. Everything tells the same story – down to the sour clods of mud, stuck hard on the bottom of boots, and the feathered fringes of my Thursday dog’s fur. Spring is on its way. And even the thinnest ray of sunshine, filtering through our grey northern clouds, brings a little skip to the heart, a lightness to the step.

We follow the seasons particularly closely, in a creative arts project I help to run at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds, for people with dementia and those who care for them. Bringing in the fruits of autumn – pumpkins, squash – and the signals of winter – bare branches, images of snow – helps stabilise us all, within the rhythms of the natural world. It is a concrete reminder, to minds that may be confused, and hearts that are sometimes sore with loneliness and worry, that we can always rely on one fact: the world that disappears, like Persephone, deep into the underground at the end of every year, will always return, come the spring.

Snowdrops are the first harbingers. Then, hot on their heels, come the gaudy yellows of narcissus, the soft mauves, whites and blues of the woodland flowers, and then the heavenly mass of forest bluebells. Everybody loves spring flowers.

And though there is talk in our sessions, sometimes, of a dark  and wintry mood – of sadness at things lost: a once-nimble mind, a youthful body, friends and family that may  be dead or far away – there is always a ready access to joy. People with dementia are often more direct, less inhibited, in their emotional expression: as if the pipeline to their mind, which has grown furred and blocked, has been re-directed, opened wider, straight into their hearts.

Singing, writing song lyrics and poetry, and dancing to the powerful rhythms of spring, brings genuine delight to this group – and to those of us who lead it. Always, people’s  humour is diverting. Always, their creativity surprises and delights. Always, their own words and ideas are faithfully recorded and celebrated. In the last two weeks, new beginnings have been the dominant theme. Spring is calling everyone to attention.

Snowdrops have brought forth a tune of survival…”Snowdrops, snowdrops, snowdrops…Soft white petals, musty and sweet…smells like winter…pushing through the earth… Heralding the spring!” Parallels between the natural world – and the human need and determination to survive, to thrive, whatever the odds – are never far away. “The light makes the shoots come through/Coming out from the dark earth/Flowers dancing, swaying, springing back/They won’t break/I won’t let them…”  The whole of life is starting to pulsate. “One bird feeding… a whole flock comes gliding… dancing through the sky.” “Lovely to feel the sun on your face…What a relief!… Spring has sprung.”

My colleague, singer songwriter Fran Woodcock, co-presents the dementia-friendly Our Time workshops and provides all the glorious music that accompanies our exploration of  images, words and movement.  Visit her website here.

Nicky Taylor, Community Development Manager at West Yorkshire Playhouse, has pioneered all the dementia-friendly work in the theatre. Her latest triumph is a ground-breaking festival of theatre for people with dementia. Read about it here



MUCH of my professional writing and thinking is based on memory: a meditation on how to integrate a complex past with the puzzling challenges of the present day. It is the work of a memoirist, to excavate love and loss, at a deeply personal level – and those are the kinds of books and features I have been writing over the past ten years. But I am struck right now by this challenging quote from André Gide:

“Through loyalty to the past, our mind refuses to realise that tomorrow’s joy is possible only if today’s makes way for it; that each wave owes the beauty of its line only to the withdrawal of the preceding one.”

Maybe it is time to write and live in a different way – more tuned into the present tense, less concerned with the echoing chambers of an ever-increasing yesterday?

The end of each adult decade, for me, has seen turbulent change: at 29, a total change of direction, from journalism into contemporary dance and theatre; at 39, a flight – with a terminally ill spouse and a young child under my wing – away from the urban chaos of South London, to the green Northern hills of Leeds; at 49,a bruising, but vibrant, re-entry into the workplace, after my husband’s death from a vicious cancer: with the digging of a garden and an allotment there in the background, to steady my shaky boots. And now, at 59, after two years of my own poor health – the inevitable final ebbing of a personal wave of energy – it’s time to take stock again. A new decade beckons.What will it bring?

With a country divided and bitter, after the disastrous European Union Referendum, and Brexit, two things seem critical in this moment: finding small ways to be kind and constructive to each other, whether it is to smile at the face of a stranger, or take a warm blanket to a drop-off point for refugees in Calais; and – starting to live, quietly and positively, in the immediacy of each day, exactly as it unfolds. Looking back with bitterness won’t change a thing. Catastrophising about the future makes us nothing but prisoners.There is a more subtle way to break free.

I have just read, for the second time, Simon Fitzmaurice’s extraordinary memoir, ‘It is not yet dark’. A young Irish film maker and writer, Fitzmaurice writes of his unexpected and cataclysmic diagnosis with Motor Neurone Disease. And he does this with candour, poetic clarity, and a total lack of self pity or recrimination. He also, with an acute awareness of a new and constant companion – death – on his young shoulders, chooses to write, as he lives, in the imperative of the present tense. Even his memories are written as contemporary accounts. There is no time to lose, for any of us. Fitzmaurice knows this, reminds us, urges us on. And, oh, the wonder he conveys, the beauty of simply being here, now, in the world. “I’m burning with this life” he writes.

And I realise that I am too. Burning with it all. So let the tide of energy – my strange, half-looking-back,struggling-to-catch-up,ever-changing fifties – go out fully now. A summer of rest and play. And at the autumnal turn of that tide, I shall be sixty. Ready, as the buddhist philosophers would have it, to “be more curious than afraid”. Ready to meditate more, dance more, garden more, write more, teach more, sing and travel more. And all in the beautiful, ever-vital, ever-changing present. I hope to see you there.

‘It’s Not Yet Dark’ by Simon Fitzmaurice (Hatchette Books Ireland)
‘A Handful of Earth’ by Barney Bardsley (John Murray)
‘Old Dog’ by Barney Bardsley (Simon and Schuster)

Back in the garden

IT HAS been a very long, dark, wet winter. And I have spent many hours gazing out of my kitchen window, watching the endless rain roll down, and searching irritably for signs of spring. In the past couple of weeks, those signs are finally there. Tiny narcissus, just three of them, nodding their heads by the garden hedge. Crops of snowdrops, dripping their white gladness over the dank, scruffy borders. And the rosemary, one of my favourite herbs, in a rare ray of sunshine, in glorious bloom…Blue star flowers on shiny green branches, needles of pungent scent filling my greedy fingers with vigour and admonishment, every time I rub my hand against them, when I go out to feed the birds. Get back in the garden! it hisses, silently. What’s your excuse? Time to get on with it. Things to do.

The blackbirds are busy too, bouncing around the lawn in search of seeds and apples, quarrelling wildly with each other, and hanging off the bird feeders with perilous abandon.  Not a rare bird, but a beauty. With its jet black plumage and canary yellow beak. It catches the attention of singers and poets, and I can understand why. Of all the birds, it seems to speak – or sing – of the spirit. And I always feel happy when a blackbird comes into view…Here’s Wallace Stevens, on ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’:

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.  

There was a moment in my life, a couple of summers ago, when panic would take hold of me in the early hours, just before dawn. There was some good reason – it had been a difficult year. But there was unconscious chaos, too. No idea why. No words. But there was one thing that calmed me, and calms me still, as I remember it: a solitary blackbird, calmly bursting into song, in the moment just before sunrise, in the quiet before the cacophony of the full Dawn Chorus. I came to think that the bird was singing just for me, to lull me back to sleep, to coax me into the morning, and maybe he was, who knows? But it was the sweetest sound I have ever heard and I shall always be grateful… Just as I am grateful now, to those sturdy flowers, pinging with colour and vitality, just a few steps outside my back door.  Entirely for our delight. Heralding the spring.



Walking Back Home 5: A View from the Shed

AUGUST ALWAYS runs away from me. I find it such a curious – and rather downbeat – month: everyone is scattered to the four corners, the days are amorphous and sprawling, nothing conforms to a routine… And there is always a hint of melancholy. The whisper that summer will soon be over: time to get busy and go back to school. And oh, the slow, soft dying of the light.

Anyway, the “walk” this time is really no such thing. It is a view – from inside my tiny, scruffy shed, onto my equally scruffy and overgrown garden. What can I see? An elegant though rampant plum smokebush, Cotinus “Grace”, one of the first plants I grew in my very first garden – bought for me as a birthday gift from my mother, and so always reminding me of her. (I plant a new one, wherever I go.) And next to “Grace” is a tall Crocosmia “Firebird” – strong and scarlet and entirely splendid  – transplanted from my long-lost allotment and redolent of hot, sticky summers spent there, digging the heavy Yorkshire clay to exhaustion, then lounging  against the wall of another mighty shed, and forgetting myself in the cheerful chaos of a semi-wild urban space, away from home and reality and every grown-up chore.

Being in the garden always does this to me – reminds me of places, people, times gone by. As film maker and remarkable gardener Derek Jarman once wrote, “I walk in this garden, holding the hands of dead friends.” I do that too. And it doesn’t feel sad or regretful to me – rather, it gives me strength,  fills in the gaps of my life, and puts the beautiful solid ground back beneath my feet.

It is good to be a solitary, I think. Time to gaze and wonder – floating away from the worrisome world and back to the centre of the self. To stillness. The garden is a real aid to this dreaming.From my perch in the shed, I watch masses of bumblebees working the pollen on a shaggy lavender bush. And look up at the skyline to see the trees of the little local wood, where I walked my dog, day in, day out, for 13 years – the dog whose ashes are now scattered there under  a big old holly tree. (Although in my mind her spirit still dances a jig of freedom –  scrabbling through the undergrowth and leaping over fallen tree branches –  always in pursuit of the squirrel-that-got-away.) Sometimes, I just look at the sky itself, and that is enough. Shape-shifting clouds in a vault of blue. Or grey, as the case has often been, this particular August. No matter. Sky is sky.

I do love to be among people – but it’s always such a relief to return to being alone. Perhaps that’s the writer in me, naturally introspective, with a teeming and unruly inner life.  There’s so much going on in my head, being exposed to the contents of other people’s for too long is tiring and overwhelming. The garden provides a useful corrective to this – wordless, mute.

Last weekend I broke the rule of a life time (which is never to talk to more than one writer at a time – it makes me far too nervous!) and spent two days mixing with a huge gaggle of writers at Swanwick Writers Summer School in Derbyshire, England – a kind of holiday camp for would-be novelists, crime writers, travel journalists and essayists of all ages and temperaments. The food consumed, the pints downed, the heated conversations had, were prodigious, dizzying. By the end of Day Two, I could feel my head begin to burst with the relentless over-stimulation.

But put me in a room, as a tutor with a particular subject to teach, and a bunch of people ready to write, and I am in my element again. The short course I taught this time was “Diving for Pearls: Writing about Loss and Recovery”. Circumstance has made this a recurring theme for me – with rather too much personal experience of it for my liking. But everyone, young and old, brings with them their shadows and griefs. And they have a light to shine. The people at Swanwick were particularly generous and courageous with their contributions. Making pearls from plenty of hard grit.

Meditation is a natural thing for me – I practise a sitting and walking form of it almost every day. And then, when I am outside with the flowers (and the weeds), the garden practises it back on me. But there is a particular stillness that falls, I find, when people sit in a shared space and write together. “You have ten minutes to write something about ‘A Pleasurable Thing’…” I say. “And now ten minutes on ‘A Moment of Loss’.” The heads go down. The pens – or laptops – spring into action. A perfect silence settles in the room. And magic happens. Always.

People are endlessly inventive, fascinating, surprising….And yet it is so lovely to leave them and return to the shelter of my rickety little shed. To some solitary wondering. To the strange disorientation of August: summer’s last quiet breathing out, before the busy, busy breezes of September put a different juice in my veins altogether.

A Handful of Earth/Barney Bardsley, is still available here:


Old Dog/Barney Bardsley, is published by Simon and Schuster:


Broad Beans

IT IS the last day of spring and – with the 1st of June tomorrow – the theoretical dawn of summer. But you would not think so, if you stepped out into my Leeds garden today, with its cool, unfriendly breezes, and if you saw the array of plants, giant poppies chief among them, who are steadfastly refusing to pop their swelling buds, because it’s just not warm or sunny enough. After the colourful heat of early April, with its dizzying display of spring blooms (now finished), this is a mighty disappointment. But I have a single consolation: the broad beans. There they sit, in a mouldy old grow bag, by the back door. All sprightly green, with pretty white flowers, and a single, bold, black eye at their heart. Even though they are placed right in the pathway of the wind, as it comes bowling down my narrow driveway from the road, they are utterly undaunted: every time a gust pushes them over, up they bounce again, jaunty as you like, hardly a leaf or flower head out of place. Indomitable. That’s the spirit.

For seven years, from 2003 to 2010, I kept an allotment – a patch of wild, weed-infested clay – hidden behind an unprepossessing row of council flats in a downtrodden part of North East Leeds. Despite its unpromising location: it was a little piece of paradise. (Apart from the politics of The Allotment Committee, which were a nightmare. But isn’t that always the case?Where two people and a clipboard are gathered together…)

I took on my plot in direct response to a crisis in my life – the terminal cancer and death of my husband Tim. When you are a long-term carer – as I was, for ten years – you are in a strange kind of isolation from the rest of humanity. There is “normal” life: and then there is the prison that serious illness creates – a prison of the body, a prison of the mind.

I started digging my allotment because I honestly did not know what else to do. Turning the earth, making things grow, being outside, gave me a primitive sense of purpose and renewal. Amidst all that dying – a feeling of being alive.

But the truth is that I was never much good at growing vegetables. My overgrown piece of land was colourful and pleasing, certainly – full of rampant flowers, a tiny, fecund pond, and an old glorious shed. But productive? Feed the family? Avoid ever having to darken Tesco’s doors again, for fresh fruit and veg? Not exactly.

Oh, I made lots of charts about crop rotation, about the particular needs of the cauliflower, the potato and the pea, and I set about with netting, twiggy pea sticks and bamboo stakes as if my life depended on it. But honestly? I never really got the hang of it, and I never really cared. That little plot of land saved my sanity, restored my health and strength, and for that I will always be grateful.

In the end, I gave it up for the same reason I began: grief, loss and change. In 2010 my darling dad died, and I lost all heart for growing things for quite a while. I turned my back on the garden that had once restored me, and found solace in other places entirely – re-discovering my love of languages, travelling back to Eastern Europe as I had done in my youth, enjoying the city, and the company of others, with the same zeal I had once felt for being alone with my trusty trowel and spade.

But things go in circles – they have rhythms of their own – like the sea and the tides and the seasons themselves. Since I have been ill myself, over the last year or so, the urge to dash off to bright lights and foreign cities has ebbed away. At least for now. I find pleasure, once more, in the  immediate wonder of the natural world around me: in the cheerful broad beans right outside my back door.

Actually, the one crop I did have unfailing success with, whenever I popped their seeds in the ground, was the bean. It was my father’s favourite vegetable – mine too, I believe – with its curious velvety texture, its delicate, sophisticated taste. So I am delighted to see these beauties appear for me now. A message of resilience. Of memory, and of hope. (And of a damn good broad bean risotto, just waiting to be cooked…)

Read more about my allotment in ‘A Handful of Earth’ published by John Murray in 2007, and still widely available online.