The Art of Life

IN BEAUTIFUL October, my birthday month, here is a perfect encouragement for dreaming and idleness… To all  writers struggling with their art, I offer this:

“I am more interested in human beings than writing, more interested in love making than writing. More interested in becoming a work of art than in creating one.” Anais Nin


Sheer Poetry

IT”S NATIONAL POETRY DAY! To celebrate this, I have chosen the first part of a favourite Hungarian poem, by Attila József, and attempted a rough simultaneous translation into English. See below. It was the Hungarians who first got me mesmerised by poetry, and I love this poem in particular, which I write more about here . And by some strange synchronicity, it is the two countries of Britain and Hungary who are twinned to host the European Capital of Culture 2023, with my home town Leeds as a mighty contender in the bid. Here goes then… Here’s to the power of poetry and internationalism. (The picture above is a typical Budapest corridor inside a block of flats.)

Reménytelenül/ Hopelessly   by Attila József (trans. Barney Bardsley)

1. Az ember végül, homokos,

szomorú, vizes síkra ér

szétnéz merengve és okos

fejével biccent, nem remél.

He is one who comes to rest at last

by that sad and sandy, dampened shore.

He looks around him, undistressed,

nods his head, and hopes no more.

2. Én is így próbálok csalás

nélkül szétnézni könnyedén.

Ézüstos fejszesuhanás

játszik a nyárfa levelén.

And I, too, try to turn my gaze

without deceptions, gracefully.

The swish of a silver axe now plays

on the soft leaves of the poplar tree.

3. A semmi ágán ül szivem,

kis teste hangtalan vacog,

köréje gyűlnek szeliden

s nézik, nézik a csillagok.

On a branch of nothing sits my heart,

it silently trembles from afar,

gathering gently, round they come –

and watching, watching, are the stars.





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


Up on the moors with Emily Bronte

“Emily loved the solemn moors, she loved all wild, free creatures and things.” (Literary News, 1883)

THE BRONTE SISTERS are much on my mind this autumn. This year, 2016, marks the two hundredth anniversary of Charlotte Bronte’s birth: and the West Yorkshire Playhouse, where I teach a creative writing session every Wednesday, is celebrating with an eclectic season of readings and re-imaginings of her work. My writers, meanwhile, are setting free their imaginations, to invent poems and prose, inspired by the mighty and evergreen themes that Charlotte and Emily in particular examined, with such forensic intensity. Freedom and incarceration. Love and loyalty. Solitude and surveillance. The passions and confinements of women. Life: and the very-present shadow of death.

Last week I ventured over to Haworth, former home of the Brontes,to tread the ground which gave rise to such a powerful and enduring literary canon. Leeds, in West Yorkshire, where I live, is only a hop and a skip away from the high stone village, where the Brontes spent their childhoods – and which forms a bold, symbolic backdrop to all their writing. I took the train from Leeds to Keighley, on the Skipton line. Then a glorious steam train from Keighley to Haworth(ignoring the beer festival which took over most of the carriages en route). A steep old walk from the station, through the well-kept park, and up the narrow cobble road of the village, took me to the Parsonage itself: once the Bronte family house, now a museum and proud keeper of the Bronte flame.

Inevitably, the Brontes have become a heritage industry of great value. Tourists flock from all over the world, to catch a glimpse of the buildings and landscape immmortalised in ‘Jane Eyre’ and ‘Wuthering Heights’. But it is October. The weather is closing in, and the visitors are melting away. And on a clear autumnal day such as this was, the beauty and the elemental starkness of Haworth shone through with compelling force, unclouded by crowds and cameras and chatter.

So there was the Parsonage – grey and sturdy. Across the courtyard garden – the cemetery. Down a small slope – the church, where all the Brontes, save Anne, are buried. And, just a short walk up through the churchyard – a meadow, walled with blunt Yorkshire stone. Beyond that – the crags, the wild bare expanses of the Moors themselves. (See the photo above). This was what Emily would have seen, looking out of her Parsonage window. These indeed were the “heights”, the bleak and “wuthering”,”blustery and turbulent”, hills. And it stirred me, to see them.

Of the two writing sisters – Emily and Charlotte – Charlotte Bronte is, to me, the most sophisticated and subtle, by far; and of the two women, Emily – who died so young, so troubled – is by far the wildest. It is Charlotte I would read, for insight into the human condition. But it is Emily I would invoke, if I found myself fearful, spirit flagging, heart weak. She was a girl devastated by losses and grief (as her poem “Remembrance” so powerfully reveals); she was unable, it seems, to overcome her pain, and to function fully, in the way that Charlotte somehow managed to. And yet, when she travelled to Brussels with Charlotte, the head of the school where they enrolled and taught, Monsieur Heger, described her – with remorseless sexism, but telling psychological insight – thus: “She should have been a man – a great navigator. Her powerful reason would have deduced new spheres of discovery from the knowledge of the old; and her strong, imperious will would never have been daunted by opposition or difficulty…”

Emily died in 1848, one year after ‘Wuthering Heights’ was published. She never knew the extraordinary effect it had on generations of readers to come. It is a deeply imperfect piece of writing. But it is a clenched fist to the heart and the stomach. It has real power. Full of contradictions, Emily herself – profoundly shy and yet physically courageous, chained to her moors and yet flying high and free in her imagination – was tender to the last. She died just three months after brother Branwell. The housemaid said, “Miss Emily died of a broken heart, for the love of her brother.” She was so small and thin, her coffin was only sixteen inches wide.

The last words must be hers, channelled though Catherine Earnshaw, in ‘Wuthering Heights’ and I like to think of her, running hell for leather, like her alter ego Catherine, across the boundless heather she invokes so passionately.

“Oh, I’m burning! I wish I were out of doors – I wish I were a girl again, half savage and hardy, and free… I’m sure I should be myself were I once among the heather on those hills…Open the window again wide, fasten it open!”

Poems and Pálinka

I NEVER really understood poetry until I lived for a short while in Hungary. The words would enter my mind but never really penetrated the heart. It took another country, a different culture entirely, to teach me poetry’s true power. In 1988-89, when I worked for a while as a movement coach in a big and renowned theatre in Kaposvár, South West Hungary, there was a distinguished actor in the company called Tamás Jordán. He had taken the poems of Attila József – Hungary’s national poet – and made them his own. He knew József’s lyrics forward and back, inside and out. He declaimed them in mesmerising, sell-out, one man shows, and let them loose in the theatre bar whenever the fancy took him: in short, he owned the poetry. Or maybe, it owned him. Whenever he spoke, I was transported.

But Tamás  took particular delight in shaming the ignorant young English woman  I then was (illiterate in the arcane complexities of the Hungarian language and culture), by spouting great chunks of the master poet’s work and then defying me to translate it, to understand a single, solitary, beautiful word. The smile on his face was understandably superior. Of course I couldn’t. Which was like someone coming to settle in England and not having the faintest idea who Shakespeare was. I was on the outside of the magic kingdom, with no clue, no key, no hope.

I don’t know why this got to me so badly, but it did. Hungarian is an extraordinarily musical language, its regular stress pattern and subtle syntax dovetailing perfectly with the compact rhythms of the poetic form. Attila József, already dead by 1937, at just 32 years old, is still revered as the supreme exponent of this strange and wonderful language. He is Dante, Byron, Blake. He is sublime. The tragedy is – he is almost impossible to translate. I have never read anything that comes close to the blood and might of the original.

Nonetheless, Tamás had laid down the gauntlet. And I took it up. During my last months living in Hungary, in spring 1989, I worked in another theatre in the North East, in the hard industrial city of Miskolc. It was not a happy time – I got very sick whilst I was there, and was lonely. The actors themselves seemed unhappy. But one colleague taught me this little jewel, and I have never forgotten it: ‘A semmi ágán ül szívem/kis teste hangtalan vacog,/köréje gyűlnek szelíden/s nézik, nézik a csillagok’ (‘On a branch of nothingness sits my heart/ its little body silently trembles/ gathering gently in a circle around me/and watching, watching are the stars.’ From Reménytelenül/Hopelessly by Attila József)

When I next travelled down to Kaposvár, I marched into the theatre bar one day, walked up to Tamás and spoke those precious few lyrics, so carefully learned. The astonishment and delight on his face was compelling. We made an instant connection. I learned in that moment, that real poetry doesn’t just come from a writer’s pen – it flows in people’s blood.

The dead poet – and his living exponent – did their job well, 25 years ago. For even though I was away from Hungary for over two decades, the effect it had had on me was indelible. In 2009, I finally returned: and it felt like coming home. The air was still sweet and dusty, the people still fierce and loving, the city – Budapest – still ruinous and shabby, still beautiful. I knew now that I had to learn the language properly: learn to read whole poems for myself, not just fragments learned parrot fashion from somebody else’s mouth. And in the past five years – armed with dictionary, imagination and a damned fine Hungarian teacher – I have. What’s more, I have made a working friendship with a contemporary poet, Péter Závada, whose caustic, tender, switched-on lyrics bring back to me the raw thrill I first felt when I heard Attila József being declaimed. Péter is helping me translate his own poems – a vertiginous and exhilarating process. For poetry really, really matters to Hungarians – perhaps because their language is so precious and rare. It seems to speak to their soul: and the Magyar soul is deep.

I go back to Hungary as often as I can these days. And each time two particular gifts are pressed on me by friends before I leave: some new collection of poems or other – and a bottle of home-brewed pálinka. Pálinka is Hungarian hooch – a colourless fruit brandy – and it ranges in strength and purity, depending where you get it from. (The stuff I bring home is usually home brew. Fire water. Taking no prisoners.) All the lovely fruits of the Carpathian Basin go into the mix for this potent brew, whether cherry, plum, pear, apple or apricot. All of it, take my word for it, will blow your head off.

When I taught morning movement classes in Kaposvár back in ’88-’89, we would often end up in the Green Room Bar after our exertions. Champagne (cheap Russian fizz) and red wine were a popular combination. But the pálinka chaser was never far away either. These days the drinking is rather more measured among my older and wiser (?) companions, but I notice that the young are as keen as ever on pálinka, such a slinky and potent national brew.

On a recent trip down Memory Lane, I got my friend István to take me for a drive into the countryside to find a tiny village called Nagycseppely, south of Lake Balaton in South West Hungary. Powerful in my memory is this gorgeous rural spot, where I stayed one summer in a small yellow cottage with friends – who introduced me to Miklós, the local Roma scallywag, with unmatched eyes and a wild way with his horse and trap. Miklós brewed pálinka – and there was a village distillery too, positively overflowing with the stuff. All illicit, undoubtedly. Burning the brains of the villagers – who spoiled me rotten with their hospitality, their wonderful food and proud customs. And who never took no for an answer when the glasses were being re-filled.

It’s all so different now: another country entirely (although the hospitality is undiminished), where the strangely familial control of communism has given way to a wolfish capitalism where everything can be bought (including freedom) at a higher and higher price. As I drove through Nagycseppely in 2013 with István, the village I knew from 1989 was unrecognisable to me – with barred gates, concrete drives and newly built mini-mansions, where there used to be one-floor cottages, dirt tracks and chickens. But the pálinka house is still there – no longer a naughty little shebeen, but now a fancy big business, complete with advertising placards, an official licence, and plenty of gaudy lights to attract the tourists. Whatever strange changes come to Hungary – and there have been so many in its turbulent and bloody history – it seems there are two things they just won’t do without. The poems. The pálinka. And thank goodness for that.

Péter Závada performs his poem ‘Concave’ here:

Tamás Jordán channels Attila József here: