Early last week I wrote an initial dispatch from Glasgow for New Writing North’s Climate Newsletter and you can read it here. I’m trying to catch up with my impressions and experiences and will post instalments as and when I have time.
Wiser than all the government delegates at COP26, the Eco-cab driver who took me to the station could see there’s a gap between words and deeds, promises and action.
I met a friend on the train who is working flat out to keep his business afloat – where does he find the time to protest, campaign or the money to retrofit renewable energy options in his home? I hear this again and again – people not having the space or resources to transform their lives in a way that would radically help the planet, despite doing everything they can day-to-day to reuse, recycle and reduce. Of course governments need to intervene with guidance and support.
Happy to reconnect with the Coat of Hopes – with my own little patch added. It’s been out and about in Glasgow all week and worn by lots of different folk, including some COP delegates. So, a circle has been stitched together.
I keep coming across another powerful sewing project embellishing the city – Collective Zurciendo – Darning the Planet – beautiful embroidered ‘Trees for Life’ initiated by a women’s artivist collective from Mexico, Argentina, Chile and Peru.
use caution – walking directions
may not always reflect
In the fish and chip shop two men pray to Allah. Roma women are selling single red roses. You can hardly see the pavement for rubbish, plastic and polystyrene, stinking tumbleweed. The Council are going to sow wildflower meadows across the city.
I am offered a slice of vegan sausage roll in Sauchiehall Street and they ask if they can film me eating it. They want to know why no one’s talking about veganism at COP26.
Everybody wants to know why they are aren’t talking about what they aren’t talking about. The streets ring with them asking and singing and dancing and shouting. The police – many more police than are needed – look confused but stand where they’re instructed and occasionally gather for group photos and selfies. Some of them wear knuckleduster gloves and carry tazers which prove entirely unnecessary and therefore appear ridiculous, not to mention a waste of our taxes.
The COP26 Main Event Armadillo and Hydro (Blue Zone) and the Science Centre (Green Zone) are cordoned off by stout steel railings and heavily policed. Despite the blue and green banners claiming that we’re doing this ‘together for our planet’, there is limited access and the message is one of exclusion, cumbersome and ugly. Another example of more being spent on defending territory rather than sharing and regenerating it. More than twice the amount the UK government spend on helping poorer countries in the global south deal with the consequences of climate change we in the so-called developed world have created with colonialism, extractivism and over-consumption is dedicated to keeping climate refugees from crossing our borders.
It’s as if Glasgow is populated by three tribes – those who are here to do their bit on the fringes of COP and happy to announce it with a badge or a flag, a t-shirt or a hat with horns, and those who are going about their business with a mixture of bewilderment and pride that their city has been chosen to host this historic occasion, and then the police, drafted in from all over the country – with vanloads from the Met, Norfolk, Wales, Cornwall etc.
Oh, yes, and the first few days of the Leaders’ Summit, those other shadowy presences at the centre of it all, invisible behind the blacked-out windows of their limousines gliding down Stobcross Road beside the River Cyde, protected from everything going on, ‘the real-world conditions’ on the streets. And isn’t it true that democracy dies in darkness?
a dawn raid – police
arrest an inflatable
Loch Ness Debt Monster
As part of the fringe events, Tom Goldtooth from the US Indigenous Environmental Network kicks off the first Coalition Movement Assembly. Humanity must learn its spiritual connection with the earth, he says, know that it is sacred, and then it will be clear that fossil fuels must stay in the ground. It will be clear that the patriarchal system has caused so much damage with violence, rape and exploitation. I saw mostly men coming and going down at the main site. It is mostly women in this gathering.
What is outside? What is inside? How do they interpenetrate? How come into dialogue with each other? How can ‘we should’ and ‘we must’ realign into ‘we will’? Where might diversity, solidarity and unity meet? These questions recur all week and these investigations and conversations will carry on beyond November 12th when COP26 is over. I look forward to seeing where it leads.
Before I travelled to Jordan I became slightly obsessed with Lee Miller’s Portrait of Space, taken when she was in Egypt in 1937. I pinned a copy on my kitchen wall and later, after visiting her exhibition at the Hepworth, propped a postcard on my mantelpiece. It was thrilling to discover my very own version in the bathroom of my flat at the CBRL – the same torn fly screen and sense of an unknowable beyond (literally in my case, with the opaque glass and shadowy Islamic curves) – uncanny as well as affirming to find this significant view had travelled east with me. I took it as a good sign.
One of the events I participated in in Amman was a session with English Literature students from Jordan University – all wonderfully well-read, enthusiastic and attentive young people. In the Q & A after my reading, one of them enquired about my position as observer in my poems – always looking rather than doing. We’d already discussed Blake’s ‘doors of perception’ and Keats’s ‘negative capability’ so I was sorry that I perhaps hadn’t expressed clearly enough how active I believe looking and listening are, how much they demand of us – often far harder than talking or doing.
It was a reminder of the risk that looking and listening, both happening in silence, won’t be seen, acknowledged or valued in our hectic, cacophonous world. What is slow and reflective must be as important and transformative as more visible engaged energy. Don’t we need both – as individuals and collectively?
Spending time in Jordan gave me plenty of opportunities for observation – spiced with the exciting freshness of surprise – but also to connect, communicate and play. Moving between being alone and with others, I was able yet again to interrogate my ideas about folk (of all tribes) who appear different from me – how we might occupy the space together. It also took me to a place where I could re-acquaint myself with all the ‘others’ I carry inside me, my own warring factions and scapegoats. There is never simply looking or listening: alone or all-one, we are always thoroughly implicated – and knowing that, changes the quality of our various modes of perception. This is the space a writer (or an artist, like Lee Miller) must climb through and create from, making something invisible visible.
So that is my task now – assimilating and tentatively transforming my experience, notes, reading and images into some new writing, mindful of 19thcentury traveller to the Levant, Isabella Romer’s warning that trying to find anything new to say is ‘like squeezing a squeezed lemon’ (1846). I think maybe she was guarding her own threshold too jealously. Better to keep in mind the TLS’s review of Gertrude Bell’s The Desert and the Sown, her compelling (though not unproblematic) account of a journey through Syria, published in 1907:
Women perhaps make the best travellers, for when they have the true wanderer’s spirit they are more enduring and, strange to say, more indifferent to hardship and discomfort than men. They are unquestionably more observant of details and quicker to receive impressions. Their sympathies are more alert, and they get into touch with strangers more readily.
I stayed in Amman during September as part of ‘Alta’ir: Durham-Jordan Creative Collaboration’, a partnership project between Durham Book Festival/New Writing North, the Council for British Research in the Levant (CBRL), St Mary’s College, Durham University, Dr Fadia Faqir and the British Council.
You can read an earlier post from Amman on the Durham Book Festival blog. There will be an ‘In Conversation’ event with my Jordanian exchangee Mofleh Al Adwan chaired by Fadia Faqir on Sunday 14th October, 12 – 1pm. All are very welcome.
If you are passing Hexham Hospital over the next few months, do make a point of swinging by the Atrium (next to the HVS shop) to see Touch, a beautiful exhibition curated by Matilda Bevan. I’m very happy to have a poem included, written specially for the show – printed by Christopher Bacon in Allendale and embellished with watercolour details by Matilda. It sits well alongside work by Mathilda Hornsey, a QEHS student who was invited to participate.
The other artists whose work, using a range of different media, is on display are: Jo Aris, Enrique Azocar, Pauline Gibson, Sheila Martin, Claudia Sacher. All the pieces are delicate but strong, inviting close attention and reflection, resonating in unusual ways with each other and within the hospital context. It’s really worth a look. You will be touched.
The American poet Galway Kinnell wrote: The secret title of every good poem might be ‘Tenderness’.
And so begins Jane Hirshfield’s ‘Late Prayer’ –
Tenderness does not choose its own uses.
It goes out to everything equally,
Circling rabbit and hawk.
Look: in the iron bucket,
A single nail, a single ruby –
All the heavens and hells.
They rattle in the heart and make one sound.
In ‘Ars Poetica?’ the Polish poet Czeslow Milosz wrote:
The purpose of poetry is to remind us
How difficult it is to remain just one person,
For our house is open, there are no keys in the doors,
And invisible guests come in and out at will,
(trans. Czeslaw Milosz and Lillian Vallee)
On yet another snowy day, I have been enjoying sitting by my fire and re-reading Jane Hirshfield’s wonderful essay ‘Writing and the Threshold Life’, from Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry (1998). These quotes come from that book and the images are from The Heart of the Matter at Great North Museum: Hancock, an exhibition by Sofie Layton et al. ‘Heartland’ is my own contribution.