Lost and Found

St_Eanswythe_FolkestoneIt’s been a death-intensive year for my family. After Dad dying in January, my much-loved Uncle Bill died a couple of weeks ago. His funeral was last Thursday at a pretty church in Hemel Hempstead.

The ‘moor’ of Boxmoor is a small green space on the edge of an ever-growing town that has swallowed up the cottages and cowslips of my Mum’s 1930s childhood. When I was small, heading to the millpond by the canal with a fishing net, it was a wild expanse of trees. Probably with bears.

So it feels timely that a poem I sent to the fun Verbatim Poetry site back in the summer inspired by, yes, death, has just been posted. The Verbatim Poetry idea is to add punctuation and spacing on to non-poetic text, from ‘road signs to shampoo bottles.’ It is, I warn you, addictive. As well as editing any text in front of me, I now scan it for verse potential, which often means talking aloud to myself in shops and other public places.

I took my poem – Floral Tributes – from the excellent and informative handbook produced by the Natural Death Centre.

Up until today I felt I’d lost my regular blogging ability. The Weekly Blog Club was such a wonderful impetus.

Now found: my own much-needed ‘just get on with it and don’t rely on wonderful Janet E Davis to encourage you’ push to post regularly again.

By the way: the photo is a different churchyard: St Eanswythe in Folkestone on a summer’s day. Definitely my favourite saint with superpowers as she made water run up hill.

Here is a wonderful description of another favourite and local to me cemetery, with some stunning photos – the gloriously gothic Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park: visited by The Gentle Author of Spitalfields Life on a a misty winter morning. Beautiful and moving. And that’s enough death, thanks.

Takeaway at Death Cafe

Death Cafe, San Carlos
Death Cafe, San Carlos

No, no skulls in a brown paper bag or zombie food in an insulated box. Nothing morbid.

Morbid. That’s the word I ran into, again and again, when I said I was going to my first Death Cafe. ‘Morbid’, said my mum and daughter and the man at the underground sweetie shop.  Underground as in Tube: nothing morbid.

It’s possible I might not have picked up on the idea of an event where people meet to eat cake and talk about death, had it not been for my dad dying. I found myself reading more about death online and went to the first #DeathSalonUK (attracted by the idea of intellectuals gathering, I admit.) I read about Dying Matters’ Awareness Week, well underway this week with stacks of impressive national print, broadcast and online coverage.

Raising the subject of death has invariably met with a shudder and a desire to change the subject among most people I know, in case they catch it or something. Now there’s the feel of something of a cultural shift, where there is more openness in acknowledging death. I’m sure there’s plenty of research into whether it’s the case but I think so (QED.) Huge hat tip to whoever came up with #YODO, by the way: You Only Die Once. Inspired.

So, I decided to go to Cafe Rouge at Hampstead on Monday. There’s a cultural shift for a start, when you live in Stepney. Rather a dearth of fried chicken and sari shops in Hampstead. Cute coffee bars and designer clothes shops and sunshine combined to help my cheerful mood but I know that having my mind on death honestly contributed.

I fairly skipped along, in a ‘Hello, busker! Hello, prep school kids! I’m alive!’ cross between Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Fotherington-Thomas from the sublime Molesworth books.

Fotherington Thomas, a wet and a wede,  sa Molesworth
Fotherington Thomas, a wet and a wede, sa Molesworth

The upstairs room was packed, mainly with women of all ages. There were large tables and smaller ones: I chose a table for four and am glad I did. We started talking almost straight away, before organiser Josefine Speyer rang her little bell to say this was the first anniversary of Death Cafe at that venue. She explained there was no agenda for discussion and that each table had a facilitator, who each identified her- or himself.

With growing interest in Death Cafes, there were a number of journalists present, Josefine said. I wondered if it might be like the mythical Ku Klux Klan meeting, where every sheet hid an undercover reporter, but they all stood up and said they’d be happy to speak to anyone who wanted to afterwards. Anyone who didn’t want to be photographed could also stay off camera.

My table had a journalist, who was frank, charming and made a real contribution to the discussion. We four talked families and funerals and how we did NOT want to die (in pain and without any capacity for choice.) One woman was wonderfully pragmatic; her instructions for conveying her to the Dignitas clinic are in a cupboard but I’m not telling you which one.

We laughed quite a lot. After about an hour and a quarter, which sped by, there was a general session to offer views. One man thought the waiters were obtrusive. ‘Antonio? Never!’ cried everyone else.

My own happy highlight was nervously raising my plan for Dad’s ashes next month, which my table liked. Relief. They’ve been at the undertaker’s since January and I haven’t been able to raise the subject with Mum. This week gave me the impetus to do so. He adored watching the Red Arrows and never missed a display: when they fly over at Folkestone Air Show next month, we’ll be near the cliffs and he can join the coloured smoke trail in the air.

Dying matters. Let’s talk about it.










Seven ways London went wrong

Courtesy of @twittaxristy on April 1, 2014
Courtesy of @twittaxristy on April 1, 2014

From Sunday 31 March, I ran the @londonisyours Twitter account for a week. You’ve probably seen these curated accounts round your way, where a different person gives insights into their daily life in a town, country or continent. @Sweden is one of the most-followed and I think it’s consistently interesting.

Signing up a few months ago, I tempted the Fates with my plans. There’d be a day or so at wonderful places I support with yearly membership but never seem to have the time to visit: Kew Gardens and the Chelsea Physic Garden. I’d travel by boat, taking in Tate a Tate en route, among a plethora of shows, galleries, museums and lectures.

I’d revisit areas I’d lived, from Stockwell to Stoke Newington; the bars and cafes of Islington, the City and Barbican. There’d be fascinating crime anecdotes from former workplaces at the Home Office and Met Police, and topical observations on paying nearly £1K a month for childcare back in the late 90s.

Cue the vengeance of the London-wrecking Seven:

1. Dental misery. A visit to the dentist the previous week led to antibiotics and endless days of head in a bucket. ‘Oh, those! They make you really sick,’ said everybody, while I was being really sick.

2. Childcare. I thought those pricey days of toddlerdom were the worst. No. that’s appeared in the shape of weeks of exams where lives are at stake on a fairly literal level. So any money required for cocktails in theatre intervals needs to be spent on extra tuition and I have to give my ‘free’ time to helping remember facts about covalent bonds, cystic fibrosis and El Nino.

3. Family. Dad left almost nothing when he died in January but that doesn’t seem to have negated the need to visit out of town solicitors to whom digital has little meaning. Mum was trying to get over what would have been their 59th wedding anniversary so I needed to stay with her a little longer. Leading me to …

4. The provinces. I was born in London but left for Folkestone at six weeks. Most people I know here aren’t from London. I complain about Folkestone but it is where I was brought up and I have a lot of interest in seeing it thrive. So it was lovely to chat with one Folkestonian following the account, more followed and, on my visit, I met one lovely person I’ve talked to on Twitter for a while.

5. Work. The contract for my last job ended on the day this Londoning began. Rather than the free time I’d envisaged, this meant getting straight on with the first freelance jobs that came up.

6. April Fool’s Day. This left me frankly terrified to post anything as I am one of those people who believes that ‘gullible’ isn’t in the dictionary. Having said that, the great ‘Underground Overground Wombling Free’ sign of Whitechapel went down a storm. And if you didn’t see one of the most charming and creative charity campaigns ever, do check this post via Charity Chap on the Girlguiding/Minifig takeover. Inspired.

7. There wasn’t really a seventh. But seven is the world’s favourite number. I’d voted for four which, with a pleasing elegance, came fourth. Go forth and curate your hometown. Seven aside, it was a fun week and a great experience.

Ron Finley, Frank Sidebottom & a Headless Chicken …

… are My Three Best Things About … being online this week.

The first involved a *presents positive spin learned as government press officer* happy mistake. Well, okay, a mistake: made by me.

“Gardening is the most therapeutic and defiant act you can do, especially in the inner city. Plus, you get strawberries.”

Ron Finley is an awesomely-inspiring, creative man who’s brought guerrilla gardening to bring fresh, healthy food to  South Central Los Angeles. He ‘wanted a carrot without toxic ingredients I didn’t know how to spell’ in a community where the drive-through kills more than the drive-by. The authorities tried to stop his planting. Ron won.

A year ago, he gave a wonderful TED Talk. I posted this on Twitter at work at the time and spotted it again this week while looking through links for an evaluation report on the Local Food Programme project where I’ve been working. I tweeted it again, managing to get both the date AND his name wrong. Ouch.

Ron graciously pointed this out in a reply – and started following the Farm. I apologised straightaway, giving my name so none of the other folk who post would get any criticism. He sent a lovely response: @StepneyCityFarm @TEDTalks @KarenJKHart #AllGoodThings That cheered up a night of insomnia.

‘There are currently two films about Frank Sidebottom in production, one meticulously searching out the world of Frank (Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story) and the other exploring the idea of what it was to be a man in a fake head (Frank, for which Ronson was screenwriter)’

Poor Jon Ronson has had rather a challenging week, saying on Twitter that he’s ‘a man being yelled at by 8000 Guardian readers’ for Frank. The quote above explains more about the two films; it’s from this feature in The Skinny.

My husband and I met through The Archers. After a get-together of a group of like-minded people, we wandered off for an evening at the Bull and Gate in Kentish Town: a Frank Sidebottom gig.  Fantastic. Yes, ‘Guess who’s Been on Match of the Day? is Our Song.

We’ve finally got round to ordering Being Frank: there’s still time to support the documentary and get listed in the credits. My husband commented on our gig story and got back my second best thing, this lovely response from Steve Sullivan, Director of Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story:

‘Surprisingly, you’re not the first person to say they got together with their partner at a Frank gig! Surely not the romantic of atmospheres, but then there was magic in the air!’

And the Headless Chicken: best thing number three.  The Folkestone Triennial announced this year’s artists, including Yoko Ono and Andy Goldsworthy. I’m looking forward to ‘Whithervanes … a neurotic early worrying system.’ One of roofoftwo’s five sculptured birds will be on top of that Martello Tower, just around the corner from my Mum: a 21st century weathervane measuring levels of concern on the internet.

I’m sure Frank would approve.

The Last Post

Julie_Farrier_Folkestone_Funeral_Director_chihuahuaNo, not my last post ever. Just a final one in the unexpected trilogy this year that have marked my Dad’s illness, death and funeral. And I can never resist a decent pun; Remembrance Day and all that …

I managed a reading in church on Wednesday’s funeral and was neither struck down by lightning or responsible for knocking over the coffin, which I hadn’t realised would be at the end of the pew I needed to exit.

I got through Abide With Me without howling too much and read the standby crematorium poem – Remember, by Christina Rossetti – when my daughter couldn’t face speaking.

She recovered enough to polish off countless scones and sandwiches at a tea organised with kindness and tact at Wards Hotel in Folkestone. The room was packed with people telling me how kind Dad was and how much people liked and respected him.

The printer who produced the order of service recognised Dad’s name and photo, remembering his insistence on a coffee break at 11am and opening of his packed lunch at 12 noon as the immovable rights of a print union member. Mrs Thatcher would have hated my Dad.

There were blue hyacinths and Frank Sinatra and incense that may possibly have been swiped by a priest from a royal building. I couldn’t possibly comment. And just look at the lovely woman who walked in front of the cortege, Julie Farrier. Admittedly the chihuahua had to stay behind in the office but you can’t have everything.






Warnings: Why I love the Warren

The Warren, Folkestone
I’m signed off work and feel too rough to be more than brief, which is probably a Good Thing as I could write all day about the place that I most love. And then write some more. I first saw the Warren when my parents brought me, six weeks old, from a London children’s home, to their house around the corner. They still live there and I go back often.

It’s a vast, ancient, unique place: impossible to catch in photographs. It can be terrifying: people die in chalk falls or are washed away by stormy tides from the sea edge and foolhardy divers misjudge the depths to hit the rocks below. It is more often the most beautiful place on earth; wide blue skies, fresh salt air, thousands of chalk grassland, woodland and seaside wild flowers in spring and not a soul in sight or any sound apart from the crash of the waves or the yawping of gulls.

I’ve gone there for ever to pick blackberries and, more recently, sloes for homemade gin. On a clear day you can see buildings on the cliffs of France, just twenty miles away. High above you on the edge of the chalk and clay English cliffs, a Roman villa is sliding, inch by inch, into the sea. Martello Towers keep us safe from Napoleonic invasion and a young Second World War pilot looks for ever out on to the horizon.

There are fossils by the bucketload and rockpools full of crabs, anemones and mussels. Grasses rustle with newts and the occasional adder. Somewhere there is a buried rabbit, a toy lost by my brother more than 40 years ago. He comes here too, sometimes, to sleep, on the not infrequent times that he falls between the gaps in the welfare state.

It is a never-ending delight that my favourite novel, Riddley Walker by the sainted Russell Hoban, is set here and in the countryside around. The Warren becomes The Warnings as Riddley seeks to find out about his world. A book of strange and unsettling beauty, just like the Warren.

Every so often there are attempts to carve out safer steps, put up handrails and tame the place. Even when I’m too old to climb down safely over the rocks and would be glad of a more accessible path, I selfishly hope that never happens.