Found in the Digital Attic

This is only a short post…not really a post at all.

It’s been a Heinz 57 varieties week. Last weekend the glorious Boswell Festival, where I had some of the best conversations of my life with other authors there (Thomas Harding, Phillipe Sands)  and came home buzzing (and I WILL write more sensibly about this soon). Then, London to celebrate the publication of King of the Sky, meet lovely librarians from the SLA (also to see the big David Hockney exhibition at Tate Britain…more of that too, soon.)and speak to Amnesty International about how King of the Sky,which they have kindly endorsed and my new picture book (see below!) might help raise funds for refugees. And then rehearsals for 3000 Chairs, the theatre production that links last years #3000 chairs campaign and gallery on the Guardian website and next year’s picture book The Day War Came. It’s a great piece of physical theatre directed  by Claire Coache of Open Sky  and Gillian Hipp from Hereford College of Art, and performed by Hereford students. I’m hoping we can somehow get it to the launch of the book next May, so we can have an auction of 3000chairs artwork at the Amnesty centre in Shoreditch. As soon as I know more I’ll blog about it and start to gather artwork for the auction.

At the same time as all this, The Pond, story I wrote about a grief stricken family illustrated by the amazing Cathy Fisher has gone out into the world and is swimming around. Its such an important story – it won’t be a best seller but I hope it will have a long life in libraries and schools and some homes…wherever there is a family that needs it.

Today I’ve been looking forward and back…editing a new story for a new publisher, and gathering old files of old stories to give them new life with lovely Graffeg (who published Perfect and The Pond). And I happened to go into the ‘attic’ – into those old files that you usually can’t open cos you made them six computers ago.

Most of the time technology drives me to screaming but today it worked…a converter app magically gave me instant access to old files – poems, picture book texts, stories – that I haven’t looked at for ages. And in the way of going into attics, you nip in for five minutes to pick something up, open a box, begin pulling letters out of envelopes or old toys out of bags and five hours later, you’re still up there…  I found this poem about Keats House. I wrote it, I can’t even remember the date, but it was on a visit to the poet’s house in Hampstead, with a group of children. It was this time of year, and we sat on the grass outside in the little green postage stamp that is all that remains of what would have been big green space in John’s time. We used Keats’ fine eye to help us look and the children wrote beautiful descriptions of the leaves, the light the sky. It was one of those days that gleams in the memory. The kids loved it, loved the day, the place, and their own voices and words.

It was a big day for me too because I grew up with Keats. My father recited Ode to Autumn and to a Nightingale almost every day of my young childhood. He’d do it while he was shaving in the mornings. I grew to love the sounds of the words. Its never far from my heart, that set of memories, but it’s close now because my son, who was born the year after my father died, has begun to ask about him and I find that the thing I want to tell first is about his love of words.

So this poem, recovered from an electronic attic today, written on that gleaming day perhaps a decade back, was for daddy really. And now for my son too.

On Visting Keats’ House With A Class of Fine Children

Dear John
We visted your house today
Not the Swan and Hoop where you were born,
With hoofbeats clattering the cobbles and the creak of wheels.
Not your Granny’s house in the woods and meadows
Of old, wild Middlesex.
Not the apprentice room above the surgery,
Or the students lodging near the hospital
Where you lay awake with blood and crying in your head.
No. We visited you last house, on the Heath,
Where you found a wider sky to walk under,
Crickets chirruping by the Winter fireside
Nightingales in Summer dusks,
And love of course.

We weren’t invited,
But we thought you wouldn’t mind
If we sat in your study
In the chair, placed just as you left it,
Looked through your window at the sky.
We walked around your bed;
Was it so high and fluffy, John,
When you were here?
We wondered if you had to run and jump to go to sleep,
And if, when you were ill,
Your bed was just too high.

It was dry today, and being Summer
We went into your garden
And tried to look as you once looked
With hearts as open as our eyes,
Noticing the details:
The shiny stripes of bark,
The minute patterning of grass blades
The sunlight and the shadows
And the wind in the trees,
Like change.

And things have changed John.
Middlesex is banker country now,
No woods just roads and concrete
And shops that sell a world of nonsense.
There hasn’t been a nightingale in Hampstead
Since the war we call ’the last’,
Though why I can’t imagine,
Since it seems the fighting never stops.

You might not even know your house,
A grand room stands where your back door was
And there’s a sort of shop
Where Mrs Brawne sat darning stockings.
Your stairs have gone,
There’s no real kitchen
And the view beyond the garden’s blocked with houses.

But there are some good things:
The wall that divided you from Fanny’s been demolished,
It’s all one big space, that you could share;
Just a street away the hospital could cure your illness,
We understand tuberculosis now
We have its number, we’re on its trail
It doesn’t win the way it used to do.
The medicine you left behind moved on.
In my class no one died from whooping cough or scarlatina
Polio and measles don’t maim and blind,
The poor don’t die of cholera, but boredom
And everyone can learn to read and write.

And John, one other thing, it’s the reason
We didn’t need an invite to your home.
Anyone can come here now,
Other lives and ghosts have left their mark but
Its your good spirit that they come for,
And your face that looks down from every wall.
You’re famous John,
Your words weren’t written on the water,
They’ve travelled round the word, engraved on hearts
My own included.
Your deathless nightingale, your loitering knight,
Your season of mists, go with me
And millions like me, everywhere.
Just like you said
A thing of beauty is a joy forever
Its loveliness increases
It will never pass into nothingness.
So as we left your house
We crushed lavender between our palms
And remembered you.



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