Tuesday, 15 July 2008

A Birder's Eye View

Touching the weird

‘It’s like Arsene Wenger coming to train the RSPB football team,’ was my reaction to hearing that Mark Cocker had offered to coach a group of conservation colleagues in writing skills. No disrespect to them, or their literary abilities (or to our footy players either, for that matter), but Mark Cocker is an author of considerable renown, as anyone familiar with Crow Country, for example, will attest.

I take my place in a group of eager students, wedged into a small office at our Strumpshaw Fen nature reserve, somewhere between Norwich and the Broads, between fen and sky. Mark is holding forth on what it is to write, to discover, to ‘puncture the meniscus’ (the surface tension, as in water) that separates us in our everyday lives from the fascinating world that lurks beyond. To realise, to understand, perhaps, when a stick is not a stick. I can explain.

In our midst is a small table, and occupying most of its surface is a large, glass-topped box. Visible within this is a pile of egg boxes, and prominent on the topmost of these is what looks like a fragment of birch stick, glued on. I’m itching to have a closer look, to delve into this box of tricks – or sticks. I have a strong suspicion that the piece of birch is actually a moth.

Closer inspection confirms that it is a moth. A buff-tip moth. It is one of those creations that would have you (if your attention were ever drawn to it) marvelling -boggling, even - at the bizarreness of evolution. That a mere moth can look so much like a piece of tree, suggests a world of infinite possibilities. It has a frayed-looking, broken end (its head), while at the other end it looks like it has been cut with a knife, as though to be sharpened like a pencil, revealing a wood grain effect within the flecked, grey-white bark. Its legs and antennae barely protrude. Sticks, after all, don’t have such appendages.

The buff-tip has achieved this outfit, you suppose, for the purposes of being able to sit very still for long periods, and not be recognised as a potential meal (and scoffed by a robin, for example). Because of this, you could be forgiven for going a lifetime without ever seeing one. Seeing only sticks.

There are other impostors among Mark’s egg cartons. There are moths that look like leaves, like dead leaves, like droppings. There’s even one (elephant hawkmoth) that looks like a pink and green jet fighter aircraft. Not sure where evolution was going with that one, or who it was with influence in naming stuff that got the elephant bit past the committee, but never mind.

‘You’ve just got to go and find some weirdness.’

If only more of my teachers could have issued such instructions. This is Mark’s final one to the dispersing group, as we are loosed on the nature reserve, minds opened up to strangeness, perhaps as a child might find it.

A train ploughs through the reserve. Strange! Don’t worry, it has a track to run on, but nevertheless...

There are three bee orchids by the car park fence, cordoned off with a length of coloured string, drawing the eye to them. I show Sarah, of the group. These are plants evolved to look just like bees, for reasons too strange to elaborate on here. That’s not all that’s strange about bee orchids. There is a Laurie Lee essay called ‘A drink with a witch’, and the drink she gives him is bee orchid wine. Much oddness and witchery ensues, and I don’t think it is just the drink talking. Apart from anything, imagine an age when there were enough bee orchids in any one place to make wine.

‘You do this sort of stuff all the time,’ says Sarah. Writing odd stuff, I think she means.

‘Yes, but…’ I don’t really want to form a proper answer. I’m trying to think differently, today.

I wander across the railway line, enjoying the unusual legality of this, here. I amble down a leafy lane, past drowsy horses, looking up at cornfield poppies against a blue sky, crowning a steep bank. Further on, a flowerbed slopes uphill to a table mat-cute cottage. A handmade sign reads: ‘Come and see the swallowtail butterflies, if you like’, or words to that effect. There are none present, but I like the kindness of the offer, just as much.

Opposite, a gate tempts me back across the tracks, to what I take to be a path onto the reserve on the other side. I don’t know it yet but I am crossing too early. I’m not the first person to have done so, as there is a path of sorts through neck-high fen verdure. A swallowtail bustles past my face, across the reed surface. I press on, hoping to intersect soon with an official path. This doesn’t happen.

The fools’ path peters out. Rather than plunge on, or retreat, I elect to stop for a bittern’s-eye view of the fen. At an isolated willow, I duck through its fronds to the murky ‘room’ within. I perch on a low bough, above a small pool. There is a welcoming committee of bouncing mosquitoes, apparently jumping for joy at my arrival.
We share lunch – well, I have sandwiches and crisps, and they settle down in various places to try to have me. I get the hand lens out, to get better acquainted with these much under-examined beasts. What, after all, do moths have that mossies don’t, apart from relatively vast expanses of pigmentation, and occasionally bizarre disguises? Determinedly open-minded, I home the lens in on the trouser-piercing mouthparts and – as it turns out – comically bulging eyes - of these small (and some not so small) man-eaters. Alas, I can’t not think of the Gary Larsson cartoon, where one mossie, sitting on a stretch of flesh, is saying to another, which is filling like a balloon: ‘Pull out! You’ve hit an artery!’

I toy with the idea of letting one of them sup from me, in close up, but hey, it might hit an artery. And how weird are we supposed to be getting here, anyway? The study is terminated.

Retracing my steps carefully, and climbing back out of the fen, I notice a derelict hut by the railway: a mossie-free quiet space in which to write up my notes, for our feedback session.

Returning to the group, I meet Sarah again. I show her a broken branch I’ve picked up along the way. ‘How about this for a moth?’ I ask her, holding out the branch. Sarah doesn’t think this is funny. Undeterred, I try it on Mark. He doesn’t get it.

I guess sometimes a stick is just a stick. But despite my pale imitation of a joke, the lesson remains sound: it is always worth looking – and listening – a little more closely, for a little bit of oddness.

Conor Jameson


The hawkmoth conveyed me back to a childhood scenario: me retrieving a football from a ruck of rosebay willowherb, at least as tall as I was. And as I delved within these very everyday plants I found some monstrous-looking life forms: fat as my fingers, with enormous cartoon eyes. Caterpillars, it turned out, with these eye-designs intended to scare birds – and quite possibly small children. After a suitable period of getting acquainted, I took some home for adult input, and my mum got the book out so we could see these larger than life larvae, and the adult forms they would turn into. They were elephant hawk moths-in waiting, as it turned out.

Monday, 14 July 2008

Poems from Salhouse Primary School

Please scroll down to read a selection of beautiful poems created by YR 6 children at Salhouse Primary School, inspired by a Norfolk Reads and Writes workshop with Mark Cocker. 'Ladybird' by Georgia Whitton is particularly striking, but they're all of a very high standard, - if they're writing at this level in YR 6, what's next? Well done to all who took part, and keep up the writing!

Moth began

He took the bark from a tree
and the standing hair from a shock
and made his wings.

He took the curl of the waves
and the fluttering of a leaf
to make his flap.

He took the structure of a skull
and the smoothness from a feather
to make his head.

He took the length of a finger
and the width of a piece of paper
and made his body.

For his antennae
He took the curl from layered hair
And the strength from a unicorn’s horn.

And moth was made.

by Natasha Frankland

Bee Began

She took the dome
A famous land mark,
With the many hexagons,
And made her eyes.

For her antennae,
She took to bendy willow,
And the quiver of a leaf
In the wind.

She took the transparent glass,
Making marks, segments,
For her wings.

For her legs
She took the fur of a mouse,
The segments of a woodlouse.

She took the black of the night,
The yellow of light
And made her markings.

For her sting,
She took the pain of the
Sharpness of holly
And point of a needle.

She took a helicopter blades,
An engine humming,
And made
The bee’s unique buzz.

And bee was made.

by Alice Southwood

Grasshopper Poem

Long-legged, small-headed,
High-jumper, loud-chirper,
Song-maker, leaves-breaker,
Frog-prey, eaten-alive,
Big-eyes, pretty-wise,
Hairy-legs, lays-eggs.

by Dominic Newnham


Happily, steadily, growing,
I grow - a single blade of grass;
September draws nearer.
Happy we are
Standing in the field.
We stand facing the playground
Waiting, staring, waiting, staring
We know our fate
Our fate lies ahead,
Thunder draws nearer:
They’re coming!
They trample on us,
Ruin our happiness;
Footballs roll over us,
They slide, skid and slip on us
But we will come back
Strong, tall and steady.

by Genevieve Pascall


Ladybird began.

She took the emptiness of a cave,
She took the hollow of a hole,
Then silenced it for her voice.

For her elytra,
She took the glow of the sun,
She took and ink blot from a pen,
And cased it over her body.

From the top of a tree,
She took the switness of a swallow,
And the buzz of a bee,
For her flight.

Love and passion,
Went into her soul,
And for her young
She took pride.

by Georgia Whitton

I, Privet Hawk Moth

I, Privet Hawk Moth,
Will wake up at nightfall,
And hover around through the cold, cold night.
I used to creep, slither and crawl.
But now I fly through the air like a miniature kite.
I lay my egg on Privet.
It finally hatches,
What I used to be comes out.
My baby will creep, slither and crawl!
My little caterpillar will turn into a pupa in the
Develop, develop!
And turn into what I am now,
I, Privet Hawk Moth.

by Liam Temple


Scorned at by the butterfly
Moth’s tears of greys and browns and blacks
Engulf him in his anger.
He’s sucked into an ever - deepening hole
Of emotions cascading down, down, down,
Forcing out sadness and despair to all creatures.
The moth will go down in history as
Earth’s killer even though it was
The butterfly.

by Molly Elsegood

Privet Hawk Moth Rap

Big, some huge, some quite hairy,
People think they’re really scary,
But I don’t think that ‘cos they’re cool
A man called Mark came to Salhouse school.

He showed us the massive privet hawk
The end of their legs look like a pitchfork;
I held it in my hand, it kept tickling when it flew,
The wings started flickering so it must be a moth,
A moth, a moth, a giant great moth:
The body feels like a small piece of cloth
It’s a moth, a moth, a giant great moth,
So everybody put your hands up for the moths
Everybody put your hands up for the moths!

by Jedd Bobbin


I wriggle out of a cramped hole
Into the open world.
I wonder
And as I do so
I shed my skin –
Over and over again.

Through the grass
I grow and grow,
And as I do
I grow my legs.

Then I’m free,
Singing my creaking song
Then I L E A P!

by Sean Hendley

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Norfolk reads and Writes 2008 - The last Hurrah

Positively our last contribution for this year - a poem and artwork by Sandra Walmsley, who attended Mimi Khalvati's workshop at Rockland Marsh.

Elderflower champagne

Bitter sweet intoxication of elderflower champagne.
Sitting sweltering in the sun on the last day of May
Clotted cream foam flowers hang heavy on the air.

Transport her to a childhood tree where she sits and mourns
Under Sambucus nigra is buried her big black dog.
Bitter sweet intoxication of elderflower champagne.

Over brittle yellow fragments spider ink trails crawl
Grandma’s recipe for hand cream of blossom lace and lard.
Clotted cream foam flowers hang heavy on the air.

A fat-softened hand offers a sparkling draught
To the girl in the garden on a hot summer day.
Bitter sweet intoxication of elderflower champagne.

The woman sips vine fruits from a foaming flute
Her educated palate detecting floral notes.
Clotted cream foam flowers hang heavy on the air.

Once humble elder’s riches were a harvest for the poor
Now a fashionable flavour for the gourmet drinks trade.
Bitter sweet intoxication of elderflower champagne
Clotted cream foam flowers hang heavy on the air.

Friday, 20 June 2008

Five Days in Norwich: the Last Post

I leave Norwich this morning with a new muse, after all the city and the university have been so lovely to me this week. Chris Gribble, head of New Writing Partnership, who invited me down, spoke after J.M. Coetzee's reading, of it being a special place - and I can only agree with that. Literature is an art without frontiers, or the need for frontiers. Early, in the week the Polish writer, Adam Zagajewski had made the point that 20th century literature had the dominant narrative of exile. I've sometimes talked about the "shorter" 20th century, beginning, not with the calendar, but with the demonic rift in Europe, that was the First World War. Coetzee spoke yesterday of the two great Western censorship trials, "Ulysses" and "Lady Chatterley's Lover", Joyce and Lawrence. They were both exiles, and in their different experiments with form, truth, style and content remain amongst our most important 20th century writers. In his biography of Lawrence, "Flame Into Being", Anthony Burgess makes the point that in our academies, to be both a Joycean and Lawrentian would be seen as an impossibility. For a writer, of course, such contradictions are our lifeblood. When Poland became members of the European Union, I had a drink to celebrate, and felt, knowing the history, that some healing had taken place that day. We cannot know what will be the defining narratives of the 21st century. If Freud, Marx and Nietschze were the presiding intellectual spirits of the last century, what for this? I'd make a case for Marshall McLuhan, Pierre Bourdieu, and James Lovelock; the concepts of communication, habitus, and gaia, becoming ever more relevant to our current state of being. Yet, there is hope, as this week made clear; for if the shooting of Archduke Ferdinand has a contemporary equivalent, it will sure be an environmental absurdity - perhaps Gretel Ehrlich's description this week of the thnning of the arctic ice, perhaps some media event that resonates beyond its few days in the sun. Writers - and other creative artists - remain vital in chronicling and contradicting the absurdities of the age. Globalisation makes us all neighbours, with the computer I'm typing this on made in the far east, and the server that hosts this blog held in the Californian desert; so if I've been reminded of nothing else this week, it's that the 21st century exiles aren't going to be Britains and Americans flocking to Paris, but writers from across the world, settling down wherever they are welcomed. That's the aim of New Writing Worlds, and for the last week, that sanctuary has been here in Norwich.

Thursday, 19 June 2008

Never underestimate

Thursday Evening

It is always possible, I guess, to sell out a large hall to see a great writer speak. Dickens toured America after all. Yet, I think its important that we don't underestimate our great writers, rather, that we give them their due. I found myself, on Tuesday, sat next to J. M. Coetzee, and he poured me a glass of water at the start of our literary salon. Tonight, he was the main casting, central billing. Coetzee talked tonight about a singular, vital issue, censorship. Not in any polemical way, but based on his own experience. It is very easy to forget that he has lived through far more turbulent times than we have, and, in the conversation we've been having all week about "how writing can change things" he was writing novels at a certain frontline. A few years ago he was given the "readers reports" of his early novels. They were all published in London, imported into South Africa, and had to get by the censors. What surprised him was that he knew the reviewers, he'd been invited around their houses; in the small intelligentsia of seventies South Africa, he'd been sharing hot dogs with his enemy, without knowing it. He read, not from his latest novel, but from two of the novels they had censored. It is fascinating to see such a calm man gnawing on a thirty-year old bone in such a measured way. I've so much admiration for a writer that , given this situation, is non-polemical. He leaves it to us to decide whether the Afrikaaner censorship board was behaving correctly or not.

New Writing Worlds 2008 - Final Events

Thursday Afternoon

After an exciting week, tonight sees the final events of New Writing Worlds 2008. A final reading at the Millennium Library featuring Jonty Driver, Tishani Doshi and Tijs Goldschmidt, at 5:00, followed by the Nobel Prize Winner J.M. Coetzee, reading at the UEA from 7.30. It's been a wonderfully varied week, taking in readings of poetry and fiction, music, a trip to Strumpshaw Fen, and fascinating 3-day salon on the theme of "Human:Nature," with writers from all over the world contributing to a fascinating debate - and I realise that this week has only been one small part of a much wider range of literary events in Norwich and at the University. With one event left to go, this blogger needs to leave my computer behind, for a while, and get ready for the evening.

Nature and Imagination

Thursday Morning

If in previous posts I've been writing about something incomplete, I realise now, I can write about something whole. It's a tribute to the organisers of the writers salon, that both the themes of the 3-sessions, and the chosen speakers, have created an arc, both of argument and narrative. From "nation" to "panic" to "imagination", I feel that we've been steadily humanising, if not nature, but the relationship we have with nature. Gwyneth Lewis lead today's session, as equally nuanced as the presentations we'd had on Tuesday and Wednesday. However, she'd made some adjustments to her original speech in response to the arguments, the questions, and the controversies. She talked about the two types of writing we'd been talking about this week, "nature writing" and "creative writing" and that partly she wanted to see how these can be brought together, writers becoming advocates for the natural world, with, certainly in the case of a poet, them becoming "natural historians" of language (my quotes.) It's a wonderful phrase, since if our arguments earlier in the week had sometimes been hard to paraphrase, surely that was a question of language as much as anything else? She elaborated, with an example. Out looking for cranes with the nature writers, Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey, they'd drawn a blank, cranes apparently not liking to be seen out early on a Tuesday evening, with rain threatening. That is the nature writer's difficulty, transcribing an uncertainty - a creative writer (and the nature writer, the good one, becomes that as well) - has to know what the language will do under all atmospheric conditions. In talking about language, Lewis, is talking from a position of complexity - the role of the Welsh language, its relationship both to English and to nature/landscape - that requires both a sense of metaphor and a literal understanding of what words mean. When the Welsh poet Taliesin says "I was born in the region of the summer stars" it is both metaphor and literal truth. To illustrate further, she read John Clare's "Transcription of a Nightingale's Song", a co-authorship if you like, between Clare and the nightingale.

Chee chew chee chew chee
chew—cheer cheer cheer
chew chew chew chee
—up cheer up cheer up
tweet tweet tweet jug jug jug

...it begins. Perhaps, felt Lewis, we need to think of our own role, in nature, how our own bodies - the relationship to them - our frailties, and particularly our illnesses are our most intimate understandings of "nature". Becoming, somehow "naturalists of ourselves" and using this example to more better understand our relationship with and to wider nature.

This opening piece gave us a kind of synthesis of the week; not just the salon but the other events - even the visit to the fen - and seemed to loosen up the discussion, taking it away from what the writer can hardly affect (climate change) and therefore must be in anxiety about, to what the writer can do - to create a bridge between words/language and the natural world (including ourselves) that they describe. Adam Thorpe appropriately asked that we still had to "define" nature - and this seemed only right, but also difficult. That ecologists don't use the word loosely, as its too later. "To return a wood to its natural state" - is this an idea of past nature - or rather a future nature, different in many ways. Those of us who'd been to the fen turned to the recollection that some of the fen had been ploughed and some hadn't and that one act had made an indelible difference to the habitat. Nature, even in a small way, can be damaged or changed, in a way that makes it "unnatural." Given that "nature" was a problematic word in itself, then the term "human nature" - that ancient discourse between "reason" and "our nature" was given added bouyancy. In this context, literature is not "knowledge" and how it contributes to knowledge is perhaps an unecessary - and unhelpful - burden on the writer. Given the scope of panic that we'd identified earlier in the week, from Gretel Ehrlich's description of the inuit's deteriorating landscape, to Geoff Dyer's recollection of the holy Indian city of Varanasi, and its massive contradictions of the spiritual and earthy, Lewis talked about appreciating the "sparrow in the garden." In other words, no longer searching out the exotic nature, but valueing the everyday - that may not be there much longer.

But we'd had a sense - all week - that despite our individualism, and our differing viewpoints, experiences and priorities, we somehow should be taking a "stand." The despair - if you like - was partly because of how little power we had to change things. Literature rarely does, and when it does, it is accidental, perhaps banal. The European sparrow was introduced to America, we were reminded, by a group of American Shakespeare lovers bringing over every bird mentioned in Shakespeare. A single reference in Henry IV, got the sparrow its passage, and it was a highly successful import, so much that it's now virtually plague like. Be careful, writers, for what you wish for.

In summing up - synthesising - the week's sessions there was an opportunity to remember the persistent issues; the role of metaphor, when describing nature; valuing the subsistence lives that have been chosen by the inuit and others as a model for how one lives with the planet; how we see nature through the prism of the story, through the human response to it; the difficulties of a political response to impending crisis - but the importance of at least being aware of it; and finally, I think, the author's right, in their work, to join together in front of their readers, to state, firmly, and without embarassment, this is my work, and in it, "I am I."

I realise that none of these posts can be more than a snapshot of a detailed, nuanced skein of arguments. I think if we'd have stayed discussing climate change again today - the fallout perhaps of monday night's orginal debate - we'd have been lost to an insoluble argument. Yet writers are at their best, I think, when they can mix together the strains of science, history, nature, and, yes, creativity into some coherent whole. There was some sense of writing being always a study in "uncertainty", yet I think this is self-effacement. As Gretel Ehrlich pointed out, in explaining her interest in the inuit peoples, writers have to choose subjects that mean something to them. Therein lies the value. There is both the political statement, and the philosophical argument. Human:Nature - the use of the colon had perhaps set up a conflict, a dichotomy; I'd like to think that a different punctuation mark might now be appropriate.

I think we've all felt privileged to be involved in such an interesting discussion this week, me especially - I've felt that I've learnt alot, from unusual sources, and in different ways, that will probably take quite a while to surface. In blogging about the salon, I've tried not to betray any confidences of the room, whilst at the same time giving a flavour of the arguments that have been developed, and the presentations - all five of them excellent and thought provoking - that led our discussions. Any misrepresentations are mine alone - and each piece can only give a taste of the salons themselves, which were conducted in a spirit of honesty, collaboration, and frequently, though this is the hardest thing to replay outside the room, with humour.