Category Archives: non-fiction

Lawrence Durrell’s Bitter Lemons

“Journeys, like artists, are born and not made. A thousand differing circumstances contribute to them, few of them willed or determined by the will—whatever we may think. They flower spontaneously out of the demands of our natures—and the best of them lead us not only outwards in space, but inwards as well. Travel can be one of the most rewarding forms of introspection…
These thoughts belong to Venice at dawn, seen from the deck of the ship which is to carry me down through the islands to Cyprus; a Venice wobbling in a thousand fresh-water reflections, cool as a jelly. It was as if some great master, stricken by dementia, had burst his whole colour-box against the sky to deafen the inner eye of the world. Cloud and water mixed into each other, dripping with colours, merging, overlapping, liquefying, with steeples and balconies and roofs floating in space, like the fragments of some stained-glass window seen through a dozen veils of rice-paper. Fragments of history touched with the colours of wine, tar, ochre, fire-opal and ripening grain. The whole at the same time being rinsed softly back at the edges into a dawn sky as softly as circumspectly blue as a pigeon’s egg.
Mentally I held it all, softly as an abstract painting, cradling it in my thoughts—the whole encampment of cathedrals and palaces, against the sharply-focused face of Stendhal as he sits forever upon a stiff-backed chair at Florian’s sipping wine: or on that of a Corvo, flitting like some huge fruit-bat down these light-bewitched alleys…
The pigeons swarm the belfries. I can hear their wings across the water like the beating of fans in a great summer ballroom. The vaporetto on the Grand Canal beats too, softly as a human pulse, faltering and renewing itself after every hesitation which marks a landing-stage. The glass palaces of the Doges are being pounded in a crystal mortar, strained through a prism. Venice will never be far from me in Cyprus—for the lion of Saint Mark still rides the humid airs of Famagusta, of Kyrenia.
It is an appropriate point of departure for the traveller to the Eastern Levant…”
— Lawrence Durrell, Bitter Lemons (Faber & Faber)
Order Bitter Lemons.

On heat and hemispheres by Kona Macphee

Byron Bay Lighthouse

Recently, I re-read the 1999 poetry collection Wicked Heat by Australian poet Kevin Hart. The book doesn’t belie its title: on the contrary, I was reminded of just how much heat-related imagery the poems contain.
I haven’t lived in Australia since before Hart’s book was written, yet his poems bring back all kinds of recollections: the scorch of a sun-roasted vinyl car seat on the back of my bare legs; the way my flip-flops (or, to be Aussie, “thongs”) would get stuck in the melting car park tarmac at the local shops; those scorching, insomniac mosquito-haunted nights spent lying on a coverless bed, turning the pillow every few minutes in the forlorn hope of finding some coolness and refusing to open the windows in case a night-prowling huntsman spider came in.
When I first moved to the UK in September 1995, I lost a summer, skipping directly from southern hemisphere spring to northern hemisphere autumn. Somehow this absent summer seemed symbolic of the bigger climatic adjustment I’d made, from a city where serious frost was a rarity to one where a day of twenty-six degrees centigrade was “a scorcher”. Indeed, a few years later I was to write, of my arrival into Heathrow, that the landing plane’s engines spilled “a last Australian heat”.
It might be tempting to conclude that life in the Northern Hemisphere – where I’ve done all of my “proper” writing – has had a big effect on my creative landscape. For example, just for fun I once ran the text of my first poetry collection through a word-cloud generator that emphasised the most frequently-used words. The thing I immediately noticed was the prevalence of chilly words – ice, snow, frost, winter, cold. Since then, cold-as-metaphor continues to crop up regularly in my writing, and interestingly, certain words have become proxies for coldness in a decidedly un-Australian way – “North” and “January”, for example. Is my location really the source of these images? I’m not so sure. Isolation and loss tend to figure more strongly in my writing than (for example) rage and passion, so maybe the cold imagery is an expression of an inner emotional landscape as much as, or indeed more than, an outer physical one.
There’s a subtext to my pondering all of this right now: I’ll shortly be visiting Australia, for the first time since 1997, to be reminded of the “wicked heat” of my first quarter-century. On my journey, I’ll be accompanied by the uneasy knowledge that it was shortly after (or – to introduce a note of writerly superstition – perhaps resulting from) that last brief visit to Melbourne that my writing life began.
Now that I’m sixteen years a Northerner, I don’t know what to expect from the imminent return to the Land Downunder. Perhaps what I’ll be noticing this time, as the plane makes its final approach, is not the heat spilling from the engines but the tendrils of high-altitude frost melting away inside the plane’s double-glazed windows.
Born in London in 1969, Kona Macphee grew up in Australia. She flirted with a range of occupations including composer, violinist, waitress and motorcycle mechanic. She took up robotics and computer science, which brought her to Cambridge as a graduate student in 1995.
She now lives in beautiful Perthshire, where she works as a freelance writer and moonlights as the co-director of a software and consultancy company. She has been writing poems since 1997, and received an Eric Gregory Award in 1998. Her first collection, Tails, was published by Bloodaxe in 2004. Her second book of poems, Perfect Blue (Bloodaxe, 2010) is now available. Visit Perfect Blue’s Bloodaxe page, Perfect Blue’s dedicated website and Kona’s website.

Secrets and Lies by Margie Orford

So, I fly up to Jo’burg to take part in celebrations for Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer’s 88th birthday. The taxi driver, who took me and the group of writers I was with, was pulled over and extorted in central Jo’burg. An enormous man with muscles rippling up the back of his shaved head climbed into the front of the minibus and told our driver to get out and hand over cash. The driver, a sensible and experienced man, did so at once. He peeled off notes three times before Muscle Head let us go. It made me feel dirty, knowing that it is so easy to be rolled over and ripped off.
But be that as it may, last Friday was the day the Mail & Guardian did the time warp. They blacked out a story about arms, secrets and lies that they had been prevented from publishing. The reason? The journalists were threatened with arrest for publishing a story that was clearly, fairly and squarely in the public interest. The censored pages were an instant flashback to the 1980s when censorship by a vicious and paranoid state, aware that power was slipping from its bloodied hands, reached a feverish pitch.
The laws governing freedom of expression and the press were draconian then. They were designed to silence the public and to keep secret what officials were doing. That was all swept aside in the euphoria of the early nineties, and freedom of expression – the right to the truth, I suppose – was enshrined in the constitution. We all should have lived happily ever after but there was to be a twist in the ending of this tale.
It was called ‘The Arms Deal’. Despite a lot of complicated detail, the story is mind-numbingly simple in essence. Senior party members and government fleeced a trusting and hopeful nation by ordering obsolete, unnecessary weapons at inflated prices. Kickbacks from arms manufacturers were brokered and money flowed into Swiss bank accounts. It has felt a bit crazy for a while. They know they did it. We know they did it. They know we know they did it. We know they know we know they did it …
It’s enough already because the arms deal, a dark, vampiric twin has shadowed South Africa’s democracy since it was brokered. The arms deal, I’ve heard it rumoured, goes back as far back as 1992. This venal deal was struck between nasty businessmen representing European governments and arms manufacturers, and the revolutionary wideboys whom they’d assiduously courted with the single malt and Cuban cigars.
It’s almost twenty years that this malignant party-spoiler has lurked. Most of us – the fleeced – wished that they – the blustering fleecers – would go away. That they would go to jail without passing Go, without collecting more money. That was too much to ask, as became clear after Shabir Shaik went to jail briefly on behalf of everyone. Those within government and the prosecuting authorities who worked to prosecute those involved were sidelined or silenced.
The garments of ethics and trust are fragile. The high temperature wash required for money laundering shrunk the rainbow-nation garments we all invested in. They no longer stretched over the plump, governmental bellies. Hubris, however, has seen the politicians clinging to power, clogging the arteries of public life.
There have been frantic fig leaves of spin, but all of us looking at this tawdry spectacle can see that the emperor is naked. So are many of the courtiers, the jesters, the pageboys, the lords and ladies in waiting. And after such a long, sustained journey on the gravy train, they are not looking good.
Beauty is always in the eye of the beholder, and from where I am looking it is not pretty. It is also too late for a cover-up. No amount of nipping and tucking of the truth can hide the extent of the rot. It is this knowledge that is behind the ANC’s sustained attempts to push through the Protection of Information Bill, the ‘Secrecy Bill’, through parliament. This legislation, a toxic mixture of the dystopian visions of Kafka and Orwell, will hide naked greed and corruption under a cloak of secrecy and ‘classified’ information. It will criminalise those bringing governmental wrongdoing, corruption or plain ineptitude to the public’s attention.
There will be no recourse. This legislation does not even have the flimsy protection of a ‘public interest’ clause to protect the body politic. The Secrecy Bill is the legislative equivalent of a date rape – an intimate assault on a trusting public by a democratically elected government.
Visit Margie’s website.

Victoria Field on Writing Routes

Writing Routes
A Resource Handbook of Therapeutic Writing
Gillie Bolton, Victoria Field and Kate Thompson
Foreword by Gwyneth Lewis
ISBN 9781849051071
(November, 2010)

All poems have been on journeys. Some have made a quick sprint from the poet’s unconscious onto the page, a leap from origin to destination with no baggage, ticket or chance to look at the passing scenery. Others may have travelled many miles, shape-shifting en route, collecting memorabilia from different places along the way.
To most readers of poetry, whether the poem’s journey has been long or short, makes little difference to an appreciation of the final product. Sometimes, a lot of effort goes into creating something consciously artless. John Sparrow wrote of a poem in Housman’s A Shropshire Lad, that ‘of its four stanzas, Housman tells us that two were ‘given’ to him ready made, one was coaxed forth from his subconscious an hour or two later, the remaining one took months of conscious composition. No one can tell for certain which was which’.
Jessica Kingsley Publishers has a growing list of titles in its Writing for Therapy or Personal Development series which are about the ways in which creative writing interacts with the writer’s psyche. The emphasis is not so much on the final product but rather on the process of creating it. There is less concern for its ultimate literary merit, but more for how the act of shaping the material, finding form for thoughts and emotions, might illuminate issues and questions in the writer’s life. A recently launched title, Writing Routes, co-edited by Gillie Bolton, Kate Thompson and myself, explicitly takes the journey as a metaphor for how writers of all kinds travel alongside their writing and what they learn as a result.
Here are some examples of writing journeys featured in our book:
Penelope Shuttle writes of how Virginia Woolf describes mourning as time when nothing happens, because ‘one is simply imprisioned in time, frozen from any action’. Water is a theme of her piece, ‘The Healing Fountain’, its title taken from WH Auden’s poem ‘In Memory of WB Yeats’. She describes coming across her late husband, Peter Redgrove’s poem ‘The Harper’, full of arresting images, including a ‘woman swimming in her evening clothes’. Reading these astonishing words, Penelope describes how she ‘felt the dried-up well-springs of poetry and life flow in me again’.
Depression, Les Murray reminds us ‘can be a fatal illness’. He describes the process of writing a poem about bullying and suicide and how writing the poem ‘initiated a programme of accurate research into my experience and what it could show me’. Sometimes, it takes great persistence and courage to get to real issues behind an incident or the events surrounding it. Les writes, ‘you have to cast a clear light on piggy little neuroses … you have to tell their stories over and over …’ His resulting poem, ‘Burning Want’ takes him back to his school days and events in the early 1950s. In terms of it clarifying the events of that time, Les writes ”Burning Want’ was a start and gave me an instinctive relief the moment I completed it’.
Myra Schneider chooses to create some distance from personal events in her poem ‘The Mincer’. She was aware of the ‘heavy sense of sunlessness’ in her home as a child, particularly connected to female drudgery. Rather than describe it directly, she personifies the mincer as a character ‘clamped/ to kitchen’ with no inkling of ‘subtlety nor beauty’.
Abi Curtis, Glynis Charlton and Wendy French take published poems as starting points for their own journeys. Kate Compston, Maggie Sawkins, Robert Hamberger and Carolyn Henson describe how, paradoxically, the restrictions of writing in form gave them more freedom to explore their material.
And there’s more – the book has over seventy contributors. Many write poetry but others tell stories of their journeys through prose or drama. The book is arranged arranged by theme and cross referenced by the type of writing.
We hope Writing Routes will serve as a map of a still little-explored continent, that of our writing selves. We hope too you might consult it and plot your own journey and that you might set out knowing that others have been similarly courageous.
Gwyneth Lewis writes in her Foreword that the trickiest part of a journey can be ‘finding the beginning of the path. Once you know that your feet are on a way which has been followed by others, then it becomes much easier to pay attention to the surroundings and enjoy the view’.
Order Writing Routes (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2010).
Visit Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Victoria Field is a writer and Poetry Therapist. She is a regular tutor on the Writing in Health and Social Care programme at Ty Newydd. One of her poems is Poem of the Month on the Second Light website.  Read more of Victoria’s work at poetrypf.

Victoria Field © Christopher North


Islands, the Universe, Home

“You have to mix death into everything,” a painter once told me. “Then you have to mix life into that,” he said as his cigarette ashes dropped onto the palette. “If they are not there, I try to mix them in. Otherwise the painting won’t be human.”

– Gretel Ehrlich, ‘This Autumn Morning’
What is this wild embrace? This slipping away of heat from air at daybreak, these clothes made of bird cries being peeled from my body? …
Lao Tzu exhorts us to listen to the world “not with ears but with mind, not with mind but with spirit.” Some days I hear what sounds like breathing: quick inhalations from the grass, from burnt trees, from streaming clouds, as if desire were finally being answered, and at night in my sleep I can feel black tree branches pressing against me, their long needles combing my hair.”
– Gretel Ehrlich, ‘The Fasting Heart’  
Order Islands, the Universe, Home (Viking, 1991).

High Tide in Tucson: Essays from Now or Never

“We point out our wildest lands—the Amazon rain forests, the Arctic tundra—to inspire humans with the mighty grace of what we haven’t yet wrecked. Those places have a power that speaks for itself, that seems to throw its own grandeur as a curse on the defiler. Fell the giant trees, flood the majestic canyons, and you will have hell and posterity to pay.”
– Barbara Kingsolver, ‘The Memory Place’
  High Tide in Tucson (HarperCollins, 1995)
Order High Tide in Tucson.


I’ve only read a few chapters but I’m pretty sure that if you loved John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (as I did), you’ll love Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief (Vintage, 2000).
It was a New York Times bestseller, a Barnes and Noble Discover book, a Borders New Voices selection and the subject of the movie, Adaptation. It promises to live up to its reputation.
The back cover reads: “The Fakahatchee Strand, Florida, once a vast swamp awash with indigenous orchids, was plundered during the orchid boom of the 1890s. Its remaining plants, now fiercely protected by law, still attract the unwelcome attentions of thieves. John Laroche is one such self-confessed and convicted thief. Intrigued by newspaper reports of his trial, Susan Orlean followed Laroche on an enthralling exploration into the eccentric world of the obsessive orchid collectors; a subsculture of aristocrats, enthusiasts and smugglers whose passion for plants is all-consuming.”
“Sometimes this kind of story turns out to be something more, some glimpse of life that expands like those Japanese paper balls you drop in water and then after a moment they bloom into flowers, and the flower is so marvelous that you can’t believe there was a time when all you saw in front of you was a paper ball and a glass of water.”
Susan Orlean on Florida:
“It is a collision of things you would never expect fo find together in one place – condominiums and panthers and raw woods and hypermarkets and Monkey Jungles and strip malls and superhighways and groves of carnivorous plants and theme parks and royal palms and hibiscus trees and those hot swamps with acres and acres that no one has ever even seen – all toasting together under the same sunny vault of Florida sky.”
Read more about The Orchid Thief at Susan’s website.