Wednesday, 29 April 2020

More art; Bloom Where You Are Planted; Vines Survived!!!

Hello dear friends.

If life were a narrative, I'd say that mine's a bit lacking in plot just now.  The days flow into each other, and it's pretty much same old same old.  I fear I have become a Very Boring Person.  My poetry has ground to a halt. I do keep trying to paint one thing every day, but even that is feeling flat and uninspired just now. Still, I soldier on.

Here's a path through the Scottish woods, inspired by s photo sent by Beth McDonough:

Some tulips, brought by my neighbour Harriet:

Tuesday, 24 April 2018

a lovely lunch; Bluebell Photoshoot; one year

Hello dear friends!  It's been very, very busy.

On Saturday I went to London to have lunch with some wonderful friends in Blackheath.   P and C always entertain so elegantly, and their garden is amazing.  Since it was warm and beautiful we sat was so sunny that I had to put a hat and dark glasses on at one point!   The other guests were friends always seem to bring together such interesting and articulate people, so the conversation was truly fantastic.  Quality time squared.

I then got back to BiFFO, but on the way had a text from Crissie & family suggesting that we meet at the Middle House in Mayfiel for supper. So we did.  After that,  we came home, and the following morning was the annual bluebell photoshoot .  Here are my two little flowers (granny-burbling warning now in effect)

This is the fourth annual bluebell shot, and it is so very lovely to watch the girls growing up ever more intelligent and bonny.  Here they are with their parents:

And here's one of me with my girls, in a pic photobombed by Dan the Cat:

At noon, we decamped to my favourite pub, the Star Inn in Old Heathfield.  Two pub meals in one weekend may seem a bit much, but we don't often get weather like this.  Here are my beautiful girls.

Then on Monday I was off to London to be interviewed for a programme called The New Orleans Strut, for Resonance FM.  Here's a link which I hope will work:

This was great fun.  L'il Koko, the DJ,  is charming and well-spoken, and we talked about the Southern Gothic and commented on some wonderful New Orleans tracks.

Today, however, has not been an easy day.  My sister died exactly one year ago.  On Sunday, Mariana came over to me and said, 'Where's Sallye?'  I said she was in Heaven.  Mariana, who's a very thoughtful little girl, said, 'I miss her and I love her.'  I replied, with a huge lump in my throat,'So do I, sweetheart.'  How lucky we were to have had those precious days together when she came over for Cristina and Liam's wedding...they were incredibly special.  And how wonderful that she and the girls were able to get to know one another and play together out in the tepee in the garden.  What a mystery it all I would love to believe that consciousness survives in some form after death.  And how I hope she knows just how much we all loved her.

So there I shall leave you, dear friends.  I hope you have am excellent week.

love, Susan x

Monday, 2 April 2018

The most special of Easters. Ravens and rebirth.

Good morning dear friends.

In my last post, I alluded to the fact that this was going to be a very special Easter. That may have been the understatement of the century for me.

I've spoken here about my long-lost cousin...long ago, my Mississippi cousin Ruthie was forced by the family to give up her baby for adoption.  Back then, there was such a stigma attached to children conceived Out of Wedlock...I so hate the cruelty of that phrase.  The day after I came home from my sister's funeral last year, I was contacted by someone who, like me, had had his DNA tested, and there was a link.  This was later confirmed by a link with another first cousin.  The place where he was born, and the date, coincided.  I was blown away by it...when I was going through the avalanche of emails when I returned from the funeral, it would have been so easy for me to delete the one from him by mistake.  But I didn't, and thank god for that.

Here's a link to my post from early June 2017:

Since then, we've corresponded a lot.  I'd been haunted for decades with worry about where Ruthie's child might have ended up, whether he'd been adopted by people who were kind to him, or not.  It was a huge relief to hear that he'd been brought up in a loving family by good people, and had made a wonderful life for himself.  So when I heard that he and his family would be visiting London, and when he invited me to have lunch with them in Knightsbridge (which is where they were staying), I was thrilled to bits.

We arranged to meet up by the Tube stop...He has such an extraordinary resemblance to my cousin that I knew that meeting him would be very, very emotional, so thought it would be best for us to meet first and then proceed to the restaurant to meet the rest of the family.  When he walked up, I threw my arms open wide and so did he, and we hugged each other hard...I'd promised him not to blub and not to emote, but I'm afraid my eyes were overflowing with tears.  What an extraordinarily magical and special moment it was.  Ruthie would be very proud of the man her son has become.  We then went on to the restaurant.  His family is amazing.  His wife is lovely...intelligent, charming and kind.  And his daughters are spectacular:  lovely, well-brought up girls with good manners and lively intelligent minds, and so much fun.  We talked about the vile weather, about London and the many things they're planning to do, about politics--one daughter had an anti-Trump badge, which I loved.  In the beginning, I was more than a bit nervous about how it would all go, but they received me with such warmth and kindness.  It was a remarkably special day.

I then headed home (Southeastern Trains, in its infinite wisdom, had scheduled engineering works over the Easter weekend, so there were replacement buses for part of the journey) and collapsed in a heap.  Since then, I've been trying to process it all...some beloved old ghosts, and some haunting sad old stories  are floating in my mind and heart just now.  I've spoken here before about survivor's guilt, which is an old friend of mine.  For years, I was guilt-tripped by different family members  about a) being alive and b) for having a living father who loved me.  And then I felt guilty about the anger that provoked in me, and I've had to work on forgiving, not just them, but myself.   But yesterday, for whatever reason, that guilt and anger has begun to dissolve and slip away, and that is such an extraordinary blessing. 

I wish with all my heart that my cousin, had been there yesterday.  No one can ever replace her, and it would be profoundly wrong for me to ever attempt to do so.  If I did, Ruthie would haunt me, and not in a good way!  But what I can do is try to convey to her son that he was very much loved by both his mother and his grandmother,  and to answer any questions he may have if I'm able to do so.  So we're meeting up later this week, one on one, for lunch.  I did feel such an extraordinary connection from the moment we met.  He and his loved ones will always be part of my family and my tribe, to the extent that they wish to be.  And what a huge blessing that is, and what a gift from the Universe.

Something that is seemingly unrelated, but isn't:  when I was waiting on the platform at Stonegate, I looked up into the trees and saw two nesting ravens:

As regular readers of this blog will know, I love my ravens.  For me they symbolise metamorphosis and the ability to shift between realms, to acknowledge the dark and live there occasionally, and still be able to re-emerge and embrace the light.  Nesting is all about home, and about creating a safe space for a family to grow and thrive.  So when I saw these two and their nest, it had a very special significance for me.

I am now going to chill and read novels with no redeeming literary value whatsoever.  I'd hoped to write some poems, but my heart is overflowing just now, and I fear (borrowing from Wordsworth) that they'd be awash in emotion but lacking in tranquillity.   But I will in time.

Take care, dear friends, and have a great week.The Universe really is full of messages and of magic,  if we let ourselves be open to them, and have eyes to see and ears to hear.

love, Susan xxx

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Vines Pruned! Tiles! Some thoughts on love.

Hello dear friends!

Lots happening.  I've finished pruning the vines! YESSSS!!! But boy is it cold.  I am now having a restorative cup of tea, and am beginning to feel my fingers once again.  I'll probably need to have another go in a week or so just to tidy up any stray tendrils I missed.  But by golly I am determined for my vines not just to grow but to flourish.  One day I would so love to raise a glass of BiFFO Wine to toast you all!

I've also been having fun painting tiles.  There's a project blooming, and I have a cunning plan...All will be revealed in due course.

It's also been a good week for poetry.  This one was published on Marie Lightman's The Writers' Cafe special issue on Love.  Here's a link:

but if that doesn't work, here it is:


At square-dancing classes, under our skirts,
we wore petticoats
made of yards and yards of scratchy net.

We whirled and spun.  Allemand left,
dos-si-dos   swing your partner
fiddles dipped and wailed.

The boys tried their best to hold us tight
but were foiled by acres of lethal ruffle walls.
We were prickly female hedgehogs

encased in frothy chastity, fending them off,

I was, I hasten to add, completely rubbish at squaredancing!  But it was great fun...That said, not for any amount of money would I want to return to being a teenager! Oh the shyness and self-consciousness and adolescent agonies...

I've been thinking about love.  Valentine's Day isn't easy for many of us...The absences make themselves felt so strongly.  That's part of what I was trying to say in this poem, 'Equation', published in Contour, edited by the Worcester Poet Laureate Nina Lewis.  Here's a check it out, because there are some amazing poems there by some very fine poets.

but again, just in case, here's my own effort:


Sooner or later, all loves
end in death,
slope down to disappointment,
fade into distance.

That’s the paradox:
Our capacity to love,
let down barriers, trust,
look into another’s eyes,
find safe haven there

is directly proportional
to our capacity for pain
when love is ripped away.
As we skate on melting ice

the singing in our veins
persuades us loving’s worth the risk
of the abyss, of all the pain

that comes with loss.

Brazilians have a saying:
O amor e eterno enquanto dura
Love is eternal as long as it lasts.

There are so many different ways of looking at love, and there's a lot of bad love about.  So many songs go on about Love Hurts, and so many people are addicted to  heartbreak...It took me such a long time to learn that good love is based (for me at least) on shared interests and priorities, on friendship, on loyalty, on honesty, and on chemistry.  It's also true that love is not so much about flowery rhetoric, but about what people actually do for each other.  When we find The One--and so many never do-- it is the most magical thing ever.  Think Fred and Ginger dancing.  And when we lose them, it rips our heart out.  

The challenge is, I think, not to close down, but to remain open to life.  This is not always easy, and of course I have my ups and downs even now.  Still, there are so many different kinds of love...I am so blessed with the love of my family, both immediate and extended, and my friends, and my animals.   I do believe that the outer world reflects back what we ourselves are, and if we are loving, it does return to us in some form multiplied.  It's so important to focus, not on what we've lost, but on what we once had, and on what we still have now.  At the end of the day, we can either choose to fade into the dark, or decide to embrace the light, and live and live and live.

One final  bit of news: The Salamander and the Raven has had over 100,000 hits!  (100,062 to be exact, in 39 countries).  Astonishing!  Why people log on all over the world, I do not know.  Edith Wharton used to talk about her Community of Spirits, of like-minded friends, and I am so blessed with mine.  Your love and support do keep me going.

On a different, less idyllic note: I now have a FitBit, and the damned thing is buzzing and nagging me to get moving.  So I'm off to walk a bit.  I hope you all have a wonderful Valentine's Day, dear friends.  Hold your loved ones close!  I'm planning to ring my granddaughters' later to give them a Valentine's hug over the phone.Take care,  and see you when I get back from warmer climes.

Happy Valentine's Day!  Love, Susan x

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

girls in the bluebells! Gardening, Poems published, second edition

 Hello dear friends!

What a great weekend. Crissie, Liam and the girls came out, and we spent it in a frenzy of gardening. I'd spent most of Thursday and Friday planting...anomones, phlox, veronica gentianoides, asters, agapanthus (blue and white), acanthus spinosa....the list goes on and on.  Crissie's designed a border in front of the house, and it looks beautiful.  As does she. (Sorry--can't help it.  My daughter really is uncommonly gorgeous).  Here's a shot of her in gardening mode:

And here are the girls looking out at the future vineyard.

Liam is the Veg Supremo.  Here he is tying up his broad beans.  His new specs look great!

And here are some more with Crissie and the girls.

On Sunday we went to the pub for lunch.  Here I am with Mariana.  That child has a smile that lights up the skies.

I'd brought both girls aprons from Italy, with their names embroidered on the front, Isabella's in pink, Mariana's in orange (their respective favourite colours).  Underneath, it says 'Aiuto Nonna.'  (Granny's helper, roughly translated).    I am such a soppy old thing.  On Sunday afternoon, while Mariana had her nap, Isabella and I made snickerdoodles, which are a kind of American cookie.  She loves baking, and particularly enjoys licking the beaters.

So it was great.  And then there was some lovely poetry news:  first, I had five poems featured in the Sweet Spot, on  Fat Damsel, edited by the wonderful Jane Burn.  It's one of the most exciting new magazines around.  Here's a link.

And then I heard from Kate Garrett-Nield that my pamphlet Constellations is now going into its second edition!  Kate is the fantastic editor of Three Drops Press, and this was great news indeed.  It's yours for a fiver!  Here's a link:

So all in all it was such a very wonderful weekend.  I finished it off, after the kids left, and again yesterday, by planting lettuces and listening to Tchaikovsky.

God how lucky I am, and how blessed.  I am so incredibly grateful, in this jagged burning world, for all this warmth and beauty.

Have a great week, dear friends!

love, Susan x

Saturday, 25 March 2017


Good evening dear friends!

I've just returned from the March for Europe, and wanted to blog while the impressions were fresh in my mind.  This morning I rose early, donned my EU pussy hat, and set out for the railway station.  On arriving there, when I went to buy my ticket, I realised to my horror that my debit card was missing.  I'd gone to the Post Office in a nearby village to get money out, so almost certainly left it there.  I rang them from the station platform, but was told that any cards handed in were in the safe, and that they'd be closing at 12:30.  This, since I'm off for Sicily tomorrow, was NOT good news.  I wavered for a moment, but then concluded that I absolutely was not going to miss the march, so rang the bank and cancelled my card.  Fortunately I do have another, so all is not lost!

It was an absolutely beautiful sunny spring day,  I went to Waterstone's in Trafalgar Square for a coffee, and waited for a friend there.

 I won't name her here, because her current employers don't encourage a social media presence.  All I'll say is that she was one of my PhD students, and is an incredibly impressive young woman...I was reflecting this morning on how incredibly lucky I am: in my professional life, I have come into contact with the most brilliant young people.  Several  have gone on to stellar academic careers; one works for a major media company;  another is doing interesting work on the European continent; another, after a stint of lecturing, is now a full-time mother.  I am equally proud of them all.  So it was an absolute delight to see my friend and catch up.

One thing I loved was that most of the signs were homemade.  These weren't slick professional protesters, just ordinary people who felt it was important to be there.  Since we were very very early, the Square had only begun to fill up.

But more and more people began pouring in to the Square, and we marched down Whitehall toward the Houses of Parliament.  There was an underlying melancholy, given the events of day before yesterday, when a good brave man was stabbed to death yards from where we were standing, and where not far away pedestrians were mowed down by a fanatic.  Some American media outlets have characterised London as cowering in fear.  This is complete and utter rubbish, and is absolutely untrue.  Whoever believes that sort of nonsense doesn't know London:  it is the most resilient and brave and undaunted of cities, and it will take a lot more than what happened recently to make us afraid.  There were people of all ages, elderly, middle-aged, young people, teenagers, children, babies, and it was all incredibly positive and benign.

 Here are some shots of Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament:

I loved the signs these children were carrying, particularly the one that says 'My Cat is EU'.  Good kids! Someone is definitely bringing them up right.

My favourite sign.

 Here's the statue of Winston Churchill, on which someone had put an EU flag.  Churchill was a staunch European, and must be spinning in his grave.

The mood was really quite extraordinary.  Londoners normally don't talk to strangers on the street, or on the Tube, but today was different: everyone was smiling, even chatty.  One very loquacious photographer took my picture, and I looked him in the eye and told him that if he posted a picture of me with three chins, he would be KILLED.  (The camera is not my friend).  I'd hoped to meet up with yet another friend, C.,  a lovely woman I met in St. Lucia when I went there after my husband died and who's become a close friend, but given the crowds it just wasn't possible.  Eventually my former supervisee and I absconded to a nearby watering hole, and it was lovely to catch up over a drink.  Quality time indeed, with a wonderful friend.

So: next week Article 50 will be invoked, setting off the train of events that will remove Britain from Europe.  At this moment, it feels to me as though we are about to step into a very dark abyss.  I hope with all my heart that I am wrong, that Britain will prosper outside the EU, but on that score I have the gravest doubts.  Today was about an ending, and endings are always sad.  But when I looked around, and saw all the wonderfully diverse crowd and felt the positivity and tolerance and refusal to give in to fear, it was such a healing experience, and it gave me heart.  There are so many good people here, and there is so much to love about this country.

I'm aware, of course, that the March won't make a blind bit of difference.  My children and I, and my granddaughters, are here as EU citizens, though what will happen regarding our residential status, who is to know.  One thing for sure: it was very important for me to be in London today and to take part.  One day, if my granddaughters ask me what I did to avert this disaster, I will be able to say that I stood up for what I thought was right, and that to me means more than just about anything.

Now I must go pack for Sicily!  and collapse in a heap.  Take care, dear friends.  I may be able to post sporadically while I'm away, but will plan to blog at greater length when I get back a week from tomorrow.

love, wearily, Susan x

Monday, 12 September 2016

Bella Italia!

Hello dear friends!  I'm back, and what an amazing holiday it was.  When I die, I want to go to Italy.

Painting in Italy is a company that arranges high-end painting holidays in, well, Italy.  The hotels they chose are absolutely amazing, and La Ghirlanda was no exception.  It's a former shooting lodge in the heart of Umbria, owned by the Count of Benedettoni Pongelli (that almost certainly is misspelled).   It's one of the very best hotels I've ever stayed at, and I've stayed in some mighty good ones.  The setting was heartstoppingly beautiful, and the food was to die for.  And the service was terrific: unobtrusive, attentive, and highly professional.

Here's the view from the terrace.  There was a swimming pool beneath.

Here's a view from the terrace where we had dinner in the evenings;

 Another view from the terrace.

Very imperfectly rendered by me in charcoal!

We would paint all morning, and then on occasion visit neighbouring villages in the afternoon.  Our tutor, Fiona Graham-Mackay, was utterly brilliant.  She is an incredibly distinguished painter: she's done portraits of Prince Michael of Kent, and (for me far more impressive) of the poets Seamus Heaney and Lemn Sissay.  She gave a wonderful talk about her interactions with the last two while she was painting them--I was spellbound.  She is an outstanding tutor: always there to provide encouragement to stretch out boundaries, always professional and kind.  I very much hope that we keep in touch.
Here she is with one of my colleagues, now friends.  Neville is a physicist who lives in Belfast.

And here are Pat and Mike, a retired accountant from Newcastle.  All of my colleagues were absolutely lovely, and so incredibly helpful with painting advice, helping me put up my easel, and that sort of thing Pat was doing cooking lessons with the Contessa, and had some wonderful stories to tell.  Another colleague was Jill, who's worked in banking. This sort of holiday attracts such interesting people...I love my poets and artist: they really are my tribe.

One afternoon we went to Todi, a beautiful village across the valley, and I burned a candle for those I've loved and lost, for Jonathan and for my family members.

And then we all went for ice-cream!  It was on the square, and right in front was a barber shop.  People-watching is the very best thing ever.

Here's lovely Fiona with a visiting dog, whom we learned later is called Francesco.  He was a sweetie: friendly, raffish, and not at all intrusive.

We also visited a vineyard in Montefalco! This was arranged by Sheila, who runs Painting in Italy.  She and I had talked about my vineyard, and originally I was the only one going, but then my friends said they'd like to come to. So they did, and it was great.  The owner, Albertino, was young and charming, and it was great to talk to him about the advantages of double or single Guyot pruning.  The vineyard was utterly beautiful, all golden lushness: in tones of green and gold and purple.

We almost always ate in the hotel, where the food was utterly divine (I am now on a VERY SEVERE diet! Desperate measures are called for.)  But in Montefalco we were taken to a restaurant. There's a lot of Fat Duckery about, in Italy as well as here.  I find that in establishments of this type, performance takes precedence over the enjoyment of diners, with constant tedious riffs about what we were about to eat.   The (rather officious and pompous) waiter recommended one of the day's specials, which was...meatloaf, with ginger and lemon sauce.  So a few of us thought that might be fun, and this is what appeared:

I have never photographed my food, but they say there's a first time for everything, so I did.  I'm afraid we dissolved into helpless shrieks of laughter...May the Lord preserve me from ironic postmodern restaurants.  The staff were not best pleased, since the whole restaurant was weeping in laugher...and indeed it must be frustrating to have your offering greeted with widespread
derision, but hey: they had it coming.  I wondered at one point if this was a culinary metaphor giving the Finger to clients...  At least there weren't little carrot balls at the base!

We then returned to the hotel to this view from the terrace:

 And here's an interior view.

On Friday evening, after dinner, we walked in to the village, where a jazz concert was taking place in the small central piazza.  Saragano is built in golden stone, and fortunately wasn't affected by the recent earthquake in Umbria, though throughout the region there were many cancellations.  The air was balmy, and the vibe--and the combo--was good.  So we all danced in the moonlight (of course I kicked off my shoes).  And then--the Devil made me do it--I went up to the keyboard player and asked if I could sing a number with him.  When I was Head of English at Glasgow, when colleagues (charming though they were and are) were driving me nuts, one of the ways I dealt with it was by having jazz singing lessons.  I think initially the keyboard player thought, Oh God, but then he asked me which key, and I smiled and said, 'Key of A.' I think that reassured him that maybe I'd done this a time or two before.  And then I sang 'Summertime,' a tune which I absolutely love.  People danced! Brits, Italian, everyone, and it was slow and smoochy.  At the end I  I got a rousing round of applause, and my friends and I went on to dance until the wee hours.  Magical, and a night I shall never forget.

The following day, Saturday, we'd been invited to sketch in the gardens of the tower where the Count and Contessa live (they were away).   Here's the place I found to draw.

And here's a view of the tower.

And here is a very majestic ginger tom.  I think there will have to be a poem titled 'Gatto Italiano.'
Perhaps Leo, my neighbours' gorgeous cat, has been reincarnated in Italy as a Count's Cat.

And here I am the Morning After.

I'll leave you with a pastel I did of the view from the terrace.
What an utterly fantastic holiday...I miss Saragano.  But it's good to be back.

Have a lovely week, dear friends.  I may post more images of my Immortal Art over the coming days!

love, Susan xx