Thursday 29 February 2024


I took myself for a walk today. My body aches, lately. Ha! Lately? For the past thirty years kind of lately... but yes, this sludge like treacle we move through while attached to our phones receiving news of a genocide adds a new layer of ache. When the doctors found a murmur on my ten year old heart, they kept an eye on it even as I moved countries. Lately... oh that word again... my heart is heavier, the beats a little unsteadier. "I think I'd like to send you to Papworth if you don't mind," said my cardiologist a few weeks ago. For an MRI at the big fancy heart hospital. "Anything I should know? Any questions for me?" she asked. She's lovely, and Northern Irish, so I think she would have been fine with me responding with the truth. "The children," I would have said. "The children of Gaza." I don't know what the figures are for bombed, amputated, under the rubble, but as we know, they are not numbers. Each one has a name. Although the ones who knew their names, who could write their names on the tiny white shrouds, are also gone. Motaz Azaiza, our traumatised young heroic journalist, puts it this way: "They passed," he says. I find his way of commenting on unjust death very moving. Sparse and factual, laden with helplessness, and yet, dignified. Even as he witnesses a physical reality beyond the language any one of us possesses. In war time, photographers from foreign western lands, are often given the wealthiest noblest prizes for capturing children on fire or dying. Motaz is Palestinian, and the people he photographs are family, friends, neighbours. The blood of his blood. No award or prize will ever ease his psychological torment.

On Valentine's Day, I took myself for a walk, because my body was aching, and I know there are snowdrops ‘out there’ and aconites and the beginnings of daffodils. There are bridges with river water, and even birdsong. There was unexpectedly more. I walked past the village hall and was invited in for the monthly Wednesday tea and cake. My first thought is often no, instinctive to avoid gatherings. Not just a pandemic protection, but a social defence. Years of "so what are you up to these days?" Now I find I can talk more easily having been accepted as The Daughter Who Lives With Beloved Parents. I have somehow moved into a more accepted phase. Not quite old, not too young. Just... a person. The Elders were glad to have me. I ate a slice of apple pie, and then washed up as many cups and saucers as I could before linking arms with a friend and walking on. "Rage helps keep my tears at bay," she said. It's nice having friends who know.

What now? The clock ticks on. The calendar advances. "We are living through a very dark time," my mother acknowledges. And that comforts me too. Dad asked me to start reading the autobiography of Sister Chân Không a day or two before we heard the news of the young US soldier, Aaron Bushnell, setting himself on fire in protest against American military aid to Israel and solidarity with the suffering of Gazans. Sister Chân Không witnessed the burning of the monk Thích Quảng Đửc on June 11, 1963. Speaking of photographs that won prizes… I could post it here. But you have already seen it. Maybe even at the time it flew around the world. My heavy heart, my heavy heart. It was never designed for this live witnessing of the worst of who we are to each other. So instead, some blossom and a poem, and later, perhaps a walk. It has been a good year for snowdrops.

every time I ever said I want to die
By Andrea Gibson

A difficult life is not less
worth living than a gentle one.
Joy is simply easier to carry
than sorrow. And your heart 
could lift a city from how long
you’ve spent holding what’s been
nearly impossible to hold.

This world needs those
who know how to do that.
Those who could find a tunnel
that has no light at the end of it,
and hold it up like a telescope
to know the darkness
also contains truths that could
bring the light to its knees.

Grief astronomer, adjust the lens,
look close, tell us what you see.

Sunday 21 January 2024


Our beloved friend, Annette Rowntree-Clifford née Johanna Abrahamsohn, died in December. She was nearly a hundred, so she knew life in all its shades of horror and glory. Some years ago, Annette's granddaughter wrote a beautiful poem about her Granny being a bird, flitting from room to room, 'her wings are deep blue folded cardigans and tucked inside are her stories'. Emily's poem was read at Annette's eulogy yesterday, and so, I believe, was the poem below, which I had written for Annette many years ago when I visited her. After the long drive to Leicester from Cambridge, I had to be put to bed like a small tired bear. Annette tucked me cosily into one of her grown up children's bedrooms. I felt frustrated as always by my time stealing illness. Precious time with Annette and Hugh lost because of my unruly body. 

Hugh was a lifelong friend, at school and later at Oxford, of my father's brother Sadiq, and Dad spent all his summer vacations staying with the Cliffords while he was a medical student at St. Andrews. As Mum and Dad laughed and shared tea and stories together with their dear friends, I wrote this upstairs in bed: 

Moving Plates

The perfect home
has something sentimental
resting side by side
with the practical.

Everything a meaning,

a memory,
a moment - even the broken,
the chipped china,

but especially the hand woven
crochet craft work,
and the little notes
you write yourself -

you leave for us
a forget-me-not trail
winding all the way

to 1939
when the plates
          of your atlas
moved forever.

I do feel tired and heavy these days. And not because it is winter, and dark after four o'clock. After all, there are many blessings as always - not least that Dad and I walked down to the railway line twice this past week. I saw the sun and hustled Dad out. At the end of the driveway, I expected he would want to turn back as always. Expecting that, I hesitantly stepped out into the road and was met by blithe acceptance on his part. 'Anytime you want to stop and turn back, we can, ok Dad?' 'I'm fine!' he assured me, reassured me. So on we went. On - on - and out of sight.

Annette brought good cheer always. In person, over the telephone and in gifts. When I was a teenager, Annette sent me a huge postcard with one of A. A. Milne's Christopher Robin and Pooh sketches on the front. It was so special to me then, and has continued to be near me since. Wherever I have lived - home, university, rented annexe, garden shanny - I have blue tacked the postcard to a handy wall. Pooh is not just for children. Annette understood things like that. She 'got you' in the words of her son Tony. To have such people in my life - people who 'get me' - my heart should be a singing bird at all times. But. War, injustice and poverty make that impossible. 

Tony ended the eulogy for Annette with another poem. This one by a poet made famous by a war. Siegfried Sassoon had a Jewish father, like Annette and her sister Gretel did. In 1914, Siegfried, being an enthusiastic Cambridge and Kent boy, was drawn into the English army. In 1939, Annette and Gretel, being German Jews, were shepherded to England on the kinder transport, waving goodbye at the train station to the parents they would never see again. Never again. Words we hear a lot of, but not fully meant - never again, for everyone. Did you know that Sassoon's father was a Baghdadi Jew, from an Iraqi family who had settled in Bombay? And did you know that Sassoon was sent to Palestine to 'recuperate from shell-shock' - the party line taken by a government angered by the anti-war poetry and speeches made by their tall, handsome, exceptionally brave soldier?  Siegfried Sassoon wrote poetry in the spring of 1918, in Gaza and Ramallah, Palestine. He wrote, 'On the rock strewn hills I heard/ The anger of guns that shook/ Echoes along the glen./ In my heart was the song of a bird,/ And the sorrowless tale of the brook,/ And scorn for the deeds of men.' The bird he was listening to was a bulbul, whose song was heard often by my parents when we lived in Bombay. The discovery of these connections has made me happy. Annette is lifting my heart even as I write these words. 'It's complicated,' everyone says. As if a single life isn't complicated enough to fill trilogies. All we can hope is that as we near the end of our own complicated life, everyone lifts their voices to sing our tale. 

Everyone Sang

Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight,
As prison birds must find in freedom,
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on - on - and out of

Everyone's voice was suddenly lifted;
And beauty came like the setting sun:
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror,
Drifted away ... O, but Everyone 
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing
will never be done.

(photo of bulbul by Sunjoy Monga via Conde Nast Traveller)

Friday 5 January 2024


Whose woods these are, I think I know;
They belong to my friends, Coco and Joe.

What if there were no fear, or loss,
but hawthorn berry, instead?

What if I could tell
hazel and maple apart,

not because one had more beauty -
there are rosehips, don’t forget,

and Vibernum Opulis
and crushed, scented pine.

Some catkins are soft green 
caterpillars, plush with rain.

I learn a new story now
and again - like how rosemary 

got her name - Rose Marinus -
‘dew of the sea’.

Everything ages. The cork
of the field maple marries moss,

and somewhere in the low bramble,
wild strawberries; 

deeper still, the badger sett,
a whole world underneath.

And high above, birds calling.
‘Where do birds go when they die?’

Joe asks. ‘Why don’t they fall 
in great heaps from the sky?’

Perhaps Merlin knew. Or Arthur, 
when he was a boy, not exiled king.

What if we could go home?
What if we were found, instead?

Poets Open Link Night at dversepoets