Mary Wollstonecraft

17 February 2012

The pioneering early feminist  and writer of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), Mary Wollstonecraft, mother of Mary Shelley, lived at Newington Green in north London.  In spite of her importance, there is no public memorial to her anywhere.  Now the Newington Green Action Group, which has promoted the rejuvenation of this area since 1996, is leading a campaign for a sculpture to be commissioned to mark Wollstonecraft’s life and work and her connections with the area.

Mary Wollstonecraft warrants a memorial, not only as the foremost pioneer of women’s rights but also as an upholder of domestic affections and anti-war values – an alternative to the exercise of power through greed and aggression.” Lyndall Gordon, author of Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft (quoted on the campaign website http://www.maryonthegreen.org/)

Mary on Houses of Parliament

As part of the publicity for the campaign Wollstonecraft’s image was projected onto the Houses of Parliament at Westminster on 16 November 2011, reminding everyone of the significant role she played in the beginnings of the movement that led to women’s political representation.

To find out more about the campaign, go to the website at:


To find out more about Mary Wollstonecraft, start here:


and then, best of all, read her book:

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Penguin Classics, 3rd revised edition, 2004.


A film for people who like books

1 February 2012

The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore from Moonbot Studios on Vimeo.


The sun is spent…..

13 December 2011


At this time of year, especially on cloudy days like today, I realise quite how important light is to me. Many of the midwinter festivals have pagan origins from the time when our ancestors hoped, as the days grew darker and shorter, that the light would return and then celebrated the new light and new growth that are noticeable as soon as the solstice, ‘the year’s midnight’, has passed. As it happens, today is celebrated as St Lucia’s day and used to be thought the shortest day of the year, although the solstice will not come for another week. John Donne’s poem ‘A Nocturnal on St Lucia’s Day, Being the shortest day’ tells us

The sun is spent, and now his flasks
Send forth light squibs, no constant rays;
The world’s whole sap is sunk….

This how it feels, in the northern hemisphere, but I remind myself that from now on the days will get longer and the light will get stronger. Last night in my Occitan class I learnt a seasonal verse:

Per Santa Luça los jorns creisson d’un pè de piuce
Per Nadal d’un pè de gal
Per l’an nòu d’un pè de buòu
(At Saint Lucia the days lengthen by a flea’s foot
At Christmas by a cockerel’s foot
At New Year by an ox’s foot)

I’m looking forward to the New Year and the ox’s foot. In the meantime I try to create as much light as possible. St Lucia the Christian martyr is often rather gruesomely portrayed holding her eyes on a tray after they were torn out, but I prefer to see this day and its pagan origins as the beginning of the new year’s light.



9 November 2011


I’m very pleased that my copies of the latest issue of Modern Poetry in Translation have just arrived.  It’s a book-sized magazine full of interesting articles and translations of poems from so-called ‘minority’ languages around the world.  My contribution consists of a short introduction to the Occitan writer Max Rouqette and my translations of three of his poems.  I find translating a fascinating occupation as it makes me think hard about the meanings of words in the original language and in English too.  I have translated some of my own poems into French and, although the French versions have not and may never be published, it is a very useful exercise and has often caused me to rewrite parts of the original poem in light of the thoughts that have arisen as I was translating.

I think Rouquette’s poem ‘Renebre’ (Fiddle Dock) expresses much of the essence of Occitan culture – a culture of enjoyment of life and attachment to the natural environment.  Here are a few lines from my translation of this poem:

A people in peace, far from war,

far from the sword, the fire, from exile.

Happy, the people whose nature

is to see the light in the grasses

when the sun makes them laugh.

Happy, the people of the fiddle dock and the onion,

and the stream of oil on their bread

that raises it to divine light.


Different lives

7 November 2011

A few years ago here at Write in Languedoc we ran a very successful writing week whose theme was life writing and I always find it fascinating to see the ways in which different writers approach this.  My sequence of poems, In Sight of the Sea (published by Alun Books in 2007), was based on the life of my grandmother, so it’s a particular interest of mine.  Recently I’ve been reading two books about lives lived in similar circumstances, in the same family, but which give two individual views, by sister and brother Lucia Graves and William Graves, daughter and son of the poet Robert Graves.


Both these books give wonderfully detailed portrayals of the writers’ respective upbringings and experiences as part of a bohemian family living on the island of Mallorca from the 1940s onwards.  However, their reactions to this are very personal and distinctive.  For instance, William seems able to remain detached from the political conditions and restrictions of the Franco era in Spain, even suggesting that on the island life was freer than on the mainland, which may well have been true – isolation is not always a bad thing.  Lucia, though, writes long passages about the ways in which women were subdued during this period – women like Blanca, the village midwife, who

belonged to a particular type of Spanish woman whose mind and spirit had fed on the liberal ideas of the Second Republic; women who never forgot the sense of personal emancipation and achievement they enjoyed during those years, and whose strength of character allowed them to remain free thinkers throughout the long oppressive years of the Franco regime.     (p.34)

I enjoyed both books and felt personal links with the experience of growing up in a literary environment surrounded by another culture – because of my childhood in Libya and Turkey – but, perhaps because I’m a woman, found I identified more with Lucia Graves’s writing and her feeling of being unsure to which culture she belonged.  I’ve been engaged in literary translation recently and my translations from Occitan of some of Max Rouquette’s poems have appeared in the latest issue of Modern Poetry in Translation, so another link for me is that Lucia’s uncertain identity and her fluency in Spanish and Mallorcan (a dialect of Catalan) as well as English led her to become a translator.  She writes vividly of becoming immersed in the books she was translating:

For although the ultimate aim of any translator is to become invisible to the reader, and make him, or her, forget that the words in the translated book were originally written in another language, it is also every translator’s duty to try to retain as much as possible of the original content, including its linguistic subtleties…..in becoming so involved in each book, the book often coloured my whole perception of life.  (p. 194)

Interestingly, she gained a fuller sense of who her father was as a person and a writer while ‘becoming immersed’ in his books and translating them into Catalan and Spanish.

For my part, these two books have given me the encouragement and inspiration I needed to return to some writing projects that have remained on the shelf for a couple of months.

Lucia Graves, A Woman Unknown: Voices from a Spanish Life was published by Virago in 1999; William Graves, Wild Olives: Life in Majorca with Robert Graves was published by Pimlico in 1996 and reissued in 2001.

A third sibling, Tomás Graves has also written about his life in Tuning up at Dawn: A Memoir of Music and Majorca, published by Harper Perennial in 2005.


Nobel prize

8 October 2011

It has been announced that the Nobel prize for literature will be awarded to the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer.  You can see his reaction in this video from the Guardian website:

click here to watch the video in another tab

One of the delights of this international prize is that it brings to the attention of those in other countries the work of poets we may not otherwise come across.  Tranströmer’s work has been translated into English by Robin Fulton* and the poems of his I have read seem spare and stark and eloquent. ‘Tracks’ begins with a bleak scene:

2 am: moonlight. The train has stopped
out in the middle of the plain. Far away, points of light in a town,
flickering coldly at the horizon.

The moment is described as that of one who has ‘gone into an illness so deep
/ everything his days were becomes a few flickering points’ and the poem ends with these short lines:

The train is standing quite still.
2 am: bright moonlight, few stars.

(* in New Collected Poems, translated by Robin Fulton, Bloodaxe Books, 2011)

Another poem, ‘Solitude (1)’, translated by Robin Robertson, begins:

I was nearly killed here, one night in February.
My car shivered, and slewed sideways on the ice,
right across into the other lane. The slur of traffic
came at me with their lights.

(from The Deleted World: versions of Tomas Tranströmer (Enitharmon Press, 2006)

Tranströmer’s work comes across as admirably spare and lacking in sentimentality.  If you can’t read his poems in the original Swedish, which I’m afraid I’ll never be able to do, it’s worth searching out these translations.  I certainly shall be.


National Poetry Day in the UK

6 October 2011

A day to celebrate poetry, even if like me you don’t live in the UK. It’s also the day when the winners of the Forward Prizes for Poetry are announced. The winner of the prize for a collection is John Burnside for his Black Cat Bone – you can read and hear more about this here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/oct/05/john-burnside-forward-poetry-prize.

National Poetry Day postcard

Click on the postcard above to find out more about the writers short-listed for the prizes and to hear a podcast of some of the poets reading their work. Enjoy the day….wherever you are!


Fiction: telling it in two voices

4 October 2011


I’ve just read Andrea Levy’s second novel Never Far from Nowhere and, as well as enjoying it (it’s the kind of book you feel you don’t want to put down until you’ve finished it), found it an excellent example of the use of two distinct voices to tell a story.  The two sisters, Vivien and Olive, who speak alternately in the first person, grow up together in their Jamaican family, sharing a council flat in London with their mother after their father’s death, and attend the same grammar school.  However, their characters and the way their lives turn out are very different.  They each cope in their own way with the cultural contrasts of 1960s and 1970s Britain.  Olive becomes a teenage single mother with all the problems that entailed but concludes:

‘My little sister thinks she’s better than me…..thinks I’ve wasted my life.  But I know more about life than her.  Real life.  Nothing can shock me now.’ (p. 273)

Vivien does well at school and goes on to art college, meeting and making friends with well-off middle-class white students and eventually sheds her embarrassment at being asked ‘Where do you come from?’  She is able to say ‘My family are from Jamaica’….’but I am English’. (p. 282)

The story is interesting and full of wonderful detail of the lives of teenage girls.  The way in which it is written, with the story being passed from one sister to another and back again, in informal language despite the serious issues, is even more interesting.  If you’re wondering how to write a novel, especially a coming of age novel, I’d definitely recommend reading this for inspiration.

You can read an extract from the novel on Andrea Levy’s website here and I hope you’ll be tempted to read her other novels too.

Andrea Levy, Never Far from Nowhere, Headline Book Publishing, 1996.


Writing against the rules

27 September 2011

An interesting article by Frédéric Bobin last week in the French newspaper Le Monde tells of a group of Afghan poets, all women, who meet in Kabul to read and discuss their work.

Le Monde, 19 septembre 2011

These women have decided to meet separately from male poets because, in their society, this gives them more freedom of expression. There are other social inhibitors against which they quietly rebel. Often their families disapprove of the fact that they write at all and some have been punished violently by husbands or other family members. As one member, Touba Neda, told Bobin: ‘Poetry is strongly associated with love in the minds of [Afghan] families. In their eyes, to write a poem is inevitably to be in love. And that must be controlled…..People think that only men can express themselves and that women should stay silent.’ But these women are writing about themselves, about other women, about the emotions hidden behind the veil. As Touba Neda adds, ‘women should be proud of their poetry’.


‘the season between seasons’

25 September 2011

One of the poets I find most inspiring is the Irish writer Eavan Boland.  On many occasions after reading her work I’ve found myself unexpectedly writing something new, very different from Boland’s poems but definitely as a subliminal result of the sparks her words have set off in my mind.  This reading by her of ‘White Hawthorn in the West of Ireland’ and its accompanying film of a journey makes me feel I must write about this time of year, here where I am, in another climate, surrounded as I am by other plants, flowers and fruit in autumn, another ‘season between seasons’, as she describes spring in this poem.

I find the last words of this poem, where she describes the hawthorn flowers as  ‘the only language spoken in those parts’, especially striking.  They encourage me to write about the vines, the olive trees here where I live, making them in another way into the language spoken in these parts.

I hope you find this reading inspiring too.  Inspiration derived from poetry doesn’t have to result in poetry – you could write in prose, either fiction or non-fiction.