14 February 2014

An Abiding Passion

Mr Darcy wrapping paper from Jane Austen house

In addition to the I Love Mr Darcy wrapping paper pictured above, there were three important things I brought back from Jane Austen's house in Chawton, Hampshire, when we visited a couple of weeks ago on a drizzly grey unpromising day - much like the one outside right now - to find welcome respite in the solid and genteel red brick house, which was the author's home for the eight years before she died.

The first was that sense of excitement tempered with frustration when attempting to infer, imbibe and inhale a life whose artefacts and props are situated all around.  Everything was tantalisingly close - there was the very table she wrote at, there were the letters penned with quill in her assured script, there was the quilt sewn with her mother and sister from scraps of fabric salvaged from their dresses.  And I waited and hoped, merely by dint of walking the same floorboards, that the spasm, the jolt, the judder of inspiration and genius would manifest itself in my own cells.

The second was a reminder about discipline.  Jane's day habitually went something like this: piano before breakfast, writing throughout the morning, a two-hour walk in the afternoon through the gently undulating countryside, then sewing and conversation - if not the occasional writing - in the evening.  Of course, any artist worth their salt understands the need for discipline and the necessity of 'showing up at the page' (as Julia Cameron of The Artist's Way would have it.)  Indeed, Jane's own prescription for dogged perserverance is clear.   'I am not at all in a humour for writing; I must write on till I am', she said in a letter to her sister, Cassandra.  But as I placed a hand around my own throat to drag myself away this morning from a discussion about the benefits of kiwis and cucumbers on Spanish internet television, (ostensibly both educational and linguistically stretching) I envied her life without saturation levels of distraction. 

The third was a lesson about passion and commitment.  No, I am not necessarily referring to Mr Darcy, or the need to marry for love - although those themes may be appropriate for Valentine's Day.  This very day, a ring once owned by the author has been returned to the Jane Austen house in Chawton.  Bought at auction last year by the American singer Kelly Clarkson, its export from this country was prevented, allowing time for sufficient funds to be raised to buy it back.  As far as we know, it was not a ring given to Jane Austen from a suitor, but the determination shown by admirers of the author to keep the piece of jewellery here - not to mention a sizeable donation by an unknown benefactor - are testament to the esteem in which she is still held.  It is appropriate that, as far as possible, her objets should be kept at the very spot where Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion were birthed, and Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility and Northanger Abbey were revised.  This is the work of the Jane Austen House Museum, which receives no regular government funding, but relies on donations, public admissions, and sales from its shop.  Their passion for and abiding sense of  Jane Austen as a pioneering writer, as a keen observer of mores, as a woman breaking new ground, linked with the absolute necessity of keeping her actual bricks and mortar home open and available to the public, can only be celebrated.

22 January 2014

Why I (Sometimes) Wear High Heels

Shoes from Yo Amo Los Zapatos

Things are sodden here in the south of England after the rain we've been experiencing.   Someone in the sky keeps turning on the tap.  The full regalia of wellingtons, galoshes or indeed fisherman's wading boots would have been preferable at the weekend when I went squelching through mud that oozed over the top of my normally serviceable walking boots.

Indeed, the wearing of anything as ridiculous as heels was furthermost from my mind - until I  got back home, washed out mud-dribbled socks, then looked at some of the Facebook photos of a couple of new South American friends to the A Woman in Goggles band page.   Clearly, they were shoe crazy, having posted nothing but pictures of exotic footwear from Yo Amo Los Zapatos - the Spanish language version of the Shoelovers website.  Curiosity won out and I clicked on the mouse to see what all the fuss was about.  And there in its splendour was all manner of vertiginous walking gear - beribboned, bestrapped, bebuckled, and impressively beheeled.   

Somehow, I've never completely subscribed to this Woman-as-Shoe thing, witness the sorry contents of the wardrobe.  Let's see, I must possess something approaching close to (ballpark figure) three pairs of high-heeled shoes.

But.  However.  Still...

Why I Wear High Heels
To look taller, of course:
create plinths for my legs
so they can masquerade
as objets fashioned by Bernini;

to shock complacent feet
out of jam-like spread,
streamline them
and keep them on their toes;

to seduce my gait
away from its forward intent,
teach it to rock to the lateral
in a slow pendulum sway;

to click in a tight secretary skirt
down the waxed corridors
of the Johnson Building,
Racine, Wisconsin, circa 1950;

to liberate the calligraphy
trapped in stilettos,
inking circles and swirls
on wood as I dance;

to gain vantage over hedges,
whose shadows hide
the ploughings left
by serfs in their fiefs;

to lift into the burl
of the west wind,
bump the top of my head
on the underside of wings;

and every night,
removing high heels,
to stand down,
find the earth once more.

© Katie Griffiths

2 January 2014

A Coat, a Wig and a Roving Star

Having being born the day before the traditional Epiphany, squeaking in just before the Twelve Days of Christmas are officially over, I’ve grown up being aware of stars and wise men out wandering.

And while I can imagine The Magi at this time of year on their singular journey, busy looking towards the heavens, my own eyes seem to be more firmly on the ground tracking wise men.  Any wise man or woman.  The kind of person on whose door you can rap, who will invite you in, speak in riddles you must untangle, ladle out warming broth, sit and listen to your woes, dust you down, then set you back on course, clearer and more focused.  

I realise that wise people rarely heave into view looking like Gandalf and more often come across your path heavily disguised – often in the garb of a person you’re too instantly prepared to dismiss.  I thought of one yesterday as I was cleaning the bathroom for visitors.  In fact, I think of him every single time I wipe down a basin, and hear his voice saying: immer fliessend, Katie, immer fliessend.  He was a barrel-bellied Croatian gastarbeiter in the Hansa Hotel in Wiesbaden, where I was a chambermaid for the summer I was nineteen, and he taught me everything I now know about turning round a bathroom in minutes – especially, although not necessarily economically, by keeping the water continually running while swooshing around the taps with a cloth.  His words, which were originally meant simply to communicate a knack, have transformed over time into a nugget of wisdom,  and the instructions immer fliessend, meaning always flowing, have become a mantra in my head, not just about water in a basin, but about a way of living that aspires to be easy and fluid rather than rigid and stuck.  

Yet I am still drawn to the notion of a wise and wondrous magical character, stepping out of the gloom attired in home-spun but mystic raiments.  As you can see in the photo above, I’ve laid out his/her coat in readiness (a Kashmiri embroidered dressing gown that my mother brought back from India when she was twenty-seven) and I've provided a flowing mane of hair and a hat graced with the proverbial star.  We used these props in a recent You Tube release of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star reworked by the A Woman in Goggles band.

For this traditional song of looking, wondering and seeking is nothing if not a song for Epiphany.  

And the pictured clothes are waiting to be inhabited and spring to life.


22 November 2013

Mildly Indisposed

I’ve not been around much lately.

That’s because I’m writing my second novel.  It feels like a dose of the flu.  You know when you need to take yourself off to bed and allow things to run their course, getting up only when you need to go to the loo or trudge bleary-eyed and sore-headed down to the kitchen for a crust and a cup of tomato soup?

It’s just like that.  I swear this novel is the heaviest cold ever.  I want to treat it and only it, snuggle down into it, let it sweat itself out, let the aches and pains remain behind closed doors, confining it, nursing it, ignoring all phone calls asking if I have recovered yet.   

Maybe this is exactly as it is meant to be.   Never surfacing until the indisposition has passed.  Refusing all temptation to rise from the sickbed and flee the house.  ‘I don’t go out for lunch,’ said A. S. Byatt simply, sternly last year when talking about the discipline of her writing life to students of Creative Writing at Roehampton University in west London.   I happened to be in that audience, cheering on one of my former star pupils, Haley Jenkins (watch this space                                                                                
Haley, that’s for you).  As Haley’s guest, I accidentally found myself ushered into the ‘Green Room’ beforehand.  Suddenly, A.S. Byatt, that giant of modern English literature, was standing at my side.  Fortunately, no one had mistaken me for her agent, her sibling, or her distant North American cousin – unlike the time I was for ten minutes the wife of the late, and much missed, poet Michael Donaghy

On that previous occasion, I had arrived extremely – and uncharacteristically – punctually at the school where he was due to give a reading.  As he went off to prepare for what turned out to be a scintillating and inspirational evening of poems recited from memory and flute playing, I hung around in the foyer - all too matrimonially, apparently.  I found myself being introduced to all manner of people by the Head of English.  Thinking this was extraordinarily attentive of the school’s staff to a person who had just blown in off the street, I lapped it up until the moment the head girl herself was summoned before me, and I heard the unmistakeable words: ‘and this is Mrs Donaghy’.

‘No, no,’ I said, flattered, but hugely embarrassed, ‘I’m just…’

I was just… what?

And I am just….what?

Just holed up, to be honest, the novel brewing like fever, and still tetchy, grumpy, indisposed…

31 October 2013


This blog post is in memory of my neighbour, Wendy.

In one of life’s ironies, I only really got to know Wendy over shared cups of tea once she took ill with leukaemia and needed to spend time at home, and once I had left my teaching job to develop a closer relationship with my personal computer.   Until then, for the previous ten years, we had simply waved at each other in a friendly fashion or occasionally passed the time of day on the way to the shops.

Wendy began to make jewellery.   It was a new passion.  She attended gem and stone fairs like there was no tomorrow and acquired varied specimens to fashion into necklaces and bracelets.  She kept her growing collection in the spare bedroom, organised neatly into drawers and boxes, all the labradorite and the amethyst and the tanzanite, and countless others whose names I have forgotten.   Holding them up so the sunlight could tease out each one’s rich personality, she would explain exactly why she was  drawn to them.

Sometimes she wished she could lie in a bed of cool stones, feeling them all around her. 

When it became apparent that the leukaemia had returned and she would not get better, it was a special privilege to go across the road, sit in her bedroom and talk to her as she lay in her bed.  Or rather, I would listen, because even these conversations were acts of generosity on her part, as she shared anecdotes, stories, dreams and regrets.

She said how none of us really knew, as we walked upon the ground, the stunning beauty of what lay hidden underneath.  It had always been her greatest ambition to have the opportunity to go into a mine herself, to be that person who discovered a gem of unique exquisiteness, to chisel it out from the surrounding rock and take it up to the light of day.

Her words resonated.  They continue to resonate.  She may have thought that she never achieved her ambition.  But, in fact, she did.  She touched a profound truth – for she reminded me that all creative life is exactly that: digging deep, very deep, risking scratches on the hands, gouges on the arms, and contortions of the body in order to chip out and extract something that has been buried and never imagined, then hold it aloft, shining and translucent, to share with and delight others.


30 September 2013


Inside Abbey of Saint-Avit-Sénieur 

The Woman in Goggles music project continues apace and has been elbowing out blog time.  Eight, could it be nine? original songs are in gestation, tottering on the edge of birth.  Except for My Shrink is Pregnant, none are at large in the community.  But the corollary of penning tunes is the quest to have them aired, live - if only to three sympathetic people - necessitating a rappety-tap on venue doors and asking busy landlords and hard-pressed landladies for a gig.  

Sometimes I think this would all be easier if I were still in my twenties.  But when I was in my twenties I was even more scared, though of different things.  Or maybe they were the same things – that one isn’t good enough, that one’s efforts, or barefaced cheek, will be met with guffaws of incredulity.  At which my instant response has always been: I was just kidding.

Meanwhile, limbering up, I’ve done a little of what we could term song-bombing.  Its crucial difference from photo-bombing, which is defined by Wikipedia as ‘the act of inserting oneself into the field of view of a photograph often in order to play a practical joke on the photographer or the subjects’, is to give pleasure rather than affront.  It consists of getting a song into a public place, spontaneously, non-threateningly, and without a busker’s cap in sight.  I've notched up only a handful of scores, largely in safe spaces, like an empty church.  I did rounds with close friends and family in Nolay and Saint-Germain-de-Belvès in France.  When no one was looking, or listening, I slipped a quick solo Hodie Cristus Natus Est by Benjamin Britten into the Abbey of Saint-Avit-Sénieur whose splendid interior demanded something reverential and soaring, even though it was a baking July day and this was a Christmas carol.

Two years ago, when I was in the Svaneti region of the Republic of Georgia learning Georgian songs, the song-bombing technique was perfected by members in my group.  Of the many gorgeous melodies sung many times, I wish I could have recorded the spine-tingling harmonies of Madge, Nana, Nicoletta, Fran, Derek and Irene on one particular day when they broke out into an echoing Shen Xar Venaxi in a local church. 

Instead, I’ll need to leave you with this version

Oh, and the beginning of Hodie Cristus Natus Est by boy soprano David Cizner.