I returned to work on Tuesday and of course, my writing students wanted to know how my trip went likewise friends and family.
I’ve been overseas for 96 days – a whole term – and as I return to timetables and responsibilities the best way of sharing such an amazing trip is writing about it.
The reflections won’t be chronological or a travelogue but flashbacks and memories in the form of anecdotes, poems and essays. They’ll be triggered by words, sounds, smells, tastes, events, people, postcards and photographs (I took too many!) and whatever else inspires me.
Where did I Go?
- I flew to Mongolia and travelled the Trans Siberian Railway to Helsinki and then London – a journey that’s been on my bucket list for years.
- I visited family and old friends in England staying in London, Cirencester in the Cotswolds and Colchester, another town with strong links to Roman times. I spent time in Barnes, Bath, Bibury, Burford and Bourton-0n-The-Water and other places with names beginning with a different letter of the alphabet!
- I visited friends and family in Scotland: Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Renton and Cardross and surrounding localities like Inverurie, Loch Lomond, Loch Carron, Rhu, Helensburgh, Oban, Plockton, Inverness, Culloden and Falkirk.
- I visited the Isles of Skye and Arran researching family history and revisiting my own past.
- I toured Orkney and Shetland islands -to cross another item off my bucket list.
I could be flippant and say ‘why not?’ however, that wouldn’t be helpful writing this blog post or to those reading it.
Fulfilling several travel dreams high on the list of answers.
(I blame my father for my wanderlust. He bought a set of Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopaedias when I was seven years old. The ten volumes captivated and fascinated. Reading chapters sowed seeds of restlessness and cultivated a desire for knowledge and adventure. )
I like challenging myself to ignore limits of ageing and osteoarthritis and I wanted to regain the confidence lost after my mastectomy. As my baggage label announced ‘adventure before dementia’ – the fear of that disease ever present since my Dad’s diagnosis and death.
Life had become predictable and enthusiasm for writing projects disappeared. I feared my teaching was stale. A change was needed, echoing Gough Whitlam’s campaign, it was time.
Time to introduce some excitement, step into the unknown, travel to different time zones, open up to new experiences and ways of thinking.
Ignore the negativity and prove to myself and others that the world has more people with good intentions and good in their hearts than the constant sensational news reports would have us believe.
How To Survive Strange Beds
Mairi Neil July 2017
‘to sleep perchance to dream…’
Toss and turn, turn and toss
an uncomfortable trampoline
too narrow mattress or oversized
tangled in unfamiliar sheets
repress a tortured scream
as thoughts unbidden creep
a monstrous murky mist
–is the bedding clean?
Facebook flickers, Twitter tweets,
parading a plague of bed bugs
supported by a stream of
suited and serious newsreaders
backdropped by dinosaur-sized bugs
horror story feeders
hidden cameras reveal
cleaners who don’t clean.
passport checks evaded
no fear of armed border guards
x-ray machines and scanners
no match for expert subterfuge
who sees intestinal worms
bed bugs, or flea circuses?
Counting sheep to sleep
but head hits
brick pillow or fluffy mountain
Never an in-between
too hot too cold too salty
the cultural story we know
Air-conditioning? Heater? Open window?
Ah, fresh air!
Silence is golden
until jet engines roar
jumbled voices amplify
motor mayhem, frequent footsteps
a cacophony of chaos
thin walls, rattling doors
barking dogs prowling cats
jet-lagged over active brain…
Insomnia insinuates interrupts
the comfort zone of relaxation
to sleep perchance to dream…
I wrote this poem in class after an example in an 11-part primer on writing contemporary poetry, available online from Mslexia Magazine.
Your subject will never be new – it’s all been done before. But a contemporary poem must offer a fresh take on its theme. You need to surprise your reader and force them to look at the world in a new way. You can do this by creating some frisson in your language, with a startling metaphor or unusual syntax. Or you can approach the topic from an oblique or unexpected angle.
Linda France, Mslexia’s Poetry Advisor 1999-2005
I’m not sure if I succeeded the way Linda France would approve but one of the complaints/comments made to me and by me was having to adjust (or not) to ‘strange’ beds. And one of the wonderful delights of returning home was the familiarity and comfort of my own bed where of course I dream of travelling!
It may be a first world problem or middle-class obsession but the fear of ‘picking up something’, whether it’s skin irritations, tinea or gastro, a common topic of conversation among seasoned travellers and casual tourists.
I exploited these fears in my poem, however, I never had to worry at any time in my recent travels despite sharing berths on trains and ferries, sleeping in a Mongolian ger, a Russian homestay, and a variety of hostels and hotels.
Plenty of mattresses and pillows to get used to and I’m grateful for my osteopath’s muscle massaging technique since I returned. It helps my body get over the inevitable tossing and turning in strange beds and the hauling, lifting, packing and unpacking of luggage during the last three months.
Poetry With A Purpose
We’re doing poetry this term at Godfrey Street as we prepare to create the annual calendar where writers respond to the work of artists at the House.
Although the calendar requires haiku or terse verse, other forms of poetry will be studied and attempted as we learn the techniques of the craft: style, imagery, lines, punctuation, rhyme, rhythm, sound, stanza, subject, title and voice.
Your Turn To Write – We Tried This In Class
Adapted from an exercise recommended by Linda France:
- Think of something you’d like to do. Choose an activity with various stages or metaphorical layers:
fall out of love, learn to love, find a new hobby, learn to fly like a bird, swim with dolphins, exercise in a pool, sing in a choir, sing in the shower, dance with strangers, dance like no one is watching, dance through life, meditate, lose weight, save the world, cope with bad service, use public transport, recognise happiness…
■ Give your poem a title of the form ‘How to…’ (fall out of love, swim,
etc.) and write a set of instructions, addressing the reader directly and guiding them through the process, or an experience – or whatever you want to do. This is your poem, just be authentic.
■ Use everyday language, but avoid clichés.
■ Focus closely and include lots of physical detail. Think strong VERBS, concrete NOUNS.
■ Include some reported speech.
Have fun and challenge yourself, like I did writing a poem about an aspect of travel. When I was on Orkney I discovered a wonderful photographer and poet, Edwin Rendall.
Edwin’s work appears on cards and bookmarks and this short verse coupled with his photography I particularly love – perhaps with practice, I’ll be able to create something similar to convey my memories.