Saturday, 12 April 2014

Paintings and poem for Flower Day

There's new work at Colourful Star this week - writing and painting to mark Bulgaria's Flower Day (Sun 13 Apr). You can click through to it here.

Flower Day - which always falls on Palm Sunday - is one of Bulgaria's 'name days', but while most such days are associated with particular saints or historical events, this one is for all those whose names derive from flowers. Traditionally, name day celebrations involve keeping open house, preparing food and drink for the friends and relatives who call round to wish you well. A bit like a birthday, a name day is a sort of personal holiday - but unlike a birthday, guests can turn up uninvited.

About Colourful Star
Colourful Star began with a conversation around a kitchen table in Sofia. Sisters Marina and Vasilena Shiderovi decided they wanted to start an online project which would combine Marina’s paintings with short articles, stories and other texts. Having met Bristol-based writer Tom Phillips by chance, they asked him if he’d like to get involved, and the three set about discussing how an Anglo-Bulgarian art-and-writing collaboration might work. By early 2014, Marina had designed the logo and the webpage, Colourful Star was ready and the project was launched online on 23 January. New collaborations are now published every Friday, with additional postings to mark occasions such as Baba Marta, International Women’s Day/Mother’s Day, Easter and so on.

As well as simply bringing together visual art with poetry and prose, Colourful Star is about exploring and celebrating the possibilities of collaboration between artists and writers living in different parts of Europe. Texts and paintings are created in response to each other, or – as in the case of the post for Baba Marta (1 March 2014) – in response to a common idea or occasion. Although there is no overall theme, one strand which has begun to emerge is work reflecting on the similarities and differences between Bulgarian and British traditions.

Image: Marina Shiderova

Thursday, 10 April 2014

On having received an email from David Cameron

Dear David,
Thank you so much for your email. It is interesting to hear your views on Europe, no matter how vague and ill-conceived they seem to be.
I'm very glad to see, for example, that you are not aligning yourself with the populist xenophobia expressed by UKIP - who, as you rightly say, are in no position to deliver on their promise of parochialising a Britain which, in an ideal world, might one day actually adopt a generous, hospitable and enriching cosmopolitanism. Unfortunately, of course, in this kind of open-minded Britain there won't be room for a Conservative Party which begins its randomly circulated emails with lines such as 'The EU is heading in a direction Britain never signed up to' (largely because said ideal Britain won't be looking to blame Brussels for everything that it's cocked up itself - and would know that ending a sentence with a preposition is deeply unpatriotic) - but, hey, that's a small price to pay for actual real democracy, I would have thought.
There do, though, seem to be a few minor factual errors in your email which you may wish to address before you send it out to everyone whose email address you've been able to snaffle from the internet by exploiting the vagaries of the Data Protection Act.
'Benefit tourism', for example, is a phrase which appears to have been invented by your own press office. Call me an old-fashioned woolly liberal if you must, but I have actually spoken to many of the people that you insist on referring to as 'foreigners' and it seems that claiming benefits, lying on a trolley in the corridor of an underfunded NHS hospital and having to live in poorly maintained social housing are about the last things on their mind. In fact, amazingly (well, I expect it's amazing to you), they appear to contribute to the economy and more than compensate for the British 'benefit tourists' who are currently claiming millions in Germany and elsewhere. If you want to secure the British pensioners' vote, by the way - forget Bournemouth. Most of 'our' pensioners now appear to be living in holiday resorts from the Costa del Sol to the Black Sea. Apparently, EU regulations mean that they can do this and still claim their pensions. Given that you have obviously thought long and hard about how Britain's departure from the EU would affect its citizens, you are probably already aware of this.
Re: point 2 - "Securing more trade but not an 'ever closer union'": isn't that a contradiction in terms? Isn't a 'closer union' good for trade? Or are you thinking of adopting the policy of earlier British governments - i.e. securing more trade through the simple measure of invasion? That would certainly be a 'closer union' - and, let's face it, it seems to be working for your great mate Vladimir Putin.
I wouldn't worry too much about 'justice and home affairs' either. To be honest, you seem to be doing a more than adequate job of ensuring that anything to do with the law is swathed in almost completely impenetrable bureaucracy and that Britain's own affairs are safe in the hands of people who went to some kind of big, swanky public school in Berkshire and/or made their own fortunes by selling 'financial packages' to the gullible in the mid-1990s. What an inspired gesture, by the way, to replace that dreadful Miller woman as Minister of Culture! Appointing a former banker is self-evidently the way forward. I'm sure he'll know loads of stuff about the arts which will place Britain at the forefront of the international stage (that's a thing where theatre happens, by the way, in case you or he weren't sure).
As for 'getting a better deal for British taxpayers', has it ever occurred to you that it might be easier to do this by cutting your own salaries and expense accounts? Or, indeed, putting irresponsible financiers in the dock and giving them the kind of disproportionate sentences you currently reserve for people in hoodies who knick stuff from shops or sell a bit of skunk to undercover journalists? I'm sure we could work out a reasonable tarif - maybe ten years for every million embezzled and tucked away in an off-shore account? Again, of course, this might have a slightly damaging effect on the support for your party, but, as I said before - hey, that's democracy.
Thank you, too, for giving me 'the final decision' on Britain's membership of the EU. It's a shame, of course, that 'final decision' sounds a little bit like 'final solution', but I'm sure that your PR people will be across this going forward. It's a shame, too, of course, that, in even asking the question, you'll be unleashing even more xenophobic nonsense from the likes of UKIP and the Daily Mail. But, hey, needs must when you're a party whose whole attitude to running the country has been to pander to the darkest passions of an imaginary white van man who lives in an imaginary Essex. Maybe, on the eve of your proposed referendum, you should just give everyone a free case of beer (although obviously not Stella Artois, Guinness and other 'foreign' stuff) and hope that, when pissed, even sensible people decide that we're all going to hell in a handcart.
I hope these thoughts will be of use and that you will not hesitate to contact me if you have any questions. Unfortunately, my reply may be slightly delayed. Wouldn't you just know it - as a hard-working family (that was your term, wasn't it?), we seem to be having more luck getting work in other EU countries than we do here.
All best wishes,

PS Are you sure about using the word 'austerity' to describe the state we're in? How about 'under-performancing'? It's not actually a word, but then why should that matter? 'Gove' isn't a word, either, and you've put him in charge of education!

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Burning Omaha

All summer it was like a miracle,
the dust coating cars and running
your finger through sand they said
had blown in from the Sahara.
Drivers cursed. It was a summer
of talk. Of incidents, evacuations,
populations gridlocking ring roads,
four-minute warnings, the hottest season
of their Cold War. We didn’t care.
We were racing through the woods
while parents stocked up on tins
and candles and stared at the radio
with palms against their throats
as if by suddenly tightening their grip
they could hold their little faith in.
There was no rain, only sand,
only sand coming down like scurf,
like unexpected snow from Archangel,
like the ashes from Omaha burning.

Tom Phillips
'Burning Omaha' from 'Recreation Ground' (Two Rivers Press, 2012)

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

New poem on Colourful Star

'There’s been word in the village, perhaps,
And these first few cautious days have passed.'

There's a new poem, written to accompany a painting of a young Bulgarian woman by Marina Shiderova, now up on our online collaborative project Colourful Star. You can click through to it here.

Friday, 21 March 2014

Two poems

Today is World Poetry Day so here are a couple of 'travel' poems.

From Recreation Ground

European Union

At first it might have been coincidence
that we heard so many car horns
shifting through the Doppler effect,
or checked in at hotels where girls
in Sunday best held hands and sang
interminable folk tunes.

Only, the following day, new couples
emerged from a scaffolded church
with candles lit, and family groups
assembled in a park for photographs
where filigree blossom coincidentally
obscured the Stalinist backdrop.

Thirty, forty weddings eased
from municipal ceremonies to pose
beneath late-flowering cherry trees,
anticipated pleasures, and advice
they’d hardly need, being of an age
when all has seemed so changed.

Such innocence again around the square,
these brand new starts, this expectation,
Romanian sunlight on dove-grey dresses.

From Reversing into the Cold War

Gently moving gently
across the cockled sands
a memory of something
comes with ghost limbs
waving or hand in hand,
already passing over.

Waders’ startled cries
the tides redeem
in the furl and drag
of each wave’s roll;
this far from home, at sea,
the migrants float in shoals.

 Recreation Ground is published by Two Rivers Press. Reversing into the Cold War is published by Firewater Press/Poetry Monthly.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Some small thoughts on a familiar subject

I suppose it’s a form of trainspotting, but one of my hobbies is to count the different languages I hear when I’m walking through Bristol. On a good day, it might be something like six or seven. Spanish, Polish or Russian, for the most part, but also Arabic, Japanese, Bulgarian, Italian, Urdu, Albanian ... I’m no linguist, but I can kind of roughly tell the languages apart and make a stab at guessing which ones I’m overhearing.
At the same time, however, learning a language no longer seems to be obligatory in school. My son, for example, has managed to engineer his choices for GCSE so that he won’t ever have to encounter a French irregular verb. Nor will he ever do battle with genitive case endings or the subjunctive (which is, let’s face it, dead and buried in English).
Does it matter? Well, yes. Aside from the nationalist arrogance manifest in the decision that British schoolchildren don’t need to learn another language because English is, of course, the new international lingua franca (a phenomenon for which, brilliantly, English doesn't really have an equivalent translation), this downgrading of language-learning to the ‘optional’ means that we are not only failing to equip an entire generation with another language – whether that be the 'standard' selection of French or German or Spanish – but that we are also failing to equip an entire generation with the ability to learn other languages.
Thirty years on from my last formal language lesson, I’m now attempting to learn Bulgarian and Albanian. This is not just ‘for fun’. It is related to unexpected opportunities and the overall direction that my career appears to be taking. It’s not easy, but it would probably be nigh on impossible if I hadn’t been obligated to learn other languages at school. I certainly learned more about grammar in French classes than I ever did on our English language course where words like ‘inflection’ and ‘declension’ were never mentioned. Never mind what having to dig down into linguistic structure might tell you about everything from perception theory to the conceptualisation of culture.
At a time when we’re hearing so much about globalisation, it seems genuinely saddening that, even in schools, what is, in effect, linguistic imperialism – disguised, of course, as ‘freedom of choice’ – has been allowed to hold sway.

Tom Phillips

Friday, 7 March 2014

Colourful Star: In The Countryside

There's a new poem of mine, written in response to Bulgarian artist Marina Shiderova's painting 'In the Countryside', published at our collaborative online project Colourful Star today.