Monday, 30 April 2007

Hit or myth?

It's probably not often you're going to hear me talking about French literature on here, my experience of it being severely limited by the fact that I failed miserably to learn French (and German) at school.
In fact, my reading of French literature is pretty much limited to two books (I'm not counting history here, though Gregory of Tours' History of the Franks sticks in the memory as an entertaining but bloodthirsty read. Or Asterix, come to that) - L'Etranger, by Camus, and Le Grand Meaulnes, by Alain-Fournier. Saturday's Guardian contained this lengthy article on the latter, much of which I found myself agreeing with. I'd take issue with one or two of the comparisons it draws with The Great Gatsby, because I don't think the events of the latter are anything like as improbable, but maybe that's me jumping to the defence of a favourite novel, and anyway it's probably missing the point.
I'm speaking from memory here, and a pretty cluttered memory at that, because I've only read Le Grand Meaulnes once, about ten years ago, but I think its lasting appeal has something to do with the fact that it works on a mythical level. In the true sense of the word myth, that is, meaning a profound truth contained in a wholly invented setting. And myths can be full of improbabilities, and still work fine, can't they?
Secondly, as Tobias Hill suggests in this earlier Guardian article, it might be one of those books that needs to be read at a particular time in your life, in the same way that The Catcher In The Rye does. I might have been too old to fully appreciate it at age 27, having bought a copy after being intrigued by the title on my sister's French language copy. I remember thinking that the first half created a wonderful, unique atmosphere, which was let down a little by the seeming inconsistencies in the second half of the book. But anyway, I'll read it again now, try to imagine myself first discovering it as a teenager, and see how I feel.
It was a bit of a coincidence finding that Tobias Hill piece when I Googled LGM - his Nocturne In Chrome And Sunset Yellow arrived in the post this morning. I look forward to getting into it.

Wednesday, 25 April 2007

Fair swap

I've beeen rather remiss in not really reporting back on the Poetry Superhighway Great Poetry Exchange, back at the start of March. I receieved LouAnn Shepard Muhm's Dear Immovable (Pudding House Chapbook Series), which has the advantage of a great title to start with. I've read it a couple of times now, and thoroughly enjoyed it. There was maybe one poem early on, Conspicuous Consumption, which didn't really grab me, but the rest worked well. For the most part she writes a spare, stripped-down, rather understated style of free verse, with sharp and precise imagery, but the occasional bursts of intensely personal writing are all the more effective for being used sparingly. There's humour and tenderness in there too, and it easily passed my first chapbook test (will I keep picking it up to re-read).
I'll write a little more, and post a couple of the poems, in the next few days. Further proof, for me, that the Exchange is a win-win proposition (you get your chapbook out there, and you get a good book in return).

Tuesday, 24 April 2007

Another must watch

Not that I advocate anyone turning into a couch potato, but BBC4 has some great stuff on this week. On Friday at 9pm, there's a programme on a true English eccentric and renaissance man, the great Robyn Hitchcock. Singer, songwriter, painter and poet, he's always been good fun when I've seen him live, so it's unlikely to be dull.

Monday, 23 April 2007

Must watch

I'm not sure whether it should serve as a stark warning to all bloggers to lift themselves above the mundane, or as an inspirational text, but George and Weedon Grosmith's Diary Of A Nobody is one of the very few books I re-read on a pretty much annual basis. Its hero, Charles Pooter, has become a byword for pompous self-importance, and his inconsequential banalities masquerading as historically-significant memoirs a model for all manner of books, films and TV programmes. Yesterday's Sunday Times made the point that without this comic masterpiece, you'd have no Basil Fawlty, Reggie Perrin or David Brent (they might have added Captain Mainwaring too), and new literary imitators crop up all the time.
Anyway, on BBC4 tonight there's a programme looking at the men behind the book, followed tomorrow by a dramatisation of the Diary itself. I'll be watching, but really there's no substitute for reading it. The satire works well even now, over a hundred years on, and it's laugh-out-loud funny. Do yourself a favour and buy a copy.

Return of the saint

It’s St George’s Day today. You may have noticed a few cars recycling last year’s England World Cup flags. More likely, you’ll have seen one of the usual articles in the papers or on the web, in which various people call for the English to make more of their saint’s day. It usually involves them saying something along the lines of “the Scots, Irish and Welsh make a big deal of theirs, so why not us?”
Don’t get me wrong. I like to think of myself as a patriotic Englishman, but I just can’t get excited about St George, mainly because he seems to have had nothing to do with this country. His cult was brought back to Britain in the later medieval period by Crusaders. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the two British patron saints whose feast days are celebrated widely (St Patrick and St David) are the two who can be shown to have played a major part in their country’s history (or adopted country, Patrick having been born in Wales, by all accounts). Also, they generally restricted themselves to all-round good acts, rather than any dragon-slaying nonsense.
With that in mind, I’d prefer England’s patron saint to be along the same lines. There’s no shortage of candidates, from Roman era martyr St Alban to Thomas a Becket (probably a bit too politically sensitive, even now). It’s those in-between I’d look at, all those Anglo-Saxon saints who seem to be forgotten nowadays. St Guthlac, who retreated to the island of Crowland in the Fens and spent years battling demons; St Swithin, whose association with weather forecasting surely qualifies him uniquely to be the patron saint of the English; St Wilfrid, champion of the Roman church (again, maybe a bit politically sensitive); St Boniface, missionary to the Germans; St Bede, no longer merely Venerable, and the first great writer in what is now a worldwide language; St Edmund, martyred by the Danes, and England’s original, pre-Conquest patron saint; and St Cuthbert, who combined immense pragmatism with an ascetic impulse that made him England’s first documented nature-lover (sea otters were always drying his feet, while equally helpful ravens brought him lumps of fat to waterproof his shoes with).
My own preference? The latter, I think, a view that would probably be shared by most in north-east-England, where ‘Cuddy’ is still widely revered. The only problem is that his feast day, March 20, is a bit too close to St Patrick and Easter, but I’m sure we could get around that. But what does everyone else think?
And to close, a great patron saint joke.
Q. What did St Patrick say when he drove the snakes out of Ireland?
A. Alright in the back there, lads?

Friday, 20 April 2007

Hitting the wall?

It's getting to that time in NaPoWriMo2007 when inspiration is becoming difficult to find. I had thought to get round that problem from the off, by using the first track my iPod's song shuffle came up with each day as a sort of kickstart. It has been working quite well - I've tried not to really tie the poems to the songs, just to use the track as a way of getting my mind working. Yesterday, though, even with The Blue Nile's wonderful Saturday Night to work with, I struggled badly. Today it's XTC's Yacht Dance - no ideas yet, but I'll get cracking when I get home.
The link above will take you to what I've written so far for the challenge. Whatever happens, it's been a lot of fun, and it's helped me come up with at least a few poems that are worth further work. Perhaps most importantly, I've got into good habits of making more time for writing, something I intend to continue.

Catching up

I'm not, as you may have noticed, very methodical in choosing which links to post down the side of this blog, a problem which is added to by the fact that the software here at work will only let me post links within text like this, not in the sidebar. Which is a roundabout way of saying that I should have got round to linking to Andrew Philip's Tonguefire blog a long time ago. It's full of good stuff, and very much needs to be digested at your leisure, rather than hidden behind a Word document and viewed when the boss isn't watching. So, I'll post a link in the sidebar when I get the chance.
Andrew is another fellow Happenstancer, and indeed a pioneer, as his chapbook Tonguefire helped kick things off, and also has the distinction of having sold out recently. It's a really splendid book, highly individual, so get hold of a copy if you can, although I think Andrew's is a name you'll hear a lot more of in the future anyway.

Wednesday, 18 April 2007

Current reading

I've been enjoying this superb biography of Mark Twain, a writer who I've loved ever since reading Huckleberry Finn at school. It's incredibly detailed (I've only just reached the Civil War), but I like that in a biog. It got me thinking that, in the past (well, in the 19th century at least), there was far less of a line drawn between different types of writer, with all literature seen as being pretty much part of the same thing. OK, so Twain took it to an extreme (he didn't even make much distinction between fact and fiction, after all), but you get the impression that he wasn't exceptional. Was that a good thing? I think so. I like the idea of flitting from poetry to journalism to fiction and so on according to mood, even letting them run into each other.

I love a happy ending

'Rutland's most eligible bachelor' seems to have found his soulmate at last. Now that the matching is done and dusted, you can follow any hatching through the above link. And, if you're passing anywhere near Rutland Water this summer, drop in and see these incredible birds yourself. Admittedly they spend a lot of time sitting around on dead trees, but see one fishing and you won't forget it in a hurry.

Monday, 16 April 2007

Migration watch

The great thing about this time of year, especially when the weather suddenly turns Mediterranean, is that every day brings with it new arrivals as spring migration gets into full swing.
I spent most of the weekend out looking for Ring Ouzels. I know, I know, I probably shouldn’t get excited about what is basically a Blackbird with a white collar, but there you go. I was completely unsuccessful. On the other hand, I spent two and a bit days out in glorious sunshine, striding purposefully all over north west Leicestershire and south Derbyshire, which has to be good for the soul and the waistline.
And that’s the beauty of birding. You go out looking for one thing, and find something quite different. Because, although the ouzels remained elusive (I’ll have another go tonight), I did manage to hear my first Cuckoo of the year, along with a drumming Lesser Spotted Woodpecker and a Lesser Whitethroat, and to see three Whitethroats, two fine male Wheatears (finally), a female Redstart, a Tree Pipit and a Green Sandpiper. Add to that three Little Ringed Plovers (they’ve been around for a while, but usually singly) and watching a pair of Kestrels play house (unfortunately involving the rather gory dismemberment of a vole just outside the nestbox), and you’ve got a pretty satisfying weekend. It’s just a bit hard getting back to work with the soaring temperatures creating that summer holiday feeling.

Thursday, 12 April 2007

Recent reading

I’ve been meaning all week to write a post about Stride, because of these reviews by editor Rupert Loydell, which I enjoyed a lot. The best thing you can do is read them yourselves, because there are loads of good talking points in there, such as the strange gender imbalance in Don’t Start Me Talking. I might still end up buying it, because there are writers I’ve enjoyed, such as Kelvin Corcoran, in there, but I think Rupert’s right that certain editorial decisions look to have made the volume a bit less than essential.
There are good points about Poetry Wars, too. I’d agree that the very idea of such a book seems to blow the whole thing out of proportion, while ignoring really interesting recent developments such as print-on-demand publishing, and the success of publishers such as Salt in getting a real diversity of poetry out there in the wider world.
Lastly, Innovative Women Poets intrigues me, not least because Rupert says “These writers get on with doing what writers do, that is, write.” That’s pretty much what I want from a poet, of whatever type, so it’ll go on my list of books to be ordered.
Actually, that quote also serves as a pretty good summation of Stride itself. It publishes a refreshingly eclectic selection of poetry, and perhaps even better gives reviews the space they deserve, without any of that “editor sets the poet up for deification/demolition” thing that I’ve mentioned before. There’s obviously times I disagree with them, but I never get the feeling it’s all geared to a particular agenda. They're opinionated but actually get to grips with the writing, not the writer.
Oh, and it also adds new material on a regular basis (every few days), which means I tend to take my time over reading it. This morning, referring back to the reviews, I came across these poems by Jennifer Olds. I only had time to read the first two, but they’re great. Look forward to getting back to the rest later.

Tuesday, 10 April 2007

Under the influence

I've always been a Tolkien fan (not sure whether that's cool or not nowadays), so I read Brian Appleyard's article in the Sunday Times about the forthcoming release of a new volume, The Children Of Hurin, with interest.
It's good stuff, but it annoyed me in one respect, namely when Appleyard claims that the main influence on the story is Wagnerian. Now I'm no expert on The Silmarillion and that side of Tolkien's invented mythology, but I'm pretty sure that the whole Turin story (which forms the heart of this new edition) took its lead from the Finnish Kalevala. Even more importantly, when he did use Germanic myths, Tolkien certainly took nothing directly from Wagner. Instead, both drew from the same sources, with the difference being that Tolkien generally knew them at first-hand, in their original forms. He had a pretty low opinion of the composer, particularly the way in which he allowed Teutonic myth to be used for rather dubious German nationalist purposes.
Elsewhere, I'm still going at NaPoWriMo2007, with variable success. Yesterday was a bit rushed, but the weekend did produce a couple of pieces that might go somewhere with a little work.
On the birding front, you can catch up with things at the Bird Watching blog. Nothing spectacular, but in addition to what's mentioned there, there are a few Curlews around on my patch at the moment, apparently breeding. I hope so. They're always favourites of mine.

Saturday, 7 April 2007

An Easter Miscellany

Only time for some very brief blogging (come on, you can't expect me to miss out on this fantastic weather, can you?!). NaPoWriMo2007 continues to be a lot of fun, and I've now had time to read a lot of the other entries. There's some really top-class stuff there - try the random poem generator if you just want to dip in.
Outside, I heard and saw my first Blackcaps and Willow Warblers of the year today, which along with Marsh Tit, Oystercatcher and Red-legged Partridge took the patch list to 98.
Bangladesh's great win over South Africa just now throws qualification for the World Cup semis wide open again. Or at least, it means that even if we lost to the Aussies, we could save ourselves by beating the Proteas, the Windies and Bangladesh. Still a tall order, but far from impossible.
Oh, and my copy of Quattrocento arrived this morning. Obviously, I'm going to tell you it's worth buying because I've got three poems (Bower, At Gedney Hill and Ringing Redstarts) in it, but seriously, it's a really beautifully produced small press mag, with art and short stories as well as a good selection of poetry. Excellent value and engrossing reading.

Thursday, 5 April 2007

World Cup misery

Slightly choked by England's last-ball defeat by Sri Lanka last night, which leaves them needing a few results to go their way if they're to reach the semi-finals, even assuming they can start winning themselves.
Still, after a World Cup which has so far failed to catch light, what with the Bob Woolmer tragedy, India and Pakistan crashing out, poor crowds and one-sided games, it was good to see a real contest. I thought England just about deserved to win, if only for showing such character in coming back from 12-2 and 130 odd for six. Bell's run-out looked a bit dodgy (did Jayasuriya actually touch it?) and Fernando's aborted last ball was an unnecessary piece of gamesmanship, so it would have been nice to see Ravi Bopara and Paul Nixon rewarded for their guts. Bopara looks to have it all - touch, power, and above all, a cool, cool head - while Nixon (I'll admit to some partisan feeling here, as he's Leicestershire's own) is everything a keeper should be - irritatingly gobby (but not abusive), in constant motion, and possessed of a bizarre style of batting all his own.
That said, I'd not be disappointed to see Sri Lanka win the tournament, because they're full of players who add a bit of individuality and colour to things. Of course Murali gets all the headlines, but Jayasuriya is the type of batsman to warm the heart of every village player. It's not that he isn't technically good too, just that his default approach to every innings - how can I set about hitting every ball out of the ground? - would be instantly recognisable on any park. And then there's Malinga the Slinger, whose javelin-thrower style is somehow far more thrilling than any classical, side-on, textbook bowling action. They'll take some beating by anyone.

Wednesday, 4 April 2007

It doesn't make a summer, but...

seeing the first Swallow of the year always gives you a bit of a lift. I drove home across the dam at Cropston Reservoir last night, and stopped to see if there was anything interesting around. No terns or Common Sandpipers yet, but loads of Sand Martins skimming the surface of the water, and among them, a solitary Swallow, probably wondering why on earth he bothered hurrying back from South Africa for cold wind, overcast and drizzle.

Tuesday, 3 April 2007


I'm thoroughly enjoying NaPoWriMo2007. I had visions of sitting around stuck for anything to write, but so far no problem. I've been getting my iPod to pick a random track as an inspiration/starting point, listening to it, taking a couple of hours off doing something else while, hopefully, a poem starts to form in my mind, then giving myself an hour to write it. It's all a bit rough-edged, but the poems can always be worked on later (there goes May, too).
I think the other initial fear is that whatever you write will be forced, artificial, somehow unfelt. But, quite apart from the fact that all poetry, however pure its core of genuine emotion, is ultimately artifice, the time limit and the structure of the challenge help make your brain start to connect all sorts of disparate things that might otherwise have remained filed separately in your head and notebooks. And, when it comes down to it, finding and making connections between disparate things is another of the things poetry is about.
I have been fortunate so far in what the iPod has chosen - after Sunday's opener, yesterday's track was I Was Never Here, by Baby Bird (or was it Babybird?), and today it's given me a real old favourite, Starsign by Teenage Fanclub. I've got a couple of ideas taking shape...

Sunday, 1 April 2007

Off and running

I've just posted my first poem to the Poetry Free For All's poetry-writing month (I've forgotten the actual name just now). It was a pretty painless experience, and writing it saved me from spending this afternoon biting my nails to the quick watching Leicester Tigers scrape past Stade Francais into the European Cup semi-finals.
I've set myself the target of taking no more than an hour over each poem (if they're any good, they can be worked on later), and of taking as the starting point for each one the first track my iPod chooses each day on shuffle. Today it gave me Make Like Paper, by San Francisco miserabilists Red House Painters. It's got a couple of images that immediately set me thinking, which made things easier - it might get a lot more difficult if it picks something like Teenage Lobotomy.
On the birding front it's still quiet - highlight of the weekend was watching the Peregrines at Swithland Reservoir doing their display flights yesterday. Their courting was interrupted by some serious aerobatic harassment from quite the biggest Raven I've ever seen, which in its turn got mobbed furiously by a couple of Crows. Other than that, still no Wheatears at Sence Valley Forest Park (well, there are, I just haven't found any), although a flock of at least 400 Fieldfares partly made up for that.