Monday, 29 October 2007

Festival time

Yesterday I went up to Matlock for the second day of the inaugural Derwent Poetry Festival. The weather cleared, and the drive up there is always a nice one, particularly with the woods looking very autumnal, so that got things off on the right foot. Nice venue too – Masson Mills at Cromford, one of the best-preserved of Richard Arkwright’s mills.
Perhaps not surprisingly for a new event, there weren’t too many exhibitors or visitors. But it has a lot of potential to grow, because the organisers, Templar Poetry, are building a fine reputation, and there’s definitely a gap for a decent literature event in the north Midlands.
First on were Mike Barlow and Derek Adams. Barlow has a new collection out, from Salt, following up a previous book with Smith / Doorstop, and was also the winner of this year’s National Poetry Competition. He’s one of those poets whose work you see in all sorts of small press mags, and it’s very rarely anything less than well-crafted. I was a little bit underwhelmed by the reading, though, but perhaps that was partly because I was so familiar with some of the poems – the element of surprise was gone.
Essex poet Derek Adams is another name you see in a lot of small-press mags – he was also BBC Wildlife Poet Of The Year, 2006. His poems, I’d have to say, worked the other way round. I enjoyed hearing him read them, particularly his fine tribute to Ian Dury, but I wasn’t so keen on them on the page afterwards.
Next was the excellent James Caruth (not to be confused with the equally excellent Jim Carruth). He lives in Sheffield, but was from Belfast originally. His poems are taut, well-honed affairs, and his strong Northern Ireland accent and slow, measured pace helped do them justice. So much so, in fact, that I immediately bought his book, A Stone’s Throw (Staple).
He was followed by Angela Cleland, a Scottish-born but London-based poet. Her reading style, particularly with her first few poems, was very physical, bordering on acting them out. I’ve no idea whether she comes from a performance poetry background, but I did find it a bit distracting. Don’t get me wrong – it was good to see such an animated reader, and my own readings could certainly do with an injection of energy, it’s just that at times, she seemed to have gone too far the other way. Because these really were fine poems, and she delivers them in a generally assured, engaging fashion. Her book, And In Here, The Menagerie, was my next buy. Like all the Templar chapbooks and full-size volumes, it’s extremely attractively produced.
I’d heard all sorts of good things about Rob Hindle's Some Histories Of The Sheffield Flood, 1864, all of them justified, as it turned out. With the aid of an assistant whose name I didn’t catch, he gave a reading that was dramatic without being gimmicky. The contrast between the bald facts of the tragedy, taken from official accounts, and the more human stories behind them, made for a real tension. And for all that it’s dealing with gritty social history, Hindle’s poetry is lyrical and, occasionally, heartbreaking. Another chapbook I had to buy.
Judy Brown was another entertaining reader. Her banter never gave too much away, and the poems ranged from playful to profound. I was running low on cash at this point, but I’ll send for her pamphlet, I think.
Finally, there was Simon Armitage, complete with sore throat. He read a fair few new poems (I mean, post-Tyrannosaurus Rex vs. the Corduroy Kid), most of which I enjoyed, and a couple of which rather washed over me. I think I enjoyed the extracts from his translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight most – as he pointed out, it seemed appropriate to be reading it just a few miles away from its likely origin.
Finally, I also bought Jane Routh's Teach Yourself Mapmaking, a book I've been meaning to get for a while.
All things considered, then, a very enjoyable day - I can see this festival going from strength to strength. Support it if you get the chance.

I didn't see that coming!

I won’t spoil it for those of you who are yet to see the final episode of The Sopranos, but let’s just say that I’m not too sure what all the controversy was about. I thought the ending was totally in keeping with everything that had gone before – any other option would have meant writer and creator David Chase abandoning all the things that made it such a great series.
The way it was done was a total surprise, though, and the last five minutes made almost unbearably tense viewing. Now all we need is Channel 4 to start repeating it from the beginning...

Thursday, 25 October 2007

Is anybody out there...

...going to the Derwent Poetry Festival at the weekend? It looks a decent line-up - I'm going up there on Sunday. If you do make it, say hello - I'll be the bloke quietly sobbing into the sports pages as I read the latest speculation on who's going to manage Leicester City next.

Cley revisited

It's always a bonus when work takes me over to Norfolk, and yesterday was no exception. We called in at Cley Marshes Reserve, run by Norfolk Wildlife Trust, to see what was around.
Down on the beach, it was predictably windy and cold, but the easterlies hadn't blown in any unusual European or Scandinavian migrants. A juvenile Gannet flashed past, and a Red-throated Diver, but otherwise it was just the gulls and, on the far side of the wonderfully ramshackle cafe, a field full of Brent Geese and a single Curlew. A flock of Golden Plovers shimmered overhead a couple of times, but we didn't stick it too long before the lure of the new visitor centre and a cheese and ham toastie grew too great.
It really is a great building, blended well into the low ridge on the far side of the coast road, and constructed to make as low an environmental impact as possible. The food, all locally sourced, is good too, but the best thing about it is that you can eat it while looking out over the marshes through huge windows. Marsh Harriers skimmed the reeds as we ate, and small groups of Black-tailed Godwits made their way inland (presumably to feed, although I've never seen that at Cley before).
Afterwards, we went to the main hide, to watch more harriers, plus a good assortment of wildfowl and waders, then on to Salthouse Marshes, where a little flock of eight Turnstones landed practically at our feet. They're always engaging, entertaining little birds, and after a quick bustle around, they departed to further down the shingle, calling as they went.
Cley is reputedly the most birdwatched parish in the UK, but once you're out on the shingle, looking back inland, you can't help noticing the three great wool churches of Blakeney, Cley and Salthouse (and there are more inland). They dominate the skyline, looking totally out of scale with their surroundings, a reminder of a time when Norfolk was both the most densely populated and the richest part of England. Now they look like ships, thrown up onto the land by a great storm, and stranded for good.

Monday, 22 October 2007

The Fourth Ingredient

You're not going to be surprised to hear that I love libraries, and can happily spend all day in even the smallest and most scantily stocked. One of my favourites was Canton Library in Cardiff. I only used it for a few months, just after I moved to South Wales in 1996, before it was burned down, but it was a nice old building, with a good collection for a small suburban branch library.
The piece below, by my old friend Mark Howard Jones, is about another South Wales library. I don't suppose you'd see its like these days, unfortunately.

Metal, wood and paper. Those were the only ingredients. Or, at least, the only physical ingredients. The only visible ones. But there was a fourth, hidden and invisible.
Old wooden shelves lining the walls, alongside newer metal ones standing free; all holding up masses of heavy paper, bound into books.
And not even a proper library, it seemed. A leaky old drill hall, remnant of a ‘Dad’s Army’ mentality perhaps, but now pressed into service as a town lending library. The public purse could only stretch so far, after all.
Through the narrow double doors and up a short flight of steps, turn right and into the carpeted quiet of the large room. This is where the books lived.
No windows, just skylights, usually running with rain. To the left of the door was the issue desk and, through an opening behind that, the children’s library. I don’t remember staying there long, though, before pushing out into the deeper waters of the main collection.
And when you slid a book off the shelves and opened it, the fourth ingredient, the missing something, spilled out all over you – ideas.
Waiting for me there were the terrors and treasures of Ray Bradbury, the strange and daunting words of James Joyce, Picasso’s sickly-looking blue acrobats staring down from the wall above the shelves.
I was dumbfounded and appalled by Bob Dylan’s novel ‘Tarantula’ but delighted to the point of incoherence by BS Johnson’s collection of short pieces ‘Aren’t You Rather Young To Be Writing Your Memoirs?’
The intellectual conundrums of Jorge Luis Borges’ ‘The Aleph’ defeated me several times over the years, so much so that I grew wary of the Argentinian librarian’s twists and turns, only coming to love his work long after my library card had expired.
More earthly joys were to be found in the sophisticated and challenging adult fairytales of Angela Carter in her collections ‘Fireworks’ and ‘The Bloody Chamber’, while Michael Moorcock’s cool and multi-faceted creation Jerry Cornelius, along with his many friends and enemies, pointed towards dangerous delights to come.
There were hints of sexuality outside ‘the norm’, discovered, it seemed, in Alexandria by the likes of Constantine Cavafy and illustrated in 1960s Technicolor by some Yorkshireman called David Hockney. Though I was fairly sure this exotic brand of love wasn't for me.
A Frenchman called Baudelaire, long dead, did strange and enticing things with language (or perhaps it was all the fault of his translator). And a book of Concrete Poetry (strangely light for all that) introduced me to words straining to be pictures as well. Or vice versa.
American poets like Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath and Wallace Stevens seemed to hold a glamorous allure, beckoning from their ranks along the back wall of the room. Poetry crammed with ideas by the likes of Octavio Paz jostled for position with more popular verse from Rod McKuen, while, closer to home, the work of Idris Davies, Peter Finch and Herbert Williams proved there was poetic life right here in Wales.
In the non-fiction section, Wilfred Mellers’ book ‘The Twilight Of The Gods’ taught me that there was more to The Beatles’ music than met the ear, while a huge book of photographs by Lord Snowdon called ‘Private View’ introduced me through its richly-coloured pages to many of the important British painters of the 1960s.
And there were so many more. Their titles have slipped beyond the reach of my memory now, but each of them was a stone laid in the path that led me beyond the narrow confines of school, street and home.
This extraordinary literary phantasmagoria, now long disappeared, was the work of just one man, the branch librarian. Fur-hatted like a Soviet commissar against the Valleys winter and striding out of his small corner office in a big overcoat, his beard and eyebrows set firm. An unsettling figure to a small boy.
Only years later did it become clear why he had chosen the books I had the pleasure to read. Despite what he did to earn his daily bread, he wasn’t REALLY a librarian at all; he was a poet in disguise.
Swansea-born, Oxford-educated and a former Royal Navy seaman, Harri Webb took up his job at Mountain Ash in 1964, virtually creating the library service from scratch.
His own poetry found a place on the shelves, of course, and I found it entertaining if too political for my then limited understanding. I’ve since met people who knew Harri Webb personally and I’ve found out about his fervent Welsh nationalism. But I prefer to remember him as the enigmatic and important keeper of the books, with his stern gaze and grey-flecked beard; if I’d met him, no doubt that character would have disappeared like mist being burned off by sunlight. But he retired in 1974, passing away in 1996, and I never did get to meet him.
That library has gone now and a new one has taken its place, across the bridge and down the main road a little way. I don’t live in Mountain Ash any more, so I’ve never visited it, but I know without looking that the books there wouldn’t be half as enticing or mysterious as the ones in the old drill hall. It’s still here in my head, of course, and echoes of it remain on my own shelves.
No doubt there were pennies to be pinched in the relatively halcyon days of the 1960s and 70s, just as there are today, but Harri Webb did it in an elegant, learned way and never bowed to the pressure of the merely popular.
One autumn day, I picked out a book written by a man with a glamorous name. Wolfe. Thomas Wolfe. A strong, dangerous name if ever I’d heard one. This had to be a good book; nobody with a name like that could write a bad book, surely? Flipping open the cover to taste the first paragraphs, I passed the date stamps and couldn’t help but notice when it had last been borrowed. Over five years ago. Imagine that, the poor unloved thing.
My teenaged mind thought that maybe this wasn’t such a good book after all. But then, I reminded myself, so many of the others that had sat largely ignored on the shelves had proved to be crammed with jewels.
Maybe ‘You Can’t Go Home Again’ would similarly introduce me to ideas I wasn’t quite ready for, dictionary-hard words previously unread and novel notions that would stretch my thoughts beyond the everyday.
I clapped the cover shut, making more noise than I’d bargained for, and headed for the issue desk, hoping to negotiate the formidable library assistants without any problem and sneak my latest find out to the windy, unworthy street beyond the narrow double doors.

Mark Howard Jones is a prose writer who lives in Cardiff. His latest novella 'The Garden of Doubt on the Island of Shadows' is available from Manchester's ISMs Press at

Friday, 19 October 2007

What a Carve-up?

I came across this fascinating New York Times article the other day. It raises some important questions, I think, about the degree of influence an editor has over a writer's work. If Carver really was desperately unhappy about planned changes, should his editor have given way? After all, the edited versions are what made Carver's reputation. Is the issue, in fact, that editors get too little credit, when we're talking about live writers, at least (they generally get a better deal when they've rounded up the works of dead writers)? In the music world, for example, producers are often recognised for the large amount of creative input they have, so why should it be different in the world of literature?
I'd have to say that my own very limited experience of editors, with my chapbook and with magazines, has been very good. It's good to be forced to justify (to yourself as much as to anyone else) just why a certain line or image needs to stay in place, and of course there's always the couldn't-see-it-for-looking-at-it type of howler or bum note.

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

Poetry launch

I got an invitation the other day to a launch reading being held at The Guildhall, Leicester, next Monday at 7.30pm. The books in question are Torso, by Robert Hamberger, and Catch, by Katie Daniels, both published by Redbeck, while Robert will also be reading from his Flarestack sequence Heading North, which looks at John Clare's 1841 escape from High Beach lunatic asylum.
I wouldn't have thought it's by invitation only, so if you're interested in finding out more, you can email
Say hello if you're there!

Word association

The details of your own blog at occasionally make worryingly addictive browsing. In the past, visitors to Polyolbion have tended to arrive via disappointingly mundane searches, but a look at this week's Key Words Analysis reveals that things have changed somewhat.
"words to mason williams’ them poems" just about makes sense, but "ventriloquism goldfinch"? "poem describing george best?"? And lastly, "who was"? God only knows how many results they got for a search like that.

Tuesday, 16 October 2007


Martin Stannard's blog Exultations and Difficulties contains news of the launch of a new Nottingham-based poetry magazine, FIN. I'd give it a plug in the interests of local solidarity anyway, but the contributors mentioned look both varied and excellent, and it's a very reasonable £12 for four issues. Well worth a look.

Lean times

It is, apparently, going to be a tough winter over here for small birds. The berry, beechmast, seed and acorn crop has been poor both here and in Scandinavia (bad years usually follow particularly good years), so expect your garden to fill up with birds desperate to find your feeders overflowing. I've already seen loads of Jays on the move, and some big flocks of Goldfinches, and my parents saw a Bullfinch in their garden the other day for the first time in about 25 years. So do what you can - even if you don't put actual feeders out, the odd bit of soft fruit can make a big difference.

Monday, 15 October 2007

A Rattling good read

The Fall 2007 edition of excellent online mag Rattle is available here (you can download it as a PDF). I've only had the chance to have a quick scan through it so far, but it looks good.

Thursday, 11 October 2007

The name game

Some poetry competitions, especially pamphlet comps such as The Poetry Business's, require you to put a pen name on your work, in the interests of anonymity.
I'll be honest - it's fun, thinking of a whole new name for yourself. In the past, I've tended to use names out of the old family Bible, just because most sound appropriately ordinary, although I've yet to use James James, a name that crops up more than once in my family tree. I suspect most judges would be very wary of any wacky, or overly eye-catching names, so that also rules out using the splendid Green Willoughby (my dad's grandfather, or great-grandfather, I can't quite remember). Or Skeffington Liquorish, a real name a friend came across on a tombstone in Leicester (it sounds like it belongs in a Dickens novel).
What about you? Names chosen at random from a phonebook? Family names? Fictional characters? I'd be delighted to know which...

Monday, 8 October 2007

So Here We Are 6

You can click here to listen to the latest in David Caddy's series of Poetic Letters From England. As always, it's good stuff.
If you'd prefer, you can read the text here. You'll notice our man Michael Drayton pops up in there this month, along with the real Polyolbion. Three cheers for Warwickshire's second finest!

Friday, 5 October 2007

Foiled again

I didn't get to that reading last night - let's just say that circumstances conspired against me. Still, I'm sure there'll be others soon. I did start that Karen Solie collection, though - Short Haul Engine - and it's well up to expectations.

Thursday, 4 October 2007

Big day

Today is National Poetry Day. In the UK, pretty much every day and week is designated as National Something Day/Week, my favourite being National Chip Week, because, obviously, we don’t eat anything like enough chips in this country. A day devoted to poetry, on the other hand, seems like a good idea.
I’m going to that Autumn Leafe reading as my poetry fix, so I’ll report back on that tomorrow. Meanwhile, there’s some news here on the Forward Prize announcement. Can’t say I’m over the moon about Sean O’Brien’s win, really, but I won’t argue with Daljit Nagra’s success at all. Most of the first collections, from what I’ve seen of them, would have been very worthy winners.
As I was going through some books last night I realised that my copy of the Anglo-Saxon poem The Battle Of Maldon was translated and annotated by Bill Griffiths, who died recently. It’s a superb edition, with an original transcript, a literal translation, an alliterative verse translation, and a good introduction and bibliography. I wasn’t grabbed by his translation of the famous “Thought must be the harder, heart the keener, Spirit shall be more, as our might lessens” passage, mainly because he uses “resources” rather than “might”, which sounds too modern, but that’s quibbling because his version is otherwise excellent. The intro, too, makes some interesting points about why Byrhtnoth might have allowed the Vikings across the causeway. Most commentators consider that the poem shows him being undone by “ofermod” – an excess of spirit, or pride. But Griffiths suggests he was being pragmatic – if he refused passage, the raiders could simply sail away and cause havoc elsewhere. By meeting them in battle, he stood a chance of destroying them, and knew that even if he didn’t, he would inflict enough damage on them to make further raiding difficult. Added to that, he may have been trying to set an example to his country and king, the unfortunate Aethelred Unraed (the Unready, but here meaning “bad counsel”, punning on his name, which means “good counsel”).
A few weeks back, I saw this review at Stride, and sent for the book. It's consistently superb throughout, with at least some absolutely stunning poems, such as the lovely Untitled. I was so taken with it I ordered Solie's first collection, Short Haul Engine, and it arrived today, so I'm looking forward to getting stuck into that. Incidentally, they're both really nicely produced books, in a physical sense, I mean. It doesn't matter THAT much, but it's a nice little bonus, considering they're actually a bit cheaper than many a UK collection.
Right, enough. We’re being taken out to lunch at work today, so I’m off to the pub. Chips for me, I think.

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

What's inn a name?

Browsing through the splendid Infowisps the other day, I came across a piece about pub names. They always fascinate me, and it reminded me of this equally excellent website -
The Public Houses Of Whitwick.
Now before you get the impression that the village in which I live is hopelessly given over to the demon drink, I should point out that neighbouring Coalville, now by far the bigger settlement of the two, has relatively few pubs for a town of its size. The many housing estates and residential streets on the Leicester side of town have next to nothing, in fact, so we in Whitwick are merely balancing things out. And last week I noticed that North Street Working Men's Club (shown on the website as the Liberal Club), has closed down, so there's one less drinking establishment (although the site fails to mention that you can also get a drink in the leisure centre - you do your workout, you replace the fluid, right?).
I've always been baffled as to where one of Whitwick's pubs, The Man Within Compass, gets its name, although locally it's anyway known as The Rag And Mop. Does anyone have any idea about either? One suggestion is that both have a Masonic connection, but I've never seen any proof of that.
My house, incidentally, is about 100 yards from The Black Horse, and had they photographed it from a slightly wider angle, it might have got in there. It's a nice little pub, although I usually prefer the short walk to the equally pleasant Hare and Hounds (or Mary's House, as it gets called). Confusing, isn't it?

Tuesday, 2 October 2007


I came across this on the BBC News website earlier. I've not read that much by Rumi, just a few poems in anthologies, really, but it's not difficult to find his work in bookshops here. I should read more, soon.
Without being flippant, the idea of working all summer so that you can spend the winter inside, eating and singing poems, is an appealing one. Except for the working all summer bit.

Monday, 1 October 2007

Year of the Phalarope

2007 has been the Year of the Phalarope for me. I'd never seen any species of these dainty, quirky little waders before May, when a fantastic Wilson's Phalarope in full breeding plumage showed up on the Nene Washes just outside Peterborough. More details, including links to pics, are here and here.
On Saturday, I went to Blithfield Reservoir, near Abbots Bromley, Staffs, to see the first-winter Grey Phalarope that has been hanging around there. I know - that's the behaviour of a twitcher, but it's somewhere I go anyway now and then, and it was a lovely day and I fancied a long walk, so I thought why not? It was easy to find, bustling its way along the shoreline in the company of a juvenile Knot (much underrated birds, in my opinion) and incredibly confiding. I've not yet figured out my new camera sufficiently to be able to digiscope it, although you could get so close you could take record shots with just the camera zoom.
Sometimes it's a bit worrying when a bird lets you get that close, but this pair looked absolutely fighting fit, and their lack of fear is probably down to never having seen humans before up on their high Arctic breeding grounds.
I was able to watch them for about an hour, as they fed non-stop. The Phalarope occasionally popped into the water for a quick swim, and on one occasion had a bit of a go at the Knot, but otherwise it was all sweetness and light, both birds making the most of a fine-weather stopover on their long migration south.