Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Brittle Star

I had a poem, Treaty House, accepted for issue 19 of Brittle Star yesterday, in what's been a big week for me. I've got a couple of major developments to report, but they'll have to wait until the weekend. In the meantime, it's full steam ahead practicing for Friday's reading (I know my name's not there, but I will be there, honest). I've been reading loudly to the living room for the last week. The response has been somewhat muted.

Sunday, 25 November 2007

Essential Hitchcock

Last Saturday, The Guardian contained a pull-out supplement with Part 1 of their 1000 Albums To Hear Before You Die. Of course, I didn’t read the introduction properly, so didn’t bother to buy the paper during the week to collect the subsequent parts, thinking that they were going to be published on consecutive Saturdays. Stupid, I know.
So, I have no idea whether Robyn Hitchcock’s classics I Often Dream Of Trains or Eye made it in there. I do know, though, that you can get both, plus his first solo album, Black Snake Diamond Role, and a host of bonus demo tracks, in a new boxed set called I Wanna Go Backwards. You wouldn’t be disappointed.
I like a lot of Hitchcock’s albums with The Egyptians, but those first two I mentioned, I Often Dream Of Trains and Eye, are on another level. Both feature nothing more than his (often multi-tracked) voice, plus his own acoustic guitar and piano accompaniment. On Eye, in particular, his finger-picking is stunning, mixing folkiness with a peculiarly English psychedelic flavour. Both albums, I should add, are very immediate, catchy even, and although the influences of Syd Barrett, John Lennon and Bob Dylan are always apparent, they’re never overpowering, Hitchcock being too much his own man to let that happen.
A lot of the time that’s down to the lyrics. Admittedly, sometimes Robyn gets a bit self-consciously weird and tries a bit too hard, but most of the time he sets out a highly individual vision that’s often unsettling, often funny, occasionally heartbreaking (especially the very Dylanesque Linctus House, on Eye) and always thought-provoking.
Another album that might have made it in there is Graham Parker and The Rumour's Squeezing Out Sparks. I bought it on CD the other day, having long ago lost my old tape of it, and it still stands up well. Parker got sick, in the late 70s, of being tagged as an angry young man along with Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson, but you can see (or hear, rather) why it happened. He sounds like a man with a lot to get off his chest, and on this album, the musical backing is stripped back to a pretty raw, guitar-heavy sound. There are one or two weak tracks, but Discovering Japan, Passion Is No Ordinary Word and Local Girls hit the spot, and You Can’t Be Too Strong almost qualifies as sensitive. There are two bonus tracks, with his old brass section back on board, one a fairly straight but decent stab at the Jackson 5’s I Want You Back, and the other called Mercury Poisoning, a bile-filled but upbeat kiss-off to his old reord company.
He never quite hit the commercial heights that Costello and Jackson did, but arguably he stayed truer to his original vision.

Thursday, 22 November 2007

Grail birds

Last Monday, we (myself, editor Kevin Wilmot, deputy editor Mike Weedon and photographer Tom Bailey) spent the day putting together a feature for the January issue of Bird Watching, involving what’s known as the Big Sit. You’re not allowed to move from within a smallish circle (17 ft diameter, I think), and you see how many bird species you can spot in a set length of time. We tried it at three different locations, for an hour at each.
Some of the results were surprising (only two Grey Herons, no Collared Doves, no House Sparrows), and it certainly makes you approach your birding in a different way, putting a high emphasis on birdsong, for starters. We thought we did pretty well – 54 species in an hour at Eldernell, out on the Nene Washes; 40 at Woodwalton Fen Nature Reserve; and 43 at Ferry Meadows Country Park, on the outskirts of Peterborough.
The highlight, for me at least, came at Woodwalton, when a Bittern dropped into the reeds on the far side of the pool we were watching. It’s one of those grail birds for me – I’m sure I could have seen one before now by going to Minsmere or somewhere similar, but I always thought I’d rather see one in the course of my normal birding. They’re still very rare in the UK (and the dreadful summer we just had, plus the more recent floods, will have done nothing to help that), but when you finally do see one, they’re well worth the wait.
Over the last two days, I’ve been birding around the local patch. Yesterday there was a nice little group of Goosanders at Watermead Park, and a spectacular, noisy flock of around 10,000 Starlings at Cossington Meadows. Today, I dithered over whether to go out, and where to go, and finally dodged heavy showers to drop into Kelham Bridge, a small local reserve (it’s a former sewage works). I’d been there for 15 minutes, with nothing to see but a few Moorhens and Mallards, when a male Hen Harrier appeared and started quartering the reedbeds and grassland. They’re hugely impressive and utterly distinctive silver-grey birds, and I was able to watch it for about a quarter of an hour before it disappeared over the hill, although hopefully it might hang around for a few days.
But to get to the point, finally. That type of sighting is what makes me enjoy birding, because afterwards it always strikes you as a massive stroke of luck. One bird, making its way across the country, and a tiny window of opportunity to see it passing through your area. If I’d, say, stopped at the garage before birding, instead of after, I might have missed it. I might have not bothered at all, what with all that rain around. I might have been looking the other way as it made its entrance, and have remained in blissful ignorance as it floated around behind the hide.
Of course, if you’re a glass-half-empty type of birder, you probably spend your time thinking of all the birds you didn’t quite see, but that way lies madness.

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

HappenStance reading

A week on Friday, November 30, I'll be reading with five fellow HappenStance poets at Tullie House, Carlisle.
The event is one of a series run by Border Poets, and will feature Helena Nelson, Patricia Ace, Eleanor Livingstone, Rob Mackenzie and James Wood, as well as yours truly. If you live locally, or you're in the area, come along to listen and say hello.
Quite apart from what should be a very enjoyable evening of poetry, a chance to meet old friends and make new ones, I'm looking forward to seeing a part of the country I've never really been to before (I might have passed through, just the once). And there's all those prime wetland birding sites all the way up the west coast that I'll just have to pop into on the way there or back.

Friday, 16 November 2007


I didn't have very high hopes for the new film version of Beowulf, and this review pretty much confirms my fears. Not at all sure about those plot changes.

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Fin again

My copy of Issue 1 of Fin, the Nottingham-based poetry mag I mentioned here, arrived yesterday.
First impressions are important, and it got off on the right foot with me by a) Looking compact and smartly-produced, rather like an American chapbook; and b) telling you exactly where it stands from the off. It does this with two statements, one of which reads "Fin is funded by subscribers and nobody else", and the other which states, rather unusually "One or two poems in each issue of Fin are likely to have been published before. We like the new stuff, but we think it's ridiculous to insist that a good poem only has one outing. All we'd ask is that you let us know when and where." I like that idea - more magazines should try it.
Anyway, inside are poems and nothing else, and the line-up of poets is a very impressive one. You've got the likes of Hugo Williams, Ian McMillan, Sheenagh Pugh, Mark Halliday, John Lucas, Mairead Byrne, Martin Stannard and CJ Allen, as well as plenty of other names you'll recognise from the small press world. There's also HappenStance poet Gill McEvoy, whose poem Weather Forecasters was one of my favourites on first reading ( I liked CJ Allen's Poem a lot, too).
You can subscribe (£12 for four issues, £3.50 for one, cheques payable to Fin) by writing to Fin, PO Box 9207, Nottingham, NG14 7WP, England. I recommend it. Oh, and submissions go to the same address.

Monday, 12 November 2007

Boost your word power

OK, thanks to a recent post on Fretmarks, here's an incredibly simple, incredibly addictive game for whiling away your days. The beauty of it is, when your boss asks why you've spent the last eight hours playing it, you can scream back "I WAS TACKLING WORLD HUNGER!!!!!" with a clear conscience.
I think that description of it on Fretmarks - "a combination of tetris and crack cocaine" - hits the nail squarely on the head.

Friday, 9 November 2007

Special offer - FREE poetry book!

If anyone would like a free copy of Solitaire, the anthology of winners in this year's Templar Poetry pamphlet competition, get in touch (it'll have to be UK only, I'm afraid). I bought a copy at the Derwent Festival the other week, forgetting that one would be on the way because I entered the competition myself. It duly arrived yesterday, so it might as well go to a good home.
First come, first served - drop me an email with your address, and I'll post it out.

Thursday, 8 November 2007

Best of the blogs

Too snowed under at work and too bone idle in my lunch hour to actually write anything of interest myself (too busy watching flocks of Fieldfares getting blown past the window, too), so here's my pick of the morning's browsing.
Rob Mackenzie set me thinking with his piece on poetry reviews, while
George Szirtes raises a few of the questions that occurred to me on hearing the Today programme item he mentions. Happy reading.

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

Out now

The tenth anniversary issue (No.40) of Obsessed With Pipework arrived yesterday. There's a load of good stuff, with an international flavour, especially three poems by Noosa Lee which I've read and re-read several times. Noosa is behind the blog That's So Pants, which is always an entertaining read.
I've got three poems in OWP too - Small Hours, First Night and Minding The Gaps.

He's at it again

More drivel from Richard Ingrams in a recent column in The Independent. I can't find it online, so here's the text:
"When so many people regard the welfare of wildlife as more important than that of human beings. it isn't surprising that a massive police operation should be mounted following the killing of two hen harriers in Norfolk.
"There is now even a special arm of the police force, the National Wildlife Crime Unit, to crack down on such killings. The cost of maintaining it is enormous and the results in terms of prosecution negligible. In the hen harrier instance, the dead birds have not even been found. The investigation is an expensive charade.
"Behind all this lies the almost fanatical crusade to foster the introduction of birds of prey into the countryside. And it has been a great success. There are now in Scotland growing numbers of huge sea eagles and in England, as I have previously noted, thousands of red kites, not to mention almost equal numbers of buzzards.
"The birds are all protected under EU legislation and have the vociferous support of organisations like the RSPB. There are parallel campaigns in the animal world to introduce wild boars and even wolves into the countryside.
"Gamekeepers are usually blamed for the killing of birds such as hen harriers which prey on grouse and partridges. But farmers have good reason to resent them when they can attack lambs and poultry. (The hen harrier I assume is so called because it harries hens, just as the sparrowhawk preys on sparrows.)
"But to the fanatics of the RSPB such complaints are irrelevant. The welfare of these savage birds, they say, must take precedence over that of farmers and their lambs, not to mention the many smaller birds which constitute their staple diet".
Five minutes of research is enough to show this up for the nonsense it is (I've ranted about this before), but it's still galling to read, knowing that it's not down to ignorance or befuddlement, but pure malice. He doesn't even try to deal in facts - where are the figures for this police investigation, for example. Half his column is baseless assumptions, and the rest is lies.
I'll say it again - introduction of birds of prey into the countryside? Most of the species he mentions are native species, previously reduced to dangerously low numbers by persecution from the likes of this halfwit. As for the "massive police operation" he mentions - well, a few phone calls by Norfolk Police before things are hushed up? Strange definition of "massive".
It's hardly surprising that he feels at liberty to talk such rubbish, though, when this sort of thing is going on. I'd bet my house that the whole thing would have been purused with a great deal more vigour had the shooters been two air rifle-toting hoodies from a housing estate. The RSPB should be ashamed of its passive acceptance of what's happened, too. Why aren't they demanding answers from the estate of their patron?

PS. Of course, you'd be justified in thinking that this is making a lot of fuss about something which, compared to the war in Iraq, for example, is small beer. But the fact that Ingrams has actually used his position to do a lot of good over the years makes his childish attitude on this (and even more questionable stance on things like anti-semitism and homosexuality) all the more reprehensible. He sees himself, I think, as a professional curmudgeon. You can make your own mind up as to whether listening to such a person is entertaining, but you can hear the same in any pub, any night, without paying extra for the privilege.

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

Braggy Blackstart

I spent most of last week lying on the sofa, coughing and sneezing and cursing the fact that I was ill during the one week of the year that there's no cricket on Sky. By the weekend, though, I finally felt a bit more normal, so ventured out to a gloriously autumnal Bradgate Park for a gentle stroll.
Now we in Leicestershire are justly proud of 'Braggy'. It's a wide expanse of bracken-covered moorland, dotted with granite outcrops, including the local landmark Old John (a hill topped by a distinctive folly). It was given to the people of the county early in the 20th century, having once been the home of the Greys (of Lady Jane Grey fame*). On a beautiful day, it's always busy with walkers, mountain bikers, picnicking families and so on, but it has to be said, it's not that great for wildlife, perhaps because there are so many people about. There are plenty of common birds, including Green Woodpeckers around the anthills, but not too many of the sort of species you might normally expect in such habitat (similar areas nearby, closed to the public, do much better). The Red Deer are always worth seeing, though, and there was one particularly magnificent male on view.
Anyway, I made my way along the paved path into the centre of the park, to the recently revamped tearooms, to see quite the most obliging rarity of the year. An immature male Black Redstart (see the pictures down the side) was busy catching insects on the roof of the tearooms, occasionally getting bullied by a Robin, but otherwise happily co-existing with the local Pied Wagtails. They're rare birds in the UK (although very common in Central Europe), but he seemed to have decided that the shallow slope of the tearooms made an acceptable alternative to a scree-covered mountainside. I expect the outcrops are much to his liking, too. I did very briefly see one on migration close to my home earlier in the year, but these were much better views, in much better light. It more than made up for a couple of very fallow birding weeks.
* I don't trust Wikipedia on this one. It says Lady Jane Grey was born in Bradgate House, now a fenced-off, peacock-haunted ruin in the middle of the park, but I was always told that she was born in the tiny manor house at Groby, a couple of miles away. And going off at a complete tangent, Groby (pronounced Grooby) crops up in one of Sir Walter Scott's novels. He often stayed at Coleorton Hall, near Ashby de la Zouch, and used two local sayings which he then used in the book. One was "there'll be many a dry eye in Groby Pool", said when someone unpopular died. The other was the fantastic "...and I'll thatch Groby Pool with pancakes", used as an expression of disbelief. Sadly, it's not clear whether either actually was used locally, but I'd like to think so.

Monday, 5 November 2007

So Here We Are 7

Here's the latest of Tears In The Fence editor David Caddy's Poetic Letters From England to download. It's something of a tribute to Bill Griffiths, who died recently. It's full of interesting material, so have a listen.
As always, you can read it at David's blog, if you'd prefer.

Thursday, 1 November 2007

Mimesis 3

Issue 3 of the excellent Mimesis is out now - you can order it or download it from the website. You'll notice that it contains three poems by me - McNaught, Ramsons and Under Cotopaxi - but try not to let that put you off, because it's a magazine that offers a varied and impressive selection of poetry.