Sunday, 30 December 2007

The Best of 2007

I don't intend to do any sort of comprehensive personal literary review of 2007 - my memory is far too poor for that. Instead, I'll just pick out a few highlights...

Of those actually published in 2007, I've got two contenders. First is Canadian poet Karen Solie's Modern And Normal, which I've read again and again since it came out. It's a hard-to-place book, sitting somewhere between the mainstream and the more experimental, but it's confident and assured in its own little niche. Secondly, I'll go for Colin Simms' Gyrfalcon Poems. I've only had my hands on it for a few days, but it's absolutely superb. Simms is a very fine naturalist and observer of birdlife, and writes about it in a style that owes something to Basil Bunting. It's not always easy going (although it's rarely tough either, and never wilfully obscure), and at times the delight in words is every bit as dizzying as the flight of one of these uber-predators. Honourable mention to Luke Kennard's The Harbour Beyond The Movie - a really dazzling book.

Of poetry collections I read this year (but which were published previously), favourites included Jane Routh's Teach Yourself Mapmaking, Helen Macdonald's Shaler's Fish, and The Great Enigma: Collected Poems of Tomas Transtromer. Macdonald is a real one-off, but well worth the effort, while Routh's book is a lesson in how to patiently develop themes throughout the length of a collection.

I didn't get through many novels, but I thought Jon McGregor's So Many Ways To Begin (actually published last year) was excellent, while where non-fiction was concerned, Ron Powers' Mark Twain: A Life beat all-comers.

And that's it. I'll do a poetry chapbook round-up on Tuesday (I thought it was a good year), but in the meantime, Happy New Year!

End of year arrivals

I've done precious little birdwatching in December, and absolutely none on my local patch until the last few days. It was good, then, to get over to Cossington Meadows today and be met with not one but two unexpected arrivals (and ticks for the year list).

First was a Water Pipit, picking its way around the margins of a flooded area in the company of two Pied Wagtails and a Green Sandpiper. It's been there a few days, apparently, and seemed to be feeding well.

Second was a Great White Egret, in the company of a Little Egret and no less than eight Grey Herons. It too seemed to be feeding well in a small pool and along some flooded ditches, although it did draw the attention of a pair of Mute Swans, who moved it on from their little corner of the pool. Its pure white plumage and orangey-yellow bill seemed to have antagonised them, either because they thought it was some mutant swan, or because they just don't like to see another species using their colour scheme.

Those two ticks take the year list to a not very impressive 140-odd. Of course, birders being what we are, we're all desperate for the pipit and the egret to stay until Tuesday, so that we can make them among the first ticks on our 2008 lists.

In the papers...

There was a good piece in yesterday's Guardian about Nottingham-based writer John Harvey, who is probably best known for his Resnick detective novels but who is also a fine poet, and was the moving force behind the poetry press and magazine Slow Dancer. I've got one of his books, Bluer Than This, from Smith/Doorstop, and it's excellent.
There was also this article about Charters and Caldicott, the cricket-loving old buffers in Hitchcock's classic The Lady Vanishes. Nice to see one of the great director's more overlooked films being taken seriously.

Monday, 24 December 2007

Merry Christmas!

An excess of festive cheer has kept me away from the screen for the last few days, and will continue to do so, I hope, for a while yet. I might just about put together a Best of 2007 in time for the New Year - until then, I'll just wish everyone a very Merry Christmas, and may your God go with you, as Dave Allen used to say.

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

Copyright conundrum

Good debate over at Surroundings regarding Wendy Cope's Guardian piece on poetry copyright, which I only got round to reading last weekend.
I think I'm firmly on the side of those who think that reproducing poems on the internet is likely, in the long run, to mean more sales for the poet concerned, although obviously it's entirely up to the individual poet what line they want to take regarding their own work. For my own part, I think nearly all the poetry I buy now (and the already groaning new bookcase I shifted into my back room two weeks ago tells me I buy a lot) is purchased after I've sampled the writer's work online. It doesn't happen nearly so much with the non-poetry books I buy, purely because they're usually much easier to find in bookshops, where you can spend hours flicking through them while you decide (Borders even provide sofas and coffee to help, for heaven's sake). So, is internet browsing of work really so different to hiding yourself in quiet corner of Waterstone's while you read all the best bits?

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

New at Stride

Couple of noteworthy posts over at Stride. First, there's these very fine poems by James Midgley, who you might also know as the editor of Mimesis. I found myself printing them off to read again at home, which is always a good sign with poetry I read on the net. They're well worth the company's ink.

Secondly, there's Stride editor Rupert Loydell's picks of the year. I can't claim to have read much that's on the list, although that's more down to lack of funds than inclination, but I did enjoy the Mike Barlow and Luke Kennard volumes, and I'll take this chance once again to sing the praises of Karen Solie's Modern And Normal. When I come to do my own pick of 2007, I'm pretty sure that it will be occupying top spot. Still just about time for that to change, I suppose, but whatever - it's a really excellent book.

Monday, 10 December 2007

An autobiography of America

If you mention the American author Thomas Wolfe to anyone in Britain, you will almost certainly have to stop two sentences later to explain that no, he isn't TOM Wolfe, the 'New Journalist' chronicler of the seismic social upheavals of the 1960s and author of 'Bonfire of the Vanities'. No, not at all; someone very different, in fact.

Born as the 20th Century got under way in 1900, Thomas Wolfe wrote during a period that many Americans regard as the 'Golden Age' of the American novel. He began as a playwright, and also wrote short stories, but it is his four long, unashamedly autobiographical novels that he is remembered for.

Packed with adjectives and adverbs, his opulent language communicates the life he saw through the shapes, textures, sounds, colours and odours around him. His writing career lasted a mere nine years, but during that time he produced a body of work quite unlike anything else in American literature.

Wolfe's books are highly lyrical, and his vast vocabulary can sometimes be overwhelming, but any effort required in reading the four volumes is more than repaid.

And the skin wrapping around the books, binding them all together neatly if not entirely coherently, is Wolfe's own life in a very light disguise.

Standing in 2007, Wolfe's books now seem like a huge autobiography of America itself in the early years of the 20th Century, during some of its darkest times. Somehow, he gets under the surface of that huge country and manages to show us what is going on there.

Sprawling is a word that is often used pejoratively, but in his case it would merely indicate how the books capture the enormous variety and diversity of American life during the Depression.

From his native North Carolina to the political excesses of 1920s and 30s Europe as seen by an American abroad, and back again, Wolfe's books present a vista of life at that precise moment, yet ever-changing. Huge, shifting, yet dependable; presented with an eye that captures detail incredibly.

Yet, despite the worst of all he sees, there is never a sense of despair in Wolfe's writing. At the end of 'You Can't Go Home Again', he sums things up honestly but with defiance: "What befalls man is a tragic lot. There is no denying this in the final end. But we must deny it all along the way. Mankind was fashioned for eternity."

Seemingly making more of a criticism than a comment, Nobel Prize-winner William Faulkner once said of Wolfe that he was "trying to put the entire history of the human heart on the head of a pin".

Ironic in a way, when you consider that the books that Faulkner read were far shorter than those Wolfe had originally written.

In a prescient foreshadowing of the current debate surrounding the 'restoration' of Raymond Carver's short stories, the books on which Wolfe's reputation rests were the result of long hours spent by editors with judiciously applied blue pencils.

His first novel 'Look Homeward, Angel' began life as a much longer work called 'O Lost' and was more experimental in nature than the work we know.

His last three novels - 'Of Time And The River', 'The Web And The Rock' and 'You Can't Go Home Again' - were all edited sections of an enormous multi-volume work called 'The October Fair'. The original was in fact of a similar length to Proust's 'A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu'. And that's a lot of pages.

The final two novels were culled from this enormous manuscript following Wolfe's death in 1938 from tuberculosis of the brain.

'O Lost' has since been 'reconstructed' and published. 'The October Fair' has gone forever, so scattered among various editors at the time that we will never learn the shape that Wolfe intended for it.

Following Wolfe's death, at the tragically young age of 38, Faulkner spoke up again. This time he praised Wolfe as his generation's best writer, placing himself a mere second.

The Great American Novel is something that has obsessed the American literary etsablishment for longer than anyone can remember. There are those who claim that that fox had already been shot by the time of Wolfe's death - that he had done it and all bets were off. Others disagreed, and the debate still continues.

But Wolfe's prose, its elegant, impressionistic grace and at times its almost uncomfortable honesty, will live on whether that particular medal is pinned on its proud breast or not.

Though his name is not so well known this side of the Atlantic, the scope and breadth of his work deserves your attention and I urge you to pick up a copy and read.

Mark Howard Jones

Friday, 7 December 2007

Poetry in primary schools

It’s not often you’re going to see me talking about Ofsted on this page, but this report from the government education watchdog about the teaching of poetry in primary schools makes pretty interesting reading.

I’m not sure I’m in any way qualified to make any pronouncement on it, given that my own primary school career is 27 years in the past, but it did set me thinking back. I don’t honestly remember being taught ANY poetry at primary school, or at high school (11-14) for that matter. And both of them, I should say, were really pretty good schools, with excellent academic standards.

As others have pointed out, the report contains examples of poetry being written by schoolchildren, and it’s really rather good, which confirms an impression I’ve formed over the past few years. My own godson (aged 11) recently showed me a poem he’d written for school, and it was excellent, and a colleague was telling me earlier this week about the poem his young daughter had written at school. She’d taken the sort of imaginative leap that I can’t imagine we’d have made if we’d been set the same exercise 30 years ago. In fact, a couple of years ago I attended a workshop at which much the same exercise was set, and while some interesting poems resulted, I think we all played it much safer. Finally, when I ran a workshop in a primary school a couple of years back, I was surprised but delighted by the standard of work the children wrote. Best of all was the fact that the kids (they were 10) gave the impression of being familiar with both very traditional poetry and much more modern stuff, and of being able to read and write either.

What I’m saying, I suppose, is that in my very limited experience, poetry does seem to be taught rather better these days, at least if what the children are writing is anything to go by. And while widening the range of what is taught is probably a good thing, I hope it’s not used as an excuse for chucking out all the older stuff. Room for both, surely?

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

So Here We Are 8

Here's the link to So Here We Are 8, the latest of Tears In The Fence editor David Caddy's Poetic Letters From England. As ever, it's interesting stuff, taking in all sorts of diverse writers, including John Arlott.
On that subject, I know he's regarded by many as the voice of summer, but I was a bit too late to hear much of his radio career, and so Richie Benaud takes that title in my memory. Usually TV sports commentators are grating at best, but I always loved Richie's pithy way with a phrase. His exchange with Geoff Boycott on the last day of the 4th Test between England and South Africa in 1998 was magnificent, and his despairing exclamation that "it's absolute carnage out there now" as David Gower stroked 215 against the Aussies in 1985 was the stuff of legend.
I think I might be straying from the point a little...

In the workshop

The December edition of Writers' Forum used my poem Yellow Bellies in its monthly poetry workshop, to illustrate assonance and alliteration, among other things. The series of articles takes different poems each month and uses them to offer straightforward, practical advice to writers. The magazine also includes news, a wealth of contacts for submissions and competitions, and a monthly poetry competition, so it's well worth checking out. Many thanks to Poetry Editor Sarah Willans for using my work.

Monday, 3 December 2007

Arrowhead say yes!

Friday’s reading came at the end of a pretty exhilarating few days for me. Some time ago, I submitted a manuscript for a full-size poetry collection to Arrowhead Press, and they’ve just accepted it. The working title is Troy Town (although I have quite a few alternatives in mind), and publication is currently set for the middle of next year.
Of course, there’s still a lot of work to be done, but when Making The Most Of The Light was being put together, it surprised me just how much I enjoyed that editing, honing process (it helps when you have an excellent editor), so I'm really looking forward to getting stuck in.
Naturally, I’m delighted by all this and haven’t quite got my head round it yet. I can’t claim to be familiar with all of Arrowhead’s poets, but I’m flattered to be in the company of those I do know. Bob Cooper (whose work is sometimes described as “New York meets Newcastle”) is a really excellent poet, whose perceptive criticism at The Works has been a big help to me, and David Bircumshaw (another Leicester poet), had a really unusual and memorable collection published by them a few years back. Another Works regular, Poetry Scotland editor Sally Evans, is there too, and Jennifer Copley, Lyn Moir, Marita Over and Sue Vickerman are all poets I’ve read and enjoyed. And of course, Poetry Editor Joanna Boulter’s own On Sketty Sands is a really fine chapbook (she went on to be nominated for the Forward Prize, I think, for her recent collection).
Funnily enough, at Friday’s reading, I met Peter Rafferty, who has already had a collection published by Arrowhead, and who shares my predilection for birds in poems. I like the look of his book a lot. It's good to be on board.

Sunday, 2 December 2007

HappenStance Border raid

From left: Myself, James Wood, Eleanor Livingstone, Trish Ace, Rob Mackenzie, Helena Nelson.

On Friday, I hot-footed it north to Carlisle for a reading, alongside five other HappenStance poets, as part of the Border Poets series.
I usually like to see a bit of the countryside on such jaunts, but it rained all the way up to Scotch Corner, and across the Stainmore Pass to Penrith, putting paid to my plan to do a bit of birding and stop off at the spot where semi-legendary Viking king of York Eric Bloodaxe (see the poetry connection?) was finally brought to bay.
We had one or two problems finding each other once we got there (and two or three excellent pints of Black Sheep), but were at the Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery in good time to appreciate what really is a lovely venue. And what followed was without doubt the best reading I’ve been involved with.
There was a good-sized audience, who were appreciative, knowledgeable and gratifyingly willing to part with their money for chapbooks (we were pretty much sold out by the end of the night). The variety of poets on show seemed to work particularly well, offering plenty of light and shade and both obvious and more subtle similarities (three of us, quite unintentionally, read poems with Robinson Crusoe connections).
Eleanor Livingstone, who launched her chapbook at the same event as me two years ago, read well from her excellent The Last King Of Fife. The title poem, in particular, is a favourite of mine, but she’s a very sure-footed poet, in an understated way, so there was plenty else to enjoy.
I’d only just met James Wood, but have been enjoying his The Theory Of Everything since it came out. He reads very well, with an engagingly animated manner, and his technical mastery and breadth of knowledge are worn lightly, both drawing the reader in and allowing him to surprise them when things take a darker turn.
Trish Ace was also a new face to me, but again I’ve been enjoying her book, First Blood, for months. We talked a little beforehand about attitudes to putting the domestic and everyday into poems, and Trish mentioned that perhaps the prevailing climate is against this, but her reading rather reinforced my view, that when it’s done well, as here, what is there to complain about? She makes connections between the personal and the wider world without signposting them or straining for significance, she distils emotion well, and she's another excellent reader.
Rob Mackenzie is another who manages to be animated without ever getting theatrical. It’s a style that suits his poems down to the ground, too, because he constantly springs surprises on you (in both style and subject matter) without ever reaching for easy, look-at-me effects. He read Concentration, one of my favourites from his chapbook The Clown Of Natural Sorrow, and his genuinely creepy At The Harry Potter Launch drew audible gasps from the audience.
For my part, I read five from Making The Most Of The Light, plus one from Winter Gifts, and a new-ish poem. The full set-list was:
1. Familiar
2. Man Overboard
3. Vocabulary
4. Poem
5. Redwings
6. At Home
7. Cure
In between times, HappenStance’s founder and all-round creative dynamo Helena Nelson read poems and talked about the experience of starting a chapbook press from scratch. I think every one of us would say we owe a great debt to her, not only for taking a punt on putting out our books, but also for her hugely supportive and instructive editing of said pamphlets.
We all told the audience a bit about our current activities and plans (more on mine tomorrow), and afterwards chatted with them while books were bought, drinks seen off, etc. If any of them are reading this, thank you too for making it an enjoyable and inspiring night.
I meandered back, via a secondhand bookshop in Penrith (£7 for two books, on 14th century poetry and medieval history), and RSPB Leighton Moss, where the wind was keeping the Bitterns and Bearded Tits deep in the reedbeds, but a very showy Great White Egret gave great views.

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.

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.

Friday, 28 September 2007

Prizes, poems and fat cats

I’ve just seen the office copy of BBC Wildlife Magazine, which contains the winning entries in the 2007 Poet of the Year competition. I’m absolutely delighted that my own poem, Hares In December, came 2nd in the adult section. I wrote it for NaPoWriMo in April, although I made the notes for it much earlier, after walking round Rockingham Forest looking for Red Kites one December day (we found them, plus loads of Hares).
My prize, a huge package of bird food, plus feeders and a nestbox, arrived in the post the other day. The slight problem is that I don’t really have anywhere suitable to put any of it, because I have a pretty small garden without trees or high fences, and in addition the main part of the garden is out of sight of the windows (I live on a terrace, and there’s a communal path between the houses and the gardens). The one or two places that would accommodate them would be far too open to cats.
So, I thought I’d pass the prize on to my parents. They have a bigger (although far from huge), much more varied garden, and although it’s in a pretty built-up, suburban location, over the years they’ve managed to attract a fair amount of wildlife. As well as all the more common garden bird species – Robin, Blackbird (loads of them), Dunnock, Wren, Song Thrush, Starling, House Sparrow, Blue Tit, Great Tit, Long-tailed Tit, Coal Tit, Greenfinch, Chaffinch, Collared Dove and Woodpigeon – there’s plenty of corvids, including Magpies, a large family of Carrion Crows, occasional Jackdaws, and, a couple of summers ago, a Jay who insisted on filling every available space (including my mum’s peg bag) with acorns, and on trying to collect people’s hair as nesting material. There have been occasional Green and Great Spotted Woodpeckers, a regular pair of Sparrowhawks, a Kestrel, and in winter, visiting Yellowhammers, Goldcrests, Reed Buntings, Pied Wagtails, Goldfinches and Bullfinches. In the summer, Chiffchaffs and Willow Warblers are sometimes around, plus plenty of Swifts and House Martins overhead. A Buzzard flies over now and then, and a Pheasant once found its way there. There’s a Heron that lands in nearby gardens, but hasn’t yet made a visit. All quite impressive, given that they have one (very large and conspicuous) cat, plus a sort of timeshare on another (he flits between several owners). Oh, and next door’s cat likes to pop over for a bit of a light-hearted chase around the plant pots.
The reason why their cat (the unfortunately named Gizmo) is no deterrent to birds goes back to his early days. When he was about six months old, he went and launched himself at a group of Herring Gulls on the lawn (sadly, they never visit anymore, although there’s the occasional Black-headed). He grabbed one by the leg, and it and its mates then turned on him. He just managed to escape before he was carried away or filleted by their beaks, and has since shown little interest in birds (neither did the cats we had when I was a kid, although one was a prolific mouser), often stoically suffering close-range taunting from the Crows, Magpies and that Jay.
He doesn’t bother mousing, either. Again, when he was very young, he chased a squirrel in through the patio window, and it then ran up the curtains, along the pelmet, and back down the other side, before escaping back out of the window. He seemed to take this disappointment quite badly, and now refuses to acknowledge the existence of mammals other than cats. Foxes visit quite regularly, and I’ve seen him sit almost back to back with one, each pretending that the other isn’t there.
I’d imagine , then, that he’ll have no problem with Robins using the nestbox. Now and then, he’ll do that strange chattering thing that cats do at birds (Magpies are the only ones that seem to provoke him), but otherwise, he’s a walking refutation of the claim that cats are wiping out songbirds.

Festival time

I'm terrible at getting myself organised to go to any kind of poetry or literary festival. I'll see that it's on, and think it looks good, and promise that I'll go, then either completely forget about it or leave it too late to buy tickets.
But Liz Bassett flagged up the Derwent Poetry Festival over at Word Doctors, and I'm determined to get along there. After all, it's a lovely part of the world anyway, so I can intersperse the poetry with a bit of walking and/or birding. Just need to decide whether to go for the Saturday or Sunday, or both.
In the meantime, I'm going to go to to the Autumn Leafe reading, by Martin Stannard and CJ Allen, in Nottingham next Thursday evening. I got the details from a flyer that I don't have to hand at the moment, but from memory I'm pretty sure it's at the Broadway Cinema, starting at 7.30pm. It's organised by the always excellent Leafe Press, by the way.
UPDATE: I've just discovered the online details about that Leafe reading - here they are.

Tuesday, 25 September 2007

Big, bad Wolfe

I recently bought a secondhand copy of this. It's great. I vaguely remember reading about Thomas Wolfe (not the white-suited gobsh*te - that's Tom Wolfe) years ago, but why's he not better known in this country?

Monday, 24 September 2007

Bill Griffiths

Very interesting piece at Fretmarks about the death of Bill Griffiths. I can't claim to know much about him, but oddly enough his name has kept cropping up in my reading for the last month or so (mainly to do with his work translating Old English texts). I'll have to do more digging into his work.
The rest of the piece deserves to spark some discussion, too. Readings ARE strange things, I think, but I suppose their value depends very much on how they are done. I sort of agree with the writer being the last thing the listener or reader should think about, but sometimes it's hard not to.
It was a quiet weekend. Friday, before leaving work, me and my boss ventured out onto the Fens at Eldernell in search of a reported Purple Heron. We got great views of a juvenile Marsh Harrier, plus a Hobby and plenty of Kestrels hunting despite a wind that made it difficult to stand up. No heron, though. Or was there? We did watch a distant heron fly off, and remarked on its dark colouring, but didn't get excited because we'd made the elementary error of not consulting the bird guide first, and so were under the impression that Purple Herons are much smaller than our own Greys. Afterwards, checking in the book, we weren't so sure. They are smaller, but not a huge amount. We've put it down as a might-have-been.
Otherwise it was two days of reading, writing and watching India knock the Aussies out of the World 20/20. When he's batting like he is at the moment, Yuvraj Singh combines power and timing better than pretty much anyone I can think of. It's just a shame that I'm cooped up here at work while the final is on.

Thursday, 20 September 2007

Don't believe the hype

I'd have to say I wasn't one of those who was bowled over by Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident Of The Dog In the Night-time when it came out a few years back. It was a perfectly enjoyable read, but a bit uninvolving, and I didn't think the central character particularly captured the psyche of an Asperger's Syndrome sufferer (from my admittedly very limited experience of them).
When Haddon's first poetry collection, The Talking Horse And The Sad Girl And The Village Under The Sea, came out in 2005, I read a few reviews of it (they were very mixed), and forgot about it.
Recently, though, I've been trying to give the credit card a rest and borrowing poetry collections from the library, rather than splashing out, and when I was there last Friday I saw Haddon's book and grabbed it. I'd have to say, it's certainly a lot better than the bad reviews it got (and than the one on Amazon - it sounds like the reviewer has some bizarre ideas on poetry in general). On the other hand, it doesn't really live up to the most positive reviews, or to the synopsis, that says:
"That Mark Haddon's first book after 'The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time' was a poetry collection perhaps came as a surprise to his legions of fans; that it is a collection of such virtuosity and range did not. The gifts so admired in Haddon's prose are in strong evidence here too - the humanity of his voices, the dark humour and the uncanny ventriloquism - but Haddon is also a writer of considerable seriousness, lyric power and surreal invention, and "The Talking Horse and the Sad Girl and the Village Under the Sea" combines bittersweet love-lyrics, lucid and bold new versions of Horace, comic set-pieces, lullabies, wry postmodern shenanigans (including a note from the official board of censors on '18' certificate poetry), and an entire John Buchan novel condensed to five pages. Consolidating Haddon's reputation as one of our most powerful myth-weavers and spell-makers, 'The Talking Horse and the Sad Girl and the Village Under the Sea' also confirms him as one of the most outrageous and freewheeling imaginations at work in contemporary literature."
I presume that was taken from the blurb (I haven't got the book to hand at the moment), and it does rather overdo it, and therein lies the problem, I think. I'm sure the more outrageous claims just put reviewers backs up, and do the poet no favours. For example, "such virtuosity and range" - really? Honestly? "Surreal invention" - the surrealism is rather clumsily done, I thought, and easily the worst thing about the collection. "Uncanny ventriloquism" - no, I can't go for that (see earlier comments on the novel). And finally, "one of our most powerful myth-weavers and spell-makers" and "one of the most outrageous and freewheeling imaginations at work in contemporary literature." Oh come on! In what way outrageous? And where are these myths, exactly?
This isn't intended as an anti-Haddon diatribe. The same could apply to any number of recent poetry collections - I understand the need to market them, but surely making wildly overblown claims just turns the book-buying public off in the long run? I've enjoyed the collection on the whole, but very much despite the extravagant claims made for it.
Understatement is, we're always told, very much the order of the day in contemporary poetry. Perhaps reviewers should use a little now and then.

Monday, 17 September 2007

Beaten to the punch

A lot of my poems take an awfully long time to write. They hang around in notebooks and computer files, half-finished, sometimes barely started, waiting for that original scrap of inspiration to be hammered into shape. Sometimes, it never happens, but more often than not something gets finished, eventually.
One such piece had been sitting on my hard drive for a good two years. It didn't work as it stood, but there was something there, I thought, that might be worth persevering with. Then, a few weeks back, I came across a poem by the Irish poet Eavan Boland, which was startlingly similar in theme and structure to my unfinished poem. Hers used Atlantis in its central metaphor, mine used Lyonnesse, but the idea was the same. We'd probably arrived at the idea from very different directions, but it's hardly the most remarkable coincidence in the world.
Anyway, now I had a problem. Unsurprisingly, her poem was (i) much better; as well as being (ii) finished; and (iii) published. Probably I should just have forgotten about it, but over the weekend I pulled my poem apart, reassembled it in various different forms, and ended up with something very different from what I started with, but which I'm actually pretty happy with. It's still not as good as Eavan Boland's, of course, but I think it's now sufficiently different to survive. I might send it out somewhere eventually.
The moral? Well, there isn't one, really, except to say that sometimes being forced to consider radically changing a poem does you a huge favour.
It was a good weekend. Yesterday, I went to one of my regular birding haunts (I won't say where, because I was reminded earlier that there are people out there for whom raptors are Public Enemy No1) looking for a reported Black-necked Grebe, and with the intention of taking my first very tentative steps into the world of digiscoping (taking pictures through a telescope, using a compact camera). As I arrived, a juvenile Peregrine was overhead, and by the time I'd parked, another (an adult, this time) was perched on the tree that they always use, with its bright yellow talons very visible through the scope. I went off walking, in search of the Grebe (with no luck), and as I returned to the car, I could see what looked like a second Peregrine on the tree. I got the scope on it, and it was. A female, judging by the size. Then, as I looked harder, I realised that a third Peregrine was there, facing away from me. I looked up to give my eyes a break, and there was a juvenile powering over the water, putting the Tufted Ducks and Black-headed Gulls to flight by his mere presence. Four Peregrines - at times I think I'm in danger of getting blase about them, so easy are they to see locally, but this was something else. I did little more than mess about with the new camera, but trial and error is all part of the process.
Finally, lots of good stuff on Stride. I saw Eleanor Rees' book in Borders on Saturday, but was a bit put off by its price, so I'm with Rupert Loydell on Salt's hardback thin volumes. I'll wait for it in paperback. I also saw Luke Kennard's collection, and would have bought it. In fact, I got as far as waiting in the queue, then realised that I'd left my wallet in my other coat. I don't suppose they'd have accepted 87p and half a tube of Polos, so I sheepishly snuck it back onto the shelf, and made my exit. I'll go back for it this week.

Thursday, 13 September 2007

Taking monstrous liberties

I'm indebted to The Library Princess for pointing me in the direction of
Got Medieval. As someone who has always thought that history gets REALLY interesting just about when the Romans are packing up to leave, and loses some of its lustre again when the Renaissance comes along (we're talking in relative terms here), it's essential reading.
I'm slightly alarmed to see what's in store in the forthcoming film version of Beowulf (go to the July 17 entry), not to mention disappointed in Neil Gaiman. I don't have high hopes for it, but Hollywood has mangled plenty of other classics of world literature beyond recognition, so why should this be any different?
On the other hand (you knew that was coming, didn't you?), perhaps it will spark an interest in the original in a few people, so who am I to complain? I'm not ashamed to admit that my own interest in early medieval history was kindled entirely by reading the Lord of the Rings. Especially by the Riders of Rohan, with their Anglo-Saxons-on-horseback culture.
Speaking of which, I'm sure I read an article in a Sunday paper a few years back, saying that a translation of Beowulf by Tolkien had been found. It would certainly be a must-buy, given that Tolkien's 1936 lecture on the poem, The Monsters and the Critics, completely revolutionised understanding of it. But I've heard nothing since reading the piece - did I imagine it?

Tuesday, 11 September 2007

Shakespeare: Who wrote what?

Every few years this sort of story comes along. I'm not sure what to make of it, really. I love a good conspiracy theory, and I can see that there are some reasons for thinking that the authorship of Shakespeare's plays was down to someone else, or several other people. I'm not sure, though, that the reasons offered here are that convincing.
Derek Jacobi's comment that he doesn't think anyone could do it all on his own seems a bit odd - surely you could, and would, say the same about any genius, in any field? That's what sets them apart, isn't it?
His later comment, where he names De Vere the likely author because his life and experiences more closely match the plays, worries me even more. After all, no one's experience can match the plays that closely - they're just too varied and multi-layered for that. It seems to me to downplay the importance of imagination, and there's a hint of snobbery too. It must have been an aristocrat, because no pleb could possibly have managed it. Hmmm. I'm not persuaded.

Monday, 10 September 2007

Workshop responses

I've just come across the responses to that WS Graham themed Guardian poetry workshop. On first reading, I think I liked Eleanor Livingstone's poem best. I'm biased, admittedly, because she's a fellow HappenStancer and we launched our chapbooks at the same reading, but I'd agree with what Matthew Sweeney says - it's a surprising poem, and that's always a good thing.

Friday, 7 September 2007

"You don't have to be an ornithologist (to draw absurd conclusions to suit your prejudices)

It’s not often I’m moved to write to a newspaper, but this particular piece of ill-informed drivel did the trick. At a time when several of the broadsheets are jumping on the ‘let’s control raptors’ bandwagon (The Times had this piece*, and The Telegraph this – there’s loads to argue with in both, but they do at least make passing reference to one or two facts), Richard Ingrams and The Independent take things to a quite spectacular level of ignorance, prejudice and downright malevolence.
Where to start? Maybe with the Red Kites flying “menacingly” over his house. Menacing who, exactly? Does he suppose they’re about to swoop down and carry off young children, or the family pets? They take little live prey as it is, most of it no bigger than a rat.
What about the growing numbers of “larger birds”? By this Ingrams seems to mean raptors, although of course there are plenty of larger birds that are no such thing. If he’s really interested – and of course he’s not – there are plenty of figures available for larger birds, and if he took the trouble to read them he’d find that a lot of them are also struggling. Notable among them is the Hen Harrier, under threat precisely because it is still persecuted by shooting interests.
Connected with that, there’s the fact that the rapid increases in the number of Buzzards in particular, plus some other species of bird of prey, is entirely down to their populations having reached such dangerously low levels not so long ago. And the reason for that? Well, myxamatosis played a part where Buzzards are concerned, but again, systematic persecution by gamekeepers was the main cause.
As for the decline of small birds being down to the increased number of raptors – bullshit. The two we’ve been talking about, Buzzards and Red Kites, take very few birds. In the case of those British raptors who do – Sparrowhawk, Goshawk, Hobby, Merlin and Peregrine – many of their preferred prey species (Blue Tit, Great Tit, Blackbird, Collared Dove, Woodpigeon, to name but a few) are thriving. Ingrams is right to note that certain small birds have declined considerably, but of course it doesn’t suit his purpose to mention that others are doing very well.
The paragraph beginning “You don’t have to be an ornithologist…” is quite staggering in its stupidity. Perhaps you don’t need to be, but a basic grasp of a few facts would be a help. He seems to think, from what he says, that Sparrowhawks do nothing but catch sparrows, when in fact they take a whole wide range of prey. But they’re a native species too (as are all the raptors we’re talking about), so those losses are factored into nature’s equations. Predators do NOT wipe out their prey species, then wonder where the next meal is coming from.
Finally, there’s his little dig at the RSPB. Where exactly did he find out about the declines in small birds? From the RSPB, of course, and the BTO, and all the other organisations genuinely concerned with conservation. Certainly not from his grouse moor-owning, old school tie chums, anyway.
Perhaps the most disturbing thing about the whole piece is what it doesn’t mention. In the whole, long, sad list of bird and animal species that have disappeared into extinction, there isn’t one that was killed off by being preyed on by another native species. If, as Ingrams suggests, raptor numbers grow too large, then populations will experience a levelling off as they find their appropriate level. In the case of Buzzards, for example, that depends on Rabbit numbers. In the case of Red Kites, largely on the availability of roadkill and other carrion. All assuming, of course, that shotgun or poison-wielding types don’t take a hand.
Because there is a common factor in that list of extinctions. Mankind. Our interference with natural habitats and lifestyles is what causes extinction, and that’s exactly what’s happening with those birds now in serious decline, including the House Sparrow and a lot of farmland species. Intensive farming, plus the disappearance of a lot of green space in urban areas (for parking, or patios) is the culprit, not Sparrowhawks or corvids or cats or any of the other reasons suggested by the head-in-the-sand brigade. Lots of farmers ARE making an effort, with and without Government and EU help, and it’s heartening that declines can be reversed relatively quickly, but only if they’re spotted and acted upon in time. And there are always those for whom greed comes first.
There’s one consolation in all this, and that’s that Ingrams’ droolings will only have been read by a tiny percentage of the population anyway, having been published in a paper that sells under 250,000 copies daily, most of them in London and the Home Counties (it's given up even pretending it knows the rest of the country exists). That’s under a quarter of the number of people who pay their RSPB subs each month.
Rant over.
* Once you know that Magnus Linklater owns a grouse moor, it rather colours your view of his objectivity.

New broom

There's a new Poetry Editor at Writers' Forum. Sarah Willans, one of the co-founders of Word Doctors (highly recommended) has taken over the role and is keen to see as many good poets as possible submitting to the magazine's monthly competition. And the real prize, of course, is exposure in a widely distributed and read magazine (it's easily available in WH Smith, for example).
When I started trying to write seriously, the mag was invaluable for giving pointers towards all sorts of magazines, competitions, workshops, courses and festivals, and under Sarah's stewardship, I'm sure the poetry workshop will be essential reading.

Wednesday, 5 September 2007

So Here We Are 5

Click here to hear So Here We Are 5, the latest in Tears in the Fence editor David Caddy's Poetic Letters From England. The stuff about Bill Griffiths caught my eye on first reading, but as always, there's loads of good stuff there to follow up on.

Tuesday, 4 September 2007

Is Dylan poetry?

Ah, the old "is Dylan really poetry" chestnut again. I'm not sure what to make of Andrew Motion's comment. Surely all song lyrics depend for their effect on the music, otherwise the songwriter would just call them poems in the first place?
On the other hand, he raises two other interesting points. One is whether or not Dylan is considered cool or relevant enough by today's schoolkids to encourage them to read poetry. My suspicion is that for most, he isn't. The second is the whole question of getting kids into poetry by a 'backdoor' route. It makes me a little uneasy, and I find myself thinking that wouldn't it just be better to expose them to plenty of good poetry, well taught. Even when I was at school (mid-80s), the amount of poetry covered in the curriculum seemed to be very small. At O Level, we did a few World War One poems (Owen and Sassoon), a few Ted Hughes poems (I remember Wind being one of them, and the one that starts "The swallow of summer..."), and that was pretty much it. We did do a Shakespeare play, and Under Milk Wood, but very little actual poetry, and I don't ever remember being particularly inspired by it. A Level was better (and very well taught) - Prufrock and Portrait of a Lady by Eliot, Heaney's Selected Poems, and The Whitsun Weddings, but I think it's fair to assume that anyone who's taking English A Level already has some degree of interest in poetry, and literature in general.
On the other hand, I suppose it can't do any harm!
But back to whether lyrics stand as poetry. My own feeling is that they very rarely do, no matter how good they are as lyrics. I love Richard Thompson's songs, for example, but even though I often think about individual lines that they would work in a poem, I generally think that the overall effect depends entirely on the interplay of words, music, voice and instrumentation.
On Radio Five this morning, discussing this story, their objection was that Dylan's songs depended very much on his delivery of them. I'm not sure that's valid, because there are plenty of good cover versions of his songs. I used to have a double album of them, some quite obscure. Two favourites were Farewell Angelina, by New Riders of the Purple Sage (a Grateful Dead offshoot), and Mama You Been On My Mind, by Rod Stewart (in his early days, of course). And of course, there was Jason and the Scorchers' fabulous blast through Absolutely Sweet Marie, sounding a bit like The Ramones would have done had they grown up in Appalachia. Anyone got any favourite Dylan covers?

Two ticks

I’m not what you’d call a twitcher, the sort of birder who dashes off to Shetland at the drop of a hat to see some rare vagrant, but neither am I an expert enough patch birdwatcher to be able to get by without the help of the various local birding websites and BirdGuides.
I check them regularly, and occasionally, if they list something interesting on my ‘beat’, I’ll go and have a look for it. It’s pretty much the only way you can work if you haven’t got time to get around all your local sites on a very regular basis.
Anyway, yesterday there were a few Leicestershire mentions on the websites, so I did a few stops on the way from work to a meeting in Nottingham. First was Eyebrook Reservoir, to have a look for the Sandwich Terns and Curlew Sandpipers reported there earlier. Sadly a Peregrine had spooked the terns, and there was no sign of the Sandpipers, even at the spot where I’ve seen them in previous years.
So it was on to Wanlip Meadows, just on the corner of my patch, to look for a juvenile Spotted Redshank. Trouble is, the path into the Meadows has been closed for weeks while sewage works take place. No problem, I thought. Just across the river is Watermead Country Park, with a bird hide that overlooks the Meadows. I parked, walked round there, and found the hide locked up. Hmm. Not impressed. Early morning and late evening are often the best times to watch birds, especially at a site like this where many of the birds disperse elsewhere during the day, returning later to roost. This was only 6.30pm. I know vandalism can be a problem, but this is a showpiece site, well run and patrolled, and well used by the public too.
Fortunately, the ramp up to the hide offered something of a vantage point. OK, so it was looking towards the setting sun, and it only looked over a fairly narrow section of the Meadows, but it was better than nothing. I got the scope set up and started looking. Loads of Black-headed Gulls (always entertaining to see them bickering), and nearly as many Lapwings. No other waders, though, no matter how many times I scanned back and forth.
It always happens, though. I decided to have one last sweep, then move on. A Green Sandpiper moved into view, and called twice. Then, from the same direction, came the Spotted Redshank. In terms of plumage there are probably a few things you could confuse one with, but their behaviour gives them away. This one was a textbook example, wading deep in the pool, occasionally up-ending, and all the time moving with a restless, almost frantic energy. It was a bit too backlit for me to be able to make out the barred markings at their best, but with a bit of patience it was possible to get most of the way there.
Finally, on to Swithland Reservoir, to look for a juvenile Little Gull. I was a bit daunted, and the words “needle” and “haystack” came to mind when I got down to the dam and saw a huge gathering of gulls in front of me. Mainly Black-headeds, but with some of the larger species too. But Swithland Res is one of my favourite places to be on a lovely still evening, birds or no birds. Nothing for it but to set up the scope and start scanning.
And it happened again. Just at the point when I had decided to give up, it flickered into view, fluttering about like a tern, and descending to delicately pick insects from off or just above the water. It even came fairly close at times, and I was able to watch it for a good 10 minutes before the meeting loomed large and I had to leave.
It all takes the patch list to 130 for the year, but it honestly is the looking that matters. Tonight, if the weather holds, I'm off to Sence Valley Forest Park to search for some Whinchats.