Sunday, 25 February 2007

Hoarse, but happy

First of all, thanks to everyone who posted kind thoughts after my last post. I need little encouragement to get stuck into the Talisker on a Friday night, and it and an overdose of Strepsils seemed to do the trick. The voice recovered a bit, and held out until the end of the reading, though it's gone again today. But the not-talking-for-20-hours thing proved impossible - it was closer to two (waking) hours.
But anyway, the reading, at Nottingham Mechanics Institute, went very well. One of the other readers, Mark Gilbert, had also been struck down by a more virulent form of the lurgy, so couldn't make it, which just left me and Davina Prince (who, as D A Prince, is a regular in all kinds of poetry mags).
I did the two poems that appear in the current issue of Poetry Nottingham, Sweet Spot and Cafe Italia, a few from the chapbook, plus six or seven others, including a couple of very new ones. They seemed to go down well, and I liked getting my reading done first, because it meant I could relax and enjoy Davina's. As I say, she's someone whose poems often stand out in poetry mags, and she reads very well. Her reading seemed very well structured, too - there were two or three themes, subtly introduced, but always there beneath the surface.
It would have been nice putting a face to the name anyway (and to that of PN editor Adrian Buckner), but the icing on the cake was finding out that Davina also hails from Coalville (she now lives a little nearer Leicester, in Kirby Muxloe). Small world.
I sold a few chapbooks, bought one by Alan Baker and an anthology that Davina had edited, and went home more than ever determined to read more regularly. I'm hoping to get down to one of the Monday night sessions at The Troubadour in London next month, and I'm looking into setting something up locally. Ideally, I'd like to find a couple of other poets interested in reading with me, so if you're interested, drop me a line.
Very little birding this weekend, except for the happy discovery of a potentially great site in Castle Donington. The EMDC industrial park is just an expanse of puddle-dotted wasteland at the moment, but when I stopped there yesterday, it contained all sorts of finches, two Shelducks (not common round here), a Ringed Plover (ditto), and 79 Pied Wagtails (I gave up counting at that point), the latter presumably attracted to the huge swarms of very big gnats that were everywhere. I'll have to go back for a longer look soon, because it looks like a potential haunt of Black Redstarts.

Friday, 23 February 2007


I've managed, until now, to get through the whole winter without having the flu or even a proper cold, despite the fact that family, friends and work colleagues have been suffering from some real stinkers.
And what happens the day before the big Poetry Nottingham reading? My throat starts feeling like someone sandpapered it in the night, and I can only speak like the love child of Joe Cocker and Bonnie Tyler. Without the Swansea accent, obviously. And the big hair.
At this rate, the audience will have to get pretty close to hear anything. I'm hoping that not speaking for the next 20-odd hours will do the trick.

Wednesday, 21 February 2007

Catching up

On Sunday night, I went to the Phoenix in Leicester to see the closing night of the Leicester Comedy Festival. There were five unknown comics (well, unknown by me at least – the best were compere John Richardson and deadpan Yorkshireman Alun Cochrane), and headliner Stewart Lee, whose set was sadly shorter than usual, but as good as always. It’s his style, as much as the actual material, that makes him so entertaining, especially as he uses his peculiarly slow delivery to, at times, deconstruct the whole process of comedy. That, thankfully, sounds a lot duller than it actually is – in practice, the laughs still come thick and fast, but you’re also led to think about exactly what you’re laughing at.
I got back just in time to see the start of The South Bank Bank Show, which was looking at WH Auden, and ended up recording it and watching it on Monday. I have to confess that I’ve read far less by and about Auden than I should have done, and so it was hard to form an opinion on a lot of what was mentioned, including his decision to leave Britain for the USA just as World War Two was looming.
I did, though, find myself admiring his decision to expunge certain fairly early poems from his canon because he decided, years later, that they were just not honest, and that he had overdone the rhetoric for poetic effect. I don’t think that’s in any way arguing that poetry has to be straightforwardly emotional, or literal, just that the kernel of emotion at the heart of each piece has to be ‘true’. It was also a reminder of that old thing about poems never being really finished – if someone of Auden’s stature can keep having second thoughts, I don’t feel so bad about my own constant dithering.
I would have got round to posting this yesterday, but spent the day testing telescopes for work at Rutland Water, which was fun but doesn’t half leave you cross-eyed! And then on the way home, I went in to give blood, and found myself volunteered to go on the machine that separates your blood products there and then, allowing you to give twice as much. I decided typing counted as the strenuous exercise they warned me off.
The bird lists are steadily growing. The overall list is on 111, courtesy of four Smew (two male and two female) yesterday, plus Lesser Redpoll, Siskin and Little Owl at the weekend. The patch list is creeping up towards the century mark, with those last three all counting towards it.
I got the Little Owl near Sawley Marina, close to the M1. Despite the road, it’s a very quiet spot really, and has been attracting a lot of Short-eared Owls lately, so I went to have a look. It’s certainly SEO heaven, habitat-wise, but none showed. Still, the Little Owl was consolation and a reminder that part of the fun of birding is that in looking for one thing, you find another. The Derbyshire birding website says the SEOs are still there though, along with patch rarities such as Ringed Plover and Oystercatcher, so I’ll have another look this weekend.

Monday, 19 February 2007

The Year Of Living Vicariously

Here, as promised, is the first of my invited contributions. I'd imagine it might spark a bit of debate - I hope so.

It is ironic that the death of the legendary scriptwriter Nigel Kneale at the end of October last year went relatively unnoticed and unlamented by the medium that he had done so much to mould in its early days.
A repeat of a two-year-old documentary on his work was relegated to post-closing time airing on a minority interest digital channel - BBC4.
Yet the father of "Quatermass" once emptied British pubs as punters dashed home to catch the latest episode and see if their post-war British doldrums would be shattered by a successful invasion from outer space. Millions crammed around their small, flickering black-and-white sets to watch Professor Bernard Quatermass protect them from something the like of which they'd never seen before.
A resolutely intellectual hero, Quatermass reflected the character of his creator, of course, but he also represented those people who had secretly laboured away to save Britain from a very real menace only a decade earlier. The Great British Boffin as hero: a man we could trust. Appearing on our televisions: a medium we were quickly growing to trust.
But the series, shown during the summer of 1953, also pioneered many of the methods and ideas that made British television distinctive. None of it would have been possible without  Kneale's brilliantly tense script.
One of the litmus tests of science fiction is often said to be its "prophecy index". Did a writer successfully predict this great leap forward, that social trend or the other technical doohickey that is now firmly clamped to everyone's arm/head/torso?
Some writers pass the test with flying colours, while others don't even get out of the starting gate. Kneale falls into the former category.
His most relevant piece of prophecy is something he wrote for the BBC a decade and a half after his debut with Quatermass. And the nightmare children he foresaw in it are now top of the TV ratings tree.
In "The Year Of The Sex Olympics" there are no comforting boffins to help us gently out of harm's way. In fact, they seem to have pushed us firmly in front of a speeding truck.
The play, broadcast in 1968, shows a dystopian future where the masses have willingly acceded to subjugation by total television. Although their surroundings are brightly coloured, their inner lives are drab and drained. Outside their controlled environment the world is an environmental nightmare.
Language is reduced to a set of meaningless slices of jargon interspersed with advertising cliches. People's desires are lived out vicariously through television shows - overpopulation is controlled by sating people's desire for sex with programmed pornography: the Sex Olympics. This removes 'tensions', with war, love, hate and personal loyalty all just unpleasant memories of a discredited past. "Sex is to watch, not to do," runs a typical slogan.
But what do you do if you're a TV executive and the ratings start to fall? A pre-Rigsby Leonard Rossiter plays top executive Ugo Priest, who stumbles on the  secret when a disturbed employee (Martin Potter) accidentally falls to his death in front of the cameras. Live. On TV.
Noting the delighted reaction of the jaded audience, he conceives the idea of the "Live-Life Show". In this programme a couple and their child will be stranded on a remote island, completely separated from all the modern conveniences they are used to, and their struggle to survive will be filmed 24 hours a day.
Needless to say, the more that goes wrong the higher the ratings climb. And hopefully the odd death or two will really push the ratings up.
At this point of the DVD, you can press 'stop' and flip to Channel 4 or BBC2 and view exactly what Kneale predicted back in 1968.
In 'Big Brother' (a perverted jollying-up of Orwell's nightmarish vision if ever there was one) we can see mind-numbing bitchiness and brain-dead racism masquerading as entertainment. The worse it got, the more damage done, the more Channel 4's executives rubbed their hands in glee. It even affected 'real life'  with politicians scuttling around to try and stick plasters over Britain's damaged international reputation. The Reality TV tail wagged the dog far more successfully than any incisive political commentary or determined investigative documentary ever could.
Should the channel's executives intervene to stop it? How naive a question. Climbing ratings translate directly into climbing salary scales.
But even the proletarian mud-slinging of barely-educated breathing machines can't compete with the actual whiff of death. "Yes, we know the story ended happily-ever-after, but maybe it will be different on the replay," we all said as we tuned in to 'Top Gear', hoping that this time Richard Hammond wouldn't survive that 232-mph crash. This time perhaps we'd get to see severed limbs flying away from an already fire-blackened corpse as a car powered by a jet engine(!) stole the chirpy commentator's life away from him.
But nobody was hurt. Nobody did die. Not this year.
- Mark Howard Jones

Saturday, 17 February 2007


I generally look forward to reading The Guardian's Saturday Review, because alone among the national papers (I think) it has a regular poetry slot, with at least one review, a poem, and a few news items.
Today's review, by Glyn Maxwell, was of Derek Walcott's Selected Poems. Now the fact of them choosing Maxwell annoyed me a bit, because he studied under Walcott in the 80s and was to some extent his protege. Too often editors give books to reviewers who they know will either gush praise about the poet, or do a total hatchet job, and the poor reader is left suspecting the truth is actually somewhere in-between.
I was briefly appeased when Maxwell admitted "there's no praise so superfluous as that of an apprentice", only to be disappointed again by "let us figure out why reading this work reduces the number of poets now writing in English to the fingers of one hand".
If he's saying that Walcott's brilliance reduces virtually all other living English-language poets to mere versifiers, he's perpetuating the myth that great poets write nothing but great poems, while minor and even mediocre poets are incapable of hitting the heights even once, indeed are incapable of writing true poetry. And that's plainly nonsense. There are plenty of great poets (Ted Hughes is the first who springs to mind), whose work is hugely uneven, just as there are plenty of great poems by relative 'one-hit wonders'.
One other point raised my hackles, namely when Maxwell said "to dispense with rhyme and metre on theoretical grounds is to oppose memorability. Among new American poets this is virtually an orthodoxy, which is why you haven't heard of any". Now, I'd hardly say my tastes in poetry are experimental or avant-garde, but I reckon every bit of that statement is nonsense. If he hasn't heard of any (and living and working in the USA, of course he has), I'd suggest that's because he's just not listening.
I have read and enjoyed both Walcott and Maxwell, so I have no particular agenda on this. And, I suppose I should say, the fact the article made me think so much is probably all the proof you need that it has done its job.

Friday, 16 February 2007

Stuck for a present?

Then what about these Happenstance Press gift vouchers? In denominations of £5, £10 and £20, they're ideal for poetry-lovers, allowing them to make their own choice from Happenstance's ever-growing and diverse range of chapbooks (plus Sphinx magazine). And, if I do say so myself, you can't really go wrong with any of them.

Thursday, 15 February 2007

Practice makes perfect

One of the most enjoyable things about doing poetry readings, I’ve found, is the preparation. Admittedly, you can feel a bit of a fool walking round the house reciting your own work aloud, but it’s essential if you’re to time things right on the day. I don’t actually practice the intros or between-poem banter, such as it is, but I do make a few rough notes with each poem just in case I want to lead into it with a few words.
The best bit, though, is deciding on your ‘set-list’, because it means you can indulge any lingering rock star fantasies. You don’t have to go as far as taping a sheet of titles, hastily scribbled in magic marker, on the stage on the big day, but you know what I mean.
Anyway, last night I was going through just this process, trying to come up with the right blend of poems for the Poetry Nottingham launch next week. I’d just about got the timing right when it struck me that it was all a bit downbeat, so I’ll have to do some tinkering over the next few days to ensure a bit of light and shade.
What this teaches you, though, is just how important it is to read your own work aloud. Often. You discover weaknesses in your poems that just weren’t obvious on the page, and occasionally you realise that poem you cast aside after a couple of rejections actually has something going for it, maybe with a little fine tuning.

Tuesday, 13 February 2007

Spring, spring, spring

All a bit hectic at the moment with cricket coaching, writing reviews, writing and sending out poems, getting stuck in the snow, etc, but here's a little trailer for things to come.
I intend to use Polyolbion to occasionally publish poems, stories, reviews and opinion pieces - it'll generally be invited stuff, with no particular theme. Anyway, I'll be kicking it off next Monday with a piece by Mark Howard Jones on Nigel Kneale, a visionary writer whose recent death seemed to go largely unnoticed.
While, as I say, it will be largely invited stuff, I'm always open to good ideas, so if you have something literary or musical you'd like to write about, email me on the link on the main page.
On the bird front, a quick hour down at the forest park this morning saw Skylarks singing and displaying everywhere, and the breeding Curlews already back and looking out suitable nesting sites. And while I was passing Swithland Reservoir, I couldn't resist a quick scan for the Peregrines. Sure enough, both were flying, before the female settled on her favorite tree. Patch list up to 77.

Wednesday, 7 February 2007

Don't read if you're planning on getting some work done

I came across the wonderful, wonderful LibraryThing site on the web the other day, as you'll see from the sidebar if you scroll down a bit.
Be warned though, it'll have you whiling away hours at work trying to remember every book you own.

Tuesday, 6 February 2007

...and another thing

On the way home yesterday, I remembered my other reservation about those Andy Brown poems, or rather the way they’re presented.
It’s this – why tell the reader the ‘rules’ under which they were written? If, as I said yesterday, the poems had been published with the same title, Edges / Riddles, but no individual titles, and no ‘rules’, surely the reader could still work out what was going on? And isn’t that thing of trying to discern patterns part of what makes poetry interesting, part of what makes it poetry, even? Without wanting to get too pretentious, surely that reflects life itself – you don’t actually know all the ‘rules’ its operating to.
You don’t see sonnets published with a little preamble about how they work, so why should poems like this be any different? It smacks of a lack of confidence in the material (not justified), or a ‘look at how clever this is’ attitude (also not justified, from what I’ve read and heard of Andy). Strange.

Monday, 5 February 2007

A question...and a challenge

Browsing through Stride Magazine, I came across some recent poems by Andy Brown, a poet who, as I’m sure I’ve said before on these pages, I usually like. Here’s the introduction:
“These riddles are written using the OuLiPo technique of 'Edges'(1) - a form of riddle conjuring presence through absence and whose subjects are revealed by word association alone. Each riddle is composed around a subject that is entirely represented by other words commonly associated with it. Neither the subject word, nor any other extraneous words appear in the body of the poem. Each riddle was composed using word associations taken from The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English and has a subject taken from nature.”
Now I’m always a bit wary of poetry that’s more concerned with the writing process than the end result. That can apply to mainstream poetry every bit as much as more experimental stuff – witness the number of villanelles you see that really are nothing more than writing workshop exercises. And, I’d have to say, I often feel that about Stride editor Rupert Loydell’s work. I agree with him when he says that poets, first and foremost, need to get on and write, and that often a set process is a good way of doing so, but too often I find myself thinking that, frankly, his prolific output is at the expense of consistent quality.
But, to get back to Brown’s poems. I liked them, and I like the whole “conjuring presence through absence” idea behind them too, so my usual misgivings were quickly dispelled. But I couldn’t help thinking that they’d work even better, and be a lot more riddle-like, if they were untitled. Or am I being a bit thick?
Anyway, I’ve stashed the idea in my Must Have A Go At This When I Have A Spare Moment File, but if anyone out there fancies beating me to the punch, send your results in, and I’ll publish a few sometime.

Birding update

Two days of glorious weekend weather meant a lot of birding. In fact, it was a good demonstration of the kind of birding I like (and just as well, because it’s what I get most of the time) – namely, fairly common birds, but seen well, with nothing to hurry for.
It kicked off with a magnificent Mistle Thrush in the car-park at Trent Bridge (I was there helping out with some coaching as part of my UKCC2 course), and was followed by a fine male Sparrowhawk sitting in a tree at the bottom of my parents’ garden.
When I actually got round to going out looking for birds, I started with a load of relatively newly-planted forest on old colliery workings at Donisthorpe, near Ashby. There were a lot of Bullfinches and Nuthatches, some mixed tit flocks, and a Green Woodpecker laughing at his own joke somewhere out of sight. One of the pleasures of such a site, though, is seeing how it develops over time. My most regular haunt is probably Sence Valley Forest Park. Ten years ago, it was an opencast pit, but it now boasts a fine range of species, and you can walk there among dozens of Skylarks on a summer evening and forget that it looked like the surface of the moon so recently.
I ended up at Willington Gravel Pits. As usual, there were loads of Mallards, Tufted Ducks, Canada Geese, Wigeons, Teals, Pochards, Goldeneyes and Lapwings, and a little huddle of Redshanks was a nice bonus for the patch list, but it was the chance to see everything in such good light that was fun. And just to round things off, a Tawny Owl hooted from the bottom of my garden all night.

Friday, 2 February 2007

Swap shop

No mention of Noel Edmonds, I promise.
About this time last year, I came across a website called the Poetry Super Highway Great Poetry Exchange. The idea, like all the best ones, is dead simple. You pledge to send your poetry book, publication, or recording to another randomly selected participant, and in exchange, receive a book or recording, randomly selected from the list of participants. Last year, 137 poets took part.
Anyway, I duly sent my own chapbook off, to Memphis, Tennessee, I think, and waited. Very quickly a package arrived, from Omaha, Nebraska, from a poet called Matt Mason.
His chapbook, When The Bough Breaks, deals with the death from AIDS of his father, a man who had refused to sell his John Deere dealership because to do so would have put his employees out of work. Now at first sight, I was a bit daunted, I suppose because it looked like it might be heavy going. Don’t get me wrong – I’m certainly not saying that all poetry has to be accessible, or shy away from the darker side of life – just that, at 9.30 on a hungover Saturday morning, I wasn’t immediately grabbed by what I saw.
Never judge a book, and all that. In fact, after thinking I might skim through it over a cup of tea, I read it straight through, and I’ve since re-read it several times.
It’s great, in short. The poems are, for the most part, elegies, but as well as the memory, emotion and tenderness that you might expect to find, there's also bags of imagination and above all an honesty that makes it as affecting a book as I've read in a long time. Long lines and a conversational tone are used throughout, but these are beautifully crafted pieces.
I thought I'd post one - it's hard to pick out a favourite, so I just went for one of the shorter poems, my typing not being what it was.


The last and longest conversation
I had with Dad
came while he lay
comatose on a hospital bed.
I hope, like in movies
or Elizabeth Kubler Ross, that he sat, a spirit
in the corner of the ceiling,
listening, wishing he
could squeeze my hand
and say, I love you too.

I wonder if he was always like that:
listening from a corner,
always unable to move
and appear moved.

Later last year, Matt brought out a full poetry collection, Things We Don't Know We Don't Know. It's equally excellent, although the subject matter ranges a lot more widely, from sceptical looks at the 'War on Terror' to paeans to swedes and kiwifruit. And there are plenty of fine love poems - here's one:


There are some kisses you will not forget.
You will be able to recall perfectly
the strain in your left thigh
from sitting that way to face her across the couch.
You could be standing in a McDonald's somewhere
and still picture the dimness, a little light from her kitchen
in a rectangle over on the floor, the triangles
in the yellow quilt over her legs,
her closed eyes, the slouch of her head.
When more than her whole body responds, you
have done something irreparable.

Anyway, all that remains to be said is to give the Poetry Exchange a try. At worst, your poems spread their wings over pastures new, and you get to try something different. At best, you get really lucky.

Thursday, 1 February 2007

List update

While my main year list is now well past the 100 mark, thanks to gadding around Norfolk and seeing Peregrine and Reed Bunting at Woodwalton Fen last week, my patch year list is stuck in the mid-60s, on account of having done next to no birding close to home over the last three weeks.
I did, though, manage to add Ruddy Duck and Little Egret at Groby Pool last Sunday. The former rarely show up round here, and face extermination because of their habit of cross-breeding with the endangered White-headed Duck. There are arguments for and against the cull, but I can't actually bring myself to inform on them, as it were.
The egrets are a more and more familiar sight, even in northern England, whereas even 20 years ago a brief visit from one to the south coast was worthy of comment. Presumably global warming is partly responsible for this, but it might also have something to do with better water quality and better protection. Whatever, they're always nice to see. This one was standing hunched among a loose group of 22 herons, possibly wondering why he hadn't stayed in the warmer climes of the Med after all.

A Commercial Break

February 1, and already my thoughts are turning to the thwack of leather on willow, the polite applause of the Panama-hatted spectators snoozing in their deckchairs, the...who am I kidding? Village cricket, thank God, has probably never been as it is commonly portrayed, at least not round here, but after 24 years of playing it my enthusiasm remains undimmed. Even the first hint of spring sends me searching out the linseed oil and getting to work on my bat.
Anyway, my good friend Colin Seditas, whose own career as a youthful tearaway fast bowler has left significant psychological scars on several local batsmen (one brutal evening of 'chin music' at Gracedieu sticks in the memory), has just opened Scotland's first specialist cricket shop, Cow Corner. It caters for all your cricketing needs, with features including a handy bat selector, as well as all manner of equipment, books and games. I'll be returning to it on this blog in a couple of weeks, but for now, salivate over those lovely Newberys!
Oddly, just seconds after I posted this, a mail arrived from Poetry Nottingham, with the proofs for the forthcoming issue, including my poem Sweet Spot, which is at least partly about buying a cricket bat. Weird coincidence.