Tuesday 31 July 2007

The Full Monty

Yesterday was one of those days when I love my job. Really love it. Me and my colleague Mike ventured out into the flatlands of Lincolnshire, to see the Montagu's Harriers that have been breeding on Digby Fen. At times, reading about birds isn't enough and you just have to get out and see what all the fuss is about.
These are the rarest breeding birds of prey in Britain, being summer visitors who generally prefer the warmer parts of Europe. Climate change might alter things, but currently less than a dozen pairs each year nest, usually in southern England and East Anglia. That makes it all the more remarkable that this pair managed to successfully raise four young in the middle of a rain-lashed fenland farmer's field, with the help, of course, of RSPB protection.
We arrived to find the RSPB watchpoint already busy, and we didn't have to wait long to see one of the juveniles, looking for worms in a ploughed field on the far side of the road from the nest. What struck you immediately was how orange the breast was - field guides say rufous, but this positively glowed. As we watched him, too, a male Marsh Harrier swept past, providing a useful size comparison. Ultra-rare themselves 20 or so years ago, they're now making slow but steady progress.
A flypast from a Heron stirred things into life on the far side of the road, near the nest. At least two Montys rose to challenge it, and the Heron responded by sticking its neck out and honking "frank, frank" at them. From then on, we had regular good views of the female Monty and some of the juves (spoilt slightly by the heat haze - never happy, are we?!). And finally, in came the male, passing over the nest site and dropping a small prey item to be caught by a waiting juvenile - however many times you hear this little trick being described, it's hard to believe how casually elegant it all is until you see it. Having made his delivery, the male then darted aerobatically after a Skylark (which got away easily enough), then disappeared.
After the inevitable fry-up, we pushed our luck by looking for the Black Kite at Nocton Fen, just down the road. But, no matter how much we willed the resident Buzzards to become longer, slighter and generally more kite-like, we were unsuccessful. You can't have everything.

Crow country

Saturday's Guardian contained a good review of Mark Cocker's book Crow Country, and all the Sunday broadsheets carried positive reviews too. It's nice to see someone sticking up for corvids for a change, and I like Cocker's writing. Birds Britannica, which he co-wrote, is an absolute gem, as much for writers and general readers as birdwatchers.
Quite why crows (as a family) continue to get such a bad press I'm not sure. Now they're no longer seen as such a threat to agriculture (dubious anyway, as rooks probably do more good than harm by eating pests), we blame them for the decline of all sorts of small birds. And yes, they do take nestlings and eggs, but never enough to threaten the victim species. After all, that would make bad sense for them, by totally killing off a food source. Instead, we seem to be holding them responsible for something we've done ourselves.

Friday 27 July 2007


Here's those Rhodes and Verity poems I mentioned. Need some revising and tidying up, but I've been threatening to write them for ages.

Thursday 26 July 2007

Kings of spin

As it looks increasingly like I'll never set foot on an actual cricket pitch again, I've been busy compensating by trying to write poems about Wilfrid Rhodes and Hedley Verity, two greats of the English game. Obviously I never saw these two play, but there's always something good about watching left-arm spinners - I think it's to do with the angle of approach to the wicket they have to take, but so many seem to have very rhythmic, graceful, easy actions. Monty Panesar is just the latest (and what a breath of fresh air his whole-hearted enjoyment of the game is). And the best (for sheer aesthetic appeal)? It would have to be another Sikh, India's Bishen Bedi, who wheeled away like a finely-tuned engine.
I'll post the results on the poetry workshop on Word Doctors in the next couple of days.

Tuesday 24 July 2007

A little bit of politics

Something strange has happened over the last couple of weeks. I've written three poems, all of which might in some way be described as political. I think I'm quite a politically-minded person, so maybe the question should be why I've written so few in the past.

The day job

I'm being bone idle here in not writing a proper new post, but here's what I was up to on Sunday (second post down).

Friday 20 July 2007


Good piece on Todd Swift's blog, Eyewear, about the whole Harry Potter brouhaha. I've not read any of the books, and consequently don't have any strong opinions on their literary merits, but I have been getting progressively more hacked off hearing a massive exercise in marketing being justified in terms of 'preserving the magic for children'.

First impressions

Only had time for a quick look at those two books I mentioned last night, but I like what I saw. I read the first few poems in Actual Air, and enjoyed them hugely. David Berman has a style that is simultaneously matter-of-fact and rather surreal, and like many American poets he uses long lines very well. The blurb on the back mentions John Ashbery, but if anything he reminded me a little of Kenneth Koch. It's very accessible, but far from simple.
The Harriet Tarlo book is quite different. I read a couple of short poems, thought "hmmm...", put the book down, then felt compelled to return to it for short snatches throughout the evening. It works like that - there's a very subtle cumulative effect, and the more pared-down the poems get, the more powerful they are.
Another weekend of weather misery ahead, but at least I'll be able to read more...

Thursday 19 July 2007

What's new?

The new issue of Magma is out. There's this article online, by Roddy Lumsden, looking at new developments in poetry, which is well worth a read (as is Magma as a whole, generally). Nice to see that Happenstance and Rob Mackenzie both get a mention.
Also in the article is Luke Kennard, who has just been included among the nominations for the Forward Prize, in the Best Collection category, for his The Harbour Beyond The Movie. I like what I've heard of his utterly distinctive and often very funny poetry (I heard him read, briefly, in Devon last year), so that's another book I'll have to buy, I think. Good, too, to see Melanie Challenger, Joanna Boulter and Eleanor Rees in there as well.

Two books

A parcel arrived from Amazon yesterday, which was a nice surprise. Not that I hadn't ordered it, obviously, just that usually the postman's rather nervous about trying to force them through the letterbox, and so I have to wait until I can get to the central post office to collect (I know, I know, if I thought about it, I'd just get them delivered to work).
Anyway, the parcel contained Harriet Tarlo's Poems 1990-2003 and Actual Air, by David Berman. He's the main mover behind the band Silver Jews, who I've loved for a long while now, but he's also first and foremost a poet, so I'm looking forward to reading it. I bought Harriet Tarlo's book on the strength of one poem, so it'll be intriguing to see if the rest lives up to it. She's a nature poet of sorts, but definitely coming from the more 'innovative' side of the poetry spectrum. As always with Shearsman, incidentally, it's a really beautifully produced book, which is always a bonus.
I'm also waiting for two other books, which I stupidly grouped in the same delivery so that one is now being held up by the harder to find of the two. They're Jane Hirshfield's Selected Poems, and Helen Macdonald's Shaler's Fish. Both come very highly recommended by a whole load of people whose judgement I trust, so I eagerly await their arrival.

Monday 16 July 2007

Digging deep

I rather enjoyed last night’s South Bank Show about Ian McMillan. I can’t honestly say I’ve read or heard an awful lot of his poetry, although I do remember him reading on Mark Radcliffe’s Radio One evening show years and years ago. And there was a poem of his in The North a couple of years back, in one of those issues where you have to turn to the back to see who has written what, and I loved it, so I must dig it out tonight.
Two things about the programme were particularly interesting. One was Rachel Cooke, of The Observer, saying she thought that sometimes he rather overdid the Barnsley accent (she also claimed to have a Yorkshire accent herself, though God only knows what part of Yorkshire. Farnborough, by the sound of it). The thing is, how on earth does she know? I’m willing to take him at his word when he says that he talks on the radio exactly how he does at home – I’ve got a couple of Barnsley-born and bred mates, and if anything their accents are even stronger than McMillan’s. And why are regional accents STILL worthy of comment?
Second was hearing him talk about the Miners’ Strike. For some reason, it’s been playing on my mind recently, and last week I wrote a poem – 1984 – partly about it, or rather about how it touched my little corner of the world. I’ve started another, too. I think, as time goes on, it appears more and more to have been a real turning point (unfortunately for the worse) in recent British history. I’ve read plenty of poems about it, but have there been any novels on the subject? Or maybe there’s a rich vein of them waiting to be uncovered just about now…

Sunday 15 July 2007

Beside the Seaside

Yesterday's Guardian came with a supplement offering a guide to the British seaside. Now I'd have to say, I'm a big fan of seaside resorts, both in and out of season, so I read it pretty much cover to cover (I had plenty of time on my hands, as our return to the cricket field was shortlived – we were bowled out for 66, lost by seven wickets, and were home well before 7).
Among the trivia included was the fact that the hamlet of Coton in the Elms, Derbyshire, is the furthest place from the sea in Britain (at a mere 67 miles). And that was what really set me thinking.
Last year, I read a poem in Anon, by Caroline Cook I think, gently poking fun at British poets' obsession with the sea and watery landscapes, and offering a more exotic, colourful alternative. It was a fine poem, and she definitely has a point, but that little factoid mentioned above probably explains an awful lot. Coton's only just down the road from here (maybe ten miles), and we definitely feel as landlocked as it's possible to get in Britain (there was even that rather bizarre 1920s song Ashby de la Zouch By The Sea which made great play of that), but even so, it's hard to escape the fact that we're a collection of not particularly big islands. If you go to the top of Bardon Hill, a couple of miles from my home, on a really clear day, it's said that you can just make out the North Sea. I don't know about that, but you can certainly see Boston Stump, right on the Lincolnshire coast. I suppose it's inevitable, therefore (especially given our weather), that there's an awful lot of dampness in British poetry.
That said, when I was a kid it was a really big deal, once a year during the summer holidays, to go away to the seaside. Catching that first glimpse of the sea was a moment on a par with waking on Christmas morning. Most people round here used to go to Skegness, but although we occasionally went on daytrips to Mablethorpe, in north Lincolnshire (where my dad's family are from), most summers we went down to my maternal grandparents' house in Bridgend, South Wales. It's only a few miles inland, and we spent most days at the beach. At Porthcawl there was Rest Bay, with wide, safe sands and a view of Port Talbot, looking like some strange sci-fi city, beyond the golf club, and Coney Beach, with its fairground and constant smell of doughnuts. And then there was Ogmore-by-Sea, which had cliffs and rockpools, sand and shingle, and an excitingly dangerous estuary we weren’t allowed to go anywhere near. The two were separated, incidentally, by Merthyr Mawr dunes, which doubled for the Middle East in Lawrence of Arabia.
We did go to other places as well. Weymouth, Westward Ho!, Tenby, New Quay, Aberystwyth. But, reading the supplement yesterday, it struck me that I don’t actually know the British seaside as well as I thought I did. Suffolk, most of the south coast and south-west, the north-west coast, and Scotland are all a mystery to me. I need to get around more.
I did eventually get round to the joy of Skeggy, where Leicester holidaymakers are known as 'Chisits', from their habit of asking "how much is it?" about everything. In my first job as a newspaper reporter, we had to go there on a certain day on the summer, with a photographer, wait to be stopped by readers who recognized us from back home, and then pay them a tenner. All very Brighton Rock.
But favourites? Well, anywhere in north Norfolk for birding, Northern Ireland's Causeway coast for scenery, back to Ogmore for a bit of everything, and for a good old-fashioned seaside resort, Scarborough. I've never been there for more than a couple of days at a time, but you can't beat it. It even made its way into my chapbook, in the imaginatively titled Poem, although it was a friend's experience of it that got mixed up with mine somewhere along the line to make the poem happen.

Friday 13 July 2007

Trumpet-blowing time!

I don't enter many competitions, but I like to have a go at a few, to provide myself with deadlines, and sometimes just to encourage me to write on a particular theme.
I was delighted, not to say staggered, to get an email just now saying that my poem Hares In December has been selected as the only runner-up in the adult section of the 2007 BBC Wildlife Poet Of The Year competition.
It'll be published in the October issue of BBC Wildlife magazine, and I win a nestbox and a lot of bird-feed!
The email from the editor, Sophie Stafford, says: "Though the entries were strong and plentiful as usual, your poem was unanimously selected by the judges as the only other contender for the winning spot. Though we usually award 3 runners-ups awards, this year, yours will be the only one published.
"They felt your poem held a moment of stillness in a world of movement and trusted the reader to follow your thoughts and the pictures you created."
Blimey! When I say staggered, it's not that I didn't think it was any good (I was pretty happy with it, but didn't think it had a real chance of a prize), just that it was very short, and I used to have the impression (wrongly, it's now clear) that competition judges liked their winners to offer a bit more meat.
I wrote the poem in April as part of NaPoWriMo2007, when we had to write a poem a day for a month. This was the 29th, so I was obviously just hitting my stride as we finished. I was taking as my starting point each day the first song that my iPod's shuffle chose, and this one was sparked by Fairport Convention's The Bonny Black Hare. Here's the lyrics of that song - proof that thinly-veiled sexual references and double entendres aren't the exclusive preserve of modern music!

Fingers crossed

No cancellation of cricket yet, although dark clouds are gathering all around, so I won't believe The Great Interregnum is finally over until I actually feel the five-and-a-half ounces of Gunn and Moore leather in my hand tomorrow afternoon, or the umpire is giving me a leg-stump guard (minutes before sending me on my way after yet another predictable shuffle across the stumps to a straight ball).
Fortunately, we're away at Hoveringham, so it won't be a wasted journey either way, as the gravel pits there hold all sorts of birding goodies.

Tuesday 10 July 2007

Dampened spirits

I've been playing senior club cricket since 1983, since the day me and my mate Colin got hauled in from the juniors to make up the numbers in a 2nd XI game at Shipley Hall (lovely ground - sadly, I've never played there since). In all that time, though, I don't ever remember having had four successive Saturdays washed out (or, in the case of last Saturday, gloriously sunny, but so wet underfoot that water polo would have been easier than cricket). In fact, I don't think I ever remember having had even TWO Saturdays on the trot ruined. This is, then, the bad summer to end all bad summers.
One silver lining is that I'm doing more reading; usually, it tends to go on the back burner until September. On Saturday, a parcel arrived from Sphinx, with the latest batch of review copies. I've only flicked through them so far, but I like what I've seen. There's Helen Mort's The Shape Of Every Box, Peter Brennan's Torch Of Venus, and The Stones, by American poet Celia Lisset Alvarez. There's also a CD of poems by a poet whose name I can't remember just now, and the CD's down in the car so I can't check.
But anyway, reviewing's always more fun when you actually enjoy reading the poems, whatever some poets think about reviewers sitting there just dying to tear them apart, so this bodes well. If the rain returns by the weekend (when, rather than if, let's face it), at least I've got plenty to get stuck into.

Monday 9 July 2007

So Here We Are 3

Here's the latest in David Caddy's series So Here We Are: Poetic Letters From England. It's pretty wide-ranging stuff, and fascinating, although I only had time to skim through it earlier. I look forward to taking my time over it tonight.
It can also, of course, be found at Miporadio. Give it a listen.

Wednesday 4 July 2007


One thing I forgot to add to the Farley on Clare post last week. When talking about the differences between Clare and Keats, he pointed out that Clare's nightingale was recognisably real, not least because he attempted to accurately convey the bird's song in words.
Now, that's a very difficult thing to do, and I suppose it's pretty subjective as to whether a poet succeeds. Comparing field guides, there are sometimes quite startling differences between how they transcribe even a fairly short, familiar birdsong, so it's a very problematic area.
But anyway, a few days before the reading, I'd been flicking through the channels late at night and came across a programme called Why Birds Sing, based on this book by David Rothenburg. Within a couple of minutes, Rothenburg was interviewing Farley, briefly, about birdsong in poetry, and specifically in John Clare's poetry. It so happens that I have a copy of the book (it was a review copy for a magazine I used to work for), so I've just started reading it. I'm not sure whether Rothenburg is inspired or a crackpot, but it's really quite intriguing.

Monday 2 July 2007

More fretting

I mentioned last week what a favourite Fretmarks is with me. Browsing it over the weekend, I came across this superb piece. Very thought-provoking, not least the Marsh Harriers bit.