Wednesday, 29 August 2007


I’ve been thinking over the last few days about the way I read poetry.
Increasingly, I find I’ve got several volumes on the go at once. At the moment, for instance, there’s that Mark Ford book I mentioned, and a Philip Gross collection (I.D.) I bought on a secondhand stall a few weeks back. Then there’s Helen MacDonald’s Shaler's Fish, and finally I’m methodically working my way through Lee Harwood’s Collected Poems (again – I enjoyed it so much the first time), plus Tomas Transtromer’s The Great Enigma.
When I buy a book of poetry, I generally have a flick through first, reading a handful of poems in no particular order. Then, sometimes quite a while later, I’ll read it cover to cover.
Thing is, though, I tend to keep the books in different places (one in my work-bag, for lunch hours, one beside the bed, and so on), and so I read them in different ways. After all, however good an idea it is to read a poem out loud, you can’t do that on a bus or train, or in the canteen.
Now the Helen MacDonald book is of a type that sometimes gets described as difficult, although I’d use a quite different word – rich. Rich as in food. To take the analogy further, it’s not something you want to take a bite out of just before bed, because it starts your brain roving off in all sorts of directions at once, and generally wakes up your senses. So I’ve been reading it slowly, a poem a day, out loud, with plenty of time afterwards to take it in. It’s worth it.
My own feeling is that there’s room for all sorts of poetry, from the easily digested type (and I don’t mean that it has less depth, or value) to the more acquired tastes. It does strike me, though, that the way I read probably doesn’t do either justice. After all, having decided that a book is ‘accessible’ (either because of the poet’s reputation, or because of that initial flick-through), I take rather less time, and possibly care, over it. Which, of course, is likely to confirm the prejudice that its pleasures are immediate. And I guess the same could happen the other way around.
In the end, I suppose, I’d rather be reading lots of poetry, some of it less carefully than I might (and of course, you can always go back to it if you feel there’s something you missed), than very small amounts, very closely.
I could be convinced otherwise, though...

Tuesday, 28 August 2007

View from the Bridge

I’m a member of the management committee of the South Notts Cricket League, and last Wednesday four of us were very kindly invited to attend a day’s cricket at Trent Bridge as guests of the president of Nottinghamshire County Cricket Club. It was, as expected, a lovely day out. The sun shone, the food and wine were excellent, and there was plenty of chance to talk cricket and even to chat to one or two of the players.
It was also the last chance to see the lovely old ground in its present form. Today, one of the stands on the Trent Bridge Inn side of the ground will be demolished, with a new stand to be in place by the start of next season. Hopefully it won’t affect the character of what is an intimate and friendly venue too much, and the signs are good. The Radcliffe Road Cricket Centre and the Fox Road Stand, both recent developments, have enhanced what was already a great place to watch cricket.
My only disappointment on the day was that Derek Randall is not among the ex-players still involved with the club. My own first memory of Trent Bridge is watching the test match vs Australia there on the TV in 1977, and seeing the newly-recalled Geoff Boycott run out local hero Randall for 0. The ground went silent, and to be fair to Geoff, he made up for things slightly by having the decency to look horrified by what he had done, and by scoring a century.
Randall was a true character, a sometimes brilliant batsman best remembered for his 174 in 1977’s Centenary Test, and for an even more valuable Ashes-winning 150 at Sydney in 1978-79. Even more, though, he was known for his incredible fielding, buzzing about at high speed to terrify batsmen into running themselves out, and occasionally taking catches with hands behind his back, or celebrating by turning cartwheels. It’s a cliché, but they don’t make them like that any more.

Should have known better

There’s a postscript to what I was saying about Norfolk. When I was two years old, we (me, my parents and my older sister) went to Sheringham for a two-week caravan holiday. The weather was exactly as it was last week (only with fog and mist as well as rain and wind), so much so that (and I’m going on my mum’s word here, as I remember none of it) by the end of the first week, we gave up and went home to dry out, to find that the rest of the country was experiencing a heatwave. After three days, my parents decided they might as well make the most of what little time was left, and drove back over to Norfolk. They reached Hunstanton and all was well (we splashed around on the beach there), but by the time they neared Sheringham, the grey mist descended again, and stayed in place all week.
I think it put my parents off Norfolk for life, but fortunately it doesn’t seem to have imprinted itself on my subconscious. In any weather, it’s a great corner of the world.

Monday, 27 August 2007

Global warming?!

On Thursday, I took advantage of a day off to go over to Norfolk for some birdwatching. The skies as I left home were flawless blue, and it was warm and still.
The moment I got past King's Lynn, though, it was like being in a different time zone. Grey clouds stretched into the distance, there was a howling gale blowing, it was cold, and it didn't stop raining all day.
The joy of Norfolk, though, is that all those things don't really matter. The weather did make RSPB Titchwell appear disturbingly like it did when I was last there, in January, but the faces had changed. Autumn migration is just starting to happen in earnest, and there were plenty of waders about. Ruffs, sadly without their spectacular breeding plumage, loads of Avocets and Oystercatchers, the odd Curlew, and a small flock of Golden Plovers. The latter showed an astonishing array of appearances, from one bird still in full breeding plumage, through all the intermediate stages to the rather dull winter look I'm used to seeing at home.
Elsewhere, there was a distant Marsh Harrier and a good-sized flock of Black-tailed Godwits on Cley Marshes, and I spent my usual 20 minutes rummaging through the secondhand poetry volumes in a little shop in Wells. I found Mark Ford's Soft Sift for £2 - I've never read anything by him before, so I'm looking forward to it.

Tuesday, 21 August 2007

My test best

For some reason, I just couldn't get to sleep last night, despite being dog tired. I'd like to be able to say it was because my brain had been working overtime on some great new poem and just refused to stop composing.
I'd be lying, though. There was no particular reason and, when I tried to nod off by picking my All-Time World Cricket XI (to play an intergalactic outfit), I got so caught up in it that it just made me more wide awake. Usually it's a foolproof method, and my brain shuts down while I'm pondering that last batting spot, but this time I got down to the final bowling place and had a heated debate with myself over whether a second spinner was needed, and if so, who?
I set myself strict criteria with these selection challenges. I can only pick people I've actually seen play, which rules out anyone before about 1977. I have to pick individuals in isolation (ie. Desmond Haynes missed out because, although he formed a great partnership with Gordon Greenidge, I have to assume he might be playing alongside someone else). I assume that each individual is at the peak of their powers. I assume the pitch is a perfect test wicket, offering batsmen and all types of bowlers some help. Finally, I assume that this isn't just about entertainment (so sadly, no room for my hero, wine-quaffing, stunt-flying David Gower, or the likes of Aravinda DeSilva), but that the fate of the world is at stake. Of course, that last one means I also assume the existence of a race of genocidal, planet-grabbing aliens who, nevertheless, are quite prepared to stick to their word and back off if they happen to lose a five-day cricket match.
So, who made it? Well, here we go.
1. Gordon Greenidge
2. Sunil Gavaskar
3. Viv Richards
4. Sachin Tendulkar
5. Allan Border (C)
6. Ian Botham
7. Ian Healy (WK)
8. Malcolm Marshall
9. Shane Warne
10. Dennis Lillee
11. I finally fell asleep at this point, after deciding to cheat and pick a spinner and a pace bowler, and leave one out on the day of the match depending on the conditions. I then had a strange dream in which I met Sir Richard Hadlee, who was quite miffed to have missed the cut, but was calmed down by Joel Garner.
In the light of day, I've decided that last spot will go to Anil Kumble and Curtley Ambrose. I reckon the world is safe in the hands of these 12, but I'm prepared to justify it. Next time insomnia strikes, I'll write a little explanation of the selections. In the meantime, tell me I'm wrong, and why...

Monday, 20 August 2007

Back from Birdfair

Well, I wasn't swallowed up by the mud in the car-park, but yesterday's almost non-stop torrential rain (broken only by half an hour of very hot sunshine) added a bit of a damp squib to what had been a very enjoyable few days at Birdfair. Friday was, apparently, the busiest day there ever, and it felt like it. The Bird Watching stand was a constant hive of activity, and I only managed to slip away a couple of times to the Optics marquees (we're talking bins and scopes here, not measures of spirits). There was a quick glass of champers at Leica's launch of their new scope, fronted of course by Bill Oddie (that's about all the name-dropping you can do in birding circles), but it was good to meet readers and contributors face to face and have the chance to talk with them at length.
I did find myself getting struck by the digiscoping bug too - there are some very fine and very cheap cameras around, so I think my credit card will take a bit of stick later in the week, while I'm over in Norfolk.
Finally, you might want to take a look at this review of Mark Cocker's Crow Country, which I mentioned a while back. I like the point being made, and it made me think a bit about exactly where my own bird obsession comes from.

Thursday, 16 August 2007

Strange songs

Over at the always entertaining Fretmarks, there's this. I remember hearing about the idea on Radio Four months ago, and it's no less odd now that it's actually come to fruition. But I have to say, I'd love to see it, and I'm trying to work out a way of slipping up to Gateshead next month to have a look.

Birdfair 2007

I'll be spending the next three days on the boggy banks of Rutland Water, at this year's Birdfair. They promise that the site has dried out now, but we're having a fair few torrential downpours again this week, so I suspect it could all end up as a mudbath. It's work, in theory, but I'd be going anyway, so it's the kind of work I like.
It's not always easy to actually do any birdwatching while you're there, because of course the hides are full and you can't drag yourself away from all the exhibitions and stands, but it's worth trying. Last year, in the 15 minutes I managed just before having to dash back to my old job, me and a birder from Yorkshire saw a superb range of waders turn up on the small muddy beach we were watching. Greenshank, Redshank, Spotted Redshank, Ringed Plover, Little Ringed Plover, Green Sandpiper, Common Sandpiper and Ruff were all visible, to remind us what it's all about.
If anyone reading this is going, I'll be on the Bird Watching stand all three days - pop over and say hello.

Tuesday, 14 August 2007

Silliman's Blog

I rarely find myself agreeing unreservedly with Ron Silliman, although his blog is both essential reading and dangerously addictive for the office-hours browser (still, that's what work is for, right?). This, though (the August 13 post), is excellent. A better man than me could probably argue with it in parts, but it seems to me to make a good case both for more left-field poetry and for a plurality of poetries. Probably my only only real argument would be that some poets can function at several or even all of the levels he mentions.

Am I missing something?

Issue 5 of Anon arrived in the post yesterday. I didn’t get home until 10.30, so I only had a very brief look at it before bed, but it’s a magazine I like a lot.
There’s a good variety of poems, interesting articles, and it’s very well produced, in a compact but solid format that slips neatly into the inside pocket of a jacket without having to worry about it getting bent out of shape.
On the subscription renewal form (I’ll definitely be renewing), there are two quotes, taken from an article in Issue 2 which put forward the pros and cons of an anonymous submissions process, which is what sets Anon apart from most if not all other poetry mags.
The bit that baffles me, as it did when I first read it, is Kathleen Jamie's assertion that such a system is “a nasty individualistic Thatcherite competition”. I just can’t understand why introducing anonymity into the process suddenly makes it nastier, and more Thatcherite (and God knows that’s a dirty word where I’m concerned). The process is no more or less competitive, it’s just that it’s being judged on different (and it’s up to you to judge whether they’re better) criteria. I presume Kathleen Jamie has herself submitted to magazines in the past, and to publishers, and in doing so she was, however much she might not like it, effectively in competition with other writers (or perhaps more accurately, her work was in competition with other writers’ work).
I’m undecided on the whole anonymity concept for different reasons. I think the vast majority of editors are far too dedicated and conscientious in their work to let personal considerations creep in, but on the other hand, isn’t there room for both systems, just as there’s room for different kinds of poetry? One anonymous submissions mag just provides a bit of variety. Where's the harm in that?
PS. I've been reading Anon editor Mike Stocks' excellent novel White Man Falling recently. I'll post a proper review soon, but I can recommend it.

Friday, 10 August 2007

In search of Roger Godberd

I've always been a bit obsessed with the whole Robin Hood legend. I've always lapped up anything, fact or fiction, relating to it (not keen on the BBC series, mind you), and I've gradually drawn a few, wholly unoriginal conclusions about it, which are that he's a composite character, albeit heavily based on real historical figures (maybe as many as three, maybe just the one).
Until only a few years ago, though, I had no idea that one candidate for the 'real Robin Hood' was a man called Roger Godberd, who came from Swannington, the next village to where I live, and who led a band of outlaws in Charnwood and Sherwood Forests in the years that followed the bloody suppression of the supporters of Simon De Montfort*. Since I found this out, I've looked everywhere for information on this man, with very little luck. All there is seems to be summed up on a few Robin Hood websites, despite there being absolutely no doubt that he did exist and was a considerable thorn in the side of the authorities. The thing is, there's no trace of him around Swannington, either. There are roads named after a giant called John Talbot, and little local legends about the Red Comyn, one of the Scottish noblemen who once owned Whitwick Castle, but nothing on Roger. Fair enough, 700-plus years are enough to have erased all traces even of a well-known local figure, but you could say the same about lots of folk heroes. When I lived in Bourne, South Lincolnshire, for example, which was probably the home of Hereward the Wake, every second business seemed to use his name. The same is true of Nottingham and Robin Hood, however much South Yorkshire might claim (with justification) that it is the real home of the story.
My search hasn't just been down to historical curiosity. A while ago, I started writing some poems about Godberd. Not really straightforward monologues in his voice, or pieces of historical narrative, but little scraps and fragments of writing, full of anachronisms and the like. It might be I never finish the sequence, and it's even more likely that no one else will ever want to read it, but it's fun, and I want to finish it. However much I want to fill in the gaps by letting my imagination run riot, though, I also need more facts, if they exist, to build the whole thing around. So, if by some slim chance you stumble across this page and happen to have a fund of knowledge about Roger Godberd, get in touch. I can't promise to make it worth your while, but what have you got to lose!
Anyway, here's what our old friend Michael Drayton made of the whole thing, in a little extract from Polyolbion, the masterpiece/folly that gives this blog its name.

*Leicestershire was firmly behind De Montfort - just days after his defeat and death, villagers at Peatling Magna, near Leicester, attempted to arrest some of the newly-empowered king's henchmen, claiming they were "going against the community of the realm". The only thing more remarkable than this highly advanced state of political consciousness among the the peasantry is the fact that they were merely imprisoned for a few months and fined, after a trial which, if not exactly fair, was certainly not a mere kangaroo court.

Thursday, 9 August 2007

Nice surprise

The latest issue of Poetry Scotland was waiting for me when I got home last night. It's always a good read, packing an awful lot in for just £1 a time, and issue 51 contains poems by the likes of Les Murray, William Oxley and my fellow Happenstancers Rob Mackenzie and Gill McEvoy. To my surprise, it also contains two poems by me. I'd submitted them not so long ago, and wasn't particularly surprised to have received no reply yet, but clearly it went astray somewhere along the line. A good way to hear the news, anyway.
One of Rob's poems is called Lagavulin, and does justice to its illustrious name, which is not quite up there in my medal positions where single malts are concerned (they'd be 1. Laphroaig; 2. Talisker; 3. Highland Park) but is not far off.
But anyway, next time you save a fiver on your favourite single malt at Sainsbury's, use it to subscribe to Poetry Scotland, and get five packed issues for your £5.

Wednesday, 8 August 2007

New beginnings

Last week on his blog Surroundings, Rob Mackenzie made an intriguing post linking to the Guardian poetry workshop, and he's since been posting some really excellent poems starting with first lines by WS Graham, which are well worth checking out. Ben Wilkinson has been in on the act too - again well worth a read.
It's all been a bit busy this week, so I've had no chance to keep up with the poem a day schedule Rob suggested, but in free moments I have tried a few of the first lines for size. The first, "Imagine a forest...", all got a bit tangled and confused, and although I might salvage something from it at a later date, it's probably best forgotten for now. But the other two I've had a go at, "Just for the sake of recovering..." and "I called today, Peter, and you were away..." have worked out well. Rob's right that this kind of exercise can send you off in directions that you might not otherwise consider. The first of those two gave me a way into a poem I've been trying to write for the last year, and the second ended up taking additional inspiration from Woody Guthrie and Bruce Springsteen too. I'll work my way through the others, over the next few weeks - it's always good to try something different.

Rattling good read

I got a rejection letter from Rattle today, although the sort of rejection that's almost a pleasure to receive - polite and friendly and informative. It's a really fine magazine too, so I'll definitely be submitting again some time.
Anyway, editor Timothy Green sent me a link to Duotrope's Digest, which turns out to be a very useful site for any writer. It's a good place to look for possible avenues of publication, and it also allows you to track your submissions. I've always been pretty obsessive about keeping a database of submissions, but even so mistakes get made, so I might do this as a back-up.

Monday, 6 August 2007

That summer feeling

Finally, I can headline a post with the title of my favourite Jonathan Richman song (I recommend the wonderful version on the equally wonderful I, Jonathan). After what seems like months of biblical deluge, the summer's here at last - now to make the most of it before it disappears again.
I did my best at the weekend. Friday night, on the way home, I stopped off at Cossington Meadows to do a bit of birding. Not an awful lot about, except for a Little Egret and 16 Lapwings going over, but I did find a Slow Worm, the first I've ever seen. It was just basking in the middle of a sun-baked, sandy path, and was in no hurry to get away. It blinked at me a few times, and I was able to see its notched (rather than forked) tongue, before it slithered away into the long grass.
Saturday, at last, was the sort of day cricket was made for. We shamefully failed to rise to the occasion, crashing to an 86-run defeat, but at least we were back out there. At this rate, we should be hitting championship-winning form by mid-December.
On Sunday, I went with a friend to Twycross Zoo. As a kid, we used to go there a lot, but in recent years I've hardly been. Which is a shame, because Twycross was always among the most conservation-minded of zoos, with a heavy emphasis on saving endangered species, particularly primates. It was packed yesterday, but still easy enough to get around, and there's loads to see. The gorillas are probably my favourite, but nothing really disappoints.
Today, I'm tired. And aching. And slightly sunburned. But happy.

So Here We Are 4

The latest in David Caddy's series So Here We Are: Poetic Letters From England is now downloadable. Or, if you'd prefer, you can read the text at his blog here. It's good stuff again, and if you've only just come across his site, read back through the first three letters.

Wednesday, 1 August 2007

Action this day!

You may have seen this or something similar on a number of other blogs - if not, take the time to have a read. Huddersfield-based The Poetry Business, which publishes Smith/Doorstop books as well as The North, one of the UK's best poetry mags, faces massive funding cuts from Kirklees Council, and you can do your bit to try to change things, if you want.
I suspect many arts businesses and organisations are going to feel the pinch in the coming years, partly as a result of the London Olympics, but what's really baffling is the assertion by a councillor about The Poetry Business no longer contributing enough towards the "economic, social and environmental well-being of the district" - I would have thought it had played a very large part in putting Huddersfield on the cultural map, but I suspect that like many councils of all political persuasions, they are more interested in much more easily measured outcomes.

Recent browsing...

More entertaining stuff at Stride, especially the Wilco review (I loved A Ghost Is Born, but have been undecided about buying the new one) and the Mark Goodwin poems. The Poetry Pathways event he was leading the other week got cancelled, because of the weather I think. Shame, but maybe it'll get rescheduled soon.


Talk about setting yourself an imposible task! I can't see this ever actually happening, but it's worth a try, isn't it?