Friday 30 May 2008

Hotfoot after the Redfoot

It's all birding just at the moment. I'd not managed to get out on my local patch since getting back from Spain, but last night I just had to make the effort to try to see the first-summer female Red-footed Falcon that has been hanging around Ingleby, in Derbyshire, for the last few days.

It's only about a 15-minute drive from my house, but once there I was faced with a walk of around a mile, alongside the Trent. I was glad I'd packed my wellies, because at one point the path is flooded to a depth of about 18 inches, but it's a nice atmospheric spot, if you can ignore the redundant towers of Willington Power Station just over the river, and a couple of gravel pits. There's the Anchor Church, a series of natural caves that were used by medieval hermits, and just a couple of miles downstream is Swarkestone Bridge and Causeway, the point at which Bonnie Prince Charlie decided to turn back to Scotland during his 1745 invasion of England (UA Fanthorpe wrote a poem, At Swarkestone Bridge, about this, which always annoys me a little bit because it talks about the 'Midlands plain' - it's not that flat for heaven's sake!). Upstream a mile or two, there's Repton, with its Anglo-Saxon crypt containing the remains of more than one king of Mercia, and where a huge Viking army wintered some time in the late 9th century. And of course, it has a strong poetry connection, WH Auden and James Fenton both having attended the public school there (funnily enough, I think one of the kings buried there shared Auden's first name, Wystan - I might be wrong though. Maybe it was Wiglaf).

But I digress, and mighty boringly, I fear. Naturally, as soon as I left the car, it started to drizzle again, and didn't let up for the three hours I was there. There's been a bit of trouble, apparently, with birders trampling on crops and deliberately flushing the bird from the field, but all those there last night behaved impeccably. Not that there seemed to be a bird to flush, to start with.

We spent ages scanning two fields - one ploughed and seeded, the other pasture being grazed by a herd of Friesians - for the rare vagrant (it's more often found in eastern and southern Europe, but a few overshoot to the UK each year) without any luck. Ditto the various trees, pylons, fenceposts and sheds. At one point, a small falcon began approaching from the north, but even before our hopes were really raised, it became obvious it was a Hobby.

Just at the point when I was thinking of packing up for home, because the increasingly heavy rain would be deterring the bird's insect prey, we realised that it was sat on a fencepost on the far side of the field, clearly having just flown in from some concealed spot. Skirting the edge of the field, we approached to well within 50 yards, but it seemed entirely unconcerned, using the fence as a hunting perch and continually swooping onto insects in the ploughed earth. It didn't do any more flying than that, which I suppose might have been a disappointment if it hadn't been such a handsome bird anyway, but we watched for up to an hour as it fed well.

And that was that. Great bird to restart my patch list with, and ironically far better views of it than the one I saw in Spain last week. Well worth a soaking (exacerbated by a leaking wellie).

Tuesday 27 May 2008

Steppe-ing out

Just back from a week in Aragon on a 'fam' trip - birding, eating too much, and drinking lots of splendid wine. I won't even attempt to call it work, because it really was a lot of fun with a great group of people.

One of the things that really struck me was just how huge and empty the landscape is - it's something that takes you completely by surprise in western Europe. Given that around half of Aragon's 1.2 million population lives in the capital, Zaragoza, that probably shouldn't be a shock, but it is. Standing out on the steppes (above left), you can imagine yourself in the middle of the American South West.

Highlights included seeing several glorious Lammergeiers, a Golden Eagle on the nest feeding young, more Griffon Vultures than I could even have imagined, a very showy Rock Thrush in the spectacular setting of Castillo Loarre, a displaying Little Bustard out on the steppes, the maddeningly elusive Dupont's Larks, and both Black and Black-eared Wheatears (one of the latter subjecting a male Cuckoo to the most fierce mobbing I've ever seen from a small bird). And then there were Bee-eaters and Hoopoes galore, Alpine Swifts chattering overhead, and a whole host of great warblers, including Subalpine, Dartford, Sardinian, the not-very-aptly named Melodious, and the lovely Bonelli's (basically the southern equivalent of our Wood Warbler).

I shouldn't forget the Nightingales. Other than on the steppes, they were everywhere we went, and when we stayed a couple of nights in the mountaintop village of Alquezar (pictured right), you could hear them singing throughout the night (luckily, we were far too shattered to be kept awake by it). In fact, the local name for them is Ruisenor, meaning 'noisy man', which hits the nail right on the head.

I had intended to do a lot of reading, but spent most of my travelling time sleeping, so I still have quite a bit to catch up on. But anyway, here's a picture of our tired but happy group to close with...

PS. As you'll see, the rain in Spain doesn't fall mainly on the plain at all.

Thursday 22 May 2008

HappenStance at the Troubadour

On Monday, May 26th, HappenStance poets will be reading at the Troubadour in London. The line-up (in no particular order) will be:

Martin Cook
Tom Duddy
Eleanor Livingstone
Greg Leadbetter
Rob A. Mackenzie
Michael Mackmin
Helena Nelson
Andrew Philip
DA Prince

It’s a great venue, and more importantly, a terrific and very varied line-up. All are fine poets, and if you’re a regular visitor to this blog you’ll know that over the last three or four years I’ve enjoyed HappenStance chapbooks by all of them (except Helena, who is of course HappenStance’s guiding light – her own collection, Starlight On Water, is from Rialto, and is also highly recommended).

Oh, and except DA Prince, who as I mentioned last week, has just had her book Nearly The Happy Hour released as HappenStance’s first full-size poetry collection. She’s another who’s well worth hearing. I read with her last year at a Poetry Nottingham event, and she has an understated but often quietly mesmeric style.

So, if you’re anywhere near London that day, go along. It’s not often you get that much talent on the same bill, for a mere £5. Doors open at 8pm.

Tuesday 20 May 2008

REVIEW: The Peregrine, by JA Baker

The Peregrine
JA Baker

Every now and then, you come across a discussion online, or in a poetry mag, about exactly what constitutes that apparent contradiction in terms, the prose poem.

I usually stay well outside the debate, being far too confused about the whole concept to add anything useful to it, and have always been content to tell myself that I know one when I see one.

Well this book is most definitely one, all 190-odd pages of it. Written by a retired librarian (and, in fact, rewritten five times before publication in 1967), it’s absolutely one of a kind. The author spent 10 years closely observing the Peregrines that wintered on the estuaries near his Essex home, and the result is something quite unlike any other book on nature I’ve ever come across.

The writing goes way beyond mere description, and steers clear of awe-struck wonder, anthropomorphism or sentimentality. Instead it borders on the truly metaphysical, and succeeds in painting a ‘real’ picture of these birds. Nature is cruel and unforgiving, but there’s a real sense of it as a single vast organism, each part of it wholly (but often invisibly) dependent on everything else. And so there’s a real, ahead-of-its-time ‘green’ message there, although there’s never any attempt to lecture or even spell it out explicitly.

It’s structured as a diary of a few months, and quite apart from the bird descriptions, it’s a superb evocation of a hard British winter (remember them?), with the whole of the countryside constantly transformed between liquid and solid states.

There’s loads of superb material in there about behaviour, too, which adds hugely to the sort of thing you get in fieldguides. They would tell you that Peregrines hunt other birds using their famous ultra-high speed stoop, but this shows the sheer range of prey they take, including plenty of ground mammals, as well as the range of hunting methods used. It’s the sort of thing that, as a birder, you see sometimes out in the field, but that makes you doubt yourself because it’s so far away from what the books say.

There is occasional genuine drama (the moment in the barn towards the end, for example), but generally it just slowly builds tension towards a climax that you don’t really see coming but that never overstates its case. Masterpiece is an overused word, but here it is wholly justified.

Monday 19 May 2008

Whatever happened to The Rockingbirds?

My post about Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers a couple of weeks back sent me rummaging through my collection looking for his albums. While I was doing that, I came across the record that made me check his music out in the first place, The Rockingbirds’ eponymous 1992 debut.

Now country music from Camden might not sound too promising, and I guess it depends to a large extent on how you feel about country in general, but it’s a great record. It’s only a little bit ‘alt’, really, being much more straightforward, tuneful country-rock, owing a lot to Gram Parsons (and maybe Mike Nesmith) and coming drenched in lashings of pedal steel.

Track four on the album (which doesn’t seem to be available anymore) was Jonathan, Jonathan, a heartfelt and exuberant tribute to the great man (it even incorporated a Roadrunner-style ending), but there are plenty of other goodies on there. The opener, Gradually Learning, heads towards country-soul, there’s a good cover of John Hartford’s In Tall Buildings, and there’s at least two mid-tempo classics, Restless and Halfway To Comatose.

They did record a follow-up (which I haven’t got, unfortunately), but sadly faded away into obscurity. For a moment, though, they were briefly fashionable (even the NME liked them), and for once, it was for all the right reasons.

Friday 16 May 2008

DA Prince book launch

A couple of weeks ago, Scottish chapbook press HappenStance published its first full-length poetry collection, DA Prince's Nearly The Happy Hour. I haven't got it yet, but this is a poet whose work appears in all sorts of poetry magazines on a very regular basis, and it's always high quality, so I will. I read with her in Nottingham last spring and she was compelling in a very understated way - that's the way her poems work, too, so treat yourself.

HappenStance goes from strength to strength, and hopefully there'll be more full-length collections in the future to complement the growing and ever more varied range of chapbooks.

Tuesday 13 May 2008

Snyder at 78

I just came across this piece in The Guardian, about the beat poet Gary Snyder, who has just won this year's Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize.

I only really came across his work four years ago, when I went across to California to a friend's wedding. The town near which it took place, Davis, has a campus of the University of California, and the branch of Borders there was full of Snyder's books, I think because he had been (perhaps still is?) a lecturer there. Anyway, I liked them, and bought a couple. The new and selected, No Nature, is a pretty good introduction to his work, and although I'd probably agree with some of the comments on the article, that his earlier work is more rewarding than a lot of the later stuff, there are gems from all periods to pick out. It's quite unlike the work of the other beats, being heavily indebted to Far Eastern poetry, mythology and religion, but I think I like it more than any of them, except perhaps Gregory Corso.

Anyway, good piece - I'm going to dig out some Snyder books when I get home tonight.

Monday 12 May 2008

Poets in person 2

Last week I mentioned the very positive review that In Person: 30 Poets got at Stride Magazine. At the weekend, Frances Leviston gave it a similar thumbs-up in The Guardian. Looks like an absolute must to me - I'll have a look to see if Borders have it when I'm in Leicester tomorrow.

Wednesday 7 May 2008

Latest review

I was surprised and more than a little delighted to come across Rob Mackenzie's review of Troy Town on his blog, Surroundings, this morning.

As I've already mentioned in the comments there, the thing that was most thrilling about it was that Rob has put his finger on a number of things about the poems, both good and bad, that I'd been groping blindly towards myself without really being able to articulate them, to myself, let alone others! I reckon that's pretty much what a review should do, among other things. Have a read yourselves...

Tuesday 6 May 2008

Poets in person

Not much to add to this review, except to say that I agree - it's good to see something like this from a major poetry publisher like Bloodaxe (very reasonable price, too), and I suspect quite a lot of other publishers will be wondering why they didn't do it before now.

Anyway, great idea, great review, and I'm off to order a copy now.

Radio on!

Also in the Guardian review was this article on Jonathan Richman, or more specifically the first Modern Lovers album, a long-time favourite of mine.

I'm not entirely sure I get all the points being made about the relationship between Boston and New York (and the rest of the USA) in the feature, but it's an interesting read anyway.

Richman's later albums tend to divide opinion pretty starkly, although I'd argue that there are plenty of little gems on them too*, among all the nursery rhyme soundalikes, not least on the splendid Jonathan Goes Country**.

But whatever, The Modern Lovers is a bona fide classic, fully justifying its reputation as a missing link between the Velvet Underground and punk.

* That Summer Feeling - I rest my case.
** Since She Started To Ride is great, but it's all excellent.

Silver Jews

I had plenty of time to read over a long Bank Holiday weekend, and as well as catching up on a lot of poetry (and reading The Great Gatsby for the umpteenth time), I made my customary trawl through the weekend reviews.

Saturday's Guardian had this preview (scroll down to the bottom) of forthcoming gigs from Silver Jews, a band who started off as something of a Pavement side project (or more properly, I think the two bands developed side by side). Anyway, main man David Berman is also a poet, and last year I read and enjoyed his collection, Actual Air. Not sure whether he has anything more in the literary pipeline, but either way, I recommend both his records and his books.