Wednesday, 31 December 2008

2008 in brief

It's been a strange sort of Christmas. I was away in Northumberland helping host our Readers' Christmas Holiday on the big day itself, which was great fun. Plenty of good food, a few drinks, quizzes, some poetry, and of course lots of birds. On Boxing Day, we watched a few sites along Druridge Bay, and among other highlights got great views of a dog Otter and a Bittern.

Unfortunately, since getting back, I've been struggling badly with a cold, but it has at least allowed me to get on with plenty of reading and writing. And of course, I've been fine-tuning my Best of 2008 lists.

As ever, they're far from comprehensive, due to me having a less than reliable memory, and the fact that there are quite a few books that I bought this year that I'm only now getting round to reading. But for what it's worth, here they are:

Best new poetry collections (some might be 2007 books)
The Bestiary - Sam Meekings
A Winged Head - Graham Hartill
You Are Here - Simon Turner
The Yellow Studio - Stephen Romer
Breaking The Glass - LouAnn Muhm
Singing In The Dark - Alison Brackenbury
Backward Turning Sea - Kelvin Corcoran

Best chapbooks
Inextinguishable - James W Wood
Lady Godiva and Me - Liam Guilar
Rebuilding A Number 39 - Marilyn Ricci
Paper Run - Jim C Wilson
Lament of the Wanderer - Jane Holland
Persephone In Hades - Ruth Pitter (a new edition from HappenStance)

Best Collected/Selecteds (of those I've read this year - they're not necessarily recent)
Selected Poems - Michael Hofmann
Selected Poems - Bernard O'Donoghue (as mainstream poets go, undeservedly overlooked and underrated, I think)
Magpie Words - Richard Caddel
Collected Poems - Lynette Roberts
Gyrfalcon Poems - Colin Simms (a sort of Collected on a single theme, I suppose. One for the birdwatcher, maybe, but excellent)
Collected Later Poems - RS Thomas

Best anthology
In Person: 30 Poets (Bloodaxe) - not perfect, but a great idea, well executed, and for £12. A format we'll be seeing a lot more of, I think.

Best 'back catalogue' books
Almost - Oliver Reynolds
A Robin Hood Book - Alan Halsey

Best fiction
The Dig - John Preston
Engleby - Sebastian Faulks

Best non-fiction books
Bloodfeud: Murder and Revenge In Anglo-Saxon England – Richard Fletcher
The Man Who Went Into The West – Byron Rogers
Poetry Wars - Peter Barry
The Peregrine - J A Baker

Oh, and best bird of the year? Well, I think it's a toss-up between the Red-footed Falcon at Ingleby at the end of May, or the migrating Black Redstart that appeared just outside my front door earlier in the spring.

So, here's to a happy and peaceful 2009 for everyone. I'll be back in 2009...

Friday, 26 December 2008

Common Yellowthroat

This superb picture of a Common Yellowthroat was taken by Belgian birder and photographer David Monticelli on Corvo, in The Azores, back in mid-October.

It was one of a number of American vagrants that were turning up on the tiny mid-Atlantic island at the time, and David searched patiently for it to get this shot, in the meantime finding a Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and helping the rest of us uncover another Common Yellowthroat.

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Merry Christmas!

No sign of any snow (a couple of weeks back a white Christmas was looking a good bet here), but who cares? It's well and truly holiday time, so I hope you all have a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, that you all get exactly the presents you wanted, and that none of you has to eat any more sprouts than a human being can reasonably be expected to.

Friday, 19 December 2008

How had I never heard of him?

Merritt (with this particular spelling) isn't a very common surname in the UK (although it seems much more widespread in the USA), so I've always struggled hard to find anyone famous or just prominent in a particular field who shares it.

There's Stephin Merritt, mastermind behind The Magnetic Fields. And then there's country star Tift Merritt, who I once interviewed for a local paper. But how come I'd never heard of this bloke?

I feel duty-bound to go out and try to find some of his records now.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Brittle Star online

You can click here to read and hear the contents of Issue 19 of Brittle Star, including my poem Treaty House. Lots of good stuff in there - enjoy!

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Rom coms ruin your life

Nothing entirely surprising in that conclusion, but there's nothing like overstating the results of a single, not especially scientific study, and I can't help feeling that the researchers failed to follow up on a second, much more interesting point.

We're told: "As part of the project, 100 student volunteers were asked to watch the 2001 romantic comedy Serendipity, while a further 100 watched a David Lynch drama. Students watching the romantic film were later found to be more likely to believe in fate and destiny. A further study found that fans of romantic comedies had a stronger belief in predestined love."

What I'd really like to know is, were the students who watched the David Lynch film later found to be more likely to believe in extraordinary revelations made through surreal nightmares involving backwards-talking dwarfs? I know I am.

They're here!

At last, the promised Waxwing invasion has reached north west Leicestershire. They've been reported in good numbers along the UK's east coast, but had seemed determined to skirt my patch, resolutely staying just a couple of miles outside.

Today, though, a couple were occasionally visible but very elusive down at the Gracedieu end of Thringstone, and another two were much more obliging on trees alongside Sileby Road, Barrow-on-Soar. So, more of a reconnaissance than an actual invasion, but at the latter site, I noticed a tree not far down the road absolutely dripping with berries, so maybe more will follow.

UPDATE: Apparently there's now (Thursday the 18th) a dozen or so in the Castle Park / St Nicholas's Circle area of Leicester City Centre. That's more like it!

Friday, 12 December 2008


Well, despite my fears that the miserable weather and the attractions of late-night shopping would keep people away, there was a really good turnout at last night's reading at the Friends Meeting House, on Queen's Road in Leicester. Several familiar faces, from Leicester Poetry Society and elsewhere, including HappenStance poets DA Prince and Marilyn Ricci.

Jane Commane kicked things off, but unfortunately I missed most of her set. Matt Nunn, one of the other poets reading, had got lost on one of the more unfathomable bits of Leicester's road system, so I had to try to guide him in on the mobile. The audience response was very good, though, and her poems in Under The Radar 2, which was being launched, are really excellent.

I read next, and thoroughly enjoyed myself, which is always a good sign. I tried a couple of new, or at least new-ish poems, and they seemed to go down well, which was encouraging.

After the interval, we had an open mic slot, and very possibly the performance of the night came from a Nottingham poet called Chris (I've forgotten his surname, stupidly - drop me a line if you read this, Chris!), who read from memory and was absolutely electrifying. Several people afterwards said just how much they had enjoyed his reading, and I hope I'll be seeing him again round Leicester or Nottingham soon. There was Mark Goodwin, who's been published by Shearsman and whose work I've enjoyed in a number of magazines over the years; Caroline Cook, another small press mag stalwart and whose poem Sex With Larkin proved popular; and Colin Derrick, who bravely read his first-ever poems, very well.

Matt had arrived by then, and a good thing too. He's very, very funny, and yet at the same time always utterly serious. There's anger and poignancy in there too, and his delivery is, I think, spot-on. He's got a new collection coming out next year - keep an eye out for it.

Finally, Jane Holland read from her new Salt collection, Camper Van Blues, plus one poem from On Warwick. It was a good way to round things off, because CVB seemed to touch on quite a few strands that other poets had brushed up against earlier in the evening. And everybody seemed to go home pleased with what they'd seen and heard, so I hope it will be the first of a series of similar events. I've spent most of today writing for work and watching England surprise everyone in Chennai, but I'll get moving with organising a follow-up ASAP.

Oh, and of course, here's the set-list:
The Meeting Place
At Home
Scorpio Over La Selva
Things Left In Hotel Rooms
Troy Town
At Gedney Hill
The Memory Of Water
Window Seat
Raining, Craswall, Evening

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

A final reminder...

Just to mention (yet again!) that there'll be live poetry and an open mic at the launch of Issue 2 of Under The Radar magazine, at Friends Meeting House, Queen’s Road, Leicester, at 7.30pm tomorrow.

Jane Holland, editor of Horizon Review, will be reading from her latest collection, Camper Van Blues; Matt Nunn, one of UTR's editors and a very funny man, will read from his forthcoming collection, Sounds in the Grass; UTR's other driving force, Jane Commane, will read a selection of her recent work; and I'll be reading from Troy Town and one or two newer pieces. It's all free, and open mic slots are available, so turn up early to register for a place. We're not allowed alcohol in there, sadly, but there will be soft drinks and a few nibbles.

More information at

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Oliver Postgate

I know banal and repetitive reminiscences about 1970s childhoods are a staple of stand-up comics, novelists and TV talking heads these days, but I couldn’t let the death of animator extraordinaire Oliver Postgate, aged 83, go unmarked.

Never mind what the actual animation was like – in those days long before Pixar, we didn’t care anyway, and I can’t help feeling that these days, it’s too often the be-all and end-all (see, didn't take me long to start sounding like my dad!). Postgate concentrated on story and mood, and was completely unafraid to let his imagination roam freely and trust young viewers to keep up. Noggin The Nog, for example, definitely had a sinister side to it, while Bagpuss used to throw bits of folk songs into the very strange stories. Ivor The Engine would even stray into Dylan Thomas territory.

One of the reasons Postgate is being remembered so fondly, I think, is the realisation that programmes of that sort just wouldn’t get made today, even at the BBC. Not that there’s not good kids’ TV programmes around, just that (and this is probably true of adult TV too) the viewers are rarely trusted the same way these days.

Saturday, 6 December 2008

John Clare

If you didn't tune in to Radio 3 on Tuesday night to listen to The Essay, in which Alison Brackenbury talked about John Clare's influence on her work, you still have four days left to catch it here.

It was excellent, I thought, and I especially enjoyed hearing the poem The Cuckoo. And it all set me thinking about Clare. He's very difficult to get away from here, around Peterborough where I work, because his name gets attached to all sorts of public buildings, streets and even businesses. And it was when I lived over here in the late 90s that I first really got into his poetry, out of curiosity more than anything, I think. I lived in Bourne, and used to get the bus to and from work, and it wound its way past Helpston, where he was born and raised, and through Northborough, to which he was moved, unhappily, later in his life.

While both villages have so far resisted being swallowed up by the city, the countryside is pretty unrecognisable from the one Clare wrote about, intensive agriculture having put paid to it. Emmonsails (now Ailsworth) Heath, for example, subject of one of my favourite Clare poems, is now pretty much farmland, and elsewhere roads and gravel pits have carved up the landscape.

And that, I suppose, is why Clare has enjoyed a resurgence of popularity, and a critical reappraisal. It's not merely nostalgia for an imagined England of days gone by - it's the fact that in his exact and first-hand writing about the natural world, he was making the now extremely relevant point (without ever trying to hammer home 'a message') that no one part of it exists in isolation.

Finally, I just found this article on Clare, particularly interesting for what it says about how well read he was.

Friday, 5 December 2008

HappenStance blog

To my great shame, I've only just noticed that HappenStance now has a blog. Have a browse and learn a bit more about the world of poetry chapbook publishing.

Thursday, 4 December 2008

Godiva rides again

Last night, I went to Coventry's Herbert Art Gallery and Museum for the launch of Lady Godiva & Me, Liam Guilar's new chapbook from Nine Arches Press. In fact, chapbook is selling it short - it's 50 pages of poetry that uses all sorts of voicves, including the iconic figure of Godiva, to explore the history of Coventry (Liam's home city, although he now lives in Australia). He read very well, confirming the point he made himself, that a genuine sequence (and this is a very well constructed one) allows you to try things that just aren't possible in a collection of more or less standalone poems.

Despite arriving late because of the traffic (I had 25 miles to travel, Liam had to come from Queensland, guess who was there first) I read a few poems myself as the warm-up. They were:

Troy Town
To A Flame
Show, Don't Tell

Afterwards we adjourned to the cafe bar next door, and I chatted with Liam, Matt Nunn and Jane Commane of Nine Arches, and some of the other Coventry regulars. They included Barry Patterson, who's not only a fellow birder but also a fellow Julian Cope enthusiast! I swapped books with him - his, Nature Mystic, is from Heaventree. I only had time to read Brandon Marsh Winter Light last night, and it's excellent.

Oh, and I picked up a copy of Issue 2 of Under The Radar (to be launched next Thursday at a reading at Friends Meeting House, Leicester). It contains poems by the likes of Mario Petrucci, David Hart, Jane Commane and myself (A Fixer-Upper and St Beuno Meets The English), and reviews including Jacqui Rowe on Marilyn Ricci's Rebuilding A Number 39 and Simon Turner on Geoffrey Holloway's Collected Poems (and any review which mentions JA Baker's The Peregrine, as this does, is OK by me. There's a short story competition too, so buy a copy.