The last six months

Six months on from the start of Lockdown in England, I’ve been reflecting on the good things which I’ve experienced during that period. Here is a list, in no particular order.

The heightened awareness of mortality caused by the scandalously high Covid death rates in the UK, USA and other countries run by right-wing fools has made me more than ever keen to use my time wisely. My productivity at work has had to become more prodigious thanks to some unforeseen events, such as the Minister for Schools deciding that lockdown during the Covid pandemic is the perfect time to close a primary school in one of the two London boroughs for which I work. I’m fortunate, of course, not to be a frontline worker who’s had to deal with the daily horrors of the pandemic. As a school place planner, it’s been frustrating to see the timelines for new state-funded schools, especially two desperately needed special schools, recede further into the future.

For the last six weeks or so, I’ve had an added role, of being our community interest company’s lead on ‘Outbreak Control Planning’, which means that, aside from attending lots of meetings with Public Health, I’ve had to work with my own Education and Social Care colleagues to ensure that our offices and other settings are ‘Covid secure’; that is, that they are each as safe as possible an environment for staff to be able to make a gradual return to the workplace. We have a bubble and rota system in place for teams and individuals who have made that return, so that in every fortnight they spend half their time in the office/setting and half at home. It is largely going well and enabling teams to make the robust collaborative decisions which they can only do properly when they are co-located. No doubt, though, the seemingly inevitable second lockdown will soon scupper our handiwork.

Outside my paid employment, my labour on my poems and reviews has also increased in productivity: I’ve been writing and editing poems with what I can only call fervour. I’m not quite like Anthony Burgess who, when told by his doctor that he had only six months to live, wrote four novels as a way of providing a lasting income for his wife and children, but I’ve certainly been on it. My output has pleasingly included at least three poems which have been hanging about in the back of my mind for years.

I’ve very much enjoyed the weekly blog posts compendium assembled by American poet, and all-round good egg, Dave Bonta. His generosity is much to be admired and the blogs which he’s highlighted have invariably been eye-openingly excellent.

I’ve also enjoyed poet and friend Kathy Pimlott’s photographs of virtually, and sometimes completely, deserted streets of London and Nottingham, which she has posted on Facebook and Twitter. Kathy’s attention to detail, especially of doors and gates, has been fascinating, but no surprise since her poems are rich with detail and depictive quality.

Much has been written about meetings by Zoom, Google Meet and the lamentable MS Teams. In general terms, I can only add that online work meetings have been more focused and more courteous, with much less interruption and talking over one another. For poetry, it’s been a boon, of course, enabling launches and readings to be attended from anywhere in the world, and Leicester. Not that I’ve been to that many – work’s been so full-on that frequently the last thing I’ve wanted to do of an evening is continue to stare at a screen. There have been some memorable events, though, chief among them Happenstance readings/webinars involving Alan Buckley and Charlotte Gann, in support of their respective brilliant recent collections. It isn’t the same as being there in person, naturally, because you can’t go and talk to the poets after and get them to sign copies of their books, or natter to other poet friends.

Write Out Loud Woking, hosted by the estimable double act of Greg Freeman and Rodney Wood, has seamlessly gravitated from the cafe in The Lightbox to Zoom, enabling guest readers from far afield to join in the fun, welcoming and diverse proceedings. I’ve tried out five or six new poems in those Zoom readings, which has been very helpful for hearing where the poems catch and need tweaking. More to the point, it’s been lovely to see all the regulars, like Karen Izod, Heather Moulson, Ray Pool and Greg and Rodney themselves.

The Red Door Poets have also moved to Zoom and at a time of day more conducive to my occasional attendance. I’ve also attended a few Poetry Business virtual residential weekends and one-off workshops, all of which were as inspiring as if they were in-person.

Heading towards the last session of this current, 2019–2021, Poetry Business Writing School programme, I’ve been grouped with Jim Caruth and Philip Rush, two poets whose distinctively personal poetries are right up my street. So far, we’ve had two very enjoyable Zoom sessions, comparing notes on various poets’ poems and workshopping our own, with another session due soon, shortly before the final Zoom session with Ann and Peter Sansom and the other participants. The plan is still, I think, that, Covid restrictions permitting, there will be an end-of-programme celebration next February or so at the Wordsworth Trust at Dove Cottage in Grasmere. I know from last time how exciting a prospect that is.

Regular readers of this blog will know that thanks to Kathy Pimlott and Mat Riches’s encouragement, I got in touch with Nell Nelson with a view to reviewing poetry pamphlets for Sphinx. In the last few months, I’ve written quite a few of them and much enjoyed doing so. I have another one to write now, plus some longer reviews for a well-known print journal. The MO of writing Sphinx reviews is not to dwell on the weaknesses of the poems or pamphlets as a whole, but to highlight their positive aspects. That brings with it an endearing nobility of spirit, albeit that I have sometimes had to stop myself from buying a one-way ticket to Superlative City – and very occasionally had the opposite problem. Reviewing is not just good for the soul, though: it also freshens one’s critical perception, which in turn improves one’s self-editing ability, and, like any writing, sharpens one’s concision too.

I’ve been glad to see a burgeoning interest in writing haiku among UK poets. Some, like the aforementioned Philip Rush and marvellous Julie Mellor have taken to it with real aplomb. Others, though, can’t seem to grasp that the point of writing haiku is not to churn out any old rubbish in three lines of five, seven and five syllables. Twas ever thus. My own interest in haiku has been revived, partly due to my involvement in an exciting forthcoming haiku project.

I further developed an obsession with the life and work of Edward (Ed) Burra, which has seen me buy and devour every book, and write a dozen poems, about him. I have some Burra research trips planned, Covid permitting.

I’ve been working my way through a 2007 biography of John Donne, by John Stubbs, which, whilst it contains some irksome anachronistic asides, sets out how Donne, an ironmonger’s son, turned from serial womaniser to husband/father and then, in widowerhood, to serial sermoniser as Dean of St Paul’s. It seems that Donne did everything he could to avoid taking holy orders and was far keener to gain a powerful post at Court which he would long ago have obtained but for his marriage to Ann More against his father-in-law and employer’s wishes. Interesting, too, was his pragmatic journey from his inherited Catholicism to High Church pillar of the reformed Church of England, especially given that his mother was for many years banished from England for her faith, that his brother Henry died a martyr and that several uncles and other predecessors were Jesuits. The regular occurrences of bubonic plague lend Donne’s story a contemporary resonance of sorts. Stubbs rarely contextualises Donne’s poetry to good effect, but as a book to fill in the gaps and flesh out the man, it does the job.

On the poetry front itself, I’ve been reading, amongst others, Mike Barlow, Jennifer Copley, Robert Hamberger, Ian Hamilton, Theophilus Kwek, Jackie Wills, and I have a large pile of goodies to tuck into this autumn, including more Ciaran Carson, Geraldine Clarkson, Jonathan Davidson’s A Commonplace, Julian Stannard and Derek Walcott. Besides all that, there are journals to read.

I’m very fortunate to have been featured on the websites of two outstanding poets, Fokkina McDonnell and Heather Moulson, and to have been part of John Foggin’s wonderful When All This is Over project.

When out running or walking, I’ve encountered far more instances of impromptu smiles and/or chats with strangers, which is rare in urban south-east England but always heart-warming. I hope that continues.

I shouldn’t forget the weather. Here, where Surrey escapes from London, it was a beautiful summer of sunny days in the main. Not that I often got much further out in the sun than my regular runs took me. The sunshine is persisting – for the moment. 

8 thoughts on “The last six months

      1. Very possibly, which makes it all the worserer that I’ve not sorted it, but by Jove I will when we can and it will be good.

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