Reading

On Wednesday, 13th October, at 7.30pm British Summer Time, I’ll be one of the two guest readers (the other is Maggie Sawkins) at the launch of Greg Freeman’s collection, Marples Must Go!, published by Dempsey and Windle.

I admire Greg’s poetry very much, and admire him as someone who does a great deal of good for the poetry community. His poetic and geographical milieu is similar to mine – he grew up in a road where my dad and grandparents also lived for a few years, near Surbiton Lagoon, and he went to the secondary school opposite the one I went to, a few years apart!

I wrote an endorsement for Greg’s book, as follows:

The sharp, entertaining poems in Marples Must Go! encompass a cornucopia of themes – first love, music, the newspaper trade, cycling, am-dram and holidays – but also the corruption, pigheadedness and racism of politicians, past and present, intent on ‘making mugs of us all’. In this richly enjoyable collection, Greg Freeman celebrates the best – and skewers the worst – of England.

Autumn almanac

It feels like a long time since I’ve rambled on about what I’ve been up to, so here goes.

As well as reviews for Sphinx, I’ve written two 2,000-word essays, which will appear in the next few months. Both involved a lot of intense reading, of course, which was more enjoyable than my routine reading, probably because it was consciously more purposeful. (Not that I ever read as passively as, say, I watch the telly, but the older you get the easier it becomes to tune out, of course.)

In an average week, I guess I read two poetry collections (and/or journals), but I rarely get so engaged with any of them that I read them straight through again immediately after. That happened to me last week, though, when I read Country Music by Will Burns, published by Offord Road Books. It wasn’t that (m)any of the poems were so individually brilliant that they jumped out at me; rather it was their cumulative power, how they are beautifully crafted to cohere with one another and form a whole. At their best, they have that quality which Michael Donaghy’s poems had, of seeming both impeccably honed and effortlessly natural. Like Donaghy, Burns is a bit of a muso (the Chilton of the Chilterns perhaps?) as attested by the title of his collection, his collaborations with Hannah Peel, and his appearances on the eclectic bills of Caught By the River shows. His poems make reference to the late great Townes Van Zandt, Chet Baker, Warren Zevon, Merle Haggard (twice) and Elvis. I especially enjoyed a trio of sonnets – ‘Bastard Service’, ‘True Service’ and ‘Wild Service’ – which convey an unexpectedly edgy edgelands feel to (presumably) Buckinghamshire. Above all, there’s just a simpatico, warmly melancholic tone about his poems which makes me enjoy them so much.

A week or two before the same thing happened with Stephen Payne’s equally exceptional The Windmill Proof, published by Happenstance. Stephen has a brilliant gift for form, derived, I think, from close attention to the poetry of Frost in particular. Again, though, his tone is so charming. I am in awe of Stephen’s cleverness, but, as in his first collection, he wears his erudition lightly. And for every poem which involves mathematics or physics there’s another delightful one which involves, for example, a random encounter (‘The Mousetail Man’), swimming (‘The Pool’ and ‘The River Swimmer’) or bowls (‘Crown Green Bowls’). The Happenstance online launch for the book, incidentally, was by far the best and warmest poetry event I’ve attended this year.

A few poems in to Speechless at Inch (Smith Doorstop), the first full collection by James (Jim) Caruth and I have that same feeling of reading a book which I know I’ll want to re-read in order to take a closer look at how the poems tick.

Other collections I’ve enjoyed in the last six months or so, since Lyn and I upped sticks to Rotherham, include these: The Historians by Eavan Boland (Carcanet); Boy in Various Poses by Lewis Buxton (Nine Arches); Beautiful Nowhere by Louisa Campbell(Boatwhistle); The Years by Tom Duddy (Happenstance); do not be lulled by the dainty starlike blossom by Rachael Matthews (The Emma Press); Tigress by Jessica Mookherjee (Nine Arches); Fury by David Morley (Carcanet); The Long Habit of Living by M.R. Peacocke (Happenstance); The Coming-Down Time by Robert Selby (Shoestring); and Letters Home by Jennifer Wong (Nine Arches).

Of older collections, I’ve especially enjoyed The Never-Never by Kathryn Gray (Seren), Berg by Hilary Menos (Seren), The Brink by Jacob Polley (Picador) and After Nature by WG Sebald, tr. Michael Hamburger (Hamish Hamilton), the pleasure of which I had been deliberately deferring for ages.

It would also be remiss of me to mention a trio of excellent books by poetry friends of mine: Marples Must Go! by Greg Freeman (Dempsey & Windle); Key to the Highway by Chris Hardy (Shoestring); and the remarkable and marvellous When Listening Isn’t Enough by Rodney Wood (self-published, but that’s the loss of publishers out there).

Now I have a stack of what look like wonderful books, plus the latest issue of 14, to keep me busy in the next while.

On the actual poetry-writing front, in roughly as many months I’ve written only five poems which will make the cut if and when another collection of my poems appears, but I tell myself it’s all about quality not quantity.

On office machinery and Kath McKay

Old, obsolete office equipment is a fascinating subject to me, since I’ve spent almost all my working life in offices (including my own; well it’s more of a room with a PC in it, but hey ho). When I first started in local government in Kingston in 1992, there were cupboards still full of weird gadgets which looked like instruments of torture: Gestetner duplicators, comb binding machines, gigantic hole-punchers, etc. As I may have related before, there was one word processor between 11 of us and it broke down regularly; and for the processing of many millions of pounds of student grants and fees per year, we used an old and creaking mainframe computer which churned out reams of print-outs.

In 1996, I moved on to another London borough, Hammersmith and Fulham and, following the General Election in May ’97, it became a Labour flagship borough, with lots of money for new computers and the revolutionary new communication and knowledge opportunities offered by email and the internet. I remember sending my first email, to my work colleague and friend James in which, for some reason, I accused him of some unspeakable deviancy; typically, I contrived to send it to the whole of the Education department. The fact that nobody even mentioned it to me, let alone warned me about my conduct, showed that email in the workplace really was in its infancy. But I digress.

Obsolete office equipment is also an excellent subject for poetry. I’ve written previously about Emma Simon’s delightful poem, ‘In the Museum of Antiquated Offices: Exhibit C, Fax Machine’, and have just come upon another, ‘Elonex Word Processor Circa 1998’ by Kath McKay, from her fine collection, Collision Forces, Wrecking Ball Press, 2015. As I’ve experienced at first hand, from Saturday writing sessions with the Poetry Business in Sheffield, Kath is a very perceptive and articulate poet who tells it how it is. This particular poem opens pricelessly:

Boxy as a Soviet car, it took up two thirds of my desk,
while others slimmed down, became pencil like.
This bod had to warm up. Every day rebooted seven
or eight times.


I’m sure many readers can empathise with that. The opening simile is perfectly judged, comically conveying a sense of this piece of hardware being innately behind the times. I like too the dry humour in that exaggerated second line and of that ‘bod’.

The poem goes on to encompass a search for her partner’s personal details following his sudden death, an event which understandably dominates the middle of the book:

Later I scoured the hard drive for your bank statements, spread sheets,
calendars: something of you coiled deep.

The last seven lines of the poem consist of a litany of old machines. As I implied when I wrote about Emma Simon’s poem, this obsolescence has a poignancy to it, and, of course, an ecological cost too, both to the extraction of the raw materials required for new products and to the waste of the old: about 10 years ago or more, an article in the Richmond and Twickenham Times, back when it still contained some proper-ish local journalism, revealed that hundreds of knackered computers from the local FE college had shamefully ended up dumped on a beach in Ghana.

My enjoyment of Collision Forces was slightly diminished by the regularity of typos and by other oddities (no biographical details, no endorsements, though that might be a blessing, and the briefest of blurbs); all of which are wholly at variance with the book’s attractive physical attributes and the poems’ literary quality. But don’t let that deter you.

There must be scope for more excellent poems on this theme. Perhaps some are already published. I hope so.

A final thought: Ive been reminded of the 10,000 Maniacs classic, ‘Planned Obsolescence’.

The poetry of reservoirs

You, my regular reader, may remember that several of my blog posts have been inspired by those of Matthew Stewart. In this case, it’s slightly different: a welcome instance of synchronicity.

It must be difficult to be a poet in Yorkshire and not feel a need to write, at least once, about reservoirs. Near where I grew up, in south-west London, the reservoirs were more often not forbidding places with no or limited access, surrounded by high walls, which kept the water out of sight, and grassy banks grazed by strangely suburban sheep. When they were visible, the water was enclosed by undisguised concrete. Some are havens for urban birders – Stephen Moss undertook much of his formative birding at Staines Reservoir.

Those in Yorkshire tend to be tucked away, in moorland hills, and properly absorbed into their environments. Therein lies their beauty, perhaps: the knowledge that even though we, and the creatures who live in and around them, appreciate them as natural lakes (and who doesn’t love a nice lake?), they are artificial , existing only to be functional; to provide clean water to the great conurbations of the Ridings. Peter Sansom’s marvellous ‘Driving at Night’, the opening poem of his 2000 collection Point of Sale, begins:

The res through trees
is a lake or calm sea on whose far shore
a holiday is waiting, a fire laid in the grate,
the larder stocked with tins, milk in the fridge,
and on the hearth a vase of new tulips.


I know instinctively what he means. The contentment invoked in those lines is topped off by that ‘new’: these are pristine tulips, with no sign yet of their heads drooping.

I’ve mentioned previously Ted Hughes’s poem ‘Widdop’, about the reservoir of the same name, a few miles north-west of his house at Lumb Bank, which he subsequently gave to the Arvon Foundation. Its opening lines are as vividly memorable as Peter’s:

Where there was nothing
Somebody put a frightened lake.


When I spent a very hot week at Lumb Bank in 2018, I wrote my poem ‘Dawson City’, set against the backdrop of the making of the Walshaw Dean reservoirs between 1900 and 1912, and one, channelling Seurat, called ‘Bathers at Widdop Reservoir’.)

I drafted a haiku about five years ago, while walking round Damflask, one of the reservoirs which supply Sheffield, and then forgot about until a few weeks ago, during a return visit to Bradfield, when I added the allusion to the Great Sheffield Flood of 1864:

a hairpin bend
to where a village drowned—
the smell of pigs


It was, though, the appearance in issue #66 of The North of Victoria Gatehouse’s brilliant – and brilliantly-titled – poem ‘Reservoir Gods’ which set me off on this post. Vicky brought it for workshopping in a session of the last Poetry Business Writing School, but we had nothing constructive to say because it seemed – it was – already word-perfect. As the title indicates, the gaze of the poet romanticizes the protagonists, but within a framing of the risks which they take:

They pay no heed to warning signs
about deep water and toxic blooms
of blue-green algae. These are dangers
which don’t concern them


Earlier in this Covid year, with little to do but head out into the natural and not-so-natural world, there seem to have been a lot of drownings in reservoirs – including one of a 16-year-old boy in the closest, Ulley, to where I live. Gatehouse doesn’t say explicitly that the people she’s writing about are young men, but it’s obvious that they are, as confirmed by the rich details: ‘all swagger, / in a hit of Hugo Boss’. The description continues beautifully, as if this is a Rococo Arcadian scene painted by Watteau:

and the afternoon cracks open, fizzes
like a shaken can, all vigour and foam
as they strip and dive in.


It’s one of those poems which needs to be anthologised as the instant classic it is.

On Patricia Beer and the RNLI

The news from a few days ago that Nigel Farage, the ‘Poundland Enoch Powell’ as Russell Brand memorably called him, had berated the RNLI on social media for providing what he called ‘a migrant taxi service’ across the Channel was of course both fascist flatulence about the value of migrants’ lives and a crass trivialisation of the dangers which the migrants and RNLI volunteers face in the world’s busiest shipping lane. It’s no wonder that the RNLI responded so robustly, or that donations to the RNLI soared as a result.

In my university days, a frequently heard sound was the lifeboat siren echoing around Portrush, which sent half a dozen very brave men scurrying from whatever they were doing down to the harbour. The man, whose name I can’t recollect, who owned and/or ran the chip shop was one of them. To see them setting off into the North Atlantic was an intensely memorable sight.

Farage’s drivel also reminded me of a great poem by Patricia Beer which I read recently: ‘Lost’, concerning the Penlee lifeboat disaster of December 1981, and first published five months later in the London Review of Books. Devonian by birth and by residence after years away, Beer became a laureate of the West Country, and this poem captures both the personal and the universal profundity of the tragic events.

The middle two of the six stanzas of ‘Lost’ are almost unbearably poignant:

The storm was here too, blowing its own trumpet,
Holding up the white wings of my neighbour’s geese
As they fought like angels in the growing darkness.

That night the news, fraying from the Stockland mast,
Stuttered across the valley that the Penlee lifeboat
Was lost with a crew of eight.


The image of the geese provides a powerful foreshadowing, and that description ‘fraying from the Stockland mast / Stuttered across the valley’ gives the relaying of the news a timeless sense to it, as though it might be by semaphore rather than the radio and TV transmission mast. Both ‘fraying’ and ‘Stuttered’ are far from obvious verb choices but they work superbly.

Beer’s approach to such difficult subject-matter is exemplary in how it acknowledges and deals with tragedy; and how it shows the impact of that tragedy on the wider community. The distance from Upottery, in East Devon, where Beer lived, to Penlee Point, in Cornwall, where the Penlee lifeboat was based then, is 86 miles, or ‘two moors away and three lighthouses’ as the poem goes on to say, but the congregation in the final stanza are nonetheless deeply affected by it:

Yet when the vicar paused in his prayer that Christmas Eve
There was true silence in the church as though
The lost souls had been found for a few minutes
Who had no time for ‘Nearer my God to Thee’.


It would be difficult, I think, to over-emphasise the brilliance needed to pull off a poem like this, which addresses an event which struck with grief not just the people of Cornwall and Devon, but the country per se and beyond. To a nation brought up on the heroics of Grace Darling, Penlee had a terrible resonance. Beer does not include the heart-breaking familial details of the disaster and hers is not a journalistic account of the deaths of the eight volunteers; rather, it is an oblique yet profound and humane response which only a poet of genius could have created.

Quiet flows the Don

If you’ve read either of my haiku collections, you’ll know I have a fondness for rivers; but then, who doesn’t? Living in the middle of England, fifty-five miles from the nearest coastline, landlock naturally means that I gravitate to rivers and canals. Rotherham is where the Rother ends, at its confluence with the Don.

The upstream Don has long ago been split so that part of it forms and is shadowed by the Sheffield and South Yorkshire Navigation, i.e. canal. It bends round the back of Rotherham United’s New York Stadium, in the New York part of the town, because the steel produced locally was used to make the fire hydrants in NYC. There, today, Lyn and I saw the first of probably five or six lots of sand martins. I don’t think there is a collective noun for sand martins and I’m struggling to think of a word which would be appropriate other than something like ‘joyfulness’. They are one of my favourite birds and always an absolute pleasure to encounter. I’ve written a few sand martin haiku over the years, and this, written on the Skirfare and published in both Wing Beats and The Lammas Lands, is probably the best of them:

river loop—
a sand martin squirms
into its nest hole

From Meadowhall, the retail cathedral replete with lead-green roofing, we followed the Five Weirs Walk towards Sheffield. We were amazed to find that each of the weirs dates back several centuries – Sanderson’s Weir since the 1580s and Brightside Weir since 1328. We got a riverside view of Lady’s Bridge, so called because, like Chantry Bridge in Rotherham, it had a chapel on or beside it in medieval times.

I was also very happy to see tansy:

There was already plenty of yellow about, with the preponderance of ragwort and sprawling hedge mustard (“as wild as Leo Sayer”, Lyn noted), but tansy is slightly more golden, a lovely contrast to the pinkish purple of slender thistles and teasel and the proper purple of buddleia. In England, it’s at its best at this time of year. I wrote about it 10 or so years ago, when I spotted a clump of it along the Thames, heading upstream between Ham and Kingston:

school’s out
the riverbank flush
with tansy florets

On Brian Jones (no, not that one)

A decade or so ago, I was a member for two or three years of the Twickenham Stanza group of the Poetry Society until it ceased following the closure of Langton’s bookshop, Church Street, in which the group met. The quality of the poems we workshopped was invariably high. Among the members was the fine poet Paul McLoughlin, who was generous to me with his time and entertaining anecdotes. Sadly, he has recently passed away.

Paul occasionally mentioned the poet Brian Jones (1938–2009) – not to be confused with the Strolling One – and a few years ago, his own publisher, Shoestring Press, published a selection of Jones’ poems. I must get round to buying a copy. In the meantime, I recently bought a lovely copy of Jones’s Interior, 25 poems published by Alan Ross in 1969. There is something Larkinian about his poetry, though without the misanthropy or suppressed bigotry. More than anyone, though, his poems remind me of Dennis O’Driscoll’s: droll, acutely aware of mortality and on the nose.

A three-part poem ‘At the Zoo’ was always going to appeal to me, because I adore zoo poems, and zoos in fact, hard though it is not to feel simultaneously thrilled by proximity to the creatures therein and repulsed by their captivity. The third part concerns Chi-Chi, the giant panda who was brought to London Zoo from Frankfurt in 1958 and was a major attraction until her death in 1972, and opens thus: ‘This is the panda that wouldn’t be shagged!’. After a superb simile, ‘wondering kids hoisted like periscopes’, he elaborates on the panda’s situation and attitude:

This is the girl
who would have none of it, who let the world
proclaim and plan the grandest wedding for her,
who travelled in state and with due coyness
one thousand miles in a beribboned crate,
who ate well at the reception, honoured the ritual,
and when the time arrived for being shagged
chose otherwise, rolled over, went to sleep.


Anthropomorphic, to a degree, this may be, but it’s fine writing, with a deceptively easy rhythm.

The same panoptical and omniscient voice is at play in his poem ‘In a University Library’, the last two stanzas of which build to a mightily unexpected and extraordinary flourish:

So here I am, game for another try.
Across hushed floors, I follow appropriate rules—
check catalogues, use cards, go straight to a shelf,
extract one book with unambiguous hand,
pass girls with gentle faces and lyric hair

without a second glance, become a bulk
of silence at a table, open the words—
and Time leaps cartwheels and the blood runs loutish
as sunlight strokes the pages where they swell
in sumptuous buttocky mounds from the shadowed spine.

It’s a poem to which I can fully relate. Pre-computerisation, university libraries must’ve been even stranger environments than those I inhabited in the mid to late ’80s; nevertheless, the timelessness of being, in that perfect phrase, ‘a bulk of silence’ is marvellously depicted.

The masterpiece in Interior is ‘Death of a Cultured Golfing Motorist’. With a title like that, how could it not be? In seven intricately-woven tercets, Jones maintains the poise and tension of a tale which we already know will not end well. Here are stanzas 3 to 5:

And on the course was never such a day—
the ball sprang from the gorgeous woods
like a bolt of joy, hung in subtle flight

from wedge and spoon. The greens played like a dream
and light was dreamlike, reducing distances.
And driving home, he heard his car

croon like advertisement—the stubbed gearstick
floated between the ratios, the tyres
discarded corners with brisk disdain.


I won’t give away the brilliance of the poem’s closing couplet. For the anthology of poems about sport which I am slowly compiling, ‘Death of a Cultured Golfing Motorist’ is an absolute shoo-in.