Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Tuesday Poem: In Parenthesis, by David Jones

In Parenthesis – Part 7, 
pages 183-186

It’s difficult with the weight of the rifle.
Leave it–under the oak.
Leave it for a salvage-bloke
let it lie bruised for a monument
dispense the authenticated fragments to the faithful.
It’s the thunder-besom for us
it’s the bright bough borne
it’s the tensioned yew for a Genoese jammed arbalest and a
scarlet square for a mounted mareschal, it’s that county-mob
back to back. Majuba mountain and Mons Cherubim and
spreaded mats for Sydney Street East, and come to Bisley
for a Silver Dish. It’s R.S.M. O’Grady says, it’s the soldier’s
best friend if you care for the working parts and let us be ‘av-
ing those springs released smartly in Company billets on wet
forenoons and clickerty-click and one up the spout and you
men must really cultivate the habit of treating this weapon with
the very greatest care and there should be a healthy rivalry
among you–it should be a matter of very proper pride and
Marry it man! Marry it!
Cherish her, she’s your very own.
Coax it man coax it–it’s delicately and ingeniously made
–it’s an instrument of precision–it costs us tax-payers,
money–I want you men to remember that.
Fondle it like a granny–talk to it–consider it as you would
a friend–and when you ground these arms she’s not a rooky’s
gas-pipe for greenhorns to tarnish.
You’ve known her hot and cold.
You would choose her from among many.
You know her by her bias, and by her exact error at 300, and
by the deep scar at the small, by the fair flaw in the grain,
above the lower sling-swivel–
but leave it under the oak.

Slung so, it swings its full weight. With you going blindly on
all paws, it slews its whole length, to hang at your bowed neck
like the Mariner’s white oblation.
You drag past the four bright stones at the turn of Wood

It is not to be broken on the brown stone under the gracious
It is not to be hidden under your failing body.
Slung so, it troubles your painful crawling like a fugitive’s

David Jones

There is nothing else like David Jones' epic poem of war 'In Parenthesis'.  It was written in 1937, looking back at the horrors of WWI, as WW2 loomed ahead.   David Jones was wounded in the Battle of the Somme, so I thought it appropriate to post a fragment of a much neglected poem just as we are all remembering the anniversary.  

David Jones was both a poet and a painter and he was one of the wartime proteges of a wealthy philanthropist called Helen Sutherland who owned a mansion overlooking Lake Ullswater and at various times hosted poets and artists such as Norman Nicholson, Winifred and Ben Nicholson (no relation), Kathleen Raine, Elizabeth Jennings and David Jones.  David was in poor health;  he suffered from 'nerves' and apparently almost had a breakdown over a bottle of spilt ink in the bedroom of Sutherland's dauntingly exquisite house.

In Parenthesis was broadcast on the BBC Third Programme in 1946.   Recently is has been made into an opera for the Welsh National Opera, broadcast by the BBC, which also made a documentary film about it.  You can just catch it on iPlayer if you click here.   And the poet Owen Sheers made a magical documentary about the poem he calls 'the greatest poem of WWI',  which is also available on iPlayer here. 


Sunday, 17 July 2016

Sunday Book: Dead Babies and Seaside Towns by Alice Jolly

This book arrived on my doorstep (literally – it was too big to go through the letterbox) months ago, at a time when I was overwhelmed with work.  Then the floods wrecked the house and interrupted my life and it is only recently that I have finally opened the covers to read Alice Jolly’s memoir, Dead Babies and Seaside Towns. Since then the book has begun to win awards, including most recently the prestigious PEN Ackerley Prize, beating AA Gill and Adam Mars Jones to the money.

This is a book I’ve been close to.  Alice and I both tutored for the Open University’s creative writing degree course and became friends.  There was other shared experience; I have two stillborn grandchildren and, observing the pain and darkness my children went through with their beautiful dead babies, gave me some tiny morsel of understanding of the rage and grief that Alice was experiencing as she longed for the child she could not have.  No one, who has not experienced it (and even some women claim not to have done so), can imagine the power of the biological urge to have a child, the consuming, savage desire to hold a baby in your arms, feel its soft skin against your own, smell the arresting odour of the newborn.  The pain of loss is crippling, mentally and physically.  It destroys relationships with partners, siblings, relatives and friends.  Alice quotes the poet W.S. Merwin:

‘Your absence has gone through me
like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stiched with its color.’ 

Alice Jolly chronicles the stillbirth of her daughter, subsequent recurrent miscarriages, failed IVFs, the attempts to deal with the mess that is the adoption process in the UK, with great beauty and insight.  I imagined it might be too tragic to read, but it is written with such compassion, and sometimes humour, that it is compulsive.  Yes, sometimes I cried, but often I smiled.  The overwhelming message of the book is Hope, both the abstract emotion and the small, blonde girl whose name it is.  Alice and her husband eventually went to America where surrogacy is both legal and regulated.  Hope’s birth certificate has three names on it; that of the woman who carried her, the woman who donated the egg and Alice herself.  The process was not easily entered into and there was a great deal of legal (and personal) searching by both Alice and her husband before Hope became their daughter.  It probably helped that Alice’s husband, Stephen, is an international lawyer because they were breaking new ground when they brought Hope back to England.  Not until Hope was several months old, and a High Court judge signed off the papers, could Alice and Stephen really be sure that she was legally and absolutely theirs.

Alice is interesting on the subject of memoir; “Although I’m a writer by profession, I have always felt sure that I would never write a memoir.  I do not trust them, never have.  Me-me-me, moi-moi-moi.”  Alice has already written two very accomplished novels published by Simon and Schuster, but distrusts the techniques of fiction in the service of truth.  “When you write a novel you work with chains of cause and effect, moments of resolution where meaning might briefly and brilliantly dazzle through.  Will it be the same if I write a memoir?”   But she has written more than a memoir.  It is a blazing, courageous analysis of motherhood and (almost as an aside) daughterhood. Alice spares herself nothing.  Another of her quotes is from Nietzsche: ‘We have art in order not to die of the truth’.

It is obvious why this book won the PEN Ackerley award – there is nothing else like it. Which was one of the reasons why her agent (who was also mine) and mainstream publishing in general were too nervous to take it on.  Dead Babies and Seaside Towns was crowd-funded through Unbound, which had Paul Kingsnorth's prize-winning, Man Booker listed The Wake last year.  It seems clear that Big Publishing had better get its act together when it comes to new directions in contemporary literature or it will find when it eventually gets to the harbour that the tide has gone out and the boat has long gone.

Alice Jolly  is crowd-funding her 3rd novel 'Between the Regions of Kindness' which you subscribe to via Unbound by clicking here.   I've read the manuscript and, believe me, it's brilliant!   

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Tuesday Poem: Serena Williams reads Maya Angelou 'And Still I Rise'

On the big, emotional occasions it seems that only poetry can properly express how we feel. Weddings, funerals, births, love affairs, despair and disaster all merit a verse or two - even team sports find a rousing chant useful to get the adrenaline flowing.  People who might never read a volume of poetry themselves will trawl the internet and find one particular poem that says exactly the emotions they can’t express. Or they might write one, discovering a creativity they didn’t know they had.  So it was particularly wonderful to hear Serena Williams, one of the greatest athletes in sport today (perhaps ever), read a moving and highly political poem by Maya Angelou, when she won the Wimbledon singles championship for the 7th time (and the doubles for the sixth) at the age of 35.  It’s a very beautiful poem, and particularly relevant for everything that is going on in the USA at the present time.

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
'Cause I walk like I've got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I'll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don't you take it awful hard
'Cause I laugh like I've got gold mines
Diggin' in my own back yard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I'll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I've got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history's shame
I rise
Up from a past that's rooted in pain
I rise
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

© Maya Angelou
And Still I Rise, 1978, Random House USA

Want to hear Serena Williams read it?

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Tuesday Poem: Dear Mr Gove, poems by Kim Moore and Pauline Yarwood

Dear Mr Gove

dear Mr Gove today I taught the children not to sit like bags of small
potatoes in their chairs I taught them how to breathe with their bellies
like babies do when they are sleeping we pretended we were balloons
of different colours filling up with air dear Mr Gove we played long note
beat that we looked up who holds the world record for the longest note
it was a clarinet player who managed to play for one minute and thir-
teen seconds without taking a breath we held our notes as if we were
monks singing a drone in a cathedral where the roof rises like a giant
wing against the sky dear Mr Gove today the whole class played hot
cross buns we talked about the great height of the note E we held thin
blue straws between our lips and some of us went on to play an E
and some of us fell towards a low A with its ledger line hovering above
it and another piercing its poor head dear Mr Gove we are brilliant at
trying some of us know what crotchets and minims are and we will
know this all our lives but some of us still call them black and white
notes we make up sayings to help us read like Elephants Go Bananas
Doing Flips like Electric Green Brains Dance Forever we play the riff
to Eye of The Tiger and sing along in the voices of tigers if tigers had
voices like ours today Mrs Johnson forgot how to play a D and Harry
told her which valves to press I do not know how to measure this Mr
Gove please send help and there is also the problem of Matthew who
cannot read or write too well but who can play Mary Had A Little
Lamb with perfect pitch there is the problem of his smile afterwards
and how we write this down today we watched the muppets singing
Bohemian Rhapsody for no good reason other than that it was fun and
 while I am confessing small transgressions last week we watched Mr
Bean play an invisible drum kit the children have been playing an invis-
ible drum kit in the playground dear Mr Gove I did not stop them
today we talked about the muscles in the lip and tongue we did not
know we had control of so many muscles we tried to look like musi-
cians Mr Gove please help us

copyright Kim Moore, from The Art of Falling, Seren Books, 2015

This poem was written when Michael Gove was in charge of children's education and Kim Moore was doing her best to teach them music.  She is a 'compelling poet', with a unique voice.  The Art of Falling is the poetry collection to read this year.  You can find out more on  her website and blog here. 
Kim and Pauline at Kendal Poetry Festival
Kim Moore lives in Barrow in Furness and was one of the two poets, the other was Pauline Yarwood, who organised the new Kendal Poetry Festival.  They honourably refrained from reading their own work, so I asked them both for a poem for the blog! 

Pauline Yarwood also lives in the north of England and is a ceramicist as well as a poet.  She runs the Brewery Poets in Kendal and  has had work recently published in The Firecrane, The Interpreter’s House and The North. I thought the poem below really captured the precarious mood of the moment, particularly the lines, 'a single thread holding/ the ruptured centre'. 

Across the door frame 
caught by slantwise sun
a rainbow cobweb stretched from
corner to corner
a single thread holding                                                                                                             
the ruptured centre

up on the fell
the mewing of a young buzzard
and the sound of a single gun shot

in our cities the young,

 copyright Pauline Yarwood

Both poems reproduced with permission. 

Kim Moore is running a residential poetry course, the Poetry Carousel,  in the Lake District from the 16th to the 19th August, with Clare Shaw, William Letford and Tsead Bruinja.  If anyone is interested they can get in touch with the Abbot Hall Hotel, Grange Over Sands on 015395 32896  or contact Kim through her website. 

Today I'm also blogging over at Authors Electric on the Referendum and how Brexit might affect writers. 

Monday, 4 July 2016

Reading Nancy Mitford at Mitford Manor

It's a strange experience reading a book in its intended setting.  I've been back at Asthall Manor, the fictional 'Alconleigh' where Nancy Mitford set her autobiographical novels the Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate.  I've been sleeping in a room she used as a child and looking at the paintings she decorated the walls with - now crumbling and fading behind perspex covers.

And I've been shown the 'Hons' cupboard' that occupies a central place in the books. Admission was granted only if you had the 'Hon' in front of your name ie, if your father was a Lord of something or other.  Favourite people were sometimes made honorary Hons.  The Mitfords were all Hons.

"The Hons' meeting place was a disused linen cupboard at the top of the house, small, dark and intensely hot . . . Here we would sit, huddled up on the slatted shelves and talk for hours about life and death."   - and sex, as the younger girls interrogated their older siblings in the hope of acquiring forbidden knowledge. The Hons' meeting place is still an airing cupboard and the central heating pipes still run through it. Apparently the Mitford girls used to lie on the slatted shelves among the linen on cold days because it was the warmest room in the house.

The books are still very funny, (I re-read them both while I was there) but she probably wouldn't be allowed to get away with it now - basing the characters so firmly on her relatives and friends.  They must have read the books with a shudder - Nancy's pen is merciless.  My favourite character was always 'the Bolter', based on Lady Idina Sackville (a cousin of Vita Sackville-West) who was a member of the Happy Valley set and married and divorced 5 times at a period in history when once would have been scandalous enough. She also features in Evenly Waugh's Vile Bodies.  Lady Idina's 3rd husband, the Earl of Errol, was murdered in a famous crime that inspired the film White Mischief. They had one daughter who was brought up by Idina's relatives and inspired the character of Fanny, the Bolter's daughter, who is the narrator in Nancy Mitford's novels.

Asthall Manor is very beautiful, though in a very comfortable, homey kind of way.  Outside, the walls are drowned in climbing roses that drift petals and scent through the open windows. Inside , it's a family home with piles of books and saggy sofas. You're quite likely to come upon a cat in a basket! This is the wonderful Ziggy.

It's been a strange and wonderful week.  On Tuesday I went to Carlisle Cathedral to listen to Carol Ann Duffy, Jackie Kay, Imtiaz Dharker and Gillian Clarke reading poetry.  On Wednesday I got up at dawn and put on a posh frock to go down to London to go to a friend's Henley Regatta party. Then a train to Asthall Manor for another look at the On Form exhibition that features some of Neil's work. Finally home at the end of the week for the launch of Jacci Bulman's poetry collection 'The Whole Day Through from Waking', published by Cinnamon Press.  All very celebratory and a good cheering up from all the doom and gloom around at the moment. Plus Wimbledon on the telly and virtual champagne and strawberries!

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Tuesday Poem Review: Kendal Poetry Festival

I've had a fabulous weekend at the Kendal Poetry Festival - one of the Lake District's newest literature festivals, put together by poets Kim Moore and Pauline Yarwood.  I'm completely exhausted because this was one festival where I wanted to spend every minute I could glued to my chair, and it was a thirty mile each way journey through the Cumbrian fells to get there!
Kim on the left and Pauline on the right
The range of poetry was fantastic and it was good to see so many young poets, just starting out on their journeys, taking part.  The Dove Cottage Young Poets were involved in almost every event, reading alongside the household names.  Believe me they are frighteningly good!  18 year old Hannah Hodgson was the Young Poet in Residence,

and there was also a Young Musician in Residence, trumpet player David Griffiths.

There was strong showing from Florence Jones, Eleanor Miekle, Elizabeth Briggs, Bethany Latham, Emily Humble and Chimwemwe Chirwa. I expect we'll be hearing some of these names again in the future.  The encouragement of young talent is one of the most valuable things that the Wordsworth Trust is doing.
Some of the headline acts, Clare Shaw, Andrew Forster, Mir Mahfuz Ali, Fiona Sampson
Hilda Sheehan, Helen Mort, Greta Stoddard and Ann Sansom
The first event was led by Andrew Forster and Jane Routh.  Nature Poetry in a Time of Crisis was very well named on the day the English voted for Brexit. There was a fascinating discussion on the place of Nature - or Eco - poetry in the current world and Andrew read a beautiful selection from his latest collection, Homecoming.

Helen Mort read from her knock-out collection No Map Could Show Them, just published. The poems are inspired by the history of female mountain climbers, who are sometimes metaphors for something else.  Helen is a brilliant and entertaining reader as well as one of the most accomplished contemporary poets.  She was reading alongside Mir Mahfuz Ali, a Bengali poet living in the UK, whose poetry is unashamedly political, addressing violent events in the Middle East and closer to home - events he has first-hand knowledge of, since a bullet damaged his vocal chords.  His first collection Midnight, Dhaka, has had brilliant reviews.

On Saturday there were writing workshops with Ann and Peter Sansom of the poetry business, who also read together in the evening, and an open mike event hosted by the Dove Cottage Young Poets. One of my favourite readings was the afternoon session with Clare Shaw and Hilda Sheehan.  Hilda reduced the audience to helpless laughter and Clare moved us to tears.  They are both fabulous performers - totally owning their work and pitching it to the audience with expert, confident delivery. Hilda Sheehan has a new collection out, The Night my Sister Went to Hollywood (Cultured Llama Press) and Clare Shaw's latest collection is Head On  published by Bloodaxe.   The night finished with a lively open mike slot at the Brewery Arts Centre - Verbalise -  another event sold out!
Hilda Sheehan

Clare Shaw
Sunday dawned wet and cold, but the trek to Kendal was still worth it.  Hilda ran a workshop in the sculpture exhibition at Abbot Hall, working around the surreal art work of Laura Ford.  Then Fiona Sampson talked about her research into the life and work of Mary Shelley - not the cipher who was married to Percy Bysshe - but a feisty, brilliant girl whose writings would change the literary world. Frankenstein is as profound and relevant now as it was when it was published.
Greta Stoddard
The main reading in the afternoon was given by Fiona Sampson reading from her latest collection The Catch, but the show was stolen by Greta Stoddard who stood up and read quietly, seamlessly with hardly any comment or explanation, through poems from Alive Alive O - an exploration of grief that is both moving and uplifting at the same time.  Her work has been shortlisted for the Forward Prize and the Costa Book Award and I suspect she's going to be collecting more prizes in the near future.  If you haven't encountered her work before (like me) then it's well worth seeking out.

And then it was stumbling out into the grey damp evening to find my way home, my head full of words and buzzing with new ideas and my wallet empty after the temptations of the book stall and the pens and notebooks and other essential poetry-phanalia.  I hope that Kim and Pauline get the funding to run a festival again next year, because this one was a knockout!  Just what we needed in this rural backwater, where you have to travel a long way to listen to poetry.  I recommend getting your tickets early for next year's event as the readings sold out very quickly this time.

Next week I'll be featuring poems by Kim Moore and Pauline Yarwood, who modestly refrained from reading anything of their own all weekend.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

The Necessity of Kindness

 The events of the past few days make one nostalgic for the relative innocence of the 60s and 70s, where young people wanted to 'make love not war' and believed they could.  But, while we were trying to seduce the world with music, cannabis and flowers, the corporate crocodiles were sharpening their teeth and claws and preparing to become social, economic and political assassins. Which goes some way to explain the mess we're in.

People are not less kind than they were before Thursday's referendum.  The result has simply given expression to what people have been feeling for a long time.  Like lancing a boil, it will be messy for a while, but the underlying condition needs to be dealt with. We must not demonise those who voted in a different way to ourselves, or blame the Leave voters for their wish to inflict harm on an establishment that refused to listen to their distress.  In Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, there's a moment when the monster cries in agony "I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend." Misery, anger, frustration and inequality, fueled by Austerity, provoked by Corporate Capitalism at its worst, produced the referendum result.  Now, without recriminations, we have to find a constructive way forward.

From a Green, environmental point of view we need to get back to smaller, locally based economies - trucking food and goods across the world ruins the environment, is expensive and wasteful, and does no one any good except the corporate interests who benefit. We have to think positively about growing our local economies and making sure that the vulnerable in our society are properly cared for.  During the past two decades particularly, this has not happened and these sectors have been seriously neglected. But this more domestic approach to politics shouldn't mean that we're not also continually looking outward, and trying to be compassionate members of the world community. After all, no referendum on earth can take us out of that! We still depend, absolutely, on each other.

I believe in absolute equality, regardless of gender or ethnicity.  As for religion, provided your beliefs don't involve harming anyone, you're welcome to them. And I believe passionately in keeping our doors open, while there is any food on the table at all, for anyone who needs it more than me.  Most of us have too much stuff, we eat too much, drink too much - we could share more and we have to in such an unequal world.  The world we're looking at is not the same one we were living in even 20 years  ago.  There are big decisions to take, some of which are going to be painful.  We have to think about spending money on the necessities of existence, education, health care, new green infrastructure, rather than weapons to wage wars that create more refugees, and more misery. Climate Change has become one of the biggest threats to life on this planet (and that includes us) and solutions are going to entail more sacrifices to the comfortable way of life we've become accustomed to. Like Dr Frankenstein, we have created monsters and let them loose in the world.

But in the immediate moment, the reality is that we are now in the politics of nihilism, which involves tearing down everything in the the hope that something better emerges.  Let's all work together to make sure it does.  We need a really strong vision and a collective will to get us out of here. The squabbling among the spoiled brats on the front benches, on both sides of the house, disgusts me and has seriously dented what confidence I ever had in the political process.  Meanwhile, let us treat each other with kindness.  We're going to need good friends and neighbours in the days ahead.