christopher james

Poems and prattle

The Boss at 70: When I was kidnapped by Bruce Springsteen fans for a lost weekend in the north

It’s a cold, Saturday night in March, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 1996. My flatmates – medics and geography students with exams approaching, are making pasta in their dressing gowns or watching Friends on TV, their revision notes resting on their laps. As an English student, I have a somewhat more relaxed schedule. But this evening there is renewed sense of urgency. Tonight, Bruce Springsteen is in town.

But this is not the barnstorming Bruce of Born in the USA and Badlands, all chiming electric guitars and thunderous drums. This is The Ghost of Tom Joad acoustic tour. He’s picking up where he left off with the Nebraska album: mournful downbeat ballads inspired by the lost souls of the American south and Mexican border; Steinbeck anti-heroes. Still Bruce is Bruce and I’m drawn like a moth to the light.

It all began five years earlier. Babysitting for the neighbours’ kids, I was rummaging through their tapes, and stumbled on Born in the USA and Dark Side of the Moon. I had heard of both, but had listened to neither. While my fourteen-year-old self found himself impatient with the celestial space-rock of the Floyd’s album, what punched home was the whip snap guitar, the howl and bear-like roar of The Boss. While I was later to discover his soulful depths, the folk, the storytelling, like millions of others, I was lured in by the big, bright, bold production, the Chuck Berry-like torrent of lyrics and the lock-tight band.

It was the start of a journey that took me from boy to a man. I dropped the needle on Born to Run when I got my GCSE results. I prepped for my driving test by listening to Racing in the Street (I would have been better off swatting up on my highway code) I snogged to The River and drive through France with the Live album ringing in my headphones. At one point my lovely American aunt takes me to his front drive, where I collect a pebble and put it in my pocket (my little brother later lobs it in the sea…). By the time his flawed twin albums Human Touch and Lucky Town arrived, I was loyal enough to look beyond their weaknesses and appreciate that even below-par Bruce was above-par everyone else. Which takes us up to ‘96.

Approaching the end of my third year, all three of my student loans have now evaporated in a cloud of Newcastle Brown Ale, second hand books and cheese and pickle stotties. I have about fifty pounds to make it to the end of term, still a couple of weeks away. My credit card is lying in two pieces at the bottom of an HSBC wastepaper basket after it was neatly snipped in half in front of me.

Bruce collage

All the evidence says I should stay in. Instead I grab my coat, withdraw all my earthly wealth and head down to the City Hall. Declining a hundred-pound ticket from a tout, I shuffle to the back of the returns queue and pray to the angels of E-Street to let me in. I’m with a couple from Manchester, Dave and Sue. Between them, they carry a flask, packed lunch and a vinyl copy of The River from 1980, hoping for a signature. They saw Bruce last night and loved it so much they drove across the country on the off chance of getting a ticket for tonight. We hang around for twenty minutes exchanging Bruce-lore, all of us quietly aware that the chances of someone deciding not to go and see Bruce Springsteen and stay in and watch Friends instead, are quite slim. That is until the president of the Bruce Springsteen fan club ambles up and waves three tickets like winning lottery tickets. At first we think he’s gloating, until he says: ‘Face value is fine,’ he adds casually. ‘Who’s a three?’

‘We’re a three,’ Dave says immediately, grabbing his wife and me, and holding us up by our collars to demonstrate the fact. The deal is swiftly done and we glide into the venue, unable to believe our luck. Bruce is reliably magnificent, playing an all acoustic set of Mexican border songs peppered with dramatic renderings from his back catalogue. His new version of Darkness On the Edge of Town now sounds like Pinball Wizard. He essays a blistering slide guitar version of Born in the USA, its fist punching chorus entirely absent. When someone calls for Thunder Road, he growls: ‘I ‘aint playing that old bastard.’ With a ponytail, goatee and torn white t-shirt, he looks more like a pirate shipwrecked at Whitley Bay than a millionaire from New Jersey.

I get chatting to the fans on my other side, two blokes and their sister, all from Liverpool, who tell me their allegiance is divided between Bruce and Jackson Browne. ‘When I listen to Jackson,’ says one of the brothers, ‘I kind of feel like I’m cheating on my wife.’ They ask me what I’m doing here on my own, and I tell them the smallest white lie: that I’m covering the gig for the local paper.

‘A journalist!’ one of them exclaims. ‘Flippin ‘eck, we’ve got a journalist here! Mind your Ps and Qs Deborah.’ I daren’t tell them that it’s just the student paper.

After the gig, they whisk me across town to a tiny club where, in a surreal twist, Denny Laine, the Moody Blues and Wings’ guitarist is just finishing a gig. One of the brothers pushes me to the front. ‘Hey Denny, he says, ‘we’ve got the press here! Will you have a word?’ Forced to improvise on the spot, and without so much as a pen and paper for a prop, I tell him I love Again and Again and Again, an obscure late Wings’ song he wrote. He seems to like this, but I quickly realise it’s not a question. ‘Er, what songs are you playing on the tour?’ I blunder. ‘The ones I just played,’ he replies. I retreat to the bar.

The next thing I know, I’m in a new-build house in a village outside Newcastle being plied with more booze. We sing Jackson Browne, Bruce and Neil Young until the small hours. I’m younger than the rest of them by a good ten years, but they seem to have adopted me. ‘How come you know all this old stuff?’ Deborah ask me. ‘Well you see,’ I explain, ‘there was this stack of cassettes…’

When I wake in the morning dribbling into the grey carpet of a home office. A cup of tea is delivered, and I’m informed we’re heading up to Edinburgh.  I wonder whether I’ve been kidnapped. If I have, then I’ve developed a serious case of Stockholm syndrome.

Over the next 24 hours, I’m driven to the Scottish capital, plied with more booze, bought a ticket for Bruce’s Edinburgh show (‘We’re earning, you’re not’ they tell me) and taken on a pub crawl. We stay over at Deborah’s house. Next day, I’m deposited on a grey street in Newcastle with a telephone number scratched on a piece of paper, watching their car disappear around the corner. Two Bruce gigs and about fifteen pints for twenty-five quid. This is the sort of thing that only happens at Bruce Springsteen gigs.

I can’t help but feel it’s the sort of thing the man himself would approve of. Ordinary decent people sharing what they have and looking out for each other, bonded by a common love for music. Bruce keeps adding new chapters to his story and everyone else’s. His latest album, Western Stars, is a jewel. But for my part, I still treasure those two lost days of adventure, travelling up the beautiful Northumbria coast into Scotland, stepping out of my own life for a little while, with the windows down and sound of Bruce’s voice and guitar filling the sky.

Happy birthday, Bruce. Thanks for the music and thanks to your great fans too.

The Penguin Diaries by Christopher James, 65 sonnets about Captain Scott’s last expedition, is available now.

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When the going is good: momentum in poetry and what to do with it

A few months ago I wrote a blog about whether it was possible to retire from poetry. I was reflecting on that sense of the uphill struggle – that feeling that you’re writing some great things, but for whatever reason they aren’t connecting. The reasons could be manifold. It could be that you’ve lost perspective – the cure is always to read more; young, old, or dead poets, it doesn’t matter – just immerse yourself in something new and different. It will restore your sense of what’s good. You often do not apply your usually reliable critical judgement and reader’s ear to your own writing. Revisiting your work after reading others’ best work can be a revelation. Weaknesses previously quite invisible suddenly reveal themselves.

It could be that your poems are too niche (I wrote 65 poems about polar explorers and expected them to sell like Death of a Naturalist for goodness sake). It could be that you’ve forgotten how to ‘socialise’ your poem – something Andrew Motion encouraged me to do when he taught me briefly at UEA. How do you let your reader in? How hard to you expect them to work? How will you reward them for their efforts?

For whatever reason, everyone hits that brick wall at some point – that feeling that no one’s listening. Simon Armitage, famously described this state as ‘talking down a toilet.’ And coming from one of the most gifted and popular poets in the land, this was depressing indeed. He said this at a time when poetry was more marginalised than it is now – sales of poetry are at an all time high. Now, as Poet Laureate, he can hardly quibble about lack of audience. His excellent poems deserve to be read and I’m pleased that they are.

But there’s a quite different state to that feeling of dejection. It’s called momentum. Suddenly things start happening for you. There’s an unexpected invitation to read. There’s a competition win, or a good placing in a major competition. You land a poem in a magazine like Poetry London or the Rialto. You finally get that offer from the publisher. You’re asked to write an article or run a prestigious workshop.

It’s a giddy feeling and I was lucky enough to experience it. In March 2009 I won the National Poetry Competition for my poem Farewell to the Earth. The incredible shock and delight of the recognition was intoxicating. As was the champagne. The prize giving at a London club was deliriously enjoyable. Gryff Rhys Jones was there with a camera crew and interviewed me. He asked me how I started off writing poetry. I told him I thought it was a symptom of adolescence. ‘What,’ he said. ‘Like spots?’

Merseybeat legend, Brian Patten, presented the prize and sent me a postcard the next day of him and Christopher Reid sitting in a tin bath. There was an article about me and my poem in The Guardian. Someone made me a Wiki page. I had barely banked the cheque (not lost it on the Tube home as Carol Ann Duffy did when she won the NPC) when I received a commission to write a poem for the Tate based on a First World War painting. I was invited to a party on the South Bank by Alan Yentob and shook Valerie Eliot’s hand. The winning poem ended up in the Forward Book of Poetry and the high point was an offer from Arc Publications to take my second collection. There was nothing more I could wish for. I’d made it.

Christopher James and Brian

Then? Nothing. 2010 was my slowest ever year for poetry. The Arc collection was taking much longer than expected to appear. My previous book had appeared in 2006 and I had a pile of poetry that was gathering dust. The initial euphoria of the win had worn off. I was still plugging away at work doing exactly what I did before. I went to a few readings and felt a modicum of resentment. One poetry publisher I met at a festival looked me up and down and said: ‘Oh, so you’re Christopher James’ and walked away. I’m not sure what I expected to happen. TV? Radio? An offer to become a poetry lecturer or critic? Perhaps my expectations were set too high. This was poetry after all. Remember the rules – no one gets rich on it. You can dine out on it, but someone’s got to pay the bill.

Things picked up again – I’ve some other collections. There were other wins and enjoyable festivals, readings and workshops. Fortunately I wrote some more good poems too. But I never gain quite got that extraordinary feeling of being plucked from ‘the crowd’ that ‘flowed over London Bridge, so many.’

Just this last month or two, I’ve had a rash of successes. First place in the Crabbe/Suffolk Poetry Society competition, judged by Tiffany Atkinson, second place in the McLellan, judged by Sean O’Brien and I’m shortlisted for the Wells one too – judged by Mr Armitage himself. I’ve started to get that tingling feeling of momentum again. Except this time I’m wise enough to manage my expectations, to enjoy success when it comes and appreciate any good things for what they are: a bonus. The real reward of poetry is realising an idea – and seeing it, miraculously on the page in front of you. Paul Muldoon once said: ‘Most poets can achieve take off. Most can keep a poem at cruising altitude but very few know how to bring them into land.’

‘Sing us an old song’ – Review of Before by Boo Hewerdine

A new album by Boo Hewerdine is always an occasion for bell-ringing, carousing and general rejoicing. In short, it’s something to look forward to. ‘Before’ is no exception. Except ‘looking forward to’ is perhaps the wrong phrase, because this is another impeccable collection of those irresistibly old-fashioned songs in which Boo excels.

He admits as much himself in ‘Old Songs,’ in praise of the ancient melodies that had families gathered in parlours singing with grandad, a pint of stout and a woodbine. ‘Sing us an old song,’ he begs, ‘one we all know, that lives in our memories from so long ago.’ It’s a lament for a simpler, happier time when families didn’t disappear into their devices and Netflix box sets on a Friday evening. Not only does it seem like it was written about the 1930s, it sounds like it was written then too. What makes Boo’s music so audacious is that he attempts (and usually succeeds) in creating brand new classics.

There are two theories. Either he has a stash of Sinatra and Nat King Cole albums that no one else has heard, and is slowly releasing the songs, or else he has an ear trumpet that reaches all the way back to 1937. His ability to transport you back to the golden age of popular song is consistently astonishing.

Last Rays of the Sun is a nostalgic, elegiac reflection on ageing, with toy piano accompaniment. ‘We see true beauty in the last rays of the sun.’ It’s one of those luminous, mid-pace numbers that Boo has made his own. His McCartney-esque melody is a counterpoint to the gloomy ruminations, the metronomic ticking in the background reminding us of the unstoppable march of time.

One of the many delicious quirks of this album are the extra tracks between the songs – eccentric instrumentals that foreshadow the main songs. For example, the one before Before is called Before Before. It’s a little confusing, but you get the idea. These are recorded in bizarre, creaky, arrangements on what sound like Japanese banjos and toy pianos. They’re like those odd, lean-to sheds that are squeezed into the gaps between houses. My favourite is Prepared, a funky, lo-fi interlude that threatens to turn into something interesting before vanishing into the ether.

If the opening track is a reflection on advancing years, then Imaginary Friends is a bittersweet look back at childhood spent on bicycles riding ‘by the old canal.’ It conjures images of a lonely existence, but with the consolation of a vivid imagination. It’s graced with beautiful instrumental passages, descending lines and unusual instrumentation.

Silhouette is the first of the true classics, beginning with a delicate, timpani-like accompaniment, rather like opening a music box. The lyric is masterful ‘When shadows are your own company, then you’re a silhouette.’ While classic sounding, the melodies are genuinely affecting, reliably inventive and freshly minted.

The title song, Before, continues the purple patch. Except this time, we’re not merely returning to the early 20th century. Instead Boo transports us back several million years ago, to an unspoilt planet Earth untroubled by human meddling. ‘Come with me and understand, this was never our own land.’ It’s a brilliantly original take on conservation, climate change and a warning against hubris. We weren’t around for billions of years and the Earth did just fine without us.

Reno is something of a departure; a low-key country balled, complete with mournful dobro. ‘Don’t go to Reno’ is Boo’s advice – ‘you won’t come back this time.’ By the resigned tone of his singing, he doesn’t believe you’ll follow his advice. He knows you’ll be led into temptation.

Undoubtedly the jewel of the collection is Starlight, a song he had already gifted to Eddie Reader. She delivers an ethereally beautiful cover; yet Boo’s stripped back version is arguably better. His voice is high and keening and the melody utterly mesmerising. If it found its way into a Disney film it would earn him a million pounds.

Wild Honey is another magical tune, with fragmented poetic lyrics, but like so many of the songs on Before, it’s tinged with melancholy. That’s perhaps why the optimistic, defiant sounding ‘I Wish I Had Wings’ is such a welcome closer. I imagined hundreds of synchronised swimmers performing to it, in a lavish finale to an MGM musical. ‘I know these words aren’t much, but I don’t care/I can hear an orchestra it’s in the air.’

One day, these new songs will become old songs and people will appreciate more than they do now.  Bravo Boo Hewerdine on a first-class return.

Before is released in September.

‘O beware my lord of jealousy’

Review of Othello, East Town Park, Haverhill, 22 July 2019

Outspoken Theatre notches up another notable success with its atmospheric, emotionally-charged production of Othello. Under the watchful eye of the local ravens, East Town Park becomes alternately Venice and Cyprus for the evening, while the grisly events unfold.

In perhaps the most heart-breaking of his four major tragedies, Shakespeare throws goodness and nobility to the dogs, allowing the scheming, Mephistophelian Iago, to destroy by turns, Othello, Desdemona and Cassio and Emilia. Themes of jealousy, deception, appearance and reality are explored while the characters are steered helplessly to their fate.

Beginning in the warm glow of the early evening sunshine, the love match between Othello and Desdemona is wholly convincing and beautifully played. Emma Letcher gives an ebullient performance as Othello’s lover, bright and resilient in the face of prejudice, cruelty and confusion. She brilliantly overcomes her own father’s Brabantio bigotry, played with an neurotic, nervous energy by Ian Davison

Steve Murray’s depiction of the Moor (more Lawrence of Arabia than Lawrence Fishburne) is a character study in pride, honesty and conviction. His verse speaking is rich and clear and the force and magnetism of his personality is perfectly conveyed.

Alan Davison expertly plays Iago with a grim, gleeful defiance, winning the confidence of those around him by dint of the bludgeoning persistence of his argument and an amusing ability to be seemingly everywhere at once. Engineering the events almost like a playwright himself, we see him chip away at Othello’s belief in his wife fidelity, while like a cat with a mouse, toying with Cassio at the same time. Of course Iago is motivated by jealousy too – of Othello’s stature and natural gifts for leadership, love and friendship.

Tom Cross’ Cassio is a joy – a genial and generous piece of acting that makes the friendship between him and Othello wholly believable and particularly affecting. When he disgraces himself in a drunken brawl, we feel deeply for them both. Naturally Iago is the one who persuades Cassio to indulge, despite Cassio’s protestation: ‘I have very poor and unhappy brains for drinking.’

Othello is a particularly frustrating play to watch; Shakespeare builds huge sympathy for his characters before setting them up for their fall. Each time we hear ‘honest Iago’ we feel a helpless anger and pity. As director David Hart points out in his excellent programme notes, audiences have been known to call out to the characters to warn them of the trap they are falling into. But Iago’s manipulative powers are unstoppable: ‘Beware the green-eyed monster, which doth mock the meat it feeds on!’

The consolation of course is the fine poetry conjured by the jealously and madness as Othello believes he has lost his beloved . ‘My heart is turned to stone,’ he confesses. ‘I strike it and it hurts my hand.’  Elsewhere he looks up to an unfeeling God: ‘All my fond loves thus do I blow to heaven.’

Perhaps the performance of the night belongs to Lorraine Mason’s magnificent Emilia, the long-suffering wife of Iago and confidante of Desdemona. The realism of her anguish and dismay is breathtaking as the action plays out. In one of the play’s most affecting scenes, Emilia prepares Desdemona for bed before the murderous denouement begins. The plaintive balled Desdemona sings ‘willow, willow, willow’ is a lament for both lost love and lost lives. It’s desperately sad.

As ever with Shakespeare’s tragedies, the final act is a delicious bloodbath, expertly executed here with murders in the dark, swinging lanterns, the inevitable cries of ‘I am murdered!’ before the Venetians arrive to tie up loose ends and mourn their dead.

There are more cheerful things to do on a summer’s evening in Haverhill, but there can be few that are so rewarding and good for the soul. Bravo to Outspoken Theatre company on their ambitious and accomplished production.

Remaining performances: Thursday, 7.30pm, Stoke by Clare Lion; Saturday, Rolfe’s Farm, Wickhambrook. Tickets are available on the gate at all venues.

The First Canal Boat in Space

Like a lolly stick balanced on the Ariane,

we clung to the sink, clutching the Davy lamp,

waiting to be flipped to the heavens.

During powered ascent, we stowed the pot plants

and lashed our bicycles to the taff-rail.

On a slow boat to Pluto, we dreamt of cowslip,

heather and The Black Lion at Froghall.

Safely in orbit we stayed below decks,

sipping tea and singing space shanties.

We survived on air trapped in the bilge.

 

A coil of wet rope on the prow,

we bumped through the cosmos, drifting

through wormholes, navigating each

like a series of locks. The stars were like

phosphorescence in the water.

Rudderless, we woke to find our tiller

floating above the deck. We retrieved a chart

from the monkey box and found a safe berth

on Phobos, the small moon of Mars,

our boat-hook finding purchase in a crater.

 

Losing power at Neptune, we traced

the problem to a blockage in the remote greaser,

flicking open the quick release weed hatch.

Now leaking oil we prepared for re-entry,

securing the saucepans and Toby Jugs.

Parachute deployed, we splashed down in the marina

at Great Haywood, sending shockwaves

down the Trent and Mersey. On the rescue boat,

there was loose talk of ticker tape parades,

and the front cover of Canal Boat Monthly.

Scott, Shackleton and the emperors of the ice

In the weekend news it was marvellous to see the charmingly amateurish drawings of penguins by Captain Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton. Saved from a skip in 2007, they have been acquired and preserved by the redoubtable Scott Polar Research Institute.

Sketched in chalk during public lectures in Manchester, Scott’s effort (1904) is slightly more accomplished than Shackleton’s (1906) revealing the latter was perhaps a better leader than artist. Scott, whose wife was the acclaimed sculptor, Kathleen Scott, meanwhile reveals a light comic touch. His penguin has a knowing look; a certain guileless savoir faire. Shackleton’s penguin appears to be trying to bring up a belch having consumed one herring too many. It is contemplating its tummy with something approaching self-reproach.

Penguin sketches

Penguins, of course, were the object of one of the expeditions most notorious episodes: the magnificent folly of Winter Journey. Even now, commentators question what possessed Scott to permit Bowers, Cherry-Garrard and Wilson to head into the depths of the Antarctic Winter to collect Emperor Penguin eggs from Cape Crozier. Thought to contain vital evolutionary evidence, the trio endured temperatures of minus 70 during to find the eggs. Their safe return, with the specimens, albeit as emaciated scarecrows, is one of the great tales of survival.

THE JOURNEY

i.m. Apsley Cherry-Garrard

Like the Magi, the three of you followed

the bright eye of Jupiter. Pitching in the dark,

chipping open your sleeping bags, you were

the suffering scribe. In your spectacles, still

clutching your diary, Cherry, you lay awake,

listening to Bowers snore and Wilson pray.

This was your winter journey, your biggest test,

to Cape Crozier to trace the origins of life.

Lost In the pressure, where the frozen sea

buckled up against the shore, you almost gave in.

Then you saw them: the penguins holding their

winter vigil on the ice. You stashed their eggs

in your mittens only for the tent to be swept away,

leaving the three of you singing hymns in the snow.

 

The penguin sketches, preserved only in chalk dust, are magical connections to the heroic age of polar exploration. Their playfulness also reminds us of the good humour and wide-eyed optimism that lay at the heart of their great enterprises, a fact which is often eclipsed by po-faced post mortems and ceaseless raking over of tragedy on the ice.

I have a singular interest in the story in that I recently published a collection of 65 sonnets about Captain Scott’s final expedition. The Penguin Diaries tells the whole story of expedition with one poem dedicated to each of the men on the Terra Nova Expedition.

Penguins were a constant feature of the frozen odyssey, appearing at the men’s side during scientific work as well as on their dinner plates.

PENGUIN STEW

i.m. W.W.Archer 

Portly, standing to attention on the ice,

you walked through the wrong door

and stepped onto the deck of history.

But who could forget your penguin stew?

The birds were freshly stolen from the floe,

each one, like you, a retired waiter

in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Still,

years later, they would talk of that Christmas,

nineteen-ten, The Terra Nova held fast

in the pack, sledge flags hung like bunting

above the table. You served up mutton,

asparagus, plum pudding; more penguin.

Later, Fry’s chocolate on your chin,

you sang them All Aboard for Blanket Bay.

 

Herbert Ponting, the talented photographer found them the perfect subject for his superb compositions, capturing such iconic moments as the penguin inspecting tins of Golden Syrup.

 

PRINTS

i.m. Herbert Ponting

You made them ghosts before their time

silver figures on the pack ice, like chess men

scattered across a tabletop; that year

you banished rainbows, your lens like a moonstone

impressing their spirits on the glass.

You established your aesthetic in a soft hat,

goggles and frozen moustache. Yours was

the all-seeing eye, the Terra Nova in the distance,

the dog in the mouth of a gramophone

and Scott in his study, plotting his fate.

You watched their prints disappear south

and would not look up at the copper moon.

In the darkroom, you printed the blankness

of midnight across the great white silence.

 

The discovery of the penguin sketches is on a par with the 2014 unearthing of the George Murray Levick’s one-hundred-year-lost notebook. Levick was a surgeon, zoologist and photographer on Scott’s final expedition. The fragile notebook found near the expedition hut during a unusually widespread thaw, recorded the exposure details for his images, principally of penguins. He was among the first to observe and record the ‘astonishing depravity’ of some Adelie penguins, some of whose romantic inclinations were considered so shocking they were excised from his paper, Natural History of the Adelie Penguin which he published on his return.

 

THE PENGUIN DIARIES

i.m. George Murray Levick

They found your notebook bound with ice,

lost the day it slipped from your pocket

by the hut at Cape Evans. No bigger than a pack

of cards, each page was bitten with frost.

Inside, were your doctor’s hieroglyphs, your

poor spelling and the jottings of artist’s mind.

How long did you search for it; mourn the loss

of the exposure times and your notes

on the ungentlemanly conduct of penguins?

Did you ask the others to pace the snow,

retrace your steps to your bunk or accuse

Mears of a practical joke? Or did you wonder

whether it was stolen by a sea bird, removed to

a rookery, it’s pages fed one by one to sea?

 

Today I paid a visit to the Scott Polar Research Institute where alongside the men’s moving letters are the frayed laces from Scott’s Finnesko snowboots. He dipped them in a paraffin and used them as a wick so he could continue writing with a little light and heat.

It’s an astonishing, but oft repeated fact that the bodies of Scott, Wilson and Bowers are still locked in the ice somewhere, perfectly preserved beneath their collapsed tent. Someday the ice will break off from Antarctica and drift across the ocean. Until then, they wait, watched over by the great wooden cross on the hill above McMurdo Station, for their journey to resume.

THE CROSS

i.m. Francis E. C. Davies

We might have guessed that in the end

you would be carpenter of the cross

on Observation Hill. Nine feet of

Jarrah wood, impervious to the wind

you left it as a guard to watch over them

staring out to the Great Ice Barrier.

You measured and chiselled, slotted

and riveted it together, carving the words

chosen by Cherry. But then how to get it there?

It took two days to sledge it up that frozen

Calgary; you were Simon of Cyrene, shouldering

the cross before planting it deep in the rock

and leaving it standing proud, their memory

printed forever on the white Antarctic moon.

Is it possible to retire from poetry?

Is it possible to retire from poetry? Not in the sense of having made enough money from it to retreat to a cottage in Cornwall, because that would be absurd. They used to say only three people made money from poetry: Heaney, Harrison and Hughes. No, I mean in the sense of hanging up your poetic boxing gloves and stepping out of the ring without so much as a glance back at the blood on the canvas.

After all, it happens all the time in the world of sport and the arts. Is there a poetic equivalent of the former ballet dancer with a television career and a work-out video? Not that I can think of. In truth, there are few gigs for the retired poet. Not much in the way of punditry, and memoirs have a niche audience. Of course there is always teaching and criticism but this is usually small beer. And younger poets might take a dim view of a creative writing teacher who is no longer producing the goods. No, most poets stumble ever onwards with a slim collection every few years, often with diminishing returns, as they put further distance between the moment they burst onto the scene as the enfant terrible bearing a clutch of dazzling poems.

Is it a poet’s duty to go on until they can no longer raise the lid of a laptop? There is no shortage of poets who continued to write at the top of their game, and many arguably got better, including Heaney, Walcott and notably, Clive James. Others re-tread old ground or circle in a sort of holding position, reliably producing the same book over and over. Some, you feel have had their moment in the sun.

I’m a typical poet in mid-career, with some early glory (Bridport, 2002) a big win (National Poetry Competition, 2008) and some later success (Oxford Brooks, 2016). But in between there have been plenty of fallow years, quite a few read-to-three-people appearances (including one best-forgotten grey Sunday in Loughborough) and at present I’m starting to feel something akin to poetic fatigue – not writer’s block exactly, just a lack of enthusiasm to enter this year’s round of competitions, work towards another collection or send out to magazines.

It all feels eerily familiar. Then I remembered an encounter with a poet while I was an bright-eyed undergraduate at Newcastle-upon-Tyne. He was a softly spoken, bearded fellow called George, who wrote lyrical nature poetry with a luminous edge, set against the desolate landscapes of Northumbria. He had been published in plenty of reputable magazines, had a good local reputation and a well-reviewed collection behind him. I was sent along by my poetry editor, Ben Rice, (later, author of the virtuoso novella Pobby and Dingan) to snaffle a poem for the university magazine, pigeonhole (no capital letter, of course).

Duly, I bowled up outside the Lit and Phil Society on the Westgate Road, cherry-cheeked from the numbing Tyneside winter. I listened attentively, then, heart pounding, hectored the poet for a poem. Without hesitation he handed over a sheaf of papers and said: ‘Take your pick.’ He astonished me further by telling me he was ‘retiring from poetry.’

I didn’t think such a thing was possible, and even now, I am not entirely certain that it is. He was around the same age I am today (42) and to my eighteen-year-old self it seemed an absurd waste of talent. When I asked him his reasons, he was hesitant in his reply. Clearly he didn’t want to put off a young Turk like me from making his way in poetry, but eventually he gave this explanation: ‘Too many poems in the world, too much disappointment, too little reward and too much else to do.’

Elaborating, he told me he wanted to make the transition back from writer to reader. I’m paraphrasing now, but he said he could never entirely enjoy other people’s work without the nagging sense that he was either in some sort of competition with them (even if they had died a thousand years ago) or that he was in some sense neglecting his own duty to write. When I asked him his plans, he simply shrugged: ‘Just to go back to a normal life I suppose. Read. Go for walks. Go to cinema. Spend time with the family.’

Back to a normal life! Who wanted that? That way, only obscurity and banality lay. They sounded like the words of defeated man. Yet he did not seem bitter in the least. In fact, as he handed over his tattered A4 pages, he had a certain serenity about him. He asked about my own writing and wished me luck with it. He was looking down the other lens of the telescope. I asked for his address to send on his author’s copy, but he shook his head and smiled. ‘No need.’  This was no melodramatic Ziggy Stardust-esque exit from the stage. This was measured, considered retirement.

At the time, of course, I couldn’t relate at all. After all, what could be more important than getting into print and elbowing your way into the literary world? We were being taught by (and liked to think we were hanging out with) Sean O’Brien, W.N. Herbert and Desmond Graham. One of the Merseybeat poets had ventured up the year before, drunk a bottle of wine and snogged a student in the back of a taxi. To me, these figures represented everything I wanted to be – published, feted, and making a living from the written word.

Naturally, I wore the same kind of long navy blue ‘cousin coat’ that O’Brien made famous in his poem of the same name. It had practical as well as poetic qualities, being the only defence against the biting Geordie winter. My abiding memory of the year was trudging in my trench coat and polar neck across the town moor to Castle Leazes, the decidedly unpoetic brick halls of residence where I composed my early efforts.

I put the encounter out of my mind and continued to haunt the poetry scene – watching Brendan Cleary blaze away in the pubs (one part Ed Byrne, one part Lord Byron) touting The Irish Card, his first collection for Bloodaxe.  For an ill-fated, disorganised spell, I even took over the helm of the student poetry magazine alongside musician and fellow poet, Darren Giddings. He was a mature student in circumstances as impecunious as my own, with holes in his shoes and an M&S credit card that kept him in frozen lasagne and reasonable Cabernet Sauvignon. He had already found his poetic voice not to mention put out a proper single, and was someone else to look up to as well as sink pints with at the Trent House. In the same year, 1993, I would watch, slightly star-struck, as the white bearded Jon Silken, legendary editor of Stand, ghosted out of the Robinson Library with a pile of books under his arm.

I embarked on my poetry career in earnest, inveigling my way onto the Creative Writing MA at UEA to be taught by future laureate Andrew Motion, who would murmur a ‘well said’ with quiet intensity whenever we produced a promising phrase. There were other encounters: Hugo Williams, dashing, and always mildly provocative, who read stylish, faintly erotic poems about nurses. Childishly, we boycotted one of his sessions after he criticised a fellow poet’s work, saying that he ‘thought the metaphor had died with Eliot’ (referring presumably to the evening spread out against the sky, ‘like a patient etherized upon a table.’) I was later the grateful recipient of an Eric Gregory Award, handed to me by novelist Ian McEwan, who advised us not to allow the cash disappears down the tills at the supermarket, but instead to buy something that would nourish the soul, like a Picasso sketch. I spent it on a new washing machine.

But now, this meeting with the mild mannered, northern poet has come back to haunt me. Was there something in George’s decision that makes a terrible sort of sense? Perhaps there comes a time when you have written all the poems you are supposed to write. Maybe you arrive at a moment when you realise you best stuff is behind you and that there has been a falling off in quality? And think of the benefits. Imagine not having to worry about where the next idea for a poem is coming from? Imagine not having to stuff money into PayPal for all those speculative competition entries.

Another sobering moment came when old mucker, Darren, sent me a thick manuscript of his poems, stating that they were otherwise destined for the waste paper basket. Having previously given up poetry in a spell of disillusionment, this time he had packed it in for good like a 20 a day Marlborough habit but again without anger or regret, simply acknowledging that he did not have the time or inclination to continue. A box of back issues of Poetry Review followed in the post. These in turn were followed by a bundle of once coveted poetry collections with the message that he had kept the ones he liked and no longer had the space or time to devote to these. It was a typical act of generosity, but at the back of my mind I also felt there was some small betrayal of his gift and calling. But who am I to judge?

I spent 2017 pursuing poetry with a reasonable level of success – a few inspired moments producing a handful poems worth keeping and some placing in good competitions. I was longlisted for the National Poetry Competition 2016 (always announced a year late) and shortlisted for both the Wells and Winchester competitions. Still easily lured at the prospect of success, I motored down the M4 and sat in the audience listening to other people’s names being read out, returning home without a cheque or travel expenses to show for my trouble. This is not to say I didn’t enjoy the readings. Meeting up with the other poets and talking a bit of poetry shop brings its own rewards, and any fool can tell you that poetry is generally an unprofitable and somewhat trying business.

I have produced five collections, including Farewell to the Earth (Arc, 2011) and The Fool (Templar, 2014) and have been included twice in The Forward Book of Poetry (always next to Clive James, to my delight). But it was my last book, The Penguin Diaries (Templar, 2017) that really took its toll.

September 2015 047

I set myself the onerous challenge of producing a sonnet for every member of Captain Scott’s final expedition to the Antarctic. Despite a memorable launch at Keats House in Hampstead last January, it gained just a single review and has disappeared like Captain Oates himself in the blizzard of new poetry. I genuinely felt it was among the best work I had done. Again, I say this without a trace of bitterness – it is incumbent on the poet to market their own work. I didn’t spend enough time sending out individual poems to magazines or books out for review. I was too busy at the day job, or rattling away on other writing projects (a play about John Betjeman and a Sherlock Holmes pastiche). But thinking about the hours that went into it, it is impossible not feel the disappointment – and at least the small temptation to throw in the proverbial towel.

But of course I haven’t. I got an idea for another poem and wrote it. I visited the Seamus Heaney museum, HomePlace, the stunning, honey-wood shrine to the great man in Bellaghy with his effortless assonance printed a foot high on the walls. I’ve sent out to another rash of competitions and will wait like the other ten thousand hopefuls for the announcement of the winner of the National Poetry Competition, hoping that lightening might just strike twice, as it did for Jo Shapcott and Ian Duhig.

Indeed I wonder whether twenty years’-retired George was tempted to swap the carriage clock for a MacBook Air; whether he succumbed to the temptation to write again, and enter? Can you really turn your back on something like poetry, that intoxicating madness in which, ‘inspiring frenzy, awakens lyric?’ (Plato).

 

A world tour on six strings – Clive Carroll at Haverhill Arts Centre 29 October 2017

To Suffolk on a ghostly October night for another beguiling performance from Clive Carroll. With an eclectic selection of acoustic gems that take inspiration variously from County Clare to the Gulf of Mexico via the Arctic Circle and Argentina, we are treated to a world tour on six strings. It is all the more remarkable for the fact that most of the tunes are Clive’s own.

Endlessly curious, and as adept at classical, jazz, folk and rock, Clive is impossible to pigeonhole and all the better for it. The common thread is that everything is flawlessly played. With a virtuosic style that is somehow simultaneously flowing and precise, there is a gracefulness and humour to his playing that makes the most difficult tune accessible. Kicking off with what sounds like medieval Hendrix, he soon introduces us to an exquisite waltz inspired by Shostakovich, with an entertaining preamble as to why he appears to draw out the timing (to allow the ladies’ dresses to catch up on the ballroom floor it transpires).

The name John Renbourn crops up several times this evening, first as the inspiration to the stately Abbot’s Hymn, which suffers only from being too short. Secondly, the late guitarist is cited, along with Bert Jansch, as one of the foremost interpreters of Charlie Mingus’s Goodbye Pork Pie Hat, which is lovingly rendered by Clive tonight in all its atonal complexity. He’s also remembered as Clive’s mate and musical compatriot: on a previous performance at Haverhill Arts Centre, Clive remembers John ambling back to his dressing room for his capo, making it back only in time to play the final chord.

The vast, echoing, In the Deep, sounds like the soundtrack to a lost Western with a languid melody, redolent of heat haze rising up from desert sands. Meanwhile, the recently commissioned Scottish suite, which closes the first half evokes images of windblown heather and firelight shot through whisky tumblers. Apparently, for its premiere, it was performed by another guitarist, which seems an astonishing waste of Clive Carroll. Very sensibly Clive has now learned it himself and it’s sublimely effective.

As vocal between numbers as he is silent during them, Clive proves himself a colourful raconteur and happily allows a story to run away with itself. A detour to a tumbledown shack on the Mississippi Delta provides the evocative setting for a swampy blues, full of kick and spice. Intriguingly, he takes us to the heart of his compositional technique, demonstrating his drop tuning and multipart techniques on the brilliant Eliza’s Eyes, the nearest perhaps to a hit single in Clive’s expansive repertoire.

The evening concludes in fine style with a brilliant sequence from his album The Furthest Tree that takes its cue from the middle English poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Recreating a duet with the great John Williams by accompanying a recording, he conjures a supernatural vision of a lost, mist-filled England not wholly removed from the Halloween night encroaching at the door. An understated, lyrical version of And I Love Her is the parting shot and enough to keep the ghosts at bay.

The 65 men who sailed South with Scott

‘We are very near the end, but have not, and will not lose our good cheer.’ Captain Scott, March 1912.

I recently wrote a collection of 65 sonnets commemorating Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s final expedition to the Antarctic (The Terra Nova expedition, 1910-1913). The book is called The Penguin Diaries (published by Templar, 2017) and there is one sonnet for each man who sailed south with him, 59 of whom returned. During the writing process I found, surprisingly, that there was no single place I could find a complete set of biographies for these gallant and occasionally foolhardy gentlemen. I have therefore written and collected these brief biographies here. I would be glad to correct any inaccuracies. The evocative image below was taken on Scott’s birthday, June 1911 aboard the Terra Nova by Herbert Ponting; sledging flags are hung above the table and Captain Oates is pictured standing on the left.

Shore Parties

ROBERT FALCON SCOTT Captain, C.V.O., R.N. (The “Owner,” “The Boss”). Born in Devonport, England in 1868. Joined the Royal Navy in 1881 aged only 13, later serving as Torpedo Officer on HMS Vulcan. Previously led the Discovery expedition (1901-1904) where he set a new record for furthest south with Shackleton and Wilson. Married to the sculptor Kathleen Scott. Died aged 43 on his return from the South Pole in March 1912.

EDWARD R.G.R. EVANS  Lieut. R.N. (“Teddy”). Born in London, England in 1880. Second in command. Suffered from scurvy on return from the pole, saved by Lashly and Crean. Later served with distinction in the First World War as a destroyer captain and won further honours. Wrote South with Scott, his account of the expedition.

VICTOR L.A. CAMPBELL Lieut. R.N. (“The Wicked Mate”). Born in Brighton, England in 1875. Led the Northern Party, compelled to winter in an ice cave on Inexpressible Island. Led a miraculous journey on foot back to Cape Evans across 200 miles of unstable sea ice. Decorated during the First World War and died in Newfoundland, 1956.

HENRY R. BOWERS Lieut. Royal Indian Marines (“Birdie”). Born in Greenock, Scotland in 1883. Served in Burma and Ceylon as part of the Royal Indian Marine Service. Took part in the Winter Journey as well as the Polar Party. Highly practical, hardy and dependable. Died with Scott and Wilson in March 1912 on return from the pole.

LAWRENCE E.G. OATES Captain 6th Inniskilling Dragoons (“Titus,” “Soldier”). Born London, England in 1880. Educated at Eton and South Lynn School Eastbourne. Served in the Second Boer War; injured by a gunshot wound to the leg. Contributed £1,000 towards cost of the expedition. Expert with horses and ponies. Crippled with frostbite and in an effort to save his comrades, walked to his death in the snow with the words: ‘I am just going outside and may be some time.’

G. MURRAY LEVICK Surgeon R.N. Born in Newcastle upon Tyne, 1876. Worked as both as doctor and biologist; member of the Northern party; keen photographer and spent time observing the Adelie penguins, recording his findings in his book, Antarctic Penguins, controversial because of its account of their sexual proclivities. His notebook was discovered in 2013 outside the hut at Cape Evans.

EDWARD L. ATKINSON Surgeon R.N., Parasitologist (“Atch”). Born in the Windward Isles, in the West Indies, 1881. Educated at Snaresbrook and St Thomas’ Hospital London. Took charge of the base at Cape Evans in the absence of Scott and Campbell. Launched rescue attempts for both Northern Party and Scott’s Polar parties. Discovered Scott’s tent in November 1912. Later served on Western Front, fought at the Somme and received DSO. Died aged 47 and buried at sea.

Scientific Staff

EDWARD ADRIAN WILSONB.A., M.B. (Cantab.) Chief of the Scientific Staff, and Zoologist (“Uncle Bill”). Born Cheltenham, England, 1872. Artist, naturalist and member of the Discovery expedition (1901-1904). Led the Winter Journey to collect Emperor Penguin eggs. Member of the Polar party, reaching the pole on 18 January 1912, dying on the return journey. Scott’s closest friend and highly regarded by all.

GEORGE C. SIMPSON D.Sc., Meteorologist (“Sunny Jim.”) Born Derby, England, 1878. Educated at Owens College Manchester and University of Gottingen. Specialised in atmospheric electricity. Conducted balloon and weather experiments while on the Terra Nova expedition. Became Director of the Meteorological Office in 1920, knighted 1935 and died 1965.

T. GRIFFITH TAYLOR B.A., B.Sc., B.E., Geologist (“Grif”). Born Walthamstow, England, 1880. Emigrated to Serbia, then Australia as a child, returning to England to take up a scholarship at Cambridge. Led successful mapping and geological surveys as part of the Terra Nova expedition. Died aged 82 in Sydney.

EDWARD W. NELSON Biologist (“Marie,” “Bronte”). Born 1883 and specialised as an invertebrate zoologist; conducted tidal experiments at Cape Evans. Later fought in Gallipoli and on the Western Front during the First World War. Committed suicide by self-injection aged 39 in 1923.

FRANK DEBENHAM B.A., B.Sc., Geologist (“Deb.”). Born Bowral, Australia. Studied English, philosophy and geology at university. Took part in the Western Journey during the Terra Nova expedition. Entered Cambridge University on his return in 1913. Fought in France and Salonika during the First World War. Awarded OBE in 1919 and founded the Scott Polar Institute in 1920. Died Cambridge 1965.

CHARLES S. WRIGHT B.A., Physicist. Born Toronto 1887. Studied physics at University of Toronto. Initially rejected by Scott but walked from Cambridge with Griffith Taylor to petition for his place. Conducted experiments on ground radiation and ice formation while part of the Terra Nova expedition. Served in France during the First World War. Died in British Columbia, Canada aged 88 in 1975.

RAYMOND E. PRIESTLEY Geologist. Born Bredon’s Norton, England in 1886. Studied at University College, Bristol and served as a geologist on Shackleton’s Nimrod’s Expedition (1907-1909). Took part in the Western Party. Won the Military Cross in France during the First World War. Co-founded Scott Polar Institute with Frank Debenham and became a Fellow of Clare College. Died aged 87 in Cheltenham, Gloucester.

HERBERT G. PONTING F.R.G.S., Camera Artist. Born Salisbury, England in 1870, moved to California and worked in mining and fruit farming. Took up photography and travelled extensively in Asia, publishing in London periodicals. Professional photographer on the Terra Nova expedition. Published his photography in The Great White South and then produced The Great White Silence from his cine-footage. Died London 1935.

CECIL H. MEARES Chief Dog Handler on the Terra Nova expedition. Born County Kilkenny, Ireland. Travelled extensively, fought in the Russo-Japanese and Boer war. Chose dogs and white ponies for the expedition, following Scott’s orders. Returned north in winter 1912, declaring himself unavailable for work two months prior to departure. Joined Royal Flying Corps during First World War and later lived in Canada.

BERNARD C. DAY Motor Engineer. Born 1884 Leicestershire, England. Took part in Shackleton’s British Antarctic Expedition, 1907-1909. Later joined the Terra Nova expedition as a motor engineer, returning after the first year. Awarded the Polar Medal and settled in Australia.

APSLEY CHERRY-GARRARD B.A., Asst. Zoologist (“Cherry”). Born Bedford, England 1886. Educated Winchester College and Christ Church, Oxford. Joined Terra Nova expedition through friendship with Edward Wilson. Youngest member of the expedition, taking part in the Winter Journey, Polar Journey and Search Journey, spending three years in Antarctica. Wrote the acclaimed account The Worst Journey in the World. Died 1959 in London.

TRYGGVE GRAN Sub.-Lieut. Norwegian N.R., B.A., Ski Expert. Born Bergen, Norway in 1888 and educated in Switzerland. Took part in the Western Party and also part of the party that found Scott’s tent in November 1912. Used Scott’s skis to travel back to Cape Evans. Member of the Royal Flying Corps during First World War. Died in Grimstad, 1980 Norway aged 91.

Men

W. LASHLY C. Stoker, R.N. Born 1867 in Hambledon, England. Worked on motor sledges as part of the shore party, then switched to man-hauling. Member of the Polar party, returning with Crean and Edward Evans, helping save the latter when he became ill with scurvy. Served in the Navy during First World War and later as a customs officer. Died 1940.

W.W. ARCHER Chief Steward, late R.N. Took over from Clissold as cook on the Terra Nova expedition after Clissold suffered a fall. After the Second World War he retired from the Royal Navy and set up a catering business in London.

THOMAS CLISSOLD Cook, late R.N. Previously served on HMS Harrier; took part in the depot laying journey in December 1911 – January 1912. Replaced by Archer as cook after a fall from an iceberg while posing for a photograph. Later settled in New Zealand.

EDGAR EVANS Petty Officer, R.N. Born in 1876 in Middleton, Rhossili, Wales. Educated at St Helen’s Boys’ School before joining the Royal Navy. Served with Scott on the HMS Majestic. Admired by Scott for his size and strength and for being ‘a giant worker’ he was chosen at the last minute to join the polar party. Died in 1912 returning from the pole after suffering a serious head injury sustained in a crevasse fall.

ROBERT FORDE Petty Officer, R.N. Born in Moviddy, Ireland in 1875. Joined Royal Navy in 1891 and volunteered to take part in the Terra Nova expedition aged 35. Involved in two depot laying expeditions and member of the Western Party. Left the expedition early in 1911 after suffering severe frost bite to his hand. Served in WWI on various ships and promoted to Chief Petty Officer. Retired to Cobh (Queenstown) Ireland and died 1959.

THOMAS CREAN Petty Officer, R.N. Born 1877 near Annascaul, County Kerry, Ireland.  Enlisted in Royal Navy aged 15 and took part in three major polar expeditions, including Discovery and Terra Nova expeditions with Scott and later Endurance with Ernest Shackleton. Renowned for his courage and fortitude he was a member of Scott’s last supporting party in 1911, returning with Lashly and ‘Teddy’ Evans. When Evans became incapacitated, he made a 35 mile solo trek across the ice back to Hut Point to get help. Returned to the navy, then retired in 1920 to Ireland, where he opened a pub called the South Pole Inn.

THOMAS S. WILLIAMSON Petty Officer, R.N. Born in Sunderland in 1877, joined Royal Navy and served on HMS Pactolus before joining the Discovery, then Terra Nova Expeditions. Survived a killer whale attack along with Ponting and Leese.

PATRICK KEOHANE Petty Officer, R.N. Born Courtmacsherry, County Cork, Ireland 1879. Served with Teddy Evans on HMS Talbot. Took part in the Southern Journey, turning back at head of the Beardmore Glacier at 85° 15’ South in December 1911. Member of the Search Party, finding the bodies of Scott, Wilson and Bowers in November 1912. Later joined coast guard, re-joined Navy during World War II and died Plymouth, England, 1950.

GEORGE P. ABBOTT Petty Officer, R.N. Previously served on HMS Talbot. Part of the Northern Party who wintered in Cape Adair and on Inexpressible Island. Served in the Royal Navy during the First World War and died 1923.

FRANK V. BROWNING Petty Officer, 2nd Class, R.N. Born Stockland, Devon 1882 and joined the Navy in 1900, aged 18. Served on HMS Talbot; member of the Northern Party, acting as cook. Known for his cheerfulness and resilience despite serious illness while on Inexpressible Island, only just making it back to Cape Evans. Served in First World War, retiring in 1922, dying of double pneumonia in 1930 aged just 48.

HARRY DICKASON Able Seaman, R.N. Born Bristol, England in 1885. Served on HSM Defiance before Terra Nova. Member of the Northern Party. Died 1943.

F.J. HOOPER Steward, late R.N. Born 1891, England. Originally a steward aboard Terra Nova, he later became a member of the shore party, and search party, discovering the bodies of Scott, Wilson and Bowers. Also part of the group involved in the second ascent of Mount Erebus. Died in England in 1955.

ANTON OMELCHENKO Groom. Born Bat’ki, Russia, 1883, Russia. Died in 1932 in the USSR.

DEMETRI GEROF Dog Driver. Born in Sakhalin, Siberia in 1888. Chosen by Mears when he went to Nikolayevesk to obtain the dogs for the expedition. Moved to England, then New Zealand after the expedition, before returning to Nikolayevesk to work as a gold miner, dying in 1932.

Ship’s Party

HARRY L. L. PENNELL Lieutenant, R.N. Born 1882, he spent most of the Terra Nova expedition in New Zealand, making only brief visits to Antarctica to bring supplies and remove crew members. Later served on HMS Queen Mary as Commander and died during the Battle of Jutland in May 1916.

HENRY E. DE P. RENNICK Lieutenant. R.N. Died while serving on the Hoguo, torpedoed by a German submarine in September 1914.

WILFRED M. BRUCE Lieutenant, R.N.R. Born in Scotland, he was the officer in charge of zoological work on the Terra Nova. He is also notable for being Captain Scott’s brother in law.

FRANCIS R. H. DRAKE Assistant Paymaster, R.N. (Retired), Secretary and Meteorologist in ship. No known relation to his more famous namesake.

DENNIS G. LILLIE M.A., Biologist in ship. Born 1884 and educated in Cambridge he was much admired aboard the Terra Nova, not only for his drawing skills of marine and bird life, but also for his accomplished caricatures. Served as military bacteriologist during the First World War. Suffered from poor mental health and was admitted to Bethlem Hospital, London in 1918.  He never fully recovered and died 1963.

JAMES R. DENNISTOUN In charge of mules in ship. Born 1883 in Canterbury, New Zealand. Educated at Malvern College, England. Found early fame as a climber before joining Terra Nova in 1912 for no pay, looking after Himalayan mules. Served in North Irish Horse during the First World War before joining the Royal Flying Corps as a bomb thrower. Died of wounds in August 1916 after being shot down over Germany.  A

ALFRED B. CHEETHAM R.N.R., Boatswain. Born Liverpool, 1867 and later based in Hull, England. Began a career in the Merchant Navy before making his first trip to Antarctica as part of the Discovery expedition, arriving on the relief ship, Morning. During the Terra Nova expedition, he volunteered to join the search for Scott but was turned down on account of his 13 children. He was later a member of Shackleton’s Nimrod and Endurance expeditions. Died in August 1918 when the SS Prunelle was torpedoed in the North Sea.

WILLIAM WILLIAMS Chief Engine Room Artificer, R.N., Engineer. After taking part in the British Antarctica Expedition he settled in the Bay of Islands, New Zealand, joining his brother, the Reverend Henry Williams.

WILLIAM A. HORTON Engine Room Artificer, 3rd Class, R.N., 2nd Engineer. Returned with the Terra Nova to Cardiff in 1913.

FRANCIS E. C. DAVIES Leading Shipwright, R.N. Carved the cross left in memory of those who lost their lives returning from the pole in 1912. Also played a significant role in saving Terra Nova during the storm on its journey south at the start of the expedition. Served in the navy during the First World War and continued in service until 1920. Settled in Plymouth, later returning his Polar Medal to the King.

FREDERICK PARSONS Petty Officer, R.N. Born in Allington, near Bridport, Dorset in 1870. Member of the ship’s company on the Terra Nova expedition not joining the shore party. Served on submarines during the First World War before starting a successful business repairing shoes in Plymouth. Died 1970 aged 91.

WILLIAM L. HEALD Late Petty Officer, R. N. Previously took part in the Discovery Expedition (1901-04) saving the life of Farrar who was suffering from scurvy. Heald Island, Antarctica is named after him.

ARTHUR S. BAILEY Petty Officer, 2nd Class, R.N. Serving in the Royal Navy when he was asked to join the British Antarctic Expedition, Arthur Samuel Bailey was a member of the shore party and later awarded a Polar Medal.

ALBERT BALSON Leading Seaman, R.N. Born Allington near Bridport 1885. Entered Royal Navy in 1900. Joined HMS Powerful in 1911, before transferring to Terra Nova at Lyttleton. Later took part in the Gallipoli landing during the First World War. Later worked as a salvage diver, employed for many years collecting gold from the ship, Laurentic. Also decorated for gallantry for diffusing a bomb in 1941 during air attacks in Portland Harbour. Died 1950 in Dorset, aged 65.

JOSEPH LEESE Able Seaman, R.N. Staffordshire born, he was later to recall the terrible storm that the Terra Nova encountered on its journey south. In Antarctica he was almost the victim of a killer whale attack when the creatures attempted to break up the ice he was standing on to reach the dogs. Settled in his home county after naval service.

JOHN HUGH MATHER Petty Officer, R.N.V.R. Born 1887, Stroud Green, London. Assisted with clerical work and taxonomy. After the Terra Nova adventure, became a naval commander during the First World War and took part in a successful campaign against the Bolsheviks in Arctic Russia. Died 1957 in Farnborough, England.

ROBERT OLIPHANT Able Seaman. Born Strathmiglo, Fife, Scotland, 1883, joining for the first part of the expedition. Died just after the First World War in 1919.

THOMAS F. MCLEOD Able Seaman. Born Glasgow, Scotland 1873, later moving to Stornoway as a child. Joined British Merchant navy aged 14. Later served with Shackleton on both the Endurance and Quest expeditions. Later emigrated to Kingston, Ontario in Canada where he was employed as a school caretaker and night-watchman. Died in 1960 aged 87.

MORTIMER MCCARTHY Able Seaman. Born Kinsale, Co. Cork, Ireland in 1878; served on Terra Nova during its three voyages to Antarctica from New Zealand between 1910 and 1913, later settling in New Zealand.

WILLIAM KNOWLES  Able Seaman. Born in Liverpool, 1877, later emigrating to Lyttleton, New Zealand. Took part in the second and third voyages of Terra Nova to Antarctica, helping to build the cross on Observation Hill. Served on HMS Philomel during the First World War and was killed in 1915 while part of a landing party near Alexandretta following an ambush by Turkish troops in 1915.

CHARLES WILLIAMS Able Seaman. Born in Lyttleton, New Zealand 1881. Joined the navy in 1900. Played a key role in saving the Terra Nova during the storm on its journey south in 1910, cutting a hole in the bulkhead to reach the pump. Served on ships during the First World War with Commander Edward Evans, distinguishing himself during the altercation between the German SMS G42 and HMS Broke. He returned to New Zealand and was lost at sea in 1919.

JAMES SKELTON Able Seaman. Settled in Cardiff, working on the docks after service in the Royal Navy during the First World War.

WILLIAM MCDONALD Able Seaman. There is a report in a New Zealand newspaper of a concert given for the departing crew of the Terra Nova, with the detail that Angus McDonald sang at the event.

JAMES PATON Able Seaman. Born Scotland 1869. Served on the Morning, a relief ship to the Discovery expedition. Later took part in Shackleton’s Nimrod and Aurora expeditions. Lost while travelling to South America in 1917 or 1918, possibly after hitting a mine.

ROBERT BRISSENDEN Leading Stoker, R.N. Drowned in August 1912 in Elslie Bay, while employed surveying Admiralty Bay. There was a suspicion of drink being involved in his death, although this was refuted by those with him the night he drowned.

EDWARD A. MCKENZIE Leading Stoker, R.N. One of five stokers on the Terra Nova during the expedition, McEnzie is now famous for the pair of Wolsey unshrinkable mittens he wore on the expedition and are now preserved for posterity.

WILLIAM BURTON Leading Stoker, R.N. Born 1888, died 1988 in his 100th year, making him the last member of the expedition to die. Returned to Antarctica later in life with McDonald and Mortimer.

BERNARD J. STONE Leading Stoker, R.N. Was awarded a Bronze Polar medal on 24 July 1913 by King George V.

ANGUS MCDONALD Fireman. Born West Calder, West Lothian in 1871. Notable for being one of three members of the expedition to return to Antarctica at the invitation of the Americans.

THOMAS MCGILLON  Fireman. Sailed with Shackleton on the Nimrod (1907-1909) surviving several near fatal accidents before joining the British Antarctic Expedition.

CHARLES LAMMASFireman. Born Bethnal Green, London, 1883, the son of a carpenter. Lived in Canterbury, New Zealand most of his life and died in Christchurch Hospital, New Zealand in 1941.

W.H. NEALE Steward and member of the ship’s party. On the Terra Nova, he was responsible for waking the crew, serving food as well as attending to the officers in the afterguard (or mess).

 

In the Bleak Midwinter – Review of Clive Carroll, 11 January 2017

To the Apex, Bury St. Edmunds to witness a remarkable performance from Clive Carroll performing songs from his album, The Furthest Tree and beyond. Mixing influences of early music (the kind of folk baroque made popular by John Renbourn, more of whom later) with huge, almost prog-like bass-lines and complex patterns, he transfixed a packed house on this freezing winter night.

With his clean lines and superb technique, Clive’s compositions resonated powerfully inside the wooden cathedral of the Apex – a new and usually beautiful venue, both ancient and modern at the same time, much like Clive’s music. At one point it felt as if we were all contained within the body of an enormous acoustic guitar, and it certainly sounded that way.

clive

Taking a few moments to gather himself, an insight perhaps into his classical training and level headed temperament, he began with The Abbot’s Hymn, a beguiling tune, named after both the local Abbot ale and much missed John Renbourn, who acquired the nickname ‘The Abbot’ while touring with Clive in the early 2000s. Mention of John got a cheer of its own and the local reference was appreciated by the Suffolk crowd; they gave the piece their rapt-attention. It brought back memories of John playing on the Old Grey Whistle Test, a glass of red wine perched on his amp while he picked out the tunes.

Next up was In the Deep, a swampy, lugubrious piece that floated high into the rafters, before being grounded by a thunderous bass line that seemed to shake the building to its very core. The portentous mood was dispelled when Clive chatted to the crowd; with his head-boyish demeanour, he is as far removed from a rock and roll stereotype as you are likely to find, but his patter is hilarious, both learned and irreverent. He mentioned that he had recently played for both the Prince of Wales and the Duke of York before confessing they were pubs not people…

Establishing a bond with an audience both musically and emotionally are Clive’s key strengths and we certainly invested in the music. He later acknowledged a debt to Shostakovich in an astonishing waltz, giving us a lesson in three-four time and its various permutations for good measure. Only once did he seem to lose the audience: mention of his Essex roots drew an element of unbecoming inter-County nose-holding, although he put paid to any stereotypes by reminding them that Holst himself made his home in Thaxted, the subject of a mind bogglingly pretty tune, Thaxted Town. It somehow managed to accommodate both Morris dancing and the melodic theme to Holst’s I Vow to Thee, My Country and was played with great affection.    

The centre piece of the set was a performance of Clive’s Renaissance Suite, based thematically on the Middle English poem, Sir Gawain and The Green Knight. The difficulty that the piece was written for two guitars (second guitar on the record played by John Williams, no less) was surmounted by a ‘second Clive,’ previously recorded. The melodic intricacy of the piece and the fact that he had to both add a capo and retune mid performance without stopping the recorded part made for a thrilling bit of theatre. Suffice to say, he made it through without mishap. The Green Knight, a galloping tune was a superbly dramatic climax to this piece and was greeted with some open-mouthed astonishment. The poet, Simon Armitage has recently translated the 14th century poem to great effect and a collaboration between him and Clive would hold some wonderful possibilities.   

Perhaps the highlight of the evening however, was the final piece, inspired by a trip to northern Canada. With its icy, haunting melody and unpredictable dynamics, it was perfectly suited to this bleakly cold evening, full of talk of thunder-snow (that in the event would fail to materialise.) It would make for a fitting theme to a Nordic detective TV series. Has Clive explored such avenues you wonder?

With his wonderful poise, generous spirit and boundless musicality, Clive eventually made way for the swashbuckling Tommy Emmanuel, who was reliably astonishing. It would be too much to try and cover Tommy’s vivacious set here (perhaps another time) but Clive left a lasting impression, filling this dark, midwinter night with an ancient kind of magic.