christopher james

Poems and prattle

‘In jest there is truth’ – Review of One Man King Lear at Haverhill Arts Centre  

Oddbodies’ one man King Lear is something of a miniature masterpiece. Performing this seemingly impossible feat with only a drum, bottle and guitar, Paul Morel is a master storyteller, and has an easy way with a comic aside.

In front of a small, but discerning crowd at Haverhill Arts centre, Paul enters disarmingly, in t-shirt and jeans, as if he’s a member of the audience himself, looking for his seat. A spotlight shines on his waiting guitar.

The audacity of the project is astonishing – Shakespeare’s greatest play, some of his greatest poetry and just one man to pull it off. The conceit is a fine one – Paul is Lear’s Fool and relays the action like a pub anecdote, paraphrasing the boring bits, leaping in and out of character, but giving us the major speeches and crucial exchanges as they were set down by Shakespeare.

He has a script propped up on a music stand, but as far as I could tell, barely glanced at it. While the banter flowed freely between Paul and the audience, make no mistake there was some brilliant acting on display. Each of the characters was a perfectly realised creation – from the barrel chested Lear himself (who reduces both physically and mentally throughout the course of the play) to the sweet voiced siren Regan, and Gonerill, who sounded all the world like a haughty Margaret Thatcher.

Edmund, Gloucester’s treacherous, illegitimate son, is played like a cockney bad boy who’s walked off the set of Eastenders, while his father is a wheezing wide-boy, on his last legs. The pitiable scene when he loses his eyes and the aftermath with his blind wandering, is magnificently done. Paul points out that the irony that he only ‘sees’ his error in favouring Edmund over Edgar, after he loses his eyes.

Some of the minor characters and scenes are best – the ‘oily herbert’ Oswold riding alongside Kent, is realised brilliantly. The two banter as they ride – with Paul unable to resist a gallop across the stage.

There is no fourth wall in this version of the play – Paul chats with us throughout, and invites us to be part of the action. But it is all carefully calibrated – the casual banter quickly moves into darker territory (‘Why didn’t Shakespeare call one of the brothers Sydney, or something, instead of Edgar and Edmund?’ He asks. ‘It would be much less confusing.’). Like Shakespeare’s writing itself, the performance moves dramatically between comedy and tragedy. Lear’s quiet realisation that he has made a calamitous mistake banishing his youngest, and loving daughter Cordelia is unbearably moving. The key lines were vivid and supremely well delivered: ‘I am bound/Upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears/Do scald like molten lead.’

For the battle scenes between England and France, half the crowd are encouraged to chant England football anthems, while the other yells ‘vive le roi!’ The challenges of staging are ingeniously met by director John Mowat – the duel between Edgar and Edmund is staged with two drumsticks. Lear’s throne doubles up as Kent’s stocks and a the drum becomes the thunder over the heath.

Perhaps most effective of all is the music. The play begins with a falsetto lament that sets a sombre mood. From comic songs that accelerate the action, to a beautiful lilting balled to give voice to Cordelia’s sorrow, Paul’s singing and playing are magnificent.

A tour de force of physical theatre, with brilliant speaking, this version of the play is at once a comedy and tragedy, and in the true spirit of Shakespeare. Paul’s energy, charm and quick wit, are a more than match for the great writing. It all makes for a brilliantly entertaining, and frequently astonishing evening. Bravo to Haverhill Arts Centre for bringing such a brave piece of theatre to the town.

Knives out: a review of The Knives of Villalejo by Matthew Stewart

I’ve been looking forward to reviewing Matthew Stewart’s long overdue debut collection. With a title like a 1950s crime fiction potboiler, and a blood-red cover, there’s the promise of mystery and mortality in store.

Those elements are certainly present in this fine book, but the set-up is something of a ruse. The themes, in fact, are squarely domestic. Family, home and work are the chief preoccupations of this honest, absorbing sequence, and yet each is explored with an astonishing intimacy.


The Knives of Villalejo

Stewart divides his time between England and Spain and works in the wine trade. And if some of these poems have been slow in gestation, then like a good wine, they have aged well. The book is full of polarities: between work and home, past and present, England and Spain, life and death, appearance and reality and these opposing currents provide the book with its emotional tension.

Stewart creates unpredictable landscapes. Often, innocuous, domestic scenes can lurch into something much darker. Sooner or Later begins in a ‘spare-room wardrobe’ where something lives amongst ‘forgotten gifts/ and out-of-favour shirts.’

Maybe tonight, maybe

next year, a sudden call

will bring it centre stage,

rushed to the dry cleaners.

It’s structured like an Anglo-Saxon riddle; then comes the pay-off: ‘There’s not a hope/of dodging the dark suit.’

This ability to wrong foot the reader, to lull them into a sense of quiet domesticity, only to pull the rug with a dramatic turn or arresting image, is Stewart’s trump card. And yet there is a never a sense of smugness or conceit in this. It’s a reminder that this is what life is like – light can give way to dark in a matter of moments; banality can slide into tragedy, bliss into despair.

There is a feeling here of life intensely lived; a sense sharpened by the certainty of death. Rather than something to be feared, however, our mortality appears to enhance each pleasure: each sip of wine and each carefully prepared meal. Stewart shares something of Larkin’s acute awareness of death (‘All streets in time are visited’) but without the same paranoid sense of self-preservation.

Stewart is especially adept in the kitchen. There is a ritualistic delight in Artes Culinarias: the ‘skinning and sluicing’ and the lamb stew for which ‘you peeled, you scraped, you sliced all morning long.’ Yet this isn’t Saturday Kitchen; in Stewart’s spry, multi-layered poems, there’s always something else going on. Here there’s a sense of the poet reflecting while these rituals are enacted – memories, worries and temptations reveal themselves. I especially liked the pay off in the final section: Guisantes al vino tinto, where an exquisite dish is meticulously prepared with ‘a long dollop of wine and just-shucked peas’. It appears to be an act of love and generosity. In fact, there are

memories of an old lover stirring:

This is still her dish and far more daring

than sly rummages for battered photos

especially now I’m serving it for you.

There is a clear link between sexuality, sensuality, food and wine, and yet it is never explicitly made. It’s a book full of allusions, hints and shadows. There’s as much left unsaid in the sparseness of the language.

The poem The 23rd is as heart-breaking as it is brief. A single stanza long, it is a dignified tribute to a loved one, and says everything about how grief must necessarily live in a world that carries on regardless. The date ‘casually loiters in the fourth line of April, pretending not to stalk me.’ The personification of death, sly and insidious, is brutally effective. So too is the caesura in the final line where there is a fear that the poet might forget: ‘As if I ever could.’ The fact I’ve written more in this paragraph and said so much less than the poem itself, tells you just how good Stewart is. I’ve only resisted reproducing the whole poem to encourage you to read the book for yourself.

Stewart’s poems are as precisely measured as the dishes themselves. The language has a deceptively simplicity, a distilled clarity, just as the most delicious food and drink relies on simple ingredients.

But Stewart has a gift too for the original simile and metaphor and it’s in these moments when you feel a re-invigoration of language and re-imagining of a familiar world:

….two rosaries

lie coiled on a sunlit table

like dozing, sated rattlesnakes.

This is as good as anything that’s being written right now. Aside from the freshness of the image itself, there’s a subtext of religion, culture and guilt all at play. Elsewhere, a pencil is ‘perfectly wigwammed by a Stanley knife.’

The title poem is one of the finest pieces in the book, and again plays into the themes of domesticity, ritual and mortality. The Knives of Villalejo are put to work each day in every kitchen, and are ‘blunted by the cloying dough of fresh bread.’ This magnificent iambic line, with its layers of clinging consonants and springy vowels, sets up a densely worked piece. Over time, the blades become ‘speckled with rust’ while the handles become ‘darkened.’ Then comes the village grinder, like the reaper himself, who ‘pushes his bike from door to door/he knows them well and whets them in seconds.’ But nothing lasts forever (not least our ourselves) until one day:

…they judder halfway through a stroke

and snap like over-sharpened lives.’

There’s a sense of danger, and an intimation of death but the poem is also a rich celebration of life.

Finally, it would wrong not to mention Last chance, part of a longer sequence called Speech Recognition. The voice is that of a neglected book, gathering dust in a charity shop:

I’m stick on a wonky trestle table

between a video tape of the Smurfs

and the 1989 Good Food Guide

The book has a simple plea: ‘I only want a single pair of hands/to stretch my spine and open me at last.’ Let this not be the fate of this important book.

It’s a flawless performance, at once funny, elegiac and deeply felt; and totally representative of this spare, deeply enjoyable collection that does not pretend to offer answers, but only questions and consolations. This is a generous and accomplished collection at once refreshing in its simplicity, nourishing in its intensity, and intoxicating in its emotional pitch. Enjoy with a glass of Rioja.

Dizzying audacity: A review of Paradise Road by Bob Mee

Surely one of the most neglected poetry collections of the last fifteen years or so, is Bob Mee’s Paradise Road (Blue Fish, 2003). Known to many in the poetry community as the tireless editor of Iota (until he tired of it) and publisher of the redoubtable Ragged Raven Press, Bob spends a significant portion of his life championing other poets. Such generosity is rare in the world of contemporary poetry. As such, there is a deep streak of both humour and humanity that runs through Paradise Road.

Paradise Road

I’ve had the privilege of hearing Bob read some of these poems live and many are purpose-built for the upper room of a pub on Friday night. I’ve seen him wrong-foot an audience with a comic line, then deliver the knock-out blow. Comedy of all kinds runs through his poetry, from the slapstick to the darker stuff, but of course, it’s never the only thing going on. He certainly knows how to deliver a line: ‘Bob from the bookshop has eight widows on the go/three of them named Joy.’ The brilliance is not only the specificity, but in the deadpan bathos of the line break.

Bob is not afraid to break the rules – including writing poems about writing. All contemporary poets will be familiar with the two-hundred mile round trip to read to seven people and the compere. And Bob has done his fair share of this, but he’s also hit the big time too, as an author of celebrated books on boxing.

One of his set-pieces here is ‘Doris Lessing at the Harper Collins Christmas Party’ – a prose poem that recounts a disastrously surreal trip to a publisher’s party, after his book on bare-knuckle boxing hit the big time: ‘I don’t know anyone and nobody knows me.’ He’s hardly there ten minutes before he’s back on the M4 heading home, but not before witnessing a surreal punch up at a service station between two skinheads and an old man waiting for his tea, who, it turns out, has a few surprises up his sleeve: ‘The old guy drags up a memory of a stiff jab that’s not a prod or a poke but a real-step-in-behind-it and drill-it through your face jab’. It’s oddly in keeping with the book that sent him to the party in the first place. But like so many of the poems here, the poem has a luminous centre – the beatific vision of Doris Lessing herself at the party ‘in an overcoat with a big brooch and she’s smiling and nodding and her eyes are twinkling.’ This feels so typical of Bob’s work – finding moments of truth and beauty among the comedy and chaos of life.

Other poems are celebrations of both life and poetry, as in the glorious ‘We Didn’t Cross the Road to See Dannie Abse.’ A trip to see the feted poet is aborted in favour of ‘a swift one’ at the Prince of Wales, that turns inevitably into an epic session with digressions on second-hand Volvos, cress and Morecambe and Wise. It’s not that he doesn’t like Dannie Abse or his work – just that the randomness of life suddenly seems more important the other side of several jars.

There’s plenty of technique on show here, and for a novice poet learning their trade, it’s a primer in how to turn an idea into a keeper. ‘The Dinner Party’ uses the repeated line ‘We are not supposed to know’ as the set up for a series of secrets and subtexts beneath the veneer of a middle class dinner party: ‘We are not supposed to know Wilf has an alternative wife in a corner shop in Warwick’ then later: ‘How are we supposed to know any of this… as Wilf cheerfully uncorks another red and/Catherine serves seconds of mousse.’

Then there’s the nurse ‘who unbolts my head and lifts the lid.’ It’s a brilliant conceit and as she ‘plunges in her hand up past the wrist’ she discovers the memories and detritus of a lifetime: ‘sunsets, women and a bottle or three of Barolo.’

If the collection has a fault, it’s only that there’s too much of it. If it was a Beatles’ album, it would be the White Album, or even George Harrison’s triple All Things Must Pass. Again, in the Beatle-esque way, it veers wildly in style and substance, from tender family vignettes, like the Way it Is, where father and son dig potatoes together, side by side, to extraordinary flights of fancy, such as discovering Elvis at a bustop in Texas.  There’s an urgent sense of catching up – as if two or ever three collections are bundled into one.

Some of the most impressive work is the sequence written in and about the USA. Atlantic City is a vivid portrait of the State-side Blackpool at Christmas where ‘the piano plays itself’ and ‘the limbless woman lies on a cushion/and plays Amazing Grace on a keyboard with her tongue.’ It’s a surreal culture shock – where Bob doesn’t so much as interpret any of this, but simply presents it back in the spirit of Louis MacNeice’s famous phrase: ‘the drunkenness of things being various.’ Ultimately it’s a poem about loneliness – not just the lost souls ‘dying just a little bit in the backs of cabs’ but his own too, reflecting on ‘distances between you and I.’

Driving, USA is a magnificent road trip of a poem: a version of On the Road, where we get a blurred snapshot of American life: ‘I drive into cities where beggars dance to the tunes of their bones’ and ‘I stop at a gas station and a clown in full make up pours the gas.’ It’s both brilliantly observant and dizzyingly audacious.

But perhaps it’s the simpler, lucid moments where Bob’s poetry succeeds best. ‘Five Minutes Near Milton Keynes’ is a contemporary version of Edward Thomas’ Adlestrop, where he is sat opposite a woman on a train, lost in her own thoughts: ‘The train has stopped again/I count the young birch trees on the embankment.’ He notices her ‘tap her lips with a pen, turn a page.’ She ‘slides her wedding ring up/and down her finger. It’s a moment in time, a freeze frame as the universe hurtles ever outwards.

All this barely scratches the surface of a collection that brims with passion, humour, reflections and regrets. Its all delivered with an élan that few of Bob’s contemporaries could muster, which is why it puzzles me why it’s not more celebrated. I’m heartened to see that you can still buy a copy on Amazon and I can also report that the poet himself is in rude health and still producing excellent work that continues to build on these themes: the solace and stability of family in the face of an increasingly chaotic and inexplicable world.

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.

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).