christopher james

Poems and prattle

He ‘swam for love, as I swam for glory’ – On poetry and wild swimming

I burst up out of the sea and steal a breath from the sky. My head is ringing with the cold as I paddle, seal-like, parallel to the shore. It’s a chilly Sunday in May, and I’m at Covehithe, a remote beach on the Suffolk coast. Behind me are woods, wildflowers and wheat fields pin-pricked with poppies. Before me is a yellowish sea, beneath stacks of grey cloud. But the sky is bright and I feel awake, properly, awake for the first time in months.

Tankers balance on the horizon, and four miles distant, the pier and lighthouse at Southwold print themselves against the clouds. Covehithe, has the unenviable claim of possessing the fastest eroding shoreline in Britain, almost visibly crumbling into the sea. The road leading down to the sand ends in mid-air like something from a Road Runner cartoon.

It has another, delightfully absurd claim to fame. It’s where the Monty Python sketch: ‘The first man to jump the English Channel’ was filmed. Needless to say, it’s an absurd joy. But thankfully it hasn’t brought hordes to these shores. There’s barely a soul abroad, and people are outnumbered by the upended tree stumps that litter the beach like discarded wooden crowns, worn smooth by the wind.

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I’ve only heard about this place from a friend of a friend. My only companions are dog walkers, a couple out rambling and a lone photographer waiting for the light. The only amenity is a plastic bin at the start of a footpath that leads along the edge of a field and down to the decaying shore. In short, it’s hidden gem, and the perfect place to lose yourself in the exquisite pleasures of poetry and wild swimming.

For twenty years I’ve pursued the twin passions of poetry and outdoor swimming. My first poem to appear in a respectable journal was (unimaginatively titled) ‘The Swimmer’ back in 2000. I’ve kept that first thin volume ever since as proof of my ‘year zero.’ But it’s book ended by one of my most recent poems: ‘The Archbishops at the Lido’ which won first prize in the Crabbe/Suffolk Poetry Competition 2019. In between, I must have written and read hundreds of poems whose chief preoccupations are tides, water, swimming and memory.

By the time Matthew Arnold stumbled down to ‘Dover Beach’ to see that ‘the tide is full, the moon lies fair’ an immense poetic body of work had swelled on water, the sea and swimming. The rhythms of water and poetry are so interwoven, and so closely connected to the body’s own rhythms. The sense of complete immersion you feel when reading or writing a poem is so similar to that feeling of swimming in cold water. The exhilaration; that sense of intense connection and absolute focus is uncannily alike.

I know of at least one workshop that deliberately links the two endeavours – inviting poets to plunge into the iron-grey waves of the North Sea, before handing them a pencil and paper. There’s something about the body’s reaction to cold water – a simultaneous closing and opening of neural pathways that inspires a breathless immediacy. It can so often produce something fresh and original on the page, utterly charged with energy. The body and mind are in shock and behave in radically different ways.

Of course I’m not the first to make the connection between poetry and swimming. There’s a sensational episode in one of our earliest poems, Beowulf, where we find our hero locked in an absurd swimming contest with his childhood friend, Breca, the Bronding. They were to swim for seven days and seven nights clad in full armour, (‘battle-sark braided, brilliantly gilded’) and nothing can separate them: ‘While swimming the sea-floods, sword-blade unscabbarded/Boldly we brandished, our bodies expected/To shield from the sharks.’

It’s a classic piece of mead-hall boasting: ‘Then we two companions stayed in the ocean/Five nights together, till the currents did part us/The weltering waters, weathers the bleakest.’

And yet there’s more; he must fight off the creatures of the deep: ‘To the bottom then dragged me/A hateful fiend-scather, seized me and held me/Grim in his grapple’ until it can be disposed of by ‘My obedient blade’ and ‘by means of my hand-blow.’

Inspired by the same primal urge, albeit without the armour and sea monsters, Walt Whitman plunges in with his ‘Poem of Joys’, an ecstatic panegyric on the visceral physicality of the natural world. He marvels at ‘the swiftness and balance of fishes’. Stumbling over cuttlefish shells of exclamation marks to get to the water’s edge, he sings: ‘O to bathe in a good place along shore!/To splash the water! to walk ankle-deep—to race naked along the shore.’

So many writers and poets use swimming as a means of regeneration; a way of replenishing the well.

While living in Deia, Majorca, Robert Graves rarely went a day without his sea swim to reinvigorate body and mind. It helped him channel his energies and refresh his spirits.

Even the games-dodging, chain-smoking John Betjeman, was drawn into the water. It’s well worth seeking out the delightfully silly piece of footage on YouTube, of the Poet Laureate learning to surf in Cornwall. ‘I don’t know anything so exciting as getting a perfect surf,’ he claims, ‘timing’s one’s shoot off from the waves, riding along on the crest and coming far in shore.’ His sense of freedom and delight is self-evident. He returns to the sea repeatedly in his poetry. In ‘A Bay in Anglesey’, he watches it: ‘filling in, brimming in, sparkling and free/ The sweet susurration of incoming sea.’

Anne Ridler’s poem Bathing in the Windrush is an evocative and elemental piece – a halcyon meditation on children swimming. They inhabit two worlds – one of the earth, the other of the water: ‘Smiling above the water’s brim/The daylight creatures/Trail their moonshine limbs below.’ Once in the water, they become subsumed – a part of nature again – at once more graceful, more animal and they ‘move like swanbeams through the yielding/pool.’ It’s as if nature has claimed them for its own, and in return grants them the gifts of lightness and felicity. She concludes: ‘These are like symbols, where half seen/The meaning swims, and drawn to the surface dies.’ It is as if a spell is cast in the water itself; once we return to the mundane world, the spell is broken and we lose that miraculous sense of buoyancy.

There is a darker sensibility in Eliot’s Death by Water sequence in ‘The Waste Land:’ lamenting: ‘As he rose and fell/He passed the stages of his age and youth/Entering the whirlpool.’ The water changes us, but it’s a reminder than we ourselves are little more than water and dust. Entering the water brings risk. It is sometimes a baptism, sometimes a rebirth, sometimes a death.

Into this canon, it feels churlish not to admit Michael Stipe’s oblique lyricism in REM’s beautiful and beguiling, Nightswimming. It’s a song of memory, regret and the luminous moment. He perfectly captures the illicit thrill of night swimming: The fear of getting caught/Of recklessness and water/They cannot see me naked. Water and memory stir together. The moon, ‘low tonight’ creates forces and ebbtides of its own, acting on us in ways we cannot resist. Yet the luminous moment dims with the fading memory: ‘These things they go away/replaced by everyday.’

Carl Phillips’ sensuous poem ‘Swimming’ explores similar territory: ‘I love the nights here,’ he asserts. ‘I love the jetty’s black ghost-finger, how it calms the harbour.’ The water represents childish fears too:  ‘An old map from when this place was first settled shows monsters everywhere. But it’s worth the risk: ‘I dive in, and they rise like faithfulness/itself, watery pallbearers heading seaward, and/I the raft they steady. It seems there’s no turning back.’

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It’s a heady mixture of fear, tempered with adventure and reward. Sea swimming is at once a return. It comes at a cost and a shock. It’s a reminder that we are part of the world and its rhythms – not above it or outside it.  When we are held in the water we give ourselves back to nature; we surrender the autonomy afforded by evolution;  it’s at once a regression and a reminder of our fragility. It impels us to live life more intensely, to value ourselves more, each other and the world.

Roger Deakin, the great swimmer and nature writer has practically inspired a tradition all of his own. Judy O’Kane’s meditative tribute ‘Waterlog,’ after Deakin’s book of the same name, is a rich and densely layered study on the man’s life and work, marveling at how close he got to the essence of things. She pictures him mid-swim at frog’s-eye level in the waters that circled his Elizabethan home in Suffolk: ‘He’s circling the moat, his forearm/gliding through the weight of the water/fluid, fluent, and I float in his wake.’ Crucially, she makes the explicit link between the rhythms of water and writing: ‘Everywhere liquids move in rhythms/he says, his pen never lifting/ from the page.

Deakin’s own writing frequently reaches the pitch of poetry itself. His prose is rich with metaphor and simile and freshly-minted phrase-making. As he lolls in the waters off the Suffolk coast, he sees ‘the giant puffball of Sizewell B’ while the shore itself disappears in the rising swell. He swims beneath ‘an orange sickle of a new moon’ which hangs ‘in a deep mauve sky.’

Meanwhile Louise Gluck’s poem, Pond begins in darkness, but glints into focus:  ‘Night covers the pond with its wing/Under the ringed moon I can make out/your face swimming among minnows/ and the small echoing stars.’ The night creates an alchemy of its own: ‘In the night air/the surface of the pond is metal.’ Water and the powers of darkness have a transformative effect.

Perhaps the last word should go to Byron, and his poem, Written After Swimming from Sestos to Abydo. He compares himself (at least at the outset) unfavourably with Leander, that fabled swimmer and lover of Greek legend who nightly swan across Hellespont (The Darndelles) to woo Hero, even in ‘dark December.’ He begins: ‘For me, degenerate modern wretch/Though in the genial month of May/My dripping limbs I faintly stretch/And think I’ve done a feat today.’ But he confesses his exploits cannot be compared with brave – or foolish – Leander’s: ‘But since he cross’d the rapid tide/According to the doubtful story/To woo, — and — Lord knows what beside/And swam for Love, as I for Glory/Twere hard to say who fared the best:/Sad mortals! thus the gods still plague you!/He lost his labour, I my jest;/For he was drown’d, and I’ve the ague.’

It’s a delightful piece of self-deprecating humour – but how classic of Byron to make himself the victor in the end, feeling every bit the adventurer, but escaping with little more than a cold. It betrays that giddy sense of the heroic (mixed with the slightly hare-brained) that every wild swimmer feels as they stand shivering on the shore, post-swim, wondering where they might find nearest mug of hot tea.

Christopher James has won the National Poetry Competition, as well as the Bridport, Ledbury, Oxford Brooks and other poetry prizes. His new novel Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Beer Barons is available for pre-order and latest collection, The Penguin Diaries is out now. 

Songs of the rain: A review of Return by Minor Road by Heidi Williamson (Bloodaxe, 2020)

This is a book of remembrance, of trauma and grief, but also one of hope, healing and consolation. It’s a book of landscapes and emotion, often drawing parallels between the two, finding mirrors and echoes in nature.

Heidi was part of the community in Dunblane at the time of the shooting in the primary school in March, 1996. Return by Minor Road is not an attempt to understand the tragedy, but in the words of one of key poems, to ‘reckon’ with it. Across its three parts, we are taken on a circuitous journey of healing and rebuilding; a coming to terms with what happened, without the sense that the poet is reaching for easy answers or explanation. Throughout, nature is a companion, a sounding board and at times, almost a commentator on feelings and events. Some poems tackle its appalling subject head-on, but for the most part, these fine, carefully weighted and minutely observed poems arrive at oblique angles.

‘In a school room, the woodcutter’ is an erasure of one of Heidi’s earlier poems. It invokes myth and fairy tale, a sinister reimagining of a Grimm fable; where the woodcutter has ‘come for the children.’ They ‘tried to be small… as birds, quieter/one feather… pressed to their beaks.’ It is unbearably moving, wrought with fear and works within a framework of lost innocence. Heidi has a great tenderness and insight in her treatment of children in the collection, her observations informed, no doubt, by her own experiences as a mother.

Return by Minor Road

Water, and the image of the river, in particular, recurs throughout. It is a symbol for time, grief and memory. In ‘Thrawn’ (a dialect word meaning twisted and/or stubborn) the river is a source of solace as well as power. Unable to sleep, the poet goes ‘back to the river’ in her mind, and is lulled by the rhythms of the water as it ‘laps and falls.’ She feels it running through everything – beneath the streets, and even at an atomic level as it seeps into ‘each cell of stone.’

Elsewhere, the river represents escape: ‘You may stand on its banks some days and resist/The temptation to walk in up to your chest.’

‘Allan Water Bridge’ also presents a moment of dangerous reflection. A woman on a bridge contemplates the oblivion of the water below, as the ‘Dark fish weave beneath.’ It’s full of menace; death a mere slip away. But there is a stepping back. As she raises her hands from the stone, there is a sudden lightness, as the bridge itself ‘begins to hover/one inch above the water’ then proceeds to travel through the town. The familiarity of landscape is what eventually settles her: ‘She knows this place.’

However, the poet resists the temptation to interpret all feeling through the pathetic fallacy of nature. She is acutely aware of our tendency to project ourselves onto landscapes and constantly search for meaning. She knows that nature is ultimately an unconscious, elemental force: ‘The river will outlast this rush/but not mourn it./The cormorant will not grieve/for what it never knew to be its difference.’ Heidi does not apologise for using nature as a mirror, but makes no claims for it to be possessed of supernatural or spiritual feeling of its own. The one instance of this, in ‘When we were stone’ is almost light relief: the protagonist imagines herself as a rock on a riverbed: ‘The fish eyed us with suspicion./And when we drained in the sun/dragonflies alighted on us…’ It’s a wonderful conceit and an arresting image.

The second part of the book, Cold Spring, is searing in its intensity. The language is often fragmented, revealing its inadequacy in the face of such inexplicable tragedy. We hear the muted voice of a counsellor: ‘how do you feel/What would you want to/say?’ Grief, it is clear, is not a linear process; there are relapses, reversals and vivid flash backs as ‘shock… resets.’ Elsewhere, in ‘Self’ the poet appears to doubt the wisdom of the whole enterprise; the tone is questioning, doubting, even accusing: ‘How can you make words out of this? I don’t know.

In Dumyat, the protagonist finds herself almost exhausted by grief: ‘Some days we cried ourselves out.’ Instead their pack coats and leave to climb a hill. They climb in silence, relieved at not having to articulate their sense of loss, of despair or outrage: ‘At the summit we kept numb vigil/for what we couldn’t say.’

Perhaps the starkest piece in the collection is ‘Elegy’ consisting solely of the names of the victims. They are arranged, as if sat at desks in their classroom, with spaces between. It’s numbing in its rawness; a bold assertion of the loss and the framing is everything. But this is a deeply compassionate work, and there is often consolation to be found. ‘Elegy’ is followed by ‘Snowdrop’ where an implied link is made between the lost children and the flower: ‘Every year they break through/hard ground, their tiny selves/weighed down with sunlight.’ It’s a glimpse of hope and renewal, but also an invocation of The Snowdrop Campaign, which successfully lobbied for gun controls – suggesting their sacrifice wasn’t utterly meaningless; they have saved the lives of others.

The poem ‘And’ works in the same way as ‘Elegy’: an apparently straightforward list of the lives the tragedy has touched: ‘And the postman. And the florist. And the dentist…’ It is at once banal and crushingly painful. The staccato bursts are like jolts of grief and finality. Buried in the list is a warning: ‘And the next time’.  It builds to a devastating ending: ‘And the siblings. And the parents. And the children. And.’ It is hard to conceive how some of these poems could be performed, pitched as they are at such a degree of intensity.

If any of this implies that the book is hard to read, then that is to mislead; the lyrical flights are sensational; among the finest nature poetry being written this year. The language is as freshly minted as the landscape; the river is ‘forceful as a key.’ Each descent into despair is balanced by a resurgence of life and language (‘the flood may recede/as rapidly as it arrived.’)

Heidi is also well aware of the duality of nature, and by extension, ourselves. In the poem ‘Smoke’ it ‘needn’t be a warning,/it can be an invitation.’ It comes towards the end of the collection, when the elapse of time allows us to look at things differently – to see that some symbols can be double edged – what once would have been a portent can also represent renewal and comfort. In this particular piece, her own child’s spirit is vigorously invoked as the totem to ward off grief and despair: ‘the hero in this poem/throws invisible smoke bombs/to exist a room mysteriously.’

So many of these poems speak of absence, whether in the spaces between lines, between poems, or in the powerful use of the erasure form, where words are stripped away. In ‘Dust, at intervals’, the poet watches thin air itself, observing ‘The air is not nothing.’ The lines drift, like motes of dust across the page, as she sees ‘skin flakes, mites, cat dander’ pass through lamplight. It says much about the poet’s powers that even an absence is revealing.

The collection culminates in a return to Dunblane. This final section is also home to the powerful title poem, an intimate portrait of a family exploring its past. She sees the place through different eyes, specifically her child’s, who reckons with the unfamiliar landscapes for the first time: ‘He says the light/tastes different here.’ The tone is just as candid and reflective in the poem that follows: ‘Dunblane.’ We walk in step with the family as they revisit old haunts, noticing things that weren’t part of their earlier lives: ‘the play parks and museums’. There is an intense sense of gratitude; an awareness of their luck to have each other; to be witness to a childhood untouched by tragedy. But they take nothing for granted: ‘We watch the future/we do not dare to presume.’ The final poem, ‘Place’ is one of the best I’ve read this year; a gush of images that manage to evoke a country, a time and a chapter in a life.  

Return by Minor Road feels like a major achievement. Brilliantly constructed, each poem feels complete in itself, while contributing to a greater whole – a book that is woven together with the grasses and branches, shadowed by rain clouds. A work of vivid phrase-making and lyrical empathy, it is by turns, a celebration of our spirit, a forensic examination of the soul, and a warning of the darkness that lives at the edges of our lives.

Christopher James won first prize in the National Poetry Competition, 2008. His most recent collection is The Penguin Diaries (Templar, 2017). He is also the author of several works of pastiche fiction, including Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Beer Barons (MX, 2020).

‘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.