christopher james

Poems and prattle

Month: April, 2012

You Can Discover – Remembering John Martyn

Years ago I got hold of the Island Records’ John Martyn best of, Serendipidy. I was easily seduced by the slurry vocals and intricate fingerstyle playing. Like thousands of others, I quickly learnt ‘May you Never’ on the guitar, although never quite mastering that famous ‘slappy thumb’ technique he made his own).  I was less keen however on the echoplex jazz experimentation –  wishing he had continued down his folksy path. Ralph McTell, who was a contemporary of the Les Cousins folk scene in the late sixties (they all thought that was the name of the bloke who owned the club) thought much the same thing.


Having read John Neil Munro’s excellent 2007 biog, Some People Are Crazy, and using the browsing power of iTunes, I decided to give John Martyn another go, and was rewarded in spades. Essentially, everything up to 1980 is fantastic. The early acoustic things are ridiculously likable – from the sweet-as-sherbert version of ‘Singin’ in the Rain,’ the hippy-trippy idealism of ‘Woodstock’ and melt in your mouth cover of ‘Don’t Think Twice it’s Alright’ where he manages to improve on Dylan’s melody. Even whimsical tunes on The Tumbler like ‘Sing a Song of Summer’ and ‘Fishin’ Blues’ are charming. His energy and look-at-me guitar playing sell even the slightest material. 

The real revelation however, is the album Inside Out, which combines richly melodic fare such as ‘Fine Lines’ – (lovely to hear John totally into the music in his spoken ‘it felt natural’ intro) with more sophisticated electric playing. World music, jazz inflections and hypnotic riffs make it plain why Martyn found this direction more intriguing. Once you get into the One World album with its trippy grooves (especially on Dancing and Big Muff), the satisfactions are deeper still. The acoustic years seem lightweight in comparison.

The decline then, after 1980’s Grace and Danger, with its more mannered production (the stinging version of Johnny Too Bad’ an exception) is all the more disappointing. There are a couple of later gems on Sapphire (a haunting version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow – apparently recorded as a joke and fittingly, a minor hit in Germany) and the poppy Fisherman’s Dream. After that, unfortunately there is really nothing but synthesizers and false comebacks.  He just seemed to lose his mojo – much like Stephen Stills in 1974; the tunes just stopped coming.

Munro’s biography probably hasn’t won Martyn any new sympathisers – his prickliness, unreliability and unfailing ability to say exactly what was on his mind in any given situation won him few friends, especially when the booze got the better of him. Some of the images are at once fascinating and pitiful – when he is taken in by a friendly pub landlady in the mid eighties, she finds him slumped on the floor by the kitchen fridge eating their supply of lobsters.

Lobsters aside, you could do much worse than spend an hour discovering the soulful, original body of work John created in the sixties, seventies and early eighties. There’s nothing around now that comes close to it.      


 He was the man who was always singing

    the gifted tramp, who wore his overcoat

on the hottest days; whose melodies

    smoked from his mouth. He followed

his bright, unlucky self around the village.

    The Charlie Mingos of Lanarkshire; his pockets

spilled over with apples and plectrums.

     He stumbled the streets, made faces

at the kids, who knew nothing of the way

     he could bend the air around him, or

conjure light from a guitar with a bear’s claw. 

     They only knew of his pints of Barcardi

and how mid afternoon he would growl songs

     to his answerphone inside a red phone box.

How to Grow a Pineapple Tree

I thoroughly enjoyed the recent BBC Radio 4 production of The Waste Land with Eileen Atkins and Jeremy Irons. They entered into the characterisations whole heartedly and treated it as much as a drama as a poem; I especially enjoyed Iron’s  impatient/vaguely ominous ‘Hurry up please, it’s time’ . Having wrestled with the thing at school and university, I thought I had it sussed. Listening to it again however, it struck me that each sequence is driven by a different and entirely distinct emotion – anger, nostalgia, bitterness, ecstasy and so forth – it was almost as if Eliot’s compositional technique was laid bare; and of course, it was to be dazzled all over again.     

As soon as it finished, and still in its spell I then heard the Radio 4 announcer explain that we would hear how to grow a pineapple tree on Gardener’s Question Time. It was a strange and oddly luminous transition. Here’s what I learned.


Slice off the crown and soak in mineral water.

Take several days off work and purchase

three terracotta pots; each one

larger than the next.  Buy a litre of white rum

and baste each leaf while listening

to the greatest hits of Rolando Chaparro.

Move your plant to a room with favourable light,

wait for tropical winds, and listen to the slow drip

of the tap in your downstairs loo.  


Transfer your plant to a larger pot.

Watch the rain cling to the children’s trampoline.  

When the leaves become luxuriant

graduate to your largest pot and reward yourself

with a small succulent. If you plant

goes into hibernation leave the country for a year ,

returning on the day you left. Once mature,

remove the fruit and spread wet leaves on the ground

between your back door and the summer house.


Goodbye Levon

Sad news indeed with the death of the mighty Levon Helm; I loved his voice and drumming with The Band and his performance in The Last Waltz stands endless re-watchings. We are lucky that Martin Scorcese who directed that film of the Band’s last concert was prescient enough to realise their lasting importance.

Levon Helm: 1940-2012

Levon’s wild, gritty singing on Ophelia, Up on Cripple Creak, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down and The Weight will live forever. The conviction, authenticity and feel is just perfect – and astute of Robbie Robertson to admit there was someone in the band who could sing his songs better than he could. I wrote a poem in The Invention of Butterfly called The Levon Helm Fresco Cycle, which you can check out at some point. It imagines a time in the distant future the faces of Band members are faded frescos on the side of crumblings buildings. Their music will last that long. Levon Helm 1940-2012.

A walk in the woods . . .

Spent an amazing day yesterday in the Heart of England Forest – a new forest, near Stratford upon Avon. Despite the rain, we managed to plant a tree under the expert guidance of forester, Stephen Coffey. It’s part of publisher, poet and philathropist Felix Dennis’ vision to plant and preserve native broadleafs – oaks and so on, where they once stood in the UK. It’s amazing to think that we have gone from being one of the most densely forested countries in Europe to the least.

It felt good listening to the birds sing while looking out across at the hundreds of thousands of new sapling that will outlast us all. A good time to  remember Kipling’s poem, a precurser in tone and subject matter to Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken perhaps? The bit about ‘the night-air cools on the trout-ringed pools’ is truly expert stuff.

The Way through the Woods

They shut the road through the woods
Seventy years ago.
Weather and rain have undone it again,
And now you would never know
There was once a road through the woods
Before they planted the trees.
It is underneath the coppice and heath,
And the thin anemones.
Only the keeper sees
That, where the ring-dove broods,
And the badgers roll at ease,
There was once a road through the woods.

Yet, if you enter the woods
Of a summer evening late,
When the night-air cools on the trout-ringed pools
Where the otter whistles his mate,
(They fear not men in the woods,
Because they see so few.)
You will hear the beat of a horse’s feet,
And the swish of a skirt in the dew,
Steadily cantering through
The misty solitudes,
As though they perfectly knew
The old lost road through the woods.
But there is no road through the woods.

The Poets Join the Tour

One of my great childhood memories is watching the Tour de France on Channel 4 with my elder brother. We’d sit inside while the blazed outside, eating Skips, listening to the pop-snyth perfection of its theme tune, watching the beautiful French countryside roll past and the rake thin cyclists climb hills in terrible agony, all accompanied by the nation’s ‘true poet laureate’ Phil Liggett.

Known for the unusual lyricism of his commentary, a chap called Doug Donaldson eventually compiled a book of poetry based on his quotes: ‘Dancing on the Pedals,’ after hearing the commentary: ‘He’s dancing on the pedals in a most immodest way.’ Here are a few more from the great man.

“Once you pull on that golden fleece, you become two men..”

“There’s no reason to rush into hell.”

“Its only a mountain, one of many you can see on this French Country morning, but for 171 young men it would be a place where they would dare to ask themselves the questions of greatness”

It all got me thinking about how the great poets would fare in the Tour de France, with the following results:  


The former Laureates make up an early breakaway pack

Robert Bridges at the head of the Peleton, a canvas satchel

of sardines and eggs bouncing softly behind his back.

Betjeman and Hughes have yet to reveal themselves

preferring to let their thin jackets flap in the streets of Dunkirk.

At the end of the first stage R.S.Thomas is the unlikely

wearer of the yellow jersey; less plausible still in that

he has yet to discard his duffel coat or red woollen tie.

He glares at the spectators lining the curbs of Gant.

The race is not without scandal; Manley Hopkins enlists

the support of some Jesuit priests who bundle his bicycle

into the back of their Citroen hatchback ply him with

altar wine and roll him out the other side of Tignes.

At stage four, the Liverpool poets are the last ones out

after a long evening on the Brie and Cavernet Sauvignon

while running an impromptu workshop on French rhyming slang.

The prospect of the Champange valleys of Joiny is enough

To revive them, although Elizabeth Barrett Browning

shines in the sprint, bolt upright in her bonnet and ruffles.

The journalists report her embroided cuffs and lupine eyes. 

In the support vehicle, Robert Browning throws her hankies

dipped in lavender and flasks of hot, Camomile tea,

Last in is Tony Harrison in a woollen jumper with holes

at each elbow; he doggedly steers an old Triumph Twenty

pressing down on one knee, his other hand steadying

a volume of Philip Gross laid open on the handlebars. 

Through the leafy woods that cool the scorched roads

from Chablis to Autun and the riders reach the hills.

Nonetheless, buoyed on by the wind, MacNeice makes

an attack pressing at the heels of William Carlos Williams,

who has been impressive from the start; then at the crossroads

at Gimont, Philip Larkin emerges like a sunbeam from a cloud

and cuts a line between them tucked into the wind. 

Up in the peaks, Motion and Muldoon battle for the Polka-Dot.

The stretch from Cognac to Angouleme is almost too much:

beautiful sections of unbending road, allowing liberal

sampling of the produce; in the woods of Plaisac, some

reported the ghost of Ern Malley up ahead in the heat haze.

By the Cheauvreuages Valley the favourites have made

themselves known, although Thomas Hardy squanders

an early stage lead by taking tea and cake in Bonneville.

As the leader enters Paris, a hush falls on the crowd like rain

on the Loire; then as the river mist recedes, he appears

grinning wide, John Betjeman on a Raleigh Sprinter, his arms

outstretched, riding naked down the Champs Elycees.

Another big night in . . .

At home with the James'

 My son Noah, 4, has been practicing his modelling skills with an informal portrait of his mum and dad watching The Apprentice. Recipe for play dough: two cups of plain flour, one cup of salt, a little food colouring, plus water as required.  

Meanwhile, daughter Polly has created a joke book – best joke so far: ‘Why do ant eaters never get ill? Because they’re full of antybodies.’

Britain’s got talent? Not ‘arf!


Want to run away with the circus?

You might think twice if you were to watch the one I saw this week. Now that animals play little or no part in the show, it seems human peril is the key attraction.  

We caught up with one at a seaside resort earlier in the week. The acts were all terrific – but utterly terrifying. There were the Hungarian tumblers who propelled themselves through the air by dropping the heaviest of their number onto the end of a human see-saw; then there was the superb Russian balancing artist who seemed as if he could balance the entire audience on the end of the knife he gripped between his teeth. Most frightening of all was the pleasant lady in the pink leotard who couldn’t stop smiling even when she was dangling upside down from the trapeze with the back of one knee.  And without a safety net. So professional was she, I had visions of her smiling even as she hit the ground.

For the traditionalists, many elements were comfortingly in place. The Big Top (‘The Big Top Hat’ as my daughter called it) still looked like a Big Top. It earned a spontaneous cheer in our car as it appeared around the bend in the road. The staff were dressed in a uniform that was somewhere between Sgt Pepper and genuine Victoriana – surely the great age of the circus that still haunts the current era. But there were quite a few 21st innovations – the thrash metal soundtrack that accompanied the strongman act, that may have raised some eyebrows. The very thin young clown (no scary green hair, large red nose or big feet) was more of a stand up comic than your classic old, tragic Coco figure. Clearly pre-testing had decreed that this would scare the youngsters.  

But to complain would be churlish; this was highly evolved entertainment and these brave, skilful entertainers risk their lives twice a day standing on their hands on piles of wobbling building blocks. Who could ask for anything more? And to top it all off, the ringmaster was not above serving us ice cream in the interval.  

For more circus antics, seek out my poem ‘Zippo is Coming’ from my first collection ‘The Invention of Butterfly’ Ragged Raven (2006).

To the Lighthouse – From the Sickbed

I have been rather ill the last couple of days. Following in a great family tradition, I retired to bed with a notoriously difficult literary novel, in this case, To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. (My father worked his way through Dickens during his infrequent periods of incapacity.) Since somehow dodging it on my University Eng Lit course, it has been staring at me from the bookshelf, rather like Mrs Ramsey staring at her husband across the dinner table. Well, I’m half way through, which feels a significant achievement in itself.

It is an undoubtedly beautiful book. The setting on Skye is luminous and Woolf paints the novel as much as writes it; it is full of impressionistic colour. It is written in a hypnotic, poetic style, that seamlessly combines speech, description and reflection. But it is also a claustrophobic one. We are locked for long periods of time inside Mrs Ramsey’s head, an attractive middle aged women and mother of eight (!) with great force of personality, sensitivity and artistic temperament. We are privy to her lyrical inner voice; we share her moments of concern, delight and jubilation. She is also rather aloof pitying or envying most of those around her. It is a highly skilful performance.   

But it is infuriating in a thousand different ways. Roughly three things have happened in the last 138 pages; it is written in such a convoluted and wilfully obscure style that it positively impedes progress. Some phrases are purposefully opaque (‘So she tried to start the tune of Mrs Ramsey in her head’ – although usually intriguing). The battle of the sexes I also find father polarising – the women are artistic, holistic thinkers, prone to exaggeration. The men are vain, irritable figures, needy and clumsy. They are logical thinkers who struggle to identify the nub of the problem.

The book certainly suits my slightly dazed, medicated state, drifting in and out of clarity like a camera struggling to focus, but the question is: am I enjoying it? I feel like it’s doing me some  good. I’ve found myself thinking about it incessantly; reducing it; wondering how it could be shot as a film even. It would be shot with little dialogue certainly, and a strong focus on the house and symbols – the brooch on the beach with the waves lapping over it; the pig’s skull on the wall. Like reading when tipsy however, I just hope I remember some of it when I get better.

Oh, to be in England

A cold, bright Good Friday morning. Glad we decided only to watch half of Lawrence of Arabia last night (‘My name is for my friends!’) and only half a bottle of wine as Martha up before seven am.

Spent the morning making a cake with Martha and Noah (While Noah is licking the bowl he says: ‘I wish was I was an adult; then I could eat a whole bowl of cake mix’). To help pass the time, I tried memorising Browning’s Home-Thoughts from Abroad – the spring poem to end all spring poems (found in ‘National Favourite Poems on Journeys’)  using Ted Hughes’ image led method for learning by heart. Learn it yourself and be amazed at the melodious lines pouring out of yourself!

Oh, to be in England
Now that April’s there,
And whoever wakes in England
Sees, some morning, unaware,
That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf
Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf,
While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough
In England–now!!

And after April, when May follows,
And the whitethroat builds, and all the swallows!
Hark, where my blossomed pear-tree in the hedge
Leans to the field and scatters on the clover
Blossoms and dewdrops–at the bent spray’s edge–
That’s the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over,
Lest you should think he never could recapture
The first fine careless rapture!
And though the fields look rough with hoary dew,
All will be gay when noontide wakes anew
The buttercups, the little children’s dower
–Far brighter than this gaudy melon-flower!


Advice my father has given me

1. Keep a business card in the pocket of your dinner jacket.

2. Always buy as much house as you can afford.

3. Know where you keep your spare fuses.

4. Buy yourself a toolbox.

5. When it’s gone it’s gone.

6. Buy your mother a card.

7. Give your car a wash.

8. Change your oil.

9. Don’t resign.

10. Sleep on it.

11. Resign.