christopher james

Poems and prattle

Month: June, 2012

In Worcester without the sauce

To the Lamb and Flag, Worcester for a reading with Templar poets Michael Woods and Jane Weir. Made the mistake of heading into the Birmingham rush hour at 5pm and at one point began veering towards Manchester; only when the Welsh mountains reared into view as I sped down the M42 did things start looking up. It also made me realise I hadn’t seen a real life mountain in over a year; the drawbacks of living in Suffolk.

A beautiful evening as I parked up and the famous cathedral wore a hazy yellow veil of sunlight; little time to explore as the gig began at 8pm and Spaghetti Junction had already stolen an hour from my day. Worcester reminded me of Norwich. In a good way.  

Michael Woods was demob happy having successfully steered his A-Level English Literatature students through their exams, and some of these made up the attentive audience. Michael is a confident, theatrical performer equally at home as a raconteur and has an easy facility for the bon mot. He told a magnificent tale about a handome French classroom assistant called Fred du Pont who spent most of his time riding around Worcester on a bicycle, smoking Gitanes and attempting to seduce other people’s wives. ‘Do you love me?’ he demanded of one wife in a suburban kitchen. ‘Of course I do!’ she replied. His poetry was by turns lyrical, bawdy and irreverent and encompassed everything from burning Barbie dolls to documenting that forgotten figure of the Italian Renaissance, Kevin Medici. There was even a version of The Windhover by Gerard Manley Hopkins in Cockney rhyming slang. Would you Adam and Eve it?        

The pub had the flavour of an Irish boozer with any number of welcoming rooms, including a book lined lounge complete with fireplace. The landlord was just as welcoming (and bought a book!) .Very enjoyable reading – my new cowboy poems went down well (The Motor Cars of the Cowboys and How to Be the Lone Ranger) as well as such hoary chestnuts as Norfolk is Heading Out to Sea, The Manly Art of Knitting and poetry theme park poem: The Waste Land. Jane Weir read arrestingly well – and is in the middle of another textile led literary Odyssey. Alex McMillen compered the evening with easy grace.

The only pity was that I had to drive back the same night – so alas, no Worcester sauce for me. It was a seemingly endless voyage through midnight roadworks; like traversing the galaxy at light speed in a Seat Ibiza.

Why I named my daughter after Paul McCartney’s sheepdog

Because of his voice, an unrivalled instrument in the sixties and seventies, when its soaring, piping tone could convey joy, heartache and yearning all at one.  Think: ‘my love does it good, woah woah, woah, my love does it good . . .’

Because of his songwriting; and yes he did compose amazing words as well as endlessly melodic tunes. Think: ‘And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make’

Because of all the forgotten gems like ‘I’m Carrying’ – the sweetest song you ever heard, written for Linda while she was pregnant with their son James. It’s an outstanding vocal, lyrical and instrumental performance. It could have been written anytime between 1500 and now . . .

Because of his mind bending bass playing; listen if you can to his elastic twang on Taxman or the wild line over the top of Everyone’s Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey

Because he made being fifteen a lot easier; listening to Abbey Road borrowed from Rugby Library and listening to the first ten seconds of She Came in Through the Bathroom Window made the world glow again

Because of the fantastic drums he plays on Ballad for John and Yoko; (it’s just John and Paul on the whole record) ‘Sing!’ Boom boom boom boom!  

Because he wrote Martha My Dear; the most addictive combination of piano, guitar and horn you’ll ever hear in the key of A flat about a sheepdog  … and now my daughter)

Happy 70th birthday Paul!

One of the photos Paul McCartney released to the press upon announcing that he was leaving The Beatles.

A Spanish Dancer in Highgate

At a magnificent reading last night with the Arc poets at Lauderdale House in Highgate. Spent half an hour beforehand in Waterlow Park eating white chocolate and reading Treasure Island while a tree sheltered me from the rain. The perfect preparation I think for two hours of poetry.

The line up included James Byrne (with the beguiling line: ‘September – the month that tends all others’)  a lumious reading from Astrid Alben including an amusing anecdote about her drinking session with some Romanian monks. With little mutual language, one of the monks raises his wine glass and exclaims: ‘cheese!’

All poets had something unique to offer; there was tremendous anecdote too from publisher Tony Ward about Branwell Bronte, ill-starred brother of the more famous sisters; the station where he served as the ramshackle, inebriated station master’s assistant (see my earlier post on poor Branwell) was apparently carted off by wheelbarrow, stone by stone, to build someone’s shed. It all adds to the ignominy.   

The highlight perhaps was a thumping set of translations of Rainer Maria Rilke by Ian Crockatt, who came down all the way from North East Scotland for the night.

Ian’s introductions alone were totally absorbing. It was a relief to hear him say that Rilke’s poetry does not always make perfect sense – it is more about the image, the tone, the moment and the feeling in his work; a relief because I have sometimes struggled for the sense of his poems. The fact that Rilke wrote in French rather than his native German also says something about the distance and sense of strangeness and disconnectedness Rilke wanted to achieve.

Ian ended his set with great panache with a sparking, vivacious version of The Spanish Dancer (concluding with a dramatic flamenco stamp no less) which more or less stole the evening. It is a more complete and straightforward poem than many of Rilke’s and I apologise that this translation is not Ian’s own. It is an excellent example of the theme of transformation that pervades his work. It is so completely vivid and alive – the poem practically catches fire on the page.

The Spanish Dancer

As on all its sides a kitchen-match darts white
flickering tongues before it bursts into flame:
with the audience around her, quickened, hot,
her dance begins to flicker in the dark room.

And all at once it is completely fire.

One upward glance and she ignites her hair
and, whirling faster and faster, fans her dress
into passionate flames, till it becomes a furnace
from which, like startled rattlesnakes, the long
naked arms uncoil, aroused and clicking.

And then: as if the fire were too tight
around her body, she takes and flings it out
haughtily, with an imperious gesture,
and watches: it lies raging on the floor,
still blazing up, and the flames refuse to die –
Till, moving with total confidence and a sweet
exultant smile, she looks up finally
and stamps it out with powerful small feet.

Rainer Maria Rilke

Fame at last . . .

Take a look at the article in Suffolk Life magazine on the life and times of poet Christopher James. The fun begins on page 161. Enjoy and thanks to Caroline for the great interview.

Action Man: The Reunion

To Stansted Mountfitchet for the strange and wonderful House on the Hill Toy Museum. Among the Daleks and Cybermen, plastic Sylvester Stallones and Meccano fairground rides, I found an entire cabinet of Action Men. These 12 inch dolls, with their crew cuts and eagle eyes, produced by Palitoy, ruled the world of boys’ toys for twenty years in the 1960s, 70s and 80s.

I received my first Action Man in Christmas 1979, a blonde parachutist, swiftly followed by the astonishing extravagance of a helicopter. Then for my fifth birthday pilot, there was a tough looking fireman, complete with yellow helmet, angled torch and a dinky red axe. It was not until I had also acquired the polar explorer and deep sea diver that I understand what my parents’ tactics – to divert us away from the military uniforms and accessories, which even then I knew dominated the range. Our friends across the road would show off the arsenal of rifles, grenades and pistols that hung from the belts of their own battle scarred Action Men. The most dangerous thing my Action Man possessed was a beard.

And yet, I spent hours with these toys, with their taught stomachs, muscular arms and alarming lack of genitalia. My brother and I concocted complex narratives and adventures with these men as the heroes and even without having seen catalogues, adverts or toy shops we were somehow familiar with the entire range – the armoured Personnel Carrier or Sea Wolf Submarine. Everyone knew someone on the next road who knew someone who had one of these unimaginable treasures. To own the jeep or tank, was the childhood equivalent of owning a Porsche or Lamborghini.

After trading in the fireman for a foreign legion figure in an illicit playground deal that was soon reversed (clearly the Action Man had suffered an existential crisis and escaped to the desert) my parents finally relinquished and bought me an Army Officer Talking Action Man; if you pulled the toggle on his shoulder he would issue bold commands such as ‘Send out the Patrol!’  

Peering into the glass cabinet I was transfixed by my re-acquaintance with these toys and with this talking officer in particular. My own version met a grisly end in about 1984 when the children of a family we swapped homes pulled off his arms and legs.  

It would not be an exaggeration to say that I formed one of the most intense personal relationships of my childhood with this silent Action Man – I remember once being astonished and impressed I was able to make him stand up on his own. I could recall tiny details: the moulding of his cap, the indentation where his head would be; the minute stitching of his sweater and the detail of his watch. Hours would slip past as he scrambled silently on his elbows across my bedroom floor.

Now imprisoned by glass along with these other relics of the 20th century it was like peering through a window directly into the past. Thirty years was separated by a millimetre or two of Perspex. On my knees inspecting the lettering on the submarine, the mask of the SAS man, I wanted to smash the glass and play with these things once again. I felt an extraordinary connection with my nine year old self. My son was kneeling next to me peering at the jeep with the same wanton craving. ‘I don’t like this museum,’ he frowned, slapping his five year old hands on his legs in exasperation, ‘you can’t buy anything, you can only look at things!’  While not quite true, I certainly knew how he felt.

Street Parties and Jubilations

My Jubilee moment was our two year old daughter, Martha, sitting down on the warm tarmac in the middle of the road, legs astride a Union Jack paper plate.

Diamond Jubilee Street Party

With the red brick houses bedecked in more flags than Nelson’s navy, had it not been for the Sky satellite dishes fixed to every house, it could have 1900, 1945, 1952 or 2012 for that matter. Our gently sloping Victorian cul de sac (the only one in Suffolk I discovered yesterday) was the perfect venue for the outpouring of neighbourliness that toasted the Queen’s sixty years on the throne.

Despite some initial scepticism, the families eventually drifted from their houses, clutching their sausages, bowls of potato salads and flags. The organisers, a energetic former council worker (with a weakness for Catholicism and Mick Jagger as it transpired) and a previously quiet young couple, had put plenty of thought into proceedings and managed to summon up three BBQs, a children’s colouring competition, pass the parcel, and a street sing-a-long to Sir Gary Barlow’s new national anthem ‘Sing’ plus plenty of booze and ball games. Two senior ladies sat themselves on deckchairs in the middle of the street and handed out toys and memories to the children.

I spoke to more neighbours in one afternoon than I had in six years, discovering there was a prison officer, map maker, park ranger and mechanic, teacher, former Odeon cinema manager and professional dog walker all on our street. The elderly cinema manager, now an octogenarian told us tearfully and perhaps inevitably, it was just like the war. If this sort of thing has happened across the country we will be the most close knit country in Europe by Christmas.

The only draw-back from me was that I had to steer clear of the jubilee rum punch most of the day as I was reading a poem at the lighting of the Haverhill beacon in the evening (read on). But I was back in time for a couple of ales while watching Macca blast out Obladioblada and Prince Charles address his mother alternatively and rather endearingly, as ‘Mummy’ and ‘Your Majesty.’ The Queen herself was regal throughout and quite sensibly kept up her policy of only smiling when she feels like it. Which was quite a lot.


Think of her sixty years as sixty minutes

on the clock of St. Mary’s Haverhill.

Think of the steady hand of her rule,

as the slow sweep of the hour.

The first ten minutes are as giddy

as a New Zealander on Everest,

or the man at the wheel of a Mini,

sailing down the new M1.  

Twenty minutes past the hour,

and Russians circle the earth;

The Beatles play on the rooftops

and the last train pulls out of Haverhill.

The hour slips by, Diana disappears;

Redgrave returns from a river with gold;

her soldiers fight in foreign lands

in the dusts of Iraq and Afghanistan.   

But just like this tower of glass and stone

she watches over us; in the sky there

is a shower of diamonds for our Queen:

the graceful inheritor of ancient power.

This is her time; this is her hour.