christopher james

Poems and prattle

Month: November, 2012

Three poems from England Underwater

In the great spirit of try before you buy, here are three poems from my new collection, England Underwater – seventy five pages of sonnets, rondeaux and freewheeling ramblings. Enjoy!  


‘All my life I have done nothing either great or good.’

Branwell Brontë, you died standing up,
your talent eclipsed by whisky and genius.
A station master’s assistant, you were
let go for translating Horace in the ticket office;
you made announcements only in Latin.
As a tutor, you were driven to distraction:
Mrs Robinson, seductress of Thorp Green,
she became your one blaze of excitement.
On Sundays you had the hall to yourselves;
you drank tea in the nude and read Keats in the bath.
She always said the maid was not to be trusted.
You took to the hills with your brushes
to escaping the chattering of your sisters
and the prison of your father’s love.
You chased phantoms across the moors.
Merely gifted, you painted yourself out of life
and could not remember setting fire
to the bed or Emily dousing you with a bedpan.
Branwell Brontë, King of Angria, forever cast
to the shadows of history, you found laudanum
no cure for heartache or mediocrity. Your sisters’
greatest love: the brilliant boy, who never shone.


Gary Cooper drives
a ’Fifty Mercury in midnight black
that cruises under a spotlight moon
and reappears around High Noon.
His final mistress sent it back;
Gary Cooper dies.

John Wayne drives
a cream nineteen fifty three Corvette
with blood red seats and a manual shift.
Too small, he gave it away as a gift,
to an extra who had lost a bet;
John Wayne dies.

Jimmy Stewart drives
a yellow Auburn Boat-tail Speedster
that stretches like sunlight across the road.
They didn’t have these in Shenandoah.
In Hollywood he thinks he needs her,
Jimmy Stewart dies.

Paul Newman drives
a 914 Porsche the colour of blue skies.
He eats boiled eggs behind the wheel
and pool balls clack against the steel.
He chose the car to match his eyes;
Paul Newman dies.

Clint Eastwood drives
a Grand Torino the colour of buffalo.
It races horses across the plains
and marks its trail in desert rains.
At dusk he leaves the sky aglow:
Clint Eastwood drives.


Tread softly, for you tread on my dreams.
W.B. Yeats

You kept all your old shoes,
an unbroken footprint into the past:
the pumps left at high tide
that filled with sea water;
the single stiletto left behind,
when you flung the other down
an Italian hillside; even the wellingtons
in which you planted tulips
every year of primary school,
you washed and preserved
at the bottom of your wardrobe.

You were the one who spared
the flip flops worn to a wafer
that carried you across France;
the thick lipped sandals you kicked
against the school desk, and even
less forgivably, the six pairs
of verruca socks hung up like
chickens with your husband’s ties.
Nowadays, after work, you prefer
the barefoot life; of wood under foot
and the sands of summers to come.

Setting fire to the moon

‘You should not launch your book, dad’, my five year old advised, ‘because it might take off and set fire to the moon’. Despite my son’s warning, the book was indeed launched this weekend in Matlock Bath and thank you to Alex McMillen and his team at Templar who did such a terrific job with the production.

The Derwent Poetry Festival, up in a bitterly cold Peak District, brought poetry of all kinds to Masson Mill, which was otherwise full of Christmas shoppers carrying out armfuls of knitted woollens, shortbread tins and model railway sets. However with the shops closed and a northern moon hanging in the sky, the atmosphere inside the old mill was eerie – you could hear the faint echo of the looms and spinning jennies still working away down the centuries.

The Peaks were as breathtaking as ever – we tracked down the original Bakewell Pudding Shop (in my opinion, the tart and slice are still superior to the pudding, but maybe that’s just me) Chatsworth seemed as regal as Versailles and the whole place was carpeted in autumn leaves. Poetry doesn’t pay, but this weekend at least the streets were certainly paved with gold.

I read from the book on Saturday night; salutations to Jolyon Braime who diverted his troop of hikers our way to soak up some culture. It was also pleasure to meet Cristina Navazo-Eguia Newton whose collection was launched at the festival on Sunday. Her book Cry Wolf is full of a lyrical, ethereal poems that cross borders of language and geography; strongly influenced by film, her poems evoke moods and sensations as much as images – and a ghostly, uncanny world that lingers behind this one. Take her poem: ‘Elements for a Hungarian Story’ where ‘a stray dog nozzles a bucket. It doesn’t rain.’ She shouted encouragement and appreciation from the second row. It reminded me that poetry readings can sometimes be a little too polite. A bit of audience participation, without actually reaching the level of heckling, is a very good thing.

Alex pinned a mike to me to record the launch reading, leaving me feeling a little like an FBI agent wearing a wire tap – unfortunately I fluffed a line in almost every poem, so not sure how useable the results will be – but the night was massively enjoyable all the same. It was great trying new things, as well as relying on old favourites, and I stuck mainly to the new book.

We stayed in a cosy house at Study Farm, with friends Nick and Catherine, their children and our children in Bonsall, a little village in the hills. The kids (five in all!) loved the rabbits in the hutch and the white kitten creeping across the yard. On the Sunday, walking off the Limoncello, wine and beer from the previous night, we took a tour of the village, which slopes in all directions on the side of the hill. We took in the dark stone walled buildings, which have a kind of grim beauty, the church, the autumn flowers and the Sunday morning quiet – just a few plumes of chimney smoke rising into the white sky. We found a brilliant map that showed some of the history of the place – telling the story of the minors who built a road called the ‘Clatterway’ who were paid in ale, and the location of ‘Sue’s Panshine and Pickle Shop’ which sounds like just the sort retail experience Mary Portas is always encouraging.

Well the book is out there now – I’ll be doing some more readings, including in the Cotswolds in December, but to some extent, the book will now have a life of its own. Buy your copy here.

Book launch – England Underwater

Off to Matlock Bath this evening for the start of the Derwent Poetry Festival and the launch of my new collection England Underwater, on Saturday night. If you fancy a mad dash into the hills for a night of wine and poetry, it’s 7.30pm on 17th November at Masson Mills, Matlock Bath, DE4 3PY.

The title poem is partly inspired by one of our wettest years on record – we had the fourth wettest summer since 1727! It got me thinking about what would happen if it just kept raining?


They took us into sunken Albion, down shafts
of moonlight through forests of floating oak,
where the sandstone of Bath still glimmered
like bullion, thirsting for the sun. We shone
our mustard light on the signs of the old M1,
Stadiums rusted like bathtubs in the silt.
We plunged on, and saw all of England’s meadows
plundered by the waves; tractors with nothing
left to plough; stately homes appeared like
tacky ornaments at the bottom of a fish bowl.
Sharks swam through the bicycle wheel
of the London Eye; The Ritz was like the dining saloon
of the Titanic; crabs clung to the hands of Big Ben
left at quarter to three, the hour the nation fell.
In Shropshire, we saw the Iron Bridge adrift
like a grater at the bottom of a kitchen sink.
Eastwards, in the spire of Norwich Cathedral we found
the bones of the bell-ringer sounding the alarm.
Further still and we met the Angel of the North,
now a deep sea diver, patrolling the Dales.
We found squid nesting in the Brontë Museum;
The Fenlands were returned to their natural state.
Then finally, the Lakes, still as beautiful as they were:
Skafell a dark shadow looming before us
and at the shorelines, there was the ghost of Canute
now more like Neptune, holding back the land.

What to expect from the new collection . . .

The pubs are closing, our ancient saints are roaming the streets and there is devolution talk in the air. But England refuses to go under. From a horse running free through the City of London to the Fenland pole vaulters, there is plenty of evidence that old Albion hasn’t given up the ghost just yet. Take a trip to Wasteland, England’s first poetry theme park; look up as the English novelists take to the trees and wait around long enough to discover Queen Victoria’s darkest secret. Other parts of the United Kingdom might have their melodies, but England’s song is all her own. Keep your life jacket handy and look out for King Canute as his throne sinks deeper into the sand. The flood waters are rising, but the birds are still singing.

‘The Invention of Butterfly was much praised when it appeared. Christopher James’ second collection is marked by the same fertility of invention, blurring the lines between the ordinary and the extraordinary.’
Glyn Pursglove, Acumen

The ties that bind

My father kept a rack of ties like a row of unconscious snakes. They lived on the inside of his half of the wardrobe and were like prizes from some long forgotten hunting trip. Each varying in length and diameter according to their vintage, their reptilian markings were the sole exotic elements of his wardrobe that hinted at a self expression beyond his chinos and blue shirts. In that rich, musty space, the treasures of my father’s youth lay at the feet of his dinner jacket trousers. There were old board games, soft leather shoes, a cricket bat, a coin collection, a painting set, the 1961 Eagle Annual and a small bundle of soft paperback, white at the spine that revealed themselves to be complete set of i-Spy books – the train spotter tendency in my father that was luckily checked early on.

Personally, I have never seen the need for a tie. To me, it is remnant from some by-gone age, a descendent of the expansive cravat and ruffle of the European court. Putting one on seems tantamount to a condemned man slipping on his own noose or a prisoner attaching himself to his own ball and chain each morning. When my father first introduced me to the ritual of the tying of the knot, he was in fact initiating me to the world of work and servitude into which his father and introduced him. He did however, enliven the proceedings by immediately showing me the glory of a Double Windsor, a trick I was never able – nor ultimately wanted to pull off. Whoever decided that wearing a piece of string around your neck helped you do your job better was a remarkably dim witted sort of fellow – albeit one who has had a marvellously positive influence on the silk trade. You only have to catch a gaggle of school children on their way home to witness the hilarious disrespect they show towards their ties. Whether it’s unpicking the seam, unstitching an entire colour and tucking away all but a two inch sprouting beneath their chins, they turn their enforced slavery into a fashion statement. For us, the fashion was to leave the thin end hanging out, while the fatter end was tucked away brushing our bare chests during double maths.

Today I have three ties, for occasions that absolutely and unavoidably demand formality: a quietly positive green one for interviews, a red spotted number for weddings and baptisms and a slim black tie that is thankfully, rarely used. Apart from these, which are all showing signs of war damage due to the alcoholic nature of these encounters, and their aftermath, my wardrobe remains infest free of these serpents. Life in an opened necked world seems so much saner. People have the luxury of breathing as they speak to you rather than gasping out their words while someone attempts to garrotte them. A bowl of soup can be consumed with a minimum of worry and fuss; a glass of wine can be swilled without fear of finding the end of your tie gently soaking up the Claret. A spoonful of Bolognaise can be raised, knowing that a show of tomato sauce has not just Jackson Pollock-ed your cravat. People act differently too. There is a certain frankness – a ‘down to work’ statement of intent implied in the removal of the tie. People can no longer hide their expensively schooled and exquisitely enunciated dimness behind a length of silk. The class system is dealt a blow – between the haves and the have-nots. Or should that be the knots and the have-knots? It plays havoc with the old boy network, no longer able to sport their old house colours to win grace and favour. This seems a marvellous victory alone.

Like the insistence of wearing shoes in a nightclub – the tie itself is no guarantee of decency. Every murderer in history I’m sure at one time owned at least one tie and a smart pair of shoes. Oscar Wilde was cautionary on the subject: ‘with an evening coat and white tie, anybody, even a stockbroker, can gain a reputation for being civilized.’ If your office remains enslaved by this anachronism of fashion, be the first to lose the tie, or else look for some other place of work where humans aren’t kept on dog leads.

‘I like wearing a tie,’ Paul says. ‘It means at the end of the day I can fling it across the room and feel truly free.’ A fair point, but then why not feel free all day long? ‘Many people will simply dismiss you out of hand in the world of serious business,’ he counters. But then that’s only as long as everyone plays ball. How did the age of hats end? Clearly someone on a particular day left his at home and one by one, so did everyone else. No doubt some big business deals went down in the days of the Roman Empire without the need for a tie – and presumably no one remarked that everyone was wandering around in a sheet.

We need not spend much time on the novelty tie, sported by embarrassing uncles since time immemorial. However a cursory wander through cyberspace will tell you that if you so wished, you could be in possession of a tie displaying the naked female form, Elvis Presley, Pac-Man, the ten commandments or a close up of a bacon Frazzle. Naturally anyone in possession of a musical tie is to be treated with extraordinary caution. Having said all this, there is an undeniable thrill at being part of a wedding party, with a great length of silk extravagantly bristling beneath your chin – yet the fun here is dressing up as a gentleman would one hundred and fifty years ago. Do we think that in another one hundred and fifty years’ time, men will dress for weddings in a pair of jeans and sweat stained t-shirt with the legend: Sex Instructor: First Lesson Free?

My father wore his tie to work, to mass, fondue parties and visits to the bank manager to negotiate ever more desperate loans. He once told me an extraordinary story of a 1970s trip to the Ideal Home exhibition. In a burst of futuristic madness, they shelled out for a plastic yellow cheese grater. Only on leaving the exhibition did they realise they had not left enough money for the bus home. My father had the indignity of having to negotiate a loan for five pounds from the local branch of the Clydesdale bank – and without a tie at that. Perhaps I’m wrong about all this – but life surely has more to offer than staring blankly out of your kitchen window at seven in the morning running an iron over a crumpled tie.

Thomas and his friends

To Haverhill Arts Centre to see Austrian acoustic guitar maestro Thomas Leeb. He plays in the percussive melodic style probably made most famous by Newton Faulkner, spending just as much time ill treating his guitar as playing it. His insistent, rhythmic tapping, scraping and brushing against the wooden body (his long suffering guitar also takes a bow at the end) has the effect of providing a constant tribal beat to his beguiling tunes.

This is the last night of the tour and afterwards he heads straight to Heathrow to fly home to California, but he’s in no hurry and no one is short changed. He is great fun throughout, with a gentle, off-beat sense of humour. His most well known tunes are dispensed early, including the genre defining Desert Pirate, the beautiful, harmonic YouTube smash, Akaskero and his definitive instrumental version of No Woman No Cry, which is the perfect excuse for some of his amiable shuffling about the stage in the style of the old reggae masters.

He combines a life touring the world with one of domesticity, reporting that he has now finished building his own home. He recalls two days lying on his side cleaning the gap between the walls and the floor, the tedium of which resulted in new song ‘Sideways,’ which with its pretty melody housed in a tight rhythmic structure, is anything but tedious.

He admits he is treating us as a test bed for new material, which gives an edge to the night. New song ‘Fishbowl’ is an attempt to capture the skewed world view you have when constantly travelling through different time zones. ‘I don’t care if you don’t like the title,’ he laughs when introducing the tune, ‘I do.’

His original material is consistently strong and it’s clear he is not content merely to be an interpreter. However his covers are equally arresting. A delirious delight is his arrangement of Bobby McFerrin’s ‘Don’t Worry Be Happy’ full of witty runs and fills, and frantic dashes up and down the fretboard. It’s made all the more brilliant by the odd circumstances of its creation – at an airport after the ‘strangely liberating perfect storm’ of losing his coat, wallet, green card and passport in one foul swoop. It says everything about the man that this was his response to the disaster.   

He claims to be a one trick pony – envying other guitarists who can play in different styles, but it’s hard to see what he means; across the night we get Austrian and Celtic folk, acoustic speed metal and even funk, in the gloriously named ‘Grooveyard.’ His eclecticism and versatility are both key to his appeal.

A highlight among many, is his tender rendition of some Bach (he stuck a picture on Facebook as a nod to Arnie, his fellow Austrian – ‘I’ll be Bach!). The Bach piece glistens with harmonics and shows perhaps he has come full circle. He returns shortly, and no doubt in some glory, to the conservatoire in Austria where he was rejected twenty years ago.  

He says that it’s wonderful to return to Haverhill (although no doubt he says similar thing elsewhere) but we have a special claim to be a spiritual home from home. He plays two songs composed by the late Eric Roche, a resident of the town and a great friend of Thomas’ – the mind boggling Perc-U-Lator and a tender tune that I lost the name of halfway through my second beer. Composed by Eric for the birth of his son, Thomas does it full justice however, his thumb sounding a tender heartbeat throughout.        

I’ve seen him play here before but it was a privilege once again to see how he can transform a space with his questing musical spirit and the simple power of song.