christopher james

Poems and prattle

Month: May, 2015

In Bloom: The Chelsea Flower Show Massacre by Mark Fiddes

A punk energy and an impish sense of fun suffuses this fine new collection from Mark Fiddes. His preoccupations range from the state of the nation to the state of the nation’s pavements in (see The Existence of Dog for more on this). At its centre is the predicament of a revolutionary who finds himself in suburbia, sprayed with ‘Nespresso’ and ‘junk mail.’ He feels, like a Shakespearean fool, that it is his duty to subvert, to out hypocrisy, absurdity and social injustice, albeit with an oblique detachment and stylish intensity.

Chelsea

The title poem sets out the stall, a polite tirade at the money that is threatening the spirit of the Chelsea Flower Show. It begins with a great gag: ‘The butterflies get in for free/like the Queen, ex officio,’ the pay off skilfully executed with the line break. Anger is too strong a word for it, but he rallies against the Prada ha-ha’ in ‘a cash-scented glade.’ The images and brand names come one after another, like the butterflies themselves, creating a kaleidoscopic sense of colour (following Hugo William’s maxim that ‘poems should be full of things.’ The cumulative effect is dizzying – as rich and gaudy as the overpaid guests themselves. I won’t spoil the ending, but it’s a comic tour de force of considerable panache.

At fourteen poems, this pamphlet has a sonnet-like brevity, but is equally compressed with wit and wonder. The conceits are thrillingly apposite and refreshingly original; his wife attempts to stack ‘metallic capsules of coffee/which tumble like command modules.’ A commuter meanwhile darts ‘as a trout over stones smoothed/by decades to a favoured spot.’ There is a MacNeice like air of unreality to the everyday; as if familiarity has rendered it strange and absurd. A dog is ‘more photocopy than dog,’ resembling a ‘Braque cut-out on whipcord.’ At this flower show, high and low culture frequently collide, Fiddes mixing the mythic with the mundane; Orpheus and Rembrandt rub shoulders with George Clooney and Hello Kitty.

At its centre is a beautiful and affecting poem about a father, Sons of the Golden Section. The man is a painter working in ‘a kingdom of turpentine’ who possesses similar anti-establishment views, always ‘marching/against the latest Dunsinane.’ It is about perfection and imperfection and the poem itself has a painterly quality to it. The father is drawn as a magician, a creator, a mythic figure almost, but he has human frailties too, which are now only appreciated as the son grows older himself. He admires his technique as one craftsman to another:

‘He works paint with palette knives
as if colour like a growing thing,
needed pruning and deadheading’

It is a marvelous poem, filled with reflections, parallels, love and fear.

Equally powerful is Have We Won Yet?, an Afghanistan veteran’s hollow rumination on an ill conceived war. His own sense of bewilderment and disillusionment becomes a critique of his home country:

In the terrible clatter of cups and saucers
he hears the chipped symphony of England
officially at peace with everything except itself.

The poem is full of ironies; he notices that the flowers (is he also at guest at the Chelsea Flower Show Massacre?) are the same as the ones that grow in Kandahar; the crippled soldier remembers how he pressed a flower for his Gran ‘in a copy of Men’s Fitness.’

But this collection is never po-faced. Just when it threatens to take itself too seriously, it lapses into absurdity. Ruminations on war, religion and family are the tempered with the levity of This is Not A Scam or Solo Doloroso. The Pontiff and his entourage in A Page of Revelation are portrayed like a kind of holy Mafia ‘in a miracle of flash bulbs with ‘spiritual muscle on either side.’

Elsewhere the poetry is without politics or polemics: ‘From Siberia’ has a simple grace to it, a little reminiscent in tone and construction to John Burnside’s dark lyricism: ‘these geese trail/winter like needles pulling/thread through sailcloth.’

Ultimately, like the flower show itself, the pleasure is not to be found in a single piece, but in the effect of the whole on the eye (and in this case the ear too). He uses the flower show as a metaphor for England: ‘more Abstract Expressionist than picturesque.’ Its ‘reckless foliage’ is hidden beneath ‘a patchwork flag’

There is so much to enjoy in The Chelsea Flower Show Massacre that to quote from it excessively would be to do Fiddes an injustice. Purchase a copy of this intelligent, immaculately tended collection and you will find yourself in the company of a tour guide at once wickedly cynical, bleakly funny and always colourful.

In Praise of the Allotment

Apparently the popularity of allotments shot up when The Good Life first aired in the UK. The antics of the much-missed Richard Briers and the wonderful Felicity Kendal conjure up a dream of self sufficiency, healthy living and optimism: in fact all the reasons people still grow their own today.

Allotments are resurgent again, with people recognizing not only the economic advantages of tilling your own scrap of earth but the the dietary and health benefits too. There’s no better exercise for the body and mind – and it’s no secret that gardeners live longer and happier lives.

Shed

For more allotment inspiration, watch Mike Leigh’s Another Year where the allotment represents sanity and stability, when the world crumbles around you.

In the meantime, here’s my new song, Allotted Time to celebrate the allotment, a Great British Institution.

The Scarecrow in the Rain

Each day on the drive to work I pass three scarecrows, their old shirts and trousers flapping in the breeze. They all stand in the same field, suspended on their poles as if they are three friends (or three wise men/three fools/three thieves?) who have fallen out with each other. What are they thinking? What are their hopes and dreams? Why have they fallen out? Here’s the song it inevitably inspired.

Scarecrow rain

For poems about scarecrows, fools and mythical London detectives, take a look at my poetry collection, The Fool, available from Templar Poetry.

10 Untold Sherlock Holmes stories

I set myself half an hour to come up with ideas for ten new Sherlock Holmes stories. Who knows if any of them will ever be written? Which ones would you like read? Thanks to Penguin for the image of their rather beautiful editions of the original Conan Doyle novels.

The Adventure of the One Eyed Fish
Holmes and Watson are presented with a damaged glass ornament, which provides an unusual clue to a lost fortune.

The Adventure of the Missing Moon
A distressed astronomer arrives at Baker Street convinced that the recently discovered moon of Neptune, Triton, has disappeared.

Holmes books

The Adventure of the Three Astronomers
A set of triplets, all astronomers, present a star chart pertaining to show an undiscovered galaxy; Holmes discovers it is a map showing the location of lost Welsh treasure.

The Adventure of the Spice Ship
A merchant who has made his fortune transporting the spices of the orient comes to Holmes after discovering a body buried in his cargo of cinnamon.

The Adventure of the Missing Page
A publisher pleads for Holmes’ help when the last page of his sure-fire bestseller goes missing, along with its author.

The Adventure of the Laughing Earl
Holmes and Watson are invited to a remote country estate by the son of an earl who appears to have lost his mind after witnessing a strange and unexplained event.

The Adventure of the Vanishing Man
An illusionist succeeds in making himself permanently disappear while performing on the London stage. His assistant, Astrid Bonner begs Holmes to help her find him.

The Adventure of the Underwater Ballerina
Holmes and Watson travel to New York where they become embroiled in a argument between Harry Houdini and a ballerina who performs in a giant glass tank.

The Adventure of the Chelsea Tenor
A famous singer believes he has been poisoned, causing him to lose his voice. Holmes investigates the motives and comes up with a novel remedy.

The Adventure of the Smiling Puppet
A ventriloquist is not all he seems, when Holmes and Watson discover he is the head of a gang of counterfeiters.

My own Sherlock Holmes novel, The Adventure of the Ruby Elephants, appears in November from MX Publishing. My recent poetry collection, The Fool, is currently available from Templar Poetry.

Sherlock Holmes in the Lavender Field

Retired now, he spends his days beekeeping
and playing Bach’s sonatas on his violin.
At night, he feeds his case notes to the fire;
allows old enemies to slip from his mind.
But today, he is standing in a field of lavender
showing me the sky: how the cirrus uncinus
is a blur of angels returning to heaven; why
the altocumulus floccus is the pipe smoke
of a thousand problem. At the edge of the field
is a man in a bowler hat, a statue of Holmes
in one hand, a pistol in the other. Look, my friend
says: a single bee buzzes inside a gold snuff box.
Holmes lifts the lid and lets it spiral into the air,
woozy with freedom, as the bullet hits home.

Bees

This poem is taken from my collection The Fool, published by Templar Poetry in 2014.