christopher james

Poems and prattle

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Angels and guitars: State of the Union, 3 March, Haverhill Arts Centre

State of the Union, the unholy musical alliance of Brooks Williams and Boo Hewerdine, came storming back to Haverhill Arts Centre this evening. After an enforced two year absence, they opened with a surging Sweet Honey in the Rocks and didn’t relent for the best part of an hour and a half. With some intriguing new material, they succeeded in charming the audience with their easy mix of banter, blues and bonhomie. With old-time harmonies as sweet as these, they could set the phone book to music and make it sound like a forgotten classic from the 1930s.

For this duo, anything is game when it comes to subject matter, although they’re drawn irresistibly to the margins – alchemising the bizarre into musical gold. Man with a Hammer is a tune about marathons of all things. (In Germany instead of ‘hitting the wall’ at the 20 mile mark, they liken it to being hit by ‘a man with a hammer’). Snake Oil, from their second album of the same name, is a cautionary tale about the charlatans of old medicine shows, and conjures vivid images of the old west. Then there’s 23 Skidoo, which reminds you why you fell in love with State of the Union in the first place: absurdist lyrics that suddenly hit you for six, a hypnotic descending riff (complete with extra bends and trills tonight) and the catchiest tune you ever heard.    

Some songs are possibly over familiar: King of California never leaves Brooks’ set, but it’s not hard to see why. It’s a stunning story-song with a devilish twist. What makes it worth hearing again is what Brooks does with his guitar. His fiendish mix of lead lines, fingerpicking and strumming is never the same twice. He lends the same talents to new and old material alike, never once putting a foot wrong. There’s a real sense of risk-taking too as he dashes up some new musical avenue, possibly not quite sure himself where it will lead. Watching and listening to him find his way back again by some ingeniously inventive means (and in time for the start of the next verse) is a genuine treat.

They didn’t waste time in lockdown, Boo relates, having recorded ‘a song,’ which leapt to number three on the New Zealand iTunes chart. Brooks remarks that he’s noticed a few pence arrive in his bank account. Boo wonders whether they might have been better off if they’d been paid in kiwis. Unjustly overlooked on release, Why Does the Nightingale Sing? is genuinely one of the most intoxicating ballads of the last two years (if not twenty). Despite sounding like it was written before the Second World War, its plaintive lyric and haunting melody goes straight to the heart. If anything, their combined voices evoke the spirit of the Everly Brothers. The standard really is that high. Equally good is Butterfly Wings, which achieves lift off with its equisitely harmonised chorus. Wings are clearly a recurring motif of Boo’s. His song I Wish I Had Wings from his last solo album is a real gem.

Two boda-fide classics from Boo’s oceanic back catalogue are delivered solo (while Brooks goes backstage to rifle through Boo’s dressing room, we’re told). Patience of Angels is as fresh as the day it was written, an empathetic study of a woman’s fortitude every bit as good as McCartney’s Daytime Nightime Suffering. Meanwhile, Dragonflies continues to dazzle with its lilting sing-song melody mimicking the dance of the dragonfly. 

Not to be outdone, Brooks’ Down at the Mission is a deceptively straightforward sounding piece of folk radicalism, that would fit nicely alongside his acoustic gospel-blues number, On The Rolling Sea. Its searing melody seems sure to earn it a regular place in his setlist.

Unforgettable, their take on the Nat King Cole classic is a thing of fragile beauty (although they forget bits of it at an earlier performance, they confess). One of the highlights comes near the end. That’s All Folks is a brand-new end of relationship song in the same vein as Paul Simon’s 50 Ways To Leave your Lover, with some of their wittiest lyrics to date. Delivered in Boo’s trademark deadpan style, it’s an instant winner. Another unexpected treat comes in the form of Hesitation Waltz. Boo found the title from a piece of sheet music from the 1890s – but with no evidence of the words or music, they composed their own, with predictably brilliant results.

All too soon, the set draws to a close with more closely harmonised balladeering. It’s a deliciously enjoyable night. With the prospect of plenty of new material on the (next) horizon there are still tricks up the sleeves of these most prodigiously talented of troubadours.        

John, Paul, George, Ringo…and Elvis

Without Elvis,’ John Lennon once declared, ‘there would be no Beatles.’ Yet songs by the King are conspicuous by their absence on The Beatles’ original albums.

What could the hip-shaking Memphis rockabilly of Elvis, and the Mop Tops’ mind-bending psychedelia, possibly have in common? It’s a long way from Liverpool to Tupelo, Mississippi. But the King’s influence runs deep throughout The Beatles’ work, both together and in their solo years. 

Even the most casual McCartney fan knows that Paul is now the owner of the Elvis Presley bass: the famous upright once played by Bill Black. You’ll find plenty of clips of Paul looking adoringly at it before essaying his a startlingly good version of Heartbreak Hotel.

‘They weren’t playing much of Elvis’ stuff on the radio in those days,’ Paul remembered. ‘To hear Heartbreak Hotel I had to go into a record shop in Liverpool and listen to it through headphones in one of those booths. It was a magical moment, the beginning of an era.’

John was equally moved: ‘When I first heard ‘Heartbreak Hotel’… me whole life changed from then on, I was just completely shaken by it.’

While perhaps more famous for his Little Richard screech, the dopy charm of Paul’s Elvis impersonation is just as convincing: full of love and respect for the man. You’ll hear it again on There’s Good Rockin’ Tonight and Blue Moon of Kentucky from his 1991 MTV Unplugged live album, as well as on scattered recordings from across several decades.

When The Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein was touting his boys to the record labels he described them, with astonishing prescience (or barely credible hyperbole) as ‘potentially bigger than Elvis.’ Once they’d got their deal, however, they largely steered clear of Elvis’ repertoire. Perhaps conscious they needed to make their own mark, The Beatles put some distance between themselves and the 20th century’s other runaway pop phenomenon. Despite being huge fans, they only recorded four songs made famous by him, including Paul’s take on That’s Alright Mama. Even these only appear on the BBC recording sessions rather than any of the original 1962-70 LPs.

Countless other Elvis songs peppered their early live sets, when their gargantuan sessions at the Star Club and Reeperbahn in Hamburg necessitated an encyclopaedic knowledge of rock and roll. John took the lead on tough sounding material like Mean Woman Blues (later also covered by Paul on Unplugged, but unreleased). John’s drinking buddy, Brian Griffiths remembers being with John while Paul was heard practicing It’s Now or Never one morning in Hamburg. ‘Oh, why the frig’s he playing that sort of crap for?’ asked John. But Paul knew that an Elvis ballad was just the sort of thing the German crowds lapped up – even delivering Wooden Heart, complete with its German verse.   

Yet strangely none of these graduated onto the early albums, which were otherwise crammed with affectionate tributes to their other musical heroes. You can’t help but feel that when selecting the songs from their live act to fill their first LP, Please, Please Me, it was a deliberate move not to be seen paying such public homage to their transatlantic idol – and now rival.   

They were, by contrast, far less coy about recording Buddy Holly’s tunes, (no fewer than six on record, and 13 on stage) including That’ll Be The Day, their first ever recording as The Quarrymen in 1958. Admiring of Holly as a composer as well as performer, they even styled themselves after his band, the Crickets, with some slightly twee insectoid punning. If Buddy Holly had lived, and continued to flourish, perhaps they would have distanced themselves from him too.

While they might not have recorded many of his songs, Elvis’ influence can be found everywhere in The Beatles’ output. The flip side of their very first record, Paul and George’s In Spite of All the Danger, has the unmistakably ring of early Elvis – a distant cousin of the sort of mournful teenage cri de coeur Elvis so favoured when he wasn’t ripping it up. It even features the same, slightly hokey backing vocals you’ll find on Elvis’ 50s records. When Paul included it in his 2018 live set, it became an unexpected sing along favourite with fans. 

Then there’s Paul’s magnificently moody mumble on Back in the USSR. While it may be a Beach Boys pastiche in conception, the vocal is pure Elvis. The same is true for Lady Madonna – its boogie woogie styling has its roots in Fats Domino and Bad Penny Blues, but the voice is an echo of King; perhaps while it appealed to Elvis. He heard himself in it.

There’s a spirited but all too brief take on (You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care that surfaced on the deluxe reissue of The Beatles (White Album) in 2018. It was recorded directly before Helter Skelter, their proto-metal work out. It seemed that they hit upon the idea that channelling Elvis might put them in the zone for the heavy excursion that would follow. Meanwhile, when The Beatles’ 1969 Get Back sessions descended into a series of sloppy rock and roll jams, Elvis was one of their frequent go to points.   

While they may have cool towards the King in their recorded output, they couldn’t resist an opportunity to meet him in the flesh, a summit (brokered by their managers as a PR coup) which finally took place in Bel Air at the end of August, 1965. While it’s sold as one of the iconic moments of the 20th century, the reality was somewhat anticlimactic. Priscilla Presley remembers The Beatles ‘being so excited, but so nervous. You could hear a pin drop when they came into the room… they were speechless. John was shy, timid. I think he couldn’t believe he was there with Elvis Presley.’

To break the ice, Elvis picked up an electric bass and played along to Mohair Sam, the Charlie Rich number, and an element of slightly forced larking reportedly ensued. John later claimed The Beatles ‘plugged in’ and jammed along, although the surviving Threetles in 1995 had no memory of this. (Ringo played football with him,’ George quipped. While no great friendship blossomed from this rather stilted meeting, Paul still remembers it as one of the great moments of his life.

Thirty years on, Paul, George and Ringo had conflicting recollections, but the sense of being star-struck was common to them all. ‘I mean, it was Elvis,’ recalled Paul, ‘he just looked like Elvis. Wow! That’s Elvis.’ Ringo lamented that he later discovered Elvis had tried to have the Beatles banned from America – either on the grounds that they were a corrupting influence or, more likely, that he didn’t want the competition.

They also learned something else: that fame wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. They took an instant dislike to Elvis’ court of hangers on and sycophants. They also saw that wealth, comfort and fame had somehow taken the edge off their idol. He wasn’t the same hungry hound dog they’d heard hollering through the static on Radio Luxenbourg. It was no coincidence that when John temporarily lost his mojo while procrastinating in the suburbs in 1965, he called it his ‘Fat Elvis period.’    

Clearly having parked his misgivings, Elvis turned to The Beatles’ songs during his Vegas years, covering Hey Jude and Yesterday (although, as Paul pointed out ‘he gets the last verse wrong’ slightly changing the lyrics to the less apologetic ‘I must have done something wrong, how I long…’ ‘He added a little disclaimer,’ says Paul). Elvis seemed to favour Paul’s tunes, although his version of George’s Something is perhaps the most famous of the five. His charmingly ramshackle version of Lady Madonna features some tasteful harmonica, although it’s clearly an impromptu recording as Elvis has only the shakiest grasp of the lyrics. He loses interest towards the end, clearly thinking of his lunch: ‘I’ll tell you what, are you guys hungry?’ There’s also a film showing Elvis take a stab at Get Back, as part of a loose medley. It’s fascinating to see him reclaim the pastiche of a quintessentially American sound and making it sound authentic.     

Once The Beatles were themselves history, they clearly grew much more relaxed about sharing their Elvis fixation. ‘I love Elvis so much,’ Paul told Uncut Magazine, ‘that for me to choose a favourite would be like singling out one of Picasso’s paintings.’ That said, the song Paul returned to most frequently was That’s All Right, Mama – including a version recorded with the late Scotty Moore, Elvis’ original guitarist, surely a dream come true for Paul.

John went further still: ‘I’m an Elvis fan,’ he admitted in 1975, ‘because it was Elvis who really got me out of Liverpool.’ In his promo film for Whatever Gets You Through the Night, John’s wearing an Elvis badge; while presenting the Grammy’s the same year, he sports a garish brooch spelling out the world ELVIS. By this point, he literally wore his influence on his sleeve. And further evidence, if any was needed, of his love for the man can be found in the unmistakable Memphis echo of (Just Like) Starting Over, the song that helped him kick-start his short lived comeback in 1980.     

As early as 1973, when putting together his slightly indulgent TV special, James Paul McCartney, Macca recorded four Elvis songs later dropped from the official release, including a delightfully playful, We’re Gonna Move and a less successful, schmaltzy version of It’s Now Or Never. Perhaps John had a point, back in Hamburg.  

Paul’s rock and roll covers projects, Run Devil Run and Choba B CCCP (‘Back in the USSR’) both lean heavily on Elvis’ output. The former (and superior of the two) features blistering versions of I Got Stung, All Shook Up and Party, which rank among Paul’s greatest covers (perhaps only bettered by Long Tally Sally), and he’s in superb voice throughout. Meanwhile, the Russian rock and rock album featured lively, although less inspired versions of Lawdy Miss Crawdy, and Just Because, also covered by John Lennon on his 1975 Rock and Roll album. For both Beatles, Elvis had a talismanic quality – almost beyond rational explanation, connecting them to some ghostly other world of magic and danger that lay beyond their reach.

It seemed Elvis defined for them the purest the spirit of rock – the original spark that lit the fire. Of course, The Beatles eventually transcended their rock and roll roots, later exploding into astonishing technicolour, their writing and recording becoming ever more experimental. Yet their sense of wonder at the person and image of Elvis never left them.   

Marvelling again at the mystery of Elvis’ appeal, Paul circles back to Heartbreak Hotel: ‘Elvis is a truly great vocalist, and you can hear why on this song. His phrasing, his use of echo, it’s all so beautiful. It’s the way he sings it, too. As if he’s singing it from the depths of Hell. It’s a perfect example of a singer being in command of the song.’

When Paul finally visited Graceland in 2013, he left a plectrum bearing his own name on Elvis’ grave ‘so Elvis could play in Heaven,’ where perhaps John finally got his chance to jam with him after all.   

Something so wild and new in this feeling – a review of Sarah Doyle’s new collection

The title poem of Sarah Doyle’s audacious and brilliantly conceived new collection says it all. Reading these collage poems, drawn from Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals, there’s something absolutely remarkable about seeing her luminous words for the first time presented as poetry.

Using cut-up techniques, elements of found poetry, and applying her own sensibilities as an unusually accomplished poet herself, Sarah has given us these words afresh. She has freed them from history, and the straitjacket of prose, stitching together disparate lines and observations from different days, months and even years into finely honed and coherent poems. Working thematically – for example bringing together Dorothy’s reflections on the moon, birds, the sky – Sarah has crafted individual pieces that catch the light in new and unexpected ways.   

Dove Cottage, Grasmere, where Dorothy Wordsworth lived with her brother, William (collage by Christopher James)

Sarah’s source materials are the journals Dorothy kept between 1798 and 1803, of her life with William Wordsworth. Dorothy records their intimate, symbiotic relationship, where she casts herself almost as a midwife for his poems, copying down his stanzas and sharing her own nature writings for him to use and rework – including one of her finest pieces of writing on encountering a blazing belt of daffodils that ‘tossed and reeled and danced/and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind’. She records her and her brother’s comings and goings in often amusing and revealing detail, documenting their visitors, walks and moods, spanning their crucial time in Dove Cottage, Grasmere. 

Anyone familiar with these journals, will know that the weather (particularly the incessant rain) and William’s predisposition to ‘compose’ (or fail to compose) on any given day, form the chief preoccupations. She has a powerful sense of empathy, both with her companions and surroundings, and indeed her moods closely reflect the weather and those around her, soaring to moments of epiphany and bliss, but spiralling just as easily into melancholia.

‘A heart unequally divided’ is a sonnet built around Dorothy’s struggle with a depression, and captures these oppositions particularly well. It begins with the assertion: ‘My heart was so full that I could hardly speak.’ She takes herself on a solitary walk to the lake: ‘I sate a long time upon/a stone at the margin of the lake, and after a flood/ of tears my heart was easier.’ The catharsis she experiences in nature goes some way to mend her heart, even if she cannot banish her demons for good. As a sonnet, it works perfectly – a focused, compressed and continuous narrative that allows us a glimpse of her soul through a rich sensory experience (she hears ‘the weltering on the shores’ almost like the sound of her own sobbing). Part of the pain it seems, is a sense of her own unfulfilled potential, alongside unspecified, unrequited feelings, perhaps unknown even to herself.   

Almost all of Dorothy’s writing is rooted in nature, and this manifests itself in her phrasemaking in the most astonishing ways; she is constantly open to the colour and variety of the wild that meets them almost at their door. With a magpie’s eye, Sarah collects some of her most vivid and surprising phrases, and with careful use of line break, form and rhyme delivers them memorably.

‘Among the mossy stones’ is almost a parallel piece or version of Wordsworth’s Daffodils: ‘…and at last, under the boughs/of the trees, we saw that there was a long belt of them along the shore.’ And later: ‘Some rested/their heads upon these stones, as on/ a pillow for weariness.’  There is a tenderness to it, and sense of Dorothy’s own weariness too in the face of all this beauty; as if she would never be capable of capturing or mirroring nature’s bounty. Yet paradoxically, this is almost the closest she got to a sort of poetic perfection – only for it to eclipsed by the dazzle of her brother’s showboating reflections on the same scene. Her wonderful phrase: ‘ever glancing, ever changing’ could describe the light, the rain and these poems too.   

Sarah’s use of concrete (or visual) poetry is especially strong. ‘Snow in the night and still snowing’ is full of gaping white space between the words, which drift down like flakes, the lines collecting more densely at the foot of the page; form perfectly reflecting the meaning. Scouring the journals for different observations on snow, Sarah piles phrase on phrase, each compounding the next – from ‘the occasional dropping of the snow from the holly boughs’ to ‘the brooms waved gently with the weight of snow.’ The cumulative effect is incredibly powerful: repetition with variation, almost like Monet’s water lilies or van Gogh’s sunflowers. The individual phrases continue to work in their own way as vivid, dynamic images – all the more redolent for their filmic sense of movement – like a photograph taken on an iPhone where you see a second’s movement before the still image itself.  

‘When the rain’ is another tour de force in the same manner – the phrases flooding down the page in a twisting spiral; the word rain itself running like a spine through the poem (as I heard one reader astutely describe it). Indeed, the almost comical quantity of rain that falls on William and Dorothy seems to make the very pages of the journal damp; yet it’s this very liquidity, slipperiness and the luminous reflections of the rain that most accurately describe Dorothy (and Sarah’s) style – with images and colours running and flowing together to create something fresh and new.    

Sarah’s trick in this collection is to make herself invisible; yet her poetic intelligence is constantly at work, feeling the weight of each line – like snow on a branch. She is alert to rhymes and half rhymes, repetition and rhythm. The space she gives these poems to breath is almost her greatest gift to Dorothy, clearing space for us to see the lines more clearly and quiet for them to sing out.  

There is a sense here too of a wrong being righted. Dorothy has been cast as a spinster, a hanger-on, an also-ran of the Lakeland poets, and latterly, even a gooseberry in William Wordsworth’s marriage to Mary. While many have praised her as a diarist, few have truly made a claim for her as a poet in her own right. These pieces make a compelling case to the contrary.

Whether Dorothy herself limited her poetic ambitions to serve her brother, his muse and reputation, or whether she felt the constrained by society and convention, we will never know. However we do at least get a sense here of what she might have achieved. To compare William and Dorothy’s work is perhaps unfair – but there is arguably a lightness and freshness about her writing that’s missing from her brother’s; an instinctive, intuitive grasp of nature’s hold on us. She is unshackled from the stuffy strictures of form William adhered to, and untroubled by his public expectations.       

Indeed, this book is a double achievement: first for Sarah for seeing the poems within the prose and working them into such fluent and complete pieces; and second to Dorothy herself for what is in effect, her long-delayed debut collection. What a wonderful thing it would be to see both their names together on the Forward Prize shortlist for best debut? You can imagine Dorothy bashfully ascending the steps to the stage in her black gown, cheeks flushed as she collects her cheque. And, yet, you feel, she would still spend most of her acceptance speech praising her brother. Bravo to Sarah on such an original and daring venture.   

Why Does the Nightingale Sing? Review of the new single from State of the Union

The new State of the Union song has dropped. Once more, it feels like a tune that’s been beamed down from a planet where it’s always the end of summer and always 1954. The moon shines and hearts reliably break. Business as usual then, for this most treasured of transatlantic collaborations.

Blessed with a timeless melody, and filled with the great unanswerable questions, Why Does the Nightingale Sing? is an unashamedly romantic offering. After the polished set of covers that made up their last album, this is State of the Union back to doing what they do best – demonstrating their peerless mastery of old school songwriting.  

The instrumentation is simpler than some State of the Union records, which occasionally border on showboating (and when you can play like Brooks Williams, why wouldn’t you?) They’ve clearly taken a decision to let the song stand on its own two feet and sing for its supper.

Unlike the bulk of their material, where one singer takes the lead (generally the song’s lead author) with the other harmonising like a ghost in the next room, this is almost a duet in the traditional sense. Exchanging lines like two seasoned crooners, Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra could have made a decent fist of this. Still, it feels marginally closer to Boo Hewerdine’s oeuvre than Brooks’. As ever, it’s a masterclass in songcraft. Like Blake’s Jerusalem, it’s built around a series of questions – but at the core of this song is heartache – ‘Was it a love that went away? Is that why the nightingale sings?’

It sounds a plaintive note of sweet regret that haunts so many of their songs: ‘The sound of a joy that has gone/the sound of being apart.’

Now onto their fourth album, this is a collaboration that only gets more interesting. On the strength of this beguiling balled, the portents are good, and it all augurs well for a splendid album to come.

The Adventure of the Imaginary Detective

Sherlock Holmes: The man who never lived and will never die. The poster boy of Victorian fiction, doyen of the great detectives. But who was he? Who is he, besides a Hollywood star and fixture of Christmas Day TV schedules? Why does he command such a loyal following even now, a hundred and thirty years on since he first appeared in A Study in Scarlett?

I present here, a fresh new case: The Adventure of the Imaginary Detective. Together, will be looking for clues and carefully sifting through the facts. By the end I hope we will have reached a satisfactory conclusion. But for now, I would ask that you all remain within this room until the case is resolved.

Film poster for The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

Now it is impossible to imagine the outcry that followed the death of Sherlock Holmes in The Final Problem. The Victorians wore black arm bands in the street. The national newspapers ran obituaries. 20,000 people cancelled their subscription to the Strand magazine. Except perhaps for the break up of The Beatles, there is no modern equivalent. To his fans, he was fully alive, leaping off the page, and glowing as brightly as the tobacco in his famous pipe bowl.  This insatiable public appetite for Holmes perhaps was ultimately the reason why he eventually returned, never to leave us again.

But there is so much more to Holmes that the two-dimensional sleuth of popular culture. The Holmes of the original canon, the fifty six stories and four novellas, which we will confine ourselves to here, is a surprising, complicated and flawed character, foibles that only serve to make him more attractive.   

‘I’ve found it. I’ve found it!’ These were the first words we hear Holmes utter in that memorable first adventure from 1887, and they echo down the years. They also serve as a manifesto. Holmes finds the solution time and again.

I stumbled into writing Sherlock Holmes fiction almost entirely by accident. My brother rang me up one day asking for a suggestion or a name for his online jewellery shop. I asked him what sort of pieces he had and he told me a about a strange ruby elephant he had acquired from an American collector. I thought for a moment and suggested the name ‘The House of the Ruby Elephant.’ Immediately this sounded to me like the name of Holmes adventure.

A quick internet search however, revealed that Anthony Horowitz had just published his Sherlock Holmes adventure: The House of Silk. I changed mine to The Adventure of the Ruby Elephants, and without so much as a plot, I began my first novel in earnest.

It begins with the escape of an elephant from London Zoo and leads Watson and Holmes on an unlikely search for lost Indian diamonds that leads them to Queen Victoria and the last Maharaja of India via rural Suffolk and Lord’s Cricket Ground.  

Along the way, they encounter four sinister characters called the archangels – assassins in top hats and sharpened canes hell-bent on the destruction of Holmes and the acquisition of the diamonds. I’ve since written two more: The Jeweller of Florence, and published just last month The Adventure of the Beer Barons.

The Adventure of the Beer Barons

In this blog, we will learn only about the man. We will find out where he came from. We will meet his friends and his enemies. We will study his methods and try and think like him. But before we begin our investigations, a word of warning, from Holmes himself:

It is a capital mistake to theorize in advance of the facts. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.

So let us not speculate, but acquire our data first, and by the only means Holmes would approve: by scrupulous observation.

The precursor to Holmes

Let us first consider his origins. Sherlock Holmes did not of course simply pop out of thin air, fully formed.

Now there are many who believe, or choose to believe, that Holmes was in fact quite real. And who am I to say they’re wrong? Was he just a figment of Dr Watson’s imagination? However most agree that Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle was his creator.  

Born in 1859, Conan Doyle (No hyphen) was 38 when the first Holmes story was published in Beeton’s Christmas Annual. As well as a writer of prose fiction, he was a poet, a playwright, a spiritualist and trained doctor, suggestive of course, of Dr Watson’s occupation. He was well travelled having been ship’s doctor on a whaling ship, but in the early 1880s settled down, like Watson to start a general medical practice, first with his friend, and later on his own.

However, and fortunately for us, Conan Doyle’s practice was not a success. With few patients, he filled in time by writing his stories. It is tempting to think that many of the characters that populate the adventures drew their inspiration from his list of patients. We also know he had a rival working around the corner called Dr James Watson.  

Now while Conan Doyle proved a writer of great invention, and perhaps genius, he cannot however take credit for inventing the detective fiction genre.

Holmes may be the best remembered, but there were several who came before him and who are now considered the precursors to Sherlock Holmes. There was Inspector Bucket from Dicken’ Bleak House, but the most relevant to our enquiries perhaps was a character called Auguste Dupin, conceived by that master of the gothic, Edgar Allen Poe.

Dupin is now almost completely forgotten, eclipsed by the blinding light of Sherlock Holmes’ fame.  Yet he reflects many of the qualities we later come to associate with Holmes. He is reclusive, eccentric and follows a rigorously scientific method. He has a superior manner, divorces himself from his emotions and regularly reveals the incompetence of the police. Does that sound familiar yet? If that’s not all, he also has a side kick who becomes the narrator of his stories.

Dupin’s first appearance came in 1841 in the Murders in La Rue Morgue, a full 46 years before A Study in Scarlett in 1887. I’d like to read you a little bit to give you a taste of Dupin and his methods:

Residing in Paris during the spring and part of the summer of 1840, I there became acquainted with a Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin. This young gentleman was of an excellent—indeed of an illustrious family, but, by a variety of untoward events, had been reduced to such poverty that the energy of his character succumbed beneath it.

Our first meeting was at an obscure library in La Rue Montmartre, where the accident of our both being in search of the same very rare and very remarkable volume, brought us into closer communion. We saw each other again and again. I was deeply interested in the little family history which he detailed to me with all that candor which a Frenchman indulges whenever mere self is his theme. I was astonished, too, at the vast extent of his reading; and, above all, I felt my soul enkindled within me by the wild fervor, and the vivid freshness of his imagination.

Seeking in Paris the objects I then sought, I felt that the society of such a man would be to me a treasure beyond price; and this feeling I frankly confided to him. It was at length arranged that we should live together during my stay in the city; and as my worldly circumstances were somewhat less embarrassed than his own, I was permitted to be at the expense of renting, and furnishing in a style which suited the rather fantastic gloom of our common temper, a time-eaten and grotesque mansion, long deserted through superstitions into which we did not inquire, and tottering to its fall in a retired and desolate portion of the Faubourg St. Germain.

Had the routine of our life at this place been known to the world, we should have been regarded as madmen—although, perhaps, as madmen of a harmless nature. Our seclusion was perfect. We admitted no visitors. Indeed the locality of our retirement had been carefully kept a secret from my own former associates; and it had been many years since Dupin had ceased to know or be known in Paris. We existed within ourselves alone.

We were strolling one night down a long dirty street in the vicinity of the Palais Royal. Being both, apparently, occupied with thought, neither of us had spoken a syllable for fifteen minutes at least. All at once Dupin broke forth with these words:

“He is a very little fellow, that’s true, and would do better for the Théâtre des Variétés.”

“There can be no doubt of that,” I replied unwittingly, and not at first observing the extraordinary manner in which the speaker had chimed in with my meditations. In an instant afterward I recollected myself, and my astonishment was profound.

“Dupin,” said I, gravely, “this is beyond my comprehension. I do not hesitate to say that I am amazed, and can scarcely credit my senses. How was it possible you should know what I was thinking of?’

“Tell me, for Heaven’s sake,” I exclaimed, “the method—if method there is—by which you have been enabled to fathom my soul in this matter.’ 

 “I will explain,” he said, “and that you may comprehend all clearly, we will first retrace the course of your meditations, from the moment in which I spoke to you until that of the rencontre with the fruiterer in question. The larger links of the chain run thus—Chantilly, Orion, Dr. Nichols, Epicurus, Stereotomy, the street stones, the fruiterer.”

You will note that Dupin has a very similar manner to Holmes, the same apparent gift for reading minds and divining the seemingly impossible. He has the same supercilious way in which he explains his method, based on the twin sciences of observation and deduction.

There is the also same dynamic between the two men as Watson and Holmes; the same balance of power – Dupin superior in intellect, the other dumbfounded by his conclusions.

The story also has a Holmesian ring of strangeness to it. The bodies of two woman are found in a locked upper room – a mother and daughter, one of whom is found in the chimney. There are deep scratches and bruises on their bodies. Shall I tell you how it ends? If not, please skip on. An orang otang belonging to a sailor living close by escapes, climbs up the lightening rod, enters the women’s room and commits the murders.

The story was later made into a film starring Bela Legosi – although as you can see from the poster, they clearly didn’t mind giving the ending away.

Film poster for Murders in The Rue Morgue

The key difference of course between Holmes and Dupin, is that he is a Frenchman and his stomping ground is Paris rather than Baker Street. Transplanting this character to London was a canny move on Conan Doyle’s part, but I think you will agree that he owes something of a debt of gratitude to Edgar Allen Poe.

Joseph Bell

There was a real-life inspiration too. Joseph Bell was a Scottish surgeon whom Conan Doyle worked for while at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary.

He was a pioneer in several ways, both in his habits and interests. He was one of the first experts in forensic medicine, helping the police in a number of matters including the notorious Ripper murders. But it was the fact that he based his medical work on close observation, often diagnosing patients based on tiny, almost invisible symptoms that suggests he was a model for Holmes. He would also use his powers of observation and deduction to play games where he would deduce a man’s occupation and character merely by his appearance. You can well imagine Conan Doyle as an impressionable young clerk in thrall to Bell, totally impressed and mystified by the older man’s exceptional skills and masterful manner.

Robert Louis Stevenson, who also worked for Bell wrote to Conan Doyle write to the authors after reading the first Holmes adventure. ‘Why,’ he said, ‘Holmes is based on old Joe Bell!’ 

So let’s get to know Holmes a little better. I have spent the last five years in the company of Sherlock Holmes. Not in the form of a box-set or with the benefit of the iPlayer but sitting inside 221b Baker Street in my guise of Dr Watson. I have had the opportunity to observe him a close-quarters in his lesser known stories: The Adventure of the Ruby Elephants, The Jeweller of Florence and the Adventure of the Beer Barons. He is infuriating, unpredictable and ferociously intelligent. Indeed the biggest problem writing a Sherlock Holmes adventure is writing about a character who is more intelligent than you are. There have been many instances where I have ceased typing and stopped in astonishment at some utterance or revelation. It is as if I am discovering the solution at the same time as my fictional alter ego. 

There are a few unspoken rules when writing Sherlock Holmes’ fiction. First and foremost, you must never kill off Watson, and certainly not Holmes, for the simple reason that it would spoil the fun for everyone else.  It’s worth noting that this is not a rule Conan Doyle chose to follow himself.

There are other rules too. You mustn’t tinker with the chronology. You can’t send him off to India in 1890 when we know he was in Devon. If you do set a novel further afield, you need to set it during the great Hiatus, between his supposed death and his return in the adventure of the empty house.

There’s another important rule. In the novels, he is never Sherlock. Always Holmes, except in the company of his brother, where only Mycroft is permitted to address him by his first name. This presents problems for writers who must keep finding new ways to refer to him, without writing the word Holmes on every line. You end up writing many lines such as these: ‘I regarded my friend with a weary affection.’

Now let’s us consider the man and his habits

Holmes the hedonist

Holmes was inordinately fond of his pleasures. For a man famous for his brain work, by the same measure, he did not deny himself the pleasures of the flesh. Let’s look the beginning of The Adventure of the Illustrious Client:

Both Holmes and I had a weakness for the Turkish bath. It was over a smoke in the pleasant lassitude of the drying-room that I have found him less reticent and more human than anywhere else. 

This is quite typical of Holmes’ self-indulgence, and there is something of the decadent nineties that pervades all the stories. After all, this is the decade bestrode by Oscar Wilde, who memorably declared: ‘Pleasure is the only thing one should live for. Nothing ages like happiness.’  

In the Adventure of the Twisted Lip, Watson finds Holmes in an opium den:

‘I suppose Watson,’ said he, ‘that you imagine I have added opium smoking to cocaine injections and all the other little weaknesses on which you have favoured me with your medical views’ On this occasion, he was in fact on business rather than pleasure.  

Then there is Holmes the smoker. Pipes, cigars, cigarettes, loose tobacco. You name it, Holmes smokes it. In fact without the references to smoking, the 670,000 Conan Doyle wrote across the adventures of Sherlock Holmes would be probably be halved. Never was there a worse case of passive smoking than the one suffered by poor Dr Watson. But you see smoking is considered essential to Holmes’ brain work.

“It is quite a three pipe problem,’ he tells Watson. ‘and I beg that you won’t speak to me for fifty minutes.”

Don’t you love the precision of that? He doesn’t know the solution to the problem yet, but he knows exactly how long it will take him to get there.

This is one of my favourite descriptions of Holmes’ habits and its inextricable link with his thought processes:

A large and comfortable double-bedded room had been placed at our disposal, and I was quickly between the sheets, for I was weary after my night of adventure. Sherlock Holmes was a man, however, who when he had an unsolved problem upon his mind would go for days, and even for a week, without rest, turning it over.

He put on a large, blue dressing gown and then wandered around the room collecting pillows from the bed and cushions from the sofa and armchairs. With these he constructed a sort of Easter divan, upon which he perched himself crosses legged with an ounce of shag tobacco and a box of matches laid out in front of him. In the dim light of the lamp, I saw him sitting there, an old brier pipe between his lips, his eyes fixed vacantly upon the corner of the ceiling, the blue smoke curling up from him. 

The references are exhaustive, the most famous perhaps being the fact that he kept his tobacco in his Persian slipper and his cigars in the coal scuttle. These are two of the key references for any aspiring writer of Holmes fiction. Leave them out and you will leave the fans disappointed.

Smoking is not confined to quiet moments at Baker Street. Cigar and cigarette ash are often the key to solving cases too and we learn Holmes has written monograms about identifying different types of ash.

Now of course Sherlock Holmes is all about finding solutions. But when there is no case to absorb him, he turns to a solution of quite a different kind. I’m referring of course, to Holmes’ most notorious transgression: the 7 percent solution. Conan Doyle makes no attempt to conceal Holmes’ cocaine use, appearing as it does in in the very first line of The Sign of Four.

Sherlock Holmes took his bottle from the corner of the mantel-piece and his hypodermic syringe from its neat Moroccon case. With his long, white, nervous fingers he adjusted the delicate needle, and rolled back his left shirt-cuff.

It is hard to imagine even an Irvine Welsh novel beginning in such a brazen way. But he turns to narcotics only when there is no brainwork to be had. It helps him ‘escape from the commonplaces of existence.’

He requires constant stimulation of the mind – and when there is none, he either withdraws to his room, in a funk for days at a time, or reverts to his cocaine use. Indeed it seems quite probable evidence that Holmes was a sufferer from bipolar disorder – susceptible to unpredictable mood swings. One minute he is waking Watson in the dead of night to pursue a suspect through the rain, the next he refuses to leave his room for three days.

For the most part, brainwork dominates the stories. Holmes is not the man depicted in the Guy Ritchie/Robert Downey Junior version, swinging from chandeliers like Zorro. Notwithstanding several memorable episodes involving bartitsu, an obscure branch of the martial arts, which involves the use of a cane, and a spot of boxing, he is more commonly found in his mouse-coloured dressing gown, slumped in his chair until the small hours losing himself in a problem

Holmes is not merely a brain on a stick. Nor is he some sort of 19th century superhero. He is an unusual combination of both mental and physical prowess.

To anyone thinking of writing a Sherlock Holmes pastiche. There is one simple piece of advice. Read all of Conan Doyle’s stories first. Yet it transpires that this is not something Conan Doyle chose to do himself. Despite his obvious mastery of plot and character, the books are full of continuity errors.

The mystery of the three dressing gowns.

Holmes dressing gown is described first as blue, then as purple, then mouse coloured. Conan Doyle clearly had better things to do that go rummaging through his old stories to keep things consistent.

Then there’s Dr Watson. Considering he is one of the two main characters, one would have thought that the author would keep a few notes as an aide memoir. But again, Conan Doyle is hilariously inconsistent. In one story the bullet wound he receives in Afghanistan is in the shoulder. In another it is in the leg. This gives the modern writer a dilemma as to which version he is going to use.

In the Man with the Twisted Lip, Conan Doyle even get his name wrong, with Mary referring to him as James, rather than John. (By the way, did you know that Holmes’ sidekick was originally called Ormond Sacker, before settling on John Watson?) And to keep up with Watson’s marriages is beyond the abilities of most.

There is even a Conan Doyle adventure that is set in the years after Holmes death in his tussle with Moriarty but before his resurrection in the Adventure of the Empty House. But if anything, these errors only add to the charm. And as I have found out myself, there is nothing a true Sherlockian enjoys more than pointing out an error. Indeed some have speculated that this was Conan Doyle’s intention – laying mysteries within mysteries. More likely he was churning out the stories at such a rate he didn’t have time to check them properly.

But what is that really appeals about the stories? Undoubtable, there is something in Holmes’ magnetic charisma and he dynamic between Holmes and Watson. Then there is the remarkably stylish prose, the quick as a whip plotting and Conan Doyle’s unique ability to create a vivid sketch of a character in just a couple of lines. Listen to this description of Inspector Bardle of the Sussex Constabulary — he was ‘a steady, solid, bovine man with thoughtful eyes, which looked at me now with a very troubled expression.’ Just a sentence but you get a very complete sense of his character and appearance. This is a remarkable skill, but an essential one for a writer of short stories.

But it is the alchemy of it all working together that makes it such a success. Yes, the adventures are formulaic, but there is wit and invention in abundance. Above all, there is an unusual facility of the language that elevates these stories above the commonplace. Shakespeare used approximately 28,000 unique words. Conan Doyle uses 35,000. He may have been writing popular fiction, but he saw no reason to compromise the quality of the writing.

So what have we learned about Holmes?

He’s a hedonist and man of action, but whose greatest pleasure is brain work. He’s an eccentric who owns three different coloured dressing gowns. He values friendship but has very few. He is detached from his emotions but is capable of feeling great pride and envy. He is blessed with an unusually brave and loyal friend in Dr Watson.

The stories have endured because of the quality of their writing and ingenious plotting. They are full of glamour and decadence – the Victorians and Edwardians enjoyed them in the same way we enjoy watching a James Bond film. But I think it is for the unique dynamic between Watson and Holmes and the quality of darkness and strangeness that the stories continue to appeal.    

So, after 130 years, the Holmes phenomenon show no signs of abating. To spend time in the man’s company is to be constantly delighted and confounded.

But have we proved that Sherlock Holmes was imaginary? I’m not so sure.  How often has Holmes told us that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?

Christopher James is the author of three Holmes novels, most recently Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Beer Barons.

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.


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.’


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.