christopher james

Poems and prattle

Tag: Alex McMillen

Playing The Fool

Thank you to everyone for their good wishes on the launch of the new collection, The Fool. We had a brilliant time on Saturday at the Derwent Poetry Festival and the warmest of welcomes from Alex McMillen and his team.

Matlock was at its most beautiful, resplendent in autumn colours; red, orange and gold leaves lined the pavements and leather clad bikers roamed the streets eating candyfloss and ice creams. I arrived just on time to run the poetry workshop having been stuck behind a traction engine being run by two ladies in oil spattered dungarees.


The workshop participants worked incredibly hard and came up with some extraordinary pieces – including poems about John Lennon on the Moon, JFK in a brewery and Mohammed Ali in old age. I joined in and wrote a poem about the Queen writing her autobiography in Siberia. See below.


At the reading itself we were treated to a feast of poetry and poets from England, Ireland, the US and beyond. Fiona from Ireland was particularly good with feisty poem about French food.

As it was so close to Remembrance Sunday, I closed my set with a poem from memory: Seigfried Sassoon’s Everyone Sang, which my ten year old daughter and I have been learning together. I was only saved from disaster by a kind poet in the front row who knew the words and was able to give me a prompt. Thank you, whoever you were.


She wears a cloak of bear-skin,
in her hand the pen of the old king.
The story must be told and this
is where she will tell it: Siberia
where the snow plains are as blank
as an empty page. At the door,
the Corgis’ coats are frozen hard.
The windows are jewelled with frost.
Outside, her footmen sip vodka
and watch for the ghost of the Tsar.
Her memory thaws, her hair darkens
and soon there is the scratch of a nib,
a line of trees and she is at Balmoral
at Christmas, walking with her father;
the smell of pine and tobacco.
Up ahead, in the trees is a stag
with his ancestral crown. The wind
blows through and she feels its hand
at her shoulder, turning the page.

The Fool – My New Collection

Just preparing to set sail for Masson Mills, Matlock Bath in the Peak District for the launch of my new book, The Fool at the ninth Derwent Poetry Festival, hosted by the inestimable Alex McMillen of Templar Poetry.

I’ll also be running a poetry workshop at 10.30am on Saturday morning on the theme of collisions. If getting to the festival is an issue, due to living in New Jersey, Australia, or other good reason, and you’d like to have a go at this at home, you can find the details here.

The Fool cover

At 2pm I’ll be reading from my new full collection, The Fool, which is also available to purchase from the Templar website, with, I believe, free postage and packing. It includes the award winning poems The Ancient Egyptian in the British Library and The Medieval Flood, plus many more. It’s a little darker in tone than some of my other books, but there’s still plenty of humour and surreal adventures aplenty. Hope you like the arresting cover, painted by an unknown Finnish artist two hundred years ago. Suitably spooky for Halloween, don’t you think?

Imaginary kingdoms in Bethnal Green

A beatific night at the London Buddhist Centre for the launch of Maitreyabandhu’s pamphlet, wittly titled (considering its length)Vita Brevis.

As it’s Valentine’s Day, Bethnal Green is full of flowers; almost every man and woman clutches a single stem or full bouquet like some sixties vision. Greeted by smiling young people at the door, the air of serenity continues down to the basement studio which is all cushions and flower print screens.

Organised by Alex McMillen of Templar Poetry, the bill also featured the precise, accomplished Myra Schneider (her recital of Forward Prize shortlisted poem ‘Goulash’ was an undoubted highlight) and the always fascinating Jane Weir, continuing her odyssey into the lives of textile designers of the early twentieth century. Her outlandish titles, breathless long lines are filled with the obscure vocabulary of dyes and textiles but are shot through with a colloquial wit which prevents them from disappearing too far into the esoteric.

I also read, from England Underwater – although managed to wear exactly the same blue flower print on my shirt as was printed the screen I was standing in front of – resulting in the odd spectacle of a disembodied head delivering the poems. I was losing my voice, but made it through to the end, trying out a new poem about meeting King Lear’s Fool – making me realise it needs more work. Funny poems go down well. Note to self – always end on a golden oldie rather than something new.

Vita Brevis by Maitreyabandhu

Maitreyabandhu’s collection is a Poetry Book Society pamphlet choice and deservedly so; it is full of delicate, visionary poetry – a tiny ship made from a fingernail of bark and the shell of a walnut; an encounter with a matronly giraffe at the zoo and a meditation on the suffering of animals in Mule – a beast tormented by the heat and flies. It also features a string of prose poems – surreal wanderings through imaginary kingdoms where ‘criss-cross avenues’ are ‘lined with lemon trees and pears’ and toys hover eerily above the ground. It’s a lyrical, magical masterpiece. With a Bloodaxe collection on the way too, as I said to him after the reading – his time is now.

Setting fire to the moon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Worcester without the sauce

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

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

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

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

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