christopher james

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Tag: Christopher James poet

Following swifts down the Boudica Way

In my stinky old UEA running top outside Norwich station, I assemble with brother Joe and friend Winston for a pre-match photo at the start of our attempt at the Boudica Way.  It’s a thirty six mile traipse through farmland and villages roughly along the warpath of the first century Iceni queen. The route that once put her on a collision course with the might of Rome and towards the sacking of Colchester, London and St Albans would lead in our case to nothing more dramatic than my car parked up at Diss station.


Still, spirits are high, water plentiful and the weather finer than expected as we set off past the multiplexes and Boots superstore, wondering whether we have enough in the way of blister plasters and freeze dried apple to last us to the finish. True to form, we are lost within five minutes walking along the newly developed riverside. A friendly, bearded cyclist pulls up and asks if he can help. ‘We’re trying to get out of Norwich,’ we tell him. ‘I know the feeling,’ he replies. Across a busy road and a bridge or two, and we see that not all of Norwich has been redeveloped: some old industrial red brick buildings with broken windows and a clock telling the wrong time, lie waiting for a developer to turn them into apartments for lecturers, accountants and solicitors.


But soon we have drifted into the pretty village of Trowse, with its organic bistro and curious line of Victorian terraced houses, each with a single front window bricked up. Why? A building or architectural error? Surely these are too late to have fallen foul of a window tax. We leave the mystery behind us as we cross into our first field.

As if on cue, a steam train thunders past, belching white smoke, a more common sight than you might think in Norfolk, and it succeeds in scaring the herd of young horses grazing there, which buck and whinny at the sight of this technological wonder. Like a scene from a Western, they actually race it across the length of the field. It allows me to take the picture of some horses I promised my five year old son. ’You will probably see some deer too,’ he told me, somewhat enigmatically, before I set off, ’but I don’t need to see those.’ I remember his slightly crestfallen face up at his bedroom window as he watched me make my way up the street to my car with my rucksack and circular pop up tent. Why wasn’t I invited along? He was still there as I drove down the street again on my way out of town.


Now we are on the trail proper, a freshly mown path about eight feet wide, which has been immaculately maintained by an invisible team of Boudica way supporters. This is the team that has laid the trail of arrowheads in neat yellow circles and even left information for our convenience in old telephone boxes. We joke that they run a 24 hour helpline for those on the trail answering questions such as how many Cs in Boudica, and what time does The Globe pub open? As it transpires, they wouldn’t have much to do, as for some reason, and despite the late May Bank Holiday weekend, there is hardly a soul to be seen. Joe tells us that the route has only recently been revamped, and that word of this lost wonder of the world has yet to get out.

Following hedgerows, and down tunnels of light woodland, we are rewarded with views of cascading fields through snickets and brambles. Yellow and blue wildflowers skirt the paths and the charms of the Boudica Way begin to reveal themselves.

Presently, we find a bench overlooking a sloping field and feast on some excellent sausage rolls and flapjack, courtesy of Joe’s other half Roberta, who used to make and sell them from a living (‘the finest sausage rolls I have ever tasted.’ according to Gary Rhodes). On the horizon, we can see the Norwich skyline, still exceptionally modest except for its two cathedrals, clock tower and the monolith of the county hall. An American would barely recognise it as a city. It’s our last sight of it as we pack up and head back on the trail.

The joy of walking is to disappear into woods and away from yourself; you can almost physically feel your emotional, work and other baggage falling off (though hopefully keeping hold of some of your other, more useful baggage.) The shady woods are relieved by the open fields and the walk is punctuated by towers of all descriptions – huge, complex, pylons like rocket ships, churches with round towers (all named St Mary’s for some reason – including the lovely ruin hidden in the bluebells, and windmills old and new.We meet a campaigner along the route who tells us why she is objecting to them – the blades are as big as the wing of a jumbo jet and they make a constant noise; they glint in the sun and can be seen for miles around. Why not put them out to sea with all the others? We nod sympathetically, unsure of our own position. In true Norfolk style (‘Do Different,’ they say) a contrary neighbour has a sign in his garden warning people to ignore the campaigners and to bring on the wind farms. There’s certainly plenty of wind and not many people, but it’s difficult to know who to believe. They produce sustainable energy, but are seen by some as unsightly. You don’t know truly where you stand until you’re told they’re going up in your back garden.


Leaving such tribulations behind, we are met with a warm welcome in Tasburgh where the good folk at The Countryman pub have allowed us to pitch in their back garden (no sign of wind turbines there). The sight of the pop up tent miraculously pinging into shape, a pint of Adnams bitter and a plate of freshly dressed crab is ample reward for a good first day.

Next morning we walk, as if in a dream, through yet more fields, dodging sheep dung and taking one or two short cuts along country lanes to avoid some peculiar detours which take you needlessly off to the east or west (we‘re keen, but not that keen). Towards the end, and with t-shirts wrapped around our heads to ward off the relentless sun, we start to resemble vagabonds as we pass through (or veer close to) places with names like Shimpling, Garlic Street, Dickleburgh and the splendid Colegate End, which sounds like someone’s just run of toothpaste.


If you’re looking for breathtaking views and dramatic scenery, then this is probably not the walk for you. Instead there are gentle inclines and gentle descents. It is a walk of barley fields, dung heaps, brooks and streams; it is a walk beneath swallows and swifts swooping and diving, stitching the sky as they snap horseflies from the air. It is a walk across footbridges made from old railway sleepers and of paths that suddenly lead you into glades of vivid colour. There are some surprises too. There are wonderfully unusual farmhouses painted in blues and reds that you might otherwise expect to find in the middle of Kansas or Iowa.

For two days, you step out of civilization and live in a kind of purgatory of woods and fields. Apart from the people you meet in the scattering of villages and pubs along the way, you pretty much have England all to yourself.

Just before we arrived back in Diss, the path is blocked by a ford. Unusually long and deep from the recent rain, it seems there is no choice but to wade across. Picking what I think is the shallowest route, the water soon creeps over the top of my boots and the freezing water gushes in, a wonderful balm on my aching feet. With my staff in hand, and t-shirt tied about my head, I acknowledge that I am cutting a somewhat biblical figure and living up to my namesake St Christopher. It’s then that I hear Joe‘s slightly apologetic voice: ‘Er, Chris, sorry about this mate, but I’ve just seen a bridge over there.’


Rockshow – The rehabilitation of Paul McCartney and Wings

This great concert film, and soon to be re-released triple album Wings over America, captures Paul McCartney and Wings in their 70s pomp. From the clowning Denny Laine, resplendent in his pink flamingo suit, to the rake thin Jimmy McCulloch and Linda’s blonde peacock hairdo, it’s pretty rare to see a band so happy and relaxed. Yes, there is some posturing, but mostly it’s brilliantly played, melodic rock and roll, all delivered with smiles and reassuring winks from Macca.

Paul is on blistering form and he knows it. He celebrates a breakneck version of Lady Madonna (with extra helpings of boogie woogie) with mock bows. His playing is fantastic throughout, hammering the piano like Rowlf from the Muppets, his mullet flying in all directions. His bass on Silly Love Songs is laugh-out-loud good, his fingers appearing to find a completely different song to the one he’s singing.

But it is his voice that constantly astonishes. In recent years it has lowered and weathered, crumpling in the upper range, but here it is a thing of raw power. From the rasping blasts through Jet and Rock Show, when he unleashes his full Long Tall Sally voice, there is complete control of pitch and power. On Maybe I’m Amazed he ascends to helium level heights with complete ease. What amazes more is that can return almost immediately to more tender fare such as Yesterday and Blackbird without a trace of the vocal lacerations that came before.

There’s a generosity shown by McCartney throughout that sometimes threatens to backfire. He allows other members of the band, especially Denny Laine, several spotlight moments. On the face of it, why would we want to hear Denny’s songs from mid seventies Wings albums when we could hear McCartney sing Paperback Writer or Sgt. Pepper? But that isn’t in the spirit of the exercise. Paul is making the point that they are a ‘real band‘, in the same way as the Beatles, where a certain level of democracy and taking turns to show off was the accepted order of the day. He’s also smart enough to know that this makes for a happier band, more motivated and their total commitment to him and the music is obvious.

Denny is sometimes maligned, but his virtuosity here is impressive, moving between his twin necked electric guitar (’Just like the one played by Jimmy Page’) to bass, to piano. His singing is terrific too on Go Now (almost an upstaging moment) and it’s clear how important his harmonies were to the Wings’ sound. It’s easy to think of McCartney recruiting him to be another Paul McCartney, but his personality and distinctive contributions are spot on. His driving, Romany-inspired acoustic guitar contribution to the sing along (the drinking songs’) down the front is one of the many highlights. Songs like Bluebird with its swathes of three part harmonies, woodwind interludes shows their musical sophistication. They are easily as adept at folk and jazz as flexing their rock muscle.

The sound is rich and deep without being over driven; all of McCartney songs are melodic, but they are beautifully arranged too. The four piece horn section (profusely thanked by McCartney at the end) give a fantastic extra dimension. Some tunes are lightweight – Hi Hi Hi and Soily, but are played with such gusto – powered by the unstoppable Wings, including the lovable, Bear-like drummer Joe English, that it’s beside the point.

Linda is an unflappable, droopy eyed presence behind the Moog. Now totally confident with her instrument she is both all American cheerleader and backing singing. Her vocals are genuinely fantastic. There is surprisingly little husband and wife interaction on stage, partly because Paul is focusing on the music and partly because he doesn’t want to upset his female fan base. But when Paul and Linda share a mike (George and Paul style) for the backing vocals on Go Now, it’s clear they are still smitten.

Posterity brings added poignancy to this dazzling show. Not only do we know that Jimmy McCulloch was to die just three years later of a heroin overdose, but that we would later lose Linda too. Although there were further successes, including the squillion selling Mull of Kintyre the following year, the line up never gelled in quite the same way and Wings never commanded this kind of respect again. But for a time, as someone said, ‘It was like The Beatles never happened.’

The Next Big Thing

I am indebted to Michael Bartlett of Crimson Cats Audio Books for inviting me to join his Blog Hop, wherein authors answer some semi-searching questions about a forthcoming piece of work ie ‘The Next Big Thing’. His next (actually recent) opus is revealed on his own blog  over at Crimson Cats. Of course the thing about a future piece of work is that it’s liable to change substantially, or even vanish entirely from the record.

1) What is the title of your next book?

At the moment, it’s ‘The Book Dragon.’ I like the idea of a title being unique, or at least unusual – not only so that you become the first result in an internet search, but as a statement of intent about its originality. It’s also a great way to pique interest. Other possible choices include ‘The Nurse Who Sold the Atlantic Ocean,’ ‘The Empress of Ice Cream,’ (about the Italian Duchess who brought ice cream – or sorbet really – to the rest of Europe, plus a nod to Wallace Stevens) ‘The Patron Saint of Television’ (and yes, there is one – St Clare, a friend of St Francis of Assisi; she was too ill to get out of bed to attend mass, and instead believed she could see it being beamed onto the wall of her room!) But the most likely candidate is ‘The Book Dragon,’ which is the poem I’m currently most pleased with.   

2) Where did the idea come from for the book?

If we work on the basis that it is going to be called ‘The Book Dragon’, to a certain extent it is a reflection on authors and their books; what their extended lives have become through the popularity of their work and how their text is likely to be interpreted in the age of digital media. The title poem itself is about an extinct creature, a beast made from every book ever written who is caught and killed in the hills of China and its carcass taken to the British museum. It’s a metaphor for (and not an entirely serious one) the idea of the death of the paper book.

3) What genre does your book fall under?

Poetry is the obvious answer. There are some formal pieces in there, but predominantly it’s free verse. There’s plenty of rhyme, but very little falls at the end of the lines. Sorry to disappoint fans of more traditional fare. Having said that I’m a great fan of John Betjeman (there are two poems about him in the collection – one about his semi-imaginary honeymoon, church crawling around East Anglia on bikes, and the other about his waistcoat, possessed of magical properties, which he inherited from Henry James.)

4) What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

Well, the Book Dragon itself would have to be some sort of CGI animation – perhaps with Peter Jackson directing. There’s a poem in there called ‘The Fool’ – about Lear’s Fool – who I think would be played brilliantly by Michael Sheen who I think is the most talented English actor of his generation.

 5) What is a one sentence synopsis of your book?

The secret lives of books. 

6) Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I had two books appear in 2011; and one in 2012, so I imagine it will be a little while this sees daylight; I would hope that it will be published by a recognized publisher. I’m not particularly interested in self publishing, but I was delighted that there is a Kindle version of my second collection, Farewell to the Earth (Arc 2011). I also like the idea of recording the collection and releasing it on iTunes. I don’t quite know why people don’t do this already.   

7) How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

A manuscript develops over time, but roughly a year; I put my best poems at the top, which gradually nudges the also-ran down to the bottom. When there are 65 or so of quality then a collection becomes feasible. A theme starts to emerge around the midway point. For Farewell to the Earth it was the theme of death – which astonished me, as I’m quite a cheerful person.

8) What other books would you compare yours to?

Anything by Billy Collins, Bill Herbert, William Blake; William Shakespeare; sorry I’m being facetious. It’s modern poetry, which is quite a crowded market place, but I would say that the poems are more narrative based and character driven than most. If your favorite book is the selected poems of Matthew Sweeney, chances are you’ll like this.

9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Each poem has its own inspiration, which could be a thought, an image, a different way of looking at something. Often books, usually biographies, contains a detail that provides the seed for a poem – whether it’s Dickens swimming in the Thames, Katherine Mansfield in a freezing French chateaux chopping carrots in a fur coat. Claire Tomalin is our greatest living biographer, although Bevis Hillier’s three volume Betjeman is almost an unparalleled achievement in the modern age – a riotous comedy and an audacious work of art. 

10) What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

Each poem has to hold its own – and it’s so easy for a poem to overstay its welcome.  A longer poem really has to earn each line. What can I say, except that readers will find out the names of the songs on a long lost Beatles album; what happens when a scarecrow becomes unemployed , how people celebrate Oliver Hardy Day and what happened when they tried to drill through the centre of the Earth.


Listening to the mermaids sing: Revisiting Prufrock

Yesterday, on the stroke on noon, a colleague of mine recited the first line to this well loved poem as an invitation to go to lunch:

LET us go then, you and I,

It was a sign of erudition lightly worn, but at the same time brought back some rather guilty memories.

As an undergraduate I rather foolishly turned up to a seminar on Eliot’s The Lovesong of J Alfred Prufrock without having read it through properly – only to find that no one else had either. The tutor was so annoyed, he snapped shut his briefcase and left the room in a huff.  I therefore came to the poem with a bit of baggage and a general reluctance to engage.

As it turns out, worry, guilt, indecision and lack of readiness are all prevalent themes, so I was better prepared than I thought.

The invitation is deceptively warm –

LET us go then, you and I,

When the evening is spread out against the sky

An echo of Yeats’ ‘I will arise and go now, and go to Inisfree’ but the pay off couldn’t be more bathetic: 

Like a patient etherized upon a table;

The modernity jars sharply with the gentle Georgian formality of the opening couplet and immediately announces mortality as its occupation. Another poetry tutor (whose reading I did do – it was Hugo Williams after all) once memorably cited this example when he asked the question: ‘I thought the metaphor died with Eliot didn’t it?’

The poem is a dark night of the soul; a long existential crisis full of recriminations, regrets, fear of aging and death – it seems almost absurd that Eliot was only 22 when he wrote it. With its ‘restless nights’ and ‘one night cheap hotels’, to my ear it evokes a world of noir and detective fiction – the midnight loneliness of a figure in Raymond Chandler novel. Once we have identified what kind of journey this is – into the dark consciousness of an unhappy man, we feel disinclined to accept the invitation – however it has become an offer we cannot refuse.   

Being Eliot, while the theme is dark, the poetry is masterful – the urban night is evoked by the image of a tomcat (a favourite motif). It is insidious and vaguely menacing.  

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes

The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes

Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening

It also works on multiple levels – the fog also represents the character’s own confusion and inertia. There will be ‘time yet for a hundred indecisions’ before ‘the taking of tea and toast.’ The mix cliché with original phrase is another Eliot hallmark, and works in the same way as Shakepeare prefacing tragedy with comedy. One offsets and accentuates the other.

The poem is built around a central, unidentified question (although he warns: ‘Oh do not ask “what is it?”’ as if the answer is obvious.) It appears to be something like: ‘Could I have been bolder? Could I have made more of myself if only I had dared to risk a little more? He asks later in the poem:

And indeed there will be time

To wonder, ‘Do I dare?’ and ‘Do I dare?’   

The rhythm and rhyme is insistent – the poem moves at a pace as if to emphasise that life is slipping away while he grapples with these dilemmas. Before he knows it, he will have achieved nothing; and instead will

have measured out my life with coffee spoons

Later thi sense of regret and opportunities lost becomes even more explicit:

I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,

And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,

And in short, I was afraid

Prufrock is not short on melancholy and introspection, and is perhaps nowhere more desolate than in the image ‘Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows…’

But is there a possibility that Eliot is not entirely serious? The poem frequently lapses into comedy and self- ridicule:

I grow old . . . I grow old ..  .

I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

This is the voice of Lear’s fool – both joking and serious. Is he lampooning his future self? Is it a warning to him and others not to waste their lives – to at least attempt ‘to squeeze the universe into a ball.’ Is he laying down the gauntlet to himself – a challenge to pursue the greatness; to achieve his potential?

He determines (perhaps too modestly, or else in character) that his lot in life is the bit part rather than the starring role – an ‘attendant Lord’ rather than ‘Prince Hamlet ‘(with all his own indecision) but there is a realisation too that he will be denying himself life’s most sublime rewards – he will never taste the exquisite freedom of the mermaids ‘riding seaward on the waves. There is an unhappy admission:

I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.
The poem ends as it opens – with an image of death, specifically drowning, which he will return to in The Waste Land, completing the journey.

Why them, if so gloomy, is the poem so well known and loved? Perhaps because of the gentle tone of sympathy and consolation; the frankness and accepting way it deals with failure and the dimming of ambition and tolerant understanding of life’s entanglements. Perhaps too because it is so easy to identify with: the everyman will not achieve greatness, the perfect love affair, or half he set out to do. The poem is a lyrical lament to unfulfilled dreams. It is filled too with the attractive poetry, the trinkets and kick knacks of the everyday – ‘the tea and cakes and ices’ and the ‘cups and marmalade and tea’ which give comfort and familiarity in the face of our inevitable extinction.     

The only irony is that this lament for unfulfilled promise heralded the start of the most brilliant literary career of the 20th century.  Eliot did hear the mermaids sing after all.


The ties that bind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ulysses Diary – Day 8

Bono, that arch doyen of popular song, once said that if James Joyce had remained in Ireland to write Ulysses, he would have talked it away. Written in artistic exile in Paris, Joyce certainly had no problem recalling the Dubliner’s distinctive turn of phrase in this section of the book. The talk at the funeral is a curious mixture of reverence and irreverence. The church caretaker even has time to tell a joke – how a mourner mistakes a statue of Jesus in a foggy graveyard for his late acquaintance. ‘Not a bloody bit like the man’ he says. Joyce makes his own reference to Hamlet to save us the trouble of deciphering the reference to the gravedigger.  

Bloom has his own thoughts: ‘Don’t joke about the dead for two years at least’ and yet, he can’t help but find his mind wandering as it does throughout the book. Once again his vanity and jealousies get the better of him: ‘Nice soft tweed Ned Lambert has in that suit.’ The episode is full of stream of conscious and word association mirroring the distracted mind. ‘Far away a donkey brayed. Rain. No such ass.’

He turns from these idle thoughts back to the grave – of the ‘hole waiting for himself,’ and even worries about buried alive, going as far as to devise himself a rescue system, reflecting that there ought to be an ‘electric clock or a telephone in the coffin and some kind of canvas airhole. Flag of distress.’ From such childish footling he suddenly feels a stirring sense of loss for everyone who walked Dublin’s streets before him, invoking their ghostly, collective voice:

‘How many! All these here once walked round Dublin. Faithful departed. As you are now so once were we.’   

Once again, religion, politics and history rattle like restless phantoms around the narrative; even the great (Charles Stewart) Parnell, the nationalist leader is reduced to ashes. He ‘will never come again’ Hynes says. Bloom considers what grants immortality: a photograph? A scratchy recording on a gramophone? They are flimsy substitutes for the flesh and blood and the spirit of a man.   

Charles Stewart Parnell

The episode concludes with the symbol of an obese grey rat, scurrying about in the crypt, ready for the next visitor. It’s a dark, unsettling chapter, musing on death and little else: ‘the saltwhite crumbling mush of corpse.’ Bloom is already well acquainted with death but manages to shake it off for now, thinking of ‘warm beds: warm fullblooded life.’

An unusual word that caught my eye: ‘Chapfallen.’ Taken to mean a unique male version of ‘crestfallen’ implying a certain mid-life weariness.

Pages: 101-117

The Ulysses Diary – Day 1 part 2

Perhaps by way of encouragement, in my edition page 1 is actually page 9, so it already feels like we’re off to a flyer. It goes something like this. There are these two students who live a bookish, penniless existence in a tower. One is a loquacious medical student (Mulligan) the other a slightly more reticent, but you suspect, cleverer, school teacher (Dedalus). Both know a fair smattering of Latin. Today they would be living on ProPlus, Red Bull, cheap lager, beans, while watching Australian soap operas, possibly children’s daytime TV. There is a third lodger, an Englishman (‘a ponderous Saxon’) called Haines who appears to be a little outside the club, but is fascinated by their witty, surreal banter. He likes it so much he wants to make a book about it.

It’s eight in the morning, the day is beginning and like true students, they’re already thinking about lack of money and beer:  ‘The sacred pint alone can unbind the tongue of Dedalus,’ chides Mulligan. Dedelas is in need of drink. He is mourning his mother, although receives no sympathy from Mulligan who mocks him as a fearsome Jesuit. Food and drink in fact are deliciously decribed throughout: strong tea, thickly buttered bread, drizzled honey, mouthfuls of fry. The characters like, Joyce himself are aesthetes and decadents – they delight in the surface pleasures – their own fruity turns of phrase; at one point Mulligan says ‘I remember only ideas and sensations.’ Ideas and sensations are a good description of the book itself. Joyce is the third player in this literary bandiage. His own prose is flowery, poetic – almost deliberately purple in places; in their ‘gloomy domed livingroom . . . two shafts of soft daylight fell across the flagged floor.’ The memory of Dedalus’ mother is ‘muskperfumed.’ Throughout there is a tension between the virility of life – the freezing sea, the greasy food, the shouts and shadows vs. the sterily of death. Mulligan isn’t really mocking Dedelus, he’s affirming the many pleasures of life.

A Spanish Dancer in Highgate

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Spanish Dancer

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

And all at once it is completely fire.

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

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

Rainer Maria Rilke

Action Man: The Reunion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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