christopher james

Poems and prattle

Tag: Derwent Poetry Festival

Three poems from England Underwater

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Setting fire to the moon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book launch – England Underwater

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

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


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

What to expect from the new collection . . .

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

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