christopher james

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Tag: poetry

The 65 men who sailed South with Scott

‘We are very near the end, but have not, and will not lose our good cheer.’ Captain Scott, March 1912.

I recently wrote a collection of 65 sonnets commemorating Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s final expedition to the Antarctic (The Terra Nova expedition, 1910-1913). The book is called The Penguin Diaries (published by Templar, 2017) and there is one sonnet for each man who sailed south with him, 59 of whom returned. During the writing process I found, surprisingly, that there was no single place I could find a complete set of biographies for these gallant and occasionally foolhardy gentlemen. I have therefore written and collected these brief biographies here. I would be glad to correct any inaccuracies. The evocative image below was taken on Scott’s birthday, June 1911 aboard the Terra Nova by Herbert Ponting; sledging flags are hung above the table and Captain Oates is pictured standing on the left.

Shore Parties

ROBERT FALCON SCOTT Captain, C.V.O., R.N. (The “Owner,” “The Boss”). Born in Devonport, England in 1868. Joined the Royal Navy in 1881 aged only 13, later serving as Torpedo Officer on HMS Vulcan. Previously led the Discovery expedition (1901-1904) where he set a new record for furthest south with Shackleton and Wilson. Married to the sculptor Kathleen Scott. Died aged 43 on his return from the South Pole in March 1912.

EDWARD R.G.R. EVANS  Lieut. R.N. (“Teddy”). Born in London, England in 1880. Second in command. Suffered from scurvy on return from the pole, saved by Lashly and Crean. Later served with distinction in the First World War as a destroyer captain and won further honours. Wrote South with Scott, his account of the expedition.

VICTOR L.A. CAMPBELL Lieut. R.N. (“The Wicked Mate”). Born in Brighton, England in 1875. Led the Northern Party, compelled to winter in an ice cave on Inexpressible Island. Led a miraculous journey on foot back to Cape Evans across 200 miles of unstable sea ice. Decorated during the First World War and died in Newfoundland, 1956.

HENRY R. BOWERS Lieut. Royal Indian Marines (“Birdie”). Born in Greenock, Scotland in 1883. Served in Burma and Ceylon as part of the Royal Indian Marine Service. Took part in the Winter Journey as well as the Polar Party. Highly practical, hardy and dependable. Died with Scott and Wilson in March 1912 on return from the pole.

LAWRENCE E.G. OATES Captain 6th Inniskilling Dragoons (“Titus,” “Soldier”). Born London, England in 1880. Educated at Eton and South Lynn School Eastbourne. Served in the Second Boer War; injured by a gunshot wound to the leg. Contributed £1,000 towards cost of the expedition. Expert with horses and ponies. Crippled with frostbite and in an effort to save his comrades, walked to his death in the snow with the words: ‘I am just going outside and may be some time.’

G. MURRAY LEVICK Surgeon R.N. Born in Newcastle upon Tyne, 1876. Worked as both as doctor and biologist; member of the Northern party; keen photographer and spent time observing the Adelie penguins, recording his findings in his book, Antarctic Penguins, controversial because of its account of their sexual proclivities. His notebook was discovered in 2013 outside the hut at Cape Evans.

EDWARD L. ATKINSON Surgeon R.N., Parasitologist (“Atch”). Born in the Windward Isles, in the West Indies, 1881. Educated at Snaresbrook and St Thomas’ Hospital London. Took charge of the base at Cape Evans in the absence of Scott and Campbell. Launched rescue attempts for both Northern Party and Scott’s Polar parties. Discovered Scott’s tent in November 1912. Later served on Western Front, fought at the Somme and received DSO. Died aged 47 and buried at sea.

Scientific Staff

EDWARD ADRIAN WILSONB.A., M.B. (Cantab.) Chief of the Scientific Staff, and Zoologist (“Uncle Bill”). Born Cheltenham, England, 1872. Artist, naturalist and member of the Discovery expedition (1901-1904). Led the Winter Journey to collect Emperor Penguin eggs. Member of the Polar party, reaching the pole on 18 January 1912, dying on the return journey. Scott’s closest friend and highly regarded by all.

GEORGE C. SIMPSON D.Sc., Meteorologist (“Sunny Jim.”) Born Derby, England, 1878. Educated at Owens College Manchester and University of Gottingen. Specialised in atmospheric electricity. Conducted balloon and weather experiments while on the Terra Nova expedition. Became Director of the Meteorological Office in 1920, knighted 1935 and died 1965.

T. GRIFFITH TAYLOR B.A., B.Sc., B.E., Geologist (“Grif”). Born Walthamstow, England, 1880. Emigrated to Serbia, then Australia as a child, returning to England to take up a scholarship at Cambridge. Led successful mapping and geological surveys as part of the Terra Nova expedition. Died aged 82 in Sydney.

EDWARD W. NELSON Biologist (“Marie,” “Bronte”). Born 1883 and specialised as an invertebrate zoologist; conducted tidal experiments at Cape Evans. Later fought in Gallipoli and on the Western Front during the First World War. Committed suicide by self-injection aged 39 in 1923.

FRANK DEBENHAM B.A., B.Sc., Geologist (“Deb.”). Born Bowral, Australia. Studied English, philosophy and geology at university. Took part in the Western Journey during the Terra Nova expedition. Entered Cambridge University on his return in 1913. Fought in France and Salonika during the First World War. Awarded OBE in 1919 and founded the Scott Polar Institute in 1920. Died Cambridge 1965.

CHARLES S. WRIGHT B.A., Physicist. Born Toronto 1887. Studied physics at University of Toronto. Initially rejected by Scott but walked from Cambridge with Griffith Taylor to petition for his place. Conducted experiments on ground radiation and ice formation while part of the Terra Nova expedition. Served in France during the First World War. Died in British Columbia, Canada aged 88 in 1975.

RAYMOND E. PRIESTLEY Geologist. Born Bredon’s Norton, England in 1886. Studied at University College, Bristol and served as a geologist on Shackleton’s Nimrod’s Expedition (1907-1909). Took part in the Western Party. Won the Military Cross in France during the First World War. Co-founded Scott Polar Institute with Frank Debenham and became a Fellow of Clare College. Died aged 87 in Cheltenham, Gloucester.

HERBERT G. PONTING F.R.G.S., Camera Artist. Born Salisbury, England in 1870, moved to California and worked in mining and fruit farming. Took up photography and travelled extensively in Asia, publishing in London periodicals. Professional photographer on the Terra Nova expedition. Published his photography in The Great White South and then produced The Great White Silence from his cine-footage. Died London 1935.

CECIL H. MEARES Chief Dog Handler on the Terra Nova expedition. Born County Kilkenny, Ireland. Travelled extensively, fought in the Russo-Japanese and Boer war. Chose dogs and white ponies for the expedition, following Scott’s orders. Returned north in winter 1912, declaring himself unavailable for work two months prior to departure. Joined Royal Flying Corps during First World War and later lived in Canada.

BERNARD C. DAY Motor Engineer. Born 1884 Leicestershire, England. Took part in Shackleton’s British Antarctic Expedition, 1907-1909. Later joined the Terra Nova expedition as a motor engineer, returning after the first year. Awarded the Polar Medal and settled in Australia.

APSLEY CHERRY-GARRARD B.A., Asst. Zoologist (“Cherry”). Born Bedford, England 1886. Educated Winchester College and Christ Church, Oxford. Joined Terra Nova expedition through friendship with Edward Wilson. Youngest member of the expedition, taking part in the Winter Journey, Polar Journey and Search Journey, spending three years in Antarctica. Wrote the acclaimed account The Worst Journey in the World. Died 1959 in London.

TRYGGVE GRAN Sub.-Lieut. Norwegian N.R., B.A., Ski Expert. Born Bergen, Norway in 1888 and educated in Switzerland. Took part in the Western Party and also part of the party that found Scott’s tent in November 1912. Used Scott’s skis to travel back to Cape Evans. Member of the Royal Flying Corps during First World War. Died in Grimstad, 1980 Norway aged 91.

Men

W. LASHLY C. Stoker, R.N. Born 1867 in Hambledon, England. Worked on motor sledges as part of the shore party, then switched to man-hauling. Member of the Polar party, returning with Crean and Edward Evans, helping save the latter when he became ill with scurvy. Served in the Navy during First World War and later as a customs officer. Died 1940.

W.W. ARCHER Chief Steward, late R.N. Took over from Clissold as cook on the Terra Nova expedition after Clissold suffered a fall. After the Second World War he retired from the Royal Navy and set up a catering business in London.

THOMAS CLISSOLD Cook, late R.N. Previously served on HMS Harrier; took part in the depot laying journey in December 1911 – January 1912. Replaced by Archer as cook after a fall from an iceberg while posing for a photograph. Later settled in New Zealand.

EDGAR EVANS Petty Officer, R.N. Born in 1876 in Middleton, Rhossili, Wales. Educated at St Helen’s Boys’ School before joining the Royal Navy. Served with Scott on the HMS Majestic. Admired by Scott for his size and strength and for being ‘a giant worker’ he was chosen at the last minute to join the polar party. Died in 1912 returning from the pole after suffering a serious head injury sustained in a crevasse fall.

ROBERT FORDE Petty Officer, R.N. Born in Moviddy, Ireland in 1875. Joined Royal Navy in 1891 and volunteered to take part in the Terra Nova expedition aged 35. Involved in two depot laying expeditions and member of the Western Party. Left the expedition early in 1911 after suffering severe frost bite to his hand. Served in WWI on various ships and promoted to Chief Petty Officer. Retired to Cobh (Queenstown) Ireland and died 1959.

THOMAS CREAN Petty Officer, R.N. Born 1877 near Annascaul, County Kerry, Ireland.  Enlisted in Royal Navy aged 15 and took part in three major polar expeditions, including Discovery and Terra Nova expeditions with Scott and later Endurance with Ernest Shackleton. Renowned for his courage and fortitude he was a member of Scott’s last supporting party in 1911, returning with Lashly and ‘Teddy’ Evans. When Evans became incapacitated, he made a 35 mile solo trek across the ice back to Hut Point to get help. Returned to the navy, then retired in 1920 to Ireland, where he opened a pub called the South Pole Inn.

THOMAS S. WILLIAMSON Petty Officer, R.N. Born in Sunderland in 1877, joined Royal Navy and served on HMS Pactolus before joining the Discovery, then Terra Nova Expeditions. Survived a killer whale attack along with Ponting and Leese.

PATRICK KEOHANE Petty Officer, R.N. Born Courtmacsherry, County Cork, Ireland 1879. Served with Teddy Evans on HMS Talbot. Took part in the Southern Journey, turning back at head of the Beardmore Glacier at 85° 15’ South in December 1911. Member of the Search Party, finding the bodies of Scott, Wilson and Bowers in November 1912. Later joined coast guard, re-joined Navy during World War II and died Plymouth, England, 1950.

GEORGE P. ABBOTT Petty Officer, R.N. Previously served on HMS Talbot. Part of the Northern Party who wintered in Cape Adair and on Inexpressible Island. Served in the Royal Navy during the First World War and died 1923.

FRANK V. BROWNING Petty Officer, 2nd Class, R.N. Born Stockland, Devon 1882 and joined the Navy in 1900, aged 18. Served on HMS Talbot; member of the Northern Party, acting as cook. Known for his cheerfulness and resilience despite serious illness while on Inexpressible Island, only just making it back to Cape Evans. Served in First World War, retiring in 1922, dying of double pneumonia in 1930 aged just 48.

HARRY DICKASON Able Seaman, R.N. Born Bristol, England in 1885. Served on HSM Defiance before Terra Nova. Member of the Northern Party. Died 1943.

F.J. HOOPER Steward, late R.N. Born 1891, England. Originally a steward aboard Terra Nova, he later became a member of the shore party, and search party, discovering the bodies of Scott, Wilson and Bowers. Also part of the group involved in the second ascent of Mount Erebus. Died in England in 1955.

ANTON OMELCHENKO Groom. Born Bat’ki, Russia, 1883, Russia. Died in 1932 in the USSR.

DEMETRI GEROF Dog Driver. Born in Sakhalin, Siberia in 1888. Chosen by Mears when he went to Nikolayevesk to obtain the dogs for the expedition. Moved to England, then New Zealand after the expedition, before returning to Nikolayevesk to work as a gold miner, dying in 1932.

Ship’s Party

HARRY L. L. PENNELL Lieutenant, R.N. Born 1882, he spent most of the Terra Nova expedition in New Zealand, making only brief visits to Antarctica to bring supplies and remove crew members. Later served on HMS Queen Mary as Commander and died during the Battle of Jutland in May 1916.

HENRY E. DE P. RENNICK Lieutenant. R.N. Died while serving on the Hoguo, torpedoed by a German submarine in September 1914.

WILFRED M. BRUCE Lieutenant, R.N.R. Born in Scotland, he was the officer in charge of zoological work on the Terra Nova. He is also notable for being Captain Scott’s brother in law.

FRANCIS R. H. DRAKE Assistant Paymaster, R.N. (Retired), Secretary and Meteorologist in ship. No known relation to his more famous namesake.

DENNIS G. LILLIE M.A., Biologist in ship. Born 1884 and educated in Cambridge he was much admired aboard the Terra Nova, not only for his drawing skills of marine and bird life, but also for his accomplished caricatures. Served as military bacteriologist during the First World War. Suffered from poor mental health and was admitted to Bethlem Hospital, London in 1918.  He never fully recovered and died 1963.

JAMES R. DENNISTOUN In charge of mules in ship. Born 1883 in Canterbury, New Zealand. Educated at Malvern College, England. Found early fame as a climber before joining Terra Nova in 1912 for no pay, looking after Himalayan mules. Served in North Irish Horse during the First World War before joining the Royal Flying Corps as a bomb thrower. Died of wounds in August 1916 after being shot down over Germany.  A

ALFRED B. CHEETHAM R.N.R., Boatswain. Born Liverpool, 1867 and later based in Hull, England. Began a career in the Merchant Navy before making his first trip to Antarctica as part of the Discovery expedition, arriving on the relief ship, Morning. During the Terra Nova expedition, he volunteered to join the search for Scott but was turned down on account of his 13 children. He was later a member of Shackleton’s Nimrod and Endurance expeditions. Died in August 1918 when the SS Prunelle was torpedoed in the North Sea.

WILLIAM WILLIAMS Chief Engine Room Artificer, R.N., Engineer. After taking part in the British Antarctica Expedition he settled in the Bay of Islands, New Zealand, joining his brother, the Reverend Henry Williams.

WILLIAM A. HORTON Engine Room Artificer, 3rd Class, R.N., 2nd Engineer. Returned with the Terra Nova to Cardiff in 1913.

FRANCIS E. C. DAVIES Leading Shipwright, R.N. Carved the cross left in memory of those who lost their lives returning from the pole in 1912. Also played a significant role in saving Terra Nova during the storm on its journey south at the start of the expedition. Served in the navy during the First World War and continued in service until 1920. Settled in Plymouth, later returning his Polar Medal to the King.

FREDERICK PARSONS Petty Officer, R.N. Born in Allington, near Bridport, Dorset in 1870. Member of the ship’s company on the Terra Nova expedition not joining the shore party. Served on submarines during the First World War before starting a successful business repairing shoes in Plymouth. Died 1970 aged 91.

WILLIAM L. HEALD Late Petty Officer, R. N. Previously took part in the Discovery Expedition (1901-04) saving the life of Farrar who was suffering from scurvy. Heald Island, Antarctica is named after him.

ARTHUR S. BAILEY Petty Officer, 2nd Class, R.N. Serving in the Royal Navy when he was asked to join the British Antarctic Expedition, Arthur Samuel Bailey was a member of the shore party and later awarded a Polar Medal.

ALBERT BALSON Leading Seaman, R.N. Born Allington near Bridport 1885. Entered Royal Navy in 1900. Joined HMS Powerful in 1911, before transferring to Terra Nova at Lyttleton. Later took part in the Gallipoli landing during the First World War. Later worked as a salvage diver, employed for many years collecting gold from the ship, Laurentic. Also decorated for gallantry for diffusing a bomb in 1941 during air attacks in Portland Harbour. Died 1950 in Dorset, aged 65.

JOSEPH LEESE Able Seaman, R.N. Staffordshire born, he was later to recall the terrible storm that the Terra Nova encountered on its journey south. In Antarctica he was almost the victim of a killer whale attack when the creatures attempted to break up the ice he was standing on to reach the dogs. Settled in his home county after naval service.

JOHN HUGH MATHER Petty Officer, R.N.V.R. Born 1887, Stroud Green, London. Assisted with clerical work and taxonomy. After the Terra Nova adventure, became a naval commander during the First World War and took part in a successful campaign against the Bolsheviks in Arctic Russia. Died 1957 in Farnborough, England.

ROBERT OLIPHANT Able Seaman. Born Strathmiglo, Fife, Scotland, 1883, joining for the first part of the expedition. Died just after the First World War in 1919.

THOMAS F. MCLEOD Able Seaman. Born Glasgow, Scotland 1873, later moving to Stornoway as a child. Joined British Merchant navy aged 14. Later served with Shackleton on both the Endurance and Quest expeditions. Later emigrated to Kingston, Ontario in Canada where he was employed as a school caretaker and night-watchman. Died in 1960 aged 87.

MORTIMER MCCARTHY Able Seaman. Born Kinsale, Co. Cork, Ireland in 1878; served on Terra Nova during its three voyages to Antarctica from New Zealand between 1910 and 1913, later settling in New Zealand.

WILLIAM KNOWLES  Able Seaman. Born in Liverpool, 1877, later emigrating to Lyttleton, New Zealand. Took part in the second and third voyages of Terra Nova to Antarctica, helping to build the cross on Observation Hill. Served on HMS Philomel during the First World War and was killed in 1915 while part of a landing party near Alexandretta following an ambush by Turkish troops in 1915.

CHARLES WILLIAMS Able Seaman. Born in Lyttleton, New Zealand 1881. Joined the navy in 1900. Played a key role in saving the Terra Nova during the storm on its journey south in 1910, cutting a hole in the bulkhead to reach the pump. Served on ships during the First World War with Commander Edward Evans, distinguishing himself during the altercation between the German SMS G42 and HMS Broke. He returned to New Zealand and was lost at sea in 1919.

JAMES SKELTON Able Seaman. Settled in Cardiff, working on the docks after service in the Royal Navy during the First World War.

WILLIAM MCDONALD Able Seaman. There is a report in a New Zealand newspaper of a concert given for the departing crew of the Terra Nova, with the detail that Angus McDonald sang at the event.

JAMES PATON Able Seaman. Born Scotland 1869. Served on the Morning, a relief ship to the Discovery expedition. Later took part in Shackleton’s Nimrod and Aurora expeditions. Lost while travelling to South America in 1917 or 1918, possibly after hitting a mine.

ROBERT BRISSENDEN Leading Stoker, R.N. Drowned in August 1912 in Elslie Bay, while employed surveying Admiralty Bay. There was a suspicion of drink being involved in his death, although this was refuted by those with him the night he drowned.

EDWARD A. MCKENZIE Leading Stoker, R.N. One of five stokers on the Terra Nova during the expedition, McEnzie is now famous for the pair of Wolsey unshrinkable mittens he wore on the expedition and are now preserved for posterity.

WILLIAM BURTON Leading Stoker, R.N. Born 1888, died 1988 in his 100th year, making him the last member of the expedition to die. Returned to Antarctica later in life with McDonald and Mortimer.

BERNARD J. STONE Leading Stoker, R.N. Was awarded a Bronze Polar medal on 24 July 1913 by King George V.

ANGUS MCDONALD Fireman. Born West Calder, West Lothian in 1871. Notable for being one of three members of the expedition to return to Antarctica at the invitation of the Americans.

THOMAS MCGILLON  Fireman. Sailed with Shackleton on the Nimrod (1907-1909) surviving several near fatal accidents before joining the British Antarctic Expedition.

CHARLES LAMMASFireman. Born Bethnal Green, London, 1883, the son of a carpenter. Lived in Canterbury, New Zealand most of his life and died in Christchurch Hospital, New Zealand in 1941.

W.H. NEALE Steward and member of the ship’s party. On the Terra Nova, he was responsible for waking the crew, serving food as well as attending to the officers in the afterguard (or mess).

 

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Seasons of the Moon: Review of Lunarium by Josep Lluís Aguiló

I had the privilege of meeting Josep Lluís Aguiló at a poetry festival this year and I can testify that he is as remarkable in person as he is on the page, in equal parts challenging and inquisitive, funny, considerate and startling. He is also fiercely proud of his native Mallorca, still fascinated by its landscapes and mysteries. His work has an integrity, vigour and lightness of touch to it that is missing from so much contemporary poetry.

His latest collection, Lunarium is shot through with a sort of magical lyricism, occasionally surreal in the manner of Borges but with an originality all its own. While the harbours and sands of Mallorca are a constant presence, the imagination is the primary landscape. The opening poem, The Rules of the Labyrinth, is a rubric for the book and his brand of poetry; we are set on ‘paths that make us walk ever further from the centre.’ But there is a crucial detail: ‘they are paved with dark desire.’ Sexuality is an undercurrent throughout these poems.  

lunarium

There are several poems about poetry, or at least language, which is something that never offends me. I Have Lost a Few Lines is an ingenious, deftly comic piece about how lines slip away from the poet: ‘They are like shy animals/sometimes they pass right over me.’ They also escape by other means: ‘…some spirituous liquor has ruined them/or the visitor from Porlock.’ It is adroit piece of work about the elusive nature of the perfect line; the bon mot.

There is humour in abundance throughout, albeit as dark as it comes; I particularly enjoyed The Rights of the Dead, where the dead appear to unionise, organising themselves ‘into associations to establish their rights and preferences.’ While some prefer the ‘permanence of buried coffins’ others wish to be ‘quartered and placed on high/mountains so that birds may devour them.’

However overwhelmingly, these poems are an affirmation of life and love; a reminder that life is fleeting and we must make the most of the now: ‘We are drowning in a sea of time./Tomorrow we will be older.’ It is unashamedly romantic stuff. ‘Maybe we’ll never/ again have the energy have the energy to make love with the night on each other.

Josep’s poetry is perhaps, more passionate than most English poets would allow, without losing any of the complexity of allusion or technique. It is a reminder why poetry in translation is more important than ever; surround yourself with people who look and sound like yourself and you will find within your echo chamber a deadening of the language and a paucity of emotional range; it takes you to a dangerously reductive place. Anna Crowe’s magnificent translation allows Josep to show us a brighter, more luminous world of possibility and language. We owe Arc, and Tony Ward, the adventurous publisher of this and so many other important work from beyond our own shores, a debt of gratitude.

Josep’s poem, Poetry, perhaps makes the most compelling case for the poet’s right to ambiguity and a mercurial spirit of independence. He defies an easy definition of poetry: ‘They want us to explain, in a single headline the soul of wine … and all the shades of turquoise in the sea of Ithaca.’ Poetry, he concludes, is not what you read on the page, it is ‘what is left inside us/long after forgetting this poem.’

Fervent, accomplished and infused with the rhythms of the sea as well as the heart, Lunarium is a book to jolt you into life and appreciate the miracle of existence. It is a poet’s manifesto too: his role is to ‘paint, in the void that has been given to you/the burning desperate words.’   

 

 

Happyland – In Broadstairs with The Ghost of Charles Dickens

Thanks to the generosity of friends and family, my wife and I celebrated our 40th birthdays in Broadstairs, Kent. That is not to suggest that they sent us away as a deliberate ploy to avoid spending the day with us! It was a literary birthday present of the best possible kind.

For those who don’t know it, (and I’m loath to make it more popular than it already is) Broadstairs is a glorious sun-drenched spot, bursting with pubs, bookshops, more pubs, ice cream parlors, fish restaurants and a great surfing beach.

viking-bay-broadstairs

We stayed in Bleak House, the imposing, fort like construction over looking Viking Bay where Charles Dickens wrote David Copperfield. As an extra treat, we slept in Dickens’ own bed, which was reputedly also slept in by both Queen Victoria, and ‘Mr Slash’ from Guns and Roses, although we assume not at the same time.

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After 5pm, we also had Dickens’ study, in the next room, all to ourselves. While my wife was powdering her nose, and draining the complimentary sherry, I went in and sat in the dark at the great man’s desk looking out at the moon over the bay.

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Behind me on the walls were yellowing posters, play bills, manuscripts, pince-nez, paper knives and other assorted Dickens paraphernalia. It was perfectly quiet except for the distant brushing of the waves on the beach. Suddenly the door closed and the latch dropped with a loud click. The temperature seemed to plummet and I fully expected to feel Dickens’ hand on my shoulder.

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That night there were fireworks over the beach, a 1920s flapper party going on in the function room below and the whole episode inspired this silly jazz-age number which I send out by way of a thank you to the delightful hotel staff, for the pals who subbed our memorable trip and to Charles Dickens for the inspiration. Gawd bless him!

Happyland

In Bloom: The Chelsea Flower Show Massacre by Mark Fiddes

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

Chelsea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Solstice

On the shortest, darkest, coldest day
We pulled on our winter socks
Under frozen skies of grey
We saw the flash of a winter fox.

As we walked out into the cold
And stepped on ice and dreamt of snow
We thought of Christmases of old
The holly and the mistletoe.

And for a while we saw the sun
Its rays like wings for all to see
Above the Earth when day was done
Like the angel on the Christmas tree.

Winter sun

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.

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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.

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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.

MEMOIR

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 Outsider – by Tom Weir

Tom Weir is an exciting new voice; candid and assured, with enough in the way of light and shadow to fully intrigue. The cover of his pamphlet, The Outsider, published by the ever-excellent Templar Poetry, is a statement of intent with its arresting image of a barnacled man staring out to sea. It has the ghostliness of an Anthony Gormley. If the figure is looking to foreign lands, then it is well chosen. Weir’s poems range from corners of English fields to hotel rooms in Hanoi and the psycho dramas that play out are as dramatic and finely judged as the language chosen to tell them.

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‘Monsoon’ is set in a cheap room at night, in the middle of a Biblical storm, a frightened partner barely reassured by the narrator, who confides: ‘I don’t tell you this isn’t normal, that it’s never been this bad before.’ Weir conjures the storm with it’s ‘shock of noise’ while the ‘lightening threatens to break the sky in two.’ It is highly evocative and with its apocalyptic images of women crying and ‘men up to their waists in water’ hint at worse things to come. The size and power of the storm is beautifully offset by the intimacy of the voice and fragile bond between the two people.

The title poem is an altogether smaller drama: an attempt to free a sheep caught on barbed wire, but again it is a couple that face this crisis and their reaction becomes a telling way to read the relationship. Weir has a great empathy for the natural world and his description of the sheep is both sensitive and visceral: ‘its muscles quivering /somewhere beneath all the wool.’ After it escapes, it leaves ‘clouds of its frantic breath/turning on the air.’

My favourite piece is ’The Light-Collector,’ perhaps because it is close in sensibility to my own work. It is a ‘bright idea’ poem in a literal sense, with its brilliant opening gambit:

I have been collecting pieces light for years,
like scrap metal, in case one day we run out

Weir maintains the conceit with great wit and invention, and the language glints and flashes as he ‘unpicks stars like stitches’ from the ’unpolluted dark.’

There is plenty of risk taking here, mainly in the trust he places in the reader with his intense narratives, charged with strong feeling and threatening landscapes. But it is Weir’s skilled narrative voice and lyrical gifts which makes this short collection so distinctive. ‘The Search’ is typical of beguiling qualities: a search through the snow for a loved one after an argument of unknown providence, while in the distance there is
‘…the light of a single car/that slides by, fastening the horizon like a zip.’

Surely a full collection cannot be far behind this one, and there is every chance that it will be a major statement.

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?

Live reading: 19 October 2014

Jazz-Poetry. One or both of these words may strike fear into your heart, however, if you’re intrigued, read on . . . I’m performing at the Rhyme and Rhythm Jazz-Poetry Club on Sunday 19 Oct at 6pm. Dugdale Centre, 39 London Road, Enfield, EN2 6DS.

I rehearsed with the band last Sunday and they are not only the most musically accomplished, but the nicest gentleman you are ever likely to meet. Some great tunes, hopefully won’t be spoiled by me reading some poetry with the music.  See you there!

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Kettering Goes into Outer Space

At first it was simple things:
a policeman’s helmet levitating above his head,
a post-box that floated like a Dalek down the street,
the frog that leapt and never came back.
This was the town that came loose
at the seams, that lost its centre of gravity.
Only when the clock tower shot like a firework
through the clouds did they ask people
to keep pets indoors and travel
only with stones in their pockets.

The spire of St Peter’s and Paul’s
went the same way: fired like a missile
into the heavens; the vicar followed it up,
ascending like a rocket man in a dog collar.
The townspeople, steady folk, kept their feet
on the ground and wore crampons to the shops.
Kettering FC would only play with all eleven
roped together and tethered to the goal post.
At the offices of the Northants Telegraph
they placed a large order for paperweights.

In the Old Market Inn there was talk
of military experiments: science gone wrong;
reversed polarities. They chained the mayor
to the Town Hall lest he rose above his station.
They played only heavy metal on Radio
Northamptonshire. When it finally happened,
one night at the end of June, there was a groaning
like the day the Poppies were relegated.
A moment’s resistance, then the town sprang
into the air, like a plug, popped from a drain.

Showering bones and sewage pipes,
it picked up speed, a town banished from the earth.
Far below the A14 swerved around the gap.
They navigated from the Corn Exchange,
issuing handouts, travel sweets and copies
of The Usborne Guide to the Solar System,
And you’ll still see it now, on summer nights,
crawling like a comet across the sky, up there
without a sound, the old shoe factory, the theme park,
the lights still winking on the rugby ground.

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