Saturday, 25 March 2017


"...the convulsed sea to Peter Cook's controlling moon."

Howard Jacobson, Death of Dudley

Saturday, 18 March 2017


To write anything satisfactory you need an undistributed mind and a supply of special first-class energy, a strong sense of self-value which it is delightful to express, the stomach of a lucky general, ‘the subtle experience of his medium which conserves the strength of the quarryman’, the wiliness of the fly-catcher, the grasp of the octopus, the patience of the sheep-dog, the acumen of the microscope-gazer, the taste for high adventure of the Amazon explorer, a head for heights and the nerve of the tight-rope walker, the intuition of the water-diviner, the submissiveness of the nun, a tolerance for claustrophobia and discomfort as of a large square peg in a small round hole, a voice ready to contradict every sentence written, the endurance and piety of a true believer wrestling with doubt, the impatience of Job but of no other kind, and a realisation (which becomes an old familiar) that the pain of the process in which all these qualities are at work, more or less competently, requires the composure of wisdom.  Any question arising, therefore, as to the identity and the value of the writer-yourself to the scheme of things – the World at large – and that question will be felt on the general’s stomach, the explorer’s heart, the high-wire nerve, the intuition, the grasp, and finally will penetrate the finger-bones where it inhibits completely the action of the aching pencil.  In this circumstance, writing does not take place, wisdom goes out of the window and desperate acts occur such as over-eating, over-drinking, foul temper, physical violence offered to inanimate objects; an occasional tendency to feel like dying is offset by the disobliging interest in the thing that never completely fails owing to the work of the ego, the will, virtue and appetite.

Jacqueline Wheldon
from The Leopard on Kamak San

Friday, 17 March 2017

from 'Braveheart' by Mick Imlah

THE SPRING: - and as her ice draws off the glen
Scotland gets up, and is herself again

Opening lines of Braveheart, by Mick Imlah

Wednesday, 15 March 2017


A thing that drives me nuts is the misattribution of quotations. There is, for example, a piece, sententious and a little sentimental, called 'Success', that the entire world seems to think was written by Ralph Waldo Emerson. The fact that it cannot be found in any of his works you would have thought enough to dissuade people from so attributing it. Quite apart from that, it simply doesn't read like Emerson. In fact it was written by a woman called Bessie Anderson Stanley, in 1904. It was submitted as an entry into a competition, the theme of which was 'What is Success?' She won. The prize money was $250 dollars, with which she paid off the mortgage on her house. So why the misattribution? I think because Emerson has intellectual heft, and therefore lends the piece a certain gravity that it doesn't really have. The other reason is that Ann Landers - the pen name of a Chicago newspaper advice columnist, whose column was syndicated all over America - said that it was by Emerson. Eventually she admitted her error. There are several versions of the piece (it was not written as a poem). Who does the alterations? Who knows? Maybe Ann Landers, maybe Chinese whispers.

Another frequent misattribution is to William Golding on the subject of women. People who don't care for accuracy glue his sentence (taken entirely out of context) "I think women are foolish to pretend they are equal to men, they are far superior and always have been" to the words of a New York 'urban novelist' called Erick S. Gray. Again the intention presumably is to use Nobel prize winner Golding's name to give the quote some kind of weight.
Of course all other quotations, it is well known (excepting Shakespeare), are by Oscar Wilde, Winston Churchill, Mark Twain or Bernard Shaw.

Friday, 10 March 2017


This is the Index to 'Russia for Beginners' by Alex Atkinson and Ronald Searle.  A masterpiece of the genre, I think you'll agree.

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

THE DIG by John Preston

One of those rare short books I think I'll one day read again, like J.L. Carr's 'A Month in the Country' (for my money one of the best novels in English of the 20th century).  Quiet, quietly humorous, wistful, about something real, slow, page-turning, mysterious (though you know what happens).  It has that quality in a drawing that we prefer over the finished oil.  A series of unfinished stories we haven't even seen begun, within one straightforward unearthing. Like the boat itself - oh, sorry, it is 'about' the discovery of the Sutton Hoo treasures - the stories remain forever beyond whole knowledge.  Just as a King once ruled and was buried with all honour, so we know that people once dug him up. The lives of all remain a mystery.

Contains one of the most tender and beautiful love scenes in modern literature.

My thanks to Jody Tresidder for the recommendation.

Saturday, 18 February 2017

HOCKNEY at the Tate

First response to the Hockney. It is no good pretending that part of oneself does not tend to go to art exhibitions out of a sense of piety, of 'ought'. But Hockney is different. Hockney is a pleasure. It is impossible not to smile at the Tate. Here is an artist who, for all the personality in the pictures, for all the scenes of his life and friends, seems somehow without ego. Nothing is being angstfully expressed. Instead we have an explosion of seeing. The generosity is overwhelming. Even without colour, in the charcoal drawings, we are being invited in not to the artist's soul but into a way of looking and seeing. Shall be going again and again. Worth joining the Tate just for this.

PARTY ANIMALS by David Aaronovitch

Just finished David Aaronovitch's engrossing 'Party Animal: My Family and other Communists'. Hardly a happy moment in it, yet Aaronovitch's generosity, good humour and understanding make it compelling.A book, I suppose, about fidelity. Very much recommended.
Party Animals: My Family and Other Communists

Monday, 13 February 2017

LAPSTRAKE by Wendy Pratt

My review of Wendy Pratt's pamphlet 'Lapstrake'. Originally written for publication in Lunar Poetry, which I believe is now defunct.  Please feel free to share this.

by Wendy Pratt
ISBN 9781906480417

‘Lapstrake’ is a kind of planking used in the building of boats, whereby the planks ‘lap’ one over the other.  A perhaps marginally more familiar term for this technique is ‘clinker-built’.  The title then suggests the building of something seaworthy. We should expect craft and salt in what follows.  And we get it.
         What is it to have lived?
         Wendy Pratt’s daughter, Matilda, was stillborn (a gentle euphemism), but we know, from these poems, that she lived, for they would not have been written otherwise.  In some sense what this marvellous pamphlet attempts to do is to explain to its readers that paradox.
         Wendy Pratt’s way of making poems is to strand together myth or legend and place (element, perhaps) and person.  In earlier poems, particularly in her collection Museum Pieces, earth was the place: the bones of the dead brought to life through archaeology.  Here it is the sea, whence we all came originally.  In her first pamphlet, Nan Hardwicke Turns into a Hare, Pratt used folk tales of the witch Nan Hardwicke to make sense of her daughter’s death.  As for person, it has almost always been that daughter, Matilda, who is the chief agent.
         The collection begins with the title poem, which employs a sort of rhyming diluted sestina form which seems to me technically very accomplished, the rhymes and repeated words lapping over one another (perhaps Pratt has invented a new form we might call ‘lapstraking’). It acts both as a kind of declaration of poetic authority, and, in its content, sounds a cautionary note: “The world / is pouring through to Helheim” (’Helheim’ being the Viking version of Hell – Pratt is a poet of the North East).  We must “nest up / as fishermen must do”, as the planks in lapstrake do. (And that word “nest” is the first note of the motherhood that sings through the collection, often, as here, and understandably, in the minor key).
         There follows a set of eight poems under the title ‘And Her Great Gift of Sleep’.  This is a line from W.E. Henley’s ‘Margaritae Sorori’, a poem that asks that the poet be “gather'd to the quiet west, / The sundown splendid and serene, / Death.”  Pratt’s sequence is chronological, a kind of diary of response to the tragedy. The first poem opens with an immediately attention-grabbing multi-image.

The seagulls are static
and strange in the night sky.
Roped to a moon that slips
the bones from their wings,
they hang over the edge,
like a cot mobile.

This could be the description of a picture, but it is not the painting that takes its title from the line preceding ‘And her great gift of sleep’, which is ‘Night with her train of stars’.   That painting, by Edward Robert Hughes, a late pre-Raphaelitish sort of painter, portrays night in the form of a blue winged angel, carrying a babe in her arms; the 'train of stars' are also babies. It crops up later in the set.
This complicated image starts in the “night sky” and ends over a child’s cot, and it is impossible not to think of the preparations parents make for the arrival of their new born – the “nest”. The lines that follow violently oppose this stillness.  The wind “bites like a dog in a fight”.  We learn that “the sea is sick”.  The sea, in just two short poems, has already become a very complicated place.
         We find out in the poem that follows what the consequence of that sickness of the sea is: “She is drowning”.  The ocean is amniotic.

I dream the sea
goes out
and the tide line
is scattered with her clothes.

This veers thrillingly close to sentimentality; it almost teases the reader into that safe, unthoughtful place, but preceding this is a “wet-sand-heavy” body, a “stretched belly” and a listening for the sea.  The child has been taken by the water, and her memory is brought back as surely as each high tide.  The dream image is earned. 
         The poet is never far from water – she crawls from her hospital bath, like an evolutionary creature, to hold her daughter’s body: “I want / to be a siren and sing her back”. Sirens, mermaids – this world of myth and legend is never far away from Pratt’s mind. So often these are easy shortcuts; here their invocation gives them life, they become real.  The poet and the partner are next discovered in a car park in the rain “where the Holbeck Hotel / once stood, before it collapsed / over the cliff edge”.  That too has been taken by the sea, has disappeared over the edge (a recurring motif, this edge, which marks the line between life and death). Then, while walking the dog, a sea mist comes in suddenly and sound takes over from sight:

The sea is scraping the bottom
of a bucket, or dragging a corpse
or tickling or kissing the sand

‘Dover Beach’ comes to mind. The poet listens for the sound of the stones she throws into the water, “but the water / moves on and on and offers / only sea glass and fossils”.  The poet, I think, is listening for the cry of her lost child, or “the underwater / tap-tap”, perhaps, of the second poem.
         Pratt’s poetry is full of fossils, bones, the evidence of lives lived and gone. It marks a kind of refusal to admit to history, to linear time.  All those that have lived still live.  The past inhabits the present: “and yesterday is tomorrow and tomorrow is today, yesterday / is now and past and future” sings a dead Minke whale in the last poem in the pamphlet. This refusal of course has added piquancy in the light of Pratt’s own experience of her daughter’s death. 
The final poem of the sequence demands that the poet “stop trailing her along behind me”.  It is a brave poem, an attempt to release her child:

I think of her atoms climbing
out of her body, out through the earth,
into the water, into the rain,
into the sea

The tide that in a previous poem drags her “back / and forth for years” is now “the sound of the waves / coming home to the shore”.  The sadness is not diminished, but there is a sense that the poet is recognizing her daughter’s self-agency, that Matilda is being allowed separation, has – and I hope this is not a morbid or offensive or sentimental idea - been born.

         I’ve lingered on this sequence, as I think it represents the major achievement of Lapstrake, but this is not to suggest that the rest of the poems are not rich and thematically coherent with ‘And Her Great Gift of Sleep’.  The sea dominates, whether in the form of Ran – a sea goddess in Norse mythology, who lures and then cares for the drowning and drowned – or her husband Aegir, often in lapstraking poems (‘Coming Aground’, ‘Weaving’).  Seagulls, mermaids, dragons, shells, sand, edges abound.  By the end – the last poem, ‘Dead Whale Dreams of God’ (very Hughesian, no?) is an actual bona fide sestina – the reader will taste salt on his or her tongue and might well hear “an eternal note of sadness”.

Night with Her Train of Stars by Edward Robert Hughes
Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

Saturday, 4 February 2017

Friday, 27 January 2017

Tuesday, 17 January 2017


Although it plays on the tropes of golden age musicals, La La Land isn't really a musical in that sense. The leads are not great dancers - to have been so would simply have been cheesy. Their modest hoofing is approachable, which seems right for what is, in effect, a two hander. It is a very clever thing to have made so intimate and ordinary a story on such a cinescopic scale. The hilltop dance scene (six minutes - one shot - the one in the posters) was done on location. The artifice is the artifice of reality (that sounds a bit pseudy, I am aware, but it rather sums up the movie's appeal). The story itself is rigorously anti-sentimental, which plays brilliantly against all the expectations we bring to the genre. No, it isn't Singin' in the Rain, nor meant to be (and anyway, Singin' in the Rain is more or less the greatest of all movies in the history of the universe, including all parallel universes). As for the performances - dancing aside - Ryan Gosling's is wonderfully generous and understated, while Emma Stone's first audition is alone worth studying - for once a movie audition that isn't played cod - her character can really act. We are transfixed by Stone's brilliant acting until we become aware that behind her, blurred, a minion is knocking at the glass office door with a sandwich for the casting director, and we are ourselves torn, distracted. The film's cameras linger; there are shots that last minutes on end, so that all the action is in the performance It seems like a film put imagined beforehand and not put together in the cutting room. It also continues a theme that impels 'Whiplash' - that to be your best self, sacrifice must be made. La La Land is not simply a floaty floaty pastiche; it is a proper tale beautifully told.