Thursday, 30 October 2014


My Spectator review of Shaun Usher's terrific Lists of Note, begotten of the equally splendid Letters of Note, is HERE.  Netter still, buy the mag itself and read it in the bath.

Monday, 27 October 2014


In further poetry news...  R.V. Bailey, co-editor of aforementioned Book of Love and Loss, was also the judge for this year's Torbay Open Poetry Competition.  She went so far as to commend a poem I had entered, and I went to Torquay on the weekend to collect my certificate during the course of the Torbay Festival of Poetry.  At a grand supper on Saturday night we listed to Maurice Riordan reciting.  One of the poems he read was 'Sweet Afton'.  I shall give you the first verse.
Once we sparked up on planes, playgrounds.
We smoked on the john. On the job. Even as we drove
There was a risk we took, a second of blind
Chance at the wheel to catch the light in one move.
(from The Water Stealer, published by Faber & Faber) 

A great smoking poem.

The last time I won anything for poetry was in 1974, when I won the Milton prize at school.  Sounds very impressive, but the truth is my poem was the only entry.  Here's a picture of my certificate.  The poem is called 'Boys Smoking Weed in the Cemetery', and as soon as I hear that I may I shall post it here for the bigger world's delectation.

Sunday, 26 October 2014


Delighted to say that I have a poem in this magnificently edited and produced tome.  There are many lesser known poets also represented, such as Gillian Clarke, Wendy Cope, Carol Ann Duffy, Jackie Kay and Andrew Motion.  I'm sure it is a thrill for them to find themselves in proximity to me. The Book of Love & Loss is edited by R.V. Bailey and June Hall, and is published The Belgrave Press, and costs £12.95, of which 50p goes to Parkinson's Research. ISBN9780954621520

Saturday, 11 October 2014


Richmond riverside, 10 October, around teatime, tide receding

Lines written near Richmond, upon the Thames at Evening
William Wordsworth

Glide gently, thus forever glide,
O Thames! that other bards may see,
As lovely visions by thy side
As now, fair river! come to me.
Oh glide, fair stream! for ever so;
Thy quiet soul on all bestowing,
'Till all our minds forever flow,
As thy deep waters now are flowing.

Vain thought!  Yet be as now thou art,
That in thy waters may be seen
The image of a poets heart,
How bright, how solemn, how serene!
Such as did once the Poet bless
Who murmuring once a later ditty,
Could find no refuge from distress
But in the milder grief of pity.

Now let us, as we float along,
For him suspend the dashing oar;
And pray that never child of song
May know that Poet’s sorrows more.
How calm!  How still!  The only sound,
The dripping of the oar suspended!
- The evening darkness gathers round
By virtue’s holiest powers attended.

Friday, 10 October 2014


Judging from what I have on my bookshelves, these are the living novelists whose books I always buy (if not always read).

Martin Amis
Julian Barnes
William Boyd
Lee Child
Jim Crace
Sebastian Faulks
Robert Harris
Nick Hornby
Howard Jacobson
Milan Kundera
David Lodge
Ian McEwan
James Meek
V.S. Naipaul
Henry Porter
Philip Roth
Tom Wolfe

Not tremendously adventurous, I grant. NO WOMEN. This bothers me somewhat. The botheration is not because I am an ardent feminist - quite obviously I am not.  Rather it is because I have tended to maintain that women make better novelists than men (no-one is as good as Jane Austen, not even the Russians), and yet I don't seem to have any female bankers.  I have read Mantel, like everyone else.  I like Sarah Waters.  J.K. Rowling dominated the years of my early fatherhood. Ann Tyler every now and then. Alison Lurie I like and Francine Prose. But these are not Must Haves. Recommendations would be welcome. (NB Can't stand Atwood.)


After supper I accompanied him to his apartment, and at my request he dictated to me an argument in favour of the negro who was then claiming his liberty, in an action in the Court of Session in Scotland. He had always been very zealous against slavery in every form, in which I, with all deference, thought that he discovered 'a zeal without knowledge.' Upon one occasion, when in company with some very grave men at Oxford, his toast was, 'Here's to the next insurrection of the negroes in the West Indies.' His violent prejudice against our West Indian and American settlers appeared whenever there was an opportunity. Towards the conclusion of his 'Taxation no Tyranny', he says, 'how is it that we hear the loudest YELPS for liberty among the drivers of negroes?' 

Boswell's Life of Johnson, eds. Hill & Powell, Vol III, pp. 200-207

Thursday, 9 October 2014

from MISSING OUT by Adam Phillips

"Sometimes, perhaps more often than we realise, we live as if we know more about the experiences we don't have than about the experiences we do have."

This is a "supposition" (Phillips' s word) that he repeats and clarifies (or, at any rate, expands upon) in the chapter 'On Getting Out of It' (which is not about smoking too much pot).  Said chapter contains an interesting reading of Larkin's 'This Be the Verse'.

Missing Out by Adam Phillips

Wednesday, 8 October 2014


1.a. Designating a right angle; (also) having a right angle; right-angled; rectangular. Now rare
1979   W. Styron Sophie's Choice (2000) 327   The old man..seemed thoroughly exhilarated—the clean bright orthogonal Mondrians bringing special delight to his technician's eye.  OED

Tuesday, 7 October 2014


Young women with damp hollows, downy arms,
Bare burnished legs — you see them striding
Towards their plant-filled offices, riding
Bicycles to flatshares after work; lunchtimes, you stare
As secretaries, backpackers tanned from birth
Peel off their things and stretch on sun-warmed earth.
A few of them stare back... As if they’d share
Their world of holidays and weekend farms

With you! They step more lightly every year,
A glimpse of neck-hair, a scent that lingers, girls
Who, swinging bags with shops’ names, disappear,
Trailing glances, into crowds; each one unfurls
Her special beauty like a fragile frond
Before your famished eyes. I am what lies beyond,
They seem to say, beyond the mortgage, car and wife —
I am what you deserve, I am the buried life

You will never live. Are they pushed laughing onto beds
By hands that unhook bras and yank down briefs?
Do they wake with tongues thick-furred, heads
Hot and unremembering as carpet-swirls?
Crave water running over them in purls,
As cool as their long fingers? Schubert, jazz,
It’s all the same to them. As are your little griefs.
It isn’t fair. If you’ve not changed, what has?

Is it a kind of shifting, imperceptible, like sands
On some barren, windswept stretch of shore?
In simmering parks, on summer streets
Where they wait but not for you, you furtively explore
The curves of eyebrow, cheek and lip —
Of other things too; you search left hands
For seals of love, or ownership.
Moving off, they can smell your old defeats.

Filched off Clive James's site, and originally appearing, I believe, in Jenkins' The Little Black Book (Cargo Press, 2001).  Worth having a look back at the late Dannie Abse's 'Not Adlestrop', for a somewhat lighter take on a similar subject (a subject I've been trying to write about for years).

Monday, 6 October 2014


Each poet builds in verse
For every age to see:
His monument, a brass

I would not have it so,
No towers, no tombs, no shows.
As a bird to the green bough
      Love comes, love goes.

I call no witnesses;
The songs I make for you
Should pass like a caresss
      Or the bright dew,

The assent of meeting eyes
When rapture, when laughter
Take silence by surprise;
      And silence after;

World in parenthesis,
Smiles we exchange,
Momentary as this kiss;
      As fierce, as strange.

Such songs I would prepare
As for our supper spread,
Songs we as simply share
      As wine and bread;

Songs for each place and mood,
All seasons of the heart,
And one for solitude
      When we two part.

Then to make one song more:
A song the bird alone
Sings after as before
      His love has flown.

He sings his first song still
Although his heart is wrung,
For love may change at will,
      But not his song.

from Collected Poems, 1930-1970, Angus & Robertson, 1966

On A.D. Hope by Clive James

Friday, 3 October 2014


Believe it or not, the boat I was a guest on is in this picture, about four boats back, directly behind the stern of the Hermione. It has a little blue awning at the rear.

For landlubbers such as myself, the thrill of the sea, being on the sea, takes us by surprise.  It is not usually the electricity of physical excitement or even geological difference (although those are important); rather, it is psychological, involving the removal of all responsibility other than that of the present moment, or the moments very shortly to come.  You leave the land behind.  It is rather like being in a happy gaol, where there are no gaolers, and if there were they’d be protecting you rather than warding.  You can’t simply get out of a boat.  Instead of barbed wire and floodlight, there is deep water and jellyfish.  That being said, there is a special delight in swimming from a boat.  I think it has to with depth of water, shared pleasure or perhaps simply being looked at.  
           So there is the freedom that restricted liberty brings; but there is also the bigness of the sky and the straightness of the horizon, and a sense of the world suddenly opened up.  And when the sky is cloudless and the sea nearly as smooth as a starched sheet, as it was on the Atlantic Coast of France between La Rochelle and Fouras on 7 September 2014, the possibility of life being near-as-dammit perfect, also opens up.
            On that day, I had the very good fortune to be invited to join John and Deb Gittins on their rather plush motor boat (it has a loo – I think we nautical types call it a “head” - but it isn’t a gin palace) as they motored out from La Rochelle, around Fort Boyard, anchored off the Ile d’Aix for a spot of lunch, before making our way towards the mouth of the Charente to witness the maiden sea voyage of the Hermione Lafayette, a French late eighteenth century warship lovingly restored to its original glory over a period of some 15 years.
            The river police quite rightly prevented us from reaching too far up river, and so we anchored, gradually joined by hundreds, perhaps thousands of other craft as the day approached tea-time and the expected arrival of the great ship.
            Very slowly she came.  First, in the distance, a suggestion of masts, thin verticals, complicated by horizontals.  Then, ever nearer, she hove into proper view, trailing an ever growing flotilla.  Helicopters buzzed.  The banks of the estuary were lined with sightseers.
            As she moved past, stately and beautiful, we joined the throng.  There were sailing dinghies and rubber dinghies and canoes and jet skis and yachts and gin palaces and oyster boats and catamarans and speed boats and excursion ferries.  The honking of horns and the blaring of klaxons was continuous, joyous.
            “Give it some horn,” insisted the glowing, lovely Deb.
            John, grinning at the wheel, gave it some horn.
            The other guests, Aldo and Sue and Scott, sat beneath the awning and watched and enjoyed.  John navigated, not without difficulty, in between these other craft, sometimes passing with a jolt of acceleration, sometimes being passed.  The sea itself was confused, lumpy with conflicting bow waves.
            Eventually we peeled off, keen to get back to la Rochelle before sunset and the crowds likely to follow.  John opened the throttle like the boy racer he still has inside him, and we bounced back through the ruffling sea, sunned and salted and sated.