Thursday, 27 November 2014

FOOTFALL by Wynn Wheldon

This is an old poem, originally published in an anthology called Shaken and Stirred (2002).  It is set in the old cemetery in Freiburg.  London's weather, and empty paths, over the last couple of days brought it back to mind.  It's a bit wordy, but atmospheric I think.

Freiburg, April 2002

Recent rain, the rich aroma of fungus
and the early unsatisfactory darkness.
The listening to one’s own footfall
as though the only footfall and all other feet
put up, all other heads easy on starched pillows,
easy with virtue if not contentment.
And this head full of its greeds and lusts,
hunched between tight shoulders in the mist,
shrouded, shall we say, as though ashamed.

From beyond, the minster bell tolls the quarter
and all at once this might be any age
in the last thousand years, and I consider nuns
friars and monks, bishops in purple
and the shoeless and the cold and the scholastic.

On the wall of the cemetery, in day-glo pink:
FUCK NAZIS - brighter than the mist-buried stars,
the letters a metre high; a very modern necrophilia.

Death’s dullness: toadstooled graves
and rain-dark headstones, the end of footfall,
the virtuous and vicious dead alike, content.

Saturday, 22 November 2014


Men who have been left by women or made cuckolds by rivals either lick their wounds in humiliated silence or start the Trojan Wars.
Frances Wilson
The Courtesan's Revenge


What an enjoyable time academics have with their 'texts'. Their own writing seeks to be scrupulously clean of themselves.  And this leaves the reader bereft of conversational comfort.  One feels not as though one is being talked to, but talked at.

David Plante, TLS

Friday, 21 November 2014

AN OLD PHOTO by Wynn Wheldon


That’s my first love sitting sipping tea
In her parents’ garden, smiling at me.
Around her neck she wears a violet scarf.
Her frock is virgin white; and you may laugh
But the symbols were rich for me. I thought
We might discover sex together, bought
Her Lawrence stories, marked out for her one
In which the heroine is penetrated by the sun.
To no avail.  I failed to win her round
And she gave herself to someone sound,
Someone certainly with better looks
Who did not euphemise desire with books.

Wynn Wheldon

Originally published in Prole 9

Wednesday, 19 November 2014


...est arrivĂ©.  Contains my brief but fair review of Tim Kiely's brief but excellent pamphlet 'Footsteps'.  May I also recommend a new book of poetry, A Landscape Blossoms Within Me by Eeva Kilpi, translated by Donald Adamson.  More info here:

Thursday, 13 November 2014


The review below appeared in the first issue of Lunar Poetry (August 2014), a new monthly poetry magazine edited by Paul McMenemy.

To Sing Away the Darkest Days
Poems re-imagined from Yiddish Folksongs
by Norbert Hirschhorn
Holland Park Press, 124pp
ISBN 9781907320354

Reviewed by Wynn Wheldon

Folk songs tend to address the quotidian. Daily life in the shtetls of Eastern Europe, on the Russian pale, was hard, and folksongs were a means both of expressing this hardship and of coping with it, of calling the monster by a name, to sing away the darkest days.

still, the Rebbe’s about to sing. When
he chants the holy songs, our whole

earth rings and the Devil will die.


Hirschhorn is well qualified to write about suffering, and the suffering of large numbers of people, for he is an epidemiologist by profession, now retired. He also has several books of poetry to his name. 

The thirty-odd poems of the present volume are based on Yiddish folk songs, hundreds of which Hirschhorn studied in rediscovering his own cultural Jewishness.  The chosen songs are given in transliteration and literal translation in the second half of the book.  I’m not sure that was entirely necessary.  Is the autobiographical act not confused by the scholarly?  I have chosen to read the poems as Hirschhorn’s own.

They reveal a civilized, liberal sensibility, concerned with inequality, but amused too by the quirks of human kind.  Underlying all however is the great existential melancholy that the Jews know better than anyone. A greater Jewish poet, Joseph Brodsky, once wrote that “the reason why a good poet speaks of his own grief with restraint is that, as regards grief, he is a Wandering Jew”*. Folk songs are not known for their restraint, but Hirschhorn’s complaints are never raucous, and they are not for his own plight, but for the pains of others.  The voices of these others he inhabits with enviable ease, employing an eclectic prosody.  There are prose poems and poems in free verse, poems that rhyme, and metrical poems that don’t rhyme. There is the song-like use of repetition and nonsense (oy-doy-do-diri-diri-tam).  The voices are those of both men and women, young and old, their terms sometimes formal, sometimes demotic.

Hey pussy cat, why such a pout?
You just checked up your pedigree?
So, what did you find out? Your daddy
greases palms at City Hall.  Your momma’s
a shoplifter.  Little brother fixes ball games,
and sister’s run off with a grafter.
         Uh huh.


There are poems with two voices, asked and asker:

…who will save you
when our foes hear your singing?
         When inquisitors come to seize me
     I will drown them in my song.

[CAVE SONG, p. 17]

Hirschhorn, writing in English, is as happy to place his characters in Leicester Square as in Union Square.  These occasional references pull the English-language reader back into the ambit of the poems as a whole: we are not allowed to lose ourselves in eastern Europe or Czarist Russia. The gentile reader recognizes universal themes: the pains and joys of motherhood, life-changing decisions, oppression, sisterhood, teaching, working, aspiration, wealth and poverty, exile, and the imperishable ability to keep dreaming of a better life.

just a wee nip to keep that
          fragrance, l’khayim, on your lips; one
                     last nip, l’khayim, for what
                             we always dream of.

[TO LIFE! P. 49]

Norbert Hirschhorn has pulled off a kind of transformative magic in this collection.  The lyrics of songs, of prayer, learned in childhood, are more often remembered as sounds than as words.  The reason lies partly in the communality of the act of singing or chanting.  One is driven along by a collective noise.  It is one of singing’s pleasures.  What reader has not grown up unsure as to the correct words of, say, Desmond Dekker’s ‘Israelites’, while knowing with utter confidence the correct sounds?

In these “re-imaginings” Hirschhorn has turned songs to poems without sacrificing their communal power, and has found a way of relating common experience without slipping into clichĂ©, and has furthermore reminded us that art is almost as vital to humanity as a woollen coat in winter.

Now nothing’s of use to me, except this little song.

[A TAILOR’S SONG, p. 55]

* Joseph Brodsy,‘The Keening Muse’, in Less Than One: Selected Essays, (Viking, 1986), p. 38


11th Nov 2014 - 30th Nov 2014
StageSpace - Pleasance London
Suitable for ages 16 and above

At the risk of being accused of hyperbole (which is a serious charge), I’d suggest that Streaming by Jon Welch, performed by Pipeline Theatre at the Pleasance Theatre in Islington contains three of the most powerful performances available to theatre goers in London at the moment.  I can’t guarantee that there aren’t equally good performances elsewhere, because I’ve seen very few plays recently, but the energy, conviction and sheer stage presence of Angus Brown, Kyla Goodey and Anna Munden is exhausting in just the way it ought to be.

Of course a good script to work to is important, and they have that in Welch’s downbeat riff on the Wizard of Oz. A father, Toby, and daughter, Rosa, previously well-to-do, have fallen on hard times following the death of wife/mother and the loss of Toby’s job, and have had to move into low-rent accommodation.  Their neighbour, Candy, provides online sexual favours for paying clients.  She befriends the lonely, teenage Rosa, who finds disagreeable her father’s desperate attempts on the one hand to get work and on the other to keep her happy.  Toby declines into alcoholism; Rosa moves in with Candy, becomes ‘Dorothy’, and starts her career as a webcam girl. 

Perhaps I could be accused of spoilers but actually what grips right from the start is the intensity of the performances.  The play itself has holes (why doesn’t Rosa go to school?) and rather rushes to its end.  According to the author’s notes in the programme, the play is an investigation into the cost of the objectification of women, but actually – and this saves it from being a simple-minded piece of agitprop - one’s sympathies are not wholly with Rosa. Toby’s situation – widower, financially ruined, alcoholic, and with a teenage daughter intent on making her own way – is hardly to be envied.  Either we must accept that his advice to his daughter not to make friends with Candy is sensible or we must decide that Rosa at sixteen is old enough to make her own decisions.  In the final masque there is a sense that Rosa and Candy have somehow triumphed over Toby, who has been reduced to a wordless masturbator. It is hard to feel that any of the characters deserve their fate. 

Angus Brown and Anna Munden make an astonishing pair on stage, the one manic in his despair, for ever rubbing his scalp (hair all pulled out perhaps) pinching the bridge of his nose, and stalking the small room, his phone limpit-like to his ear; the other,  in contrast - Anna Munden as Rosa - is quiet, with a mesmerising stillness.  This stillness directs one to her face.  She acts with her eyes, and the movements are never affected; always subtle, always natural, but also always emphatic.  Having seen her in Pipeline’s previous, brilliant, production, Transports, it is evident that she has the makings already of an exceptional actress.  She has inimitability.  No-one is like her and she is like no-one.

There is comedy and comedic pathos in Kyla Goodey’s performance as Candy.  I had been concerned to begin with that she was playing too close to the Catherine Tate character Lauren Cooper or Vicky Pollard, but she stayed just the right side of stereotype.

As with Transports, the stagecraft is exemplary.  So often in Fringe theatre the audience is made uncomfortable by the awkwardnesses of the staging.  Pipeline do holisitic work, all is of a piece.  It is difficult to imagine the play being done in any other way.  The design is simple but clever, the lighting and sound design more or less flawless, the costumes properly thought about and executed. 

This is first rate theatre.  Go and see it.

Monday, 10 November 2014


I don't know about anybody else, but my Sports Personality of the Year is chosen.  Rachael Letsche may be the most boring girl in the world, but she can do this:

Arriving at Monemvasia, 1992

Mel Pryor's poem below reminded me strongly of one of my own, written some time ago, and published in my pamphlet, Tiny Disturbances. This is a very slightly different version.


It was a moment plum rich with allusion,
with symbol - a full moon striping the wine-dark sea,
Dylan singing she might be in Tangier.
The rooms of Monemvasia, limpet fast
upon the rocks around us, soft light issuing,
were home as only home can be: safe, warm,
full, with a clever magic, of the familiar.
We came upon our friends, sitting, smiling,
terraced beneath the moon, above the sea,
a mild joint passing, sweet hash scenting
the already spiced night with the knowledge
of laughter to come.  A rug, cushions.

Comfort never to be known again, maybe,
because our lives soon would turn with children
and that good responsibility
consigns such innocent indulgence to youth
and we no longer incline to symbols.
Now, when the full moon stripes the wine-dark sea
It is not itself that moves us, but the memory.

Wynn Wheldon

The Waterboys play 'The Whole of the Moon' by Mel Pryor

The year we met, that summer driving
in your tin drum sports car from Abbraccio
del Lago to Dolcedo, music on, cigarette smoke
choking the open top and a glaze of alcohol
as golden as the light spilt over the tongue of the road,

I remember thinking
we would never love like this again -
the settlement of early evening,
the easy smell of grass, the moon,
the whole damn white of it.

I held onto you those years ago
and now, on the same long Italian coast road,
I hold onto that slim translucent memory
the way the day will sometimes
hold onto the moon in its blue sky.

Mel Pryor

from Drawn on Water
£5.00 from Eyewear Publishing
ISBN 9781908998590

Friday, 7 November 2014


Some of the thoughts of Constance Yokeham, the presiding genius of my mother's unpublished novel. Daughters of the Flood.  This passage is from the second volume, The Leopard on Kamak San, set partly in Korea during the Korean War.


Went tonight (about half past midnight) to see the poppies.  The night was dark and wet, but there they were those hundreds of thousands of poppies.  One of them was for Gordon Nunns, a great uncle, killed in the last days of the war (September 1st, 1918) at the age of 20.

Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red

Created by ceramic artist Paul Cummins, with setting by stage designer Tom Piper