Monday, 29 June 2020

Literary joys in lockdown

Lockdown has been tough for everyone, but from a personal perspective, one of its few high notes thus far has been that I have been reading as though possessed.

The year had already started well on the book front: by mid-March, I’d read 10 titles. About a week later, when I started working from home because of COVID-19 – seven days ahead of the curve – I was about half way through what would be my eleventh book of the year.

Perhaps I should explain a little: for some anal reason or other, I like lists – and I keep ones of books I’ve read, films I’ve seen at the cinema and live performances of various sorts, together with a bit of a rating system.

Additionally, in as much as I ever make new year resolutions, reading more is a perpetual promise I make to myself.

Strangely enough, it’s also the only one of those lists that is thriving this year. Roughly a book a week until I went into lockdown. In the 15 weeks since, the total is 23.

That doesn’t include anything I haven’t finished – and there have been one or two: almost always when I’m struggling to get going again after something that has absolutely grabbed me and refused to let go until the last page.

Some of the books involved are very slender – not least because I started reading poetry quite seriously. But then again, more than one book has been well over 400 pages.

Indeed, the one that I was reading when I went into lockdown was one such example – Umberto Eco’s The Prague Cemetery.

Eco’s The Name of the Rose was the first literary novel I ever read voluntarily. It took me ages, but I loved it. I subsequently spent a long time getting through Foucault’s Pendulum.

Like those, The Prague Cemetery is about conspiracies: Eco is obsessed with them – and he is very good at showing you how they are created and how they grow.

There’s something unpleasant about the taste that The Prague Cemetery leaves in the mouth (albeit less so than after reading pretty much anything by Nabokov), given the nature of the anti-Semitic conspiracies that are created in this book. Almost all the characters really existed and what Eco has done is gloriously written and shines an unforgiving light on the conspiracy industry.

After that, Autumn and Winter, the first two volumes of Ali Smith’s seasons quartet. Written about a Britain in the wake of the 2016 referendum result, these are both are wonderful. Stunningly imaginative, they challenge the reader in unexpected and poetic ways. A joy to read and I look forward to the next two.

If you fancy something a bit more factual, then Hold on Edna! Is the story of the birth of the NHS, from the first baby born in it, Aneira Thomas – and I reviewed it here.

Lucy Foley’s The Hunting Party is a classic murder mystery in a closed room. I found it really quite irritating until I metaphorically slapped myself around the chops to remember that most of the characters in Agatha Christie are irritating too.

Foley has created a seriously tense story that will have you turning the pages madly to the end.

And now to Ransom Riggs and Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children and its sequel, Hollow City.

These are wonderful works of fantasy; beautifully written, and illustrated by the most extraordinary vintage photographs, which both inspired the stories themselves and also give a really different feel to the books. I loved the first one – but the second is even better.

Wonderful stuff – and a perfect illustration that ‘children’s books’ can have plenty to reward adult reading.

On the fantasy front, it took me two goes at it, but I finally made my way through John Gardner’s novella, Grendel.

This entry into the Fantasy Masterworks selection is an alternate take on Beowulf and is short, but dense with ideas and images, and has a wonderful sense of the mythological that makes it very special indeed.

I mentioned poetry, and I’ve been reading a fair few slender volumes, so let me give particular mentions to Wendy Cope’s Serious Concerns, Daljit Nagra’s Look We Have Coming to Dover! and Margaret Atwood’s Morning in the Burned House.

In a melding of poetry and prose, I finally got around to reading the very short – but utterly stunning – Grief is the Thing with Feather by Max Porter. Do read – possibly after reading Ted Hughes’s crow poems first.

I’ve already mentioned Atwood, but if her poetry is good, her short story collection, Stone Mattress is, for me, even better. Frankly, it is the sort of dark gothic stuff that has lingered in the mind since.

It hasn’t all been ‘arty’: I’ve also finally read Stephen King’s one vampire novel, Salem’s Lot (and loved it.

But my bookish highlight of the last few weeks is absolutely a literary one.

For various reasons, I got around to James Baldwin and his semi-autobiographical first novel, Go Tell it on the Mountain.

It is stunning. I feel a link because, while not personally knowing the Pentecostalism of speaking in tongues, I have experienced other elements of the evangelistic Christianity that he describes.

But beyond that, Baldwin, in this gloriously written debut, seems to me to make the lived experience of those with a heritage of slavery to be immediate and understandable to all. I have never seen it, and felt an understanding of it, so clearly.

It is an incredible book and, if I had to recommend just one from this lockdown of reading, that would be it.

I’ve just ordered more Baldwin – so what more can I say?

Saturday, 20 June 2020

Summer solstice … bone and stone and feather


Bone and stone and feather
Leaf and stick and shell,
Scent of purple heather
Sound of ocean swell.

Green of grass below me
Blue of skies above,
Iced beck burbling freely
Cooing of a dove.

Thunder up in heaven
Drizzle in the breeze,
Kronking of the raven
Snow upon the trees.

Swooping murmuration
Swirling Northern Lights
Swifts’ airborne gyration,
Bumble bee in flight.

Fledgling’s hungry calling
Curlew’s haunting cry,
Wind through grasses rushing
Breeze’s gentle sigh.

Mist through woods now pouring
Ghost of breath in air,
Sun in azure soaring
Moon in ink set fair.

Bone and stone and feather
Leaf and stick and shell,
Whatever be the weather
Such things will keep me well.

Friday, 5 June 2020

Freedom Bid

A budgie, pretty in lilac, cream and brown
Perches on the trellis,
Glancing all around and seemingly

Yet just yesterday,
The next-door blackbirds lost a chick.
Fledging too soon from the shielding hedge,
It dropped from the ledge and once on the ground
Was trapped.
Easy meat for a magpie to peck.

The budgie, charming colours so striking here,
Perches on the trellis
Alongside dowdy sparrows,
Pecking at jasmine flowers.
Ceramic white petals float to the ground.

Forget the local sparrowhawk or passing peregrine.
Staying alert, a black cat leaps
To snatch.
The budgie breaks away with a squawk,
Escaping – this time at least.

But having leapt from some shielding cage
Spread its wings and flown free,
How long can it survive?

The budgie, exotic in its parrot hues
Returns to the trellis,
Glancing all around and seemingly
Still unafraid.

But up and down and all around,
They watch.

And wait.

4 June 2020

Saturday, 23 May 2020

Lockdown's creative surge continues

The lockdown brings with it plenty of difficulties, but there can also be opportunities – not least to think about things. 

I’ve already explained briefly here that for me, it has produced an entirely unexpected creative burst, as I have found myself writing poetry for the first time in decades.

In the last couple of days, remembering old family photographs uncovered when clearing my parents’ home two years ago this summer, I found that a couple of the pictures made me want to talk about them.

Or to put another way, I felt that I wanted to write about some of them, to build a picture in a different way. The photographs themselves will be included, because this is – hopefully – one thing complimenting another.


Snow-dumped fells blur
Into snow-filled skies;
Drifts arc up from the road
Like a pitted bobsleigh track.
She stands in the middle distance,
To the bottom left.
has a black hedge tower over her,
Drawing the eye
and accidentally lending the shot
                        good composition.
The slide was colour but
Winter and time have leached that.

Blow it up and there is no trace
of a smile
in the smudge of a face.
Booted, with feet turned out
(Later, she’d say not to stand that way).
Stockings beneath a dress or skirt,
She relies for warmth on a big coat,
collar up
And hands hidden in gloves or overlong sleeves.  
Her hair is tucked away, queen-like, beneath a scarf.
Further off, two men in caps
            clear the road.
It was December ’62 and
The snow that had snowed
            would be followed by plenty more;
And, just a few days later,
            By me.

23 May 2020

Friday, 15 May 2020

The Duchess

Unexpectedly for me at least, the lockdown has produced a surge of creativity that I did not expect.

For the first time since my early twenties, when the results were predictably embarrassing (little experience of the world combined with a restricted worldview, given the restrictions of my home life), I have been writing poetry.

For the moment, Im grouping what I write under a general banner of Lockdown Lines.

They are not all about the lockdown, but they have all been written while I am in lockdown.

I have posted a few already. This is one of those that is not about the coronavirus, but is about a lady who was in the bed opposite me when I was in hospital two years ago.

No notes or anything like that were taken at the time, but I have never forgotten the incidents I describe below. The section about what her past might have included is entirely from my imagination: all the rest really happened.

My father had died just a week before I went into hospital – a key cause was dementia. Perhaps thats why Doris remains so clearly in my mind.

The Duchess

Swaddled in zebra-stripe velour she dozes,
Lunch barely touched on the over-bed table.
“Doris,” the time-starved nurse had pleaded,
“You must like fish and chips” ...
As though not eating was entirely a choice.

Broken hips will heal in time once reset;
A mind tick-tick-tocked into the past is gone.
Her son sits beside her, head bowed low;
There’s nothing to say and
He makes no move to disturb her 40 winks.

Next day, Annie and Joan urge her to “Get up!
“Try out your bionic peg!” they cackle.
I call out that the physio’s not here
And at last a nurse comes,                 
Bringing an end to impending disaster.                     

Doris, Doris duchess of The Dolphin,       
Known in the Duke’s Head but never in the Florin;
There you’d sip a stout or a port in a storm
Laughing with the girls and singing until dawn;
Around the Joanna you would croon a bar or two,
You could smoke like a trooper and tell a joke so blue that
You’d set the crowds ahowling and make a sailor blush
But you were always a lady and never just some lush.

On the bedside cupboard there is a bottle,
Gaudy plastic full of liquid pinky red:
‘Cherryade’ or so the label claims.
Hardly a Cherry B,
Never mind a stout or a port (in a storm).

In the middle of the night Doris demands
“Boy! Boy?” Querulous, tremulous and lost.
A nurse tries to calm her. Soothing sounds.
At last she drifts again ...
As though not sleeping was entirely a choice.

27 April 2020

Monday, 11 May 2020

Ten by Eight

Ten by eight is a monochrome film sheet;
Ten by eight is the perfect picture size;
Ten by eight is a Barbara Cartland photo
Ready framed for Grandma – what a lovely pink surprise.

Ten by eight can be a snappy silver snare drum;
Ten by eight can be a model scene of war;
Ten by eight could make a decent garden shed
Or an urban chicken coop with an automated door.

Ten by eight is the size of the patio
Measured in steps – well at least it is in mine.
All around the dryer and the plant pots and the deckchair
I wend my merry way when the sun sees fit to shine.

Say it’s 26 steps for a solitary circuit,
I’d need just under 400 laps in a day
For the gadget on my wrist to spark digital fireworks;
This is lockdown athletics in a most surreal way.

In the private carpark through a gate from the patio
The space measures out at 50 steps by 10;
That’s 93 laps, give or take a little,
To keep up my steps and my mood approaching Zen.

Ten by eight can be the size of a certificate
Stamped and signed and emblazoned with your name;
Will I feel like a winner at the end of this marathon
Or just like a pawn in some dumb god’s game?

1 May 2020

Friday, 8 May 2020

Corona Nightmare

I have started to dream about COVID: or rather,
I dream about Hancock’s half hour.
Where deer-like in the face of the headlights,
Politicians draw straws to cower.

Will today bring forth more pretty numbers
Or some badges they’ve hammered from tin?
Yet another promise on testing, maybe?
Though this spin has all long since worn thin.

Nurses may still need protection,
But Matt swears he’s doing his best;
That panic-bought gowns are all turkeys
Is no proof all his pledges go west.

In the wild, weird world of my dreamscape,
Ministers dine on roast swan,
Toasting the news that care costs
Will have fallen when COVID has gone.

It’s the blow on the chin that Johnson
Had mused that the nation might take:
Any sense that he’s now saddened by it
Is like his fluffed hair – a fake.

Yet still there are so many people,
Whipped on by parts of the press,
Who remain convinced by his bluster,
Unseeing his role in this mess.

At long last the dream starts to fracture;
Reality pours into my mind:
What a time it is that we live in,
When such idiots govern the blind.

8 May 2020