Monday, 29 June 2009

Songs from the subconscious – play Dusty for me

I've been getting back into driving (cars) again recently. It's been a bit of a long and winding road over the past, what, ten years or more and it's hard work (very hard work!) but it's getting easier. Of course there is virtually no traffic in this part of the world but that's not really the issue - I'll deal with the rest of the world when I get there.

One odd thing about this whole business is that when I'm driving on my own I find the strangest songs just arriving in my head from what feels like nowhere (I don't have music playing in the car yet...I still have to keep distractions to a minimum). The other week it was the Carpenters 'Sing' that floated to the top of my mind (remember?) and yesterday it was this:

Not a song I've ever particularly listened to on purpose or anything (and I note it was in the charts in 1966 - the year before I was born). At first yesterday I couldn't even remember who it was by though I knew all the words (Dusty seems to be the main contender though there's an Elvis Presley version here too). It amazes me when these old songs just turn up, word strange comforting blankets or flasks of reassuring tea. I've never owned a Dusty album and I don't think anyone in my immediate family has either so I must have just heard this song on the radio when I was young and yet look how well it's stuck. More about the song, I may have said once or twice, more about the clever old songs...

p.s. Poem of mine up on qarrtsiluni today (it has audio too, if you want it). I thank you.


Saturday, 27 June 2009

Lives in verse

Chance by chance I've been working my way through a stash of BBC TV poetry season programmes recorded off the telly. This week (whilst my Mark was out winning a cricket match) I watched Sheila Hancock's 'My Life in Verse' (you can't watch the programme on the i-player any more but the Daily Mail, of all papers, has a lot of its content here). 'My Life in Verse' is a series where four famous people (one actress, one singer, one comedian, one children's writer) talk about poetry and what it has meant to them, how they've come across it and so on. It could, I the wrong hands, have been an abomination of a TV series but I think it has worked really well and I've enjoyed plenty in the shows I've seen so far (the Sheila Hancock, the Robert Webb and the Malorie Blackman). Yes, the programmes are focussed on the famous person at times but that is very much their starting point and on the whole (and from what I've seen so far...I've still got Cerys Matthews' one recorded to watch) the poetry and poets come to the forefront in a very impressive and often moving manner, accompanied by interesting interview snippets and plenty of expert help.

In Hancock's programme, for example, she introduced (or reintroduced) viewers and listeners to content by and about Yeats, Tennyson and Blake as well as a poem I really love called 'Time does not bring relief; you all have lied' by Edna St Vincent Millay (read that poem here). Hancock almost annoyed me a couple of times - the 'here's our beautiful house in France, here's our beautiful house in Wiltshire...oh, and we have a house in London...' business got a bit tiresome - but in the end what can you do...she is an actress...and I liked her quite a lot elsewhere in the programme so I made it to the end without falling out with her or anything like that. There was a jolly little segment on how Shakespeare's words would have sounded in his day and I liked her poetry choices very much too - in particular, a little section with and about English poet Wendy Cope.

I mentioned Cope in the last post (she was interviewed by Christina Patterson back in May 08) and also back in my '25 writers who've influenced me' post (here). Overall I would say that I am a Wendy Cope fan (though some of her best-known poems like 'Bloody Men' I can live without out...just not my idea of funny and, for me, a bit clichéd...she has much, much better poems than that). There is so much about her that is admirable though – her work is very clever and something like fashion-resistant, she can write with humour and/or piercing emotional detail, plus she has been hugely successful (in poetry terms – published by Fabers, sells lots of books) and she is even something like popular (quite an achievement for a living poet) as well as a respected editor of anthologies and so on. She is also English without being annoying (again quite an achievement) and I would say she is something like the Larkin of now. In fact if I could pick poetry parents I would have Larkin as Dad and Cope as Mum... if that's OK.

I liked the little segment with Cope in the Hancock poetry programme partly because of her very straightforward way of talking about poetry. This is such an unfashionable thing to say in poetry world but she said it:

"It (writing poetry) helps me deal with things, it helps me deal with difficult things."

We are not meant to admit things like that about writing poetry just is all about art and creation and craft and invention...but I'm with Cope here – writing helps me deal with difficult things. It doesn't always do that but it sometimes does and that doesn't mean I don't think about art and creation and craft and invention too (the processes are not mutually exclusive). I'm an even bigger Cope fan after seeing and hearing her on this programme - so much so that I am not linking to lots of her poems online because I know she doesn't like that kind of thing. See, I can be good.

The last poem in the Hancock hour was 'Try to praise the mutilated world' by Adam Zagajewski. Would you think less of me if I said I'd never heard of him before? Well, I hadn't. I loved the poem though – big and chest-beating and important and stirring....but gentle and thoughtful too (hurray!) and there's a blog post by someone else all about Zagajewski (including the text of the poem) here.

So thank-you Sheila and the BBC. Another fine hour spent thinking and listening and learning.

p.s. I watched both the Webb and the Blackman programmes very quickly yesterday as they were due to go off the BBC i-player and I had somehow omitted to record them via the TV. The Robert Webb one had some lovely moments (his old teacher, some Larkin, plus poet Don Paterson on trying to write 'more and more simply'...bless him, if he keeps going in that direction he'll end up writing like me). The Malorie Blackman was probably my favourite one so far though as it was just brilliant – political and personal, full of fine details and big issues. She squeezed in Grace Nichols, a psalm, Marvin Gaye, Benjamin Zephaniah, Emily Dickinson, Jackie Kay and several others. It was a fascinating mix and a heartwarming trip through Blackman's relationship with words, poems and a life in Britain. It had poems and this quote from poet James Berry too:

"Poetry's for everybody. It's like sunlight."

Let's hope we all get plenty of both.


Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Featuring special guest...Christina Patterson

So that special guest I talked about back Christina Patterson who writes for the London-based 'Independent' newspaper.

To begin with here's a potted work history of Christina's that I found online (here):

Christina Patterson read English at the universities of Durham and East Anglia before going on to work in publishing. From 1990-1998 she worked at the Royal Festival Hall, programming and presenting hundreds of literary events. From 1998-2000 she ran the Poetry Society’s Poetry Places scheme, a lottery-funded programme of poetry residencies and placements, while also working as a freelance writer and consultant. From 2000-2003, she was Director of the Poetry Society, overseeing activities ranging from the publication of its magazines to its education programme and the Poetry Café at Covent Garden.  As a freelance literary journalist, she has written regularly for the Observer, the Sunday Times and the Independent. She has contributed to a number of books, including The Cambridge Guide To Women’s Writing and the Forward Poetry Anthology 2001, and has chaired literary events at festivals around the country. Christina was Chair of the judges for the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize in 2000, of the Forward Poetry Prizes in 2001 and has been a judge for the poetry Whitbread Award. She joined The Independent in 2003 as deputy literary editor and is now a full-time writer and columnist for that paper.

Interesting career so far, don't you think? And I really like some of her writing as a journalist - there's an honesty and a selflessness to her interviews, in particular, that I find really appealing. For example ages ago she interviewed English poet Wendy Cope and I liked the piece so much I cut it out and kept it (you can still read it here). Then more recently she interviewed the former poet laureate, Andrew Motion, and almost made me interested in him (tough job...he's really not my type...but that interview is here). Lately she has been doing more and more 'big name' interviews (of all kinds) in the paper. A short while ago she interviewed writer Martin Amis (here) and whilst I'm about as far from being a Martin Amis fan as it is possible to be I really enjoyed her interview with him and even thought maybe (one day) I might try another book of his (I said 'maybe' – no promises). Also recently she spoke to author Zoe Heller (author of 'Notes from a Scandal' – read it here) and poet Benjamin Zephaniah and they were another great couple of interviews (I've read lots of interviews with Zephaniah but her piece still had interesting new stuff in it..).

As I've been thinking about interviewing of late I got a sudden urge to ask a good, successful interviewer some questions about her I emailed Christina and asked her if she might take part in this little piece. And what do you know? She said 'yes'...and straightaway (so she's nice and not up herself lovely...). Anyway, here are my questions and her answers, delivered straight to you undoctored (because I'm far too rusty as a journalist to do anything more than Q and A at this point). Because of her time at the Poetry Society I took the liberty of throwing in some poetry-related questions too and there are some fascinating, what I would guess to be characteristically honest, answers throughout. Of course I haven't met her so I might be wrong - she might be a monster behind those beautiful blonde ringlets...but I doubt it.

Your comments, as ever, invited and graciously received.

1. Was interviewing something you actively wanted to do...or something you fell into doing?

CP - I’m not sure I could say it’s something I’ve always wanted to do, but I’ve always been fantastically nosy (curious is the polite word), I love nothing more than a nice chat and I’ve always seemed to have a bit of a knack for building up a rapport with people I’ve just met. So when I was asked to start doing interviews (now more than ten years ago, at first just for the books pages of the Independent) I was delighted. Since last September, I’ve been doing one a week (the ‘big interview’ in the Indy’s Arts & Books section) and it’s fascinating.

2. Which bits of the job of interviewing do you enjoy...and which do you like less?

CP - I have to get an arts ‘household name’ every week, which is extremely time-consuming, and can be a nightmare (and something that some other papers see as a full-time job). I have to do this, and research the interview, do it, transcribe it and write it up, and do two columns a week and other pieces for the paper, as requested. So the endless round of deadlines can mar the pleasure – and I can’t say I’m mad about transcribing tapes, which takes hours. But however much work is involved (however many books I’ve ploughed through, or whatever) meeting the artist is nearly always stimulating and nearly always a pleasure.

3. Other press interviewers - whose work have you enjoyed/admired? Do you have a favourite interviewer?

CP - Well, I think Lynn Barber was a real pioneer in the field. I don’t try to emulate her, but I always enjoy her interviews. I like Rachel Cook’s and Decca Aikenhead’s, too.

4. Do you think the job of press interviewer is something a writer can keep doing for a long time?

CP - I don’t see why not. The day I stop finding people interesting is probably the day I should shoot myself.

5. Do you see yourself staying with this kind of writing?

CP - Yes, if I can. God knows what’s going to happen with the Indy, or with the newspaper industry generally, or if anyone will ever want to pay anyone to write anything again. But I love doing it and would like to do it for as long as I can.

6. Do you think press interviews have a future or has the standard interview format been done to death?

CP - I don’t really think there is such a thing as a ‘standard interview format’. It’s just about an encounter with someone, which is also a kind of essay and also a kind of short story. I don’t see why it should become any more obsolete than the short story or the poem.

7. Which do you enjoy more - interviews or column writing?

CP - I think the interviews are more satisfying because you have to do so much work to make them work. I rarely have time to prepare for a column, and would probably find them more rewarding if I did. But it’s nice when people contact you to say that they agree with something you wrote. When you write it, and the minutes are ticking by, it quite often feels like just filling up the page.

8. How long can a writer keep doing a column before they start to repeat themselves?

CP - Probably about five minutes. Sometimes I notice myself echoing phrases I’ve written before, and just hope that no one notices.

9. Whose column do/would you read regularly?

CP - Well, I sort of feel I have to read all of them, so I won’t pick out any individuals. Ploughing through the papers every day is rarely an unmitigated pleasure for a journalist. Obviously, it’s nice when argument is leavened with a degree of wit.

10. How much do you get to choose who you interview (if at all)?

CP - I always get to choose, but obviously am constrained by who’s got a new book/project/play/exhibition. Some weeks you’re so desperate to fill the slot that you feel that almost anyone will do – but you still have to get it cleared with the editor. I can’t say I was rushing to interview Jason Donovan, or Boy George, but actually they were both charming.

11. Which of your Independent interviews so far have you got most excited/nervous about?

CP - I was excited about meeting Alastair Campbell, and a bit nervous (although I’ve met him several times) about doing a formal interview with Martin Amis. As a general principle, the less I know about an art form, the more nerve-wracking it is – I don’t think anyone particularly enjoys feeling like an idiot. But it’s such a part of my routine now, that I’m usually just worrying about the next deadline. I nearly always interview people whose work I admire, and I go into the interview thinking that they’ve achieved something that I haven’t. I go in with respect and I often (but not always!) come out liking them, too.

12. Have you ever enjoyed yourself so much in an interview that you didn't want to leave?

CP - Most of the time. They’re nearly always interesting people, and I nearly always feel that I’d like to have longer.

13. And the reverse...couldn't wait to leave?

CP - Hardly ever, but Werner Herzog was a NIGHTMARE. Never again! And Candace Bushnell, who I thought I’d love, irritated me so much that I felt like walking out.

14. Who is on your interview wish list?

CP - I know it’s pathetic, but I just lurch from one deadline to the next, so I don’t really think beyond the next few weeks. I’m extremely lucky to have met so many interesting people over the years that I tend not to think about who I’d do in the abstract. There are an awful lot of talented, interesting people in the world. I won’t tempt Providence by naming names.

15. And who is on your completely-impossible-but-a-girl-can-dream wish list?

CP - Barack Obama. Nelson Mandela. And (for obvious reasons) Jane Austen.

16. Do poets make good interview subjects? Are the any generalisations you can make about interviewing poets?

CP - I don’t think poets make any better or worse subjects than anyone else. Strangely, you can’t guarantee who will give a good interview, even if you know them. It’s all about the conversation you have and where it takes you. John Hegley, for example, cried. But knowing someone a bit can be a disadvantage. You can feel inhibited, and also worry (which shouldn’t be relevant) what they think of the interview.

17. I think a lot of poets and poetry fans feel the national press does not feature as much poetry, articles about poetry or reviews of poetry books as it could/should. Do you think that is fair?

CP - Yes, poetry coverage in the national press is definitely shrinking, and it’s a terrible shame. All part of this ubiquitous (and tedious) dumbing down. I’ve no idea what can be done about it. I suspect very little.

18. Do you think people treat you differently when they see you as a journalist (as opposed to say the Director of the Poetry Society)?

CP - If they do, I haven’t noticed.

19. You were Director of the Poetry Society but I've never seen anything about you writing poetry? Do you write poems?

CP - No. Someone told me a few years ago that there were rumours that I wrote poems, and I was mortified. I thought ‘how bad would they have to be if, after all these years, I hadn’t published a single one?’ I’d love to write poems, but I only like good poetry and I wouldn’t be good enough.

20. Whose poetry do you read for your own enjoyment?

CP - Too long a list to name. Since I’m always lurching from one deadline to the next, I rarely get to read for pleasure these days, but I’m interviewing Carol Ann Duffy next week, and am looking forward to re-reading her work, enjoyed Andrew Motion’s recent collection, The Cinder Path (which I read for an interview) and also (for an event I chaired at the South Bank) the wonderful Michael Donaghy’s Collected Poems. Nowadays, poetry feels to me like a rare treat, like delicious chocolate or cake (not, alas, that that’s as rare as it should be).

21. What did you enjoy in the BBC Poetry Season?

CP - I rarely watch telly. The only thing I caught, in a B & B in Sussex, was the programme on Eliot, which I thought was excellent.

22. Do you think all your time spent in poetry world has affected how you write as a journalist?

CP - I don’t know. I’m not sure that I could say. I think that the rhythm, and cadences, of prose matters hugely, as it does in poetry – as, indeed, it does in all writing.

23. Is being an arts journalist an odd business?

CP - Probably no more than anything else. But I don’t really think of myself as an arts journalist. I do quite a lot of travel stuff, and book reviews, as well as the columns and interviews, so I guess I’m a Jack of all trades, but hope that doesn’t automatically mean that I’m not a master of one…

Many thanks to Christina for finding time to answer these questions.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Speaking of interviews

Another quick might remember I mentioned I was interviewed as part of a feature about pirate radio for Manchester's Big Issue in the North a while back. Sean Smith (writer of that piece) has posted a longer version of it on his blog (here). So if you're interested that's where it is.

Saturday, 20 June 2009

Musical interlude

Just a little post while I sort the next one out. My very favourite album just now is 'Hill of Thieves' by Irish singer and musician Cara Dillon. Mike Harding played lots from it on his BBC Radio 2 Folk Show and in the end I just had to buy it. It's nearly all traditional songs but as I am, by some standards, new to what gets called folk music a lot of the songs are new to me anyway. My favourite track on the album is her version of 'Spencer the Rover' (featuring very lovely backing vocals by Seth Lakeman) and you can hear that song on her myspace page (here). Here is what the album looks like so you can make sure to buy or borrow it next time you see it:

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Newspapers, tightrope walking and slamming the phone down...

That last post had a lot of links to newspaper articles, didn't it? It sometimes feels like the papers have little left to say (what with the new media being so ubiquitous and all) and then all of a sudden I'll read a whole spate of really interesting articles in the old hold-it-your-hand-and-it-rustles media if by magic... suddenly they don't seem such a waste of space after all. Maybe it's a lack of imagination on my part but I find it hard to imagine a world completely free of conventional crinkly newspapers. What will people soak their new puppy's wee up with, for a start, if we go all electronic? Will the phrase 'just put some newspaper down' vanish from our lives altogether? That would be so strange.

We get the London-based 'Independent' newspaper in this house. It's what you'd call a quality daily I suppose and it's my Mum's choice (remember she lives the same house). The rest of us like it well enough too though and it seems a waste to get another national paper every day for the same fairly small household so we stick with 'The Independent' most of the time. My Mum has read other papers in the past (the Guardian, the Times, possibly even the Telegraph at one point...she is the floating voter/reader) but the 'Indy' has been her firm favourite for some years now (and it always seems politically bizarre getting an English paper called the Independent when you live in Scotland...I wonder how many people pick it up by mistake here, hoping for an SNP special...). She likes the crossword in the Indy (most important) and some of the columnists and it has enough 'proper' news (national and international) and a good spread of arts coverage. It has too much fashion for, well, all of us and it sometimes has a tendency to be that kind of chattery middle-class paper that gives a person a headache but overall it has enough good to outweigh the tedious. Also it's not owned by the monstrous Murdoch machine and it's not full of celebrity gossip/diets/'Britain's Got Talent' bilge (and it has Mark Steel in it sometimes, who I love). My Mark sometimes brings home a 'Guardian' too (IT days especially) and we get regular local papers like the daily Dundee 'Courier' (lots of car crashes) and the weekly 'Montrose Review' (lots of Brownies and hey, Our Girl was on the cover last week with her library group – big news in a small town).

We don't get a regular Scottish national paper (no real reason...Mum was getting the Independent when she lived in England and just carried on with it when she moved back up here). I was reading just lately though (here) how the Scottish papers are not doing so well (well, which newspapers are?) so when Mum was away for a couple of weeks I tried getting the 'Scotsman' and the 'Herald' to see if they might win me over. They were interesting enough but nothing jumped out at me and said 'get me every day, get me!'. But then, in all honesty, would I get any newspaper every day if it was left just to little old me? Probably not. Am I not, after all, just the kind of half-hearted, laptop-happy reader who is pushing the newspapers so quickly towards their demise? Er, maybe...a bit. If it was left to me I'd get a paper once every few days, most likely, and I'd try different ones here and there and I'd often read them weeks after I'd bought them so I'm not exactly a newspaper editor's dream statistic, I imagine. I did also write a not-completely complimentary poem about weekend newspapers which some of you may have seen already ('A weekend lost' – it's in the book page 28 and on the website under 'modern world' poems).

I do think about journalists in amongst all this though (having been one for a while). I never had a big career as a national media journalist but it was something that I much more than dabbled in (arts journalism anyway...I never could hold facts well enough for proper news). And journalists are writers too after all, aren't they? Mightn't we stick together...just a little bit? Like lawyers, traffic wardens and other less popular professions, journalists, somewhat contrarily, get a bad press when really all they are doing (most of the time) is providing a service that a lot of people want (and some even need). Yes, some journalists go too far but most of them are OK and a lot of them (like a lot of us) are just doing the job in hand to pay the bills till something better comes up (like selling their novel to a publisher, in many cases).

My journalism career was mostly in the 1990s and mainly based around a local magazine in Leeds (Leeds Other Paper, then renamed Northern Star). I started out writing reviews for nothing (I was doing paid work elsewhere) but then I made a break from my other job and moved on to working in the office, writing a great part of and editing the what's on/arts side of the magazine. I also wrote music reviews for Record Mirror (part of the national music business paper Music Week), interviews and a column for the Manchester-based 'Big Issue in the North' and a few other bits and pieces here and there. I never quite had the drive and ambition to really succeed nationally as a I never seemed to meet the right people at the right I never wanted to move to, oh yes, I'm a bit idle...but in the end, after a lot of scribbling and typing and taping and transcribing, I was quite glad to leave it all behind really. It was fun...I got a lot of free stuff...but it was time to move on.

Some of my strongest memories from that time are of interviews that I worked on (and I'm not talking just Q and A type pieces...they're easy, I'm talking proper 'essay about a person' interviews, where you go into some depth, where you maybe have a line of argument, where you might even develop themes, tackle tricky subjects and all that). Interviews are quite a big deal for a journalist – you do a lot of preparation (or you should), you have a lot of responsibility (to get the quotes right, to represent the subject accurately, to tell the much as possible) and sometimes you're meeting someone you really admire. They can go very well...and they can go very, very, VERY badly. It can be a little like tightrope walking because it looks easy (it's just talking, right?) but getting the balance right can be...anything but. Maybe the interviewee has just done loads of other interviews and is pissed off. Maybe the interviewee is tired and drained. Maybe you're tired and drained. Maybe the interviewee just doesn't like you and won't play ball. Maybe you don't like them. It happens.

I interviewed heaps of different people (mainly for Northern Star and the Big Issue) and lots of the names wouldn't mean a lot to you now but there are some that you might still recognise. For a start I interviewed:

actors Angela Griffin and Marsha Thomason,

the brilliant singer Carleen Anderson,

a Carpenters tribute act (added that in because of the recent Carpenters frenzy on this blog...),

the cartoonist Jacky Fleming,

a whole range of comedians including Craig Charles, Jenny Eclair and most excitingly of all the fabulous Linda Smith,

DJs Janice Long and Sister Bliss (of Faithless),

poets Henry Normal (not a poet/performer now...that I know of... but Managing Director of the TV company Baby Cow Productions Ltd with Steve Coogan) and (someone I still mention quite often) Lemn Sissay

the writers Livi Michael, P.J. O'Rourke and Helen Zahavi.

I had some great experiences doing these (and other) interviews. Singer Carleen Anderson, for example, (formerly of Young Disciples, works a lot with Paul Weller) is about one of the nicest people you could ever talk to and I still remember our conversation fondly (though I'm sure she doesn't). I am also really glad I got the chance to meet comedian Linda Smith too (she died in 2006 - such a loss, such a really funny woman and lovely in person too). It was interesting to meet US writer PJ O'Rourke (I went all the way to London from Leeds for that one) because I'd been a fan of some of his humour but in person...well, it was all I could do to stop myself yawning as he droned on with his 'witty' repartee. Writer Helen Zahavi (best known for 'Dirty Weekend'...made into a film by Michael 'the cringe' Winner) was a great interviewee (I interviewed her twice) and in fact something she said still rings around my head every now and then. Talking about her book and the idea of a woman who kills rapists (as 'Dirty Weekend's main character Bella does) she said “if dead rapists started turning up in the gutters of a few major cities it would concentrate their minds enormously O levels.” Zahavi wasn't one to mince her words, that's for sure. I wonder what she's up to now...

I will be coming back to the theme of press interviews soon (and with a special guest...) but in the meantime how about one last question for me? How about...what was your worst interview experience ever? Well, the Henry Normal one wasn't great, and I did one on the phone with comedian/now writer Rob Newman that was fairly dire (and unusable I think) but both of those were a walk in the park and day at the beach (respectively) compared to a phone conversation I had one morning with the hugely successful comedian Eddie Izzard (I know, I bet you all love him...). I was interviewing him for the 'Big Issue' and it went so badly I just put down the phone on him in the end (well, 'slammed the phone down' would probably be more accurate). I think I might even have said 'you're only a bloody comedian you know' and burst into tears... but it's all a bit vague now. In my defence he didn't answer any of my questions and I was working for some really annoying pseudo-transvestites at the time and I was going through a fairly dodgy patch (very little sleep, perhaps morning interviews not a wise move...). I did write the 'interview' up but it was not nice and the editor wouldn't print it (at the time I was annoyed but really, I was quite mad and I'm sure she was quite right). After that I couldn't watch Izzard on TV for years (the have no idea...) but I watched his 'live' show on TV the other day...and, finally, it was OK. I even laughed once (the bit about seatbelts on planes). I don't think he'll ever be my favourite comedian or anything though...

But that's old news...what paper do you read? Or do you not read any and you get your news from TV or t'internet instead? And if you do read a paper which bits of it do you read (honestly – hard news or soft)? And which bits would you like to write? And if you did interview anyone who would you choose first? See, I am still an interviewer after all...except now it's more like market research (I did that for a while too...).

Back soon with another interview post...and that guest. And it won't be Eddie Izzard...I can tell you that for nowt.


Monday, 15 June 2009

Click away

Click, click, are a few links to things you might find interesting:

There's a little piece here about art and mystery (and in particular about the artist Steve, not that Steve McQueen...). There was a longer interview with McQueen in the same paper a few weeks ago too (that's here).

The English poet U.A. Fanthorpe died recently and this week's BBC Radio 4 'Poetry Please' is a UAF special. I listened to it making the tea yesterday and really enjoyed it (especially her poem 'Seminar: Felicity and Mr Frost'). At a time when there's been so much talk about far right politicians (politicians...hah!) there is nothing like a kitchen full of lesbian poets on a Sunday afternoon to make you feel reassured and that all is not completely wrong with the world. You can listen to the programme here for the next few days. There's a lovely aside about crowd-pleasing from Rosie Bailey in it too.

Speaking of the nasty parties there's an interview with the british national party's Nick Griffin here. Talk about trying to give a respectable face to ideas that are about anything but respect (can ideas have a face..?). According to this article he went to Cambridge too...another fine product of the old establishment. I wouldn't waste eggs on him, I have to say, even rotten ones.

Much as the news (what with swine flu, the BNP and politics in general) may make you feel like getting loaded I can tell you that really drugs are a very bad idea (that mother in 'Almost Famous' is so right...). There's a drug-related poem of mine just now at the very marvellous ink-sweat-and-tears web-what's-it (and there are a few other blog friends featured on there nearby too).

Then after that you might want to read this article about an intensive meditation course. I read it today and it's worth a look...if you're not busy meditating or anything (can you be busy meditating...yes and no, I suppose...). On the course you can't talk to anyone for ten days! Can you imagine? I think I'd explode.

And a song...gotta end on a song. 'Two' is a lovely album from Kathryn Williams and Neill MacColl that came out last year (in the UK anyway...I think it's just out in the US now). It got quite a lot of publicity on its release but (like books) there are so many new albums coming out all the time that it's easy for great things to get lost in the rush. 'Two' really is an album to savour – gentle vocals, wandering lyrics, very poetic songwriting – and I listened to it last week and it made me very happy. Williams did the cover artwork herself and many of the lyrics show a real interest in the visual sense. I couldn't find my favourite songs from 'Two' on youtube but they're all good anyway. Here's what I could find:

Until next time.

Saturday, 13 June 2009

Is Dumfries going to the dogs..?

And from a dead poet you've probably all heard of (TS Eliot) to a living one that's much newer in poetry town (JoAnne McKay). McKay has a pamphlet just about to come out called 'The Fat Plant' and it looks like this:

Copies are available from the author, price £5 – email her at if you want to buy.

If you don't think you recognise the name JoAnne McKay you may have seen her commenting round these parts lately under the name Titus (accompanied by a lovely photo of a dog - border terrier in fact). I'm not sure why JoAnne chooses to blog as a dog (rather than as her good self) but you know, we're not judgemental at this blog...and we like dogs on the whole (especially border terriers) so we welcomed her (furry face and all). Her blog is here and there are quite a lot of sample poems posted from 'The Fat Plant' so you can read a couple before you think about buying the wee book.

Now you're all clever people who can make up your own minds about poetry to an extent...but for what it's worth here is what I think of her poetry so far...(and please remember I make no claims to be a poetry expert...perish the thought).

For a start I think she has variety...

...yes, in fact she has so much variety she has it in big, wide, dig-your-garden-up-in-minutes-missus spades. Her writing shows variety in its style, its atmospheres and its content and whilst there are only sixteen poems in 'The Fat Plant' it feels like a much bigger book. McKay may not know it yet but she is ambitious with her writing (and I don't mean she wants to be Head Sonnetwasher at the Poetry Society...I mean ambitious about what she's doing with the writing itself). I very much admire that in a writer (probably because I feel a bit that way – I want to write EVERYTHING!) and I don't think poet Hugh McMillan is far wrong in his charming introduction to this book when he says she will “prove herself to be a writer of importance”. McKay is a near neighbour of McMillan's in the Dumfries area so it seems Dumfries and Galloway is quite the hotbed of exciting writing these days (must be the Burns in the burns...).

Also I think she has something new to say...

...well, how many poets have been police officers for a start (McKay was for eleven years)? How many grew up around the family slaughterhouse (as she did in Essex)? Plus she seems to be one of those people who knows lots about all sorts...encyclopaedic knowledge I believe they call it (never suffered from it myself, sadly). Of course it isn't her rich and unusual experiences and broad knowledge that make the poems interesting but I think it certainly helps to have some different, gripping and wideranging subject matter to get to work on (which she most definitely does). Partly because of some of this background the poems are sometimes harsh (but without being cruel) and they can be visceral too (but without being shock-happy). I'm pleased to report though that there is also a lot of thought throughout this little collection and it has its share of tender moments and, thank the lord, it has humour as well (and I mean proper humour not crappy poet humour that only other poets can understand). She writes about faith, about history and, most of all perhaps in this selection, about family (from every angle). Probably my favourite poem in 'The Fat Plant' is 'Mourning' (about the funeral of her father, the chief slaughterer) and particularly its section about the 'floral tributes'. I could quote from it but it's the whole poem you need to read really. I like funeral poems in general (death, can't get enough of it...) but this is my new best-friend funeral poem for sure.

Well, that should do to get you started. Go visit her, buy her wares, take her dog for a walk...


Thursday, 11 June 2009


Many of you in the UK will have already watched the Arena programme about TS Eliot that was on TV recently. I haven't got time right now to write about it but I just wanted to mention (for anyone who hasn't seen it) that you can watch it here for the next three days. It is 90 minutes... but it is certainly not an uninteresting 90 minutes. And that's all I'll say on it for now!

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Seeing colours

Here is a red poem that I was working on the other week. It came about for lots of reasons (Swiss was working on some very interesting colour poems, then there was the statement that appears in the first line...) but it is part of a big ongoing project other than that. Some of the lines are very long so they run over which is annoying but I'm sure I'll cope. Also as I always start a line with a capital letter you will know when it is meant to be a new line and when it is not (if you're bothered...)! There are some obvious red omissions (no poet's wheelbarrow, no Chris de Burgh...) but other than that it pretty much has the red kitchen sink. So see what you fink.

Variations on a theme called red

She tells me red is the colour of courage
And I say 'oh, yes...that makes sense'
Though I'm really not sure that it does

But I'm here to find sense so I look hard
And manage a red cross, some red blood
Red Adair for heaven's sake

Encouraged, I click the heels of my red shoes
(Just for effect – they're silver in the book, you know)
And try hard to visualise a red kite swooping through a red night sky

Instead all I see are swarming red triangles
Red flags warning danger
Poisoned apples, watch out!

Then it all gets silly busy and I spot
A redhead, a red under a bed, a sense-defying spread of different lights that are all red
And even (can this be right?) a red-eyed red setter in a red hat reading a little red book


I fear that I am taking this far too literally
So I take notes from my pulse, search hedgerows for roses
And wonder, deep and dark, about courage, about love

RF 2009


Sunday, 7 June 2009

1961, movie stars and extreme wordsmithery

Not long back I picked up a book (a novel) at a friend's house. It looked like this:

Movie tie-in don't want to look but you can't help yourself, right? This one caught my eye (movie stars do's their job, I suppose) and I remembered an article I'd read about how this was a great book even if it was from way back in the mists of time (1961) and not terribly well-known. I hadn't heard of the book before the Sam Mendes directed film came out last year and I hadn't seen the film yet either (I very rarely get to the cinema for films other than Us or PGs these days). In fact even if I had had a grown-up cinema opportunity in the last year or so I'm not sure 'Revolutionary Road' would have been a film I would have jumped at anyway (no real reason - I loved Mendes' 'American Beauty')...but the book...that sounded interesting. Its author, Richard Yates (1926-1992...nothing to do with Yates' Wine Lodge as far as I know) sounded a bit of a mystery too. Was it really such a great book – a classic that had somehow been overshadowed by other works, other great American novels? There was only one way to find out. I borrowed it from the friend...and I read it.

To be completely honest my Mum (who was at a loose end book-wise and who is a big fan of 'good novels') read it first. She loved it, read it in a day and passed it on enthusiastically with a 'it's brilliant, it's brilliant'. Of course this made me suspicious (how often do you like the same books as your does happen...sometimes...) but after a couple of weeks I got round to reading it too. And she was right, godammit - it is a really, really, really good novel. There are lines (and even groups of lines) that are so perfect you just want to read them over and over again...and how often does that happen? Really? Poets try to do it all the time...but how often do they succeed? This novel filled me with admiration for the ex Mr Yates and more than a hint of dismay that he is yet another writer to succeed more posthumously than pre (he had some success as a writer whilst alive but nothing mindblowing...apparently he had a great career as a drunk though...and there is a hell of a lot of drinking in 'Revolutionary Road', well researched evidently...). There is a book about Yates by Blake Bailey called 'A Tragic Honesty' (reviewed by James Wood in the Guardian back in 2004 here). That article is well worth a look - it gives you plenty of background on Yates, his work and his life.

But back to 'Revolutionary Road' - it's a tale of sad old surburbia, of strained relationships and promise unfulfilled but none of that misery matters much because the writing is so good that it turns every disappointing scene into a dazzling display of what I feel the urge to call wordsmithery. Confident, precise, piercing, could keep coming up with adjectives to describe the way this book is written but really, you may as well just go and read it. Come back and tell me if you don't love Frank Wheeler (the central character) even though you'll absolutely hate his stupid guts at the same time. Having seen the cover and the movie posters it was hard not to see actor Leonardo di Caprio as Frank in my mind as I read from time to time and to wonder whether he would be right for the part (as you do). As it happens I should think he makes a fairly good job of it. I was never one of those who thought DiCaprio physically attractive (I'm always fairly indifferent to round-face young boy looks...) but I have liked DiCaprio's acting (especially since he got older) in films like 'Blood Diamond' (a much better film than you might imagine), 'The Departed', even bits of 'The Aviator'. I think DiCaprio has fought, as an actor, to be taken seriously to an extent and that would help when it comes to Frank Wheeler (Frank wants to be taken seriously...he just doesn't know what for). I didn't find myself imagining Kate Winslet as Frank's wife April Wheeler so much – partly because Kate Winslet is just so much Kate Winslet now (big movie star, global brand) that I find it hard to see her as any other character these days. I liked her in 'Titanic' (just to be awkward), in 'Sense and Sensibility' and in 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind' (to my amazement I liked that film...I was expecting to hate it) but these days she's just Madonna, Tom Cruise, Katie frigging Price...and when that happens stars/celebrities are ubiquitous to the point of extreme tedium, aren't they? 'Less is more, darlings, less is so much more' you want to shout at their jets as they zoom overhead. That and 'there are other people in the world too you know' and 'don't forget the little people'...oh, too late, you already did....

Anyway, forget the film, it'll be on Film Four eventually (or whatever your favourite free film channel is, international visitors) and then we can all fall asleep in front of it. Get the book though and read it with your eyes wide open. Then when you've finished it read it all over again.

p.s. and go and read Ross Wilson's comments to this post (especially his first one). If I haven't convinced you to try Yates he certainly will!


Friday, 5 June 2009

Memory lane...

Dominic Rivron started this meme back here. The rules are just post an old photo of yourself and write a short piece to go with it (written in the present tense). The others I have seen so far are over with the Weaver of Grass, Dick Jones and Barbara Smith (all fascinating and so different). I guess critics of blogs might say 'look at them all – so keen to talk about themselves' but most of those critics are journalists who write about themselves in columns and articles till the cows come home so I'm really not going to worry about them! At its best I think the blogosphere can work like a great big lively communal diary project... and I've always loved diaries and people (for the most part...) so I'm happy to take part. Here's my snap.

It is 1978 (I think, no date on photo) but if that's right then I am eleven and just at the end of primary school (all girls, private, quite academic, green uniforms...I'm wearing my school shoes on this picture). This photo shows me in the garden of the fourth home I have known so far (all in the north east of England though). We have moved several times since my Dad died in 1973 and at this stage I still think he died of a heart attack or something. This house is in a village called Winston in county Durham (near Barnard Castle) in half an old rectory up on a hill (near a graveyard...kind of spooky at times). I guess there's a church nearby somewhere too. By now most of the family have moved on elsewhere so at home there is only Mum and me and our new pup Ginny (an English Setter...chosen by my brother David who has fancy taste). I wanted to call this dog Purdey (after Joanna Lumley's character in 'The New Avengers') but luckily my two brothers intervened and said 'no way, Mum tell her that's stupid!' (or something along those lines). The name Ginny came from Virginia Wade because she won Wimbledon in 1977 and my Mum has always been a huge tennis fan. It was the only name we could agree on. My (half) sisters are much older than me (in fact they left home before I was born) but now neither of my brothers is at home much either – one is at uni in London and the other is already at the Quaker boarding school where I will go after the summer. I am very excited about that but have no idea what it will be like (that's another whole post...). For now I am blissfully ignorant as regards my future and I spend my time doing loads of homework because at eleven I love schoolwork with a passion and am very much top of the class. I guess I am a swot...but I'm quite a feisty one so if you dare call me that I will at least think about bashing your face in (two big brothers - I'm scared of nothing!). I also love listening to music (records and radio), playing schools, playing with the puppy and, when the weather is good, exploring all the countryside around our house. Unlike some of the other places we've lived there aren't many kids in this village (certainly none nearby) so I do quite a lot of that exploring on my own. The river Tees is just a short walk away (down a steep hill that I love to slide down) and I like to just go and sit and look at the water. In the evenings my Mum and I watch a lot of TV together ('Poldark' and 'Nationwide' spring to mind...) and we eat huge big starchy meals and a lot chocolate. Life is simple (or it seems that way to me). Boy, am I in for some surprises come the autumn...

p.s. I went way over the word limit of 200. Verbose, moi?

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Well, I did say MOR...

That's middle of the road, people.

Anyway, this morning after a particularly testing hour or so I found myself singing this song (but not in Japanese). It took me ages to work out what it was...Sound of Music...New Seekers...? In the end I had to resort to searching on google! And then I saw her...the lovely could I have forgotten? (Excuse the poor quality video...I think it's worth it for the unusual-combination factor though.)

I loved the Carpenters as a kid (and in fact she was very much in my list of favourite singers through the ages - back here). And listen to her voice...even on this crappy clip it sounds like perfection (hard to live up to, evidently). Apparently (if wikiwhatsit is to be believed) 'Sing' was written for the TV show 'Sesame Street' by Joe Raposo before the Carpenters turned it into a hit in 1973 (all the details here). I never watched 'Sesame Street' but I did love the Carpenters (especially 'Yesterday once more').

I have lots of other things flying about my head but that will do for now, I think.


Monday, 1 June 2009

Sunshine, pop music and mysteries

One of my favourite blogs is talking about pop music just now (here). And then a huge mega-popstar person (OK, it's Sting) is talking about songwriting and lots of other things here. While we're at it here's a quote from afore-mentioned huge mega-popstar person (recently in Hay-on Wye at the Festival there):

"It's still a mystery to me, the whole idea of how you write songs, and I've been doing it all my life".

Mysteries...hmmm...I like those. I like a lot of songs by The Police too (probably not very cool but for heaven's sake what are we - teenagers?). I like 'The Bed's Too Big Without You', 'Every Breath You Take' and lots of others. I was never a mad fan but they're one of those bands that, when you listen to any of the old albums, you realise quite how many good songs they came up with. I suppose this one from the 1981 album 'Ghost in the Machine' is one of my favourites (especially the last minute or so of it). It's a feelgood track but I am not embarrassed to like some happy pop music every once in a while. Plus it's sunny...and who knows how long it will last...

I even like some of Sting's solo songs (I said some...maybe one or two) but I would have to say that his songs on 'The Emperor's New Groove' (one of our girl's favourite cartoons...that's where the Eartha Kitt fetish started...) are really, really painful (to me anyway). Still, you can't win them all I suppose. De do do do, de da da da...and all that. What would Don Paterson say...maybe this from 'The Book of Shadows' (what do you mean you haven't bought it yet?)...

"Well, critic: fair criticism. But at the end of the day, she did; you didn't - and you still think this is a trivial distinction?"

OK, maybe he wasn't talking about Sting...but anyway, speaking of mysteries - here's a mystery poem of mine (it's in the book, near the end). What will you make of it? Will it be magic or do do do? That's the risk we take though, isn't it...exposing ourselves in this public arena? Remind me why I do this again...

The mystery retained

Don't explain to me how music works
Leave me the mystery, the miracle
The same for tides, keep it to yourself
All the sensible science, the hows and whys
Don't dissect the perfect line of words
With an 'obviously the writer knew what they were doing'
Says who? Why? How? Are you sure?
You are so neat, methodical
And you have a lot of boxes
I have little order, much overspill
And no lids anywhere in the house
It's messy here, a mass of mysteries
But the dreams that come this way
They are limitless
They last forever
R.F. 2006