Friday, July 31, 2009

Gary McKinnon

The more I read about the case of Gary McKinnon, the more astonished and angry I get. This is perhaps because my own daughter is on the autistic spectrum and is also highly intelligent, so these issues personalise themselves. But the whole thing is just ridiculous in any case. McKinnon is accused of hacking into U.S. military computers and causing $800,000 of damage (he denies the second of these charges) – roughly what the U.S. spends on maintaining its military presence in Iraq every few minutes, I’ve no doubt.

The U.S. Government (headed by Bush when proceedings began), embarrassed and vengeful, want to extradite him under a 2003 treaty formed with the aim of bringing terrorists to justice. But McKinnon is no terrorist. He has Asperger’s Syndrome and is obsessed with UFOs. He claims he hacked the data because he was convinced the U.S. were hiding evidence of UFOs.

The whole idea that someone with Asperger’s Syndrome could defend himself adequately in a trial, especially one far from familiar surroundings, is insane. The stress of a trial would, in itself, play havoc with his state of mind. There was clearly nothing malicious in what he did. He will have been single-minded about it. Nothing would have been allowed to get in his way once he’d decided the computers were hiding secret UFO data. The idea that he might have been doing something wrong won’t even have occurred to him.

The argument that the bulk of the evidence is situated in the USA may be true, but the offence took place in the UK. Therefore, the UK authorities and legal counsels could quite easily argue that a trial should take place in the UK and that extradition isn’t necessary.

But there are other serious issues at stake here. The U.S. penal system could impose a sentence of 70 years imprisonment on Gary McKinnon. What’s to be gained for anyone by that? His mum claims he is very shy, too timid even to use the London Metro system. What's jail going to do for him? What’s it going to achieve for anyone else? Surely we have the ability to formulate a more appropriate form of punishment. It occurs to me that someone of Mr McKinnon’s obvious talents could be highly useful to both the UK and U.S Governments!

The extradition treaty contains the following clauses: that a) the U.S. has to prove ‘reasonable suspicion’ for extradition of a British citizen, and that b) to extradite an American from the US, Britain must prove ‘probable cause.’ It seems to me that this treaty is grossly unequal. Surely ‘probable cause’ is a greater burden of proof than ‘reasonable suspicion’! You have to ask why the UK government signed under these terms. What were they thinking? No doubt Blair was acting as Bush’s toady as usual, but this ought to be revisited at the earliest possible opportunity. Gary McKinnon’s mother has petitioned Obama today. Will Obama listen? Or have the realities of power made that impossible for him without paying a heavy domestic price? We’ll soon see.

And as for Britain’s MPs, they ought to be ashamed of themselves. Pressure should be brought to bear on the Home Secretary, Alan Johnson – not just the inevitable pressure from opposition MPs and a few rebels, but from every fair-minded Labour MP (are there any left?) – to refuse the extradition. I note that 90 percent of American requests for extradition have been backed by the UK, and only 70 percent of British requests have been backed by the USA. It’s about time that inequality was placed under careful scrutiny as well.

Gary McKinnon is a pawn in a game. There is heavy external pressure on the UK politicians who could do something about this if they wanted to. It’s clear the U.S authorities, for reasons best known to themselves, will stop at nothing to bring McKinnon to trial in the U.S. He’s compromised their security and shown everyone that an intelligent hacker can invade their systems. How embarrassing for them… They obviously plan to do whatever it takes, for however long it takes. They are behaving like someone with Asperger’s Syndrome! Someone should tell them…

You can keep up to date with developments at the Free Gary McKinnon website.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Poetry Blog Round-Up

Something of a round-up today. I’d been hearing that people are deserting blogs for Twitter. Hope not. Or, at least, I hope the good writers stick with blogging. Recently there have been really interesting articles in blogs I follow, which couldn’t fit in the small space you’re allowed for a tweet. Compression can be good, but too many one-liners in a row make me yawn.

First of all, here’s a fascinating theme for the next issue of qarrtsiluni, Words of Power. Something to think about even if you don’t submit anything...

At his Samizdat blog, Robert Archambeau discusses unusual critical reaction to his work.

C. Dale Young quotes from an article on Charles Simic by David Biespiel. The whole article and poem is worth reading, but here’s the paragraph in question:

“Often beginning poets tell me they know exactly what it is they want to write about, that they can almost see it. What I'm thinking to myself is, no you don't. Because as soon as you begin to write -- for that matter, draw, paint, sculpt -- your imagination overwhelms your certainty, and the object itself, the poem, say, lurches toward discoveries you didn't know you intended to make. It's a curse of a sort, a mummy's curse, perhaps, and a good one.”

One good thing about the Internet is that a reader can easily uncover articles from years back, which would have been lost if only printed on paper. This article, from 2003 by Joseph Bottom on Robert Lowell is an absorbing read (not a blog article, but I may as well include it).

Don Share discusses an interview series, most intriguingly an interview with the late Michael Hamburger, who "… once wrote in PN Review that for a poet to spend most of his time doing readings of his poems, or talking about them in interviews, ‘calls for a mode of attention which, for me, makes the writing of a poem impossible.’ There is, if you look at it this way, a conflict of interest between poet and interviewer.”

Maybe that’s why I‘ve written so few poems over summer, although I've enjoyed doing the Cyclone virtual book tour. When it's over, I'll write poems in penance. Can't start enjoying it all too much, I'm Scottish!

Finally news of two new Salt books:

Nude by Nuala Ní Chonchúir (short fiction), and The Wrong Miracle by Liz Gallagher (poetry). Both collections look very good to me. In fact, the whole summer list looks great. In August, Salt are offering 33 percent off all books, so that could be an ideal time to buy. To get the discount, insert the code HU693FB2 when you’re in the Salt store.

Good news for readers from North America. You can now buy Salt books, even those only published in the UK, from The Book Depository with free postage. Actually, it says that there's "free delivery worldwide." Does that mean anywhere at all - Australia? South Africa? Uzbekistan? Might be worth testing.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Reading For Salt

Salt Publishing Benefit Gig at Out of the Blue Arts centre, Dalmeny Street, Edinburgh, Thursday July 30th at 7pm

Poets including J.L.Williams, Rob A. Mackenzie, Colin Donati, Kevin Cadwallender, James Oates, Anita Govan, Steve Urwin, Alistair Robinson and others TBC to raise money for SALT publishing.

FREE entry but donations to the cause are welcome and expected.

Sponsored by Red Squirrel Press, Voxbox and Out of the Blue Arts Centre.

Monday, July 27, 2009

De-Cabbage Yourself! - Step 8

My Cyclone virtual book tour continues its merry way around the blogosphere. Today it reaches Irish soil at Barbara’s Bleeuugh.

I eat virtual cabbage, drink virtual Guinness, try to spot the difference between a bad and good poem, cast a few spells, meditate on poetry as consolation, sound off on politics, and undercut the sestina form. All in a few hundred words…

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Poem In Tongues Of The Ocean

tongues of the ocean is an online journal of Caribbean poetry, which often publishes really interesting stuff. Each issue grows over time: two poems are published every Sunday until the issue is full.

Today the two poems are The Conception of Anne Bonny by Bahamian writer and artist, Sonia Farmer, and one of mine. You might wonder what I’m doing in a journal of Caribbean literature. The reason is that writers from outside the Caribbean can submit poems which respond to a prompt, which changes from issue to issue. The prompt this time was “grandmother, crabgrass, exile, root, ocean.” I must have been at a loose end to try this! Anyway, the result was Aileen’s Cupboard.

Friday, July 24, 2009


I have four poems up at Alex Pryce’s fine PoetCasting site for audio poems. Three of mine come from The Opposite of Cabbage and I’ve also included a previously unpublished poem, Politics. Just below me on the main page (currently) are poems by HappenStance poet, Marilyn Ricci, and there is plenty of other good stuff throughout the site.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Forward Prize 2009 Shortlists

I’ve spotted the shortlists for this year’s Forward Prize, published today. I’ve only read only one of those books – Emma Jones’s The Striped World, so I can’t really say anything about the line-up. What a useless blogger I am!

I'm glad that Salt have a nomination with Sian Hughes’s The Missing. Has anyone read Meghan O’Rourke’s Hatlife? Who will be publishing it in the UK? I can't find it on

It's just struck me - not a single nomination for any book from Bloodaxe or Carcanet! Is it the first time that's happened? However, that's not the product of a daring move into unusual territory - in fact, quite the opposite. The main prize nominees have come from the big trade publishers - Picador, Cape and Faber, with only one independent (Arete, run by Craig Raine). The First Book has one each from Faber, Picador, Seren, Salt, CB Editions, and whoever is due to publish the UK edition of Meghan O'Rourke's book.

Just Say No

Before I went on holiday, I had several reviews to write but work was really busy and I felt really tired out. I read the books and pamphlets but couldn’t focus enough to say anything about them. However, I’ve now gone about systematically reducing the backlog and have finished two pamphlet reviews for Sphinx – of The Terrors by Tom Chivers (Nine Arches) and Hem And Heid by James Robertson (Kettillonia). One more and I can start on various book reviews (when I say ‘start’, I’ve read all the books carefully and have made notes – just the writing of them left to do).

However, I’m going to have to cut my reviewing. I just don’t have time and it’s this which caused my panic and subsequent paralysis in June. ‘Just say No’ is my motto for the rest of the year. I will review for Sphinx and for the new Echo from the Canyon online review journal, but that’s going to be it. No more needless stress!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Review In Poetry London

Another review of The Opposite of Cabbage has just been published, this one by George Szirtes in Poetry London, issue 63 (summer 2009). It’s only available in print.

I’ve been very pleased with all the reviews the book has had so far, including this one. In fact, I’m well aware that I’ve been lucky to get any reviews at all (let alone intelligent, thoughtful ones), given how little review space is given to poetry books these days.

GS actually reviews two other books along with mine: Emma Jones’s The Striped World (Faber & Faber), which I’d read with mixed feelings although I thought it was astonishingly good in places, and J.O. Morgan’s Natural Mechanical (CB Editions), which I’ve heard many good things about from people with taste – so yet another book I feel I really ought to read. A short extract from George Szirtes’s review of it is at the CB Editions blog.

During the review of my book, GS makes reference to Peter Porter’s work from the late-Sixties. I’m now quite interested to read some, as I’ve only read far more recent work by Porter – Max is Missing and Afterburner, both of which put me, at least, in mind of Wallace Stevens (one of my poetic heroes). I’ve heard his early stuff is quite different.

Monday, July 20, 2009

De-Cabbage Yourself! - Step 7

My virtual blog tour in support of The Opposite of Cabbage has touched down on Scottish soil once again.

At My (Elastic) Gap Year, I chat to Anna Dickie about Scottish home ground, the public faces of poetry/work, and on how toughness and bleakness need each other.

Next stop will be at Barbara Smith’s blog, next Monday 27th July.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

High School Musical

I am taking my daughter to see High School Musical tonight - not the movie, but the stage production at Edinburgh's Playhouse Theatre. Apparently all the kids dress up in HSM gear and sing/scream along to every word. I see no reason why I shouldn't share out my suffering, so:


Which is the best version?

My Parish

...under demolition.

I'd meant to post this when it happened last year, but forgot. Three more blocks of flats to go (you can see them in the background - one of them looks almost ready for it now). It happened on a Sunday morning about 11.15am. The whole church building shook, literally, and people jumped out of their pews.

Holiday Reading

I read a few good books when I was away on holiday, all of which I’d recommend. Two Salt books, Anne Berkeley’s The Men From Praga ( you can read a perceptive review of it at Sheenagh Pugh’s site) and Luke Kennard’s The Migraine Hotel. I have a few things to say about both of these books, but have no time today. Later...

I also read Ted Hughes’s New Selected Poems 1957-1994. I was familiar with the poems everyone is familiar with from school and a few others, but I’d never sat down and read Hughes at length since. I’m now glad I did. There are some boring poems in this book (at 330 odd pages, that's no surprise), but also many startling ones. What impressed me was his immense range. It’s far from being all close observation of salmon, pike and crows. How’s this from the opening of an early poem, Egg-Head:

.....A leaf’s otherness,
The whaled monstered sea-bottom, eagled peaks
And stars that hang over hurtling endlessness,
.....With manslaughtering shocks

.....Are let in on his sense.

I’ll write more about this stuff in due course too.

Friday, July 17, 2009

New Poem At Qarrtsiluni

The excellent qarrtsiluni magazine has published my poem, Bank Holiday, part of its issue on the theme of ‘economy’.

De-Cabbage Yourself! - Step 6

Just back from holiday – two fantastic weeks in Spain. Of course, the weather is miserable in Edinburgh and the pressure of work has already begun. However, my Cyclone virtual book tour in support of The Opposite of Cabbage continues. In fact, the latest step on the tour has been up at Bernardine Evaristo’s blog since Wednesday. You can read about why I began writing poetry, which writers have inspired me, the influence of other arts genres, and my times living abroad.

Incidentally, Bernardine Evaristo’s latest novel, Blonde Roots, in which ‘whytes’ from Europe are enslaved by ‘blak’ colonial masters from ‘Aphrika’ is a terrific read from beginning to end.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Over At Magma

I’m conducting a series of short interviews over at the Magma blog with pamphlet publishers who were shortlisted in the recent Michael Marks Awards for Best UK Pamphlet Publisher. So far, you can read those with Peter Hughes from Oystercatcher and Helena Nelson from HappenStance.

Also, Magma, issue 44, is now out. In the print edition, you can read reviews by Ben Wilkinson of The Opposite of Cabbage and by Rosie Shepperd of The Ambulance Box by Andrew Philip. In addition, plenty of good articles and poems.