Friday, December 31, 2010

New Year's Prayer

Happy Hogmanay and all the best for 2011 to readers of Surroundings! Here's some Jeff Buckley - his brilliant 'New Year's Prayer'.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

I am telling you the truth in poetry...

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Tuesday, December 28, 2010

My Favourite Books of 2010

Hope you all had a good Christmas. I was very busy through December, but still managed to have a good time. Here’s a short ‘best of’ list for 2010. I did read quite a number of very good books which may, in other years, have made the list. First of all, some 2010 poetry (in no particular order):

In the Wake of the Day – John Ash (Carcanet)
Dammtor – James Sheard (Cape)
Lighthead – Terrance Hayes (Penguin USA)
A Curious Shipwreck – Steve Spence (Shearsman)
On the Governing of Empires – Alasdair Paterson (Shearsman)
Hurt - Martyn Crucefix (Enitharmon)

And some prose fiction:

Dreams of Rivers and Seas – Tim Parks (Vintage)
Da Happie Laund – Robert Alan Jamieson (Luath)

And some non-fiction:

Cutty, One Rock – August Kleinzahler (Farrar Straus Giroux)
21st Century Modernism – Marjorie Perloff (Blackwell)

I also read Louis MacNeice’s Collected Poems (Faber), but it hardly seems right to include a lifetime’s work in a Best of the Year list. In any case, the work varies from brilliant to just OK, although the brilliant work is brilliant in a real sense (as opposed to the ‘book blurb’ sense).

Books I’m looking forward to reading, or am currently in the middle of and very much enjoying, include collections from David Morley (Enchantment), Ryan Van Winkle (Tomorrow We Will Live Here), Matt Merritt (Hydrodaktulop...), Matthew Sweeney (The Night Post) and Dean Young (Primitive Mentor). And Wena Poon’s novel (Alex y Robert). And six extra hours in every day would be great, thanks.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Don Van Vliet 1941-2010

Great Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band live performance. RIP.

The Race for the UK Christmas Number One Single 2010

I don’t suppose being the Christmas No 1 single is as important as all that, but this year the fight has been more vigorous than usual.

Until last year, the X Factor winner was guaranteed number one spot, but the Rage Against the Machine campaign successfully knocked Joe McElderry into number 2. This year, the campaign to get John Cage’s 4’33 to number 1 has gradually built momentum, cleverly (or confusingly, according to some) called Cage Against the Machine. You can download the single from here and it will count as a UK chart sale. All the money raised will go to the charities detailed at the link, very worthwhile charities too. However, there have been problems in recreating last year’s success.

Some people don’t like the idea of downloading 4.33 minutes of silence (well, it’s not quite silence, which is the point, as this Guardian article makes clear). And so an alternative song has been mooted, Bird is the Word, recently revived by a famous episode of Family Guy, as Peter Griffin’s favourite record. I’ve heard supporters say that this stands more of a chance because it’s more commercially viable to a wide public. Um...but why not just buy Matt Cardle’s X Factor single then, if we’re taking commercial viability into account? The money raised by the Bird single will go to the record company and the Trashmen, the band who recorded it. Nothing will go to charity.

I’ve also heard supporters of the Bird campaign claim that ‘Christmas is all about fun. The Bird record is fun. The John Cage definitely isn’t fun.” It’s news to me that Christmas is all about ‘fun’. I thought it was supposed to be about giving, sharing, caring, a time for reflection, and (for those so inclined) a time to celebrate the birth of Christ. The John Cage record, whatever else it does, offers a break from running about, from noise, from bustle, from ‘fun’. Fun is over-rated as a way of life, as anyone finds out at any point when circumstances make fun difficult or impossible. I always liked the Housemartins single, ‘Five Get over Excited’, not because it had great poetry or musical arrangements, but because it exposes the ridiculous idea of fun-as-moral-system ('live for the moment!') as a total sham inside three minutes. The John Cage record might create a space where we and other fun-loving people remember people for whom Christmas isn’t much fun at all. What could we do to help them this Christmas?

Another bizarre campaign is for the original Biffy Clyro single, which Matt Cardle is covering. This reached number 20 in the charts at the beginning of this year, which I think accurately demonstrates its average quality as a song. Buying this is just more money to the record company and, of course, Biffy Clyro will also be getting all the songwriting royalties from the X Factor single.

And there have been a few other songs recently mooted as potential Christmas number ones. Divide and rule, anyone? We’re going to let Matt and Simon Cowell take the Christmas number one spot by default with all this arguing. That's what's happening at the moment. Apparently, Matt is way ahead on sales and Rihanna, who - not coincidentally - appeared on the X Factor Final as a guest artist last week, is at number 2.

I’m definitely all for the Cage single. It makes a point, it’s uncommercial, the money is going to good charities, the campaign is well organised, and it actually has some resonance of meaning that people of many different beliefs can unite around. We have until Saturday midnight to get John Cage shooting up to the top spot. Let’s go for it!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

SPL Podcast

I’m featured in the Scottish Poetry Library podcast this week, chatting with Ryan Van Winkle about my mysterious middle name, what I’m writing at the moment, form and structure, Magma, revenge and ego, criticism, and various other matters. I also read two new poems. That’s in between saying ‘you know’ and ‘um...’ and ‘kind of’ a few hundred times too often.

If you'd like a good poetry collection recommendation, you need look no farther than Ryan's Tomorrow We Will Live Here, published last month by Salt. On sale at the Book Depository for only £6.98 at the moment.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Musical Treasure

I have been searching through a treasure trove over the last couple of days, otherwise known as a cardboard box. I had wondered fleetingly over the last few years what had happened to some of my old records and tapes, the ones I knew I had somewhere but could never find. I’d assumed I’d given them to someone and hadn’t got them back. Then my sister mentioned that she’d been clearing out her attic and had found a cardboard box full of cassette tapes and a bag full of records. She asked whether I wanted them or should she just throw them out. Throw them out??? What!

They were delivered to my house over the weekend, and it’s been amazing hearing them again. Not only the ones I knew I had ‘lost’ (e.g. the Factory Records ‘Fact 10c box’ containing Joy Division’s first album, Unknown Pleasures, along with the album cover postcard, old Woodentops, Quando Quango and Rip Rig & Panic albums, The Wild Swans’ incredible ‘Revolutionary Spirit’ single), but also many blank tapes I had recorded stuff onto from the radio up to 25 years ago, a recording of Radio Scotland’s ‘Beat Patrol’ show from the mid-nineties featuring my band, early Aztec Camera live in Glasgow, and much more I haven’t had a chance to listen to yet. Tantalizingly, many of the tapes have no information on them at all, so I have to play them to find out what’s on them. A few tapes haven't survived the decades and won't play properly, but most sound fine, so far. I have to restrict myself to playing them while cooking dinner or I’d spend every hour with them, but I have found recipes that take a reasonable amount of time.

Here's the Wild Swans:

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The X Factor Final 2010 - Part 2

Part 2 of the final, minus Cher. Matt, One Direction and Rebecca fight it out. It’s a struggle between consistent and boring, cheeky and scream-inducing, cool and classy. Well, who would you choose? My entirely unbiased live blog will carry you through the evening. Can Rebecca do it? She is the best, but I wouldn’t bet on it. I'll update as the evening goes on.

Matt is singing first. He’s been plugging away at his music for 17 years and has got nowhere. There just could be a reason for that - that way audiences have of falling asleep during performances might be one of them. He’s singing Katy Perry’s ‘Firework’ and deserves to lose just for that reason. Horrible song, currently new and popular – going for the teenage girl vote. He’s wearing neon yellow trousers – who that’s supposed to appeal to, I don’t know. I’ll give him 6, as he sang the horrible song consistently as ever. Daughter says 7.

One Direction are doing their boy band thing and they did it just the way you’d expect. Plenty of energy, a few harmonies. It’s a Take That song, isn’t it? I get confused, as those kind of songs all sound very similar to one another. Really new, original and cutting-edge. Not. Simon says they are something we’ve never heard before. Ha ha ha ha... How can he say that with a straight face? He isn’t even being ironic! The boys sang it OK though. I’ll give them 7. Daughter says 7.

It’s Rebecca. She’ll have to do brilliantly to win as she deserves because I fear the British public will go for one of the other two. She’s singing ‘Sweet Dreams Are Made of This’. They’ve tied her hair up and slapped loads of make-up on her face. Harsh lipstick. Not the best look for Rebecca, I think. But her version of the song is quite different from the original. A good thing too, as the song is pretty boring. She breathed a degree of life into it. I’ll give her 9. Faultless performance. I took one off because the song is dull. Daughter says 8.

Ok, after the break, one act is going home. Three will become two. Matt is the weakest, I think, but I'm not at all sure the great British public will see things my way.

Oh no, Matt is through. Looks like Rebecca is out! But NO!!! One Direction are out! Wow, that was a surprise. And a little unjustified, as I think they’ve been much better than Matt in the final. So it's Matt v Rebecca head-to-head. Nail-biting stuff.

Matt and Rebecca will both sing their own winner’s single, not the same song as in previous years. Probably fair enough.

Will Matt choose another crowd-pleaser? It’s an incredibly bland song. What the hell is it? “When we collide we come together, if we join we’ll always be apart...” He’s singing it OK, but he could sleepwalk that kind of song (and everyone else will sleepwalk with him!) Zzzzzzz. So boring. The neon blue lights, lasers, and smoke can’t disguise how weak a song that was. ‘A brilliant contemporary pop song’ says Louie. ‘Incredible song’ says Simon. What are they on! He sang it well, mind you, to be fair, and he put a lot of feeling into it. I won’t bother with marks out of ten at this stage.

Rebecca is now on. She’s singing cool and classy as ever. Perfect song for her. It’s really good. A few tremors halfway through the second verse – nerves and emotions. But she recovers. She recovers big-time. The emotion she conveys by doing something really simply is amazing. It’s all in the voice. She has surely sang Matt off the stage with this. Brilliant. Simon says he can’t call this competition. He must have listened to a different show tonight! Although it’s true it’s impossible to know who is going to get the votes. Rebecca is easily the best though and has been from the first live show.

"One last surprise after the break," Dermott tells us. OK. What will that be? A duet between Robbie Williams and some member of Westlife? Simon and Louie miming to 'I Love Rock'n'Roll'? Who knows... In any case, we'll soon find out who has won. Must be Rebecca, surely.

No, the surprise is just Take That! I don’t understand the excitement around the re-formed Take That. It’s tedious stuff. And this new single they’re performing is awful. I bet Matt loves it though...

After the break it’s the final result. The voting has closed. Fab Marks and Spencers advert. Great dance routine complete with circling Santas. Here we go though – back with the result, which is in...

On come the judges with Matt and Rebecca. They look tense. The winner of the X Factor 2010 is... Matt??? You're kidding! That’s a crazy result. Matt is going to sing that boring song again, which will be a single. Who in their right mind would buy this?

Anyway, the alternative is to make John Cage’s 4’33 number one for Christmas and I’m certainly going to download it. There is a Facebook campaign. A little ambient silence is just what’s needed. Matt is still singing. It’s almost as soporific as silence, but more annoying. Oh boy...

And here endeth the X Factor 2010 live commentary.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The X Factor Final 2010: Live Commentary

It’s the final of X Factor. Can you feel it? But don’t worry, you have this live blog for company, updated as the show progresses.

Missed Rebecca, who was first up. Apparently, she was terrific. Hmmmm, sounds as if I also missed Matt who was really first up. The clip shows Matt being Matt, technically perfect and mind-numbingly boring.

Now it’s One Direction. I hope they don’t win, although I suspect we’ll be seeing their cheeky faces around for a long time, win or lose. Will they sing in 4-part harmony tonight? They’re singing Elton and, would you believe, they do try a harmony and almost get it right – a wee bit out, but not all that much! An OK start, I suppose. I’ll give them 7, one of their better attempts. Daughter says 7.

Now it’s Cher. She starts standing on the judges’ table, showing ‘attitude’, or should that simply be ‘altitude’. It’s a good performance by Cher. It’s not really my kind of stuff, but it’s not dull. She could even make an interesting record, given decent songwriters. Simon says she is his favourite brat with a heart. I’ll give her 8. Daughter says 8.

Now it’s round 2, and Matt is thrilled to sing along with his star. Who is it? Let’s find out. He’s doing his best John Bon Jovi impression tonight. Well done, Matt. Zzzzzzzz. Here comes Rihanna, who is mentioned in one of my poems, 'The Look' from my 'The Opposite of Cabbage' collection. It stands to reason that Matt would like Rihanna. Tedious MOR stuff. She is tall, so tall. Matt says he looks up to her – he didn’t have much choice! Their harmonies are a bit off. I’ll give Matt 5 for that. Daughter says 6.

Here comes Rebecca. Can she wipe the smiles off No Direction’s faces? I mean One Direction, of course. Good to see her hair down – much less severe than the tightly pulled back look. She’s singing ‘Beautiful’, Christina Aguilera’s best song. I think Rebecca sings it better than Christina, to be honest – more controlled, less histrionics. I’ll say 8. Daughter says 9.

Who will duet with One Direction? Important to get right for the boys. Och, it’s Robbie Williams. It would be. How predictable can you get? I can’t stand him. OD says he’s a ‘hero to all of us.’ Well, I guess you get the heroes you deserve. I can hear the sound of harmonies, but this time, was that them or was it part of the backing tape?! It sounded suspiciously high and harmony-perfect. I’ll say 6. Daughter says 7.

Here comes Cher. She’s rapping. It’s the Black Eyes Peas guy. Not much I can say about that. 'Tonight’s Gonna Be A good Night'. Maybe. I think Cher will go tonight, although that’s a shame, because she did well there. I’ll say 7. Daughter says 7.

Rihanna’s doing a special guest performance. I’ll take this opportunity to watch wallpaper dry in the next room out-of-earshot...

Christina Aguilera now. Burlesque. Zzzzzzz. Skimpy costumes can’t make an interesting song all by themselves. CA can sing, of course, but what a boring song.

One of the four remaining hopefuls is about to be eliminated. Who will it be? I’d like to think Matt or One Direction, but I reckon it will be Cher. Why? Well, Matt's voice gets votes from people who think that's what the show is about. But think of his debut album! Could you do anything but sleep through it? One Direction simply appeal to, let's say, a different planet from the one I live in, but their fans appear to vote in force. Keep Rebecca in though, please.

Who’s going through? The announcement is coming from Dermott. The four acts and judges are coming onto stage. On now. In no particular order, the first act through is.... REBECCA! Yeah!! Second through is One Direction. Now, Matt or Cher? Come on, Cher, even though it’s obviously going to be Matt. Aw, what a shame. Cher is going home...Bye, Cher. We’ll hear from you again, I suspect, and I don’t think that about many X Factor losers.

The final continues tomorrow. Only three left, only one with that little bit extra. However, Rebecca could easily end up going out first tomorrow with Matt vs OD in the sing-off. What a joke that would be. We'll see...

Friday, December 10, 2010

Jeremy C***, Wikileaks, Katia the Spy, and Students: Just Another Week in Politics

It’s been quite a week in politics. First of all, there was the James Naughtie slip-up over Culture Minister, Jeremy C (see video above, as long as you are ready for 'strong language'). Really, he will never be known as Jeremy Hunt again and his political career is pretty much over. The damage done by such slip-ups is irreparable (e.g. when Michael Howard was tainted with having ‘something of the night’ about him, it marked the end of his parliamentary ambitions), although it would have been less catastrophic had the slip-up seemed less of a shoe-in.

Then we had wikileaks, the arrest of Julian Assange, and the hacking war by Anonymous on PayPal, Visa, Mastercard etc. I had a quick glance on 4Chan’s crazy ‘random’ board yesterday and noticed a few commenters seemed furious at all the publicity generated by ‘Coldblood’ at the BBC. They’re happy at the hacking attempts but not everyone is happy at people talking to the press about them.

Most of the leaked documents do seem to be very much in the public interest. Not the one on places thought to be of maximum strategic importance– I can’t see why it’s in anyone’s interest to make such documents public – but today’s one on how North Korea may be helping Burma to build nuclear facilities, for example, and the conformation that there was significant heated communication between Britain, USA and Libya over the release of Megrahi, accused of the Lockerbie bombing. This latter document shows, if we needed conformation, that Governments are happy to suppress information and lie to their voters. They will spin any story to their own advantage and deliberately mislead people as to how they arrived at their decisions. The US government were prepared to lie through their teeth to the very people they claimed to support – the relatives of those who had died in the bombing. That, surely, is disgusting, especially given the USA’s hard line on Megrahi’s release afterwards. The London government lied so that Megrahi’s release would seem like a purely Scottish decision. If you don’t believe me, read the link.

Now, I live in a democracy, a place people died so that everyone could have a vote. I’m fairly sure they didn’t die so that elected governments could treat their voters with complete contempt. That’s why the governments in Washington and London are so furious with wikileaks. It’s not because the documents ‘put lives in danger’ as they pathetically claim (they couldn’t care less about that) but because they have been embarrassed that their relationship with their own voters has been revealed as entirely duplicitous. Anyway, I also liked Dave Bonta's post about wikileaks at his Via Negativa blog.

Then, there’s the story of the 24-year-old beautiful Russian woman employed as a press secretary to a liberal democrat MP, who didn’t suspect for one minute that she might have other motives for having access to files etc. Of course, some people might get angry at this and ask why, just because a woman is beautiful, vivacious, young and Russian, they are necessarily also a spy. True. But we might also ask how many other male MPs have young, beautiful, vivacious, Russian aides, and, on the assumption there aren’t any, we might well ask if there’s a good reason for that!

Finally, the students. This story fits in well with wikileaks. Few people like to see violence on the streets. But I heard Michael Portillo a few weeks ago say that, when he witnessed the violence over the poll tax in the 90s, he knew the poll tax was dead. The trouble is – when governments treat their people with contempt, break promises to voters, and refuse to listen to argument, what else is left but violence? Last night, on This Week, I heard former Labour Cabinet minister (now part of a political ‘think tank’, supposedly on the left, but his record in the New Labour Cabinet somewhat contradicts that), James Purnell, say from his comfortable news studio that the students had to answer to the bare fact that, for all their protests, they had failed to prevent the increase in tuition fees. Well, of course they have, because politicians they voted for, who had promised not to raise tuition fees, now believe that raising tuition fees is an excellent idea. But Purnell’s complacent arrogance, of which he seemed not remotely conscious, is partly why people are angry, why they’re out on the streets, why violence is brewing. People feel betrayed. They feel democracy has become a sham, that the moral priorities of the nation haven’t changed in the slightest even after financial meltdown, that the rich and powerful will continue to become richer and more powerful, and everyone else will have to pay simply to make that happen. When Michael Portillo comes over as more humane and understanding than an ex- Cabinet minister from New Labour, it’s painfully obvious how out of touch politicians of all colours have become.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

The Suspended Bishop and the Royal Wedding

I know this is now old news, but I’ve been concerned about the fate of Pete Broadbent, the Church of England bishop who criticized, on Facebook, the forthcoming royal wedding. The BBC reported that he was suspended from his post, even though he had apologised for the tone he had used and for any hurt he had caused by the content of his remarks.

This seems all wrong to me. First of all, I know that, technically, the Queen is head of the Church of England, but that’s a historical accident. I don’t know any Anglicans who don’t believe that Jesus is the ‘head’ of their church. The Queen is head as a constitutional, legal arrangement. Secondly, Anglicans, even bishops, have a right to freedom of opinion on any matters outside the fundamental substance of the Christian faith (e.g. crucifixion, Trinity, resurrection etc), so republican views are not at all unacceptable.

Add to this what he actually said. Stating that the marriage would be over within seven years was a bit silly – how would he know? He could be right or wrong, but there’s no logical reason to suggest this. However, also, according to the BBC report at the link above, he said that:

'Marriages should be about family, not “some piece of national flim-flam paid for out of our taxes, for a couple whose lives are going to be persecuted and spoilt by an ignorant media”. He criticised the monarchy for a history of broken marriages and a "corrupt and sexist" hereditary principle, before going on to attack the "gutter press" for "persecuting" the Royal Family.'

So he attacked the media! No surprise that the gutter press have made so much of it. What is really pathetic though is the way the church has so easily caved in to media pressure and hasn’t vocally supported Mr Broadbent on some of his points, such as the way the media act around celebrity and royalty, and for the appalling effect such media obsessions have had on our lives and culture. The church has kept quiet on this and has suspended the bishop, someone whose contribution in all kinds of important matters it had previously valued a great deal (or he wouldn’t have been appointed as a bishop in the first place). Richard Chartres, bishop of London, said he was “appalled” at Mr Broadbent’s remarks. I am appalled that the church appointed a sham trial and judged it according to the rules of media circus.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

The X Factor - Semi-Final: Live Commentary

X Factor time again. I missed blogging last week after being waylaid by a few pints of Guinness with ABJ and friends. I really ought to be more professional about this... Still, I’m here with more live blogging fun tonight and will update as the show progresses. Five acts still in with a chance – One Direction, Mary, Matt, Rebecca and Cher – and two must go this weekend (edit: actually, sounds as though only one is going and four will be in the final). My hunch is that Mary is doomed. Next in line are Rebecca and Cher, even though they are far more interesting than the boring Matt and the boyband OD. Difficult to call. Of course, it partly depends on their performances. Rebecca was streets ahead of the rest earlier in the competition, but she’s not been as convincing lately. Let the show begin...

We’re going to find out how Rebecca is shaping up right now. She’s first on tonight. She’s still going on about how she’s beginning to regain her confidence. She’s singing up-tempo clubby stuff and is absolutely static – OK with ballads and cool jazzy songs of her previous outings, but she needs to move just a little bit this time! She sang it well, mind you. Nice hairstyle too. I’ll give that 7. Daughter says 9.

Mary is up next. Louie uses the phrase ‘final four’ so maybe only one person is leaving tonight. If that’s the case, I guess it’s Mary unless she has a storming night. She’s singing fine but she’s so MOR. It’s karaoke, superior karaoke of course, as she’s a good singer, but dull. Danii says ‘Mary has her mojo back.’ I don’t know what she’s talking about. My wife says ‘Stop putting her hair in a bun. She looks like Mrs Pepperpot.’ I’ll say 5, daughter says 5 too.

Oh Matt’s had a sore throat. Let’s have some sympathy for Matt. He won’t be able to do his high James Blunty licks tonight, so it may be the Brian Adamsy Matt tonight. Oh, but no, he can sing fine. The throat has made a miraculous recovery. He’s as predictable as ever... However, the throat is beginning to crack as he continues. Louie doesn’t say ‘predictable’ but says ‘consistent’. Matt could win, but could be the next Leon Jackson, my wife says. She’s got it right. I’ll give Matt 7. Daughter says 6.

What will Cher do tonight? She’s rapping. Surprise us, Cher! Now she's singing. Her vocals are kind of ropey, as if she’s straining at the higher notes. She gives a cheeky little ‘hello’ halfway through the song. Danii says the song didn’t show her vocals at their best. Well, someone had to say it. No one else seems to have noticed though. Simon says she represents every teenager with a dream. Every teenager? I hope not. I hope some of them are reading J P Sartre novels, listening to Can and watching Bergman movies. Anyway, I’ll give Cher 5 for that. Daughter says 8.

Joe McElderry, last year’s winner, has given One Direction advice. Well, listen to the experts, boys. Maybe Leon Jackson will be offering you a few pearls of wisdom next week! They promise they’ll be on stage with ‘hot girls’ tonight. They are performing well, I have to say, although they are not for me and would no doubt be shocked if I gave them over 6 or 7. They don’t sing many harmonies, do they? Is that because they can’t? I’ll give them...7. Daughter says 8.

End of part 1. Part 2 begins with Matt. Sounds great, I must admit. Really strong vocal to a terrific song, and a song with a huge range. He must have been sucking the Lockets over the break as his throat showed no sign of strain at all. Simon says it was too safe and didn’t like the song. I disagree. Matt seems disappointed. I don’t know why, as I thought that was better than his first half performance. I’ll give him 8. Daughter says 7.

Mary is singing for her life now. She is out if she doesn’t really hit everyone for six right now. Well, if Matt was safe, then Mary is already cocooned. She’s singing ‘The Way We Were (Memories)’, the kind of ballad she is absolutely at home with. I’m falling asleep. Wake me up, someone! ‘I could see her singing on a cruise ship,’ says my wife. Yes, perhaps on a Shirley Bassey themed night. Mary is crying. If she goes out, she won’t be back at Tescos. In fact, Simon says just that after I wrote it. A life on stage awaits you, Mary and you’ll no doubt sell bags of records for the MOR set too. I’ll give her 7, as she sang it OK. Daughter says 8.

(As a quick aside, I now take back my earlier comment about Joe McElderry. We got a quick clip of Joe singing - one of theose phone-in X Factor comeptitions just before the break, and, do you know, he'd beat any of the contestants tonight... One Direction really should listen to him.)

Now here comes Cher again. Cher says she’s very emotional about the song. It’s a song that cries out ‘Please vote for me,’ she says. Danni wonders if she might not be compared unfavourably to the original. She sings away and does OK and suddenly enters a rap – the rap didn’t ‘fit’ this time. It’s as though Cher thinks a quick rap is obligatory to pick up votes. She is highly intense and sings well. Danii doesn’t like it much. Cher isn’t exactly articulate and talks nonsense afterwards, but I hope she makes the final. I’ll give her 7. Daughter says 8.

Rebecca is talking about how much of a struggle it is to bring up kids on her own etc – really going for the sympathy vote. You don’t need to Rebecca – sing well and you’re the best in the competition. Can you believe it? She’s singing Amazing Grace! And she’s singing it incredibly well. Fab key change into second verse. She’s singing that song as if she believes every word – whether she does or not. Louie says she’s his favourite contestant ever. Wow... She did that really well though. The best of the night easily. Singing like that, she'd whip Joe McE, no problem. I’ll give her 10. Daughter says 9.

Only One Direction to go. Any harmonies in this song, guys? Can you do them? They’re singing Snow Patrol, an X Factor standard. ‘If I lay here, would you lie with me and just forget the world?’ Perfect lines for harmony, but not a trace. However, in the speeded up section, one of them goes a third up! Wow, what a shock. A harmony, albeit the simplest one possible... But I want to hear four-part harmonies. They obviously can’t do it. It was OK but hardly an advance on the Snow Patrol original. I’ll give them 6. Daughter says 7.

Who is in danger? I think Mary is out. End of the line on the X Factor, but her career in music is safe, and that’s what we all want for Mary, isn’t it? Seems like a nice person with a fine voice. Good luck to her.

Friday, December 03, 2010


I have a feeling I have forgotten (on this blog) to mention the Bugged anthology, for which writers were asked to submit work inspired by overhearings. It was an exercise in creative eavesdropping.

I have a poem in it called ‘What Friends are For’. But that’s the least of it. You can read some highly entertaining stories and poems from the likes of David Gaffney, Ian Duhig, Andy Jackson, Pippa Little, Sandra Tappenden, Stuart Maconie and co-editors, Jo Bell and David Calcutt. And it’s only £5.99, which is very reasonable for a 117-page anthology.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Chico And Rita - Review

If you demand a tightly-woven plot from any movie, don’t bother with Chico and Rita, because what passes for plot is useful, like a coathanger, but hardly the central attraction. What makes this movie enjoyable (and it is very enjoyable) is the soundtrack and animation.

The film is set in the 1940s and 1950s and concerns the off-on love affair between Chico, the “best pianist in Havana”, and Rita, a singer, whose voice alone is enough to melt anyone’s heart. She also happens to be uncommonly beautiful. They meet, soon fall in love, but their relationship doesn’t exactly go to plan. So much for plot. The trailer gives most of the story away but, for once, that doesn’t matter.

It’s an animated movie. I’m not up enough on animation styles to be certain of this, but it reminded me of those postcards you see of old detective movies – guys in trenchcoats smoking cigarettes by night on street corners below neon signs. That probably makes no sense to anyone but me! Anyway, the animation is terrific. The shots of Havana give a real sense of what it must have been like, pre-Castro: beautiful, atmospheric, stylish, sleazy and full of extremes of poverty and wealth. Come to think of it, the scenes set in New York City had a pretty similar vibe. The jazz club scenes, which bring to life such famous names as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and the dramatic car chases, are superbly handled. I’m not sure how this movie, which is Spanish, will go down in the USA, as the (white) Americans in it are uniformly small-minded, exploitative and nasty.

It is interesting how animation works to bring warmth and style to a city. Good cinema does that routinely by more conventional means – camera angle, light, soundtrack, colour, period specificity – even a familiar city can be revisioned on screen. A successful movie captures some essence of a place and, once on screen, our experience of that city is transformed. The animation in Chico and Rita, while at an even greater remove than an ordinary camera lens, re-imagines its cities with great intimacy and warmth. How cartoons, which deliberately strive not to look too realistic, manage to give an audience the feeling that – just for a moment – they are there, is just one more demonstration of the magic of cinema.

I remember reading a poem (can't remember who by) on the relationship between a town and a scaled down model of the same town. The model drew fascination from viewers, which the town in itself didn't and couldn't possess. A similar relationship between the physical and imaginary, gritty realism and creative impression, exists between an actual city and its cinematic counterpart, which reveals something of the importance and vitality of the arts.

The music, omnipresent throughout the movie, is just fantastic. Latin jazz, be-bop, ballads sung by the fabulous Rita – a real treat. Just watching and listening to this movie was enough. It could have been about anything and it wouldn’t have mattered. However, there was a romantic narrative, as well as a political undercurrent i.e. the treatment of dark-skinned Cuban musicians in the USA at that time. It occurred to me this morning that there was also heavy irony. Both Chico and Rita routinely suffer discrimination during their stay in the USA. They play the hotels but can’t stay in them. They play the jazz clubs but wouldn’t have been sold a ticket to many of them. Later on, when Chico returns to Cuba just after the revolution, he is told that jazz is out of favour with Castro because it’s the music of the imperialist! When, of course, it was precisely the opposite...

I should mention that the ending made the woman sitting next to me cry, so – as a romance – it obviously succeeded with flying colours. But even if you wouldn’t normally dream of going to see a big-screen romantic movie, make an exception for Chico and Rita, unless you hate music. That’s the only reason you’d find this movie hard to enjoy.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Snow and Schools

Schools in Edinburgh have been closed for two days and won’t open tomorrow. Conditions are set to worsen up here over the next few days with temperatures dropping to well below zero along with chill winds from Siberia, which will ice up the snow on the roads and pavements.

All this is astonishing, as I can’t ever remember schools here being closed because of snow before, and it makes me wonder why this year. It must be because most schools can’t guarantee a minimum number of teachers will make it into work and it’s easier for the council to close all schools than to have parents ringing in thousands of times to enquire on the state of play in particular schools. But this must surely have been the case in previous years. I’ve read that gritters are out on the streets 24 hours a day, but even the main roads seem kind of slushy (and when it freezes tonight, they could become very dangerous) and the side-roads haven’t been touched.

Ironically, my wife does have to go to work. Normally she goes by car and drives around quite a bit, but today she took a bus. She is an Educational Welfare Officer and gives support to pupils and families where non-attendance is an issue. Well, nobody is attending this week! I guess it means she can catch up with paperwork etc. However, I can’t help wondering how she can make it into work and so many teachers can’t. Perhaps teachers gravitate to the far suburbs and live on hills or even mountainsides or down lonely country roads where no buses venture? Well..., teachers have a tough job these days and don’t really want to criticise them too much. When can the schools re-open? This is the point - the weather looks set to worsen and I bet the council are now kicking themselves for closing the schools on Monday. The council can hardly justify opening them until something improves, and there's no sign of that.

We will of course suffer an onslaught of poems about snow. I considered writing several dozen hopeless snow poems and sending them to my least favourite poetry magazines, but there’s always the risk that one of them might be accepted. Wallace Stevens and Louis MacNeice have done a fantastic job anyway and the rest of us may as well get on with writing about virtual train timetables or fruit-bearing bobsleighs or whatever the big subject is these days. I have been asked to name my three favourite books of the year. Now there’s a task to occupy a free few minutes...

What I've Learned

what I’ve learned I think is
how everything under language
slips and slides and bites
and how in the end
language makes its excuses
and leaves for the beach
where every wave is new and gone

from ‘on nomenclature’ in Alasdair Paterson’s collection, The Governing of Empires (Shearsman 2010)

Friday, November 26, 2010

A Future for Live Poetry

Poetry at the..., one of Edinburgh‘s regular live poetry events, is three years old. I founded the reading series three years ago because, at the time, there were few opportunities for Scottish central belt poets to read their work in the city. The Scottish Poetry Library hosted excellent reading events, but these were often from ‘touring’ poets or groups of already established names. The Shore Poets was the only regular reading series. It was (and still is) an excellent series but, of the three readers in any month, one was always a ‘big name’, and one a Shore Poet member, which left eight or nine opportunities per year for anyone else to read. Nothing much was happening in Glasgow at the time or in the smaller towns and cities, so opportunities to read were sparse, to say the least. For young poets and new poets to the city, it was almost impossible to find places to read to an audience.

Things have changed a great deal since then. Glasgow has the Mirrorball series, Words Per Minute, Vital Synz and others, and Edinburgh has a far livelier poetry scene and with far wider participation than was the case three years ago. I’ve been thinking about whether ‘Poetry at the...’ is still necessary. Audience numbers would suggest otherwise. They are enough to keep the series afloat, but not much more than that. The exceptions have been the ‘themed’ events, in which I’ve asked a group of poets to write original poems on a theme – Valentine’s Day’s selection of love poems based loosely on verses from the Song of Songs was one such occasion, and the Norman MacCaig celebration was another. Both times, the attendance was way up and these have also constituted two of the most memorable poetry events of the year for me.

So my thoughts are those, which are tentative, not cast in stone. Comments very welcome:

1. It’s been suggested (by Stuart Kelly, somewhere on his site, I think, but I can’t remember where) that live poetry events, in which reader follows reader follows reader, ought generally to be given a swift burial.
2. Events like the Golden Hour in Edinburgh combine poetry with fiction, live music, animation, film etc. I like it, but I imagine it takes huge organisation and massively time-consuming networking skills.
3. There are several events more attuned to the ‘performance poetry’ scene. I’ve no problem with that, but I don’t want to go down that route with ‘Poetry at the...’
4. I will, of course, continue with ‘Poetry at the...’ to fulfil existing commitments – I have already booked readers for February, March and April of 2011. It looks like a great programme to me!
5. I could hold two themed events a year in Spring and Autumn, starting from October 2011, each featuring many poets writing to a theme.
6. Maybe I could hold a more conventional reading the month after the themed readings, each featuring three or four poets – a mix of well known names (whether ‘mainstream’ or innovative’) and new, original talent. So just four events each year – quality rather than quantity.
7. The idea of creating an Edinburgh Poetry Festival occurred to me - not on anything like the scale of StAnza etc, but an autumn festival over a single weekend, featuring relatively local poets and poets with debut collections. But would such a venture attract an audience? It would need to, if it were to survive.
8. Any other ideas for structuring unique, affordable, regular poetry-related events are welcome. Where are the gaps? Are there any?

Another problem with Edinburgh at the moment is the shortage of cheap-hire, decent venues. When I visited London the other week, there were loads of venues doing live poetry, and most of their function rooms were either given free or for a token charge. In Edinburgh, most venues are costly to hire. Alternatively, the free venues are either out-of-the-way or staffed by bad-tempered idiots who hire you a room and then do all they can to cause as many difficulties for the readings as possible! I know London is unique, with several poetry events every day of the month, many having substantial audiences. It could be that Edinburgh has already reached saturation point for poetry events, especially during a recession. Admission prices, drinks and raffles, combine to reduce how many events people will want to attend - but without those accessories, the events couldn't happen at all. Perhaps in Edinburgh, and in other cities of similar and smaller population, less might be more. Might fewer events lead to bigger audiences and higher quality for those which remain?

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Poetry Readings and Setlists

Good reading last night at the Lit and Phil in Newcastle, despite the inclement weather and my sense of direction that turned a dead straight two-minute walk from the train station into a twenty minute circular tour of the city centre. The audience wasn’t huge but they had my admiration for turning up at all in the middle of a sleetstorm, which I’m sure would have kept some people from making it. The building itself is impressive and, although I didn’t have time to do more than glance at what must have been tens of thousands of books in its library, it looked like a splendid archive. There were four Red Squirrel poets (Tom Kelly, Eleanor Livingstone, Kevin Cadwallender and Alistair Robinson), and two of us from Salt (Andrew Philip and myself). Sheila Wakefield, editor at Red Squirrel and organiser of the event, for which grateful thanks, was MC. My set-list was:

1. Sky Blue
2. Everyone Will Go Crazy
3. Plastic Cork
4. Theology
5. Voice Mail
6. A to Z Route Map for the Soul
i) Ahem
ii) Baby
iii) Car-less
7. Nocturnes I and II
8. Fallen Villages of the North
9. How New York You Are

The first three and last two are from The Opposite of Cabbage and the middle section is new-ish.

And here’s my set-list from the Betsey Trotwood in London, from last week:

1. i. m. Norman MacCaig (working title)
2. The Look
3. Moving On
4. Fence
5. Soundings
6. Bladerunner
7. World Class
8. Untitled
9. A Creative Writing Tutor Addresses His Star Pupil
10. While the Moonies are Taking Over Uruguay

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Poetry Reviews and Revenge

If you’re anywhere near Newcastle, please come along to the Lit & Phil on Wednesday evening (24th November, 7pm) where I’ll be reading with Red Squirrel poets Kevin Cadwallender, Tom Kelly, Eleanor Livingstone, Alistair Robinson, and Salt co-conspirator, Andrew Philip. It’s a benefit gig for the Lit & Phil, so well worth supporting. I should mention my trip to London last week. I’ve written about the launch of Magma 48 on the Magma blog. My reading the next evening at the Betsey Trotwood with Simon Barraclough, Claire Crowther and Roddy Lumsden was also very enjoyable. Not a massive crowd but they seemed to like what they were hearing, and it was great to hear fine new poems from the other readers.

I did a quick podcast with Ryan Van Winkle yesterday, which I guess you'll be able to hear online some time soon. One question he asked was about reviewing, whether some poets respond to criticism by taking ‘revenge’ and if I have ever suffered from that kind of attitude. I answered by saying that I thought poets didn’t tend to react in that way. They might smart at a negative comment in a review, but most get over these things quickly. Also, that I wouldn’t know if anyone, for example, had blocked me from a festival, prize or magazine because they were miffed at something I’d said about their work. It’s not as though they’re going to tell me, as that would obviously make them look pathetic. I certainly haven’t noticed anything like this so, if it’s happened, it’s not made any difference to me.

I thought about the question afterwards (I often compose better answers to questions after an interview). I still believe what I say above, but I guess there are some people who react to any negative opinion on their work with life-long hatred and will take any opportunity to damage the critic, often in ways well out-of-proportion to the perceived ‘offence’. Well, that’s the way it goes. It’s vital for critics and reviewers not to bother about such things and to write what they think with a degree of integrity. Such revenge-poets, who believe themselves beyond criticism, who somehow think their work is perfect and without any weakness worth mentioning, are still living in Toddlerdom, stamping their feet on their bedroom floors for all eternity. They’d be better not to publish at all if they assume the reaction is going to be universal hero-worship.

It’s with this in mind that I made a solemn vow a while back (unfashionable as solemn vows may be). I promised to myself that I would never allow personal feelings about an author to influence any review I write. If that person has made negative or positive comments about my work, I won’t allow that to affect how I read or comment on their work. If I find that impossible, I simply won’t review their book. Someone else can do it. The same goes for reviewing well-known, ‘influential’ poets. I determined not to allow their position to affect a review, either positively or negatively. I’ve seen reviews published in journals by Poet X on Poet Y’s new book, on how ‘wonderful’ and ‘brilliant’ it is, and then six months later there’s Poet Y reviewing Poet X using those exact same words. That represents the death of criticism and I don’t want any part of it. To paraphrase Morrissey, 'It paves my way, but it corrodes my soul.'

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The X Factor - Week 7: Live Commentary

It’s X Factor time again. I will comment live as the show moves along. I should warn you, I was at Helena Nelson’s book launch this afternoon and was waylaid afterwards by the Tolbooth bar and two pints of Kronenbourg. So I may have less patience with Matt’s desperate attempts to impress etc.

And guess what? It’s Matt first, with ‘Come Together’, probably my least favourite Beatles song ever. Matt is attempting to rock out. He says he wants to develop a ‘swagger’. No Matt, you either have swagger or you don’t. And you don’t. It was a shrieking, horrible version of a dud song. The judges loved it, apart from Louie. They are idiots, apart from Louie. I’ll say 4. Daughter says 9.

I should have said – it’s Beatles night. Cher says she’s not going to let anything get in her way of winning, as if that's what music is about. She’s singing 'Imagine'. Crikey... She is over-singing it. Too many trills, as if Mariah Carey, without the vocal range, had been let loose on a Joy Division song. She’s trying too hard to er...‘improve’ a song that thrives on a simple approach. Horrible. Cher has showed her age and her lack of perspective. It’s all about ‘hear me sing’ rather than the song. Oh dear. I’d give that 4 as well. Daughter says 8.

Now here come One Direction. They will surely sing early Beatles, something cutesy. But no, they’re doing 'All You Need Is Love' – but an up-tempo version. It’s very different from the original, so points for that. But I don’t care about it much. In this case, I do like the original and that version didn’t cut it for me. It’s hi-energy, but lacks the original’s warmth. And warmth is everything in this song. Well performed though, to be fair. I’ll say 6. Daughter says 9.

Not the best start, to be honest. But Rebecca is next. My wife says, "Bet she’ll sing ‘Let it Be’." Maybe. Hard for her flying the Liverpool flag – pressure...It’s ‘Yesterday’. Slightly dodgy start for Rebecca too! She has been great up until now. But this sounds kind of strained. Like Cher she’s over-singing it, to show what she can do. Sounds a little uncontrolled. She is better with a swing. Harsh, tight hairstyle too, which isn’t her fault of course – a softer style would make her look much better, in my opinion. Not terrible, but not as good as we’re used to. I’ll say 7 (first time I've given her less than 9, I think, and it was 10 for the last two weeks)). Daughter says 9.

Now we have Mary who has bored me for ages now. Can she sing a Beatles song? Let’s see. She’s singing ‘Something’ and is singing in the style, even the intonation, of Shirley Bassey. I hate it when people do songs in the style of already inferior covers. She sings very powerfully, but it’s so derivative that I can’t warm to it. I am being very catty tonight, I realise that. Anyway, I’ll say 6 for that. Daughter says 7.

Paije and Wagner next, after the break. Not something to look forward to, although Paije now and again can surprise me. Can he tonight?

Paije was stung by Simon last week saying he had no chance of winning. Amazing how they take the judges’ words so much to heart. What power those judges must feel they have! Not over anything important though. Anyway, where are we? Paije is singing ‘Let It Be’ and, as ever, he is adequate. Adequate Paije. But nothing special. Really I could give Paije a 6 or 7 every week for all eternity, and so what? The judges all liked it. Adequate. I’ll say 7 this week. Next week it could be 6. Or 7. Daughter says 10.

Wagner!!! What Beatles’ song could he possibly sing? Octopus’s Garden? Back in the USSR? Ah OK, it’s ‘Get Back’. And suddenly it’s the Hippy Hippy Shake. And suddenly it’s ‘Hey Jude.’ It’s TERRIBLE. Just embarrassingly bad. So I guess all the anti-X Factor people will be more committed than ever to vote for him and keep him in the competition. Cheryl is angry because she'd read some comment in the press Wagner had made about her coming from a council estate. Wagner protets that he had said she was a role model for kids because she had made something of herself despite her background. This at least shuts Cheryl up, but doesn't save the performance. I’ll say 1. Daughter says 1.

Last tonight, Katie. She’s been in the bottom two four times now. I don’t think that’s because of her performances. She’s better, more interesting, to watch than most people in the show. So it must be because she’s ‘irritating’, although she doesn’t strike me as more irritating than any of the others. She’s singing ‘Help!’ – but as a ballad! No wig tonight. Great for the first minute or so. In fact, great for most of it. A few unnecessary histrionics, but the best tonight – easily. Danii wants to know the ‘real Katie’. Katie probably doesn’t know the real Katie, and why should she? Shut up, Danii. Surely Katie can’t be in the bottom two again after that? My wife has said for weeks they should style her less rock-chick, and I think she’s right. I’ll give her 9. Daughter says 10.

Who should go? Well, it's been a poor week. Some people who are normally good, like Rebecca, Matt and Cher were quite weak, but I suspect they'll be OK. Obviously Wagner should go, but might not due to mischievous voting. Katie shouldn't go, but on past voting patterns, she might... OK, I think Wagner is for the chop this time. He only needs to finish in the bottom two, against anyone, and he's toast. This week is his final week.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Helena Nelson Book Launch

I'll be at the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh tomorrow (Saturday) afternoon, 3pm, for the launch of Helena Nelson's second full collection, her first for seven years, Plot and Counter-Plot. Should be really good.

New Sphinx Reviews etc

I have a couple of reviews now online at the current issue of Sphinx: Roz Goddard’s The Sopranos & Other Poems, and Richard Handley’s Rain & Traffic. Interesting, as ever, to compare all three reviews on each title. On some occasions when I’ve written reviews for Sphinx, these can be quite diverse. This time, there’s a very full measure of agreement with reviewers independently making similar points and sometimes picking out the same lines to quote. Either way, the approach of three reviews per pamphlet is a fascinating one.

Also, I’m delighted that Terrance Hayes has won the U.S. National Book Award for Lighthead. It’s a really terrific collection, which I'd thoroughly recommend.

Finally, the new Magma, issue 48, is out. It's an excellent issue. Matt Merritt gives a useful summary of some of the key moments.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Ryan Van Winkle Is Here Today!

Here's a short interview I conducted with poet, Ryan Van Winkle, part of a blogtour to promote his excellent debut collection, Tomorrow, We Will Live Here, published by Salt today! The launch is at Blackwell's Bookshop, South Bridge, Edinburgh, tonight at 6.30pm, followed by a party afterwards from 8pm at the Forest Cafe - to which all are invited.

1. The poet Katherine Gallagher said in an interview: “Certainly, in the post-modern world, there’s a lot of joking going on. Often tongue-in-cheek. I think I tend towards ‘seriousness’ in poetry somewhat as per Theodore Roethke’s idea, ‘Poem: one more triumph over chaos’. But I like jokiness too” – any thoughts on this?

I probably have too many thoughts on this. Comedy is hard to get right and I'm super critical of people / poems / performers which try too hard to be funny. I find that earnestness isn't funny, trying to make someone laugh is painful.

Yet, I strongly believe poems should represent life and, certainly, life is funny. Funny to me means – awkward, uncomfortable, honest and maybe a little dark. When I saw Tom Waits he said he likes his songs to have some weather, a map in case you get lost, and something to eat in case you get hungry. I'd add humor to that list – “a joke, in case you need to laugh.”

However, because I think trying to be funny is not funny – I also tend towards seriousness in my work. I'm told some poems are funny. To that, all I have to say is: I've never set out to write a 'funny' poem. I think some poems have humorous moments but they all started deadly serious. Which, if you know some of my funnier work, is kind of funny.

2. ‘I’ and ‘we’ feature in many of your poems. Would you class yourself as a confessional poet? Or at least in the general line of Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and Sharon Olds?

No, I don't think I would though I at times I'd like to be. If my narrators or characters feel like an authentic 'me' that is great and amazing and I'd be really proud. However – and I'm not trying to hedge my bets here – they are and they aren't. Everything is a little or a lot made up. What is real, is how each narrator contains a genuine part of me and that allows me to understand the character.

While characters or situations may be fiction, I hope the emotion seems real. If I separated out the fact from fiction in the poems (I've never been on death row, experienced 9/11, had a son find a dead body – I have masturbated in hotels, cut my knee, run cross country in High School) it would probably be 50/50.
But, maybe Lowell, Plath and Olds would say the same?

3. I suspect they would! Anyway, who is your ideal reader? And would you be anxious if that person actually existed?

My friends. I am always anxious when they read anything. I desperately want them to like me.

4. You have a spectacular moustache. Have you sensed any kind of bond developing between yourself and other moustached poets?

Yes. Though, I support all the varieties of facial hair. I give them a little nod when we pass on the street. I say, “Hello, brother. Solidarity.”

Someday, I hope to appear on an all mustache / all beard poetry night. Get me in!

That's a great idea, Ryan! What I might organise is a Moustaches/Beards vs Clean-Shavens event, in which poets are commissioned to write poems which include reference to facial hair or lack of. And the audience could then vote a winning team...

Ryan will be continuing his tour on 20 November at Robin Grey's blog and then on 24 November as guest of the Scottish Book Trust

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The X Factor - Week 6: Live Commentary

It’s X Factor time again. I will write in real time and update as the show goes along. I think Katie is in serious danger tonight, even if she does well. However, I don’t find her boring. I hope Mary or Wagner get booted out as I’m now thoroughly bored of them – unless they pull off a major surprise tonight.

It’s ‘Elton John night’ – well, Tiny Dancer, Your Song, and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road etc are great songs. He also has many terrible songs. Which will predominate?

Opening the show tonight is Paije. He’s singing 'Crocodile Rock' in a strange American accent. They’ve decided Paije is ‘fun’ so he’s dressed in a pink jacket and is surrounded by women with big-hair wigs. That isn’t enough to distract from the fact that it was a very ordinary performance. ‘Karaoke’ says Louie. Cheryl displays her encyclopaedic knowledge of modern music by admitting she’s never heard the song before. The judges argue. Simon says his chances of winning are zero. True. I’d give it 5. Daughter says 9. OK!

Now Aiden is about to treat us to one of his starey-eyed, funereal dirges. Well, actually he’s singing 'Rocket Man' and it’s almost up-tempo. His voice quavers all over the place but that’s his style. Louie says he knows Elton would love it. How does he know? Simon likes his ‘swagger’. Swagger? No idea what he’s on about. The performance was OK but nothing special. I’ll say 6, daughter says 8.

Mary says she was tired last week and didn’t have her mind on things. She is so nice and unassuming it seems churlish to criticise her. But here we go. Dodgy start. Like a stage-musical singer warbling rock music, and so it continues. Oh, this is bad – harsh notes, off-tune at times, oh dear... The cheering audience must have cloth ears. ‘Parts of that were shaky,’ Dani says. You don’t say, Dani? ‘Pub singerish, but because you have a heart, it worked,’ says Simon. No it didn’t. Although I agree she has a heart and seems like a good person. Louie says it was in tune. No, it wasn’t! I’ll give her 4. Daughter says 5.

It’s Katie! Come on Katie! It’s an automatic 10 from Daughter – let that encourage you. It's ‘Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting’- makes sense at an emotional level, but can she sing it? Sounds like someone down the local pub, I’m afraid. The elaborate dancing can’t disguise the fact. Entirely the wrong choice of song – whose idea was it? Cheryl’s choice, apparently. Katie is smiling and looks like she’s enjoying herself. Can’t say I enjoyed it much. Louie says it was a rotten song. Cheryl goes mad at him. Simon says Louie should be removed from the building. He loved it. He admires the way she bounces back week by week after being in the bottom two and receiving bad tabloid headings. Very true, actually. But I could only give that 6. Daughter says...10!

Matt next. Matt is a very good singer, but can you imagine sitting through an entire album by him without falling asleep? He is singing 'Goodbye Yellow Brick Road', and he is singing very well. It’s a song that requires great vocal range, which Matt has in spadeloads. And he has a fine tone too. I can’t knock that, much as I’d like to... Easily the best performance of the night so far. Rebecca still to come, mind you. I’ll say 8. Daughter says 8, although she was barely listening to him - see what I mean about falling asleep?.

Cher Lloyd is about to sing. I saw a Cher-interview and she said that Cheryl having to choose between two of her acts last week was like a mother having to give away one of her babies, which would be “weird”, she claimed. Crikey... Anyway, she’s singing ‘Sorry seems to be the hardest word,’ a laid-back version with beats. She is wearing strange leggings – quite liked them. Quite liked the singing too. I’ll give her 9. Daughter says 6.

Wagner. I hope he tries to sing this week. He can sing. He just doesn’t bother anymore and relies on the big stage choreography. Louie says the performance will be ‘very Wagner’. That doesn’t augur well. He starts with ‘I’m still standing’ – not one of my fave Elton songs. It’s a truly awful vocal performance. He segues into ‘Circle of Life’ from the Lion King – just bizarre, but not in a good way. Louie says it was fun. It wasn’t really. I’ll give him 3. Daughter says 1!!!! Ha ha ha!

Here comes One Direction. They ‘jumped on the song’ when they heard it was Elton week. I wonder which song. One of the good ones, I hope – not some crummy late-period nonsense... Here we go... They are singing in American – it must be Elton’s influence. Weird. They sang quite well. The audience are screaming their heads off. It was a tedious song though. An album full of stuff like that would be a total snore-a-thon. But they did perform it as well as they could have done. I’ll say 7. Daughter says 8.

Only Rebecca to go – save the best for last. At least, she has been the best every week so far. Will her bubble burst tonight? Rebecca doesn’t have that sense of entitlement to stardom that some of the other contestants seem to think they have. I like that. Wow, it’s 'Candle in the Wind'. Brave! It’s a super-charged emotional performance. I don’t even want to type during this... Goosebumps down the spine... Stunning. No stage dancers, no gimmicks, just fabulous. I’ll give her 10 for the second week in a row. Daughter says 9.

Well, on the performances tonight, Wagner should go. Mary was also poor, as was Paije. But I think Katie, sadly, is doomed. On the plus side, Rebecca is still way way ahead. The only threats are One Direction and Matt.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Three Poetry Readings and a Phone Call

Next week is the week of a thousand gigs; or three poetry readings, at any rate: one in Edinburgh and two in London. Here are the details:

Sunday 14th November
- Norman MacCaig Centenary Celebration, 7.45-9.45pm, the GRV, 35 Guthrie St, Edinburgh. It will be exactly 100 years since the great 20th Century poet’s birth. The evening will feature MacCaig poems, people’s own poems that have been inspired by MacCaig poems, original songs based on MacCaig poems etc. Part of the ‘Poetry at the...’ series. Here’s a highly entertaining radio interview, featuring Norman MacCaig and Aly Bain in conversation at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre.

Monday 15th NovemberLaunch of Magma, issue 48, the Troubadour Cafe, 265 Old Brompton Road, London, 8pm sharp. I’ll be MCing the second half of this launch, which will feature guest poets Philip Gross and AB Jackson.

Tuesday 16th November
– Reading: Simon Barraclough, Claire Crowther, Rob A. Mackenzie and Roddy Lumsden, at the Betsey Trotwood, 56 Farringdon Rd, Clerkenwell, London, 7.30-10-30pm.

I am hoping the Gas Board are able to fix the gas leak we reported yesterday. As those of you who avidly read Facebook status updates will know, I phoned the helpline to find a gaspipe engineer and found myself talking to a Voice-Recognition Technology automation. It asked me to speak my postcode into the phone. I did so, but it couldn’t understand my Scottish accent. I had previously seen this comedy sketch on VRT and had assumed it was all a joke.

But it’s not. It’s actually true. ‘I’m sorry, I cannot understand. Please repeat your postcode clearly.’ I must have repeated it around 20 times (I tried going slower, faster, louder, quieter, even fake American and English accents) when I gave up and handed the phone to my wife, who is from North Derbyshire, England. It understood her first time!

Saturday, November 06, 2010

The X Factor - Week 5: Live Commentary

We interrupt normal poetic service to bring you the nation’s favourite live commentary on the X-Factor. By 'nation', I mean 'nation of citizens liable to read Surroundings even in passing'. This week is week 5. On every occasion so far, Surroundings has correctly predicted one of the acts sent home (even on weeks when no blogging was carried out – you’ll just have to take my word for it). That this is a fluke, I have no doubt. Be prepared for a shock this week when I get it wrong. As ever, I’ll blog live and paste in commentary as the show progresses.

Missed Cher. Thought the show began at 8pm, but it was 7.45pm. The judges didn’t seem to like it, but what do they know?

Mary is next. She looks nervous and isn’t quite getting it right. Well, it’s getting better as the song goes on. But not all that good. She seems less comfortable. I think she has a musical career ahead of her and will never work in Tesco again, no worries there. Mary is tearful, despite fairly positive comments. I’ll give 5 out of 10. Daughter says 9.

Here comes Katie, so daughter will give her 10. She was in the bottom two last week. One commentator suggests that was because Katie can be ‘annoying’. I agree, to be honest. My wife says her styling might be putting people off, as it’s very harsh week by week. It’s a Madonna/Lady Ga Ga (interchangeable) wig this week with tight black leather suit. Looks fine. She sings well enough. Some negative comments from judges. Cheryl says yes she is a drama queen, but so what? I’ll say 7. Daughter says... 10!

Next is Aiden. What song will he turn into a Radiohead dirge this week? I wish the judges would stop telling him to smile and be 18 and have fun etc. He likes singing moody dirgey songs. His voice is different from any other contestant the X Factor has ever had. He’s started really well, singing ‘Nothing Compares to You.’ But it’s a boring song. Probably sang it as well as it could have been sung. Zzzzzzzzz though. Apparently they changed his song 24 hours before the show. OK, I’ll give it 8. Daughter says 9.

Paije did well last week, partly because of the Amy W. song. Louie wants to see the ‘fun, bubbly Paije’ tonight. Hmmmm. He starts with ‘I’m a Believer.’ Not just as Neil D/Monkees copy version, to be fair. He does look as if he’s having fun. He segues into oh... whatja call it... and would have been better to stick to ‘I’m a Believer’ all the way through. Louie says he’s a little Lenny Henry (?). Simon says there was an ‘Austin Powers vibe’, and meant it as a compliment. The judges loved it. I think they have rather over-estimated how good that was! I’d give it 6. Daughter says 8.

Rebecca, who has been consistently the best every week so far, now has to keep the momentum going. The song is emotional and she has been crying while singing it in rehearsal. It’s Bob Dylan’s ‘Make You Feel My Love’. Fantastic song, of course. Rebecca is singing it brilliantly so far. I even think Bob would approve of this one. Nothing else to say – just superb. Louie says she ‘stands out,’ which is an understatement. I’ll give her 10. No one is going to top that tonight. Daughter says 9. Not often I give a higher mark than her...

Wagner! His vocals were seriously off last week, far more so than in earlier weeks, as if they no longer meant anything compared to the ‘performance’. This week, even worse, on ‘Viva Las Vegas’ – all over the place and out of tune. Loads of dancing girls doing a kind of can can, and now suddenly into ‘The Wonder of You’ without warning. He wanders around the girls who smile at him mock-hero-worshipfully. Simon says he liked it. Perhaps he feels that by criticising it, he might encourage people to vote for Wagner. I wonder if his run has come to an end. That was surely just too bad. He has a cult following, we’re told, and they may phone enough times to keep him in. Maybe. I’ll say 4. Daughter says 6.

Matt, now. Not too good last week, but had seemed like one of the favourites before that. I predict he’ll be back up there this week. Here he goes. Lots of falsetto. Very clear, perfectly pitched vocal, switching from high to low and back again. A song to remind everyone he can sing. Very much in his comfort zone. Louie says he is the one everyone has to beat. I prefer Rebecca, but I can see that he is very good and with a great recording voice in the X-Factor-mould. Simon says, “This is the Matt and Rebecca show tonight.” Of course, his own act, One Direction, are still to come. I’ll say 9. Daughter says 10.

Treyc enjoyed herself last week, but I thought it was too similar to the original. She looked great though in her little red Santa hat. I think she can probably sing as well as anyone, but needs to take a risk or two to stand out. A Bon Jovi ballad isn’t exactly what I had in mind as a risk. That said, she’s singing it really well. Simon says she needs passion and belief that she can win. Treyc says she has it but needs to show it. Hmmmm. Dunno if any of that matters. She just needs to do her best and sing really well and make songs sound like she's given something unique to it, surely? I’ll give her 7. Daughter says 9.

Finally, it’s One Direction, the boy band. I find them irritating, but they are full of energy and appeal to teenage girls. Simon reckons they’re about to ‘stamp out the opposition’ this week. With Kim Wilde’s ‘Kids in America’? The usual energy, smiles, girls screaming from the audience. Yes, they’re doing well. They’ve cheered Cheryl up, apparently. Safe as houses this week, I reckon. I’ll say 7, although they probably deserve more. A grouch like me can’t go above 7 for them though. Daughter says 7 too.

Who’s in trouble this week? Hard to say. I’ll predict that Wagner or Mary could be up for the chop this week. The novelty acts running out of steam. Mind you, Treyc doesn’t stand out and might not attract voters, even though she sings well, and poor old Aiden sang a rotten song. But I’ll go for Wagner or Mary. Results tomorrow. Will this be my first wrong guess? I hope so – the pressure to get it right every week is beginning to get to me!

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Leopardi on Contemporary Poetry

I’ve enjoyed reading the excerpts from Zibaldone di Pensieri by Giacomo Leopardi in the new issue of Poetry magazine. Really thought-provoking stuff all the way through, not least his thoughts on poets being ‘contemporary’. The paragraphs on this are about halfway down the page at the link. Here’s a small section from them:

“I believe poetry is the one thing in our time that cannot be contemporary. How can a poet use the language and follow the ideas and conventions of a generation for whom glory is a pipe dream, when liberty, patria, love for patria, do not exist, when true love is childish folly and all illusions have vanished, when all passion—not only grand, noble, exquisite passion—is dead? How, I ask, can one be party to all this and still be a poet? A poet, a poetry, without illusions, without passion—do these logically go together? Can a poet, as poet, be entirely self-engrossed and private and still be a poet? Yet aren’t these the salient characteristics of our time? So how can a poet, as poet, be distinctively contemporary?

“Remember that the ancients wrote poetry for the masses, or at least for people who mostly were not learned or philosophical. The moderns quite the contrary: today’s poets have only educated, cultured readers, so when it’s said that poets must be contemporary it’s meant that a poet must conform to the language and ideas of this narrow class of people, not the language and ideas of the masses (who know nothing really about poetry present or past and do not engage it in any way). Now, all learned, cultured men these days are inevitably self-engrossed and philosophical, stripped of meaningful illusions and barren of vital passions. Women the same. How can a poet be contemporary in act and spirit, how can he conform to such people, and still be a poet? What is poetic in them, in their language, thoughts, opinions, tastes, affections, customs, habits, deeds? What did or does or can poetry ever have in common with them?”

- July 12, 1823

That may have been written in 1823, but it sounds remarkably contemporary in itself. It isn’t the usual criticism that’s trotted out regularly on how poetry has become too ‘difficult’. Rather, much poetry has become private, passionless and self-engrossed, because fashionable poets (whether 'mainstream' or 'innovative') have stripped themselves and (in particular) their work of illusions, even those that might confer meaning and passion. Any myth worth its salt, whether true or not, invites both commitment and passion.

Leopardi’s question has a distinct resonance for contemporary poetry:

“Now, all learned, cultured men these days are inevitably self-engrossed and philosophical, stripped of meaningful illusions and barren of vital passions. Women the same. How can a poet be contemporary in act and spirit, how can he conform to such people, and still be a poet?”

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

New Poem at Ink, Sweat & Tears

My poem, World Class, has just been published online at the Ink, Sweat and Tears zine, which has a sterling back catalogue. This poem is an ironic comment on postmodern irony, and turns ironically on itself. So if you don’t like irony in poems...

Monday, November 01, 2010

The Top Three

Ever wondered what the three most popular pages on my blog were between May 2010 and now? No? Thought not, but here they are anyway, in reverse order:

3. The Fifteen Most Overrated Contemporary Scottish Writers

2. Forward Prize 2010 Results

1. Geoffrey Hill’s ‘Odi Barbare’ Excerpts

Big drum roll for Geoffrey Hill...

Interview With Tim Dooley

Fantastic interview at Tony Williams's blog with Tim Dooley, who talks about his new book, Imagined Rooms, but manages to say all kinds of interesting things about poetry and the process of writing.

Great to see someone mention James Schuyler, who is often overlooked (compared to O'Hara, Koch and Ashbery) in discussions on the New York School's first wave, but who is one of my favourite poets.

Also, interesting reflections on impurity, untraditional line-breaks, and the tensions/links between private and public spheres.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The X Factor - Week 4: Live Blog

It’s week 4 and, after my internet-free holiday from last week, I’m back with the nation’s leading X-Factor commentary. Well, that’s arguable, I suppose. I'm blogging live and will update as I go along.

First up is Mary Byrne, complete with ridiculous devil horns for Halloween. She sings up-tempo Barry Manilow. The crowd loved it. Must say, I’m bored with her now. Zzzzzzzz. Anyway, she sings very well, of course. I’ll give her 6 out of 10. Daughter says 9. ‘She’s very good,’ she says. Aw...

Aidan Grimshaw is next – singing Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’, but in the style of Radiohead. A few weird notes – hard to know if it’s deliberate or not! Strange women in big black wigs wriggle around on stage. Just as intense as ever. Brave attempt to do such a song so differently. Cheryl wishes he would smile. Simon wanted him to smile and says it was bizarre. “Too much to the left,” he says. Ha! Can't have that now! Especially as it was as much to the left, which is not really much to the left at all. I’ll give this 8. Daughter says 7.

Third are Belle Amie. They step out of coffins in white costumes and sing ‘I’m Your Venus’. Men in swimming trunks writhe about. The singing is like what you’d expect at a school show. This is so utterly pointless it’s not even worth writing about. Louie says ‘we need a bit of girl power on the X Factor.’ Huh? Danii points out the dodgy singing. I’ll give that 4. Daughter says 6. She is being a bit tougher on everyone this week, you’ll notice.

Ah, Rebecca is next. She has been genuinely terrific in previous weeks. Great enunciation. She’s singing that song, ‘I want to fall in love with you’ or whatever it’s called. Great again, really intense in just the right way. Fantastic key change towards the end. “You stand out from the crowd,” says Louie. Too right. I’ll give it 9. Daughter says 10. She is probably right.

After the break, we have Treyc, who came in the bottom two and had to participate in the sing-off last week. “Re-light the fire,” she sings, or perhaps prays desperately. Sounds like the original version and strangely dated. Energetic performance, fine singing, and a troop of acrobatic dancers leaping around. She really went for it, but doesn’t stand out. “Nothing original,” Simon says. He’s right, but there again, he was going on about Aidan being “too left” earlier on. I’ll say 6. Daughter says 7.

Matt has something to prove in that he really sang well last week. Can he keep up the standard? Well, he’s doing a Leona Lewis song, ‘Bleeding Love’, which is a totally bizarre idea. Pitting yourself against the X Factor's finest vocalist ever is a risky thing to do. It’s not much of a song and the only reason it normally sounds OK is because of the power of Leona’s vocals. Can he do it? Simon rolls his eyes and says, ‘Best of luck.’ Matt starts singing. Hmmmm. He is toiling. His falsetto bit was good, but the rest of it made him sound second-rate compared to Leona. Silly song choice. “An off-week” says Cheryl. More than that, I’d say. He’s not quite good enough. Rebecca could have sung that. I’ll give him 5. Daughter says 10!! She really liked it.

Here comes Wagner! We don’t need to bother about vocal perfection here. Will he be fun? Oh yes, he will. What is it - Ride of the Valkyries? It soon evolves into ‘Bat out of Hell’ in any case. Girls writhe around wearing not much. He goes out of time and out of tune and who cares? He is a performer, a charmer, an entertainer. “What in the hell was that?” says Simon. It was a laugh, that was what it was. I’ll say 7. Daughter says 5.

Now it’s Paige, who is another of those guys who sings OK, but doesn’t stand out. “At the moment I’m more interested in what he wears than in what he’s singing,” says Simon. Well, he’s wearing a red bow tie tonight and a suit and singing Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black,” which is a fantastic song. He sings it adequately, that’s all I can say. Not a patch on Amy, but good. I’ll give him 7. Daughter says 7 too.

Katie now on stage. Daughter will give this 10, of course, as Katie is her favourite. I quite like her too. Tonight she’s singing from what looks like a Big Brother chair. She sings ‘Bewitched’. She jumps out of the chair. It’s fun, like a Marilyn Monroe up-tempo number. She waves her arms about and smiles. “Quirky,” seems to be the word the judges are using. Danii says her make-up is scary. It’s Halloween, Danii! Remember? I’ll say 7 again – that’s three in a row. Daughter says 10. Of course...

Now we have the boy band, One Direction. Change your name, guys – it’s terrible. Take my advice. Oh no!!! They’re singing Bonnie Tyler/Meatloaf – 'Total Eclipse of the Heart'. I hate the song. They have red make-up round their eyes – will Danii say it’s scary? Bet she doesn’t. The song suddenly speeds up and goes disco, then slows down again. Weird idea. Lots of screaming from the girls. Danii likes the scary make-up. OK for boys, you see (ironic cough). They have loads of energy and sing well. Not my thing though. Not that much in the X Factor really is, but some much less than others. I’ll give it 6. Daughter says 5.

Last song now – Cher Lloyd. She is a bit different. She is going to sing a ‘beautiful song’ tonight, rather than the usual rappy thing, apparently. It will go well, or she’ll fall flat on her face, says Simon. “Stay with Me” is the song. She sings it with quite a fragile voice, but with plenty of emotion, and in tune. Has she proved she can sing? Yes, she has, but we knew she could sing anyway surely? The song was a risk, but she pulled it off really well. Louie loves it – Cher is almost in tears. “The performance of the entire season,” says Simon. I’ll give that 9 as well. Daughter says 9.

So at the end of all that, who should go? Belle Amie or Paige, I reckon. Wagner has to go one of those weeks, of course, but I hope not yet. Plenty of voters won't like what Aidan did to 'Thriller', but I hope not enough to boot him out. Matt stumbled for the first time, but is probably safe. Best performances of the night were from Rebecca (again) and from Cher.

Everything Goes Around The Water

Fantastic song from The Delgados, one of Glasgow's finest ever bands.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Organist

My poem, 'The Organist', accompanied the artwork in my previous post, at the Hidden Door festival in Edinburgh.

And here are three more photos from the installation (art by Fiona Nealon, Susie Wilson and Jennifer Bruce, photos by Andy Philip):

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Photos from the Hidden Door Festival, Edinburgh 2010

Here are a few photos from the Hidden Door festival in Edinburgh. It was a huge affair with countless bands, poets, and artists combining for a feast of aural and visual art through an entire weekend. The Guardian presents a flavour of what was happening, and so did the Scotsman newspaper. The photos below (kindly provided by Andy Philip) are all from an installation built around my poem, 'The Organist'. It's a relatively new unpublished poem centring on the walk a minister makes to his church on a Sunday morning. Thematically, it deals with religious faith and emotion. I'm astonished by the artwork. Quite amazing to see the way the artists - Fiona Nealon, Susie Wilson and Jennifer Bruce - engaged with the poem, and it makes me want to do more such collaboration.

Fascinating, that pink hand daubed on the Bible, and the poem fragments scrawled on top of the cut-up Bible circles...

The words, 'My mind is his bootleg cathedral' and the other fragments come from the poem, which also features the hymn 'All Things Bright and Beatiful'. As for the bit in the middle, is that really what I think it is!?

Paper art, presumably more from the Bible, stuck to the walls

You could stand in the middle of all this and listen to me reading the poem, which is printed on the table below. Nice to see that someone actually did. Thank you!