Saturday, May 28, 2011

Scottish Poetry Library Book Sale

Earlier this week, I managed to make a quick trip to the Scottish Poetry Library. I had a couple of books I needed to return. On my arrival, I discovered they were having a book sale, boxes packed with books, many of them costing only 50p. I could have gone away with scores more volumes, had my own finances been in a healthier state, but I exercised a degree of self-control. Here’s what I did buy:

The Dyer’s Hand and Other Essays – W.H. Auden (1st edition hardback, Random House 1962)
The Triumph of Love – Geoffrey Hill (Penguin 1998)
Collected Poems – Les Murray (Carcanet 1998)
Lord Weary’s Castle & The Mills of the Kavanaughs – Robert Lowell (Meridian 1961)
The Dolphin – Robert Lowell (Faber hardback, 1973)
Last Poems – James Schuyler (Slow Dancer 1999), with afterword by Lee Harwood
The Good Neighbour – John Burnside (Cape 2005)

All that cost £11 (and the Auden itself was £5 of it). I see the SPL are going to be clearing away the sale ‘next week’. When next week, I’m not sure, but I’d advise poetry readers anywhere near Edinburgh to get down there as soon as possible (the library is closed on Monday, mind you). I even spotted a hardback copy of The Opposite of Cabbage in the sale – for £5!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Ryan Giggs, Imogen Thomas, and Press Freedom

I’ve been following the Ryan Giggs/Imogen Thomas story without much interest in either of them, but with a real interest in the issue of superinjunctions and press freedom. Some people have positioned themselves as defenders of free speech, complaining bitterly about the gagging orders and demanding that the press should be able to print what they like about whomever they like. I take the opposite view, but with a twist.

I was disappointed that the superinjunction taken out by Giggs didn’t work, but I feel that Thomas should have been allowed one as well. They should be cheap, in fact they should be free. If they had been, the story wouldn’t have come to anyone’s attention and we would have been spared reading about it. I support free superinjunctions, but with one condition – that the media are not allowed to feature anything ever again about those who ask for one, except for stories with material connection to their profession.

Just think, we’d never have to read any story ever again about Imogen Thomas, although magazines would be able to print pics from her modelling work – a girl’s got to make a living after all. The same with Giggs – no stories about affairs, only those about football. Just think – if Katie Price, Paris Hilton, Kerry Katona or any Big Brother/X Factor-loser ‘celebrity’ had to resort to a injunction, under my proposals, we’d never hear anything from them ever again! Max Clifford, (inevitably) Thomas's publicist, is arguing that superinjunctions should be removed so that newspapers can print more of these stories. No, let's have less. In fact, let's have none. Let's put Clifford and his like out of business for good!

If my proposals are accepted, think how little celebrity gossip there would be. People would be taking out injunctions all over the place to protect themselves from damaging revelations about their private lives but, afterwards, the papers couldn’t print stories on their inane opinions, their nights out at society parties, the people they’re seen with etc. All those horrible celebrity gossip rags would go out of business overnight, the newspapers would have to print er... news, and the TV companies wouldn’t be allowed to follow people around with a camera 24 hours a day.

Some people might miss this for a few weeks. There might be withdrawal symptoms, but we’d all end up far happier as a result – of that, I’m confident.

As for press freedom? Well, the press has enormous power and they often use their freedom to curtail the freedoms of others, to destroy lives - often unnecessarily – to publish highly slanted political opinion masquerading as news, and to print stuff simply to make a great deal of money for themselves, at the cost of not printing stuff that actually matters.

We need to preserve a lack of interference/censorship from politicians etc. That’s what matters as far as freedom of the press goes. The media have enormous freedom to publish what they want in the UK and they choose to serve up a constant diet of inane celebrity gossip. That choice has enormous impact on our society – its awareness, intelligence, and ability to make coherent choices. Other people do their jobs according to rules and regulations and I don't see why journalists should expect themselves to be some kind of hallowed exception. A celebrity news black-out might lose them some sales, at least for a while, but they’d be able to use their massive freedom to print other stuff, stuff that really counts.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Parkway by Mirabeau

Fantastic stuff, this. Featuring poet, Richard Price, on spoken vocals. The lyrics are from a poem of the same name from his last collection, Rays. Great guitar playing too and the woman singer's voice is gorgeous. It's on the band's current album, Golden Key.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

My Reading at Keele University

I said I’d blog about my reading at Keele University, and it’s taken me ages to get round to it, due to external factors rather than anything about the reading itself. Keele takes a bit of getting to. Train from Edinburgh to Manchester, train from Manchester to Stoke-on-Trent (there was an 8 minute changeover but, luckily, the trains all ran on time), and then taxi from Stoke to Keele University.

I had wondered about the taxi. Surely there were buses to Keele? Well, there may have been, but I would never have known where to get off or how to find anything. From the taxi window, Keele seems to consist of an industrial estate and a massive, modern university campus, including accommodation. It’s unlike anywhere I’ve ever been before. Office and seminar buildings appear from all sides, at all angles. There are plenty of signposts, and just as well.

I met up with James Sheard and two other guys from the Creative Writing and English departments and we went to a bar. The weather was pleasant so we sat on tables outside with our pints – all very nice. Then it was time for the reading, which took place in a seminar room – small and intimate. The audience provided the atmosphere, and they really did seem like a good, friendly bunch of people. Most were Creative Writing and English students and staff. The reading was in two halves. In the first half, I read from The Opposite of Cabbage and read all new material in the second half. It seemed to go down well, and I even sold a decent number of books. Afterwards, it was back to the bar again for more conversation before grabbing something to eat at Jim’s house at around 11pm.

I wish I had some entertaining travel stories for you. Normally, I end up in a carriage where a fight breaks out, or people have loud, astonishing dialogues that are stranger than fiction. But these trains ran on time and without incident. I am thankful for that really.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Harold Camping and the Non-Rapture

Apparently, a few people in California have been saying that the world is going to end today. Why this should be a source of endless chatter on Facebook and other social networking sites is beyond me. After all, if I said that the world was going to end next week and produced a bizarre calculation based on various biblical texts to prove it (easy enough to do, believe me), my friends might have their concerns for me and my employers might perform some kind of sanity assessment, but no one else would pay a blind bit of notice. So why all the attention for Harold Camping, a man who has already got the rapture date wrong once (he last predicted it would come in 1994)?

Apparently he runs a radio station, which reaches millions of people. He has also spent more than $100 million on an advertising campaign, warning people that the end is nigh. When you put that much money where your mouth is, I suppose people do take notice, if only to throw stones. Money gets attention.

One item of false information I’d like to correct is that Camping has predicted that Christians will all rise to be with God on this date, about 200 million throughout the world. In fact, Camping has condemned all mainline Christian churches and all who attend them as apostate. He doesn’t accept that the vast majority of Christians are true believers at all and the number of people he expects to rise is very small indeed. He has nothing to do with mainstream Christianity. In fact, he is hostile towards it.

He has achieved massive publicity for his campaign. I wonder what the fall-out will be: those mixed-up people who have fallen under his influence who now find themselves alive and well after his latest staged “rapture”. The reaction of some has been to laugh at them. I'm not laughing...

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Review of Claire Askew's 'The Mermaid & the Sailors'

I’ve read through Claire Askew’s first pamphlet, ‘The Mermaid & the Sailors’ and enjoyed it. I know Claire and (disclaimer time) wouldn't have written anything had I not liked the pamphlet. But, seeing as I did, I will try to bring some kind of critical discpline to the table. Claire has a good ear for sound and rhythm and her writing is noticeably tighter than when I first came across her poems a few years ago. There are certain points where it really soars, such as in ‘Moloch’, a poem in which a father has taught his offspring how to make a fire:

...It was what this town worked for –
the men up at dawn, crawling
into the lit-up earth like colourful bugs.

It’s a mining town and the depiction of the men as insects, however colourful, is painfully apt given what was to befall British mining communities later on. Good writing, but it’s in the second and final stanza that the poem lifts full off the ground. The son/daughter remembers the father’s instructions and begins making the fire with newspaper, kindling etc, and then:

Finally, the few ancient apples of coal –
its cold choke the thing
that would cripple this town, given time.
And the first thought of heat would occur
to the grate, as the first flame
ghosted up out of the pile.

The title poem is very strong, with its drunken men (‘sailors’, metaphorically) spinning their tales to the narrator at the bar, “hooked by my red hair,/ swarming like fish/ to a bright fly”, which put me in mind (in a good way) of Sylvia Plath’s “Out of the ash/ I rise with my red hair/ And I eat men like air” (from ‘Lady Lazarus’).

There are also intriguing connections between poems – images of fire and fish keep surfacing. In fact, steam, smoke and fire all rise both literally and metaphorically in several poems and men who’ve “dived right in” eventually “come up sparkling,/ wheezing, waiting to be saved.” (‘The Mermaid and the Sailors’).

Negatives? A villanelle-type-thing tries hard to take on a big subject and doesn’t get anywhere with it. ‘Visiting Nannie Gray’ is strong (and indeed won a prize), but starts off with the dull, “We go on Sundays to make her tea”, when it could have begun with what immediately follows, “I’ve known her years, but every week...”, a far more interesting lead-in! A few poems are well written but don’t get under the skin in the manner of ‘Moloch’ and others (but at least there are others, which isn’t always the case with poetry collections). These blips are more than made up for by a highly imaginative three-part poem on ‘UFOlogists’, a list of place names which, for whatever reason, I liked a lot (‘Fell’), and an unexpectedly fine sestina, ‘Dream Lover’:

He’d know how to hot-wire a Ferrari in the dark,
eyes closed. He’d smell like kerosene and a quiet road at night,
and touch my face as if I’d made him blind.

Well, OK, I’m not certain that the eyes need to be closed in the dark, but I love the way he can smell both like kerosene and like a quiet road at night, and the third line is a great image, combining tenderness and wild passion in one vivid, economic sweep.

(The Mermaid & the Sailors is available from Red Squirrel Press for £4)

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Eurovision 2011

I usually blog about Eurovision (last year, I was on a 6-month blog break), as you can see from a search of this blog, but tonight my daughter was appearing in a theatrical production of The Little Mermaid and I was out watching her dance around the stage. So I’ve missed Eurovision and the blog-as-it-happens thing will have to wait until next year. They must be onto the voting by now.

I’ve glanced at Facebook and everyone seems to be backing different countries. No one has mentioned the UK entry which I believe was by the band Blue, who I seem to remember being a boy band about 15 years ago or so. So now a dad band? What a bizarre idea... But not as bad as Ireland who are represented by the truly awful Jedward. The Moldovans apparently had cones on their heads and, for that, they probably deserve to win.

No, Poetry Is Not The New Rock'n'Roll

It is about time I got my blogging in order and started to write something at least semi-regularly again. I haven’t felt much inspiring me to write prose recently (although I have been writing poetry), but I always feel that actually doing something germinates further creativity.

Also, it’s about time I wrote something about my mini-tour with Andrew Philip through Cambridge, Norwich and London, and my near-secret gig at Keele University. While I’m tempted to suggest there was something rock’n’roll about it (it was a tour, after all), I’m more thinking of my own experience of the rock’n’roll lifestyle than the universally accepted one of drugs, sex and other hedonisms. My own musical career took in the sights of tiny bars, mainly around Glasgow and Edinburgh but occasionally further afield (one memorable night of delightful hostility in Cumbernauld, for example), where we’d play before a mostly bemused ‘crowd’ for a while and then have to lug our own equipment – amps PAs, drum-kit and all – home to our tiny rooms.

Poetry is a little better than that. There are no drum-kits involved and people are only there because they’ve chosen to come, not because they wanted to get quietly plastered in their favourite bar and have instead been interrupted by a bunch of guys howling over a hail of distorted indie guitars. But the very fact that people have come willingly, and have often paid for the privilege, increases the pressure to appeal. With a band, you can always drown out negative energy by sheer force of volume. A poet doesn’t stand a chance.

Not that either Andy or myself had to contend with stage invasions or anything like it. This, to an extent, is disappointing, but it shows how little poetry resembles real rock'n'roll, and maybe just as well. You can read Andy’s commentary on the tour here (1) and here(2) and here (3), and I’ll try not to repeat much from his version. We began at Cambridge with CB1, a well established event with a fine programme, organised by a flawlessly efficient committee (or it so it seemed to me), in The Punter, an aptly named venue. The audience was generously attentive, the open mic before our sets was good, and we both sold a fair number of books, which doesn’t always happen at readings. Andy read some of his poems off-by-heart, which worked well. If I could be bothered to learn my own poems, I'd do the same, but I doubt it will ever happen. I read some poems from the book and some new ones. It all went well.

We then did a lunchtime reading with Josh Jones at Norwich in the back room of a bar, The Birdcage, dominated by a large mirrorball. The women’s toilets were at the back of the room and anyone with needs from the main bar had to walk right between the audience and performers to get there, which I presume was a terrifying experience for anyone who had to go. Two old ladies were sitting in the bar and Josh asked them if they wanted to come to the reading. “No, we don’t like poetry,” they said, although one of them did visit the toilet and may have had to suffer a line or two. Of course, the readings again went well, and again we sold books – thank you, kind people.

In London, we found this little South American carry-out place near The Wheatsheaf (the reading venue), where I had the best tortilla I have ever tasted in my life – chicken, avocado and other veg, and a fantastic sauce. All for a fiver, too, with freshly squeezed orange juice. Wish I could remember the name of the place, so that I could recommend it. At the reading Simon Barraclough was such a fine MC! I should have taken notes on how to MC a poetry reading properly. Great to meet Liane Strauss and hear her read mainly from her recent Salt book, Leaving Eden, and also a fab, fun poem “We’re all fine” from a new anthology called The Art of Wiring, which I presume is available from Simon (?).

I’ll have to leave the Keele reading for a separate post, as I’ve run out of time, but I do reflect on how easy it would be to turn into an alcoholic if you were doing this all the time, rushing from gig to gig, festival to festival. You’d either have to subsist on a nightly diet of orange juice and cola (which, I suppose, could be as unhealthy as excess alcohol in the long run), make a decision to return home immediately after each reading without talking to anyone beyond the usual thank yous, or else make a decision not to live for very long. However, a three-date tour over two days was a great experience, and I look forward to repeating it. I’d love to do a short tour of Ireland in 2012.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Why the Liberal Democrats Got a Drubbing at the Elections 2011

Nick Clegg, apparently, has said that the Lib Dems have been punished at the polls because they are bearing “the brunt of the blame” for the coalition spending cuts.

Nick, that’s bullshit. Let’s get this straight, OK. You are not being blamed directly for spending cuts. What voters have against you and your party is that you didn’t stand up for your principles. You broke promises and sold things you were supposed to hold dear down the river for a sniff at power.

Someone said to me that, at the British elections of 2010, the Lib Dems were stuck between a rock and a hard place. If they hadn’t gone into coalition with the Tories, people would have blamed them for the lack of a stable Government in a time of crisis. So they went in, hoping to get AV and maybe a few more concessions. They had lost seats, after all, and weren’t in a strong bargaining position.

Well, yes. But going into the coalition has lost them all respect, especially among members of their own party, most of whom are extremely hostile to Tory policies. That’s not easily recoverable either. If they had forced a new election by not offering stable coalition, they may have suffered a short-term backlash, inspired by the right-wing press. But people would have remembered their principled stand, and that goes a long way in politics these days. I guess they would have ended up stronger as a result. Not any more.

My feeling is that Clegg should resign from the Government along with all the other Lib Dem Cabinet members. It would be damage limitation, too little too late, but late is better than never. At least it would be better for them, as well as for the country...

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

The Scottish Election 2011: Edinburgh West

Has it really been a month since I last blogged? It would appear so. I really ought to say something about my reading tour south (for two days) with Andrew Philip, but that will have to wait until tomorrow, at least.

On Thursday, there are elections for the Scottish parliament. My constituency, Edinburgh West, is normally a safe Lib Dem seat, one in which no one would seriously expect an upset. But these are not ordinary times. I was surprised to get a letter posted by hand through my letterbox this morning – a handwritten envelope with my name on it. Inside was a letter from my Lib Dem MSP, Margaret Smith, asking for my vote.

The letter suggests that the key challenge in Edinburgh West comes from Labour. The Conservatives can’t win, she says, and many people are backing the Lib Dems to stop Labour from winning the seat. So the idea of the letter, it appears to me, is to persuade Conservative voters to vote Lib Dem to keep Labour out.

But wait a minute! The results of the last election tell a different story. The Lib Dems won with a handsome majority. But in second place were the SNP, not Labour! It seems obvious to me that the SNP are the main challengers in Edinburgh West and that this letter shows how desperate the Lib Dems are. They do face annihilation in Scotland, and many previous Lib Dems have switched to the SNP since the Lib Dems’ betrayal of voters in Westminster, entering into a coalition with the Conservatives.

So the tactic of the letter is to presume people aren’t going to check the result of the last election and will assume that the SNP aren’t in the picture for Edinburgh West. Conservatives reading the letter might vote Lib Dem to keep Labour out, and tactical voters might vote Labour if they are too lazy to have done their research.

The letter is a clever tactic, but... it doesn’t seem quite right to me. It seems to me like the kind of thing Nick Clegg would do, the kind of thing that’s going to see the Lib Dems wiped out in this election. I hope voters in Edinburgh West come to a similar conclusion.

***Edit: and indeed they have! The SNP have taken the seat from the Lib Dems. I must admit, even I am just a little surprised, but it goes to show - if you treat the electorate like idiots, as people who are too stupid to check the implications you make to them in a letter, they will treat you as you deserve.