Welshpool Poetry Festival

A gorgeous weekend at Welshpool, thanks to Pat Edwards, energetic ex-teacher and active poet who has gradually made their Poetry Festival a real delight. This year I went to two workshops, a reading and a discussion, which gave me a sustained taste of Liz Berry and Caroline Bird. It would be hard to imagine two more different people. Liz is tiny and quiet, rightly besotted.with her two young sons and the richness of the Black Country where she grew up. Caroline has had an interesting career - published her first collection at 15, drug addiction, rehab, marriage break-up…but what’s most remarkable about her is her natural talent for speaking in images. They just spill out, in this creative torrent about how hard poems are to write - but how important it is that we should try. The two two-hour workshops were totally different from each other in style, approach, atmosphere - but both hugely worthwhile. It’s such a privilege, that we amateurs get a close taste of how the professionals go about their work.

63 UP

And suddenly it’s gone. This wonderful feast of television, with us for an hour a night, over three spell-binding nights, and now we have to wait another seven years for it to come round again. It’s not fair. but we should be grateful, because there’s nothing quite like it.

You sympathise with the subjects, and the onrunning internal debate about “Can I really stand to do this again?” We might well refuse for ourselves, but we don’t want them to, because it’s just such a rivetting watch. The editing is stunning, taking you seamlessly back over these staging points of lives, so that we kids ourselves that we know these people, where in fact we’ve just had very brief glimpses.

But what glimpses. who’d have guessed that two Barnardo’s boys in adjacent beds would end up with warm links between their families, undertaking regular visits between here and Australia. Or that a plummy, superior young man with a posh accent would turn out to have a very soft spot for Bulgaria, and would put in hours of work to support people without his advantages? We age, they age, and it’s hugely comforting to do it together.

The original narrow "social class aspect has withered, rightly, but what stands out over time is the gender-based insensitivity of some of Apted’s earlier questioning. Rightly, some of the women challenge him on his nosiness about boyfriends, his assumption that family and children would be the limit of their horizons - but they know him well enough to do that, and he knows it’s good TV so it stays in. we’re all getting old, and some of them are dying off, but while it lasts we’re lucky to have it.

Years and Years

Tv drama is a bit like London buses - nothing for ages, and then suddenly there’s three at once. Just at the moment there’s series I really want to watch each time they come round, and it’s not often I say that. Gentleman Jack are both terrific in very different ways, but for me the pick is Years and Years. Russell T.Davies has always been really entertaining, rebellious and witty, but this is a huge departure. Political satire, for a start, spreading ambitiously into the future, building on what’s happening here and now and how it might develop - so hard to attempt that without seeming pretentious. and bits of it are scary without the whole thing just being depressing - because he loves his people, and has a weird, surefooted sense about how families work. the combination of characters and story lines might seem far too much for one show, but with this cast and this script it’s a pleasure to watch. I’ll miss it when it’s gone.

Johnson - or Farage?

Today, I had a moment of truth. There’ve been many times over the past three years when I’ve seen newspaper headlines about Brexit which depressed the daylights out of me. But today was different. Today Nigel Farage was assuring the Sunday papers that “You can’t trust Boris to deliver Brexit.”

Now there’s a thing. For years we’ve been hammered over the head with “the will of the people”, where 17 million sturdy Brits told the government what they wanted. Turns out it wasn’t as simple as that. The votes that matter are the ones that backed Farage. You can’t trust Jonson, so presumably the votes he got don’t really count. So how many of the Brexit votes actually count? How many Brexits are there, when we sit down and work it out?

It was a mess at the time. Farage was hammering immigration, Johnson and Gove pretended to be above such nastiness. But all the votes get lumbered together, because it’s really simple - IN or OUT. But it isn’t simple, as we’ve spent three years discovering. It’s a mirage, and calling the vote in the first place was always a mistake. Add on the foreign influence, the breaking of rules over spending money, use of data, deployment of staff, separation of campaigns…If we want this all to be over, we revoke article 50 and start again. Of course there’d be shouts of protest, but we get those all the time anyway, and nothing else offers anything like a way out. .

Steve Griffiths

not a household name. He’s a poet, currently living in Shropshire, who’s had a long and successful career, writing in London and in Wales before moving into this part of the world. I’ve known him a while, and was delighted to go to the launch of his latest collection this week. He’s been writing for forty years, has had seven previous collections, and this is very much a “greatest hits.” Hours of going through old poems, sometimes rewriting them, starting off with a massive pile which is then trimmed down to a snappy 230 pages (still huge for a poetry collection). It’s partly that he’s a really decent guy - relaxed, friendly and brutally honest about himself and the mistakes he’s made. But it’s also the range of the work - personal and political, serious and funny, natural observation and historical research. I loved the reading, bought the copy with no hesitation at all, and ever since have been steadily reading my way through it, a few pages at a time.

Abortion in Alabama

We sort of knew it was coming. As the Trump presidency gradually shifted from being a bad joke to a possibility to a definite fact, so we revisited all the things we thought were established and secure, and realised that now they were at risk. Roe v.Wade, the classic case whose name everybody knows, was the legal rock on which American women relied to know that when the possibility of abortion arose, the choice was theirs. Not any more. there’s a queue of states, lining up to show that they’re part of the transformation, encouraged by a Supreme Court whose composition has been brutally, maybe permanently, changed. With Brett Kavanaugh on board, it’s them who have a choice.

There’s always been a hysterical tone about this debate, because the odds are so high, but there’s something seriously unpleasant about this procession of men lining up to address the microphone, confident that their view reflects those of God, the Founding Fathers, and any other male authority figure you care to name. The consequence, of course, will not be queues of smiling babes claiming the life that their criminal mothers sought to deny them, but a massive growth in illegal abortions, pressure, mental illness and general misery. Will Trump really make all that much difference? Oh yes. Yes indeed.

Birmingham Primaries

So many depressing stories just at the moment, but one of the worst is the sustained protests outside primary schools in Birmingham. so, which side are you going to pick? Muslim parents angry that their wishes are being ignored, or teachers trying to deliver a positive programme of health education to which they are required to be committed? It’s a tough situation, but nobody can seriously believe that it’s in the interests of seven year olds to have chanting crowds and placards outside the school gates every day. There’s serious beliefs involved, but there’s also some very nasty manipulation, and teachers getting nothing like the support that they need. Having watched over the years, I can’t help feeling we’re paying the price for decades of politicians looking for the easy vote, encouraging parents - and religious parents in particular - to believe that they can have the schools which suit them and their beliefs, and the teachers are stroppy incompetents who will just have to get into line. Now, just when we need a strong defence of the status of professionals, the value of experts doing complicated work, nobody knows or cares why that matters.

European Drama

A week ago, I did a post about the glories of BT sport. How little I knew. whatever we saw last week was just the hors ‘d’oeuvres, a preamble to this week’s main course, although sadly I almost missed it all. Teusday I went to a poetry reading, organised by a friend, support a good cause…As I sadi to a fellow fan, if Liverpool had lost 1-0 last week, it woul’ld have been a harder decision. I thought they might score a few goals. I never dreamed they’d keep a cl;ean sheet. Messi? Suarez?

Wednesday night I was at home, so I could watch tottenham try to overtake Ajax. after 45 minutes it was embarrassing. Ajax held on to the ball, passed their way out of trouble, Spurs huffed and puffed, but couldn’t put anything together and never looked like threatening to reduce the lead. So I closed down the upstairs computer, and went down to be sociable, and watch a documentary about Brexit. (which was, as it happens, less than ordinary). Then I watch the ten o’clock news, and find out that Lucas Moura has scored a second half hat-trick. The European Cup final will be Liverpool v. Spurs.

Luckily, in these days of catch up, you never actually miss anything, and it’s easy to relive it, even if not the same as seeing it live - see last week. Two totally different games, different kiinds of triumph, and in both cases it was really close - Barcelon and Ajax both had chances to make the pressure even worse. But you have to hand it to them - for keeping going, for believing, for giving everything for the fans…Just amazing. and it’s quite possible to celebrate that without turning it into some kind of jingoistic faith that England rules the waves.

Line of Duty

Oh, the hype, the excitement, the viewing figures…Is Hastings H? Or is it one of the other five characters whose name also starts with H. Actually, I care very little. I’ve been a Jed Mercurio fan since Cardiac Arrest, and earlier episodes of this (remember Keeley Hawes?) have been rivetting. But I can’t summon up much enthusiasm for the current series, and I’m surprised by those who can. Lucy Mangan, airing some doubts in The Giuardian this week, actually started this series with a five star review, and I never thought it was that good.

What’s wrong? It’s partl;y that they’ve got obsessed with the whodunnit streak, the need to produce rabbits out of the hat at regular intervals. so the wonderful Anna Maxwell Martin is given a cardboardy kind of pushy promted officer, with two staff - one of whom shesack for incompetence, the other of whom turns out to be a hired killer working for the crooks. Yeah, police routine as usual.

But the real problem is the key player, and the perfunctory treatment of their personal lives. The possible tension between Kate and Steve (she got promoted. he didn’t - why?) isn’t explored, but we get very skimpy glances at their private lives. She’s having trouble in her marriage, he’s finding ti hard to have sex..but hey, let’s move back tot hew whodunnit and the latest twist. Back in the days of Keeley Hawes we explored this stuff properly. and then there’s Hastings. He’s made to lurk around in his office, looking sinister, to fuel the “is he H?” suspicion. But when he’s arrested he’s blustering like a fool. A senior officer would surely have more clue how this process works, and would be thinking hard about what’s actually going on. Yeah, it was great while it lasted, but maybe it’s gone on long enough.

BT Sport

God knows there have been times when I could happily have consigned the entire BT operation into a deep volcano - but not this week. This week I’ve watched, in full, Tottenham v. Ajax, Barcelona v. Liverpool, and Arsenal v. Valencia - and it’s been sheer joy. in the old days it would have been very condensed highlights on BBC or ITV, but now, in retirement leisure, I can squander the whole evening to watch the drama unfold in real time, and over these three particular matches that’s been a delight. That way, you can watch the drama of how teams and managers change what they’re doing - how Tottenham start as total no-hopers, utterly outclassed, and then - by tactical changes and sheer effort - make themselves competitive again. Arsenal, very similar, give away a crumby early goal and seem about to throw it all away, again, until somehow they don’t, and produce fast, stylish attacks which lead to goals and - eventually - an almost healthy result. And then there’s Barcelona. the electric surprise of that opening goal, a breakaway in a tough, tense opening which suddenly changes the whole picture. and massive effort from Liverpool;, fighting their way back into contention, before lucky bounces and ricochets give Barcelona a second, and then - the magic of Messi - an unbelievable third. there is no justice. 3-0 as a scoreline for this game is scandalous. But you have to watch it in full to really grasp that truth. so, despite the adverts and the endless self-congratulatory promotion, thank you, BT sport.

Ukraine Comic tops the poll

Ok, so the US has a game show ghost; why shouldn’t Ukraine have a comedian? It’s really hard to know how to take this news, and it’s not made more hopeful by the fact that this young guy, superficially entertaining and ttractive, is dependent on the backing of a serious oligarch. “I promise I won’t mess it up” he says, as though good intentions were all that’s required. does he have any notion of what he’s taking on, and of how much is currently threatening Ukraine?

But it could be worse. He’s not a Putin puppet, that’s for sure. Putin didn’t congratulate him on his election, and he did go out of his way to stress that his victory showed other ex-Russian federation states that anything was possible. I don’t suppose that went down well in Moscow. And however much you disapprove of the razz-ma-tazz and jokey superficiality of the atmosphere, at least there’s an unpredictable spontaneity about proceedings which will look very strange - and maybe quite appealing - to any Russians who get to follow what’s happening. No, it’s not a happy ending, and yes, he could well get pushed around, but it’s not just Russian business as usual, and the Ukrainians deserve something chirpy to boost their spirits. It’s not as though the West have given them much to cheer about over the last five years.

"They're all out for themselves..."

It’s so dangerous, this cynicism about politicians. When you see it in its extreme form, with Putin or Trump, you know you have to resist that black indulgence, of sinking into dismissing the whole tribe, because that is exactly what those bastards want.

On the other hand, the long-running Brexit fiasco doesn’t offer much ground for hope. Having followed the twists and turns every night for months, it was a cleansing break to be away in Portugal for ten days, reading no papers, watching no TV news, and coming back on April 12 to find that no, the April 10 deadline didn’t still apply, and we had another extension. But the chances of either the Tory party or the Labour party coming out of this with anything like an answer seem very remote, and I don’t share Jeremy Corbyn’s blind faith that an election will be the solution. Given the poisonous atmosphere, and the ludicrous first-past-the-post system, I don’t see why we should end up with anything more hopeful than we;ve got. I really do want to believe that somebody up there knows what they’re doing, but God, they make it hard.

Dorothea Tanning

Having spent months cooped up at home, not waslking far, not venturing out, suddenly we have a ten day holiday in Portugal, and then two days later a two-day raid on London. We’ve always done these, but as the joints stiffen so the itineraries get a little less ambitious - more time sitting in cafes, fewer galleries attempted. And I make it part of the routine that I grab one of their collapsible stools before I start. It makes a huge different to my gallery stamina if I know that at any point I can find a small space, plonk down the stool, and just sit for a minute or two. That way, it’s still varied and interesting enough to make it worthwhile.

Two of the main attractions this time were both at Tate Britain - Van Gogh in England, and the monster Don McCullin show. But in a way the big bonus was the unexpected - Dorothea Tanning at Tate Britain. Had never heard of her, only went on the strength of two rave reviews, but they were entirely justified. american woman who got involved with the Surrealists, married Max Ernst, and then weirdly fell under the radar (not through any fault of Ernst, or the gang, who clearly rated her). She interesting, lively witty, but also prolific and varied - as you go from room to room, charting changes in subject matter and style, it’s an unfolding revelation of talent on the move. Yet another instance of wanting to buy the book, so as to hang on to this excitement, and follow it through properly, rather than leaving it behind on the busy trail of exciting discoveries which quickly become forgotten. So here I am, facing another expensive book, but not sorry at all. I know I’m going to enjoy going back through this, and I’m grateful to have had the chance.

Sonnets in Portugal

There’s a large-sized gap in my blog this month, since I went off on holiday. And for me holidaty is holiday - no emails, no nternet. It’s veryrestful - and a total joy to be missing out on Brexit - but there’s catching up to do when I come home. Portugal was gorgeous, for all kinds of reasons, but I wasn’t expecting the sonnet bit. I should have done, I suppose. When Elizabeth Barrett Browning announces her poems as “Sonnets from the Portuguese” she’s lying (they have no connection with any poems from that country) but nicely. Portugal does have a close link with sonnets. Camoes was writing them, and well, long before Shakespeare, and I bought a collection of “Five Lisbon Poets” four of whom were seriously involved in writing sonnets. So a good chucnk of my holiday was reading the English versions of their poems (parallel text, natch) and then writing sonnets about various doomed young intellectuals who wrote sonnets but were only appreciated after their death - Cesario Verde, for instance, who turned out to be a special favourite of our Portuguese guide. So I come back tanned and overweight - which was part of the plan - but also wiser.

In Praise of Referees

Ever since my knees got worse and I stopped venturing out of the house to go for a walk, I’ve watched a lot more sport. Soon after my double knee replacement I signed up to BT sport, and have never regretted it. I get the European football, regular premiership rugby, and this weekend the quarter-finals of the rugby European Cup. and look, the nice kind people at BT sport arrange the matches so that they don’t clash - if I want to, and this weekend I do, I can sit and watch all four. They’ve been rivetting, but with true dramatic skill they made sure that they saved the best for last. Toulouse had their fly-half sent off for a high tackle after twenty minutes, but still hung on to beat Racing 92 by a single point, after some breathtaking rugby and thousands of twists and turns which might easily have gone the other way.

and at the heart of all this was Luke Pearce, who likes like a well-behaved sixth former, but is consistently clear, appolite and apparently lacking in ego - he just wants to get the decisions right. and he does. He makes good use of the TMO, he isn’t stampeded into rash decisions which might please a volatile and partisan crowd, and in the opinion of people who know (Brian O’Driscoll, Lawrence Dallaglio) he gets them all right. He talks to his touch judges in English, but to the French plays in French, and all in all is just a brilliant example of how to be English abroad. Politicians please note.

The Cleaners

Not sure if there’s anything on TV? Just go to BBC iplayer, look up Storyville, and then watch anything they’ve got. I’ve seen some wonderful stuff on there over the last year, and really can’t remember watching anything of theirs that I regretted. This was deeply topical - a look at The Cleaners, the people who police social media, to decide which posts and images should stay up, and which should be taken down. Not exactly ideal working conditions. They sit in a booth, flicking through images, saying “ignore…ignore…delete….ignore…delete…” with a target of 25,000 images a day. some of them have high ideals, about the need for the work they do and the social service they’re performing, but over the course of the documentary it’s very clear that there’s a huge cost - just watching this stuff - the pornography, the violent images of terrorism - is really depressing, quite apart from the pressure of having to make thousands of decisions against the clock. and these are not relaxed intellectuals sitting in California laying down the rules. They’re shift workers in Manila; if they weren’t doing this they’d be sifting rubbish from the piles of garbage that litter the outskirts of town, and the documentary makes clear that these alternative occupations are nothing like as different as we might like to think. not pleasant, not simple, but necessary viewing.

Unsheltered

We turn to books to try to make sense of the world, and that’s even more true when the world seems not only to be losing its sense but determined to put them on a bonfire. So it’s with anticipation that i’ve collected Unsheltered, by Barbara Kingsolver, from the local library (what a lovely system that is. I read a review, put in a request online, get an e-mail from the local library, and have three weeks in which to read an expensive hardback I don’t want to buy. Enjoy it while you can, folks).

So, it’s a fascinating read, moving between two periods of time, witha ll sorts of little ripples and shivers which related to Trump’s America, but don’t go overboard. There are times when it verges on the preachy, but she’s a serious, constructive writer, and she really makes you think. Makes herself thick, too, with a running,heated dialogue between the central character and her daughter - in which a sensitive, concerned liberal is forced to confront ways in which her assumptions and value system may be entirely out of date. Not comfortable, but necessary stuff.

Six Nations climax

Oh, biy. ever since going out for a walk has stopped being an option, I’ve settled for watching most of the Six Nations matches - while they’re still available to mainstream TV. Saturday, March 16 was the best day’s rugby-watching I can rmember for a while. Plucky dogged Italy, with thwe wonderful Parisse playing his heart out as ever, deserving a win at last but not getting it - with a bright young three quarter grinning widely as he dioves over for the winning try - but fails to touch it down. Wales grinding out their fourth win, rarely entertaining but incredibly difficult to beat, and in the process deflating an Irish side which last year looked invincible. Is that really Johnny Sexton looking hopelessly outclassed?

And then there’s England. for forty minutes they look far and away the best side in Europe, with Sotland embarrasing also-rans. Half time. Switch round. Both switch round. Scotland are fast, brave, incisive. England are lumbering, blundering, incompetent. 31 - 00 to 31-31, to 31-38 to Scotland. Finally, jones realises that Farrell is not the answer but the problem, and George Ford comes on to rescue us, but it’s mighty close. and the imperious Elliott Daly, irresistible in attack,is almost useful in defence. so many fascinating little cmaeos, and future decisions to be made, because beyond this introcate, complex drama lies the fascination of the World Cup…Bring it on. I can hardly wait.

Leaving Neverland

Four hours of documentary about a celebrity paedophile - what’s not to like? Actually, it’s brilliant. the two central guys (both victims of Michael Jackson as young boys) are rivetting - thoughtful, honest, fair. They pay tribute to Jackson’s talent, enthusiasm encouragement of their talent, and to the good sides of what in some ways they still see as an intimate, loving relationship. But as the documentary unfolds we also got the views of their mothers, partners and relatives, and the devious way in which Jackson seduced whole families, and then used that as a lever to bully his victimes into isolation and submission. Even after the boys have become young men, and Jackson’s moved on to younger boys, he exploits the link - there’s a court case, he’s being accused, they need to testify that yhis relationship with them was innocent…And then there’s the toll on their mental health, of living with a lie, of repeatedly telling thier families that nothing happened (because if they don’t, Jackson has warned them, they’ll all go to prison for the rest of their lives).

Predictably, the Jackson machine has moved in to slander these two, to suggest that they lied before, and they’re lying now, because they want to make a bit of extra cash…I defy anyone to watch this balanced, thoughtul, detailed film and say “Yeah, they’re making it all up.”

Man U Miracle

I’m not a fan of Manchester United. Their slogan “We’re not arrogant. Just better” is a neat summary of why they’re hard to love, but just now and again they blow your mind. I remember performing a poem about their last-minute European cup win back in the late nineties, and then last night they did it again.

They’re playing PSG, who deservedly beat them 2-0 at home in the first leg. Journalists handily provide the evidence that this has happened on 106 occasions, without the losing team ever overcoming that disadvantage. So Man U, of course, go and do it. They don’t have much possession, they don’t play good football or produce creative moves, but they do win.

and you can see the solskjaer brain, actually at work. Start off with two strikers, pressing defenders, pressuring them into mistakes - and getting two goals as a result. Then sit back and defend that, 5-4-1 with very little positive going on. Last ten minutes, all out attack, throw on a third striker, and some squeak a highly dubious penalty out of VAR. It’s genius.