I do like the poetry world. Tonight I launched my fifth topical pamphlet in six years. This one’s #MenToo: myths of masculinity - following previous collections on austerity, the war on terror, migration and “Trump, Brexit and Beyond.” Yeah, that’s right. The easy, fluffy stuff. It’s a kind of mix between poetry and journalism, and for a lot of serious poets its treads dangerous near the territory of propaganda - but that doesn’t stop poetic colleagues coming out to support the event. So I hire the local village hall, put on drinks and snacks, and we have a very pleasant hour - read a few poems, chat about reactions and thought, eat and drink a bit more, and then go home. People came from all over Shropshire and beyond - Tenbury, Stone. I sold a few copies, but also spent a bit on hire charge, food and drink, so maybe i broke even and maybe I didn’t, but that’s not the point. It’s created a forum for the work, and a chance to think more thoroughly about the themes involed - I’m so glad I did it, and i’m really lucky with my friends. ,
I’ve already gone on about Milkman, the wonderful, very different Booker prize-winner. But I’ve also been nibbling at the rest of the list, and there’s some wonderfull stuff there. I’m already a fan of Robin robertson’s poems, but The Long Take really is an original departure - poetry, prose, cross-cutting and collage of different types of writing, viewpoints, memories…Deamnds all your concentration, but utterly worth it.
And then there’s Sabrina. shock, horror - a graphic novel listed by the Booker. But this isn’t just any graphic novel. It’s a touch, powerful exploration of th nastier aspects of modern america - the online trolling, the rampant cynicism about motives and easy resort to threats. It’s not much fun, and the lives of the people it describes are limited and grim, but ti certainly stays with you. and it’s very hard to imagine it being done in any other way.
All through 2018 friends kept telling me about a competition (deadline December 31) asking for poems about Brexit - just your sort of thing, they said. And they’re right, of course, except that entry was free, but each entrant was only allowed to submit one poem, so it’s likely to be a very popular lottery. I knew early on which poem I’d be sending it - a lively account of the journey of the big red Brexit bus. I had a version of this from the summer, but it kept changing to take account of the disastrous nature of the negotiations, and the increasing sense that the bus was heading over the cliff.
So, how to end the poem? Often when i performed it around the circuit I ended up with total gloom, and a sharp defiant question:
“ It’s hell on wheels, it’s rock and roll
So tell me - who took back control?”
It’s a tough, angry conclusion, very much of the moment, but for a published anthology that might sound bleak and cynical - and it might also not be accurate about the story that was unfolding. In November there were rumours of MPs getting together across party lines, to try to rule out both a hard Brexit and the prospect of no deal. Grieve’s amendment was passed, and I scribbled my jaunty conclusion, in which the MPs at the back of the bus eat chips and raise two fingers to the whips, because they have finally taken back control. Then I sent off the poem and waited.
The news got grimmer and grimmer. May delayed a vote she knew she would lose. Detailed preparations for no deal were put in place. Grayling dispatched lorries around the south-east, as a rehearsal for the chaos to come. Maybe I was kidding myself. But then, today, news that the rumours are true. A cross-party group, led again by Dominic Grieve, has put together a motion refusing financial support for no-deal preparations, and the speaker has allowed this amendment to be put, and a majority of MPs have voted it through. Maybe somewhere a poetry judge is looking at my poem, wondering “How on earth did he know this would happen?” We can but hope.
A two-hour drama on Channel 4 by James Graham about Brexit; what’s not to like? Plenty, apparently, judging by the storm of adverse reactions with which the papers are heaving. Anne Perkinds thinks it glorifies an oddball when what was happening was deceit, Shahmir Sanni thinks it simplifies the nature of the crooked deals and social media shanigins. Carole Cadwallader thinks it’s too soon…When would be a good time? What this play does do is convey the huge complexity of this chaotic process - the personalities and the politics, the social media and the social pressures, the sheer lack of control or direction which gave us our current mess in all its glory. No, it doesn’t neatly confirm the prejudices of those watching it, and it would be useless as drama if it did. What it does do is offer a lively, entertaining overview, a way of making sense out of what’s volatile and complicated. I’ve read the books Graham has read- Shipman, Oliver, Banks - and I’m astonished by how much real detail he’s been able to weave into this fast-moving and thought-provoking piece. Well worth watching, and well worth watching again.
Having clocked up my seventy fourth birthday, there are odd moments when I try to think ahead, and now the Christmas sillliness is over I actually get some help from the TV. Two portraits of eighty-year olds in action, and they couldn’t be more different. Raymond Briggs is a bit doddery, eccentric and slow, lovable but very much imprisoned in memories of his own childhood. but it’s good to be reminded, in sequence, of his varied creations - Father Christmas, Fungus, Snowman, Falklands, When the Wind blows - and he’s got a chorus of approving fans to die for - Steve Bell, Nick Park, Posy Simmonds.
And then there’s Andrew Davies. Totally irrepressible, confident and - having polished off Les Miserables (with some cheeky irreverence about the musical - which I also hate) he now can’t wait to get his teeth into A suitable boy - just a thousand pages or so of intricate Indian novel. He’s clever and sharp rather than profound, and he too has a chorus of praise, but for him as an adaptor rather than an original creator - he’s quick, ruthless, gets rids of the stuff you don’t need. But still an impressive work ethic, which it’s tiring to watch, let alone emulate.
Just got an offer I’ve had to refuse, and it breaks my heart. There’s a protest in Wiolverhampton on Tuesday night, against the trial of the Stansted Fifteen, and they’re asking for interested poets. Yes, a poet of sorts. Yes, very interested - but sadly committed elsewhere. But I have sent them a poem, because this is a cause very close to my heart.
Migrants being forcibly deported, dragged on a plan and dumped in various parts of Africa. Some of them have been trafficked, some of them have appeals pending, but none of that makes any difference to the specialists in Hostile Environment. So I’m delighted that protestors have immobilised this plane - specially chartered by the Home Office, and prevented the removal of these people. They’re tried under an anti-terrorist law, passed in response to Lockerbie - some time back. In the interim, the only person charged u nder it was the pilot of a helicopter who tried to crash it into a control tower. On the spectrum of serious risk, this protest falls a long way short of that, but the powers that be are going out of their way to ensure that these naughty children are to be taught a lesson. And the judge clearly got the message, instructing the jury to ignore any stuff about human rights, and just focus on whether or not they affected the business of the airport.
So there’s two big things to be noisy about here - the forced deportations, and the right to protest. I shan’t be there on Tuesday, but I’ll be cheering them on.. And you can find th poem I sent them elsewhere on this website, in Poems from the News.
OK, it may not be the end, but it could well be the beginning of the end. Theresa May’s beloved Chequers deal, enthusiastically supported by hardly anyone in the UK, is no more attractive to anyone in the EU. They’ve been constructive and polite, but they are finally deciding that time is short and the UK government needs to face reality. Ministers, meanwhile, are chasing around like eager school boys, trying to do solo deals behind the EU’s back - such a cunning plan, that. It has been a total embarrassment, and it’s not surprising that Labour have been happy to stand back and let them make very public fools of themselves, but we really are getting closer and closer to some kind of crash. As I indicate in my current poem, The Brexit Bus (see Poems from the News, elsewhere on this website), where for once I find a suitable central image to convey what I want to get across. It’s not cheering, but it is convenient.
I always have a number of library books on the go, and of course I enjoy some more than others. Yesterday I went into Telford, and saw on their new books shelf "Normal People" by Sally Rooney. I'd reserved it already from the Wenlock library, but hey, why wait if you don't have to.
I had a nighttime novel I was in the middle on - William Boyd's "Sweet Caress". It's decent, readable, interesting - covering a huge watche of history, with a neat use of photogrphs running through the book - the central character is a photographer. But it's a man pretending to write as a woman without total conviction, and it feels a bit pedestrian.
Finding myself awake in the middle of the night, I pottered downstairs and gave myself a treat - started "Normal People." Oh, wow. The electricity of reading a writer who really knows what she's doing. The reviews all raved about this, and they're not wrong. Utterly convincing, compulsive reading - this is the real stuff. It'll break my heart when I finish it, but it's not going to take me long.
No, not a title that leaps into your mind. I only found it by chance, in the obituary columns, where they were paying tribute to the painstaking work of its author, Karen Dawisha. An Ohio professor of political philosophy, she's mad it her job to track the roots and history of Putin's rise to power. the results are devastating. Not brilliantly readable, to be honest, and certainly not lively, but careful and detailed. she makes a convincing case that Putin has always been about his own power and aggrandisement - and that early on he was very much at risk of prosecution, until he got to the point where he could use his power to make that decreasingly likely. the concern for Russia's status and dignity is all carefully calculated, as is the promotion of friends and former colleagues into a network designed to secure control and wealth in their hands. It's very hard to see how this might change. Four hundred and forty pages, endless notes and footnotes, a monumanet to courage, intelligence and hard work.
It's been a busy month for poetry performances, with two open-air gigs in the last fortnight, and a third today, at the Tenbury Music Festival. This looked like a bit of a gamble, with spoken word performance (and that means light, accessible performance) trying to nose its way into a programme dominated by music. Fine in principle, but what if the main stage is occupied by an amplified band, at the same time as the minor tent across the same field features a would be poet? Yup, they mainly get drowned out, which is what happened a lot of the time. but we had a loyal huddle of listeners - get close enough, and you do get to hear what's going on - who seemed to enjoy the poems and/or admire our persistence. As I'm reading my Gareth Southgate poem, I can see this guy down below, nodding and smiling. He turns out to be the compere of the whole event. "Great poem", he says afterwards, "but it's wasted here." Thanks a bunch, I think, but it wasn't me that scheduled it. but he goes on. "Would you do it on the main stage?" So twenty minutes later i'm tottering up the steps to the main stage, waiting for an enthusiastic gang of local rockers to complete their explosive finale, so that I can deliver my Southgate eulogy to the assembled masses. Not sure if it's exactly what they were waiting for, but I enjoyed it.
As Hannibal Smith used to say on "The A Team" (a kids' Tv programme, way back), "I love it when a plan comes together." Back in January, Katherine Swift and I started to plan a programme of poetry and music, to be performed in her garden, celebrating the summer solstice. It was to mark the nine hundredth anniversary of Morville Church, and featured the harpist David Watkins - who I'sd guess is a friend of hers, but also very eminent and skilful. I was coordinating the poems, arranged in four seasonal sections, with the help of five other members of Border Poets. That's a lot of work, collating choices, typing out copies, producing scripts and making arrangements, but I quite like that stuff - as well as hating it when the proper precautions haven't been taken. This time it worked perfectly, with the bonus of good summer weather. We didn't get paid, but we did get a marvellous free lunch, set on tables in a small garden, with robins flitting by to help themselves from whichever bits of the feast they fancied. Very definitely a good day.
Oh boy. I've always been a fan of the playwright Abi Morgan - loved Sex Trafficking, though less keen on The Hour (which pinched its central situation from the film Broadcast News, without sustaining its power). But The Split is a real treat. A bit glossy, sure, and unashamedly feminist - big family drama, with Mum and three daughters, right? But it's so intelligent, and the fact that they're almost all divorce lawyers gives the scope for all kinds of exploration into middle-aged marriage/fidelity/honesty/cowardice/boredom. Beautifully done and acted, with tonight's climax a dinner party scene where lone rebel Nina decides this is the right moment to tall the rest of the family where they're going wrong - in detail,. and one at a time. They can all see it coming, knows she's had too much to drink, try to talk her out of it - but no. She wants this scene, so here it comes. Just wonderful.
Two years ago, I had an amazing three days as poet in Residence at the Wenlock Poetry Festival. There hasn't been one since, and a lot of us have missed it, so this year's one-day event was very definitely the next best thing. As usual, the WPF inspires small numbers of saints into huge amounts of work to contrive memorable events. Liz Lefroy has always been the presiding spirit of the busk, intelligent, witty and welcoming, tactfully steering huge numbers of performers through a series of five minute slots. This one went on for three hours, had little tastes of music in between, and featured a mouth-watering succession of performers, all of whom kept to time. Just amazing. Plus, it was at Priory Hall, next to the Church Green, with all doors open on a gorgeous summer afternoon. Carol Ann Duffy's gorgeous, corny line about "Wenlock is the perfect place for poetry" has never been more true.
Just at the moment, waking up in the morning is a supreme pleasure. I get up, go downstairs, make a cup of tea, and settle back into Zadie Smith's latest collection of prose pieces - "Feel Free." It doesn't matter what she's writing about - dancing, hip hop, movies, book reviews, her own novels. Whatever the subject matter, the approach is lively, intelligent and honest, down to earth but never stupid, and often hilarious. She feels and sounds like a warm human being, but there's always something to set you thinking, a fresh insight that hadn't occurred to you before she actually put it into words. This book isn't going to last for ever, but I'm going to miss it when I actually get to the end.
Sir Martin Donnelly, once Liam Fox's chief civil servant, has described leaving the EU as "like swapping a three-course meal for crisps." Fox is not impressed, dismissing Donnelly for sticking to the patterns of the past. and what does the future look like, in Fox's view? "Confidence, optimism and vision will always deliver more than pessimism or self-doubt." Whether or not that's true, Fox would have benefitted from attending an Arvon writing course, which would have taught him that a snappy concerete image will always beat a string of abstract nouns.
A few weeks back, I was raving about the dramatic increase in the quality of TV drama. Oh dear. One by one, they disappoint me, settle for the easy cops and robbers route, simplify the issues, let characters lose all consistency and the plot lose plausibility - so long as it makes a good Tv moment. Cos we're peasants, and we'll settle for anything, right?
The saddest betray of all was Kiri, which in moments was a stunning look at what social workers do and what they have to put up with. But the denouement was all over the place. (SPOILER ALERT: if you haven't watched it but plan to, look away here.)
Kiri has been illegally taken off by her biological father, from whom she then got separated, and killed by persons unknown. In the last episode, it turns out she was killed by her adopted dad, who couldn't bear that she was going off with her biological dad after all they'd done for her. Only snag is, biological dad knows nothing about this. He told the police that he and his daughter got separated, and he was looking for her all over. If they'd agreed to go off together, surely he'd be sitting outside her house, engine running, waiting for her to skip into the car.
If I pick this up on one viewing, surely they could afford to have somebody (unpaid amateur playwright like me, for instance) to go through the script looking for implausibilities, before they spend thousands on spurious political demonstrations that they don't need?
Oh dear. i'm not sure if I ever finished series 4 of House of Cards, but since there's a whole virgin series 5 maybe I should go back to check, except that now we have the Spacey stories, and maybe that changes everything. It certainly doesn't help when he and Underwood and Clare are having a tense discussion and he says "We can't afford to be weird with each other."
But it's not just that. The manipulation, the ceaseless exploitation of others, the fits of simulated rage - it's all got very mechanical. The imminent defeat which will magically be transformed into a last-minute victory. As they go through the motions but I feel I've seen it all before. Maybe this has just gone on long enough, and the Spacey scandal is a twisted kind of favour in disguise. The early days, when Zoe Barnes was around, are a lively, tense memory, but maybe that is as good as it was ever going to get.
I read one of Satnam Sanghera's memoirs, and heard him speak at a conference in Durham. I think he's a really sharp, intelligent writers, and he's interestingly different in arguing for the benefit of having a day job. Unlike almost any other writer you're heard of, he actually doesn't want everything in his life to be dependent on his writing.
So I was looking forward to the TV drama based on his account of his estrangement from his Sikh background, in parallel with his belated discovery that both his father and sister were suffering from depression. That would have been quite enough, because he explores that development with tough honesty, ready to acknowledge the ways in which he's been selfish and blind.
But of course that isn't enough. We couldn't end up with grim truths and hard-won wisdom. We have to have the cute romantic finish, the phone-call from Wolverhampton station with the girlfriend who's - look! just behind him - and happy-ever-after before the credits can roll. Richard Curtis has a lot to answer for.
Poet A wins an Exmoor poetry competition - until someone points out that his poem is very similar to one by poet B. He tries to explain. "I was working on a poem about my childhood experiences in Exmoor and was careless. I used poet B's poem as a model for my own but rushed and ended up submitting a draft that wasn't entirely my own work."
Fair enough, you might think. Strange types these poets, at the mercy of the sub-conscious, never knowing whether or not the gold they're producing is their own, or an echo of someone else. But then you look at the facts. Both poems have 18 lines. 16 of those lines are identical. The two that have been changed - very much for the worse - allowed poet A to slip in an Exmoor reference which wasn't in poet B's. Otherwise, it's ninety per cent theft.
A triolet (variously pronounced triolette, or triolay, according to taste) is an eight-line form, where one line is repeated once, and another repeated twice. so that's five of the eight taken care of, as soon as you've written two lines. Not a lot of room for manoeuvre. At Ledbury on Sunday an American poet, A.E.Stallings was running a two-workshop on this eight-line verse form. Well, I thought, that’s got to be either rubbish or brilliant. It was brilliant. Totally riveting. For 45 minutes she took us through a range of examples – Wendy Cope has a great one about poets being Byronic – offering little gems of insight, poems memorised off by heart, and occasional shafts of dry wit – “villanelles are generally much more fun to write than they are to read.” And then we had 15 minutes in which to write our own. and then she worked around the group, us reading our poems, her commenting on rhythm, punctuation, rhymes – and possible other rhymes. I’ve never heard another poet so hooked on the beauty and variety of rhymes - sheer heaven. This is one of the few verse forms I've never attempted - just didn't think it was worth it. but on Sunday I managed three in a a day, and they won't be the last.