Ever since I retired from teaching I’ve been less and less keen to read about education. Government initiatives, cuts in funding, the failure to support young teachers - it always seems to be bad news. But here’s a book which changes all that, and is full of insight, commitment and imagination. I went to a workshop Kate Clanchy ran in Birmingham twenty years ago, and was really impressed. I’ve bought her three poetry collections since then, and read her novel. i had heard about her work at Oxford Spires Academy, where she’d helped teenagers from all sorts of backgrounds, none of them posh, write fabulous poems and win competitions. so now here’s her book about poetry, teaching poetry, teaching kids, being a parent choosing a school…everything you might ever have wondered about to do with education. It’s called “Some kids I taught, and what they taught me” and it’s the most inspiring book I’ve read this year. Get it from the library, give it to teacher friends for Christmas, donate a copy to your local school - it needs to be in as many hands as possible, as soon as possible - just wonderful.
time was, people complained that Tv was dominated by men - producers, writers, actors, and so it was. But some things change for the better, and channel 4s “I am…” series is really good news. It’s a gorgeous idea, for a start. Male writer gets together with female actor and says “what do you care about?” They talk, and work out an idea for a one-hour drama, which he then writes and she stars in. Given that the three actors are Vicki McClure, Samantha Morton and Gemma Chan, the results are very much worth watching. They’re very different, and some better than others (I thought Gemma Chan’s was terrific) but streets ahead of your average TV drama fodder. At a time when there really isn’t that much being transmitted that I want to watch, this has been a godsend. Catch them on All 4 while you can - “I am Nicola…Kirsty…Hannah.”
So I read this rave review of Hermione Lee’s biography of Penelope Fitzgerald and thought, “Yeah, give it a try.” That’s 75p’s worth of try, which is what it costs me to order a copy from the library. the library, amazingly, continues to function, even if the budgets, staffing and footprint are all down. to me, it’s one of the wonders of the world, but God knows if it will last.
So, it’s along book, and i’m not sure, even know, how much I like Penelope Fitzgerald, or rate her as an author, but the biography is a thing of beauty - careful, detailed, sensitive. Fitzgerald’s a difficult, prickly character, and there must have been times when it was hard to be fair to her, but I worked my way steadily though, reading a chunk a day before breakfast, just luxuriating in the pleasures of intelligent, quality writing.
This encouraged me to seek out The Blue Flower, supposedly Fitzgeral’s masterpiece, from a local second-hand bookshop. I read it, with some enjoyment, but not much enthusiasm, and i’m not sure I’m converted. But the quality of the biography is utterly beyond doubt.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.