As Icebergs Keep Calving in the Barents Sea

We finally won the pub quiz at our local the other week. Two and a half years of trying, losing on a tie breaker twice and second place on so many other occasions, often by 1 point. Sometimes less. It was a moment of relief, a time for celebration.

And also a time for disbelief. Each week there is a news round. I have stopped watching the news. Picking up snippets here and there. The rest of the team were great, luckily. I’m still surprised we got so many right. I can’t cope with the news anymore. I won’t watch it. I turn off the radio or walk into another room.

At a time when we need real leaders the country is run by a bunch of utterly useless arseholes. From Brexit through Covid to Climate Change each crisis is an opportunity for someone to make obscene amounts of money, abetted by their friends in the media and the Houses of Parliament. The UK is in a mess. But who do the papers blame? Migrants. The feckless poor. The EU. The Labour Party from 11 years ago (to be fair they had a big part to play in setting up the conditions that led to the Middle East migrant crisis).

Yada yada yada. You know how it is. And how it grinds on. I can’t bear it anymore. And meanwhile we have incessant articles about a Llama, or cats being rescued from Afghanistan, or whatever reality show is flavour of the moment. Plus the Express wittering on about how Boris is trying so hard and is doing his best and has got another great idea and look at that Brexit bonus (these particular headlines seem to have dried up).

There’s a scene in Armageddon, that ridiculous Bruce Willis movie where they send drillers up to space to blow up a comet headed for earth, where an investigative journalist realises that the politician she is trailing isn’t running away from scandal but leaving to spend the last few weeks he has left to be with his family. Where she realises that Ellie is really ELE (sorry for the plot spoiler if you haven’t watched it).

I think of this scene pretty much every day now. The disgraced politician who is actually doing something decent as he knows what is coming and is doing what really matters. Some of the poems in my first collection, Landings, touch on a similar theme, like this one;

Taking Tea with Erwin 

I’m in the kitchen, 
making a cup of tea 
as the kids are fighting over the remote control.

The airwaves are swamped 
with the lives of near-celebrities, 
as icebergs are calving in the Barents Sea. 

Nobody is watching,
no-one is listening,
and I think of Schrodinger in ’35 

and the kids are laughing, 
and playing on the Wii, 
as icebergs keep calving in the Barents Sea.

Sometimes I feel like I am the cat, 
sometimes the vial, 
and sometimes the whole experiment; 

and I want to say, 
I want to say to them,
I just don’t know what to say, 

as icebergs keep calving in the Barents Sea.

I am so tired. Some days I feel as if I am on the Titanic (hence this particular photograph, which is apparently of the berg that sunk the unsinkable ship). Is it a recurrence of my previous bout of depression? I don’t think so. But it has affected my writing. It’s very dark at the moment. There doesn’t seem much room for light. Or for blogging for that matter, hence the silence here over the last few weeks.

But the light does get in. Somehow. It always gets in eventually. On Twitter I follow someone who asks people to share and vote on their favourite albums from a particular year. This fortnight it is 1996.

1996 was the year that the Manic Street Preachers released Everything Must Go, their fourth album, and the first following the disappearance of lyricist Richie Edwards. One of the tracks, The Girl Who Wanted To Be God is inspired by something said by Sylvia Plath. The biggest hit A Design for Life was the first song recorded and released by the band after Edwards vanished.

It’s a triumphant piece of music. The song was credited with having “rescued the band” from the despair felt after the disappearance of Edwards, with lead singer and songwriter Nicky Wire describing it as “a bolt of light from a severely dark place”.

It’s also the song that was playing on my in car CD player as I drove to the hospital to be at the birth of my first daughter. Listening to it again this week was a real reminder, that no matter how difficult the situation, there are things worth fighting for, and there is still time, there is still a chance to make a difference, with or without the fools who purport to lead us.

So I guess we’ve all got to do what we can. To work out what we can do that can make a difference. We’re not quite done yet.

What Do You Listen to When you Write?

I nearly always write to music. Quite often I’ll listen to the same track on loop whilst writing. Plenty of other writers I know don’t do this, preferring to work in silence.

But I struggle to write without having music on in the background.

The music doesn’t have to be related to the subject matter. Song for Zula by Phosphorescent is clearly a song about broken love, about something that wasn’t as it seemed, but I spent many hours listening to it whilst writing a poem about a pigeon! Not just any pigeon, mind you. This one;

Martha, the last living Passenger Pigeon, photographed in 1912

Tonally the song fitted the wistful melancholy of the poem itself (I’ll not share it here yet as it’s in a submission pile somewhere). Hopefully you’ll see Poem for Martha in print or online sometime soon. It almost got published in Butcher’s Dog magazine, so I think it has some merit. I’m just trying to find the right place for it. I digress.

You can hear Song for Zula here;

I usually write to music that doesn’t have any strong connection with a personal memory. As someone who is always looking out for and listening to new music, (when I say new, I mean new to me), this may not necessarily be significant, but I do think that too much familiarity, particularly if that familiarity is associated with a particular time of my life, would influence the creative process too much.

Looking back to my late teens and early twenties I used to listen to Talk Talk on repeat. This may have been a factor in my creating a whole folder of dire heart-on-my sleeve lost love poems that I threw away as they were so bad.

As it happens I was clueless then as to the real meanings of some of these songs – Such a Shame for example is actually inspired by a story of a psychiatrist who bases his actions/decisions on the cast of a dice: The Diceman, a novel published in 1971 by George Cockcroft (pen name Luke Rhinehart). It’s clearly suggested as such in the official video which you can see here: (Unlike the Song for Zula link I can’t seem to embed the video into this post).

Whatever, I couldn’t write poetry now whilst listening to It’s My Life, Such A Shame, Life’s What You Make It, or anything else by pre Spirit of Eden Talk Talk. The memories these songs drag up are too wince-inducing for me to want to revisit at the best of times, let alone when I am trying to create something new.

Over the last few weeks I have primarily been listening to Godspeed You! Black Emperor whilst writing. Like the later iteration of Talk Talk, GYBE are a post – rock band. Unlike Talk Talk, with the exception of the occasional sample, their music doesn’t have any lyrics. Mladic , the track which I’m sharing below is apparently named after Ratko Mladic, responsible for organising the Srebrenica massacre and extradited to face trial in The Hague at around the time this song was recorded.

At 19 minutes 59 seconds long it has time to build different themes and motifs into the track. It’s one of GYBE’s heaviest tracks, and works particularly well when listened through headphones. Thematically, (rising darkness through despair, defiance and ending with hope for redemption), it fits the tone of what I am currently writing about, if not the exact subject matter.

I think the only times when I have written poetry whilst in silence was when on an Arvon course or in some other writing workshop. Maybe I’ll suggest sticking Mladic or The Dead Flag Blues, (which is equally expansive and apocalyptic, if more so), on full volume next time I’m in one and seeing how everyone else reacts!

I have experimented with this – trying to write poetry whilst listening to The Trammps’ Disco Inferno or Reach by S-Club 7 simply didn’t work. Maybe it’s just me, and the sort of subject matter that I am drawn to.

What about you? Do you write to music? If so, what works? Let me know!

Remembering the Wild Mouse

Sometimes the past rushes back in an instant. It doesn’t take much. I was on Facebook yesterday, completing a song-title list challenge;

Ok music lovers — here are the rules:Answer each category with a SONG TITLE. No repeats and don’t use the internet (it’s tempting but try not to). Go with the first song that comes to mind, change the answers to your own.

My list was as follows;

* Something to wear – All I Want for Christmas is a Dukla Prague Away Kit (Half Man Half Biscuit)
* Something to drink- Whisky in the Jar (Thin Lizzy)
* A Place- Lost in the Supermarket (The Clash)
* A Food – Chocolate Cake (Crowded House)
* An Animal – The Seabirds (The Triffids) – if that’s not specific enough then Hungry Like the Wolf was the second animal I thought of… (Duran Duran obv.)
* A Number – Pop Song 89 (REM)
* A Colour – Deep Red Bells (Neko Case)
* A Girl’s Name – Yolanda (Bobby Bland)
*A Boy’s Name – Joeys on the Streets Again (Boomtown Rats)
* Profession – Here I Dreamt I Was An Architect (The Decemberists)
* Day of the Week- Friday I’m in Love (The Cure)
* A Vehicle – Rollercoaster Song (Lilac Time)

Not necessarily what would be my considered choices in each category, just the first ones I thought of. That last song though. Stephen Duffy (yes, original member of Duran Duran) wrote some brilliant English folk-rock / pop songs. It remains a favourite, along with The Girl who Waves at Trains. I have great memories of singing along to both of them with the the rest of the family in our old Vauxhall Zafira. He may have written better songs, but none of them made our family holiday compilation CDs for the long journeys to Cornwall, Norfolk Scotland or Wales.

As for rollercoasters, I love them. New ones can be great – there’s a few at Thorpe Park – Saw, Stealth and Swarm – that I really like, but it’s the old wooden ones that are the best. The rattling and shaking, that slight worry that the whole thing might fall apart whilst in mid air, the inevitable bruises. What more could you want? I’ve been lucky enough to ride the Vuoristorata in Helsinki, built in 1950 and with a brakeman at the back, Cyclone, the famous Coney Island coaster (the one that Spiderman sits on in the Marvel film), which was built much earlier, (in 1927), and of course the Big Dipper (1923), Grand National (1935) and Rollercoaster (1933) at Blackpool Pleasure Beach.

Then there was the Wild Mouse (1958), which was pulled down in 2018. Despite appearances, it gave a huge adrenaline rush. A small track with lots of hidden sharp turns and dips and plenty of ‘air time’. We also had a Wild Mouse at Clarence Pier here in Portsmouth, which I didn’t get to go on before it was replaced. I think I was too young. But it was made of metal – It would have rotted pretty quickly if it was made of wood as it was out over the sea and often soaked in spray.

I only managed to ride the Blackpool Mouse once. It must have been almost thirty years ago. A group of friends from Middlesex Polytechnic for a catch up drinking weekend. One of them Andy ‘H’ Howard, told us how his parents courted on the same ride, thirty years or so before.

I lost contact with Andy for a number of years. He’d moved back to Droylsden in Greater Manchester, and I’d moved from London to Portsmouth and was building a new life here on the south coast. Out of the blue I received a phone call from Andy for a catch up. He’d had a really tough time, having been diagnosed with cancer. We talked about his treatment, and how he was battling the disease. I promised to visit him in Manchester when he was well enough to see visitors again. I didn’t realise he was calling to say goodbye.

I can remember the conversation as if it were yesterday. It doesn’t take much to bring it back. Just a Facebook challenge and a single song title.

The poem that follows was written a few years afterwards, and tweaked when the Wild Mouse was removed. A version has been posted on the Places of Poetry website, approximately where the ride stood on Blackpool Pleasure Beach.

Remembering the Wild Mouse

That old rollercoaster
where your parents courted,
memories pulled upwards
to the point of no recall,
unclipped at gravity’s pace.

In winter repairs,
life as a clean coat of paint,
each year of change
new as old as new.
A different same;
so with us all, as once with you.

Back at the tipping point
their hearts rising, confetti falling,
bends sharpen then straighten,
time slews so nearly splintering;
but foundations still hold,
keep rails in line.

I hear it is no more,
no last chance to renew,
as one day with us, as now with you;
when all that remains is memory,
this point beyond return.

For H

Arms Outstretched Towards the Light

I simply don’t get those people who state that they don’t like music. Surely they just say this for effect? Surely enjoying music is part of being human? Surely they must like something?

Mind you, in the old days before the lockdown,(how long ago this already seems), when I was working in recruitment, I’d occasionally get sent a CV in which the candidate had claimed that they enjoy all types of music.

Maybe it’s just the pedant in me, but really? Really?

Baroque chamber music, death metal, free jazz & grime?

Rhythm & Blues and R & B ?

The songs of Jess Conrad? For those unaware, one of Conrad’s biggest hits was called This Pullover, the opening lines of which are;

“This pullover, that you gave to me, I shall wear it for ever constantly”

Each to their own I guess.

I don’t pretend to have perfect taste in music – I once travelled from Pontypridd – where I spent a miserable year as a student on a degree course for which I was patently unsuited – to Cardiff, for the sole reason of seeing Quiet Riot, a Canadian spandex-wearing hair metal band whose biggest UK hit was entitled “Bang Your Head”. You can probably guess the lyrics without googling them.

But I wish I had the opportunity to go to a gig like that today, tomorrow or any time in the next three months. It may seem ridiculous, but the loss of live music, as with live sport, theatre, spoken word events, anything where people of a kind meet together for enjoyment, for a sense of belonging, community, or simply to feel alive, really does feel like a bereavement.

When this is all over, I’m not going to take what we have for granted here in Portsmouth. All the local bands I’ve not got round to seeing, the spoken word nights I’ve not quite managed to go to, the plays and musicals that are maybes rather than a definite yes.

Then there’s the events that seem like too much hassle, like the touring bands that come to the UK rarely and only play in North London on a Tuesday night – I still regret missing the New Pornographers Camden gig in 2017 – or Calexico / Iron & Wine’s tour last year – where they played Bexhill on a Sunday night!

It will be a time to take risks, not wallow in regret and what if’s.

I’ll finish with an old poem, (written about twenty years ago), that has never been performed or appeared anywhere in print before.

Stage Diving at the Cathedral of Song

Swaying on the cusp of violence,
he escapes security,
as a shoal of beer-fogged faces
swims in sour-sweat air.

With one exultant leap,
he’s soaring on the skin of strangers,
on the unifying bonds of music,
the rapture of the crowd,

before falling into darkness,
to a sticky hell of sloshed lager,
fag butts, snakebite and Strongbow,
to a frenetic funerary of legs.

But soon he will be risen once more,
back in the mosh pit again,
following the words on stage,
arms outstretched towards the light.

* P.S. I’m in the James gig photo somewhere – there’s a free poetry book for the first person who can see mealthough any mention of Where’s Wally will void your entry!

Not the Dark Side of the Moon

Last Friday I went to a show at the Winchester Discovery Centre Planetarium. Described as an epic fulldome experience, now featuring newly revamped graphics, it was an opportunity to listen to Pink Floyd’s 1973 album, The Dark Side of the Moon , from start to end.

Some of the graphics hadn’t aged well, but despite this, it was still a very enjoyable experience, and something I’d like to repeat with other albums. The same band’s Wish You Were Here would be good, (and is showing at the Discovery Centre), or maybe some 1970s electronica – Phaedra by Tangerine Dream would be an obvious, if short ( it’s only 37 minutes long), option, as would Oxygene by Jean Michel Jarre, or perhaps something by Vangelis.

1973. I was 8 when The Dark Side of the Moon came out, and I didn’t really listen to it until a number of years later. Our household was a predominantly classical music stronghold at that time, (with the exception of my sister’s Queen, Elton John and 10cc collection *). One thing that struck me on Friday was just how good an album it is. A massive seller that actually justifies the hype. I’d not listened to it all the way through for a very long time. With Spotify / Apple Music etc, how often do any of us listen to music in the order it was intended to be listened to?

I tend to listen to playlists on shuffle mode rather than albums, add songs rather than albums to my music archive, and chop and change with newly discovered artists all the time. Tastes obviously change, and I rarely relisten to most bands I used to play constantly, (except for the odd song), let alone go back to whole albums.

I wonder how many people still actually listen to albums the whole way through. As a percentage of the music listening public, not many I would have thought. It’s as if a whole way of appreciating a particular art form has been lost. Do contemporary musicians pay as much attention to track listing I wonder? Is it another symptom of our reduced attention span and contemporary society’s desire for instant, rather than delayed, gratification?

On Saturday I decided to listen to (and properly listen to, as opposed to putting it on in the background whilst I did the washing up) , my favourite Pink Floyd album, the one I grew up with – Animals – which came out in January 1977. What a birthday present for a 12 year old boy! I’d not played it in one sitting for at least 25 years, probably longer. Lyrically, it is such an angry, nihilistic album – as much of a statement on society as The Sex Pistols’ God Save the Queen -which of course came out in the same year.

Both Animals and Never Mind the Bollocks are as relevant now as they were 42 years ago, perhaps even more so with where society is headed in the early 21st century. Whether we can avert what seems to be an impending world of environmental, political and societal chaos, who knows. However, what I do know is that, for me, some days the best temporary antidote to all this worry is loud guitar music and a vitriolic howl into the dark.

* Please note this post originally referenced my sister’s David Cassidy collection. I have subsequently been corrected on this statement, as I now understand that no David Cassidy records were owned (let alone collected) in our household. The article has now been amended to reflect the much cooler and more sophisticated musical taste that my sister had at that time…I can only apologise for any offence and associated damage to musical credibility that this false statement may have created.

On Inspiration; Philip Henry, Steve Knightley and the Meaning of Gobstoppers

Apart from Brexit and being off work for the tail end of the week – and missing today’s Pompey home game due to having a heavy cold, it’s been a good few days. On Wednesday I headlined at Chichester Poetry, which was great – a nice appreciative audience, and some excellent open mike poems from poets I was unaware of beforehand. I also had a poem accepted for the next edition of South Magazine the same day.

On Thursday we went to hear folk musician Philip Henry perform at the sadly-closing Tea Tray in Southsea. It was an excellent concert (I managed to keep quiet by overdosing on cough sweets). His Underground Railroad harmonica solo was astonishing and all the audience members that I could see were open-mouthed in amazement. for details. Shout out also to Square Roots Promotions who do great work promoting roots and folk music in the area.

Last night we were at the Shelley Theatre in Bournemouth to see the consistently brilliant Steve Knightley (of Show of Hands fame – ) on his latest tour. Some of his tours have a theme to tie the songs together, this one’s theme is about where his songs come from. As a writer myself I found this particularly interesting – a lot of ideas for me to take away from the evening, including performance structure / thematic approach, and a lot of parallels in terms of where my poems come from; a photograph, historical event, building, local myth, or simply something someone has said.

One prose piece that always seems to go down well came from something my son said two days after his seventh birthday. It’s in Landings and first appeared in Orbis Poetry Magazine ( ). It’s a poem about choices, about making the best of what we have, about making our own way in life. A cliche perhaps, but maybe something to hold on to in troubled times…

It Was Only His Second Ever Day Of Being Seven…

…and he was having a gob-stopper as a treat after a swimming lesson. They were waiting for his sisters to finish getting changed. His father was trying to read the paper. The economic outlook was not good. An election was near. Pompey were about to get relegated. Rolling the sweet around the roof of his mouth, he held it out between his teeth. “What colour is it, Dad? “ he said. “Red, the colour of lava spewing out of the earth, or that Kit-Kat wrapper,” his father replied, pointing towards the floor near a bin in the corner. The boy laughed. A few moments later, between the local and international news, he asked again, “What colour now?” His father looked up.“ Orange, the colour of the sun sliding over the horizon, or a bottle of Lucozade from the drinks machine” The boy smiled. Skipping the letters page, his father had a half-hearted go at the Sudoku. “What now?” “Yellow, the colour of sand on a tropical beach, or a packet of Starburst.” The gob-stopper had shrunk considerably the next time he asked, somewhere in the editorial comments. “Green, a canopy of trees, just after rain, or a bottle of Sprite”, came the answer. As the minutes slipped past, they kept going, through Football, Rugby and Motor Sport , each time the boy asking the same question, as the world in his mouth got smaller. “Blue, for the sea on a Bounty bar wrapper”; “Indigo, for a packet of pickled onion monster munch”; Violet, for the colour of dark, an hour before dawn. Asking again, his exasperated father replied “What colour do you want it to be? It can be any colour you want. You decide.” The boy opened his mouth and held the small globe of sugar on the tip of his tongue. It was white, all colours and no colour, like a ball of light at the beginning of time. The boy tipped back his head, swallowed it whole.