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!

Notes from the Phoney War

I’ve started this post several times. Getting the tone right has been a challenge. It feels, to me, here in Portsmouth, a bit like the situation in Autumn 1939, when as far as most British people were concerned, the war was happening somewhere else.

I am not working at the moment, at home in furlough (financial support seems to be the one area of policy that the government seems to have broadly got right at this time), so have been busying myself with housework, playing cards with the family, and latterly managing Bath City on Football Manager – as things stand, The Grecians are second in the National League South (thanks for asking…).

I also have a loft full of god-knows-what to sort out, and am working on the annual accounts for my sideline online art, photography and sport memorabilia business – more of this anon – my accountants are going to be very surprised at how early they will be completed this year!

What I am not doing is spending all days on the BBC, Guardian or other news websites, trawling Twitter, or checking Facebook updates every half an hour. It is easy to be overwhelmed by current events. If Italy and Spain are anything to go by, there is a lot to get stressed about, in terms of when the impact of this pandemic really kicks in here in the UK. We all need to protect our mental health, and this is one way I am trying to protect mine.

As an example I had no idea that Johnson had tested positive until one of my kids told me – to be fair I was managing Bath City in a crucial FA Cup 3rd Qualifying Round derby match with Weston-Super-Mare – so I had much bigger priorities at the time!

I’m not making light of things. I am very lucky to be employed, living in a safe home and without having underlying health issues that would cause me to be unduly worried on a personal basis. The situation is horrendous. I know, and am related to, plenty of people for whom infection with Covid-19 would be far more dangerous. I also have family members who work for the NHS (more on this government’s utter hypocrisy in this respect in a future post perhaps) .

But this virus will be defeated. We will come through this. Hopefully society will be kinder, less self-obsessed, and more akin to that envisaged by those who voted for the Attlee government in 1945. We will see. Whatever, this crisis will pass.

I’m going to finish with a short poem I wrote a long time ago, during the Bosnian War. I worked with someone who had emigrated to London from Serbia (I think ) years before. Nothing happened between us – she was a) married and b) out of my league, but it did lead to the following poem, which appeared in the now defunct Poetry Monthly International magazine. It’s typical of my earlier poetry, which was often a lot shorter (and so easier to place in magazines!), and more straightforward language-wise. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether my poems have progressed or regressed since then!

Mostar 1991

We will return some day
to this place
our place
where the stillness of night
is the stillness and silence
of water
moving between us

Places of Poetry – Film Poems

A very quick post to share a tweet with the first of three poetry films created as a result of the Places of Poetry project. Hope the link works !

Three Months On

Just over three months.

I’ve been writing this blog for just over three months. Looking back at previous posts it already seems like writings from another time. Football matches, concerts, poetry events…how long before these days return?

Of course this is all pretty trivial when compared to the real impact of Covid-19 as it spreads across the UK. The first fatality has been confirmed here in Portsmouth.

Alongside the panic buying, the increasing pace of events, the unspoken sense of dread, I wonder if there is also going to be a forced opportunity for us to spend more quality time with the people we care most about. Maybe it was simply that we had a dry sunny Saturday here on the south coast, (finally!), but it certainly seemed like this to me when we went to the seafront at the weekend. No Pompey home game, no football on TV … lots of family groups on the beach, a few instant barbecues, a packed Tenth Hole Cafe (excellent cakes as always!).

I guess it’s something to hold on to. Whatever happens in the coming weeks and months, we are going to need our friends and families more than ever.

To all of my readers, (well, both of you!), take care.

I thought I’d finish with a loosely related poem from happier times.

On the success or otherwise of disposable barbecues
Not like that time at West Wittering,
a gaggle of teenage girls,
enough matches to model a battleship.
Each sparked a flicker of yellow
soon extinguished;
a barbecue that wouldn’t burn.
Eventually we got it going,
huddled bags and boxes around
damp coal and spent splints of wood.
The wind dropped enough
for smoke to just about take hold,
too fast the flames were done.
This time we were promised instant light;
for once the marketing spiel was true,
and as the sky began to turn
a mellower shade of gold,
the last of the kite-surfers
packed up and drove home.
On the other side of the Solent,
streetlamps from Ryde to Bembridge
were necklaces of precious jewels.
As charcoal embers glowed,                                  
we sank fingers into the shingle,
took every breath as if it was our first.

Of Tongues & Grooves

I have mentioned Tongues and Grooves in a couple of previous posts. The original T&G was founded in 2006, and had two main strands, one running and promoting monthly music and poetry events, the other “community” strand running workshops. As of 2020 Tongues and Grooves in the Community is a not-for-profit body using poetry to promote motivation, well-being and social inclusion.

The monthly events are no more, though T&G do still run special / one off events, such as last month’s Snow Queen performance, the poetry recital from memory event, (see my earlier posts for details on both of these), and the occasional book launch (such as my first collection in September 2018).

T&G also ran the recent poems from memory event, in which I recited without getting it wrong (!) Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese. It was terrifying to stand there without any prompts in a roomful of people, many of who will have known the poem very well. Anyway, I managed to get through it.

I felt almost as nervous as the first time I recited my poetry in public – at a South launch and very shortly afterwards at a Tongues & Grooves evening. In both of these events I was shaking so much I could hardly read the words on the page (one benefit of memorising each poem I guess!).

Tongues & Grooves has played an important part in my development as a writer and performer, (I’m still not great, but am at least vaguely competent on stage now!). For a while I was actively involved in the community side of T&G, chairing meetings and organising workshops in Haslar IRC and the showing of poetry films of exile on the BBC big screens in Portsmouth and Dover. Unfortunately some pressures around day-to-day life got in the way, so I had to drastically scale back my activities.

Maggie Sawkins, Bernard MacDonagh and the other founders and team members involved with T&G from it’s outset have played a key role in the development of poetry in Portsmouth, and have supported numerous writers and musicians over the years. You can find more on T&G here;

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.

The Light of This Place

I’ve had a few computer issues hence no post here for a while. This particular post, and poem, is prompted by a tweet today by Portsmouth FC, with the title my first Pompey memory is…..

It reminded me of a poem I posted on the Places of Poetry website, entitled Followers. The poem uses Anadisplosis, a poetic and rhetorical form where the end of the last line is repeated as the start of the next. It’s often used in religious texts and verses. With the almost religious faith of football followers, it seemed a useful technique for this particular poem. There is a deliberate slight change between the end of the last line and the start of the first.

I’ve been a follower of Portsmouth FC and a season ticket holder for many years, have travelled across the country, and, briefly, into Europe to watch them. There are more diehard fans out there, (I probably make around 30 – 35 games a season), but it’s part of my life.

It’s also a key part of this city’s history – and, with the decline in organised religion and long-term mass employment, football, (and in some parts of Britain Rugby Union and Rugby League), is all we have left that ties us to this spirit of place, where the whole community, (or much of it), comes together for a common goal.

My first Pompey match was on December 26th, 1980 – a 0-0 draw against Reading. Having only been to see my hometown team – Frome Town FC -before (average crowds circa 250), I was overwhelmed by the size of the ground, the vast crowd, (of 17,412), the sheer noise, colour and atmosphere. I had been wavering towards following one of the big First Division clubs – but that day changed everything. I’m sure this was the reason my grandfather chose to take me to the match. I often think of him, that particular sunny winter’s day, and the impact that it has had on my choices and the direction of my life since.

The photograph is of one of the Fratton Park floodlights. This was taken on the last time it was lit, since Pompey have upgraded the stadium lighting over the last couple of years. These lights were once the tallest in Europe, and were the first used for a Football League Match (against Newcastle on 22nd February 1956). It still stands redundant in the corner of the South Stand and Milton End.

Perhaps this is another example of the endless cycle of football life, the ongoing repetition of the matchday experience, the handing over of traditions between generations, each time with slight changes from what went before.

Anyway, the poem;


Like all those before we walk the streets
We walk the streets towards the light
The light of this place our one true calling
One true calling we hallow this earth
This earth this place this scrap of green
This scrap of green of nurtured dreams
Of nurtured dreams over so many years
So many years and my grandfather’s hand
Hand on my shoulder and ushering me through
Through clicking turnstiles to climb these steps
Climb these steps my son’s turn now
My son’s turn now for this is our faith
For this is our faith we proclaim in song
We proclaim in song with all those before us