Heslop from Porridge

Review of Widow’s Welcome by D K Fields pub. Head of Zeus, 2019

‘There’s power in stories and a story of power.’

This is a novel set in a fantasy world, and when I saw a map and a long list of gods, I did fear I was in for one of those interminable legendary back-stories before anything happened. But nothing could have been further from the truth. In fact we are plunged straight into a police-procedural whodunnit - finding out who, to be precise, strangled a man, sewed his lips together and left the body where it could easily be found.

This fantasy world is not actually unrecognisably different from our own; if you think it bizarre that an election should be conducted by means of six different groupings each nominating someone to tell a story, and the listeners voting for the narrative they prefer, ask yourself what happens among us.  And our protagonist, Detective Cora Gorderheim, with her scruffy coat that acts both as concealer and comfort blanket, her disorderly office, her taste for gambling and her frustration with the machinations of Them In Charge, could fit very comfortably into our world too. Cora needs to find out not only whodunnit, but why; this is the first of a trilogy and by the end she has apparently solved the first question but is still partly puzzled by the second.

The setting is a capital city, Fenest, which is somewhat like a 19th-century earth city before the advent of the internal combustion engine. In her job, Cora is better acquainted with its mean streets than its fancy ones, and they are well evoked, as, later, are the docklands where another character plies his trade.

Precisely because it’s this kind of book, I shall not risk any spoilers. I will mention only that the novel revolves around the election going on in the capital, and the structure of this election, with the candidates’ nominees each telling a story, determines the structure of the book.  Two of the stories are interpolated into this first part, and I assume the same will happen in parts 2 and 3. These stories are clearly going to be relevant to the book’s theme, which is basically an unjust society and (I assume) how to put it right. The first interpolated story is about how prejudice and fear are the children of ignorance; the second about the misuse of wealth to manipulate people’s lives. They are well written and not without interest in themselves, but I did wonder if they were not a little too long. I think my reason for feeling this is, in a way, a compliment to the novel: I was so intrigued by the main detective-story thread that I slightly resented it being delayed.

Several novels and poetry collections I’ve read lately take up the theme of refugees, strangers, and how we treat them, and so does this:

“If she’d wanted to forget about what she’d seen at Burlington, the ’sheets weren’t the place to go. The Daily Tales had little else to report. The cause of the plague was clear, said the unnamed writer: those coming to the city from outside its gates were to blame. A certain kind of person, for which Cora read ‘poor’ and ‘southern’. The ’sheet suggested a more selective entry policy was needed for future elections, ‘to protect the safety of Fenest’. Cora scrunched the sheet into a ball and threw it over the gig’s side. With any luck another gig would soon trample the ’sheet and its message into the muck; little good it would do in stopping the spread of such ideas. Even now, over breakfasts and first smokes, there would be people in Fenest saying to one another that southerners brought disease, because they were poor, because they were dirty, and so it only made sense to keep those people out… Her parents would have been loud in saying such things. Ruth wouldn’t have though. Cora picked up the other ’sheet from the floor. The Fenestiran Times took a different view of the plague. What could be more certain than sickness if people were left with nowhere to stay? The plague at Burlington was the result of the city’s neglect, not a fact of southerners being where they shouldn’t. That led neatly to the Perlish and their failure to invest in necessary things like new houses, more water pumps, drains. Which led back to the election. Like always.”

So will I read parts 2 and 3? Well, I think I might. As in all the best detective stories, Cora has solved some mysteries but uncovered others and I do want to know how it turns out, who wins the election and what Cora’s long-lost relative has to do with things. The writing was sharp enough to keep me hooked through this volume, and I think there’s some mileage in it yet.
Do somethin' else!

Seditious blogpost

I can live with staying at home, especially since everything is shut and there's nothing worth going out for (I am actually more concerned that when this is over, so much of the leisure sector may have gone to the wall that there will still be nothing worth going out for). I think the "one walk a day" instruction is OTT, and is certainly being over-zealously interpreted by some police and councils - that's the natural tendency of jacks-in-office, which is why it is important never to accept what they do without question.  But again, I am lucky enough to have a garden I can work in, so it doesn't bother me too much.

What does increasingly bother me quite a lot is what I can only call the masochistic, puppy-like enthusiasm with which some folk are greeting the temporary, probably necessary but surely to be regretted, sacrifice of their liberties.  I have seen them saying online that people should "do as they are told", "not moan about it" (pardon me, it is the inalienable right of every citizen in a free country to moan, especially about the authorities and i shall go right on doing so) and "trust the government" - I would have laughed out loud at that one, if it weren't so potentially serious.

These folk tend to reference the "spirit of WW2", which only goes to show that they have talked to few survivors and read no Mass Observation diaries of the period, in which, believe me, there was much grumbling and little automatic trust. But I'd like to go back a little further in history, to the start of the 19th century when repressive measures, born in Establishment fears engendered by the French Revolution and Napoleon, in turn bred dissatisfaction and frustration that culminated in the Peterloo massacre. The slightest sign of disaffection was enough to panic the authorities into arbitrary legislation; at one stage, in response to what was probably a pebble thrown at the window of the Prince Regent's  carriage, Habeas Corpus was suspended (for four months, "initially").  "Seditious meetings" were also banned and the government also tried to apprehend all printers and writers "responsible for seditious and blasphemous material" - they mostly failed at this, because juries rightly baulked at it and thanks to Charles James Fox's Libel Act of 1792, they and not the judge had the power to decide what was libellous. Not the first nor the last time the sublime Mr Fox would make a nuisance of himself in the eyes of over-authoritarian regimes.

Of course we are not at the stage where the soldiery are riding down peaceful protestors, but then the Regency did not get to Peterloo all of a sudden; it got there via a slow accretion of measures whereby the government granted itself too much power and characterised even mild expressions of dissent as "sedition" or even "treason".  Nor did they learn from Peterloo; instead they passed the "Six Acts" of 1819, which outdid all repressive measures so far, forbidding meetings of more than 50 people and providing for 14 years' transportation for those guilty of "blasphemous and seditious libels"  - ie, as J B Priestley remarks in "The Prince of Pleasure and his Regency" (Heinemann 1969), anything a Tory magistrate disliked.

This is one reason why I think it was unwise for Parliament to allow the strengthened government powers in the Coronavirus Act to run for as long as 2 years without further parliamentary scrutiny.  And it would be even more unwise for the general public to stop scrutinising what government does, questioning it if it seems excessive, and generally regretting, even if accepting, the necessity for even a temporary infringement of liberty.


Review of "Solar Cruise" by Claire Crowther, pub. Shearsman 2020

hus was my physicist received with joy in a few desolate marinas.
Brigid agreed with that good-time god, Electron,

 that there should be a lyric outcome.
not for immortality, which the gods already have
(electrons don’t die ever)
but for mortals whom the gods seem to want to impress at parties.

(The Crystallier: A Memoir in Which I Fable the Sociopolitical Side of Science)

At first I seriously wondered if I were qualified to review this, since I know absolutely nothing about physics and find any scientific concept hard to process – the level of my understanding may be gleaned from the fact that I cannot read the phrase “Higgs Boson” without getting a mental picture of hogs and a bison. I decided, however, that since the majority of readers would surely be in the same boat (you'll see what I did there in a minute), the reactions of a scientific ignoramus to poems heavily concerned with physics, and in particular with solar energy, were relevant. Also, by the time I came to this conclusion, I was enjoying reading the poems.

As one might expect with such an abstruse subject, communication is being achieved very much via metaphor. The central image, unexpectedly, is one of a cruise on which poet and physicist are partners and passengers and where he, the physicist, seems to be trying to convert his fellow passengers on the SS Eschatology (a ship of fools? An ark?) to the concept of solar energy.  Meanwhile, alongside the image of humanity voyaging to disaster, the field of science yields its own imagery to illuminate human activity, as in “The Triptych of Power”:

i The Chosen One

when one golden photon from a sunbeam
lights up a crystal solar cell
it gives all of its energy to one of the cell’s electrons

ii The People

though many electrons hold the crystal solar cell
the chosen electron rises
and creates a positron from each electron’s rib
which frees them all
and thus together
they make electricity

These two images of gold and voyage interact throughout and come together in “Cabin Coffin”:

Yet there is a gold burnishing the diminishing room: is it the thing we’ve grasped that is almost in the world’s grasp? Has it steamed off the physicist in his last fear, like last words? Or off me, like a poem, all lyric glitter bubbling?

The parallel between physicist and poet is constantly stressed in wordplay: lyrics/physics, physics/physic. Playful as the suggestion may be that Lisa Meitner’s special insight into the splitting atom, which she described as “waisted”, was aided by the fact that “a man does not have a waist/ He has a midriff. A middle”, Crowther, like George Herbert, does not really think the way words act and echo each other is ever mere coincidence. She plays too, throughout this collection, with lineation, parallel text and line breaks, continually forcing us to think again:

There’s a scar-
City of prophet. (Wingding)

The voyage of the two protagonists, and of humanity in general, is also full of literary and historical allusion, quite apart from the lexis of physics, and I wouldn’t claim the navigation is always easy. But both the central relationship and the passionate belief in a cause come over very clearly and strongly, and the dense, intricate verbal technique yields more with each reading. It struck me as remarkable that a collection with such a powerful and deeply-felt message never sounded like preaching. Indeed my memories of it - apart from the wry humour of the “rapture physicists” and the ship’s foghorn that goes “ohhhm, ohhhm” – are principally of excitement, the excitement that comes from thinking about something new. I’m not surprised this book netted a Poetry Book Society recommendation. It can be ordered from Shearsman, and this is a good time to be supporting small publishers, and indeed authors in general.


Review of The Breach by M T Hill, pub Titan Books 2020

If I’m not lonely, then I’m adrift. It means a lot to feel wanted, to understand your place in another person’s world. Who is Freya to Shep? Who is Freya to anyone?

The trajectory of the first part of this novel is one I always find potentially interesting: a focus (in this case a bunker in the Lake District) and two people’s lives converging on it from very different places. It’s set in what feels like a fairly near future, with self-driving cars and a lot of other fancy tech, but our two protagonists, Freya and Shep, are in reassuringly orthodox jobs; a journalist and a steeplejack. The author clearly has some knowledge of both trades, or has done some cracking research, because Shep’s working life in particular is conveyed very vividly indeed: speaking as someone with a visceral fear of heights, I found it downright scary at times.

Shep edges out from the platform until only his toes are left. He opens the biter’s mouth and takes up his starting position. He swallows and leans back, legs like a bipod, lines good and taut. Kapper feeds out rope until Shep stands fully horizontal off the platform lip. The sun on his bare arms is close to unbearable.
‘Holding,’ Shep says. ‘Guy cable’s two metres down.’ And he commits one sole to the beams that support the platform, heart raging. Past his excess rope and dangling gear, the tower’s first hundred metres taper gracefully into the base pad. The merging blue-gold horizon out to sea. Eyes up, and he almost can’t stand the beauty of it: a shimmering curve rolling up, up, up for another nine hundred metres into the heavens, his angle giving it the appearance of a solid blade. The rush is acute.

Shep’s hobby is “urbex”, exploring man-made structures, often illegally and always dangerously. Freya meets him because she becomes interested in a story she covers about the death of a man, Stephen, who was also into this.  It emerges that Stephen and his girlfriend Alba had explored a deserted bunker, where Shep and Freya also go. This bunker is on land owned by a couple, whose young daughters and gardener have already apparently seen strange things there and which is a focus for interest from authorities and others.

What is going on in the bunker, and what effect it has on those who go there, is the book’s central mystery and obviously I shall avoid spoilers about it. But there are other hooks, particularly in the first part of the novel: how will Shep and Freya connect; how will Freya reconcile a sense of morality with invasive journalism; will Shep, whose liking for alcohol is not the best match with a job involving heights, survive his next ascent?  In the second part, where the effects of what happened in the bunker are becoming more obvious, survival in general is an urgent question.

I was reading online, without what Jane Austen calls the tell-tale compression of the pages ahead to warn me the end was nigh, which is probably why it came as a mighty surprise.  When I saw an acknowledgements page, I actually thought I must have clicked twice, or that maybe something had been left out of the document. Reading again, I could see what was going on: it’s one of those books where the choice of end-point is always going to be arbitrary; in fact in some ways the end is a beginning.

This novel is in a genre (futuristic, borderline SF) that I don’t normally read much. But I don’t think one would have to be a devotee of that genre to find it enjoyable and intriguing, because its sense of the world we live in is very strong and vividly conveyed.

Review of "Wing" by Matthew Francis, pub. Faber 2020

They’ve made a morning of their own, called Matins

It is humans who give things names. All Francis’s collections delight in words; this one specifically exults in names. It is a collection focused on nature, on landscape, creatures, plant life from roses to fungi, but seeing them all through the eyes, microscopes and imagination of humans. An early poem, “Mere”, sets the tone when its landscape is figured in images drawn from human activity: the windblown water “shivers in its sequins”, the heron, ironically, “mimes a pond ornament”, while a mallard “takes off from its runway of splashes”.

The names we give things are taken from what we see around us, or at least from how we interpret what we see. Hence they are images in their own right, and bring with them a wealth of associations among which Francis’s imagination can happily range – “while the liberty caps rioted on the verge by the police station” (“Liberty Caps”). Nowhere is this more evident than in “Pomona”, a celebration of apples through the seasons, and of the names people have given them. From the names of the winter apple trees, winter emerges:

The air has a bite to it now, White Must, a Hoary Morning.
A Winter Coleman holds out grey arms in the orchard.
A |Pigeon plumps itself in the cold, and mistletoe makes its nests
on the rough battlements of the Tower of Glamis.

In the last verse, apples and those who have named them become one:

When the last Gloria Mundi has fallen, where is our Seek No Further?
The ancient Ribstone Pippin tree slumps on its crutches
while the Ribstone Pippins sleep out the winter in newspaper,
old Ribstone Pippins mulling their spices and parsnippy sugars.

That “parsnippy” is typical of Francis’s uncanny accuracy of observation and word choice. The “seedcake fragrance of aunts” (“Pomona”), the late sky that is “custard curdled with rhubarb” (“Rose Absolute”), the seemingly dead ant that “rose to all its feet” (“Ant”). This is not the desperate search for novelty that causes some poets to scrabble for incongruous words and far-fetched comparisons: it is the freshness that comes of observing closely and describing exactly.

An interest in technical challenges has also always been part of his poetry and surfaces here in the trochaic syllabics of “A Charm for Earwigs” and the single vowel of “Monomoon”, which would be a wonderful one to read aloud:

go soft
on woods, wolds,
moors, rocks,

to crops, cows,
shorn flocks,

throw off
spools of floss, whorls
of cottonwood blossom.

There has always been an exuberant delight in the beauty and variety of the world in Francis’s poems; indeed I sometimes wonder if it has led him to be underrated by those who seem to think serious poetry’s job is to depress the general public. It is very much in evidence here, perhaps more than in any of his other collections, yet behind the upbeat note is a darker one.  The end of “Pomona”, with its richness of fruit, is winter, old age and death; the fascinating creatures under Robert Hooke’s microscope are being literally studied to death, and you don’t want to know the recipe for oil of swallows, even if it would cause your aches to “wheel off on long wings”. Other wings in this collection include those of the flies under the microscope, the end-of-summer butterflies in “Wingscape”, beautiful but doomed, and the fatally failing parachute of “Freefall”. The end of this poem,

Sleep on the wing, the way swallows are said to,
sleep on the wing

is a little reminiscent of so many plays of Euripides in which some despairing character cries out a wish to be winged, to fly away from earth and grief.  Only they can’t, of course, any more than swallows can actually sleep in flight, and it is this unspoken consciousness of being anchored that shadows the brightness and throws it into deeper relief.

Review of Sleeper by Jo Colley, pub. Smokestack Books 2020

Well, you know me, I have a thing about identity and change/concealment of same, so a collection about spies and others who hide their identity was always going to appeal. This is organised in five sections, moving gradually from the historical to the personal and dealing successively with the Cambridge group that included Philby, Burgess and Maclean, then with the wives of Philby plus some other women in relationships with spies or themselves spying, “Cold War”, in which the title is more metaphorical than historical, next “Sleeping with the Enemy”, in which we have definitely moved into personal territory and how people in relationships hide from each other and seek each other out, and finally “Motherland” in which a mother is both remembered and re-imagined.

I like this concept, and quite a lot of the time it is well executed. I don’t think the three “Redaction” pieces, which are essentially mashed-up quotes from John le Carré novels, really earn their place – I see the rationale, the comparison of the spy fiction of the time with the even more incredible fact, but think it could be more economically done. A lot of research has gone into the early sections and she is good at pinpointing the facts that illuminate, like Aileen Philby’s eerily appropriate job as a store detective. The title poem is an excellent analysis of the strange limbo that is the existence of a “sleeper”: an agent whose job is to assimilate in foreign territory and who may or may not ever be used. Such a person must blend in, be inconspicuous, become part of their new world yet not so much that they cannot sabotage it when called on. It is a recipe not so much for a new identity as for the lack of one:

          Look at my life. Do you look at my life? Can you even see it?

Among the more personal poems, I like the idea in “Motherland” of memorialising someone not only by recalling what they were but by imagining what they might have been, the other lives it was in them to have led. In this sense we are all sleepers, all sailing under colours which, while not false, are not the only ones possible, and a mother who loved the sea could indeed have been the “captain of a Grimsby trawler”.

It might be useful for Colley to rethink her use of the second person pronoun. I used to frame poems in it sometimes myself, but stopped because I became convinced by the argument of Matthew Francis that it made no sense to have a conversation with someone who couldn’t hear (generally because they were dead) and who already knew all the things you were helpfully telling them. This is not always so; in the Motherland section the idea of a daughter having a sort of mental conversation with a dead mother is entirely apposite – indeed I think she could have exploited it further by using it to differentiate the memory poems from the imagined ones, as well as using italics for that purpose. But it’s harder to see a good reason, in “You Weren’t Expecting a Lady”, for addressing Kitty Harris as “you” and telling her all about her affair with Maclean, which presumably wouldn’t be news to her. And in the Aileen sequence it can be confusing when in one poem “you” is Aileen while in the next it is Philby.

There are also a few missed typos: it’s Gore-Tex not Gortex and “full fathom five”, not “fathoms”. But in this section, “Sleeping with the Enemy”, there is also a fine poem, “Gaze”, where a woman’s attempts to retreat from and frustrate a male gaze are captured in some sharp imagery: the tight-shut scallop which the wind tries to prise open; the insistent, controlling mobile phone that

          insinuates a chip an implant
          at the back of her neck

The imagery of cold and whiteness in the “Cold War” section is effective, too; it seems to be a strength of hers. All in all, a sharp, thought-provoking collection.

Review of Brando's Bride, by Sarah Broughton, pub. Parthian 2019

“Who is Brando’s bride?” – headline in the Tucson Daily Citizen, 1957

Identity: a construct comprising what you were, what you are and sometimes what you want to be. How you see yourself, and how others see you. Your ancestry is part of it but so is where you grew up - sometimes one, sometimes the other, has the edge.

I’ve long been interested in identity, and in people who change, fictionalise or otherwise monkey around with their identity, so this was a must-read for me. But this is not a simple case of making up a new identity or changing one for another. Rather, it is about highlighting one part and rejecting or minimising another.

Anna Kashfi became famous in 1957 when she had the bad judgement to marry Marlon Brando and the worse luck to attract the notice of the British tabloid press, as reptilian in the 50s as they are today. She was presenting as Anglo-Indian, with the accent firmly on the latter; she wore saris, which as she later admitted, Anglo-Indian women generally didn’t; they favoured English dress, and indeed the Anglo-Indian community in general played up their English side because it got them privileges in India, like jobs on the railway.

This all changed after independence, and many Anglo-Indian families took ship for what, despite never having seen the place, they still called “home”. The Ranchi, in 1948, brought among many others the Webb family, complete with 12-year-old Harry, who would later be renamed Cliff Richard, and another railway family, the O’Callaghans, with their 15-year-old daughter Joan or Johanna.

This family went to live in South Wales. When their daughter, now a Hollywood starlet who had taken (or been given by the studio) the name Anna Kashfi for a film in which she played an Indian woman, married Brando, the British press somehow got on to the fact that she had briefly worked in a Cardiff butcher’s shop. Her parents then declared loudly that though she had indeed been born in India (Darjeeling, according to her father, though in fact it was Calcutta), they themselves had been born in London (also untrue; both were India-born) and that, according to her mother, there was “no Indian blood either in my family or my husband’s family” – the biggest lie of all, for as Broughton's research demonstrates, there was plenty in both.

The O’Callaghans, in fact, were being even less accurate about their origins than their daughter was. She was embroidering her past and exaggerating the “Indian” side of her ancestry, but they were entirely denying the Indian side of theirs. At the time their story was accepted completely and Anna seen as a fantasist, which she naturally saw as betrayal on their part. They in turn felt betrayed by her implicit rejection of them; she asserted for a while that her father was in fact a stepfather and seems at one stage to have invented two new parents for herself. One of the saddest things in the book is the account of the author’s meeting with her in the final years of her life; when although she was no longer referring to these fictitious parents, she did not call her real parents by that name either, referring to them always as “the O’Callaghans”.

Broughton’s book is well researched and organised and she goes beyond the Kashfi story to discuss the question of identity in three other young female stars of the time, Pier Angeli, Belinda Lee and Gia Scala, all of whom were to some degree reconstructed and destroyed by the film industry. They were in a trade where their job was assuming different identities, but when their real lives began to diverge in any way from the identity the studios had constructed for them, they were ruthlessly dropped.

It would have been fascinating to have seen the author’s unpublished interview with Kashfi as an appendix, and I’d also have liked an index along with the notes, photos and bibliography. But it’s an engaging and thought-provoking study of one of my favourite topics. I do wonder if the interview touched on Kashfi’s childhood in India and her feelings about leaving the place where she had grown up. The history of the British in India is littered with primary source accounts from children who bitterly resented being exiled from the warmth, colour and lushness of India to a grey unfriendly island with vile food, where it always seemed to be freezing cold. Kashfi’s embracing of her Indian side, so unlike her parents’ rejection, may have been partly for professional reasons, but is it possible that her parents’ first “betrayal”, in her eyes, was taking her aboard the Ranchi?

Review of The Stonemason by Andrew Ziminski, pub. John Murray 2020

"The most important tool of all – the eye, which once sharpened never blunts."

Andrew Ziminski discovered while still at school that he was fascinated by "the material aspects of the past, the tangible remnants".  He became a stonemason, specifically a fixer mason, who mends and conserves existing works, and he has for the past thirty years worked on buildings and monuments from the Neolithic to the Industrial Revolution and all points in between. In this book, subtitled "A History of Building Britain", he describes working on sarsen stones at Avebury, buildings in Bath, both in Roman and Georgian times, various cathedrals and small churches, bridges and canals.

He is fascinating on the technicalities of his craft (and the book has a glossary of the technical terms, which will come in useful when you find you've forgotten what a volute is; it's a scroll at the top of a column) but he is continually seeing beyond the how to the why: not just how the building was constructed but to what end, how did it fit into its landscape and time.  One of his minor eccentricities is to travel to jobs by canoe when he can, because it enables him to see how the original stone was transported, and he also often beds down in a sleeping bag at the workplace, a practice that brings him into contact with some interesting strata of society and at one point provides a poignant historical parallel. Working on a Devizes church, he worries about the effect the local down-and-outs have on the monuments in the churchyard:

"With their giros cashed they would get their act together and have a grand cook-up.  […] My admiration of their resilience and ingenuity turned to unease when I noticed the searing heat of their tin tray barbecues focused on the ledger slab of a Georgian box tomb. […] In St Mary's graveyard on the other side of town, a stone table easily mistaken for a box tomb leans at an alarming angle. It is in fact a mediaeval alms table for the distribution of dole – bread and ale to the needy. One of the side panels had fallen and contained a reminder that these people were perhaps the authentic residents of the place. The space inside had been used as a bin and stuffed with dozens of plastic cider bottles. […] I reflected that these unfortunates had the same tales to tell, ruined by circumstance and by austerity".

It is characteristic that he does not get indignant about this (mis)use of what he spends his life conserving, as he does about a ham-fisted piece of restoration in the Royal Crescent, Bath.

"Some time after we had repaired the volutes, a youth was let loose with a bucket of wet mortar. Go and see this work that was signed off by some administrator – it will have its photo taken by every one of the millions of visitors who come here every year. I wonder how many will puzzle over why the finely cut joints, so thin that a cigarette paper would not fit between them, had been smeared to a width of three inches over the interface between every stone. It is as though a chimpanzee had been let loose on Audrey Hepburn's face with a lipstick, in the dark."

Ziminski is that eternally absorbing creature, a man who knows a particular craft inside out and can communicate his enthusiasm for it. It helps that he is also a lively and engaging writer. He is, by the by, the son of one of those Polish gentlemen who came over to fight World War 2 and then stayed to work. He is also steeped in the history of these islands, which he does so much to conserve, and about which he is infinitely more knowledgeable than any racist ignoramus. I found his book both entertaining and informing, aided by helpful maps and rather beautiful line-drawing illustrations.

Review of The Scramble for Europe by Stephen Smith, pub. Polity Press 2019

This is a slightly odd book; I think because of the author's background. He has academic qualifications and is indeed currently a professor of African studies, but he seems to have spent most of his working life as a journalist and it shows. The book concerns contemporary migration from Africa to Europe. He is good on statistics: I am glad I read it if only to discover what I didn't know, namely how slanted Africa's current population is toward youth, in contrast to the ageing population in most European countries. Given that African politics are in most places even more gerontocratic than ours, this makes for a large population of young people with poor employment prospects and little say in their own future – in some countries, where 60% of the population is under 18, it is literally impossible for a government to represent a majority of the people. And where you have a large population of disaffected youth, especially young men, you will have trouble.

The statistical analyses are informative (indeed sometimes a bit daunting to read) and he is good at identifying problems and causes, eg when he points out that it is seldom the poorest who emigrate, they having enough to do to survive, but rather those a few rungs up the ladder, and therefore increased prosperity in a country will not at first decrease emigration, as might be thought, but actually encourage it. But he seems to me to be way too keen, for an academic, on seeking parallels and examples from the world of fiction – folk tales, novels etc. I'm not saying these have no place at all in a factual book but I think he relies on them more than he ought in a book of essentially political analysis – the thing about fiction, after all, is that it didn't actually happen.

I'm also mildly baffled by a couple of assertions that, unless I'm missing something, just look wrong to me. One is his assertion that "immigration to the US from Africa became statistically significant only towards the end of the twentieth century" – pardon? How about the enforced immigration of all those kidnapped, uncounted slaves? Then there is the point when he talks of immigrant diasporas "Why should Malian immigrants in France, even those who have become naturalized French citizens, always remain part of a diaspora – be it Malian, African or simply "black" – when, say, Italian or Portuguese immigrants do not? Only African migrants are locked up in their past". In the first place, I doubt Italians and Portuguese are quite as free of their heritage as he thinks; secondly I would have thought Asian migrants were equally inclined to cling to their diaspora, for exactly the same reason as the Africans: both are an easily identifiable minority and often treated as such by people in their host country outside the diaspora.

Another occasion when he seems to me to ignore a fairly obvious answer is when, discussing the problem of ageing European societies, he asks "How then does one justify the a priori assumption that it would be better to integrate more immigrants into European societies than to offer Europeans incentives to have more children?" He does not try to answer this question; he presumably means it rhetorically, but it surely isn't. In the first place, in an overcrowded world it does make more sense to redistribute people than to create more of them. In the second, the assumption of most governments, often backed up by failed attempts, is not so much that it would be "better", rather that the alternative would be impossible. For most educated, liberated European women there is no financial incentive that would persuade them to have litters of half a dozen rather than stopping at two and spending the time saved on fulfilling their intellectual potential and generally having fun. it isn't primarily a matter of money but of doing something more exciting and satisfying than changing an endless series of nappies. And this is true the world over - the more educated women are, the fewer children they will have.

I don't think, in his final chapter "By Way of Conclusion" – the tentative title is accurate; he is way better at diagnosis than prescription  – he does anywhere mention supporting women's education in Africa as part of a solution. But I can't be sure he mentions it nowhere, for the same reason I found it very hard to review the book – it has no index! Notes, yes, bibliography, yes, but if you want to remind yourself what he said about the janjawid, or Rwanda, you are out of luck. This is a huge omission in a factual book and makes it far less useful than it might be.

Review of Cuckoo by Nichola Deane, pub. V Press 2019

First collections often contain a lot of personal family history, which is natural enough. One's own background is often the first place new writers go to find material. How well this works depends to some extent on how far the writer manages to lift this material beyond the personal and anecdotal and give it a more universal relevance.

Rather cannily, I think, Deane has scattered the "family" poems through the book instead of collecting them in one section, where they might have presented us with a forbidding phalanx of other people's relatives. We meet grandparents, mothers and sundry kinfolk alongside Akhmatova, Auden and drunken football fans on a train. It was in fact some of these more outward-looking poems that first impressed me, notably "A Sofa under House Arrest" in which the spectacle of Thatcher and Pinochet taking tea – gruesome enough in its own right – becomes all the more sinister by means of some subtle use of language. Thatcher

   lifts her little finger
   away from the Minton cup in a toy
   goose-step salute
   and so does he.

The closing image, biscuit crumbs falling on plate or floor

   as the dander, the human matter, snowing
   this minute
   around the General
   and his guest also, across the grain
   of light.

is beautiful and deadly.

It was some while before any of the "family history" poems impressed me as much. This may be in part a personal reaction, since the early ones were much concerned with pregnancy and birth (been there, done that, glad to forget it). But I'm also not sure they quite got beyond personal circumstances to the universal. "My Father at Eighty-Six among the Clover of Happy Valley" on the other hand does just that. The anxious watching, the consciousness of vulnerability and mortality in an ageing parent are instantly recognisable and I regard it as something of a tribute to say that it is mostly pointless to quote from it because its effect is cumulative. But the universality of the "quarks and photons" with which it ends is earned.

I'm not altogether sure about some of the very short poems; nothing is harder to write than a really short poem, which can't afford to waste a word. "Cherry Tree Petals" feels more like notes from a workshop (and Housman's already done the bridal-and-death white as well as anyone needed to). I didn't get what "Bee Griefs" was aiming at, either. The title poem, though again I wasn't sure I completely got where it was heading, is interesting in its use of echoing sound patterns and internal rhymes, a device she uses quite a lot. They occur also in "The Ballad of Tom Dean", indeed giving it its rhythm and musicality. This is another "family" poem that crosses over into the universal: Tom, scourge of local bullies, becomes an iconic, almost a mythical, figure, the kind indeed of whom ballads are made. In this poem, as in the Thatcher/Pinochet one, style works together with theme. The sharp imagery of the battered wife, "a choker of finger-bruises/round her neck" meshes with the internal rhymes, the swing of the short, mostly two-stress lines (and how telling is the variant in the last line, where the extra stress is provided by the repeated word "laugh") to produce a sense of everything coming together as it should.