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Review of The Magpie Almanack by Simon Williams, pub. Dempsey & Windle 2020

This is a long collection (99 pages) divided into sections by, roughly, theme, eg “People & Animals”, and style, as in “Surreal and Dada”. Needless to say, several could fit into more than one.

I can see why one would want to subdivide such a large collection but wonder if this particular way of doing it was wise. It means beginning with a whole tranche of personal poems (“About the Author”), which might be some readers’ cup of tea but to me felt a bit too anecdotal. Scattered throughout a collection, they probably wouldn’t have had this effect.
 

Things perked up with the next section, “People & Animals”, where the observation and language both sharpen:
 

   The little gulls, in a set of surprises,
  lift their wings like midget angels’ (“Little Gulls”)

He does a good job, too, in “Black Bear Dreams”, of getting inside the head of a female bear just going into hibernation:

  The taste of pink outstrips all others:
 fish, flesh, my aching teats.

There is a lot of humour in this collection, which for me works best when the voice isn’t being too aware of the fact that it is writing poems. When, in “A T-Rex Explains”, he has his dinosaur narrator, which has just mentioned a transformer coil, add in brackets

  (no, I don’t know what a transformer coil is,
  it’s just a simile)
 

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Review of I Don’t Want To Go To The Taj Mahal, by Charlie Hill, pub. Repeater Books 2020



This is subtitled “Stories of a Birmingham Boy” and is indeed basically memoir, but in the form of mostly bite-sized reminiscences. There is a chronological thread running through, but the scenes themselves are short and self-contained, rather like scenes in an American sitcom. There is a lot to be said for doing memoir this way; by focusing on the high (and low) points that swim naturally to the surface of memory, one cuts out the often-plodding link bits.

The trick, obviously, is to choose one’s vignettes carefully, with an eye to memorability, variety and – at least for me – some sort of progression, a narrative thread. Some are powerful in themselves:

“One day, it was colder than a January in Amsterdam. My brother and I passed a man in the doorway of a barbers shop along from Zaffs, and through drifting snow we asked him into the warm.
His name was Smurf. We sat in my small front room off Runcorn Road and offered him a beer but he said he didn’t drink and sniffed gas from a can he had hidden up his sleeve. He slept in front of the fire and the next morning I told him he could stay again that night but my girlfriend was coming back soon and if at all possible he should find somewhere else to crash — me and my brother would be out all day but we’d be back at eight if he was stuck. At about a quarter past eight we returned and there was a pair of footprints on the doorstep, lightly dusted with fresh snow, as if a ghost had come to visit.”

Others are more insubstantial but rendered memorable by the writing style:

“New Year’s Eve, after the pub, I am escorted round the back of an independent bakery —Lukers, in Moseley — by a woman uninterested in pastries. I am being forced up against a pile of pallets when the security lights come on and she bails, a circumstance that leads me to question my hitherto rock-solid antipathy to the nascent Surveillance State.”

Some are deceptively simple but pack a punch:

“I work part-time in the library of the University of Birmingham. I move books from one place to another and struggle with the realisation that, in this environment, books are no different to angle brackets, or pelmets.”

One problem, for me, is that around the middle of the book, some of them can get a bit samey, revolving around drink, drugs and failed relationships. Authentic this may be, but pace the book’s title, I’d happily have gone to the Taj Mahal and similar destinations rather than hang around yet another squat in Moseley thinking “oh, pull yourself together, man”.

Fortunately, progress happens in the form of a wife and family and a couple of books published, though the lack of difference that publication actually makes to life (for all but a very few lucky writers) leads to a disillusion and frustration most writers will recognise ruefully, even if they don’t go so far as to react to a tick bite in this way:

"By this time, although I loved my wife and kids, my job was unsatisfactory, even poor, and I was excited at the prospect of contracting Lyme disease, which can prove fatal if not caught. It is identified by a circular red rash, like a target and quite spectacular; unfortunately, I was fine."

The last few vignettes look like an attempt to find some meaning in death, life and the pursuit of writing. Wisely, however, they avoid coming to any tidy conclusion:

"The other day I clicked on a clip on YouTube that showed a long line of traffic on an icy road. It looked promising. A car went to overtake another and skidded across the road and I steadied myself for a guffaw. Coming the other way was a lorry with a three-storey cab doing sixty or more and when it hit the car side on, the car disintegrated, I mean it just disappeared, there was nothing left, and I sat there unable to move or comprehend what I had just seen or why."

Posterity

List of 2020 Reviews

2020 was not a normal year, at least, not after March. A lot of friends and ex-students of mine who published books lost the publicity of launches and readings due to the plague. So I decided to do extra reviews and in fact ended up doing 30 over the year. Since that's quite a lot, I thought it might be helpful to make a list of them organised into 3 categories — non-fiction, novels and poetry - and include the individual links. Nearly all were published this year, except a couple by David Wishart, and I included these because I discovered when I put up the first, which was of a new book, that some of his fans had missed the last few, because he is now self-publishing.

Non-Fiction
The Stonemason, Andrew Ziminski pub. John Murray
Brando’s Bride, Sarah Broughton, pub. Parthian
The Bhutto Dynasty, Owen Bennett-Jones, pub. Yale University Press
A Quite Impossible Proposal: How Not To Build A Railway by Andrew Drummond, pub. Origin (Birlinn)
(Normally there’d have been far more non-fiction, but I was reading so much of the new poetry and fiction I’d semi-promised to review that I had less time for it. Why don’t more of my friends write history?)

 Novels
The Breach, M T Hill, pub. Titan
Widow’s Welcome, D K Fields, pub. Head of Zeus  
Edgar Allan Poe and the Empire of the Dead, Karen Lee Street, pub. Point Blank
Dead Men’s Sandals, David Wishart, independently published
Going Back, David Wishart, independently published
Allegation, R G Adams, pub. Riverrun (Quercus)
Miriam, Daniel and Me, Euron Griffith, pub. Seren
The Midnight Swan by Catherine Fisher, pub. Firefly Press
Family Commitments by David Wishart, independently published

Poetry
Sleeper, Jo Colley, pub. Smokestack
Wing, Matthew Francis, pub. Faber
Solar Cruise, Claire Crowther, pub. Shearsman
Scion, Sue Rose, pub. Cinnamon
Between the Islands, Philip Gross, pub. Bloodaxe
Cargo of Limbs, Martyn Crucefix/Amel Alzakout, pub. Hercules Editions
The Poor Rogues Hang, Thomas Tyrrell, pub. Mosaique Press
Veritas: Poems After Artemisia, Jacqueline Saphra, pub. Hercules Editions
Almarks: Radical Poetry from Shetland, eds Jim Mainland and Mark Ryan Smith, pub. Culture Matters
Trace, Mary Robinson, pub. Oversteps Books
Loose Canon, Michael McNamara, pub. Subterranean Blue Poetry
The Tin Lodes, Andy Brown and Marc Woodward, pub. Indigo Dreams
The Night Jar, Louise Peterkin, Salt Publishing
The Book of Revelation, Rob A Mackenzie, Salt Publishing
Larksong Static: Selected Poems 2005-2020 by Martin Malone, pub. Hedgehog Press
Sharp Hills by Chrissie Gittins, pub. Indigo Dreams
Later Emperors by Evan Jones, pub. Carcanet
And that’s the lot for the accursed year 2020.

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Review of Later Emperors by Evan Jones, pub. Carcanet 2020

This collection contains three sequences and one long poem, all set in the ancient world. The first sequence, Later Emperors, concerns late and mostly little-known Roman emperors: potted biographies that usually focus on one small, often moving, detail. If that sounds familiar, it should: reading these little poems, as I discovered to my growing delight, one would think Cavafy had come back to life especially to write them. I don’t for a moment think the echoes of his style are any accident. One need only read “Maximus and Balbinus”:
 

     Our lives are like those of Maximus and Balbinus:
    the unfortunate soldier and the hapless noble,
    two emperors, alone in the palace, a troop
    of assassins approaching, while the city
    enjoys the Capitoline games. 

or “Tacitus”:

    Tacitus is too old now. His patience,
   his wisdom, could not better
   the blood-letting of war. On his death-bed,
   the army camped in remote Tyana,
   he remembers his garden, his villa,
   his morning stroll – life a few months ago –
   and in his suffering he curses
   the Senate, the godawful Senate.

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Review of “A Quite Impossible Proposal: How Not To Build A Railway” by Andrew Drummond, pub. Origin

“To make the fisheries work profitably and effectively, better transportation options were needed. And better transportation options meant investing in more and improved railways. As a strategy it made complete sense.
 And so we now turn our attention to the complete foul-up, by government and private enterprise alike, of this laudable endeavour.”

It may seem odd to write a history book specifically about things that didn’t happen, in this case railways that were never built in the West Highlands. But then this history is written by Andrew Drummond, eccentric novelist and historian, and it deals with more than railways. It concerns, in fact, the long-term neglect and abuse of a region and its community by a small class of people, namely landowners, who happened to have managed to grab ownership of most of it. It begins with an overview of the dire state of the region in 1883, when the Napier Commission sallied forth to inquire into the condition of crofters and cottars. It was the first time such a commission had really sought the views of ordinary people, and they may have been surprised by the vehemence of some of the testimony they heard, for instance the Rev Roderick Morison’s fiery denunciation of the way local people were cleared out to make way for deer hunting:
 

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Review of The Bhutto Dynasty, by Owen Bennett-Jones, pub. Yale University Press

“As a result of dealing with so many suicide attacks, the Pakistani police had noticed that the force of a suicide bomb blast often peeled the bomber’s face clean off the skull and propelled it far from the epicentre. Police could gather these so-called “facemasks” and get a very good idea what the bomber looked like.”
 

The laconic, matter-of-fact utterance of what might easily have been sensationalised is typical of this biography. It is what it says on the tin, an account of several generations of the powerful Bhutto family and its effects on Pakistan. The three family members who dominate it, obviously, are Benazir, her father Zulfikar Ali, and his father Shahnawaz, but it really is about a family as much as about individual members of it, and as often happens, there are peripheral characters who sound worth a book in themselves.

Though Zulfikar Ali flirted with left-wing politics, he and the rest of his kin were basically hereditary feudal aristocrats from a family which originated in Rajasthan but had removed in the late 17th century to Sindh, where they owned vast tracts of land and did pretty much as they pleased, just like English aristocrats of the time. The first chapter does give some of the historical and social background against which they operated, but personally I would have liked more. The country and the way it worked remained a little shadowy for me; in particular it was never clear to me how the army had come to be so powerful.
 

Sir Shahnawaz, Zulfikar’s father, was an able time-server whose most interesting act, late in life, was to marry a Hindu girl who was never accepted by his family, a slight which seems to have rankled with her son all his life. But Shahnawaz’s own father, Ghulam Murtaza, was a larger-than-life character who seems to have been deplorable and fascinating in roughly equal measure. His grandson took after him, and here I think is this book’s greatest achievement: it manages to describe a dodgy but undeniably charismatic man dispassionately, factually, not falling for his charm but managing nonetheless to convey what it was that made him so popular with so many. I doubt this is easy. I have read accounts of the Russian revolution that make Lenin sound a complete bore, and whatever else he was, he cannot have been that.
 

A similar objectivity is maintained with regard to Benazir; inevitably she elicits rather more sympathy from the reader because she seems to have wanted power at least partly for what she could do with it, rather than, like Zulfikar, simply because it was there, but the author remains resolutely neutral, unless one counts a certain dry, occasional innuendo: “For some reason the highly ambitious Beg, despite being with Zia on the day of his death, had not been with him at the precise moment he was assassinated.” This objectivity is the more admirable given the difficulty the author clearly had with sources. He has read many books and government papers and conducted many interviews, but constantly has to remind us that most of the people whose words we are reading had axes to grind and may not be wholly reliable. One source, Sir Shahnawaz’s memoir, was drawn upon by an earlier writer and certainly seems at one time to have existed in the family library, but they now disclaim all knowledge of what may have been the only copy.
 

This is a properly scholarly book with proper notes, source and index but also manages to be an absorbing and informative read.

 

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Review of Sharp Hills by Chrissie Gittins, pub. Indigo Dreams Publishing 2019

 Who knew when
 two pigeons
flew down the nave
of St Paul’s Cathedral
in Kolkata
while a Bengali Choir
sang Auld Lang Syne

The momentary surprise in the fifth line, resulting from deliberate misdirection, which highlights the juxtaposition of two related but very different cultures, is characteristic of the first part of this collection. It concerns a journey to India, but what lies behind this journey is another, in the steps of a dead father who had been in this region during the war. So we are travelling in time as well as space, never more so than when daughter imagines herself dancing with father in a club that had a different name when he visited it long ago (“Dancing in Silchar”).
 

This personal angle gives the “Indian” poems an edge, and stops them feeling at all touristy, though they also capture, in “Becoming in Kolkata”, the way a more open and forthcoming culture can change a visitor: “I have become someone […] who smiles at other smiles”. The only poem in this section that didn’t work for me was the ballad “45 Squadron’s Christmas Dinner, Kumbhirgram Air Base, 1943”, and that is because there were too many lines whose rhythms went astray; if there’s one thing a ballad can’t afford, it‘s a faltering metre.
 

The poems after the “Dancing in Silchar” section are more disparate. There are sharp observational poems, like “Corbel Angel, Southwold Museum” in which the eponymous angel is allowed to voice its memories:

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Review of Family Commitments by David Wishart, independently published 2017



"Gods! Well, you know that’s the way the empire works – selling off unwanted kids to clear a debt is standard practice among the poorer classes throughout the empire, but when it’s your own major-domo that you’ve known for years who’s telling you that, and in Bathyllus’s matter of fact tones, it stops you in your tracks. Sure, I knew that old Grandpa Marcus had bought him fifty-odd years back in Pergamum and taken him to Rome but that was as far as it went.

“What about your mother? I said.
 “She was dead, sir. In childbirth, two years previously."
 “Ah.” There wasn’t much more I could say, really."

As I’ve mentioned before, I am doing some catch-up reviews for David Wishart’s Corvinus books because I discovered some fans weren’t getting to hear about the latest ones since he left his publisher. In this, one of his best recent ones, Bathyllus, as you can see, takes centre stage when his past catches up with him in the shape of Damon, a long-lost brother. The two have led very different lives and it shows; Damon, though physically very like his brother, has had a harder and more uncertain time and survived it by becoming somewhat of a chancer. He is currently in dire danger because his equally chancy master has been murdered for a valuable item, which his killers did not find on him and which they now assume is in Damon’s hands. Corvinus’s best chance of helping Bathyllus keep him alive is to find the murderers.

We shall meet some old friends in this one, like inveterate gossip Caelius Crispus, Corvinus’s pal Gaius Secundus (complete with a brand-new wife) and cartel boss Eutacticus, if you can call someone a friend who keeps moray eels rather than goldfish and intimates that he might not be averse to feeding you to them. Also some new faces, notably Pomponia Graecina, whom Corvinus approaches for advice when the case starts to turn political, and who gives him a bit of a surprise:

"She was in the garden, standing chatting to a smallish, thin-branched tree with narrow leaves and sprays of pinkish-white flowers.

Right. Chatting. To a tree.

Uh-huh.

She turned towards me […] I noticed she was wearing as many amulets draped around her neck as would equip a stall outside one of the more popular temples."

Pomponia, as it happens, may be a sucker for New Age superstitions but she has a keen mathematical brain. She was a real person, who would later be one of Rome’s first reputed Christians.

As well as being amusing, this one is intermittently rather moving, as our long-term friend Bathyllus’s back-story becomes clearer. The personal and the political also become interestingly mixed up. The case gets satisfyingly murky before Corvinus manages to get to the bottom of things and find some sort of resolution. Oh, and along the way he also has to do a small job for his mother, who fears her ancient husband, Corvinus’s stepfather Priscus, may be having an affair….

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Review of Larksong Static: Selected Poems 2005-2020 by Martin Malone, pub. Hedgehog Press



Skimming the poem titles in the early part of this Selected – Barbury Castle, Red Kites at Uffington, Wood on the Downs – you might easily file Malone as a poet of place. And indeed there is a strong element of that in him, as evidenced by the incantatory lists of place-names:

     We have been here before. Uffington, Hackpen,
     Grim’s Ditch, Ogbourne St.George, Wayland’s Smithy,
     Sparshott Firs, Bishopstone and Barbury (“Wood on the Downs”)


In fact, though, it soon becomes clear that the landscape is a backdrop, albeit a sharply and lovingly observed one- in the title (a phrase from the opening poem) “static” is a noun, not an adjective; the lark-song a buzz at the back of the soundtrack. What is really at the heart of these early poems is the development of the relationships played out against the landscape:

     You, me and your son
     and the best kite on the hill.
     Passing around the string, sharing the pull
     of possibility, we are shaken;
     shuddering through the kite-tail spine
     of ourselves, alone in the moment’s blue
     latitude. I look from boy to you
     with some sense of new gravities.
     An inkling load guyed skyward, upon
     the caught breath of an idea murmured
     into your ear: you, me, us. (“Best Kite On The Hill”)


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Review of The Midnight Swan by Catherine Fisher, pub. Firefly Press 2020



Please don’t feel upset. I was so sure the alchemist in Wolverhampton would be the answer to your problem and it was such a shame that he blew himself up just before I got to speak to him. But don’t despair, dear brother! We will get you back to your human shape!

Not surprisingly, the Clockwork Crow is less than reassured by this letter from his brother Enoch. This is the third book in the Clockwork Crow trilogy: as we begin, the enchanted Crow is still trying to regain his human form, the Tylwyth Teg (you can call them fairies if you like, but it doesn’t convey their alien-ness or malevolence) are still trying to get into Plas y Fran, the house they view as theirs, and Seren, the orphan girl taken in by the family who live there, is still wondering exactly what her position in the household is and whether she can feel secure.

The acid-tongued, cantankerous Crow is on excellent form – witness his story about the young woman for whom his fancy, years ago, was the start of his troubles:

     “What happened to the young lady?” Tomos asked suddenly, as if he had been thinking over the story. “The one who asked for the rose?”
     The Crow scowled. “She married a farmer. And I dare say she deserved it.”

The Crow, Seren and Tomos have to venture into the otherworld again to complete a quest which promises to give the Crow what he needs, and it is as scary and beguiling a place as ever. Seren, meanwhile has her own worries and desires:

     But the hare didn’t answer at all. And when Seren looked into its eyes she saw they were filled with the silver light of the moon and for a moment all she wanted to do was stay there too, and stare and stare at the alien cratered surface, so that its brilliant light filled all her eyes and her head and her brain and…
      “Seren!” Tomos whispered. [..]
      Seren followed but she couldn’t help looking back. The hare had not moved. And if it could see into the future…
      “Are they going to send me away?” she whispered.
      The hare’s eyes were pools of moonlight. For a moment she thought it hadn’t heard her but then it said softly, “There is no such place as away”.


One of the little verses that serve as chapter epigraphs reads “Wish for love, wish for treasure/wish for someone else’s pleasure”. There is a moral dimension to the story, not in the sense of a clunking Victorian children’s novel but reminiscent of the much-missed TV quest-game Knightmare, in which it was literally impossible to win unless you were prepared to be altruistic. It becomes clear that this quest too cannot be won unless people sometimes put the interests of others before their own; there may be no such place as away but there is certainly such a thing as society.

The fact that this is a pacy, terrific page-turner will come as no surprise to those who have read The Clockwork Crow and The Velvet Fox. As usual, I read it for the first time at breakneck pace, desperate to find out what happened next and how it ended, and then had to go back and take things more slowly, to savour the spellbinding prose. It’s a fitting end to a fine series.