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Sheenagh Pugh
11 November 2018 @ 10:47 am
A recent FB post by a friend got me thinking how much time I have spent, as a writer, doing things I didn't really want to get sucked into, just because it's so hard to say no. I suspect, from that and other posts, that other writers also find it a problem. Now that I am older and wilier I have collected a few tips about avoiding this, and here they are:

1. The most vital - NEVER agree to discuss anything on the phone. There is more than one reason for this; unless you record it, you will have no proof of what was said, which will be awkward if the caller happens to be, say, an unscrupulous journalist who will twist your words, or an entrepreneur who is good at forgetting promises and denying he ever made them (met both). But my main reason is that it's far harder to say no to a voice in your ear than to an email. Old and wily as I am, I got caught like this fairly recently by a man who insisted on ringing, then badgered me into agreeing to his use of a poem I didn't really want used. If ever anyone says "Oh, I'd much rather talk on the phone, we will understand each other so much better than in writing", remember that what he is really saying is "It will be easier for me to get my own way". Tell him you have hearing loss or a terrible phone line/memory and INSIST on email or snailmail.

2. If it's something the enquirer should be paying you for, mention money very early in the proceedings. Don't just assume they will, because it's quite possible they won't and will hope to get you for nothing. If the mere mention of money sends them scuttling, all the better; at least you haven't wasted your time doing any free work. It took me half a lifetime to forget my mother's belief that it was rude to mention money. It isn't if you want to get your hands on any.

3. If you have a blog and do reviews, folk will ask you to review their books. I don't mind these requests. You see books you might otherwise miss and I enjoy writing reviews anyway. What I don't enjoy is feeling obliged to, and if a small publisher sends me an actual book copy, I feel: well, this has cost them a copy and postage, I really must review it even if I can't think of much to say. My solution to this is to ask enquirers to send an electronic copy instead. I don't mind reading onscreen, and when I know it hasn't cost them anything, I feel better about emailing back, if necessary, "sorry but I don't think I'm the right reviewer for this".

There you are - gratis, the stratagems of a chronically shy person who cannot actually echo Gideon from Local Hero in saying "and are there two Gs in "bugger off?" but who thinks it quite a lot...
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh


Be careful going up the stair.
Someone's left their shadow there.


An orphan. A mystery. An old house with a grumpy housekeeper. Something that shouldn't be able to talk, but can. Snow. Supernatural beings with evil intent. Looking for a Christmas present for an intelligent youngster? Look no further, but buy this early, because you're going to want to read it a couple of times yourself before wrapping it – once very quickly, to find out what happens next, and then more slowly, to savour the prose, the tension, the winter descriptions, the world-building. Allegedly this is a children's book, and I mean children's, not YA. But then so was Masefield's The Midnight Folk and I still re-read that….

I suppose its intended audience shows most clearly in the linear narrative; there is only one point-of-view character, the girl Seren, and we are with her throughout, whereas in Fisher's YA novels, there are liable to be two or three narrative threads going on at any one time, and we shift between them. The intended audience, however, makes no odds to the depth of character; people in a Fisher novel are never two-dimensional or easily pigeonholed. Seren, the protagonist, is as spiky and independent as most of Fisher's young heroines, and her confederate the Crow is even more so – their tart, combative exchanges are a joy and the final revelation of his identity beautifully apt.

Nor does the targeted age-group result in any noticeable simplification of the vocabulary; Fisher doesn't believe in talking down to readers. The book is set in the Victorian past where carriages still coexist with railways, and life in the house itself harks back yet further:
Immediately Seren jumped from her chair and ran to the sideboard. It was full of small brown drawers marked with old-fashioned labels. Barley Sugar, Cocoa and Chocolate, All Sorts of Seeds, Isinglass Shavings, Heartsease. She pulled them open hastily. They contained spicy mixtures smelling sharp and pungent, but none of them were what she wanted. Then on a shelf she saw a small flask labelled Oil of Cloves.
The labels are perfect for evoking a past time (who could resist All Sorts of Seeds?) but if child readers want to know what isinglass or heartsease are, they can go and find out. It's part of the experience, their own interaction with mystery. I should think child readers would probably be intrigued by the subtle time indicators – dresses bought as material and made up at home, dedicated bathrooms that are a novelty suggestive of considerable wealth. They would also be enchanted by the wintry atmosphere (I sometimes wonder if there is any limit to the number of ways Fisher can conjure up cold; probably not). And they would surely love the textual illustrations – crows perched on the chapter headings, stars scattered across the corners of pages. Though I may say that on my first reading, I failed to notice these, because I was too busy speed-reading, being wild to discover how it turned out.
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh


Jim Mainland's pamphlet titles are always an interesting indicator of what he is up to. A Package of Measures alluded both to government measures and the various verse forms he was using, while League of Notions, (reviewed here) again associated his political themes with the exuberance and fancy of his language and imagery.

"Fuglicaavie" is an Old Norse portmanteau word meaning, more or less, a blizzard of birds, originally coined by Shetland fishermen to describe the cloud of birds that follows a fishing boat coming in with its catch. The poem with this title is a shape-poem representing the said boat, and the picture – both the boat and the cloud of following birds – is made up of words from the Shetlandic dialect of Norn, the language spoken in the islands until a few centuries ago but now lost as a language, though many words survive in dialect. Anyone who doesn't get the point of shape-poems should have a look at this one and see how moving is the image of the cloud of lost words following the boat home; if there is a way this could have been as powerfully expressed without using a pictorial image, it isn't obvious to me.

 But as one of the quotes used as an epigraph points out, the word caavie can apply to anything, which is why we also have the grim poem "Styrocaavie", about the pernicious microbeads of polystyrene, deceptively resembling snow, with which we are busy polluting "our"  environment:
falling as friendly precipitation

in the beauty of clog and glom and chronic
fallout beside take-away residual hill and shore
headaches falling into the interstices and sleeving
for the central nervous symptoms whose falling

systems take hundreds of years to decompose whose
few known methods of breaking down cannot
be simulated

As can be seen, the language here becomes, in a different way from the words in "Fuglicaavie", itself a caavie, a blizzard of words not necessarily falling in what we may think of as the "right" order. And the randomness, the breakdown of ordered syntax, immeasurably heightens the anguish of the tone. Mainland is a poet living in a remote rural place; it would be a huge mistake to suppose him, on that account, apolitical or unaware of contemporary concerns, particularly environmental ones. Bidisha, chairing this year's Forward Prize panel, said snidely and superficially "A poet is not an old white heterosexual male philanderer talking about what he saw on his walk". Leaving out the "philanderer", this would actually be a fair description of Mr Mainland and his methods, but you see, madam, it rather depends how sharply one observes on one's walk and how one's talent transmutes observation into language.

As readers of his earlier work will know, Mainland often collaborates with musicians and some of his poems do have musical accompaniments which I've heard performed. When I was wondering how on earth the poem "Fuglicaavie" could be performed for an audience, it did strike me as possible, given a projector and soundtrack, so that the words could move across the screen, while several disembodied voices spoke them in random combinations. It would be unconventional, but then it is rare to find a poet to whom both shape and music are so important.

There are more conventionally constructed poems too in this collection – even a long poem in terza rima (""The Water Diviner"). But the measured cadences of "The Carpenter", celebrating Francesco Tuccio, who made the Lampedusa Cross from shipwreck wood in memory of drowned refugees, hold the same anguish and power as the caavie poems:

After the sea of children's cries, and worse,
the flooded, capsizing, submerged silence,
a slow dystopian interrogation
of lost papers and sifted identities

The poet conjures up a possible motivation for so hazardous a journey:

a dream
you once had, where you walked among strangers,
were freely enfolded in their welcome;
a gesture whose simple shape your fingers
now trace and retrace clasp and unclasp:
a tree out-branched, upright on the level plain,
a raised hand to haul you from hostile waters.


This pamphlet is £6 inc, p & p and is probably the best £6 you've ever spent if you are interested in what innovative and aware poetry can do, whatever the age, ethnicity and inclination of whoever writes it.  The author is doing the distribution: he can be contacted at Rockville, Nibon, Hamar, Shetland, ZE2 9RQ. Or if you're lucky enough to live near Lerwick, you can find it in the Shetland Times bookshop.
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
"Another few feet of the cliff are gone. The end of the yard is a booby-trap, something out of a cartoon. There's nothing underneath to support your weight, just a drop into the constant traffic of the waves against the rocks. Fresh rock and soil and dangling roots like the nerves of an extracted tooth are exposed along the C-shape of the cliff face. One of the trees, a dogwood, clings to the cliff-side at a desperate angle, four-petalled blossoms shivering in the constant sea breeze. It looks like it's still falling. I can't see the other one at all. My dogwood tree at the bottom of the sea."

This alarmingly unstable residence is on the island of Swan, located in the archipelago of the Shoals, off the coast of New Hampshire. There is in fact such an island, but this is very much a fictitious version of it. In the book, (set in the present, 2015) the island has become a sort of gated community for the old, that doesn't, due to its location, actually need gates. Our narrator The Kid, a 17-year-old girl, has in effect been dumped there on her grandmother by her feckless drug-addled parents, who promised to return for her but failed to do so. The grandmother has since died and the girl, who has needed to be resourceful in her short life, is hanging on in the house, tolerated by some of the regular inhabitants (the Wrinklies) but resented by others, and supporting herself in an interesting way, by digitally altering all the photos and cine film that comprise the lifelong memories of her elderly neighbour, Mrs Tyburn, to better reflect the way that lady wishes her life had been – overweight children are miraculously slimmed, and the boat named after a husband's mistress rechristened, by the magic of a little technical know-how that remains a mystery to the Wrinklies.

The Kid, in fact, has been messed about by inadequate adults all her life and is now living on sufferance in a community set up to cater to the needs of oldies but gradually and literally crumbling away into the ocean, arguably as a result of that generation's actions in the past. The nearby island of Duck is plagued by sudden methane explosions, the result of having been used for years as a dump for, among other rubbish, disposable nappies. There is a certain grim humour here, and also in The Kid's narrative voice, which is one of the best things about the novel. Blake Morrison's quote on the back, saying he hadn't been so captivated by a first-person voice since Holden Caulfield, nearly put me off, for even as a teenager I found Holden a tiresome brat. The Kid is a great deal more engaging. It does strike me that for a girl who has not been much in school and, we are told, hasn't read much, her vocabulary is a bit too extensive and sometimes verging on the literary. But she is very listenable.

There are a fair few typos in my proof copy, which I've been asked to ignore since they'll hopefully be edited out. I will mention one, because I'm tired of seeing published works, whose authors and editors should know better, spell the verb "retch", meaning to vomit, as if it were the noun "wretch", meaning a literary person who can't spell…

The voice puzzled me at times by having, I thought, a tinge of UK English, which seemed strange in a book so firmly set in the US, Sure enough, the writer turns out to be one of those deracinated exiles I so often find the most interesting, because they see their own country clearer from a distance (rather like RLS describing Edinburgh from Samoa). This probably explains the sharpness of the topographical descriptions of Swan Island. All in all, this is one of the better novels I've read this year, original and engaging with a saving touch of humour.
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh

Here's a challenge. You have a short pamphlet of poems (there are 12 or 15, depending on whether you count a sequence as one poem or four) whose subject matter is football. Can you interest and engage a reader who admittedly likes poetry, but whose knowledge of football stops at a one-time adolescent crush on George Best and a liking for the film The Damned United?

The answer, much of the time, is yes. Of course, one reason is that subject matter is not the only thing, nor even the main thing, that poems are about. Here, football becomes emblematic of male solidarity, class conflict, a semi-condoned vent for energy and violence. In the first poem, "Tohuwabohu", it is more, the ball becomes the mythological egg laid by Night, from which the world hatches. This might sound OTT, and indeed there is a humour in the exalted language that would be hard to miss. But for all that, the comparison between egg and ball, and other round objects (suns, worlds, testicles) is not entirely frivolous. The mediaeval and post-mediaeval games involving whole towns, few rules and a lot of casual violence are represented here by the game at Bartholomew Fair, which was in August, but most of these games were held in winter, often around Christmas and New Year, when it is tempting to see the ball as a stand-in for the absent sun.

As one might expect from Ely, the matter of class conflict becomes central, and several poems concern the chasm between amateur and professional. The concept of amateurism in sport is often romanticised; here it is forcefully pointed out that "ludere causa ludendi" is a motto relevant only to people with money. The Carthusians and Corinthians, playing the game "for game's delight" are in a different world from the Northern slaters and riveters for whom football could be a rare escape route from poverty, provided they could get paid for doing so, and even non-football fans will at this point find themselves siding against the Carthusians with their "hands of white kid" and with Fergus Suter:

riveting plate till the shipyard hooter
blares and the working day relents
and limps to his cockroach tenement
where even a dram can't ease the pain;
play up Corinth, play the game.

It is interesting to note that the "Scottish game", the subject of the pamphlet's central sequence, differed from the English public-school game not only in being keener on paid professionals but in being more collaborative, as befitted its working-class roots. The English game had favoured individuals holding on to the ball and dribbling it as long as possible; the "Scottish game" introduced the passing play which characterises present-day football. There's something quite satisfying about that.

The final poem, "Jubilate Messi", is a praise-poem addressed to Lionel Messi and in a conscious echo of the style of Smart's "Jubilate Agno". This is a style that quite suits it, since it is Ely in his most allusive mode, jumping from association to association without stopping for explanations in much the same way Smart's unpredictable mind tended to. I wouldn't know Messi if I met him in the street and have certainly never seen him play. But I can recall the joy that radiated from Best's talent as he left the opposition behind, and it is much the same delight that comes through here:

I will rejoice in Lionel Andrés Messi, for he leaps before the Lord like David and his joy is uncovered: Let the rain streak bright on the flaring floodlights, Empire’s phosphorescent rainbow arching like a cat.

So… I can’t altogether share what seems to be Ely’s tolerance, if no more, of violence on the field (apologies if I’m misreading the tone, but in his “Ballad of Jack Ross”, the line “he tripped and hacked and chopped” sounds more celebratory than anything else). And yes, some background knowledge of football would probably make it more immediately accessible. But guess what: when first reading, I clean forgot Mr Ely’s helpful habit of putting notes at the back – I was too caught up in the momentum and exuberance of the poems. The notes are worth reading, they will give you a lot of interesting facts, but when I did read them I saw that the essentials had already come through to me. That says a lot for the craft.
 
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
23 August 2018 @ 11:18 am
I'll be publishing a new collection with Seren in about April/May 2019. It's called Afternoons Go Nowhere and here's a poem from it:
Quarff Gap

A place named for nothing,
a nothing, a space
in a spine of hills,

a great scoop of sky
in a green spoon, a doorway
from east to west.

A place with a past
before history started.
Think the river back,

the giant whose bed
you stand in. It would run
where the skuas balance

between two hills,
where air pours
in place of water.

Something was here,
now nothing is. Nothing
fills the eye,

bowl-shaped, windblown,
the colour of weather,
salt-flavoured, singular.

Who knew nothing
could be such a landmark?
From the North Sea,

sailing up this coast,
bays blur; nesses flatten out,
it's hard to tell

townships apart.
But no one can miss
the gap, the emptiness

that signs its name
across landscape, sky,
that draws the fancy

like a window, or rather
the space in a ruined wall
where a window was.

 
 
Sheenagh Pugh


The six short stories in this collection range in time from the 1940s to the present and beyond, and are arranged in chronological order. I even thought, when I first read through, that I could detect gradual language change in them, but it isn't that, it is rather a very keen and natural eye for period detail, so that one really feels one is in the postwar Valleys world with its Woodbines. cockroaches and the novelty of babies being born in hospital ("Progress"), or, later, in "The Cavalry", the same milieu in the changing times of the sixties, with TV and consumer goods just beginning to infiltrate a world where men could still recall war service and council estates were aspirational places to live:
They came to the end of the council houses and to the start of the terrace. The last estate house had the gable end of the terrace instead of one of its front garden walls. She'd known it before the estate was built but it was hard to remember. The terrace of Stanley Street used to point up the hill to nothing but some old mountain and a coal tip, some old farm. Yet it wasn't all that long ago. […]

It was still unchristmassy here. Mark looked at the front room windows as they passed. It must be funny to have no front garden.

Mark, a small boy, is one of the two point-of-view characters in this story (if any wiseacre ever tells you two POVs won't work in the same story, point him at this one) and as he has done before, Meredith proves adept at seeing through a child's eyes in a completely matter-of-fact and uncontrived way:
Christmas didn' happen outside the house, like you thought it would. It was grey and grainy and unmoving and nobody was about. it was like the day went on being itself, as if it didn' care what it was supposed to be like.
It may seem odd, when looking for a theme in a collection of stories, to start in the middle, but in this case it feels appropriate. It seems to me that the preoccupation common to all of them is human contact, and this comes over most clearly in the two middle stories. In "The Cavalry", a woman who works as a home help goes out of her way, on Christmas morning, to make contact with a lonely old man, and teaches her children to do the same. Later she is dissatisfied with her efforts and feels she should have done more, resolving to go and see him again very soon – "she'd heard of Home Helps finding people. She didn't want to leave it too long".

In the next story, "The Enthusiast", set in the present, a man is accidentally reconnected via email with a childhood friend, Paul, whom he has not seen or thought about for many years. This sets off a train of memories connected with his childhood and young adulthood. The email correspondence continues but they live far enough apart for the protagonist not to think about actually arranging a meeting – though the way he over-analyses the content of Paul's emails and his own replies suggests he would like to. Then something happens which not only renders this impossible but also forces him to comprehensively re-interpret the emails he has been reading.

It would be easy, but inaccurate, to conclude from the juxtaposition of these two stories that the reason communication partly succeeds in one and fails in the other is the difference between face to face contact and email. But this is misleading. The first story, "Averted Vision", takes place during World War 2; there is plenty of face to face contact and a catastrophic failure of human communication. In the second, "Progress", set in 1950, a man in what sounds like a happy marriage is nevertheless unable to communicate to his wife his understandable reasons for taking an important decision and resorts to a lie. And in "Haptivox", set in the future, a couple seems to achieve quite an enjoyable form of communication via virtual reality. Even here, though, the couple's dream of complete union is shown to be ultimately impossible:
It seemed to her that they were like two huge buildings, or cities, with their complications of floors and passageways, stairwells and liftshafts, the lacework of girders and fills of brick and concrete and then the surges of electricity and of fluids, the traffic and commerce of every day. Imagine all that thinning and becoming porous, and then these two universes interpenetrating, the stairwells from different buildings intertwining and joining, the skeletal architectures permeating one another and interlocking. The mechanical inhabitings of sex, the crude transformations on the beach were nothing to this, where the different-same energies whispered in the different-same channels. And he felt this too. All the space that matter is made of suddenly understood itself, and was generous, and let the other in. Their different grammars and lexicons didn't just blend into a creole. They atomized as they crossed and reconfigured. And once this had happened there could be no images, nothing to observe, only this new building, with nothing outside its own self-awareness and an apprehension of the marvellous.

And immediately some part of this new place started to fail. Images started to return of lights going out and pipework cooling, a sense of some shrivelled, hard thing disconnecting itself back into being.

Individuality reasserts itself; it may be that we are all ultimately "unreachable" like the old man in "The Cavalry" or "the imperfect likeness of a quick, intelligent face, glimpsed, so to speak across a gulf" ("The Enthusiast"). But the human impulse is to attempt to bridge that gulf and it is such attempts that these stories chronicle.
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
04 June 2018 @ 09:59 am
Poetry is often accused of not addressing contemporary issues, public issues. This is a lazy accusation, generally made by people like columnists seeking for an easy headline, who either don't read much poetry or who don't get the role of nuance in poetry, expecting it to spell out The Ishoos in capital letters for the benefit of the obtuse (a group for whom poetry simply cannot cater and should not try to).

When I recently reviewed Frank Dullaghan's latest collection, Lifting the Latch, one poem in particular stood out for me as addressing a current issue in a way that only a poet, as opposed to a journalist or polemicist, could really hope to do. Frank has kindly agreed to my blogging about it and quoting it in full in the process, so I am.

The first thing to note is the narrative voice. It would have been very easy to choose an "I" voice and enlist sympathy for an individual. But this poem is in the "we" voice, assuming the identity of the countless multitudes who flee, and have always fled, one place for another. And while it empathises with their plight:
We walk with our lives
on our backs, our children,
drunk from walking, by the hand,
our pasts blown up behind us
this sense of multitudes also, quite deliberately, carries a hint of alarm, not from any ill-will on the part of the speakers but because their arrival heralds massive change to a way of life:
We move through your culture,
your story telling, your politics.
[…]
We will move through your memories,

your imagination, your knowledge
of yourselves.
It is the fear of such change that leads so many to be hostile and unwelcoming in the face of this influx. The poem does not deny its reality. But the narrative voice, through its emotionless patience, its inexorable repetition of "we move" and "we walk", not only echoes the trudging feet; it points up the inevitability of what is happening and the utter uselessness of trying to turn the tide, rather than live with it. The mention of the earth's rotation reminds us of how long it has been the case, ever since we came out of Africa, that we have been moving south to north, east to west – another advantage poetry can have in addressing "current issues" is by going beyond the "current". And although the poem never explicitly says so (see above, because it's a poem, not a polemic), its end points to the fact that this movement is not just political. If climate change does what most scientists think it must (and given the kind of noddies on the "denial" side, one is driven to think it certainly will), then what now looks like a flood will seem a trickle and those who now have borders, villages, countryside they can call their own will have to realise their own place in the world is not as secure as they thought. A powerful poem.

There is Nowhere Left
by Frank Dullaghan

We move through your borders,
your villages, your countryside.
We walk with our lives
on our backs, our children,
drunk from walking, by the hand,
our pasts blown up behind us.

We move through your language,
your donated food, your fields
of tents. We walk without hope,
as if this is our new reason for being –
this great walk, this achievement
of pushing the miles behind us.

We move through your culture,
your story telling, your politics.
We walk against the turn
of the earth - East to West, our
great numbers slowing its rotation.
We will move through your memories,

your imagination, your knowledge
of yourselves. Our footsteps
will dog the rhythm of your days.
We will walk across your clean
bed linen, your tablecloths, your
conversations. There is no stopping

now that we have started. There is
no use erecting barriers, arguments,
prayers, for you too are moving,
you too are losing your place.
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh


This is the story of a contemporary young man who goes to the bad in Sheffield, but there is a twist; he is an avatar of the Icelandic saga hero Grettir Asmundsson. The blurb calls the book a "retelling" of Grettir's Saga, but that may be slightly misleading. Aidan's story is not a simple reprise of Grettir's; for one thing, Aidan's life is punctuated and to some extent defined by a seemingly endless series of young women who are even more messed up with drink and drugs than he is, whereas women play very little part in Grettir's life (or if they do, the sagaman does not think fit to dwell on it). And his end is less like Grettir's than that of the mercifully almost-forgotten thug Raoul Mouat. Aidan is, however, very like Grettir in the way his initially quite good intentions are brought to nothing by the need to live up to the hard-man image he has, fairly accidentally, acquired and which dogs him thereafter, partly because people expect him to live up to it and misinterpret his words and actions accordingly, partly because he himself feels a need to live up to it.

In some ways, the saga's major influence on the novel is not on its characters but on its narrative method. Any saga fan will be aware of the huge cast of characters who wander in and out of a saga, so much so that the sagaman sometimes takes pity on the reader by announcing, after a character has somehow left the scene, "and now he is out of the story". This situation is replicated in the way Aidan and his friends wander from casual job to job, from relationship to relationship and from one accommodating friend's sofa or floor to another. They are transients; the people and places in their lives mostly temporary. In one short two and a half-page chapter I counted the names of 17 different people, few of whom I could recall or who would necessarily recur. Some readers might find that frustrating, but it mirrors the kind of lifestyle the novel is creating and if the reader has trouble remembering which name fits which character, Aidan almost certainly does too. You have to read it like a saga, trusting that if a particular name is going to matter, it will recur.

Aidan himself, of course, does have to come over as a character and he has to develop, from an unruly but not ill-natured child into someone who can kill. It helps too if he can retain a little sympathy from readers who are bound to get impatient with his shiftlessness and contrariness. This he manages by dint of a certain dry humour and the occasional emergence of better feelings that never quite go away, but mainly because there does seem to be a terrible inevitability about his life: if something he does can go wrong, or be disastrously misinterpreted, it surely will. In this he is very like Grettir the "ogaefumadr", the man of ill-luck.

The novel's narrative voice is a blend of the laconic saga-style and a more sardonic, modern idiom that works well:

everyone said it was Shelley who was the evil one and Mark was just going along with it because he was shagging her or a bit thick or scared of her, and probably all three. But Shelley had done Sociology A-level and said that was misogyny plain and simple and when a man was hard everyone wanted to be his friend, but if a fit young woman was they said she was a sicko. Which was all very well but years later when it was in the national press about stabbing that horse and how she had kept an Armenian slave in the cellar of a house on Spital Hill, everyone including the Home Office psychologist concluded that she was a sicko after all.

If there's one element of the saga that I miss in the novel, it is the supernatural. Glam, the terrifying ghost whom Grettir overcomes at the cost of his mental health, is, it is true, on one level what Grettir has it in him to be; he seems to Grettir as Grettir does to others and Grettir fears the darkness inside as well as outside him. This can be replicated in human terms by Aidan's fear of becoming like the child abuser who is Glam's equivalent here. But Glam is also elemental: Grettir has to fight not only other men and himself but the forces of nature and another world, and that is a dimension that for me the novel doesn't have. The odd thing is that one can see how it might; Aidan and his brother already have Irish Catholic names, why not give them the background and tortured conscience to go with it?

One of the most remarkable things about the novel is that it never loses momentum. This isn't easy when one is essentially describing the lives of a bunch of druggie layabouts; it's a milieu that can soon become a deadly bore. That it does not is both a tribute to the author's handling of pace and a vindication of his choice of style; the saga-form really does suit the material.
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh


Frank Dullaghan's new collection is carefully shaped and structured. It has five named sections, and though there is a lot of thematic crossover between them, each does have a distinct character: "Small Town Brewery Blues" concerns the poet's past in Ireland, "The Children Are Silent" focuses on contemporary politics, with "Aisling" we are in the territory of dream and myth, "Lazarus Leaving" is very conscious of approaching age and death, while the final section, "Beannacht" ("blessing") is focused on family and the personal.

Dullaghan's work background in business and his long-term residence in Dubai are unusual in British poetry and have given him some fascinating subject matter. I've mentioned in previous reviews that he is one of very few poets to have actually written about the financial crash of 2008 and its effect on individuals. Although it isn't a major theme of this collection, its ripples are still felt, especially in the long meditation "Love Poem for Oreo", in which the narrator, his certainties and future plans overset by the crash ("how will I provide now/for our old age?") is temporarily too stalled to move on:
The past
will not let the future enter.
But he finds that the adaptability of the neighbour's cat he is temporarily minding in what, to both, is an unfamiliar environment helps him to change his perspective:
There is still a way
of living in the world.
The quiet, dry humour with which the poem concludes, when the cat has gone home
It would never have worked out anyway –
the language barrier, the age difference, religion,
species, politics
is very typical of Dullaghan's writing voice, in which, though the "I" voice is prominent, self-absorption and self-pity are emphatically not. The political poems in the second section are some of his most powerful yet, I think, and the more so for curbing and controlling their feelings. In "Doll" he imagines a child playing in Gaza.
She wraps a bandage
around the doll's eyes
so it cannot see, covers its ears
to grant it passage to a new world
of silence. Then she pulls of
both of its legs, yanking them
from their plastic sockets, discovering
how cleanly it happens, the lack
of blood.
What he is very good at is making the connections and comparisons between his own life and the lives of people in the wider world (one reason, I think, that he chooses to juxtapose sections I and 2). In the poem "Things I Don't Know" he marries political concern with technical skill in a corona-like form, using the last word of each verse to lead on to the next and, in each, contrasting small inconveniences with matters of life and death:
I know about boats. But not like that,
not recklessly, not as small heavy bobbings overladen
in the crash of a soul-sick sea,
not that deadly form of travel.

I know about travel – motorways, traffic-jams,
airport security checks. But I know nothing about
the pregnant belly of a truck, nothing
about gasping for delivery, for foreign air.
Again, a lot of the impact of this comes from his ability to retain enough emotional detachment to shape and control his utterance. This is true even in the poems dealing with age and death. Indeed the wry tone often returns, as in "The Voices of the Dead", which begins "I sit with a coffee and my dead brother". This supernatural encounter does not produce any cosmic answers to life, the universe and everything:
We expect the dead to be wise but they are
only themselves. What did you expect, he says.

You don't think of me that often any more. True.
Life does that. It fills you up with its noise,
leaves little space in your head for the voices of the dead.
Indeed, in "Love Poem for Oreo" the poet reflects that "this is not a time for answers". What you get in this collection, underpinned by considerable technical skill, are questions that need thinking about, juxtapositions that throw new light on each other and, very often, phrases so exact that they linger in the mind – "some moments can last longer than others" ("Remembering Your Green Dress").
 
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
This is a themed pamphlet, of 25 poems about and around the Great War. It opens with what might be construed as a disclaimer and a warning, a poem called "Séance" which implies that at this distance, "occluded by one century/and the paradigms of myth", professional historical methods have little more chance of getting at the truth of those times than does the tawdry sham that is a séance.

And of course it is true that nobody could expect 25 poems to provide a comprehensive overview of five years of global carnage, nor is that the aim. The poems are more like torches, pointed into odd and sometimes unexpected corners to highlight whatever was going on there at the time. It isn't always life at the front. The title poem commemorates the inventor of daylight saving, William Willett, whose early-morning rides inspired him to bring the "morning, incandescent with summer" to those still asleep behind their curtains. The irony of this happening in 1916, when the extra daylight was spent in extra work and worry, and the even greater irony that Willett had died of influenza the year before:
1916, and, like many a medal, your monument arrives
post-mortem, the blinds still drawn in Petts Wood
is as much part of the times as events in the trenches. So is "Mrs Mounter", the landlady immovable in her doorway who has seen so many young men come and go.

The torches do seem to shine on artistic individuals more often than not – the artist Christopher Nevinson, poets of several nationalities, Saki, Helen Thomas, widow of Edward. I think my favourite of these was "Let Us Sleep Now", an imagined encounter in which Owen has the "strange meeting" with his one-time enemy not in hell but on a Vienna tram, and finds him "clean and good-looking and well again" – albeit headed towards the cemetery at the end of the line. And there is an unforgettable blackly humorous moment in "Phoebus Apollo", about the aristocratic Julian Grenfell adjusting to life at the front:
As with all sport, you took to it well, bagged a laurel;
found increase in battle, love in the taking of life
and gilded your game book with three Pomeranians.
That brief moment when the reader thinks: even an English aristo wouldn't shoot small fluffy lapdogs, before realising that these are the Pomeranians who live in Pomerania, is surely deliberate, and very effective.

But for my money the poems in the voices of the less famous bring the physicality of the war most vividly to life. In "The Turnip Winter" it is easy to identify with the German mother's feelings of inadequacy at not being able to provide for her children, while in "Trench Requisites" we have one of the pamphlet's most successful voices, that of a sardonic and embittered veteran whose attitude to new arrivals at the front is one of pardonable impatience and brutal honesty.
Yes, how we hate you, you cheerful young men
with your tinned kippers and today's Daily Mail;
the periscope from Harrods, the warm new boots.

It will be noted from the above that we are still in officer country here, and in fact other ranks make relatively few appearances except, interestingly enough, in the poems influenced by French and German poets and in one poem about the Russian women's battalion. Non-English views of this war don't seem to gravitate so inexorably toward the experiences of the officer class. However it was one of the poems translated from German (from an original by Heinrich Lersch) which had, I thought, the only genuinely weak ending in the pamphlet. I don't know the original, so can't tell if Lersch alone is to blame for "at home, a mother dries her tears", but it didn't work for me.

A lot of research has clearly gone into these poems, and despite the disclaimer in the first poem it seems to me that the result is to shine a genuinely convincing and vivid light on those aspects of the time that he has chosen.
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
07 May 2018 @ 07:52 am
This was a Facebook post from a couple of years back; I re-read it and decided it really belonged on the blog.

Just a personal thought. A poem, to my mind, is or should be an organic whole. That being so, it doesn't actually exist on the lyric heights for the whole of its length; it has peaks and troughs. Every line does not coruscate at you, jumping up and down shouting "notice me!" There are quiet, unremarkable lines, which swell up like waves under the surface of the sea until they foam over into something brilliant. These are lines which can easily be rubbished by a careless reviewer, who will point out the "boring" or "predictable" language, but in fact they are paving the way for what comes next. Try for yourself quoting brilliant, memorable single lines from a poem. Do they work outside their context? Would you not often feel impelled to quote the few lines before, to show where they emerged from, what they convey: why, in short, they are so brilliant and memorable?

Now there's a type of poem much written and admired, in fact often known informally as a "competition poem", which does try to make every line a peak. It isn't an organic whole; it is a series of flashy, notice-me lines which don't obviously grow from the poem. I don't care for these poems, finding them shouty and ultimately unmemorable because they are trying too hard to be unforgettable. But there's another thing, connected with the fact that these lines don't seem to grow naturally from the poem. They don't seem to come from anywhere, and paradoxically when a line doesn't come from anywhere, it COULD actually come from anywhere, including where it shouldn't. In fact, when marking student work, this kind of poem rings alarm bells. There might be all sorts of reasons for derivative work, but I'll put forward the notion that thinking in terms of fine phrases, knockout lines, moments rather than whole poems, might be one of them.
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh


We go together like certain words
but you are also my sentence
- "Erotomania"

This is a poet who is extremely interested in words and the ways they fit together. Her thought process, very often, is shaped by word-association: one word suggests another, either via rhyme, or accidental likeness (if puns are ever completely accidental), or ideas that connect them. Sometimes this affects single word choice, as "stock" in the poem "Deer" comes by way of "flowerbeds":
I tend flowerbeds
dreaming of a mother
Alice stands stock-still
amongst butterflies

Other times, it is more as if every word or phrase with a potential double meaning is a junction where the poem may wander off down some unexpected and often interesting byway:
maybe I could save up all the dust
in words and bookstores libraries
put it in the fog bank
an offshore account for tax avoidance
- "The Old Nubble Light Foghorn"

The minimalist punctuation is part of this: the less you use, the more possible meanings language acquires. Thus, in the ending of "The Doll's House",
I am apparent
in the language I write
there are no clocks
but I have time
it would be possible to put a full stop either after "apparent" or after "write" and change the meaning radically – "I am apparent in the language I write" or " in the language I write there are no clocks". This happens fairly regularly in the collection; the result being not that one needs to choose one meaning, but that the poet can have it both ways.

There are times I feel left behind at some junction, while the poem careers off into the distance. In the opening five-poem sequence, "The Somnambulist Who Stood Still", I feel I am totally missing something. It isn't a matter of trying to tease out meaning so much as intent; I can't figure out what she is trying to do in it, to the extent that I can't even see anything linking the five poems. I am seeing the connections between words (mainly via sound, in this case) but whatever deeper connections there may be behind the word-games aren't getting across to me. By contrast, in one of my favourite poems in the collection, "Hades Has Gone To Ground", I can freewheel happily along with a thought-line that involves Kore (Persephone as maiden goddess) getting thoroughly mixed up with core, as in apple. Hades, at a loose end during one of his consort's summer absences, is a curiously engaging character:
Hades didn't know what to do
so he bought a white sliced pan and tinned fruit
he enjoyed trips to the local-shop-cum-post-office
and really only wanted a stamp

My other big favourite would have to be "Parable of a Polish Émigré". This plays with words too - try working out the number of possible meanings in
the waves lap
note a lapse

but it goes beyond that to something deeper. The thought-line is there, but is the kind you react to before you analyse it.
The Polish woman said;

you can't abandon me
now that I am dead.

I must go home.
I have lived
in white cities
with stones
and birds
and tall people
and donkeys
The collection's title, Homesick at Home, indicates a sense of alienation, of not-belonging, which perhaps comes through most strongly in this poem but is elsewhere too. It does feel a bit like reading an émigré poet, though she is not one – unless, perhaps, she feels most at home in the country of words.
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
This is a first full collection by a poet who divides his time between England and Spain and works in the wine trade as a blender and export manager. It's nearly always good news when a poet has a career completely divorced from poetry; it provides a whole hinterland of language and imagery plus that sense, for the reader, of assurance with the material, of listening to someone who knows what he's talking about, and indeed some of my favourites in this collection are the short sequences "Dos Vinos" and "In the Wine Trade". In the last section of the latter, "Final blend", I like the playfulness of the unforced comparison:
I pour and sniff, line up bottles
and row after row of glasses -
50/50, 60/40
80/20,90/10,
playing percentages for keeps.

When they're blended, neither can leave:
one lends smoothness, one offers bite,
their bodies meshing and lifting.
I know this couple's right.

Most of the poems are short, some very short, and a lot of them hinge on an object or incident being used to be emblematic of more than itself, perhaps because many concern loss, memory or change. This is a technique that can work well if you hit the exact right note, the one your readers will recognise from similar times in their own lives. In "3B", the second poem of the sequence "Debris", the object is a pencil which belonged to a dead father (I am interpreting here because he never actually says so, but I think the inference here and in other poems is reasonable).
Thoughts are unloading when the pen conks out,
but a dark rummage locates your pencil
perfectly wigwammed by a Stanley knife,

and words have scampered across the paper,
racing against the tip before it blunts
and a sharpener peels your work away.

Here it is not even precisely the object that becomes emblematic of loss and change, but rather the way it was used; the difference in the method of sharpening. The phrase "your work" elevates the father's act of paring the pencil-point to a kind of creativity in its own right, now, ironically enough, erased in the service of the son's creative impulse.

One peril of epigrammatic imagistic brevity is that the shorter the poem, the stronger every word needs to be. In "La trashumancia", (about the sheep parade in Madrid), the migrating sheep are "walking the streets unthinkingly/like Monday's flock of commuters", and I thought that likeness too predictable, indeed close to cliché. There were also a few "so what?" poems that didn't seem to me to go beyond observation: maybe I'm missing something, but "El Castillo de Villalejo" seemed to me to amount to "I climbed a hill", and even at only 8 lines that's a bit over-extended unless one can make something else of it.

But more often he does manage to catch whatever it is in an incident or object that goes beyond itself. In "Making Paella With David", we have a child growing up and a parent attempting to let him, without interfering out of pardonable anxiety:
Bell peppers
are staining the blade of his knife.
It's time to let ingredients
become a dish. He taps my arm.
Together we spark the gas.
That middle sentence, "It's time to let ingredients/become a dish" is so succinct, and so perfect. Many will know Stewart from his lively and thoughtful poetry blog, Rogue Strands. I hope it isn't his work on that which has caused this collection to be twenty years in the making, because I would like to think we shall see another collection of his own work, especially if he writes more about his rather fascinating profession.
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
First of all, this is not another selkie tale. I feel bound to stress this because the title nearly put me off – the seal-woman folk motif has been so over-used in poems and novels as to be boringly predictable and I'm fed up with it.

In fact it is a fictionalised account of the 1627 slave-raid on Heimaey, Iceland, which netted some 250 people to be sold into slavery in Algiers. One of the few who returned was the pastor Olafur Egilsson, released to try to persuade the Danish king to ransom his subjects, and Olafur left a memoir. His wife was ransomed and came home a decade later; the novel is her (largely imagined) story.

This raid was part of the coastal depredations of the Dutch renegade turned Barbary corsair, Murat Reis, who also enslaved over 100 people from the Irish village of Baltimore, and I was attracted to the novel both because he's someone I've written about before and because it promised to draw on the Icelandic sagas I also love.

"Story" is an important concept in the novel: throughout it, people reconstruct their own lives in stories, which do not always tally with reality but are generally easier to live with.
"Do you remember, Mamma? You said that if we were parted one day, we would be able to meet whenever we wanted inside our own heads, like you do with Egill and Helga and Pabbi."
She reaches up to Asta's face and strokes her damp cheeks. "I was practising when I saw you. It's like going into a room, isn't it? You're inside a story that isn't really true but it makes you feel nice while you're there".

Magnusson is good on the culture shock of the new which hits Asta in Algiers, also on the mixed feelings of those returning to their native lands – for women, who would be engaged in household drudgery wherever they lived, there were some benefits to drudging in a city with running water, and they must have noticed ruefully the return from a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and spices to one based on cod and puffin. Asta's changing relationship with her husband Olafur is well sketched too. But in the book's mid-section, the decade in Algiers, I don't get as much of a feeling of time passing as I would like. Magnusson has written several books but this is her first fiction, and I'm not sure it quite has the novelist's focus which, unlike a historian's, can zoom in and out, sometimes dwelling and sometimes glossing over. The voyage of the slave-ship is well drawn, as is the journey home, but I think both go on too long for the proportions of the book. I also wonder if the fashionable present-tense narration makes it harder to sense time passing.

She is good on character though, as when, on their arrival in the city, Olafur's insatiable intellectual curiosity informs his reaction:
Squinting up, Olafur notices that the copper fretwork […] is moulded with flowers, quite exquisite, where the metal is joined. The alley ends in front of a great wooden door adorned with rows of iron studs and framed by an archway of stone sculpted with more flowers, each with a disc at its centre and a fan of petals. Like the rays of the sun, Olafur decides. (Asta, miserable with heat and the hungry squalling at her breast, sees only a door to get through and the prospect of sitting down.)
The warning of the seal-woman (yes, there is one of sorts) does not really work if you know the sagas (and many readers, surely, will know Gudrun Osvifsdottir's words to her son). Not only is it obvious what the seal-woman is on about from the moment she speaks, it never becomes clear exactly what Gudrun's words have to do with Asta's situation, except that both have had more than one man in their lives. I might have known the selkie would be a problem… But the novel is a gripping narrative which holds the reader's interest – a good story, in fact.
 
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh


The title phrase comes from the poem "Drifting Slowly East and Filling":

The man at the helm is no

exception. He's just part of the dark steering you home.

There are quite a few ferrymen in these pages, and indeed boats, piers, harbours, halyards. It is one of the strands of vocabulary that recur, fugue-like, throughout the collection, as do variations on light and dark, snow, the moon, birds (about 10 different species, though blackbirds feature heavily) and the figure of a "lady". There are some clues to the genesis of this latter in the notes at the back. As often happens, she is a composite: in this case, of personal experience and the influence of art, a series of paintings by Maljen Sanchez. One of these provides the cover picture and an ekphrastic poem, "Portrait", which does not so much seek to "explain" the picture as enjoy being bemused by it:
Nothing will come of this, she muttered in Finnish.
Don't worry, he whispered, apart from the pink

all is utterly perfect
. She looked aside.
The sky wilted for an instant.

As you can see from the quotes, he makes interesting verbal music, and never more so than when he is indeed at his darkest. The end of "Captive",

The moon was a glimmer in the stem of her glass,
her look tender as an open wound

is a satisfyingly edgy surprise. There is another stratum of language running through the poems, which is not so much dark as moonlit, and this works less well for me. It includes refrain-words like moon, moonlight, pale, feather, tremor, whisper: the sort of words poets use to heighten emotion. I am not one of those who want to ban particular words like shard or gull from poetry; as can be seen above, "moon" works perfectly well in the right place and with a hint of menace, but context is important and so is cumulative effect. I do think "pale as the moon", as a comparison, is tired enough to be worth avoiding, and in the line "the tremor in my pencil's whisper", I would like to lose either tremor or whisper, because both in one line strikes me as one emotion-heightening, slightly "poetic" word too many.

Much more intense and memorable, to me, is the darker, sparer language of "The Trade":

I saw you in the fields trading the wings.
What did the crows leave in return?
A claw? A broken beak?

And what was that shriek?
You were staring at some furry thing,
small and grisly in your hand. Dead still it was. […]

And the harbor too.
All the freighters are sunk but one

Of all the poems in the book, this is the one I keep going back to; it is haunting because it contains, not "poetic" language, but plain language being used by a poet.

There are a couple of features about the layout that puzzle me. About a third of the poems are double-spaced, and I cannot work out why; they do not have anything special in common that I can see; also three titles are in italics for which, again, I can't see a reason (I don't think they are quotations). I'm not averse to unconventional layouts, but I do like to be able to see some rationale for them; otherwise I tend to waste time looking for one. The book, which is the first I have seen from this publisher, is well produced, a pleasing artefact.

You will be disappointed if you want poems to be like crossword clues that can be solved and filled in; there are plenty of enigmas and ambiguities here, and I suspect some are too personal to be easily decoded. Think of them as word-pictures and you will be closer to the mark. I don't know how many are actually ekphrastic poems, but several sound as if they could be, and gain their power by etching an image on the mind.
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
The Glass Aisle

The summer's clouds are moving east.
My father stokes their fires.

They do not know it is winter,
that I am already old.

Over the Sugarloaf they go,
full of my mother's songs.

Over the hill's white pebbles,
away, away from the sea.

I have noted in previous reviews how fugue-like Henry's poetry is, how much use it makes of refrain, repetition, variations on a theme. Naturally the longer a poet's career goes on, the more this kind of technique builds up, so that certain words are heavy with significance almost before he has done anything much with them. In the poem above, "Cliff Terrace Clouds", which opens this collection, the words "father", "mother", "song" and "sea" (the two latter in particular) are, for anyone familiar with his work, already charged with meaning and mood, so that when we read "away, away from the sea", we do not even really need the echoed "away" to know that anything headed away from the sea is a cause of grief. This loading of individual words enables a certain minimalism; some of the short poems in this collection are more pared down than anything I recall seeing from him before, without sacrificing anything in power or emotion.

Indeed in the long poem "The Hesitant Song" he is concerned with something he has mentioned before: the re-creation not of words or things but of the spaces between them, the "beat before the singer sings".
" It’s about listening in to the white space, each “bar’s rest”, the place where the poem’s heart resonates. My mother was a professional singer for many years. She sang as naturally as she spoke. What struck me after her death was the silence. How can we hear such silences if we talk over the white space?" (Interview here).

The "glass aisle" of the book's title poem is a stretch of canal above Crickhowell, and that inspired phrase is one of many in which he evokes it:
The wind picks at it,
water feature of its past,
stapled to the land.

An arch makes a moon
that cows amble over
and O it is tame.

                              A river
snuck under a town
and spawned it

and sometimes it knows,
a finch on a twig
surfs the hint of a wave

a duck's wake widens

to a forgery of the sea.

The canal is being viewed through the eyes of a telephone engineer who is repairing a line that crosses the watercourse to an old workhouse, and in the process finds himself "connecting" to the voices of its dead inmates. Their names and trades are from the 1840 census and inhabit the poem as hauntingly as those of Catrin Sands, Brown Helen & co inhabit the nostalgic poems in part 1 of the collection – or, indeed, as the sometimes eyebrow-raising names of Herefordshire apple varieties inhabit the poem "Windfalls". If Henry has a musician's fascination with rhythm and refrain, he has a poet's fascination with words and especially names.

It may have been the pared-down nature of the poems, as much as their consciousness of mortality and human frailty, that made them strike me as unusually and powerfully bleak. On the face of it, there is not much comfort to be had in poems like "The Seamstress" and "The Father in the Well". But there has always been a saving humour in Henry's way of looking at the world. In the middle of the title poem, with its stories of poverty and death, we have
Half-wool, half-air,
small gods, their sphere
a foot above the earth,
the lambs at bridge 114

all calling for the mayor.

(Think about it a moment; it'll come to you.) And indeed, there is a certain pathos about those small voices, but also a sideways trick of seeing and saying that can't help but raise a smile.

There is, by the way, a performance version of "The Glass Aisle", featuring songs co-written by the poet and Brian Briggs, which was touring at the time of publication. Henry is of course a guitarist and singer as well ,and I've no doubt this version will be something to hear. But in truth, there is enough music in the words themselves to echo in any reader's mind indefinitely.
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh


In all Drummond's novels so far, the narrative voice has been key. He tends to choose eccentric, sardonic character-narrators who observe events from the sidelines or get caught up in them in ways they cannot control. They have, however, all been recognisably human… so far. This one calls herself the Cherub of Desire, and though she can take human form she seems to be a spirit who sails, in a globe-shaped sphere, around her assigned dominion of the Hebrides in the year 1739:

To the GOOD LORD the whole of the earth encompass'd so on so forth to each Cherub a Dominion for to watch o'er in which to seek out men to exact tribute and to punish as she sees fit to the Cherub of Desire all that is desirable in the Hebridean Sea.

And here we come to the feature that may put some readers off: the Cherub's manner of forming sentences is not conventional; not only has she, understandably, an 18th-century cadence, she has little time for punctuation. Personally I found I could adjust to it fairly easily, possibly because I have long been a fan of Don Marquis's archy, the poetic cockroach whose inability to work the caps key of a typewriter had a somewhat similar effect. But it's undeniable that some readers cannot handle unconventional use of language and that the novel may be less commercially attractive as a result. I don't know if this is why this novel has been brought out by a self-publishing platform rather than by Polygon, who published his first four books for adults (he writes for children too). If Polygon did turn it down on those grounds, I would urge them to reconsider, and remember that Riddley Walker's unconventional spelling didn't stop it becoming a cult.

Shipwrecked on St Kilda, the Cherub finds her affairs becoming embroiled with those of Rachel Chiesley Erskine, Lady Grange, kidnapped from Edinburgh and marooned on the distant island for being an embarrassment to her husband. All Drummond's novels so far have some basis in Scottish history (even the one set in Russia) and the Lady Grange strand is factual, as are the two letters she wrote from St Kilda, though they were smuggled to her lawyer in Edinburgh by human agency rather than, as here, by the Cherub, who agrees to take them and have a holiday on the mainland at the same time. Thus begins a picaresque which, since she does not exactly go by the most direct route, takes in quite a lot of 18th-century Scotland:

At Allt-coire-uchdachan we stop for the sun is at her highest in the sky the red grouse cackles in the heather there is a fine bridge o'er the road where we may sit take our ease breathe in the parfums of the mountain of the bog of the heather taste the very air upon our tongue heaven upon the lids of our eyes then we mount ever higher. From each turn of the road we gaze down upon the deepest lochs of Loch-aber the vast landskip of Scotland stretched out before us there are distant peaks huge hills fertile glens the precipices drop all around us into terrible foaming cascades truly this is a prospect so magnificent none could with-stand it. We pause at the very heights of the mountain for to take our fill of the wideness of Scotland

The Cherub is just as forcibly impressed, though in a different way, by 18th-century Edinburgh with its mix of opulence and urban squalor, and by the far bleaker poverty of St Kilda. What makes her an intriguing narrator is her blend of caustic wit and a certain outsider perspective which comes of not being human and hence not always understanding what she sees as a human narrator would.

I am not, yet, 100% sure what to make of this novel (I am tempted to quote its end, which is unexpectedly moving, but shall refrain because I don't think that would be fair to the new reader). If I had to, I would theorise that the notion of "incarceration" in something other than a cell, and not necessarily even a physical space, is central to it – Lady Grange, for one, is imprisoned as much by her own nature as anything else. But I shall have to re-read it, and the one thing I am sure of is that I will, as I have all his other novels, several times.

Here beginneth a heartfelt plea to publishers. The man is unclassifiable: his novels are by turns satire, picaresque, realist, fantasy, historical, and I suspect this may make him harder to market. What they always are is unusually well written, thought-provoking, entertaining and above all original. He says himself that he began writing because he couldn't find the kind of book he wanted to read, and it's a fact that his novels are not quite like anything else out there. They are what I want to read, but unlike him I don't feel equipped to write it and the reason I read more history books than novels is that most contemporary novels are bloody dull and predictable. It worries me that he appears to be self-publishing, because he's worth better and will never attain the readership he deserves without someone to do the marketing. If you're thinking short-term, Mr Publisher, please remember that Dr Johnson, for once, made an awful howler when he said "Nothing odd will do; Tristram Shandy did not last". Anyone considering awards for Scottish writers would do well to bear it in mind, too.
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
28 January 2018 @ 03:01 pm
This arose from another FB poetry spat, but I'm putting it here and linking because of its length.

I have not noticed anyone "telling people what to read", in the sense of saying "You should read X. you should not read Y". Nor do I see anyone telling people what to write – what would be the point; are they at all likely to listen? I see people saying things like "I think X is a better writer than Y", or "in my opinion Z is overrated", or "such and such a genre does nothing for me". But that really isn't the same thing as telling anyone what to write and read, is it?

From personal experience, which we'll come to presently, I would say the real trouble is that people take poetry criticism absurdly personally, and I don't mean criticism of their own poetry. For many people, if you admit to disliking a favourite writer or poem of theirs, it is as if you had peered into their firstborn's pram and exclaimed "God, that baby's ugly!" Passionate as I am about my own favourites, I do not get this. If someone told me he thought the poems of Paul Henry, or the novels of Barbara Kingsolver, were no good, I should think the less of his judgement, but I wouldn't be personally offended – I should probably just conclude that I had the better taste, though I would try not to say so.

But I know all too well that this isn't the normal reaction. It is why I try, these days, not to comment on poems quoted in posts unless I like them (I don't always succeed, if it's a writer I viscerally dislike, but who's perfect?) There's an American writer whose Wise Words are often quoted on my newsfeed. I find her a bit trite and sentimental; she isn't greetings-card verse by any means, but as serious poets go, I would describe her as entry-level. I don't, because not only would there be no point, I'm aware that some of her fans would immediately take it as a personal attack on their own taste and judgement, rather than simply a refusal to share said taste and judgement.

I know this because the only approach to hate mail I have ever had results from my having disowned a poem that, though it became unusually popular for one of mine, displeases me by not being, in my view, subtle enough. I haven't tried to withdraw it from circulation at all; I just don't give permission for it to be reprinted in books, except very rarely for charities and not always then. But it's out there all over the web; I'm not depriving anyone of anything or stopping them reading it if they want to.

All I have done is voice, on my own website and blog, my own view on the thing. Now I have read a lot of fan fiction, some of which was not only better written than anything the original writers could manage but truer to the characters and spirit of the source. So I don't subscribe to the primacy of the author. (Dumas thinks, and often says, that Aramis is worldly, selfish and amoral. He's wrong.) But you would think the author had as much right to an opinion on his/her own work as anyone else. Not, however, according to some of the email I've had. "I get very cross whenever I read what you say on your website about this poem". (Yes, the quick solution to that problem is staring me in the face, too…) "You must try to like it" – aye, there's the "must" word at last.

I think what they are really saying is "you must validate my judgement, or at least not publicly dissent from it". Why they would need such validation I don't know. But I don't think this attitude does poetry criticism much good. I'll be honest and say I don't go along with the view that "it's all subjective". I do think there are valid ways of assessing how effective someone's use of language is. But even if you did not accept this, it would surely be valid to voice an opinion and by doing so, you would not be telling anyone what to read or write, merely what you like to read and write yourself.

I used to have to persuade first-year students that it was OK to voice reasoned criticism of someone else's poems – it was not "rude" or "insensitive", nor was it true, as one once said, that "you can't criticise something when it's sincere and heartfelt" (oh yes you can, it if happens also to be inept, or at least less ept than it might be). It was an attitude most of them grew out of. And yes, criticism can become uncivil and sometimes unfair; replying to such criticism is what correspondence columns are for. But in itself it is not some sort of personal insult to the fans of what is being criticised, much less a prohibition on what they choose to read. It is a disagreement with their taste, certainly, but since when was that illegal?
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
"When I went down to the Stationery Office to get it, there were queues of people buying it, and I was looking at it on the bus and the conductor said 'I suppose you haven't got a spare copy of that?'"

One does not generally expect a 172-page Government report, with the riveting title of Social Insurance and Allied Services, to sell 100,000 copies in a month. But this was the Beveridge Report, published in 1942, which became the basis of the postwar welfare state. This book is the story of how Britain arrived at that point, after around a century and a half of agonising about the causes of chronic poverty and how best to tackle it.

It is a story both of ideas and of the individuals who espoused them. On the ideas front, the challenge was to get beyond the conviction of many that poverty among the able-bodied must be the consequence of moral failings, like drink or idleness, and that any kind of state intervention would inevitably demoralise the recipients and render them even less willing to work. Even now, this has not wholly gone away, but in the nineteenth century it was unquestioned, until research by the likes of Charles Booth and Seebohm Rowntree showed otherwise in the 1890s. One of the most oddly moving things in the book is the conversion of Edwin Chadwick, he who in 1834 had been partly responsible for deliberately making workhouses as unattractive as possible, lest the idle be minded to give up their jobs and move in. This is all most school history teaches about him, which is unfortunate, for Chadwick was that rarity, a man capable of learning better and admitting he had been wrong. The more he found out about working-class poverty, the more he realised that it was intimately bound up with ill health, and that this in turn resulted from the insanitary conditions in which many were forced to live. Like all converts, he then went too far and decided ill health was at the root of everything, which wasn't true either, but at least it had dawned on him that poverty was not necessarily the fault of the poor.

Rowntree's research in York went further, by identifying a five-stage working-class life-cycle of poverty and relative comfort. Basically he concluded that there were only two periods in which such a man might be able to save money. The first was when he first began to earn but could still live with his parents; if he managed to put enough aside, this period might last into early marriage, while his wife too could still bring in a wage, but the birth of children would put paid to it. The second was when his children were old enough to bring in a wage and had not yet left home. Even then, though, they would be near what Rowntree was the first to define as the "poverty line"; there was little spare to cope with illness or other calamity. In other words, the Victorian ideal of a family with a man earning and a wife and children at home did not work for this class, because with few exceptions, one man's wage would not support it. This was crucial, because it meant things could not simply be relied on to sort themselves out; there was something fundamentally wrong with the system. The question was how it could be put right: should wages for men be raised (Rowntree and others thought so) or was the radical feminist Eleanor Rathbone on to something in advocating child allowances? Various committees and commissions would debate these and related questions and methods hotly for the next 50 years, and it is an odd and recurrent theme that the people with the right ideas were often the most abrasive and apt to irritate their fellow-members rather than getting them on board.

One thing the research of people like Booth and Rowntree achieved was to open middle-class and intellectual eyes to a world about which they knew almost nothing and had inaccurately assumed a great deal. Much the same revelation would come to pass during the Second World War, as a result of evacuation, when many well-to-do country people came for the first time into contact with the children of the urban poor and were horrified enough at the state of them to realise that something radical had to be done. This may have been part of the reason for the overwhelming support for the Beveridge proposals shown in a poll by the British Institute of Public Opinion. This support crossed all social boundaries: there was 76% approval in the upper income group and 90% among those who worked in a profession. Henry Durant, the pollster, wrote, sounding slightly bemused, "People's view of whether the Report should be implemented does not seem to have been influenced by their calculation of whether they personally are likely to gain or lose. They seem to have approached the question from the angle of the public good."

The emergence of personalities – from genuinely principled philanthropists like Rowntree through abrasive oddities like Beatrice Webb to Lloyd George and Churchill, both ready to betray any cause at any moment for party advantage – is part of what makes this book much more readable than its academic subject might suggest. The writing style is generally accessible and entertaining. It does have some irritating tics, notably his belief that "as if" can be replaced with "like": phrases such as "it looked like he did not care" grate horribly on the ear and there are a lot of them. But in general he has done a good job of showing what led up to a momentous revolution in ideas of what the state can and should do to make life better for the individual and for society as a whole, and also what a difference this revolution made to people who, for the first time, did not have to decide whether they could afford to call in a doctor, or go about half-blind for lack of spectacles. The book concludes with a timely warning: "Many of those who lived through the war and the difficult decades that preceded it greatly appreciated what had come into being by the end of the 1940s. Yet the generation that followed found it much easier to take for granted something that quickly became central to everyday life in Britain. […] But as the 150 years before the end of the Second World War show, building something like the welfare state is immensely more difficult than allowing it to fall apart."