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Sheenagh Pugh
10 June 2017 @ 05:42 pm
Something a bit different: a review of a literary magazine, Prole, cos someone asked me to do it.

This issue of the magazine contains a mix of poems and short stories: no reviews, no critical articles except the judge's comments on the entries to the Prole Laureate Poetry Competition. This isn't a criticism on my part, by the way; I'm just trying to give a factual idea of what sort of magazine it is.

The short stories are a mix of set-in-the-real-world (Richard Hillesley, Dave Wakely, Sue Pace) and set somewhere at an angle to reality (Olivia Pope, Rebecca Sandeman) with Marc Jones coming somewhere in between, in that his story is set in the here and now but with a rather unusual narrator and a definite tinge of the Under Milk Woods in the style. I thought the Hillesley story did a bit too much spelling out and explaining its intentions, while the Sandeman could have done with more; I couldn't really figure out what she was trying to do. I enjoyed the Pace and Wakely stories very much. Because of the variety of styles, I should think most readers would find something to enjoy.

There was variety among the poems too, though I'd say the majority fell into two categories: observational and polemical, with a sprinkling of the determinedly quirky. Some, of course, cross boundaries: Margaret Beston's "Commodity" is observational but carries an oblique, understated message  (the best kind, for my money). D A Prince's message in "Illegal" is more overt, but comes over powerfully because the situation is so well imagined. Patrick Deeley does observational very skilfully.  There are, as ever, poems that feel merely observational or wholly polemical, and which I find less memorable on that account (I prefer transformative when I can get it). There weren't nearly as many of the determinedly quirky, which suits me as I can soon have enough of them. You can often tell them from the start; they'll have an off-the-wall title or opening line meant to surprise the reader and grab the attention. Unfortunately that's frequently the most interesting point, from which they go rapidly downhill.

There was some unexpected variety of style, too. It's quite easy, these days, to pick up a magazine and find nothing but free verse, but there's a fair bit of rhyme in here of an informal, ballad-like type. Again I think most readers would find something to their taste. Mr Hillesley popped up again with a very spare, minimalist piece called "Arles" which I found mesmerising in its rhythms and all the more memorable for being somewhat elusive.

Unless I somehow missed it, I can't see any notes on contributors, which I thought a pity; when a writer has lodged in our memory, we like to find out more.

Prole is £6.70 an issue with postage and comes out three times a year. I'd say you get a lot of prose and poetry for your money, much of it of a high quality.
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
01 June 2017 @ 02:39 pm
Why yes, this is a new departure. I've never interviewed someone twice before, but then none of my previous interviewees has ended up in quite such a different place, and not just geographically. I found there were a whole new lot of questions I wanted to ask him, about actually living as an author.

SHEENAGH: Last time we had a natter, you were still a serving policeman alongside writing novels about police procedure. Now, I believe, you and the force have parted company and you're living in Portugal, making your living through various kinds of writing, not just fiction but freelance jobs like online travel guides? How's that working out?

MIKE: Yes, I quit in 2015, but I’d been on a ‘career break’ since 2011 so – coupled with the move abroad – I was pretty far removed from all things police work-related. My life now is novels and freelancing, which is lovely most of the time but has led to some hairy moments. Until resigning from the Five-Oh I’d spent my entire working life on a guaranteed monthly salary so it took some – often painful – adjustment. At one point a year or so back we had eighteen Euros to our name, a hefty amount of unexpected bills to pay, and no more paydays on the horizon. Much sleep was lost. But you learn, and when the biggish chunks of money come in you discipline yourself not to spend all the cash on Blu-rays and booze, because, y’know, you have to feed the kids every now and again or they complain. It’s funny, I frequently have to disabuse people – especially family – of the notion that my life is spent bronzing my nipples on a beach in the Algarve, while occasionally typing a bit of crap for my publisher. We live in the mountains of central Portugal in a house that needs serious fixing up and where the winters are brutal. Both my wife and I work full time, often seven days a week and for ten to twelve hours a day. I think I sunbathed for an hour about two years back. But that’s the life of a freelancer, I suppose. We have to do it if we want to stay here, because neither of us has any desire to return to the UK – look at what’s going on there.

SHEENAGH: I am, I am... and wondering whether "what's going on here" is liable to reflect in your future books at all?

MIKE: The whole thing is just too depressing to write about, to be frank. I’d just point everyone in the direction of P D James’ The Children of Men. Or even Cuaron’s film adaptation; it stands up just as well. I worry that at some point in the not-too-distant future we will come to regard that novel – certainly the Omega section with its depiction of societal breakdown and state barbarity – as scarily prescient. Warden May, anyone?

SHEENAGH: We've mentioned that you are now an émigré, like several other writers I've interviewed – Barbara Marsh, Frank Dullaghan, Ruth Lacey.  Has this affected your writing at all? So far, your books have all still been set in South Wales. Are you finding it harder to write about Wales now you don't live there, or does distance actually clarify vision?

MIKE: It’s not the country, or whatever Welsh town or city the story is based in, that I have difficulty with now because I know Cardiff inside and out, and I have almost photographic memories of South Wales. It’s the police procedure and legislation I struggle with. As I’ve mentioned, it’s been a good while since I was a copper and it’s frightening how much has changed and what I’ve forgotten. I wanted to forget at first, I hated the job and was so happy to leave. But now it’s needs must for work, so I’m frequently on social media badgering old colleagues about stuff like firearms policy and radio etiquette. It’s one of my pet hates in crime fiction: getting the basics wrong, the plod vernacular and policies and techniques. So I do fret about that a little now. I’m lucky that my wife was a much better copper than me and has managed to retain an awful lot of information so I usually go whining to her first.

SHEENAGH: Are you liable to start setting books in Portugal?

MIKE: Lisbon features in one or two chapters in Ash and Bones, but I’m not sure if I’d want to have Portugal as the backdrop to an entire novel, certainly if they continue to be crime-related. I know the country has its problems but I don’t really want to know too much about its nasty side. After two decades as a cop I’ve had my fill of nastiness, thanks very much. That ruined Cardiff for me for many years, I had a real love/hate relationship with the place until recently because I’d seen some terrible things that skewed my perception of the capital and its people. I can separate it now, and see the good in the city while still writing about fictional bad things going on there. As for Portugal, perhaps if the local farming community are uncovered as a Europe-wide goat-smuggling ring I’ll write about it. Until then: probably not.

SHEENAGH: Your first two novels were police-procedural, but Ash and Bones was more a crime novel, though still very much informed by your police background, and I think the new one is too? What brought about the change?

MIKE: Honestly? Simple economics. Other than Booker winners, big names like McEwan and the odd fluke that nobody predicted would go stratospheric, literary novels don’t sell that many copies. My first two were well-received, and Pocket Notebook did quite well for a debut that was difficult to classify as it had a police milieu but wasn’t crime. Then in 2014 my then-publisher and I parted ways, and I was a little bit lost for a while. This was after I moved to Portugal so I had to have a serious rethink about how I was going to earn a living. I was also being nudged, ever so gently, towards writing something more commercial (that dirty word). It was either do that or give up novel-writing completely, which I seriously considered for a few dark months as I wasn’t enjoying being part of the business at all. In the end I got my act together and dug out an old character who’d already featured in three unpublished novels, and started writing. That got me a deal with the guys at Bonnier, meaning I could feed those pesky kids for a couple more years, at least until they’re old enough for me to put them in the army. And I’m still writing the standalones, they keep me from finally losing the last of my marbles.

SHEENAGH: Your protagonist Will managed to survive Ash and Bones and looks like being a fixture. This was also a bit of a change, as the protagonists of your first two ended up dead or totally dispirited… why did you decide on an ongoing character?

MIKE: I refer you to my last answer. A series is where it’s at, nowadays. Television, film and publishing are all desperately looking for the next big returning series or character. That ‘brand’, that ‘franchise’. I know some of this will be anathema to many writers I know, but thems the facts. You might have a beautifully written, powerfully moving literary novel but it won’t sell anywhere near as many copies as a pulpy, twisty thriller – probably with ‘girl’ in the title – and a female protagonist who has a drink problem/amnesia/a double life/insert affliction du jour here. Or as many copies as a crime series. I remember going to London for a meeting with a pretty powerful TV production company who were thinking of optioning my second novel, Ugly Bus. Once the coffee and small talk was out of the way, the conversation quickly turned to how the characters could be developed so they’d all return in a second, third or even fourth series. When I said they’d all end up in prison so you’d have no second series, I was thanked for my time and shown the door.

SHEENAGH: Weren't you tempted? Because I can easily see how they keep out of prison on that particular score anyway; the woman, understandably, doesn't complain. And I can see how both her story and the sergeant's continue, even the Bus crew if they're careful or devious enough... Does the consciousness of "series is where it's at" influence how you're writing now?  - I notice you still killed a promising character off in your last!

MIKE: The ‘series is where it’s at’ thing doesn’t even enter my head. It is what it is at this moment in my career: I have a deal to write three books, so that’s what I will do. I suppose that’s the police officer still in me: you’ve got a job, do it as best you can, then move on. So after that’s done, who knows? If the publisher doesn’t want any more MacReady novels then I’ll write something else. Your ‘track’ (i.e. track record of sales) is everything nowadays and if you don’t sell enough you’re out, regardless of whether you’re writing a series or not. A few months back I read a piece written by an agent lamenting how long-term relationships and nurturing by publishers is becoming increasingly rare, how authors aren’t given a chance to establish themselves or their ‘brand’ and make the publishing house some money back. It’s the nature of the business now, depressing as it is.

As for the Ugly Bus characters, the only one I’ve given serious consideration to returning to is the female character and how she navigates her life and career after those terrible events. That novel was a nightmare to write. It wasn’t just the ‘difficult second album’ syndrome. During the eighteen months of the first draft my wife and I were working full time opposite shifts, we had two children under four, moved house twice in the UK then abroad, I had another job as a creative writing tutor with nearly a hundred students on my books, and I was still to finish my University work. It was incredibly stressful. And then it was released to absolutely no fanfare and pretty much disappeared, which was heart-breaking. So I have mixed feelings about it – while I’m not sure I want to write another ninety thousand words following the same flawed/awful coppers, I’m hugely proud of the book itself: the effort it took to write, the characters and story and that final kicker that everyone gasped about.

SHEENAGH: By now, you must have had quite a lot to do with publishers, editors, the process of actually getting a book published and marketed.  What advice would you give a writer new to all that?

MIKE: A great question. It’s wonderful being published, it was a dream come true, and I’ve had moments – certainly in the beginning, with the people I met, the places I was wined and dined in – where I’ve had to pinch myself. But I always think of ‘The Wizard of Oz’, because as glorious as it is at first, and as terrific and enthusiastic as the people can be in publishing, you quickly discover what’s behind the curtain ain’t all that. It’s a job, and sometimes a ball-achingly tedious one, and occasionally a clench-your-fists-and-scream-at-the-skies-in-frustration one. And the reality is you’re probably not going to be a bestseller. You’re not going to become rich, or anywhere near comfortable. You are not going to be asked to opine on television panels or sit on a sofa opposite Jonathan Ross while you share ‘bantz’. I don’t want to come across as a miseryguts, but anyone who enters this world assuming they’ll soon be doing that Algarve thing I mentioned really needs to carefully manage their expectations or it will crush you. A bit of digging will reveal that the vast majority of authors out there still have ‘day jobs’. There’s a very good reason for that. So if I could narrow it down to one piece of advice, it would be: savour every moment, but don’t expect the world…

Mike's new novel, Unforgivable, comes out from Zaffre in July.
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
19 May 2017 @ 04:07 pm

I've been getting quite worried lately by the number of vox pops, BTL comments and pronouncements on the likes of Twitter (perhaps I should say Twatter) which seem to indicate a growing fear and intolerance of any difference from the perceived norm. It isn't just about immigrants or foreigners, though lord knows they suffer from this; it also affects disabled folk. This is partly the fault of governments and newspapers who have encouraged their dimmer readers to believe everyone in a wheelchair is some kind of fraudster bent on robbing them via the benefits system. But it goes deeper, I think, witness the online conversation I had lately about a man who, some years ago, was wrongly suspected of murder by the press (probably encouraged by the police) and had, quite rightly, received compensation for the injury to his reputation when the real culprit was found. The person on the other side of the conversation was inclined to blame him, because "if he didn't want to be suspected he shouldn't have looked so weird and had an odd hairstyle".

This is why I don't like politicians advocating national unity, coming together, shared values, singing from the same hymn sheet (particularly that metaphor: I don't wish to sing from any hymn sheet, and since I live in a post-enlightenment secular democracy, not a mediaeval theocratic dictatorship, that is my right). But I also want to live in a country where one is not obliged to act like everyone else, fall in behind the majority opinion, or even have a sensible hairstyle. I don't want "unity" if it means conformity, nor "coming together" if it means ironing out difference, rather than learning to tolerate it.

So basically I think all natural-born conformers should have a good listen to Georges Brassens' great song La mauvaise réputation. When the lyric says everyone speaks ill of him except the dumb, everyone kicks out at him except the one-legged, he isn't just making black jokes, he means those who are somehow different from the norm have a natural affinity, unlike the "braves gens" who think everyone should go the same road as them and be exactly like them. For anyone whose French is rusty, here's a rough translation I once did purely for the purpose of singing in the bath.

In the village, without a doubt,
I enjoy an ill repute.
Whatever I do, whatever I say,
I'm looked on as something out of the way.
Yet I do no harm to anyone,
I just want to go on my way alone.
But the good folk hate to be told
Theirs isn't always the only road.
Yes, the good folk hate to be told
Theirs isn't always the only road.
Everybody speaks ill of me,
Except for the dumb, naturally.

When the procession passes by,
I lie in bed and close my eyes.
If they want to have their jubilee,
That's got nothing to do with me.
Yet I do no harm to anyone,
If I do not choose to follow the drum.
But the good folk hate to be told
Theirs isn't always the only road.
Yes, the good folk hate to be told
Theirs isn't always the only road.
Everyone points the finger at me,
(Not those with no arms, naturally).

If I see a kid who's been pinching fruit
Run by with the law in hot pursuit,
I stick out a foot, and strange to say,
It's always the policeman in the way.
Yet I do no harm in anything,
If I help a kid who's been apple-scrumping.
But the good folk hate to be told
Theirs isn't always the only road.
Yes, the good folk hate to be told
Theirs isn't always the only road.
Everybody kicks out at me,
Except the one-legged, naturally.

You don't need the gift of prophecy
To work out what will happen to me.
If they can find a good excuse,
I shall be hanging in a noose
Yet I do no harm to anyone,
If I follow roads that don't lead to Rome.
But the good folk hate to be told
Theirs isn't always the only road.
Yes, the good folk hate to be told
Theirs isn't always the only road.
Everyone'll come to see me die,
Except for the blind, naturally.

 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
This is a fascinating read, but quite a tough one. For one thing it's been written by an academic for academics, which means he doesn't feel required to stop and explain, say, concepts like the semiotic triangle, or throwaway references like "we need think only of Sidonius Apollinaris" (well yes, I think of him constantly, or might do if I had a clue who he was). Secondly, it talks a great deal about the arcane processes of printing and book-binding, in the terminology of those crafts, and while admittedly he explains said terms when they first appear, if your memory is like mine, you will find yourself, next time they crop up, thinking "what the hell was that?" And since they mostly don't appear in the index, it isn't easy to refresh your memory. Nothing would have been more helpful than a glossary of printing terms. I'd have liked more illustrations too, though some of those that do appear are enchanting, notably the spire of Strasbourg Cathedral poking up through the margin of a page in the Chronicle of Nuremberg.

I found I couldn't read it in large chunks without my head starting to swim, but once you get into it, there are some really thought-provoking and illuminating observations on things you might never have thought of in the way they appear here, and particularly the relationships between different developments. The link, for instance, between the rise of silent reading and the representation in signs of punctuation. The way silent reading turned the whole act of reading into something more private, less social, even anti-social, and enabled each individual reader to put his own slant on a text. The impetus which the introduction into Europe (from China) of playing cards gave to mass production of texts and images. The way different fonts evolved for different texts - Gothic, at first, for devotional works, Antiqua and other roman fonts for secular romances. Those who, like me, didn't realise that fonts were sometimes named after people may like to give Messrs Garamont and Bembo a wave in passing...

In his foreword, Barbier says he hopes "by a discussion of the very first media revolution, that of Gutenberg in the mid fifteenth century, to offer some insights into the media revolution of the early twenty-first century". Oddly enough, and despite his use of such terms as hardware and software in the 15th-century printing context, I don't think much of a likeness does emerge between the two. It's true that the internet has opened up a form of self-publishing to huge numbers of people who didn't have access to it before, in the same way that the availability of printed books and their relative cheapness compared with manuscripts hugely widened the audience for texts in its time. But the more this history conveys of the print revolution, its entrepreneurial spirit, the sudden spread of knowledge, the ability to disseminate news (and propaganda) with an unheard-of immediacy via leaflets and posters, the sheer excitement of being able to lay one's hands on a book, the less important the online revolution looks by comparison.
 
 
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
The last book I reviewed here was The Unwomanly Face of War , Svetlana Alexievich's account of Russian women who served in World War 2 and what happened to them in its aftermath. Now we have a similar account of "how the women of Paris lived, loved and died in the 1940s" - ie, again in the war and its aftermath.

There are similarities, the most obvious being the attempts for many decades in both France and Russia to airbrush the contribution of women from history. But there are also great differences. Firstly, many of the Russian women were frontline combatants, which Frenchwomen, barring certain resistance fighters, were not (though the definition of "combatant" in postwar France became controversial, since those women who had hidden endangered soldiers and civilians, and often endured the horrors of Ravensbrück for doing so, understandably felt themselves as entitled to the name of combatant as the uniformed men who had put up such a brief resistance to the invader). Secondly, though parts of Russia were occupied, there was no question of "collaborating", even had civilians wished to, because the invader was interested not in coexisting with the locals but in exterminating them. In Paris it was otherwise, which meant there were choices to be made by the inhabitants, and some of these were far from easy. Those in public service might choose to resign their jobs, or stay and try to do them in such a way as best to serve the interests of civilians - though that might also leave them open to the charge of serving the enemy's interests. Rose Valland, volunteer assistant curator at the Jeu de Paume (her sex debarred her from a paid job as curator), stayed on and risked the suspicion, which surfaced briefly after the war, of colluding with the invaders' favourite occupation of looting artwork on a grand scale. What she was in fact doing was secretly keeping records of everything being looted and where it had gone, so that after the war, thousands of artworks could be located and restored to their rightful owners. She also managed, with the Liberation imminent, to notify the Resistance of a trainload of paintings waiting to be despatched by the panicking occupiers, with the result that the train was delayed and captured by the liberators.

Obviously many of the problems female civilians faced in Paris, such as food shortages and moral dilemmas - whether to resist, collaborate or simply keep one's head down - were problems for men as well, and nor were they confined to Paris. The rationale for concentrating on women is twofold. They did have special problems related to their sexual vulnerability and they were in some ways made scapegoats, after the armistice, by men still smarting from their own frontline failures. Sebba remarks of the "tondues", women publicly shaved and humiliated after the liberation for sleeping with Germans, "they were punished by the men who had failed to defend them" and it is true that when you look at the photographs, though there are women in the background it is nearly always men taking the lead. Postwar, too, government ministers, even former resistance fighters among them like Henri Frenay, who knew well the role women had played, were urging them to give up their jobs and let men coming home from prison camps and forced labour return to their role as chef de famille "so that they could regain their lost confidence". This emphasis on the needs of men also exacerbated, for women, the problem that all returning concentration camp survivors faced, namely that nobody wanted to hear what they had suffered. "Don't say anything, they won't understand" as one warned another. The one thing French women did get out of the war was the right to vote, which until 1945 they hadn't had - I must confess I didn't know that and was amazed by it.

The rationale for concentrating on Paris in particular I'm not so sure of, though it seems to be the supposition that Parisiennes are somehow more stylish and clothes-conscious than anyone else. The trouble with that notion is that half the women in this book, though they lived in Paris, were not born there nor even in some cases French nationals. One of the more famous photographs reproduced here was taken by Robert Doisneau in 1948 for the cover of Paris Match: a carelessly elegant young woman sitting on the banks of the Seine, typewriter perched on her knee, writing a novel, the quintessential Parisienne. Since he never spoke to her, he wouldn't have known that she was Emma Smith from London....

There is quite a lot about fashion, reasonably since it was a major industry of the city and the justification for couture houses continuing to operate through the war was that many people would be thrown out of work if they did not. But I did actually get a bit impatient with some of the women's preoccupation with being fashionable at all costs, especially when one reads that "some went as far as to call it 'resisting'" - well, it wasn't. It may have been their way of keeping up their morale but to call it resisting was an impertinence to those who actually were resisting, and risking their lives for others. Karma intervenes at one point when the fascist sympathiser Comtesse de Portes, deciding that even for collaborators an occupied Paris won't be much fun, tries to escape south in a car so overloaded that a hatbox falls from the roof, obscures the driver's view and causes him to hit a tree, killing her instantly. I'm afraid I laughed....

This is a history book with proper notes, bibliography, index etc and a lot of illuminating illustrations. Much of its interest lies in being able to follow individual lives through it, like the incredibly brave Noor Inayat Khan, resistance fighter, and the quiet, dowdy Rose Valland, who didn't much care about fashion or chic, but who preserved so much that was beautiful from thieves and vandals. Even the more dubious characters like Corinne Luchaire, dimwitted teenage actress who collaborates because she doesn't really know how to say no to any man, have their sad fascination. The author is commendably neutral, except where it would be an offence not to take sides. I'm especially glad she did not follow the advice she mentions in the prologue: "When I began this book a male historian suggested I spend hours in the subterranean Bibliothèque Nationale reading the diaries of men like Hervé Le Boterf and Jean Galtier- Boissière." Why yes, how better to discover what women were doing and thinking than to check what men have to say on the subject....
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
First published in Russian in 1985, this is not a history book, though it would make excellent source material for one. It is a collection of interviews with Russian women who lived through World War 2 – a few were civilians but most saw active service and many on the front line, not only as nurses or cooks but as snipers, tank drivers, sappers, pilots and partisans, among many other roles.

The interviews themselves, which of course make up most of the book, are fascinating. They build up into an overall picture of experiences with some common elements but many disparate ones. For instance, the fierce patriotism and determination to serve seem to have been just about universal – as was the regret at parting with the long braided hair which was then the norm for Russian women. But while some commanders, desperate for troops, welcomed potential snipers or sappers irrespective of sex, others disapproved of women on the front line. Some women found nothing but kindness and support from their male colleagues; others found them predatory – "when there's gunfire they call out 'Nurse! Dear nurse!' But after the battle they all lie in wait for you… you can't get out of the dugout at night". Some women stopped menstruating and feared they would not be able to have children after the war; others didn't stop and were at their wits' end to cope with a condition for which the forces made no provision. Nearly all felt intense hatred of the invader, but most found they could not translate this into hatred for an actual individual and surprised themselves by offering kindness to captive enemies.

The hardships and dangers were often mitigated by their sense of being young, and caught up in something momentous – "there probably will never again be such people as we were then. Never! So naïve and so sincere. With such faith!" And there was, as always, humour to lighten matters, as when the commissar of a Field Laundry Unit working at the dangerous Kursk Salient has to put in a report that her girls have found and surrounded two wounded (but still armed) enemy soldiers coming out of a wood. "The next day we had a meeting of the commanders. The head of the political section said first thing, 'Well, comrades, I want to give you some good news: the war will soon be over. Yesterday the laundrywomen from the 21st Field Laundry Unit captured two Germans.'"

Nevertheless, many witnessed the aftermath of unspeakable atrocities, and even the more ordinary horrors of war stayed with some for life, like the ex-pilot who, long after, had to stop working in the field as a geologist when her health gave out: "A doctor came, took a cardiogram and asked 'When did you have a heart attack?'
'What heart attack?'
'Your heart is scarred all over'.
I must have acquired those scars during the war. You approach a target and you're shaking all over. Your whole body is shaking."

Perhaps the saddest aspect of their story, though, is what happened afterwards. Much later, by the time these interviews were conducted, their contribution was being recognised and feted, but immediately after the war they faced little but hostility, particularly from other women: "I lived in a communal apartment. My neighbours were all married and they insulted me. They taunted me, 'Ha-ha, tell us how you whored around there with the men'" – this to a decorated sergeant of riflemen who'd likely had rather too much else to think of at the time. Many of the girls' mothers, when they wanted to enlist, had protested "who will marry you afterwards?" and this proved prophetic; many indeed did not marry. Unlike the men, they tended not to wear their medals and felt their contribution was seen as an embarrassment. Yet, though some wished not to have their full names given, they were eager for the chance to tell the stories they felt had been airbrushed out of history: as one said, "it's terrible to remember but it's far more terrible not to remember".

Basically, then, this is not only a worthwhile exercise but a very gripping, if sometimes harrowing, read. But I must protest, once more, at the current practice, in historical and factual books, of including unnecessary prefaces detailing at inordinate length the author's "journey" in writing the book. I don't know if editors and publishers ask for this, but the writers seem to relish the chance to discard, in these prefaces, the sober style suited to their subject matter in favour of sentimental and self-obsessed gush about themselves and their work process. Here's my two-penn'orth as reader: dear writer, I don't give a damn about your "journey". I don't want to know why you wrote the book, how you felt when writing it or how many publishers you sent it to. Just spare us these "me, me, me" prefaces and get on to your subject. I recommend this book heartily, but I also recommend ignoring the fifty (!) pages it starts with. Go straight to the interviews.
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
Smith begins by pointing out that the Russian Revolution, like the French one in its day, polarised opinion and is still hard to talk about in a non-partisan way. He has gone to great trouble to present the events of 1890-1928 in a dispassionate, neutral way as far as possible so as to avoid being pigeonholed as a partisan of one or another side.

For the most part, I think this works well. He does give a very clear and detailed account of events and conditions, of how these led to revolution and how, inevitably, they also led to said revolution veering off-course. It's pretty easy to read, except when it occasionally gets bogged down in undeniably necessary statistics. But one result of this approach is that the drama of the story, to some extent, goes missing and key players do not emerge as personalities as strongly as they might - if by the end we know that Lenin was a charismatic speaker, or Trotsky a haughty man who couldn't unbend, this is because we have been told so rather than because we have seen it in action, so to speak. One might say it is unfair to criticise the book on these grounds, since it has stated its factual, dispassionate remit, but charismatic personalities do have a bearing on events, and one reason, alongside those he suggests, that revolution happened in Russia but not in Britain or Germany may well be that the leaders who could have fired it were missing in those countries.

It's also perhaps not completely consistent about this approach. During the civil war that followed 1917, there were several independent warlords leading bands of more-or-less thugs about the countryside supporting sometimes Whites, sometimes Reds and more often only their own interests. Some indulged in vicious atrocities, and he names several, but one name he doesn't mention in that context is the anarchist Makhno, who according to accounts I've seen, some of them eyewitness, was as rabid a sadist as any, shooting total strangers through train windows for the fun of it. He mentions Makhno several times, but never imputes these acts to him, so that one might read this book and imagine him better than his ilk.

I'd also have liked rather more, in the chapter "Society and Culture", on the amazing literary flowering of the 1920s, among young writers (especially in Odessa) who might have been excused for thinking of nothing but where the next log of wood for the stove was coming from. On the other hand, it was gratifying that he dealt with the changing position of women more fully than many might have done.

My principal source of information on that time up to now was the 6-volume autobiography of Konstantin Paustovsky, who lived through it and describes it so vividly that one might be there. This is a different approach, and for those desiring a thorough, dispassionate overview, there couldn't be a better. I'd recommend reading it in conjunction with such an account as Paustovsky's, to get something of the "in that dawn" feeling , the heady sense of being alive in interesting and extremely dangerous times.
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
Though accessibly written, this is an academic history with all the expected trimmings: photos, bibliography, and thorough notes. As usual, these are arranged under the various chapter headings, which means that when you want to look one up you must first ascertain the chapter title you're on and then scrabble through the notes to find it. I saw a history book recently that included the relevant page numbers from the text at the top of each page of notes, making it so much easier to look up the notes while reading the text. I'd recommend that practice to all writers of annotated books.

This is a "micro-history" which illuminates a bigger story, namely the relationship between Britain and Germany in the 19th and 20th centuries, via one small place, a much-disputed island in the North Sea. It belonged at various times to Denmark, Britain and Germany and while the latter two owned it, there were constant influxes of tourists, political agitators, spies, artists, construction workers and military men to unsettle the original population of fisherfolk.  The entire population was evacuated twice, in connection with the world wars; the Germans twice turned it into an armed camp and the British attempted to blow it into oblivion, though amazingly it's still there.

Not surprisingly, the Heligolanders themselves had very little notion of loyalty to any of the various nations who made use of them and their island for their own purposes, and quite sensibly spent their time playing one off against the other. They seem to have always had an innate reluctance to paying taxes or duties of any kind and managed to avoid doing so under the British, the Kaiser, Weimar and even the Nazis; indeed the place is still a tax-free zone.

What this book left me with, in fact, was a keen desire to know more about the Heligolanders themselves, this original population who kept vanishing behind the myths others created around them, not to mention the influxes of outsiders. In particular I'd have liked to know more about how they adapted on their return in the 1950s to a place that had been reconstructed from scratch and, needless to say, not in the way they themselves had favoured. The photos from various eras are fascinating, but none shows the island and its buildings as they are today, which seems a pity.

However, it would not be a fair criticism of this book to say that it concentrates too little on the Heligolanders, because its whole purpose is to discuss, through the history of the island, the relationship between Britain and Germany and their contest for supremacy in the North Sea. This it does very thoroughly and readably; the fact that it left me wanting to know more about a quite different aspect of things is a bonus.
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
02 February 2017 @ 11:40 am
A small poem I just wrote for the encouragment of revolutionaries

Ça Ira

It'll be fine, it'll be okay,
they sang as they swung on down the road
to make the world work a better way.

Freedom, equality, brotherhood,
everyone's dream, how could it fail,
once they'd cleared out the dead wood.

Only the axe was under a spell,
chopped and chopped and never let up,
like something out of a fairy tale,

and when they finally made it stop,
nobody had any appetite
for freedom; no one could handle hope.

It'll be fine, it'll be all right,
except that for now they've all slunk back
to where they were, or maybe not quite.

Perhaps just a small step down the track
can make a difference next time they try;
perhaps every ship that goes to wrack

is wood for a better. It could be
that men become wiser, that they shun
the evil they know, that history

is the tale of progress. Then again,
they might be like the vomiting cur
from the Bible. Yet… it'll be fine,

they sing, after every ruinous war,
each tyranny, pogrom, disastrous choice.
The axe chops on, till they remember

the magic words: poll, armistice,
uprising. Then they hand out freedom,
give folk doctoring, schooling, a voice,

welcome strangers into their home,
seeing their brothers. Though they turn
again to their folly, still it would seem

there's something in them that longs to learn,
that gropes for light, yet flinches away,
loving the glow, fearing the burn.

It'll be fine, it'll be okay,
freedom, equality, brotherhood,
it'll be fine, just not today.

 
 
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh


Rarely has a poet been in a better position to answer the hackneyed question "Where do you get your ideas from?" Suppose for a moment that your great-grandfather had been James Fraser, official artist at 24 to the Austin Expedition which explored the Murchison region of Western Australia in 1854 and very nearly came to grief in the hostile terrain. Suppose further that quite apart from the watercolours he painted, you also had the journal of the expedition's leader, and that while on the expedition, your ancestor had been constantly thinking of  Helena, a young Irish immigrant girl in service in Fremantle with whom he'd fallen in love and who would become your great-grandmother.

This material would be a gift to any poet, but it still needs an interpreter who can handle it well. Geraldine Paine has already shown, in her first collection The Go-Away Bird, how sympathetically she can put flesh on the bones of historical texts, with her sequence "Tokens", based on the messages left behind for families by semi-literate convicts on their way to transportation. She does it again here, bringing alive both the English gentleman and the Irish housemaid in their own voices. Both are out of their comfort zone, partly because their unexpected feelings for each other are liable to meet family opposition given that he is Protestant and she Catholic, and partly because of the new environment they are in.

This brings us to the third character in the drama; the pitiless, demanding Murchison landscape itself. The poet researched this via travel as well as via books, and we see James, in his diaries, progress from making the sort of notes any tourist might jot down, "the view of the lake most attractive", through observing it properly and in detail,
Hopping mice and porcupines
burrow in sand under our feet, feral cattle

disappear into scrub
to, finally, feeling it from inside, becoming a part of it as he very nearly literally does:

With each day now, I'm quick to notice signs,
the woven wattle boughs –

a trap laid above a dried-up stream,
figures scored on gum trees, a stony grave

disturbed by dogs, the bones of horses
left to die. The land speaks.

I shudder, knowing men such as we
have passed this place before.

Tracks disappear in the soupy red loam.
Will we too become part of this land,

our dying marked by rocks
James's voice is that of an educated man becoming aware of how much he does not know; it is characterised by wonder, fear, intense curiosity. Helena, who has had less education and more hardship to cope with, is in some ways tougher and more worldly-wise, but she is made vulnerable both by how little control she has over her situation, as a domestic servant, and by the strength of her feelings for James, her only possible way out of it, who may not return from the interior and if he does, may still be beyond her reach. When her consumptive fellow-servant is turned off, we can sense, as she does, how easily this could be her fate:
Going, and no more than a week's wages paid to her.
Sure, she'll not survive, knows nothing but skivvying –
plenty off the ships will fight for that, and not be coughing.
The subtitle of this collection is "A Story in Verse", and that it is; we become attached to these characters and involved with their narrative, but it is the poet's eye that brings both them and the beautiful, forbidding landscape alive. The best material in the world won't help without that, and we may be glad that this little goldmine of a story came into the right hands.
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
Review of Between Quran and Kafka: West-Eastern Affinities, Navid Kermani, trs. Tony Crawford, English edition Polity Press, 2016

This is a collection of essays, speeches and articles by a German writer and scholar of Iranian extraction. The texts do have connections, notably his standpoint of looking for affinities and influences between Western and Eastern literature, but not all are about literature and they certainly don't add up to a single text with chapters. This is important to note, because neither the back-cover blurb nor the preface makes it clear, and since the two first texts, from the same series of lectures, can in fact be read as if they were the two first chapters of a book, this is confusing. The first appendix, "About the Text", makes it clear, but I don't know about you, I tend to read a book before its appendices.

Apart from the influence of Eastern (mainly Islamic) thought on German literature, which was my main reason for reading the book, other essays deal with terrorism, the refugee crisis, the death of an Iranian friend, the future of Europe and the performance of opera at Bayreuth. Most of them, though, do tend to reference an author somewhere, eg the chapter on refugees (one of the best argued and most telling), which is headed "Towards Europe: Zweig and the Borders". In truth Zweig didn't strike me as vital to the argument, but the text was a speech given at the Burgtheater of Vienna, so I suppose an Austrian author had to come in somewhere. Also it might indicate that Kermani is coming at matters primarily from the standpoint of a literary critic, though his interests are clearly wider and his view, like that of all who own two different cultures, that of a partial outsider.

This can often be an advantage: his reportage in "Towards Europe" is incisive and gripping:
Every night, from my hotel overlooking the port, I heard the dogs of the Moroccan border patrol waiting to catch the children. And yet once in a while a child makes it on board one of the ships, people say; sometimes they just try to hold on to the hull of a ship, in the water. I have no idea how that is supposed to work, but I wouldn't put it past these children to try it. Soon the European Union will be providing Morocco with sensors that detect a heartbeat or body heat. Then the children will have to stop breathing to get to Europe. They would probably try that too.
Among other chapters I found impressive,"Kafka and Germany" addresses the way in which Germany has been shaped less by its ever-changing borders than by language and literature. I don't think he argues it quite as cogently or readably as Neil MacGregor's "Germany", also published this year and reviewed here, but then MacGregor is one of the most readable of writers and doesn't labour the same point over and over as I find Kermani sometimes seems to, just in case the reader has missed it – perhaps this is a habit teachers and lecturers get into. Oh, and the remark (about Thomas Mann lecturing at the Library of Congress) "at the close of the war in the capital of the nation that has conquered Germany" might raise eyebrows, not to say hackles, in Britain and Russia, for two: the USA did it all on their own, did they, despite not actually having entered the war for its first three years? I also found "Revolt Against God" and "Hedayat and Kafka" fascinating, largely because they introduced me to two writers, Fariduddin Attar and Sadeq Hedayat, who were new to me and sound rather like my sort of thing – Attar in particular, a sort of cosmic Persian Eeyore whose The Book of Suffering I must look for.

But as one might expect from a book of disparate texts, I found the quality varied. I have no expertise in dramaturgy, which is perhaps why I can't follow what he is getting at in "Liberate Bayreuth!" As near as I can fathom, he thinks it impossible to act naturalistically while singing, so proposes instead that opera should be performed like oratorio, with the singers making no pretence to "be" whom they represent. I don't think this would actually hold an audience's attention (not a lot of oratorios seem to get staged these days) and I also think he underestimates the audience's capacity to suspend disbelief. As for his further demand that the orchestra be brought out of the pit and up on stage, he's going to need a bigger stage.

I could be doing him an injustice but I think one problem is that he lacks a sense of humour. When he speaks of modern poets, both Arabic and German: "many younger poets seem not to care about the rules and phonetic diversity of literary Arabic […] their recitation is as expressionless and interchangeable as the poetry readings we are familiar with here in Germany", he sounds exactly like a fusty Oxford don harrumphing that these modern chaps have no idea of prosody, and when he asserts that modern German university students "are introduced to longer, more complex works at best in abridged form" because they "have never learned the cultural techniques to comprehend nested sentence structures, rhythmic language, unfamiliar metaphors, intentional ambiguity", I'm not at all sure I believe him. I know this is not the case in British universities; students may be less sophisticated readers than their predecessors from the pre-TV age, but that can be, and is, addressed at university if it hasn't been at school; it doesn’t mean that Eng Lit students are presented with The Guinea-Pig Pride & Prejudice and I doubt it happens much in Germany.

The main place where a sense of humour would have helped is when, discussing King Lear, he quotes Gloucester's speech to Kent on his, Gloucester's, illegitimate son, who's present at the time:
Though this knave came something saucily into the world before he was sent for; yet was his mother fair; there was good sport at his making and the whoreson must be acknowledged.
This sparks off an explosion of tutting in Kermani: "when the father has no qualms about speaking his contempt openly to a third party, this explains and almost justifies the son's feelings of inadequacy that set the crime in motion and seal the father's doom." To my ear, Gloucester clearly speaks these words in a tone of bantering affection, probably while ruffling Edmund's hair (even "whoreson" is surely an Elizabethan version of the modern Geordie endearment "y'bugger"). Granted, the humour is darker than we are used to, but then Elizabethan humour often was. Walter Ralegh could write for his small son ("my pretty knave") a tenderly joshing sonnet about the possibility of naughty little boys ending up on the gallows ("The Wood, The Weed, The Wag"). Lord knows what Kermani makes of that; presumably he'd have had Tudor social services round at Sir Walter's door first thing in the morning, if only they'd been invented.

It is this misunderstanding not of words, but of tone, that sometimes makes me distrust his literary conclusions about works I do not know well, though to be fair, when he discusses Kleist's Penthesilea, which I do know, I wouldn't dissent at all. There is much to interest the reader in these essays; I would avoid the Preface, subtitled A Personal Note, which struck me as self-absorbed and slightly pompous, and get straight into the texts.
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
05 November 2016 @ 02:16 pm
Like what?
"[In his poems] there was an exuberance of metaphor and simile entirely original, and not in the least borrowed from any resemblance in the things compared." (George Eliot: Scenes of Clerical Life)

The whole idea of likening A to B is to provide the reader with a new angle on A, a way of looking at A that illuminates it via its partial likeness to B. This can be immensely helpful to the reader, but only, I suggest, if it is possible to visualise B clearly. Otherwise the comparison hinders rather than aids the vision. The writer needs to know exactly what he is looking at, or the reader will not, and this requirement exists no less in poetry than in any other form of writing.

This all derives from a debate I've been trying to have on twitter (you try debating in 140 characters, which is why I'm blogging instead) about an image of Ashbery's that someone had tweeted:
"women
with a trace of tears like re-embroidered lace"

When I asked the tweeter "what's re-embroidered lace?" it was of course a genuine question, because to me this is very much one of those similes that obstructs vision. I have no trouble visualising the traces of tears on a woman's face. I have immense trouble visualising what Ashbery means by re-embroidered lace, possibly because I suffer from having done, albeit unwillingly, a bit more needlework than him.

To begin with basics: embroidery is decoration executed on fabric, usually in thread or yarn but it can also involve sequins, beads, jewels and much else. Lace is itself a fabric, made of yarn or thread in an open, netlike pattern. While it would be theoretically possible to embroider with thread on lace, it wouldn't be easy and would probably end up like a dog's breakfast, because lace just isn't a ground that takes embroidery well. Another possibility, perhaps likelier, is that he is thinking of "lace embroidery", which is itself a metaphorical usage in that it means applying lace to another fabric in a decorative pattern that mimics real embroidery. It would be possible to visualise the tracks of tears as lace applied decoratively to the women's faces.

But in that case, what's with this "re-embroidered"? What am I meant to see there? Lace is a delicate fabric; its threads can break easily, but then you mend it; you don't "re-embroider" it, for it was never embroidered in the first place. If you applied decorative lace to a dress, you could remove the lace and "re-embroider" the dress – not the lace – by applying new lace. But why should the tracks of tears look "re-embroidered" as opposed to just embroidered?

What I think happened is that Ashbery liked the idea of tear-tracks as lace, partly at least because of the vowel echo with "trace", but he also liked the idea of embroidery and wanted both. Why, in that case, he didn't write "a trace of tears like lace embroidery", I've no idea, nor what he wanted to convey by "re-embroidered lace". I do know that as an image, it did nothing but confuse my vision.

I also know that I can't go along with the tweeter's suggestions that one should "accept images in poems on their own terms" and that "what makes perfect sense in a poem is not the same as what makes perfect sense outside of one". True, poets do sometimes leave out the odd logical step that the reader must fill in – Donne and Rilke are good examples. But this "accept the poem on its own terms" philosophy comes uncomfortably close to Humpty Dumpty. Words, for a writer, cannot mean just what we want them to, neither more nor less, because they also carry the meaning the reader sees in them. And said reader cannot un-know what she knows. If our readers happen to be familiar with the topography of a real place, or the habits of gulls, or the terminology of needlework, any errors or inconsistencies of fact in those areas can scupper a poem for them by destroying their trust in the authorial voice.

This is not to say that poets can't fictionalise, go beyond reality – embroider it, indeed. But if there's one place where this works less well, it would be imagery. If we want to help the reader see something more clearly, or in a new way, by means of a comparison object, then that object must surely be drawn –and drawn accurately - from the reader's own real world, which means the writer must himself be very sure what he is observing. And there needs to be some immediacy about how it works; the reader has to read it and at once think "yes! That's what A is like…" If you leave her scratching her head, I reckon you might as well just have described A in the first place.
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
05 November 2016 @ 12:19 pm


Not normally my thing, but the composer has set a couple of my translations of the German Thirty Years War poets Andreas Gryphius and Paul Fleming. St Albans, 19 November.

"Born in Flight, a new cantata by leading young composer Alexander Flood, will receive its world premiere as part of the concert by Radlett Choral Society at 7.30pm on Saturday 19 November in St Saviour's church, Sandpit Lane, St Albans. It sets three poems dating back to one of the most horrific conflicts in European history, the Thirty Years' War. That conflict was fought for complex reasons both political and religious four hundred years ago between all the great powers of the time. It laid waste to vast areas of what is now Germany. Imagine a war lasting from the start of WW1 to the end of WW2 in which proportionally twice as many people died as both world wars combined and we get a sense of the carnage that scarred the psyche of the German people for centuries.
The poetry of Born in Flight, in translations by the Welsh poet and novelist Sheenagh Pugh, reflects the typically matter-of-fact response of people of the time to the uncertainty and transience of life. The final section of the cantata sets a lament for a baby born as a refugee who died only a few days old. There are clear parallels between that time in Europe and today in the Middle East, and the rich sounds of the cantata combine elements of music from both time periods.
Composer Alexander Flood, who will also be conducting the performance, says ‘Serious composers today sometimes find it difficult to write music that can connect with and move an audience. I hope that Born in Flight can spark across from the performers to the listeners and provide a memorable and dramatic expression of poetry that is as relevant to our lives today as when it was written’.
The concert also includes two profound compositions by Gabriel Fauré, and J.S. Bach’s exquisite Cantata 18. Fauré’s Requiem is his best known works, described by the composer as ‘dominated from beginning to end by a very human feeling of faith in eternal rest’. At the age of nineteen, Fauré composed the music for Racine’s text in his ‘Cantique de Jean Racine’ for a competition at the school of church music he attended in Paris, which won him first prize.
Radlett Choral Society and the Mariana Ensemble, with Soprano Sarah Gabriel and Bass Samuel Evans, will be conducted by Alexander Flood.
Tickets at £12, accompanied children under 16 free, are available from RCS Box Office 01923 226836/243545, or on the door."
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh


Another anthology. This is an edited version of a website of the same name, a collection of poems which came into being because of the 2015 general election. The swing to the right, against the predictions of opinion polls, surprised most poets, who, like nearly everyone else, live in an online bubble where we come across few world-views that do not mirror our own. Two poets, the editors of this anthology, decided to publish a poem a day for 100 days in response to the election (it turned into 138 days, but poets aren't usually big on maths). Some were commissioned from poets the editors knew or knew of, others came from open submission. Disclosure: I have a poem in it myself but am taking my usual stance that one poem doesn't disqualify me from reviewing a whole anthology.

It might be argued that commissioning poems from the editors' own online acquaintance would produce homogeneity of views, but apparently the open submissions were no less homogenous (as I know was the case in a later project on poems about Brexit: not a single pro-Brexit poem was submitted). Why there should be this political consensus among poets is a puzzle many have raised. If one accepts that the role of poets in society, rather than to be unacknowledged legislators, is to be gadflies, it seems natural that they should be anti-whatever government is in power, and indeed anti-establishment. But that doesn't wholly explain the leftist consensus. Either right-wing poets, these days, don't exist, or they don't write about politics, or if they do, they avoid projects like this. The introduction, if I've understood it correctly, suggests that right-wingers, being more pragmatic, may not bother with the lyric form as a way of influencing or persuading others, ie for political purposes, because its reach is too small. I'm not sure about this, but then neither am I sure I have the hang of its argument elsewhere, eg "By dividing the work according to the four ministries […] in Nineteen Eighty-Four, we are not just having a dig at the attitudes of the political class […] but also indicating that the opinions expressed in these pages are not without their own ideologies". I don't really see how the second follows from the first (though I thought the idea of the four sections quite a witty way to organise the book) and overall the intro reminds me of an old North Wales man's reply when asked his opinion of the sermons preached by his local vicar, the poet R S Thomas. He said, "He do pitch the hay too high in the crach", meaning the sermons went over his head. Some of this intro's hay is out of my reach, too.

If the poems are largely homogenous in their political stance, they are, thankfully, not at all so in their technique. They range from overtly polemical to very oblique, from free verse to complicated and elaborate forms (both classical and invented), from contemporary to historical parallel, from persona to personal. Some of the form poems particularly impressed me, because the technique turned out, in this instance, to be a way of making the reader think more carefully about the words and their import. I would cite as outstanding Hannah Lowe's use of bold type to create a poem-within-a-poem in "The Garden Is Not For Everyone", Ian McMillan's similar use of italicised unspoken thought in "News From't Northern Province" and Paul McGrane's variant villanelle "The Government" – I seldom warm to villanelles, but this is a perfect example of how to turn the form's repetition and inevitability to account, stressing over and over the unpalatable fact that "somebody voted for the government". There are many other forms represented: sonnets, ballads, ghazal, terza rima, sestina. I'm still trying to work out why Ben Wilkinson, in his lively sestina "Building a Brighter, More Secure Future" chose the indefinite article "a" as one of his keywords. He must have had some purpose in deliberately choosing so weak a word in so strong a place, but so far I'm not getting it; more reading needed…

Another technique that worked very well in some of these poems was mythologizing, which gives a universality and timelessness to what might otherwise be bounded by its own particular time and place. Jon Stone's "Incentivampire" is a splendid, memorable example, as is Tony Williams's terza rima "The Promised Land" (another happy marriage of form and theme, a form and journey both potentially without an end).

I don't think all these poems can have been written specifically for the project, or during the hundred days; some must have been to hand already and simply fitted the brief. For instance, Steve Ely's "Inyenzi", one of the most powerful poems I've read in recent years, was in his pamphlet Werewolf (Calder Valley Poetry, 2016, reviewed here) and though the timing would allow for it to have been written for this project, it seems so integral to the pamphlet, so much part of its pattern, that I can't believe it evolved outside it. Not that this matters, because his transfer of the rhetoric used in Rwanda, to dehumanise the Tutsi and justify their killing, to a persona in this country speaking of what's sometimes called the underclass is chilling, masterly and fits the brief perfectly.

Nevertheless
they seemed to find each other attractive
mating continually and without compunction,
Even the juveniles were fertile

There are some poems that seem more tangential to the theme than this. In some cases, like Josephine Dickinson's "Go Not, Gentle", they are less a reaction to a specific event than a way of seeing the world, but still capable of being seen as a response to the theme. It's also possible that many poets preferred to approach the theme in an oblique way rather than risk being overtly polemical. There were a few poems that made me feel preached at, and correspondingly resentful, but not many. Overall, it's an anthology with much energy and passion, as is natural with political poetry, but also with more nuance and subtlety than might have been expected.
 
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh


Disclaimer: I have a poem in this, but have decided that one poem does not constitute a reason not to review the rest of the anthology.

Well, this is interesting. Last year, I reviewed two individual poetry collections whose main focus was ageing (Philip Gross's Love Songs of Carbon and Tamar Yoseloff's A Formula for Night) and one anthology of poems about ageing – also Scottish, Second Wind: new poems by Douglas Dunn, Vicki Feaver and Diana Hendry, pub. The Saltire Society. Indeed, a few poems from that anthology also cropped up in this one…. So there would seem to be a current fashion for poems on this topic.

Second Wind's remit was specifically to be "creative" about ageing, and judging by Sally Magnusson's foreword to Whatever the Sea, I wouldn't be surprised if this one too had been determined from the start to be basically upbeat rather than depress the customers. Magnusson describes the general tone as "pleasingly bracing". Even in the section entitled "Old Age Blues", the poems rarely get darker than wistful, and there isn't that much Timor Mortis in the final section, entitled "As Time Draws Near". Those who know my Eeyoreish tendencies will not be surprised to learn that the two bleak exceptions in these sections, Helena Nelson's "Blight" and Edwin Muir's "The Way" were among my favourites in the book.

The title, as many will recall, comes from one of the wonderful late poems of Edwin Morgan, "At Eighty", from his last collection Cathures:
Push the boat out, compañeros,
push the boat out, whatever the sea.

Other gems include Elma Mitchell, one of the several mature women poets so encouraged by the much-lamented Harry Chambers of Peterloo Poets. In "Good Old Days", having forensically dissected her body's failings, she ends:
But up here, at the top of the spine, behind the eyes,
Curtained a little but not blind,
Sits a young and laughing mind
Wondering which part of me is telling lies.

This disconnect between physical fact and mental self-image also cries out of Nelson's "Blight", which I can't resist quoting in full:
Each of us is old
and our brave silks begin
to fall from us. Draw close
in the chapterhouse of skin.

How shall we be glad?
We were young, young – we knew
it would happen as it happens
but not like this. Not to

us, not to the silk-sellers,
the bearers of spice and gold.
Our tales were bright in the telling
but this was not foretold.

There are poems in the anthology which are cosier, and which please me less, because they can get perilously close to cheery homespun philosophy. Mostly this consists of the odd clichéd line or phrase in an otherwise interesting poem, but a few poems, like Helen Cruickshank's "Autumn Compensations", seem to be pretty much made up of cottage gardens, slippered feet and irredeemable cosiness. Cruickshank, who could write much better than this, seems to have been left out of the author biogs at the end, which is a shame as hers would have been one of the more interesting ones.

But there is some fine work in here – apart from those I've already mentioned, there is Iain Crichton Smith, always a reflective, thought-provoking joy, Vicki Feaver and Alastair Reid among many others. Plus that chilling, exact Muir poem, which I didn't know before and now can't forget:
Stay here, for ever stay.
None stays here, none.
I cannot find the way.
The way leads on.
Oh places I have passed!
That journey's done.
And what will come at last?
The road leads on.

I'm wondering now when the next anthology on this topic will come up, and what the trend means…
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
30 September 2016 @ 07:52 am



The exercise in the page photographed above (photo by C J Southworth) comes from a book called The Practice of Creative Writing: a Guide for Students by Heather Sellers, pub. Bedford Books 2007. Basically it quotes a poem by Bob Hicok about his home town and then suggests the students make substitutes of their own for certain key words and phrases (like "Michigan"). They will thus "build their own poem in between the lines". The helpful advice continues… "After you write lines of your own built from Hickok's lines copy out just your poem, on a new sheet of paper. As you copy, tinker with your lines. Delete and add words to make them connect to each other. […] If you decide to submit the piece to a literary magazine or a class anthology, you can simply put 'After Bob Hicok's 'A Primer'" under the title if you feel it is still very closely related to the original. Poets and writers often talk to each other in this contemporary fashion; it's not unusual at all. Imitation is, after all, the highest form of flattery."

I used to teach creative writing. This isn't it. There is a world of difference between this and the process whereby one reads a poem, thinks "wow, that's just how I felt when X happened" and then goes off to write a poem about X. That is identifying what was universal in the poet's experience and how it was manifested in yours. I have used that as an exercise, and blogged about it here. This, on the other hand, is pretending to have had the experience someone else had in the poem. Hicok wrote about Michigan because it meant something to him. You're writing about Halifax, or whatever else you substituted for Michigan, because your tutor told you to. And it will show in the writing – there's a name for this barren, tick-box process, "ghosting", which strikes me as most appropriate for a pallid, insubstantial imitation of someone else's reality.

And it goes further. You are not just appropriating Mr Hicok's experience, you are copying the mechanics of how he chose to write about it – the syntax, the rhythms, the use of images. "Another image for how your place looks – comparison that spills over onto next line" advises the book helpfully, in case you should have accidentally done something original. The implication of "if you feel it is still very closely related to the original" is that it might not be; the student might somehow, out of this sterile parroting, create an actual new poem. But even Ms Sellers seems to recognise the danger that it will indeed still be very closely related to the original, in everything save originality, hence the advice to include the epigraph "After Bob Hicok". Here's my advice: putting "After Fred Bloggs" on a flagrant imitation of that gentleman's work will not stop Mr Bloggs objecting, and if he happens to be an irritable man, books or noses may get pulped as a result. The term "after" in an epigraph properly means that one has been inspired by a poet's work to produce something somehow related, but of one's own. It might be a parody; it might be a whole different take on his material; what it is not is a reproduction of his poem with some of his words crossed out and replaced by yours.

Some people who use this technique, of course, omit the stage of "tinker with your lines". They also omit the attribution "after" and publish their ghosts of others' efforts as their own original work. We call them plagiarists, and rightly scorn them, but being taught in this lazy way is arguably one reason they think such conduct acceptable.

Here's some alternative advice:

1. Imitate (or better, emulate) the how, not the what. This means working out not just what it is you admire in a poem but also how the poet achieved it. Thomas Wyatt, in the line "That now are wild, and do not remember", heightens the emotion of the word "remember" by throwing enormous stress on it. He does this by means of tinkering with his rhythms: leaving out a stressed syllable before the word in a basically iambic line. Don't waste time trying to do this exact same thing with a different set of words: just note for future reference that stress rules, like most others, can be broken to great effect.

2. Work out what you want to write, not what somebody else wanted to write. This is the heart of the exercise I've linked to above: the students had first to identify an experience of their own and only then look at how others might have used similar material. Then they wrote about their material; all they had brought from the poets we read was how that might be done by identifying what it was about this material that stuck in their minds.

3. Don't be constantly looking for lazy short cuts. That's all "ghosting" is – letting someone else have the experience, process it in his mind, work out the best techniques for expressing it…

4. If you honestly can't think of anything you want to write about, or any way of doing it, without borrowing from others, consider that maybe you're not cut out to be any kind of a writer. Being handy with words doesn't matter if you've nothing of your own to say.
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh

The most important thing about this novella - and it is one in length, rather than a novel - is its narrative voice. Bjarni is an old man, a widowed sheep farmer in a very isolated rural part of Iceland, writing a letter to the woman he loved many years ago but did not marry, and who moved to Reykjavik. A lot of the time he talks in proverbs, anecdotes and quotations from, or references to, Icelandic literature, and his imagery and vocabulary are drawn from the landscape and culture about him, so that it's natural enough for him to liken his lover's breasts to two nearby tussocks, or remark that his late wife was "tremendously good at distinguishing sheep, meaning she knew which heads belonged to which lambs even after they'd been singed and boiled". These are the things that matter to him, and since, like many Icelanders, he is also steeped in classical Icelandic literature and folklore. these references come naturally to his voice as well. There is a glossary at the back, for those not acquainted with the sagas. I'm not sure how this aspect of his voice will play with them, but for those of us who do know that marvellous branch of literature, it's a bonus that deepens and colours the old man's voice.

Having said this, he is in some ways a limited narrator: his feeling for the culture and landscape around him is acute but his views on town life and the modern world in general are little more than uninformed prejudice. His author is well aware of this, I'm sure; we are not meant to see purely through Bjarni's eyes. His reason for not following his lover Helga to town was not love for his wife but love for the landscape and culture in which he was brought up. It is made clear that this was in some ways almost literally a dead-end choice; his marriage is sterile, his way of life dying on its feet and the future - his future - looking at him from Reykjavik via a TV screen. Nevertheless, as Quentin Crisp once said, most of us end up doing, if not what we like, at least what we prefer, and so did he.

The translation, in US English, reads well enough in the prose but very awkwardly in the verses the old man quotes, If these were all amateur verses, it might be deliberate, but those by noted poets read just as stilted. It is, I suspect, simply that the translator normally works only in prose and is not himself a poet; it's really a different kind of translation, where one must often sacrifice literal accuracy of meaning for the sound the man wanted to make. One other thing - reviewing this via Vine, I have a proof copy which does not give the name of whoever was responsible for the beautiful illustrations, looking like woodcuts, which head each chapter. I trust this has been rectified in the pukka version, because they are outstanding, as you can see in the one I've headed this review with.

The author's afterword mentions that he grew up surrounded by storytellers, and there are indeed some marvellous anecdotes woven into this book, my favourite perhaps being that of the old man whose wife dies in a hard winter when her corpse can't be moved from her remote farmhouse. In his practical way, the widower preserves her body (for a spring burial) where he preserves everything else, in the smokehouse.

We helped him take her down off the crossbeam, and the entire time we were busy with this, Gisli spoke to Sigridur as if she were still alive and kicking. 'Well, my dear, they've finally come to get you. Now you're going to go for a little boat trip, my good woman.' That's how he spoke to this woman, whose dead body he'd so affectionately prepared for burial. Gunnar of Hjardarnes couldn't refrain from saying something that we were were naturally all thinking, as we lifted her carefully from the cage and over into the coffin, her skin rosy brown, smelling like the best smoked lamb meat. I swear she had a smile on her face. Gunnar said, 'Well, mate, I don't know what you say, but I think Sigridur has never looked better!'"

Not all the writing works that well, and I do think the obligatory sheep-shagging incident contrived and predictable. But overall this is an unusual and engaging novella, about a man whose inner life is more expansive than his outward circumstances. In his own words, he has "big dreams on small pillows"
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
08 September 2016 @ 10:33 am
Back to plagiarism… sorry to the non-writers for whom this isn't necessarily a Big Thing in their lives, but it's a debate that doesn't go away in the poetry world, principally because it's become clear in recent years that it happens far more often than we have cared to admit. We're not talking of influences, parodies, hommages here, but of Poet B shamelessly nicking Poet A's actual lines and phrases and not crediting them.

You wouldn't think this would divide the poetry world much, or only along fairly obvious lines – all the honest folk on one side and all the thieves on the other, surely. But in fact there are a few writers and publishers who insist that there can be no ownership of words, no "originality", on the ground that we all use the same dictionary, and that if you, as Poet A, happen to have written a heartfelt lament for your father, you shouldn't make a fuss when Poet B appropriates it with some trifling changes and makes it about his mother; if anything you should take it for a compliment. (That example actually happened, and Poet B won a competition with it, until it was sussed.)

The interesting thing is that both sides of the debate sometimes cite the practice of creative writing courses and workshops in support. I've seen it so often asserted that in these forums, students are taught to "sample", imitate, cut and paste, "ghost" (a particularly pernicious practice, in my view, whereby someone uses another's ideas and structure as a template for a new poem). Those who approve point out that there are ways of crediting, like an epigraph that makes it clear the poem is "after" so-and-so. But what gets me is the notion that all such courses use these shortcuts – sorry, I mean techniques, of course. I can only say I didn't, nor did any of my colleagues on the CW degree where I taught. Of course I used the writing of others as models, just not that way. Just by way of illustration, this is an exercise I used.

Stage 1. Think of someone you know well, probably family or close friend, who is known in their circle for doing some particular physical activity. It could be sport, painting, music, housework, cooking, gardening: anything from setting a fire or putting clothes on a line to playing an accordion or fencing, as long as it involves some physical activity, not just sitting thinking with a pen in one's hand. (Though calligraphy would be fine.) Write a very full, detailed description, not a poem but a prose paragraph or two, or even notes, about this person doing this thing – how they do it, how they look when doing it, how they seem to others, what the result is. These notes in this form will not get shown to anyone.

Stage 2. We read several poems in which the way someone does something becomes emblematic for something about them, or a way into some other knowledge. These were some I used:
Michael Laskey: "Laying the Fire". A divorced woman finds herself having to relight the Parkray, which had always been her husband's job. He made a complicated mystery out of it; she does it more haphazardly but it works perfectly well and in the process she begins to see that she can manage without him.
River Wolton: "Running". River writes a lot about physical exercise and sport; this was an early piece that conveyed, to me, not just her feelings when running, but something about persistence, the mental need to persevere with something not because it was fun but to prove something to oneself.
A D Mackie: "The Mole-Catcher". We had to do a quick bit of byroning for this: in Mackie's poem the pitiless mole-killer is compared to the Angel of Death who sweeps down on the Assyrian host in Byron's poem "The Destruction of Sennacherib". In the Byron poem, the Assyrians are the baddies, threatening the Lord's people. But in Mackie's, by the end we are firmly on the side of the moles, the "sma' black tramorts [corpses] wi' gruntles grey", and having to reassess, in the light of the comparison, how we feel about the Lord and his angels.

I used other similar poems in which physical activity became emblematic of more than itself, just never Heaney's "Digging", which struck me as way too bleedin' obvious.

Stage 3: Go back to those notes from Stage I. Now try to work out what it was about this person doing this thing that stuck in your mind. What did it say about them, or their relationships with others, or how others saw them? What was special, for them, about this thing and how they did it? Whatever it was, that's where the poem is, so now write the first draft of it.

I got some fascinating poems this way, full of physicality as one might expect, and often quite insightful. One I especially recall was by a young widow; her husband had been a plasterer and the argot of his trade included a surprising number of bird-related words like hawk, swoop, hop up. He'd been a small, active, delicate man, and in the poem, busy at his job, he comes over so quick and birdlike, he could have been there in the room.

What I never got was straight imitation of the poems we had read. That wasn't possible, because they'd been sent back to their own experience, not that of the poets in front of them. All they had gleaned from those was how personal experience might be transmuted into something more than itself, and how they, using their own experience rather than piggybacking on someone else's, might do likewise.
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
I really, really like the way Neil MacGregor illuminates history by focusing on individual objects. He has of course done it twice: once creating A History of the World in 100 Objects (all in the British Museum where he was then director) and then in Shakespeare's Restless World, where he brought the plays alive, again via objects the man would have known and seen. In the process he shines a light on things you just might not normally think about, like the fact that the theatre name "Globe" was cutting-edge at a time when Drake had not long circumnavigated the world.

In his latest, he does again use objects, like coins, machines, Peter Keler's Bauhaus cradle (designed in 1922, still in production today), but also focuses on towns, motifs from folk tale, paintings and individual humans. But the method is the same: to zoom in on what may look like a detail and use it to illuminate something far wider. In the chapter "Snow White vs Napoleon", he examines the role of the forest in the German imagination and self-image, from Hermann's epic victory over the Roman legions in the Teutoburger Wald (AD 9), through the sinister forests of the Grimm folk tales and the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich, to the modern preoccupation with conservation which results in a third of the country, no less, being protected forest land, and has made the Greens stronger in Germany than anywhere else in Europe.

Sometimes too, the individual objects of his focus interact revealingly and movingly, as when we realise that Ernst Barlach's sculpture "Hovering Angel", created in 1926 as a Great War memorial, melted down by the Nazis for war material and recreated post-war from the original plaster mould, has the face of Käthe Kollwitz, whose "Grieving Parents", commemorating her own son's death in the Great War, we have already seen.

From the Europeanism of Goethe to the federal individuality of sausages, from Martin Luther reinventing a language to a handcart used by refugees after World War 2 but which, as he points out, is of so timeless a rural design that it could easily have been used for the exact same purpose during the Thirty Years War, this is as many-sided and illuminating a portrait of a nation and its history as I can imagine. It's also, like everything of his that I have read, immensely readable.