Saturday, 12 July 2014

The ultimate bookshop - Albion Beatnik in Oxford

For a long time I've been promising myself a trip to Oxford to go to the Albion Beatnik and last night thanks to Cinnamon Press I finally got there. 

I thought that  the bookshop would be a nice place, rather like Ottakars in Milton Keynes before it got taken over. What I had not expected to find was a small piece of heaven in North Oxford and more like finding yourself in a friend's well stocked library.

I was frazzled when I arrived having only got off a plane from Athens a couple of hours earlier and subsequently having failed to leave my car at the park and ride since their machines expect payment in sterling rather than Euros. I'd abandoned my car somewhere in the vicinity of the Woodstock road and hot footed it to the bookshop, convinced I'd be late. 

The bookshop owner, Dennis Harrison, took me in hand, providing tea, conversation, introductions to various people drifting in for the evening reading and a calmly reassuring presence. Who needs Costa coffee when 'builder's tea' magically appears in front of you on a hand-decorated table.

Unlike many of the far larger chain bookshops the Albion Beatnik has shelves and shelves of new poetry books plus new fiction and also second hand books.
 

It is a more intimate setting than the above photograph might suggest and a fantastic place to hold a reading. I was pleased to meet up with my fellow Cinnamon authors for the launch of Hazel Manuel's novel Kanyakumari and to hear selections from the novels of Lindsay Stanberry-Flynn
 Mary Howell, more of Jan's Slate Voices and a preview of the memoir being written by Catherine Coldstream.

If you should visit Oxford then do not leave without going to the bookshop. It is at 34 Walton Street. And do buy a book or two, as without customers bookshops like the Albion Beatnik will cease to exist. 

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

One year on….

I came close to calling this blog post  being a ‘proper’ writer as it’s a year since Convoy was published and so I’ve been reflecting on the past year.

In lots of ways life goes on just as it did before publication; there’s still laundry to be done, children to be collected from school and the day job at the Open University with its many and varied demands.

So has anything changed? Well I can answer that in one word – confidence.

There is nothing quite like having someone else believe in the strength of your writing enough to publish it, to make you realise you might actually have joined the ranks of ‘proper’ writers. Then there’s the readers who send me enthusiastic notes and comments about Convoy. This is a recent one

‘In Convoy, I appreciated this glimpse of foreign-to-me bravery, foreign because this happened before my time, and is a part of the history of that war I knew little to nothing about. It's a lovely gift to have created a platform for those voices. My father spoke in a similar way about his war experiences in the Pacific arena. By that I mean with few words, but a sense that a lot that doesn't need to be said, while still conveying loss and the wonder of self-survival. Such haunting words and images, 
"I am more than tired, keep seeing things, 
friends who died on previous convoys 
reaching out to shake my hand."


Poetry books don’t generally get many reviews so I have been grateful to the people who have ventured onto Amazon or Good Reads to post their opinions.

The other change is that people now ask me to do things… as a writer. This has included running a village writing group, originally under the auspices of our community library. They are a delight and are so enthusiastic about writing and learning and have made me realise how much I know about the craft. Of course we are all still learning…. then there’s taking part in readings… the Sensing spaces, Wandering words event at the Royal Academy, which provided an adrenaline rush.. it was like doing my fist parachute jump all over again… but with fellow poets alongside.

Having been through the process of putting together a first collection I’m spending 2014 as a mentor to poet Becky Cherriman under a scheme set up by my publisher Cinnamon Press. She has recently had poems published on the Mslexia blog as part of Michelle McGrane’s Against Rape project on Peony Moon.


Saturday, 15 March 2014

My Writing process


Rebecca Gethin (Liar Dice, A handful of Water and What the Horses heard ) has kindly asked me to take part in a blog tour of writers where we all answer the same questions and tag other writers who will do the same the following week. A nice way to keep in touch and learn about new people!  Becky posted her writers blog tour last week.


I have one person to tag at the moment and this is:
  • Judi Moore: 
http://judimoore.wordpress.com

Judi’s novelIs Death really necessary is available on the kindle. As befits the author of a novel set in 2038 Judi lives in the new town of Milton Keynes with several (hard to be specific - they don't stand still) black and white critturs in an old Tardis-like cottage.












Now for my answers to the questions:

What am I working on?
I have several writing projects on the go at the moment. Social media friends will have noticed my current pre-occupation with London’s statues and I’m working on a top secret collaborative venture with another writer. I’ve also returned to writing prose as I have a couple of characters, a  father and son who want me to tell their story. 

How does my work differ from others of its genre?
I’m not sure that it does. But I do mostly write poems that are based on things that have actually happened in the past, even if I do invent a lot of the details.

Why do I write what I do?
This is a difficult question to answer because I write what I’m moved to set down and I don’t tend to examine why I’m doing it. It would detract from the writing if I started navel gazing about the whys. That said, many of the poems in Convoy were about the stories we are at risk of forgetting. So there was an element of capturing lost stories and as I was writing the collection it felt as if I was doing it for all the merchant seamen who are the unsung heroes of the second world war.

How does your writing process work?
I wait until I can hear the character’s voice or the voice of the poem. But I wouldn’t want it to sound as if I sit around waiting for inspiration to strike. You’d never get anything written that way. I’ve discovered that you can put yourself in the right place, usually just by sitting down with a blank page.

I’m just about to go off to North Wales for a writing retreat and based on previous experience I know that I will get lots written away from the distractions of home and the day job.


Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Good things

Any readers of my blog who know me in real life will be aware that there’s been little time for poetry in the last couple of months. But I’m making my way back into the flow and lovely things have begun to happen again, like the Magma celebration reading at Keats House. This was for all those poets who had won prizes or been short-listed in the competition, which was judged by Philip Gross. Much thanks to Tania Hershman who persuaded me to go with her. She introduced me to Jo Bell, who is doing marvellous things to inspire people to write poems on her 52 blog
I came away from the evening with poems ringing and reverberating around my head and a copy of Magma 58 clutched in my paws. In fact every hair on my head wanted to stand up and hum and sing. The winning poem, Snow Country by Dominic Bury is breathtakingly good so do buy a copy of the magazine or even better subscribe to it. The London launch of issue 58 takes place on Friday 7th March at the London Review of Books bookshop.



At the same time there was the Sensing Spaces exhibition at the Royal Academy which Vanessa Gebbie enthused about so much I just had to go to see it. Letting architects loose in the academy turns out to have been a very good idea. They’ve all created extra-ordinary spaces and it’s the only ‘art’ exhibition I’ve been to where the other people going round wanted to share their impressions. Like the man who wanted to make sure I’d realised there were thirty five steps to the top of the stairs where the angels were. I did write a poem about the space in which I felt the least comfortable, never mind that everyone else thought they were in a library and that the hazel sticks resembled rolled scrolls or the spines of books. I was surprised but pleased to have the poem accepted for the Ekphrasis wandering words reading. This is also on Friday 7th March for anyone who isn’t already going to the Magma launch.

And like London buses there is yet another poetry event happening in the capital on Friday with a gathering of the five UK and Ireland current poet laureates, who are all female. At a time, when it feels to me like women are being demeaned in public life, it is absolutely marvellous that this is being celebrated. Wow  indeed. No wonder it is sold out.

Tuesday, 31 December 2013

The Year in Books Part Two



I spent the summer and autumn reading and re-reading Wilfred Owen’s poetry, again in company with friends on Good Reads. Gillian Clarke puts it much more eloquently than me writing on the Magma Blog  when she says “Owen’s words, read once, are unforgettable almost a century after he wrote them.”
The on-line Getsparked project allowed me to introduce Traci Robison, someone who had never read his poems, to his work and she produced the most gorgeous painting inspired by Dulce et Decorum est. I ended the year of reading with Dominic Hibberd’s Wilfred Owen: The Last Year.

An unexpected delight of the year was Samuel Pepys. One of the reads for my local book group was Claire Tomalin’s magisterial biography. With one of those touches of serendipity that the universe is fond of I discovered at the same time that Caroline Gilfillan’s collection of poems, Pepys which capture the spirit of the man.

If you put water or anything to do with the sea into the title of your book then there’s a good chance I will pick it up. So no surprise that Rebecca Gethin’s A Handful of Water was one of favourite reads of the spring. In case you’re wondering I do occasionally read novels as well and during April I read Charlotte Rogan’s The Lifeboat back to back with James Hanley’s The Ocean. The set up for both novels is the same – a group of people who was ship-wrecked and end up together in a lifeboat. Rogan’s is a compelling page turner of a read. I had only picked it up in the bookshop to admire the cover and found myself unable to put it down after reading the first few pages.

The Ocean was first published in 1941, my copy was the Harvill Press re-issue published in 1999. The contrast with The Lifeboat is profound. Hanley, like my grandfather was a seaman. Born in 1901 he was a near contemporary of my taid and Hanley spent nine years at sea and how it shows in the writing of The Ocean. There are only six of them who make it onto the lifeboat in panic of getting off the Aurora when she’s torpedoed just after midnight. One of them, Crilley is killed immediately when the lifeboat is machine gunned and he protects the water keg from being holed. The main character Joseph Curtain explains p12 “When they machine gun a boat like this there’s always a chance of them drilling holes in your water supply. These days they don’t kill you directly, but if you plug a water keg with bullets then you kill everybody…” I don’t know if Hanley was ever on board a ship which was sunk but his novel reads as if he may well have been. He is someone whose work I want to read more of in 2014.

Having read The Stalin Organ in 2012, (another War and Literature choice) I read Gert Ledig’s second novel, Payback in the summer. Both books are based on his own experience as a German soldier in the Second World War and are important albeit searing accounts. Payback deals with a night in which an unnamed German city is bombed by the Allies with appalling consequences. I have Alexander Voinov to thank for persuading me to take Payback out of the ‘to-read’ pile. Voinov has written two books, Skybound and Unhinge the Universe from the German point of view in the last world war. These are romances and far gentler reads than Ledig. Ledig published a third novel, Faustrecht in the late 1950s which has yet to be translated into English. So I shall have to blow the dust off my rusty German to read it.

One of the pleasures I rediscovered this year was being read to. In this day and age that means audio books and Chris Patton reading Josh Lanyon’s Adrien English series. How very American he sounds I thought on listening to the first, then realising that in my head I’d given Lanyon’s characters English accents. An absolute treat was discovering Anton Lesser reading Wilfred Owen’s poems which was a very early Christmas present to myself.

Another of my page turning reads was Michael Crawshaw’s To Make a Killing, a thriller, a whodunit set in the City of London where one by one bankers are being killed. This pulls off the neat trick of making you see them as ordinary human being rather than the hate figures they’ve become in the popular media. Crawshaw worked in the City so he knows his stuff including the difference between a banker’s bonus and  a lock-in payment. Mike is a friend. We meet up every summer with our children at a family camp in Derbyshire but this was the first year when we each realised how seriously the other takes writing. So proceeds from the book go to support the Hands Together project in Nepal.

I dipped into Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman in the early autumn. I’d registered for an on-line course on Modern and Contemporary American poetry only to realise life was too busy with work, family and my own writing for me to keep up. I did make it down to Brighton for the launch of Vanessa Gebbie’s Half Life of Fathers. Having seen this collection take shape it was one of my poetry collections of the year. Another which I frequently took down off my shelves was John McCullough’s Frost Fairs. I discover another favourite poem in it every time I re-read it. Thanks to Anne Ystenes I’ve been introduced to the work of Olav Hauge, a Norwegian poet. His work is available in translation in the UK and US by luminaries like Robert Bly although I’ve enjoyed rather reading Anne’s careful word for word translations alongside the original Norwegian. His poems are full of hjarta (heart) and havet (the sea, the ocean).

During the year I got into the habit of carrying around poems in my bag. The first was Antoine Cassar’s Passaport which looks quite like a passport although it’s not so much a poem as a project to make us all think about borders, boundaries, immigration and emigration. I even had the temerity to offer it to a UK Borders official on my return from France in October. He did reach for the unofficial passport first, puzzling over it before deciding he did really need the one with all the stamps in it.

Thanks to Sabotage Reviews I discovered Sarah Hymas Lune – a foldout poem about the sea at Morecombe bay which has people coo-ing over it whenever I produce it out of my bag.

So here’s to lots more poetry in 2014.


The year in books Part One


I’ve decided to look back over a year of reading rather than producing my list of books of the year and therefore things that you should read too! There are books which I’d recommend but it’s up to you as many of us have more books to read than hours in which to read them.

The year began and ended with Mary Renault’s The Charioteer, which I re-read at the turn of 2012 and start of 2013 in company with a group on Good Reads. Then as an early Christmas present BBC Radio 4 had Anton Lesser reading a severely abridged version of the book but he read it so convincingly with seemingly a different voice for each of the characters. I’m hoping it will be available as an audio book so that I can listen to it all over again.

During January 2013 I was putting the final touches to the manuscript of Convoy. Well actually I was panicking over whether it was good enough to let my publisher have it so I kept going back to my shelf full of Malta books. You can read blog posts from earlier in the year to discover my favourites amongst these books including those by Tom Neil and Laddie Lucas.

I managed a couple of times during the year to take part in the War and Literature Readalong organised by Caroline of  Beauty is a Sleeping Cat blog. It provided the motivation to read Kevin Powers fragile butterfly of a book – The Yellow Birds and I’m currently late with finishing the final book The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh, because it is so moving and humane I don’t want to rush it

As you might expect my year’s reading had lots of poetry in it. Hearing Sharon Olds read from Stag’s Leap at the TS Eliot prize event in January was a highlight of the year, as was her book.

During the year I took a long time over David Jones In Parenthesis – his long poem about the first world war. It was a reading which gathered momentum as I followed the journey of the soldiers over to France, in training and then moving up to the front line and then on to Mametz wood where for many of them their lives ended. My own copy of In Parenthesis is now dog eared and got considerably water logged in October when I took it to Mametz to read n the company of Jeremy Banning and the Writers Pals; Vanessa Gebbie, Zoe King, Tania Hershmann and Sarah Salway.

I think Jones would have been somewhat bemused at the thought of his book being taken back there where he had to abandon his rifle under one of the oaks. I like to think he’d also be pleased that his work is still remembered. If you haven’t already read In Parenthesis I would encourage you to do so and you are allowed to take months to do so.

Tony Conran died at the end of January 2013 and it seemed fitting to remember him by reading his elegy for the Welsh killed in the Falklands and here is an extract. You can read the whole poem in The Shape of My Country.

Elegy for the Welsh Dead, in the Falkland Islands, 1982

Gwyr a aeth Gatraeth oedd ffraetheu llu
Glasfedd eu hancwyn, a gwenwyn fu
Y Gododdin (6th century)

(Men went to Catraeth, keen was their company.
They were fed on fresh mead, and it proved poison.)

Men went to Catraeth. The luxury liner
For three weeks feasted them.
They remembered easy ovations.
Our boys, splendid in courage.
For three weeks the albatross roads,
Passwords of dolphin and petrel,
Practised their obedience
Where the killer whales gathered,
Where the monstrous seas yelped.
Though they went to church with their standards.
Raw death has them garnished.

Friday, 13 December 2013

The Poetry dinner party

Following on from the early posting about Half Life of Fathers the poetry dinner is now in full swing with guests, William Blake, Issac Rosenberg, Christina Rossetti, Dylan Thomas, Seamus Heaney and whoever it was who wrote the Song of Solomon. Vanessa Gebbie is organising them into reciting their poems as follows:



I’d like to hear the visionary William Blake reading ‘The Tyger’, 

When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears: 
Did he smile his work to see? 
Did he who made the Lamb make thee? 


Then Rosenberg will read Dead Man’s Dump, including:

None saw their spirits' shadow shake the grass,
Or stood aside for the half used life to pass
Out of those doomed nostrils and the
doomed mouth,
When the swift iron burning bee
Drained the wild honey of their youth.


Christina Rossetti will go next, and read ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’, with special emphasis on the lines:

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him
Nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When He comes to reign:

Dylan Thomas will choose ‘And Death Shall Have No Dominion’ which closes:

Where blew a flower may a flower no more
Lift its head to the blows of the rain;
Though they be mad and dead as nails,
Heads of the characters hammer through daisies;
Break in the sun till the sun breaks down,
And death shall have no dominion. 
Then they’ll all read bits and bobs from the song of Solomon, while the brandy flows (poured by DT), and Rossetti will blush.
The last word goes to Seamus Heaney reading his Haw Lantern.  

...you flinch before its bonded pith and stone,
its blood-prick that you wish would test and clear you,
its pecked-at ripeness that scans you, then moves on.