Life Poetry Uncategorized

Waiting for the Barbarians

I have always loved this poem by C P Cavafy, about the fear and confusion of change, of the new, of having to take responsibility.

The poem has a light touch, sympathetic yet taut and uncompromising, and perfectly satisfies Ezra Pound’s definition of poetry as ‘news that stays news.’ It’s never seemed more timely. This is the best translation I think. Read it here.

Life Poetry Uncategorized

Song for Adam

A desperately sad day, but a beautiful day also, and a beautiful ceremony. This poem, and the violin solo, brought tears to the eyes:

It is not growing like a tree
In bulk, doth make men better be;
Or standing long an oak, three hundred year,
To fall a log at last, dry, bald, and sear:
A lily of a day,
Is fairer far in May,
Although it fall and die that night;
It was the plant, and flower of light.
In small proportions we just beauties see;
And in short measures, life may perfect be.

Ben Jonson

Books Life Philosophy

The importance of peeling an orange

You may or may not dare to eat a peach, but this is why it’s important to peel an orange:

Many people believe that they can remain unaffected by the beliefs and attitudes of the age. But no one can. As we live in the age, so the age lives in us.

And one of the most insidious beliefs of the age, I think, is that fulfillment is effortless, even inevitable. But the opposite is true. Everything worthwhile has to be earned.

Recently I came across a tragically significant fact. Sales of oranges are plummeting, because no one can be bothered to peel them anymore. I can’t give you any prescriptions but … I can give you a spiritual exercise, something to purify your souls.

Buy an orange. Take it home. And peel it. Slowly. Deliberately. Voluptuously. Above all defiantly – in defiance of this age that demands everything to be easy.

An excerpt from Michael Foley, author of The Age of Absurdity, speaking at the Bristol Festival of Ideas, on the Philosophy Now podcast from Philosophy Press.

Do subscribe to the monthly podcast, presented by Julian Baggini, and celebrate the readiness of philosophers to engage once again with questions of how to live and renewed confidence in the power of philosophical insight to work a practical effect on our lives. And enjoy peeling that orange.

Take time

Books Language Life Poetry Uncategorized

The merry merry month of May

I have been meaning to write about the merry merry month of May, and its derivation, since April. But I’ve come to the conclusion that I haven’t written about it, not simply because I’ve been massively busy with new work, but because it’s just not a question that interests me enough. Look around you is probably the answer, and perhaps one of the poems in Thomas Dekker’s The Shoemaker’s Holiday, published in 1600:

O, the month of May, the merry month of May,
So frolic, so gay, and so green, so green, so green;

So the poem for this month is from (the poet laureate) Carol Ann Duffy’s collection Rapture. I have chosen the poem ‘You‘; you can read it here.  Then buy the book. You won’t be disappointed. Incidentally, isn’t ‘Rapture’ a beautiful word? The sound of the word alone carrying its meaning.

Also what made me sit up this week was the South Africa Today series of articles in last Sunday’s Observer, which I have just caught up with. The piece by Rian Malan is wonderfully caustic, the article by Albie Sachs full of quiet beauty, but best of all the farewell note written to Margie Orford by Rashied Wewers, the oldest member of her writing class in Victor Verster maximum security prison:

I am

A book with a damaged cover, but what is

Written between the lines could save a country

From a disaster.

Life Personal development Uncategorized

Realism and disappointment

On the art of non-conformity facebook page a few days ago: ‘Every time someone tells you to “be realistic” they are asking you to compromise your ideals.’

The election results for the Liberal Democrats were as ‘disappointing’ as Nick Clegg described them as, after all the speculation the election landscape remains a two horse race with the electorate declining to signal decisively in favour of electoral reform.

Why did the Lib Dems fail to translate breakthrough in the opinion polls into breakthrough in the real poll? I think their campaign ran out of steam after the second week. Putting on my amateur psychologist hat, the reason for that, I think, was because Clegg was determined to remain ‘realistic’ in expectations – prompted partly, I suspect, by fear of having the equivalent of David Steel’s ‘Go back to your constituencies and prepare for government’ clip following him around for the rest of his life. But this time was different and he should have grasped the nettle, particularly after the second debate, and concentrated on what he and the LibDems would want to do, in terms of policy and action, not simply repeating the (negative) formula ‘we’re not the other two’.

The difficulty is to know when a bit of realism might be a good idea – and when not.

Incidentally, my take on Tony Blair and the Iraq war – history had a similar role to play: the fear of repeating Chamberlain’s ‘here is the paper’ mistake (combined with the desire to emulate Thatcher and the Falklands). Hopefully the fear of repeating Blair’s mistake (combined with lack of funds) may rein in enthusiasm for new foreign adventures for a while.

Congratulations, incidentally, to Harvey Taylor for a consistently positive contribution to the election, as an Independent candidate in Bournemouth West.

Books Language Life

Lean as a gnawed bone

and as cold as an axe head.’

Thus the description of the Duke of Norfolk in Wolf Hall, which is every bit as good, and exhilarating to read, as the reviews say it is, and the beginning of which is an object lesson in how to start a piece of writing in the middle of the action.

The description sparks the image of ‘lean’ Cassio in Julius Caesar, but also … of poor old Posh (of & Becks) who never manages to look as if she’s enjoying anything. Quite the opposite of Ms Dahl, if the tv ads for her upcoming cookery show are anything to go by. Move over Nigella, there’s a new star in the kitchen.

[later.. ] But of course Posh is Anne ‘glancing around with her restless black eyes, eating nothing, missing nothing, tugging at the pearls around her little neck.’

Business development Life Music

If you’re not living on the edge,

you’re taking up too much space!’ (Unknown).

My take-away from the excellent presentation by Dr Dave (Richards, of Bournemouth University) who spoke at the South Coast Connections networking event earlier in the week.

He was speaking on innovation, defining the innovative as that which adds new value – though he was careful to emphasise that value should not be understood solely in monetary terms.

He also highlighted the importance of conviviality: an idea not shared is probably an idea that will not be developed to its full potential. Brainstorm constantly, share, be joyful, but be ruthless in throwing out good ideas as soon as possible within the development process in order to concentrate your resources on the great ideas.

His presentation was thought-provoking and entertaining, but the visuals occasionally a bit tired. For example, a dominatrix to illustrate discipline. That idea’s been round the houses and then some.

Except, of course that’ll probably be the one thing everyone will remember. I can just see us all, a month or so from now, waking with the insistent idea in our heads that ‘we need discipline‘ but not being entirely sure why.

The next morning I was out early, walking through the woods with the dog, the crunch of a light frost underfoot and Joni Mitchell in the earphones as the sun rose in a red sky; a fleeting moment of perfection.

But let’s not talk about fare-thee-well’s now
The night is a starry dome.
And they’re playin’ that scratchy rock and roll
Beneath the Matala moon…

Today the postman brought a surprise – a beautifully produced hardback book of samples of Colorplan, paper and card by GF Smith.

It is ideal for filing on the shelf, so it is always to hand, ready to be consulted. And, as it happens, I use Colorplan for the cover of our poetry magazine (Tears in the Fence, issue 51 just out). BUT, and it’s a big but, there is no key or other text to identify the colours.  So having chosen a paper colour, how do I communicate this to the printer?

Live on the edge, but don’t step into the void.

Books Life Poetry

Love-making by Candlelight

This is a fine winter poem by Scottish poet Douglas Dunn, from his collection Northlight published (by Faber) in the late ’80s. I was reminded of it when I saw a copy in our local Oxfam bookshop last week, and reproduce it below.

His poems create a vivid sense of lived reality and are imbued with a generosity of spirit that awakens the heart and mind.

This is the sexiest poem in the collection and there’s a wonderful physicality about it; in the flickering candle light the two lovers exist in this moment of time – and outside of time, connecting past, present and future.

It reminds me of  Candle Mambo, a gorgeous song by Captain Beefheart –

When I’m dancing with my love, the shadows flicker up above
Up above, the shadows do the Candle Mambo

If you don’t know it, check it out on your favourite listening source; well worth a detour.

On a more traditional note, there’s also a good poem (in Northlight) on that classic pastime of Christmases past at the family home: The jigsaw. Here, a couple of short extracts from Jig of the Week No.21:

Under optimum conditions – the room quiet
In fireglow, rain lashing on nocturnal glass –
I start an old American puzzle.


On junior versions of wet, wintry nights
Around Christmas, I tried to be patient.
A jigsaw on a white enamel tray
Encouraging pictorial wanderlust –
My father’s ear close to the wireless set’s
Hummed murmuring of Cold War ’49,
My mother sewing, my brother fast asleep.

Which just leaves me to wish you, dear Reader, a very happy Christmas.

May all your candles be lit, and your jigsaws complete.

Happy Christmas!


Love-making by Candlelight

by Douglas Dunn

Skin looked like this two hundred years ago
When Candlelight lapped the erotic straw
In hilly farms where windowed candlefire
Burnished imperfect glass. Portending haws
Hung on the leafless bush, amazement’s bud
Red on the acres of nocturnal snow
As uplands rose to tufted winterlight,
In their celestial altitude
The eighteenth-century stars.

This is how it must be, shape-shifting fire’s
Impatient nudity and ours
On the big bed. A molten vividness
Dismantles gender and the way it move
Identifies a married venery
Timeless in the bedroom of the species –
A Pictish smile, a medieval kiss,
A whispered pre-industrial draught
On our contemporary bed.

Played on by fire, those clustered cornice grapes
Outwit their plaster: cornucopia’s vine,
Pompeian opulence, rumours
From far back, echoes of Florentine
Intrigue, Renaissance footsteps in the hall
Where gossips overhear indelible
Echoed courtships; and these Muscovian furs
Were linen until fire reshaped
Their transient destiny.

Hands dipped in light-and-shadow-cast
Ledas and satyrs on the bedroom wall.
A candleflame’s a silent chatterbox
And cinematic book: bestiary candle,
History candle, yellow metaphor,
Venereal fire. Open the curtains now
And add a star to what we do and say
Past midnight in our only country,
Our private anywhere.

Who else is looking at the Firth tonight
Drowsy with afterlove? Local Tristan,
Indigenous Iseult, and Dido sees
Aeneas in a navigation light.
Dog-collared Abelard walks Heloise
Among the gravestones, yews and cypresses.
An Orphic nightbird cries ‘Eurydice’ …
Love, touch my heart with who you are
And sleep, history, sleep.

Love-making by Candlelight by Douglas Dunn is from his collection Northlight published in the late 1980s.

Language Life Poetry


The British poet and novelist Richard Aldington is probably best known as one of the three ‘original Imagists’, with Ezra Pound and H.D. (Hilda Doolittle, but always known as H.D. At this time she and Aldington were married).

In late spring 1916 Aldington was conscripted and on June 24th left London for Dorset, where he was stationed for military training until December.

As the day for embarkation draws closer you can sense the growing tension in this letter to George Plank (a friend of H.D.’s) dated November 15th in which he writes of
“them bloody, bleedin’, fuckin’ trenches … I wish I wasn’t a soldier; I do, George, I do. But if you’re a good boy you shall have all my medals to play with / When I get back / When I get back / To my o-o-old Ken-tucky / home!”

In another letter to Plank, on the eve of departure, he writes:

“off to France in a couple of hours; … I have a conviction that I shall be killed, but it doesn’t worry me except for H.D. You must help to find her another husband, some nice Yank of cultured opulence who’ll not bore her too much.”*

In fact, though wounded on the Western Front, he survived. His most immediate literary response to the war was his collection of poetry Images of War, published in 1919, which included the poem The Lover, in which he synthesizes fear and desire.

*Source: Louis Silverstein’s H.D. Chronology, Part Two (1915-March 1919)

The field of poppies

Clubmen’s Down, near Shaftesbury in Dorset, was recently spectacularly transformed into a carpet of poppies.

The owner of the field, conductor John Eliot Gardiner, described the multitude of poppies as “the beneficial fallout of organic farming. They are ecologically and pictorially a wonder, but agriculturally a bit of a disaster.”

The field had been left as grassland for seven years, but ploughed for turnips for winter feed for sheep this year. This disturbed the poppy seeds, enabling them to germinate, and the very wet July and August, followed by a very dry September, provided the perfect growing conditions.

We went walking to see the field a couple of Sundays ago; it was a truly extraordinary sight.

Landscape Life Philosophy Uncategorized

Hello darkness my old friend

Down here the first week of November has been suitably wild and stormy, with a sharp, bright, beautiful full moon occasionally visible, hanging low over the trees in the darkness, and casting its quiet, implacable glow against the scudding clouds blown across its face. A view like an old negative held up to the light, ethereal and mysterious.

What to do with all the extra darkness? Embrace the intensity.  That’s the message of two excellent articles in the ‘Guide to the Night’ supplement with the Guardian and Observer last weekend – Sarah Hall on night swimming and Jeanette Winterson on evenings by candlelight – ‘when all the lights are on, people tend to talk about what they are doing …  in candlelight or firelight, people start to talk about how they are feeling’ – and making love in the afternoon:

To begin as the afternoon light is fading, to wake up, warm and heavy, when it is completely dark, to kiss and stroke the shared invisible body, to leave the person you love half asleep while you go and open wine … then the moment of standing barefoot in the kitchen, just a candle and two glasses to take back to bed, and a feeling of content like no other.

and concluding

Food, fire, walks, dreams, cold, sleep, love, slowness, time, quiet, books, seasons – all these things, which are not really things, but moments of life – take on a different quality at night-time, where the moon reflects the light of the sun, and we have time to reflect what life is to us, knowing that it passes, and that every bit of it, in its change and its difference, is the here and now of what we have.

On night swimming Sarah Hall brilliantly describes the visceral shock and the intensity of physical sensation as you enter the water:

At first the sensation is electric, almost unbearable, yet bearable. Lung and nerve and blood mechanisms go into shock. Your body enters an elation of rage, because an extreme thing is happening. An andrenaline supernova follows, a burst of emergency energy. After a second or two your system recalculates, adjusts; there is a brief physiological acceptance.

And then you are swimming. There may only be a minute’s worth of swimming … but that minute is a rare, certain period in life. You are extraordinarily alive during it.

Inspiration enough to join the OSS swim at Parliament Hill lido on 5th Dec. It’s daytime, but it’s a start. See you there.

I had hoped to link to the full articles, but couldn’t find them on the net. You’ll have to make do with Sarah Montague’s interview with Will Self and Ralph Steadman on the Today programme. It becomes increasingly surreal and hilarious as Steadman gets involved.


Life Poetry Uncategorized


There’s an argument, and a good one, that we are becoming swamped by anniversaries. But we are still living with this defining moment of the first decade of the new millenium, and it looks like we’ll be living with it for a long while yet.
What’s left to say about it? I have chosen a poem, by Wislawa Szymborska which, although
although the event described varies in the particular, brilliantly succeeds in evoking the chilling aspect of

There’s an argument, and a persuasive one, that we are becoming swamped by anniversaries. But we are still living with the aftermath of this defining moment of the first decade of the new millenium, with no clear end in sight.

I’m writing this at the same time as, eight years ago, I had stopped work, transfixed by the pictures unfolding on the TV; that day when out of the same clear sky everything was suddenly different.

What’s left to say? What needs to be said. For which I have chosen a poem by Wislawa Szymborska. Although the action it describes is tellingly different in one key aspect, I know of no other piece of writing that more brilliantly captures the chilling randomness inherent in acts of terror, and cuts through to the humanity of its victims. Read The Terrorist, He’s Watching.

Life Uncategorized

On walking

Well, that was different. Trying to combine as many tasks and
‘things to do’ into one visit to Bomo, and trying to remeber to
take all the things I needed, I left home without my walking stick.
I only discovered it when I parked the car, got out, and reached
for the stick. No stick. Walking felt weird, but I only had a short
way to go to the nearby cafe for a small (as it turned out)
networking meeting. I immediately launched into telling two people,
who I had never met, how weird it felt walking without my stick.
They looked at me… quizzically. Then found a way to change the
Next, it was on to my shoe man (even he doesn’t call himself a
cobbler; where have all the cobblers gone?) who is situated in what
can only be described as the scuzzier end of town, next to a sex
shop (he increased the number of Baptist and other religious
leaflets on his counter after the sex shop opened) and opposite a
car showroom which used to be full of exclusive, high end marques
but now stocks the kind of second hand motor that has clearly had
more than one previous lady owner, who was not that careful a
driver either. Sign of the times I guess.
Anyway, I digress. He is the best adaptor of shoes that I’ve ever
found. Despite the fact that he himself has no legs. (Yes. It’s
when I first found his shop we got chatting and I was telling him I
experienced a fair degree of pain after walking. He advised having
the leg off; “Best thing I ever did,” he maintained. And indeed he
is looking fairly sprightly at the moment. But, happily, I didn’t
take his advice. My problem – by that time – was not medical, but
simply down to the fact that my shoe was raised to the wrong level,
using the wrong material (which made the shoe very heavy). After
finding Sole and Heel Care, the problem was solved.
My pair of boots deposited for repair I returned to the centre of
town to try a bit more walking. Weird. That’s the only word for it.
But not without appeal, especially having two hands free to flick
through the books in Borders. Hey, you guys may be on to something.

Well, that was different. Trying to combine as many tasks and ‘things to do’ into one visit to Bomo, and trying to remember to take all the things I needed, I left home without my walking stick.

I only discovered it when I parked the car, got out, and reached for the stick. No stick. Walking felt strange; like something was missing, but it wasn’t immediately obvious what.  I only had a short way to go to the nearby cafe for what turned out to be a very select networking meeting, and straight away launched into telling two people, who I had never met before, how weird it felt walking without a stick. They looked at me… quizzically.

Next, it was on to my shoe man (even he doesn’t call himself a cobbler; where have all the cobblers gone?) who is situated in the more, er, downbeat end of town, next to a sex shop (he increased the number of Baptist and other religious leaflets on his counter after the sex shop opened) and opposite a car showroom which used to be full of exclusive, high end stuff but now stocks the kind of second hand motor that has clearly had more than one previous owner, and not a particularly careful one at that.

Anyway, he is the best adaptor of shoes that I’ve ever found. When I first found his shop* we got chatting and I was telling him I was experiencing a fair degree of pain. He advised having the leg off; “Best thing I ever did,” he maintained. And he didn’t stop at one; he had both off.

Happily, I didn’t take his advice. My problem – by that time – was not medical, but simply down to the fact that my shoe was raised to the wrong level, using the wrong material. After finding Sole and Heel Care, the problem was solved. Amazing the difference someone who knows what they’re doing can make.

My boots deposited for repair I returned to the centre of town to try a bit more walking. Weird. That’s the only word for it. But not without appeal, especially having two hands free to flick through the books in Borders. Hey, you guys may be on to something.

*Sole and Heel Care, 333a Holdenhurst Road, 01202 309430

Let’s play Twister, let’s play Risk…


It was 40 years ago today … I remember the excitement and the grainy black and white ‘ultrasound’ from another planet as Armstrong emerged from the lunar module. Buzz Aldrin took this photo (above) of his own footprint. And unlike a footprint in the dust and sand on Earth, with no wind to blow them away, the first human prints on the moon can last for a million years.

Just months earlier:

Earthrise, the first picture of the earth, taken by the Apollo 8 crew from the far side of moon, December 24 1968

“Tiefer, tiefer, irgendwo in der Tiefe gibt es ein Licht”

(remember Hounds of Love (?) Hello Earth – “deeper, deeper, somewhere in the depth there is a light.”)

Possibly bizarrely, what comes to my mind as a feat of similar beauty and daring is Philippe Petit’s walk between the twin towers. This, a footprint in air, and as evanescent – but unforgettable as a perfect gesture, and in the extraordinary series of images of the event.

Moonlight slanting by Matsuo Basho
Moonlight slanting
Through the bamboo grove;
A cuckoo crying.

Life Philosophy


A C Grayling is amusing and sharp, as a writer and philosopher. His ‘This much I know’ in the Observer last Sunday was witty and thought-provoking. Here are a couple of the best:

A human lifespan is less than a thousand months long. You need to make some time to think how to live it.

I recently retraced on foot a famous journey that William Hazlitt made from Shropshire to Somerset to visit Wordsworth and Coleridge. I spent two weeks slogging through nettle beds before I realised the bastard had taken the coach.

Life is all about relationships. By all means sit cross-legged on top of a mountain occasionally. But don’t do it for very long.

OK, three. Read more here.


Cod psychology

You will feel more strongly about the dangers of over-fishing after you have seen Greta Scacchi, naked, with a cod.

You see. It’s true! Now join the campaign at the end of the line.

PS Enjoyed the headline at the Adelaide News – ‘Greta nudes up to save fish’

PPS Is Rankin a great portrait photographer? Be convinced at rankin portraits

blogging Life

The revolution will not be televised

But is bursting with the power of a thousand suns across the internet

The Ayatollah Khomenei returned to Iran in February 1979 on a chartered Air France 747 –  the seventies equivalent of the sealed train in which Lenin travelled from Zurich to the Finland Station (St Petersburg) in April 1917.

And while Tehran erupts, Ahmadinejad visits… Moscow.

Books Life

Proust and Joyce meet, 18th May 1922

The two greatest novelists of the 20th century met only once. At a supper party at the Hotel Majestic in Paris on May 18th 1922 given by the rich Englishman Sydney Schiff and his wife Violet.

The party, at which Stravinsky and  Picasso were also guests, was held to celebrate the first night of Stavinsky’s Renard with choreography by Nijinska.

Unfortunately things did not work out quite as might have been hoped.

Joyce arrived late, drunk and inappropriately dressed. “Joyce complained of his eyes, Proust of his stomach. Did M. Joyce like truffles? He did. Had he met the Duchesse de X? He had not. ‘I regret that I do not know M. Joyce’s work,’ remarked Proust. ‘I have never read M. Proust,’ Joyce [lied] …  ‘If only we’d been allowed to meet and have a talk somewhere,’ remarked Joyce sadly afterwards.”

In July/August, Sydney Schiff tried to organise for Proust to sit for a portrait drawing by Picasso. Sadly, nothing came of the project. Proust died later that year on 18 November 1922, aged 51.


Marcel Proust











Sources: John Richardson’s biography of Picasso and George Painter’s biography of Proust