the meaning of life 1

with many thanks to the spot-on-as-usual Ian Duhig.

I might make a little series of these, you know. I think I’ll do it like this: every Sunday, the way I used to have the Poetry Files on a Saturday, we’ll have The Meaning of Life. So here it is. This week, the meaning of life is Buster Keaton and, er, the Pixies. I always said that was it, didn’t I?


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Filed under the meaning of life, the movies

OMG. Tottenham in flames.

Oh, God. Well this whole week I’ve been off work – naturally, since my contract finished – and I’m beginning to sink into a kind of morass of aimlessness and driftiness. Yes, I’ve made one and a half websites, not yet up, and done a few other things. But it’s Sunday already – again – and what is life, etc etc? It doesn’t help that my various significant others are away for two weeks and  so it will be until the end of next week or beginning of the following at the earliest – not really sure – even Facebook is eerie and Edinburgh’s on, and London has kind of strangely emptied out. The house is very quiet and echoey and dead, except for me and whatever music I remember to put on, in the meantime, and in the sudden absence of a job to go to the days are a bit weird and long and solitary…

Don’t worry. My time is being put to very good use in building these websites which you, readers, will become VERY aware of only too soon. And I have some appointments, oh yes.

Anyway, I had a post I was going to put up, to break the silence since last week – poetry-related but not Poetry-Society-related – but now there’s actual news! OMG. (That phrase, or acronym, or whatever it is, keeps coming into my head – way of life these days.) The phone goes. I was at my friend’s in Seven Sisters, there was this helicopter overhead but a ways off, we were saying, “They’re really after some guy.” Yeah, like every other day. Got home, tried unsuccessfully to ring various of the significant others, then the phone goes and it’s my oldest kid – going: “OMG. Just got home and the high street’s on fire, there was a bus on fire, there were like 300 cops, it’s a war zone and our street’s full of smoke” – I go OMG, put on the BBC website and it says 300 cops and has picture of the high street on fire – he’s like, “that is the scariest thing I’ve ever seen in my life. I’m not kidding – it’s the scariest and also the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen, a bus and a shop also on fire, we’re just watching the BBC news now, I’m so glad to be home, not going out now whatever, maybe just to the corner shop.”

I’m going don’t you DARE go to the corner shop.

We’re both thinking of the Hackney Seige, ages ago back in 2002 when we were living in the first street past the cordon – even little Mlle B aged 8 would wake up in the mornings, hear the traffic in our road, and say sadly: “Oh. It’s still going on.”

Well that was years ago, but we all still remember it. I was even Christmas-time, it started in the middle of Boxing Day dinner. We had to give the police our names on a clipboard to go visit Annie Freud, who was trapped inside it for several days before being told to leave. Those two weeks were (paradoxically) the only time I let my boys cut through the alleyway beside the Hackney Empire – “Oh, there’s nothing but surveillance vans around, okay” – but I was still anxious knowing that was how they were getting home from school. And sure enough, the day the siege ended, with fire and gunfire and a major standoff, I sat powerless in Stepney watching it on the internet, knowing that the boys were walking home from school more or less through the thick of it, with armed police taking aim from every building in the vicinity.

Well, even as I type this now I can hear loads and loads of sirens. I called my kid back to see how he was, after his initial phone call, and we were talking about how his bed is at least away from the window – you know, that’s a comfort to me trying to sleep here, two miles away. I was saying, “well, you guys could sleep in the – dining room… right? You could pull some chairs together.” He’s laughing. I can hear the TV on in the background. And then he goes: “SHIT! They’ve burned down ASDA! Oh my God. Our new source of cheap food. Oh my God.”

I’m sorry. That was the first moment I laughed.

He goes, “They broke the window, looted it, and then burned it down!”

I said yeah, well they weren’t going to leave all that whiskey in there, were they.

Pause. Then he goes, “Oh my God, we could have done a free shop.”

It’s craaazy. And every time I think the sirens have stopped, they start again.

And there we are. There seems to be a lull, but that’s what I thought five minutes ago. No, more sirens now. But off to bed.

Sweet dreams, 2011.


Filed under London, the end of the worr-uld

Poetry in Swansea: that’s the spirit

Poetry: there's life in the grand old ruin yet.

And aside from the general fracas, what? My job ended, I had a bad night, and then I went to Wales on a train. It’s always a thrill, an old thrill like when a certain formulation of mountains comes into view in the Catskills – or the sight of the Hudson River, glistening silver between its ancient quiet banks of Indian trees – or the view east from Waterloo Bridge – when the train pulls into Cardiff Central and that little cluster of buildings, with their familiar outline and the big “Brains” bitter sign appears, with the shrouded hills behind. The smell of Wales, the coal fires and damp air – the idea of coal fires and damp air – is as evocative as the smell of steam and pretzels in New York City or the old roasting chestnuts you used to get in London all the time.

So we went on to Swansea, Tammy Yoseloff and me, and gave a really fun reading at the Dylan Thomas Centre. A wonderful, grand, neoclassical pile with saltwater-pitted pillars out front, and a real community inside.

The evening featured by far the most fun open mic section I’ve ever heard; I could happily have spent the rest of the night listening to them. The readers, all regulars, were introduced by their first names by the facilitator, Jo Furber, who clearly loves her work. The whole vibe was affectionate and happy, and you could see people really enjoying each other’s poems, not measuring them up and finding them wanting. The spirit was big.

And as for the poems themselves… Mad! Madness! They were big too! A diminutive round-faced 82-year old man recited a poem in rhymed quatrains, inspired by a sea shanty, called “The Wangle Dangle Dance.” It played with plentiful rhymes and alliterations on both “wangle” and “dangle,” separating the two words out and then bringing them together, separating them and bringing them together. It was so funny, and so like a cartoon, everyone in the place was trying not to laugh; but when the poet said, “I’ll only do the refrain once,” we all burst out. (In fact, he said he was inspired to read it by my rendition of my Pirate Prufrock!)

Joie de vivre, kids. This 82-year-old man in Swansea has it. When’s the last time you had so much fun at a poetry reading?

So don’t come and tell me Swansea’s a shithole. I really liked it. (Though do come and we’ll talk about what’s been done to the city centre; that’s another matter. Beautiful old buildings boarded up, a lovely old Welsh city with fluorescent excrescences stuck on top of it, a hideous enormous screen stuck in the central square by the castle, and the life sucked out of the middle – while the beautiful unmarketable Welsh hills all around its edges look on…)

Oh, there was another one, “Cats are crap pets.” It was all about how great rats are, and the poet – grinning broadly – held up a life-sized black plastic rat as he read – and he did give us the refrain every time, which was the final line of each verse (with variations): “And they have little hands…!” People were weeping with laughter, and it was very cleverly done, rhyming etc, and I wish to God I had it on video so I could show you. The first time he brandished the rat I think I almost screamed.

We had a staff member with  a poem he’s written for his soldier friend in Afghanistan, after a workshop he did at the Dylan Thomas Centre with Brian Turner (the Iraq war poet). We had a forlorn night in a barn in Wisconsin and a very pretty girl with a troubled-love poem (“The person this is about isn’t here tonight, so I can read it now”), an Indian doctor’s hilarious visit from his in-laws, and a young poet’s second-ever open mic reading, with two very interesting poems. The second one was called “Typography;” but he’d made his mark on me when he introduced his first poem saying, “This poem has a working title – I just made it in my lunch hour to amuse myself.”

That just says it all. If you can’t amuse yourself, who are you going to amuse? And it was good. He wasn’t being lazy and arrogant the way people are in London when they announce that they wrote it in their lunch hour.

So it was the welcome in the valleys indeed. Loved it.

The next day, a slap-up lunch with an old friend in her parents’ wonderful Thai restaurant in Cardiff, and that was great; & I made sure to ring the Baroque Mother with news that I was in the Land of her Fathers. I read her the car park sign: “St David, Dewi Sant.” She liked that. Then another train, the long trudge through Paddington, and the tube, and an odious 73 bus packed with sociopaths. I struggled into to Baroque Mansions about 9pm – to find Mlle B cooking dinner!

…Er – and then I woke up… Mlle B has been out all weekend, and goes to Greece next week, and the significant others are likewise off in sunny beachy places for two weeks, so I will sit here and attempt to sort out my accounts, look for money, do some bits of work, wrestle with the inbox, sort out some students, catch up with the couple of friends who are still in town, sort out the aged aunt, remake my website, and otherwise try to get my life back on track. Ah, summer at the desk.

And there was no time, so I still haven’t seen the sea. (I really get the feeling I’m doing it all wrong.) And I didn’t get a chance to look through the Dylan Thomas exhibition. So I’m clearly going to have to go back there…


Filed under poetry, Wales

Poetry Society: sign up for a better future

Like many poets, "Jackals are secretive and shy."

Well! You go away for a few days and it’s all happening at once. I know, I know, but it won’t go away.

Wednesday saw Judith Palmer’s official statement. This is on the Members’ blog that’s been set up to enable discussion, and the site now also features a statement from previous Chair Anne-Marie Fyfe, who was approached by the Board openly looking to “get something” on Judith. These two statements caused a groundswell of feeling which can be seen in the comments; it’s clear that people are still finding it hard to separate out the facts – pertaining to employment law, the Charities Commission, the duties and legal responsibilities of trustees – from their vague personal perceptions, often based at least partly on gossip and personality. But the brilliant thing is that if you regard the thing professionally, it is very clear. So there need be no confusion, and no arguing, and the Editor need not keep feeling as if she is under personal attack.

Alas, though: some of the comments go far beyond mere ignorance, into poison and ad hominem abuse; they lower the tone severely, and would not have been published at all on this blog.

There have been storms on Facebook over the week’s very one-sided press coverage. The Poetry Society itself strangely comes out of the press coverage almost as badly as Judith Palmer does; the line conveyed is that which we were given at the EGM last week by the trustees themselves, who are reported to “confirm” rather than “admit” things, and are nowhere said to be discredited – and nowhere is Fiona Sampson given anything like the vitriolic treatment Palmer is. This has led to speculations that the spin may have been bought with the £3,000 the trustees paid Colman Getty for “PR support.”

Today sees a very welcome shift, with an excellent letter in the Guardian from Judith Chernaik, who runs Poems on the Underground:

The dispute is not about money. It arises from a decision by the board of trustees, overriding acceptable employment practice, to change the terms of appointment of senior staff arbitrarily and without consultation. A small matter, perhaps, except to those involved. But it has been compounded by a series of ill-conceived defensive measures by the board, resulting in incalculable damage to staff and to the society.

Christina Patterson, who used to run the Poetry Society, has today published a lament for the whole situation which is like a poem in itself.

Silkworms Ink does a brilliant press roundup even with the trade journals thrown in: read to learn about how the story got skewed, and then unskewed. (I’d like to register my envy of their title, Broadsheets to the Wind.)

And now to the main point. George Szirtes has begun a petition to reinstate Judith Palmer into her job. Gillian Clarke, Carol Ann Duffy, Liz Lochhead and Jo Shapcott – two Poets Laureate, a Makar, and the PoSoc president who resigned – sign it under George, and Simon Armitage, Don Paterson and many others have also signed it – incuding people who are not members of the Poetry Society.

Judith Palmer has said she is willing to be reinstated (though if it were me you couldn’t pay me good money to go back there). The trustees were repeatedly asked at the EGM if they would reinstate Judith, and they repeatedly replied only that they are “In Discussion” with her. Since she’s not back yet, one can only assume they have not yet, in all these discussions, invited her to return.

This petition calls on the Board to do the decent thing and invite her back with the terms and conditions as of April 1st, as an attempt to wind the clock back and try to repair some of the damage all this has done.*


A better future for poetry means a better future for poets and readers

NOTE: When you sign, you MUST make sure your signature is VERIFIED. You need to register on the site, and then sign the petition; you’ll get a verification email to confirm your address, and once you’ve signed, you’ll get a page thanking you for signing. Until you’ve had both these things, your signature will be unverified, and won’t be counted.

* (This is clearly a peaceable, mild, very moderate, truce-building position for it to take: a writer was last week awarded £65,000 in damages for libel and malicious falsehood after a review by Lynn Barber, for far less personal insult than Judith Palmer has suffered at the hands of this Board. But that’s not my business.)


Filed under the end of the worr-uld

Beautiful Justice: or, there must be more to life

Ask and it shall be granted: click the picture to be taken to the issue

Yes, life limps on. It staggers lurches and lunges, it hulks glooms and shudders. Summer is here, so I must be unemployed. Or, as we call it now, “freelance.” Today is, in fact, the first day of the rest of my life. Or tomorrow is, anyway. Today is just the last day of my job.

It’s also the day when I can share with you the first issue of the New Trespass magazine, which contains a poem from my new collection. Check me out on page 17 if you want to know what can happen if you forget the all-pervasive power of God’s salvation – or just the words to a song. Typical, this issue looks so amazingly stupendous, and this is the issue they’ve gone online; I’d have loved to leave this lying around on the coffee table for a few weeks…

Big day. I’ve loved this job, for the 13 months I’ve been in it. I love the people I work with, and we’ve been able to do some really good work together. Breaking up a great team when they’re doing really good work together feels wasteful – but that’s the times. Nature red in tooth and claw.

No time to mourn and pine, though. Tomorrow I get the train to Swansea with Tamar Yoseloff, to read with her at the Dylan Thomas Centre. Hurrah! I can’t remember the last time I saw the sea – anyone who was with me, please remind me when it was. I am really hoping to see the sea a little bit when I’m in Swansea. Anyway, I’ve never been to Swansea before and I’m interested. And of course v much looking forward to the Dylan Thomas Centre etc. The reading is at 7.30pm, and tickets are £4 I believe. I’m still debating whether to do my Pirate Pru or not. Plenty o’ sea in that, arrr, me hearties.

Speaking of nature red in tooth and claw, I was in West Sussex at the weekend. We were having a lovely stroll just before sunset – the sun was a burning orange ball on the horizon, and there were undulating fields and downs all around, lit with its unearthly glow. Even the specks of sheep glowed faintly orange in the distance. All was still… then an almighty shrieking, high-pitched and relentless – and I realised it was a rabbit, screaming. It got nearer and nearer and, turning, we saw a bunny making for us with incredible speed. Followed by something. Two things making for us with incredible speed. The other thing – was it a bunny? No. Was it a bird? We both agreed afterwards that we’d thought it was a bird. But no, it wasn’t. No time to think or ponder or even look, though – WHISH up they came, it was a ferret, half an inch from the bunny and evil-looking, and WHOOSH scupper into the hedge the ferret went – and the bunny went on running as fast as the Roadrunner, down the lane,until he too scattered off somewhere to the side, or round the corner at the end into the field, or somewhere.

Um, and that’s about it I think. Back into a scary future, then. Nothing but  jobhunting and my kids travelling and everyone away and no money coming in and Amy Winehouse dead and Norway and whatever keeps rumbling along about the PoSoc scandal and the US debt ceiling and redoing my website and getting my accounts in order and sorting out my elderly aunt (so far as possible, i.e., not very far)  and pitching all and sundry to all and sundry… I’ve got some ideas for things to write but I still can’t see how I could write any poetry… I just need to make money. It’s the difference between Baroque and Rococo I think. The difference between fluffy bunnies and bunnies in the wild.

Anyhow, so if you haven’t got Egg Printing Explained, look on page 17 here in New Trespass, and see if it makes you smile.

Oh – and happy birthday, Sis!

Happy birthday - and no product placement in sight at ALL...




Filed under Uncategorized

#PoSocEGM: the post-mortem

Well, we are all reeling. On Friday, the UK poetry world – or the bits of it that could be in central London at 5pm on a weekday in the summer holidays – turned out for an extraordinary general meeting to discuss a matter that has become known as What the Hell Has Been Going On. But if you’re reading this, you probably know that.

And you’ve probably heard the rough outline: the trustees sprung a surprise announcement at the start of the meeting, that they plan to quit, en masse, at the AGM, which has been moved forward to September. This was not on the agenda, and had very much the feel of both too little, too late, and also a sop. A curve ball, designed to deflect the meeting from its course.

The meeting duly followed its course, with revelations that knocked the audience’s socks off: literally. There were socks flying everywhere. George Szirtes sums it up admirably on his blog. In fact, there are a number of blogs where you can get, from different angles, the story of the meeting:

The Silkworms Ink account is written direct from notes taken in the meeting by Phil Brown; he had intended to live-tweet, but found that there was no signal in the room; his notes are rather forensic, as a result.

Jane Holland transforms the meeting into a hopeful New Dawn for poetry, on her blog. We shall see how it comes to pass, but in the meantime it is a very good account of the afternoon.

Jon Stone, who wasn’t there, uses his Fuselit blog to sum up wittily ‘the super-condensed story (bearing in mind it does not give equal weight to the accounts of all sides)’.

And of course, the Poetry Society members’ site is a great resource, including as it does the official statement of Paul Ranford – now known as ‘Gregory Peck’ – the finance manager, who resigned from his job because of the mismanagement that was going on.

I can’t imagine how any of this would be the least bit edifying if one wasn’t already interested and/or involved. It just feels embarrassing.

The meeting itself was arduous, hot, angry, cathartically funny, buoyant, at times ugly, at times petty, a couple of times sad, mostly mystifying, and always nervewracking. The Baroque hands shook like leaves throughout.The vote of no confidence was carried 302 to 69, with 11 abstentions.

There were sorrows, as people I’m very fond of turned up ‘on the other side’ (as they might say at Hogwarts), and normal conversation was not possible. I’m hoping some of my friends, shocked by the really quite serious revelations of the meeting (disregard for management protocols, reckless and pointless expenditure, an attempt to raise an overdraft, inquiries into valuing the premises, a compelling account of vindictiveness from ex-Chair Anne-Marie Fyfe, a crashing disregard for people who go to the wrong parties, and a complete lack of apology for any of this), were among the 11 abstentions. Matters were confused by the fact that some people were there for the inchoate purpose of “supporting” the editor of Poetry Review, who had sent out an email asking people to defend her. But defend against what? By personalising the issue – by trying to make it about whether they thought she’d “done a good job on the magazine” or not, she took attention away from the serious issues at stake. To the point where if you pointed out that there were grave irregularities going on, it became tantamount to some kind of personal disloyalty.

And here we are. Board resigns in September. Three co-opted new trustees to help sort out the mess. No Arts Council funding till it’s sorted. And lots of people still quite cross. Will the Director be reinstated? Will the current Board continue their “negotiations” until it’s to late for her to sue for constructive dismissal? And what would happen if she did? Why did they not apologise? How DARE one of them – after what they’ve been found to have done – tell the press that they think poets are “rather bloody unbalanced, and they’re glad to be shot of it”?

And here’s a thing. They Board did tell us in the meeting that the press was present. Since then there have been two newspaper articles about the EGM. One, in the Guardian, is very sneery indeed, and appears to present the narrative that we were given at the EGM: that two staff members had a dispute that they, the Board, were at a loss to resolve, and so attempted a solution, which regrettably turned out to be unwise… It really did make me think. If two staff members in a place have a “dysfunctional working relationship,” and the solution arrived at by management (or indeed trustees) gives one of them exactly what she wanted, and publicly undermines the other one, that doesn’t look like an equitable attempt at reconciliation. It looks like one person being favoured.

The other one was in Today’s Times (of course, this article takes massive exception to the fact that the membership didn’t like the trustees running up £24K of bills with Harbottle and Lewis, who happen to represent News International as well). It goes one further and actually takes personal mocking potshots at the Director, leapfrogs over sneery straight to nasty (“poets” are”petty, small-minded, incompetent bickering fanatics”), and even manages to get the “sides” of the dispute mixed up.

Fun, then.

I almost don’t want to be writing about it, as it is so divisive, and it would be so much nicer to just get on (though Jon Stone addresses this question neatly, I think). It’s so tiring. And negative, you know, it’s summer, I’m already stressed out enough,I just want to relax a little, try and feel good about things…

It was bizarre to be waiting for my train at Victoria after all that on Friday and watching a giant screen with Sky headlines – only confusing soundless headlines – telling us that of course there are much bigger, more surreal, more horrifying things in the world than a lack of gravitas of the Poetry Society’s current trustees.

My dreams the night before had surged catastrophically around the death of Lucian Freud; the news from Norway was too horrific to take in that evening; and the next day as we tried to take it in, we read that Amy Winehouse had finished her six-year bender, and died. After that, having got my ducks in a row, I dreamt that I had to rescue baby ducklings in a sudden freeze, and there was a close-up angle-shot as one, no two, of them sank down into the blackness under the ice.


Filed under the end of the worr-uld

Amy Winehouse 1983-2011

A shame, a shame, a shame… Back to Black is an astonishing – and classic – album, and hers is – was – is – a first-class, gorgeous, absolutely authentic voice.

I was a fan of her first album, Frank, back when she was still in her teens (it’s a life story in which every year will be freighted with significance, now, rather than every decade). I went into HMV one morning on the way to work to get something to listen to, and heard this absolutely incredible thing coming over the sound system.

“What IS this?”

“It’s the new  album by Amy Winehouse, but it’s not out till Monday.”

Monday I was in there at 9am.

Yesterday, when I was looking for a picture to put with this post, there was one I liked – quite fresh, with Amy sitting in a green dress and flats on a brick wall among greenery; very sweet. I looked on its website or origin, and the story ran: “Amy Winehouse has now resorted to snorting vodka.”

Facebook was full yesterday of people quoting “Rehab,” people saying they can’t feel sorry for a privileged person who had a choice, when look what’s just happened in Norway. Now  that’s a tragedy.

Two different things. What happened in Norway is a horror, a dystopian catastrophe, a terrible sadness and shock, and kind of unbearable to think about. In fact, technically it’s a tragedy for the perpetrator, in the classical sense, because a tragedy is a thing you somehow bring on yourself: you invite your downfall, perhaps unavoidably or perhaps through dropping your guard for one moment. Hubris is one of the big factors, and it sounds as if he may have had a touch of that; but I don’t want to be interested in him.

Amy Winehouse’s death is a personal tragedy for her and her family, and will also be a sadness to many people because they were touched by her music. The fact that it’s been painful to watch such a beautiful and talented person going so far off the rails – that we’ve in effect been watching her kill herself for years – to my mind makes it more painful, not less.

Anyway, let’s just say when the phone rang before I’d even finished reading the news, I knew what it was going to be about. I just didn’t know which kid it was going to be. And I was right. “This is a much bigger deal than Michael Jackson,” said Mlle B.


Filed under death, music