“The Past is a Dangerous Driver” Neal Mason (Holland Park Press) – Book Review

Neal Mason The Past is a Dangerous Driver book cover

Through “The Past is a Dangerous Driver”, Neal Mason explores the permeability of history and present time. Sometimes it’s about how history shapes current attitudes. Others about the folly of man believing he mind leave something permanent to stand for him, e.g. in “Derelict Classroom” where

“Where the red roof was is white and blue
sky; clouds, unformed
and uninformed of nimbus
or cumulus, writhe as they try
outlines a teacher might approve
and on which textbooks can rely.

A puffball is the globe that children held
in awe, its national colours
now brown, not the variety
primary childhood saw;
the spores would mature to khaki, then fall,
obeying some natural law.

Beyond the broken glass grow pampas
and canes; wind-punished nettles
sting empty air
while butterflies play games
on buddleia. The wilderness encroaches, unaware
of culture, geography or names.”

Nature has reclaimed the former school, its behaviour far from the regulated children prescribed geography, language, science and names. Although ignorant of gravity, the spores still fall to the ground. The rhyme scheme adds to the sense of teachers trying to control and guide children’s learning. Whereas nature only has the wind to attempt to tame it and knows nothing of its origins or laws, just that it’s important butterflies play and growth happens. Perhaps there’s a hint too that the children could have done better with more play and freedom to grow at their own pace. But their names have been lost to the wilderness.

Martello towers are small, single storey circular buildings designed to provide space for one to two men with a bed and space for portable cooking gear. They were both lookout and gun towers dotted along coastal areas where guardsmen watched for beach invasions. Now some of them are used as places for holidaymakers to stay. In the poem “Martello Tower”, Mason merges past with present as a storm hits,

“Six-foot-thick walls tremble
as our revolving gun fires,
a cannonball moon, sulphurous
in smoky cloud, flashing
through windows.
If we had a corner
our dog would cower in it. Instead
of ammunition, our curved cupboards
store baguettes, Ardennes pate,
Camembert among towering
cans of beans, the wine rack’s
gun barrels pointing from Burgundy,
Cotes du Rhone, Medoc
and all the sleepy regions
whose soldiers attack tonight.”

The storm eases away by morning and a different invasion takes place,

“troops of tourists invade
through the Tunnel, casualties – words,
laws, weights and measures – mounting
as Brussels, near Waterloo,
advances its armies again.”

The tunnel is the one that connects England and France. Not sure the army metaphor works in relation to tourists though. Yes, they can feel like an invasion, but they are unregimented and too undisciplined to be an army.

Readers are taken back to the war in “Not as a Medal” when the war office appealed for metal to be used in munitions factories for the war effect. The poem’s speaker patroitically gives up garden railings and kitchenware but notes,

“my son is up there too, flying
pieces of bikes, prams, Epstein,
someone’s best cutlery, and I pray
he returns as he was,
not as a medal.”

It’s a poignant end and balances a poem where the humour in the idea of “someone’s best cutlery” being used to make part of a plane would seem inappropriate.

Towards the end, readers are taken back to school where the speaker, a pupil, asks what the letters “SPQR” represent. The teacher confessed to not knowing, leaving the speaker to speculate in “SPQR”,

“I learned, much later, what it meant, cap
exchanged for an academic hat.
After Mussolini – hello, headmaster – claimed it,
they put it on manhole covers,
though it concealed sewage long before that.

Seeking puerile, quack remedies,
society punishes, quashing readily
students’ play, Queensbury rules
cynically plied, queries rebuffed:
you’ll do as we say.”

There’s more suggested phrases that could belong to the acryonym,

“Senatus Populus Que Romanus
shouldn’t be perverted by the quixotically religious,
sophists, people with qualms about reasonableness,
scholars proposing quadrilateral rhombohedrons,
a silly poet quarrying rhymes
(I can only think of treasonableness –
not inappropriate for a betrayed boy)
struggling perpetually, questing ruefully,
surprised when portrayed a querulous renegade
whose search for personal quietude results
in stanzas, prosody, quatrains and refrains –
and if you expect sanity or an acronym,
be reasonableness; there’s a limit
to these childish games.

But no end.”

The adult still contains the child he once was. The child thinking up word combinations to make a lesson past more quickly grows into an adult who still enjoys word games. Our past is still with us and we have a choice as to whether that is a good thing or not.

“The Past is a Dangerous Driver” looks at how the past seeps into the present and the consequences of that. In some poems nature reclaims human structures, reminding readers of man’s relatively short time on the planet. In others the boundaries between past and present are more permeable. A storm prompts thoughts of war or the collection of metal for the war effort inspires thoughts of other uses of metal, particularly a medal representing a life after its end and the impact of a hypothetical lost life on the present. There are lighter moments too, the game of guessing what an acryonym might represent. Mason’s structured poems guide readers through a journey where people might be ready to move on but the past isn’t ready to let them go yet.

The Past is a Dangerous Driver” is available from Holland Park Press.

Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.

The Queen Mother’s Rebel Cousin: Lilian Bowes Lyon and The East London Blitz“, Roger Mills’ book features quotes from the reviews I wrote of Lilian Bowes Lyon’s poetry.

Featured in the Top 10 Poetry Review Blogs on Feedspot.

“A Sense of Tiptoe and other articles of faith” Karen Hayes (Holland Park Press) – book review

A Sense of Tiptoe Karen Hayes

The poems in “A Sense of Tiptoe” have a central theme of faith, largely Christian, and are split into three sections, ‘Definite’, ‘Indefinite’ and ‘Infinite’. Some of the poems were written to be included in song cycles or are lyrics for a libretto and others were written as part of a residency at the late poet Charles Causley’s house, now owned by the Charles Causley Trust, where the churches in and around the village became part of the poet’s focus. The opening poem “At the Cathedral” follows a hymn-like structure of six line stanzas with lines two and four rhyming and finishing on a rhyming couplet, and tours the decoration inside the church, some for saints and royalty, others marking where people were laid to rest,

“And ordinary folk stare in relief,
Eyebrows confused, mouths open, noses chipped,
Down to the chapel floor which still vibrates.
They breathe in all its sounds with laughing lips.
And under the tiles though still within the fold
Lies someone’s little son, just six years old.”

The age of the child acts as a sobering reminder of mortality and what some of the reliefs are memorials so laughter at awkward or inept stonemasonry is misplaced. ‘Little’ in the final line feels unnecessary: the child’s age does its work.

Although “Galilee” is in the ‘Definite’ section, it uses the miracle of Jesus walking on water and is set in St Lawrence in Essex, England, “A man steps onto the waves,/ Walks across from Mersea to Saint Lawrence,/ Finger blessing the throng of revellers/ Spilling their beer at the pub”

Among the witnesses,

“There’s not a clink of money at the bar.
A woman near the slip way, in red bikini,
Lowered to her knees,/Stage whispers to her husband
Gawd almighty! And you thought that only you
Could walk on water.”

The sight inspires enough reverence for people to stop buying, engaging in capitalism, and look. The woman’s bikini is, a colour designed to attract sexual attention. She draws her husband’s attention to a miracle implying that his demands for attention are of false worship, that he is in effect a false idol.

In the second section, ‘Indefinite’, “Salome with the Head of John the Baptist” is inspired by Caravaggio’s painting of the same title,

“She is wearing a mourning black,
A uniform, waitress.
Or execution black. A widow,
Black widow black.

And is she giving or is she receiving that platter?
A trophy for her mantlepiece. And is she properly flattered
By the assiduous speed with which her whim is granted?
She averts her face from his
Dear face, shorn in mid-prayer,
In righteous speech,
In righteous rejection and indifference.
His head will never turn to watch her dance.”

The references to “black” are laboured. Caravaggio’s painting is dark and crowded. Salome looks away from the platter with St John’s head on it. His expression is one of suffering. The platter is clean of blood. According to the story, Salome, a dancer, requested the head of St John the Baptist. Here doubt is cast on whether she understood what she was asking for. He can only be indifferent to her suffering. The painting is seen as a warning: be careful what you wish for.

A later poem in the same section, “The Twelve”, focuses on a jury deliberating whether the accused is guilty,

“Could we have also fallen so far beneath
The measure of what can be forgiven?
Here we sit, twelve strangers
Trying to understand
The depths of other peoples’ hearts,
While barely afloat in the shallows of our own.”

The jury are tasked with finding guilt or innocence based on the evidence presented in court. However, the jury are also human and respond emotionally as well as logically. The discussion widens to intent and whether they are fit to make such a judgement. How many of them can say they wouldn’t have done the same if caught in the circumstances of the crime? The crime is a sexual assault with no witnesses, just forensic evidence that proves sex took place but cannot prove whether consent was given. Eleven of the jury have reached a decision but one is still asking questions. What the verdict is, readers are left to guess.

The third section, ‘Infinite’, marks time and speculates. In “The Women Who Shaped the Church” in this case, St Materiana’s Church at Tintagel in Cornwall, the poem’s speaker asks,

“And I wonder what stopped them
Throwing in the towel.
Visions and dreams, moments of clarity,
A wink to posterity or stubborn faith alone?”

Were they building the church from a sense of duty to their community and faith or because it would stand long after they had passed away as a monument to themselves, an image of immortality? Ultimately, though, does it matter? The church stands as a testament to their faith, their resolve to make it happen. A similar theme is picked up in “Momentarily”

“Some moments are as dense as forests,
Overhung, with the premature sense of future recall,
Drops of water cast like runes, revealing all
And trapped on the skin of a leaf.
Others, disperse and scatter; time at play,
Perfectly unmemorable, after the fact,
And already pouring away.

This is how life passes,
The ever-present motor of what if,
Emptied, like a second cataract over a cliff.
And we cannot preserve
A single second, other than through a surge
Of purpose within the mechanics of our senses,
However acute the urge.”

It surmises that we can’t necessarily remember moments we do want to hang on to without conscious effort and the mindfulness of being present and fully alert in that particular moment. So, moments that we don’t recognise the significance of until afterwards, become difficult to recall without some sensory input: a smell, a taste, a visual prompt.

Overall “A Sense of Tiptoe” is firmly routed in faith as a means of exploring our place in the world, what motivates humans to act and create. Whether creation is in building monuments for communities, a painting that casts a new light on a familiar story or recording a snapshot of time in a journal or poem. Faith becomes a prism through which to understand others and their motives for action from a position of compassion. Through this prism, Karen Hayes reaches out to communicate ideas and gives readers space for their thoughts.

“A Sense of Tiptoe” is available from Holland Park Press.

Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.

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“Upturned Earth” Karen Jennings (Holland Park Press) – book review

Karen Jennings Upturned Earth book cover“Upturned Earth” is set in South Africa’s Namaqualand in the winter of 1886. A young man, William Hull, travels from Cape Town to Springbokfontein to take up his position of magistrate. It’s not just his seasickness that colours his view of the town, mostly black with slag, and slums where the miners sleep. Most miners are on their own, some with families elsewhere, but some have wives and children who also work at the Okiep mine owned by the Cape Copper Mining Company (CCMC). Townsend, the mine’s superintendent, tells Hull he will do as he’s told. Over a dinner, rich with imported food, Hull meets Townsend’s two daughters. One well-mannered who values appearances and manages to put fashion ahead of function at a funeral where she fails to notice how inappropriate her costume is. Her sister, the other daughter, is a young widow with a son who chooses to dress in mourning even though her elderly husband’s death was not unexpected and it was not a marriage based on love.

Hull settles into the magistrate’s residence where the jailer inserts himself as a valet, butler and cook to Hull. The jailer takes Hull on a tour of the jail cells. Hull suspects he’s not been shown everything, but youth and naivety prevent him from insisting on seeing all. The cases before Hull are mainly concerned with drunken brawls and petty theft. Hull also meets the local Dr Fox who is paid by the Cape Copper Mining Company to attend injured miners as well as inspect the prisoners. Dr Fox’s reports on the prisoners’ well-being lead Hull to think he was being over-suspicious on the tour of the jail cells. In his spare time, Hull starts cataloguing and collecting specimens of local plants, insects and small animals such as frogs. His position separates him from the local mining community who view him as being in the pocket of the CCMC.

In parallel to Hull’s journey, Molefi Noki, travels back to Okiep from his village in the Idutywa Reserve, leaving behind his heavily pregnant wife. He joins the other miners, a mix of nationalities: white men, who have emigrated, the original black population and the Baster, descendants of children of Dutch men and native women, led by a preacher, Adam Waterboer. Noki searches for his brother, Anele, who he discovers has been jailed after a drunken brawl by Hull’s predecessor. Noki, not trusting a magistrate in CCMC’s pay, tries to bribe another prisoner for news of Anele, but the jailer is alerted to the disturbance and Noki has to leave.

When there’s a partial collapse in one of the mining tunnels, Noki is part of a group instructed to dig the collapsed shaft out. When the miners point out that the collapse happened because of insufficient supports, they are instructed to continue anyway. The supports have been further weakened by days of non-stop rain which has left some of the tunnels water-logged. The miners’ discontent and weakened shaft supports set in motion an avalanche of events that bring the miners into conflict with the CCMC with devastating, tragic consequences.

In the confusion of the conflict, Hull finally inspects the whole jail and discovers that while white prisoners have been treated reasonably, black prisoners have been maltreated. He arranges for the maltreated prisoners to be taken to the hospital, a dilapidated building run by a matron who pulls in miners’ wives to assist when needed, under guard and sacks the jailer. For once, Hull doesn’t back down in the face of vicious protest. In interviewing the maltreated prisoners, Hull discovers what happened to Noki’s brother Anele and that the jailer had been working in collusion with Townsend. Hull rages against his naivety and leaves the magistrate’s residence, but not the post. He faces a choice, does he stay and take on the might of the CCMC or does he run away?

Karen Jennings has extensively researched the historical details and successfully brings to life the contrasts between the poverty of the miners and wealth of mine owners, the uneasy atmosphere in the mining town of shacks where men group in tribes and there’s little to do but work and drink. Most of the men are separated from family support networks and came to mine either because they needed to support distant families or because no other work was available. The CCMC did exist, some of the characters in “Upturned Earth” are based on historical records and accounts but the events are fictional.

The characters are credible. Noki is driven to support his family, which limits his ability to knock back against the conditions he works under. His fellow miners are trapped in similar circumstances. Townsend, cuts costs and safety to maximise profits for his luxury lifestyle, using his wealth to control and exploit others. His younger daughter doesn’t question her luxuries and believes herself to be acting with charity when she donates food parcels to miners who only have one set of ragged clothes and have to cook on damp firewood. The widowed daughter knows her father’s working practices are unsafe, which led her to escape into marriage but her husband’s death has forced her back into a family she regards as a trap. Hull’s naivety initially feels like a plot device: his illness and malnutrition from violent seasickness would have been enough for him not to ask too many questions or make a full inspection of the jail on his arrival. However, his awakening and rage at the situation he blindly allowed himself to be caught in, are both credible and create a moral struggle, which brings about a complete change in attitude.

“Upturned Earth” brings to life the history of a miners’ conflict in 1886, filling in the characters and details from historical documents and creating credible fictional characters to produce a satisfying story. Karen Jennings shows characters struggling to overcome their circumstances. Although “Upturned Earth” is a historical novel, its concerns and themes of struggles against poverty and the widening gap between the wealthy and poor, have contemporary relevance.

“Upturned Earth” is available from Holland Park Press.


“Transeuropa” Jules Deelder (Holland Park Press) – poetry review

transeuropa Jules DeelderJules Deelder is a bestselling Dutch poet, also known as the Night Mayor of Rotterdam, whose recurring themes are peppered with black humour. The poems in “Transeuropa” are translated from Dutch into English by Scott Emblen-Jarrett, a freelance translator and it is the translations that feature in this collection without the Dutch originals. When subject matter includes jokes about Göring’s liking of rings, Roman’s feeding Christians to lions for sport or the tensions between neighbours in the Balkans, the translator is faced with three challenges. Firstly translating Dutch into English. Secondly translating the jokes when humour doesn’t always translate. Thirdly translating poetry presents an extra challenge of recreating rhyme or rhythmic structures used in the original.

“Devilish” is a good example of the humour. It starts, “Hitler farted all the time” and later asks,

“Herr Hitler can be blamed
For many things but not
For showing his true
Colours without consequence
For doesn’t History tell us
That sulphurous smells always
Betray the presence of devils?”

The long sentences and use of enjambment feature strongly throughout the collection. The reader or listener is forced to keep paying attention to wait for the punchline. It looks like a breathless, urgent outpouring on the page, but uses natural breath caesuras so the poem isn’t tricky to read aloud. The poem isn’t tricky to understand either: it puts together two simple ideas, that Hitler was evil and devils announce themselves with sulphur, and asks a bigger question about why Hitler’s intentions weren’t recognised sooner? It’s not Jules Deelder’s purpose to provide answers, but to provoke thought.

“Oracle” uses satire and starts

“Sometimes after inhaling the
Smoke of medicinal herbs
Through hollow pipes under
Favourable star-signs we
Are given a glimpse of a
World that is parallel to our
Own through the heavily
Misted window of the spirit”

The tone is sarcastic. There is no suggestion the speaker believes someone taking drugs, even ‘natural’ ones, to lead to an altered mind state can be telling the truth or forecasting the future. This is underlined by the colloquial “star-signs” in a place of astrology. The actions of the oracle are dubious and even the oracle cannot see clearly through “the heavily misted window”.

The poem ends,

“You’re thinking ‘what
Does this all mean?’
Then so sounds the
Answer: How the fuck
Should I know? Being an
Oracle is already hard
Enough as it is and the
Meaning is lost if I
Have to explain the
Damn thing all over again.”

So often fortune-tellers and those claiming to be clairvoyant rely on saying they’ve seen something vague in the hope that their audience fills in the gaps and translates the vague vision into something meaningful. Then they have the cheek to ask that the messenger not be shot or blamed if something doesn’t make sense: the lack is in the audience, not the clairvoyant.

The title poem is a lengthy discourse sending up film buffs and those who visit Romania to go to the places mentioned in the Dracula stories, who are indirectly accused of mixing myth and reality, character with actor(s), with signature references to the Second World War, and ends

“Take a piece of heartfelt advice:
Never go hiking in the less touristy
Parts of Transylvania or the Carpathians
Or the High Tatras but just go
By Transeuropa as the
Chances are high that you’ll get
Lost there and nothing of
You will ever be found again.”

It’s a light-hearted poem with satirical intent with a bouncy, energetic rhythm.

For some poems, key names or references are explained in footnotes, so readers aren’t reaching for search engines to understand. The original Dutch poems aren’t included and I’m not familiar with the original poems so can’t comment on the translation into English in “Transeuropa”. Having looked at some of Jules Deelder’s poems online, it seems the translator is faithful to the rhythms in the originals. Jules Deelder often uses a refrain or repeating motif in longer poems so the relevance of an apparent digressive idea is make clear or a meander on a side track is brought back to the main line. Scott Emblen-Jarrett’s English translations create the sense of poems that are often satirical, explore political issues without censorship or being didactic and were designed to work as performance pieces as well as being read from the page.

“Transeuropa” is available from Holland Park Press


“True Freedom” Michael Dean (Holland Park Press) – book review

True Freedom Michael Dean book cover“True Freedom” is ambitious in scope, looking at the sixteen years leading up to the Bostonian Uprising in the eighteenth century, which was the beginning of America’s war of independence from Britain. It’s a fictional account following key characters, mainly politicians, on both sides of the Atlantic.These characters include Thomas Hutchinson, a wealthy Bostonian whose hands are tied by an ineffectual governor and lack of support from Parliament in London. Samuel Adams and Thomas Young, who try to unify and inspire the Sons of Liberty and Mohucks, rebels seeking to feed their families and angry at paying taxes to a British government they see as distant and irrelevant. The brothers, John and Thomas Pownall, on opposite sides of the Bostonian/British divide and their attempts to influence key figures in the British Parliament to their side.

At its heart is a power vacuum. King George III only appears briefly to snub Thomas Hutchinson; a useful illustration of his failure to see how British policy towards its American colony – the drive to raise taxes to fund foreign campaigns in Europe – would inflame sparks of rebellion. That vacuum allows British politicians to manoeuvre their own agendas to suit, to the horror of Bostonian experts, who know the rebels are unifying, gaining traction and building towards a launch for independence.

A novelist, telling a story where the ending is known, has set themselves a big challenge to keep readers hooked. Michael Dean tackles this by using meticulous attention to detail, recreating the atmosphere of the British Houses of Parliament, the tiny offices of civil servants work in, the contrasts between the opulent houses of wealthy Bostonian merchants and the ragged clothing of rebels meeting in a room above an inn. The machinations of power-plays, the point scoring and struggles of the characters draw focus to the micro-dramas, fears and motivations of the characters.

On the odd occasion the focus on details feels misplaced. The description of Thomas Hutchinson’s primary residence detracts from the impending visit of the governor. This detail would have been better saved for the incident where rebels break into the residence; they would have been seeing it with fresh eyes and the details relevant to a group deciding what to vandalise, what to leave and what to take, throwing the contrast between poverty and wealth into sharp relief.

“True Freedom” is not for those seeking fast-paced action and military drama. It is for those who love to linger over period detail and gain a thorough understanding of the political situation and how it led to the revolt. It is meticulously researched and some minor artistic licence has been taken with facts whilst remaining true to the events described. Its focus on interpersonal relationships of the key characters offer insight and readers see familiar events with a new understanding, enhanced by its tone of quiet commentary, which allows the drama to speak for itself.

“True Freedom” is available from Holland Park Press.


“London Undercurrents” Joolz Sparkes and Hilaire (Holland Park Press) – book review

London Undercurrents book coverTwo poets explore the hidden histories of women based north and south of the river Thames in London through poems with Joolz Sparkes focusing north of the river, and Hilaire south. Poems are grouped by theme so chronologically they jump around and are marked N or S to indicate the writer. Some poems feature a named subject. Others look at a class of women, e.g. “Dodging the Doctor” subtitled “The White Lead Works Factory, Islington, 1892” and labelled N,

“It’s out job they once said for girls
didn’t get poisoned like men.
But now a doctor visits regular,
warns us to Take a bath once a week.
Any sign of sickness
we’re sent home,
our pay docked.

To avoid diagnosis,
I drift silently in blizzard,
invisible in the powder-fogged air,
clamber barefoot
up the drying scaffold,
hide at the top on rough planks.
Hup I go.”

Through ignorance, it was a historical belief that women were not affected by lead poisoning to the extent that men were therefore it was safer for them to work with lead powder, used in white paints. Once it was realised this wasn’t the case, a bizarre compromise of sending a doctor in to access workers’ health was introduced. To the workers, who need their wages, this compromise seems more punishment than help. Getting colleagues to warn of the doctor’s visit and help hide each other a measure of solidarity. Move forward to the 1970s and solidarity is still needed, “Shame, Shame, Shame,” subtitled, “Sit-in at Decca’s Colour TV Factory, Ingate Place, 14th August 1975” and labelled S (the image in the text is the Gujarati word for redundancy which also translates into English as futility),

“They lied to us. They lied with untranslated words. Redundancy. Spit it out in Gujarati Redundancy We hear it as futility. They translate us into no job in two weeks. Redundancy. Our insignificant bodies occupy their factory. They nail up the toilet doors. They send our food away. Redundancy They brand us with the stigma of barrenness. Together we’ve assembled hundreds, thousands of colour TVs. Between us, we feed dozens upon dozens of dependents. Why close our black and white TVs in our crowded, borrowed homes? We are seventy strong.”

In 1991 in “Permitted to Play” set in Arsenal Football Stadium, a girl’s voice asks,

“Teacher says I’m better than the boys.
Dad, Dad, I can beat them on this pitch.
With you and mum eating hotdogs
in the red seats, waving scarves.

On telly, they only show the men’s.
Dad, when can I play for Arsenal? When?”

The women’s team play most of their home matches outside London in Hertfordshire rather than at the Emirates Stadium in north London. Moving back to 1977, a similar note of defiance is uttered in “On the Way to See The Sex Pistols Play at the Hope and Anchor” where the speaker ends, “We’re pretty in black,/ mother, daughter, sister, Punk.”

“He was a Lovely Boy” subtitled “Somewhere on the Estate Essex Road, 1969” and labelled N, is about the Kray twins,

“My lad, my son, my blood.
Brought him up nice, polite.

His second birth tore me apart.
Both halves twinned together –

could’ve ripped them in two
with my teeth, but this one

kept the peace, stayed respectful,
never swore. Class. Stuck to his code:

just his bare hands grappling
in back rooms of pubs.

Knives or guns?
You choose you lose.”

It could be just as relevant today. “On the Marriage of Catherine Boucher to William Blake” subtitled “St Mary’s Church Battersea, 18th August 1782” and labelled S,

“We say our vows
bathed in a splendor of light.

And when he signs his name –
William Blake – in the register
I believe this to be true,
unable to decipher
those marks that flow
so swiftly, serpent-like,
from his pen. This X
I make, crooked, unfamiliar,
symbol of my freely given hand,
he swears he’ll take and soon
have learnt me how to read and write.
To sign my own proud name:
Catherine Blake.”

It’s a touching reminder of how women weren’t educated and therefore reliant on husbands or fathers to speak for them. There’s a reminder of the women’s suffrage movement too, “Cat and Mouse”, Holloway Prison 1913, N,

“for cheeks to hide histories of hands
that forced open a mouth to gag

on rubber pipe. This waiting affords me
respite at home, soft boiled eggs, a glimpse

of headlines. Then they’ll start again. But we,
my sisters, we will wait no more.”

The so-called cat and mouse act allowed hunger-striking women prisoners to be sent home under house arrest and returned to prison when they were deemed strong enough to serve the remainder of their sentence. Many were also forcibly fed to prevent starvation.

Personally, I would have preferred the poems in chronological order because I feel this would have reflected the growth of the city and allowed historical echoes of current day concerns to emerge. However, this is just a personal preference.

“London Undercurrents” is an intriguing, worthy collaboration that focuses on histories in two specific areas of London. The poems imaginatively give voices to stories often overlooked from those who usually go unheard. Both poets, Hilaire and Joolz Sparks, have distinct but complementary voices but share the ability to use selective details to bring their subjects to life in an engaging manner. The poems suggest both poets love their city and want to share its stories with a wider readership.

“London Undercurrents” is available from Holland Park Press.

“The Houses Along the Wall” Karen Hayes (Holland Park Press) – poetry review

2018 11 21 Karen Hayes The Houses Along the Wall book cover“The Houses Along the Wall” is a collection of poems inspired by a row of houses along the coast in Parrog in Pembrokeshire where pieces of china and pottery frequently wash up on a nearby beach. These poems are acts of preservation: charting the landscape and people, and recording overheard conversations and local stories associated with the houses. They also imagine past inhabitants and what their lives might have been based on the fragments of crockery and gathered stories. Each poem is subtitled by the name of the house that inspired the poem. Some names are Welsh, some English.

The early poems loosely focus on a family’s beginning, marriage before the children arrive. In “In His Cups”, house name Morwellan,

“His shilling, like ice in his palm, he touches
The rim of the collection bowl
Where the wood is warm from the heel
Of her hand and at the communion
Tastes where her lips have been.
And he knows how she gropes for the kneeler
Blindly with thumb and forefinger
And how she pulls
The resistant tapestry
Out of its hiding place.

She emerges from yew-tree dark
With the glamour of rain in her hair,
Her arm through his. Her smile an intoxication
To quench his thirst for ever,
And exacts her own promise in return.
He never took a drop from the day
She agreed to his proposal.”

The reference to shilling dates the poem to a time when divorce was stigmatised so the unnamed she is taking a huge gamble in agreeing to his proposal. The poem changes tone from the tender romanticism of touching the things she had touched to the more business-like transaction of exchanging promises where the language from the extract of the second quoted stanza becomes flatter and factual. The image of her groping for the cushion used to knee to pray suggests she’s seen something in him that he’s not yet ready to acknowledge and offers a note of hope for the marriage.

Karen Hayes visited Parrog as an English tourist in her childhood and explores other tourists in “The Belgians”, house name Ocean House, which starts “The Belgians came on the day of the regatta” and ends,

“Those three years, measured in regattas,
When the Belgians lived at Ocean House,
Marked an entente between us and next door.
On the last Sunday the eldest brothers won the double skulls
Then joined the fusiliers on Monday morning.
Their engraved cup still sits on our mantle-piece
With regimental medals from Palestine.
They spoke Welsh better than most boys in the village
And understood that we were the English here,
And therefore also foreign.
Amongst the list of Evanses and Reeses
Their Belgian name stands out.”

I think “skulls” should be “sculls” so the cup is from a rowing competition because of the repetition of “regattas” both to mark the Belgians’ arrival and the span of time lived at the house. The poem explores the extra effort the foreigners made to fit in, “They spoke Welsh better than most boys in the village” and the connection between them and the English tourists. Other poems explore the blessing and curse of tourism: that it brings a much needed boost to the local economy but also that holiday homes prevent people born in Parrog buying a house there.

One of the last poems looks at the oldest house, “The Runt of the Litter”, house name Trenydd, where the contradiction of “eldest” and “runt” is dealt with in the opening stanza, “Little Trenydd, eldest of the brood,/ But the runt of the litter of houses.” The poem continues,

“Little Trenydd, the first built,
Squats like a baby
Counting its mothers buttons from a tin,
Cross-legged on the strand.
Soon the other houses grown around it,
Those leggy younger siblings,
Vying for height and confidence, and
Competing architectural demands.”

And ends “And, an old man now, with the sun in his eyes/ Little Trenydd dozes on the wall.”

It’s the first poem to give one of the houses a persona. The others focus on the residents and visitors, the people who stayed relatively briefly in the houses. One poem imagines the missing estate agent Suzy Lamplugh playing hide and seek with children in one of the houses, giving the collection a contemporary edge. There’s much to savour here and the aim of preserving the character and houses is achieved.

“The Houses Along the Wall” is available from Holland Park Press

“Live Show, Drink Included – Collected Stories” Vicky Grut (Holland Park Publishing) – book review

Live Show Drink Included Vicky GrutVicky Grut’s short stories are based in ordinary, everyday lives where some small event triggers a series of actions that unravel the protagonist’s life. This makes the stories easy to relate to but they still have a hook that pulls readers in. The opening story, “In the Current Climate” takes the viewpoint of office workers reduced to spectators as a group of suited regulators usher them away from their desks and start collecting documents. The situation isn’t resolved but questions how much we know about our colleagues, what we might do to keep our jobs in a climate of austerity and high unemployment, how each reacts to the threat of job loss, how blame gets bandied around and how gossip and speculation fill a communication void.

“Mistaken” sees a customer mistake an academic for a shop assistant in a large department store. The customer is white and in a hurry on a lunch break. The academic is black and was merely browsing a rack of clothing. With no actual shop assistant in the vicinity, does she challenge the racist assumption or comply? When the customer reports the theft of her credit card, the academic is forced to choose between explaining the mix-up or escaping. The latter choice means putting herself in the spotlight and hoping the store’s security guards will understand she was the victim, not the perpetrator, but that relies on white guards understanding a black woman’s view having already listened to a white woman’s mistaken, racist assumption. Help comes from an unlikely source who also makes a mistaken assumption about the academic. It’s fair to say the store has lost a customer.

Seeking a free drink and a new experience, a young couple try the “Live Show, Drink Included” offered by a Soho club in the title story. Expecting something tantalising or at least vaguely sexy, they make the mistake of overlooking the club’s dingy appearance and stay, despite the barman’s warning. Even when the performance area is a grotty piece of carpet rather than a stage, the couple cling to their optimism. It takes the same song played on a repeated loop and the realisation that, aside from the barman and ticket seller, they are the only audience, to provoke a response that could make or break them as a couple.

Other stories involve management theory and organisational reviews, a gardener struggling with a head injury, a woman visiting her mother-in-law, a young couple blagging a free meal and hotel room for a night, a mother charged with repaying a debt others incurred in her name, an actor explaining to her director boyfriend that she got a part she didn’t audition for and other familiar situations.

Each story starts with a realistic situation and lets it unravel, forcing the protagonists into a course of action and not necessarily the right one. The stories don’t reach for an easy resolution, often letting readers figure out how the situation resolves. There is humour amidst the darkness and glimpses of hope within the despair of some characters’ reactions. Vicky Grut’s stories are taut, astute stories that draw readers into their recognisable situations and shock with a sudden but credible tilt in perspective.

“Live Show, Drink Included – Collected Stories” by Vicky Grut is available from Holland Park Press.

“The White Crucifixion” Michael Dean (Holland Park Press) – novel review

“The White Crucifixion” is subtitled “a novel on Marc Chagall” and is split into parts that explore Marc Chagall’s beginnings as a painter, his first stay in Paris, his return to Vitebsk, his promotion to Director of the Vitebsk School of Art and then his return to Paris. The structure is linear as it follows Moyshe Shagal (not yet Marc Chagall) from childhood in Vitebsk where he first learns to paint, to discovery in Paris, a muted return and fatherhood in Vitebsk, where he is trapped as war breaks out and finally Chagall’s return to Paris as his rival wins dominance.

Michael Dean’s novel blurs the line between fiction and creative non-fiction in that the events are based on Marc Chagall’s life but the conversations and reactions are fictional. I imagine, too, that the cast of characters has been limited because the named characters have an impact on Chagall’s life and some resurface as the painter moves from Vitebsk to Paris and vice versa. This approach means that the tension and drama in the novel is not based on events in Chagall’s life, since a biographical overview is widely known or available after a quick online search, but relies on the interactions and Chagall’s reactions to them.

Moyshe Shagal is born to a herring-schlepper and a grocer and carries a guilt about a younger sister’s death, believing her to have choked on a piece of charcoal he’d given her. His mother, the grocer, is actually the main breadwinner and she allows him to go to art school. It’s through art school that he finds himself mixing with teenaged children from the richer areas and how he meets his future wife, Bella. Bella’s parents, who own a jewellery shop, are not initially impressed with the idea of their daughter marrying a painter but don’t prevent nuptials. Moyshe is invited to Paris where he joins an artists’ community and is discovered by a dealer. Bella joins him. She vacillates between becoming a writer or an actress and fails to pursue either. Readers only see Bella through Chagall’s eyes and he fails to appreciate the limitations she faces and, at times, she becomes merely someone to share a bed with rather than a fully-formed character. There is a good sense of the rivalries, camaraderie and petty jealousies that dog an artists’ community. There’s also a good sense of what it means to be an artist, “I cannot lose the totality of myself in Bella because something of me must always remain outside and aloof from anything which is not my art.”

It is back in Vitebsk that Bella gets her break as an actress but is thwarted by a sprained ankle. The sprained ankle seems to trigger labour, which feels surreal because Chagall failed to notice his wife’s changing body during her pregnancy. Nonetheless, Ida in welcomed into the Chagall household. Chagall gets what he thinks is a break when invited to be director at the new Vitebsk People’s Art School. However, he soon discovers his title doesn’t confer any actual power. He tries to resign but Bella urges him to hang on. Her panic attacks have made her agoraphobic and, some days, bedridden. This isn’t explored or explained and Chagall doesn’t seem bothered that his wife, happy to explore Paris and nurture ambitions, is reduced to one room in their apartment at the school. At this time, against the back-drop of the First World War and Russian Revolution, Chagall describes his paintings as “documents”, recording a Jewish world which is being destroyed. As soon as travel restrictions are lifted, the Chagalls return to Paris and the story can re-focus on art, building towards the painting “The White Crucifixion”.

On occasion the drama is undermined. After an attempted suicide by Indenbaum in the Paris artists’ colony, readers are told “During the course of his long and by and large contented life, Indenbaum never did anything remotely like this again.” On another, when Chagall is facing starvation, he is rescued in the next paragraph, the sense of danger passes too quickly.

The novel is at its strongest when depicting La Ruche artists’ colony in Paris and exploring Chagall’s inspirations and motivations to paint. It succeeds as an evocative, layered story of one man’s drive to describe his world through art. Its subject isn’t just about the painter and his work but an insight into Jewish history through the lens of Chagall’s subjects – often based on Jewish tales and proverbs – and how the Russian Revolution, initially seen as a positive, anti-oppressive move, became another means of oppression.

“The White Crucifixion” by Michael Dean is available from Holland Park Press

“The Institute” Vincent Bijlo (Holland Park Press) – novel review

34552597A novel from Dutch stand-up comedian and columnist translated by Susan Ridder, where readers meet Otto Iking, aged eleven, wannabee radio show host, who provides a droll look at life in an institute for blind children during the 1970s. Alongside the usual school lessons, the children are given instructions in how to use a white stick and read braille. Some children get transferred to mainstream schools, something Otto is ambivalent about: on one hand it’s something his parents would welcome, on the other he’s currently in a place where the children are more or less equally disadvantaged. With the exception of Edwin who has partial sight and likes kicking other children. Otto and Harry spend time planning all sorts of revenge schemes to deal with Edwin’s bullying, but, ironically, Otto deals with the Edwin problem by accident with better results than either he or Harry could have anticipated.

Other plots go wrong too. Otto denies buying cigarettes when accused by a member of staff because he’s not realised that the petrol station assistant put them in a clear plastic bag (the staff member lets him off though). He and Harry plan to be heroes in an elaborate plan involving a catering trolley, a moped (both stolen from staff) and a gun only to find the compass they thought they had was actually a thermometer and when they get to the petrol station to fill up the moped, they discover the problem they wanted to solve has already been solved. There’s also a disastrous camping trip…

The humour is interlaced with a poignant coming of age story. Returning home to recover from a fever, Otto discovers his parents’ marriage has become strained due to his mother’s increased drinking after losing her job due to substandard work which has further eroded what already seemed to be a precarious self-esteem. His mother talks of going on holiday on her own. His father hints that the holiday is a stint in rehab. While his mother is quick to dismiss a girl at the institute as “that podgy thing”, Otto’s crush on the girl, Sonja, seems to be reciprocated.

Throughout, Otto manages to keep up almost daily broadcasts on Radio Fed-Up, a one boy radio channel exclusively starring Otto. Otto never asks if any of the children listen to it, but, when a local TV station visits the institute to film a documentary about life there and Harry is selected for interview, Otto finds that not being a TV star gives him a chance to get involved in the broadcaster’s radio channel. The irony of being “a good voice for radio” isn’t lost on the readers but it is on Otto. In the end, Otto is forced to test his ambivalence when he’s given a choice to stay with his dysfunctional family and, most probably, ending up stuck at the institute or rejecting his family and taking responsibility for his future by allowing his move to a mainstream school.

“The Institute” is a bittersweet coming of age story, demonstrating that despite being institutionalised, the children adapt and generally turn out OK. Otto, in needing material for Radio Fed-Up sets himself up as a natural outsider and observer, recording the conversations, situations and rough-and-tumble of pre-teen life. Through Otto’s eyes, the staff seem like two-dimensional dimwits for the children to pit their wits against and win, but that’s entirely in keeping with the narrator’s viewpoint, which is credibly that of an eleven year old boy. The only character who is allowed to wallow in self-pity is Otto’s mother and even that doesn’t last long. The humour is balanced with tragedy so it doesn’t become relentless and readers find themselves rooting for Otto.

“The Institute” is available from Holland Park Press.