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Good news

Benjamin ZephaniahFeed people enough misery and, not very surprisingly, they’ll end up being miserable and thinking that everything is bad; so it’s worth listening to the prophets who urge us to a more balanced view.  When
I turned the radio on, some time between Christmas and New Year,
I discovered that Benjamin Zephaniah was guest editor on the Today programme, and he was discussing the relative merits of good and bad news with the arch-cynic, John Humphrys. Benjamin was urging the radio presenter to report more good news, instead of giving us an undiluted diet of bad news.

In the interview, Humphrys claimed that no one finds good news interesting, which is patently not true. He gave the example of ten aircraft setting out from LHR to the US, and all ten arriving safely. ‘There’ he declared triumphantly, ‘no one will be interested unless one of them crashes.’ What he failed to understand, of course, was that the item wasn’t news because it wasn’t new. Its lack of newsworthiness had nothing to do with whether it was a catastrophe or not; it failed to be news simply because there was nothing new about it. A similar number of aircraft make that journey every day.

Another example Humphrys put forward to support his view that good news isn’t worth reporting was of a powerful earthquake in which there was no loss of life. As the earthquake was new, this did constitute news – good news; and it’s possible that most people would be more interested in an earthquake that didn’t kill people than in one that caused massive casualties. A third story with which Humphrys taunted Zephaniah was of an elderly couple who were sharing their 100th birthday, and who had been married for something like 72 years. Fantastic. That really should be on the news: it’s happy, unusual and encouraging. Cynicism and depression are self-perpetuating, Taizé meeting in Romeso we need to share some of the good things that happen in the world instead. I’ve just received an email from someone who was in Rome for the Taizé meeting of young adults over the New Year. The fact that 40,000 young people from many different traditions made the journey and spent several days talking and praying together somehow didn’t make it onto the radar of journalists who are always so quick to report the many failings and scandals of the Church and the waywardness of the young.

There’s an old expression sometimes bandied around by writers to the effect that ‘Happiness writes white’. In other words, great writing is more likely to come out of an unhappy state of mind than a happy one. I can never decide whether this is true or not, especially as I have personally produced decent work both when I’ve been heart-broken and when I’ve been euphoric. Zephaniah’s poetry encompasses the good and the bad, anger and celebration, and I think that’s the sort of diet that reflects the real world in which most of us live. There are also exceptions to the misery-mongering of the media. For example, there’s a newspaper called Positive News, which one can sometimes pick up in whacky places like Dartington, which redresses the imbalance in the rest of the media by reporting on good things that have happened.

JyotiMalalaTwo young women have, tragically, been in the news recently: Malala Yousafzai and Jyoti Singh Pandey. Sadly, the young Indian medical student will slip into the mire of crime history and be forgotten by most of us within a few months – though not by those who loved her. Malala is ongoing news and we’ll continue to watch her with interest. Let’s hope that journalists, too, will continue to find her interesting as she returns to full health and continues with her courageous campaigning. But underlying both these appalling cases is a sub-text of gender inequality. We have achieved so much in the last century, but these stories remind us that there is still a long way to go before everyone accepts that girls have as much right to education as boys do, and that attractive young women are people of dignity and worth, whose bodies belong to themselves and no one else. If and when that equality and dignity are accepted as normal everywhere, that will certainly be good news worth sharing.

2013 is still a fairly new year, so I leave you with a snippet of one of the poems from my recent collection, festo:  ‘Hope at year’s turning’:
hope springs eternal
leaps and bounds,
believes in bud and leaf and flower,
and puppy-like joyfully welcomes friend and foe.
Against all recent evidence I throw
myself into the arms of hope
for the new year.

Happy new year. My next blog (good news) will be from far across the sea.

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A Village Christmas

Until ten years ago I’d never spent Christmas in the country, so the last ten Christmases have been full of new delights. Looking ahead to this one, it didn’t cross our minds that it might be the wettest Christmas on record; but fortunately the crazy weather didn’t spoil our enjoyment. I thought I’d share some of the many delights and maybe even the few drawbacks of a village Christmas.

Mary & Joseph for blog

 

There had been several festive gatherings in the last few weeks, and a traditional Christmas Carol Service was held in the church on Sunday 16th December, but the celebrations began in earnest on Thursday 20th, when our local pub staged their version of the Nativity play for the sixth year running. This year we had not only two donkeys and a sheep with its new-born lamb, but also a three-week-old baby to play the part of Jesus.

Mary & Joseph conversing for blog

Nativity angels 1000

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The various parts were played by staff and regulars from the pub, and they managed to combine a healthy dose of humour and earthiness with a fitting reverence for the story they were telling;

Z & H in Silver Band copy

 

 

and the whole experience was further enhanced by the presence of the local Silver Band, which made sure that we all sang the carols with appropriate gusto.

 

 

 

After a very enjoyable evening, some of us moved on to the pub in the next village, to join in one of their regular folk nights. A couple of dozen local people meet here every fortnight to play and sing to each other in an extremely relaxed atmosphere, and the instruments on this particular evening included a dulcimer, several accordions, guitars and bodhrans (hand drums), and a couple of violins. Among the singers was a group of burly men called the Gaffers who sing a range of unaccompanied songs with enthusiasm, harmony and humour.

Rather than celebrating with Midnight Mass at the village church, we had a Christmas Eve service of Communion by Extension at 10.00pm. This is, of course, a direct result of the fact that our church is one of nine churches in what is known as a Joint Benefice. The fact that we have one priest for all nine churches is one of the disadvantages of living in a rural area, and it does, unfortunately, mean that going to church can sometimes be a rather less than satisfactory experience. Those who live in the country have the same needs, hopes, aspirations and spiritual hungers as those who live in larger centres of population, so it saddens me when they are offered only a meagre diet of religion.

After the service, we moved down to the pub to sing more carols and wish each other a happy Christmas. As midnight struck, many of us were still sitting outside, enjoying and marvelling at the unexpected warmth.

As well as all the music, many of us spend a considerable amount of time out walking, and despite the weather forecasts, we managed to stay dry most of the time and even had some lovely warm spells of sunshine. Another highlight of the village calendar is the Rounders Match on Boxing Day, when crowds of us from the village, plus friends and visitors, gather on the beach for an energetic game in which the men’s and women’s teams fight it out for the most rounders. In the last ten years we have had snow and ice such that we had difficulty banging the posts into the sand, and sunshine warm enough to force us to strip down to our tee shirts, but we had never been rained off before. We were a little indignant, therefore, when the rain began just as we parked the car, and by the time we were on the beach it was in extreme wetting mode. We therefore retreated to the car park, and seven of us squeezed into our camper van to enjoy mulled wine, mince pies, talk and laughter. I include here a picture from last year to show what it is normally like, and one to show how we dealt with the conditions this year.

Rounders 2011

Zoë, EB & Carol in van 1800

Mince pie regatta for blog

 

If I don’t write poetry for a few days, the creative urge tends to squeeze out in other ways, including the culinary; so when the time came to make some mince pies, I found a Christmas regatta emerging from my oven.

So what are the positive and negative aspects of spending Christmas in a small English village in the 21st century? I’ve already mentioned the limitation of being part of a church that doesn’t feel it necessary to invest in small rural communities. This will not be of concern to non-church-goers; but for those of us for whom Christmas is first and foremost a religious festival, it is quite a disadvantage. As in other communities, people in a village sometimes fall out with each other: but unlike in larger centres of population, they generally find that they have to get over it quite quickly and give a high priority to living in harmony with their neighbours; so that turns out, after all, to be more positive than negative.

The other positive aspects of our village Christmas are almost too numerous to mention. I’ve given some indication of the range of activities that take place in the village, and they are all community-based rather than being organised from above. That doesn’t mean that they don’t involve effort and commitment, but those characteristics are not in short supply here. We know the shop keepers and the postman, and it is warming to arrive home to find a little note from the postman telling us where he’s left a parcel, and who it is to.

On top of all this, we live completely surrounded by the beauty and splendour of the natural world at its richest and most varied. Nature has shown its force again this Christmas, so several homes have been flooded and landslides have broken a number of our banks. But we know that every time we leave the house we will breathe clean air, feel the elements on our faces, meet wildlife and see beauty. This week we have met a seal down near the beach, watched a wide range of birds, caught sight of a vole, been almost deafened by the crashing of waves, and sat on the sand soaking up the welcome sunshine.

So I end with two pictures from our Christmas Day walk, and wish you all the very best for 2013. We’ll have to start preparing for our long sea voyage in a couple of weeks’ time, but for a few more days we’ll be enjoying life in our lovely village.

crashing waves for blog

Prawle Bay 1800

Wave 2000

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On the sending and receiving of Christmas cards

I enjoy sending and receiving Christmas cards, and can cope with quite a wide variety of tastes in the ones I receive. I particularly enjoy the home-made ones, and some people clearly put a great deal of effort and skill into producing their own cards. I also appreciate receiving news from old friends from whom I hear only once a year, in those much-derided Christmas letters.

However, many years ago I found I couldn’t find any cards to send that actually expressed what I wanted to say about Christmas. I love the visual arts, but found that all the beautiful pictures of the nativity, the sages from the east, the shepherds and angels, didn’t actually express the deeper truth of incarnation for me. They decorated or embellished the Christmas story, rather than going to the heart of it. The one exception to this is portrayals of the Annunciation, because in those it often seems as though the artist is struggling to express the inexpressible – a task familiar to the poet.

John Donne 120Hugh and I therefore started to design our own cards. Some of these used words, such as short biblical texts or, more usually, a few lines from one of the great poets. In this one we chose some of the beautiful words from John Donne’s sonnet, Annunciation. As you can see, the Annunciation theme resonates with me in both the visual and the literary arts.

Others leapt out into symbolism that I found meaningful, but which I know puzzled some of our friends and family members. My own very favourite one, in particular, was simply a beautiful gold circle which expressed my thoughts about God perfectly. I’m afraid to report, however, that on that occasion my mother thought we’d taken leave of our senses. Unfortunately we don’t seem to have saved one of these cards in our rough and ready filing system, but I’m sure you can picture it.

This one extended that idea into an image of humanity and divinity meeting in the incarnation.

Circle 120

These two were less challenging in terms of their theology  holy 120   God with us, 80

Gradually it became clear that if I wanted a Christmas card to express something significant to me, I had to write a poem that actually said what I wanted it to say. So the tradition of writing a poem each year for our Christmas card began.

Snowflake 160

This early one, Snowflake, was set painstakingly using lettraset. The poem was written years ago, but still seems to be popular.

Then there was this very short one, spiraling out into the world:  In the beginning 120

Years passed, and the number of Christmas or winter poems increased. Some were serious and reflective, others were light and humorous. There have been several Christmas trees and snowy offerings, reflections on the nativity, including talking animals gathered around the manger and even, following the great Christmas Day Bible reading, one entitled Logos.

Soft as a feather 120A couple of years ago we used a poem of mine called Soft as a feather falling. I wanted a line of white feathers to go down the side of the card, so we set off on a wild goose chase to find a source of feathers. Eventually we discovered a friendly duck farmer who was only too pleased to give us bagfuls of white feathers. As we didn’t want to risk spreading avian ‘flu around the country, we microwaved them before sticking the onto the cards. This worked well, except that it made the kitchen rather smelly for a few hours.

When Anne Born, who was Managing Editor of Oversteps Books, invited me to submit a poetry collection in 2007, I included a couple of my Christmas poems (Touching Earth). Anne later suggested that I should put a collection of these specific poems together in a separate collection. That was put on the back burner when Anne became ill and persuaded me to take over the management of Oversteps from her.

This year I decided to follow Anne’s suggestion, and festo was published a few months ago. The past few months have consequently seen a fairly hectic schedule of poetry readings, and it’s been great to include quite a number of poems from the new book as I’ve travelled the length and breadth of the country.

front cover snapshot smallerPlenty of these other poems are included in festo.
Apparently some of our friends and family members
have collected our Christmas poems as they’ve appeared,
so they won’t necessarily be needing to buy the book –
though actually there are also quite a few poems in it that
haven’t been used as cards.        

About half of our Christmas cards are now being sent by email. This is something of a green initiative in terms of saving paper and ink, but also ensures that the cards arrive quickly, and it allows us to include links to web pages and blogs. If it really is the poem that people enjoy, rather than grappling with the problem of where to hang their Christmas cards, then presumably this will be welcomed. If anyone who has received an e-version this year would prefer a paper copy next year, please let us know.

Then, of course, I had to sit down and write a new poem for this year’s card.

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Two new books from Oversteps

As I have recently published the last two books that will be coming out from Oversteps until
I return from New Zealand in early March, I thought I’d introduce you to the two poets.

front cover 200
portrait Kathleen Kummer 200

Kathleen Kummer moved
to Devon four years ago, to
be near to her daughters.
She has worked for many years as a translator, and
her international interests
are obvious in this her first collection.

 

 

When African women laugh

In the laughter of African women
is the silver of bells and carillons
spilling out over summery cities,

and the sound of children playing
innocent games: skimming
stones, hopscotch, skipping.

When African women laugh,
you hear rain fall on the grass
as it springs from the rust-coloured earth,

and the wind as it tugs at the washing,
filling the bright shirts as if
with their wayward husbands’ bodies.

The laughter of African women
is drawn from deep down.  Limpid,
it catches the sunlight, brims over,

a descending scale of well-oiled
squeaks of delight, poured
like balm on the pain of the world.

And if it is true that the flutter
of a butterfly’s wings is enough
to cause a far-off disaster,

wonderful things may happen
on the other side of the planet
when African women laugh.

Snapshot of front cover 200   Simon, 200

Simon Williams lives on Dartmoor where, as well as working as a technology writer, he runs the popular poetry, music and story-telling evenings at the Tradesman’s Arms.

The villanelle is far from
being my favourite poetic form,
but I think it works really well in this opening poem
from Simon’s collection.

Goats

A Swiss man caught speeding on a Canadian highway has said he was taking
advantage of the ability to go faster, without the risk of hitting a goat.
BBC News

I can sympathise with him, I really can.
When he saw the road markings, all straight and white
and him from a place where odd animals stand

on bends, in the dark, unphased and offhand,
so their eyes glint up in the headlights.
I can sympathise with him, I really can.

I’m sure it was nothing he consciously planned;
to exceed the speed limit on ice and at night,
but raised in a place where odd animals stand

keeps you ever alert to dark creatures and
the way they go bump on the bonnet, in flight.
I can sympathise with him, I really can.

Whether it’s ibex or chamois or something more bland,
like ponies or sheep, they’re none of them bright,
for they live in a place where odd animals stand,

where they hide in the crooks of the road, like bands
of bold robbers, who stop you for spite.
I can sympathise with him, I really can,
as I come from a place where odd animals stand.

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Dipping my toe into blogging

Image 

This blog will include both information about and samples of my own writing, and news about my work as Managing Editor of the poetry publishing house, Oversteps Books Ltd. In the more immediate future it will take the reader with me on a long sea journey to New Zealand, where I’ll be appearing at various poetry events in February 2013.

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Hello world!

Welcome to WordPress.com! This is your very first post. Click the Edit link to modify or delete it, or start a new post. If you like, use this post to tell readers why you started this blog and what you plan to do with it.

Happy blogging!

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