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South Seas Society


When I was travelling the world as Chief Executive of a couple of literature and literacy NGOs in the 1990s, I very much enjoyed the time I spent in the Pacific islands of Samoa, Vanuatu, Fiji and the Solomon Islands. I therefore leapt at the opportunity this winter to visit Tahiti on our way to New Zealand, and cruise round the Society Islands on the good ship, Paul Gauguin. We normally spend our holidays in our little camper van, so this luxurious cruise was a fantastic treat.

We started in Tahiti, and over the course of the following ten days, called at seven other idyllic islands, five of which were in the Society Islands and the other two are atolls of the Tuamotu archipelago.

Tahiti has been inhabited since pre-historic times. It was discovered first by the British explorers Samuel Wallis (in 1767) and James Cook (in 1773); and then by the French explorer, Louis-Antoine Bougainville in 1773. Owned by Britain for over 100 years, it then became French in 1880, and in 1950 voted to remain under France rather than choosing independence.

The work of two of my favourite artists, Paul Gauguin and Henri Matisse, was influenced in one way or another by the time they spent in Tahiti. I had therefore hoped to visit the Gauguin museum, but it was closed for restoration two years ago, and no one seems to have any idea when it will reopen. I spent an interesting morning at the Museum of Tahiti and the Isles, but unfortunately they have not seen fit to exhibit any Gauguin material in the absence of the specialist museum.



Gauguin’s paintings of Tahiti are all well-known, and none more so than ‘Women of Tahiti on the Beach’.

In 1930, Matisse also visited Tahiti, and at the time claimed not to have been very affected by his visit there. However, towards the end of his life his mind appears to have returned to the light of this area, and in particular the designs used by the Tahitians in the cloth they print for their clothes, which bear some quite striking similarities to Matisse’s wonderful late ‘cut outs’.

The Society Islands were most probably named in honour of the Royal Society in London, though some believe they were named after the London Missionary Society, whose missionaries took Christianity to the islands.

Here are some very short notes on the other islands we visited, followed by a few general observations.




There are two islands here: Huahine Nui (big) and Huahine Iti (small). There are some archaeological remains of maraes on the island, and a collection of famous blue-eyed eels, but we decided to catch the (fairly basic) local ‘bus (Le truck) in order to have a quick look around the tiny town before striking out along the beach to sink gratefully into the sea.


Bora Bora image

We spent two days in this Paradise. On the first day we took the tender to a private Motu (island beach) where I braved the heat on my first paddle board expedition, and also met a large and very beautiful stingray, which floated gracefully below me as I swam. The next day we went snorkelling in a coral garden known, with good reason, as The Aquarium.

Rangiroa and Fakarava

We had opted for the longer, ten day cruise, rather than the six-day one, and the extra part came next, as we sailed from the Society Islands to the Tuamotus Islands to visit the atolls of Rangiroa and Fakarava. In the Society Islands the islands are in lagoons, surrounded by coral reefs. The lagoons are a beautiful turquoise colour, laced by the white surf breaking on the coral reef. In the Tuamotus, we were visiting atolls, in which the coral reef surrounds a lagoon, with no island in the middle. Instead, the islands are part of the reef itself.

The lagoons were far larger than I had expected, covering many miles. Rangiroa is the largest atoll in Polynesia, and the second largest in world. It is 78 km long and 225km around, and contains 78 islands around a turquoise lagoon teeming with exotic fish.

was the ancient capital  of the Tuamotu Archipelago, and the old village of Tetamanu has one of the first Polynesian Roman Catholic Churches, built of coral in 1874. The whole atoll is now protected as part of the UNESCO biosphere.

We were by now many miles from the Society Islands, so had a 36 hour sea passage to return to the main archipelago. It was good to be out of sight of land for so long, to experience a little of the vastness of the Pacific Ocean.




Possibly the most exotic day of our exotic holiday. We were dropped on a private island Motu on the atoll, where we were treated royally. We spent the day as ‘lotus eaters’, swimming, snorkelling, kayaking and partaking of the lavish barbecue.







Our final port of call was the beautiful island of Moorea, where we spent two days. As with all the other islands, we moored a little way from the island and disemarked by tender. There are two deep bays, Opunohu Bay, where we moored, and Cook’s Bay.



Moorea is only seventeen miles from Tahiti, and we had looked out at its dramatic mountains in the distance on our first few days in Tahiti. After Tahiti, it is the most populated island. It is the remains of a volcano, and the outer rim of the crater is very evident in the sharp mountains that encircle the whole island.

image                                                                               Bali Hai

As we were nearing the end of the holiday, we splashed out on two expeditions: an afternoon on a jet ski on the first day – which involved driving over water at 64 knots – and a ‘bus tour of the island on the second.

After ten days of utter peace and beauty, we returned to Pape’ete, which appeared very busy in contrast.

General observations

UnknownOur ship, the Paul Gauguin, was extremely luxurious, and we were looked after very well. The vast majority of passengers were large North Americans, which was something of an education. I can now recognise women who have had a facelift; and I have sat at table with men who believe that the most important freedom, which they must retain at all costs, is the freedom to own guns. Being light drinkers and moderate vegetarian eaters, we probably didn’t get as good value from the deal as many of our fellow passengers – but we had a wonderful, relaxing time. There was a swimming pool on top deck, for extra swims between our sea immersions.

One huge concern to me was the number of plastic bottles of water that were consumed. Some sea water was desalinated, but the heat is intense and it really is necessary to consume a great deal of drinking water. We all know about the huge area of the Pacific that is now polluted by a raft of plastic, and everyone – tourists and locals alike – use several new plastic bottles every day. I don’t know what the answer is to this problem, though some new biodegradable materials are being developed. They cannot come too soon.


All the Polynesians we met were lovely people. Not only were they welcoming, friendly and happy, but in many cases displayed exceptional empathy, often intuiting what we were going to say before we opened our mouths.

Many of them are also ravishingly beautiful. We were treated to several Polynesian dance imageshows. These sinuous dances were banned by the missionaries, who presumably found them a little too suggestive; and the dances began to be rediscovered/reclaimed only in the mid-20th century. It is, of course, impossible to tell how close they now are to the original dances.

The islands are all Francophone, and everyone speaks the local Tahitian language as well. As usual when travelling, it was worth learning a couple of words of the local language; but everywhere we went, people were surprised and delighted that we spoke French.

The economy of the islands is based on tourism, black pearls and vanilla.

The main garment for both women and men is still what in Samoa I knew as the lava lava and in India as the sarong, and in Polynesia is called the paleo. Most of the designs are bright and colourful, and there are dozens of interesting ways of tying it.


All the islands we visited were unbelievably beautiful, set in turquoise lagoons, surrounded by coral on which white spray breaks constantly to form a lacy border. The coral is of many different colours and shapes, and the number and variety of fish defy description. Other wild life was not so plentiful, though there were plenty of frigate birds fishing round the islands, and on Tahiti there were minahs, pretty little ground doves with budgerigar blue faces and fine striped feathers; and tiny, multicoloured finches.

Both air and water temperature were a constant 31-34 degrees, so we could swim and snorkel for hours, only leaving the water when we were completely soggy. It was also of the highest salt content that I’ve ever known, so it was so buoyant one could practically sit on it.

Having enjoyed the holiday of a lifetime, it’s back to the camper van for the next few years!




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An early adventure in computer poetry

In 1977, Robin Shirley, who had been a post-grad at UCL when I was an undergraduate, invited me to be part of a project creating computer-generated poetry, and then performing it to jazz accompaniment. Sunflowers, the group for performing the work, comprised Randy MacDogroup in the sunnald, a fantastic jazz saxophonist and flautist; the actor and musician, Gus Garside; poet and crystallographer Robin Shirley; and me. I was lecturing in Philosophy at Surrey University at the time, but was also a poet and musician. The  biographical notes that appeared in the programmes for some of our performances are at the bottom of the page, below the sample poem.

me in lecture theatre

I was young and fancy-free, and didn’t really take the project terribly seriously, though I was happy both to help create the poetry and also to perform the jazz. However, the whole thing took off, and before long we were receiving invitations to perform in various places, including one performance for BBC Radio, and one at a major computer conference.

By the time we moved on to other adventures, we had yards and yards of computer print-out of poetry, a number of photographs and some good newspaper cuttings and reviews. Then … it all disappeared, and for over 30 years I couldn’t find the files in which these archives were stored.

Then, a few months ago, I was approached by Jerome Fletcher of Falmouth University, who is doing some research into electronic literature in the UK between 1960 and 2010, to ask if I could provide information about Sunflowers. This led to total immersion in some of the boxes that were stored upstairs at home, and to my delight I was able to unearth at least some of the material. Hence this blog, to share a slice of history. Unfortunately most of the newspaper cuttings have not yet emerged, and the photos are rather faded; but this page should give a taste of what we were doing.

The general idea was to feed phrases into a computer that would make sense in whichever order they tRobinhen came out, and for each phrase we had to determine what the probability was of its occurring, and the possibility we wished to allow for that phrase to be repeated. The skill, obviously, was in choosing the best phrases to feed in; and some of the results were strikingly good. The computer programme we used was devised by Robin using the ICL 1905F computer at the University of Surrey.
It was called Bard 0, Robin Shirleyand was followed by Bard 1D and Bard 2S.

Randy on flute

GusRandy larger






The one cutting that has turned up was in the Computer Bulletin in March 1979, and in it John Lansdowne, reviewing our appearance at the Computer Arts Society, writes: ‘It says much for the quality of the poetry and the way it was presented by Robin Shirley, Alwyn Marriage, Gus Garside and Ranald MacDonald that they were able to give two consecutive 40-minute performances to enthralled audiences of all ages. The poem for three voices, May Carol,was especially well received, and I look forward to hearing the Wheel of Seasons cycle in full on some occasion when I’m not trying to run a computer art show at the same time.’
me on electric guitar
An early version of The Sunflower Suite had been performed at the 1973 Edinburgh Festival, and as well as developing that further, we created otme on keyboardher works during our time together, including ‘Pavan for the Children of Deep Space’ and the extended group of poems in the popular suite ‘The Wheel of Seasons’. We then took all these works and jazz improvised to them, using sax, flute, guitar and bass guitar, keyboard, voice and various percussion instruments. It was all good fun.


Randy and me on our headsRandy and I decided to stand on our heads to celebrate the upside-downness of the world.

Sadly, Robin contracted hepatitis on a work trip to Egypt, and died far too young. Without his drive, the group drifted apart. If anyone knows Ranald MacDonald or Gus Garside, please let me know.

With apologies for the poor quality of the photographs, some of which were actually scanned from tiny contact prints on our home scanner. I think it’s worth preserving them for their historical importance – and for reminding me of what I looked like when I was young!

Sample poem from the Spring section of The Wheel of Seasons:


A girl is dancing, singing after her tears, dreaming of the sea.
How many springs are feeding the river
reaching further into before?
Crustaceans waiting for the end of primrose conversation,
we are borne along, breathless, to inevitable growth.

There is a growing urgency.
How many springs are feeding the river,
eddies of doubt, stagnant pools of rejection, reaching further into before?
The present is opening into the future,
old, young, dancing, dying, dreaming of the sea.

Eddies of doubt, stagnant pools of rejection,
lines of love etched deep on chalk and clay,
reaching further into before, swirling in triumphant confidence;
in the changing, in the compliance, is the growing.
A girl is dancing, singing after her tears.

There is temporary pain in the confluence,
in the changing, in the compliance, is the growing old young dancing dying.
A girl is dancing, singing after her tears
from spring through singing to ocean swell,
lines of love etched deep on chill and clay
dreaming of the sea.

Sunflowers bios


It’s amazing what you discover when you follow a grasshopper

This isn’t actually anything to do with grasshoppers. It’s about Irish rain, Seamus Heaney, peat fires and kindness.

We’ve just had a week’s holiday in the north of Ireland, and despite all the gloomy predictions, we had wonderful weather for all but one of the days. We bathed in the sea at Ballygally, spent a day exploring the Giant’s Causeway in bright sunshine, and went out to the far west for a few days on the wild coast of Donegal, where we had fine sandy beaches to ourselves and carpets of wild flowers to dazzle the eyes.

The one day of rain, however, beggars description. It started before we woke up, and continued imagesunabated until we were tucked up in bed again that night. The roads turned into rivers, some with waves flowing along them, and we had to negotiate floods that came up to the top of our wheels. More than a day of that and we would have been applying for tickets to join Noah on the ark.

We were on our way back home, so needed to make some progress. It was also clear that free camping on soggy ground (or in the middle of a puddle) wasn’t a great idea, so we headed across moorland and hills to find a pub with an adjacent campsite that we’d seen on the map. As we arrived at the Shepherd’s Rest, tired and hungry, the publican came out to welcome us; however, when we said how much we were looking forward to a meal, he told us that they hadn’t got any food. Observing our faces falling visibly, he hurried to reassure us that he would rustle something up for us.

We didn’t even make it up to the official camping area, but anchored in relief in the car park and sloshed our way back to the pub, where there was a peat fire burning brightly, a large portrait of Seamus Heaney on the wall and, within minutes, a huge plate of food on the table before us. Our host, Colin, had clearly raided the ‘fridge. If any reader is ever looking for a campsite in Northern Ireland, I would strongly recommend this pub cum campsite.

Throughout the evening Colin plied me with poetry books to read and discuss, showed us the Visitors’ Book with the signature of Seamus Heaney inscribed within, and asked about my poetry. When we finally left, some hours later, he insisted that we should visit the nearby town of Magherafelt the next day, where someone called Eugene had a treasure trove of Heaney memorabilia which he would certainly be pleased to show us.

imageIt seemed a little impertinent to turn up at someone’s house unannounced, but the final line of one of the lovely Bod books we shared with our children when they were little popped into my head: It’s amazing what you discover when you follow a grasshopper. So we called on the house, met Eugene Kielt and spent the next few hours in conversation about Seamus and a number of other poets whom Eugene knew.

Seamus study

Just above the chair where I was sitting was a study of Seamus, done by the artist Peter Edwards in preparation for his portrait of the poet which is now in the National Portrait Gallery.

by Peter Edwards, oil on canvas, 1987-1988
by Peter Edwards, oil on canvas, 1987-1988





Although Seamus lived in the Republic, he was born in Northern Ireland and visited frequently. Eugene now leads tours of ‘Seamus country’ for visitors; and his guest house, advertised as the only poetry guest house in Northern Ireland, is stacked full of Heaney poems and memorabilia.

When Eugene offered to show us round the house, I was unprepared for the sheer number of poems and pictures on the walls. There were huge linen banners with Heaney poems on them (including one that isn’t in any of the poetry collections), and others on fine paper. Each suite of rooms was dedicated to a different poet, such as Patrick Cavanagh, Michael Longley and others. In each case there was a large portrait of the poet and a number of his poems on the walls (yes, they were all men, though in conversation I found Eugene also valued some women poets, including the National Poet of Wales, Gillian Clarke).

Eugene learnt to love poetry as an adult, initially through Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, but is now extremely knowledgeable about many 20th and 21st century poets. He has run two highly successful poetry festivals from his villa in the past, but is not rushing to organise a third as there is no one except him and his wife to do all the hard work involved. He does, however, host a number of poetry readings in the house. We spent a fascinating morning in his company, and departed feeling very grateful to Colin, Eugene, Seamus himself and, of course, Bod.
Bod 1



PosterI had an interesting three days this last week, with Everyman at the National Theatre neatly sandwiched between a gig in which I was to be found playing the cornet as I marched down Kingsbridge Fore Street accompanying the townspeople as they danced the Floral Dance, and an open air performance of The Taming of the Shrew by Guildford Shakespeare Company. ACADll three were hugely enjoyable, but this blog is about the National Theatre production of  ‘Everyman’ on the middle evening. The play is based on the mediaeval morality play, updated with a script written by Carol Ann Duffy.

Every now and then it is necessary to swallow my feminist ideals, and as this play is based on the mediaeval morality play that evolved many centuries before our awareness of the inequality that can be perpetuated by exclusive language, I won’t complain at the title. I’ll just point out that it’s a morality play about everyone, including women. (OK, that’s all I’ll say on this occasion!).

It is courageous to stage a straight morality play in the 21st century, and even though the programme suggests that it’s adapted for a secular age (whatever that is), the message of the play is old-fashioned religious, and at times probably reflects Carol Ann Duffy’s Roman Catholic upbringing. The story is of Everyman being visited by death at the end of his bacchanalian 40th birthday party, and told that he has to give an account of his life before God. Everyman tries various devices to get away from this horrible truth, and appeals, unsuccessfully, to friends, family and wealth to put in a good word for him.

It was a fast-moving, slick and satisfying performance. The wonderful actor, Chiwetel Ejiofor, was an appealing and convincing Everyman, well capable of representing us all. God who was played as an office cleaner by Kate Duchene, and Death (with an Irish accent) by Dermot Crowley, were both impressive. There were familiar songs such as ‘You’ll never walk alone’, Latin chant and plenty of contemporary music and dance, and the play starts with Everyman’s dramatic descent down from the roof to the pit. There was also some delicious humour.

If I had any minor criticisms they would be first that the dramatic first scene of the party, though brilliant in terms of chowith castreography, sound and visual effects, could have been cut a little: we really had got the message by half-way through the sequence; and occasionally we lost some vital words and therefore missed a joke or punchline. But all in all it was a wonderful evening, with fine dialogue, and exciting sound and visual effects, including a terrifyingly realistic tsunami.

The modern slant to the morality aspect took the form of an environmental emphasis, and as Everyman moves from mindless materialism to knowledge and humility, he also becomes aware of the way he has mistreated the planet, treating it as a coin to be tossed away. The message comes across strongly, and anyone watching the play must surely be reminded not only of the harm the planet has suffered through our ecocide, but also of our continuing complicity if we don’t work tirelessly to change the way human beings are squandering the earth’s resources and raping the planet that is our only home.

One of the pivotal points in Everyman’s journey occurs when he meets his younger self, Everyboy, and is told by him in no uncertain terms that he should remember to say thank you.

The final scene is probably the most moving. Everyman, having ended up being helped and instructed by a tramp (Knowledge) gains not only knowledge but also humility and gratitude, and comes to an understanding that he has a soul. I was reminded in the first case of T S Eliot’s ‘humility is endless’, and in the latter by the Ancient Mariner finding blessing when he became aware of beauty. Everyman’s paean of thankfulness was beautifully expressed, and covered all of his life and experience.

with GodGod (still sweeping and cleaning) is heard to comment on how she still loves him, which is a religious message if ever there was one. But apart from that, the splendour of the performance and the strong environmental message, the play reflects in the cast and the production the rich diversity both of London, and of life.

This modern version of the mediaeval morality play may seem a surprising choice for the 21st century London stage, but it was skilfully adapted, beautifully acted, challenging in its message, and offers an extremely rich and satisfying evening.


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Walking through history

On Saturday we joined a group of about twenty five of our friends to spend a leisurely day in the region of Windsor Great Park and Runnymede, exploring various monuments before the crowds descend for the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta on June 15th.

IMG_0642Our first stop was at the Air Forces Memorial at Englefield Green, where the names of all the airwomen and airmen of the British Empire who were killed in World War II – all 20,456 of them – are recorded, carved in stone. The monument was designed by Sir Edward Maufe, who was also the architect of Guildford Cathedral; and as I know that building extremely well, it was fascinating to see many of the same motifs and architectural vocabulary here as in that other building. A spiral staircase led up to the roof of the monument, from where we had stunning views down over the river, the reservoirs, Heathrow airport and even Windsor Castle.

Our next stop was the Magna Carta Memorial itself – also designed by Maufe. The full name, Magna Carta Libertatum, gives a little more clue as to what it was all about. Sadly, though, no one took much notice of the original charter after it had been sealed, rather than signed, by the king; and it was repealed and reinstated several times through history. It didn’t really have much to do with democracy: it didn’t affect normal people, but just the relationship between the king and the barons. And yet we uphold it as some sort of founding document of our rights and liberties.

I think this is because it has become a symbol rather than an historical record. Although it didn’t really survive the vicissitudes of royal misbehaviour, or that of the aristocracy in the form of barons, much of what it signified has passed down to us in elements of, for instance, habeas corpus, the American constitution and our very ideas of what is a decent society. So, for instance, it established the fact that monarchs had to abide by the law as much as commoners, that miscreants should be tried by jury and that punishment should fit the crime.

We found ourselves whisked forward in time travel as inscribed into the stone were the words ‘This plaque was unveiled by HRH The Princess Royal, 15 June 2015’. As we were visiting on 13th June, we thought this solid assertion was a little premature, and we were left hoping that the princess did not suffer any mishaps between then and her appearance two days later.

Our final stop of historical importance was the John F Kennedy memorial. Here we entered the United States, as an acre of land was given by Britain to the US for a fitting memorial to their assassinated President. We climbed up the path through a peaceful glade to the memorial itself, which wIMG_0650as designed by Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe. Part of the inspiration for his work is said to have been Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, and the experience of climbing up to the monument had a contemplative feeling. I found myself reflecting, sadly, not only on that crazy death, but on so many other areas of violence and killing in the world today.

In between these visits, we watched pleasure craft on the Thames, relaxed under a huge oak tree in a meadow for our picnic lunch and, of course, engaged in constant conversation and general merry-making.




Moor art and poetry

We spent last weekend savouring two of the lesser-known delights of the South West moors. We started on Friday on Dartmoor and then moved on to Bodmin Moor that evening.

H at DelamoreDelamore House is on the edge of Dartmoor, and is of special interest to us because it used to be owned by the same family as lived in the house that now contains our apartment. Although it is considerably grander (our house was the family’s ‘summer house’), there were similarities and common features, including a tholos, or cromlech. tholos


‘Brick chair’ by Amy Cooper 

Every year, for the whole of May, Delamore House hosts an art and sculpture exhibition, and we just managed to get there before the end of the month. Both the ground floor of the house, and a stable block across the meadow, were full of paintings; and everywhere we went in the garden we found fascinating sculptures. Peacock, Dot Kuzniar

‘Peacock’, by Dot Kuzniar


‘Dancing meadow’ by Nicola Crocker

Dancing meadow, Nicola Crocker figure


I really liked this head sculpture, and its companion piece which was a sadder face. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to discover who the sculptor was, so if any of you know, please send me a message.


As one might expect with so many exhibits, they were not all of the same high quality, but in general the standard was good, and some works were excellent.

‘Floating glass sphere’ by Sue Smith
Sue Smith, Floating glass sphere

Quite apart from the art, the gardens were exquisite – and this is probably one reason why the month of May is chosen for the exhibition.

burning bush




more beauty

The reason for our visit to Bodmin Moor was that I was reading at the Bodmin Moor Poetry Festival. David Woolley and Ann Gray have been running this excellent festival for the last four years, and have created a very special atmosphere with a stunning line-up of poets. On the Friday evening we had a launch party, then settled down for the first reading, which in terms of quality and excitement set the tone for the whole weekend. The two poets this first evening were Sinead Morrissey and David Harsent, the latest two winners of the prestigious T S Eliot prize, and the festival could not possibly have got off to a better start.

Sinead MorrisseySinead led a very good workshop the next morning. The event sparkled from start to finish, both because of Sinead’s stimulating input on abstract and concrete writing, and also because the fifteen participants all had intelligent, sensitive and lucid contributions to make.

My reading came next, shared with two lovely Oversteps poets: Elisabeth Rowe and Mark Totterdell. We were in a conservatory room at this stage, and the sun was beating down; but both we and the audience stayed awake and everyone was ‘warm'(!) and appreciative.

Logo_BMPFThis was followed by readings by Matthew Francis and Anthony Wilson, which I very much enjoyed. I knew both of these poets a little, but had not heard them read before; so it was a great pleasure. Unfortunately I had to leave after this, as I had another appointment the next morning. I therefore missed a number of other treats. If the programme is anything like as good next year, I recommend that poetry-lovers make the journey to this corner of England, as Bodmin Moor is a festival that is well-worth attending. I shall have to hope that I get another invitation!

The venue for the festival is the Sterts Theatre at Upton Cross, and the theatre itself is a large amphitheatre covered by a giant awning. As the temperature at night was still a little low front coverfor the time of year, we were relieved to discover that the poetry festival actually takes place in adjacent buildings, complete with walls and roof.

We, of course, spent the night in our camper van, where we were both snug and peaceful. As I included some poems from my latest book (Notes from a Camper Van) in my reading, this was appropriate.

Congratulations to Ann and David on a wonderful festival.


Day off work: two exhibitions and a play

RAAs my sister has a season ticket to the Royal Academy, she kindly invited me to join her to see the Richard Diebenkorn exhibition there last Thursday. I knew only a little of this artist’s work before, and was pleased to have the opportunity to get to know more of his work.

There were three distinct rooms in the exhibition. The first room, representing Diebenkorn’s earliest work, comprised abstract paintings; the second room was entirely figurative; and the third room, though predominantly abstract, was in fact a very satisfying synthesis of the two.

Most of the figurative work was based on the female figure, but I was particularly taken with Diebenkorn’s pair of scissors. It’s amazing how a mundane household item can express what used to be called such ‘gay abandon’!

abstractThe abstract work displayed beautiful colours, mainly tending towards pastel shades. The early abstract paintings often used interlocking forms, some of which were tantalisingly recognisable as objects in the real world, so that one felt on occasions that the figurative was insinuating itself into the abstract. This is less the case in the maturer work, where one of the recurring motifs is the use of lines. These sometimes create dimensions or unexpected angles in the paintings and sometimes just emphasise the geometric nature of the work. This one, which was one of my favourites, was tiny, but others were huge. In the large ones it was perhaps easier to see some of the influences on Diebenkorn, such as Hopper, Matisse and even some mediaeval artists.

My one disappointment in this exhibition was that I had hoped to see some of the etchings done by the artist to accompany poems by Yeats, but there was no reference to this project.
I had read that in 1990, Arion Press published a catalogue of Yeats’s poems, selected and introduced by Helen Vendler and accompanied by six etchings by Richard Debenkorn. That treat will have to await another occasion.

Our intention was to move on to Tate Modern to visit the Sonia Delaunay exhibition. However, the rain which we had been needing for weeks had arrived with a vengeance, so we took refuge in the National Gallery and decided to enjoy the ‘Inventing Impressionism’ exhibition instead, particularly as the Delaunay is on until August, whereas the Impressionism one finishes at the end of this month.

This exhibition takes an unusual approach to Impressionism, by basing the exhibits around the art dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel – who was, of course, instrumental in the history of Impressionism, as he bought so many of the works and helped to make them known and eventually accepted. Initially it felt slightly uncouth to be approaching the art through the medium of a dealer, but the exhibition is so successful, showing the gradual development of the movement and celebrating a wide range of artists, that it felt OK. The first room was set out as a French salon, which immediately put us in the right mood and set the scene for the following rooms.

Man_and_Superman_poster_notitleDespite wet clothes  and shoes, the day ended by calling at the local cinema for the live screening of ‘Man and Superman’ from the National Theatre. G B Shaw’s plays can appear rather ponderous and preachy to a modern audience, but the acting was so superb that we were all carried along in the fun and the action. Unusually, the director had decided to include the amusing scene set in Hell, which is normally omitted. This meant that the play was a full three hours forty minutes long, including the interval. I very much enjoyed this extra scene, but don’t think it actually adds anything of much value to the play. All the acting was superb, and Ralph Fiennes, in particular, gave an absolutely stunning performance.







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52 not out

52 logo

Thursday 30th April saw the last prompt descending from the ether to awaken poets from their slumbers. Since January 1st 2014 there has been one posted on a closed Facebook group site at 7.22am each Thursday. The name of the group was ’52’, and I’m writing this mainly to share our experiences with those who weren’t part of it — though I suspect that a fair number of my 52 friends will also have a peek — and maybe comment.

Jo 2

52 was the brainchild and inspiration of the poet Jo Bell, who thought that as a New Year’s Resolution it would be a good idea to invite poets to write to a suggested theme each week. The group would form an on-line community in which all could read each others’ work and make friendly and constructive comments and suggestions for improvements. Jo is Britain’s Canal Laureate, and a finer, livelier and more generous person it would be difficult to find.

If Jo thought she was introducing a cuddly kitten into poetry’s boudoir, she was in for a shock as the animal almost immediately turned into an enthusiastic elephant rampaging happily through  the room. Poets flocked to join the site, and got scribbling with enthusiasm. When the membership numbered a rather unwieldy 560, Jo closed the doors to new people. In some ways it might have been better to do this earlier in order to limit the group to a smaller number, as it was easy to miss poems because of the large number being posted; but there was no way Jo could have known in advance that it was going to be quite so popular.

It took a certain courage to post brand new poems up on the internet, knowing that some of them were very raw and unfinished, but we were all in the same boat and understood the nature of the exercise. One of the advantages of the the Facebook page being a closed group (besides limiting the number of people who would see our less than perfect efforts) was that posting there did not constitute publication, so poems could still be submitted to magazines and competitions. And they were! Many many poems that started life on 52 this last year have now entered the public domain, either in good magazines and anthologies or in the top places in prestigious competitions.

Each prompt that Jo posted had a theme to guide us into new thinking, but which we did not have to follow slavishly. Jo’s reflections on these themes were always illuminating, and she illustrated her ideas with poems from the canon. This meant that before we even put pen to paper (finger to laptop) we read some wonderful poetry by other poets down the centuries to inspire us. This, for me, was one of the most exciting aspects of Jo’s input. It would have been so easy for her to say ‘and here’s a brilliant poem by me to illustrate what I’m after’; but she never seems to have been tempted to do that.


So, we set to work on what sometimes, on a Thursday morning, seemed an impossible challenge. Here are a few of the prompts: Lost, Naming names, Exposing yourself, With friends like these, Money talks, The Unseen, The Uncertainty Principle, Macaroni, Earth from Space, Synchronicity, Sensory lack, etc, etc, etc. As you will no doubt agree, they were not necessarily simple subjects.

There were always a few ‘hurtlers’ who had written and posted something within the first hour (I managed a few times), and there were ‘lurkers’ who read and sometimes commented on poems but didn’t write much. But most of us let the ideas ferment as we got on with life, and well before the following Wednesday we had come up with something which, though far from perfect, was sufficiently finished to share. We then held our breath as hundreds of other poets read our offering. Often there would just be a ‘like’, but there was also plenty of comment. Sometimes it was just the obvious ‘have you thought of dropping the last two lines?’ or ‘are you sure you need that explanation at the beginning?’; but sometimes a different word or poetic form would be suggested.

HannahAt the end of the year, Jo moved on to other work, and one of the 52ers, Norman Hadley, agreed to keep the group going for a little longer, which is why it has continued until this week — Week 70. Still not content to let go of this warm friendly community, Hannah Linden (pictured left) has formed a group called Mint, to keep all these lovely people in touch with each other and to give a space for the flood of news about publication of 52 poems. The name Mint was chosen because that word became a favourite positive response to good poems.

There’s always a question with such activities as to whether it’s best to end with a bang or a whimper. It is true that it was quite difficult to maintain the momentum as 2015 got under way, and I suspect there’s been a certain falling-off in recent weeks. But the group was clearly not quite ready to disband at New Year, and as well as ensuring that the flow of poetry continued, the extra time has also allowed Hannah to get Mint up and running.


There have now been some opportunities for 52ers to get together in real life. Unfortunately I was not able to get to the picnic in Stratford last summer, nor will I be able to join them this year as the date coincides with the Oversteps Day at Ways with Words. However, I met several familiar faces at the Torbay Festival in the autumn, and I’ve just got back from the Wenlock Poetry Festival where 52ers were lurking behind every bush (particularly in the campsite) and  we had a very jolly group reading.

52 will not exist after this week, but many of us have got into the habit of writing fast and frequently and have made friends with whom we will stay in touch long after Jo’s 2014 New Year’s Resolution is just a distant memory.

Thank you Jo, and thank you fellow-52ers.

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Poetry on the Riviera

Torbay Poetry Festival is always one of the highlights of the autumn, and this year was no exception, so I’m going to share a few snapshots and other recollections of the weekend.

Unfortunately I haSue Boyled to miss the first day of the festival, so was not in Torquay for the dramatisation of Report from Judenplatz by Sue Boyle. I am told that the presentation by John Miles and his company was professional and moving; and having seen their Under Milkwood production later in the weekend, I can believe it.


The two major evening events were the festival supper, with a reading by MaurIMG_0421ice Riordan, and a reading on the Sunday evening by Roger McGough. These were, not surprisingly, very different events, but both were hugely enjoyable, providing food for thought as well as wine and, in the case of the supper, good food. The poetry was good, of course; but other less poetry-related aspects of their performances were also appreciated: for instance, I had not heard Maurice read before and was charmed by his Irish accent; and Roger who was, as ever, extremely amusing, sported a pair of bright red shoes.

IMG_0386This year’s Torbay poetry competition was judged by R V Bailey, and at the prize-giving we were able to read the short-listed poems that were posted all round the walls, and give coloured dots  to indicate where we would have awarded the prizes. The winner turned out to be Carole Bromley – a result that delighted me as I have been reading, and greatly enjoying, Carole’ poetry over the last few months.

IMG_0384The other event that featured Rosie Bailey was a launch of the large anthology entitled ‘Love and Loss’ that she and June Hall have edited over the last year.


It is a beautiful book, containing poems by well-known poets, including the Poet Laureate, as well as many lesser-known poets, a number whom were attending the festival. I was pleased to have a couple of poems in the book myself, and therefore took part in the reading.


I had intended to have a swim from the hotel steps, but there was never a spare moment. There were readings, talks and staged conversations that presented  Susan Taylor and Simon Williams, Katrina Naomi, William Oxley, Jeremy Young , Wendy French and others.





There were also workshops led by Danielle Hope, Katherine Gallagher and June Hall, but I wasn’t able to get to any of those.





As our festival weekend coincided with the centenary of the birth of Dylan Thomas, there was  a dramatic reading of Under Milkwood on the Sunday morning, presented by John Miles and his company. As IMG_0402I know the work practically word for word, I wondered whether this would be a disappointment. On the contrary, however, it was a wonderful performance, bringing out the music, humour and charm of the work.

On the final morning we transferred to the Living Coasts centre at the other end of Torquay for a reading by Moor Poets. In a room directly beside the waves we had readings by poets who are represented in the latest Moor Poets anthology. At this event I was pleased of the opportunity to include some poems from my new collection, Notes from a Camper van (available from me for £7).
front coverOversteps poets at Torbay Moor Poets


With me in this photograph are the Oversteps poets, Jennie Osborne, Rose Cook and Mark Totterdell, who read at the Moor Poets event. Other Oversteps poets appearing at the festival were R V Bailey, Susan Taylor and Simon Williams.

Patricia Oxley, who organises the festival and is also the Editor of Acumen, always offers enormous encouragement, support and respect to poets at all stages of their careers; and we have good reason to be grateful to her for all she does with such grace, generosity and professionalism.


Should Britain claim her independence from Scotland?

FlagAt one level it is not appropriate for me to comment on the forthcoming referendum as I am English, and proud of it. On the other hand, I have extremely close, and very dearly beloved family living north of the border, and I spend significant periods of time with them and with Scottish friends, so it is quite likely and reasonable that I should have an opinion. In any case, although we in England are not allowed to vote on something that is likely to affect us all one way or another, we are still at liberty to express our views. Like so many other people both sides of the border, I am bored with the bickering debate; but I’ve decided to have my say before it’s all over bar the crying.

I have always loved Scotland. All my married life, even before it became home for part of my family, I have taken frequent holidays in practically all parts of the country, including most of the islands: the Inner and Outer Hebrides, the Orkneys and Shetlands.

In this piece I shall certainly not be trying to persuade anyone to vote either way. To be honest, I’m not even sure that I could any longer care less which way the vote goes in September. As far as I’m concerned, the harm – the very great harm – has already been done; and if Scotland wants to float off into the ether, I’m tempted to say ‘good luck to them’. And if Scotland happens to vote to maintain our special relationship, then I would like some reassurance that the campaign will not just come back in a few years’ time, with all the negative emotions continuing to rankle in the meantime. If there is any risk of that, then I for one would much rather get it over and done with now.

When the SNP campaign was first launched I did, in fact, start off quite angry, and would willingly have charged Salmond with treason or insurrection for attempting to destroy our great nation. I don’t imagine I would have managed to get him locked up in the Tower of London, but I do harbour the belief that he is guilty of treachery: not only has he worked tirelessly against the nation for the last few years, but he has also tempted other people in Scotland – including some who were born and brought up in England and might be expected to show some level of loyalty – to betray their national heritage.

That’s my rant over, and I ceased being angry some time ago, when those emotions gave way to indifference. But I am still painfully aware that all is not well between our two nations, and that one man is to blame above most others. The one thing that Salmond has achieved successfully is that, with the results predicted to be close, whichever way the vote goes, about half the population of Scotland is going to by deeply unhappy, and that can’t be good. He has probably also been responsible for two nations no longer liking each other. Either he is unaware of the discord he is creating, or maybe he just doesn’t care.

There has been a regrettable anti-English spirit abroad in parts of Scotland in recent years, and like racism anywhere else, this is ugly and dangerous. We saw it when Andy Murray made ill-considered comments about supporting anyone other than England in sport – though Andy does appear to have grown up since those heady days, and of course he cannot vote anyway because he now lives in England. But it is not uncommon to see anti-English comments in the social media, and Salmond himself seems to consider getting England thrown out of the United Nations Security Council, for instance, to be a worthy aim. Conversely, the English have tended to be rather fond of their northern neighbour; though in recent months that affection appears to have been wearing thin, as ‘the debate’ has caused English people to become first bored and then dismissive.

Anyone with even a partial knowledge of Scottish history will know that Scotland and England used to be at each other’s throats. But after centuries of war and aggression, we’ve now happily enjoyed 300 years of peace, stability and cooperation as a result of the Union. Many of us fear that this harmony could be destroyed, for any awareness of the conflicts and killings in other parts of the world must surely raise the fear that within a generation there’ll be fighting on our common border. Perhaps the various Scottish churches should get down on their knees and start praying for peace now.

Some people appear to think that independence would give Scotland a clearer identity, but I do not for a moment believe this. Different identities are of interest and relevance when they differentiate within a common reality. Within Britain, Wales, Cornwall, Yorkshire, East London and many other areas, including Scotland, have quite distinctive identities which we all appreciate and enjoy. At present haggis, highland flings and bagpipes are all considered to be a special part of British identity; but the identity of Scotland outside Britain would be of no greater interest to us than the identity of Portugal.

I was told of someone in Scotland who recently claimed that independence would not be a divorce, but a child growing up and leaving home. This is a curious perception, for I had always thought that Scotland and England were equal partners in the United Kingdom. If Scotland views itself as a child needing to grow up, that changes my perception. Perhaps, after all, I should instead view this country that I’ve always respected, as a petulant child throwing a tissy. I’ve certainly heard some very immature paranoid comments from the more extreme wing of Scottish nationalism, made by people who seem to think that England has got it in for the Scots. That’s simply not true.

Because of my family connections, I am, of course, distraught at the prospect of Scotland doing something that I consider to be so ill-advised; and I am naturally concerned that if it all goes wrong, my lovely grandchildren might suffer. But on a less personal level, I think one of the aspects of this mess that saddens me most is that so many people in Scotland appear to be assessing which of the two alternatives will benefit them most financially. Talk about selling one’s grandmother! There are good reasons for Scots to prefer to stay in the Union, principally pride in being part of a great nation – Great Britain, and all the advantages of cooperation and partnership. Beside that, counting the pennies to see which choice will win the bonus seems ignoble to say the least. The formation of the United Kingdom rescued Scotland when it was broke. It seems rather ungrateful to leave it as soon as they imagine they might be OK without us. But maybe they have just been blinded and led astray by black gold.

The English could be just as small-minded if they so chose. For instance, one of the first things I’d like to see if we gain our independence from Scotland is a reform of the clock change in autumn. Last time the question came up, the principal reason we were not able to abandon the clock change, or go onto European time, was that it would disadvantage Scottish farmers. After the split, this would no longer be an issue for us. We would also be rid of the Barnett formula, and no longer have to smile at the Scottish joke that Scottish money grows on English trees. But as with the financial considerations of the Scots mentioned above, I think these facts and fancies are unworthy of the seriousness of what is being considered in terms of the breaking up of a nation.

One of the excuses given by the ‘yes’ campaigners is that they don’t like David Cameron’s government. Join the club! Well over half of us in the rest of Britain don’t like the Conservatives either. But we grit our teeth and continue to believe in the democratic process. If you think the government is wrong, then please stay and help us defeat them next time round. The idea of a democracy is not that we should stick with it when it suits us, and hive off when it doesn’t.

If Salmond wins the referendum, there will be a messy period as we disentangle, after which I suspect that the rest of Britain will just forget about Scotland on the basis that they’ve made their bed and can lie in it. And if, in a few years’ time, it all goes wrong for the independent Scotland, it’s unlikely that Britain will be keen to play the part of the prodigal son’s father.

Some will say that if Salmond and his followers are so disenchanted with the rest of us, then good riddance to them. I understand that sentiment, but I also feel really sorry for all those loyal citizens who don’t want to destroy Great Britain and who are proud to identify themselves as British and Scottish. Already seven hundred thousand Scottish people have said that they would like to leave Scotland if the vote goes in favour of independence. That’s more or less equivalent to the Polish immigration of a few years ago, which was managed quite well, so I hope we in other parts of the United Kingdom will be quick to welcome and accommodate them if they move south.

But the real work comes if the Scots decide to remain in the Union. Can those who have campaigned so vociferously for leaving the flock work to mend the relationship? Can the English learn, at last, to use more inclusive language rather than equating Britain with England? Words matter, and many people south of the border have been too cavalier in speaking of England as though it were Great Britain. Can we all decide to work for common goals, rather than mistrusting each other and bickering like naughty children? Can we all forgive this damaging campaign and live at peace again?

So much harm has been done in the last two years that it’s going to take determination and charity on both sides to mend our relationship. Let’s hope that together we can achieve it.

In the meantime, of course, I still love and support the members of my family who happen to live north of the border; and I’m also still fond of the Scottish islands.

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