Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Hoopla and the Haul

Every September the Free Verse Poetry Fair rolls into town, or the Connaught Hall and environs, to regale its devotees with a day of book browsing and poem listening. It is an essential date on the calendar for all poetry aficionados within reach of the capital. Publishers, mainly small press, but also some of the largest, come from far and wide to sell their wares, and showcase their poets in a series of talks and readings that run all day. It is a marathon of poetic indulgence, time to catch up with friends, make new friends and revel in the well-ordered word; a full on versification, indeed. 

My haul this year included the following books and pamphlets: from Seren’s three for two offer I selected Katrina Naomi’s The Way the Crocodile Taught me; from Eyewear, and at half price, no less, publisher Todd Swift’s Madness and Love in Maida Vale; from Happenstance, Paul Stephenson’s The Days After Paris; and from New Directions and famille Horovitz, Adam’s A Thousand Laurie Lees (The History Press), and Michael’s Midsummer Morning Jog Log. 

As I work my way through them, some short notes and praise – 

Katrina Naomi focuses on family, especially her relationship with her grandmother, mother and step-father. This is her second book and, as well as well-made sonnetish lyrics, she gives us the inventive Step-Father Graph poem, and a moving eulogy to her mother, Mantra, which is afforded its own final section in the book. She’s not one to shy away from violence and the Krays (Concrete Overcoat), or the sexy. I was taken by the crocodile with whom she swims ‘belly to belly’ in the title poem, and the almost Ballardian idea of pressing one’s body against an aeroplane wing in The Woman Who Married The Berlin Wall. Chapeau. 

Todd Swift celebrated his 50th birthday this year. That’s hard to believe for someone so full of energy for writing and publishing. In this, his livre d’anniversaire, there are appreciations from friends and colleagues, along with 21 new poems. As author of a whole collection on the subject of tattoos, my ears always prick up when I see another such poem. Todd’s mini-series of Poems On Unoriginal Themes includes one on tattoo laser removal (‘I took my skin back to/ Being a baby, more or less. Spotless,/ Milky not a cast of sin.’), and others on twins and ghosts. I hope there are more of these to come another time on, say, the moon, shards, rainbows, mermaids, walking down the rue whatever, and other contemporary clichéd subject matter (mea culpa). There is much both serious and playful to enjoy here, along with Todd’s careful use of rhyme. His ability to use meter or not, and cast poems as they need to be, whether tightly packed, as in Great Malvern, or lose and disjointed, as in On the Growing Darkness in My Mind, depending on the subject matter, is well displayed. Similarly his invention is wide, such as in Christ, Swimming, where Jesus is breast stokes against the cross, and The Shit Show, which says what is says on the tin. There are well handled poems of love in its many forms too. Felicitations. 

In the immediate aftermath of the Paris attacks last November, Paul Stephenson focused his attention on the City of Light. His pamphlet gives a sense of the changes that took place on the streets and in the hearts of Parisians coming to terms with atrocity. There is a sense of rawness and immediacy. These are not poems of tranquil reflection and this makes the odd slip and clunk forgivable for all that. Bravo.

Hidden London - The Geffrye Museum

When you are tried of hipstering your way around Hoxton and Shoreditch, have eaten your gluten and lactose free brunch and downed a few soya flat whites, before you jump on the ginger line home, stop here for a breather.

The C 18th almshouses built by Sir Robert Geffryes, with money for which we won't ask its provenance, are a fine example of charitable giving for the deserving poor; a l-shape of dark brick with a central chapel, set in delightful grounds and hidden away in the mishmash of development that is the East End nearest the City. Parakeets were squawking in the plane trees when I visited.

Inside at this time of year, and free to enter, you will find the chronological arrangement of middle class parlours and salons tastefully dressed for Christmas. It is an interesting walk through time that leads you to the downstairs gallery and its photographs of contemporary teenage bedrooms, some of which are worryingly empty and some are truly at peak stuff. It's enough to make you want to take back all the presents before they have been opened.

Bah Humbug! Happy Christmas.

Elton John's photographs at Tate Modern

Once you look passed the gaudy frames that are more bling than a blingy bling thing, but then, that's his taste and he can be forgiven, this is a great shown of Modernist photography.

Man Ray, Dorethea Lang, Alfred Stiglitz, Walker Evans, Ansel Adams and more; key examples of their work, grouped thoughtfully by theme, along with a short film revealing the genuine love of a man for this art form, not at all a collector just pinning his money to the wall.

Swing by over the holidays when the Tate will be quiet. Wander and enjoy.

Saturday, 10 December 2016

Cy Twombly at the Pompidou

In London at present the Tate is showing a major Robert Rauschenberg retrospective. In Paris, his friend and travelling companion, Cy Twombly, is the Pompidou's new show for the winter.

I struggle with expressionism. I imagine this is because it is hard for me to translate the expression of one person's feelings in an art work into my own feelings, as my main currency of expression is words, a much clearer medium for ideas in my training. So, hello Twombly, who uses plenty of those, even if at times they are vague, illegible and hard to figure; at least they are signposts of sorts.

If you have a good acquaintance with Greek myth, then you will certainly 'get' most of the middle to later works here. The only question then will be whether you like the images. And I have to say that I do, certainly the works from the second half of his career. For me, he definitely improved with age. I was smiling more and more as the show progressed.

Twombly is variously described as daring, confident and so on, and this is plain in his brush and pen strokes, which have fluidity and great control. You might find yourself saying 'a four year old could do that', and in some cases they can and do, such as the early crayon drawings. But look again, there is so much more to these scribbles, Twombly has met Picasso's challenge, to re-learn to draw like a child, full on and so successfully; take Achilles' shield or Ra's boat for example.

The Pompidou has assembled an excellent selection of his work, which is largely in series of paintings, that have travelled from the US, UK and elsewhere to be here. My favourites were the huge late Bacchanalia, and Blooming series. Go choose your own.

And now for the nit - I have a particular bug bear about the use of the word poetry in relation to art. With Twombly, who made many works in response to poetry, that is perhaps a forgivable slip, but a painting is not a poem, not even if it's genesis is occasioned by reading Homer, Keats, Spencer and so on.

So, I grit my teeth when I read a quote from Restany at the start of the free brochure: 'His handwriting is poetry...' No, it's not. It's handwriting. Equally I was annoyed to see the series of flower photographs described as 'succinct poems'. No, they aren't. They are photographs. Describing art as poetry, poetic, a poem, is so unspecific as to be meaningless; a bit like describing a poem as a picture.

Monday, 5 December 2016

Hidden London - The British Library

What is hiding in here is a great cup of coffee with lovely cake, and a quiet spot in the back of the upstairs cafe to look out onto a courtyard garden (too cold this time of year) and chat with a friend.

No need to be a member or reader; you can just walk in off the street and enjoy. And there is always a free exhibition in the foyer - at present on Victorian entertainments, magic tricks and the like. Good to know if you are waiting for a train and can't face Kings Cross or St. Pancras, just watch out as large suitcases cannot pass the front door.

Cambodia Diary Extracts


Imperial, and buzzing like helicopters, swarms of them around a tree on a waste lot as I was stuck in traffic coming from the airport. And again at Wat Phnom, around stupas and across the curved roof tops. And again over the next twelve days at odd intervals by a pool, at a waterfall, at the beach, when I was least expecting them. It was the season.


Under the aerial roots of a Banyan tree I am drinking French wine, ironically enough. It’s not great. A leaf falls into the pool, floats for a while before being swept over the edge by the residual motion of swimmers, to infinity.

Then there’s your Asian swallow

A Wat Phnom, birds in cages. I cannot figure the reason for having fifty or more moth eaten birds per cage at the temple. They have so little room that each time they flap their wings against the humid air they hit each other or the bars. Poor moulty birds. And the same with two cages of spotted doves in blue and grey collars. What is this about? And the mynah birds, two in filthy cages and who have been taught to say hello in English. I wish someone would explain this to me.

Civic pride

Everywhere plastic bags, tossed plastic water bottles, split bin bags, nappies and glass bottles on the beach, picnic places filled with take away and leave behind polystyrene containers of fast food, lumps of concrete, cement dust, coffee cups. You’ve finished your iced drink? Even my driver chucked the receptacle out of the car window, swiftly followed by several cigarette butts. Every watercourse is filled with rubbish, even at Angkor Wat. Every street is piled with refuse. There is a long way to go for civic pride to mean anything. It looks like every music festival I have ever been too, but worse; hardly anyone is clearing it up. Even the park by the royal palace is strewn with litter at the end of each evening. Funnily enough it is cleared at dawn. To my question as to why you treat your country like a garbage dump. A quizzical laugh. Only tourist do recycling. It salves our consciences, but makes no difference in a country where women do their washing by foot as if treading grapes.


is a daily massage either by a blind or partially sighted person at Seeing Hands, or in the spa a short walk down the street. In the daytime I am still enough for one of the hundreds of beautiful butterflies to land on my leg, twice, or on another day for one to choose by breast. I am doing nothing more than looking at strangler fig roots suffocating thousand year old stones. This counts as busyness. Between tour groups it is quiet enough to hear the forest birds singing, and the trees growing.

Photography and children

Watching Korean and Chinese visitors taking their holiday snaps is an entertainment in itself. They strike all kinds of ridiculous poses, which they find highly amusing; looking the same way as the statue, playing with perspective, finger on the top of a stupa, that kind of thing. Hilarious, and presumably designed to avoid having to look at the monuments. Perhaps I need to loosen my sense of what is cool and laugh more often.

Western tourists take pictures of children as if they are monkeys. Why do people act so differently when away from home? No sign of any children being abused by 70s pop stars and their ilk. Protection and phone numbers to report abuse seem to be the order of the day. Yet, one guest house needed to remind us not to bring sex workers to our rooms.

Odds and sods

Unlicensed sales of petrol by the roadside. Fine apparently and not bottles of lemonade. Containers of all kinds.

Dogs with long wheel bases, and of no apparent breed.

Birds in a tree at the beach, noisiest during a thunderstorm. Lightning forking the sand.