Thursday, 19 October 2017

School Blues. An educational absurdity, and a poem by Fleur Adcock

It is twenty two years since I first read For Heidi with Blue Hair, by new Zealand poet Fleur Adcock, for a GCSE English module.  The poem, inspired by its author's niece, articulates in fluent, conversational terms the author's scarcely tempered despair at a farcical, deplorable situation.

When you dyed your hair blue, the narrator begins, you were sent home from school...

because, as the headmistress put it,
although dyed hair was not
specifically forbidden, yours
was, apart from anything else,
not done in the school colours.


I remember the sense that we were reading about a time and place removed from our own progressive era. Yet the poem was written in the 1980's, and often at that mean-spirited school one had the sense that a good half of the teachers craved a return to the good old days of enforcing uniform regulations with the trusty cane.  No doubt some would have supported the poem's headmistress, trotting out cliches about order and conformity without really knowing what they meant.  But ever since I read For Heidi with Blue Hair, I have been asking - who would think a person's hair colour could affect their, or others', academic chances?   That depriving such a person of a day's learning could enhance their education?  It is a position without any basis in fact, and it is easy to imagine the scene the poet describes at the ejected student's home:

Tears in the kitchen, telephone-calls
to school from your freedom-loving father:
'She's not a punk in her behaviour;
it's just a style.' (You wiped your eyes,
also not in a school colour.)

Nowadays, this would never happen.  Today's schools are run by enlightened professionals, in tune with the needs of teenagers to develop their own identities, too clever to hold outdated attitudes, too busy - we are constantly told - with the demands of their important work, to find the time for stressing about irrelevant issues.  Or so I believed, until I read about the case of a 12 year old pupil of a Manchester Academy, who was put in isolation this week by that establishment, whose headmistress told the Manchester Evening News, “It’s very clear in our behaviour policy that extreme hairstyles are not acceptable in school, as they aren’t in many workplaces. Everything we do in school is important to raise standards and improve outcomes and life chances for our young people and help them develop employability skills.”

I rarely believe what I read in the papers or online - but in this case the story does seem to have been confirmed by both the girl's family and the school.  Rarer yet are my strayings into social issues. I find the contemporary world so complex that it is not often I position myself squarely pro or anti anything, but something about this absurd, ridiculous, downright stupid turn of events did get my goat, and has prompted me to ponder it in the context of Fleur Adcock's poem. It also prompted me to write myself - so taken was I with the school's ingenious description of "Extreme Hairstyles."  We are living in a climate of extremities, and it is to be hoped that schools are doing their part to address the various problems of extremism in all its forms.  Religious extremism.  Political extremism.  But haircut extremism? 

Extreme Hairstyles

We must take care to protect ourselves
at all times 
from Extreme Hairstyles.

Many of them start out innocent - 
clean-cut, neat, unobtrusive 

But there's something rotten in the state
of our nation's hair. Something subversive,
leading teenagers astray.

Just today, as I tried in vain
to teach the Periodic Table,
I noticed civilized side-partings 
slowly curling out of shape,
bland Grade-Two's twisting
into Lithium-streaked dreadlocks,
Magnesium Mohicans flaring up from nowhere,
until a lab full of brash, bedeviled bonces 
burst like a volcano erupting with hair gel, 
gobbling all within its hairy blaze.

Running home, I was ambushed by walking hairstyles -
waylaid by a gang of  pugnacious perukes,
threatened by curt crew-cuts,
mugged by an enormous knife-wielding wig,
so shaken and distressed that I couldn't wait
to race inside, clamp shut the door, 
grab a pair of scissors, 
shove my head in front of the mirror,
lop off the lot and start again,
only to notice, with a shriek of giddy fright,
that my own well-mannered, regulation, proper hair
was slowly turning pink. 

 Society seems to be ensnared at present in a negative web of personalized judgements, in which assumptions are made based on appearance, and barely a day goes by without I hear somebody lamenting another's choice of clothing, to wear piercings, to have tattoos, criticisms (including those made face to face) shot through with genuine moral outrage.  People who will happily sit down and munch a butchered animal that has been tortured to death in a slaughterhouse, assume an air of ethical alarm at the sight of a slogan on a t-shirt, a choice to forego the accepted gender codes of  dress, or indeed a streak of differently coloured hair.  I do not believe schools should be encouraging this kind of prejudice, and am appalled that a teacher, let alone a headteacher, should consider it time well spent to police, on public money, the hairstyles of pupils, when their only priority should be in delivering the highest possible educational standards.   As for discouraging hairstyles which reduce employability, should the school not be leading by example? Not that long ago, people were limited in their "employability" by race or colour, yet it is inconceivable that a school should enable such injustice by paring its standards with those of discriminatory employers, and I fear that this particular head's bigotry is far more of a threat to the standards of their school than any hairstyle or appearance.  In any case, precisely which professions do the school think are barred to those who dye their hair? I have worked in retail, the NHS, Social Services, the homeless community, drug and alcohol rehabilitation, primary education, Tourist Information, libraries, as a gardener, a childminder, on market stalls, in voluntary capacities in Conservation and arts festival organizing, and never have I found my suitability for a role determined by my personal appearance. I find it impossible to believe that this headteacher would refuse to be treated by a doctor or nurse with blue hair, and in the case of professions such as Politics or Law, where a fancy hairstyle may - rightly or wrongly - be deemed unhelpful to a person's chances, those concerned are usually of a sufficient intelligence to come to this conclusion independently.  It can only be assumed that the school are referring, in their reference to the "many workplaces" where appearances are policed, to such solemn jobs as tax officers, and those who work in banks.  But why would any school set its sights so low as to encourage pupils to aspire to those soul-destroying, cold, completely useless areas of employment?


I believe it is the responsibility of a school, as well as to ensure high educational standards, to encourage positive attitudes among its pupils, and to dispel negative ones. I don't believe headteachers should be obsessing about hair colour.  The pupil in question had previously been bullied, and had found that her change of hair colour - on the advice of teachers at a singing club - had increased her confidence at school. Surely that should matter more than any concern for archaic prohibitions? The idea of long hair being "extreme" is utter rubbish, considering that a twelve year old's hair grows naturally long, therefore the school's only claim of extremity must rest entirely on the issue of its colour. If it is regarded as extreme for a pupil to wear streaks of blue hairspray, then presumably the Academy must also have outlawed any other evidence of the colour blue in the appearance of their pupils? This appears not to be the case, since the school uniform happens to be blue.

But, if we are to adhere to the rigid policies of this worthy institution, maybe a new reckoning should be in place - a stricter interpretation of the rules and regulations.  Why draw the line at the colour blue? If adding different colours to their appearance is so detrimental to the well-being of pupils, it makes sense to ban all colour from the school - no green, no red, no yellow, no pink - and insist that students simply turn up covered from head to toe in grey.  But why stop there?  In order to eliminate all possible offence arising from extreme appearances, the school should surely ban pupils altogether.  Shut down the school, send everybody home, and replace the teachers and pupils with custom-built, pre-programmed, black-and-white robots.  Though evidently, in the case of the headteacher, I fear that this may have already taken place.

For Heidi with Blue Hair, by Fleur Adcock

When you dyed your hair blue
(or, at least ultramarine
for the clipped sides, with a crest
of jet-black spikes on top)
you were sent home from school

because, as the headmistress put it,
although dyed hair was not
specifically forbidden, yours
was, apart from anything else,
not done in the school colours.

Tears in the kitchen, telephone-calls
to school from your freedom-loving father:
'She's not a punk in her behaviour;
it's just a style.' (You wiped your eyes,
also not in a school colour.)

'She discussed it with me first -
we checked the rules.' 'And anyway, Dad,
it cost twenty-five dollars.
Tell them it won't wash out -
not even if I wanted to try.

It would have been unfair to mention
your mother's death, but that
shimmered behind the arguments.
The school had nothing else against you;
the teachers twittered and gave in.

Next day your black friend had hers done
in grey, white and flaxen yellow -
the school colours precisely:
an act of solidarity, a witty
tease. The battle was already won

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Opting for Glaciers - Hove-to is a State of Mind, by Mark Carson

This is a lengthier version of a review I originally published in January 2016, for Sabotage Reviews.

 Mark Carson hooked me on the opening page of this twelve poem collection Hove-to is a State of Mind (Wayleave 2015), when he described ticks as handsome. Cherangani, the book's first poem – deservedly commended in the 2011 Troubadour competition – recounts the poet’s early morning experiences among Kenya’s Cherangani hills, taking in depictions of a kingfisher, roasted coffee, crusty rolls and marmalade – even the sun rising in the Kerio Valley. But it was the ticks that got me: The handsome black and yellow ticks which shouldered their way up the grass stems / to the very tip / shoving each other / for the most advantageous position, to be precise.

Having often written about – and at times been scorned for writing about – the beauties of insects and other unsung little creatures, how could I fail to be attracted to this unexpected and mindful description of an African arachnid? While I would not want to play down the damage that these diminutive blood-suckers can do – not least to other non-human animals – who could fail to be charmed by these grass-scaling Ambylomma?
I admit I had to do a bit of research before identifying the Latin genus of the tick, but diving into the dictionary or exploring Google was something I found myself doing on several occasions thanks to this unusual little book. Even the names of the poems were at times unknown to me. Cherangani, Flycamping by the Mari River, Splicing Cordage, Per Ardua ad Nauseam, my vocabulary has been substantially enlarged as a result of reading this collection. By the time I got to My Tattoos and Donegal I was not sure whether I should feel relieved or disappointed that I required no dictionary to understand their titles.
Mark Carson is adventurous in his wordplay within poems too. serving up portmanteaus and unexpected conjunctions aplenty:
Flysoup air thickens…
 (Flycamping by the Mari River)
and the seat squab was pushy
in all the wrong regions

Though he can at times be almost nihilistically straightforward, as in the title poem:
Mark time, this world goes nowhere.
It tilts, was there a time when it did not? Try to remember it
and fail. World
without end.

The ocean heaps in ugly lumps
and rips itsself to shreds,
muscles its meaningless bulk

 This is a sea, and world, of violence and almost banal brutality – a world without peace viewed from the eye of somebody who, after a career as an ocean engineer, has seen it from some of its most extreme angles. And yet I suspect somehow that the centre-piece of this collection, or the poem in which its themes are given fullest vent, is the nostalgic, anecdotal ‘Knucklebone’, four poems in – a recollection:
I once dined alongside a man with two fingers missing
who drank his share of the Chablis, the claret, the sweet dessert wine,
then deep draughts of port. There was a time, he said,
’twas a good time, the best of times …
He was not dining “with” the man – there is a distance between them which cannot as yet be bridged by any further familiarity than that of two people alongside but not with each other, and it is implied that this distance has at its heart the unique experiences of this partially de-fingered diner, the exotic and at times dangerous nature of which places him a world apart. This is because the man opted for glaciers, and this choice of work meant that he had
Spent the rest of his life in the world’s coldest places,
Antarctic Peninsula, lost fingers to frostbite, eyes burnt out from snow-glare.
The knucklebone choice, he said…

Knucklebone is the collection’s pivotal poem, presenting us with a vision of the youthful, wide-eyed author – quietly intoxicated by a tale of adventure – embarking on his own “knucklebone choice.” Now it is we, the readers, who play the part of listener, as Carson expands:
And my knucklebone choice is this caucus
of deep-water scientists, grizzled oceanographers…

I gave up a landlocked career for an ocean.
The blurb records that Carson’s poems are flavoured by his Irish roots, career on the ocean, and time spent in Africa, and this tapestry of international influence is highly evident in poems like A Message from the Southern Ocean:
We crouch on English shingle but
Off Cape Horn a storm so violent
speaks to us, a long low wave
sweeps north past capes and islands,

rock-strewn Falklands,
Tristan da Cunha, Saint Helena
Lanzarote, the Azores.
It is evident in the atmospheric Sea-ghosts, with wetsuit grazing coral and the reef’s cornice, in Mistaken, down its common as muck sidestreets of Dublin, and the gorgeous pairing of the two last poems – In County Clare and Donegal. In the former, whose beginning reads like a continuation or, well, a post-script to Seamus Heaney’s poem Postscript, a somehow mythic love dangles in the drama of the sinking sun as the figure of the girl will appear in the east, a farewell song which seems to echo with the pains of exodus and exile, as the poet wishes for a curragh and a crew of hard-armed lads / and a wet brown cow with a bucket of kelp and bladderwrack.

 The whole of Irish history is hinted at, but only hinted at – as the trails of geese are stretched to the furthermost island, past grievances and pains might be laid to rest, but not forgotten. It is an honest poem, as its author confides that murmuring speech / leaks secrets that I don’t wish to know across inlets. How refeshingly human, that this acutely painful poem has at its hub that most Universal need to sometimes turn away, or not to know, to not want to be burdened with what knowing might bring. The poet’s acknowledgment of this is effective, as an unflinching mirror of barbaric truths, and also for its strangely soothing vulnerability.
Carson does something else that I have never come across. We need now to revert to the opening poem, Cherangani – that of the crusty rolls and handsome ticks. The crux of the poem is not so much the poet’s uncanny observations (strange hybrid cornflakes) as a cross-cultural exchange between he and his family, and an approaching African woman and her children:
and now they were really quite close
shy but forward and we could see
the dull gleam of her neckrings
and the colour gash of her beads
and her little ones giggled
at the fair voluminous curls of our little ones.
But just as we think we are about to stumble upon a fairly normal and predictable re-hashing of a cliche – worldly but spiritually poor Westerners contrasted with tribespeople obviously impoverished but exuding purity and wisdom – a chance interaction offers unexpected results:
she couldn’t say what
she wanted, she couldn’t say it in English or Swahili
or anything
it wasn’t the food or drink she intimated but
yes it was the empty del Monte can
the top cut out she could see
she could tell it was empty
empty, a can for putting things in
for putting water in
and I took the light ballpen hammer I always carried
and skilfully hammered the edge smooth and dimpled
and fixed a piece of bullwire as a handle.
If there is a nod to inequalities, it is in the sense that what for Carson and his fellow Westerners is a discardable object is, for his fellow human being, purely as a victim of international circumstance, a thing of value which will make a direct difference to her life, and her children’s lives. The poem is a rebuke to waste, and champions a metaphorical recycling which casually transcends national and cultural gulfs and boundaries. In producing this practical and straightforward offering, Carson also shows us how, whatever the strange and fantastic journeys he may be about to take us on, regardless of the feats of oceanography, the fathoms and dolphins, the vertigo and crumbling horizons, it is the simple things which, to run the risk of coining a cliché myself, often make all the difference. As the poem ends, the two families prepare to go their separate ways:
And then the sun rose in the Kerio Valley
and warmed our backs kindly
as we set off homeward.

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Hopeful Eyes - Poetry of Goosanders


Like svelte, swish-coiffed clowns, mysteriously delving underwater only to bounce up again at unexpected junctures, goosanders dot the cold canal, throughout the year.  Browsing solo, spooling by in couples, or clubbing together in small groups, like ragamuffin jazz bands with their fancy hair and long, kazoo-like beaks, they are instantly recognizable - Mergus merganser, the males with heads of polished green, looking sleek as snooker table baize, females eagle-eyed with snow-white breast and sludgy plumage, and tufty hair the colour of gingerbread.  Known in the USA as mergansers, these colourful, slinky birds have been resident in Britain since 1871, with the population spreading from Scotland in the 1970's and establishing strongholds across Northern and coastal areas ever since, the birds number around twelve thousand on these shores, and are described by the Wildlife Trusts as "gregarious."  I see them at the wharf at Sowerby Bridge, ducking and diving among the geese and gulls; I notice them occasionally patroling the wider waters of the Calder.  I catch sight of them on quiet patches of the Rochdale Canal at Brighouse, gliding through the twilight like shy Kabucci dancers, feathers glistening in gems of sun-dyed rain.

 Mergansers, wrote American science and nature writer Ann Zwinger in her 1975 book Run, River Run, a description of her travels by canoe along the Green River, Colorado, are fish-eating ducks and swim underwater after food.  When disturbed, mallards almost spring straight up, while mergansers make a long taxi on the water. Mergansers are long bodied, somewhat loonlike in aspect; both red-breasted and American mergansers frequent the upper river.

The ducks are aided in their diet of fish (largely trout and salmon) by the serrated edges of their bills, hence their nickname "sawbill," and will also feed on insect larvae, crustaceans,   amphibians and worms, and occasionally small mammals.  Another non-de-plume is "the Fish Duck."  The birds have even been compared, in their manner and posture, and especially their clumsiness on rare excursions on land, to penguins.  However, their actual physical appearance is distinctively Mersangian, especially the female's.  Ann Zwinger again:

The females of both are so boldly marked with a crested rusty-brown head that it is some time before I can identify one as a female American merganser rather than a male of some species that does appear in the guide book.

Goosanders first swam their way into the choppy waters of English poetry in 1612, courtesy of Michael Drayton's Poly-Olbion - though the poet prefers the traditional "Gossander":

 The Gossander with them, my goodly Fennes doe show
His head as Ebon blacke, the rest as white as Snow

...but their shiny-plumed presence has been largely lacking from the pages of English poets ever since. Across the pond, however, they have bobbed their heads above the water, in the form of the American merganser, M. m. americanus, and first surfacing in the work of Objectivist poet Lorine Niedecker (1903-1970), who imbued the birds with a river-like flow of consciousness:

        on their heads

Thoughts on things
  fold unfold
        above the river beds

... while in John Hennessy's poem In The Drink, they are a stand-out moment for the mythical Charon, boatman of the dead, who notes the iridescent green, / brilliantined, of a merganser’s spiky coxcomb, to the thrill of his expired passengers. But the merganser's joviality is not to the taste of the monstrous ferryman:

He swam right by, chasing red herrings

and cackling so happily I had to pull
a feather from his cap

But when not haunting the Stygian rivers, goosanders live, breed and nest right across the Northern Hemisphere, from America to Siberia, where they are thought to number around 50,000.

Sometimes when I watch them vanish underwater, then see the curved pinks of their lethal beaks jutting out again as they push up through the ripples, they remind me of cormorants. At other times, they could be drakes, strolling along, unhurried, not so much oblivious to their fellow birdlife, as insouciant, integrated, meditative.  For all the predatory prowess of these snap-happy, beaky birds, goosanders are a calming influence, relaxing to watch, and largely unobtrusive to their neighbours.

For Maine-based poet Rachel Contreni Flynn, the goosander - or, of course, the merganser -  plunges through cold water, small heart soaring,/mind clenched behind hopeful, topaz eyes, and I recognize that vision of resilience from my own sightings of the birds - their determination, the certainty of those forward-pointing, arrow-like beaks, and the grace with which they traverse their watery worlds, one minute tucking themselves beneath the flowing folds of river, the next returning to the open air, sailing slowly by with dignity and style.

Monday, 16 October 2017

Little Creatures Launch at The Blue Teapot, with Anne Caldwell

 Last Thursday my collection Little Creatures: Poems of Insects, Small Mammals and Micro-organisms was launched at The Blue Teapot, Mytholmroyd, as part of the 2017 Mytholmroyd Arts Festival, with poetry from myself and special guest Anne Caldwell, among many other poets.


 Anne read from her two Cinnamon Press collections Talking to the Dead and Painting the Spiral Staircase, and kindly obliged my request to read three poems specifically linked to our "Little Creatures" theme - The North American Wood Frog, Chinese Fire-Bellied Newt, and of course Slug Language.

 I will be writing about those poems in more detail in the coming weeks, but for now here are the videos of Anne's readings:

I am grateful to Kirstie and Pete at The Blue Teapot, and to Annie Harrison and Annie Lawson from the Mytholmroyd Arts Festival for organizing the evening.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Wounded Wings - The Poetry of Herbert Read (1893 - 1968)

Crossley Heath, a selective grammar school in Halifax, is not far from where I live, and overlooks Saville Park and much of the east of the Calder Valley.  Formed in 1985, as an amalgamation of two previous schools, its main building, whose slatey blue dome stands out on the landscape almost as dominantly as the nearby Wainhouse Tower, once housed the Crossley and Porter Orphan Home and School, among whose pupils was the poet, novelist and art critic Herbert Read.  

Born in North Yorkshire in 1893, Read, whose farmer father was described as an austere, inflexible man, who died in a hunting accident when Herbert was ten years old, was an influential figure in the Arts, a unique thinker, and a gifted writer.    As a poet, Read's traversed an eclectic spectrum of myth, Imagism, and fantasy, and believed that "true poetry is never speech, but always song."

Phoenic, bird of terrible pride,
ruddy eye and iron beak!
Come, leave the incinerary nest;
spread your red wings

And soaring in the golden light
survey the world;
hover against the highest sky;
menace men with your strange phenomena.

From Mutations of the Phoenix (1923)

Upon leaving school, Read worked - unhappily - for three years as a clerk, at the Skyrac and Morley Savings Bank on Bond Street, Leeds, my own home city.  I can picture Read, stifled by bureaucracy and oppressed by the daily drudgery of clerking life, spending his lunch breaks wandering disconsolately down Briggate, perhaps loitering in the library, or haunting, as he was known to do, the Art Gallery, where he formed friendships with the painter Jacob Kramer, and the gallery's curator Frank Rutter, who introduced him to the great works of European art. 


Eventually, Read began studying at Leeds University, and attended the city's Art Club, an avant-garde society that promoted liberal values.  With his ideological views largely shaped by his readings of Neitzsche, George Sorel, William Morris, and Kropotkin, Read soon established himself as an interesting counter-cultural voice in English writing, forging life-long friendships with poets such as Katheen Raine, who was to comment on his poetic development in a 1969 essay for the American journal Sewanee Review:

“Imagism was ... the first of several movements with which Herbert Read was to associate himself. From the regionalism which inspired his first and enduring poetic loyalty to Wordsworth he moved... into the American expatriate ethos which ... introduced into English letters that internationalism which changed, perhaps permanently, the course of its native current.”

The poetry of Herbert Read seems to me to emphasize a typically declinist, bleak vision of humanity, but one devoid of stringent morality, often outlining nihilistic scenarios in which past and future are blended, as in his poem September Fires, where a Doomsday scenario is given a Medieval backdrop, and told in a vocabulary hinting at its author's farmland roots:

Haulms burn
in distant fields.
Reluctantly the plumes of smoke
rise against a haze
of hills blue and clear
but featureless.

Our feet
crush the crinkled beech-leaves.
There is no other life than ours.
God is good to us this September evening
to give us a sun
and a world burning its dross.

Read's narrator apparently foresees the only future for humanity in somewhat Biblical, or perhaps post-Apocalyptic, terms:

we can expect no other fruit
until another year
brigs fire and fealty and the earth in barren stillness.

This tendency is further emphasized in the short but profound poem The Falcon and the Dove, where the predatory prowess of the former bird is depicted in brute violence against the complacent peacefulness of the latter - a playing out of the battle between Reason and Beauty (We have caught Beauty in a wild foray / And now the falcon is hooded and comforted away) in the form of an avian contest, where This high-caught hooded Reason broods upon my wrist, / Fettered by so tenuous a leash of steel, and where the inevitable is illustrated starkly, and with omissive description:

Over the laggard dove, inclining to green boscage
Hovers this intentional doom - til the unsullied sky recieves
A precipitation of shed feathers
And the swifter fall of wounded wings.

 Read served in the First World War, being  awarded the Military Cross (1917) and the DSO (1918), but was deeply disturbed by the experience.  For a time an avowed pacifist, his attitude would alter at the rise of Nazi Germany.  Believing Democracy worth defending, Read nevertheless encountered the mounting reality of World War Two with a strong sense of foreboding, as brilliantly evinced in his poem To A Conscript of 1940, where:

A soldier passed me in the freshly fallen snow,
His footsteps muffled, his face unearthly grey:
And my heart gave a sudden leap
As I gazed on a ghost of five-and-twenty years ago.

The poem takes the form thenceforth of a counsel given by its writer to the conscript:

`I am one of those who went before you
Five-and-twenty years ago: one of the many who never returned,
Of the many who returned and yet were dead.

We went where you are going, into the rain and the mud:
We fought as you will fight
With death and darkness and despair;
We gave what you will give-our brains and our blood.

Read then delivers his assessment on the achievements of his generation, the end results of their wartime sacrifice, in the following blisteringly hopeless verdict:

We think we gave in vain. The world was not renewed.
There was hope in the homestead and anger in the streets,
But the old world was restored and we returned
To the dreary field and workshop, and the immemorial feud

Of rich and poor. Our victory was our defeat.
Power was retained where power had been misused
And youth was left to sweep away
The ashes that the fires had strewn beneath our feet.

Scorning "heroes" and the "hollow victory" of the Old World, Read concludes:

But you my brother and my ghost, if you can go
Knowing that there is no reward, no certain use
In all your sacrifice, then honour is reprieved.

To fight without hope is to fight with grace,
The self reconstructed, the false heart repaired

As for so many of his generation, Read's life - and world view - was so moulded and defined by his First World War experience, that it is unsurprising to learn he searched in disparate directions for a sense of political direction.  Throwing in his lot with the Anarchist movement, he shocked many by accepting a Knighthood in 1953, admired Churchill, and ultimately came to identify ideologically with the Jungian and Existentialist schools of European thought.  As an older man, he joined sit-ins against the Vietnam War, opposed the machinations of the State, and addressed UNESCO on the subject of the Arts in education.  Read was a singular figure in British academia and writing; he was also a husband and father, and a man drawn back to his Yorkshire heritage , living out his later years in Stonegrave, and being buried in the same church where he had worshipped as a boy.  His poetry, when touching on the political, still retains an essence of the personal and poignant, such as his reflections on the death of Peter Kropotkin:

She said he had died in peace
and the eternal intelligence on his brow
had seemed like a light
in the dark unlit hut
And I imagined
steel-rimmed glasses on a side table
and eyes forever hidden.

and Read's prose works, mainly advancing his theories on Art and education, were widely praised for their positive encouragement of the transformational power of the Arts in learning.  
In 1943, he would write every child, is said to be a potential neurotic capable of being saved from this prospect, if early, largely inborn, creative abilities were not repressed by conventional Education. Everyone is an artist of some kind whose special abilities, even if almost insignificant, must be encouraged as contributing to an infinite richness of collective life, and nowhere is Read's flight from repression, in highly sensitized and imaginative style, expressed more exotically than in his 1935 novel The Green Child.

Inspired by a 12th Century legend, the novel tells of an encounter between the exiled dictator of a South American country, and a supernatural child, in a richly folkloric prose, at once deliciously naive, and endowed with deep thematic complexity.

Olivero began to feel faint, and sank to the ground. There he rested until 
he became accustomed to the atmosphere, the Green 
Child sitting by his side. When he had recovered, she 
told him that this was surely her native country, from 
which she and her brother had strayed thirty years ago. 

When they had rested there about an hour, they got 
up and made for that end of the grotto which seemed 
to admit light. The grotto gradually contracted, and the 
entrance, when they reached it, was not above four feet 
high. They proceeded in a crouching attitude and soon 
came out, but not into what we should call the open; 
for though the space that they now gazed into was 
much larger than that of the grotto they had left, never- 
theless a roof arched wide over them, higher and of 
greater span than the interior of any cathedral. The 
light in this space was still dim, like the summer twi-
light in England, but of a distinct greenish tinge. Olivero 
now perceived that it was emitted from the walls of the 
vast cavern, and must be of a phosphorescent nature. The 
rock itself was of a crystalline formation. 
At its finest, the writing of Herbert Read transports the reader into new dimensions 
of perception and thought, in poetry and prose simultaneously fantastical, 
and grounded in an sometimes cynical, often compassionate, reality. 
For me, his most memorable poems also evoke a pre-Lapsarian sense of enduring beauty 
and a faith in the creative spirit:

 The seven sleepers ere they left
the light and colour of the earth
the seven sleepers they did cry
(banishing their final fears) :

"Beauty will not ever fade.
To our cavern we retire
doomed to sleep ten thousand years.
Roll the rock across the gap.

Read once wrote that the characteristic political attitude of today is not one of positive belief, but of despair.  He might have been writing about our own times.  But in his passionate pursuit of education through creativity, his promotion of progressive ideas, and his own genre-defying, lyrical and thought provoking works, he might also be remembered for his observation that The worth of a civilisation is not valued in terms of its material wealth or military power, but by the quality and achievements of its representative individuals - its philosophers, its poets and artists.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Harvest Moon

Wednesday's Full Moon - the so-called Harvest Moon - shines with a steely incandescence through the night and into the chill, autumnal dawn.  At midnight, it hangs above the hill like a huge, inflated golf ball, lathering the skies in a froth of icy white.  Outside my window, moonbeams slant like strobes, stroking the cool glass waters of the canal and brushing through the roofs and woodlands like a paintbrush dipped in snow.

My sleep is lit by dreams of moonlight.  In drifting, sepia-tinged scenes, I watch a thin moon slowly swing over meadows of frost, sail above an angry, blustered sea, reflect on the surface of the Calder in rippled rags of light, like an ice-coated cobweb.  I dream that somebody has unhooked the moon from its cimmerian firmament, hauled it through the window like a kite, and now we are carefully placing that same tired, shrunken moon between soft embroidered cloths, and sliding it into a drawer, tucked safely away. I awake to the soft flood of moonglow weeping through the window.

Shortly before 5, the skies thick-set in deeper darkness, the Valley is silent, still. Amid the bleak pitch-black the moon's silken sphere gleams like a ball of frozen champagne, radiating waxen rays of solid light.

By six, my train is sliding through the frost above Mytholmroyd and Hebden, rows of terraced houses lined up like the spines of bony dinosaurs, factories and football pitches spaced between expanses of leafless trees and farmland, old chimneys and black steeples tinted in the glimmer of the late lunar bloom.  As the dark night lifts, stars, like sprinkled dewdrops, twinkle above the streets and fields, and we speed on through the stony borderlands from Yorkshire into Lancashire.  The moon's glare dwindling, it hovers like a nervous ice cube, leaking, slowly melting.
Half past six. I step onto the platform, Rochdale laid out below the railings in a dim, grey cloak of autumn mist.  I can see the tram stop, its electric boards of amber neon listing destinations.  East Didsbury. Oldham Mumps.  Rochdale Town Centre. To the west, the silver zigzags of the railway lines twine into the distance like serpentine moonbeams.  Ahead, the dome of St John the Baptist Church is white against sooty sky, curved like a half moon, a green cross perched upon its zenith like a flag.

Soon, I am on board my tram, shuttling across the tracks, burrowing into the wooded fringe of Crompton Moor and towards my destination in the hills.  The lightening skies blush in a pinkish kiss of sunrise, its faint rays trickling over the hillside like the petals of red roses.  Passengers embark; cars begin to dot adjacent roads.  In the newly crimson sky, the last vestige of moonshine has been absorbed into the haze of milky cloud, wrapped around the heavens like a woolen scarf faintly smeared in blood.

Moon, Harvest Moon,
licking like a quartzy quill
the riverbanks 
and frost-robed hills,
olivine orb, 
glacial heart,
your silver tears illuminate
the lonely dark of dawn.


Thursday, 5 October 2017

Exploring the Brontes at Gildersome

Last night's Exploring the Brontes event for Morley Arts Festival at Gildersome Library and Meeting Hall was very successful, comprising as usual two halves - starting with a talk from myself featuring poetry by and about the Brontes, and culminating beautifully with The Cold Plunge, a monologue written and performed by Caroline Lamb.  

Despite the fact that I have worked solitary shifts at the adjoining library for more than two years, I have never performed in the spacious meeting hall, and yesterday's event was also Caroline's first time there - her very first visit to the village of Gildersome, in fact.

As we are still in the bicentenary year of Branwell Bronte, and as I screened my film on Branwell - A Humble Station? Branwell Bronte's Calder Valley Years - for the same festival very recently, I chose to frame my talk largely around him,contrasting for example some of Branwell's own poetry with that of his father Patrick Bronte:

My food is but spare, 
And humble my cot, 
Yet Jesus dwells there 
And blesses my lot.

Though thinly I'm clad, 
And tempests oft roll, 
He's raiment, and bread, 
And drink to my soul.


There is No God

I know there's none
Neither of spirit nor of stone.
No holy hill or idol shrine
Has ever held a power Divine.
Not heaven above,
Nor Hell below
Can minister to wail or woe .
I feel that when the body dies
Its memories and feelings die,
That they from Earth shall never rise.


but also the similarities, such as when both venerate the natural world:

Throughout the cloudless sky
Of light unsullied blue,
The larks their matins raised,
Whilst on my dizzy view,
Like dusky motes,
They winged their way
Till vanished in
The blaze of day.


 I'll turn my eyes unto the skies
and view the prospect there
where broad and bright the noonday light
sheds glory round the air
I see yon mighty dome of heaven
in deep cerulean blue
the white clouds oer its concave driven
til lost amid the blue
I'll turn my foreheadto the blast
and think upon the sea
the chainless boundless restless waste
which shines so gloriously.


I drew attention to the themes of social injustice present in some of Patrick's verse:

Where blinking embers scarcely glow, 
And rushlight only serves to show 
What well may move the deepest sigh, 
And force a tear from pity's eye. 
You there may see a meagre pair, 
Worn out with labour, grief and care.

...and how his son also touches upon such themes, addressing the concept of nurture vs nature, and reflecting on the possible origins of tyranny, in a remarkably modern sounding poem:

Increase of days increases misery
and misery brings selfishness, which sears
the heart's first feelings: mid the battle's roar
in death's dread grasp, the soldier's eyes are blind
to comrades dying, and he whose hopes are o'er
tuns coldest from the sufferings of mankind;
a bleeding heart oft delights in gore;
a tortured heart oft makes a tyrant mind.

On the same subject of suffering, and wanting to illustrate the hypocrisies of moralistic power, I read from Jane Eyre:

During January, February, and part of March, the deep snows, and, after their melting, the almost impassable roads, prevented our stirring beyond the garden walls, except to go to church; but within these limits we had to pass an hour every day in the open air.  Our clothing was insufficient to protect us from the severe cold: we had no boots, the snow got into our shoes and melted there: our ungloved hands became numbed and covered with chilblains, as were our feet: I remember well the distracting irritation I endured from this cause every evening, when my feet inflamed; and the torture of thrusting the swelled, raw, and stiff toes into my shoes in the morning.  Then the scanty supply of food was distressing: with the keen appetites of growing children, we had scarcely sufficient to keep alive a delicate invalid.  From this deficiency of nourishment resulted an abuse, which pressed hardly on the younger pupils: whenever the famished great girls had an opportunity, they would coax or menace the little ones out of their portion.  Many a time I have shared between two claimants the precious morsel of brown bread distributed at tea-time; and after relinquishing to a third half the contents of my mug of coffee, I have swallowed the remainder with an accompaniment of secret tears, forced from me by the exigency of hunger.

The above being followed by an excerpt featuring the school's benefactor, the bullying Mr Brocklehurst, and from which I moved from depictions of cruelty to children, to cruelty to animals, as depicted in Anne Bronte's novel Agnes Grey, which like Jane Eyre enjoys this December its 170th anniversary of publication - in which the eponymous Anne, in her capacity as governess, encounters one of her spoilt young charges preparing to set traps for birds.

  I observed, on the grass about his garden, certain apparatus of sticks and corn, and asked what they were.

‘Traps for birds.’

‘Why do you catch them?’

‘Papa says they do harm.’

‘And what do you do with them when you catch them?’

‘Different things.  Sometimes I give them to the cat; sometimes I cut them in pieces with my penknife; but the next, I mean to roast alive.’

‘And why do you mean to do such a horrible thing?’

‘For two reasons: first, to see how long it will live—and then, to see what it will taste like.’

‘But don’t you know it is extremely wicked to do such things?  Remember, the birds can feel as well as you; and think, how would you like it yourself?’

‘Oh, that’s nothing!  I’m not a bird, and I can’t feel what I do to them.’

‘But you will have to feel it some time, Tom: you have heard where wicked people go to when they die; and if you don’t leave off torturing innocent birds, remember, you will have to go there, and suffer just what you have made them suffer.’

‘Oh, pooh!  I shan’t.  Papa knows how I treat them, and he never blames me for it: he says it is just what he used to do when he was a boy.  Last summer, he gave me a nest full of young sparrows, and he saw me pulling off their legs and wings, and heads, and never said anything; except that they were nasty things, and I must not let them soil my trousers: and Uncle Robson was there too, and he laughed, and said I was a fine boy.’

‘But what would your mamma say?’

‘Oh, she doesn’t care! she says it’s a pity to kill the pretty singing birds, but the naughty sparrows, and mice, and rats, I may do what I like with.  So now, Miss Grey, you see it is not wicked.’

‘I still think it is, Tom; and perhaps your papa and mamma would think so too, if they thought much about it.  However,’ I internally added, ‘they may say what they please, but I am determined you shall do nothing of the kind, as long as I have power to prevent it.

Progressing - or digressing - from the cold-blooded violence of these scenes, to the wilder mayhem of Wuthering Heights, I quoted from a passage in which the drunken Hindley Earnshaw is pitted against the novel's narrator, the toughened housekeeper Nelly Dean, 

He entered, vociferating oaths dreadful to hear; and caught me in the act of stowing his son away in the kitchen cupboard.  Hareton was impressed with a wholesome terror of encountering either his wild beast’s fondness or his madman’s rage; for in one he ran a chance of being squeezed and kissed to death, and in the other of being flung into the fire, or dashed against the wall; and the poor thing remained perfectly quiet wherever I chose to put him.
‘There, I’ve found it out at last!’ cried Hindley, pulling me back by the skin of my neck, like a dog.  ‘By heaven and hell, you’ve sworn between you to murder that child!  I know how it is, now, that he is always out of my way.  But, with the help of Satan, I shall make you swallow the carving-knife, Nelly!  You needn’t laugh; for I’ve just crammed Kenneth, head-downmost, in the Black-horse marsh; and two is the same as one—and I want to kill some of you: I shall have no rest till I do!’
‘But I don’t like the carving-knife, Mr. Hindley,’ I answered; ‘it has been cutting red herrings.  I’d rather be shot, if you please.’
‘You’d rather be damned!’ he said; ‘and so you shall.  No law in England can hinder a man from keeping his house decent, and mine’s abominable!  Open your mouth.’  He held the knife in his hand, and pushed its point between my teeth: but, for my part, I was never much afraid of his vagaries.  I spat out, and affirmed it tasted detestably—I would not take it on any account.
‘Oh!’ said he, releasing me, ‘I see that hideous little villain is not Hareton: I beg your pardon, Nell.  If it be, he deserves flaying alive for not running to welcome me, and for screaming as if I were a goblin.  Unnatural cub, come hither!  I’ll teach thee to impose on a good-hearted, deluded father.  Now, don’t you think the lad would be handsomer cropped?  It makes a dog fiercer, and I love something fierce—get me a scissors—something fierce and trim!  Besides, it’s infernal affectation—devilish conceit it is, to cherish our ears—we’re asses enough without them.  Hush, child, hush!  Well then, it is my darling! wisht, dry thy eyes—there’s a joy; kiss me.  What! it won’t?  Kiss me, Hareton!  Damn thee, kiss me!  By God, as if I would rear such a monster!  As sure as I’m living, I’ll break the brat’s neck.’

...and from here managed to navigate back to the more spiritual side of Emily's writing, including readings of some of her more famous poems, and concluding with the following lines, which I often associate with the moorland wanderings and sad death of her brother Branwell:

It was night and on the mountains
Fathoms deep the snow drifts lay
Streams and waterfalls and fountains
Down in darkness stole away

Long ago the hopeless peasant
Left all his sheep buried there
Sheep that through the summer pleasant
He had watched with fondest care

Now no more a cheerful ranger
Following pathways known of yore
Sad he stood a wildered stranger
On his own unbounded moor.

The pinnacle of the event was Caroline's The Cold Plunge, a piece originally written for its debut performance at last year's Morley Arts Festival, and which last night was given its fourth rendition to a warm and appreciative crowd. 

Caroline, whose theatre company Dangerous to Know produced her play about Branwell - The Dissolution of Percy  - two years ago, appears in my film, and reads her poem Rest and Regret, which was written in response to one of Branwell's own poems, in which he apparently embraces the concept of an early death.  The poem is written in a 19th Century style, and the following excerpt is taken from its opening, in which the sorrowful scene is atmospherically set:

Do those dark walls embrace you as you dreamed?
Is death, in truth, the haven it once seemed?
No more to struggle, swaddled safe and sound
In real rest, trading atoms with the ground.

Another thought but one of just reward
Were one thy learned mind could ill-afford.
And yet in latter days, resigned to wrack,
Thy sickly soul wrenched thine ambitions back.

Caroline's monologue is delivered from the viewpoint of Mary Taylor, Bronte family friend and pen-pal, living at the time of the piece in New Zealand, where she emigrated with her cousin Ellen to run a draper's shop, and is told via the medium of letters sent to Mary by Charlotte Bronte in the 1840's.

The Cold Plunge explores the struggles for identity and independence which underpin many of the themes of Bronte novels, and the lives of the Bronte sisters themselves, and has proved very popular with audiences, who have responded positively to its messages of hope and resilience. Caroline's performance has been widely praised, and her depiction of Mary is full of compassion, humour and insight, and the response last night was wholly celebratory. In fact, we were treated to an Exploring the Brontes first - so blown away was one woman in the audience by Caroline's talents, that following the show, she asked for her autograph.

It was a privilege to share the presentation of this event with Caroline, and an honour introduce The Cold Plunge.  You can see an excerpt from the opening segment of her performance here and you join us for our next ETB performances at:

The Assembly Rooms, Brighouse, 10th October
Sowerby Bridge Library, December (date tbc)