Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Travelling Light: Remembering Leonard Cohen

Shortly after eight on a raw November morning, I arrive in the West Yorkshire town of Morley, trudge the frost-veiled park, along a roadside quilted in the crinkled ochre of fallen leaves, joined as usual by my friend Mario, a Romanian barber who commutes on the same train and who cuts hair, sometimes mine, in a salon behind my workplace. He shows me photos of his family on his mobile.  We laugh about our mutual need for hot strong coffee on this bone-chillingly cold autumnal morning, and when we part at the cross-roads, it is to the welcoming confines of the Oxford Coffee Club that I am bound. 
The walls are brightened by art, including one painting of multi-coloured splodges entitled "Hebden Bridge."  Hebden being not far from where I live, it is easy to feel quite at home.  The owner, also called Simon, greets me with his usual friendliness.  As I sit awaiting my coffee, we banter about football - he relaying facts and figures, me pretending to comprehend, when in reality, my footballing knowledge extends little further than who won and who lost.  Naturally, this does not matter. The point of friendly conversation of this kind is never to initiate complex discussion or debate - only to jog each other along, to have a laugh, to each play our part in helping the other to commence this Friday morning as harmlessly as possible.  After a few mouthfuls of piping coffee, I am ready for the day, feeling that whatever may be happening globally, the word is still turning and I am okay, wishing only as I glance up at the clock that a few extra minutes might remain before I need to head back out into the cold.  Focused on his mobile, a frowning Simon has gone unusually quiet, and the scrolling motion of his thumb makes clear that he is logged into Twitter or some other website of its kind.  He looks up and asks, almost apologetically, "Were you a fan of Leonard Cohen?"

It is the past tense of his question that hits me, and my expression must convey the answer, because his in response conveys sympathy.  And so another guest has joined the Sergeant Pepper pageant of Absent Friends which has swelled beyond the realms of decency throughout 2016, and this one is too much to take.  The fact that he has died at the not-young age of 82 is of course irrelevant to the instinctive pangs of grief which accompany the news of any loss.  For Cohen to die at this bitter end of a difficult and rather tragic year, seems the final straw.   Simon apologizes for being the bearer of bad news, and I feel like a part of me has also died, as we sit there in the café with the traffic pootling past the window and my coffee slowly going cold.

How does one answer such a question as "Were you a fan of Leonard Cohen?" How to condense the decades of esteem, respect, affection, love, with a simple affirmation?  Shall I plunge into the balm of treasured memories, wax lyrical and pour out tributes to the magic of the lyrics, the understated beauty of the voice, the majestic looks and impossible-to-fake sophistication?  Should I talk of my ecstasy at seeing him in concert?  Ought I to try and appear clever by speaking of his novels? 
Perhaps I should talk about my introduction to the work of Leonard Cohen - a slow, staggered, gradual path that began in the days before youtube, when you simply had to save up and buy one or two records every few months, ask for them for Christmas or strike on them in charity shops.

I first read about Leonard Cohen in 1994, in a magazine interview with his ex-partner Rebecca de Mornay.  The photograph of Cohen, immaculate in an almost-silver suit, immediately entranced me, although it was a full three years before I got round to listening to his music.  What can I say?  We were more patient in those days.  My eventual discovery of a worn and dusty Songs of Leonard Cohen LP, upstairs in a junk shop overflowing with oak furniture and kitchen utensils, was like stumbling on a diamond in the desert, only far more valuable.

It has often seemed to me that my fascination with Cohen lies fundamentally in his enigmatic persona, and the way in which everything about him, despite his Jewishness, has always seemed far removed from anything I have experienced, seen or known.  As a nervous and naïve teenager, I would gaze at his world-weary image, like that of a veteran of Decadence, and wonder precisely what kind of a life such a person must have had.  I would look into his eyes on the cover of Death of a Lady's Man and know he embodied a Byronic heroism to which I could never aspire; I would read of his periodic retreats from the blitz and glitz of cocaine-coloured hedonism to the sanctuary of Greek islands, or mountain monasticism above Los Angeles, and know that all of these things were emblematic of a lifestyle utterly different to my own. Of course, like all great songwriters, Cohen does sometimes make the listener feel that he is singing about them. When, in the summer between art college and University, I listened to him retell how Like a bird on a wire / Like a drunk, in a midnight choir / I have tried, in my way, to be free, I felt - as millions of others have - that he was simultaneously soliloquizing my own inner yearnings and articulating an exoticism far beyond my reach.  And I lean from my window sill in this old hotel I chose, crooned Cohen in 1968,
Yes one hand on my suicide, one hand on the rose.  He is a poet whose visions defy classification, whose words gleam a delicate hairsbreadth between tragedy and beauty.

Maybe I should answer this impossible but wonderfully inviting question with a nod to the nights of that long summer spent in the purple attic room of an artist friend called Anna, where anything from two or three to a dozen of us would converge on Indian rugs amid a swirling haze of tobacco, dope and incense, and where the older, rumbling voice of the middle-aged Cohen - live in concert - would tumble from the speakers like that of a stoned Barry White.   Or to another group of friends with whom I sat, drowsy in the bliss of wine, at the close of summer, deep in the green lilac park, Cohen's melodies blooming in my mind, all of us - English, Italian, Israeli, German - watching a dreamy August twilight slowly fade into the ebony of night, somehow knowing that these days of innocence would never come again.  The end of the Twentieth Century - what a time to be almost young.

Perhaps, as I reflect on the bittersweet, and sometimes sweetly bitter, influence of Leonard Cohen's presence in my life, I should dwell on the drizzled days of the fading Twentieth Century, when, struggling with the pressures of University life, I would traipse the terraced streets of Huddersfield in the autumn of 1999, going to the station to meet every train and repairing to a room which could almost have been Cohen's in Tonight Will Be Fine, were it not for the fact that not even a solitary prayer adorned my cell-like walls, listening to his sorrowful yet soul-warming psalms of Calvary and Cadillacs, gypsy thieves and thin green candles, Eskimos, saints and jealousy.

I was wandering wet and depressed through Huddersfield - a town I now love but which in 1999 I had only just met and had yet to get to know - and, taking shelter from a particularly torrential downpour, locked myself on a library shelf and was happy to hibernate within its sanctuary of books.  The town's 1930's library became my refuge from the noisy vulgarity of University, where I devoured books of almost every kind: taking myself there when I should have been at lectures, my illicit afternoon binge-reading was a fine education.  The music section overflowed with treasures, and I well remember returning for a visit home in Leeds with a clutch of Leonard Cohen albums, only to be discouraged from listening to them by my father.  Having through the years acknowledged my enthusiasm with detached lukewarmth, he had by now grown wary.  Fearing the music would push me deeper into a depression whose persistence and heaviness was becoming cause for considerable concern, my father urged me, almost pleaded with me, virtually forbade me, from indulging this obsession.  "He's extremely dark - he sings about graves and death," my father would insist.  "Its the last thing you need."  And yet it would be my father, nearly fifteen years later and after several failed attempts at embracing Cohen's music, who would present me with a ticket to see the great man live - on a warm September night in 2013.

In a crumpled suit, tipping his hat and beaming a boyish smile, the 79-year old had looked somehow fragile, and vulnerable, and a feeling of total love welled in me as he launched into the opening song: Dance Me To The End of Love.  The lyrics - Raise a tent of shelter now, though every thread is torn - could recall a love song from the time of the Exodus, and are actually inspired - for want of a better word - by the Holocaust.   When Cohen sings, Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin, his lines describe a real historical scenario -  musicians forced to play in the shadows of the crematoria: "(they were) pressed into performance while this horror was going on, those  people whose fate was this horror also. (The music became) the consummation of life, the end of this existence and of the passionate element in that consummation.

It is at this point, having seen how Cohen's lyrics have at times been drawn from Jewish history, that I should like to turn to the confluence of his lyrics with the heritage of Jewish poetry - the most obvious example being the 1974 song Who By Fire.

And who by fire, who by water,
Who in the sunshine, who in the night time,
Who by high ordeal, who by common trial,
Who in your merry merry month of may,
Who by very slow decay,
And who shall I say is calling?

Who By Fire is an adaptation of the 8th Century Unataneh Tokef prayer, recited in Ashkenazi synagogues at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and in an essay for Mosaic magazine, Hebden Bridge-based poet Atar Hadari ascribes to it a touch of English Silver Age poetry with the allusion to Thomas Dekker’s “merry month of May,” and, at least when Cohen sings it, I find that words like “barbiturate” and “something blunt” and oppositions like “greed” and “hunger” have a biblical force to them. And it does also capture a sense of him as a boy in a synagogue in Montreal, listening to that prayer being recited.  That early autumn night, the songwriter stood downstage-left, hands cupped around the microphone in a penitent, imploring way, as this thousand-year-old song crept, then swept, upon us, it felt as though he were asking the questions for the very first time - yet asking on behalf of every generation past and future, posing the unanswerable to the unfathomable.

If Leonard Cohen's songwriting has been influenced by the poetry of antiquity, his actual poetry has also often drawn from historical example, and from the Classical and Biblical world.  As if to suggest this thematic territory, his debut publication is entitled Let Us Compare Mythologies, and begins with The Song of the Hellenist:

O Cities of the Decapolis across the Jordan,
you are too great; our young men love you,
and men in high places have caused gymnasiums
to be built in Jerusalem.
         I tell you, my people, the statues are too tall.
        Beside them we are small and ugly,
        blemishes on the pedestal.

The story of my love affair with the work of Leonard Cohen could well revolve as much around his poetry - and this chapter of my story begins in the early days of 2003 when I returned North from the oblivion of London - where I would walk the moonlit, tangled tapestries of East End streets and spend my evenings among the drunk and dispossessed, returning to my frostbitten flat to listen to his records while I overlooked the overcrowded sink estates and rotting blocks of flats.  Back in Yorkshire, picking up the pieces of my life, I dragged myself one doomy dark-skied evening up the sleety cobbles of a Bradford street, stumbling into the inviting clutter of a charity shop, crammed with cardboard boxes.  I picked my way through the hundreds of books, and among them found the slim back and white volume which lies open before me as I write: Leonard Cohen: Poems 1956 - 1968.  Over the years I would pore through it, consult it, read it backwards, reveling in the reverence, irreverence, the sex and violence, the Zepellins and insect suicides, horses' manes and waterfalls.  Sometimes I understood what I was reading, often not - and like some labyrinthine kaleidoscope of contrasted but interconnected images, the whole body of Cohen's poetry, with its provocative blend of the poignant and the picaresque, its cast of eccentric characters from Galileo to Nijinsky, has woven its self in and out of focus in my life, bewildering and delighting with equal emotional power.

The poems seem to strike surrealist poses which mask avalanches of anger or of pain:

The Flowers that I left in the ground,
that I did not gather for you,
today I bring them all back,
to let them grow forever,
not in poems or marble,
but where they fell and rotted.

 Yet elsewhere:

The reason I write
is to make something 
as beautiful as you are. 

The poetry of Leonard Cohen trembles with love, but it is so often a love built on fragility and insecurity:

May soft birds
soft as a story to her eyes
protect her face
from my enemies
and vicious birds
whose sharp wings
were forged in metal oceans
guard her room
from my assassins 

You do not have to love me
just because
you are all the women
I have ever wanted
I was born to follow you
every night
while I am still
the many men who love you
 ("You Do Not Have to Love Me")

And in poems like Saint Catherine Street, Poem and Warning, the nightmare visions of lost love form a fittingly grim backdrop for Cohen's wry brand of Jewish humour.  In Ballad (1956), an atmosphere of film-noirish Hollywood is conjured up in the grotesque parody of a murder investigation - the victim being the narrator's own beloved:

They promised me an early conviction.
We will eavesdrop on the adolescents
examining pocket-book covers in drugstores.
We will note the broadest smiles at torture scenes in movie houses.
We will watch the old men in Dominion Square follow with their eyes
the secretaries from the Sun Life at five-thirty...

Love its self is often underpinned by uncertainty and violence - in The Genius, we find the poet traversing every known Jewish stereotype in his bid to satisfy; in The Lovers, the eponymous couple consummate their relations in a death-camp.  And yet, as poet rather than politician, Cohen is able to tell us - more reassuringly than any ideologue: Whatever cities are brought down, I will always bring you poems.  And indeed he did.  The poems of Leonard Cohen, although coloured greatly by blood and war, are also at times deeply beautiful, nowhere more so than when he writes about women:

Like ages of weightless snow
on tiny oceans filled with light
her eyelids enclose deeply
a shade tree of birthday candles
one for every morning
until the now of sleeping 

Titles such as Disguises depict the world-as-stage predicament of the wandering bard ("wandering Jew"?) while poems with names like My Teacher is Dying, One of the Nights I Didn't Kill Myself ,The Only Tourist in Havana Turns His Thoughts Homeward and even All There Is To Know About Adolph Eichmann certainly do nothing to negate the "depressing" reputation of "The Godfather of Gloom", but also emphasize the tirelessly exploratory life which gave rise to these unusual, deeply moving works.  His is a poetry borne of uncertainties and questions of identity and purpose, of self-reflection steeped in history:

Claim me, blood, if you have a story
to tell with my Jewish face,
you are strong and holy still, only
speak, like a Zohar, of a carved-out place
into which I must pour myself like wine

It is a poetry which defies, at times even ridicules, the political:

Each man has a way
to betray 
the revolution.
This is mine 

And it is at times deliciously self-deprecating: in a recent poem, Cohen actually delivers a raft of quasi-heretical denials reminiscent of Gilbert and Sullivan's Am I Alone, and Unobserved?

I Have Not Lingered In European Monasteries
and discovered among the tall grasses tombs of knights
who fell as beautifully as their ballads tell;
I have not parted the grasses
or purposefully left them thatched.

I have not held my breath
so that I might hear the breathing of God
or tamed my heartbeat with an exercise,
or starved for visions.
Although I have watched him often
I have not become the heron,
leaving my body on the shore,
and I have not become the luminous trout,
leaving my body in the air.

I have not worshipped wounds and relics,
or combs of iron,
or bodies wrapped and burnt in scrolls.

I have not been unhappy for ten thousands years.
During the day I laugh and during the night I sleep.


It is a poetry which travels from Montreal to New York, Jerusalem to Ancient Greece, from the hordes of Mongolia to Miami Beach, reflecting the same internationalism as his music which would, long before the genre of "World Music" had been invented by journalists and HMV, bring together performers (and fans) from every corner of the globe, and continues to do so.  For all of its supposed cult value, there is something for everyone among the multi-layered totality of Leonard Cohen's work: when, in 2009, his arguably most famous song Hallelujah was covered on The X-Factor by Alexandra Burke, I refused then and refuse now to be cowed by the choruses of sanctimonious cynics who despaired at this "commercialization". I feel that she spectacularly captured its Gospel-inspired essence more beautifully than any of the Cohen copyists of the preceding twenty years.

Cohen's own latest offerings have again encompassed diverse styes and settings, and many have suggested that his final album, You Want it Darker was a conscious valediction.  I believe it is too early to make an assessment of this kind, and my personal interpretations of so much of Leonard's output have often taken years to assume concretion.  What seems to be indisputable, though, is the impact of our current global turbulence on the themes and lyrics.  From the telling title, to the faux nonchalance of Traveling Light, the sense of a pared-down sparsity is both bleak and elegaic:

I'm traveling light
Its au revoir
My once so bright
My fallen star.

While Leaving The Table may evince a sort of Learian liberation from the rigors of the system, the overwhelming sense is one of  honest realism. Some of the lyrics make painful listening, rueful laments which might be echoed by many of us who have this year made decisions - personal, professional, political - we severely regret:

It seemed the better way
When first I heard him speak 
But now its much too late
To turn the other cheek

Sounded like the truth
Seemed the better way 
Sounded like the truth 
But its not the truth today 

The late writing of Leonard Cohen may embody an enormity of worldly disorder and despair, as amid bloody hills and devils, They whisper still, the Ancient stones / The blunted mountains weep, but there is, in language framed uncannily in the terms of both current international politics and Biblical Universality, a definite and unshakeable search for unity: 

I wish there was a treaty we could sign
Its over now, the water and the wine

I wish there was a treaty
Between your love and mine. 

During times of upheaval, the poetry, prose and music of Leonard Cohen have been constants in my life,  as I know they have for millions of others.  So rich and multi-faceted is his galaxy of words that my love of his work will only increase as every song or poem reveals further wonder and beauty on each revisiting. 

When I saw Leonard Cohen in 2013, the performance was theatrical and joyful: a band comprised of musicians and instruments from all over the world, The Webb Sisters backing him, and a glow of life-affirming vitality beaming from the stage.  Leaving the venue, as I threaded through the Saturday night streets of Leeds, I passed battalions of men and women amid their nights on the town, waving bottles in the air or yelling at each other from club doorways, noticing just how angry, aggressive and unhappy almost everybody seemed.  What a contrast to the buoyant euphoria I had left behind, but on whose wave I would ride all the journey home.  In these dark times of division and despair, it is to Cohen I so often turn, not to affirm my belief in any ideology or dogma, but to escape the chaos of a world I sometimes fear I no longer recognize.  It is to his words and familiar voice I have so often listened "through the nights of wild despair," and I know that as the terrain of an uncertain future unfolds, he will continue to be with me, like a friend, as I wait for the light to get in.

So yes is my answer, naturally. Yes I was - and forever shall be - a fan of Leonard Cohen. 

Monday, 31 October 2016

Tonight's poetry launch at The Blue Teapot: The Calder Valley Codex, by Steve Nash

Join us at The Blue Teapot, Mytholmroyd, for poetry by Steve Nash, whose new collection The Calder Valley Codex I am proud to be publishing.  Sadly Helen Mort cannot appear as advertised, but we have a stellar line up comprising Steve, Genevieve Walsh (also hosting) and Alan Wrigley - with a few poems from me as well, including from the Codex. With beautiful art work by York-based artist Nicole Sky, The Calder Valley Codex is a kaleidoscope of myth and folklore, crafted into poetry by the expert hand of 2014 Saboteur Award Winner for Best Spoken Word Performer, Steve Nash.7-9PM, The Blue Teapot, Mytholmroyd, HX7 5LL.

Saturday, 1 October 2016

In Defence of Libraries

The following is the full version of my letter published in the Morley Observer, in reply to a correspondent who wrote in support of threatened library closures.  He claimed that we should waste no time trying to keep libraries open since "we have the internet now," and that if we relied on libraries our society will fall behind.  "I have not set foot in a library for over twenty years," he revealed, and explained that whenever he wants to read a book he simply buys it on Amazon.  I am pleased to say that the paper then published a whole host of letters arguing the opposing case - demonstrating the strong public feeling in defence of libraries.


How disappointing to read Mr Nick Keer's letter (21/09/16) calling for library closures because he has not used a library in over twenty years and can buy books on Amazon. For me, this letter typifies the reductive, self-centred cynicism that has come to define our ignorant, click-bait age where "Get me what I want now!" and "If I don't like it, ban it," are the prevailing mentalities. I take issue with Mr Keer's argument, and would like to explain to him precisely why.

First of all, Mr Keer, if you have not been inside a library for two decades (which you proclaim as if it were something to be proud of), how can you have any idea of the service you are missing, and of which you would happily deprive countless others?  Moreover, just because you have chosen to avoid them, why should others be robbed of the chance of visiting? I have not made it to Blackpool for over twenty years, do you suggest we cordon that off as well?
To implement your wish of closure, existing libraries would have to be emptied, to the tune of hundreds of millions of pounds' worth of waste - and assuming your wish to see them closed extends to every library in the world (and your letter gives no suggestion it does not) would be nothing short of an international Futurist Revolution as reckless as the destruction of all schools. Your suggestion that, as you can find all you need on Amazon, we should dispense with a millennia-old practice of storing books in libraries, beggars belief, but is typical of the black-and-white, either-or, binary thinking increasingly taking hold of our society. All too often - in culture, in politics, in major decisions and in everyday life - we are expected or forced to choose between two stark alternatives, when so often the key to making good choices, and to embracing the multiplicity of a full and diverse world, is knowing when and how to bring together the positive aspects of different things, not to throw all our eggs in one basket and consign the rest to oblivion. Why force a choice between the internet and libraries?  Why not use both?  And what about those who cannot afford to buy books?  As the American writer and environmentalist Anne Herbert memorably puts it, "Libraries will get you through times with no money better than money will get you through times with no libraries."  What's more, the public library system actually offers far more flexibility and choice than online buying - many's the time I have been unable to find rare or out-of-print books online - and when I have they have often been unaffordable - only to discover that they can be ordered (often free of charge) at the library. 

 Something else you will not find on Amazon is the friendly advice of knowledgeable staff - I would far rather a recommendation or a helping hand with research from a dedicated, experienced library staff member than a whole stack of badly written, often biased Amazon "reviews". 

While we are on the subject of staff, I might point out that libraries remain a means of employment for many people - and places where innumerable others can and do go for help in gaining work, via the many jobseekers' advice and IT courses and sessions offered, but considering your "Its no use to me so scrap it" attitude I expect this will cut little ice.

There are a great many benefits to be found from library use, which one cannot gain on Amazon.  When, Mr Keer, was the last time you saw an exhibition by local artists on Amazon?  When was the last time Amazon provided space for up-and-coming writers to talk about, discuss, and even sell their work in front of live audiences?  Did you ever go to a coffee morning to raise funds for cancer charities or elderly care "on Amazon"?  Libraries provide all of these things - and a whole lot more. I have attended, facilitated and hosted dozens of literary and performance based events, children's activities, talks and readings - not on Amazon, but in the welcoming environment of public libraries. I have sat and listened to expert speakers from the worlds of science, history and art, watched films and visual presentations, seen live drama, listened to live music, attended craft workshops, eaten new kinds of food and met fascinating people whose paths would never have crossed mine if not for libraries, as well as discovering many writers and having the honour seeing my own work appear on library shelves.

Many famous authors (including those whose books you buy on Amazon) have found libraries to be sources of inspiration - some would never have become writers at all if they had not used libraries as children. 

As readers, we are likely to encounter a wider range of books than if we depended purely on our own purchasing preferences.  With a dazzlingly wide range of free borrowing (or even the chance to just leaf through for a few minutes here and there), I have found myself delving into ideas, philosophies and visions totally contrary to my own - sometimes reaffirming my initial viewpoint and simply providing interesting insights into ways of life or schools of thought, at other times enabling me to change or adapt my thinking in enlightened ways, or just giving me a bit of a laugh or a smile at otherwise difficult times.  What price can be put on this?  

Libraries bring disparate people together.  They provide locations for community festival events, are important centres for regular children's activities (what could be more important than assisting the development and imaginations of the next generation?), trusted locations for community groups and meetings of senior citizens, and play a vital role in helping the vulnerable - I have worked in Mental Health and Social care, and have personally witnessed the ways in which some of the most marginalized people have gained in confidence, language and communication skills, thanks to regular library visits.  I have seen how youngsters have enjoyed craft groups, lego clubs, singing sessions and the chance to explore a multitude of books transporting them from everyday reality. I have known children from disturbed or underprivileged backgrounds learn new skills and find unexpected fun and creativity, adults with learning disabilities learn to read and write, the blind and visually impaired make use of books on cd, braille and specially-tailored IT facilities. 

Libraries are fun, emancipating places, and are also of great value educationally.  School classes use libraries, and in this way introduce many youngsters to the service who would, due to unstable or neglectful upbringings, never venture within if reliant only on their parents.

 I have met people studying for degrees for whom the library was invaluable - living in crowded shared accommodation or dysfunctional families, it was the only place they could find sufficient peace and quiet to sit and study. To recount the experience of the great American author Ray Bradbury: "When I graduated from high school, it was during the Depression and we had no money. I couldn't go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for 10 years." 
I have seen charities and local businesses boost their chances of success thanks to library advertising and promotion, collaborative projects with local schools, academics making use of priceless local history materials (audiovisual resources, archive publications, 500 year old documents and maps) and more.  I have seen the absolute wealth of archived documents such as Hansard (every volume) , Government White Papers, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of published newspapers and magazines, professional journals, and literature of interest to people with disabilities, financial problems and complex needs, as well as using local libraries for research in many of my own pursuits - from locating obscure poetry to discovering facts about my own family history. You just can't do all that on Amazon, Mr Keer.
Even assuming that you have all your current needs met on the internet, can you be sure that you will never find yourself in need of IT facilities you do not possess?  What will you do if your printer runs out of ink and you need to print an urgent document? To scan or fax important legal information at short notice? All of this can be done in libraries, which offer a profusion of other computer-based services, such as IT learning from the most basic level, to free use of brilliant resources such as international newspapers, Encyclopaedia Britannica, the Oxford English Dictionary Online, Naxos Music, Ancestry.com and many other websites, as well as a wide range of official procedures such as registering to vote.  But I suspect you, Mr Keer, can get all of this on Amazon?

A library is a vital part of any community and helps to give a place its heart.  When I move to or even visit a new town or city, one of the first places I look for is the library. It is part of the fundamental identity of any area, a place where safety and security are guaranteed and, for some, one of the only - in some cases the only - outlet for meeting and talking to other people. It is also part of the fabric of our country's history - public libraries were once memorably described to me by a Sudanese friend as the single best invention of the Western World.

The Public Libraries Act of 1850 (which I am sure you know all about, being an expert on libraries) was a pioneering piece of legislation that served to educate future generations, but was vehemently opposed by regressive voices whose negativity I am afraid to say you echo.  The provisions of the Act were a force for empowerment and the enlargement of learning, so it is hardly surprising that many in the "old guard" of our legislative institutions tried to fight it.  Such attitudes persist, and have found an assumed legitimacy in our own uncertain times. Vital public services are under threat, with library closures a sign of the shrinking value placed by our political authorities on culture, heritage and learning. Some areas have been left all the poorer for the closures of their  libraries, with children and the infirm left unable to visit alternative branches due to busy roads or dangerous streets. It is a wonder that any libraries at all have survived the last six years of Tory cuts, and as the Labour Party's leadership election result has effectively condemned it to remain in Opposition for at least the next ten years, then in the absence of a sustained resurgence from the Liberal Democrats or any other progressive party, the dangers for libraries look set to continue.  It is undeniable that providing libraries does cost money - but as the US journalist Walter Cronkite once observed, "Whatever the cost of our libraries, the price is cheap compared to that of an ignorant nation."
These dark days of "if it doesn't make a profit, cut it" are exactly when we should be focused most on protecting libraries for the good of one another, whether you use them personally or not.  Otherwise, given the negative, narrow outlook of the times, we may well wake up one day and find that people like you, Mr Keer, have got your wish - and where will the cultural destruction end, and at what cost to the social, cultural and intellectual future of our country? "First they came for the libraries, but I got all I wanted on Amazon and didn't use libraries, so I did nothing..."

I must admit, when I began writing this reply, my mood was combative, and I little expected it would win you round to any sort of common ground.  However, focusing on all the many wonderful things libraries have brought into our communities has, in fact, moved me to realize what a sadly lacking life you and others, in your self-imposed library exile, must have led these twenty years. I therefore throw down the gauntlet to you, Nick Keer, and instead of ending impolitely, or trying to score any further points, I invite you - I urge you - to swallow your pride, overcome your fear of these valuable, open, free, liberating places, and take the plunge - step over the threshold after twenty years of tragic absence, and walk into your local library, or any library, and find out what you have been missing.  You never know, Nick, with an open mind and a will to try new things, you may even enjoy it.

Indeed, you might just find that it could change your life.

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Moonlight and Magic: Alison Lock's debut novel Maysun and the Wingfish

Readers of this site will know I am a huge fan of Alison Lock - whose poetry I celebrated in the opening post of 2016:


and whose work I have profiled on the Caterpillar Poetry youtube channel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rglPI8qsgnM

so it will come as little surprise that when Alison's first novel Maysun and the Wingfish was published this July, I read it eagerly. 

Maysun and the Wingfish is such a wonderful novel for all ages - beautifully crafted dreamscape of tribal legends, supernatural forests and magical realities.  It follows the story of Maysun, a young girl who sets out on a dangerous journey to restore harmony in the wake of an environmental crisis.  The story begins in Maysun's homeland, "the world of Watterishi, a place where grey skies and green-brown land merge into a camouflage", and with an overview of the community, its way of life, agricultural practises and buildings, and the world where all this happens, together with descriptions of its plants and the Wingfish which populate its waters - and whose presence, in a ominous conjunction with the recent appearance of the planet Ares in the skies, embodies a cautionary pre-telling of the story:

It has been three score years since Ares came within a whisker of the planet, sending shudders through to the core.  No-one knows why it happens, when it will happen, or why it appears to chase the full moon, or why the moon changes colour becoming red and looming large. But when Ares comes close every creature cowers in fear of its destructive force. The older Watterishi are fearful of the full moon and bide their time until it has passed. The elders no longer speak of the planet they fear as if doing so might evoke an evil omen. To minify the bad forces, the Elders rarely eat the Wingfish although at times they are driven by hunger to sacrifice a few. But by way of compensation, they give back one tenth of the Gringrows they collect, always leaving enough for the Wingfish. They believe that as long as the Wingfish are happy, the moon chaser will never strike.

The significance of the Wingfish are underlined in the earliest paragraphs, when Maysun herself declares: "Wingfish are so beautiful!" and the first chapter concludes in peace and beauty:

As the moonlight steals through the reedy walls of their abode, it catches only the oily glisten of their skin as they entwine and perform their love-making.  By dawn, their gleaming bodies are as slippery as the fish in the lake.

But the environmental scales are tipping in the world of Watterishi, since:

This season the Watterishi have gone too far; they have plucked at the roots of the Gringrow that once held firm the sides of the lakes.  Maysun can hear oozing and bubbling as the Wingfish writhe in the shallows.  They are agitated.

Maysun's planet is attacked by the destructive power of a "Soomoon" storm, Maysun's world is thrown into chaos:

There is a flash from above.  The ground below is rumbling, the waters quiver.  Bolts of firelight cross and cross before the eyes of the Watterishi. Shards of lightning flare, pluming out across the valley.  A terrible noise fills the air as the darkness in all its shades of grey and black and red explodes.

Maysun's father is initially optimistic of his planet's chances.  "It'll soon abate," he says of the rain.  It doesn't. We are then sucked into a post-Apocalyptic aftermath of rising waters, desolated villages, and a struggle to survive. 

The Watterishi are clinging to the poles with the water rushing around them, the Wingfish catch at them with their quill-like tails, their mouths biting.  Many of the Watterishi can no longer hold on and are swept away into the surging waters.  Some are submerged for a short time but rise again. Some are drawn into the muddy swamps where they come face to face with the grotesque creatures that lurk in the silt.  Disturbed now, the carrion feeders have risen to the surface for the first time, stretching wide ther throats and yowling their displeasure at the heavens.  The surviving Watterishi are left clinging to pieces of driftwood, clumps of tiles, the remains of rafts until they are dragged further and further from their homes with each rising wave.

I do not wish to spoil the plot by revealing much more of what happens to the Watterishi, or indeed to Maysun, as she embarks on her dangerous journey across her Soomoon-savaged world, where:

The dwellings of the Watterishi are gone: the only trace are the stumps of their posts in the mud ... All around her is mud, slipping and sliding and oozing.  Everything has been suffocated by the slimy earth.  Even the Ruba trees at the edge of the forest, in the distance, have lost their footholds and their white roots are exposed, flapping in the running waterways.

These Ruba trees are themselves an integral part of the story - seemingly semi-creature, semi-plant, with the capacity to entwine around their victims and suck them into the earth - reminding me of the voracious desert-dwelling reptilian Salek of the Star Wars trilogy.  And the author's ability to conjure up a world of grotesque danger does not end there - in passages almost like something out of Milton's Paradise Lost, we find ourselves enfolded in a forest whose zoology, to maintain my Star Wars comparison, is occasionally reminiscent of Jabba the Hutt:

...the old footpaths and byways have grown over becoming an impenetrable force of undergrowth and tightly packed foliage, and with the added danger of the Ruba's sticky droppings ... Few animals survive in the darkest shadows of the forest.  The grand slimers remain, the largest of the gastropods, who, unlike the other slow moving creatures have not died out.   With their vile secretions, they dissolve the rubbery textures, gaining purchase on a sheath of bark, stretching and shimmying along the far branches of a tree until they reach the sweetest leaves,

You might easily imagine the appeal such a depiction might hold for a mollusc-doting poet like myself!  These forest creatures are depicted peacefully above, but the rough-and-tumble of forest life (and death) is sharply accentuated in the descriptions of the activities of Stonebears, who dwell in caves and engage in territorial battles:

The loser is forced to leave the cave and in the ensuing battle they can be heard slipping down the scree, bellowing their invocations in a violent remonstrations ... sometimes the loser is left clinging to a tree in a final hg of desperation as the ribbons of sticky Ruba wrap themselves around him in an inescapable trap.

If the natural history of Alison Lock's fantastical planet appears defined by struggle and violence, this is even more dominant in the lives of its humanoid inhabitants - beset by a tribal antagonism, whose protagonists - the Watterishi and Peakerfolk people - are divided by a long-time segregation and animosity, whose borders are traversed when the paths of Maysun and her male Peakerfolk counterpart, Borro - not to mention his faithful dog Worro - unexpectedly cross.  The futility of division is emphasized when we learn that the very devestation encountered by the Watterishi has also befallen the territories of their tribal rivals:

... the Peakerfolk had watched the Soomoon from the mouths of their caves, high in the mountains. They saw the full moon and then they saw the grey planet of Ares. And then the storms began and the mountains seemed to creak and rock as the winds and the rains blasted against their homeland.  When th shuddering of the rocks finally relented, and the last boulders had slipped down the scree the Peakerfolk, who had crept deeper into their caves, were shivering under their blankets ... They had seen how the Soomoon was wrecking the valleys below and they were knew that the river beds would be filling and swelling.  Many dreamed of cursed waters, oozing and luring them to their deaths.  In their sleep, they fought through suckers and winding roots that hung in long fibrous tentacles along cave walls, all the while clutching at their sleep-heavy limbs.

What follows is a classic tale of poignant heroism, peppered with a largely dark and intriguing supporting cast, including a thuggish tyrant, a shadowy talismanic figure, and a duo whose comic clumsiness somewhat endears them to the reader, and might do even more so if not for the acutely skilful manner in which they are depicted as genuinely menacing and hostage to deep-seated prejudices.  Driven by fear and a narrow worldview hammered into them from birth,  Goss and Hind take their place in the classic tradition of blundering villainous double-acts, and stand out for me as both a triumph of characterization and a wonderful mirror in which to offset the maturity and hope of the two central characters.

Maysun and the Wingfish, then, might justly be described as a reflection of many of our own world's conflicts and divisions, and as a plea for understanding and alliance across apparent barriers of difference. Yet the novel can also be taken as a purely imaginative excursion into a world of dreams, danger and magic: indeed, I read it very much in a mood of escapism - struggling with depression and the pressures of "the real world", I wished to take cover in an alternative reality, which, thanks to this engaging and hypnotic novel, I found.  Resplendent in hints of CS Lewis or the more adventurous novels of HG Wells, Maysun and the Wingfish is nonetheless a unique book, and throughout its shimmeringly lyrical and page-turningly enticing text, Alison Lock's victorious debut treads a fine balance between fairytale and parable, as its emotive narrative of rivals, superstitions, morality and, perhaps above all, the plight of the environment, has the capacity to both transport the reader into another world, and to bring home to them the urgent realities of our own.

Saturday, 11 June 2016

Fox Thoughts

 Since becoming Poet in Residence at The Blue Teapot, Mytholmroyd, my thoughts have naturally turned increasingly to the poetry of Ted Hughes.  One important element of this residency that I intend to focus on is my wavering relationship with Hughes' work, and my ongoing quest to explore and embrace the aspects of his poetry which delight, move or inspire me.  I have often struggled with the great body of poetry which comprises Hughes' published work, of which I have, at best, a pedestrian knowledge.  And yet, somewhat ironically, though not untypically for poets of my generation, Hughes was one of the poets whose work I grappled with, and loved, as a teenager. I refer in fact to one poem in particular - The Thought Fox.

I imagine this midnight moment's forest:
Something else is alive
Beside the clock's loneliness
And this blank page where my fingers move.

Hughes' first line reminds me of Gerard Manley Hopkins' poem The Windhover; his second is positively chilling.  I think of The Traveller by Walter de la Mare, yet in a more brooding atmosphere, as the coldness of the clock and the poet's blank page seem to shiver in a halo of frost.  The next stanza maintains a feeling of uncertainty, with Hughes now casting a glance into the night outside:

Through the window I see no star:
Something more near
Though deeper within darkness
Is entering the loneliness:

The colon intensifies our sense of the approach.  As the "Something" from the forest begins to emerge, the poem unravels into a kind of metaphorical double bluff: just as Hughes begins to lift the veil, we find that the fox's nose which Cold, delicately as the dark snow ... touches a twig is not representative of a real, living creature - but the foot prints padding into the snow of the poets mind.  Hughes, with his shadowy thought-fox lagging across the clearings of his imagination, has transposed a poet's muse, his consciousness, the inner workings of his brain, into the animal Brilliantly, concentratedly, / Coming about its own business and entering the dark hole of the head until finally

The window is starless still; the clock ticks,
The page is printed. 

Published in 1957, The Thought Fox first appeared in Hughes' debut collection, was often his opening poem at readings, and one which he would sometimes describe as "my first animal poem."  Hughes also chose to start the selections in his Selected Poems and New Selected Poems with the piece - suggesting, as surmised by the poet and literary critic Keith Sagar, that the Edenic invocation of its opening words - I imagine - implies that he thought of it as an overture announcing the central theme of all his subsequent poems.  It would seem fitting, then, that like many other readers I had my first introduction to Hughes through this poem, with its quiet, delicate and yet very solid imageryAround twenty years ago now, I encountered the poem while studying English, in an inner-city comprehensive, surely a world away from Hughes' midnight forests and deepening greenness, yet immediately felt grounded in the senses of the cold, starless and lonely scene described - and visualizing the imaginary fox with a tangible sense of physical reality.

I first saw a fox in the early hours of a London morning, its fiery body weaving in and out of the alley-like warrens of east-end streets which jutted off the High Road in Leytonstone, stopping momentarily to fix me in a cautious, inquisitive, considered stare, before swooping back into the snickets and leaving me in the lamplight, impressed and somehow changed.  That part of London, with its endless takeaways and overflowing litter bins, was a magnet for the urban fox, while its greener stretches, where the town tapered into open fields and the wide green space of Wanstead Flats, no doubt provided an environment conducive for its untroubled domesticity - save that is, for the constant threat of traffic from the M11, winding round the greenbelt like a skeleton - or a noose.

In the early days of 2005, in a car on the outskirts of Leeds, I saw a fox in very different circumstances.  The so-called "ban" on Hunting with Dogs had come into effect days earlier, and was the stuff of much controversy.  It ought to have been fitting to have glimpsed such a creature, on a winter evening.  But sadly this fox was dead, a road casualty laid by some kind soul for its own posthumous dignity on the central reservation, its drying blood staining the snowy grass in a deep dark residue.
It would be some years before I saw a fox once more in the prime of life - but when I finally did, it seemed like the cork had been popped on a bottleneck of foxes.  Over the years I would watch them, diving and plummeting into undergrowth in urban woods, drifting through the long grass in the roadside copse of the suburb where I lived, or prowling like Hughes' thought-fox, by stump and in hollow.  

I like to see foxes in the country, but I have seen far more in cities and towns:


of russet muscularity
knee high
and up to your eyes
in dandelions,
most feline
of your kind,
the always searching canid,
sinewy and taut,
prodigal child
of the copse:
no sooner had you
brushed against a fence
emerging from sedge
as if to prove, “I still exist,”
than the glimpse of you was gone—
a second’s shred
in which to see
that tail, ash-
white copper-coalesced
trailing like a newly lit

Of the 280,000 or so foxes here in Britain, around 30,000 are those who have adapted to urban life, 10,000 of which are in London alone.  Their rural cousins were for many centuries subjected to a cycle of abuse, whereby their numbers were boosted to unsustainable levels, beefed up by secret feeding programmes and tricks like "artificial earths, and - once numbers had grown to sufficiently high levels - hunted for sport.  Or foxes were persecuted for a problem they did not create -  blamed for predating on farm animals, despite the wealth of proven alternatives to lethal management.  Today's fox hunting remains as active as ever, but its worst aspects have been subdued by means of various legal loopholes.  Despite my great dissatisfaction with the ban - in reality little more than a rule-change to the sickly "sport" - I would certainly agree that its implementation represented a welcome step forward in the hope of an eventual, complete, end to hunting.  But instead, the rule change looks likely to serve as a time-lock on the practice, with precious little chance of any future government daring to risk igniting the unexpected Parliamentary and media volcano which erupted in the midst of the Hunting Act and its debates - an eruption best (worst?) typified the arrival of a boisterous gang of hunters bursting into the House of Commons, violently abusing those inside, kicking a doorkeeper, shouting and running amok - a display of petulant, threatening yobbery whose thuggish instigators should have been imprisoned.
The brutality of hunting, and the malicious mentality of those who undertake it, are brought into sharp focus by the Rotherham-born poet and factory owner Ebeneezer Elliott (1771-1849) :

What Gods are these? Bright red, or white and green,
Some of them jockey-capp'd and some in hats,
The gods of vermin have their runs, like rats.
Each has six legs, four moving, pendent two,
Like bottled tails, the tilting four between.
Behold Land-Interest's compound Man-and-Horse,
Which so enchants his outraged helot-crew,
Hedge-gapping, with his horn, and view-halloo,
O'er hunter's clover--glorious broom and gorse!

Known as The Corn Law Rhymer for his opposition to that law, it is safe to say that Elliott - whose interest in the welfare of his workers, and the labouring classes generally, earned him a reputation as a fierce opponent of injustice - would not have found himself, like his fellow Yorkshireman Ted Hughes, ever faced with the probability of the Poet Laureateship.  Although its functions and particulars may have changed, the central and defining focus of a Poet Laureateship remains the Monarchy, and it would be hard to imagine any member of the royal family - in Elliott's time or ours - ever appointing such a self-confessed opponent of their favourite bloody pastime to the role.  And it is largely on this point that my feelings towards Hughes are most decidedly cool.

For a lot of years I would not read Hughes - never out of the childish spite of one who shuns the work of those with whom they disagree politically for the sake of doing so (if anything it can be quite interesting to delve into the many different perspectives offered by a wider range of reading, and besides, it is once all is said and done the quality of the poetry, not necessarily its themes or the opinions of its author, which counts) - but because I felt, and feel, that there is always an implied, intrinsic dilution to the spirit of independence so integral to poetry when it is written for (or in celebration of) or funded by, an institution of the State, and especially when that institution is an unmistakable metaphor for the status quo, its historical basis, and the crooked social systems which ensure the existence of a greedy, anti-Democratic Establishment, exemplified by the British Monarchy, with its loot of centuries of plunder, its bloodthirsty ancestors, its current pantheon of parasites, and of course their attachment to the barbarity of hunting.

Many times I have read the argument, posited by the poet William Oxley, that any poet whose literary activities are subsidized by the Arts Council or similar public bodies, immediately becomes dependent on, and therefore an arm of, the State - and any essence of free-mindedness or dissent in what they write is therefore, even if only subconsciously, restrained.  I do not disagree with this argument. But I would extend it to the concept of the Poet Laureateship, and am saddened that Hughes, undoubtedly one of the greatest poets in England's history, whose evocations of the mysterious and majestic fox came in a sense to distill the spirit of his poetry, decided consciously to fasten the flag of his creative freedom to the main and central mast of the Establishment - and to a family for whom killing for enjoyment is a leisure activity.

This weekend, the BBC have imposed upon the nation a nauseating wave of sycophancy, encouraging us to celebrate the vacuous life of a woman none of us know, as "the Queen" enjoys her 90th birthday, with consistent inanity from gushing newsreaders and no suggestion that, for many (including royalists) the use of public funds (and charity money) on such an unworthy cause, at a time when vital services are closing due to cuts, is obscene. 
For me, opposing royalty is not a matter of being left or right wing. In fact, it is not a position I consider "political" at all.  It is those advocating the continuation of this silly system who are, in my view, adhering to a political ideology which serves the interests of a single family and their many hangers-on, at the expense of the taxpayer and of public institutions, as I suggested in my poem Anthem:


God save our gracious Queen,
Long live our noble Queen,
While the peasants count our blessings,
May Her Highness reign supreme.

Blessed be the Princes
Whose bills we toil to pay
While our Nursing Homes and hospitals
Slide into decay.

Who cares if kids get cancer
And die on under-funded wards?
We must not expect our money back
From Princes, Dukes or Lords.

May we subsidize the spongers
Until our dying days,
Funding drawing room refurbishments
And Harry’s holidays.

After all the good they've done us
Ingratitude's obscene -
Which is why we raise our glasses high, and say as one:
"God Save The Queen!"

Certainly, I would consider any piece of writing commissioned by any organization allied to their ilk as a gross betrayal of civilized values.  For others, the idea of royal patronage is an artistic irrelevance or imposition for yet more good reasons.  Robert Graves, who in 1957 turned down a CBE and, in 1984, a CH, hit the nail on the head when he decried the offering of State "honours" to poets as a move by the government to coax writers into The Establishment. 

Was Ted Hughes an Establishment man?  Should it matter if he was?  No doubt Hughes, like many of his generation, would have felt himself, if ever he addressed the subject at all, as a royalist, perhaps nominally (I always sense the presence of an England more rooted in something Blakean and Pagan, than the brashness of everyday political debate, in Hughes' poetry).  But regardless of his personal beliefs, the legacy of Ted Hughes - one of the dominant elements in Calder Valley poetry and heritage - has been allowed to serve the image and cultural purposes of the royal family.  Recently I asked contemporary Calder Valley poet Steve Nash for his thoughts on Hughes' legacy, and particularly the way in which his poetry is publicly received in the context of the Laureateship.
"Something I always find troubling about the BBC’s coverage of Hughes’ work," Steve explained, "is the repeated emphasis of Prince Charles’ appreciation," citing a documentary in which Charles was featured as the prominent closing voice, as if to say, felt Steve,  that for a poet with working class roots, "it’s only possible to be truly validated if they get a nod (or wave) of approval from the royals."

Great poetry requires no validation from any source, and certainly not from State-funded institutions or the members of a narrow, self-congratulating clique.  Yet I feel, sadly, that Hughes himself would have seen this emphasis on royal endorsement as a good thing.   Certainly, he would give short shrift to my complaints against his rubbing shoulders with the fox hunters.  No doubt, again in common with his age, Hughes would have made an unlikely vegetarian, but his relationship with animals was more complex than the typical, if regrettable, field-to-fork attitudes of most meat eaters.  I do not believe that Hughes himself rode to hounds, but I do know that for much of his childhood, and then again in later life, he engaged in hunting and trapping wildlife, was no stranger to shooting, and that many critics have drawn attention to the conflict in his poetry between an alliance with animals, and a lust for violence said by some - perhaps simplistically - to manifest a kind of skewed stereotypical heterosexual masculinity.  This no doubt is fuel for the fire of future essays and discussions, but for my part, as a relative newcomer to Hughes, or one who has returned after a long absence to read the poems in greater numbers and more depth, I must take each poem, and each portion of Ted Hughes' output, individually, sometimes balancing them in the contextual frame of his life and bibliography, at others preferring to isolate the beautiful and timeless images present in poems like The Thought Fox and holding close their power and acutely empathic observations of the natural world.  

 Photographs and Illustrations: 
1. Manfred Danegger
2.Jane Burton
3.Denys Ovenden
4. Jane Burton

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Fallen Stars - The Poetry of Dandelions

Scorned as a weed and resented by many gardeners for their invasive habit and deep taproots, almost impossible to eradicate from the well-trimmed, sensible garden, dandelions - whose leaves were once prized for their medicinal benefits - today are much-maligned, but in my opinion unjustly so, for the flowers that English poet John Clare (1793 - 1864) described as fallen stars in a sea of grass are beautiful and interesting, have a long, varied history - and have had a not inconsiderable impact on poetry.

Forth from its sunny nook of shelter'd grass, states the great 19th Century American poet Walt Whitman, innocent, golden, calm as the dawn, / The spring's first dandelion shows its trustful face.
Indeed, throughout this spring I have been enchanted to lay eyes on the gradual blaze of dandelions - first emerging as the frosts of winter began to grudgingly recede, peppering the avenues and verges through a chilly March, braving the unexpected carpet of snow which descended on my valley in the bittersweet spring.  I saw them as the snow melted, and the hedgerows and grass banks gradually twinkled with red campion, buttercups and periwinkles.  I saw them popping up in gardens, delighting the bees, colonizing hillsides and illuminating woodlands, and sheathing rich green fields in fiery gowns of star-like gold.   As John Clare's poem records:

Tis May; and yet the March flower Dandelion 
Is still in bloom among the emerald grass, 
Shining like guineas with the sun's warm eye on-- 
We almost think they are gold as we pass

The plants we group under the banner of the dandelions are generally those which are found within the Taraxacum genus - part of the aster (Asteraceae) family, native to much of the Northern Hemisphere and naturalized through most of the world.  They are found often in medowes neere unto water ditches, explained Gerard in his 1597 Herbal, as also in gardens and high wayes much troden.  And it is precisely this habit of springing up in gardens which has gained the dandelion its tarnished reputation - while its frequency in almost all environments and ability to survive the seasons - Gerard (who drew attention to the culinary practises by which dandelion leaves might be cooked into a broth to help with urinary problems, fevers and sores, as well as helping with rest) also says that it will floure most times in the yeare, especially if the winter be not extreme cold - that obstructs the plant from enjoying a more favourable reputation for its beauty: How like a prodigal doth nature seem, / When thou, for all thy gold, so common art! exclaimed the American Romantic poet James Russell Lowell - and how right he was - for surely if this sparkling, attractive flower were less regularly glimpsed, it would revel in shimmer of a sought-after reputation.  If dandelions were seen unexpectedly, if they were brought to these shores from exotic climes or cultivated in extreme conditions, sold as rarities at specialist nurseries, then I feel certain they would be spoken of the way we speak of the Star of Jerusalem or rare herbs like the cloudberry or Snowdonia Hawkweed.  Why?  Because they are both highly distinctive, and startlingly pretty.  

Although, as Gerard tells us, dandelions might weather out a mild winter, they are to most of us a sign of sunnier times, and seem to herald the coming of the spring as colourfully as daffodils.  The dandelion's seasonal salience is elegantly depicted by Emily Dickinson:

The Dandelion's pallid tube
Astonishes the Grass,
And Winter instantly becomes
An infinite Alas --

The tube uplifts a signal Bud
And then a shouting Flower, --
The Proclamation of the Suns
That sepulture is o'er.  

I would go so far as to say that dandelions are more lovely than daffodils - though no doubt William Wordsworth would disagree.  But stop for a moment and consider the spectacular nature of their appearance - like tiny explosions of glistening garnet, neon Catherine-wheels glowing in the grass, with all the delicious mischief of hopes refusing to be suppressed - and you will surely see that dandelions, far from being pesky or unpleasing to the eye, are plants to be admired.

Dandelions, with their legendary roots and irrepressible habit, are as persistent as they are eye-catching, and despite the best attempts of their determined horticultural assailants, they are difficult to remove from any garden in which they manage to become established. As Culpeper wrote in 1653:

The root growing downwards exceeding deep, which being broken off within the ground, will yet shoot forth again, and will hardly be destroyed where it hath once taken root in the ground. 

If the natural world is yet to withstand the unremitting assaults that humanity has waged upon it in the ways of pesticides, intensive agriculture, over-population, pollution, excessive destruction, "development" and the meat industry, it is surely to be plants like dandelions - who simply do not know when they are beaten and who refuse to give up their claims to the soils they embrace, which are most numerous among surviving species.

And, as we trudge through the embers of a world beset by problems, no doubt sometimes feeling something akin to an End-of-Days, we might glimpse something valedictory about the dandelion also.

Golden lads and lasses / must like chimney-sweepers come to dust writes Shakespeare in Cymbeline, a magical play in which a Classical Universality is distilled into the pastoral timelessness of a quintessentially English landscape.  We can visualize the dissolution of the dandelion in his withering "golden lads and lasses" just as acutely as in the more literal lines of Clare, who concludes his reflections on these fallen stars of flowers, deserving of so much more than the curt lack of appreciation with which they are habitually greeted by ungrateful gardeners, by observing how:

They shine in fields, or waste grounds near the town.
They closed like painter's brush when even was.
At length they turn to nothing else but down,
While the rude winds blow off each shadowy crown.

Yet even in the deathly pallor of this shadowy demise, the dandelion exudes a sylvan, melancholy beauty.  Take a look, close-up, at the minute magnificence of its silvery cloud of spherical seed-heads, like icy spiders' webs, slowly fragmenting as the frosty balls of seeds are dispersed by winds, drifting through warm air like calcite-coloured butterflies.  

Watch as the seeds of tomorrow's glimmering flowers are wafted this way and that on a summer breeze, and hopefully you will see the long-suffering dandelion in a kindly light, delighting like John Clare in its starry splendour, and agreeing that far from being an unwelcome guest, this radiant flower is a glittering gem, to be treasured and admired.

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Wild Garlic

Beginning my exciting tenure as Poet-in-Residence at The Blue Teapot, Mytholmroyd, has inspired me to retrace my steps through some of my favourite walks and places in the locality, and as I continue to do so it is my intention to document many of my discoveries and observations here.  Mythomroyd and its surrounding environs are rich in history - not least poetic - but also in their natural scenery.  Some of the hills surrounding Mytholmroyd offer panoramic views across the Calder Valley, its peaceful village centre with an early 19th Century church and the River Calder flowing under the bridge, is flanked by sweeping vales and woodlands, climbing towards the chalky formr quarry lands, heather moorland and the lusher pastures of Luddenden and Brearley to the east.  But it was a patch somewhat nearer to the cafe its self which caught the attention of Blue Teapot owner Kirsty Fagan on a recent woodland walk - https://www.instagram.com/p/BFjhLXenLXe/

Wild garlic is certainly one of the loveliest discoveries to stumble on in the woods around Mytholmroyd, and its distinctive, tangy aroma is surely one of the most evocative indications of  spring, and as we turn the corner into summer, these profusions of glistening, candy-coloured flowers and their blade-like, velvety green leaves, will still decorate our watery and woodland landscapes for some time.

We have been lucky in the valley this spring, with the abundance of this unique, decorous, fascinating plant becoming, since mid-March, bit by bit more prevalent along woodland edges, parks and moist, canal-side soils, and it is a plant that I have noticed in many other areas of West Yorkshire.  In fact, hot-footing between one work place and the next, I have even taken the opportunity of gobbling a few of the edible leaves as a makeshift lunch!

Wild garlic, with its irresistible smell, tasty leaves and star-shaped flowers, has attracted us for centuries, and the sight of multiplying on a spring stream-side is a sure sign, just like the sturdy daffs, the fattening buds and the lambs in the fields, that winter is finally expiring.  It provides a backdrop to our country walks and city parks throughout the spring, and the clumps of tall, broad-leaved stalks and beautiful flowers will flower on into June, precursors for those of deciduous trees.  I have long been interested in wild garlic, its horticultural and culinary history, its relationship with animals, and its lesser known literary impact - including how it has provided inspiration in the world of poetry.

In Cornwall they form thick banks along the lanes, explained the late English poet Mary Macrae in her poem Ransoms, describing how the blooms of wild garlic  fill damp woods, making me long to be
propped on beds of amaranth and moly. 
The poet's skillful depiction of its preferred situations provides a superb mirror-image of the plant's natural habitats, and her references to other plants give us some clue to the friends and relatives of wild garlic - one of which is the "moly" that she mentions, these being a herbal variety whose small white flowers are mentioned in Homer's Odyssey - Odysseus is given moly by Hermes because its properties will protect him from Circe's magic when he goes to her lair to rescue his family.  And, accordingly, it is to family matters that we now must turn in our exploration of wild garlic.

The food we generally know as garlic (Old English, "Spear-leek"), whose cloves are pressed or crushed for culinary use, is strongly linked to wild garlic: both are members of the Alliaceae (Onion) family, both bear umbels of hermaphrodite flowers initially enclosed in spathes (sheath-like modified leaves) and both are known for taste and fragrance (with wild garlic slightly less intense).  But cultivated garlic (Allium sativum) has a complex genetic history dating back to Ancient Central Asia, where it has been used in cooking, and even as a currency, for thousands of years. Wild garlic, on the other hand, is an altogether simpler affair.  Sometimes called wood garlic, bear's garlic, broad-leaved garlic, or by its old English name of ransoms (Hramsa, meaning wild garlic), this European and Asian native, appearing at the winter's withdrawal like sprinkled cloud-dust along riverbanks and throughout deciduous woodlands, has always been regarded kindly. 

In Gerard’s Herbal (1597), we learn that wild garlic maye very well be eaten in April and Maie with butter, of such as are of strong constitution, and labouring men, and, unlike its cultivated cousin, the plant produces flowers tasting stronger than its leaves or bulbs.  Every part of the plant is edible, and its leaves are often used in sandwiches and salads, for use in pesto or in pasta sauces.  The bulb its self is eaten raw or cooked, throughout the year, though for best results when the plant is dormant from July to January.  In 19th Century Scandinavia, a popular butter was produced by feeding wild garlic to cows, resulting in a garlic-tasting milk.  Pictorial evidence suggests wild garlic has been eaten by people since the Stone Age.        
It is, however, not only people who like eating wild garlic.  Its Latin name Allium ursinum denotes its significance to brown bears - in pursuit of the delectable bulb, the bears will turn over the earth to dig it up, a habit mirrored by the wild boar.  The bears are not driven by hunger alone: wild garlic helps cleanse their systems after hibernation; the bulbs are healthy as well as delicious.  In fact, wild garlic is eaten by various animals, including badgers, sheep and guinea pigs, and is chiefly pollinated by bees.  But not all creatures feel the same.  The plant that so attracts  hungry bears ruthlessly repels mosquitos, moths, ticks, and fleas, along with many other insects.  It keeps moles away, and is similarly shunned by rodents.  Wild garlic is an ally of the gardener or farmer who wishes to preserve such crops as carrots, beet and chamomile, and is often planted as a "trap crop" repelling predators from roses.  Less friendly relations are shared with peas - most plants in the Fabaceae or pea-plant family fall foul of a chemical produced by wild garlic, inhibiting their growth.  Dogs are even less fortunate: eating wild garlic can be fatal.

For people, though, in addition to taste, wild garlic boasts an array of health benefits.  It is said to lower blood pressure, eases stomach pains and has been used for many years in Scotland for treating kidney stones.  But these gains were overlooked for many years, as wild garlic fell prey to a decline in medicinal popularity. Why?  Perhaps the answer lies in the very trend-shifting nature of attitudes that has seen so many plant foods - the turnip, the sprout, the almost forgotten artichoke - fall in and out of fashion down the ages.   Whatever the reasons, the fact remains that its medicinal qualities are generally seen as less than that of Allium sativum.  This is misleading.  While the positive effects of culinary garlic are longer lasting, the intensity of wild garlic's healthy impact is far greater.  Swiss herbalist Abbe Kuenzle, who claims to have successfully treated clients with rashes, scrofula and herpes entirely with wild garlic, describes it as a plant that cleanses the whole body.  Those with eczema and intestinal, problems, he feels, should "venerate ransoms like gold," while youngsters would "burst into bloom like roses on a trellis and sprout like fir cones in the sun," should they learn to rely on them!

So, like many wild and wonderful things on our doorstep, wild garlic offers a wide selection of curative blessings.  The plant which Welshman Leslie Norris, in his poem, like that of Mary Macrae also entitled Ransoms, compared to moonlight fallen clean onto grass, is awash with goodness.  Its leaves have assuaged catarrh and shortness of breath, and applying its fresh juices to the skin can help heal wounds.  Eating raw leaves can appease gastric problems, "worms," diarrhoea, insomnia, and even heart troubles.  Boiling freshly chopped leaves, adding these to a quarter litre of white wine and, if wishing to, sweetening with honey or syrup, gives us "Ransoms Wine," which is said to impede dropsy and age-related illnesses, while preparing a "whisky" of wild garlic may even stem memory loss and arteriosclerosis.  Although appropriate advice should be sought before using any natural remedy, it is hard to ignore the restorative and therapeutic powers of wild garlic, which is rich in Vitamins A and B.  Taken as part of an overall "de-tox", or simply an accompaniment to dumplings, potatoes, or other dishes, it can help to purify the body, easing circulation and flooding our bloodstream with vitamins to ward off sundry health complaints.  Wild garlic is one of nature's finest remedies - just ask the bears!

For some, though, it isn't the taste or health advantages of wild garlic that invoke the highest praise, but simply the appearance of this upright, glistening plant - which gradually colonizes slices of woodland until the banks and forest margins are resplendent with frilly white valleys, small fountains of snowy stars.   Indeed, the Ted Hughes poem The Merry Mink, celebrates this starry appearance:

He romps through the ransoms
(Each one like a constellation),topples into the river 

Wild garlic loves damp, moist environments, so by rivers, canals and woodland streams you'll find it, providing cover for earthworms and threaded like a lace hem against backdrops of bluebells, anemones and primroses. As Mary Macrae reminded us:

Pick and they quickly fade
but in the mass - and what mass! - overwhelming.

Wild garlic thrives in slightly acidic soil and deciduous woodlands - enabling it to capture the early spring sunshine.  With its two or three elliptical green leaves, rounded flowerheads and  strong and sharp aroma drifting through the woods and meadows, this abundant symbol of the winter's end, sometimes foolishly dismissed as a "weed," is one of our most splendid, underrated plants.  In difficult and testing times it can be hard to smile, and maintain a positive attitude to life, but come across a carpet of wild garlic brightening a shaded stream or urban hedgerow, and it's easy to empathize once more with the poet Leslie Norris: Pungent and clean the smell of ransoms from the wood, he tells us, and I am refreshed.