Sunday, 25 October 2015


I’m breaking my rule of concentrating on twentieth and twenty-first century poetry in this blog.  That’s because I’ve borrowed Ian Bostridge’s Schubert’s Winter Journey from Carlisle Library.  The book is a wandering journey round Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise (1827), which is itself a winter journey.  The music is a setting of poems by the German poet, Wilhelm Müller.  I’m listening to the songs on YouTube by different singers while reading the book.

Ian Bostridge writes for that mythical creature, the intelligent general reader (I like to think I’m one of those!).  He does not assume a specialist knowledge of music (that’s good because I’m a failed grade 5 pianist) or an understanding of German, the original language of the songs (all quotations are accompanied by an English translation).  In fact this is not really (or merely) a music book.  I’ve got to chapter 4 and already the author’s very readable lateral thinking has taken me to Byron and Jack Kerouac (the wandering Romantic hero and on the road in the twentieth century), Chaucer and Samuel Beckett (Medieval strangers and Modernist alienation).  There are excursions into Schubert’s biography and social history.  There’s a comparison of the campaigns of Napoleon and Hitler.  From a glance at the acknowledgments I can see there is some poetry to come – Peter Porter, e e cummings, Emily Dickinson.

Here’s an example of Ian Bostridge’s writing (he’s describing the aftermath of Napoleon’s final defeat).  ‘The result – especially after the enactment of the repressive Karlsbad Decrees in 1819 – was a German speaking world under a spell a little like that which the White Witch casts in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: always winter and never Christmas.  Censorship was at work; suspicion bred disaffection.’

The book is beautifully produced: a high quality satin finish paper (very sniffable!), lovely uncluttered graphic design with just the right amount of space between lines and margins.  The serif typeface is elegant to read (unfortunately Faber don’t state its name).  There are frequent coloured illustrations.  Even the cloth cover, a pale bluish ice-white, is an appropriate winter colour. 

The subtitle of the book is Anatomy of an Obsession.  It’s an obsession that has lasted with Ian Bostridge for 30 years and has resulted in a book I know I am going to enjoy.  I’m glad that in these cash-strapped times Carlisle library has found the £20 for this fascinating and stimulating book.

Friday, 16 October 2015


Via Dante Alighieri was the address on the taxi driver’s card.  Last week I was in Italy on a writing week in the little village of Lippiano.  To get there I flew to Pisa, then travelled by train to Florence (birthplace of Dante and his home for the first 36 years of his life) and on to Arezzo (where Petrarch was born).

I enjoyed the time to write, the company, the workshops, the beautiful landscape and the wonderful Italian food.  It was great to be able to write without interruptions or to-do lists – it was, in the words of Seamus Heaney, binge writing.  But I did do a few other things as well.

A visit to the Alberto Burri collection at Cittá di Castello was an amazing experience – Burri was one of Italy’s leading 20th century abstract artists.  I found his work thought-provoking , challenging and stimulating.  The brilliantly curated exhibition in the Palazzo Albizzini was laid out chronologically beginning with the distressed collages of the immediate post-war years and gradually moving to the calmer abstracts of his later work and the playfulness of his colourful 16 serigrafie.

For me, writing and walking go together.  Most days after lunch I explored the paths and tracks which led me through the undulating landscape with its mix of woods, vines, olives and arable fields.  The soil, the rcoks and the houses are a mellow Italian version of Cotswold stone.   Everywhere there were splashes of colour – geranium red, tobacco pink, yellow autumn crocus and butterflies in yellow, bright orange and harebell blue.  Small lizards came out with the sun – they were camouflaged by their brindled scales until they moved. 

One night I walked at dusk through the village, my senses heightened by the oncoming darkness.  Woodsmoke hung in the still air, spikes of rosemary grew on top of a wall and there was a scent of water mint from a ditch.  I tried – and failed – to walk without making a sound on the road’s loose stones.  I soon set off dogs barking in distant farmhouses.  Muffled voices came from old dwellings, their windows shuttered against the night.  Hill top villages showed as beads of light on the ridges across the valley.  Cypresses, the most characteristic of Tuscan trees, stood out as cigar shapes in the fading light.  At the end of the village a single bat darted out from the little belfry of the old church. 

This is my second year on the writing week at Villa Pia – it could become a habit!

Tuesday, 13 October 2015


The ongoing refugee crisis is heart-rending.  Sometimes contemporary poetry in the UK is criticised for being out of touch but this is certainly not the case with Writers for Calais Refugees.  The blog has been inundated with poems.  Do look at the site and read as many poems as you can cope with.  My poem 'Key' is on today's post (13 October 2015).

Thursday, 1 October 2015


I was lured away from my desk one morning this week by the brilliant sunshine and went up High Pike instead of fiddling around with words and bits of paper.  The Lake District mountains vaulted away in the distance - Carrock, Blencathra, Helvellyn, Scafell, Skiddaw - but Scotland was invisible, the Solway Firth filled with haze.

As I approached the summit I could see the outline of two smallish birds, quite long-bodied, but not long-tailed.  They twitched intermittently, as if waiting for the moment when I would turn away.  Their bobbing resembled wagtails but I knew that if I could just manoeuvre enough I would see a blueish-grey head and back contrasting with darker wings and tail and the second bird a paler imitation of the first.  Sure enough, wheatears.  When they eventually flew off there was a white flash of feathers clinching their identity.

Wheatears are often the first summer migrants I see in February or early March and the last to leave, a few hanging around until the end of October before migrating to Africa.  I see them in my favourite places - open moorland in Wales and the Lake District, islands such as Bardsey or Mull where they fly up from the path ahead, that white flash giving them away each time.

A quick look at Birds Britannica informed me that their name is a bowdlerisation of their original Old English name hwit (white) aers (arse).  It struck me that although there are several poems about skylarks, nightingales, swallows, robins, blackbirds, swans I could only think of one poem about a wheatear.  Perhaps it is because we have imposed on those other birds such a freight of symbolism, whereas the wheatear just is.

The one poem is Michael Longley's 'Wheatear', subtitled 'Poem Beginning with a Line of J M Synge'.
You can read it at
It's a lovely deep breath poem - all one sentence as if the poet dare not exhale until the end of the poem.  It takes a while to get to the wheatear.  The poem begins with that line of Synge, 'Brown lark beside the sun', goes on with marsh marigolds, yellow flags, trout, ravens and then trapped in the very middle of the poem is 'A wheatear from Africa'.  She has flown into the cottage and is 'banging against the windowpane'.  How frightening for a bird used to flying thousands of miles.  The poet rescues and releases her and she flies away to a rabbit hole (her nest?) where she mimics 'My panic, my breathlessness'.  Such a simple action - removing a bird from a room - but in Longley's writing pure magic.