Saturday, 23 May 2015

Marc Vyvyan-Jones

This is my wife Clare in 1985:

Clare in those days was a physics PhD student at Bristol.  The image is from a new-address card she commissioned from a friend, and it came to light again, many years later, in a clear-out of Clare's room at her parents' house.

The writing embroidered on Clare's leg reads "Please look after this Clare."  That drew from me a limerick, 11 years before we were engaged:

I'd love to look after this Clare,
blonde and plump like a girl teddy-bear.
I just hope that her rump's
not too bruised by the bumps
which arise from the wheels' being square.

The teddy-bear in Clare's lap had been a birthday present from friends, a couple of years earlier.  She believes she passed it on to a child in 1990, when she had to shed so many possessions for her post-doc year in the States, and she cannot now remember its name.

For those too young to have seen floppy disks, I'd better say that they were at least as square as shown in the picture, and not the sort of Daliesque thing the name suggests.  The title of Dali's painting The persistence of memory has acquired a secondary aptness from the transience of floppies.

The artist was Marc Vyvyan-Jones.  It was his first commission, he told me recently; billed then on invoice 0001, and reproduced now with permission.  His career as an illustrator continues to thrive, with an emphasis on the quirky and gallimaufrageous.  Who's next up to offer him a commission?

Monday, 18 May 2015

Radio poem


Today's radio dial's not just a dial.
It's a display: gives you more information
running, but goes to blank at rest. Old-style
analogue dials, over the base gradation
of kiloHertz and metres, still when still
were effervescent with their banded cities.
And when I was a boy, with time to fill,
I could sing at the possibilities
for hours. They belonged with binoculars,
maps, number-plates, star-charts, but came to displace
astronomy, which was the previous
interest. Today I'd call the phase
that happened next addiction. I first found
Radio Moscow's English under June
sunset, and it became a nightly round
by the autumn of 1971 -
Tirana, Moscow, Prague, Warsaw, and later,
drab 1972's political
balance, west dictator for east dictator,
the fifties sound of Radio Portugal.
But why - given ten words to improvise
some verse around, an email parlour game -
pick as a subject for the exercise
the story of a former hobby's claim?
Because the words suggest it. I can say
how new and various the short wave shone,
what pleasures it delivered in its play.
The pleasure of the hunt, the catch, was one.
CBA Moncton, netted from my bed
in Nottinghamshire winter - that was great.
But Radio Tirana, wishing dead
so many, I could only hate,
and hate's a noxious pleasure, lashing sweat.
That was the sour inside the bright kumquat.
Then hate and hunt gave less and less to get.
I scanned the dial for them, and scanned, and that
was the addiction, radio quagmire.
But I have seen the quagmire sink, not me.
I put restraint on radio desire
as early as Lent 1973.
It faded slowly, surged in my French year,
and again more than ten years on, a freak
throwback stunt for One World Week, but there
it ends. The world's got other ways to speak.

And I shall not be one of those who fret
to hear of kids addicted to the net.

The above was my entry in the CV2 2-day Poem Contest 2009.  The key point of the CV2 contest, for those who haven't followed that link, is that the entry has to be written in 48 hours and include ten words specified by that organisers at the start of that period.

My excuse for blogging the poem is that I have recently tweeted the concluding couplet, thereby presumably rendering the poem ineligible for entry in competitions that disallow published material.

Another piece of poetic fall-out from my foreign-radio phase is this haiku of January 2013, 'Tirana's trumpets'. And you might also be interested in this article, published in Cambridge University libraries information bulletin 60, 2007.

Saturday, 2 May 2015

Kirkconnel's bard


(The bard is Alexander Anderson ('Surfaceman'), 1845-1909)

Kirkconnel's bard sang progress, engines' strength
made greater by the discipline of rails,
his rhymes and grammar sound, his metred length
of line hard-fixed as ever was with nails.

Nick Drake sang questions, ways lost, light flown, blue
of waves and sky the video shows grey,
gates waited at in hope of looking through,
a plea for somebody to show and say.

Kirkconnel's bard praised Whitman's free lines, praised
his fellows, wrote in voice of the bereaved
mothers.  Read in our day, is he appraised
with more along the track than he believed?

Would he have prayed, trusting in God to hear,
that Nick Drake's heaven-signal stood at clear?

The above poem was my contribution to the 26 project 'Under a northern sky' -- the brainchild of two 26 members, Sandy Wilkie and Michelle Nicol , one from Glasgow and one from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and both fans of the singer Nick Drake.  Michelle's account of the proceedings is at .  Project participants were assigned one song by Drake and one station on the Carlisle route from Newcastle to Glasgow, and asked to write poetry or prose, performable in under 3'44", that linked the two.  My station was Kirkconnel and my Nick Drake song 'Way to blue'.  And on 25 April 2015, as many of us as could made that journey by train, reading our own contributions, and those of the people who couldn't be present, at or near the stations in question.

I was lucky in that Kirkconnel has a literary figure of some note in Alexander Anderson.  I won't link to all the poems of his that I allude to, but I should perhaps say that my last line picks up on 'Stood at clear' from his collection Songs of the rail.  A train driver is questioned after a rail crash:

"Speak to him-quick!" they bent and said,
"Did the distant signal stand at red?"

Broken and slow came the words with a moan,
"Stood—at—clear," and poor Jim was gone.

I turn'd my head away from the light
To hide the tears that were blinding my sight,

And pray'd from my heart, to God that Jim
Might find heaven's signals clear to him.

I believe the narrator is deeply disturbed by the probability that signal didn't stand at clear, and that a much-loved friend has died with a lie on his mouth.  Is there more to be said on this by readers who know Alexander Anderson's work better than I?