Sunday, 31 December 2017

Best Reads of the Year 2017


Glasgow Review of Books

Dalila by Jason Donald, about a Kenyan asylum seeker and her treatment in Glasgow and other parts of the UK,  is brilliantly written – spare but heart-stopping. Dalila’s experiences are based on those of many asylum seekers that Donald met whilst teaching adults in Glasgow. This is no political rant – it will make you laugh at times and Donald has an ear for Glaswegian demotic. Dalila, as a fully realized character, comes alive and will draw you into her frightening predicament, the victim of people traffickers, the cold reception of both weather and immigration officers, bewildering UK bureaucracy, detention centres, the spiralling horrors she undergoes and her eventual devastating fate. I wept for her. Ultimately this novel will make you angry and ashamed of our British system and how insensitively we treat asylum seekers. 

Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong, a young American of Vietnamese parentage. This is an extraordinary debut, with electrifying vitality and originality, violence, tenderness, and honesty recreating his grandparents’ experience of the Vietnam War, and about his own gay sexuality. After so many recommendations from other poets, I knew I had to read him and was blown away.

The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst is a delight. This beautifully crafted novel, which enjoys withholding information only to wrong foot the reader with surprise reveals, is both witty and sad, charting the change in attitudes in the UK before and after the legalization of homosexuality in 1967. Starting with the excitement of a group of Oxford students during WW2 caused by ‘the Greek god’ Drum Sparsholt, he is first seen with bare torso lifting weights in a lit window across a darkening quad at the House (Christchurch). This momentary vision is then wiped out by the blackout curtains, a striking metaphor for the scandal to come.  As the novel jumps to the 1970s, ironically what was considered scandalous in the father, his son Johnny, who is also gay, can now openly practice. Johnny, a would-be artist, has an aesthete’s eye for visual detail, in particular how light falls and creates an atmosphere. At a soirée of the now elderly Oxonions, a blackout and the need for candles due to Heath’s 3-day week is another brilliant set piece. Throughout the novel, a play of light and shadows is a counterpoint to the theme: a study in shadows and ambiguities, undercurrents of unexpressed desire, what is said and not said and a precise analysis of emotion, particularly when it is paradoxically a mixture of opposites. Thankfully, there’s not too much of the latter (unlike in Henry James whom Hollinghurst emulates) and the novel proceeds with a dramatic pace and moments of hilarious irony. ‘And there was light,’ says one of the characters at the soirée. ‘Ah, but will there be drinks?’ responds another.

Sunday, 17 December 2017

St Kilda poems

Delighted to have 3 more of my St Kilda poems published, this time in the

Glasgow Review of Books

Friday, 1 December 2017

Give me Your Hand: My Time poem

So pleased to have a poem chosen for the 'My Time' project organized by Voluntary Arts and the Scottish Poetry Library - poems inspired by your hobby or other creative activity.  My passion is dancing.  (Although I work as a dance reviewer, my dancing ability is very much at an amateur level now.)
The poem 'Give me Your Hand' takes its title from the Irish tune and came about after a dance therapy workshop, in particular a trust-building exercise,  given by students at Queen Margaret's University held at Dance Base, Edinburgh.
I am delighted to have been able to  also use this poem as a springboard to poetry writing at one of my own creative writing workshops for a group of hearing impaired adults. We sat in a circle,  held hands and acted out these movements in silence. It is a wonderful experience. Do try it!

Give me Your Hand
Touch finger tip to finger tip,
thumbs, index to index,
tall man to tall man,
ring to ring, pinkie to pinkie.
Take this invisible gift
in the cradle of your hands
shield it, as it flickers in the draught
of all our cold, dreich days.
Here is a word without vowel or consonant.
It is a language you have never heard before
but understand immediately.
We will never be the same again.

Pinkie: (Scots) for the little finger.
Dreich: (Scots) drear, miserable weather

You can hear the tune that inspired the title 'Give Me Your Hand' (Tabhair dom do Lámh in Irish) a tune from the early 17th century by Ruaidri Dáll Ó Catháin, the blind harpist (c.1570-c.1650) via You Tube Listen to it Here.

The story behind the song is a charming one of reconciliation between Ruaidri and Lady Eglington after a quarrel and this tune is his plea for forgiveness. I haven't used the story literally - only its spirit. See
Full story

Friday, 13 October 2017

St Kilda poems in Northwords Now

So pleased to have six of my St Kilda Poems published in

Northwords Now

Monday, 9 October 2017

St Kilda Poems in Northwords Now

Delighted to have  a full-page spread: 6 of my St Kilda poems published in Northwords Now, Autumn 2017, issue 34.

Friday, 29 September 2017

National Poetry Day in Glasgow - celebration of Russian Poets.

Tsvetayeva. Phto by Pierre Choumoff. (Free use by Creative Commons.)

On Sept 28th, National Poetry Day event organized by the Scottish Federation of Poets, was on the theme of 'Freedom'. This was a celebration by various poets of the dissident Soviet poets  on the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution.  I was delighted to be asked by the organizer, William Bonar, to talk about and read poems by Marina Tsvetaeva.
Other poets celebrated were: Osip Mandelstam, Anna Akhmatova, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Boris Pasternak, Marina Tsvetayeva, and Yevgeny Yevtushenko
Other readers were: Liz Lochhead,Valerie Thornton, Dai Vaughan, Alan MacGlas, Robyn Marsack and
James McGonigal. 
Held in the Mittchell Library, Glasgow, it was fascinating to hear so many different ways of talking about the poets, even some personal encounters. I was inspired to get back to rereading them all, in particular, Anna Akhmatova, though Tsvetayeva a close second.  Her passion and contemporary-sounding personal voice just grabs you and won't let go. Such a sad life, in particular, her suicide and her body discovered by her young son.

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Unst Soundscape

It's been great fun collaborating with Mark Harding aka Maranthar creating a poetry/electronic soundscape.
Here's the first. 'Unst' is published in my pamphlet 'Flout' (HappenStance, 2015). We plan to create more anon.

Thursday, 1 June 2017

Abseiling cliffs in search of eggs, Grimsey, Iceland.

Great excitement! My landlady, Gagga, invited me to watch her husband and others, abseiling the East Cliffs in an egg collecting venture.  Being a Saturday, the men were not out fishing and being May, this is of course the time of year for egg laying - this year, due to the heat wave, laid rather earlier than usual.

This was a doubly exciting experience for me having recently spent 2-3 years researching and writing a poem sequence about the fate of the St Kildans, the  'bird people' who also abseiled cliffs (and climbed up sea stacks) to collect gannet and fulmar eggs, or in their case, also to capture fulmars to eat and milk their oil.  Sadly, the St Kildans could not sustain their way of life and asked to be evacuated by the British Government who agreed and they abandoned the island in 1930.

So I had imagined the bird collecting but never thought that I would see it in action.  I know that this is still practiced in the Faroes but hadn't realized it's still done on Grimsey.  But unlike the St Kildans, the Grimsey folk only take guillemot, not fulmar eggs (which I'm told are sweeter). 'We don't like to be spat on,' said Gagga. (Fulmars vomit a foul-smelling oil if in threat.) Besides, the fulmars only lay one egg a year and the islanders are conscious of  ecological concerns.  If the guillemot's egg is taken, they will lay another one two weeks later. The Grimsey people also take this one, but after that, they leave the third alone: not only so there will be a future generation but because they know that if a fledgling is born too late in the season, it will not grow strong enough to cope with the migration ahead.

Imagining the bird collecting is of course no substitute for the terror of the real thing.  Just peering over the edge of the 300 foot sheer cliffs - keeping well back because of the wind, and also the instability of the cliff tops, undermined by puffin burrows- was terrifying enough. A glimpse of white crests breaking on rocks and brilliant blue sea below, the tiers of black guillemots lined up on the cliff ledges was enough to give me vertigo.  Far worse for the man actually abseiling - relying on the rope, his harness, the men above and the strength of the tractor to take the strain. So some things have changed from the St Kildans' days - they had no tractors, nor helmet (to protect against dislodged rocks) nor walkie talkies - but even so, I don't think I would have the courage to do it.

The eggs are enormous - the size of my palm plus two finger joints. Round at their base and tapering at the top, perfectly shaped to prevent rolling off their cliff ledge and an exquisite turquoise blue with brown or black markings - apparently each unique so their parents recognize their own.

The next morning Gagga boiled me one for breakfast and stood over me so I had to eat it.  With great apprehension I sliced through the almost translucent white at the tip and contemplated the dark yolk inside, then forced a tea-spoonful down.  Surprisingly not bad!  Much stronger than a hen's egg, with a fishy taste - a bit like the texture and taste of the dark meat in a crab. The guillemots feed on sea-eels.  'Another one?' asked Gagga.  Er, no thanks - besides it was very filling.

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Lady Gagga's Airport in her garden, Grimsey Island

'Not everyone has an airport and the Arctic Circle in their garden,' said Gagga, my landlady,  Grimsey's Lady Gaga, full name Ragnhildur Hjaltadottir, much prefers her nickname.
Lady Gagga
 She is also one of several women who own the Basar Guest House and take turns in running it, as well as coping with several other jobs - Gagga also works as ground crew at the airport when the tiny 16-seater plane arrives and takes off - only a few times a week in May, still the 'winter season' when I was there.

You can fly in, (30 mins) walk round the island in an hour or two and fly back to the mainland, or else take the ferry (3 hours), then return later in the day...which is what most tourists do. A bit of birdwatching, quick visit to the craft shop/cafe (which only opens when boat or plane arrive) and take a selfie at the signpost marking the Arctic Circle boundary line (or thereabouts. It's on the move.)

If you want to stay a few days, there's the possibility of a boat trip around the island, once the fishermen have returned to harbour, and weather dependent of course.  I was lucky enough to be taken round by one of the fishermen plus the delightful company of Halla, as commentator (also one of the guest house landladies.)
Basalt columns, a view of the guillemots and fulmars perched on ledges on the 300 foot  high east cliffs, impossible to see them from the sheer cliff tops.

My third landlady, Ummur, is also the cook at the only Restaurant/Pub, 'The Krian' (what else?) and I recommend her gourmet-standard cooking.  Interesting to see how the babies and children were welcome in The Krian - at least till 9pm - women rule in Iceland.   Saturday night the whole village seemed to be there - teenagers on mopeds revving up and down the one road. (So it's not always quiet!) The men arrived on quadbikes (only a few 100 yards drive from their homes.)

 It's clear from chatting how much the islanders love their island.  In fact, all my landladies were warm and friendly and I was completely spoilt. The Basar is remote, on the north end and involves the scary walk through the arctic terns but if you can't face that, there's another guest house in the village further south.  Or go after August when the terns and puffins have left.

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Doing Nothing much on Grimsey Island, Arctic Circle, off the north coast of Iceland.

View of North Iceland from Grimsey Island: midnight.
There is nothing much to do on Grimsey, (unless you're a bird-watcher) but that's what I like.  A small island, easy to walk around, a few days  experiencing the place slowly: birds, views and silence.  Perfect for a writing retreat -time to write notes for poems sat wrapped up in several layers against the wind. Brilliant sunshine but still cold.  And an island, small and intimate enough to meet locals when tired of my own company.

The view is stunning:  ice-capped mountains of North Iceland across the sea to the south (snow to the south, and us in the north  green - a surprise, but Grimsey is warmed by the Gulf Stream. I watched the mountains' continual change of colours, due to weather and time of day. White shadowed by pale blue triangular shadows, or white with dark grey shadows, or pink in the setting sun (midnight) or hidden in fog.

 Silence, well I mean no people. Only the Kria, Kria of arctic terns (Icelandic name Krian, appropriately) and offshore  the eider ducks' 'Oh, Ah' like disapproving great-aunts at the mating antics of the terns. The puffins were silent, continually twitching their heads back and forth, with a puzzled expression. (I've heard them chuckle in their burrows in  Shetland but here they had only just arrived and had not started nesting.)

Then after days of nothing, the great, rather scary, excitement of being attacked by 5 arctic terns at once.  Think Hitchcock's 'The Birds'. Red open beaks, scythe-like wings bent at acute angle. But I knew, from Fair Isle, to raise my hand and wave it about - the terns will attack whatever is highest - a hand better than my head. Luckily for me they did not swoop. 'Ah, they must have started laying,' said my landlady when I told her, and she issued me with a plastic stick.  Usually the laying does not start till later in June but we'd had 3 days of brilliant sunshine, occasionally quite warm, comparatively. Global warming no doubt.

Monday, 16 January 2017

Northern Lights and Cloud Appreciation Society

Delighted my poem 'Da Mirrie Dancers' about the Northern Lights has been published on the Cloud Appreciation Society's website. See link below for fabulous photos. I'm really enjoying scrolling through all the beautiful photos from all over the world, plus the other cloud-inspired poems,  artwork and music.  The photos are updated daily.


The skies rip open:
aurora borealis.
Fox-fire brushes the mountains.
I keep silent, in case light-storms
tangle in my hair.
Perhaps I’ll whistle, if I dare,
to bring them closer.
Green light rustles.
It’s the footsteps of the dead
from the world beyond the wind.
Unfolding, shimmering across the skies,
it fades to red.
My compass warped.
Note: Da Mirrie Dancers (The Merry Dancers) is the Shetlandic name for the Northern Lights.
‘Da Mirrie Dancers’ is in the author’s pamphlet Flout published by HappenStance, 2015.

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