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Message in a Poem

Also in the Guardian Review on Saturday was, under the heading “A Box of Delights” (though the website has “Reasons to be Cheerful,”) a small collection of new stories, poems and illustrations to lighten our mood in these times of plague and lockdown.

One that particularly caught my eye was a poem published under the rubric:-

Care of Exotic Pets
Number 1. The Axolotl at Bedtime
by Catherine Johnson.

It starts, “Never give your axolotl chocolatl in a botl.”

It goes on to use nine more – different – rhymes for axolotl. You know how I love an inventive, or a fitting, rhyme. I didn’t care a whit that every single one of them was misspelled. Those misspellings served to emphasise the Aztec origins of the word axolotl (not to mention chocolate. Sorry, chocolatl.)

It was a delightful jeu d’esprit and fair cheered me up.

The Persistence of the Rime

The Rime of course is that of the Ancient Mariner (a nickname bestowed on a 1980s full-time team’s part-time goalkeeper of my acquaintance – he taught in the same school as me – on the grounds that, “he stoppeth one of three”) by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

In another piece in Saturday’s Guardian Review, Philip Hoare, remarks on the poem’s continuing relevance, from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick through to Fleetwood Mac’s Albatross and beyond.

(Aside; when I hear the word, “Albatross!” I nearly always think “Gannet on a stick.”)

The instant recognition of the lines, “Water, water, everywhere” and “all creatures great and small,” he says, have become part of the lexicon.

At which point my senses pricked up. All Creatures Great and Small is nowadays best known as a television adaptation of a James Herriot set of novels.

But surely, rather than from the Rime, that quote comes from the hymn All Things Bright and Beautiful of which it is the second line? To my mind that is a much more likely source for a collective awareness of the phrase than the poem.

The hymn’s writers may well themselves have been inspired by the poem and its almost identical line “All things great and small” (which is followed by “For the dear God who loveth us; He made and loveth all,”) itself very close to “The Lord God made them all.” However that is not quite what Philip Hoare claimed.

“The Band Begins to Play, My Boys”

I’m afraid I can’t do anything but flinch when members of the UK’s present Government wax lyrical about our suddenly “wonderful” NHS. Pass the sick bucket.

(Especially egregious was the spectacle of Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak applauding outside 10 Downing Street. A derisory photo-op if ever I saw one.)

This is the same NHS they cynically used to win a referendum on false pretences, that their political persuasion has been denigrating at every opportunity for almost as long as I can remember and that their Political Party has been deliberately running down for the past ten years in preparation for saying that it’s broken and must be sold off. Run down and underequipped so much that it’s not now in the state it could have been to combat the coronavirus pandemic.

Their attitude irresistibly reminds me of Rudyard Kipling’s poem, Tommy:-

O it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy, go away”;
But it’s, “Thank you, Mister Atkins,” when the band begins to play,
The band begins to play, my boys, the band begins to play,
O it’s, “Thank you, Mister Atkins,” when the band begins to play.

Alasdair Gray

Sad, sad news.

Alasdair Gray has died.

If he had never done anything else in his life his first novel Lanark (arguably four novels) would have made him the most important Scottish writer of the twentieth century’s latter half, if not the whole century. (Perhaps only Lewis Grassic Gibbon rivals him in that respect.)

But of course he published 8 more novels, the last of which I read in 2009, 4 books of short stories – see this review of one of them – 3 of poetry (I reviewed a couple here and here,) many pieces for theatre, radio and television plus books of criticism (as here) and commentary (eg see here).

Yet that was not the least of it. There is also his work as an artist and illustrator to take into account. His drawing/painting style was unique and uniquely recognisable; much admired and sought after.

A polymath and curmudgeon, learned and contrary, Gray was one of a kind.

Even as his work lives on we will miss his acerbic presence.

And I still have his The Book of Prefaces to peruse.

Alasdair Gray: 28/12/1934 – 29/12/2019. So it goes.

A List. (Well; Part of a List)

This list – supposedly of the 100 best books of the 21st century (so far) – was published in The Guardian Review on Saturday 21/9/19. (Some of them are non-fiction which I’m extremely unlikely to read.)

I’ve split it in two for purposes of concision in a post.

The usual annotations apply. Those in bold I have read, an asterisk denotes intention to read.

100 I Feel Bad About My Neck by Nora Ephron (2006)
99 Broken Glass by Alain Mabanckou (2005), translated by Helen Stevenson (2009)
98 The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (2005), translated by Steven T Murray (2008)
97 Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by JK Rowling (2000)
96 A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (2015)
95 Chronicles: Volume One by Bob Dylan (2004)
94 The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell (2000)
93 Darkmans by Nicola Barker (2007)
92 The Siege by Helen Dunmore (2001)
91 Light by M John Harrison (2002)
90 Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck (2008), translated by Susan Bernofsky (2010)
89 Bad Blood by Lorna Sage (2000)
88 Noughts & Crosses by Malorie Blackman (2001)
87 Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood (2017)
86 Adults in the Room by Yanis Varoufakis (2017)
85 The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins (2006)
84 The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy (2018)
83 Tell Me How It Ends by Valeria Luiselli (2016), translated by Luiselli with Lizzie Davis (2017)
82 Coraline by Neil Gaiman (2002)
81 Harvest by Jim Crace (2013)
80 Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang (2002)
79 The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett (2009)
78 The Fifth Season by NK Jemisin (2015)
77 Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera (2009), translated by Lisa Dillman (2015)
76 Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman (2011)
75 Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk (2009), translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones (2018)
74 Days Without End by Sebastian Barry (2016)
73 Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick (2009)
72 The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff (2019)
71 Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware (2000)
70 Notes on a Scandal by Zoë Heller (2003)
69 The Infatuations by Javier Marías (2011), translated by Margaret Jull Costa (2013)
68 The Constant Gardener by John le Carré (2001)
67 The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker (2018)*
66 Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli (2014)
65 Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (2012)
64 On Writing by Stephen King (2000)
63 The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (2010)
62 Mother’s Milk by Edward St Aubyn (2006)
61 This House of Grief by Helen Garner (2014)
60 Dart by Alice Oswald (2002)
59 The Beauty of the Husband by Anne Carson (2002)
58 Postwar by Tony Judt (2005)
57 The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon (2000)
56 Underland by Robert Macfarlane (2019)
55 The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan (2006)
54 Women & Power by Mary Beard (2017)
53 True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey (2000)
52 Small Island by Andrea Levy (2004)
51 Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín (2009)

As you can see I’ve only read four of this selection – all of them broadly under the SF or fantasy umbrella.

Essex Farm Cemetery, Ypres (Ieper,) Flanders

Essex Farm Cemetery is located on the banks of the Ypres-Yser canal by the site of the Advanced Dressing Station where Lt Col John McCrae was serving as a medical officer when he wrote his famous poem “In Flanders Fields.” I have blogged about him previously in connection with the McCrae Memorial at Eilean Donan Castle in Lochalsh, Scotland.

The cemetery contains more than 1,000 graves. Unusually for a Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery its Cross of Sacrifice is located right at the entrance:-

Essex Farm Cemetery Ypres, Cross of Sacrifice

Graves from northwest:-

Graves at Essex Farm Cemetery, Ypres

From southeast. Note Yorkshire Memorial on the canal bank:-

More Graves at Essex Farm Cemetery, Ypres

From northeast:-

Essex Farm Cemetery, Ypres, Graves

From south. Again note Yorkshire Memorial (which I shall come back to):-

Graves at Essex Farm Cemetery, Ypres

Graves from Yorkshire Memorial:-

View of Essex Farm Cemetery, Ypres

Graves from north, Yorkshire Memorial to left:-

Graves at Essex Farm Cemetery, Ypres

A tree trunk has grown round the gravestone of Private J MacPherson, Seaforth Highlanders, who died on 5/7/1917, aged 33:-

Commonwealth War Grave, Essex Farm Cemetery, Ypres

Symbolic of the fact they fought and died over the same ground the cemetery holds a German grave, Franz Heger, RIR, 238, 7/8/1916:-

German Grave, Essex Farm Cemetery, Ypres

Grave of Rifleman V J Strudwick, The Rifle Brigade, 14/1/1916, aged 15, said to be the youngest British Empire casualty of the Great War. (There may be some doubt about this.) It is nevertheless a focus for remembrance:-

Youngest Casualty, Essex Farm Cemetery, Ypres

John McCrae Commemoration stone. Written in four languages, French, Flemish, English and German, with the poem itself also inscribed on the memorial along with a facsimile of the handwritten manuscript:-

John McCrae Commemoration, Essex Farm Cemetery, Ypres

The bunkers at Essex Farm Cemetery where John McCrae worked as a medic:-

Bunkers at  Essex Farm Cemetery, Ypres

Bunker interior:-

Interior of Bunker at Essex Farm Cemetery, Ypres

Another bunker interior:-

Another Bunker at Essex Farm Cemetery, Ypres

Bunkers, looking back up to Essex Farm Cemetery grounds:-

Bunkers at Essex Farm Cemetery, Ypres

Information board with a photograph of how the bunkers appeared during the war:-

Information Board Essex Farm Cemetery, Ypres

Lest We Forget:-

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Wilfred Owen

One hundred years ago today, only one week before the armistice which ended the Great War, perhaps the most resonant of that war’s poets, Wilfred Owen, was killed leading his troops across the Sambre–Oise Canal.

Wilfred Owen

On my trip down to Oswestry for the Challenge Cup semi-final in February I discovered his name is on the Great War Memorial inside Shrewsbury Abbey.

The Abbey:-

Shrewsbury Abbey

The War Memorial. Owen’s name is marked by a poppy:-

Shrewsbury Abbey War Memorial

Closer View:-

Shrewsbury Abbey War Memorial Detail

In the Abbey grounds there is a memorial dedicted to Owen. The text in red this side reads, “Wilfred Owen Poet 18/3/1893-4/11/1918.”:-

Wilfred Owen Memorial, Shrewsbury Abbey Grounds.

The memorial is titled “Symmetry” and was designed by Paul De Monchaux and erected in 1993:-

Wilfred Owen Memorial Title

Three other information stones surround the memorial. Birth and life:-

Wilfred Owen Memorial Information Plaque

Death:-

Wilfred Owen Memorial Plaque

Line of Poem:-

Wilfred Owen  Memorial Explanation

The memorial is in the form of a pontoon bridge. You can read more about it here.

The red writing on this side is the quote (line 40 of “Strange Meeting“) “I am the enemy you killed my friend.”

Wilfred Owen Memorial Reverse View

As Though We Were Flying by Andrew Greig

Bloodaxe, 2011, 62 p

 As Though We Were Flying cover

One of the best authors I have discovered since starting the blog, Andrew Greig, started out as a poet. His first publications were books of poetry and then in amongst those he took to writing prose about another of his interests, climbing. He only took up novel writing after twenty years or so. He has also written a book about golf, another on fishing and the Scottish landscape, and, with Mike Heron, one about The Incredible String Band.

I thought I should sample his poetry, hence reading this, one of his most recent collections of poems.

The slim volume (nearly all poetry books are slim) is divided into three sections, Home for Now, The Light of Day and A Moment’s Liberty. The first poem, The Tidal Pools of Fife, is a lament for those lost pleasure grounds and there are five other poems set explicitly in Fife. More than a few deal with marriage – in especial A Long Shot compares the incredulous certainty of holing a putt as it moves across the green with the equally chancy outcome of being in the estate of matrimony. All are thoughtful and illuminating. But they need to be read, not written about.

Pedant’s corner:- In the contents page a poem is titled Eck Hutcheson but on page 20 is Eck Hutchinson (and twice in the poem itself,) “the fruit … are so nearly ripe” (the fruit is so nearly ripe,) “How could I live so long ……. and somehow failed to grasp” (and somehow fail to grasp,) “the crowd stream” (the crowd streams,) “her eyes propels the bird” (propel?) “above the river ,” (no space between river and comma.)

Reelin’ In the Years 147: Wherewithal

Clifford T Ward was an unusual pop star. Who else would have based a popular song around a Robert Browning poem in Home Thoughts from Abroad? (See here track 7.)

Not only did Ward use the word wherewithal in this song, he made it the title.

And I doubt you’ll find non-pareil in any other song lyric. (Granted, nonchalant is less rare.)

Clifford T Ward: Wherewithal

Diddy Team Dreams, of Diddy Cups

In celebration of the mighty Sons’ forthcoming appearance in the Challenge Cup final (oh, all right then; the Irn Bru Cup final) this is a poem by Dumbarton FC’s poet in residence Stephen Watt.

The accompanying video has some goood views of Dumbarton Rock, the town and the stadium plus footage from the semi-final win down in Oswestry.

The words as posted on the club’s website are here.

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