Blog News

1. Comments are still disabled though I am thinking of enabling them again.

2. There are now several extra pages - Poetry Index, Travel, Education, Childish Things - accessible at the top of the page. They index entires before October 2013.

3. I will, in the next few weeks, be adding new pages with other indexes.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Blustery, with even more showers

Some time ago I commented on the specious precision of a weather forecast that I once heard in America. Today I have heard on half a dozen news programs something that relates to it, something I call the "only an estimate" defence.
Six months ago the weather forecasters were all agreeing that we were in for a summer of sunshine, cloudless skies and balmy evening barbecues. As I sit here typing I'd say that if there have been any days in the last couple of months when we didn't have heavy rain, then I must have blinked and missed them. The Meteorological Office has just revised its prediction for the summer to suggest, now that we are half way through it, that it won't be sunny - it will rain a lot. This has triggered a reaction in every news programme where the weather forecasters are all being asked the same question, "How come you got it wrong?"
Their answer is perfectly predictable. They didn' get it wrong. They said there was a good chance of a sunny summer. A sixty-five per cent chance, for those who enjoy specious accuracy, and all that's happened is that the weather has fallen into the remaining thirty-five percent. Of course the same would have been true for a seventy-five, eight-five or even ninety-nine point nine percentage.
Naturally nobody was saying that six months ago. The specious precision of their original predictions, which were being constantly proclaimed with such bright optimism is now being used as their defence.

It would be nice if they just put their hands up and said, "We were guessing, it's what we do. We have no more idea than you do."

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Of Animals And Nature

The next section in the Best-Loved Poems Anthology is "Of Animals And Nature" and I confess I intend to cheat. I have struggled for days to write something new (you'll recall that I intended to use only new poems) and failed miserably. The truth of the matter is that it just isn't type of poetry that I'm especially good at. So I've dug out an old one poem. It doesn't need any explanation. The next section in the book is the last one, "Of Magic And Mystery". Lets hope that I have better luck with that.

Morning in the Karlak Mountains

I need a mystic camera
To capture the moment, hold it forever
In an amber slice of time.
I need to capture the infinite
Shades of brown and green
Of the grass, the moss, the pine.
I need to capture the sun
That paints diamonds on the river
And stripes upon the ground.
I need to capture the gathered gloom
As I look towards the hill
Where the trees are huddled round.
I need to capture the chattering
Whining, buzzing of the insects
Hanging unseen in the air,
The ever changing never changing
Murmur of the tumbling water
That cascades down natures stair.
I need to capture the morning smell
Of hay, and summer and rotting wood
And the warming earth
And the still calm tranquillity
Of this moment in the mountains
This new day's birth.
I have my mystic camera
The words that stir the memory
The words that try
To re-conjure with a phrase the moment
I have the perfect mystic camera,
The lens of the mind's eye.

Monday, 27 July 2009

Beermat English

I had been looking at the words on my beermat in the pub yesterday for some time before it occurred to me that there was more than one possible interpretation and that I had no idea which was meant. Worse than that, one of the two possible interpretations gives precisely no information.


Does this mean that the beer in question has

a) British barley as the only grain involved in the brewing process or
b) Multiple different grains are present but any barley used is British (though there might be any amount from 0% to 100%)

No I have no idea either.

Sunday, 26 July 2009

(Non-)human rights

As I'm typing, there is one of those discussions on TV that really pushes my buttons. They are discussing the proposition "Should great apes have human rights". It is anthropomorphism of the most extreme and alarming degree. So far the supporters of the proposition have stated the folllowing:

Chimpanzee have a recognized vocabulary of 2000 words.

Gorillas are capable of making detailed plans for the future and communicating those plans to each other.

Chimpanzees tell jokes.

A gorilla has been shown to be able to express and understand the idea "Please give me an ice cream. It is my birthday."

Great apes have self-awareness to the extent that they can look in a mirror and say (internally) "That's me, I'm Coco, I'm a Gorilla".

Apes show advanced empathy with each other and grief when other apes die.

Coco the Gorilla has an IQ of between 75-80.*

Gorillas have the same IQ and the same abilities as children.*

A normal great ape has a higher IQ than many disabled human beings.*

One woman on the program is actually attempting to become the legal guardian (as opposed to owner) of a Chimpanzee because he is traumatized by having seen his mother shot by hunters for a pharmaceuticals company. In her talk she consistently refers to it with human terms - "person", "him" etc.

I won't even bother to refute this self-evident claptrap. The bits that annoy me most are, as always, the assertions with regard to language. You can train a budgie to press buttons in sequence to get food. The bloody begonia on my window ledge bends towards the light. It doesn't mean that they are communicating or understanding language.
Now, I'm quite convinced that the begonia is smarter than some of the people making these ludicrous assertions, but, as with the assertions themselves, that says rather a lot more about the people than it does about the begonia.

(*The methodologies that underlie these IQ estimates were left rather vague.)

Friday, 24 July 2009

Wonder which way that will go then

An item on the news tonight is about a report that suggests that the Government needs to do more to persuade people not to use their cars in order to help reduce emissions of Greenhouse gasses. Apparently the cost of using cars is falling while the cost of using public transport is rising.

There are of course two possible ways the Government can view this:

a) the cost of public transport needs to be reduced or
b) the cost of motoring needs to be increased.

Given that this Government has shown time after time that whenever they perceive a problem they have one policy - find a way to make money from it - I can't say I'll be holding my breath waiting for solution a).

Bad Poetry

I don't know exactly how to approach this post without sounding rather arrogant, so I'll just come out and say it - there is a lot of really bad public poetry about at the moment. Now I think that, as poets go, I'm OK - not great but OK. I have a bit of an idea of how it's done but I think it's for others to judge how well I do it. Nevertheless when writing poetry it helps to have some ideas of stress, rhythm and rhyme. A knowledge of what words like anapest, iamb and spondee mean, may not be essential but if you want to be good at the craft it can't hurt.
What, though, do I mean by public poetry. Well, there is, for example, a trend at the moment (in the UK at least) for television advertising to be done in verse. I don't especially want to name and shame but there is one for an airline, another for a local transport company and another for an insurance company all running at the moment. There are others but those three stand out for me as being shining examples of bad poetry. The "poems" in question could be used as text book examples of how not to do it. Words are misstressed, lines have near rhymes, homophonic rhymes and just mispronounced rhymes. Verses show only the loosest idea anything resembling rhythm and metre. If these were intentional style choices, fair enough, but there is no evidence of that. It seems that some advertising agencies have just decided that any old bit of poorly written doggerel will do and given the copy to the first person in the office to pick up a biro. The result is some embarrassingly bad poetry.

I used to think that some of the poems people wrote to my local newspaper were pretty poor but I changed my mind about that. The people writing them were, I decided, sincere - if not very accomplished - in their desire to produce something good. There is no special disgrace in trying to do something even if the attempt is not completely succesful. On the other hand these adverts, and other expressions of public poetry, are meant to be seen by mass audiences. They are meant to be, in the case of the adverts, selling something and I think the least they could do would be to get someone who has some idea of what he's doing to look it over before putting it out in the wide world.

To Read Quietly

The next category in Best-Loved Poems is "Poems to be Read Quietly" and as with the previous category I am a bit baffled as to what their choices have in common or why they should be read quietly, rather than aloud. Judge for yourself. They include Edward Thomas's Adlestrop, Shelley's Ozymandias, Blake's To See the World in a Grain of Sand and Keats Ode To A Nightingale.
Nevertheless, a project is a project, so here is my take on "Poems to be Read Quietly", an attempt at evoking a particular quiet moment from my travels.

A standard exercise in writing groups and on courses is to take the first line of another, preferably famous, work and to use it as a springboard for your own ideas. This was what was done in a writing group I attended a couple of weeks ago. From the selection of first lines offered I chose "Rising early and walking in the garden" from a poem by Robert Graves.

Malawi Morning

Rising early and walking in the garden,
driven to unaccustomed insomniac meandering
by the orchestra of snoring in the dormitory,
I watched an unfamiliar sun rise above an unfamiliar horizon.
It lifted itself through an arc of perfect sky;
Unglued itself from the jagged mountain line;
Dragged itself inch by careful inch until it was free of the ground;
Balanced on a cushion of blue sky.

Rising early and walking in the garden,
awake and alone, the only human figure in the landscape,
as daybreak bled colour into the monochrome traces of night.
I listened to unfamiliar birds sing their unfamiliar morning hymns.
Some sang with booming, echoing, joyous whoops.
Some sang with cascading, waterfalls of notes.
Some sang with screeches, squawks or witches cackles:
And then, suddenly, there was silence.

Rising early and walking in the garden,
I waited, as Africa awoke.

Metro Voices

Last night was the first night of a new spin off venue from City Voices, the Wolverhampton group where local writers read their poems, prose or whatever to a generally appreciative audience. The new venue is close to my home at the Cafe Metro in Bilston and I was very pleased to be one of the readers invited to perform at the inaugural event. There were some teething problems, the room is long and thin and the furniture layout wasn't perfect. It also got rather hot in there, but that's a good thing in its way because the reason for the closeness was the unexpectedly high attendance.
The five performers were a mixed bag. One read a story - more of a vignette, really - about a prostitute in a cell, and part of a memoir about making and selling toffee apples as a kid. I was on second with my account, reproduced below, of my recent trip to North Korea. Last before the break one of the regulars read an anecdote about her own life. After the break we had poetry from two readers, one relatively sombre and the other a lively performer (shortly to do a stint on the plinth!) who gave us a mix of humorous and serious poetry including a couple in Black Country dialect. Everyone had a great time and, as I was leaving, I was invited to reprise my performance in September at the main City Voices event in Wolverhampton, which I think is on September 8th.

So, for anyone who wants to know exactly what I performed, here it is - a piece adapted from several previous entries in this blog.

In my travels, I've been to some strange places, some surreal places, some disturbing places.
I was once in San Francisco at a time when the city was simultaneously hosting the X-games and the Gay Pride march. That was fairly strange.
For a surreal time you'd be hard pressed to beat the Star Trek ride at the Las Vegas Hilton. As for disturbing; well I was in Beijing just a couple of years after the Tiananmen Square incident. But without any question the strangest, most surreal and most disturbing trip I've ever made was just a couple of months ago: to North Korea.
I could tell you about the grand concert hall and the program of revolutionary music from the State Symphony Orchestra, weirdly interrupted by a spirited rendition of Those Were The Days. I could tell you about the circus that was performed against projected backdrops of the proletariat, building power stations and pylons. I could tell you about the fanatical fervour of the army of schoolchildren in Kaesong performing music and dance in honour of Kim Il Sung's birthday. I could tell you about the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum where I learned, to my surprise, that World War Two had been a local conflict in which North Korea had single-handedly defeated the Japanese.
But I won't tell you about any of those things.
Instead I'd like to tell you about three visits that together sum up the feeling of the trip which was, taken as a whole, like a collision between Franz Kafka and Lewis Carroll.
First though, you need to understand how a trip to North Korea works. As a foreigner you are free to wander wherever you like, providing that wherever you like doesn't involve leaving the hotel, and talk to whoever you like providing they are hotel employees or the polite, pleasant and above all vigilant minders that are with you at all times. Your view of the country is restricted to a very carefully controlled itinerary.
On the third day of our visit we assembled in the hotel reception in our smartest clothes to go to the Kumusan Memorial Palace, the Mausoleum of Kim Il-Sung.
The rules were clear: smart clothes, empty pockets, no cameras, no outer jackets, no inappropriate remarks or humour, lots of respect.
At the memorial palace, which is certainly more of a palace than a memorial, it was clear that this was a place that everybody has to come. Probably literally "has to come". There were groups of soldiers, schoolchildren, businessmen and ladies in traditional dress in a queue that was several hundred yards long but we were marched straight to the front of it and into the buildings. It felt uncomfortable but the people waiting seemed to accept it as part of the way things are. Inside, we were led through what felt like miles of marble-lined corridors. Automatic devices cleaned our shoes and blew the dust from our clothes. We were searched and X-rayed. Periodically we were asked, for no apparent reason, to line up in three columns, or four columns, or two columns, or single file - groupings that were inevitably shuffled into some new arrangement moments later so that the only reasonable explanation was that it was simply to show us who was boss.
We were led, this time in fours, into a room the size of a concert hall. At the far end of it was a statue of Kim Il Sung. The tuneless, but vaguely uplifting, martial music that had been playing throughout the experience was much louder in here. The wall behind the statue was lit with pastel lighting. It reminded me of something and for a moment I couldn't place it. Then it came to me. It was very like the statue of Christ that I had seen in the Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City. The statue, the lighting, the music were all designed to produce the same effect.
From that room we were led to another, with another statue and this time we were given audio sets to listen to. It was very hard to listen with a straight face. Imagine someone with a deep voice, full of gravitas, perhaps Orson Wells or James Earl Jones, solemnly intoning, "When the Great Leader was taken from us the hearts and souls of the people were filled with a great grief and sorrow and with one voice they rose up and demanded a memorial be built to honour his name."
Now imagine about ten minutes of it.
After another trip through a wind-tunnel to clean us up we were led into another hall, this time with a glass coffin at the centre in which the body of the Great Leader lay. We lined up in fours again and walked to the coffin, circling it and bowing three times to show our respect. After that there was a museum showing all of the honours and awards bestowed upon Kim Il Sung from leaders and universities of the world. Most of them seemed to be from other Communist countries or dodgy Central African republics. The dodgier the source the more elaborate the award.
Afterwards we were led back through the corridors and out into the fresh air where we were allowed to retrieve our cameras and take a couple of shots of the outside of the building, providing we were careful not to accidentally include anyone in a uniform in the shot.
I had found the whole two hour experience deeply disturbing. They may say this is respect for a man, that this is politics, but I know religion when I see it. This isn't hero worship this is plain and simple worship. Regardless of what they are called it has temples and rituals and a God figure. It's a religion.

That afternoon we left Pyongyang to drive out to the mountains so that tomorrow we would be well placed to visit the International friendship exhibition.
The drive to the mountains was through a drab, flat landscape that looked anything but fertile. Here and there, there were workers in the fields. They appeared to be doing everything by hand with no agricultural implements, however primitive. Only once did I see as much as a simple Ox-drawn plough. It was a depressingly Medieval sight to encounter in the modern world. Next morning we left our hotel for the exhibition. In its way this was as unnerving as the Memorial Palace had been, perhaps more so because we had now observed, albeit from a bus travelling along the road, just how impoverished the majority of the country actually was.

As you approach you see what looks like two very traditional Korean buildings. They are no such thing. They are a decorative front for an extravagant exhibition of gifts received by Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. As befits his higher status we visited the Great Leader's section first. Once we had passed the smart, unsmiling, armed guards, handed in our coats and cameras and put cotton outer covers over our shoes, we proceeded into somewhere that was every bit as overblown as the Memorial Palace had been. Room after marble-lined room has been built into the side of the mountain, joined by marble lined corridors. In every room there are display cases containing the gifts. It's a bizarrely eclectic selection. There are statues made of every conceivable material from wood, to metal, to stone, to ivory, horn, Bakelite, plastic, glass. They are of every kind of subject, from revolutionary scenes to animals to abstracts to sports figures. There is furniture and there are costumes. There are cars and a train. There are silver bowls and golden tea services. There is a drinks tray made from a dead crocodile.
As you read the captions or listen to the guide certain things become obvious. As with the Mausoleum, the greater and more elaborate the gift the more disreputable the country it comes from. Valuable gem-studded artefacts often turned out to be from the countries, communist or otherwise, with the most apalling human rights records. There were, for example, several very large (not to mention illegal) ivory carvings presented by Robert Mugabe. The gifts from European nations tended to be not from Governments, but from individuals, business organisations or fringe left-wing political groups with tiny memberships. Where there were official state gifts from western nations they tended to carry an apparently unnoticed level of ironic comment. The gifts from the UK for example filled a single small cabinet and included the kind of "Present from London" souvenir rubbish that you'd be ashamed to give to your least favourite auntie. In the only slightly larger United States cabinet a present labelled as being from "Ex-President and Mrs Jimmy Carter" was a cheap and nasty glass ash-tray.

Part of the way round there was another compulsory opportunity to bow to an effigy of the Great Leader. The lifelike wax figure was at the end of a long room. It had been placed in a setting of artificial trees on a footpath that merged into the painting of the mountains on the wall behind. There was more of that music playing, this time rather softly, accompanied by the noises of birdsong. Fans ruffled the faux-foliage with a semblance of a summer breeze. We duly lined up in front of this figure and bowed though it was such a ragged affair that it looked more like a Mexican wave.

More rooms full of more gifts followed until we were led back outside, across the car park and into the second building. Smaller, but similar it was devoted not to Kim-Il-Sung, the Great Leader but to his son Kim-Jong-Il, the Dear Leader. If anything his gifts were a weirder selection than his dad's. In addition to the statues and paintings and tapestries, the exhibition had more furniture than a branch of Ikea. There were radios and computers, cameras and telescopes. There was a Basketball signed by Michael Jordan and presented by Madeleine Albright.
We rather rushed this second experience as time was moving on and we needed to get to lunch before taking that dull drive back to Pyongyang for a visit to a flower show.

The flower show proved to be the sole time in the whole trip that we were allowed to be out of the direct sight of our guides. We were escorted into the ground floor of the building housing the event. There we were told to take the escalator to the next floor where the main event was held and work our way through and round the exhibition until we reached the far doors where we would be met again.
It was certainly popular, filled with crowds of Koreans, mostly in their best clothes, all looking at the hundreds of displays. Of course the displays were what made it such a bizarre event. There were exactly two varieties of flower on display - the purple orchid, known as Kimilsungia, and the red begonia, known as Kimjongilia. Here and there, there were very small splashes of white but clearly set to show off the contrasting red and purple in front of them. The displays themselves ranged in size from tabletop to hall-filling but had a startling uniformity of theme. Probably ninety percent of them were models of the Great Leader's birthplace, surrounded by forests of those two flowers. The few that were different were models of the country's various revolutionary monuments, also surrounded by those same flowers.

I was first at the exit door where I found one of our guides waiting. Cautiously I asked him a few questions about the exhibition, questions which I also researched independently later. The flowers, he said, were grown locally in hot houses. Everyone expressed their great love of the two leaders by entering displays. The smaller ones were from companies and individuals working in DPRK, the enormous one in the middle (at least twenty yards long and twelve wide) would be from a combination of Government ministries and organisations.
Translated by my independent research this comes out as "if you are a company that wants to go on doing business in DPRK you had damned well better enter a stand" and "if you are a Government employee who wants to find himself moving up instead of out, ditto". As for the hothouses, it seems that they are the only buildings were the power supply is guaranteed to be maintained, the rest of the city being subject to regular powercuts.

There were other incidents in my trip, far too numerous to go into now but all reinforcing the sense of a country that has built itself on a myth, and an unlikely myth at that. Overall North Korea was quite possibly the most chilling place I've ever been and recent developments in the country are even more chilling. In most countries with nuclear weapons, even the ones most hostile to us, I think the leaders might hesitate before pressing the button. I don't think Kim Jong Il would miss a heartbeat. And from what I saw of the fanaticism of the people I think they would probably just accept things as he dragged the world into hell. They might even do a dance to celebrate.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Poems To Be Read Aloud

This is an odd section really. The poems included in the book range from Rudyard Kipling (If) to Emily Dickinson (I'm nobody! Who are you?), from William Shakespeare (All the World's a Stage) to Oscar Wilde (Symphony in Yellow) and I can't for the life of me see what they have in common or why they should be read out loud compared to the ones they think should be read quietly.
Nevertheless I have written a poem which is specifically to be read aloud. It's called

You can't please everyone

"What music do you want at the party?"
Asked Ann, as they planned at the table.

"We need something for everyone coming,

For Mike and for Martha and Mabel,

And for everyone else we've invited

From Aaron to Yasmin and Zeke.

We've got to find something that's perfect

If it takes us the rest of the week."


Karen and Aaron like disco,

While for Xavier and Dave it is Punk.

Yasmin and Jasmine like anything
As long as they're rip-roaring drunk.
Ophelia and Celia like choral

But Thelma and Velma like folk.

Paul and Saul both suggested Val Doonican,
But I think it was said as a joke.

Quentin and Fenton like Cher
At least that is what I surmise

From the things that they do with their hair

And the make-up they put on their eyes.

Wendy and Lindy are fans

Of Beethoven, Mozart and Bach
While Harry and Gary each Sunday

Watch the brass bands that play in the park.

Imelda and Zelda love jazz bands

As long as it's something quite trad

And Ernie and Bernie love metal
If it's loud and it's fast and it's bad.
Umberto and his brother Roberto

Should like rhythms exotic and Latin

But have raved about Welsh Male Voice Choirs

Since the Eisteddfod they saw in Prestatyn.

And finally Nina and Mina

Don't care for music at all

Maybe we should call off the party

As I think it might end in a brawl.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

A very different wonderland

I've just read Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie's Lost Girls, a rather different addition to the never ending variations on Alice In Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz and Peter Pan. Before we get to the subject matter, which is what makes it so different, let's look at the quality of the work. Alan Moore's writing has all the trademarks that his fans will recognise: different characters have distinct voices, the styles and conceits of the writing vary from chapter to chapter without interrupting the flow of the story, the language use is first rate. As for Melinda Gebbie's art the panel layout varies to suit Moore's chapter forms, the art sometimes lacks detail but the colours and layouts are excellent. Overall the art is excellent.

So much for the technical details. What about the content? That's where a lot of people might have a problem. The story is this. A grown up and quite old Alice meets the younger Wendy Darling and the even younger Dorothy Gale at a hotel in Austria shortly before the outbreak of World War One. They become friends and lovers recounting their earlier sexual adventures in very graphic detail and engaging in a fair few new joint sexual encounters. They are written and illustrated in great detail. Meanwhile Dorothy's boyfriend and Wendy's husband are engaging in a few gay romps of their own. It's all very, very graphic and the variations on the theme of miscellaneous sexuality would give the writers of the awful Torchwood a run for their money.
The stories they recount to each other are clearly linked with the three traditional children's stories that we all know which are presented as idealised and innocent versions of sexual activities that were anything but. The three women have all to some extent been traumatised by their pasts and their relationship with each other becomes a kind of cartharsis for them.
It's a largely successful story but the sex is utterly and absolutely relentless. There is scarcely a page in the entire work that deosn't feature naked cavortings between two, three or a dozen of the cast. Every possible form of sex is included and illustrated.
Of course I can quite honestly claim that I bought it because of the Alice connection but I'd be lying if I claimed I didn't know what it was all about before I bought it. Even so it's proved to be rather more extreme than I had expected. Personally I don't find it offensive, indeed the sheer non-stop nature of it at times renders it rather boring. On the other hand if there is the faintest possibility that something of a sexual nature might offend you I'd advise against reading this book because whatever it is you think might offend you, it's probably in there somewhere.

Monday, 20 July 2009

War And Peace

The next section in Best-Loved Poems is the section on War and Peace. In my life I have never known war so it seems, perhaps, a bit presumptuous of me to comment on it. Still, in pursuit of my little project, I've had a go.


I'm glad that I don't understand why men fight,
Why they kill, why they die;
Why in war every side claims right,
Claims truth, claims justice;
Proclaims the enemy to lie.
I'm glad that I don't understand why men hate,
Why they strive to justify
The carnage and the bloodshed they create,
And revel in and love
And which, eternally, they glorify.
I'm glad that I don't understand for then I too
Might be prepared to vilify
Those who hold a different point of view
Do not believe as I do
And must be, by that truth, much less than I.

Seven years

Apparently, though I hadn't realised it until someone mentioned it, wordcraft - a message board I mention often enough here - has been running for seven years now. I wasn't in right at the start but pretty soon afterwards.

So, seven years, eh?
Congratulations are certainly in order.
It illustrates nicely a distinction in the way that we perceive time that I first encountered in a televised lecture by Jonathan Miller, many years ago. We perceive two different kinds of time: "time passing" and "time passed".
"Time passing" proceeds at a slow, leisurely pace. Over the seven years of wordcraft our debates have often ebbed and flowed through weeks or even months of steady measured discussion. Starting from the nominal topic posted they have veered off on new courses, following all kinds of relevant and irrelevant currents. There has been no special urgency, even in our games where the deadlines are frequently extended until enough people take part.
But "time passed" is another matter. Suddenly someone says, "Hey, did you know it's been seven years since we started?" and straight away that seven years shrinks to seven seconds. Seven years have gone in a moment solely because our attention has been drawn to them. Seven years ago I was a different me and although I can enumerate the things I've done and seen in that time I have no emotional grasp of the period. It's gone. Lost in a single lightning-bolt moment of saying "Hey, did you know it's been seven years?"

No matter how slow the time was in passing, it was too quick when viewed from here, too quick once passed. The fact is driven home by the loss of some of our members, most recently Jerry. It's a gloomy thought but we are all seven years older, seven years slower and seven years closer to death. But when all is said and done perhaps the time passing is more important than the time passed. Having known Jerry and missann and Morgan is, after all, more important than having lost them.

Seven years from now someone will say, "Hey, did you know it's fourteen years since wordcraft started?" and, assuming I'm still here, I'll suddenly feel seven years older again, but in the meantime there will have been seven more years of time passing.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Four greatest poets

One of my friends on her blog has asked the question, "who are your four favourite poets?" She has suggested three of her own but as one of them is me I think we can discount that. The other two are Wordsworth and Frost (I'm assuming that's William and Robert, but it's possible there are others). My take on that is I really don't like Wordsworth very much - his good poetry is too twee for me and his bad poetry is almost indescribably bad. Frost on the other hand I admire greatly. He wrote one of my favourite poems, and no it isn't the one about roads diverging. It's this one

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To know that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

Anyway, I've spent much of today considering it and coming to no conclusions. I can easily come up with a list of individual poems that I like and by that measure I suppose the poets that wrote them would be counted my favourites but the trouble is that often my liking is restricted to single poems that I know very well. Thomas Gray? Another of my favourite poems is "Elegy in a Country Churchyard" but how many other of his poems can I even name? Off the top of my head that would be none. (Though I've just discovered by googling that he wrote something with the remarkable title "Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat Drowned in a Tub of Goldfish" - which, truth be told, is nowhere near as good as the title might lead you to believe.)
Wilfred Owen? Well "Dulce et Decorum est" is another favourite. Most of his other poems are also excellent but that's the one that I know, and really are they better than the other War Poets: Brooke, Sassoon, et al.
Coleridge? Well I like "Kubla Khan" well enough but the "Th Rime of the Ancient Mariner" just goes on for so long I've usually lost the will to live before I reach the end of it.

So I have reluctantly reached the conclusion that I can't identify four favourite poets. I'd probably do better at four least favourite poets, but that would just be mean, wouldn't it.

Friday, 17 July 2009

Sounds an interesting movie.

The title of an email advertising a well-known site that sells DVDs.

Sale final weekend; plus NEW Lesbian Vampire Killers and Harry Potter.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Loss and Comfort

The next topic in the poetry book is Loss and Comfort.

I know that poems should stand on their own merit without the need for background information from the author. Nevertheless I shall give some background to this one, not because it's important for the poem but because it's important to me.
Although the poem is new, the events and emotions it refers to were in 2000 when I was travelling around the word and had recently left Quito with a group travelling south.
I was travelling because a year before my mother had died and ,after a lot of soul searching, I decided to spend some time travelling the world looking for something I couldn't quite articulate, but that I knew I wouldn't be able to find by continuing my life - working in a computer department, seeing the same people, doing the same things - as if nothing had changed.
A year later I found myself travelling with a new group. I had travelled for months with a very congenial group but we had split up and I was with now with the new group and we were not getting on well together. On the anniversary of the funeral they were having a beach party but I was too lost in my memories to join in with any enthusiasm. It was noticed and commented on but I didn't feel in the mood to explain the reasons behind it. So, leaving them to gossip about me, I walked away, down to the water's edge, to be left alone.

This poem is about that. It's written in the present tense because that's the way I'm remembering it right now.

Away from the crowd

I have walked away from the noise and the fires.
I am sitting alone at the edge of the sea.
I have left them the party, the music, the pyres.
The present is theirs, but the past is for me.
I have seen them and heard them, I know what they say.
They say I'm a killjoy who will not join in.
They think that I think I am better than they.
The truth is that memories are crowding my skin.
A year to the day, the decision was taken,
As I stood in the rain at the side of her grave,
That something inside me now needed to waken;
That I could not find there the things I would crave;
That I'd travel the world and with every new land
Hope that my life would have made her feel proud,
But sometimes the sadness overwhelms me still and
I find that I must walk away from the crowd.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009


The third section in that poetry book is poetry about life. This is clearly a rather wide brief but I think this piece fits there quite well. Like this others in this project it is completely new (well about a week old, now) and I'd have to say I'm rather proud of it. I'd be interested to know what my overseas readers think but it seems to me to have a quintessential Britishness about it.

The couple

On a sheltered bench on the seafront they sat,
Looking out at the sea through the rain.
As I passed them, I gave them a tip of my hat.
I had seen them before and would see them again:
An old woman, her coat buttoned tight to her chin:
An old man with hands folded on top of his cane.
And I asked how they were; they looked fragile and thin.
The old man spoke for both; said, "Mustn't complain."

Sunday, 12 July 2009

Weird redux: S. Darko

Well, I have watched S. Darko, the sequel to Donnie Darko. I'd have to say it was certainly weird but by no means as weirdly incomprehensible as the reviews had led me to expect. I won't put any spoilers here, I'll just say that I had no trouble following the plot of the film, including the inevitable time travel bits (that's not a spoiler, it's fundamental to both movies). There were elements of the story that I felt weren't adequately resolved by the end of the film but I understood exactly what was going on at all times, at least as much as I understood Donnie Darko. If anything it's a bit more straightforwardly plotted.
I understand why it was straight-to-video rather than gaining a cinematic release but there's quite a lot of good stuff in it: good (though low budget) visuals, decent performances (in the main), an OK story.
The only major flaw, apart from those unresolved elements, was, I thought, that the focus was on the wrong characters. There is a much more interesting character than Donnie's Sister who could have been the focus for the film but who is given rather too small a role.
I've read that the film structure and the set pieces are too similar to the original but I didn't think so. The duplicated elements are duplicated for a reason and the background is dissimilar enough to allow that not to be a problem.

Bottom line: not as good as the original but not as bad as people have claimed, worth a look for fans of Donnie Darko. Probably to be avoided if you didn't like Donnie Darko.

Saturday, 11 July 2009

Hell in a handbasket

On wordcraft, tinman posted this link to a blog entry by Marty Manly. Before you click it, have a look at the question it's trying to answer.

Do you think that these things are getting better or worse in the world?
1. War
2. Disease
3. Global Poverty
4.Public Safety
5. Crime
6. Teenage drug abuse
7. Abortions
8. Welfare
9. Teenage pregnancies
10. School test scores

Think about your views before you either look at his or read further here.

It's a very interesting article but I think he's missed a couple of points that I'd like to add, a couple other effects that the article doesn't touch on but that happen a lot when people are asked if things are getting worse - Immediacy and Report Availability.

War is a perfect example of the first.
At the moment both America and Britain are involved in two very high profile wars (though we don't use the W-word to describe them) - in Iraq and Afghanistan. Because we are directly involved and because they are taking place right now we perceive the problem of "War" as being on the increase. Wars that are over, especially if they didn't involve us as one of the central participants, are forgotten. They are done and gone and not immediate enough to demand our attention. The current wars are ongoing so "War is getting worse."

A good example of the problem of Report Availability is Crime. Crime isn't any worse now than it ever was but what is worse (or better, if you look at it in a certain light) is that we hear more about it. Television, newspapers and so on take the smallest crime and tell us about it. The best example of how this colours our views is one not in the list - child abuse (and especially child abduction). It has always been and, given the nature of society, probably always will be, the case that the overwhelming majority of child abuse takes place within the family. Child abductions are actually statistically very rare occurrences BUT a family member interfering with a child is often hushed up, or the child not believed and in any case is a much less scary story than a stranger taking your child. The newspapers give scant coverage to the former unless there are other lurid details involved but trumpet it in banner headlines if a child is thought to have been abducted. This has led to culture of terror among parents who are often afraid to let their children play outside, even in their own garden, for fear of it. We hear more about the problem than we did fifty or a hundred years ago not because the problem is worse but because the reporting is better. Because we hear more about it, it must be worse.

I could go through the others in the list but truthfully, even before I read the article, I didn't think any were actually significantly better or worse than they have been in the past.

Friday, 10 July 2009

Of made up words

A long time ago I read the six, very long, volumes of the fantasy series "The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant". Recently the author, Stephen Donaldson, has added two more volumes in the form of a sequel. They are entertaining enough, though they have serious flaws. One flaw is the constant references to the other six books. The characters can't walk from one room to another without an internal monologue recalling previous rooms they have left and entered.
Another flaw though, and one it shares (in my view) with the over-hyped Captain Corelli , is that Donaldson does like to show off his erudition by using long words. Today, on my journey to and from work I read around forty pages. All of the following words (not all of which I know) appeared in them.


The problem is compounded by the author's tendency to invent his own words (the glossary of made up words for this volume alone runs to 22 pages!).
I have no idea why authors do this, making words up seems to be a particular failing of fantasy authors, but I wish they would show some restraint. Aliment? Viands? What's wrong with food, a word that I haven't come across anywhere in the book.

I'm reasonably certain he also made up "argence". It's not in any dictionary I own and not in One-Look, but its also not in that ridiculous glossary so maybe it really is just a real, but very obscure, word.

And, to give you just a flavour of the extent to which words are being created, here is an entry from the glossary.

Waynhim: tenders of the Waymeets, rejected Demondim-spawn, opponents and relatives of the ur-viles

Not terribly helpful, I think you'll agree.

Sudoku: a rather more interesting question

I watched someone on the Metro this morning doing a Sudoku puzzle. Personally I find them dull in the extreme, an entirely algorithmic and mechanical process that hardly exercises the brain at all. They are nowhere near as much fun as a good cryptic crossword. They do, however, present a couple of interesting features that I have pondered and would genuinely like to know the answers to.
The first, and probably least interesting, problem is how are they created? Presumably a full grid is created and then some numbers removed but how is that grid created? How do you start with an empty grid and ensure that as you write the numbers in you don't write yourself into a position where it is impossible to fill the remaining squares. I assume there is some kind of algorithm that allows this to be done but I'd like to know what it is.
The second puzzle I've pondered is this, how many different grids are possible? I have tried to devise methods of working this out, and usually I'm quite good at probabilities and combinations but I haven't been able to even think of a way to approach this problem.
The third, final and most difficult is this - starting from a full grid how do you remove numbers to arrive at the minimum sufficient condition for a single solution? Remove too many and there will be multiple solutions, don't remove enough and it will be easier than you want. How do you make sure that what is presented contains enough, and only enough, information?
The Sudoku puzzle itself I find remarkably boring but I really would like the answers to these questions.
Anyone got any ideas, or a source that shows the answers?

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Another (mini-)rant

I'd like to ask you to think about something.
Consider the following two descriptions of people.

Person one: just arrived in the country from Sudan, fleeing war and possible death, speaks Arabic and one of the 140 or so other languages from the country but cannot read or write in either, has no English whatsoever and requires a translator for even the most basic of communication.

Person two: is also from Sudan and speaks the same languages but is educated and literate in both, has been in the UK for about five years and has learned English to a level where day to day functioning in the country is fine, could perhaps get work but lacks the language skills to get a good job.

Now here's what I'd like you to think about. Obviously both of these people have the need for language classes and equally obviously they are not the same need. If you were only allowed to educate one of them which would you choose?

If you are anything like me you would choose the first person because their need is more immediate and more urgent. The second person has at least survival skills but the first person cannot function at all. It's clear to me that while the very idea of choosing is an anathema if it has to be done then you choose the one with the greatest need.

The education system however is set up with different priorities. The Government sees the primary, indeed the only, purpose of education as being getting people into work as quickly and as cheaply as possible and by that measure it's obvious that the second student should be chosen as a small amount of time and work will put them into a job.

The reason for my rant is that as of the next academic year we have removed our provision for what are called "pre-entry students", by which we mean people who have no English at all. This isn't a criticism of my college. To the contrary, we have maintained our provision for longer than most other colleges — we have done well to do so — but the bottom line is that such students are unlikely to progress quickly to an acknowledged qualification and without that there is no funding for them. No funding means the college loses money which they can't afford to do. Colleges are businesses not charities, they can't run courses at a loss. It isn't a college matter, it's a national one. I'm not sure of the logic behind depriving the very people who need it most of the chance to learn the language. I'm not sure, looking at the big picture, how creating a subculture of people who require help to achieve even the most basic things helps anybody. I'm not sure how the policy achieves the much touted aim of increased social cohesiveness. In fact, I'm not sure of what it achieves at all other than disenfranchising all those people.

Nevertheless, when people with no English turn up looking for courses we have no choice but to send them away, to say, in effect (though they won't understand it), "You can't have English lessons because you need English lessons."

Someone somewhere, someone in Government needs to take a long hard look at the logic of this. I won't be holding my breath waiting though.

Love and Marriage

The second section in the "Best Loved Poems" collection is, as I said, Love and Marriage. It's not a topic I write much about. There are a few poems in my collection that would qualify but the rules that I've set myself include every poem being new so here is a new one. I'll put my hands up though and admit that this is more an experiment in form than a proper poem. I'm not very happy with it but then again it's unlikely that I'm ever going to be very happy with a poem in this category.

Love was never real

Sometimes there is an echo.
Sometimes a shadow falls.
Sometimes I hear a whisper
From another time and place.
Sometimes I recollect
What is gone, and it still calls.
Sometimes I close my eyes
And conjure up her face.

But those times have vanished.
Those times they never were.
Those times I misremember
In my longing to still feel.
But those times are only echoes.
They are shadows everywhere.
But those times are quiet whispers,
And that love was never real

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Weird, huh?

So. Weird movies then. I've been giving them some thought in between packing things into boxes for our move to a new staffroom. And while attending a union meeting. And on the metro to and from work. Quite a lot of thought really.
So. Weird movies then. There are plenty to choose from but the question is, what do I mean by "weird"? And in at least a couple of cases, what do I mean by "movie"? Can a movie with a perfectly logical structured plot be weird? Can an otherwise mainstream movie that suddenly lurches into weirdness be counted (Repo Man, anybody?). What about a piece of out-and-out surrealism?
As for "movie", will a short piece made for television count?

Ah well, pondering the imponderables.

Anyway, because it's a rather suitable number I'll mention 13 of my own favourites, though I'll leave the reviews to others and make do with single comments that may or may not be an accurate reflection of the films in question.

First the ones mentioned already.

Donnie Darko : Harvey's evil twin.
The Naked Lunch : William Burroughs novel, thought by many to be unfilmable. Many who have seen it, that is.*

Now for the rest.

Brazil : Terry Gilliam creates an unholy cross between Monty Python and Franz Kafka.
Eraserhead : I'll give sixpence to anyone who can tell me what it's about. (I'm lieing) You can always rely on David Lynch for something disturbing.
La Cabina : Short? Yes! Weird? Yes! You'll never use a public phone box again.
Videodrome : No I don't know what it's all about either but Cronenberg is more reliably weird than Lynch.
The Bed-Sitting-Room : Spike Milligan is in it. A man mutates into a bed sitting room. Need I go on?
Pan's Labyrinth (aka El Laberinto del Fauno) : A touch more mainstream but still very odd indeed.
Jacob's Ladder : Cop out ending but a strange enough journey getting to it.
L'age d'or : Luis Bunel and Salvador Dali. Expect surrealism.
Being John Malkovich : Probably the strangest plot ever conceived.
Dark City : Possibly shouldn't be here. Has a plot with a beginning, a middle and an end, but I think it's weird.
Neco z Alenky (aka Alice) : The most utterly disturbing vision of Alice In Wonderland ever commited to film. And likely to remain so regardless of what Tim Burton does with the story.

I suggest you go out and get them all and watch them. Then, assuming you haven't commited suicide, tell me if you know any that are weirder so that I can get them and watch them.

*Actually this is a lie. I thought that The Naked Lunch was a terrible film. It was weird though, especially the giant typewriter bug.

Monday, 6 July 2009


It seems there's a sequel to Donnie Darko, one of my all time favourite weird movies. I like weird movies. I'm known for it. Hell, I saw The Naked Lunch. In the cinema. I was the only person there. Anyway, there is apparently a sequel called S. Darko, set seven years later and featuring the now teenage sister of Donnie from the original movie.
As I only heard of it yesterday I thought I'd go on line and check what it was all about. What I found was the worst collection of reviews I have ever seen for a movie. A couple managed to find isolated good points but the majority pan it to an almost unprecedented degree.

"I can't review this film properly because I can't make any goddamn sense of it!"
"like tuning into last week’s “Lost” episode without having ever seen another episode"
"I know what the “S” stands for in S. Darko."
"The worst offense? The film is flat-out boring."
"S. DARKO makes a point of not answering any questions that Kelly didn’t, but adding such fresh twists makes the new film too convoluted."
"the story and the characters are just not compelling at all."
"so inferior to the original that it’s destined to be forgotten in a matter of months"

are just a few of the kinder things that are said about it.

The question is this, is my love of weirdness perverse enough to make be buy and watch this movie? That of course, like the movie, remains to be seen.

Another Project?

I do seem to keep on starting poetry projects and then not really keeping up with them, don't I?
Well here's another.
A couple of Christmases ago a friend gave me a poetry book called "Best Loved Poems". Inside the poems (all very well known and famous) are divided into sections. My latest project is to write a poem that would fit into each of the sections. The sections are

Childhood and Youth
Love and Marriage
Loss and Comfort
War and Peace
Read Aloud
Read Quietly
Animals and Nature
Magic And Mystery

These projects of mine are of course just a way of gettingmyself started on writing when I can't think of much to write.
This is the one that I have written for "Childhood and Youth".

Other Childhoods

Black oil, thicker than blood;
thicker than treacle; thick as paste;
forcing its way through the crack in the pipe;
gathering in globules, in shiny tumescences
around the ragged edge of the metal.
Viscosity battling gravity,
overcoming it for a time,
but finally - with a sucking, slurping sigh -
quitting the struggle; dropping into the spreading pool;
spreading into the dust;
toxic ink on a sandy blotter.

And there, dirt-clad and dusty grey,
a naked child drew patterns in the foulness
with tiny questing fingers.
Oblivious to the stench, oblivious to the danger,
oblivious to the poison, he wiped it into his skin,
into his hands, his arms, his face.

And no one stopped him;
not his mother, sitting yards away
on the mud step of a mud house,
washing vegetables in ditch-dirty water;
not his brothers and sisters and playmates
absorbed in their own games,
their own worlds of childhood;
not the barefoot beggars, the silent supplicants
who passed him by unseeing and unheeding;
and not us, viewing from the cracked window
of the bus as we followed them down to the temple
and left him there.


It's been a couple of months since I added a new autobiographical poem. This one may require some explanation for those unfamiliar with the British education system as it stood in the 1960s. Children moved from primary education to secondary education at the age of eleven. Exactly where they moved to was determined by an exam, called the eleven plus, that all children took at about that age. Passing it meant that you got to go to what was called a "Grammar School", failing it got you sent down the road to the "Secondary Modern" school and what was perceived (probably wrongly) as being an inferior education.

I passed my eleven plus and went on to Bilston Boys' Grammar School.

Long Division

Now, and now alone,
We will set your life in stone.
If you want to be the best
Then you have to pass the test.

As you walk out through the door,
We'll already have the score
And fifty years away
You'll be marked still by this day.

The friends you've had till now
Will be divided too, that's how
You will find that through the years
That your past just disappears.


It's the first day on the bus
Now you're either "them" or "us"
As the test has made the sides
So the uniform divides.

And you'll lose some more control
As you grow into the roll
In the school that was decided
By the answers you provided.

This moment of decision
Is a lifelong, long division
For the path that you're now on
Has now become the only one.

Slippery when wet

My last post was about health and safety signs and whether or not they are necessary. I don't want to go into that again but there was one example that I think bears further examination with my language teacher's hat on

The example was "Surfaces may become slippery when wet."

This is presented in the article as being humorous because the words, in their literal sense seem to evoke a "Well, duh!" response. But such phrases, that are not intended to be taken at face value, are perfectly commonplace. They are the kind of language that we encounter every day, and not just in the context of signs. Take this simple exchange.

First Man: "Excuse me, do you know the correct time?"
Second Man: "Yes, thank you, I have a very good watch."

As an answer to the question it's both perfectly logical and utterly incorrect. The problem is that the questioner has used a polite circumlocution that completely fails to ask the question he wants answered and the person answering him has answered the question asked, not the one intended.
Of course, it's a very unlikely conversation. Far more likely would be this exchange.

First Man: "Excuse me, do you know the correct time?"
Second Man: "Yes, it's quarter past three."

This is because everyone understands that, regardless of the words used, the implicit question is "What time is it?" but that is too blunt and forthright to be considered polite.

This is something that we need to get across to our students both so that they understand what they hear and read and so that they can formulate their own polite questions and answers. Let's look at that first example again.

"Surfaces may become slippery when wet." seems to be an absolutely trivial observation. It is easy to respond with that "well, duh" reaction but that is looking solely at the apparent surface meaning of the words. It's ignoring the fact that the words really mean "Take care! This surface is slippery." It is drawing your attention to something that, if you fail to notice it, can cause you harm. And I would argue that every native speaker would understand perfectly well what was meant.

Most students, by the time they can understand the literal meaning of such phrases have already grasped that polite variants rarely mean exactly what they say. They know that "I would like" isn't simply expressing a preference, it's the conventional polite form of "I want" or "Give me". They understand that answering "do you know the way to the post office" with "yes" will at the very least get a funny look and might get verbal abuse from the person asking.
Nevertheless, it's worth reminding them from time to time, perhaps by matching a set of polite phrases to actual meanings or by getting them to keep a record of any they come across and hen share them with the class.

Saturday, 4 July 2009

I'm mellowing in my old age

Someone on Wordcraft posted this link to an article showing various health and safety signs. The thrust of the article is that these signs represent the nanny state cosseting us from imagined dangers. Usually I too am in the first rank when it comes to mocking over-zealous health and safety or "political correctness gone mad" but I looked at it and couldn't really see any great objection to most of the signs.

"Please be aware of wasps nesting in this area" sounds like a reasonable warning to me, wasp stings can be dangerous - especially to children. If you know there are wasps in the area you could set your picnic somewhere else and avoid the problem. If they don't tell you, how will you know?

"Climbing into this bank..." may be a bit over the top but kids do stupid things. A warning might make them stop and think, unlikely I'll grant, but possible.

"Surfaces may become slippery when wet" is just a more polite way of saying "Watch out! This surface is wet."

The only ones that seem totally pointless to me are "This flower bed is covered by CCTV" and "Seats may become wet" and the first of those could just be because they have previously had trouble with vandals.

Maybe I'm just going soft in my old age but there doesn't seem to me to be any intrinsic problem with warning people of potential dangers that they may not have spotted.

And after typing all of that I'm wondering myself who this imposter is and what's happened to the real Bob Hale. Still, is there really anything wrong with a "better safe than sorry" attitude?

Oh dear.

Sign in Stratford, birthplace of the English language's most famous writer.