Sherma Batson 1957 – 2017

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My friend Sherma Batson died suddenly on Sunday, 8th January, at the age of 59.

Active for all of her adult life in the community life and local politics of Stevenage, the town where she lived from an early age, Sherma served as Borough Councillor for 12 years  and was awarded an MBE for her services to the community in 2008, being appointed a Deputy Lieutenant for Hertfordshire the following year. In 2014/15, she became the town’s first black, female mayor.

I first got to know Sherma when she was a student in one of my English classes in Stevenage in the 1970s, self-confident and aware and, when she deemed it necessary, outspoken. A younger version of the powerhouse she was to become. I remember her dragging me on to the dance floor at a school disco, waving away any faint protests with the assertion that Stevie Wonder was too good to be allowed to go to waste.

We became friends and met regularly if infrequently over the years – when I asked her advice about my characterisation of a black policewoman in a novel I was writing, she informed me in no uncertain terms of my failings – and I could only stand back and admire from a distance the drive and single-mindedness she brought to those issues of equality, health and diversity that were, to her, so important.

It was a real pleasure and an honour to have known her and to have been counted among her friends. It is no platitude to say that she will deeply missed – by her husband, Howard, and her daughter, Ahisha – and by the many people who worked alongside her and came to know her.

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Totally Wired for Sound

Thursday of last week saw the first of what is, for me, a surprisingly long list of readings, mostly of poetry with, here and there, a modicum of prose levered in. Totally Wired is a monthly series that takes place in the Wired Café Bar in the centre of Nottingham, and organised by the poet, Becky Cullen, along with two lecturers from Nottingham Trent University – Rory Waterman and Andrew Taylor – both poets themselves. It’s no surprise perhaps that the majority of the audience are on the young side [let’s face it, anyone south side of fifty or so registers as young to me these days] or that a good number – the majority? – are students from NTU. What is a surprise is how many people are there, extra chairs having to be hauled up from the back of beyond, so that by the time Andrew has gone round collecting the names of those poets who want to read from the floor and the event is due to begin there’s a real sense of being squeezed up close to one’s neighbour and sharing their air – in my case, that of my  daughter Molly Ernestine, who’s come along for moral support and is prepared to step into the breach should I falter.

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The first four readers do two poems each, good poems read well, and, after an introduction from Andrew, I’m on. One of the most difficult things for me, when working out which pieces to read, is what to begin with. It doesn’t want to be too long, too obscure, too – for God’s sake – too dull. I used to make a habit of kicking off with “What Do You Say?”, a sort of riddle of a poem, to which the answer is the saxophone player Roland Kirk – which is fine when I’m doing a poetry and jazz gig with the band, but less successful otherwise – most people tend to scratch their heads in mild bemusement and I can’t say I blame them.
So, emboldened by the fact that not long since I was in Nottingham to take part in a Frank O’Hara tribute at the Five Leaves Bookshop, and surmising there may be more than one or two O’Hara fans in the audience, I opt for “Poem (In Imitation of Frank O’Hara)”, which is exactly that and turns out to have been a reasonable choice.

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After a pause in which I take the risky step of asking people not to applaud after every poem (as if!) on the grounds that I could probably fit in another poem in the time lost, I make my way through the remainder of my twenty minute set. You can see, feel, the audience listening, responding in what I think of as the right way – a couple of laughs in the right places – and I can relax and enjoy what I’d doing.

At the interval, Molly hustles and sells the relatively few books we’ve brought with us; I chat to friends, drink another (seriously good) flat white, and wait for the second part of the evening and half a dozen more readers – a good number reading for the first time – and it’s a real pleasure to hear so many good new poems – some humorous, some heartfelt, some both.

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I say my goodbyes, shake hands, and Molly and I set out for the station and the London train, the sounds of poetry and the strong sense of having had a better than good time reverberating around us.

For those who like to keep abreast of those things, this is what I read …

“Poem (In Imitation of Frank O’Hara)”
“Apples”
“Slow”

“Apparently”
“Winter Notebook” [Also with quite a few changes]
“Chet Baker”
“The U. S. Botanical Gardens, Washington D.C.”
“Curve”

… Nothing too unusual, save for “Slow”, a poem I dedicated to Lee Harwood and Paul Evans, and which I thought to read after receiving a positive comment about it from John Kieffer on this blog, and the little poem set in the Botanical Gardens in Washington D.C. – as I said, the last thing you might expect coming out of. D.C during the week of Trump’s inauguration is a love poem.

The U.S Botanical Gardens, Washington D.C.

The floor is azure blue tile
slick with the residue of that morning’s watering,
green hose slack within the leaves.
We used to come here, safe, and sit
not touching, humidity high in the nineties
and helicopters hovering, a block beyond the Hill.
In the display of medicinal herbs, I break
small leaves into my hand:
yarrow, for internal bleeding; foxglove
for the muscles of the heart.

When we meet again a year or more from now, by chance –
the departure lounge at Heathrow, hurrying
along the platform at Gare du Nord,
and your eyes as, uncertain
whether to offer your cheek for a kiss,
you hold out, instead, your hand,
I will slip into it these remedies I have long carried:
the knowledge that, nurtured, passion flowers
in the darkest places.

The keen-eyed will note that’s been trimmed and altered a little since it was published in Bluer Than This (Smith/Doorstop, 1998)

The next poetry reading I have coming up is at Words & Jazz, Downstairs at the Vortex, in Dalston, East London, on Thursday 23rd March, after which I’m back in Nottingham on Wednesday, 12th April for an evening of Poetry & Jazz at Bromley House Library, with Ian Hill (saxophones) and Geoff Pearson (double bass). Then, on Friday 28th April, I’m at the Poetry Café in Covent Garden [or, just possibly, at Bar 48, Brixton, please check] for Fourth Friday, where I’m hoping to be reading alongside Debris Stevenson, with two sets from singer-songwriter, Liz Simcock.

On Tuesday, 23rd May, along with Leah Fritz, Danielle Hope and others, I shall be reading at Primrose Hill Library, North London, in a benefit for the Marie Curie Hospice in Hampstead, and on Thursday of the same week, the 25th, I’m reading with the John Lake Band as part of the Brighton Festival Fringe.

Oh, and I might sneak a few poems into my session at Almondbury Library, Huddersfield on Thursday, 9th February, when I’m talking about my 40-odd years as a writer.

 

 

 

Walhalla

It’s difficult, visiting the current exhibition of Anselm Kiefer’s work at the White Cube, Bermondsey, not to be overwhelmed. It’s not just that the individual pieces – sculptures, paintings, assemblages, vitrines – are, in themselves, large and powerful (the power to some extent deriving from their size) it’s the way in which  Walhalla takes over the  gallery more or less in its entirety. Step past the woman handing out the obligatory Health & Safety guide lines – If you accidentally touch the works, it is recommended that you wash your hands thoroughly … Small children must have their hands held as a number of works have hard, rough edges at a potentially dangerous height – and immersion begins.

The central piece, from which the exhibition takes its name, runs the length of the central corridor,  bare bulbs overhanging rows of folding beds, empty save for heavy sheets of crumpled lead. The aftermath of a disaster, a terrorist attack? Are we in Aleppo? Mosul? World War Two or is it Three? An institutional dormitory, the gallery notes suggest, military sleeping quarters or battlefield hospital. As we weave cautiously in and out, damp and already somewhat depressed by the foul weather outside, I catch myself thinking, not too flippantly, of some not-too-distant outpost of the NHS.

At the far end of the corridor a much enlarged black and white photograph shows a single figure walking away into a barren winter landscape. The artist, making a break for freedom, free to give us his interpretation of the world? The hero of some dystopian novel, the last man left standing? Perhaps both …

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Walhalla : Anselm Kiefer [Photo: White Cube (Ben Westoby)]

Keen as ever to gouge out the horrors of his country’s history, Keifer’s paintings yoke together Nazi architecture and Norse mythology, portray vast landscapes in which towering buildings are being eclipsed by flowering clusters of blueish grey, corrosive and beautiful.

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Photo: White Cube (George Darrell)

One room is given over to a single piece, a spiral staircase rising up into the roof, discarded clothing and strips of film hanging from its railings; its primary inspiration, according to the gallery notes, the ascent of Valkyries as they lead those killed in battle to Valhalla; to me, the Holocaust, genocide of European Jews in World War Two.

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Sursum Corda : Anselm Kiefer [Photo: White Cube (Ben Westoby)]

Step into one room given over to a single installation and it is like stepping into Kiefer’s storeroom –as the title says, his arsenal: trays and boxes of paper, paintings, a myriad of things; old broken prams, machinery; strips of film that hang everywhere, film rendered, like so much else, into lead; a safe containing papers that have been burned and all but destroyed, another that remains locked and impossible to open; a version of Thor’s anvil that is displayed in another room. All of this, Kiefer seems to be saying in  this exhibition, all of history, memory, mythology, is my life, my work … your world.

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Arsenal : Anselm Kiefer [Photo: White Cube (George Darrell)]

The exhibition continues at the White Cube, Bermondsey, until 12th February.

RR : Combine Harvester

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Robert Rauschenberg : Rebus, 1955

Still zinging a little from the variety and brilliance of the Rauschenberg show at Tate Modern and planning a quick return (or two), I just came across a reproduction of Rebus, one of his early combines, made from attaching objects to a painted surface, often ‘stuff’ he found laying around his studio in Lower Manhattan.

This particular piece comprising … Oil, synthetic polymer paint, pencil, crayon, pastel, cut-and-pasted printed and painted papers, and fabric on canvas mounted and stapled to fabric, three panels.

Enjoy …

iPod Shuffle, January 2017

So, these tracks are the ones that bounced up into the headphones, accompanying me on my Heathside stroll …

  • Girl From the North Country : Bob Dylan & Johnny Cash
  • Time After Time : Miles Davis
  • Kathy’s Song : Paul Simon
  • Line Up : Lennie Tristano
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  • Standing at the Crossroads : Johnny Shines
  • Carolina Shout: James P. Johnson
  • Four Bothers : Anita O’Day
  • My Creole Belle : Mississippi John Hurt
  • When Will I See You Again : Billy Bragg
  • Winter Lady : Leonard Cohen
  • East 32nd : Lennie Tristano
  • Crazy Man Michael : Fairport Convention
  • Yours and Mine : Billie Holiday
  • She’s Crazy ’bout Her Lovin’ : Mississippi Sheiks
  • Suite Italienne 1 – Larghetto (Stravinsky) : Victoria Mullova & Katia Labeque
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  • Streets of Baltimore : Gram Parsons
  • Then Came the Children : Pail Siebel
  • Juke : Little Walter
  • Wasn’t Born to Follow : Dusty Springfield
  • Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting : Al Fair-weather & Sandy Brown’s All Stars
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Katia Labeque & Victoria Mullova in Rehearsal

Coming Events …

Happy New Year!

An appropriate time, I hope, to let you know some of the events I shall be taking part in during 2017.

On Thursday, 19th January, I shall be Guest Reader at Totally Wired, a monthly Poetry Reading Series held at Wired Café Bar, 42 Pelham Street, Nottingham NG1 2EG . Admission is free, it kicks off at 6.00pm and goes on till around 8.00pm. Guest readers from the floor welcome.

On Thursday, 9th February I shall be in Huddersfield, taking part in the Celebrating Kirklees Libraries section of the Huddersfield Literarature Festival. As well as reading, I shall be talking about my time as a professional writer and small press publisher.
This takes place as Almondbury Library, Stocks Walk, Huddersfield HD5 8XB and begins at 7.30pm. Tickets at £2 are available from the library or Kirklees Box Offices: 01484 223200; http://www.kirklees.gov.uk/townhalls

On Wednesday, 12th April, Bromley House Library hosts Blue Murder: Poetry, Jazz & the Crime Connection, at which I shall be reading in collaboration with Ian Hill (saxophones) and Geoff Pearson (double bass) from the band, Blue Territory and talking about those connections. Bromley House Library is on Angel Row, Nottingham NG1 6HL, The evening runs from 6.30pm – 8.30pm and for tickets you should contact http://www.bromleyhouse.org – 0115 9473134

On Tuesday, 23rd May, Leah Fritz is organising a Benefit Poetry Reading for the Marie Curie Hospice in Hampstead. I shall be reading with Leah Fritz and others and there will be music – jazz, no doubt – from John Lake at the piano. The venue is the Primrose Hill Community Centre, Fitzroy Road, London NW1 and it begins at 7.00pm.

Just two days later, Thursday, 25th May, John Lake is the prime mover behind a Brighton Fringe Festival event, Poetry & Jazz Layer Cake, in which his band will provide the music both fore and aft while I’m the nicely maturing jam in the middle. This all takes place at The Latest Music Bar, 14-17 Manchester Street, Brighton BN2 1TF, from 8.00 – 10.45pm. Tickets & Enquiries: bookings@thelatest.co.uk  – 01273 687171.

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With the John Lake Band at a previous Brighton event

Finally, to let you know that the Inspector Chen series on BBC Radio 4 recommences at 14.30 on Saturday, 28th January with my dramatisation of Qiu Xiaolong’s “A Case of Two Cities”. Featuring Jamie Zubairi as the good inspector, this will be followed by two further adventures, “Red Mandarin Dress” and “The Mao Case”, both dramatised by Joy Wilkinson. As usual, all three will available to listen to for 28 days or so on the BBC Radio iPlayer.

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Jamie Zubairi as Inspectord Chen & Louise Mai Newberry as An

 

Art & Photography 2016

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Saul Leiter: Barbershop 75

A daft title to this piece, when exhibitions like the retrospective of Saul Leiter’s work at The Photographers’ Gallery early in the year make all too clear the extent to which photography – some photography – successfully aspires to the qualities and conditions of visual art, of painting, thus making the distinction unnecessary. Leiter, of course, became a photographer almost by default as his family disapproved of his initial ambition to be a painter. Also excellent were Alec Soth’s photographs under the title Gathered Leaves at the Science Museum’s Media Space, Paul Strand’s photographs and films at the V&A, and, perhaps best of all, William Eggleston’s Portraits at, not surprisingly, the National Portrait Gallery.

The two most compelling – and rewarding – art exhibitions for me were Mona Hatoum at Tate Modern (conceptual art to admire the look and construction of as well as to think about) and the Frank Auerbach retrospective, continuing from the previous year, at Tate Britain. The Georg Baselitz show, We’re Off, at the White Cube, Bermondsey was quite powerful and  Georgia O’Keefe at Tate Modern was well-curated and therefore interesting, though I found it hard to warm to much of the actual work. The survey of Abstract Expressionism at the Royal Academy gave over its central rooms to some magnificent pieces by Jackson Pollock – quite staggering in their rhythm, their use of colour, their complexity and their unity – as well as lovely, compelling work by Joan Mitchell, Sam Francis and Phillip Guston – and they’re just my personal favourites. But why only one work by Helen Frankenthaler and that far from her best?

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Joan Mitchell: Mandres

The last show I got to see before the year’s end was the excellent Rauschenberg retrospective at Tate Modern. It was seeing the exhibition of Rauschenberg’s work at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1964 that first got me interested in post-war American art – in twentieth century art at all, really – an enthusiasm that has only strengthened over the intervening years. What is perhaps most striking – most enjoyable – about the Tate show is the effective way in which is demonstrates Rauschenberg’s range – combines, collages, performance pieces, sculptures, photographs, drawings, paintings, collaborations with Merce Cunningham, with John Cage and Jasper Johns – the variety and exuberance of his work, almost right to the end of his life, is astounding.

 

 

 

Poetry 2016

For memorial reasons, I’ve read, to myself and, occasionally, aloud to assembled others, a lot of Frank O’Hara this year. I read quite a lot of O’Hara most years. And I’ve read a little Robert Hass more days than not.

This list recognises the other poetry collections I’ve read and enjoyed most in the past twelve months.

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  • Rachael Allen : Faber New Poets 9 (2014)
  • Edwina Attlee : The Cream (Clinic, 2016)
  • Sam Buchan-Watts : Faber New Poets 15 (2016)
  • Matthew Caley : Rake (Bloodaxe, 2016)
  • Maura Dooley : The Silvering (Bloodaxe, 2016)
  • Janet Fisher : Life and Other Terms (Shoestring, 2015)
  • Marilyn Hacker : A Stranger’s Mirror (Norton, 2015)
  • Lee Harwood : The Books (Longbarrow Press, 2011)
  • Ian McMillan : Jazz Peas (Smith/Doorstop, 2014)
  • Helen Mort : No Map Could Show Them (Chatto, 2016)
  • Peter Sansom : Careful What You Wish For (Carcanet, 2015)
  • Judi Sutherland & Jim Burns : Dark Matter (The Black Light Engine Room Press, 2016)
  • Barry Wallenstein : Drastic Dislocations (New York Quarterly Boks, 2012)
  • Matthew Welton : The Number Poems (Carcanet, 2016)
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Lee Harwood: 1939 – 2015