Sunday 18 December 2022

'Cathedral Carol Service' by Wendy Cope

Cathedral Carol Service by Wendy Cope

Those of us who are not important enough
To have places reserved for us
And who turned up too late to get a seat at all,
Stand in the nave aisles, or perch on stone ledges.

We shiver in the draught from the west door.
We cannot see the choir, the altar or the candles.
We can barely see the words on our service sheets.

But we can hear the music. And we can sing
For the baby whose parents were not important enough
To have a place reserved for them,
And who turned up too late to get a room at all.

Sunday 27 November 2022

Service by Tom Vaughan, published in 'The Spectator' 15 April 2017

Service by Tom Vaughan

I stopped believing many years ago
even in non-belief, so why sit here
this winter morning, listening
to Sunday Worship on the radio
from St Martin-in-the-Fields? And to a choir
not so much singing as inheriting

the chanted fables generations pass
each to the next, as though they were handrails
into the future and could guide
us through a lifetime in which nothing lasts
except their solace - a thought which both appals
and fascinates, for what if such well-tried

harmonies say something tuned and true
about the way we can atone with age,
how we should be with one another,
how I both could and should have been with you,
and could still be even at this settled stage
of our long discord? What if this chance encounter

is not mere chance, but one of those rare moments
which offer insight into how the world
is more than all we see or hear
or touch - some inner, outer, spiritual endowment,
an unexpected cadence overheard,
which everyone, and everywhere, could share?

So let the old words comfort if they can -
they've done good service down the troubled years
helping us to come to terms
with what usually seems not just absurd, unplanned,
but a void our shocked imagination fears
and that unsung language only silence learns.

published in The Spectator 15 April, 2017

Sunday 23 October 2022

Closedown (for Alice Arnold) by Wendy Cope

Closedown (for Alice Arnold) by Wendy Cope

An almost empty building:
Someone, all alone,
Reads the shipping forecast
To a microphone.

Listeners in bedrooms,
Listeners at sea,
Thousands of them, hear her
Speak invisibly,

Hear her through the darkness,
Hear her say goodnight,
Picture her alone there,
Switching off the light.

Is it really like that?
I asked if I could go
And be with the announcer
In the studio.

And, yes, it's really like that.
Someone all alone,
Reads the shipping forecast
To a microphone.

Speaks into the darkness,
Says a last goodnight.
Plays the national anthem,
Switches off the light.

Sunday 9 October 2022

Her First Ball - Fleur Adcock published in 'The Spectator', 4 October 2008

Her First Ball - Fleur Adcock

For the school dance I wore a circular skirt --
full length, and a full-circle swirl of apple green;
I bought the pattern; my mother made the frock.

But what to do with my hair: so little-girlish,
too long? Auntie Phil came up with a green snood
and an Alice-band on which (her brainwave)

she pinned sprigs of daphne -- most waxen-petalled,
extravagantly-scented of real flowers,
from the bush by our door -- to intoxicate,

as it turned out, my classmate Dell's very tall
brother Ken, who danced with me all evening,
his nose hovering above the honeyed wafts.

After my friends' lunchtime coaching in the gym
I managed the quicksteps and foxtrots all right,
even in gold sandals (we all wore gold sandals).

As for underneath, I'd been given no option:
Phil and my mother had tracked down in some shop
a pair of kneelength, scratchy woollen drawers

to protect my kidneys from chills, they insisted.
I was too naive to see at the time
what it was they really wanted to guard.

published in 'The Spectator' 4 October 2008

Friday 7 October 2022

Swiping left on Larkin by Imtiaz Dharker

 Swiping left on Larkin
Imtiaz Dharker

Here he is younger, his shoulders
thinner. She flicks a finger,
swipes left. He
is dismissed without a flicker.

If they pass on the street, she sees
a boy trudge by with a book and satchel
under the arm, on the way to a lifetime
of drudge, easy to overlook.

In the edge of his eye she is a blur
between staying or dying,
a whiff of abroad, the chaos
of prams and infants teething.

At the end of every birth is grieving.
He takes the dark for a walk, his light
on a leash through the sputtering streets
of a town caught in the act of drowning.

From a window a curtain is waving
but his back is turned. Shops shut up
and shutters come down on the chatter
of living, the guttering years.

All roads lead to a leaving.
He goes in to the bar of the station hotel,
sits for a while. When he leaves, he leaves
a pale ring on the table. Gold

spills out of basements over his feet.
He walks down a street and out
of his name. Beyond rumour and fame,
a flurry of letters blown into gutters,

the glitter of language on cobbles,
his words remain
bright as believing or half-believing,
At the end of the world there is always

the sea and its breathing,
swiping right, swiping right
across a blue screen
to something beginning.

Sunday 2 October 2022

A Human Haunt by Carol Ann Duffy

A Human Haunt by Carol Ann Duffy

St Mary Overie, St Saviour, Southwark,
over the river, a human haunt in stone,
thousand years here, the sweet Thames well recalls.
Who came? Nuns, brothers, in good faith, saints,
poets- John Gower, whose blind head, look, rests
on the pillow of his books; Chaucer, imagining
the pilgrims’ first steps on the endless written road
we follow now, good readers; Shakespeare,
with twenty cold shillings for a funeral bell-
players, publicans, paupers, politicians, princes,
all to this same, persistent, changing space,
between fire and water, theatre and marketplace;
us, lighting our candles in the calm cathedral,
future ghosts, eating our picnic on a bench.


Sunday 25 September 2022

Another Slice by Roy Kelly (published in 'The Spectator', 30 January 2016)

Another Slice by Roy Kelly

All the books stored above our heads,
all the books there aren’t enough hours
to read again, and still we hesitate
to banish them complete.

The second-hand life, charity shops,
jumble sales, car boot fields:
the slow long-term dance,
temporary ownership, possession and loss.

Charity shops can take anything unwanted,
books and LPs, the unfashionable fashions,
but all those hours that used to be you,

what ever happened to them? Sometimes,
as with burnt toast, things can’t be salvaged
or scraped right. You have to discard. Start again.

published in ‘The Spectator’ 30 January, 2016

Tuesday 20 September 2022

A Miscellany on Books and Writing

Literary novelists

from 'Diary' by P D James, published in The Spectator 30 January 2010

A recent prize-giving has awakened my interest in discovering the definition of a literary novelist. I can define, at least for my own satisfaction, what is meant bya literary publisher: that is, one who would never publish a book he or she would be ashamed to be seen reading on the Underground. But defining a literary novel is beyond me. There are no sour grapes about this inquiry since only the most fragile egos would be bruised by omission from this mysterious category. Does the secret lie in the subject matter? It seems not, although a high proportion of literary novelists are apparently attracted to post-colonial stories, the recent or remote past, or fantasy. Does the distinction lie in literary style? Certainly a few literary novelists develop a style which makes demands on the reader’s comprehension, but others write with exemplary clarity and grace. That said, I doubt whether P.G. Wodehouse has ever been regarded as a literary novelist. Today Mr Ishiguro is a literary novelist, and Mr Le CarrĂ© is not — or so it appears. I doubt whether either writer is much concerned either way, but why does this difference arise and who decides? Once awarded the accolade, by whatever method, it seems that the distinction is never lost, and however disparaging or hostile the reviews of subsequent books may be, a literary novelist apparently remains so for life.

On the perception of reality

"The young boy who plays the part of the queen - we know he is a boy because Hamlet lets us know this when he begs to hope that young man's voice hasn't broken. Think of the Elizabethan audience though! They are watching a play, which has inside it another play, with a young boy in it - the young player - playing the part of Hamlet's own mother, who is herself a character we are watching on the stage, who is also sitting watching a play. So, we, the audience, are watching a play about an audience watching a play in which a young lad is dressed up to play the part of a woman who is watching him. And her part is also played by a boy, but this time we are supposed to be fooled by it! And what is it all for - this 'glass of art'? To reflect back to us our own preening, pretending selves. Can you image a more amusing introduction to the enigma of 'reality'?" - -- Salley Vickers, instances of the number 3 (pp285-6)

Samuel Johnson, on an essay: "I found your essay to be good and original. However, the part that was original was not good and the part that was good was not original."

Oscar Wilde on his writing

Thomas Wright, whose lovingly researched Oscar’s Books looks into all aspects of Wilde’s bookish passions, stresses Wilde’s proficiency in ancient Greek, proven, better perhaps than by his double first at Oxford, by copious and learned annotations in his copies of Homer, Plato, Euripides and many others. But the external beauty of books, too, mattered greatly to Wilde: though he considered books practical objects and would sometimes cut pages out of them for his own use, he delighted in elaborate bindings, exquisite first editions and cream paper with wide margins. Wilde’s bibliophilia (like his other passions) was tempered by intelligent humour. Wright reminds us that Wilde once declared his intention of bringing out a limited edition of his poem ‘The Sphinx’ in a print-run of just three copies: ‘One for myself, one for the British Museum, and one for Heaven. I have some doubts,’ he added, ‘about the British Museum.’

from a review by Alberto Manguel of 'Oscar's Books' by Thomas Wright published in The Spectator, 11 April 2009

Tom Stoppard on Language and Words

[Brodie]’s a lout with language. I can’t help somebody who thinks, or thinks he thinks, that editing a newspaper is censorship, or that throwing bricks is a demonstration while building tower blocks is social violence, or that unpalatable statement is provocation while disrupting the speaker is the exercise of free speech… Words don’t deserve that kind of malarkey. They’re innocent, neutral, precise, standing for this, describing that, meaning the other, so if you look after them you can build bridges across incomprehension and chaos. But when they get their corners knocked off, they’re no good any more, and Brodie knocks their corners off. I don’t think writers are sacred, but words are. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones in the right order, you can nudge the world a little or make a poem which children will speak for you when you’re dead.

from Act II Scene 1, The Real Thing by Tom Stoppard

Writing for Children

"Up to now, a whole lot of grown-ups have written reviews, but none of them have really known what they are talking about because a grown-up talking about a children’s book is like a man talking about a woman’s hat." -- Roald Dahl on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Advice for Writers

Until we know what a character wants, we don't know what the story is about.
Until we know what the stakes are, we don't care.