A Sale

Wood carving of Crucifixion scene

I always have mixed feelings when I sell a piece of my artwork that I’m fond of. On the one hand, I’m delighted someone likes it enough to want to buy it, but part of me doesn’t want to let it go. After all, we make artworks primarily to please ourselves (or am I being naive?), and I was pleased with this when I finished it.

But, it was in the shop to sell, so I can’t really complain. And I’m resigned to it going, now. Indeed, it’s already been dispatched and I hope it will give pleasure in its new home. The purchaser appears to be an Italian priest, and so it should be in an appropriate setting.

My sharp-eyed viewer will have noticed I’ve posted a few book reviews but almost nothing about my own writing recently. It’s still rather hit and miss, but I’ve been working on a number of poems over the last few months which have gone quite well. Or so I think. But I’ve not put any of them up here on the blog this time and in case you’re wondering why that is, I’ve decided it’s high time I tried submitting some poems to magazines and journals and they’re not usually interested in work that has been previously published on blogs or social media.

This does mean buying a few books and magazines to find out whether my style would fit in with what the publisher likes, but that’s no bad thing. It means I’ve got even more poetry books to read!

My Top Books of 2022

Well, my favourite twelve, anyway. One a month, if you like, although that wasn’t how I read them. Or perhaps the twelve book reviews of Christmas – oops, no. Missed that one. Anyway…these are some of the books I read in 2022, not books that were first published this year. But I seem to have read so many good books in 2022, it’s difficult to make a choice and this has ended up being a little arbitrary.

Stranger in the Mask of a Deer by Richard Skelton. It has been a long time since I last read something new and immediately put it into my top ten reads, but this remarkable work is straight in there. A few weeks later I had to re-read it, captivated by its dream-like quality.

It is essentially a poetic narrative ranging between the present day and Palaeolithic Britain, told by humans both ancient and modern, and by non-human voices. Its essence is life and ritual, the connection between humans and animals, between humans and the land they occupy, and the elements surrounding them.

The remains of deer skulls complete with antlers, but with eye holes punched into the skull so they might be worn as masks, have been found at Star Carr in Yorkshire, dating to approximately eleven thousand years ago. It is presumed these masks would have been used in rituals…

Millstone Grit by Glyn Hughes. This very readable book was originally published in 1975, describing a fifty mile walk the author took through East Lancashire and the West Riding of Yorkshire; an exploration of the moorlands and villages alongside the industrial towns, all of them suffering in their own ways from the effects of the loss of traditional industries in that area. It is about Hughes’ attachment to this area he came to live in, the clash between human and non-human landscapes, and about working class history in these places, but above all else about some most remarkable people he meets along the way.

I re-read The Old Weird Albion by Justin Hopper. This is a book about tracing a mystery in his family’s past, beginning with a woman preparing to throw herself off Beachy Head, a notorious spot for suicides, but also about the effects the landscape of the South Downs has had upon people.

This is a book I reviewed on this blog when I first read it three years ago – the link is here – and I’ll just put an extract of that review here: ‘He has a gift for sifting and selecting the weird in these relationships, not just at sites that might be naturally expected to encourage the weird, such as Chanctonbury Ring, high on the Downs above Steyning or in old ruined buildings, but also in humdrum blocks of flats in modern developments. He references modern phenomena like crop circles and throughout there is the presence of ‘magic’, in the sense of a natural force. Many of the people he meets are an eccentric mix of the weird, too, although I choose this description carefully, largely in the old, original meaning of the word of ‘fate’ or ‘destiny’.’

Another re-read, this time of a book I first read some forty years ago. The Spire by William Golding is a novel set in medieval England, in an unspecified city somewhere in the south. It is a story essentially about pride and hubris, about the Dean of a church determined to have built a great spire on his church, despite warnings that the foundations will not be able to support such a colossal structure. The ending seems predictable and yet that is not really where the story is going, being more concerned with the characters inhabiting that space.

The setting is the church and environs, and it evokes the feel of the ecclesiastic medieval as successfully as The Name of the Rose does. One test of how good a novel set in historical times is, is whether it transports the reader easily to that setting. I certainly found it did.

I bought Hemisphere by Pete Green at an event where poets read excerpts from their work. It is effectively a poetic journey around the northern hemisphere, beginning in Scotland, the journey approximating to the latitude of the arctic circle. The writing conveys a tremendous sense of place and feels very right for the cold edgelands described.

Holloway by Robert MacFarlane and Dan Richards, with illustrations by Stanley Donwood is a short book, describing a journey MacFarlane, Donwood, and Richards made in Dorset, essentially a revisit of a trip MacFarlane made previously with Roger Deakin for an earlier book, exploring holloways. Holloways, often known as sunken tracks or paths, are old – frequently very old – paths made over the centuries by the passage of feet, both human and animal, and perhaps by the wheels of wagons and carts. It is a short journey – perhaps ‘experience’ would be a better word – describing wild camps and walking, cycling and visiting old buildings; in some ways, perhaps it is really no more than a short camping trip, undertaken by a group of men acting out a boyhood adventure. The writing, though, by both MacFarlane and Richards is exquisitely poetic and Donwood’s illustrations never less than beautiful.

Notes on the Sonnets by Luke Kennard.

‘Luke Kennard recasts Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets as a series of anarchic prose poems set in the same joyless house party.

A physicist explains dark matter in the kitchen. A crying man is consoled by a Sigmund Freud action figure. An out-of-hours doctor sells phials of dark red liquid from a briefcase. Someone takes out a guitar.

Wry, insolent and self-eviscerating, Notes on the Sonnets riddles the Bard with the anxieties of the modern age, bringing Kennard’s affectionate critique to subjects as various as love, marriage, God, metaphysics and a sad horse.’

The Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald had been on my ‘to-read’ list for a long time, but I finally got around to picking up a copy this year. On one level, this is a walking journey taken by the author along the Suffolk coast in the early 1990’s, describing both places and people he comes across, but really, it is much deeper than that and is a psychogeographical work par excellence. Throughout the journey, we are never quite certain whether events are happening to the author, or have happened in the past, or perhaps to someone else at some other time. He goes off in unexpected directions, literary, historical, and physical, exploring a wide and eclectic range of subjects yet throughout there is a cohesion to the narrative.

The Birthday Letters are a not-quite-series of poems Ted Hughes wrote to his wife the American poet Sylvia Plath after her death. Personally, I find them to be probably his most accessible poems and wonder whether that says something about me, although this isn’t the time to go into that. Theirs was a difficult relationship, and her suicide (as well as that of a later lover of his) frequently colours people’s opinions of Hughes. Inevitably, these are often extremely personal poems, so much so that at times I feel a slight discomfort reading them, as if I’d opened someone’s private correspondence by accident, but Hughes wrote them as an attempt to restore her to him, and published them almost for the public to read as his own account of her life and death.

Sadly, Roger Deakin only wrote three books, of which Notes From Walnut Tree Farm is compiled from diary entries he kept during the last six years of his life. In these notes, he recorded his day to day life on the farm, walks on nearby Mellis Common, the yearly cycle of the natural world all around him, and his thoughts on literature, the importance of nature, and musings on the past.

Our Place by Mark Cocker is an exploration of the history of environmental thought and politics in Great Britain and, especially, the way forward. It asks pertinent questions like who owns the land and why? And who benefits from green policies? Not afraid to be radical in its suggestions, it asks why there is such a disconnect between the British public’s sympathy for and championing of the countryside and the reality of its current condition.

Digging up Britain by Mike Pitts tells the story of Britain’s history and prehistory in ten astonishing excavations. As someone who has always had an interest in history and pre-history, I found this book a timely reminder of the huge strides taken forward in our understanding of the past over the last ten years or so, due to such important tools as DNA analysis as well as the painstaking work of those who excavate and interpret these sites. There are some remarkable tales in this book.

If…

I’ve been feeling a bit flat recently, although that’s not uncommon at this time of the year.

I know I’m currently craving solitude and simplicity, wanting to spend some time somewhere a little remote. An area of moorland, such as Dartmoor or the Pennines, would do me very nicely. Even better if there were some woodlands nearby, too. Although there would be no people around (ideally), there would be wildlife to watch and hills and valleys and those woods to explore. Maybe some interesting ruins nearby…

Simplicity, that’s what I’d want. Somewhere with no wifi, no TV, no phone signal or even radio. A decent supply of food and a few beers because, as Jerome K Jerome said, thirst is a dangerous thing. A fire to sit beside in the evening. Somewhere small and basic with no luxuries.

I’d take some books. Several sorts, so I could pick one up or swap to another depending upon my mood. At least one book of poetry, perhaps Stranger in the Mask of a Deer which I read for the first time a few months ago, and then re-read recently because it was so damned good. Maybe a Seamus Heaney collection, including the ‘Station Island’ sequence of poems, or a collection by Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko for the marvellous long poem Zima Junction. Maybe I’d just take all of those.

I’d include some sort of detective novel for pure escapism, then one or two books by the likes of Robert Macfarlane – books that would inform me about the landscape I had decided to inhabit for a while.

I wouldn’t just be walking and exploring, or reading. I have a few poems I need to finish off, one about salmon and one about the Winter Solstice. In this environment I think I’d be inspired to finish them, hopefully write some more.

A week would probably do it.

Antisocial Media

I’m sure I cannot be alone in being unable to decide what I want my relationship with social media to be. One minute I determine I want as little to do with it as possible, then the next I’m commenting on Twitter posts and posting my own. It seems I simply cannot make up my own mind. I list all the positives – getting my work ‘out there’, networking, discovering interesting posts, finding new music and books, then list all the negatives – spending far too much time on there, getting distracted by stuff that doesn’t really interest me or, worse still, makes me cross and encourages me to engage negatively, and determine that yes, I’m going to limit my engagement with said social media to certain times, or types of interactions, but all too quickly I’m wasting hours on there.

So I then determine to have a break from it. Much easier, as it happens, and I enjoy having days when I don’t even open the computer. But sooner or later, for one reason or another, I’m back on there again.

In many ways, I would like to completely withdraw from it, but worry I would lose contact with many people I want to stay in touch with. Because this is the way things work now, I wouldn’t get to learn of so much new writing or music. I’d miss articles I very much want to read. In the past, I’ve written about my books and made sales that way, and should I ever get my act together enough to finish one of my current projects, would like to do so again.

But to many problems, of course, there is no perfect solution. I know I need more willpower, but even so I can never quite make up my mind exactly what I want out of social media. On different days I probably want different things, since on different days different sides of my personality come to the fore. One day I’m reading through my feed looking for posts on standing stones and myths, on another I’m looking at poetry magazines or music. Like all of us, perhaps, to a degree.

I’m not expecting anyone to come up with an answer to this, but if you also find it difficult to strike a balance between endless online trawling and complete cold turkey, just know that you are not alone!

It’s Difficult…

Bits of poems keep coming to me at the moment, but only in the form of phrases or the odd line. And nothing that relates to other poems I might be working on. Then when I attempt to tease them out further, the muse just disappears.

I think I’ve finished with A Good Place (the novel I’ve been working on for the last four years). That’s ‘finished with’ as opposed to ‘finished’. It’s just not a story I feel compelled to tell and on the basis of if you have nothing to say, then say nothing, I see no point in continuing with it for now. Anything I do feel I want to say at present can probably best be said in the form of poetry.

Even if I’m having trouble writing them at the moment.

There is a popular post that crops up on social media, invariably a variation on a photograph of a log cabin somewhere in a wilderness, with a caption along the lines of No TV, no internet, but plenty of books and all the food and drink you need. Could you live here for a month for $10,000? to which most people seem to reply Definitely! or Bring it on! or somesuch.

Leaving aside the interesting point that so many people say they would welcome that situation, it is certainly something that speaks strongly to me. Well, more than ‘speaks strongly’ – it jumps up and down waving its arms in the air and shouting ‘Oi! Look at me! Over here!’ Nothing seems to hold my interest at the present; I just feel I want to disappear into the wilderness and walk and walk and walk.

Maybe I’ll come across my muse there.

It’s the incessant noise as much as anything. Traffic. Aircraft. People talking or shouting into mobile phones in the quiet of the woods. Chainsaws, drills, and hammering. Unless you’re in the middle of Dartmoor or the Cairngorms, there’s no escape. And no guarantee of it even there.

Some Diary Extracts

April 10th 2022:

A few days ago I dug out all the pastel paintings I have hanging around and put them to one side, the intention being to chuck them all out. As part of managing to get my creative side working properly again, I feel I need to clear out the majority of my old work. I think it is simply preventing me from getting going again – as well as taking up space we don’t really have spare. I’ve always been a little reluctant to just destroy a painting I think I might be able to sell at some point, but that’s something that doesn’t matter to me in the same way any longer.

It’s much the same with writing. Nice if someone buys it and nice, of course, if someone reads it and likes it and, hopefully, gets something from it. But not important in the same way as it used to be. I’ve never wanted to be famous, or sell millions of books (much the same thing, of course), and perhaps this is part of that. If the poetry I’m currently writing is any good, I would like someone to publish it, and if a small audience appreciated it and thought it worthwhile, well, I’d be tickled pink. But it’s not that important.

If I paint again, or carve wood, it will be entirely for me. If someone likes a painting, then perhaps I’ll simply give it to them. I appreciate this isn’t a philosophy that most creatives could adopt, but it’s what I feel I should like to do at the moment.

Wall painting in Amberley Church, Sussex. It dates from around 1300AD, was whitewashed over around 1550, and restored in 1967.

April 11th 2022:

We’re off to Amberley for a couple of days. We should have been walking the South Downs Way at the moment, but Covid has left us too tired for that, so we cancelled our various bookings. But to give ourselves a short break, we kept the Amberley one and booked an extra night.

Yesterday I contemplated completely coming off the internet for a matter of all of about half a second. I find it a huge distraction and much of it incredibly annoying, but like most folk I’m in too deep to extricate myself. We’ve arranged our lives around it over the past twenty years especially, and in my own case I keep in touch with many people that way, I have my blog, which I don’t think I’m ready to give up yet, rely upon it for booking trains and finding train and bus timetables, use it for family research, writing research, and to find and order books and music. None of these would be insurmountable problems, but cumulatively it would just be too much hassle to do without.

But even when I’m using my laptop for writing, I get too easily distracted by the internet and I feel a little like those people who walk through lovely scenery staring down at their mobile phones.

April 15th 2022:

Sunny and clear this morning and the forecast is that the day will be warm and bright. Having had quite a busy day yesterday, I felt quite run down in the evening and this morning feel very tired despite having slept well. It is four weeks until we go to Coll and I hope I’ve got some energy back by then.

It is sunny and, dare I say it, warm all day and despite this being Easter Bank Holiday weekend, the forecast is that it will continue this way.

Strange powers are at work.

That Project – Into March, Now

February’s project was to finish the final draft of A Good Place. As you may have gathered from my last update post, this wasn’t going too well. By the end of the month, though, I had virtually achieved my aim. I’d chucked out some stuff that wasn’t working, rehashed what was left, and inserted a couple of ideas. It works, but I feel somewhat flat. As I said in that earlier post, it’s just not a story I feel particularly strongly about. If I hadn’t invested so much time in it by now, I’d just scrap it and be done with.

Actually, it’s possible I will do that eventually. I’ve put it aside and I don’t intend to look at it again for ages. Possibly not until next year. But March, I said, would be a month of painting and drawing. So what have I been doing? I’ve been writing poems.

Yes, writing poems. But before you all start jeering at me, hear me out. Our spare room is full of books and papers and God only knows what else. Bags and boxes of stuff that need sorting. To get it into some sort of order we need to get a new, large, set of shelves. But to make the most of the space we also needed to get rid of an old computer desk and a cupboard. That we’ve done, but that involved emptying said desk and cupboard, so even more stuff is piled on the floor and any other available surface.

So where on earth can you paint or draw?

Precisely! You see the problem! So, for the time being, change of plan. This month I’m fiddling around with some poems instead – you may have seen one effort on here last post – and leaving the painting for now.

Next month, then?

Um…not necessarily. I do have other plans for April. I’ll let you know what they are later.

My Books

While I am still sorting out a new paperback printing both for Making Friends With the Crocodile and for The Night Bus, I have put up a listing on my Etsy shop for the last few remaining paperback copies of each that I have. If you fancy grabbing yourself a copy, the links are here: Making Friends With the Crocodile and The Night Bus.

A little reminder of each:

The Night Bus This book is in two parts. A collection of seven short – and not so short – stories, which make up the bulk of the book, followed by a selection of recent poems.

Travel has always been a passion of the author and, one way or another, nearly every piece here is to do with journeys. Some of the stories are quite dark, but the majority of the poems have a lighter touch. Two stories are set in India; in one, a young man goes in search of a mysterious destiny, while in the other a travelling Englishman becomes embroiled in a chilling disappearance. One story speaks of the support and comradeship of a close-knit island community while another tells of jealous intelligences far older than mankind.

There is one long poem, which gives the title to this collection and tells of a journey across India and into the mountains. There is also a short series of poems about the ancient paths and tracks of Britain; in these, especially, a love of the natural world shines through.

Making Friends With the Crocodile There is an Indian proverb: If you live by the banks of a river, make friends with the crocodile.

Set in India, this is a novel about the corrosive relationship between a mother and daughter-in-law, and the contempt in which that society still holds women. Siddiqa’s son has brought his new wife, Naira, to live with them, so Siddiqa is no longer the lowliest in the household, for she now has a daughter-in-law to assume that role. But when Naira accuses one of her husband’s friends of sexually assaulting her, all their lives begin to spiral out of control.

Chanctonbury Rings

This Tuesday evening just gone. Brighton. 7.30pm. I’m here with my friend Mark to see a gig for the first time since the Pandemic began, a gig I had planned to see last year for my birthday, but which was cancelled – due to the Pandemic, of course. Chanctonbury Rings is a collaboration between writer Justin Hopper, musician Sharron Kraus, and visual artist Wendy Pye, based on extracts from Justin’s 2017 book The Old Weird Albion.

Chanctonbury Rings was released (on CD, vinyl and download) by Ghost Box in 2019, and is described on their website as ‘A spoken word and music project by writer Justin Hopper and folk musician Sharron Kraus. It also features Ghost Box’s own Belbury Poly. Based on live performances of Hopper’s 2017 book The Old Weird Albion, it’s a poetical, autobiographical and psychogeographical account of his experiences at Chanctonbury Ring…‘ It goes on to state: ‘The album is a blend of folk, electronic music, poetry, prose and environmental sound. Kraus’s electro-acoustic soundscapes and songs interweave with Hopper’s rich, intimate narration.’

I first learned of The Old Weird Albion a couple of years ago when I was emailed by a reporter writing a review of the book for the Caught By The River website (which I must post about sometime), who had come across one of my blog posts on Chanctonbury Ring, a prehistoric hill fort on Chanctonbury Hill, part of the Sussex South Downs. In conversation, he told me of both the book and the music project. Naturally, I ended up buying both. (My review of The Old Weird Albion is here if you wish to learn more about it. Of course you do.)

When I heard it was being performed live, I decided I would have to go to see it. Then the Pandemic intervened and it would be over a year before I had another chance.

So on Tuesday we are in the Brighton Spiegeltent, part of the Brighton Fringe, awaiting the show. Outside, pouring rain and a lot of rather drunken football-related chanting. (I believe there was a game on somewhere.)

Inside, though, Chanctonbury Rings. The piece is built around the section of the book where Justin visits Chanctonbury Ring one May Day, to watch both the sunrise and the Morris dancers celebrating Beltane, the ancient name for the festival held that day. It combines personal experience with myth and legend, Sharron’s music both punctuating and supporting the narrative, and Wendy’s visuals projected on a screen behind the performers.

Incidentally, Sharron is a musician I had not come across before hearing the album, but I have since been captivated by her own stunning albums. If you have any interest in folk, I’d recommend you give them a listen.

Wendy’s visuals were well-judged photographs and film of Chanctonbury Ring and the surrounding area, at times deliberately grainy and vague and at others lusher, although there was perhaps something ghostly about all of them, each choice inevitably suiting the mood of the narrative at that point.

The spoken words, the music and song, and those visuals weaved around each other and blended happily together, elegantly constructing the world as it appeared to one viewer that May Day morning and projecting the audience, for the duration of the performance, into that world too.

It was magical.