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Down Unwin’s track

Skies draft cover 2 (front only) (1)

Skies by Alison Brackenbury

My new collection, ‘Skies’, will be published by Carcanet on 31 March 2016.
Can skies be pre-ordered? Yes, in this case, from
Carcanet – special offer!

**SPECIAL PRE- LAUNCH OFFER UNTIL 31st March **

To order your copy of Skies at the special price of £8 (RRP £9.99) with free UK P&P, go to http://www.carcanet.co.uk and enter the code: AMBER (case-sensitive) at the checkout.
Amazon:
http://www.amazon.co.uk/Books-Skies-Alison-Brackenbury/dp/178410180X/ref=sr_1_8?s

 

Readings 2016

Friday 11 March, 8 p m at the Dugdale Theatre, Enfield, North London
I am reading with John Godfrey – and an excellent jazz quartet! Details below…

Jazz poster

Saturday April 23rd, 2 p m at the Much Wenlock Poetry Festival. I am reading with Chris Kinsey at the Edge Arts Centre, Much Wenlock.
http://www.wenlockpoetryfestival.org/event/alison-brackenbury-and-chris-kinsey/

Much Wenlock poster

Down Unwin’s track

Hare photo

Lepus europaeus in August 2013 at Köyliö, Finland.

Santtu37 – Own work  CC BY-SA 3.0

It was on a wide grassy hill path – ‘Unwin’s track’ – that I first began to see hares again. The hare has a strange double power. It is hazed by half-remembered stories. It is the moon’s creature, the wounded animal who is also a human witch. But real hares, flying off down the furrows, startling as small deer, have a strange knack of reappearing at turning points in our own lives.

I grew up in Lincolnshire, in houses owned by the farmer my father worked for, often totally surrounded by farmland. It was a devastated landscape. After the Second World War, (only a few years before my birth) tractors had replaced horses, hedges had been ripped up, DDT had killed the hawks. In my youth, the new generation of farm chemicals was often sprayed from planes.

Yet, in the great fields, hares remained. They like pasture land, field margins, wide verges, strips of grass by woodland. These remnants of traditional farming lingered on in my youth. So, as I walked down the lane from my parents’ house with my university boyfriend (later my husband) we would often see a pair of hares on the horizon, out in the vast ploughed fields, boxing. I thought they were both male. Never take on trust any fact about wildlife told to you by someone who has always lived in the country! When glow worms reappeared one summer, a Gloucestershire farmer, who had last seen them as a child, assured me that these mysterious points of light were male. They are, in fact, wingless females…

Brown hares, the experts tell us, have declined 80% since my grandfather was a young, and wildlife-loving shepherd, a hundred years ago. When I began riding around a friend’s small Gloucestershire farm, a quarter of a century ago, I rarely saw hares. If I risked a four-footed trespass into a local wood, I might glimpse one on a sunny bank, in a grassy No Man’s land between trees and field.

I often rode the broad path we called ‘Unwin’s track’. Do we own land? Only in the most temporary way. If we are remembered in a landscape, it is often for the good we have done. The farmer whose name I still give to that track has grown old, sold up, and gone. But he kept the track green, and allowed us to ride there, past its brambles and cranesbill, although it has no rights of way.

And along Unwin’s track, a few years ago, the old pony and I began to meet hares: a single one, sitting bolt upright, puzzled by the horse, then loping into the hedge; a mother, racing ahead of a large leveret to the safety of longer grass. There was no mystery about this. The EU had given farms environmental grants. These obliged farmers to keep wider field margins (often sown with wild flowers). Hares need these; they live on them, and feed on the varied grasses and herbs which grow there.

So, again, I met with hares. When my husband retired and began walking out, with me and the slow old pony, we saw more and more. Did you know that the brown hare is not a protected species in Britain? If the Hunting Act were repealed, it could again be hunted with dogs. Despite its continued decline, large hare shoots take place each year, legally.
But yesterday, from Unwin’s track, I saw two young hares, crouched quietly in the rain in a wide open strip by the edge of the crops, waiting for the weather to improve. One small farm; a handful of hares. Yet they show that things can be made better. It is up to us. Poetry can’t lobby for changes in farming and the law. But it can praise the mysterious animals which need these changes.
Here is a poem of time, and hares. In one respect at least, it is a more truthful poem than I would have written when I walked the windy roads of Lincolnshire. I now know that one of the furiously boxing hares is a female, fending off the male because she is not yet ready to mate.

Down Unwin’s track
And the rain stopped. And the sky spun
past the hills’ flush of winter corn.
The mare strode out as though still young.

You walked. I almost said, last year
I saw a hare run with her young
just past the broken wall, just here.

Two flew in circles. First, one rose
upon its great back legs. It boxed
at air. The second flinched, then rose.

England has blackbirds, mice. To find
these strong black shapes makes the heart race,
as barley, under icy wind.

Boxing is courtship, failed. One broke,
tore past us to the rough safe hedge.
She crossed the sun. Her colours woke,

ears black, back russet, earth new-laid.
Her legs stretched straight. The late showers made
bright water fly from every blade.

Alison Brackenbury
From Skies, my new collection, to be published by Carcanet on March 31.

It can be ordered now from:

Carcanet (cheaper!)
http://www.carcanet.co.uk/cgi-bin/indexer?product=9781784101800
Amazon:
http://www.amazon.co.uk/Books-Skies-Alison-Brackenbury/dp/178410180X/ref=sr_1_8?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1448388060&sr=1-8&keywords=alison+brackenbury

White Magic

Skies by Alison Brackenbury

Skies by Alison Brackenbury

Where are we now?

                           David Bowie

 

Where are you?  In the ache of January’s black

as though its cold clutching had crept up my back

I hear you are dead.  I hear track after track.

The illness stayed hidden.  Only the voice

grew careful and weary.  It sang, we have choice.

For you knew where you were, how our planet spun.

You found American rock, then breathed on

your English air.  You flew to the sun.

 

David Bowie said in a radio interview that he had added to rock the great gift of English music: melody.

 

Alison Brackenbury

11 January 2016

 

 

Readings 2016

Friday 11 March, 8 p m at the Dugdale Theatre, Enfield, North London

 I am reading with John Godfrey – and an excellent jazz quartet! Details below…

Jazz poster

Saturday April 23rd, 2 p m at the Much Wenlock Poetry Festival.  I am reading with Chris Kinsey at the Edge Arts Centre, Much Wenlock.

http://www.wenlockpoetryfestival.org/event/alison-brackenbury-and-chris-kinsey/

In the quiet dip between Christmas and New Year, I have finally dodged between unprecedented home renovations and all-too-familiar computer breakdowns.

So before the next paint tin or catastrophic updates arrives, I will just quote from an article which amused and touched me. It is a review, not of a book, but of a reading.

The Oxford poet and journalist Humphrey Astley wrote an article, in November, about a Hallowe’en poetry reading in the Albion Beatnik Bookshop.  It’s excellent to have poetry featured in the local press.  Here is what Astley wrote about my reading:

‘…there can be no doubt that we are in the presence of a master performer – reciting from memory, her incantatory tone and gestures give her the air of a kind of white witch of poetry. (That she’s getting into the spirit of things by wearing a cape probably adds to the effect.)

And there’s magic in her poetry, for sure…’

You can read the full account of the memorable readings from Mimi Khalvati, Claire Crowther and Jing-Jing Lee here:

http://www.oxfordtimes.co.uk/leisure/theatre/theatre/reviews/14099852.Broken_taboos_and_autumnal_alchemy_from_some_masters_of_modern_poetry/

I can’t, sadly, perform white magic – and the cape belonged to a kind friend.  But I do own one sequinned jacket…

If you would like a cheap and cheerful reader for 2016, have a microphone, and can be reached from Cheltenham by public transport, I would be delighted to come. I don’t do workshops, but do rehearse readings very thoroughly, keep to time religiously, and am always glad to talk to audiences afterwards.  Do feel free to contact me, without obligation, via the Contact Page on this website, which sends messages straight to my current email.

My new collection, ‘Skies’, will be published by Carcanet in March 2016.  I’m delighted by the light-filled skies of this cover. I think it is one of the best Carcanet have produced for me, in the thirty-five years we have worked together.

And, thanks to technology undreamed of when I first began publishing poetry, ‘Skies’ is already available for pre-order:

From Carcanet (cheaper!)

http://www.carcanet.co.uk/cgi-bin/indexer?product=9781784101800

or Amazon:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Books-Skies-Alison-Brackenbury/dp/178410180X/ref=sr_1_8?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1448388060&sr=1-8&keywords=alison+brackenbury

A very Happy and light-filled New Year!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Esteesee

Skies by Alison Brackenbury

Skies by Alison Brackenbury

I must quickly post the cover of my new collection, ‘Skies’, which will be published by Carcanet in March 2016.  I’m delighted by the light-filled skies of this cover. I think it is one of the best Carcanet have produced for me, in the thirty-five years we have worked together.

And, thanks to technology undreamt of when I began publishing poetry, ‘Skies’ is already available for pre-order:

From Carcanet (cheaper!)

http://www.carcanet.co.uk/cgi-bin/indexer?product=9781784101800

or Amazon:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Books-Skies-Alison-Brackenbury/dp/178410180X/ref=sr_1_8?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1448388060&sr=1-8&keywords=alison+brackenbury

If you would like a cheap and cheerful reader for 2016, have a microphone, and can be reached from Cheltenham by public transport, I would be delighted to come. I don’t do workshops, but do rehearse readings very thoroughly, keep to time religiously, and am always glad to talk to audiences afterwards.  Do feel free to contact me, without obligation, via the Contact Page on this website, which sends messages straight to my current email.

And now, my December blog post – Esteesee.

Christmas is a good time for building bridges.  You can, I am sure, instantly supply the name of an aunt, lapsed friend or neighbour normally stranded from you on a conveniently distant bank…

But this blog celebrates a bridge between two of the best of neighbours: poetry and new folk music.  For about fifteen years, I have been scurrying between the two like an eager puppy, bringing back my discoveries of new songs and singers to the rather different audience of poetry.  I have written articles, given talks and broadcast about folk song, new and old.

am a complete musical amateur, and if any of my contributions has been particularly ragged around the edges, I can only apologise. I hope that a creaking bridge is better than none at all.  I think that all my clumsy efforts felt worthwhile on the day when a reader told me I had introduced her to Chris Woods’, ‘Hollow Point’, whose subject is the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes in the Underground: a devastating, yet hauntingly beautiful song.

On a lighter note, folk music has just delivered an early Christmas present to me.  We all have idle dreams: stardom, the Lottery… Mine, by my sixties, was more modest but equally intense: to have one of my poems set to music by one of the singer-songwriters whose work has given me such pleasure.

I first heard Ros Brady singing live.  I greatly admired the energy and strangeness of her songs, and gave her some of my poems.  Cast your bread upon the waters… And now Ros has come back, like Noah’s dove, I feel, with a song spun free from two of my bird poems.  The song, provisionally called ‘Crow’, echoes and circles.  Ros has unerringly found both poems’ most intense lines, and their most musical names, for places and Birds.

I believe that this song (probably retitled ‘Off Course’) may soon appear on an EP.  But meanwhile, here is a link to Ros’ song on video – whose magnificent crows and crests of woodland bear a startling resemblance to those which lie behind the poems:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aJqWu-QdUQ8

And Coleridge?  Ah, yes.  Ange Hardy, from Somerset, is one of my favourites from a marvellous new generation of singer-songwriters. (This too has a parallel in new poetry!)  Expert reviewers and the judges of BBC awards have already agreed with my amateur enthusiasm for her past work.

Now Ange has produced Esteesee, a CD of songs inspired by Coleridge, with the initals he frequently used himself as its title.  I can hear lovers of Coleridge’s poetry anxiously drawing in breath.  Yes, this could have been a disaster.  In fact, I think, it is a triumph.

Ange is an experienced musician.  The sleeve notes to her album bravely reveal that she also has the depth of life’s experience behind her: a runaway period in Ireland, as a teenager; the birth of a child.  She freely admits that she came freshly to Coleridge.  But her songs can send her listeners back to his work with the newness of discovery.

I have read Coleridge’s major poems. I knew something of his life.  But I was startled and fascinated by the material which Ange Hardy chose for the songs of Esteesee Esteesee.  She has one song based on an early fragment, ‘The Foster-Mother’s Tale’.  Another springs from a ghost story, told by Coleridge at dinner. (This would  have chilled the soup…)

Ange Hardy’s tunes are as fresh as her choices.  One of the loveliest is devoted to ‘William Frend’, a song based on a (highly topical) incident of Coleridge’s youth.  A tutor from Coleridge’s Cambridge college was put on trial after he published a pamphlet criticising the Church’s liturgy.  Coleridge was, allegedly, a keen supporter of Frend.  This may sound dry.  But when the song opens with ‘Oh sweet William Friend’, the passionate lilt of Hardy’s music is irresistible.  This song has been widely played on radio.  In a time of fear and religious fanaticism, its echoes are profound.

Amongst the strongest tracks of Esteesee are Hardy’s settings of texts linked to Coleridge’s faith.  Hardy is a fine writer of lullabies, and songs for children (which also move adults deeply).  Memorably, and without a trace of self-consciousness, she sets the prayer which includes ‘Four angels round my head’, in which, Coleridge wrote, he ‘most firmly believed’.  She also condenses Coleridge’s own epitaph for himself into a song, with equal measures of skill and compassion:

Come pray that he who toils of breath

As death in life finds life in death [,,,]

The Ancient Mariner speaks again… Ange Hardy writes in her sleevenotes that she could have written an ‘entire album’ on ‘The Ancient Mariner’.  But what she has done is fascinating.  Her CD has fourteen songs: all short, and the more powerful for their restraint.  She has left behind the old curse of the rambling folksong.  (The Romantics, too, could wander too far…)

Musically, her settings have a most unexpected quality: a briskness of rhythm; a kind of jaunty elegance, especially as lines end: ‘A thousand thousand slimy things/ lived on; and so did I’.  Hardy does not wallow in the Mariner’s misery.  She ends the line darkly, and abruptly.  This is immediately effective. It is deeply linked, I think, to two qualities in Coleridge’s own writing.

The first is the power of the ballad, which often moves ahead with ruthless speed.  But the economy, and what I have already called the elegance of Hardy’s timing, also remind me of the particular qualities of eighteenth century writing, whether in Pope’s couplets or the sharp lyrics of The Beggars Opera.  I think that John Gay’s wonderful marriage of high and low art – with savage social commentary – has its parallels in the best of modern British folk music.

Even my ignorant ears can appreciate the richness of the musical skills which underpin Esteesee.  Ange Hardy notes ‘Twelve of us appear on the album playing fifteen instruments’.  Amongst the twelve musicians is the West Country singer and songwriter Steve Knightley, with a memorable account of Coleridge’s own youthful flight from home.  And ‘Kubla Khan’’s dulcimer playing maid is accompanied, most artfully, by … a ‘hammered dulcimer’.

For Coleridge’s own lines are spoken on this album.  You can hear the whole of ‘Kubla Khan’ – which, I suspect, will not be known by every listener. An extract from ‘The Ancient Mariner’ is read by David Milton, the town crier of Watchet, the port which, allegedly, is the setting for the poem’s long meeting of the Wedding Guest and the Mariner.  I have never heard Coleridge’s work read by a speaker from the West Country.  I shall not forget the warmth of the vowels, in the grimmest of descriptions, and the slow lengthening of the lines which describe the Mariner’s ordeal: ‘Day after day’….

The richness of the songs spills over into the sleeve notes.  You will find poetry there, including the whole of ‘Kubla Khan’, and extracts from Coleridge’s little known play. A boy ‘all alone, set sail by silent moonlight / Up a great river, great as any sea’.   All of Ange’s lyrics are printed, so you can trace, at your leisure, her sympathetic translation of poem into song.

And Christmas? Well, if you have a friend, partner or relative who loves poetry and music, Esteesee, with its bold black and white cover, its fresh tunes and the long echoes of its words, would make a modest-sized but generous present.  Make sure that you can listen to it, too…

I will end with the tiniest of my own Christmas poems.  For decades, I have mulled over the description of Christmas in ‘Version B’ of the medieval poem Piers Plowman, by William Langland.  Here is my brief, admiring reflection:

                          Line 148

So who stood lit, shocked by the glow of birth?
The angels flew ‘to pastors and to poets’.
Poets, please note. Langland set shepherds first.

 

 

Alison Brackenbury

 

Merry Christmas!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the bus

 

Skies by Alison Brackenbury

Skies by Alison Brackenbury

I must quickly post the cover of my new collection, ‘Skies’, which will be published by Carcanet in March 2016. I’m delighted by the light-filled skies of this cover. I think it is one of the best Carcanet have produced for me, in the thirty-five years we have worked together.
And, thanks to technology undreamt of when I began publishing poetry, ‘Skies’ is already available for pre-order:
From Carcanet:
http://www.carcanet.co.uk/cgi-bin/indexer?product=9781784101800

This cover is based on a photograph by Hannah Devereux. Her website – which entranced me with its wild photographs of snow – can be found at:

http://www.hannahdevereux.com/

If you would like a cheap and cheerful reader for 2016, have a microphone, and can be reached from Cheltenham by public transport, I would be delighted to come. I don’t do workshops, but do rehearse readings very thoroughly, keep to time religiously, and am always glad to talk to audiences afterwards. Do feel free to contact me, without obligation, via the Contact Page on this website, which sends messages straight to my current email.

 

On the bus by Arriva436

New book… First, a shameless note to say that I have a new collection due from Carcanet in March 2016.  So

Blog post:  On the Bus

This year, Blog and I have meandered through Beckett, and Brecht. So now, of course, we are considering Buses.

Did Beckett use buses? He would certainly have made much better use than I do, in  plays or poems, of the people who arrive at bus stops. Sometimes, though not always, they leave on a bus.  (The people who talk to invisible people tend not to.)  Beckett certainly did not board a bus on the occasion when he gave away all his cash to a stranger and walked home, for miles.

Brecht probably would not have used buses either, but that was because he was trying to keep his cash.  When persuaded to take a tram, he moaned ‘These tram rides will end in the bankruptcy court’.  I don’t think this was a joke. I also think it is a shame that Brecht was not in charge of our credit policy in the years leading up to 2008.  Fewer people used the buses after that.

Why do I use them? I have the use of a car.  Although wildly grey, I still have to pay for my bus tickets, as I am not grey enough for a state pension.  Most of the passengers stare at me in amazed interest.  They have bus passes – and without the subsidy for this, young mothers with push chairs, yawning commuters and I would only have a fraction of the buses that now purr and sway along the roads of our small town.

Buses aren’t perfect, but a packed bus must be better for the planet than if we all sat in our separate, fuming, and hard-to-park cars.  You meet new people and old neighbours at draughty bus stops, then in the draughty but warmer bus.  And I have started to use them now, while I have most of my teeth and faculties.  For have seen people, suddenly deprived of a car, freeze like a hedgehog in the headlights when a relative suggests they should ‘use the buses’.  Believe me, this takes years of study!

In our quiet suburb, a GCSE in Buses will take you on to the 97.  (Or the 98.  Don’t panic.  They go the same way.) They are the Rolls Royce of our local service, but they don’t spoil us by frequency.  They sweep round the corner to my nearest stop every half hour (or so).  They come from Gloucester, by the scenic route (old army camps, sprawling villages).  But once the 97 (or the 98) has swept you up, you will be in town in five minutes, and can speed home, after half an hour, on a different 97. Or a 98…

The Bus A level is the D.  Why? It, too, is going into town.  How can that be difficult?  First, as a kind lady pointed out to a hopeful relative of mine, you must cross the road, and flag down the D which is heading OUT of town.  (Other kind residents used to stick handwritten notes of instruction on bus shelters, ending ‘I hope this helps’…)

Once helped on to a D, you sit, bemused, as the little single decker hurtles round a series of unfathomable loops, past the green where you’ve always meant to go carol singing, down the road where your friend campaigned to keep the poplars, past the road where twenty years ago you rushed a reluctant child to ballet… and how did we get to the railway station?  After half an hour of this, shell-shocked by memories, you dismount unsteadily in Lower High Street.  Don’t despair.  The route back only takes twenty minutes, although it does include the railway station…

And the PhD? Ah.  Bus-swopping! Come back from Morrisons on one D bus, but avoid the Bermuda Triangle of the railway station by jumping out in Alma Road, then darting around a corner to the first stop in Windermere Road.  (This stunt is regularly performed by pensioners carrying stones of shopping.) Then you catch another D – the one going into town, which is, of course, heading OUT of town…

The Council, after some delay, has passed its Bus A-level and has promised to build a bus shelter especially for these stalwart, often rain-soaked shoppers. It may not have graduated to the advanced swoppers, who start off on the 94, but jump out just before Shelburne Road, where you can catch up with the D. (At certain times of day, you might even meet a little flotilla of Ds, flocking together, like sheep.) This is a high risk manoeuvre.  Doze off, and you will find yourself in Gloucester.  But you can always come back on the 97.  Or the 98…

I was sitting in the hairdressers recently when a low red bus flew past, marked ‘J’.  The shop’s proprietor has worked in Cheltenham for decades.  The customers, I’d guess, including me, have lived there for at least a century in total.  ‘Where does that bus go?’ asked the hairdresser (who drives from Gloucester). None of us had the faintest idea.

Next time, I’ll tell you about the 51 to Swindon, the 853 to Oxford, and the 61 to Stroud, which I must board for the first time soon, and of which I’m terrified, because I believe that, sometimes, it goes to Dursley –  But that’s another story.

Here is a poem, about a creature which I have seen, with astonished delight amongst the suburban trees or the Gothic school towers of this town.  Never, I must admit, at a bus stop…

So-

So in my dream the birds were bats.

There is that chill which shocks the spine
as daylight thickens, as the line
which flashes over lane or street
is not a bird, which drops to eat
on tables at your garden’s end,
which may have names, familiar, friend.
It is a bat, with needled teeth,
which lets the last blue tilt beneath
at dizzy speed, not needing light
as badger, hedgehog tunnel night
without their eyes, see sound, hear scents,
but bats are speed. A bat has leant
on windless air, flicked body clean,
before eye slows all it has seen,
poised in the gap from warmth to words.

But when I woke, the bats were birds.

Alison Brackenbury
Published in PN Review

London Omnibus 1829

London Omnibus 1829

A poem for August…

 

Harvesting CC-BY-SA 3.0 Unported and GNU Free Documentation License 1.3 View

Harvesting
CC-BY-SA 3.0 Unported and GNU Free Documentation License 1.3

New book… First, a shameless note to say that I have a new collection due from Carcanet in March 2016.  So if you would like a cheap and cheerful reader for 2016, have a microphone, and can be reached from Cheltenham by public transport, I would be delighted to come. I don’t do workshops, but do rehearse readings very thoroughly, keep to time religiously, and am always glad to talk to audiences afterwards.  Do feel free to contact me, without obligation, via the Contact Page on this website, which sends messages straight to my current email.

Forthcoming readings
I am reading in Cardiff on Thursday, October 8th, 6 p m, at the National Museum, Cardiff, with John Freeman, Phillip Gross and Alyson Hallett. We will be reading our poems from the anthology Map, which celebrates the beautiful and pioneering map of Britain made by the geologist William Smith.  We’ll also read a short selection of our own work on related themes.  Mine will probably include a good deal of limestone and water! I look forward to a rich and varied evening, in a fascinating setting.  Full details at
http://www.museumwales.ac.uk/cardiff/whatson/8500/Late-Night-Poetry-at-the-Museum/

I am reading in Oxford, at the Albion Beatnik bookshop in Walton Street, on October 31 (Hallowe’en!). The evening starts at 6 p m and ends about 9 p m. There’s a great selection of other readers: Claire Crowther, Mimi Khalvati and Chrissy Lee Jing-Jing.  And an open mic! (Tickets £5 on the door.)

August is, I think, too sleepy for long blogs.  So here is a short dusk poem…

In August

Light touches us. Dusk licks at bats.
And so I stand with aching feet
watching high beech leaves bunch, then shift
in air too cool to lure our cats.
In lavender spikes, I hear first beat,
a thrumming moth.  Ah now, they lift,
wingtips too fine for eyes to hold.
Stay.  Stay.  But those pulsed bodies pass,
like summer, slip, to whitening gold.

Alison Brackenbury
Published in Domestic Cherry

 

Snowdrop and the radio

New book…

First, a shameless note to say that I have a new collection due from Carcanet in March 2016.  So if you would like a cheap and cheerful reader for 2016, have a microphone, and can be reached from Cheltenham by public transport, I would be delighted to come. I don’t do workshops, but do rehearse readings very thoroughly, keep to time religiously, and am always glad to talk to audiences afterwards.  Do feel free to contact me, without obligation, via the Contact Page on this website, which sends messages straight to my current email.

Forthcoming reading

I am reading in Oxford, at the Albion Beatnik bookshop in Walton Street, on October 31 (Hallowe’en!). The evening starts at 6 p m and ends about 9 p m. There’s a great selection of other readers, including Claire Crowther, Anne-Marie Fyfe and Mimi Khalvati. And an open mic!

Open Doors: BBC 6 Music This blog is being written – though not posted – in the week of my birthday.  So, in the faint after-haze of chocolate and idleness, I decided to babble happily, about a source of comfort and inspiration: my favourite radio station. My family’s love affair with radio began in 1936, when my father, aged ten, listened to the Abdication speech in a shepherd’s cottage, on a massive, brand-new set. (As a Republican, who thinks that a royal life with the paparazzi may be a particularly gleaming circle of Hell, I live in hope of a repeat performance.)

Why don’t I watch television? This has much to do with a man called Keith, who, in his spare time, renovated and sold second-hand televisions. I asked Keith if he had a good one. Keith said he’d let me know. That was in 1977. Keith wasn’t noted for speed. But I was driving unusually fast, when, almost thirty years later, I slipped out of our family business (normally only deserted in case of fire or death) and headed into the desert of Cheltenham’s retail parks, (normally avoided, by me, like the plague, not least for their terrifying traffic).

Having avoided speed humps, cornering vans, and actually killing anyone, I reached the counter and gasped to the assistant ‘Do you sell digital radios?’ I only master the technology I really want. I have never learnt to text. But I wanted to hear an independent spoken word station – called Oneword.  It played snatches of Wordsworth and entire Poe stories (slightly more frightening than the retail park).  I thought it might venture into new poetry.  It did – until it died and was replaced by birdsong.  But by then, I had flicked through my manual, pressed the small radio’s buttons, and found a whole new world of songs: the station which is now BBC 6 Music.

A few years later, the BBC decided that it would help its finances by sweeping away 6 Music, to share birdsong oblivion with Oneword. But its listeners (including me) wrote to the Director General and to the newspapers, clamoured on social media and finally contributed hard cash to plead for the station on advertising boards by the front doors of BBC offices. We saved 6 Music.

Why? Imagine that you are young, in the 60s or 70s, or that you have a young family, in the 80s and 90s. Funds are limited.  Music comes on LPs or CDs.  They are expensive.  You twiddle the dial. You hear a few, well-known names.  You hear the burble of bright vacuous pop (especially after the invention of the manufactured band.  Step forward, the Spice Girls!) Somewhere, you are sure, there is new music worth exploring.  But how can you find it? After Madness (whom I loved) I gave up. I went off to Radio 3 and worked my way through the operas of Mozart, Schubert song cycles, and excellent, but very late programmes on world music and folk.

Then 6 Music arrived.  It was like having a wise friend with infinite patience and a houseful of music. Here was black humour from Morrissey, tender stories from Elbow, joyful lust from James.  This music reached me in a dark tunnel of family illness.  The strength and weakness of much of the pop music I knew was its focus upon (usually youthful) love and sex.  But Guy Garvey’s songs also ranged through childhood and male friendship.  James’ ‘Sit Down’ once astonished me in a supermarket aisle, as it spoke to the lame and shy by the baked beans (and to me) Those who feel the breath of sadness Sit down next to me Those who find they’re touched by madness Sit down next to me Those who find themselves ridiculous Sit down next to me…. Of course it needs the depth, the drops, the lilts and life of its tune.  If you don’t know ‘Sit Down’, do seek it out. It is only twenty-five years old – I never claim to be up to date.

But 6 Music did bring to me, freshly, the songs of a young Sheffield group called The Arctic Monkeys. I think Alex Turner’s dark love song based on pub names – ‘Cornerstone’ – is an English classic.  It also brought David Bowie’s recent CD.  ‘The Next Day’.  One track ‘Where are We Now?’ describes re-visiting a now re-united Berlin: ‘walking the dead…’ Bowie has said that melody is the defining quality of English music, which he particularly tried to bring to his own songs.  It is the unashamed sweetness of the melody, and the aged fragility of Bowie’s voice, which pierces me whenever I hear him sing the title phrase of ‘Where are We Now?’ It has a sadness so intense that it is close to ecstasy.  Time stops

. A warning about BBC 6 Music! This station is a serious absorber of time.  If you begin to listen, you will linger in doorways, on sofas, on your way to pay bills, or to leave for your job, all because you have to hear the end of the song, or to catch the name of the singer.  Already, I have been here too long. Tea is uncooked, papers unsorted. Right. Let me rush you through my days with 6 Music, followed by occasional highlights… As I get up early, I start with Chris Hawkins, in the grey, or glow, before 7 a.m. Chris, at that hour, is considerately quiet, keen, but never strident, attentive to listeners, and produces some astonishing music.  He was as appreciative as his listeners when a young singer, Lucy Rose, sang a love song, exquisitely, live, before most of the nation had reached for its alarm clock. For 6 Music, with its many live sessions, is a station to restore your faith in performance, in music, and in art itself.  Chris is also a favourite of mine (and the cat’s) for reasons which I will reveal later.

At seven, Shaun Keaveny tumbles on to the airwaves. I have been listening to Shaun (originally in the small hours) since I first acquired that digital radio.  There are DJs who are (still) slick, mid-Atlantic, timed to the second, glacially insincere.  Then there are DJs who leave their breakfast, leaking butter, on the sofa, who arrive rain-soaked on a bike, and who (noisily) lose their place in their sheaves of emails.  That is Shaun.  He has a passion for Led Zeppelin and is frequently, ruefully, funny. His art is to seem to be us, on air, with almost-spilt coffee and a cornucopia of good music.

Life prevents me hearing much of Lauren Laverne’s show, on at 10.  But the little I have heard includes listeners’ choice of tracks, which often hit shared pulses of pleasure (or deeper memories).  One reason, I believe, why 6 Music listeners campaigned for this station is that it was theirs: open to almost immediate suggestions, comments and contributions.  This is very new in radio.  Despite the views of a very vocal section of listeners, I think Radio 3 also benefits from such openness. I hope that BBC management will hold its nerve and keep Radio 3’s door ajar for at least part of the day. Not least due to the Horse,

I don’t usually return to 6 Music until between 4 and 7, to hear Steve Lamacq.  Steve is notable for his respectful rapport with his listeners – and for his encyclopedic knowledge of music, going back decades to his youth as a music journalist and talent-spotter.  Ignorantly, I admire.  Enjoyably, I learn. Marc Riley, who follows at 7 p m, is linked in my mind to the cooking of multiple vegetables and to live sessions so good that a family member, usually indifferent to music, once froze, plate in hand, to ask ‘Who is that?’ Answer:  Jesca Hoop. She, and Marc’s programme, are therefore highly recommended. 9 p m to midnight in our house can involve anything from toothpaste to late night bookkeeping (and cat fights).  Amongst the fluoride and the flying fur, Gideon Coe presides, calmly, with unpredictable and good music, often to a theme, with interesting input from listeners far more awake than I am.

That’s the weekday cycle. At the weekend, Mary Anne Hobbs is there from 7 a m, with a quiet, infectious passion for music and thought.  This brings unexpected contributors, such as the composer Howard Goodall to the microphone.  She introduces some of my favourite music in the week, and justifies this station’s name. It is a music station.  You may hear Stuart Maconie playing early John Cage, or Tom Robinson interviewing my favourite folk duo, Show of Hands. 6 Music is unafraid of folk music. It ran special programmes over Easter, which introduced me to the delicate songs of Molly Drake (Nick’s mother, a moving and fearless songwriter).

Another warning! Listening to 6 Music can prove expensive… Cerys Matthews on Sunday mornings (10 a m to 1 p m) opens up a box of wildly varied music: blues, folk, old, new.  Even the briefest extract deserves eavesdropping. Iggy Pop bestrides Friday evening, from 7 to 9 p m.  Ferociously intelligent (and funny) he has just played music from the 50s, 40s, brand-new groups, and enticing songs in several languages, while I typed today, mind happily torn. I should dedicate this ramshackle piece to Iggy, without whom it would have been finished MUCH SOONER. Guy Garvey is now at home on 6 Music on Sunday afternoons, at 2 p m.  Alas, I usually miss him each week, due to the Horse.  But I recommend him warmly, for humour, insight and excellent taste in music. I am, of course, entirely uninfluenced by the fact that he once played a song I suggested…

Finally, good reader or listener, trust me. I had decided to write this blog BEFORE a recent email from the cat and me to Chris Hawkins.  Chris had asked his listeners why they were up before 7 a m, listening to him and fine music.  I had expected to hear messages from farmers and bakers, patient and essential.  I did.  But the bonnet maker surprised me.  Then the cat and I decided to explain our own early morning sessions in the front room’s first sun by sending Chris a short poem. Chris not only read it on air (very well, at that giddily early hour). He then sent me a kind email saying that there had been ‘a lovely response’ from listeners. Of course, reader, I am incorruptible.  Chris was already on my list of the unmissable. The cat concurs. Cerys Matthews, too, enthusiastically includes poetry in her programmes. Adam Horovitz  appeared there in May, Liz Berry and her excellent publisher in June.

One of 6 Music’s most appealing qualities is its openness to all kinds of material – including poetry.  I have thought for a long time that music is poetry’s natural ally, and that its deserved popularity in Britain could embrace the odd poem, too. Kate Tempest, rightly admired both by musicians and poets, has encouraged me in this belief.  So has BBC 6 Music, a station which has opened many doors. Do help keep them open by listening – and contributing.  How? Just ask your cat…

Finally, here is a poem, which should be in my new book, next March, and draws upon another time-devouring passion.  As you will see, I would be safer staying indoors with 6 Music!

Arranged

What is in the jug?  A shoot of holly

shockingly green, though drought now stunts the tree.

Roses of the pink of a thumbnai

l where good blood quietly throbs.  Geraniums,

crumpled, brilliant, soaring out of water,

all sprigs which I have sliced off by mistake

in careless gardening.  Now they thrive for days,

which, left in noon’s heat, would not last an hour,

things done in error, the odd corners

of our lives, which flower and flower.

Alison Brackenbury

Published in PN Review

Do you need a reader for 2016?

First, a shameless note to say that I have a new collection due from Carcanet in March 2016.  So if you would like a cheap and cheerful reader for 2016, have a microphone, and can be reached from Cheltenham by public transport, I would be delighted to come.

I don’t do workshops, but do rehearse readings very thoroughly, keep to time religiously, and am always glad to talk to audiences afterwards.  Do feel free to contact me, without obligation, via the Contact Page on this website, which sends messages straight to my current email.

Now, back to my blog….

Bertholt Brecht image

It sounds like the beginning of a bad literary joke. Bertolt Brecht and two china birds went into a tea room in Lincoln…

The birds were there because I had just bought them (rather cheaply) from a shop on Steep Hill. I was there, back in the grandest local town of my childhood, as a judge in a verse-speaking contest.  Brecht was there, between the pages of his ‘Love Poems’, because it was the book in my possession which I most wanted to read.

Last time I blundered into blogs, it was to write about Beckett. With the help of Henry’s Tea Room, friendly haven from freezing streets, I seem to be embarking on a mini-series of scary dramatists (beginning with B) to whose poetry I am addicted.

As I have mostly seen plays in provincial theatre, framed by Victorian plasterwork – first in Lincoln – I am a kind of litmus paper for the popularity of playwrights.  I have never seen Beckett on stage.  But I have bumped into Brecht on several occasions, including a performance of Mother Courage.  The British Museum’s recent exhibition, Germany, displayed a German refugee cart, from the early twentieth century. (How many of these are being dragged, laden, down the roads of our world?) A caption linked the small wooden cart to Mother Courage, and remarked that audiences sympathised with her, ruthless camp-follower and dealer, with a warmth of which Brecht disapproved.

Brecht wrote thousands of poems. Two selections of these crossed my path in the 1970s, when I worked in a technical college library.  No, librarians do not read books all day. But then, they could have a sneaky look at them while cataloguing the latest acquisition for a keen A-level lecturer.  The catalogued books could then mysteriously accompany the cataloguer into the store room which was also a staff room, for the long evening break, as the mistletoe bunches grew blacker at the tops of the trees outside and the stars froze.  The half hour in the store room was draughtier than Henry’s Tea Room. Afterwards, the cataloguer went to somewhere called a bookshop, and ordered the books for herself. Henry’s Tea Room was above a stationery shop, which in my childhood, had several shelves of books. It has no books today.

Those Methuen books are now described as ‘long out of print’. I still have mine, but I rarely look at them, for the best lines have stayed in my head: unexpected, brutal, and compassionate by turns.  So David Constantine’s and Tom Kuhn’s translations, spotted in a catalogue, were bought (online) and bumped in my bag to Lincoln. There, my father, aged nineteen, used to run in full Army gear, pack on back, up the cobbles of Steep Hill, training for the final onslaught of the Second World War.  Brecht, who had fled Nazi Germany, was by then in the USA, where he wrote some of the poems I brought in from the cold.

Between the friendly young waitress in her frilled black and white, and a mild older woman with tea, and a pink mackintosh, I began to read what lay behind the rough red heart on the cover of Brecht’s book. I looked around cautiously, over my excellent snack. I was glad the print was no larger.  This is still not the book for a Tea Room.  Its first introduction begins by stating that Brecht ‘loved women, many women’.  What was the cost, to those who loved Brecht? It can only be said that his last wife, Helene Weigel, stayed with him, ran his theatre company, and championed his plays and poems after his death. Brecht’s work was then entrusted to their daughter Barbara, whose words open this edition of the Love Poems.

Their opening poems fling open a window on to shame-free and ruthless lust, where women can be ‘apricots’ – and discarded, like unwanted fruit stones. ‘I wipe her down with hay […] and leave her friendlily – for that’s my way.’  This is from ‘Baal’s Song’, whose title reminds us that Brecht’s poems can be in many voices, and include songs from his dramas.  Have you heard ‘The Song of Surabaya-Johnny’ with Kurt Weill’s music? Here it is, in German, sung by Lotte Lenya: ‘Du hast kein Herz, Johnny –’

It is a song of hypnotic desperation.  This is not how things should be. But it is how, at times, they are: a place to which poetry must come.

But ‘Oh how she laughed at him!’ (Song of Love).  Barbara, Brecht’s daughter, remarks how amusing he could be.  Not only the laughter, but some of the most memorable lines in ‘Love Poems’ are given to women.  A girl, washing clothes, considering her troubled life, bursts out (as Brecht might) ‘But if you never wore it/ What was the linen for?’ A stripper, at the climax of her act, remembers ‘I haven’t stopped the milk’.

This is a book which sharpens the senses. ‘The smell of thyme and peppermint […] Never again would you want to leave this place.’ (‘The River Sings Praises’).  There is a tenderly exact description of Helene Weigel, with her ‘frail and noble shoulders’ making up for a play. The poems are of pain, as well as passion. The speaker in ‘Buying Oranges’ remembers ‘bitterly’ ‘Of course you are not anywhere in this town’.

I thought, behind that line, I could hear the ghost of its (still bitterer) twin in German.  I wish this book did include the German originals, and Brecht’s own mischievous, sometimes thumping, sometimes delicate rhythms. But, like the river, I would like to sing the praises of the translators who bring Brecht to the page in rhyme, and with so much energy – or, as Love Poems offers, ‘vi-tal-i-tay’.  The translators’ introduction explains that this book is the beginning of ‘a large selection’ of Brecht’s poetry, to be brought into English by David Constantine and Tom Kuhn. (For Brecht wrote thousands of poems….)  When this appears, I shall not wait for another trip to Henry’s Tea Rooms.

Many poems in this first selection have links to Margarete Steffin, a working-class girl whom Brecht consulted about his writing, and who died, of TB in Moscow, in 1941. Occasionally, I felt in them the chill of unyielding ideology. But, in his‘19th Sonnet’, Brecht reveals a private mythology: ‘the guardians, the six elephants’ he has instructed to defend Margarete. He complains to them that he has not heard any news of her.  ‘They eyed me, swaying slightly.’  Then they charge ‘the guilty party: me.’   The poem is a love note, of tenderness laid bare in humour, with the joke on Brecht himself:

So chased
To the post office and squinting frightened through
The window I wrote the letter I owed you.

The next poem is mine.  Dwarfed by Brecht’s elephants, it pays its debts to a river: not the green water of Lincoln’s swans, in the Brayford Pool, but the great Trent, which runs through the smaller town where I was born.  I associate the Trent with a ruthless power, even beyond that of the states and forces of Brecht’s Europe.  (Brecht, famously parsimonious, would have deplored the waste of money which this poem describes, perhaps even more than the superstition which flung good coin into the current.)

The price

Seven lives a year
were what the Trent would take.
A farmer with a lamb
he thought would never make

the grass and heat of spring
ducked through the hedge’s hole
dropped down that fading bleat
to save a human soul.

Still, as my father grew,
sixpence or silver three’penny
was flung in once a year
to pay the Trent her fee.

Old lazy flood, great snake,
for all I say or think,
my purse lies near my heart.
Here is my silver.  Drink.

Alison Brackenbury
Published in Scintilla

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