Monday, 30 November 2015

To Cut Lancashire's Libraries will Crush Communities

Where’s a place where adults can let children escape without fear?  Somewhere you can go to visit faraway places and need no ticket? Open your mind and not your wallet? The answer; libraries. The opportunities  they offer for people of all ages should not be underestimated. And that is why the government pressure to close them down is a blow people should not have to suffer. For example, pressure on Lancashire County council to save £65million over the next two years is expected to  see the county's 74 libraries cut to just 34. You can take action to show that this not acceptable – support your local library and the opportunities it upholds.

Libraries are saviors in themselves, not a vehicle for ‘savings’. Yet It appears that local authorities in are turning to libraries as one the first places to cut costs. This is almost ironic considering libraries are the places so many other people in society turn to, but for good reason– not just for borrowing books, but as a safe public space, a place of solace, an opportunity to interact, to be inquisitive and to learn. Councils and the government often refer to the importance of ‘community cohesion’ especially at times of difficulty, but to  close libraries is actually to destroy a dear community in itself. But will attention be paid to this?

Rawtenstall Library 

The potential of portable worlds

Lancashire County Council has announced that it is set to go ahead with library closures in order to save money, saying that statutory obligations would be met if in every district council area 1 library was kept open; the rest could be potentially up for closure. Cutting back on the library network in this drastic way could be seen to actually evade obligation - obligation to the people.  The potential loss of these libraries is a terrible thing to us all. Firstly, think of the resources they offer. Our libraries not only provide books, but  a wide range of interactive material including CD’s, DVD’s, archives and even sheet music. This is the first kind of opportunity the library offers; the opportunity you can take home. You have the potential of portable worlds; novels which will take you to America, films which reveal a whole new side to life. Discovery even within the domestic space is made possible by a library; people unlock new skills they can use in their lives, access self-help books and make a real difference. And because many of these materials are free or of much lower cost than in the shops, this makes it more accessible. Open to all.  

Therefore, not only can you take opportunity home, but the second kind of opportunity a library offers, is the opportunity of home. What is meant by this? A library is a place for people, certainly not just for print! A second home, so to speak! It is one of the few buildings in society through which all people can enter, regardless of income, and be provided with positivity. It’s a hospital for hope (Plus you can even get ‘books on prescription!’). Old and young alike are given the chance to interact in a safe, secure environment – learning about others, as well as new things. And if books are not your interest, then there are likely to be community groups, parent-and-toddler meetings, interest societies and so-on that you can get involved in, all at your local library.

The maths - Banishing books in order to balance the books does not add up

Bacup Library 
But council cuts are threatening an end to the ‘local’ library. It’s easy for the authority to think of the ‘savings’ but what about the people’s lives which libraries, in their own way, have been saving? For many elderly residents in Lancashire towns like Bacup for example, the library provides an easily- accessible place; and these people would be severely deprived if the nearest available library was instead 5 or so miles away and may not go altogether. Banishing books in order to balance the books does not add up and it certainly brings no balance to people’s lives.

 Another place where it doesn’t add up is in terms of how it affects children. 2015 has drawn attention to the shocking statistics that more than 62,000 primary pupils across the country  failed to reach the expected Level 4 in reading tests, suggesting that many young people are struggling with – and are likely disengaged – from reading.  To cut libraries is only set to disengage children further. The library, as I said earlier, is in effect a hospital for hope. It provides a safe, non-pressuring environment which could be highly constructive at addressing the issue of child reading.  Yet cutting libraries is at risk of sending young people the message that reading and knowledge is disposable – a terrible concept.

And libraries do play an important financial role too. They provide an open, non-judgmental place where people  have opportunities to engage with skills and employment. For example there are sessions helping people with job applications hosted at Burnley library (one of many), and the computers there  pay a big role in helping people engage with the modern application systems – especially if they do not have such technology at home. It’s often under-discussed, but libraries can stimulate local economies.  For example, they often provide resources too which people can use to find out more about public transport and travel passes; encouraging interaction with local services.

Let’s not forget the history either

Our local have their own fascinating histories too –  but should not be confined to it! For example, my local area of Lancashire is Rossendale, and I have become well-acquainted over the years with Rawtenstall library and its Victorian community history room. This place really does uphold the concept that preserving the past can inspire the future. Not only have I met and enjoyed the company of many people in this area, but seen posters advertising family activities, community drop ins, the list goes on. Yes, the role of the library in Britain certainly has a past to it, but is not in the past. Most libraries contain numerous computers for public use; so people can get to grips with technology too. Multiple windows to the world are opened; so the thought that instead multiple libraries could be at risk in Lancashire(with those serving the Rossendale council district; Rawtenstall, Crawshawbooth, Haslingden, Whitworth and Bacup all at potential risk) is like putting a shutter against shared discovery.

And even more shutters seem to be up around Lancashire County Council – certainly undergoing  a dark time. Between 2011 and 2020 it is estimatedthat the council is required  to make savingsof £685 million –  with the risk so much of culture being crushed  as part of that. For these are times where places, even community spaces, can seem just like percentage to councils wanting to balance the books. That’s why it’s essential that we express our personal pride and for the great Lancashire  libraries. They have figures standing for them; are not just figures on a cost sheet. By showing our support, using  the service and  even getting involved in volunteering, let’s keep the life going.  The Library Campaign helps support users of libraries, whilst many local newspapers, such as The Rossendale Free Press have set up petitions to save these important places.  There is also a petition on

Get involved in any way you can. The loss of libraries is a loss to us all. 

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Children Steal the Streets of Manchester

Manchester is painting its own picture
The artists enter evening
From grey-cold afternoons
Of ticketing, leaflets
-          The paper Mache
Piling up under the shoes
 - Advertising night-life
Emphasizing truth.

My mother said stay away
From wet paint, smell of glue
Tib Street, Lever Street, Edge then Shudehill
I just a kid, and the ‘wet surface’ sign
Came to her like a fear.
Here nothing dries
Not even tears, lines

Are being drawn freehand
Outside bars, the stitch
The seam
They keep spinning
The turn of the discs.
Mum’s ‘mind’ like a warning
Paint on the railings
This dream
Opened my eyes
I unknotted my fist
Cold and living,

I remember her wailing
On Oldham Street, Piccadilly, Whitworth Street West
At the paint on my fingers
The smell of success
Under my nails

I was not too young then
To feel art, the point without sale
The puddle-stained depth.
The breath of parent
You should be
My girl,
Ashamed of yourself

But the sunset
Was watercolour.
Look, mother, look
As the orange opened to ochre
My hand stained, flexing

Not into a phone
But to Sackville, Spinningfields,
Oxford rail Road
But she was angry
The shops shut
 The gallery closed.
We’ve missed it she said
 No reason to stay

Not leaving
But I took
The railings


Tuesday, 17 November 2015

First thoughts – poetry we want to hate: Kim Kardashian’s Marriage by Sam Riviere

The title of it makes it a collection we want to hate: ‘Kim Kardashian’s Marriage’, and that’s why Sam Riviere’s collection, published by Faber and Faber is so important. These are poems which push us into questioning our prejudices. Often clipped and cool in tone, they explore a culture focused on titles and titillation: making us question what is actual and what is invented, what is ‘personal’ and what is ‘performed’. Celebrity is a metaphor  for the ‘empty’ born out of the digital age.

Welcome to a world where reality is a show, rather than shown.  And you might not want to admit it, but it’s our world. Many may recognise Kim Kardashian after all as a symbol of digital celebrity culture: where personalities are the subject of performance. Her 2011 marriage to Kris Humphries lasted a reputed 77 days, hence the 77 poems in this collection; quickly unfolding as the exploration not of personal events but pictures of events, images. The click, click, click of quickly turning pages over these brisk poems is like the inevitable camera shutter.  This is not a collection about Kim Kardashian. It’s a collection which about our increasingly digital culture, dependent on appearances rather than reality. The work is split into sections based on the structure of a make-up routine, from ‘primer’ to ‘gloss’; highlighting a focus on inventions and images, rather than individuals.

Perhaps the ultimate sign that the collection is an exploration of ‘invention’ is that Riviere created each of the poems not out of natural compulsion, but using search engine results.   In other words, the poems are visual results of the internet’s visual results.

"Uncovering abnormality in what we are served up as standard"

Sam Riviere, born in 1981, is an English poet, now living in Belfast, who communicates contemporary issues in a clever way; uncovering the abnormality in what modern life serves us as standard . His 2012 collection ’81 Austerities’ in response to the governmental spending cuts won the Forward Prize for Best First collection. His skill is especially shown through the array of voices in Kim Kardashian’s Marriage: a mixture of intense and impersonal; communicating a society close to chaos.  As in the poem ‘thirty-three dust’:

‘The inventor of rock and roll, amongst others
Allowed to dry in a gentle stream of clean air
Then stored in a dust-proof container’

Perhaps this is showing the culture of ‘celebrity’, not as sordid and scandalous, but what I felt powerfully, on reading this collection - saddened.    Here we see ‘the inventor of rock and roll’ just as empty as the ‘others’ set to be ‘stored in a dust-proof container’. Perhaps what the word ‘others’ highlights that at its most base, not even individual personalities are preserved by celebrity culture, just presence. It reduces people to presence: after all, we’ve all heard the term media ‘presence’.  To be part of that is to be officially modern. That is why this is a collection not focusing on Kim Kardashian specifically, but the society which underpins her just as any ‘other’. After all, few of the Kardashian’s names are actually mentioned; instead we see a combination of impersonality along with everyone from Roosevelt to ‘cousin ricky’. They are all reduced to the same: a presence rather than personalities. We don’t ‘know’ them, only see them as a title. Colder still, we are given no opportunity to know them.

Sam Riviere’s collection gives the impression of a culture which runs on presence and impression, rather than personalities and realities: digital culture. The poems form the tracing paper above it. This is reflected at the close of the poem ‘infinity weather’:

'Give me one minute
I’ll give you cosmic’

Here the matter-of-fact tone clashes with the usually loaded terms of ‘minute’ and ‘cosmic’: words typically filled with expectation and excitement – now shown as trivial, meaningless. It is so often that we say what we don’t mean, use words that don’t give meaning, but indicate it, like ‘cosmic’ – especially online. In this light, Kim Kardashian's Marriage, both the collection and the real thing, reflects the emptiness of a culture that constructs a layer between itself and reality. The layer is digital: just like the ‘reality shows’, where what we are given is perhaps not a ‘show’ of ‘reality’ at all, but an invention to hide the truth.

We are constructing a culture at the expense of reality.

Another part of this layer between culture and reality, and again, digital, is indicated through the symbol of ‘images’. In the poem ‘beautiful pool’, the speaker’s tone is imperative, demanding  to ‘view images as ‘river of photos’. The blunt phrasing of this, shows how a traditional symbol of nature like a ‘river’, has been pulled into this ever-hungry human culture of invention. As the dubiously titled poem ‘infinity hardcore’ reflects:

 ‘This has been a huge trend
But it ain’t enough’

Think of Instagram, Pinterest. Forces of nature, like rivers, don’t seem to even phase us anymore – instead society is focused on forces it has invented itself, digital ones, like the force of ‘trends’. It’s almost sad to think that we are  a species who once followed rivers, water as a source of life, now committed to following trends. Why? It is clear consumer culture is never full. The casual tone of ‘ain’t enough’ shows how easily, perhaps appallingly, we seem to have accepted that.

"This is a culture of recycling and replicas which is perhaps closer to our own lives"

And how do we attempt to feed the consumer appetite? Riviere suggests that the first method is through words, like advertising – turning the same terms and phrases over and over, in different contexts.  We come to realise the emptiness of words in a society which treats them this way, especially online. The poems use language interchangeably, often revolving on the same symbols and terms within the different sections – especially considering ‘berries’ ‘dust’  heaven’ and ‘infinity’. These terms can be applied positively or negatively, fashionably or unfashionably as desired. On one page ‘infinity berries’ on another page ‘infinity hardcore’. This is a culture of recycling and replicas which is perhaps closer to our own lives than we first think. After all, we are just part of a culture of commodification and invention like Kim Kardashian is; and we’re all guilty of indulging from time to time.

Riviere uses poetry as part of this culture, perhaps in order to uncover how awful it can be.  A voice in the poem ‘Spooky Sincerity’ considers a video which ‘might be the funniest yet/ left a spread of blood on the bedspread’.  Typically if we see the word’ funniest’ and ‘blood’ close together when reading, we think them somehow disparate, nonsensical. Yet because ‘video’ is mentioned, so many of us can quickly recognise the concept of ‘blood’ being something funny; we expect the feature in a screen prank or a gory film. This digital culture we invent has changed not only our relationship with language, but our relationship with our feelings.  Blood can be funny in the digital age. This is powerful and cause for refection.

"A process of invention"

Reflection is theme which builds and builds throughout, as we see through the whole structure of the collection based on not just Kim Kardashian’s reported ‘make-up routine’ – but  how society adds to this layer of culture at the expense of reality. How Riviere works with this structure is interesting too, often at a grave contrast to the language within it.  We would typically expect the section ‘Blend’ to be bringing consistency, but instead the poems within are filled with ominous and jarring images, a repetition of ‘grave’. Then in the section we would expect to be dark, ‘Shadow’, we are instead hit with apparent optimism, especially the repeated exclamations such as ‘hi guys!’ and ‘I will confirm this tomorrow!’ in ‘thirty-three pool’. The poems present an absurd structure in themselves by taking on the language and  layers of Kardashian culture, which is ultimately what we incorporate as ‘culture’ in society.  Riviere serves up the changing rhythms within this, ‘from soft serve in California to scooping in Washington’, suggesting that it is a process of invention occurring at different rates, in different places, different flavours even. But it is still happening.

"Warning about how we are constructing a society of insecurity"

Just by description the collection likely sounds tiring, and it is: revealing digital culture’s role in draining our energy. It is in making this realisation we can perhaps make moves to address it/ or not. It seems appropriate that the collection ends with the section titled  ‘gloss’, the final layer of fakery over all the recycled language and characters emptied of personality but full of ‘presence’. This isn’t poetry warning against Kim Kardashian. It is warning about how we are inventing a culture of insecurity. In one of the final poems ‘the new heaven’, the ‘bible’ could be seen as a symbol of invention at its biggest. Whether positive or negative we don’t know, for all the lines seem pre-occupied by is its ‘new’-ness, that of ‘new heaven/ and a new earth’ repeated. This is society which writes ‘reality’ not on the basis of religion or family: but on the digital need for something ‘new’, something different to consume.  Just like reality television – but in every vision.

Riviere’s unsettling collection makes us question whether the inventions of a digital consumer culture have created a doctrine more of us are coupled with then we would like to think. It’s far beyond the question of Kim and Kris’ coupledom, that media presence most of us were aware of . It’s a question of ourselves.  

Kim Kardashian's Marriage by Sam Riviere. Faber & Faber; Main edition (5 Feb. 2015) 

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Why I gave up success so I could see the sea

The old woman told me
Age assumed, for her mouth pressed
The words together like embrace.

Today people keep them typed
-         And spaced
She would speak, then smile, then speak again
I look for eyes as if they’re dead.

Then curled her legs and slowly sighed
And took cold tea on the broken train
Still going of course, as everything does
But the morning was sold, and nobody spoke.
Forcing looking up into something held
Scrolling strangers rather than life in the next seat
Where the old woman turned and said
Why I gave up success so I could see the sea…

A screen flickered in the aisle (a reminder of what was to come)
It was corporate, we lived for time, she said
And now I’m seen as its end, and a sloping mind
You know why a clock has hands; they are sticks for the drum.

There was no question, stopping in London at 5 am
Though ‘stopping’ only expression, as everyone swamped
Through that single aisle and into the station
Everyone busy, nobody spoke.
Beside the old times she addressed like a caution
The streets were still darkened, I offered my coat
In the form of an arm which is she took like a service
Hearing the opening of darkness on Portobello Road
No voices, but the coughs and the ticking
Of unfolding tables, those cold wooden chests
Thrusts forwards, too early to be ‘market’, they saw us
Presumed, bound by blood, or a trouble, a threat.

Yet holding the arm, in the street once called a stranger
I saw her to the door of the corner shop
The metal cold in my pocket but the story beyond it

To see the sea, was to see – to be looking up. 

Friday, 13 November 2015


Written for a friend. 
You took tears and sewed them up                                
Each thread you felt and knew
In the conversation, looking over
To the words I spilled
In a foreign pub
Your eyes were gentle.

You sewed understanding like a quilt
I watched you midst a clash of folk
Music for the heart I kept
- Then you sent poetry you’d wrote.

In your words the quilt was thick
Warm, ran through like speech
You opened thought
I remember in the following weeks
We met, took tea. You spoke of hope.

Those hands, following the quilt
You wrapped round many – shivering, cold
Giving experience as a patch each time
As quick as breath - the quilt would grow.
In the library, up the steps, you carried
Even when the material dragged
For you’d mapped the year like a picnic blanket
Where we sat, day-drenched ... and laughed.

The warmth of it unending now
The stitching of your words, your speech
In a quilt shared with your every friend
And gave them each a patch, your peace.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

First thoughts - Jane Clarke: The River

Poetry where human hands meet nature's hand

Jane Clarke’s first collection ‘The River’ is already making waves, thus bursting the boundaries of what we may assume a poet’s early work to be. Clarke lives in Wicklow, Ireland, but only started writing 10 years ago, significantly inspired by the landscape around her.  Yet rather than the sweeping, even overwhelming aspects of nature we may associate with pastoral poetry, rather than pouring out about nature, Clarke pours into it – steering her poetic brilliance through every nook and cranny. This is where we see natures hand, the river, alongside human hands, a powerful force running alongside the everyday: a tin basin, a blue Bible, a drystone wall.

‘The River’ is a collection which celebrates human as well as natural geographies, which made me think -  this is what a river does; flowing through life, bringing positive and negative to both human and animal. Poetry which makes us reconsider nature in such a way certainly is powerful.  In some poems we see these contrasts at their most stark, like the opening ‘Honey’, a sheepdog who sits obediently whilst the children ‘offer her a cup of tea’. This domestic scene is contrasted bluntly at the poems’ closure ‘he drags her by the scruff/leaves her at their feet’, with the dog sent to nature’s inevitable process – we assume death.

'That ever-flowing river beside and inside us' 

Clarke appreciates these layers to life like a river stirs its levels of sediment. Growing up on a farm in Roscommon, Ireland seems to have given her an awareness of how human and nature infuse. We see this in the profound simile ‘Blue veins lie like the rivers on the map of her hands’, lingering in my mind long after I had finished the collection, from the poem ‘Daily Bread’. To me, this served as a profound reminder of our relationship to nature; it flows through us, something we shouldn’t forget even when we are wrapped up in the ‘daily’ human routine.

Because realising our relationship to nature, that ever-flowing river beside and inside us, can be empowering.  You can feel the power in Clarke’s poetry, just like the rhythm she mixes into ‘Daily Bread’ - those hands, complete with their rivers, bringing about energy. It is here we see how human works with bread like hands with water: ‘with the rhythm, of a rower she kneads’, and are invited to consider the new dimensions Clarke lends to such a basic task. It is through concise, accessible language that she creates situations we can quickly relate to, even if we haven’t had direct experience. In this way, the collection offers a real exploration of empathy: questioning how and why we relate to things. Nature knows us, a river is our relation. So it is not just situations, but whole settings Clarke uses to consider this. For example, in the ‘Harness Room’ the speaker questions the source of the love she feels for this place:

‘Is it the swallows’ nest/
In the rafters among cobwebbed haystacks
Bridle and saddle, slane and sickle.’

In this setting, natures nest meets human habitation, bound by the apparent reflection of the speaker and the bold sibilance.  Clarke often uses beauty of language to create a mood of reflection; after all, we remember, a river offers us a reflective surface. And never far from this surface is the emphasis of natures flow alongside us, the reassuring ‘company of the current’ as from the poem ‘The Suck’.  This is an apparent allusion to The River Suck, which flows through the Shannon Basin in Ireland. Clarke is currently proving highly popular in her native country, and it’s no wonder, as her poetry pays homage to its landscapes and ways of life. She has been accredited for her poetry work there on a wide-scale, with prizes such as the Trocaire/Poetry Ireland Competition (2014), Poems for Patience (2013) and iYeats (2010). There is homage to place clearly flowing through pieces such as ‘Sorrell Hill’ and ‘Cows at Duggort’.

'It shapes the present and future rather than circling in sentimentality' 

Yet she pays homage without hurt or regret. Instead, this is poetry which reflects on the present of places and their potentials; rather than them being exclusively part of a speaker’s past. That is again an emphasis of our relationship with the natural world, it shapes the present and future rather than circling in sentimentality – as the isolated human mind can tend to.  At the beginning of the collection, Clarke quotes Heraclitus of Ephesus and his famous statement ‘we cannot step twice into the same river’. For the river symbolises a course, like the course of life, but also a continuity of change.

‘’I’d give it all up in a minute
Every last rock
Stream and sod of it.

They can have the price of sheep
The grant for the cattle shed
And the bills from the vet’

These lines, from the poem ‘Inheritance’ express energy as aforementioned, which keeps the tone fresh and engaging – never stagnant. Throughout the poems, Clarke creates feeling with powerful concision, tending to use couplets and triplets to pack a punch, rather than lingering lines. We feel the reality of her poems, their directness, rather than a drawn-out aftermath. With ‘inheritance’ the subject, we typically expect dwelling upon the past, but here Clarke throws in the future tense and shows a reflection on the harsh realities of life, the decisions which have to be made.

'Looks at human and nature in an unapologetic, unflinching way' 

After all, ‘The River’ both as a collection and as a force of nature, does not avoid the difficult terrains – it passes through a variety.  This includes a course of human histories; beginning with the childhood perspective in ‘Honey’ and closing around poems which focus on aging and death. It is expressed directly, naturally, a fathers hands as he ‘lifts them again, crashes them/to the bed’ – as part of a collection which looks at human and nature in an unapologetic, unflinching way.

This is a collection in which we see a number of repeated symbols, clear repetition - not only the river, but hands and cows, to name a few – yet the emphasis is upon change. Like in life, we are repeatedly subject to the same mind, the same hands, but we can use them differently every day – to potentially create something brilliant, feel different.  It’s time we took inspiration from ‘The River’ and embraced the nature of change; the great changes nature brings which we can be part of.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

London sells you success, Manchester makes you hope

I am often asked questions such as ‘why aren’t you studying in London?’  and ‘Would you move there after you graduate?’ as well as ‘Surely London where it’s at?’. There is no doubt, London is an enthralling city. There is the thrill of going seeing ‘the sights’, being a ‘tourist’ or perhaps even the promise of ‘business’:  all in apostrophes, the enclosed package the city serves up. In fact, to be in London invites the sensation of being a spectator – watching something significant happening without really being part of it. Conversely, in Manchester, you aren’t spectator, but creator.

'Make history, rather than being an onlooker'

I am proud of Manchester. Proud of its unpackaged, unapologetic nature. It’s a Beta World city, in the global rankings as a major economic system, yet rather than voicing it, it is a place which prefers to hear your voice.  This is the city where you can be part of the projects – whether they are artistic, academic or other – which make history, rather than being an onlooker. It was easy to see this taking place recently in the form of ‘The Stone Roses’ posters flying up all over the city (every poster-putter creating their own kind of art) at the beginning of November, to celebrate the bands’ announcement of tour dates for next year. The iconic ‘lemon slices’ from their first album were slapped across shops and signs – the lemon itself inspired by lead singer Ian Brown’s reputed experience with a French rights rioter, who had told him that lemons were an antidote to tear gas.

Lemons are also a fitting symbol for Manchester I think.  It’s a zingy, bright place to be on so many levels.  It’s got pith to it, layers of interest. Yet many people judge it with bitterness.
 I often hear arguments against it, such as it being a ‘dump’ and ‘grotty’, references to the cramped carriages of ‘Northern Rail’ trains and of course, rain. Yet it is the city’s resilience – under-funded transport and all – which makes it relatable. Rather than changing its skin like the snake of the south, reappearing every few months with a whole new avenue of glass, Manchester maintains its dark underbelly, its nervous energy and secret spaces.  Largely a product of the industrial revolution, rising as well as falling with it, businesses had little other choice than to cram themselves into already-existing industrial units. Because this is a place which just gets on with it.

'Visual hope'

 And it doesn’t just have ‘it’, but ‘grit’ too.   Every day you can see people working, and filing, and chiseling away at their craft until it finally shines. It is visual hope. For example, The Kitchens project on the Left bank at Spinningfields – what seem like trendy, yet also gutsy street-food venues to grab some grub – is the outcome of sheer hard work and enthusiasm.  Unlike the corporate kudos of London, Manchester offers businesses you can relate to, coming along in their various stages.  This city offers the interest of shoots and saplings (with central pop-up shops and great street markets) whilst in London you are looking at big growth: shiny and often silent.

And Manchester certainly doesn’t keep quiet. The ‘Madchester’; scene of the 80s and 90s pushed music, and boundaries – perhaps why the ‘mad’ of the title. The city has served as the catalyst which commanded to the masses: even if you are struggling, you can still make something of yourself.  There wasn’t any hierarchy as such – people meshed together, the roadie for the Inspiral Carpets went on to become the songwriter in Oasis, as just one example. Boys from surrounding towns became bands thrown together in improvised studios – Joy Division, Buzzcocks, The Smiths, The Fall, just to name a few. There was hope for all then and it carries on. Still now,  you can throw yourself into open mic events, pub nights and the rest, without the need to feel like a ‘local’ or ‘legitimate’; You are welcomed, and that is what matters. This is the city where you really can feel living, without having to live here.  If one event doesn’t work for you, or you mince your words? You’ll be welcomed with opened arms at another.

'In Manchester everyone is thrown together'

Compare this to London, where there are the ‘in crowds’, the (often extortionate) art schools, the assumption that students have their own area, tourists another. In the quest for ‘success’ people have their designated areas, there is competition.  In Manchester everyone is thrown together. Take this; I recently went to the opening of an art exhibition at Common, a bar in The Northern Quarter. It clearly wasn’t just the opening of an exhibition, but expression too, for everyone was encouraged to get involved in floor-to ceiling, moving artwork and wailing protest music.    In London, as much choice as there is, there seems a pressure to have to ‘fit’ a place in order to ‘participate’ in it.

It is relatability which puts the ‘man’ in Manchester. It is a human city, a friend, a pal. There are the quiet spaces you can easily escape to – whether it be through the corridors of The John Rylands Library, a walk into Castlefield or a cup of something in the Earth cafĂ© before the lunchtime rush; there is something for everyone. Whilst the ‘quiet’ or ‘secretive’ spaces in London seem marketed as so, therefore developing their own kind of pretence, in Manchester, these spaces find you. It is this sense of belonging which seems central to the results of the ‘Global Liveability Ranking 2015’ – which showed Manchester in the top 50 of ‘most liveable’ cities, and the only one in the UK to be so high up.  Whilst Manchester was at 46th in the world, London trailed at 53rd.

'The city is in your face'

Manchester offers ‘home’ to a number of initiatives too, so it not only offers a place to rest heads, but is a place that gets them thinking too. For example, is  just one case of a social enterprise and website which is making progress from a strong Manchester base. An online resource which is there to take the anonymous stories and worries of others, it communicates again this theme of ‘living ‘and therefore, hope. This is a place which celebrates life in its many shades all in one place – rather than a segregated city of zones and professionals. Magazines  and publications including Nous Magazine, I Love Manchester and The Skinny  all work here to capture a consciousness composed of various people, shapes and sizes – yet all joined by one thing  - Manchester.

The thing about Manchester is that you feel, you are living it, whether you actually ‘live’ there or not. With venues such as Home, ideal for culture and cinema, which opened in 2015, and also the performance venue Contact, on Oxford Road – even the place names speak of comfort and closeness. This is seldom felt in London, especially not in the central areas. There venues are ‘sites’ and ‘spectacles’, but in Manchester the city is in your face. And that’s where it should be – not in the mind’s eye or imagination.

Manchester is close, personal and hopeful. And isn’t that refreshing? 

Monday, 9 November 2015

The One Degree

On 09/11/2015 an online BBC news piece reported that: 'Global temperatures are set to rise more than one degree above pre-industrial levels according to the UK's Met Office.'

I thought they wouldn’t notice the one degree    
But they did, the shuddering downwards line
Made without ruler, old felt tip
-          The question of angles I hadn’t revised.
The teacher’s apple then a romantic myth
But still the lines – explain yourself
I said that the sun was in my eyes
They said that I should have asked for help.

We disputed numbers for a while, the test
Which meant I had not passed the term
Instead pressed , like a faulty vehicle
Into the detention of a darkened room.
The sense of cold upon a plastic bench
Listening to the fog of traffic after school
Wet-stinking shoes to which my toes were pressed
Wept at the weather, called, that year, unseasonably cruel.

But what I could not help noticing then
Was the crawling stench of food, forgotten
Pretending ambiguity in the in the paper bin
Which was made of metal, the contents rotten.
But the same routine – rinse, replace – repeats
The enforced shame of ‘doing maths the wrong way’
And on the desk now, that apple flares
A rotten core beneath a polished face. 

First thoughts on: Tracey Herd - Not in This World

Do women write the narratives they live in? It was a question which struck me on reading Tracey Herd’s latest collection ‘Not In This World’, released on the 4th November – already a Poetry Book Society Choice. The verses fluctuate in their focus, from childhood to cemeteries, cheating to termination– yet the voice seems to maintain throughout: the subject is female, the experience, human. Open to any reader are raw, vibrant poems which explore ‘everyday’ issues: betrayal, breakdown, loss. Think these aren’t the things of ‘everyday’?  It’s hard to accept, but they are faced by so many – and Herd’s poems will show you differently, and deliver, brilliantly.

"Her ability to dip into the raw of so many experiences"

  The collection was also originally inspired by the life-story of the late Elizabeth Hartman, a 20th century American actress who experienced both success, as well as depression. And here the poems plunge us into a world where everyone is enrolled to be an actress, actor, ‘identity’. This may sound farfetched, but Herd’s series of largely short yet finely-crafted poems call on us to think about what in life is ‘acting’ and what is ‘actuality’.   The difference between who we are and what we become.
The collection opens with ‘What I Wanted’   with the speaker craving for a ‘plump bountiful/landscape’ – a thought process we’d more readily associate with an old farmer, rather than the small female voice of the poem. The voice goes on to allude  to ‘proper winters’ like parents now reflect on things of the past like ‘proper music’ – therefore taking the attitude of age and nostalgia – yet prescribed to the position of a child. This underlines a central theme feature: the expectation, from a young age, that women will take on society’s stories, as well as their own. The feature of expectation, imagination, fantasy - as her allusion to fairy tales explore. Afterall, the second poem ‘What I Remember’ sees this through ‘not the race itself but the evening’, like an attempt to focus on the individual events, despite the great ‘race’ of life we are aware of. That is what is striking about Herd’s collection, her awareness, her ability to dip into the raw of so many experiences. She calls too on the means of film, story narratives and music to deliver an exploration of love and loss within this.

The collection follows on from Herd’s previous poetic successes which include her debut ‘No Hiding Place’ (Bloodaxe, 1996)  which was shortlisted for the Forward Poetry Prize for Best First Collection, and ‘Dead Redhead’ (BloodAxe, 2001). ‘Not In This World’ has already been shortlisted for the T.S Eliot Prize 2015. It could be seen as testament to Herd’s great skill: she captures the unafraid energy of a growing Scottish poetry scene (she currently studied in and lives in Dundee) yet also draws on symbols which cross cultures. Particularly prominent are ‘mirrors’,  which stand coldly in poems such as in ‘Nobody Home’ with the lines ‘the mirror gave us both away’.  It’s hard not to see this mirror as not just revelation, but relation – like the father ‘giving away’ the girl at a wedding. Thanks to Herd’s accessible style, we can reflect on how we use language and symbolism not only in relation to women, but those around them.

 Reflection is after all a prominent theme in the collection, as we see in poems like ‘At the Captain’s Table’ where ‘the mirror spat/its cruel portrait back in her face’.  Herd’s women face taking on multiple identities – ‘girl’ and ‘sister’ just some of the expected roles – yet are able to turn this ‘spit’ from the mirror into speech:   they themselves can reflect on their own experiences and become symbolic, as well as constructive. As a female reader, this speaks out to me saying that we have the power to reflect on the issues, and importantly, talk about them. It is important to seize this. Thus although the poems can be dark, there is light in the capacity for conversation they create. It’s all the more reason to get reading.

"It is important to seize this"

Yes, ‘Not in This World’ certainly provokes us. This includes shocking us before making us speak. In her exploration of the reflection of identity, Herd uses a number of narratives, often common to the cultural imagination – things that we think of time-over.   These include events as grand as ‘The Imaginary Death of a Star’ (i.e. have you ever looked up at the sky and thought ‘what if one blows up?’) to lines from The Great Gatsby in ‘The Music Men’ and even the occasion of ‘Happy Birthday’.

The variation in the poems illustrates how women are pulled across roles and expected to be culturally symbolic in them, a little like Elizabeth Hartman, a Golden Globe winner and Academy Award nominee, was herself as an actress.  And of course, the reality is often much different than the ascribed ‘role’. We discomfortingly see this in how the ‘Happy Birthday’ is a mourning of the past rather than a celebration, the passing of an aborted child – a literal ‘birthday’, expressed in a literal, painfully blunt manner. The female speaker considers ‘You were scraped away like unwanted food’ and ‘I didn’t allow you/even one breath’. If this is abortion, the speaker reflects on the routines of life she is expected to do, like clearing away food, and the almost casual proximity to death. This made me think of abortion in British society, and how it is often given as an option in life for women (which I agree with) but often treated as ‘routine’(both in treatment and like any other ‘routine’) in that the actual support women receive after can be shockingly minimal.

The routine and narratives women are expected, or often find themselves falling into and fulfilling (without feeling fulfilled in themselves) can be cruel. Herd hammers this home through what appears to be a repeated motif in the collection – a voice of child-like bewilderment at what is happening. This suggests it is an affront to innocence, and it is the childish tune of ‘He loves me. He loves me not’ which tinkles through ‘The Diner’: the instant recognisability of this showing the humiliating ‘conventions’ facing women which are often seen as desirable and ‘sweet’.  It is this continued exploration of childish, infantile roles which turns desire on its head, with questions in the collection like ‘Dr. when am I most real?’ and the reductive logic of ‘when your heart is on fire/you must be alive’  illustrating female perspectives unsure of their identities.

Women still face a society which can readily place them in a position of child-like uncertainty of who they really are.  Herd expresses this with adult bluntness, as well as through the motif of childhood: again reflecting the theme of fluctuating identity – which Elizabeth Hartman herself most probably experienced.  We see the actress spread across poems: in ‘Vivien and Scarlett’ she is ‘absorbing the part she is born to play’, whilst in another fades to a ‘blind and insignificant player’ and later a ‘failed actress/holding the script.’ These are elements of biography with a painful continuation still through our own lives and society. After all, we may idealistically look at these roles and say something like: no, no, no – women don’t’ face things like that in this world anymore. And that’s why the title of the collection is no important ‘- Not in this world’: the statement we use to brush away injustices which are still happening, as much as we’d like to insist otherwise. Herd draws our attention to these and makes us talk about them.

"In order to experience loss, we have to have had something first"

The pain drawn to the surface by Herd’s powerful collection is productive.  We see women’s identities reflected everywhere – across even the biggest symbols – yet taken away from them. At points it seems women only take their own through loss: like the intense examination of abortion, and also suicide, which is how Elizabeth Hartman died. But in order In order to experience loss, we have to have had something first. Loss is created through possession, and that is the message I gain from Herd’s words. She possesses a power in writing and exploring women’s position, which other people can take up too.

 This is poetry which encourages discussion of identity. Whether male or female, old and young, reflecting on the current treatment we subject people to and the expectations we have of identity, is important. We can realise the power we possess to change, rather than losing it to routine. This is a collection which needs to be read. 

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Up there, a Buzzard!

Thought-up in London, written in Lancashire.  

The shhh, shhh, shhh of moorland grass
I followed better than any voice
Those boots and mac, patch-work, second-hand
Bound into making ‘not even the smallest noise’
You said, your eyes embracing sky
And giving me, still encased, the map
With the pattern of contours beaming there
Wind-bitten fingers feeling the fabric strap.

I tested the breeze as you looked up
Assuming my future through the face
As the familiar smell of wet wool seeped through
The coffee granules dredged beneath the nails.
Permitted to declare ‘the spot’, we rested
Unmarked by route but allowed by sense
I was a child and this was not ‘authority’
But something better, something else.

The tinfoil cracked open for sandwiches, fruit
Looked somehow dull against the stone
Where we ate, cheese, the smack of salad cream
Ground into bread, like slate takes chalk.
It was that familiar combination of the press
Of home, hours spent on places, not the path
Which spoke through the warmth of your shaken head
As I asked if you could fasten the laces, dad.

Rain had faced us with its own animal
Had pushed our cheeks and steamed your glasses
When suddenly, your hand outreached
As if preparing the grasp of something magic.
‘Look!’ You beamed ‘Up there, a buzzard!’
A flickering comma on the sentence of the sky
And there the narrative, the hover, hover
The sensation you had shared too, in time.

Now the sky I see has been named ‘London’
200 miles away a woman, walking for cover
The stone is facing down - in the sound of the station
Though I hear your voice still, and wait for the hover.

Saturday, 7 November 2015


It didn’t make me think
Of the earth-grey scar
Which smiled across her abdomen
As she inched on the clothes for work
-          Not then anyway, barely ten
And the canal and its town an enigma yet.

She made me hold her hand, taking pictures
Giving coldness back with
Bad circulation. Dad smiled underneath a Plastic mac.
To capture a sense of surprise
He’d parked the car at a distance.

Still all natural to me then
The bridges where I would hide
Uncertain why the fear would peak
Like images, through mother’s eyes.
I dragged the dirt
And them, each other
As I broke bread from towpath
Like confetti
Onto water.

Still a daughter, still impromptu
Using bread to stop the tongue
It tasted raw then, stale-fizzed, revisited
The domestic less miserable
I yelled ‘come on!’
I thought we were going to miss the town
And stay looking at this aisle forever
-          The water where we overtook
And waved at the boats still slow and pleasant.
A pantomime for other stares
We were then
But perhaps it was only I who knew
Playing at families like a gem

And the chimney ahead was treasure
Not a ‘view’.
Like the a man who worked a lock, no keys
I tried to understand, but thought it odd
The sense of fulfilment as his body heaved
-          Parents seemed invited there to watch.

Their faces in the cold, half-touched,
The water extending, like a jetty
All day I tried to curve it with
Squeezed-shut eyes
Like wishing for time
But feeling memory.

Thursday, 5 November 2015

You Don't Hear Burning

It is anger translated into colour
The blue breath it took to build a bonfire.
Grown men clutching sticks of furniture

In Lewes burns the prime minister
And promises in Manchester
As the sheets curl in the capital
- The mouth of money like an animal.

This here is what we pay for
Life’s series of explosions
Patterned now across the dashboard

A mother brakes her car and sees
Whilst her child who cannot manage speech
Shakes out sound against the night

Of cold routine, ears occupied.
And yet the day is dedicated
The furniture once earned, cremated
Deafening ourselves amidst the colour

The silhouette castings of each other. 

Sunday, 1 November 2015

The Last of the Blackberries

These solitary meetings
I have learned to treasure –
The stir of leaf litter against the boots 
Relegated to ‘country walks’.
Blackberries survey me
Their crony stalks, ancestral eyes
In fresh rainwater, see
My swaying figure tainted by computer chairs,
Climbing stairs
The usual times.

Fruits now largely overripe
Splitting at the seams and crusted
Like dried speech
On a tongue of leaves
The type he would spit and say
‘They’re past it’.
Past it
All these modern terms, and turns
Grace the lonely mouth
On the autumn morning
Where thorns in the fingers
Still sweetly

My head, half-bent
To hear the children coming.

But they don’t
Instead the breeze
Breathes back the old scent
Of fruit
 Tightening on the vine
And I crush them now
In adult hands

Used to holding silence, seriousness,

There is a cold
Which comes with grief
Realising childhood and a father’s
‘Passed it’
The days of blackberrying with
Ice-cream tubs.
Now the season’s gone

My smile is plastic.