Monday, 13 September 2021

THE WINDSOR KNOT by S.J.Bennett, reviewed by Penny Dolan


The Windsor Knot - SJ Bennett - 9781838774158 - Allen ...

"What an inspired concept! I was keen to find out more ..."

Penny Dolan works as a children’s storyteller and writer. Her last novel for older children, A Boy Called Mouse, was nominated for the Young Quills Historical Fiction Award, and she is currently completing a companion book. She posts on The History Girls, on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure and also on The Cranky Laptop Writes, her personal blog. For more, see and @pennydolan.

Books with a slightly sideways view appeal to me and in The Windsor Knot, the author S. J. Bennett does just that, creating a fictional version of a familiar national presence: Her Royal Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.  I  am not an eager royalist or watcher of The Windsors or The Crown, so it was only when I heard the book was a crime novel that I became interested, especially in Bennett’s "What if?” angle:

What if, secretly, the Queen was a sleuth? Someone with a gift for searching out and solving crimes? An untangler of mysteries? A grey-haired but blue-blooded Jane Marple? Someone who could truly be described as a genuine Queen of Crime? What an inspired concept! I was keen to find out more.

I’d welcomed, ages ago, the regal makeover in The Uncommon Reader, a different Bennet's book, and I’d enjoyed this Bennett’s books for a younger audience too. Consequently, on a lock-down night not long ago, I visited he Windsor Castle, set in April 2016, for a chapter or two. Closing it in the early hours, I woke restlessly three hours later for more pages and sneaked away to finish it the next afternoon. What made The Windsor Knot so charming and compelling?

This fictional Elizabeth is very recognisable: a working monarch with a strong sense of duty and public service who takes her own role and palace protocol seriously. However, Bennett suggests, this unique position has offered her unusual opportunities: “Wherever the Queen goes, everyone's eyes turn towards her, which makes her the one person able to look outward and see what is really happening.” Like Miss Marple, she notices what other do not see, while the palace staff are like her own village community.

Plot-wise, this is a locked-room mystery, though the “room” in question is vast: Windsor Castle, a royal palace apparently secured every night. The big event, plump with soft diplomacy, is a Royal “Eat and Sleep”: an evening when Her Majesty invites important international guests and a few trusted, reliable conversationalists to a small dinner. Once the meal is over, the guests are entertained by selected singers, dancers and musicians and, when Her Majesty has retired to bed, party on informally for a while.

Overnight accommodation is provided for everyone present, from impressive guest suites used by visiting diplomats, pleasant rooms for business celebrities and cramped cubby-holes in the old servant’s attic where the musicians will sleep.

Or, in this plot, not.

The next morning, a young Russian pianist is discovered dead inside an attic wardrobe and the Queen, who briefly danced with the young man herself, is grieved by his murder. Soon she is just as concerned about the shadow cast upon her security and, implicitly, on the members of her personal Household. D.C.I Strong of the Met and the Director General of M15 - “grey of suit and grey of mind”- have opted for a “Putin” plot solution so when, unforgivably, they suggest one of her loyal, long-time servants could be a foreign spy, the Queen decides discreet but definite action is needed.

However, unlike the quietly scuttling Jane Marple, the Queen cannot be seen to act or publicly enquire at all. Not only is her diary is set, timed and scrutinised but Sir Simon Holdcroft, her Personal Secretary, regards her as a fragile woman to be protected from worrying information.

Among others, he tries to protect her, not accepting that the Queen has already had a lifetime of experiences.. As she tells Phillip, rather pointedly: “They forget I’ve lived through a World War, that Ferguson girl and you in the Navy”.

The Queen, in the novel, needs someone who will work quietly on her behalf. Fortunately, she has that in her new APS (Assistant Personal Secretary) Rozie Oshodi, just returned from her cousin’s wedding in Nigeria. With South London roots, Sandhurst training, smart suit, high heels and eager determination, Rozie is the standout character in this book . As Bennett herself was once interviewed for this post, the role carries extra conviction and enthusiasm.

When the Queen makes a subtle suggestion, Rozie is uncertain about the protocol around the request. Need Sir Simon know? Then she recalls the retiring APS’s quiet words during the handover meeting:

“One day, she’ll ask you to do something strange. I mean, every day will be strange but you’ll get used to that. One day it will be super strange. You’ll know it.”


“You just will.”

Hesitantly, but with increasing confidence, Rozie understands who needs finding, which meetings must be set up and what messages must be sent. Eventually, the mystery is untangled and works its way to a solution.

The charm of  The Windsor Knot was, for me, far more than the interest of the plot. What I enjoyed was the warm, well-researched glimpse into life within Windsor Castle.

The palace is not shown in a remote guide-book style but as the Queen’s beloved family home, filled with loyal hard-working staff. The reader sees the palace from her point of view.

As she walks through the ornate Octagon Room to her office, she glimpses a tour-group scuttling away, agape at the glittering treasures on display. At her desk, signing official letters and papers, she cheers up at the sight of a meeting booked with her racing Manager. Out riding in the Park, she feels a sense of peace and freedom, although we find her groom and security guard are riding along behind. While investigating, she pauses in an unfamiliar back corridor, and enjoys listening to the servants talking together, knowing that any conversations will stop the moment she shows herself.

The reader feels some sympathy for this private woman, surrounded by the pressures and protocols of a solitary role, despite the real-world press stories. Nor does S. J. Bennett avoid occasional short, sharp, sideways references to the real Elizabeth’s life story and the various troubles within the royal circle and within the Castle.

Published before the Duke of Edinburgh’s death and the funeral at Windsor Castle, some scenes have an added poignancy. In the novel, with its 2016 time frame, Elizabeth’s beloved Philip comes and goes, still good-looking, still fondly calling her “Cabbage”: the only person who treats her as an ordinary human being while, as frustratingly as ever, doing exactly whatever he wants to do.

Her Majesty The Queen Investigates: The Windsor Knot is the first in a planned series from S. J. Bennett, going back in time. The second, A Three Dog Problem, due out in November 2021, is set within Buckingham Palace just after the Referendum and includes a missing royal painting and a body in a swimming pool.

The books could be set among too much splendour and privilege to be truly termed “cosy crime” and not everyone warms to the theme of monarchy or royal lifestyles. Nevertheless, having travelled through the pages of her Windsor Knot story, I can understand why S.J. Bennett describes Her Majesty Investigates as a series about loyalty, community and service.

As she says on her website: "I love a world in which a wise and experienced older woman quietly, subtly, keeps things on track by working for good behind the scenes. I love the loyalty and devotion of the people who work for her in these books, and hers to them. I love the sense of tradition mixed with curiosity about the present and a real commitment to making the future the best that it can be."

Besides, in the current situation, I feel that all sorts of books are needed, especially ones that make such happy reading.

The Windsor Knot is published by Zaffre.

S J Bennett
PS. If you are interested in books and writing, I’d also recommend S.J.Bennett’s Pre-Published podcast, too.

Monday, 6 September 2021

Guest review by Yvonne Coppard: THE BELOVED CHILDREN by Tina Jackson


"This is a book to read twice. Let the first reading sweep you into Jackson’s mesmerising real-but-not-real world. And then read it again to see how she does it: storytelling at its best."
Yvonne Coppard is a Writing Fellow of the Royal Literary Fund and writer of fiction for children and adults. See more on her website.

In the last phase of the Second World War, three young women are brought together as ‘The Three Graces’ dancing act. Chrysanthemum is escaping the tyrannical control of her adoptive mother, who is determined to obliterate her mysterious powers. Rose comes from a loving showbiz family but longs to see the world. Orage is a mesmerising beauty whose sexual appetite has estranged her from her parents. Dolores and Janna, the eccentric wardrobe mistresses, take the Graces under their wing. Together, these women form a bond that transcends the seedy world of itinerant misfits and fugitives brought together in the dying days of variety theatre. There is secrecy and tension, often a sense of impending doom. But there is humour too, and the resilience and tenacity of this hotch-potch community shines through.

Jackson embraces the magic of theatre and circus; she plays with both in a way that recalls Angela Carter’s gift for magical realism. The five main characters are an outstanding creation, individually and in the mix. The narrator’s voice periodically cuts into the story to unsettle the narrative strand and promote the sense of mystery:

"Sometimes life alters as suddenly as scenes change in the theatre. In a sudden twist of fate, Chrysanthemum and Rose are removed from the world of flatties and ticket buyers. The curtain falls, and rises again, and here they are, in the world within the woods which is where Janna and Dolores pass their time. A world with its own ways. A world where unreal things are everyday occurrences. A world where seeing is believing."

We are also taken to the everyday drudgery of hand-to-mouth existence in oppressive lodging houses, precarious encounters that can be disruptive and dangerous. Time is a shapeshifter, and the reader must share some of the questions and unknowns that shadow the lives of the characters. Tantalising snapshots of individual histories break through and recede as real-time events mix with memories of the past. Their stories grip, entice, and unsettle. But fear not. Everything comes together in the final pages, bringing a satisfying resolution with twists and turns right to the end.

This is a book to read twice. Let the first reading sweep you into Jackson’s mesmerising real-but-not-real world. And then read it again to see how she does it: storytelling at its best.

The Beloved Children is published by Fahrenheit Press

Monday, 30 August 2021

WAYS OF SPEECH by Ann Pilling, reviewed by Adèle Geras


"She’s very good at leaving spaces around her words for the emotions to rise and swirl..."

Adèle Geras has written many books for children and young adults and seven novels for adults, the latest of which is Dangerous Women, a historical novel published under the pseudonym Hope Adams. She lives in Cambridge. 

Ann Pilling is a very good friend of mine. I’m making the disclosure as I do each time I review a book by someone I know.

When I read something I love, I want to tell other people about it. When I don’t like a book, I stop reading it. I’m afraid that this makes all my reviews favourable.

For a long time, Ann Pilling wrote for children. Her novel Henry’s Leg won the Guardian children’s book prize in 1986 and was made into a TV series.

She’s written books for adults too, like Considering Helen, but for the last few years, she’s been concentrating her considerable intelligence and skill on poetry.

I should say something here about my own tastes in poetry. I often need persuading that a great deal of what I’m reading isn’t prose cut up into short lines. I like scansion and rhythm and musicality. I like rhyme when it’s well done. I like (as Coleridge said) “the best possible words in the best possible order.” I like both simplicity and decoration. I love poems that move me or raise goose flesh on my arms. I enjoy recognising something I’ve experienced or felt myself. As Alexander Pope put it: “What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed”.

Ann Pilling has published three collections of poetry before Ways of Speech. It’s a good title for this book, because many of the poems are about communication: how impossible it sometimes is, how a mere glance can convey the absence or withdrawal of love and how the most devastating news can be conveyed in the most ordinary of words. Here is the last verse of a poem called Today’s Paper, written the day after the Grenfell Tower disaster:

Money keeps pouring in, nappies and blankets,

‘No more donations please, we have no storage,
it will all rot when it rains,’ but everyone prays
in their own way. I sit here on scorched grass
not writing about the fire.

Ann Pilling lives in North Yorkshire and its landscapes are celebrated in her work.

Wind had smoothed the drifts into long garments
carefully laid down and the horizon
was lined out with a scarf of thinnest blue.

She’s very good at leaving spaces around her words for the emotions to rise and swirl.

But you can’t practise for someone you love dying.
I’m glad I’m awake. My dreams last night
Were too filled with people crying.

She’s also terrific on domestic scenes, pets, gardens, and there’s a lovely sequence of poems about lockdown.

There’s a strong Christian sensibility in Ann Pilling’s work, alongside a sense of humour and an awareness of what’s going on in the world.

I’m going to end by quoting the whole of one poem, to give readers of Writers Review an idea of the shapeliness of these words, their music and their powerful emotional punch. Read it aloud. You’ll understand then what I mean about the unflashy but powerful impact of these verses.

After the Funeral

After the funeral we walked on the headland
In unfierce end of summer sun
where butterflies were,

where caterpillars tigered black and gold
threaded the grass, where bees
found the last sea pinks unerringly and fed.

Three heads in a line
a man, and his daughters, faces
twisted like roots against grief.

The sea was a ridged silver, the blue air
scored white with wings. Friend of our life,
if this is all there is then it is beautiful,

the earth is beautiful, if this is all there is.

Ways of Seeing is published by Shoestring Press

See more about Ann Pilling on her website.

See also: 

Driving South to Inverness by Phoebe Caldwell, reviewed by Ann Pilling

The Craft of Poetry - a Primer in Verse by Lucy Newlyn, reviewed by Jonty Driver

Monday, 23 August 2021

THE HIGH HOUSE by Jessie Greengrass, reviewed by Linda Newbery


"A disastrous near future that could be the day after tomorrow..."

Linda Newbery edits Writers Review. She has published widely for young readers of all ages, winning the Costa Children's Book Prize with her young adult novel Set in Stone. Her latest title is non-fiction: This Book is Cruelty Free - Animals and Us, a guide to compassionate living. She is currently working on a new adult novel.

When I think of the hot summer days of childhood, my memories are of a paddling pool in the garden, adults resting in the shade, the jingling tune of the ice-cream van; maybe a day at the seaside and sunburned skin in the days before we knew to take more care. We enjoyed it while it lasted, before the heat disintegrated into a thunderstorm and the days became cooler. Now the feeling is different, threatening. What if temperatures continue to rise and become unbearable? What would be the effect on wild animals, vegetation, crop-growing, and even human ability to survive? What if huge areas of the world become uninhabitable?

In The Great Derangement, recently reviewed on this blog by Jane Rogers, Amitav Ghosh asks why literary fiction so comprehensively ignores the climate emergency, the most pressing issue of our times, and why those novels that do deal with it tend to be sidelined into genre fiction. His book was published five years ago. Since then we've seen Richard Powers' The Overstory deservedly shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and Melissa Harrison wrote in The Guardian that "the 'cli-fi'  genre is growing exponentially – no surprise, given the coming crisis. In fact, as an artist in any medium it can feel self-indulgent, in 2021, to be making work about anything else."

Now here's another novel that puts climate breakdown centre stage, set in a disastrous near future that could be the day after tomorrow. Although to climate change deniers it could be seen as science fiction, the sense of foreboding in the early section of the novel - flooding, changes in the seasons, dangerous cyclones, migration patterns disrupted - is all too familiar to anyone seriously concerned about human impact on the planet. 

With its focus on a group of isolated survivors, the novel reminds me of Robert C O'Brien's Z for Zachariah and Edwin Muir's haunting poem, The Horses. The High House is located somewhere unspecified on the east coast of England (the nearby church with its carved angels and the shifting of the coast and river call to mind Blythburgh and Dunwich). Unknown to teenaged Caro, her stepmother and father have been meticulously preparing this house as a refuge for when disaster strikes; stepmother Francesca, environmentalist and climate campaigner, is more aware than most that the ways of life we take for granted cannot endure. "She didn't have the habit that the rest of us were learning, of having our minds in two places at once, of seeing two futures: that ordinary one of summer holidays and new school terms, of Christmasses and birthdays and bank accounts in an endless uneventful round. And the other one, the long and empty one we spoke about in hypotheticals, or didn't speak about at all."*

Just before he and Francesca are lost in a violent cyclone that hits Florida, where Francesca is speaking at a conference, Caro's father tells her to take her toddler stepbrother Pauly to the High House, urgently. Caro resents Francesca for neglecting Pauly in favour of campaigning, but becomes equally critical of herself for devoting herself to him as a means of shutting off from the catastrophic wider situation. Arriving, Caro is surprised to find the house already inhabited and grounds well-tended, by the practical Sal and her wise grandfather, Grandy, recruited as custodians by the prescient Francesca. When the floodwater comes, inundating the village and drastically changing the shape of the land, this little group is safe on its bulwark, carefully husbanding their resources, growing crops, keeping chickens, preserving fruit and vegetables. We move into a future where the rest of the world seems to have disappeared; as Pauly matures and is given his own viewpoint, we realise what limitations these young people have accepted, and how they must cope without medical treatment beyond what they can provide for themselves.

The novel is saved from bleakness by the immersion in daily lives, the tenderness between Caro and Pauly, Sal and her grandfather, the small satisfactions of daily life and self-sufficiency and even moments of joy. But it's a stark warning too: how we take for granted that there will be power at the flick of a switch, food available in shops or delivered to our door, "that vast net which, invisible, imperceptible, held us up," and how ill-equipped we'd be for survival if these systems failed. It's also a hymn to the natural world and a reminder of how much we face losing if we continue to behave as if the Earth's resources were infinite. "You think that you have time," Grandy says. "And then all at once you don't."

The High House is published by Swift Press.

The Bolinda unabridged Audiobook is narrated by Mariam Abu-Hejleh, Sam Newton and Camilla Rockley.

* I listened to the Audiobook, so the punctuation and sentence breaks in these quotations may differ from those in the print edition.

See also: The Great Derangement by Amitav Ghosh, reviewed by Jane Rogers

The Overstory by Richard Powers, reviewed by Tracey Mathias

Monday, 16 August 2021

Guest review by Jane Russ: TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Harper Lee, revisited


 "The descendants of Bob Ewell were to be found at the Capitol on January 6th..."

Jane Russ
is writer and series editor for the
UK Nature series of books from Graffeg publishing. The books are not only about the physiology of the animal or bird but about myth, legend, art and literature too. Jane's sixth book, The Native Pony Book, came out in July and joins her others about hares, foxes, owls, red squirrels and robins in this very successful series.

 I asked if I could review an old book, something well loved and read by millions. A book that most readers would know but which has come sharply into focus since 25 May 2020: the day George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis.

I first read To Kill a Mockingbird at school in about 1967 when I was fifteen. The story gripped me and, I am ashamed to admit, I still have my original (stolen) school copy beside me as I write! I was older than the narrator Scout Finch but not so much older that the antics of her day to day life failed to resonated with me, in all their glorious detail.

It was another fifty years before I read it again. I have occasionally been disappointed on re-reading a book I loved the first time around: not so with this one. This second reading threw up all the touch points of my own lived experience and I found I loved it even more. I was shocked by the nuance I missed originally, but what fifteen-year-old knows about nuance? Then I read it a third time in February this year; to see if there were things I had forgotten that could help me understand the horrors going on in America today. Not just the George Floyd murder but the insurrection too.

The novel at its simplest is a tale of two children growing up in the deeply segregated world of Maycomb, Alabama in the mid-1930s. The narrator is a young adult looking back on her childhood. Scout is six when the story begins and her elder brother Jem is ten. Their mother died four years before and Scout and Jem are devoted to their father Atticus, the town’s attorney. Atticus believes in never talking down to children and always answering every question: helping them to understand the world around them. The mother figure in the story is Calpurnia, the black cook/housekeeper, who loves the children as her own and has high standards of behaviour, which Scout and Jem work diligently to ignore. The third child we come to know and love is Dill, who comes every summer to stay with his aunt in the house next door. A fatherless, slightly old-fashioned, only child from Meridian, Mississippi, Dill is the catalyst the other two need for all that follows.

Written with a flowing natural style that effortlessly draws you into Scout’s world, it deals with major issues of the day in a clear gritty way and it is also very funny. In the final storyline, it seems perfectly natural that Scout, dressed as a ham, should be walking home in the dark with Jem after a school event. The ham plays an important role in the end-game. In fact, it could be said that without the ham she would be dead.

Whilst encircled by sharply-observed descriptions of their neighbours and Dill’s obsession with trying to get the recluse Boo Radley to come out of his house, the book has at its core Atticus’ defence of a black man accused of raping a white woman. Bob Ewell, a poor white farmer living with his large brood of children in virtual destitution on the outskirts of the town, accuses his black neighbour Tom Robinson of raping his eldest daughter Mayella. By the time the trial starts, Atticus has already saved Tom from a lynching by a crowd of men who turn up at the jail where he is being held. Scout, Jem and Dill sneak out at night and arrive just before the men. Scout unknowingly defuses the anger in the men when she spots the father of a classmate and speaks to him about his son. Her innocence and kindness prompt Mr. Cunningham to tell the other men to go home. This scene is the start of Scout’s understanding that nothing is fair for black people. (NB: The book was written only five years after the well-publicised lynching of teenager Emmett Till in 1955.)

Bob Ewell, in the eyes of the town is the lowest of the low but inherent racism tops even this and Tom Robinson in the ‘court’ of Maycomb is guilty before the trial starts. The judge sets Atticus to defend Tom as he knows Atticus to be an honest man who will not just put on a show of defence but the real thing; that is exactly what Atticus does. Scout, Jem and Dill, unbeknownst to Atticus, watch the whole trial from the ‘coloured gallery’, where they are brought to the front, known as they are to be Calpurnia’s charges and Atticus’ children. One thing that shocks white sensibilities at the trial is that Tom admits he felt sorry for Mayella being forced to look after her many siblings and her unpleasant father when her mother dies. In a segregated world how dare a black man have the temerity to feel sorry for a white man; even a Ewell. Even though it becomes obvious that Tom was physically incapable of giving Mayella the beating she received (he has a withered arm) the jury, after a very long deliberation, still finds him guilty.

As the story progresses there are things we discover and consider. This is where reading this book as an adult gives you a different perspective; the lessons are the same, just in sharper focus.

Prejudice of all kinds, be it based on religion, skin colour, age or anything else, is abhorrent.

This is something left for the reader to infer from the many characters in the book. As Miss Maudie says “Sometimes the Bible in the hand of one man is worse than a whisky bottle in the hand of (another)... There are just some kind of men who're so busy worrying about the next world they've never learned to live in this one, and you can look down the street and see the results.”

Atticus, when discussing the court-room verdict, says to Jem. “The older you grow the more of it you’ll see. The one place where a man ought to get a square deal is in a court-room, be he any colour of the rainbow, but people have a way of carrying their resentments right into a jury box. As you grow older, you’ll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don’t you forget it – whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash.’

The majority of people are good at heart. As Scout says to Atticus after realising that Arthur Radley saved her. “Atticus, he was real nice." "Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them.”

There are so many things to take from this book. Not least the realisation that although laws may change, attitudes passed from generation to generation of people needing to find a scapegoat for their own failings, will be hard to change. The end of the Civil War and the American government’s inability to deal with the problem of how to integrate slaves into society, is a harvest still being reaped to this day. ‘Forty Acres and A Mule’ for liberated slaves, meant that someone somewhere, felt aggrieved that they were not included, particularly poor whites. The descendants of Bob Ewell were to be found at the Capitol on January 6th and it is no coincidence that the Confederate flag was much in evidence on that day.

To Kill a Mockingbird is an easy read, just right for a teenage mind needing a story that pulls you along but it is of course so much more than that. I hope I have inspired you to get back to it and give it another viewing; you will not be disappointed.

To Kill a Mockingbird is published by Cornerstone.

By Jane Russ:

Monday, 9 August 2021

Guest review by Jonty Driver: THE CRAFT OF POETRY, a Primer in Verse, by Lucy Newlyn


 "This isn’t a primer ‘about’ verse, but in verse..."

C J Driver is always called Jonty. Later this year the Uhlanga Press will publish Still Further, New Poems 2000-2020.

The Yale University Press has recently published Lucy Newlyn’s The Craft of Poetry: A Primer in Verse. There are other primers: I can see some of them on the shelf immediately in front of me: Unlocked, Reading & Writing Prompts for Practising Poets, by Sue Butler & Helena Nelson (Happenstance Press, 2020); Metre, Rhythm and Verse Form, by Philip Hobsbaum (Routledge, 1996); Rhyme’s Reason, A Guide to English Verse, by John Hollander (Yale NB, 2001); and A Measure of English Poetry, by Anne Ridler (The Perpetua Press, 1991).

Then there are the close relations of primers, such as I Wanted to Write a Poem by William Carlos Williams (Cape, 1967); How to Read and Why, by Harold Bloom (Fourth Estate, 2000); Poetry Notebook 2006-2014, by Clive James (Picador, 2014); A Poetry Chronicle by Ian Hamilton (Faber, 1973); The Poet Who Forgot, by Catherine Cole (UWA Press, 2008) – and I’d better stop there, or the editor will get out a blue pen ... In my view, it’s a brilliant reading list, but Lucy Newlyn’s book bids fair to take a proud place in that little collection.

Ms Newlyn’s book is unusual in two ways. Firstly, it asserts that “to read and write poetry well, you must undergo a practical training in the delights and rigours of poetic craft.” “Practical?” “Rigorous?” “Training?” Let me spell it out, writing poems is not just about having strong feelings that you let overflow into words, vaguely divided into lines to show it isn’t prose (which it clearly isn’t because it doesn’t have to have as a clear meaning as prose presumably must). Almost anything will pass as a poem these days; but not if poets and their teachers were to pay attention to Lucy Newlyn. Indeed, one is never too experienced to learn.

Secondly, this isn’t a primer ‘about’ verse, but in verse. John Hollander used his own poems as illustrations, but most of his primer is in prose. Lucy Newlyn uses her “own verse (freshly written for the purpose) to introduce and exemplify key poetic figures, techniques, forms and concepts.” The setting of the poems is a small village in North Yorkshire where she spent much of her childhood; as a result, each poem stands on its own, in a sense despite its instructive title. For instance, this is a stanza from Lyric: 

Far from the village on the high bleak fell
among all lonely things you walk alone
seeking deliverance in sky and stone
where wind keens low and all the earth is still.

But the village, the beck which runs through it and the Yorkshire moors unify the poems, when the examples in a book of this kind could so easily be disparate. Lucy Newlyn’s fluency is astonishing: it’s not a slim volume – 186 pages and close on 150 individual poems divided into five parts: Foundations, Figures, Techniques, Forms and Concepts. If there are any omissions of form or technique, figure or concept, I haven’t spotted them.
A particular favourite of mine is one called simply Line. In part this is because it is dedicated to a friend, Ken Gross, Professor of Literature in the University of Rochester in the USA, but more because in it, Lucy tackles what seems to me a crucial element in poetry that is more and more ignored these days. When I go to poetry readings and can get hold of a text beforehand, I make a habit of marking (with a pencil if it is a book) where the poet/reader makes the break of breath which should signify the line change (there are of course caesuras too). It astonishes me how often the lines as the poet/reader speaks them have no relation to what is on the page. I know then that they have failed to understand the simplest and most basic aspect of poems: why they are divided into lines at all. So, it isn’t uncommon these days to find the article ‘the’ ending one line and its noun beginning the next. As Lucy Newlyn says: “Be alert to the line’s length; / to the turn as it ends before the sentence / and to the points where, artificially contained, / it meets a sudden stop.”

Or, as Yeats put it a good many years ago:

Irish poets, learn your trade,
Sing whatever is well made,
Scorn the sort now growing up,
All out of shape from toe to top...

The Craft of Poetry is published by Yale University Press.

More posts by Jonty Driver:

Italian Life by Tim Parks 

Monday, 2 August 2021

Guest review by Keith Gray: SING BACKWARDS AND WEEP by Mark Lanegan


"One of the pleasures of the book is witnessing his passion for his unrealised talent as a singer-songwriter develop, despite his horrific addiction to drugs and alcohol..."

Keith Gray is best known for his novels for children and teenagers including Ostrich Boys, which was shortlisted for both the Carnegie Medal and the Costa Children’s Book Award and was successfully adapted for the stage. His latest book for teenagers is The Climbers, published by Barrington Stoke. Keith lives with his family in Vienna, Austria, where he co-founded the not-for-profit writer development community Sunday Writers’ Club.

Grunge and the 90’s Seattle music scene was part of the soundtrack of my youth. Albums by Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots, Soundgarden and, of course, Nirvana were forever grinding their way through the headphones of my CD Walkman. I was never a particular fan of the Mark Lanegan fronted Screaming Trees, however. But looking back I don’t feel I missed out. Especially not now I’ve discovered Lanegan himself was embarrassed by the songs he sang and felt utter disdain for his bandmates.

One of the surprises of Lanegan’s autobiography is that music wasn’t a life-long passion. This is the singer who’s orbited grunge music before, during and after it was popular. He befriended and dealt drugs to many of its major stars, and nowadays is regarded as a cult figure, heavily influential and acclaimed as a great collaborator with other artists across several musical genres. Yet he starts his story by describing how he stumbled into Screaming Trees half-heartedly as a teenager in the 80s, without any real aptitude or ambition. He hoped being part of the band would be an escape from the ranching town of Ellensburg in Washington State where he hated growing up and where he’d already accrued a handful of petty criminal convictions. A hefty chunk of the word count here is dedicated to his dislike for his bandmates and their songs. But I guess you could say he learned on the job. One of the pleasures of the book is witnessing his passion for his unrealised talent as a singer-songwriter develop, despite his horrific addiction to drugs and alcohol.

Be aware, it’s one of the few ‘pleasures’ of reading Lanegan’s story. The book roughly encompasses the lifespan of Screaming Trees (1985-2000) who turn out to be also-rans within the grunge scene but whose biggest draw was Lanegan’s distinctive vocals. The details are in the performing, touring, incessant arguing and monstrous drug consumption.

The main interest for casual readers will be Lanegan’s friendship with Kurt Cobain but Cobain’s death and Lanegan’s proximity to it is neither the most revelatory nor poignant recollection. Lanegan’s 90’s were not just a car-crash but a pile-up of sex, drugs, drugs, DRUGS and rock ‘n’roll. So much so that the reader feels like a rubber-necker at many shocking anecdotes. Perhaps too many shocking anecdotes? I stopped feeling surprised by the lengths (or depths) Lanegan would go to to find his next fix about halfway into the book. I hung around hoping for more music. I wished there was more music. Although I was never a fan of Screaming Trees, Lanegan’s solo albums and his work with Queens of the Stone Age has been (to my ears) exceptional. But did he need to go through those years as a criminal, a cheat, a liar, a junkie to be able to create such incredible music? Is his songwriting so powerful because he’s been to those dark, dark places many of us can only imagine?

It’s a well written book of no-nonsense muscular sentences. There’s nothing shiny or pretty here. It’s bluntness helps keep much of the emotion or contemplation at arm’s length – which is a surprise if you’re familiar with Lanegan’s lyrical prowess. Yet maybe that’s the point: Lanegan wants to settle scores and tell truths, he’s not here to whine.

There are some lighter (or perhaps slightly less dark) moments. OnThe e of the most publicised is his encounter with Liam Gallagher of Oasis. But these are few and far between and Lanegan was around for the untimely deaths of his beloved friends Cobain, Layne Staley (Alice in Chains) and Kirsten Pfaff (Hole) among others. There is a note of epiphany and hope in the closing pages, dated around about 2002, but it’s still mind-blowing how Lanegan survived his personal addictions and continues to make great music today.

Lanegan’s been praised for his unflinching honesty and he portrays himself as a spiteful perfectionist bearing venomous grudges. He teeters precariously between powerful creativity, utter hopelessness and spiralling self-destruction. Often all within a single day. He either adores people or he loathes them – there’s no room for middle ground. And it’s a rock solid fact that the people he loathed won’t enjoy his book. Not that he’ll give a damn. He’s written his story exactly the way he wanted to.

Sing Backwards and Weep is published by White Rabbit.

See also: Haddon Hall: When David Invented Bowie by Najib, reviewed by Paul Magrs

The Dark Stuff by Nick Kent, reviewed by Paul Dowswell