Sunday 10 March 2024

Reports from the Deep End

Reports from the Deep End is a collection of short stories inspired by the work of J.G. Ballard. Although he's famous for his visions of urban dystopia (his name has even morphed into the adjective 'Ballardian'), there's so much more to him than that. For example, as a science fiction writer, instead of writing stories about outer space, he turned, instead, to the 'inner space' of the human mind, blurring the distinction between SF and literary fiction. Then there's the exotic locations and the non-specific, slightly surreal aura of colonialism you sometimes get, that no doubt springs from his childhood experiences of Shangai and living in a Japanese internment camp during the Second World War. 

There are over thirty stories in the collection, which includes work by Will Self, Iain Sinclair and Michael Moorcock (who contributes a new Jerry Cornelius story). You can read my review of the book here, in International Times.

Friday 5 January 2024

Wound is the Origin of Wonder

The poems in Maya C Popa's book, Wound is the Origin of Wonder, ask big questions: what can we learn about ourselves from the religious systems  and mythologies we created in the past? (Whether they're believable or not isn't the point here - Popa is looking for patterns and archetypes). What's the world like when we're not looking at it? What would it be like to be inside someone elses head? It's risky territory. Poets must 'go in fear of abstractions', as Ezra Pound put it. But then all artists who create successful art take risks. Does Maya C Popa pull it off and, if so, how? Yes, she does - but it's just that here and there, I found myself wondering. Then again, one thing I learned from reading the book was that the joy is in the wondering. You can read my full review of it here at Stride Magazine.

Friday 29 December 2023

Requiem for Bioluminescence

There's the ghost of a story running through Aaron Kent's collection, Requiem for Bioluminescence. It's about an owl, a fox and a submariner (Kent was, for a while, a submarine SONAR operator: almost, in itself, a metaphor for the kind of poet he is, delving into the subconscious the way he does). Influenced by JH Prynne and jazz (he's a fan of Miles Davis), the poems are playful in their use of language and musical in structure. Nevertheless, they have a dark, mythical feel to them. You can read my review of the book here at Stride Magazine.

Saturday 1 July 2023

New Boots and Panties!!

It occurred to me after he'd left that he never told me his name. He looked strangely familiar, though. He had a longish beard that was beginning to turn white. His receding hair was brown with flecks of grey, but looked as if it had once been red. He was at least twice my age. He was dressed much the same as I was, in jeans, trainers and a t-shirt. This surprised me a little: I always imagined – or did back then – people in the future wearing weird clothes. Perhaps I'd been watching too much Blake's 7.

I was sitting on the settee in our flat in North London, staring through the window at the sky, through the colours of a rainbow-transfer we'd stuck on the glass. I was listening to an Ian Dury album I'd just bought. It was 3rd June, 1981. I'm usually hopeless with dates but that one's not one I'm likely to forget in a hurry.

I never got to actually see his time machine. All I saw was a black flash, like a negative of a flash of lightning, and there he was, standing in the corner of the room. He stood for a moment, wide-eyed and open mouthed, looking round.

“New Boots and Panties!” he cried.

A strange exclamation for the first known time-traveller from the future. Speechless and disorientated, I nodded, got up and went over to the hi-fi to take it off. I suppose I thought it was the polite thing to do. He must've realised what I was doing.

“No, no! Leave it on,” he said. “It's one of my favourites. And on vinyl!”

I did as he said, but turned it down a bit.

“These were the days!” he said.

“How did you – “ I began.

“Don't ask,” he said. He laughed.

He made for the chair under the window and sat down.

“It's great to see you again,” he said.

“Have we met?” I said.

He chuckled and smiled knowingly, but offered no further explanation. Perhaps I was too nonplussed to demand one. Somehow, though, we skipped all further pleasantries and settled down to talking as if we'd known each other for years. He told me how all the ecology stuff that was just starting to get trendy in my time was really important and how, in his time, the world was in the middle a climate catastrophe. He said we already were, in our time, only it wasn't public knowledge. People in the UK were getting poorer, too. He explained to me what foodbanks were and how people had to queue at them for food. It got worse: the world, in his time, had been struck by a pandemic and millions had died. And, to make matters even worse, the situation in the health service had been allowed to deteriorate to the point where even the doctors and nurses were going on strike.

“And did I mention the war in Europe?” he said.

“No,” I said. I started to laugh. I must've been watching too many alternative comedians. I thought he was joking.

“Straight up,” he said.



Neither of us said anything for a moment.

“Has anything changed for the better?” I said, finally.

He thought for a moment. He told me how although it'd not all been plain sailing, most people were probably a bit more accepting – a bit, mind you – of people different to themselves. Then he tried to explain how everyone was linked up by computer. He called it the internet. I told him it sounded good.

“It is, I think,” he said. “But if you put it another way and tell people computers are taking over the world, it sounds a lot less attractive.”

“And you've invented time machines,” I said.

“Well, no,” he said. He went on to explain how he'd stolen his from a quadrillionaire entrepreneur from the 2060s who'd happened to materialize in his living room. He'd told him that in 2060, spaceflight was old hat and time travel was the latest thing.

The guy had made the mistake of putting his remote control box down on the table and my visitor, on impulse, had grabbed it and pushed the button on it. It seemed the right thing to do, he said. And here he was, in 1981. He'd left the quadrillionaire stranded in 2023. Not something, he said, he was likely to lose any sleep over. I noticed, for the first time, that he was holding a device like a TV remote control in his left hand.

“I felt I just had to come back and warn you,” he said. “Don't fall for the 'jam tomorrow' scam. If you do, things just get worse. Tomorrow never comes.”

Then he told me he had to leave. The quadrillionaire had mentioned, in the brief time they'd spent talking, that you could only spend so long in the past before your material integrity began to deteriorate. He stood up and stepped back into the same corner of the room he'd appeared from. He fixed me with an earnest stare.

“It's been wonderful seeing you,” he said. He sniffed a little. He seemed to be fighting back emotion. “But you've got to do something!” he said. “All of you!” He looked around as he said it, waving his arms in a helpless gesture to all the people who weren't there with us.

I saw his finger close on the button on the control-box and then he vanished, just as he'd appeared, in a black flash.

Sunday 11 June 2023

Hauntology in Poetry

The way much of the poetry that matters is written has changed very little over the last few decades. It generally conforms to ways of writing that evolved during the course of the twentieth century and which became the stylistic norm in the second half of it. Of course, many things have changed – the sexism of some poetry once thought radical now seems cringe-worthy, for example – but in many stylistic and technical ways, the way poets write what they write is much the same. Many of the poets whose work was included in Michael Horovitz' 1969 anthology, Children of Albion, say, could submit the kind of work they were writing then, more or less, to a literary journal today, without the editor raising an eyebrow.

The situation was very different one hundred years ago. In 1935, Ezra Pound coined his often-quoted Modernist imperative, 'make it new' (1). Before that, in 1921, TS Eliot and Virginia Woolf had been discussing the relationship of their work to that of their predecessors. Woolf suggested that their work was 'not as good as Keats'. Eliot demurred, suggesting that he and Woolf were 'trying something harder.' (2) The world they were writing in had changed massively since the days of Keats and they needed to find new ways to say the things that needed to be said. It was an era of groups and movements in the arts and creative manifestos. Few writers today would feel a similar gulf existing between themselves and the generation of writers represented by Woolf, Eliot and Pound (although they might feel more affinity with other writers working at the same time – Bertolt Brecht, AndrĂ© Breton and Tristan Tzara, to name but three). Like them, though, they would still feel a gulf to exist between themselves and the world of Keats. (One could argue that avant-gardists are often Romantics at heart, but that's another discussion).

In relation to music, people sometimes talk about hauntology, a nostalgia for futures that never came to pass, leaving the ghosts of  imagined futures to haunt the present, in the form of musical styles from the past and the technology used to produce them. Could the same be said to apply to poetry? Movements in the arts don't change simply because it's 'time for a change' but because the world changes. The brighter future many saw to be promised by the ideas, social movements and technological advances of the twentieth century has not yet materialised. If poets in 2023 still find themselves writing poetry in ways that would not have seemed out of place forty years ago, it may be because they still find themselves working, in many ways, in a similar milieu. The poetic toolkit in use back then may still have a lot to offer. And a poet has a job to do. As Gael Turnbull said:

All that can be willed is to give oneself as fully as possible to what is going on, to try above all to be true to the closest instinct of the moment, at each moment. Even when its pattern or its meaning may appear utterly lost. Then, later, from another vantage point, we may see what has happened... The very language we use is not 'mine' but is only 'ours'; and what we would say, of any material, is shaped by those others both past and present; as it is also shaped by the meanings which are in the material itself, meanings which perhaps we discover rather than create.(3)

So there you have it. If what the poet discovers today bears a strong resemblance to what poets discovered half a century ago, so be it. Poetry today might express a nostalgia for futures that never came to be, but not because the poet is by nature nostalgic, but because the tool of poetry exposes reality for what it is. Digital technology and the internet have massively transformed the world but can mask the fact that, in many other ways, the world has not changed a great deal in that time. When it does, it may be that the way poets make poetry changes with it.


1. Ezra Pound, Make it New: Essays by Ezra Pound, Yale University Press, 1935.

2. Virginia Woolf, Diary, 22nd March, 1921.

3. Gael Turnbull, Kuchur 7, 1962, quoted in Children of Albion: Poetry of the 'Underground' in Britain, ed. Michael Horovitz, 1969, pp. 319-320.

Thursday 25 May 2023


Everywhere you look you're reminded of the passage of time. Everything from the way the pebbles that make up the shingle have worn smooth and the evolution of the plants that grow among them (the sea cabbage especially) to the sheds people have built, then abandoned. One, on a rise just behind the shingle, barely hangs together, its rotten planks burst apart by the wind exposing tea, salt and pepper still sat on a shelf, a rusty bicycle. Another, its door come away, is full to what is left of its rafters with brambles, the leaves pressing their eager faces up against the window.

There are few buildings. Most of those there are are strung out along the top of the rise behind the shingle. A few yards inland, there is a small cluster of bungalows, built in what once must've been a 'cheap and cheerful' style but which now haunt us with visions of a world for which we can find no modern equivalent. Mod cons – principally, the internet – have had to be grafted on.

There is a road down to the sea that ends in a car park. People come here to walk their dogs, entertain their children or just sit and look. The tracks down to the shingle are lined with pebbles people have painted and left there. This is a pebble painter's paradise.

Sometimes, from here, you can see the Isle of Man on the horizon. When you can, it's a mirage: if the conditions are just right, the atmosphere refracts the light, making the distant island (which lies way beyond the visible horizon) appear surprisingly close. You can see its principal hills spread out from left to right. I've never caught it in the act of appearing or vanishing, though, although, the other evening, conditions were such that you could only see the tops of its hills poking above the milky obscurity. One can see how myths arose of magic islands that appear and vanish and, scanning the horizon to see if you can see Man from Silecroft, it's easy to start doubting the science that tells you that what you're witnessing is no more than an atmospheric effect.

Saturday 6 May 2023

Don't Say Nowt

Jumble Hole Clough's creator, Colin Robinson, describes it as 'music influenced by the landscape, industrial remains and experiences around Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire. Forgotten things half-hidden beneath the undergrowth.' Robinson has now created forty-three albums under the Jumble Hole Clough name, the latest three being a trilogy based on written-down dreams ('the minor transient documents of everyday life', as he describes them). Over the previous forty, Robinson had moved gradually away from his self-imposed local brief. This trilogy, however, brings the world around Hebden Bridge back into focus: the calls of the curlews the crows and the sound of the church bells rising up from the valley (everyday experiences for anyone living around Hebden Bridge) mingle with more exotic, surreal dream-images. For example, someone – in one of the catchiest songs in the trilogy – has mysteriously filled the back of his car with riot-shields. I can't explain why I like that song as much as I do any more than I suspect Colin Robinson can explain why he dreamt it.

The first album of the trilogy, with its ambiguous double-negative title, Don't Say Nowt (and other dreams), contains conventional songs. Correction: conventional JHC songs, which is not quite the same thing. Conventional in JHC terms means short, sonically diverse and full of tongue-in-cheek surrealism. These are the dreams you were dreaming the moment you woke up: brief, vivid narratives with a logic of their own, which seemed perfectly reasonable while you were dreaming them.

The second album, You're Our Prisoner Now (and other dreams) is less conventional. All the tracks were 'based initially on aleatoric methods: generative, serial, Euclidean, tape loops and other such systems'. JHC produced its first album using generative music (...and I think the little house knew something about it; don't you?) almost exactly a year ago. One of the interesting things about that album – and this – is that even when relinquishing control of the music to algorithms, it still manages to sound like JHC.

The third album, The Sunken Chapel (and other dreams) goes even further in this direction. Listening to it for the first time, I immediately found myself thinking of it as a series of sound-tracks to dreams, like an album of the music for a film which only one person – in this case the dreamer, Colin Robinson – has ever seen.

If you've never heard the music of JHC before but enjoy listening to these albums as much as I do, you have a treat in store: you've still got the forty other albums in the JHC back catalogue to listen to.

Reports from the Deep End

Reports from the Deep End is a collection of short stories inspired by the work of J.G. Ballard. Although he's famous for his visions o...