Covid Isolation Day 5: Paging Dr Mario

I wake up from various anxiety dreams where I’m wandering around school and breathing on people to the familiar four walls of quarantine. The fear of accidentally giving a bunch of people this virus can be quite paralysing and I’m a bit worried how fast I’m going to adapt to going out into the world again, given how hard I’ve found it to move out of a lockdown mindset before.

A Tesco order arrives, meaning I finally get to eat the bowl of rice krispies I’ve been craving since yesterday, and it certainly brings an interesting texture to the feelingless desert that’s my mouth right now.

I manage to hammer out a review of a poetry collection, but it’s the kind of day when I’m struggling to settle into things. Squish finds out that Track and Trace has been in touch with her office and advised them all to self-isolate until the 3rd. She feels rotten about this, especially since Track and Trace have been dragging their feet and she was hoping they wouldn’t have to shut the office. All her colleagues are getting PCR tests, and we’re really hoping they all come out negative. Squish is scared they will think the worse of her for it; I told her that they understand it’s just one of those things that happens in a pandemic, but she was inconsolable for a little while.

Today’s distraction has been Dr Mario, an ancient 16-bit puzzle game. I bought a mini-SNES a while back for a bit of retro gaming, and discovered you can download a program that hacks it and will let you insert the ROM from any old SNES game, downloadable for free on the internet. It’s a simple game about lining up coloured pills to wipe out cartoon vriuses, but the difficulty is flexible and our competition to finish first can be fierce. Plus, playing it with Covid gives the whole thing a pleasant sense of irony!

Battling coronavirus the old-fashioned way

The Game Boy Advance was my favourite console as a kid, and as with the iPod nano, I’m so comfortable with low-tech 16 bit games and pixel art that I rarely see the appeal of polygons and first person shooters. Sometimes I get so involved that I won’t stop even when I’m not enjoying it any more, and I’ve had to take measures to cut down on my gaming hours in lockdown. Dr Mario, however, hits the spot precisely. It’s just lovely to play a two-player game that we’re both reasonable good at and can get a bit competitive about.

I finish my book, rattle out a diary entry and blog in the evening, which gives a sense of acheivement to a diffuse sort of a day. We watch the next episode of the Harley Quinn TV series, which is punky and good fun–a bit bloodsoaked, but it doesn’t feel as unnecessary in the adult cartoon as it does in the Birds of Prey movie.

Covid Isolation Day 4: Rice Krispie Cravings

I wake up with an intense craving for rice krispies, which I think comes down to a yearning for foods with very identifiable textures now that my sense of taste has gone to the dogs. I also feel really odd for the first few hours, in a woozy, out-of-my-skull sense. I wonder if this is simply a side effect of being able to breathe properly for the first time in days. Both my nostrils are in reasonable working order, and while I’m still coughing a bit and my energy levels are prone to crash unexpectedly, I would probably have gone into work if I wasn’t still infectious.

I do a few chores and finish watching The Power of the Daleks, remembering how, as a kid, I could devote myself to a solid Saturday morning of watching one Doctor Who episode after another. Now it seems I can barely do ten minutes without checking my phone or seeing what’s happening on another tab.

While Squish is still feeling terrible, I think I’m getting to the stage where I realise my days will need a bit more purpose if they’re not going to turn into lockdown number four, without even the option of a wander in the park.

In the evening we order out for sushi, which has an enjoyable texture, but the fact I can’t taste the salmon continues to depress me. Also, in the most depressingly obvious metaphor imaginable, my watch stops. It will be another six days before normal time resumes.

Covid Isolation Day 3: Getting Up Steam

Wake up at 8 this morning to the deeply distressing discovery that I can no longer tell earl grey from regular builder’s tea. All my bergamot receptors are kaput.

To cheer myself up, I watch Patrick Troughton’s first Doctor Who story, The Power of the Daleks, on BritBox. The whole thing’s missing from the archives, so they’ve done an animated reconstruction, with cartoon actors and computer generated Daleks synchronised to the original audio, plus colour and wide screen. It makes a great Sunday morning cartoon, and I’m finding the slower pace easier to handle than the more high-concept stuff that’s been developed for the streaming wars.

Squish has the canny notion of turning our bathroom into a steam room by turning the shower to its hottest setting and running it full pelt. We spread blankets over the floor, chuck cushions about and settle in–it’s not a very environmentally friendly idea but the steam does do our lungs a power of good. A single nostril service resumes and I get through 100 pages of book while Squish has a refreshing bathroom floor nap.

In the evening, I have my first zoom quiz of the entire pandemic–as with catching Covid, I’ve managed to push it back to a very late date. The competitors are a mixture of Covid positives, self-isolators and free men. We rock the general knowledge and musicals rounds, but crash and burn on the music questions–plus we miss out on several drag queen questions that provide easy points for other, queerer competitors! We come third overall, with 55 points, and so exhausted we fall asleep almost immediately afterwards

COVID Isolation Day 2: The Care Package

I wake before 5am for the second morning in a row, thanks partly to our cat, Dizzy, who is a great one for jumping onto your tummy, mewing, and thrusting her nose in your face until you either feed her or throw her out. Sleep is impossible thereafter, so I lie in bed and listen to my iPod until dawn breaks.

My iPod’s been indispensable to getting as much done as I have so far. Listening to energetic music takes me out of myself enough for me to commit to the necessary chores, like doing the washing up or hanging out clothes to dry. I have a theory that sooner or later, everyone encounters their happy medium of tech upgrade, after which everything else is in someway a step backwards, and the 7th generation iPod Nano is mine. It’s smaller than my smartphone, has awesome battery life and as I refuse to access music on a subscription model, the lack of wifi bothers me not at all. It does one thing and does it superlatively well.

Most importantly, it has a headphone jack that’s eminently compatible with the t-loop hooks I like to use in place of headphones. As a wearer of hearing aids, the near industry-wide decision to abolish the headphone jack is probably the most ableist thing ever to affect me personally.

After the sun rises, I shower and write up my diary while Squish dozes on. I tiptoe out to phone my Mum shortly after 7, and a DFL courier rings an hour later, waking Squish up. Masking up, I shuffle to the front door in my slippers, where I discover I get a certain kick out of yelling “I’m COVID positive, mate, I can’t sign anything!” through the glass. I think about adding “Flee for your life!” next time.

I lug the hefty parcel through to the bedroom, where we discover that Squish’s mum, Lara, has sent us a care package from Selfridges crammed full of chocolate, cupcakes, face masks and other goodies. This perks Squish up no end, and she gets up and makes us hot toddies — a scandalous thing to be drinking at 8 in the morning, but this is also the point where I realise that the anosmia has kicked in and I can’t taste or smell anything. Which is a disappointment — I was enjoying having a sense of taste for the first few days, and I’d really hoped I’d skipped that symptom. We watch a few episodes of Love, Death and Robots, by way of Saturday Morning Cartoons. It’s the animated equivalent of Black Mirror, but with greater variation in both themes and quality.

Feeling well taken care of

An Amazon guy comes along a few hours later with even more goodies — a stack of hardback thrillers and a bottle of Bollinger we decide to keep until the last night of isolation. Unfortunately he wants to see ID for the alcohol, so I have to shuffle out in slippers, clutching my passport, and I probably expose myself to the whole street whilst trying to work the front door latch hygenically with the corner of my dressing gown. In any case, bless Lara for the gifts — they cheer us both up and make it easier to be missing the big family reunion today. We have a well-lubricated video call later, when the O’Connors are in the midst of a long alfresco lunch.

I spend most of the morning lying in bed and grousing about how dreadful I feel, but after I get up and set about the washing up I start feeling perkier. It helps to discover that my particular friend Irene, who I had round the day before I went into isolation, has tested negative. She’s due to fly home to Malta on the Monday, and I was really worried I’d end up wrecking her plans. She later goes out to get us a few odds and ends from the shop, and adds in flowers, crisps and strawberries of her own accord, making our third care package of the day.

Squish seriously sets about reading all four thrillers in a day — about 1500 pages in total — and succeeds. Her reading speed approaches that of light. She proclaims Hostage, by Claire Mackintosh, to be the best of the set. By contrast, I manage a chapter of my book on Warrior Queens and then fall asleep for two hours. It’s a truly wonderful nap.

In the late afternoon, I subscribe to BritBox for something to while away the lockdown, and spend the evening watching the first episode of Thunderbirds. It looks terrific — pin sharp and full of colour — but I know I’m not the first to point out that a nuclear-powered passenger plane that will scatter radioactive debris over a wide area if it crashes and irradiate its passengers if it stays up too long should never have made it off the drawing board.

COVID Isolation Day 1: It’s the End of the World as we know it and I have a New Continuous Cough

Waking up at a quarter to five, I roll over to check my phone and there it was on the NHS Track and Trace app: “Continue to self-isolate for nine more days. Your Coronavirus Test is positive.” I swear and wake Squish, my partner, who discovers she’s positive as well. And we get no more sleep that night.

In many ways, the hardest part is waiting until the time is right to phone work and family and let them know the news. It’s particularly tough on Squish, who works for Jammy Custard, a small animation company in Cardiff Bay. I’m at a school that has clear procedures to follow and where the decisions about who else, if anyone, needs to self-isolate happens out of my sight and hearing. Squish has to message her bosses directly, who read the guidelines, decide whether or not to shutter the office, and announce the decision on the company groupchat. It’s tough for her, but happily the people she’s most stressed that she might have passed it on to turn out to be double-jabbed.

We’ve also planned on visiting Squish’s parents over the next two weekends, the first of which we’ve already had to cancel since we were close contacts. So our relief is palpable when business hours arrive and everyone proves sympathetic.

We were lucky enough to self-isolate early, and that’s principally down to the Track and Trace app. It alerted us that we’d been in close contact with a confirmed case and would need to self-isolate; I used it to book a PCR test within the hour, on realising that my cough was a) new and b) continuous; and it was the first thing to tell me I was COVID positive. Without it, I might have gone blithely into work on Thursday morning.

It got an avalanche of bad press on its launch and doesn’t seem to be much trusted among my neighbours and friends, which I think largely unjustified. A lot of pieces of software get bad press for being ramshackle at launch but improve massively after a few updates and patches, and that seems to be the case here: one peer-reviewed paper says it may have prevented hundreds of thousands of cases, and thousands of deaths.

Tea, chores and Tesco home deliveries dominate the morning. Track and trace call in the afternoon and spend a long time checking my symptoms and going through my movements all the way back to June 9th. The woman concerned either has a slow laptop or is a bad typist, and data entry takes ages. It’s further complicated by the fact that my phone connection is dodgy at first. I’m grateful for my emergency landline as well as for my working knowledge of the NATO Phonetic Alphabet, which I’ve never used so extensively.

Shattered after all that, Squish and I round off the day with two movies. First up was The Lovebirds, a rom-com about a likeable hipster couple thrust into a crime plot, where they subvert the genre, bicker humorously, solve the mystery and save their relationship. Just the pick-me-up we needed.

We follow up with Anna and the Apocalypse, a low-budget zombie musical which borrows extensively from Shaun of the Dead but manages to get a lot of heart and heft into its utterly daft premise. Cleverly, it takes itself seriously as both a zombie film and a musical, rather than letting the two forms sabotage each other for cheap laughs, and some of the songs are absolute bangers.

I have a headache, runny nose and cough all day, while Squish is only starting to show symptoms, but in any case, we get to bed early.

Books I read this May

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Oh, the month of May! The not-so-merry lockdown month of May! Between getting hooked on videogames that let you wander through Renaissance cities and watching TV programmes I probably shouldn’t be watching in a pandemic (Chernobyl, The Report), I got through ten books. It’s not much for a month where all I did was bide my time, but one of them was The Canterbury Tales, so I’m pleased with that.

And Then There Was No-One, by Gilbert Adair

The last and least of the Evadne Mount trilogy where the author goes full po-mo and narrates the tale in his own person. It’s got all the tics of such novels–silly names, literary gossip, a fixation with Nabokov–all elbowing out the murder, which the author shows very little interest in. The final 20 pages are engagingly madcap and surreal, but didn’t merit the trudge of the previous 250.

The Bacchae, by Euripides, trans. William Arrowsmith

The last and perhaps the best play by Euripides–a departure in so many ways, from the wild spectacle of the mid-play earthquake to the gory dismemberment of the King at the end. I don’t think the chorus is ever so well used as it is here. For a late work, the innovation seen here is astonishing.

Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson

Re-read. A comfort book, still astonishingly vivid in its scenes and characters. Who wouldn’t give their right arm to have written the apple barrel scene, or a glorious monster like Hands or Silver? It marks for me the point where I left the safety of Enid Blyton behind and entered a more vivid, savage, dangerous world.

Book V of The Faerie Queene, by Edmund Spenser.

My history with this monolith of English verse is chequered. I’ve read Book I (twice), Book II, bounced of Books III and VI, and enjoyed the Mutabilitie Cantos. I think Book I is easiest because the allegory follows the character arc of the Redcrosse Knight–he falls into error, then into despair, returns to a state of grace, and fights a dragon. It’s a basic 3-act structure. The other knights don’t have this–Guyon, knight of Temperance, doesn’t slob out in the middle cantos of Book II. The closest Artegall, knight of Justice, gets is a deeply weird section where he yields to a female knight through chivalry and is made to put on women’s clothing and do some weaving. There’s recognisable allegorical episodes–a version of the Judgement of Solomon, as well as the trial of Mary, Queen of Scots and War with Spain, but it feels rather disconnected. One thing it did inspire me to do was return to some scholarly articles in search of further illumination–which I read, for the first time in a while, with real enjoyment.

The Wedding of Sir Gaweyn and Dame Ragnell, in Middle English Verse Romances

The worst poem I’ve read in quite some time. It’s one of the sources for the Wife of Bath’s Tale in the Canterbury Tales, which is why I looked it up, but it’s so clunky and metrically incompetent as to be almost painful. Chaucer’s own spoof romance, Sir Thopas, looks like a masterpiece compared to this. For specialists only.

False Value, by Ben Aaronovitch, read by Daniel Kobna-Smith

Only of the few series where I will listen to an audiobook without reading the hard copy. This one gave me my PC Peter Grant fix and expanded the world building, as foreign agents attempt to get their hands on a magical Babbage engine. It’s hampered in the early chapters by flashbacks which are not nearly so interesting as the present-day narrative, but exploring a Silicon roundabout tech firm gives Aaronovitch a cast of geeky eccentric and opportunities for endless Hitchhikers references–both of which I appreciated.

Jeeves and the King of Clubs, by Ben Schott

I’m rather fond of the pseudo-Wodeshousiana, because they usually end up as fascinating cross-breeds rather than straight imitations. Sebastian Faulks’s Jeeves and the Wedding Bells stole a bunch of tricks from Upstairs Downstairs, while this one takes its cue from the spy novel. Wit sparkles from every page, and the endnotes are an extra treat. Characterisation and description are on point, but Schott hasn’t been able to resist the temptation to over-egg, bean and crumpet the dramatis personae. Too many familiar characters are introduced, meaning the plot ends in a confusion of loose ends quite unlike Wodehouse’s elegant double bow.

The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer, modernised by Nevill Coghill

I’ve always had a bit of cognitive dissonance when it comes to Chaucer. Everyone always talks of jolly old Dan Chaucer, heart of Merrie England, and the bits I’d read before included blood libels and honour killings. Reading it end to end, I got more of a sense of it as an anthology, each tale having a new narrator who’s unreliable in a whole new way. Began reading after watching Two Noble Kinsmen at the Globe. I looked into the play but struggled, so I switched to The Knight’s Tale, where upon the easy lope of Coghill’s modernised couplets swept me on through the whole thing.

Selected Poetry, by Alexander Pushkin, translated by Anthony Wood

I adore Pushkin, and this Penguin selected will sit beautifully beside Eugene Onegin and the Collected Prose. Wood is a skilful poet and a metrically ingenious translator. Some of the lyric verse feels a little straightened, but with the narrative verse and folk tales the translation is fluid and easy. Pushkin is a welcome reminder that great poetry needn’t be wholly serious. For my money, he’s greater than Byron.

The Princess Casamassima, by Henry James

It is perhaps fortunate that Henry James was to write so many short stories and novellas, as they provide accessible opportunities for the impatient and distracted modern-day reader to sample and appreciate his perspicacious, equivocal, delicately nuanced style; a style that sprawls across sentences of enormous length and paragraphs that stretch for three pages at a time. Whole novels in this vein can become rather wearisome, but after a long preface in his almost unintelligible late style, it is a relief to spring upon the relative sharpness and directness of the earlier James, and the book turns out to be gifted with many of the novelistic virtues: vivid characters, deftly sketched locations, conflict and co-operation. Above all, it has the charm of seeing James step outside of the aristocratic drawing room and attempt a sketch of low life in the mode of Zola or Gissing, for the book’s noble title conceals its preoccupation with revolutionary struggle among the London working class. I wearied of it several times in the reading, but on finishing I find these frustrations have melted away into a sublime satisfaction.

Books I read this April

What a strange month this has been, and not just because of the global pandemic. My first poetry collection came out at the very beginning of the month, but because of the jammed lines of supply, people are only just getting their copies now. I’ve only just had my first review.

In the meantime I’ve read sixteen novels and poems, seeking escape and reassurance in these times largely through detective fiction and medieval romances. A lot of people are reporting that they are finding it difficult to settle to a book. At the moment, I’m having more trouble in getting my nose out of one.

Mr Midshipman Easy, by Captain Frederick Marryat

An early naval novel, published 1836–a forerunner of Forester and O’Brian by someone who had actually fought in the navy they describe. As such, it’s an interesting link between the Georgian picaresque novel and the historical fiction for which it will serve as pattern. I imagine it must have seemed rather old-fashioned even in its day–the asides where the narrator breaks off the tale to recommend proposed reforms to the Admiralty are part of the dated charm. If it’s fallen out of the canon since that days of its fame, that’s probably because it’s pretty High Tory even for 1836, with a large part of the novel spent ridiculing the notions of equality and the rights of man in the mode of Hannah More.

Vile Bodies, by Evelyn Waugh

Bittersweet yet utterly hilarious, that curious blended tone that only Waugh can get quite right. Apparently the author would later scorn it as a novel he tossed off over a period of a few months, but the relatively loose plotting allows for a great variety of characters and episodes to be tossed in as the author likes, making for a vivid satirical panorama of 20s life among the Bright Young Things. It would be even more enjoyable if Penguin Modern Classics hadn’t saddled this edition with an editorial martinet. Unneeded additions include a 7 page note on the text and wearisome footnotes arguing the merits of ‘definitely’ versus ‘definitively’.

Lay le Freine in Middle English Verse Romances, ed. Donald B. Sands

This is just the thing for sunny April reading–an English version of a Breton lai, full of folk tale motifs and told in breezy tetrameter couplets. The lyric has now been so totally accepted as the raison d’etre of poetry that it’s a scandalous delight to read poetry with no other end than storytelling. It would be a hard task too to recapture the storyteller’s voice in this metre without sounding archaic or glib–though Tolkien has managed it in some beautiful passages of his Lay of Luthien. Our tale is of a spiteful wife who, on learning that a friend’s wife has given birth to twins, spreads the rumour that this is because she slept with two different men. Promptly she becomes pregnant with twins herself. In a fit of shame, she decides to send one off to a nunnery in secret, with various tokens of recognition that will come in handy in later years. A delightful folk tale read.

Pearl, in The Works of the Gawain Poet, ed. Ad Putter and Myra Stokes

At the other end of the scale of complexity in Middle English literature from Lay le Freine is Pearl, a tour-de-force of dazzling formal complexity incorporating rhyme, alliteration and repitition in 101 twelve-line stanzas. Yet the result is not icily perfect but wistfully human in its account of a father’s mourning for his lost daughter. When he meets her again in a dream-vision, the rather chilly Christian theology she expounds is given infinite pathos through this. Not my preferred edition, nice as it is to have all the works of the Gawain Poet in one volume: this has footnotes, endnotes and a glossary, and tricky cruxes can involve consulting all three. Makes me miss my textually cluttered but much more servicable Everyman edition.

Sir Orfeo, in Middle English Verse Romances

Another medieval verse tale for a sunny April. This retells Orpheus and Eurydice as a Celtic Fairy Story where Queen Herodice is abducted by the fairies rather than killed, and Sir Orfeo rescues her properly instead of looking back at the last moment. It’s plainly and beautifully told, apparent artlessness hiding great artistry, and a shining example of what would now doubtless be called cultural appropriation. How dare these medieval minstrels give Orpheus and Eurydice a happy ending!

Whose Body, by Dorothy L Sayers

Given that her sleuth is a titled aristocrat, I always forget how modernist Sayers is as a stylist. This, her first novel, is already confident and experimental, with a few passages where she lapses into the second person for effect. Being allergic to the second person in novels, this would normally bring me out in hives, but it’s sparse enough not to irritate me too much. There’s a good locked room mystery set up, but not enough red herrings, so that when the murderer finally makes his entrance it’s immediately obvious he’s the only character with sufficient presence to pull it off. Credit to Sayers, she realises this and has her sleuth intuitively grasp the solution next chapter, so the rest of the book becomes a howdunnit rather than a whodunnit. Would be a good escapist read if the coroner didn’t grouse about an unventilated room being a death trap, with the influenza abroad again.

King Horn, in Middle English Verse Romances

Given this is one of the very earliest English romances, from 1225 or thereabouts, it’s a surprisingly easy read, mostly due to the simple language, short lines and regular couplets. It won’t win any prizes for artistry and it’s unmistakably the rough prototype of a tradition in development, but the story it tells is abundant in folk-motifs. King Horn has his land stolen from him by the Saracens, and has to win friends and make alliances to regain it. Mostly I feel sorry for Rymenhild, a princess who Horn promises to marry, then fobs off with flimsy excuses for nearly a decade. First he must be made a knight, then he needs to win his spurs in battle, then he’s wrongfully accused and goes into self-imposed exile for seven (wildly unnecessary) years, then he sneaks back disguised as a beggar and convinces her he’s dead just to watch her reaction, then he decides he can’t be married to her until he’s won his original kingdom back from the Saracens. So he buggers off, leaving her in the charge of one of his cousins, who promptly pulls a Mordred and tries to marry Rymenhild for himself. Only after he’s conquered his old realm and put down the rebellion at home does King Horn finally get round to marrying Rymenhild, who has nothing to do in the meantime but lament, with intervals of swooning.

We Could Be Anywhere By Now, by Katherine Stansfield

A collection of occasional verses, dealing with themes of language and the Celtic inheritance. Reviewed for Wales Arts Review.

Wise Children, by Angela Carter

Her final novel, and I think her most confident–there’s a splendid sense here of letting it all go. Dialogue no longer intimidates her; showing off her theoretical reading isn’t a concern; a plot that involves so much tangled consanguinity that you’d need a chart to explain it is handled with confidence and ease. I like reading books where it seems the author is having almost as much fun as the reader, and with this one you can almost hear Carter cackling to herself as the keys click and rattle.

Gamelyn, in Middle English Verse Romances

This is a little story with a bright future–in the Renaissance, it gets adapted into Thomas Lodge’s nigh unreadable prose romance Rosalynde, then into Shakespeare’s As You Like It. Both are highly sophisticated elaborations on an earthy English tale where Gamelyn gets all his land stolen by his wicked older brother and goes around thumping people until he gets it back. A lot of people–monks, abbots, wrestlers, crooked judges–are thumped in this poem. At one point, Gamelyn goes off to live in the forest as an outlaw, which leads some scholars to think of him as a Robin Hood figure. Robin, though, was always craftier: Gamelyn’s idea of cunning doesn’t go much further than nipping out the back door while the baddies are waiting at the front. A rough vigorous metre gives texture to a rough vigorous folk tale.

Empires of the Sea: The Final Battle for the Mediterranean 1521-1580, by Roger Crowley

Lepanto for me was a name in a bad poem by G.K. Chesterton, so this book was an education in the savage clash of scimitar and sword as the Ottoman Empire battles Christendom for control of the mediterranean sea. There’s material here for half-a-dozen epic poems, blood, sunlight, steel, and the kind of slaughter Europe won’t see again until World War One. It comes to life so vividly and immediately in Crowley’s telling that it’s strange to recall that other parts of Europe had other priorities. Henry VIII was abolishing monasteries and going through wives like a dose of salts, Protestantism was sweeping the north, and all the while the Mediterranean is going through one of the final chapters of the Crusades.

The Phoenician Women, by Euripides, trans. Elizabeth Wyckoff

This is what happens when you try and compress a trilogy’s worth of Theban Cycle material into one play. There are characters and situations from Seven Against Thebes, Oedipus, Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone, but there’s no main character or main action–figures vaguely familiar from other plays just come on and go off again. Even accounting for the fact that other writers have botched it about since Euripides wrote it, it’s still a defiantly non-Aristotelian muddle. A lucid blank verse translation that picks up and gets speedier after the first 500 lines.

A Mysterious Affair of Style, by Gilbert Adair

Just the pick-me-up I needed on the downslope of a quarantine mood swing. A delightfully silly postmodern murder mystery, with whodunnit author Evadne Mount as the sleuth. The pleasures of the on-set mystery here are almost secondary to the pleasure of the in-jokes–my favourite being that Mount’s deadly rival, Agatha Christie, is having one of her books, Ten Little Whatsits, filmed on an adjacent soundstage. It struck me in reading that the Agatha Christie book everyone should read at the moment is The Mirror Crack’d, but you can’t say why without spoiling the mystery.

Cleanness, in The Works of the Gawain Poet

A highly polished alliterative poem, celebrating the virtue of cleanliness through the cautionary Bible tales of Noah’s Ark, Sodom and Gomorrah and Belshazzar’s Feast. These are consciously set-piece, high wrought demonstrations of poetic skill, while in romances like Sir Orfeo the level of artistry is much more continuous. They’re thrilling but rather exhausting, and the piecemeal annotations don’t help a lot. There’s an interesting idea in here of a clean-freak deity, who will punish pride with cool deliberation but only really gets worked up by uncleanliness and profaneness–theologically dubious but an interesting mindset nonetheless.

Novels, Tales, Journeys: The Complete Prose, by Alexander Pushkin, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

I adore Pushkin, and this one volume collection of the complete prose is going to sit well beside my editions of Eugene Onegin and the Selected Poems, also out this month in Penguin. It should properly be called ‘Novel, Tales, Journey’ as there’s only one novella and one travelogue in here, but the stories and fragments are so terse and so entertaining, even when they break off only partway finished, that you can always flick through looking for something to amuse. I read it piecemeal rather than cover to cover, but enjoyed it immensely.

The Act of Roger Murgatroyd, by Gilbert Adair

Having started with the second book of the trilogy, I thought I’d go back and read the first, many times referred to but never actually spoiled. It was a slight let down–while the second was delightfully silly all the way through, there’s a certain quality of stodge to the first two hundred pages of Agatha Christie pastiche in this one. It’s only with the totally bananas final chapter twist that the book truly brought a smile to my face.

infinite.monkey.typewriter: the poetry of geolocation

Screenshot 2020-05-03 at 12.31.51I’ve always been fascinated by what3words, an app that has assigned every three metre square in the world a unique three word address that will never change. That means I can name the exact three word addresses that coincide with my childhood bedroom, my favourite swimming hole, and the kitchen table where I’m writing at this very moment (easily.ambushed.glow).

It’s a useful resource, and I’ve employed it a lot, even given the occasional social risk; one  of my friends was meeting up with me for a drink but didn’t know how to find the pub, and was rather offended to be called a melon.brains.fool.

I’ve been thinking for a while about how to use it for a poetry prompt, and it suddenly came to me this morning. Why not write an entire poem in three word addresses?

The locations below correspond to a small village in Turkey, the wilds of Canada’s northwest frontier, an industrial town on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia and the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. You can click on every line to discover the unique location it corresponds to. Go explore!

 

What Three Words?

post.codes.often
awry.tedious.latitudes
forgettable.longitudes.worse
grid.references.require
proper.kind.maps
lost.perplexed.bewildered
cold.alone.desperate
existential.crisis.threaten
away.with.fear
infinite.monkey.typewriter
will.locate.everyone
giving.dairy.nothing
local.habitation.plus
name.such.tricks
hath.strong.computers

 

 

The Poor Rogues Hang–Out Now!

Screenshot 2020-04-22 at 11.32.44With hindsight, coronavirus year was a hell of a time to launch a first poetry collection. For some time I was worried if I was going to be able to get hold of a copy, never mind the general public. After some time chasing orders down, however, I’m happy to say that my piratical poetry pamphlet, The Poor Rogues Hang is now available through both Waterstones and Amazon. I even have my first review, from the prolific poet and prose writer Sheenagh Pugh.

The Poor Rogues Hang tells the stories of famous historical pirates like Captain Teach (Blackbeard), Anne Bonny and Mary Read, Captain Vane, Grainne Ni Mhaile and a dozen odd others. Written in a mix of ballads, sonnets, sapphics, and verses blank and free, it explores the unknown stories of those who sailed under the black flag. Described as ‘a potent little gem of weird poetry’ by S.T. Joshi and ‘truly entertaining’ by John Eliot, it’s a snip at £4.99. Finally getting to hold this rollicking piratical brainchild in my hands was a wonderful moment, and I can’t wait until the lockdown ends and I can take it out to my favourite open mic nights.

Books I read this March

IMG_1641You don’t need me to tell you that this has been a month of drastic change and disruption, but despite it all I still found the time to finish eleven books, from classical tragedies to modern fantasy.

James I: The Phoenix King, by Thomas Cogwell

Cogwell hits on the neat concept of introducing each chapter with a fresh portrait of James, starting with a truly wonderful childhood portrait where the King has a tiny waist and cartoonishly flared puffling pants tapering to delicate feet. Only the hawk perched on his wrist and the directness of his gaze show the cool depths of his power. It’s a sympathetic portrait of a King whose manhood was tested in the poisonous cut-throat world of Scottish politics, and who treated his English reign as if it was Christmas every day; a King who, for all his weaknesses and lack of interest in government as compared to hunting, brought stability to Britain after the tumultuous changes of the Tudor dynasty. Highlights are the plots and murders–not just Guy Fawkes but Sir Thomas Overbury, and enough Scottish backstabbing to rival Macbeth. Plus King James’s steamy homosexual affair with his court favourites, where we have the letters and can overhear their terms of endearment.

The Legend of the Sleepers, by Danilo Kis, trans. Michael Henry Heim, revised by Mark Thomson

A pair of biblical short stories by a Balkan writer who wasn’t quite my thing. I liked the premise of both, but I found the prolixity of the Sleepers rather tiresome, and Simon Magus bathetic in its conclusion. I can see the influence of Borges, but I don’t feel the fascination of Borges’ puzzle-box conceptual plotting.

Come Close, by Sappho, trans. Aaron Poochigan

Dropped in for a poem, then thought I might as well read the whole thing, given it’s 40 odd pages of very short poems. I thought a rhyming translation of Sappho would be utterly odious, but these ingeniously enjambed full and half rhymes avoid the trap of making Sappho sound like a pop-song; it’s more like stumbling on a modernised Renaissance lyric, which is fine craftsmanship indeed. Free verse captures the tragic fragmentation of Sappho’s work more accurately, but this one has a haunting music of its own.

Poems by Alexander Pope, selected by John Fuller

It’s often good to read a selected even when I have a collected, as the new arrangement casts new light. I skipped The Rape of the Lock, with which I’m a bit too familiar, but I enjoyed the rest of it, revealing a lighter, racier Pope than the sententious moralist of The Essay of Man and the Epistles, and one more willing to venture away from the exquisitely balanced heroic couplet, of which Pope remains the unsurpassed master.

The Vagabond King, by Jodie Bond

My first time reading a novel where I’m mentioned in the acknowledgements! Jodie brought this to our emerging writers weekend in Ty Newydd, and it was published about a year later. It’s interesting to read a fantasy novel with actual Homeric machinery, an original feature well exploited in the clash of Deyar and Zenith, elemental Gods playing games with the fates of men. A grimdark novel that moves along with admirable speed and urgency–the first 100 pages would serve more turgid writers as vol.1 of a trilogy.

Wigs on the Green, by Nancy Mitford

Her third novel, and the one where she cocks a snook at her fascist-sympathiser sisters, Unity and Diana, through a gentle Wodehouse-style comedy. There is a baffling lack of actual wigs on greens, and my 20s slang powers aren’t strong enough to translate. A wonderfully direct, vivid beginning introduces us to Jasper Aspect, a first-class rotter and the book’s most engaging character. It’s almost up there with Wodehouse, but you sense that Plum liked his thieves, blackmailers and even his models of efficiency, while Mitford has strong ideas who are the loveable rogues and who are the provincial snonbs. That and the rather comic-opera approach it takes to the rise of fascism are a bit of a drag on an otherwise amusing novel.

The Fortune of War, by Patrick O’Brian, read by Ric Jerrom

Aubrey and Maturin in America, during the War of 1812. The first half of the book is all about getting the players into place, but I don’t mind a voyage to nowhere in the least. The second part is a land-based espionage thriller. The appeal of O’Brian generally palls as the books spend less time at sea, but this one I like, due to the contrast between the cloak-and-dagger stuff in Boston and the never-mind-maneouvres-go-straight-at-’em thrills of the sea battles, taken faithfully from history. Suffers a bit from being the sequel to Desolation Island, one of my absolute faves, but this is still very very good.

The Pickwick Papers, by Charles Dickens

The most feel-good Dickens novel, a collection of incidents linked by an engagingly silly set of characters–some of whom, like Mr Pickwick and Sam Weller, Dickens never outdid in his whole writing career. There are brief flashes of the satirical sledgehammer he was later to become, particularly when Mr Pickwick winds up in debtors prison on a matter of principle. But in general it’s easy, comic reading that rewards the time to relax and enjoy it. Not that dissimilar to Gavin and Stacey, or so I was musing, in its appreciation for pubs and their comforts, the joys of Christmas, vivid eccentric characters, and the pleasures and perils of the road.

Ma’am Darling: 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret, by Craig Brown

It’s hard to imagine anything more dreary than a formal courtier-biography of Princess Margaret: fortunately, what we have here is a lively collage biography in 99 chapters, ranging from singular anecdotes to droll counterfactuals, exercises in style, character studies, Notes on Ma’am Camp and the London bohemia, and review essays on the memoirists who have chronicled their encounters with the Princess. It’s infinitely pacier than The Crown; a compulsive read that wears its gossipy erudition lightly.

Persian Fire, by Tom Holland

A fine popular history of the Persian War, the sort of thing that gives one a mental framework to make reading Herodotus a hell of a lot easier. Fits in rather nicely with the dribs and drabs of Plutarch I’ve been reading of late–though, perhaps because of this, I found the early background chapters on the Persian Empire, Athens and Sparta were rather slow. The battles, however, are enthralling. There are names here to conjure with: Marathon, Thermopylae, Salamis and Platea, never more vividly brought to life. It still strikes me, however, that Rubicon is his best and most enjoyable book.

Electra, by Euripides, trans. Emily Townsend Vermeule

All the big three Greek tragedians took a pop at this episode: the murder of Clytaemnestra by her son Orestes, with his sister Electra urging him on. This play takes a fresh approach by opening with Electra forcibly married to a poor farmer in the country–quite the most sympathetic character in the piece, seeing he acts towards her with scrupulous honour and kindness, despite the fact that her constant mourning for her father must have been a trial. From there, the predictable beats resume: the recognition scene, the murder behind closed doors, the exhibition of the bodies. It suffers a bit from being read so soon after Orestes, with its ‘burn it all down’ approach to the same tired material, and the brooding presence of the cursed House of Atreus is missed in the new setting. A free verse translation, with long lines that ape Greek hexameters, not altogether as successfully as Richmond Lattimore does it.