Friday, 5 April 2019

ambit event at the bluecoat

There are so many exciting and subversive moments in Ambit's sixty year history: Ballard's fake adverts on 'innner space', Paolozzi's 'visual literature', pastiches of mass media, fusions of high and low culture and the drive to create in the face of public 'taste'. The magazine has also included two of my favourite authors, B.S. Johnson and early work by American poet Alice Notley. And like Peter Finch's Second Aeon, this is also a magazine that published visual poetry, with the iconic cover of issue 36 inviting readers to create their own poem from the different elements:

At the Bluecoat event on Wednesday, Ambit editor Briony Bax did a great job of presenting archival texts, including letters from formative editor Martin Bax, between the readings by Tony Dash, Brian Wake and Jennifer Lee-Tsai (amazingly give that all four of us are poets from Liverpool, this was the first time I'd met them). It was a particular joy to hear about how the magazine had lost its ACE funding in the sixties after they had announced a competition for literature created under the influence of drugs. Martin Bax wrote back to ACE stating that Ambit were curious about what people might do after consuming coffee or tobacco. His suggestion was that ACE must have had something else in mind, perhaps heroin or LSD?

Advert by J.G. Ballard on back cover of Ambit 33

The seminal issues of Ambit from the 1960s provided a platform for some of the most arresting and often disturbing work about the body as a site of trauma. This allowed me to read poems from The Triumph of Cancer and make connections between Ballad's apocalyptic depictions of depleted bodies and psyches, and Paolozzi's visual piece 'Relating Chairs to Bodily Mechanics'. As I said at the event, I wonder how the medical backgrounds of Ballard and Bax instinctively led them to explore the potential of invasive, physical techniques such as the collage and cut-ups? This context allowed me to read my poem 'Anarchitecture', from The Triumph of Cancer, for the first time. This is perhaps the most objective piece in the book, and draws on the visual language of New York artist Gordon Matta-Clarke, who created a way of working that involved making holes in buildings:


New York artist Gordon Matta-Clark died of pancreatic cancer in 1978, aged 35. His twin brother had committed suicide two years before. Mirrored cells duplicate. The survival rate is 5%. Matta-Clark made holes in buildings, a practice of cutting through piers to see light, digging a gallery basement that was documented, then filled in. Gaps, voids & left-over spaces. Anarchitecture.

Mirrored cells duplicate. Less than 5% survival rate. The most severe pancreatic cancer is Adenocarcinoma. It is also the most common. It starts in the digestive enzymes; is mostly diagnosed when it’s broke out from the pancreas. It spread as Matta-Clark worked on the cuttings he called ‘probes’ : I just like to get in there and alter it.

Adenocarcinoma. Anarchitecture.

Voids, gaps & left-over spaces.

The latest issue of Ambit can be bought here.

'Anarchitecture' from The Triumph of Cancer, published by Penned in the Margins,

Saturday, 6 October 2018

threnody of radiation

In the first half of the year I wrote a new sequence (which I'm adding to, slowly) called 'Threnody of Radiation'. It's a lyric elegy for recursive depression, a love song, a hymn to Robert Desnos and a homage to Mark E. Smith. I'm delighted that parts 1, 3 and 8 are in the latest Poetry Review. Here's one of the missing pieces, section 4. Farewell Europe.

This threnody
Through the cloister of the underground
In the clasp of the commuter rush
I think of you in threnody of terror
Scanning the faces of thousands for a trace of fear
Crossy Road     Android poker     Emails on property
St Pancras foyers the free world of Europe
I hold the explosive of Desnos
If this weight was a brick it wouldn’t make clearance
Desnos committed to the deep image
In trance states       Dreams        Under drink
Lover, if you suffer pain, never fear the river Seine
The station’s forecourts & throughways
Cleansed silver-grey to highlight the ruffage of flesh
Tatty & textured        Clutching this brick
Digital translates me to a safe equation
Fuck them
This scrotum-lined mannequin
Drawling into a hired iPhone

Is she on benefits or something mum?
Sounds like a lovely existence mum
She needs to get out of all that mum

Mum      Mum      Even cunts have them

The train leaves the restored carcass of Kings X
The poor in its ribs           Nats in the ecosystem
Suits can’t think straight without them
Pylons rig the marshlands
Glistering cars cloned for the sales yard
Containers cruising a high-rise bridge
The paradox of Ebbsfleet International
No one seeks glory in trans-capital terror
I think of you clearly            Your face
Amber eyes of Yes     
This train pulsing to Ashford
I open the pages of Desnos
Meet me today at Montparnasse

Buy Poetry Review here. I'l be reading at the launch event on Thursday 10th October 2018, details here.

Tuesday, 29 May 2018

writing dedalus

Toni Morrison said she wrote her first novel because she wanted to read it. With Dedalus, my first novel, I wrote it because I'd read Ulysses so many times. It might have been unhealthy to read Joyce's all-consuming magnum opus for what may have been the tenth time. I bought my first copy of Ulysses when I was seventeen (I now have three). It has lived next to my bed where I should keep my medication. It's spine is fluffing up like the back of a pigeon.

From my first reading I've revisited this book so many times the Dublin it depicts has become more familiar than the road I live in. In 2014 I thought that rather than reading the book again I'd write a novel in response, set the day after, on 17th June 1904. That might just get it out of my system. Four years later and the book has been published by Henningham Family Press in a lovely edition.

Cover of Dedalus, Henningham Family Press 2018

But writing any novel is always a work of obsession in itself, a language world created and lived in by a writer who hopes  in however a distant future  that some readers might also want to live in it. And to write this book, to go beyond reading it again, I had to sharpen my knowledge of Ulysses to the point where I could convince myself that Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom were breathing again.

I also read (and re-read) many books about Ulysses including Harry Blamires' The New Bloomsday Book (Routledge, 1993), Declan Kiberd's Ulysses and Us: The Art of Everyday Living (Faber, 2010), Kevin Birmingham's The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce's Ulysses (Head of Zeus, 2015) and returned again to Richard Ellman's magisterial biography James Joyce (Oxford, 1983).  At the same time I taught a year-long course on Ulysses for the Poetry School which culminated in my students performing a spoken word piece called Bloomsound at the Blue Elephant Theatre in Camberwell on Bloomsday 1914. To write Dedalus I carried around my old edition with me (half a kilo on the scales  I've weighed it) for the best part of that year.

I also took two research trips to Dublin. I was shown around the James Joyce Centre by writer, poet and musician Jonathan Creasy, seeing the original door for number 7 Eccles Street and Joyce's desk. I took my copy of Ulysses to the top of the Martello Tower watching my wife Sarah swim the Forty Foot below. I drank the aptly named Nora's Red Ale in the Lincoln's Inn pub where Nora had worked in a previous life of the building. Bought a lemon soap in Sweny's pharmacy. Walked Sandymount Strand, kicking the sea's rejectamenta in the footprint's of Stephen.

At the top of the Martello Tower, windswept

I was excited by the idea of what might have happened on the day after the now iconic 16 June 1904. Had Stephen had a secret punt on the Gold Cup and won? After leaving Bloom on Eccles Street does he do what he says he's not going to do and spend another night at the Martello Tower? Does he revisit the prostitute in Monto who he owes money to and pay her back? And despite his crippling hangover does he make it to teach in the boys' school, hitting the bottle again in the afternoon (it's a Friday after all)?

The publisher of the book, David Henningham, gave me the language for the ongoing joke in Dedalus: yesterday was an uneventful day, today something might happen. Pursued by the ghost of his dead mother and of Hamlet, things kept happening to Stephen in ways that surprised me and made me laugh. It might also be that Stephen could fall in love on the day after Joyce had first gone out with Nora Barnacle.

The idea of 'the day after Ulysses' led me to consider what Joyce might have experimented with in the era if the internet. In my Wandering Rocks section I used a ‘chain’ technique to bind the characters through language rather than time: specific word in each section is used to transitions the voice to the next character who picks up the same theme. In the way that the internet allows for both fictional and real  dead and living  to live side-by-side, I placed contemporary Dubliners alongside Joyce's characters and added comments found on Twitter. Joyce would have loved Twitter I think, it added to his notion of the litter in 'Litterature'

      Each time I re-read Ulysses I'm surprised that the book is less visual than I remember it. I don't mean in terms of its ability to clearly depict character and scene and for its deep imagery (all of which is there with bells on), but that Joyce doesn't play around too much with typography or visual poetry. This may have to do with his near blindness which led to a much deeper interest in language as sound. When writing Dedalus I wanted to push my novel through the lens of concrete poetry, and to learn from novelists who've explored this area before, from Laurence Sterne to B.S. Johnson (both of whom are massive influences on Dedalus). For me the natural home for visual poetry is within the experimental novel and I didn't write the poetry sections separately from the others, they all poured down the same outflow into my imagine Liffey.   
For my response to Sirens I created a series of sound poems that recycle the language of each section of Dedalus (my own novel) up until this point. The opening section is an overture of the corresponding section in Ulysses and captures the sound of Bloom urinating in a public toilet at Temple Bar. Each section then recycles the language of the sections of Dedalus, playing the sounds of: Bloom zipping up his trousers; whistling; coins rattling in his trousers; the sound of a trumpet; throwing cash to a busker; a literal gust of wind; the bells of the church sounding out Bloom’s relief that he’s spoken to Molly earlier that morning; a seagull over the Liffey and Bloom’s double-checking that he has Molly’s lotion in his pocket, which he's just collected from Sweny's.

Sound poem from Sirens section of Dedalus

In the Oxen of the Sun episode Joyce famously used George Saintsbury’s Specimens of English Prose Style to pastiche the history of literature up until he was writing his own book. In Dedalus I have continued this experiment using the first pages of fiction writers who wrote in the decades following Joyce, selecting one writer from each decade up to 2014: Marcel Proust, Remembrance of  Things Past (1913); Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway (1925); Margaret Mitchell, Gone With the Wind (1936); George Orwell, 1984 (1949); Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (1955); Williams Burroughs, Naked Lunch (1959); Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (1963); Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow (1973); Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985); Anne Michaels, Fugitive Pieces (1996); Cormac McCarthy, The Road (2006) and Eimear McBride, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing (2013).

I've had the pleasure of working with the Henningham Family Press on a few previous occasions, including in my role as National Poetry Librarian at Southbank Centre's National Poetry Library. In 2013 I worked with David on making a limited edition artists' book called Clotted Sun which included mini poems from poets buried in West Norwood Cemetery. I write about David in my book In the Catacombs: a summer among the dead poets of West Norwood Cemetery (Penned in the Margins, 2014):

To work with David is to enter into a dialogue in which all book-making dreams are possible - the painful part is having to make a decision ... There is not enough said about the real geniuses in the art of bookmaking (Stefan Themerson and Ron King are two of my 20th Century heroes) and David Henningham ... excites with the same boundless imagination. He is able to make anything, manifesting the spirit of a text in a way that satisfies the eye, hand and mind.

David Henningham working on the covers of Dedalus

As these images show David has created the cover for each book by hand, using transparent yellow paper with gold foiling. The pages are litho printed. What has been a further joy is working with David on the text itself. David has a great editorial eye and brings his imagination to the possibilities for both narrative and stylistic technique. Hardly surprising given that he's a poet and the author of a novel called Foulness (publishers get in line to sign this).

Foiling the covers of Dedalus

David set me a challenge: to write notes for the novel like those in The Waste Land. I took the spirit of that but did something else, creating a subtext in which the characters of Stephen and Bloom are lost in the world of 1980s computer gaming. David responded again, creating a series of visual images which are part map and part exhibition vitrine : in each one can be seen tiny figures (of Dedalus, Bloom and other characters) trapped inside.

Vitrine / Map for the Nestor section of Dedalus, by David Henningham

When Joyce created Ulysses he had little idea how his cultural creation would expand into the psyche of each successive generation. Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom have become bit parts in an industry, celebrated in carnival, imitated and expanded into art. As Stephen says to his therapist in Dedalus: 'My whole being is fatuous. My creator devised my first conception under the title Stephen Hero : what more apt metaphor for the burning of the wings of ambition?'

Stephen's ambition means he could never accept that he isn't the main character in Ulysses. Joyce's joke is that Stephen plays second fiddle to Bloom. Dedalus is Stephen's book and  – after so many years of joyous reading of Ulysses  is dedicated to James Joyce. I'm spending this year with Finnegans Wake.

Dedalus has just been published by Henningham Family Press and can be ordered here.

The launch will take place at the Lockkeeper's Cottage at Queen Mary University at 5pm on Bloomsday, 16th June 2018. The event is open to all RSVP here.

Saturday, 7 April 2018

the poets of liverpool


A port city only cares for two things :
commerce & the avant-garde.
Wet cobbles.
The poets leave the Tate & crowd
into the Baltic Fleet. For their words
the mermaids part their fins.
The Irish left behind some ballads
and the ship owners have drowned themselves.
The poets put a pound in the head of a Baptist
and words chrism its tongue with red beads.
All the trainee corporates are in the barbershops
paying for the privilege to talk property
and not have their necks cut for it.
At that point we move to the Belvedere.
Did you ever meet a poet who’d trained as a barber?
The ones who forget that language stems
from the umbel of ideas are already drunk
and wringing out the taxis.
The poets aren’t even qualified to be poets
but listen, they have a few ideas of their own,
holding the timekeeper in a headlock,
starting the night again at Last Orders.
Loose coins spawn the floor of each bar
and cruiseships line the docks
like the broken shorelines of package holidays.
The poets hold their last coins to the window
 foil suns  
as the ships move like vending machines
over the scrapheap of the horizon.

Monday, 20 November 2017

Captain Beefheart Weekend

I still remember the first time I heard Captain Beefheart's music: the words ran like paint and stuck to parts of my brain I didn't know I had. In 2015 I discovered that Beefheart had first shown his visual art at the Bluecoat in Liverpool. I approached Bryan Biggs, the Artistic Director, who was well aware of this history (and a huge Beefheart fan), so along with independent curator Kyle Percy we began to hatch a plan to put on a Captain Beefheart weekend. We had two aims: to show the links between Beefheart and Liverpool and to explore Beefheart as a Total Artist, moving seamlessly between art forms and defying the borders between them.

My job was to focus specifically on Captain Beefheart / Don Van Vliet the poet. I organised a panel discussion with poets Patricia Farrell, Peter Finch and Sarah Crewe, who all selected a Van Vliet poem and shared and discussed this for the audience (you can read some of Van Vliet's poems here: ). The discussion moved through whether Beefheart's poems are different from his song lyrics, whether he used cut and pasted methods (no - because the poems rhyme!) and if he made good use of reading mistakes to write things that were more interesting than they first appeared (does 'Big Eyed Beans from Venus' come from 'Bug Eyed Beings from Venus'? - John Peel thought so!).

Peter Finch on the inner workings of Beefheart's poems...

Then to the poetry commissions. The poets behaved as I'd expect in any commissioned scenario but more so with Beefheart involved: they invented, subverted, did the unexpected.

Me, Doped in Stunned Mirages, introducing the 13 new poems.

Tom Jenks

Robert Sheppard

Vahni Capildeo

Jeff Young

Matthew Smith

Sarah Crewe


Patience Agbabi

Libby Houston

Patricia Farrell

Alan Holmes, performing with Zoe Skoulding

Zoe Skoulding

Peter Finch

Helen Tookey

And it wouldn't have been completed without the zine, put together by Matthew Smith and Jarg, it includes all of the poems and images form Blue Room. Available from the Bluecoat.

Click Clack: zine including all of the poetry commissions
More photos from the weekend, including the other symposium panels and the live music, can be seen on the Captain Beefheart blog here

Sunday, 23 July 2017

careful with that axe eugen

Here's a new visual poem, a mutual homage to Eugen Gomringer and Pink Floyd....

Friday, 14 July 2017

the ecchoing green : event in the dissenters' chapel in kensal green cemetery

On the evening of 13 July 2017 I took part in an event at Kensal Green Cemetery with Steve Fowler, who was launching his pamphlet Worm Wood / in / Old Oak (Sampson Low) and Tom Jeffreys who was reading from Signal Failure (Influx Press). I read from by book In the Catacombs, shared some work in progress from a future book about Kensal Green Cemetery (working title '100 Statements Against Death'), and finished with my poem 'Cemetery' from my next collection of poems. 

Monday, 13 March 2017

resurrecting william onions at tower hamlets cemetery

Of all of the dead poets I've found so far on my way around London's Magnificent Seven cemeteries, William 'Spring' Onions is the one that seems to have arrived in life via fiction. Onions was arrested over 500 times for various misdemeanours in the East End and eventually used poetry as a replacement for the alcohol which had sustained the first 70 years of his life. One newspaper reporter wrote:


William Onion, the old man whom the Thames magistrate yesterday allowed to go free on a charge of drunkenness, went to the Shadwell Police station last night and broke the window.
He told the magistrate this morning that policemen followed him about to lock him up for being drunk, and that he smashed the window to save himself from being locked up.

Mr. Saunders said: 'The Court stinks with your name, and you stand in such bad odour that all policemen look after you, knowing you are a dangerous man.'

audience gathering at the start of the tower hamlets performance. photo: harpreet kalsi

Between 5-7 December 2016 I performed three evenings of site-specific work in Tower Hamlets cemetery. This was part of the Spitalfields' 40th birthday celebrations. My response draws on my research in finding the dead poets of London's Magnificent Seven cemeteries, and will be included in the next book in the series (2018) which will focus on Tower Hamlets cemetery.

 john canfield and chris mccabe. photo : harpreet kalsi

The performances in Spitalfields were curated by Penned in the Margins and included John Canfield playing an acting part and reading poems,  and Nick Murray who added intricate and moving musical layers and live viola. The evenings also contributed from essential input from Ken Greenway, Park Manager at Tower Hamlets cemetery, and the team at the Spitalfields Festival.

audience winding through the cemetery towards the william onions scene. photo : harpreet kalsi

The text for the performance combined a mixture of my own poems, the poems of the dead poets in the cemetery and a short play debating who the 'true' William Onions might have been. Here's a short section of the play which explores the idea of how justice might be done to a dead poet, especially one who was known as a criminal:

John: It was a common enough place for criminals.
Chris: Criminal? Onions was a poet.
John: He became a poet when he gave up being criminal.
Chris: Being criminal made him a poet. The 200 criminal convictions was his education …
John: 500 I think you’ll find.
Chris: The numbers don’t count. He never hurt a soul.
John: December 1898: Doncaster, damaging a widow.
Chris: [check his notes]: That was damaging a window.

nick murray on viola. photo : harpreet kalsi
Expanding on my interest in cross-arts work each audience member was given a badge showing a visual poem which I had written for the events:

badge displaying visual poem given to each audience member . photo : harpreet kalsi

All three evenings were sold out and ended with hot drinks in the Soanes Centre, kindly made available by the Friends of Tower Hamlets Cemetery.

My forthcoming book on Tower Hamlets Cemetery will be the third in the series, following:

Penned in the Margins have made a limited edition map of my project available, beautifully illustrated by Frances Ives:

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

cenotaph south

I'm delighted that my book Cenotaph South: Mapping the Lost Poets of Nunhead Cemetery has just been published by Penned in the Margins. I first became involved with finding dead poets during the Curious exhibition at West Norwood Cemetery in 2013. I discovered twelve poets, each with their own story and body of work, which became the basis for my book In the Catacombs. I was excited to find that West Norwood was one of seven cemeteries opened in London between 1833 and 1841 with the aim of taking pressure from the overcrowding of inner-city churchyards. My interest in finding a great lost poet has grown into an obsession which I am documenting in my series of books, each volume covering one of the seven cemeteries.

Cenotaph South, cover by Ben Anslow

Cenotaph South took two years to write, during that time I not only discovered twelve lost poets but mapped out the area surrounding the cemetery. I discovered that the tree that Blake saw his angel in on Peckham Rye was a hawthorn, visited the road in Telegraph Hill that Robert Browning lived at, followed Barry MacSweeney's footsteps to Dulwich College (the venue for his last ever reading) and walked the Elizabethan village of Dulwich - a village that was built on the profits made from poetry, bear-baiting and prostitution. Walking around the cemetery allowed me to make connections between the poets we remember and those that have been forgotten. One of the poets who is not quite forgotten, but extremely overlooked, is Charlotte Mew, whose brother Henry Mew was buried in Nunhead in 1901.

Highlights amongst the poets found buried in Nunhead are Marian Richardson, who invited Garibaldi to stay with her in Peckham; Tom Hood, who helped to introduce fun to the Victorian readership and Walter Thornbury, a brilliant chronologer of London who wrote many overlooked books in the spirit of what we now know as psychogeography. I wrote Cenotaph South during a period in which my mum was receiving treatment for cancer and this personal crisis became part of the text, weaving between the discussion of the poets with diary entries about mortality and the role of art in helping to overcome trauma.

As well as the beautifully designed hardback edition, with cover by Ben Anslow, there are a limited number of special edition copies available which include a postcard of my poem 'Nunhead Cemetery, a map of the Magnificent Seven by Frances Ives, and a found object from the cemetery. The book will be launched at Nunhead Cemetery on Sunday 30th October at 4pm and all are welcome. More details on the launch here.

Cenotaph South is available to buy for £12.99 from Penned in the Margins here .

Special editions are available for £20 here.

Friday, 15 July 2016

poetry tour of nunhead cemetery

Along with Tim Stevenson of the Friends of Nunhead Cemetery I'll be leading a tour of Nunhead's poets on Saturday 27th August 2016. The tour is free, all are welcome and there's no need to book in advance - simply turn up at the Linden Grove entrance at 2.15pm. I have some limited edition flyers that I can send on request; these include artwork by Sophie Herxheimer and were printed by Aldgate Press.

Nunhead tour flyer, artwork by Sophie Herxheimer

The tour comes out of my research for the second book in my ongoing project to map out the dead poets of London's Magnificent Seven cemeteries, with the first book In the Catacombs: a Summer Among the Dead Poets of West Norwood Cemetery being published by Penned in the Margins in 2014. I am hugely grateful to Arts Council England for Grants for the Arts funding which has allowed for me to find time to fully research the Victorian dead. The next book in the series is Cenotaph South: Mapping the Lost Poets of Nunhead Cemetery and will be published in November.

If you have any questions about the tour on the 27th August, or my overall project, please email me at

Friday, 24 June 2016

depart: dancing with the dead in tower hamlets cemetery

Imagine Thriller opium-slowed. The show’s only just begun – the first dancer moving above a verdigris-stained headstone – and I realise that what we’re here to celebrate is the body: its dexterity and strength. Its ability to do its own thing. Let it: even inadvertent twitches are a sign that it goes on – a huge advantage of the thousands of burials beneath us, gathered for this dance event in the grounds itself. As I enter the cemetery a looped series of commands are played to the audience:

Depart with care
Walk with silence
Stay with your group
Do not look back

There’s a blonde woman on a rope, above us, still - or dead - amongst the branches, wearing satin white underwear. There’s something masochistic in how she comes to life and handles the rope that the audience brushes against as they pass. The orchestra at the base of the tree sings as she twists fish-lithe to the song; then a male performer starts to ascend on another rope, legs angled in adductor locks, passing the woman who descends as he rises up. I walked past the man a few moments before, led by the funereal host’s amber lantern: he’d stood with his face in his hands as the audience were guided along the sodden path. The female dancer brings her performance to a halt with a sudden abrasive release of her body, her ankles now securely wrapped by the rope: the body as rejected cargo, swings from the tree. Contortions and twists fused by ankle and wrist now cease.‎ In Anne Summers’ chic she swings head down to the headstones. Eros and thantos: the erotics of the cemetery.

As new stunts rise from behind gravestones and in nettle-logged parts of the cemetery the ambient music score provides a consistency: a mellifluous white noise. Repetition and loop. A woman sits up high in a hula hoop, then a male dancer dances inside a hoop on a trampoline, surrounded by the silent peninsula of the audience. He lets the hoop circle towards its final flat rest on the trampoline as he walks away towards the Scrapyard Meadow. The circle is the presiding symbol of the show: eternal life: no beginning, no end.

Now all things rest
Darkness and light

Whilst working on my Magnificent Seven cemeteries project (the first book, In the Catacombs, is published by Penned in theMargins) I’ve spent many hours looking at angels attached to mausolea, but this is different: behind the bluish-green patina of the headstones are living women, faces blanched, dancing with sinews flickering to the last of the summer light. They are orchestrated to be part of this bigger performance but within that they freeform: each body moves its own way, just once like this, for this performance.

There’s an opera in the woods: a woman in blue, Eurydice, is dancing to the song of a woman wearing all black. Before the song is finished the audience is moved forward by torch-bearing hosts, the hearse-people of the show. We walk past digital roses on a head stone, twisted ghosts streamed to tombs. I’m so used to walking around the Magnificent Seven alone but here we move as one group. The experience brings me closer to strangers, all of them: these shuffling stragglers squelching, like me, through mud. Fellow travellers to the grave, sharing the ambient backing track. I love how people have dressed up despite the email from the cemetery giving a MET warning about the weather. Ankle cut jeans, hipster leather: look your best for the East End dead. I could even love ‎the man with a ginger beard and Led Zep t-shirt, the woman with grey hair in an oversized mac, the young couple who giggle all the way through, kissing under a rain-sodden elder. Sharing this death-changing experience, breathing in this festival of revenants. Making sense of it.

I’ve always loved being alone in cemeteries‎, out of the crowd: the last person above ground. A woman stands on an oak stump to get a better view. A man performing above me, in his Travolta whites, stares at me with a purple determination in his temples. Even the guides, with their amber torches attached to gnarly sticks, seem to be here just to be a part of it. The crowd and the audience are united as the living. We’re outnumbered by those below whose chances are gone. Here we hold hands freely or think ahead to supper or last orders. I even love the man in front of me swinging his rucksack to the orchersta’s lament. We’re together in that: path-led to the grave but still on the path with all to play for. Even the rain’s stopped for us. Eurydice in her blue dress winds through the crowd: immersive theatre: the audience and stage as one. The stage we occupy is real land and air, the act of breathing.

As we walk through the paths, through deeper puddles and nettles fronding the brown soup of the mud, it’s easy to imagine figures calling you forward, with flames, down abandoned paths. Cut sap hits the nostrils. A performer dances with the upside down anchor of a crucifix shadowed against his chest. This is the East End, as much as the pubs or cafĂ©s. It just turns out that local history is also the human condition, the generations of dockers beneath us. Order another cup, add an extra hash brown.

The highpoint of the show is the penultimate moment: two men dancing together in white, tenderly, supporting one body on the other. They hoist their bodies sideways like a flag, static from the post. The inner core that includes the heart. Hoisting themselves up a poll in an entangled caul of limbs. One body levitates on the other. Sinks and rises. There is strength in fusion.

It might be said that all art appeals to us, draws us towards it, to feel what it is to live more keenly. But Depart takes us further into that driving force, connects us to the memento mori that exists in sensory experience: we’re here only because we’re living.‎ The two men in white walk off breathing heavily towards the high rise flats, blanched with mist. No one has noticed that it’s raining again, dripping from the canopied roof branches. We all gather in the open field that we started in – the man in the Led Zep t-shirt, the woman in the mac –  to watch the final dance. A dance paced to the fugue of the pain of loss, and not just the pain of loss in death:  the loss of love, that death known in life. It’s here in the embraces, bonding and flourishes of the dancers’ bodies. Eurydice has made it this far through the winding paths of Tower Hamlets, but not far enough to escape the loss that comes with looking back. She breaks into a run, the uplighters dropshadowing her body against the windblown trees above. When the lights go out – after the massive applause – the crowd moves towards the cemetery entrance: the lights along Mile End welcoming us back  to a more familiar landscape, each of us more alert than when we entered the cemetery two hours ago.

Depart with care
Walk with silence
Stay with your group

Do not look back

I am writing a series of books about London's Magnificent Seven Cemeteries: West Norwood, Nunhead, Brompton, Tower Hamlets, Abney Park, Kensal Green and Highgate. I am grateful to Arts Council England for Grants for the Arts funding to give me time to work on this project. The first book, In the Catacombs: A Summer Among the Dead Poets of West Norwood Cemetery is available here. The next book, Cenotaph South: Mapping the Lost Poets of Nunhead Cemetery will be out in November. 

Depart is part of the LIFT Festival and takes place in Tower Hamlets Cemetery, 16-26 June 2016

Monday, 9 May 2016

transaction: playing around with letraset

I've been playing around with letraset, combining visual poetry with collage. Here are two different version of a recent poem called 'transaction':

'transaction', clean version, 2016

'transaction', collage version, 2016

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

nightwalking with dickens

‎‘Some years ago, a temporary inability to sleep, referable to a distressing impression, caused me to walk about the streets all night, for a series of several nights.’ So begins Charles Dickens essay ‘Night Walks’, an essay written for his column as ‘The Uncommercial Traveller’ in the early 1860s. I start my walk – following his route – in the converse state to his description of sleeplessness, at the end of a long day and evening’s work, in the last hour or so before sleep. The day’s work done, the evening passed: I’ve been waiting for the pubs to close to start my walk. Only then does London change, when most of the people with homes and people waiting for them have all vacated. The city is taken over with the homeless and the diaspora of transient inhabitants. When the real cold comes in – on a November night like this – and something close to silence begins. As close to silence as London ever gets.

At this time of night the streets are beyond surreal. I see what Matthew Beaumont means now when he says ‘The nighttime is another city’. Not enough has been said about Dickens the Surrealist: the creator of ghostly palimpsest Paul Dombey, puppeteer of the ultra-industrial backdrop of the city, the man who made one of his characters spontaneously combust. Dickens made his nightwalk in March, I’m here nine months – and over 150 years – later. The hands of the clock are the same: half-past twelve. Dickens invented a word for those still out at this time: ‘houseless’. This is a kind of temporary homelessness of a body outside the confines – and safety – of four walls. Despite the end-of-the-day tiredness, all my senses – the rods and cones at the back of my eyes – are fox-sharp. My nerves hooked to the movement of each shadow.

I remind myself what a new phenomenon this is: to be able to walk at night without suspicion of arrest. ‘Who walks alone in the streets at night? The sad, the mad, the bad. The lost, the lonely. The hypomanic, the catatonic. The sleepless, the homeless. All the city’s internal exiles.’ This is Matthew Beaumont again. His book tells us that in the late Middle Ages nightwalkers were knows as ‘noctavigators’. Wanderers without purpose: stragglers. In Elizabethan England there was a curfew on being outside the confines of the City after 9pm in summer and at dusk during winter. But this is historical. These days one in eight of people in the UK work nights – we’ve become used to the flux of human traffic after dark. Though it always feels different to be out in it yourself, alone. The old social unconscious is hard to shake off. ‎

Dickens made the distinction between walking ‘straight on end to a definite goal at a round pace’ and that which is ‘objectless, loitering, and purely vagabond’. I realise that – if stopped for questioning – I would form the latter. To say ‘I'm writing a book’ is a very different – and less plausible – reason, than saying: ‘I’m heading to my shift at St Thomas’s hospital’. Though I wouldn’t be the first writer for whom the act of writing has landed them in casualty.

In his essay ‘Poor Mercantile Jack’ Dickens takes us on a journey through the docklands of Liverpool – also at night – and despite being accompanied by police officers but it’s not the city’s poor inhabitants that receives his satire, but the law. The four officers he walks with are lampooned as ‘Mr Superintendent’, ‘Trampfoot’, ‘Quickest’ and ‘Sharpeye’. Despite the police officers eagerness to show up the black residents Dickens sees through this and paints then with affection. Trampfoot is keen to show Dickens ‘Dark Jack’:

But we had not yet looked, Mr Superintendent – said Trampfoot, receiving us in the street with military salute – for Dark Jack. True, Trampfoot. Ring the wonderful stick, rub the wonderful lantern, and cause the spirits of the stick and lantern to convey us to darkness. 

There’s a scathing spittle of satire against Trampfoot’s attempt to conjure a genie here‎. And what Dickens concludes – after being taken to a dance and drinking several lemonades there – is that ‘If I were Light Jack, I should be very slow to interfere oppressively with Dark Jack, for, whenever I have had to do with him I have found him a simple and a gentle fellow.’

These are the ‘midnight streets’ where Blake heard ‘the youthful harlots curse.’ I see what Dickens means about London – and he referenced Borough and Old Kent Road on the south side as specific examples of this – when he said that it ‘has expiring fits and starts of restlessness’. The intoxicated magnetize, he suggested: ‘when one drunk staggers into the shutters of a shop another will soon be along to fight with it’.

I have arrived, like Dickens, at Waterloo Bridge. He describes looking at the bridge’s tollkeeper, wrapped in shawls against the cold‎, resistant to the dawn. The only contented person to be seen. ‘The bridge was dreary’ Dickens says: it still is. He wrote of the water dripping from all around him: ‘Drip, drip, drip, from ledge and coping, splash from pipes and water-spouts.’ When Dickens looked out across the river he saw ‘the buildings on the banks were muffled in black shrouds’. Tonight there’s neon as far‎ as the eye can see: the deep blues of the Pizza Express logo on Belvedere Road, the seventies’ orange of Brasserie Blanc. There’s no drip drip tonight but there is a fierce hurtling wind coming in off the river. Waterloo Bridge has been rebuilt since Dickens walked here and there are now numerous ways to access it from the South Bank – each of them impossible to find at night. A red staircase spirals up between the BFI and the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Beyond the BFI – which is advertising a season of 'films to fall in love with or break your heart’ – I look for the solid base, a staircase worthy of the tollkeeper Dickens described. People are parting around a revving cab, a young woman among them shouts: ‘I love you all!’. A man is walking more slowly than I am – hooded against the wind, wearing shorts. Earphones beneath his hood. There is a new kind of nightwalker, one that isn’t homeless – and not even houseless – but simply here. Transient. Passing between rented beds.

It’s only a week after the Paris bombings and the only thing to cut the silence is tension. The occasional person I pass would have ignored me a week ago – now we are quickly glancing, checking. Creating a narrative as to why the other person is out at night. I walk up the imperious steps to the bridge. When my eight year old son heard the news about the attacks in Paris he asked ‘when will the war be over, is it finished?’ The London I’m writing about now – like any London writer – is mostly unknown. Things change before text goes to print. Could Dickens have imagined the future zeppelins over the foggy streets he loved? The blitz of shrapnel? Bombings at Russell Square? The words go down as mere impressions – trapped in time – waiting for the city to flex, or fracture or morph – into a new incarnation. To see Dickens as really here you have to think of the modernity of the Victorians, the man who could write that: ‘each century [is] more amazed by the century following it than by all the centuries going before.’ A man passes in a black beanie – listening to his headphones – heading north towards the Strand. To the ghosts Dickens said that he saw in the windows of the closed theatres.

What has not changed is the aloneness of the transient houseless. This has exacerbated. Dickens described an incident at St Martin’s Church in which a beetle-like, ghostly man in his‎ twenties seemed to disappear before Dickens’s eyes: leaving the rags he was wearing in his hands. Occasionally, in the day, people walk across the South Bank and stop to ask for directions. This rarely happens after midnight. People walk because there is safety in walking. If someone was to make contact unexpectedly we’d all turn to rags and disappear. A few weeks back I was on the night bus and the driver – stopping the bus – came up the stairs to ask a child aged about eight who they were with? Faces in phones, sleeping, drunk: no one had noticed the child. Then a young man – getting some downtime with his iPod at the back of the bus – appeared to claim back responsibility for his younger brother.

Dickens walked northwards to the theatres, watching ghostly shadows appear in the upper windows. He then went on to Newgate Prison – along the north bank to Billingsgate – before crossing back on London Bridge to the ‘surrey shore’. Then to King’s Bench prison, and with good reason: Dickens – agitated in mind and unable to sleep – was haunted by his childhood experience of visiting his father in the debtor’s prison at Marshalsea. The experience changed the way he looked ‎at the poor throughout his life. He then walked to Bethlehem Hospital – the current Imperial War Museum – and into the parameters of this book: ‘partly, because it lay on my road round to Westminster’. He also had an idea that had occurred to his overactive, sleepless mind: ‘Are not the same and insane equal at night as the sane lie a dreaming?’

On Blackfriars Bridge Road the new bus stop is planted in the freshly laid concrete. The mulch of root and bone has been replaced. A man stands next to the pillar, as some do, bobbing on his toes with a Metro in his hands. A cyclist goes past with an orange Sainsbury’s bag swinging from the handlebars. Two men walk together, laughing at the behaviour of someone else they’ve just been in a bar with. It’s nearly one o’clock in the morning now and still the people continue to surface: Orpheus figures led by the underworld of their phones. Apologies sent to sleeping lovers. No one stands still – even while standing.

A bus passes: the number 4, making its way to Waterloo. A blast of hot air streams from its reignited exhaust. Two men pass me, talking in Spanish, smiling. In the dark, after midnight, the passing shadows of others can be whatever we want them to be. Dickens saw no cyclists at night. There were no candles for the nightcyclist. And the cars, now, never end – on the bridge there is a constant stream of full-beams heading towards me. The next language floating on the wind is German as a young man – like a thin Rainer Werner Fassbinder – walks past, expounding emphatically. Then the white noise of the never-silence comes again. It is these torrents of people and movement that define our night London from that of Dickens. South Bank speed. The city sleeps – like fish – with its eyes open. On the other side of the glass are‎ those who bother to watch. The 188 bus stops and opens its doors, though there’s no one to embark or alight. Commuter ghosts.

I walk back to Waterloo Road. A man in a suit – his tails like cut flippers – marches against the backdrop of another Sainsbury’s window, with an umbrella and a batch of newspapers. Three students stumble into the shop. There’s no need for an end goal – another drink or a home – it’s perfectly possible to just be in today’s night London. This new breed of the transient know that it’s possible to simply be here, out under the stars – night is the same as day, working and dreaming are the same thing – being away from something is as good as being present elsewhere. These are not the houseless but the consenting revenants. I jump the bus. It follows a cyclist without a light towards the Elephant & Castle. A tree branch thumps the window as we approach St George’s Circus. This is the night bus: the known route cloned for after hours. The night bus is a kind of living hearse for the drunk – the aggressive and the lost – but tonight the experience offers some level of serenity. It is emptier than usual – as if the recent bombings took place in this city – and I watch the reflections from the front mirror reflecting those behind me: a woman, with a ribbon in her hair, reading the Metro. The rest are texting. Quiet last words: it feels like we’re all writing them now.

Leaving a data trace of where we are.

Touching text.


Meaning it.

'Nightwalking with Dickens' is an extract from Real South Bank which will be published by Seren in June 2016.