Monday, 4 December 2017

Writing new poetry

It's been quite a while since my last poetry collection, The Elephant Tests, was published. 2013, in fact, although it's still available from Nine Arches Press, along with a plethora of new collections from new poets (very unsubtle hint for anyone stuck for Christmas present ideas for their literary friends, there).

In the meantime, I haven't written a huge amount of poetry. It hasn't been down to writer's block, exactly, although at times I have found myself wanting to write, but struggling to find ways to do so without retreading old ground.

A bigger reason is that I've been in self-imposed exile in the land of prose, first writing A Sky Full Of Birds (oops, there's another shameless plug), and then working on a couple of other prose projects that may or may not see the light of day eventually. And I've enjoyed that a lot, but it's a very different place to poetry world in all sorts of ways.

Just in the last few weeks, though, I've been drifting back into poetry, writing new poems and revisiting half-finished ones with fresh ideas and fresh impetus. I've got one or two new processes and exercises that I'd like to try. And I've been reading more poetry, too, at lunchtimes especially, and rediscovering the thrill of being inspired, and the danger of imitating an admired poet's style too closely.

So, in the next few weeks, I'll start posting a few reviews, previews, and discussions of poetry, and we'll see what happens.

Friday, 1 December 2017

2017's best UK poetry blogs

It's very kind of Matthew Stewart to include Polyolbion in his annual round-up of his favourite UK poetry blogs, not least because I've been pretty tardy in posting on here this year. But he has spurred me into action, and I'll be posting regularly from the start of 2018.

I'd add that Matthew's own Rogue Strands is always worth keeping an eye on, for poetry news, recommendations, and discussion, and there are a host of other very fine blogs mentioned in that post – give them a try.

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Ashes preview

This is the best Ashes preview article I've read so far, and it's by an Australian. The fact that he quotes Mr T is just the icing on the cake.

If England can come away from Brisbane with a draw, and the signs are that the weather may help them out considerably there, I think it could be a very tight series. I keep hearing about how good Australia's pace attack is, but the back-up looks fairly thin, and they will need it at some stage. I'm a bit baffled as to why they've gone into the series with no support at all for their four front-line bowlers, especially given that one of them, Cummins, has a terrible fitness record.

What England are going to need is for someone other than their big four - Anderson, Broad, Root and Cook - to have a huge series. I fancy Chris Woakes to surprise a few Aussies, and I think James Vince, if he could get one big score under his belt, could also go on to do big things.

Thursday, 19 October 2017

TS Eliot Prize shortlist

The shortlist for the 25th TS Eliot Prize has been announced, and it's heartening to see a book from Nine Arches Press, Jacqueline Saphra's excellent All My Mad Mothersin there.

Of the rest of the list, James Sheard's The Abandoned Settlements is the only one I've read so far – it's worth buying for the stunning title poem alone, and is another very worthy contender. Some really interesting choices on there – I look forward to reading more ahead of the award announcement.

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Nature and Place Poetry Competition

The Rialto Nature and Place Poetry Competition 2018, run by poetry magazine The Rialto, in partnership with the RSPB, BirdLife International and the Cambridge Conservation Initiative, is open for entries.
The judge is Michael Longley, who will pick the winning five poems. 
Editor of The Rialto Michael Mackmin said: “We’re delighted Michael Longley accepted our invitation to judge the Nature and Place Poetry Competition this year, especially given the strong presence of nature and place themes in his own work which serves as an inspiration for many readers and writers of poetry.”
Now in its 5th year, the Nature and Place Poetry Competition has a first prize of £1,000, and second and third place prizes of £500 and a place on a creative writing course, plus two additional prizes for the two runners up of personal tours with naturalists and nature writers Mark Cocker and Nick Davies.

To find out everything you need to know about submitting your poems, go to
The closing date is midnight on 1 March 2018.

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Which waders 2?

What's the wader in the foreground? I'll give you a clue – it's a species that causes beginner birders quite a lot of trouble, being very variable in appearance.

Monday, 2 October 2017

Which waders?

It's time for a birdy ID challenge or two. On September 22nd, Bird Watching Magazine staged a readers' day at Frampton Marsh RSPB, near Boston, Lincolnshire. The weather was fantastic, and because of the extremely high tide on The Wash, just on the far side of the sea bank, there were large numbers of waders (shorebirds, if you're American), present.

Here's a few on one of the scrapes just along from the car-park. The first person to correctly them will get a free copy of my last poetry collection, The Elephant Tests, which coincidentally contains a poem entitled At Frampton Marsh. And should that pique your interest, you can find out more about that book and about Nine Arches Press here.

Thursday, 28 September 2017

Ashes squad assessment

So, the whole Ben Stokes business has rather overshadowed the announcement of the actual Ashes squad, but reaction to it generally was pretty negative. Several pundits, including Jonathan Agnew, have called it weak, with others even describing it as the weakest Ashes squad they can remember.

Well, I'd take all that with a pinch of salt, for starters. I can remember several previous England squads being described in the same way, most notably in 1986-87, when it was widely predicted that a resurgent Australia would thrash us. In fact, we won 2-1, but the scoreline flattered the home side hugely. We went into the series with no idea who our openers would be – one of them, Chris Broad, scored three centuries and was man of the series. Incidentally, I can also remember it happening in reverse more than once, with Australian sides arriving on these shores being described as the worst-ever. 1989, anyone?

Still, there's plenty to quibble with in the team the selectors have picked. Gary Ballance, for a start. He may have a great first-class average, and his test average of 37 is OK, but he started his test career well and has been getting steadily worse, as quality seam attacks have discovered exactly where to bowl to him, given his lack of foot movement. I can't see him performing any better in Australia, whether he bats at 3 or 5.

The selection of James Vince is similarly strange, although in its defence, this will be only his second chance (Ballance is on, what, his fifth?), and there's reason to think that his technique might be suited to Australian pitches. But to be honest, I wouldn't have taken either. They have good reasons for not wanting to plunge newcomers into the fray, but if they had to go back to someone from the past, why not Alex Hales (who also has a technique suited to Aussie pitches, and who has played successfully there)?

I don't understand the selection of Mason Crane as the second spinner - he's struggled to get into Hampshire's team most of the season, while over at Somerset Jack Leach has turned in a second consecutive 60-wicket year (despite having to remodel his action). More to the point, the second spinner will probably spend most of the series carrying drinks, and only be called upon if Moeen is injured or suffers a catastrophic loss of form. If they do get the call, they're more likely to be asked to do a holding job than to become an instant match-winner, and Leach seems a much better bowler in that respect.

Finally, the wicketkeepers. Ben Foakes is probably the best actual keeper in the country, and he can bat a bit, too. But as with the spinners, he's only likely to play if the man in possession, Jonny Bairstow, gets injured. In that situation, coming in cold (because there are few matches outside the tests), is he really likely to hit the ground running? Jos Buttler, on the other hand, is one of those batsmen for whom both form and pressure seem to be irrelevant – he plays the same way whatever. He has underachieved for England in tests, but he seems to me to be the best back-up for Bairstow we have, and far more likely to play a match-winning (or even series-winning) innings should he make the side.

There's also the point that Andrew Miller makes towards the end of this article. Buttler, whatever his failings, has a better test record than most of the batting options they've considered and/or taken, despite having played largely as a keeper. So why is he excluded? I think, to some extent, they've started judging Buttler against the player they think he could and should be, rather than against his peers. It's what used to happen with Graeme Hick – yes, he was disappointing when judged against the 'new Bradman' some thought he could be, but his test record was better than all the batsmen they used to bring in to replace him after a couple of failures.

Friday, 25 August 2017

200 birds in a year

This year at Bird Watching Magazine, we've been running a campaign called #my200birdyear – the idea being that you get out and try to see 200 species in the year. You can set your own rules, so some people are restricting themselves to the UK, others to small parts of the UK, and others, like myself, to wherever they happen to go birdwatching (in my defence, the only foreign trip I've done was a few days in Austria in February).

Rather than turning people into full-blown twitchers, racing off down the motorway in search of rarities at the drop of a hat, we hope that it will get people to notice some of the species that otherwise slip beneath the radar. Things like Stock Doves, hidden among flocks of the ubiquitous Woodpigeon. Or any number of warblers, unobtrusive among bushes and shrubs. Or even the likes of Mediterranean Gulls, tagging along with the familiar Black-headeds.

My own tally so far is 170, and includes a few nice little bonuses like Bee-eater (at East Leake) and Pectoral Sandpiper, as well as the likes of Short-toed Treecreeper from that Austria trip. But what's also interesting is what I haven't seen – I'm still missing Spotted Flycatcher and Green Sandpiper, for example, species I'd normally expect to have stumbled across by now. In the case of the former, that might be down to the fact that numbers are continuing to decline, but there's also an element of luck involved.

If they do turn up (in the next few weeks), 200 should be well within sight, with the chance to add goodies such as Brambling, Waxwing and a few geese once the winter weather arrives. But of course, there'll be something else, too, something I can't foresee. And it's that that makes birdwatching so endlessly fascinating. Birds go wherever the fancy and the weather takes them, and being there to see them is down to a mixture of luck, hard work and playing hunches.

Friday, 21 July 2017

Mark Goodwin on Swallows

There's a terrific post here from Leicestershire poet Mark Goodwin, about his children hand-rearing a Swallow. It's interesting from an ornithological point of view, but it's also full of lovely writing. That phrase "a bringing in of the far" is great.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

A Sky Full Of Birds reviewed by NFU Countryside

The paperback edition of A Sky Full Of Birds was reviewed in the latest issue of NFU Countryside magazine – you can see it above. And of course, you can buy it by following this link.

Monday, 17 July 2017

The Knives of Villalejo, by Matthew Stewart

This rather splendid volume arrived in the post the other day. I've been following Matthew Stewart's poetry for several years now, ever since he was highly placed in the Plough Prize, so its great to see this finally published by Eyewear. I've already read it when it was at the manuscript stage, and it combines great economy of style with a hefty emotional punch – I'm looking forward to re-reading it this week.

You can buy it here.

Friday, 14 July 2017

And Other Poems

Over at And Other Poems, there are now two index pages listing every poem published on the site since 2012 (and of course, you can click through to the poems themselves, too). I'm not even going to try to list the many excellent poets who have appeared there, because to pick any out would be unfair, but have a look yourself and enjoy.

Thanks to Laura McKee, who flagged this up on Facebook, and whose own excellent poems you can see here. Short poems too often get overlooked – it takes an awful lot of skill and nerve to know just how much is enough.

You can read two of my poems from The Elephant TestsThe Mind's Skyline and The Dark Ages – which were published there.

Monday, 10 July 2017

Four-spotted Chaser

This was at Carlton Marshes, Suffolk, when I was there the other week. Determined to brush up on my dragonfly and damselfly watching this year.

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Silver-washed Fritillary

These were at Bedford Purlieus NR when we were there for a photoshoot the other day, among maybe 10 or 11 other species.

Friday, 7 July 2017

Bee-eaters on the Costa del Trent

It was impossible to resist the urge to go and see the Bee-eaters that have turned up at a quarry at East Leake, between Loughborough and Nottingham, earlier this week. There were five showing while I was there, although the suggestion is that there are at least two more and that the females are on nests within the quarry.

Long range, heat haze, and my lack of photography skills mean the photo leaves a lot to be desired, but you can get an idea of what gloriously colourful birds these are, far more at home around the Mediterranean than here. The number of records in the UK has been increasing, though, including occasional breeding attempts (and hopefully this is another) – global warming, presumably, is the cause.

While I was there they were feeding very actively, although their prey seemed to be almost exclusively dragonflies and damselflies. They were surprisingly vocal, too – their lilting 'pruuut' call was much in evidence.

Thursday, 29 June 2017

A Sky Full Of Birds reviewed by the Daily Mail

This review of the paperback edition of A Sky Full Of Birds appeared in the Daily Mail last Friday. I'm really delighted that it's continuing to get a good reception.

Wednesday, 28 June 2017


...are Four-spotted Chasers called that? They've got eight spots.

Little Owls and RS Thomas

Little Owls are always a delight to see, not only because of their air of comical irritation (this one was glaring at me for intruding upon his evening's beetle-hunting), but because they always call to mind this RS Thomas poem. I've always assumed that the "small owl" he mentions is a Little Owl, anyway – no reason why it shouldn't be in North Wales.

They are, of course, an introduced species, having been released in the UK during the 19th century (they were also sometimes kept as pest controllers for the home). They've escaped the opprobrium that surrounds most introduced species (think Grey Squirrel), because they seem to fill a niche that wasn't really occupied by any British bird. And there's also a theory that they were native to these islands, before the last Ice Age.

Friday, 16 June 2017

Bradgate Park Wildlife Weekend

Just another quick reminder that I'll be at this event tomorrow (June 17th). I'll be selling copies of A Sky Full Of Birds, but I'd also love to talk to anyone about birds generally or Bird Watching Magazine, so come and say hello.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

A Sky Full Of Birds reviewed at Nudge

This review of A Sky Full Of Birds has appeared at Nudge – thanks very much to Paul Cheney for his kind appreciation of the book.

Monday, 12 June 2017

Reading in Oxford tomorrow night (Tuesday, June 13th)

Just a reminder that tomorrow, Tuesday, June 13th, I'll be at Waterstones in Oxford talking about A Sky Full Of Birds and reading from the book. There are full details, including of how to book tickets, here.

If you can't make it, but would like to buy a copy of A Sky Full Of Birds (I have both hardback and paperback copies available), contact me through the email link on this site, or just leave a comment below.

A Sky Full Of Birds at Bradgate Park Wildlife Weekend

I'm going to be at this event a week on Saturday (June 17th), back on my old patch close to Leicester. As you can see there are all sorts of activities going on, and Bradgate Park is just a great place to be on a summer Saturday (or at any time, for that matter). I'll be selling copies of A Sky Full Of Birds, but I'd also love to talk to anyone about birds generally or Bird Watching Magazine, so come and say hello.

Thursday, 8 June 2017

A Sky Full Of Birds at Waterstones, Oxford

Next Tuesday, June 13th, I'll be at Waterstones in Oxford talking about A Sky Full Of Birds and reading from the book. There are full details, including of how to book tickets, here.

I'll also be talking about the Oxford Swift City Project, which aims to help these summer visitors fight back against recent declines. I'm lucky in that Swifts are fairly plentiful where I live (although they've been absent this week, presumably avoiding the bad weather), so it will be a pleasure to share the evening with them.

If you can't make it, but would like to buy a copy of A Sky Full Of Birds (I have both hardback and paperback copies available), contact me through the email link on this site, or just leave a comment below.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Just arrived...

This arrived from Rider Books yesterday, ahead of publication on June 1st – the paperback edition of my book A Sky Full Of Birds.

You can find out more about it and how to buy it here, but I will also have copies available for anyone who wants a signed copy, also from June 1st.

I've also got a few readings and other events connected to it coming up – more about them in the next week.