Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Mark Avery's Books of the Year

Mark Avery, writer, conservationist and one of the most influential environmental bloggers in the country, posted his round-up of books of the year, and I'm delighted that A Sky Full Of Birds was one of them. You can also read his original review of it here.

Of the other books featured, favourites for me were Chris Packham's Fingers in the Sparkle Jar, David Lack's The Life of the Robin, and Stephen Moss's Wild Kingdom, although there are also a few on there that I'm looking forward to getting round to reading.

Britain's Birds is a pretty extraordinary book, too – it might not replace the trusty Collins Bird Guide as every birder's must-have, but it's a pretty essential companion to it, given the sheer range of ID photos it packs into its pages.

Finally, the Melissa Harrison-edited seasonal anthologies (with proceeds going to the very worthy cause of the Wildlife Trusts) are great to, although I will admit to a vested interest, as I have a poem in the Autumn anthology.

Monday, 5 December 2016

Poetry books of 2016

It's the time of end of year round-ups, and here, from The Guardian, is Kate Kellaway's choice of poetry books of 2016. I've only read a couple of them - the Denise Riley book and Alison Brackenbury's collection, and can recommend them both without reservation. Very different poets, but both equally deserving of a place in any end-of-year summary.

Thursday, 1 December 2016

2016's best poetry blogs

Over at Rogue Strands, Matthew Stewart has supplied a rundown on his favourite poetry blogs of the year, and has very kindly included Polyolbion in it. I'm very grateful, although can't help feeling that I need to work a bit harder to earn that accolade.

I'm not going to disagree with any of his recommendations – there are lots of superb blogs there to browse through, so go for it. In the meantime, I'm finally getting round to reading some new poetry (rather than back catalogue stuff), so I might actually be able to come up with some end of year recommendations myself.

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Ouse Muse, 23.11.16

Busy, busy, busy, at the moment, mainly with the day job, so I haven't had a chance until now to blog about last week's reading at Ouse Muse, in Bedford.

Compered by Caroline Davies, and run by Ian McEwen, it's a long-running open mic/reading series, and the venue downstairs at the Auction Room bar, is a good one – cosy and compact, with hardly any noise drifting down from the main room upstairs.

The open mic readers were excellent, too – thoughtful poems in a variety of styles, and (and this is something I love to see at such events), more than one person read poems by well-known poets. I'm really not sure why 'cover versions' of this sort are still so rare on the poetry scene, but it's a great way of setting your own and others' work in context, or just of reminding people of some great work.

My own reading was from hydrodaktulopsychicharmonica and The Elephant Tests, plus one new poem, and I liked the format – after a 25-minute main set, I got to read a couple more poems to close the night, after the last of the open mic slots. The audience were lovely – knowledgeable and appreciative, and

Incidentally, I only have a few copies of each of those books left (and I think Nine Arches Press have the same), so contact me if you'd like a copy – they're £5 each. Now that the print runs are exhausted, they'll probably go to print-on-demand.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Gavia stellata, by Alexander Hutchison

This is the weekly poem at the Oxford Brookes University Poetry Centre website , and it also appears in Sidekick Books' 2012 anthology Birdbook II: Freshwater Habitats.

The website's an excellent resource, and the four Birdbooks are packed full of brilliant poetry and illustrations, whether or not you have an interest in birds.

As for Red-throated Divers, well, this is a good time of year to see them offshore all around the UK, and diverse divers (Black-throated and Great Northern too) turn up inland, too (there are two or three Great Northerns at Draycote Water, near home, at the moment). But the best time to see any of them is in spring and summer, when they're in their glorious breeding plumage. In the UK, you'd need to be in Scotland to find any.



The pictures above were taken in Iceland. Apologies for the generally poor quality, but both were taken close to midnight at the end of the longest day of birdwatching I've ever experienced. The one below, of Great Northern Divers, was probably on the same day.






Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Reading at Ouse Muse

Two weeks today, on Wednesday, November 23rd, I'm the featured reader at Ouse Muse, in Bedford. It'll be my first purely poetry reading for quite a long while, so I'm looking forward to it a great deal (not that I haven't enjoyed reading prose).

It all takes place downstairs at the Auction Room Bar, 1 Duke Street, Bedford MK40 3HD, starting at 7.45pm, although you'll need to get there from 7.30pm if you want to sign up for one of the open mic slots.

Admission is £5, or £4 for concessions or open mic readers. I'll have copies of both my Nine Arches Press collections, hydrodaktulopsychicharmonica and The Elephant Tests, available for sale on the night, as well as a few copies of A Sky Full Of Birds.

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Cafe Writers Poetry Competition

You have until the end of this month to enter the Cafe Writers Poetry Competition, which this year is judged by the excellent Andrew McMillan.

Entries cost £4, or £10 for 3 and £2 for each poem thereafter. As you'll see, there are plenty of good prizes and more than one category, so see if you have something suitable.

All proceeds go towards helping Cafe Writers pay their visiting readers a fee.

Friday, 4 November 2016

First snow of winter


This morning, I dashed over to Kineton, where a friend had reported seeing a Snow Bunting in the last few days. She took me to fields near her house, and we quickly bumped into two dog-walkers who said they'd seen an unusual bird on the path a little way ahead. What they7 described was clearly the Snow Bunting.


Nicci left at that point, and I walked on slowly, scanning the field margins for any small birds. No luck, except for a single Pied Wagtail. Turns out I was looking in the wrong place. I caught a movement out of the corner of my eye, a whirr of wings, and the Snow Bunting lifted from where it was, a few yards behind me, and flew past to a point 10 yards down the path.


I watched for 20 minutes or so, during which it kept its back to me almost all the time, and moved in a rather crouched posture. I was down on hands and knees trying to get photos, and I was able to approach to within a few yards at times.

There's two reasons why it might have been so confiding. I've seen Snow Buntings before on top of Ben Nevis and other Scottish mountains, where they happily feed on walkers' sandwich crumbs, so it's possible that it's very used to humans. More likely, I think, is that this is a bird that has seen very few humans previously – it may well have come from Arctic Norway, and if it's a first-winter bird (I think it is, but don't really know SBs well enough), the dog-walkers and birders of the English Midlands might just not register with it as a potential threat.

By this time, it was starting to rain, and I was beginning to think about breakfast, so I left the bunting to its own devices, as little flocks of Rooks and Fieldfares streamed overhead, and Buzzards and Ravens started to soar over nearby Edgehill. Great bird to see on an inland patch – thanks to Nicci for making it happen.

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

The house at the edge of the woods: slight return - Simon Turner

It's always a good time to discover something new to read from Simon Turner – this is over at Gists & Piths, and it's rather wonderful.

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Mark Halliday on The Hatred of Poetry

Very interesting piece here by Mark Halliday, responding to Ben Lerner's book (as he says, it's a pretty slim book), The Hatred of Poetry.

I think I'd tend to come down more on Halliday's side, but then I haven't been able to read Lerner's essay in full yet, so that's probably unfair. What I don't understand, from what I have read, is exactly why Lerner feels that poetry creates in us hopes of perfect works of art, hopes which are then inevitably disappointed, any more than any other artform does. Surely readers go to poetry for any number of different reasons, at different times? Surely we approach other artforms in the same way?

Still, I should read the whole thing before commenting further.

Monday, 31 October 2016

Almost perfect

I've been reading Jack Gilbert's Collected Poems on and off over the last few months, and have enjoyed it a great deal. One of the poems that had drawn my attention to the book was this. There's a lot that I like about it, but having re-read it a couple of times, something struck me.

It's that "It's strange that she has returned / as somebody's dalmation". For me, that flags up exactly where the poem is going far too early, and undermines the impact of the final sentence. I'd prefer him to have introduced the man and dog more matter-of-factly.

So, I've been trying to think of any other poems that, for me, are close to being absolute gems, but where a single line or even word ruins things ever so slightly. I haven't come up with any yet, but I will. Can you?

Friday, 28 October 2016

The Horseman's Word, by Roger Garfitt


I found this in a secondhand bookshop for a couple of quid, and was intrigued enough to buy it. I'd come across Roger Garfitt's poetry once or twice previously – I remember enjoying a relatively recent sequence called (I think) Border Songs – but I really didn't know too much about him, so pretty much everything in this memoir was new to me.

The sections recounting his childhood, first in Heacham, Norfolk (an are I know well), and later in Surrey, where his father had opened a stables and riding school, are beautifully written, full of arresting but unshowy turns of phrase. He's particularly good at drawing characters in detail, especially his own grandparents, and he also takes careful note of the subtle and often deeply damaging stratification of rural society.

When he gets to Oxford, the book got a little less engaging, for me, as Garfitt's story seemed to be a fairly unremarkable one (for the 60s) of relatively mild drug experimentation and a succession of romantic complications. But in fact that just sets you up, as a reader, for the most startling part of the book, as he suffers several breakdowns. The passages in which he descends into madness, while roaming London, are both terrifying and enervating. Even though you know it's coming (because of the blurbs, among other things), it's a surprise, as you realise that what initially seemed like merely eccentric youthful behaviour tips over into something more frightening.

One criticism is that the book does fizzle out a little towards the end, and it might have been interesting to know more about what caused Garfitt's mental health problems, and how they were resolved, or contained. But perhaps that's the point – the way the book is written, you get more of a sense of how mental illness can strike without any obvious warning.

Curlews calling


Curlews might be just about my favourite birds, so I'll use any excuse to watch them, photograph them, write about them, read about them, talk about them, or all five. This one was picking crabs from one of the saltwater channels near a hide at Rye Harbour a few weeks ago, when I was down around Dungeness for a couple of days.

They also always make me think of Ted Hughes, because they crop up in his poems fairly regularly. Here's an early poem of his, The Horses, in which they feature.

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Some birds from Mallorca


Last weekend, I was lucky enough to be in northern Mallorca for work. It's a great place to go birding, because you've got a huge variety of habitat just a few minutes away from the towns of Port de Pollenca and Alcudia. The former even has a great little urban reserve, La Gola, just back from the seafront – the Common Sandpiper above was there when we arrived, on a drizzly morning.


The Black-winged Stilts above and below were at the famous Albufera reserve – we also saw Kentish Plover, Greenshank, Spotted Redshank, Booted Eagle, Green Sandpiper, Kingfisher, Red-knobbed Coot (don't laugh) and Shag (oh, come on!) there, among others. At s'Abufereta, another wetland reserve nearby, we'd already ticked Great White Egret, Cattle Egret, Sardinian Warbler, Marsh Harrier and Whinchat, plus many of the same waders, and a rather odd-looking shorebird that I finally concluded was just a less than typical Dunlin.


Back in Port de Pollenca, Black Redstarts like the one below were plentiful – in fact, there were a lot around pretty much everywhere we went. Also interesting was the number of Robins, more than I've ever seen in one place before. Presumably at least some of them are northern European, and possibly British, birds, that have migrated to warmer climes for the winter.


Finally, northern Mallorca is just about the easiest place in Europe to see Eleonora's Falcon (below), a raptor that delays its breeding until autumn so that it can take advantage of the glut of small songbirds passing through on migration. They nest on sea cliffs and pick the tired migrants off as they come in, sometimes virtually off the surface of the sea. I'm no photographer, so it was hard to get any decent pics of them, but I found it interesting how relatively easy it was to ID them – they immediately look longer-winged than Peregrines, with a much flappier flight style, but they're larger than Hobbies. We were lucky in that on a couple of the occasions we saw them, we had a Peregrine in the air nearby at the time, for instant comparison.




Friday, 21 October 2016

TS Eliot shortlist announced

The shortlist for the TS Eliot Prize has been announced, and there are full details here. Good to see Denise Riley, Ian Duhig and Bernard O'Donoghue on there (I've read and enjoyed all three books), and I look forward to reading a few of the others, too. JO Morgan is an interesting, and refreshing, inclusion too.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Birds on the move


It's that time of year when birds are well and truly on the move. In fact, it's always that time of year, because migration is going pretty much 24/7, 365 days a year, but mid-October is just about the peak of the autumn migration season.

If you're lucky enough to live in Scotland, or along the Solway Firth, or on the coast of East Anglia, that can mean huge flocks of wild geese winging in from their Arctic breeding grounds. Waders, too, from the same direction. At some of Britain's migration (and twitching) hotspots, the last couple of weeks have seen a flurry of rarities, including Britain's first-ever Siberian Accentor. And then the second. And the third. And the fourth. And the fifth.

Inland, an invasion of Yellow-browed Warblers has been taking place. These tiny sprites are regular winter visitors, but scarce, and can be easily overlooked unless you learn their high-pitched call, as they can easily tag along with flocks of Goldcrests and other small birds.

But if you're a casual birdwatcher (and that's what I've been for the last couple of weeks), there's one sure sign that autumn is really with us. Redwings. That's one above. And before an eagle-eyed viewer points it out, that's actually one from the Icelandic subspecies. They're a little darker, and bigger, and can pop up over here, although most that we see in the UK come from Norway and Sweden.

Earlier in the week, I woke in the early hours. Our bedroom is in the loft, and the skylight was slightly open. I could hear a thin, hissing sound, 'tseeep, tseeep', and then I was asleep again.

But the next morning, on the way to work, little flocks of 30-40 birds were skimming over the fields everywhere. They're Starling-sized, but the wings are more swept back, the outline just that bit more streamlined, and they're much more tied to farmland, although you might get a few in the garden if you've got a lot of berry-bearing shrubs and trees, or if you leave some windfall apples around.

As yet, I've seen no Fieldfares, so often the close companions of the Redwings, but they'll be here, no doubt, in the next few days. And the leaves will keep falling, and the birds will keep returning and departing, and it'll be spring again before you know it.

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

In conversation with Simon Barnes

Tomorrow (Thursday, October 6th), I'm going to be chatting with Simon Barnes at Daunt Books, Marylebone, as part of their Book Festival.

He, of course, is both a renowned sports writer and the author of a number of terrific natural history books, perhaps most notably How To Be A Bad Birdwatcher, which I recommend to anyone. It's beautifully written and truly inspirational, as is his new book, The Meaning of Birds, which manages to pack a wealth of scientific information into its pages yet still find the time and space to veer off into the poetic and metaphysical.

Simon Barnes is, above all, the standard-bearer for the sort of birdwatching that I love, the kind that recognises that taking a straightforward delight in the birds in front of you is sometimes just as important as other considerations, such as conservation or acquiring knowledge.

The event starts at 10.30am, and tickets are £8.

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

A Sky Full Of Birds reviewed by Shropshire Birder

Bird photographer Jim Almond has reviewed A Sky Full Of Birds on his blog here - I'm very grateful to him for such a generous and full appraisal of the book. 

While you're at it, follow the link on the blog to Jim's main website, for some stunning bird images, I particularly enjoyed the selection of waders.

Thursday, 22 September 2016

'Two ravens flew with them all the way'

Driving to work this morning, just a few miles from home, I saw two Ravens flying over the road at Napton-on-the-Hill.

Their identity was obvious from the wedge-shaped tails, the long, narrow wings, and the size, close to that of a Buzzard. As I got closer, the heavy bills were there, too, and just a hint of the shaggy throat feathers.

A few years ago, to see a Raven in the Midlands was still a pretty big deal. Then pairs started to move into many of the granite quarries around Charnwood Forest (I was living in Leicestershire at the time), where they co-habited with another species that has been making a comeback, the Peregrine. The two species often live in close proximity, and the Ravens seem to delight in annoying the raptors with close approaches and dive-bombing. I've never seen a Peregrine actually have a go at a Raven, though, perhaps because there is usually much easier prey to hand.

Now Ravens are getting reported from all over the place. They breed on the edge of Peterborough, in countryside that you'd never have associated with them just a short time ago, but which they must have inhabited in the past. John Clare, whose home village of Helpston is just a couple of miles from the nest site, mentions them more than once. Near my own home, they're regularly seen around Edgehill, but they've probably spread even further than that.

The pair this morning were flying purposefully and straight, with none of the aerobatics you often see from the species. Once, in Extremadura, I watched four Ravens flying high over the plain that stretched for 20 miles in every direction. As if to relieve the monotony of the journey, all four suddenly flipped onto their backs, then back again, before carrying on their way.

But anyway, Ravens are right up there in my birds top 10, and seeing them always reminds me of this passage from Njal's Saga, greatest of the Icelandic family sagas. The whole historical and mythological aspect of Ravens is, I think, one of the reasons I like them so much.

I didn't intend this post to deteriorate into a bout of shameless self-promotion, but I should also mention that there's a chapter on Ravens in my book A Sky Full Of Birds, which you can read about and order here.

Friday, 16 September 2016

Have blogs had their day?

Or has this blog had its day, more to the point? Visitor numbers have been showing a slow but steady decline over the last year or so. I've not been great at updating it in recent months, and when I have I haven't always been able to write the occasional longer pieces that I'd like to, so I suspect that it's not really doing anything that Facebook and even Twitter couldn't do just as well.

I'd be interested, then, to know if there's anything that people would like to see more of on here. Not that I can guarantee that I can do anything about it, of course! But still, I'll try.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Winter tour selections

Back in my schooldays, the pre-internet information wasteland of the 1980s (Ceefax seemed impossibly hi-tech), I used to look forward to the announcement of the England cricket touring team with great eagerness. It was a landmark – after two or three weeks back at school, on some warm, hazy September day, you'd hear the news on the radio, and you'd always be surprised by one or two of the names.

That wasn't always a good thing. There was a time when a single eye-catching performance in the Gillette Cup (later NatWest Trophy) Final at the start of September could propel you into the winter tour party. Roland Butcher did it in 1980, but there were others, and the players involved rarely went on to have long international careers.

These days, there are far fewer surprises. Consistency of selection has generally been a good thing and has played its part in England's generally better performances since the turn of the century (some good captains and coaches, central contracts, and more competitive county cricket have also helped). But I can't help missing the old days a bit, when a couple of names would always send you scurrying to the bookshelves to dig out the Playfair Cricket Annual and swot up on the players chosen.

This year, there's room for a few left-field selections. Alex Hales has opted not to tour Bangladesh, which leaves a spot for a new opener (he's quite possibly have been dropped anyway), and the struggles of England's middle order means there are other batting places up for grabs too. A third spinner will be needed.

So, I turned my mind to selecting my own touring party for Bangladesh, ahead of tomorrow's announcement. I'd keep pretty much the same squad for the India tour too. The first XI would be my starting line-up for the first test.

Alistair Cook
Haseeb Hameed
Ben Duckett
Joe Root
Jonny Bairstow
Ben Stokes
Jos Buttler
Moeen Ali
Adil Rashid
Stuart Broad
Jimmy Anderson
Chris Woakes
Steve Finn
Jack Leach
Stuart Robson

Leach has come through strongly this season, although I think it's unlikely that we'll play three spinners in any one match. Robson looks a better player now than when he was first selected for England, and Duckett will certainly play for England sooner or later.

I wonder how many I'll have got right?

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Want to write poetry reviews?

Well, if you do, the Poetry School wants to hear from you ASAP. You'll even get paid £60 a time. The full details are available here, and it'll be interesting to see what comes of it – as they say, there's a real need for thoughtful, honest reviews of poetry out there, especially of some of the writers that otherwise slip below the radar.

It reminds me – I've got a couple of reviews to post myself, when I get a minute, so watch this space. I'll be paying myself the standard fee of a Strawberry Cornetto.

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Autumn reviewed by Mark Avery

Autumn: an anthology for the changing seasons, edited by Melissa Harrison and sold in aid of the Wildlife Trusts, is reviewed here by Mark Avery, former conservation director at the RSPB and now tireless campaigner on wildlife issues, most notably the persecution of Hen Harriers by the driven grouse-shooting industry.

It's a lovely book (as are the first two in the series), and in a very good cause too, so another one for the Christmas lists for lovers of wildlife and literature alike.

Monday, 12 September 2016

Birdbook IV


This rather splendid volume, the fourth and last in Sidekick's series covering all the birds of Britain, is out today. You can find out how to buy it here.

There are poems inspired by all the species of saltwater and shore (so a lot of my favourites are in there), with superb illustrations to accompany them too. It's every bit as good as the other three books in the series, and perfect for anyone with an interest in birds, or poetry, or both.

Of course, I would say that, because I wrote the foreword, but if you don't believe me, have a look at the Sidekick website.

Friday, 9 September 2016

Martin Stannard at Stride

Martin Stannard's poems for the young at heart (Leafe Press) is reviewed by Steve Spence for Stride here – you can also find out more about it and Leafe's other excellent publications here.

Incidentally, over at Gists & Piths, Simon Turner has his response to Appendix 2: A Test For Poets, from Martin Stannard's book. You might actually need the book to get the full sense of it, but then you were going to buy that anyway, weren't you?