Casting the Runes: An Arts Alive production

“In one aspect, yes, I believe in ghosts, but we create them. We haunt ourselves.” ― Laurie Halse Anderson

25th March 2015 at Whittlesey Library and Learning Centre, 7pm

Robert Lloyd Parry as M R James

IMG_8302By now you will doubtless be familiar with my love of ghosts. So it will come as no surprise to know that I leapt at the opportunity to go to a ghost story reading. I was even more excited by the fact that the stories were those by none other than my favourite ghostly author, M R James. James’s Ghost Stories of an Antiquary is one of my bookshelf essentials. So I was simply quivering with anticipation from the day I was invited by my long-suffering best friend right up until the house lights went down and Robert Lloyd Parry took his place at the front of the audience.

The setting itself was less than spooky, a 20th century community building in the heart of a fenland market town, but the Arts Alive team had done a great job of creating a certain ghostly ambiance. The lights were dimmed, the audience assembled around a single high backed chair, nestled cosily next to a small wooden table topped with a decanter of ‘whisky’, several ageing leather backed books, a handful of old photographs and some other dusty artefacts.

IMG_8300For those of you who are unfamiliar with M R James, there are so many reasons why you absolutely need to get hold of and read some of his short ghostly stories (I recommend to the highest degree possible Oh, Whistle, And I’ll Come To You, My Lad). James is nothing short of a master of the ghost story. His stories specialise in circumstance and the terrible events which can emerge from ignorant mortals meddling in the unknown. His writing is subtle, focusing on the small details; shadows, the voices of madmen and figures glimpsed out the corner of your eye. Like all great gothic writers, James allows his readers to create their own ghosts, existing only in their minds, and never once flitting across the parchment.

Robert Lloyd Parry did a stunning job donning M R James’s persona. The mind boggles at how he was able to reel off a 90 minute performance with such ease, never stumbling over his words or seeming to pause for thought. He expertly assumed not just James but each of his characters, never flinching or breaking character even for a second.

IMG_8303The first story – Casting The Runes – threw the audience back to 1903, and began by with the reading of a collection of letters. The letters informed an unknown character that a draft paper submitted for publishing in a programme was not to be included. These seemingly innocent notes paved the way for a series of strange and ghostly events including vanishing tram adverts, mysterious roadside leafleters, and unknown furry creatures lurking beneath bedclothes, all linked together by the passing of a cursed script. Parry told the story with remarkable ease, barely glancing even once at the audience, and framing the tale from multiple points of view.

When he came to the end of the first story, Parry rose from his chair for the first time and silently swept from the room, leaving the audience alone and awestruck. The house lights came up and we were able to mull about for a short time, enjoying a reasonably priced drink from the charity bar and discussing the past 45 minutes.

I was delighted to find that my other half – who before the event reported that he was ‘livid’ at my forcing him to come along to a ghost story reading – had thoroughly enjoyed the performance thus far. As, it seemed, had everyone else. I’d spent so long raving about M R James in the days running up to this event that I will confess to having been being slightly nervous that the performance would be met with anything other than pure wonderment.

IMG_8305After a short interval the house lights went down, and we were quickly ushered back to our seats. Parry once more slipped into his seat and immediately transformed once again into the evenings faithful host.

The second tale – The Residence of Whitminster – which was in equal parts mesmerising and chilling, was an 18th century tale of the supernatural destruction of a Whitminster residence, beginning with the arrival of a gaunt young man, the disappearance of a jet black cockerel named Hannibal and the feverish rants of a distressed child. Parry assumed the persona of no less than eight characters, slipping seamlessly from one side of a conversation to another, in a performance which had the eyes of the audience glued to his every move.

I was overwhelmed by Parry’s performance; I went to the event as a lover of all things M R James, and was delighted that one man managed to do his work so much justice. The most remarkable thing about the event is one I am not sure I can adequately put into words. I could compare Parry’s performance to the alcohol induced ramblings of an ancient figure propped against the bar of a public house; a one way conversation with a compulsive storyteller; or the confession of one whose secrets have been kept for too long.

The event, I feel, is something you will have to see for yourself in order to fully appreciate it. One of the ladies in charge of Arts Alive said that the events had been very well received, and I can see why. Lovers of ghost stories, fans of M R James, and those who were even slightly intrigued by the beginning of this review, I urge you look and see if Robert Lloyd Parry is performing in a library near you.

Some of my favourite fictional ladies, created by ladies

“Being a woman is a terribly difficult task, since it consists principally in dealing with men.” ― Joseph Conrad

Over the weekend #womeninfiction emerged on Twitter, so in running with the theme I’m here to share with you a few of my favourite fictional ladies.

Renée Michel

The Elegance of the Hedgehog – Muriel Barbery.

Elegance of the HedgehogRenée Michel is possibly my favourite literary lady of all time. She is a concierge, and self-confessed member of the lower class. Despite how she outwardly appears, she is in fact fantastically intelligent, but she knows her place, and sticks to it, stating that to be “poor, ugly and, moreover, intelligent condemns one, in our society, to a dark and disillusioned life, a condition one ought to accept at an early age”. Madame Michel prefers to lives a secret life, reading Russian literature in the privacy of her lodge while donning the air of a simpleton when speaking with the inhabitants of the apartment complex where she works.

In Renée, Barbery has created a fantastic female heroine for lovers of literature. I challenge anyone to read The Elegance of the Hedgehog and not feel themselves brimming over with admiration for the soft soul nestled within the prickly exterior of Madame Michel.

Petronella Brandt née Oortman

The Miniaturist – Jessie Burton

18498569Petronella is an 18-year-old Dutch girl whose family have fallen on hard times since the death of her father. She is married off to a wealthy merchant from Amsterdam, Johannes Brandt, but has a difficult time fitting into her new life. Petronella, who prefers to go by the name of Nella, attempts to be a good wife to her new husband, but is forever at the mercy of her stern sister-in-law Marin Brandt. Nella begins as a child, before all too quickly becoming a woman, when the crushing weight of her new family’s secrets is placed on her shoulders.

What is there to not love about Nella? In each stage of her growth she is simply delightful: innocent and charming, determined and strong, and finally, reliable and level-headed.

Jerusha Abbot

Daddy long legs – Jean Webster

9780141331119Jerusha Abbott, or Judy as she likes to be called, was brought up at the John Grier Home, an old-fashioned orphanage. At the age of 17, she find herself at a loose end, she has finished her education, and is no longer young enough to live in the orphanage without paying her way. Imagine her surprise when one of the John Grier Home’s trustees offers to pay for her to go to university. He will pay her tuition and also give her a generous monthly allowance; in exchange Judy must write him a monthly letter. Judy is told she will never know his true identity and must address the letters to Mr. John Smith, and he will never reply. Judy warms quickly to the trustee, gifting him the persona ‘Daddy Long Legs’, and writing warm, detailed letters each month. Judy dotes on her Daddy Long Legs, and, it appears, he on her.

Judy is an amazing character, gifted with the unique opportunity to turn her rags to riches. Read Daddy Long Legs and I’m sure you will find, too, that you fall in love with the little orphan girl and her extraordinary tale.

Geogianna Lennox

Dead and Buryd – Chele Cooke

dfw-cc-dab-cover-mid (2)Georgianna Lennox is a local medic on a foreign planet ruled by alien invaders, the Adveni. The native people, the Veniche, to whom Georgianna belongs, have become slaves in their own home. Georgianna is somewhat unique among the Veniche as her work allows her to tread within the realms of the Adveni forces, treating the sick and injured within the walls of the infamous Lyndbury prison. For Georgianna this is a way of treating her lost people, but it is not enough. When Georgianna’s friendship with a group of rebels risks putting her own freedom at stake, she is faced with a difficult decision – what will she choose to put first, her family or the freedom of her people?

Georgianna is a strong, determined character, but one I felt extremely comfortable getting to know. Cooke has created a character that is admirable, but also wonderfully human. I found her to be amazingly likeable and funny, despite her hard exterior.

Edwina

Now the Day is Over – Marion Husband

9781908381811-frontcover (2)Are you sick of me talking about Edwina yet? If you are, shame on you, you clearly haven’t taken the time to read the book.

Edwina is the spirit of a young woman trapped between the  early 20th Century, and modern day Britain. Since her death she has lurked the shadows of her former home, critically analysing those who take residence within the walls. In Now the Day is Over she takes the form of super-omniscient narrator, haunting the house which was once hers, commenting on the lives of the adulterous couple who reside within her domain, comparing their existence to the life that was once hers.

I love Edwina because she is so all encompassing. She is deliciously genuine, admirable, maddening, terrifying and somewhat detestable all rolled into one.

Intrigued by any of my lady loves? You know what to do.

Children’s book review tour! Line of Fire: Diary of an Unknown Soldier – Barroux

“In all my dreams, before my helpless sight, he plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.”  ― Wilfred Owen

Line of Fire: Diary of an Unknown Soldier – Barroux

51QTsd1WFBL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_There was never any question of including this book on my tour list. Before I had even received the book I knew that I loved it. Line of Fire: Diary of an Unknown Soldier is exactly what the title implies; the diary of an unknown soldier.

One winter’s morning, Barroux was walking down the streets of Paris when he passed a house which was being emptied of rubbish; piles of old belongings, wrappers and refuse had been placed in the street. ‘We are emptying the basement. Help yourself if you like’ he was told by one of the people ferrying rubbish onto the street. It was at this point that Barroux picked up an ageing yellow diary from amongst the rubbish. A diary which belonged to an unknown soldier serving during world war one. Barroux took the diary and from it created Line of Fire, a graphic novel depicting the words written by an unknown French soldier…may his words never be forgotten.

This book was such a find! I’m over the moon to have discovered it, read it, and to have a copy of my own.

The illustration style fits so perfectly with the subject; you can almost imagine the soldier himself drawing them. They are simple, almost childish, yet graphic, as though they have been scratched with a piece of charcoal salvaged from the embers of long extinguished fire. They remind me, in some ways, of images I have seen drawn by soldiers on the front line. Although the sketches undoubtedly carry Barroux’s distinctive style, there is much in the way of reality present in the scenes. I am reminded of the images in A Soldiers Sketches Under Fire by Harold Harvey – real images sketched by a soldier on the front line.

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It feels strange to review the words of a man when I know nothing about him. Although Barroux is listed as the author of the book, the words belong to the Unknown Soldier. They are exactly as they were found, although in the case of my copy they have been translated into English from their native French. They are powerful words, and although it does not take long to read the book, the effect of the story is far reaching and potent.

The Unknown Soldier speaks of the things which are sure to have plagued any man on the front line of WWI. His fatigue, it is crippling, and he feels dead on his feet – ‘My feet are bleeding, My legs can no longer hold me up. This isn’t a man who’s walking but a sheep following the flock.’ He is never able to rest for more than a few hours before being aroused, often in the dead of night, to move on to the next place. He takes to sleeping on piles of straw, where they are available, next to his companion Fernand, sleeping close together for warmth, and, I expect, comfort.

Our Soldier worries about those he has left behind. He is so worried, plagued by worry each time he receives no word from home. It is moving to see the worry from the other side. It is well known that those that are left behind will worry about their father, brother, son, or husband who has gone away to fight, but the soldiers words show that the worry tortures him equally. ‘The women weep. It’s up to us to show that we’re stronger than they are and convince them that we will return.’ When he does hear news his release is evident, as though he has let out a deep breath of relief; ‘at last I receive some postcards from my dear wife’.

The horror of war is also painted on the pages of the diary, not so much in Barroux’s drawings, but in the soldier’s words. The words are not complicated or flowing, but to the point, and powerful – you can smell the gunpowder, hear the crackle of artillery fire, and see the horrors that the Unknown Soldier scrawls within the pages of his diary. ‘This is where a powerful shell landed on a platoon of the 6th company, which was partially destroyed’ he writes, having seen the remains of a soldiers leg hanging from a tree branch.

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The Unknown Soldier seems to have made a narrow escape from the horrors of war, although no one knows now anything about the man who kept this diary.  He writes of being injured while forced to advance under the eruption of overhead shrapnel, and of the bravery of a fellow soldier, without whom he may not have survived. ‘While he’s bandaging my arm, the shells continue to rain down on us. I shall never forget the devotion of this soldier who didn’t think twice about risking his life, staying close in order to tend to me.’

Once out of the line of fire, he is faced with a lengthy journey to a hospital, all the while in indescribable pain, and with a raging fever which forbids him rest and sustenance. It is once he arrives at hospital, and his fever begins to subside that he is faced with another, unimagined issue – boredom. For a week we hear nothing of the Unknown Soldier, and then, he writes of his boredom, the slowness of the days, his heavy heart, and his feeling that life is carrying on all the same outside of the hospital walls.

‘Sometimes I’m sorry I didn’t stay in the line of fire’ – and with these words the Unknown Soldier’s story ends.

Line of Fire has left me feeling such a strange mix of emotions, with so many questions running through my mind. The power of the Unknown Soldier’s last words are incredible, and only made more so by the fact that he, undoubtedly, never expected anyone to read his diary. Who was this man? And why did he stop writing? Questions I will find myself often asking, and will never know the answer to.

I would recommend this book to almost anyone. Even if you don’t feel drawn to Barroux’s illustrations the power of the Unknown Soldier’s words will not fail to captivate. History students, WWI fanatics, children and adults alike, this is a lesson in history, and an important one at that. Read it and pass on the recommendation.

Children’s book review tour! Monstrous Affections: An Anthology of Beastly Tales – Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant

“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.” ― Friedrich Nietzsche

I could hardly do a book tour on children’s book for adults without delving into a little bit of young adult fiction now could I? If you enjoyed them as a pre-teen, you will probably quite enjoy going back over them now. Who can honestly say they wouldn’t happily sit down with a copy of Goosebumps, if just for the novelty?

Don’t lie to me.

So the next book on my tour was selected with this in mind.

Monstrous Affections: An Anthology of Beastly Tales – Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant

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‘Let’s be honest. We have questions about monsters. That’s why we put this book together. That’s why you’re reading this book right now. On old maps, cartographers would draw strange beasts around the margins and write phrases such as “Here be dragons.” That’s where monsters exist: in the unmapped spaces, in the places where we haven’t filled in all the gaps, in outer space or in the deepest parts of the ocean.’

In their Anthology of Beastly Tales Link and Grant answer some questions about monsters, or rather, tell us a few tales about the monsters hiding in plain sight.

But before we begin reading, there’s a pop quiz to complete – this is novel. So as advised, I turn down the lights, pick up a nice sharp pencil, ‘one that can double as a weapon in an emergency’, and tell the truth.

The questions start off casually; multiple choice questions about the way monsters look, would I consider dating a spider, would I let a vampire bite me, you get the gist. But then they get just a little too creepy for a girl alone in a big house on a dark night.

When you were younger, you were afraid that something was in your closet.
Yes/No

There’s nothing in the closet. Really.
True/False

Are you sure there’s nothing in the closet.
Yes/No

Maybe you should go look in the closet, just in case.
Yes/No/I don’t want to. You do it.

Check again. Just one more time. Go ahead. We’ll wait right here.

After completing my pop quiz, silently cursing Link and Grant, and with my wardrobe door firmly shut. I began the first story ‘Moriabe’s Children’.

“Alanie had never seen a kraken, but her people spoke of them often. The kraken were out beyond the breakwaters of Serenity Bay, the hungry children of Moriabe. They writhed in the depths and sometimes rose to the surface to hunt. A kraken’s tentacles could encircle a sailing ship and crack its spine. Kraken snapped masts like kindling, and swallowed sailors whole.”

This first tale creeped me out. I’m terrified of squids, and the descriptions of the mammoth children of Moriabe writhing like ink pools under the sea surface made me inwardly shudder. So far so good!Denys_de_Montfort_Poulpe_ColossalThere are fifteen stories in all. Fifteen tales that dip briefly into the lives of vampires, werewolves, ghosts, demons and shape shifters. Some of these creatures hide in the shadows of our own existence, and some inhabit their own weird and wonderful worlds, where flowers are the cancer that infects a person’s soul and artificial boyfriends made from soft plastic walk among the living.

The book has a great combination of stories from different authors from all over the world, and shows an immense amount of imagination and flair. Some of the stories will appeal more to some than to others, as with any anthology, but I think there will be something here for everyone. I was particularly pleased to come across a hidden comic strip towards the end of the book, which was wholly unexpected, and served as a nice break from the rest of the text.

Frankenstein's_monster_(Boris_Karloff)Reading Monstrous Affections was like revisiting my preteen years. Some of the stories don’t try and frighten in the slightest, and instead slip into the weird and wonderful, while others are straight out spine-chilling. I am thinking in particular of ‘Left Foot, Right’ – the story of a young girl who, guilt ridden at her sister’s death, attempts to appease her sisters spirit with the gift of new shoes – which was undoubtedly the most horrifying of the stories from my perspective, and I love ghost stories.

The book is also, physically beautiful, it is a nice weighty volume, with a stunning, if slightly horrifying cover image. The book is hardbacked and made from thick, good quality paper, and to hold in your hands feels almost like a spell book, or book of dark magic, apart from having that wholly divine new book smell, rather than an equally pleasant old book scent.

But the thing I found most impressive about this book, was not the stories themselves, but the fact that many of the stories explore a lot of issues which pre-teen and young adult audiences will be able to relate to. Many of the stories explore sexuality and underage pregnancy, as well as looking at love and friendship, the loss of loved ones and bullying. I think exploring issues such as these is really important in YA fiction, and Monstrous Affections has approached this really well.

Monstrous Affections was a really fun, and at times slightly thrilling book to read. Link and Grant have selected a great variety of short stories to fit into this anthology; of the 15 tales included each is unique, with different ghosts and ghouls unlikely to feature in more than one tale. I think this book would appeal to a wider age group than the young adults it is aimed at, but with adults it would be more of a novelty than anything else. That said, I would recommend that anyone who did enjoy reading the likes of Goosebumps and Point Horror as a pre-teen give it a go.

I was sent a free copy of Monstrous Affections by Walker books in exchange for an honest review.

“I get up and pace the room, as if I can leave my guilt behind me. But it tracks me as I walk, an ugly shadow made by myself.” ― Rosamund Lupton

Now the Day is Over ― Marion Husband 

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‘In my more lucid moments I know I’m dead…’ So begins Edwina’s story, a woman whose spirit remains, long after her body has decayed, trapped in the house she once inhabited. In Now the Day is Over, Edwina serves as the narrator of two stories, set in two time periods, before and after her death.

Edwina grew up in early 20th century Britain, and lived a life which spanned across the First World War. In her narration Edwina reveals her childhood, through her adolescence to her time spent serving as a wartime nurse, and later when she becomes the wife of a soldier. Through her words we learn of an unusual gift that Edwina possessed; a deep rooted empathy, the ability to sense a person’s deepest desires, which earned her a somewhat sinister reputation.

Later, in modern day Britain, Edwina takes the form of super-omniscient narrator, haunting the house which was once hers, commenting on the lives of the couple who now reside within her domain. Gaye and David Henderson are an unhappy, adulterous couple whose lives are plagued by guilt over the death of their young daughter, Emily. Through her narration, Edwina tells the story not only of Gaye and David, but also of herself, gradually revealing the horrors which tie her to the earth, as Gaye and David are tied to the past.

This was my first experience with Husband’s work, and I was completely blown away by the effect it had on me. The story itself combines two of the things I love the most; historical fiction set between the past and present, and ghost stories. I love ghosts. There is almost nothing I love more than to curl up on a dark night and indulge in ‘real’ ghost stories submitted to the likes of castleofspirits.com and reddit.com/nosleep.

we need youWhile Now the Day is Over is not a ghost story in the traditional sense Husband is still able to give the house the domineering, omniscient, icy coldness expressed by those living is ‘haunted’ houses. Gaye and David often shiver, the cat hisses and the house seems devoid of life, cold, sterile. Even the garden is tainted; Edwina’s memories of the old plum trees planted by her brother and her the year before the war carry an ominous undertone, as though the plum trees embody some kind of darkness, a living representation of the guilt which holds Edwina’s soul. And when Edwina discovers that the trees remain only in her memory, the ‘smudge’ which they carry remains in the back corner of the garden, silently watching, spoiling the scene.

Edwina’s presence in the house is significant, not only in the grief which she represents but also in the power she possesses as a narrator. David and Gaye cannot see Edwina, and this allows her to accompany them on their most personal journeys; she is able to sit with David while he bathes – ‘I touch his knee that breaks through the water, wanting to calm him.’ – and accompany Gaye to a hotel to meet her lover. But Edwina is able to do something more than just see the characters at their most vulnerable – she has carried through to her death her insight into the minds of others. As a narrator she has the ability to tell exactly how someone is feeling and what they are thinking. This gives the reader an eye into the very soul of the characters.


‘I go upstairs, to the empty attic to rattle around in the cold and dim dusk like a good ghost. I need to be alone sometimes, without the distraction of the living and the belongings they surround themselves with.’


Through Edwina’s soothing narration Husband draws the reader deep into the pages of Now the Day is Over. I was completely drawn into the storyline, desperate to discover the circumstances which prohibit Edwina from moving on, as well as to uncover the circumstances of Emily’s death. The climax does not come until very late in the book. Gaye and David keep their cards close to their hearts, slowly releasing allusions to their daughter’s death; they think of Emily often, but do not talk about her.

Eventually each character is absorbed into the tension which has so slowly built up and, completely overwhelmed by grief, makes their confession. When they begin to tell their stories their grief rushes forward in an unstoppable stream, until their words are mixed and their stories combined, with Edwina frantically flitting between the two scenes, retelling the tragic tale of Emily’s death.

Edwina’s life was steeped in death. It seems only natural that her death should be the same – a house haunted not only by Edwina herself, but the ghost of grief which follows Gaye and David. Edwina takes the form of the personification of Gaye and David’s guilt, a black cloud hanging over the family, the memory which taints their futile attempt at a fresh start. Ignoring her presence will not make her leave; it takes Gaye and David’s attempt at positive steps to move on to make the shadow of Edwina begin to fade away. It seems fitting that the book finishes with the planting of new plum trees. Fresh saplings, to commemorate a life lost, and to represent the start of a new beginning, one in which the guilt has gradually begun to fade.Plum-trees_from_South-Hungary

I enjoyed every single moment of Now the Day is Over, and do not feel I can fault it in the slightest. The intricate storyline, complex characters and stunning language combine to create a truly remarkable novel. Before beginning my review I sat down to flick back through the pages of the book to get my creative juices flowing and was instantly drawn back in. I really had to fight to stop myself reading it all over again. As much as I’d like to, there isn’t the time right now.

Special thanks go to Sacristy Press for supplying me with a free copy of Now the Day is Over in return for an honest review.

“The generation of random numbers is too important to be left to chance.”—Robert R. Coveyou

It’s been a while since I last shared a little bit of obscure poetry with you. I must sound like a broken record by now but I really have been very busy. I am in the process trying out a new method but I’m finding it difficult to fall in love with the results I’ve been getting so you might have to wait a little while for that one (cryptic, aren’t I?).

Anyway, I recently received an email from a family friend introducing me to a new method of constructing poetry from existing poems. Some of the results are really great, and it will give you an excuse to get some of the poetry books that might be craving some attention down from your shelves.

The method is as follows:

Take poetry books (individual poets and anthologies) to use as your base. You can select as few or as many as your collection allows (the method will also work with a single book, just remove step one).

Step one. Go to www.random.org and get a random number for your range of books.

Step two. Pick out the random book and find the pages for the actual poetry, for example 13–232, enter this range in the random number generator. Take the resulting number and go to that page in the book.

Step three. Get the range of lines on the page (eg 1–24) and enter this range in the random number generator. Go to the random line, et voilà, you have a line for your random poem.

Step four. Repeat until you have the number of lines you want for your poem (however many you like!).

Step five. Use the random number generator to rearrange the lines randomly.

Step six. (optional) Choose an extra line to use as the title for your poem.

Here are some of the examples Ross sent to me:

Slipped in the wet grass
(Merioneth’s bright as billow)
See glorious ages opening to our view
So sang the grains of sand, and while they whirled
to a pattern
So snugly in the depths
Occult. By son of Man, ambiguous name,
By Ignorance and parching Poverty,
To plume a lady’s gear; the motet waits
The lady Geraldine espies
Like the leaves scattered! Pale generating
creatures of clay
And Judas was a terrible chap!
Verde que te quiero verde
And make those flights on the bankes of Thames

This poem has a few German lines and one in French, the translations of which are displayed in parentheses. This example also, as per step six, uses a 14th line as a title:

Those cruel wings
And many a skeleton shook his head
Have passed by cedar, pine and yew
Sanfter träumet und schläft in Armen der Erde der Titan (In the arms of the earth the titan lies dreaming)
Das Leben und lassen wollten sie nicht (The life and they didn’t wish to part from it)
Reif sind, in Feuer getaucht, gekochet (Ripe they are, dipped in fire, cooked)
In a cave’s heart, until a thunderstorm
Without even the encumbrance of a brother
With free long looking ere I die
Ja, schon sagt mir gerüht dein Blick, mir sagt es die Träne, (Yes, I can tell by your emotion, your eyes, your tears)
Trouve, ô Chasseur, nous le voulons (Find, O Hunter, we desire it)
Here on this very campus years ago
There’s no more to tell
I don’t know when it’s likely to get better

The results, I think, speak for themselves. Credit for the previous two poems and the method itself is to poet and author Ross Tomkins, whose book entitled Short Works is now available on Amazon.

Now for my attempt:

For the Garden
To rise from Generation free:
He who was living is now dead
with a bare bodkin?
His present blessings, and to hushed up
Thoughts of a dry brain in a dry season.
Cascading through the dusty road
a cage for small bikes; rows of potted plants
The river’s tent is broken: the last fingers of leaf
I did not fall when I fell down the stairs
To leeward, swing on the heavy spar.
His energies roll back upon his heart,
And by came an angel who had a bright key,
And underneath the spreading tree

I think this method has been my favourite so far. While it might seem a bit complicated at first it really isn’t and you soon get the hang of it. I really enjoyed trying it out and the results so far have been great (I am particularly pleased that I ended up with a couple of rhyming lines in mine). The great thing about found poetry is you can attribute any meaning to the finished product, I get a very different feel from each of the poems listed here, at the very least some sense seems to emerge from the randomness.

“Once poverty is gone, we’ll need to build museums to display its horrors to future generations. They’ll wonder why poverty continued so long in human society – how a few people could live in luxury while billions dwelt in misery, deprivation and despair.” ― Muhammad Yunus

The monster

The Grapes of Wrath ― John Steinbeck

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First published in 1939, and set during the Great Depression in the United States, The Grapes of Wrath is John Steinbeck’s critical analysis of the capitalistic forces responsible for forcing thousands of families off of their land, and in search of better work, and a brighter future, both of which for the majority simply did not exist.

When preparing to write the novel, Steinbeck wrote: “I want to put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible for this”.

This is definitely a book I would recommend for everyone to read, but I would recommend you do so before going any further with this review. As I feel the need to give a rather in depth synopsis in order to give more meat to some of my opinions.

While the novel was written almost 80 years ago the underlying themes of the story, ring true once again today [although for the majority of people without the severity of the 1930s]. Thanks to the outsourcing of labour by large corporations in a bid to drive down production costs, Steinbeck’s themes of corporate greed and joblessness are back with a vengeance.

Steinbeck’s novel focuses initially, and primarily on Tom Joad, who, when released from an Oklahoma prison, sets out to reunite himself with his family. Along the way Tom runs into an old preacher from his childhood Jim Casy, and takes him along to find the family, only to discover the old house uninhabited, an empty shell of the life it once contained. The pair discover that changing economic conditions have forced the Joad family out of their farm, leaving them unable to pick the cotton which had sustained them for so many years. New living conditions in an old lean to shack are proving too cramped, and so the family, relived at Tom’s reappearance, head west to California chasing the promises of orange “han’bills”, offering good money for pea pickers to work in the harvest.

Within the novel, aside from telling the story of the Joad family, Steinbeck also dedicates smaller chapters to looking at the issue on a somewhat larger, less personal scale. These chapters work brilliantly within the context of the story, giving the reader a wider scope with which to view the setting of the novel. The chapter which stands out as the most memorable for me focuses on ‘the monster’ which is the root cause of so much pain and destruction. Steinbeck’s monster can be a difficult creature to get your head around. The monster does not refer to the new machines that plough the land, or the land owners, or those responsible for loaning money and running the banks. It is the banks themselves:

“The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it.”

Something much more sinister than any man, a thought process which has been brought about by men, and now runs free, unburdened, and terrible:

“The monster has to have profits all the time. It can’t wait. It’ll die. No, taxes go on. When the monster stops growing, it dies. It can’t stay one size.”

Steinbeck follows the Joad family along Route 66 as they head west, towards the promise of a new life and a fresh start. The eldest daughter Rose of Sharon, and her new husband Connie, are expecting their first child, and have high hopes of Connie securing an education, a job and a house before the baby is born. Rose of Sharon busies herself dreaming of what life will be like, she is particularly taken with the idea of owning an ice box.

Shortly after the family begin their journey things take a turn for the worse, travelling proves extremely wearing on the family, especially on the elder relatives, and the journey progresses the family slowly begins to fall apart, beginning with the death of Grandpa just days after they leave Oklahoma. The eldest son, Noah, stays behind as they enter California, refusing to go back to exhausting life on the road, insisting that he will stay with the river, and soon after Noah leaves, Grandma joins her husband.

As time progresses the family desperately attempt to hold onto the hope that their new life in California will hold the treasures they so eagerly anticipated. They experience ‘Hooterville’ for the first time, a place where job seeking “Okies” huddle together in dirty tents, with starving families until driven on by the authorities, and Pa holds a conversation with a dirty, giggling man, who sparks the first of the family’s fears, there is no work in California. At the prospect of being unable to supply for Rose of Sharon and the baby Connie flees. Later, when the authorities appear in Hooterville to try and move the settlers on Casy intervenes and gets himself arrested.

Desperately seeking shelter for the night, they find temporary relief in the “Weedpatch” government camp. The camp offers the family the much needed rest they required, a sense of community operates within the fences, with families working together to keep the camp clean, running water, and weekly dances. All this takes place much to the dismay of the local authorities, who cannot bear the idea of the poor sticking together and getting comfortable. However the joy of having a community, washing facilities and a safe place to sleep is short lived, and the family eventually moves on, realising that despite the comfort of the government camp, there is still no work.

Having travelled west of the government camp the Joad family pass a picket line of protesting workers, and end up picking peaches in the “Hooper Ranch” receiving a higher wage than usual having just broken a strike. Living in a small wooden shack, and forced to buy overpriced food from the ranch store, the situation is far from ideal. One night Tom discovers that the man leading the strike is in fact Jim Casy. Shortly afterwards Tom, Casy and some of the other striking workers get into a fight with the ranch authorities, and one of the men kills Casy with a tool handle. Tom manages to wrestle the weapon away Casy’s Killer, he then, enraged by what he has seen, commits the second murder of his life.

Steinbeck’s description of the time spent at the Hooper Ranch brings to light in the readers mind more than ever the severity of the indignities that these people suffered at the hands of other human beings. It seems almost incomprehensible that anyone could have been treated with such little compassion. The idea of paying a man a pittance, because he does not have the strength, or the ability to refuse a job, regardless of the price, or work involved, is absolutely incredible.

My feelings are all but summed up by the words of Guardian writer Melvyn Bragg:

“I was all but drowned in the pity and anger John Steinbeck evoked for these people, fleeing Oklahoma to seek work but finding nothing save cruelty, violence, the enmity of immoral banks and businesses”

This incredibly moving novel, stirred so many emotions within me, even before what I’m sure many consider to be the bleakest period in the Joad family’s journey.

After Tom’s clash with the ranch authorities, the family are forced to go on the run. They travel north and find work picking cotton in a roadside field, residing in a boxcar while Tom takes refuge in the nearby woods. Other families are hungry for work, and the cotton does not last long. Then the rains set in, and with them, hunger, cold, and flooding. Rose of Sharon goes into labour after a bout of sickness and loses the baby. Meanwhile the floods threaten to completely engulf the car which the family reside in, leaving the Joad’s with no choice but to leave. At this point Tom is sent away to care for himself, and one of the elder children chooses to stay behind with the daughter of another family, leaving the Joad family less than half the size they were when they first began their journey.

Steinbeck ends the novel with a devastating scene. The family has taken refuge in a barn inhabited an old gentleman and his son. The man is gravely ill, having forfeited him own food to feed his son, and he can no longer hold down solid food. Ma realises that Rose of Sharon is now producing milk, at which time a silent nod of understanding passes between the two women, and the family leave the barn. The reader is left with the haunting image of Rose of Sharon, nursing the dying man. An incredibly powerful image, which stays with the reader long after the novel is finished.

Inhumanity is possibly the most important and prominent theme running through The Grapes of Wrath. The characters within the novel experienced horrendous suffering at the hands of landowners who saw migrants with rights as a threat to their livelihoods, and therefore set out to strip them of even the basic human rights we enjoy today, exploiting fellow Americans to the point of utter ruin. Human beings were the both the cause, and the recipients, of suffering in the land of the free. The land owners in California lived a life of luxury, while the migrants were treated like animals.

With the inhumanity lies a second, more positive theme. The characters within the novel maintain a certain hope and unity which holds the dwindling family and the migrants in general together as one. The importance of remaining together as a family is emphasised throughout the novel. It is being together that in part helps the Joad family to never lose sight of hope. When the groups of migrants get together they create a sense of hope of what will come next, such as can be seen within the government camp. This is a striking, and more than likely accurate, depiction of the great depression migrants, who, when all else failed, clung to hope.

Steinbeck’s writing is beautifully poetic, with the most intricate details going into every description, be it a blonde headed girl outside a tent in the government camp, or the feeling of sand between hot toes in the cool Californian Rivers. At the same time, The Grapes of Wrath would not be wasted on a less avid reader; Steinbeck’s style is wonderfully accessible without being easy to read. Rewarding, without being tedious.

Steinbeck will leave the reader thinking about the story long after the book is finished. A work of fiction about a real thing, a real time, with real people. While the Joad family may be fictional, their experiences reflect the life of many Americans at that time.