I like the poet Amy Lowell. She was a key member of the Imagist movement, established by Ezra Pound in 1912. Its objectives were simple: write in free verse; make it musical rather than metronomic; steer clear of the flabby emotion and reflection characteristic of the Georgian poets; aim at clear, precise language; and choose the exact word rather than a contrived poetic equivalent.

Amy Lowell’s prose poem ‘Spring Day’, describing her observations of a day in the city, is a perfect example. Below is an extract:

‘Swirl of crowded streets. Shock and recoil of traffic. The stock-still brick façade of an old church, against which the waves of people lurch and withdraw. Flare of sunshine down side-streets. Eddies of light in the windows of chemists’ shops, with their blue, gold, purple jars, darting colours far into the crowd. Loud bangs and tremors, murmurings out of high windows, whirring of machine belts, blurring of horses and motors. A quick spin and shudder of brakes on an electric car, and the jar of a church-bell knocking against the metal blue of the sky. I am a piece of the town, a bit of blown dust, thrust along with the crowd. Proud to feel the pavement under me, reeling with feet. Feet tripping, skipping, lagging, dragging, plodding doggedly, or springing up and advancing on firm elastic insteps. A boy is selling papers, I smell them clean and new from the press. They are fresh like the air, and pungent as tulips and narcissus.’

The piece is richly descriptive, packed with arresting verbs and nouns suggesting movement and activity (swirl, recoil, flare, darting, whirring, spin, shudder, jar, blown, thrust, dragging, springing). There are no ‘like’ analogies to divert the reader’s attention away from the observation in hand. Lowell records things that are happening now, precisely as she sees them, making no attempt to re-shape or recast her observations in ‘poetic’ language. We imagine her eyes flicking back and forth along the city street, stimulated by the almost overwhelming welter of movement and activity. And, critically for the Imagists, she makes no judgement on the things she describes, ends with no moral message.

I opened an anthology of early Chinese literature at random yesterday and came upon the following poem below by the 8th-century poet Tu Fu. It reveals a similar aim to that of the Imagists. Like Lowells’ ‘Spring Day’, it too describes what the poet sees but has a totally different effect on the reader. ‘Spring Day’ is rich fare – frenetic, wired, with events coming at the reader thick and fast. Tu Fu’s poem is pared down and sparse, conjuring an atmosphere of stillness and calm.

Looking out over the plains
Clear autumn, sight has no bounds;
High in the distance piling shadows rise.
The farthest waters merge in the sky unsullied;
A neglected town hides deep in the mist.
Sparse leaves, which the wind still sheds,
Far hills, where the sun sinks down.
How late the solitary crane returns!
But the twilight crows already fill the forest.

Translated by A C Graham

What a difference in tone to Amy Lowell’s ‘Spring Day’! Both are concerned with precise observation. Lowell’s poem concerns itself purely with what is happening now in the foreground in this city street. Tu Fu observes what is happening far away in the distance. Are his observations occurring in rapid succession as in ‘Spring Day’? Or separated by seconds, minutes, hours? It is impossible to say, as the poet offers us no clues.

Incidentally, Amy Lowell was a translator of early Chinese poems. Her efforts, though, are considered by scholars to be over-worked. She tries too hard to turn their inherent stillness into vibrant poetry.

I find both poems immensely pleasing. The language in early Chinese poetry can be rich in symbol. For instance, the crane traditionally represents immortality. Do we need to know that to enjoy Tu Fu’s poem and gain something out of it? Would knowing it alter the poem’s impact? If we did it would make us start to think, to ponder significance, to search for a hidden message. We would be reflecting and internalising, allowing ourselves to be carried away from the poem. Surely the joy of Chinese poetry like Tu Fu’s is in the experience of simply allowing the words to sink in, to have their play with us.

Two poems employing the same process, with very different results.

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A hard night’s nesting

Below is a fascinating account of child labour that reveals an unusual link between rural and city life in the mid-Victorian era. It was written by Henry Mayhew, who observed, documented, and described the state of working people in the 1840s for a series of articles later compiled into book form. The illustration comes from the picture library of Victorian engravings I run with my wife (

From London Labour and the London Poor, Henry Mayhew, 1851

The young gypsy-looking lad, who gave me the following account of the sale of birds-nests in the streets, was particularly picturesque in his appearance. He carried in one hand his basket of nests, dotted with their many-coloured eggs; in the other he held a live snake, that writhed and twisted as its metallic-looking skin glistened in the sun; now over, and now round, the thick knotty bough of a tree that he used for a stick

He said: ‘I am a seller of birds-nesties, snakes, slow-worms, adders, effets [lizards], hedgehogs (for killing black beetles); frogs (for the French – they eats ’em); snails (for birds); that’s all I sell in the summer-time. In the winter I get all kinds of wild flowers and roots. I gather bulrushes in the summer-time. Some buys bulrushes for ‘stuffing’, that is, for showing off the birds as is stuffed, and make ’em seem as if they was alive in their cases.

I sell the birds-nesties in the streets. The linnets has mostly four eggs, they’re for putting under canaries, and being hatched by them. The thrushes are merely for cur’osity – glass cases or anything like that. Moor-hens has from eight to nine eggs, and is 1d a-piece; they’re for hatching under a bantam fowl, the same as partridges. [He goes on to list many kinds of bird, including the sparrow hawk, horned owl, woodpecker, and kingfisher – sold for ‘cur’osity’, and for putting in glass cases] …

‘I take all the cross country roads across fields and into the woods. I start between one and two in the morning and walk all night – for the coolness – you see the weather’s so hot you can’t do it in the daytimes. When I get down I go to sleep for a couple of hours. I ‘skipper it’ – turn in under a hedge or anywhere. After I’ve had my sleep I start off to get my nests. I climb the trees, often I go up a dozen in the day, and many a time there’s nothing in the nest when I get up.

After I take a bird’s nest, the old bird comes dancing over it, chirupping and crying, and flying all about. When they lose their nest they wander about, and don’t know where to go. Oftentimes I wouldn’t take them if it wasn’t for the want of the victuals, it seems such a pity to disturb ’em after they’ve made their little bits of places.

‘There’s one gentleman I sells to has a hobby for them. He puts ’em into glass cases, and makes presents of ’em to his friends. I’ve sold him a hundred nesties, I’m sure. The most of my customers is stray ones in the streets. They’re generally boys. The boys of twelve to fifteen years of age is my best friends. They buy ’em only for cur’osity.’

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The English Cartier-Bresson

I find it hard to believe that the the photographer James Ravilious died almost seventeen years ago. The son of the artist Eric Ravilious, he moved to North Devon in the early 1970s to live in a cottage owned by his wife, Robin. She is the daughter of the actress Jill Furse and the glass engraver and poet Laurence Whistler.

Trained as an artist and art historian, Ravilious found it daunting forging a path as a painter in the shadow of his illustrious father. He became enthused by the possibilities of photography, and spent many years photographing the landscapes and people of the agricultural lands of North Devon for the Beaford Archive. It is on this extraordinary legacy of black and white photographs that his reputation rests.

Ravilious was rigorous in his approach. He used old Leicas with even older uncoated lenses. He would never countenance cropping an image – what he saw was exactly what you got. If a subject attempted a pose he would wait until it had disappeared before pressing the shutter. He would talk animatedly with his subjects, engaging them in conversation, taking a series of rapid shots whilst they were unaware. As a result, his images have the quality of total honesty, and reveal a deep respect for the people he photographed. There is nothing contrived or bucolic about them, and he made no attempt to stylise or alter what he saw.

Last week a packed audience at St Luke’s church at Simonsbath enjoyed an illustrated talk by James’s wife, Robin. I have known and loved Ravilious’s photographs for many years, and it was wonderful to gain insights into the extraordinary characters James photographed – including Archie Parkhouse (see the image above), Ivor Brock, Alf Pugsley, Olive Bennett, and a cavalcade of others. We learned how James worked, and how the people and communities he photographed gradually came to accept him, inviting him to witness and record their daily tasks – including hedging and ditching, delivering lambs, harvesting – as well as photographing a whole range of village events and celebrations.

It is always difficult forging a reputation when your work is focussed on a small geographical area. What relevance do his Devon images have to a Londoner or a Yorkshireman? Yet I firmly believe that Ravilious is as important as Bill Brandt in the canon of British photography. Many of his photographs approach the genius of Cartier-Bresson – see the one below showing the Exmoor family watching the Cup Final.

I urge you to search out his images, many of which are online at the Beaford Archive. Read his books, too. Below is a short list.

An English Eye: The Photographs of James Ravilious,1998
A Corner of England: North Devon Landscapes and People, 1996
Down the Deep Lanes, 2001
Heart of the Country, 1980

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5-star review for ‘Riven’

I am delighted to have received a second 5-star review below for my novel ‘Riven’. It is available on Amazon as a Kindle book.

“This is a spell binding, haunting tale. What would you do if your wife died in childbirth, leaving you to care for twin baby girls joined at the hip and shoulder? What if this trauma tumbled you into a nervous breakdown, recovering only to learn that a famous surgeon is eager to operate on the girls to separate them?

The year is 1849 and surgery is in its infancy, the operation has never been performed successfully, and anaesthesia is a hit and miss affair.

We meet Thomas Tait Genoa, as he is about to embark on a desperate flight around the West Country seeking sanctuary, not knowing whom he can trust. He disguises himself as a topographer travelling with horse and cart with the girls in the back. Mixed with the fear for his daughters’ future is an overwhelming appreciation of the countryside from an artist’s perspective, taking the reader on the journey with him.

He meets many interesting characters on the way: there are depictions of the casual brutality of country dwelling worthy of Zola.

The book is a wonderfully woven tapestry of information about early photography and historic painting methods: how the countryside was captured on paper by various means and devices, bringing the countryside to town dwellers.

There are many twists and turns before the book ends, finishing with a thrilling chase at the climax.

What will happen to father and babes? Read this book and all will be revealed.”

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Coleridge in flight with the starlings

Witnessing the murmuration of starlings is unforgettable. A good number of writers have described the experience. Doubtless anxious to avoid clichés, most diligently trawled through a Thesaurus for alternatives to describe the swirling, unwinding, and coiling motion.

The best account of starling murmurations I have read is by Italo Calvino in his wonderful book ‘Mr Palomar’, where he describes the birds gathering and dispersing over Rome. But who was the first to attempt a description? I believe it could be Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his Notebooks. Travelling by stage coach to London in 1799, he found himself mesmerised by the sight of starlings flocking over a nearby field. He begins by observing the sky, creating a word description of such meticulous precision that it anticipates the rapidly sketched atmospheric cloud studies of John Constable in the 1820s:

‘November 27th – a most interesting morning. 1799. Awoke from one of my painful Coach-Sleeps, in the Coach to London. It was a rich Orange Sky like that of a winter Evening save that the fleecy dark blue Clouds that rippled above it, shewed it to be morning – these soon became a glowing Brass Colour, brassy Fleeces, wool packs in shape / rising high up into the Sky. The Sun at length rose upon the flat Plain, like a Hill of Fire in the distance, rose wholly, & in the water that flooded part of the Flat a deep column of Light. – But as the coach went on, a Hill rose, and intercepted the Sun – and the Sun in a few minutes rose over it, a compleat 2nd rising, thro’ other clouds and with a different Glory.’

He goes on to describe the murmuration that followed:

‘Soon after this I saw Starlings in vast Flights, borne along like smoke, mist – like a body unindued with voluntary Power / – now it shaped itself into a circular area, inclined – now they formed a Square – now a Globe – now from complete orb into an Ellipse – then oblongated into a Balloon with the Car suspended, now a concave Semicircle; still expanding, or contracting, thinning or condensing, now glimmering and shivering, now thickening, deepening, blackening!’

This is not the surgical account of a scientist or natural historian. Coleridge is no dispassionate witness. If that fastidious observer of the natural world Gilbert White had attempted a description you could almost hear him announcing, ‘I am now going to describe the murmuration of the starling species. I have studied it closely on a representative number of occasions and this is an accurate summation of what I saw’.

But Coleridge is a poet, and we can imagine him being drawn out of his seat in the coach before ascending into the sky to participate in the throng. It is an account in real time, and I don’t think anyone else was writing like this in 1799. It is an extraordinary achievement, and anticipates Gerard Manley Hopkins sixty years later.

And here he is again just five years later, describing the flight of linnets.

Friday Evening, Jan[uary] 20,1804.
Observed in the garden of Eaton House the flight of the Brown Linnets, a large flock of whom I had repeatedly disturbed by my foot-fall as I walked by the thicket. / 1. Twinkling of wings. 2. Heavy & swanlike rise & fall, yet so that while one was rising, another was falling – & so 4. Their sweet straight onward motion / they swam on, not with speed or haste, much less hurry, but with easy natural Swiftness – & then [a] graceful wheel round one half of a circle or more, & then cut straight the diameter of it – 4. their change of position among themselves / right to left, hindw[ard] to the front, vanguard to the rear – these four motions all at once in one beautiful Whole, like a Machine –

These diary entries, and a plethora of similarly extraordinary examples, are what make Coleridge so outstanding as both observer and writer. It is regrettable that his reputation with the general reader rests on just a dozen or so (admittedly remarkable) poems.

Photograph courtesy of Adam, Creative Commons

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A walk round Nether Stowey in 1797 with Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Kubla Khan – Imagined Worlds

The Friends of Coleridge, in a project supported by the Arts Council, have been celebrating the bicentenary of the publication in 1816 of the visionary poem ‘Kubla Khan’ with a programme of poetry, art, walks, talks, film and competitions.

I led two Coleridge-related guided walks around Nether Stowey. Visitors and Coleridge enthusiasts (around 25 on each walk) were encouraged to experience the village as the poet knew it in 1797. There were readings on the way from Coleridge’s poems, with historical insights into the sights and sounds of the late 18th century.

I have written and designed a 12-page leaflet of the walk. It is intended for visitors and walkers who may wish to learn a little more about Coleridge’s short, productive stay in the village. An A5 printed version is available free in shops in the village and at Coleridge Cottage. Or you can download an A4-size PDF from the News section on the Friends of Coleridge website (


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A tragic end

I bought this small drawing in a West Country antiques shop. It wasn’t expensive, and was hung in the back room in a dark corner, but it spoke to me the way some things do.

It’s an 18th-century pastel drawing in its original frame showing a young man. The gilt is worn and rubbed, and the frame has split at the top and bottom. One of the reasons I like it is the strong sense of tranquillity it conjures, of an era a million miles away from our own frenetic world.

For some reason the sitter reminds me of the 18th-century poet William Cowper, whose portraits tend to reveal a similarly gentle, contemplative temperament. Cowper lived a reclusive life with his pet hare in rural backwaters in Buckinghamshire and Norfolk. Throughout he was tended and protected by kind, caring women who nursed him through his long bouts of depression. Yet, he still managed to write some of the most placid poems in the English language, never formal in the prevailing 18th-century style, but relaxed and conversational. Cowper was a strong influence on Coleridge, who extended the conversational form and helped usher in the Romantic Movement. For me the drawing could show Cowper in his younger days, before the terrible melancholy engulfed him.

But it isn’t Cowper, so who is it? I don’t know, as it isn’t titled. But I can make a reasonable guess that it shows a friend of the artist. The sitter is a young man, his coat unbuttoned, his shirt ruffling up at the bottom. This was no formal portrait intended to impress.

The drawing is signed. Pencilled in half way up on the right is the name W Wynne Ryland. This meant nothing to me when I bought it. However, when I did a little research I found out that Ryland was one of the two most celebrated engravers of the 18th century. He developed a technique of engraving copper plates for rendering the softest tones of chalk drawings. Ryland owned a print shop in the Strand, and went on to become engraver to King George II. His work is represented in collections all over the country, and many of his most impressive engravings are of paintings by Angelica Kaufmann  (see example below). This was exciting enough for an impulse buy, but I was to discover more.

Ryland was, his biographer said, ‘a tender parent, an affectionate husband, a capital artist, a favourite of the King and Queen, beloved, [and] respected.’ But he was also a restless character, ever keen to push the boundaries of his art and abilities. His fortunes wavered throughout his career. Sometimes he was rich and at other times managed to dispose of his money much too quickly. In 1783 he embarked on a singularly rash and dangerous act – he forged bills of exchange drawn on the East India Company. For a while it seemed he had got away with it, but the deception was finally discovered when it was found that the paper he had used was not being manufactured at the time. Ryland fled for his life and went into hiding, with all of London on the hunt for him. He was only discovered when a Dartford bootmaker spotted his name written inside a shoe he had sent for repair. Once again Ryland tried to flee, but was cornered in a house near Stepney. Desperate, he tried to cut his own throat, but was just caught in time. Bleeding profusely, he was carried away and imprisoned.

His trial at the Old Bailey was a cause celebre. He was found guilty and hanged at Tyburn on 29 August 1783. He left a widow and six children.

Quite a story to emerge from such a serene drawing! So, could it be a self-portrait? Who can tell? The sitter’s face is unlined, and he looks calmly out at us, unruffled, comfortable in his own skin. It’s frustrating that I will never know.


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