Friday, November 30, 2007

Winter Wonderland

Winter sun in Leamington Spa, UK

It has been a truly amazing November - I can hardly recall being happier (but can it last?).

Well, I hope it does. After going to hell and back in Leamington over the past couple of years, I am enjoying life at long last, and looking forward to my birthday and Christmas.

I headlined a poetry gig in Oxford - and it was fantastic.

The club, Back Room Poets, was in a Hardy-esque public house called Far From The Madding Crowd with an intelligent, attentive audience.

It was my very first gig as a 'featured' or 'future' poet and I leapt from reading one to three poems, as I have been doing at poetry club open spots for the past year and a bit, to doing 15 poems during a set which I think ran to 25 minutes.

I performed a mixture of the serious and the flippant, alternating between the two. I believe I kept the audience with me. It was great experience for me, anyway.

It was the first time I have played a poetry club where the audience was more interested in serious poems than the silly ones. I felt most honoured to be playing there at all.

I was most impressed by the other readers. The blind guy was awesome, reading his poems from Braille sheets pinned by crawling fingers to his chest.

A skyscaper of an American rower was also interesting. And a famous horse trainer present was also a talented poet.

Funnily enough, it was the night of the big anti-fascist demonstration outside the Oxford Union.

So, the audience's numbers were swelled by behooded demonstrators with angry anti-fascist eyes. Good for them!

At the end of the night, I was amazed and hugely flattered to be handed a cheque for 20 quid as payment. I have kept it as a souvenir. Like Byron, honour would not allow me to accept payment for poetry!

The day before - in Lewes - I went to a remarkable event at the All Saints Centre - a talk and one-act play about the model and photojournalist Lee Miller.

The slide-illustrated lecture, Discovering The Art of Lee Miller was given by Mark Haworth-Booth, the photo-archivist in charge of a definitive Lee Miller exhibition, The Art of Lee Miller, currently at the V & A in London, and Tony Penrose, Lee Miller's son.

Tony also wrote and appeared as himself in the play, The Angel and the Fiend, which was illustrated by slides too.

It was a superb afternoon. The slide show and talk was excellent and revealed a fascinating divide between the two men behind the exhibition.

Mark was driven by Miller's photography, seeking a photojournalist the world had under-recognised, almost forgotten.

Tony was driven by the fractious relationship he had with the latterly alcoholic Miller, seeking the mother he never truly knew, the lost love.

Clearly the two men had almost fallen out over one image with Penrose eventually getting a photo of personal importance to him included in the exhibition.

I walked away with very mixed feelings. Miller was a remarkable photographer, although perhaps not, in my humble opinion, a truly great one.

What was more extraordinary about her was her gift to place herself where she wanted to be when she wanted to be there; her skill at re-inventing herself as a Vogue model and photographer, war photographer and reporter. I would have loved to have met her in the 1930s or 1940s.

Bonfire Night Torches in Lewes, East Sussex, UK

I could not help but admire her, and seeing her humorous or chilling wartime images reminded me of my long conversations about photojournalism with my former college tutor Sir Tom Hopkinson, who had been Editor of Picture Post during the Second World War.

Like Tom, Lee was truly formed by that traumatic time.

And, yes, I liked the way every last aspect of Lee Miller's life was celebrated as if a surreal masterpiece.

My head has been ablaze this month. I have been enjoying my work and life in the Leamington Garret.

Enormous (and hugely expensive) curtains have been hung over the living room windows overlooking the Pump Room Gardens, making the garret a good deal warmer.

My flatmate, a charming Hungarian called Attila, has been a delightful companion these past 12 months: intelligent, funny, easy-going, polite, and surprisingly English in his attitude to so many things. A tremendous guy!

At the Lewes Garret, it has been a strange month. I managed to break a window after a sloomy bee got in (attempts to get it out led to a picture being trapped under a window frame, my efforts to free the picture shattered a large pane and ended up costing 200 quid!)

Ladettes have vandalised the car wing mirror (another 90 quid down the drain!).

But the Allotment is going well. It is very pleasant to get out to Earwig's Corner to do a bit of digging. It is such a beautiful spot.

Moreover, I am starting a poetry club in Lewes which will kick off at the Lewes Arms at 8.30pm on Friday, January 18, with a tremendous line-up.

I intend to stage it on the third Friday of each month right through 2008, excepting August which is Edinburgh Time!

Talking of Lewes clubs, I dropped into SalsaMagic, the salsa dancing club at the White Hart Hotel in Lewes, and was shocked to see how terribly it has declined.

Since its founder and owner, Miguel Angel Plaza, fell sick, this once-great Sunday night club has fallen into apparently terminal decline.

A couple of years ago, you would have expected more than 100 salseros at the regular Sunday night event, with four classes going at the same time, followed by a huge Merengue lesson and then a lively DJ-ed club night until 11pm.

When I turned up the other Sunday, only four punters were there at the start (plus five teachers or helpers). The night was cancelled.

Afterwards, we all went for a hot chocolate upstairs at the hotel and discussed the parlous state of SalsaMagic and what could be done. Very little, it would seem.

Miguel is said to be unwilling to reliquish the reins while seemingly and sadly not running the business himself. Only the loyalty of his friends keeps it going at all - and hardly. . .

At its peak, SalsaMagic had four club nights on the South Coast; the others being at Eastbourne, Bognor and Portsmouth.

Now only the former flagship at Lewes remains. . and for how long?

We all wish Miguel a full and speedy recovery. However, unless he allows another dance promoter to run the club for the time being, it is doomed, and, when he is well, he will not have a business to return to. A tragedy in itself.

So, I am sending out an S.O.S. - Save Our Salsa! If you loved SalsaMagic and can think of a way of saving it, please do so.

As things stand now, I reckon it is only a matter of time before the White Hart Hotel takes it out of its misery, and the magic is no more.

I have been in London quite a lot this month through business and was highly amused by a story I saw in a free London newspaper about the Croatian national football squad being egged on against England by the mispronunciation of their national anthem by a British opera singer (booked for the gig).

opera singer Tony Henry

Tony Henry belted out 'Mila kura si planina' instead of 'Mila kuda si planina', so that 'You know my dear how we love your mountains' became 'My dear, my penis is a mountain'!

Of course, the players cracked up with mirth and relaxed. . . and the rest is history. Now Tony Henry is being adopted as the national Croatian mascot for Euro 08!

A big fuss was made about England's failure to qualify and Steve McClaren's failure as coach.

Speaking as someone who only supports the national side and almost never watches club football, even I can say that from before his appointment McClaren clearly lacked the leadership qualities to make a success of the England job.

It is a disgrace that he was appointed in the first place and has trousered two-and-a-half million squid for his predictable failure (can I have a go at coaching these overpaid Premiership poodles?)

Still, the solution to this quandary is obvious. We should all support Croatia in Euro 08.

They are spirited underdogs and likely to fail, so ideal for England fans. I am leading the way by ordering my Croatian strip and 10 trillion cans of cooking lager, to prop up Mr Bean's (I mean, Brown's) fast-failing Government and economy!

At least their mascot is British! (and can sing).

My efforts to read the New Oxford Book of Verse continue apace. I am now on Poem 298 having read through much of the 16th centry since I last blogged about it.

I enjoyed John Donne, Ben Jonson and Robert Herrick among others, but was not so keen on Sir William Davenant, Sir Richard Fanshawe et cetera. Just 650 pages of poetry to go!

I am starting to revise my own humble collection of poetry of 2007 - about 38 or so. I would like to go through them all by year's end, as well as writing at least two or three new ones.

November was a good month for me. As I have previously written, I enjoyed bonfire in Lewes (and some more pictures from that magnificent occasion are sprinkled through this entry).

And in Leamington Spa, I find myself drawn onto the streets - which can be boring or buzzing.

The other Sunday I went to buy some milk and ended up at a student arts magazine gig at the Jug and Jester.

A tremendous band called the Rrrs were playing, with an utterly outrageous girl lead singer called Sharliza R.

I have also been enjoying the Wednesday nights at Kelly's in Leamington (when the bands turn up) - some images from which adorn this journal entry.

My mate Shanade, who has been poorly, put up a particularly spirited performance a few weeks back.

* I am in the Lewes Garret and, suddenly, life does not seems so wonderful.

Journalist Michael Knapp

It is raining cats and dogs outside and rather chilly up here in the rafters. I heard today that my old friend Mike Knapp is dead. My dear friend McJannet called with the terrible news.

I did my first Fleet Street shifts. on the pop desk of the Daily Star, with Mike. He was a tremendously kind and generous man, and a far more talented reporter than I.

I recall him giving me a picture exclusive story he had found to help me through a lean patch, and also fondly remember the lunchtime drinks we would have in the Punch pub on Fleet Street.

When I first knew him in 1988, he was a workabholic, doing a day-shift at the Daily Star followed by a night shift at The Sun.

His girlfriend (and future and then ex-wife Rebecca Hardy, who later rose to be Editor of The Scotsman, would chauffeur him between London and his home in Brighton.

I was never a really close friend but would always have a good chat with Mike when I saw him about.

Once I was drinking with him in the Express Newspapers bar and was astonished to discover, through a convoluted conversaton, that his parents were living in the exact same bungalow in Cumnor, Oxford, that I had grown up in - 15 Hurst Lane - having bought it from the people my parents had sold it to!

I last spoke to Mike about 18 months ago when he called me on a Saturday afternoon from the newsdesk of the Sunday Express.

He was handling a Catholic story and hoped I was still spin-doctoring for the Catholic Church and hoped I could give him a quick comment.

When I explained I had moved on and was currently sunning myself on the sunfront in his town of Brighton, enjoying a beer, we had a lovely chat. He said he wished he was there instead of stuck in a newspaper office.

We promised we would meet for a drink soon, but, of course, we never did.

I guess the smoking and the booze did for him in the end, but, all the same, mid-40s is far too young to go.

So, tonight I raise a glass to Mike Knapp - a fine fellow, sadly departed.

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Friday, November 16, 2007

Happy Mondays

I have had the most amazing three consecutive Monday poetry gigs - all fantastic but almost totally different in their nature.

Three Mondays ago, I played the Reckless Moment comedy club, in the vaults bar at the Robbins Well, Leamington Spa. As I have written before, the Reckless is one of my favourite comedy clubs ever.

It is brilliantly run by two post-graduate film students, my dear friends Tom Hughes (pictured above with an act at the Fringe this Summer) and Pete 'The Meat' Falconer, and has a great atmosphere and beautiful audience. Which is just as well as performing poetry in a comedy club can go down like a string quartet at a heavy metal gig.

I was as nervous as hell, even though I had spent weeks writing material and poems for the gig. I was also surprised to find myself headlining the first half the show, going after proper (and brilliant) comedians such as my old mate Gary Delaney.

In the event I reckon my act went fairly well. Some of my comedy material got laughs (and some bombed), I kept going, despite nerves, and the poems were generally well received.

I kicked off my set with Probably Not, followed by some baldy material about Byron's love life, Loving You and a new (and I guess un-reuseable) poem about Byron's alleged sexual perferences!

I also did Cook and Drive and my comic poem Fat Ambulance, to which the audience joined in admirably.

My new slam poem shocked them a bit, I think, but my gentle send-up of Pete the Meat (pictured in the guise of Prince) - complete with consumption of a Class 1 English carrot - went down well. Overall, I felt it had been a good night and I really enjoyed the rest of the show and the remainder of the evening. And the fabulous comany!

The following Monday, I stayed in Lewes and performed an updated version of my bonfire poem, Advance Southover.

It went very well. I launched into the poem at the Southover War Memorial, after the minute's silence and revalie, at, I reckon, just the right moment. I felt confident, vital - bolstered by a stiff brandy or two. Afterwards, the mainstays of the gloriously reformed Southover Bonfire Society, of which I am sort of Poet Laureate, seemed pleased.

Bonfire in Lewes seemed especially good this year. It was the first year that the Southover Bonfire Society had a firesite. We didn't march but helped out marshalling at the site.

The Grand Parade was also very good and, when we eventually went to see the fireworks, they were awesome. (Images of the night are scattered through this blog).

A quintessential sea of hue and cry. A skyscape of colour. It was not a long display, but it was amazingly memorable. The images do not do it justice. Afterwards, people around us were saying it was the best fireworks display they had ever seen. I would not disagree.

The third consecutive Monday, this last Monday, I was in Oxford for a gig at the Gardeners' pub in Jericho, Hear The Word, a Christian-powered, unplugged, spoken word club celebrating its sixth birthday.

It was another extraordinary night. Cold out, but with great warmth in the long, narrow backroom of the pub.

I was highly flattered to find posters, complete with four little Byrons, being circulated to promote my next gig in Oxford, at the superb Back Room Poets, at Far From the Madding Crowd, on another Monday - 26 November.

The Hear The Word gig seemed very 'Oxford', a catholic mixture of story-telling, folk music, and poetry of many forms. I enjoyed all the acts and the featured poet was particularly special.

It seemed a tad strange standing in the little room with people on every side but I tried my best to turn around to see everyone.

For the first time ever, I performed, Last Day, my first poem which got me started in poetry. I also did another Catholic poem Lose Hill and Botley Cemetery Tennis Club, which is not quite right yet, but went all right.

I really liked Hear The Word. It has a surreal quality about it - such as a Mohican (young female) chef walking into on the poetry to deliver a basket of chips which were duly passed round; its Christian community quality with a large dollop of tolerance and a hectoring Marxist thrown in for good measure.

The evening was absolutely wonderful. I felt so happy afterwards, driving back from the Leckford Road to the Leamington Garret, into the broad, red, ribbed sky with the love-jazz on the wireless.

Mondays are meant to be blue, but these three Mondays on the trot have, for me, been a veritable oasis of happiness.

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Friday, November 02, 2007


Headhunters must be one of the biggest cons going.

Of all the futile, worthless so-called profession, this one must rank right at the top. My experiences of headhunters and other recruitment agencies this year have been so bad, I wonder how they even turn a penny.

For instance, over the Summer, I noticed one big recruitment agency had placed a full-page advertisement in a trade magazine - costing it more than five grand, according to the rate card - to promote a seminar in central London for people who wanted to relocate to the North of England.

I duly booked time off my day-job and caught the train to London, had a glass of tepid white wine and listened to various characters that the agency had presumably hired for the evening, yakking on about how fabulous their Northern companies were, how many great jobs there in the North, how hugely people were paid, how superb the restuarants were et cetera, ad nauseum.

At the end, I introduced myself to the young woman who was heading up the northern office for the recruitment agency, and followed up with emails and phone calls.

It rapidly became apparent that far from there being a flourishing jobs scene up t'north, the agency had very few jobs on its books, and hardly any good ones. I did not particularly mind this. Although clearly the presentation had been misleading, it was not the agency's fault the market was dead.

However, I did object when the Northern Office's manager phoned to suggest I apply through her for two jobs the descriptions of which sounded terribly familiar. I checked that week's Media Guardian and found both posts advertised with lines saying, 'No agencies, please'. I phoned the companies' HR Departments who were furious that the agency girl was falsely giving the impression that they were her clients.

Meanwhile, the agency woman emailed me the job specs, which she had clearly cut and pasted from Guardian Jobs website. I emailed back thanking her and adding: 'Please just confirm that these companies are your clients.'

I have never heard from her since, and could never trust her or that agency again.

Another dirty trick that these so-called selection people do is place huge advertisements in the industry trade magazines, giving the impression they are looking for candidates. Surprisingly, nothing could be further from the case.

Most of the time the jobs are already filled or about to be - if indeed they exist at all - and the recruitment agency could not give two shites about job-seekers.

What is really happening - and this has been confirmed to me by one careless headhunter - is that their dodgy little firms are indulging in what I call reverse marketing. By advertising for job seekers using grand and expensive advertisements, they are trying to create the perception that they are doing well and, through that, attract new clients.

You have to remember they only makes money from employers.

The few clients that really exist tend to be hire-and-fire agencies who can't be arsed to do their own recruiting and actually may not take on anybody anyway most of the time.

Amazingly, there are still large numbers of headhunters and recruitment agencies chasing a small number of briefs and treating job-seekers atrociously.

I had an inkling of this some time ago when I got chatting to a young headhunter on the train and was stunned by how utterly indiscreet she was about clients and candidates alike.

But what has really angered me about headhunters was what happened last Friday, when I was invited into a Westminster headhunter's offices, after being referred to them by an old friend.

I was shown into a large and very grand room with a small glass table in the centre and an antique grandfather clock ticking away, indicating, strangely, the state of the tides in Bristol.

Presently, a very large, youngish woman entered and sat down next to me and placed my CV in front of her.

She said I had been referred to them by my old friend and asked how I knew him. I told her. Then she proceeded to ask if I had experience as a political lobbyist or political journalist.

It was obvious from my CV that I had not, but I duly explained the limited experience I had had of these fields (such as interviewing Gordon Brown, Iain Duncan Smith, The Speaker etc.) while saying that most of experience was in other areas of journalism.

To my dismay, the headhunter started to have a go at me, saying I was completely unsuited to what they did and she was only seeing me because I was a friend of a client.

'Well, this has been a complete waste of my time and yours,' I said presently, but she continued to pour scorn on my career thusfar, until I just upped and left, walking into chill Westminster evening feeling abused and crushed.

What is wrong with these people? Having read my CV, why did she even invite me in? And how can she hold down a job in a people-business while displaying such a total lack of tack and diplomacy?

That night I was so upset and furious about what had happened, I could not sleep. I ended up sitting in the kitchen of the Lewes Garret and writing a poem called The Headhunter.

The next day I decided to stop dealing with recruitment agencies. The whole industry seems morally bankrupt to me and desperately needs regulation.

My friend The Poet Laura-eate had some apposite thoughts on the headhunting industry.

She described them as a 'parasitical lifeform of the lowest order' and adds: 'It is a scientifically established fact that cannibalism addles the brains, so . . . our British missionaries might also need to be alerted to these soulless heathens who lurk in our midst ready to asset-strip the unwary.'

The Laura-eate also suggests headhunters only behave in this way because they are jealous of people more creative and interesting that they are.

What would Byron have made of headhunters? He would have been shocked they even exist.

For thing is for sure, the headhunters won't be getting my scalp.

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