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Event | New River Press vs The London Magazine at Burley Fisher Books


We are pleased to announce that on Thursday 4th October, to celebrate National Poetry Day, The London Magazine will be collaborating on an evening of poetry and spoken word with the poetry publishers New River Press at the bookshop Burley Fisher Books in East London.

The poetry publisher New River Press was founded in 2016 by artist Robert Montgomery and poet Greta Bellamacina. They publish poetry that is visual, surreal, and rebellious. Tom Stoppard has described their work as “endlessly rewarding” and Autre magazine has said the press is “one of the UK’s edgiest and most exciting poetry imprints.” 

The night will feature a mix of New River and London Magazine poets, and we will be selling copies of our new October/November edition on the night, featuring work from the poets Fiona Sampson and Ben Aleshire, along with essays on the artists Odilon Redon and Katsushika Hokusai.

So far announced to read are the poets Vala Thorodds, Chris McCabe, Ana Seferović, Zia Ahmed, Niall McDevitt, Suzi Feay and Sophie Naufal, but we are expecting some last minute special guests that we’re very excited about.

The event is absolutely FREE, starts at 19:00, and finishes at 21:30. What better way to celebrate National Poetry Day?

See you there!

Burley Fisher Books can be found at 400 Kingsland Rd, London E8 4AA.

For more on the event, go here.

To discover more content exclusive to our print and app editions, subscribe to The London Magazine today from just £17.


Archive | Poetry | Peter Bland


Peter Bland, the New Zealand writer and actor, has written extensively over his long career, and has been lauded with many accolades, among them the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in 2011. He wrote two poems for The London Magazine in 1978, here transcribed in full from our archive for the first time.

First published in the February 1978 edition of The London Magazine (Vol. 17, No. 8)


I’m tired of living in old houses
with their sense of left-over lives.
I’m allergic to their dust. The stuff
suffocates me, gets in my eyes,
drifts through the open pores
of my skin. ‘It’s been
well lived in,’ 
the man said. At that

we should have turned away. Instead
we’re choking… on what?…
of what must have happened here
a thousand times before? We cough
up our own dust with this older muck. It
bloats the vacuum bag and brings us wheezing
down to our married knees. All this
from simple day to day living
ground down finer than air. Time
to be moving on. I want
what’s left of our lives to have
a planetary feel; an earth-
sway where dust won’t settle;
an undertow to every passing sneeze.



You stumble on them looking for the gents
in Stately Homes or old hotels
and it’s always the same tired faces
that look up, mildly surprised
to see you again. Only
the decor changes – an Edwardian
railway carriage, a Ruritanian lodge,
or a long Ops Room from the last war
still smelling of cigars and TNT. It’s
best to get out quick before
the gathering crowds of plainclothes men
identify themselves. (Later, at home,
the phone will ring. Refuse all calls.)
What’s worrying is when, after many years,
your own rooms begin to look like these.


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Archive | Why I Write — Joan Didion


First published in the June/July 1977 of The London Magazine (Vol. 17, No. 2) 

Of course I stole the title from George Orwell. One reason I stole it was that I like the sound of the words: Why I Write. There you have three short unambiguous words that share a sound, and the sound they share is this:
In many ways writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. It’s an aggressive, even a hostile act. You can disguise its aggressiveness all you want with veils of subordinate clauses and qualifiers and tentative subjunctives, with ellipses and evasions – with the whole manner of intimating rather than claiming, of alluding rather than stating – but there’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.

I stole the title not only because the words sounded right but because they seemed to sum up, in a no-nonsense way, all I have to tell you. Like many writers I have only this one ‘subject’, this one ‘area’: the act of writing. I can bring you no reports from any other front. I may have other interests: I am ‘interested’, for example, in marine biology, but I don’t flatter myself that you would want to read me on it. I am not a scholar. I am not in the least an intellectual, which is not to say that when I hear the word ‘intellectual’ I reach for my gun, but only to say that I do not think in abstracts. During the years when I was an undergraduate at Berkeley I tried, with a kind of hopeless late-adolescent energy, to buy some temporary visa into the world of ideas, to forge for myself a mind that could deal with the abstract.

In short I tried to think. I failed. My attention veered inexorably back to the specific, to the tangible, to what was generally considered, by everyone I knew then and for that matter have known since, the peripheral. I would try to contemplate the Hegelian dialect and would find myself concentrating instead on a flowering pear tree outside my window and the particular way the petals fell on my floor. I would try to read linguistic theory and would find myself wondering instead if the lights were on in the bevatron you might immediately suspect, if you deal in ideas at all, that I was registering the bevatron as a political symbol, thinking in shorthand about the military-industrial complex and its role in the university community, but you would be wrong. I was only wondering if the lights were on in the bevatron, and how they looked. A physical fact.

I had trouble graduating from Berkeley, not because of this inability to deal with ideas – I was majoring in English, and I could locate the house-and-garden imagery in ‘The Portrait of a Lady’ as well as the next person, ‘imagery’ being by definition the kind of specific that got my attention – but simply because I had neglected to take a course in Milton. For reasons which now sound baroque I needed a degree by the end of that summer, and the English department finally agreed, if I would come down from Sacramento every Friday and talk about the cosmology of ‘Paradise Lost’, to certify me proficient in Milton. I did this. Some Fridays I took the Greyhound bus, other Fridays I caught the Southern Pacific’s City of San Francisco on the last leg on its transcontinental trip. I can no longer tell you whether Milton put the sun or the earth at the center of his universe in ‘Paradise Lost’, the central question of at least one century and a topic about which I wrote 10,000 words that summer, but I can still recall the exact rancidity of the butter in the City of San Francisco’s dining car, and the way the tinted windows on the Greyhound bus cast the oil refineries around Carquinez Straits into a greyed and obscurely sinister light. In short my attention was always on the periphery, on what I could see and taste and touch, on the butter, and the Greyhound bus. During those years I was travelling on what I knew to be a very shaky passport, forged papers: I knew that I was no legitimate resident in any world of ideas. I knew I couldn’t think. All I knew then was what I couldn’t do. All I knew then was what I wasn’t and it took me some years to discover what I was.

Which was a writer.

By which I mean not a ‘good’ writer or a ‘bad’ writer but simply a writer, a person whose most absorbed and passionate hours are spent arranging words on pieces of paper. Had my credentials been in order I would never have become a writer. Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write. I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear. Why did the oil refineries around Carquinez Straits seem sinister to me in the summer of 1956? Why have the night lights in the bevatron burned in my mind for twenty years? What is going on in these pictures in my mind?

When I talk about pictures in my mind I am talking, quite specifically, about images that shimmer around the edges. There used to be an illustration in every elemental psychology book showing a car drawn by a patient in varying stages of schizophrenia. This cat had a shimmer around it. You could see the molecular structure breaking down at the very edges of the cat: the cat became the background and the background the cat, everything interacting, exchanging ions. People on hallucinogens describe the same perception of objects. I’m not a schizophrenic, nor do I take hallucinogens, but certain images do shimmer for me. Look hard enough, and you can’t miss the shimmer. It’s there. You can’t just think too much about these pictures that shimmer. You just lie low and let them develop. You stay quiet. You don’t take to many people and you keep your nervous system from shorting out and you try to locate the cat in the shimmer, the grammar in the picture.
Just as I meant ‘shimmer’ literally I mean ‘grammar’ literally. Grammar is a piano I play by ear, since I seem to have been out of school the year the rules were mentioned. All I know about grammar is its infinite power. To shift the structure of a sentence alters the meaning of that sentence, as definitely and inflexibly as the position of a camera alters the meaning of the object photographed. Many people know about camera angles now, but not so many know about sentences. The arrangement of the words matters, and the arrangement you want can be found in the picture in your mind. The picture dictates whether this will be a sentence with or without clauses, a sentence that ends hard or a dying-fall sentence, long or short, active or passive. The picture tells you how to arrange the words and the arrangement of the words tells you, or tells me, what’s going on in the picture. Nota bene:
It tells you.
You don’t tell it.

Let me show you what I mean by pictures in the mind. I began ‘Play It as It Lays’ just as I have begun each of my novels, with no notion of ‘character’ or ‘plot’ or even ‘incident’, I had only two pictures in my mind, more about which later, and a technical intention, which was to write a novel so elliptical and fast that it would be over before you noticed it, a novel so fast that it would scarcely exist on the page at all. About the pictures: the first was of white space. Empty space. This was clearly the picture that dictated the narrative intention of the book – a ‘white’ book to which the reader would have to bring his or her own bad dreams – and yet this picture told no ‘story’, suggested no situation. The second picture did. This second picture was of something actually witnessed. A young woman with long hair and a short white halter dress walks through the casino at the Riviera in Las Vegas at one in the morning. She crosses the casino alone and picks up a house telephone. I watch her because I have heard her paged, and recognise her name: she is a minor actress I see around Los Angeles from time to time, in places like Jax and once in a gynecologist’s office in the Beverly Hills Clinic, but have never met. I know nothing about her. Who is paging her? Why is she here to be paged? How exactly did she come to this? It was precisely this moment in Las Vegas that made ‘Play It as It Lays’ begin to tell itself to me, but the moment appears in the novel only obliquely, in a chapter which begins:
‘Maria made a list of things she would never do. She would never: walk through the Sands or Caesar’s alone after midnight. She would never: ball at a party, do S-M unless she wanted to, borrow furs from Abe Lipsey, deal. She would never: carry a Yorkshire in Beverly Hills’.

That is the beginning of the chapter and that is also the end of the chapter, which may suggest what I meant by ‘white space’.

I recall having a number of pictures in my mind when I began the novel I just finished. ‘A Book of Common Prayer’. As a matter of fact one of these pictures was of that bevatron I mentioned, although I would be hard put to tell you a story in which nuclear energy figured. Another was a newspaper photograph of a hijacked 707 burning on the desert in the Middle East. Another was the night view from a room in which I once spent a week with para-typhoid, a hotel room on the Colombian coast. My husband and I seemed to be on the Colombian coast representing the United States of America at a film festival (I recall invoking the name ‘Jack Valenti’ a lot, as if its reiteration could make me well), and it was a bad place to have fever, not only because my indisposition offended our hosts but because every night in this hotel the generator failed. The lights went out. The elevator stopped. My husband would go to the event of the evening and make excuses for me and I would stay alone in this hotel room, in the dark. I remember standing at the window trying to call Bogota (the telephone seemed to work on the same principle as the generator) and watching the night wind come up and wondering what I was doing eleven degrees off the equator with a fever of 103. The view from that window definitely figures in ‘A Book of Common Prayer’, as does the burning 707, and yet none of these pictures told me the story I needed.

The picture that did, the picture that shimmered and made these other images coalesce, was the Panama airport at 6 a.m. I was in this airport only once, on a plane to Bogota that stopped for an hour to re-fuel, but they way it looked that morning remained superimposed on everything I saw until the day I finished ‘A Book of Common Prayer’. I lived in that airport for several years. I can still feel the hot air when I step off the plane, can see the heat already rising off the tarmac at 6 a.m. I feel my skirt damp and wrinkled on my legs. I can feel the asphalt stick to my sandals. I remember the big tail of a Pan American plane floating motionless down at the end of the tarmac. I remember the sound of a slot machine in the waiting room. I could tell you that I remember a particular woman in the airport, an American woman, a norteamericana, a thin norteamericana about 40 who wore a big square emerald in lieu of a wedding ring, but there was no such woman there.

I put this woman in the airport later. I made this woman up, just as I later made up a country to put the airport in, and a family to run the country. This woman in the airport is neither catching a plane nor meeting one. She is ordering tea in the airport coffee shop. In fact she is nor simply ‘ordering’ tea but insisting that the water be boiled, in front of her, for twenty minutes. Why is this woman in this airport? Why is she going nowhere, where has she been? Where did she get that big emerald? What derangement, or disassociation, makes her believe that her will to see the water boiled can possibly prevail?

‘She had been going to one airport or another for four months, one could see it, looking at the visas on her passport. All those airports where Charlotte Douglas’s passport had been stamped would have looked alike. Sometimes the sign on the tower would say ‘Bienvenidos’ and sometimes the sign on the tower would say ‘Bienvenue’, some places were wet and hot and others dry and hot, but at each of these airports the pastel concrete walls would rust and stain and the swamp off the runway would be littered with the fuselages of cannibalised Fairchild F-227’s and the water would need boiling.
‘I knew why Charlotte went to the airport even if Victor did not.’
‘I knew about airports.’

These lines appear about halfway through ‘A Book of Common Prayer’, but I wrote them during the second week I worked on the book, long before I had any idea where Charlotte Douglas had been or why she went to airports. Until I wrote these lines I had no character called ‘Victor’ in mind: the necessity for mentioning a name, and the name ‘Victor’ occurred to me as I wrote the sentence. I knew why Charlotte went to the airport sounded incomplete. I knew why Charlotte went to the airport even if Victor did not carried a little more narrative drive. Most important of all, until I wrote these lines I did not know who ‘I’ was, who was telling the story. I had intended until that moment that the ‘I’ be no more than the voice of the author, a nineteenth-century omniscient narrator. But there it was:
‘I knew why Charlotte went to the airport even if Victor did not.’
‘I knew about airports.’

This ‘I’ was the voice of no author in my house. This ‘I’ was someone who not only knew why Charlotte went to the airport but also knew someone called ‘Victor’. Who was Victor? Who was this narrator? Why was this narrator telling me this story? Let me tell you one thing about why writers write: had I known the answer to any of these questions I would never have needed to write a novel.



Fiction | Just for Five Minutes by Alla Melenteva


It was an early May day. The war was considered over, though it had not yet been officially declared. A Russian junior lieutenant went through the streets of the destroyed Berlin. He didn’t know the city and had to catch solitary passers-by and inquire the way several times. The passers-by tend to try to run away the moment they saw him, because Berliners were afraid of the Russians. They were so afraid that it took them a while to realise what he wanted. Yet, when they found out that he had no wish to kill or rob them, they brightened at once and readily told him which direction to go.

The name of the junior lieutenant was Yevgeny; he was twenty two years old. He looked very young – like a teenager in uniform – but he felt confident, just as all Russians in Berlin at that time. He made haste. He had precious little time for doing whatever he was planning to do. He was in such a hurry that the risk of getting shot by someone from a hiding place didn’t bother him as much as it should.

He gave a sigh of relief when he came into the street he sought. That area had been less affected by bombing and artillery fire; there were fewer damages, less debris.

So there is a good chance that the house is intact. If the house is intact, then, technically, the apartment is intact too. If the apartment is intact, those who lived there probably had a decent chance of survival,” Yevgeny reflected. “Only if he had not moved since before the start of the war, though. It’s been a long time – that must be considered too.”

He had to walk down the entire length of the street to figure out house numbers. The house he sought was nowhere to be found. Passers-by shook their heads when he showed them a small, lined slip of notebook paper on which the address was written, and asked in a mixture of Russian and German if they knew where Alexander Braun, an ophthalmologist, lived.

There was not enough time left to continue the search. He almost lost heart and wondered if he would return without achieving his goal for which he had gone there, when he met a boy who pushed a heavily loaded old bicycle through mounds of dirt and debris. After glancing at the address the young Berliner suddenly nodded his head in recognition and undertook to show the way for five cigarettes.

“If this is the case, it means he hasn’t moved out in twenty years. I’m lucky, I’m darn lucky,” Yevgeny thought.

The youth accompanied him as far as the front door of a quite intact apartment house. Yevgeny gave him the promised cigarettes and said – in awful German –

“Stop smoking. Smoking is bad for your health.”

The young Berliner grunted something incomprehensible and shuffled away through the rubble with his bike.

Yevgeny looked at his watch. It was eleven thirty now.

Just ten more minutes – and that’s the end of it. If I could find him in ten minutes it would be a miracle.”

He ran up the steps and began checking apartments in search of Doctor Braun. The boy with the bicycle had pointed at a window on the second floor, but no one came to answer the door of the indicated apartment, and he didn’t see the name Braun on the doorplate. He thought that the miracle wasn’t going to happen and the boy had lied to him, yet he decided, for all that, to try his luck for the last time. He knocked on all doors and yelled with all his might: “Alexander Braun! I’m looking for Dr. Alexander Braun!”

Scared people began peeping out of the doors that seemed never to open. The most audacious of them ventured to step into the stairwell, looked at him curiously, glances interchanged.

Alexander Braun was found surprisingly quickly. A door upstairs opened, Yevgeny heard a man’s loud voice saying in German: “I’m Dr. Alexander Braun. What do you want from me?”

Yevgeny dashed up the stairs and stopped before the doctor – a tall, slightly stooped, carelessly shaven man in his fifties.

Dr. Braun, is that you?” he repeated in Russian and gazed at the man persistently.

“What do you want from me?” the doctor said nervously.

I am Yevgeny. Yevgeny Antipov. My stepfather’s family name is Antipov. My mother’s name is Ksenia, her maiden name is Ledovski. I –”

“Yevgeny? Zhenya?” Braun murmured in Russian, “Are you really Zhenya?”

Yevgeny glanced around. The neighbors were watching intensely.

I’ve got about five minutes. Can we talk in your apartment? This isn’t a conversation meant to be heard by strangers.”

“Yes!” the doctor said, harsh, embarrassed, catching himself, “Yes, yes, you are right, please, come in!”

He moved slightly to one side to let his visitor pass in front of him. A tense woman of middle years stood in the hall’s shadows. Startled, she backed away a step and asked the doctor in German what that Russian wanted. Braun responded with a few brief sentences, also in German, of which Yevgeny could only decipher that the woman’s name was Martha and Braun called him his son from Russia.

All three of them came into the big living room and stood there, the men opposite one another, the woman regarding them a little way off. They all were equally confused. The doctor scratched his unshaven cheek in bewilderment, shook his head and began to fuss about.

“Please, sit down… er, Yevgeny… What an unexpected meeting – especially at such hard times! If you wait Martha and I will try to treat you to something. A patient paid me with six eggs yesterday.”

No,” Yevgeny said resolutely, “In five minutes I’m out of here. Our battalion is being moved from Berlin. Besides, I’m not hungry. We’re well fed. I brought you this.”

He swung his canvas bag off his shoulder and took out several tins of canned beef. The woman by the door gasped. Yevgeny glanced at her and was struck by her gleaming hungry eyes.

Wait! Five minutes? How can that be?” Braun ignored the cans. “What’s the rush? Eat with us and tell us all about you family. You mustn’t leave so quickly.”

“No time left. I spent the whole morning looking for your house.” Yevgeny said. “If I’m not back soon they’ll call me a deserter.”

“That is impossible, impossible…” Braun said helplessly.

The woman by the door tried to speak – Braun resented her efforts, quite forgetting that he should shift into German, “Martha, please, don’t interfere with me.”

“She is your wife?” Yevgeny asked.

“She’s my friend’s widow. But we’ve been living together for a long time” the doctor said a bit guiltily. “I hope you understand me. It just turned out this way, you know. Please, don’t think I’ve been unfaithful to your mother.”

“I understand,” Yevgeny nodded. “Mom also married when it was clear that you wouldn’t return from abroad.”

“How is she? How have you all been living?” the doctor asked ardently, jumping at the chance to establish at least an illusion of the shared past with this Russian junior lieutenant of whom he knew nothing.

“Mom’s all right. She lives with my sister in Murmansk now. We relocated for dad’s work,” Yevgeny said.

“Dad?” Braun repeated softly.

I regard him as a father. He brought up my sister and me. He still believes I don’t know about you. Mom destroyed all documents, pictures. I knew nothing until I was fifteen. I wouldn’t have known if I hadn’t discovered a letter of yours. You had already written from Germany – you had written that you had been missing mom, my sister and me and looking forward for the time when we would come to Berlin. Mom kept that letter for some reason.”

“You all still could have moved abroad then! At that time, the Bolsheviks hadn’t yet closed borders!” the doctor exclaimed, “I did hope that Ksenia and you would be released from Russia. I hoped to the end.”

You had said in that letter: ‘I have a great wish to see my little son. I suppose, Zhenya is already talking properly.’ When I read this I compared some facts and guessed what it was about. Mom denied all at first, but then confirmed that my sister and I had another father, and he’s a German. It was a shock.”

“Don’t you remember anything about me?”

Yevgeny shrugged.

“Sometimes I think I do. My memories are not very vivid. Sometimes I could recall a big man holding me high in the air, having me laugh. But maybe I confused you with dad.”

“It was me. We often played like that,” Braun said with a rueful smile.

“My sister remembers you better. But mom convinced her that you were her uncle who had gone to the Far East and had died there. She still knows nothing about you.”

“Yes, well, Ksenia certainly did the right thing being silent on this point. One had better not say anything about a relative abroad. It’s for your own good,” Braun frowned judiciously and, after a pause, added out of place, “But it hurts to think about it.”

“Mom burned the letter, but I could remember the address. I didn’t speak to anyone about my other father afterwards. When the war started I didn’t know yet if I wanted to see you. But when I ended up here, I thought I shouldn’t miss the chance if I could get it.” Yevgeny broke off, fumbling for words, “I am very glad to have found you.”

Braun started to say something, but had to control the spasm in his throat.

Yevgeny glanced at his watch. “Well, I must be going now.”

“No!” Braun exclaimed hotly, “Zhenya, please, don’t leave me yet! A few more minutes!”

“I can’t,” said Yevgeny firmly, “They’ll consider it desertion.”

“You will be back soon? When will you come back?” Braun asked hopefully.

“I don’t think I ever will.” was Yevgeny’s short answer.

He held out his hand to his father.

Braun made an awkward attempt to hug him, “Leave your address.”

“No,” Yevgeny said. “You shouldn’t write to us.”

“I won’t! I promise – I’ll never write to anyone of you!” His father cried eagerly, “I just want to keep something as a connection to you.”

After some hesitation Yevgeny said, “Give me paper and a pencil.”

The doctor bustled about even more in excitement, searching for a pencil and paper. He brought a prescription form on the back of which Yevgeny scribbled his Murmansk address.

“Never write to this address,” he warned sternly again as he handed the form to Braun.

“No no,” Braun assured him.

Yevgeny nodded, squeezed his hand and went to the door.

Martha, who was still watching them, stepped aside for him again.

But before leaving the room he turned back, “Maybe we’ll see each other again sometime in the future. We’ll have a meal together and talk things over thoroughly. We’ll learn all about each other, just like a real family.”

He went quickly out.

Braun sank down on the chair, the piece of paper clutched in his hand. There were tears streaming down his face. His eyes fell on the cans which stood on the table beside him and, in a rush of uncontrollable emotions, he brushed them to the floor.

Martha came and began to pick up the cans. One of them rolled under the table and the woman had to scramble for it on her hands and knees.

“See, Martha, how cruel our world is,” Braun said to her, “Going with the army through Europe to Berlin is the only chance for the son to meet his own father. How stern are realities of life! How dark are our times!”

Martha pulled the can from under the table and got up. She stared at the doctor silently, groping for words of comfort. The hardships of the war years have dulled her on the surface – deep down she still was a person of tact and kindness, capable of empathy.

“Maybe you’ll meet again one day,” she said at last, using almost the same words which Yevgeny had said a few minutes ago.

Interview | Ben Aleshire

Photo: Jordi Goya

Ben Aleshire makes his living as a travelling poet, writing poems on his typewriter for whatever his readers can spare as a donation, a venture which has seen him travel all over Europe and America, and with his most recent tour taking in a performance at London’s legendary venue The Troubadour, and a stay at Shakespeare & Company bookshop in Paris. When he is not on tour, he does the same in the city of New Orleans, where he lives between increasingly frequent bouts of nomadism.

His work has been featured in publications such as The Boston Review, El Mundo (Spain) and The Times (UK), who recently broke with 233 years of history by publishing one of his poems as a lead article. He is Assistant Editor for the Green Mountains Review, is a co-founder of the letterpress publishing collective Honeybee Press, and we were very excited to get to speak to him for The London Magazine.

A question most writers are asked is “What led you to writing?”, and while I am also interested in hearing about that – I have a sneaking suspicion that you have something of a multi-discipline background – I must ask how you found your form as a travelling troubadour poet? (note: perhaps here you could describe the process a little for a reader who knows nothing about you


         I sit in the street with a small folding table and chair and a sign that says POET FOR HIRE—then I smoke a cigarette and wait for some stranger to approach me with a poetic desire they need fulfilled. Maybe their girlfriend broke up with them, and they want a poem that will be an apologia to make them reconsider. Maybe they were raped last night, and want me to tell them why. Maybe it’s their friend’s birthday, and her favourite word is petrichor, the smell of the earth after it rains. Whatever it is, I write a poem about that subject, and then they come back in 10 minutes or so, and read it, and pay me whatever they think it’s worth. In that sense, it’s a quasi-Marxist system—rich bankers have given me hundred pound notes, and homeless people give me nothing but good karma, which I desperately need—it all works out in the end.


How did I start doing this? My story is that I’ve been writing poetry on a typewriter since I was a teenager, but it wasn’t till about 7 years ago, when I met Robert McKay, that I started taking it into the street to write poems for strangers and make my living that way. Robert is my miglior fabbro, the better craftsman—the original being Arnaut Daniel, the rakish troubadour who Dante immortalizes in the Divine Comedy, which is where T.S. Eliot gets his dedication for Pound, etc. A purer heart than I, Robert wasn’t trying to make money from it—he saw it as just another linguistic experiment, like Burrough’s cut-ups or Dadaist games, etc. Maybe because I had already been making part of my living from busking as a musician, I put 2 and 2 together very quickly and got a booth at the Farmers’ Market in Burlington, Vermont, where I was based at the time. So there’d be stalls of vegetables, cheese, flowers, and then poetry. People loved it—the newspaper did a feature on me, I published a book of the poems, Currency, in conjunction with an art residency, quit my weird night-watchman job, re-potted myself to New Orleans, and started touring.


            Where did Robert get the idea? Probably from someone in the Bay Area scene like Zach Houston, or someone in New Orleans, which were the epicenters at the time. There was a guy in the 80’s in NYC who published a novel about working this way, Dan Hurley—but a literary scholar in New Orleans tells me she saw people doing it down here even before that. Ultimately I’m not sure if there’s a way to trace it back to—especially since putting a typewriter in the street has been a profession ever since typewriters were invented. I’ve seen people in Guatemala who are still doing it, typing up official documents and letters.



I have come across quite a few ‘Poet for Hire’ style writers on the street with typewriters in various cities across Europe, but a lot of them sadly aren’t very good. How do you keep up your inspiration and discipline? And do you ever feel a rivalry with other writers who try to do a similar thing?


Yes, I agree—the charlatans are multiplying like flies, probably due to the hyper-fast mimesis of the internet, particularly Instagram. There are a few noble souls out there writing excellent poems (Tania Panés and Gennarose Nethercott are my favorites) but most are trafficking a cringingly hideous stew of cliché and gibberish. In New Orleans there are so many cheap xeroxes churning out treacly pet poetry for tourists that it’s become difficult to find a place to literally sit down, and some of them are real pricks—I actually had to smash someone’s typewriter once.


            It’s gotten so bad in New Orleans that by now, I’m already moving on—my novel is what I’m focusing on. The phenomenon of all these douchenozzles clogging the streets with their doggerel is actually fascinating as far as the research I’m doing on the troubadours is concerned—because the original troubadours faced a similar problem. Guiraut Riquier, the so-called “Last Troubadour”, wrote these fantastic letters to courts, lamenting their inability to distinguish any longer between troubadours (poets fiercely dedicated to their craft) and jongleurs (jugglers, literally—but a catch-all term for entertainers, who watered down the tradition and ultimately destroyed it).


Most contemporary jongleurs just want beer-money, but on the other end of the spectrum, there are equally ill-intentioned people with grander vision, trying to commercialize typewriter-poetry, mostly for wealthy weddings or corporate events. I do take private gigs now and then, but ultimately, I think it’s a slippery slope that changes the fundamental structure of the art-form, from something that’s radically egalitarian, to something that’s a privilege of the very rich. J’accuse! Je refuse. Simultaneously, the commercial business thing is about transforming one’s poet-self to conform to a standard bourgeoise fantasy—i.e. if you do twelve corporate gigs a month, you can afford a nicer apartment in a nicer part of a town, a nicer car in order to drive to more gigs, etc—and suddenly the idea of writing poems for strangers mystically in the street becomes a threat to your living situation, you know? I’d rather be going bald from constant financial panic, but be writing the poems I want to write, which is pretty much where I’m at right now.




You travel all across the world with your work, often staying with people you barely know. What are some of the memorable and strangest moments from the last few years?


            Living at Shakespeare and Company in Paris fits both strange and memorable—and to that I would add, magical—which puts me in danger of being considered corny, but hear me out. I think there’s actual magic ingrained in the 500-year-old bones of the building, in the shards of the tombstones stolen from the Pere Lachaise cemetery which the floors are paved with. So much of my life in the past couple years stems from the summer of 2016, when I stayed at the bookstore for several months as a Tumbleweed—that is, as one of the transient writers who roost among the stacks of books in exchange for working a few hours a day, and slaking wine and reading books at the same table where Burroughs wrote The Naked Lunch. Writing poems on a typewriter in front of the shop everyday rejuvenated my poetry practice, because so many of the passersby there are such fascinating pilgrims, of a sort, paying homage to the literary history of the building, which spans from the Lost Generation through the Beats to today’s living history of visiting writers like Zadie Smith. Fascinating pilgrims usually come bearing fascinating poetic desires, which is key to my emotional homeostasis—writing the same anniversary poems for the same bourgeois tourists in every city I come to makes me want to bash my brains in.


            Also, the people I met in Paris have had an inordinate effect on my life—I met Terry Craven there, a former bookseller who started a new bookshop in Madrid, Desperate Literature, where I stayed the following year—that’s where I met a journalist who featured me in El Mundo, and later on Spanish television as well. When the Prostíbulo Poético (PoetryBrothel) of Barcelona was in town and one of their poets fell ill before the show, naturally it was Desperate Literature who they called looking for a replacement poet—that’s why I was stripped down and covered in silks and amulets and a lace choker and became El Trovador, (the Troubadour), my stage nom-de-guerre—I’m already making plans to go back to Barcelona to perform with them again—who knows?


            It just goes on and on. The poem I wrote for the owner, Sylvia Whitman, was recently published in the Iowa Review, one of the more prestigious American literary magazines, which is opening doors for me, especially as someone without an academic background (I still don’t have a degree, and no one in my family does either). The poem I wrote for one of the booksellers there, Rose, is the one the Times chose to break with 233 years of history and publish as a lead article for the first time. Which, I assume, is partly why I’m being asked for this very interview, and also the reason why I was invited to come back to the U.K. next summer to perform at a festival in Wales. And half the reason the Times journalist contacted me in the first place is because she, too, lived as a Tumbleweed in that literal monastery of books. I met Scarlett Sabet there, who I read with at the Troubadour itself, the legendary venue in Earl’s Court, where I’m hoping to return next summer as a poet-in-residence—the ripples just keep moving outwards, and that’s what I mean when I say the place is magic.


And what about the more difficult moments? I imagine it isn’t always glamorous.


            Difficult moments—my recent U.K. tour was certainly the most difficult so far, mostly for financial reasons that are no one’s fault but my own. I had bought a ’93 Capri convertible in Slidell for $1600 and a case of beer (a case of beer being a standard currency in Louisiana), to tour up the East coast of the U.S. in, while filming a documentary with a mysterious Chilean filmmaker named Jordi Goya, another Shakespeare & Co connection (don’t google him, by the way, he’s an internet ghost). By the time we got to New York the thing was smoking, and I had to spend all the money I had to repair it. I make money in the street as I go along, of course, but usually I have more than a single-digit bank account while I do it. By the time I got to Manchester, I was flat broke. I had some contacts there but none of them could find me a place to stay, and I almost ended up sleeping in the street. I was working in Piccadilly Gardens among all the zombie Spice addicts and every day I’d make about 20 quid, just enough to eat a 6” Sub of the Day at Subway, and a bed in an unsavoury but very cheap hostel nearby. 


            The life I lead is romantic, for sure—but there’s always this other side to the coin. Mainly the constant fear of the fear of being asked to leave where you’re staying. Hitch-hiking through the Lake District in a neon-pink woman’s blazer is romantic, but there was also the time I got dropped off outside Wigton where there was nowhere for anyone to pull over, so I had to walk for miles carrying my table and chair and backpack of filthy clothes and typewriter, my books getting heavier and heavier, a literal box of my own vanity, as cars scream by, their drivers hurling curses at me.

Photo by Jordi Goya


Do you spend much time writing when not on the street with your typewriter? If so, how does the writing differ? Are you working on any non-poetic writings for example?


Yes—I’m 70,000 words into an autobiographical novel, ‘Poet for Hire: Kismet of a 21st Century Troubadour’. That’s my main project, especially now that I’m home from tour. Writing prose is so difficult—such different muscles—and so much more demanding than poetry. A novel is physically enormous, but mostly what I mean is that poets aren’t burdened (sadly, I so often think!) by the obligation to make any sense. At all. Look at Ashbery! The most universally-lauded poet ever, and none of it makes one goddamn lick of sense.


I’ve also written plays occasionally, although I haven’t had one produced since I won a playwriting contest years ago, and haven’t really tried—I think it’s one of those things where the theatre world is so small, the only way I can get something produced is if I happen to meet the right people at the right time, or if the other aspects of my career go well enough that they start attracting interest (bites bottom lip, swirls whiskey provocatively).


When not on tour, you normally live and work in New Orleans. Can you tell me about how you first came to New Orleans, and what inspires you about the city?


I first came to New Orleans in 2007 for a gig at the Dragon’s Den, while touring with my old band. It took me till Twelfth Night, 2013, to come back—I was living in the dressing room of a puppet theater, and had to push my mattress up against the wall whenever they had shows. My only plan was to write, but then all these bizarre things started happening to me—I was suddenly asked to write the score for a show at the Marigny Opera House, a venue created in an old cathedral that still had vines growing on the inside—a neo-Beatnik guy hired me to digitally archive a bunch of never-before-seen poems and letters by Kerouac, Ginsberg, DiPrima, Corso—he had found a treasure trove of submissions to an early 1950’s magazine in New Orleans that went bust before all their submitters got famous. And I fell in love a few times, joined a hallucinatory marching band, bartended at a high-volume club—the city just sucked me right in. I didn’t have any plans to stay, but did—I went back north for a book tour that summer, bought a ’83 jalopy that ran off fry-grease just like my band’s bus, stuffed my few possessions inside, and drove back down.

            There’s a lot more I could say, but it’s all in the book I’m working on—



Can you tell me about the Honeybee Press?


Honeybee Press is a traditional book arts cooperative based in Burlington, VT—that is, it’s a group of poets who got together to use letterpress, block printing, papermaking and hand-binding, both to keep those traditional methods alive and also to make small press publishing financially viable. By that I mean, if you do all the printing yourself, while drinking beer and listening to Bonnie Raitt records in a moldy art studio, then you can price the books low enough so that people will actually buy them. We also hosted some raucous readings and ran a magazine, The Salon. A few of our titles got excellent reviews, and their authors have gone on to do some really fascinating stuff—Gennarose Nethercott, another typewriter poet from Vermont, recently won the National Poetry Series, one of the bigger prizes in the U.S.—Estefania Puerta went to Yale for graduate school and is making some fascinating visual art as well as writing—Julia Shipley won a book prize, and I think Nicholas Spengler’s non-fiction book on Melville will be published soon. Robert McKay is at work on a Seattle-noir novel when he’s not fighting Capitalism.


            These days the press is in a bit of a holding pattern—our Vandercook (that’s the giant machine the covers are printed on) had to be relocated, and I spend less time in VT than I’d like to. I still dream of expanding the press to New Orleans, and establishing a north-south poetic trade-route, but it will require slightly more resources and time than I have at the moment.


Finally, who or what is inspiring you at the moment?


The Futilitarians, by Anne Gisleson—it’s a non-fiction book about the Existential Crisis Reading Group, a hard-drinking batch of New Orleanians who use readings of philosophy as a method of processing grief. Also, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, by Alexander Chee—which is so exquisite that I never want it to end, and it’s also a bit of textbook for the book I’m trying to write. Also: Break.up, by Joanna Walsh is excellent, an experimental novel about love and travel. There’s a group of poets in America I find very inspiring as well—Danez Smith, sam sax, Franny Choi, Hieu Minh Nguyen—also Major Jackson, Solmaz Sharif, and Airea Matthews, among so many others.


These days I’m also inspired by the broadening of poetry in general—visual poetry is becoming more accepted these days, and I recently got the opportunity to record an audio-chapbook, with sound-collage by a musician/engineer named Kamikaze Funtime. This year I’m hoping to make a video-poem or two, if all goes well.

Interview by Robert Greer.

Photos by Jordi Goya.

Fiction | About You by Marjorie Main


Early on a Saturday morning in October I met Vivian at Liverpool Street Station. Stevie had a painting in an exhibition opening that night, and they were down for the weekend staying with her agent, Alex. I had just returned from a brief visit to Italy and instead of going straight back to Cambridge we had agreed that I would join them. After all, Stevie’s painting was a portrait of me.

I had only a leather weekender bag with me, and Vivian slung it over his shoulder, offered me his arm, and we wound our way out of the writhing crowds of the station. I let him lead me south, not thinking of where or why we were going. Stevie was, according to Vivian, so on edge with agonised suspense about the opening as to be unbearable. He had left her with Alex and fled.

The air surged coldly at us, and I walked closer to Vivian, who wore a charcoal dark woollen coat. When we came across a florist I slowed, thinking of Stevie.

So why did you go to Italy? Vivian asked as we examined bunches of fragrant lilies. Careful how you answer, through: Camille came to dinner while you were away and he seemed rather down in the mouth, and although not even Stevie’s most persuasive attempts could extract much from him, we figured out that you were the cause of his troubles. Have you two broken up?

We aren’t together.

But you obviously are, in some sense. Or have been.

No. I’m not asking you to define my interactions, Vivian. I’m capable of doing that myself, and Camille isn’t my boyfriend.

Well, it looks like he is.

Appearances can be deceiving, mate.

Well, if you’re sure.

Fuck off, Vivian.

So, how was Italy?

Nice, yeah. I met a friend in Milan and we went to Lake Como for a few nights, hung out, took in the sights etcetera.

You hung out. With a friend.

Yes. Next topic. Vivian laughed quietly at this. I threw him an impatient look and crouched down to breathe in the sweet smell of the tumbling late roses. Their petals were tinted with apricot and creamy pinks, and I gathered them into my hands.

These ones? Vivian asked, and I nodded. While the florist wrapped them in swathes of brown paper and tied a pink velvet ribbon around it all, I burrowed into my weekender and brought out Camille’s cashmere jumper, putting it on. Outside, we turned down Threadneedle Street.

I’m not going to comment on your jumper, Vivian said, and laughed.

Good, I replied. Do you have a cigarette?

They should be in my pocket, Vivian said. His hands were full of the flowers, so I dipped my hand into his coat and helped myself, lighting two.

Thanks, Vivian said, as I held one up to his lips. We picked up pace and I tucked my hand into the crook of his elbow. The flowers were gathered between us in a futile attempt to shelter them from some of the wind.

So, how have you been? I said.

Do you honestly want an update on all the thrilling things we old marrieds have been occupying ourselves with while you’ve been flitting around Italy and so on?

Something like that.

Well, it’s more of the same. Stevie panicking, yours truly callously attempting to get some work done.

You’ve been writing?

I have, in fact. Thank god. Finally! Vivian grinned at me and I laughed.

That’s brilliant, I said.

It feels good. I think I’m writing a short story at the moment – at least, that’s what I’m calling it, I don’t want to overthink it.

Cool. Hey, do you mind if we duck into the Royal Exchange? I need a replacement perfume.

By all means, Vivian said, inclining his head comically.

In the store, I asked for a bottle of my standard scent. As I waited for the assistant to hand me my purchase with suitable aplomb, Vivian smelled the tester curiously.

It does smell like you, he said, his expression ambiguous. It feels almost too intimate, he murmured, eyebrows hovering humorously.

Yes, perhaps this was indiscreet of me, I laughed. I do hope you won’t mind?

I’m just trying not to appear too delighted, Vivian laughed.

Perhaps now would be a good time to segue into a discussion of À la recherche du temps perdu?

Yes, we do seem to be preoccupied with olfactory experiences today. Perhaps we should have tea, and partake of madeleines while vigorously debating the finer point of Proust’s navel.

Would teatime be time enough for La Recherche? I asked with mock-solemnity.

No chance, Vivian said. But it’s a start.

We drank tea among the verdite columns of the Ned and then walked west along Cheapside. St Paul’s rang out the hour and we decided to visit the whispering gallery if the crowds weren’t too bad.

It’s interesting to regard the city as a spectacle, Vivian said. I was a boy here, I mean. The city is very familiar to me, but today it appears strange. It must be your company.

I’m curious about the notion of places as legible. Not just in terms of the poetics of space, but as a cultural artefact. One moves through the city and apprehends its signs and markers, the changes in architecture that indicate the evolution of time, the differences of economies, and the jumps in ethnic identity of localised zones. And then too there is so much literal text inscribed onto the city’s surface. All those place names, and advertising.

I really like this idea, Vivian said. The city as a text: it’s interesting.

Like, I often have this sensation when I’m walking through town, or when I’m at the supermarket, being overwhelmed with disparate information. It’s as disorientating as the endless newsfeed of social media. Vivian laughed at this.

I’ve never thought of it like that. You’re right, though. Sound too is another one. The music of the city, or some such: overheard conversations too, and the ebb and flow of traffic.

Right: noise pollution, and the hum of the city. This is also true of light.

Indeed, the city has a filthy halo of light pollution.

Weird, isn’t it? This pollution as a trace of culture, I mean. Also, I think that for most people nature is nowadays the least legible it has ever been.

Because the majority of the population is so urban, you mean?

Yeah. Like, perhaps in cities like this people are still capable of reading the weather, predicting its daily changes so as to dress accordingly. But few people know the names of the trees in the avenues, the birds hunting tobacco crumbs. Let alone anything less urban than that. It weirded me out when I moved to England for university. No one could tell me the names of the trees or birds. I had to buy a book to teach myself the Latin.

It’s actually quite unusual for someone to want to know those things. Vivian smiled. Especially some one of –

If you say something about my generation, I interrupted warningly. He laughed.

Alright, you caught me.

It makes you sound so old.

Wow, thanks.

Yeah, well. Ageism works both ways, mate, I smiled. I’ve read so many fucking think pieces that either malign millennials as the laziest and most narcissistic, entitled generation, or defend their predicament as a social rather than individual challenge.

What do you think?

Perhaps that the dilemma is not one of character but of means; I’m not sure.

What kind of means? Are you speaking financially?

Yes, in a way. I mean, I’m not interested per se in the millennial dilemma, but there is an increasing disparity between income groups that I believe is problematic. One manifestation of this gap is generational, but I also think that this economic instability is fundamentally infantilising in its effect on people.

You mean that a lack of income security renders people dependent? That’s true, whether on the state or parents, I can see that. But what about the emergence of so-called job snobs? People who refuse to work in a role that they think is beneath them?

Honestly it’s more often the salary than the role itself that is objectionable. This depreciation of labour is two-sided, and has financial consequences. The employee doesn’t value the worker, so doesn’t reflect the significance of the labour in the pay. Therefore the worker doesn’t value the labour, as it offers them no material reward. Capitalism is where feelings of solidarity go to die.

You would make a great unionist. I suppose you would support a universal income, too, with your youthful socialist leanings.

You do like misrepresenting my ideas as naïve, don’t you? I suppose it is easier to be amused than provoked into actual independent thought.

I’ve offended you, Vivian said apologetically.

You’ve made me think you naïve, I said, and we laughed.

Well, I am, really. I’m still profiting from the system that limits your peers and perpetuates classism.

Yes, you belong among the ranks of landlords.

Is ownership of property really so malevolent?

Well, yeah. Having to rent, coupled with having to rely on a casual income, is essentially crippling people. It offers no possibility of future security.

So I am the oppressor? Obviously I am speaking from the swampiest of moral grounds; I’ve inherited private means and property so obviously belong to that most despicable class of shareholding landlord baby boomer despots. I know I’d the bad guy.

Well, obviously. Owning a property makes you a card-carrying member of the capitalist bourgeoisie. You are protective of your financial security, and that makes it impossible for people poorer than you to eke out any semblance of security. You harness a profit from their struggle. And economically, people only really matter to society as property-owners, which is to say as shareholders within the economic model our society upholds.

You’re basically saying that poverty has become an entrenched problem within first world countries. I appreciate that these are increasingly inequitable times.

In a sense, yes. Our time is marked by inequity on so many levels: people of colour are poorer than their white counterparts. Men earn more than women. These are issues of race and gender, yes, and have wide-ranging consequences, which at their worst include racist hate crimes, and sexual violence. But the most constant and insidious level at which this inequality registers is economic. And people won’t have the time or means to act as their own advocates unless they have financial security. The threat of losing a job, and not being able to afford a place to live is too real, otherwise.

I’m assuming you also disapprove of rags-to-riches stories as capitalist propaganda?

Rather. Poverty infantilises people, yes. But it condemns them to suffering in multiple and complex ways, while capitalism disseminates this false ideal of meritocracy, which perversely teaches us to think of those who don’t get a to-riches ending, that is to say the poor, as being without merit and therefore deserving of all the suffering heaped upon them. It upsets me so much.

You’re a good person. Of course it upsets you, there is so much that is grossly unfair in the world. And I hate to ask, but how are your socialist tendencies paid for? Aren’t you here on mummy and daddy’s money?

Yeah, I can see how much you hate asking, I said, laughing. But I know what you mean.

We had reached St Paul’s, and came around by the back way, through the gardens, where leaves were already swirling to the ground. The cold wind sent the leaves frisking over the grass and paths, picking up pieces of litter as they moved like a creeping mould over everything.

I thought about how hard I’d tried when I first came to England to assert myself in crowds far worldlier than those I was accustomed to, and how I had grown to despise this. How my stance and voice had betrayed their origins by changing, rapidly and almost beyond recognition. But even at home, even in school, I had been asked this question, had it demanded of me that I state my position in society. I had long accepted the idea that whatever my answer was it would be unbelievable to someone. And now that I felt so far from my former selves I was taken up by a perverse inclination to insist upon my background, to insist that I was an outsider.

Of course, I said, as an individual my ability to pay my own way is reliant on the capitalist model. But no, my parents don’t pay for me. My privilege has a different face. I’m dependent on a scholarship; it pays my university and college fees, and I get a liveable allowance. My so-called academic merit has been deemed worthy of financial support. But I am essentially on the make.

What do you mean by that: on the make? Vivian asked, looking amused.

Oh, just that I am socially mobile in a way that misrepresents my economic status. Education has ruined me in terms of being able to fit properly within the binaries of rich and poor, privileged and disadvantaged. It means that I’m a hypocrite, and that the socialist principles I espouse are not reflected materially in my lifestyle. I smiled at Vivian, who looked both bemused by this dissection of things that to his way of thinking shouldn’t be spelt out, and endeared to me.

I rather suppose I am guilty of misjudging you, Vivian said. He looked at me with a wry smile, and I laughed. I just assume that because you’re at a good university, he went on: that because you go to a very prestigious college, because you have read similar books to me and you can talk about Beethoven and Proust and because in the winter you wear a fur coat, I assume that your economic background is one of similar privilege to mine.

Vivian and I were almost the exact same height, and his shoulder felt dependable as we walked beside one another, in a way that I knew was misleading. He was waiting for me to reply, watching distractedly where we went, which was through the leaves towards the front of the cathedral, to the pale steps where a society wedding party was lingering in its finery.

That fur coat cost me six euro at an op shop, I told him.

Okay. But you have to admit, your taste appears expensive, educated: privileged. And then there is your voice.

Fuck you. What’s wrong with the way I speak?

You know, I’ve spoken to Stevie about this – about you, I mean; but in terms of your accent rather than finances.

What a horrifying prospect.

Well, quite. You’re precise, and eloquent: obviously educated and cultured, and speak in a way that demonstrates a rarefied level of understanding. But it is your accent itself that is disorientating. Stevie recognises some Australian idiom in it, but of a bygone era: her grandparents, with their money and post-colonial cultural cringe. But it’s also European in some turns of phrase, modern and Americanised in others, and an utter throwback in its turns of plumminess, which taken alongside your eccentricities has led a lot of people into thinking that you are rather posh. Your accent sounds moneyed.

When really I’m a fraud?

Yes, you really are the most dreadful phony. But no, perhaps an anachronism, but also a bastard child, or changeling: you are something quite new, as well as something out of a bygone time. Not an arriviste, perhaps, but as you say, someone on the make, culturally speaking. A self-made renaissance woman, I suppose.

I think that last bit was the nicest yet most morally ambiguous thing you’ve ever said to me, I laughed.

Well, I suppose that means I shouldn’t go on and say that your physical appearance also suggests a kind of privilege.

I made a face of distaste and Vivian laughed.

It’s true, he said. You are so beautiful that people are bound to assume your life is easy, that things are given to you on silver platters and you will never have to work to prove yourself.

That’s such a revolting misrepresentation, I replied.

Is it? Is it really? I mean, I admit it’s sexist.

Wow, that’s so self-aware, how admirable of you. Should I thank you for objectifying me, now?

We went into St Paul’s together, laughing, and Vivian joked: I’m trying my hand at this new-age man thing. I think I’m really pulling it off.

Please stop, I said.

Vivian laughed and we made our way up through the cathedral until we were standing beside the curve of its dome. St Paul’s was surprisingly quiet, and bore the traces of the wedding that had just taken place. There were very few people about, but lots of flowers.

Up in the whispering gallery we walked away from one another, directing our talk into the stone, sitting down when we heard each other from around the curve. We looked at each other from our positions of distance, and around ourselves at the cathedral itself.

Iris? Vivian’s voice came to me.


You know the story I’m writing, he said, and paused.

What about it?

It’s about you.

My skin went cold, and I knew I could endure anything. When I took a breath it was steady, and I said: aren’t they all?


Fiction | Beloved by Roger Raynal



That morning, when Ryoji woke up, fired from sleep by a strident, but usual sound, he refrained from opening his eyes. He wanted to feel, all around him, in the thousand little sounds of the house, in the movements of the air, in the heat of the spots of light dancing on his face, the essence of this morning. It was the day of his fifteen. He felt the hard mat under his back, and the floor of the house, sometimes vibrating when a lost truck was passing in the street.

He heard his elder sister, already busy in the kitchen. He looked around. What he saw was far from luxury. Despite his young age, he was well aware of the fact that his family had become poorer in the recent years, and that, surreptitiously, the loss of unnecessary wealth had slowly given way to the lack of vital needs. But today, it little mattered.

He was going to meet Yoshino.

He had known the young girl for only a few months. He had met her before her high school closed, in a bookshop downtown. She was the sister of a friend of one of his, and he had tried to meet her regularly several times, in the street and in the shops where she got used to go.

At first, they just shared quick smiles until they finally got introduced to each other by respective friends : Yoshino was her name. He remembered this feeling when he had to leave her ; a spirit in turmoil, a particular stare and a long whisper.

Every single step was hardened by Yoshino’s parents. Her father worked at the local hospital as a doctor. Their family had seen their wealth grow over the years. They would not even have considered the possibility that one of their daughters might have some relationship with a boy who, from their view, could only be a disgraceful beggar to their family whatever his virtues.

However, he had managed to get closer to Yoshino. They shared some feigned intimacy by the darkness of the cinema, where the ticket clerc, to whom he sometimes did some favours, let him in freely. In the kabuki theatre, Ryoji had even been able to sit next to the girl ; but his joy had moved on shame when he compared his clothes, carefully prepared by his elder sister, to Yoshino’s.

Today, on his fifteenth birthday, the young girl, half serious, half laughing, had promised him a kiss. Under his shaved hair, Ryoji’s mind was purpled. It would be like in those foreign movies they watched, sometimes laughing to hide their embarrassment in front of the effusions of the stars on the movie screen. They had to meet early in the morning, behind the Shima Hospital, downtown. It was not seven o’clock yet and, on the bay, the rising sun caressed the ocean. He had time.

Smells, forgotten for too long, came to arouse his appetite. He smelt of real rice, not mixed to soya, and grilled fish. He swallowed his breakfast with delight, under the impenetrable glance and the unfailing smile of Yasuko, his elder sister.

Through her face, the joy of seeing her brother eat such an exceptional meal, and the sadness of knowing how far she had been reduced to get it, were conflicting each other. Since the loss of their eldest brother, Toshiro, their mother seemed to be dazed. She had no taste for anything. So, Yasuko had to take care of the daily life of the family. She had no news from her betrothed for several months, so she concentrated all her efforts and found strength to keep on living and offering a few moments of happiness to those she loved.

Ryoji lived north of the city, where the river flows one of its arms, describing a loop to the east. To reach Yoshino, he had to take a bus, then the tram, without paying his ticket. When on the way, he realized he had forgotten to thank Yasuko sufficiently for her attentions, and he felt miserable. He promised to make her understand how much he had appreciated the care she had taken to satisfy him, at his coming back. But for now, all his affection seemed to be directed only to another young woman.

He was waiting for his bus in a crowd which, as time was passing by, was growing on an on. The delay, which had been frequent in the recent years, was becoming unusual. With an increasing attention mixed with anguish, Ryoji was watching the great clock that adorned the shop window of a nearby watchmaker. Suddenly, a rumour, peddled by a travelling salesman, was heard through the small group : the bus had had an accident a few streets farther north and it could not go by any further. The group of adults scattered, some trying to hail some improbable taxi, some going on walking or others settling as comfortably as they could, waiting for the next bus tour.

For Ryoji, the world was crumbling. His feverish thoughts urged him to find a solution as soon as possible to rejoin the city center, and, through the disorder of feelings that began to oppress him, he thought of his comrade Yukio. Yukio had a bike!

Ryoji quickly went straight to his friend’s home, luckily rather close. He wanted to hurry, without running yet, for he feared of sweating over on his first date.

Reaching the threshold of the house, a miserable cube of wood and paper, which could not be distinguishable from those on the suburb of the town. This area could run the risk of being destroyed to prevent the danger of fires. He saw Yukio’s sister, whom he hopefully asked if his friend was in. Yukio was just up. When he told him he could not lend him his bike for the morning because his father needed it a little later, Ryoji felt a pain in his stomach. His distress was certainly so visible that Yukio finally offered him a ride to the beginning of the tram line.

‘— I pedal, hang behind me on the luggage rack, so the lady will not be repelled by your sweaty smell ! ’

Yukio had broken through him so much that Ryoji blushed out. In the small circle of his acquaintances, he was the only one who thought that his interest for Yoshino was not obvious.

Yukio spared no pains and, coming close to the docks, he rode south, where the river divided into three arms before reaching the sea. Gripping his companion, shaken by the jolts, Ryoji was now rushing down the alleys bordered by countless wooden houses added to paper parts. He seemed, as he crossed the powdery air of the dusty roads, that the whole town was nothing but a heap of dry wood and crumpled paper, ready to burst into flames, becoming as burning as his generous heart within his chest. He remembered the heat spreading inside him, in the conniving darkness of the movie theatre, when Yoshino had allowed her hand to linger on somehow with his own. He recalled with amusement an old song his father used to hum which, tirelessly repeated ‘ watch out for the fire, watch out for the fire… ’

Yukio crossed a bridge due east, and the sun dazzled Ryoji, pulling him out of his inner storm. ‘The tram!’ Yukio yelled, pointing, in the distance, to the elegant wooden shape of the castle, which bordered one of the first stations of the line. Yukio, sweating, left his friend with a frank smile. Ryoji did not have enough time to babble his thanks. His comrade, in a hurry, had already left away, shouting at him that he wanted to be the first to know what would happen with the girl, with all the saucy details …

* * * *

Yoshino awoke with an inner smile illuminating her morning. For a few weeks, a feeling had been growing inside for Ryoji. At the beginning, the young man had seemed ordinary and clumsy to her. But, with the time passing by, and their meetings which Ryoji staged with a touching clumsiness, she began to appreciate his company. To notice, his family was not the most shining. He was wearing his school uniform a little too often which made her think he probably did not have any other acceptable clothes. And yet, his love of life and his cheerfulness had been good to her. When she had heard of his approaching birthday, moved by an impromptu impulse of her heart, she had promised him a shameless kiss which she would not have thought possible to offer. What could have led her to such an end? Perhaps, the recent loss of one of her brothers had made her realize that she had to live, quickly. But Ryoji was so hesitant that she had to help him a little!

She carefully chose a very pale blue summer kimono, soberly decorated with darker patterns, reminding of the ocean. In order not to arouse any suspicion from her governess about her appearance, she pretended she wished to visit a nearby shrine. She had not donned her kimono for a long time. Since then, her body had changed, and the young woman draped in the silk with a sensual sweetness she had never tasted before.

It was not a lie for she had really planned to go to the shrine after her date anyway, maybe with Ryoji, who knows, if he had time. It would be a pleasure to walk together in the gardens, under the shade of the leaves, before reaching the hospital where, thanks to the influence of her father, she worked as a nurse’s assistant.

The building was very close so she set off without hurrying. The river reflected the summer sun, reminding of the past seasons, in the mountains near the torrents, with the family once united but who seemed to have torn apart over time. She felt strangely nostalgic, but also beautiful and light-hearted. When looking up at the sky, she imagined, in a prodigious leap, that she might have vanished into the blue.

* * * *

Ryoji was as shaken by the jolts of the tramway as he was exasperated by its slowness. Older highschool student groups crossed the tracks with no rush, as did traders and other vehicles, forcing the tram to continually slow down. Ryoji had crouched down on the platform at the back, hidden from the sight of the ticket inspector by the mass of passengers standing and clinging to the support bars of the wagon. However, a movement from the legs around indicated that the inspector was coming straight to him. So, taking advantage of another slowdown, Ryoji leaped out of the platform and quickly crossed the bridge that would lead him to the peninsula where the hospital was located. A wall clock indicated that it would soon be eight o’clock. He had only a few hundred meters to walk but he could be late if he did not hurry. So, he rushed along.

The sun, already high on that full summer day, sent back shafts of light on every shop window, blinding him regularly. The city was passing around, and he no longer felt the painful muscles of his legs, hardened by the joy inherent to the first pangs of desire. He wanted to laugh. He hurried with all his strength, without running, for he was worried about arriving breathless, whereas was instilling inside the fear of missing his first date. Yoshino would certainly wait for a few minutes. Today, everything had to be beautiful.

As a reward after a long wait, he discerned in the crowd, among so common outfits that they all looked as one, a touch of incongruous blue, like a piece of the sky on the street. It was Yoshino. He slowed down, crossing the last road that separated him from her. He finally came, ill-at-ease overwhelming with respect for the young girl.

* * * *

In the distance, Yoshino had seen Ryoji’s strange gait. He seemed to walk very quickly and yet undecided to run. ‘ Still so hesitant ’, she said to herself, delighted by this character trait she actually appreciated so much.

They both greeted each other in a strange solemnity, and Ryoji, astonished, realized that he had not even thought, for a while, of what he was going to say to Yoshino. Against all odds, it was her who decided to break the silence between them.

‘ — Did you find it easy to come here?

— Not really, everything went wrong. The bus had an accident and was cancelled. I had to run and ask Yukio to help me. Fortunately, he managed to ride me with his own bike to the tram…

— I would have like to see you on the bike ! It must have been funny!’

Ryoji looked down, embarrassed. Yoshino laughed a little. ‘Maybe I should give you your birthday present now,’ the young girl said, heading for the nearby piers.

Ryoji followed her, not forgetting to compliment her for the elegance of her outfit. Despite himself, the slow swaying of Yoshino’s hips in front of his eyes set his adolescent imagination on fire. When they arrived near the river, protected from the intruders by a white wall with its brightness facing the sun and almost hurt the eye, Ryoji offered his cheek to Yoshino. She was facing him. She naturally leaned forward and in a whisper said : ‘You are not a child anymore, you are fifteen now. My brother only lived a few years beyond his. I no longer want to be a child either, we have so little time for love’. Yoshino huddled into Ryoji’s dangling arms. Almost instinctively, he hugged the tender body of the girl. Their lips joined. For them both, the time stopped. They were young, handsome, invaded by a burning heat wave. For the first time, in the awakening of their senses, Ryoji and Yoshino felt the nascent promise of the quest for an absolute. Yoshino thought that the world could now come to an end.

Six hundred meters above the lover’s first kiss, a new sun kindled in the sky of Hiroshima. From their first-time embraced bodies, only remained a single blackish shadow on a whitewashed wall.

Fiction | The Sinners’ Corner by Mark Sadler


I returned to work on a dismal Tuesday morning, emerging from the main entrance of London, Fenchurch Street, railway station under opaque grey skies. During my extended absence, the shopfronts of the old city had been divested of their brightly-coloured festive decorations. Gone was the red tinsel foil and shiny burgundy-coloured baubles garnishing the window display of Charlie Davies’ Tailory in Leadenhall, where a fortnight before they had rekindled the glare of the spotlights in the warm emulsified tones of a log fire, dimly reflecting in the contents of a wine glass. Absent this brightening influence, the winter streets, and the overcast faces of those who paraded up and down the cold grainy pavements, appeared to have been permeated with the stark greyness of a new year that was yet to form an identity of its own.

I walked the full length of Eastcheap, easily matching my pace with that of a large truck that crawled along beside the curb. Men dressed in florescent jackets were hauling dessicated Christmas trees from the lobbies of office buildings and pitching them into the bin that occupied the back of the lorry, where they piled-up haphazardly, like a small, densely-wooded hill.

The working day was marred by the sounds of a demolition that was underway in the churchyard of St Mary’s, across the road from my place of business. Every so often, a chorus of men’s shouts, emanating from the site, would build to a collective heave, heralding the imminent crashing of one of several large, and already fractured, panels of glass, as they were dropped into the yawning mouth of a skip. The sound grew more jarring on the nerves as the day wore on, and elicited alarmed inquiries from clients on the other end of the phone, who assumed that it had originated in our office.

The object of the ground clearance was a glass-walled building which had briefly occupied a disused corner of the churchyard, before collapsing suddenly during the early hours of Christmas Eve. In the short time that it stood, it had vaguely resembled a small chapel with a sharply-peaked, spired roof that incorporated a slight twist a few feet below the tip. The modernity of the design made it an incongruous neighbour to the medieval place of worship that it shared common ground with, which was a square-towered, 14th century stone church, belted around the midriff with a dark band of knapped flint.

The purpose of the new structure was altogether less sacred. During its fleeting existence it had housed a small shop, the purpose of which was to raise funds for the church. Space had also been made on the premises for three pop-up retail units that were intended for rental. Prior the collapse of the building, these had accommodated a stall selling resin-cast snowman-shaped lamps, another specialising in cushions embroidered with expressions of seasonal goodwill, and a refreshment stand, peddling Christmas cake and a non-alcoholic mulled beverage that was ladled from a large cauldron.

As a further addition, some narrow wooden sheds had been erected temporarily along a new fixed-gravel path, leading from the gate to churchyard, up to the entrance to the chapel. These were occupied by Christmas-themed shops and were liberally decorated with blue fairy lights.

When the weather is good, I will sometimes eat my lunch on a south-facing bench in the churchyard. A few months after the demolition of the glass chapel, I happened to make conversation there with one of the volunteers who help to manage the grounds; a man named Gordon Booth. Before his retirement, he had worked as a stockbroker in the city.

It was early March and I recall that clumps of daffodils had sprung up against the walls of the old church. Booth sat down next to me and made an appreciative remark about a large tree close-by, with a broad spread of branches that were speckled with emerging bright-green foliage.

“William Blake claims to have seen angels roosting in the boughs,” he said. “There is a short walk called the Angel Path that you can take through this part of the city, that visits all of the places where he witnessed the heavenly host watching over London. We have a pamphlet on it in the church foyer if you are interested. Occasionally, on the weekends, one of us will provide a guided tour for small groups. The next one is on the fourteenth. If you would like to come, I could add your name to the list.”

I passed some comment about avoiding London at the weekends. This seemed to ruffle his feathers a bit. I attempted to mollify him by asking whether he had ever laid eyes upon any angels during his comings and goings at the church.

“Ha! It was Dickens, wasn’t it, who described London as a city of devils. But I have seen some strange things,” he said.

I steered the conversation towards the glass chapel. The business around it seemed to be of interest to him and he became a great deal more animated.

“That whole enterprise had the air of money lenders in the temple. It upset a lot of the established congregation, myself included. A handful of people who had worshipped here for years left in protest and haven’t returned.”

He leaned forward and fixed me with a milky blue-eyed stare.

“The problem is that we do need the dosh.”

I asked him whether the cause of the collapse had been identified.

“It was very odd. Nobody knows quite what to make of it.”

After I pressed him for further information, he furnished me with a recent history of the church. The area of the grounds where the glass chapel stood had not been a part of the original churchyard. The plot had been expanded, during the 1860s, to incorporate adjacent land to the south. The additional space was required to accommodate human remains disinterred from nearby churchyards, that had been cleared to make room for the Midland railway.

The newly acquired land had previously been occupied by illegally-constructed dwellings that were in a dilapidated and tumbledown state. After the slum housing was cleared and the ground had been reseeded with grass, all but a small part of it was consecrated by the Bishop of London. The exception was an area in the southern-eastern corner. It seems that, following the removal of the old buildings, an excavation had uncovered elements of an unholy altar; something ancient and pre-Christian. A man from the British Museum examined some carvings on one side of it and passed on his report to the church authorities. Evidently what was written down in this document was sufficient for that part of the site to be deemed an unsuitable spot for Christian burials. It was instead designated as a place of final rest for those who had been executed at Newgate Prison. These unfortunates were buried in unmarked graves and any record of who they had been in life was withheld from the parish ledgers.

“Murderers I suspect. Wicked men,” surmised Booth.

He reached into the pocket of his jacket and removed a package of sandwiches, so tightly-wrapped in cling-film that they had been rendered oddly shapeless. He carefully opened it on his lap.

“When we eventually managed to wrangle planning permission for the new shop, one of the conditions was that it be located a fair distance from the church – I forget the exact figure, but it effectively banished the building to the sinners’ corner.

“Well, all of the marked graves in that part of the yard were cleared after the war so that wasn’t a problem, but nobody had ever investigated the Newgate plot. We hadn’t the faintest idea of what was down there.

“The church commissioned an archaeological survey. They uncovered twelve bodies in total, all adult males, all apparently buried without coffins. Given these circumstances, there was some interest as to how their skeletons had remained intact and had not been scattered throughout the soil.

“We re-interred the bones in a single grave on the north side of the yard and marked the spot with a simple memorial. The reverend Cowcher said a few words over it. Something about restoring long lost souls to the sight of God.”

He took a thoughtful bite from one of his sandwiches.

Construction had commenced on the glass chapel in July. I remember watching from my first-floor window across the street, as small protests assembled on the pavement adjacent to the church railings. Placards bearing bible quotations jostled for prominence, and occasional choruses of My Faith is like an Oaken Staff and Onward Christian Soldiers would rise above the background traffic noise, commencing with great fervour before gradually thinning out, only to recover some of their earlier strength in the final verse, at the behest of whoever was leading the group.

“Things started to go funny after that,” said Booth. “Not ha-ha funny. Just unusual.”

When he was not immediately forthcoming I prompted him:

“What kind of things exactly?”

“It was small at first. One of the ladies who helps to clean the interior of the church tripped on something in the yard and cracked her skull on a headstone. She said, as she fell, she thought she saw something like a blanched tree root protruding from the soil. We had a good look around, but we never found anything.

“Then there was the elderly gentlemen who jogs in the area every morning and used the churchyard as a shortcut between King William Street and Woodengate. On one particularly foggy day he swore blind that something that felt like a set of bony fingers had gained a tight hold on his ankle. He said that it spread a chill up his entire leg. When he reached down to free himself, there was nothing there. He still goes out for his morning run, but he goes around the churchyard now.

“The worst of it was one of the pupils from the convent school. She arrived at the school gates one morning, quite beside herself. Something in the graveyard had absolutely terrified her. They could never get from her exactly what it was. The police were summoned and the entire area was searched without any success. In the aftermath, we held an emergency meeting to discuss whether criminal background checks should be made on the builders who were working on the chapel, and how best to broach the topic with the contractors. In the end there was a lot of dithering and nothing was done.

“While all of this was going on, the churchyard was undergoing subsidence. The first we knew of it was when one of the old stone vaults tilted a full six inches on one corner, apparently overnight. This continued until, after a few weeks, it looked as if some large creature had rampaged across the yard on a diagonal course, starting from the north side and heading towards the chapel, knocking the grave markers askew as it went . We contacted the council and asked them for details of any underground works that were in progress. Of course there were none. We had a man come to survey for foxes or badgers. He found no surface evidence of any animal activity but suspected some form of tunnelling.

“A few days before the glass chapel collapsed, the ground under one of the temporary sheds abruptly sunk down a few inches and the whole thing toppled over. It pulled half of the fairy lights down with it. I suspected that the chapel was listing slightly, the day before it fell, but I didn’t say anything. Thankfully it happened at half past one in the morning when nobody was inside.”

“It seems to me that your resident angels have been remarkably lax in keeping unquiet spirits at bay,” I said.

“Well that’s the thing. In January we had some surveyors visit from the insurance company. With them came a few of the people who had worked on the original survey. They dug down around what remained of the chapel. A few feet beneath the turf they began to uncover the skeletal remains of twelve adult men. If that wasn’t a chilling discovery in and of itself, it was their positioning that was truly strange. They were standing upright, crowded together, with their arms stretched out and raised above their heads. The bones of their hands were pressing under against the underside of the concrete foundation. One of the archaeologists recognised a distinctive in crack in one of the skulls. She swore that it was identical to an injury on one of the skulls that she had helped to exhume the previous Summer, and then witnessed being re-interred on the opposite side of the churchyard. There was some very reluctant talk of unsealing the new vault where we had buried those remains. In the end we called a vote on it. Everyone was in agreement that it was best to leave things as they were.”

In the wake of this revelation a stillness seemed to fall across the churchyard.

“Anyway,” said Booth after a long pause. “It seems that the occupants of the old plot, whoever they may have been, were rather attached to their quite corner of the churchyard away from the sight of god, where the soil was steeped in their own wickedness. They resented their eviction from it and wanted it back. They clawed their way across the graveyard and came up underneath the chapel like sharks intent on capsizing a small boat. Old Cowcher has taken to referring to them as the jury; twelve angry men, unanimous in their judgement.

“I have to visit that part of the yard every so often to clear away the weeds. I always feel distinctly unwelcome there, as if there are multiple presences lurking just outside my field of vision, glowering at me with barely-restrained malice. I do not linger any longer than I have to. There is something very strange about the way the shadows fall there. Some have no physical counterparts while others seem to be portmanteaus of objects that, as far as I can ascertain, do not exist.”

His gaze settled on the stiffly swaying boughs of the large tree ahead of us, where the poet, William Blake, had once borne witness to a gathering of the heavenly host.

St Mary’s church has returned to drawing revenue from more restrained fund-raising activities. No attempt has been made to reinstate the glass chapel. The corner of the yard where it stood is a gloomy, unattended quarter, cast into permanent shadow by the surrounding buildings. Since hearing Booth’s tale I have given the area closer scrutiny and have noticed that very few people set foot there.

By Mark Sadler 

Interview | Stephen Fry


Stephen Fry is a broadcaster, actor and writer who has just written Mythos, an elegant and entertaining retelling of the myths of Ancient Greece. Watch our full interview here.

How would you describe yourself to our readers?

I’m a whole parcel of different things, I never quite know what to say when people ask me what I do. I spend more hours writing than anything else, but that’s never what propels one into the public eye. There used to be a wonderful phrase in the sixties and seventies which was ‘TV personality’. It’s now completely démodé but I rather like the idea.

What was your first introduction to Greek Mythology?

I’ve been trying to remember when I first heard a myth… I think my mother told me the odd story whilst trying to get me to sleep. But I went away to boarding school when I was seven, as was quite common then, and there was a Latin teacher whom I rather liked. At the end of term during the last lessons, instead of us having to just repeat conjugations, he would read some of the stories. I just remember being absolutely thrilled by them. I loved the story of Theseus and it’s very much the archetype which J.K. Rowling picked up: this boy who grows up, apparently from a very ordinary sort of family, is special – a chosen one. I just remember there was something delicious about it, and exactly in the way I guess other generations relate and identify with Harry Potter; following this young boy who is going to be something remarkable. It’s like a flavour, and the first time you have it, you go ‘Oh I want more of this’.

When it came to writing Mythos, how did you decide where to start and what to include?

When it came to telling the stories, it occurred to me that one of the things that’s so unique about the Greek Myths is that they have a timeline, a beginning. Hesiod, probably the second greatest poet of the Greek period after Homer, wrote a number of books and in particular he told of the Theogony: the birth of the gods. And so I thought I’ll start with that. From there came all of these different elemental divine things like light and day – just like Genesis. But then at each pass, or each iteration, it became more complex. It reminds me of the 80s video game, Pong. No colour or depth or complexity, just elemental principles. Then by the next generation you get to an early Atari – big and blocky but a stage more interesting – and then by the time you get to Zeus and his family, you’ve suddenly got full-resolution 3D and all of the ambiguity and qualities you expect from great literature and mythological structure. And so I was able to tell in this book of the first and second generations of the titans, then the gods and then the creation of humans and Prometheus, the great hero of this book and the champion of mankind.

Do you believe that the Greek Myths still hold relevance in 21st Century culture?

The thing that really struck me is how the Greeks have this ability to crystallise, to distil and to express very deep characteristics of humanity, such that the myths are absolutely as relevant today as they ever could be. It’s not because they’re vague and so they can fit anything, rather it’s actually that they’re very specific. I’ll give you an example. In the late 80s I was the only person I knew who had an email address. There was no World Wide Web and there were no browsers. But slowly the thing began to develop, and I said to my friends, “this is like Pandora you know, the all gifted woman who was created and sent to us by the gods. This internet – it’s going to break down barriers. It’s going to dissolve rivalries, enmities and feuds. It’s going to make us all love and understand each other”. But the all-gifted Pandora was given a box you see.

By the time social media arrived, I was still quite optimistic. But somehow, and no one can precisely put their finger on it, the box opened and out rolled terrible things – trolls, bullies, thieves and miscreants. All kinds of beastly and horrific things that coloured this utopian dream of an internet connecting people and gave it nothing but horror and despair – just like Pandora’s Box. How exactly it seems to fit. But even more than that, one of the things I’m very obsessed with is the future.

You’d have to have been living in a hole if you aren’t aware of the fact that there is a technological tsunami coming. Robotics obviously, AI, machine learning, genetics etc. All of these things are coming together in sync with something called Moore’s Law, which has been the exponential doubling of the power of computing since the 1960s, every 18 months or so. For the first time in history, since Darwin, we’re obviously aware that there is no intelligent design, but this extraordinary magical thing: natural selection or evolution. But I promise you this – by the end of this century there will be sapient creatures on this earth that that have been intelligently designed. We will have created creatures in exactly the same way that Prometheus did when he created us.

In the myth, Prometheus creates mankind and he adores his creation, and Zeus decides that they can have a happy life, but they must never have fire.  By that he means two things. He means literally the fire that separates men from other animals, keeping predators at bay, allowing them to transform materials, to make tools and cook food. But what he also means is that divine spark – the fire of self-consciousness. It’s the thing that separates us truly from animals more than our opposable thumbs. More than fire. Zeus didn’t want us to have because if we did we wouldn’t need Gods anymore.

Now that’s all fine, but say in 100 years’ time there will be robotic creatures that we have made and there will be decisions for society to make. Do we, like Prometheus, love these creatures and want to give them autonomy and independence and rights? Or do we, like Zeus, ban them from ever having such a thing, because we’re scared? Even now there are people who are working on legal frameworks for robotic rights which would make them equal to us and maybe challenge us.

I mean isn’t that astonishing that these thousand year old myths could be so absolutely pertinent to the major problem facing mankind in the next 100 years.

Do you think that these ancient myths are able to provide contemporary readers with a sense of belonging? With “fake news” being termed the word of the year, is the evergreen importance of these stories useful in forging boundaries between reality and pretending, and the relationship between these two worlds?

I think it’s a very interesting question to look at myths and wonder about where truth resides in them. We live in an age in which we’re very obsessed, nervous and almost neurotic about the wall that separates truth from fantasy from lies and fiction. It’s very important to us to believe there is such a thing as fact. The magical thing about myth is that it hangs in a separate space between fact and fiction, because it’s full of truth. It’s full of truth but it is not a representation or narrative of true events. If you write a biography you can tell factual truths, chronological truths.  If you want to get to the absolute heart of something it’s probably easier to write a novel because then you can really express how feelings work. The mythic space is a place where you can tell absolute truths about human experience.

How do you feel about the expansion of the Greek Myths, with modern adaptations such as Percy Jackson and God of War creating their own mythic characters?

I think the great mythic world is robust enough to take any amount of treatments. I mean you go back all the way through to the Renaissance when Greek myths suddenly became a subject for art and poetry and plays. All kinds of versions of the myths appeared and took on their own age with the anxieties and interests of their religion. We have that now with the Warrior Princess type things, and Hercules on TV, versions of Jason and the Argonauts, movie versions of Troy and so on. And I think that’s terrific. And if some people want to use modern language in which they shout “dude” at each other, well that’s fine. It’s no more anachronistic than my version using the language I use or 100 years ago Nathanial Hawthorne and Bullfinch using ‘thee’ and ‘thou’. Unless you’re writing in an Attic Greek you’re never going to be exactly as the myths were, so they’re always going to be interpreted by the generation. I think that’s the glory of such stories.

Did you feel a certain extra pressure when retelling these stories as opposed to writing fiction?

Well I looked on it as you might do you know if you were a musician, like Bowie or Elton John. If I told stories people already knew they’d be thrilled. When you go to a concert you’re fine to hear new songs, but what you really want to hear is “Your Song”. And similarly yes, a lot of people will know the story of Arachne or Narcissus, but they won’t necessarily know all the details of the birth of Hermes. Myths are about sunlight and personality, they’re alive and sexy. So I hope people will read them in that spirit and not in the spirit of feeling that it’s something clever only studied by schoolboys in Classics lessons.

Do you have a favourite God or Goddess?

Well perhaps my favourite God is Hermes, just because he represents a lot of what I like – joking, storytelling, and he’s just generally a slightly transgressive figure. But also he’s funny and his childhood is amazing. I would probably say Athena is my favourite Goddess. I loved Athena when I was a boy, whenever she appeared in front of Achilles or whoever with those grey eyes… the wisdom, the strength and also the whole mixture of everything that she represents. She was handicraft and also wisdom and thought, but in a different way to Apollo, who’s obviously a fabulous God too. But Apollo is golden and he’s athletic and he’s harmony in music. But actually it was Hermes who discovered and then gave music to Apollo. Apollo could also be so cruel. I mean they could all be cruel, and you have to remember that none of them is a perfect, wise God. That’s one of the things I love about the Greek gods – that they’re as capricious, as inconsistent, as wilful and as contradictory as we are. They’re just fully rounded complex characters.


Mythos: A Retelling of the Myths of Ancient Greece is available online and in stores now.

Watch our full interview here.

Interview by Emma Quick and Lucy Binnersley



Short Story Competition 2017


The competition will now be open for entries until November 15th.

Autumn is just around the corner, which means The London Magazine‘s Short Story Competition 2017 is upon us.

The London Magazine has published short stories by some of the most well-respected literary figures over the course of long history. Our annual Short Story Competition seeks out new voices to join them. Established to encourage emerging literary talent, the award provides an opportunity for publication and recognition, as well as rewarding imagination, originality and creativity. The London Magazine is looking for unpublished short stories, maximum 2,500 words, from writers across the world. The story that wins first-place will be published in a future issue of The London Magazine. The second and third place stories will be published on our website. Prize winners will also be invited to a reception in early 2018.


Entry fee: £10 per short story (there is no limit to the number of entries you can submit)

Opening date: 1st September 2017
Closing Date: 31st October 2017

First Prize: £500
Second Prize: £300
Third Prize: £200


Supplied by Tibor Jones

Jason Cowley became editor of the New Statesman in 2008.
He has also been editor of Granta Magazine, the Observer, and staff feature writer on the Times.
He is the author of a novel, Unknown Pleasure (Faber & Faber, 2000), and a memoir, The Last Game: Love, Death and Football (Simon & Schuster, 2009).
In 2009 and 2011, he was named editor of the year in the Newspaper and Current Affairs Magazines category at the British Society of Magazine Editors awards.



Robert Peett studied Philosophy at University College London, then undertook postgraduate work in Political Philosophy at the London School of Economics. After a brief spells abroad he then worked in the art world for many years, dealing primarily in British works of art on paper.
He returned to researching, writing, and teaching and eventually set up Holland House Books in 2012.



Richard Skinner is a writer working across fiction, life writing, essays, non-fiction and poetry. He has published three novels with Faber & Faber, three books of non-fiction and two books of poetry. His work has been nominated for prizes and is published in eight languages. Richard is director of the Fiction Programme at Faber Academy.





As of 1st September, you’ll be able to apply via Submittable here:

Alternatively, you can download the Short Story Prize entry form 2017 to fill in and post with your entry. (N.B. There is no need to complete an entry form if entering via Submittable)

Please read our competition rules carefully before entering.
If you have any questions, please contact Emma at competition@thelondonmagazine.org.
To receive competition updates and all the latest news and offers, sign up for The London Magazine‘s Official Newsletter.
Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter and Facebook for updates!

An Interview with Frieda Hughes

Photo: Frieda Hughes, 400 DAYS, Chichester Cathedral

We caught up with Frieda Hughes, one of this year’s Poetry Prize 2017 judges. Although this prize has now closed, Frieda will begin reading your entries in the coming weeks. In this interview, she gives poets advice on how to make  tells us why she loves judging poetry competitions

You’ve got an exhibition in Chichester Cathedral this summer, along with a new poetry collection, Out Of The Ashes, to be published in autumn by Bloodaxe Books. How do you find time to write between all your other projects?

Frieda Hughes: It’s difficult to fit all the work that I want to get done, into the time that it is possible to be awake! I inevitably have piles of filing and paperwork waiting for my attention among other things. But really, when I’m working on a book, or an exhibition, everything else has to fall away and I become very focussed. The exception was my project, 400 DAYS, which is a panel comprising 400 10inch by 14inch oil-on-canvas paintings, one for each of 400 consecutive days of my life, finishing on 31st December 2016, which is included in my Chichester exhibition, together with the paintings from my recent poetry collection Alternative Values.

For 400 days I lived and worked through each day as normal – and did a great deal of writing – then painted my ‘daily painting’ at night, as my visual diary of that day.  It was exhausting!

As someone who has judged many prizes, including both the Forward Prize and National Poetry Competition, what role do you think competitions have in the development of a poet?

I believe that poetry competitions bring poetry to the attention of a wider public, because anyone can enter, and they might encourage someone who hasn’t thought of poetry seriously, to focus their attention; the hope of a prize and recognition can be very appealing.  And for the lucky winners, the cash prizes are a welcome bonus, as well as having the satisfaction of seeing their work receive the critical validation it must surely deserve, outside publication in magazines and books.  Reading the poems for me, as a judge, is always an education because there are as many different points of view in poetry as there are poets; I find the journey through the observations, ideas and emotions of the contributors is a thought-provoking privilege and a pleasure.

Do you have any advice for poets who are in the process of entering poetry competitions?

Keep writing, and read every poem you write, out loud each time you work on it, and through every draft.  Reading out loud exposes the weaknesses in poetry – and prose – that our eyes and minds gloss over when we skim through it otherwise.  Letters and emails should also be read out loud!

Could you tell us three things you’re reading/watching/listening to/thinking about and what you think of whatever that may be?

I’m not watching anything because it means I have to sit still, and I’ve too much else I want to do (write, paint, play with dogs, ferrets and owls, ride motorbikes).  I’m reading my police handbook on being a better motorcyclist, prior to taking my advanced motorbike riding test with IAM (Institute of Advance Motorists).  I’m listening to AC/DC, Guns ‘n’ Roses, Queen, Nickleback, Mental as Anything, to get me through a backlog of intensely testing filing and paperwork, in between trying to finish writing a book about keeping owls.

And finally, what is your all-time favourite poem? Or if that’s too tricky, whose work do you admire the most?

There is no all-time favourite poem as such, because there are too many that I find irresistibly funny, or uplifting, or moving. But there are two poems that mean a great deal to me because they were written for me by my parents: one, by my father, Ted Hughes, is about me as a child: ‘Full Moon and Little Frieda’,  and one by my mother, Sylvia Plath, is about me as a baby: You’re’.  If I were allowed to include one of my own, it would be ‘One Last Kiss’ from my recent collection Alternative Values, because it is about being conscious of love and not taking it for granted:

“If that one last kiss is still
The thing you’d long to give someone
Then give it now before they’re gone.
Give it daily; never be caught out
For never passing on
The one last kiss you’d give
Just because you didn’t know
That’s what it was.”                   Frieda Hughes, Alternative Values

Interview by Abi Lofthouse

Our annual Poetry Prize runs 1st May – 30th June. More information here.

An interview with Patricia McCarthy


We spoke to Patricia McCarthy, one of the judges for our Poetry Prize 2017, who gave a bit of advice on entering this year’s competition.

As well as editing the poetry journal Agenda, you’ve also had many of your own collections published, including two titles due to be released this year alone (Rockabye from Worple Press and Shot Silks from Waterloo Press). Do you struggle to divide your time between writing and editing?

Patricia McCarthy:  It is really quite a big struggle between doing my own writing and all the work involved on Agenda. The trouble is Agenda takes up the same kind of psychic energy – concentrating on all those poems, and essays – and often my own work has had to be put on hold. This happened when I was teaching too. I have quite a lot of work that has never seen the light of day as I have done nothing with it. It is only because now I am becoming so ancient that I am trying to put in order poems done a while back, and also making sure I do fit in my own new poetry, though I can’t do this to order. If  I get on a roll with a sequence, I defiantly and stubbornly let myself do it, even  if this means waking up before dawn and burning the midnight oil.

As I have recently finished a new sequence, I feel washed out, as if I will never write anything else – I think this is often the way, so Agenda is to the fore full time. It takes a lot of energy, especially as there are only two of us running the whole journal.

It’s so great to have you as a judge after winning The Poetry Society’s National Poetry Competition 2013. How do you think winning that prize helped you grow as a poet?

It  was a real honour, and also a crazy gamble, to win the National Poetry Competition (I needed to pay a huge vet bill and never imagined my number would come up as I have never even won a raffle).

To be quite honest, and I hope it doesn’t sound awful to say so, I don’t really thing that that prize helped me grow as a poet. I have been writing poetry for so long that I would be a bit weird if I didn’t by now have a voice of my own, though of course one can always evolve in new directions.

Publicity-wise, I think I could have used winning the prize more constructively and got myself reading in more Festivals etc. But I am a bit of a country cabbage and, while I do like giving readings, I don’t really enjoy getting out and about too much. It’s awful when you live in the country to struggle to get the last train back, and then have to drive etc. It puts me off, though I really did appreciate the Poetry Society organising a reading for me in Keats House in Hampstead, and even more specially, at the Cheltenham Literary Festival, where I was put up in a really plush hotel. And now they have asked me to read some of my horse poems in a lovely gallery near Guildford, to accompany the curator on a few guided tours. Some real horses are being brought along which will be amazing.

Winning the prize probably does help, though, (or should) with getting your work published.

It also gets you going gambling again! For example I have entered it twice in the last two years and have been shortlisted each time, so – nearly, but not quite! I don’t enter any other competitions.

Do you have any advice for poets entering this year’s competition?

It is often said that you can write a poem specially for a competition and I do think the poem has to stand on its own (not be part of a sequence). I think it is all very random, really, and a lot depends on the subjective choice of the particular judges, once they have selected the last, say, 100 poems they choose to highlight. I suppose it is a good idea to look up the poems written by the judges as, if you like their work, there might be a bit more of a possibility that they will like yours. The same applies to sending work into poetry journals.

I also think it is important for poets entering this year’s competition to read a lot of current poetry, and to subscribe to such inspiring journals as Agenda, which specialise in poetry. I had to say this!

Could you tell us three things you’re reading/watching/listening to/thinking about and what you think of whatever that may be?

At the moment I am reading John Burnside’s new collection, Still Life with Feeding Snake (Cape poetry), Michael Longley’s new collection, Angel House (Cape poetry), Alice Oswald’s Falling Awake (Cape Poetry), Jorie Graham’s Fast (Carcanet) , Sinead Morrissey’s new collection, On Balance (Carcanet) and  Emily Berry’s Stranger, Baby. I am reviewing them under a title ‘Pedestals’ for the imminent issue of Agenda. Longley, Burnside, Morrissey and Berry I particularly admire, but am not so sure, personally, about Oswald and Graham.

And finally, what is your all-time favourite poem? Or if that’s too tricky, whose work do you admire the most?

I honestly don’t have one favourite poem, but Yeats and Rilke I always go back to.

Interview by Abi Lofthouse

Our annual Poetry Prize runs 1st May – 30th June. More information here.

Essay Competition 2017


This competition is now closed.

As the oldest literary and arts review in the UK, The London Magazine has a long history of publishing great essayists; works by the likes of T.S. Eliot and Nadine Gordimer can be found in our archives.

In our inaugural Essay Competition, we hope to find the most exciting new essays to reaffirm and develop the magazine’s strong nonfiction tradition.

All essays submitted must be previously unpublished and no longer than 1500 words. There will be no set theme or subject. We are looking for non-academic, original work with a powerful voice that is not afraid to surprise. This competition is open to international entries.


Entry fee: £10 per essay | Subsequent entries: £5 per essay
(there is no limit to the number of entries you can submit)

Opening date: 1st July 2017
Closing Date: 31st August 2017

First Prize: £500
Second Prize: £300
Third Prize: £200

The winning essay will be published in a future issue of The London Magazine, and the second and third placed essays will appear on our website.


Nikita Lalwani’s first novel GIFTED was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2007, shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award and the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year. It has been translated into 16 languages. In June 2008 Nikita Lalwani won the Desmond Elliot Prize for New Fiction, which she donated to human rights organisation Liberty. Lalwani was born in Rajasthan and raised in Cardiff. In In 2013 she was a judge for the book section of the Orwell Prize, Britain’s most prestigious prize for political writing. Lalwani appeared on the ITV panel show THE AGENDA with deputy prime minister Nick Clegg in 2014 and was previously interviewed on the BBC current affairs programme HARDtalk. She is a trustee of  Liberty.  and teaches creative writing at Royal Holloway University. 

Laurel Forster is a cultural historian, writer and critic. Her research interests are in women’s cultural history and the representation of gender in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. She has published essays, articles and chapters on a variety of subjects including gender politics and activism, the domestic sphere and food cultures, war zones, literary modernism and literary genres. Her recent monograph reflects her specialism in periodical studies and is called Magazine Movements: Women’s Culture, Feminisms and Media Form, and discusses a range of politically-oriented magazines for women from the 1930s onwards. Laurel runs the MA Media and Communications degree at the University of Portsmouth where she teaches undergraduates and tutors postgraduates. She is currently writing another book on the political influence of magazine cultures and editing a history of British Print Media for women.


As of 1st July, you’ll be able to apply via Submittable:

Alternatively, as of 1st July, you’ll be able to download the Essay Competition 2017 Entry Form to fill in and post with your entry. (N.B. There is no need to complete an entry form if entering via Submittable)


  • Please read our competition rules carefully before entering.
  • Essays should be no longer than 1,500 words. The title is NOT included in the word count.
  • Essays should NOT be academic essays.
  • The London Magazine will have the unrestricted right to publish winning submissions (including runners up) in the magazine and online. 
  • Make sure to include your completed entry form with your submission if submitting by any means other than Submittable. This can be downloaded from our website and sent to us by email or post.
  • If you have any questions, please contact Ludo at competition@thelondonmagazine.org.

To receive competition updates and all the latest news and offers, sign up for The London Magazine‘s Official Newsletter. Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter and Facebook for updates!

Faber Reading: An Evening with Emily Berry, Emma Jones, Zaffar Kunial, Daljit Nagra, Richard Scott

Emily Berry, Emma Jones, Zaffar Kunial, Daljit Nargra, Richard Scott

The Crypt on the Green in Clerkenwell Close was beautifully lit with fairy lights, and the low chatter of poetry enthusiasts graced the air. A table was filled with books and pamphlets by Emily Berry, Emma Jones, Zaffar Kunial, Daljit Nagra, and Richard Scott, while another table was laid out with glasses of wine. We were here to hear these five Faber poets read from various new or forthcoming collections. Emily Berry and Dalijit Nagra both have books out this year, while Richard Scott and Zaffar Kunial have forthcoming Faber debuts; Emma Jones’s second collection with Faber will also appear soon.

The scene was set, and Faber Poetry Editor Matthew Hollis stepped forwards to introduce the five poets. Each one, he said, was making an ‘exceptional contribution’ to contemporary poetry, all at different points in their careers, but all working towards ‘a long, long fruitful life in publishing’. He praised the distinctive nature of each poet’s work, and encouraged the audience to listen deeply, drink deeply, and to savour the experience.

Richard Scott was the first poet to read. Born in 1981, Richard’s pamphlet Wound was published by Rialto in 2016, with a Faber debut set for 2018. Speaking of Richard’s work, Matthew states confidently that ‘if you haven’t already read Richard, you will’. His urgent and timely poetry, Matthew argues, is propelled by a ‘pounding sense of injustice about inequality’, and his plea for tolerance, while centred on the gay community, extends well beyond. Richard himself notes that his desire to write stemmed partly from his frustration as a gay teenager, unable to access literature that spoke to his own experiences. ‘Public Library, 1998’, the first poem he reads, addresses this frustration directly, and features the speaker writing the word ‘cock’ in a borrowed book to redress the imbalance in Queer literature. Later poems focus on sensual experiences. The most notable of these involves a fishmonger, who visits the speaker in his van, and who ‘fed me prawns, wiped / the brine from my lips – / let me try my first razor clam / unzipped from its pale hard shell / the tip, soft and white and saline’. The poem is erotic, unsettling, and enhanced by Richard’s grave and thoughtful manner of reading.

To read Emma Jones’s work is ‘to drown in it, to accept inundation’, says Matthew Hollis of the next reader. He compares Emma’s work to the sonic equivalent of a Henri Rousseau painting – ‘that sounds complicated, but you’ll understand when you hear the poems’, Matthew assures us. Emma began her quietly intense reading with a poem from her collection The Striped World, published by Faber in 2009. ‘Tiger in the Menagerie’ does indeed conjure images of Rousseau:

At night the bars of the cage and the stripes of the tiger
looked into each other so long
that when it was time for those eyes to rock shut

the bars were the lashes of the stripes
the stripes were the lashes of the bars

This is a world of ‘open oceans and closed cages’, a ‘bright, painted place’, Matthew notes. Emma’s next poem ‘Pietà’ is a complex and bluesy meditation on the image of the Virgin Mary cradling the deceased Christ. ‘What’s always struck me about these depictions is that Mary is disproportionately big, and Christ disproportionately small’, mirroring the image of Mary holding Christ as a baby, Emma says. This portrayal is linked in Emma’s mind with pop songs, where adults often call each other ‘baby’, and the poem riffs on this endearment. ‘Baby, you sure look sick’, the poem begins.

In contrast to Emma Jones’s song-like delivery, Daljit Nagra commands the stage with a comic’s timing. He uses ‘humour as well as rage to pursue multiculturalism’, Matthew Hollis notes, and he is ‘brilliantly vivid and important in giving voice to those who are not always heard’. Daljit begins by saying that Matthew, his editor, encouraged him to ‘strip away’ some of his famous exclamations in favour of a ‘new voice’, and it is this voice that can be heard in his new collection, British Museum, published in May this year. It is the first time that he has read from his new book, and his reading is clear-voiced and exuberant. ‘Can poetry help me think about the world?’, he asks, and his poems think through both personal and national situations. One poem, at once humorous and touching, centres on his mother’s inability to pronounce his wife’s name; another poem recalls the ‘time-compacted rooms’ of the British Museum. ‘I’ve only got one offensive poem in the collection, but I’m not going to read it now’, he says, motioning the audience instead to purchase copies of his blue hardback book.

After a musical interlude, Zaffar Kunial, a ‘guide for modern times’, as Matthew calls him, steps up to the podium to read. Zaffar ‘vocalises what it means to be a human being, planting your two feet on this earth’, Matthew asserts. The poet begins by showing a copy of T. S. Eliot’s Selected Poems, which belonged to his mother and was in his family home as he grew up. He is thrilled to now be ‘on the same team’ as Eliot. The first poem Zaffar reads is called ‘Fielder’, taken from his Faber New Poets pamphlet, published in 2014. It is set ‘somewhere between Birmingham and Yorkshire’, but Zaffar notes that it is equally about where poetry began for him: ‘The whole field, meanwhile, waiting for me, / some astronaut, or lost explorer, to emerge with a wave / that brings the ball – like time itself – to hand. A world restored’. A later poem speaks of the mixed feelings – ‘In two minds. Ashamed. Aware.’ – prompted by hearing his Kashmirian father make a grammatical mistake in English, and his own realisation that he is ‘native here. / In a halfway house’ (‘The Word’). Zaffar’s reading emphasises each word, pausing minutely between each utterance, and his deeper speaking voice lifts when he reads.

Emily Berry is the last poet to read. Hers is ‘surely one of the most distinctive voices to have emerged in poetry in recent times’, Matthew notes, with ‘no wastage, no excess, and total focus’. He compares her to Sylvia Plath, and Emily, dressed in a Sylvia Plath t-shirt, jokes that she is ‘smuggling Sylvia on stage with me’. Her rigid posture when she reads makes it seem like the words rise up from within her, unbidden, and her performance is spell-binding and incantatory. She starts with ‘a newer poem’, before noting that it’s ‘not even that new’, but still more recent than her book. ‘Remains of the Day’ exhibits Emily’s typical concentration: ‘my neck aches from studying / a number of compelling thoughts. I am being / observed, it transpires, from a distance by a / huge coral-coloured bird. I may be paranoid, / but I feel like it’s mimicking my movements’. A further poem, ‘Sign of the Anchor’, shows Emily’s skill in writing about the sea, and she finished by reading work that engages with Freud. The evening itself ended with raucous applause, more wine, book buying, and musically-infused conversation.

By Suzannah V. Evans

Howard Hodgkin: Absent Friends at the National Portrait Gallery

The Tilsons by Howard Hodgkin, 1965-67, Private Collection, London © Howard Hodgkin.

According to a new exhibition of Howard Hodgkin’s work at the National Portrait Gallery, one of the artist’s principal concerns throughout his sixty-five year career was to ‘evoke a human presence in his work’. Absent Friends is dedicated to an exploration of Hodgkin’s portraiture in all its guises – an area of the artist’s work that curator Paul Moorhouse believes has been overlooked. Even those familiar with his work believe that the artist ‘does not make portraits’, according to Moorhouse, and the exhibition aims to tackle this conviction head-on. Nonetheless, an initial stroll around the gallery may well lead to puzzlement. Where are all the people?

The title of the exhibition, in evoking absence, is appropriate. Absent Friends is named after the very first painting on display, an abstracted work featuring a sweep of muted colour, pale green brushwork, and a painted frame within a frame. What it does not, ostensibly, feature is people. The note next to the painting explains that it ‘refers to people, but does so without resorting to the creation of a literal likeness’, drawing instead on the emotions conjured by memory. This is portraiture that stands in direct opposition to traditional examples from the genre, choosing to show sensations and associations evoked by the subject rather than literal physiognomy. Painted in 2000-1, it is one of Hodgkin’s later pieces; for those who like their portraits with a dash more realism, some of the artist’s first forays into portraiture offer more recognisable representations of people.

These early examples of Hodgkin’s work appear in the second room of the exhibition, which consists of portraits from 1949-59. Some of these were created while Hodgkin was an art student at Camberwell School of Art; he later studied at Bath Academy of Art in Corsham. Memoirs was painted when Hodgkin was just seventeen. With its dark outlines, block colouring, and the strangely large hands of its subject, a family friend of Hodgkin’s nicknamed Aunt Bette, it could almost be an illustration for one of the stranger Grimm fairy tales. While the artist is also depicted in the painting, a sense of absence is conjured by the photo frame at Aunt Bette’s feet, which shows the mysterious outline of a man in a hat. Other pencil sketches, torn from notebooks, also play with the exhibition’s theme of absence, with large areas of paper left untouched. Depicting in turn fellow students and Hodgkin’s landlady, these realistic portraits were drawn entirely from memory, highlighting the important role that recollection would play in the artist’s later work. The most striking image in the room, however, is the most abstracted one, a painting entitled Interior of a Museum. Set within the confines of the British Museum, the piece features figures who seem at once suspended and anchored in the thick, creamy brushwork. Gazing at a collection of ancient Greek pots, the people themselves seem object-like, set in their own spheres of space for our viewing pleasure.

Interior of a Museum by Howard Hodgkin, 1956-59, Tate © Howard Hodgkin.

The third room, centred on Hodgkin’s burgeoning abstract work in the 1960s, is by far the most dazzling. Dominated by The Tilsons, the image used by the National Portrait Gallery in much of its publicity, the room is a riot of colour, motion, and expressive brushwork, with all the paintings vying at once for the viewer’s attention. ‘Some are quite representational in a limited visual sense; others hardly at all, or not at all’, Hodgkin said of these paintings, which often use geometrical shapes to represent human beings. The Tilsons is a fabulous case in point, where the figures of British Pop artist Joe Tilson and his wife Jos blend in harmoniously with the triangular sandwich shapes and dart board imagery of the painting: the effect is joyous, playful, exuberant. These are paintings that are a delight to look at. Portrait of Rhoda Cohen is a fascinating mix of literal and expressive representation. The sitter’s body is recognisable from the neck down, and her legs are flung open in an image that suggests both sexual abandonment and physical ease. The fervent brushstrokes in this part of the painting give a sense of energy and movement, so that the subject, who is tipped backwards in her chair, seems to be caught in motion, balancing playfully between sitting and falling. Her one blue shoe adds to this nonchalant and joyful effect. Her head, however, has been replaced by a mandala – a Hindu and Buddhist symbol for the universe – contributing to the life-affirming energy that radiates from the painting.

Later portraits become more complex, weaving figurative and abstract elements together into coherent wholes. A painting of the artist’s friend Cherry Monro manages to look both like a woman and utterly unlike a woman at once. Hodgkin explains that the piece ‘commemorates a moment in March 1966, when Cherry stripped after lunch in the living room in order to put on a 1938 crêpe de Chine dress. . . . The blue disk behind is a mirror which was hung about a year later’. The flowing fabric of the dress is evoked by waves of blue and yellow paint, while Cherry’s arched back reflects the curves of the mirror behind her. The painting’s white background means that all attention is on the figure, and her dramatic transformation as she changes her dress; there is a strong sense of delight in appearance and the visual. There is also something decidedly erotic about the image – and indeed, about many of the works on show. It is perhaps for this reason that paintings such as R.B.K. feature bars painted across them, in an attempt to contain the bold energy and colour within.

Mr and Mrs E.J.P. by Howard Hodgkin, 1969-73, Tate: Accepted by HM Government in lieu of tax and allocated to the Tate Gallery 1996 © Howard Hodgkin

As I sat and considered a painting entitled Mr and Mrs E.J.P., which contains a yellow triangle, patches of red, a striped interior, and what looks like a giant green dinosaur’s egg, I was approached by a friendly and inquisitive couple. Did I think that it was important to consider the titles of the paintings as I looked at them? We discussed the merits of focusing on a painting solely for itself, with no added information from title or blurb. In relation to Hodgkin’s work, however, we concluded that the titles have huge import for the paintings. Would it be clear to the viewer that Mr and Mrs E.J.P is a portrait, without the sign post of its title? And is it enough to rely on a title to give us this information – or should a portrait take further, and more identifiable, steps to tell us of its status as a portrait? How you answer that question might well indicate the level of enjoyment you derive from Hodgkin’s interpretation of portraiture. My own sense is that if Mr and Mrs E.J.P accurately reflects the artist’s sense of its subjects, and gives an insight into their presence and personalities, then it is successful as a portrait.

Questions of abstraction and representation are taken to a new level by Hodgkin’s most recent work, which includes some of my favourite pieces – and perhaps some of the most controversial in terms of portraiture. The last room features just three works, completed before the artist died in March this year (sadly, prior to the opening of the exhibition, although he was involved in much of the preparation). Blue Portrait consists of several strokes of dark and light blue on a wooden board, capturing the moment Hodgkin sighted a friend ‘standing by the bar and wearing a brilliant blue dress’ at a retrospective exhibition of his work. The blue, dazzling against the wooden board, signals the immediacy and fleeting nature of the impression. Tears for Nan commemorates the death of a friend, the tears painted on in hot, quick flashes of yellow. Startling upon the dark background, they intimate a celebration of life as much as they do a process of grieving. This is Hodgkin’s gift – to distill the impression of a moment into paintings whose emotional force equals the vibrancy and vividness of their colouring. These portraits last in the memory long after the gallery doors have been shut.

By Suzannah V. Evans

Howard Hodgkin: Absent Friends
National Portrait Gallery
23 March – 18 June

An interview with Paul Benney

Speaking in Tongues, 2014. Oil and resin on board. By Paul Benney

If you walk along one of the leafy roads from Hackney Downs and turn down a little side street, you may just find yourself at an old printworks. Now known as Hackney Down Studios, the space houses a collection of creative studios and workshops, including that of the London-born artist Paul Benney. Stepping in from the bright street to Benney’s equally well-lit studio, one is immediately struck by how dark many of his paintings are in comparison to their surroundings. Speaking in Tongues, which is to be exhibited at the 2017 Venice Art Biennale, along with Benney’s Reliquary series, is an excellent example of what the critic Adrian Dannat has called the ‘sombre richness of Benney’s aesthetic’, and several of the works in his studio resonate with an intense, inky darkness.

Before Benney arrives for our meeting, his studio manager shows me Benney’s particularly dark series of mirror paintings. Displayed in oval white frames, the paintings appear to be almost completely black. As one moves closer, however, pale faces can be seen behind the darkness; an ever-so-slightly pulsating light above the works increases the sense of eeriness that emanates from the works. When Benney does arrive, dressed comfortably in a black shirt and trousers, he recounts how gallery-goers are often confused by the paintings, half-believing that there is somebody on the other side of the canvas. This unsettling feeling of not knowing which is more real – the self or the reflection – is something that has interested Benney since childhood. As a teenager, he explains, he was fascinated by the experience of staring closely into a mirror, getting closer and closer to the surface ‘until you weren’t quite sure who was looking at who’. I mention Sylvia Plath’s poem ‘Mirror’, which seems to resonate with the images before us: ‘I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions. / Whatever I see I swallow immediately / Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike’. The poem ends unnervingly: ‘In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman / Rises towards her day after day, like a terrible fish’. Benney’s paintings have a similar feeling of something drowned or suspended within them – like insects embedded in amber – and are acutely haunting. It later transpires that Benney spent some time living and working in a disused abattoir, and later in a former morgue, and I wonder if this has somehow fed into aspects of his work.

Benney’s art, he hopes, strikes the part of the mind that exists subconsciously, perhaps accounting for its sense of mystery. He speaks about how feelings exist before we verbalise them, or voice them to ourselves, and it is these feelings that his work seeks to represent. When we look at his paintings, then, it is our ‘ancient brain, an animal brain’ that is engaged, although Benney notes, chuckling, that this appeal to the ‘wordless brain’ can make it difficult to talk about his work. One work that I am particularly keen to talk about nonetheless is Speaking in Tongues, the twelve foot by eight foot painting based on the story of the Pentecost in the New Testament, when the disciples are visited by the Holy Spirit and begin ‘speaking in tongues’. Interestingly, the work comes from a secular standpoint: Benney is not religious, although he was brought up in a Church of England context. Instead, the painting shows twelve friends of Benney’s, loosely representing the apostles, who stand and sit in various manners and poses. Each man has a bolt of fire emanating from his head, so that each seems alight with spiritual awakening. These flames are the brightest part of the work, the muted tones of which deliberately recall Goya’s Lunatics in the Yard (1794), and the work has an additional and unexpected sound element to it. Benney’s friends were recorded speaking about revelatory moments in their lives – births, deaths, betrayals, hopes – and their stories are relayed through holosonic speakers placed around the painting. The overall effect is of a low murmuring, a sort of spiritual chatter, although if viewers stand in a particular spot, sound-focusing technology allows them to hear individual voices with clarity. Benney worried that this extra element might distract from the visual impact of the painting, functioning as a superfluous ‘bolt-on’, but has come to see it as integral to the work’s engagement with contemporary spirituality. So far, the work has been seen by an estimated 40,000 people at Chichester Cathedral, with a variety of reactions: ‘some people were very moved by it, others were mystified’. Benney has come under fire for not including women in his re-imagining of the Pentecost, but he argues that he is being true to the representation of the disciples in the Bible, all of whom were male.

Benney is animated by the prospect of exhibiting at the Venice Biennale, one of the pre-eminent contemporary art exhibitions in the world, and enthuses about having two shows there at once. His Reliquary series will be displayed on either side of Speaking in Tongues, so that the church will be full of painted flames. Reliquary is a suite of six small canvasses, each depicting the type of candle used in votive offerings in the Christian church. The candle has been covered with a bell jar, and, unsettlingly, continues to burn. We see it decrease in size in each painting, until the last canvas shows the bell jar filled with smoke from its extinguished wick. Light plays such a strong role in Benney’s painting that I ask him how he feels about artists such as Hockney or Hodgkin, who respond to light and colour in such different ways to his own. Benney praises the illuminating quality of Hodgkin’s work, noting that it can considerably brighten the dull, grey days of London, and acknowledges some of Hockney’s earlier work as an influence (he is less keen on the artist’s more recent output). It is to Goya’s traditional technique of chiaroscuro – the tonal contrasts between light and dark – that Benney is most indebted, however.

For now, both Speaking in Tongues and Reliquary remain in London, ready to be transported to Venice in due course. Benney is a Londoner by birth and location, and he has spent the past three years in his current studio in East London. Prior to this, he was Artist in Residence at Somerset House for five years, and he has also lived in parts of West London. Being born in the city, he says, ‘allowed me to come back, in some way, because something deep within me was comfortable with city life, and specifically London’. His brothers and sisters, he notes, do not have the same attachment and were born elsewhere. Has London changed in the time that he’s known it as an artist? I know the answer to this before it comes, and Benney speaks about the inevitable process of gentrification that happens when artists breathe life into hitherto ‘no-go’ areas of town: ‘I’m sort of sick of it now, as I feel like I’m doing the job that developpers benefit from’. A similar thing happened when he lived in Manhatten, in an area where ‘you couldn’t pay people to visit you’. Illuminatingly, Benney sees the artist’s creative role as enacting a similar process. ‘You have to be prepared to go to places that other people don’t want to, or don’t dare to, and that can be an emotional place, a spiritual place, a psychological place, a philosophical place. And you’ve got to peer over the edge of that abyss, and come back’.

By Suzannah V. Evans

Paul Benney will be exhibiting Speaking in Tongues, along with his Reliquary series, at the Chiesa di San Gallo, San Marco 30124, Venice, 13 May – 26 November 2017. More information on Paul’s work is available here.

An interview with Fiona Sampson


Fiona Sampson MBE is a poet and writer, published in thirty-seven languages, who has received international prizes in the US, India, Macedonia and Bosnia. A Fellow and Council member of the Royal Society of Literature, she’s published twenty-seven books, received the Newdigate Prize, a Cholmondeley Award, Hawthornden Fellowship and numerous awards from the Arts Councils of England and Wales, the Society of Authors and Poetry Book Society and twice been shortlisted for both T.S. Eliot and Forward Prizes. Her new books are Lyric Cousins: musical form in poetry (EUP), the poetry collection The Catch (Penguin) (both out last year) and a prose study of Limestone Country (Little Toller, May 2017). She’s just finished In Search of Mary Shelley, a new psychological biography commissioned for the bicentenary of Frankenstein (Profile, 2018). Her website is www.fionasampson.co.uk

Congratulations on the MBE for services to literature and the literary community which you received in the New Year’s Honours! In the press release you describe 2016 as “an astonishing year”: could you tell us something about what you’ve been working on?

Thank you! To be honest it depends when the “year” starts. In 2016 I published The Catch (Penguin Random House), my latest collection. It’s a book about happiness, continuity, and wishfulness… I love poems that transform, or turn-around, their material in one way or another. I prefer myth to snapshot, and music to lecture, to put it another way! Also, the poems in The Catch are entirely in strict form: single sentence poems, in which every line has a regular number of stresses and each line must make semantic and musical sense. None of those chopped-up prose clunky line-breaks, the kind I think of as North American, with conjunctions or prepositions bulging from the ends of lines under the weight they have to bear… Oh, and not regular metre but the springiness of speech-rhythm: to put it another way, not regular feet but regular numbers of feet. I always think technique should bury itself so that it becomes incorporated, its effects subliminal rather than disciplinary.

Then Lyric Cousins: poetry and musical form came out in the autumn and was lots of hard work. It’s hard to be technical and write for a general reader at the same time. But I believe one should: it’s like teaching, even at the highest level: one should seduce in the telling! Lyric Cousins looks at musical forms (not, initially at least, at song metre but at forms prior to that, including breath, chromaticism, density) and how they work themselves out in verse as they do in music. I used to be a musician, so of course the topic interests me: but I also believe the links and similarities are highly pertinent for both poets and composers. I think, for example, that the grammar of a thought – of any thought – is limited to phrasal breath-length. These are ideas I started to develop when I was invited to give the Newcastle Lectures by what is now NCLA. Those three lectures are now expanded into a monograph. Unfortunately, this book is published by the very fine Edinburgh University Press, which means it’s rather expensive. I’m hoping the kind people who tell me they want to read it (perhaps they’re hinting that they’d like a copy – but it’s so expensive I can’t afford to give any away, which feels mortifying -) will order it from their libraries…!

Then 2016 also saw a couple of books in translation. Coleshill came out as Kolshil in Bosnia and won a prize, the Slovo Podgrmec; and The Catch came out as Volta in Romania. And then, this January, The Catch came out as Da PotopaOn the Brink – in Russian. You’ll notice that its title doesn’t tend to get translated “straight”: that’s because the multiple meanings of “the catch”, including a round-song, get lost in translation. Which is a fascinating topic I’d like to talk more about, if we have the chance.

What I’ve been busy working on this year are two prose books – and a poet-to-poet translation research project. The books are Limestone Country, published by Little Toller in May, which is about how a particular geology produces a particular ecology and so particular ways of life: my emerging interest in writing about place is definitely an interest in how humans live in and change and are changed by the natural environment. Then, next January, my new psychological biography of Mary Shelley is published by Profile for the bicentenary of Frankenstein. It’s called In Search of Mary Shelley: the girl who wrote Frankenstein and in it I am trying to take on the Romantic project itself and, without any fictionalizing, to excavate all that we can know about what sort of person Mary was, and how she experienced things, from the record which – just because she was a Romantic – she kept in letters and journals as well as in her published writing.

As well as writing and reviewing, and teaching and researching at the University of Roehampton, where you’re the Professor of Poetry and Director of the Poetry Centre, you will be Ledbury Poetry Festival’s poet-in-residence 2017. The Festival turns 21 this year – a coming-of-age of sorts. How would you describe its place in the constellation of poetry-related events and projects in this country? 

The Ledbury Festival is now one of the leading English poetry festivals: alas, a few years ago Arts Council England axed the funding to the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival, which was magnificently independent in spirit. Poetry International at the Southbank Centre in London has somewhat disappeared into their general fine programming; it waxes and wanes. Scotland has StAnza in St Andrews, which is truly international. But Ledbury is now consciously moving further, as I understand it, into internationalism. It’s always celebrated both national and international poets, so I think this is very exciting.

Actually I founded an international poetry festival in Aberystwyth myself, just before Ledbury was founded; from which I know that in those days festivals were not the fashion. Ledbury had tremendous vision.

There’s something very important about bringing work of real artistic excellence out of London, and particularly into the countryside. Visual artists have long moved out of London to find the space and affordability in which to make their work: think of the St Ives school, or Capel-y-ffin and Eric Gill. Musicians too: the wonderful British composers of the twentieth century and on, from Edward Elgar to Harrison Birtwistle, from Benjamin Britten to Michael Tippett, have lived and worked outside London. But publishing is very metropolitan, which means that British poetry has for too long been largely a village of Londoners (not a paradox, oddly). So festivals, which take on the European model of going out into the countryside to be festive, are a really important part of the calendar. They come in all shapes and sizes, from the wonderful new Kendal Poetry Festival which kicked off last year, and is intimate and genuinely suffused with enthusiasm, to Edinburgh Bookfest, where I’ll be later in the summer.

As the programme indicates, you’ve brought together a number of wonderful initiatives at this year’s Festival – I’m particularly excited about the spotlight on Romanian Women poets. What new spaces or conversations do you think these projects will open at the Festival?  

It’s been lovely to curate two international events. I’m so grateful to Ledbury for the chance to do so: especially without having to raise the money and do the admin, which is usually the price of such plans and dreams!

I’m a huge fan of internationalism. I simply think it teaches one that there are other ways of going on… You might think that’s obvious in a culturally diverse country such as the UK, but I think that even our most culturally diversified individual poets get co-opted into the little-London mentality. And that’s such a shame. It’s surely provincial to think anywhere is the centre of the world, in our global society.

Also, to be frank, I just plain have literary and cultural curiosity. And I’m a wee bit suspicious of people who don’t. So I’ve invited six poets whose work I love, but under two specific rubrics (otherwise, there would have been nowhere for me to stop – so many marvellous poets I’d love to invite…). There’s a group of Romanian women poets, because there’s such a concentration of excellence there and because they are terrific, bold role-models for our still rather over-policed British women poets. Working with the wonderful Gabriela Mocan at the Romanian Cultural Institute, we are lucky to have secured Ana Blandiana, Magda Carneci and Liliana Ursu: three major, and incredibly diverse, voices in South-East Europe. And then there’s an event looking at the different ways poets live their poetry lives in different countries. For example, a mix of editing, reviewing and writing which I rather fancy myself – the poet as writer and intellectual – has long been regarded with (ahem) suspicion here in the UK. But elsewhere in the world it’s normal to the point of cliché. So we have European poet-editor Maria Galina, a Ukrainian working in Moscow at the great Novy Mir, Christopher Merrill, the North American poet who directs the Iowa Writing Workshop, that towering pioneer among university creative writing programmes, and Patrick Dubost, French musician/experimental performer, who really does experiment and really does perform…

You’ll be judging the Ledbury Poetry Festival’s Poetry Competition. Could you shed a little light on what you look for when judging competitions and prizes? 

I think that competition judging is like editing: you have to do it in a spirit of utmost integrity and enthusiasm. You have to be looking for the best work, and to feel a leap of enthusiasm when you discover it. You have, also, to feel that you are opening a door rather than closing one; and you have above all to make your selections bearing in mind, and against the grain of, your own prejudices. You have to have a thick skin and just know that even if you make mistakes, you did so by accident, and in good faith.

I’ve done quite a lot of judging, and have come to the conclusion that prizes are a necessary evil. They’re not what poetry is about; but they can help poets thrive. At the moment I Chair the annual European Lyric Atlas award in Bosnia, and this year I’ll also chair the annual Roehampton Prize: it’s for the best single collection published by someone of any nationality who is living and working in the UK at the time of publication. An attempt not to close down our reading borders but to support on-the-ground British poetry practice when the main prizes tend to get won by foreign “stars” who come in, grab the goods and disappear… In recent years I’ve found myself judging a number of prizes, of course always with different combinations of co-judges (the Eliot, the Forwards, the Independent Foreign Fiction, the Ondaatje, the Griffin, the Irish Times Impac, etc). It’s a form of service to the poetry community, it seems to me. To do it properly and actually read all the submissions, I mean: which too many, to my astonishment, don’t. It is a lot of reading, judging a book prize: but you shouldn’t do it unless your attitude is Wow, I get to read all the books published this year for free rather than Oh no, all these books to read.

This all sounds like a form of outreach. Do you see a relationship between community work and art practice?

My own relationship to poetry was forged by community work. I was an early developer of poetry in health and social care; a practice in which you work constantly with people in tough places, sometimes in extremis. It’s a huge privilege and fascinating as well as moving. It taught me how people with absolutely no background interest in poetry are moved by the Real Thing, and understand its relevance at the great moments in life: indeed, need it then. That has shaped my writing, editing, and promotional practice ever since. It’s also why I was a mature student – I wanted to articulate what was going on and why I thought this was the real deal in the same way as high art. It was why I did a doctorate in applied philosophy of language. I ended up writing numerous papers and chapters and eventually books about it.

Poetry isn’t for a game of competition and ego. It’s for being the Real Thing.

Have you, then, found your style or process changing as a result of working with others, or on similar projects? 

I love collaborating! The poet-to-poet translation project I’m working on right now with the poet Bill Herbert and the translator Francis Jones is a two-year AHRC-funded research project into what happens when poets co-translate. In the project we’re using intermediary, literal translators too, and working in trios. As well as measuring and examining, we want to mark out and celebrate this practice, which tends to spring up organically – indeed, chiefly at international festivals and fellowships. Poets meet each other, love each other’s work, and decide to collaborate.

I’ve also worked a lot with composers, naturally; and with visual artists. At the moment I’m working with a Swedish landscape photographer, Jan Peter Lahall, on a project about our environment – it will be an exhibition and an artists’ book. I think some poets and artists really love collaborating: Jan Peter for example has already worked with a Swedish and with a Ukrainian poet.

So to sum up, if poetry is to have a place in our communities and our lives, how can we best bring it into the limelight? 

We have to keep the faith. We have to remember the real reasons for doing it, and return to them over and over. In the long run, that is what will ensure we have something good and real to hand on when the culture shifts again, and shifts towards more poetry (the way it is in many other countries right now).

And I think we have to keep the circle widening, so to speak. Not contract into defensiveness, lack of interest in international or new poets, and a refusal to engage with the wider community. We have to keep doing it over and over… in tiny local libraries in the UK as well as on prime time TV abroad, to kids in schools as well as on Radio 4 audience.


By Theophilus Kwek

The full festival programme will be available from Wednesday 26th April on the Ledbury website here.

Acrostic by Sudeep Sen

Derek Walcott & Sudeep Sen

(R.I.P. Derek Walcott: January 23, 1930 – March 17, 2017)

Deep seas of yesteryears wash new froth on your home shores.
Egrets, sea gulls, circle the ruddy skies waiting for perfect thermals to
Rise — ripe air-currents — wingspans larger than civilizational memory.
East tries to meet West, North tries to meet South, Poles magnetize in a
Kaleidoscopic churning — saturating the sea-sky’s azure, a brighter blue.

What is it with an Antillean story that makes ‘the other’ so pale,
And its art so grand, epical — under the Caribbean’s sharp, lucent light?
Lot remains to be unearthed, much remains unspoken, unwritten —
Cotyledons unraveling without nature’s aid or human touch.
Om mani pad me hum — O the jewel in the lotus — that Himalayan echo,
That primal sound — chant from a mother’s womb, a uterus scream —
That life-force balancing points — trying to find an elusive fulcrum.

Sudeep Sen’s prize-winning books include Postmarked India: New & Selected Poems (HarperCollins), Rain, Aria (A. K. Ramanujan Translation Award), The HarperCollins Book of English Poetry (editor), Fractals: New & Selected Poems | Translations 1980-2015 (London Magazine Editions) and EroText (Vintage: Penguin Random House). Blue Nude: New Poems & Ekphrasis (Jorge Zalamea International Poetry Prize) is forthcoming.

Britannic Myths launch at Shapero Rare Books

The First Battle Of Mag Tuired, Joe Machine

On the evening of 16th March, The London Magazine‘s editor, Steven O’Brien, launched his most recent book, Britannic Myths at Shapero Rare Books. Published by Theme Artefact, Britannic Myths is a collaboration in prose and painting between Mythographer Steven O’Brien and Stuckist artist Joe Machine, who together have delved into the mythic matter of Britain and Ireland.

Marina Warner writes of Britannic Myths:

Steven O’Brien has forged a word-music to match the strange, fierce magic tales seething in the great local pot of archipelagic stories. He rightly notices that classical myths and European fairy tales have eclipsed this fabulous source, and in a rich counterpoint of memory, poetic and dramatic retelling, historic comment, and remarkable paintings by Joe Machine, this highly original sequence of fifteen stories reconnects our present to an effaced past of marvellous, unsettling  imagination. Weirdness and glamour and faerie are old words meaning knowledge and enchantment and dazzlement; Britannic Myths reawakens their power.

Britannic Myths will be available to buy on our shop in the coming weeks.

Poetry Prize 2017


As of midnight tonight (30th June 2017) this competition will be closed.


The London Magazine has been home to some of the most prestigious poets in its long publishing history, from John Keats to Sylvia Plath. Our annual Poetry Prize seeks out new voices in poetry, providing a platform for publication in the UK’s oldest literary journal.

All poems submitted must be previously unpublished and no longer than 40 lines. We have no criteria as to theme, form or style but are looking for diverse work which is not afraid to innovate and startle. This competition is open to international entries.


Entry fee: £10 per poem | Subsequent entries: £5 per poem
(there is no limit to the number of entries you can submit)

Opening date: 1st May 2017
Closing Date: 30th June 2017

First Prize: £500
Second Prize: £300
Third Prize: £200

The winning poems will be published in future issues of The London Magazine and there will be an award ceremony held in London for the winners.

Everyone that submits to the Poetry Prize 2017 will also be emailed a discount code to use on our website.


Born in London in 1960, Frieda Hughes is a poet and painter.  She was the Times Poetry columnist from 2006 – 2008, and has also written a number of children’s books, and numerous articles for magazines and newspapers over the years. Her poetry collections to date include Wooroloo, Stonepicker, Waxworks, Forty-Five, The Book of Mirrors, and Alternative Values. Alternative Values became her first illustrated collection when Frieda used the subject of her poems to inform the accompanying abstract images.

Frieda’s next exhibition is in Chichester Cathedral from 14th June to 17th August, and will include paintings from Alternative Values, and a recently completed mammoth project, ‘400 DAYS’, an abstract visual diary of 400 consecutive days painted in oils on 400 canvases.  The finished work is approximately 13 feet high and 29 feet long. Frieda’s next poetry collection, Out of the Ashes, will be published in Autumn 2017 by Bloodaxe Books.


Patricia McCarthy, winner of The Poetry Society’s National Poetry Competition 2013, is the editor of the national/international poetry journal, Agenda.

She is half Irish and half English. A small collection, Survival, was published in the US and A Second Skin came out from Peterloo Poets in 1985. A translation of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Book of Hours was published in 2007, translated by both Patricia McCarthy and Christine McNeill.

A substantial collection, Rodin’s Shadow (Clutag Press/Agenda Editions) came out in October 2012, Horses Between Our Legs came out in 2013 (poems inspired by World War I headed by her national poetry competition winner) and Letters to Akhmatova, 2015. Shot Silks is due from Waterloo Press 2017, as well as another collection, Rockabye from Worple Press (September 2017). Her work has appeared in many journals and she has been widely anthologised. In 2012 she was elected a Fellow of the English Association.


As of 1st May, you’ll be able to apply via Submittable (see link below).

Please note: the category ‘Poetry Prize 2017’ will not be open to submissions until 1st May.



Alternatively, as of 1st May, you can download the Poetry Prize entry form 2017 to fill in and post with your entry. (N.B. There is no need to complete an entry form if entering via Submittable)


  • Please read our competition rules carefully before entering.
  • Make sure to include your completed entry form with your submission if submitting by any means other than Submittable. This can be downloaded from our website and sent to us by email or post.
  • If you have any questions, please contact Abi at competition@thelondonmagazine.org.

To receive competition updates and all the latest news and offers, sign up for The London Magazine‘s Official Newsletter. Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter and Facebook for updates!

Book and Kitchen: An Evening of Drinks and Poetry


On 28th February, The London Magazine hosted an evening of drinks and poetry at Book and Kitchen, Notting Hill. There were readings from several of our contributors, including the following:

Stanley Moss, a critically acclaimed American author and poet. Moss founded Sheep Meadow Press, a non-profit press devoted to poetry and on international poets in translation.

Angela Kirby grew up in rural Lancashire, but now lives in London. The author of five books on cooking, gardening and related subjects, her poems are widely published and broadcast. Much of her work has been translated into Romanian. In 1996 and 2001 she was the BBC’s Wildlife Poet of the Year. Shoestring Press published her four collections: Mr. Irresistible, 2005, Dirty Work, 2008, A Scent of Winter, 2013, and The Days After Always, New and Selected Poems, 2015. A fifth collection is under way.

Theophilus Kwek was born in Singapore and has published three collections of poetry, most recently Giving Ground (Ethos Books, 2016). He won the Jane Martin Prize in 2015 and the New Poets’ Prize in 2016, and has been published in The North, Southword, The Interpreter’s House, Eastlit, and other journals. He works at The Oxford Writers’ House and Asymptote, the journal of world literature.

Phoebe L. Corbett is a poet and writer from West London. Before graduating in Creative & Media Writing at the University of Portsmouth she produced a collection of poetry, Saudade: A Recollection, as her dissertation. A thesis followed on saudade and nostalgia within poetry and Portuguese Fado, and she went on to win the university’s 2016 Creative Writing Award. Her main interests lie in poetry and travel writing, as well as in activism, and she has penned opinion pieces for various online magazines.

Róisín Tierney is an Irish poet who taught for several years in Spain (Valladolid and Grana­da). Her pamphlet, Dream Endings (Rack Press) won the 2012 Michael Marks Pamphlet Award. A more recent pamphlet Five Poems is published by Clutag Press. She featured as one of Ireland’s ‘Rising Poets’ in Poetry Ireland Review #118 in the spring of this year. Her debut collection, The Spanish-Italian Border is published by Arc.

Grey Gowrie, published poet, Former Minister for the Arts and Special Editorial Advisor to The London Magazine.

Thanks to all that attended and celebrated this lovely evening with us!

Ghost Story by J.G. Warry


For close on forty years I have pursued
The ghost of my personality
Down endless corridors of a castle

If I could catch him, I wonder,
By the hem of his fading gown
Would he turn and show me a mystery
Or with a silent frown

Repudiate the beckoning finger
Which often at the angle of a stair
Invited me to a solemn tete-a-tete —
Always elsewhere?

When the clock is stirring the shadows
Anxiously I raise
My eyes to the darkened gallery,
Wondering if his face

Closely resembles my face.
And if in fact it does not,
Would I really care to confront him
In a lonely spot?

Who is the owner of the castle?
Is it the ghost or I?
And if the walls suddenly crumble
Under the night sky

Will the place still be haunted?
Or shall I stand alone
Beneath the moon, with the fragments
Of powdered stone?

This poem originally appeared in The London Magazine in June 1960

Transcribed by Anna Červenková

Short Story Competition 2016 | An interview with Erica Wagner

Portrait of writer and critic Erica Wagner

With just over a month until our Short Story Competition 2016 closes, we spoke to one of the judges, Erica Wagner, and found out that Emily Dickinson inspires her creative process. She also told us what three elements she believes are key to a good short story. 


What are you currently reading? If it’s not fiction, what fiction have you recently read and enjoyed? And what specifically did you like about it?

I’ve just read Yaa Gyasi’s wonderful novel, Homegoing (coming in the UK from Penguin in January) and I’m trying not to get to the end of Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed, her take on The Tempest, which is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series. Homegoing is remarkable for a first novel — a book that takes us from 18th-century Ghana to present day America, bringing to life the dreadful history of the slave trade and its legacy in the United States. Atwood’s Hag-Seed is serious, moving… and funny, for she always manages (sometimes miraculously) to combine the three. It’s a perfect homage to the Bard and yet always its own story: quite a trick!

What is your favourite short story, and why is it your favourite?

I can’t believe you’re asking me this question. My favourite short story? How could I possibly choose? On the one hand there is Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener”, on the other Rose Tremain’s “The Housekeeper” (to mention just one relatively recent story I adored).

Which writer’s work can you always rely on to inspire your creative process?

Emily Dickinson.

If you were stuck on a desert island and you could only take three books, which three would you take?

The collected poems of Emily Dickinson (see above). A Story As Sharp As a Knife, by Robert Bringhurst. The best atlas available between hard covers: a good map is an infinite story.

In your opinion, what are the key elements of a good short story?

Vision, precision, and a sense of unlimited completion.

What advice can you give entrants to the Short Story Competition 2016?

See everything you want your readers to see. If you are there, we will be, too. Edit your story, and then edit it again. And again.


Erica Wagner is an author and editor. For 17 years literary editor of The Times, and twice a judge of the Man Booker prize, she is now Lecturer in Creative Writing at Goldsmiths, University of London, a contributing writer for the New Statesman and consulting literary editor for Harper’s Bazaar. She is the author of Gravity: Stories; Ariel’s Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of Birthday Letters and Seizure, a novel. Pas de Deux/A Concert of Stories, co-written with storyteller Abbi Patrix and musician and composer Linda Edsjö, tours around the world. First Light: A Celebration of Alan Garner, has just been published by Unbound, and her biography of Washington Roebling, chief engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge, will be published by Bloomsbury in 2017.

John Scott’s The London Magazine by Matthew Scott

A segment of The Elgin Marbles

Matthew Scott

John Scott’s The London Magazine

The Greek author Lucian tells of a lusty, young aristocrat who fell for a statue of Aphrodite and, willing it to be real, attempted to defile it. He had only the experience of other boys to go on and fell short when it came to the anatomy of women; congress was a hopeless failure and he hurled himself to his death. But statues in Lucian are not all silent in their allure. James Joyce has the hero of Ulysses, Leopold Bloom, fascinated by the marble buttocks of Venus and such Pygmalion-like desire has a long aesthetic history. Wanting the art object to come to life is a museum fantasy that recurs repeatedly in western literature and it is a strong theme in The London Magazine of the 1820s. Here, statues abound, leaping to life, though they are more political than sexual.

One of the magazine’s most famous essays is an account in 1822 of the Elgin Marbles by the critic William Hazlitt, which stands out as an extraordinary description of those statues and, indeed, transcends them to make a case for the humanizing potential of art more generally. Hazlitt and Benjamin Robert Haydon were leading voices in an argument that surrounded the value of the Elgin Marbles. For all the debate about the rectitude of their having been taken off the Parthenon in the first place, it seems almost incredible now when no one doubts the importance of the statues in the history of western art, that on their arrival in Britain, they were dismissed by the leading aesthetic mandarin of the time as worthless copies made in the time of Hadrian. History hasn’t dealt favourably with Richard Payne Knight, whose taste — or lack of it — now appears to be quaint if not simply bizarre. But at the time, Hazlitt saw himself writing in opposition to the reactionary conservativism of an orthodoxy rooted the poIite values of the eighteenth century that had fought keep the works outside the British Museum. He felt that he was standing up instead for a newer set of artistic values that found Romantic power in those massive, decaying forms.

Horace Smith is the author of the leading article in the issue of March 1821, which identities one of the marbles as Theseus and is accompanied by a splendid engraving of it. ‘Mutilated and disfigured as is,’ he writes, ‘I never approach this majestic statue without feeling an indescribable awe, leading me, almost unconsciously, to take off my hat, and look at it with silent reverence, as if l stood in the presence of some superior being.’ The article is self-consciously rather coy and its slightly callow veneration of the statue is much more marked than anything in Hazlitt’s tough, technical essay. But Smith’s obvious sense of wonder before the work of art is a familiar emotional theme in the magazine’s many essays on art and culture. Its readers were obviously hungry for material relating to current exhibitions and shows, as well as theatre and music, and this kind of sentimental criticism was popular. But the essay, also betrays an odd sense of anxiety or uncertainty, as though neither he nor his age is quite up to the task of appreciating just how marvellous these statues really are. There is something of an obsession with antiquity in the magazine and it exposes a wider anxiety in this period that even as Britain expanded its empires, its position as a cultural authority could never rival that of earlier eras.

Complaint about the shoddy standards of contemporary culture is of course a pretty time-honoured theme but the writers of The London weren’t conservative traditionalists invoking in fustian the spirit of the past but radical liberals, conscious of living in a culture that had changed very distinctly since the end of the eighteenth century. The decade of the 1820s is a rather forgotten moment in British cultural history. The great poets of the previous generation, Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, had their finest work long behind them; none of the second generation, Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron, was to live long. In political terms, these are the last years of a worn out Conservative administration, one dissected forcefully by Disraeli in the opening part of his novel, Sybil. The challenges of the wars in Europe had thrown up a new role for Britain that necessitated change and there was a widespread feeling that electoral reform was needed but this, and Catholic emancipation, were to come only in the 1830s. The London Magazine, especially in the period immediately after its revival in 1820 under the dynamic editorship of John Scott, provides us with extraordinary insight into the intellectual and artistic on of the age and one has the sense of a culture that was in vibrant dialogue with both Europe and its expanding empire, but not yet entirely confident with itself as an imperial power.

A few years before writing his essay on the Elgin Marbles, Horace Smith had taken part in a competition organized by the influential writer and publisher, Leigh Hunt, in which he was asked to produce a poem in response to a new acquisition of the British Museum, an Egyptian statue of the pharaoh, Ramesses II. His rival was Shelley, whose famous sonnet ‘Ozymandias’ remains a potent warning to would-be imperialists of the transience of all empires. Smith’s own poem takes much the same line only he is more specific in imagining a post-imperial London, wasted away into wilds:

We wonder, — and some Hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro’ the wilderness
Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chase,
He meets some fragment huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.

This anxiety isn’t fully representative of the ‘spirit of the age’ as Hazlitt calls his series of literary portraits published in The London; there are optimistic voices too. Indeed Smith himself often sounds rather remorselessly jolly in his essays, the anxiety jarring with the wit in another piece on the same Egyptian statue, ‘Memnon’s Head,’ published a month before his essay on the Theseus. This is an extraordinary bit of writing to which I’ve returned repeatedly since discovering it on a dark winter afternoon in the Bodleian library and it takes us back to Lucian, with whom I began.

The pharaoh’s head known ever since as the ‘Younger Memnon’, a later copy of a larger original, famous in antiquity was excavated and removed from a site at Thebes bv the Anglo-Italian Giovanni Belzoni, and became the subject of a good deal of interest in London following its exhibition and the publication in 1820 of the explorer’s account of his discovery. It’s putting it rather mildly to say that Belzoni was an unusual character: an ex-circus strongman and rampant self-publicist, he had perfected techniques for the removal of ancient statuary and, with this particular sculpture, executed his master trick. John Scott reviewed his popular narrative with its description of the logistics of the project in The London in January 1821, a month before Smith’s essay. His audience was familiar with the statue and Smith wastes no time on description. Instead, he begins by telling his readers about a claim of Lucian that the original sculpture had supernatural powers and could speak in the voice of an oracle. He goes on:

Unless I have been grossly deceived by imagination, I have good grounds for maintaining, that the Head, now in the British Museum, is endued with qualities quite as inexplicable, as any that have been attributed to its more enormous namesake.— I had taken my seat before it yesterday afternoon, for the purpose of drawing a sketch, occasionally pursuing my work, and occasionally lost in reveries upon the vicissitudes of fate this mighty monument had experienced, until I became unconscious of the lapse of time, and, just as the shades of evening began to gather round the room, I discovered that every visitor had retired, and that I was left quite alone with the gigantic Head! There was something awful, if not alarming, in the first surprise excited by the discovery; and I must confess, that I felt a slight inclination to quicken my steps to the door. Shame, however, withheld me;—and as I made a point of proving to myself, that I was superior to such childish impressions, I resumed my seat, and examined my sketch, with an affectation of nonchalance. On again looking up to the Bust, it appeared to me that an air of living animation had spread over its Nubian features, which had obviously arranged themselves into a smile.

Moments later, the statue begins to speak to him in perfect pentameters and, to a reader familiar with Smith’s other work, it comes as little surprise that the resultant poem is an appeal to the British to do away with the arrogance of imperial design lest London be subjected to the same fate as the ancient empires. It’s a very strange contribution — part short story, part poem — but there is no sense of a critical opinion characterized by cold, disinterested objectivity. Smith, having settled to the task of objective imitation, finds himself withdrawn into reverie, losing any sense of time, place or self. He wakes to find himself in the world of the artist-critic’s dream — the private moment in solitary contemplation of the artefact but this in turn produces an anxious solicitude, in which his own mute wonder is displaced by the voice of the very object of his contemplation. The attitude towards the art of the past is curiously vexed, suggesting that it can be at once both supremely compelling and profoundly disturbing. And while we might be inclined to be a little patronizing towards Smith with his quirky, naive story, it does contribute to a sense that any reader will develop that The London was a publication that took aesthetic matters very seriously indeed.

This is revealed more darkly in events that were shortly to take place. John Scott, who started the publication in 1820 by reviving an obsolete title from the eighteenth century, contributed with The London to a literary scene that was already thriving with numerous periodicals that dealt with the cultural events of the day. Most prominent in this period were two reviews, the Quarterly and the Edinburgh, which were strongly marked by their respective Tory and Whig credentials. A principle on The London that Scott was determined to enforce was that the magazine shouldn’t be politically partisan and that his writers, a wonderful gathering of talents including Charles Lamb and Thomas De Quincey, should be allowed freedom of expression. These are marvellous ideals but culture is, of course, inevitably political and in championing the young poet, John Keats, the editor found himself drawn into a larger and more costly battle. Keats was associated with the radical circles of Leigh Hunt, who had long been the butt of attacks from writers on the right for his criticism of the Regency establishment and his avowedly revolutionary sentiments. With the publication of his early poems, Keats found himself tarnished by the association and subject to the same kinds of charge that had been levelled against his mentor. Whatever one makes of the early, rather immature poems, there can be little doubt that the reviews in the Tory press were unfair and often personally insulting, most especially those in Blackwood’s Magazine, a rival of The London.

It isn’t the most glorious moment in critical history but journalism is frequently unfair and it’s probably best to rise above it. Scott, however, was unyieldingly dedicated to his principles and refused to let the matter rest. In a series of editorials beginning in May 1820 and continuing throughout the year, Scott sharply counterattacked, charging Blackwood’s with impropriety and bias. A sham apology only drove him on further with the suggestion of financial irregularity in the rival camp:

It is a common trick with the pickpockets in the streets, to profess great interest in the misfortune of the person they have just knocked down and plundered:—the very rascals who have struck him from behind, and filched his watch from his fob, will come round in his face, to pity and pat him — with their mouths full of asseverations against the roguery and cruelty of the outrage of which he has been the victim.

There is little doubt that the sequence of events that followed could have been avoided. John Gibson Lockhart, the editor of Blackwood’s, sought a retraction to no avail and after a Byzantine sequence of communications that are hard to unravel, Scott found himself forced into a duel with Lockhart’s London agent, Jonathan Christie. The pair met at nine o’clock in the evening at Chalk Farm outside London on 16 February 1821, with James Traill as a second for Christie and P G Patmore, a noted art critic and determined advocate of Keats in The London, for Scott. Christie did not fire on the first attempt in accordance with the honour code, but on the second, after a mix-up between the seconds, he shot, as he thought, in self-defence, the ball striking Scott above the right hip and passing through his guts into the left. It caused profuse bleeding and Scott was returned to his rooms at York Street in Covent Garden, where he lay weakening gradually towards his inevitable death eleven days later on 27 February 1821. He is buried nearby in the vault of St Martin’s in the Fields.

It is horrifying to think of him waiting for death to come through those awful, long days, a fate that would not face his killer for another fifty-five years. Scott, like Keats, wasn’t destined to become a Victorian sage; he remains, like his magazine, a figure from the Regency, essential to the character of the Romantic period. And although The London continued on into the second half of the decade, it never quite maintained the exceptional quality of the issues produced under Scott and in the period immediately following his death. The article about Memnon’s head with its curious, artistically driven but deeply moralising reflections had appeared only a few weeks earlier. Given the events at Chalk Farm on that grim, winter night, it’s pretty remarkable that the publication continued at all and that it did has much to do with Scott’s earlier editorial zeal. The duel forces us to read the magazine with a renewed awareness of the seriousness with which this group of writers took the matter of aesthetic judgement and, at a time when we are asked continually to advocate relativism in matters of taste and to eschew judgements of quality, this is perhaps no bad thing.

This essay first appeared in The London Magazine Dec 2008/Jan/Feb 2009. Matthew Scott is the current Reviews Editor at TLM.

Transcribed by Ludo Cinelli. 

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