2018 was a very full year for my books and writing. In July I published the final volume of The Secret of the Tirthas, The Unknown Realms. Following Lizzie’s journey from her initial move to the Herefordshire cottage with its strange garden of rooms all the way to her final showdown with the demons and their followers at the Fountainhead has been a real delight for me. I never knew just how much the story and characters would grow, and particularly how much I would come to love Lizzie, Pandu, Raj and Ashlyn. A huge thank you to all of you who have joined me on this journey, especially everyone who let me know what they think through reviews and emails. Your support means a lot to me!
Whilst the publication of the final novel might mean the end to readers in English, it’s just the start for readers in China and Taiwan, as the series is being translated by Mandarin publisher Fiberead. In September The City of Light came out on Amazon’s Chinese site and a range of other Mandarin retail sites, followed quickly by The Book of Life and The Dreamer Falls. The final two books are also being translated, so it’s a very exciting time for me.
And on top of all that, I have an Argentinian friend who is now translating The City of Light into Spanish. It’s great to see the series opening more portals in the real world!
In October I also brought out my first book of poetry, Up in the Air. I’ve been writing poems since my twenties, and had quite a few published in magazines such as Poetry Ireland, The New Welsh Review and Poetry Scotland. Up in the Air brought the best of these together, alongside a few unpublished poems. I was over the moon when the collection reached no.8 in Amazon’s Inspirational Poetry category!
I love this quiet period between Christmas and New Year. It’s the perfect time to do some thinking – and in my case, some plotting of the next novel, something with a very different twist.
I hope you have a fabulous New Year – and many thanks again for your reading and support!
My new poetry book, Up in the Air, is divided into five sections – Air, Love, Water, Air (again) and Image.
The Image section consists of eight poems inspired by paintings, photographs, a display, a poster and a line drawing. In this post I’ll identify some of these pictures and talk about how they inspired my poems.
First off, the paintings.
The section begins with On Justice, inspired by the painting of Margareta van Eyck by her husband Jan van Eyck. The painting hangs in the Groeninge Museum in Bruges. When I saw it, I was mesmerised by the character in the woman’s face. I could see her intelligence and what I thought was a hint of sharpness, possibly even bitterness. My poem (check it out here if you don’t have the book) wanted to capture that, as well as meditate on the failure of even the greatest art to transcend mortality.
The next poem, Self-Portrait, is based on one of Van Gogh’s paintings. There’s a lot going on here, as you can see, plenty of light, colour, chaos and energy. This painting is a gift to anyone’s imagination, so I just let mine run riot.
Exhibition, Merton is a long poem based on the paintings of the artist Jocelyn Merivale. I used to work with her husband, John, and so had the pleasure of studying her paintings in their home. Jocelyn’s main theme was water and especially the sea – but she also painted birds and portraits. Jocelyn died a few years ago and her website is currently down whilst her paintings are being professionally photographed, but below is a close up of Field of Birds. You can see more of her paintings here.
The other poem based on a painting is Looking at it Now. Paolo Uccello’s Saint George and the Dragon in the National Gallery is a masterpiece. But, as with the poem that follows it, Beast (based on a gallery drawing), I wanted to re-imagine the relationship between man, woman, and ‘monster’, to reflect more modern sensibilities.
The Ogrw-Garw Display was an exhibition about one of the valleys in South Wales, created by a friend. The exhibition comprised beautiful photographs of the ancient oak woodland scattered across the mine-scarred landscape. But in the middle of the display was a single black-and-white photo of… a group of school children.
I wrote Ugandan Bestiary after a safari holiday with my wife in 2007. Back home, I studied the photos of the trip, mulling over the animals we’d had the good fortune to see. In doing so, I came up with this series of short, vignette-style poems.
Finally, Christ in the Crowd was randomly inspired by this poster for Jesus Christ Superstar. As they say, inspiration comes from anywhere and everywhere.
It’s getting to that time again when we like to think back over what we’ve done in the past year. Or, in the case of us bibliophiles, what we’ve read. So, once again here’s my Top Ten Books for Grown-ups that I’ve read in 2018, each a perfect gift for the Yuletide season!
The Top Ten for Children and Young Adults will be along shortly…
Troubles, J.G. Farrell
Troubles is probably my favourite book that I’ve read this year. It’s about a traumatised British soldier (‘The Major’) who goes to Ireland to meet his apparent fiance, and ends up staying in her father’s hotel for… well, for a very long time. Like the fantastic Siege of Krishnapur, the real subject of Troubles is the decline of the British Empire. But J.G. Farrell’s supreme success is rendering this through exquisite detail and through his wonderful, vivid, and occasionally comic, characters.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon
Another historical novel, this is an absorbing tale of two men who create a Comic empire in war-time New York. One of them is a Jewish migrant, striving to be a real-life hero to save members of his family left behind in Nazi Germany.
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari
An astonishing book, giving an overview of the major phases of our evolution. It’s often grim in its rendering of our collective fictions, but it’s also balanced with glimmers of hope, such as the relative peacefulness of recent times, improvements in medicine, and reductions in global poverty. Most unnerving is the ending, which touches on the huge pressures we face to undertake more bioengineering, and where that might lead. Nonfiction such as a Moment on the Earth and fiction such as Hyperion, by Dan Simmons, address some of these issues. But this book wakes you up to the prospect that, in the long view, our turbulent history might just be a staging post in the evolution of intelligent design.
Inside the Wave, Helen Dunmore
The final book of poetry by the talented and versatile Helen Dunmore. I read several of her dark and atmospheric novels when I was younger, including Zennor in Darkness and A Spell of Winter. She also wrote some mermaid-inspired Young Adult novels which I’ve yet to read. But she stands out as a poet. She wrote Inside the Wave when she was terminally ill, and the writing has a clear, transcendent beauty.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson
A brilliant, creepy book that really gets inside the mind and disturbing habits of its teenage narrator – who is definitively unreliable.
The Accidental Tourist, Anne Tyler
It’s taken me a long time to read this classic title. I love A.M. Homes, and Anne Tyler writes in a similar vein. Both give us stories of Americans whose lives have been fractured by trauma but who retain – or recover – a sense of perspective and transcendence. And who still have a surprising decision or two in them.
The Stranger’s Child, Alan Hollinghurst
I struggled at first to buy into this segmented novel that revisits a wealthy British family throughout the last century. But as it went on I grew to love the way it built a textured picture of the ebb and flow of legacy – particularly that of one man, a war poet. I occasionally find myself slowing down as novels progress, getting a little less interested in the set up and characters. But in The Stranger’s Child, I found my appetite and interest increasing all the time.
Dark Entries, Rober Aickman
The second horror entry in my top ten. These morbid, unresolved tales by Robert Aickman are as usual masterfully told. A poet of the tomb, he plants a dark seed in your mind and let’s you grow it however you will. Check out my review of The Wine-Dark Seahere.
Solstice, Joyce Carol Oates
I’d been meaning to read some Joyce Carol Oates for a long time. I wasn’t disappointed with this, a dark and gripping tale of a claustrophobic friendship between a charismatic artist and a dowdy lecturer.
Ten Poems about Birds, intro Jenni Murray
A beautifully produced present given to me by my wife on our tenth wedding anniversary. Only when I put together my first poetry book, Up in the Air, did I realise quite how obsessed I am by birds and flight. So this was a truly magical present. The poems are wondrous and fragile, perfect little songs. I especially liked Skylark, which I had never read before, and Owl, which I had, but had forgotten.
Am an owl, am an owl…
Want to know more about what I’ve been reading? Check out my favourite books in 2017 and 2016!
I’ve been really pleased by the reception of my first poetry book, Up in the Air, which reached the top ten in Amazon’s ‘Inspirational Poetry’ bestsellers category.
I wrote a post about how I started writing poems here. I mentioned it was climbing Scottish mountains and reading William Wordsworth that kickstarted my love for poetry. But citing Wordsworth as an inspiration is hardly hip these days. So I thought I’d tell you why I like him. Then, hopefully, you will too.
There are three reasons I love Wordsworth:
#1 His Idealism
As a young man in the 1790s, Wordsworth travelled on the continent and was excited by the fresh ideals of the politics he discovered. He believed passionately in the French Revolution, that there would be a new dawn of equality and liberty for all humankind. Unfortunately it was followed by the Reign of Terror and Wordsworth ultimately retreated, disillusioned, to his private sanctuary in the Lake District. I’ve got a feeling quite a few of us would like to do that these days.
#2 His Poetry
Obviously. Wordsworth created some of the most inspired and memorable lines in the English language. Look at these for instance:
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!
That best portion of a good man’s life,
His little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love.
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.
Come forth into the light of things, Let nature be your teacher.
With an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.
#3 Above all, his love of, respect for, and insight into Nature
As one of the greatest Romantic poets, Wordsworth described the inner life and value of Nature like no other:
And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.
Therefore am I still
A lover of the meadows and the woods,
And mountains; and of all that we behold
From this green earth; of all the mighty world
Of eye, and ear, – both what they half create,
And what perceive; well pleased to recognise
In nature and the language of the sense
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my moral being.
He understood the mysterious interplay that our thoughts, our minds, have with Nature. Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey is my favourite poem, and I think the lines about what the eye and ear ‘half create, and what percieve’ is a revelation.
I often re-read Wordsworth’s poems, when I arrive in the mountains, or see a new, inspiring landscape. We can never be sure about the inner life of Nature, the force that through the green fuse drives the flower as Dylan Thomas called it, and what our part in it is. But many of us believe that there is something really there beyond dim, blind, mechanics. And we see that, in a semi-objective, semi-imaginative way, we are not only created by it, but have a mysterious role in creating the world ourselves.
Interested in finding out about my poetry? Go here.
An Amazon bestselling collection, Up in the Air brings together 50 poems that I’ve written over the last 25 years, some published, others new. If you want to read how I came to write poetry in the first place, there’s a post about it here.
I hope you’ll consider buying and reading it. I would be over the moon if you could also write a short review for Amazon (one line will do!). And remember, nothing makes a better Christmas present than some poetry…
Here’s the link, available all over the world as a paperback and Kindle version thanks to the wonders of Amazon:
My new poetry book, Up in the Air, will be out later this month. I am sooo excited!
This book brings together 50 poems I’ve written over the past 25 years. I got into poetry properly in my twenties when studying an MSc in Environmental Management at Stirling University in Scotland.
I love the big outdoors, and it wasn’t long before I began climbing some of the legendary Scottish mountains. Ben Lomond was the first, done in thick snow and cloud after a late night out on the tiles. It was a struggle, but I remember an amazing moment near the summit when the fog lifted and there was half of Loch Lomond on dazzling display. I’d studied Wordsworth before – but it was in the Highlands that I really became inspired by his poetry:
‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive But to be young was very heaven!‘
From there, it was a short step to writing my own poems. My first publication was in a regional anthology. It was really a clever piece of vanity publishing – everyone’s family and friends bought copies – but it boosted my confidence as a writer. Next, I had two poems accepted by a much more high profile magazine, Orbis International. One (Old Man) was inspired by a walk on the Old Man of Coniston, a mountain in the English Lake District.
After that, I began to write poems on nature, love, and all the other things that inspired me. Many got accepted in literary magazines, such as Poetry Ireland, The Rialto and The New Welsh Review. I did readings in places such as The Troubadour in Old Compton Street, London (in the cellar where Bob Dylan once performed!)
I always thought one day I would get them published – but along came work and other things. I stopped writing for a while, and when I came back to it I was bursting with ideas for my adventure series, The Secret of the Tirthas. Whilst I continued to write the odd poem, I focused on that for the next decade.
When I finished The Secret of the Tirthas this summer, I realised it was the ideal moment to get the poetry into shape for a collection. So now, after many hours of work, sifting through dozens of poems, whittling down the best, sorting everything into themes, designing a cover (always there in my mind’s eye, with the title decided upon years ago), I am finally there.
It was a revelation choosing the themes, as it showed me how almost unconsciously I kept returning to certain subjects. Birds and flight are a major inspiration, as are paintings, love, and water (particularly ice).
I hope you will consider buying and reading my first poetry collection. And remember, a poetry book makes a fantastic Christmas present for family and friends!
A big pastime for old men in Hong Kong is keeping songbirds. There’s a large garden in Kowloon, where many go to feed birds in return for songs. I wrote this poem about that garden when I visited it in 2001.
The poem was first published in Poetry File by the Belmont Arts Centre, for teaching in Secondary Schools in Shropshire. I’m posting it today because it’s National Poetry Day.
Isn’t it great we have a day to celebrate poetry!?
Bird Garden, Hong Kong features in my poetry book, Up in the Air:
This incident with an adventurous (or possibly confused) housemartin took place when I was staying in a cottage on holiday in rural France. It was an intriguing place, in the grounds of a very small chateau, whose elderly owner used to stand every morning at one of her parapets with a huge Great Dane beside her. The first night I was terrified someone was breaking in because the electrics tripped out downstairs, making a huge cracking sound. That cottage felt like a different world, and a different time.
in through the blue window
hunched up around
angelic beating wings
circling the rafters
tensing our naked bodies
as we read
and drink coffee in bed –
we curl our morning papers,
prepare to drive the thing out.
this bird is no amateur,
doesn’t panic in a crisis –
no, this bird
is a reader of houses
and sees this one’s ours
so retreats quickly
leaving us with only
of the beat
of his wings
in our hearts.
This was one of several poems I had published in the Belmont Art Centre’s Poetry File programme for teaching in secondary schools in Shropshire. It features in my poetry book Up in the Air, available here:
This poem was written during a time when I did a lot of volunteering for wildlife trusts and other environmental groups. Amongst other things, I learned how to build a drystone wall, coppice woodland, and lay hedges, in some beautiful parts of the country. There was always something magical about being outside, working with a group of like-minded people, whatever the weather.
A man, a man I could have loved starts to shade, to shade the morning mist.
He is beating stakes, stakes into the clay forcing them past stones, stones and steady roots, the things weak within the earth and the things that hate to move.
As I approach he takes his shape assuredly from the frail and wet white air, a seamster weaving hazel whips through the hedge, outwitting the final challenge of scratch and rip.
In defeat the hawthorn rests its useless claws uneasily against itself, uncertain how to act. Then feels the sap rise, rise again in its veins, and knows that it is elect.
Hedgelayer features in my poetry collection Up in the Air, available here: