Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Are There Any Other Civilisations ... Out There?

I have held a universal and, it seems probably a pantheistic view of our life on earth for many years now. It is this: that there are probably other intelligent civilisations out there in the cosmos, but, in spite of our continued quest to find some and because of the humungous scale and mind boggling span of time that is represented in the life of the universe, we will never discover one. We may not even exist simultaneously. I would add a small warning to those, who like my mother-in-law, God rest her soul, used to be, are mind-bogglephobics, or who simply cannot cope with the scale of it all, that this may be a challenging concept to grasp. Nonetheless, it does require a calculator with a large scale, should you wish to do some proportions!

The following is a track from his album, "Letters from a Flying Machine" by a very fine musician, singer and songwriter from the USA, Peter Mulvey, whom we saw and met on the weekend at the Barnsley Acoustic Roots Festival.  Having listened closely to the words of his songs and one or two of his 'between song' talks, I asked him in our brief chat, did he by any chance write poetry? He replied that he didn't; he preferred to leave that to the poets, but that a few of his friends were poets and that he read a great deal of poetry ... to exemplify this, the inside cover of the album we bought from him, "Silver Ladder" reveals a brief quote from the 17th Century poet, Mizuta Masahide: "Barn's burnt down - now I can see the moon".

... anyway, back to the theme of this post.

The only thing I can do is ask you to listen to this story Peter Mulvey tells of a conversation that he had, over some beer, with "Vlad the Astrophysicist":




Sums it up very neatly for me.

You might also want to listen to some of this fellow's music; there is poetry in a lot of it.

Saturday, 15 February 2014

Flooding and Political Flimflam

[This was posted on my Facebook wall earlier in the week, in response to the furore of political attacks on the Environment Agency. I felt much need to vent my feelings and also that it should be placed here on my blog, for the record - and I couldn't resist the above title!]

I had to restrain myself from an outburst last Monday, following the patently childish attacks by certain political voices against the Environment Agency for the flooding in the Somerset Levels, none more aggressive (and typical of its source) than from that well known pit bull, who was momentarily and, I suspect, deliberately, but later, regrettably let off the leash by his masters - give the little mutt, Pickles, a tickle behind his ear, folks (but no more biscuits, please) - like naughty children, who've been found out and try to throw the blame on their siblings, peers or those without the ability to fight back. Do they ever think about ... are they truly blinded to the fact that we can actually see through their silly, manipulative games, or is this just another attempt at a 'clever' smoke screen to shield some other piece of skulduggery that they wish to pass through parliament unnoticed. Keep your eyes peeled for another raid on the NHS or our education system or our freedom of speech ...

Come what may, what started this post was not only a feeling of total sympathy for those, who are clearly suffering so much stress at what's happening to their land and homes in the South West, but it was also about a simple fact that seems to have eluded many of those, who think they are in 'control' of this country, and who it is patently clear are NOT ... that the rain comes from the clouds, which are formed from those huge North Atlantic storm systems that are plaguing us with exceptionally adverse weather this Winter, it does NOT come from the Environment Agency or any other agency that the aforementioned pit bull is unleashed to clamp its overfed jaws on to break up, destroy or dissolve. It might also behove those self serving political parties to this furore to start paying attention to some other well documented longer term preventative measures, like reforestation and river capture devices that hold up some of the damaging flood water and stop it from sweeping down stream to more populated areas. 

And one more thing, lest we forget, the Environment Agency is strapped by regulation set in legislation by politicians, who, at some point, did listen to the people who elected them, which defines how much dredging is permitted without destroying wildlife and ecosystems that are so important to maintaining nature's balance. This may seem counter to the interests of those, who live on the Somerset Levels, but some of the weather patterns we are experiencing in recent times are giving rise to consequences that are far more powerful than human beings can control. So, politicians and power brokers, one and all, sit up and listen to the small quiet voices of wisdom that tell you about the irrefutable effects that our greedy habits are bringing to bear on global weather events. Yes start listening, carefully!

P.S. I wonder what effect Fracking will have and what additional risk of pollution would be introduced on water saturated ground? Just thought I'd ask ...

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Who is Going to Pay Their Dues ...

Enter stage right: plutocrats, oligarchs, privilege, inherited wealth, ideology, self-interest and greed for power by those with a singular ignorance and disregard for the lives of the majority...

City of London in the Rain, looking East © 2008 John Anstie
Most politicians, at least those in high office (and those with aspirations for same), have, it seems to me, sadly lost interest in the people they serve, assuming they ever had any in the first place. Sadder still, it is certain that the people have lost faith in them. Perhaps they're hoping for another Falklands war to bring them back some political popularity and make 'em into heroes again or, dare I say worse, some demonstrations in the streets of our cities, which they can then use as an excuse to clamp down with some draconian measures - let us not forget what is happening amongst the formerly civil and patient Ukrainian populace - but, I suspect, a majority are not in favour of either option! 

I'd also like to ask what happened to that parallel part of English law, which espoused equity*

Fairness, common sense, a duty of care, courtesy and respect are amongst the most important cornerstones of a civilised society, as opposed to one that's in danger of reverting to the feudal system of the Middle Ages. So too are the desires for the sharing of knowledge and the promotion of understanding, as well as for compassion toward those, whose birthright endowed them with far less privilege, education and opportunity than an elite, who continue to dominate the order of things, both politically and economically. But I for one do not understand the language used to justify what happens in the City of London (and in the other financial centres of the world), which sometimes appears like the product of smoke and mirrors; like the law, which sometimes seems deliberately so complex as to cause us to switch off and give up trying to understand it. We need far greater clarity, in a language that most of us can understand to explain the importance of this ... without the arrogant pomposity and the dismissiveness we've come to expect of the boys from Eton (and from those envious wannabe's, who sell their souls to the party line). 

I suggest to those who argue that extravagant rewards (and low or zero tax liability) for the super-rich, apart from encouraging ambitious young apprentices (aka wannabe's) to follow their footsteps, is the only way to keep 'em here, creating employment, that this claim is illusory; evidence the state the majority of the population is currently in, an increasing number of whom are still falling towards a poverty trap. When compared to the current height of many stock market indices, the activity of the construction sector, which customarily leads us out of recession and unemployment - despite the very recent slight fall in the latter - there is a disconnect with the wellbeing of the population at large. 

Apart from any other measure of the apparent health of the economy, there are too many honest tax payers, who are, quite frankly, pissed off with the utterly brazen behaviour of large companies, who manage to avoid paying tax and the equally brazen response of a government, who are too obviously preoccupied with their political ambitions, and their main party donors, to make no mention of the fact that they are still in government because of their coalition with an albeit very weak second string opposition. I believe there is a swathe of the population, who quite frankly don't give a damn any more! Because they are continuing to pay for the greed and rash behaviour of a group of people, who do not deserve to be bailed out, at least in the way they were in 2008 and subsequent decisions made about their ongoing bonuses. Previous governments (the plural is deliberate) should not have allowed the credit bubble to become so horrendously large and unstable in the first place. 

What we are left with is a debt owed to us, the taxpayer, by the banks in the UK. The original figure paid in some form or other out of Treasury funds (that's your money and mine, by the way) was a total of £1,162,000,000,000 - that is over One Trillion or One Thousand Billion or One Million Million in modern speak - how many years could we run a healthy NHS, education system on that and/or how much of the national debt could be paid off!! OK, it isn't that simple, I know, but would somebody explain to me why? When asked the questions: what will be the final cost to the UK taxpayer, the answer recorded in the National Audit Office web site is that, basically, it's uncertain; there are all sorts off caveats leading to statements like it will be a 'number of years' before the final cost to the taxpayer is known! 

The River Thames, City of London, looking East © 2008 John Anstie
In fact, despite my own reasonable level of numeracy and literacy, I found it quite difficult to understand from the NAO web site what level of 'support' is still ongoing, what 'support' actually means, what has been repaid and by whom, and what is the existing actual debt. Perhaps I should spend a few more hours there trying to work it all out or perhaps not! The only figures that are reasonably clear, reveal that the Treasury / Taxpayer originally 'invested' £66 Billion in RBS and Lloyd's Banks, which, at the last time of reporting (July last year), astonishingly still only, apparently, has a market value of £38 Billion!! So, looking at the current record performance of the FTSE 100 share index, that was a good investment wasn't it! 

What is also clear is that there are too few banks that are far too big, as well as other financial institutions, not to mention huge multinational corporations, which means that, contrary to the spirit of a healthy market place, we are in an unhealthy position that gives too few companies too great a market share to enable proper competition - ironically, I thought, one of the tenets of the Conservative Party's ideology - and, perhaps most worrying of all, a powerful lobby, and, thereby, a nascent, if not already realised 'control' over government to the point where they can dictate policy and even the law (who mentioned the Gagging Bill?). Let us not forget the meaning and the potential horror of fascism, one of several possible political extremes we absolutely do not want to bring about! 

I've never felt more sure of anything in my life, than that things must somehow change, and soon! But, whatever happens, let us make sure that change is far more equitable and democratic than currently appears to be the case! The power of the voters' voice must not only be made clear, but also it must be heard above the powerful minority, in government, corporate and media arenas, who currently appear to be dominating proceedings and patently guilty of ignoring that voice. One thing I am still convinced of is that Russell Brand's 'None of the above' philosophy is wrong in one important way: not voting would put us on the road to granting a greater share of power to more extreme political factions.

Enter stage left: common sense, integrity, honesty, some humility and respect for a people, who deserve far more than currently afforded them by those they elect to manage their country ... let the play commence.

Written content and Photos © 2014 John Anstie all rights reserved

* Equity is defined as the quality of being fair or impartial; also called chancery. The application of the dictates of conscience or the principles of natural justice to the settlement of controversies. A system of jurisprudence or a body of doctrines and rules developed in England and followed in the U.S., serving to supplement and remedy the limitations and the inflexibility of the common law.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

To Edit, Perchance to Publish ...

(On use of the English language)
[This piece was published on The Bardo Group Blogazine, in December 2013. I've reproduced it here for the sake of continuity on my own prose blog as well as, perhaps, to reach some readers, who may not have seen it yet]
" ... To edit perchance to publish: ay, there's the rub;
For in that edit of death what publishings may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause ... "
(Editing liberties taken with Hamlet’s famous soliloquy, with thanks and apologies to William Shakespeare)
Jamie Dedes suggested that I should write about my experience of publishing.  I thought about this, but came to a conclusion that it would be pretentious to do so, because it would appear like someone, who had just successfully completed their first length of the swimming pool, writing a book on swimming the English channel!  However, there is something to write about in any experience, however humble.  So, I decided instead to write about it from a perspective, where I have a little more to offer.  This is the business of writing the English language.
Designing the book’s layout, selecting and agreeing cover designs, which fonts to use, finding someone to write a foreword, or not, decide who should write the introduction is much to do with publishing.  Reading it all front to back, back to front, several times over, has more to do with being competent in the language and brings much to bear on the business editing!
product_thumbnail-3.phpTo cast a glance at the experience I had in publishing "Petrichor Rising", before the publisher came along, thinking that we might have to self-publish, I designed the layout, asked one of the group to write the introduction and, after playing with the idea of asking an award winning published poet I know to write a foreword (with the vain idea that it might give the book some kudos), eventually decided to write it myself.  All that remained was to get the covers designed and ... Edit!
After several runs through it, I got to a point where I needed to ask ‘editorial questions’ of the contributing poets, which were in a variety of different forms. I felt sure that, if I were to uphold the integrity of the book, I was compelled to verify some of the simplest things, like spelling, grammar, English usage, the odd neologism and even the position of punctuation marks.
My golden rule was always that I should change not one single word without the consent of any of the authors.  So, I grabbed the horns!  Accordingly, I received a variety of responses, which ranged from unquestioning acceptance of my suggested edits, through "no that's the way I intended it" to a significant re-editing of a poem. This was, or so I thought, one of the final hurdles to publication.
I eventually submitted the whole book to the publisher, who, within a short time had clearly read it through very thoroughly, because they returned it with a whole list of further edits, which comprised of spelling errors, general typo’s, even punctuation and the odd grammatical error!  An even greater shock to my pride was that a number of them were within my own writings! I had to agree with almost all of them!  What am I like! Evidently rather poor at self-editing!
As for English grammar, there are some rules that I’m keen on.  Even in poetry, I prefer to write English in complete sentences between full stops, with any main or subordinate clauses that have a subject and a predicate, any phrases suitably punctuated, words chosen for their proper meaning, as defined by a recognised dictionary (my preferred backstop is Fowler’s Concise Oxford English Dictionary) spelled correctly and, particularly in poetry, with no unnecessary repetition.
Amongst the rules I use, that I can rarely bring myself to break, include the use, in comparisons, of certain prepositions after the word ‘different’.  My personal loyalty lies with the traditional ‘from’; there are no circumstances under which ‘from’ cannot be used in this context; the alternatives used are ‘to’ (don’t know where this came from, but it is widely used in the media) and ‘than’ (more popular in North America), which sometimes permits a greater economy of words when ‘different’ is followed by a clause. So, in my book, it should be "different from".
The next one is the split infinitive.  Once again, I would argue that there are no circumstances in which the infinitive form of a verb has to be separated from its preposition (‘to’) by any other word. The only possible exception could be in poetry, where one might want to split the infinitive for the sake of maintaining consistent scansion.  Even then, I would argue that there is no sentence that cannot be re-written in a different way, expressed with different words, to achieve the same effect; such is the variety of the English language.
Poets and writers have a great responsibility to communicate accurately, however perverse, complex or deep the story line. This super-fast digital age, with its plethora of social communication devices, has encouraged a laziness in the use of language and, therefore, a greater risk of misinterpretation, which transfers to our working lives too.  In the last twenty-five years of my working life, I witnessed a tendency for the generation, who have grown up with the digital computer age, to be ‘quick’, to empty the overloaded inbox as fast as they can and, in so doing, often write incomplete sentences that are easily misunderstood and that consequently waste time in clarification or, worse still, cause decisions to be wrong!
Economy of words is important in all writing, particularly poetry, which can only be enhanced by choosing the right words and concatenating them so as to achieve the meaning intended and, in this way, one should always aspire to achieve synergy, which is to say making the whole, the final result, greater than the sum of its parts. Shortening sentences, however, for the sake of speed is just lazy and symptomatic of an unwillingness to think more carefully about the language.
I hope, in any future attempt to publish a book, that I will remember this; remember how important it is to communicate our meaning accurately, and, thereby, truthfully.  As far as I am concerned, I am still learning.
- John Anstie
© John Anstie, essay, all rights reserved
RELATED FEATURE:
John_in_Pose_Half_Face351w-rH34dTL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_JOHN ANSTIE (My Poetry Library and 42) ~ is a British poet and writer, a member of the core team here at Bardo, and multi-talented gentleman self-described as a "Family man, Grandfather, Occasional Musician, Amateur photographer and Film-maker, Apple-MAC user, Implementation Manager, and Engineer. John participates in d'Verse Poet's Pub and is a player in New World Creative Union. He's been blogging since the beginning of 2011. John is also an active member of The Poetry Society (UK).
John has been involved in the recent publication of two anthologies that are the result of online collaborations among two international groups of amateur and professional poets. One of these is The Grass Roots Poetry Group, for which he produced and edited the  anthology, "Petrichor* Rising". The other group is d'Verse Poet Pub, in which John's poetry also appears in The d'Verse Anthology: Voices of Contemporary World Poetry, produced and edited by Frank Watson.

Friday, 18 October 2013

A Few Words from Off The Shelf (Festival of Words in Sheffield) ...


Who's been a busy boy, then?

Besides some scrub clearance for the Sheffield and Rotherham Wildlife Trust, Parkland Ranging for Wentworth Castle, Guide Dog training, administering to and singing with the Waldershelf Singers this week, a lot of other literate things are happening in this part of the world. I’ve been to three events, which are part the Off The Shelf Festival Of Words, Sheffield's own Literature Fest. Saturday was a marathon open mic poetry slam in the Winter Gardens, compered by Word Life Project Manager, Joe Kriss; I only managed to get to the last couple of hours, so missed Ian Enters' reading, but enjoyed the whole experience, including readings from 'The Rhyme of King Harold', a novel about the Norman curse, entirely in verse by Ian MacGill.

On Wednesday we attended an event that was a very special piece of story telling. "The Old Woman, The Buffalo and The Lion of Manding" (links to a sample of the show) produced by Adverse Camber Productions, founded by Naomi Wilds, English Literature Alumnus of the University of Leeds. I attended the singing workshop beforehand, run by the three performers of the 'play' itself, Jan Blake, the story teller (Griot) and musician brothers, Raymond and Kouame Sereba. This workshop was an eye (mouth and brain) opener with a certain amount of physical movement and coordination as well singing, following the lead of one of the two brothers chanting the lead. One piece we performed in the workshop was also performed in the live show itself, which we (about a dozen of us) were expected to remember and join in, which, with a bit of encouragement, we all did ... with gusto! This performance was engaging, enthralling and certainly entertaining; I highly recommended you see it if it ever comes your way.

On Thursday night we went to a poetry reading run by the Sheffield based Poetry Business. Readings from winners of the pamphlet and book competition, David Attwool, Emma Danes and Kim Lasky. The star of the show, who was also judge of this year's Prize Book and Pamphlet competition, and who did some readings of his own poetry in the second half of the evening, was the one and only Simon Armitage

Simon Armitage (links to his reading of "Harmonium") is not only one of the best poets of his generation, besides being Professor of Poetry at the University of Sheffield, his poetry is also Yorkshire dry, lightly sardonic, amusing, sometimes laugh out loud funny as well as having a poignant touch. The combination of all these qualities makes him, for me, one of my favourite contemporary poets, certainly in live performance. In one of the poems he read, he announced the first two lines to be the funniest he’d ever written, which went something like “I gave up writing poetry and sunk the profits into a restaurant…” he had to read these twice before the ‘funny’ sunk in to an expectant but slightly slow audience! 

Another great line from a very amusing poem called “Poundland” after one of his students declared they’d discovered a copy of Ezra Pound’s poems in the shop of the above name. So he wrote this poem in the style of several of Ezra Pound’s Cantos (involving Homer's Odyssey). In this poem Simon Armitage described the “Manager, with a face like Doncaster”. Now you may not be able imagine why, at this point, the audience, who had already got the giggle going from earlier parts of his poem, then broke into almost uncontrollable fits of laughter! He had to take a run at those opening lines again, but claimed not to have a clue where they came from!

I made note of one more interesting point Simon Armitage made. He spoke of a quotation made by the poet, Blake Morrison, who said words to the effect "if you try to write a poem that tells us the meaning of life, you'll come up against a brick wall. If, on the other hand, you write a poem about a brick wall, you may just shed some light on the meaning of life". He subsequently adjusted his writing habits and explained that, every three weeks or so, he makes a point of writing about something quite trivial. To demonstrate this, he read a poem he'd written when, one day, he'd gone into their garden and "kicked a mushroom", which was "the highlight of his week". It sounds daft, but the poem he read was quite extraordinary and even felt quite poignant in places. I do sometimes find this myself, starting to describe something that maybe quite ordinary, but which then turns into something else altogether, something deeper.

Listening to and reading Simon Armitage leaves me with two conflicting feelings. The first is that, in the face of his brilliance, I should give up trying to become a poet! The second feeling is that I am inspired. The second should have my vote; we shall have to wait and see. One thing I know is that I'd love to attend one of his lectures on writing poetry.

Next year's Book and Pamphlet Prize competition is being judged by another quite well known poet, a certain Carol Ann Duffy! I’m very tempted to enter, but could be pushed for time, since the closing date is 30th November. I think my priorities need realigning!

So, all in all, a very entertaining and enjoyable week, so far, and there’s more to come from the Off The Shelf Festival of Words in Sheffield, which runs until 2nd November.

P.S. And on Saturday evening, we went to see Bernard Wrigley, aka the "Bolton Bullfrog"; a very, very funny man. Go see him if you want you stomach to ache from laughter. Value for money. So, along with a couple of family get-togethers this weekend, that completes a very full but thoroughly stimulating week.

Watch this space for more reports on the Off The Shelf Festival.