Tag Archives: poetry

If History Could Be Folded Where WOULD You Put The Crease?……….War Poetry on the Underground

…………………………………………..Among the various events to mark the centenary of World War One, there are a new series of War Poems on display across London Underground. The selected poems include work by three British poets, Ivor Gurney, Siegfried Sassoon and one of my favourite poets Edward Thomas, alongside works by Guillaume Appollinaire, Georg Trakl and Guiseppe Ungaretti. Excerpts from poetry on our underground trains is nothing new but there are some variations this time from the usual approach. The excerpts from Ungaretti, Trakl and Appollinaire are in their original language with an English translation alongside, and as well as being displayed on Tube trains they are now being displayed in stations and on overground trains. The excerpts from the six selected poems are all on the theme of reconciliation and brotherhood.

In addition to the war poetry, the Underground have also commissioned some art installations by Richard Wentworth to commemorate the centenary. This one is outside a station.
In addition to the war poetry, the Underground have also commissioned some art installations by Richard Wentworth to commemorate the centenary. This one is outside a station.

As I commute into and across London, I like to look out for the works. Strangely I’ve only come across the poems of Ungaretti, Trakl and Appollinaire but I guess as I mainly use the Central, District, Northern and Victoria lines, the work of the British poets must be elsewhere in the network. It’s surprising I haven’t come across the others though given I’m here EVERY day and given the fact that London Underground produced around 500 posters of each poem! Of the three I have seen, I found the excerpt from Ungaretti’s poem ‘Brothers’ particularly moving. In a few lines it creates such a feel of tension and fear, and it conveys the precariousness of life for soldiers at the front line.

What regiment are you from


Word trembling in the night

A leaf just opening

In the racked air

Involuntary revolt

Of man face to face

With his own



The War Poems on the Underground series is part of a long tradition of publishing poetry on the Tube, having started way back in 1986. The original idea was largely to bring it to a wider audience, celebrate great poetry and of course allow people to reflect on the poetry they had read. Whether it does or doesn’t achieve all these aims is I guess open to debate. I always look for it, and I do like to read it and reflect on what I’ve read for however long my journey lasts -and usually beyond. But I’m not sure how many of my fellow commuters take an interest in the poems – I like to think the vast majority at least notice them but I’m not so sure what proportion read them, consider them, or even enjoy them. But I always think it works on a similar principle to World Book Day – realistically not everyone who is given a book will actively engage with it, but even if only a tiny proportion do get into the book, or in this case, the poem, then I think it’s been worth it.

Another of the art installations
Another of the art installations

To accompany the six poems published on Tube trains, London Underground also published a larger booklet of war poetry which was distributed at stations. If you either don’t live in London or weren’t fortunate enough to pick one up you can still access the collection, which includes poems by Isaac Rosenberg, Wilfred Owen and Laurie Lee here. All of the poems in the larger collection have all been published on the Tube at some point in recent years, as the Tube usually publish at least one war poem each November as part of its ongoing commemoration.

The publication of the collection also marks the special connection of the Underground to the First World War. At the time the poems were announced and published in October of this year, London Undergrounds’ press release noted that in 1914-18 almost half of all the staff on the Underground enlisted and by the end of the war over 1000 of them had been killed. It’s again a chilling reminder of the devastating loss of life in the Great War.

So if you’re a London Underground user like me, have you spotted the poetry on our Tube trains and stations? And if you have, what did you think? ( And crucially where the hell are the poems by Sassoon, Gurney and Thomas?!) And if you’re not fortunate enough to have the daily joy of commuting into London(!) do they ever have public displays of poetry where you live?


The Odd Brown Smartie In A Sea Of Blue Smarties….What I Thought Of Imagining Alexandria by Louis De Bernieres

SmartiesBrown Smarties are my favourites and Blue are second favourites. Can I tell the difference between them and Blue Smarties? Absolutely (as long as you don’t put this to the test and just take my word for it!). I like Blue Smarties but I don’t love them. I love Brown Smarties though. And that’s what I felt about Louis De Bernieres first published poetry collection “Imagining Alexandria”. There are lots of Blue Smarties, with the odd Brown Smarties gem here and there!

The collection is very deliberately influenced by the work of the Greek poet Cavafy. And before you go thinking I’m dead clever working that out, De Bernieres tells you this and more in his engaging introduction to the collection. Apparently De Bernieres carries a book of Cavafy poetry round in his pocket and reads it every day. Well since I’d never heard of or read Cavafy before I read this, I gave Cavafy a go – and I’ll sum up his poetry by saying that Cavafy and I won’t be meeting up on a daily basis over coffee! But that doesn’t detract anything from Imagining Alexandria. Its particularly fortunate that Louis De Bernieres is true to his word, for he tells you in that intro that he’ll be steering clear of Cavafy’s “beautiful young men” celebrations and he does, thank god, for of all the Cavafy poems, these were the ones I struggled with the most!

Imagining Alexandria by Louis De Bernieres
Imagining Alexandria by Louis De Bernieres

Cavafy influences aside, I approached this with a mix of relish and apprehension – Louis De Bernieres is simply my favourite author so I couldn’t help looking forward to this. But of course, as his first foray into publishing poetry, I was worried it wouldn’t be good – and I so wanted it to be. I needn’t have worried – he’s just far too good a writer not to be able to deliver poetry that’s great. Overall I thought it was a hugely enjoyable read and it’s got some real gems in this collection. There are also one or two that are a bit flat and didn’t work for me – but they are small in number and certainly didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the collection.

His writing style from his novels lends itself easily. Generally I found the work which had a “here and now” feel much more enjoyable. Given how wonderfully he handled the theme of love in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, it’s probably not surprising that the poems on love were the strongest for me. With the odd exception, I found the poems of Ancient Rome and Greece less enjoyable. Though even there, I loved the whimsical but ultimately rather tragic poem “Marcus Severus, Of Late Memory.”

Marcus Severus, of late memory, was so

Prodigiously endowed that

When he attended the public baths

The bathers stood and cheered.

With modest pleasure, he acknowledged this applause.

Louis De Bernieres  - perhaps a better writer than taste in hats!
Louis De Bernieres – it’s fair to say his writing talents weren’t matched by his choice in hats!

There are a couple of areas where this humour is given full rein but the best of the collection is reserved for his observations of relationships. The beautiful and haunting Your Brighton Dress tells the story of a man looking back on how he spent the last few quid in his wallet on a dress for a woman he was in love with at that time, and it includes the gorgeous lines, “Such slices of time have fallen away. I’ve scarcely seen you/ For longer than we’d been alive./It was back in a former life, but I like to remember/ False though this may be/That when I and you were there/You were bringing me Mexican presents/Wearing a silver necklace/Wearing your Brighton dress”.

In a similar vein I loved the poems “At The Sorbonne”, “Two Thousand Nights” and “Their Mutual Vows”. There’s such a gentle, slightly sad feel to these and others. But great as these are, De Bernieres saves his best for last – quite literally, The final poem in the collection is “When The Time Comes” – it’s haunting, and touching and absolutely beautiful in places. It begins….

When the time comes, it is better that death be welcome,

As an old fried who embraces and forgives

Seize advantage of what little time is left,

And if imagination serves, if strength endures, if memory lives

Ponder on those vanished loves, those jesting faces.

Take once more their hands and press them to your cheek,

Think of you and them as young again, as running in the fields,

As drinking wine and laughing.

It was always going to be a tough ask for me to love De Bernieres poetry as much as I love his fiction. One of his books is simply my favourite book of all time – and no it’s not Captain Corelli (though it’s in my top ten!). Actually three books of his combined are my favourite three books ever – the trilogy, War of Don Emanuel’s Nether Parts, Senor Vivo and the Coca Lords, and The Troublesome Offspring Of Cardinal Guzman. In the end I didn’t love all of his poetry as much as I did those novels which are such wonderful flights of imagination and invention. But some of it is right up there – Imagining Alexandria has stuff that I can’t help loving as much as I love Senor Vivo, Cardinal Guzman, Don Emanuel and of course as much as I love Brown Smarties.

Someone With Something To Say Who Really Can Say It!………..What I Thought Of “Now All Roads Lead To France” by Matthew Hollis

Edward Thomas………….Here’s a definitive statement to start a review –  ROBERT FROST WAS WRONG!

At least, he was wrong when he said ” Half the world is composed of people who have something to say and can’t and the other half who have nothing to say and keep on saying it!” For he’d reckoned without Matthew Hollis and the wonderful way he’s brought the friendship of Robert Frost and his fellow poet Edward Thomas to life.

In the last few weeks I’ve read two quite wonderful stories of male friendship set in part against the backdrop of the First World War. First up I read Matthew Hollis’ biography of the last years of the poet Edward Thomas, and his remarkable, inspirational and yet tragic friendship with Robert Frost. I followed it a few weeks later by the equally wonderful and equally tragic fictional account of the friendship of two officers during the same war in Susan Hill’s fantastic novel “Strange Meeting”.

“All Roads” is a beautifully told account of how Frost and Thomas met in 1913 and the way in which their friendship from that first meeting became very much the driving force behind both of their lives as writers – for Frost in the confidence, energy and belief in his poetry that he drew from Thomas’s thoughts and critiques of his work and for Thomas, it led to his emergence from the role of critic and reviewer, to becoming a poet himself. At the point of their initial meeting Thomas is a man struggling with his demons – and there was no shortage of them. Debt, disillusionment with writing, his relationship with his family on all sides, depression and suicidal tendencies. His meeting with Frost alters to some extent what seems a life heading for destruction. And yet in some other respects it still has that feel of Thomas as a man heading for self-destruction, even after the reinvention of himself which takes places through his friendship with Frost. The difference seems to be that before the meeting with Frost he feels like a man hell-bent on that self-destruction and after it he’s a man who has an air of inevitable tragedy about him. And of course the tragedy ultimately arrives with first the beginning of the war, which eventually sends Frost back to America and ultimately sends Thomas to his death in Arras in 1917. But even his death in that war has more than a hint of irony because in some senses the outbreak of war helps make him before it destroys him for it certainly sharpens his focus as a writer. Indeed, the book suggested to me that the war, with the additional prompting, cajoling and persuasion of Frost,  is what ultimately turns Thomas into a poet at all.

This could have been a book wallowing in sentiment but it avoids that in the most sure-footed way thanks to the wonderfully simple and straightforward style that Matthew Hollis uses. What also comes across is a mix of his admiration and respect for Thomas the writer, with his understanding of some of the things which made him such a tortured man. But equally he doesn’t gloss over Thomas faults nor does the book gloss over the impact of that self-destructive part of Thomas on others, especially on his wife and children. Above all though it’s a fabulous testimony to the way in which their friendship and the creative interaction between them becomes in essence the foundation of the two great poets that Edward Thomas and Robert Frost subsequently became. For anyone who loves the poetry of either of them, or of both of them, I’d suggest this is an absolute “must-read”. But even if you’ve never read the poetry of either Thomas or Frost it’s still a wonderful story of the friendship of two men, anchored in the cataclysmic events of their time.

And to finish, back to that quote. This is my first blog post for some time – and I’m conscious of the irony that I might well be one of those who Robert Frost characterised as having “nothing to say but keep on saying it!”. So having started with the definitive statement that Robert Frost was wrong, I’ll end with one! Even if I am someone with nothing to say, I’ve decided to keep on saying it anyway!

Love At First Sight In A Greenock Library

“I claim there ain’t / Another Saint / As great as Valentine!” wrote Ogden Nash. These days I think Valentine might be less than keen on the rampant commercialism of this celebration and demonstration of love in his name – I saw cards yesterday inscribed “Happy Valentines Day to Our Son”!!! What’s that about?

I started my Valentines Day early this morning reading Seamus Heaney’s wonderful poetry in Human Chain and went back again to my favourite poem in the collection, Route 101, in which Heaney traces his journey through life in a series of moments laid over Virgil’s Aeneid and the move to the underworld. But it was the fantastic beginning which brought me to remember my first love – books!

Heaney’s poem begins with this scene of him buying a book as an adolescent “In a stained front-buttoned shopcoat / Sere brown piped with crimson / Out of the Classics bay into an aisle /  Smelling of dry rot and disinfectant / She emerges, absorbed in her coin count / Eyes front, right hand at work / In the slack marsupial vent / Of her change – pocket, thinking what to charge / For a used copy of Aeneid VI. / Dustbreath bestirred in the cubicle mouth / I inhaled as she slid my purchase / Into a deckle edged brown paper bag”. If anything captures the beauty and the preciousness in the hum-drum, everyday, ordinariness of buying a book, then this is it for me.

Book love began at first sight in Bawhirely Road library in Greenock where I grew up. In my memories it is the most beautiful, the most grand and the most imposing of buildings! In reality it’s not any of those things as you can see!!

But to my seven-year-old eyes it was a rite of passage becoming a member – but nothing on the exterior prepared me for falling instantly in love with row upon row of books, most spine out but some with that tantalising “come and try me” look as they were displayed front on. The counter was solid and smelt of varnish, but it had a crenellated section for kids – it was hewn I think rather than cut – a bit more heavy axe than refined jigsaw had created I’d guess! I’d linger and dally over choosing so long I’d frequently be “encouraged” to choose and get out with the words “If you don’t get a move on you’ll be sleeping here!”. And I’d have loved to! And years later I did finally sleep with books – I was the Headteacher of a school in Essex when the local library tried to promote books by running  a sleepover in the library – I immediately signed up and it was great – I still feel warmed by the memory of sliding into my sleeping bag surrounded by words!

And in the same way that I can reflect back over the years of being in love with my beautiful partner, I can also reflect on moments in my love affair with books, reading and stories. I remember the joy of getting a multiple book library ticket, staying up all night for the first time to finish “The Count of Monte Cristo”, being asked to leave a bookshop after collapsing into an uncontrollable fit of giggling on reading the blurb on the back of Spike Milligan’s “Adolf Hitler, My Part In His Downfall!”, discovering the world of Arthur and the Round Table emerging with my favourite hero of all time Sir Gawain, (even more than Eric Cantona and Guy Garvey from Elbow), waiting with endless plays of Genesis “Wind and Wuthering” in the background on my O Level /  GCSE results and yet being more worried about Prince Andrei and Natasha in War and Peace than the results, sitting as a hitch-hiking student by a flea-ridden hotel pool in Greece crying with laughter at the antics of Sancho Panza and Don Quixote and then 25 years later crying by the edge of a stunningly beautiful hotel pool in Greece at the end of Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s “The Angel Game” (I’d come a long way in hotel quality but the story quality had been constant throughout!) and re-discovering the majestic Simon Armitage version of Gawain and The Green Knight! These and many more have filled so many minutes, hours and days for me over the years – but today I was grateful to Seamus Heaney for reminding me that my book journey began in that library 43 years ago!

If you’d like to share the moments that mark your book journey I’d love to hear what they are!