Book Reviews Uncategorized West Cornwall (and local history)

A Year in the life of Padstow, Polzeath and Rock By Joanna Jackson
















This attractive and captivating book of some 112 pages chronicles the appearance of the beautiful Camel Estuary and its inhabitants over the course of a year. As is mentioned in her introduction, for some 4000 years, this has been a major trading coast, from the Bronze Ages times, with ships arriving from areas as distant as Ireland to the eastern Mediterranean. Yet, Padstow retains its Elizabethan charm whilst Polzeath is better known for its contemporary appeal to surfers. The appealing images capture vividly the variety of life in the area including foodie Padstow, with pictures of brown crab and silver mackerel ready for Rick Stein’s kitchen and the National Lobster Hatchery.

As one might expect, the most stunning images are those of the peaceful horizontal curves of the coastline, the sand banks and the rocks sloping down to the coastline and the sea. There are stunning images of field catching the sunlight at dawn, the diversity of the flora and the activity and pageantry of the Royal Cornwall show. There are depictions of ‘obby ‘oss day, sailing and surfing, vigorous watersports and the energetic exertions of the lifeboatmen of Padstow and the RNLI beach lifeguards.

There are short introductory sections of text to put the splendour of the photographs into context. That on the Age of the Saints, for instance, mentions St Petroc, his monastery and his travels to Brittany, Rome and Jerusalem. This introduces the double page spreads of the battering waves at Treyamon contrasting in the following images of the contemplative security of the quayside of the inner harbour at Padstow. These photographs of North Cornwall which inspired the poetry of Betjeman and Binyon are a collection to have on your shelf for browsing or as an incentive to tranquil recollection.

Book Reviews

Taking The Medicine by Druin Burch

Taking the Medicine

In the same week that I read this outstanding book on the development of pharmacology, the newspapers were full of issues on which this book has a bearing and something significant to say.

In 1898, Burch points out that a new drug was developed and marketed for the treatment of tuberculosis by Bayer. TB is such an ancient enemy of man that there is apparently evidence of an earlier strain to be found in Egyptian mummies. The German firm had discovered a chemical that seemed to work well, and the staff they tested it upon seemed to respond well-it was called Heroin- and its addictive effects were at first missed. Just this week a group of paediatricians from a variety of hospitals, from Great Ormond Street to St James’s in Leeds, are concerned that in 2010 pharmaceutical companies are paying too little attention to funding research for babies and children. Why? Because it is less profitable than spending an equivalent amount of money on the development of medicines for adults. The history of the development of Aspirin appears on Bayer’s website but the marketing of Heroin – initially believed therapeutic, was abandoned by them in 1913-but not all firms- is not recorded.

An outstanding aspect of this stimulating and riveting read is its description of the heroic roles played by courageous men like Lind and Cochrane. The latter’s insistence upon weighing the evidence by careful statistical analysis in comparative groups was based on bitter experience of treating his fellow prisoners in the woeful conditions imposed by sadistic German guards in Salonika. Despite the shortage of available treatments the whole experience taught him the benefits of making his own careful comparative assessments. He had already fought fascism in the Spanish civil war and seen his friend Julian Bell die from a wound in a shattered thorax. After such experiences he committed his later days to introducing methodological rigour to medical research in relation to statistics and in the author’s telling phrase, ”having a more profound effect on human health than any newly discovered drug. One of the diseases on which their ideas most quickly had an effect was tuberculosis”. Because of its latency period after infection TB is still something of a problem for elderly patients, it was said on the radio this week. Its genes also mutate. However, the structured argument that Druin Burch pursues has contemporary relevance and careful historic research. His brief and concise pen portraits have the elegance of Aubrey’s “Brief Lives” to which he makes passing reference.

In a significant recent article in the national press Hadley Freeman, characterised the noughties as an age of fakery, in both science and medicine. She refers to Mike Specter’s new commentary on the MMR and autism furore. She mentions views pronounced by personalities from Ace Ventura, Tony Blair, Jim Carey and others on an issue which is likely to mislead vulnerable members of the public away from fact and experience. In “Taking the Medicine”, Druin referring to the fascinating figure of Boston’s nineteenth century physician, Oliver Wendell Holmes, refers to this propensity of patients to grasp at straws to find a cure and to pay for it. He states with an engaging touch of irony,”Like politicians who need to be seen to be doing-something-anything-about problems that are actually beyond their control, doctors are pushed into playing a part. The danger comes when they start to believe in their own illusory importance.”

In the next year or so, genetics advances will help to identify genetic sequences that drive patient’s cancers. Such work depends upon the earlier endeavours of  figures like Paul Ehrlich who developed the effective use of chemical dyes, in haematology, to discover an effective description of the way in which living cells produce antibodies which led to a greater understanding of the immune system. The award of the first Nobel prize for medicine was, however blocked by an anti-Semitic chemist. Ehrlich went on, as Burch so clearly describes to test Salvarsan on animals with Saachiro Hata who had arrived from Tokyo in 1909. This led to the effective treatment of syphilis which, “held a position roughly equivalent to that of AIDS before the development of anti-retrovirals”. Ehrlich who was a kind and inspiring figure, Domagk his student, after a terrible time on the Western Front worked on the development of the first antibiotic which was needed to tackle puerpal fever- often lethal for women after childbirth- and meningitis until 1939. Dogmagk was to receive the Nobel prize but which under Hitler’s influence, he was made to refuse. He was still taken away by the Gestapo as his refusal was too polite.

Altogether this is an intelligent, wide ranging and stimulating read. The sort of book you hope that a sixth form biologist would find time to read and should be a supplement to the reading list in the first year at medical school-or” Knowledge Spas” they are named here in Cornwall. The author is an NHS doctor and his book is a thoroughly enjoyable, much easier than many medicines are to swallow!

Uncategorized West Cornwall (and local history)

Lelant-an unlikely village for rebellion?

St Ives Ruffians disrupt Lelant Fair (1823)

In a recent documentary concerning St Ives artists after the war, Lelant was inaccurately referred to, by a Cambridge academic as,” a dingy suburb of St Ives. In fact Lelant has usually been regarded as a prosperous and well appointed village. However, in 1823, some six years after the death of Jane Austen, the English countryside could become the venue for rebellious behaviour though perhaps without the political focus that have characterised recent demonstrations. The Bullingdon Club at this time was well established as a hunting and cricket club. William Webb Ellis was to “invent” rugby, a channel for excessive testosterone after the events described below, a few months later in that same year.

Disgraceful Outrage

“A most disgraceful outrage was committed at Lelant Fair, or rather revel, on the night of Friday last, by a gang of ruffians from the well known Borough of St Ives, Cornwall, who entered the place shortly after nightfall, armed with bludgeons; and whilst some commenced an attack upon the standings which were covered with tempting viands for the refreshment of rural beaux and belles, and the youthful miners and ball maidens; others behaved with great brutality to such of the females as came within their reach, and attacked such of the young men as attempted to rescue their female friends from the rude hands of these savages. The uproar that ensued may be more easily conceived than described; the crash of the standings, the screams of the affrighted damsels, the calls of their protectors and of the owners of the standings for assistance, produced a compound of discordant sounds not often equalled in this now peaceable county. The ruffians were, however, speedily masters of the field, and the discomfited and terrified multitude fled to the adjacent houses for shelter. The greater part rushed into the public houses which were filled with company:- here they were persued by the brutal miscreants , who commenced breaking the windows , demolishing the windows etc. They were at length opposed by a number of young men, who rallied in defence of the females and the houses; when, as cowardly as they were brutal and ferocious, the St Ives ruffians fled under cover of the darkness; but as soon as they saw an opportunity, they rallied and commenced an attack upon the windows. They were at length driven from the field ; but not before upwards of twenty of them were identified, who will have to answer for their conduct in a Court  of Justice. When it is considered that few, comparatively, are benefited and that numbers are seriously annoyed by the annual nuisance denominated Lelant Fair, its discontinuance would be regarded as a public benefit”.-(West Briton)

Reported in The Morning Post Wednesday, August 27, 1823

Art Exhibition Reviews Uncategorized

Marie Laurencin 1885-1956

I have just discovered from a friend the lovely paintings of Marie Laurencin and think they deserve wider acclaim. Ceramicist, painter and printmaker, she also became  the mistress of Apollinaire. They have a soft and appealing, lyrical and delicate quality that can be seen in the pastel above which is called “Le Chant”. Many of her drawings are in the keeping of The Art Institute of Chicago like this one below right, executed in graphite and coloured pencils.

According to one easily accessible website on her,”Marie Laurencin was a French painter and printmaker. Laurencin was born in Paris, where she was raised by her mother and lived much of her life. At 18, she studied porcelain painting in Sevres. She then returned to Paris and continued her art education at the Academie Humbert, where she changed her focus to oil painting. During the early years of the 20th century, Laurencin was an important figure in the Parisian avant-garde and a member of the circle of Pablo Picasso. She became romantically involved with Picasso’s friend, the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, and has often been identified as his muse. In addition, Laurencin had important connections to the salon of the American expatriate and famed lesbian writer Natalie Clifford Barney. During the First World War, Laurencin left France for exile in Spain with her German-born husband, Baron Otto von Waetjen, since through her marriage she had automatically lost her French citizenship. The couple subsequently lived together briefly in Dusseldorf. After they divorced in 1920, she returned to Paris, where she lived for the rest of her life and where she achieved great success as an artist.”

Her portraits have a hieratic quality; an adjective which derives from the Greek ἱερατεία (hierateia meaning “priesthood”). By hieratic in relation to art one means very stylised, formal or restrained. The term is used particularly of figurative art with” piquantly tipped heads and mask-like faces”-as Peter Schjeldahl referred to the work of Amedeo Mondigliani.

This is a wonderful clip at

Here is a poem from Appolonaire to Marie

Vous y dansiez petite fille
Y danserez-vous mère-grand
C’est la maclotte qui sautille
Toute les cloches sonneront
Quand donc reviendrez-vous Marie

Les masques sont silencieux
Et la musique est si lointaine
Qu’elle semble venir des cieux
Oui je veux vous aimer mais vous aimer à peine
Et mon mal est délicieux

Les brebis s’en vont dans la neige
Flocons de laine et ceux d’argent
Des soldats passent et que n’ai-je
Un cœur à moi ce coeur changeant
Changeant et puis encor que sais-je

Sais-je où s’en iront tes cheveux
Crépus comme mer qui moutonne
Sais-je où s’en iront tes cheveux
Et tes mains feuilles de l’automne
Que jonchent aussi nos aveux

Je passais au bord de la Seine
Un livre ancien sous le bras
Le fleuve est pareil à ma peine
Il s’écoule et ne tarit pas
Quand donc finira la semaine

(La maclotte est une danse ardennaise )

Marie Laurencin, c.1924 (b/w photo) by Man Ray
Marie Laurencin, c.1924 (b/w photo) by Man Ray


Peretz Hirschbein, Yiddish Theatre and possible parallels with the History Plays

Hirschbein, actor and dramatist founded the first Art Theatre in Odessa in 1908 which produced plays in Yiddish. His first play, having been written in Hebrew, was Miriam. His most important plays; the Blacksmith’s Daughter (1915) and Green Fields (1919) are idylls of Jewish country life and according to the Oxford Companion to the Theatre, the second was considered to be one of the greatest works of Yiddish drama. It was translated into English by Joseph C. Landis in 1966 as The Dybbuk and other Great Yiddish plays. (In Jewish folklore, a dybbuk (Hebrew: דיבוק‎) is a malicious or benevolent possessing spirit believed to be the dislocated soul of a dead person.)

The culture of the Eastern European Jews was permeated with music, song, and dance. These latter features commonly in the Yiddish theatre, and emerged at its earliest point in Warsaw in the 1830s. During Purim, a religious holiday, plays told the story from the Book of Esther and were known as Purimspiels. Purim, is when Hamantaschen are made with many different fillings, including prunes, nut, poppy seeddateapricotapple, fruit preservescherrychocolatedulce de lechehalva, or even caramel or cheese. There was a song called, Mein Hut der hat drei Ecken, which in Hebrew school related to Hamen’s three cornered hat; the shape of the pastry.

Also, there is a fairly well known production of quite another film which is also called The Dybbuk which has been translated into Yiddish, Hebrew, German, Polish, English, Ukranian, Swedish, Bulgarian, Czech, Serbian, French and Japanese. There are several significant or interesting points about the film. Firstly, produced in 1937, it features Gerschon Sirota, whose voice was considered heavenly by Caruso. Some of Sirota’s pieces (including ‘Ata Nigleita’) are compared in quality to Traviata and Madam Butterfly. The plot involves an arranged marriage and deals with intergenerational strife interwoven with mystical themes and experiences of possession. It was written by Shloyme Zanvl Rappoport who was known as S.Ansky who also came from Odessa, was interested in folklore and ethnography, and wrote the oath or song which became the anthem of the Jewish Socialist Bund party. Ansky also was a Socialist representative in the 1917 Russian Assembly. Odessa was clearly a lively centre for the discussion of theatre, history and politics particularly in the Jewish community which also included Simon Dubnow, another person worthy of further research.

My interest in these issues was sparked by starting to read (and in the process turning to the Oxford Theatre Companion) Shakespeare’s King John and its relation to the genre described as the ‘History Play’. It occurred to me that one obvious way of thinking about the question is to compare and contrast the genre in other, mostly European, cultures. Not at all an easy task! Clearly there are links with issues such as ideology, religious practice and belief, creating a tradition and reflecting back upon its cultural memories and so developing or reinforcing earlier myths. We have also just seen the gory preview scenes from Ironclad, based on the historical King John, and reviewed in yesterday’s Daily Mail, by Chris Tookey, “Ironclad desperately wants to be a historical blockbuster along the lines of Braveheart. Sadly, it has more in common with Monty Python and the Holy Grail” Some historical facts about King John are given at

It is striking reading in The New Cambridge Edition (L.A.Beaurline) of King John, how the play influenced what has been called the archaeology of staging. Apparently, before Charles Kemble took over Covent Garden there was little interest in getting costumes historically correct. This matter was of great importance to Kemble and with James Robinson Planché (27 February 1796 – 30 May 1880) consequently attention to scenery being historically authentic developed commenced with productions of King John.

I wonder how Yiddish plays were originally performed and with what scenery. It is very well known that Yiddish Theatre was a great influence upon Kafka. Their comparatively recent development perhaps illustrates their cosmopolitan narratives of identity, including of course, Zionism. Possibly Shakespeare’s History plays are virtually sui generis. Early History plays in Germany evolved written by men like Andreas Gryphius (1616 – 1664) a lyric poet and dramatist. A notably significant figure is Schiller who wrote historical plays with support from Goethe. For instance, he wrote an interesting and sympathetic play about Mary Stewart in which Elizabeth appears thoroughly ruthless.

To conclude with two provoking essays from the Guardian, the first written by Jonathan Bate about Shakespeare’s history plays, “As history, the plays paint a panorama of England, embracing a wider social range than any previous historical drama, as the action moves from court to tavern, council-chamber to battlefield, city to country, archbishop and lord chief justice to whore and thief.” Still more can be read and enjoyed at:- Of course, when it comes to knowledge of drama, languages and cultures there is the redoubtable George Steiner who gave a characteristically ironic interview at

What became of Hirschbein? Well in the early 1940s Hirschbein moved to Los Angeles, here he wrote a feature film, “Hitler’s Hangman” (1943) and generally worked on propaganda. Now what did Olivier produce in the following year? “A colourful and highly stylised version which begins in the Globe Theatre and then gradually shifts to a realistic evocation of the Battle of Agincourt”, oh yes, Henry the Fifth!

The intellectuals of Odessa


Norman Levine –the view from an ethereal distance


Auden’s lines are well-known:-

As the hawk sees it or the helmeted airman:
The clouds rift suddenly –

Watching recently a video of the Canadian writer and poet, Norman Levine who lived in St Ives during the creative upsurge of painters and sculptors, the quality of observation from a distance in this man’s work became more apparent to me. It is perhaps not dissimilar to what has become known as the Martian effect as exhibited in the works of Craig Raine. In Canada Made Me”, Levine writes of his experience as an airman during the war. It is this viewpoint, from the vertical dimension, which is intriguing. That is to say, from a position of detatchment during the engagement.

He writes in the chapter entitled Ottowa, “Distance was the buffer, a way of looking that separated our action and its consequences that allowed us to repeat this performance without having any doubts, or pity, or feeling in any way involved.”

Additionally, in a Polish Jewish family living in a French district of Ottowa, gave him the perspective of being an outsider. He lived overseas from Canada and so again was imbued with the modernist condition of being an exile. Displacement and migration have impacted on populations and reinforced feelings of estrangement.(See for instance Catherine Wilson’s review ) The sense of isolation in St Ives was perhaps relieved by the inspiration of being among artists, from whose sparse technique in sketching he sought to learn. Although, Alison Oldham who has written interestingly about Norman Levine in her Tate monograph “Everyone was working”, states in her Guardian obituary rather bleakly that “Frustration was at the centre of Levine’s art, according to the Nobel laureate Heinrich Böll, who translated the book for an enthusiastic German readership”.

It is perhaps interesting to compare Auden and Levine as transatlantic literati. Auden’s poem from 1930 was written when he was just 23 and has the assumed and assured voice, partly for effect and partly because Auden already held considerable influence over his contemporaries. This was at a stage when most of his knowledge might have been derived from the CCF at Gresham’s. Subject mattersimilar in atmosphere to that shared between Isherwood and that intriguing novelist Edward Upward in their surrealist fantasies about the English village of Mortmere. Auden was to get a closer look at the realities of conlict when he and Isherwood visited the Sino-Japanese War, working on their book Journey to a War (1939). For an analysis of Auden’s poem see

At the age of 23 Norman Levine had just left service as a Lancaster pilot at an air base in North Yorkshire. He was busy making up for his time after service in the R.C.A.F. studying at McGill in Montreal and back to King’s College London having just won a scholarship there. By now with poetry published and a novel in preparation, he arrived in St Ives in the summer of 1949. Although an outsider he obviously found the experimental zeitgeist as well as the working methods of the painters of interest in his own work. He became renowned for his sparse, lean prose and an examination of his personal library discloses his deep interest in Checkhov. He came to evolve a literary technique which he writes about as being the written equivalent of the quick sketch. Stimulated by the landscape, conversation in his short stories start to show affection for the colourful characters whom he was now meeting; Lanyon, Frost, Weschke and a few years later, Francis Bacon.

In a poem,While Waiting for the Birth of a Child, written for his daughter Rachel in late March 1957 he writes:-

I sat there and listened to the suffering in a human voice

And watched the sky become a lighter blue

Until the houses stopped being black and I could see the windows.

And then, suddenly, out of nowhere, a small black toy thing,

A bird, fell against the blue sky, caught the telephone wire

Outside my window, balanced itself, and burst into song.

Art Exhibition Reviews

Sven and other men

SVEN BERLIN – Newly Discovered Paintings and Drawings from the Artist’s Studio

The current exhibition at the Belgrave Gallery at 22 Fore Street in St Ives is one of the most interesting, vibrant and cheerful displays on the scene in this early part of the year. It chimes in well with the recent display of Patrick Heron which was recently shown at the Tate(St Ives) and the current selection of Roger Hilton’s work by Rose Hilton at the Newlyn Gallery.

As soon as you enter the gallery, you are confronted by the large, dynamic  and assertive Acrylic on board; 91.5 x 61 cms Self Portrait (Red Jacket And Blue Shirt) 1979. Sven has portrayed himself, white- haired and bearded and sun-tanned, nonchalantly and flamboyantly holding a paintbrush loaded with scarlet paint with the poise of an aristocrat with a cigarette holder. Indeed, Berlin comes across as some kind of feral aristocrat who holds to a belief in himself  and expressionist panache. At first this can seem self-indulgent, even self-obsessed but by the time you have viewed all these drawings, canvases and sculptures the sheer zest and enthusiasm of the work is both charming and cheering.

The fact of the matter is that Berlin worked assiduously over a long period and maintained integrity to his own conception of artistic inspiration. From the stories that the local community tell it is clear that he fitted into the general idea of what an artist ought to be. He cut a figure and his general demeanour corresponded to the stereotype of a lonely and romantic artist. He appears in the popular imagination as a figure somewhere between Caspar David Fredrich, a wanderer above the sea at Porthgwidden and Anthony Powell’s X Trapnel (Julian Maclaren-Ross).

Two further points are worth remarking. Berlin was a considerable writer as well as an artist possibly comparable with Wyndham Lewis in this respect. Secondly, he was also a war artist and made drawings of the D-Day landings and this and his earlier work have been collected in Hampshire and are of considerable interest. In any event this is an excellent exhibition and will repay the effort of making a visit. and


Musings about the Comedy Form

Ancient forays into Comedy Relief

Ricky Gervais has effectively realised how amusing creatures can appear in his show Animals and with his book Flanimals. The exhibition currently at the Natural History Museum is entitled “Sexual Nature” and John Walsh in today’s Independent (11th Feb 2011) has penned a wry article entitled, “The male snail who likes to give his lady a prod”. This does not refer to some electronic gesture on some sort of zoological Facebook but must have evolved over a very long period of time. Although farce may be swiftly delivered Walsh ponders what he refers to as the “…tenacious Venezuelan Weevil which can maintain the same sexual position for 35 years; and the humble Roman snail, which, in its protracted 20-hour courtship ritual produces little love darts…” The process is aimed at his female partner who must find little opportunity, unfortunately, for comic relief.

‘Comic relief’ appears to have first been used to refer to the cheerful break in a serious work like the Porter’s speech in Macbeth. Dr Johnson praised Shakespeare for such contrasts. This is expounded in the rather jolly, “Exit, pursued by a bear” by Louise Mc Connell who pronounces that Comedy is “amusing and has a happy resolution…. and…. includes words of satire and burlesque”

Originating in Ancient Greece from amongst the revels of wine, fruit and music the production of comedy was later taken forward by the Latin dramatists. The first major figure was Titus Maccus Plautus (254-184 BC) who was born in Sarsina in Umbria. ( He worked as a stage-carpenter and later wrote plays in the breaks between the heavy labours in a flour mill. Some 130 plays were attributed to Plautus of which some 20 have survived. They were adapted from Athenian comedies of the C4th and C3rd BC. They concern knavish slaves, gullible fathers and licentious captains. Interestingly, the dialogue (diverbium) occupied only about a third of Plautus’ plays; two-thirds were the musical pieces (cantica), thus making them early precursors of the modern musical. The iambics notably contained much local dialect which was less varied in the verse form than in the portions that were sung.

The less prolific but more stylish dramatist Terence (195-159 BC) was born in Carthage and hauled as a slave into Rome. He lacked Plautus’s taste for burlesque and rough brutishness. Only one writer of tragedy, Seneca the Younger (4bc-65AD) whose works drew on the Greeks, had much influence on later drama. More information, if you have time is of course at

Book Reviews

People: Essays and Poems by Susan Hill (1983).

This lively collection of essays and poetry was produced for Oxfam, introduced by Susan Hill,it also contains some most interesting drawings following the chapter by David Piper who was director of the Fitzwilliam Museum and fellow of Christ’s College, Cambridge (1967-1973), and first director of the Ashmolean Museum (1973-1985). Other contributors, include Margaret Drabble, Michael Holroyd, P J Kavanagh and Ian McKellen. The latter with feeling writes about his experience of playing Aufidius in Corialanus under the expert and instructive direction of Tyrone Guthrie. This compilation is a splendid read. John Carey has written a charming chapter entitled Mr Perry, who was a Metropolitan Water Inspector on the reservoir at Chiswick. An atmospheric piece written about Carey’s childhood, it conveys how places and persons disappear under the ravages of time. There are several intriguing portraits of schoolmasters and academics and Susan Hill writes a piece about maternal recognition, about her daughter Jessica.Derek Mahon writes a restrained. elegant poem about the previously motorbiking character in An Old Lady now just sits and watches. This can be found at Susan Hill has been much in the news since “The Woman in Black” was adapted for independent television in1989. ( The book, written in 1983 is currently being filmed by Hammer and Alliance Films; apparently this was to be done in 3d, an aspiration now reduced to the usual format. Hill is married to Stanley Wells, the distinguished Shakespearean scholar. Her initial aspirations for the original thriller are recorded at where she states, “I wrote the book in 6 weeks during one summer holiday, every morning while my 5 year old daughter was looked after by a 20 year old medical student, who gave her a wonderful time. It was typed up for me by the student’s sister, then doing a secretarial course but as she couldn`t read my writing, I dictated it onto a tape and she started taking it down. But after a short time, she could only do it if someone else was in the house – she found it just too frightening to work on alone. A good sign if ever there was one !”

Her latest novel is “A Kind Man” and has just had a generally sympathetic review by Sarah Curtis in the TLS. “Howard’s End is on the landing:  A year of reading from home” which came out as a paperback last year is said to be “Conversational and brisk, intimate, insightful and authoritative”. More information on Susan Hill can be found at


Andrew Motion Salt Water-Tortoise

This collection, “Salt Water” came out in 1997 when Motion was getting interested in Keats about whom he has written an  excellent ,well-received biography see:-

The following poem I found rather appealing:-


Here is a man who served his generals faithfully

and over the years had everything shot away

starting from the feet and working upwards:

feet, chest, arms, neck, head.

In the end he was just a rusting helmet

on the lip of a trench. Then his chin-strap went.

So he became a sort of miraculous stone,

miraculous, not just for the fine varnish

which shows every colour right to the depths

black,topaz, yellow, white, grey, green-

but for the fact that it can move. You see?

Four legs and a head and off he goes.

There’s only one place to find the future now –

right under his nose-and no question either

where the next meal might be coming from

jasmine, rose, cactus, marigold, iris, fuschia,

all snow their flowers around him constantly

and all in their different ways are so delicious.

It explains why there is no reason to hurry.

The breeze blows, the blossoms fall, and the head

shambles in and out as the mouth munches:

remorseless, tight, crinkled, silent, toothless, pink.

Life is not difficult any more, oh no; life is simple.

It makes you pause, doesn’t it? It makes you think.

The military metaphors in the first stanza are interesting and despite the armoured protection of the shell,”Then his chin-strap went” adds a sudden vulnerability or loss of protection.This is followed by the pellucid, lapidary quality reflected in the second stanza; limpid colourful and serene. The halting movement calls up motion! It also arguably, suggestive of ageing and seclusion in retirement.

The sixth line in each stanza consists of a staccato of five or six syllables. This seems an effective device and the snowing flowers cascading down adds a new direction and adds to the impression of acceptance, albeit reluctant. An exotic atmosphere is invoked; an elegant japonaiserie appealing  headily to the senses. But here the  remorseless shambling recalls a mutilé de guerre. Hesitation and thoughtfulness mingle with reflection and yet communicates beauty in survival. An effective poem-what do you think?