Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

The Most Important Thing

Saturday, March 31st, 2018

The most important thing about a person is always the thing you don’t know.

Ginny and Shona are inseparable. They can’t remember a time before they knew each other. Tanya is new – she’s just moved to Waiheke Island because of her mother’s job.

The old friendship is threatened by the incomer’s arrival. But more unsettling is a question. Why does Tanya look so much like Ginny’s older sister Sophia?

In Belinda Hollyer’s final atmospheric novel, prejudice and tradition clash with reason and revelation in a compelling mystery set in the author’s beloved New Zealand.

To purchase a paperback copy of the novel for £7.99 (inc. postage), please email; to buy the ebook from Amazon, please click on this link.

Please share this news with friends and readers who might enjoy the book!

• The Most Important Thing COVER.indd

Oh, dear, what can the matter be?

Sunday, November 23rd, 2014

Oh, dear, what can the matter be? 

by Bill Halson


Chorus 1

Oh, dear, what can the matter be?

Tories and Labour both teetering backwardly,

UKIP ecstatic, Lib Dems fearing tragedy.

What a curious state of affairs.


Verse 1

Westminster, as Scots enjoyed their referendum,

Suddenly panicked:  decided to send’em

All three party leaders so as not to offend ‘em.

They even wheeled out Tony Blair.


Verse 2

Just when Alex Salmond thought that he had done it,

‘Cos Alistair Darling had totally blown it,

At the very last minute, ‘twas Gordon wot won it!

Nobody’d  known he was there.


Chorus 2

And it’s oh dear, pity the Englishmen,

Devolved powers to Welshmen, the Scots and the Irishmen,

But depend for their laws on MP’s from West Lothian

And now they’re beginning to care.


Verse 3

The Tories would bar MP’s North of the Border,

But Labour thinks that would be quite out of order.

The Scot Nats are ranting and screaming blue murder.

Lib Dems want it just to be fair!


Verse 4

Lib Dems spent their conf’rence lambasting the Tories

And waxed sentimental about their past glories.

Nigel Farage drank beer and told very rude stories:

He just loves to let down his hair!


Chorus 3

Now it’s oh dear, poor David Cameron,

Lost two MP’s and then got a hammerin’,

For his blood his right-wingers are clamourin:

How can he look so debonair?



Verse 5

In Europe they gave him a sudden large invoice

And said, about paying, the rules gave him no choice:

Guess which politician in Wagnerian voice

Sang:  ‘Ich liebe dich, danke sehr’?


Verse 6

Ed Miliband messed up his job application.

He spoke without notes and without hesitation.

The deficit somehow, dropped off his oration:

I wonder, was he unaware?


Chorus 4

Oh dear, Scots Labour’s new chorus

Is “Ed Miliband is a real dinosaurus”.

They say “Westminster won’t do anything for us.

They’re too ‘London–centric’ to care.”


Verse 7

Three cheers for the PM for coming out shootin’.

He fired a broadside at Vladimir Putin.

Am I cynical thinking his aim is recruitin’

To raise his electoral share?


Verse 8

Good news for the marchers and anti-capit’lists,

A book has appeared with a new Brand of Politics.

For myself it just sounds like a cart-load of bollitics.

I’m sorry, it just makes me swear.


Chorus 5

Poor, dear Liz Truss in an awful stew:

Ducklings in Yorkshire going down with the avian ‘flu.

She’s down on her knees praying turkeys won’t catch it, too.

UKIP blame it on immigrant air.


Verse 9

The gen’ral election will soon be upon us

With numerous parties attempting to con us

And scores of MP’s fear that they’ll soon be gonners:

For the real world they have to prepare.


Verse 10

A new coalition the pollsters predict.

It’s enough to make David and Ed feel quite sick.

Will the balance be held by Nigel and Nick?

They’d make such an elegant pair.


Chorus  5 (Last)

So it’s oh, dear, back to reality.

Will we ever return to two party duality?

Or is it henceforth multi-party rivality?

Frankly, I really don’t care!



©Bill Halson , November 2014

Reproduced by kind permission of Bill Halson. If you would like to use any part of it

please make a contribution to your favourite charity.

The End!

Thursday, January 16th, 2014

The End: after what I thought was three years but now that I’ve checked I see it’s four. Four whole years of starts and stops, of losing the way and the place and the point, quite apart from the will to live. Or to finish. Or to have any faith in what I was trying to write. For ages I struggled with the ending – I got them all down to the beach and couldn’t then work out why they were there or what they were going to do, and I couldn’t get them back up from the beach either. They’ve been shivering down there for months.

But now: now it’s done. Revised at least nine times, and finally – it’s over.

Another book! When I often thought there wouldn’t ever be another book.

Of course when I say ‘The End’, or ‘it’s over’, none of that is likely to be true. Other people have to read it now and at the very least there’s bound to be a need for changes. But right now I feel so good. As light as a leaf, and twice as supple.

Poetry in the Tower of Song

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2013

“No comparison can be drawn between Leonard Cohen and any other phenomenon.”

I’ve been thinking about writing a post about Leonard Cohen ever since I saw him in performance in Paris last September. I was completely spellbound by the experience. I haven’t recovered from the spell. I accept that I may never recover, and will probably be the better, and the happier, for that.

But I am still finding it hard to discover the right way to say what I want; maybe I’ve become infected by Leonard Cohen’s well-documented song-writing difficulties. It took him five years to write “Hallelujah” and there are several extant versions of that plus many alternate verses and modifications, and now also a whole published book just about that one song. (The biography of a song, complete with an ISBN? How cool is that?)

Anyway, writing about Leonard Cohen turns out to be, for me, as tricky as herding cats. I get one satisfactory phrase lined up in my mind and the others immediately melt away, or reveal their stubborn inadequacy for the task in hand. Whatever the cause, I just don’t seem to have the words to organise this task – but on the other hand, I certainly know someone who does. One heck of a guy, with a speciality in smoke and mirrors.

The concert in Paris made me re-think the whole idea of good fortune. Leonard Cohen has been part of the soundtrack of my life since the late 1960s, which must be the case for many of my generation and tastes. But I didn’t, back then, put him at the very top of my favourites – I admired him, yes, but it’s only since he started touring again in 2008 that my appreciation deepened into something close to amazed awe. And for me – as for many others – the experience of a live concert changed it all over again. I knew I was in the presence of an extraordinary talent: one I’d not fully recognised before.

Of course, his work has changed over time, as have I. His recent songs seem freighted with layers of meaning and complex emotions that move me deeply. His miraculous creative revival offers truly profound and deeply serious ideas, while his themes of freedom, loss and redemption are universally uplifting and challenging.

My current favourite  is “Alexandra Leaving”, on which Cohen and Sharon Robinson (his long-time writing partner) started work in 1985, and didn’t release until 2001. I first heard it at the Paris concert but it wasn’t until a friend (and fellow Cohen groupie) pointed it out that I realised the song was inspired by a wonderful poem by Constantine Cavafy, “The God Abandons Antony”. The Cavafy poem I love the most is “Ithaka”, which I have long planned to have read at my funeral (friends please take note, though as far as I know there’s no need to start rehearsing just yet), but I did already know and love this poem too; I just hadn’t made the connection. Too mesmerised by the song, I expect. I am now addicted to “Alexandra Leaving” and no day feels complete unless I listen to it at least once. (A really good day is one where I can put it on repeat play for a while. Today is one of those. Yesterday was, too. I’m clearly on a roll.)

In Constantine Cavafy’s poem, the Antony of the title is Marcus Antonius, Cleopatra’s lover. The poem refers to Plutarch’s story that, when Anthony was besieged in Alexandria by Octavian, the night before the city fell into enemy hands, he heard the sounds of instruments and voices making their way through the city and realised that the god Bacchus (Dionysus), his longtime protector, was deserting him. You could also understand it as a poem about facing any other great loss, with Alexandria a symbol for any beloved city or woman or past glory or fading powers, but, above all else, I believe, a symbol for life.

In Leonard Cohen’s song, Alexandria has become a woman – Alexandra – and the lyrics are focused on honouring and regretting the moment when her love has been lost. It captures and develops Cavafy’s poem in moving and memorable detail, and seems to me to make perfect harmony with the original.

See what you think. Here’s Constantine Cavafy’s poem, written in 1911:

The God Abandons Antony

When suddenly, at midnight, you hear
an invisible procession going by
with exquisite music, voices,
don’t mourn your luck that’s failing now,
work gone wrong, your plans
all proving deceptive—don’t mourn them uselessly.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
say goodbye to her, the Alexandria that is leaving.
Above all, don’t fool yourself, don’t say
it was a dream, your ears deceived you:
don’t degrade yourself with empty hopes like these.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
as is right for you who were given this kind of city,
go firmly to the window
and listen with deep emotion, but not
with the whining, the pleas of a coward;
listen—your final delectation—to the voices,
to the exquisite music of that strange procession,
and say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.

Here’s the song written by Leonard Cohen and Sharon Robinson in 1999:

Alexandra Leaving

Suddenly the night has grown colder.
Some deity preparing to depart.
Alexandra hoisted on his shoulder,
they slip between the sentries of your heart.

Upheld by the simplicities of pleasure,
they gain the light, they formlessly entwine;
and radiant beyond your widest measure
they fall among the voices and the wine.

lt’s not a trick, your senses all deceiving,
a fitful dream the morning will exhaust—
Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving,
Then say goodbye to Alexandra lost.

Even though she sleeps upon your satin.
Even though she wakes you with a kiss.
Do not say the moment was imagined,
Do not stoop to strategies like this.

As someone long prepared for this to happen,
Go firmly to the window. Drink it in.
Exquisite music, Alexandra laughing.
Your first commitments tangible again.

You who had the honor of her evening,
And by that honor had your own restored—
Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving.
Alexandra leaving with her lord.

Even though she sleeps upon your satin.
Even though she wakes you with a kiss.
Do not say the moment was imagined,
Do not stoop to strategies like this.

As someone long prepared for the occasion;
In full command of every plan you wrecked—
Do not choose a coward’s explanation
that hides behind the cause and the effect,

And you who were bewildered by a meaning,
Whose code was broken, crucifix uncrossed—
Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving.
Then say goodbye to Alexandra lost.

And here is the incomparable Sharon Robinson singing it – the video clip begins with Leonard Cohen reciting some of the words.

And for further indulgence, Leonard Cohen apparently in Henri Cartier Bresson mode.

And here’s a screen shot of the Paris concert, and I swear, I can see myself (and my friend Dee) in the audience. Over on the right, eleventh row back. Yay.

Tuesday Poem: homage to Anne Tyler

Monday, April 2nd, 2012

Anne Tyler is presently – and unusually – in England; as far as I know she seldom travels far from Baltimore. She gave a talk at the Oxford Literary Festival yesterday and that’s utterly unusual; almost unknown. Anne Tyler never attends conferences or festivals. She never gives talks. As far as I know she’s given only two interviews in her entire working life. In the second, given recently to National Public Radio in America, she said: “I did do one [a face to face broadcast interview] about 35 years ago. I don’t have that much to say, so I figure about every 35 years will do, right?”

Well, Ms Tyler, I wouldn’t say ‘right’ but I would say, ‘better than nothing’. I couldn’t go to the Oxford Festival to hear her speak but a dear friend went and promises to give me a complete, in-depth and definitive account including hand gestures and a note about handbags, if any: meantime he says this: “You simply have to know, right here and now, that Anne Tyler has two poems on the walls of her study: ‘Walking To Sleep’ by Richard Wilbur. And an Updike poem about writing a novel.”

If anyone reading this loves Anne Tyler’s work as much as I do, and is waiting as impatiently for the release of her new novel (‘The Beginner’s Goodbye’, published in the UK tomorrow) then you might be interested in the NPR interview.

And those poems on her study wall? Well, I can’t give you the whole of Richard Wilbur’s poem because I haven’t had time to seek his permission, but it’s a magnificent poem and especially wonderful for a writer’s wall. So here are the first few lines, and a link to the rest of it on the web.

Walking to Sleep
by Richard Wilbur

As a queen sits down, knowing that a chair will be there,
Or a general raises his hand and is given the
Step off assuredly into the blank of your mind.
Something will come to you. Although at first
You nod through nothing like a fogbound prow,
Gravel will breed in the margins of your gaze,
Perhaps with tussocks or a dusty flower,
And, humped like dolphins playing in the bow-wave,
Hills will suggest themselves. All such suggestions
Are yours to take or leave, but hear this warning:
Let them not be too velvet green, the fields
Which the deft needle of your eye appoints,
Nor the old farm past which you make your way
Too shady-linteled, too instinct with home.

And the John Updike poem? I have, I think, all his published poetry, so unless he wrote it privately for Ms Tyler, and nothing would surprise me there, I ought to be able to track it down. That rustling noise you can hear is me skimming the pages of John Updike’s poetry collections. Watch this space.

And while you’re waiting you might like to check out the rest of the Tuesday Poems this week (lots of them will be up already – it’s run from New Zealand where it’s already been Tuesday for five hours). And the Tuesday Poem community are embarking on another communal poem to celebrate the site’s second birthday, and members have been assigned rostered lines to write and post – roughly one every 12 hours. You can watch it grow!

Home again?

Tuesday, January 10th, 2012

The truth isn’t quite that. Not really. I’m not truly home again, I just wish it were the truth – at least, I wish that in one sense. But I also believe that anyone who, for many years, has lived away from where they were born and grew up doesn’t belong anywhere much, any more. Maybe I feel that because I’m a natural-born outsider – an observer rather than a belonger (I’m the most unclubable person I know). Or maybe I feel it because of a deep-seated ambivalence about the nature of identity – my own and others.

But still. Being back again on Waiheke Island (it’s out in the Hauraki Gulf, 35 minutes on a fast ferry from Auckland: North Island: New Zealand. As if you didn’t know, right?) feels like a homecoming. I love it passionately. I talk about “my” island – would that it were – and feel soothed and invigorated by it. I’m suddenly back to writing up a storm every day; I’m walking every early morning along the headland; I’m loving everything about it – the particular pitch of the neighbours’ “coo-ee!” call, the background buzz of cicadas, the bird song, the smell of the sea and the land, the curve of these hills.

And I’ve posted this poem before – two years ago on the Tuesday Poem blog, I find – but I can’t resist posting it yet again. It’s the poem I loved most when I was at Auckland University and it still holds such a powerful resonance for me.
But first, here’s a photo of the headland I walk around at dawn, with the paradise ducks flapping off in a panic, complaining that I’ve woken them, and the cattle staring moonily, and the sheep ignoring me. All great.

And here’s the poem. Enjoy.

R. D. Fairburn

“Weep ye not for the dead, neither bemoan him: but weep sore for him that goeth away: for he shall return no more, nor see his native country.”
Jeremiah XXII:10

Pine for the needles brown and warm,
think of your nameless native hills,
the seagulls landward blown by storm,
the rabbit that the black dog kills.

Swing with the kelp the ocean sucks,
call to the winds and hear them roar,
the westerly that rips the flax,
the madman at the northeast door.

Dream of the mountain creek that spills
among the stones and cools your feet,
the breeze that sags on smoky hills,
the bubble of the noonday heat.

The embers of your old desire
remembered still will glow, and fade,
and glow again and rise in fire
to plague you like a debt unpaid,
to haunt you like a love betrayed.

And while we’re talking poetry, why don’t you look at what the other Tuesday Poets are offering here: if one of the posts on the sidebar mentions a Tuesday Poem you can be sure there’s a poem in there somewhere.

Tuesday poem: Syros

Monday, October 17th, 2011

I’m a bit ashamed not to have known the latest Nobel Prize winner’s poetry before he won the prize this year, but at least it didn’t take me as long to acknowledge Tranströmer as it took the Nobel committee, which has apparently seriously considered him for the prize every year since 1993! Here’s a haunting example of his work for starters.


by Tomas Tranströmer

translated from Swedish by Robin Fulton

In Syros harbor leftover cargo steamers lay waiting.
Prow by prow. Moored many years since:
CAPE RION, Monrovia.
KRITOS, Andros.
SCOTIA, Panama.

Dark pictures on the water, they have been hung away.

Like toys from our childhood that have grown to giants
and accuse us
of what we never became.

The sea has read them through.

But the first time we came to Syros, it was at night,
we saw prow by prow by prow in the moonlight and thought:
What a mighty fleet, magnificent connections.

I do know it’s only Monday today, so why am I posting a Tuesday poem? Well, it’s mostly because I have the time to to it this afternoon but it’s also because The Tuesday Poem website is based in New Zealand, where it’s already 4 am on Tuesday. You might like to check out the other Tuesday poems, which you can do any day of the week by clicking on the link.

Fare forward, traveller

Thursday, September 1st, 2011

I’m not convinced that travel necessarily ‘broadens the mind’, although I do believe that not travelling probably makes for a much-narrowed perspective on the lives of others. But as Horace (in verse translation) said, “they change their climes/and not their minds/who haste across the sea”: travel alone isn’t enough to effect alteration or extension of perception and thought.

But of course, travelling is a fascinating experience itself and as we are presently driving down through France on our way to Italy I’m also presently intrigued by this state of suspension; the apparent absence of attachment that I think Eliot is talking about in this part of “The Dry Salvages”.

“Fare forward, you who think that you are voyaging;
You are not those who saw the harbour
Receding, or those who will disembark.
Here between the hither and the farther shore
While time is withdrawn, consider the future
And the past with an equal mind.”

There’s certainly a sense in which contemplation of the past and the future seem suspended together in equal balance, and seem simultaneously distant, when you undertake long journeys. (This is probably not unrelated to the ease of driving on French motorways: you put your car into cruise control and don’t have to re-adjust it for hours. But it’s more than that, too.)

I’ve always found walking – in Regent’s Park in London, along the sea cliff on Waiheke, and along the Atlantic boulevard in Key West: all comparatively short journeys of course – to be a good source of reconsideration of anything I’m writing. The physical movement of brisk walking seems to encourage interesting solutions to writing problems to float into my mind, perhaps because if your body’s busy your mind can move into another gear. It feels, when it’s working well, as though some sort of otherwise quiet creative energy has space to breathe. And on this long car journey I think that the suspension of identity – which is one way of expressing something which seems (to me) to be related to Eliot’s poem – is also apparent.

Maybe it’s just that there are fewer practical distractions than usual? Or maybe it’s a form of fugue state, whatever that exactly is – but having now read the Wikipedia entry on ‘fugue state’ maybe I ought to find another alternative: fugue state not only doesn’t sound any fun at all but it’s also apparently a great deal more extreme than what I’m trying to discuss: “Dissociative fugue usually involves unplanned travel or wandering, and is sometimes accompanied by the establishment of a new identity. After recovery from fugue, previous memories usually return intact, but there is complete amnesia for the fugue episode.”

Anyway. It’s a lovely experience and we’ll be in Italy tomorrow, god willing and the creek don’t rise.

A list of banned clichés

Thursday, July 21st, 2011

John Rentoul, the chief political commentator for The Independent on Sunday, is always worth reading. Three years ago he started developing a list of prohibited clichés on his blog, and the top 100 banned words and phrases are available on The Independent’s website: the complete Banned List is to be published in book form in October.

Here are the first 30 banned items: I’m temped to say they’re food for thought except that’s a cliché too, although not in the top 100. I’m sorry about number 6: it’s such a delicious irony. Ah well.

1. It’s the economy, stupid.
2. A week is a long time in politics. Or variants thereof, such as, “If a week is a long time in politics then a month seems an eternity.”
3. What part of x don’t you understand? Although this one seems to have nearly died out already.
4. Way beyond, or way more.
5. Any time soon.
6. “Events, dear boy, events.”
7. Learning curve.
8. Raising awareness.
9. Celebrating diversity.
10. In any way, shape or form.
11. Inclusive.
12. Community, especially a vibrant one.
13. Hearts and minds.
14. Celebrity.
15. Makeover.
16. Lifestyle.
17. Going forward.
18. A forward policy.
19. A big ask.
20. At this moment in time.
21. Not fit for purpose.
22. Hard-working families.
23. Apologies for lack of postings.
24. Black hole (in a financial context).
25. The elephant in the room.
26. Perfect storm.
27. Seal the deal.
28. A good election to lose.
29. Game-changer.
30. Beginning an article with “So”.

The original Banned List was, of course, George Orwell’s: you can see his ‘Politics and the English Language’ article here. And Orwell’s six rules of writing hold good.

• Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
• Never use a long word where a short one will do.
• If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
• Never use the passive where you can use the active.
• Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
• Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

And now I must go and stare despairingly at my own writing …

Tuesday epigram by Humbert Wolfe

Tuesday, July 19th, 2011

‘You cannot hope …”
by Humbert Wolfe

You cannot hope to bribe or twist,

thank God! the British journalist.

But, seeing what the man will do

unbribed, there’s no occasion to.

Humbert Wolfe’s famous epigram, written almost a hundred years ago, is a prescient comment on the News International firestorm, and I’ve given it a red heading as a wry comment on the redtop nature of the present scandal. I doubt if any of this would have shocked him; it would probably seem to him to be more – much more – of the same. Still, it seems this show will run and run, so who knows how it will end? And despite my belief that nothing much will happen at today’s Parliamentary Committee hearings I’ll still be watching them on TV later this afternoon. Can Rupert Murdoch keep his temper in check? Will the flame-haired temptress lose her infamous smirk? Will James Murdoch deny everything? My pro-tem answers are: alas no; perhaps; and yes. Watch that screen …

So hats off to Wolfe who was born in Milan in 1851, grew up in Bradford, and got a First from Oxford. He published poetry from the early 1920s while working for the Civil Service, and died in 1940.

And now, if you’d like to read other poems why don’t you look at what the other Tuesday Poets are offering: if one of the posts on the sidebar mentions a Tuesday Poem you can be sure there’s a poem in there somewhere!