Paintings by Jean McNeil

These paintings by Jean McNeil are from her current portfolio of work inspired by the land and seascapes of East Anglia. They will feature in  Graphologies  to be published in May  by Mica Press. To see more of her work  go to her website:

Like as Not

This is a fictional memoir  featuring the mysterious K, who might just be a refugee from The Castle or a close relative of Brecht’s Mr Keuner.  The eponymous hero, Arnold Kvaktum,  recalls a journey of self-discovery as he explores the surreal landscape of his childhood and youth growing up in a  dystopian society of the future where ‘soapspeak’ and ‘knowgov’ are the only permitted discourses. The pervasive sense of personal dislocation, of a lack of concordance between the officially authorised map and the  unfolding  territory of a life here results in a series of phantasmagoric events culminating in a suicidal sea voyage. The photographs which accompany the text  anchor  the narrative to its ‘other scene’.

The whole text forms the final part of Graphologies, which is to be published in May by Mica Press. Further information from

Below is a short extract:

Baptismal Naming

They  have asked me to  write the story of my  early years, as if somehow that would explain what has happened to me since. At first I resisted  on the grounds  that it was an invasion of privacy but then I realised that  such a childhood  as they wanted was in any case public  property, given that so much of it had been spent being observed  from  behind  one way mirrors.  I would risk  nothing by complying with their request, and might even  gain some advantage. Only later, once I  had completed the task to their satisfaction, did I realise that  unwittingly I had opened a door into another world  that I could  not close.

My   mother, who was already in her late 50’s when I was conceived, became  crippled with  arthritis shortly after I was born. As a result she was quite unable to hold or feed me. A special  prosthetic cradle, had to be constructed for her to use with me. I do not have any distinct impressions of it, of course,  but I saw one many years later in the Museum of Motherhood. The device  had  a  built in   breast  made out of  synthetic rubber  with a  large teat  that used to play a tune when sucked.  I was later told  that  the  model  my mother used played  Beethoven’s Fur Elise, one reason no doubt why I have always detested his music.  At any rate when I was  seven my mother died and I was moved to the Centre for the Protection of Abandoned Children. As a keepsake I was given a small toy rocking horse, carved out of wood and painted in  bright colours . It had a little door in its belly and inside were lots of little tiny soldiers.   You wound it up and it would rock back and forth, back and forth making a soft neighing sound, until you felt giddy just watching it and thinking how sick the soldiers must feel in its tummy.   My little horse had been brought back by my great grandfather from his travels in the East and it  now became my most treasured possession. If I was miserable or couldn’t get to sleep because of the  bullies in my head  I would   roll it back and forth,  back and forth until I became mesmerised and fell asleep.

My mother once told me its story.  Genghis Khan was besieging  the Persian city of Hormuz, but could make no impression against the  fortress and its courageous inhabitants. So  he had a  giant horse   made and left it outside the gates of the city  and then rode away into the night with all his men so the defenders would think he had given up and left it behind as a gift;   rejoicing at their delivery, the Persians, the little sillies,  dragged  the horse within the city walls, and thinking all was well, went off to party and celebrate their famous victory.   The horse, left to its own devices, promptly gave birth  to its murderous crew, who opened the city gates and let in the rest of their comrades who had sneaked back under cover of darkness. The Persians were slaughtered in their thousands as they slept in a drunken stupor and the city was annexed  to the Mongol empire for many generations. A cult of the  horse grew up in the city; it came to represent the  superior  wisdom  of the Great Khan   and thousands of little models were made so that people could worship him in the privacy of their own homes. Today in parts of  our own Empire, some of the descendants of  the Khan have taken to erecting  monuments to  his memory (illustration 22) .   The moral of the story, my mother said, was that you should never accept a present from anyone who had done you a bad deed, no matter how much they  said they wanted to make amends. ‘Once an enemy always an enemy’ was her unforgiving motto and one that has stood me in good stead.

My  parents separated a year   after I was born. My  father   was a famous surgeon  who  worked  in  another town. He visited me only once, shortly before Mother died. I was very impressed  by the fact he could hold his breath for what seemed like ever, whilst waggling his ears at the same time,  a feat I have spent most of my  life attempting to emulate, with  little success.   When, much later,  the other children in the centre asked me what Father did, I used to  tell them ‘he’s  a knife man, throats slit to order- he gets up peoples noses the way a weasel goes after a rat’. They left me alone after that!

When I was about  ten, I caught pneumonia  and had to be put in an oxygen tent. One day I  got a visit from a  man I’d never seen before but who  somehow looked familiar. He was dressed all in black, black hat, black face, shades, black T shirt, pants, shoes, even his hanky was black..   He said his name was BiG Man  and that  Father was dead, stabbed in the back by a  Red. He had heard I was a chip off the old block and handy with a knife.  Did I want dad’s job as ear nose and throat man to the mob ? As he spoke he clicked his fingers in rhythm to the words, and then I knew  where I’d seen him, he belonged to   a famous gangsta rap  group called Pappa Hemingway.

When I got better,  I   looked the job  up in the dictionary. See  under oto-rhino- laryngology, it said. So I did and to my  astonishment there was a picture of Father. But even more  I was entranced by the music of  the words themselves. Oto-rhino-laryngology  became my nightly orinasal prayer. Muttered under the breath, over and over again it   kept the bogeymen at  bay. Shouted out loud it scared  Wee Willy Winky away.

So I  started out on a new career as   a hard nosed,  thick skinned, word gargling  rapper, answering to the name of  Doctor John. I suppose it made me feel  special, being the only one in the Centre  to have  been adopted   by a family of gangsters. When things got difficult for me I waited for BiG Man  to ride to the rescue and carry me off on his Ford Mustang. But he never came. I  did use to get  postcards from time to time saying he was busy running guns to the rebels of the Sierra Madre or  killing orang utang  in Matabeleland.

When the  teachers and social workers  asked me  in their bright, strangled voices where did I get all these strange ideas from, I would reply, quite truthfully,  ‘from other people’. Later, swapping make believe lives    with  the other children, I read the same desperado plot  between many of their stormy story lines.

When I got to my fourteenth birthday, the   counsellors  said it was time to give up  BiG Man and start  doing some  growing up myself. I was  given some pills  that stopped me twitching  and rushing about  but  I still had  BiGMan’s voice  inside my head  like a secret digigram  telling me to runaway and  join  his rebel army.  So when the warden asked me to do the washing up  I  used to reply, ever so politely,  ‘I’m  sorry,  I’m too busy   inventing a new kind of   oto-rhino-laryngo-technology to get my hands soapy right now’. When the shrink wanted to know about  my dreams I would say ‘I can’t remember them  but it’ s all  written down somewhere   in my oto-rhino-laryngo-discography’ (chanted  to  a beat she couldn’t tap her pencil to). When I ran into the local lads, drunk on moonbeam whisky and spoiling for a fight, I  would dial up 666  and whisper otorhinolaryngoscopy over and over down the line  till their digiphones  were singing  like cicadas and the whole gang fell l into a  trance,  and I could leg it back  home to safety.

This was how I spent my early years, listening to the rhythm of  words  and the silences  in between.

Scenes From A Missing Childhood

 Introduction:   ‘Scenes from a Missing Childhood’ is based on the author’s experience of growing up in London during the blitz; it consists of a sequence of short prose poems depicting screen memories associated with the V2 bombs,  his being sent away from home as an 18 month old baby to his grandmother in South Wales and the subsequent return. These pieces seek to create a narrative from fragments of experience which remained embedded like shrapnel in a badly damaged landscape and to convey a some of the feelings that had to evacuated in order to hold on to a sense of identity, however tenuously sustained.The sequence is included in Graphologies which is to be published  in May by Mica Press ( see New Books for further information).

Here, as a taster  is one section:

Siren calls

The baby wakes up out of a bad dream. He is  being  attacked again. The wolf has disappeared but not his howl. It is the  siren   calling him  to prayer. He is  picked up and carried downstairs. He can smell the fear  and feel it in the arms that hold him.  No one talks. Everyone is listening out. At first there is  silence. That only means  the Thing  has not happened yet.  If  he  could  have put  the Thing into words, it would be  saying ‘ keep your   ears skinned and remember, if you fall asleep, I might pounce and you might wake up dead’.    Then he hears it, the big whine that only stops when the Thing  falls silently out of the sky.  He tries to block the world out. He knows the only safe place to hide is in the cave inside his body.  He still hears the explosion when it comes. That does not mean it is over. There may be another one. Until  the siren says  it is  safe  to  come out now. Is there anyone else  alive?  Will the wolf be back for his supper?


Between Prospect And Refuge


This is a series of poems that explore the hinterland of commonplace experience from the vantage point of the ‘other scene’ and across a range of idioms and genres. There are love poems, poems of separation and loss, narrative poems, concrete poems and comic verse, and poems occasioned by the impress of landscapes and seascapes, or particular encounters and events. The poems form the first part of Graphologies (Forthcoming from Mica Press) and accompany a sequence of paintings  by my partner Jean McNeil.

One  of the poems is reproduced below:


Ulysses   in translation

On  the beach at El Penio

where once Phoenicians and Moriscos danced

he works the line of parasols


around his head a halo

of tobacco smoke, in his hair

canaries flutter and glint


On his chest the sign reads

God Is Great. On his back

a map of Africa proclaims:


‘The Future is closer than you think’.



The Cultural Olympiad: Carrying the Torch for Art?

This text explores the cultural politics and poetics of the London Olympics. It begins by looking at the   growth of ‘feel good’ art in the context of the economic recession.   It goes on to discuss the contemporary role of poetry in public culture ,  and the  relationship b between the aesthetics of sport and literature. It concluded with a detailed reading of the poetry commissioned for  the Olympic Park.

The first version of the text was  published in the poetry magazine Agenda in its Spring Issue 2012. Parts of it were also reproduced in Soundings 50  and on line by the History Workshop Journal.

View the full document here:  The Cultural Olympiad: Carrying the Torch for Art?

The Occasions of Poetry

The Occasions of Poetry   (text)

This text  sets out one possible approach to applying  sociological concepts, especially those of Bruno Latour,  to understanding trends and traditions in poetry writing. In contrast to the  mainstream sociology of literature, which  looks to the social content or  context of the poem, and/or the social mileu and attitudes of the poet, the focus here is on how  the formal properties of the poem   are produced and function within a distinctive community of practice, involving both readers and writers in a shared poetics. The text goes on to discuss  various  ‘schools’ or movements  in contemporary poetry and the occasions, both public and private, in which poetry   is written, read, recited, or quoted.  The text concludes by illustrating  its approach through  a detailed  reading of a poem by John Ashbery.

Unpublished Paper originally given to a an ESRC seminar on ‘Methods in Dialogue’  in 2005, extensively revised for on line publication.  Read the full document here: The Occasions of Poetry