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Life in Squares review: ‘absurd, beautiful characters in a ridiculously golden world’


Art, literature, exquisite interiors and copious copulation – do try to keep up with Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury set

If only their passions had been as muted as their palettes – how different life could have been for the Bloomsbury set. By the end of the opening episode of Life in Squares(BBC2), the three-part dramatisation of the Stephen-Bell-Strachey-Keynes-Sackville-Woolf lot’s attempts to fit their life into their art, their art into their life and their genitals into anyone who was passing through WC1, we had had two deaths, at least four affairs (depending whose terms you use) and a handful of criminal assignations, all set against the most exquisitely tasteful interiors you could hope for. I don’t know how they found time to handpaint half the lampshades they did.

The drama took a certain effort of will to get into. You just have to accept that you are in a world where people convened salons, and probably did say things like “Childe Harold is a load of posturing nonsense! It can’t hold a candle to Don Juan, even if the alexandrines are forced to breaking point!” and let the pounding in your head pass.

Related: A century later, why do we still kneel at the shrine of the Bloomsbury set? | Zoe Williams

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Ann Thomas obituary


My mother, Ann Thomas, who has died aged 88, began writing poetry when she was six, although she did not produce her first book of poetry, A Safe House, until 1996. Her second book, All Summer’s Ahead, a poetry almanac, which I illustrated, was published in 2013. Her poems were often autobiographical and humorous.

Ann was born in London, daughter of Arthur J Davis, an architect, and his wife, Rona (nee Lee); her mother, star-struck, left home for California, though she later returned to Britain, where she died soon after the beginning of the second world war. “Tired of being bored/ tired of being good/ tired of Cook and Nanny/ and nursery food/ my mother ran away /to Hollywood …”, Ann later wrote in her poem La Fanciulla del West.

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Readers recommend: songs about farming | Peter Kimpton


Ranches of cows, horses or sheep? Fields of rice, tea or wheat? Organise your orchard and pick an agricultural crop of songs to make a mass musical harvest

Why Brownlee left, and where he went,
Is a mystery even now.
For if a man should have been content
It was him; two acres of barley,
One of potatoes, four bullocks,
A milker, a slated farmhouse.
He was last seen going out to plough
On a March morning, bright and early.

By noon Brownlee was famous;
They had found all abandoned, with
The last rig unbroken, his pair of black
Horses, like man and wife,
Shifting their weight from foot to
Foot, and gazing into the future.

Paul Muldoon’s short, beautiful poem touches on many things – a secret life, a hint of tragedy, but as much as anything else it captures what can be double-edged about farming. We don’t know what happened to Brownlee, but from the outside the view is that he “should have been content” with his barley, potatoes, bullocks, milker and farmhouse. But all was not as it seemed, and farming - what may seem like the bountiful joy of growing, of producing and living of the land and culminating in harvest, might seem idyllic in theory, but clearly it is often not. Farming’s hard won rewards are fragile, and in the sudden, cold wind of an indifferent universe, they can all suddenly be gone, snuffed out like a life, blown away like straw in the breeze. And perhaps only Brownlee’s two black horses, in that poetic image, shifting their weight from foot to foot, and “gazing in to the future”, really know the truth.

The farmer lives on credit ’til the fall.
Then they take him by the hand, and they lead him through the land,
And the middle man’s the man who gets it all.
The lawyer hangs around while the butcher cuts a pound,
But the farmer is the man who feeds them all.

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Ralph Steadman, Ceri Levy and climate change poems – books podcast

We join Ralph Steadman in his studio as he teams up with Ceri Levy to put birds threatened with extinction in the frame, and hear how poets are responding to climate chaos Continue reading...

From John Fowles with love: how the author’s first true romance and lost poem came to light


In 1951 John Fowles was an assistant teacher at Poitiers University when he fell seriously in love for the first time. More than 60 years on, Mike Abbott meets the student he fell for and uncovers the unpublished poem he wrote for her

John Fowles died 10 years ago. The two volumes of his Journals were published just before and after his death. At the time, they stirred up coverage and debate because they were extraordinarily candid and indiscreet. However, in the past decade the dust has settled and, as is the nature of things, the name of this literary superstar from the 1960s and 70s is now rarely mentioned.

I was recently leafing through the first volume of the Journals and was drawn to Fowles’s description of his relationship with a young French student at Poitiers University, where he was a teaching assistant. It was his first academic post and he was 24 years old. The episode opens on Sunday 7 January 1951:

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Happiness by Jack Underwood review – ambitious, energetic poetry


A debut collection about the problems of love and selfhood reveals an unconventional talent

To have a tattoo done, Michael Donaghy wrote, requires “a whim of iron”. With Happiness, Jack Underwood’s first collection, we seem at times to be in the presence of that whim as it applies its brightly coloured inks to matters of life and death. When his initial Faber pamphlet came out in 2009, Underwood appeared to show Donaghy’s influence, but now he recalls a poet of an older generation, Hugo Williams, for whom, as now for Underwood, the world is largely a personal matter composed of the problems of love and selfhood, as well as that of Frank O’Hara, whose presence is now as ubiquitous as weather, with his “Personism” manifesto seeming to promise access to all areas.

By moving in this direction Underwood has apparently renounced the implacable rigour on which Donaghy’s own playfulness was founded. At times, indeed, Underwood seems to be aspiring to invertebracy. In “Love Poem”, “The streets look like they want to be frying eggs / on themselves. I’m thinking of you and going / itchy from it. I keep expecting to see a nosebleed / on the hot, yellow pavement. Every thought is / a horse fly.” The cartoon detail, combined with a tone at once demonstrative and short of affect, mark a kind of indie house style that can be read (and perhaps more significantly, heard) almost anywhere at present. It’s not so much faux-naive as faux-urbane, emotion turning into attitude, defensive for all its apparent self-exposure.

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The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry review – the importance of rhyme and reason

An ambitious anthology spanning 200 years is welcome – though some of the translators need to work on their rhyming

This anthology is ambitious – in scope, biographical apparatus and in what it expects of its translators. Although the chronological arc is shorter than that of the granddaddy anthology, Dimitri Obolensky’s The Penguin Book of Russian Verse (1965), which included medieval oral poetry and a pair of important 18th-century literary writers, Lomonosov and Sumarokov, the present editors generously represent and expand – in both directions – the Pushkin era and the 20th century. There are names in the 200-year constellation sprawling between Gavrila Derzhavin (1743-1818) and Marina Boroditskaya (1954-) that will be unfamiliar even to educated Russian readers.

A bigger departure from the Obolensky model, and a bigger problem for English readers, is that the current editors present only verse translations: no Russian texts, no literal prose cribs. Although Robert Chandler is the major contributor, the diversity is considerable, and there is usually more than one hand at work translating a major poet (Pushkin has no fewer than eight different translators). Relatively few of the translators are poets themselves; demanding to be read as poems in their own right, the English versifications shoulder a hefty load.

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Journeys in literature: Moon Country by Simon Armitage and Glyn Maxwell


Two poets’ travels in Iceland, through its ancient sagas as well as its contemporary landscape, cast a disorienting but compelling spell

I’m lucky enough to travel for work, to a jumble of far and not-so-far-flung places. When I’m back at home for any length of time, however, I start to get an itch. I think it’s called wanderlust. When it takes hold – and in the absence of anyone asking me to go somewhere new – like most people, I turn to a book to take me there. I got the itch a couple of years ago after an eye-opening trip to Vietnam and east Asia and, perhaps for balance, I settled on Iceland.

In the mid-1930s, Louis MacNeice and WH Auden also went there. The resulting collection of poems and prose was published as Letters from Iceland in 1937. Nearly 60 years later, Simon Armitage and Glyn Maxwell followed in the earlier poets’ footsteps, making their own journey to the land at the top of the world. Their trip resulted in a series for BBC Radio 3 – Second Draft from Sagaland – and a book, Moon Country: Further Reports from Iceland.

It was almost as if a Turner Prize-winning artist had been at the site 10 minutes before tipping coloured powders into the holes to make a metaphorical point about an artist and his/her palette, or a reflective pun on the term ‘landscape painting’.

Odin sat at the top of the world and sent two ravens out each day. They came back at night and sat on his shoulders and whispered news into his ears. One was mind and one was memory.

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The Saturday poem: August

Poem of the week: Someone Else's Song by Kamala Das


The Indian poet’s fine handling of lyric form and metaphorical language combine powerfully in this elegaic, musical work

I am a million, million people
Talking all at once, with voices
Raised in clamour, like maids
At village-wells.

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Grief demands more of a man than a stiff upper lip | Letters


Michael Bywater (When a manly pat on the back won’t do, 1 August) correctly points to the salience of culture in shaping our responses to grief, but when he writes “We have grown to distrust rationality; feeling is the new thinking”, whom is he referring to? For some, grief has to be stowed away because, in rational terms, they cannot allow it to dominate their lives when earning a living and supporting children have priority. They are not in a position to cogitate on “the rewriting of what it means to be human”.

Those who are at the forefront of this discourse, though, are not necessarily harbingers of change when it comes to responses to grief. Some years ago I was working in a Russell Group university and the response I received, on the death of my wife, from a female professor of sociology, was: “Oh, I wouldn’t like that.” Clearly indicating, as Bywater puts it, that the new message is “We’re all in it together”. Really?
David Graham

Related: Our culture of grieving is changing: a manly pat on the back will no longer do | Michael Bywater

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Robert Conquest obituary

Historian and poet who exposed the full extent of Stalin’s terror during the Soviet era

Among the western historians of the Soviet Union, Robert Conquest, who has died aged 98, had a unique place. In 1989-90 his account of the terror of the 1930s was translated and published in a Soviet journal. At the same time, a half-dozen other Soviet journals were publishing translated material from Conquest’s other books. He was not the first to describe the extent and workings of the Stalin tyranny, but he did so in fine detail. He had become, for a broad Russian readership, the man who told the truth about the terror, and Stalin’s murderous tyranny.

The Great Terror (1968) undermined the “official” Soviet story of conspiracy and treason. Conquest placed the murder in 1934 of the Leningrad party boss, Sergei Kirov, as the key to the mechanism of terror. He returned to this in Stalin and the Kirov Murder (1989), though no smoking-gun evidence has yet been found to confirm Stalin’s role.

Related: Stalin's reputation as a ruthless master of deception remains intact

Related: Profile: Robert Conquest

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The lives and limericks of Robert Conquest

The poet and historian died on 3 August, having published more than 20 books on Soviet history. But how many people know about his love of a silly rhyme?

A week during which the last surviving Dambuster pilot died also saw the death, at 98, of another anti-totalitarian figurehead, the poet and historian Robert Conquest. Born earlier than the Movement generation of writers he helped promote with his 1956 anthology New Lines (Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis, DJ Enright, Donald Davie and Elizabeth Jennings among them), Conquest outlived his proteges by some distance, in the case of Larkin by 30 years. He also outwrote them, in numbers of pages produced, publishing more than 20 books on Soviet history.

Related: Robert Conquest obituary

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Poster poems: seeking refuge and asylum


War, poverty, and famine are driving a new wave of human migration. Please share your poems about seeking refuge

The Channel tunnel is besieged by the dispossessed. In the Mediterranean, even the Irish navy is engaged in search-and-rescue missions to save African migrants who find themselves adrift, having been abandoned by those who profit by exploiting them.

In Syria, more than 7.6 million people have left their homes, and more than half of them have left the country, forced out by a brutal civil war. All across Africa and the Middle East, we are seeing the latest wave in an ongoing saga of migration, as war, poverty and famine force the most vulnerable to move on or die. And this is probably just the beginning of what could be the greatest human migration yet, as those who find their homes rendered uninhabitable by climate change are forced to move if they want to survive.

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How Sara Baume made it on to the Guardian first book award longlist


Spill Simmer Falter Wither, the Irish novelist’s tale of one man and his dog, has been chosen from the many books suggested by Guardian readers. Here we take a look at some of the highlights from an exciting and varied list

It’s five years since we opened up a slot on the Guardian’s first book award longlist for reader nominations, and it feels like we’ve really hit our stride. Once again we’ve had a stack of excellent suggestions, running the gamut from self-published SF to mainstream memoir. Once again we’ve had mentions of exciting publishers who were totally new to me – shout out to the folks at Blackbird, Nine Arches and Brick Lane. Once again I’ve been amazed and delighted at the richness and vibrancy of our literary culture, the brave people who are boldly taking on the difficult business of making books. Thanks – once again – for all these inspiring nominations.

Sara Baume has been chosen to go through to the longlist, but we were hugely impressed by your other suggestions. Only an idiot would attempt to pick out any selection from such a sparkling list. Which makes me some kind of idiot, I suppose, because here’s Dorothy Lehane, announcing what might almost be a manifesto for her collection Ephemeris at the opening of Cosmic Rays:

hold up cosmic ray
pure niche, bombarding
in relentless droves
wallop by wallop
lousy low energy …

We find some of the ewes quickly. Coated in snow. Faces white. Their black friendly eyes seem pleased to see me, their wool insulating the snow that lands on them from the heat of their bodies. They rush to my legs and start on the hay. I count them, but it is hard because other ewes are emerging out of the blizzard from all directions. I struggle to get a decent count, but some are missing, maybe a dozen. I have a decision to make … If I stay here much longer, the quad bike will get stuck in the lane and I might get into all sorts of trouble and might not get back for the other flocks.

Day one showed homes bombed down like
dominoes, cars explode, everything destroyed
in the tank’s forward roll.

Day two showed dismembered torsos, pulps of skin and
shattered bone. Overturned cars were funeral homes,
rubble piles with lives inside became burning pyres.”

Someone must have wanted to insult them. Someone against Shalu? Someone maybe thinks she is not visiting the temple enough, that her children are running too wild. Someone always has something to say. She licks her dry lips. She can almost see a tongue lolling from the skull’s half jaw: thirsting. But the thing is silent, its tongue long gone – swallowed by what she can’t imagine. Its eyes don’t see and yet the sockets are alive; they are buzzing with life.

Related: Sara Baume is readers' nominee for Guardian first book award 2015

Your photograph is the least distinct and your face is the most grisly. I have to bend down to inspect you and as I move, the shadows shift with my bending body and blank out the glass of the jumble shop window, and I see myself instead. I see my head sticking out of your back like a bizarre excrescence. I see my own mangled face peering dolefully from the black.

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Hen Harrier Poems by Colin Simms review – a remarkable tribute to an endangered bird


Ahead of the shotguns booming out for the ‘Glorious’ Twelfth, this striking collection underlines the plight of these beautiful hawks and the campaign to save them

Between 1837 and 1840 on the Glengarry estate in Inverness-shire, gamekeepers’ tally books show them to have killed 63 hen harriers, 63 goshawks, 98 peregrines, 27 white-tailed sea eagles, 15 golden eagles, 18 ospreys, six gyrfalcons, 11 hobbies, 275 kites, 285 buzzards, 462 kestrels, 78 merlins and 35 horned owls, as well as 198 wildcats, 246 pine martens and hundreds of assorted other mustelids and corvids.

Today, you read these notorious records doubly amazed: that wildlife slaughter on this scale should have been permissible – and that it should have been possible. Sixty-three goshawks on a single estate? Sixty-three hen harriers? Eighteen ospreys? Six gyrfalcons? Such abundance now seems fabulous, for the avian predator populations of upland Britain have never really recovered from the massacres they underwent in the 19th century. The 1954 Protection of Birds Act outlawed the killing of any bird of prey except the sparrowhawk (protection for which followed in 1962), but illegal persecution has, atrociously, persisted – especially on and around grouse moors. Raptors are still regularly shot and poisoned, and their nest sites wrecked. Successful prosecutions for these crimes are rare.

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The Saturday poem: A Fable for the 21st Century

by Tishani Doshi

Existing is plagiarism — EM Cioran

There is no end to unknowing.
We read papers. Wrap fish in yesterday’s news,
spread squares on the floor so puppy can pee
on Putin’s face. Even the mountains cannot say
what killed the Sumerians all those years ago.
And as such, you should know that blindness
is historical, that nothing in this poem will make
you thinner, richer, or smarter. Myself –
I couldn’t say how a light bulb worked,
but if we threw you headfirst into the past,
what would you say about the secrets
of chlorophyll? How would you expound
on the aggression of sea anemones,
the Battle of Plassey, Boko Haram?
Language is a peculiar destiny.
Once, at the desert’s edge,
a circle of pilgrims spoke of wonder –
their lives dark with mud and hoes.
They didn’t know you could make perfume
from rain, that human blood was more fattening
than beer. But their fears were ripe and lucent,
their clods of children plentiful, and God
walked among them, knitting sweaters
for injured chevaliers. Will you tell them
how everything that’s been said is worth
saying again? How the body is helicoidal,
spiriting on and on
how it is only ever through the will of nose,
bronchiole, trachea, lung,
that breath outpaces
any sadness
of tongue

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Poem of the week: Decline and Fall by Nic Aubury


A poetic parody of Gilbert & Sullivan’s Major-General’s Song with its own satirical target – the demotion of classics from the literary curriculum

(A cautionary tale which may or may not be sung to the tune of Gilbert & Sullivan’s Major-General’s Song)

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My Mother’s House explores death, grief and memories as a Minecraft poem


Poet Victoria Bennett and digital artist Adam Clarke’s ‘poem-world’ shows popular video game as a platform for art and expression

My Mother’s House is the most moving poem I’ve ever played. It’s the work of poet Victoria Bennett, inspired by her experience caring for her terminally-ill mother, and reliving some of the shared memories in her home.

As I explored it, the poem brought back my recent memories of helping my own mother clear out my late grandfather’s house, remembering and sometimes learning for the first time about different aspects of his life.

Related: Zombies, creepers and kids all flock to Minecraft’s block party

Related: YouTube backs digital star Stampy's new Minecraft show Wonder Quest

Related: Three ways to use Minecraft imaginatively in the classroom

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Lee Harwood obituary

Author of more than 20 books of poetry who also translated the work of Tristan Tzara

Lee Harwood, who has died aged 76, created a uniquely open and intimate body of poetry. Committed to describing experiences and feelings usually excluded from formal poetry (because too embarrassing), and from modernist poetry (because too personal), Harwood produced more than 20 volumes, which tended to appear from small-scale or specialist publishers.

His most often reported aesthetic principle was to leave “blanks” that readers fill with their own memories and imaginations so that each creates a different poem from the basic foundations the writer gives. Although he later withdrew from asserting “dogmatic views on what writing’s about”, the need for his poetry to be useful to others and to have a place in social life remained central.

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