Tales of the Supernatural



My serious writing commitment is to poetry (book out soon with Angella Horner’s pictures). But I enjoy taking part in writing groups, particularly the one in Chelmsford named “Write said Fred” and led by Mad Tom (well, he’s a psychiatrist). I’m beginning to think I could collect the stories I wrote for this. There are themes of a sort – confusion of identity, misunderstandings, no-one being quite sure where the border of reality is. Oh, and humour: I love writing dialogue.

Three of the stories could be described as ghostly or supernatural. Now outside writing, I just view the supernatural as an unknown country as real in its way as Australia (never having been there, Australia I mean). The ghostly or supernatural story, though, is when something outside our understanding invades the world of our understanding.

On such story features Viking traders forced by a storm to camp on a small Hebridean island which is now uninhabited and what happens overnight (not scary: this is a feelgood story). Another has a couple taking over a long-closed pub called “The Resolution” (that was the title for the Freds), finding out it had been named after a Napoleonic warship in honour of its stand-in captain who’d become a regular in the pub and then finding the past has a way of coming back. Again, not scary, though the story does include sadness.

I’ve just written one that has gone way beyond the one thousand word guideline for Write said Fred, so I’ll have to do it in episodes. 4600 words when I set out to write 1000! It has just three characters of any substance – a damaged ex-copper (Tim Ward) who has left his home and old work area and set up a new life running  a computer services business from his new home in the Yorkshire Dales; a mid-nineteenth-century vicar in the same place (Rev Somerton Warley)  who investigates the scary tradition of the ghostly Kempsdale Riders and writes a book which Tim gets hold of; and a mysterious young woman (Talia McQueen) who appears when Tim is checking out a ruin involved in the story and encourages him to repeat the Reverend Warley’s experiment into the truth of the legend.

Writing it has been huge fun – getting the tone and language and thought processes of a fairly broad-minded 19th century Anglican clergyman just right; making Talia hopefully just mysterious enough, so that Tim senses something odd but still sees her as a beautiful woman who seems to be interested in him and might act on that; and especially inventing a load of credible Yorkshire names like Skegsgill Cottage, Stainford-in-Kempsdale, Brant Hagg, Grimsbar Knoll, the Blood Beck and Hammerthorpe.

Is this story scary? I hope so. But the theme is strangeness rather than horror and panic.


Gates and Reeds

OK, there’s not much in common between those two words (the letter E, yes, and four other letters each), though it would be a good poets’ competition to find something that linked them. Poets are good at linking one improbable thing with another – one poet with another, for example.


Here’s two poems I’ve written recently and I thought I’d share them together even though they don’t have a lot in common (my conscious mind says).





Pearly gates

The high walls steady.
They are topped with clawing black wire.
Around me the ground is featureless
But the dark gate is wide open.
An empty watchtower stares down dully.
That is all except for a dim light inside.

But here comes one who has gone to the entrance
And stopped at a line on the surface, hearing music
And reports that from there the watchtower changes,
A fountain of colour and shapes, red-jewelled, craft-gilded, live.

I stand looking up at the old brutality
Of the bare, angular tower.

I have seen it before, that gate.
It was on the shore as the salt tide came slithering in
It clanged open the moment I fell asleep
And grunted on runners as I, puzzled, woke again.
I saw it where the stream ran from the rocks.
I have thought I’ve seen it in eyes.

Nothing is what it seems to me
But then, neither am I.
If the gate was of gold and silver, of agate, would I go?
The gate stands open.


Illustrating poems does risk stressing one interpretation above another, so please consider the words before the pictures.


And then, in a different mood:




As I lay sick I had a vision of a reedbed
Waving gently in the wind, naked of birdsong now
Only a few sharp calls.
A great heron lumbered into the air
From the edge of the water I could not see, but cherished.


By the way – I was sick for a couple of days, now well recovering. Ear infection threw my sense of balance into chaos – frightening till it was diagnosed and extremely limiting and exhausting for another day and a bit. No big deal now, but I thought I’d better explain “as I lay sick” was not complete invention and should not be a cause for worry.


I expect I’ll post again before Christmas, but if not, Happy Christmas!


Book Review: Joyce Carol Oates, Mudwoman


I’m easing back to normal after almost full-time politics for a month. So here’s a book review.

I came across the now aged American Joyce Carol Oates’ writing a long time ago and I found the short stories compelling, sharply-described and often chilling. Later I tried one of her novels and couldn’t get into it for some reason. Then came “Mudwoman”.

The basic story is powerful. A mad mother drowns her two small children in a muddy creek but one of them survives and is adopted. She does very well in life, becomes a well-regarded academic and while still quite young, Principal (or whatever the title was) of a prestigious university. But she’s done this by suppressing her past, which comes back to bite her.

I ought to have been enthralled, but I wasn’t. Oates seemed to me to lay some things on with a trowel, especially the contrast between the top academic’s authority and intelligence and her vulnerability – and her femininity. While the question of how her two worlds would interact had plenty of mystery, some things seemed too obvious, not done enough by suggestion and indirection, and there was a subtext which might legitimately offend feminists. There can be conflict between masculinity and good leadership and administration, too. The descriptive writing was powerful, but I was not carried along.

There was another issue. The girl had been adopted by a Quaker couple and as a Quaker, I read with that mixture of interest and suspicion typical of someone deeply into something who finds it described by a writer less into it. I know people reading from that position can be hyper-critical, but still, it seemed to me Oates didn’t understand Quakers. Of course, there are differences between British and American Quakerism – some American Quakers have paid ministers, which for us is a bit like finding Catholics who refuse to have anything to do with the Pope – but from what I’ve seen and heard, the similarities are enormous.

Yes, I could recognise the vague goodwill of the couple, but not the always-look-on-the-bright-side-of-life attitude. Plenty of Quakers I know can and have felt the depths. Oates refers three or four times to Quakers putting the communal ahead of the individual and that seems to me a misunderstanding. My perception (and I wasn’t brought up a Quaker) is that Quakers are both intensely individual (to the point of magnificent stubbornness sometimes, or eccentricity) and communal – that we don’t see the two as conflicting. I did check online to see what Oates’ religious background was – Catholic upbringing and now atheist.

Now here’s an admission for a reviewer. I didn’t finish the book. It was on loan from a library and someone else wanted it.

Maybe the real reason for my struggling was that the book had so little joy in it?

Book Review: Umberto Eco, The Prague Cemetery

In Britain Umberto Eco is chiefly known for “The Name of the Rose”, that brilliant detective story evoking, and depending on, the learned culture of the high Middle Ages in Western and Central Europe. By the way, if you’ve only seen the film, apart from Sean Connery’s restrained performance it’s a travesty and has got about as much in common with the book as a nursery rhyme with Hamlet (only nursery rhymes are short). I’d got the impression he was a bit of a one-book sensation: “Foucault’s Pendulum” had got the kind of reception common for disappointing follow-ups to a masterpiece, like “Shardik” following “Watership Down”.


I was wrong. “The Prague Cemetery” is brilliant and extremely readable.


As with “The Name of the Rose”, Eco has more than done his homework. His story reeks of the unstable politics of the middle to late 19th century in Europe. He states that most of the characters are real people.


His main character, Captain Simonini, a Northern Italian spending most of his life in Paris, is profoundly unpleasant. At any stage if chance or miscalculation had left him dead, I wouldn’t have been remotely bothered except it would have cut the book short. It’s remarkable that Eco can centre the story on such a uniformly unpleasant character and hold our attention.


Simonini is not exactly a spy, but he operates in the general area of spying and official skulduggery, while earning his daily bread forging wills. He has a very long list of hates – women, Jesuits, Freemasons, Germans, Jews – and the only thing he seems to really like is eating and drinking well – but he is never drunk. He has no religion and no secular ideals. He will do anything for money as long as it isn’t too dangerous or too distasteful. He befriends people and then kills them if it suits him.


He finds himself used by four different states, by the Catholic Church and by Freemasons, and he exploits and in part deceives them all. He loves inventing credible conspiracies and selling the information as true. He is the origin of the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, the notorious forgery which presented the Jews as tightly-organised in pursuit of world domination. This was used to justify pogroms in Russia and then the Holocaust. Simonini would have been proud, if frustrated that he hadn’t made more money from it.


There is an clever passage early on where Simonini meets Sigmund Freud in his preaching-the-benefits-of-cocaine period. Freud’s theories (not on cocaine) seem relevant to a mystery that is maintained for most of the book. Simonini has a kind of double, a priest called Dalla Piccola, who seems to know everything he has done, reminds him of the worst things and condemns them.


It’s just brilliant. It must sound depressing and in a sense it is, but I enjoyed it. Why?




Poems from Wales

I’m a week back from a week walking a section of the Wales Coast Path, which now goes all round the coast of Wales from the northernmost point of the English border to the southernmost, taking in the spectacular coastlines of the North-wet and South-west corners of mainland Wales.




As you can see from the picture above, Welsh people are characteristically black with round heads and one arm thicker than the other.


The section I did this time was between Fishguard (Abergwaun) and Aberystwyth. This is a fantastically beautiful section, mostly cliffy and tough walking because of many little streams that reach the sea directly through deep gulleys (steep down, steep up).


So hold on – this is a poetry blog. Well, I usually manage to write something on such holidays and these three were all written while killing time in Llanrhystud village. Two relate obviously to Wales, the other less so. One is definitely a sonnet and another arguably an aberrant sonnet.



Those who returned to the earth left stone often carven
In the language of their ancestors, beloved daughter, husband;
The postmaster, a position held with pride,
Succeeded to the honour by his brother.
The dates – 1890, 1908 –
Moving blindly with precision towards horror and Flanders.

Now the church is quiet, its simplicity startling;
Sheep graze around; a sign advises visitors
Not to leave the door open for fear of birds being trapped.
The hand-lettered signs say “God is Love”, “Christ is Risen”.


The low hills, whether clothed in oaks or sheep,
Always looked down on the village where merchants’ trail,
The track of drover and pilgrim, strove to keep
The low route over rivers while the winds brought sail
And strange news travelled fast with brooch and salt;
Babies were born, made some mark and grew old,
And dying, left some memory of a fault
Or of a flame of passion now death cold.
Their world was overturned, yet some hung hard
Through war and coming in and going out,
Indifference replacing faith and doubt
And left a hint of love and love long scarred.


We were brought up that God had made the land,
And all that breathed or rooted, for our kind.
We took God at his word and by our hand
The woods were felled and the high hills were mined.
We drained the marshes to extend the fields
So we could do God’s will and multiply.
No more contentment came from growing yields;
When birds fell silent we did not ask why.
Then wise men came who spoke of Reason’s rule,
Of laws of science that must drive our thought.
Who did not multiply was just a fool,
To risk life for a stranger, a fool’s sport.
But here’s the truth they smudged and sneered and fought:
We’re but a part, our task the land’s renewal.


Enough for now. Next time, perhaps, the best and the worst of William Carlos Williams.


Harmony of the Spheres


This is an old poem of mine – my one and only attempt at a sonnet. The subject is the medieval idea of the harmony of the spheres, a timeless universe centred on the Earth, with incorruptible heavenly bodies contrasted with death and decay among us and heavenly music.


They thought the stars shone from a sphere

Where nothing changed, death was unknown,

Eternal calm looked down on fear,

Lust, greed and rotting flesh and bone.

The stars were strung like diamond beads

On heavenly secrets’ velvet drape

But we below could only dream

Through pictures, words and creeds

How music gave the world its shape

And reeled in time’s chaotic stream.

Now this old picture is a wreck

And astronauts have not picked up

Music on a computer check

Or God’s blood in a plastic cup,

Now that we’ve learnt that change is good

And life is long, and pleasure stays,

We do not need the crystal spheres.

Correctly understood

A yearning for that world betrays

A fear of life, a life of fears.

We know they lived in fear and pain.

Who would not swap the Holy Grail

For wiping out a smallpox strain?

Heaven’s a light along a trail

And not a warlord’s massive tower.

Our flesh is not a shameful thing.

But when we let the old boat go

And slip from place and hour,

Perhaps the stars will seem to sing,

Perhaps the stars will seem to grow.

Book Reviews: The Flood, David Maine; The Land of Decoration, Grace McCleen


These are books I picked up in my local public library. By an odd coincidence, they raise some of the same questions, questions quite unusual for a small English public library.

David Maine’s book is a retelling of the biblical story of Noah and the Flood. It follows the biblical account loyally, but of course, embellishes. You could interpret it as an exercise of “If this was literally true and these were real people, what would it have been like?” Some people will see it as irreverent. At times Noah’s sons see their stubborn father, not the best of communicators, as an old fool. There’s a lot of sex – but there is in the Bible (remember all those “begat”s?

It took a while for me to get into this novel, but the time came. The characters came to life. Of course, there are difficulties about a literal telling of the Flood story. The ark wouldn’t be big enough. How, if the flood was over the whole world, did they get the Australian and American animals? This version does mention armadillos, but I’m inclined to think the American author had forgotten these are purely animals of the Americas. We also learn of peoples who were apparently totally wiped out in the Flood, but we know mysteriously reappeared, such as Phoenicians.

It was interesting, but not enthralling. Throughout it asks, but does not answer, questions about a God with unlimited power, a God who cares and creates but punishes ruthlessly. The role of people, it seems, is to obey or rebel.

Grace McCleen’s book had me hooked from the start and its impact on me was far greater. A ten-year-old girl in a small town (it seems to be in South Wales) is being brought up by her deeply and stiffly religious father: her mother is dead. They belong to some strict sect: it sounds very much like the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The girl is bullied at school. She seeks escape in a fantasy world she constructs in her bedroom, a model of things in the real world. She wishes it would snow so she could avoid school and the bully she fears will kill her. She makes mock snow with cotton-wool in her model world. It snows in the real world and school is cancelled. God is speaking to her and telling her she has great power. She tries something else – to bring back a neighbour’s missing cat. The cat returns. She brings snow again. A series of events follow which, if they were true, would seriously interest an open-minded scientist. What she does in the Land of Decoration does seem to be reproduced outside.

But things go wrong. She tries to talk to her father about it but he won’t listen. The boy bully blames her for the trouble he faces from a new teacher and he and his friends begin to cause trouble and damage outside her house , a campaign of harassment. She could – she believes – strike at him, but she doesn’t want to. God is unhelpful and says she’s caused what is happening.

In the end – well, I’d better not say. We learn how her mother died and why her father, a decent man, seems stiff and haunted. Her father and God had assured her that decent, loving people like her neighbour with the cat will be destroyed if they don’t hear the word, but the ending seems to reject this. Finally the link between events in the World of Decoration and our world is broken.

I was totally engaged. I’m unsure, though, what the author is wanting us to believe. The series of events goes well beyond credible coincidence, but the God speaking to the girl is cold and in the end, wrong. The dust cover tells us Grace McCleen grew up in South Wales in just such a religious community. I would be curious about what she believes now.

Book Review: Michel Houllebecq, The Map and the Territory


I had never heard of Michel Houllebecq. It shows how local much news still is. France is no distance, you can even go there on the train, and yet someone famous in France can be nearly unknown in England.

Then I picked up his novel “The Map and the Territory” in my local library – in translation, of course.

To get this out of the way for those who had heard of him – Houllebecq is not purely famous in France for his novels. He was prosecuted for inciting racial hatred after saying Islam was “the most stupid of religions”. Now I don’t know the background, his arguments or other things he said, so I’m commenting from quite a lot of ignorance, and yet I feel I should comment.

First, that statement seem to me pretty stupid. But then I’ve got a History degree and if you ask me about Islam, I think of the culture of Andalucia, of Arab learning, of Sufi mysticism, of the mixed but by no means bad record of Muslim rulers of pre-Raj Indian states. Just as when I see it implied in a book that there may be some fundamental militaristic or warrior-like characteristic among Germans, I think, “Not so fundamental because the argument really won’t wash except for a period of at most two hundred years”. So I wonder what in contemporary Islam Houllebecq was attacking.

Secondly, in English and in English law at least, to attack a religion is not racist unless the attack on the religion is (as it sometimes is in England) a cloak for racism.

Thirdly, to incite racial or religious hatred seems to me to require more than to say something is stupid. His statement was silly, provocative, possibly grandstanding, but I’d have thought unlikely to incite the sort of hatred that leads to physical attacks.

Nonetheless, it’s probably a good thing I had no idea of all this when I read his book – because I liked it. As some reviewers commented, authors who include themselves in their own books rarely create credible characters (they may not have put it quite like that) and there are writers whose subject seems permanently to have become themselves (arguably forgiveable for poets, but I’m thinking, for example, of Norman Mailer). But the Michel Houllebecq who appears in this novel is shabby, self-deluding, ingloriously heavy-drinking, confused – though achieving something much better later. There are wholly inglorious touches like finding that his kicks have been from on-line lingerie catalogues. In other words, if you didn’t know this was a portrait of the author himself, you might well say, “What a fantastic character portrait!”

But Houllebecq is only the second character of the book. The main one is an artist who seems to be borderline autistic, brilliant with detail but oddly detached in his personal relations even a love affair, obsessional but fairly unworried about it, who first hits the headlines with endless photographic reproductions of Michelin maps. The author seems to be poking fun at the art world and the whole concept of art. This character has some similarity to the main character in Tom McCarthy’s “C”, which I reviewed a while back. But whereas I was unsure if McCarthy realised how oddly emotionless his character was, Houllebecq seems to know he’s making us a fairly sympathetic portrait of an odd fish – two odd fish, in fact.

The book is truly humane. In the third part, several police detectives appear and they are shown as conscientious, worried, uncertain people, doing their best to retain their humanity in the face of a job that obliges them to confront horror and immeasurable meanness. By the way, one of them is of Lebanese origin, another sympathetic character is Black African and I see no sign of racism.

It was interesting to read a contemporary French novel and find things that, even in what appeared to be a very good translation, one would not find in a British or American book. One is long sentences. There are several, peppered with semi-colons, that an Anglo-Saxon editor would not have allowed. Short sentences can pack a lot of punch, but I say, “Vive la France!”. Long sentences like these convey a complex interrelationship of ideas and qualifications in a way a series of short sentences could not. Another is a willingness to engage philosophical concepts head on. Few British writers do that, especially since Iris Murdoch’s death. But leading on from that is a French characteristic I like less, a tendency to throw around abstract concepts as though they were concrete, to talk about Liberty, Reason or whatever without any sense that these are fuzzy approximations needing clarification.

Houllebecq does seem to go a long way for publicity, but his book deserves consideration for itself.

Two short poems



Who is the thing that does not cry?

Who marches through without a loss?

Who finds no shadows in the forest,

Lives on a rock where nothing dies?

I made a statue with my hands

To clamp down happiness and peace

But it turned a killing beast

And I was left cold-eyed to stand.


The first step to my peace is restlessness,

For knowing of something else is reaching out

Reaching out is wondering

Wonder is peace

Not wondering is death

A quiet death

And I would sing.

Now first of all, anyone who recognises the statue – nothing personal. This is not a comment about a particular country and political and religious divide.

Secondly, both these short poems were written during the same activity, same place, same day. I wonder if anyone might guess at it. Precise right answers are very unlikely but wrong ones would be interesting.

See you. Hear you.




Another old poem from my collection – this time about fundamentalists. My apologies to the guy in the picture: I spent a long time looking for pictures to illustrate religious fundamentalism, but who’d have guessed it – all the pictures showed people who were identifiably Muslim! Now my contact with evangelising fundamentalists has mostly been with Christian ones because of my background.

They’re not all bad and my poem is about what is probably a particular sub-set, those who are determined to convert people and prepared to be dishonest and deceitful to do so (some undoubtedly wouldn’t do this) and who also are absolutely determined to appear to be happy because to cry or show depression would be to deny God’s power. The poem is an argument against this. In case it’s misunderstood, it absolutely is not an argument against Christianity or religion. I count myself religious and a Christian.




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With fervent voice they praise the Lord;

The fundamentals of their choice

Wrenched from the Bible they enforce

And with a smile apply the sword.


They weave a web for passers-by

Of friendly chat and neighbour’s aid

Until the friendship is betrayed

And spider sucks another fly.


Into a gap they’ll pour such glue

No wind or wave will shift the wall;

Determined that they’ve heard the call

They’ll say they’re certain what is true.


They smile and sing and never cry;

Their outside dark has inside spread.

Who cannot laugh and cry is dead:

Knowing no deep, reach nothing high.  

Copyright Simon Banks 2014