Friday 30 September 2016


                                                    (September 2016)

trackless tracks
sniffed out betwixt
the cracked crevices
of dry-stone terraces
breeze sighs and ripples web-net
skirts around ancient olive trees,
another wrap of shadow
closing around my shoulder,
invisible ghost fingers looming
on the nape of neck, closer,
tar-blacker than night itself
dryads and tree-nymphs
fear-bug tease at glimpse’s edge
off the photocopied map
through an arch of limbs
to the secret waterfall…
squint high and it glitters from sun
in a golden cascade direct from
eyeless velvet cloud-strands
into elfin glade and cave-mouth
lizard-dart small creakings,
a pupa-snore and a snuffle of
pebbles worn marble-smooth,
butterflies skim swirling
flits like Aphrodite’s fingertips
around spray-wet weed…
those endless spills were
falling before I met you
as we stand and kiss,
they’re falling now
beyond our parting
into separate myths,
falling for, you with another…

Thursday 29 September 2016



In Ian Serraillier’s wonderful juvenile novel, 
the three Balicki children cross war-torn 
Europe, with Jan’s precious box containing 
‘The Silver Sword’, and ‘when their spirits 
flagged, it gave them hope 
 and inspiration to go on…’


‘Warsaw is full of lost children’ says Jan.

Within juvenile fiction, there’s a runaway-orphan sub-genre, those tales of the child removed from parental control and thrown back onto its own resources. For the comfortably loved child reader it provides teasing glimpses of a luring freedom from adult authority figures, with the added frisson of danger and fear at the loss of that safe protection.

As an ten-year-old I watched the BBC-TV dramatisation of Ian Serraillier’s ‘The Silver Sword’ in which the three Polish Balicki children – Ruth, the eldest at fifteen, Edek two years younger, and five-year-old Bronia, accompanied by the enigmatic Jan, cross war-devastated Europe in the hope of a rendezvous in Switzerland with their lost parents. It made a powerful impact. A wide-ranging highly-engaging adventure. Deepened by the mystery of whatever Jan’s precious box contains. ‘Warsaw is full of lost children. They’re dirty and starving and they all look alike.’

The first of seven episodes, adapted by CE Webber, was broadcast on Sunday evening, 17:40, 24 November 1957. It follows ‘Circus Boy’ starring Mickey ‘Dolenz’ Braddock (future-Monkee drummer), and ‘Sooty’ with puppeteer Harry Corbett. Produced by Shaun Sutton the serial featured Melvyn Hayes as the sickly Edek. Hayes had already featured in TV’s ‘Quatermass II’ (1955) and as young Victor in ‘The Curse Of Frankenstein’ (1957), but is now best remembered as camp ‘Gloria’ in ‘It Ain’t Half Hot Mum’ (1974-1981). Jan was played by Frazer Hines, a future companion to Patrick Troughton’s ‘Doctor Who’, and an ‘Emmerdale Farm’ regular. Pat Pleasance was Ruth, with Ingrid Sylvester as little Bronia. Patrick Cargill and Shaw Taylor were also there, as a black marketeer and a German officer respectively.

Barry Letts & Frazer Hines in the original BBC-TV production

I bought the book on the strength of the TV series. But re-reading it now I’d forgotten how the first five chapters – dated to early 1940, concern father Joseph (played on TV by future ‘Doctor Who’ producer Barry Letts). He’s a headmaster whose primary school undergoes forcible Nazification, with Polish textbooks replaced by German language. He defiantly turns the classroom Hitler portrait to the wall, for which he’s snatched by Storm Troopers and incarcerated in the Zakyna prison-camp. As Serraillier explains, this is a real camp given an imaginary name. Actor John Woodnutt – who was, for a while, our near-neighbour in East Yorkshire, could also be seen as a fellow prisoner. Following an elaborately-detailed escape, involving a catapult made from pine twigs and the elastic sides of his boots, it takes him four-and-a-half weeks to tramp all the way to the ruins of Warsaw. 

Piers Sandford’s line-drawings reproduced in the 1993 Puffin Modern Classics edition shows the silver sword, a paper-knife Joseph had once birthday gifted to his wife, it’s about five inches long with a brass hilt engraved with a fire-breathing dragon. Joseph rediscovers it in the dynamited rubble of their former family home. His Swiss-born wife – Margrit (Gwen Watford), was forcibly taken as a foreign-worker to Germany. The children, he’s told, are presumably dead.

It’s then he encounters ‘a small ragged boy’ with ‘fair wispy hair and unnaturally bright eyes.’ Jan has a wooden box under one arm, and a bony grey kitten under the other. He’s reluctant to even admit his name, and has no surname. ‘I have my grey cat and this box.’ He lives by his wits. But Joseph trades the silver sword for a promise. That if ever the street-wise waif meets the three Balicki children, to tell them that their father Joseph is going to Switzerland to find heir mother. Jan grabs the sword, pops it into his little wooden box, and runs off into the ruins. Yet he returns to help Joseph hop a freight train travelling west.

It’s only now that the narrative – composed of economically stripped but wonderfully vivid word-pictures, returns to explain the fate of the children. Serraillier’s prose interrogates the reader about the night of the Storm Troopers – ‘had they taken his wife away? Had they returned and blown up the house with the children in it?’ Then supplies the answers. Edek – who was a member of the Boy’s Rifle Brigade at age twelve, had used a gun during the Siege of Warsaw. Now he shoots from his bedroom window, wounding one of the Nazis bundling his struggling mother into a van, and then shoots out the rear tyre. Anticipating reprisals the three children escape through the attic window and perilously cross the adjoining roofs before their home is dynamited.

Swiftly and pragmatically they adapt to surviving in the city ruins. Ruth, serious, intelligent and self-assured, starts a school. Edek scavenges, smuggles and thieves from the Nazis, until he’s eventually apprehended. Serraillier’s skill lies in reducing vast global conflict down to a shifting background, through the perspective of a confused war-child. Even the Nazis are shadowy bogey-men to be feared, but almost peripheral. ‘The war will end’ the children are told, ‘be patient.’ While they survive from day-to-day, as child victims of warfare always have, and continue to do so in the Syria migration and beyond.

The summer of 1944, and following the Warsaw Uprising, the city falls to the Soviets. But more significantly, Bronia and Ruth find a pale and ragged boy lying on a heap of rubble. The kitten has gone, he now has a fiercely-protective cockerel called Jimpy, but this is Jan, who has the silver sword safe in his precious wooden box.

As a child of the immediate post-war years I was bored and resentful of the reverence and force-fed respect I was expected to pay to the sacrifices and heroisms of events that had occurred before I was born, the fabricated swell of patriotism for ‘The Dam-Busters’ (1955) or ‘Reach For The Sky’ (1956), and the gratitude to aging icons Winston Churchill and Field Marshal Montgomery for saving our freedom. There were war-stories in the comics I read – Frank S Pepper’s long-running ‘Rockfist Rogan’, or air-ace ‘Paddy Payne’ on the cover of ‘Lion’, ‘Commando One’ or ‘War Eagle’ in ‘Comet’ where bull-necked Nazis exclaim ‘Gott in Himmel’, ‘Dummkopf’ and ‘Das Englander’. But I always preferred the fantasy or Sci-fi strips, or the Vikings and Roman epics.

‘The Silver Sword’ was different. This is no comic-strip heroism, it’s a human story. ‘War does strange things to young people’ writes Serraillier, and the enigmatic pickpocket Jan provides the perfect focus. Traumatised and damaged, yet fiercely resilient, he trusts, and has an affinity only with animals. An alienated outsider, surly, sullen and uncommunicative, he’s needy, yet wary. The Russian Ivan assists Ruth’s school with food and writing materials, and helps trace lost brother Edek to the Posen transit camp. Yet to Jan, all soldiers are to be hated, whether Nazi or Russian ‘they’re all the same’. And it’s in a tussle with Ivan that the contents of Jan’s box are revealed – and Ruth recognises the silver sword.

Switzerland is ‘millions of miles away’ argues Jan, ‘and you’ll have to walk. Without any shoes.’

Birds make their nests among the ruins. For there are no trees left now, as Ruth and Bronia – with Jan, leave Warsaw to begin their long journey towards their Swiss ‘Promised Land’, via Posen. But Edek is no longer there. He’s escaped. Instead, they meet him by accident in the same Kolina soup-kitchen that poor Jimpy’s neck is broken in the crush for food. But this is a thinner, sicker Edek, who relates his tale of escaping German slave-labour by hanging suspended and freezing beneath the carriage of a speeding train.

They reach the lunar landscape ruins of Berlin on a refugee train, and Jan adopts a new animal companion – Bistro, an escaped zoo chimpanzee with a taste for cigarettes. They cross the Elbe, watching the Red Army columns descend upon ‘towns littered with the debris of war, upon a people numbed by defeat, living from day to day, with no thought for the future’ (descriptions based on eye-witness accounts in J Stransky’s ‘Wind Over Prague’). And across into the US zone where Jan works a scam to switch rail-signals to red, halting the goods train long enough to plunder it.

The narrative is straightforward, delivered in bite-size chapters. Except for the section in the form of a letter from English Army Officer Mark, to his wife Jane, describing his encounter with the ‘family’. And another from the point of view of Captain Greenwood of the US Army of Occupation, as he attempts to resolve the train-theft incident. Individuals are largely decent and well-intentioned, while overwhelmed by the humanitarian disaster that’s inflicting the devastated kleptocratic continent. From the Bavarian farmer who helps them and conceals them from a Burgomaster intent on repatriating them to Poland, to Joe Wolski, the jovial Polish-American GI who drives them towards the Swiss border.

First published in 1956, perhaps the atrocity inflicted by the Red Army’s block-by-block advance through Berlin was not widely recognised at the time. Or perhaps Serraillier’s vision also carries it’s own truth. Born on 24 September 1912, the oldest of four children, he was educated at Brighton College and St Edmund Hall, Oxford. He was also a Quaker and an activist with the pacifist ‘Peace Pledge Union’. An anti-war commitment recognised by a November 1940 tribunal, granting him conscientious objector status enabling him to contribute to the war effort through school-teaching. Written on an old Remington typewriter in his study across five long summer holidays, ‘The Silver Sword’ first appeared in a Jonathan Cape hardback with dust-jacket art by C Walter Hodges – the edition I originally owned. But it was a slow-burner, accelerated by the positive reception given to the BBC TV serial. In truth, there were only two channels. Up against the fledgling and still-patchy ITV network, the Sunday evening slot – later occupied by the five-part ‘Stranger On The Shore’ serial (from 21 September 1961), guaranteed mass juvenile audiences, and constituted something of a generational rite of passage. It was redone again by the BBC in eight episodes, from 22 August 1971.

I clearly recall the black-and-white TV sequences dramatising Chapter 22, ‘The Farmer Hits On A Plan’, and Chapter 23, ‘Dangerous Waters’, as the four children use two ancient canoes to navigate the Falken River down to its junction with the Danube at Falkenburg. Ruth losing control of the canoe she shares with Bronia as they pass beneath the bridge-span, and shots being fired at them from the night as the current grips them and surges them forward.

Then the final torrential storm that threatens to smash their venture into tragedy on Lake Constance, which forms the border to Switzerland itself. Jan rising to the occasion, retaining the silver sword, but sacrificing his precious box to the waves in his striving to save them. A decisive act of commitment binding him to his new-found family. To his daughter, Jane Serraillier Grossfeld, the book ‘is about the triumph of hope over despair’. In a ‘Peace News’ retrospective, poet Jeff Cloves observes that it ‘insists the best human values can never be extinguished by the worst. Ian Serraillier’s children are believable, their adventures not too far-fetched and their inevitable recovery of their parents will bring a lump to the throat of any reader – no matter how hard-hearted and unsentimental’ ( ).

Although a work of fiction, ‘The Silver Sword’ was rigorously researched and includes strands of the authentic. He used photo-spreads from ‘Picture Post’ and news-accounts in the Quaker periodical ‘The Friend’, as well as official Unesco publications as reference points, sellotaped into his large hardback school notebook. As a young man he’d also canoed on the Danube, and his first teaching post was at an international school on Lake Geneva. The characters are underscored by Red Cross records and, as Jane Serraillier Grossfeld points out in her essay appendaged to the Puffin Modern Classic edition, the real Edek did not survive the tuberculosis that was the legacy of his escape from German-slavery. And there’s nothing as patronizingly simple as a clear-cut happy ending. The delinquent and disturbed Jan – ‘that charming bundle of good intentions and atrocious deeds,’ finds difficulty adapting to peacetime, his psychic scars healed by working with animals. Ruth, forced into premature adult responsibility beyond her years, clings to her Mother. But they add their talents to the creation of the real-life Pestalozzi war-orphans village in Switzerland.

Warsaw was full of lost children. Four of those lost children, removed from parental control and thrown back onto their own resources, cross war-devastated Europe. Ian Serraillier wrote other books, poems, and retellings of classic folklore and myth, including ‘The Ivory Horn’ (1960) – his versions of the Frankish ‘Roland’ legend, ‘Beowulf’ and the tales of Chaucer. He also co-founded Heinemann’s ‘New Windmill Series’ of children’s book with his wife Anne Margaret Rogers. But, although he died 28 November 1994, ‘The Silver Sword’ is the work into which he most engagingly pours his beliefs, and the book for which he’ll be long remembered.

Wednesday 28 September 2016



For those who care about such things as historical accuracy, no, I was not remotely involved in the first issue of 'Ludd's Mill'. As the editorial explains, it sprang out of a collective - which was the cool thing to do in 1971, orbiting around a series of live readings in Huddersfield under the 'Inner Circle' banner. Because he'd had previous experience, editing 'Riding West' magazine, Steve Sneyd assumed more of the responsibility for the finished product than its supposed co-operative nature would seem to indicate. Some of the contributors here would never be seen again…

Unlike later issues, the first incarnation of 'Ludd's Mill' is mimeographed, which leads to poor and spotty reproduction…

Apart from the cover-art, there's no illustrations - and visuals were to become a vitally important aspect of future issues…

In keeping with the counter-culture ethos of the time, 'Ludd's Mill' was intended to be street-sold and busked at live events locally, it was art news-bulletins of what was happening strictly at the moment, with no aspirations to posterity…

I was not involved. I was still in Barnsley with the 'Styng' underground tabloid newspaper, and the 'Sad Traffic' arts magazine from which it had grown. But I was starting to poke around interesting events, and this issue of 'Ludd's Mill' found its way onto the exchange/reviews pile scattered across the floor. And I make contact…

Yes, some of the stuff here is very much of its time, and maybe apologies are due. But there's also startlingly good material here that deserves to be preserved, and re-read (if you can't decipher it, individual pages can be blown up into legibility)… and how come there are eleven pages? Well - page two was blank, to allow for the cover-art…!

Tuesday 27 September 2016

Interview: LINDA EM


Linda Em is an enchanting genre-spanning chanteuse. 
Her debut album ‘Shadow Lands’ is well worth seeking out 
 (2015, Talking Elephant Records
This is the full version of an interview done for 
the excellent ‘R2: Rock ‘n’ Reel’ magazine, subsequently 
edited down for publication due to space restrictions

An ‘em’ is a unit used in typography, equal to the currently specified point size, therefore one ‘em’ in a sixteen-point typeface is sixteen points. Linda Em’s name has nothing to do with typography. ‘No it’s a name my friend Sonja put on me. I wanted to abbreviate my surname and she said why not just Em. It also works because I use a lot of E minor chords.’

Minor chords. Major talent. Now auburn-haired Linda’s talking about her debut album, ‘Shadow Lands’ (2015). There’s a kind of literary-connection with CS Lewis about that title. ‘Yes I’m aware of that, it crops up a lot… even in ‘Game Of Thrones’, which is also my kind of thing, pretty addictive, epic and mythological with strong female warriors.’ Although there isn’t a song called ‘Shadow Lands’ ‘it is a word used in one of my lyrics. “Run Higher” is a strange song, inspired by an American man who threw himself off the JPMorgan building in Canary Wharf (‘he couldn’t stand the pressure in his head, so he flew’). I pass the building a lot, its very sad that people are pushed to such actions.’

The video for “Run Higher” shows Linda pensively adrift in the city-commuter flood beneath the Shard skyline. She’s lived in London since the 1980s, making sense of its contradictions with a voice that betrays the edge of Eire in its country-huskiness, yet quietly urgent as she moves from corner to corner, melding Celtic roots with influences ranging from the smoky blues end of the folk spectrum informed by literate classic singer-songwriters. Think Kirsty MacColl, then think again.

At first it seems maybe such songs have matured over a considerable period of time, literate yet Pop-melodic, from slightly nasal Blues to slow sin, accented by Folk-violin. There are lots of frail clear-voiced girl singers in the quasi-Folkie thing, who have perfect voices but little character. Linda’s USP is that her voice is not like that, there’s more breath of experience there. That’s what makes it stand out. There’s even a weird claim on her website that she’s an ‘aged soul honed by a life lived…’ ‘Yes, and no’ she parries. ‘I’m not sure how accurate that is, maybe it’s more a little insight into my person? I am an aged soul, I guess. I’m thirty-four but have a hankering and a taste for all things that came before me. While my peers were reaching for Prodigy I was listening to Janice Joplin and Carole King. As a child it was Fifties, Sixties and Seventies vinyl compilations that my mother had, I would play them on our radiogram. My Dad was a big Hank Williams fan. I also adore old movies, I find them very comforting especially on a rainy day, the comedy pairing of Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn used to make me laugh hard!’

“Muse” opens with Matthew Mason’s resonant drums and Chris Wyatt’s guitar shimmering like steely knives, leading into fifties Pop-catchy harmonies, while never less than lyrically enchanting. Amplified with stridently echoey Spector-pacing on the CD, there’s a plaintive quality to the unplugged “The Busker” video-clip found on her Facebook page, done live at the Limehouse Queens Head with only Terence O’Flaherty guitar – revealing its interpretive layers, her fingers illustrating the lyric, weaving shapes in the air. It proves the strength of the song in that it can be interpreted in such different ways. ‘Thank you for that, I mean if a song can work completely stripped back we know we’ve achieved something. That’s what’s interesting about narrative in song, and that chanson idea of a song being lyric-driven. Listeners want to know what happens to the protagonist. I was brought up listening to my grandmother singing trad Irish and I’d find myself drawn into the journey of the people she was singing about, as in “Spancil Hill”. Another good example is the folk song “Tom Dooley” – a bit morbid, but it certainly had me visualising Tom Dooley’s demise.’

Linda’s “The Brig Hannah” follows the same narrative troubadour Folk-tradition as that Kingston Trio hit, Jane Miller’s violin adding trad-depth to the exile’s storytelling. A style that’s currently eclipsed by the more personal confessional style of songwriting. ‘Oh eclipsed I like that’ she laughs. Although Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs did a lot of early story-telling songs. ‘Yes well I’m a big fan of Dylan’s writing and Leonard Cohen… but then hey, who isn’t?’ “The Brig Hannah” is about an actual event that took place in 1849. The ship was traveling from Newry to Quebec when it sank off the gulf of St Lawrence, and Captain Shaw really did desert them (‘I see you steal away’). It struck me as very sad and I was inspired to write.’

The other half of her ‘we’, is Chris Wyatt, who founded and runs the Redbridge Music Lounge community resource, and plays in a Traveling Wilburys tribute-act – the Traveling Tilburys! ‘We’ve been working together for some time, Chris and I. We’ve developed a sound that brings our wide influences together, and it’s still maturing. I develop the narrative in the song and melody, then I’ll go to Chris and we’ll build around it. I do input on production, I most certainly have strong ideas, but Chris is like a musical architect, he’s somehow able to see my vision and bring it to life. He has a vast understanding of music, I feel we’ve come together at just the right time.’

‘The songs themselves? I get inspired by many different things especially the ‘real world’, “The Dockers Tavern” is about an actual ‘beer-stained’ public house I used to work and occasionally sing in, it was frequented by aged seamen and colourful characters. While “Monday Night” isn’t actually my song, it was written by Chris and his then-band just after John Lennon died, in response to his death, and if you listen closely you can understand that from the lyrics.’

We work pretty quickly together, it was more a case of deciding what to leave off the album. I have an increasing amount of material. I have words written everywhere (‘keep spinning those words out’). I’ve certainly lived a little, my writing comes from genuine experience, and a good dose of hindsight. At a certain age you kinda realise that life happens and you just gotta get on with it. I feel “Blue Girl” echoes my philosophy on life…’

Around this point, the conversation gets to be less a formal interview, and more a two-way dialogue. I point out that – personally, I have a passion for old SF and strange off-trails writers, odd poets and Literary weirdos. I’m assuming Linda is fairly literate too, from her articulate and well-crafted lyrics…? ‘Yes I am fairly. I took a strange left at the traffic lights, into dark humour, it all appeals! I’m kinda word hungry, always open to literary weirdos and defo odd poets. I topic-jump a lot. I’m actually trying to re-read a selection of Ted Hughes poems, and reading about ‘Granuaile’ – Ireland’s pirate queen GrĂ¡inne O’Malley (circa 1530 to 1603). I’ve also been digging around the Harry Smith ‘Anthology Of American Folk Music’ (Folkways 1952, CD set 1997) and the connection he had with Allen Ginsburg.’

Owning up… Allen Ginsberg was a great influence on me when I was starting out, freeing up line-lengths and loosening up form. The only Ted Hughes I could really get into was the ‘Crow’ sequence, but that is brilliant. For a lyric-writer I guess all this stuff feeds in and informs the way Linda expresses words in song… all these things interact and feed off each other... ‘I’ve always found – with writing poetry, that I lack the discipline, so lyric writing frees that up. I noted Ginsburg’s connection with mental health, which is something that interests me, how crises spawns a certain kind of creatives, like Sylvia Plath – who I do really enjoy! As a teenager I was completely fascinated with the Hughes-Plath dynamic. ‘Birthday Letters’ (Faber, 1998) was like Pandora’s box to me. I was at a folk art exhibition at the Tate and I saw an old tapestry of a fox, which triggered the memory of the poem, the thought-fox so for the past few months I’ve been revisiting Plath and Hughes intermittently. Yes, ‘Crow’ is a masterpiece, but then I’m intrigued by the crow in mythology anyway especially Celtic.’

Linda has taken time learning her craft, and it tells across the album’s ten diversely engaging tracks. It’s a debut album to return to. ‘I kissed the blues’ says “Blue Girl”, so ‘if you’re gonna rock me, Baby, make it good.’ Minor chords. Major talent.

Published (in abbreviated form) in:
‘R2: ROCK ‘N’ REEL’ Vol.2 no.53 September-October
(UK – September 2015)
CD review in:
‘R2: ROCK ‘N’ REEL Vol.2 No.52’
 (UK – July/August 2015)