1914 & Other Poems

Old books make perfect time capsules. The turning of their pages can transport you back to the moment they were written, printed, bought or given.

In a charity shop this week, I happened upon an edition of 1914 & Other Poems by Rupert Brooke. The book looks plain enough, its dark board cover blank but for a sepia label on the spine displaying title, author and publisher, Sidgwick & Jackson. It contains an ethereal portrait of its writer, and was printed in June 1915. The date carries you back to a world still in the first convulsions of the First World War – amid which, life carried on, and someone stepped into an English bookshop and made a purchase: an old pencil note on the title page records the sale: ‘2/6 nett, 15.6.15’.

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Two months previously, on 11 March 1915, the Times Literary Supplement had published two of Brooke’s five war sonnets, ‘IV: The Dead’ and ‘V: The Soldier’. Written late in 1914, the sonnets capture the tragic idealism and patriotism of a nation yet to confront the full horrors of the conflict. On Easter Sunday 1915, ‘The Soldier’ was the reading at St Paul’s Cathedral, resonating with the poet’s most famous line: ‘If I should die, think only this of me: / That there’s some corner of a foreign field / That is for ever England.’

Three weeks later, on 23 April 1915, Rupert Brooke, at the age of 27, was dead. Sailing for Gallipoli with the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve, he suffered blood poisoning from an insect bite, and was buried in an olive grove on the Greek island of Skyros. The poet was mourned throughout England and 1914 & Other Poems was published the following month. My copy was the second of eleven impressions made that year alone.

The book holds an additional secret. Whoever bought it that June day was buying it as a gift, and the half-title page bears a small inscription: ‘F.M.T from EEP, June 1915, p.24’. I step into the time machine and, as another hand once did a century before, turn to the instructed page. I find the most beautiful verse, the perfect poem to offer as a certain kind of gift: ‘The Great Lover’.

Immediately, I long to know the identities behind the inscription. Was EEP a soldier himself, presenting his lover a book before he went away to fight. Did he nurse the same noble ideals as the poet? Was his life cut as tragically short? Or was he, instead, F.M.T., carrying his lover’s gift in an army coat pocket as he stood knee-deep in mud in the trenches and thought of home?

I would love to think those initials could somehow be decoded, what time travel that would be! In the meantime, we are left with the poem, printed two months after the ‘drowsy Death’ of its poet, and kept safe in the small, plain, dark-boarded covers that have travelled who knows where. Somehow, it has survived its journey, and now passes on the words that were once a lover’s dedication. They are, heartbreakingly, a love song to such simple pleasures as it is easy to imagine a homesick soldier reciting in a foreign field: a celebration of life at a time of dying. And I feel humbled a century later to hold them in my hands. Something remains. He loved.

THE GREAT LOVER
by Rupert Brooke

I have been so great a lover: filled my days
So proudly with the splendour of Love’s praise,
The pain, the calm, and the astonishment,
Desire illimitable, and still content,
And all dear names men use, to cheat despair,
For the perplexed and viewless streams that bear
Our hearts at random down the dark of life.
Now, ere the unthinking silence on that strife
Steals down, I would cheat drowsy Death so far,
My night shall be remembered for a star
That outshone all the suns of all men’s days.
Shall I not crown them with immortal praise
Whom I have loved, who have given me, dared with me
High secrets, and in darkness knelt to see
The inenarrable godhead of delight?
Love is a flame;—we have beaconed the world’s night.
A city:—and we have built it, these and I.
An emperor:—we have taught the world to die.
So, for their sakes I loved, ere I go hence,
And the high cause of Love’s magnificence,
And to keep loyalties young, I’ll write those names
Golden for ever, eagles, crying flames,
And set them as a banner, that men may know,
To dare the generations, burn, and blow
Out on the wind of Time, shining and streaming….
These I have loved:
White plates and cups, clean-gleaming,
Ringed with blue lines; and feathery, faery dust;
Wet roofs, beneath the lamp-light; the strong crust
Of friendly bread; and many-tasting food;
Rainbows; and the blue bitter smoke of wood;
And radiant raindrops couching in cool flowers;
And flowers themselves, that sway through sunny hours,
Dreaming of moths that drink them under the moon;
Then, the cool kindliness of sheets, that soon
Smooth away trouble; and the rough male kiss
Of blankets; grainy wood; live hair that is
Shining and free; blue-massing clouds; the keen
Unpassioned beauty of a great machine;
The benison of hot water; furs to touch;
The good smell of old clothes; and other such—
The comfortable smell of friendly fingers,
Hair’s fragrance, and the musty reek that lingers
About dead leaves and last year’s ferns….
Dear names,
And thousand others throng to me! Royal flames;
Sweet water’s dimpling laugh from tap or spring;
Holes in the ground; and voices that do sing:
Voices in laughter, too; and body’s pain,
Soon turned to peace; and the deep-panting train;
Firm sands; the little dulling edge of foam
That browns and dwindles as the wave goes home;
And washen stones, gay for an hour; the cold
Graveness of iron; moist black earthen mould;
Sleep; and high places; footprints in the dew;
And oaks; and brown horse-chestnuts, glossy-new;
And new-peeled sticks; and shining pools on grass;—
All these have been my loves. And these shall pass.
Whatever passes not, in the great hour,
Nor all my passion, all my prayers, have power
To hold them with me through the gate of Death.
They’ll play deserter, turn with the traitor breath,
Break the high bond we made, and sell Love’s trust
And sacramented covenant to the dust.
—Oh, never a doubt but, somewhere, I shall wake,
And give what’s left of love again, and make
New friends, now strangers….
But the best I’ve known,
Stays here, and changes, breaks, grows old, is blown
About the winds of the world, and fades from brains
Of living men, and dies.
Nothing remains.

O dear my loves, O faithless, once again
This one last gift I give: that after men
Shall know, and later lovers, far-removed
Praise you, “All these were lovely”; say, “He loved.”

Copyright © Jason Hook 2018

A Shadow-Raven

This week’s excerpt is short and anything but sweet…

“Isabella had squashed and squeezed Pip’s shadow into a feathery shape. She was reaching up now to place it in a brass bird-cage that swung from the ceiling. As she did so, she whined and whinnied the most whicked of Cursery Rhymes:

And now I have your shadow, Pip,
I shall do many wrongs to you.
I’ll cage it, like a raven,
And I’ll teach it to sing songs to you!

 I’ll hold your shadow in my hands,
All feathered, fresh and fine.
And keep it like a pet, because,
Without it… you are MINE!”

tumblr_o39du1pgzz1rp1q8wo1_500hExcerpt from Isabella Mawtle’s Immortal Vanishing Cream,
Copyright © Jason Hook 2018

Artwork Copyright © Mervyn Peake 

An Invitation From A Witch

003135We all love to receive letters. But there are certain letters that should be left on the doormat where they land. Once touched, there is no untouching them. Once opened, there is no closing them. And once read, there is no turning back. A birthday invitation from a witch is one such letter. You may recognise it in time. The envelope will be pristine white, but the card inside will be yellowed and crumpled, as if it has been sent many times before.

If it contains a gift, beware.

If it contains the following address, be afraid…

Miss Isabella Belladonna Mawtle
THE MILL-ON-THE-MOLD
Ferryman’s Lane
ALLCROSS

And if it contains this rhyme, then we are already too late…

My dearest [please insert name here], my very special friend,
Please find enclosed the birthday past and present that I send.
Another year has gone (but you’ve so many more to spare!),
And so, I send a gift to show you just how much I care.
I offer you the chance to come and share my happy home,
To stay with me eternally, to make my life your own.
To come along where you belong, to share with me your dream,
And take your parts in making my Immortal Vanishing Cream.

 I simply won’t allow you to refuse this generous gift,
To have you in my home will give my heart and face a lift.
My hopes are high, but stocks are low, there’s little on the shelf,
I need your help to make it, as it just won’t make itself.
Do bring someone to help you, one is never quite enough,
I seem to need at least the two, these days, to make the stuff.
We’ll work together, tooth and nail, we’ll make up such a team,
And take your parts in making my Immortal Vanishing Cream.

 (If contents break in transit, please return them to the cellar.)

 Ever umbilical cordially yours…

 ISABELLA’

 

Excerpt from ‘Isabella Mawtle’s Immortal Vanishing Cream’,
Copyright © Jason Hook, 2018

 

 

The Gossip’s Reward

You should be careful who you gossip about. Gossip about a witch, and she will know. Not only that, she will send you something in return. And if she’s a witch who wishes (as most witches do) for eternal youth, then that something might just be the signs of old age she wishes someone else to wear on her behalf.

That’s the essence of this second Cursery Rhyme from my unpublished children’s story Isabella Mawtle’s Immortal Vanishing Cream. It tells you quite a lot about Isabella, and why you should keep your gossip to yourself, or at least away from the ears of a witch…

‘I’m a 329-year-old whitch!c0838af53b092ef93ba5bd6f079de0a1--blackbird-singing-crow-art
Not a ‘witch’ but a ‘whhhitch’,
Say it right, if you please.
I’m a whitch, which is why
I don’t witter or warble,
I whhhisper, I whhhheedle,
I whimper and wheeze.
When I spell out my spells,
I spell them out crisp,
I speak them in lines
With a whitchety lisp,
And all those old gossips
Who talk of my shame,
Why, I make them grow old
When they whisper my name.
When they tittle and tattle
And laugh at my tears,
I stamp them with warts
And I brand them with years.
Even now, my old eye-bags
Have packed up their lies
And have gone off to live
On the old miller’s eyes,
Where they puff up like
Pastries and slowly turn sour,
And hang from his face like
Two sackfuls of flour.
And there, my old crow’s-feet
Have found a new life:
See them perched on the face
Of the fat butcher’s wife,
Where they flap at her pig’s-feet
And fly to her moans,
As they peck at the neck
Roll of fat on her bones.
(There is always a debt
To repay on our loans!)
A shade on her chops!
An ache in her joints!
Three fingers point back from
The finger that points!’

Excerpt from ‘Isabella Mawtle’s Immortal Vanishing Cream’,
Copyright © Jason Hook 2018

The Great Golden Pleasury Of Cursery Rhymes

I am about to embark upon the ticklish process of taking the newest incarnation of my children’s novel, Isabella Mawtle’s Immortal Vanishing Cream, and throwing it upon the mercy of potential agents. I thought, at the same time, I might set free to the wider world a few of the spells or ‘Cursery Rhymes’ that the central character scatters throughout the book. Please take care of them.

This is where the witch, Isabella Mawtle, first shows her spell book to her niece and nephew, Pip and Molly, and explains something of its powers:

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“When I was small, I was left on my own,
So, I played with this book like a dog with a bone.
I’d no toys and no friends, and no father or mother,
So read it alone, and from cover to cover,
And took from this book all my happiest times:
From The Great Golden Pleasury of Cursery Rhymes!

It taught me to write, and it taught me to talk.
I had learnt it by heart by the time I could walk.
So, beware of its words, and take care of them well,
For I learned how to speak when I learned how to spell.
And I shook from this book all my happiest times:
From The Great Golden Pleasury of Cursery Rhymes!

It holds verses of curses, and chapters of charms,
With indexes of hexes and hoodoos and harms,
There are tables of fables, and rituals and runes,
Filled with abras, cadabras and hocus-poked tunes,
It’s the sorcery source of my happiest times:
From The Great Golden Pleasury of Cursery Rhymes!

It’s a book that can look to the sound of your voice,
It will write you a juju or jinx of your choice,
All its pages will turn to a birthday girl’s sigh,
To her verse, or her curse, or her sweet lullyby!
And she’ll write in this book of her happiest times:
From The Great Golden Pleasury of Cursery Rhymes!”

 

Excerpt from ‘Isabella Mawtle’s Immortal Vanishing Cream’,
Copyright © Jason Hook 2018

 

Magnificent Mibo

Very pleased to see the MIBO board books out today, loved writing these and enjoyed working with Madeleine Rogers. Always exciting to work with a great illustrator who has lots of creative ideas. And the result is a series of beautifully illustrated poems for young children that convey fun facts about different creatures, while reminding the reader of how precious those creatures and their environment are. Available from Button Books!

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Spike

Last week, I helped out with creating a ‘mid-Atlantic’ version of the poems I wrote for Madeleine Rogers’ beautiful MIBO series of illustrated activity books, published by Button Books. Always interesting to look again at your work. Although they were written for toddlers, I like the verses best when they have enough mad logic to remind me (at least a little) of Spike Milligan! I visited Spike’s grave in Winchelsea last summer, and the epitaph really does say ‘I told you I was ill!’ albeit in Gaelic. He was my comedy hero. I had a great friend as a child, Tony Lowe, who used to send me glorious letters featuring quotes from The Goons and his own inspired lunacy.

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Anyway, my favourite Milliganesque verses from the MIBO series. They sound best if you read them in Spike’s inimitable voice. But I guess you can’t if it’s inimitable…

‘The great white shark is grey on top
And only white beneath,
But in her great white smile you’ll find
Three hundred great white teeth!’
(The Marine Team)

‘Don’t try to sneak up on the owl,
Her ears hear every sound.
Her eyes can hear you in the dark,
Her head can turn right round.’
(The Sky Guys)

And something, to aspire to, from Spike:spike

‘Said a tiny Ant
To the Elephant,
“Mind how you tread in this clearing!”
But alas! Cruel fate!
She was crushed by the weight,
Of an Elephant hard of hearing.’
(Ant and Elephant, Spike Milligan)

Heimlich’s Moment Of Doubt

It has only just come to my attention that Henry Heimlich, inventor of the Heimlich Manoeuvre, passed away in December 2016. I wrote a poem earlier in 2016 inspired by the deliciously ironic story that Heimlich had been called upon to perform his own manouevre at the age of 96 in a nursing home. The story, like the doctor himself, caused controversy, with some reports suggesting it was the latest in a lifetime of publicity stunts. But I guess we all need some poetic licence to practise. I myself situated the nursing home in Texas because I needed the rhyme. The idea that the tale might have been a tall one only adds to the idea of the poem. I thought it was the story of the year, and found myself wondering just how the doctor might have lived his life in the shadow of his creation…

HEIMLICH’S MOMENT OF DOUBT

‘URGH!’
She’s choking.
They’re not joking,
Not playing some mischievous game with the
Illustrious name of their regular Senior Living dinner guest.
Me. The Great Heimlich. Inventor of the Heimlich Manoeuvre.
A life-saver 50,000 times over,
But theoretical, not practical,
The inventor, not the dispenser,
Not a physician, but a fading magician
As likely to raise a body from a sarcophagus
As to squeeze a plugged piece of burger from an old lady’s oesophagus,
Past my sell-by date, past my Sunday best.

‘UURGH!’
She’s really not faking,
And they’re all taking
The opportunity to look at me and pointedly
Ask two questions with their vicious eyes:
First, would it not be a delicious irony
If the Great Heimlich, he who lives so vicariously
Dining out on all those lives he saved by proxy
Turned out to be some poxy stuffed dinner shirt,
Who doesn’t like to press his fingers into the dirty mouth,
Who’s gone south and is all washed up among the dishes?
Perhaps those are their secret wishes.
Second: ‘What if she dies?’

‘UUURGH!’
She’s turning green,
Imagine how they’ll preen
As they reveal the esteemed Heimlich to have been a dick, a poser,
A trick recyclist of the blocked Hoover,
A damned fraud, a fake, a flake,
A dinner party bore on the take…
Wait! Er, I see I’m pushing back my plate,
With a lump in my throat, on the edge of a knife,
Multi-tasking, considering they’re asking me to save a life
While simultaneously wrestling
With one of history’s most ironic questions:
Can I remember my own manoeuvre?

‘There he is,’ they used to laugh,
‘The Late Heimlich,
Always last at the table,
Unable to rush a mouthful,
Morbidly mindful
Of the gobstopping sprout,
The doubtfully filleted trout,
The fish bones, wish bones,
Lying in wait on the plateful of choking hazards:
A minefield of sharp shards and
Throat-blocking
Heart-stopping
Obstructions!
A ticking time bombe in every dessert bowl.
A nibbler, a fiddler,
A plodder, a prodder at the fatted beast
A spectator at the always potentially fatal feast,
Cogitating on and on the instructions he suggested
Every restaurateur and bon viveur ordered up and digested,
Touching his fidgeting tongue from filling to filling
Unfulfilled, unfilled, unwilling
To swallow anything whole.
How they all snicker at this pernickety bone-picker.
Taking a salivating age to pick and chew
Every mouthful, every morsel, every word.
It’s true, I’ve lived in mortal
Fear of choking on a bony shard,
Of being hoisted from the table by my own petard,
The biter bit, succumbing to a coughing fit,
Bear-hugged by some untrained thug,
Breaking glibly a spare rib,
Fate double-crossing me,
As he doubles the Great Heimlich over,
Performing, badly, my Manoeuvre!
Suffering the ultimate indignity as he
Takes my name in vein, just imagine the shame:
Held up to the public gaze like a paradigm not to follow,
Too much for any man to swallow,
An eye-popping final indignation
That leaves me red-faced as it consumes my reputation.
Taken by gastronomic surprise,
To an ignominious, spluttering demise,
My unjust desserts rendering
My life’s last course absurd.

‘UUUURGH!’
My mind’s not playing tricks
At the age of 96,
Struggling with senility, fading virility and a choking emergency,
This could be not just some delicious irony but my crowning glory,
My piece de resistance!
My final slap on the back!
If only I could stop thinking and remember how to act…
And now, it seems, I’m on my feet,
Riding into battle to greet tonight’s errant piece of meat,
Hugging an old lady from behind in a care home in Texas,
My fingers bunch and flex as they punch her in the solar plexus,
Reinventing the greatest invention since the surgeon’s knife,
My breathless kiss of life,
I’m doing it, I’m mastering my own Manoeuvre,
And as quickly as it started, it’s over,
Miss Patty Ris, 87, is granted a deferral
On her stairlift to heaven,
And I’m taking my bow and my seat once more
To pick painstakingly at my meat just as before,
Dining out on another life saved by the Great Hiemlich’s eponymous act,
With a reputation unblocked, unblemished, replenished:
Deliciously, ironically intact.

Copyright © 2016 Jason Hook

 

 

Bridges Not Walls

On this foreboding day in history, I was heartened by the #bridgesnotwalls campaign that was making itself seen and heard along London’s bridges and across the Twitterscape. Inspired to share in the collective expressions of freedom and inclusion, I immediately wondered what bridges had been built by book illustrators. That is, after all, what this occasional blog is supposed to be about.peter-jacksonThe first bridge that I stumbled across (as it were), which got my juices running, was not from a children’s book but from a remarkable series of London artworks by the wonderful Peter Jackson. Ironically, I found it on the Internet, when all along it was staring me in the face: I have it hanging on my wall. Peter’s extraordinary reconstruction shows London Bridge c.1600, with the ferociously flowing Thames whipping boats towards its pontoons, and the many grandiose Elizabethan buildings piled precariously upon its back. Take your pick from any number of metaphors for our modern world right there. With Peter, you know that what you are seeing is historically correct. He was not only a wonderful illustrator but one of the great historians and collectors of London ephemera. He scoured the city’s markets and second-hand shops to gather up over 25,000 prints. Between 1949 and 1980, Peter drew historical cartoon strips of London for the London Evening News, and he built up an unrivalled knowledge of the city’s history, beautifully conveyed through his work in a number of authoritative and evocative books.

Peter was a friend of my father’s, and his London Bridge led me across to another bridge very close to home. What better than a dragon’s tail for making a bridge when you’re on a dragon hunt and can’t see for looking, as illustrated by Richard Hook in our children’s book Where’s the Dragon? It’s funny how when you start looking, you can find bridges right beneath your nose, within your own four walls.

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6a019103c45ca1970c01b7c7de029e970b-500wiThat dragon-tail bridge carried me back in time to my childhood, as I started thinking about my favourite bridge from a children’s story. Surely, it must be the bridge in the Three Billy-Goats Gruff, with a hungry troll lurking beneath its humped back in wait for delicious goat flesh. The story originates in a Norwegian folk-tale, and has a classic narrative structure of three heroes moving from danger to safety by outwitting a threatening presence. In case you’ve forgotten it, the smallest and medium billy-goats succeed in crossing the bridge by each promising the troll a larger prize coming along behind, with the sumptuous finale of the third and biggest goat being of sufficient size and sharpness of horns to give the troll its just desserts. It’s an idea to make any writer or artist salivate, and I’d offer a bridge to any illustrator who would like to join me in a retelling.

I am instantly transported to my childhood when I see the splendidly realistic cover of the Ladybird version of the story, where both bridge and troll lurk unseen. I also discovered a beautiful early illustration from A Selection From The Norse Tales For The Use Of Children (Edinbugh, 1862) in Barbara Hawes’ excellent British Library blog, which gives a fascinating summary of the history of the tale and how it crossed over into our language.

billygoatsOn a day such as this day, when #bridgesnotwalls lifted me up, it seems appropriate to celebrate three satiric heroes crossing safely over a bridge beneath which a troll will always lurk in the darkness.

Do you have any bridges from children’s literature that you’d like to share with me?

A Dragon in the Library

On a Bonfire Day when we remember, remember to protest the plot against our precious libraries – a plot that seeks to put a match to the idea that ideas, imagination and inspiration may be freely available to all, rich or poor – it is a good time to write of books and the sparks and fireworks that can fly from their pages.

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Where’s the Dragon?

There is a magic in books, as all readers know. Every book holds within it the power to breathe life into characters, creatures and entire worlds. These things begin in the imagination of the writer. They start with the spark of an idea, that magical, mutable thing that comes from nothing, from nowhere, from something, somewhere. That spark lights the furnace in which the idea might, if you are lucky, survive the heat long enough to be forged into a story.

Ah, but that story is, when left in the darkness, a lifeless creation. It requires a lightning bolt to animate it. And that lightning bolt is cast not by the writer but by the reader. It is the reader who discovers the story in a book and grants it life. The more readers who read it, the brighter the story burns. The more readers who return to it, the higher its fireworks fly. Most magical of all, the story starts to take on a life, or lives, of its own. It is told and interpreted. It is given as a gift. It is borrowed from a library. It starts to cast sparks of its own.

This is a magical process indeed with a children’s story, which finds its light from a bedside lamp and its life from the regular breaths of a bedtime reader. I once wrote of a fire-breathing dragon, so big that the closer people got to him the harder they found him to see. That was the spark, and it began to breathe fire through the alchemy of my artist father, Richard Hook, in the book Where’s the Dragon? That was back in 2003. To our delight, the dragon was summoned in sufficient bedtime stories for him to grow old. He hides away for a while, and then emerges in the most surprising of places. Today, when I give talks at schools, it is the old dragon that children always seem to know about. It is the story of the dragon so large that he can’t be seen that they still want to hear. He lives on, both as a glowing memory of my father, and as a story that is still being told. He is almost old enough for a grown-up child to hand him down to the next generation, and what finer fate could there be for a dragon, for a story, than that.

If the spark of one idea, one story, one book, survives to cast its own sparks through the readers who breathe life into it, just imagine how many sparks and fireworks fly from a library. A library is a crucible filled with a thousand hot metals, each one of which might turn to gold in a child’s imagination. It is an infinite free firework display, where any firework is possible. It is a fire-breathing dragon, which appears different to every child who discovers it, and which every child should be free to discover for themselves. Otherwise, we might just as well tell our children to stop believing in dragons.