I Got It Wrong About Bomber Command

A few years ago I started writing family history into my poems. Perhaps it is because I don’t have children to pass the stories on to, I wanted to immortalise my parents and grandparents, now passed away, in my poetry.  Here’s my Dad, George Sutherland, born 1925, in his Air Training Corps uniform at about the mid-point of World War II.

He later trained as a radio operator and flew in Lancaster bombers, as part of the 617 “Dambusters” squadron, but after the dambuster pilots had left.  He loathed his boss, Group Captain Leonard Cheshire, whom he described as a ‘martinet’.  I wrote a sonnet about my Dad, who I think was a little wistful about missing the action.  To put in some colour, I mentioned a dance hall where my parents met, which they referred to as the “Mill Vane”, and also the command “scramble, boys”.  After the poem had been published, by the lovely boys at Prole Magazine, I found out that it was actually the “Milvain” and that Bomber Command never “scrambled” – that was the (reactive) job of the fighter pilots.  The bombers planned their missions pro-actively and were given orders earlier in the day in the “ops briefing”. (It was my mum who worked the capstan lathe at Vickers-Armstrong.) So I had to change my poem, a thing many poets never stop doing.

What Did You Do In The War?

Dancing at the Milvain on Saturday night
to “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree”,
the boys in uniform, the girls utility-bright
quickstepped the dangerous glamour of ’43.

In the Nissen hut, toasting cheese around the stove,
waiting for the ops briefing that wasn’t called;
at Vickers-Armstrong, working the capstan lathe
dodging the Doodlebug that didn’t fall.

By the time we were twenty it was over and out,
with only the briefest taste of enemy action;
into Civvy Street with a duffle bag of doubt
that anything would ever give more satisfaction.

Try telling the barefoot militants of ‘68
how we bought them all the peace they need to graduate.




We caught the tail end of the Ledbury festival on Sunday.  For once, it wasn’t raining, and the little Herefordshire town looked stunning.  First event was Simon Armitage, talking about his new book Walking Home in which he describes walking the Pennine Way, contrarily from north to south.  He’s an engaging speaker and very funny too.  He read a few of his Stone Stanza poems which are about water, in all its forms, and how it shapes the landscape.  He has a great turn of phrase, for example, describing mist as ‘water in its ghost state’.  Brilliant.


Next was my Prof, Andrew Motion, speaking about his new novel Silver, a sequel to Treasure Island.  I’ve read it and enjoyed it, it’s very true to the Stevenson original in tone; a Ripping Yarn with deeper issues to consider.  Motion says he gets up at 5.30 every morning to write.  I’m full of admiration for people who do this in order to get at some of the things in their subconscious mind.  I struggle with that time of day.

Sophie Hannah was funny and quirky; Helen Dunmore was thoughtful and elegant.  Lastly we saw a group of poets reading together in a show called ‘What We Should Have Said’.  Hannah Silva works with sound, right at the edge of meaning.  Some of my friends don’t think this is poetry at all.  I’m still mulling it over.

Nosegaies and Wickerishe

I’m a member of the Poetry Society and receive their quarterly magazine, Poetry Review. This time they have had a guest editor, George Szirtes, one of the best contemporary poets, and a great Facebooker and Twitterer.  He has certainly chosen a fantastic selection of new poetry.  The one I absolutely love is AB Jackson’s “Of Elephants” which I don’t completely understand, but seems to be something to do with Pliny the Elder reporting on the habits of this exotic species, which Pliny himself may not have actually seen.  I love the way the poem is a mashup of real facts about elephants and complete fabrications. The whole effect of the archaic language, the elephants doing ” a kind of Morrish Dance” and the fact that they “snuffe and puffe” is magical.  The elephants seem wise, and friendly and even spiritual.

Normally I am wary of quoting huge chunks of poems that are in copyright, but I can see that this poem is available on the internet as a PDF, so… enjoy.

Of Elephants. AB Jackson


Boling For Broke

“Crown? I told them I already got one…”

Last night, via i-player (a wonderful institution, especially because we can get it on our living-room TV) I caught up with the new BBC production of Richard II – the first of “The Hollow Crown” series of Shakespeare’s history plays. Maybe it was because it was a wonderful production, or maybe it is because my ear is now more attuned to verse, it made total sense to me – I knew who was who and what was going on, although I’ve never seen this play before and didn’t know the history.

Ben Wishaw was marvellously camp and Jesus-like as Richard. The scene where he reluctantly gives up the crown was a marvel.

It’s in the sand!

And Rory Kinnear was terrific as Bolingbroke, the new Duke of Lancaster after the death of Jean-Luc Picard John of Gaunt.  Except that he seemed to have eyes that were different colours.  I checked Google Images and Rory Kinnear doesn’t appear to have different coloured eyes, so what was that about?

The scene where Bolingbroke’s forces approach the castle where Richard is holed up, and Richard is sitting on the ramparts in a pointy gold helmet, made me think, inevitably, of Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  If Richard had screamed “Fetchez la vache!” it would not have been out of character.  And the bit where Richard and his bishop wade out of the sea, alone, returning from the Irish wars, was somewhat unbelievable – they needed an armed retinue at the very least.

There aren’t so many really memorable quotations in this play, apart from the wonderful “this sceptred isle” speech delivered movingly by Patrick Stewart.  And the bit about the hollow crown itself:

“Within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court, and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and mocking at  his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be feared, and kill with looks”