The shipyard painter, political activist and razor-sharp cartoonist Bob Starrett has just written a new book The Way I See It on his eventful life and times. Below we reprint one of his stories and review an essential read
ENO's production of La Boheme is a triumph,
Hylda Sims's wonderful new book Reaching Peckham (Hearing Eye, Â£7 or Â£12 with accompanying CD) is set in a part of London where the young William Blake once saw a tree full of angels. The angels in this book, however, are a street gang whose low-level devilry eventually leads to serious tragedy.
Sims is really good at describing the sounds, smells and languages that meet on the streets - market-traders (daffs, a quid three bunches/new season's spuds, thirty pence a pound/six limes fifty pence, fresh crimson chillies), squatters (ethereal scarves/of candle smoke/jasmine oil and joss) and gangs (tiefers, motor nickers/neighbour hass-lers, blammers, jungle blasters) all mixed together in an urban "confetti of lottery tickets/spaghetti of graffito."
It is a clever novel in verse, a vivid and punchy "story in 40 poems" and a book about sadness and loneliness, redemption and tragedy. Wim Wenders meets Only Fools and Horses.
Pete Relph's Red Shirts and Green Boots collects 30 years' worth of poems about nature and politics. Like Sims, he invokes William Blake to reflect on our potential to create either a heaven or a hell on Earth.
There are some lovely poems here about landscape, notably Luxborough Lake and The Poisoned Chalice. But Relph is at his best in a series of splendidly vitriolic attacks on British politicians with "the brains of lobotomised, cloned sheep" (Post-Mortem for New Labour): "Porky politicians, their snouts in the trough... their pants round their knees" ("Corruption Incorporated"), "The puffed-up leader strutted on the stage/Farting bull- shit in the wind" ("But Who Are the Terrorists?").
Deborah Tyler-Bennett's fabulous new collection Pavilion (Smokestack Books, Â£7.95) is a celebration of the world of the English dandy, flashy and flamboyant as the Brighton Pavilion, bleak as the coast of Greenland.
Her cast of eccentrics entertain their listeners at the bar: "Lived in Soho, just after the war/and later, rum lot we were, used to go to/What was it blasted called? The Colony Room!/Landlady looked a bit like you. Met Francis Bacon/once, though didn't know, till after, what he did... Dylan Thomas once spilled a pint over my brogues."
It's a wonderful collection of sad monologues by ageing Teds, Ladeez Men and Good Time Girls and Old Devils - "World's biggest clichÃ©, I know, falling for a shadow-/suited man, whose eyes are always shaded./Wrong un', crook, alcoholic, always the short-con/for a man who could unhook/bra-clasps without me knowing. Now he's gone."
Bob Beagrie's The Seer Sung Husband (Smokestack Books, Â£7.95) is about a different kind of devil.
It's another verse-novel, a magical-realist version of the Pilgrimage of Grace, the 16th century northern rebellion that briefly defied the authority of the Tudor church and state.
After the rebellion is defeated, Tobias Shipton is thrown into York dungeon - "an infernal hole/of finely calculated cruelty, that upon our first/entering I knew my hellish vision had come/to pass and found a perfect home from home/in this pit of footsteps, drips and shrieks,/clanging doors and rattling keys."
There he is tortured by the king's examiner, "a demon loosed from hell/ dressed in a coat of human skin."
On the "stretching chair," his pain becomes "a presence,/a physical being that prances around the chamber,/feeding on my grunts and groans and on the flat line/of question after question, on the sweat and the silence/of my torturer... I feel its dark feathered wings stroke the foetid air/fanning the candle flames and the flame of my pain/rising, unfurling, petal upon petal, to engulf me... til on wing beats I'm carried away."
It's an extraordinary achievement, a book about folklore and myth, imagination and belief, witchcraft and statecraft, angels and demons.