Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Double the Stars

Hello there. I've read some excellent books this summer, and here are the first of a few reviews.

Double the Stars, by Kelley Swain. Cinnamon Press. 2014

Double the Stars is based on the life and times of the first female astronomer, born in 1750.  This is a beautifully-written book that dances with the spirit of discovery.

Double the Stars is an illuminating historical fiction that charts the life of the 'Comet Sweeper' Caroline Herschel. 
Deft and detailed, it is both a love story and an exploration of relationships - between siblings, stars and countries. Swain conjures the burgeoning 18th Century scientific community with impressive accuracy and intimacy. Reader, you are there in the carriage jolting through the shires, and there as you gaze through the eye of a giant telescope at as-yet unnamed stars.
Never poetic with a capital P, you can tell Swain is also a poet through her assured use of metaphor and often beautiful chapter endings, that pause, and breathe, like the end of a poem.


Double the Stars focuses on Miss Caroline Lucretia Herschel, the sister of astronomer Sir William Herschel  whom she worked alongside during their long and illustrious careers.  Caroline was a formidable scientist - and a principled woman - who won respect for her work charting and mapping stars, but also her fair-minded character.
She discovered several comets, one of which bears her name. Despite ill-health and restrictive maternal and societal expectations she rose to prominence. Her femininity is an adjunct to her success, and in some senses sacrificied. Without spoiling the plot, Swain explores ideas of work and life balance that women are still grappling with today.

Caroline Herschel, c. 1800

Double the Stars is a finely-wrought exploration of love and desire, drawing in sexual politics, sibling relationships and the nature of patronage - both by royalty and male family figures.
The metaphor of a double star is well wrought in her relationship with her beloved brother William - always in orbit to his sun but casting her own clear shadow - 

As William explains to Caroline:

'Many of the stars we see are not one, but two. With great enough magnification, we can see that what appears to be a single star is frequently coupled with a smaller, fainter star. One of the pair burns brighter, Lina, so without looking closely, a person might not know the other star existed at all. But it is my guess that one cannot exist without the other.'  (p.68)

Swain describes Caroline's painstaking work correcting The Star Catalogue, compiled by the first Astronomer Royal, John Flamsteed. There is something touching about being granted access to the mind of the woman undertaking such profound work at the edges of knowledge -

"She had begun the project only at William's encouragement, but as she worked on into the depths of autumn, she began to feel that each star deserved to be accounted for. Each burned with its own light; each held its own place in the firmament. Each was one point in an asterism or constellation of greater or lesser import, and Caroline did her best to ensure no star was overlooked.

..."That one should go unnoticed after the light had travelled for thousands of years, as William claimed, struck Caroline as an awful tragedy. The star may have died out long before she was born, long before the Greeks began naming the first planets. The fossil light, falling in faint rays, through the tubes of William's telescopes, finally reaching her eye, absolutely had to be marked in the Catalogue."

Double the Stars closes, movingly, with an apposite, celebratory song to the 40-foot telescope - 'Hymn of the Forty Feet Reflector at Slough...'. 

Swain has written a important book that, like her subject, demands and deserves wide recognition. It is unique, and a pleasure to spend time with - much like, I imagine, Caroline's company herself.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

So much blood shed in recent days, across the world, and for centuries before. So often the innocents who are killed and maimed. So often the arguments lost or trampled or too complex to make sense.
I find this poem by the great Russian writer Marina Tsvetaeva says much in few words.
Thanks to the Poetry Chaikhana for introducing me to it.
And here is a link to the poet Anthony Wilson's blog, and another poem by Thomas Lux that captures the futility and universality of war as a facet of human nature.

Peaceful summer all x

I know the truth
By Marina Tsvetaeva
(1892 - 1941)
English version by Elaine Feinstein

I know the truth -- give up all other truths!
No need for people anywhere on earth to struggle.
Look -- it is evening, look, it is nearly night:
what do you speak of, poets, lovers, generals?

The wind is level now, the earth is wet with dew,
the storm of stars in the sky will turn to quiet.
And soon all of us will sleep under the earth, we
who never let each other sleep above it.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014


Sometimes, when something needs to be said, poetry can say it better than any other way. 
Take this beautiful poem about childhood by Les Murray, from his collection Subhuman Redneck Poems (Carcanet)

Below Bronte House

The children pouring down,
supervised, into the ravine
and talking animatedly all over
each other like faces in a payout
of small change, now come in
under a vast shadowy marquee
of native fig and tree of heaven.
In their indigo and white
they flow on down, glimpsed
between the patisserie trunks
of green coral trees, and as
they go on towards the ocean
they are still tangling and grabbing
at an elusive bright string
that many want to pick off others
and off themselves. It is
of course childhood, which they
scorn as a disabling naivete
even under the enchanted rotation
of gun-sleeved sky-propellor trees.

It's the lines about the "bright string" they want to 'pick off others and themselves' that for me are most moving.  Lines I think only an adult can really understand. 


Today was our son's final full day at primary school. He is raring to go, he is restless, but he doesn't really comprehend what he is leaving. Why should he, at eleven years old? All he knows is he is ready to walk (run) through the school gates tomorrow, and probably never look back. This is how it should be, I think, for a secure child. Perhaps it is the best way to live ?

It is parents, I think, rather than children, who attach emotional import to ends and beginnings. The edges of things are always interesting. Leaving primary school is the edge of something. Not adolescence, exactly, but an innocence.

There was a ceremony at the school and a program was made with pictures of each child holding a sign saying what they wanted to be when they grew up. Brain surgeon, cricket player, funeral director, song writer, midwife, artist, F1 driver. They are still young enough to dream.
They also sang Pharell William's 'Happy' with gusto, all 90 of them. They were given dictionaries and a bookmark. Everyone clapped. All this was, unexpectedly moving.

I found myself thinking of the last lines of Gerard Manley Hopkin's poem Spring and Fall, dedicated to a 'young child' - I think he is right. Perhaps when we wave our children away - to school, college, down the aisle, we are also truly mourning ourselves, the 'blight man was born for'

Spring and Fall, by Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1880.
To a Young Child

Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow’s springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Poetry International

I'm pleased to be involved in an exciting installation at London's Southbank Centre as part of Poetry International. 
The project is called I Leave This At Your Ear and is a 'listening wall' open for the public to sit and listen to poems recorded by  80 contemporary poets.
It was fun recording them in a hushed sound room last year. We each recorded one of our own (mine is 'Afterlife') and one classic. Mine is the beautiful The Lake Isle of Innisfree by Yeats which is always a joy to read for the mouth, mind and ear.
The wall will be installed on the Clore Ballroom floor of the Royal Festival Hal next week. 
It includes new work by Andrew Motion, Mimi Khalvati, Alan Hollinghurst, Emily Berry, Vahni Capildeo, Heather Phillipson and Carol Rumens. 
The whole Poetry International festival looks like a wonderuful gathering of words and cultures. I've treated myself to a Rilke translation masterclass later this month as part of the event which I'm looking forward to already.

You can find some details here -

PS It's free!!

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

some rather fanciful notes inspired by July

already the spiders are spinning
touching the edges of autumn,
sleeves of lace and filigree

over the fields
autumn turns,
rippling waves of shadow,

seed heads bend to the earth
the weight of their work
gathered at their throats

as decades ago I ran
over the meadows, 
childless, a child,

down to the water's edge
turning stones over for larvae
holding fast in the stream

Wednesday, 25 June 2014


Ah well, I didn't make it to the Aldeburgh 8. Although I got through a first cut, it was down to the most exciting poems in the end. I'm genuinely glad for those who are going (whoever they may be) and I hope to apply again another year (this was my first time) - with a whole new batch of poems. ..fingers crossed, it will happen for me at the right time, which seems to be how things work.


I've started on a longer fiction project. I'm only working on the ten minute rule. Ten minutes writing as a minimum every day. I'm writing it out rough in long hand and not really reading it back. Usually I end up doing more than ten minutes, but I haven't got carried away enough to do hours. I started it because it was more pleasant in the end to take charge and at least attempt something than have the nagging feeling of not doing it. If that makes sense! It's very early stages but I like the feeling of putting something more substantial together, even if it proves to be not very good and is only read by me.
A bit like the dictum: 'it is better to have loved and lost than never loved at all'


We did the North Downs Run on Sunday. It was fantastic. I ran with my sister and two other ladies/friends from her running club - the Springfield Striders. It was hot and fun, hilly and intense and I fell over a tree root near the end. Got some nice bruises. It reminded me how much I enjoy running, the challenge and adventure and feeling of strength and freedom.  Also that sense of earned exhaustion. How lucky we are. I loved running through the Kentish villages, downs and ancient woods.

Thanks for reading

Tuesday, 17 June 2014


People going on about their dreams is usually as dull as people talking about their minor maladies but bear with me.
I had a strange dream last night (this morning) -
I was waiting in a room full of people for my 'turn'. It was a classroom/waiting room scenario with people all bunched together, sitting in rows and an electronic, enlarged screen at the front of the room with lines of names that moved up as they were 'seen'.
Who were we waiting to be seen by? It was not quite clear. An authority figure, perhaps a vet? I say this because I had a mouse with me. A dark brown, quite skinny one, quite feisty and lively. I kept it in my hands for ages, trying to contain it, but after a long time waiting it began to escape and run over the desk and other people waiting began to notice it. Some recoiled, most tolerated it, because it was not meant to be freed, or really seen. I was meant to contain it and not inflict its presence on others. Some people are scared of mice or find them disgusting. The people closest to me knew it was there,  that I had it in my hands, but they largely tolerated it.
Eventually I made a small space for it, a temporary cardboard house that was not big enough at all, and to my surprise and relief it stayed there for a while, becalmed. I peeped in and saw it was sleeping. it was tired, poor thing.
But soon enough it broke out and was over the desk again, a rippling brown streak, a live wire.
I looked in desperation and impatience at the scrolling screen and saw my name was still not up there yet. It scrolled on to a whole new page of people, lines of names, and I realised we had longer to wait than I'd hoped. I noticed Will Self's name was there, and then I woke.

Pretty obvious really but I have been worrying about not writing this past month or so. There's a little voice that says 'that was it'. Was that it? I can make it so by stopping and ignoring the urge to write. It's easier to go and run 15 or 20 miles than write 1,000 words.
I've been reading a lot. A Girl is a Half Formed Thing has left me battered and altered (sounds melodramatic, but read it..) And Jim Crace, and Barbara Kingsolver, and Patrick Ness and Les Murray and Louise Gluck. And then I think, it's all very well reading but what about writing yourself? I make false starts and then I stop, or I put it off, and off, and off, by doing other more useful, earthly, practical things like shopping and cooking and cleaning and earning money, but all the time I am carrying round this dis-satisfaction with me and I can't bring myself to begin.
Yes I know, indulgent, but there it is...


So I've been sending stuff out into the world as well as reading. I applied this year (for the first time) for the Aldeburgh Eight, which is a week away writing in the autumn. I hope I get a place. I feel I need it (as of course others do).  If not, I will try again as I need to let that mouse go where it wants to go, wherever that may be.