Jim Burns “let’s do it” – The Black Light Engine Room Press


It is always a pleasure to read new/newly collected poems from Jim Burns. This chapbook “let’s do it” by The Black Light Engine Room Press is a limited/first print edition of 50 copies. I’m delighted to have one.

The opening title poem is a cute suggestive piece about grabbing that moment within the context of growing older and doing so in an increasingly uncertain world. For me, its wry playfulness is typical of Jim Burns’ poetry, so we read on and by doing so are doing it to find our pleasures too in the world he observes.

So there is that familiar droll and therefore gentle critique of the actors who cannot stop acting in The Union Theatre and café, and the slightly more caustic humour in reflecting on an old school acquaintance [or really someone he knew at school] in Billy Bagwell.

Quite often Burns’ observations are just that – the simple honesty of seeing and reminiscing, as in Mill Walls where he explains what I have just suggested,

…..I’m not telling
you this to make my childhood
seem harsh or drab or anything
other than what it is

A Close Family is a comic and telling account of eavesdropping on a train, and All Experiences Are Useful is a rueful conclusion on an observation of his boyhood family life.

What I also like is the absence of the judgemental. There is enough of that to go around, me contributing my fair share of irrelevance. Therefore in the poem The Optimist we can make up our own mind about the glass half full mentality of our observed protagonist at the pub, but for Burns the man simply gets a free pint from him.

An Ideal Audience presents a simple yet convincing rationale for the reason to ‘keep on writing poems’; Jackson Pollock presents an abstract conversation between the poet and painter, and there is gentle humour and warmth in the two poems The Old Poet Speaks.

This is a sweet and accessible collection, as one would expect knowing Burns’ work. You read each poem quickly and stop and pause and know there is something quite meaningful expressed with ease. And I don’t mean a deceptive ease. I mean the candour devoid of complexity or affectation of art.

I’ll quote one very brief poem illustrative of Burns’ humour and honesty, this expressing the observational focus of the whole with that hint of more,

On Target

As parting shots go,
it wasn’t too bad.
“I’m tired of being in
your poems,” she said.

Email theblacklightenginedriver@hotmail.co.uk for details to purchase: £5 + £2 p&p

Top Fifty 24: Chris Smither – I’m A Stranger Too/Don’t It Drag On, 1971 and ’72

[Originally posted August 2011]


I’m sure I’ve said and done this before, but I’m going to cheat because I can. This top fifty selection is a two-fer of Chris Smither’s debut and second albums, brought out respectively in 1970 and 1971. They are both excellent – some of the finest songwriting and performance of the time and genre. I genuinely could not choose between them so this combo gets me out of a fix I don’t have to suffer.

Of interest too, I hope, is that I have only discovered Chris Smither in very recent years. If I had heard and possessed these albums in the early 70s I know they would be as precious as my John Martyn albums/music of the time. Smither is a brilliant guitarist, and his more recent work is predominantly blues based. These early albums are mainly folk songs, with beautiful ballads. Smither’s voice today is a distinctive baritone; in the early 70s it was a higher register with an emotive, natural warble that is much more gentle and appropriate to the folk melodies.

Of course I have made a compilation of the ballads from both albums that I particularly like. What is again interesting is that some of these melodies are so achingly plaintive in their beauty, musically and lyrically, that they have an impact on me now that I would normally only get from those songs that I have grown up and lived with for years. That is their genuine power. A track like Devil Got Your Woman from I’m A Stranger Too is a good example. This is followed on that album by Homunculus which is even more of a lament, and has echoes of Bert Jansch’s early work for a reference point. Other songs in this gentler vein are A Short Song For Susan, Neil Young’s I Am A Child, Love You Like A Man, Skip James’ Look Down The Road, and the gorgeous Time To Go Home.

The second album offers up similar gems: Lonesome Georgia Brown with slide guitar; the simple acoustic and vocal of I’ve Got Mine; the brilliant blues of Another Way To Find You; a piano addition in Jagger/Richards’ No Expectations; title track Don’t It Drag On with more piano and bass; the exquisite and sad Every Mother’s Son [lyric at end], and the final track I Feel The Same. Background vocalists on this album include Bonnie Raitt and Maria Muldaur.

There are more bluesy/rock tracks [I have focused on my softer, ‘pretty’ favourites here]. From Don’t It Drag On there are two good representatives of this other offering to mention, both with the Smither vocal sounding like Michael Chapman from Family, and a more dynamic example of the warble I have already mentioned: Bob Dylan’s Down In The Flood, and the classic Willie McTell Statesboro Blues. There are self-penned examples too on both albums.

As I have typed this I have listened to both albums and it has been wonderful. Again, as I’ve said before, I have the time and this is why I do what I do here.

Every Mother’s Son

I speak to you. I think you’ll
Understand. You know you’ve
Made your son Joseph
A dangerous man.
He’s gone to town, he’s bought himself a gun.
This could happen to every mother’s son.

I spoke to Joseph.
His time has come.
“Vengeance is mine,” he said.
“Come join the fun.”
He looked more like a Judas on the run.
This could happen to every mother’s son.

Since I spoke to Joseph he’s
Gone into town. He killed
Six strong men ‘fore they
Shot him down.
I hate to think it’s only just begun.
This could happen to every mother’s son.

Something to tell you I
Think you should know.
You think too fast and you
Love too slow, you know.
You needn’t feel you’re the only one.
This could happen to every mother’s son.

Found in Rees-Mogg


Perfectly, the rights
of the individual
allow you to
crush individuals

because the state
believe that I
am to be protected
by the government

and I do not believe
that a nation in the
interests of an individual
is built on a collective –

this is socialism
more convenient
for valuable and
important things

[found in Rees-Mogg speech today to ‘Open Europe’ think tank]

Matthew Sweeney’s Storytelling


It was sad to read yesterday others commenting on the news that poet Matthew Sweeney is suffering from motor neuron disease, as reported in Monday’s Irish Examiner.

I don’t know him personally and/or had the pleasure of working with him as some of those commentators have –  expressing their love and respect for Sweeney and his writing – but I have enjoyed immensely the poetry of his I have read and additionally recall with great fondness using his storytelling poems with students.

I offered these up from Sweeney’s four collections Cacti, The Bridal Suite, A Smell of Fish and Sanctuary where students could select and use his poems as stimulus for their A level Text Transformation writing projects. The surreal and open-ended narratives of so many of his poems offered students considerable creative opportunities to, firstly, be stimulated by the magic of their inventiveness, and secondly, use this as prompts for their own writing – taking his ideas to their own imaginative places.

I was prompted to share this reflection because of the following and concluding Q and A from the IE report:

What will be your legacy?

Mostly what awaits the poet is posthumous oblivion. Maybe there will be a young man in Hamburg, or Munich, or possibly Vienna, for whom my German translations will be for a while important — and might just contribute to him becoming a German language poet with Irish leanings.

Certainly one thing that’s pleased me in recent years was a suggestion in a review of my last book that I may be responsible for some younger poets venturing into the weird, more surreal zone. That would be something.

It is a self-effacing, amusing and touching response from Sweeney, and I know from experience he definitely did impact positively and inspirationally on younger writers because I will never forget their engagement with his writing and ideas and how this fuelled their own creativities.

Journalism Must Do Better

Whilst I endorse any journalism that shines a light on the wide problems inherent in SATs, I would turn the headline of this article back on that journalism itself and suggest it ‘must do better’.

Examples of SATs ‘cheating’ have been on the increase over recent years, apparently, and this is by teachers/Head teachers rather than examinees. This is obviously wrong, but it would also be wrong not to expose the pressures that push teachers to this extreme reaction – this ‘pressure’ itself one of the key elements for opposing SATs, as mentioned in this article when referring to another boycott by parents in May of this year.

So that’s cheating and pressure [pressure on staff and students to be clear] as key reasons for boycotting. Then there’s this rationale: ‘Unlike GCSEs and A-levels, Sats [sic] have no bearing on a child’s future.’ So cheating and pressure and no bearing on future of students.

This is a well-meaning focus but it does seem lazy journalism to me. The assertion of ‘no bearing on future’ is obviously inaccurate in that the ‘pressure’ already acknowledged will have an impact: the judgements made in secondary schools when students enter with their SATs ‘grades’ leads to expectations and demands and targets – and yes – pressure!

OK, that may seem like a nuance, but in the context of failing yet again to tackle the key reason for challenging the existence of SATs – which is in their lack of educational value – this is actually an important clarification to raise. That’s their education value as a means of fostering effective teaching and learning and then the assessment of this.

Once more with my caveat that I can only speak knowingly about the woeful purpose and effect of English SATs [but I think one can fairly extrapolate], national journalism, especially in The Guardian/Observer, needs to do better in also highlighting these fundamental questions about purpose and effect. As an educational tool they are on the one hand utterly meaningless, but on the other they are precisely that: a tool. A tool for successive governments to claim they have created and implement a rigorous assessment of national standards.

No they don’t. It is a sham [and most countries do not implement similar at this age]. My own rationale for exposing this sham is well-documented on this blog here, for anyone really that interested [perhaps not that many, and probably not on one more, at least, sunny April day!].

In the article I am challenging there is much sensitive and empathetic reporting about the detrimental effects/impact of SATs, not least on narrowing the primary school curriculum, so I do acknowledge that. But I would like to see more of the teaching and learning argument against them reported. I think readers can absorb this. That’s all. And this has been my teacher’s detailed advice to flesh out the otherwise scant feedback of ‘must do better’.

Top Fifty 23: Teddy Thompson – Separate Ways, 2005

[Originally posted October 2011]


Teddy Thompson is my favourite contemporary solo singer songwriter, and that pits him against other greats, for example Ryan Adams who is significantly more famous on a global scale, and a significantly different artist. Teddy Thompson is quintessentially English: self-effacing, utterly ironic, lyrics lacerated by sardonic wit, and possessing the most exquisite voice. He could perhaps be seen in the Ray Davis songwriter lineage in terms of his lyrical humour, though it is more introspective than being interpretive of an English way of life.

Teddy Thompson is and isn’t a star. He is critically acclaimed and has a stalwart fan base. He is popular in the States, but again on the critical rather than stadium circuit – not that singer/songwriters commonly attain the latter, but it’s an illustrative pole. His latest album Bella was clearly targeted at widening that audience with its lush production values, but whilst it garnered a broad focus on release, I don’t think it achieved its purpose. It is an album I like though it doesn’t for me compete with my chosen one here Separate Ways, or A Piece Of What You Need. Indeed, its production detracted from the essence of his craft, though album songs played live and acoustic burst through with their innate and core excellence. It was, by the way, a little difficult to choose my ‘top fifty’ between these last two mentioned albums, his second and third releases, as both are excellent. Separate Ways gets the nod for reasons to follow, and it is his breakthrough collection, released in 2005.

Separate Ways contains in its title track my favourite single song of his. It is a stereotypically gentle and calm number, the tensions that create drama placed in the lyrics. Musically, it is simply but cleverly layered – the whole song, with a single strummed guitar and mirroring brushed snare at its centre [and shimmering, uncertain strings], rises throughout to its ironic chorus And I don’t care about you/If you don’t care about me/We can go our separate ways/If you want to, and it is that fourth line that bristles in its honest shifting of the blame, reinforced later by the pathetic repeat of his vulnerability The ties of love are strong/But they can be undone/And we’ll go our separate ways/If you want to. And it is this vulnerability that also rests at the candid core of much of Thompson’s sarcastic self-effacement which seems to me to be wholly English. This sentiment is reinforced in the next song on the album Sorry To See Me Go where the litotes of its narrative reveals his true feelings I might be leaving soon/Away with the new moon/Just wanted to let you know/In case you might be sorry to see me to go. The classic Thompson caveat is in the In case – he so often yearns for someone else to retrieve him from his woes. The honest confessional of the whole album gets perhaps its most directly honest comment in Think Again where the presumably real break-up of its storytelling is laid bare in Walking away I feel ashamed/Thinking on what I’ve done/She was naïve and I was a sleaze/Some things can’t be undone.

Musically this album shines bright throughout and did ironically bring Thompson some of the attention he so caustically ridicules about stardom in opener Shine So Bright with the lines I wanna shine so bright it hurts/I wanna be death bed thin/Never realise the state I’m in/Walk with my head in the clouds/And be followed around by crowds. Second track I Should Get Up provides the first of two rock numbers within the otherwise balladic whole, and Thompson’s guitar playing is accompanied by famous father Richard. Teddy is a fine player himself, and this is witnessed when he plays live – his acoustic touch being superb. Everybody Move It sees Thompson at his most simply humorous, poking fun at party dancing. The call to boogie begins with the opening comic if ungrammatical line Sat in the corner you could pass for dead and continues with Bump and grind, have a good time/Free yourself and lose your mind/Now the party’s pumpin’ and the groove is on/Grab the nearest body and move along. Hard to imagine Teddy letting his hair down like this without being terribly self-conscious. The comic sentiment is picked up a little more aggressively in the other rocker That’s Enough Out Of You with the line Being happy is easy if you’re dumb. This is a telling quip for someone who does seem to suffer his fair share of maudlin and mellow thoughts.

The closer Frontlines provides examples of Teddy’s beautiful vocal, occasionally moving into his perfect but never overdone falsetto. This song too rises slowly, letting the voice take the fullness of its charm to superior heights. Hidden track, The Everly Brothers’ Take A Message To Mary, is sung prettily by Teddy and mother Linda, this straightforward duet providing yet another uncluttered platform for Teddy Thompson’s vocal to reign. I have read reviews where his voice is rated yet not necessarily praised, but a sublime example of its prowess and emotive clarity is in his duet with dad on the latter’s song Persuasion. Not on this album, but worth having to cherish.