Saturday, 10 December 2011

Megan Taylor's review on Amazon

This very generous review of my book has been posted on Amazon by Megan Taylor (award-winning author of 'How We Were Lost', 'The Dawning' and 'The Lives of Ghosts' and leading light at Nottingham Writers Studio):

'Whether discussing climbing, travel or relationships, Andy Miller's unique collection is consistently lyrical and thought provoking, and often gripping. A book to repeatedly return to and to treasure.'

Many thanks, Megan!

Monday, 5 December 2011

Extract from 'Days of the Lizard'

The guide book warned that a crossing of Gillan Creek was only possible an hour either side of low tide and this knowledge hurried us along the southern bank of the luxuriant Helford River estuary. We found the first set of stepping stones in time and negotiated the treacherous steps across onto a central sandbar where we squelched through soggy bladderwrack searching for the second set whilst fast moving water filled the spaces all around us. These next stones were equally lethal but with a mixture of ballerina balancing and desperate lunges we arrived at the opposite bank, saving ourselves two long additional miles at the end of the day.

Helford was sumptuous, close clumps of thatched buildings, and our landlady was straight from Tory Central Casting. She took us up the steps to the converted loft above the garage.

‘Lucky to get it. Son usually home this week, comes for the sailing. Been out there myself today. Perfect conditions. Should book for food at the pub. Gets crowded. Any trouble, mention my name. Everything you need’s here, towels, soap, usual stuff. Breakfast’s in the fridge. Eggs, bacon, it’s all there. Anyway. Must dash. Tennis club. Anything you need, Brian’s about somewhere. Just shout.’
But the loft had a perfect calm. We lay out along the padded window bench, evening light outside on Frenchman’s Creek, a late flickering warmth on homeland waters, lingering sunlight tucked away among redundant jetties and slipways.

(nb. 'While Giants Sleep' does not contain photographs. These have been included only for the purposes of this blog.)

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Book launch at Wirksworth Town Hall

'While Giants Sleep' was launched in Wirksworth Town Hall on Tuesday 22nd November 2011. The idea of a launch, indeed the whole notion of self-publishing this anthology, followed from a suggestion by my friend David Duncombe one winter's afternoon in March 2010 while we were walking over the magnificent Longstone Moor in Derbyshire.

What seemed like an excellent idea at a distance came to feel more and more like a foolhardy enterprise as the appointed date and time approached. I dithered over my selection of which pieces to read, changing my mind many times. As I practised reading them aloud to myself I was genuinely unsure which if any would stand up to a public reading - at least by me. Additionally, I had no idea how many people would turn out for a gig like this. Finally, in a fit of obsessional checking, I called into the Town Hall at lunch time on the day of the launch to find the whole place - entrance hall, floors, stairs, tables and chairs thick with dust and a major refurbishment operation in full swing.

However, come the time, the place had been thoroughly spruced up by the caretaker and around forty people had arrived, all the seats were taken and one or two were left to stand up through the evening. Wirksworth people, our new friends and neighbours, were there in force as also were friends from various phases of my life, some going back 45 years, and my youngest son.  

David Duncombe, who is a notable Derbyshire poet and winner of many national competitions, gave me a very generous introduction. I followed with two 'sets' of 20 minutes, two or three poems sandwiched between two pieces of prose each time. As I read, my confidence grew, the discipline of an audience helping me find new rhythms and nuances in the texts. In the end, I thoroughly enjoyed having the opportunity to present my work to a wider audience, and hence see it anew myself, and the feedback I received on the night and subsequently has suggested that the people who came had a good time. Somehow, there seemed to be a strong sense of 'occasion' for many of us.  

I am very grateful to everybody who helped make this such a special evening for me and especially to David his part in it all, Vally for seeing to the many practicalities and ensuring that everybody had a drink, and Shirley for handling the commercial aspects of the book sales.

Since the launch I have been busy thinking about how I might further promote the book. I am considering submitting at least one more of the prose pieces for magazine publication and doing further public readings. With all this electronic tagging it is now possible to instantly locate this book and blog by tapping into Google a few key words such as 'author', 'shameless' and 'self-promoter' and, bingo, you should end up being whizzed straight to here! 

Extract from 'Men and women and the rock' (1986)

Men and women and the rock

'Martin, I'm stuck.'
‘You’ve got to get higher.’
‘But I’m stuck, I can’t get anything for my feet!’
‘You’ve got to get –‘
‘I know. I can’t –‘
‘Valerie ....’
‘Oh, hold me!’
Why do they keep doing it? Men and women on the rock. It’s excruciating to listen to; his booming insensitivity and her helplessness stoking up resentment. You read about hard women climbers, you enjoy the company of strong-minded female colleagues at work and then you come out to a crowded weekend crag and find the old Tarzan/Jane routine as strong as ever.

My mate and I looked at each other. We had hoped to snatch a late season Sunday on Stanage Edge but had arrived to find fifty-seater coaches in the lay-by. It was ‘Freshers Weekend’ and huge, orange crocodiles from the local universities were winding up through the bracken. There were loud groups on the boulders, young men straining in their enthusiasm and girls closed together in groups of two and three. The leaders and their rivals were readjusting their positions in a jangle of new gear and the summer’s adventures.    

‘The blunt arĂȘte is a serious lead’ – that was how the guide book described my route. We both knew what that meant. I was half way up with one shaky runner and that would be my lot. Not my sort of route, but I was on it now. Suddenly, from the gaggle of late adolescence below, a youth shot up behind me. As he came level I told him that there was not room for two. My second moved slowly in beneath me, alerted but saying nothing. The youth tried to force his fingers into the same small pocket as three of mine and I snapped that it was my only good hold. Breathing fast, but with no conversation, he was past me and I was cowering beneath his uncertain progress up the rest of the route. By the time I reached the top, in a mixed state of anger, fear and self-righteousness, he was already down and tying himself to a young woman in borrowed boots. And all the while, the embarrassment of Martin and Valerie dragged out the afternoon.

Had we been the same? I look at the twenty-year old photograph, putting names to the young figures beneath the Idwal Slabs. That old friend is far away, still missed and only seen occasionally. This one lost us in Tokyo, a number of broken hopes left behind as she journeyed eastwards. This stooping young man was expelled in disgrace from the teaching profession and I married the thoughtful girl in the woollen hat. There were beginnings in that group; we had climbed parallel faults and strained in silly harmonies together. There were secret lines across the circle around the fire and an awkward arithmetic in the two-person tents. Men and women, boys and girls, growing up on the rock.

(Photo. Idwal Slabs)
(NB. Photos have been added to this blog and do not appear in the published 'While Giants Sleep') 

Extract from 'If you see him ... leave him be' (1999)

(First published as 'Series of dreams' in the book 'Encounters with Bob Dylan. If you see him, say hello', edited by Tracy Johnson and published in 1999 by humble press, San Francisco) 

If you see him .... leave him be

The Isle of Wight 1969, the Royal Albert Hall 1966, Bournemouth Folk Club 1963, I was there.

Well, actually, I wasn’t – but I should have been.

Despite the intensity with which Bob Dylan’s songs have been running round inside my head from the very beginning, I was compelled to avoid seeing the man real and live in concert for many years. Now, some thirty five years later, I’ve joined the ranks of specialist newsletter readership and the illicit concert CD collectors. I’ve rattled on the overnight bus across Europe for three consecutive nights of gigs, and contacted the Dylan telephone hotlines more often than my own family. Sad maybe, but this is recent. It was not always so.

My first acquaintance with Dylan came at school when I was 17. There was a new guy in my class who had transferred in from elsewhere. Wealthy, he had access to a car and an air of studied coolness. But his attempts to ingratiate himself into our group left me cold. Somehow, though, in our provincial little town, he seemed to have access to a wider knowledge of the world and one day he pulled a record album from his bag and asked if anybody would like a lift up the coast to see a concert at the Bournemouth folk club.

‘This guy’s really groovy, you’ve got to hear him’ he said, in a vernacular that did not then feel entirely ludicrous.

I tried to imagine sharing the journey with him, the phoney conversation, the absurd notion that any tastes of his could echo mine. So I looked into the face on that first album cover, that baby face propped up by fear, sneer, or whatever it was, and said ‘I wouldn’t bother going out of my way to see somebody who looks like that’.

The second time I heard Dylan’s name, the effect was also extreme, though in a very different way. Although British commercial television was still relatively new, the hour–long variety show, Sunday Night at the London Palladium, was already a national institution. The finale that particular evening was the current hot act, Peter, Paul and Mary. What little popular music was then televised I usually watched with my dad, who would criticise one group for its rhythm and another for the singer’s diction.

After the first song, and before a verdict was properly formed, Mary Travers, wholesomely bohemian on our black and white television screen, stepped to the microphone and in solemn tones said something like ‘There is a young man in America today writing songs that are touching the heart of a nation. His name is Bob Dylan and this next song is called ‘Blowing in the Wind’’.

And my world changed. I was pulled across mountains and oceans by the emotion in the words and melody, and by its audacious originality. In the electric silence afterwards, no judgement could be voiced. Everything had changed. I had been forced onto a new and unanticipated track, there was no going back. Almost immediately, it dawned on me that I had thrown away the opportunity to see, and probably meet, this young songwriter. And that may have been the beginning of my reluctance to acknowledge the source of this much power as merely flesh and blood.

But I had a language now. Shortcutting home from school for lunch through the cemetery, I regaled my friend Rob: ‘It’s like a conversation. He doesn’t want a present, he just wants her to come back. When she says she isn’t coming back, then he asks for these boots’. But Dylan made the story overflow with cascading words and pictures: the deepest ocean, diamonds, Western winds, stars, a letter, a lonesome day. Boots of Spanish leather.

A year or so earlier, we’d hurried home at lunchtime through that same cemetery, fear strangling the conversation about Kennedy’s ultimatum and the American blockade of Cuba. That morning, we had stood in the school assembly, the silence unbreakable, rigid and still and desperate for someone to take it all away. The same old hymns, the same old prayers, school football team results, netball teams, the Russian missile ships determined and straight on course, and those teachers unmasked, as impotent as us. And now we were trying to get back home in time to be together. My father would also be hurrying home from the bus stop, my mother in a steam-driven panic of preparation, my brother quiet in the living room. The clock ticking, the stages of the nuclear alert, two minutes to Armageddon’s midnight. Striving to be together but still completely alone.

But at least I had a language: “Masters of War,” “With God on Our Side,” “When the Ship Comes In,” “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” Wave upon wave that could indeed drown out a whole world, make it clean and lay strong safe foundations.

'Purchase on renewal' (1989)

(This poem was Commended in the 1989 Open University Poetry Competition and subsequently published the same year in Orbis)

Purchase on renewal

I broke the structure of our friendship last November,
Arriving one night, agitated beyond the protocol of our acquaintance,
Since then we have tested the shell of personal fragility
With supposition, jokes and the sharp tap of analysis.

Sometimes my words swirled erratically around the lamp,
And, when I wept, you waited for the exhausted creature to fall,
Creating a security in silence where I could rest.
Often I left you in the lost hours of a winter night,
Taking an unspoken strength from our sharing within weariness.

When I remembered the green suffocation,
The new growth and the tension in the glass,
I wanted to take the weight of the blunt axe
To the shrivelled stem of the vine.
But you pressed me against roots deep in the cold earth
And I felt their scratchings on the vast slabs,
Their search for a purchase on renewal.

We pounded out possibilities in voices
That slipped across the early stillness of the fields.
And when the whole planet seemed locked in frost
Our blood was warm in comradeship.

Against bravado you held up clenched fists.
Into desperation you placed the quiet word of trust.

You faced your clocks to the wall for me and did not wince
As I held the blade against the sensitivities of us all.
Now that letting go has enthused the tendons with a freshness,
I have found an unopened window behind the immovable mirror
And, on this straight road, there are turnings I had not seen.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Extract from 'Around Lands End'

... Then we had turned and were heading east, it felt very tangible, like forcibly resetting the internal compass. Taking the edge of the cliff top track we were rewarded by a continually shifting sense of exposure while the landscape and a mighty sea slugged it out like heavyweights, each meeting the other's blunt force, each tiring and collapsing a little as the storm wore on. We walked miles like this, unable to hear each other above the anarchy. Eventually we were at Chair Ladder, again buffeted by powerful images of feeling alone and committed on the great stretches of this golden cliff in all stages of my climbing from 1967 onwards. 

As we came towards Porthcurno, our stopping point, the rain eventually stopped too, put us down for the night and went elsewhere. We picked our way down the very steep steps beside the Minnack open air theatre, full concentration still very necessary, onto the sandy brilliance of this special little cove at around 5.30. We took off layers of wet clothes and laid them to dry in the late, strong sun. Vally sketched, Rob changed into his swimming costume and strode into the sea past signs warning of the treacherous undertow, and I walked about with my toes in the sand, grinning.

(nb. 'While Giants Sleep' does not contain photographs. These have been included only for the purposes of this blog.)

My Yeovil Literary Prize winning poem

Attempting to interfere

Nerve pads are awash. April,
And one last star completes the realignment.
Lumpy movements in the grass,
Bellies like purses soft across the gravel.
Caution! Toads.

You checked your sleeping son.
‘Come on!’ and you were away to save them,
Toeing the road, you asked ‘Is that one?’
Your fingers on my arm after all these months,
‘Pick it up’ you urged and gripped on tighter.

I stooped to take it up and, inches from my face,
The double-headed dragon stared,
Its pointed faces wheezing in the crevice,
Copulating bodies locked behind it in the wall.
Layers of toads, the crawling and the dead,
Like patches of tar and cellophane.

There ought to be connections somewhere,
The walnut woven into a full fruit on the headboard,
You in slits of sunlight cut through childhood,
Strands to separate the hand from the intention,
Your past from now.

You let go, folded in your skirt about you,
Started off back up the hill.
Caution, people.