Ibis of Palmyra, a poem



Dhwty, sing ancient voices

searching stars for meaning,

eyes upon gleaming

crescent, lunar forces,

black and white film still,

a curved ibis bill.


Lunar forces hauling wine-dark

oceans across inky skies,

bewitching ancient eyes,

who saw an ibis stark

against the starry night,

wings raised in flight.


Mighty mediator, Thoth,

calculator on high,

weaving papyrus sky,

sun-kissed pith-cloth,

bill dipped in ink,

father of those who think –


think and write in words

with winged helms, hurled

from world to world,

the free and vital birds

flying with bills sharper

than needles of fir.


But now black feathers

shimmer in moonlight

setting desert alight,

littering a city in fetters:

Geronticus eremita,

prisoner of Palmyra.


Single sunset eye burns

in darkness, searching,

seeking, lurching

swish hrump through ferns

and shrubs of steppes

steeped in silence-webs.


Soft in silky quiet

ibis pauses and prowls

when wind howls

and hosts of stars riot,

alone with pillars of stone

and towers of bone.


Last to give way to howling

hurricane, first to emerge

when hell subsides, scourge

of darkness, prowling

ibis, Noah’s charm

survives unharmed.


Echoes haunt dhwty city,

voices of forgotten empires

ravaged by time’s fires,

soaked in world’s pity –

and the ibis stands,

silent in the sands.


It was the silk road – once.

Conduit for ivory, porcelain,

salts, spices, gold, cotton…

but ibis hears no response

to her hrump and hyoh calls,

just echoes from empty halls.


Temples of lost gods,

buried Roman blades,

and corinthian colonnades

stand now in muddy bogs,

pale phantoms frozen

in the blaze of erosion.


Yet still the ibis lays

her spotty blue-white eggs,

as blue as her legs are red,

in the rocky maze

of the northern dunes

above the Valley of Tombs.


But where ibis prowl

hatred-seeds be strewn,

and around our crescent moon

barbarian shadows crowd,

for murderers cage worlds

as rhyme shackles words.


So murderers return

to carve out Palmyra’s doom,

to destroy and exhume –

a band of thugs armed

with the sordid black rag

they call their flag.


Ibis eradicated by plague,

crescent neck snapped,

by barbarians entrapped,

rage staining papyrus page,

silence slammed

onto the waste land.


Now all that remain

are the tortured ghosts

haunting the outposts,

and the inexpressible pain

of a land locked in fetters,

littered with black feathers.

Jungian synchronicity. Dhwty city.

Dhwty  dhwty  dhwty



Rodents in children’s literature: The power of the ‘undermouse’


Deep in the heart of Mossflower country, nestled between the emerald woods and the sprawling meadowland, stands an ancient abbey. It was built from red standstone by the first mice centuries ago, and even now, with the fiery red cloak of ivy draped over its south face, it burns as brightly as it did back in those distant days so dusted by memory. Today, with the Summer of the Late Rose just beginning, the page has opened at a new chapter. Father Abbott Mortimer’s words to Matthias, the bumbling, ebullient novice mouse, were supposed to be kindly dismissive. “Poor Matthias, alas for your ambitions. The day of the warrior is gone, my son,” he says in those opening few pages. But he could not possibly have been more wrong. For this is the world of Redwall.

Redwall. It’s funny how a single word rooted so deep in your childhood can be so charged with meaning. Say this particular word to me and my imagination explodes with images of cloaked mice, the clash of swords, flagons of white gooseberry wine, raspberry cordial, peach and elderberry brandy, candied chestnuts, riddles, badger lords, a fearsome rodent army led by a one-eyed rat covered in grey and pink scars, candlelit caverns filled with dancing woodland creatures, and above all, Martin the Warrior.

Martin the WarriorBrian Jacques began his enchanting series in 1986 and subsequently published twenty-two books set in the Redwall universe, the final one released three months after his death in 2011. Often described as one of the greatest children’s authors of all time, he wrote his first animal story aged ten at school about a bird that cleaned a crocodile’s teeth. His teacher was so convinced that he must have copied it from somewhere, deciding that no ten-year-old could possibly have written such a thing, that she caned him. Jacques left school five years later to become a merchant sailor in search of adventure, and eventually wrote his first Redwall tales for the children at the Royal Wavertree School for the Blind while working as a milkman. They quickly spread across the globe like wildfire, fuelling the imaginations of millions.

I think nostalgia is underrated. That bewitching rush of affection tinged with sadness for a moment buried in your past. I get it most intensely while reading novels I adored as a child. Re-reading has that unique synesthetic effect of evoking the places, feelings, sights, smells and sounds you experienced while first reading the story, be it the crash of waves, rumble of the Underground, smell of evening barbecues, feelings of loneliness, jubilation, or the warmth of a family home. And there is something so magical about anthropomorphic literature in particular, from singing bears to scheming tigers. It ignites that most romantic corner of our imaginations.

But what is it about rodents?

Well, even the word ‘rodent’ is charged with the negative connotations of disease-carrying creatures scurrying through pipes and sewers, evoking images of pinpricks of light in dark corners and the eerie rustling of woodland undergrowth. Woven through their web of associations are traits of timidity, disloyalty, untrustworthiness, and cowardice, along with words like ‘infection’, ‘vermin’, and ‘plague’, not to mention the fact that ‘rodent’ is actually an adjective meaning ‘corrosive’.

One would think that with such damning qualities they would be doomed to malevolence and antagonism. But everything changes when they are given human traits. As soon as a mouse is invested with the powers of speech, reason, and free will, his or her true nature is revealed to spectacular effect.

Brian Jacques’ Martin the Warrior is a heroic woodland mouse who becomes a Redwall legend, the legend of legends. The son of Luke the Warrior, he sets out with his father’s magical sword to avenge his mother, who was murdered by the wicked stoat pirate Vilu Daskar. His adventures include being enslaved by the tyrannical stoat Badrang as well as battling Verdauga, the wildcat king of Mossflower. He is first described by the novice Matthias generations later. Matthias walks with Father Abbot through the Great Hall of the Abbey right at the beginning of the very first book and stops to gaze up in awe at a magnificent tapestry, ‘the pride and joy of Redwall’, woven by its founders. Upon this tapestry is an armoured mouse ‘with a fearless smile’, leaning casually on a mighty sword ‘while behind him foxes, wildcats, and vermin fled in terror’. The more you read of their world, the more you will come to realise that the mice of Redwall could not possibly be more heroic.

Perhaps even more famous worldwide are the stories of Beatrix Potter, also filled with rodents who fly in the face of their connotations. From Squirrel Nutkin, Twinkleberry, and Mrs Tittlemouse, to Timmy Tiptoes, Johnny Town-Mouse, and Tom Thumb, they all have their own quirky personalities and grievances, often overcoming many challenges in their respective tales to emerge stronger and happier than ever before. These characters are particularly topical this year given the 28th July will mark the 150th anniversary of Potter’s birth. September will also see the publication of her newly-discovered story, The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots, thanks to some detective work undertaken by publisher Jo Hanks, who found a reference to the lost tale in an out-of-print Potter biography.

So what does all this really say about our interpretation of those most diverse and preyed upon members of the animal kingdom?

Perhaps it merely illuminates the sheer intensity of that so fundamentally human adoration of animals and our quixotic propensity to idolise the ‘underdog’, or in this case, ‘undermouse’. More than anything, it shows just how much we want the weakest and most vulnerable to triumph. And nowhere is such an outcome more avidly hoped for than in the mind of a child. It rather restores your faith in humanity, doesn’t it?

As George Eliot mused in The Mill on the Floss, ‘we could never have loved the earth so well if we had had no childhood in it’.

New illustration for The Tale of Kitty in Boots by Quentin Blake

New illustration for ‘The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots’ by Quentin Blake

Mockingbirds and Watchmen: And so Scout Finch to the Dark Tower came


I guess it’s like an airplane: they’re the drag and we’re the thrust, together we make the thing fly. Too much of us and we’re nose-heavy, too much of them and we’re tail-heavy – it’s a matter of balance.

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all. This is Scout’s final realisation in Go Set a Watchman, that her father, the incomparable Atticus Finch, is in fact merely a human after all with a human conscience and human flaws, and with it Harper Lee brings to a shattering close the story that defined the 20th century.

The revelations about Atticus’ character have sent the millions upon millions of readers inspired over the generations by Lee’s words to go clamouring to the mattresses, to an extent that some critics are now labelling her as inherently racist to begin with, advocating an accommodationist stance at the end of Watchman and so contradicting many of the arguments underpinning Mockingbird.

But this interpretation is the failing of the reader, not of the writer.

You’ve completely got the wrong end of the stick if you’re reading Watchman as a sequel, even more so as a novel in its own right written and published fifty-five years after its predecessor. We have to analyse it through a carefully adjusted critical lens coloured with Mockingbird, the political and social climate of 1950s Alabama, and with the knowledge of what it actually is. Watchman was written before Mockingbird, was never intended to be published, and serves almost like an extended short story that would merely inspire the latter. Its characters are first drafts, its politics are unrefined and contradictory, and its plot revolves around a single moment of spectacular disillusionment that is eventually deemed secondary in importance to the superior story of a child’s innocent philosophising set twenty years earlier.

In short, Mockingbird is about the trial of Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white girl in the small fictional town of Maycomb in 1930s Alabama, a town very reminiscent of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Macondo in its eccentric history, riotous social machinations and ancient familial fueds (though we should really compare Macondo to Maycomb and not the other way around as One Hundred Years of Solitude was published seven years after Mockingbird).

The story revolves around rebellious 9 year old Scout Finch, her boisterous older brother Jem, and their venerable father Atticus, an Abraham Lincoln-like paragon of moral virtue who defends Tom Robinson in the courtroom. These three characters in particular have such detail, such voice, it is almost inconceivable to think that they are not actually real people, one of the reasons why they have enchanted readers for decades. Scout, constantly fighting against social convention and gender stereotypes is endlessly endearing and fiercely inquisitive about the world around her. She follows her brother everywhere, and they both worship the unfailingly just and noble Atticus, ahead of his time in the sheer unconditionality of his morality.

The ingeniously comic family politics of Maycomb, beautifully satirical in their depiction of the South, again have that Marquezian characteristic of each surname being synonymous to certain mannerisms. As for the Finches, well they’ve never been massively rich, nor as big as some of the other cotton empires, but there has always been a Finch at Finch Landing. This esteemed history is lost on Scout and Jem as they become infamous in Maycomb, along with their eccentric friend Dill, for their wild garden plays, fist fights and games, the wildest of which involves the harassment of their mysterious neighbour, Boo Radley… no one has seen him in decades, some believe him dead, others believe him to be a “malevolent phantom” who only walks at night, but Scout, Jem and Dill dedicate their waking hours to the Homeric task of trying to get him to appear.

Boo turns out to be possibly the most important character in the entire book.

It is the trial, however, that people remember. Of course Tom Robinson is innocent and Atticus manages to prove it, but the jury still condemn him unanimously as guilty. We then see Scout desperately trying to understand why it is okay to hate Hitler and be red-faced and outraged about his persecution of Jewish people, but then turn around and treat black people the exact same way. Her teacher, Miss Gates, explains Germany is a dictatorship and America is a democracy, which means they are prejudiced against no one and all are equal. But she then goes on to spout racist bile at Tom’s trial…

“It’s time somebody taught ‘em a lesson, they were gettin’ way above themselves, an’ the next thing they think they can do is marry us.”

Perhaps the most shocking moment comes at the end of the novel when Scout and Jem are viciously attacked walking home one night by Bob Ewell, the father of the girl who accused Tom. Atticus pretty much proves she had really been raped by Ewell, and the latter was so incensed he took it into his head to murder Atticus’ children on their way back from the local Halloween party. The darkly comic image of Scout dressed in rings of chicken wire as a giant ham is made all the more disturbing by the fact it probably saves her life, while Jem suffers a severely broken arm and is knocked out cold by their assailant. What neither of them see, however, is the identity of their mysterious saviour.

As Jem is tended to back home, their draconian Aunt Alexandra, who scolds her niece constantly about her manners and behavior, absent-mindedly and rather poignantly brings Scout her overalls to change into after the assault instead of a dress. And given how much her Aunt despises this outfit Scout is suddenly struck by how much she is really loved. That’s when she notices the stranger standing in the corner of Jem’s room like a shadow on the wall, the man who saved their lives and carried them home.

It is Boo Radley.

And this is the true beauty of To Kill a Mockingbird.

Who is truly the mockingbird, Tom or Boo? Or are the mockingbirds really everywhere, in every person who is treated differently because of the way they look or act or speak?

Boo’s secret paternal love for these two children made him in many respects their guardian angel, even though they feared him above all. For these two children who were always so brave, who balked at nothing, who defeated a lynch mob with a few casual words, the one person they feared most in the world turned out to be their greatest protector.

Their observations of evil and its effects on the innocent gave them a profound understanding of it. Atticus, for instance, experienced evil without being corrupted by it, maintaining his faith in justice and the ultimate benevolence of humanity. Others, however, are embittered by violence and injustice and are disillusioned to the point of giving up hope.

These are the mockingbirds.

They are the innocents damaged by evil: Tom, Jem, Dill, Boo… But the latter represents the ultimate reconciliation and epitomises the moral lesson at the heart of the book, that we should never put prejudice and cruelty over compassion and humanity. Society, Scout and Jem included, judged Boo for years without ever having properly met him, without any understanding of his character. While Tom is destroyed in the end by the injustice inflicted on him, Boo is in many ways pulled back from the brink by the sheer innocence of the two children he watched over selflessly for years and the reconciliatory effect this vigil had on his soul.

He was the mockingbird who survived.

But should our interpretation of this remarkable story, treasured worldwide, now change?

Go Set a Watchman takes place twenty years later, with Scout returning to Maycomb on holiday from New York with her potential husband, Frank Clinton, to find her home irreconcilably changed. At first the book revolves around her fractious relationship with Frank, who was supposedly also a childhood friend, and has now become Atticus’ protégé. This is when we learn, in a heartless, offhand statement, that Jem has died.

Later, details are revealed that he had a heart attack outside his father’s office when he was 28, the same way his mother died, but nothing could stop this revelation being as abrupt and shocking as that moment when Charlotte Haze gets hit by the car in Nabokov’s Lolita. There is also little mention of Dill until we discover he joined the army long ago. Aunt Alexandra is still living with Atticus, but their brother Jack has also moved nearby.

Several flashbacks also lace the story, one involving Scout’s first period, an event which fills her with rage, pitching her into an abyss of depression, which the other girls at school call the “Curse o’ Eve”. She is then sent into nine months of howling despair when one girl tells her you become pregnant from a “French kiss”, which she had received unexpectedly from a Coningham boy earlier that day. She resolves to kill herself before the nine months is up. Calpurnia eventually explains. This is pretty funny, but admittedly wildly disturbing.

The key moment of the novel, however, the only key moment really, comes when Scout, now known by her real name, Jean Louise, follows Atticus and Frank to a mysterious council meeting at the courthouse to see them sitting at the same table as a deeply racist man lecturing his audience about “The Black Plague” and the catastrophic dangers posed by the NAACP (the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People established in 1909 and still campaigning for civil rights today).

Scout flees the place in utter revulsion, making herself sick, wanting to die, and generally going through several hours of melodramatic horror and outrage as Atticus is sent crashing from his pedestal and into the mud. She screams at Frank, she screams at Atticus, and while she curses and rages at the latter, saying she hates him, that he has killed her and that she will leave forever, he does not even defend himself.

She races home in a rage to leave immediately, reducing Alexandra very uncharacteristically to tears, and is at the car when Uncle Jack strikes her hard across the face. He takes her back into the house, gives her whisky, and reasons with her by explaining how Atticus is a God in her eyes, that she is merely seeing him fall to a human being and the only way that was ever going to happen was if he killed her or she killed herself, to develop her own conscience… According to him, she had merely shared one with Atticus. Jack then puts his perspective on history, explaining the position of the white supremacists and their racial prejudices and that though the Confederates were in part fighting for slavery, it was really about identity.

But wait, it gets better.

He tells her she was born “colour blind” and that she always will be, but people in Maycomb just want integration by degrees as they are outnumbered and “Negroes” simply don’t have the education yet to take over the councils and courts and government if they all vote, seemingly arguing that you are born with your views and prejudices so shouldn’t be blamed for them, claptrap of the highest degree.

He goes on to explain that if someone lashes out at any opinion they disagree with then they will never learn, they are bigoted, and cold reason beats them… one has to be able to listen to other opinions and argue with them rationally. He says she should come back to the South, to Maycomb, because it needs her, they need more people arguing her opinions, she is not alone… because “the time your friends need you is when they’re wrong, Jean Louise. They don’t need you when they’re right.”

Somehow, she is persuaded to pick Atticus up from the office, where she basically tells him she’s really sorry, didn’t understand, but can’t agree with him anyway. He says he’s really proud of her as she has developed her own conscience, her own “watchman”, and she replies stating how much she really loves him…

This is an “I love Big Brother” moment if ever there was one.

After the final discussion with her uncle, in the horrifying moment she comes to terms with what has just happened and perplexingly resolves to just accept it, she thinks to herself… Childe Rowland to the dark tower came. This is perhaps the most poignant line in the entire novel, even more so than the biblical reference to go set a watchman.

The quote originally comes from an ancient Scandinavian fairytale about four children who battle with the evil King of Elfland after he kidnaps one of them and imprisons them in his “Dark Tower”. It was made famous when Shakespeare included it in the nonsensical ramblings of Edgar in King Lear, after which it was taken as the title and final line of Robert Browning’s beloved 1855 poem, which tells the story of Rowland’s nightmarish quest to the notorious and elusive Dark Tower. It has been used since as a reference to the dark journey one takes to some horrifying realisation.

And with both Scout’s and the reader’s arrival at the Dark Tower, comes the accusations of racism in both novels and the utter decimation of Atticus’ character.

Is this fair? That’s the question.

The fact that it was written first cannot be stressed enough. Several paragraphs in Watchman are actually copied word for word in Mockingbird, and key facts are fundamentally different. For instance, in Watchman we learn Tom Robinson was acquitted, changing the fact at the very core of Mockingbird. This in itself proves Watchman’s role as a sort of parallel universe, the cynical account of the atmosphere in the 1950s, when it was set and written, but ultimately, as the inspiration for a new novel that was instead about hope, the hope that one day a jury would not lie, perceptions would not be prejudiced, and mockingbirds would be free to fly.

So what can we really take from both novels?

Mockingbird is all about the mockingbirds, it’s as simple as that. It tackles the subjective morality of justice, how evil embitters innocence, the reconciliatory force of compassion, and the prejudice of perception. Indeed, its greatest achievement is in teaching us about perception.

But Watchman is all about reaching the Dark Tower and realising everyone has a conscience and we must fight for what we believe in with rational debate even when our world seems to be falling apart around us. Everyone has their own watchman, everyone is flawed, frankly, everyone is human. It’s the watchmen that rule our world.

The latter informs the former simply with the fact that it wasn’t published.

Harper Lee rejected disillusionment and instead wrote a story about innocence, compassion and justice in a world spinning out of control. When Jem bleakly asks his father why the jury condemned Tom, Atticus wearily replies, “I don’t know, but they did it. They’ve done it before and they did it tonight and they’ll do it again and when they do it – seems that only children weep.”

But with Boo Radley comes that hope… the hope that one day a jury will not lie, perceptions will not be prejudiced, and mockingbirds will be free to fly.

So, ay, there’s the rub… Why then has Watchman been published now? Why hasn’t it been left in Lee’s drawer to be lost like Cardenio?

Aside from the fact it’s significant to now know how Mockingbird initially began, this sudden publication after the death of Harper’s protective sister Alice is down to conniving publishers taking advantage of a highly private 89 year old author who is now in a nursing home. But perhaps we can come up with a simpler and more optimistic answer.

Atticus Finch in Watchman, who we should consider a completely separate character from Atticus Finch in Mockingbird, is a backward and weary old man struggling to come to terms with a changing world. It’s down to those changing it to be his watchmen, to lead him away from that Dark Tower and into the future.

Maybe the 20th century was about the mockingbirds but the 21st century is about the watchmen.

Mockingbird 2

The Pied Beauty of Hopkins’ Poetry: Fusing Freckled Fragments


Pied Beauty

Glory be to God for dappled things –
   For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
   Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
   And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
   Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
   He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
     Praise him.
At first glance, this mutant sonnet penned by the Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins appears to be a wonderful if slightly perplexing celebration of God and Nature. In the first half hour or so studying this elusive little poem I remained so fixated by the vibrancy and elegance of the imagery I overlooked what actually gives it that bewitching quality which seems so hard to place one’s finger on.

Yes, there is a gently rolling rhyming scheme that lulls us almost into a sort of stupor as little fragments of pastoral beauty are pushed into our minds, and there is that fascinating fixation on dappled imagery, on the beauty of imperfections, on the “skies of couple-colour”, the “finches’ wings”, but what is the significance of that one incredibly important word that almost escapes our attention?

The word I am of course referring to, is “strange”.

It boldly breaks the rhyming scheme but is still invited into the rhythm of the poem by the “change” in the penultimate line. At first I thought this strangeness was rooted in the sudden shift of the imagery from the grace and innocence of nature, the frozen fragments of impure purity, to the fluid movement and the enforced uniformity of humanity, their “plotted and pieced” farmland, “their gear and tackle and trim”.

But there is something far more interesting going on here, and it is not only strange but eminently beautiful.

After contemplating this poem for several hours as I went about my day, the first work of Hopkins that I had come across, I found my mind moving on from the rugged pastoral imagery, and instead returning again and again to several specific phrases… “Glory be to God”, “couple-colour”, “fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls”, “plotted and pieced”, “fickle, freckled”, “swift, slow; sweet, sour”. There was something about them that was giving me a rather infuriating sense of familiarity, but I had most definitely never read the poem before.

Glory be to God. Couple-colour… cow. Fresh-firecoal. Firecoal falls. Plotted, pieced, plough. Trades, trim. Fathers-forth. Swift, slow, sweet, sour… Strange. Strange. Strange.

And then, like a falling firecoal, it hit me. This language was familiar, but not because I had come across “Pied Beauty” before, or because I have an intimate knowledge of Victorian poetry, which I don’t. It was because these wonderfully peculiar fusions of certain words, sounds and images reminded me in a moment of epiphany-like realisation of another poem, one written almost a thousand years before.

I rushed to a computer and hurriedly looked up Hopkins to discover that he was indeed noted for his unique divergence from the uniform rhythm of Victorian poetry, and then I saw a single word on the screen that confirmed my tentative suspicions. Hopkins had been inspired by Beowulf. Beowulf.

I greedily poured over the eleven lines of “Pied Beauty” again, and suddenly, the connections were blindingly obvious. Alliterative repetition, though not as formulaic as in Beowulf, is everywhere. And that fantastic fusion of fragments, “couple-colour”, “fresh-firecoal”, immediately evokes the “scops” of Old English, from the Greek “scieppan”, “to build” or “to make”. These poets of old used to fuse half-lines and different words together to create thousands of variations of a single idea, as the composer of Beowulf does to striking effect, a sword for instance being, among a hundred other variations, a “battle-flame”. They literally built poetry from existing blocks, forging epic verse from the same raw material into an infinite number of shapes and sounds. And the fragmentation of Hopkins’ “Pied Beauty”, even of the prose in his diaries, is strikingly reminiscent of those fused fragments in Beowulf.

Strange beauty indeed.


Brushstrokes and Broken Dreams: Rembrandt’s Late Works


Life etches itself onto our faces as we grow older, showing our violence, excesses or kindnesses.” – Rembrandt

It was on the advice of one of my former teachers that I decided to visit the new exhibition at the National Gallery, a display of art by an old Dutch master that would apparently be “life-changing”. I passed beneath the glorious pillars overlooking Trafalgar Square as someone completely new to the world of art, and emerged almost four hours later positively reeling from the sheer power of what I had just seen.

This exhibition, displayed in the Sainsbury Wing from 15th October to 15th May, presents quite possibly a once in a lifetime opportunity to see over eighty masterpieces from one of the greatest artists of all time, all together in one place, summoned from all across the globe.

This artist is Rembrandt van Rijn.

A man who suffered crippling tragedy in his life, his earthy, starkly honest paintings depict above all else, emotion at its most intense. From the penetrating and troubled gaze of the artist himself in his self-portrait of 1659, to the tear-filled eyes of Lucretia (1666) moments after her suicide, forced to take her own life by the “shame” of being raped, each and every one of the paintings and etchings hanging dramatically in the shadowy passages of the display tell their own moving story. The terrible solemnity of the almost ghostly Batavians (1661) starkly portrays the truth of revolution and war, there is no glory in it, merely grim resolve and the promise of death. The captivated face of the Old Woman Reading (1655), the book acting as a bridge for us into her world, wonderfully conveys the intimacy and enlightenment of reading, the light illuminating her face from the very pages themselves. The magnificent portrait of Frederik Rihel (1663) takes one’s breath away as it positively towers over the onlookers, the rearing horse leaping from the canvas. But it is the eyes that are always the most expressive feature of Rembrandt’s subjects; the fearless, calculating stares of Juno (1662) and Margaretha de Geer (1661) that root you to the spot, the innocent wonder of the Woman Bathing in a Stream (1654), the varying expressions of hostility and surprise on the faces of the Syndics (1662) as we interrupt their meeting, the despair and indecision in Lucretia’s (1664) eyes as she raises the dagger over her chest while throwing up the other hand almost in protest against her own actions.

I would urge anyone who finds themselves in London between now and May next year to make every effort to visit this astonishing exhibition.

Rembrandt’s self-portraiture remains one of his most remarkable achievements, especially owing to the levels of artistic experimentation he embarked upon, from the thick layering of the oils to the defining scrapes of the palette knife.

I attended a poetry workshop, “The Unblinking I”, at the National Gallery in late November held by the wonderful Colette Bryce, which was all about finding inspiration in this brutally honest self-portraiture and the connections between art and literature, the varying tools and power of the poet and the artist.

One of our endeavours over the course of the day was to write a description of the 1659 self-portrait to someone who couldn’t see it, exploring the atmosphere, the spirit, the sensory evocations, and perhaps even the dialogue. I entitled my attempt, “Brushstrokes and Broken Dreams”…


Brushstrokes and Broken Dreams

By Bethan Scott


Wiry curls frame his sallow face,

Caressed by the shadows in this yawning space,

And yet, golden light filters from above,

Quietly dripping from some fierce and distant place.


Brow rough as a yellowed page,

Drawn with wisdom, sadness, years of buried rage,

And yet, you are frozen in time by that piercing gaze,

Like shackles holding you in some gloomy cage.


He sits silently before you, a melancholy sight,

The craggy hands shifting restlessly, clasped tight,

And yet, his breath rustles that unkempt hair on his lip,

As though he is on the brink of some sage speech –


Of shattering the uniform rhythm of the silence,

Fracturing the shadows,

Perhaps rising –

But the moment passes, a wintry breeze

Carried off with the rotting leaves,

And you remain transfixed by that piercing gaze.


Your lips part, what’s this?

His heavy silence splintering yours,

The question burns in your sandpaper throat,

Shrivelling under the intensity of his tortured

And wearied eyes.


But you finally whisper, “what are you thinking of?”

And with one ancient, rattling sigh he replies,

“Of brushstrokes and broken dreams.”


How To Publish Your Book: The Power Of Imagination


Creativity, imagination, is an integral part of society, laced through with the core values of humanity, and its eternal power constantly inspires, awes, and moves.

To all the aspiring authors out there . . .

From http://www.thewritersmarket.com, this diagram is a sure-fire way to get motivated and pick up that pen (or keyboard, or iPad, etc etc). If you want to get published, follow these instructions!

And never forget the following words, never lose sight of their wisdom . . .

“The power of imagination makes us infinite.” – John Muir

“Reach high, for stars lie hidden in your soul. Dream deep, for every dream precedes the goal.” – Pamela Vaull Starr

“Trust the dreams for hidden in them is the gate to eternity.” – Kahlil Gibran

“A single dream is more powerful than a thousand realities.” – JRR Tolkien

“Life has no smooth road for any of us; and in the bracing atmosphere of a high aim the very roughness stimulates the climber to steadier steps, till the legend, over steep ways to the stars, fulfills itself.” – WC Doane

“The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” – Eleanor Roosevelt

“To unpathed waters, undreamed shores.” – William Shakespeare