“A poet of fantastic inversions.” Poetry London

“Multifaceted, mega-fabricated, louche architecture.” Magma

“Voraciously experimental, precociously accomplished.” Poetry International

Lyonesse by Penelope Shuttle

Lyonesse (Bloodaxe, 2021) presents a problem. On the one hand, it’s tricky to talk about because I don’t feel able to map out the book’s depths. Parts of it remain sunken and mysterious to me – I can claim no commanding vantage point, despite having browsed it on-off for a couple of months and read some of the poems upwards of a dozen times.

On the other hand, it’s tricky to talk about because it describes itself, its themes and its subject matter clearly enough without any need for me to add gloss. In the preface and on the cover and in the poems themselves we are introduced to Lyonesse as “a submerged land”, “a city under the sea”, “an emblem of human frailty in the face of climate change”,  “a fluid magical world”, “a feasting-cup city”, “just what you want it to be / streets paved / with the sea”. And in a sense, this is all we need to know; the poems expand on and exemplify these core traits, even foreseeing my present dilemma by referring to Lyonesse as “a place of paradox”.

The poems are also characterised as a series of ‘soundings’ that test the weight and the character of the Lyonesse concept through propositions, and by answering their own questions. How are bells made in an underwater city? They are cast out of lobster carcasses. What would a church service there comprise? Well, the ‘Crayfish Christ’ would have this to say:

you must live for pleasure alone!
This is my gospel
Am I not half-brother to the moon?
Are not the deeds of my claw everlasting joy and delight?

Church of Crayfish Christ

Thus Lyonesse accumulates history and character. A close reading seems redundant; the book is a Lonely Planet guide. It fills you in on all the details, and repeats its own title so often that ‘Lyonesse’ becomes a spell in itself, a magic word, the repeated hissing and breaking of waves.

‘Many brave hearts are asleep in the deep, so beware, beware’

I found as well that the poems flow into one another – that it’s hard to recollect, when I don’t have the book in front of me, which images came from which poem. Their forms are varied, making use of different margin alignments, stanza shapes, spacing, titling conventions, and so on, in the manner of different wind-driven slices of the sea colliding and dispersing (or pieces of shipwreck washed up on the shore). The collection avoids feeling like it’s settling into a routine or iterating a pattern.

There are several poems where the lions of Lyonesse make an appearance (sometimes they are princes) – and there are owls of Lyonesse too, and gownshops and quaysides, and echoes of other myths drawn in and chewed in the surf: an interview with Neptune, plus mermaids and sirens, the devil, Davy Jones. Sometimes the narrator is a resident (a survivor, or a fortune-teller), other times someone hearing and passing on the story. 

Many of the poems allude to Lyonesse’s fate, and it’s in this respect that the book is most beguiling, since there’s no actual timeline to be grasped; the city is now and was always both sinking and sunken, destroyed and renewed. It is sea-ravaged, sea-remade, of the sea and entwined with the sea, there and not there. There’s a central  ‘Account of the Submergence’, which is composed in full paragraphs and more than two pages long. This poem feels like the anchor, the true tale at the heart of all those others swimming about it, but even here the story remains evasive, partial and teasing (‘Now that we have wiped Lyonesse from the Departures Board (the starry way to Lyonesse no longer valid) let us record what we know so far’).

‘Account of the Submergence’

I think of this line from Auden: “In so far as poetry, or any other of the arts, can be said to have an ulterior purpose, it is, by telling the truth, to disenchant and disintoxicate.” What truth is being told here, about human frailty or climate change? Perhaps that we have made these such a central part of our collective identity that we can no longer imagine what it would be like to not be in the midst of a vast, drawn-out episode of avoidable calamity. We don’t regard the end of civilisation as a series of events so much as a state of being that has been with us throughout our time as a dominant, sentient and self-directing species.

The preface is an interesting and unusual inclusion – I know others tend to find explanatory essays needless at best, an imposition at worst. In this case, I think the only issue is that it ought to be at the end of the book, not at the beginning, since it provides such a ready key to the poems that it risks turning them into a mere demonstration of a thesis. I preferred, for the most part, to put out of my mind the climate parable aspect, and become lost in Lyonesse as a tourist with an outdated, part-perished map becomes lost in a ghost town. 

The preface also makes clear the role of grief in the poems, and I should mention here the second and final section of the book, ‘New Lamps for Old’, which moves away from Lyonesse (though not entirely) and into a house deeply haunted by the author’s memories. The poems here are more straightforwardly personal and direct, a little more terse and spare and grounded. The effect is like reaching the end of an animated film and then being shown a reel of the animator getting up from their desk. I like this – it avoids the usual disappointment I feel when a book’s major sequence is too short to stand on its own and seemingly needs to be bolstered by a lot of scattered miscellaneous pieces. ‘New Lamps for Old’ seems set both inside and outside Lyonesse, as if we could zoom out one stage further and find we had been lingering in a snowglobe in one of the city’s gift shops.

This is really a testament to how fiercely (but delicately) the book evokes a sense of place. To open it again after a time away is to return through a portal to somewhere that can never be comprehensively charted, a shattered Narnia that is at once very, very far away and right on the cusp of our own world.

On Starlings, with Caleb Parkin and Holly Hopkins

How does a poem mimic (or capture, or transmute) something so visual, so kinetic, so unliterary, as the sight of a murmuration of starlings? And is there any point in it trying to, when we can see the spectacle for ourselves at any time, via a brief internet search? Where is the sense in using such a tired machine as language – words on a page – to describe something that can be experienced first hand?


Let’s look at how two different poems answer these questions. Holly Hopkins’ ‘Starlings’ was first published in Birdbook: Towns, Parks, Gardens and Woodland, a book I co-edited in 2010, and has been most recently printed in her Forward Prize-nominated collection The English Summer. Caleb Parkin’s ‘The Starling Committee Decides’ is published in Raceme no. 13.

Image of ‘Starlings’
(Click to see full-size version)

‘Starlings’ is written in iambic tetrameter and composed of rhyming four-line stanzas. This is a form that’s easy to read quickly, almost breathlessly, because it’s broken into same-sized units, which are themselves broken into same-sized units. Each four-line stanza is made up of two rhyming couplets. Each couplet is made up of two lines. Each line is made up of four beats. Each beat is made up of one stressed syllable and one or more unstressed syllables. This is about as straightforward as language-patterning gets, and thereby allows the eye and the ear to move forward at pace.

The poem is also a cascade of images, one after another after another. There are no scene transitions and only the thinnest commentary is offered; instead, we move from fens as ‘dying seas’ to sedges, to marsh, to ragged lines of starlings, a ‘budding, chirping swell’, ‘kneaded dough’, a ‘churning shoal’, a ‘living sack’, a ‘thread of trust’ and so on. It seems on a first read-through that the murmuration only takes shape in the second stanza, and that the way the poem tries to capture the spectacle is through those images in the second, third and fourth stanzas, all of which are apt but, one might argue, not a patch on seeing the thing with your own eyes.

But it’s the combination of form with rapid succession of images that provides the more compelling imitation. ‘Starlings’ moves in the mind just like a miniature murmuration, one shape changing to another at speed: swell into flow, flow into dough, shoal into sack, sack into thread. This sets up a contrast with the watchers described in the poem’s last stanza, who stand ‘locked inside their coats’, not daring to speak because of their uncertainty about ‘blundering’, failing to synch up with one another. Human self-consciousness is here starkly presented as a frailty, an inability to harmonise, with the effect that progress is brought to a standstill.

‘The Starling Committee Decides’ takes a different approach. The poem is shaped like a snapshot of a murmuration, with the individual words as individual birds. This makes its rhythm rather bumpy, since the lines are all sorts of different lengths and don’t even start at the same left-hand margin. Parkin adds to this effect by splitting words across lines (‘murmur/ation’, ‘fund/ers’) and using multiple voices which interrupt and talk across one another. It is, as the title indicates, a portrayal of a committee – the voices are not so distinct that clear characters emerge, so we are left with an impression of a squabbling, disorganised cacophony.

Image of ‘The Starling Committee Decides’ in Raceme 13.
(Click for larger photo)

As in Hopkins’ poem, there is a strongly implied contrast. The starlings here are humanised, deploying bureaucratic jargon (‘returnability’, ‘natural capital’) and in clear disagreement as to how to proceed. They keep referring to murmuration but have lost the ability to murmurate (‘we don’t have the numbers’). Parkin has frozen them in two ways: by deploying the poem as a still image, and by imbuing them with human reason and individuality.

Both poems suffer from eco-anxiety; ‘Starlings’ begins with a reference to the deterioration of the fenlands, while ‘The Starling Committee Decides’ is premised on reports of collapsing starling populations, handily explained in a footnote. Both respond to this anxiety by turning the spectacle of murmuration back on its human observers. One uses the speed and sweep of language, turning its eye on us very suddenly; the other makes use of the writer’s ability to pause and rearrange, so that we recognise the detail of the accusation. Both seem to agree that we are too young and inexperienced, as individuals, to know how to pull together as a species. 


Birdbook: Towns, Parks, Gardens and Woodland

Holly Hopkins’ The English Summer

Caleb Parkin’s This Fruiting Body

My post on Raceme 13

Raceme no.13 / Another Labyrinth

I have two new poems in Bristol-based journal Raceme no.13, both titled ‘Another Labyrinth’. Below is a poster I’ve made for one of them. If you find it a little difficult to understand at first, that’s likely because it’s actually a puzzle-poem based on the well-known ’15 puzzle’ — a set of sliding numbered blocks which can be rearranged into the correct sequence. The solution is presented in Raceme itself (upside down at the bottom of the page), but I won’t be putting it online. Can you work it out?

Order/subscribe to Raceme here:

I’ll be posting something about one of the other poems published in the issue imminently.

Suffering / Bug / Unearthly Toys

This post can also be read on my Substack, Stray Bulletin.


It’s possible to be thrilled and exhilarated at the same time as appalled and frightened – after all, this is the basis on which horror fiction operates. So one thing that’s unsettling about the current moment is the fact that, on one level, people are enjoying the war on our doorstep. There’s an eagerness with which news is disseminated, a bit of self-congratulatory pomp in the various commentaries, a creeping ease with which some have a crack at inflammatory rhetoric.

In the midst of this comes a very readable and splendidly produced online essay on Auden’s ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’ by Elisa Gabbert, and an irritable (but sometimes well-argued) rejoinder to that article by Lee Siegel. The difference between their two positions (certainly, from Siegel’s point of view) is whether, by drawing attention to the proximity of human suffering to human indifference, Auden meant to challenge and discomfort us or merely to show us something of what it is to be human.

It’s interesting to think of this poem, and the painting it describes, in relation to how social media has changed us. If being human means needing to be able to look away, needing to practice indifference to the extremes of suffering that are all about us, then technological interconnectivity forces us to adopt radical new strategies, since Nelsonian blindness (not looking, not knowing) is no longer possible. One of those strategies is to tell ourselves stories that frame certain kinds of suffering as justified, or a sad inevitability – stories which obscure culpability or erase the sufferers altogether.

I mean – yes, this has always been used as a strategy. But we see even more of it today, I think, and it is more flagrant, more naked. We see a mounting fervour for maintaining these stories as they buckle and tear under constant bombardment from reality. Those who are online, and who cannot find a way to live with endless uncertainty, who struggle to adjust and recalibrate their moral circuitry on an ongoing basis, become increasingly prone to cultism. They cannot look away, so they must aggressively redefine what it is they’re looking at.

The invasion of Ukraine has brought some measure of temporary relief, I think, to anyone vexed by this condition. It has produced a moment of clarity: for once, there is unity of feeling, very little messiness in who deserves our sympathy and who our condemnation. You can be crude, and clumsy, and thoughtless in the way you express yourself, and not run into too much trouble. But then again, you can already feel that moment ebbing away.

I think a lot about what social media has done to us, and overall I think the scales tip in a positive direction, though there’s a lot we still have to get our heads round, and I don’t know that at the end (if we reach the end) we will be quite the same kind of humans as Auden describes.


Since I’ve just had ‘Cat’ published in a very handsome transatlantic journal, I decided to revise ‘Woodlouse’, the first in the same mini-sequence to find its way into the light. It’s now called ‘Bug’, I’ve added it to the poems on rotation on my website, and it goes like this:


I’ve resumed making my way through Ned Denny’s Unearthly Toys, which is a book of furious formal jousting and rampant cover versions. There’s a ghazal called ‘Gazelle’, terza rima, a poem three pages long where every line begins ‘At the edge of the woods,’ and a version of Li Po failing to find his sensei in the mountains. I’ve also managed to write up a couple of book reviews, but haven’t really cracked this one yet. It’s very squirmy – doesn’t like to be pinned down.

Firmament, Vol. 2 No. 1

I have three new poems in the latest issue of Firmament, a handsome magazine made by Sublunary Editions, who are a very impressive small press based in Seattle, with editorial input from the UK. I’m especially happy to have these poems published, as all three are from a new collection I’ve been working on for, oh, maybe four or five years now?

One, ‘The city awaiting’, belongs to the same sequence as ‘The city is over’, which was published in Poetry Birmingham a year and a half ago. Another, ‘Cat’, is from the same sequence as ‘Dog’, published in Marble in December, ‘Frog’, published in Gramarye in June last year, and ‘Woodlouse’ (or ‘Bug’), published in The Rialto, also last year. One more of these to place before the entire set is out there! (The city poems have some catching up to do, and the castle and labyrinth poems have barely got off the ground).

The third poem I will leave you to discover for yourself. But here is ‘Cat’:

Detachment / Dishonored 2 / The Beetle

This post can also be read on my Substack, Stray Bulletin.


I was originally planning to write on two topics: whether or not writers need to read, and disconnections at a near distance. After weighing up which to take on first, I found that the two bled in to one another.

When I teach poetry to students for the first time, I always ask about their prior relationship with it, and there are always a few who say they write it but don’t read it. I understand this; poetry is an expressive tool, and if your major concern is being acknowledged in a world that seems quite happy to roll by with or without you, you naturally lean toward output. The ability to read and enjoy poetry is the result of practice, and we see little apparent evidence of the benefits of putting in that practice. Writers are people of status; readers are just faces in the crowd. The pleasure of reading is private, and its relationship to intellectual or emotional maturity is difficult to trace, for all that we may sense the change within us.

When the topic of writers needing to read was broached on Twitter, two themes came to the fore: firstly, that habitual reading undoubtedly has a positive impact on writing. How could it not? Language is a fearsomely complex system – trying to work if from only one end is going to greatly limit your success. But secondly – and in response to claims that some people’s minds work ‘differently’ – there is the moral case. Why should you expect to be read if you yourself refuse to read? Why should that exchange only run one way? Who deserves to be listened to, who does not listen?

This takes me on to my second mini-topic. I don’t know whether and to what extent this is to do with my getting older, or to the damage wrought by the pandemic, or to do with specific painful events in my life, or to do with capitalism or Toryism or the ubiquity of digital media (probably all of the above), but I am finding it particularly difficult to connect with new people around me at the moment, and feel this particularly acutely when we have, on paper, much in common.

It’s not just a case of my feeling shut out; I also struggle with unwillingness on my part. That is to say, I simultaneously feel an intense desire to connect and an equally intense hesitance. I have to work hard to resist feeling mildly exasperated, or bored, or judgmental. All talk feels like small talk. When this is coupled with my perceiving that the other person is also pushing a boulder up a hill, feels the same ambivalence toward me, it lends itself to a feedback loop, in the same way that friendships tend to spring from rapidly accelerating mutual intrigue.

Now, my memory of last being a stranger in a strange land is hazy, but I’m sure I remember the process of getting to know people involving a lot of generous, unguarded gestures from all parties. When I make one of these now, not only is it often not reciprocated, but I may end up feeling I’ve made the person uncomfortable – as if I were doting. I’ve become accordingly more restrained.

Hard for me to know, though, how it looks from the other side. Hard for me to judge whether someone is genuinely keen to maintain emotional distance, or wants me to offer much more, wants me to put all I’ve got to offer on the table. Or whether they themselves simply don’t know what is misfiring.

Thinking back again to writers who don’t read, I wonder if it’s possible for a collective – a stratum of a society, say – to be damaged to the point where the combined ability to extend care and understanding toward others becomes far outstripped by the need for the same care and understanding. For the need to write (and, hence, to be read, to have one’s experience validated) to completely overtake the capacity to take on board ideas and experiences that are of an alien character.

I wonder sometimes even about people who read voraciously – whether they are really exposing themselves to the risk of disorientation, of intellectual and emotional hurdles, or whether they have found a way to read with blinkers on, sifting the material for what reassures them. I wonder if this is what the judgement that a work is ‘beautiful’ sometimes relates to, and whether there is a connection with standards of beauty in people – the beautiful being that which is devoid of threat, which will not change you.

I may be drawing together too much. I may be overly haunted by some advice given to me in the midst of a series of bad dates last year. Without going into the details, it pertained to What Women Want (or what answers their subconscious psychological needs, say) and lo, it was something I could not see myself ever being able to provide, nor being inclined to fake. Perhaps, then (I say to myself), the people I meet now need things, and are able to ascertain very quickly that I am not a provider of these things. Much as I am offering handouts, worksheets and group discussion to students who may struggle to see past their need for acknowledgement and validation.

And what do I want? What do I mean by this ‘connection’ I say I’m looking for? Perhaps the same thing – perhaps more than anyone can give. To be read, to be listened to, to be made safe.

Or maybe I just want to run into someone who will play couch co-op games with me.


I’ve recently started playing Dishonored 2, from Arkane Studios – a little nervously, since the original Dishonored was a game I felt didn’t need a sequel. There’s a strange dissonance to both titles whereby the story casts you as a cautious avenger, only killing the most despicable enemies, while the various systems (enemy behaviour, player abilities, level layout) entreat you to become a brutal, supernatural night stalker and murder-machine. This is even more pronounced in Dishonored 2, which begins by making a sore point of the fact that you’ve been framed for the deaths of your political rivals, before handing you a knife, pistol and crossbow and making it trivially easy to terrify and tear apart enemies.

As an example of what is now termed an ‘immersive sim’, it’s designed to facilitate different approaches and playstyles. There are videos of players who approach each level as a dance floor – after practising their moves for countless hours, they will release a video of them performing an expertly choreographed ballet of mayhem and mutilation. An electric-shock mine attached to a severed head is thrown into the air,  landing on another enemy just as he whirls round to face the protagonist, surprising yet another into falling into the harbour, and so on.

I prefer to try to ‘ghost’ each level, getting through it without being seen or heard while robbing every purse and rooting through every drawer and cabinet. But what I really enjoy is testing the boundaries of the game’s realism and watching it devolve into the uncanny. I can yank a guard officer up onto the roof of his own lodge, take his money, then slingshot away – the A.I. doesn’t know how to jump or climb down, so after recovering from the mugging, he will simply stand there on the narrow roof, pondering to himself.

In a similar move, I rescue two civilians about to be shot by the local religious fanatics. I stow them in plain sight on a dusty first floor balcony while the cult members below yell, “Come out of hiding!” and light bombs. When one of my rescuees notices I’m carrying the unconscious body of an underworld boss, he cries out in terror and, lacking anywhere to run to, cowers before me. He is still in the same position, on the same balcony, when I return half an hour later, after having made a deal with the cult and stolen every single one of their pistols from right under their noses.


I’ve begun reading The Beetle by Richard Marsh, “a thrilling horror novel of mesmerism, murder and shape-shifting terror”, according to the blurb, released the same year as Dracula. Coincidentally, it includes a chapter very early on which could easily have served as the inspiration for some of Dishonored 2’s levels. Under the influence of mind control, the protagonist scales the outside of a house and smashes his way through an upper floor window. The house belongs to a powerful politician, and our burglar has been sent to steal some papers – the key to that politician’s downfall.

It’s very Hammer Horror so far – short chapters making it easy to read at the bus stop.

Tiny Library / The Sanctuary Sparrow / Toxic Journalism

This post can also be read on my Substack, Stray Bulletin.


I continue to train between Cambridge, London, Buckinghamshire and sometimes Matlock, picking up post and moving things around as I try to figure out whereabouts in the vicinity of my new job I can settle permanently, meaning in all likelihood for the rest of my life. One of the items I picked up on a recent visit is this collection of 50 single-card games, published by Long Tail.

It appeals to me greatly as a concept because I know many people who, like myself, enjoy tabletop, travel and role-playing games in theory, but struggle to find the time to familiarise themselves with complex rules, or the lore of a fantasy world, or to summon the particular kind of creative performativity needed to be able to act out an emergent story. The ideal kind of game, to my mind, is one that can be cracked open for the first time on a train journey, laid out on a carriage table, then learned and played in less than 30 minutes – but which has some element of character development or fantasy interaction therein.

But I’m keen to experiment with games that are even faster and more straightforward than that. I like the idea of having a few simple cards or rulesets on me at any one time, or perhaps a puzzle or two, linked to my writing and research, to serve in the place of business cards or icebreaker conversations. 


Last year I decided to make my way through every book in Ellis Peters’ Cadfael series, since they’re short, conventionally plotted, and full of period detail, being set in 12th century Shrewsbury. One particular passage in the seventh novel, The Sanctuary Sparrow, rather unaccountably moved me more than anything I’ve read in fiction in the last few years. A penniless bard, Lilliwin, is chased and beaten by a mob after he is falsely accused of murder. Finding temporary safety in the abbey, he’s nursed by Brother Cadfael, the abbey herbalist:

After I read this passage, I had to pause for a while. I felt very sore. I wanted very badly to go out and retrieve Lilliwin’s rebec for him. I reread the page three or four times, before pushing on, reluctant to leave the moment behind.

I don’t expect, even in its proper context, it would have the same effect on anyone else – and in fact, in a way, I hope it does not. I hold out for and treasure that which is peculiar to me, just as I love most in other people what is peculiar to them. One of the wonderful things about the breadth of literature and other cultural artefacts that we have access to is that they allow for so many of these peculiarities.

It’s preferable, I would suggest, that each of us is moved in their own way, by a stray detail or otherwise, than that we’re all moved together, as if we are of one mind, by the same parts of the same works. And as it happens, I’ve found that most of what comes recommended on the basis that it’s intensely emotionally affecting turns out to be fairly bland. That’s as it should be; some degree of unity of feeling makes sense when we’re reacting to real events and circumstances, but I don’t see why it should be the same with the arts. 


Most of my impulsive social media activity last week consisted of reactions to articles and opinions posted about Kate Clanchy and her books, following the news that she has separated from her publisher. All current editions of her works, we learned, were to be withdrawn with immediate effect – not an outcome I or anybody else asked for. But as with so much else, it seems impossible for any journalist to report the basic facts of the situation, since they’re all too invested in a narrative which those facts don’t fit.

Clanchy has faced fierce criticism for the content of her book, Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me. Quite simply, the criticism lands. That is, it is the force of the criticism itself that has carried the day. There have been no pitchforks, no protests, no blockades or book burnings. Passages in the book were highlighted, and Clanchy’s subsequent behaviour (particularly her response to said criticisms being aired) only seems to have convinced more onlookers that she is deeply in the wrong. We don’t know how exactly the relationship with her publishers, Pan MacMillan, deteriorated so badly over recent months, but it is not the result of any organised effort to destroy her or her career.

It clearly galls the commentariat class, however, that such criticism could be delivered – and produce such results – without their ministry. In article after article, the story is presented as if an arbitrary campaign were waged against Clanchy, using terms like ‘mob’ and ‘witch-hunt’. The fact that it was Clanchy who ignited the fire, by highlighting early criticism and asking for it be removed, is sidestepped, as is the fact that nobody ever actually called for her books to be taken off the shelves.

Most of my contributions, therefore, have simply been to re-state these facts under comments which omit or overlook them. But sometimes I run into variations of the ideological framework that really underpins all these misleading accounts, presented as counter-argument. What business have we, it asks, undermining someone who has been pronounced a ‘good person’ by powerful institutions? Clanchy won the Orwell Prize for Some Kids, as well as an MBE and the admiration of many individuals of esteem. As in every case where a statue comes down or the reputation of a historical figure is revisited, the ensuing panic is caused by the realisation that status can be undone. This is what most commentators really mean by ‘cancelled’, after all: demotion. The authority they wielded over others now weakened.

Settling / Kosuke, Kisuke and Snufkin / Just Joss

This post can also be read on my Substack, Stray Bulletin.


I keep saying and thinking ‘when I’m settled in’. To living in Cambridge, that is. I use these words to defer certain expectations – this or that will happen ‘when I’m settled’. But I’m not sure what that will look or feel like. The opposite of agitated? Is it me that’s settling, like a leaf on the ground, or is it that my contents are a kind of churned riverbed, a cloud that needs to become a steady layer of sand? Once things stop catching me off guard or causing me trepidation, I will be settled – in which case, I can’t remember the last time I was settled. I’m a worrier – I worry about and at. I’m very suspicious of long silences.

The first couple of weeks of teaching at the new job have been mostly comfortable; that is to say, I’m finding I can talk for a long time and listen attentively, and always have my plan to hand, and I haven’t frozen up at any point to wonder what on earth I’m doing. The hitches and difficulties seem to be the same as those experienced by everyone else, more or less. I haven’t yet got a firm enough grip on my schedule to fit in a lot of writing, however, largely because writing, for me, has always depended on a certain degree of drifting, of unhooking myself from the immediate surroundings. My mind elsewhere. Being away with the faeries. I’m not quite ready to give myself up to that at the moment.


I’m continuing to make my way, very slowly, through The Village of Eight Graves, in between attending to several other books. The detective in the story, Kosuke Kindaichi, is described here, as in the preceding books, as scruffy, young-ish, always wearing an old serge hakama and sun hat. Several films have been made of his adventures with different actors portraying him, and I was struck, looking at the stills, by how much he resembles Kisuke Urahara, the exiled inventor/shopkeeper from Tite Kubo’s Bleach. Their first names are only one letter apart, and both are characterised as eccentric, oddly dressed and brilliant. Here are there live action outings side by side:

Bleach was first published in 2001, so there’s plenty of scope for the detective to have served as inspiration for the shopkeep, but I can find nothing to substantiate the idea. In fact, Urahara is said to have been inspired by a different character entirely: Snufkin, the vagabond from Tove Jansson’s Moomin books. Here are both in their original illustrated forms:

I would quite like to see all three of them share an adventure someday. 


(A little late to the party)

I remember encountering, in around 2010, Neill Cameron’s illustrated A-Z of Awesomeness, a lavishly drawn paean to geek culture. ‘A is for Aztecs in Atomic Armour Attacking Anomalous Amphibians’, ‘I is for Indiana Jones Inching Away from an Inebriated Iron Man’, and so on. ‘J’ was for ‘Joss … just Joss’, accompanied by an image of Joss Whedon in the nude, relaxing by a fireside. Ideas for the individual entries were crowdsourced; I would say, therefore, that this is a fair representation of the absurd degree of esteem in which Whedon was held by geek fandom at the time. More so because he was a god of feminism; Buffy the Vampire Slayer and, to a lesser extent, Firefly were supposedly shows that established strong female archetypes, as well as being witty, subversive and self-effacing, a combination that signalled the imminent overthrow of stagnant, male-dominated and heteronormative narrative genres.

Now Whedon is attempting to mitigate the reputational damage caused by revelations about his treatment of actors and crew members, most of them women. Nobody seems to have been particularly surprised by these revelations, coming as they did on the heels of a string of similar busts – men in positions of cultural power found to be abusing that power. But it’s especially unsurprising in this case, since the feminism of Buffy was deeply gestural; that is, it asked to be noticed and acknowledged, a sign that something was expected in return. I often felt uncomfortable watching it in the way I feel uncomfortable seeing men affect an enthusiastically servile manner around women (or a macho one, for that matter – two sides of the same coin).

That does not mean I think Buffy, or Whedon, should have been condemned from the start. But it does seem to me yet another example of a mess resulting from the collective inability to temper enthusiasm, to enjoy things without turning them into sacred objects. I like geek culture, for the most part, but I recoil from it a little as well, because of how it seems to swallow up people’s identities and distort their sense of perspective. Fantasy, sci-fi and adjacent genres have their roots in speculative reconfiguration of the world; they are ways of seeing which relate directly to everyday struggles and politics. Fan worship, at its worst, instead seeks a haven from the everyday, whose borders it then guards until the inevitable collision with reality.

Joss Whedon is, in all likelihood, a caring, creative, rather spoiled guy who doesn’t fully understand why the script has turned on him. If he’d caught heat early on for overstepping boundaries – or if the reception of his work hadn’t done such a good job of convincing him he was a knight in shining armour – he might have made a better fist of telling wrong from right, and not left a trail of destruction. People like him continue to be moulded and made, in part because we continue to believe in a superior kind of person. We believe that greatness is a quality that a person can possess, and behave as if we need that greatness beaming into our lives.