The Golden Shovel

A golden shovel sounds like some kind of gravedigger’s award (‘and the nominees for best-dug hole are…’) but it isn’t.  I came across it today when researching places to send my poetry and discovered that it is in fact a very new poetic form which began as a tribute to Gwendolyn Brooks’s poetry (no, I hadn’t heard of her either.)  You take a line or two from a poem and make your own out of it like this: each word of the original line becomes the last word of each line in the new poem.  For example, this is a poem taken from one of Brooks’:

The Golden Shovel

by Terrance Hayes, after Gwendolyn Brooks

When I am so small Da’s sock covers my arm, we
cruise at twilight until we find the place the real
men lean, bloodshot and translucent with cool.
His smile is a gold-plated incantation as we
drift by women on bar stools, with nothing left
in them but approachlessness. This is a school
I do not know yet. But the cue sticks mean we
are rubbed by light, smooth as wood, the lurk
of smoke thinned to song. We won’t be out late.
Standing in the middle of the street last night we
watched the moonlit lawns and a neighbor strike
his son in the face. A shadow knocked straight
Da promised to leave me everything: the shovel we
used to bury the dog, the words he loved to sing………..
here’s the rest:
and here’s the original:

The Pool Players, Seven at the Golden Shovel.

Gwendolyn Brooks

            We real cool. We
            Left school. We
            Lurk late. We
            Strike straight. We
            Sing sin. We
            Thin gin. We
            Jazz June. We
            Die soon.
So that got me inspired and I wrote one of my own called ‘Saving Planet Earth’ and based on Andrew Marvell’s ‘To His Coy Mistress’:

I also sent a limerick (previously written) and started a poem about the naming of the new Prince.

I am on a roll!

Kirk out

Oh, Not To Live on Sugar Mountain

Last night I caught up with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s latest offering, ‘Hugh’s Fat-Fight’.  It’s the most recent in a line of campaigning series by the food writer, who previously took on wonky veg and persuaded many of us to buy less-than-perfect vegetables.  I enjoy his style – it has neither the manipulativeness of a Louis Theroux or the self-righteousness of many a didactic voice-over: instead he makes friends of local people; acknowledges and thanks corporations when they do the right thing and holds them to account when they don’t.  Some of his methods are highly imaginative, such as turning up to Kellogg’s and Nestle with a huge set of traffic lights to get them to use the ‘traffic light’ system properly.  (It may come as a shock to realise that some breakfast cereals are nearly 50% sugar.)

The programme (I have to fess up here) did make me feel a tad smug since we eat very little processed food, never add salt or sugar, don’t have puddings and eat a fair proportion of fresh fruit and veg.  Down sides: we don’t eat as much wholemeal stuff as we used to (pasta, rice or bread) nor as much raw food (coleslaw, salads etc.)  However, I can report that I am not only able to bypass entire aisles of crisps and chocolate without feeling the slightest twinge of regret (in fact they annoy me mightily) to me, crisps are like bits of flint with salt on and I don’t like chocolate bars as much as biscuits.  I do have one indulgence though, which is chocolate digestives.

My BMI is within healthy range, though I wouldn’t mind losing a few pounds: but on the whole I’m happy with my weight.  I could be more physically active: for exercise I do yoga every day but I don’t walk or cycle as much as I used to.  So there’s room for improvement there.  As for alcohol, I would drink a lot more if I could afford it, but I can’t.  So my consumption is virtually zero at the moment.

None of which is any help at all except in developing my already entrenched sense of smugness about being healthy.  On the other hand, for years I smoked, drank too much, had a rubbish diet and hardly exercised at all.  So it’s a luxury for me to feel that for once I’m on the side of the gods.

As for the obesity crisis, of course individuals are responsible for their actions, but many areas have few outlets for fresh veg and fruit and takeaway food outlets are on the rise.  But big companies have to shoulder a large part of the blame; and as well as the frightening quantity of sugar in cereals, one thing that shocked me about Hugh’s programme was his trip to WH Smith’s.  It really pisses me off that even clothes shops nowadays have sugary snacks by the till: but Smiths’ (whom I never visit because they are so overpriced) have a positive maze of chocolate – walls of the stuff which you have to negotiate before you can get to the till.  So Hugh is asking people to tweet WH Smith’s with the hashtag #WHSugar.

It’s dispiriting to see the once highly-principled Kellogg’s (it was started by Seventh-Day Adventists) descend to the same level of corporate nastiness as every other multinational:

but as for Nestle, they are pure evil.  Nothing will persuade me to buy any of their products:

Anyway, here’s the programme:

Oh, and here’s a bit of Neil Young to keep you going:

Kirk out


Phone Banking (no, not that kind)…

This is not a post about the current crisis in TSB’s online banking service.  Actually, even though they have cocked up on a monumental scale, I do feel a little bit sorry for them.  Cock-ups can happen to the best of people and this does seem to be a contained event relating to a shift in platforms over a highly limited time period (do I sound like I know what I’m talking about?  Good, cos I don’t…) anyway, this is not about that: in political circles phone banking means basically phoning people up to ask them if they’re going to vote for you or whatever.  This is not something I particularly enjoy, but I can handle it better than knocking on doors or leafletting in the town centre: anyway, last night’s phone banking was to invite people to a meeting tonight in Quorn on the current crisis in the NHS.

Lots of people were out, which is a bit dispiriting though also something of a relief as it means I don’t actually have to talk to anyone; but when someone is listed as ‘Con’ on my sheet my heart sinks when they actually answer the phone.  The only problematic person last night was a Tory guy who took great delight in saying ‘that’s a shame’ when I announced that I was calling on behalf of Stuart Brady, the local Labour candidate.  He aggressively prodded me for facts when I said there was concern about privatisation of the NHS, pooh-poohing these ideas as ‘scaremongering’ and saying no, he would not be attending tonight’s meeting.  It was not enjoyable and I ended up feeling like a particularly unpopular contestant on Question Time (yes, I know contestant is the wrong word but sometimes it feels like the right one.)

It’s hard to know the best way to contact constituents: I dislike knocking on doors as it feels quite intrusive, though in practice most people are quite happy to talk: but phoning hardly seems less so.  I don’t enjoy handing leaflets out or petitioning in the street as people will go miles out of their way to avoid you, and I don’t blame them since I do the same thing.  So how do you get to talk to people?  Social media works quite well with younger people but you have to be friends first, and then you have the whole ‘echo chamber’ problem.  So I don’t know what the answer is and in the meantime we’re stuck with phone banking.  On the other hand I found out that in the last month we’ve contacted upwards of a thousand people, so that can’t be bad.

Anyway, if you’re in the UK and have local elections on May 3rd – don’t forget to vote!

Kirk out

A Poem for Gaz of Fingerprints Cafe

Four years ago Gareth Carnall, owner of Fingerprints cafe in Leicester, was suddenly and tragically killed in a head-on collision.  I wrote about his funeral in this blog post:

and now I’ve written a poem for him:



A car crash on a lonely lane

left Fingerprints of loss

witness the neighbourhood remain

for the cortege to cross;

the slow procession, nothing rushed

the street from end to end was hushed.


It caught my throat: I hadn’t thought

to feel so much for one

I’d known so little: yet it taught

that when a life is run

we walk so slowly to the grave

as if to make the time our slave


For death came quick: head-on collision

in the early dawn

a crash nobody could envision

nor expect to mourn

his flag of life as yet unfurled,

no time to vanish from the world


I can’t imagine how it feels

to those who knew him best

the sudden smash of blackness reels

and rocks within the chest

a host all silent in the road

shared common grief as life was slowed.


For Gaz left prints of memory

upon the local scene

this heartbeat of community,

the bench outside still green;

forgetting would be travesty

so, fingering the melody

here we sing our threnody –

remember this his legacy.


Sarada Gray, 2018

Kirk out

Good in Parts? Is There a Cure?

The latest in a loooooooooong line of pretentious verbs all got up to make ordinary tasks seem like something special, is to curate.  This may have been a verb in museum circles where people quite legitimately curate exhibitions, though publicly I recall the usual form was to state that ‘the curator of the exhibition was so-and-so’ rather than ‘so-and-so curated this exhibition.’  I think there’s a sort of ramping-up of importance going on here, an attempt to make things sound much more thingish, as Pooh bear would say; things which are otherwise quite ordinary.  So you have a person who puts a few things together and, hey presto, you’ve curated something.

Viz: this thing that came through my door this morning.  Now like many people I get little enough post these days and what I do get is generally unwelcome.  So when an envelope with my name on it came through the door, even though I knew it was probably junk, I bore it upstairs and ceremoniously prised it open.

It was a nice maroon envelope containing a piece of thick card.  An invitation, it said.  Do they really think that works on anyone any more?  I opened the card and read:

Invitation to join our exclusive membership programme that brings you a host of members-only ballots, incredible events and great offers.  We’ll also bring you guides, interviews and features…

Now like me you will not only have noticed the cliched ‘host’ but spotted that this is long on verbiage and short on information.  What are the ballots about?  What exactly are these incredible events?  Will I even want the offers?

It’s all irrelevant to me anyway because no matter how tempting the offers or how incredible the events I won’t be able to afford them.  That’s one thing about having no money – you can make your mind up pretty quickly on things.  Life’s too short to bother about special offers unless it’s for something you really need.  But here’s the killer blow:

… all specially curated for our members.

There it is – that word again.  Basically someone has put together a few things and called it curating.  There’s a word for this ‘bumping-up’ of importance, and the word is ‘reification’ – making a thing out of something that really isn’t anything:

Oh but wait!  Down the bottom there are some examples: I can win tickets to see Tony Hadley (who he?) or go on a cruise to the continent (no thanks.)

So all in all I think it’s a no.  But it was the misuse of the word curate that clinched the deal – in my day curate was a trainee vicar with a dodgy egg…

Kirk out

PS – Tony Hadley is apparently ex-Spandau Ballet.  So that’s a definite no then…

Like the New Theme?

I’m trying to think of a word that isn’t revamp or makeover; words which strike gloom into the boots of every reader; anyway, whatever you want to call it, this blog is having one.  We’ve got a different theme called Penscratch and I’ve renamed it Sarada Gray to reflect the changing emphasis since I no longer write about yoga.  Now, I don’t expect you to get excited about this since this blog is about content not packaging; and I promise above all not to subject you to any surveys.  Surely everyone must be sick of surveys?  Every time I go on a website or fill out a form I’m asked to rate my experience: I swear to God that when I die I expect St Peter to be up there holding out a clipboard and a pen.  Please rate your life experience under the following categories….  Yeah, yeah, I appreciate that people are just trying to do a good job (or look as if they are) but there must be better ways of doing it than the infernal tick-box.

But I digress.  Sarada Gray, in case you didn’t know, is my pen-name.  If you don’t know where the name comes from and can’t be bothered to click on the link above, it happened like this.  In 1992 I was on a yoga retreat in Avila, coldest place on earth, at a convent in the mountains above Madrid.  The convent was basically a set of corridors open to the elements and the heating came on for half an hour a day, between 3 and 3.30 pm when I was usually taking a nap.  We got up at some ungodly hour to do meditation and at the start of the whole shebang we were invited to choose a ‘nombre espiritual’ – a spiritual name by which we would be known on the retreat.  This name should embody qualities which we wished to develop in ourselves.

I think it was that which inspired me more than anything in yoga – if you want to achieve something you should act as if you’re already there.  So I asked myself, where do I want to be?  The answer was of course, to be a writer, so I searched lists of gods and goddesses for suitable names and came up with Sarada.  Aka Saraswati, she is the goddess of creativity and wisdom (good combination) and is usually shown playing a veena, something like a sitar:


Image removed on request

But believe it or not, it was years before I thought of using it as a pen-name.  For ages I played around with variations on my own name – Liza, Lisa, Beth… I knew I wanted to keep Gray but none of the variations seemed quite right; and then I had an epiphany.  Of course!  Use Sarada!  So there it is.  No-one else has a name like it; it has history and relevance and it sounds good.

So from now on this blog will be called Sarada Gray and soon it will have a new banner, courtesy of my talented son.

Now, on a scale of one to ten, how would you rate your experience of reading this post?

(Just kidding)

Kirk out

Sex and Profanity and Nuclear War? It’s Christie, Spock, But Not as we Know It

Christie is everywhere on the BBC at the moment and I’ve been watching ‘Ordeal by Innocence,’ one of three novels recently adapted by Sally Phelps.  The production has done away with the cliches that so often dog Christie’s work but kept the central point: the murder of an unpleasant character for which each of the other characters has a motive.


Bill Nighy plays a villain for once, wealthy landowner Leo Argyll, while his wife Rachel, whose murder begins the story, has Anna Chancellor ramping up the cold haughtiness of her previous roles in Pride and Prejudice and Four Weddings and a Funeral.

The couple have adopted several children from widely differing backgrounds and subjected them to an abusive childhood.  We find out the history in a series of swooping back-and-forth scenes, and sometimes it’s hard to know what’s happening when, let alone why.  But it makes for exciting action, especially when the maid Kirsten enters the mix (this is the fifties) along with a strange young man who claims he can give one of the now-adult children an alibi for the time of the murder.

So much is updated in this version that I feel like coining a new word: adupdation or updatation, perhaps.  First, there’s the sex and, whereas in the original this would have been subtly suggested, here it’s well and truly out in the open.  Then there’s the language: people effing and blinding and calling each other all sorts of names; and I have to say that while the sex seemed in keeping, the swearing jarred.  People just didn’t talk to each other like that in the ‘fifties.  I know – I was there.

Since this is the fifties the Cold War is never far away, and Leo has built a nuclear shelter in the cellar of the large house.  This bunker, like cellars in all murder mysteries, is a repository for secrets including the birth of an illegitimate child; and in a blinding twist of irony Leo ends up being locked in there by the maid whom he raped years before.   This ending is not in the book, and Christie purists have complained, but I found it deeply satisfying.

Here’s the series:

here, just to prove a point I made earlier about TV/book crossovers, is the novel:

and here, just in case you’re interested, is a discussion of the differences between them:

And finally – the other day I came across a prize for a mystery novel NOT featuring the murder of a woman.  Wouldn’t that be nice?  A propos of which I’m writing a short story called The Boy on the Bus….

Kirk out

PS  Oh, and you will have spotted there’s a new theme.  I’m having a bit of a revamp – of which more anon.

It’s Like Riding a Bike

I first learned to ride a bike at my cousin’s house when I was twelve or so.  My aunt and uncle lived in a quiet part of Surrey where we could take it in turns to ride our cousin’s vehicle.  We never had bikes as children, either because London was dangerous (a child in my class was knocked down and killed) or it might have been cost and the lack of a second-hand market.  So I learned to ride on that quiet Surrey cul-de-sac and never did the cycling proficiency test all my classmates went on: in fact I never actually owned a bike until I was an adult.

I’ve had very much an on-off relationship with bikes.  I’ve only once owned a new one, otherwise going through a variety of second-hand models all of which succumbed sooner or later to some mechanical malaise which I was unable to fix.  Still, over the years I’ve got better at maintenance and so it was that today I got my son’s much-abused black beast out of the shed and began to fit it for the road.

It’s a mystery what happens to these vehicles: somehow or another he manages to flatten the tyre without causing a puncture (our theory is that by means of violent jerks he forces the air out of the valve) usually only a day or so after I’ve fixed the damned thing.  Anyhoo, I consider the bike to be now morally mine after all the work I’ve put into it, and today I pumped the tyres up again, adjusted the saddle, gave the whole thing a good oiling and off I jolly well went.

Riding a bike is like a long-standing relationship.  No matter how long you’ve been apart, the moment you come into contact again you just take up from where you left off.  I swung my leg over the crossbar, grasped the handlebars and set off: my legs pumped just as they always had, my body balanced itself in the old familiar way; and in short my bike and I had a brief but very invigorating cycle ride.  Loughborough is pretty good for cycling as there are lots of paths and it’s fairly flat – so I shall be Out and About on a daily cycle ride from now on, consulting my trusty cycle map as I go.

Kirk out


Mo Mowlem

History is written by the winners, they say, and in some cases the winners are those who are still alive.  This is certainly true of the recent Good Friday Agreement celebrations, in which the chief architect of those agreements, Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam, was mentioned… nowhere.

In 2005 when she died, the Guardian’s obituary stated that Mo would ‘always be remembered for her part in the Good Friday agreement’:

Fast forward to 2018 and what do we find?  Barely a mention of her:

This article in the Irish Times makes no mention of her;

This BBC article doesn’t mention her either:

Perhaps Channel 4 would do better?  Bill Clinton called the agreement a ‘work of surpassing genius’ but one of the main architects of that genius was NOT MENTIONED.

But – y’know, hey, maybe Tony Blair mentioned her?  Surely he would have paid tribute to the Secretary of State he himself appointed and who made him look like such a peacemaker before he looked like a warmonger?  Alas, a google search brings up only tributes from 2005.

But there are voices being raised in protest, led largely by Mowlam’s stepdaughter:

Harriet Harman has added her voice to this:

Like them I am flabbergasted and enraged by this: from all the reports you would think Blair and Clinton did it all by themselves, whereas Mo threw herself into this work, engaging with both sides, talking to ordinary people and laying the groundwork so that the bigwigs could come in just in time for the photo-op:

“[Mo Mowlan] was the catalyst that allowed politics to move forward which led to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in April 1998. She cut through conventions and made difficult decisions that gave momentum to political progress.”  Peter Hain 2005

This is how people – especially women – get written out of history, and here’s my tiny tribute to Mo to help ensure she is not forgotten.  Meanwhile I feel a number of complaints coming on…

If you want to join me and complain, here’s how:

Kirk out

Coincidence? I Think Note!

Since moving to Loughborough and not being within spitting distance of Jak’s stationers ( I have become a habituee of The Works where, once inside its atlas-strewn portals I head straight for the notebook section.  I generally use three sizes of notebook: A4 for general writing/diary stuff; A5 for poetry and novel notes and A6 for what I laughingly call my handbag (a handbag?)


which serves for writing down passing thoughts while I’m Out and About.

And I know this is going to sound odd but it does actually happen: that sometimes when I’m nearing the end of a notebook I will have certain thoughts.  I might be feeling discouraged (‘what’s the point of clogging up the place with yet another notebook?’) or on the other hand I might be feeling like flaunting myself: and when I sidle up to the notebook shelf in the works I can usually find something that fits the bill.  For example, this peacock notebook


came to me when I was feeling like displaying my prose talents to the world, and the ‘bike’ notebook


came when I was feeling like giving up.  And yesterday I needed a new A4 notebook and what did I find?  This one


which was very serendipitous as I’d been having thoughts along precisely those lines, to whit:

the average is the enemy of the good

the good is the enemy of the best,

but the perfect is the enemy of all.

There is no such thing as the perfect work, and perfectionism is the enemy of anyone trying to produce art.

Kirk out

PS I’m linking here to Brian’s article on a similar theme: