What the Horses Heard by Rebecca Gethin


 What the Horses Heard, by Rebecca Gethin, a fine poet who is also a novelist, was published earlier this year by Cinnamon Press. It seems timely to mention it now, on Remembrance Day.

It’s refreshing to find a novel about World War I whose main characters are outsiders in the war. The two protagonists of What the Horses Heard are Orion, a conscientious objector, and his sister Cass, who becomes a groom for Army horses and disguises herself as a man. Both of them have been deeply affected by the accidental shooting of their brother, and by his deep love for the natural world. We follow the progress of the two siblings throughout the war, Orion’s survival through humiliating imprisonment and Cass’s journey into the battlefields of France as she tries to stay with the horses she loves. Cass too is incarcerated, though in an asylum rather than a prison. The end of the war sees their sad homecoming and hints at what their lives may become after the events which have changed them and the world around them.

Interested as I was in the carefully researched and well depictions of the war itself, for me what comes over most strongly in the novel are the beautiful descriptions of their childhood relationship with nature and, following from this, Cass’s deep care for the horses she tends. It seems to me that the writer is perhaps at her most comfortable in these aspects of the book. The horses are as much characters as the human protagonists, and Cass’s relationship with them is stronger than that with the people around her, highlighting the difficulties she has in negotiating the human world of bureaucracy and male dominance. Both she and Orion are profoundly isolated and because of what they have been through do not fit easily into ‘normal’ society. However, their return to the childhood home allows them to reconnect with the moorland places that have always been home to them.

Despite the suffering and destruction that have taken place, What the Horses Heard is not a pessimistic novel. It offers some kind of hope that the characters can rebuild their lives and retains a deep love and trust for the sanity of the natural world. I would certainly recommend it as a sensitive, thoughtful and unusual take on the lives of those caught up in the First World War.


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South poem

Here is the poem of mine that is in South, issue 50.  www.southpoetry.org


After she died we found it in the cupboard.
‘A gadget,’ we both said, hingeing the metal flaps
to see if we could discover what it was for.
It went into a box we took to the charity shop
along with the pastry wheel and sweetcorn forks.

They told me it was for baking potatoes.
‘Makes life easier’, she would have said, ‘my gadget,’
smiling with satisfaction, trying with all her motherness
to foist one on us as well, as though the best of life
were to only to be found in things that made it better.

In the empty flat I saw her sitting there,
eyes locked on to the television, remote control
easily to hand, tea infuser ready to endow the day
with labour-saving comfort. When we came to visit,
those familiar friends sat closer to her than family.




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How not to be a poet

I came up to London yesterday for the launch of South, a magazine that has published one of my poems. The first time I’d read in London – at the Poetry Cafe, no less, and I was nervous. All these proper poets who would have been published here, there and everywhere and have done more readings than I’ve had hot dinners. You know how it goes… So, dressed in my purple shirt and trousers and hoping I’d look smart enough, I got on the coach at Newton Abbot with my folder of poems in my bag and a substantial packed lunch.

I don’t know if you’ve ever tried dealing with a flask of soup on a coach. On a train it’s not a problem. Although it rocks a bit, the movement of a train is relatively even and if you put something on a table it stays there. The same can’t be said of coaches. After I’d poured out the butternut squash, carrot, coconut and ginger soup – one of my best, though I say so myself – I left the cup on the table for a moment or two while I screwed up the flask. Yes, you can see it coming, can’t you? Although half of it was still left in the cup, I couldn’t believe just how much of the delicious orange puree had distributed itself over me, not to mention the table and the wall of the coach – both fortunately made of plastic, unlike my purple outfit. I did the best I could with a large hanky and my glasses-cleaning cloth, then resorted to pouring water over myself (the seat was plastic too) and trying to wipe off more. By that time it felt as though I’d had an ‘accident’ of a different sort, but at least I wasn’t looking quite so orange. When I’d done as much wiping as I could, I took myself off to the toilet and did the best I could there – being thrown about from side to side and with water spurting from the tap. I emerged looking more wet than anything else, but was conscious of tiny bits of carrot still nestling in the pile of my velvet trousers.

Once I’d cleaned up everything in sight – the wall, my coat, my bag – I sat back in my uncomfortable wetness and contemplated the sorry state of this would-be poet. With a bit of luck people wouldn’t notice the stains too much, but I’d said goodbye to looking – or feeling – professional. Ah well. I then took out my phone and found that two of the friends who had said they were coming to the launch couldn’t make it, for perfectly valid reasons. As the third one had already said he might not be able to get there I was starting to feel a little unsupported, which was more of a dampener in my damp state. Never mind. The important thing was to get there.

These days, living in rural Devon, I quite often find arriving in London a shock to the system. I soon get over it, but when I stepped out into the dark and wet of Buckingham Palace Road, dragging my little wheelie case, the rush hour felt like an assault. The people, the cars, the lights, the noise – and the insistent rain, which found its way into everything. Outside the Tube station there was such a crowd that the barriers were being shut and people were pushing to get through. As a Londoner I might once have waited it out, but I simply couldn’t bear it and instead managed to negotiate my way through the hoardings and building works to the bus stop. It seemed almost a miracle that before too long the right bus came along half-empty and took me more or less where I wanted to go.

Making my way towards Covent Garden I was soon a lot more damp and bedraggled. How could I possibly be a credible poet with wet hair? I rearranged my luggage and put up my umbrella – doubly inconvenient, with the wheelie case, for getting through the crowd – but by that time the damage was done. I thought I knew Covent Garden pretty well, but somehow Drury Lane seemed to have moved since I was last there or else morphed into Bow Street. After wet and fruitless wandering I asked outside the station – side-stepping the eager man with the rickshaw – and was directed to the Poetry Cafe by someone who expected a tip but resignedly said he’d do without one.

And so eventually, much the worse for wear, there I stood, umbrella and luggage dripping, in a cramped cafe where everybody except me seemed to know each other. (I’m sure you’ll recognise that feeling.) Downstairs was another room crammed with orange plastic chairs. The only place I could find to leave my luggage was a sofa at the back. When I came down again from the cafe I found two people had taken my place, leaving me to sit on another sofa which was so low I could hardly see what was going on or be seen by anyone else. Not only was I the unprofessional poet, I was now the invisible poet.

When I looked at the reading order I was relieved to see I was fairly near the beginning – I wouldn’t have to be nervous for too long, at least, and I could leave during the interval if I wanted. But then when the introductions started I realised none of my angst was necessary: the MC was welcoming and put people at ease, the poets who read before me were highly entertaining, I hastily revised my selection of poems and chose some lighter ones which seemed to go down well. In the interval I found that one friend of mine – a man well into his eighties – had actually made the effort to come to the reading and was looking for me. And of course the other poets weren’t smart and professional and awe-inspiring – they were just ordinary people who happened to write rather good poetry. The warmth and bonhomie of the occasion enveloped me and by the end I felt at home, just as I would have at a local poetry event. I had not only survived but enjoyed my London debut, and I didn’t have to worry about being a poet.




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Here are some poems that I’ve had published recently. (‘I’ve had published recently’ – how cool does that sound?) Most of them were written for the online poetry group 52, which continues to be utterly brilliant – see the earlier post ‘Out of the Comfort Zone’. I hope you’ll take the time to check out the publications they appear in – there’s lots of brilliant poetry in all of them.

 Before you came what we knew were olive trees,
mules scuffling through dust, sweet smoke
of cooking and tobacco, old men polishing
memories generations long. The church bell clanged
the regularity of our life; the language of our land
had not been wrested from us.

You were the refugees, returning to the home
you mourned each year with brine and bitter herbs,
digging through stones, watering your new life
as it grew into our soil. At the beginning it almost seemed
we could have lived together. Semite was not a word
you applied only to yourselves.

Our land became your right. We gagged on smoke
from burning fields, watched our olives fall
ungathered from the trees as our compliant mules
bore us away from the houses you had stolen.
Church bells hung mute; the old men’s stories
were uprooted from the land. The language we heard
was like ours but not ours.

Now you have caged us in like animals, denying us
even the right to anger. Only you claim persecution,
the gaping crater of wrongs too terrible to imagine
always in your vision, blinding you to the sight
of your own cruelties. All that you’ve taken from us
you wear for your own adornment, thinking we can’t see
the stains of blood and ashes.

Published in The Stare’s Nest, www.thestaresnest.com

I think of you always dressed in black
your darkened hair at odds
with your pale blue eyes.

Now I don’t know what your colours are
only that once I saw you
wearing a red scarf

looking more real than the winter
that misted around you,
not looking at me.

Published in Nutshells and Nuggets, www.nutshellsandnuggets.tumblr.com

I remember how my daughter learnt to sew; the way the seams
got twisted out of true or a bias-cut inset wouldn’t lie at ease;
how she’d bring home a goldfinch captured in a cage, keep it there
beating against its house arrest until I let it free.

Nature is all my work. When I found out the earth is made
to travel round the sun, I had to say it. That was my nature.
The truth I knew hung straight in my body as a plumb-line.
It did not compromise the God I know, who is never a liar.

Unlike me. They made me swear their truth, a sad affair
of fusty books and hand-me-down ideas, was what was true.
Their God, small enough to fit inside their lists of calumny,
knows only what they know. No-one is outside their power.

They let me have my work. Confined here I am no more unhappy
than my daughter in her convent. My clipped wings do not reach
even to the bars of my cage. Nature has not been forbidden me,
only the one truth I have sold to them in return for nothing.

One day it will not be hidden. Their God, no longer bent out of shape,
will let us reveal all that we dare to know. For now I do what I can,
an old man whose crooked back can never straighten again.
Silenced though I have been I still repeat: eppur si muove.

Published in Snakeskin, www.snakeskinpoetry.wordpress.com

I never liked pink –
roses and marshmallow
and bows for girls’ hair.

I always liked yellow –
sun and lemons
and the number seven.

If I’d lived back then
I might have been given
a pink triangle and a yellow star.

Published in Nutshells and Nuggets, www.nutshellsandnuggets.tumblr.com

That first moment
your face was the only one alive
in a room of muted people.

When we sang
your voice was a bright thread
in the muddle-coloured mass.

When you stood near
I felt your body without touch
knew you inside me like myself.

Then came the wanting
the torturous yes, no, perhaps,
the audacity of imagination

till finally I saw
imagination was all it was.
I took away your kindness
and wrapped it round the hurt.

Published in the Agenda online supplement, www.agendapoetry.co.uk

What men do
He had a beard, a fat one. I don’t remember his name,
only his Arab accent seeping through French like oil.
He talked a lot, took my hand, seemed to have charm.

He led me from lighted streets down to the river.
On the bank: heaps of rubbish, unsavoury smells,
perhaps a rat, a flat patch of grass and earth.

He held my hand; I was all right. Then came
the slippery invasion of a kiss. I pushed him back,
he heaved towards me, shoved my shoulders

till I was lying on dirty grass. What happened
then was not happening to me. It hardly hurt: a doll
doesn’t know how to feel. Quite soon he stopped.

I shouldn’t have let him do what they said all men
were waiting to do. All women should have ways
of stopping them. Smeared with mud and shame

I put the fragments of my body back together,
smelt night, rank water; saw him wipe his beard,
turn away to re-imprison himself inside his fly.

Published in Prole, www.prolebooks.co.uk




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Spindrift by Peter Reason

Up till now nearly all my posts have been about me, one way and another. However, I’m pleased to start making space for some of the beautiful, distinguished, prizewinning books that my friends and acquaintances have been writing.


Having posted a piece on Daughter by Jane Shemilt, I’m now delighted to write about  Spindrift by Peter Reason, which recently won the Rubery award for best non-fiction book from an independent publisher (Vala Publishers). It was published in this spring this year and is a fascinating and beautifully written account of a sailing voyage from Plymouth to the Skelligs and the Blasket Islands in the far West of Ireland. It’s not only a book about a sailing voyage, though. Underlying the delights, difficulties and discoveries of the voyage itself is a deep concern with our relationship, or lack of it, to the natural world, and the devastation that this has caused. The book starts out with a koan – a question to ponder: wilderness treats me as a human being. Through his sometimes uplifting, sometimes frightening encounters with wild places Peter gains a deeper understanding of humanity-in-wilderness which he hopes can be applied to our current situation.

Like Jane and me, Peter is a member of a writing group which came out of the Bath Spa MA and has now been going for something like three years. I’ve seen the gradual honing of Spindrift into an engaging, honest and beautifully described account of an outer and inner journey in Coral, a small boat that is very much a personality in the book. We learn about Coral’s features, quirks and foibles and also about the technicalities of sailing, with all their richness of language. ‘Sheets’ are ropes, for instance, and the ‘heads’ the lavatory. For much of the voyage Peter was on his own with the sea and the weather, but for some of the time he also had crew on board and we get to see both their enjoyments and their struggles. ‘Wilderness treats me as a human being’ is more demanding than it seems. As well as some wonderful descriptions of seas, night skies, rock formations we get the daily detail of life on a boat in all its ordinariness, which brings us right into contact with the reality of the voyage.

I enjoyed Spindrift as an armchair sailor and can see its appeal to sailors and non-sailors alike. It is an involving account with a serious message and has the potential ‘to instruct by pleasing’.




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Daughter by Jane Shemilt

STOP PRESS!! STOP PRESS!! Bestseller alert!

daughterjaneshemiltTonight I’m going to Bristol for the launch of Daughter by Jane Shemilt. Published at the end of August, this compelling and beautifully crafted novel about a teenage girl who goes missing from a seemingly happy family has already made it into Richard and Judy’s list and has been at or near the top of several of the main bestseller lists.

Jane, a former GP who lives in Bristol, was a fellow-student on the MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University and, as you might expect, did extremely well. Since then I’ve been fortunate enough to be a member of a wonderful writing group which Jane was instrumental in starting and often generously hosts. The group includes several published writers and on Wednesday most of us were there to toast Jane’s success in champagne which she very kindly supplied! I was proud to get my copy of the book signed by the author – I always love it when friends sign their books for me – and am enjoying reading the final version, having seen it through several of its drafts. As people often say, it’s amazing how much more impressive a book looks when it’s got a cover and proper pages – not that Jane’s book was not impressive before.

Daughter has been variously labelled a literary novel, a literary thriller and a crossover novel. Not that these labels matter: they’re only there for the convenience of the book trade. What they are saying, however, is that while the book has a thriller/crime novel-type plot (daughter disappears, police are called in, clues are followed up and lead to the ending) it has depth and subtlety and much beautiful writing. Beyond the plot itself it’s about the nightmare of losing a child and the breakdown of apparently stable relationships. But it’s also – as Jane eloquently pointed out in her interview with Richard and Judy – about coming to terms with loss and moving on. Jenny, mother of Naomi the eponymous daughter, is an artist and her artwork is part of her journey back into life, as are her relationships with the people she meets and with the natural world. As she discovers more about what has happened to her daughter she realises too how little she has known about her family and how blinkered her life has been. A mother with a demanding career and too little time, she questions her own priorities in a way that will strike a chord with many women.

Daughter is a novel well worth reading. I wish Jane continuing success with it, and with the next one which is due to be published next year. Here she is at a reading that she gave at Durdham Down bookshop. Thanks for the picture to Tanya Atapattu, also pictured.



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More thoughts from Adelina



Hello everybody

I’ve just retired from being a Profile Picture on Face Book but I thought it would be nice to come out again into the Public Domain just for a little while. I’m not sure where the Public Domain actually is, but I expect that like everything else on the Inter-net you can look up its Domain Name and find out. I haven’t got a Domain Name or a Web Site, but still I do like being able to have my say sometimes on this Blogg. It’s a great honour to be able to talk to so many people.

As you may know, the Belated Writer has been writing lots of Poems and getting some of them Published, which is quite exciting. It’s a pity, though, that a lot of the poems are about such strange Subjects, when she could write proper Poetry if only she would try a bit harder. The things she has written about include Chocolate and Woodlice, for instance (not chocolate woodlice, I’m glad to say), a Piano that killed somebody (I didn’t like that one), a Photocopier, and Serbian Bean Soup. Not very Poetic, are they? I keep telling her she ought to write about proper Poetic things like Love and so on.

In fact she has written quite a few Poems about Unrequited Love as unfortunately she had rather a nasty outbreak of it earlier this year and has taken a long time to Recover – which is why she has to keep writing Poems about it. A few of those Poems have now been Published or are going to be Published, but you might not want to read them as some of them are not very happy  – though I think others are supposed to be funny. I don’t really understand about Unrequited Love myself as I have been Happily Married for a long time, but I know it is something Poets suffer from and write lots of Poetry about.

I would have thought the Belated Writer could come up with some other Poetic Subjects apart from Unrequited Love, wouldn’t you? I suggested she should write about the Meaning of Life but she thought that would be too hard, especially on account of being a Budd-ist. I also thought perhaps she could write some interesting Poems about being a Spycho-therapist, but she said that would be impossible because of having to be Confidential, which means you mustn’t tell anybody about anything. I said last time I wrote on this Blogg that Being Miserable was a proper Subject for Poetry because a lot of Poets seem to have written about it, but I’m afraid I don’t really like reading miserable Poems. I don’t suppose you do either. I think Poets also write about being happy, and plants and flowers and trees and so on, so perhaps I can encourage her to write a few more Poems like that. Nature is a good Subject. I believe there was a very famous Poet called Wandsworth who wrote lots of Poems about Nature and Daffodils.

I’m sorry to say that my dear Husband, who writes such wonderful Poetry, hasn’t written anything for a long time now. He doesn’t feel Inspired very often, but when he does he writes such beautiful Poems that they put the Belated Writer to shame. I put one on this Blogg a little while ago and I’m sure it was a great inspiration to everyone. It was called To Adelina, which is a wonderful Title. Here is another one called Wedded Bliss, which he wrote when we were still living in London. I was so proud of him. The Aster-risks are there because the Belated Writer doesn’t want people to know her real Name, which is Confidential (though that isn’t her Name).

Wedded Bliss

We have now been married, dear,
Very much more than a year,
Living beside the bedside here
In * *’s cosy Room.

Such happiness, Adelina mine,
Light of my life, O my sunshine,
Nothing could ever undermine
Or cast down into gloom.

It’s been a pleasure unalloyed,
Every hour an hour enjoyed,
Never at any time devoid
Of you, dear, without whom

My life would be a lonely thing,
A garden where birds never sing.
But thanks to the great joy you bring
My pleasures all are keen.

We’ve never had an unkind word,
No quarrelling has * * heard,
No discord have we ever stirred
Or malice ever seen.

Let’s hope for many good years more
And cherish what life has in store
Together, as we have before
Here in Golders Green.

There! Isn’t that beautiful? I wish the Belated Writer would write Poetry like that as I’m sure everybody would want to Publish it. It Rhymes and Scans properly and it says a lot of Very Profound Things, as you can see. I will try to persuade my Husband to write another Poem as I know you would all love to see it.

I had better stop now as it’s getting dark and the Belated Writer needs the Computer back. (In case you’re wondering how I type, I have a very agile Nose.) It’s been lovely talking to you all, as always, and I do hope you will take your Poetry seriously and write lots of proper Poems about proper Subjects.

With love from

Adelina xx







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