Friday, 23 November 2012

The Magnetic North, Purcell Rooms. “Hunting for Remoteness”

Last night me and my mate John from work went to see the marvellous Magnetic North at the Purcell Rooms on the South Bank. It’s a project pulled together by Orcadian musician, Erland Cooper (of Erland and the Carnival), in collaboration with Hannah Peel (who released her own solo album and is part of John Foxx and the Maths) and Simon Tong (previously guitarist of the Verve/Gorillaz)

It would be a disservice to try to pigeon hole the album they’ve written (Orkney: Symphony of the Magnetic North) but twist my arm and I’ll suggest it has elements of folk, electronica with subtle pop sensibilities, it hints at sadness, loss, nostalgia. There are soaring uplifting waves which soak into you, evoking the spirit of the album, the wind swept barren beauty of the Orkney islands and young Betty Corrigall, the seventeen year old “Orcadian girl who in the 1770's killed herself having been cast out by her village after becoming pregnant by a visiting sailor.” – quote nabbed from the band’s facebook page.

The evening started with the debut of the film Hunting For Remoteness, which complements the album. Prior to the film being screened, I could sense a nervous shuffle in the seat next to me, John, the big Yorkshireman, let on that he would love to take his family on a holiday to Scotland, but something has always stopped him, a deep seated fear. His cultural references of remote communities in Scotland are based on only two sources; the films The Wicker Man (the original, not the dreadful remake with Nicholas Cage) and Lars Von Triers Breaking the Waves. Also, and he didn’t admit it, but I could tell, he subliminally feared Mel Gibson’s Braveheart character too, the frighteningly outrageous mullet, the blue face paint and the tightly defined calves, built from years of wearing high heels…

But I believe the beautiful film allayed these fears for him, no ritual sacrifices or having your head stoved in by a swinging oil rig boom which drives your loved one to speak with the voice of God and commit tragic acts of self neglect. (sorry, spoilers)

The film was beautiful, it reminded me a little of Sigur Ros’ film Heima, the way the music, the musicians, the land, folklore, history and the generosity of the local people were intertwined in the creation of the songs and music, directly when a local choir contributed to the album. The story of poor Betty is particularly sad, the band members making the pilgrimage across the heathland to find her remote gravestone, far apart from the community, the churchyard, the consecrated ground, away from her family even in death. Erland says Betty visited him in a dream, asked him to write an album about Orkney. Well I’m glad he took her advice! The film was gentle, occasionally funny, very moving, mixing locals’ commentary, soundbites from the band members, extracts of recording and performance, but also interlaced with the staggering beauty of the islands and that nature that inhabits them. I’m certainly sold on spending a holiday there (and I think John is too). The people, the landscapes, the history, it just sounds perfect for someone who wants to get away from it all, do some walking, exploring and resting (which is mine and D’s favourite sort of holiday).

The gig was fab, the core three members were joined by strings, brass and drums on stage and they gave us an engaging, friendly, enthusiastic and brilliant performance. On the walk to Blackfriars Station, it rained, but I didn’t care, the South Bank was dark and beautiful, twinkling with the pale glow of Christmas lights strung in the trees and I was warmed by the magic of the Orkney Isles. I hope Betty Corrigall is pleased with the musical results of her visitation!

All photos © Mel Melis

Saturday, 13 October 2012

The Bog Man


When the moor succumbs

to bitter progress, they’ll dig

and find the bog man


stained by centuries

pulled from the glistening peat

like broken old roots


and rattle dumped for

an archaeological



his leathery hand

still clutch clawed over his keys,

a gold tooth glinting


in the hollow skull,

attached to slough skin fallen,

remnants of a beard


they’ll deduce he died

of cold and fear, the moor is

dangerous they’ll say,


it consumed him whole,

so satisfied they’ll drain it

and the ancient peat


will smoulder and yield

imprisoned in the concrete

silent in the mire

© Mel Melis 13/10/2012


I’ve not been entirely happy with my Haikus (on my other blog) of late. I went for a run and lo and behold, some inspiration. Running is thinking time. I wrote a poem about the mind cleansing solitude, the creativity to be garnered from a run, away from all that distracting technology which clogs our lives, how it touches something ancient, something physical, brings us closer to the animals were are.

Today I considered what it would be like if I were lost on the moor, sunk into the peat, only to be discovered hundreds of years into the future preserved like one of those bog men. What could they deduce about me? Would they work out I was more than just a stupid jogger who broke his ankle and sunk into the mire? Probably not and to be honest they wouldn’t need to, as they’d be right!

I’ve stuck this 8-haiku (5-7-5) piece on my main blog as it is more of a narrative poem. The abridged version is on my Haiku blog.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Storm Toad


Storm Toad

in the brief moment

of headlights catching

a snapshot of life,

brown-grey, born from clay,

the heavy stride of toad,

forelegs muscular, tense,



across the tarmac,

a river to cross, sheets of rain,

distant rumbles of death,

the spray of murderous tyres,

the searing light,

then unforgiving night,

resolute plod,

grim jaw dripping

with the residue of stormdrops,

mortar shells, boulders fall

all around

crash into mottled skin,

but though pained,

she’ll crawl on,

find the bed

for the long

winter sleep.

© Mel Melis 10/10/2012

Sunday, 7 October 2012

FEAR: A Modern Anthology Of Horror And Terror

So, one of my short stories has been published. Which is nice!

I speculatively submitted a short story for a great up and coming publisher Crooked Cat, they were looking to publish a short story anthology, bringing together many authors, to coincide with Halloween, with all proceeds going to charity. As you can guess from the title, the theme is horror/terror :)

(image from Crooked Cat)

So, to get the business side of things out of the way, if you want to buy it and support two great charities (Barnardo’s and Medicines sans Frontieres), then it’s available in both E-book and print versions from Crooked Cat’s own bookstore, or Amazon (UK links provided but also available around the world)

Volume 1 (print)

Volume 1 (ebook)

Volume 2 (print)

Volume 2 (ebook)

I also believe it will also be out on iTunes too.

---For info – I am in Vol2. End of Business Element of this blog post!

I was pleasantly enthused to see they considered my story good enough. It’s called Daisy and the Bear. The blurb for the book includes a reference to my story (see below). It’s about a girl and her teddy, her “loving toy”. I wont reveal any more, you’ll have to read it!

“Fear: A Modern Anthology of Horror and Terror brings together, for the first time, tales of murder, monsters and madness, by sixty of the world's best indie horror authors.
Discover what lurks in the water at the end of the garden, learn of the unforgiving loyalty of a loving toy and meet a writer, just itching to finish his latest horror story.
Every author in the Anthology has generously contributed their work for free. All royalties from sales will go directly to the international charities, Barnardo's and Medecins Sans Frontieres.
Fear, with forewords by international bestselling authors, Peter James and Sherri Browning Erwin, is released in two volumes in Paperback and on Kindle.”

This is the first time I’ve put my work out there, beyond a small circle of people.

It tickles me to see this in print:

I like the photo, as it eliminates all the haggard worry lines and gives me a radiant youthful look. Almost cherubic. In real life I look like a brow beaten Cypriot mountain shepherd from the 19th Century lamenting the loss of his most powerful goat, so I’m grateful the camera is sometimes forgiving.

In summary:

Am I pleased? Of course.

Am I inspired to write more? Yes.

Am I nervous of negative scrutiny? Of course.

Am I entirely satisfied with the story? Not entirely! I’m still a baby when it comes to writing, I read it back to myself and doubt myself. Perhaps it’s slightly stilted, I don’t know. I wrote it a few years ago, I tidied it up and submitted. I like the story, I love the premise, but I think I have a problem with building suspense, the arc doesn’t feel organic enough. The only way to know is for lots of people to read it, I hope some will be kind enough to give me constructive feedback. But I wont be too hard on myself. I will strive to improve, get better and if I ever finish something novel length, then we will see. There is always room for improvement, there is always room to better oneself no matter how adept one is at their chosen craft. Perfection is elusive, perhaps out of reach, but we must always try our best.

Until then, I see this as a small but precious step in an adventure. I hope Crooked Cat make lots of money for the charities and I wish Crooked Cat and all my fellow authors, both new and established much happiness and success.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

When Art Restoration Goes Wrong

Poor Cecilia Gimenez, she’s been in the news recently after taking it upon herself to restore a much loved but deteriorating fresco “Ecce Homo” in her local church, the Sanctuary of Mercy near Zaragoza. It was painted over 100 years ago by the artist Elías Garcia Martínez.

The well meaning octogenarian mangled it to such an extent, the normally sedate BBC described it thusthe once dignified portrait now resembles a crayon sketch of a very hairy monkey in an ill fitting tunic". Ooooh miaow! But they do have a point.

Here are the three versions of it, the original, the deteriorated version and Mrs Gimenez’s magnificent restoration.

This got me thinking, what sort of a job would I do if I were to be given the opportunity to restore some world famous artworks? We’ll start with Edvard Munch’s “The Scream”. Let’s imagine I needed to restore the face, that anguished roar.

You know what. I’ve done a pretty fucking good job of it. I didn’t leave enough space for the mouth, so it’s kind of to the side, but I think this adds the vulnerability of the work, not only is the subject screaming, but they have a mouth on the side of their face, which probably led to much ridicule throughout their life and probably contributed to this outburst of deep seated pain.

Ok, let’s tackle Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa next. Yeah yeah yeah, that enigmatic half smile, the eyes that follow you round. I know he was a genius, I don’t deny him this. I’ve seen his shit man (you can read about it in this blog post which isn’t quite as silly). It’s great, not only was he a magnificent artist, but he was an inventor, an anatomist and a superb all round intellectual. I appreciate what I’m dealing with here. The leading light of the Renaissance, against an irreverent blogger whose intellectual peak came and went aged 6. 

Again, let us imagine her face needed restoration. Well, working from the original, I’ve come up with something close to Leonardo’s perfection.

Although some would say this looks like a really rubbish Homer Simpson sitting on the toilet, I think the constipated grimace does have an enigmatic quality worthy of Da Vinci. It would be several weeks before an expert in the Louvre noticed anything amiss.

Ok, next artwork. How about Van Gogh’s Self-portrait with bandaged ear (and pipe) 1889? It’s an iconic image. So, rather than restore, I thought, what would happen if I improved the image? So here are the results. Note three important details. Melancholy eyes, blood squirting and a steely grit of teeth. For those not used to subtlety, you can show them this version and they will know EXACTLY what the artist was feeling when he painted this self-portrait. Otherwise, they may never appreciate the artwork and that would be a waste, they’ll just think he’s got the mumps or something and is a bit pissed off with the cold weather. So I think this new version is educational too.

Right, onto my final piece. And possibly the most challenging. I have to say I worked and reworked this and I just couldn’t get the boobs right. It’s Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. The premise: What if some/a few of the boobs and a face needed restoring?

Well here is the result.

As you can see, I didn’t quite get this right, so I thought I’d add a descriptive guidance note to the work as well as some helpful arrows. I’m very happy with the nose though, it’s definitely Picasso-esque. In fact, it makes the original nose look fake.

So there you go, in summary, several reasons why I should never be allowed to touch any artwork anywhere in the world.

As for Cecilia Gimenez, I genuinely do feel really sorry for her. She acted in good faith and just messed up. So please take this blog post as just a bit of fun. No offence intended, I love all of these artists! And I love Cecilia Gimenez, because she tried to do the right thing.

Monday, 13 August 2012

Fighting Fantasy


I distinctly remember being at school and one of my friends shoved a book in my hand, possibly Nick or Luke. I can’t remember who exactly, because the book was that exciting, their presence faded into insignificance and the only memory I have is of the endorphin hit of happiness as I feverishly got to grips with this new concept presented before me. It had a picture (cover art by Peter Jones) of a sultry smoking dragon on the front, writhing out from a unsettlingly stern faced wizard’s crystal ball.

My duffed up copy of Warlock

That book was The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone. As the blurb on the front says “A fighting fantasy gamebook in which YOU become the hero!”. Unusually for any book, it was written in the second person, because the reader was directly influencing and interacting with the story path through a non-linear multi-choice system. Every choice made is then numbered, from choosing whether to try and sneak past a sleeping hobgoblin, or attacking him, going east or west, bashing a door down, or picking a lock. You flick backwards and forwards through the numbered sections of the story, depending on the options you choose. And there was also an element of randomness and fortune. So, two dice, a pencil and an eraser were essential equipment for any journey into the mysteries of the book.

You rolled dice to define the characteristics of your character before you set off. SKILL, STAMINA and LUCK were key to your characters survival. If your STAMINA ran out, through combat (also dictated by rules involving dice throws) or otherwise (e.g – a spiked pit you might stumble into), you were dead, you would have to start again. A high SKILL was important, as that made it more likely to defeat monsters or perform tasks. And a high LUCK was important, as there were times when luck was key to say noticing an important fact, or sneaking past a powerful enemy. You could pick up gold, provisions, keys, weapons and items, some of which might be useful, some might be useless. All of this information you scribbled on your character sheet.

What complemented the book was also the illustration by Russ Nicholson. For example this illustration of two orc’s drinking grog. The incidental detail is astounding, the shading, the scoring of the table by the orc’s fingers, the vacant drunk expressions (looks a bit like some of the pubs I go to in north London). All the way through, the standard is incredible, bringing the story further to life.

Both Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone have gone on and become fabulously successful in Role Playing, Tabletop Wargaming and Computer Game fields, but for a group of people of a certain age (35-45), we all fondly remember Fighting Fantasy.

After Warlock, many more books followed, my favourites I think were Forest of Doom, it had an eerie nightmare emptiness about it, punctuated by tough encounters with brutal monsters. And of course the classic Deathtrap Dungeon, which was really hard to complete, that claustrophobic feeling of being surrounded, unable to retreat and having little hope as various beasts or traps killed you in a variety of ingenious, frustratingly amusing or bloody ways. Baron Sukumvit was a right git.


And thirty years later, a new book has been written by Livingstone, to commemorate this landmark. It’s set in a contemporary horror setting. Called “Blood of the Zombies” it puts you in the role of someone trying to prevent a zombie apocalypse. it’s gory, fast paced and fun. And the best bit for me is that I was one of a select few twitter followers who won an opportunity to have my name appear in it! (teeny spoiler below).

“Melis” is a village/town which appears in the book. Which I am massively excited about. I queued up at Forbidden planet to get it signed too. I’m Zombie no 23. “Enjoy the town…” writes Ian.

Below, two giants of computer science. Well, one giant and one dwarf.

As Ian has stated in recent interviews, Blood of the Zombies’ art nods to both the past but also today’s teenagers, it’s universal really. But I haven’t played it to any great depth yet as I want to keep my signed one pristine, I’m waiting for the iPhone app! (imminently coming out). No spoilers, other than the reference to “my” town in the photo above. Which neatly brings me onto computer games.

As has been oft reported, Fighting Fantasy were the book equivalent of an adventure computer game and the influence on modern computer games is not to be underestimated. So I’d like to thank Ian Livingstone, I guess without his intervention, the mystery of Computer Science may have been lost on me. Role Players also like computers and computer games. Not sure why, we just do, computers, geekiness and role playing are the holy trinity of awkward teenagers. So I studied computer science. Admittedly there were hardly any girls on my university course and I was pretty shit at programming, so at times I was just this bewildered socially incompetent nobhead with no girlfriend, but I’m happy I played the long game now :)  I’ve forged a decent career in IT Services and this allows me to make such bourgeois decisions as rebuying (I can’t find my original copy) a duffed up 1982 copy of Warlock for posterity and for that nostalgia hit. It arrived the other day. It still has the rubbed out scribbles of some contemporary of mine in the character sheet section.

It just wouldn’t have been right to buy a brand new copy. Therefore my collection spans a true 30 years now.

If you haven’t read any Fighting Fantasy books, try them. And remember. YOU are the hero. Blood of the Zombies (with my name in it hehe) – OUT NOW !

Sunday, 5 August 2012

The Olympic Torch Relay, the photography of Nick Turpin

I have to say, like many people, I’ve been slightly ambivalent to some aspects of the build up to the Olympics. But I should really caveat that opening statement!

1) The idea of a torch relay, bringing the sacred flame from Greece to the city hosting the games is of course an evocative one. And if we can take it to as many places in the UK as a build up to the opening ceremony, then this is of course fantastic. It makes it inclusive and will touch a lot more people than those lucky enough to have a ticket to an event.

2) I’m a big Olympics fan, always have been. The ideals of it, the concept of it being revived from that ancient games meeting, when a truce was called, suspending all wars to allow competitors to travel safely to Olympia, to compete for their city state. And in the modern era, the fact that athletes would trade all of their championships for one Olympic gold medal. It means so much to fans and athletes.

So my “issue”, although that’s probably too strong a word for it, was that the BBC were really milking the build up!

A secondary issue for me was that although there were plenty of worthy torch bearers, including local community heroes in each area, there also seemed to be a smattering of vacuous celeb’s muscling in, which was frankly, unnecessary and probably slightly bewildering to the locals who’d lined the streets to watch the torch being held aloft (For the avoidance of doubt Bruce Forsyth is awesome and not vacuous, but I’m disappointed he did his stint in Chelsea and not in Edmonton where he grew up!).

Which brings me onto the work of Nick Turpin. A few days ago an old school friend Cos approached me about checking out Nick’s work. Nick’s a street photographer who has been working with Nature Valley UK (one of the Olympic Sponsors) in taking photographs as the torch has made its way around Britain.

What I really love about Nick’s work is that he is interested in people. There is a warmth in his work, which goes beyond capturing the main event, i.e, the torch and torch bearers. 

There is something really nostalgic and comforting about photography of this nature, they are timeless pieces of work as well as being a valuable source of social history, which is sometimes overlooked.

The toothy grins, the lined and wind eroded lived in faces of pensioners, the rosy cheeked glee of children playing, fancy dress, muddy ground. The social boundaries stripped down, where people of all backgrounds share the experience, straining their necks, having a picnic or waving their flags. It’s all there with the brooding skies of Britain, a threat of rain, wind swept hair and the occasional rainbow caught in the lens.

Co-incidentally, I went to Tate Britain yesterday, to visit the Another London exhibition of photography from 1930-1980. These works are well worth seeing, they hit the same sweet spots as Turpin’s work, one particular element made me smile. When Henri Cartier-Bresson visited London in 1937, on commission from a French magazine, to take photographs of the coronation of King George VI, he ignored the King and only took photographs of the crowd. The results were incredible!

I’ve really enjoyed checking out Nick’s work, which is all available on the facebook page here. But some of my favourites are below.

All photo credits to Nick and Nature Valley UK.





Wednesday, 1 August 2012

An uprooted Cedar


As some of you know, I have another blog, where I am attempting to write a Haiku a day. That is, throughout 2012. As well as my Haiku contribution for today, I wrote a longer narrative poem, knitting four Haiku’s together, each following the 5-7-5 syllable structure. Although strictly you don’t have to follow a 5-7-5 syllable structure, I’ve maintained a determination to be strict about it. It’s a challenge and I like working within set boundaries.

I’ve lifted these Haikus out of my other blog as I felt strongly enough to present it here with other poems I’ve written. Just so happens this follows a Haiku structure.

We were at Wrest Park today, a cedar had been uprooted but it hadn’t quite rested, it was impossibly clinging on at a sharp angle to the ground, part of its roots were still embedded in the earth. I considered whether some part of it was still alive despite being stripped bare of branches and leaves. It smelt beautiful, that evocative cedarwood smell. But the scent was coming out of freshly cut wounds. It was like a butchered carcass. I felt sad.


the scent of cedar

wind felled bled from severed limbs

doggedly straining

to defy soft earth

a circle of heavy clod

hangs from your muscled

roots, dug in stubborn

still clutching at life’s shadow

as your trunk is stripped

for timber and stove

your life ebbs but the scent of

cedarwood lingers

© Mel Melis August 2012

Some photos, of the cedar tree and others from Wrest Park. Taken by me.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Writing Britain, Wastelands to Wonderlands, British Library

This year has been great for arts and culture, those of us fortunate enough to be in striking distance of London have been spoilt for choice. So far I’ve seen Freud, Hockney, Picasso, Munch, Da Vinci and am very much looking forward to the upcoming Pre-Raphaelites at Tate Britain. One of the highlights for me is the British Library’s Writing Britain, Wastelands to Wonderlands exhibition.

The curators have selected some absolute gems of the British Library collection from the genius of British and Irish writing. it celebrates the land through the beauty of the words written in honour (or more rarely, in spite) of it.

It’s inspiring and almost overwhelming, the complete list of works is available here. The names are a roll call, possibly our greatest export to the world.

The oldest works capture the whispered legends of antiquity, the newest whether they be gritty urban works or escapist fantasy still touch on themes which are eternal, tragedy, love, conflict, justice, poverty, redemption, melancholy.

It’s a powerful testament to this land. Seeing a writer’s handwriting, the background to their work, their inspirations, hearing recordings of their readings, collaborations (such as Ted Hughes and Fay Godwin’s beautiful work on Elmet), correspondence, all contribute to this tribute to our Islands.

Writers and writing instigate change. Instil outrage. Inspire. Make you cry, feel, love. Propagate a sense of justice and fairness. Whether the writing is literal or delivered through fantasy and metaphor, the power of words is a gift.

I rarely go all prescriptive about things, about what people should and shouldn’t like, but I’m passionate about the British Library and this exhibition. We should be proud of our writers.

You don't necessarily need to wave a flag around to love your country, you can do it in your own quiet way, through reading a book, or going for a walk and being inspired by landscape. This exhibition combines both.

I was inspired to write a poem, I humbly quote the sub-title of the exhibition and use it as the title of my poem. Wastelands to Wonderlands… I mean… It’s very evocative after all.


Wastelands to Wonderlands

These islands’ words,

lit beacons across the coast,

the voices of the long dead

float away,

bright ash weightless

over seas, fjords, mountains, deserts,

carry the spilt blood in embers,

of empire, lost,

a guilt rising, whispered,


These islands’ words,

a tightly wound script

of knitted mail,

a shield wall of scale,

barrier to wave and wind,

green knights and farmers,

bowler hat wearing gents,


tales bleed down pages,


These islands’ words,

in meadows, the cobbled alleys,

the once proud woods,

ghost trees stand in factories,

and below ground in dark depths,

where the dragon stirs,

a heavy eyelid creaks,

men strike with picks,

sentences tumble from the coalface,


These islands’ words,

dried ink untarnished

in dust covered tomes

fall into minds,

never eroding,

coveted treasures

tragic and beautiful,


wastelands and wonderlands.


©Mel Melis, July 2012.


A couple of pics of exhibits follow (credited to the British Library website)

William Blake’s notebook, from when he used to wander round Lambeth.


I love Lewis Carroll’s handwriting. The Queen of Hearts is pretty terrifying though!


A little map you get when you pays your monies! Tolkien’s depiction of Hobbiton brings a smile. Loved that. But it’s all good. I recommend it!

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Hide and Seek

Rain augmented, the garden sucks the happy soil, strength in verdant green,

Bees fly figure eights around the wooden heron, waiting by the secret pond unseen,

foxglove spears split the air, virile, regal pennants border the path,

as the blackbird finds a shallow puddle, fluttering in his welcome bath,

poppies abundant, their plump red pepper flowers lolling, too heavy for the hairy stems,

a dragon’s treasure, a djinn’s bright wishes, the flower beds spilling with uncut gems,

the rambling rose, white and yellow, slowly drags itself across the border,

an opaque barrier, an insect haven,  a coat of thorns, a silent warder,

flowers blinking open, pouring scent into the ether, delivered by a summer breeze,

and the sun peeking between the clouds, count to ten, play hide and seek with this coy tease.

Words and pictures Mel Melis © June 2012




The painted sneering leer, teeth bared,

the siren screams, terror accessories,

Stuka diving, payload emptying,

the silence of light, a moment

before the wall of air hits,

sound boiling inside your head,


Your mother rises, tentative,

unsteady, sapling in the rubble, picks

you up, her seed,

your own hand grey like hers,

as the dust settles, she sees

your eyes open

and her eyes stream, relieved, defiant,

channels in the grime.


©Mel Melis, June 2012

Friday, 15 June 2012

A Rose in your garden


Within the unkempt mat

of last years dead rosehips

brown stranded, thread hanged,

is a sultry rose

pink to its core, each petal an arc of joy,

vivid in the sadness of your time,


the rosewood outlives,

thorny, twisted, an old woman’s hand,

cupped to the ear,

waiting to hear the old song,


a smile plays on your rose bud mouth,

you hold your breath, watching through the shutters,

waiting for his arrival, his midnight serenade,

….you loved this time of year.

©Mel Melis June 2012

(from mum’s garden)


Tuesday, 5 June 2012


The trauma, gasping, born,

pulse pounding, louder than the land,

behind the eyes,

the churning heartbeat, constant, a memory,

heard through liquid,

seen, felt in the womb, secure

in the dark, when the water baby

first opens her eyes,

red is safety, red is mother,

red is sky at the top of the hill,

red is love, the warmth of the sun.


June 1st 2012, Mel Melis ©


Running helps with inspiration. It’s a form of focus, the physical aspects, although sometimes painful, take care of themselves. The pain and burning of lungs and muscles touch something ancient which takes over. The sound of my own bursting heart a metronome, a discipline to follow, the plod of feet, the gasps of breath. It’s consuming. It allows the mind to contemplate, to calculate, to wander. I don’t know, maybe it’s some sort hunter gatherer thing which switches on, something missing in modern life which we all need to do. I crave that solitude and near exhaustion up on the hills.

There was a prize to my run, I was running to the top of Pegsdon Hills, I knew the sun was dipping below the horizon. I could sense the light was a beautiful orange/red as I ran in the shadow of the long hill, on the wooded path. The chalk steps were steep, I haven’t conquered them yet, I’m not fit enough, I stopped half way up and wheezed, my legs burned and wobbled, I could hear my pulse and heart raging, blocking out all other sound, but I stumbled on, upwards, to be bathed in the suns orange light.

In retrospect it’s a bit contrived, but at the time it felt powerful. As I weaved my way through the ankle breaking rabbit holes and scrapes, through the squat hawthorns, their white flowers covering the thorns, pressed and wind battered against the hillside, I thought of childbirth. The experience of the run talked of this to me. From darkness into light, the trauma, the pain, the blinding bewilderment at being thrown from your secure environment into this new world.

But what a view.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Maurice Sendak

It was announced this week that the illustrator and author Maurice Sendak had died. He was 83.

It affected me more than I thought it would, here was a man who I only knew through his books, illustrations and marvellously grumpy opinionated interviews, but yet, I felt a deep sense of sadness.

I think it stemmed from his attitude to life, to adults, to the lies all around us. He appeals to the child within us all, before adults indoctrinated us with their fears and lies. This may seem like a strong view, but it’s common for parents to use a lie, thinking this would be less harmful to the ‘fragile’ psyche of a child, than the truth.  But Sendak had it all sussed.

“Children are tough, though we tend to think of them as fragile. They have to be tough. Childhood is not easy. We sentimentalize children, but they know what's real and what's not. They understand metaphor and symbol. If children are different from us, they are more spontaneous. Grown-up lives have become overlaid with dross.”

And, in this fantastic, yet ever so melancholy interview with the Guardian last year he said

“I refuse to lie to children, I refuse to cater to the bullshit of innocence."

(n.b – this interviewed also contained the classic “flaccid fuckhead” dismissal of Salman Rushdie after he wrote a poor review about him, something Rushdie accepted with irritated grace on hearing about it).

His books could be both innocent and beautiful, but also angry and challenging. The child protagonists weren’t always good boys and girls. They articulated that peculiar inexpressible rage we all feel as children, where our vocabularies and our social skills are not developed enough to either talk about our feelings or suppress them. For an author such as Sendak to be considered dangerous or frightening, was only a projection of parents anxiety.

“We've educated children to think that spontaneity is inappropriate. Children are willing to expose themselves to experiences. We aren't. Grownups always say they protect their children, but they're really protecting themselves. Besides, you can't protect children. They know everything.”

Sendak is best known for Where the Wild Things are of course, where the scolded Max, dressed in his wolf play suit, having been sent to bed with no dinner, embarks on a fantasy adventure to an island where he is King and he can have anarchic violent adventures with his new subjects. When I was little, I remember the big fuss about this book, newspaper headlines about children having nightmares, the goggle eyed, slabbering sharp toothed Wild Things, based on Sendak’s own relatives, invading their dreams. Max’s adventure captured something we all did as children, creating make belief worlds and living in them for a time.

“I believe there is no part of our lives, our adult as well as child life, when we're not fantasizing, but we prefer to relegate fantasy to children, as though it were some tomfoolery only fit for the immature minds of the young. Children do live in fantasy and reality; they move back and forth very easily in a way we no longer remember how to do.”

WTWTA didn’t pander to sentiment or the adults expectation of how a child hero should behave. Max was a naughty little monster, a normal kid, prone to excess and rages, testing his boundaries, preparing himself for life. But he also had that forgiving quality, no matter how angry you got, you always knew who loved you deep down, the anger would pass. It spoke to children at their own level, their own experience and that is why so many people love that book, it has a timeless longevity.

“I remember my own childhood vividly. I knew terrible things. But I knew I mustn't let adults know I knew. It would scare them.”

The Wild Things too, what wonderfully monstrous creations, so vivid and terrifying. Sendak gave them weight and power with his fine pencil cross hatch work.

Other interesting works

I am no expert by any means, having discovered only a small portion of Sendak’s magnificent artistic bibliography. Every time I see something new, I am delighted. The “Little Bear” books, which he illustrated but didn’t write (Else Holmelund Minarik wrote them) are another example of the beauty of his work.

My wife remembered these gentle fairy stories fondly as a child, so we bought some vintage copies a few years ago, so she could own them all again.

The Little Bear series pre-dates WTWTA by a few years, but “A Kiss for Little Bear” (1968) came after and has a mischievous little “Wild Thing” included within it. (images from Debbie’s first edition)

And the skunks got married, good on them!

One project I was fascinated to read about was that Sendak was “tried out” for illustrating a 1967 30th anniversary version of The Hobbit, J.R.R Tolkien’s first masterpiece. He prepared two drawings, one of Gandalf and Bilbo and another of Wood Elves dancing. These were whisked off to the then 75 year old Tolkien for review.

This excellent site gives the whole story, but to summarise here, a seemingly unimpressed Tolkien dismissed the two images. Hasty efforts were made to get the two men to meet and agree to work together on what would have undoubtedly been a monumental success, but sadly Sendak (only aged 39 at the time) has a heart attack, spending several weeks recuperating. It happened on the day before they were due to meet, so the project never got off the ground.

A hint at what could have been. Gandalf and Bilbo. Unfortunately the Wood Elves drawing is seemingly lost.

Angry Parents

It’s quite fun to go on Amazon and read some of the reviews of his most “challenging” books. I say “challenging” but then this is a matter of opinion. Most children love to devour scary stuff. A parents fear projected onto a child will cause the child to feel fear. So it saddens me to read some of the comments. There’s no murder, or blood or viciousness. These are great adventure stories with happy endings, children are flawed, but heroic. And fair play to Sendak, he was utterly unforgiving and belligerent about it, as well as many other things!

“Certainly we want to protect our children from new and painful experiences that are beyond their emotional comprehension and that intensify anxiety; and to a point we can prevent premature exposure to such experiences. That is obvious. But what is just as obvious — and what is too often overlooked — is the fact that from their earliest years children live on familiar terms with disrupting emotions, fear and anxiety are an intrinsic part of their everyday lives, they continually cope with frustrations as best they can. And it is through fantasy that children achieve catharsis. It is the best means they have for taming Wild Things.”

A few years ago, I got Debbie a present of Sendak’s interactive pop up book “Mommy?” about a lost child walking through a scary house. He’s lost his mum, he’s on his own, but he isn’t frightened, far from it. Although he’s keen to find her again, he is utterly unphased by the succession of monsters which try to scare him. In fact, they get scared themselves at his pluck. What a fun book! And of course he finds his mum… so what’s the problem?

I’ve taken a photo from our copy of the book.

But some of the one star amazon reviews state their children had nightmares and terrors, dismissing his work as awful and frightening. Not fair.

Another book I can’t wait to read is “Outside Over There”, I’m putting it on my wishlist, it’s about a girl whose little sister is kidnapped by goblins, so she sets out on a trek to rescue her. Again, quite adult themes, but this sort of adventure and escape is what children love to read.

In searching for suitable images, I came across this great link/article, from which I’ve lifted the image (credited to the publishers Harper Collins). Looking at the pictures of the faceless hooded goblins though, whoa! It is quite scary, but I’d have loved this kind of stuff as a kid!

Fairy Tales are another area where Sendak has delivered a phenomenal quality of output. Take the Brothers Grimm translation and compilation “The Juniper Tree”. I wrote about this book on my Haiku blog in January. Where I revisit similar themes.

“Fairy stories are violent and frightening, full of foul acts, murders and dubious cruel characters, but with a clear lesson running through them and where normal people can be heroes. Children love this stuff, we shouldn’t patronise them by making decisions on their behalf as to what is disturbing or scary.” – I haven’t italicised the quote as I’m quoting myself, not Sendak :)

Similarly, he illustrated a book of eastern European Jewish folktales, called “Zlateh the goat”. I don’t own this, but just look at this example of the art! (image from harper collins)

Maurice Sendak didn’t come out as gay until his long term partner died a few years ago. In later life I’m guessing it couldn’t have been much of a big deal for him, but in his younger days, he wanted to keep it from his family. They were old fashioned in their attitude, they wouldn’t have been able to deal with it. That feels so sad.

“I’m gay. I just didn’t think it was anybody’s business. All I wanted was to be straight so my parents could be happy. They never, never, never knew.”

Other than the company of his beloved Alsatian Hermann (after Melville, Sendak chewed the ear off an interviewer who asked who he was named after… “Who’d you think? Goering?”) he was on his own with his memories, revisiting his literary loves. And William Blake. He wanted to die like Blake, who reportedly shot out of bed and started singing hymns seconds before his demise. Sendak’s sharp wit came through with this quote.

"A happy can be done.. If you're William Blake and totally crazy.”

Going back to that Guardian interview from last year, he seemed a lonely old man. But he was ready, he was prepared to die, albeit with some regret.

And as a final quote (not from the guardian), one which seems the most poignant.

“I have nothing now but praise for my life. I’m not unhappy. I cry a lot because I miss people. They die and I can’t stop them. They leave me and I love them more.... What I dread is the isolation.... There are so many beautiful things in the world which I will have to leave when I die, but I’m ready, I’m ready, I’m ready.”

So I wish Maurice Sendak a peaceful rest. He made a lot of children (and adults!) very happy, fired their imaginations. He will continue to do so. It sounds over dramatic, but I feel part of my childhood has died too.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Treasure Unearthed

A poem. It’s about what’s hidden under the earth, in gardens and in fields. About history and people wiped from living memory. About the endless cycle of life. Accompanied by photos I took of treasure carefully recovered from Debbie’s garden and allotment digs. My favourite is the bowl handle of a clay pipe, whittled in the shape of a monkey. It feels lovely to hold, my hand wraps round it perfectly. I wonder who owned it?

Treasure Unearthed

The soup spoon churns and stirs,

Juddering in neat rows,

Dragged by the modern beast,

Delightful furrows,

Soft edged hugging the boundaries,

Buried treasures unearthed,

Chunks of scored red brick,

Fresh wounds reddest,

A wall abandoned,

Pieces of life, Where children played,

Spread thinly, rationed jam,

Smashed clay pipes, whittle marked,

Sun bleached,

Tooth white under the fallow rested mud,

Smoked thoughtfully by farm hands,

Honest fingernails filled with dirt,

Sweat dried on grimy skin,

A rest between feats of strength,

Men and horses, beasts long dead,

warmed in the same sun,

Pottery shards,

fragments of roman tiles,

A workman’s metal boot heel,

Arched jauntily, sticking out the earth,

Rusting to dust,

Little beads of faded blue bone china,

A piece of an impossible mosaic,

The scene unrecognisable,

Just a whisper from the plate’s edge,

All tiny remnants of memories,

Under all this, under stones, hints of movement,

Worms for leaping gulls, swarming, churning the air,

Grubs for suspicious crows,

Delightful furrows, buried treasure unearthed.

© Mel Melis 2012.


Pieces of broken clay pipe. In the bottom left corner, one of the shafts is inscribed with the name “SHAW”, perhaps the makers mark rather than the owners names, these pipes were commodities I believe. After a few uses, you chucked them away.

All of these bottles were dug from the garden intact! Now part of our household ornaments.

The clay pipe (this is the handle which attaches to the bowl I believe) whittled in the shape of a monkey. I’m so fond of this. I like holding it in my hand and pretend I’m smoking. How old am I? Six of course!

Porcelain and a creepy baby head

A clay pipe bowl and a pretty rabbits head skull (I think)

An old metal boot heel, probably from a workers boot. (It’s too small for a horseshoe and not the right shape)