Winter Landscape, 1879. Paul Gauguin. Budapest Museum of Fine Arts.
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Poems of the year

New voices join old friends in our selection of the best poems published in the New Statesman over the past 12 months.

Candy Windows

He runs in slow-mo with a wall of flame
Boiling behind him like Valhalla’s fall
In Götterdämmerung. He made his name
From being bulletproof. He summons all
His skills to get the girl from Bucharest
To Rome or Paris or wherever suits
The budget. Somewhere she can get un-dressed:
The only scene for which we give two hoots.
The heavies blast the road or bomb the train.
The dialogue is dreck, the plot inane.
They make love. Breasts and bottoms fill the frame
When suddenly the whole motel explodes:
The bad guys in a tank. Devoid of shame,
He frisks her lovely corpse for the launch codes
Of the secret anthrax time-bomb missile thing.
They’re tattooed on her thigh. But look, she stirs.
The soundtrack fills with strings that soar and sing.
When has he ever seen a face like hers
Since his last movie? They run for the car,
She is the jail-bait, he the veteran star.
The enemy is an army: all the same
He kills the lot, but finds himself alone.
The girl is gone, and gradually the game
Changes. He fails to steal the new nose-cone
His HQ wants, and where once he could burst
Through candy windows, now he fears they might
Be real glass, and – much worse, the very worst –
The gathering night could really be the night
When he, immortal once, but not again,
Must bruise, and bleed, and die like other men.

Published in the NS of 31 July. Clive James’s most recent collection is Sentenced to Life (Picador). His Collected Poems will be published in spring 2016.


“Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were sexy, but only with their feet, like butterflies.” – Clive James
Forget dancing backwards in high heels and all that jazz –
I’ve told you before, I want to be Fred.
A sparrow of a chap turned shining black-
bird, magpie-tuxed, woodpecker heel
and toe, but gliding swallow-tailed, smooth
as you please. Mr Anti-Gravity. Impossible
geometries of flair and speed. No map.
I ache for the ease, the froth of her skirt,
the gloss of his shoes. And yet am sick
of so much breeziness, balsawood plots,
paper plane trajectories. She can fluff those ostrich
feathers up all she likes, if he’s in love
with anything it’s the steps. Sometimes
in a solo, there’s a glint, a glimpse – of what?
All of this perfect lightness.
Where on earth did you find it, Mr Auster-litz?
Published in the New Statesman of 9 January 2015. Isobel Dixon’s col-lections include A Fold in the Map (Salt). “Fred” appears in Double Bill: Poems Inspired by Popular Cul-ture (Red Squirrel Press).

All illustrations by Max Gregor

The Glen

April morning, rising mist,
                        last fugitive snow-drifts
cooried below the dykes’ north sides;
                                                a naked mountain
ash tree next a tumbling burn . . .
Ay, it’s a different season here, different world . . .
So if you don’t mind, heather of the hillside,
and it’s alright by you, small invin-cible bird,
I’ll lean on this here boulder
                                    by the old drove road,
and get my eye in, lighting on this and that.
“It’s nothing to us” you might shrug,
– and you’d be right. Under the bright-hemmed clouds
above the ridge
                        a dozen jackdaws chack.
Published in the NS of 27 March 2015. “The Glen”, which fea-tured in the Bristol Festival of Ideas new Lyrical Ballads project, also appears in Kathleen Jamie’s latest collection, The Bonniest Companie (Picador).

The adulteress

was her joke name    for herself though
unfashionable &    (except in the literal
sense) incorrect.    She had to stop
attending dinner    parties as someone
would inevitably    say something
like, “I didn’t know    which husband to
expect tonight!” or    “Your husband” this/
“Your husband” that    with her partner
sitting right there.     She did not view herself
as a joke & yet this    joke word “adulteress”
was in her head so    she said to her daughter
who was learning    to sew, “Can you make
a big red A & sew    it on my black dress?”
Her daughter said,    “Which black dress?”
& the woman said,    “Every black dress.”
Published in the NS of 2 October 2015. Kathryn Maris’s most recent collection is God Loves You (Seren). Origi-nally from New York, she now lives in London.


I know that when the words are clear and bright
nothing else is, as the milk of street lamps
dims out the stars, but I can only keep echoing my own footsteps
longing for brightness, for streets lit by the stars alone, dark and shining.
I want to learn the language of these trees that line my streets, dreaming
all through the dark till light wakes in them and crows slowly
make their own blacks out from the dawn. But the words of trees
are so large we cannot hear them. I want to make them out
from the hungry waking-up of the crows
in the dawn coming from the bay, like a song
of the light itself. I’m stranded in our dream of learning ceaseless
ripple-waves of language I cannot quite but always almost
can make out the words of. Words care-fully,
like marsh waders in silvery after-dawn light as the tide comes in
meandering to shore, picking their way towards us.
Published in the NS of 5 June 2015. Patrick Daly lives in California. His work has been published in the New York Times and his chapbook Playing With Fire (Jacaranda Press) won an Abby Niebauer Memorial prize.


On approaching Pendle Hill

The path up to Pendle. The sleeping beast. The purple skies.
Folk tell of witches burned or branded or drowned or hung
up there. They tell of failed crops, stillborn calves, murrain.
Always the women. Always the witches. Never the men.
Never the frost, never mastitis or scours or footrot; never
blackthorn or angel trumpet, hemlock, ragwort or lupine.
Never in drink or lust or fear or guilt. Never in penance or
madness. It’s always the women. It’s always the witches.
The path past Pendle. The buried bones. The violaceous skies.

Published in the NS of 24 April 2015. Benjamin Myers’s novels in-clude Pig Iron and Beast-ings. “On Approaching Pendle Hill” features in his collection Heathcliff Adrift (New Writing North).

This article first appeared in the 17 December 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special

Emma Moore as Ruth Ellis
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Rasping old cassettes bring new depth to a familiar true crime tale in BBC Four’s The Ruth Ellis Files

Plus, a BBC Two documentary about Brixton reggae producer Steve “Blacker Dread” Burnett-Martin.

I thought I knew the Ruth Ellis story inside out: when I was writing my book about women’s lives in the 1950s, her name came up so often – almost daily, it fell like a shadow over my desk – I finally had to give in and take a detour, reading everything about her that I could find, for all that she wasn’t part of my plan (if you’re interested too, and want a primer, I recommend A Fine Day for a Hanging by Carol Ann Lee). But perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps I didn’t really know anything at all, for I never once felt even half so haunted in the British Library as I did the other night in the moments after I finished watching Gillian Pachter’s three-part documentary series, The Ruth Ellis Files: A Very British Crime Story (13-15 March, 9pm).

It wasn’t that Pachter, an American filmmaker who specialises in true crime, had vast quantities of new information; the thrust of her investigation had to do with the part played by Ellis’s other lover, Desmond Cussen, in the murder of David Blakely, the crime for which she alone was hanged on the morning of 13 July, 1955, at Holloway Prison, north London. Pachter suggested, like others before her, that Cussen provided Ellis with the gun with which she shot her violent boyfriend, and that he should therefore have been tried as an accessory.

Nor were her long-winded films, so deeply in love with their own processes, without their irritations, from the tonally jarring film clips she insisted on using to illustrate situations for which she had no images, to her bizarre and utterly pointless desire to recreate the pathetic last bedsit of Ellis’s son, Andre Hornby, who committed suicide in 1982, aged 37. Faced with certain expert “witnesses”, among them a couple of retired coppers who couldn’t have been loving their moment in the sun more if they’d been slicked with Ambre Solaire, Pachter was never anything less than wide-eyed and credulous.

What she did have, though, were some rasping old cassettes, the complicated provenance of which would take far too long to describe here. And so it was that we heard the voices of Cussen and Ellis discussing Blakely; of Hornby gently interrogating Christmas Humphreys, the counsel for the prosecution at his mother’s trial, whom he tracked down in the months before his suicide; and even of Blakely, loudly toasting the company at a party. She made maximum use of these tapes, playing them repeatedly, and it wasn’t hard to see why; if the words sometimes meant relatively little (“he’s just a little drip… a cheapskate… a skunk…” Ellis said of Blakely, perhaps only telling Cussen what he wanted to hear), the voices nevertheless spoke volumes, whole worlds conjured up in their strangulated vowels, their urgent hesitations.

Here was Ellis, a working-class woman, speaking in a painful, put-on RP. Here was Hornby, his life utterly destroyed by his mother killing the man who was then the closest thing he had to a father, trying desperately hard not to sound mad (“she lived on the borderlines of insanity,” he said of Ellis, possibly unaware that it takes one to know one). And here was Blakely, so obliviously chipper, his voice all dry gin and privilege. Ellis’s story has always reeked of Raymond Chandler: the racing driver lover, his floppy-haired beauty destroyed by bullets; that blonde hair, which she determinedly bleached again in prison ahead of her trial. Hearing them, though, all that fell away. What messes and muddles people get into. What calamities hit them, head on, like meteorites.

After a ten-year absence, Molly Dineen has returned with a documentary about Steve “Blacker Dread” Burnett-Martin (12 March, 9pm), a Brixton reggae producer. Three years in the making, it included some remarkable events in the life of this local celebrity, among them his conviction for money laundering; Dread’s dreads, uncut since he was 14, now reach to his feet and deserve a film of their own. But though I admired its intimacy, the warm and effective way Dineen mined his universe, in the end there was something self-indulgent about it, too. Like Blacker’s barber, her editor was, alas, seemingly surplus to requirements. 

The Ruth Ellis Files (BBC Four)
Being Blacker (BBC Two)

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game