Where Alph the sacred river ran…

For some reason I have an earworm… a mixture of Xandu as featured in Coleridge’s unfinished poem Kubla Khan, and a song by… by ELO and Olivia Newton-John! Well, I had forgotten that she sang it, forgotten that she collaborated with ELO… I think I was confusing that song with another ‘The legend of Xandu’ by Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich.

Xanadu, an actual place associated with Kublai Khan, is where the town of Shangdu is now in Mongolia. It seems as if most of its remains have been plundered for more modern buildings and little remains. Xanadu – where Kublai Khan ‘stately pleasure-dome decree‘…

So twice five miles of fertile ground 
With walls and towers were girdled round; 
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills, 
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree; 
And here were forests ancient as the hills, 
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery. 
Orson Welles was taken with this idea and name Charles Foster Kane’s large estate Xanadu in his 1941 film. In reality various luxury places have been given this name, and also a mysterious bright, shining spot on Titan, one of Saturn’s moons.
There was a musical film with the name – a film which was a box-office failure, although the soundtrack was a hit!! It became a musical on Broadway where it achieved greater success. There have been songs, games, comical characters, all with the name or associated with Xanadu.
What put it in my head I have no idea, but here is Olivia, and some very dodgy costumes!

I have no pictures of pleasure-domes, so I have used Brighton Pavilion for my featured image.

Surveying or surveilling

My fellow writer Richard Kefford and I have challenged ourselves – or each other, I’m not sure which, to tackle a list of blog subjects we randomly found on the net… there were seventy-three different types of blog suggestions, so we are having a go at doing all seventy-three. Richard is attacking the list at random – at least he was until we hit on the idea of producing a book of our blogs; One hundred and forty six blogs might be a little long – so we are thinking of producing three volumes,. I started at number 1 on the list and worked my way through and I am now at number twenty-four, surveys and polls.

I must admit I am a bit stumped; how interesting would a survey that I might conduct be to anyone? I got to thinking about surveys, and began to ponder on the word… sometimes pronounced sur-vey, sometimes more like s’vey, depending on whether it’s a noun or a verb. I guess that it might come via French (from Latin) sur meaning over or above and veillée  which means vigil or watch over something – my rough explanation! There are words which come from it – verbs meaning to look at something, and verbs meaning specifically to measure and look at something, and the noun which is the product of the measuring and looking. Then there is surveillance, definitely all about watching and looking! So am I right? 

So, survey comes from Middle English, surveyen which in turn comes from from Old French sourveoir –  as I thought from  sur – over, and veoir to see . It was certainly around and about at the turn of the fifteenth century meaning to consider or think about or ponder, and then it shifted to include to guard or watch over, and then on to inspect and check and look at in detail. By the middle of the sixteenth century it began to take on the meaning of measuring and recording information about a piece of land.

Surveillance, however – as I understand it, does not come from the same thing at all, even though it sounds as if it should. It’s a loan word from French but it comes from that Latin vigilare meaning to watch over – and watching over in the French Revolutionary sense  were les Comités de Surveillance – surveillance committees. It’s a concept we are very familiar with now, with CCTV on every corner.

I guess on social media if you mention survey, most people would think of a list of questions which could be about anything from favourite books to favourite ice-cream! Some give choices for answers and then give results as a percentage, some are open for any answers. So here is a little survey, just a little one:

  1. Dickens, Austen or a Brontë?
  2. Poirot, Campion or Tommy and Tuppence Beresford?
  3. Holden Caulfield, Yossarian or Jay Gatsby?
  4. The Cherry Orchard,  The Government Inspector or Boris Gudunov?
  5. Girl With a Pearl Earring, or A Secret History or The Handmaid’s Tale?
  6. The Hunger Games, Northern Lights (The Golden Compass) or Artemis Fowl?
  7. Dracula, Frankenstein or The Triffids
  8. Macbeth, Hamlet or Richard III
  9. Dylan Thomas, R.S. Thomas or Edward Thomas
  10. Carol Ann Duffy, Gillian Clarke or Jackie Kay

… and more on surveillance:


A chance encounter

I guess these days we have much greater opportunities to meet a much wider range of people, and not only meet them as in bump into them face to face, but to ‘meet’ in a virtual way. Through my love of music, in particular the Mavericks (yes, I have to give them a mention!) I have met many people on-line… some I have gone on to meet in real life and it’s a great thrill to actually do so.

There is another sort of ‘meeting’, and that is when you read about people, maybe people who are no longer alive, but you read their words, or you read about them, and become close – only in your own mind, obviously! These days we have access to a wonderful wide community and just as in real life when you bump into a stranger and get to know them, you can have chance encounters right here.

I was looking at what different people had been sharing on Twitter, and stopped to look at an image of a beautiful young woman and a card or postcard with some writing in a script I couldn’t read but I guessed to be Farsi or Persian. The comment was ‘in loving memory of Forough Farokhzad’, describing her as an influential and modernist Iranian poet, film director and feminist’; it was in loving memory because her life was cut tragically short at the age of only thirty-two whose life was cut short fifty-two years ago, almost exactly, on  February 13th 1967.

I was interested because I knew some amazing Iranian people, many years ago now; I had an Iranian boyfriend for a while, and then when I started teaching in Manchester, some of my students were from Iran. I was teaching them when the Shah was overthrown and it was a worrying time for them, thinking of their families back home… back to the poet, back to Forough Farokhzad.

Forough was born in the last days of 1934 in Tehran; her father was in the military, a colonel, and he and his wife had a big family, seven children and Forough was the third. She was married when she was only sixteen and had a son, but then she and her husband divorced and he had custody of their child. Forough began to write poetry and her first collection of poems was published when she was only twenty-one – what a precocious talent, and how hard it must have been for her as a woman living in Tehran at that time. Her short life was eventful; she wrote more, she became a film director, she had a close and loving relationship with Ebrahim Golestan an important writer and director. A demonstration of the sort of person she was is an episode when she was making a film in a leper colony and after less than a couple of weeks took on and adopted the child of two of the people she met who were suffering from the disease. Her death was the result of a terrible accident; swerving to avoid a school bus she had an accident in her car and as a result died… at only thirty-two.

Here is a link to one of the many biographies you can find about her.


I have ordered one of her books… I found her words by just a chance encounter!!

Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt…

Although Robert Browning is not particularly popular as a poet any more, and many people haven’t even heard of him, there are several poems which are still appear, among them the rather creepy tale of Duke Alfonso II and his first wife Lucrezia de’ Medici. She was born on St Valentine’s day in 1545 and married the duke when she was only thirteen years old in 1558… he was twenty-five.  He was the last Duke of Ferrara in Northern Italy, the last duke because despite marrying three times, he died without having any children. Lucrezia died three years after her marriage at the age of sixteen… maybe she was poisoned by her husband…

My last Duchess

That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now: Frà Pandolf’s hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will ‘t please you sit and look at her? I said
‘Frà Pandolf’ by design, for never read
Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
How such a glance came there; so, not the first
Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, ‘t was not
Her husband’s presence only, called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek: perhaps
Frà Pandolf chanced to say, ‘Her mantle laps
Over my lady’s wrist too much,’ or ‘Paint
Must never hope to reproduce the faint
Half-flush that dies along her throat:’ such stuff
Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough
For calling up that spot of joy. She had
A heart—how shall I say?—too soon made glad,
Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
Sir, ‘t was all one! My favour at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West,
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace—all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
Or blush, at least. She thanked men,—good! but thanked
Somehow—I know not how—as if she ranked
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
With anybody’s gift. Who’d stoop to blame
This sort of trifling? Even had you skill
In speech—(which I have not)—to make your will
Quite clear to such an one, and say, ‘Just this
Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,
Or there exceed the mark’—and if she let
Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set
Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse,
—E’en then would be some stooping; and I choose
Never to stoop. Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive. Will ‘t please you rise? We’ll meet
The company below then. I repeat,
The Count your master’s known munificence
Is ample warrant that no just pretence
Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;
Though his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed
At starting, is my object. Nay, we’ll go
Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!

A clear, cold, crystal-bodied wind

Another wonderful and evocative poem by Walter Turner.

Kent In War

The pebbly brook is cold to-night,
Its water soft as air,
A clear, cold, crystal-bodied wind
Shadowless and bare,
Leaping and running in this world
Where dark-horned cattle stare:
Where dark-horned cattle stare, hoof-firm
On the dark pavements of the sky,
And trees are mummies swathed in sleep
And small dark hills crowd wearily:
Soft multitudes of snow-grey clouds
Without a sound march by.
Down at the bottom of the road
I smell the woody damp
Of that cold spirit in the grass,
And leave my hill-top camp —
Its long gun pointing at the sky —
And take the Moon for lamp.
I stop beside the bright cold glint
Of that thin spirit in the grass,
So gay it is, so innocent!
I watch its sparkling footsteps pass
Lightly from smooth round stone to stone,
Hid in the dew-hung grass.
My lamp shines in the globes of dew,
And leaps into that crystal wind
Running along the shaken grass
To each dark hole that it can find —
The crystal wind, the Moon my lamp,
Have vanished in a wood that’s blind.
High lies my small, my shadowy camp,
Crowded about by small dark hills;
With sudden small white flowers the sky
Above the woods’ dark greenness fills;
And hosts of dark-browed, muttering trees
In trance the white Moon stills.
I move among their tall grey forms,
A tin moon-glimmering, wandering Ghost,
Who takes his lantern through the world
In search of life that he has lost,
While watching by that long lean gun
Up on his small hill post.

Walter J. Turner

Home thoughts from home

You may know that my fellow blogger Richard Kefford and I have got an ongoing challenge with each other. We came across a blog which listed 73 different subjects it’s possible to blog about. Richard just randomly chose one of the subjects and wrote about it… then he did another… and I sensed a virtual gauntlet had been flung down. I took it up, and starting at number 1 on the list I began over the last few months to work my way through – as did Richard.

This might sound like silly writing fun, and I guess at first this is how we thought of it; however as the time went by and we worked our way down the list it really did become a challenge because we were writing well out of our individual comfort zones. I mostly write fiction, and mostly write long fiction, so to write something brief on a specific topic I did find quite tricky.

I have got to number 21 on the list, parody. Richard has a very quick wit and is so clever with word play, he managed this challenge quite early on… as I’m working down the list one by one I can’t avoid parody… I struggled… but here it is…


Home thoughts from home

Oh, to be in Uphill
Now the tide is high,
And whoever walks in Uphill
Sees, some morning, unaware,
That the leaden sea and the muddy shore
Round the tide-line mud from the Severn Bore,
While the seagull squawks on the blackthorn bough
In Uphill – now!

And after low tide, when waves retreat,
And the rubbish dries, and sand worms excrete!
Look, where the fucus sea-weed on the coast
Spreads to the dunes bedraggled marine algae
Bladder-wrack and kelp – at the broke shells’ edge –
That’s the sand flea; he jumps each time so ably,
Lest you should think he never could recapture
The jump despite his tiny stature!
And though the dunes look rough with hoary spray,
All will be dry at noontime and midday
The ice-cream cones, the little children’s dower
– Far sweeter than the unripe bramble’s berry.

© Lois Elsden 2018

… and here is the original by Robert Browning:

Home thoughts from abroad

Oh, to be in England
Now that April’s there,
And whoever wakes in England
Sees, some morning, unaware,
That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf
Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf,
While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough
In England – now!

And after April, when May follows,
And the whitethroat builds, and all the swallows!
Hark, where my blossomed pear-tree in the hedge
Leans to the field and scatters on the clover
Blossoms and dewdrops – at the bent spray’s edge –
That’s the wise thrush; he sings each song
twice over,
Lest you should think he never could recapture
The first fine careless rapture!
And though the fields look rough with hoary dew,
All will be gay when noontide wakes anew
The buttercups, the little children’s dower
– Far brighter than this gaudy melon-flower.

Here is a link to Richard’s parody:


… and here is a link to the anthology Richard and i wrote with another friend, John Watts:


… and a link to my books:


In Time Like Glass

Having loved poetry all my life I only yesterday discovered the poet Walter J. Turner – and yet I seem to have known his most famous poem, Romance, all my life! Although he lived most of his life in England, he was born in Australia in 1884… here is a poem I have only just met… wonderful…

In Time Like Glass

In Time like glass the stars are set,
And seeming-fluttering butterflies
Are fixed fast in time’s glass net
With mountains and with maids’ bright eyes.

Above the cold Cordilleras hung
The winged eagle and the Moon:
The gold, snow-throated orchid sprung
From gloom where peers the dark baboon:

The Himalayas’ white, rapt brown;
The jewel-eyed bear that threads their caves;
The lush plains’ lowing herds of cows;
The Shadow entering human graves:

All these like stars in Time are set,
They vanish but can never pass;
The sun that with them fades is yet
Fast-fixed as they in Time like glass.