But I was so much older, then…..Gems revisited: Andy Blackford.


Remember these? Panoramic school photos. And the challenge that some found irresistible…to see how many times you could get on the same picture. Do they still get taken? Probably not. They get taken to school reunions by the ones who genuinely believe that their schooldays were the best days of their lives (which always feels inexpressibly sad). But I don’t know many folk who can resist t the business of finding half-remembered faces, and invariably sharing stories..wasn’t that ..? remember that time when..? wasn’t she the one who…? Am I wrong to think that they’re almost always tales of transgression and subversion?

The thing about school photos and school stories seems to be that we only really remember the people in our own year group…and often, only from our own form group. And I guess that’s why we’re slightly miffed when we meet a teacher we used to have and he or she doesn’t instantly remember us. Because  (Secondary)  teachers aren’t tied down to one year group; because in any year, they teach students from 5 or 6 year groups, because the faces start to anonymise…like the ones on panaoramic phots that are more like pixels than individuals. It doesn’t stop me from feeling guilty when I don’t recognise or instantly remember the ones who come up to me, or contact me on Facebook. You won’t remember me, they say (though they really think you will) but you taught me in 1972. On Facebook it’s likely to be   Are you the Mr Foggin who taught English at [  ]? It’s even more confusing when it’s a woman who now has a different surname, and she doesn’t tell you the name you know her by. Happened again only last week. And as it happened, I did eventually realise that I remembered her, and, indeed, still had photos of her in a school school play.

Which provides me with a peg to hang this week’s cobweb post on. It’s a curious business being a teacher, this license to strut your stuff in front of captive audiences and to be paid for doing it, on the assumption that you know what you’re doing. And, what’s more, to do that for a significant minority who are more talented, more intelligent, cleverer than you’ll ever be. The only difference between you and them is that you’re older and you’ve read more stuff. But they catch up. And overtake you. I can look back and pick out students who are now successful actors, novelists, musicians, Head Teachers, dentists, doctors,education advisers and inspectors. One scored the winning try at Wembley in the match that ended Wigan’s monopoly of the Challenge Cup.One is a (retired) university linguistics lecturer who puts me in my place on all matters linguistic.One managed tours for Elton John, the Bee Gees…and knew all the Beatles, socially. One became a Professor of Education, and thereby became my boss. Another is a judge, and plays drums in 60s/70s covers band. And so on and so on. So much talent, so much accomplishment. And why did they once have to listen to me? Dylan nails it.

I was so much older then; I’m younger than that now

I had a headstart by being born first. And then got overtaken, not least by today’s guest, Andy Blackford who I invited to be on the cobweb in September 2014. This is how I introduced him..with a picture first. I can’t resist using it again. He’s one of the divers.

andy's shark


I wrote about how I taught him in the late 1960s and how, after a gap of 40 years, thanks to the wonder that is Facebook, we met again. In May 2013, I went up to Staithes where he has a holiday home and spent a day with him and his wife, Sandra. 40 years simply melted away. Nothing had changed and everything had changed, and all was well. I found that he’d  been a diver, run ultra-marathons, worked in advertising, done a stint as a professional skateboarder, written 20-odd books and for three years or so, he’d been lead guitar in ‘Spreadeagle’ (I can’t resist this image). If you want the fuller version, check out the 2014 post.


In December 2013 he emailed me to say that the film director Louis Bunuel had been in the habit of meeting a fellow artist each Monday to exchange and critique a new work of art. He proposed that, via the magic of email we would do the same. We would exchange new poems every week for one year. It would become a book called GAP YEAR and would make us even more famous. And so we did. We started awkward and tentative and apologetic, and there was still a residue of that teacher/student relationship. But after a month or so we could happily give each other’s poems a good kicking, and I was delighted when Andy was able to say of one of mine: Sorry…it does nothing for me. What’s it for? And I was able to write back: Absolutely nothing, mate.   And then to bin it.

And here we are again. I asked Andy to bring us up to date and send me some new work. So he did.

“On the face of it, not very much has happened since 2014. We ‘finished’ Gap Year and made a rather half-hearted attempt to interest publishers in it. I moved from a rambling 15th Century house with a lovely cottage garden and a barn full of the accumulated junk of a lifetime into a two bedroom flat in Cambridge. Weirdly, I haven’t missed the country or the house, and am enjoying cycling between the gym, the Picturehouse cinema and the Buddhist Centre.We look out on the River Cam and we’re a mortarboard’s throw from Stourbridge Common… ( at this poem he blindsides me with with a dark take on the merry month of May)




Expect the worst and then

you won’t be disappointed.


That’s what Mum said –

or would have if she’d thought of it.


It’s why I don’t trust May.

Just take today: It’s all so bloody perfect.


A pigeon wobbles

on an emerald willow waterfall.

(Can there be a bird more stupid than the pigeon?

Yes. The pheasant).


The creak of rowlocks on the Pembroke eight

the coxswain’s barked arcane commands

the patter of the jogger’s fluorescent trainers

on the towpath.

A brace of dancing damselflies, kimono blue.


May doesn’t smile, it positively smirks.

The sickening conspiracy of lilac and forsythia

the bullocks bucking in the meadow

out of pure exuberance.


Mindless, ignorant exuberance.


For on a motorway somewhere

a truck with slatted sides is winding

its relentless way to Stourbridge Common.

And all of us – the cox, the bullock

and the witless pigeon,

poet, jogger, damselfly –

must one day climb its dung-encrusted ramp.


And while you absorb the random inevitability of it all, and the smart juxtapositions of that list in the last stanza, he reminds me of a different persona:

three covers

You asked about children’s books: I began writing when a friend gave me a cutting from the Independent, inviting entries to the writing competition they sponsored in partnership with Scholastic Books – The Children’s Story Of The Year. I wrote a story called Spare Bear, about a teddy bear saved from a wasted life as understudy to his identical twin, and it won. I received a cheque from Andrew Marr at the Groucho Club.


Since then I’ve had about twenty books published, illustrated by a variety of artists. One of them consisted of a poem about a boy who, inspired by a nature documentary on TV, resolves to run away to Brazil. He gets as far as his back garden…




George watched a film about lizards and snakes

And creatures that slither in rivers and lakes.


He said to his mother, ‘Do you suppose,

For my birthday or Christmas, I could have one of those?’


His mum shook her head. ‘Most certainly not!

You wanted a hamster and that’s what you’ve got.

It’s me who looks after him, gives him his tea.

If you had a python, it’s not hard to see

Who’d be feeding and walking it ­ Daddy and me!’  


‘If I can’t have a snake,’ said George to his hamster,

‘Or a lizard or something, there’s only one answer.

I¹ll go to the jungle and live in the trees

With a boa constrictor and six chimpanzees!’  


So George packed a bag with some socks and some pants

And left for the Land of Man-Eating Ants.

But George had no sooner set foot in the garden

Than a gorgeous green dragonfly said, ‘Beg your pardon!

Before you go off and live in a tree,

There’s a couple of friends that I’d like you to see.’


George followed the insect to where it had flown,

Then on its instructions, he lifted a stone.


There coiled a millipede, all shiny and black,

And a bright orange beetle with stripes on its back.

George was amazed. They were brilliant and pretty ­

Not what you’d expect in the midst of the city.  


The dragonfly hovered and darted beyond

And waited for George by the side of a pond.

There were tadpoles and toads and a fat, friendly frog

And a great crested newt that lived under a log.  


The fly guided George to a web on a shrub.

A red and green spider sat right at the hub.

Six of its legs were knitting a sweater

While the two at the back were writing a letter.  


On a twig on a bush, the fly landed next.

‘I say! Do you mind?’ said the twig, clearly vexed.

‘I’m an insect, you know ­ I just look like a stick!’

George was impressed: ‘That’s a well-wicked trick!’  


‘Morning, young George!’ called a big bumble bee.

‘Who needs a snake when there’s all this to see?’  


But the dragonfly showed him one final surprise –

A beautiful grass snake with beady black eyes.  


‘Thank you!’ said George to his dragonfly guide.

‘That was totally brilliant.’ And then he sighed.

‘I think I’ll go home and not live in a tree.

Why go to Brazil when there’s all this to see?’


Now, you might think that isn’t the sort of poem you’re used to on the cobweb. You’d be right. But it’s hard to get right, a rhyming story for children, one that effectively storyboards itself, and, above all, one that’s a pleasure to read aloud. Oral tradition. Ace.

But I notice that Andy’s been posting a completely different sort of poem on his Facebook page. And he hasn’t run them by me first. They grow out of the latest phase of a multilayered life. Andy explains:

“I’m now working [as a Buddhist Chaplain] in four gaols, ranging from the very highest category of security to an open prison. Most of my lads are serving life sentences. [It makes me smile, that ‘my lads’] The most humbling aspect of the work is their gratitude and politeness; the most thought-provoking is how like me they are.

Meanwhile, I’m pursuing my path to Ordination with the Triratna Buddhist Community. This involves a number of intensive retreats at our beautiful centre in the dreamy backwaters of the Norfolk Broads. The place is stuffed with wildlife, airborne and waterborne. And bats:



Padmaloka June 2016


Flitwing Pipistrelle careers into the thickening dark

crazy, restless

lancing boils of dancing flies that burst

in swirls of black confetti


The river dawdles in dementia

lost in reedy mazes

gravid, oleaginous


In the meadow by the bridge

a bullock moans the old complaint

solitary, stubborn

mist brimming to his matted haunch


Flitwing, come and corkscrew with me

through the midgy dimness

We’ll swoop and dart and loop the loop

and tease the glaring owl

our talons plucking oily wrinkles

on the moonstruck fen

and we the manic navigators of the night.


This strikes me as the other side of the playfulness and fantasy of George’s garden. And I really relish the textures of these sharply observed creatures, from the manically cluttered first line, to the mist brimming to the haunches of the bemired bullock moaning ‘the old complaint’. It’s about focus. About keeping still and seeing how things are. Andy thinks he knows why he’s getting better at it.

“During a recent retreat themed on the ten ethical precepts of Buddhism, I had a quiet breakthrough in my meditation practice and so far, the effect seems to have stuck. I am suddenly steadier and calmer, less afraid, and I regularly gain access to a well of innocence, joy and bright amazement.

I’m back at Padmaloka in September to study and meditate upon my favourite topic, the Brahma Viharas – the ‘four great emotions’ of loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity.



I raise my mop, unwieldy with world-dirty water

twist its drowned girl hair about its knotted throat

force it up hard into the up-turned bucket of the night

and squeeze out the grey swill through the holes of the stars


I’m going to finish here, with the inside-outness of this poem, and drowned girl hair…almost. But I can’t resist reminding myself that Buddhist or not, Andy still plays guitar, and still gigs with his current band. You should go and see them.

summer of love

Andy, it’s been a pleasure having you back. Thank you for the updates. And maybe one day we’ll write something together that actually gets published.




1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Please, Miss, I don’t know what to write.


I suppose that begs the question: why write at all? It’s a question that I spent a lot of time on, in the 1980s, when I was writing a book about the teaching of writing, or working as a consultant on the emerging National Curriculum, or when I was putting together a series for GCSE. It’s easy to sidestep, by concentrating on the categories of writing that children and students need (we believe) to get to grips with. Lists, explanations, reports, summaries, persuasive and analytic pieces.

For most of the time in schools it’s so we can assess how well children write, and also to assess what they’ve understood or what they know. About history, geography, science, economics….whatever. In English lessons, we ask them to write in response to poetry or novels or plays. But why do we ask them to write stories or poems or scripts? I’m not sure it’s a question that enough teachers of English bother about sufficiently. It’s sort of a given. It’s what ‘English’ is.

I know when I was at school I’d be asked, or told, to write a story; and when I was a young and not especially reflective teacher, I’d be the one to do the asking or telling. There was always the one or two or three who would very reasonably say: I don’t know what to write about, Sir / Miss. I guess they were written off in school reports: ‘Lacks imagination’. I was OK at school, because although I knew very little, I read a lot and I’d figured out the tricks of writing a story. Poems, not so much. But we were rarely asked to write a poem, so that was OK.

And then, many years later (in my case) you find yourself, for reasons you can’t fathom, writing, or trying to write, poems; meeting other bewildered and enthusiastic folk in the same pickle. And every now and again hearing (or reading on Facebook) the complaint that someone is ‘blocked’ or ‘stuck’ or has ‘hit a blank period’. It’s the voice from childhood, all over again. Please, Miss. I don’t know what to write. I’ll stick my neck out. Here’s the answer. It’s because, for one reason or another, you have nothing to say. Not for ever. But just now. It’s because nothing is exciting or puzzling you.

You can make a list of what ought to intrigue you: your childhood, relationships, friends, school….the whole autobiographical shtick. But if it doesn’t excite or puzzle you, why should it interest anyone else? Places, landscapes, other lives? Ditto. Stuff you know you know about? History, science, cars, philately? Ditto.

So I’m going to stick my neck out again and say it’s the stuff that takes you by surprise, that’s exciting but something you don’t understand, something you want to understand…that’s what you wait for or go hunting for.

I was talking to the poet Helen Mort a week or so ago and she said something that caught my attention (she said a lot of things that did that) and I had to write it down. She said that when she went to Cambridge she was thrown by the way so many students took the place for granted, as though they didn’t actually ‘see’ it. Whereas she, as an outsider, an incomer, was gobsmacked and excited and baffled and all that…And I was immediately transported back to the interview I had in Cambridge, aged 17. I felt like an alien. Which meant, I suppose, that I was differently observant. It was like trying to learn a four-dimensional foreign language. And then Helen said:

                             Ideally, writers are on the outside, looking in

They are ideally, I suppose, the dark watchers I wrote about last week . They are writing to discover, because that’s the medium they make their discoveries in.Helen said:

I can make poems to be written, and they might be OK, but that’s all

By which I understood: if you’re not puzzled by what you’re writing about then you won’t be writing the poems that need to be written. I’m really glad I was there to hear that. To record it. And then to get on with this bit of cobwebspinning. I’m going to reflect on the business of finding out what it is you need to be finding out for the poems that need to be written.(  I’ll leave that tortured bit of syntax as it is. It’s symbolic).


You have to start, somewhere. Maybe you start here.


He is the sparrow, the Friday lord.

I hoped to be the watcher on the rooftop,

but He was first. I’m flake of his fire,

leaf-tip on His world-tree”

[ From: Tyndale in Darkness .

U.A.Fanthorpe: Selected Poems, ed R.V.Bailey. Enitharmon Press 2013 ]

I have no idea why I downloaded U A Fanthorpe’s ‘Selected poems’ to my Kindle, round about midnight on a too-hot night in Spain a couple of months ago. Perhaps I’d looked her up on Google and realised that here was another poet, like Causley and Vernon Scannell, whose work was now to be sought via Abe Books. Whatever. On the verge of sleep, I stumbled into her sequence of poems where she voices William Tyndale, and I read these lines, and the hairs at the back of my neck stood up. That feeling that I’d never read anything like this, that it was amazing that it could have been written with such simple assurance. Later on I recognized the echoes of Gerard Manley Hopkins, and of George Herbert too, I guess,  but that hardly matters. I felt I’d learned something new-minted and important.

In a moment she will take you from the ‘dear preoccupied people’ of 16thC Gloucester, to Gethsemane,

‘and they weren’t used to late nights, his disciples

…………….why did He ask them to stay awake

when he knew they couldn’t? Because He always does.’


and back to Gloucestershire, and Tyndale remembering that


I heard the ploughboy whistling under Coombe Hill,

and I thought, I could do that. Give him God’s word.

I mean, in his own workaday words. And I did.


I think this astonishing and lovely, the way the translator of the Bible into English walks into my life. It’s done with such apparent ease..the ease of imaginative familiarity that only comes with total involvement, absorption in a life that’s loved and troubling.

By the time you come to the fifth poem in the sequence-the Passion, two voices have come together in a single voice that’s simultaneously Fanthorpe’s and Tyndale’s. The voice of the poet’s living faith, and that of Tyndale imagining his imminent execution at the stake.

The powerlessness. This is the day He dies,

Jesus the Friday sparrow, the watcher on the cross

who forgives those who put Him there. He’s dying now,

and His world is dying too. I made this world twice

after God. I translated Genesis.

All I could think was: how does she do this, how does she move me so much? I’m an atheist, aren’t I? How did she make me care, make me believe this was important? How could she do it so ‘easily’? Well, here’s the thing I want to concentrate on: she knows what she’s writing about. ‘Knows’. Not ‘knows about’. This is felt knowledge. But at first it could only be facts, history. It had to be read and learned. And here’s the other thing: it couldn’t be understood, truly known like this until it was written like this. She didn’t know what she knew till she said it.

So what I’m saying is, there’s an answer built into the implied question of my title: I don’t know what to write . The answer being a hard one: well, go away till you know something enough to be intrigued and excited by it.Not sure that you undersatnd it but feeling as though you should. Which will involve you in reading, watching television, watching films, knocking around with mates, walking around cities or up hillsides in rain, or digging, or playing football, or cooking or looking after ageing parent, or after young children, or falling in love, or having an affair, or going into hospital, or having an interview. Getting to know stuff. Finding out. Living it. Which is not the answer people on poetry courses and so on are likely to be comfortable with. But let’s leave that hanging. Let’s go back to Tyndale.

Because from here on, I’m going to be riffing around the business of research, and the way it can be a strange and reflexive business. Sometimes the poem comes first, as it did with Tyndale in darkness. and then sends you off to find the world of the poem, which in my case turned out to be the history of a book, and a biography, too, and a work of detection. It’s subtitled : ‘William Tyndale, Thomas More, and the bloody birth of the English Bible’. The book is Brian Moynahan’s Book of Fire [Abacus 2002]. I mentioned to my mate Keith Hutson (a guest poet on the Cobweb in February 2015) that I’d read Fanthorpe’s  poem, and Keith immediately lent me Moynahan’s book. Which is now bristling with post-it notelets, and waiting for me to transcribe all sorts of quotations and snippets from it….although I haven’t got round to that, because I’m skimming through Hilary Mantel again, finding out what she wrote about Thomas More, and (she’s sure)Thomas Cromwell’s enthusiasm for a vernacular Bible. And at some point I’ll be back with Fanthorpe’s poem, marvelling at the way  she lets you know that what you’re reading is the essence and the truth of a hugely complex and contested tale. I know it will be provisional and I will change, and maybe one day the poem will seem less true. But I hope not. What I do know is that I now know a lot of stuff I didn’t know before I read about the Friday sparrow, and I now I’m writing about it. Not poems that need to be written. But later, maybe. They’ll say if and when they’re ready.

sula sgeir 3

Or maybe you start here…not with a poem, but with the glimmering of an idea. Maybe something you didn’t know you’d noticed at the time, but which comes back and surprises you. I’ve written before how I need workshops to generate that kind of surprise; I know I can’t consciously sit down to find stuff out to make into poems. I know, because I wasted months trying to do that with a 19thC painter. But here’s an illustration of what I mean. I wrote a poem recently from a workshop draft. Here’s just a bit of it: I wondered of the Celtic saints of the Outer Islands

if they knew that gulls and fulmars

would nest in the cloister of their ribs.

I had an idea where that had come from, because it certainly wasn’t mine. I tracked it down to Macfarlane’s The old ways and his journey to Sula Sgeir in a small boat. Something I have never done, will never do. I know that Macfarlane had taken me back to Adam Nicholson’s Sea Room, where I’d been led by reading Kathleen Jamie, who also took me to books about St Kilda and the Greater Blaskett…and so on. Sea-girt mountain tops, puffins, gannets, bird migration, white-tailed eagles, nests in the ribcage of a saint. He’ll do that for me, Macfarlane. I don’t know if it’s plagiarism…I know that some of his phrasing lodges in my word-hoard and sort of roots itself there. Like this from another poem about a burial cairn on Bheinn na Caillich on Skye

because their oceans were swanspaths, whaleroads.

because they wrote their maps in the wind,

the whole idea is lifted from Macfarlane. I know, because I knew I hadn’t invented it, so I tracked it down. I didn’t take his words. But I had to write my words to understand what he meant, so I could tell you how the idea excited me. Does that make sense?



Before I started this bit of the cobweb, I scribbled a list of the stuff that was hanging about waiting to be read, or re-read. The stuff with post-it notelets stuck in it. William Tyndale, British mining disasters, a journey through the English moorlands, A sky full of birds by Matt Merritt, Antarctica (including the remastered films: South (Shackleton) and Scott of the Antarctic, David Wilson’s new pamphlet: Slope [smith/doorstop 2016]. Tectonic plates. Coal measures and the Jurassic. The building of the Himalaya.

I know that at least a bit of that comes from a poetry reading at the Red Shed months ago when the Agbrigg Poets performed a sequence about the Lofthouse Colliery disaster …which was only a couple of miles from where I live, but might as well have been on the moon. And I know that as a result of that, I’ve been finding out about Onibasha. And I can’t make myself write about any of it. It needs to settle into my thinking, become something I don’t know that I know, and wait for it to be surprised into a shape I can share.

Now, I need to make it clear that I don’t think that ‘research’ is the answer to everything. I confess that I’m drawn to poems that announce themselves as knowledgeable rather than (just) elegantly lyrical. Writers like Steve Ely, Ian Duhig, Christy Ducker, Pascal Petit, Julie Mellor. I’m looking forward to the postman bringing me Helen Mort’s new collection which grows out of her research into pioneering women rockclimbers and mountaineers. But I also think that for myself I’m particularly taken by the way ‘research’ can throw a bright, unnerving, illuminating light on what you thought you knew. Childhood, parenting, a parent’s death, or the death of a relationship.

I’ll remind my self of what Helen Mort said:

Ideally, writers are on the outside, looking in

I think you have to become an outsider looking in on your own life. You think you know it, but you don’t, because it’s too near to see.

I know that it was only by reading and re-reading versions of the Greek myths that I became able to write about the death of a son in a way that didn’t exclude other readers. I’ll stick my neck out, and guess that it wasn’t until she’d been absorbed into the ‘Metamorphoses’ of Ovid that Kim Moore became able to write the poems about domestic abuse and violence in the way that stops me in my tracks. I’m biased…I think these poems are the powerful heart of ‘ The art of falling’. Like I say, I’m sticking my neck out. Tell me if you disagree. I really would like to know.

I was going to go on to write about the way the process can go wrong, and how you can find yourself writing what are essentially lies. But I realise I’ve rambled, and there’s enough in that for whole post of its own.

But just a cautionary note. If you have a project that excites you, be careful who you share your enthusiasm with. Maybe you’ll want to keep it to yourself. Because a poet I love shared her project with someone who went off with it, and used it, and reaped great reward thereby. For me, if you want to write about tectonic plates or Shackleton, go ahead. I don’t know enough about them. Yet.




Filed under Uncategorized

Polished gems revisited: Julia Deakin

carel weight 3

I once promised a Scots friend of mine (and a great folk singer and mandolin player) that I’d write him a song about Culloden, to the tune (and stanza structure) of ‘The tinkerman’s daughter’. And I did, but he had to wait ten years. It’s not been quite as long as that, but it’s been at least 18 months since I said, in a car on the way to the Poetry Business Saturday Workshop: ‘ if no-one else seems to be doing it,I’ll write a review of your poems, Julia.’

I wrote this two years ago, [ Dark Watcher July 2014 ] when I’d not long started this cobweb-weaving business and had never written any kind of a review. So it’s really nice to be back, feeling a tiny bit more confident, to see what’s been happening since. A bit of context, first, though.

Julia Deakin and I taught together in the 1980s in the English Dept at Boston Spa Comprehensive School, along with two othe Cobweb Alumni, Yvie Holder and Roy Cockcroft. Yvie came to update us recently.We’ll be having a visit from Roy in September…look out for that.

Julia is one of my inspirations. Ever since she gave me a copy of her first pamphlet – ‘Picasso’s Child’, I was hooked on the idea that one day I’d do that. And I’ve watched lots of her poems emerge at the Poetry Business, in that trademark, precisely provisional pencil, with minute, exact annotations, and the neatest crossings-out the imagination can deal with. And then later seen them in her two collections. I wanted to be like that, too. In collections, that is. Not in pencil. And certainly not provisional.

Dark watcher? why? I think  that I came across this haunting phrase sometime in the 70s; I think it was in an article by Geoff Fox in Children’s literature in education…maybe about A wizard of Earthsea. It’s phrase that a 12 year old girl used to describe herself as a reader …. a sort of hidden, secret eavesdropper on, and fascinated observer of, other lives. Not sinister, but, simultaneously, emotionally involved and moved and engaged, and distanced and disengaged. It makes me think of Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden who observes because she’s basically left out, curiously detached, rueful, and occasionally cross. That’s  how I see Julia as a poet. A dark watcher. Not always dark, but often. I often look for analogies in art to explain a poet’s work.

When I read Julia’s poetry I’m reminded of the work of Carel Weight, who was deeply unfashionable in the 1960s, but who my art teacher loved, and made sure that I thought I did too. The headline picture is his, as is this one.

carel weight 4

There’s always something very precisely and obliquely and slightly disturbingly observed in Weight’s images; they have puzzling subtexts,  and I think that a lot of Julia Deakin’s poems have this quality, too. And sometimes she can be like Lowry. And sometimes, Beryl Cook. She can be very funny, and very tender by turns. So I couldn’t be happier to have her coming back to the cobweb and telling me and you what’s been going on in the last two years and a bit. Big hand, please, for Julia Deakin…

“Go, litel blog

I appreciate John’s review – if you haven’t read it, please do. There have been others, notably Sally Baker’s in The North 51, also much appreciated. All have been generous, but none deeper or more engaged. A certain amount of personal knowledge perhaps makes his focus more autobiographical than I’d like but no matter – go litel book, and all that.

The pencil is provisional but also tactile: I like the sight of wood, the friction of graphite on paper, the sharpening ritual and much more – aptly summed up in Grevel Lindop’s ‘Pencil’ (Luna Park, Carcanet 2015).

Choose a poem for us to revisit.

(I asked all my revisited gems to choose a poem to revisit…I actually meant one of theirs, but it got interpreted in different ways; for instance, Simon Zonenblick chose to revisit Thom Gunn. Julia generously took two options)

Writing just after Jo Cox’s murder and before the fateful Referendum, Benjamin Zephaniah’s ‘To do wid me’ (YouTube) and Derek Walcott’s ‘Love after love’ (Collected Poems, 1989) seemed and still seem to sum up the artist’s dilemma of how to relate both to the world and to oneself. Now, post June 24th, Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘One Art’ comes to mind:

‘I lost two cities, lovely ones, And, vaster,

some realms I owned, two cities, a continent.’

‘It wasn’t a disaster’ she says, unconvincingly.

Also apt are Auden’s ‘A Bride in the Thirties’ (‘Easily, my dear, you move your head…) and Yeats’ ‘Easter 1916’ (‘All changed, changed utterly.’) If poetry makes nothing happen, good. Far too much has happened.

If you mean a poem of mine, ‘Checkpoint’ (YouTube; Without a Dog p19) deals with the humanitarian issue of migration – although my conscious focus when starting it was the heritage industry.

(I’m delighted that Julia picked this poem. I heard her workshop it when the Poetry Business was still up in the roof of the Byram Arcade in Huddersfield. I’d just seen the film ‘The Golden Door’ (with the amazing Charlotte Gainsberg)…Sicilian emigrants and Ellis Island. And I’d just read Annie Proulx’s Accordion Crimes. So I was all primed to be blown away by the rhetorical force of this image-packed wonderful poem. It’s even more relevant today).



We come from hell. A history of short measures, rough justice,

public executions. Rules of thumb. From backs bent in fields,

mines and furnaces, we walked miles in rags through becks

clogged with debris, hitching lifts on carts down rutted tracks

or shut for days in cramped, smoky carriages on splintered slats

with cocky strangers leering legally,

to cities ruled by horses

in the hands of drunks, the sound of klaxons, screeching,

oaths and tolling bells obscuring backstreet screams of birth,

crude amputations, barber dentists, TB wheezing up the stairs,

spit and spittoons everywhere, cataracts and goitres rampant,

fingers green with nicotine and ink, the tang of coins fished

from gutters, rivers heaving with the dead. Rain and slime

between our toes came with us into dim rooms close with soot

and sulphur, clogging nostrils picked for smuts flicked into rugs

thick with grit, chairs with dust and hair oil, privies cold

and wet or fetid, just vacated, hands from here unwashed

to hack food with a penknife used for fingernails and hooves

in kitchens home to cats, dogs, beetles, maggots, grubs in fruit

and slugs in greens at tables wiped with cloths boiled with kerchiefs,

bandages and nappies brought from bedrooms shared with mice,

bedbugs, nitcombs, pisspots, plaster peeling onto damp bolsters,

clammy sheets and memories of leeches, layings-out and wakes,

clothes seamed with sweat heaped souring in moth-filled closets

next to pictures over mould and trapped birds in chimney breasts

and hard soap scum in aluminium tubs of cooling water

fanned by draughts from grey net at the streaming windows,

springtails in the rotten frames and in the attic, books and papers

pulverised, riddled rafters, wasps’ nests, pigeon lime.


We’re here now. Gated, lighted. Vaccinated, regulated.

Vacuumed, smokeless, enzyme clean. It’s been

so long, like centuries.


Everything stank. Tanneries and pits and breath.

This is the past. Do not turn us back.


[Read it aloud. Shout it. Whatever you do, don’t just look at it on the page and imagine you can hear it. Right..back to Julia…I ask for an update. Wow!]

What have you been up to?

Until last August I taught English Literature at Bradford University, which took most of my time and energy. As well as teaching, I was considering doing a PhD. But did anyone move me enough to pick over their entrails for three years? Was there any clear question I could spend 65,000 words answering? What about the creative writing ‘route’? Could I write an extended commentary on work in progress without compromising that work? Two years and some synopses later I still don’t know.

Meanwhile, I began writing up every poem I had ever received in a workshop. Last month – 70,000 words and 319 poems later – I finished. It’s been a useful exercise, perhaps bloggable, if not publishable, but is just between me and my workbook. I comment on each poem’s structure, form and subject, what they do to me or for me, what writing it might have sparked, sometimes adding biographical notes if they seem to help. In workshops I read superficially and miss so much, and in recent years I have attended fewer because after a while the same context can trigger the same memories. From the start many of my poems, while usefully trialled at workshops, were written outside them – unglamorously, at home, at my desk.

I haven’t yet found the best arrangement of paper, keyboard and mouse there though, and don’t like sitting long at a screen, so aim for at least one computer-free and one car-free day a week. I walk – last year I re-walked the whole of the Stanza Stones trail – and ice skate….. three days a week I set off for the Bradford rink at 6.45. My participation in a Christmas show we rehearse from May, with colleagues mostly in their fifties, is a big deal for a non-sporty type like me.


Driving to Bradford, and on various walks, I have been learning bird song, from Simon Barnes’ inspirational Birdwatching with your eyes closed (Short Books, 2011) and from assorted CDs, to extend my auditory frame of reference. I can now identify quite a few birds from CDs, where they all obligingly sing in aphabetical order.

More assured and, hopefully, poetic performances have included – with John Hegley and others – George’s Jamboree, in Oxford; with Anne Caldwell at Puzzle Hall; with Gaia Holmes at Rastrick Library; with Carole Bromley, Antony Dunn and others at East Cottingwith; with the Pennine Poets in York; the Bridport Prize Awards; with Grey Hen Poets in Preston; with Tom Weir at Writers in The Bath; with John Duffy, Mark Hinchliffe and Carola Luther at The Albert Poets; at Honley Library on my own (well not quite – there was an audience); and with Adam Strickson and others for Holocaust Memorial Day in Huddersfield. Sadly I had to miss the London Troubadour Prizegiving.

What have you published since we last met?

In the past two years new poems have appeared in The North 53, two Beehive Poets anthologies (Bee Five and Beehive Poets 2015), Pennine Platform 73, Riptide 9, The Bridport Prize Anthology 2015, Beaumont Park Anthology, the Leads to Leeds website, the Troubadour website, and I’m waiting to hear about two more on a shortlist. All will be in my new collection if I can find a publisher.

Published poems have been anthologised in U. A. Fanthorpe’s Memorial Anthology, The Book of Love and Loss (a sumptuous cloth-bound hardback edited by Fanthorpe’s partner R.V. Bailey, and June Hall); Three Grey Hen anthologies (Colours, Seasons and Extraordinary Forms), Fifty:Fifty (the latest Pennine Poets Anthology) and possibly others I can’t remember, having lost my record-keeping chart when I moved office.

Finally it’s an odd claim to fame but ‘Codicil’ (The Half-Mile High Club, p19) has been read at several funerals including Lynda Bellingham’s in November 2014.


Knowing how few competitions I’ve entered during this time, I’m chuffed that ‘Hope’ was highly commended in the Troubadour 2015, ‘Elizabeth I at Fourteen’ was one of five highly commendeds in The Plough 2015, ‘1973’ was commended in York Mix 2014 and ‘How can I tell if the bluebells in my garden are Spanish?’ won Third Prize in the Bridport 2015.

What have you been reading?

Every new year I start to keep a record and after a week I stop, but what stands out include biographies of Larkin, Thomas (Dylan), Eliot and Hughes; Memoirs of an Old Balloonatic by my Great Uncle about his WW1 service, including his harrowing amputation in a field hospital; Celtic Fringe by my one-time copywriting colleague Di Reed; ‘The Narrow Cut’ by my former university Head of Department Ken Smith – both well-crafted page-turners; lots of great library books I’ve forgotten; Don Paterson’s breezily refreshing ‘Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets’, and many stonking poetry collections.

A trip to Budapest in 2015 led me to explore Hungarian poets Attila Jósef, Miklos Radnóty, János Pilinszky, Agnes Nemes Nágy, and Sándor Weöres, none of which I can pronounce but whose work in translation is awe-inspiring. Nágy’s essays on poetics I find particularly remarkable, and would give you a reference if that too hadn’t disappeared between offices.

I’ve also been catching up on unread poetry magazines. I subscribe to Poetry London, The North, The Rialto, Pennine Platform and Poetry News. When I was working I hadn’t time to read or even to open these for several days. I’d glance through for familiar names then shelve them for some unimaginable future leisure. Later I might skim through in search of themes for a workshop, but now I’m reading carefully for everything from wisdom to inspiration.

Lastly, in order to sort 30 years of photographs, I have been reading my own diaries, kept almost daily, with a lapse last year, since 1962. Here’s my seventh birthday, and – as Ms Bronte-mad Teenager 1972 – my sixteenth.

This year I started re-reading them. It’s a strangely consolatory experience, re-claiming the day-to-day minutiae and cataclysms of one’s past life, which I hope will result in new poems.

[It makes me hugely happy to be able to share that image of the handwriting that’s fascinated me for years and years. And then I ask:]

Can I have a new poem that you’re happy to share.

Julia replies: From my North Staffordshire years…

Windy Harbour


Windy Arbour, three mile on

afore Water’ouses, tinna much of a harbour

or farther from water, nout there


but crossroads, signpost

an’ boarded-up Green Man

long-gone fetched up at,


hooked up, split lips, trees

upped sticks an’ nout nah whimpers

but wind. Yer canna go wrong.


Julia…thanks for coming back, thanks for Checkpoint, thanks for the update, thanks for the memories. You can’t go wrong.


Julia’s books/pamphlets : Without a Dog has now had a second reprint, so both this and Eleven Wonders are available from graftpoetry.co.uk at the fashionably retro prices of £6.95 and £7.95 respectively. Pence-per-poem, you won’t get better value. The Half-Mile-High Club is still available from poetrybusiness.co.uk and there’s a CD, £7 direct from Julia.

A warning. Next week brings no entertaining guest. You will need to have pencil and paper at hand. You will be expected to take notes.


Filed under Uncategorized

Bright star: remembering Gordon Hodgeon

the great fogginzo's cobweb

Yesterday I heard that my friend Gordon Hodgeon had died in the early hours. He was one of the loveliest people I ever met. I wrote this appreciation of  him (and his poetry) over a year ago.


In 1982 I was invited to be a visiting tutor on a weekend residential  course, in Goathland, for Teesside teachers of English. Talented teachers working in their own time, because they were excited by the possibilities of what children could learn and do. It happened quite a lot in those days. One of my newly-acquired enthusiasms then was for developing writing through the retelling of myth and fable. The books that inspired me were Betty Rosen’s And none of it was nonsense, Alan Garner’s The stone book, and a remarkable piece of work by Penelope Farmer:  Beginnings. Spare prose outlines of creation myths from around the world.

On one of the…

View original post 2,372 more words


Filed under Uncategorized

A midweek special. Alice, Lewis Carroll, and Mr Ruskin

Monday night is Albert Poets workshop night…unless it’s the first Monday of the month, in which case it’s Puzzle Poets at the Blind Pig…. and one of the delights is that you never know what will turn up. Last week, Stephanie Bowgett, (who is one of the Albert’s founder members, who will ere long be published by Calder Valley Poetry, and shortly after that will be A Polished Gem on the cobweb, and who invariably brings poems that surprise and stick in the mind) brought along a poem that was too long to workshop. So she read it, and I instantly wanted to share it with everyone I knew. There’s a lot of things in ‘Alice in wonderland’ and ‘Through the looking glass’ that unnerve and disturb, and even more in the story of Alice Liddell. Which I think this poem captures in the imagined voice of both Alices. And here it is.

QUEEN peter blake



It’s a poor kind of memory that only works backwards


I wake exhausted. I’ve painted

the whole night, painted

out the mistakes with rose-red paint;

a hundred wet kisses, my face, my tummy,

that brazen promise of breasts

all disappear under the brush.

This quadrille is red, red as a lobster.

Will you, won’t you-  will you won’t you-

w-won’t you join the dance?


Mr Ruskin took tea with me

one January day. Papa and the Red Queen

were dining out.  I’d sent him a note

(what a forward minx I was!) We were

toasting muffins before the fire when

they returned early; unexpected

snowfall had blocked their route.

In his journal, Mr Ruskin recorded it thus:

 a sudden sense

 of some stars having been

 blown out in the wind.

I have always thought Mr Ruskin

handsomer than the Dodo.


We wait on the shingle, the Dodo and I.

There he is with his Gladstone bag,

his crooked smile. I’ve taken off

my black button shoes, the straps cut

into my ankles so; my white lisle stockings

are in his pocket. He stutters

a stream of sand over my legs.

Abracadabra! From his bag

a safety pin. He always carries pins

to hitch the skirts of little girls

up out of the spray. I paddle.

He watches with his uneven eyes.


The books discover me. The Red Queen

Sweeps in one morning, demands

the Dodo’s letters. And those photos he took

the day he fashioned a mouse

from my handkerchief: a mouse

with a long and sad tale, lace ears.


I ride my blue skirt,

tumble slowly

through thick air, sour

smell of worms. Broken

finger nails scrabble;

passing roots clutch

at my hair – it is grown long

and yellow as fever.

alice 4




If you fall asleep in the noonday sun

you must expect nothing

will be as it was

when you wake again.


I woke on the riverbank

reinvented. Bleached, banded,

I was everyone’s favourite blonde;

zebra ankles crossed

with the syntax of an Oxford don.

Curiouser and curioser


Someone hangs his grin in a tree.

alice 6



I hold up my hands.

I can’t pass a bottle

without taking a swig. The cards

are stacked against me.


And if I hold up the glass

the words will all

go the right way again.

 (I sing)

alice 7


In the glass

I see me


in freckles.

I try lemon juice

but I am peeling.

Pearly flakes

come away

in my hands

like honesty.






( A note: I’ve had problems with the lineation, and the only way I could stop this being all left-justified was to faff about with a snipping tool to turn bits of text into jpegs that I could set where I wanted. It should all be in one font. Forgive me. I should read Josephine Corcoran’s blog posts more assiduously)










Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Our Islands’ Stories and a Polished Gem: Stephanie Conn

island 4

Maybe this is where it all started, the business of islands and their stories, and, eventually, by circuitous routes to the revisionist histories of writers like E.P.Thompson, Hobbsbaum, John Prebble; books like The long march of everyman; Charles Parker’s Radio ballads, and poets like Tony Harrison, and then all the way back to broadsheet ballads and the skewed histories of folksong.

But it started here, at the age of 8, when I saved and saved the prince’s ransom of 8s6d, and bought my copy of H E Marshall’s history of England (and subsequently, Scotland’s Story). The book ends with The Great War of which Marshall writes :I shall not write much at all. And doesn’t. The Victorian Age is occupied by the Crimean War, the sieges of Delhi and Lucknow, Lord Franklin, the Boer war, the settlement of Australia and new Zealand. Of the Industrial Revolution that created the streets I grew up in there is not a whisper.

This worried me not at all, because I lost interest round about the tale of Flora Macdonald and George the First…when kings stopped looking and behaving like this.

island 3

or like this


Our island’s story was the story of kings who were glamorous and bellicose, who burned cakes, and who made fields of cloths of gold and beat the Spanish and the French and went to their deaths on the scaffold with becoming dignity and gravitas. Above all, they were colourful and dramatic, and you could spend hours copying the colour plates that were the real joy of Marshall’s book. Who’d want to copy a picture of a man in a suit? For all that, the idea that islands and stories were indissolubly wedded was formed here, and reinforced forever by Robinson Crusoe, and The Swiss family Robinson and Treasure island.

Keen-eyed followers of the cobweb will have spotted straight away that this is the third post in a row (indeed, in 9 days)  ‘about’ islands, or an island. These things happen.Last week’s guest, Gaia Holmes’ poems were set in the Orkneys, and a couple of days before that, three of my own about Skye. It wasn’t love at first sight with Skye, where I went for the first time about 30 years ago. In fact, I thought I didn’t like it. It took too long to get there. Everything seemed to be brown unwalkable moorland and rain, and any shop was miles and miles away. But something must have stuck. Maybe it was the one clear October day when we drove along the stretch of road from Ord to Achnacloich and there was the amazing panorama of the whole of the Cuillin with snow on the tops, and a sea as blue as flowers.

Whatever. Somehow I was lost. We kept going back, and I learned, by walking, more and more of the south of the island. How to learn to use deer and sheep tracks. How to see the weather before it reached you, how to walk in boggy land. How to deeply distrust all Scots walkers’ guide book for their terse understatements, the way they say things like: the footpath peters out after a mile or so but the way ahead is never in doubt. Leaving you lost in a corrie 2000 feet up.

I started to collect the literature and poetry of small islands, the histories of dispossession and uprooting; writers like Kathleen Jamie, Robert Macfarlane and Adam Nicholson. Also, painters of wild shorelines like Len Tabner and the wonderful Norman Ackroyd.

I started to learn the stories of abandoned settlements, and of individual ruined crofts, say, at Inverdalavil, or Boreraig, or Suishnish, or Leitr Fura. How some were cleared by forced eviction, and some by sheer poverty and emigrations, or by the need to live where the children could go to school. I started to read about it, and eventually learned that I was romanticising it all – no less than the National Trust/ Clan Donald guides at Dunvegan Castle with their kilts and tartan and Flora Macdonald – and knew less than nothing. I went looking for ghosts among the stones, when what I needed to do was to ask questions and listen to the people who actually lived there. I learned that when I was telling my friend Effie how we’d walked to Dalavil, how we’d sheltered from a storm in a ruin of a croft near the shore.

” Ah yes. Well, Lachlan that was my uncle.

He was born in there. Yon house. Says Effie.

Oh, but it was years ago.”


And that put me in my place. In more ways than one. Islands, abandonment, the misappropriations of history. The business of putting the record straight.

island 5

That’s the stuff of today’s cobweb strand. And one more thing. Our last two guest poets (as opposed to gems revisited) have been Irish poets. From the North. Which brings us to today and a poet from Northern Ireland who writes about islands that once were populated and now are not. So, without further ado, it’s my delight and pleasure to introduce Stephanie Conn. Actually, she’ll introduce herself:

“Well, here I am approaching forty and embracing that old favourite Life begins…!

Thirty-nine has been good to me. I launched my debut collection, ‘The Woman on the Other Side’ with Doire Press in March 2016 and in an unexpected turn of events, having been selected by Billy Collins (what a thrill!) as one of the winners of the Poetry Business Pamphlet Competition, three months later I launched my pamphlet, ‘Copeland’s Daughter’.

Now that I’ve told you my age, I can admit to being born in 1976, in the market town of Newtownards in Northern Ireland. After school I attended Stranmillis Teacher Training College, Belfast and studied English Literature as my main subject. Following graduation I started my teaching career in 1999.

My twenties were spent teaching, developing the literacy programme Passport to Poetry,facilitating creative writing workshops in schools and being mum to two daughters. In my early thirties I began writing more regularly. I tried carving out writing time, joined a writers’ group and began submitting poems to journals and magazines. I received encouragement and decided to apply to the Masters Programme at the Seamus Heaney Centre at Queen’s University, Belfast. Between 2010 and 2013, I completed a part-time MA in Creative Writing under the tuition of Ciaran Carson, Medbh McGuckian, Leontia Flynn and Sinead Morrissey.

During this period, my poems were being published more regularly and I submitted work to poetry competitions. In 2012, I was shortlisted for the Patrick Kavanagh Award and highly commended in the Doire Press Poetry Chapbook and Mslexia Poetry Pamphlet competitions. It was extremely encouraging to learn that the work was connecting with others. The following year I was selected for Poetry Ireland’s Introductions Series.

I was hooked but by the time I completed my MA, I was back teaching four days a week and due to return to a full-time position in the next academic year. My writing was going to have to take a back seat for a while – or so I thought. I became ill, was unable to teach and spent the following year having assessments, tests and scans in a bid to determine what was causing my symptoms. I was eventually diagnosed with Fibromyalgia. Medication helped but the life I had known was gone and I felt stripped of my identity. There were so many things I could no longer do but I could still write and now I had the chance to commit fully to it.

I started working on new poems and began to arrange a full manuscript. I then submitted ‘The Woman on the Other Side’ to Doire Press and was thrilled when they accepted the collection. In 2015, as well as being highly commended in the Gregory O’Donoghue Poetry Competition and coming third in the Dromineer Poetry Competition, I won the Yeovil Poetry Prize, the Funeral Services NI Poetry Prize and the inaugural Seamus Heaney Award for New Writing.

By the time Doire Press had decided to publish ‘The Woman on the Other Side’, I was already busy with new work. I received an Artists Career Enhancement Award from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland to research and begin writing my second collection, inspired by my ancestors who lived on a small island in the Irish Sea. I submitted a selection of these new poems to the Poetry Business competition.

The last few months have been spent giving readings and facilitating workshops, and I’m looking forward to taking part in a few local literary festivals, before heading to the other side of the world for the Tasmania Poetry Festival in the autumn.

island 6

There’s a c.v. to make you sit up!  I met Stephanie for the first time in Grasmere a month or so ago, at the Worsworth Trust… the prize-giving ceremony for the Poetry Business Pamphlet competition winners. She read from her pamphlet Copeland’s daughter, and blew me away. The Copelands are a small group of islands of the coast of Northern Ireland, and the poems tell tell the story of her ancestors who lived and farmed and fished there, until they were forced to leave, like so many who have struggled on poor land and in hard weathers, like the ones forced from Mingulay, from the Blasketts, the Shiants, St Kilda. So many. But you can see how these poems ticked so many boxes for me. And she reads with a passion, and a clarity. I was sold from the very first poem: The first lighthouse…Cross Island 1714.   A lighthouse in ‘these twenty acres’ that ‘never did attract the sun’

‘three storeys of island-quarried stone, picked

and carried on the convicts’ backs.

They built the wall two metres thick’

Billy Collins wrote of this poem: “The First Lighthouse” should be read in every classroom. I know what he means. It has the same kind of heft that I love in Christy Ducker’s work…coincidentally, in Skipper,  the core of which is a sequence about poems about small islands , The Farnes, and the story of their lighthouse, and of Grace Darling.

Of Stephanie’s writing Collins says  :

Precise description rendered in physical language lifts these poems off the page and into the sensory ken of the reader.

Well. Yes! And there we are, language that places the reader in this place of punitive hard graft, unrelenting weathers and unyielding material.

And a place, as you see from the photograph, capable of great beauty, which Stephanie celebrates in this lovely collection. She sent me two poems that will give you a taste for it. Promise.



We are cut off from the mainland again;

a pile of unopened letters sits in Donaghadee;

there is flour and salt and treacle in the grocer’s,

bags of coal and paraffin to fill the empty tins,

but the boat keeps close to the harbour wall.


Tide in, tide out and the beam of light,

and a distant moon – waxing and waning.


Still, the bread is baked and the butter churned,

the blocken cured and the rabbits trapped,

mussels are plucked from the island pools

and pickled in jars on larder shelves.

The firewood and driftwood is stacked.


Tide in, tide out and the beam of light,

and a distant moon – waxing and waning.


Inside the lamps are lit and curtains pulled,

while out at sea, the wind and waves confront

each other in torrents of eddies and pools

and the gulls circling above the spume

could be vultures in the thick sea-mist.


Tide in, tide out and the beam of light,

and a distant moon – waxing and waning.


But we know what the darkness brings;

it drags us from sleep into nightmare, lost in fog

we’ll be struck by ship after floundering ship;

forced into the driving rain, where muffled voices call

from their wreck. We’ll run to the shore to save all we can.


Tide in, tide out and the beam of light,

and a distant moon – waxing and waning.


In a place such as this, we are used to the ghosts,

but not to their dying; never to the bodies of young men

washed up on the shore, with their puffed up faces

and gaping sockets where the eyes should be; or the tiny crab

emerging from a silenced mouth to scurry, ever sideways.


What I really like about this is the side-by-side-ness of the routine management of household comforts, the self-sufficiencies when the boat can’t come from the mainland, the security of a storm bound house….and the way the ghosts of the drowned will find their way in, one way or another. For me, the poem turns on one plain observation that make me re-evaluate everything I’ve just read.

In a place such as this, we are used to the ghosts,

but not to their dying

It has such resonance. I understand those kinds of ghost, how we are rooted in our pasts and histories. That’s the first poem of the pamphlet, and this one is the last.

August 25th


A good day for starting out, or so it seemed

to the Royal Society who sent Cook sailing


off into the Atlantic, round Cape Horn, journeying

westwards to Tahiti to record the Transit of Venus.


And Webb agreed; diving off Admiralty Pier,

smeared in porpoise oil, to swim the Channel;


keeping his stroke steady, despite the jellyfish stings,

the churning currents off Cap Gris Nez, to Calais.


A bride’s dress rests below the collar bone,

covers pale skin, tightens at the waist.


The gladioli stems are wrapped in green satin

to draw out the glint of peridot at her neck.


A gold band placed on her steady finger

is loose enough to pass over the knuckle.


She will search out the star-maiden in the sky,

follow a small black disc across the moon’s face.


Gallileo offers up his newly ground lenses.

The lawmakers ascend the city belltowers,


lift the telescope to their eyes to see the sails

of distant ships, distinct and impossibly close.


Voyager 2 draws as close as it has ever been

to Saturn’s rings of ice-particles and dust,


ammonia crystals create a pale yellow glow

in the dark space where sixty-two moons orbit.


Her great-grandchild wears crushed silk,

exposing sun-blushed skin, thin wrists.


The gaping heads of lilac poppies

lie against her trussed up breasts.


There is an exchange of white-gold rings.

Her body is cloaked in sweat and trembling.


The black sky shines with a thousand 

stars that burned out years ago.   


As you read through the pamphlet (and you really must), you live through the   day-to-day histories of Stephanie’s people, the generations who worked the Copelands, apparently contained in a small tight world. But all the sea and sky are beyond, and this poem explodes outwards into a barely charted universe that offers no answers or direction. The bride is a voyager. I think it’s stunning .

So thank you, Stephanie Conn, for being our guest today. Go well and be well. Tasmania! Half a world away. Read them this last poem. I think that would be fitting.

Next week brings no islands, and indeed, no Irish poets. But we’ll be revisiting one of my very first guests, and I’m really looking forward to it. In the meantime, get your chequebooks out, or head to the Paypal icon. You really have to buy these two books.

books and prices









Filed under Uncategorized

Alchemies and islands. And a gem revisited : Gaia Holmes


I suspect that when people think (or, in my case, dream) of Scottish islands they have in mind extravagantly sheer cliffs, loud with gannets and fulmars, out in the wild Atlantic. Or the Gothic fretted ridge of the Cuillin. A dusting of snow on Jura. I know less than nothing about the islands of the North East, and of Orkney, unless its an image of the angular stones of Callanish. I just know they’re not my place, without mountains, low-lying. There’d be no place to hide from the weather, from the implacable winds, from yourself, or your neighbours. Places like Shapinsay.

shaping up2

Shapinsay is where Gaia Holmes has been travelling to in the last year or so. You can probably get to Australia more quickly than you can get to Shapinsay from Halifax.She wrote this about it. It needs no commentary from me.

December: Shapinsay, Orkney

 Now the nights

are thick and heavy.

They leave their indentations

on our thinning days.


With no trees

to chaperone the darkness

they are wild, brutal,

seething with stars.


They bruise the windows

and kerb-stones of Balfour,

do not knock

before they enter

our houses,

outstay the welcome

of our winter fires.


Gaia’s dad died recently. Gaia, her mother, her brothers, would travel there to care for him in his last months. Her dad was a potter, a man who worked with fire and clay and glazes to create magic raku pieces. A man who lived in a great barn of a place.


Impossible to warm I should have thought, no matter how often he fired a kiln. When Gaia was our guest on the cobweb last year she was dealing with the business of cold, of distance and the absolutes of dying. At the time, I wrote this about her :

“Whenever I read Gaia Holmes’ poems, or hear her read, I’m put in mind of the world and work of Peter Blake. To nail my colours to the mast, his image of Alice is how I’d picture Gaia’s narrative voice. Not quite other-worldly, but knowing things I have no immediate access to, and aware that the world is strange and lovely and that it can make us vulnerable. It’s a voice that makes me think of the doughty, unworldly, resourceful, compassionate clear-eyed heroines of folk tales. The ones who have no expectation of the kindness of  stepmothers and stepfathers and spiteful siblings, who are stoic about their work among the ashes, who undertake unnerving journeys through forests to the hen’s leg houses of cruel aunts, who understand that everything you are given is a gift to be used for the betterment of the world….all that.”

I wrote about:

“poems that keep going off in your head…. like those fireworks that explode like a huge dandelion clock, then keep going with crackles and little furnace sparks and bits of windscreen glass and buttons and pins”

I could add: I also like the strange alchemical changes of raku pots, and the way they go on changing, enriching themselves. I know of one raku potter who fires  pieces that he will put in a steep-cut stream bed for a year or more; pieces with metals, glass and resins in the clay. They are made by the magic of water and fire.


Over ten years ago, Gaia wrote this poem for her dad. Only the dedication’s changed. That seems very poignant to me. It’s a strange thing to write that valedictory dedication for one you love. Believe me.


The Alchemist

In memory of David Holmes



Curved over the wheel

chunks of clay changed

to delicate brown lilies

and grew out of the coil

of his hands;

blunt fingers coaxed

stalks into vases.


Bowls went into the kiln

coated in coarse white paste

and came out glowing;

he left them crackling

and cooling on the lawn.

In the morning

they had turned into jewels

gleaming like huge beetles

against the shaved grass.


He was always pale

and ghosted with clay;

smelling of wood-smoke and porcelain,

beads of white china

hardened and hung like pearls

in his ginger beard.


Sometimes I’d play

whilst he spun and molded;

make earthenware cakes,

slice them like fudge

with the cheese wire

and when I’d finished

he’d shape his hands into a bowl

I’d rinse my fists in them

until the water turned to milk

and dripped through his fingers.


At Christmas

his gifts come to me

packed in gold curls of sawdust;

wisps of Raku smoke

cling to dishes

glazed with ox-blood-red

and lapis-lazuli.


And as the urban breeze

stalks and rattles my street,

his wheel hums and whirrs

over the roar of Shapinsay winds.

He baptizes fire

with brine.


From Dr James Graham’s Celestial Bed (Comma Press, 2006)


‘Huge beetles’  Think of the irridescence of the carapace of a beetle, those liquid metallic blues and greens. Raku glazes. I love this poem and the love in it. The exact rightness of ‘fudge’…which has weight and the texture and tactility of clay, and a child’s understanding of what she likes. try this poem on the tongue, listen to it and linger on the ‘moment’ when fire’s baptized with brine. It’s a treasure house is this poem. She does that.

(It occurs to me that if this is your visit to the cobweb I would be remiss if I didn’t introduce you. Mea culpa. Have a read of this, and then, if you wish, check out more of Gaia’s work in a post from September 2015:

As well as being a familiar face on the local poetry scene, Gaia Holmes is also known nationally. She has read at literary festivals throughout Britain and beyond. Her poem ‘Claustrophobia’ was highly commended in the ‘best individual poem’ category of the Forward Poetry Prize, 2007 and ‘A homesick truckie In The Algarve’ was the featured poem in Frieda Hughes’ weekly literary column in ‘The Times’ (May 2007). Currently she runs the Halifax-based writing workshop ‘Igniting the spark’

iogniting the spark

(There are many poets around Calderdale who’ll testify to the richness of these workshops, including my publisher Bob Horne, who’s just produced his own debut pamphlet ‘Knowing my place’, and the hugely talented Natalie Rees among them.) Her  first full length collection, Dr James Graham’s Celestial Bed in 2006. and her second Lifting the piano with one hand in 2013 [both publ. by The Comma Press]. Joan Jobe Smith has called her ‘my favourite contemporary female poet’. She’s not alone in that.

She said in an interview  : I think that when writing Dr James Graham’s Celestial Bed I was less conscious of an audience and destination for the poems. I wrote the poems without thinking about who might read them and where they might end up. They were plump things crammed full of imagery, a bit wild and a bit naughty and they didn’t care………… Sometimes I miss the old-style-Gaia-poems for their excess

But if what she writes at the moment is more pared-down, more Giacommetti than Rubens, it’s no less rich and resonant, and, above all, moving. Poems that speak direct to the heart and the blood. I’ll leave you with these that Gaia’s been generous enough to share. So much is coming from those long journeys to a bleak low place in the eye of the wind. There’s the business of learning the language of this weather that has different meanings from the one you know. And I think these two poems set them side by side and tell each other what they understand. It turns out we don’t even understand the one we thought was familiar

Normal rain

A cold November morning

and I sit on my mother’s doorstep,

slip into the scent of rain.

I wear it like a fleecy dressing gown-

each little stitch in its seams,

a memory of something better,

a thread of time

before this gridlock, this limbo,

when milk soured

and apples ripened.

Before the sink holes and the gaps

and the words we could not say,

before my cups and my plates

became cross-hatched

with hairline cracks

and everything

was liquid, but stable

and the world’s bones

were too young for breaking

and no one stubbed their toes


We understand even less the unchanging climate of a hospital. Outside is the uncontained and unimaginable.


The Weather


You’re not used to this:

warmth on a dial,

double glazing,

this airless locked-in




by the hum and tick

and bleep

of monitors, machinery

and the sticky

hush and kiss

of the nurses shoes

in the corridor

outside your tepid room.


In here

nothing flutters.

Your unread papers sleep

still and deep

whilst December

mimes a storm

outside your window


and I want to bring

the weather in.

I want to let the wind

run around you

like a rabid dog.


I want the wild rain

to lash

your thin fevered limbs

and shock you

into living.


In the interview I mentioned earlier,Gaia said: A friend once said ‘You have to write from the throat of the wolf’. I like that idea but do sometimes worry that, with this heightened awareness of ‘the reader’, I’m playing it too safe and ‘writing from the throat of the Labrador’ . There’s no playing safe in these new poems, I think. Let’s finish with this one, and then be quiet.


hygge (n): A Danish word which, roughly translated, means, the art of building sanctuary and community, of inviting closeness and paying attention to what makes us feel open hearted and alive. To create well-being, connection and warmth. A feeling of belonging to the moment and to each other.


Tonight, with you calm, clean,

smelling of lavender in your new pyjamas

and the fire I’ve been trying to kindle for hours

finally settling itself down to blaze

and crackle and glow,

I light all the candles I can find,

put Tallis on the stereo, sit holding your hand.


Tonight the sea will be too wanton

to carry a ferry.

No one will come and no one will go

and in the morning there will be

no fresh bread or milk

on the shelves of the village shop.


Tonight we will keep the cats in.


Tonight, we will be landlocked and cosy

as rain pelts the windows like little pearls

and bolshy wind rocks the caravan.


Tonight I will feel your knots unravelling,

our bond thickening

as love and thin motets chase the cold

from the corners of the room,

and I will almost forget

that you are dying.








Filed under Uncategorized


Thank you, The island review, for posting three Skye poems. Bit unnerving to become ‘multi-award winning poet’. Blimey. Anyway…just follow the link xxx



Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized


scully r.i.p 001

Our cat, Scully, lived an amazing twenty three years, and a year ago I had to have her put to sleep, and then bring her home. And she really did simply seem to be asleep. I cleared a piece of the garden where I buried her and then planted it out.


I wrote a poem for her, too. Not straight away. You have to wait for them to be written, and so it was February this year in St Ives following a writing prompt from Kim Moore before it got written.


(for Scully.1992-2015)


You have gone from slow. There was a shift in things

as though the air was panes of glass that slid and puzzled

and then there was the still

of nothing at all and weightlessness

listening to small stones scrape  on the steel of a spade


You remember how cold,  and how the weight of the ground

sank around you, how it settled,

how you fit, like an egg, or an ammonite.


Months now you have leached and leached.

Hair lasts beyond flesh, beyond muscle.

There are things here

that go about their patient business

unpicking, worming through

appointed places. You settle for that.


It will take time, you understand,

to be perfect bone, fossil-neat,

curled and comfortable,

each vertebra exactly so.

There is only one way for a cat.


This summer….this not-much-of-a-summer…… I got round to finishing the job off. It’ll be a good place where we can sit and remember what company she was.

scully anniversary 001



Filed under Uncategorized

On deja vu. And a Polished Gem: Jim Caruth

1501 Early morning mist_1

I’ve been thinking that it’s becoming harder and harder to write a weekly blog without repeating myself. In fact, it’s harder and and harder and harder to write anything without repeating myself.

I see that in my increasingly desperate and intemperant rants on Facebook I keep on churning out the same old tropes about the Welfare State, about 1945, about betrayed democracy, about privileged public schoolboys and their unforgivable assumptions of entitlement, about the intransigent a priori stupidities of successive education ministers….see what I mean? Stream of consciousness anger. It does no one any good. It does me no good.

And now I’m editing and tweaking my first full poetry collection, and discovering the unnerving truth that I endlessly repeat myself. You don’t really notice till you put all the poems alongside each other that the same words and images pop up like pals at a party who’ve had a couple too many. There are an alarming number of birds. Dead ones. Cold. Sky. Rain. Huge. Dark. Lucid. Ash. Wind. Many high places. A lot of falling. Flowers. Rocks. Sea. (No urban landscapes, no interiors….nothing, really, of my day to day realities and their physical presence. Why?)

So it doesn’t surprise me at all when I look at my notes for today’s post and find with a sort of sinking feeling of deja vu that we’re back in the world of poetry workshops, and ones in Sheffield in particular. I’m very happy every time I find myself there, or remembering myself there. It’s just that I expect you won’t necessarily share my enthusiasm. ‘Here he goes again’ I hear you say as you exit your screen and go out to look at clouds with their dark promise of rain, and wind, and cold, edging across the huge lucid skies above your back gardens. But stay with me. It’ll be worth your while.

Because the deja vu moment will last just long enough to introduce my guest today: Jim Caruth. Who I met, and continue to meet, as I meet so many, at the Poetry Business Writing Days in Sheffield. Some people make an impression straight away. It may be a poem about a train ride and drowning sheep. It might be a striking notebook (Martin Malone did that) or a hairstyle that involves a bright pink streak (she knows who she is). It could be so many things.

With Jim Caruth it was the voice that commanded the attention and then the poem that justified it. I’ll not take up your time with my thing about the unfair advantages of the Irish [North and South] when it comes to poetry. The dramas of their history and its terrible deprivations, the strangeness of their mythologies and folktales, the iconography of Catholicism and the transgressive disciplines of priests and nuns….and the voice, the accents. Enough to say that Jim has a voice, like Heaney, that you simply want to listen to, and that you go on hearing in his poetry when you lift it off the page. Think of Heaney and you’ll not go far wrong.

Anyway, the first poem I remember him workshopping, at the Premier Inn, in a room with several microclimates, was Pigeon Lofts, Penistone Road. It’s in his winning pamphlet The death of narrative , which I’ll give you the details of later.

pigeon lofts

It might have been because it described a rather melancholy bit of hillside that I would drive past on my way into, and out of Sheffield, and which always intrigued me. But when I think about it,it was precisely because it seemed to be so true to the place, so right, that it stayed with me, nailed down in one particular line

No one hears the wind / shake the perches free of bloodlines,

It still makes me shiver. And on another afternoon, in Bank Street, he workshopped Lethe, also in the collection, which elides a mythic Underworld with a salmon that leaps from a silver pool, and the entry into Hades of a shell-shocked, flustered woman with a harmless life of small sins of omission, who cannot remember the name of the Ferryman,

her face pale as a clock / her wide eyes emptying

It brings me close to tears, does that. I’ve known him a good while now, and I’ve been wanting him to be a guest on the cobweb for almost as long. So I’m delighted to introduce James Caruth. He was born in Belfast but has lived in Sheffield for the last 30 years. His first collection –  A Stones Throw was published in 2007 by Staple followed by a long sequence – Dark Peak, published by Longbarrow in 2008 and a pamphlet – Marking the Lambs, from Smith Doorstop in 2012.


His poem from this collection – The Deposition won the Sheffield Poetry Prize in 2011. His work has also been included in The Sheffield Anthology (Poems from the City Imagined), Smith Doorstop 2012 and The Footing, Longbarrow Press 2013 which includes a sequence of poems Tithes, based around the village of Stannington in South Yorkshire where he lives.

His pamphlet The Death of Narrative was a winner of the Poetry Business Competition 2014


It was judged by Carol Ann Duffy who said –

James Caruth’s poems tell stories that draw the reader in. His voice is warm and moving, and there is music to his writing which is completely captivating. This is an outstanding collection.

It isn’t all she said. She said this as well:

James Caruth’s remarkable poems are unlike anyone else’s. They are knowing and disingenuous at the same time, clear-eyed and romantic.

Well she’s woman who ought to know what she’s talking about, and I’m not about to argue. But you can make up your own minds. Jim has sent me three poems, and I think they not only show you the emotional and verbal range of the poetry, but also explain what I mean about the culture of the Irish and their diaspora, and why Irish poetry continues in such a rich contemporary vein.

The first poem I like in the same way as I like Lethe. There’s a precise lyricism in play that takes a very sure touch.


Your last days realised

in that small painting in the hallway,

a thin ditch stippled

across a stubble field.


Debussy’s Preludes

from the old upright in the back-room,

over and over and over again

until you got it right.


That evening driving home

my head still full of you,

when out of the gloom, a fox,

your eyes alive in the headlights.


I was struck by the startling moment of metamorphosis in the last line. Struck later, by the fact that there are no finite verbs. That these stanzas are not sentences but moments.

The next poem I liked instantly when I first heard it read. It meets that criterion of Clive James about the image, the moment that makes the poem. And when I was reading around, doing a bit of background for the post, I came across this documentary photograph. Do you see what I mean about ‘the moment’?

girders 3

Play the harp backwards

Who taught them to sling bridges from wires,

to walk straight-backed as convent girls,

along the narrow girders of high towers,

backs to the wind, never daring to look down.


Clustered in the tenements of Brooklyn

and the Lower East Side, like raucous gulls

lining the white hem of a small island

whose name comes in a half-remembered tongue.


At nights you’d find them in the bars

along the waterfront, reciting a catechism

of names as they listened to the old songs,

while outside snow fell on the desolate streets

and the Hudson heaved like a wounded animal.


When the money ran out, they fingered

the dust in their pockets, staggered home

to small rooms, to dream of a mail-boat

rounding the Head, a town shivering

in the yellow glow of street-lamps.


There’s not a foot put wrong, is there?  It’s a poem as deft and confident as the high-wire scaffolders and rivetters who built Manhattan. The images that nail it down:

straight-backed as convent girls;      

like raucous gulls / lining the white hem of a small island;     

the Hudson heaved like a wounded animal.

There’s the history of a place and of a people caught in a moment in time. I wish I could do that.

Since Lethe is the place where we depart from the known and familiar to the strange beyond the water, I guess it’s right to finish with this poem that, I think, needs no explanation or commentary. Listen to it.

The emigrant’s farewell

 I have come as far as I can.


To this point of the bay

where a granite edge and the sea meet

and retreat and the horizon’s

a purlin that holds up a red sky.

Something like grief is at my back,

a cold breath stirring the tide-line

of burger wrappers and empty cans

along the harbour wall. At times

when the wind comes at a certain slant

over the Head, you’ll hear them calling

their farewells to the faces lining the stern rail.

Some missed their mark, sailed out beyond

hearing into the vague and indeterminate.

Somewhere out there is a language of loss


but I have no words for this.

My head is full of easy metaphors,

sea, sky, failing light

and a voice that is saying –

go, but take nothing with you.


So, thank you, Jim Caruth for finally being a guest on the cobweb.It was worth the wait.

And remember…you can buy his books. So you should.

There’s more Irish poetry coming up before too long, but next week will be a return visit from another one of my favourite poets and one of my favourite people. Joan Jobe Smith is a big fan. You’ll need to be here early to make sure of a seat. Splash on some patchouli, break out the crushed velvet. Light a joss stick.



Filed under Uncategorized