Monday, 23 February 2015


Just over a week to go until our Out of Time exhibition opens in the Friends' Gallery at Theatre by the Lake in Keswick.  The photographs are framed and mirror plated, the poem panels are printed, the catalogues are ready and I am rehearsing my introductory poetry reading.

Poems and photographs go well together.  I think my favourite will always be Orkney:Poems and Photographs by George Mackay Brown and Gunnie Moberg.  Recently I have been thinking of poems about photographs.

Adam Thorpe's "On a Photo of a Wainwright's Shop" (from the collection Voluntary) begins "This was where they made / each thill of dung cart, or jackwain's tailboard".  He revels in the arcane vocabulary of the wainwright's shop while mourning a now obsolete craft - "in for the kill / came the oiled pistons, the heedless Ford".

Sinead Morrissey's collection Parallax is much concerned with photography.  In "Photographing Lowry's House" she writes in the voice of the newspaper photographer who was given half an hour to take pictures of the interior of painter L S Lowry's house by the house clearance men.  Morrissey conveys the frenzy in which the photographer worked: "My camera / clicked and whirled. / Upstairs I found his studio. / I changed the film."  His "final shot" is of the artist's "trilby and his mac, hanging / from a hook, in black and white."

In "Siege" by Gillian Clarke (from Letter from a Far Country) it is a beautiful spring evening.  The poet is sorting photographs - "I, in my father's arms in this garden / with dandelion hair", "My mother, posing in a summer dress / in the corn at harvest time."  The poet is listening to "Radio news / like the smoke of conflagrations far away."  But suddenly images of war intrude: "Radio voices break and suddenly / the garden burns ... in my kitchen / is a roar of floors falling, machine guns."

On the cover of Folk by Tony Curtis is a photograph of the poet's parents.  He found it in his father's Bible after he died.   "Folk" is also the name of the title poem. It is a wonderfully affectionate piece of writing.  "My mother wears / my father's heavy raincoat" (several sizes too big for her).  His father sports "goggles and gloves"  They are about to go off on a motorbike ride as they begin a new life together.  "Hold on!" I hear him / say to my mother, / ... and she did, tightly / with both arms, / for the rest of their lives."

There is an elegiac quality to all these poems and I wonder how inevitable that is with photographs from the past.

Saturday, 14 February 2015


When I was a child I saved up my pocket money and bought my first camera, a Kodak Brownie 127.  I still have the photographs I took with that camera - black and white to start with, then, when the film became cheaper, colour prints.  Eventually I graduated to an SLR and enjoyed playing with light and distance, focus and perspective.  But the camera and lenses were cumbersome.  Now I have a digital camera that fits in my pocket.

The word photograph means light-writing.  It was not until my first collection was reviewed that I realised how much I respond to the visual as a writer.  That's why it's been such a pleasure to work with photographer, Horatio Lawson, on our collaboration Out of Time.  Ansel Adams said, "There are always two people in every picture, the photographer and the viewer".  Very early on I realised that the "you" in the poems I was writing was the photographer.  I was the viewer, responding to the image in words.  But we also worked the other way round - I wrote some poems and Horatio provided the images to go with them.

We are both grateful to Mick North who published a selection of photographs with their accompanying poems in The Fire Crane and who suggested the title Out of Time.  The phrase comes from my poem "An Absence of Trains":  "Your lens does not speak of the past or the future, only / the silence of the shadowless present, the moment out of time".  I was thinking of Four Quartets when I was writing this poem, particularly the lines in "The Dry Salvages": "For most of us, there is only the unattended / moment, the moment in and out of time."

It is a commonplace to say that a photograph freezes time - and sometimes it does.  In "From the sky's loft you stop the city" I was writing a poem to accompany a dramatic picture taken from high up in a church tower.  All the frenetic activity of urban life stopped for a split second.  Then "the city gives a wet dog shake, moves on."

But I think a photograph may also take the object photographed out of the time spectrum altogether, out of the relentless mutability of life.  In my blog post of 15 September last year ("12 km White Balloons") I wrote about meeting Jurgen in Kiel.  At the end of the Second World War he and his family had fled from Danzig (Gdansk) ahead of the Soviet troops.  Their only possessions were their clothes and a photograph album.  What a frisson of excitement I felt when Jurgen put that same album into my hands.  The photographs enabled him to return to that place over and over again, undisturbed by the changes time had wrought - the family home converted into flats, new buildings in the fields, the years of Communist rule and the collapse of the Soviet Union.  A photograph can transcend time, while also itself being subject to it.

My great grandfather started a wholesale stationery and printing business (JFA Ball) in Birmingham in the early years of the 20th century.  He was a pioneer of commercial colour printing.  The archives department of the new Library of Birmingham found me a photograph of his premises on the corner of Masshouse Lane and Jennens Row - a solid Victorian brick building.    They emailed me a link to it - a digital image of an old black and white photograph.  I felt as if time's barrier had collapsed.

We are bombarded, bamboozled even, by multiple images and sounds.  Sometimes we need to concentrate on one image and make space around it, or one sound and make silence round it.

(Out of Time exhibition - see details under Events on the right)

Thursday, 5 February 2015


Candlemass Day (2 February) comes mid-way between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox.

Last week the snowdrops opened, traditional Candlemass flowers, splashes of white under bare winter trees.  On Thursday the snow came, the A66 was closed and the city of Carlisle was gridlocked by road accidents.  Watching the flakes fall from the warmth of my living room I thought of Louis MacNeice's poem "Snow":

"The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was/ Spawning snow and pink roses against it ...World is suddenner than we fancy it".

The next day everything had settled down and most roads were passable again.  The title of this post (translated from the Gaelic and not strictly true last week) comes from aonghas macneacail's long poem "the great snow battle" in his bilingual collection laughing at the clock (you get used to the absence of initial capitals after a while).  If you thought there was not a lot to say about snow you should read his ten pages of virtuoso poetry about the "marvel of snow" ("virginal snow', "faultless snow", "slaughtering snow").

On Sunday I walked with friends by the Solway.  The snow lay right down to the shore line.  Flocks of wintering waders diligently followed the retreating tide.  Across the estuary the Scottish hills were cloaked in white and sparkled in the piercing low sunlight.  I thought of the country saying "On Candlemass Day you should have half your straw and two thirds of your hay'.  Good farming advice if metrically awkward.

Today I went up to Nether Row and walked along the track through Potts Gill on the Caldbeck Fells.  When I returned home the snow had thawed in my garden and the snowdrops had reappeared.  In Welsh snowdrop is lili wen fach - little white lily.  At Plas yn Rhiw in North Wales the snowdrops in the woodland surrounding the house are like great white linen sheets laid out on the ground to bleach in the sun.

Another annual snowdrop spectacle is in the garden of a large old house a few minutes' walk from where I live.  The house had been derelict for years when I wrote this poem.  The house has since been sold and made habitable again and I'm glad to say the snowdrops are still there.


It could be Miss Havisham's house, shabbier by the year,
cream stucco and yellow door greying down to dust,

but on the lawn a bridal veil of snowdrops,
furtive, wax candle white, heads bowed as if come

to early, dreading the inevitable blows -
this year may be the last wedding of the house.

Mary Robinson

Thursday, 22 January 2015


"Sir Nicholas Winton" - I was half listening to BBC Radio 4's Midweek when I heard his name.  His daughter, Barbara, was speaking about her biography of her father If It's Not Impossible.

I did a quick mental calculation - he's 105!  I heard about Nicholas Winton in 2010 on my first visit to Prague (where he is held in great esteem).  A few months before my visit his statue had been unveiled in the city.  Last October he flew to Prague for the award of the Order of the White Lion (the Czech Republic's highest civilian honour) by the President at Prague Castle.

Nicholas Winton was only 29 and was working as a broker in the City of London when he organised the Czech Kindertransports to evacuate mainly Jewish children from Prague.  Also on the Radio 4 programme was Lord Alf Dubs who, at the age of 6, had been on one of those trains.  He had found it a confusing and bewildering experience but he remembered the older children cheering when the train crossed the border from Germany to Holland.  He arrived in London with his rucksack on his back - just like W G Sebald's Austerlitz.

Later in the day I picked up a leaflet at the library for Holocaust Memorial Day (next Tuesday 27 January - the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz).  The leaflet is a reminder not only of the Holocaust and the Nazi atrocities but also of the genocides in Cambodia in the 1970s, Rwanda in 1994 and Bosnia in 1995.  (By coincidence I've just finished reading the novel The Last Hundred Days by poet Patrick McGuinness about the fall of the Ceausescu regime in Romania in which he describes a visit by a Bosnian Serb delegation from a Yugoslavia on the point of collapse.)  Most chilling of all the accounts in the booklet was the page headed "Genocide in Darfur 2003 - Present".  No end date.

There are other places in the world today where people are persecuted for being from the "wrong" race or tribe or religion, or the "wrong" branch of the same religion.  The message of the booklet is that we must remember the past and speak out in the present.

On the day (23 July 2008) Radovan Karadzic was arrested for the massacre of at least 7500 Bosnian Muslims in the forest of Srebrenica I wrote a poem called "As the grass of the field"  I couldn't get the news out of my head.  I watched a contractor cut round and round the hay field next to my garden.  I seemed to be watching an allegory.   I wrote

   " ... a crow scans the long grass under siege
    the tractor advances swathe
    by felled swathe
    on the field's bestiary ... "

The small creatures of the field have no escape from destruction.

    " ... all I can think of are the places
    (mute on my atlas
    - sixty miles to the inch)
    snared between capital letters
    of non-existent states ... "

When Nicholas Winton saw persecution (and feared worse) he decided to do something.  There was "no permission from the British government and they had no financial means to get out the children.  So I merely said if it was possible I would do it."

(The title of this post "The Power of Good" is taken from the 2002 Czech-Slovak film on Nicholas Winton and the Prague Kindertransports)

Thursday, 8 January 2015


Congratulations to Carol Ann Duffy who was made a Dame in the New Year's Honours List. It is well-deserved, rewarding the tireless energy of England's first female poet laureate in writing and promoting poetry.  She fulfils her role as  the public voice of contemporary poetry well.  Her generous response was: "We have many wonderful poets in this country and it is a privilege to represent them."

One of the sections in Carol Ann Duffy’s collection The Bees is entitled “What will you do now with the gift of your left life?”  That quotation is to me a goad, a challenge, an encouragement for my writing life.  Interrogative rather than resolute.  Although taken from the last line of “Snow” it is a sentence that can stand alone, as Stephen Raw’s fine calligraphic rendering of the words shows.

I’ve chosen four New Year poems -  by William Carlos Williams, Sylvia Plath, David Constantine and Liz Lochhead.  “Burning the Christmas greens” by William Carlos Williams has long been a favourite of mine.  It shows how imagination can transform an apparently trivial task into a poem of ritual and renewal, full of colour.  I think of it every year when I take down the decorations on Twelfth Night. 

Sylvia Plath’s delicate “New Year on Dartmoor” is addressed to her toddler daughter on a day when ice coated everything.  It ends “You are too new to want the world in a glass hat”.  It is beautifully performed on youtube by Giga Gray of Radio Theatre Group.

By contrast David Constantine’s “New Year behind the asylum” is enigmatic and disturbing.  The poet and his companion (for whom the asylum seems to have a mysterious attraction) wander out into the fields, beyond the sound of the town’s “bells and cheerful hooters”, and hear the asylum inhabitants “singing or sobbing their hearts out for the New Year”.  “He gripped me fast and kissed my hair / ... I’m sure that what he meant was this: / That I should know how much love would be needed.”

But New Year can be a hopeful time too, even if the hopes are short-lived.  The Scots Makar, Liz Lochhead, begins “View of Scotland/Love Poem” with her mother sprucing the place up for possible New Year visitors:
                  “Down on her hands and knees
                    at ten at night on Hogmanay
                    my mother still giving it elbowgrease
                    jiffywaxing the vinolay.”
You can find this poem on the Scottish Poetry Library website – if you google liz lochhead hogmanay it should come up as the first result. 

If you are disillusioned by all this New Year palaver here is the epigraph to John Burnside’s “The entering of the New Year” –  a quotation from American baseball player, Yogi Berra:  “The future isn’t what it used to be”.

Thursday, 1 January 2015


A happy new year!

It's that time of year when I change my prejudiced and highly-subjective list of 12 poetry books you must read.  They are selected from my reading over the last twelve months and all come highly recommended.  Two are shortlisted for the T S Eliot prize (the books by Michael Longley and Ruth Padel) - results 12 January.

Having compiled the list I find there is a slew towards the Celts (by birth or adoption) - four Welsh, 2 Irish, and 1 Scottish.  By contrast Lorna Goodison injects some much needed internationalism.

The pamphlet choice was difficult - I've read excellent pamphlets this year by Jim Carruth, Malcolm Carson, Zaffar Kunial and Blake Morrison.  Zaffar was a strong contender as he is a young poet just starting out, but in the end I decided I needed some humour in this somewhat serious list so it had to be Blake.  At the other end of the size scale my big omission was the fine translation of Dante's Divine Comedy by Clive James - but it would have unbalanced the list.  Now, having had my cake and eaten it, here are the crumbs that remain.

Eavan Boland (A Woman Without a Country) writes intelligent, tender, thoughtful, feminist poetry, and her syntax compels re-reading.  A book to celebrate the Irish poet's 70th birthday.

Thomas A Clarke is a walker's poet.  Yellow and Blue is like a good long day's walk.  It reveals it emotional impact when read at length, rather than in short hops.  Here is poetry to bring peace to the soul.

Menna Elfyn's Murmur is my translation choice.  She was the star of the Dorothy Wordsworth Festival of Women's Poetry at Grasmere last year.  I bought her book on the strength of her very moving poem "Oh father" and I was not disappointed.

"What is the rare quality that has gone out of poetry that these marvellous poems restore? Joy".  That's Derek Walcott's response to Lorna Goodison's Oracabessa.  Impossible to argue with him.

It's a special day when I discover a fine poet who was previously completely unknown to me.  Angela Leighton's Sea Level was a revelation.  An accomplished and original collection based on the theme of the sea.  If you liked Philip Gross's The Water Table you will enjoy this book too.

Michael Longley is a firm favourite of mine.  One of the Irish greats - I had to include his latest collection The Stairwell.

Patrick McGuinness has said in an interview that he only manages to write because of his long weekly commute between Caernarfon and Oxford.  Jilted City is an inventive and rather Sebaldian collection which includes a suite of railway poems and "translations" from a spoof Romanian poet.

Robert Minhinnick's New Selected Poems give a great sweep of this Welsh writer whose poetry is contemporary, wide-ranging, deeply-thought and full of brilliant imagery.

Blake Morrison's pamphlet This Poem shows that poets have a sense of humour.  It's a mini-satire on modern life.  "Call centre" should become a classic.

Ruth Padel's Learning to Make an Oud in Nazareth gives the lie to Jeremy Paxman's criticism that poetry has "connived at its own irrelevance".  She writes of Muslims, Jews and Christians in the Middle East and about things that matter to our common humanity - life, death, conflict, music.

Sheenagh Pugh revels in her poetry being accessible (good for her!).  Short Days, Long Shadows shows her writing at her best.  Poems which are accessible at first reading but whose depth and craft is shown in subsequent re-readings.

Finally, Stephen Watts The Blue Bag.  Stephen was a friend of W G Sebald (I discovered his poetry via Austerlitz).  His work is lyrical, wide-ranging and like no one else's.  I particularly enjoy his audacious line breaks which work against the syntax like musical syncopation.