Friday, 19 July 2019


Did you know that strifehaggle is an obsolete word for struggle?

No, neither did I.  But last week I was at the Welsh learners’ summer school in Pwllheli.  Our tutor, Rhiannon, said that the Welsh word for the verb to struggle is stryffaglio and that it comes directly from strifehaggle.  And I was definitely stryffaglio – strifehaggling with passives and subjunctives and shorter verb forms.

But it was not all strifehaggle.  There was a magic moment when the tutor answered a student’s question, ‘Is ‘h’ in Welsh a consonant or a vowel?’  ‘Neither,’ Rhiannon said, ‘in Welsh ‘h’ is officially a breath’.

One afternoon, after the classes had finished, another tutor, Martyn, took us for a short walk to the top of Pen y Garn, a rocky outcrop near the college.  It was an opportunity to learn the Welsh names of some common plants.  Red campion is surprisingly sinister, blodyn neidr – snake flower.  Buttercups are predictably butter flowers – blodau menyn.  Similarly predictable are daisies – llygaid y dydd (eyes of the day) and dandelions – dant y llew (lion’s tooth – think of that long white fang of a root).  But my favourite is foxgloves which in Welsh are bysedd cŵn – dogs’ fingers!

That evening I turned to *Matthew Francis’ version of the Mabinogi, a collection of ancient Welsh stories.  In one of the stories Francis describes Gwydion conjuring a bride out of flowers for Llew, who has been cursed that no woman born on earth would be his bride:

Meadowsweet for sweetness, with its smell of stale candy,
shrivelled cream flowers they strew between bedsheets,
broom flowers for silken gaudiness;
oak catkins for their gentle
tickling of the wind.
The air was golden with pollen
as I heaped her on the bed
in frilly armfuls,
till a million petals fused
into a woman.

Her name is Blodeuedd, from blodau – flowers, and gwedd – face or appearance.

* Matthew Francis The Mabinogi (Faber and Faber 2017)

Tuesday, 2 July 2019


The two-carriage diesel train trundled round and across the tidal flats and salt marshes of Morecambe Bay and the Dudddon estuary, shortening the road journey by some miles.

The old routes, still marked as rights of way on Ordnance Survey maps, were across treacherous tidal sands (sadly remembered for the drowning of the Chinese cockle-pickers in 2004).  In 1995 I walked one of these routes with Cedric Robinson, the Queen's Guide.  The grandparents of the poet, Norman Nicholson, came the same way in pre-railway days.  His grandmother was so horrified by the appearance of Millom - 'the ramshackle furnaces, the grey anthills of slag, the half-made up roads, the tight, huddled, half-grown streets ... that she told the carter to turn the horse's head round and go back.   But the tide had turned and she had to stay.' (Wednesday Early Closing)

Last weekend I went to Millom for a festival, organised by the Norman Nicholson Society, celebrating the life and work of the writer Norman Nicholson (1914 - 1987).  My bed and breakfast for the weekend was Horama House, an elegant modernist house (locals call it the glass box) surrounded by wild flowers and only a few yards from the Duddon estuary.  There were bird books in the breakfast room (always a good sign).  It was a lovely peaceful spot.  I could walk into Millom through the nature reserve on the site of the old ironworks.  Nearby was Hodbarrow, also a nature reserve.  Immediately a clutch of Nicholson poems came to mind - 'Bloody Cranesbill', 'On the dismantling of Millom ironworks, 'Bee Orchid at Hodbarrow'.  I was walking paths that Nicholson himself would have walked.

Friday night:
An informal gathering at the Clock Tower bar.  Geoff Cox gave a talk on his play in progress, The Price of Land (due to tour
next year).  The play is about the people who have worked and shaped the Cumbrian landscape, a seam richly worked by Nicholson.  Geoff was spurred on to write the play after noticing that, ironically, these people who forged the landscape we see today were unrecognised in the Lake District's recent World Heritage designation.

Sean O'Brien spoke about his personal experience of Millom and Norman Nicholson's poetry.  He read some of his own poems, including 'The Beautiful Librarians', which was particularly relevant as Millom's library is under threat.

The afternoon speaker was Dr Andrew Frayn of Edinburgh Napier University who concentrated on the Nicholson poems which trace the industrial history of West Cumberland.  He mentioned a tantalising fragment of three lines (in the Rylands' Library of Manchester University), which Nicholson never completed, entitled 'Millom in the Twenty First Century'.Dr Frayn finished with the festival's theme-quotation from the poem 'Caedmon':
'I hack and hammer at the handiwork of verse'.  He compared Nicholson's mining imagery here with Seamus Heaney's well-known 'Digging' poem.  By expressing their writing as a craft they were linking it with the communities which formed them.

On Saturday evening we took over The Beggar's Theatre in Millom for an evening of poetry and music, ably compered by Ross Baxter.  Eighteen of us read our work (strictly rationed to five minutes each).  I read 'C' and 'D' from my Alphabet Poems and 'Nests', my contribution to the Cumbrian poetry anthology This Place I Know.  The musical contribution was provided by the Demix duo who were consummate performers and pitched their sets just right for an audience of mainly middle-aged poets!  Both musicians and poets coped very well with Millom's vociferous seagulls who perched on the roof and heckled down the ventilation grids.

In the morning a small group of us gathered at 14 St George's Terrace for a tour of Norman Nicholson's house (now graced with a blue plaque).  Owner Sue Dawson was our knowledgeable guide and gave a fascinating talk about the house and shop and what they had been like in Nicholson's lifetime (the poet's father ran a 'Gentleman's Outfitters').  Several of us commented on the smallness of the rooms of this Victorian terraced house and how cramped it must have been when full of furniture.  Sue said that for Nicholson, recovering from teenage tuberculosis, it was a safe space.  I thought of the house as being like a nest for him.

We made a pilgrimage to the attic room at the top of the house - 'I have written practically everything I have done in that room', wrote Nicholson in 1975 in Wednesday Early Closing.  Sue read 'The Pot Geranium' which is set in that room, and there was a red geranium 'flying its bright balloon' on the window shelf just as there had been when Nicholson wrote the poem.  It's a work which never fails to move me with its theme of the writer's narrow physical circumstances compared with the wideness of his imagination.  It was a particularly special experience to hear the poem read 'in situ'.

On the final afternoon Harriet and Rob Fraser (of somewhere nowhere) gave a talk and workshop.  Their art and poetry practice focuses on landscape and a sense of place.  Kathleen Jones gave a short summary to round off what was a fabulous festival.  Many thanks to Antoinette Fawcett, Charlie Lambert and the Society committee who organised it so successfully.

Just before I left for home I met a young woman from Essex who had arrived in the town to start a new job.  I explained how I had spent my weekend.  'Who is Norman Nicholson?' she asked.   She'll soon find out in Millom.

Wednesday, 26 June 2019


The traveller gets down
onto a midnight platform
and knows from the rustle
of unseen water-
falls he has come home.
       from R S Thomas 'Afallon' (No Truce with the Furies)

With these lines (notice that characteristic R S Thomas line break of 'water-/falls') Dr Rowan Williams began his talk at the R S Thomas and Mildred Eldridge Festival in Aberdaron last Saturday.  He structured his ideas round two concepts, place and space. 

He emphasised the importance of place, which sets the agenda, which operates on the individual from without.  Ecological thinking is thinking with the environment we inhabit.  'Art is a suvival skill', he said, 'it is drawing on the resources of what is around us'.  The truthfulness of poetry is 'sustainable language', a language you can keep coming back to.

By contrast, space is egocentric, where the individual sets the agenda.  He cited the example of an airport lounge which gives the experience of being nowhere in particular.  He thought that a large part of our public culture (advertising, politics etc) contributed to a sense of loneliness, fear and franticness.

In the afternoon Dr Sandra Anstey spoke on 'Revisiting R S Thomas through his poetry, prose and conversations.'  She has studied the work of R S Thomas for many years and has a wonderful archive of letters, publications and recordings, dating back to  the 1970s when she started to visit him for her research on his poetry.  She spoke of R S Thomas's kindness, generosity and patience as well as his sense of humour. 

Sandra Anstey played a series of tape recordings she had made of their discussions.  These included his views on poetry ('a poem should have a tough hard middle, an inner core'), on titles ('titles are a blinking nuisance' - perhaps that's why there are several duplicate titles in his work), and on his normal routine ('reading in the morning, walking in the afternoon, vegetating in the evening').

Both Dr Anstey and Dr Williams were fascinating speakers and their talks have sent me back to the poems of R S Thomas once again.

And the cobbled water
Of the stream with the trout's indelible 
Shadows that winter
Has not erased - I walk it
Again under a clean 
Sky with the fish, speckled like thrushes,
Silently singng among the weed's 

(from 'The River' H'M)

Tuesday, 18 June 2019


What’s in a name? asked Shakespeare’s Juliet, lamenting that her lover was a Montague, at enmity with her own Capulet family.

    What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
    By any other name would smell as sweet.

But would it?  (Some of IKEA’s Swedish furniture names, for example, have had unfortunate connotations in English.)

 I’m one of those annoying people who goes by their middle name.  Mary is who I am, part of my personality.  I never feel comfortable with my first name which is only used by the bank, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, and the National Health Service.  Oh, and don’t get me started on changing names.

I’m searching for a name, a title to be precise, for a new collection of poems which has just been accepted for publication in 2019/10.  My provisional working title was not terribly exciting so I’m now on the hunt for something else.  The shorter the number of words, the longer it takes to find the right one(s).

I’ve been looking at the titles of some of the poetry books on my shelves.  It seems incredible that, years ago, poets frequently got away with simply Poems (Auden 1930) or with the addition of a number, Eighteen Poems (Dylan Thomas 1934).  But perhaps the fashion is coming back – the T S Eliot prize-winning collection this year was in the same style (Three Poems).  But, let’s face it, they’re not exactly riveting titles.

One word titles are catchy – Girl by Rebecca Goss, Tilt by Jean Sprackland.  A lot depends on that one word.  It can be a lure to draw in the reader (as those two titles are) or mystifyingly boring.  Is the word sturdy enough to be applied to the whole collection?

Then there are concept collections, where the title states clearly what the concept is – Elaine Feinstein’s Portraits (the poems are studies of various people) or Angela France’s The Hill (a sequence of poems on Leckhampton Hill, near Cheltenham).

Some collections take their names from a single poem (I did this with The Art of Gardening).  Moya Cannon has a variation on this with her collection entitled Keats Lives (no apostrophe, verb not noun).  She has shortened the longer name of her title poem ‘Keats lives on the Amtrak’.  The poem is about a conversation she has with an Amtrak conductor who is a fellow Keats enthusiast:

   I’m going to get a t-shirt with
   Keats Lives on it
I hope he has.  But a poem needs sufficient gravitas to bear the weight of becoming a title poem.

Some titles are just wonderfully original.  Robert Wrigley’s The Church of Omniverous Light, for example, or that classic by Wendy Cope, Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis.

And lastly there are guerrilla titles which I remember simply because they bear no relation to the collection (Jeremy Over’s Deceiving Wild Creatures).  A guerrilla title takes the reader by surprise and is (hopefully) a way to increase the reader’s engagement in a collection.  In a way my Art of Gardening was an almost-guerrilla title in that my book was emphatically not a gardening book.

Finally any title has to have staying power.  It might seem a great idea late one evening but can I live with it for a long time without wincing ‘I wish I’d called it something else’?

Maybe that’s a good title!

Monday, 10 June 2019


I'm delighted with Mariscat's usual high standard of graphic design - this is the proof of the front cover (without the carpet!).

Sunday, 26 May 2019


The roadsides are pink and white - the '60s pink of red campion and the cermonial white of Queen Anne's Lace.   Nature's celebratory bunting in the week of the Llyn Arts Festival.

On Saturday I went to hear 'Sound Alchemy' at the Felin Uchaf roundhouse.  I was delighted that Rose Rouse was performing with her artist partner, Asanga Judge.  I met Rose last year at Plas Newydd, the National Writers' Centre of Wales.  It's great that the arts festival is expanding to include poetry.

Rose performed a sequence of poems on ageing, encouraging us to celebrate age.   Asanga's crystal bowls provided an ethereal soundscape.  Rose's words were clear, crisp and humane as she read the moving central sequence about her mother's dementia.  Then there was the shock of Asanga's scream, symbolising to me the severing of her mother's tenuous thread to this world.  But we didn't finish there.  In the end the final impression was that of the reconciliation of daughter to mother, mother to daughter.  The two performers both fell silent and in the quietness it was a while before anyone felt able to break the silence and applause.

On Sunday afternoon I visited the art exhibition at Llanbedrog (in St Pedrog's hall) and amongst the work of talented local artists I was able to see the collaboration by Rose and Asanga Wild Land.    Rose's poems were created first, followed by Asanga's paintings.  Rose writes: 'Seeing his interpretation of my words was another weave, another tumbling between.'  I was pleased to be able to buy the pamphlet which reproduces the poems alongside their accompanying pictures.

Oh, and, Rose, I loved the feathered fascinator!