Saturday, 25 October 2014


1  Which is the only city with a railway station named after a novel?
2  Which is the only city with a purpose-built national poetry library?
3  Which city has the tallest memorial to a writer?

Yes, you're right, Edinburgh.

I was reminded of these facts when I caught up with one of BBC Radio Scotland's series A History of Scottish Literature ("Wizards of the North") - a fascinating weekly programme covering 700 years of literary history.  Highly recommended.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the literary time scale, I went to Grasmere last week for the Faber New Poets' reading.  One of the new poets is Zaffar Kunial, the current poet-in-residence at the Wordsworth Trust.  Having had tantalising glimpses of his poetry ("Hill Speak" and "Placeholder") in the Trust's magazine The Messenger, I was looking forward to hearing Zaffar read from his first micro-collection Faber New Poets 11.

I was not disappointed.  Zaffar was on home ground, often read from memory and cast a spell over the audience with his thoughtful, considered, well-crafted poems.  He's a new poet to watch - I hope he will go great places.  The poems repay several re-readings and I'm enjoying doing just that and appreciating the depth of thought and allusion they contain.

Wouldn't it be nice if Faber had given his pamphlet a title and not just a number?

Friday, 17 October 2014


Just round the corner from my house is a cattle farm.  Sometimes the cattle bellow loudly, especially when the suckler herd calves are being separated from the cows.  In the morning the farmer apologises to me for the noise in case it kept me awake at night.  But it didn't.  I grew up on a small cattle farm and I never notice the bellowing - like someone who lives by a railway line never notices trains.

But reading Jim Carruth's Prodigal recently got me thinking about cattle poems.

Jim grew up on a dairy farm in the lowlands of Scotland and that background imbues many of his poems.  I was particularly taken with "Searchlight" which describes how as a toddler he was "double-wrapped in heavy woollens" and "wedged snug in the open mouth of a ten gallon can" while his parents milked their herd of Ayrshires.

It reminded me of another dairy farmer's son, Les Murray, whose poem "Infant among cattle" is the December poem in "The Idyll Wheel".  Here the small child is "safetypinned to a stocking / that is tied to a bench leg" by his parents who "machine the orphaned milk / from their cows".  The title and the month suggest a modern nativity but the poem ends with the arrival of the enormous bull who is driven away "with buckets and screams and a shovel" - he seems "a sad apparition: / a huge prostrate man, bewildered by a pitiless urgency".

You can read another of Jim's cattle poems, "Herd", at
It's a beautifully observed poem which ends with the declining sun stretching "a blessing across their backs" but also drawing the poet and reader into "the undertow / that's pulling us all back home".  It's a bringing-the cows-in-for milking poem, as is Norman MacCaig's "Fetching Cows" which features an alternative viewpoint of the collie - the cows are too obedient ("The collie's bored.  There's nothing to control").  Collie as control freak - some truth in that.

The subject of Les Murray's "The Cows on Killing Day" could not be more of a contrast.  It is devastatingly virtuosic and convincing, written in a collective first person singular cow/cattle viewpoint.  It begins "All me are standing on feed".  It is the viewpoint of the herd.

When I went to Tuscany recently I was introduced to Billy Collins' poem "Afternoon with Irish Cows" - this is an outsider's view of cows and  you will be glad to know that no cow was hurt in the making of this poem.  You can hear and watch the poet reading it on youtube

But where are the women writing about cows?  A quick search on-line threw up Red Devon (the title a reversal of the name of a breed of cattle) by Hilary Menos.  Steven Lovatt in the New Welsh Review describes the collection as "snarled in baler twine, interlarded with blood and tractor fuel, knee-high in thistles and positively slick with slurry".  Should be some cows in there somewhere.

Cows are more peripheral in some of the other poems I thought about.  Gillian Clarke's moving poem, "Marged", about women and what they do and do not share, imagines the previous inhabitant of her house, calling "through the mud ... her single cow / up from the field, under the sycamore".  Those few words convey the isolation and poverty of Marged.

Esther Morgan's "To Manor Farm Only" (Grace) is more about the absence of cows - they have been taken indoors for the winter.  As night falls "the stars [are] moving in their slow herds / as you leave the last gate open."

Then there is cow as Hebridean geography in Jane Routh's "The Red Cow" in Teach Yourself Mapmaking:
the red cow is
   "sitting on the waves and chewing a cud of tangle,
    the curve of her spine and bony haunches
    darker than a Hereford's, a rich red
    among the Glas Eileans and Sgeir Dubhs".
[green islands and black rocks]

Cows only make it by allusion into Josephine Dickinson's poem entitled "Where Were You When I Came In from the Evening Milking" (from The Voice).  The poem has an elegiac tone with the repetitions of "Where Were You?" and the heart-catching ending - "I thought for a second you were standing there. / It was not you, it was the setting sun."

It's clear that poems about cows are rarely a joking matter.  For light relief I turn back to Jim Carruth's Prodigal and "Vade Mecum", subtitled "Excerpts from the Farmer's Guide to Effective Foreplay completed in his early eighties by Wullie Douglas".  I am laughing aloud.

Monday, 6 October 2014


A person "who has not been in Italy is always conscious of an inferiority", said Dr Johnson, as a fellow Cumbrian writer reminded me a few weeks ago.  Well, now I have remedied that deficiency: I've visited the land of Dante and Petrarch at last.  

I stayed at Lippiano, a small village in the upper Tiber valley, for a week.  The village has a castle, a church, a palazzo, a post office, a bus stop and a bar.  At the weekend there was a fiesta, "The Fiesta of the Wooden Spoon" (I never found out why).  The hitherto quiet and almost deserted streets filled up with market stalls, music and dancing, and the bar did a roaring trade.  

The village is built of a beautiful yellow stone, like Cotswold stone.  Nearby are the heavily wooded Apennine Hills where wolves still live, perhaps descendants of the legendary wolf who suckled Romulus and Remus, founders of Rome.  I did not see a wolf but I did see the delightful little lizards that basked on the stones of the castle walls.  

It was a good week for working on poems.  I wrote one about the barrel-tiled roofs so characteristic of this part of Italy.  I went to see the Madonna del Parto fresco, painted by Piero della Francesca circa 1460 and wrote a poem about her too, only to find that Jorie Graham had got there first.  Fortunately her version is nothing like mine.  For some reason she titles the poem "San Sepulchro" although the fresco is in Monterchi.

When I finally got home on Saturday night there was the usual stack of bills and circulars waiting, and also a plump A5 envelope - Jim Carruth's latest poems, Prodigal, beautifully published by Mariscat press.  It's good to be home.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014


A new poem on the front page of a national newspaper?  Well done to the Guardian for doing just this  last Saturday when the press were catching up with the results of the Scottish referendum.  Well done too to Carol Ann Duffy who is so successfully fulfilling her role of poet laureate.  You can read the poem at

Monday, 15 September 2014


It’s almost 25 years since the Berlin Wall came down.  I’ve just returned from a visit to my good friend who lives in Germany.  I went on a German Wings flight from Manchester.  Browsing the in-flight magazine I read that the anniversary will be marked by an art installation of 12 kilometres of illuminated white helium balloons along the route of what was the wall.  The magazine contained interviews with some of the artists involved and each of them was asked about that momentous day of 9 November 1989.  Some were at school, some were students, some were involved in political activism, some were travelling.  All of them spoke of their amazement at what happened and the sense that they were involved in history in the making.  The white balloons symbolise freedom.  Hope for a world without walls.

My friend lives in Kiel, on the Baltic coast (or the Ostsee as it is called in German).   I always find the tidelessness of the Baltic strange.  No tide to make fresh sand twice daily for the first person’s footprints or for the latest sandcastle design.  I spent a day with a couple who live near the Olympic village built for the sailing competitions in the notorious 1936 and ill-fated 1972 Olympics.  They keep a small sailing boat, called the Hela, at the marina there.  The husband, Jürgen, showed me a photograph album and told me how he came to live in Kiel.  He was born in a town on the Baltic coast near Danzig (Gdańsk) in Poland.  His home town was an important naval base and a popular tourist resort.  From the photographs I could see that he came from a prosperous family with a large house.  There were pictures of his well-dressed grandparents, parents and their children. 

Soon all this was to change.  In 1939 the small five year old boy in the photographs was lifted up to see from an upstairs window the German battleship (the Schleswig Holstein) – it was the beginning of the Second World War as Germany invaded Poland.   In 1945 his family scavenged potatoes left over in harvested fields – the only thing they could find to eat.  Stalin’s Soviet army was advancing and the winter was bitterly cold.  The family, along with thousands of others, decided that their only option was to flee.  They had hoped to leave on the ship, the Wilhelm Gustloff, for Kiel.  It was luck, he said, that they were delayed by snow and ice, and missed the ship.  The ship was seriously overcrowded with 10,000 people on board.  It never got to Kiel but was sunk by torpedoes from a Soviet submarine.

The family reached Kiel by another ship, their only possessions their clothes and the photograph album which I was looking at almost 70 years later.  “The three greatest criminals of all time were Hitler, Stalin and Mao Tse-tung” said Jürgen with anger in his voice.  He had told me the defining story of his life.  In the enormous upheavals in Europe during and after the Second World War his family’s experience was one out of hundreds of thousands.  This November we will celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union – events whose impact is still being experienced today.  I thought of the poem “Home” by Philip Gross, written for his father who fled to the UK from Estonia at about the same Jürgen’s family fled to Kiel.

The place Jürgen came from is called Hel in Polish.  It is a long thin peninsular in the Gulf of Gdańsk.  In German its name is Hela, the name of Jürgen’s sailing boat anchored in the marina at Kiel, the place where his family started life all over again.

Thursday, 4 September 2014


I've just listened to Norman Nicholson: Something to Tell, Charlie Lambert's recent Radio Cumbria programme to celebrate the centenary of Norman Nicholson's birth.  He explores what Nicholson's writing, especially his poetry, means to people today.  I was delighted to find that Charlie had included my small contribution to the programme (originally broadcast on 25 August this year).

The 60-minute documentary can now be heard on the BBC i-Player