Friday, 17 April 2015


The calendar on my study wall is by Caroline Davey.  Each month has a painting of a quiet location in North Wales and a seasonal flower.  April shows the derelict water wheel at Melin Ty Fair and Bluebells, Bwtsias y Gog.  I was intrigued by this.  I know bluebells in Welsh as Clochau'r Gog, which translates as Cuckoo's Bells. Bwtsias y Gog is the delightful Cuckoo's Boots.  I imagine a Beatrix Potter illustration with the blue petals curling jauntily over the cuckoo's legs like the tops of jester's shoes.  I'm not sure how the claws fit in.

Unfortunately cuckoo numbers in Britain have halved in the last two decades.  I haven't heard the cuckoo in this part of North Cumbria for several years.

R S Thomas wrote a poem called "Abercuawg" in which he asked "where is Abercuawg, that / place where the cuckoo's sing?"  It is very difficult to find the place where the cuckoo sings - he is heard rather than seen.  Abercuawg, the place where the cuckoo sings, is an idealised, mythical place, which we seek but do not find.  "Abercuawg/ is not here now, but there."  It is an image of the seeking but not finding in life that is so embedded in the thought and poetry of R S Thomas.

On Monday I am off to North Wales for 2 weeks.  The first week I will stay at the National Writers' Centre for Wales at Llanystumdwy for a poetry masterclass with Gillian Clarke and Maura Dooley.  The second week I will be staying at Rhiw within walking distance of R S Thomas's old home, Sarn Cottage.  I hope I will hear the cuckoo and see his boots.

Monday, 6 April 2015


It's Easter week-end.  I think of the Christian monastic tradition of being without possessions. I'm the exact opposite.  I have too much stuff.

I've been triaging furniture in my father's house - stuff to keep, stuff to go to charity and stuff that's going on a one-way journey to the skips at the recycling centre.  It's a sad task, clearing my father's furnishings before new people move into his house.

I am under strict instructions from my two sons to keep various items for them.  Their earliest memories of my father are of sitting with him in his big farmhouse kitchen with the oak table and the three-decker dresser.  But unfortunately one of my sons has a top floor flat with limited space and the other works abroad.  So, for a while my house is going to be seriously over-furnitured.  Maybe I should put a time-limit on how long I'm prepared to live in a self-storage facility so that I don't turn into a batty old woman whose house is so crammed with stuff that she has to sleep in the coal-shed with the cat.

But while I'm discovering buttons, pins and bus tickets in the corners of old cupboards I encourage myself by thinking of poems whose existence depends on stuff/junk.

Adam Thorpe's moving sequence in memory of his father, "Clearing Your Study", in his collection Voluntary, begins
     "Private realm of ...  typed letters;
      ...  unused Green Shield stamps."

Josephine Dickinson's "The White Scrap" (Scarberry Hill) is about finding torn-up paper:
     "... For some days
      I find scraps of paper, first one then a-
      nother, fluttering in the weeds beside the
      road ..."
(Notice the torn-up line endings.)

At my lowest ebb I feel as if the meaning of life consists in moving objects from one place to another.  Stuff conforms to a law of physics, the Conservation of Matter, illustrated by Amy Clampitt's "Real Estate" about a Third Avenue tenement that is getting redeveloped:
     "... One gelded
      pawnshop, until last week, still brooded,

      harbouring among tag ends of pathos,
      several thirty-year-old umbrellas."
The proprietor
     "... advertised a sale.
      Still nothing moved.  Finally, a U-Haul

      truck carried everything off somewhere.
      Hail, real estate!  Bravo, entrepreneur!"
            (from What the Light was Like)

But magical transformations are possible.  Scrap metal can become striking sculptures, as in the art created by Helen Denerley.  Michael Longley has written as series of sonnets for her in his collection Snow Water:

     "... Translations, Helen, metaphors.
      The mare and stag you made from scrap metal
      Are moving in low motion across your land"
            ("Woodsmoke I")

I look at my father's furniture.  In The Art of Gardening I wrote about the cabinet maker who constructed the carved bureau which has been passed down the family for generations:

     "There is a dialectic to cabinet making -
      outside the beeswax surface of satin sweetness
      inside the paler wood, natural, undressed
      a new dimension of intimacy
      secret enclosure
      memory shelter
      like a house within a house.
      The dovetailed drawers he made
      join him to me
      as I open the chest
      and begin to write."
           (from "The Poetics of Space after Gaston Bachelard: 3 Chest")

Friday, 20 March 2015


I'm writing this on the day of the eclipse and the vernal equinox.

Here in Cumbria there was a fair amount of cloud playing hide and seek with the moon so the eclipse was a case of now you see it, now you don't.  Nevertheless it was impressive.  There was that weird light you get with an eclipse and it seemed as if the moon was swallowing the sun.  I was reminded of R S Thomas's poem "The moon in Lleyn": "the serpent / digests the egg."

Words by the Water began in winter and ended in spring.  There was snow on the mountains but during the week daffodils started to emerge with some conviction and on the last day a wild plum tree was in blossom in the car park.

The festival began for me with my first night poetry reading.  Thank you to everyone who came - it was lovely to see you in the studio theatre.  My reading served as an introduction to the Out of Time exhibition in the theatre's Friends' Gallery.  A cross border collaboration in more ways than one.  My poems, Horatio's photographs.  I'm from the English side of the border, Horatio from the Scottish side.  After my event I was back in the studio to hear Blake Morrison read from his fine new collection Shingle Street.

There's always a real buzz about the theatre during the festival.  Thousands of people come for events throughout the week.  I enjoyed catching up with friends and meeting new people.  I heard talks on the Arts, Politics, the Peasants' Revolt, literary visitors to Mirehouse, the Middle East and on landscape.  On impulse I bought too many books.

I chaired the last speaker of the festival, Rose Mitchell, with her beautiful book of maps selected from 700 years of cartography (both real and imaginary) in the British Archives at Kew.  After her talk the crowds melted away.  By 7 o clock only the hard-working staff from Bookends were left, packing away their remaining unsold stock.

When I had sorted out the exhibition catalogues for the theatre box office to sell during the remaining time of the exhibition (it will be taken down on April 7)  I walked out of the deserted foyer and across the empty car park.  It felt like school after the last day of term.

But there in the car park was that wild plum blossom heralding spring.  And in my head were the memories of the people I had met during the week and the stimulating words and ideas I had heard.

The festival is over for another year but the dates are already booked for 2016.

Sunday, 1 March 2015


This is going to be a busy week.  On Wednesday we'll be setting up the exhibition of poems and photographs for Out of Time, then on Friday I'll be reading the poems in the Studio theatre with Horatio's poems projected onto the wall behind me.  Friday will be the first day of Words by the Water, Keswick's annual literary festival.

I'm writing this on St David's Day and a few daffodils have made an appearance in honour of the patron saint of Wales.  I very much enjoyed hearing the first National Poet of Wales, Gwynedd Lewis, on BBC Radio 3's Private Passions at lunchtime today.  This is a lovely programme, an upmarket version of Desert Island Discs.  It's like listening to a private conversation between Michael Berkeley and his guests and the choice of music is always surprising.

Earlier this week the David Cohen Award was given to the poet Tony Harrison, whose intelligent, gritty and controversial work has always engaged with things that really matter.  He's 77 and planning a new book to come out when he's 80.  He admires Matisse who did some of his best work in his 80s: "I'm hoping to have a ninth decade like Matisse", he said.

The David Cohen doesn't have the razzamatazz of the Man Booker, the Whitbread or the Costa - perhaps because it doesn't have to advertise anything.  But, unlike the more well-known prizes, it's probably the literary award most worth receiving because it is given for a lifetime's achievement, not just for one book.  Two poets have won before - Derek Mahon and Seamus Heaney.

The winner is given the additional Clarissa Luard Award to donate to a literary charity.  Tony Harrison has donated his to the Wordsworth Trust at Grasmere.  Much appreciated, I imagine, after Arts Council England withdrew its funding for the Trust's contemporary poetry programme.  Ironically, the Clarissa Luard Award is funded by ... Arts Council England.

Can we hope for some Grasmere summer readings after all?

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)