Friday, 7 August 2020


Some years ago I took a Latvian visitor to some of the Wordsworth locations in Cumbria (she came through a local charity called 'Lithuanian Link').  In return she gave me an anthology of contemporary Latvian poetry in English, All Birds Know This (Tapals 2001).  So it was by chance that I discovered the work of the Latvian poet and translator, Juris Kronbergs, who has died recently at the age of 73.

I've been re-reading some of his poems this week. I've added 'Haymarket Hall' to my list of best shopping poems.  Here is a flavour from the market hall:

  'you could buy clotted curd, sprats and river lamprey
   light rye with caraway and heavy black bread
   musk melon minuets
   a mango tango, a kiwi twist
   light rye sings a nostalgic ballad
   about the homeland
   which unlike bread 
   cannot be sliced.' 

Kronbergs was born in 1946 and I suspect he knew a lot about sliced homelands.  'Time in Gotland' is a dialogue about the history of place names (and therefore political history) with a blind 90 year old woman.  The narrator explains
   'My parents came to Gotland at the beginning of 45 as refugees - in a fishing boat        from Liepaja' 

which he says was once called Libau ('the German name').  'Reval is called Talinn now.'  Königsberg is Kaliningrad [Russian].  The poem ends with the ironic
    'But Riga is still Riga, isn't it?'

'August Preludes' is a clutch of 6 micro-poems.  Here's number 4:
    'We're bound to the past
     Like autumn is to summer
     Like water to thirst.' 

(All quotations above translated by Mãra Rozitis)

Friday, 31 July 2020


Rory Waterman's words, not mine! They are the title of his 2013 Carcanet collection and are borrowed by Anna Dreda for the final selection of her virtual poetry breakfasts (see my previous post).  Rory's the featured poet and I was delighted that Anna included my poem 'The last day of summer' from my first collection.  Read and enjoy at:

Anna promises more breakfasts in September!

Wednesday, 29 July 2020


    'There are no bolts that do not exactly
     fit the gates into and out of the store-ring'

wrote David Scott in his early poem 'Kirkwall Auction Mart' (the first poem in his 1984 collection A Quiet Gathering)The poem would have been instantly recognisable by the Cumbrian farmers amongst whom David lived when he was vicar of Torpenhow.  'A nod decides the hidden bidders' and the buyer turns out to be 'a man of dull cloth' who was 'hunched over the front rail'.  Those bolts in the auction mart could be an analogy for the writing of a poet whose words exactly fit the subjects of his poems.

At the end of March I signed up for Anna Dreda's Wenlock Books' poetry breafasts - carefully curated selections of poems on a theme.  I was delighted to read this poem again in Anna's selection on the theme of Journeying which began with David Scott as featured poet with a commentary by David's wife, Miggy.  

The selection also included 'Skellig Michael: a pilgrimage' - a meditation on a visit to the remote island off the southwest coast of Ireland.  The opening words seized
 my attention immediately:

    'I was on the top of an illuminated wave ...
    The boat climbed the wave, sat on 
     top of it, and slid down the other side'

just like, he says, the boat on an upturned U in an illuminated manuscript.  Typically in his work he combines the ordinary (the lighthouse path 'thick with a high-pitched smell of bird lime') with a quiet, simple spirituality:

   ' ...  Stop.
    Breathe.  Let in the peace, and if you don't kneel there
    where on earth will you kneel?'

               *                         *                         *

David was a member of the Cumbrian Poets' workshop but had moved away long before I was invited to join the workshop in 2003.  But I did overlap with Jeremy Over, whose third Carcanet collection Fur Coats in Tahiti has been shortlisted for the Wales Book of the Year award (like me, Jeremy relocated from Cumbria to Wales a few years ago).  I very much enjoyed his recent interview at Poetry Wales.  There is a wonderful deadpan playfulness about Jeremy's poems.  One of my favourites in this collection is featured in the interview  - 'Red sock in yellow box'.  That red sock would unravel if I tried to extract bits of the poem to quote.  Read it at the end of the interview - I defy anyone not to laugh at the last verse.

The interview ends with some of Jeremy's advice to writers:

'Read widely and enjoy yourself';
'Write what you like and be happy';
and, more soberingly, 'You are doing some of the last things done by beings on this planet.  Generosity and beauty and basicness might be good ways to go' (quoting Anne Herbert).

We'll know the Wales Book of the Year results by the end of the week - good luck, Jeremy.

Thursday, 16 July 2020


Low water, early morning.  Sand damp and pristine.  The continuous sound of waves breaking on the beach.  A salt wind off the sea carrying the smell of rotting kelp.

The shallow water over the sand was a mint green colour with dark ink-blue stains where there were patches of seaweed.  Further out the sea was the blue of a cloundless sky.

I walked the length of Traeth Penllech, then scrambled up onto the cliff path. The shore became more stony and I looked down on little waves chasing playfully over almost submerged skerries - a different and more varied sound than the waves rolling over the smooth sand.  The last words of Dylan Thomas's 'Fern Hill' came into my mind, 'Though I sang in my chains like the sea' and I started wondering about the idea of the sea being in chains.

The cliff path edged past big fields, pale after recent sileage-cutting.  On the narrow border between farm and shore ragwort and meadowsweet were in flower, spear thistles were going to seed and wild carrots hosted red soldier beetles.  There was a fluttering of butterflies - large whites, meadow browns, red admirals.  I saw gulls and terns over the water and sand martins swooped overhead. 

One of those perfect days - a 'given day' as they say in Shetland.

                      *                         *                         *

On Sunday afternoon a nearby private garden was open for charity.  'Disordered times: an almost rainless spring', wrote Grevel Lindop is his 'Shugborough Eclogues' and I wondered how this garden would have survived months of drought followed by gales and recent rain.  July can be a time when gardens are getting a bit past it.

But this one was at its best.   It was my kind of garden - informal and colourful. I explored along narrow winding grassy paths with something new round each corner.  Five small pools contributed to the tranquil atmosphere.  There were some beautiful unusual flowers and shrubs but I was pleased to see that local cottage garden favourites had not been forgotten - senecio, lace-cap hydrangea, montbretia.

The garden alternated between enclosed spaces and views of the surrounding rocky hills.  In the distance was the blue line of the sea - the same coast where I had walked the day before.

Monday, 6 July 2020


Tall nettles cover up, as they have done
These many springs, the rusty harrow, the plough
Long worn out, and the roller made of stone.

As I look from my study window across the lane to the rusting semi-derelict barns on the other side of the field I'm reminded of these lines from 'Tall Nettles' by Edward Thomas.  The solstice has passed and summer's empire of tall plants is on the march.

Usually by now the verges of even the most minor lanes have been cut back hard, with a destructive effect on plants and animals.  But this year the Council have only cut back where safety is important.  And it shows. 

Willow herb, tattered cow parsley, hard knobs, ragwort, foxgloves with a few lingering fingers, and bracken predominate.  The climbers and twiners are growing rapidly - honeysuckle, brambles in full blossom, the white trumpets of convolvulus.  Other plants muscle in where they can get a stem in edgeways - yarrow, spires of wall pennywort, powder blue scabious.  Red campion stems seek the light, mixing pink flowers and rattling black seed heads.

I've been re-reading Joseph Brodsky's Summer Eclogue.  Sinister allusions lie half-hidden like broken bottles in long grass: 'the scruffy, whittled // thistle's heart looks like a land-mine which is / only half exploding', the 'sedge's sheathed blades';  'wheat and shabby darnel' are both sown by the 'same windy sower about whose humors / the place is still rife with all sorts of rumours', burdock has 'a crumpled / epaulet, showing us that it always / ranked just a private.'  

As the poem goes on there are more overt political references - to Stalin and Khrushchev, the Polish border, to China.  But there is a lightness of wit too - the 'seamless / flora's clear penchant to sunder / its ties with a botanist' or 'the white parts of bathers / mooning' as they wring out their swimsuits.   

Brodsky's wide-ranging poem begins from the profusion of summer:

I hear you again, mosquito hymn of summer
                                              ... The rosebays'
overgrown derricks - knee-deep or ankle-
deep in the couch-grass and bindweed jungle.

Joseph Brodsky 'Eclogue V: Summer' (translated by George L Kline and Joseph Brodsky) from To Urania: Selected Poems: 1965-85 (Viking 1988). 

Thursday, 25 June 2020


A weasel runs down the path and pounces into a tangle of bracken and brambles.  I startle a blackbird which flies protestingly for cover further down the hillside.  I am startled myself by a raven's bark, echoing round the cliff faces of the quarry.  But I meet no people on this sunwarming morning as I walk a path that takes me past the deserted Chwarel y Gwylwyr with its high cliffs gouged out of the hillside and its spoil heaped up below them.

Chwarel y Gwlywyr - literally the quarry of the watchers.  And even down here on the path there is so much to see.  The quarrymen would have looked down, as I do now, on the town of Nefyn with its harbour and the wide sweep of the beaches of Nefyn, Morfa Nefyn and Porth Dinllaen, and the Irish Sea beyond, today reflecting the bright blue of the sky.

But this would have been a much more industrial landscape in the 19th century when granite quarrying in North Wales was at its peak.  I imagine the voices, the clatter of machinery, the noise of breaking stone and the dirt.  Down by the shore the beaches (almost deserted today except for a few dog walkers and three girls on horseback) would have been busy with the building and repair of wooden sailing ships.   

Quarrying was heavy dangerous work and ran the risk of lung disease.  Labouring on a fine day like this with a fresh breeze would perhaps not have been too bad, but in the winter with low cloud clamped to the hills and horizontal driving rain coming in off the sea it would have been grim.  Myrddin ap Dafydd (writer, publisher and current archdruid of Wales) has written about the men coming to work, bend double against the wind:

They are tied to earning their living from this rock,
as if they chiselled it with their fingernails, summer 
or winter, it's the same yoke of stone on their shoulders.

But they, on the path in the sky, bending, stumbling
to the top of the mountain, they are the
cornerstones of our walls - and we, so far from the 
wind that cuts like a knife, are shaped from what 
they once were.  *

With the rapid expansion of Britain's towns and cities in the 19th century there was a huge demand for granite setts for paving the streets.  The setts must have made a statement - solidity, permanence, prosperity.  They provided a better grip for horses and today have a traffic calming effect.  Many of them are serviceable well over a century later.  I think of the setts still paving Criffel Street, the wide main street of the (now faded) seaside resort of Silloth on the Solway Firth, or the streets of Edinburgh's elegant New Town, or the inner city roads of Birmingham where my grandfather and uncle had their printing and stationery works in a (now demolished) smoke-blackened red brick building.  

The huge amount of stone waste on the hillside reminds me of a poem ('Spoil') in Tim Cresswell's Plastiglomerate, a collection of hard-hitting environmental poems I'm reading at the moment. Rocks are:

dumped by some incontinent Goliath after the
good stuff's been extracted   ruin and plunder

But it was work and paid better than farm work. People came not just from the peninsula but from other parts of Britain to work in the quarries.  Terraced houses were built for the workers and their families.  Chapel culture was strong.  I imagine people meeting to sing and to debate political issues.  How much did the immigrants assimilate into the local community?  Did they become bilingual?  How many of them stayed for the rest of their lives?  How many left to work in the cities whose streets were paved with the setts they had quarried?

In Ioan Roberts' book on the peninsula there is a photograph of a group of workmen in a nearby quarry.  They are standing in front of massive blocks of granite with a heap of smaller broken rocks in front of them.  Iron rails lead out of the picture. The men look seriously at the camera, their clothes covered in stone dust, caps their only head protection.  There are three dogs - a collie, a corgi and a large black dog with a greying muzzle.  Were they brought along for the photograph?  Or did they loiter around the quarry keeping the men company and chasing rats?  

The dogs remind me how little I know of what it was really like.  The path takes me to the massive stone incline constructed across the spoil heap to take the quarried stone down to the shore at Wern (where there are still a few stumps leading out to sea - the remains of the jetty which I remember from my childhood).  There is a flight of stone steps on either side of the incline and I pause at the top trying to imagine myself back in time.   

A couple of years ago I heard Angharad Price talking about T H Parry Williams' writing about a quarry spoil tip.  Each stone was handled by someone.  The stones were thrown into a wagon by men who wanted to turn stones into bread.  Ghostly quarrymen where stones roll to find a comfortable place.

Sycamore and bramble are taking over.   There is something elegaic and haunting about the remains, an atmosphere that James Naughton captured in his paintings of Welsh mines and quarries (see my post of 26 October 2018 Stone and Slate).  The place which was once the focus of so much activity is slipping away.   includes Myrddin ap Dafydd's quotation and gives more information about the granite quarries of the area.

Ioan Roberts Lleyn: the peninsula and its past explored (Gwasg Carreg Gwalch 2016) has the picture of the Eifl quarrymen on page 54.