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

Monday, 1 September 2014


I’m staying in a cottage near Aberdaron with beautiful westering views across the Irish Sea, a copy of R S Thomas’s Selected Poems in the bookshelf and a picture of RS on the sitting room wall (a late portrait with his characteristic wild man of Wales expression).  The owner tells me that RS used to come round to watch the rugby on the family’s television.

Although R S Thomas wrote his early “Iago Prytherch” poems at Manafon and spent 13 years at Eglwys Bach, it is Llŷn with which he is most associated – a “bough / of country that is suspended / between sky and sea” (“Retirement”).   So many of his poems contain Llŷn allusions and his most profound responses to the natural world were inspired by the landscapes and seascapes of the peninsula.

In my teens and twenties I was a volunteer gardener at Plas yn  Rhiw and I remember Honor Keating telling me that R S was going to have Sarn Cottage, the ancient cottage which sensibly sits sideways to the wide sweeping bay of Porth Neigwl (Hell’s Mouth is its English name).  The poet was about to become Vicar of Aberdaron, Y Rhiw and Llanfaelrhys.  When he retired Sarn Cottage was his home until a few years before his death in 2000.

I wander down to Sarn Cottage, quieter now than in R S Thomas’s day due to a couple of landslips (near the edge of which the cottage perches precariously).  The road which used to be right outside the poet’s gate has been diverted further inland through the woods where I would meet him out for an afternoon walk.  The cottage is concealed now by overgrown hedges and trees, but the grass is short on the path to the door.  Here is the source of the poem “Sea Watching” in which the poet describes himself as “the hermit  / of the rocks, habited with the wind / and the mist.”

My friend asks me what other poets are associated with Llŷn.  I can only think of two who live/lived here.  I admire the work of Christine Evans, particularly her long poem Burning the Candle and her beautiful Bardsey book (prose and poems) with superb photographs by Wolf Marloh.  I bought her collection Growth Rings on a visit this week to the fine art gallery, Plas Glyn y Weddw, at Llanbedrog.   Who else?  In the 1920s the South African poet, Roy Campbell, lived for a couple of years very near the cottage where I am staying.   He and his wife read Milton and Shakespeare aloud to each other and lived a subsistence of lifestyle.   Campbell boasted of a Hemingway-style exploit when he rowed a doctor out to Bardsey Island in a terrible storm to attend a difficult confinement.  The local boatmen refused to attempt the crossing to the island whose Welsh name, Ynys Enlli, means the island in the current.  They knew its treacherous tides too well.  Campbell likened a certain kind of poetry to the kind of self-sufficient existence he and his wife lived on the peninsula:  “Write with your spade, and garden with your pen, / Shovel your couplets to their long repose. / And type your turnips down the field in rows” (“The Georgiad”).

Alas, I am ignorant of the Welsh language poets, only reading snippets of them in translation.  But there are several poets writing in English who have visited the area and written about it – Gillian Clarke (“Fires on Llŷn”), John Fuller (“Nant Gwrtheyrn”, “Walking below Carn Guwch”), Patrick McGuiness (his brilliant “Walls Lleyn” includes spaces through which to see the sky).  I discover more writers in A Llŷn Anthology (edited by Dewi Roberts) which I buy on a visit to Plas yn Rhiw on Sunday afternoon.

Llŷn is a place of poetry.  That’s reinforced by a visit to the new Porth y Swnt visitor centre.  On arrival is,  appropriately, R S Thomas’s poem “Arrival” (painted on driftwood planks) - I suspect RS would have been horrified – “The Small Window” comes to mind.  There are poems by several writers throughout the centre and one wall has a beautiful display of poems on canvas roped to posts, suggesting the land and the sea.  The poems and their writers are listed in the information leaflet – I ask about an anthology and am told that they are working on one.  Later in the day I see a poster advertising a reading of R S Thomas’s poems in Aberdaron church – the “stone / church, that is full only / of the silent congregation / of shadows and the sea’s / sound” (“The Moon in Lleyn”). 

This is a landscape that gets under a writer’s skin.  The cottage I am renting for the week is just a short walk from Porth Ysgo where my poem “Seal” is set.


We skitter
past derelict mine workings,
scratch through gorse –
its yellow flowers
spicing the spring air –
and leap the last stone steps
to the shore.

They’re ahead of me,
tearing off clothes,
printing the soft sand
with their feet
gasping and shrieking
as their winter skin
hits the nacreous sea.

They swim
with youth’s easy grace.
The cove’s gentle arms
enclose them.
A black float
off the headland
marks where men drown
their pots each night.

A dark head glistens –
they are joined
by another.  No one
sees or hears him arrive.
They tread water and watch
a whiskered face
shining fur
heavy shoulders
the plectrum eyes of an old man.                                                                                     

Weeks later, walking
past uncut oats and kale,
I hear seals out on the skerries
half a mile away.
Ghostly, amelodic,
their voices
not a lament or cry
but a cantata

of abstract sound.
The music
of sea caves and tide race,
singing for the days
we hide inland.
I think of storms
and my two sons asleep
sailing on a sea of dreams.

© Mary Robinson from The Art of Gardening (Flambard 2010)

Wednesday, 20 August 2014


Having friends to stay is the perfect reason for taking time out and visiting places I've never been to before.

One day last week we went to Dalemain near Ullswater.  An afternoon was not long enough to enjoy the house and gardens.  I was particularly delighted to see Lady Anne Clifford's day book on display. Centuries after her birth in 1590 Lady Anne is still regarded in Cumbria as something of a local heroine, even a proto-feminist.  It took decades for her to gain her inheritance and when she did she embarked on a busy schedule of building and repairs to her own property and to various churches.  She was one of those redoubtable independent-minded noblewomen born in Queen Elizabeth I's reign.

Her day book was open and showed the entries for the last days of her life, when she was clearly house-bound but considered it important to record the hours (or get her secretary to do it for her when she was too frail).  You can buy the diaries of Lady Anne in paperback but to me there is something very moving about seeing not just the words but the original manuscript.

I have the same feeling when I see Dorothy Wordsworth's journal in the Dove Cottage Museum - open at the day of her brother William's wedding to Mary Hutchinson.  Dorothy's emotional turmoil is revealed by the scored out lines describing wearing her future sister-in-law's wedding ring on her finger all through the previous night.

In his poem "On Visiting Keats House" David Scott describes how Keats's letter to Fanny takes him by surprise - "the brown ink of the poet's handwriting:/ neat, round and vertical", the "postscript full of dashes/ and torment" and the recollection of the ring which Keats sent to Fanny "which she hid under her glove".

The power of original ink and paper.  It's as if the past bursts into the present and the centuries fall away.

Monday, 4 August 2014


Sometimes I wonder if the meaning of life consists in moving physical objects from one place to another.
My son with the strong organising gene has been home for a week.  Together we tackled a job I had been putting off for ages – sorting the den/box room/glory hole/junk room.  We found a few treasures to keep and put them into clearly labelled lidded plastic boxes.   But mainly we persevered with a major decluttering task, sorting stuff for recycling, charity shops, ebay.  We steeled ourselves to be ruthless and found it a liberating experience.  If we hadn’t used something or looked at it for a couple of years we threw it out.  The room was transformed into a storage facility with space for actual storage instead of a no-go area because you couldn’t get beyond the doorway.
But there were other things I thought might turn up but didn’t – the spare keys to a car I no longer own, a watch I was sure I had put in a drawer a couple of years ago.  I thought of Elizabeth Bishop’s brilliant, unsettling villanelle “One Art” which begins “The art of losing isn’t hard to master”   
Somewhere in the universe there must be a black hole swallowing odd socks, coat hangers, paperclips – those things that no matter how many I buy always seem to diminish in number.
Today I called to see a friend who is moving house tomorrow and, by a strange co-incidence, this morning I read Lorna Goodison’s poem “One in a Long Line” (from Oracabessa).  It’s a wonderful poem from a great collection.  It’s about “sojourning women” – the Virgin Mary fleeing into Egypt (New Testament), Hagar cast out by Abraham (Old Testament), Khadija, the very successful merchant who became the first wife of the Islamic Prophet Muhammad.  The poem is a reminder that being on the move is part of life for so many women:
            “Held always before you examples
              of sojourning women going far
              for substance of things hoped for.”
“Nothing stays put” as Amy Clampitt says in her poem of that title (apart from anything else, one of the best shopping poems ever).  “All that we know, that we’re/made of, is motion.”

Wednesday, 23 July 2014


It’s open gardens season again.   On Sunday my neighbour’s garden was open, and, having seen some of his early pioneering work on a difficult site I was keen to see how his garden had progressed. 

He has transformed the steeply sloping ghyll into a series of beautiful viewpoints, each colourful planting giving a glimpse of the next group of flowers and shrubs further on.  Wild flowers and self-seeded plants rub informal shoulders with garden plants and shrubs given him by friends.  The whole effect blends beautifully with the surrounding fields and woodland.  The garden incorporates two ponds fed from the stream.  
Afterwards there were teas in the village hall and – not sure how we got onto this topic – I ended up talking to two literary friends about touring theatre performances we had seen in the county.  Brilliant theatre companies (some now defunct), actors who are now famous, plays by Shakespeare, Brecht, Hare.  I realised after a while what we were talking all the time in the past tense.  And I realised the reason – Arts Council cuts.  While we do have a fine theatre at Keswick, Cumbria is a huge county and there is hardly any high quality touring theatre here now. 
On Tuesday of last week I was at one of the Grasmere summer poetry readings run by the Wordsworth Trust.  The first Grasmere reading I ever went to was in 2001.  I had long been an admirer of Gillian Glarke’s poetry so the opportunity to hear her in person was too good to miss.  I was not disappointed – she was a most inspiring reader and her explanations of her poems enabled me to appreciate them at a deeper level.
Last week Philip Gross opened his reading with – a smile.  He looked so happy to be able to share his work with us.  It was an immediate connection with the audience.  I smiled back – I hope everyone else did too! 
Over the years I’ve been to many Grasmere readings and it’s been fascinating to see how different poets present their work.  Andrew Greig and Helen Farish recited from memory, only occasionally glancing at the page – very good for eye contact and projecting their voices.  Robin Robertson plunged straight in without preliminaries.  David Morley included audience participation.  Josephine Dickinson brought along a harpist and the ethereal music acted as a counterpoint to her spellbinding reading.  There have been translation events too – Persian Poets a couple of years ago were very moving and I enjoyed Menna Elfyn’s bilingual reading earlier this year.
Poignantly memorable was Seamus Heaney’s visit four years ago.  He read for an hour in the dim light of St Oswald’s church, his soft Irish voice penetrating deep into our hearts.  The evening had an elegiac quality I only fully recognised later – it was Heaney’s valedictory to Grasmere.
Another unforgettable reading was Paul Muldoon’s in 2003.  I find some of Muldoon’s poems quite demanding on the page, but when he read them aloud all the difficulties disappeared and the poems became absolutely clear.  That was the evening an elderly gentleman asked “Why is this poetry?”  The implied  criticism in the question goaded Muldoon into a response which lasted about twenty minutes and was the most powerful defence/definition of poetry I have ever heard.
At poetry readings I have discovered the work of several poets previously unknown to me.  I have bought Collected Poems, Selected Poems and single collections.  A good poetry reading is “soul-food”, as Scots Makar Liz Lochead said at Grasmere in 2012.  

It’s therefore particularly disappointing to hear that in the latest round of Arts Council grants/cuts the Wordsworth Trust’s contemporary literature programme was a loser – to the amount of £80,000.  I hope the Trust will find innovative ways to continue to bring contemporary poets to Grasmere – we need that soul food.›Culture›Arts funding