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)

Thursday, 5 February 2015


Candlemass Day (2 February) comes mid-way between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox.

Last week the snowdrops opened, traditional Candlemass flowers, splashes of white under bare winter trees.  On Thursday the snow came, the A66 was closed and the city of Carlisle was gridlocked by road accidents.  Watching the flakes fall from the warmth of my living room I thought of Louis MacNeice's poem "Snow":

"The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was/ Spawning snow and pink roses against it ...World is suddenner than we fancy it".

The next day everything had settled down and most roads were passable again.  The title of this post (translated from the Gaelic and not strictly true last week) comes from aonghas macneacail's long poem "the great snow battle" in his bilingual collection laughing at the clock (you get used to the absence of initial capitals after a while).  If you thought there was not a lot to say about snow you should read his ten pages of virtuoso poetry about the "marvel of snow" ("virginal snow', "faultless snow", "slaughtering snow").

On Sunday I walked with friends by the Solway.  The snow lay right down to the shore line.  Flocks of wintering waders diligently followed the retreating tide.  Across the estuary the Scottish hills were cloaked in white and sparkled in the piercing low sunlight.  I thought of the country saying "On Candlemass Day you should have half your straw and two thirds of your hay'.  Good farming advice if metrically awkward.

Today I went up to Nether Row and walked along the track through Potts Gill on the Caldbeck Fells.  When I returned home the snow had thawed in my garden and the snowdrops had reappeared.  In Welsh snowdrop is lili wen fach - little white lily.  At Plas yn Rhiw in North Wales the snowdrops in the woodland surrounding the house are like great white linen sheets laid out on the ground to bleach in the sun.

Another annual snowdrop spectacle is in the garden of a large old house a few minutes' walk from where I live.  The house had been derelict for years when I wrote this poem.  The house has since been sold and made habitable again and I'm glad to say the snowdrops are still there.


It could be Miss Havisham's house, shabbier by the year,
cream stucco and yellow door greying down to dust,

but on the lawn a bridal veil of snowdrops,
furtive, wax candle white, heads bowed as if come

to early, dreading the inevitable blows -
this year may be the last wedding of the house.

Mary Robinson

Thursday, 22 January 2015


"Sir Nicholas Winton" - I was half listening to BBC Radio 4's Midweek when I heard his name.  His daughter, Barbara, was speaking about her biography of her father If It's Not Impossible.

I did a quick mental calculation - he's 105!  I heard about Nicholas Winton in 2010 on my first visit to Prague (where he is held in great esteem).  A few months before my visit his statue had been unveiled in the city.  Last October he flew to Prague for the award of the Order of the White Lion (the Czech Republic's highest civilian honour) by the President at Prague Castle.

Nicholas Winton was only 29 and was working as a broker in the City of London when he organised the Czech Kindertransports to evacuate mainly Jewish children from Prague.  Also on the Radio 4 programme was Lord Alf Dubs who, at the age of 6, had been on one of those trains.  He had found it a confusing and bewildering experience but he remembered the older children cheering when the train crossed the border from Germany to Holland.  He arrived in London with his rucksack on his back - just like W G Sebald's Austerlitz.

Later in the day I picked up a leaflet at the library for Holocaust Memorial Day (next Tuesday 27 January - the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz).  The leaflet is a reminder not only of the Holocaust and the Nazi atrocities but also of the genocides in Cambodia in the 1970s, Rwanda in 1994 and Bosnia in 1995.  (By coincidence I've just finished reading the novel The Last Hundred Days by poet Patrick McGuinness about the fall of the Ceausescu regime in Romania in which he describes a visit by a Bosnian Serb delegation from a Yugoslavia on the point of collapse.)  Most chilling of all the accounts in the booklet was the page headed "Genocide in Darfur 2003 - Present".  No end date.

There are other places in the world today where people are persecuted for being from the "wrong" race or tribe or religion, or the "wrong" branch of the same religion.  The message of the booklet is that we must remember the past and speak out in the present.

On the day (23 July 2008) Radovan Karadzic was arrested for the massacre of at least 7500 Bosnian Muslims in the forest of Srebrenica I wrote a poem called "As the grass of the field"  I couldn't get the news out of my head.  I watched a contractor cut round and round the hay field next to my garden.  I seemed to be watching an allegory.   I wrote

   " ... a crow scans the long grass under siege
    the tractor advances swathe
    by felled swathe
    on the field's bestiary ... "

The small creatures of the field have no escape from destruction.

    " ... all I can think of are the places
    (mute on my atlas
    - sixty miles to the inch)
    snared between capital letters
    of non-existent states ... "

When Nicholas Winton saw persecution (and feared worse) he decided to do something.  There was "no permission from the British government and they had no financial means to get out the children.  So I merely said if it was possible I would do it."

(The title of this post "The Power of Good" is taken from the 2002 Czech-Slovak film on Nicholas Winton and the Prague Kindertransports)