Thursday, 20 April 2017


In a week when every news bulletin seems to ratch up another shock 'The Great Passon' restored a sense of perspective. 
What a wonderful BBC radio 4 play this was - based on Johann Sebastian Bach's composition of the St Matthew Passion in 1727.  Whatever one's belief or lack of it the play was a moving imagining of the creation of this great work of music.  The play provided an intimate view of the Bach household with his wife Anna Magdalena smoothing over troubled waters, rehearsing wobbly singers and coping with the stillbirth of her child.  Bach came over as younger, less forbidding and more vulnerable than the famous portraits of him as an irascible bewigged middle aged man.  He still lived life on a short fuse but Anna Magdalena knew he was a driven man ('Nothing is ever enough' he says towards the end of the play) but there were also moments of great tenderness between him and his young wife.
We heard sections of the St Matthew Passion throughout the play and a good long chunk at the end.  These were performed by the choristers of St Mary's music school and the incomparable Dunedin Consort.  The music of the Passion is breath-stopping.
There is another 25 days to catch James Runcie's brilliant play on iplayer, with Simon Russell Beale as Bach and Melody Grove as Anna Magdalena.  Highly recommended.

Friday, 14 April 2017


The pick of the bunch - the Scottish Poetry Library has just published its annual guest-selected 20 "Best Scottish Poems", this time edited by Catherine Lockerbie.  

It's a wonderfully varied list and balanced equally between male and female poets. The poems are all on the SPL website, together with comments by the writer and the selector, and sometimes with a recording of the poet reading his/her work ("Outwith" is brilliantly performed by Katie Ailes). 

The subject matter includes the personal (Michael Faber's "Don't hesitate to ask"), social comment (Pippa Little's refugee poem "For Refuge" and Kate Tough's "People made Glasgow" are not to be missed), animals (sheep, pony, herring gull, cat).  There are poems on physics (J O Morgan's "We used to think the universe was made of" and Pippa Goldschmidt's "Physics for the unwary student") and list poems (Claire Askew's "Catalogue of my Grandmother's Sayings" and Andy Jackson's "Enquiry Desk").   There is a wry humour to several of the poems.  There are poems in Gaelic and Scots and Standard English. 

I have two particular favourites.   

James Aitchison's "Anthem"is a home-coming poem, about returning to Scotland, to "this land / of small things" - dwarf ferns, newts, frogs, a mistle thrush.  It's a fine poem where ageing and mortality are part of the natural course of things.  

Angus Peter Campbell's "Aig Cladh Hallan" / "At Hallan Cemetery" is reproduced in both Gaelic and English versions.  Despite the title it is anything but gloomy:

"This is the time, he says,
  to honour everything that is alive."  

To me there was an added dimension to this poem because I have been to Hallan several times when walking in the Outer Hebrides.  What finer place could there be to be buried than this western machair shore of South Uist with the sound of corn-crakes and oyster-catchers, the profusion of machair flowers and the Atlantic waves breaking on the shore?

To browse the poems go to and click on Poetry and then scroll down to Best Scottish Poems.

Monday, 3 April 2017


and other poems

Here we are, past the equinox, and all that photosynthesis is hurtling towards summer.  Every day I notice another flower to add to the spring tally – primroses, honesty, violets, wood anemones, ladies’ smocks, bluebells, and dandelions everywhere, making the predominant grass verge colour yellow, despite the daffodils starting to brown round the edges. 

But there were still streaks of snow in north facing gullies on Skiddaw today as I drove towards Cockermouth.  The literature discussion group I started several years ago is still going strong.   Today we all brought a spring poem to share.  I was both surprised and delighted to be invited to read my own poem “This crazy time of year” from The Art of Gardening.    It’s encouraging when people remember my poems!  I made a list of the other poems that were shared:
e.e. cummings “Spring is like a perhaps hand” [never use ‘perhaps’ is common creative writing advice!]
Seamus Heaney “Death of a naturalist”
John Clare “Peewit’s nest”
Edward Thomas “Adlestrop”
Gerard Manley Hopkins “Pied Beauty”
Robert Browning “Home Thoughts from Abroad”
Philip Larkin “At Grass”
John Clare “Summer Amusements”
Gillian Clarke “Miracle on St David’s Day”.

My poem includes the lines
   “In sandy fields ribbed with green
     lapwings tumble, polishing
     their wit with constant repetition”.
But this spring I have not seen or heard lapwings and neither had anyone else.  They are on the UK red list of conservation concern.  But we saw them very clearly in John Clare’s poem, “The peewit’s nest”.  He describes the nest on the bare earth, the greenish eggs speckled with different colours (including “chocolate” prompting speculation as to where Clare would have seen/consumed this luxury item), the chicks newly hatched running around with half a shell on their heads.  The flocks must have been numbered in their thousands in Clare’s day.

I was going to read Les Murray’s “The Broad Bean Sermon” (reprinted in On Bunyah which I am reading at the moment) but decided to redress the gender imbalance slightly by sharing Gillian Clarke’s “Miracle on St David’s Day”, a poem which always sends shivers down my spine.  Outside the daffodils flowered high above the river Derwent, the same river which flows past Wordsworth’s birthplace a short distance upstream in Cockermouth.

Monday, 27 March 2017


There are the conventional signs of spring and then there are bullfinches.

Despite a blizzard on Wednesday morning and torrential rain on Wednesday afternoon I know that spring is here because the bullfinches have arrived.   Every year for a few days in March the bullfinches work their way systematically through the buds on the apple tree branches.  They prefer Discovery  to Bramley.  I very rarely see them at other times of the year.  I check their conservation status – amber.  I know that in the past, when there were more commercial orchards and more bullfinches, they were killed in large numbers.  Like other finches they were also caught as cage birds.   (Old Mrs d’Urbeville tells Tess, “I want you to whistle to my bullfinches ... and we teach ‘em airs that way” but Tess is out of practice at whistling and ends up being instructed by the villainous Alec).  My trees are so large and overgrown that the difference the bullfinches make to the autumn crop is negligible.  I even wonder if the buds re-grow.  A late frost does far more damage.

Spring was much in evidence when I went up to Edinburgh on Saturday.  There were daffodils everywhere.  Particularly attractive were the miniature daffodils, a deep free-range egg yolk yellow, around the Episcopal cathedral in Palmerston Place.  Pigeons flapped and clapped their wings as they flew up from the pavement.  In Rose Street people spilled out of pubs and cafes to sit outside with their pints, cappuccinos and delicate patisseries (Milne’s Bar in Rose Street was the haunt of a previous generation of poets – Norman MacCaig, Edwin Morgan, George Mackay Brown and several others).  In St Andrew Square youngsters sat cross-legged on the grass, enjoying the warm sunshine.

As usual when I am in Edinburgh I visited the Scottish Poetry Library, skimmed the fine assortment of poetry magazines and borrowed my allocation of six poetry books (Tony Curtis, Elaine Feinstein, Paula Meehan, Angela Leighton, John Fuller, Martyn Crucefix).  I picked up a copy of the excellent Scottish Review of Books, which always has some poetry coverage.  The current issue has five fine poems by the late Elizabeth Burns, a review of John Burnside’s new collection Still Life with Feeding Snake (alongside his new novel Ashland and Vine), an article on Owen and Sassoon at Craiglockhart military hospital, and a review by Candia McWilliam of poet Brian Johnstone’s memoir Double Exposure.

Returning to Carlisle on the train I noticed a huge flock of hundreds (?thousands) of wild geese in fields somewhere between Edinburgh and Lockerbie.  I assumed they were preparing to migrate to their  breeding grounds.

Spring is here – watch this space (sun/rain/hail/snow/gales/more sun?).

For Tess and the bullfinches – see Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbevilles part 1 chapter 9.

Friday, 17 March 2017


For every poet, it is always morning in the world.

Derek Walcott's words.   I was saddened to hear tonight of the death of this great poet, a contemporary and friend of Seamus Heaney.  I first read Walcott's work about 20 years ago when I was teaching his poetry for a course comparing writers of the 1890s with the 1990s.   I was immediately attracted to this most maritime of poets - it is as if a tropical wind is blowing in off the sea and infusing his words.  

He came from the small Caribbean island of St Lucia and his work fused the tradition of English and European literature with the richness of his West Indian heritage.  He was a playwright and a painter as well as a poet, each discipline nourishing the others.

Re-reading some of his poems tonight his words acquire an added poignancy:

My first friend was the sea.  Now, is my last.
(from "The Schooner Flight")

I am your poet, yours,
all this you knew,
but never guessed you'd come
to know there are homecomings without home.

In the shallop of the shell,
in the round prayer,
in the palate of the conch,
in the dead sail of the almond leaf
are all of the voyages. 
(both extracts from "Homecoming: Anse Le Raye (for Garth St Omer)")

 Amongst his many awards was the Nobel prize for literature (1992).  In 2011 his collection White Egrets won the T S Eliot prize.  The final poem in this highly accomplished volume imagines that

This cloud is a page between whose fraying edges
a headland with mountains appears brokenly
and the scenery he goes on to describe is the writing of the poem until finally
a cloud slowly covers the page and it goes
white again and the book comes to a close.

The last lines of his moving elegy "Landfall, Grenada (for Robert Head, mariner) are a fitting tribute to him today:

Deep friend, teach me to learn
such ease, such landfall going,
such mocking tolerance of those
neat, gravestone elegies
that rhyme our end.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017


First the howl, or rather howls.

Today I was dismayed to read that America's National Endowment for the Arts is no more.  Can you imagine Arts Council England being scrapped? (no, please don't.  A few years ago the idea of closing public libraries would have been unimaginable).   It reminds me of Jane Austen's description of Sir Walter Elliot's futile attempts at economy by cutting off one or two unnecessary charities. There is an "obituary" for the NEA on the website  The obituary is heavy with irony, including one reason for the demise of the NEA - "It failed to make the case that the arts should mean more to ordinary Americans than whatever they did as children (overwhelmingly, Americans participate in the arts only when young)".  Sounds horribly familiar.

My other howl went up when I read that the wonderful CB editions list is now closed.  A fine small press run by Charles Boyle (who says he stood in a post office queue 1147 times during the 10 years of the press) it published amongst others, Beverley Bie Brahic's Hunting the Boar.  I was delighted to discover this accomplished writer through CB editions (whose graphic design is second to none).  The latest post on the lively Sonofabook blog written by Charles Boyle says that he is going into semi-retirement.  Let's hope that, like Mark Twain's death, rumours of the end of the press are greatly exaggerated.

But it's good to have some Hallelujahs for Words by the Water which is in full swing at Keswick.

Yesterday we had the treat of a double bill of Helen Farish and Adam O' Riordan reading "Poetry of Time and Place".  The pairing worked very well - there were several parallels between the two, particularly the importance of memory and nature in their work.

Last night I took part in the Celebration of Cumbrian Poetry in the Studio, a fund-raising event for RNIB talking books and the festival's own bursary scheme for young people.  The studio was full to capacity which was really encouraging.  The format - which to me seemed slightly crazy - of 9 poets each reading 2 poems for a maximum of 5 minutes went down well with the audience, several of whom said they enjoyed the variety.  At least there was no time to be bored.  I was last on and had chosen to read "Daffodils da capo"and "Nineveh".  The first poem likened daffodils to wind instruments (variations on the flower's "trumpet") and the second was about having a cup of coffee on the train.  Nothing too profound to wind up the proceedings.  As T S Eliot didn't say "Human kind cannot bear very much poetry".  But going last always runs the risk of being upstaged by the previous participants.  To my horror there had already been one wind instrument poem (Kim Moore) and one coffee poem (Helen Fletcher), but at least I didn't have to follow the Wonderbra in rhyming couplets (my worst ever poetry reading moment some years ago).  Kind soothers of delicate poetic souls told me it didn't matter because my poems were sufficiently different from those that had gone before.

I was encouraged to hear from the Matthews family who run the festival bookstore in the theatre foyer that books sales have been doing well this year.  It's good that our local independent booksellers (Bookends and Bookcase) are a vital part of Words by the Water.  Long may it continue.

On the end of the National Endowment for the Arts read

Charles Boyle's blog is at

I first heard the phrase "A Howl and a Hallelujah" from Gillian Clarke as a description of the essential ingredients of a poem.