Friday, 2 December 2016


Two days in Edinburgh this week.  Another country.  Travelling up on the train on Tuesday morning I alternated between reading Eamonn Grennan’s poems and looking at the landscape.  Grennan’s fine collection The Quick of It is made up entirely of short ten-line poems.  They reminded me of Seamus Heaney’s Squarings – vivid word sketches, each one a miniature masterpiece of detail and craft.   The low light, less than a month before the winter solstice, illuminated every fold in the land: a dusting of snow on the hills, pale bristly stubble fields, the long shadows of isolated farms and barns, tussocks of reeds alongside fast flowing streams. The scenery gradually changed from countryside to urban, first suburbs and allotments, soon flats, warehouses, an Odeon sign, offices, Haymarket station and finally Waverley. 

My first destination was (as always in Edinburgh) the Scottish Poetry Library.  I browsed the excellent selection of poetry magazines, dipped into the pamphlets upstairs and bought a book from the bright new shop. There are always interesting freebies at the library and I picked up John Burnside’s essay A Poet’s Polemic to read later.

I hadn’t intended to go to the National Library but the map exhibition was irresistible, especially having read Tom Pow’s beautifully illustrated Concerning the Atlas of Scotland and other poems written when Tom was Bartholomew writer in residence at the library in 2013.  “Each of our lives traces its own map onto the shared terrain”, wrote Rebecca Solnit and Tom used this quotation as the epigraph to his collection.

At 4.15 there was just time to call in at the National Museum to check out things on my must-see list.       The first was the church ship model, one of the items in Neal MacGregor’s Shakespeare’s Restless World (broadcast on BBC Radio 4).  The ship was made to be displayed in a church as a votive offering to God for the safe return of James the Sixth (or First, depending on which side of the border you are) after his marriage to Anne of Denmark, sister of King Christian the Fourth of Denmark (he of the long plait and one of the main characters in Rose Tremain’s brilliant novel, Music and Silence).  James feared for his life on the return voyage from Scandinavia – and he believed that the terrible storms which almost overwhelmed the ship were the work of Scottish witches (hence the link with Shakespeare’s Macbeth).  The model ship is only about 65cms high, darkly painted in red and black, fully rigged in thick black threads, and decorated in gold and silver paint.  Mermaids clutch their fleshy, fishy tails but the ranks of cannons poking from the hatches above them are a serious reminder that this sailing ship was no romantic vessel but a warship. 

After being mistakenly directed to the St Finan exhibit I finally found St Fillan.  I wanted to look him up after one of the North Cumbria Stanza Group poets read a poem about St Fillan at a recent workshop.   The cult of St Fillan centred on Strathfillan Priory (Glendochart) and the museum has the three remaining relics associated with the saint.  There is a cast bronze bell or “bernane” (c. 900 AD), a silver gilt crozier shrine or “coigrich” (15th century but with earlier elements) and a bronze crozier head (11th century) rediscovered within the crozier shrine in the 19th century.   The coigrich incorporated a large lozenge-shaped crystal and  had the most beautiful, intricate metal work, so fine it resembled embroidery.  If I should need it any time it was good to know that the bernane was a cure for madness.  Legend and history mingled together in a glass case. 

Meeting up with old friends was another delight of my visit.  We shared news and memories and good food.  Then it was back over the border on Wednesday night.   

Thursday, 24 November 2016


“Before the leaves change, light transforms these lucid
speaking trees”
                                          (Anne Stevenson “Stasis”)

Every day I look out of my dining room window and see the leaves changing.  This morning the sunlight filters through amber leaves on oak and beech.  The ash’s lemony leaves fell weeks ago, the golden horse chestnut’s only recently.  The birch’s coppery foil leaves have gone.  The quickthorn hedge is bare but there’s a good stock of haws for the birds.   My garden is in a state of transformation from its enclosed summer appearance (a place for green thoughts in a green shade) to its open winter aspect when I can stand at the kitchen window and see vehicles on the lane half a mile away.

That opening quotation from Anne Stevenson’s poem comes from her sequence “Sonnets for Five Seasons”.  I can never tally four seasons into the twelve months so the Scottish and Northern English idea of five seasons seems to fit my experience of the year much better.  In Scots the five seasons are Lent, Simmer, Hairst, the Back-End, Winter.  With the shift to cold frosts and stormy weather I feel we are now in the back-end, the days shortening to the Solstice, the back-end of the old year.  But the trees haven’t quite succumbed to winter.

Last weekend we had a reunion – five of us who were students together in Liverpool in the seventies.  The last time we all got together was several years ago when we were juggling childcare, work, aged parents.  I wrote about that in “Reunion”, a poem which found its way into The Art of Gardening.  Now, the focus of our lives is different.  We have mostly become the older generation, our offspring have left home and some of them have produced children of their own, most of us have retired from the day job, several of us have moved house or are planning to move.  Life has turned out differently from what we expected when we were students.   For some there was a sense of a new freedom, for others a sense of constriction.  For all of us a new awareness that we are at a time of transition.  Carol Ann Duffy’s challenging, encouraging question (from her poem “Snow”) seems particularly relevant:  What will you do with the gift of your left life?

I hope we can, in R S Thomas’s words, catch this
     one truth by surprise
       that there is everything to look forward to.

                                         (from “Arrival”)

Tuesday, 15 November 2016


There are nights that are so still
that I can hear the small owl calling
far off and a fox hunting
miles away.
                   (R S Thomas “The Other”)

I spent last week at Rhiw on the Llŷn Peninsular, one of my favourite places in North Wales.  I arrived late and it was already dark – velvet dark, blanket dark, scattered with diamond bright stars.    

There was a portrait of R S Thomas in a corner of the cottage living room – I felt he was keeping an eye on me all week.  On my way to Wales I had read a news item in the paper about the posthumous publication of some of his new-found poems, Too Brave to Dream, a collection of painting poems.  The poems were discovered between the pages of two modern art books and Bloodaxe have published them this month alongside reproductions of the art works which inspired them. 

Only a few hours later I was told of the recent death of Gwydion, the son of R S Thomas and his wife Mildred (Elsi) Eldridge.  He was buried in the graveyard of Llanfaelrhys Church, which is within walking distance of where I was staying. Although it was the second week of November there were still plants in flower by the roadside – splashes of reds and pinks from red campion, herb Robert, valerian and fuchsia, bright yellows from buttercups, hawkbit (I think) and gorse, and pale clusters of convolvulus.  They reminded me of Elsi’s paintings. 

I found a new white wooden cross with the name Andreas Gwydion Thomas next to his mother’s memorial stone inscribed M E Eldridge 1909-91 ac yn ei ysbryd* R S Thomas 1913-2000.

Llanfaelrhys church is beautiful in its simplicity.   R S Thomas was vicar here (and of Aberdaron and Rhiw churches) from 1967 to 1978.  In July this year a new R S Thomas room was opened in the church loft.  I climbed the extremely steep stairs (almost a ladder) to find an attractive room laid out with photographs of the family, prints of Elsi’s paintings, books by R S Thomas and recordings of him reading his poems.  The loft has a small window which looks out to Bardsey Island.

I woke on Wednesday and immediately checked the news for the result of the US election.  It seems that the result was decided by a handful of marginal states, and I pondered the bizarre and precarious mechanics of decision-making in politics in the US and the UK and reflected that the British media had been dominated by the American elections, leaving Syria, Iraq, Yemen and other troubled parts of the world to moulder on.

A few days previously the weekly Brain Pickings enewletter had popped into my inbox.  There was an article on the poet Mary Oliver and the redemptive refuge of reading and writing:

“This is what I learned: the world’s otherness is an antidote to confusion, that standing within this otherness – the beauty and the mystery of the world, out in the fields or deep inside books – can re-dignify the worst-stung heart.”

You can hear R S Thomas reading “The Other” on YouTube – search R S Thomas The Other. for more about Too Brave to Dream.
To sign up for a weekly interestingness digest go to

*and in his spirit

Monday, 31 October 2016


As the nights have been drawing in I’ve noticed the tawny owls having their noisy conversations again.  Last night they came in right on cue – I was setting out for an All Souls service.  In folk lore owls are considered spooky and associated with death but I love hearing the tawny owls, the traditional and adaptable to whit to who owls.  They are probably establishing territory or a calling pair but I can easily anthropomorphise them – they sound as if they are having fun.  One sets up in a tree a few yards from my house, the other is in the wood a field away and then they have a competition as to who can make the most noise and have the last word.  That quaver in their voice sounds to me like ironic laughter at their own wit.  Before dawn at this time of year (when I am often out early walking the dog) they are still at.

When I was a child Guy Fawkes’ night, not Halloween, was the significant date on the calendar – though I do remember a blisteringly failed attempt to carve a lantern from one of my father’s rock hard home-grown turnips with a blunt kitchen knife (as with many things in childhood it was the making that appealed to me rather than the end result).  This was in the innocent days when no child in the Warwickshire village where I grew up had heard of trick or treat. 

Halloween has grown hugely in commercial importance over the years.  I noticed a shop in The Lanes in Carlisle devoted to Halloween tat.  No doubt as soon as November comes it will morph into a Christmas decorations and 2017 calendar shop.

I’d never been to an All Souls service before.  It was quiet and thoughtful and we were all self-controlled but it was actually extremely emotional.  We each lit candles for the dead we wished to remember and then the minister read out the list of names of those who had died in the last five years and any other names requested.

For a small rural community there was a large number of names.  As we listened in the stillness they became a kind of litany, a chant of familiar names from families who had lived here for generations.  I thought that it must have been like this (only worse) after the First World War.  Afterwards my next-door neighbour told me of one of his aunts whose fiancé had been killed in the last week of that war.  Edward Thomas wrote earlier in the war of hearing the cry of an owl (species unspecified):

   “... the bird’s voice
    Speaking for all who lay under the stars,
    Soldiers and poor, unable to rejoice.”
    (from The Owl)

2015 and 2016 have not been good years in this part of Cumbria.  So many families who have lost loved ones.  So many familiar names – people I had talked to and walked with along our quiet lanes.  Five and a bit more years of names.  I had forgotten that death had undone so many.  How important it is to remember.

I was in Prague a few years ago just before All Souls Day.  It is called Památka zesnulých (the remembrance of the deceased) or Dušičky (little souls).  I was told that it is the custom for people to go to the cemeteries on that evening, take flowers and light candles at their relatives’ graves.  Atheist or believer, it doesn’t matter.  It is the remembering that is important.   The cemeteries are full of little flickering lights.   

Tuesday, 18 October 2016


Instructions for writing a poem:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

Mary Oliver wrote these words about life, rather than writing, but I thought about them last Friday night when I heard Helen Farish read from her new collection, The Dog of Memory.  The imperatives could apply to the content of several of Helen’s poems – a monkey novelty clock, a page from a calendar, an old stool, a road sign.  She pays attention to these apparently insignificant things, finds astonishment in them and spins from them beautifully crafted poems.  She even uses the word ‘astonishment’ in the opening lines of ‘The glow’:

‘Finding the crab apples, my astonishment
I’d gauge as being on a par with pilgrims
seeing a tear build in the corner
of the Spanish Virgin’s powder-blue eye.”

Several of her poems have rural, Cumbrian settings – for example, ‘Complimentary calendar’ is set in an aunt’s farmhouse at Crummock,  ‘Low Lorton ¼  High Lorton ¼’ in the Lorton valley near Cockermouth.  She pays attention to the details of local life – the Fox’s red and white mobile butcher’s van – and the words of local speech.  She remembers a school debate on the county name:

‘I argue for the old,
the one that belongs
with hoolet, clarty, slape ...
with door snecks and byres’
                       (‘Cumberland 1974’)

But there are other poems in the book that take us further afield.  Helen read ‘Missing the rain’ (Tess Gallagher in Arizona) and a love poem from the first section of the book, ‘Palermo da capo’. 

Helen went back to her A level set texts (the evening was chaired by Steve Matthews who had been her A level English teacher before he came to preside over Carlisle’s multitudinous second hand bookshop, Bookcase).  There is a sequence of poems in the voice of Jane Eyre (and one in the voice of ‘the cat Jane never had’), a poignant little poem in which ‘Tess has a word with Hardy’, and a poem on Doctor Zhivago.  This last poem is the longest in the book and when Helen read it she advised us to concentrate hard.  Perhaps it is a poem about snow.  We follow the snow in chapter after chapter, except chapter five – to which the poem returns at the end.

The collection is called The Dog of Memory.  Because of the pathos of memory, the sense of someone or something now lost (where is the monkey clock? ‘what does he see now?’) the book has an elegiac tone, or rather it has a quality of ‘belatedness’ in the sense that Peter Davidson uses the word in The Last of the Light (see my post of 25 September).  His book is a ‘meditation on twilight’ and I noticed the dusk settings of some of Helen’s poems (‘ A borrowing’, ‘Pastoral’,‘Tea time at my Aunt’s’, ‘Tess has a word with Hardy’, ‘The glow’).

But for those of us who went to hear Helen’s reading at Bookends’ Cakes and Ale cafe in Carlisle on Friday night there was no sense of coming too late.  Steve Matthews managed to coax Helen to read a few more poems, even when she thought she had finished and when she asked the audience if she should end with just one poem the audience demanded Two!  We had been paying attention.