Sunday, 30 September 2012


"What is a fire crane?" you ask, perhaps imagining something ornithological or industrial.  If you do a search you'll soon discover what we use to hang words on in Cumbria.

The Fire Crane is a new publication from New Writing Cumbria.  It's the brain-child of Mick North who has been putting it together and editing it over the last few months when most of us have been taking time off for our holidays. 

The theme of the first issue is writing and the visual arts.  Essays, poetry, interviews, fiction and plenty of picures, all in a newspaper format.  As soon as I got hold of a copy I read it all the way through without a break.  And I've been re-reading it.

I'm fascinated by Jeremy Over's essay on the art of the Boyle family, a highly unusual take on land art.  Jonathan Ruppin's interview with novelist, Christopher Burns, reminds me that I must get round to reading A Division of Light.  Christine Howe's short fiction "Survivor" lingers in my mind long after reading it.  Ian Hill's essay "Weather Eye" opens with one of the best descriptions of the Solway I have read. 

And then there are poems, not scrunched into odd corners but presented with plenty of space round them like pictures in a gallery.  Apt that, because the interplay between words and images is very strong in the poems presented here.  I'm particularly taken by John Rice's "The Little Girl at the Door" with its devastating last line and Terry Jones' slow meditiation on underpass graffiti. 

The elegant typography and uncluttered lay-out show the highest design standards.  The design is by Jeremy Fisher (very appropriate with all the rain we've been having in the last week).  Care and attention to detail has resulted in a beautiful-looking publication, even down to the fire crane logo constructed from the type of two brace brackets.

"Sufficient unto the day is the newspaper thereof", wrote James Joyce in Finnegan's Wake.  Not The Fire Crane.  This is one to keep.  Whatever you do, don't use it to light the fire.

More about The Fire Crane and how to get a copy at

Wednesday, 26 September 2012


"September is the cruellest month".  Not April, but September - the summer holidays are over, a new term begins and children move on to the next school year.  "Shades of the prison house begin to close/Upon the growing boy" [or girl] as Wordsworth wrote in his Immortality ode.

Today, with wellies and a spare canoe in the back of the car, I ventured down to Keswick to see Deborah Parkin's exhibition entitled "September is the cruellest month".  It's a beautifully presented exhibition with Deborah's black and white 4 x 5 photographs accompanied by "September Sonnets" (poems by Jennifer Copley, Antony Christie, Martyn Halsall, Kim Moore and Gill Nicholson).  With the small size of the pictures
   "You need to draw close, attempting to see faces
    often masked by a dip of shadow."
        Martyn Halsall "Drawing Close"

Deborah's photographs are all of her children and she sees pictures as a way of preserving memories of their childhood as they grow up and away from her.  The black and white photographs look as if they could have been rescued from an old family album half a century or more ago when everyone's holiday pictures were monochrome.  There's an otherness about the images that reminds me of L P Hartley's famous epigraph to The Go-Between - "The past is another country: they do things differently there".

Usually there is a single child and only once does the child show her face.  She's standing on the edge of a rock pool and looks as it she's been playing there and is not happy about being made to stand still for the photograph.  Don't you remember that feeling?  That, to me, is part of the appeal of the exhibition.  It is as if I am being reminded of my own childhood, even the clothes - the damp woolly layers worn in the snow, the summer dress worn with a cardigan because it's shivery weather.

Some of the poems are in the voice and imagination of a child.  This is Gill Nicholson's "September Holidays":
   "I find a fallen rotting log.
    Along its bark I hold a tea party
    with orange fungus cups on moss."
Jennifer Copley's "Skimming Stones" and "Grange Beach" both capture a sense of the child's relationship to the different generations of a family.  The poems are small narratives, just as each picture creates its own small narrative.  Martyn Halsall takes a step back and writes peoms about the exhibition itself in "The Hanging" and "Drawing Close".

Summer and winter, outdoors and indoors, water, woods, a child framed in a doorway.  There's a dreamlike quality about this collection of images and the poems' dialogue with the pictures adds an extra dimension to the exhibition.

"I'm wishing time would stop" says the child in Gill Nicholson's "Rosehips" and I feel the same.  Alas, the exhibition closes on 30 September.  Get there if you can.

Saturday, 15 September 2012


“A poet’s hope: to be,
  like some valley cheese,
  local, but prized elsewhere”

Auden’s words (“Epistle to a Godson”) used by Norman Nicholson as an epigraph to Sea to the West (1981). 

On Friday I put on an adult education day course on Norman Nicholson’s poetry.   The group was full of enthusiasm for a poet whose work portrays so vividly the landscape and people of his native Cumberland.  Because we were reading a local poet dialect words, places and people came alive.  We knew exactly what he meant in “Raven” when he said “the lyle herdwicks fed in the wet pastures/For the grass was thicker there and orchids and burnet grew” (“The Raven”) or in “Wall” which begins “The wall walks the fell”.   You can see "Wall" and hear the poet reading it on the Poetry Archive website

Norman Nicholson (1914 – 1987) lived almost all of his life in Cumberland.  He was a protégé of T S Eliot (who published his work at Faber and Faber), his first collection (Five Rivers) won the Heinemann Prize, he shared the Cholmondely Prize with Seamus Heaney and Brian Jones, and he was awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry and the OBE.  He was one of my school set texts (in Six Modern Poets) where he rubbed literary shoulders with Ted Hughes, R S Thomas, Philip Larkin, Elizabeth Jennings and D J Enright. 

“Is he due for a revival?” someone asked.  I hope so.  The British Library’s current and greatly acclaimed Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands exhibition includes three of his poems – “Hodbarrow flooded” and “Millom Ironworks” in the Post-Industrial Landscape section and “To the River Duddon” in the Rivers of Light section.  Ecopoetics or ecocriticism is taking a fresh look at texts from an environmental perspective.  Paul Farley and Michael Symmons-Roberts have championed the edgelands.  Nicholson wrote plenty of edgeland poems, such as “Millom Old Quarry”, “On the Dismantling of Millom Ironworks” and “Bee Orchid at Hodbarrow”. 

Even his burial place is an edgeland sort of place.  He is buried in the new graveyard of St George’s Church, Millom.  Previously it had been the Station Field, where the railway shire horses were let out to graze on Sundays. 

The Station Field

Norman Nicholson 1914-1987

Loosed from their loose boxes, their breath mists
the early dawn, their iron hooves thud
the meadow turf as the great horses
race into their Sabbath freedom.

Here in the Station Field on flowery afternoons
they stand nose to tail, their feathered fetlocks
dusted with pollen.  Allotment men forage dung
from the field corner.  Here, in the new graveyard

that was once the Station Field, he lies
under the shadow of Black Coombe,
his bones to the east but his heart to the west,

and in the grass - dandelions, plantain,
cat’s ear, persistent pearlwort, as if
his words are breaking through the earth. 

© Mary Robinson 2011
(First published in Comet Spring/summer 2011)

The poet’s birth centenary will be in 2014.  There will be celebrations in Cumbria – I hope there will be celebrations elsewhere. for more about Norman Nicholson for Writing Britain at the British Libary

Saturday, 8 September 2012



"Walter Scott has no business writing novels, particularly good ones" wrote Jane Austen on reading Waverley.

Thomas Hardy's first and last love was poetry - he said he only wrote novels because poetry didn't pay.

Some writers start off writing poetry and then renege on poetry and write only novels thereafter.  But other writers manage to achieve a creative symbiotic relationship bewteen the two genres.  Margaret Atwood is a good example.  Although she has said, self-deprecatingly, that she started off with poetry because it is short, she has proved herself to be a fine poet as well as an accomplished novelist.  The Door, her powerful 2007 collection, takes no hostages.

I'm reading the recently published Selected Poems of John Fowles (yes, he of The French Lieutenant's Woman).  I was surprised to discover that Fowles wrote poetry throughout his writing life.  "The prose did not soak up the poetry" writes Adam Thorpe in the introduction.

It's interesting that Adam Thorpe has selected and edited the poems because he too is both a poet and a novelist.  He's a writer I've only recently discovered, initially through his wonderful sixth collection Voluntary (2012).  I went on to read some of his earlier collections and then started on his first novel Ulverton.  It's one of those rare rich novels that makes me think I'm merely skimming the surface at the first reading.

Back to John Fowles.  The opening peom of the Selected is "Ars Poetica" which includes the lines

     "they should be like the
      little daily things kept
      in Doctor Johnson's house:
      his tea-bowl, stick, reading stand
      . . .
      so when you're dead and
      they read your collected
      they'll say:
      I see how he was".

The lines illustrate Fowles' view that if you really want to know a writer read his poetry, not his prose.

The Selected opens with the Apollo sequence of Greek poems, dating back to the time when John Fowles lived on the island of Spetsai ("Phraxos" in The Magus).  There's considerable variety in this sequence.  The satirical "Unasked" features an encounter with Mr Plutopoulos, with his Cadillacs and Picassos, and ends with the devastating unasked question.  "Shepherd" is a perfect character sketch of a man who went away to work in the capital but came back.  It ends:

     "Athens was good but lacked one thing:
      a silence in which a man could sing."

There is a Mycenae sequence (titles include "Cassandra", "Clytemnestra", "Choros", "Agamemnon").  Most of these poems are unpunctuated, strongly dependent on line and stanza breaks.

The longest section is a gathering of separate poems.  I read "The Experience" as an allegory of writing poety.  You do all the right things and nothing happens.  Inspiration does come but inconviently "at the start of a busy day".  It comes with "The wind.  And you stand / blinded till you are not blind." 

There are several love poems in Fowles' Selected, including "Within ten seconds" which you can read at
Finally there is a little cluster of translations, a reminder that John Fowles was a fine linguist.

The Selected Poems is beautifully produced by Flambard Press.  I am very impressed with the design and layout and it's on good paper with just the right print size and font.  The front cover with its simple serif lettering features an amazing photograph by Peter Wiles called "Cobb Storm".  I'm surprised the photographer survived the storm!  The whole of the back cover is taken up with  Carolyn Djanogly's moving portrait photograph of John Fowles.

But celebrating the publication of these poems is tinged with sadness.  This is the last volume from my publisher, Flambard Press, "one of the finest small publishers in the UK".