Monday, 25 March 2013


A hundred years since the birth of the poet R S Thomas.  The actual anniversary is on 29 March which just happens to be Good Friday this year – a felicitous coincidence for one of the twentieth century’s most important religious poets.

There’s plenty to get excited about.  Professor M Wynn Thomas has been working on a new biography.  I’ve never been satisfied by previous biographies so I’m hoping this will be the definitive life of the poet.

This month sees the publication of Uncollected poems (I like that – how else can you follow Collected Poems, Collected Later Poems and Residues?).  I’ve read that it includes poems found on scraps of paper RS left all over the place, including in his car.  The poems are edited by Tony Brown and Jason Walford Davies.  I've ordered my copy.

When I first encountered R S Thomas’s work in Six Modern Poets (edited by J R Osgerby) I was a volunteer gardener for the Keating sisters at Plas yn Rhiw on the Llŷn Peninsula in North Wales.  Through Honora Keating I met R S Thomas.  After a Sunday afternoon’s gardening, a quick wash and afternoon tea (paper-thin Hovis, Dairylea cheese, Battenburg cake) we would get a lift in R S Thomas’s car to St Aelrhiw’s church for a bilingual service with a sermon I couldn’t understand even in an English summary.  At 17 I was a groupie – I just wanted to be in the presence of a writer, hoping I could absorb that intangible quality of writerliness. 

For years I continued to meet R S occasionally  – exchanging a few words while walking in Plas woods above Sarn Cottage, where he lived for several years, or pulling in to the side of a narrow high-banked lane to let him pass in his white Ford Fiesta.  Now when I read R S Thomas’s poems I’m taken back to Llŷn - to the wide sweep of the bay where the poet watched for a rare bird or the field where he placed his hand in a grassy hollow to find it still warm from the body of a sleeping hare.   

One day Honor showed me a bird picture painted by R S Thomas’s wife, Mildred Elsi Eldridge.  I’d picked up the fact that Elsi was an artist but I had never met her.  “She’s rather reclusive”, said Honor.  I have a vague memory of glimpsing Elsi one summer afternoon in the garden of Sarn Cottage. 

RS was a master of the short lyric and one of the most beautiful and moving poems he wrote for Elsi was “A Marriage” in Mass for Hard Times.  Appropriately for an artist who painted several pictures of birds the poem opens
                 “We met
                        under a shower
                   of bird-notes”.
Five decades later death came –
                 “ ... And she
                        who in life
                 had done everything
                        with a bird’s grace,
                 opened her bill now
                        for the shedding
                 of one sigh no
                        heavier than a feather”.
Damian Walford Davies has edited R S Thomas: Poems to Elsi and it is due out this month.

Elsi’s striking pencil drawing of R S Thomas appeared on the front cover of Ysbrydoliaeth/Inspiration, the book accompanying an exhibition in June 1995 of different painters’ responses to the poet’s work.  The exhibition was held at the wonderful Oriel Plas Glyn y Weddw in Llanbedrog.  Now the same gallery is exhibiting Elsi’s work until 28 April as part of Femina/Cymru .  At last Elsi’s art is getting some recognition.  Look on the gallery website and you can see some of the pictures 
If you want to find out more about the R S Thomas centenary go to

Wednesday, 13 March 2013


I was delighted and honoured to be awarded the Mirehouse Poetry prize this year.  It was a very strong shortlist and I felt any one of us could have won.  Here I am with judge Blake Morrison and two of the highly commendeds, fellow Cumbrian poet Chris Pilling (who looks rather fierce in this picture but was actually trying to get away for his lift home) and Stephen Logan (who came all the way from Cambridge for the awards event last Saturday).  I did try to dress in appropriate Bloomsbury style to suit my poem but no one noticed.  Here is my winning poem below.  For the full set - runner up and highly commendeds go to
or even better visit the beautiful Mirehouse and read the poems which are displayed on the poetry walk.  The prize continues the poetic link with Mirehouse which goes back to the Romantic poets and Tennyson.

Beech trees

They remind me         

of those women
who had been to Girton
or the Slade,
who painted and cut off the heads
of scented roses to float
in a shallow bowl. 

I remember one

who always wore brown tweed skirts
whatever the weather,
and in spring
a green silk blouse fastened
with a cameo at the throat
and she looped her long grey hair                 
in a knot at the nape of her neck.

Those women knew French and Italian, listened
to Russian music.
    They could design gardens
and walk for miles
across heather moors
in men’s hob-nailed boots.  
They were tall and thin
and leaned forward as they walked
with a stick or a long-legged dog.  They
ate wholemeal bread and Battenberg cake
and drank Earl Grey tea. 
   They owned
land and cottages with no
running water and gave them
to artists and poets who
had nowhere to go.

It’s the way the trees are curious
shapes and look down from the hill
and do not think about themselves.

Mary Robinson

Sunday, 3 March 2013


1 March was St David's Day, daffodils, and the start of Words by the Water, the annual literary festival held at the Theatre by the Lake at Keswick.  Here are my personal highlights for the coming week.

Monday 4 March The Fire Crane and The Dark Mountain: I will be reading an extract from my prose contribution to The Fire Crane #02 (which is imminent).  I will have to be quick - there are 15 contributors down to read within an hour.

Tuesday 5 March is my day for chairing: Miriam Darlington Otter Country: in search of the wild otter and Simon Garfield On the Map: why the world looks the way it does.  Two immensely enjoyable and interesting books.

Friday 8 March I'm sitting back in my theatre seat and listening to the BBC's Middle East editor, Jeremy Bowen, talk about Arab uprisings.  There might be time for a quick cup of tea before the Cockermouth Poets anthology (see my post of 27 Jan) and hopefully a bite to eat before poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy and musician John Sampson take over the theatre's main house for the evening slot.  A crumhorn is promised.

Saturday 9 March I will be reading "Beech Trees" at the Mirehouse Poetry Competition event in the afternoon.  Good to see two fellow Cumbrian Poets on the list - Chris Pilling and Angela Locke.  I will enjoy the tranquillity of Mirehouse near the shore of Bassenthwaite Lake - a special end to my part in Words by the Water this year.