Tuesday, 23 February 2016


Black letters on white paper: poems for a winter afternoon.

Yesterday I drove over to Gamblesby, high up in the Eden Valley, for the monthly North Cumbria Stanza Group workshop.  Clumps of snowdrops flowered along the grass verges, in gardens and under dark trees whose black leafless branches drew sharp lines against the sky.

The roads were clarty, a wonderful dialect word used a lot round here at the moment.  No getting away from the mud this winter.  At Lazonby the road ran alongside the river Eden, flood debris clinging to fences.  On the riverbank were two pairs of oystercatchers in their impeccable black and white plumage.  Optimists making an early start for spring.

Stone walls confined the winding lanes to narrow strips climbing up from the valley.  The Pennines were gathering dark clouds.  I waited while an aristocratic-looking flock of black-faced Suffolk sheep was driven past by a brown collie, assisted by a man on a quad bike.

I was almost at Gamblesby when a pale shape crossed my line of vision.  A barn owl was quartering a small field by the side of the road.  I stopped the car (an excellent hide but not very safe in motion) and, as I watched, the owl swooped, searching for prey, and I could see its gold-spangled back and upper wings.

After the workshop the sun had sunk low in the south west.  The shadows fell deeply from trees and buildings.  As I drove back I noticed there had been a light snowfall on Carrock and High Pike:  snow’s tracing paper with black lines showing through.

Sunday, 14 February 2016


Of Time and the Railway, an artist film by Robert Davies, is showing at Oriel Plas Glyn y Weddw as part of the gallery's winter season of exhibitions (see previous post).

The film was recorded from a fixed camera in the driver's cab of a train travelling from Birmingham to Aberystwyth on 86 different days and then edited into a single journey, moving through different times of day and different seasons.

I came to North Wales by train via Somerset (yes, a very roundabout route from Cumbria!).  A tunnel took the train under the Severn Estuary (the estuary is the geographical star of Philip Gross's poetry collection The Water Table), and on to Newport where I changed trains for the service to Holyhead.  I travelled the whole length of the Welsh Border and then along the North Wales coast to Bangor.  It seemed an epic journey for the little two carriage diesel on a a route from south to north, running counter to the roads that go from east to west, trading between the two countries.  What a beautiful journey - the train weaving in and out of England and Wales, into small towns then out into the countryside.

I travel through Abergavenny (the town by the river Usk with its associations with the seventeenth century Metaphysical poet, Henry Vaughan).  Then on through A E Houseman Shropshire Lad country, stopping at Ludlow, where the poet's ashes are buried (marked by a memorial in the churchyard).   The train squeezes between the hills of the Long Mynd and Caer Caradoc and stops at Church Stretton.  My father would cycle here from Birmingham when he was in his teens.

The recent heavy rain has left impromptu pools in fields, and these new patches of water have been quickly colonised by ducks, gulls, even swans.  I see winter flocks of rooks and small unidentifiable brown birds flying over.  A council somewhere along the route has adopted the image of a red kite on a local transport services poster, which I glimpse at one of the stations.

The bilingual "Y Waun/Chirk" sign reminds me that I'm back on the Welsh side of the border - Chirk and Wrexham have links with the artist Mildred Elsi Eldridge, who was married to the poet R S Thomas.  At Chester the line passes the Racecourse, the Roodee, the oldest functioning racecourse in England.  It's deserted today, except for one man and his dog crossing the inside of the large lop-sided circle of the course.

Over the river Dee, into Wales again, and the railway realigns itself westwards.  In the distance the Wirral (where I lived for three years), the distant houses of Parkgate a brilliant white in the sunshine.  Tidal sandflats probed by long-beaked waders.  There are caravan sites and the coastal resorts of Prestatyn, Rhyl, Colwyn Bay.  I think of Larkin's vandalised poster in "Come to Sunny Prestatyn", then remember that he wrote what is a classic railway poem, "The Whitsun Weddings".

The sun glints off the blades of offshore wind turbines.  The railway and the sea keep good company along the North Wales coast line.  Sometimes the train window frames a square of sea - it's like looking from a ship.  Razor blue waves are being blown in on an incoming tide.

My destination is Bangor, a kind of gateway to the Lleyn peninsula.  Bangor is now the end of the branch line which Beeching axed - the route ran through Caernarfon and on to Afon Wen, linking with the northern end of the Cambrian coast line.  I'm dependent on a hired car from here on.  Caernarfon is the home of the writer Patrick McGuinness, a fine poet and novelist.  I particularly like his "Walls Lleyn" (in The Canals of Mars) which has gaps between words, just as a drystone wall is "half stone        half hole".

A Lleyn poet who deserves to be better known is Christine Evans.  Her beautiful poem "Letting in the Light" is engraved on the glass wall of the gallery's film theatre where Robert Davies' Of Time and the Railway is being shown.

Sunday, 7 February 2016



I've just been to see the fine new winter exhibitions at Plas Glyn y Weddw in North Wales.  One of the artists is Dickson Kaloki.  He was born in 1985 in the impoverished area of Kitui in Kenya.  Thanks to the charity, Anno's Africa, he has been able to develop his artistic career.  His paintings of Kenyan slums are very striking and unashamed - this is how we live, they seem to say.  He often uses tones of one or two colours, great slabs of colour, and then draws over them with charcoal.

I am struck by one painting of red brown shanty town huts with cctv cameras on a pole, tower blocks rising up in the background.  In the foreground is a seated figure, her torso concealed behind the newspaper she is reading.  There is a coke bottle on the shelf by her, and underneath it a Union flag.  But as I look at the picture I notice that the woman's knickers are down round her knees.  Why?  With a shock I realise she's sitting on an open air toilet, no privacy at all.  The knickers are blue and decorated with a little design - the design of the United Nations logo.

In contrast to this overtly political 'Letter from home' there is a painting of a London scene with bright yellows and greens and two 'Letters from Wales'.  The latter consist of a picture of Caernarfon Castle (vivid  blues and contrasting sand colours) and a view of Porth Dinllaen in unusually soft shades.

Kaloki speaks of "Paint as a memory box, expressing a certain time, place and situation in life". Change the first word and that could be a poet's manifesto too.

Saturday, 6 February 2016


‘Please would you lead a session on African poetry?’

‘Yes, of course,’ I said, inwardly wondering what I was going to do.  The reading group had asked me because its current theme is Africa.

Africa consists of 54 countries (55 if you count Western Sahara, which Morocco doesn’t), of which 21 use English as the official language of government and/or business, and 11 are predominantly Arabic speaking.  There are thousands of indigenous African languages.  I felt like the person on Mastermind who has chosen far too wide a topic.

I wondered about choosing one poem from half a dozen eminent poets in different regions of Africa, but this felt too bitty.  Instead I decided to base the poetry on examples of colonialism, post-colonialism and identity and chose one poet to represent each section. 

Last week we discussed the poems.

For colonialism I chose Natal-born Roy Campbell’s ‘The Zebras’ and ‘The Zulu Girl’.  Roy Campbell’s reputation plummeted when he supported Franco’s side in the Spanish Civil War and it has never really recovered but he did write some fine nature poetry, including ‘The Zebras’:

   ‘The zebras draw the dawn across the plains,
    Wading knee-deep among the scarlet flowers.’

The richness of the (now shrinking) African plains and the beauty of the zebras (now diminishing in 
number) comes over strongly.   

‘The Zulu Girl’ we found more problematic.  It’s a poem that crops up in anthologies but while some people saw it as simply descriptive, to others (including me) there’s a white male voyeurism to the poem and an unfortunate likening of the child to a puppy.  I feel angry that this girl labours in the ‘sweating gang’ hoeing the crops instead of resting to build up her strength to feed her baby.  It reminds me of the unease I felt at seeing John Bell’s sculpture of ‘The American Slave’ (1853) at Cragside in Northumberland some years ago.

For Post-colonialism I chose the Nigerian Nobel-prizewinner Wole Soyinka.  His adult writing life has coincided (and collided) with Nigerian independence since 1960.  I chose his poems, ‘I think it rains’, ‘In the small hours’ and ‘Telephone conversation’.  Wole Soyinka is also a dramatist and this comes out strongly in ‘Telephone conversation’ in which the first person narrator of the poem, an African coming to London, tries to rent a room.  The group found it amusing but also razor-sharp in 
the way the poem satirises the racist attitude of the landlady. 

‘In the small hours’ is set in a smoky surreal bar where the cocktail mixer is a dancing ‘silvery fish’ and ‘the band plays on’.  The ending of the poem is fantastic –

  ‘... Night turns
    Homewards, sheathed in notes of solace, pleats
    The broken silence of the heart’.

None of us really understood 'I think it rains’ but we admired the form with two short lines sandwiching two long lines in the middle of each verse.  In a place where tongues need to ‘loosen from the parch’ the rain takes on a strange allegorical quality.  No wonder there is ‘mirth’ at the end of the poem when the ‘rain-reeds’ finally fall (with all the rain we’ve had recently in Cumbria it is hard to imagine drought).  

My third poet, and one who is very much concerned with identity, was Jackie Kay.  I’ve heard her read at Keswick a couple of times and also been to one of her inspirational workshops.  She was born in Scotland and brought up by adoptive parents in Glasgow.  Her prose memoir Red Dust Road and her associated collection of poems Fiere document her search for her biological parents - her Nigerian father and her Scottish mother.  So with the group I shared ‘Ukpor Market’ in which the poet thinks she is being accepted as a local (Igbo) woman, only to discover that the word the market women keep repeating is ‘a pigeon word / for white woman’.   In her memoir she writes, ‘I spent some of my childhood wishing I was white like the other kids and feeling like I stuck out like a sore thumb; and now, in Nigeria, I’m wishing I was black and feeling like I stick out like a sore thumb.  It’s the first time in my life that I’ve properly understood what it means to be mixed race.’ 

‘Burying my father’ is a poem in which the poet comes to terms with having found her biological father:
   ‘For I must, with my own black pen – instead of a spade –
    ashes to ashes and dust to dust,
    and years before you are actually dead,
    bury you right here in my head.’

We ended with Jackie’s beautiful poem ‘Road to Amaudo’.  Amaudo, which translates as ‘the village of peace’, is not a geographical location and the road is symbolic.  The poem was inspired by the Amaudo charity for mental health care in Nigeria (Jackie is a patron of the charity).  It’s a road where people heft ‘the load / of hope on their backs’ and carry ‘the frail weight of peace / on their shoulders’.  To the poet it is ‘the road to my heart’.