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.

Thursday, 2 March 2017


I've recently joined Second Light, an organisation for women poets aged 40 or over (though under 40s can be associate members).  I resisted joining for some time - for two reasons: one, the idea of being part of a closed women's group, and two, having to pay a subscription fee.  But then I thought of all the men's old boys' networks in British society and decided that I should be a bit more alert to networking.  As for the fee, perhaps I am being a bit less scrooge-ish these days.  After all "you don't get owt for nowt" and Second Light publish Artemis and it costs money to run a poetry magazine.

Every poet is invited to provide a page on the Second Light website. You can see my page, complete with poem, by going to , clicking on Members' Pages and scrolling down until you find me (surnames in alphabetical order).

It's good to see several names I recognise on the list - I feel I am in good company.