Friday, 23 June 2017


While I have been preparing to move house the terrible circumstances of Grenfell Tower have been unfolding relentlessly on the news.  The first fatality to be named was Mohammed Alhajali who was a Syrian refugee studying engineering.  He was only 23 and had been in the UK for 2 years.  How tragic that he had escaped from Syria only to die in the horrendous fire.

It is a sobering thought that while some people have very little I have too much.  When I last moved house I promised myself I would not accumulate a lot of clutter.  Now, several years later, my promise in pieces, I am preparing to move house again.  Stuffocation.  I've spent several months decluttering in a desultory sort of way until the last couple of weeks when the pressure has been on.  I've sold a few items, I've given things to friends, donated to charity shops, posted books into book banks and clothes into clothes banks.  I've separated paper, plastic, tins, glass, and I've made several trips to the council recycling centre (which, annoyingly, is only open every other day).  A social housing organisation and the wonderful Free for All in Wigton have taken some furniture.  Alas, some things are quite simply rubbish, refuse, rammel.  Worn out, eaten by mice or moths, broken beyond repair or outdated technology (cassette tapes, anyone?).

Where does it all come from?  Well, some of it was given to me by people who were moving house ... (at the time it seemed rude to refuse).  There is also the strong "it might come in useful" gene which I inherited from my parents who lived through the Second World War and rationing.  The make-do-and-mend culture which became trendy in the recent recession was a grim reality for their generation (it's sobering to remember that rationing went on for some years after the war, thanks to Sir Stafford Cripps).  Added to that my parents ran a smallholding and, as all farmers know, that odd bit of metal or wood might come in handy one day.  Now whenever an object of the might-come-in-useful-one-day variety turns up I know it is time to dispose of it.

It is, as someone pointed out to me a few days ago, a fundamental law of decluttering that some of the things that you get rid of will be needed.  But what things?  I spent several hours in charity shops buying back books after my son asked "Where are all the James Herriot books?  My girlfriend wants to read them."  And why did Mrs Gaskell's novels get the old heave-ho?  "How could you get rid of Mrs Gaskell?" asked a friend.  I don't know either and I soon regretted not being able to track down the heroine's blue dress in - was it Mary Barton or North and South?

As moving day looms I think of the opening lines of Jacob Polley's poem "Moving House" (from The Brink):

"Bubble-wrap the chimney like a vase,
its bouquet of wilted smoke
ripped out, and pack the slates
the way you'd box a brittle set of books."

He goes on to talk of flat-packing each room, leading the bath out by its plug chain, squeezing the air out of the stairs.  The poem is required reading for anyone moving house.

Saturday, 17 June 2017


A mad hatter's tea party (complete with flamingos), flowers of ice and flame standing in old milk churns (the kind I used to see outside farm gates when I was a child), and a poet-tree with paper leaves showing extracts from poems (Blake, Wordsworth, Heaney and others).

These were a few of the displays at our village flower festival last weekend.  Add into the mix the WI's high baking standards, a beautiful open garden, the Border brass band, strong winds, heavy showers.  

The school, nursery, playgroup, six local churches and organisations from the Northern Fells villages all put in displays.  The spinning, craft, art, walking and book groups were all represented.  

I was commissioned to write a poem - my brief was the title of the festival: "Celebrating our church and community in colour" (no pressure then!).  I included as many flower names in the poem as I could (checking my books of wild and garden flowers to see what would be in season).  I was delighted to find that they had been incorporated into the displays (I went round ticking them off the list).  Foxgloves were particularly successful.  Somehow a bumble bee got carried in and continued to collect nectar in the church where the flowers were displayed.

It's not been an easy time over the last couple of years in our community but the festival seems to have been a turning point, bringing people of all ages together.  I wanted to convey this in the poem, which was printed in the festival programme and which I read at the closing ceremony.

A festival of flowers
Gather in your arms
their carnival colours –
poppy and cornflower
foxglove and forget-me-not
iris, aquilegia, alyssum

breathe the scents
of carnation, honeysuckle, jasmine,
rub lavender and mint
between finger and thumb,
taste nasturtium’s peppery leaves

celebrate their shades
of flame and ice,
dawn and sunset,
glimmers of gold and silver,
blues of the sky
and purples of the sea

rejoice at this our festival –
let roses share our love,
lilies bring us comfort,
daisies bless our children
and rosemary grace
our remembering.

© Mary Robinson 2017

Tuesday, 13 June 2017


This month has seen a lament and a celebration in the world of poetry.  Two women writers who have accompanied me on my reading and writing journey through life.

A few days ago I heard of the death of Helen Dunmore, the poet and novelist.   She was a consummate reader of her own work - her soft, clear, compelling voice communicated directly with her listeners.  A few years ago she judged the Mirehouse poetry competition and at the winners' event she took time to explain the judging process and to comment with care on all the shortlisted poems and the winning poem.

On Wednesday BBC Radio 4's "Front Row" broadcast the last poem she wrote, "Hold out your arms", completed shortly before her death.  It was an almost unbearable few minutes.  She wrote from the frontier between life and death, welcoming death as a mother who would comfort her and  end her suffering.

On Friday I was driving home from a concert in Carlisle and switched on Radio 3's "The Verb".  I discovered that the whole programme was devoted to a recorded interview with Helen Dunmore.  It was an overview of her work, both poetry and prose (including her writing for children).  She spoke of her dislike of the idea of fulfilment in writing - she was not one to say "That's it, I've done what I wanted, I can sit back now".  No, rather, she was always pressing on, always wanting to write more, explore more.  She emphasised the importance of physical details, avoiding the abstract, seeing the transcendent in the everyday.

In the course of the interview she read several poems and extracts from her novels.  One poem particularly caught my attention: "Nightfall in the IKEA kitchen". an exploration of design, life, consumerism all inspired by one of those Swedish rooms where there is a place for everything and a seductive suggestion that if only we get the storage right our lives will be all right too.

But there was celebration this week too.  Thursday was Gillian Clarke's 80th birthday.  Long may she continue to write, encourage and proclaim as she has done for so long.  Having spent a week with Gillian on a Ty Newydd course I doubt that she has any intention of slowing down.  I received an email from Literature Wales which reprinted the poem, "Y Fflam", the poem with which she began and ended her role as National Poet of Wales.

And it was election week.  The last verse of "Y Fflam" reads:

we meet to

   "burn off the fog of politics
    with poetry's flame
    to illuminate
    the mind's manuscript."

Gillian Clarke and Helen Dunmore: their work keeps the flame of poetry burning.

"Hold out your arms" can be found on the Guardian website (google the title and Dunmore)

"Y Fflam" can be found at under the title "A Laureate's Life"

Thursday, 8 June 2017


" ... The roses
Had the look of flowers that are looked at"
wrote TS Eliot in Burnt Norton.  I imagine roses, wet with dew, leaning over a path and saying "Look at us!"  The roses in my garden and in my neighbours' gardens have been doing this for a few weeks now.

This week, somewhat less showily, the wild roses have opened in the hedges, including the boundary hedge between my garden and the field.  The dog rose is pale pink and bleaches as it ages (rapidly).

Our village will be holding a flower festival this week end.  The roses will be on show.

White roses

The white jar on the dressing table
fits my palm like a shell.

A scent of powder, rattling
trinkets - pins, buttons, rings.

On the lid porcelain roses,
glazed as if dew-rinsed.


Summer musk fills the air - white roses
tumbling over the rusted shed.

One flower opens and another falls -
pale petals soft as vein-marked skin.

I could dip them in sugar,
place them on my tongue.


Old pottery at high water mark,
all pattern erased.  Far out

the ocean gathers sea flowers,
balances blooms on it surface.

Waves curl and stumble,
scatter white roses on the shore.

© Mary Robinson 2015

(First published in Cadence Autumn 2015)