Sunday, 18 March 2018


There were still grubby snowdrifts by the side of the road last week when I went up to Cumbria for the annual Words by the Water literary festival at Keswick.

I enjoyed meeting up with friends old and new and having the opportunity to hear some brilliant speakers.

Some highlights included Jenny Uglow on Edward Lear (a relative of the wife of my father's half-brother!) and the naturalist John Lister-Kaye not on the lives of wild creatures but on his own life.   The talk by popular linguist David Crystal was full.  His topic was the history and sociology of pronunciation and as usual he entertained and enlightened us.  My favourite talk was by the gently-spoken Christopher Nicholson  and was on the elusive summer snows of Scotland's mountains.

The Poetry Breakfast was a sell-out and all the croissants were eaten.  It's a strange phenomenon that open mics and workshops always seem to have a subtext or a hidden agenda - in this case it was elegies.  I resisted the temptation to read a poem about my  mother (being a switherer I had brought a handful of poems to choose from).  Instead I read a poem about the 'lollipop coloured gifts' we find on the shore - the plastic that gets washed up everywhere.  Not exactly a sea elegy but ...

Elsewhere there were few poetry sessions - the Write to be Counted anthology reading, William Sieghart (founder of the Forward prizes for poetry) talking about prescribing poems, and Adam Feinstein comparing translations of the Chilean Pablo Neruda's poetry before the showing of the remarkable and unnerving film Neruda (2016).  Blake Morrison, an accomplished writer of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, talked about his new novel The Executor which includes poetry written as if by one of the characters.

Adam Feinstein judged the biennial *Mirehouse Poetry Prize.  Congratulations to Alison Carter for her winning poem 'Topiary'.

As I packed up the hire car yesterday morning snowflakes were falling again.

*The winning poem and the commended poems are up on the Mirehouse website  (go to The House and then click on Poetry Prize and 2018 Poetry Prize Winners).  

Wednesday, 7 March 2018


Peter Scupham was 85 on 24 February.  PN Review  celebrated his birthday with a bumper thirty three page celebration of the poet, teacher, book dealer, publisher, house restorer and "genius of activity".

The magazine printed a selection of his decorated envelopes which show a man with a keen sense of humour and a love of cats.  I was amused by the satirical cartoons drawn round postage stamps of Harold Wilson and Margaret Thatcher (the latter sporting a pinny and a handbag labelled "Blood and treasure").  A large fluffy cat on an orange rug adorned a letter to Dr Jane Griffiths at Wadham College ("College cats: series one").

Reading the contributions from friends and colleagues (including Anne Stevenson, Peter Davidson, George Szirtes and Grevel Lindop) I was struck by how much Peter Scupham is a great encourager.  Ex pupils praised an inspiring English teacher who refused to be limited by the curriculum.  John Mole wrote about the Mandeville Press, which he ran with Peter Scupham:
"Our editorial principles ... approaching poets who we felt had been overlooked or undervalued and publishing them alongside familiar 'names'.  We used the best quality laid paper and card that we could find".

The magazine included a selection of Peter Scupham's poems.  I thought at first that his work was unfamiliar to me, then I realised that some time ago I had copied into my notebook a quotation from "Prehistories":
"Ghosts are a poet's working capital.
  They hold their hands out from the further shore."

Robert Wells wrote "Peter told me that he has never begun a poem without finishing it".  That seems good advice, even if the finishing might take a some time.  I must tackle that little heap of half-abandoned poems in the wire tray on my desk.  Finish them or scrap them.

                                 *                       *                       *

A few days ago I heard on Radio 4 Douglas Adams' statement that 'Any fool can write, only a writer can cut.'  All that editorial fiddling is worth it.  I remember reading in Lyndall Gordon's biography of T S Eliot that the poet (an air-raid warden and fire watcher in the Blitz) bewailed the fact that while there was a war on he spent hours messing about with a few words. But the few words became Four Quartets.

The recent blizzards and extreme wind and cold have taken up much of the news but like a running sore the horrors of besieged Eastern Ghouta have refused to heal.

On the last day of February Syrian composer and qanun musician, Maya Youssef, featured on BBC Radio 4's "Front Row".  She has lived in the UK for five years and has written "Syrian Dreams" in response to the Syrian Civil War.  I was moved by her simple statement: "Before the War, there was music".

                         *                          *                          *

Thursday 8 March is International Women's Day.  Thanks to Kathleen Jones who has posted my poem, "The Women" on her blog "A Writer's Life".  You can read the poem at