Our David’s pictures


David Conrad Foggin (1971 – 1992)

Uz can be loving, as well as funny‘ wrote Tony Harrison, in one of those poems that seemed to speak to, and for, me, and so many Grammar School boys of my generation. We say ‘uz’. And we say ‘our’, too. Our kid, our lass. And our David.   I was urged to buy and read Carrie Etter’s ‘Imagined sons‘, and  I am still haunted her visions of what may have become of her son. Two of my five children were adopted, and our David was one of them. Against all the rules, we met his birth mother, who would have been no more than eighteen. She wanted a say in who would adopt him, and a wise social worker thought she had that right. That young girl trusted him to to a couple not that much older than her. She will be sixty, now. Carrie Etter’s prose poems have made me think long and hard about her, and how she must have dreamed  so many possible futures for him

David died in a fall from the top floor of a high-rise block of flats, only a few weeks after his twenty-first birthday. June 29th. It’s his birthday today. When he was nine or ten years old, he drew endlessly; meticulous battle scenes, some times on rolls of lining paper, so they stretched out like eclectic Bayeaux tapestries. I wrote a poem about them, years ago, and keep revisiting it, and rewriting it. Here it is.


Our David’s Pictures

In tracing the anatomy of war

our david’s concentration’s absolute.

He kneels in peace, head bowed. An acolyte.

His pictures conjure tiny armies on the floor.


All history’s invited to this fight:

Martello tower, pele, and launching pad,

heaps of Roman, Norman, Saxon, Panzer dead.

Drawn up, his minute cohorts. Black and white.


Each man’s accoutred – breastplate, chainmail, greaves.

Crusaders squint down Gatling sights,

or brandish spears with blades as big as axes,

and quivers jammed with arrows, bunched in sheaves.


Every shield’s a wicked chevron

or a bossed and studded disc;

the sky is bristling with a stiff cheval de frise

of arrows and everyman’s vulnerable, at risk.


There’s Agincourts of arrows, flight on flight.

The sky’s cross-hatched, and somedays almost black.

The sun’s crossed out. Eclipsed. Our David’s arrows –

they fly miles, out of day and into night,


they shift the whole perspective. What is it

he celebrates? Pattern? Power?

The living or the dead. I’ll never know,

his last bow drawn, and loosed, an age ago.


At the same time as ‘Imagined sons’ started its work on me, I was re-reading a lot of retellings of myth, and two in particular would not (and will not) leave me alone. The stories of Daedalus and Icarus, and of Hephaestus, the lame god hurled from Olympus by his mother. They are both stories of terrible falls from the skies. This second poem felt to me like a prayer for atonement. Whatever it is, it’s for our David, on his birthday.



pinioned in a parchment sky,

his mind a kitestring ravel,

he stares at distressing

white comet-tails of feathers,

down at his dwindling son.


He knows so much.

The structure of a bird’s wing.

The melting point of wax.


He can navigate

the fibonacci spirals of a conch

with thread, an ant, and honey.


He understands everything

about the body’s hinges, levers,

fulcrums; the way it works.

he has traced the ridges

of a human brain, the whorls

of fingertips, and dreamed

of labyrinths.


He can calculate velocities,

knows how a falcon slices

through blue spaces

and why a boy can not, and how

the lucid air turns loud and brutal

and why the the cross-hatched sea

becomes a butcher’s block.


He is learning

it’s the sleep of the heart

breeds monsters.


He could mend a broken clock.

Latecomers and undiscovered gems (Number Two): Bob Horne


Here’s another story of a reunion. When I was an English Adviser in the late 80’s and early 90’s, the job become increasingly dispiriting as we were pushed away from the business of professional development in schools, and into the miserable business of inspections and clipboards and tick lists. One of the things that kept me going was finding the funding to work with a committed group of Secondary Heads of Drama. We set up an LEA Drama consortium for a GCSE drama syllabus that, quite wonderfully, was entirely content-free, and wholly assessed on the basis of performance, process and journals. We wrote our own LEA Guidelines for drama as a learning medium, and we had weekend residential workshops with the likes of the multi-talented Proper Job Theatre Company. It kept me sane, but it would have been an uphill struggle without the enthusiasm of Bob Horne and the other heads of drama. Then I got early retirement, and that was it for twenty years, until I met Bob again at a Monday workshop session of the Albert Poets in Huddersfield. And twenty years was an eyeblink. That was a few months ago; since then, we have somehow found ourselves running The Puzzle Hall Poets live monthly sessions at the Puzzle Hall Inn in Sowerby Bridge. (If you live in West Yorkshire, or in Pennine Lancashire, here’s an open invitation. First Monday of the month, starting at 8.00pm. Guest poet on July 7th is Wendy Pratt, fresh from triumphs at the Bridlington Literature festival. Second half, we’ve spaces for 8-10 slots on the open mic. Come along!)

Bob has effectively written the rest of this week’s post. Any typos or slips of syntax will be mine. After all, he was a Head of English before he was a drama teacher. Here we go. He says:

‘Writing poetry is something I’ve been going to do all my life. And I’ve repeatedly put it off, because there was always plenty of time, wasn’t there? No urgency. I’d get round to it one day.

In 1990 I went to Lumb bank for a week (Sean O’Brien was one of the tutors) but nothing lasting came of it. A few years later, I did a part-time Poetry MA at Huddersfield University, and came under the guidance, in one module, of that sensitive and encouraging facilitator, Peter Sansom. I wrote a couple of dozen poems,one or two of which I can still read without feeling too uncomfortable. But, once again, the writing stopped when I was left to motivate myself.

And so it stayed, until, last year, I became what used to be called an old-age pensioner. I thought the only change in my life would be a marginal rise in income. Being 65 couldn’t be that different from being 64. But it was. Perhaps the death of my closest friend was a factor. Whatever it was, a lifetime of procrastination (or bone-idleness) had to end.

I started going to the weekly Albert Poets writing workshops, and the monthly Puzzle Poets Live, and I was getting invaluable feedback on my poems,and getting to know other poets and what they were writing. And standing up with a mic. and performing to an audience.

Now, I compose very slowly, partly because I’m constantly distracted by ideas being generated by what I’m writing. Each poem is a product of hours of near-despair, occasionally alleviated when a mist of indecision briefly lifts.’

(At this point, I’m going to butt in and say that Bob does huge amounts of research for his poems, whether they’re about railway navvies or Edwardian photograhers. Also, his claim to bone-idleness doesn’t stand close scrutiny. However, at this point, here comes a poem which makes me delighted that the mists cleared for long enough for me to get to hear him perform it).

White-tailed eagle

I cross the trackless parph.

Behind me indifferent Atlantic waves

break along the length of Sandwood Bay,

with its red-haired mermaid,

its bearded sailor still knocking at night

on the windows of the broken bothy.

Beneath the dunes, shepherds say,

wrecks of longship, and galleon

have been smothered for centuries.


Massive tussocks make hard going.

I rest on my stick, face north

towards the oldest rocks there are

then nothing but cold seas

to the Pole and beyond.


Like a sheet of white shadow

close enough to disconcert

it climbs from the cottongrass,

iolaire suil na greine –

eagle of the sunlit eye –

smoulders for a moment

still as a Stone Age carving

until it rises in its own time,

above this wilderness, the bay, the ocean,

leaves me at best

a fleck of a far-off star

whose gleam may never reach

this earth.

(Despite reading William Horwood’s ‘The Stonor Eagles’ too many times, and going to Skye for years, and making silent prayers, I’ve never seen a white – tailed sea eagle. But when I heard Bob read this poem for the first time, I thought I might have. And there’s a backstory to the poem which I held back till you’d read it. Bob will tell you it.)

‘Many of my poems are about the landscapes I have walked and cycled and run in the fells of Northern England and Scotland, and usually alone; they begin with particular experiences, but always connect with the historical context of what I’m writing about. White-tailed eagle started from something that happened in 2000, on the final day of a 2000 mile walk (There you are! 2000 miles …one for each year of the millenium. Bone idle, indeed. One day I’ll persuade him to write the story of that 2000 mile walk. Sorry, Bob…go on) I’d just crossed Sandwood Bay, with all its ghosts and legends, and I had just 8 wilderness miles to Cape Wrath and the end of the journey…and then there was a noise, like the page of an enormous book being turned, and this huge bird languidly took to the air, slowly climbed above the tussocks and the lochan, and flew out over the ocean.

(Bob says that he actually thought that if he had died at that moment he could have been content. And I think I have an inkling of what he means.

The next poem I asked for is set in the heart of the Lake District, and it has, for me, the precision and ghostliness of a fading sepia photograph. It’s an un- dramatic monologue)


[W A Poucher, aged 89,photographs the Wasdale screes]

It is evening.

I have waited an hour,

walking to the shore and back

a dozen times.

I like the sound of my brogues

on the bright pebbles,

the give of the turf

as I return to my tripod.

Cloud is building in the north.

Sometimes I am angerd

by this loitering for the light;

days are easily wasted.


I think of Haskett Smith,

Father of English climbing’

striding across an early frost

on Wasdale fields,

pushing through bracken

as it brushes his plus-fours.

He is going to solo

the first ascent of napes Needle.

While others scrambled in gullies

he weighed up each pitch

till hand and body followed

the eye from hold to hold,

fingers firm in untouched cracks,

half-inch seggs scoring the greenstone.


Patience is my art.

I select, compose and frame.

There is a limit to an old man’s passion.

The water is almost still.

Burnt umbers

of autumn’s fading fronds

will blur on its surface.

Boulders flock like sheep

over shifting screes.

Soon, with luck, sunlight

will slant along the lake.

I am ready, lens focussed

at infinity.


Two poems that head off into an infinity, then. Bob explains that Exposure came from a Poucher photograph of the Wasdale screes at the moment the sun was setting. He also writes that Poucher was a chemist in the perfume and cosmetics industry, that he worked for Yardleys, and that, nearly 90, was in the Lakes, gathering material for a publication. The fact that Bob imagines him thinking about Haskett Smith, nailed boots and all, composing his balanced climbs while the rest of the world shuffled about in mossy gullies, says a lot about his research, and about the way he finds writing a poem will set up its own distractions.

I hope you like encounters with eagles at the ends of the earth, and with elderly photographers who are angered by loitering, as much as I do. Thank you, Bob Horne.

I’m in two minds about next week.  Not about if but about what. Just turn up and see.




Just my imagination (running away with me)


Nice to start Sunday night with a Smokey Robinson lyric. And a picture. I made a promise, and I’ll keep it, but I’ve been struggling to find a way in to writing about imagination, about memory, and about how you find what your poems grow from. I think this may be a way it….I live with a painter, and former art teacher, who taught me that we can teach children to draw. Provided that we rethink that idea. Provided that we realise that we can teach children (and adults, too) how to look, attentively, to learn to really see what’s there. And not just look, but hold and touch and use all our senses. At the same time, we also need to teach what different media do, different mark-makers, different papers and surfaces. And what’s this to do with poetry and imagination and all the rest of the big words?

Well, I’m not art trained (not since A level, centuries ago) but with my partner Flo’s direction, I spent one morning a week for half a term with a class of 5 and 6 year olds, a lot of stuffed birds and animals, oil pastels, charcoal, all sorts of pencils of different colours and softnesses, and lots of textures of paper. They did a lot of structured play with materials, to find what they did and how they handled. And then they chose birds and animals and drew them. And drew them again. And again. They concentrated, and they looked and they looked again. My job was to keep them confident and to prompt. To say things like: are you happy with that? do you think you’ve finished? just have a look at the bird’s/squirrel’s/badger’s head. Look at your drawing. Is there anything you haven’t seen yet? That sort of thing. Some saw it all in one. Some took three or four goes. No one was asked: Is this a good drawing? The point was that the images were more stunning than they believed they could make. They all said they couldn’t draw. But they could all look. And, as it happened, draw.

Then we did the same thing, but with words. I asked questions and did the scribing. The questions always started with ‘what can you tell me about the head?’ Now, all my slides of the drawings vanished somewhere in the maw of Leeds University, or I’d share a couple. But I do have a poem, a collaboration between me and five 5 and 6 year olds. I asked the questions, they said what they said and I wrote it down. And edited it, but didn’t change any words or syntax or sequence. here it is.


HEAD  It’s got its beak open. His tongue’s out like a piece of meat.

It’s turned round

Its eyes are slightly orange and black in the middle

Its eyes are round

The top of the head is black

The throat is a toffee colour

The beak is black at the point and at the top quite yellow

BODY It starts black at the top and then striped dark brown and light brown

There are four different browns

The spines are brown like someone who’s been on holiday

The feathers shine…..the quills do

The tail’s like the span of your hand…….or a lady’s fan

The underneath is gingery

It’s like a thrush or a speckled hen

The feathers on the breast aren’t as big

The wing feathers feel stiff

The head feels like stroking a cat

The breast is as soft as a mattress on a bed.


FEET  They’re black. The claws can cling so it doesn’t drop anything


In woods. In the evening

In the treetops. A wild kind of a place


Light an springy

He leans forward and tucks his feet back

He swoops down like a kingfisher quite steep

drops his feet forward to catch a mouse kill it and gobble it up


You’d see the night, you’d see the moon, rats, mice

If it was gliding it would see the sunset


In his nest, in a hollow, high in a tree

If he were lower the fox might come

he might be afraid of the tawny owl…..or weasels

They have the sharpest teeth of all these creatures


Swooping, gliding, hovering

It must come out at night

It’s eyes are like an owl’s

Orange and yellow eyes are night eyes

Well, Bethan and Victoria and Clare and Matthew and Gareth will all be 25+ now, but I’ll never forget what they taught me as I frantically tried to keep pace with all the talk that I was taping. I think it was something about how truly attending to something will generate a need to make a language to realise what it is. It may be visual language or it may be words, and if it’s words they may become something I recognise as poetry. And how it can all be lost if we don’t pay attention to memory. And that if we don’t pay attention to memory we can’t become imaginative.

When I was training teachers, I was taxed by the requirements that children read and write ‘imaginative’ work. What did that mean? I suppose we’d say that Bethan and the others use language imaginatively. But how do we know? What do we mean? They certainly don’t start ‘imaginatively’. The early responses are, for the most part, ‘literal’. What changes and why? And what does it have to do with you and me, us writers of poetry? I’m going to leave that hanging, and head off at a tangent. With luck, it’ll all make sense. Hopefully I’ll find my way back to why I think a 6 year old might suddenly create a memorable line: ‘Orange and yellow eyes are night eyes’.

I need to go back to an earlier post and the idea of a little girl who goes for a walk on a path. Let’s say, once again, that the path is in a wood. Think of the wood. Maybe it’s an English wood of of oak and hazel. It’s early autumn, and there’s a hazy, slanting amber sun. There are drifts of leaf, veined with lemon and aubergine and cornelian. Or it’s a gothic forest of crowding dark pines, and she’s walking on thick matt of needles, brown as an old dog. Go with that. The little girl comes into a clearing, and there’s a house. Is it made of clean grey ashlar stone, or mossy green random ones, or silvery weathered boards? Or crisp sugary biscuits? Let’s take the middle one. There’s a door. Is it brightly painted, red as cherries, blue as a flower. Is it splintery wood, or rusty iron, or stout oak, all studs and great hinges? What you choose probably depends on what you think the little girl is doing out in this dark forest. Is she going home? is she lost? has she been sent on an errand?

But put that aside for a second. What we’ve been doing is visualising a little girl, a forest, a house, a door. Or imagining them. How? It’s simple, isn’t it…it’s all about memory. You can’t remember what you don’t know, and I think that the opposite is also true. You can’t know what you can’t remember. The wood and the path and the house are all made out of visual memory. Let’s take it a bit further. The little girl knocks on the door. How? With her knuckles, timidly……with the flat of her hand,confidently….with the side of her fist, angrily. (it all depends on why we think she’s there, and who she is). But as it happens, there’s a heavy iron knocker on this iron-bound thick oak door, and she can only just lift it and let it fall back. No taps or slaps or thumps, but a dull dunt that echoes. Now, it happens that I’m struggling here. I can riff happily on colour and shape, and I seem to have grown a wordhoard that can say my visual memory. But words for sound? I’d soon be pushed into analogies. I have no ready-mades. I’ll be needing drums and wells and caves to say the sound (like my 5 and 6 year olds, and the brown that’s like someone who’s been on holiday). The door opens. Maybe the hinges are oiled, and it opens with a sigh, or rusted so they scrape, or screech, or squeal or groan. What did you hear that she heard? What auditory memory told you that?

You see where all this is going. But don’t leave me yet. If the little girl were wearing clogs and the floor was hollow, or stone-flagged, there would be more, new sounds. But she isn’t. She has no shoes. The floor is stone. It will be cold, or cool, or warm; it will be dry or wet or damp, or clammy, or slimy; it will be rough or smooth or gritty or slick or powdery with dust. Whichever one it is we’ll need to rummage through our tactile memories. I should have said the little girl has no business being there. She’s not lost, and it’s not her house. She won’t be banging about. She’ll be cautious and stealthy. We’ll be needing to use some kinaesthetic memory to imagine that (which is what 5 year-old Matthew was doing, tucking his feet like a kingfisher…and he was, physically acting it out, trying to get a feel of it) and it maybe that we’re even less equipped for that than I am with sound. And certainly I run out of language faster than I run out of memory when I think of the sour mustiness of this damp, cold, ston-flagged house in the forest.

Just one more thing. The little girl has no business being in this house. So she’s excited, tense, wired, apprehensive, cautious, what? How does she feel in her own body, with its sweat and its heart and its skin and its breathing? A different kind of memory which is about empathy…Keats’ imaginative pecking in the dust with the sparrows outside his window. It’s the imaginative memory that I think drama teaches.

I think : being as true to memory as my groups of children were, to what they could see and touch, is what ultimately forces us into making true language. Of course, we have to get the words from somewhere. Most of the time, poets don’t invent words, do they, and there are only so many jabberwockys we can take. Poets push the limits of sound and syntax to get at the uniqueness of complex memories that are theirs, but which they feel driven to share. That’s what I think anyway. Imagination is the creative use of memory.

So what’s your memory good at? Your inner life? Turns of speech? Places? Sounds? Mind you, it’s more difficult and complicated than that, isn’t it? It’s all those words you want for the memory you worked so hard for. Hamlet and Tony Harrison know what comes between, and builds bridges between, you and your unique truth and your ideolect. Books, books, books. lexicons. Wordlists. And the music, the syntax, the rhythm. And where will you find the surprise, the moment that Jane Draycott says is crucial. The detonation.

To finish. A couple of weeks ago I took my eye on a walk round Relleu, a small town of high, narrow streets, full of odd angles and intersections. Every day when I took that walk, a blind man would appear, from different directions, and each day, in a different hat. What was his village? Not the one I was seeing and storing up, that’s for sure. So I had a go at finding it. I don’t know if I did, but here it is.


Colouring in

This is what I have learned

in the streets of my town which is made of stone.

There are thirty-seven steps. At the foot,

in a cold iron pot, are flowers. They tell me: these are blue.


They are soft and velvet as the inside of my cat’s ear.

They say: the sky is blue, the last house of the street

is blue, and so is Mary the mother of God of the miracles.

My cat’s soft velvet ear is blue. The sky is soft,

also the last house, and the mother of God.


The church is built of brick, which is rough-edged,

straight-lined, sharp-angled. And this is yellow.

Yellow is the shape of bricks.


Birds clap form the towere where the bell is hung.

They sound like wet cloths on a line in a gust.

Laundry looks like birds. A line of washing

chatters and fratches. Sparrow laundry.


The small square is paved with hexagons,

each one just bigger than my foot.

They say: these are grey and blue.

Grey and blue is a jigsaw to be trodden.


Pale grey is a roughness on my fingertips.

Green whispers and smells of rain.


On days like this warm day

the sky is a cat’s ear

and is listening me.


Next week we’re having a special guest, so, clean shirts and blouses, and sharpen your pencils. Oh, and I think you’ve all been especially good this week. You listened really hard. Six house points for everyone. Off you go. Lots of fun tomorrow.





latecomers and undiscovered gems (Number one) : Yvie Holder

Just over a year ago, Kim Moore chose one of my poems for her Sunday Poem slot. Now, if you’re used to having your poems in magazines, and to being invited to read at poetry venues, this may seem no big deal. But it changed the way I thought about myself….and not just as a writer. Since then, I’ve been writing flat-out. I’ve been lucky. I’ve won three poetry cpmpetitions. I’ve been handed a cheque by Michael Morpurgo. I’ve had poems accepted by magazines. Someone said I was a gem. It sometimes doesn’t take much to give you that sense of self-belief, but it’s beyond price.

I should also say that I’ve not been very good at keeping in touch with people. I work closely with them. I love them. Then I get a new job and I move on. I’ve never been one for going back, because I’m afraid of how it will have changed. It’s another country, and they do things differently there. But then you cross paths with the past, and it can be wonderful. Recently, I’ve rediscovered friendships with folk I’ve not seen for decades. They all write, and they all write poems. So I’ve decided to invite each of them to let me put a couple of their poems on ‘the great fogginzo’. That will ensure they all win competitions and get collections published. Oh yes it will.

And my first guest is Yvie Holder, from York, who I would have met for the first time in more than twenty years…..if only she’d been able to be at the York Literature Festival Poetry Competition presentations earlier this year, though Maria Taylor was there, so that was nice. All three of us had Commended poems, chosen by Carole Bromley, the indefatigible editor of the YorkMix poetry blog. Without Yorkmix, I wouldn’t have known that Yvie wrote poetry. Now I do.

I first met her in 1980 (I think) when I interviewed her for a post in what she calls ‘my’ English dept at Boston Spa Comprehensive School. I think I probably did think of it as ‘mine’……to my abiding shame. I still think it was the best school and the best English Dept I’ve known, and as an English Adviser, I saw a lot. Now, I am a noisy person. Noisy, rather than loud. I like to tell myself. So when Yvie came for interview, via the York PGCE course, (and the influential anthologist, Geoffrey Summerfield), what appealed to me was that she was quiet, centred, and clear-eyed. She had both feet firmly planted. She was a great teacher.

I only realised in a long retrospect what a talented bunch I had to work with. Malcolm Barnes had been published alongside Roger McGough and self-published some stunning pamphlets. Roy Cockcroft later won the Elmet Prize with a beauty of a poem about the fishermen of the East coat, and the knitted  codes of their woollen jerseys. Julia Deakin, who was appointed pretty much at the same time as Yvie, (and also via the York PGCE) has won more competitions than I’ve had hot dinners, including the Poetry Business Pamphlet Comp, and the Yorkshire Open, and has two collections under her belt, with another on the way. I’m reviewing the first two in a couple of weeks. Reserve your seats now. Bring a chum.

Now I find Yvie is a poet, too. She describes herself like this:

My writing reflects on childhood, identity, people on the margins, love and loss, with an upbeat element drawn from family, community and professional life. I’m a writer of mixed UK/Caribbean heritage, with over twenty-five years work on equality and diversity; my experience has included school-teaching and governing, trades union work, race equality, tutoring for mental health, supports for elders, and managing a University Equality office.

My writing has been highly commended in the Yorkshire Open (2008), commended in the York Literature Festival Poetry Competition (2014), shortlisted for Pier pressure’s short story competition and the Peepal tree Press anthology : Closure. It has appeared online at YorkMix, in a local newspaper, been requested for a wedding, at community occasions, and in a memoir/lecture for Black History Month.

Yvie was reading last week at a gig for Amnesty, so, knowing her, this is understated. I really like the two poems she’s chosen for me. They have a precision and a quiet clarity (I don’t do quiet/succinct). I love the strike that ‘knocks old men speechless/when air ignites’ and the quirky, unnerving invention of ‘Cracked’ which reminds me of the way Guillermo del Toro scares me in ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’. But make your own minds up. Here they are.


It smacks and thumps

the mother in her bed;



a newborn’s downy skull;


induces shrieks

from children’s mouths; knocks


old men speechless

when air ignites


and imprecisely

snuffs out, deletes.


yet when it chimes

over city squares, how


it can impress;

catch the dawn-white


on a swan’s wing;

help a rose take root;


discover by chance

how friendship sparks;


begin to celebrate,

play, sing.




Don’t step on the cracks. You might

slip. Lie flat across pavements,


peer in, one-eyed: you’ll see us,

broken, like crumbs, packed into


an ill-fitting darkness, lost,

straining up to the greylight.


Some of us once spanned the sky

between the dawn and dusk, lolled


in the space between telegraph

wires, between words; wove love-talk


around hushed voices, formed air

between leaves and breezes;


we dappled green through branches,

we rode the blue among stars.


Fault lines opened, or, we slipped.

How to return to you up there,


you, the sure-footed who

never need to lok down? Will


we stay forever between

cracks, trying to recall


the idea of firm ground

and how broad the daylight is?


I fully intended to rattle on about memory and imagination, but I hate an anticlimax. So that’s for next week. Thanks for the poems, Yvie.

Say ‘thankyou, Ms Holder’. Put your chairs away quietly, and show her how good we all are. See you next week.







where have all the flowers gone?


this was May, last year, in the hill village of Relleu in Alicante. Relleu is the home of Almaserra, and the Old Olive Press centre for poetry and other arts. It’s run by Christopher North, and his wife Marisa. Imagine an Arvon centre where you do no cooking, have en-suite bedrooms, are surrounded by limestone mountains, and groves of lemons and olives and oranges. And where the tutors are the creme de la creme. Last week was an Ann Sansom week. I sort of promised her that there would be flowers. Because of the most prolonged drought for generations, there were hardly any, not even for the nature table. Though there were bones and carob pods and small almond branches. And a torrential rain storm on Friday turned the streets into canoe slalom courses, and trapped poets and tutor alike in the bar by the church at the top end of the village.

You may have twigged by now that this ‘what I did on my holidays’ stuff is alerting you to the fact that a week of writing, plus landscape sensory overload, has left my brain stuffed. I knew what I meant to write- theories about what colours your poems- remains stubbornly unclear. Maybe if I make a reckless promise, all will be well. I promise to reflect on my belief that imagination is memory in action, and that your preferred modes of memory, conscious or unconscious, are what control and inhabit your poetic voice. I read that back, and reckon it sounds sufficiently pretentious to put me on my toes for next Sunday.

I know that my memory is predominantly visual, and one of my keenest critics told me that I mainly write silent movies. I think we did thirty-four fast workshop exercises in five mornings last week. When I check, most of all of my responses are snapshots of one kind or another, and when they’re not, they’re lists. There should be a post about lists. And one about ‘triggers’. Right; that’s more commitments.

I realise I also made a promise on Facebook. I learned last week that I’d won first prize in The Red Shed Open poetry competition (in tandem with the excellent Currock Press). For those who don’t know it, The Red Shed is a Wakefield institution. It was originally an army barrack hut, bought in the early 60’s, and reassembled in the middle of Wakefield to house the Labour Club, and combines its role of keeping the Socialist heart beating in the middle of this former mining area, with hosting quality live music and poetry readings, as well as selling what were once called Fine Ales. What is specially nice about the Red Shed is that it is, despite its tendency to sag a bit, a Grade 2 listed building. All around, as Wakefield rips down handsome structures and puts up glass and steel shopping centres, there’s the Red Shed. Distinctly unglamorous, and almost certainly an affront to the circling retailers. Sometimes you enter a competition simply because you approve of the people who run it, and you know your entry fee is going to a good cause. So here’s the poem that won. And it started life in a Poetry Business Saturday workshop in Sheffield. I can’t nail down the starting point or the trigger, but as Ann Sansom reminded us last week, when you set off writing for yourself, you find you’re telling yourself things you didn’t know you knew. I need to be surprised into writing. I can’t intend to write. Nothing happens. I suspect this activity could have been one of those about thinking of a group of people and telling yourself what you know about them. This one turned out to be about my father. I come late to writing poetry, and even later to writing about people close to me, and to finding that I loved them in ways I’d never understood. You’ll see why it might ring socialist bells, and maybe that’s what I thought I was doing when I started writing from, and about, memories of my dad’s birdwatching mates. The Yorkshire Naturalists, whose favourite dale was Wharfedale, and its tributaries, and who are firmly rooted, in my memories, in the 1950s.

Here you are then, my dad and all the other


Drawn to MamTor, to Kinder Downfall,

Simon’s Seat, Grass Woods, The Strid;

they came by steam train, on the bus,

away from mill and pit and forge,

an England dark with smoke,

passing crumbled slums, grand

neo-classic terraces, iron-railinged

parks, until the cities petered out

on the edges of high moors, big skies.


They came to the quiet of neat fields,

of drystone walls. They walked miles,

wore caps or trilbies, belted macs,

flapping turn-up trousers, ordinary shoes.

They knew the habitats of birds and flowers;

they knew shortcuts and hidden waterfalls,

would pull aside wired gates,

push over ‘Private: Keep Out’ boards,

would not be kept from bluebell woods.


At school we had to pray they’d be forgiven,

those trepassers who rambled Viking fells

and ghylls and cloughs, sour gritstone moors

and green lanes cropped by mourning sheep.

They knew the land they walked should not be owned,

wished it was theirs; coveted the cottages

of the small stone villages, their tidy gardens.

Those men like my father, the woollen spinner,

namer of birds; presser of wild flowers.


I couldn’t get to the people (I don’t know if I actually do) until I shut my eyes and went on the bus out of Bradford, along Manninngham Lane, through Bingley, Shipley, all the way to Settle. Or out of Leeds, through Otley, Ilkley, up to Grassington. Appletreewick. And it had to be a double decker. You need to be upstairs.

Right, more promises to keep. Hope to see you all next Sunday. Just straighten the chairs before you go.