Where the stories start


First of all, a great big thank you for the warm response to to last week’s review of Julia Deakin’s poetry, and a great big sigh of relief from me when she said she liked it. Phew. Friendship intact.

I commented last week on the way in which Julia’s poems often remind me of Lowry paintings…to the extent that they don’t seem to need precisely drawn backgrounds or settings, and how my own writing is often exactly the opposite. I was at the world-famous Poetry Business Workshop in Sheffield yesterday. Ann Sansom began one exercise by noting how an event or an occasion is remembered quite differently by different observers and participants. Take a wedding: one may have total recall of the clothes that people wore, another can describe the grounds and the planting of shrubs; this one will remember who was there and just what was said, and who didn’t like who, and so on; that one will recall the music, or the smell of the food. It’s that business of which bits of our memory we unconsciously cultivate. I’ve said before that mine is predominately visual, and this has a huge impact on the kind of poem I write. So I thought I’d spend this week reflecting on the place of landscape in my memory and in my writing.

Since I got titanium hips, I can do a lot more walking, and I take a lot of photographs. It’s slightly unnerving to find that hardly any of them have people in them; there’s something solipsistic about it, I suspect, as though I’m making private places where I can walk about, or into. As John Berger pointed out about the invention of perspective, it makes painting uniquely individual. It’s the painter’s point of view. It’s owned and it’s personal. It’s about the viewer. When I did an MA in Creative writing some years ago I did with poems what I still do with a camera. I wrote landscapes. I wrote one series that involved going to a particular viewpoint on the same day of the month for twelve months, and describing what I saw. It’s devoid of life, unless you count a crow, two horses and a kestrel. It ignores the sound of the M1 below the viewpoint, the other cars that pulled up on the layby, and their occupants …who often seemed to be involved in extramarital affairs, or doing dodgy deals involving cardboard boxes. These are the poem equivalents of Sunday painters’ watercolours. They’re pretty enough but pretty doesn’t win prizes.

I’m still cross that I got no advice about how I might find a way out of this cul de sac. I tried two things on my own. One was to try to recreate the world of three characters from the world of late 19thC art..that of John Waterhouse, his model and his wife. I think I’ll explore that next week. I think I’ll riff on the business of ekphrasis. I bet you can’t wait.

The other was to deliberately try to populate landscapes that were important to me…particularly the Clearance village sites of Suishnish and Boreraig on the Isle of Skye. I read John Prebble till I almost had it by heart, and off I went over boggy tracks and along stony rutted roads, looking for the ghosts of 19th C crofters. Well. That was salutory. You can’t intend to write poems…when I actually looked at what was around me, on the headland of Suishnish and the green shore of Boreraig it wasn’t what I planned to find. It wasn’t like that at all. Boreraig is just a place with the shells of houses of people I never knew, who I only had an intellectual connection to. John Prebble clearly knew them imaginatively, but I could only record:

These crofts:

they turn their backs on the sea,

away from the sun’s setting,

their tenants all gone,

long ago, over the ocean,

and the veils that blow in from the islands

are only skirts and skeins of rain.

No ghosts come here,

no grey shades from out of the west.

There’s no return from Tir nan Og

for the dead or disposessed.

It’s pretty self indulgent melancholic rhetoric, I’m sometimes inclined to think. It became even more complicated on Suishnish. At the end of the metalled road that was laid to try to repopulate the crofts in the 1930’s, there’s a croft with its roof intact. There’s an old stove, drunken cupboards, a collapsed table, and a bed frame. It should be sad, but I find it frightening, in the way of graffitied tunnels and old railway buildings in the industrial edgelands in the valley below our house.

..the glass is gone, the fires long out,

the roof is rust, its edges fretted;

the stove’s tipped over,

and in the iron bed frame,

like a threat or malediction,

grey snagging snarls.

Barbed wire.

In the trim metal-sided fank across the parks they were separating the weak and diseased and runty sheep from the rest of the flock. There was no evoking of Prebble’s tragic Clearances here. Other ghosts sidled in:

Here come the creeping clones

of Brady, Hindley,

Thompson, Venables,

Mary Bell.

The caution at the edges of old maps.

Here be monsters.

And so it went, for a very long time, and I couldn’t learn to see what was in front of me, and imagine it, but went on loading it with my unwelcome luggage. Or other people’s. I wrote one poem around that time about the crofting community of Achnacloich where we’ve rented a holiday house for for over twenty years. I was wandering around on the hills above the crofts, with huge views of Rhum and the whole of the Cuillin and finding that every time I tried to find a language for it all, Ted Hughes kept crossing out my words and writing his own in. It was as though I could only see through the lens of his verse, and the rhythms and cadences of Remains of Elmet and Moortown. I was writing secondhand poetry. It was unnerving to find when we came home to TV and newspapers that Hughes had died that day when I was desperately trying to get him out of my head. I did manage to write a poem about that, and at least it has other people in it than me, if only by implication.

I still write landscapes. Not just any landscapes. No woodlands, thank you. No lowlands. No flat lands. I need to see from high up. The headline picture goes some way to explain. You’re looking down to the shore of Glen Brittle from the rim of Corrie Lagan. You can simply forget the effort of getting there, and the fact that going back down is a knee-jolting business. You are, simply, godlike. I tried to explain this in a poem about a year ago — Seen from above –

Everything is simpler from above –

the way the earth explains itself,

why a river runs the way it does. Why

gods look down from mountaintops,

and heaven is forever in the sky.

But sometimes the gods smile and you move on and you grow up a bit. With the teaching of Ann and Peter Sansom, of Jane Draycott and Hilary Elfick and others, and the shared insights of writers like Gaia Holmes and Kim Moore, and attending to writers like Norman MacCaig, and RS Thomas, and Charles Causley,I’m finding myself able to stop these solitary walks and attend to the lives of others.  I can finally put the important people of Achnacloich back where they belong, and where I don’t, in the place I’d edited them out of. I can celebrate Effie and Norman, about the only Skye-born people who were left in the crofting valley of The Field of Stones, now mainly occupied by the incoming English. And now Norman has died. I don’t have to go inventing ghosts for the sake of poems. I can look at this image of Acnachloich on a wet October Sunday and remember people instead of landscapes. Even if the landscape is essential to who they are and what they mean to me. So I’ll finish with a poem I never thought I’d be able to write.


eats her slice of cake with care,

pinches up its crumbs,

always leaves her boots ouside.


She’ll not have cheese with fruit cake;

she’s too polite to say so,

but knows it isn’t right.


She misses him smoking behind the barn

as if he thought she wouldn’t know.

She saw an otter just last week,

with two young ones, playing

where the burn runs into the sea.

She smiles.


That dog he drove all the way

to Tyndrum to buy is daft; and,  yes,

it takes no notice. It stops and starts.

She sheep run anyhow.

Och. Well. Thank you for the cake.


One year, she came up to the house,

November, midnight almost,

to make sure we’d not miss

the shimmer of smoke and silver

above the Cuillin, the whole sky

strangely light and shivering

like the sea.


Thank you you for your company, Effie, and thank all of you for waiting through a rambling introduction before you got to meet her too.

And remember. Next week we’re having ekphrasis. It’s the new black.

Dark watcher: Julia Deakin’s poems

Too many things I want to say all at once.

First of all: promises. I once promised a Scots friend of mine (and a great folk singer and mandolin player) that I’d write him a song about Culloden, to the tune (and stanza structure) of ‘The tinkerman’s daughter’. And I did, but he had to wait ten years. It’s not been quite as long as that, but it’s been at least 18 months since I said, in a car on the way to the Poetry Business Saturday Workshop: ‘ if no-one else seems to be doing it,I’ll write a review of your poems, Julia.’

Second: I’ve never yet written a published review, and when I first tried to write this one, I made the mistake of checking out how it might be done, by reading reviews in various poetry magazines. And my heart sank. It’s taken me 50 years to shake off the faux-intellectual, disengaged, footnoted and referenced essay style I simulated in order to cheat my way to a good 2:1. And a lot of these reviews seemed just too much like that. Too much of the ‘one’ and the ‘we’ and not enough of the ‘I’ and the ‘me’ for me to feel comfortable. I just want to warn you that this isn’t a review. It’s a personal, partial (in both senses) reading of Julia Deakin’s poetry via a limited number of poems.

Third: a declaration of interest. I’ve known Julia since I interviewed her for her first teaching post – 1979 that was. I went to her wedding reception. Me and my partner Flo have been on holiday with Julia and her partner, Steve. And that is partly why it’s taken so much time to wind myself up to write this…..who wants to risk a friendship? It’s a sensitive thing, this poetry business.

Fourth: (it’s getting a bit like ‘what did the Romans ever do for us?’ is this. Sorry. But stay with me). I’m going to make oblique references to Carel Weight and Polly Morgan. They are artists you may not know. The cover picture is by Carel Weight. But if you want to check out the analogies I plan to draw, you might like a trip to Google Image first.

Fifth: Julia is one of my inspirations. Ever since she gave me a copy of her first pamphlet – ‘Picasso’s Child’ – to read, I was hooked on the idea that one day I’d do that. And I’ve watched lots of her poems emerge at the Poetry Business, in that trademark, precisely provisional pencil, with minute, exact annotations, and the neatest crossings-out the imagination can deal with. And then later seen them in her two collections. I wanted to be like that, too. In collections, that is. Not in pencil. And certainly not provisional.

Sixth: I’ve started an occasional series of posts on Undiscovered gems. Well this is exactly the opposite. Julia has two collections under her belt (details at the end. Assuming this will end) and a third in production. She’s been read on ‘Poetry Please’. She’s been published all over the place. She is a serial competition winner: Poetry Business Pamphlet (2008), Yorkshire Open (2010), Torriano, LIPPFest, and Elmet (2011), Bare hands and Lightship International (2012). For all I know she’s got a Nobel Prize since then…I bet I wouldn’t find out from her. So I’m at a disadvantage; that’s the trouble with inspirations.

But enough of preambles that could turn out to be longer than the main event. Are you sitting comfortably? Then we’ll begin.


Dark watcher? why? I think (but I’m not checking – it’s not a proper review) that I came across this haunting phrase sometime in the 70s; I think it was in an article by Geoff Fox in Children’s literature in education…maybe about A wizard of Earthsea. It’s phrase that a 12 year old girl used to describe herself as a reader …. a sort of hidden, secret eavesdropper on, and fascinated observer of, other lives. Not sinister, but, simultaneously, emotionally involved and moved and engaged, and distanced and disengaged. It makes me think of Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden who observes because she’s basically left out, curiously detached, rueful, and occasionally cross. That’s  how I see Julia as a poet. A dark watcher. Not always dark, but often. I’m going to use one poem as a touchstone. It’s a poem that I’ve found heartbreaking, and I think it’s right at the emotional core of her poetry. It’s Presence. It begins with her father, the absorbed maker of presents that he thought his children should want (I’ve been that, I realise with a shudder)…things like a wooden sledge….so heavy it just sank in the snow. It’s the next stanza that brings me up short, breathless:

We were unimpressed. They never matched the bought things

we’d had in mind. After bed I’d hear you talking through design points

with mum, and sometimes, on cold afternoons, I’d come into the shed

and peer deep into the paraffin heater, loving its ring of flame

and purple fumes. Hoping for nothing, but that you would turn round.

It’s this image of the child longing to come in from the cold of withheld affection, of love, into the embrace of that ring of flame, that I find intensely moving.

The poem that follows it,The rainy day book begins What do you owe your parents? It can’t be any kind of accident that it’s placed right there….she’s too punctilious a writer and editor for that. I think the answer precedes the question, but it’s also objectified, or reified, in the second poem. What do you owe your parents?……


Learning how not to complain but wait patiently,

not always knowing what the wait was for.

And this is conflated with occasional accounts of pointless material frugality – let me use a single instance from J’accuse.

In ‘the raffish low-slung Triumph Herald’ which quickly rusted as

it dragged us through our childhood………..We sat

in the back on clammy coffee-coloured seats

that stank and stuck your bare legs to them,

fishing cornflakes out of shallow tupperware……….

Glimpsed from here,

   the swinging 60’s passed us by.’

That image of cornflakes that I imagine to be dry make me wince. But I do think that these particular and precise details go a long way to helping me to understand a thread that runs through both collections, which is that of the (rueful) observer on the outside looking in, or in the case of the Triumph Herald, on the inside looking longingly out. The curious envy of more rackety, ramshackle, free-and-easy, vulgar lives. Like in Gone (which is placed right next to J’accuse) there’s the friend with whom she shares ‘a secret knowledge of Bewitched / and other stuff on ITV / we weren’t supposed to watch at home.’  and how

I watched your bleach-blonde mum

in her space age kitchen spin dry  all my clothes

which I carried, ironed, and smelling of Tide, notOmo

home like the world cup in a paper bag’.

Ah, the allure of the working classes who have no scruples about watching ITV and its adverts. This is exactly the emotion I felt as a kid, lusting after Butlins (whatever that was) and amusement arcades, and being hauled around Wharfedale instead. I’m glad I learned about Wharfedale, but I didn’t see the point of not having both. And there’s the strange magic of her neighbour’s house in ‘Behind The Turnip harvest’  …’ I took it all in, eating a lemon puff.’ and in Voltage here’s Blackpool, that old goat, where ‘the pier in bling/ and heels throws her secrets to the sea, which bites its lip.’

So far I think I’ve managed to give an impression of a glum old vision. It’s not like that. It’s not like that at all. Let me show you why. There’s a group of poems that move out of the family, and which bring a hard-earned empathy to all sorts of overlooked, near-invisible and possibly unloved folk. When you buy Julia’s collections…as you must before you leave this post. I know where you live……. make sure to spend time with Personal Effects, Unattributed Sampler and Queen of the Inch. These are tender poems; there’s a lot of tender poems in the collections. In the first, the dark watcher reads the life of servants in a grand house from the clues that

‘the apprentice, the pot-boy, the pale governess,

the world-weary valet, the tense paying guest

left behind wainscots, wedged in pews, fallen through floorboard cracks. This is like the world in which Carel Weight reads vaguely unsettling subtexts, and puzzling uncontextualised stories. Unattributed sampler is a beautifully crafted piece of work, which imagines its way into the mind and life of the child who becomes a woman, stitching away at the successive deaths in the family. There’s real gentleness in this poem. Just linger on this stanza, and its interplay between the words of the sampler, the stitcher, and her grandmother

I was just five but could already read  THEY WILL BE MISST A VACANT PLACE

AT TABLE AND AT TIME OF PRAYER. ‘What shall we put up there I asked in the big space?

Lord knows, my love – God will decide, she said, then smiled. Me, probably.

Maybe my favourite (because of an implied landscape that I love) is Queen of the inch, telling the imagined story of the princess for whom this stone kist with its chiselled rebated lid was fashioned

As if the chiselled secret of the tomb meant

their child might one day choose to be reborn,

As if, when the time came, they too might walk free,

  as easily as opening a door

There’s so much craft and care in these poems…I’ll set up another analogy. If you can find it on your iplayer, see if you can track down a BBC 4 occasional series: What do artists do all day? I’ve watched the programme about Polly Morgan again and again. She’s an artist who creates work out of taxidermy; she rummages about in freezer chests looking for exactly the right size of mynah bird, and then sits with infinite patience, teasing off  the skin ( and therefore the plumage) in one undamaged piece; she uses incredibly sharp scalpels and focussed concentration. There’s something reverential in the attention she pays to the bird in her hands, and something very gentle and steely about the way she puts it back together, stitching minutely, stroking back the plumage. And musing at the same time about her awareness of her hands’ fragility, her imagining the structure beneath her own skin. I’m not going to tease out the analogy. I’ll just leave you to think about it, and I’ll also leave the Sampler extract to somehow try to take responsibility for imagining the craftsmanship of all of Julia’s poems.

I did mean to talk about the wistfulness and restraint of love poems like Meanwhile, and her honeymoon night, where,

Later, in bed, holding our new rings to the filtered lemon light

we thought about our future and agreed that somehow – weatherwise at least

we had been blessed.

but I think I may be stretching the patience of Sunday night readers, who already have a million poetry blogposts to wade through. I’ll pick up the pace a bit.



I chose this image to remind myself how different from, and how more disciplined, Julia’s writing is to mine, which is full of sensory overload and landscape paintings. I think her poems remind me of Jane Austen, with their foregrounding of reflectiveness against the the most shadowy of backgrounds. Like Lowry’s Salford figures on those luminous gessos, it’s the people who matter, and stories he wants to tell of their lives, with that concern for the inner world that is Jane Austen’s. Mind you, if that’s all there was, I might admire, but not feel much engagement, and wander off looking for a change of rhythm. At which point she hits this reader with poems fashioned from tumultuous lists that explode with such energy you might miss the fact the every single item is patiently selected and placed. There’s the furious rhetorical energy of Checkpoint, a prose poem jammed with the privations of immigrants to the New world like their hoarded bundles. And there’s my favourite, which is a must for anyone who spent windy afternoons with freezing fingers, beachcombing for bits of seaglass. Where else but from the wreck of The glass ship.. a galleon whose grey-green sails are translucent in the sun as are its futtock shrouds, struts and mainmast, topgallant mast and topmast stays….its ratlines, spankers, binnacles, hawsers strops and lanyards…and how it sings, how much forward energy and dance of rhythm. And one more thing.


There’s some waspish wit in the two collections but there’s also fun. I’ve always enjoyed (and envied) her ability to shine an unforgiving light on the vagaries of the poetry world, as in The wrong room which deftly skewers the more reductive sort of workshop session. In this case it’s Einstein’s irreducible (you would think) e=mc (squared….I don’t know how to keyboard that in). And I have to smile at the way  the playful poems in the second collection are gently shepherded in to a final section  subtitled Play…safely tucked away towards the end, like a sweetie reward for eating your greens.

I’m running out of steam, and I have pizzas to fashion and a case to pack. This has been a labour of love and it goes with a fervent prayer that the labour’s not lost. Go and buy Julia Deakin’s pamphlet and her two collections which are as follows:

The half-mile high club . Smith/Doorstop Books (2008)….available from the Poetry Business, Sheffield (I hope) £4.00

Without a dog. Graft Poetry (2008)  £5.95


Eleven Wonders . Graft Poetry (2012) £7.95

Julia will sell you stuff direct according to her website, last time I looked. Google it. Don’t mix her up with the TV actress of the same name. Buy the books. Remember. I know where you live.

You’ve been fantastically attentive. I shall try to think of a treat for next week. OK. Put the chairs away…Quietly…and off you go

Green thoughts

This week’s post, I promised, was to be a review. However, circumstance alter cases, and I only have one working eye tonight. This, I am assured, is temporary. But it means that my concentration is not what it should be, and I mean to do justice to my reviewee. Next week. Another promise to be kept.

A short post, then. Sunday night is Countryfile night on the Beeb. Apart from the ex Blue Peter presenters setting the comfy tone, as though addressing a group of Brownies, they are also wont to rhapsodise about going for a walk surrounded by Nature. They pronounce the capital ‘N’. All Wordsworth’s fault, I suppose, but he was genuinely rhapsodic, and I count the boat-stealing and the ice-skating in The Prelude among my favourite bits of 19thC poetry. In general, though, I’d happily see contemporary poets who use the word ‘nature’ (with an implied capital) slapped about with slim volumes of pastoral verse.

I’m ambivalent about the countryside, almost none of which, in Britain is completely natural. I am excited and moved by wild weather, and uplands. I do not warm to the postcard/jigsaw countryside of pantiled farmhouses with contentedly munching cattle. One of my ‘bibles’ when I taught A level  English was Raymond Williams’ wonderful ‘The country and the city’ with its systematic review of the thread of idealising pastoral nostalgia that runs through English poetry, the bucolic that ignores the work of actual shepherds, or any kind of work for that matter…it took writers like Hardy to address that kind of issue. Soft, owned, fenced and hedged countryside makes me uncomfortable with its exclusiveness. An argument something like this started up in my head as I was driving through Devon in April on my way to Torrington…all it took to make me feel like a ruffian was the smug purple of UKIP posters plastered on tree trunks and barns, and I thought: this is the John Major/warm beer/village cricket vision of England that saloon-bar faux-toffs like Farage are peddling. This is white, male, middle-class little England. And even though the day was sunny, I wrote this poem in Torrington.


Wales and the Malverns blue and remote.

Green and hedged, and farmed and smug,

lush as a salad, these dairylands, whose butter

wouldn’t melt as April warms and fattens.

That was the mood I was in —–more than a bit of the chip-on-the-shoulder—–and there it might have stayed, except the road began to climb out of the broad green valley and into uplands, where I could have been stopped dead in in my tracks. Except I was driving. But I was saved by a lay-by, where I could pull over, and stare and stare at a sight that might have come out of a Lawrence short story. That time of year when uplands still haven’t quite got over winter. It wasn’t chalk downlands, but was like something Eric Ravillious might have drawn. So when I got to Torrington I wrote two poems, and this is the second.

(I’ll take the opportunity here to thank Ann Sansom for helping me to tidy this next poem up. Thanks, Ann. Editor sans pareil.)


But there’s a crackle in the air, a shimmer,

where valleys deepen, bedrock humps up,

shrugs off browsing cattle, crosses a line

into air and distance where birds hover,

skyline ashtrees bristle.

Uplands of gorse, blackthorn, hornbeam –

all barbed wire and circuitry; pale grey wintergrass,

papery fern sprawling and bruised and brittle,

cross-hatched and scratched with iron nibs in sepia ink.

Linen and rust.

The horse comes dark, bunching, flexing,

fluent and massive all at once.

Its rider is weighty and poised.

They flow together into the scooped downland.

They make a word. The word is : ‘galloping’.

This man in his patched tweed coat, his boots;

this brown horse rough with winter, steel

at the corners of her mouth, who turns as he leans

with a dip of the shoulder, hands sure and still

in the whipping mane of her long neck,

earth flying from her hooves.

Something elemental in the moment; something trite.

There should be girls with wide hats, abundant hair,

pale violet coats, and brilliant stockings,

Rose and emerald silk.

That felt better. Thank you, man on a horse somewhere on a Devon hillside on a pleasant April morning.

And thank you for reading. Normal service to be resumed next Sunady. Fingers crossed.