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.

One thought on “Where the stories start

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