(un)discovered gems Number 6 : Tom Cleary (and some thoughts on unfair advantages)

cow poetry

This has always been one of my favourite Gary Larsson cartoons, and pretty well describes what I thought poetry readings were like, till I actually started going to them fairly regularly in the last two or three years. I guess I imagined an aura of quiet piety and the scent of Earl Grey, punctuated by thoughtful Mmms and occasional hesitant polite applause. It’s been nice to be disabused. So this week’s cobweb’s about readings and readers, and prompted by the fact that on Friday next I’ll be off to Camden for the launch of my chapbook, ‘Larach’ [WardWood Publishing]. I’ll tell you all about it next Sunday, or maybe the week after, because next Sunday I’ll be off to Whitby for the Poetry Business residential, and the company of 17 other hardworking writers, and the inspirational Sansoms.

Right now, I’m going to reflect on two readings last week, and what makes a reading special. I wrote in an earlier post that the first time I ever went to a reading it was nearly 30 years ago, and it was Tony Harrison. What I found utterly compelling then was not only the poetry, but the reader, the focussed intensity of Harrison’s delivery, the unwaveringness of it. That and the tension between the sometimes esoteric range of reference and the inflections of a Leeds accent that came through the overlays of grammar school and university. There’s always a sense of controlled danger in Tony Harrison’s voice, I think. It’s never tentative. It’s partly why I found ‘The nuptial torches‘ so terrifying, and why the tenderness is so powerful, the desperate pity for Isabella, who prays ‘ O let the King be gentle and not loom/like Torquemada in the torture room’, gripped as she is, this young girl, by the horror of the auto da fe, of the burnings.

Utterly different was the second reading I went to. This was an accident. A wet night in Stratford in the 70s, mooching about with my colleague Tom Baker a couple of days into a residential course for our BEd English students, and wondering what to do with ourselves. Which is why we came to be reading a notice board outside the Shakespeare Institute, and finding a handwritten note that said Seamus Heaney would be reading in about twenty minutes time, in the upstairs room of a pub in the next street, and that we would be let in for a charge of 25p. So we went. I remember that he had a fiddler with him and that they read and played alternately. I remember that I bought Heaney a pint of Guiness. But most of all, I remember the voice, the one that tells me how to hear every poem of his that I ever read thereafter. And realising that poetry was an unfair business, and there were poets born with a headstart, with gift of a certain kind of dialect or accent, absolved of the curse of RP.

It’s something I think of particularly whenever I hear an Irish poet reading. Frank Ormesby was one. James Caruth is another. They are voices made for poetry, in the way I think that voices like Garrison Keillor’s and Bill Bryson are made for prose storytelling. It’s difficult to describe the quality I’m thinking of. It’s not the fact of a tenor or a baritone voice. It’s the business of rhythm and of softened consonants and the space that’s given to vowels that does it for me. (Harrison’s consonants are nailed down, if you see what I mean. They don’t compromise. They put an edge on the words). I’m thinking of the way the lines come in a series of waves, often the rise and fall of three or four syllables, almost regular but never metronomic, like small seashore waves. A bit like the patterns of Anglo Saxon poetry, but more spacious. The result is always unassertive, unemphatic, and it has both authority and authenticity. Like I say, it’s an unfair advantage. I could listen to them reading catalogues and bus timetables.

Which brings me, circuitously, to (un)discovered gem Number 6: Tom Cleary. The first time I heard him at an open mic I was riveted. That voice. The quiet unassertiveness. The rhythm. The Heaney thing. The Jim Caruth thing. I was too entranced by the rhythm to properly take on the poems, although there were clear strong resonant images in there, and a strong feel of the narrative of a natural storyteller. The next time, another open mic, the phrases and their authority, started to stick, especially the opening lines. Like these:

‘Matty lived for a whole year

in a hardwood and glass shed on the lawn’


She had her eighth baby, little Jude,

when all the students had gone home for Christmas’


‘Her first husband fell into a machine at work.

She missed the touch of his rough hands’

Now listen to those lines in a soft Irish voice, and imagine the merest hint of a rising inflection on the last words of the lines, and you’ll get the idea. So understand my pleasure, after performing woefully through a headcold and a bronchial cough at Poetry by Heart in Leeds (which deseves much better…it’s a lovely venue), I drove up to Hebden Bridge the next night to listen to Tom read, along with the absurdly talented Gaia Holmes, at the launch of his debut collection ‘The third Miss Keane’. You can find all about it and its publishers, Happenstance, at the end of this post. But before that, I’ll tell you a bit about Tom, and then leave you with one of the poems from the collection. He gave me carte blanche to choose. I hope he thinks I chose well.

Born in Co. Tipperary, he did a degree in English and Irish at University College, Dublin. He taught English for 30 years, in London, in Manchester, in Leeds. After he took early retirement, he did a degree in Spanish and Russian at Bradford, and then lived for three years in Spain, teaching English. Now he lives in Hebden Bridge where a canal and a river and a railwayline are squeezed into a narrow steep-sided valley, along with an unseemly number of poets. Like me, he started to write seriously when he was around 70, and got a leg-up when he won the Writers Forum/Happenstance Competition in 2011. And here’s the poem I chose. I’ll let it speak for itself.


I saw her first at the bridge where we went

for the dancing. Her legs leapt to the frenzy of the fiddles.

They all wanted her but she chose me.

Come with me for the goose, she said.


Her father’s face was swollen with burst veins,

his nose a welk. He winked at me

over the whisky glass. He squeezed my hand.

His mother raked out grates and swept floors, he said.

She shouted at him to get out. He wrinkled his nose,

tipped his head to one side, and sidled off.


His mother lay all day on a chaise longue.

She wore a black patch on one eye, and offered me

a hand like twigs to kiss. Her sister squinted at me

round the door. Get in here, Sis.

Don’t think I can’t see you. A fall and a tumble

and footsteps rushing upstairs. Her brother scowled,

his oily hair swept back.


Here in our house she leads me blindfold

through ravines of corridors, and hollow caverns of rooms.

I stumble on footstools. Wardrobes embrace me

like portly dancing partners. In my room,

the apple brushes my lips, caresses my gums

but eludes my teeth. I sit on the iron bedstead

while she strokes my hair. I hear the key turn in the lock.


Don’t forget for a moment to listen to how that has to sound, that rhythm I tried to describe. Tell it to yourself, as you realise you may have thought you were into a straightforward narrative of rural Ireland and then find yourself morphed into a folk or fairy tale; something odd, sinister. That’s what Tom Cleary does. It sounds as it sounds, but nothing will be as it seems.

You’ll be wanting to know more,and I hope, wanting to buy the book. Here’s the link you need.


Tomorrow I’m off to the Puzzle Hall Poets to listen to Steve Ely, and to compere the open mic. I may see you next week. I’ll certainly see you the week after. Thank you for being here. Don’t forget to put the chairs straight.




the bigger picture


A short post this week. I’m celebrating an anniversary. A year ago today I sent off a selection of poems to The Plough Open Poetry competition, and while it didn’t change my life it certainly changed a significant chunk of it, and it changed the way I thought about it,  and about myself. I sent five poems. One made the long list (which would have blown my socks off on its own), another made the short list, and a third won the first prize. The judge was Andrew Motion. I can still remember the incredulity when someone emailed me to congratulate me. Since I didn’t know why, I thought it was a wind-up. So I rang the Plough organisers. And it was true. Incredulity plus delight. The feeling persists. That poem  ‘Julie’ was written for my partner Flo’s cousin, Julie, who was outliving the expectations of specialists who had given her the diagnosis of terminal cancer. There she was in her amazing treasure house of an upstairs flat in the Old Town part of Whitby, a place she loved. I wrote the poem in a ten minute workshop exercise, at Almaserra in Relleu [The old olive press]. Jane Draycott was the tutor. The starting point was a postcard that bore no relation whatever to Julie. But the image had flames in it. I thought of flare stacks at Wilton ICI on Teesside, and the flares of the ironworks between Middlesbrough and Redcar, where I once lived, and the huge stack of the Boulby mine above Staithes, and about Whitby and about Julie and the last time I’d seen her. That was where it came from. I must have been thinking about her for ever. I changed almost nothing of the original handwritten draft. And it won a major prize, which let me pay for the printing of my first pamphlet: ‘Running out of Space’ [for details of that click on My Books at the top of the page].

In January, I sent poems off for another competition. At this point I didn’t know I’d won The Plough. I was attracted to the Lumen/Camden Competition because the proceeds go to a charity for night shelters for the homeless. One of my sons once was a rough sleeper .. though I didn’t know at the time. These things matter. And I won that one, too. And, amazingly, the judge was Andrew Motion. A man of rare discernment; that’s how I think of him. The poem this time was one that I’ve revisited every five years or so since I first tried it as a sonnet in 1984. It was a truly crap sonnet; I found the old notebook. I’d be embarassed to reproduce it. The subject was one that has haunted me for decades, ever since that wonderful BBC drama series : ‘Shoulder to Shoulder’ and the book by Midge MacKenzie that went with it. I fell in love ( inappropriately, probably) with Sylvia Pankhurst. And was haunted by the image of Emily Davidson at the moment she was killed, bringing down the king’s horse at the Derby. I couldn’t understand how the image could be so precise, so clear.more pixels

A couple of years ago at a Poetry Business Day I was brought up to speed by Nina Boyd, who pointed out it was a single frame from a newsreel film. I’d been imagining a plate camera on a tripod. What bothered me more was that in the bigger picture from which I cropped this image, most folk are looking the other way, watching the field galloping down towards the distant grandstand. So, the poem is Camera Obscura, and it will be in the chapbook that is my prize for winning the Lumen/Camden Competition. And you can read it in The Forward Book of Poetry 2015  because it got a commendation when it was submitted for that award. Double wow! The chapbook is called Larach, and it’s published by Wardwood Publishers, and edited by the acute and efficient Adele Ward. On Dec 3 I shall travel down to Camden, and read at the launch of my very own book. Triple wow! Since I’m advertising the event all over Facebook, I’ll not do that here. Dignified and modest. That’s the style. I feel neither. Chuffed. That comes closer.

A year on, I’m starting to enter for competitions again…especially The Plough and the Lumen/Camden. I expect not to win again. Maybe I should just look out for ones that Andrew Motion judges. And no, I’ve never met him.

One thing before I go. You could well be asking: that Bill Tidy cartoon…what’s all that about? The bigger picture; yes, you’ll have got that. That’s about the cropped image of Emily Davidson. But a polar bear and the Titanic? It’s possibly Bill Tidy’s greatest single cartoon. For me it’s a reminder about perspective and point of view. I’m totally euphoric and absorbed by getting ready for various readings, for a launch, for the Poetry Business residential in Whitby in a couple of weeks. My Facebook pages are full of poets and readings. You could almost imagine that there’s a world out there that actually knows and cares. In truth, it’s a small world, this poetry world. Three years ago I hardly knew it existed. I certainly had no idea of the sheer hard work and self-sacrifice that I now know about. I’m not talking about me. I’m talking about poets I admire, ones who’ve made a name. The ones who are famous in this bubble of a world of poets. Let me tell you a story. Earlier this year, my friend Kim Moore drove from Barrow (it’s a long way to anywhere from Barrow) after a day’s work, stayed at our house, drove, the next morning, with me to a poetry event where she was bought no drink and offered no food, where she was given scant time to read and where no one bought a single book. Another poet had travelled from Middlebrough, another from Wigan, another from South Yorkshire. They all paid for their own petrol and they all got the same treatment. Kim then drove up to Lake District to be at another event that night. I have no idea how typical this is, but there are readings where poets get nothing. I’m delighted that our own Puzzle Hall Poets and Winston Plowes’ Shindig in Hebden Bridge, send the hat round and collect enough to cover travel expenses at least. I have no idea how common this is. All I know is that I’ve been staggeringly lucky to win prizes that have paid for at least some of what it costs to write poems.  I’m over the moon to be reading in Camden on Dec 3rd; I’ll see lots of friends there, people I used to teach, people I’ve met through poetry workshops, and lots (I hope) of folk I’ve never met before.

At the same time, I’d better be pinching myself, and thinking of that Bill Tidy cartoon. As the White Star Line knew too well: no such thing as a free launch.


landscapes and legends

coire gorm

In Gaelic, they call the Isle of Skye : Eilean a’Cheo – The Isle of the Mist. When you drive from the bridge to Broadford, sometimes it can be as bland as you like, and butter wouldn’t melt. Bheinn na Caillich on a sunny day looks like an invitingly pleasant walk. It doesn’t look like 3000 feet of granite scree and boulder that might break your heart. And on a clear day, you can see, on the summit, a low mound. It’s a cairn, 50 metres round the base, and reputed to be the burial mound of a Norwegian princess. A bookseller in Broadford said to me one day, quite casually, ‘ah, yes. Saucy Mary’s cairn’. Who wouldn’t be intrigued? He sold me a book: Skye: the island and its legends. [Otta Swire. pub. Birlinn Limited. Edinburgh 2006. First edition O.U.P. 1952] and that’s how I came to learn about the hill, about Mad Mary, about Grainnhe, and about the other Bheinn na Caillich, not many miles away, that overlooks the Sound of Sleat where the Black Cattle would be swum across early in their long trek to cattle fairs as far south as the one up above Malham Tarn in the Yorkshire Dales….how one tale bleeds into the next!

skye2007 083

You start to think of legend and magic on days more common on Skye, when it’s not gentle and sunny, but when the light is ominous and the rain squalls blow in from the Outer Islands. Days like this by Sligachan, looking down the glen, towards Marsco and the west ridge of Bla Bheinn; then you can hear the legends come alive. I was intrigued by the coincidence (which isn’t all that of a coincidence, really) of two mountains with the same name, so close together. Bheinn na Caillich – the Hill of the Old Woman – is a name found throughout the Scots highlands and islands. What caught my imagination is that on each of these two is reputed to be a tomb, and that there is treasure in both. Mad Mary, the Norwegian, is supposed to have become notorious for stretching a chain across the Kyle of Lochalsh (where the old ferry used to be, and near the new bridge); in this way, she could stop passage of boats through the Sound until they paid a toll. The story of the other hill is that on the summit is the grave of Grainnhe, the daughter of Morven. Hers is a complicated legend. Cursed by a Grey Wizard, for saving the life of her lover, she was tansformed into a deer, doomed to be hunted for 12 years before she was killed, and at that moment returned to her human form. And of course, it was her hunter-lover who had killed her. It’s said that all the clans of Glen Elg laid her to rest on the summit, along with a huge treasure. There’s no connection between the two stories but the accident of a common name.

Still. For a long time I’ve been fascinated by narrative songs, with ballads, and one day I thought I’d try to write one of my own. I’ve tinkered about with it, on and off, for a very long time, but coming back from Skye last week, I thought I’d have one last tweak. I couldn’t stick with a regular rhyme scheme, so it’s not a strict ballad form. But I shall try it out at open mics. I think it might work. See what you think.



Two Bheinn na Caillichs, each an Old Woman’s Hill:

on na Caillich by Broadford lies Mad Mary’s tomb.

There’s a cairn of piled stone and the wind’s dreich and shrill.

Mad Mary’s unquiet, but Grainnhe lies still


on Kylereah’s dark na Caillich. For twelve fearful years

she was a shade in the birches, along the cold braes.

The Grey One who hated the lovely and fair

laid the curse that doomed Grainnhe to run as a deer.


In the whole land of Alba she was most blessed and true,

wore a charm against death in her long raven hair,

but to save her love Fionn from the Red River water

she gave up that gem, did King Morven’s daughter.


Twelve years in the shape of a deer till her dying.

In that moment she became lovely Grainnhe once more,

and she prayed to be laid on the height of na Caillich

where the west wind blows soft toward Knoydart’s shore.


The clans of the Fiennes fron Gleneg and Kylereah

to answer the prayer of Grainnhe the Fair

carried her gently, so pale through the birches,

by the corries and screes, and they buried her there


on the heights of na Caillich where she’d run as a hind.

And to honour the lady they gave their gold free,

and they sang, and the breath of the Fienn is the breeze

that combs the grey stones where Grainnhe’s at peace.


So she lies quiet on Bheinn Caillich’s height

five leagues of dark sky from Mad Mary’s tomb

where the north wind blows chill over boulder-field stone.

Above the broad crossing, Mary’s lying alone.


Mad Mary, from Noroway’s land of cold fjords

had stone laid on stone to build Caistell Maol.

From Lochalsh to Kyeleakin stretched a linked iron chain

that halted all shipping for payment of toll.


Then Mary’s coffers held gold coin in store,

gleaming and chinking as the windlass was wound,

tightening the chain from shore to stone shore,

and barring free passage all through the dark Sound.


Now she twists and she twists as a dreamchain is drawn

tighter and tighter from sunset to dawn.

Poor chilled Mad Mary in her mist winding sheet,

silent in shrouds of mad flying sleet.


For Mad Mary’s last wish was Mad Mary’s command:

to lie where the wind blows from the north land.

Through the Corrie of Wildcats fee-d men bore her high

to the summit of Caillich full in the wind’s eye,


where they raised up a cairn fifty paces all round

so Mad Mary’s tomb can be seen from The Sound.

Unquiet she lies there, her dreams full of pain

as the bitter north wind wails through Mad Mary’s chain,


and it carries the grating of links wound and wound

as they clear the dark waters like a shade in a dream

and her gold’s an illusion that won’t let her sleep

as diamonds of water melt out of the deep


and long fronds of kelp that bleed ruby red

hang from the iron that chills Mary’s bed

where she lies in the the track of the wind that again

and again sings in the links of her tensed iron chain,


then blows clear and keen ‘cross the brown moors of Sleat,

over swift burns running dark with the peat

through the bracken and birch by the Black Loch water

to the other na Caillich and her lovely daughter.


On the one Bheinn na Caillich, the Old Woman’s Hill,

Mad Mary’s unquiet while Grainnhe lies, still.


skye 2008 054 copy

Just down the road from Broadford, below Mary’s tomb, and just by the roofless shell of the old church of Kil Chriosd, with its enclosed graveyard of tilting headstones, there’s this shallow lochan. There’s a dragon that haunts it. Just go on a day when the light is bleeding out of the sky.

Goodness knows where we’ll be next week.