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.


22 thoughts on “the bigger picture

    1. I don’t really know, Stella. I know I can read them all, but why you can’t is something I need to ask my clever IT son about. There’s 32 of these mini-essays so I’d hate to lose ’em. I’m glad yo like tis week’s!


    2. When you open the page, is there not a column, to the right of the article, that’s headed ‘archive’, and you just click on the month? That’s what I do with other people’s blogs. Try it. Good luck.

      “the gre


      1. But not for a good long time. Us cancer sufferers have to outlive every reasonable and unreasonable expectation. I have to say I was too embarrassed to say that this 12 months has included one more First prize (The Red Shed), one 2nd (Ilkley), a 3rd (Havant), and a small consolation prize from Nottingham plus a Highly Commended (York). Dunno what happened to Bridport, MacLellan, Fermoy, Larkin and all the rest. Picky judges, I suspect. Next year I’m concentrating on submissions…scant success with those this year. I shall just try harder. I have to say that whenever I’m feeling unproductive, your blog always perks me up again. Yours and Kim Moore’s are the ones I look forward to. I reckon you’ve got some lucky students. Hope they appreciate you. xx Fogs


  1. Thank you for this great post John, I pricked up my ears initially when I saw the Titanic cartoon, as I wrote my dissertation on the very same subject (from my home town Southampton) many moons ago and secondly because I entered one very small offering into the Plough Prize this year too. I am very very new to poetry but I was absolutely astounded when I was long listed in the National Poetry Competition two years ago and I know I shared your sense of disbelief and amazement – but how wonderful that feeling was, how lovely. Good luck for this year, you seem to have a really great track record of wins and placements, so I am sure your poems will do well,



    1. And thank you for reading, and for the kind comments. Keep on entering. More important, keep on writing. Ah, the Titanic. I’ve seen ‘A night to remember’ 23 times. 22 of them via 16mm film on school projectors. We did a film based writing and drama project every summer term when I was HoD English in the 70s and 80s. Happy days

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Aha A Night to Remember was one of the few books I stayed up all night to read and the mind fug I was in the next day for school just added to the surrealism of it all. An amazing story. I will have to see the film.


      2. I saw it first at the cinema….probably about 1955. It really is a well-put-together movie, and I’ve always liked the editing of it, and the way it foregrounds the class issues from the first 3 set pieces following the launch. It’s very close to the spirit of Walter Lord’s book (which I still have). They still did the project at that school into the 1990s. Foer all I know they still do. Anyway, it’s on DVD, and cheap as chips. Treat yourself for xmas. And buy hankies.


  2. I’d pay good money to have every copy of ‘Titanic’ destroyed. But that’s my working class socialist Philip Hobbsbaum view of history talking. Perhaps one day I’ll mellow. But after 72 years not much seems to be happening in that direction


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.