Knowing your place: a polished gem (8) Steve Ely

priory 5

Here’s a first…I’m writing this from the island of Arran; there’s a banner of cloud streaming from Goatfell. On this side of the island, the rocks that run into the sea are water-fluted sandstones; oxblood and ochre and tan. Unbelievably old. The granites of the high fell are youngsters. Half the places on the island were named by the Vikings. Everything’s layered.

Robert Macfarlane’s lovely book, Landmarks, begins with this sentence.

This is a book about the power of language -strong style, single words – to shape our sense of place.

I think I want to turn that on its head today. Writing about Jane Clarke a couple of weeks ago, I found myself speculating on ways in which  language (and therefore,  our writing) is shaped and informed by the landscapes where we feel we belong. How we come to feel secure in one landscape or another is a mystery. But I recognise that the poets I love the best are ones informed by their landscapes. Norman MacCaig has dual citizenship in Assynt and Edinburgh…but just think of that poem of his when he’s travelling ‘home’, the train heading ‘North’…he knows for a certainty where he belongs and that he needs to be there. R. S. Thomas wrestles his language out of the incorruptibly bleak, out of the hard thin lands of upland farms and the disciplines of faith. Tony Harrison is always Leeds (and Beeston) no matter how far he travels. I’ve never been one for cities, but Leeds is different. It’s part of home. Poor old Larkin, I sometimes think, always aware of a kind of rootless homelessness among the Mr Bleaney’s and the hare-eyed clerks in municipal parks, of the world through train windows, other people’s weddings, and memorably, ruefully (?)

Coming up England by a different line
For once, ………………………………………
“Why, Coventry!” I exclaimed. “I was born here.”

I leant far out, and squinnied for a sign
That this was still the town that had been ‘mine’
So long, but found I wasn’t even clear
Which side was which.


I suppose it’s not the place’s fault,’ I said.

‘Nothing, like something, happens anywhere.’

It’s as though he can’t locate his personal history in the history of place, as though it had no significance other than the awful paradox of making no impression. I imagine he’d have been disdainful, but I find that close to heartbreaking. Place isn’t just topography. It’s story. I grew up in a mill town in the West Riding (or, as my guest today might say, thrydding). There was a mill at the bottom of the street. Behind the mill, on the steep valley side, a railway line; beyond that, farm lands and old farm buildings. beyond them, open cast mining, brickworks, all interpenetrated by woodlands and small bits of farm land. At the top of our street was a ramshackle dairy farm, and beyond that, old pit workings, a prefab council estate, more farm land, small mills, a foundry. One of the dairy buildings was a barn that my art teacher found had been a chapel of the Knights of St John. It was hundreds of years old. Some time in the 60’s the farm was sold and it was all torn down. No one noticed. Basically, I grew up in layers of history that no one seemed to take much account of, in the industrial West Riding where fields and woods and 16th Century manors like Oakwell Hall were a short bike ride away. Most of the mills have been torn down, or converted to designer apartment units; the handsome 19thC chapels are carpet warehouses or have been demolished and replaced by shiny mosques. History round our way doesn’t come in neat layers, like it does in the first history book I saved up to buy when I was nine: Our Island Story,  by H.E. Marshall, that splendid romanticised Whig account of why Brittania shall forever rule the waves. Real history is like those layers of geological strata that are buckled and riven by tectonic forces, scoured by glaciers and ice sheets and rivers and weather. It’s full of nonconfomities and erratics. It’s rich, confused, and often overlooked. It’s not the history I was taught at school.

priory 4

I think that’s why today’s guest, Steve Ely speaks so directly to me in his collections, Oswald’s Book of Hours and Englaland. He reminds me of the jolt I got when I first read E.P.Thompson’s The making of the English Working Class, and Hobbsbawm, and The common muse, and Roy Palmer’s The Rambling Soldier, of when I first listened to Charles’ Parker’s radio ballads…especially The ballad of John Axon ….. and Tony Parker’s Red Hill (the story of a mining community). He reminds me of a scion of the MacDonald’s at Dunvegan Castle. I asked him what the date was so I could write a cheque to pay to go into ‘his’ castle. ‘Trafalgar Day.’ he said. But what’s the date, I asked. ‘Don’t you know your history?’ he said. I can’t describe the condecension. Esprit d’escalier had me laying him low with a line about knowing MY history, and that it wasn’t the same as his. Because, yes, I do. Englaland isn’t edgeland. It’s right in the middle of England, the landscapes of farms and pit villages and power stations and their great white plumes of condensation, despoiled monasteries, forgotten castles, the remains of priories – like the gateposts in Steve Ely’s photograph here. It’s the landscape that D.H.Lawrence wrote about, and his loathing of the man-made England. Because pit villages are never pretty or picturesque in the way of, say, Pennine mill towns. But they are surrounded and interpenetrated by an older farmed and forested England. Which is Steve Ely’s ground.

priory 5

I first met him about a year ago; the circumstances were inauspicious. I drove with the poet, Kim Moore to a Saturday morning reading. On the way someone pulled out directly in front of me and smashed up the front of my car. It was still driveable, just, so we got there. It was not a well-run affair. Open mic.ers got more time than the four guests. A lot more time. Kim read in the time she was allowed, and then our day was saved by Steve Ely. He read one poem about the demolition of the headstocks and winding gear of a pit village near Hemsworth. A sin and a shame. That’s the five word, utterly eloquent, eulogy of the poet’s mate, Craig Emerson who, like thousands of others, spent his  working life there. It’s an electrifying poem. It makes the hair stand up on the nape of your neck. And so do the others, full of elided, compacted histories where you’re hardly surprised to find Arthur Scargill engaged in dialogue with the Duke of Wellington, and where the Battle of Orgreave is no more contemporary than the battle of Brunaburh, and where the language of Langland is alive and literally kicking.

Steve Ely is a poet, novelist and biographer. His most recent book of poems is Englaland (Smokestack, April 2015). His previous collection, Oswald’s Book of Hours (Smokestack, 2013) was nominated for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection and the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry. His novel Ratmen was published by Blackheath in 2012. His biographical work about Ted Hughes’s neglected South Yorkshire period, Ted Hughes’s South Yorkshire; Made in Mexborough, will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in August this year. Of himself he writes:

‘I live in Upton, near Pontefract and have lived in and around that area for most of my life. In my teens and early twenties I worked my way around Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. I was a fork-lift truck driver for three years. I went to Sheffield University as a youngish mature student where I read Biblical Studies. After that I became a secondary school teacher, specialising in RE & English, ultimately becoming Headteacher. (I taught Andrew McMillan at Darfield Foulstone School. I was Deputy Head then. I taught Andrew History in Y7, filling-in a slot on the timetable.)
After 20 years senior leadership in secondary, I left to ‘go freelance’, which in practice means a bit of consultancy, a bit of supply teaching and various writing-and-related stuff. I’m teaching creative writing at Huddersfield University from September this year. I’m married with two kids. The two constants throughout my life have been football and nature, particularly birds. I was active in the Green Party for much of the mid-80s/early 90s and in the SWP for three or fours years either side of that. ‘

He doesn’t say much about his passion for medieval history, secular and ecclesiastic, for the driven alliterative rhetoric of medieval poetry, or indeed, for whippets, but he doesn’t need to. His poems do that. And there are a lot of them. It’s next to impossible to choose from this rich wordhoard. So I’m glad he’s chosen for me….and even then I’ve had to be highly selective. He writes, very often, in big chunks that have to be read aloud, if not declaimed. Often they’re not comfortable, and sometimes they are downright exhausting. I love them. The three extracts he’s sent me  let me illustrate everything that speaks to me in his poetry. The first one speaks for that landscape I wrote about at the beginning…and that he’s passionate about.

Winter nightwalk

Blanketing snow has smothered the night in hush.

Traffic roar absent, cars drifted to  their

street-lit kerbs.   Owls         puffed up in

hawthorns, foxes quivering in holes; just me

on the path from Ringstone Hill, my boot –

steps in the creaking snow, the only sound

in the Universe.

Snow at night creates its own light,  a soft

luminosity, dulling the world in glow; in

which the footpath stretches before me, a

blue slash through the winter-wheat field,

moon-illumined to the chopped horizon

and the edge of Howell Wood. I halt at the

stile where the trees begin, in the silence

of the snow.

Bluebells lie dormant in the peaty loam, as they

have at this time since the melting of the

glaciers, before stone axes sounded in  the

forest and hand-ploughs opened the sod.

Perhaps it was these, our neolithic fathers,

who ringed hengestones on the hill, long

smashed into wall-stone          by puritan

sledgehammers?             Only the name

and mystery remain.

Clumped flakes are falling,  bouffant and mute,

effacing this time, but not place; and with

the world buffered out, the spirits  come

jostling: Anglian farmers hauling   home

harvest, breaking bread in the beery oxgang;

salt-burned Norse, glistening with  pig-meat,

feasting from east and west hagues; gleaners

bearing baskets on balks  and byways, cottars

picking sticks in the gorsey assart; vardos

circled on the wood- smoke common,

colliers in mufflers, ploughmen harrowing

tilth: generations have trod these humdrum

acres,  lives written and erased in the

palimpsest of    earth; but in the snow-stilled

quiet of a  winter’s night, in mind,  in fancy,

or on the plasm direct, you can hear the

cacophonous landscape calling: a fair field

full of folk in clamorous reunion, saluting

the mongrel blood that runs in the veins of

kindred men.

I’ve tried very hard to battle wordpress reluctance to reproduce this poem as Steve intends it to look, with a hanging indent of the first line of each ‘verset’ (think of Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns) , and the prose-poem stanzas left and right justified. I can’t get the symmetry of what he sent me BUT it clearly knows what it’s up to and it’s as close as I can get. It demands to be read aloud and attended to, with its echoes of Robert Frost, of Gerard Manley Hopkins, of Lawrence and Langland’s ‘Piers Plowman’, its relish for archaic words- oxgangs and hagues- , the simulaneity of history in a single moment of time in a single place. The language I love for itself, as I do in this next poem.

John Ball

Wycliffe’s words and Langland’s gave the Englisc
back their tongue. Manor french and church latin,
cut-off in the throat, battening behind
the buttresses of keeps and cathedrals,
parsing and declining. Johon Schepe
proclaims his hedgerow gospel, singing
from the furze like a yellowhammer:
Johan the Mullere hath ygrounde smal, smal, smal.
The Kynges sone of hevene schal pay for al.
Be war or ye be wo; Knoweth your freend
fro your foo. Haveth ynow, and seith ‘Hoo!’
There were no lords in Eden’s commune.
Scythes sharpened on whetstones, gente non sancta.
War will follow the Word.

The four lines beginning : Johan the Mullere are by John Ball himself. It’s good, though not comfortable, to be reminded that men and women were mutilated and burned in the cause of a vernacular Bible, and that if you want to rule a people you take away their language, and that the tongueless man gets his land took. This is the history, and the passion for it, that the the young aristocrat of Dunvegan would never understand. It has to be fought for. There’s a lot of fighting in Steve Ely’s poetry. And scrapping, and brawling. He’s sent me a third poem that’s long enough to be published like a serial. Big Billy, the brawny bugger tamps down the turf on the grave of his dog, and his eulogy is as terse and packed as Craig Emerson’s for the demolished pit:‘he were a bloody good dog’; and then he’s off for the challenge of the fairground ‘Mighty Thor’, and a bareknuckle battle for afters.

[from : Big Billy]

Billy woke to the word, a wager whizzed
from the boxing booth, barrelhead-cash,
winner-take-all: will the whomper of Whalehead
risk his rep and rumble with Mankiller Sykes,
pro-pugilist, pummeller, fair-field punch-out king?
At stake, a score, if the scrape-sore scuffler’s
standing still after three sledgehammering rounds.
The half-cut hard-man bottomed his beer
and bounded for the booth. ‘Bladdered or not
I’ll back my brawl against this ballyhooed bum.
Lads, lend your lucre; let’s lay it on these fists;
In nine gloved minutes, I’ll guarantee
to double our dough; I’ll dump this dosser,
then royally-ratted we’ll riot and roister
next work-wagged week away.’

Lenny Sykes, Lupset Legend,
the heavyweight hitter that hammered Bill Hague;
Big Jack Beckett’s bang-out bane,
the brute that bested Bombardier Billy.
Slammed in Strangeways for slotting a copper,
he knuckled a nark and nailed him dead,
gaining his murderous moniker: Mankiller Sykes,
most feared and formidable fighting man
never to land the Lonsdale Belt.
Bare to his breeches, Billy bandaged his hands
and stared at his savage-set foe:
beer-bellied, balding, his best days over,
yet bristling like a battle-worn bear:
the slugger who sparred sixty rounds with Jack Johnson,
him canvas-crashing and counting out
with a jolting jab to the jaw.
Glimpsing his gaze, the grizzled-grappler
stood from his stool and snarled across the ring:
‘Peep on, you punch-drunk pipsqueak:
Sykes has gone soft, I see you thinking,
a globe-gutted grey-beard, a geezer gone to seed.
Well, in these gloves I guarantee, are guns to gimp,
lay-out and litter, a likely lad like thee.’

It’s an epic fight where you’re battered with the sheer weight of alliteration. Billy prevails.

Sneering Sykes stripped off his bloodsmeared mitts,
and slammed two shire-shoes down. ‘So I swindled
a swanker, swelled with self-regard; so what?
To win’s the thing, to walk wadded
from the ring. Rip off those rabbit-punchers
and mittless meet me like a man; all in.’
Blood boiled in Billy’s barbarian brain
and tunnelled his vision in sanguined blur;
roaring he raced across the rope-ring
and bare-fist banged the black-heart blaggard
on the cleft of his crag-hard chin.
Knuckle and jaw-bone broke; the bully-boy
slumped and starfished-flat, spark-out on the boards.
Candescent with rage, the carnage-crazed champion
straddled Sykes’ sack-slumped carcass
swinging mug-mashing fist-shots left and right,
splintering sockets and champing cheekbones
until stewards and samaritans swarmed the ring
and dragged the demented destroyer away.

Calmed-down, cloth-cleaned, stitched back together,
the crocked king of carnival cradled his ale
in broken hands, bruised and bloated to blackening stubs.
Raw-ribbed, face-ripped, addled with aching,
the war-sore Woden wetted his whistle,
each poured pint dulling the pain.
And the lathered lads lifted their glasses and lauded:
‘Big Billy! You’ll never beat Big Billy!’

Except, of course life’s not that simple. Or else it’s too simple for comfort. The poems starts with the funeral of a fighting dog, and  it ends with another funeral. Billy’s dead at sixty-one, shrunk to a shadow, brought down by beer and brawling, bronchitis, black lung, and at his funeral sevice at St Joseph’s

the priest prattled him off to purgatory,

parsimonious with praise

I’ll finish with an excerpt from an interview he gave with Sheena Pugh. You can find the whole piece on her poetry writing website.

SHEENAGH: You’re very unafraid of words. That sounds an odd thing to say of a poet, but I’ve read so many reviewers, in particular, who seem downright terrified of any vocabulary vaguely out of the ordinary. Use an esoteric or archaic word and they’ll complain of elitism; use modern slang and it’s condemned as unsuitable or a “duff note”, as if modern argot and poetry were somehow incompatible. One of the things I like best about your work is how you cheerfully expect your readers to cope with liturgical language, Latin, Anglo-Saxon, umpteen bird and plant names, lovely obscure words like xanthic for yellow, and you mix that in with army slang, business jargon, politician’s soundbites….

STEVE: Words are my business, and as such, every word, in every language — past, present and future — belongs to me. I’ll use them as I see fit. Relatively early in my poetic second-coming I was expressly warned-off from using the word ‘cerulean’ by a well-meaning would-be mentor. My response was to write a poem (‘fancy THAT’, from my unpublished book, the compleat eater) that deliberately and provocatively deployed the word. Since I began to write again in 2003, I’ve used a range of registers, vocabularies and languages — Yorkshire dialect, the cant of U.S. prison gangs, Calo (the Hispanic ‘creole’ of East Los Angeles) , and many more, including the examples you cite. In ‘The Song of the Yellowhammer’ (Englaland) I also use two Romani words, ‘sunakai’ and ‘salno’, which both connote ‘yellow’. In the stanza of the same poem in which I use the word ‘xanthic’ there are five other evocations of ‘yellow’. I’m trying to make it golden.

You’ll not often feel comfortable, reading Steve Ely’s poetry, and you have to do the work of reading it aloud, because its roots lie in the poetry that predate literacy. But you’ll be rewarded, no question. Thank you for being my guest, Steve and for sharing the passion. And the landscapes. And the history.

priory 6

Next week we’ll be looking at lists. They’re more interesting than they sound. In the meantime you could be reading Steve Ely’s ……..

Oswald’s Book of Hours [2013 Smokestack Books] £7.95

Englaland                             [2015 Smokestack Books] £8.95

As a matter of fact: a polished gem (7) Julie Mellor

tolson 2

As a matter of fact, I couldn’t resist this image of a Pennine poet among the display cases of the Tolson Museum in Huddersfield. The reason should become clear as we go along, but I warn you in advance that this is the third post I’ve written in the last two days (the other two for other cobweb spinners and weavers who’ve asked me to guest on their sites; I’m not sure when they’ll be posted, but I couldn’t be happier to be asked.)….however, all three involve a bit of reflection on the writing process as I know it, and the thing is, I fear they may start to bleed into each other, or run like watercolours, and I’ll lose the thread. Fingers crossed.

I’ve just noticed I’ve managed to stack three metaphors into three consecutive clauses in one sentence. Sorry about that.

I’ve been thinking about that question that writers of all kinds get asked: ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ I’m not thinking of the business of what prompts you to recover them from the dusty, badly-curated bits of your memory and unconscious. That’s what writing workshops do for me. No, I’m thinking of the question of where it all comes from in the first place. What if you’ve had a pretty uneventful life? What if you’re not widely travelled. And why do we improvise on these first hand memories and on vicarious experience? James Britton memorably said it was because we never cease to long for more lives than we can actually live. So we read, we read, we watch films and television, we go to art galleries, we wander around cities, we walk through landscapes. We might even go into museums. I’m reminded that when I was doing a lacklustre MA in a lacklustre way for lacklustre reasons I had to write an essay about the ‘Writer as researcher’ and to reflect on the nature of the research I undertook in order to write poems. Where do I get my poems from? What are they about?

The more I look back, the more I see how one idea or notion will lead to another in ways that take me by surprise, and I accidentally stumble on information and images that find their way into poems….or become poems. And to be fair, how some of the books I read bleed into my writing. Here’s a confession. Every now and then I realise that I’ve hijacked another writer’s turn of phrase, or even come close to incorporating whole phrases and clauses into my writing. Not consciously. It’s as though they’ve morphed into ‘my’ thinking. John Prebble is one such. Wanting to make sense of crofters and Clearances inevitably took me to Prebble, and I find I’ve lifted a phrase about ghosts from ‘Glencoe’ that turns up, not much changed, in a poem called Boreraig, and another called A kind of history. And these are the ones I know about. It’s an odd thing, this ‘research’.

I’ve stumbled on stuff in Prebble, say, about Portugeses mercenaries fighting an awful rearguard on the slopes of Glen Shiel…why does it bother me? Why do I want to write about it, re-imagine it? Reading about the painter, John Waterhouse took me down sideroads of myth and legend, to Ovid, and then to Ted Hughes, and by another road to statues and sculptures, and thence to Queen Victoria’s journals, and the building of Nelson’s Column, and thence to his ships and his battles and his wounds. Vikings, the Spanish Civil War, crucifixion (did you know the sloping wooden ‘step’ on a cross is a suppadaneum?), Albert Pierrepoint, railway navvies, Mayhew’s street people………of late it’s been the history of maps, and, especially, Robert Macfarlane who has taken me back to the Vikings, to Everest, the geology of the Cairngorm. And people ask: where do you get your ideas from? As though that was problematic. The problem for me is knowing when to stop, to concentrate.

And so we come, by some indirection, to my guest for today, who writes about men who can hold ice, trains that fall from viaducts, fossilised trees, the folklore of fruit, the fears of geese,  Pennine graveyards, Sicilian breakfasts and volcanoes…in short a poet who never fails to engage and delight me: Julie Mellor


While I was rereading her Poetry Business Pamphlet Competition winner Breathing through our bones (chosen by Carol Ann Duffy! Yes, it’s that good.) I realised what it was I liked so much about Julie’s writing…it’s that every poem is a surprise, that each one is unexpectedly different from the last, and at the same time the voice is reliably the same. And the other realisation is that there’s not a shred of ego, or self-consciousness. Just a genuinely curious delight in the unaccountable richness and diversity of things. But I’m forgetting my manners. If you’ve not met Julie Mellor before, then let me introduce you.

Julie was born in Penistone, (which, as you’ll notice, has a viaduct…always a commendable thing, and is also one of these towns where everyone is someone’s cousin twice removed) where she lives with her partner and her most treasured possession: her dog. After doing various jobs, including working in a shoe shop on London’s Oxford Street, and as an au pair in Sicily, she gained a degree in English at the University of Huddersfield. She went on to do an MA in Writing at Sheffield Hallam, followed by a PhD, which she completed in 2003. Her poems have appeared in magazines and anthologies including Ambit, Mslexia, The North and The Rialto. Breathing Through Our Bones was published in 2012,  ‘Poems with a real ability to own their subject – whether spontaneous combustion or the collective thought of geese – and which remain to intrigue long after reading’ – says Carol Ann Duffy. I’m not about to argue with that.

I’ve known her for a few years as a regular at the Poetry Business writing days, which is where I’ve seen many of the poems in her pamphlet appear for their first airing in public. And thing is, they ‘stick’. They’re always memorable.  Not just the subjects, but the turn of phrase, the exactness of images. Here’s a few examples, just so you tune in.

You’ll encounter The roots of lycopsid trees , the Bishop of Tours, St Martin who chose to live with geese, Joseph Prigg, aged thirteen, who died of injuries at work, four days before Christmas, 1869. Because here’s a poet who spends time (like Simon Armitage) in the Tolson Museum in Huddersfield, who is interested in churchyards and gravestones, and brings the dead to life and breathes through their bones. Anyone can be quirky and eccentric with their choice of subjects. Making them connect with our lives is another thing altogether, and that’s what her poetry does for me. It grabs my attention, too, with images that are surprising and true. I truly hate canal towpath walking, and this is why.

Each bridge is a bleak stone rainbow
and when the water is calm,
it mirrors the arch

to a circle, a giant gun barrel
we are propelled through, side by side.

There it is, the rainbow with no gold at the end, that endless perspective, the speed of its narrowing, and for me, the no-progress of walking, looking at it endlessly receding. Or, how about this: a kitchen whisk  Like the winding gear at Dodworth pit. Or this:  ice melt running through my fingers / as if I was squeezing it dry. I really like the paradox of that. Neat, concise, exact. Or this, about a beck in spate. Listen. I’m running late;  / see the jolt in me……  ‘see’ where you’d expect ‘feel’; ‘see’ when you’ve just been told to ‘listen’. And so it goes. OK. I’ve made you wait. Time for complete poems. The first  I’ve always liked for the swagger of taking on Heaney on his chosen ground (though, to be fair, I can’t imagine anyone less given to swaggering than Julie Mellor.)


We have darkened like the end of the year,
the knuckled hulls at our core
white as a maggot or a baby’s first tooth.

Clusters of sorcery, we store the sun.
The juice of us is a blue flame.
Even the wary fall for our frumenty smell.

Between children’s fingers we bleed black,
store our vengeance until Michaelmas,
when the devil unleashes himself in spit

and piss, and we rot like the underside
of hide buried in lime, lose ourselves
in softness, sink back into what we are,

almost fruit, almost tar, resist the creeping nights,
the toll of winter curfew, wait
in our thinned clusters like the eyes of the blind,

until eel worms eat at our ingangs,
hang on to the last, juice thick as oak bark liquor,
seasoned, vile,

then shrivel back to seed,
like the mole on the back of the neck
that marks you for hanging.

Isn’t this a witchy poem and isn’t it textured? Just read it aloud and relish the consonants, and the creepy resonance of maggots, eels, the mole that marks you for hanging. Poetry as enchantment ( thanks for that, Dana Gioia). The next one is more tender, and I like it because it illustrates the surprise you can look forward to as you turn a page in the pamphlet. This one was published in The North.  (I can’t find which issue. Mea culpa)


Great Aunt Lucy

When I say I was hungry,
I’d already eaten the tiled hearth,
swallowed the coals in the scuttle
one by one, chewed the armchairs,
the cushions, all that wadding.

When I ate the television,
I felt the tube explode inside me.
My head swam. I was walking
on stilts, my slippers miles away,
small pink embellishments
at the end of my varicosed legs.

Eating the curtains took
the best part of a week.
I started with the nets; soft with dust
they went down the way
a christening shawl passes
through a wedding ring.

The curtains themselves I unpicked
like a moth, worked in from the corners,
followed the thread, like Ariadne
unwinding her ball of string.

When I’d done, the room
was full of grey light
and I saw myself properly
for the first time in years,
in an empty room, without my hat.

Gaia Holmes, another poet I like a lot,  will do this kind of thing. A sort of surrealism that works because it stays deadpan, even as it piles the improbable on the implausible, and then turns round on itself in the ambiguities of a room full of grey light, and something that’s wistful, and bleak and comic, all at once. Lovely. Now, just one more. This one has been published in Ambit 219. I think it’s one of the few of Julie Mellor’s poems that are explicitly personal.


I’m aware it’s the stuff of bee spit and wax,
that it turns soft when the sun warms the hive,

and the bees, busy with their work of sealing the gaps,
are animate and fondling in their movement.

In truth, it’s not propolis I’m talking about,
but those unwanted spaces where words land and rest.

Think of old windows, how the putty has hardened
under layers of paint so the glass rattles loose in the frame.

When I say it’s turning cold, remind you
to shut the door to stop the draft,

what I’m really saying is, here is my heart,
raw as lambs’ liver, leaking on a white plate.

It shouldn’t be so exposed. There shouldn’t be
all this quiet air around it.

What grabs me is that line..what I’m really saying is, here is my heart.  It’s simple, or it seems simple.But it isn’t at all. And you can’t ignore it, plain and unadorned amongst all the analogies that dramatise that business of trying to find the right words when the plain words were the right ones after all. So there you are.

Julie Mellor asks a question in one of her poems Autobiography

How do I know about the price
of porter, about fleas in the mattress,

the pawning of ulsters –?

The answer is that she spends a lot of time in museums and churchyards and books and other people’s poems and lives and landscapes; because she has endless curiosity. That’s what research is like. And we could do a lot worse than follow the advice in the closing lines of Drawing the line

Look at these graves,
how they hold their names ready for us,
how we stoop to read with surprise
what, for centuries, has been lying at our feet.

Right; you’ve been quiet and attentive and I’m really pleased with you all. Off you go, and make sure you buy a copy of Breathing through our bones (Smith/Doorstop Books. 2012. £5.00). You can do it simply by following the link on this wordpress site.

I hope that’s right. In any case, Google her. We’re having another guest next week. As a matter of fact, another Yorkshire poet, and a man who knows the finer points of a whippet. Don’t be late. And remember: More haste, less speed.

train crash penistone

Putting the record straight

Alfred's 100th 001

Batley Cemetery. Archetypal northern cemetery; it might have been the model for the scenes of courtship and cack-handed attempts at seduction in ‘Billy Liar’ where Tom Courtenay tries to distract Barbara from her orange segments. I’ve not been since I was a teenager, when it was already looking neglected and overgrown, and the twin chapels had been shut up and declared unsafe. I was back there yesterday thanks to the  work of a team of volunteers who’ve restored the West Chapel and made it beautiful, and to the volunteers who have tended and restored the graves of men who died in World War One, and who mark the 100th anniversary of the death of each one. Yesterday was the 100th anniversary of the death of my grandfather, Alfred Terry, and yesterday, thanks to these remarkable people I laid a poppy wreath on the grave that he shares with my grandma, Ethel. The sky was astonishingly blue, and there was an honour guard of a single soldier in full pack and WW1 uniform with sergeant’s stripes; it was moving and lovely.

Alfred's 100th 019

But here’s where it gets conflicted and complicated. Families tell themselves stories that grow ‘true’ through familiarity and retellings, and grow embellishments, like chinese whispers. We are sure we know the truth as we are told it, and as we pass it on to our children and their children, and so on. I thought I knew my granddad -or at least about him – even though he died 28 years before I was born, even though my mum hardly remembered him herself. She was four when he died. I knew he’d been a soldier, and simply assumed he’d been killed in action. And then, years on, I was rooting through an old attache case of my mum’s, full of small deckle-edged photos, and newspaper cuttings, and random documents like birth and marriage certificates.  I’m convinced that I remember finding a War Ministry telegram regretting to inform my Grandmother, and all of us, that her husband had died in an Army hospital in Aldershot. But I couldn’t have done. Because he didn’t. I knew he’d been a time-served painter and decorator, and I can prove this, but anything else was stories, and only my mum’s stories, because her sisters never mentioned him to me. Two of them never talked about their mother. But I did have his picture

alfred 1

They always told me I took after my Dad. But I look at pictures of 30 year-old me, and it’s Alfred I see looking back. He’s ridiculously young looking. And on the basis of this flimsiest of evidence I wrote poems about him.

In one called ‘Heirlooms’  he’s

a journeyman housepainter turned soldier,
has this asymmetric grin; unmilitary quiff,
unbuttoned tunic, rakish field service cap

and flirter’s eyes. He died drowning, not
at Passchendale, or Ypres, in mud, or snagging wire,
But on an army bed in Aldershot.
Still, in my photograph he’s debonair,


I think that’s fair enough. I think it’s true to what I can see of him and to what I think I feel for him. And then in a later poem I obviously felt a need to take the story a bit further


There he is. Grinning and unsoldierly,
the despair of the RSM. The joker in the trench.
Except, I’ve no way of knowing if he ever was.

Maybe, Ypres and Mons and Passchendale
meant no more to him than Chapel hymn tune names –
O dass ich tausand zungen haite. Armageddon.

But all the same, a bit of a lad. No more than a lad,
father of four, and husband of (I think)
a small girl, left all alone to scrat and fend.

My grandma, Ethel, who went deaf, who sat
with her head in the swelling horn
of the wind-up gramophone.

Listened to the scratchy tinnitus
of brittle shellac records until
they hissed like the sea on a shingly shore.

Who drowned herself, a poor Ophelia,
in the beck that ran hot from dyehouses,
that ran blue and plum and crimson red.

Who died (I think) wreathed in bindweed,
those wide white silky flowers,
and the pink of balsam, sour as a sink.

I notice I was just a bit circumspect with the story.  ‘I think’…I’ve left myself a get-out of sorts.  I’m confident about that ‘unsoldierly’, though,  because I’ve got him pegged as a reluctant volunteer. But this is what a volunteer researcher tells me about my granddad.

Sgt. Alfred TERRY (1882 – 1915) (King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry)

Alfred Terry was born in 1882 in Batley to Samuel Terry and Hannah Wood.
He married Ethel Dransfield on the 10th June, 1905
The 1911 Census shows Alfred and Ethel, together with their five year old daughter, Nellie, living in 3 rooms at 60 Bradford Road West, Carlinghow, Batley. Alfred’s occupation is given as a House Painter. Three more children were born to the family, Marjorie (my mum) (1911), Norman (1913) and Hilda (1915).

Before the war Alfred had served his painting and decorating apprenticeship with John Tomlinson of Upper Commercial Street, Batley. He had joined the Batley Volunteers and Territorials in 1901 and had been promoted to Sergeant before WW1 broke out. He was entitled to a long service medal by 1914 but the war had interfered with the receipt of the medal.

When his camp at Whitby was broken up Alfred accompanied the Territorials to Doncaster, Gainsborough and York. His comrades went to the Front without him and he returned home to Batley. After a short stay at home he was sent to Beckett’s Park Hospital, Leeds as he was suffering from Bright’s Disease (a chronic inflammation of the blood vessels in the kidneys) resulting in protein in the urine. He was never to return home and died in hospital on Sunday the 8th of August 1915.

On the day of his funeral a short service was held at his home. His coffin of polished oak (provided by Messrs. Will Akeroyd and Sons, Ward’s Hill, Batley) was draped with the Union Jack and his cap and belt were placed upon it. Afterwards, family and friends together with military personnel attended his funeral at Batley Cemetery. Edith was surrounded by many family members including her two little girls, Nellie and Marjorie. Alfred was held in high regard by many and there were numerous floral tributes. Six sergeants of the 2nd/4th K.O.Y.L.I. acted as Bearers.

The service was conducted in the cemetery chapel and the choir sang “Jesu, Lover of my Soul” and “Lead, Kindly Light”. Colonel Hind had given permission for a firing party of the 3rd/4th K.O.Y.L.I. under the command of Sergeant Ainsworth. They fired three volleys over the grave and two buglers from the 3rd/4th K.O.Y.L.I. sounded The Last Post.

Alfred’s widow Ethel continued to live in the Carlinghow area and bring up her children. She never re-married and died in 1937 aged 55 years. Alfred’s name appears on St John’s Church, Carlinghow, War Memorial.

(My thanks to researcher Susan White, Batley History Group, April 2015)

What can I say now about that    ‘grinning and unsoldierly / the despair of the RSM’?.  This is Sergeant Alfred Terry, who’s entitled to a long-service medal. Who died of Bright’s disease, in Leeds, and not pneumonia in Aldershot. That’s not all. I relied on my mother for stories of her family and her growing up…and indeed, of my Dad’s family, because he never told any.

For years and years I believed that my grandma Ethel drowned herself, and that my mother was a teenager when she was left homeless. What’s more, my daughter Julie tells me that that’s the story she believes, and she believes her gran told her so. But I stood by a grave yesterday that said quite unequivocally that Ethel died in 1937. My Mum was 26 then; hardly a teenager. It’s carved on the headstone. And nowhere anywhere can I find a death certificate; I’m not sure I want to. But what do I do about these poems that I wrote because I believed them to be true? Before I published my pamphlet Backtracks last year I’d had the information from the Batley History group, and I just had time to change the poem ‘Thole’, and omit the line about my mum’s being orphaned young. But not the ones about Alfred.

It’s a curious business, this relationship between poetic and personal/documentary/historic truth. In fact, I think it’s a perilous business. But it’s the only one that matters. I’ve been brought up short by ‘history’ finding me out. I’ve been writing poems about people who are long dead, and can’t argue. I feel morally conflicted about them. But what about the living, and writing poems about them? What then?

I’m going to have a think about that, and in a month or so, if I have the glimmerings of an answer, I’ll let you know. In the meantime, my thanks to the poets who gave me the courage to write about the living and the dead instead of describing mountains: Kim Moore, Gordon Hodgeon, Norman MacCaig, and, lately, Fiona Benson and Pascal Petit. Those five especially.

And  thanks and ever thanks to Kevin Morley, who played the part of the honour guard sergeant with such conviction, to Tony Dunlop, Kevin McQuinn. Thanks to Rev. Deborah Wainwright of Central Methodist Church for her quiet words at the graveside, and to all the volunteers of Project Bugle who arranged yesterday’s ceremony, and who continue to clean the graves and commemorate the deaths of men who died 100 years ago.

Alfred's 100th 021

In from the cold…a rediscovered gem: Martin Reed

dam 10

When people ask ‘Why do you write?’ if the answer isn’t ‘Because I’ve got things to say and this is the way I do it…rather than music or painting or sculpture or essays or journalism or graffiti’ then something’s not quite right. If you’re having to make yourself write, then what’s all that about? I think that’s what Keats was getting at with this business of poetry needing come as birds to the tree. Poetry. Not poems or a poem, note. That’s usually going to be difficult, because words don’t just line up and snap to attention. We’re going to draft and redraft and get second opinions, and polish and refine, and we’ll never quite get it right, because if we did, there’d be no point in carrying on. We need to say what’s on our minds. We have to have something to write about, if you like. Ideally we need to be full as an egg and brimming and bursting with things to say. Hence the metaphorical reservoir. That was the pantano of Relleu; that is how it was meant to be. This is how it is now. Silted up, dried out.


I used to tell students that if someone needs to use metaphor then there’s something wrong with the argument; bear with me, regardless. People ask: why write? Less often, I think, they might say: Why stop? I don’t think I’m talking about writer’s block. I’m not sure I understand that, since I think that’s about forcing yourself, for whatever reason, to write, rather than stopping. Why can you dry up? Well, maybe you find something else to do with your time, or other things take it over. Or you’ve said as much as you can or want about this and that, and there’s no point in going over the same old ground. Or you lose confidence. You look at what you’ve written, and you look at what other people have written, and suddenly you can’t see why anyone would want or need to read your stuff. An analogy for me would be my realisation that some hill routes were beyond me and my rickety legs, and that if I couldn’t do them I wouldn’t be settling for less, because all the time I’d thinking of where I wasn’t and not enjoying where I was. Something like that. I’ve been wondering how I can introduce this week’s guest, Martin Reed, and it turns out that the answer is : Obliquely. So let me go at it head on.

A brief biographical note: Martin Reed was brought up in Somerset and now lives in Worcestershire. He worked for several years as an English lecturer and later became a partner in a communication and media company, writing scripts and directing video on a wide range of subjects from Thomas Hardy to becoming a foster-parent.  He has had work published in many magazines (Agenda, Anon, London Magazine, Magma, Prole, The Spectator, Encounter, Envoi, The Interpreter’s House, Stand, Owl, Frogmore Papers, Other Poetry, Iota, Poetry Wales, The World and I, Poetry Review etc.) He has read his poetry on Radio 3 .

In 1988, Reed won the National Poetry Competition. It was a watershed in many ways, followed by a hiatus. However, in the seventies he had the good fortune to meet the late Vernon Scannell, who became a close friend (Reed is now Scannell’s literary executor).

Vernon Scannell recommended Reed’s work to Helena Nelson of HappenStance. She, like Scannell, liked his instinct for form and his love of melodic line and phrase. The publication of The Two-Coat Man in 2008 proved another turning point. And, says the HappenStance blurb, he continues to write poems.



Just think about that,. Especially that sentence: He….won the national Poetry Prize in 1988. Nearly 30 years ago. And then that list of magazines and journals. And the insouciant ‘etc’. What could be left? Jaw-dropping, especially for someone like me who’s been published in very few places, and never read my stuff on Radio 3, and never been a literary executor. But for some reason he had a hiatus; he sort of dropped out of the poetry world, or lost confidence, or didn’t have the time, or……except that he didn’t give up, but went on looking for new kickstarts.

Which is how I came to share a flat with him on a writing residential, and how I came to watch him working every night in an avalanche of typescript, and how we shared our interest in rugby, and music, and how we both ended up singing songs with last week’s guest Jane Clarke. (who, I think, is either tolerant or tone-deaf, because she’s the only person I’ve ever met who asked me to sing a second song).

The upshot of all this is that I asked him to share some of his poems, and also my delight that sometimes it may feel as though we’ve dried up, but that it’s not permanent.

I like this first one because of the way it reminds me how a revisited place can present you with two versions of yourself in an unnerving way. How suddenly the passage of time is a physical fact.

Winter Gardens
Strange, sitting in the front row
(coming early for our favourite seats)
listening to a Haydn string quartet,
to think we stood in this very space, bobbing
our immortal heads those years ago.
In place of Thin Lizzy’s electric wall,
Phil Lynott’s heartbeat bass massaging our chests,
a measured discipline of mellow strings.

Staying in one place can scare you to death all right.
I don’t want to jet off down to Adelaide,
or Jo’burg, nor yet Phuket –
from five-star hotel to private beach,
like Lucan on the run, quaffing down
new places. But they do pursue us,
make us think of escape, the dear dead ones
– Phil Lynott, Josef Haydn –
persistent ghosts in their long dark coats.

Those two phrases:   the dear dead ones   and   their long dark coats    have lodged themselves in my mind like some of Norman MacCaig’s (the cart on the shore road, the one coming with the sack in his hand); they surprise, they ambush. As does this next poem that, almost, disguises itself as a piece of reportage:

Mrs D.

Gardens cracked Columbus sheets,
setting sail on damp, slap-sheeted washday,
for a sky as grey as the suds on our draining-board.
Rash-red arms pulled a sodden corpse from the tub.

The laundry hummed. I knew to stay away
from the wringer that mangled my mother’s thumb.
I spread my model farm with leaden cows
in clothes-peg hedges, grazing lino fields.

Later there was brisket, dumplings squeezed
like sponges, rinsing my mouth in gravy. Irish stew
on Monday. You knew where you stood. Except
that one time, over the way, when Mrs D,

whose husband carried on with a girl in his office,
turned on her oven to gas herself in a kitchen
the same as ours. The ambulance and policemen
brought her home to the life she didn’t want.

Our steamy neighbours whispered at the door.
No charges this time. Suicides, I learned,
were criminals who went to jail and I asked
about death as the farmer surveyed his static herd.

It never lets you settle, never quite gives you a secure point of view, although each image is beautifully cinematic. Or else a set of stills with documentary quality. Or a set of impressions. Poetry like Don McCullin photographs are poetry. Is that a corpse pulled from the sopping tub, or a bundle of grey,  wet clothes? I like the way the poem pivots around that line:

You knew where you stood. Except

The line break is exact and exactly right. People gas themselves in kitchens exactly like ours. It’s a plain artful poem, and I love it. And because I met Martin at a writing residential, it reminds me that we all know where we get our ideas from…..from where we are and where we’ve been and who we met. And that includes books and films and music…all those amazing representations of reality that we endlessly improvise on (to borrow a notion from Harold Rosen). And how do we find out what our ideas are when we think we’ve dried up, and where may we find an art and a craft to shape them? Invariably for me the answer is at workshops. Doesn’t work for everyone, but I need other people to get me moving and tell me it’s all right. No prohibitions, but regular miracles. I had the impression that it worked for Martin, too. I hope so. I want to read more Martin Reed poems.


STOP PRESS!!!!! 02/08/2015

Martin mailed this morning to tell me he’s just had two poems accepted by Envoi ….and that ‘hiatus’ means publishers and magazines and journals kept turning him down, and that he’s never stopped ‘scribbling’. There we are, Record set straight. This is increasingly important, as nexr week’s post will explain.

Next week will be a 100 year anniversary and we’ll be looking at the relationship between factual truth and poetry. It could be complicated.