Polished gem: Shirley McClure


In a few weeks I’ll be back in the blue house in the middle of the picture. Almaserra Vella, in the village of Relleu in Alicante. I’m not sure I need an excuse for posting it, but I do have one. Because it’s the house where I met today’s guest poet..a year ago, on a writing week tutored by Ann Sansom. She’s not the first guest from that week. We’ve met Jane Clarke and Martin Reed, and equally, another guest who I wouldn’t have met but for the Old Olive Press…my friend Hilary Elfick. I’m not sure why it took me so long to ask Shirley McClure to share her work with us. However. Better late than never, and I’m delighted to see you all looking so smart and keen. You’re a credit to yourselves.

By way of introduction, then, a story I thought twice about sharing, and then decided it was too good not to. You know how it is at a writing workshop. Deep concentration, silence, the susurrus of paper, the scratch of pens. Sighs. The creak of a chair. And the task. It wasn’t one I associate with Ann Sansom…she’d given each of us a postcard of a portrait. The task was to adopt the voice of a character in the picture, or to create a stream of consciousness sort of thing. I got the equivalent of a ‘Hello’ photoshoot of three languid landed sisters by John Singer Sargent. Shirley McClure, it turned out, had been given one by John Waterhouse ….one of my favourite painters…..of his favourite model, in the guise of a nymph or a mermaid or a minor deity or a dryad. He did a lot of those. Anyway, it was one of those spells in a morning’s writing when I sort of drift off, my mind elsewhere, and folk were reading their drafts, and suddenly I was startled by this sardonic, no-messing Irish voice saying                    ‘John; I know you want to ride me…..’

Since then I’ve read Stone dress, and found myself brought up short, and sometimes close to tears, by the poems about mastectomy, about the relentless business of cancer and its treatments, by lines like these from A marriage: ‘At home we made delicate love /watchful of bandages’, or from Photoshoot ‘ Nurses rave about the handiwork, / scars are praised…..yours is the best we’ve taken……there is more than one way to find fame.’

Bloodaxe poet, Katie Donovan describes that voice for me when she writes of Shirley’s recitations of deadpan lust. That’s the word I wanted: deadpan

But that was the first time I heard Shirley McClure reading.  I’ve said before that it’s the voice that sells me the poem, and I’ve also said, more than once, that the Irish have an unfair advantage when it comes to voice. Not all the Irish, I suppose I should say. Not the Irish of the Falls Road and the Shankhill, where every vowel sounds like a grudge or a grievance . But it’s that drily sardonic Irish voice that I hear when I read so many of Shirley’s poems, and I love it. I like the drawl, the vowel song.

stone.dress1 jpg

And now it’s time to introduce her. Born in Waterford in 1962,  Shirley lives in Bray, Co. Wicklow.She studied English Literature and Spanish at Trinity College Dublin and undertook a Master’s degree in Latin-American Studies at Liverpool University. She went on to do a variety of jobs including volunteering in a mens’ hostel in Liverpool; teaching English as a foreign language in Reading, Dublin, Vigo and Quito; tutoring in literacy and creative writing at the Dublin Institute of Adult Education and Tosach, an AnCo centre in Dublin’s inner city; project work in Focus Point (now Focus ireland) which included drama, literacy and counselling; teaching English to Vietnamese refugees in Dublin. Since 1992 she has been a natural health practitioner and teacher. She practices shiatsu and aromatherapy (see http://www.shirleymcclure.com) and works with a number of community and holistic organisations, teaching and facilitating groups. She also teaches creative writing with a particular interest in writing and health.

stone dress 2

Shirley’s collection, Stone Dress (Arlen House) and her CD Spanish Affair, with her own poems plus poetry and music from invited guests, both came out in 2015. All proceeds from the CD go to Arklow Cancer Support Group, where Shirley facilitates a writers’ group. Her first poetry collection, Who’s Counting? (Bradshaw Books) won Cork Literary Review’s Manuscript  Competition 2009. She won Listowel Writers’ Week Originals Poetry Competition 2014, and the title poem of her new collection, ‘Stone Dress’, won the Penfro Poetry Competition. And now you’ll be wanting to know why she’s a prize-winner. Time for the poems. She’s sent me a slack handful from Stone dress, and I couldn’t be more pleased.

The first one is typical of her clear-eyed unflinching gaze, and the diction that tells you exactly how to listen to the poem.


Nurse dresses the wound,

we talk hormones, oestrogen,

how the levels will drop

like water in a summer pool

that yields only a dry ring,

a glaze of salt.


She says I can swim in salt
water, now that the wound
is healing; she says to ring
if there’s a problem. Oestrogen
used to be my friend. The pool
is out of bounds, but I can drop


down into the waves, swim till I drop,

crawl out covered in salt.

Sea water gathers in a pool

at my feet, and even the wound

shines. Sunbathers beam oestrogen,

and I stand, hopeless in a ring


of bare-breasted women. Can’t ring

any nurse about this. Can’t drop

out of the world because of oestrogen.

I change in our room, taste salt.

My sun-dress won’t cover the wound,

I pull on an old t-shirt, curl up by the pool.


You find me at the pool.

Still not used to your ring –

the ring came before the wound,

before the floor dropped

out of the world, before salt

baths and the war against oestrogen.


– Was it the oestrogen                                            

you fell for, or the reflecting  pool,                

or my image conserved in salt?                         

Would you rather I gave back the ring,                

would you rather we dropped                               

the whole plan? I wound


you with questions, wound with oestrogen,

the drops I have left, run from the pool,

your ring glued to my finger with salt.


It was Kim Moore who made me try to write a sestina, and it was Kim Moore who explained that what a sestina is ideally suited for is the exploration of an obsessional idea. Which is exactly why this poem grips and grips and won’t let go. That, and its echoes of the mythic, of women turned to salt, of the iconography of rings, of the lost, like naiads by pools in legendary clearings. So many layers, and always, always, rooted in the here and now, the unavoidable. Stunning. By contrast, the next one is in what feels like more familiar territory, and what makes me think of Heaney…and, indeed, of Jane Clarke. A poem full of love. And, I think, the only poem I know about table tennis.

Best Of Three

When it first came in, they’d use cigar box lids

for bats, a champagne cork for a ball.

They played it after dinner, as a parlour game,

the fathers back from India keeping score,

the uncles in their uniforms shaking hands.


Our dad taught us how to hold the blade,

coached us on how the sleight of hand required

to spin the ball depended on your stance,

your handshake grip, the flick of wood and rubber,

showed the three of us the chop, the loop, the kill.


Jack Frost  was outside but we were holed up

round the table in the echoing house, and sweating.

Everyone played, even Uncle Arthur, whose hands

big as mill wheels dizzied and spun the spectators,

each grateful for the pipe-smoke lightness of the  ball.


Last night in the Parochial Lodge, my hands shook

as the ball danced away from me. New rules,

faster, up to eleven only and  two serves each.

Slowly I corrected my footing as though

my father still stood by the net, score-keeping.


I’m hooked right from the first line; if this was to turn up in a bunch of submissions for a competition I was judging, it would go straight into the ‘probables’ pile, just for that first line. Ah, the power of the pronoun, that artful ‘it’. And then, like Heaney’s father, digging:   my father……….scorekeeping.  Lovely. As is the next poem.

Katie Donovan says of Shirley McClure’s work in Who’s counting: “Quirky and wise, studded with razor-sharp double entendres and droll fantasies, these poems introduce a refreshing new voice in Irish poetry. Fuelled by a combative curiosity about the underbelly of human relationships, this is a poetry of candour and folly, and ultimately of discovery. Themes include sexual jealousy, bereavement, and how a woman regards her physical self. …….. Here is a poet sure of her craft, ready to share incantations of desire and domesticity with poise and elan. From recitations of deadpan lust to the sensitivities of one who is flying on the margins of mortality, the poems in Who’s Counting? become friends whom we cannot resist revisiting.”

I hear the voice that I heard a year ago in Spain whenever I read this poem.

The Kiss

I could have been

a better student – learned Lorca

from the library stacks,


not lying

on the shag rug

in the lecturer’s flat.


I half-listened to his Verde,

que te quiero verde,

knowing he would kiss me later;


half-believing that his tongue –

its twist and roll

around my own –


would transmit linguistics,

short-cut me

to fluency.


It’s the laconic bit about the shagpile rug in the lecturer’s flat, and its guiltless trangressiveness that makes me laugh, and then feel slightly guilty about. My bad. As one of my granddaughters says. But she writes sexy poems as well as harrowing ones does Shirley McClure. I’d like to share the whole collection ( all these poems are from Stone Dress)…but then you wouldn’t need to buy it, and you really, really must. So, just one more.  I wanted to share one about hoovering, but wordpress can’t cope with the formatting of a shaped poem, but I’m just as happy to share this one instead.


The Amorous Cat

 The Amorous Cat bookshop in Aigburth

closes its door for final time

– Liverpool Echo, 2012


Do you ever take a walk in Sefton Park,

browse in the bookshop on Lark Lane?

Is there still a bookshop on Lark Lane,

are any lefties left in Sefton Park?


Do you ever have occasion to remark

to Fabiana, Donna or Lorraine

how much you miss la lucha, the campaigns,

the prisoners’ letters, every Saturday a march?


Or could it be you never settled down,

that when you said don’t ever contact me

because I can’t forget you, that you meant it,

mean it still; oh, but I hope your Liverpool’s a town

grumbling with bookshops – that you’ve forgotten me,

just as I’ve kept my promise – written this, not sent it.


Actually, it’s nice to finish with a love letter, however bittersweet, rather than falling down a flight of stairs with a hoover. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed myself this afternoon, and I can see that you have. If you want to know more about Shirley McClure’s work you can check out her webpage here


If you line up nicely, she will sign her book and sell you one. And if you forgot the money, then here’s where you can buy them once you get home.

Who’s Counting? from Amazon’s Book Store. … Paperback: 63 pages; Publisher: Bradshaw Books £9.00

Stone dress [Arlen House 2015] from Kenny’s bookstore:  http://www.kennys.ie/  €13.00


Next week we’ll be doing something slightly different, inspired by ‘Grand designs’.




The Red Shed poetry competition 2016: two weeks to go


Very shortly I’ll be doing something I never dreamed I’d be asked to do. I shall be judging a poetry competition. Poachers and gamekeepers come to mind. I’m very fond of poetry competitions…I’ve argued before that it’s more fun entering competitions than sending in submissions to poetry magazines. By the way, I’m not suggesting for a second that there’s an either/or choice here. You should be doing both. BUT when you enter a competition, your entry fee is going to support the business of small poetry presses and live poetry readings. It’s for a good cause. You can’t lose, AND you can always win a prize as well as feeling good about yourself.

AND what do you know… the deadline for the Red Shed Comp. is April 30th. That’s only LESS THAN TWO WEEKS AWAY. So… Get your poems entered for the Red Shed’s 2016 competition.According to Facebook, millions of you are writing a poem a day throughout the month of April, and statistically, there should be some absolutely cracking poems out there. And what with 11year olds being given grammar tests more demanding than 1950’s ‘O’ level English, the BBC studiously not reporting huge anti-austerity demonstrations in the country’s capital city, desperate refugees being demonised by the right-wing press (ie: all of it), the open secret of the Establishment’s tax evasion being discovered to be ,well, an Open Secret, America spiralling into a pissing competition between billionaire fascists who want to control the biggest nuclear arsenal on the planet, and North Korea starving itself to death in a bid to build a rocket that will fly beyond its borders….well you’ll not be short of subjects to hone your rhetoric and your pity on.

Alternatively,the sun’s shining, daffodils are convinced of the resurrection and the life, there are pale yellow catkins on the twisted hazel, blood red flowers on the quince, a haze of pale lilac light at the tips of the silver birch. All that stuff. Whatever.

By the way. Whatever you do, please don’t write me poems like that last paragraph. Not if you sincerely want to win.If you want to know about writing prize-winning poems then head on over to  Carole Bromley’s excellent post by following this link:


The York Competition is all done and dusted, so you now have no distraction and no excuse. Get enthused, follow Carole’s advice and then pick out a winner from your word hoard and send it off to the Red Shed Competiton. Make my day. The link to the competition is :


This is what you’ll find when you get there…just so you know you’ve reached the right place.

The Red Shed Open Poetry Competition 2016 entry form

Download this entry form and include it with your competition entry. Alternatively include all necessary information typed on a separate piece of paper and include it with your poems. Stamped addressed envelopes ensure notification of the results.


Sole adjudicator: John Foggin

Closing date: Saturday 30th April, 2016
Prizes: 1st— £100
Wakefield Postcode prize—£25


  •  The competition is open to anyone aged 16 or over.
  • Poems should be in English, they must not have been previously published, nor be currently submitted for publication elsewhere.
  • Poems must be the original work of the entrant, they must be typed on A4 paper and be no longer than 50 lines. Each poem must be on a separate sheet of paper which must not bear names or any other form of identification.
  • Entries must be accompanied by a completed application form or a separate sheet with all of the appropriate information included and a stamped addressed envelope. The results and the judge’s comments are sent out via this sae.
  • Entries must be accompanied by an appropriate entry fee: £3 for first entry, £2 for each poem subsequently entered. Cheques (sterling only) must be made payable to Currock Press. Entrants paying via PayPal should ensure that their PayPal confirmation of payment numbers are listed.
  • Entries eligible for the Wakefield postcode prize should be marked with a W in the top right hand corner.
  • We regret that we are unable to return poems or enter into any correspondence with entrants. The adjudicator’s decision is final.
  • The closing date is Saturday 30th April, 2016.
  • An awards event will be held at Mocca Moocho Café, Cross Square, Wakefield on Sunday 29th May at 2.00pm.
  • Copyright remains with the authors but Red Shed Readings reserves the right to print winning poems.

Entries should be sent to:

The Competition Organiser,
Red Shed Open Poetry  Competition,
3 Sandal Cliff, Sandal, Wakefield, WF2 6AU


You’ll be delighted to discover when you go to the site that you can use Paypal. So, no excuses. And I really do want to read your poems. Three months ago I posted a strand on the cobweb entitled :In it to win it…my ideas on what make for prizewinning poems. Have a rummage through the archives and have a read.

You’ve time to write a winner yet. Like I say, it’s National Poetry Month. All over the land poets are making themselves ill trying to write a poem a day…when they can take time off from bewailing their fate all over Facebook, and bemoaning the apathy of the Muses. Take the advice of the goddess Nike. Just do it.


Magnetic North (Part 2)


Sometimes I think I like the names of the Northern Dales as much as the hills and the valleys themselves. Wharfedale, Ribblesdale, Nidderdale, Swaledale, Langstrothdale,and this one, Arkengarthdale, setting for William Mayne’s Earthfasts, where Nelly Jack John comes out of a fellside playing his drum, and giants roam the valley sides, and drive herds of pigs into Richmond marketplace. Norse and Saxon place names, and the hard Norse consonants. Muker. Keld. The cold springs of adit-mined limestone valleys, gouged by glaciers and littered with erratics. Big Northern skies and cold winds.

Last week I said I’d be writing about poetry, and I will. It all stems from a conversation on a long car journey..just to remind you, I was speculating on whether there was such a thing as Northern Poetry or a northern poetic voice (or voices). Because it seemed to me that all the poets I gravitated towards, and whose books I bought were ‘northern’. Or, at the least, not metropolitan. When they weren’t self-evidently ‘northern’ they were ‘regional’; they came with distinct voices that could not be described as RP, and would lose something important if they were read in RP…and I guess that what they would lose would be music, rhythm, texture. The conversation in the car circled around the idea, too, that this poetry was somehow more ‘committed’, less inclined to be ironic, more inclined to wear its heart on its sleeve. I guess we knew we were teetering on the edge of a generalising sentimentality, but we were trying hard to be honest, to nail some kind of felt truth. One phrase in that conversation lodged itself in my mind. One that said that ‘metropolitan’ poetry was ‘too cool for school’, that it prided itself in its avoidance of a felt emotional engagement. I don’t know if that’s accurate or fair. But something about it resonates enough for me to want to try to pin down that elusive idea of ‘north’ and ‘northernness’.

It’s an issue that has been bothering the English for long enough, especially in the mid -19th C, faced with the astonishing growth of the Northern industrial cities. Disraeli sets the tone:

‘It is the philosopher alone who can conceive of the grandeur of Manchester, and the immensity of its future’

Some critics like Lord David Cecil clearly thought it was beyond the frail intellectual grasp of a woman like Mrs Gaskell, who was probably (in his mind) ill-advised to write North and  South, and  Mary Barton.

‘…. a subject….neither domestic nor pastoral….it entailed an understanding of economics and history wholly outside the range of her Victorian feminine intellect’

Mrs G herself uses an emigre from Jane Austen country to provide a perspective on this strange and savage land.

After a quiet life in a country parsonage….there was something dazzling….in the energy which conquered immense difficulties with ease; the power of  the machinery of Milton, the power of the men of Milton …………

‘People thronged the footpaths, most of them well dressed as regarded the material, but with a slovenly looseness which struck  Margaret as different from the shabby threadbare smartness of a similar class in London’

I have always enjoyed that business of ‘a slovenly looseness’ and the way it misses the taste, the refinement of the shabby-genteel south. And have we changed, in the last 150 years? Where do we start? Let’s start with ‘accent’. And with a quotation from Tony Harrison’s ‘Them and Uz’.

“All poetry (even Cockney Keats?) you see

‘s been dubbed by [ɅS] into RP,

Received Pronunciation please believe [ɅS]

your speech is in the hands of the Receivers”

Harrison spoke for tens of thousands of us who, in the 50’s, were harried for our accents in the Grammar Schools  we sat  scholarships to get into. It would be nice to think that 60 years on we know better, but only yesterday a post popped up on my Facebook page bemoaning the alleged fact of a default ‘poetic accent’ that bedevils poetry readings. Here’s an extract:

the poet uses a slightly performative but mostly natural voice. It’s the voice they’d use to introduce you to their grandmother. Then they read the title of their first poem and launch into the first line. But now their voice is different. It’s as if at some point between the last breath of banter and the first breath of poem a fairy has twinkled by and dumped onto the poet’s tongue a bag of magical dust, which for some reason forces the poet to adopt a precious, lilting cadence, to end every other line on a down-note, and to introduce, pauses, within sentences, where pauses, need not go. – Whoever it is, that person has just slipped into Poet Voice, ruining everybody’s evening and their own poetry because now the audience has to spend a lot of intellectual and emotional energy trying to understand the words of the poem through a thick cloud of oratorical perfume.

[You can read more of this at  http://www.cityartsonline.com/articles/stop-using-poet-voice#sthash.an1JpwPt.dpuf%5D

The article’s about American poetry readings, but I’ve heard a friend and ex-student of mine (who happens to be an actor, musician, and the voice of very many audiobooks) saying exactly the same thing about the BBC’s flagship programme: Poetry Please. I don’t know whether the fact that my actor-friend is from the North is a factor in this. But I’d happily bet that it is. I guess we all recognise that reverential RP poetry-accent, and run a mile when we hear it. I think we’d run equally fast from the faux-Northern accent, the thick as chips ‘Yorkshire’ that still turns up in folk clubs and at poetry open mics, and is employed by them as does monologues in the Marriott Edgar tradition. Or from the faux-Mancunian accent of them as thinks they’re the natural heirs of John Cooper Clark.

I think, however, that what I’m talking about, and what Kate Fox was writing about in last week’s Cobweb post, is the authentic regional voice, the authentic ideolect. Seamus Heaney had it…those tumbril vowels, the softened consonants. Ted Hughes had it..those Pennine vowels, and his trademark cadences. Tony Harrison has it. Multilingual, cosmopolitan, international; and he sticks like a burr to those flattened Leeds vowels .especially that Northern ‘u’ in ‘uz’. You’d recognise Simon Armitage anywhere from the vowels, no matter how hard he works at sounding mildly camp, like Alan Bennet. If I’m not careful, I’ll seem to be implying that Northern speech is a guarantee of authenticity. I don’t mean that at all. What I am saying is that the northerness of poetry has a powerful resonance for me; I feel that I belong in it. Let me share some examples.

Here’s Gaia Holmes from Luddenden in the Calder valley:

from : Inland

each dead pheasant you pass

fluttering like a ball gown

in the motorway breeze,

each blurred wasp you see

pulped on the windscreen’


and from: Quake


for months

I’ve been saving hope

in a blue pot-bellied jug.

But tonight I let it out

and it ran like a cat.


I reckon the key words that give these lines their particular music are ‘flUttering’. ‘blURRed’, ‘pUlped’…and ‘blue’, and ‘jug’ and ‘out’. Try to hear them with an RP accent and they lose their fullness and weight. The same happens with the words of Clare Shaw (who comes from the west side of the Pennines, where ‘hair’ and ‘chair’ rhyme with ‘fur’)


Years ago when I was young enough

to eat mud and be interested

in stones and clocks and buried bones –

when I was that young

I found a bird that couldn’t fly.


All the music of this is in those ‘u’s, aand ‘o’s (long and short)… ‘young’ ….imagine that you hear that ‘g’…..’mud’, ‘stones’, ‘clocks’, ‘bones’, and in RP it goes flat and tuneless. Just two more. Probably they’re not needed for the argument, but I’m self-indulgent, and enjoying myself. Christy Ducker, first. A different ‘north’, this…the sprung dance of Northumberland whose vowels are brighter than those of the industrial Pennines, and whose inflexions rise rather than fall


from : Deer

Too often roadkill or sprung space,

our deer survive and come back north

pressing themselves to the house for warmth


and Steve Ely, because he launched his latest pamphlet last week in Pontefract, and who relishes the long ‘o’and short ‘u’ sounds of the North, but also the textures of alliteration, and the heft of consonants


from: Werewolf

At bay in wounded country, panting across

the loping snowfield for santuary of pines,

hounds bungling the line through folds of worried sheep..


And o, I’m a sucker for the landscapes of thin soils, hard stone hills, deer and snow. I wrote some time ago that the poet Roy Marshall said he thought of me as a writer rooted in a place. I wrote this in response:

What interested me was that I have somehow given the impression that I am from a place, and that I know it intimately. It’s true that I know it spatially and visually, but I went to university 100 miles away in Durham, and then Newcastle. I taught for six years after that in Middlesbrough, and lived in a former iron-mining village not far from the sea. After that I lived and taught in Newcastle for four years, and after that, for ten years, in Leeds. I still have traces of a NE accent from that, but not a trace of cities in my writing, except for a short sequence about Leeds this year. For the last 30 years I’ve been living in a small town less than ten miles from where I was born and grew up. More or less in the same valley. And I still don’t know the street names, which tells me that somehow, unconsciously, all this time I’ve been thinking of it as temporary. So if I’m from ‘a place’ I think that place is ‘North’ and my thinking and imagery is ‘North’. The poets and poetry I respond to are northern. I don’t ‘get’ poetry written out of warm or hot or lush or metropolitan or exotic landscapes. It’s my loss but there it is.

And please, if you’re from the ‘south’ and think this is just another bit of chip-on-the-shoulder, saturday night and sunday morning, grim up north and proud of it piece of nonsense, please note that last sentence. ‘It’s my loss, but there it is’.  I’m bound to the north however evasive it is, and, like Ian Duhig, and like Steve Ely, I love the history of its languages and dialects. So, last word to Ian Duhig. (and with a silent prayer that the midline breaks will stay where they should be).

Long Will
Langland’s my name   long gone from this land
where lettered and lout   alike my tongue lashed;
I’d flay fellowclerics    for failing their flocks
as fast as the riffraff    for riot and wrath,
as fiercely as princes     who prey on the poor ―
wealth is mere theft     wed into or won,
inherited wealth    as heinous a haul.
My poem gave watchwords    to Wat’s men and women
who rose in rebellion    against England’s wrongs.
Now I’m brought back     by a fart of a bard,
to rage and to rant     in my rum, ram, ruff staves —
a rough and rude roar     in my own raw age,
a savage sound now     upon this sod’s soft ears.
I’ll make his ears smart     your sorryarse sinner,
a smug poetaster,    posturing penpusher
who’d write off religion    as simply a relic
of spent superstitions     from centuries past.
He’d sneer at the prayers     of penitent paupers
whose hope in His heaven     is all hope they have;
he’ll tell you that medicine     mends all ill men —
what pills or potions     preserve poisoned souls?
Paul’s letters that kill    are the kind of this clerk,
vanity’s vessel,     void of all spirit.
Where I look with longing     for lines true and straight,
the pen cutting plain    as Piers’ ploughshare
unveeringly drawn     from verseend to verseend,
I find instead fiddling     as fancy as Frenchmen’s
or rhyme chancer Chaucer     chose for his poesy;
where I look for rhythms    rum, rough and ramming,
wholesome and heavy     as ploughhorse’s hooves,
I’m bored stiff by beatless, babyish rattlings,
unmeasured metre     men’s feet can’t march to;
no clashing of consonants      but cowardly vowels
softening such combat     to simpering songs.
His maundering minstrelsy’s     destined for mulch,
pulp spread like gullshit    in Piers Ploughman’s wake,
feeding His fields     for heavenly bread
whose hymns and hosannas     will rise sweet and high
when people will praise     without poets’ help
the grandeur and glory     of God and His works.


PS : as Tony Harrison also wrote: ‘Uz can be loving as well as funny’


For further reading

Ian Duhig: The blind roadmaker [Picador Poetry 2016] £9.98

Gaia Holmes: Lifting the piano with one hand [Comma press 2013] £7.99

Clare Shaw: Head on and Straight ahead [Bloodaxe. 2012 and 2006] £7.95 and £8.95

Christy Ducker: Skipper [Smith/Doorstop 2015] £9.95

Steve Ely : Werewulf [Calder Valley Poetry 2016] £7.00


‘Werewolf’ Launched

‘Werewolf’ will keep you awake.

Calder Valley Poetry

Werewolf set sail, supported by a large gathering of well-wishers, from The Tap and Barrel, Pontefract, yesterday evening. Steve Ely, in fine form after a 10-mile run, read several poems from his pamphlet as well as taking part in a discussion about his poetry generally, and about the theme of this collection, which he described in the following terms: ‘Violence and exploitation arise from the hierarchy and inequality of class society, where individuals and groups seek domination and advantage.’

Werewolf is £7, plus p&p if you’re not within cycling distance of Halifax. (The cyclist in question is ageing and not very fit at the moment.) Email caldervalleypoetry@yahoo.com for details.

John Foggin supported superbly with poems about wrens, goldcrests and Greek gods, including a selection from his Calder Valley Poetry publication Outlaws and Fallen Angels. (Also £7.)

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Magnetic North (Part One)

composite north

I know when the impulse for this post started…..it started with something I stumbled across on Facebook, a post from Kate Fox, that began thus:

I’m here and now launching the Campaign for Northern Voices (Tagline: “Proud to Speak Northern”). There are no national news readers with a Northern English accent (Steph McGovern does BBC Business bulletins and gets routine flak for her Middlesbrough accent). Studies show that University students are routinely mocked for their regional accents, every female academic in one study lost their regional accent in order to “Be taken more seriously” and even Fosters Comedy Award winners with Northern English accents account for a tiny percentage of the total (Fewer than ten per cent- “But Northern people are famed for being funny?” “Well, indeed”). Actors with native R.P or neutral accents are explicitly favoured for roles and drama school places (This is not unrelated to the fact that a recent study has shown 76% of actors are middle class- class issues are hard to divorce from Northern voices. A Northern accent is an indicator of being working class and being working class is currently particularly stigmatised).

Actually, I realise that it it chimed with something I’d been chewing over ever since a conversation in a car with two poets about whether there’s such a thing as a Northern poetic voice. Which I will take a proper amount of time over next week.

It also reminded me of a poem I wrote a few years ago about the infinitely recessive nature of ‘The North’…motorway signs promise that this is the way to The North; on and on. It’s changed, now, but you could drive north from London for 600 miles or so and encounter a sign on the main road from Glen Shiel to Skye which pointed  right To The North (and Lochcarron. And Strome Ferry [no ferry]). It used to bother me that I never seemed to get any closer to The North. But it became a handy metaphor.

It also got mixed up in my mind with Michael Rosen’s righteous anger over the testing of 7 year-old children in a grammar that a) they are not linguistically developed to process, and b) that is actually wrong, whether they can process it or not. It made me alarmingly angry, and still does. Enough to want to use the cobweb to make some things clear. The first being that I have nothing against helping all children to have secure control of ‘Standard English’. The second is that if you are going to teach language development, you have to have a language to talk about language. So far so good.

But that’s not good enough for politicians who believe that testing raises standards (!!!!!!) and that tests have to have cheap-to-mark structures, and therefore that they have to have right/wrong answers in the way that’s possible with arithmetic. And in order to do that they have to discount all the empirical evidence that says: it’s not like that. It’s not like that at all. So what is it like?

The problem stems in part from the label: Standard English. If we were less sloppy and more honest it would be called Standardised English….something made possible by, and created for, the technologies of mass-printing.

It’s been possible to standardise English spelling, and, to a degree, punctuation, but when it comes to grammar and syntax it all gets a bit messier. Let’s clear something up.All varieties of English have their own grammars….the underlying rule-systems that we’re hard-wired (pace Chomsky and Labov) to process. They let us generate unique sentences, and let us coherently manage the tenses of verbs, the agreement of nouns and pronouns, and to manipulate plurals. And they enable us to be consistent with syntax…with word order. We understand in English that ‘the dog bit the man’ and ‘the man bit the dog’ have quite different meanings. In Latin they wouldn’t. We understand somehow without being told that ‘dog the the bit man’ is not a possible English sentence. We know before anyone tries to explain or test us on it that we can shift adverbials around for stylistic and rhetorical effect. It’s these flexibilities and syntactic possibilities that, for me, and thousands of others, are one of the delights and frustrations of being a writer or a poet. And ALL varieties and dialects of English have their own grammars. They are neither correct or incorrect. They simply are. And they change. All grammars leak, and English, this robber’s plunder of other people’s languages, is splendidly leaky. Why can’t we be happy with that?


Because we confuse Standard English with Standardised English. Because ‘Standard’ comes with connotative baggage. We have Standard units of measurement. We have Standards for food and hygiene and building safety. And before long, Standard blurs into Correct. And a Standard is a flag or a banner, to follow. The queen and the country have banners. And, by semantic slippage here we are in Daily Mail territory and ‘The Queen’s English’…self-evidently correct, and superior.

At which point we can enter a grim and murky area. Received Pronunciation. I shall come back to this next week. Along with Tony Harrison who reminds Loiners and Northerners alike that our speech ‘is in the hands of the Receivers’. It wasn’t possible before the invention of mass radio broadcasting. It was invented by the Reithian BBC. It has nothing to do with grammar or syntax. It’s purely about pronunciation, and inflexion. In the North we keep coal in the bath….with a short ‘a’. You can’t keep coal in an RP bath. The ‘a’ is too long. And, of course, RP changes. During WW2 the BBC was roundly criticised for employing Wilfred Pickles as a news reader. According to disgusted of Tunbridge Wells he was coarse and well-nigh incomprehensible. If you listen to archive recordings now he sounds impossibly, well, RP. He certainly doesn’t sound like a chap from Halifax.

RP, confused as it usually is with ‘Correct/Proper/Queen’s English’ is the accent, and by extension, the language of power. It could have been anything. Either York or Durham could have been the capital of England. RP would be profoundly different. But it was adapted from the dialect of the Universities …of Oxbridge….which in turn had standardised the dialects of the ruling classes. Remember that when Wordsworth went to Cambridge his speech was thought well-nigh incomprehensible. As Harrison pointed out

‘Wordsworth’s matter/watter are full rhymes’

Folk linguistics (like sexism and racism  and class-snobbery) is deeply ingrained in the English psyche. RP = The Queen’s English = Correct. QED. It’s a snobbery that cuts both ways and fuels deep and smouldering resentments. RP = Posh = Arrogant QED.

Now, I wanted to rehearse all this before I cut back to Kate Fox’s argument that Northern Voices are underepresented and undervalued in the media and in media industries. I think she could probably extend the argument to Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the South West and so on, but I’m happy to stay with a case for the North. Next week I’ll try to get to grips with the idea/illusion of a ‘northern’ poetry, but for now, I’ll hand over to Kate Fox, and thank her for letting me jump on what I sincerely hope will be a bandwagon.


“Campaign for Northern Voices (Tagline: “Proud to Speak Northern”)

This is not a campaign asserting that Northern voices are better than any other accents. Clearly, they are not (Though I think they’re lovely). But they’re no worse either.

It’s also a campaign calling for a widening of the Northern voices we hear. The white, male, gritty Northern narrative is an important part of the Northern voices narrative. We need blokes standing on rocks looking hard and troubled. But we also need to hear more women, ethnic minorities, gay people, disabled people, trans people and people I’ve forgotten. (Tell me).

There was a bit a of a cull of audible Northern voices (Especially female ones) when the brief window of meritocracy opened to let lots of grammar school Northerners through in the 50s-70s. Jenni Murray and Joan Bakewell may let us know they’re from the North – but somewhere along the way they had to lose their voices. Now, there’s generations of Northerners growing up who are less likely to do that- but with the continuing stigma attaching to a Northern accent their having one means they may hit what Dave O Brien has called “The class ceiling”. I don’t want this for the thousands of kids I’ve worked with in Northern schools, helping them to find a voice in poetry and performance. I want them to have an equal chance of getting on the radio, in a play, on a festival bill, an arts award, a corporate job or a career in a bank even if that’s what they want (Studies have shown that accent is one of the grounds on which elite firms still discriminate without penalty).

There are logistical issues here too of course. London is the giant money-sucking, money generating machine which causes a bigger gap between capital and rest of the country of any European country. People still believe they need to go to London to “make it”. But even that’s getting harder- from tuition fees to huge train fares, sky high rents and lower wages. The further you are from London, the less social and cultural capital you have in the capital (mates, parents friends, whatever), the harder it is to garner some. As even cross-North travel can sometimes be a challenge, people can get stuck.

I feel I’ve been advocating this campaign without it being named for a while now. On a panel about the future on the BBC in Sunderland when BBC Trust members appeared to listen to me saying that London (and even Manchester based) media not paying travel fees (or resenting paying travel expenses) for performers based elsewhere was discriminatory. On an Arts Council away day in Blackpool where I hopefully reinforced some of the thoughts they’re having about diversity and representation by joking about Northern Voices (But I wasn’t only joking), in my PhD where I’m talking to other performers about how this stuff affects them, in my every gig and performance in which I make yet another joke (not only a joke) about being a rare Northerner on Radio 4. Yes, Radio 4, Arts Council, BBC- I’m not exactly Che Guevara here. But I encounter a lack of thought about these issues and how they affect the next generation of Northerners (and present ones) every where I go. It’s an issue of representation. Class and accent are not one of the protected characteristics under the Equality Act (I suppose that’s why shows like “Benefits Street” can even happen). It’s hard enough for the protected characteristics to be protected- never mind ones that aren’t.

Does a Northern national newsreader solve ingrained class prejudice and deep class based traumas in economically deprived towns? No, it’s a symbol, but potentially a potent one.

This campaign runs in solidarity with those fighting for people to have representation and a voice- from Scottish Independence campaigns to Lenny Henry calling for more diverse actors and voices on our screens, from those calling for an end to prejudicial representations of trans people, gay people, disabled people and women. It calls for Scotland, Wales, Ireland and the regions to have a bigger voice in Britain’s national story, for immigrants from all over the world to be welcomed, accepted and heard. And those (relatively quiet) voices calling for an end to the stigma of being working class.

Is this campaign parochial and the very opposite of what’s needed in a globalised world? It’s a potential danger. But it isn’t saying that the North is inherently better than any region of the U.K. It is saying that its people (Who constitute 30% of the population) deserve equal opportunities to those who are closer, by dint of geography or perceived cultural capital, to Southern centres of power and representation.

It will highlight instances of prejudice and discrimination. It will hark on more about cultural representation than other stuff because of the biases of its founder and because cultural representation (or Northern lack of it) is showing us something right under our noses but somehow invisible. It will be funny sometimes, but not only funny.

There will be badges. And other things. Those other things will unfold. I’ll take it everywhere I go and at the moment I’m getting about. You in? Any thoughts?

You can, if you wish, tell Kate just how much you agree with her cause, and here are two links that should work for you if you can’t track her down on Facebook.



and, like I say, I’ll focus on poems and poetry next week. After which the holidays will be over, and we can all get back to normal. Thank you for being patient.