Our David 1971-1992

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June 29th. He’d have been 45 today, and I go on writing poems for him. I’m taken aback, every time. I think there’s nothing left to be said. But there is. There always will be. Happy birthday, lovely boy.

It was a morning like this


a Sunday morning. The sun shone.

It was July. It was a morning like this,

your first wife at the back door,

and why would she tell you

your son was dead, or had died,

or had been in an accident

on a morning like this still

not fully woken, a morning of sun

to drive into Chapeltown to drive

to a police station that’s called

The Old Police Station now,  that’s

a bijou gastropub but then was just

a police station full of Sunday morning

sadness, and a morning something

like this and two young coppers

who thought we’d need somewhere

quiet at the back which turned out

to smell of smoke, that had a pool table

and coffee rings, and no-one knew

how to start or what to ask but

it was a morning much like this

they asked if we knew a tower block

behind the Merrion Centre or if

we had a connection to a tower block

and a ring with a skull and a brown

leather case and did we know if

our son had friends in a tower block

behind the Merrion Centre and

we might as well have been asked

about tree rings or chaos theory

or fractals on a July morning and

one young copper saying that

he didn’t think it made sense

for cannabis to be illegal and

what harm did it do really and

how it wasted everybody’s time

and I don’t know why I’d remember

that except it was a morning like this

we learned what waste might mean.


Our islands’ story, and a polished gem: Graínne Tobin


There’s a Bob Neuwirth song that I can’t get out of my head in the last two days. Venice beach. It doesn’t stand up as poetry. It’s sentimental, in the way of good Americana. But I’ve always loved it, especially the second verse:

Broken promise on the beach, empty feeling heading home

with that sense of being free that’s only all alone,

and as the water reached my feet, I looked down into the foam,

and lying just beyond my reach lay a perfect heart-shaped stone.

And it does that thing that a good song does, of matching a mood, and putting a tune to it that won’t leave you. It’s how I felt when I woke up to find that I wouldn’t be a European anymore, and nor would my grandchildren. And if this sounds sentimental, I’m not apologising.

So what’s that to do with the image of a squaddie patting down a guy on a shopping street where no one seems to find it unusual or a matter for concern? Well, this was Belfast in the early 80’s, where for the first time in my life I was stopped by two young squaddies who jumped out of an armoured car and pointed loaded weapons at me, and demanded ‘Eye dee’. I was a visiting tutor for a week at Stranmillis College, and I was walking back from the theatre on my own. I’ve never got over the culture shock of that week, the business of routinely having bags searched at shop doors, the barbed wire, the breeze-block defended pub doorways, and, above all, the way everyone went about their business as if it was normal. This is where social and religious and political division can take you.

The course I was tutoring on was in-service for all the heads of English in Northern Ireland. One afternoon I ran an optional poetry workshop (badly enough, but I didn’t know better then) and met today’s guest poet,  Graínne Tobin, who was even younger than me, and who wrote a draft that has always stayed with me. It was about the small town where she lived. It’s a Protestant town, and then she was one of the few Catholics in the community. And she was married to an Englishman. The Orange Lodge boys had come round to say they’d be hanging their bunting in the street and on her house. When she told then they couldn’t, she was subject to a campaign of menace. Eventually, the bunting was hung up.   It was unnerving to finally read a finished version of that draft, earlier this year, 30 years later. The poem is ‘Rural retreat’  from Banjaxed [2002].  Here’s the town.


It’s a beautiful place at the foot of the Mournes. What’s not on this photo is the graffiti telling Bobby Sands to get on with his dying, or the boys who followed a careful distance behind us, whistling The Sash. I was more scared there than in the middle of Belfast.  It stuck hard did that visit to Annalong with Graínne in 1981.That’s what nationalism and sectarianism does.

But I didn’t have to live there, and I came home. I kept in touch with Graínne for a time as she set up a N.I. branch of N.A.T.E., and then life got complicated, as it does, and that was it until last year when I met her again in the largely wonderful virtual world of Facebook. She sent me her two poetry collections, and the bilingual anthology she collaborated on, and told me all the amazing things she’d been doing.I fell for the poems, and asked her to be a Cobweb Polished Gem. And here she is to speak for herself, as she always has.


“Gráinne Tobin (she writes) is believed to be mostly harmless. She was born in 1951 in Portadown, in a maternity home which later became the local HQ of the Orange Order. She grew up in Armagh, where her teacher parents had migrated during WW2 from the Republic of Ireland, for work, and went to the local convent schools there. She was brought up as Catholic but has been an atheist for the last 49 years. She and her parents belonged to the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Movement in its innocent early days. At university in Canterbury, she met an English student, Andy Carden, when they were both part of a social action group visiting the high security Borstal in Dover. He became her husband and moved to Ireland with her, against the 1970s flow of people fleeing Northern Ireland for the safety of Britain. Both worked in the education service – Gráinne taught in further and adult education and then in Shimna Integrated College – and are now retired. They have been closely involved in the movement for integrated education and have helped to set up two integrated state schools.

In the 1980s when they had a young child and another on the way, they ran into sectarian trouble in their idyllic-looking fishing village and were under some threat in their home  (which is when we met) They have lived since then in Newcastle, Co Down and their adult daughter and son live and work in Shetland and Edinburgh. (Within the archipelago of the British Isles, there is a three-generation migration lesson or two here.)

She was a member of the Word of Mouth Poetry Collective for its whole 25+ years, until it affectionately decided to wind itself up in June 2016. This group of women, founded at a time when women’s writing was not considered mainstream in Northern Ireland, met in the Linen Hall Library in Belfast to critique each other’s poetry. It offered encouragement to female poets locally through readings and poetry parties.

Most members went on to publish individual collections. The group made a connection with some Russian women poets which led to collaborative translation projects, and readings in St Petersburg and Belfast. Gráinne Tobin’s books are Banjaxed and The Nervous Flyer’s Companion (Summer Palace Press) and she contributed to the Word of Mouth Poetry Collective’s anthology of translations from five St Petersburg women poets, When the Neva Rushes Backwards (Lagan Press).

Her poems have been published in anthologies, and in literary magazines such as Poetry Ireland Review and Magma. She has had Arts Council support for developing her work. She has won the Segora Poetry competition in France, was long-listed for the UK’s National Poetry Competition and the Fish Poetry Prize, shortlisted for the Aesthetica, Mslexia, Wordpool, Fish, Gregory O’Donoghue and North-West Words Donegal Creameries competitions, and commended in the Torbay competition. Her poem, Learning to Whistle was made into a sculpture and is on display in Down Arts Centre. She is now on her way to a third poetry collection, depending on whether the new publisher’s finances survive the new wave of cuts in public spending in Northern Ireland.

When you’ve come to the end of today’s post I guarantee you’ll be lighting a small candle for the new publisher and a third collection. I would happily sit and read poem after poem to you, relishing  their clear-eyed honesty, their range, their verbal and rhythmical sure-footedness. Hearing the voice, like the one in Scabies 1970 (from The nervous flyer’s companion)..

The whole town knew someone in the prison –

pinpoints of blood on the children’s sheets

were not from hives or the strawberry harvest.


How’s that for an opening line? And how’s that for the resonances of ‘hives’ and ‘strawberry’…there are two words that really pull their weight. I’m also envious of the way that Graínne can look steadily at atrocity, and its dazed survivors in poems like Bad news from home. (from Banjaxed)

There’s an emptiness in the scattered street

where women wander, talking to the wind,

blood on their faces, looking for each other.

If you’re looking for the image that fixes the moment that makes a poem a poem, how about this from Mortal sin…..

Grown to the age of reason and her first confession

she runs into clean air like a sheet

drying in the wind of absolution.

It’s moments like this that always make me think the Irish have the unfair advantages (in poetry) of accent and of Catholicism. But enough. You’ve waited patiently, and here comes Graínne’s selection of her poems..and, which is nice for me, her commentarires on them. Which means I can now put up my feet and just enjoy myself. First up, the seaside.

Happy Days in Sunny Newcastle



The air’s washed now,

last night’s sad leavings

swept up and away.

Van drivers park outside the bakery

with fried eggs held in breakfast soda farls .


Arcades of slot machines

lie berthed between spent streams

that slip downhill to a tideline flagged with pebbles,

faded wood, wrecked loot, rubber gloves, broken glass

abraded to droplets by the tumbling waves.


The daily walker on his coatless course

between youth and age,

observing wading birds and children’s games.


Up for a trip, out for a drive,

dandering down the promenade.


Loudhailer hymns, crusaders’ tracts

warn of strange temptations

offered to ice- cream lickers,

candy-floss lovers.


In the chip-shops’ wake the street

opens to the sea

which is the reason for everything,

shingle bank,

shops and houses,

foundations sunk in marsh,

confined by a shadowed arm

where mountains lift out of the water,

growing darkness like moss

over the forest where the young

roost with beer and campfires.


Heron pacing the harbour at twilight

stiff-collared in clerical grey,

squinting at coloured lights

edging the bay.


Far out, the lighthouse signalling

Good – night

chil – dren.


(Happy Days in Sunny Newcastle was a banner above a local seaside joke and souvenir shop. There is a local eccentric everyone knows, who walks the roads every day in a tweed jacket. And when our son was tiny I used to tell him the lighthouse was flashing goodnight to him though his bedroom window. [Me…I love the ‘sea that is the reason for everything’, the business of protestant tracts, the textures…at the same time there’s something slightly disturbing going on. And even more so in the next])



Tell me a really story.  Tell me what it was like

when you were small, which way you walked to school,

the garden where you tried to dig to the other side of the world,

your uncle’s rows of leafy plants to eat,

the orchard tree you climbed to hide,

the old lady waving from the window, the bags of coloured sweets

and the house you were told you’d inherit.


Apricots and lemons.

If you go there, pick some for me.


Tierhogar, Spelga, Qatamon.

The names are spells.


When you shovelled soil aside with your scaled-down spade,

did you know you’d come out where you are now?

That your children would save cereal boxes

to reconstruct your home in sticky-tape and cardboard?


Tell me what happened. Exactly.


(This was written in 2006 well before the current refugee crisis. It was prompted by going to an art exhibition while on a teacher fellowship in Oxford – two women photographers, Israeli and Palestinian Arab. One photographed the family lemon orchard a friend could no longer visit because of travel restrictions on Palestinians. So Qatamon stands for such places. Tierhogar was sold and demolished, my mother’s lost cottage of childhood, for which she always longed. And Spelga is a drowned reservoir-valley near us in Co Down).

The next one nails it for me in one couplet:In her neat suburb of the dead / you’ll need no A to Zed

The Catholic Graveyard in Armagh


Push away the feather quilt,

alert for the small hours review.

Here comes the siren, whoo, whoo,

to rattle your dazed heart.


Now the compulsory tour

of the raw trench where you left her,

wearing her navy dress as waked at home

among chrysanthemums, china cups

and a murmur of rosaries in her own back room.


Neighbours in sequence are addressed

as if they live here: Mrs So-and-So?

Third on the right.  The sister and the father

under their slab in the new vernacular,

polished black marble, inscribed in gold,

carried from China for twelve weeks by sea.


She’s two plots away from the tidiest grave in town.

Fresh flowers always, though it took a year

to find a lad his executioners hid.


In her neat suburb of the dead

you’ll need no A to Zed,

killers and killed housed side by side

when booby trap or bullet

levelled their last breath.


Weeds came up over her while your back was turned.

Geraniums from Cemetery Sunday,

candles in plastic holders and a varnished cross

maintain old decency until granite

can name her true and final death.

(My mother’s death left me reeling, and recalibrating everything. I am the only one of 7 siblings in Ireland. The rest are in England and Wales. So the day-to-day elder-care, and the funeral and grave arrangements, mostly fell to me. Cruse Bereavement Care helped me to hold on to sanity at the point when I wrote this poem. The title does stick its tongue out at Lowell. That graveyard has the neighbouring corpses of my best friend’s police constable dad and his INLA murderers. Plus everyone else on the Catholic side of the town. It was the subject of a nasty snobby chapter in Kate Adie’s memoir in which she misses several vital points. Cemetery Sunday is when there is a three-line whip on families to clean and decorate graves and stand beside them for an open-air Mass. Ugh! I used to bring my father to attend, beside my mother’s grave in which he would remark that he would also be buried, and after both parents died, my sister heroically came over from England to relieve me of it. Oul’ dacencies can get too much at times.)

It’s not all dark, though it’s always serious. The last one takes you on a busride you weren’t quite expecting. Fingers crossed that WordPress will let me keep the layout as it should be. (of course it didn’t. So let’s see what converting to a jpeg will manage. Yayy. It works )


(This was partly prompted by a poet friend’s objection to current Irish poems which ignore modernity in favour of bogs and swans. There is a backlash against all this rural Oirishry, which amuses me, since so many of us really are still rural, but I’m also drawn to the idea of a debunking nature poem.)

So there we are. It’s been great to be reunited with Graínne after 30+ years, and to have her sharing her poetry and her forthrightness so honestly. So generously. I’ve just checked that both her collections are still available, via Amazon and elsewhere. And here’s the thing. As I write this, she’s nursing a knee with a torn meniscus. So don’t send a get well card. Go and buy her poetry, and make her (and me. and you) happy.

Next week will be  a Gem Revisited, and lined up after that will be two more Irish poets whose work has made me think that I really do need to try harder. Come along. Bring your friends. Shamrocks optional.











What I did on my holidays

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Well it’s that time of year again. Again. It seems to come round alarmingly quickly. I’ve got a queue of guest poets kicking their heels in the front room, but really, I need to do a bit of stocktaking, so we’ll be having our first of the guests next week, and I’ll sort of indulge myself and remind myself what a great few weeks it’s been. O…and there’ll be a poem somewhere down the line.

Just over two weeks ago I took what has become an annual pilgrimage to The Old Olive Press in Relleu, Alicante (for details, see below) for a week’s writing led by Ann Sansom. But first I was picked up at the airport in Alicante by a friend who I met on the same course in 2013. Gyula Friewald was a professional metal-worker, turning out prodigious quantities of architectural forgings and casting. Embassy gates, thrones for Saudi princes, beautiful street lamps, balustrades for restaurants. He has work in public places all over Europe, and in London. He did a commission for Kate Moss. What I’m saying is, he’s seriously talented. Finally the work became too physically hard to sustain… and here’s a guy who was a weightlifter. Now he makes beautiful small-scale pieces in metal and in wood; currently his work combines images of seeds and intricate private myths. And he writes poems. He’s Hungarian, he lived in London, he now lives in Spain. And he writes poems in English. More of that later.

I’ve tried to share what it’s like to spend time with Gyula in a longish poem that begins my first pamphlet, Running out of space. This is a bit of it.

you know what my country is surrounded by?…..                                                                  

In a blink the eagles slanted off into the sun…..

…..is by enemies…leaving nothing to be said.


Late afternoon, on  the Via Dolorosa

below the castle ruin….that big anvil that I have                                                             

to leave behind in London…maybe two ton… between

the Stations of Veronica,…but that big hammer                                                         

gives the sound…like bells, maybe. and  of Simon of Cyrene

.you know is right…. you raised your arm, your fist,

and I thought I could see  how the forge, the heat,

and that hammer take their toll on the body, the bone.


Day after day, this lore of flowers, the secrets

of copper, of silver, the forging of steel,

how a carob pod smells of chocolate,

the hinges and hanging of church doors ten metres tall,

of damascening, of the breaking of Hungary,

how love can fracture on the anvil of work……all of it.


Spending time with Gyula is like being tuned in to an amazing search engine. Driving down the coast from Alicante to Murcia, I tearned more about the salt pans, the Spanish economy, the urbaniziones, the Hungarian national youth weightlifting squad…..all of it. We worked together on his poems; it’s a curious business workshopping poems written in a language that’s not the poet’s own. Not exactly translation, but a very careful business of teasing out the difference between what the poem seems to be saying to me, the reader, and the intentions of the writer. Mostly it’s a question of idiom, and the complex business of shades of meaning in English speech and literary language. It’s a real eye-opener. And it tunes your ear to your own poetry, makes you more sensitive to the shades and nuances of your own language. It was a privilege, and I’m looking forward to having Gyula as a guest poet before too long, when you may learn how his father once had to hide from Stalin. Amongst other things.

So, I had three amazing days on the coast in Sainte  Javier, a trip to Cartagena, which is lovely….and where there are parrots in the trees….and a remarkable night that included reading a poem and going to a 13 year old’s birthday party on a rooftop in Murcia. The poem-reading was thanks to Gyula’s partner, Georgia (a poet and novelist, among other things) who is a memeber of Toastmasters International (Google it). I discovered culture-shock for the first time. Bear in mind that we have had no summer weather for a year (at least). It was 34C in the middle of town at 7.00pm of a Friday night. The Toastmasters met in the chillingly air-conditioned, basement floor, Conference Room of El Corte Inglese (which is, I suppose, the Spanish Debenhams or John Lewis). We did impromptu public speaking, in role…some in Spanish, some in English. Everyone but me at least bilingual. And then I read them a poem about the bancales of Alicante. It’s an odd thing to be spouting rhetoric about Spain to Spaniards. In English. They were remarkably nice about it.

And then we were off again, back up the coast and into the mountains of Alicante, about 30 kilometres inland from Benidorm. Big limestone hills, like the ones in the picture. Very hot and dry. Lemons, oranges and olives. Strange after that to come home to an England that seems to be made entirely of broccoli and lettuce and grey and rain.

Five mornings of intensive workshops led by Ann Sansom. Poetry readings nearly every night. Writing, drafting, talking poetry. Knackering. And hot dusty walks with Gyula, who has a sharper eye than I, otherwise I’d have missed the quail. There’s a walk over the watershed into the next valley with a cheery way mark at the half way point .

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Sometimes it has dried flowers tied to it, sometimes just this broken Christ. I’m very fond of it. About half a mile further on, looking down into Sella, Gyula pointed out the quail and eight or nine chicks, like fluffy clockwork mice, as they scuttled away among the dust and stone at the side of the track. A moment later, the mother appeared on the track, leading us off. But stopped first, to make sure we were looking.

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She was very beautiful. Made my day. Made my week, as did the company of lovely folk like Hilary Elfick, Carole  Bromley, Fokkina Macdonald, Jinny Fisher, Christopher North….and one of the winners of The Poetry Business Pamphlet Competition: Mary King.

Which brings me to yesterday, when I took myself off to Grasmere for the Poetry Business Pamphlet competition prize-giving at the Wordsworth Trust Jerwood Centre. Sometimes your dreams do come true. I know there are important poetry competitions and prizes out there, but this has been the grail, for me. Lovely to be there with Ann and Peter.Lovely that friends like Mary Chuck and David Wilson came to support me. Wonderful to have poems chosen by Billy Collins; to read with Mary King, with Stephanie Conn, from Northern Ireland, and with the friend of the other winner from Zimbabwe, John Eppel, whose long poem The Bush Robin was beautifully read by his friend. Mary’s collection, Homing, has a great sequence about the astonishing migratory flight of the godwit. Stephanie’s Copeland’s Daughter simply blew me away. The core of it are poems about the generations of her family who lived on the Copelands; three small islands off the north coast of Northern Ireland. I’m a sucker for stony islands, for lighthouses, for Atalntic weather, seals and seabirds and crofters. I loved her reading, unreservedly. And here’s a thing. Next week’s guest poet will be Graínne Tobin, another N. Ireland poet, who told me that I should give Stephanie a big hug. So I did. And I’ve decided that one way or another, she’ll be a guest on the cobweb before very long.

I was very careful not to improvise my thanks before I read a selection of my pamphlet poems, and so I can repeat them here, and then leave you with a poem that says everything I want to, about the business of being helped, as the angel helped Caedmon, to write poems.

Thank you to everyone and everything that made sure I’d be standing here. It would be ridiculous to try to say how much it means., or how it feels. I don’t know how it will be to come down.

Joe Simpson wrote this about climbing the Walker Spur in the Grandes Jurasses, on his 21st birthday (from This game of ghosts)

“ We sat quietly on the snow, gazing out across the Mont Blanc range………suddenly I felt very tired,    drained……I realized with  shock that…..The dream had become reality and the magic had gone….What next, I wondered,will give me that magic again?

To experience that joy once more I would have to find another…climb, another ideal to destroy….where would it lead me?”

As far as I’m concerned, it’ll do, for the moment, to keep on sitting quietly on the snow, enjoying the view, and to say that I wouldn’t be doing that without the people I’m going to thank.

SO: thank you:

My partner Flo, who badgered me to stop sitting around wasting time  and to get out and to meet poets

Gaia Holmes for giving me a guest slot at an open mic, which told me that I had something to say

Kim Moore….especially Kim Moore….for putting a poem of mine on her Sunday Poem poetry blog and for telling me constantly that I could do it and insisting that you have to get better all the time

Hilary Elfick who sat me down three years ago after 4 days acquaintance and told me that I would have   a collection published

Billy Collins for having impeccable taste

AND because at least 80% of the poems I’ve ever written started life in Poetry Business workshops, in Sheffield, in Huddersfield, in Rydal, in Whitby, and in Ann Sansom’s workshops in Spain, and because of all the friends I have made as a consequence, thanks and ever thanks to Ann and Peter and all who sail with them.

For the true naming of the world

For the true naming of the world

you need one who will recognise a fish

that has swallowed a star

that fell through the vaults of the air;

one who wears a helmet or bears a sword

forged in the heart of mountains,

from metals whose names no man ever knew,

to bear a name that can not be forgot,

a name to fit in a verse to be sung at a feast;


you need one to be sent on a quest

through silent forests, stony wastes,

to a bony church and a hillside that opens

to a way that he’ll walk through all the ages,

to come dumb and dazzled to the seashore

under huge lucid skies, into the wind,

to build monasteries, to illuminate gospels;

to speak to otters, spear the sea like a gannet,

to be one with wind and with seals.


Then stones and flowers might come

to know themselves. Day’s-eye, comfrey,

coltsfoot, mallow, vetch, stonecrop, feverfew.

Hornblende, granite, wolfram, flint and gneiss;

valleys might come know their depths,

and becks and burns to know the purposes of rain,

and the ways of the clough and the gorge

under blood moons, hare moons, the moon

when horns are broken. Then.


So, back to earth, with a big daft grin on my face. It’s lovely to be home again. And next week, a proper poet. And the week after that, a revisited gem. And after that, more proper poets. Mainly Irish ones if all goes to plan.

And don’t forget: there are splendid books waiting for you to buy or pre-order via the Poetry Business website.

Stephanie Conn: Copelands’ Daughter

Mary King: Homing

David Wilson: Slope

all from smith/doorstop and all £5.00

Finally, use the wonders of Google to check out the deatils of writing courses at

The Old Olive Press, Almaserra Vella, Relleu, in Alicante