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






One thought on “What I did on my holidays

  1. A brilliant post John – many thanks. I see England in terms of broccoli now and the portrait of Gyula inspiring. Still reeling from the Jo Cox assassination – the Spanish press incredulous.




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