Out of the ordinary. A Polished Gem: Mark Hinchcliffe

rothko 2

Is there anyone in the English speaking world – teacher or student – who hasn’t come across Norman MacCaig’s An ordinary day? Who hasn’t enthused about it, or been invited to be enthused

I took my mind a walk

or my mind took me a walk –

whatever was the the truth of it

I met it first in one of Geoffrey Summerfield’s ‘Voices’ anthologies and insisted that several generations of my secondary school students took their minds a walk. We could all sign up for a recognisably post-romantic idea of poetry. It was about ‘observing’ and being surprised. I don’t think I ever stopped to consciously acknowledge that what MacCaig observed was light on water, gulls, cormorants, small flowers, bees, various ducks, a cow, weeds in clear water. Or at least, I never stopped to see the disconnect between MacCaig’s familiar, known place..the West Highland coast, I suppose… and what my students were familiar with. Urban or suburban landscapes. Edgeland places. I never stopped to think too hard about why they didn’t ‘get’ what MacCaig was up to. Or that they might not really want to take their minds a walk round a council estate in Leeds, or down Marton Road in Middlesbrough. Or if they did, it might have been better to start from poems with people and conversations …or bits of conversations .. in them. Water under the bridge. What’s at the back of my mind is the business of the poems we ‘get’ as opposed to the ones we don’t ‘get’.

As ever, I fall back on analogies with paintings. My partner is a painter. She’s taken me to look at Rothkos. She clearly ‘gets’ Rothko. And I don’t. I try; I listen to explanations of what it is I’m missing, but nothing clicks. There’s something missing in me that Rothko tries to talk to. It’s still a foreign language in which other people are fluent. My bad, as one of my granddaughters might say. I think that for all of us (some of us?)  the same is true of poetry. There are poets we (I?) don’t get. I don’t ‘get’ a good deal of contemporary American voices. I don’t get minimalists, and concrete poets. I don’t get poets who write abstractly. I found myself thinking this reading some of Anthony Wilson’s recent posts. Poetry like this:

When poets discover
that their words refer only
to other words and not to reality
which must be described
as faithfully as possible,
their despair.

This is probably one cause
for modern poetry’s sombre tone.

[Czeslaw Milosz]

Anthony ‘gets’ it and it clearly speaks to him and moves him. It says something important. But not to me, who can’t get past the feeling that it’s a part of an essay with line breaks, and that I’m not engaged with the argument anyway, because it doesn’t seem urgent to me.That’s one kind of thing I mean. That Rothko thing.

I don’t mean the poets who take us out of a comfort zone but to whom we still, at some deep level, respond. Those are the ones who don’t readily fall into a category. Basil Bunting. Geoffrey Hill. Those excite me, in the way that some painters puzzle and excite me, because I can’t put them in any sort of category, and I’m not quite sure what’s going on, but at some level I’m engaged and moved and bothered. And I think it comes down to the business of a particular voice. I fall back on Clive James to articulate what I can’t myself. I keep re-typing these assertions in these cobweb posts. This must be at least the third time.  They’ve stuck:

“You hear the force of real poetry at first glance”

Everything depended, and still depends, on the quality of the moment…..it’s the moment that gets you in”

and never forget the adage about the ‘well-separated poem’ that  makes it almost impossible to memorise what you can never quite forget’

Which is a very articulate way of saying something that can’t quite be articulated. I just have to say I know what he means, and you have to take my word for that, just as I know that my partner knows what Rothko means, and that she can’t be doing with this image that either says nothing much to her, or just gives her the creeps, and which fascinates me.

fairy feller

Richard Dadd. The fairy feller’s masterstroke. Painted in a mental asylum. Obsessively realistic and accurately rendered and packed with small frightening or disturbing or saddening images and narratives. You can’t categorize it. It either speaks to you or it doesn’t and I can’t explain it. It’s like nothing else that I’m used to liking.

Which is, as ever, a very roundabout way of coming to our special guest for this week. Mark Hinchcliffe. I’ve known him for two or three years since I met him first at a Monday night poetry workshop at The Albert in Huddersfield. He brought a poem to work on that totally threw me, because I had no handle on it, I didn’t know what it was for, because it seemed strange and arbitrary. D H Lawrence was in there. And a fox. It was odd. And I couldn’t forget it even though I couldn’t quite remember why it was stuck in my mind. I’ve got to know him and his poems better since then, but he’s never brought one that didn’t disturb/surprise without ever being self-announcing. If I had to think of one word for their immediate quality , it would be ‘diffident’. Only to say the next impression is ‘not diffident at all’. Very Richard Dadd. And very magical, like Chagall…or, at least this phase of Chagall.

chagall 2

I think it’s an easy transition from this image to one of Mark’s poems.



A fox slowly swayed

down the middle of Cowlersley Lane,

eyes glassy and dazed.


People ran out of their houses

to look

and you brought a bowl of milk.


Dressed in a pink tutu and purple glittery wig,

you knelt beside it as it lay down

in the gateway to a garden.


The people peered into

the darkness of its eyes

as if they looked into a stable

or a volcano slowly burning out,

holding up their hands

to catch the sparks

from its glowing tail.


I can’t explain why I think it works. I want to say…but that’s not my sort of poem, not my sort at all. And it ignores me and goes on memorising itself.While you’re thinking about that, you should meet the poet. He’ll introduce himself. I’ve italicised a couple of passages. It will be obvious why.

My first taste of poetry was an ‘A’ level set text in 1976 (when I was 16), the anthology of Gunn and Hughes. Our English teacher played a record of Ted Hughes, one of his radio broadcasts-Capturing animals, where he read his poems and talked about writing. I never forgot his voice, and sought out his poetry, and then found out he was born in Mytholmroyd, and made a pilgrimage there. Over the next few years I found and read his poems, essays, stories, book reviews, all I could lay my hands on. I also started writing poems of my own just after hearing the record.

I have always seen poetry as a healing energy, and when my father died ( I was 17) I wrote about my feelings, I wrote another poem about him the other week.

I went to Birmingham University to read English, kept writing, and published poems in the University magazine. I also started to correspond with Ted Hughes, and later he asked me to send my poems to him, and he commented on them. My last card from him was a few weeks before he died.

I worked for 25years as a psychiatric nurse and used to write as a way of honouring the people I tried to help, and to help me make sense of the chaos that flourished within psychiatry.

I started going to The Albert Pub in Huddersfield, and read there for the first time in 1998. Later I was an organiser for the readings. I still love being involved with the Albert, and going to the workshops- they generate most of my poems.

I recently had a collection published by Calder Valley Press, edited by Bob Horne, and this has meant a great deal.


I love to see myself in a circle of poets, past and present, William Blake, Keats, Wordsworth, Dylan Thomas, T.S. Eliot, Yeats, Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney, Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg, Kathleen Jamie, Frances Horovitz, Carola Luther, Adrian Mitchell, Thom Gunn amongst others.

For me there is no experience that comes close to how I feel when I have written a poem, to see those words on the paper which I have charmed into being.

In  recent years, I have been followed by a gang of spirits, clamouring to be written about, they are like musical themes, they are cats , hares, The Green Man, mermaids and foxes. They slip in through cracks in my mind. An old man, an archaeologist killed by fundamentalists is always behind me, tapping on my shoulder, and a boy who looks for aeroplanes on the moors is much in my mind.”


There’s a matter-of-factness about the way Mark says most things, so you almost miss them. The raven and the laughing head is his first pamphlet; this is not only someone who sent his poems to Ted Hughes, but corresponded with him over the years. There’s a special endorsement on the back cover of the pamphlet (this first pamphlet)

“There’s a lovely lyrical completeness about your poems. So natural and full – they just float out. Something perfect about them. So wholehearted and affectionate. (So rare!)”

Ted Hughes [Letters of Ted Hughes. ed Reid. (Faber and Faber 2007. p734)]

Whatever it is that makes you read Mark Hinchcliffe’s poems more than once, and which lodges them in your mind, be assured that Ted Hughes got there first. And, whatever you do, keep in mind the gang of spirits that slip in through the cracks. The boy who looks for aeroplanes on the moors keeps turning up on Monday nights in Huddersfield and bothers me as much as he does Mark.

At which point I shall say: here are two more poems. When you’ve read them, read them again and then close your eyes. Don’t analyse. Either you’ll get them or you won’t. It’s something that ultimately we can’t help.



 When you stood up

from your chair

your skin peeled away,

raw red strips,

the flesh stuck,


and you took the wolverine skin,

laid it on your neck,


placed the otter skin on your shoulder,

the jaguar on your chest,

and the leopard on your back.

His spots pricked into your skin

like tattoos.


The wild boar covered your legs,

the wolf lay around your ankles.


And you ran,

you sprang through the window

into the garden,


the apple trees shook their heads,

they quivered,

the blossom danced,

and under the grass

your bull stirred, bellowed,

his ring shimmering like the moon,

like a buried hoard.


(actually, I want to say….’that ring, shimmering, that round moonlike glimmering ring’..I can’t keep quiet about it. Let’s see if I can be more disciplined about the next one)


Outlaw Olympics


Billy the Kid plays croquet

with his gang.


Frank and Jesse James

play tennis doubles

against the Earp brothers.


John Wesley Harding races cars.


Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

blow peas through a hole in the wall.


Guests from abroad,

Ned Kelly plays blind man’s buff,

Robin Hood climbs trees, and

Little John plays basketball.


But the Oglala Sioux

led by Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Black Elk, and Red Cloud

take all the gold medals

back to Dakota.


They keep the sun in the sky

for seven weeks,

they talk to the eagles,

they dance on the earth,

green shoots spring up.


This is what another of the Albert Poets, Carola Luther, wrote about Mark’s work. She puts it better than I can.

“Mark Hinchcliffe writes love poems, praise poems and poems of lamentation and devotion…these are not ironic poems. They weave myth into both the dark and the everyday with a seriousness and attention that could be prayer”

The phrase that really nails it for me is these are not ironic poems. Nor are they naive or innocent or playful, though they might be any or all of these things. I said at the start there are things I just don’t ‘get’ and I should end by saying there things I think I ‘get’ but can’t explain. I just know that I keep re-reading these poems because they keep puzzling me.

So thank you, Mark Hinchcliffe for being our guest on this sunshiny Bank Holiday Monday.

Just two things before we go. Next week will be a sort of complicated explanation about misinformed research, and how poems go wrong. It wasn’t scheduled, which means that a Poetic Gem Revisited : Roy Cockcroft will be a week later than planned, as will every poet who comes after him.

Second thing. Go and buy Mark’s pamphlet. It’s available from Calder Valley Poetry via the following link.           https://caldervalleypoetry.com/about/

Thank you for coming. It was lovely to see you all.


But I was so much older, then…..Gems revisited: Andy Blackford.


Remember these? Panoramic school photos. And the challenge that some found irresistible…to see how many times you could get on the same picture. Do they still get taken? Probably not. They get taken to school reunions by the ones who genuinely believe that their schooldays were the best days of their lives (which always feels inexpressibly sad). But I don’t know many folk who can resist t the business of finding half-remembered faces, and invariably sharing stories..wasn’t that ..? remember that time when..? wasn’t she the one who…? Am I wrong to think that they’re almost always tales of transgression and subversion?

The thing about school photos and school stories seems to be that we only really remember the people in our own year group…and often, only from our own form group. And I guess that’s why we’re slightly miffed when we meet a teacher we used to have and he or she doesn’t instantly remember us. Because  (Secondary)  teachers aren’t tied down to one year group; because in any year, they teach students from 5 or 6 year groups, because the faces start to anonymise…like the ones on panaoramic phots that are more like pixels than individuals. It doesn’t stop me from feeling guilty when I don’t recognise or instantly remember the ones who come up to me, or contact me on Facebook. You won’t remember me, they say (though they really think you will) but you taught me in 1972. On Facebook it’s likely to be   Are you the Mr Foggin who taught English at [  ]? It’s even more confusing when it’s a woman who now has a different surname, and she doesn’t tell you the name you know her by. Happened again only last week. And as it happened, I did eventually realise that I remembered her, and, indeed, still had photos of her in a school school play.

Which provides me with a peg to hang this week’s cobweb post on. It’s a curious business being a teacher, this license to strut your stuff in front of captive audiences and to be paid for doing it, on the assumption that you know what you’re doing. And, what’s more, to do that for a significant minority who are more talented, more intelligent, cleverer than you’ll ever be. The only difference between you and them is that you’re older and you’ve read more stuff. But they catch up. And overtake you. I can look back and pick out students who are now successful actors, novelists, musicians, Head Teachers, dentists, doctors,education advisers and inspectors. One scored the winning try at Wembley in the match that ended Wigan’s monopoly of the Challenge Cup.One is a (retired) university linguistics lecturer who puts me in my place on all matters linguistic.One managed tours for Elton John, the Bee Gees…and knew all the Beatles, socially. One became a Professor of Education, and thereby became my boss. Another is a judge, and plays drums in 60s/70s covers band. And so on and so on. So much talent, so much accomplishment. And why did they once have to listen to me? Dylan nails it.

I was so much older then; I’m younger than that now

I had a headstart by being born first. And then got overtaken, not least by today’s guest, Andy Blackford who I invited to be on the cobweb in September 2014. This is how I introduced him..with a picture first. I can’t resist using it again. He’s one of the divers.

andy's shark


I wrote about how I taught him in the late 1960s and how, after a gap of 40 years, thanks to the wonder that is Facebook, we met again. In May 2013, I went up to Staithes where he has a holiday home and spent a day with him and his wife, Sandra. 40 years simply melted away. Nothing had changed and everything had changed, and all was well. I found that he’d  been a diver, run ultra-marathons, worked in advertising, done a stint as a professional skateboarder, written 20-odd books and for three years or so, he’d been lead guitar in ‘Spreadeagle’ (I can’t resist this image). If you want the fuller version, check out the 2014 post.


In December 2013 he emailed me to say that the film director Louis Bunuel had been in the habit of meeting a fellow artist each Monday to exchange and critique a new work of art. He proposed that, via the magic of email we would do the same. We would exchange new poems every week for one year. It would become a book called GAP YEAR and would make us even more famous. And so we did. We started awkward and tentative and apologetic, and there was still a residue of that teacher/student relationship. But after a month or so we could happily give each other’s poems a good kicking, and I was delighted when Andy was able to say of one of mine: Sorry…it does nothing for me. What’s it for? And I was able to write back: Absolutely nothing, mate.   And then to bin it.

And here we are again. I asked Andy to bring us up to date and send me some new work. So he did.

“On the face of it, not very much has happened since 2014. We ‘finished’ Gap Year and made a rather half-hearted attempt to interest publishers in it. I moved from a rambling 15th Century house with a lovely cottage garden and a barn full of the accumulated junk of a lifetime into a two bedroom flat in Cambridge. Weirdly, I haven’t missed the country or the house, and am enjoying cycling between the gym, the Picturehouse cinema and the Buddhist Centre.We look out on the River Cam and we’re a mortarboard’s throw from Stourbridge Common… ( at this poem he blindsides me with with a dark take on the merry month of May)




Expect the worst and then

you won’t be disappointed.


That’s what Mum said –

or would have if she’d thought of it.


It’s why I don’t trust May.

Just take today: It’s all so bloody perfect.


A pigeon wobbles

on an emerald willow waterfall.

(Can there be a bird more stupid than the pigeon?

Yes. The pheasant).


The creak of rowlocks on the Pembroke eight

the coxswain’s barked arcane commands

the patter of the jogger’s fluorescent trainers

on the towpath.

A brace of dancing damselflies, kimono blue.


May doesn’t smile, it positively smirks.

The sickening conspiracy of lilac and forsythia

the bullocks bucking in the meadow

out of pure exuberance.


Mindless, ignorant exuberance.


For on a motorway somewhere

a truck with slatted sides is winding

its relentless way to Stourbridge Common.

And all of us – the cox, the bullock

and the witless pigeon,

poet, jogger, damselfly –

must one day climb its dung-encrusted ramp.


And while you absorb the random inevitability of it all, and the smart juxtapositions of that list in the last stanza, he reminds me of a different persona:

three covers

You asked about children’s books: I began writing when a friend gave me a cutting from the Independent, inviting entries to the writing competition they sponsored in partnership with Scholastic Books – The Children’s Story Of The Year. I wrote a story called Spare Bear, about a teddy bear saved from a wasted life as understudy to his identical twin, and it won. I received a cheque from Andrew Marr at the Groucho Club.


Since then I’ve had about twenty books published, illustrated by a variety of artists. One of them consisted of a poem about a boy who, inspired by a nature documentary on TV, resolves to run away to Brazil. He gets as far as his back garden…




George watched a film about lizards and snakes

And creatures that slither in rivers and lakes.


He said to his mother, ‘Do you suppose,

For my birthday or Christmas, I could have one of those?’


His mum shook her head. ‘Most certainly not!

You wanted a hamster and that’s what you’ve got.

It’s me who looks after him, gives him his tea.

If you had a python, it’s not hard to see

Who’d be feeding and walking it ­ Daddy and me!’  


‘If I can’t have a snake,’ said George to his hamster,

‘Or a lizard or something, there’s only one answer.

I¹ll go to the jungle and live in the trees

With a boa constrictor and six chimpanzees!’  


So George packed a bag with some socks and some pants

And left for the Land of Man-Eating Ants.

But George had no sooner set foot in the garden

Than a gorgeous green dragonfly said, ‘Beg your pardon!

Before you go off and live in a tree,

There’s a couple of friends that I’d like you to see.’


George followed the insect to where it had flown,

Then on its instructions, he lifted a stone.


There coiled a millipede, all shiny and black,

And a bright orange beetle with stripes on its back.

George was amazed. They were brilliant and pretty ­

Not what you’d expect in the midst of the city.  


The dragonfly hovered and darted beyond

And waited for George by the side of a pond.

There were tadpoles and toads and a fat, friendly frog

And a great crested newt that lived under a log.  


The fly guided George to a web on a shrub.

A red and green spider sat right at the hub.

Six of its legs were knitting a sweater

While the two at the back were writing a letter.  


On a twig on a bush, the fly landed next.

‘I say! Do you mind?’ said the twig, clearly vexed.

‘I’m an insect, you know ­ I just look like a stick!’

George was impressed: ‘That’s a well-wicked trick!’  


‘Morning, young George!’ called a big bumble bee.

‘Who needs a snake when there’s all this to see?’  


But the dragonfly showed him one final surprise –

A beautiful grass snake with beady black eyes.  


‘Thank you!’ said George to his dragonfly guide.

‘That was totally brilliant.’ And then he sighed.

‘I think I’ll go home and not live in a tree.

Why go to Brazil when there’s all this to see?’


Now, you might think that isn’t the sort of poem you’re used to on the cobweb. You’d be right. But it’s hard to get right, a rhyming story for children, one that effectively storyboards itself, and, above all, one that’s a pleasure to read aloud. Oral tradition. Ace.

But I notice that Andy’s been posting a completely different sort of poem on his Facebook page. And he hasn’t run them by me first. They grow out of the latest phase of a multilayered life. Andy explains:

“I’m now working [as a Buddhist Chaplain] in four gaols, ranging from the very highest category of security to an open prison. Most of my lads are serving life sentences. [It makes me smile, that ‘my lads’] The most humbling aspect of the work is their gratitude and politeness; the most thought-provoking is how like me they are.

Meanwhile, I’m pursuing my path to Ordination with the Triratna Buddhist Community. This involves a number of intensive retreats at our beautiful centre in the dreamy backwaters of the Norfolk Broads. The place is stuffed with wildlife, airborne and waterborne. And bats:



Padmaloka June 2016


Flitwing Pipistrelle careers into the thickening dark

crazy, restless

lancing boils of dancing flies that burst

in swirls of black confetti


The river dawdles in dementia

lost in reedy mazes

gravid, oleaginous


In the meadow by the bridge

a bullock moans the old complaint

solitary, stubborn

mist brimming to his matted haunch


Flitwing, come and corkscrew with me

through the midgy dimness

We’ll swoop and dart and loop the loop

and tease the glaring owl

our talons plucking oily wrinkles

on the moonstruck fen

and we the manic navigators of the night.


This strikes me as the other side of the playfulness and fantasy of George’s garden. And I really relish the textures of these sharply observed creatures, from the manically cluttered first line, to the mist brimming to the haunches of the bemired bullock moaning ‘the old complaint’. It’s about focus. About keeping still and seeing how things are. Andy thinks he knows why he’s getting better at it.

“During a recent retreat themed on the ten ethical precepts of Buddhism, I had a quiet breakthrough in my meditation practice and so far, the effect seems to have stuck. I am suddenly steadier and calmer, less afraid, and I regularly gain access to a well of innocence, joy and bright amazement.

I’m back at Padmaloka in September to study and meditate upon my favourite topic, the Brahma Viharas – the ‘four great emotions’ of loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity.



I raise my mop, unwieldy with world-dirty water

twist its drowned girl hair about its knotted throat

force it up hard into the up-turned bucket of the night

and squeeze out the grey swill through the holes of the stars


I’m going to finish here, with the inside-outness of this poem, and drowned girl hair…almost. But I can’t resist reminding myself that Buddhist or not, Andy still plays guitar, and still gigs with his current band. You should go and see them.

summer of love

Andy, it’s been a pleasure having you back. Thank you for the updates. And maybe one day we’ll write something together that actually gets published.




Please, Miss, I don’t know what to write.


I suppose that begs the question: why write at all? It’s a question that I spent a lot of time on, in the 1980s, when I was writing a book about the teaching of writing, or working as a consultant on the emerging National Curriculum, or when I was putting together a series for GCSE. It’s easy to sidestep, by concentrating on the categories of writing that children and students need (we believe) to get to grips with. Lists, explanations, reports, summaries, persuasive and analytic pieces.

For most of the time in schools it’s so we can assess how well children write, and also to assess what they’ve understood or what they know. About history, geography, science, economics….whatever. In English lessons, we ask them to write in response to poetry or novels or plays. But why do we ask them to write stories or poems or scripts? I’m not sure it’s a question that enough teachers of English bother about sufficiently. It’s sort of a given. It’s what ‘English’ is.

I know when I was at school I’d be asked, or told, to write a story; and when I was a young and not especially reflective teacher, I’d be the one to do the asking or telling. There was always the one or two or three who would very reasonably say: I don’t know what to write about, Sir / Miss. I guess they were written off in school reports: ‘Lacks imagination’. I was OK at school, because although I knew very little, I read a lot and I’d figured out the tricks of writing a story. Poems, not so much. But we were rarely asked to write a poem, so that was OK.

And then, many years later (in my case) you find yourself, for reasons you can’t fathom, writing, or trying to write, poems; meeting other bewildered and enthusiastic folk in the same pickle. And every now and again hearing (or reading on Facebook) the complaint that someone is ‘blocked’ or ‘stuck’ or has ‘hit a blank period’. It’s the voice from childhood, all over again. Please, Miss. I don’t know what to write. I’ll stick my neck out. Here’s the answer. It’s because, for one reason or another, you have nothing to say. Not for ever. But just now. It’s because nothing is exciting or puzzling you.

You can make a list of what ought to intrigue you: your childhood, relationships, friends, school….the whole autobiographical shtick. But if it doesn’t excite or puzzle you, why should it interest anyone else? Places, landscapes, other lives? Ditto. Stuff you know you know about? History, science, cars, philately? Ditto.

So I’m going to stick my neck out again and say it’s the stuff that takes you by surprise, that’s exciting but something you don’t understand, something you want to understand…that’s what you wait for or go hunting for.

I was talking to the poet Helen Mort a week or so ago and she said something that caught my attention (she said a lot of things that did that) and I had to write it down. She said that when she went to Cambridge she was thrown by the way so many students took the place for granted, as though they didn’t actually ‘see’ it. Whereas she, as an outsider, an incomer, was gobsmacked and excited and baffled and all that…And I was immediately transported back to the interview I had in Cambridge, aged 17. I felt like an alien. Which meant, I suppose, that I was differently observant. It was like trying to learn a four-dimensional foreign language. And then Helen said:

                             Ideally, writers are on the outside, looking in

They are ideally, I suppose, the dark watchers I wrote about last week . They are writing to discover, because that’s the medium they make their discoveries in.Helen said:

I can make poems to be written, and they might be OK, but that’s all

By which I understood: if you’re not puzzled by what you’re writing about then you won’t be writing the poems that need to be written. I’m really glad I was there to hear that. To record it. And then to get on with this bit of cobwebspinning. I’m going to reflect on the business of finding out what it is you need to be finding out for the poems that need to be written.(  I’ll leave that tortured bit of syntax as it is. It’s symbolic).


You have to start, somewhere. Maybe you start here.


He is the sparrow, the Friday lord.

I hoped to be the watcher on the rooftop,

but He was first. I’m flake of his fire,

leaf-tip on His world-tree”

[ From: Tyndale in Darkness .

U.A.Fanthorpe: Selected Poems, ed R.V.Bailey. Enitharmon Press 2013 ]

I have no idea why I downloaded U A Fanthorpe’s ‘Selected poems’ to my Kindle, round about midnight on a too-hot night in Spain a couple of months ago. Perhaps I’d looked her up on Google and realised that here was another poet, like Causley and Vernon Scannell, whose work was now to be sought via Abe Books. Whatever. On the verge of sleep, I stumbled into her sequence of poems where she voices William Tyndale, and I read these lines, and the hairs at the back of my neck stood up. That feeling that I’d never read anything like this, that it was amazing that it could have been written with such simple assurance. Later on I recognized the echoes of Gerard Manley Hopkins, and of George Herbert too, I guess,  but that hardly matters. I felt I’d learned something new-minted and important.

In a moment she will take you from the ‘dear preoccupied people’ of 16thC Gloucester, to Gethsemane,

‘and they weren’t used to late nights, his disciples

…………….why did He ask them to stay awake

when he knew they couldn’t? Because He always does.’


and back to Gloucestershire, and Tyndale remembering that


I heard the ploughboy whistling under Coombe Hill,

and I thought, I could do that. Give him God’s word.

I mean, in his own workaday words. And I did.


I think this astonishing and lovely, the way the translator of the Bible into English walks into my life. It’s done with such apparent ease..the ease of imaginative familiarity that only comes with total involvement, absorption in a life that’s loved and troubling.

By the time you come to the fifth poem in the sequence-the Passion, two voices have come together in a single voice that’s simultaneously Fanthorpe’s and Tyndale’s. The voice of the poet’s living faith, and that of Tyndale imagining his imminent execution at the stake.

The powerlessness. This is the day He dies,

Jesus the Friday sparrow, the watcher on the cross

who forgives those who put Him there. He’s dying now,

and His world is dying too. I made this world twice

after God. I translated Genesis.

All I could think was: how does she do this, how does she move me so much? I’m an atheist, aren’t I? How did she make me care, make me believe this was important? How could she do it so ‘easily’? Well, here’s the thing I want to concentrate on: she knows what she’s writing about. ‘Knows’. Not ‘knows about’. This is felt knowledge. But at first it could only be facts, history. It had to be read and learned. And here’s the other thing: it couldn’t be understood, truly known like this until it was written like this. She didn’t know what she knew till she said it.

So what I’m saying is, there’s an answer built into the implied question of my title: I don’t know what to write . The answer being a hard one: well, go away till you know something enough to be intrigued and excited by it.Not sure that you undersatnd it but feeling as though you should. Which will involve you in reading, watching television, watching films, knocking around with mates, walking around cities or up hillsides in rain, or digging, or playing football, or cooking or looking after ageing parent, or after young children, or falling in love, or having an affair, or going into hospital, or having an interview. Getting to know stuff. Finding out. Living it. Which is not the answer people on poetry courses and so on are likely to be comfortable with. But let’s leave that hanging. Let’s go back to Tyndale.

Because from here on, I’m going to be riffing around the business of research, and the way it can be a strange and reflexive business. Sometimes the poem comes first, as it did with Tyndale in darkness. and then sends you off to find the world of the poem, which in my case turned out to be the history of a book, and a biography, too, and a work of detection. It’s subtitled : ‘William Tyndale, Thomas More, and the bloody birth of the English Bible’. The book is Brian Moynahan’s Book of Fire [Abacus 2002]. I mentioned to my mate Keith Hutson (a guest poet on the Cobweb in February 2015) that I’d read Fanthorpe’s  poem, and Keith immediately lent me Moynahan’s book. Which is now bristling with post-it notelets, and waiting for me to transcribe all sorts of quotations and snippets from it….although I haven’t got round to that, because I’m skimming through Hilary Mantel again, finding out what she wrote about Thomas More, and (she’s sure)Thomas Cromwell’s enthusiasm for a vernacular Bible. And at some point I’ll be back with Fanthorpe’s poem, marvelling at the way  she lets you know that what you’re reading is the essence and the truth of a hugely complex and contested tale. I know it will be provisional and I will change, and maybe one day the poem will seem less true. But I hope not. What I do know is that I now know a lot of stuff I didn’t know before I read about the Friday sparrow, and I now I’m writing about it. Not poems that need to be written. But later, maybe. They’ll say if and when they’re ready.

sula sgeir 3

Or maybe you start here…not with a poem, but with the glimmering of an idea. Maybe something you didn’t know you’d noticed at the time, but which comes back and surprises you. I’ve written before how I need workshops to generate that kind of surprise; I know I can’t consciously sit down to find stuff out to make into poems. I know, because I wasted months trying to do that with a 19thC painter. But here’s an illustration of what I mean. I wrote a poem recently from a workshop draft. Here’s just a bit of it: I wondered of the Celtic saints of the Outer Islands

if they knew that gulls and fulmars

would nest in the cloister of their ribs.

I had an idea where that had come from, because it certainly wasn’t mine. I tracked it down to Macfarlane’s The old ways and his journey to Sula Sgeir in a small boat. Something I have never done, will never do. I know that Macfarlane had taken me back to Adam Nicholson’s Sea Room, where I’d been led by reading Kathleen Jamie, who also took me to books about St Kilda and the Greater Blaskett…and so on. Sea-girt mountain tops, puffins, gannets, bird migration, white-tailed eagles, nests in the ribcage of a saint. He’ll do that for me, Macfarlane. I don’t know if it’s plagiarism…I know that some of his phrasing lodges in my word-hoard and sort of roots itself there. Like this from another poem about a burial cairn on Bheinn na Caillich on Skye

because their oceans were swanspaths, whaleroads.

because they wrote their maps in the wind,

the whole idea is lifted from Macfarlane. I know, because I knew I hadn’t invented it, so I tracked it down. I didn’t take his words. But I had to write my words to understand what he meant, so I could tell you how the idea excited me. Does that make sense?



Before I started this bit of the cobweb, I scribbled a list of the stuff that was hanging about waiting to be read, or re-read. The stuff with post-it notelets stuck in it. William Tyndale, British mining disasters, a journey through the English moorlands, A sky full of birds by Matt Merritt, Antarctica (including the remastered films: South (Shackleton) and Scott of the Antarctic, David Wilson’s new pamphlet: Slope [smith/doorstop 2016]. Tectonic plates. Coal measures and the Jurassic. The building of the Himalaya.

I know that at least a bit of that comes from a poetry reading at the Red Shed months ago when the Agbrigg Poets performed a sequence about the Lofthouse Colliery disaster …which was only a couple of miles from where I live, but might as well have been on the moon. And I know that as a result of that, I’ve been finding out about Onibasha. And I can’t make myself write about any of it. It needs to settle into my thinking, become something I don’t know that I know, and wait for it to be surprised into a shape I can share.

Now, I need to make it clear that I don’t think that ‘research’ is the answer to everything. I confess that I’m drawn to poems that announce themselves as knowledgeable rather than (just) elegantly lyrical. Writers like Steve Ely, Ian Duhig, Christy Ducker, Pascal Petit, Julie Mellor. I’m looking forward to the postman bringing me Helen Mort’s new collection which grows out of her research into pioneering women rockclimbers and mountaineers. But I also think that for myself I’m particularly taken by the way ‘research’ can throw a bright, unnerving, illuminating light on what you thought you knew. Childhood, parenting, a parent’s death, or the death of a relationship.

I’ll remind my self of what Helen Mort said:

Ideally, writers are on the outside, looking in

I think you have to become an outsider looking in on your own life. You think you know it, but you don’t, because it’s too near to see.

I know that it was only by reading and re-reading versions of the Greek myths that I became able to write about the death of a son in a way that didn’t exclude other readers. I’ll stick my neck out, and guess that it wasn’t until she’d been absorbed into the ‘Metamorphoses’ of Ovid that Kim Moore became able to write the poems about domestic abuse and violence in the way that stops me in my tracks. I’m biased…I think these poems are the powerful heart of ‘ The art of falling’. Like I say, I’m sticking my neck out. Tell me if you disagree. I really would like to know.

I was going to go on to write about the way the process can go wrong, and how you can find yourself writing what are essentially lies. But I realise I’ve rambled, and there’s enough in that for whole post of its own.

But just a cautionary note. If you have a project that excites you, be careful who you share your enthusiasm with. Maybe you’ll want to keep it to yourself. Because a poet I love shared her project with someone who went off with it, and used it, and reaped great reward thereby. For me, if you want to write about tectonic plates or Shackleton, go ahead. I don’t know enough about them. Yet.



Polished gems revisited: Julia Deakin

carel weight 3

I once promised a Scots friend of mine (and a great folk singer and mandolin player) that I’d write him a song about Culloden, to the tune (and stanza structure) of ‘The tinkerman’s daughter’. And I did, but he had to wait ten years. It’s not been quite as long as that, but it’s been at least 18 months since I said, in a car on the way to the Poetry Business Saturday Workshop: ‘ if no-one else seems to be doing it,I’ll write a review of your poems, Julia.’

I wrote this two years ago, [ Dark Watcher July 2014 ] when I’d not long started this cobweb-weaving business and had never written any kind of a review. So it’s really nice to be back, feeling a tiny bit more confident, to see what’s been happening since. A bit of context, first, though.

Julia Deakin and I taught together in the 1980s in the English Dept at Boston Spa Comprehensive School, along with two othe Cobweb Alumni, Yvie Holder and Roy Cockcroft. Yvie came to update us recently.We’ll be having a visit from Roy in September…look out for that.

Julia is one of my inspirations. Ever since she gave me a copy of her first pamphlet – ‘Picasso’s Child’, I was hooked on the idea that one day I’d do that. And I’ve watched lots of her poems emerge at the Poetry Business, in that trademark, precisely provisional pencil, with minute, exact annotations, and the neatest crossings-out the imagination can deal with. And then later seen them in her two collections. I wanted to be like that, too. In collections, that is. Not in pencil. And certainly not provisional.

Dark watcher? why? I think  that I came across this haunting phrase sometime in the 70s; I think it was in an article by Geoff Fox in Children’s literature in education…maybe about A wizard of Earthsea. It’s phrase that a 12 year old girl used to describe herself as a reader …. a sort of hidden, secret eavesdropper on, and fascinated observer of, other lives. Not sinister, but, simultaneously, emotionally involved and moved and engaged, and distanced and disengaged. It makes me think of Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden who observes because she’s basically left out, curiously detached, rueful, and occasionally cross. That’s  how I see Julia as a poet. A dark watcher. Not always dark, but often. I often look for analogies in art to explain a poet’s work.

When I read Julia’s poetry I’m reminded of the work of Carel Weight, who was deeply unfashionable in the 1960s, but who my art teacher loved, and made sure that I thought I did too. The headline picture is his, as is this one.

carel weight 4

There’s always something very precisely and obliquely and slightly disturbingly observed in Weight’s images; they have puzzling subtexts,  and I think that a lot of Julia Deakin’s poems have this quality, too. And sometimes she can be like Lowry. And sometimes, Beryl Cook. She can be very funny, and very tender by turns. So I couldn’t be happier to have her coming back to the cobweb and telling me and you what’s been going on in the last two years and a bit. Big hand, please, for Julia Deakin…

“Go, litel blog

I appreciate John’s review – if you haven’t read it, please do. There have been others, notably Sally Baker’s in The North 51, also much appreciated. All have been generous, but none deeper or more engaged. A certain amount of personal knowledge perhaps makes his focus more autobiographical than I’d like but no matter – go litel book, and all that.

The pencil is provisional but also tactile: I like the sight of wood, the friction of graphite on paper, the sharpening ritual and much more – aptly summed up in Grevel Lindop’s ‘Pencil’ (Luna Park, Carcanet 2015).

Choose a poem for us to revisit.

(I asked all my revisited gems to choose a poem to revisit…I actually meant one of theirs, but it got interpreted in different ways; for instance, Simon Zonenblick chose to revisit Thom Gunn. Julia generously took two options)

Writing just after Jo Cox’s murder and before the fateful Referendum, Benjamin Zephaniah’s ‘To do wid me’ (YouTube) and Derek Walcott’s ‘Love after love’ (Collected Poems, 1989) seemed and still seem to sum up the artist’s dilemma of how to relate both to the world and to oneself. Now, post June 24th, Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘One Art’ comes to mind:

‘I lost two cities, lovely ones, And, vaster,

some realms I owned, two cities, a continent.’

‘It wasn’t a disaster’ she says, unconvincingly.

Also apt are Auden’s ‘A Bride in the Thirties’ (‘Easily, my dear, you move your head…) and Yeats’ ‘Easter 1916’ (‘All changed, changed utterly.’) If poetry makes nothing happen, good. Far too much has happened.

If you mean a poem of mine, ‘Checkpoint’ (YouTube; Without a Dog p19) deals with the humanitarian issue of migration – although my conscious focus when starting it was the heritage industry.

(I’m delighted that Julia picked this poem. I heard her workshop it when the Poetry Business was still up in the roof of the Byram Arcade in Huddersfield. I’d just seen the film ‘The Golden Door’ (with the amazing Charlotte Gainsberg)…Sicilian emigrants and Ellis Island. And I’d just read Annie Proulx’s Accordion Crimes. So I was all primed to be blown away by the rhetorical force of this image-packed wonderful poem. It’s even more relevant today).



We come from hell. A history of short measures, rough justice,

public executions. Rules of thumb. From backs bent in fields,

mines and furnaces, we walked miles in rags through becks

clogged with debris, hitching lifts on carts down rutted tracks

or shut for days in cramped, smoky carriages on splintered slats

with cocky strangers leering legally,

to cities ruled by horses

in the hands of drunks, the sound of klaxons, screeching,

oaths and tolling bells obscuring backstreet screams of birth,

crude amputations, barber dentists, TB wheezing up the stairs,

spit and spittoons everywhere, cataracts and goitres rampant,

fingers green with nicotine and ink, the tang of coins fished

from gutters, rivers heaving with the dead. Rain and slime

between our toes came with us into dim rooms close with soot

and sulphur, clogging nostrils picked for smuts flicked into rugs

thick with grit, chairs with dust and hair oil, privies cold

and wet or fetid, just vacated, hands from here unwashed

to hack food with a penknife used for fingernails and hooves

in kitchens home to cats, dogs, beetles, maggots, grubs in fruit

and slugs in greens at tables wiped with cloths boiled with kerchiefs,

bandages and nappies brought from bedrooms shared with mice,

bedbugs, nitcombs, pisspots, plaster peeling onto damp bolsters,

clammy sheets and memories of leeches, layings-out and wakes,

clothes seamed with sweat heaped souring in moth-filled closets

next to pictures over mould and trapped birds in chimney breasts

and hard soap scum in aluminium tubs of cooling water

fanned by draughts from grey net at the streaming windows,

springtails in the rotten frames and in the attic, books and papers

pulverised, riddled rafters, wasps’ nests, pigeon lime.


We’re here now. Gated, lighted. Vaccinated, regulated.

Vacuumed, smokeless, enzyme clean. It’s been

so long, like centuries.


Everything stank. Tanneries and pits and breath.

This is the past. Do not turn us back.


[Read it aloud. Shout it. Whatever you do, don’t just look at it on the page and imagine you can hear it. Right..back to Julia…I ask for an update. Wow!]

What have you been up to?

Until last August I taught English Literature at Bradford University, which took most of my time and energy. As well as teaching, I was considering doing a PhD. But did anyone move me enough to pick over their entrails for three years? Was there any clear question I could spend 65,000 words answering? What about the creative writing ‘route’? Could I write an extended commentary on work in progress without compromising that work? Two years and some synopses later I still don’t know.

Meanwhile, I began writing up every poem I had ever received in a workshop. Last month – 70,000 words and 319 poems later – I finished. It’s been a useful exercise, perhaps bloggable, if not publishable, but is just between me and my workbook. I comment on each poem’s structure, form and subject, what they do to me or for me, what writing it might have sparked, sometimes adding biographical notes if they seem to help. In workshops I read superficially and miss so much, and in recent years I have attended fewer because after a while the same context can trigger the same memories. From the start many of my poems, while usefully trialled at workshops, were written outside them – unglamorously, at home, at my desk.

I haven’t yet found the best arrangement of paper, keyboard and mouse there though, and don’t like sitting long at a screen, so aim for at least one computer-free and one car-free day a week. I walk – last year I re-walked the whole of the Stanza Stones trail – and ice skate….. three days a week I set off for the Bradford rink at 6.45. My participation in a Christmas show we rehearse from May, with colleagues mostly in their fifties, is a big deal for a non-sporty type like me.


Driving to Bradford, and on various walks, I have been learning bird song, from Simon Barnes’ inspirational Birdwatching with your eyes closed (Short Books, 2011) and from assorted CDs, to extend my auditory frame of reference. I can now identify quite a few birds from CDs, where they all obligingly sing in aphabetical order.

More assured and, hopefully, poetic performances have included – with John Hegley and others – George’s Jamboree, in Oxford; with Anne Caldwell at Puzzle Hall; with Gaia Holmes at Rastrick Library; with Carole Bromley, Antony Dunn and others at East Cottingwith; with the Pennine Poets in York; the Bridport Prize Awards; with Grey Hen Poets in Preston; with Tom Weir at Writers in The Bath; with John Duffy, Mark Hinchliffe and Carola Luther at The Albert Poets; at Honley Library on my own (well not quite – there was an audience); and with Adam Strickson and others for Holocaust Memorial Day in Huddersfield. Sadly I had to miss the London Troubadour Prizegiving.

What have you published since we last met?

In the past two years new poems have appeared in The North 53, two Beehive Poets anthologies (Bee Five and Beehive Poets 2015), Pennine Platform 73, Riptide 9, The Bridport Prize Anthology 2015, Beaumont Park Anthology, the Leads to Leeds website, the Troubadour website, and I’m waiting to hear about two more on a shortlist. All will be in my new collection if I can find a publisher.

Published poems have been anthologised in U. A. Fanthorpe’s Memorial Anthology, The Book of Love and Loss (a sumptuous cloth-bound hardback edited by Fanthorpe’s partner R.V. Bailey, and June Hall); Three Grey Hen anthologies (Colours, Seasons and Extraordinary Forms), Fifty:Fifty (the latest Pennine Poets Anthology) and possibly others I can’t remember, having lost my record-keeping chart when I moved office.

Finally it’s an odd claim to fame but ‘Codicil’ (The Half-Mile High Club, p19) has been read at several funerals including Lynda Bellingham’s in November 2014.


Knowing how few competitions I’ve entered during this time, I’m chuffed that ‘Hope’ was highly commended in the Troubadour 2015, ‘Elizabeth I at Fourteen’ was one of five highly commendeds in The Plough 2015, ‘1973’ was commended in York Mix 2014 and ‘How can I tell if the bluebells in my garden are Spanish?’ won Third Prize in the Bridport 2015.

What have you been reading?

Every new year I start to keep a record and after a week I stop, but what stands out include biographies of Larkin, Thomas (Dylan), Eliot and Hughes; Memoirs of an Old Balloonatic by my Great Uncle about his WW1 service, including his harrowing amputation in a field hospital; Celtic Fringe by my one-time copywriting colleague Di Reed; ‘The Narrow Cut’ by my former university Head of Department Ken Smith – both well-crafted page-turners; lots of great library books I’ve forgotten; Don Paterson’s breezily refreshing ‘Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets’, and many stonking poetry collections.

A trip to Budapest in 2015 led me to explore Hungarian poets Attila Jósef, Miklos Radnóty, János Pilinszky, Agnes Nemes Nágy, and Sándor Weöres, none of which I can pronounce but whose work in translation is awe-inspiring. Nágy’s essays on poetics I find particularly remarkable, and would give you a reference if that too hadn’t disappeared between offices.

I’ve also been catching up on unread poetry magazines. I subscribe to Poetry London, The North, The Rialto, Pennine Platform and Poetry News. When I was working I hadn’t time to read or even to open these for several days. I’d glance through for familiar names then shelve them for some unimaginable future leisure. Later I might skim through in search of themes for a workshop, but now I’m reading carefully for everything from wisdom to inspiration.

Lastly, in order to sort 30 years of photographs, I have been reading my own diaries, kept almost daily, with a lapse last year, since 1962. Here’s my seventh birthday, and – as Ms Bronte-mad Teenager 1972 – my sixteenth.

This year I started re-reading them. It’s a strangely consolatory experience, re-claiming the day-to-day minutiae and cataclysms of one’s past life, which I hope will result in new poems.

[It makes me hugely happy to be able to share that image of the handwriting that’s fascinated me for years and years. And then I ask:]

Can I have a new poem that you’re happy to share.

Julia replies: From my North Staffordshire years…

Windy Harbour


Windy Arbour, three mile on

afore Water’ouses, tinna much of a harbour

or farther from water, nout there


but crossroads, signpost

an’ boarded-up Green Man

long-gone fetched up at,


hooked up, split lips, trees

upped sticks an’ nout nah whimpers

but wind. Yer canna go wrong.


Julia…thanks for coming back, thanks for Checkpoint, thanks for the update, thanks for the memories. You can’t go wrong.


Julia’s books/pamphlets : Without a Dog has now had a second reprint, so both this and Eleven Wonders are available from graftpoetry.co.uk at the fashionably retro prices of £6.95 and £7.95 respectively. Pence-per-poem, you won’t get better value. The Half-Mile-High Club is still available from poetrybusiness.co.uk and there’s a CD, £7 direct from Julia.

A warning. Next week brings no entertaining guest. You will need to have pencil and paper at hand. You will be expected to take notes.