Please, Miss, I don’t know what to write (2): A little learning


A couple of weeks ago [August 14] I was getting over-dogmatic (as it seems to me now) about the pleasures of ‘research’….indeed, about the absolute necessity for it if you’re ever to get beyond yourself, if you’re ever to become the dark watcher you need to be.

Last Thursday I was in Pontefract for one of Steve Ely’s ‘Dissonant voices’ monthly poetry readings. It ought to attract a massive turnout. Maybe it was because it was the time of year, but on Thursday there were five of us…for an Ian Duhig reading. Ian Duhig !!!! You’d think they’d be beating down the doors. As it was, we sat around one table and listened to Ian talking about the kind of research that goes into his work. Interviewing ex-policemen, investigating terrible acts of violence and injustice, researching the history of Chapeltown Road in Leeds, Blind Jack of Knaresborough who surveyed and engineered that road and read the earth with his feet….and so on. Utterly unpredictable and fascinating. We wondered about the history of the Kingdom of Elmet, the names of its parishes, the fact that the only journey HenryVIII made to the North was to Pontefract, and why the main road from Airedale into Leeds ran through the nave of Kirstall Abbey. Place names; why in the West Riding, and the Rhubarb Triangle, liquorice is still called ‘spanish’. We talked about Islam, about Catholicism, about Irishness, about the intercession of saints, about confession and repentance and forgiveness. And much else.

I drove home with ideas buzzing like wasps, wanting to know more, wanting to write about them. I think that often this is the problem. I’ll go chasing after stuff, like a labrador in a field full of rabbits. My daughter-in-law has me bang to rights; this is a present she bought me last Christmas.


Perhaps it should be a tee shirt that I’m made to wear at writers’ workshops. I have a scattershot approach to conversation and to finding things out. I think that I’ve grasped ideas when I haven’t. It’s not unique. I was reading Anthony Sher’s autobiographical memoir a couple of nights ago, and all I wanted to do was go and read The year of the King again. And those RSC books (mostly out of print)..Players of Shakespeare. And why not Ken Branagh’s Beginning. And Simon Callow. And John Barton. Before I know it I’ll be thinking I know something about acting, or Shakespearean verse-speaking. And I’ll Anthony Sher. I can’t resist this extract. Sher has been at a memorial service for Monty, his therapist.

“we learned a strange thing. Before he trained as a psychotherapist, Monty’s profession was not that of doctor, which we all thought, but that of dry-cleaner. Dry-cleaner?

I looked at my fellow ‘clients’ in bewilderment.

‘It’s not just me , is it? I put it in Year of the king [Sher’s account of his playing Richard the Third at the RSC in Stratford] – that he’s a GP turned therapist —I must’ve got that from him. I wouldn’t just have made it up’

‘No, no, I remember him telling me too,’ said Richard ‘and how he delivered his daughter’s babies’

‘I got insurance on one of my films,’ said Mike Leigh, ‘on the basis that my therapist was also a qualified doctor’

‘While actually he was a dry-cleaner,’ Roger Allan commented.”

(Extract from Beside myself:  Anthony Sher.  Random House 2002)

I was much taken by Sher’s being particularly disconcerted that he had put what he genuinely believed in a book. Because you can’t retrospectively take it out of a book. It’s out there. It has a life of its own. It’s been validated by print. And it’s not true

Which brings me nicely to looking back at a couple of cobweb posts from last year. Last September I wrote a guest blog for Anthony Wilson’s Life-saving poems. (Whose life is it, any way). I wrote about how conflicted I’d been about putting friends into poems without their permission, and how it hadn’t really mattered until they were published. I wrote this about a poem that won a competition prize:

“I still didn’t feel right about publishing the poems. In a diffuse sort of way, a way that says: well, they’re not going to see these poems. No-one’s going to buy them after all.  That sort of thing. And then I wrote some more, and sent some in for competitions. A poem called Norman came 2nd in a York Literature festival competition this year. I wrote from memory and feeling. Some things I know are factually true and some as though they ought to be.



could birth a lamb in the lee of a dike,

smit a skittish ewe in a squall,

pin down a ram and not give a jot

for its yellow stare, the black slot of its sideways eye,

wear a two-year Herdwick like a scarf

over three miles of bog.


Now, there’s just one detail in this that’s not researched, not properly checked out. The detail about the Herdwick. Norman’s wife Effie has never said to me that this is wrong. But I really feel I just went for the easy otion of choosing that word because it fit better in the line than ‘Cheviot’ or ‘Black-faced sheep’, both of which seem now to be more factually likely. It’s a small thing, but it niggles, and asks questions about a writer’s responsibility.

A month earlier, in the cobweb, I wrote a post called ‘Putting the record straight’. This was more complicated. I’d written poems about my grandparents..who I never knew..and my mother, who I thought I knew. I never wrote about my mum and dad until both had died. And I put these family biographies in my second pamphlet ‘Backtracks’. I wrote about my grandma, Ethel, about her suicide; about her husband Alfred’s death in or during the First World War. I wrote about my mother being orphaned. I based all of it on family anecdote. And then I was invited to a ceremony at Batley Cemetery, created by a Batley group who keep up the graves of Batley men who lost their lives in WW1. They have carefully commemorated the centenary of each and every one. And researched them just as carefully.

granddad alfred's centenary 019

We are sure we know the truth as we are told it, and as we pass it on to our children and their children, and so on. I thought I knew my granddad -or at least about him – even though he died 28 years before I was born, even though my mum hardly remembered him herself. She was four when he died. I knew he’d been a soldier, and simply assumed he’d been killed in action. And then, years on, I was rooting through an old attache case of my mum’s, full of small deckle-edged photos, and newspaper cuttings, and random documents like birth and marriage certificates.  I’m convinced that I remember finding a War Ministry telegram regretting to inform my Grandmother, and all of us, that her husband had died in an Army hospital in Aldershot. But I couldn’t have done. Because he didn’t. And how do I know? Because a group of volunteers, knowing nothing of me or my writing had done the research, and told me this:

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

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

Whereas I’d written this:


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

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

All based on just one photograph.

alfred 1

Unsoldierly. Except it turns out he wasn’t. You don’t get to be a sergeant by being ‘unsoldierly’. I see, though, that subconsciously I was giving myself a get-out clause :

Except, I’ve no way of knowing if he ever was.

Maybe there’s absolution in that. I’ve begun to notice that there are a lot of ‘maybes’ and ‘I thinks’ and ‘perhapses’ in my poems. What’s all that about. Why be tentative? Why not do the work, and find out. It gets more serious when I find I’ve written a poem that says my mother was orphaned at 14 and then , because I’m invited to a graveyard ceremony I find it’s not true. For years and years I believed that my grandma Ethel drowned herself, and that my mother was a teenager when she was left homeless. What’s more, my daughter Julie tells me that that’s the story she believes, and she believes her gran told her so. But I stood by a grave a year ago that says quite unequivocally that Ethel died in 1937. When my mother was 26. I managed to change the poem when I did a third reprint of Backtracks, but I can’t do anything about the first two printings. I know how Anthony Sher felt. But I put it in a book !

Now, what’s all this to do with a photograph of the Easter Island heads? Well, sometimes you can spend a lot of time getting excited about writing something and then find that it’s simply wrong. Not technically (though it may be) but in terms of its premise and its rhetoric. Here’s a cautionary tale. It starts on May 30th this year, in a poetry workshop task in Spain. It starts from a poem..Peter Carpenter’s Orion. It involves apostrophising a star. A four minute ‘get writing and don’t ask yourself questions’ task. I’m looking at my notes and find I wrote:

Most of this sublunary world being water and there are oceans where no stars are navigation lights. no one knows who carved the giant heads of Easter Island

Where did that come from? Sublunary is Shakespeare. Isn’t it? No idea. The other stuff is Bronowski’s The ascent of man. I’d got so fed up of ex-Blue Peter presenters infantilising TV ‘documentaries’ I thought I’d treat myself to a grown-up DVD, with a grown up very clever presenter. I believed everything Bronowski said about Easter Island..particularly something he said about the inhabitants being unable to leave because they had no stars to navigate by. Unlike us lucky folk in the Northern Hemisphere with the Pole Star at our disposal. A couple of months later, I knuckled down to bashing it out into a poem which I took to a Poetry Business writing day.

No direction home


Here’s a constellation came from murder,

this one from rape. The casual and insincere

atonements of the gods for petty spites,

for violently requited lusts.

Swaddled by stories,

we say the random stars

align themselves for our convenience


She-bear Callisto. The Plough.

Archer, Water-bearer, Crab and Swan.

A join-the-dots menagerie.

The unimaginable universe

a children’s bedtime picture book.


No one knows who made the huge stone heads

of Easter Island. No one knows why. Only

that they had no idea where they were,

and if they left, they had no idea where to,

and drifted till they died.


Staring, monumentally blind

stone heads of Easter Island.

Staring at unbroken sea,

the empty curve of the earth,

waiting for sails, waiting for gods.


If you lived on a star. If.

You could never leave.

You could never find your way

in the dazzling dust of galaxies.


[“Easter Island is 1000 miles from the nearest inhabitable land.How did men come here?….by accident. Why could they not get off?………because there is no Pole Star in the Southern Hemisphere” :Jacob Bronowsky: ‘The ascent of man’]

And got my first comeuppance. Here’s the poem after a bit of workshop commentary/criticism.

no direction

Now, I’d no problems with all the suggestions about what was weak, and what wanted ditching and so on. But what really knocked my legs out from under me was the indefatigably encyclopaedic Simon Currie telling me that all the heads stare inland ..not out to sea, but back towards the ancestors. And, unsurprisingly, he’s right. He usually is. Think about it. If you put it right, it rips out the core image of the poem. AAArghhhh!

I sent the poem to my friend and mentor Hilary Elfick (see cobweb post Nov 15 2015). Hilary lives in New Zealand for half the year. She’s a sailor, too. She knows about navigating the southern ocean in a sailboat. And she pointed out what I should have known if I hadn’t simply taken the professorial Bronowsky at his convincing word. What about the Southern Cross? What indeed. And she took the trouble to send me a photograph of it.



It’s very very bright. And there we are. ‘No direction home’ indeed! That’ll learn me. A little learning may be a dangerous thing. It certainly leads me down miry ways, and into dark corners and cul de sacs. He had it right, that Mr Pope and his acerbic couplets.

“A little learning is a dangerous thing.
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring;
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
and drinking largely sobers us again.”


Is that a note to end on? I think it is. But I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. There’s always going to be a tension between ‘poetic’ truth and verifiable documentary fact, but at what point does it turn into a conflict? Tell me.

(I reckon I’ve exhausted this strain of argument. Next week we’ll have a proper post with a proper poet, and I’m really looking forward to that. I hope you’ll join me)

Oh…and look out for Steve Ely’s poetry nights in Pontefract:

And if you want to buy poems that may or may not be misleading or downright lies, then go to ‘My Books‘ and Paypal will let you buy more copies of Backtracks than you can shake a stick at.










3 thoughts on “Please, Miss, I don’t know what to write (2): A little learning

  1. ‘Sublunary’ is Donne: his ‘dull sublunary lovers.. whose soul is sense’. I think a good thing about poetry is that you do not have to tell the literal truth and can use poetic licence. It’s called that for a reason, you know. However, I too have these Oh GOD moments about inaccurate facts, so I may not believe my own point…


  2. Of course it’s Donne!!! Getting myself all mixed up with Falstaff, and we are all the moon’s men. I think poetic licence works brilliantly right up to the point that Simon Curry or Hilary or their avatars rock up xxxx


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