What will survive of us: in praise of U A Fanthorpe


This will be a labour of love. I hardly know where to start. By saying something I’ve said before, I suppose. I come late to poetry…as something which is essential to my days, that is. I ‘taught’ it for long enough. But I wonder if when you to start feeling as though you simply have to write it, if that is the moment when you realise you’ve never read the stuff properly before. I don’t know whether I envy the bloggers like Anthony Wilson who document the central part it’s played in their lives, and who know so much, who are on familiar terms with so many poets, many of whom I’ve barely heard of.

Part of me thinks I don’t, because it’s like falling in love. If you’ve never done it, then when it happens, you’re flooded by it. The world glows.However unwise or unseemly, you want to tell everyone about it. Perfect strangers included. And right now, for me, that’s how it is with U.A. Fanthorpe. I imagine that would make her chuckle. The thing is, if we have a passing aquaintance with poetry, as many teachers do, we think we know more than we do. Ah, we think. Ursula Fanthorpe. Oh yes. national treasure. Carole Ann Duffy says so. The cleaner ? Wonderful. Not my best side ? Love it. Collected poems out of print? Really? Are you sure?

And, if you’re like me, you leave it at that. I sometimes wonder how many poets are ‘well-known’ like that. Consider analogies with music. Dylan? We all know something of Dylan…The times they are a-changing, Lay lady lay, Subterranean Homesick Blues, so we think we know him. His collected lyrics weighs in at just short of six kilos. How many of us have patiently and happily listened again and again to  Sad-eyed lady of the lowlands, or Tangled up in Blue, or Desolation Row, or It ain’t dark yet, or Visions of Johanna. Ditto Cohen. Hallelujia, Susanne, I’m your man. Natch. Yes, we know Cohen. I thought I knew something of Norman MacCaig because I knew Aunt Julia and his Annotations and I took my mind a walk. You get the point. We know the anthologised bits. But a year or so ago, I bought a Collected MacCaig, and read three poems every day (pretty well) till I’d read them all, and realised I’d known nothing about him at all, just how good he was, how remarkable and wonderful.

Well, I just bought myself a lovely hardback Collected U.A.Fanthorpe. Second-hand, ‘as new’ because that’s all there is. It’s a sin and a shame. I’d lay good money that wouldn’t happen if she’d been a Faber poet, but that’s a different argument, and I don’t want to get distracted, because I think I can see where I’m going.

Why did I suddenly so late in life buy the Collected Poems? Because earlier this year I came across a sequence she wrote called Tyndale in darkness. And that night I read it and re-read it. It made me breathless, like a punch in the diaphragm, like falling in love. It made me cry and I wanted to shout for joy. Not many writers have done that to me. So this post is a sort of clumsy thank you, or a love letter. And if you think you know U A Fanthorpe, I’m betting you don’t and it’s time you did. There’s no bigger bore than a convert, is there? If you switch off at this point, I’ll understand. But bear with me.I want to preach to the ones who think they’re already converted.

I suspect I’m probably programmed to be in love with her. I grew up amongst women, and older or elderly ladies. Which was good. I also grew up in a world of surnames. Teachers called us by our surnames. Ordinary working class boys, the sons of millworkers, we called each other by our surnames. When I started teaching, teachers called each other, and their pupils, by their surnames. As did many of the women teachers in the girls’ school with which our boys’ grammar school amalgamated in the 1960s. Button, Whittle, Webster, they called other. And my hero, Miss Lamb, the head of Maths when I was acting-head of English. Miss Lamb who looked a bit like Virginia Woolf, who was maybe in her late 40’s or early 50’s in that summer of 1969. Born around 1920, and maybe ( I would speculate) one who lost someone she loved in WW2. Another country; I had no passport. Miss Lamb who gave me a copy of Melanie Klein’s Mathematics in Western Culture, and said one day, out of the blue, I like you, you know. You remind me of my son. Stern, gentle and beautiful Miss Lamb, generations older than 27 year-old me. One day in 1970 she got married. She did not announce it; but I saw her in Saltburn one afternoon hand-in-hand with her chap, skipping down the middle of the main street. When I read U A Fanthorpe, I think of that.

U A Fanthorpe wrote : on 18th April 1974 I started writing poems. Isn’t that wonderful! Born in 1929, she was 45 before she started. You wouldn’t (if you were into stereotypes) have given much for her chances. Daughter of a judge, studied English at St Anne’s Oxford in the 40’s. Head of English at Cheltenham Ladies College. Let that sink in, alongside all you know of Betjeman. Impeccably- comfortably-off – upper-middle-class-spinster.

And what’s the keyword Carole Ann Duffy chooses to champion Fanthorpe’s cause? Subversive, that’s what. ‘this subtly subversive poet’. Yes. Absolutely. I wonder if she meets up in heaven with Richmal Crompton, another unmarried woman teacher who gave up the career, and was a much-loved writer instead. Although the first thing U A Fanthorpe gave it up for was to become a hospital receptionist, a clerical worker. Which is unnervingly radical if not actually (on the surface) mad. I do wonder what her colleagues made of it all.

When I think of this I think of Irina in Tinker, tailor who explains to Ricky Tarr the concept of ‘the mole’….a deep penetration agent, burrowing deep into the fabric of capitalist society, watching, watching, unremarked and unsuspected. And also, of a touch of George Smiley in Smiley’s People when he assumes the role of the dull bureaucrat as he interrogates the Russian diplomat, who is thus unable to keep his secrets. And above all of the dark watcher…possibly my favourite metaphor for any kind of artist. I’ve riffed on it before, as in a post of January this year:

Dark watcher? why? I think (but I’m not checking – it’s not a proper review) 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.

I actually can’t imagine U A Fanthorpe being cross, to be honest. She can be angry, but always righteously when she’s appalled by cruelty and injustice. And she is much more loving than Mary Lennox ever managed. There’s actually more love in her poetry than that of anyone I know.

Which brings me to the title I finally settled on for this cobweb strand. What will survive of us is love. Now, as every fule kno, Larkin wrote

Time has transfigured them into
Untruth. The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.
And right there you have the reason why, for all his manifold talent, I’d rather spend my time in the company of U A Fanthorpe than that of Philip Larkin. Because I don’t so much think of poems I like as artefacts, but as the voice of someone I want to spend time with. I don’t require to be comforted and reassured and agreed with. I’ve spent hours with Ted Hughes’ terrible pent-up-ness, and I’ve been energised by being unnerved. But there’s a cold reserve in Larkin, a witholding. Why does he assume his Count and Countess ‘hardly meant’ that fidelity? Essentially, why does he deny its possiblity? I think it’s because he didn’t feel it was possible for himself. My bet is that if U A Fanthorpe had felt that, she’d have said so, and celebrated a love that couldn’t quite be hers, but made her life better for having encountered it. Carole Ann’s keyword is ‘subversive’. Mine is ‘love’. I’ve rarely felt so much love in a writer as I have since I lost myself in this collection. Fanthorpe herself said that she writes about England, power, and powerlessness. Let me share my favourite moments (so far) of her doing exactly that. What follows is as far from a considered piece as you can get. It’s a self-indulgent tasting menu, it’s the best bits, it’s a badly curated shop of treasures. And if that’s  not for you, then it’s OK, and I’ll see you in a couple of weeks. I’ll have a break, a ciggie, and put the spuds in the oven, and you can slip out quietly……………………………………………………………
Right I’m back. Oh! That’s nice. A lot of you have stayed. Tell you what; I’ll start with the Tyndale in Darkness sequence, and after that I won’t say which poems the extracts come from, and you can either buy your own Collected Poems and hunt for them, or you can go to the ‘comments’ box and ask. And if I can rein myself in, I’ll not say what it is that moves or excites me about each one. You can say them aloud and make your own minds up.
Tyndale,  like so many of my favourites, is a monologue. Fanthorpe liked Browning, and like him she has that dramatist’s imaginative ability to inhabit the voice of another. You need to think of Tyndale in prison, in the cold and the dark, imminently expecting his death at the stake after a life of fugitive exile. And for what? For believing that the English should hear the word and voice of God in their own language. She loves the subversive and courageous, does this poet. Here’s the bit that caught me in the diaphragm, and took my breath away. It still does. I think I have no religious faith, but I read this and believe in its possiblity, its reality.
“Vigilavi et factus sum sicut passer solitarius in tecto
(I watch and am as a sparrow alone upon the housetop. Ps 102, v.7)
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.
                                                 But I watch too
as once I stood on Nibley Knoll and looked
…..down on the dear preoccupied people”
[Tyndale then turns to the matter of the disciples in Gethsemane]
 “They couldn’t keep their eyes open, poor souls.
Vigilate. As well tell them to stand on their heads.
Erant enim oculi eorum gravati. For their eyes were heavy.
I doubt I’d have done much better.
    ……………………..Why did He ask them to stay awake
when he knew they couldn’t? Because He always does.
He picks the amateurs who follow Him
for love……………….God sets his mark
on us all. You start and it’s easy:
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.”
[That was the Tuesday poem of the sequence. This is from  Friday… Good Friday….]
 “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. Twice I translated Genesis. I know
the deep places in it. And God said,
let there be light, and there was light,
the accurate voice of God. And after Him, me;
Tyndale of Nibley. The human small-scale words
for the unimagined thing……………………………
No light. No light. God said, Let there be no light,
while Jesus is dying.
                                         I want to die like that,
brave and forgiving. I may not be able.
The grace is not in us. We have to ask. “

[That was Fanthorpe as Tyndale. And now, as herself in an early poem:]

“I am a watcher, and the things I watch

are birds and love


The love I watch is rare, its habitat

concealed and strange.

The very old, the mad, the failures. They

have secret shares”

[As  a watcher and recorder of the secret sharers, she empathises with St Peter.]

“I have a good deal of sympathy for you, mate,

because I reckon that, like me, you deal with the outpatients.

Now the inpatients are easy, they’re cowed by the nurses

(in your case, the angels)”

[Another poem. Once the inpatients are tucked up for the night, and the visitors have gone, crying like gulls:]

“All’s well, all’s quiet as the great

ark noses her way into the night,

caulked, battened, blessed for her trip,

and behind, the gulls crying”

I think there are two writers who have successfully written about what a hospital is and what it’s like to be kept in one for any time. One is Hilary Mantel. And the other is U A Fanthorpe. Listen. I think that’s about enough for tonight. What I’m going to do is share more of the things she wrote  that have moved me, and made me more alive. I’ll post 4 or 5 extracts every day for a week. And because I’m off on a writing week next Sunday, there will be no post then. If I get the feedback, though, I’ll give you the answers –the titles of the poems and the collections they’re from — the week after.

Go well and take care of each other xx

The persistence of memory, and a Polished Gem: Stephanie Bowgett

The persistence of memory, and a Polished Gem: Stephanie Bowgett



[Before I start: an apology is due. The poems in the post are stanzaic, but despite 3 re-edits, WordPress keeps removing the stanza breaks. For the sake of sanity, then.

Before the flood is in 6-lined stanzas, except for the one beginning ‘the fifth year’ which has 8 lines

School Caretaker is in 4-line stanzas

Baba Yaga’s Daughters is more complicated. The seuence of lines is 4/2/4/5/6/7/3/6/2]

Thank you for coming. You look especially smart, today…shirts neatly tucked in, no trainers, nice hair, all sitting up straight and eager. And so you should be. I’ve been looking forward to this cobweb strand for a long, long time. Let me declare a vested interest. I owe a huge debt to Steph Bowgett, and to the Albert Poets, which she’s jointly run for years and years. Steph will tell you more about the Albert Poets anon, but my gratitude stems from an invitation to read at The Albert a few years ago, when I had published nothing, nor had any poems in any journals. Sally Goldsmith and Cliff Yates and Gaia Holmes were the other three readers. Ann and Peter Sansom were in the audience. I’ll not forget what that did for my self-esteem. Since then I’ve been a regular in the audience, and in her Monday night workshops, with John Duffy (a recent guest on the cobweb) in  which they both keep me on my toes, and my feet firmly on the ground.

Steph Bowgett is one of those people who champions other people’s poetry, and is absurdly modest about her own. Self-effacing and self-deprecatory, she strengthens my firm belief that the best poets I know are the most modest, and often unsure of and unconfident about their own work. Almost invariably it’s because they know a lot about poetry and its craft and its best practioners, and are over-inclined to compare themselves with the best and find themselves wanting. I should also say that I firmly believe that all too frequently the opposite is true, too…the confident and cocksure are rarely as good as they think they are, though they are pretty hot at self-publicity. I think I’d better not pursue that any further.

The title of her brand-new first collection is a gift. A poor kind of memory. I’m totally committed to the thesis that imagination is essentially the practical use of memory. I wrote about this at some length in the early days of the cobweb, so I’ll not trouble you with it now, but you can always check it out in a spare moment. You can find it in the archive : June 16, 2014. It’ll explain what lies behind the endorsement I wrote for A poor kind of memory:

“Accurately sensuous, beautifully crafted poems that range through the dark undertow of folk tale, myth and fairy tale, contemporary multicultured landscapes, a childhood in post-war Germany and the curious double moral standards of the English 19th Century; a collection packed full as a beehive with crackling energy and riches. Wonderful.”

When I re-read this, I think I should say that I wanted ‘sensuous’ to include ‘sensory’, because it’s this sensory, as well as empathic, memory that makes Steph’s poems memorable and moving. And it’s all informed by wide reading, a vibrant sense of the realities of the historic past, a keen moral sense, a hatred of injustice, and above all, by love. You could at this point go back to the archive, and luxuriate in the poem that gives her collection its title. It’s a poor kind of memory that only works backwards. You can find it in the posts for June this year. Go and have a read and I’ll see you in a short while.alice 4

Ah, here you all are again. Good, isn’t it? Told you so. Right, I’m going to hand over to Steph, now, but I’ll interrupt every now and then to share a poem or three. Our guest: Stephanie Bowgett.

” I only started writing poetry in my forties though I’ve always loved reading it, and chose the 20C poetry unit as part of my Open University degree. This gave me a magical week’s summer school at York University where Seamus Heaney read on the first night, got chatting with my tutor group about eight of us, and then stayed the week attending our tutorials. I always enjoyed teaching poetry as well and got good results and did some training sessions for the LA but I still didn’t write.

Then in 1992, the TES ran a competition for teachers to win an Arvon  writing week at Tottley Barton. They asked for examples of lessons using a particular poem. To be honest, I was just as excited about the prospect of staying in that lovely old building as I was in writing. I wrote about a series of lessons using “I know why the caged bird sings” with my Year 6 class. The school I taught in had a predominently Pakistani heritage intake, but we also had African Carribbean children, children of Indian heritage and European migrants. I always tried to reflect their histories and cultures in the curriculum and this poem was part of a project on migration. It caught the eye of the judges and that was my first experience of intense writing and then having that writing analysed and criticised. The tutors were Kit Wright and the lovely late Gerard Benson. It was Gerard who encouraged me to continue writing, especially when he discovered I lived in Huddersfield, then dubbed Poetry Capital of the UK

( I think it probably still is , but in any case, this is nice opportunity to share the first poem, which reflects that concern for her multicultured classroom she talks about…..and her absorption in biblical myth and narrative, which she roots in a recognisably contemporary consciousness. Whence comes the perspective, and the workings of love)

Before the Flood

The fields grew white with salt;

our cow licked and licked,

worked her blue tongue. Her belly swelled

but not with calf. She died.

The fig tree died. I taught the children

to lance a cactus leaf, to suck its sap.

Old man Noah lost his head, began

to collect rope and asphalt,

barrels and pitch; to corral wild beasts,

bear, hyena, leopard; to dismantle

his house and build a boat. His wife

would scuttle past without speaking.

A first, second, third year passed.

People grew thin. A fourth year

and they wandered the city, prayed hard

for rain. My little ones whimpered;

I gave them rags to suck. The cactus

shrivelled like an old hag’s dug.

And all the time, that mad man Noah

hammered day and night, chanting

cubit lengths like a mantra. We got no sleep

for the hammering. His poor wife wept

begging him to stop. And the clouds

penned like sheep. Not a drop of rain.

The fifth year, and no livestock left, but Noah

filled the fold: mountain goats

two land-locked crocodiles, a pair

of aardvarks, a peacock and a peahen.

The stench was unbearable. And the hammering.

One night, I tried to catch the peahen;

she screeched and flew onto the roof and Noah

came out, caulking brush in hand.

The sixth year has come and gone. The sky

rumbles over the cracked town. Noah,

his mouth full of nails, hammers on.  Dear God

how we need the rain. He’s penned his wife

on the deck with lions, scorpions and silverfish.

She screams and screams.

My little ones don’t cry, don’t squabble,

they sleep. I watch them sleeping. There is a saw:

The sleeping and the dead are like one another.

Seven years ago this would have been a comfort to me.

Seven years ago, I would have wagered my last shekel

that this leaden sky presaged rain.

(Like so many of the poems in the collection, I heard it first in a Monday night workshop. And like so many others, it caught me unawares, made my skin prickle. Steph continues:)

These were heady days and Kirklees then funded three workshops in Huddersfield Library, one in Dewsbury (which I later lead with Mandy Sutter), and one in Holmfirth all with paid leaders. I knew John Lancaster who went to a Monday workshop in the library; this was for advanced writers. He read some of my first attempts and said he thought I would be fine there, so I went. Jeanette Hattersley was leading the group at the time, but my first session had the three John’s:  Duffy, Bosley and Lancaster, as well as Milner Place, David Morley and Janet Fisher. The group was soon taken over by Simon Armitage for a while and Phil Foster started coming. It was a baptism of fire, very nerve-wracking and lots of people came once and never again. After the workshops, we would go over to the Albert.
The next year, I was lucky to get an early reading at the library for International Women’s Day with three other new women writers, and felt sorry for the male poets who were new to the workshops.. so we arranged a one-off reading for them in the backroom of The Albert which was very well-received. (There was a precedent;Milner Place had had a reading there to celebrate his 60th, before I was involved.) This got John Bosley, John Duffy, Phil Foster and I thinking that we would like there to be regular opportunities for poets from the workshops to read for a decent amount of time as a scheduled poet…. not just one of many at an open mic.. We wanted it to be open to anyone, so decided on the 15-20 minute reading followed by a 15 minute break which enabled audience members to come just for short bursts if they wanted to. I went up to the bar and asked if we could have a regular slot in the back room and they gave us the second Thursday of the month which we have had ever since.

(Time for another poem: this one I want to share because many of Steph’s poems draw on her childhood in Germany in a British army family. This one makes me shiver, but I love its wit, its layered-ness. It’s a rich seam to mine when your Dad is given a copy of Mein Kampf signed by Hitler, and the gift is without conscious irony)

School Caretaker – BFES Essen

She wore her grey plaits, coiled into earphones

still that blonde Mädel in a dirndl skirt in the snap

with Ernst that she kept in her pinafore pocket.

He’d been right, she insisted, to divorce her;

the Fatherland needed children;

a barren woman was no fit wife; her life

was to serve. This school had been

the Gauleiter’s house, was her pride and joy.

My father caught her in a cartoon on his poster

hands in the air, wire glasses awry, cups flying

as she collided with that wayward child.

Please do not run in the corridor

In truth, it was Frau Schütte who ran.

Everywhere. Staccato as a scrawny chicken,

she ran round after Dad, Herr Director,

wrongly anticipated his every need.

When he left, she gave him a gift; something

she treasured. He must take it to England,

she said, bobbed a curtsey, thrust it.

into his hand. He protested, she insisted.

A copy of Mein Kampf. signed by the Fuhrer.

Frau Schütte was the only card-carrying Nazi

Dad ever met in Germany. And, despite it all,

he wouldn’t have hurt her for the world.

(Right. Back to Steph)

“The first reading was Christmas 1993 when the four of us read. Our audience included Simon Armitage who has always been hugely supportive and the place was full; a triumph considering they had to contend with crowds ouside watching Mr Blobby turn on the Christmas lights. By our third reading, we had got caught up in a “Poetry is the new Rock and Roll” thing and the media showed an interest. The Telegraph sent a reporter to that reading and shortly after that we were filmed by ITV’s Calendar and recorded for BBC4’s Kaleidoscope. Now people were asking to read. Local well-known poets Simon, Ian MacMillan, Ian Duhig and Geoff Hattersley have always been very generous with time and support, and over the years we have hosted many excellent readers including Jacob Polley, Philip Gross, Linda France, Kim Moore, John Hegley David Morley, John Lyons, Ian Parks . …….(I will have missed out loads of important people in that list). We have never lost sight of the reason we started, though, and we include newer and less well-published poets from our workshops, often giving them their first public reading.

(as I said earlier. I was one of them. I even found a picture of it on Google…Cliff Yates is reading and I’m listening)


The funding for the workshops disappeared, so we carried on the Monday workshops, running them ourselves, currently meeting in The Sportsman .(also in Huddersfield). John Duffy and I also run a workshop in Huddersfield library on Tuesday afternoons and also sessions in the Lord Street Mission.

I won a prize in the Arvon competition and one in the Peterloo, and won the Ilkley and Nottingham competions. John Harvey of Slow Dancer asked me to submit poems for a pamphlet. This was “The Grape-eating Fox”  published in 1995 and launched in London at The Troubadaur and now out of print. In the meantime, The Albert poets have performed in fields, pubs, coffee bars and for several years at with Michael Massey, Adrian Ingram and assorted other musicians The Marsden Jazz Festival.

Parly because of personal circumstances,including a much more demanding job and partly a loss of confidence, I stopped sending stuff to magazines (I had been published in Wide Skirt, Rialto, London magazine, poetry London, Smith’s Knowl etc.) I still enjoyed writing and the workshops and readings.

It took Bob Horne to make an offer I couldn’t refuse. He is amazing; his vision and enthusiasm in setting up Calder Valley Poetry and the speed with which it has been established as a recognisable brand is inspirational. He made it very easy and by now, I’ve got a lot of poems! I have really enjoyed putting this pamphlet together with his guidance and help.

(God bless Bob Horne, I say. I’m just as indebted to him, and I’ll shortly be writing a post about the business of the small poetry press, in which he’ll tell you more about it. But right now I just want to say what a pleasure it’s been to have Steph Bowgett as our guest, and to share one last poem. This one isn’t in the collection, but I heard it a couple of weeks ago at a workshop and just had to have it, because it encapsulates, I think, all the those qualities I wote about in my endorsement of A poor kind of memory. And also because it has Baba Yaga in it. I’m a total sucker for Russian folk tale.)


Baba Yaga’s daughters

You never could tell us apart,

that one in the mirror and me.

Wolves in the forest howl, yellow as yolk

and Bublik, we know you are one of their ilk;

why else would we languish, pine for you here

in a house that struts on the legs of a hen?

And this is a riddle

I riddle for you:

Why have one girl

when you can have two?

Listen! Our mother is pounding home

grinding stars in her mortar.

She wants you

for a lampshade

on a post by the door,

And we agree, me and the one

you mistake for me. Cornered,

your eyes are wide as a girl’s.

We giggle, kiss your loose lips,

pass you from tongue to tongue

dissolve you like sherbet,

me and my sister, the silver needle,

threaded behind my lapel,

She stitches you up in the hem of my skirt.

Swing there heavy, while I clap,

clap, clap to the balalaika;

arms akimbo, pirouette;

stamp my feet in little red boots

Hold tight, Bublik! One of us you’ll wed

but both of us you’ll bed, and Mother,

oh Mother will never know.

And this is a riddle

I riddle for you,

why have one girl

when you can have two?

In the dark they say,

all cats are grey

So too, my dear, are wolves

So too, my dear, are wolves

A poor kind of memory, indeed!  All that’s left for you to do now is break out in rapturous applause, say ‘Thank You, Sephanie Bowgett’ and then buy the book. Here’s your link.


Looking forward to seeing you all again next week. I just bought U.A.Fanthorpe’s Collected Works. I think I’m going to write about it with huge enthusiasm.

A gem revisited: Wendy Pratt

A gem revisited: Wendy Pratt


Well, there’s serendipity. I was looking for an image of a lapstraked boat  and up comes this one, on the shore of possibly my favourite place in the world. This is on the shore at Armadale, just by the pier where the Skye ferry from Mallaig docks. In the background, on the left, is the Gaelic college on its headland. And across the Sound is Knoydart, and beyond it, miles of roadless wilderness. Lovely.


Lapstrake. It sounds old and Norse. According to my dictionaries it only turned up in the 18thC…which is something of a surprise. It means the same thing as ‘clinker-built’, made of overlapping strips. This one at Armadale is what Viking boats looked like, utterly beautiful, perfectly designed. I heard the word first when today’s guest, Wendy Pratt, read at the Puzzle Hall Poets Live, and it resonated and stuck. It’s the title of her third collection (details at the end). I liked it so much that I had to put it in my poem ‘Bheinn na Caillich’. It’s a poem about the Norsemen and the boats that took them to Miklagard, to Greenland and Iceland, and the western seaboard of the Americas…the Vinland and beyond.

because nothing could gainsay

a well-caulked, lapstraked boat

with a flare at the bow that perfectly

fit a space the water would make for it:

their oceans were swanspaths and whaleroads

So here we go: a big thankyou to Wendy for a word that makes a line sing. I’m not the only one to sing her praises. Before I knew her, she’d been a guest on Kim Moore’s Sunday Poem blog, where Kim wrote:

“Today’s Sunday Poem is by Wendy Pratt, who I read with a couple of months ago in Leeds at the Poetry By Heart reading series in the Heart Cafe in Headingley.  Wendy read from her pamphlet ‘Nan Hardwicke Turns into a Hare’.  The title poem to this pamphlet is fantastic – I loved it as soon as I heard it.


From the first line Wendy establishes the character of Nan with that colloquial, confiding ‘I will tell you how it was’, so it feels as if the poem is being whispered in the readers ear. I love how the balance of power is explored in this poem – you can see this in the line ‘so I could settle myself like a child within her’ – the hare is the place of safety and Nan is a child – but then later on ‘An odd feeling this,/to hold another’s soul in the mouth like an egg’ so by this line it seems that Nan is in charge again.  Another favourite line is the description of the mind of the hare ‘Her mind/was simple, full of open space and weather’.  I read that and thought, well yes, of course, what else could a hare’s mind be full of?  I would really recommend buying the pamphlet – it is a moving collection of poems exploring loss and transformation.”

It is indeed. I wrote about it in an earlier post, and also reviewed it with great enthusiasm.

“One of my fictional heroes is Esther Summerson in ‘Bleak House’. Most of the students I’ve ‘taught’ on A level and on degree courses disliked her or dismissed her as wetly pious. I argued long and hard for her courage, her moral strength;  I always believed in her genuine humility rooted in a sense of her own worthlessness. It takes a lot for her to believe that she can truly be loved, as opposed to being relied on. I’m not sure if this is germane to this week’s cobweb strand. Who knows where we’ll end up. But, like Esther, ‘I have a great deal of difficulty in beginning to write my portion of these pages, for I am not very clever.’ She adds: ‘I always knew that’. I wish I could, hand on heart, say that. And let me clear up what I mean by clever here. I’m not talking about smart arse clever (I always knew that) or clever-clogs clever. What I have in mind is ‘knowing’; the knowledge of the heart and the imagination, and the knowledge of the physical self.. I first tried to clarify it in The other side of silence, a post on 28/12/2014. This what I wrote about poems by Fiona Benson:

 ‘There’s a physicality about these poems that’s unanswerable, and a synthesis of the solid worlds of absolutely imagined birds and wild creatures, of weathers and the leaching of soils and the decay of rocks with the intensely particular personal life of the poet that makes this collection so wonderful and distressing. She [Fiona Benson] reminds me of Wendy Pratt, not just because of the coincident experience, but their way of somehow living on level terms with it, and their way with words. Like this from ‘Nan Harwicke turns into a hare‘

I will tell you how it was. I slipped

into the hare like a nude foot

into a glorious slipper. Pushing her bones

to one side to make room for my shape

so I could settle myself like a child within her.

In the dark I groped for her freedom…..

There’s that physicality, that sensuality, again, and again infused by the unspeakable loss of a child that has to be spoken and spoken for.’

What I hung back from was that it’s not an accident that some of the poems that have moved me most of late are written by women. It’s not an accident, either, that I’ve been absorbed in stories of metamorphosis, particularly in retellings of Ovid. What has been consistent in this is the feeling that women have access to knowledge that men can’t have. The feeling that women are metamorphic and tidal, that they go through changes that a man can’t imagine, and that this makes them capable of different modes of imagining. It doesn’t mean that all of them can articulate it, or are necessarily consciously aware of it. But, when they are, the results are powerful and unnerving. When I re-read Ted Hughes’ retellings of Ovid, and even Robin Robertson [in ‘Swithering’] I think they are external. Powerful, but externally dramatised. I’m struggling to articulate it. What I find in, say, Fiona Benson, and in the passage from Wendy Pratt’s poem I just quoted is a kind of emotional fluidity and in Hughes and Robertson a sort of epic stiffness, like renaissance paintings.

Kim writes about poems exploring loss and transformation. Exactly. Wendy Pratt finds ways of writing about the unsayable, the desperation of the loss of a child, the agonising uncertainties of fertility/infertility, and the way that may draw you as a writer towards the analogies of myth. I understand that.

But it’s time Wendy took over. I asked her to revist a poem, to tell us what she’s been up to since her last appearance on the cobweb, and also to bring us a new poem. So here she is Big round of applause for Wendy Pratt.


“Here’s my revisited poem:

Danse Macabre


You wear your death like dance slippers,

taking them out of their coffin-box

at the barre, while you arabesque and plié,

allegro lightly round the room, touch the mirror,

turn, feel your feet bleed into the blocks,

assemble on your own edge, bitter

and full of remorse. The dance becomes a quick-step,

a flamenco, a stream of soft tap, a fox-trot.

The slippers lead. But you are no black swan.

Someone needs to stop you, pull you back, help,

step quicker.

 I’ve chosen to go back to this one because at the time that I was writing this I was very much proving to myself that I could work in fairly complex forms. This is a curtailed sonnet, though not the strictest form of one. It has 11 and a half lines, and an ABCABC DBBDB Which isn’t exactly correct according to the form examples that I have read about, but is exactly what I wanted to do with it. The idea was to start the poem off following the form and then start to disrupt it until the half line where the ‘sonnet’ falls off, uncompleted. I’d been working on Lapstrake, when I wrote Danse Macabre and had delved into some very complex forms throughout it, it was almost like I couldn’t stop solving puzzles. I haven’t been as fixated on form since then. I must have proved to myself that I could do it. Why did I need to prove it to myself? Because I didn’t feel like a ‘proper’ poet until I knew the rules well enough to break them, which is a total cliche, but a true one.  I’ve written a couple of sonnets and I often write Haiku as they’re like little photographs of moments, and I like that. But mostly I am writing free verse now. ”

“So, what have I been doing since? Well, Lapstrake was published and did very well, I’m still very proud of it, and I have a second full collection with a new publisher that I am waiting to hear about. I also finally finished my Selkie pamphlet which I have been writing for about three years now; that is now at the polishing stage, ready to go out to competitions and publishers. I am working on another full sized collection about infertility and body image, which sounds dark and heavy, but is actually proving to be a celebration, and acceptance of the physical. My husband and I have recently decided to not have any more IVF after five rounds, so that is a bit of a catalyst for re-examining how I feel about myself. The poems in the collection are an examination and questioning of ownership, particularly in regards to pregnancy and fertility. I think most women will recognise the themes. I’m also now at Hull University, doing a practice-led poetry PhD. It’s based around the use of language, how poetry works, what poetry IS, using the sea as a model. The whole thing is sea based, and the concept of aquariums as containers similar to how we contain with words is key to it. I had my first PhD poem published recently, which eased my imposter syndrome somewhat.

At the beginning of this year I decided that my new year’s resolution was to take my work seriously. I guess I wanted to take myself seriously too, but it feels weird to say that, I’m not sure why. I have changed my writing practice accordingly. I now say that I am a writer and small business owner, rather than a small business owner who also writes. I am heading towards the end of the year feeling like I have accomplished this, to a certain degree. I am now applying for residencies, awards, positions, teaching and workshopping work, and just like when I first started submitting my poems and I used to cringe at the idea (me? Sending poems out? People will laugh!) I felt the same about applying for work. I still end up doing quite a lot of free stuff, but I am much better at saying no.

I just heard that I won second place in a competition with a poem I am proud of. I’m proud because the other two competitions I won, last year, were with poems about my daughter, who died in 2010. I have a lot of poems about her, and I still write about her. But I’d started to feel that I was only writing about her, and those were the poems that people wanted to see, and I felt defined by the loss. I made a pact with myself to write about other stuff and found myself writing other stuff. I worried I wasn’t good enough, but this poem, The Sound of Geese, it is like confirmation that I can do this.”


Anyway, my new (ish) poem. Not unpublished, it first appeared in The Dawn Treader and is in the new collection.



When it comes; thick and soft

as the pelt of an animal,

I am grounded, brought down

to calm in the smell of damp earth.

We wait like the wet starlings,

under tree cover, their song-work

undone in the shallow hiss

of leaves and rain. I am paused,

smelling the green of the grass,

the hung heads of daffodils,

watching the plough furrows

fill with water. A dog barks

somewhere, on one of the farms,

the spaniel lifts his wet head, waits

as I wait, we are communed,

marooned, standing peacefully,

watching the water make mud

out of soil, movement out of stillness.


I love the texture of this, the apparent plainness of words enriched by the wet sibilant sounds of falling rain, the deftness of the rythm and line breaks, the healing quiet of it all. Should you ask about the final image…well, it’s because Wendy posts many images of her beachwalk landscapes, the shore at Filey, the slumped boulder clay cliffs, the patterning of waveshaped sand.

It’s been a treat having her. If you haven’t already bought her books then the details follow. Next week we have a poet whose first pamphlet will be launched at the Albert Poets next Thursday, and we’ve got plans for the cobweb to move to new and elegant premises. It all depends of the IT savvy/magic of my son Michael, but if all goes well there’ll be a new book of mine that can be yours by the wonder of Paypal. Fingers crossed, and thankyou again, Wendy Pratt for being our guest and doing so much work for me xx

Nan Hardwicke turns in to a hare :  (with a preface by Alison Brackenbury)  Prolebooks  [2011.] £4.50

Museum Pieces (with a foreword by Abegail Morley)       Prolebooks  [2013] £6.50

Lapstrake (Flarestack Poets) £5.50

All our yesterdays

All our yesterdays

I posted this over two years ago on the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of WW1.
This year was the centenary of the death of my grand-dad Alfred, nearly 30 years before I was born. This is for him and all the millions before and since.

The Great Fogginzo's Cobweb


Puzzle Hall Poets last Monday night. At ten o clock, tea lights were lit on each table of a crowded house, the main lights of the pub switched off, and all the open mic poems were read into the flickering candle glow. It was lovely and it was moving and it set me to thinking about how and why we remember and memorialise. It seems slightly odd to me to feel uncomfortable at the media coverage of the centenary of the beginning of WW1, but I do. Maybe it’s the distance most of the commentators have from it all, the easy platitudes and what feels like an affectation of gravitas and solemnity. Maybe it’s my age, but I don’t think so.

I was two when WW2 ended. I don’t remember that, and I don’t have any real memory of the great winter of 1947, and none at all of any…

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The Young Ones, and an (un)discovered gem: Laura Potts

The Young Ones, and an (un)discovered gem: Laura Potts


I was almost on the point of saying that I’m feeling my age. But that wouldn’t be accurate. Somewhere inside, I feel as young and confused as I did at thirteen. I was on the point of saying it last week on Skye when I was struggling to do much walking. What I was actually feeling was my crumbling bones, and I should be used to that by now. It’s been going on for 70+ years, after all.

However. It just happens that this morning I decided to try and make sense of my study; I’ve been steadily acquiring poetry, and books that I need to supply material for more poems, and once more running out of shelf-space. I’ve got a big collection of picture books and children’s fiction. That was fine when the grandchildren who visited were of an age for picture books and stories. But they’ve grown up through that. Now THAT makes me suddenly feel my age. Wow! What’s to be done? The answer’s simple. Keep the few you can’t bear to parted from and give the rest to a small school (our youngest lad’s best friend is headteacher of one such small primary school)…and another bag to eleven-year-old grandson who I reckon is ready for Alan Garner, and also for Earthsea, now he’s worked his way through Susan Cooper (and all my William books). And now I feel unencumbered and youthful, and the shelves breathe a sigh of relief. It’ll not last, but it’s nice for the moment. And, hey, it’s given me a nice hook for the cobweb strand.

But before I introduce today’s guest, a bit of ego-trippery feels unavoidable. And if not that, then certainly irresistible. With the magic of copy and paste, I can share this that I put on Facebook yesterday:


“Still dazed and starry-eyed  from last night in Sheffield. No experience quite like being handed a copy of your own book for the first time. It never palls. Lovely to read in a very handsome room in The Art House, surrounded by some very handsome artwork, and a very handsome audience. Steve Ely, Keith Hutson and Sally Goldsmith were among them. And I met and heard Stuart Pickford for the first time…which was great. Met Ann Pilling, one of the Yorkshire Prize winners, and also one of my heroes of the wonderful world of children’s fiction. And then there was Mike di Placido, who I could listen to all night, and the 1st Prize winner, Charlotte Wetton who can do no wrong. Thank you, Poetry Business, thankyou Peter Sansom and Suzannah Evans for setting it all up. I am very very very happy. And this is why.Every picture tells a story. (ps there’s a celebration of 30 years of the wonderful Poetry Business at the Loom Lounge in Dean Clough in Halifax on Wednesday November 9th. 7.30pm. There will be cake.Please come).”

I should add that if you want to buy a copy (and I sincerely hope you do) then you’ll shortly be able to do so via the My Books link and the magic Paypal button. It’s just waiting on my IT-savvy son, Mick.What I’d do without him I cannot imagine.

Ego-trip over. On with the young ones.


Actually, when I typed the title of the post, I wasn’t thinking of this lot, much as I loved them. I was actually thinking of a film I never saw, and a single , which I never loved at all, on the grounds that it swung like a ship on a sea of Mars Bars. He was never hip, was he, Cliff? About as edgy and dangerous as a bag of Skittles.


But despite the naffness of the single (and someday, when the years have flown, darling we’ll have young ones of our own…….It’s not rock ‘n roll, is it?   Hope I die before I grow old. That’s more like it) I’m happy to pinch the title. The Young Ones. Ladies and gents, let me introduce this week’s guest poet, Laura Potts.

I met Laura first, and subsequently, at The Red Shed Poetry nights in Wakefield. She actually looks like a poet. I’ve never seen her without a small notebook, in which she writes neatly, minutely and concentratedly. And she wears a small stylish hat. I notice these things. She also looks younger than she is. This is, I was told by the headmaster who gave me my first teaching job, a Good Thing. I remember that at the age of 24, and with two small children to support, I was refused service in an off-license in Marske. On the other hand, she’s still at university and has already  has twice been named a London Foyle Young Poet of the Year and Young Writer.She’s in the same distinguished company as Holly Hopkins, Luke Samuel Yates (who was a Poetry Business Pamphlet Competition winner in2015), Charlotte Wetton (see above) and the illustrious Helen Mort.

And here’s the thing; I sort of feel my age. She’s not 21 yet, and she writes and performs with a rare poise and confidence. How do they do it, the young ones? Because I only have two or three poetry friends who are older than me, I tend to think of 50+ year olds as young ‘uns. I sort of think of the likes of Kim Moore, and Helen Mort, and Tom Weir and Andrew Macmillan and Yvonne Reddick as precocious talents. I mean. They’re in their 30’s and they’ve got at least 30 years start on me. And here’s Laura, with about 50 years’ start.

I’ve written before that I come late to writing poetry. Writing seriously that is. Working at it. My friend Hilary Elfick said it was like a dam bursting, that a weight of stuff had been building for decades. And, as a teacher and voracious reader, I’d absorbed a lot of intuitive understanding of words. I understand that. But what grabs my attention and admiration is not just the technique of these young writers, but the obvious confidence that they have things to say. I thinks it’s wonderful, if not actually miraculous. I have to pinch myself to remember that Keats was dead in his twenties. What did he know about life? What indeed. I guess I needed to write that, to get today’s guest in perspective. I worry it will come across as condesencion. Because it isn’t. It’s gobsmackedness.

Let’s crack on. Laura writes about herself: (3rd person first)

Laura Potts is a Yorkshire-based poet and is currently an English Literature student at The University of York. In 2014 she became a Lieder Poet at the University of Leeds. In her spare time Laura is co-editor of creativity at The Yorker and edits The Poets’ Nook, promoting spoken word and emerging writers around the UK. This summer she has returned from studying at The University of Cape Town, South Africa, and working at The Dylan Thomas Birthplace, Swansea.

She continues (1st person)

My earliest memory of writing is of a seven-year-old me in my grandmother’s old armchair back home. She would read Kipling’s ‘If’ to me over and over again, and to this day I can still recite it. She wasn’t well-known in the writing world, but she’d had a few poems published in her time and was a great lover of words. I used to sit on her knee and she’d read in her great gravelly voice verses of Tennyson and Chaucer for hours. Of course, I didn’t understand it back then, but something about her vocal lilt made the words alive to me even when I was young. I often think of those times. That’s how it started. I owe my own love of writing to her.

As I grew through high school, writing became a form of escapism for me. I found those last years very mentally draining, and poetry was exterior to all of that. I wrote quite vigorously in the evenings, had a few pieces published here and there, and my break came when I became a Foyle Young Poet twice over. Someone actually thought there were sparks in what I wrote.

I guess these were the kinds of sparks they thought they’d seen and heard..Laura’s sent me three poems to share. The first fizzes with sparks:

But then parts of you

are dead. I sent the world a postcard from a fusty

window that said

I am wearing my grief.

Sling clothes into the bin: your socks, your skirts,

the notebook in the pocket of the moth-eaten dress;

pearls, perfume,

that locket – yes – the one etched with that lover’s name

you would never speak, but traced with warmer words

in the tepid curls

of firelight. Death in his Sunday finery asleep in the hall.

I call. Mother. Hear you still singing while washing

the dishes.

Now. Minds do many things. Canteen food garden gate

passing-bells rings. A wind slips beneath the door and

I hear you humming,

a voice swollen with the years of rolled-up sleeves

and tired eyes. The cries of a child at its mother’s knee.


I remember Wordsworth, Tennyson, Keats, dripping

from your tongue in a terminal bed. Mother, I said,

forty years from

the child in your arms. There are parts of you dead.

Bottle and Bible. Now this is pleasurable. Somewhere

on the other side of the night I am hearing you say

The fields are alive


when the moon is bowed. Your name is stirring

in the trees and is gone. No. Look what you’re doing.

Look at me now.

It’s a curiously disturbing poem, I think…partly because I can’t quite nail the owner of the voice of the one who’s telling me all this. But there are memorable and memorisable things.  Death in his Sunday finery asleep in the hall. It’s such a precisely located and unexpected image. It sticks and bothers. Whereas the tepid curls / of firelight simply sticks. As does Bottle and Bible. I think I’m missing out on some common knowledge. And I love the confidence, the easy assurance of Now, this is pleasurable. Yes. It is.

Laura continues: Since coming to university I’ve tried to drive my craft more than ever. A few magazines have picked me up and of course the rejections outweigh the acceptances, but that’s how every writer begins. It’s dispiriting, but having just one poem out there every now and then is enough to keep writing.

I’m glad that she does. And I do like that conviction, too, about driving your craft. Because that’s what pays off in the end, as it does in the next poem


Yesterday Calling


a gull snaps its wings

and laughs

as I stretch out the past

to the city with its dark heart

and us,

splitting our skins for a kiss.

On the rim of a memory,


we fizz

like silver pins

on that street

or this.

My lover’s words I remember


like globed pearls on tepid stars

the hot dark of torchlight


from the pavement


as he went.


with eighty-six years in my face,

I read books

and play cards

and years have dried up,

slow prunes

in a vase.

But last,

in my crabbed hands his skin,

doused with river lights,

no foul breath of wartime but

a whole lost world of long-kissed nights,

thin films of eyes candled bright

in the lobes of my palms,

the four-medal arms deliberate,



Afterwards, the distant salute of a bomb.

I’m still not quite sure about that last line, but there a the moments that matter, that memorise themselves as you read them. The gull that ‘snaps’ its wings, ‘splitting our skins for a kiss’ as we ‘fizz like siver pins’. I like the way the poem recognises the vitalities of memory, and the way the distant past may be more vibrantly alive and particular than the presentness of age. It’s quite something, that. Just one more poem, then, after this last thought from Laura:

The process is really quite cathartic to me. And it’s even more rewarding when that one person approaches me at the end of a spoken word night to say I touched them in some way. For all those hours of quiet, contemplative study, writing becomes, really, a connective medium. And it’s something to hold on to, something higher, something separate from my everyman world.

This is our night,

so we dampen down

stars onto pavements

which sleep on the other side

of the city’s eyes.

The long slow slope of the hills

stretches away

into the dark

and home.

In a park, the mouth

of a streetlamp gutters

and laughs. We are grinning

through a candle hour,

kicking back history

in the arch of our backs, the distant

chant of childhood a train wrecked

far off its tracks, a shadow lost

in some long-corridored past.

Cross the dark hills and

you hear them calling –

the other us –

the children down the hallway,

scrawling a sentence

which one day will speak

in the thawing smudge

of a kiss in this street,

where here and now

we are fizzing

and laughing

and dancing

when it is our night.

They are still letting off fireworks along the Calder valley, tonight, the night after Bonfire Night. Which seems right, where we are fizzing / and laughing /and dancing.

So, thank you for being our guest and for sharing your poems, Laura Potts. We’ll be seeing you again and again. And I know some of your more recent poems are full of crafted and complicated rhymes. That’s something to look forward to.

Next week we’re having a Poetic Gem Revisited, and the week after that I’ll be celebrating a memorable first pamphlet. See you all next Sunday. If you’ve nothing on on Wednesday, you’ll be more than welcome at The Loom Lounge at Dean Clough in Halifax. 30 years of the Poetry Business will be celebrated. How could anyone resist.