Green thoughts, and a Polished Gem: Alison Lock

I was watching BBC2 last night. Anthony Gormley on How art began. I got the buzz and the jolt I remember from when I first saw Bronowski’s Ascent of man, or John Berger’s Ways of seeing. It was quiet, it was thoughtful, it was utterly gripping.

There was none of the nonsense that attends the contemporary culture-tourist programme, usually hosted by some breathless ex-Blue Peter presenter, or D-list ‘celebrity’ who no-one has ever heard of. The nonsense that begins ‘I’m going on a journey to discover…’ The last time I heard that one was on a programme about St Kilda, where the excitable ‘discoverer’ appeared to think she was the first to tell a story that that the BBC had documented, using contemporary film records, and broadcast about 20 years before she was born. I got ridiculously cross. It does me no good.

But last night was the real deal, how things should be, delivered by a man who knows exactly what he’s talking about, and why; a man genuinely awestruck by images made 40,000 years ago. Not the the prints of hands, but the images of the absence of hands that became dust 40,000 years ago. If you haven’t seen it, I’ll not spoil it for you….just make sure not to miss it.

One thing I just had to write down…..there was so much, but this especially….was his response to what he described as a tender piece of art, an animal drinking, so it seemed, from a pool. He called it (I think)

  an art of interdependency…. a pre-narcissistic art

There you had it. Art is essential to our selfhood, our sanity and our spiritual health. But great art is somehow ego-free. Gormley said something startling. He said ‘I don’t like Picasso. He was a predator.’ You get your money’s worth with Gormley, much as you do with Hockney. Television for grown ups. What Gormley explored, among other things, was art as a responsive connection to the multifarious world and the place of the people and the individual within it.

Which brings me to the business of ‘green thoughts’. Not the languorous state I read in Marvell’s ‘annihilating everything that’s made/to a green thought in a green shade’ but the business of art’s response to and redefining of the ‘natural’ world…which is a concept I find problematic, but I’ll not pursue that now. I’m thinking of the whole complicated continuum from Pastoral poetry to the current imbroglio of ‘eco/environmental poetry’. I’ve been wrestling with this ever since I read Yvonne Reddick’s tour de force of exegesis in Ted Hughes: environmentalists and eco poet. I think I lost my way in the second chapter in which she summarises the sects and subsects of ecopoetry criticism: the topological, the tropological, the entropological and the ethnological. There are probably more by now, but they didn’t help me to entangle what I think of as ‘nature’, living as we do in a land where every metre has been named, walked, farmed, exploited, fenced, walled, built on, abandoned and reclaimed. All I know is that is if we continue degrade the ecological balances of the world it will die. The earth will get over that. It doesn’t care. It’s already gone through four major extinctions, not least being the one caused by the emergence of oxygen in the free atmosphere. It doesn’t care for us. But it seems obvious that we need to care for it if we care anything for ourselves.

When it comes to poetry that concerns itself with the natural world (and I’ll strenuously avoid that capitalised cliche Nature) I guess my first big eye-opener was Raymond Williams’ The country and the city which was my introduction to the idea that words like that are culturally constructed, and go on being deconstructed and reconstructed. Very little of the poetry we were given at school concerned itself with the city and the urban. It was pastoral, nostalgic and often sentimental . Poems like ‘The deserted village’. Poems like ‘Daffodils’. It took me a long time to work out why I distrusted ‘Daffodils’ but the clue’s in the first line:

I wandered lonely as a cloud

The first word; I. It’s not about daffodils, is it? It’s about the poet and what the daffodils can do for him as he wanders (ie purposelessly) and lonely (ie in self-elected solitariness) as a cloud (ie diffuse and without responsibility). It’s what I thought of when I heard Gormley’s phrase ‘ a pre-narcissistic art’. He did a revolutionary thing, Wordsworth. It’s a shame this poem is what he’s chiefly remembered for by folk who aren’t that interested in poetry. He opened our eyes to a power and loveliness beyond the bounds of a predominantly urban and urbane culture. I’ll hang on to that as I come to introduce today’s guest. I’ve taken far too long to share my enthusiasm for her work.

Alison Lock is a poet and writer of short fiction whose work has appeared in anthologies and journals in the UK and internationally. She is the author of three poetry collections, two short story collections, and a fantasy novella. Her latest collection of poetry, Revealing the Odour of Earth, Calder Valley Poetry (2017), is an observation of life as seen through the natural environment: ‘landscape made language’ (Bob Horne). She finds inspiration in the moorlands and the natural environment of the South Pennines, which is often reflected in her writing, but she is also influenced by her childhood home of the West Country. More about her writing can be found at

I really like that phrase of Bob Horne’s…‘landscape made language’. It chimes with Macfarlane’s ‘landmarks’. Unconsciously, I hyphenate it. landscape-made-language.  And also language-made-landscape.  So much of Alison’s poetry is a poetry of place. A topological poetry if you like. I hope these poems will explain what I mean. (yet again, apologies for my having to use screenshots of the poems. It keeps the shape but loses a bit of clarity)

The Wordsworthian note is there right enough…the I  that wants to emboss its prints on the new snow. But it’s a shared experience, a shared place. I especially like its physical presence, its textures, its solidity… ‘the ribcage of stone’ and the texture of the ice, its ‘milky slipcovers’. The paths are set with traps. I like the sound of the landscape, too, the susurrations, the chitterlings, the whisperings, its nervousness in a world that will shortly unleash a madness, or enchant us all into a sleep of reason.

It seems apposite, just now, to write about walls, and differences between good fences and boundaries between peoples.

  First published – Anapest: Issue One

It’s a poem of exact true observation, that gives each stone its heft and surface, and it’s given that extra jolt that makes you see a work of hands in a new light in the turn of one line:

How she imagines each unique rock 

A stone wall as an imaginative act which is about the suppression of ‘self’, imagination in the way that Michaelangelo thought he could feel the shape inside the stone, the way he could release it. Lovely. Robert Frost would have liked it, I think.

One more poem (which absolutely had to be done with a screenshot!)

Landscape that speaks our lives, and which requires us to speak for it in turn. Alison, thank you for being our guest today. Thank you for the poems. Please come again.

News flash

Changes are afoot with the cobweb. I’m delighted and unnerved to be asked to be a resident blogger for Write Out Loud. I can’t resist the thought of a considerably larger readership. We’re not entirely sure how this will work out BUT I know I haven’t the stamina, the imagination or the bottle to write two separate regular posts a week. I’m barely keeping up with one. The plan is that I’ll write for Write Out Loud, and then repost to the cobweb a week later. I need to keep the cobweb going for loyal followers in the States, for instance, who won’t be likely to pick up WOL. Anyway. We’ll see how it goes. I’ll be writing to future guests to make sure they’re happy with the plan. If not, I’ll give them posts exclusively on the cobweb. In the meantime, thank you for following. Don’t go away.

On hearing and listening. And an (un)discovered gem: Emma Storr

Growing deaf is hard to explain. Harder than explaining failing eyesight, which you can demonstrate, with a picture. I’m reminded, too, that some eye conditions might account for the spectacular success of some painters. There’s a fascinating book by the ophthalmologist Patrick Trevor-Roper: The world through blunted sight ; first published in 1970, it presents a fascinating study of the work of painters, sculptors, poets and prose writers throughout history. Was Impressionism born of a generation of short-sighted artists? Was Constable’s fondness for autumnal tints due to colour blindness? Did Modigliani actually see his nudes as unnaturally elongated through distorted sight? Leonardo, Rembrandt and Titian all suffered from increasing long-sightedness in old age – is this the cause of the loss of detail in their later paintings?

And so on. I get that, but I’ve never understood how Beethoven coped with being deaf.

Having lost about 50% of my hearing, even with hearing aids, there’s a lot of music I can’t listen to because I’ve lost all the top end (which makes the sublime Everley Brothers sound as though they’re singing flat), and being in a pub for a reading can produce a sound effect in which all the individual sounds claim equal value and lose their relative depths and distances…the sound equivalent, I suppose, of an out of focus image, which can be quite pretty until the image you’re looking at is print.

Where’s this all going? In December, I was on a writing weekend, with readings from extremely gifted poets in the evenings. It may have had something to do with the room, which was very large, but I found I could hear them only in the way I can see that grey image that I think may be about multiple choices. I heard them, but couldn’t listen to them, because listening implies you’re making sense of what you hear.

Now, where was I? There’s been a three hour interval while I loaded a futon mattress into the car, got the firewood in and went to a cold rugby match. All of which I enjoyed. A chap can lose track. Ah, yes..hearing (listening later, that was it).I’ve been to several readings since the start of December, and what I especially liked about them was that I could hear the poems. It was nothing to do with the mic being set right. It was all about the the readers and their delivery, which was so clean and clear I could do without hearing aids. One reader was Julia Deakin, who is always accurate, distinct. One was Tom Weir (twice) who read quietly, but always with that concern for the heft and texture of the words, who, like Julia, tastes the consonants that matter, and also, like her, reads with a rhythm that falls on the key words, so sound never displaces meaning, never over-rides the syntax and the sense, and lets the words have their surrounding silent space, which is the aural equivalent of white space on the page. And one poet was today’s guest, Emma Storr, who I’d never heard reading before and who was a revelation. We all know poets, some of them famous, who simply can’t read like that. I wish they’d make the effort. It’s not about theatricality, or volume or elocution. It’s about diction and a concentration on the meaning of the words they say. Thank you Tom and Julia for letting me hear the poems, and thanks to both of them for respectively guesting at the last session of The Puzzle Poets Live (at The Shepherds Rest) and at the first of a new venue which we hope will now be our permanent home..The Navigation in Sowerby Bridge. And so to our guest.

Emma is a member of Leeds Writers Circle and has a background in medicine and teaching but is now turning her attention to poetry. She recently completed an MPhil in Writing from the University of South Wales. Her poems have been published in The Hippocrates Prize Anthologies of 2016 and 2018 and Strix Nos. 2, 3 & 4. Emma is currently putting together a collection that celebrates the extraordinary workings of the body. It will be published before very long by the estimable Calder Valley Poetry. Look out for it. She enjoys the challenge of using her scientific knowledge and medical experience in lyrical ways to create different voices and styles.

I remember saying at her reading that all doctors would benefit from a thorough immersion in poetry, in writing it, in developing the empathy, the imaginative reach for the other that it demands. I guess that’s because I’ve occasionally encountered the opposite…like the surgeon who breezed past my hospital bed one Monday morning, saying airily, en passant, good, good, everything normal. I was guilty of losing my rag. ‘Normal! Normal? It’s not ****ing normal’. He was torn between being haughtily cross and being taken aback. The junior doctors all looked shocked/worried. I told him that it might be a normal day for him, and that I respected his professional skill, but I’d be grateful if he respected mine. My specialism was language and communication, I told him, and when you have been sliced open from groin to sternum and then put back together with 30 staples, and you haven’t had any solid food for over a week, and you are in some pain ‘normal’ didn’t do it. And so on. To be fair, we got on pretty well subsequently, but it was partly why my heart sang when Emma read this first poem.

What struck me was the calm objectivity of the voice, the way the poet/doctor dissected her own response to the shock that the first line delivers in its matter-of-fact way. There’s something particularly unnerving about the phrase ‘half her face’. It’s a phantom of the opera moment, except that it ‘opened a warm cavern in her head’. That ‘warm’ is beautifully juxtaposed with the the only previous reference point of

those rigid plastic models / we’d studied in anatomy

and having no resource but to pretend this is ‘normal’, to say ‘all seemed well’, to ask ‘how do you feel?’. It’s a poem about the falling short of language and of emotional resource. I thought it was special. It illustrates the difference between hearing and listening, and the way the latter means you not only have to imagine who you’re talking to but to imagine who you are at the same time. I love its emotional honesty and the way it’s contained in those calm-seeming couplets. People aren’t customers or clients. They aren’t diagrams. No wonder her poems have appeared in the Hippocrates Prize anthologies.

Which brings us neatly to the next two poems. (I should say that I’ve been driven nuts by WordPress’ way with lineation, and have, in desperation, overcome it by taking screenshots of the word documents. It keeps the shape and loses the clarity. We’ll get there in the end. bear with me. It was unavoidable with these two that rely totally on the way the words sit on the page.)

I’m not normally a fan of poems that play about with shape, but sometimes it’s exactly the right thing to do, as in this loving engagement with someone known who is being changed by (I take it) dementia. I like the fracture of ‘fractions’. the lengthening of ‘long division’ , the unnerving reversal of east and west, that loss of spatial compass, and the heartbreak of home hiding round corners.. I like the next poem, too

I like the visual trick that gives the text the shape of a helix, and how that tells me the rightness of the business of cell division and destruction. I like the way it steps down the page, and I like the way it made me look at and see the back of my hand (which we’re supposed to know absolutely better than anything) in a different light.

Just one more poem, that might usefully be handed out to every new doctor in training. One of my grandsons is just coming to the end of his seven years’ hard of exams and hospital placements..I think I’ll send it to him and see what he thinks.

It’s one of those poems when I want to say to the poet: don’t be so hard on yourself. It’s all very well to point fingers and say Physician, heal thyself..But if you make a mistake, how do you live with it and yourself. This poem catches, in its looping repetitions, that failure to get a sense of shame or guiltiness out of your mind, how it circles and repeats I didn’t think when I told you.

In its plainness it refuses to make excuses. It seems so baldly simple, because that’s what the truth is. So there we are. Thank you Emma Storr for the honesty and accuracy of these poems you’ve shared that tell us all we need to listen better. I’m looking forward to the collection. Please come again.

The glittering prizes, and the return of a Polished Gem: Stephanie Conn

Here we are with the first guest poet of 2019, and I’m hunting for a hook. Which turns out to be the business of the hopefulness at the start of any new year. I suppose for a lot of us who write poetry it’s the firm intention to write better this year, to send out all those poems we’ve been sitting on and humming and hawing about, and, if you’re like me, checking out the plethora of competitions that seem to come swarming around now. You might be lighting a candle for the ones you sent in for the National (which is the poetry equivalent of the Lottery double roll-over; spare a thought for Kim Moore lying on her sofa…she notes in her latest blog post that she has 9,500 poems to read through before sending in her choices for the long-list). Or you may, like me, be checking out Poets and Players or the Kent and Sussex, or Prole or York Mix……the list stretches out like Macbeth’s line of taunting kings. As regular readers know, I’m a sucker for competitions. I like the tingle. And I’ve been lucky, but it’s worth recording one illusion I was under at one time. I thought if I won a big competition, the world of poetry would beat a path to my door. It doesn’t. Basically, if you want to make a mark (which significantly, I haven’t) you have to keep on writing and working and submitting and begging for readings, and networking like crazy. The company you keep is important, but no-one owes you a living. You get the days of euphoria, and then it’s back to earth.

On the other hand, if I’d never entered and won a competition I’d never have met today’s guest who was a joint winner in 2016 of the Poetry Business Pamphlet Competition. And if I hadn’t, my life would have been the poorer. And after the most contrived hook/intro in the history of the cobweb, let’s welcome Stephanie Conn.

Stephanie launched her debut collection, ‘The Woman on the Other Side’ with Doire Press in March 2016 and, having been selected by Billy Collins as one of the winners of the Poetry Business Pamphlet Competition, three months later she launched her pamphlet, ‘Copeland’s Daughter’.

Between 2010 and 2013, she completed a part-time MA in Creative Writing under the tuition of Ciaran Carson, Medbh McGuckian, Leontia Flynn and Sinead Morrissey.

During this period, her poems were being published more regularly and in 2012, she was shortlisted for the Patrick Kavanagh Award and highly commended in the Doire Press Poetry Chapbook and Mslexia Poetry Pamphlet competitions. The following year she was selected for Poetry Ireland’s Introductions Series.

Diagnosed with Fibromyalgia, she says she felt stripped of her identity. There were so many things she could no longer do but she could still write and now had the chance to commit fully to it.

She began to arrange a full manuscript, submitted ‘The Woman on the Other Side’ to Doire Press and was thrilled when they accepted the collection. In 2015, as well as being highly commended in the Gregory O’Donoghue Poetry Competition and coming third in the Dromineer Poetry Competition, she won the Yeovil Poetry Prize, the Funeral Services NI Poetry Prize and the inaugural Seamus Heaney Award for New Writing.

By the time Doire Press had decided to publish ‘The Woman on the Other Side’, she was already busy with new work. She received an Artists Career Enhancement Award from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland to research and begin writing her second collection, Copelands Daughter inspired by her ancestors who lived on a small island in the Irish Sea. It was a selection of these new poems that became a joint winner of the Poetry Business Pamphlet competition, after which she was giving readings and facilitating workshops, and then heading to the other side of the world for the Tasmania Poetry Festival .

There’s a c.v. to make you sit up!  As I’ve said,I met Stephanie for the first time in Grasmere at the Wordsworth Trust… the prize-giving ceremony for the Poetry Business Pamphlet competition winners. She read from her pamphlet Copeland’s daughter, and blew me away. The Copelands are a small group of islands of the coast of Northern Ireland, and the poems tell tell the story of her ancestors who lived and farmed and fished there, until they were forced to leave, like so many who have struggled on poor land and in hard weathers, like the ones forced from Mingulay, from the Blasketts, the Shiants, St Kilda. So many. These poems ticked so many boxes for me. And she read with a passion, and a clarity. 

I was sold from the very first poem: 

The first lighthouse…Cross Island 1714.   

A lighthouse in ‘these twenty acres’ that ‘never did attract the sun’

‘three storeys of island-quarried stone, picked

and carried on the convicts’ backs.

They built the wall two metres thick’

Billy Collins wrote of this poem: “The First Lighthouse” should be read in every classroom. I know what he means. It has the same kind of heft that I love in Christy Ducker’s work…coincidentally, in Skipper,  the core of which is a sequence about poems about small islands The Farnes, and the story of their lighthouse, and of Grace Darling.

Of Stephanie’s writing Collins says  :

Precise description rendered in physical language lifts these poems off the page and into the sensory ken of the reader. 

This, the first poem of Copelands Daughter, shows you just what he meant


We are cut off from the mainland again;

a pile of unopened letters sits in Donaghadee;

there is flour and salt and treacle in the grocer’s,

bags of coal and paraffin to fill the empty tins,

but the boat keeps close to the harbour wall.

Tide in, tide out and the beam of light,

and a distant moon – waxing and waning.

Still, the bread is baked and the butter churned,

the blocken cured and the rabbits trapped,

mussels are plucked from the island pools

and pickled in jars on larder shelves.

The firewood and driftwood is stacked.

Tide in, tide out and the beam of light,

and a distant moon – waxing and waning.

Inside the lamps are lit and curtains pulled,

while out at sea, the wind and waves confront

each other in torrents of eddies and pools

and the gulls circling above the spume

could be vultures in the thick sea-mist.

Tide in, tide out and the beam of light,

and a distant moon – waxing and waning.

But we know what the darkness brings;

it drags us from sleep into nightmare, lost in fog

we’ll be struck by ship after floundering ship;

forced into the driving rain, where muffled voices call

from their wreck. We’ll run to the shore to save all we can.

Tide in, tide out and the beam of light,

and a distant moon – waxing and waning.

In a place such as this, we are used to the ghosts,

but not to their dying; never to the bodies of young men

washed up on the shore, with their puffed up faces

and gaping sockets where the eyes should be; or the tiny crab

emerging from a silenced mouth to scurry, ever sideways.

What I really like about this is the side-by-side-ness of the routine management of household comforts, the self-sufficiencies when the boat can’t come from the mainland, the security of a storm bound house….and the way the ghosts of the drowned will find their way in, one way or another. For me, the poem turns on one plain observation that make me re-evaluate everything I’ve just read.

In a place such as this, we are used to the ghosts,

but not to their dying

Well, that was in July 2016; now it’s time for her to bring us up to date. Here she is:

“Once I returned home from Tasmania it was back to the work of writing. The research and writing on the Copeland Island built and it soon became obvious that a full collection would need to follow the pamphlet – there was more to say! 

When you’re busy writing away and developing new work in isolation it is wonderful to get a little boost along the way. It helps keep you buoyant. So, it was wonderful to learn that my first collection ‘The Woman on the Other Side’ had made the shortlist of three for the Best First Collection in Ireland’s Shine/Strong Award 2016.

‘Island’ builds on and includes some of the poems from Copeland’s Daughter but moves beyond the tiny island of my ancestor’s to Ireland’s coasts – north and south. It was published by Doire Press in March 2018 and launched in Belfast in April.


In the lead up to the launch, I was busy with promotional work and interviews, and afterwards hit the road with fellow Doire-Press author, Rosemary Jenkinson, for a cross-border reading tour ‘Island Secrets, Urban Lies’ which was great fun. Most recently, we made the journey to Clare Island off the West Coast of Ireland as part of the Westport Literary Festival. 

There are lots of photos of our travels on the ‘Events’ section of my website.

So much of a writer’s life is spent hidden away that it is always a delight to work with other poets and have the opportunity to contribute to anthologies and get involved in collaborations such as the Beautiful Dragons Collaboration, Metamorphic: 21st Century Poets Respond to Ovid and most recently, the Aldeburgh Collaborative, alongside other ‘Coast to Coast’ writers. 

I continue to send work out to poetry journals and this year I’ve had new poems published in Poetry Ireland Review, The North, Iota, Southword, The Open Ear, Banshee, Bangor Literary Journal, Honest Ulsterman, Ofi Press, Poetry Salzburg Review, The Tangerine, Coast to Coast, Stony Thursday Book, Interpreters House and The Pickled Body.

In September, I started a full-time PhD by practice in Creative Writing at the University of Ulster. I’m working on a new poetry collection inspired by my own experiences of living with an invisible, chronic illness, as well as looking at the experiences and work of other creatives and public figures. This creative works sits alongside a critical examination of contemporary poetry of illness. That will keep me busy for the next three years, at least!

I love that….knowing where you are and where you’re heading. I’ll keep that like a small lamp to light my way into 2019. Right. Time for the poems.

The first I chose for its link to the Copelands, to islands, to hard living. I think, too, because it echoes another poem I love…Wet harvests by Roy Cockcroft. You can check it out via this link:

And also, of course, because it illustrates what Billy Collins said about her poetry: Precise description rendered in physical language lifts these poems off the page and into the sensory ken of the reader. 

Biding Time

She sits by the split cottage door knitting

a navy sweater on five thin needles – 

seamless, to resist salt water, biting

winds, the neck tight enough to make ears bleed,

no swell wild enough to strip it from skin.

She knows the pattern by heart, each bobble

stitch is a prayer, each basket weave a hymn

to the deep. She ignores the new grumble 

from her swollen belly, thinks of the dropped

stitch above the waist, a small gap in wool

to identify the man she loved – loves.

His worn boat has not been seen for days, caught,

perhaps, on some other island’s rocks. Still

time to return before the next storm hits.

You have to remember that a fisherman’s jumper needed a code knitted into the pattern; a fisherman gone over the side in a big sea or a sudden swing of a sail might not be recovered for days, carried miles by currents and tides, preyed on by fish and crabs. That jumper would identify the body, say where he came from. So every stitch becomes a naming and a prayer. What I like especially about this poem, apart from its empathy, its imaginative engagement, is the textures, and especially, the craft of the line endings. Exact and sure-footed. Lovely

I chose the next poem because it puzzles me and bothers me, because I can’t quite work out who’s talking to me. It’s magical; it asks for a sort of leap of faith. (it also asks for something WordPress is steadfastly refusing to do, which is to recognise stanza breaks. You’ll have to visualise them in this poem of five 4-line stanzas. My apologies)

The Saline Scent of Home

They said it was here; buried before my birth.

I had no reason to doubt them. Besides, I loved belief.

That, and myth. I could almost see it through their lens,

their open window, doorway frames, the rusted locks

but this door never did lead to the beach, not once,

and the marram grass I feel scratch at my soles

never did take root. I am both fish and toad, and neither,

turquoise and aquamarine, gills flapping, mouth closed.

I must hold my breath long enough to descend

to that air-pocket place of half-dream, and blink twice,

must look myself in the eye for the second time,

note the tint of iris, grown strange, the pupil’s pulse.

My eyes are clear, like the sea, and blue is an illusion.

The mirror’s frame is tarnished gold, layers of nacre

glint in curved drops, collapse distance. The folds 

of my dress gather at my feet as liquid charcoal.

I hear an underwater echo of wood on water,

the flat slap of paddle and the time rushing in,

knowing I have not captured the moment on film,

knowing there is no time lapse of woman becoming shell.

The puzzle starts in the first line. They said it was here  What is it, this it? It does a lot of work, that small pronoun. And who are they who I had no reason to doubt? Everything in this poem is dubious, the door never did lead to the beach, things are almost seen at best. Everything is fluid, everything shape shifts, the mirror distorts. It’s a dreamworld of illusion, with the strange clarity and reality of dreams. That last line is a shock, because despite the layers of nacre that shell is unexpected and unexplained. The whole poem is a moment that draws you in and keeps you there. Wherever ‘in’ might be.

One more poem to end with. Another abandoned place but more obviously rooted in a physical place I imagine I could visit, though without this poem I would not know its meaning or its histories. The voice of it reminds me of the poems I tried to write about Clearance villages on Skye, the way I wanted them to be something they may not have been. I longed, like the poet, to feel gothic. (by the way, there are no stanza breaks to imagine)


May flowers are still in bloom by the hazel wood.

You stay to breathe in their bruised sweetness;

I walk away to all that remains of the walled

garden, rest my back against quarried stone.

All this belongs to us now. The grand house

is gone, its slender turrets forgotten –

nothing could be done. I’d love to see 

its empty rooms, stripped floorboards,

an open door, but there is only fern and moss, 

a rectangle of cut grass. I long to feel gothic.

Scrabo Hill rises behind me. We have strolled

the tree-sheltered track, looked back over 

the patchwork slide of farmed land, kissed

at the summit. You once turned a leaf 

to reveal three types of caterpillar: Grayling,

Barred Umber, Nut-tree Tussock. I wondered

if we’d see them morph into butterflies.

Today there are none. We are too far 

from bark and the magic’s wearing thin.

I never wished for wings, prefer the certainty

of black dolerite, sandstone, agglomerate.

This is the only thing I cannot bear to lose.

I steady myself. Prepare to break it.

So there we are. What a great way to start 2019. Thank you Stephanie Conn. May the next three years be as productive as the last.

For Russell Hoban at the end of Christmas

Is there a book that you’d run into a burning house to save? I think this might just be the one I’d choose. If I could have more, along with Middlemarch I’d probably choose Riddley Walker, because Russell Hoban changed the way I think about the world.

It started when I met him at a NATE Conference some time in the 1970s. Breakfast. He was smoking roll-ups, Old Holborn, and eating All-Bran, was Mr Hoban. He was fulminating about the teachers in his writers’ workshop, the ones who had asked if they could have a coffee break.

“What do they think writing’s about…a leisure pursuit?”…I’m paraphrasing. He was wonderful company.

Will Self wrote a tribute to Hoban 2011, for the 25th anniversary of the publication of Riddley Walker, which I go on arguing is one of the great novels of the 20th C.

few years ago, charged with writing a new introduction to a 25th-anniversary edition of Riddley Walker, I called the author, Russell Hoban, at his behest. A frail-sounding voice answered the phone, and when I explained who I was, Hoban fluted: “Would you mind calling back in half an hour or so? My wife and I are about to watch Sex and the City.” I put the receiver down chastened: here was a man in his 80s who had more joie de vivre than I could muster in hale middle age.

 After I met Mr Hoban, I discovered The Mouse and his Child. I’ve read it dozens of times, often when life feels unbearably bleak. It never fails to relight your faith in the human condition and the power of hope combined with love and endurance. It’s a story of a quest for self-winding, undertaken by a clockwork mouse and his child. You’d think it would be twee and sentimental. It isn’t. It’s profound, layered. Magic realism doesn’t do it justice. It sits very comfortably (or uncomfortably) alongside Angela Carter’s The magic toyshop. Saved by a tramp from the dustbin (where they’ve been thrown after being broken by a cat) the Mouse and the Child are sort-of-mended and wound up, set down on the road and left to find their destiny. Just buy it and read it. Your life will be better.

You may even find yourself, as we did, collecting wind-up toys and bringing them out every Christmas. You might even find yourself making special boxes for them. And writing poems. So here we are, taking down the Christmas tree and the angels and lights and tinsels, and maybe lighting a candle for Russell Hoban and for the Mouse and his Child. Happy New Year

A prohibition

lifted on the stroke of midnight on some special Eve, 

midsummer, say, or Christmas. Then, it’s said, 

foxes, owls, or trees, or stones are let to speak.


Or snowmen, fairies, angels hung in Christmas trees.

Sometimes, wind-up bears that play a drum,

tin monkeys that clash small cymbals; and clockwork mice


piled pell-mell in boxes… in lofts, in cobweb attics,

cupboards under stairs. What is it, do you think,

they say just once a year, just for one day?


What if the dark that lasts all year,

the silent dust that settles, seals their tongues?

Mad as stones and deaf as stumps. They’re let to speak;


they’ve forgotten how, or what, to say;

stay silent till Twelfth Night,

and then, once more, are put away.

(But actually, I do believe they are articulate, fluent, funny, wise and occasionally as cross as Russell Hoban could be. I believe they will become self-winding and live rich and loving lives)