Stocking fillers [6 ]: Birds of the air

Feeling guilty at the continued failure to Catch Up as planned. I went to see a doctor last week, and discussed the after-effects of chemotherapy, and the business of withdrawal from steroids. We talked about the downsides of continuous low-level pain/discomfort. One of them is that to various degrees, you can’t concentrate; in my case it includes not being able to read for any length of time before it all becomes meaningless. Writing is a frustrating slow business…the words simply don’t line up and fall into place. But I’m heartened to find that it’s not just me, and that my doctor has a blanket term for it. She calls it ‘brain fog’. That’ll do for me. It explains why the collections waiting for me to write about (one in particular) are piling up, but it explains why I can do little about it for the time being.


What I CAN do is to keep the Cobweb ticking over.

I just stopped and stared at what I’d written. Can a cobweb tick? I think not. Mixed metaphors? Jeez. Possibly I meant to say that I’d keep on spinning. I’ll settle for that.

Last week my partner Flo bought me this surprise present to cheer me up. American First Edition, with these stunning watercolours by Baskin. I’d forgotten just how Ted Hughes can knock you sideways; it was like reading him again for the first time. The Sunstruck Foxglove

Her silky body a soft oven

For loaves of pollen

Or in another OTT piece about an Iris …Sketch of a goddess

An overpowered bee buries its face

In the very beard of her ovaries.


It deafens itself

In a dreadful belly-cry – just out of human hearing

It all just made me feel more alive, more aware of sound and texture and the buzzzing stuff of life. It reminded me just how much Ted Hughes has got into some of my ways of thinking, and so tonight, here’s a kind of thank you .

A lot of stocking-fillers turn up in one-off tasks in poetry workshops. I’ve never sat down with the intention of writing about birds or animals, but when I’m ambushed into it, Ted Hughes is always going to turn up, providing some of the sound and texture.

When my children were small, in the remote past, one of our favourite books was Hughes’ How the Whale became

and that’s the voice I borrowed in this workshop opener: an invitation to write about things that shouldn’t ever be in the x or y…in the sea, say, or the sky, or in a shop, or down your street.



When God made Heron, he’d been hard at it,

five days creating day and night, sun and moon

and stars, the oceans and the earth, 

and on the fifth day,the creatures of the sea

and the birds of the air. Let’s see, says God.

What have we not got? A bird that can spear a fish.

I like that. Give him a long sharp beak.

A touch of gold. 

                         But not the fish of the sea,

thought God, who’d spent the afternoon

in a frenzy of invention: Puffin, Gannet, Fulmar,

Skua, Albatross. The fish of slow rivers,

the fish of placid streams. That’s the thing.

He’ll need long thin legs and wide-spread feet.

My words, he’ll need to be a hefty bird

with legs that long, thinks God. 

The wings he’ll need! and a sharp dark eye.


Now. Where will he make his home?

It had been a long day. He can nest

in a tree like all the rest, says God.

And he breathed life into Heron

who flew off on his great wide wings

and landed in his tree, like a broken kite,

a thin old man falling off a bicycle.

(I think I should acknowledge that U A Fanthorpe was over my shoulder too….have you read that poem about the Creation that she wrote in Northumbrian dialect? I hear God with a Geordie accent.)

I can’t trace the prompt for the next one, but it wasn’t necessarily an instruction to write about a bird. I don’t know what it was. Sometimes the name of a bird is enough to call up stories and images. The owl will do this, obviously,and equally the kite and the crow. But I was surprised to find the St Stephen’s Day hunting of the wren turning up without invitation.




God thought of the smallest coin

he could make, and made the Wren

to fit, neat as a thumb in a thimble,

tail cocked like a feather on a jaunty hat.


He should have loved the Wren more

than let the boys come smashing down

the thorn, chanting, calling: Wren!

come out! come out! come out and die.


With her hair trigger call, she can not 

keep silent, the Wren, full as an egg

with alarm and urgency, her voice a tattle

of fingernails on an old tin lid.


Fragile as a chalice on its thin glass stem.

Why kill a Wren and her mid-winter song?

What did she ask for but a zipwire of air,

a tangle to hide her nest, a May full of flies?

By the way. The farthing ceased to be legal tender on Dec. 31st 1961. Which surprises me. So there you are. If the brain-fog persists there may be more like this. Fingers crossed, then.

A game of ghosts. i.m. Patrick Scott


“Let’s face it, you and I

were never wildly optimistic.

Who would be, writing poetry?”

Geoff Tomlinson. Not King David. 

(from Poems for Gordon Hodgeon. ed Bob Beagrie et al 2009)

I was not expecting to write this post. I thought I’d post a couple of stocking-fillers while I sorted out what I wanted to share with you in a final ‘catching up piece’. It will be about Martin Malone’s The Unreturning. There’s a dark irony in that, which will become clear as we go along.

I was wondering if I had anything to say, and if there was, if I knew how to say it any more. 

The week before last, for four days out of five I was virtually back in St Ives, Zooming in on a much-postponed residential, with Kim Moore and Caroline Bird as tutors. In theory, with relaxations of Covid rules, it could have been a much-postponed actual residential in a real hotel but the Christian Guild small chain of hotels has gone bust. I guess the pandemic was the last straw. That’s Abbot’s Hall in Grange, Willersley castle in Cromford, and the Trelhoyan Hotel in St Ives, all closed. All places where I’ve been entertained and challenged and inspired by Kim Moore’s courses, and by the Poetry Business. You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.

And I was struggling. Everyone does, from time to time. It’s not the end of the world; on the other hand it’s no fun, not to respond, not to feel the buzz of making new things with new people. Jess Mookherjee nailed it for me in a Facebook post recently. Amongst other things she wrote about the business of largely working from home in the last 18 months, she wrote this

                                 [I]have become more introverted and atomised

That’s it. The business of being turned in on yourself, and simultaneously fragmented, cut off from the physicality of company and its wonderful unpredictability. To this I’d add the fact of becoming physically more timid.It’s been a thin diet of second hand experience for the last 18 months. The world draws in. I can’t read properly. I’ve lost, for the moment, the ability to surprise myself. Not the best frame of mind in which to approach a week of writing which set itself to challenge us to explore our self-imposed taboos and preconceptions, to query what we think we mean by the ‘truth’ and to be more daring and take more risks.

However, in the middle of, one way or another, avoiding the truth, and flinching from risk I had a day off. The first trip anywhere beyond the homes of close family for 18 months. A drive to the coast with my partner Flo, to meet up with a former student and great friend, Andy Blackford .

Unnervingly, as we drove over Fylingdales Moor and caught our first sight of the sea, we found ourselves in tears. It caught me on the raw, that feeling that something we’d taken for granted for years should feel extraordinary because it was unchanged. I think, too, it was unnerving to drive through an entirely normal Sandsend, of familiies picnicking on the beach, children paddling, hardy souls swimming. And I still felt shut off from it all, isolated in a self-imposed bubble, not quite sure if I spoke the language of ‘out there’ any more.

We had a fine day with Andy and Sandra, looking out over the harbour, watching small boats coming in trailing clouds of gulls, and catching up….though gradually noticing that what we were catching up on was films we’d watched and books we’d read, because they’d largely replaced the accidents of normal life, the business of going places and bumping into people. Stuff we take for granted, like the first sight of the sea from Fylingdales.

Setting off back home in a sudden cold squally downpour that emptied the harbourside and streets in seconds, as Andy drove us up the main street, I saw the Bethel Chapel was for sale. Which was when I learned that my friend Patrick Scott had died. The stunningly converted chapel is /was his house. Last time I saw him there was at Staithes Art Week, a couple of years ago. 

Here he is, full of beans with his wife, Angel. And suddenly I learn he’s died, a month or so ago, of lymphoma. 

Patrick was a good friend, at one time the editor of a book I wrote about teaching writing, a fellow member of NATE, one of the generation that revolutionised English teaching in the 70’s. His last post was as Director of Children’s services for York, but earlier he was English Advisor for Cleveland/Teesside, a post that was previously held by another friend and mentor, Gordon Hodgeon . Which explains the the verse from the poem at the beginning. It’s from How things are made. A collection of poems from his friends, a get well card for him when he went into hospital for a spinal operation, which tragically left him paralysed, and eventually speechless. I’ve written at length about Gordon; if you don’t know about his story and his poetry you should. There’s a link at the end of the post. Another friend and inspiration, Andrew Stibbs, (NATE alumnus, former head of English in Cleveland, pioneer of mixed ability teaching, Leeds University lecturer in English in Education, painter, musician, cricketer and gifted poet) had been a member of Brotton Writers with Gordon, and equally a good friend of Patrick. All three have died and I miss them, terribly. All three are bound up with my memories of living and working on Teesside and in working as a teacher-trainer. All three are somehow present whenever I go back, say, to Staithes.

What do I make of it. Here am I, writing a poetry blog. What do I know. I say that poetry lets you say what you can say in no other medium, and that is true, when it’s working. But how does that fit with what I described as a week of writing which set itself to challenge us to explore our self-imposed taboos and preconceptions, to query what we think we mean by the ‘truth’ and to be more daring and take more risks.

I’m approaching what I’ll write next with great caution, because I fear to be misunderstood, and in any case I may be wrong. However. I rejoined my Zoom course the next day, head buzzing, not sure of anything in particular. A bit numb. What to be daring about, what risks to take, and why? Possibly I was feeling oversensitive, but it struck me that what I was being challenged to feel more open about, or to, were issues of gender politics, of sexual identity, of sexual violence. Could I write about a parent’s genitals, for instance. Could I challenge self-imposed taboos? Well, yes, I could, but my heart wasn’t in it, I couldn’t give myself up to the game. I sense I missed the cultural tide, recently. But it’s set me thinking about something I read a long time ago, that the Victorians (officially) couldn’t write about sex but wrote with amazing freedom about death, whereas, since the late 60s exactly the opposite has been the case. 

I was brought up to distrust generalisations, but there’s an element of truth in there, isn’t there? I have a sense that we are much more uncomfortable with the physical facts of death and dying than much contemporary poetry acknowledges. It may be, of course, because we know so little about it. When each of my parents died, I wasn’t there, in the house, in the room, and both had been neatly removed before I was told. The whole business, sanitised by the funeral business. That would have been unthinkable in a Victorian household. I have only seen two dead people. One was my son, coffined in a Funeral Directors nicely lit room. The other was in a morgue where I went with my partner to identify another body. I’ve never been able to write about either moment, not properly. 

Where am I going with this? I don’t really know. I’m chasing ghosts. I should stop.

Brief encounters

I say there are no ghosts

though coming on deer in a dip in a moor

when they startle and run

might be like seeing a ghost,

or in woodland where there is too much

of whispering and birds and water.


Worse is a space you long to be filled.

When love is done it is done absolutely.

It does not withdraw. It goes absent.

Whoever saw it go and how?

There is a hole in things, indifferent

to what you do, who you are.


I have sat with the dying

and never encountered death.

I think you have to love someone 

enough for someone to die,

you being there, and them

giving you their giving up,

trusting you enough for that.


[From Dark Watchers. Calder Valley Poetry. 2019]



Something strange has gone on with the links, so that some are duplicated. I have not the faintest notion why. Forgive me and the system

Link to Brotton Writers

Guardian obituary for Patrick

Link to Gordon Hodgeon

Bright star: remembering Gordon Hodgeon

Link to Andy Blackford

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

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

Stocking-fillers [5]. Trades and voices (with a postscript)


When I started this occasional series of stocking-filler poems, I’d sort of decided that they would necessarily all be the kind I knocked together to perform in folk clubs. I said, quite blithely that:

“They need to be compact and robust. Which is what much oral poetry was, originally. I discovered that writing your own stuff is a lot harder than you’d think, and I think I learned a fair amount about the trade from trying. Sometimes I’d try performing what I thought of as ‘real poems’, but they didn’t work, and once I decided I wanted an audience for them, I shifted my allegiance to poetry open mics. On the other hand, I’d assembled a folder that I called ‘Stand-ups and stocking fillers’. Sometimes I’d use some of them to finish a set at a reading, just to leave the audience with a laugh, or sometimes to relieve what may have been a bleak sequence.”

You see that I made a distinction between ‘real poems’ and ‘stocking-fillers’ which, when I come to think about it, is as foolish as putting a capital P on Poetry or a capital L on Literature, and thinking that is a tenable proposition. For that, mea culpa. Because sometimes I’ve set out to write a bit of ‘entertainment’ and found that the poem has ideas of its own. I guess this is particularly true of dramatic monologues. There’s a long tradition of the dramatic monologue in music hall performance, and it sort of slips into the folk scene, via Marriott Edgar’s brilliant creations like ‘Albert and the Lion’ which were immortalised in Stanley Holloway’s recorded performances of them . You can hear their influence in some of the work of Pam Ayres and Mike Harding. 

There’s the music hall at one end of the spectrum, and, I suppose, Shakespeare at the other, and in the notional middle, between the two kinds of performance art, there’s the printed poem. So many of them sink into your subconscious sense of how characters can be created, how they can be made to sound, from the appalling duke of Browning’s ‘My last duchess’ to Tony Harrison’s dead Iraqi soldier or David Constantine’s five monomaniacs in ‘Monologue’. If you were to ask about the appeal of the dramatic monologue for me, it’s the liberation of wearing a mask, and the genuine enjoyment of discovering the accent, the ideolect of the persona. 

Discovery. That’s the thing. I was in a poetry workshop where we were asked to improvise on the idea of someone giving advice to another…a tradesman advising an apprentice, say, or a football coach, or a master thief, or a seductress, or…..well, you get the idea. The prompt poem was Emily Berry’s “A short guide to corseting”. Go figure.I wrote the poem that follows in about five minutes, and it didn’t need a lot of altering/editing.

*** see comment below

But as it went along, it surprised me. I thought I knew the voice of the older bloke; I was pretty sure I’d worked with lots like him. It wasn’t as funny as I thought it was going to be. I should have guessed, I suppose.


A proper job


There’s more to this than people think.

So listen. See, you want to get the build-up right.

That one I took you to last week. All wrong.

What’s the good of flogging a chap

till he can’t carry the thing? He only ends up

dropping it, spectators want to help,

military jump in.  A bloody circus.


Take my advice. You want to keep them

fit and fed and fresh. They’ll not thank you, 

but just think on. You’re not there to cheer them up.

Just to do a proper job.


Make sure you order oak

that’s been let to lie a year or two. 

You need to cut a solid six by six, 

one tight lap joint, nice and snug.

Four clean dowels.. olive;,

don’t get palmed off with pine…

If it does get dropped you don’t want

that cross-piece twisting.

Causes too much bother later on.


Nails? Get them from that blacksmith

by the market. You’ ll want clean-cut, well tapered,

a good nine inch.

Plan to use just the three, but get six.

They can break if you don’t catch them right,

and anyway a big lad might need

a couple in each wrist.                                                                        


I’ll tell you all about the way

to lie them down, the knots,

the bones to get between,

the hoisting and the dropping in the slot

when we’ve had our snap.


But just one thing. You get it right.

You don’t want another carry on

like the one last week.

The one it turned out wasn’t dead.

Never hear the last of that.


[from Much Possessed. smith|doorstop 2016]


A Postscript: I was rereading this today (Monday) and deeply embarrassed by the apparent piece of throwaway showboating. “I wrote this in five minutes” indeed. I was driven to hunt down the original and found it in a notebook . Poetry Business Whitby Residential, December 2013. Here it is.

As it turns out, I was right about not needing to change very much so it looks like one of those gifted moments when you apparently write without thinking, and everything seems to fall into place without any effort at all. Which is, of course, nonsense. For a start I’d spent a lot of time that year struggling with a whole series of dramatic monologues based on the notion that statues can be brought to speak. I’d been investigating a whole debate about the nature of resurrection (in the body or in the spirit?); I’d been reading a lot of UA Fanthorpe. In short, I’d been unconsciously rehearsing my way towards this moment for ages. Sometimes you’re given the key that opens a door you didn’t know you’d been pushing against.

It turns out that, as we all do, I owe all sorts of debts to all sorts of writers whose work I’ve enjoyed and absorbed, and that I unconsciously/subconsciously exploit. If I had to single out one particular poet and one particular poem it would be Edwin Morgan’s ‘Instructions to an actor ‘.

Because of the intensity of the speaker, I’ve always imagined that Morgan had the idea of Shakespeare doubling as one of the actors in this production of A winter’s tale, explaining to a boy actor how to play one of the most problematic ‘moments’ in English drama. He must be, convincingly, a statue in the course of 80 lines, and then convincingly come to life. And, boy, how the speaker believes in this moment!! He knows just how wonderful and implausibly difficult it’s going to be.

What am I saying? It’s simple, I guess. You learn from the company you keep.

Next week, more voices from more occupations, but probably less serious. In the meantime, I’ll be working on the final ‘Catching Up ‘ post, and I want to do justice to the last poet in this particular sequence. Bear with me.