My kind of poetry: Emma Storr’s and Bob Hamilton’s “Offcumdens”


“There are maps of a kind…but the trouble is, the maps are always last year’s…..England is always remaking itself, her cliffs eroding, her sandbanks drifting, springs bubbling up in dead ground. They regroup themselves while we sleep, the landscapes through which we move…the faces of the dead fade into other faces as a spine of hill in the mist”

                                                                      from:  Bring up the Bodies

This, for me, is one of the most memorable passages in the cornucopia of memorable passages that is Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy, and it explains in some measure the urge that lies behind Bob Hamilton’s and Emma Storr’s Offcumdens.  At the heart of it is that phrase 

                                  the landscapes through which we move

It’s the idea that landscapes are never static, that they change moment by moment and aeon by aeon. They change because we move through them,and they depend on viewpoints. They are unlimited and four-dimensional, but we go on trying to pin them down, as this moment, or that, to give ourselves, I think, a place to stand and be secure in. We want to secure the memory of the place and also to share it. 


I knew when I asked the authors if I could write about their collection that there would be two ideas that I would have to riff on ..the idea of ‘landscape’, and the business of collaborative works. Let’s start with the idea of landscape..because that’s what it is. An idea. A concept.

Raymond Williams’ The Country and the City is missing from the shelf, but otherwise it’s a fair cross-section of the books that have explained the the notion of landscape for me by teaching me its cultural history. The word arrived as landscipe or landscaef in England after the 5thC. It meant land shaped …by farming and clearance for instance. The word landscape, first recorded in 1598, was borrowed from a Dutch painters’ term. In other words, a piece of land specifically chosen to be looked at and visually recorded. It gets tangled up with the idea of scenery, and backdrop and setting. Think of the Breughels, Elder and Younger…their huge vistas full of human activity, or, closer to home, Lowry’s teeming industrial cotton towns. At different times the fashionable ‘landscape’ might be Sublime and awe-inspiring (Caspar David Friedrich, Turner, Anselm Adams) and at other times pretty and and managed and Picturesesque.

I’ve read and read trying to understand my own preference for particular kinds of landscape. I’m not at home in woodland or in conventionally ‘pretty’ countryside. I’m uncomfortable in flatlands where the sky’s too big, and everything is too far away. I’m happier looking down rather than up. I like to be on the tops of things. I’m immediately in tune with the first stanza of Offcumdens’ title poem, in which Emma Storr announces

                             I didn’t know I’d fall in love with bleak:

                             the swerve of dry stone walls around the hills,

                             the fissured scars of rock above the fields.

It may be, too, that it comes with its own language of ‘north’. The Norse ‘k’, the stone, the hills, the scars, the fields. A language and a place in tune with each other. It reminds me that I have two poet friends ,each of whom have a house which embraces a 180° view; one view ranges from the Dark Peak, via Holme Moss and the moors above Halifax and Bradford to the beginnings of the East Riding. The other one, on the horizon of the first, looks out north over Ponden Reservoir as far as Whernside. To be in either place is simultaneously to be grounded, and like flying. It’s also to be immersed in the sound of things, wind especially, and also its texture. Essentially, I’m saying that when it comes to writing about Offcumdens I’m a captive audience.

Another thing. A landscape is a much more complex thing than a photo or a painting. I believe, like Robert Macfarlane, that you only come to ‘know’ a landscape by walking in it, physically knowing the effort of hills and hard ground, or the release of level turf. Equally, walking in its weathers, wet or dry, cold, blustery, calm, humid. One of the things I like about this collection is its range, from the hard uplands of the Northern Dales, to the limestone cliffs of the East Coast, the scooped trough of Upper Wharfedale, the tucked- in small valley towns, and also curious corners of the big cities like Leeds. All of these places have been walked, explored on foot, in the way that is constantly shifting the perspective and arrangement of things in time and space. And this creates an energy, and organic sense of living places that are worked and populated.


So much for landscape. The other attraction is that of a collaborative piece. I’m fascinated by the interaction of different ways of seeing, and often wonder about the process. For instance, how did Norman Ackroyd work with Kevin Crossley-Holland? Which comes first…the poem or the artwork/photo. Did Fay Godwin and Ted Hughes work independently and then see what came up? It looks fairly clear that R L Lloyd illustrated the poems that Hughes had written, as did Charles Keeping for Charles Causley. The dynamic is going to be different all the time. [Note to self: maybe I should ask Stella Wulf about her collaboration with Graham Mort. And also about her illustrating her own poems. Hmmm.]

The thing about Offcumdens is that a) it has the courage to work in the same territory as Hughes and Godwin and b) it rather wonderfully provides the reader with an appendix of detailed commentaries, in which Bob and Emma write about their involvement in particular poems. There’s one telling moment when Bob, writing about the poem Walking away, says

     “Emma is called upon to be very patient while we’re out walking together. I see something in the landscape that I think will make for a good photograph, and go running off to find the right spot……I often see shapes and textures in the patterns of the clouds, imagining how they are going to look in black and white…”

Emma’s comment is that 

“It can get very cold waiting for Bob to take photos…this was in March with frost on the ground and a bitter wind”

I really like the sense of the to-and-fro of the collaboration in which sometimes the image will generate the poems, and at other times the photographer will work to respond to or illustrate the poem.

As Philip Gross writes in his endorsement on the back cover: “Each double page is a conversation” . Each pair of facing pages is made of an image and its companion poem. A conversation.That’s it, exactly! Time now to eavesdrop on three of these conversations, which I hope will give you a sense of the range and richness of this lovely book. First up, let’s meet our guests.

Bob Hamilton is a Londoner who moved to Ilkley in 1988. He has a background in mathematics and spent his working life as a software developer, involving everything from computer games in the 80s to image databases in the 90s—pioneering the first systems for museums to display their photographic archives on screens—to public health systems in the 2000s. Somewhere in the middle of all that coding he took a sabbatical to write a non-fiction book called Earthdream (Green Books, 1990), a work of ecophilosophy. With his family having spread its wings, he has found the space to pick up his camera and his pen again, pursuing a number of photography and writing projects. He has won a number of open photography competitions and has had his pictures exhibited nationwide through The Photographic Angle.

Web: and

Emma Storr is also a Londoner who moved to Leeds in 1993. She has a background in medicine but is now turning her attention to poetry. She completed an MPhil in Writing at the University of South Wales in 2018. Publications include poems in The Hippocrates Prize Anthologies of 2016, 2018 and 2020, Strix Nos. 2, 3 & 4, Pennine Platform Issues 86 & 87 and Raceme No.8. Her poems have appeared in the following anthologies: These are the Hands, Fairacre Press 2020, And the Stones Fell Open: A Leeds Poetry Anthology, Leeds Church Institute 2020, When All This Is Over, Calder Valley Poetry 2020 and Bloody Amazing, Dragon-Yaffle Publications 2020.  Her debut pamphlet Heart Murmur was published by Calder Valley Poetry in 2019 and has a medical theme, based on her work as a GP. And she’s also been a guest on the cobweb. Here’s the link


I asked Bob and Emma for three poems. The first one is dedicated to cottongrass which the long-distance walker John Hillaby described as an ecological warning sign of of a soil beyond regeneration. It’s the flower of the gritstone moorland tops. It’s fragile and beautiful. I loved the idea of its being gathered by a distraught Ophelia



Poor Ophelia with her floral gifts. 

Pansies never eased her heart or cheered.

Forget the rosemary, columbine and rue, 

the daisies and the fennel’s feathered leaves.

By the river, far from sniffing dogs

I’ll pick white stars of garlic growing wild

and in the hills I’ll find the nutty scent

of gorse, the yellow tongues among its thorns.

I’ll gather cotton grass, the tufts that rise

from swamps to dip and dance in gusts of wind.

My garland will have barley and sea thrift,

stems of pink and purple Yorkshire fog. 

I’ll give my lover flora from our walks 

in sprinkled woods, on moors, on salt-licked cliffs.


The second one I asked for is a less obvious choice, but I wanted to reflect the fact that this collection takes in the variety of a much-worked and imbricated landscape. There are many images of high moors, but the soft valleys around Ilkely and Menston can sometimes be home to bleak and disturbing memories.. Menston was one of those asylums like Storthes Hall that were built in the 19thC and in recent years abandoned or turned into apartments..or student accommodation ….with the rise of so-called ‘care in the community’. My own reading of the poem, which I think is heartbreaking, is coloured by re-readings of a novel by William Horwood whose daughter was born with severe cerebral palsy. Horwood writes multilayered intra-textual stories involving invented mythologies, actual documentary histories and imagined biographies and publications. This one’s called Skallagrig. It was published by Penguin at some point.I think it’s wonderful. It appears to be out of print but you can pick up used copies starting at around £6.50

West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum


Is this home? I forget. 

Stains on green and brown walls

are clouds above my bed.


I watch the ward canary fly

from its cage towards the light.

Sometimes it grips its perch,

stays within the bars.


Sometimes I prefer the dim

inside, the dull calm.


They say it might be good for us

to have fresh air, to weed and rake

the flower beds and walk

the grounds as if we’re free.


Marshall tried to hang himself.

The gaslight bracket broke.

Lavatory chains can’t be looped

into a noose or knot. 


We are watched over,



Did I mention the orchestra?

Music made from lunatic strings,

brass and drums, we beat

the wildest rhythms, dance

our madness in and out

with stamping feet and whirl

the staff about until they beg

to be released from jigs and reels.


I think that this is home.


A garden for nesting birds,

the greenest grass,

the smiling face of a clock.

The final choice I couldn’t resist. The Brontes had to find a place. Unsentimentally.


Haworth Hills


I dreamed last night of Haworth hills,

misty moors and damp days past,

trudging pattens on the cobbles,

Emily breathing hard and fast.


I saw their rooms, the tiny books

Branwell’s painting, creased and brown,

a battered trunk, a Scarborough grave,

lives of passion, all cut down.


I watched the father find his stick,

place his nightcap on his head,

stiffly kneel to say his prayers,

cursing God he was not dead.


Today the Brontës sell as soap

and broken biscuits by the pound.

Thousands come to walk the moors

worshipping the hallowed ground.


The air is clean, the drains are clear,

the deathly coughs are buried deep.

The Brontës have been sanitised,

their untold stories put to sleep.


So there we are….it’s taken some time to put this together what with a spell of Covid followed by debilitating complications. I wish my mind was clearer. But thank you, Bob Hamilton and Emma Storr for being our guests and sharing the riches of your book.

I guess everyone will want to buy a copy. I hope so, anyway. Here’s the detail

Offcumdens: Hamilton and Storr . [Fair Acre Press. 2022] £19.99

See you next week. Or the week after.

All the rage


Dylan Thomas’ Do not go gentle into that good night has bothered me for many years.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

It bothered me more when, in my 30s I sat with my dying father. All my dad wanted in his last days was release from pain. Imagine the sheer tone-deaf selfishness of that injunction in his ears. All I can hear is a young man’s impotent rage against the loss of his father. It makes me wonder about rage and poetry. Among other things.

It has been a quiet week here in Ossett, mainly because my wife, Flo, and then me, tested positive for Covid after two years and more of shielding, self-isolating, masking, handwashing, disinfecting and the avoidance of social gatherings. It’s made each of us alternately angry/depressed/philosophical/rueful…but mainly miserable and pissed -off. It doesn’t help that I’m increasingly prone to bouts of what I can only describe as rage-born-of-frustration. It sort of helps to know you’re not alone. 

The poet Jo Bell’s given me permission to use this Facebook post; when I read it it chimed immediately:

You all know this already, and this is a classic case of me speaking to my own bubble. I’m almost weeping with anger after hearing a government PR man on the Today programme, blithely pretending that Johnson knew nothing about a party – a party at which he [the PR man] exhorted people in writing to ‘not wave bottles around in front of the camera’ and later crowed that ‘we got away with it.’ The man also repeatedly made the point that Downing Street staff were ‘working very hard’. I don’t doubt it. But we all remember the pictures of NHS staff who were working on the frontline for 12 or 16 hours a day and sleeping in corridors, and quarantining their own families at home for months on end. Many of us, of course, couldn’t work very hard, and spent our way through our savings, because our lifetime’s work disappeared as the people around us kept to the rules, for the good of our neighbours and strangers.

A Ministry of Justice cleaner, Emmanuel Gomez, contracted Covid and died – possibly from the people around him. They were boldly flouting the rules that they themselves had put in place – and which we were all following at the expense of our own working and domestic lives, to keep each other safe. The level of explicit lying and doublespeak perpetrated by this government are gobsmacking. I didn’t get this man’s name, but I hope he goes home and bangs his head against the table in shame.”

Almost weeping with anger. 

Exactly. It’s the anger, the rage, that makes you incoherent and impotent. At worst it makes you lash out. I’ve shouted at a bunch of Tory canvassers who knocked on my door (we’re in the middle of a bye-election here in Wakefield); I wanted to be cold and calm and and take them to them to bits while clearly maintaining a moral superiority. But I lost it. I could not handle a bunch of smug fools telling me self-evident bare-faced lies. I was impotent.

A couple of days ago, Flo and I spent a period of 26 hours trying to deal with the NHS 111 hotline that I was told, in an NHS letter, to use in the event of a positive Covid Test…because I would be eligible for anti-viral drugs. 

It’s hard to describe the experience. Kafkaesque is a cliché but it’s as near as I can get. It involves long periods on hold, followed by being asked to spell out the reason for the call, followed by a lengthy questionnaire and then being put on hold while we arrange to put you in contact with a clinician. The same process is then repeated several times. There is apparently no way of maintaining an on-going record of the sequence of phone calls, so you constantly go back to the start and on no account do you collect £200. After a bit you simply stop trying. But in the morning your phone tells you NHS 111 rang you at 1.23am and at 3.27am….. Later you are rung by an actual pharmacist, you are put on hold, you lose the line. They ring you back. Eventually a doctor in our local hospital rings. He is appalled to be told about the process. He is a nice man, and tells us he sees no real need for me to try the anti-viral drugs. The only reason I rang in the first place was because a letter told me I should.

Why didn’t I ring my surgery and the doctor who know my case inside out? Because it’s a Jubilee and the surgery is closed for four days.

In other news (ironically) footage of our egregious PM being booed on the steps of St Paul’s is edited out of the footage by our public service broadcaster, and our Culture Secretary is in denial. Again. I’m almost constantly angry and it does no good. The Serenity Prayer in under enormous stress.  But after all, this is a poetry blog. Facebook and Twitter are the places for ranting into the void . If you want that done well, then follow (as I do) Another angry voice, and  I see you.

So, I’ve been brooding on the difficult relationship between art and anger. We’re taught to be comfy with notions of emotion recollected in tranquillity, or that beauty is truth and that’s all you need to know. Songwriters and singers can develop a creative partnership with anger (think Early Dylan) and arguably even with rage (think Sex Pistols).

I have a feeling that angry political poetry gets sidelined these days. Tony Harrison was villified for it by the ‘popular’ press. I’m thinking of “V”, particularly, but also his Gulf War poems. I’ve no doubt that lots of readers will help me out, but I can’t readily think of ‘angry’ poets or ‘angry’ poems outside the performance/stand-up circuit. And it makes me smile awkwardly to see how John Lydon and John Cooper Clark got assimilated into the ‘eccentric lovable national treasures corner’. 

The only thing I’m sure about is the ways in which, one way or another, I seem to have shaped some of my own anger into poems…or poetry. What follows will be a bit scattershot. Forgive me…I’m still dealing with Covid, which is debilitating and annoying.

Let’s start with Lear.. Here he is about to storm out of his daughter’s castle and into a transformative storm.

I will have such revenges on you both 
That all the world shall – I will do such things – 
What they are yet I know not, but they shall be 
The terrors of the Earth! ….

                                        O Fool, I shall go mad!

I’ve always thought this a wonderful gift to an actor,  the character inarticulate with impotent rage, the fractured phrases, the dashes that invite you to consider how the actor will inhabit those spaces. He’s flailing for language and it wont come. Grrrrrrrrrrrr….. And shortly after he does go mad, and what’s rather wonderful and terrible is that he comes out the other side in what sounds like lucidity. It’s verse that never puts a foot wrong. Because the mad Lear is in control of this anger

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! …………………..

Rage makes you incoherent. Articulation is the tongue-tied’s fighting. The gift is to find the right channel. I thought I’d cool my head and calm myself down by reflecting on the the rage I feel about the apparently untouchable sense of entitlement that characterises the last ten years of the contemporary Tory Party in power, and then how more or less by accident, I found a way of channelling it. The answer for me lay in the Greek Myths, the stories of the Greek pantheon, and particularly the version created by Garfield and Blishen in The God beneath the Sea. 


Olympus is in the hands of arrogant and empathy-free public school bullies with supernatural powers. I came to think of Zeus (who crucifies Prometheus, the maker of humankind) as a divine psychopathic gangster:

Violent and vulgar as the Krays 

a white bull, miasmic with testosterone,

or  a shower of gold, or a flurry of wings

and swansdown. 

The whole pale mortal world

just asking for it. 

A bit of blood and bruising.

No harm done.

(True Stories:  Larach. [Ward Wood 2014]

There was a one conduit for the anger, and another in the persona of Apollo. Serial rapist and torturer of Marsyas the Satyr. It was Tony Harrison who taught me about Marsyas, via The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus which I saw at Salts Mill, performed by Northern Broadsides, 30 years ago. The anger at the silencing/muting of the working class that Harrison channels in The school of Eloquence erupts in this play that spins around the death of the satyr who has the temerity to surpass Apollo in a contest of musicianship. Some of the rage I felt at Cameron’s contempt for Jeremy Corbyn (wear a suit/stand up staright/sing the National Anthem) was given a shape, I realise, by what Harrison taught me.

Autodidact Marsyas, face to face                                                 

with god. Between us, flensers,                                                           

their knives along his wincing flesh.

Abject, in a loose wet skirt of his own skin: 

this satyr’s all that my sealed eyes can see.                                                         

A scream that occupies all silences                                                                                

all I can hear

(Apollo wishes to atone.. Outlaws and Fallen Angels. CVP [2016])


He keeps turning up, Apollo. When Kim Moore was working on  her first collection The art of falling, she got me hooked on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and thence to the story of the rape of Daphne by Apollo, appallingly and beautifully recreated in white marble by Bernini.

He doesn’t get it, this golden god

this spoiled pretty boy, 

why his skin grows crusted, 

why his supple fingers crack like kindling

why his large joints are querns

why clay and stones impede him

why his blood pulses slow and green.

(Metamorphosis: Outlaws and Fallen Angels. CVP [2016])

I must be full of unconsummated anger. Or maybe I’ve finally exorcised it with this last poem, started in a Poetry Business Saturday workshop, with Rilke’s poem Archaic torso of Apollo as a starter. What I never saw coming was that it would be taken over by a phrase from a left wing blogger I follow on Facebook.

I see you, Apollo

“there is no place/ that does not see you. You must change your life. “  


Sans head, no fingers,hands or arms.

No mouth. No lips. Someone found you beautiful.


You’re an accident of time,

the great convulsions of the earth,


the depredations of  philistines or vandals,

the boys from the steppe, stinking of horse


and sweat, and blood that may be their own,

who cannot feel a wound, pumped up


with fear, testosterone, adrenalin,

flames, and screams of the nearly-dead.


I see you, Apollo, toying with a lyre,

testing the give of a string, and Marsyas


slowly dying nerve by nerve, slippery

with blood; his wet skin, his appalled gaze.


I see you exquisite in marble, oblivious to everything;

hot and reeking of musk, you’re blind 


to tender leaves springing 

from the fingers of a frantic girl.


I see you, Apollo, on a green hill. A gaping mask

the winds blow through. You have no body at all.


Like all the gods, you thought you’d fixed the game,

in the flatteries of myth, in bronze and marble.


You never saw us coming; libraries burning,

the statues overturned and smashed,


your lyre strings turned to garottes. 

Do you see us Apollo, 

the satyr’s children’s children? We see you.


[from Pressed for Time. Calder Valley Poetry 2022]


I think I may just have got Apollo out of my system. And here’s a thing. For the first time in days I don’t feel full of anger. Writing will do that sometimes. The tongueless man gets his land took.

Thanks for indulging me. Next week I’ll celebrate a collaborative collection that I really like and makes the worls a better place.