Child’s play: send us your pictures

Whether you’re looking for something for your locked-down children to get stuck into, or you fancy it yourself, here’s a collection of stories by my friend and poetry collaborator, Andy Blackford. It’s more than unlikely that this could end up as an actual book. We think it will stay as a webpage story. But what we’re inviting is book covers, title pages or moments from a story. Whatever catches your imagination.

You or your children, or your grandchildren, or friends’ children don’t have to be artists…just be inspired by ones like Brian Wildsmith, and all the others I talked about two posts ago. In any case, children draw and paint what they truly see when they hear or read a story.

To kick it off I asked one illustrator, Kate Rolfe, to inspire you with two of hers. You can see what she came up with:


If you want to be involved and want more detail, (especially about the resolution we need for the images) contact me at and I’ll get back to you pretty well straight away. I’ll be accepting your illustrations until the end of August, and posting them as they come in. After the deadline, Andy Blackford will choose the ones he likes best, and they’ll then form part of the story text. Basically, we’ll be choosing the best overall book cover, a title page for each story and up to three images in the body of each story.

How about it? Lostriches, Hummingbirds, Magpies, Cuckoos, Woodpeckers, Swans, Penguins. Any medium. There’s talent and imagination out there.


Rocky was a baby Woodpecker. He lived in a nest in a tree in a forest with his mum and dad and his three brothers. 

One day, a great wind shook the trees and Rocky fell out of the nest.

Before long, he was hungry. He was too little to catch flies to eat. But he could peck through milk bottle tops. Every morning, he hopped around the town, and drank the milk on people’s doorsteps.

The people didn’t like it, of course.  But they forgave him because he was only a baby. 

All that milk made Rocky grow big and strong.  And all that pecking gave him a very tough beak.

Soon, he became the loudest Woodpecker in the forest.

But he soon grew tired of pecking wood. “Wood is far too easy to peck,” he thought. “I think I’ll be a Brickpecker instead.” 

So he went to the town and pecked holes in the houses. 

The townspeople were very cross. They went to the Mayor and complained. So the Mayor had a quiet word with Rocky.

But Rocky just laughed. “ Don’t worry. Bricks are far too easy to peck.  From now on, I’m going to be a Stonepecker!”

On Sunday, the townspeople went to church. But the church was gone. Rocky had pecked it all away.

The people went to the Mayor again. “You must lock that Woodpecker up,” they cried, “or he’ll peck the whole town to bits!”

But the Mayor was a wise and kindly old man. He went to visit Rocky in his nest in a tree in the forest. “Rocky,” he said, “why don’t you peck us some nice, stone statues? They will make the Park look nice. Then perhaps the townspeople will like you again.”

Before long, the Park was full of stone animals and stone mayors and huge, stone woodpeckers.

The Mayor invited everyone to a party. When Rocky arrived, they sang “For He’s A Jolly Good Woodpecker!” 

But from the corner of his eye, Rocky could see the bridge over the river. “Hmm,” he thought. “Stone is far too easy to peck. 

“I think I’ll be a Steelpecker!”


Shirley’s very first memory was of two big white question marks, reflected in the river. They were the long, curvy swans’ necks that belonged to her Mum and Dad.

Of course, little Shirley didn’t know what a question was. But then she asked one: ‘What’s a swan, Mum?’
‘Why, you are, dear!’ her Mum said.
‘We are!’ said her two brothers and two sisters.
Shirley was looking at a family of ducks who were paddling past.

She asked her second-ever question. ‘Are they swans?’
‘Certainly not!’ said her Mum. ‘We don’t mix with their sort. They’re ducks.’
The ducks gave Shirley a cheery wave. Shirley waved back.
‘Shirley!’ snapped her Mum. ‘Just ignore them!’

And Shirley asked her third-ever question. ‘Why?’
‘Well, because…because…’
Shirley’s Dad said, ‘Because they’re small and mud-coloured, not graceful and gorgeous like us. Also, they quack.’
‘That’s right!’ said Mum. So do as we say and leave them be. All five of you.’
‘Four,’ corrected Shirley’s Dad.
Shirley’s Mum looked around and counted the cygnets. ‘One…two…three…four…five. Five!’
Shirley’s Dad frowned. ‘Hmm. I could have sworn there were only four. Oh well, dear, you know best.’


The Spring turned into Summer and the little cygnets were growing up fast – at least her sisters Lily and Iris, and her brothers Bulrush and Skunk-Cabbage were. But Shirley was falling behind. Before long, she was quite a lot smaller than the rest. 

Her Mum and Dad were worried about her, and gave her more food than the others. But it didn’t seem to make any difference – except that her brothers and sisters were cross with her because she got more to eat than they did.

Also, she was finding it harder to keep up with the rest of the family as they swam up and down the river. She would paddle away with her short legs and her little webbed feet, while her brothers and sisters seemed to glide along smoothly with hardly any effort.
‘Get a move on, Duck Face!’ shouted Bulrush. 
Shirley was hurt. ‘Why did you call me Duck Face?’ 
Bulrush replied, ‘Well now. Let me think… Could it possibly be because you’ve got a face like a duck?’

Shirley looked at her reflection in the water. Was it true? Did her mouth look rather flat and wide – perhaps a bit more like a duck’s bill than a swan’s pointy beak? 
Every day, they’d pass the duck family, who would smile at her and quack in the most friendly way. If her Mum and Dad weren’t looking, she’d give them a shy little wave in return. 

Then one day, she just couldn’t keep up. 

The swans vanished around a bend in the river and she was left far behind, exhausted and out of breath. She tried to call out but instead of a swan’s cry, all that came out was a sort of squawking noise, like something made of iron that needed oiling.

By the time she got her breath back, the Swan family were nowhere to be seen and she began to panic. The sun was going down, she was cold and she started to cry. 

But suddenly, an otter’s head popped out of the water – quickly followed by the rest of an otter. You don’t often see otters, but otters wearing spectacles are very rare indeed. ‘Hello!’ he smiled. ‘Lost?’
‘I couldn’t keep up with my family,’ she said, ‘and now they’ve left me behind.’
‘Hop on my back,’ said the otter, ‘and we’ll have you back with your folks in no time!’

As they sped through the water, the otter said, ‘I always try to help lost ducklings.’
‘Ducklings?’ squawked Shirley. ‘But I’m a swan!’
The Otter disagreed. ‘I’ve seen a lot of swans in my time, and even more ducks. I think it’s pretty safe to say that you’re a duck. 

‘You see, it’s a bit of a thing with me. Back in the Spring, I picked up a lost duckling and delivered it to a family of swans by mistake. The ducks never forgave me. That’s why I wear glasses nowadays – so I can tell the difference.’

‘No, you don’t understand! I really am a swan!’
‘Well, if so, you’re going to have a hard time of it. Your beak’s all wrong – your feathers are a funny colour – you’ve got a quacky voice and I don’t mean to be rude but you’re a midget.’
‘That is quite rude,’ Shirley said.
‘Do the other swans call you names?’
‘Sometimes,’ Shirley admitted, ‘they call me Duck Face. And Mucky. And Donald. And Daffy. And Crispy. And Quackers. And…’
‘Yes, yes, I get the picture,’ the otter interrupted. ‘And it’ll only get worse, trust me.’

Then around a bend in the river came the family of ducks that always waved at Shirley. The otter swam towards them. ‘Mother Duck!’ he called. 
‘What is it?’ she snapped. ‘You’re that otter what lost our Tracy!’
‘True,’ said the Otter, ‘and I’m very sorry. But I think I’ve found her again!’ And he pushed the little duckling towards her. 

Mother Duck stared at Shirley than suddenly threw her wings around her. ‘Derek!’ she screeched to her husband. ‘It’s our Tracy! She’s come ‘ome!’

And that’s about the end of our story. Tracy (for that was her proper name) felt much happier with her real family. 
And Mrs Swan had to admit that she might have been wrong about how many children they really had. ‘Eggs all look the same,’ she explained. ‘It’s hard to remember exactly how many there are.’

‘Yes,’ replied her husband. ‘Of course, dear.’


It was Spring and time for the big Nest Competition. The Blackbird had to visit every tree in the forest.

The birds worked hard to make sure their nests were clean and tidy.

The Robin’s nest was on the ground, round and neat and lined with soft, green moss.

The Swallow’s nest was as hard as wood, with a little hole for a doorway. The little Wren’s nest was tiny and pretty, just like the Wren.

The Greenfinch made her nest in a little house in a tree in someone’s garden.

Even the Dove tried hard to make a safe, warm home for her family.

But when the Blackbird flew to the tree where the Cuckoo lived, she couldn’t believe her eyes. What a mess!

The Cuckoo was still trying to build her nest. But she wasn’t doing very well.

First, she tried to make the nest with grass – but it just fell to bits. Then she tried sticks, but they wouldn’t stick together.

Then she tried string. Then she tried mud. She even tried cake. 

‘Rubbish!’ cried the Starling.

’That’s a good idea!’ said the Cuckoo. But it wasn’t.

She tried baking foil. And fur. She even tried toothpaste. But nothing seemed to work.

The Blackbird shook her head. ‘My dear Mrs Cuckoo, why don’t you come and stay with us instead?’ 

And so the Cuckoo laid her eggs in the Blackbirds’ beautiful nest. She had never been so happy in her life.


Childs’ play: Two more stories

In case you missed the last post: we’re looking for illustrators of any age. Whether you’re looking for something for your locked-down children to get stuck into, or you fancy it yourself, here’s a collection of stories by my friend and poetry collaborator, Andy Blackford. It’s more than unlikely that this could end up as and actual book. We think it will stay as a webpage story. But what we’re inviting is book covers, title pages or moments from a story. Whatever catches your imagination. To kick it off I asked one illustrator, Kate Rolfe, to inspire you with two of hers. If you want to be involved and want more detail, (especially about the resolution I’ll need for the images) contact me at and I’ll get back to you pretty well straight away. I’ll be accepting your illustrations until the end of August, and posting them as they come in. After the deadline, Andy Blackford will choose the ones he likes best, and they’ll then form part of the story text. Basically, we’ll be choosing the best overall book cover, a title page for each story and up to three images in the body of each story.


Magpies can’t resist shiny stuff.  Silver paper, 5p coins, the Crown Jewels. 

When Malcolm the Magpie collected heaps of silver paper and 5p coins, nobody minded much.

But then, one day, he came home with the Crown Jewels.

His wife, Maureen, said, “Those belong to the King!  When he notices they’ve gone, he’ll be cross.”

But Malcolm just winked. “He won’t know it was me!”

Next day, the King knocked on the Magpies’ tree.  “I see you’ve got the Crown Jewels up there.” 

“What?” called Malcolm. “These old things?”

“Don’t worry”, replied the King.  “It’s just that whoever has the Jewels is the King.  So, er, well done!” 

“Me?  KING?” squawked Malcolm. “Brilliant!” 

The ex-King flew off to Barbados. “This is more like it!” he said, as he lay on the beach in the sun. 

Back home, King Malcolm made lots of new rules.

Everyone had to live in trees…

….and sleep in nests…

…and eat worms. 

 By and large, the People didn’t like it. 

So one morning, when Malcolm was still asleep, Maureen wrapped up the Crown Jewels in a handkerchief. Then she set off for Barbados.

The ex-King was fed up, too.  Nobody called him Sir anymore. 

Also, it was very hot. He tried to buy an ice cream. But he forgot that Malcolm had all his jewels, and he couldn’t pay. The man made him give the ice cream back. 

Maureen flew across the sea for three days and three nights. The jewels were very heavy. ‘I wish the King collected something a bit lighter,’ she thought. ‘Like stamps. Or feathers.’

At last she saw an island ahead. It was Barbados.

The King was sitting on the beach. He was hot and grumpy. But when his jewels landed plonk! on his beach towel, he was happy again. “Holidays are no fun,” he said, “if they never end.”

Next day, the King knocked at the Magpies’ tree. “I’ve got my jewels back!” he called.  “So you’re just an ordinary magpie again.  Sorry!”

The People cheered. “We’re not sorry! God Save The King!”

“I’m not sorry, either,” Malcolm whispered to Maureen.

“Nor me,” said Maureen.  “I think we’ll stick to silver paper in future.”


When Royston the penguin burst out of his egg in Antarctica, there was only one thing on his mind.

He lay on his back in the snow and stared at the gulls, wheeling and soaring high above.‘I was born to fly!’ he told his mum and dad.

‘Don’t be silly,’ said his dad. ‘Penguins forgot how to fly thousands of years ago. Stop wasting your time staring at the sky!’

So Royston went to see the albatross. ‘Show me how to fly!’ he said.The albatross frowned. ‘Your wings are a bit short,’ he replied. ‘Are you sure this is a good idea?’

‘I’m sure,’ Royston insisted. ‘Ok, watch me!’ said the albatross. And he ran across the ice, faster and faster, beating his wings. Then he rose slowly into the air.

 ‘Brilliant!’ squawked Royston. But when he tried it, he just ran and ran ‘til his legs got tired and then he fell over.

For days, he tried to fly. He even collected feathers and stuck them to his wings to make them longer. But nothing worked. 

In the end he sat down and cried. The albatross felt sorry for him. ‘Why don’t you hop on my back and I’ll take you for a ride.’P 

The albatross dived and climbed and swooped and wheeled and soared. Royston was so scared, he just closed his eyes and hung on. ‘This is horrible!’ he whispered to himself.  ‘I’ll never try to fly again!’

Then the albatross turned quickly and Royston slipped off his back. He tumbled head over heels through the air. ‘Oh no!’ cried his mother, far, far below.

Then he splashed into the sea and sank down, deeper and deeper. ‘I’m going to drown!’ he thought. But then he flapped his little wings and suddenly he was shooting up again.

He dived and climbed and swooped and wheeled and soared.‘I’m flying UNDERWATER!’ he cried. (But only bubbles came out).

When he bobbed up on the surface again, the albatross smiled. ‘Even I couldn’t do that!’ he said. All the penguins were cheering. ‘Well done, son!’ cried his dad.

(Stories Copyright Andy Blackford 2020)

Two more tomorrow. Tell your chums.

Child’s play

Child’s play. A challenge for artists of all ages

I have friends in the world of poetry who will tell me that they ‘don’t like poems about pictures’. Sometimes I’m not sure what they mean. Does that include Auden’s Musée des beaux arts or UA Fanthorpe’s Woman ironing ? Probably not. In another life I sometimes dream I could have been a painter rather than a writer of poems. I love visual imagery, and all its complex apparent immediacy.

Which is why I’m going to take a bit of time out from writing about poetry, why I’ll share my abiding enthusiasm for picture story books, and then invite you to contribute to one.

For about ten years of my 40 in the teaching business, I was in teacher training, teaching would-be primary teachers how to teach literacy. Which self-evidently includes helping young children to see how books ‘work’. The bit I always liked best was the business of exploring how we can learn to read the subtexts of pictures, of illustrations, and the ways in which the very best don’t literally mimic the text (which is invariably the case in Enid Blyton books, and, indeed, in so many reading scheme books) but enhance it, comment on it, respond to it, and sometimes tell a slightly different story from the words.

Here’s what I mean. One of my absolute favourites of the last 30 years is I’ll take you Mrs Cole. It’s the story of a parental threat. Every child understands the dark and generally non-specific threat a desperate parent will make when the child is naughty. Let’s have a look at the first three images. The first two might be ignored by a reader because the first page proper is page three. (Ask yourself why an artist would go to the trouble of illustrating an end paper and a title page). Here we go

The first is the inside cover. 4.00pm. Kids coming out of school into a foggy evening. It’s cold (how do I know that?) Two of them seem to be a lot happier than the the one in the red top. Why?

The second is the title page. It’s 4.15pm. And he’s running. Why? How many stairs does he have to run up?

Finally, the third…and the first page of the story. It’s 4.30pm. We know he’s had 15 minutes to turn the living room into a fantasy. But we only see what his mum sees. She can only see a mess. She can’t see his face. But I think I can. Michael Foreman has done something remarkable with those eyeholes, simply by tilting them inwards. And here come the threat. I’ll take you to Mrs Cole. Which will escalate as the tale progresses. Wonderful.

Viewpoint’s important. At a crucial point in the story we start to see events as the child sees them…and so on.

OK. here’s another favourite. Jan Ormerod’s retelling of Chicken Licken. Anyone whose only experience of the story with their children is the dire Ladybird version will likely roll their eyes. But this is what a great illustrator can do to enrich a simple, repetitive tale.

Basically there are multiple narratives, and they each have their own subtext and backstory. 

First of all it’s the story of the performance of a primary school play .

Then there’s the traditional story which is retold in speech bubbles. The narrative’s told by a Narrator, in his top hat (my guess is that he’s the best reader and best behaved boy in Year 6) and the dialogue is performed by various characters. I like the costumes.

Then, of course, there’s the story of the audience. The parents, in silhouette. And one child.

Finally, there’s the tale of the baby in the moses basket who has just woken up and started to take an interest.

Each of these narratives is visually separated, and part of the fun is to find out how they might start to interact.

Happy so far? Here’s another one that deals in simultaneous parallel narratives. Dear Daddy by Philippe Dupasquier. 


Dad’s on a oiltanker, and once a month he sends a postcard (and, I think, a letter) to his daughter who writes back to him. Which means we get a calendar of changing seasons. Ask yourself why the artist took such pains over a bashed up car being towed away, and why it’s apparently of no interest to the child. What does dad write? What are mum and the neighbour talking about?

What about the artist and the characters in a story. Sometimes an illustrator’s imagined hero/heroine is, for me, the only imaginable one. Tenniel’s Alice, for instance. Or E H Shephard’s Mole from Wind in the Willows

Lots have tried but they always fall short of what seems like authenticity.  But for the purpose of this post, I’ll concentrate on the fact that illustrations can be expressive and apparently simple. Take the image of Mole, lost in the Wild Wood. It’s a heartbreaker. It works because he’s alone (that’s what the white space around him says) and very small. The trees are huge, and we are quite high up, looking down. Artful stuff. And it doesn’t have to be as obviously art-trained as Shepard’s. Quentin Blake does a really good job of pretending he isn’t

And also of showing transformation in time, like a medieval muralist. 

Some best-loved characters have been been made ‘simply’. David McKee’s Elmer, and the two monsters; the wonderful John Burningham’s Borka (the goose with no feathers…his take on the Ugly Duckling).

Before I get on to the real point of the post, just a word about book covers. They can kill a book stone dead, if you’re not careful. In the case of Mrs Cole, the original cover showed the hero looking dismayed at a mucky breakfast table as his mum sets off for work. A later one gave the whole game away by using a picture of a red-faced jolly Mrs Cole. Whose idea was that? Someone with no idea about how stories work, I guess.

Here are two I like a lot. I like the way Rosemary Wells suggests that Norah is the younger/youngest, her sister is ‘sensible’, her dad can only cope with one child at a time, and Norah is going to seek attention (by which we mean love) one way or another. The artist takes one moment from the story to make it stand for the story’s meaning. And will Norah find love….you need to read to find out. Harry’s Bee is also illustrated by the author. I like this one because while it’s not a scene from the story it’s clear that Harry’s Bee is out of the ordinary, that people stop in the street to point him out to each other. What’s the deal with this bee?  You need to read to find out.

And now we get to the point. I’m looking for illustrators of any age. Whether you’re looking for something for your locked-down children to get stuck into, or you fancy it yourself, here’s a collection of stories by my friend and poetry collaborator, Andy Blackford. It’s more than unlikely that this could end up as and actual book. We think it will stay as a webpage story. But what we’re inviting is book covers, title pages or moments from a story. Whatever catches your imagination. To kick it off I asked one illustrator, Kate Rolfe, to inspire you with two of hers. If you want to be involved and want more detail, (especially about the resolution I’ll need for the images) contact me at and I’ll get back to you pretty well straight away. I’ll be accepting your illustrations until the end of August, and posting them as they come in. After the deadline, Andy Blackford will choose the ones he likes best, and they’ll then form part of the story text. Basically, we’ll be choosing the best overall book cover, a title page for each story and up to three images in the body of each story. So here we go with the first two stories, and I’ll post the rest two at a time so the post doesn’t get ridiculously unwieldy

Absurd Birds. 

by Andy Blackford, with illustrations by Kate Rolfe

(and others to be decided)


  • The Lostrich
  • The Humming Bird
  • The Magpie King
  • Royston wins his Wings
  • Rocky the Woodpecker
  • Shirley the Swan
  • The Best Nest Contest


Once upon a time, the Ostrich could fly.

But only just. 

One day, he took off from his home in Africa.

There was a great storm.  It blew the stars away and the moon got stuck in a tree.

The Ostrich was blown across the sea and half way around the world.

When the sun came up, the Ostrich was a Lostrich.  He had no idea where he was. He only knew it wasn’t home. The City was big and cold and dirty. There were no trees and no birds. 

He was chased by a huge yellow monster with sharp black teeth teeth. 

He was so scared, he busied his head in the sand.  It popped up in the middle of a desert. It was nicer than the big city. There were a few trees and a big animal with humps on its back. But it wasn’t home. 

So he pulled his head out of the sand and flew away. Soon he had left the City far behind him. Down below, he saw a huge green lawn with sand pits on it. He said to himself,  ‘This is more like it!’ 

So he landed on the lawn. He was just about to eat the lush, green grass when something small and hard and white nearly hit him on the head.  He was so scared, he buried his head in the sand. It popped up in the middle of a jungle. It was better than the desert. There were lots of trees and animals and birds. But it still wasn’t home.

So he pulled his head out of the sand and flew away as fast as he could. Down below, he could see the seaside. He landed on the beach. The children shouted at him and chased him. 

He was so scared, he buried his head in the sand. This time, it popped up in his favourite place in the whole world… home! 

With a loud squawk of joy, he wriggled through the hole in the sand. All his friends made a big fuss of him.

He said to himself, 

‘I’m not a Lostrich anymore! I’m an Ostrich, and that’s the way I’m going to stay. 

‘I shall never fly again.’

And he didn’t.


The people on The Island were choosing a bird to put on their stamps.

All the birds gathered in the jungle. They argued about who was the most beautiful. 

 One tiny bird sat on a branch and didn’t say anything.

‘They certainly won’t choose you!’ the rest of them told her. ‘You’re far too small. You’re not even a proper bird. You’re just a bug!’

And they all pointed at her and laughed until she flew away.

At first, the little bird was upset. But then she thought, ‘Right! If they think I’m a bug, then a bug is just what I’ll be!’

First she went to see the butterfly. ‘Please can you make me bright and beautiful like you?’ 

The butterfly painted her until she shone like a rainbow.

Next she went to see the spider. ‘Please can you show me how to make a nest like yours?’

And the spider showed her how to use spiders’ webs and moss to make a perfect little home.

Then she went to visit the bumble bee. ‘I’m fed up with eating worms,’ she said. ‘Please can you teach me how to drink from the flowers?’

And the bee showed her how to suck nectar from the flowers.

While she hovered by the flowers, her tiny wings made a humming noise, just like an insect. ‘From now on,’ she said, ‘this sound will be my song!’

The day came when the people had to make up their mind which bird to put on their stamps.

The birds all lined up while the people looked at each one in turn.There were tall birds, short birds, fat and thin birds, brown birds, yellow birds – even pink bird.    

Right at the end of the line hovered the smallest bird of all.

Straight away, the people fell in love with her. ‘She’s so pretty!’ they cried. ‘And just listen! She’s a humming bird!’

And from that day on, the humming bird’s picture has appeared on all the island’s stamps. 

[Copyright. Andy Blackford 2020]


Andy Blackford. has been a rock guitarist, a professional skateboarder, an extreme marathon runner, a biographer, and a diving instructor. He was a partner in a major advertising agency (creating the UmBongo advert, amongst other things. They drink it in the Congo) and has written at least twenty books for children, including titles in the Oxford reading Tree scheme. He co-authored a poetry collection with me. Gap Year [SPM Publications 2017] as the result of a yearlong collaboration after we met up again after a break of about 40 years.

Kate Rolfe Kate Rolfe is an illustrator based in Suffolk, UK. She is currently studying an MA in Children’s Book Illustration at Cambridge School of Art, and has previously worked in graphics and textile design. You can find many of her latest creations at Kate has a lifelong love for storytelling in all its forms, and is particularly passionate about picture books! See more of Kate’s work at, and follow her at

The books: Publishing details. Some are a bit problematic, since they’ve been published by different houses over the years. Some are out of print, though available from Abe Books. And so on.

I’ll take you to Mrs Cole: Nigel Gray and Michael Foreman

(Picturemac. First publ. 1985)

Borka. : John Burningham. (Jonathan Cape. 1963)

Noisy Nora: Rosemary Wells v (Puffin . 2000)

Dear Daddy: Philippe Dupasquier (Anderson Press 2002)

The true story of Chicken Licken: Jan Ormerod

(Scholastic 1986)

Elmer the patchwork elephant : David McKee

(Anderson Press 1989)

Two monsters : David McKee (Anderson Press 2009)

The Twits: Roald Dahl (Jonathan Cape. 1980)

ps. During August I’ll also be writing about poetry, and poets, including Ian Parks, Jane Burn, Martin Zarrop, Steve Ely and Jenny Hockey.

Our David’s Birthday

Twenty eight years ago the whole family sat round a huge round table at a Chinese restaurant in Leeds, celebrating our David’s 21st birthday. A few weeks later he took his own life. None of us had the first idea how troubled he was.

I’ve chosen this photo, because here he is maybe two months after we adopted him. His brother and sister were entranced by him. We all were.

The thing is, you live imagining you have all the time in the world, until you don’t, and then it’s too late. Years after he died I wrote a poem for him; I thought about how my own Dad never told me any stories about his life, about his childhood, about who he was before he married, before I was born, and about how I never really knew him.

I wanted to tell our David the stories I failed to tell him, because, after all, I thought we had all the time in the world, or we didn’t have the time for it. And then it was too late. So here it is, a belated present for his 48th birthday.


I made this box,

ran lead, quick, in the veins of driftwood roots,

the silver grain of bleached board and the wind-eyes

of burnished beachstones – rose quartz, granite, flint, 

bound them with silver wire to honey oak, red pine,

and clenched them tight with sea-rust iron nails.


I made this box for you


I filled it with fragments, beachcombed 

sea glass, wisps of snagged wool.

I wanted you to know

the random loveliness of being alive,

to know it in your bones and blood.


I put in :


snow, to remember draughts

and rooms with cold corners;


a black handled knife, sharp as silk,

in a grey-vaulted market, the scent 

of cut flowers to show that fathers 

give like the gods; a bicycle stammering

through stems of barley, willowherb,

to understand that gravity may be defied;


the humped glass of a brown river,

black branches snagged on the weir’s rim;


these bundled letters in different hands 

and inks to show how words fall short of love.


I put in riddles:


silhouettes of mountains, oiled gun barrels,

a sheriff’s badge, a dust-blown street,

a child running in a drift of grasses,

a scrubbed deal table in a pitman’s house.


I wondered if you’d find the answers

or if I might understand the questions.


I did not want to put inside my box

your cold clay mouth

this pale oak chamfered cube

and my two hands holding it, all

I wanted was you holding my box

in a high place

where you could only fly, not fall

For my Dad on Fathers’ Day

I think this may be the only photo I have of my dad as the centre of attention, proposing a toast at the wedding of his brother Alec.

Like everyone else’s dad, especially men of his generation, he could have been so many things. He could have gone to Grammar School, but my gran couldn’t afford the uniform. He won a scholarship to go to art school, but it ran out after a year, and he had to leave. He was a rambler, a birdwatcher, a singer in the chapel choir. And for fifty years he was a woollen spinner.

In his heart, I think, he never accepted it; he bore it. He just got on. It never struck me at the time, but it does now, that he had no ‘best mates’. He was sociable, he was good company, but never had any close friends. It bothers me, quite unreasonably. It never seemed to bother him.

I’ve found myself writing about, and for, him more and more recently. For this Father’s Day, I thought I’d share the first poem I ever wrote for him, and the most recent.


His hands cross-hatched as a chopping board

from breaking yarn- a million creels.

I think he dreamed moors and opera, in the mill;

his nails were horny, blue with old dark blood,

caught by flying shuttles in the humming  sleet

of shivering threads. Miming in the din,

the racket of machinery, the deafening beat

of spinning-mules, close air thick with lanolin.

Chapel  choir –  his tenor voice came reedy-light.

Round and ringing if he thought he was alone

with Jussi Bjorling on the gramophone,

the gathering wave of ‘None shall sleep’;

a duet to bring a dreamed La Scala to its feet,

his voice like a moorland wind, and rich as night.


The latest one was harder to write. My dad’s father, grandfather John, by all accounts, was not an affectionate man. My dad was, but he found it hard to show it, spontaneously. He wasn’t cold, or distant. But something in him was withheld. This is just to say, ‘I love you, Dad’.

What remains


How do you know that this is love? Is it

the moment that draws you in, the saving stitch?

One moment out of all the moments,

out of all the wrong notes, the missteps.


Because I thought he didn’t know the way of love,

didn’t know the tune, the words, 

they were what other people spoke,

they were borrowings, and he wasn’t one

to accept with grace, always on guard. But


he’d go out, not saying where, come back

and give his grandchildren each a Marathon.

He wasn’t a man to pick up a child

so a child could slip into his shape

as cats do. A silent gift of chocolate bars

was him articulating love.


What they remember of him, my children,

what they tell of him, is Marathons.

Remember when our granddad gave us Marathons?

What remains of us might just be love

but the story’s always Marathons.


A grating roar

“Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.”

From : Dover Beach. Matthew Arnold


I seem to have come to a point where I cannot watch any television news programmes, I switch off most radio news programmes, and fear for my spiritual well-being every time I visit Facebook. I am angry to the point when I am lashing out at friends who I cannot see or meet. As a ‘shielded’ person during the English catastrophe of a ‘lockdown’, I have only left our house twice in just short of three months. There is no action I can take against the people responsible, or to help those who they harm. Rage against the machine.

More reason, then, to remember as I try to do every year, one of those who would not be content with shouting into the void.

When people murmur in a mildly moralising way about peaceful protest, maybe they should stop and think about Emily Wilding Davison.

A militant suffragette, she was repeatedly arrested and imprisoned for breaking windows, setting fire to mail boxes, and on one occasion for attempting to horsewhip a clergyman who she mistook for Lloyd George.

She undertook repeated hunger strikes in prison, was forcibly fed 49 times, and attempted to kill herself in Holloway by leaping off a landing. She said after that she thought that her death might cause people to pay attention to the cause of women’s suffrage. On June 4 2013, Emily Wilding Davison travelled to Epsom, went to the racecourse on Derby Day, waited behind the railings at the bend to the final straight, and as the horses came round the bend, ducked under the rail, and walked in front of the king’s horse. On and off for 30 years I tried to find a way to write about it.

I think about images that have, one way or another, changed how we see the world, and maybe changed the world itself. The terrified villagers of My Lai in Vietnam, and the small girl stripped naked by napalm, her mouth a silent scream; a Buddhist monk in flames; a student holding up his arm against a tank. A white policeman kneeling on the neck of a black man until he dies.

I was staggered when I learned that the death of Emily Davison was filmed live by a Pathe news camera, and duly appeared in British cinemas. I had thought the stills I had seen were remarkably in-focus single camera shots. I could not understand their clarity. How could you do that with a plate camera? I wondered.

Camera obscura               

(Emily Wilding Davison. June 1913)

The reason for your being here

is out of sight. They can’t be seen –

your Cause’s colours sewn inside

your decent coat: white, violet, green.


The cameras sees the moment 

you began to die:

the jockey,  trim in silks, is doll-like

on the grass and seems asleep;

his mount is spraddled on its back;

its useless hooves flail at the sky.


Your spinning, flower-trimmed hat 

is stopped, distinct, mid-flight;

your hair’s still not come down;

you’re frozen, inches from the ground;

your boots are neatly buttoned,

take small steps on the  arrested air.


You’re stopped in time. No sound,

no texture, no sour odour

of bruised grass and earth. Just

silence and the alchemy of light.


How did you comprehend

the shock of heat, huge muscle, hair,

in that white moment

when the dark came down?


The camera cannot tell;.

it’s business neither truth nor lies.

It shows a fallen horse. A woman falling. A crowd

in hats and blazers staring down a long perspective;

the field intent upon the distant fairy icing 

grandstand. The waving flags. The finish line.


Until the image blurs, dissolves in silver flowers,

it’s there on celluloid in shades of grey;

the camera only says that in that instant     

you are dying, and everyone has looked away.


[Camera Obscura. first publ. in Larach . WardWoodPublishing 2014, and subsequently in The Forward Book of Poetry 2015]


Day after day we are bombarded by images that tell us about the ugliness that the world is capable of, and the arrogant ignorance of those who perpetrate it. We are all getting too good at looking away.

When this is all over: Day 15. Omega Day!!!!

To be honest, I’ve not been looking forward to today. Last post (in the series). But I promise you, it’s a good one. Like all the others. Thank you all for following.

X-rays are my life   (David White)

(the Radiologist)


When this is all over I shall shed tears of blackened silver


But then it’s not silver anymore 

So maybe I shall shed pixels


But it’s all pictures 

with beauty and sadness

Surprises and sameness 

A tree in bud 

A fissure found 

A neoplasm blossoming unexpected 

Like Breughel 

After plague  

No vague hope of vaccines just prayer 

His Triumph of death


And hope was less that tides could be turned and breath could be saved 


But also that crowns came with thorns

And redemption 


But Now


 Fluffy shadows on a screen

The puff and wheeze of air and spit and sweat and shit 

And tears over phones 

No hands to be held

Without plastic and masks


How will I leave those shadows behind?


A Xylophonist reflects (Rachel Davies)

When this is all over

and the C# Minor strains of the requiem’s

final movement dissolve and fade, 

when the world is open for business again 

and I’m free to go anywhere I choose 


I’ll choose to sit on the banks of the Congo

in the shade of a great mninga tree

eat nyembwe with saka saka

and let my instrument speak

to its ancestors, rediscover the peace 

of connection, hear the music of a warm 

breath of wind over its wingfruit, 

its coral wood. When this is all over, 


I want to discover a new normal 

away from the accelerando and allegro 

away from the march and symphony,

in the quiet hymnal of the forest, 

find the largo I fear I’ve lost.



Zaminder (Ruth Valentine)


When all this is over, said the zamindar,

the tenants will queue at my door to press their taxes

into my sapphire-ringed hands, along with gifts,

water-buffalo, rice, and from time to time

their most beautiful daughters.

I will of course decline


at first.  My ten per cent

will go towards building a bigger palace

with daring frescoes copied from Isfahan

in the private rooms, and peacocks in the gardens.

The Resident

will get off his high horse and bow to me.

I’ll requisition the horse.  I’ll organise

polo on the maidan, and champagne cocktails

afterwards on the verandah.  There’ll be none of this

insolence or elections or journalism.


Zamindar: in the Indian sub-continent, a landowner who collected taxes on behalf of the Mughal and later British ruler


The Zinc Plater (Wendy Pratt)

When this is all over

I will never clean again. 


Dust will gather on the surfaces

in balls and motes the size of mice.

I’ll run my fingers through it; 

let the breeze release it like pollen.


I will pickle only food: rough-skinned gherkins,

slick aubergines, the hard whites of onions.


There will be no baths, no bathing. 

I will wash at the Belfast sink with water 

from my own well, water I heaved 

from the dank earth, water that stinks 

of moss and peat. I will swim 

in silt-clouded rivers and nothing 

will be rinsed away. 


I will live by the light of gas lamps

or candles; the honeyed scent

of bee’s wax. There will be 

no electricity, for me. 


My skin will be tanned mahogany

by red flakes falling from my corrugated roof, 

my boots will crust with it, my white linen

will blush with it.


When this is all over, nothing 

will be smoothed to a mirror-shine

and no surface will be untrue to itself. 


Zookeeper (Maggie Reed)

after Eilean Ni Chuilleanain


When this is all over, said the zookeeper,

I’ll move to the North, where 

property is cheaper and they have hedges,

drystone walls – fewer fences or railings.


I’ll roam the Cumbrian fells, watch ravens

soar through the blue, pick heather,

stomp through the bog grasses, laugh

like a hyena at the full moon.


Listen, I can do this, learn how to let go,

run with the ants and spiders,

bounce with the bees.

I’ll follow my nose to the dark


corners (under stones, behind bark)

I’ll root out the undiscovered,

the unloved, place them in my heart,

beside the tiger, elephant, chimpanzee.


And here we are, at the very end . Whatever will I do with my time? Hang on…there’s the selection, then the announcements, the joy and the despair, the re-editing. Not the very end at all.

And in any case, I almost forgot that we started with a Prologue poem by Ian Parks, and we’ll end this leg of the journey with a stunning Epilogue ,a reflection on the ultimate when this is all over, from the endlessly prolific and multi-talented Jane Burn..


On the idea of leaving a part of myself wherever my ancestors lie

A piece of me left to the absent coal
and the village that failed above its death –
to Ireland, ringed by the sea’s aureole 
ever binding the secret of my kith.
A piece of me left to the scrapman’s cart
like a glint of tin in the gathered trash.
To Scotland and its beating selkie heart,
I will gift my changeling pelt of fired ash.
It will end with me, this birthright of scars.
The sky will carry my epitaph. Jane,
you did not rise up. You were not the stars.
here you were made and here you will remain.
Wherever my kin are cloistered beneath
I will lay my ghost like a coffin’s wreath. 


Falling leaves return to their roots : Chinese Proverb

When this is over : (Andy Blackford)

Nothing is ever over.


Events roll out of the night of the past

collide like snooker balls or Black Holes;

rebound and ricochet; altered, rumble on

to make their next encounter.


They leave us older, occasionally wiser.

But wisdom peels like wallpaper, otherwise

we’d all be hovering about as Archangels.


What we seem to learn least well is how we never learn.

For all the tears and fears, we opt to stay perpetual pupils,

truants on Double History day, wide-eyed and barefoot 

because sometimes, suffering and joy are inextricable 

and dangerous innocence is the price we pay for ecstasy. 


Last night, the Hubble Telescope was 30.

An aged astronaut talked us through a photograph

of Deep Time; a proto-galaxy hanging in the dark

a foetus in the womb of space, about to roll

out of the night of the past.


Nothing is ever


When this is all over: Day 14…V is for Valetudinarian

With apologies to all the poets who were given a letter from the end of the alphabet to tinker with. It’s been a bit like reading round the class at school. Or, as it was in the unreformed 1950s when we all sat in alphabetical order.

By the time it’s your turn you’ve forgotten why you were in the queue .



When all this is over, said the weaver,

I’ll weave you an Indian summer.

Jacquard curtains of forget-me-not blue,

green damask tablecloths spread with flowers.

I’ll plant rows of mulberry trees and breed

silk worms, weave satin and lace bridal gowns


instead of silk shrouds. When I’m free to see

the ancient barrows on the furrowed brow

I’ll listen for the song of Nightingales

in empty skies of bleached white cotton sheets.


Seeking the silenced voice as I unpick

lines from lips to find love among the ruins,

touch hidden words woven in tapestries

where wefts of truth cover a warp of lies.


When this is over


Nothing is ever over.


Events roll out of the night of the past

collide like snooker balls or Black Holes;

rebound and ricochet; altered, rumble on

to make their next encounter.


They leave us older, occasionally wiser.

But wisdom peels like wallpaper, otherwise

we’d all be hovering about as Archangels.


What we seem to learn least well is how we never learn.

For all the tears and fears, we opt to stay perpetual pupils,

truants on Double History day, wide-eyed and barefoot 

because sometimes, suffering and joy are inextricable 

and dangerous innocence is the price we pay for ecstasy. 


Last night, the Hubble Telescope was 30.

An aged astronaut talked us through a photograph

of Deep Time; a proto-galaxy hanging in the dark

a foetus in the womb of space, about to roll

out of the night of the past.


Nothing is ever





When this is all over, said the widow,

I won’t sit with mandarins in my son’s fruit bowl

and chat while he counts potatoes. 

I won’t Zoom away from his kitchen

because my dandelion soup

starts pinging.


Nor will I tramp patterns into unmown grass

or bang drain-holes into a seized-up wheelbarrow.

I won’t clear the shed of broken umbrellas 

so I can train peas and beans 

up their spokes.


When this is all over, said the widow, I’ll sit down 

and scroll through Netflix. Read books about

derring-do on mountains. Tune in 

to Private Passions. 


I’ll live 

a vicarious life 



Just one more day of X,Y and Z, and then they’re all off for judging.

When this is all over: Day 13

There’s light and shade in this collection. For some reason, U and V and W have brought some darkness along. But there’s hope by the end. And speaking of the end, no more poems until next Monday. Next week will see the final two posts in the sequence. What I’ll do with my life after that heaven only knows.


Undertaker (Tim Fellows)


There was only the faintest sound
of sobbing. It was cold that day,
as when Towton saw so many dead.
Soon, he hoped, when this is done,
things will return to as they were.
When he could deal with tumours, hearts
that stopped in shock. The mangled flesh
and bone, the aged
and those who chose to die.


They sat in separate pews, the broken
widow and the stoic son. No comfort,
no loving touch. An impotent priest.


This plague had come to his house,
the cross was on his door. 


The Veenboer: (Jack Faricy)

i.m. Andrew Weatherall

When this is over you’ll find me at the peat bog

with my cutter and spade and a gallon of beer.

I’ll have made short work of flaying the turf 

and raising a stack of slabs to be gathered.

You’ll want to hang back for the good stuff,

which means digging deeper into the moor

than has been dug before, but on my word,

though my back be breaking, I’ll not slacken

till I’ve extracted the richest, darkest nugget

you can imagine, and when it’s dried enough

I’ll tease out the fibres, pack them in my pipe,

pour us each a draught of sun-warmed beer

and you and I will partake of the mòine dhubh.


mòine dhubh – heavier and darker peats which lie deeper into the moor


Vulnerable Person (Lesley Merrin)

When all this is over I won’t be a vulnerable person

but, I’ll no longer sit in my she shed watching the robins feed

and begin to build their nest

or see the flash of the blue tit

flying into the hedges making way for the robin on the bird table.


When all this is over I won’t sit in my she shed in the evening

with a chilled glass of rose listening to the radio 

spilling jazz or classical music

feeling tranquil and serene, with the fairy lights

flickering on the lawn

making weird patterns with the shadows they create.


When this is all over, I won’t sit in my shed

and imagine I’ve been summoned 

by Gertrude to one of her soirees

along with Hemingway and Ezra To the Salon of Des Arts, 

and dream about the conversations we would have.


When all this is over I won’t get video calls 

from my grandchildren using silly apps to make me laugh

Or daily limericks which shows someone cares


When this is all over I might feel more vulnerable  


than I did before this lockdown.


Watchman (Laura Potts)

After Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin


When all this is over, thought the watchman,

I shall take to my garden, where 

the light will be long as tomorrow


and the larks will not depart from me. 

I shall lay on my lawn, lord of the morning,

and shed my black self, my shadow.


My watchlights will fill with the glisten of wings, 

the tinkle of wrens on the terrace. 

My whiskers will lift on the lip of the wind


and I’ll swing to the stars from the trellis.

When all this is done, thought the watchman,

and I stand at the gate of the day, 


my garden will never know absence. 

The swallows and sparrows will stay. 



May your gardens never know absence. Have a lovely weekend. Stay safe, be well, go well xx

When this is all over: Day 12. Crossing the T’s.

Stallholder ( Gráinne Tobin )


When all this is over, the stallholder whispered, 

I might unpack the van one final time,

unload crates of boxer shorts and socks, 

thermals, big girl pants and lacy scanties

at the door of the helping-house for refugees,

and put my arms around whoever answers.


Then I’ll head out by buses, trains and ferries

to sniff my children and my grandchildren,

nuzzling my face into their luscious skin,

and I’ll tell my granny’s story from the time 

she ran the stall all through another curfew,

while the Black and Tans were burning half the town, 

and on a summer night was out too late,

drinking tea in a friend’s house, playing pontoon,

when my father kicked up a clamour to be born:

and she walked the fearful streets in gathering pain,

in need of refuge, and found her own way home. 


Triangulation : the Surveyor. (Lou Crosby)


When all this is over, said the surveyor,

You will find every bench mark has shifted.

Nowhere will be quite the same. 

Satnavs will struggle, even with favourite routes.


But I will look at my theodolite in the corner;

My steel toed boots by the door 

And I will know that before all this

There was never a closing error.


But I have hung up my high vis jacket.

I am planning some two destination breaks;

Maybe from here to Cairo, then on to Bermuda

or the Flatiron, to the Louvre then home.


You trust your 5G and global position systems.

Trust, that they are smarter than my eye.

But remember the world was discovered

without satellites; with only the stars in the sky.

(After The Swineherd, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin)


The Tailor’s Way (Lydia Streit Machell)


When this is over,

he’ll expect

to be let out, let off,

to strut his stuff

on summer lawns,

a peacock patterned

tale of no’s and ayes

stretched seamlessly

to cover all his lies.

No overlocker leaves

an inch  of self edge 

if it can be stitched.


For two pins

I’d show him how

the bias hangs.

(It’s all the rage.)

There’s more

than one way this

will button up.

I’ll fill my spool, 

dust off my chalk,

attach my needle,

keep my knife

sharp and to hand.


Taxidermist. (Bob Beagrie)

I’ll do this until I die or reach a point where I can’t;

due to the dulling of sight or onset of the shakes,

and wouldn’t it be wonderful if someone performed

these intricate rites on my own relinquished remains,

perhaps using these very tools: my scalpels, shears,

Glover’s needles, my scissors, these fleshing knives,

and mounted me in this same pose, intent, ever so

hunched, caught in the act of the art of re-animation;

a scene faithfully choreographed, titled with a plaque 

that reads in calligraphic script, delicate as a sable tip,

Necrotic Groom, Gardener of Death, Coiffeur of Fatalities, 

preserved in formaldehyde, oils, pastes, adhesives.

I’ll need no casket nor gravestone to mark my passing,

folk will gaze upon my fate with their own glassy eyes.


Tommy in 1934 (Maggie Mackay)


When all this is over, said the telegram boy,

I want to wheel my red bicycle 

right up to front doors, hear the spokes whirr.

I want to wink as I pull the telegram 

from the pouch across my hip.


I want no special mark of bad news,

the signal not to wait. A smile instead,

at the sight of my navy-blue uniform

at the dry wit we exchange.


I want to chat with mates, the boys-only

about life after this Great Depression,

then go home to greet my collie, 

herding me like a dervish, 

as I spin into Greengairs Avenue.


When this is all over, I intend to learn,

return to what was denied me,

the turn of book pages, the scent of words.

I intend to illuminate the half-light

and become a white collared chap.