Where all the ladders start [1]

junk shop 1

I’ve just been trawling Google for ‘rag and bone shops’. Fascinatingly, nearly everything that shows up seems to be about faux-antique shops in pleasant places. Post-modern yuppie emporia for Grand Designs and interior decorator addicts. Almost certainly expensive and probably pretentious. Not what I was looking for, by a long chalk.

And why? Partly it was the realisation that the first bits of poetry that hit me in the solar plexus rather than in the intellect were Yeats’.

This is no country for old men.

An old man’s eagle mind. 

And this

“Players and painted stage took all my love
And not those things that they were emblems of.
Those masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind but out of what began?
A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder’s gone
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.”
The circus animals’ desertion caught me off guard, and bypassed the usual Prac. Crit. sieve that A levels and University equipped me with. I didn’t ‘understand’ it in any analytic way. It felt true and important. It still does. I hear Yeats asking ‘who was I kidding?’, telling himself he’s lost his way, needs to get back to basics. And the reality of the ‘basics’ felt shocking to me, then. I supposed then that he meant to embrace ‘realism’…which was fashionable enough in the 60s if you meant ‘kitchen sink’. Whatever that was. I knew about rag and bone men; they were familiar enough down our street in the 1940’s and 50’s. As was their cry. Ra’bones!.any kind of old rags! God knows how worn out things had to be before you’d think of throwing them away, but somehow, someone could make a living out of them. And after all, I lived in the Heavy Woollen District where things like blankets and overcoat material were spun and woven from recycled rags…which was called ‘shoddy’. My dad spun yarn from shoddy for 50 years.
junk shop 3
I didn’t consciously think through whatever layers of meaning were implied by that ‘foul rag and bone shop’. I had a diffuse sense that he meant that truth didn’t reside in the myths of Oisin, or Cuchalain, that he’d been distracting himself from the real stuff, whatever that was. I didn’t stop to think that this stuff was worn out from life and use and carried its musty histories in its warp and weft. It’s a lot later that I came to see how the foul rag and bone shop of unconsidered memory is where poems that are (or seem to be) the real deal can come from.
I’ve been reading Julie Mellor’s poetry blog recently…she’s been reflecting on the processes of breaking out of a default way of drafting and composing by using randomising devices like cut-ups…just to see what happens. Other writers’ ways of working fascinate me. It reminds me of the pleasure to be had from watching actors, or listening to musicians in rehearsal (as opposed to in concert or performance). You can follow what she’s been doing via this link. Well worth it.
At which point I thought I might revisit poems that had seemed to come unbidden,  yet seemed to be important, and to think about what was involved. At the risk of the whole business seeming a self-advertising ego trip, I thought that I’d like to have a look at poems I’ve written that have got ‘out there’ and done well for themselves, and to wonder how it happened. Today I’m going back to a poem called ‘Julie
 Scan 1.jpg
It starts in a Jane Draycott workshop. Among the many tasks was one that I tend to distrust…where you’re given an image at random and invited to respond to it in one way or another. This one is from those nice boxes of Postcards from Penguin. 100 postcards using covers of vintage Penguin books.
And I have to say, I couldn’t see what could possibly be done with it. I feel that way when I look at it now. Somehow you need to bypass the rational/analytic bit of the brain, and especially the bit that worries about ‘writing poems’,here’s the notebook scrawl from 2013:
julie 1julie 2
One of the reasons I keep all my workshop scribbles in bound books, and why I number the pages, is that I can revisit where things start, and remind my self what kind of trigger was involved. It’s why I write down what the workshop tutor says about the task. What did Jane say? You have to learn to search for or listen for the point of arrest. That intrigues me still, as does one of her phrases about the ignition point of a poem. I’ve come to conflate this with Clive James’ the moment that draws you in. It might be a word or a phrase, or a rhythm or a sensory memory. For me it’s almost always a visual image that may initially be diffuse and unfocussed, but it’ll be one that may snag and nag.
And then she went on to say:
the point will be be …what this is not, what this might be,  where this isn’t. 
It was the last bit that stuck I think. Flames. If not here, then where? I used to live between Redcar and Saltburn, and in the night there would be the flares of the ironworks up the coast, and sometimes the stacks of Wilton ICI ‘flaring off’. That’s where these flames would be. I’d recently had a reunion with Andy Blackford who I’d not seen in over 30 years. He has a house in Staithes, where the inland skyline is dominated by Boulby potash mine. It has a tall chimney. It doesn’t flare, but somehow it got conflated with those of ICI. A rag and bone shop of half-remembered stuff.


Staithes is a fishing village; the lovely fishing boats, the cobles that are descendants of Viking boats, sit tilted on the mud of the river at low tide, and suddenly I’m making a link with Whitby, where what mattered right then was my partner’s cousin Julie, mortally ill but defying the consultants by living on beyond the allotment they’d settled on. Just like that, she becomes the centre of the poem, the landscapes initially incidental, and then starting to take on a resonance that’s not just geographical. None of this has been intentional. I didn’t set out to write a poem about Julie. I didn’t set out with any purpose at all. On the other hand, it seemed essential that I saw her in her place in Whitby’s Old Town, low-ceilinged and bursting with stuff. Nutty and magical. Photos don’t do it justice, but here’s a flavour. Every single object has a complicated personal history. A wonderful ‘rag and bone shop’ if you like.



The way it fixed itself in the five minutes or so of first drafting was the house becoming a sort of theatre, or maybe an iconostasis for  you perched like a wire bird/ up on your kitchen top. but I think the poem takes off in a way that was new to me when I focus on Julie rather than the anecdotal details. I’d never written a line like this

Your eyes grow bright in your dead woman’s face

Basically, I’d never written directly and honestly about someone I knew…it’s the kind of thing I avoided because there was always the terrifying possibility that the someone would read it and deny that it was true. It’s a real blocker, the fear of embarrassment, for me at least. But it’s what I think I started to learn about the rag-and-bone-shop of the heart. The shops I knew. But the heart was dangerous territory. There’s a huge release in writing a line like that, feeling it directly..if you’ve not done it before. A leap. But it puts the flames in their proper place, and at this point, the poem expands outwards into everywhere.  Julie died a couple of months later and never got to read what I’d written. I know I’m glad I wrote it. Here’s the finished poem. Not a lot has changed, has it. Sometimes you’re awarded that kind of moment…but it doesn’t come out of nowhere. All the material, all the images were already hanging about, uncurated, all in a jumble, like the junk shop. What they needed was the catalyst. The nudge was the postcard, but the catalyst was ‘the heart’ , I think.


According to the specialists you died six months ago

and I like sitting with you, proving there’s an afterlife

as we roll cigarettes, you perched like a wire bird

up on your kitchen top beside the angel

that I made for you before I knew you weren’t alive.


Your fridge’s crusted like a wreck, with magnets

and pictures of BobDylan, and you show me

that programme that Patti Smith had signed for you

not knowing you’d been applauding from the Underworld.


You make me laugh each time you tell the phone

it can get stuffed because it’s your mad mother

who will not believe that you’re not with us any more.


Your eyes grow bright in your dead woman’s face,

then sink, then glow like cigarettes, like the ironworks

up the coast, or the small lights on the cobles

tied up and tilted on the mud; like the strange flares

from the stack high up on Boulby Cliff, where the shaft

goes down a whole dark mile of ammonites, and heads off

far away beneath the weight of oil rigs, and sunken ships,

and shoals of cod, and all the grey North sea.



It was a special poem for me in so many ways, not least that it won The Plough Poetry Competition in 2013. Andrew Motion picked it, and talked about that ‘expanding out’ of the last lines. Still, for me, it stays a poem from the rag-and-bone-shop that turns out not to be foul, after all.

Depending on the reaction, I’ll write some more posts about poems that have been significant for me, and how they came about. What I’d really like would be to share other poets’ stories. If you’re interested let me know via


Ideally, it would involve you still having the original drafts and a clear memory of the where and when and who of the process. But let’s just see, shall we.

Thanks for reading. I’m off on a writing week tomorrow, so there may be no post next Sunday. It’ll be as it’s meant to be.

Milestones and landmarks (1)…. with Gaia Holmes


Today’s post will be the 270th since the cobweb was started in April 2014. I realised a short time ago, on the the basis that each post averages out at about 2000 words, sometime recently we passed the half million word mark. I reckon that’s worth celebrating, so I’ve asked three poets to be guests again. I could have asked lots of people and namechecked many more…Hilary Elfick, Andy Blackford, and The Poetry Business in particular.

However, I wanted to say thank you for three landmark moments…first solo guest poetry reading, first invitation to be a guest blogger, and first time as guest poet on a poetry blog. So. Here we go.

Ladies and gentlemen, the altogether wonderful Gaia Holmes!!!!!

Gaia has been very important to me. One of the people who validate what you’re doing. They may not know they’ve done it, or think that what they did do was no big deal. As a teacher, I’m often thrown when I encounter folk I taught years ago, and who say that I did X or Y or Z that changed their lives. Every teacher has had this experience, and very often don’t have any memory of what it was they did. They were just doing their job. Anyway, to cut a long story short, Gaia gave me my very first single billing guest poetry reading at The Puzzle Hall Inn. This was before I’d had anything published, but it was one of those occasions which made me feel I should do something about it, if only to have something to sell at poetry readings.

Gaia’s been a guest twice before…why not check out what I wrote about her? here are the links





Right. Good to have you back. Now here’s my Milestone Thankyou to Gaia Holmes. I’ll start with a poem she shared with us previously, and then let her bring us up to date.


Whenever I read Gaia Holmes’ poems, or hear her read, I’m put in mind of the world and work of Peter Blake. To nail my colours to the mast, this image of Alice is how I’d picture Gaia’s narrative voice.

QUEEN peter blake

Not quite other-worldly, but knowing things I have no immediate access to, and aware that the world is strange and lovely and that it can make us vulnerable. It’s a voice that makes me think of the doughty, unworldly, resourceful, compassionate clear-eyed heroines of folk tales. The ones who have no expectation of the kindness of  stepmothers and stepfathers and spiteful siblings, who are stoic about their work among the ashes, who undertake unnerving journeys through forests to the hen’s leg houses of cruel aunts, who understand that everything you are given is a gift to be used for the betterment of the world….all that.

As soon as I open up her her poems and read, rather than rely on this memory, then before long I’ll be chilled and close to tears. There’s a lot of ice; there’s even an Ice Hotel. There’s the cold of loneliness and love gone wrong, and broken things that might be hearts or dreams that make you think twice about walking in bare feet. There’s the orphan voice of a narrator who sees things that no-one seems to notice her seeing. Like this.

The Allure Of Frost
Boxing day.
No fire in the grate and unopened presents
stacked around the base of the tree and fairy lights muted,
switched off, and the brandy that swells the fruit starting to eat
the cake in its tin and all the mirrors doused with tea towels
and your raw-eyed mother keening into a pillow in her bedroom
and too many men in black whispering and nodding
and I don’t know what the rosary is and whether to curtsey
to the priests when I hand them their tea
and the phrase ‘fruits of thy womb’ seem too ripe and too rich
for this and, Mary mother of God, I don’t know
how to cross myself and fear I’m invoking the devil
and the scent of death’s so thick
that it’s tainted the water and it’s heavy in the curtains
making them bend the rail
and your lips taste of the oils that grease your dead sister
and when I kiss you, you push me away and I want to spit
and weep and slap the corpse where she lies in her coffin
all done-up with hair grips and lipstick,
her sunken cheeks plumped out with wads of cotton wool
and the rictus of sin softened
by the crust of Rimmel Natural Beige powdering her face
and it’s so hot in here
that the cheese is sweating and the butter is liquid.
The chocolate coins are dripping from the tree.
Your Aunt’s un-bitten sandwiches
are curling upwards on her plate
and the lilies are wilting and stinking in their vases
and the cat stands quivering and retching
against the cold crack beneath the back door.
Outside the frost, not knowing any difference,
continues to sparkle. And I’d like to go out there.
I’d like to stand in it until my feet turn blue.

I think this poem has everything in it that I think of as ‘Gaia’s poems’. The piling on and on of sensory detail, the Alice in Wonderland, or folktale, sense that the logic of things is wrong, the wistfulness, the vulnerablity, and the pluck of a girl who will stand in a sparkling frost till her feet turn blue and the world becomes real again. Lovely.


And now your update and two new poems. Over to Gaia.


“Gosh, is it a year since I appeared on the cobweb?! Phew! Yes, looking back at that post I see my poems were a chilly little bunch- full of winter, death, hospitals and shivering islands. I think I’ve written most of that time out of my system, for now at least…though most of my poems are slow walkers and tend to come to me two or three years after the experience…since that blog post some nice things have happened in my writing life…I spent the whole of January reading and writing within the cosy walls of Hawthornden Castle near Edinburgh. I was there with 5 other writers and all we were expected to do, all day, every day, was to write. It was like being a child again. We were fed, coddled and given a whole rich month without our usual responsibilities. Whilst I was there I wrote loads of new poems and sequenced and edited poems for my 3rd full-length poetry collection which will be published some time in 2018. I also learned that my poem ‘Guests’ had won 1st prize in the Bare Fiction Poetry Competition and this was a great boost which added fuel to my pen. After returning from the castle with the manuscript of my 3rd collection ready, at last, to be sent out into the world I focused on a collaborative project with fellow poet, Winston Plowes which culminated in a joint poetry collection called Tales from the Tachograph, published by Calder Valley Poetry. The poems in this collection all deal with the realms of roads, service stations and motorways. I haven’t written much lately but I’m not panicking about this as I used to do. I am using the time to read about colour, to immerse myself in the wonderful art of Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, Andrea Kowch, Catrin Welz-Stein, and I am learning how to draw flamingos as I think that someday it might be a useful skill to have. I am filling my notebook with them.”

And now, the poems. She sent me loads. I’ve chosen two.




In transit


How heavily they lift

their paper coffee cups.

How heavily they sigh

and plough spilt sugar off the table

with the sides of their hands.

How heavily, like arthritic camels,

they turn away from each other,

pretend to study

the barista bashing coffee grounds

into the stainless steel bin,

observe the man walking his dog

between the service station trees,

stare at rain or a moon

that isn’t there.


How hungrily they gobble down

these distractions, this transient space

where women, wet-necked with perfume,

and men, carrying neat bunches

of forecourt flowers,

prepare to drive home.


How tenaciously they cling

to the in-between,

wanting to stuff their mouths

and their pockets full of it,

wanting to soften their worlds with it,

because when they have walked

the distance from café to car,

when they have shut the doors,

sealed themselves into the miles,

there will be static,

there will be him and her

focussing on the rear-view mirror,

watching other people driving home

to warm houses that smell of bread

and oregano,

where red wine breathes

on the kitchen table

and touch is not a shock,


there will be him and her

craving the glow of those better lives

as they go back to the cold things

they cannot talk about,

the clean, unloved rooms

they sit apart in,

the draughts and silences

they breed,

the brittle cheese

and boiled potatoes

frosting in a fridge

that always ices over.

(From Tales from the Tachograph (Calder Valley Press, 2017).)



Though it seems so dark

and the ceiling of the world’s a wound

and so many hours have been bruised,

and so many lives have been broken,

there are stars up there tonight

and we must name them,

we must love them,

we must whistle them down like dogs

in faith of their shine

and they will be loyal.

They will show us where their bones are.

They will teach us

their soft, bright tricks of devotion.


And even on the blackest nights,

when hope and protest

are knotted in our throats,

when our smiles have been tarred

and buckled with the weight and stain

of shadows,

we have to remember they are there,

those glittering sky-hooked prayers,

prickling and humming,

embedded in that thick and lovely blue,

guarding us from spite,

keeping the moon from slipping,

herding the pale lamb-like dawns

into our sleeping houses

where they flow

through all our rooms

fluent and loving as milk.


Cold Dawn


Thanks for being my first milestone guest today, Gaia. Thank you for the poems.



Gaia Holmes’ poetry ….you know christmas as upon us.

Dr James Graham’s Celestial Bed  [Comma press 2006]  via Amazon: anything from £15 – £65

Lifting the piano with one hand      [Comma Press 2013]  £7.99

Tales from the Tachograph   (co-authored with Winston Plowes)                                                                    [Calder Valley Press, 2017).


the other side of silence

“If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary life it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well-wadded with stupidity”  George Eliot. ‘Middlemarch’

Working in various warehouses I always liked a tidy-up, a bit of stocktaking, giving a bit of shape and order to the accumulated muddle and inconvenience of things. Or, at least, the illusion of order and meaning. And even though I always think that the Sunday Supplement and TV reviews of the the year that’s about to end smack of lazy journalism, and easy programming, I realise that this is exactly what I’m heading into. Starting with a poem that’s now over a year old, and which seems like someone else’s. As they do.

When all’s said and done

after the eulogy

after the hymns no longer sung

with gusto or familiarity

after the

awkward pause

and remembering the casket

isn’t going to move

after the queue

to find the door

after the flare of lighters

the sucked-in smoke

the conversations half in bits

after all that

there’s the buffet and the drinks

the loosening of ties

the unacknowledged complicity

of being alive while someone else is not.

I have been to funerals this year, and learn I am grateful for being alive. There’s been a lot to be grateful for this year, especially things done for the very first time.

Like this wordpress poetry cobweb, which has kept me on my toes and anxious and sort-of-productive for about thirty five consecutive Sundays. It has made me reflect, and think and read and research. It has made me read other blogs much more attentively. So thank you Kim Moore and Anthony Wilson and Josephine Corcoran for teaching me so much. It has let me repay debts and keep promises. It let me try my hand at reviewing a poet’s work (thank you, Julia Deakin for putting the notion in my head), and it has made me much more aware of writers who come lateish to writing, as I have. It has let me choose poems by Bob Horne, Liz Venn, Yvie Holder, Andy Blackford, Simon Zonenblick and Tom Cleary. It has let me posture and theorise without interruption (much like being a lecturer again, I suppose). I have used it unashamedly as a platform for my own poems, and no one has told me to stop. Yet. So, thank you, WordPress for letting me make the great fogginzo’s cobweb.

Like winning competitions, one of which let me pay for the printing of my first pamphlet: Running out of Space, and one that gave me the prize of being properly published by a proper publisher. So, for Larach, thank you Camden/Lumen, and Sir Andrew Motion, and Adele Ward and WardWood Publishing. And also for my very first book launch.

Like submitting poems to various magazines and online sites, and finding out that having more rejections than acceptances is good for you. So thank you to the ones like Magma that are generous in their rejections, and for the care of the ones who take you on board, like  Brett Evans at Prole, and the Sansoms at The North, and Martin Malone at The interpreter’s house.

Like being the compere at The Puzzle Hall Poets (at the Puzzle Hall Inn in Sowerby Bridge), and being handed a microphone. Which panders to my enjoyment of performing, but more usefully makes me attend closely to all the poets on the open mic. so I can say something that shows their poems have been listened to; it means I have to take notes, and I end up with something like a commonplace book of lines that stood out. I look forward to the first Monday of each month; I enjoy putting the publicity together for Facebook. I really like working with Bob Horne and Freda Davies, deciding who to invite to do guest slots. I like all the friends I’ve made. So thankyou, Puzzle Hall Poets, and thankyou Gaia Holmes for inviting me to guest there in the first place. Which leads me to another first…..being a guest on Gaia’s Phoenix Radio show : Themes for dreamers, which she co-hosts with William Thirsk Gaskell. Last Sunday I got to read my poems and talk about them and choose records to play. I can’t recommend the experience too highly.

Like being invited to join an editorial panel for the OWF Press anthology The garden, and having the experience of trying to choose about 65 poems from well over 200 submissions. Humbling, that. But it’s a cracking collection and a worthy follow up to the successful Wheels anthology from the same press. (I’ll put the details at the end of the post). Equally humbling was getting a review accepted by The North…never done one before, and terrified of upsetting four poets who I like. As it happens I didn’t. But I’d no idea how stressful it was going to be. Much rather let someone review mine.

What else? Last but not least, a poem-week-year has finally come to an end. This was the idea of Andy Blackford, whose poems appeared in the cobweb earlier this year. We’d met again after a gap of of about 40 years; Andy reckoned that since Bunuel and an artist friend used to meet to exchange and critique a piece of art on a given day each week, there was no reason why we shouldn’t. And there wasn’t. We now have to decide what to do about the 104 poems we’ve written. Got a title. Gap year.


So, you might well ask, after all that…………….. the silence and the stupidity and the funerals? What’s all that about? And Paula Rego? Come on!

I think it all comes down to Kim Moore’s Sunday Poem last week. Pascale Petit  was her chosen poet, and Pascale Petit, for me, is the poetry equivalent of Paula Rego. She has that urgency, that passion, that edge. It’s a feeling that both know pain very well, and are up to all its wiles. Or else their art does;  I don’t know. I’m not putting this very well. I can’t find the words. They are both unflinching, aren’t they? Take these lines from the poem that Kim Moore chose: How to handfeed sparrows.-

‘Let the sun burn the top of your head

as if it’s a candle, a whole day

for it to ignite. And when

a sparrow lands keep stock-still

even thought the flame is lit

and your scalp is melting


they are hungry, and you

have only one hour of that wick

in the centre of your being.

Let it burn down to the soles of your feet.

There’s something purgatorial and Catholic about the burning, the candle, the sparrows, and something so intensely felt and personal it makes me shiver. It makes me think: I never feel in that way, to that degree. Or maybe I’m thinking after the event, because Kim  happened to write in passing that she’d been reading Fiona Benson’s first collection, Bright travellers, and on a whim I downloaded it to my Kindle, read it through that night. It stopped me dead in my tracks. And again the next morning in a doctor’s waiting room, waiting for a routine taking of blood. Two extracts to show you what staggered me. The first is the whole of ‘Prayer’

I saw you like a hare, stripped and jugged

in your own blood, your tail a rudder

steering you through burgundy and juniper,

your eyes gummed shut. Tadpole,

stripling, elver, don’t let the dragtides

pull you under, but root in, bed down,

tucked behind my pelvic bone,

rocked in the emptying stoup of my womb.

It has the particular power, I think, that excited me in Ted Hughes when I first read him..but without the sort-of macho-bravado. This is textured and tender and strong. It’s beyond me. I went and reread Slyvia Plath’s ‘You’re’ and knew this was a different, stranger, more wonderful thing entirely. And so is the raw open-eyedness of ‘Repairs’ , a midwife’s stitches

It must be the gas

that has me see her

holding pins

between her tightened lips

as she works

with both hands

round the wound

to stitch me back in.

Just listen to this, and its precision of sound, the consonantal snag of that ‘stitch’. Do you see why I might think again of Paula Rego….maybe one image in particular?Paula Rego.2 jpg

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

I will tell you how it was. I slipped

into the hare like a nude foot

into a glorious slipper. Pushing her bones

to one side to make room for my shape

so I could settle myself like a child within her.

In the dark I groped for her freedom…..

There’s that physicality, that sensuality, again, and again infused by the unspeakable loss of a child that has to be spoken and spoken for. That controlled  intensity that has the lines shivering with energy. Just one more now. Kim Moore, this time,one who has dealt with abusive assault, or has come to deal with it. ‘If we could speak like wolves’.

(Hares, rabbits, sheep, wolves, hunters and hunted, and the ones who run under the moon. I may be witched. Anyway, this from Kim) :

if I could rub my scent along your shins to make

you mine, if a mistake could be followed

by instant retribution and end with you

rolling over to expose the stubble and grace

of your throat, if it could be forgotten

the monent the wind changed, if my eyes

could sharpen to yellow……………………..

And there’s that energy again, that physicality that’s nailed in two words: stubble  sharpen. And so it starts with The Sunday Poem. Or at least, that’s a catalyst. I read these poems, and then I read what I’ve written in the last two years and I see what isn’t there, and I wonder if I have access to what’s missing. Just to explain why I chose that opening quotation from George Eliot; for the last 18 months or so I have grown gradually more deaf. It’s something that can be dealt with, and will be, but at the moment I hear the world through a soft sieve. I miss the point of conversations and questions if I’m not attending. It’s like listening to French. I recognise songs on the radio by the bass lines and drum patterns but I can’t hear the whole tune. And now these poets. It’s as though they’ve shown me emotional registers and harmonies that I can’t hear or feel for myself, as though, in George Eliot’s word I’m ‘well-wadded’. I’m writing rhetoric and well-observed landscapes, and anecdotes, but I’m not accessing the whole picture. It won’t be forced, but it must be possible. I wonder how.

I think that next week I might go on thinking about this, and about learning a new language, or a bigger one. So there we are. One year finishing, and whole new bunch of stuff to be fighting through. Hope your coming year will be exciting and happy in equal measure.

Wendy Pratt ; Nan Hardwicke turns into a hare [Prolebooks. 2011] £4.50

Fiona Benson; Bright travellers                                  [Cape poetry 2014] £10.00

Kim Moore;  If we could speak like wolves              [Smith/doorstop 2012] £5.00


The garden : poems that will grow on you             [Otley Word feast Press 2014] £8.00

mind the gap: and another (un)discovered gem…Andy Blackford

andy's shark

Those who turn from delusion back to reality,

who meditate on walls, the absence of self, and other,

the oneness of mortal and sage, and who remain

unmoved even by scriptures

are in complete and unspoken agreement with reason’


A windy monastery

higher than clouds care to climb:

Bodhidharma gazes at the wall.

He stares so hard the plaster crumbles.

The wall stares back so long his eyelids droop.

He cuts them off as one might trim a wick

and where they drop spring tea-green shoots

of wakefulness.

For nine years

he gazes on through bloody tears.

The wall will neither blink nor flinch.

Then, one ordinary day,

there is no wall,

there is no Bodhidharma

Last week I posted an article about ‘the oral tradition’ that, smugly, I’d written a good week in advance. And what happens? This week I’m a day late. Mea culpa. But I thought that at least I could start with a bang. The picture and the poem are both experiences way outside my comfort zone. Buddhism and swimming with sharks; ideas yoked together by violence (is that Coleridge on the metaphysicals?)…except they’re not. Somewhere among that team of tiny divers, looking like remora fish against the bulk of that shark, is my friend Andy Blackford, who also happens to have written the poem.

Now, I say ‘my friend, Andy’, and I don’t say it lightly, but I should explain something. I taught Andy when he was a super-smart, clever, cocky, just-this-side of arrogant 6th former in Middlesbrough, round about 1968. He was not only clever and subversive, but good company, and funny. He was also, even then, a pretty good guitarist…he almost, but not quite, persuaded me to feel enthusiastic about Cream.

He went to Oxford to do PPE, and, in about 1973 I met him again in a hotel in Gateshead, on his way to Amsterdam to start (I think) a job in the music industry. Now, I was more than a bit of a left-wing puritan in those days, and, to my undying shame I lectured him on my disappointment that he sought to fritter away his god-given talents on feeding trivia to the masses. (I am relieved to find he does not remember this, but feel in no way absolved).

Anyway, that was it until, after a gap of 40 years, thanks to the wonder that is Facebook, we met again. In May 2013, I went up to Staithes where he has a holiday home and spent a day with him and his wife, Sandra. 40 years simply melted away. Nothing had changed and everything had changed, and all was well.

Last December he emailed me to say that the film director Louis Bunuel had been in the habit of meeting a fellow artist each Monday to exchange and critique a new work of art. He proposed that, via the magic of email we would do the same. We would exchange new poems every week for one year. It would become GAP YEAR. And so we have. We are now into ( I think ) week 40. We had a week off around June, but have made up the omission since. We started awkward and tentative and apologetic, and there was still a residue of that teacher/student relationship. But now we happily give each other’s poems a good kicking, and I was delighted when Andy was able to say of one of mine: Sorry…it does nothing for me. What’s it for? And I was able to say: Absolutely nothing, mate.   And then to bin it. I’m going to give you another poem of his from the Gap Year, sent from his hospital bed when he was having unnerving things done to his heart, and then leave him to speak for himself about himself.

On the blink

Two TV screen flank this clever bed.

One is my Hospimedia.

The news looks bad…the picture’s slashed

by pixellated bands,

the sound is intermittent.

The email has a dodgy keyboard

doubling up one character

deleting three.

The other screen is monitoring me.

It’s picked up nasty habits

from its wayward friend.

The trace that should be docile and predictable

is bucking like a bullock in an abattoir.

Be still my pixellating heart.

With Andy, I never know whether I’m going to get black humour or some unflinching take on a Buddhist’s way of seeing the world. Maybe this biography will go some way to explaining why I expect to be surprised and unsurprised by anything he does or writes. Here he is in his own words ….he writes of himself in the 3rd person. Considering the many lives he’s led, it could be in the 5th or 8th or 13th.

Andy was born in Middlesbrough and spent much of his childhood at Runswick Bay near Whitby. When he was nine, his father built him a small boat, and encouraged him to row it out to sea. After leaving Oxford (St Catherine’s) with a degree in PPE, he disappointed nearly everyone by joining the rock band Spreadeagle.

The band disappointed the record-buying public, despite touring regularly with Genesis and Lindisfarne, and after a period as the editor of a teenybopper fanzine Music Star, he moved to Amsterdam as an A&R executive for Phonogram Records. Returning to London, he became a professional skateboarder, and in his alter ego of Bengt Maelstrom, the editor of Skateboard Scene magazine [Ed:….and that’s not all..]


Later, he met a drunk at at the launch party of The rude food guide, and was so impressed by the drunk’s salary…he was an advertising art director…that he decided to try his hand at copywriting. Armed with a short story, The day Mrs Osmond cried, he landed a job with Lonsdales Advertising (later he discovered this was because the agency band was short of a guitarist). His CV includes creative directorships at Saaatchi and Saaatchi, IMP and Joshua. At Grey, he made the agency famous by persuading the entire staff to to take off their clothes for a publicity shot. In 2003 he became founding partner of KB49, an agency in Covent Garden.

Andy’s friend, the editor and writer Susan Hill encouraged him to write, and he produced books on implausibly disparate subjects, including the the Newcastle R&B band The Animals, and a history of the discotheque. When his daughter was born, he tried his hand at children’s fiction. He won The Independent/Scholastic Children’s Story of the Year competition, and has since produced some 25 books for children, mainly for younger readers. [Ed…..if you have young children it’s odds on they’ve unwittingly encountered Andy’s writing via Oxford Reading Tree]. However, sadly, his main qualifications for immortality may well be the NatWest Piggies savings scheme, and the legendary 80’s advertising campaign for Um Bongo…[still to be heard in parts of the world. um bongo, um bongo; they drink it in the Congo.]

Andy took up distance running to break his smoking habit [counter-intuitive as ever], and for 25 years was columnist for Runner’s World magazine. He has run the Marathon des Sables in the Sahara, and ultra-marathons in Greenland, the Amazon rainforest and the Himalayas. His acclaimed collection of articles Running on empty is available as an ebook. [Exhausted?…there’s more]. For 30 years he had a column in Diver magazine (two more books: Blackford’s Diving Life and Times and Deeper with Blackford). Andy has his own publishing brand, The Littlington University Press …Google it for titles, which can also be found via Kindle. His most recent (Aug.2014) is Twenty cheery tales about death.

Well. He’s now retired from full time work to concentrate on life with his English-teacher wife and daughter in Cambridgeshire, on his rock band 1967 which has played festivals in the UK and Europe, on writing their anti-war single Afghanistan which featured Van Morrison’s musical director Paul Moran, and a 50-strong choir….and so on

The ultra marathon stuff might just contextualise the hospital poem, and the diving magazines the shark photo. But the opening poem? Saving the best till last. Andy is a mitra in the Triratna Buddhist Community, he teaches meditation, and works as a prison Chaplain through the Angulimala Charity.

A couple of weeks  ago I posted about my friend Gyula Friewald, who I met up with for a day’s walking a week last Wednesday. We got horribly hot and scratched and bloody, scrambling to the base of a golden sandstone cliff to find fragments of Iberian pottery, 2000 years old, and we had an easier walk…but still hot…in the afternoon, and Gyula mused on the need for the acknowledgement of Chaos in our lives and the failure of most people, now, in the 21st century, to understand that, because their lives are too chaotic. That kind of conversation for a hot sweaty walk.

A month or so earlier I went on a clifftop walk with Andy and his dog, Merlin. Staithes to Runswick and back..8 miles or so of rockband stories, diving stories, drinking stories, advertising stories, marathon stories, prison stories, buddhism, meditation, children…I count myself more than blessed to have exhausting friends who have lived more lives than the times I’ve stopped smoking. Delighted to be writing a poem a week for and with Andy, and to have him as my undiscovered [sic] gem for this week, albeit a day late.

Now, for 40 weeks I’ve been niggling away at Andy’s penchant for abstractions in his poems…comes of being a Buddhist, I say. But he still blindsides me with reflective, meditative poems quite unlike anything I write, and this makes the weekly exchange more than fascinating.

I’ll leave you with the poem, but before I go, this is just to say I’m having a gap of my own…no posts for two weeks, while I do some reading and thinking, and stock up with gems and walks and friends and things worth saying. See you in a couple of weeks. Now, big hand for ……..Andy Blackford!!!!!!


Some memories are too sweet to drink –

even sipping them is like self-harm.

And yet we’re drawn to dwell on what we’ve lost

in case the recollection might retrieve it.

If so, we can expect a rough reunion:

the pain is in the pleasure, indivisible.

Remembering is like a lizard’s tail

it snaps off in your hand

the living part escaping

in the thicket of the past.

And thanks to Merlin, for showing me the world’s biggest rabbit hole.