Here’s looking at you: the male gaze


Here’s a thing; it’s Sunday afternoon,  and Sunday’s a Rugby League day,  yet I’m here, because there’s something that’s been nagging and nagging, and if I don’t write about it I shall go on waking up in the night worrying at it. Sometimes I wish poetry didn’t have such a hold on me. Nevertheless.

Some time in the early 1970s I was trying to get to grips with sociolinguistics, and, especially, with the notion of gendered language. One of my colleagues at the College of Ed. where I was a lecturer played his students (and me) an audiotape of pairs of people talking on a train. What they were talking about was pretty much gender-neutral. Simplistically, not about fashion or football. The conversations sounded slightly odd, out of kilter but we couldn’t put our collective finger on why.

This is how it worked. The researchers made transcriptions of the taped conversations, which were those of pairs of women and pairs of men. They then had men reading the dialogues of the women, and vice versa. Simply, the idioms, the structures, the dynamic, the interactions didn’t fit. It seemed that the problem went much deeper than gendered lexis. I leave that for your consideration.

At the time, my view of the world had been radically challenged by two bombshell texts: John Berger’s Ways of seeing, and Dale Spender’s Man-made language. Interestingly and paradoxically, Berger’s presentation includes statements like

The invention of the camera changed the way men saw


all images are man made.

Which pretty well made Spender’s point.Lots of things have happened since then, but they continue to be just as important to me now as they were 40 years ago.

Why am I telling you this? I’m still buzzing from a week in St Ives with poetry inspirations and tutors Kim Moore and Helen Mort, and from the impact of the poems they brought into the workshops. Poems which simultaneously raised issues of the negative, of silence, of contradiction and of how women are written about and how women write about themselves. Let’s chuck into the mix the fact that Kim Moore suggested I watch a You Tube clip of a lecture on “the female gaze” by Jill Soloway. Here’s the link.You might want to watch it before you read on.

Did that link work? welcome back, in any case.

What she says isn’t new, but in essence she says that the male gaze is characterised by being predatory, objectifying and commodifying, particularly when the gaze is turned on women. Think, say, of Durer who created an image of the ‘ideal woman’ by assembling it from bits of other images, like a kit. It’s tied up with ‘ownership’ and the power of defining the limits of another identity. This is essentially no different from Berger’s thesis, which in turn draws on earlier writers, though his conciseness is all his own:

“a woman…. is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself”

which, he argues is constructed from centuries of images of woman made essentially passive, looking back at the active and proprietorial observer.

Soloway asks what constitutes ‘the female gaze’ and make the obvious point that it’s not the simple reverse of the male gaze, substituting women observers for male observers, but maintaining the assymetric power relationship. Whether she manages to explain what the female gaze is, I’ll leave to you to decide. What I can’t leave in the air is when Soloway says, blithely enough, the male gaze is pretty well everything. Because if the male gaze is necessarily predatory and reifying  then the semantic and rhetorical books are well and truly cooked, and I might as well stop right now. It’s not that simple, because life never is. The core of it is pretty well indisputable; Western art and literature are dominated by men and their gaze well into the 19th C. Think about all the countless paintings of madonnas (by men) and then paintings of mothers and children by women. Check out Berthe Morrisot and you’ll see what I mean. Now we live in more relativist cultures, with all their contradictions and ambiguities. Have look at these female nudes. Two are contemporary. One is more than 20,000 years old. One is painted by a woman. One by a man. One we know nothing about. Where’s the male or female gaze? I don’t know, and I’m not out to win any arguments. I’m just asking myself questions.


Let me ask some more. Let’s shift the ground to poetry…it is a poetry blog after all. Think about Browning’s My last duchess. There’s a poem about the predatory male gaze if ever there was one. But whose gaze is turned on the Duke, and whose on the the woman whose portrait the Duke is showing off. What is the poet assuming about the duchess? Or think about Philip Larkin’s The less deceived and how he imagines (gazes on) the little street girl abducted and taken into fulfilment’s desolate attic. At every turn I feel the ground slipping away from under my feet.

At this point, I’m going to go back to an earlier post, (December 204) in which I was equally uncertain of what I was arguing about or why. I started with a quotation from George Eliot…who had to assume a male persona to get published.

“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”

I went on to write about my response to work by Pascale Petit, Kim Moore, Fiona Benson and Wendy Pratt, and to wonder whether I could access their experience of the world via their poems. I wrote:

“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.”

I was reminded of this last week when I read one of Clare Shaw’s remarkable poems from her annual foray into the world of NaPoRiMo. Here’s a bit of it (thanks for the permission, Clare)

I was told not to write about wombs

but mine writes itself
in capitals. It is prolific,
I cannot forget it.

It reminds me
of all its hard work,
how patient and kind

it has been;
what it gave me. It boasts
it is further inside me

than the maps would suggest.
It says has swallowed small men
and some creatures.

How once it was sea and sky,
and a star floated there,
and its world was endless.


I pick out one phrase that all my conflicted and muddled feelings spin on: it is further inside me / than the maps would suggest. It’s that internal understanding, that knowledge that seem beyond me. And at this point I’m going to pass the buck. Over the last few years I’ve written poems in the voices of so many women…which is to say, I’ve made the attempt. Myra Hindley, Keith Bennett’s mother Winnie, Mary Magdalene, Joan of Arc’s mother, a cunning woman, one of the Three Graces, Ophelia and so on. And I’ve turned my gaze on other women without appropriating their imagined voices. My week in St Ives, and a week spent reading about ‘the male gaze’ and ‘the female gaze’ have left me uncertain of what I’ve been engaged in. What I’ll do is post of some of these poems, one at a time, and see what you make of them. Male gaze or not? And what tells us?

The first is new, though the subject is one that’s dear to me. A little Toulouse Lautrec drawing, on a bit of torn card (which reproductions crop out),tucked away in a corner of the Alte Pinakotech in Munich. You come upon it after huge galleries , like celestial butchers’ cold rooms, full of enormous Rubens nudes


After the Rubens

Just your head, just your slumped shoulders.

They’ve tucked you away, low down

in a corner by the door, with the woman

tugging a stubborn goat over the chalk.

I guess you’ll settle for this, no one

staring, this small space to yourself,

no one to bother.  Do you mind

that all he had was chalks,

a torn off bit of pasteboard.

Do you mind that your hair’s come

unpinned and he’s noticed that,

and how grey is your skin, do you mind

that scribble of pistacchio smudged in

to make you hair catch fire.I don’t know

your name and for this I am sorry.

It’s just that you look so tired that I stare.

Do you mind.And if I don’t stare, if

I look away, where will we be then.




NaPoWriMo: it ain’t what you do…or maybe it really is


What set me off today was a post in Carrie’s NaPoWriMo

what do you do with that trembly feelingwhen you think you have written a really good poem, or perhaps it’s not ……[Hazell Hammond] 

I wrote back (pompously enough)

when you feel it, when it excites you, when it’s like someone else wrote it through you……then trust it. Leave it for a couple of days. Then go back. If it still does it, it’s the biz.

The fact is, sometimes you just know. There’s a poem in my collection that did that for me. What it does for anyone else is not my business, but I know I love performing it at poetry readings, the rhythm of it. I wrote the first version of it at Saturday workshop in Sheffield, nearly two years ago. The first task. 10.30am. Here’s your opening phrase. Off you go. Don’t think about it, don’t edit it, don’t stop. Here’s a slightly unfocussed scan from my notebook.

in the meantime notes

And now, here’s the final version, from the collection

In the meantime


because that’s how it is, the sparrow

flying into the meadhall, bewildered

by smoke-reek, gusts of beer-breath,

out of the wild dark and into the half-

light of embers, sweat, the steam

of fermenting rushes, and maybe

a harp and an epic that means nothing

in a language it doesn’t know, this sparrow,

frantic to be out there, and maybe

it perches on a tarry roof beam, catches

a wingtip, comes up against thatch

like a moth on a curtain, and it beats

its wings, it beats its wings, it tastes

a wind with the scent of rain, the thin

smell of snow, of stars, and somehow

it’s out into the turbulence of everywhere,

and who knows what happens next.

When I typed this on a screen for the first time, the line breaks seemed to fall naturally, it seemed to want a roughly eight-syllabled line, and the four stressed syllables of Anglo-Saxon verse. It wanted to be a single sentence. It wanted to be urgent. I think there are three small edits to a piece that took about three minutes to write. Some days it’s like that. Most, it isn’t. The thing is, you have no idea what prompt will kickstart something you really want to say. If it does, it won’t come out of nowhere. I must have been to Whitby, or been reading something about Caedmon, or the Farnes..I don’t know. But I know that in two years of compulsory Early English courses at University, the story of Caedmon was the only thing I ever read that came close to moving me.

whitby Poetry Business 2015 028

This will be my last post on the cobweb for NaPoWriMo. It’s been great to be involved. What I’d like to do is to say why I’ve written about 40 poem-shaped drafts since I started, and why I haven’t actually used many of the carefully crafted prompts that Carrire Etter has provided for her huge and hugely enthusiastic group. Mainly, it’s because I took the opportunity to go through the backlog of notes I’ve made in workshops, to look at the ones I’ve not done anything with, and to ask if, perhaps, any of then have legs. It turns out that they had, and I’m gradually removing the post-its and bits of paper that marked where they were. What I haven’t been able to do, apart from finding out what might be done with a pantoum (I’d never heard of it till now) is to follow prompts which focus on a particular form, whether it’s a sestina, a triolet, a terza rima, a rondo redoublé, or whatever.

For whatever reason, I just can’t do it. Maybe I mean that I don’t want to, in case I ‘fail’. Whatever that means. I’m going to use a reworked version of a post from January 2015 later on to explore it a bit further. But if you’re pushed for time, I’ll borrow a very simple justification that Clare Shaw used in one of her incredibly generous NaPoWriMo posts some  days ago.

NaPoWriMo Day 13.
Ghazals! they’re ace in the right hands, but I don’t have those hands. I made two attempts to write one and it’s too late and I’m to tired to keep on trying; so about 11.30pm I returned to a poem I started writing in response to a poem by John Foggin about a broken pot. Mine’s about a broken pot too.

On the other hand, when she’s aked to write a letter to someone, this happens

Letter to my mother

It’s been a long time,
there’s so much to catch up on.
I have a nine-year old daughter.
You’d like my partner.
I’m doing well in the ways
that count. As for the news – we’ll fall out
before we get started
and it’s late
and the light’s getting too faint
for writing. Just tell me about yourself,

things that matter:
how many skips of a stone
you could make on the water,
the roses, the nameless trees.
Let’s leave all the bad stuff to one side.
Tell me about mass, the tide of the voices,
how words were a river –
tell me what it was like to be seized by a river.
Tell me about your God
and when were you most yourself

in your garden; tell me about your lawn
and how did it feel when the stones
fell out from your walls, when the path faded;
when your world softened
and lost its edges; when you were broken
and couldn’t be mended;
when the words got stuck
in your throat. When people were ghosts
and you wouldn’t wear glasses; when you got lost;
when world was all losses.

Now tell me birdsong and flowers.
Tell me the importance of very good manners.
Do you remember the Lakes? Do you visit?
Do you recall how high the grass grew
and how it was sweet
at the roots? Can you taste it?
It’s late. Can you open your eyes,
can you speak, can you tell me
before the light goes out

I fancy this was written in one great sweep, no pauses, no stopping and worrying. The first 30 lines are all one sentence…well, almost. That line with the ghosts. I could see that you might have a semi-colon after ‘throat’, and I can see that maybe it did, and then got changed, to segue into the final stanza which is all short sentences, question after question; it’s in a panic, that last stanza , I think…. in a desperate rush to say everything before the last chance is gone, like trying to save all your precious things before the flood takes them …and it knows it’s going to fail, that the light’s going to go out, and that there never was enough time, and if there was, we never saw it was there. So, when Hazell Hammond asks about that trembly feeling when you think you have written a really really good poem then I can say I not only know what it feels like, but I can see when it’s happened to someone else. And for me, it’s nearly always because they’ve taken a risk with their own emotions, not edited them or dressed them up.

So, this post was in its earlier incarnation, prompted by Jenny Joseph’s Warning and was interesting itself in irresponsibility, unselfconsciousness, and risktaking. I’ve always been attracted by the notion of embracing irresponsiblity and eccentricity, but fight shy of their corollaries of physical and emotional and spiritual risk. I’m attracted to  those writers who take those kinds of risks in poetry, and I declare a preference for poems and poets that are courageous and unflinching.

For various reasons, I’m advised against eating processed meats, so sausages are out, and I’ve never been keen on wearing purple or rattling sticks along railings. Extravert behaviour has always come fairly easily, but  real risk-taking is something I’ve basically tried to keep at arms’ length, and without that, I see no way towards achieving the edge that I respond to so readily in other people’s poems.

I’m going to see if I can articulate this better . It may be that I have to come at it obliquely and crabwise. Fingers crossed, then. First of all, let’s declare that when I rock up at various writers’ workshops I invariably react negatively to exercises in ‘form’. My writing mind responds well to pressure and strictures about time, and cues about, say, how many lines I’m allowed, and even about the imposition of keywords to plant in each line. But that’s about it. What I can’t do is sit down and plan to squeeze an idea or a feeling into a terza rima, or a sestina or a sonnet. I can’t see the point of it. I’m not saying there isn’t one, but I find it quite hard enough to find out what I think I’m thinking or feeling, and what it might mean, without things being edited out by form or rhyme.

Rhythm is the thing  I need to think with . All my first and early drafts are in flat-out prose that attaches to a particular rhythm…which will in turn attach to the feel of a line length that I can fine tune later. In fact, while I’m having a ‘wearing purple’ day, I want poems where the form follows the drive of meaning and feeling. I like the playfulness, the wit, the rhetoric, the memorisabilty of rhyme in other people’s poems, but much of the time, they get in the way of what I want to say or feel. I’m always pleased to add to the bag of tricks and techniques, but almost always they’re the ones that help me to cut out what’s inessential, that make what’s left feel surprising and inevitable. I want holding forms, but there are beautifully crafted poems out there full of beautifully crafted observations and reflections and images that seem to sit there just to be admired. Like Faberge eggs. Exquisite and pointless bits of showing off. Don’t ask me for examples. I have few enough friends as it is. I’m just inviting you to see where I am before I go on about where I want to be.

Another ‘wearing purple’ thought. My Facebook pages are full of poetry and things about poetry. And there are so many people posting about how many collections have been bought and devoured. There are so many of you out there, reading so many poems. And here’s the thing. I don’t. I can go for days and weeks with one or two poems that affect me. Art galleries have the same effect. I can take in maybe four images (if it’s a good show) and then I want no more. After that the rest will simply blur into unmeaning. Two or three examples. There was a Stanley Spencer retrospective at the Tate Liverpool some years ago. Wonderful images everywhere. But it was as much as I could do to sit in front of ‘The resurrection at Cookham’. Enough there to fill my mind for years. Same with Peter Blake. Fantastic canvasses, but just one of his Ruralist self-portraits had enough ideas to last the week.


The Alte Pinakothek in Munich has a Rubens room that’s like walking through a celestial butchers’ cold room, but, tucked in a corner of a 19thC room, is a little Lautrec oil sketch. It’s on a piece of torn card. It’s of a bone-tired,  redhaired prostitute. The intensity of his imaginative engagement and unflinching raw honesty and tenderness is worth a room full of  gilt-framed blowsy renaissance treasures. That picture is like the poems I want to write. But trying to say what I mean is turning out to be like trying to describe vertigo. If you’ve ever frozen up at the top of a ladder, or on a rockface, or on seacliff path you know exactly what I mean. And if you haven’t, you don’t. Ah well. By the way, let’s be clear. I’m not for a second suggesting that there’s too much poetry around. Just that there’s too much for me to take in, and quite enough that moves me and excites me to be troubled about the rest.

There’s another thing I must say before I forget . What CAN’T workshops and exercises and boxes of tricks do  (well, for me, at least)? They may make you you more inventive, but they won’t make you more awake to what’s going on around you. If I’m not feeling, imagining the world, minute by minute, whatever will I be writing about? How do I grow more curious about, and more involved in, living and all its complexities. I know there’s a reflexiveness about being absorbed in creative works and being able to be absorbed in living, and being honest about it. But. Kim Moore gave me the keyword to hang on to. Value judgements about poetry are neither here nor there. ‘Good’ is irrelevant. What matters is whether it’s true or not. Don’t ask me to explain that. It’s like vertigo. But you know viscerally as well as intellectually when things are true or not. Don’t you? I don’t want to wear purple. I want to take the risks in engaging with the world ‘out there’  that end up with ‘true’.

And another thing (there’s no shape to this any more. Sorry). Curiosity. That ability to ask. What if? Why? About anything and everything. That would free me up, get the kinks and stiffness out of the way I write, I think. Couple of examples. I was at a workshop at the Orangery in Wakefield a couple of years ago, and strugglingling to concentrate, because I’d given up the chance of going to see Batley Bulldogs play Featherstone in a Championship play-off in order to go to the workshop. That’s commitment, that is. But two things made me sit up, and stuck like burrs. Kim Moore said both of them. The first thing was about an exercise in which we’d been invited to concentrate on a painting we knew, and to work with it. Kim said : have you ever wondered what it would be like to follow the painting round the edges to where it carries on. Something like that. The other was when she mused about geese being herded to market. Why would they walk when they can fly? she asked. Something like that. Both ideas still bother me. But I love and envy the idea of being able to think outside the frame, outside the obvious logic. The other example was in an email from Gaia Holmes. She said that maybe if you named all the bones in the body you’d call something up.  Wow! Just let that reverberate in your mind. Wonderful. I must learn to be free to imagine like that.


So, where are we. I think I’ll stop after a couple more short thoughts. My Facebook pages are full of other writers’  resolutions to write a poem every day in April…it’s struck chords around the web, has that. But there’s a corollary. Let’s say you can manage an hour or two a day. What will go on in all the other hours?  Because that’s where the work will come from.

Say you take your photograph of a drowned bird on shingly beach, and the wind blowing in from the Outer Islands. What does it mean to you? What do you mean to it? What does it mean? Why does it matter? Because if doesn’t, why did you take a photograph?

Here’s my NaPoWriMo wish for you. That things will matter more. And here’s one for me. For the awful daring of a moment’s surrender. Preferably, lots of them.

So you wanna be a rock ‘n roll star: some thoughts on ‘being published’

To put it all in context. In the last year or so, I’ve reviewed – or blogged about – collections that I love. Kim Moore’s The art of falling. Christy Ducker’s Skipper. Fiona Benson’s Bright travellers. Jane Clarke’s The River. Work by Shirley McClure, Maria Taylor, Hilary Elfick, Tom Cleary, Bob Horne, Steve Ely, Clare Shaw., Wendy Pratt…loads of them. I’ve been asked to read manuscripts of draft collections and wished they were mine. For the last three days (with the invaIuable help of Sandra Blackford) I’ve been collating a new collection of poems by me and my friend Andy Blackford, fiddling about and agonising over sequence and continuity and beginnings and endings. I just signed a contract for a first collection of my own poems…of which more in another post. And I’m involved in a frustrating email exchange about the cover design. How did I get here? Because I never set out to get here. Let me tell you how.


We can all dream. Write poems. Get them accepted by The Rialto, Magma, Poetry Review...all of them.Find a publisher. Bloodaxe would be nice. Get great reviews, prizes. Sit in Waterstones and sign copies while the queue stretches out of the door and along the street. We can dream, and so we should; our reach should exceed our grasp, or what’s a heaven for?  But.

Some time ago I was riffing on the various cries of pain I hear on Facebook. We’re a fragile lot, us poets, I wrote.  You find yourself, for reasons you can’t fathom, writing, or trying to write, poems; meeting other bewildered and enthusiastic folk in the same pickle. And every now and again hearing (or reading on Facebook) the complaint that someone is ‘blocked’ or ‘stuck’ or has ‘hit a blank period’. You become addicted to Anthony Wilson’s blog, and his dialogues with The Book. The self-doubt, the angst…and the casual indifference of the mephistophilean Book. You understand every bit of it. But.

You go on writing, and maybe you get some poems accepted by magazines. And for a bit you feel sort of content. And then folk start asking: have you got a collection out yet? And you look at the growing files of poems you’re more or less pleased with. Your ouevre. And that ‘what shall I write about?’ morphs into ‘when will I be published?’. More specifically, ‘I want a collection’. Which morphs into ‘When will I be famous?’. And then poet-envy. Then doubt. Despair. Oblivion.


It doesn’t have to be like that. This won’t be one of those helpfully informative ‘how to’ posts. I leave that to folk who are better at it than me ..lovely folk like Roy Marshall ( Specifically, the post you want is at the end of this link .  And  other lovely folk like Josephine Corcoran (, for instance. Everyone’s route to a collection is different. ( I nearly wrote ‘journey’ and caught myself just in time). This was mine.

I had one abortive attempt at taking the business seriously a few years ago, when I did a part-time Creative Writing MA. To be honest, I really did it because I was semi-retired, and struggling to cope with free time. I thought that committing to a course would put some discipline into my life. It didn’t, but that’s another story. On the other hand, I was struck by the diffuse ambition of my (much younger) fellow students. None of them asked questions about how to make their work better. But they constantly asked about how you set about getting published. I didn’t get it. I genuinely thought it was hard enough to actually learn something about the craft of writing, and to actually write some poems. In the end I didn’t do much of either, and I got an MA, and that was that for some time.

But. I’d got a taste for it, even if I didn’t acknowledge it. It was Poetry Business Writing Days that set my feet right. You learn from the company you keep; I was taken along for the first time by Julia Deakin, to whom I shall be eternally grateful. I sat in rooms with people who seemed to write as though writing, and getting it right, was enough. I was comfortable in their company. Eventually, though, the conversation would turn to magazines and pamphlets and collections, and I realised after all that just writing better wasn’t enough. What was the point, if no one was reading your stuff? But.


Why would they would be reading yours? Who would notice? How will they find it in the multiverse of books and bookshelves and libraries  and bookshps? I remember saying to Ann Sansom that I couldn’t see why folk would pester publishers. Or why poetry publishers put themselves through it. There’s no money in it for anyone, that’s for sure. Or you might get published by someone who it turns out isn’t that bothered about the most important thing in your life.


Something that’s stuck in my mind since then is an anecdote that Simon Armitage put in his account of walking the SW Coast Path and reading at various venues along the way. (Walking away. Faber). He’s staying overnight at what was the home of Peterloo Poets…who, inter alia, were the publishers of U.A.Fanthorpe. At some point, they simply went out of business. And left behind thousands and thousands of unsold copies, gradually falling prey to dust and damp. There you go. No one’s going to see your stuff on those crowded shelves, and eventually you’ll be remaindered or pulped. It’s a profoundly depressing thought. But.

You send stuff out, you enter competitions, you do open mics. You realise (well I did) that even if someone offers to publish you, it could be over a year before anything happens. And maybe you think you haven’t the patience for it. That’s what I felt like, but at the same time there’s something deeply unsatisfying about a whole bunch of poems that sit there in their Wordfiles, that have no physical heft. As it happened, still struggling to cope with semi-retirement, I enrolled in a bookbinding course at the Tech in Leeds. Learned very simple techniques, learned kettlestitching, all about endpapers, about boards, and even about embossing. Decided that for my assessment projects, I’d make books of my own poems. So I did.


Two things happen. Well, they did for me.

The first is that when you go through the business of choosing and sequencing your poems, you realise that you didn’t really know your own work. You knew it, if you knew it at all, as this poem or that poem. And then it hits you that there are themes and preoccupations you were barely aware of. It’s fascinating and possibly unnerving. I’m reminded that last week, Roy Marshall (see above) was guest poet at The Puzzle Hall Poets and said, in passing, that he was surprised how many birds there were in his poems…especially since, unlike Steve Ely, say, he knows next to nothing about birds. That chimed with me. I’ve just assembled a collection and realised that I write a lot of poems with birds in. And a lot with God .. or gods…in.It’s an odd thing for a card-carrying atheist to discover that he may be in the wrong club after all.

The second is that when you have your homemade book in your hands, you’re the only one who knows it’s homemade. You can head off to an open mic. and read from it. At which point you realise the snag. There’s only one copy. Someone asks: where can we get that?(if you’re lucky) and there it is. A seed’s been sown. So what do you do if you want multiple copies? The answer is ridiculously simple. You make a template. You page set your poems. You design a cover and think of a smart title, and you type that seductive line: Poems by Me. You find a nice printer, show him the layout…just take in your memory stick…sort out a price and you pay for a properly printed batch of poems. If you’re active on Facebook and you go to open mic.s and you have lots of poetry chums (and I’ll bet the farm you have) you’ll have no problem selling 50 or more. That’s what I did. I did one, and that went well, so I did another. I used any ‘profit’ to pay for a reprint, and each of mine have gone through three reprints. I’m still selling the odd copy via the My Books link at the top of the page.


Not all small printing firms will do perfect binding …forget the chapbook. A pamphlet, though is perfectly realistic. Stapled. Have a look at the pamphlets you’ve collected here and there. Size varies, but don’t go smaller than 12 X 18.5 cm, whatever you do. (A5 is nice.14.5 X 21 cm)  And learn from the best. Design a dust jacket. If you want to see just what a difference a dustjacket makes, look no further than the Poetry Business pamphlet competition winners. Hide the staples…which just look amateurish. It really is that simple. One other thing. If you want to persuade a bookseller to take some copies, you need to get an ISBN. You can find all sorts of isbn. suppliers on line. Just make sure you get get one that comes with a bar code. Bookshops need the barcode, usually. And note that unit costs are cheaper if you buy  more than one. Because you may develop a taste for it. You want to be published? Just do it. And feel that surge of pure joy when you collect your box of fresh-printed  pamphlets, and you just want to have that smell of new paper and ink in your life for ever. Two of my happiest memories are seeing the big smiles on the faces of Kim Moore and of Jane Clarke when their brand new collections came out. Is there a downside? Depends how you judge the market. Accept pretty well that whatever your plans, you’ll be torn between a book that goes out of print and a box of as-yet-unsold stuff. Like this.


There are other ways of doing it and you choose one that you think suits you. I enter a lot of competitions, and the prize for some of them is to have a pamphlet or a chapbook published. That’s how I come to have copies of Larach to sell. Quite a lot at the moment, because the publisher let me have all his remaining copies at a generous discount. I suppose it’s officially out of print, now. But if you go to My Books, I’ll sell you one. I’ll sell you lots. At the moment I’ve another (jointly authored) pamphlet collection on a shortlist. We’ll see what happens with that. Whatever happens, we’ve had the pleasure of squencing, and editing and discovering things we didn’t know about our poetry.

Other choices? Well there’s the sheer hard slog route. Kim Moore, for instance, has indefatigably submitted to journals and magazines for years and built up a portfolio of published work (as well as winning the Poetry Business Pamphlet Competition) that she could take to a publisher and have published as a collection. The art of Falling [Seren 2015] is, as I never tire of saying, a stunner. Or my mate Keith Hutson, who maintains a rigorous routine of writing every morning, of submitting and submitting (about 60 poems published in major journals over the last two/three years), and is rewarded with the breakthrough of being asked to put together a pamphlet. It’s out now. Routines [Poetry Salzburg 2016]. And that’s a stunner, too. Or if you work at your open mics and submissions, you gradually become aware of small poetry publishing firms. We’ve got two in Calderdale: Caterpillar Poetry and  Calder Valley Poetry. And in Wakefield, The Currock Press. Find what’s around you. Make friends with them. Email them. Talk to them. But here’s the thing. Don’t sit around mithering about wanting to be published. If you really want it, you’ll do it.

I started off by making handmade books, just for the fun of it. Then I got a printer. Then I won a competition. Then I won another. I’m a lucky boy. My first collection’s coming out in November. I may even post pictures of it. Or, like Jane Clarke, go to sleep with it under my pillow. You’ll never be a rock ‘n roll star. That’s not what it’s about.  But whatever you do, just do it. You know you want to.

Elixir: a polished gem (4) Lindsey Holland

Crazy water 2

There’s a great Tom Russell song. Mineral Wells. Like all his best songs, it tells a story…in this case that of the Fat Boy and the Filmstar. Both down on their luck. She sleeps in the backseat of a Cadillac on a backstreet in the Hollywood Hills with her box of old photographs. Fat Boy was at one time a film critic. She’s played Shakespeare on the London stage. He’s seen all her films. He wears grey overalls, weighs 400 pounds. It’s never going to be a marriage made in heaven. But they can dream:

She told him of a fountain of youth
In the hot Texas earth
It’ll heal and renew us
It’s somewhere west of Fort Worth
And she met Errol Flynn there
In the Crazy Water Hotel
And they danced down the street
In the moonlight of old Mineral Wells.

And off they go, Fat Boy and Filmstar, Greyhound bus, all the way to Texas to find ‘the fountain of youth’s all dried up’. It’s a country song. What did you expect?

crazy water 1

Where’s all this going, you may be thinking. Bear with me. I recently worked out that me and two other poetry-writing friends have thirty four grandchildren between us. And, briefly, just fleetingly, I wondered if I was getting old. Because I don’t feel old. I don’t feel essentially different from when I was a teenager. Just as foolish, loud, over-enthusiastic, given to unnecessary swearing; still hooked on rock ‘n roll (never drugs; sex something of a distant memory).

Feeling young is just feeling alive. Poetry makes me feel more and more alive. Writing it, and writing it in the company of others; workshops. Reading it and performing it. A mic. and a room full of people. And the essential ingredient – young poets. I gave up on folk clubs and folk festivals partly because the poetry I wanted to perform simply didn’t fit, but also because I felt as though I was surrounded by people who embraced ageing in the guise of real ale, weight gain and an absence of dress sense. The fashion of choice in your folk club, it seems to me, is the fleece. And despite the likes of Kate Rusby and Seth Lakeman there’s a notable absence of youth and the youthful. Course, I’ll be told it’s not like that. It’s not like that at all. But I can only say how it seems, and if your experience is other than that, then good luck.

I realise, now that I’d better qualify that phrase ‘young poets’.  Because I have no doubts they don’t think of themselves as ‘young’, and may well be indignant if they read this. Because some of the ones I think of as young are as old as my children. Come to think, that’s probably why. And one of them who is incorrigibly young is actually 75. It’s about vitality. But still. Who are they, these young ‘uns who raise my spirits and make me raise my game every time I meet them?  I met Luke Yates recently at a Poetry Business writing day. He bowled me over. And then was one of the winners of the Poetry Business Pamphlet Competition. Wow! Yvonne Reddick who reads with a rare exactness and precision, who writes elegant, researched poems that stick in the mind. Liz Venn who’s unafraid of the coexistence of poetry and science. Julie Mellor (same age as my daughter) who constantly startles and excites with her range of reference. David Tait, who I’ve never met personally, not to chat to, and whose poetry makes me feel untravelled and gauche. Maria Taylor- editor, published poet (who I’ve reviewed) and mother of twins, and also absurdly young. Gaia Holmes, whose oddly surreal and passionate poems with their combination of wit and fragile vulnerabilities are a continuing delight. Kim Moore. Well, I wrote my paean of praise/fan letter about Kim a couple of weeks ago. Clare Shaw, whose readings lift the hair on the back of my neck. It strikes me that many of them are teachers, or work in one way or another with young people.I feel blessed to know them all, and their enthusiasm and their passion and their zest. Elixirs. It’s the company you keep.

So that’s the context for this week’s polished gem: Lindsey Holland. I first met her (where else?) at The Poetry Business in Sheffield. She stuck in my mind as impossibly small and burdened. That was probably because of the out-of-scale backpack she was lugging about, and which appeared to be full of books. Maybe it happened to coincide with the fact that I’d been recently reading Cheryl Strayed’s ‘Lost’ and anyone with a backpack would seem waif-like. Every time after that, the backpack would come along with her…until last week at Poetry by heart in Leeds for the launch of Kim Moore’s collection: The art of falling. No backpack, this time, but with a teenage daughter who seemed not much younger than her.

So much for appearances. What was more important was the workshopped poem she brought to that Saturday writers’ day last year. It was one of those poems that immediately grab my attention because it was skilful and crafted, because it involved repetitions ( and therefore, elements of a list), and because the repeated element was the word ‘Because’. I’m a sucker for any sentence that begins with ‘because’ because it makes you wait. It happens that the poem was a list of reasons for a particular falling into love. And it had memorable images, like a shore ‘where starfish clap at waves’. That ‘clap’ is so exact, so surprising, so right. As is the sailor who ‘learnt to roll / with the buckle of wood over water’. You can’t improve on that ‘buckle’. Anyway, it persuaded me to ask her if she had poems to sell, and I bought this:

lindsey 1

I was surprised by a cover that seemed to come out of early 1970’s graphics for a science fiction story. Even more surprised and delighted by the poetry. The workshop poem was comfortable (for me) in its historical/biographical narrative. A lot of the poems in ‘Particle soup’ disconcerted me as I read them on the Supertram on the way to Meadowhall to pick up my my car. Words I’d never encountered before. What was ‘biopoeisis’? What’s a ‘mandelbrot set’? Who was this poet with an unfeasibly large backpack who could invoke a strangely sleazy transgressive world in a stanza like this from ‘The mourning before’ ?

‘On humid nights, we’d get drunk on Leffe

until the cockroaches’ speed seemed ridiculous

but not enough to beat him’.

Well,now I know, and I’m happy to know it. Lindsey Holland was born in 1976, [yup…young] in Ormskirk, Lancashire. Her poetry has appeared internationally in magazines and anthologies and her first poetry book, Particle Soup, was published by the Knives Forks and Spoons Press in 2012. She’s recently finished writing a pamphlet and she’s currently working on a full collection of poetry — both of these comprise poems based on her family history. She was Highly Commended in both the 2014 Café Writers competition and the 2015 Wenlock Poetry Festival Competition, shortlisted for a Cinnamon Poetry Collection Award in 2011 and commended in the Cheltenham ‘Buzzwords’ competition in 2013. She co-edits the new online magazine The Compass and she’s the founder of the network North West Poets. She edited the anthologies Sculpted: Poetry of the North West and Not on Our Green Belt and she was Poet in Residence at Chester Zoo in 2014. She has an MA in Writing from the University of Warwick, where she was also part of the Heaventree Press team, and she currently teaches poetry at Edge Hill University. She ran her own photography business for several years and won numerous awards for her photographic work. Her interests include dog walking, nature, psychogeography, genealogy, singing and metal detecting.

It’s the photography business that throws me. When did she have the time? That and psychogeography. I had no idea what it was, but now I do, I understand better the damaged and slightly dangerous urban landscapes where some of the poems of Particle Soup  live; the business of the sometime playful exploration of built-up places, and sometimes the business of trespass. I think that both elements inform this poem I particularly chose from the collection:

The Trails are Mostly Invisible
It’s not enough to know of the castle,
plan a train, walk past that kid with the plump tongue
licking ice cream,
find the moat bridge, garrison, museum, see
the crawl space where
men ghosted bodies.

The walls are lying. They cover themselves. We
climb stairs, delve and probe,
read the blurbs and stop at photographs.
This can’t be that place we constructed.
White paint spreads its skin around the rooms,
there’s a rose bush in the courtyard,

and you and I are lost in here. It’s not enough
to pick like archaeologists; cracks
are filled and plastered, even keyholes
peep at nothing dirtier than brooms.
The clocks don’t blink,
the coffee shop is closing

but we can guess their path: with dyed clothes
and fake papers, hidden cash, they must have run
across the field at the back where steel gates
warn of a pylon. Wild grasses,
brambles, nettles are shoulder high
and only an escapist would think

to climb and drop, tear a path.
We might be treading their exact route, making
their decisions. The soil records
our feet as we scramble. I look back
and the castle’s windows flame in the sun,
from this hill, again, repeat.

There are so many untold stories in this poem, so many backstories to guess at and speculate on. Angela Topping talks about the collection’s invitation to mysterious journeys. Luke Kennard highlighted the way her poems invoke and explore non-existent spaces between love and fear. This poem helps me to understand what they mean. Nothing is certain  (this can’t be the place we constructed), and everything is exact, precise. ‘Keyholes peep at nothing dirtier than brooms’. Dirtier? How? Why?   I have no idea where I am or who ‘we’ are. Or perhaps I have too many ideas. In either case it’s unsettling.

Three years on, Lindsey’s poems are moving, as she says, into explorations of family history. I’m intrigued by the next poem that she’s sent me, because it seems to elide the threatening urban edgeland, and the lives of the past. And it has an urgency and energy that makes me want to chant it.

Things She Learnt on Gomer Street

Be careful not to sing before 9am on Sundays
Be careful not to bother Mrs McFee in the washroom
Be careful when your father has gin breath
Be careful of gin
Be careful to stitch your own holes and make patches
Be careful when running not to knock the gentlemen’s canes
Be careful with your tongue
Be careful to cover your bruises
Be careful around your mother when she coughs up blood
Be careful around blood
Be careful not to get your dress soaked and catch a fever
Be careful with the flour
Be careful at the gates to the dock where the Devil lingers
Be careful of pickpockets better than you
Be careful of seafood
Be careful of no food
Be careful of your father, always of your father
Be careful when pissing in the shadows at the timber yard
Be careful with the sugar
Be careful not to lose that purse with the farthing
Be careful of the Queen Anne
Be careful not to yelp

It’s an awful catechism for a child, this, and an utterly realistic one. Life is beset with threats and none are greater than another. The Devil, a prohibition on Sabbath singing, the flour, the blood, Mrs MacFee, the need never, ever to show fear or pain. Be careful not to yelp. I love the way the lines loop and link and reinforce each other. It’s as though you could take random lines from Henry Mayhew’s children, his mudlarks and watercress sellers, and cut and paste them into a chant children could turn a skipping rope to. It’s a lot cleverer than it looks. Even so, I want to end with a poem that’s gentler, or, at least, more full of the possibilities of love. It’s the Third of May. It’s too cold to be out, not even to put in bedding plants or pot up tomatoes. It’s cold enough for casseroles and stews. Here’s a poem to warm us up. like the one I heard in a workshop last year, it has a sailor in it. And it was Commended in the Buzzwords Competetition 2013.

He called you his chou-fleur, for the pleated hems
and frills you stitched in the palpitating light
of a porthole. At twenty-two, in half a gale

you barely tilted. When he put up bulkheads
you’d slip up to the jib, your tiny feet concealed
by layered folds of ochre. Near to port,

your headscarf’s tartan slumped across your shoulders
and black-gloved hands small birds on the rail,
you’d watch for gulls. ‘There’s too much machinery’

you murmured once, your jaw against his collarbone
and warm limbs heavy as you entered the troughs
of Irish waves. ‘I wish we were kittiwakes

with nary a struggle but sea and shrimp’. At harbour
you waited by the gates. Discharging cargo
bought a couple of hours. You’d stray down vennels

to streets that dripped with whisky and tobacco,
the judder of engines, an airborne oil
that soaked through fabric, that licked his skin.

Isn’t that exact and lovely, the dance of refracted light off broken water, that ‘palpitating light/ of a porthole’ ? And what a surprising verb it is in that last line. ‘Licked’. So here we are. Thank you all you young ones who have something to say. I don’t care how old you think you are. And thank you Lindsey Holland for letting me share your poems. Thank you to anyone who may be reading this.

Now. Cold and wet or not, someone’s got to get out and shout for my beloved Batley Bulldogs, and I shall now, on this May Sunday swaddle myself in thermals and gloves and fleeces. Next week we’ll be having nothing but The Best (of……). see you then.

* Mineral well….this song ( Russell is accompanied by Katie Moffatt on this one)  is on the 17 track album The long way        around. [Hightone records]. Buy it. You won’t be disappointed. It’s got the wonderful Andrew Hardin doing amazing things on guitar. Listen especially for The angel of Lyon.

stand-up: a polished gem (3) Keith Hutson


It’s grim up North. Well, bits of it undoubtedly are. As are bits of everywhere else. All through the 60’s if you watched ‘Coronation Street’ (of which more later) the opening credits reinforced an image of terraced roofs and smoking chimneys, as though Manchester had remained unchanged since this photo of Ancoats was taken in 1875, and would remain unchanged hereafter. Of course, it’s not like that. It’s not like that at all. There’s another lazy trope which goes on the lines that we live in an overcrowded island. But every Sunday night 3 or 4 million people tune in to watch ‘Countryfile’ , which may be like Blue Peter for the terminally nostalgic, but whose opening credits present a Britain from the air which is entirely rural, beautiful, and almost entirely unpopulated. It makes me feel much the same way as any flight  into Leeds/Bradford, or into Manchester….that I live in a rural island punctuated by bits of urbanisation. Maybe that’s why I find London so alien, so relentlessly and endlessly built-up.


This picture’s taken from Wainhouse’s Tower in Halifax, not far from where this Sunday’s polished gem, Keith Hutson lives, and where he keeps several acres of hillside, and a small flock of sheep.In my part of Northern England, industrial towns are interpenetrated by field and woodlands and moors. The street of the mill town where I grew up had a dairy farm at the top (surrounded by a prefab council estate, and old pit spoilheaps) and a blankfaced mill at the bottom. One of the barns in the farm was actually something built by the Knights of St. John in the 12th C. It got knocked down. Beyond the mill, up the opposite hillside was a farm, and the woodlands of Wilton Park, and beyond that, in the next valley, opencast mines, woods, farms, brickworks, and so on all the way to Leeds, ten miles to the north. And the thing is, you never have to travel too far for views like this (which is pretty much like the view from Keith’s house, and hundreds of others on the hillsides of the Calder valley)


And your point?..I hear you thinking. Well, the sharp-eyed poetry blog fans among you will have noticed that Keith was the guest poet on Kim Moore’s Sunday poem,  [ ] a couple of weeks ago and that she chose a poem about a bath set in a field on a hillside not unlike this; if she’d not beat me to it, it’s one I would have asked for myself. Basically, I’m after a context for the poems Keith sent me…because it’s always a surprise to get his next new poem. Part of the biography he sent me will set you up for the poem that follows:

Keith  was born in Manchester in 1957. He cut his writing teeth in the 1980s, writing and performing in plays, sketches, pantos and reviews for the amateur stage. He was also writing poetry and had 12 poems published in the Outposts Modern Poets Series, edited by Howard Sergeant. His output led him to become a script and storyline writer for Coronation Street, and his agent Roger Hancock (the late, great Tony’s brother) got him work writing material for many well-known comedians, including Les Dawson, Jasper Carrot and Michael Barrymore. Keith also collaborated, with Leslie Darbon, on a Channel 4 Sitcom called First Nights.’  It is, I think, a background that accounts for the eye for situation, for the sense of the nub of a story, and for the economy of telling that I think is one of Keith’s signatures.

The Family

At the bottom of a street gone bust
– even the bookies boarded up –

I saw them: mum, two kids, no coats,
standing on the corner. Soaked.

It was the lad who came across
– bigger than his sister – ten, perhaps.

Could I tell him where the Shelter was?
I could. He thanked me very much,

then I took off my glove and shook
his gloveless hand. Good luck.

When he went back, she waved, his mum.
They each picked up a bag, held hands, carried on.


Keith adds a footnote to this which typifies the empathy that runs through all his poems, and equally, his lack of sentimentality:  ‘THE FAMILY: This poem was first published by Pennine Platform and pays tribute to a family I encountered when I was doing a landscaping job in Whalley Range, Manchester. The ten year old boy would be about thirty now, and I often think about him and still wish him good luck.’  And there’s our urban landscape. What I like is that economy, the short sentences, the careful punctuation. It’s a poem that comes with its own spare stage directions.

Keith is  a landscaper – apprenticed at sixteen. His poetry mines a deep vein of manual labour and he is proud to have worked physically all his life. He does regret having to put most of his efforts into running the family landscaping and nursery business when his father became ill, but he is now able to write full time and is grateful for the experience a lifetime of outdoor work has given him. And, I guess, the small pleasures of physical work, especially at the end of a day. Pleasures like the one he records in this poem.

Coal Tar Soap

Stink with zing, this bitter little blister by the sink,
but every working sunset since the work
began, you’ll find me sunk, up to the elbows
in the stuff. I’ve come to love the twilight scrub;

carbolic lather sending heavy sessions
down the drain. Drudgery and me decanted
to the stark nirvana of a straight-backed seat,
no company, a book of poems interrupted

only by a spot of splinter-picking
through tobacco smoke, the quasi-comfort
of familiar aches and pains: by-products
of a life that, like the soap, has never changed.

I like the way the simple fact of the ritual of washing off the day’s grease and grime,  its sharp smells and textures and comforts, is sustained; the conceit of the day’s graft gone down the drain, the distraction of ‘splinter-picking. And although it’s not precisely the role of poetry (is it?) it’s nice to remember that soap. Its translucence, that ‘bitter blister’ like an amber tear.

Keith’s third poem sits us down in one of those carefully nurtured and landscaped and manicured spaces that I imagine in the middle of industrial towns. And in this case, I have to admit that, for me, the word ‘bowls’ can only mean the crown green variety, played by dry-witted laconic men; men who were very sparing of movement and of conversation. This poem for me is every game of bowls I ever sort-of-watched.


Fine for an hour, then dull, despite a summer sun.
Green tedium. But do beware,
if nudged a bit, this game is good
at slowly rolling on and on.

Little genuflections – bows, knee-bends,
cupped hands, unfolding arms – weave
in the dying light their latticework
of shadows and perpetuate

the minor knocks, near misses, clusterings
and calls of Way too heavy, Jim!
into a never-ending winding-down,
a loop of letting go.

It becomes a metaphor for all the lives of retired working men I knew, a slow decline into dusk. I want to shout at them: rage! rage against the dying light! I doubt they’d listen, absorbed in their slow rituals, winding down.

Now, I had a sort of rule of thumb that ‘polished gems’ would be p0ets who have had a collection published, but I need to make an exception for Keith, who is certainly no ‘undiscovered gem’. Although he has only seriously started to submit his own work since January last year, encouraged by his friend Clare Shaw**, he has so far been published by The Rialto, The North, Butcher’s Dog, Prole Magazine, Pennine Platform, Ink Sweat and Tears, Hark, Meniscus (the University of Canberra) and Hinterland where he is now Submissions Editor. He has recently been commissioned by The Prince’s Trust to provide poetry and performance workshops to schools in Calderdale. Ian Parks, the founding editor of Hinterland, says he finds Keith’s poetry ‘interesting and exciting’. Keith is currently doing a BA in Creative Writing through the Open College of the Arts. He hosts the monthly WordPlay event at Square Chapel, Halifax, and runs (with Winston Plowes) the Square Chapel Creative Writing Group. I reckon that counts as ‘discovered’ .

I should also say that I was hoping he might have let me have one his poems that draw on the world of the music hall; it turns out that Widow Twankey is currently seeking employment elsewhere, as is another I wanted …Frankie Vaughan at a lad’s boxing club in Ancoats.If you want a taste of the world of the music hall comedian in the dying days of the craft, you can find three sonnets in The North 53, and make the acquaintance of Sandy Powell,Tommy Trinder, and Robb Wilton who each apparently built a career on profoundly unfunny catchphrases. Keith’s Uncle would take him, as a young boy, to see all the comic greats who appeared at Blackpool and other theatres in the North, and a lot of his recent poetry pays tribute to the performers he loves. He is working towards a collection of these poems, called Troupers. (Any offers anyone?)

posters and playbills 2 copy

There you are.   Say ‘thank you, Mr Hutson.’  Next week we’re having a half-term break while I go the Lakes to do some writing with the multitalented Peter Sansom. And the week after that, we’re asking the question. ‘The past. Another country?’

** Clare Shaw: Straight ahead [2006], Head on [2012] …both published by Bloodaxe

A way with words

mappa mundi

A few years ago, someone on ‘Desert Island Discs’ chose OS maps for his ‘book’…not just one, and not just the whole of England, Wales and Scotland, but a notional set of the whole world. And I thought: ‘Yes!’ I knew just what he meant. I love OS maps. The first time I flew in a plane (1981, Manchester to Belfast. Not the best time to go to Northern Ireland) I was spellbound a) by the fact of flying. Actually flying. The way you could leave the ground and stay up; b) by seeing that the maps were right. That what you could see out of the window was actually what the maps said you should see. I still haven’t got over it. Or over the fact that the maps were drawn without flying. How do they do that? Nothing short of miraculous.

Before I had new hips fitted, there were years when I couldn’t actually walk very far. Ten miles was a struggle, and then five, and then three…and then, finally, one. So I used to sit with maps of, say Upper Wharfedale, or South Skye, and imagine walks. You could figure out where it would be boggy, or hard-going and steep. You could stand on the top of a moor or a ridge and visualize what you could see. You could go everywhere, and not get lost. In practice, of course, it doesn’t quite work like that. Like the time on Skye when a large lochan seemed to have mysteriously vanished. It simply wasn’t where the map said it should be. Of course, it was. It became quite obvious when I got to the edge of a steep long drop. There it was, at the bottom. I’d just not paid proper attention to contour lines. I cannot understand why people are willing to give up their route finding to satnavs. How do they know where they’ve been, or how they got to where they are? Maybe it’s an age thing. But I stick to my maps.

Which leads me to thinking about how folks found their way when there were no maps. There were lovely speculative fictive maps, like the Mappa Mundi…but you would have to find your way to Hereford to look at it, and it still would be absolutely no use at all. And what if you were going where there were no well-found roads? I’m speculating myself, now, but just think…you ask someone how to get from a to b. At one time, if you were in a town, the reference points would be pubs. As Anthony Costello remarked when he gave a pub full of poets directions to the Kava cafe in Todmorden…it’s opposite Lidl. The times they are a changing. What happened to ‘The cock and bottle’, ‘The Duke of Devonshire’? Ah well. But, between towns and villages and hamlets?

I think it must have been done by names. I think that the names of places paint a picture, give directions. John Hillaby, in his wonderful book ‘A journey through Britain’ describes his distress at discovering the meaning of the word ‘larach’ in his OS map of part of the Western Highlands. It means ‘a place’. It means that it once had meaning; it once was populated or inhabited. Now it isn’t anything. Not even a proper memory. It doesn’t rate a symbol. A place. It’s never left me. I wrote a poem for it, and my new chapbook is called Larach (pub. Wardwood, December this year). It’s an oxymoron. The name of a place should tell you more. It should be helpful. I want to know what the names of places mean, so they should mean something. Let me explain.

If you drive from Shipley to Skipton you travel from Saxon to Norse. Both places are where sheep were grazed. Two similar, but different, languages. That tells you something. Now, I grew up in a street of houses built for mill workers. Pearl Street. The adjoining streets were Emerald Street, Ruby Street…a treasure house of a neighbourhood. Not surprisingly, this was totally misleading. I sometimes wonder at the warped inventiveness of the namers of streets, of the avenues and crescents in new housing developments…all the Grasmeres and Windermeres and Wharfedales and Braemars. There must people in planning departments who think them up. Where I lived there were streets named after battles (like Trafalgar Street and Jutland Street). In the older slums there were Yard No. 1, Yard No.2. No romancing or fancy there. But so many of them have no connection with the land or its use. Which makes the ones that do so much more precious. Like Tenterfields, on the Burnley road near Mytholmroyd, where Ted Hughes grew up. Have you ever been on tenterhooks? There’s a clue. Or Thrum Hall in Halifax. Near Gibbet Lane. Now we know what we’re talking about. They tell a story, names like this. I said last week that I’d riff on Calderdale placenames. So I will. (But, in passing, point out that Calderdale is not only home to Ted Hughes, and intermittently to Branwell Bronte, but also to the poets Gaia Holmes (my inspiration), Char March, Simon Zonenblick, Anthony Costello, and Clare Shaw…who, as I write, should have arrived in St Ives (surrounded by places with ‘pol’ in the name, and many with Z’s) to run a residential course with Kim Moore (my inspiration), and good luck to them both….


Last week we had Simon Zonenblick’s ‘Slitheroe Bridge’, which plays games with a false etymology. Before I forget, I should say that place names are no sure and certain guide. Slitheroe has nothing to do with slithering. My part of Batley was Carlinghow, and I still don’t know how that breaks down. ‘How’..well that’s a hill. ‘Carr’…a marshy woodland. ‘Ing’…people. That would give me, the place of the people of the marshy woodland by the hill. It would make sense, too. The topography would be right. But Wikipedia says it’s derived from ‘Carlin’ which could be a witch or a hag, or a commoner. Wikipedia goes for colourful: The witch’s hill’. I don’t believe it. I want to go for the description that would tell me I was in the right place. Go to Carlinghow, and then head up the hill and up another hill to Morley (the marshy settlement). Still, I should stick to the plan; Calderdale, that’s the plan.

Calder. Could be a problem. It’s Norse, but folk argue about whether it means ‘swift water’ or ‘stony river’. But it doesn’t much matter, because it’s going to be a deepcut river in a fairly steep-sided valley. A lot of places in the valleys of the Calder, the Hebble and the Ryburn have reliable names. There’s a horrible irony about Mixenden. A mixen was a rubbish tip..and also a sewage tip. Up at the end of the ‘den’ or pastureland. Where the rubbish and worse was carted from the town of Halifax, and dumped. They built a council estate up there, in that pleasant valley. It ended up as the place of last resort for ‘problem families’. I hope none of them are into placename etymology. But on we go. A dene is a small valley, usually an open river valley. A clough is as it sounds. A steep-sided valley. ‘Clough’ is derived from the same root as ‘cleave’ and ‘cleft’. Dene and den are open. Clough is hard and tight. You see where the poetry starts to grow. Thwaite is meadowland. There are words that tell you what trees you would have expected to find. ‘Birk’ is birch. There’s a place called Ling Bob where I used to go to tell stories at the Primary School. It’s actually Hollin just got elided over time. There would have been a significant stand of hollies there at one time. You can head off to Illingworth from there. ‘Worth’ is an enclosed piece of land. Go careful. They might not care for trespassers. Or sheep stealers.

Let’s go up the valley that used to be full of pubs owned by long-defunct breweries, through Luddenden and Mytholmroyd, taking notice of hows and cloughs, and royds, towards Todmorden (an open valley pasture, maybe a bit on the marshy side, and possibly home to foxes), until we get to Hebden Bridge, and then go right, up and up until we get to Heptonstall, where the road runs on to the moor top, and shortly, cut off to the left and slant down the hillside track to Lumb Bank. That steep valley filled with lumbs –mill chimneys –pointlessly standing among the sycamores, and the pink, sour-smelling balsam that came all the way from the Himalaya, as seeds hitching lifts in bales of cotton heading for the cotton mills..some of the last, east of the Pennines. Sit on the terrace of Ted Hughes’ old house and look down into dark valley. Go when the light’s fading. Think about the orphans. I’m not telling you any more.

So I’m thinking

of Ted Hughes’ gritstone house,

that tunnel of a yard, it’s slippery flags;


of that valley of cold chimneys

knee-deep in brown leaf-litter,

an abandoned artillery

firing blanks at a Pennine moon


of the abrasions of time passing,

the world wearing down, till it’s bland as an egg,

to the soundtrack of years, the long, long

sustain of a cello, circling these cloughs

of defunct  chapels, mills and breweries,

Hammonds, Duttons, Websters, thin and bitter,


of all my Methodist aunts and uncles,

Leonard especially, whose drink

was Water Bright, from the Crystal Stream

of the Pledge he signed, aged six,


and of this film in Japanese I saw

at the Essoldo, where the whole of an army was killed

down to the very last one, the cannibal,

shot through stubble-smoke, by farmers

burning off the fields, clearing the last of war

that ended when I was two

and still isn’t done, seventy years on,

which is not to be laid at Ted Hughes’ door

any more than the orphans

walled in the sides of the valley

in the shadow of the sycamores and lumbs.


No telling where following place names may take you. Now, for the next two weeks I shall be without wifi, and there will be no cobweb posts. I shall be in Ord, on the Isle of Skye, where hills are bheinns, where beag is little, and mhor is big, inver is a rivermouth, camus is a beach or a shore, nish is a headland, ach is a field. Rather beautifully, drum is a wave, and also a ridge or spine . The Pennines are like that, the crest of a great long wave. Drum. I shall look across Loch Eishort of an evening and see the Clearance sites of Boreraig and Suishnish, and so many places that are now only larach. Somedays you see Boreraig, and half an hour later, you don’t.

skye march 2012 004skye march 2012 021

I shall miss you. Maybe I’ll bring new poems back with me.