As a matter of fact: a polished gem (7) Julie Mellor

tolson 2

As a matter of fact, I couldn’t resist this image of a Pennine poet among the display cases of the Tolson Museum in Huddersfield. The reason should become clear as we go along, but I warn you in advance that this is the third post I’ve written in the last two days (the other two for other cobweb spinners and weavers who’ve asked me to guest on their sites; I’m not sure when they’ll be posted, but I couldn’t be happier to be asked.)….however, all three involve a bit of reflection on the writing process as I know it, and the thing is, I fear they may start to bleed into each other, or run like watercolours, and I’ll lose the thread. Fingers crossed.

I’ve just noticed I’ve managed to stack three metaphors into three consecutive clauses in one sentence. Sorry about that.

I’ve been thinking about that question that writers of all kinds get asked: ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ I’m not thinking of the business of what prompts you to recover them from the dusty, badly-curated bits of your memory and unconscious. That’s what writing workshops do for me. No, I’m thinking of the question of where it all comes from in the first place. What if you’ve had a pretty uneventful life? What if you’re not widely travelled. And why do we improvise on these first hand memories and on vicarious experience? James Britton memorably said it was because we never cease to long for more lives than we can actually live. So we read, we read, we watch films and television, we go to art galleries, we wander around cities, we walk through landscapes. We might even go into museums. I’m reminded that when I was doing a lacklustre MA in a lacklustre way for lacklustre reasons I had to write an essay about the ‘Writer as researcher’ and to reflect on the nature of the research I undertook in order to write poems. Where do I get my poems from? What are they about?

The more I look back, the more I see how one idea or notion will lead to another in ways that take me by surprise, and I accidentally stumble on information and images that find their way into poems….or become poems. And to be fair, how some of the books I read bleed into my writing. Here’s a confession. Every now and then I realise that I’ve hijacked another writer’s turn of phrase, or even come close to incorporating whole phrases and clauses into my writing. Not consciously. It’s as though they’ve morphed into ‘my’ thinking. John Prebble is one such. Wanting to make sense of crofters and Clearances inevitably took me to Prebble, and I find I’ve lifted a phrase about ghosts from ‘Glencoe’ that turns up, not much changed, in a poem called Boreraig, and another called A kind of history. And these are the ones I know about. It’s an odd thing, this ‘research’.

I’ve stumbled on stuff in Prebble, say, about Portugeses mercenaries fighting an awful rearguard on the slopes of Glen Shiel…why does it bother me? Why do I want to write about it, re-imagine it? Reading about the painter, John Waterhouse took me down sideroads of myth and legend, to Ovid, and then to Ted Hughes, and by another road to statues and sculptures, and thence to Queen Victoria’s journals, and the building of Nelson’s Column, and thence to his ships and his battles and his wounds. Vikings, the Spanish Civil War, crucifixion (did you know the sloping wooden ‘step’ on a cross is a suppadaneum?), Albert Pierrepoint, railway navvies, Mayhew’s street people………of late it’s been the history of maps, and, especially, Robert Macfarlane who has taken me back to the Vikings, to Everest, the geology of the Cairngorm. And people ask: where do you get your ideas from? As though that was problematic. The problem for me is knowing when to stop, to concentrate.

And so we come, by some indirection, to my guest for today, who writes about men who can hold ice, trains that fall from viaducts, fossilised trees, the folklore of fruit, the fears of geese,  Pennine graveyards, Sicilian breakfasts and volcanoes…in short a poet who never fails to engage and delight me: Julie Mellor


While I was rereading her Poetry Business Pamphlet Competition winner Breathing through our bones (chosen by Carol Ann Duffy! Yes, it’s that good.) I realised what it was I liked so much about Julie’s writing…it’s that every poem is a surprise, that each one is unexpectedly different from the last, and at the same time the voice is reliably the same. And the other realisation is that there’s not a shred of ego, or self-consciousness. Just a genuinely curious delight in the unaccountable richness and diversity of things. But I’m forgetting my manners. If you’ve not met Julie Mellor before, then let me introduce you.

Julie was born in Penistone, (which, as you’ll notice, has a viaduct…always a commendable thing, and is also one of these towns where everyone is someone’s cousin twice removed) where she lives with her partner and her most treasured possession: her dog. After doing various jobs, including working in a shoe shop on London’s Oxford Street, and as an au pair in Sicily, she gained a degree in English at the University of Huddersfield. She went on to do an MA in Writing at Sheffield Hallam, followed by a PhD, which she completed in 2003. Her poems have appeared in magazines and anthologies including Ambit, Mslexia, The North and The Rialto. Breathing Through Our Bones was published in 2012,  ‘Poems with a real ability to own their subject – whether spontaneous combustion or the collective thought of geese – and which remain to intrigue long after reading’ – says Carol Ann Duffy. I’m not about to argue with that.

I’ve known her for a few years as a regular at the Poetry Business writing days, which is where I’ve seen many of the poems in her pamphlet appear for their first airing in public. And thing is, they ‘stick’. They’re always memorable.  Not just the subjects, but the turn of phrase, the exactness of images. Here’s a few examples, just so you tune in.

You’ll encounter The roots of lycopsid trees , the Bishop of Tours, St Martin who chose to live with geese, Joseph Prigg, aged thirteen, who died of injuries at work, four days before Christmas, 1869. Because here’s a poet who spends time (like Simon Armitage) in the Tolson Museum in Huddersfield, who is interested in churchyards and gravestones, and brings the dead to life and breathes through their bones. Anyone can be quirky and eccentric with their choice of subjects. Making them connect with our lives is another thing altogether, and that’s what her poetry does for me. It grabs my attention, too, with images that are surprising and true. I truly hate canal towpath walking, and this is why.

Each bridge is a bleak stone rainbow
and when the water is calm,
it mirrors the arch

to a circle, a giant gun barrel
we are propelled through, side by side.

There it is, the rainbow with no gold at the end, that endless perspective, the speed of its narrowing, and for me, the no-progress of walking, looking at it endlessly receding. Or, how about this: a kitchen whisk  Like the winding gear at Dodworth pit. Or this:  ice melt running through my fingers / as if I was squeezing it dry. I really like the paradox of that. Neat, concise, exact. Or this, about a beck in spate. Listen. I’m running late;  / see the jolt in me……  ‘see’ where you’d expect ‘feel’; ‘see’ when you’ve just been told to ‘listen’. And so it goes. OK. I’ve made you wait. Time for complete poems. The first  I’ve always liked for the swagger of taking on Heaney on his chosen ground (though, to be fair, I can’t imagine anyone less given to swaggering than Julie Mellor.)


We have darkened like the end of the year,
the knuckled hulls at our core
white as a maggot or a baby’s first tooth.

Clusters of sorcery, we store the sun.
The juice of us is a blue flame.
Even the wary fall for our frumenty smell.

Between children’s fingers we bleed black,
store our vengeance until Michaelmas,
when the devil unleashes himself in spit

and piss, and we rot like the underside
of hide buried in lime, lose ourselves
in softness, sink back into what we are,

almost fruit, almost tar, resist the creeping nights,
the toll of winter curfew, wait
in our thinned clusters like the eyes of the blind,

until eel worms eat at our ingangs,
hang on to the last, juice thick as oak bark liquor,
seasoned, vile,

then shrivel back to seed,
like the mole on the back of the neck
that marks you for hanging.

Isn’t this a witchy poem and isn’t it textured? Just read it aloud and relish the consonants, and the creepy resonance of maggots, eels, the mole that marks you for hanging. Poetry as enchantment ( thanks for that, Dana Gioia). The next one is more tender, and I like it because it illustrates the surprise you can look forward to as you turn a page in the pamphlet. This one was published in The North.  (I can’t find which issue. Mea culpa)


Great Aunt Lucy

When I say I was hungry,
I’d already eaten the tiled hearth,
swallowed the coals in the scuttle
one by one, chewed the armchairs,
the cushions, all that wadding.

When I ate the television,
I felt the tube explode inside me.
My head swam. I was walking
on stilts, my slippers miles away,
small pink embellishments
at the end of my varicosed legs.

Eating the curtains took
the best part of a week.
I started with the nets; soft with dust
they went down the way
a christening shawl passes
through a wedding ring.

The curtains themselves I unpicked
like a moth, worked in from the corners,
followed the thread, like Ariadne
unwinding her ball of string.

When I’d done, the room
was full of grey light
and I saw myself properly
for the first time in years,
in an empty room, without my hat.

Gaia Holmes, another poet I like a lot,  will do this kind of thing. A sort of surrealism that works because it stays deadpan, even as it piles the improbable on the implausible, and then turns round on itself in the ambiguities of a room full of grey light, and something that’s wistful, and bleak and comic, all at once. Lovely. Now, just one more. This one has been published in Ambit 219. I think it’s one of the few of Julie Mellor’s poems that are explicitly personal.


I’m aware it’s the stuff of bee spit and wax,
that it turns soft when the sun warms the hive,

and the bees, busy with their work of sealing the gaps,
are animate and fondling in their movement.

In truth, it’s not propolis I’m talking about,
but those unwanted spaces where words land and rest.

Think of old windows, how the putty has hardened
under layers of paint so the glass rattles loose in the frame.

When I say it’s turning cold, remind you
to shut the door to stop the draft,

what I’m really saying is, here is my heart,
raw as lambs’ liver, leaking on a white plate.

It shouldn’t be so exposed. There shouldn’t be
all this quiet air around it.

What grabs me is that line..what I’m really saying is, here is my heart.  It’s simple, or it seems simple.But it isn’t at all. And you can’t ignore it, plain and unadorned amongst all the analogies that dramatise that business of trying to find the right words when the plain words were the right ones after all. So there you are.

Julie Mellor asks a question in one of her poems Autobiography

How do I know about the price
of porter, about fleas in the mattress,

the pawning of ulsters –?

The answer is that she spends a lot of time in museums and churchyards and books and other people’s poems and lives and landscapes; because she has endless curiosity. That’s what research is like. And we could do a lot worse than follow the advice in the closing lines of Drawing the line

Look at these graves,
how they hold their names ready for us,
how we stoop to read with surprise
what, for centuries, has been lying at our feet.

Right; you’ve been quiet and attentive and I’m really pleased with you all. Off you go, and make sure you buy a copy of Breathing through our bones (Smith/Doorstop Books. 2012. £5.00). You can do it simply by following the link on this wordpress site.

I hope that’s right. In any case, Google her. We’re having another guest next week. As a matter of fact, another Yorkshire poet, and a man who knows the finer points of a whippet. Don’t be late. And remember: More haste, less speed.

train crash penistone

Where the stories start


First of all, a great big thank you for the warm response to to last week’s review of Julia Deakin’s poetry, and a great big sigh of relief from me when she said she liked it. Phew. Friendship intact.

I commented last week on the way in which Julia’s poems often remind me of Lowry paintings…to the extent that they don’t seem to need precisely drawn backgrounds or settings, and how my own writing is often exactly the opposite. I was at the world-famous Poetry Business Workshop in Sheffield yesterday. Ann Sansom began one exercise by noting how an event or an occasion is remembered quite differently by different observers and participants. Take a wedding: one may have total recall of the clothes that people wore, another can describe the grounds and the planting of shrubs; this one will remember who was there and just what was said, and who didn’t like who, and so on; that one will recall the music, or the smell of the food. It’s that business of which bits of our memory we unconsciously cultivate. I’ve said before that mine is predominately visual, and this has a huge impact on the kind of poem I write. So I thought I’d spend this week reflecting on the place of landscape in my memory and in my writing.

Since I got titanium hips, I can do a lot more walking, and I take a lot of photographs. It’s slightly unnerving to find that hardly any of them have people in them; there’s something solipsistic about it, I suspect, as though I’m making private places where I can walk about, or into. As John Berger pointed out about the invention of perspective, it makes painting uniquely individual. It’s the painter’s point of view. It’s owned and it’s personal. It’s about the viewer. When I did an MA in Creative writing some years ago I did with poems what I still do with a camera. I wrote landscapes. I wrote one series that involved going to a particular viewpoint on the same day of the month for twelve months, and describing what I saw. It’s devoid of life, unless you count a crow, two horses and a kestrel. It ignores the sound of the M1 below the viewpoint, the other cars that pulled up on the layby, and their occupants …who often seemed to be involved in extramarital affairs, or doing dodgy deals involving cardboard boxes. These are the poem equivalents of Sunday painters’ watercolours. They’re pretty enough but pretty doesn’t win prizes.

I’m still cross that I got no advice about how I might find a way out of this cul de sac. I tried two things on my own. One was to try to recreate the world of three characters from the world of late 19thC art..that of John Waterhouse, his model and his wife. I think I’ll explore that next week. I think I’ll riff on the business of ekphrasis. I bet you can’t wait.

The other was to deliberately try to populate landscapes that were important to me…particularly the Clearance village sites of Suishnish and Boreraig on the Isle of Skye. I read John Prebble till I almost had it by heart, and off I went over boggy tracks and along stony rutted roads, looking for the ghosts of 19th C crofters. Well. That was salutory. You can’t intend to write poems…when I actually looked at what was around me, on the headland of Suishnish and the green shore of Boreraig it wasn’t what I planned to find. It wasn’t like that at all. Boreraig is just a place with the shells of houses of people I never knew, who I only had an intellectual connection to. John Prebble clearly knew them imaginatively, but I could only record:

These crofts:

they turn their backs on the sea,

away from the sun’s setting,

their tenants all gone,

long ago, over the ocean,

and the veils that blow in from the islands

are only skirts and skeins of rain.

No ghosts come here,

no grey shades from out of the west.

There’s no return from Tir nan Og

for the dead or disposessed.

It’s pretty self indulgent melancholic rhetoric, I’m sometimes inclined to think. It became even more complicated on Suishnish. At the end of the metalled road that was laid to try to repopulate the crofts in the 1930’s, there’s a croft with its roof intact. There’s an old stove, drunken cupboards, a collapsed table, and a bed frame. It should be sad, but I find it frightening, in the way of graffitied tunnels and old railway buildings in the industrial edgelands in the valley below our house.

..the glass is gone, the fires long out,

the roof is rust, its edges fretted;

the stove’s tipped over,

and in the iron bed frame,

like a threat or malediction,

grey snagging snarls.

Barbed wire.

In the trim metal-sided fank across the parks they were separating the weak and diseased and runty sheep from the rest of the flock. There was no evoking of Prebble’s tragic Clearances here. Other ghosts sidled in:

Here come the creeping clones

of Brady, Hindley,

Thompson, Venables,

Mary Bell.

The caution at the edges of old maps.

Here be monsters.

And so it went, for a very long time, and I couldn’t learn to see what was in front of me, and imagine it, but went on loading it with my unwelcome luggage. Or other people’s. I wrote one poem around that time about the crofting community of Achnacloich where we’ve rented a holiday house for for over twenty years. I was wandering around on the hills above the crofts, with huge views of Rhum and the whole of the Cuillin and finding that every time I tried to find a language for it all, Ted Hughes kept crossing out my words and writing his own in. It was as though I could only see through the lens of his verse, and the rhythms and cadences of Remains of Elmet and Moortown. I was writing secondhand poetry. It was unnerving to find when we came home to TV and newspapers that Hughes had died that day when I was desperately trying to get him out of my head. I did manage to write a poem about that, and at least it has other people in it than me, if only by implication.

I still write landscapes. Not just any landscapes. No woodlands, thank you. No lowlands. No flat lands. I need to see from high up. The headline picture goes some way to explain. You’re looking down to the shore of Glen Brittle from the rim of Corrie Lagan. You can simply forget the effort of getting there, and the fact that going back down is a knee-jolting business. You are, simply, godlike. I tried to explain this in a poem about a year ago — Seen from above –

Everything is simpler from above –

the way the earth explains itself,

why a river runs the way it does. Why

gods look down from mountaintops,

and heaven is forever in the sky.

But sometimes the gods smile and you move on and you grow up a bit. With the teaching of Ann and Peter Sansom, of Jane Draycott and Hilary Elfick and others, and the shared insights of writers like Gaia Holmes and Kim Moore, and attending to writers like Norman MacCaig, and RS Thomas, and Charles Causley,I’m finding myself able to stop these solitary walks and attend to the lives of others.  I can finally put the important people of Achnacloich back where they belong, and where I don’t, in the place I’d edited them out of. I can celebrate Effie and Norman, about the only Skye-born people who were left in the crofting valley of The Field of Stones, now mainly occupied by the incoming English. And now Norman has died. I don’t have to go inventing ghosts for the sake of poems. I can look at this image of Acnachloich on a wet October Sunday and remember people instead of landscapes. Even if the landscape is essential to who they are and what they mean to me. So I’ll finish with a poem I never thought I’d be able to write.


eats her slice of cake with care,

pinches up its crumbs,

always leaves her boots ouside.


She’ll not have cheese with fruit cake;

she’s too polite to say so,

but knows it isn’t right.


She misses him smoking behind the barn

as if he thought she wouldn’t know.

She saw an otter just last week,

with two young ones, playing

where the burn runs into the sea.

She smiles.


That dog he drove all the way

to Tyndrum to buy is daft; and,  yes,

it takes no notice. It stops and starts.

She sheep run anyhow.

Och. Well. Thank you for the cake.


One year, she came up to the house,

November, midnight almost,

to make sure we’d not miss

the shimmer of smoke and silver

above the Cuillin, the whole sky

strangely light and shivering

like the sea.


Thank you you for your company, Effie, and thank all of you for waiting through a rambling introduction before you got to meet her too.

And remember. Next week we’re having ekphrasis. It’s the new black.