Monday, 29 May 2017

Tuesday Poem: Remembering Norman Nicholson

On the Dismantling of Millom Ironworks

............They cut up the carcass of the old ironworks
Like a fat beast in a slaughter-house:  they shovelled my childhood
On to a rubbish heap.  Here my father's father,
Foreman of the back furnace, unsluiced the metal lava
To slop in fiery gutters across the foundry floor
And boil round the workmen's boots:  here five generations
Toasted the bread they earned at a thousand degrees Fahrenheit
And the town thrived on its iron diet.

The Faber and Faber edition of Norman's Collected Poems
Today is the thirtieth anniversary of the death of Lake District poet Norman Nicholson, who is being remembered more and more for his fervent environmentalism. He spent his life in Millom, a mining town at the southern end of the Lake District, and some of his best poems are about the interaction of human beings with the environment. They record the de-industrialisation of the north and the human as well as environmental cost.  This is another extract from the poem describing the attempt to restore the area to something resembling a natural landscape:

          .................mines
Drowned under stagnant water, chimneys felled and uprooted,
Slagbanks ploughed down to half their height, all cragginess,
Scrag-end and scree ironed out, and re-soiled and greened over . . .

But now, the residents and workers are pensioned off along with their  'hopes, gains, profits,' and desperations, with little to look forward to other than the newly built 'Old People's Bungalows'.  'The town shrinks and dwindles'.  His stark description of a landscape devastated by heavy industry will ring true for anyone who has witnessed it.

Reservoir tanks gape dry beside cracked, empty pig-beds;
And one last core of clinker, like the stump of a dead volcano,
Juts up jagged and unblastable.  Stand on the rickety pier,
Look left along the line where gantry and crane and coke-bank
Ten years ago blocked all the view - and now you're staring
Bang at Black Combe.  The wind resumes its Right of Way.

In another poem on the Closing of Millom Ironworks, Norman describes the men who 'morning after morning' stand out side the churchyard gate 'Hands in pockets, shoulders to the slag,' - the fathers of boys he was at school with, all without work.  'It's beautiful to breathe the sharp night air', Norman observes,  but what use is all this beauty if there is no work? Whichever way the wind is blowing, 'its a cold wind now.'

Many of Norman's most famous poems have a strong environmental message.  'Windscale' was written just after what is now regarded as one of the world's worst nuclear emission disasters of the 20th century, though it was downplayed at the time.  Norman privately blamed his wife's breast cancer on the radiation.  He was also acutely aware that the planet couldn't sustain human beings in the way we were behaving.  'Elm Decline' is a frightening poem describing deforestation and the consequences of industries that 'channel a poisoned rain' down onto the land.  In 'Gathering Sticks on Sunday', he writes of  what he sees as the consequences:  ....... 'soon,

The living world of men
Will take a lunar look, as dead as slag,
And moon and earth will stare at one another
Like the cold, yellow skulls of child and mother.'


There will be a celebration of Norman's life and poetry on Saturday afternoon  in St George's Church, Millom (where you can also see his commemorative stained glass window) at 2pm.  All welcome. Various members of the Norman Nicholson Society (including me) will be reading his poems and talking about his life. 

If you'd like to know more about Norman Nicholson's life, my biography 'The Whispering Poet' is available on Amazon or to order from all good bookshops.  Paperback £8.99 and Kindle edition £2.58








Sunday, 28 May 2017

What to do with Stuff? Writer's Stuff.

The Mill is enormous and, even with lodgers occupying some of it, often defeats my efforts to keep it basically clean and tidy, let alone well-maintained and orderly!  And, as Neil is usually in Italy, it is a one-woman battle.  With so much space and so little time, it's tempting to allow 'Stuff' to accumulate. But, lately, with Neil away so much, we've been talking about down-sizing.  The floods, too, have precipitated a re-think of what we keep and where.  The ground floor and mezzanine workshops are no longer safe.

I am having a clear-out.

Every book I write generates a vast amount of research, manuscript notes, photo-copied material, correspondence, newspaper clippings - the list is endless (and that's not counting all the files on the computer).  Lately I've been looking at the stacks of plastic storage boxes and files and wondering what I should do with them all.  Most of this material is never likely to be revisited by me.  If I was to be run over by a bus tomorrow (as my grandmother used to say) what on earth would my children make of it?  And then there are all my notebooks and diaries, kept since I was fourteen, family memorabilia inherited from my parents and grandparents.  I can hardly move for boxes.  Something has to be done!!
Just one book's worth of boxes (and I've written 17 of them!)

Recently I took the first steps to organise its disposal.  One of the biggest collections of material concerns Catherine Cookson, including autograph letters to and from her and her friends, as well as letters from her agents and publishers.  There are also the tapes she dictated, telling a confidential - and very controversial - version of her life. There are photographs and a few objects that belonged to Catherine and her husband, and the whole research trail that led to the discovery of her father's identity.

I offered it as a gift to Newcastle University's Robinson Library and they accepted.  It seemed the most suitable place to house Catherine's archive.  I delivered it the other day in the back of my car and it was a great relief to watch it all being wheeled off on a trolley. I'm not responsible for it any more, and the general public will be able to have access to all this original material.  It's where it belongs - beside the Tyne.

Now all I have to do is work out what to do with the remaining sixteen boxes of 'stuff'! 

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Tuesday Poem: Kindness, by Naomi Shihab Nye


Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

From Words Under the Words: Selected Poems. Copyright © 1995 by Naomi Shihab Nye.

I wasn't going to post a Tuesday Poem today because yesterday I was in Manchester and felt too tired to do anything when I got back last night.  I fell into bed without realising the terrible events that were unfolding in the city I'd just left.  Today I feel unbearably sad, not just because of what has happened, but also because of what some people are going to use the tragedy for. The images of grieving parents and injured children will spark a wave of anger and hatred directed towards innocent people who just happen to share a religion or a place of origin with the perpetrators. Hate has somehow become acceptable.

Visiting Europe so often, I see images in a media less squeamish than ours about showing unedited news items.  Pictures of dead and mutilated children - parents carrying their bloodied offspring to hospitals that have also been bombed.  It's difficult to avoid knowing what is happening in the Middle East.  Perhaps this 'shielding' is what is preventing people here from understanding the direct link between events there and terrorism here.  We have to think about why this is happening - not talk uselessly of 'radicalisation'.  The most radicalising thing of all is to see your families, your compatriots, your friends, being blown up by bombs, missiles and drones that have a 'Made in Britain' or 'Made in the USA' label on them.  The Middle Eastern countries, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan, are being destroyed by weapons made by us in the west and sold to states who are not scrupulous about using them or selling them on to terrorist organisations.  Hundreds of thousands of child refugees face starvation, deprivation, drowning and statelessness to escape the carnage.  We have given them a cold shoulder rather than the support they deserve.

I am too sad to cry about the mess we have created or the suffering of the people involved.  The feelings are like a physical pain. And I look at our so-called 'leaders' and despair. The landscape is indeed desolate 'between the regions of kindness'.



Naomi Shihab Nye 's father is a Palestinian refugee, her mother American.  She is an award-winning poet and author currently living in the USA.  "Her poems are based on heritage and peace and are connected to her experience as an Arab-American. Her work has been acknowledged by many journals and reviews throughout the world. In 2009, she was elected as Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets."  

Many thanks to my Facebook friends for sharing this poem. 

Monday, 22 May 2017

The Guilty Pleasures of Cosy Crime

Okay, so I like Cosy Crime as much as I like Nordic Noir. I admit it.  There’s only so much psychopathy I can take.  Alone in the Mill, in the middle of the night, I turn to Cosy Crime, where everybody (except the victim of course) ends up safe and sound and nobody mourns the murdered soul because obviously they had it coming to them. Anything else is just a little too real and likely to render me sleepless and paranoid about every tiny noise.


I’ve always loved solving mysteries, in the way that I love puzzles of any kind, so crime fiction has been an addiction since childhood. (Remember Nancy Drew?)  Agatha Christie was on the bookshelves at home, but I always found her books rather cold and clinical. My mother had the Father Brown mysteries by G.K. Chesterton and, although I didn’t like them as much as she did, I liked the idea of natural justice that they put forward.  Father Brown’s solution to the case didn’t always involve the police – but the punishment always fitted the crime.

James Runcie’s Grantchester mysteries seem to follow this tradition.  The 32 year old hero, Canon Stephen Chambers, has a privileged position as an Anglican priest – people tell him things and feel that he has a right to probe their consciences and ask awkward questions about their private lives. The stories begin in 1953 and continue through to 1977, so we see the character develop.

I prefer the Stephen Chambers of the books to the TV detective priest, because the books are more literary (he’s very well read is our Stephen) and there is more moral subtlety. I don’t mind his religious dilemmas, even though I’m an atheist, because he is much more of a Doubting Thomas than Father Brown ever was.  Less smug too, and very human. The TV adaptations make Chambers far too black and white.  I watched a couple of them and then didn’t bother to watch again.  The books are more ‘real’.

What I do like about the stories is what they reveal of village life with its hierarchies, jealousies and snobberies – the gossip and the secrets that are never really secret.  And they are very well crafted- Runcie is a formidable writer, not surprising given his personal history.  He is the son of a former Archbishop of Canterbury, born in Cambridge, so he writes of what he knows.  He is also a film maker, novelist, TV producer and playwright, and Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. His CV is awesome.
James Runcie - a kind of southern Alan Bennett
All right, so they are a bit cosy –  but everyone has their comfort read.  And I was once married to a clergyman’s son, so it takes me back into a world of baffling parochial and diocesan  intrigue and the splitting of microscopic moral hairs.  My late father-in-law (St John's College, Oxford) also read the grace in Latin and, as he was a widower, the single women of his congregation were given to throwing themselves at the vestry door (metaphorically speaking). There was a great deal of material for fiction.  I can see where James Runcie gets his plots!

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Tuesday Poem: All the People in Hopper's Paintings by B.H. Fairchild

All the people in Hopper's paintings walk by me
here in the twilight the way our neighbors
would stroll by of an evening in my hometown
smiling and waving as I leaned against
the front-porch railing and hated them all
and the place I had grown up in. I smoked
my Pall Mall with a beautifully controlled rage
in the manner of James Dean and imagined
life beyond the plains in the towns of Hopper
where people were touched by the light of the real.


The people in Hopper's paintings were lonely
as I was and lived in brown rooms whose
long, sad windows looked out on the roofs
of brown buildings in the towns that made
them lonely. Or they lived in coffee shops
and cafes at 3 a.m under decadent flowers
of cigarette smoke as I thought I would have
if there had been such late-night conspiracy
in the town that held me but offered nothing.
And now they gather around with their bland,

mysterious faces in half-shadow, many still
bearing the hard plane of light that found them
from the left side of the room, as in Vermeer,
others wearing the dark splotches of early
evening across their foreheads and chins that said
they were, like me, tragic, dark, undiscovered:

.................

                   . . . . . Why was their monotony 
blessed, their melancholy apocalyptic, while 
my days hung like red rags from my pockets


as I stood, welding torch in hand, and searched 
the horizon with the eyes and straight mouth 
of Hopper's women? If they had come walking 
toward me, those angels of boredom, if they 
had arrived clothed in their robes of light, 
would I have recognized them? If all those women 
staring out of windows had risen from their desks 
and unmade beds, and the men from their offices 
and sun-draped brownstones, would I have known? 
Would I have felt their light hands touching


my face the way infants do when people
seem no more real than dreams or picture books?
The girl in the blue gown leaning from her door
at high noon, the gray-haired gentleman
in the hotel by the railroad, holding his cigarette
so delicately, they have found me, and we
walk slowly through the small Kansas town
that held me and offered nothing, where the light
fell through the windows of brown rooms, and people
looked out, strangely, as if they had been painted there.




There's a quality in the work of Edward Hopper that's instantly recognisable - the lonely, isolated people who appear the same even in social situations - the lonely isolated places, like the iconic gas station in an abandoned wayside halt.  Isolation in the middle of civilisation.  And that's one of the qualities of B H Fairchild's poetry too.  Some of my favourite poems are those that deal with the dust bowl tragedy on the prairies of America.  The Beauty of Abandoned Towns has 'Bindweed and crabgrass shouldering through asphalt cracks, rats scuttling down drainpipes, undergrowth seething with grasshoppers.' while sunflowers bang 'their heads on a conclusion of brick, the wind's last argument lost in a yellow cloud,' and broken windows flash 'the setting sun in a little apocalypse of light'.  These later poems are quite political in their condemnation of an agricultural policy that ploughed up 'ancient plains of short grass that fed bison', to plant commercial crops that turned the prairies into dust 'I look back/to see the sky turn sick with darkness,/ a deep brown-green bile boiling up to smear/the sun dull as rusted-out tin siding'. [Dust Storm, No Man's Land, 1952]   

Commerce, the poems seem to say, doesn't make us happy.  Ordinary people's lives changed with the creation of 'the lords of grain'.  At first: 'The bumper crop in 1929.  I stood on the front porch, dawn rolling over me like a river baptism because I was a new man in a new world, a stand of gold and green stretching from my hands to the sun coming up.'  But later the vision from the front porch was more sinister: 'I still tense up when an afternoon sky darkens.  A roller would come in, dust up to eight thousand feet.  If you were in the field, you were lost until it cleared.  Or dead from suffocation.'  

I've only recently discovered B H Fairchild (why is American poetry so little known in the UK?) and I'm knocked out by his poetry.  The stories that are told in these poems - the way lives are illuminated, just as the light falls in a Hopper painting, revealing only just enough, but creating an air of mystery.  One of his early poems is typical of both content and style - called 'In a Cafe near Tuba City, Arizona, Beating My Head against a Cigarette Machine' (which is a poem in itself!)  It begins; 'The ruptured Pontiac, comatose and tilted on three wheels,/ seems to sink slowly like a drunken ship into the asphalt' and continues into an analysis of relationships, past and present, apocalyptic events and the incoveniences of being broke.  A minor incident, the breakdown of a car, becomes a major poem.  Fairchild's work comes from the lost heart of America, Trumpville, where hopelessness and despair motivated a massive vote against the establishment.  If you want to understand that, read BH Fairchild's poetry. 






Sunday, 14 May 2017

The scent of Lilac and Katherine Mansfield

The lilac tree in my garden is suddenly blooming - up here in the north spring comes late with frequent frosts, even in May.  But lilac is very resilient - it grows with the determination of a weed. There's hardly a farm or cottage in the Lake District that doesn't have its lilac bush at the gate.
My lilac in a jug
 Lilac has a strong scent - you either love it or hate it.  I love it because it means spring has really arrived.  And it has other associations too. First, it reminds me of Katherine Mansfield.  She also loved lilac, but it represented a tragic and (for her) deeply shameful period of her life.  Katherine, only a teenager at the time, was pregnant with her lover's child.  It was 1909 and having a baby out of wedlock was one of the worst crimes a nicely brought up girl could commit.
Katherine when she was in love with Garnet Trowell
Katherine was on her own in London, trying to pursue a career as a writer. Becoming pregnant threw her into panic.  She married her singing teacher, a man she didn't love, and left him on their wedding night because she couldn't bear to share a bed with him.  Her mother arrived from New Zealand and immediately bundled Katherine onto a train for Bad Worishofen - a small spa in Germany where inconvenient health problems could be dealt with out of the public eye.

The Pension Muller, where her baby was stillborn.
Katherine's lover, the 19 year old Garnet Trowell, had been separated from her by his family. Grieving, distraught, she wrote him a despairing letter from the train. 'Dearest, there is so much to tell you of . . .'  It would never be posted. Everywhere on the journey there was lilac growing in back gardens. 'At the German frontier where all the baggage was examined . . I went out of the station and ran down a little path and looked over a fence.  Lilac filled the air - it seemed almost smudged with lilac, washed in it .' For the rest of her life lilac had a special significance - its colour 'like half-mourning', and its perfume which was tainted by the loss of her lover and the death of the child she was carrying, stillborn after a premature labour. It was an experience she was never able to talk about, even to the man she eventually married.

My lilac loving father.
For me, lilac is all about my father.  It was one of his favourite plants, and when he died my uncle bought me a lilac bush to plant in the garden to remember him by.  So, now I remember two people - my father and my uncle, both dead, when the lilac comes into bloom.

It's been a dry winter here and a very dry spring.  We have had long days in April and May with sun and cool easterly winds.  The garden is parched and the River Eden as low as I have ever seen it.  The weir is high and dry, with only a thread of water going over it in the middle.  The winter's driftwood is still piled up on the weir waiting for a decent flood to carry it downstream.  But after the terrible floods of  Storm Desmond in 1915 I'm quite happy to have a little drought. Apparently the wind is changing direction tomorrow to the more usual westerly breeze from the warmer Atlantic, so I guess that means rain!  It will ruin the lilac, so I've picked as much of it as I can.

Low water at the Mill.


Katherine Mansfield:  The Story-teller by Kathleen Jones, published by Edinburgh University Press and Penguin NZ


Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Tuesday Poem on Wednesday - Emma Press launches the Aunthology!


Today is the launch of Emma Press's latest anthology - the Anthology of Aunts (apparently Aunthology was one of the titles facetiously suggested!) It's being launched at a poetry party at the Star of Kings, Kings Cross, from 7pm to 9pm.  I was supposed to be one of the readers, but have been forced to drop out for personal reasons. Which is a pity - it's going to be a fantastic event.  I've only had a glimpse, through the Emma Press blog, of the contents of the anthology but they seem as varied and fascinating as you'd expect from this innovative poetry press.  Some of the poets have been writing prose pieces on the blog, with photographs, about the aunts they either loved or hated, or sometimes about the experience of just being an aunt.  My contribution is about my Aunt Hilda, who was really a great aunt in a big extended family where the 'greats' were sometimes younger than my parents.

Broken Biscuits

Aunt Hilda was a packer at the biscuit works,
sorting the custard creams and plain digestives,
bringing us bags of crumbed fragments
that tasted of each other, dipped in a hot brew.
The teapot was glazed with tannin inside
and out, its bitter tang offset with reject pink-
iced fancies. When Hilda cuddled me, I wriggled
free from the tight press of her arms and the need
I sensed at five or six but couldn’t name.  I  told
my mother that I loathed the odour of vanilla.

Hilda was late-married to my uncle Fred, a nervy
mother’s boy marched to the church door – we were
told – by brothers of the bride he never made
a wife.  She wept daily at her sister’s kitchen table;
broke open on the bus to Blackpool screaming
that God would make her pregnant with the child
she longed for.  Sectioned to the Bedlam
we were all afraid of, bare rooms that stank of urine
and singed hair, Hilda, shocked into sanity but altered,
walked with us in the garden, quiet with blank eyes.

Fred was obsessed with cleanliness, feared
germs, contamination; wouldn’t shake your hand.
And when he sickened like a child she fed him
with a spoon, nursed him, washed his clothes,
winding him into the sheet she hoped
would be his last.  She found release among
the company of women on the packing line,
fattened on that sweet diet, smelling of chocolate
and vanilla, consuming the crumbs, never the whole thing.

Copyright, Kathleen Jones, 2017


From The Anthology of Aunts, Emma Press, 2017 

If you'd like to buy a copy you can get one from Emma Press on the link above, or purchase from Amazon.