Jack Clemo, poet – and prize

The poet, Jack Clemo, was born 100 years ago this year, into a poor, pious, working class family in the china clay area of Cornwall, which he described as ‘a fitting birthplace for me, being dwarfed under Bloomdale clay-dump, solitary, grim-looking, with no drainage, no water or electricity supply, and no back door.’ He was a bright, precocious child who could, apparently, recite the Lord’s Prayer at 18 months, and was reading fluently by 4. However, a few days before his 5th birthday, his eye troubles began. He became so light-sensitive that he had to spend months in total darkness, with his eyes bandaged. He suffered another bout of blindness when he was 12, and his eyesight deteriorated in the ensuing years, resulting, in 1945, in total blindness. He was, however, developing as a poet.

Clemo1Deaf, blind, angry, poor and religious, Jack had difficulty forming relationships, but became convinced that God intended him to marry. The prospects for future marital happiness were not great, but then, in 1967, he received a letter out of the blue from Ruth Peaty, wanting to get to know him because ‘I think you are an interesting personality’. A strange correspondence began which led, the following summer, to a meeting and, on 26th October 1967, to Jack and Ruth’s marriage. During the following year Jack wrote more poetry than he had ever done before.

My own contact with Jack came about for two reasons. First, in the 1980s and 90s I was editing a journal called Christian, in which I always gave space to a wide range of good modern poets. Jack was a great friend of this journal, and over the years I published a fair number of his poems. Then I also included one of his poems when I edited the anthology New Christian Poetry for Collins in 1990.  I was also Literature Coordinator at the University of Surrey at this time, where we had an Annual University Poetry Lecture in which one modern poet gave a lecture on another respected modern poet. There was no question of Jack speaking in public, so I invited Donald Davie to give the lecture, and Jack, Ruth and Ruth’s sister, Bella, came to stay with me and attended the lecture. The artist, Heather Spears, was present at the lecture and produced the wonderful drawings of Jack that I’ve included on this blog.

The relationship between Jack and Ruth was both tender and stunning. She was his eyes and ears, but he contributed a richness to her life as well. Neither was young when they met, and the development of their intimacy and trust was not cheaply won.

Oh darling, lead me safely through the world:
Make clear each sign lest my male clay be hurled
To flame when it seeks cooling, or to ice
When lava leaps in you, hot veins entice
Beneath a white breast I misread,
Thinking it cold, and pass unconscious of your need.
(Intimate Landscape, p 45)

Clemo2How did one communicate with this great man? He could, of course, speak, though one had to bend towards him and listen carefully to catch his words. Then came the practice of speaking on his hand, tracing capital letters and spelling out each word until he grasped what one was trying to say. This unusual way of communication slowed conversation down to an extent, but it was intensely moving. I remember my first experience of communicating with Jack in this way, when I realised that here was an entirely different method of human interaction. It reminded me of the first time I encountered geysers and bubbling mud in New Zealand, when it dawned on me that I’d never see the ground beneath my feet in quite the same way again.

His poetry, like Jack himself, is not always easy, and can be fierce and uncompromising. Given the dark Calvinism that coloured much of his life, he was unlikely to enjoy very wide popularity; but he was, and remains, one of the most interesting and talented writers of the 20thC. He wrote prolifically and continued to submit poems to me to consider for inclusion in Christian right up until his death in 1994 – and even after that, his widow, Ruth, sent me a number of poems that had not previously been published. In Jack’s late poems the anger and brutality of his earlier work has softened and there is a new gentleness and joy that reflects the changes in his personal life.

As well as his numerous poetry collections, Jack Clemo published two novels, two volumes of autobiography and a statement of faith. He was awarded a Civil List pension in 1961, an honorary D Litt from Exeter University in 1981, and he was crowned Prydyth an Pry (Poet of clay) at Cornish Gorsedd in September 1970.

My friendship with Jack left a deep impression on me, which was one of the reasons why I noticed a poetry competition in his name when it was advertised early this year. The specified theme was ‘wonderful things are about to happen – wildest things are about to happen’. In my poetry file there was a poem, Transition, that I’d written when I was Poet in Residence for the Winchester Ten Days Arts Festival (see blog November 5th 2013), which seemed appropriate, so I sent that in.

Just before I left Romania (see blog 18th May 2016) I received an email from the Arts Centre Group to tell me that I was one of three prizewinners in the Clemo competition, and inviting me to attend the prizegiving in May. When I turned up at this event in London, I still had no idea which prize I’d won but, as in the Oscars, we progressed from third prize to second to first. I was thrilled to be awarded first prize, and I know that Jack would have been delighted too.

Several people have asked for copies of the poem that won, so here it is?

   Winchester cathedral

When we’re too tired or busy to even want to pray Version 2
and we’re conscious only of obstacles between us and where
the air is clearer, music played on strings or sung by a choir
can sometimes rise like incense, carrying our prayer.
Out above this soaring roof, beyond the city,
daylight and blessings are filtering down,
a skylark is pouring her heart out in rippling silver curtains
between a chalkland greensward and a great blue dome.
Something or someone is bridging the gap, inviting us
to swim up into what we don’t yet understand,
to take the risk of somersaulting into freedom,
to believe in the possibility of a listening ear,
to learn, like a violinist, to touch the string lightly,
absorb the vibrations and feel the harmonic soar.

Jack Clemo’s books

Two novels: Wilding Graft (which won an Atlantic Award in Literature from Birmingham University in 1948), and The Shadowed Clemo3Bed, which was written soon afterwards, but not published until 1986.
Two volumes of autobiography: Confession of a Rebel (1949) and Marriage of a Rebel (1980); and his statement of faith, The Invading Gospel (1958).
His books of poetry were: The Clay Verge (1951), and The Wintry Priesthood (1951, which won an Arts Council Festival of Britain poetry prize). Both of these collections came together in The Map of Clay.
Then, in later life, the poetry collections came thick and fast: Cactus on Carmel (1967), The Echoing Tip (1971), Broad Autumn (1975), A Different Drummer (1986), Approach to Murano (1993, after visiting Italy) and The Cured Arno (1995 – completed shortly before his death in July 1994.

Six British Poets in Romania

I was really pleased to be invited to be part of a delegation of British poets visiting Romania in April. Part of my delight was because, although one of my daughters went there as a volunteer to help in an orphanage when she was a student, this was a country about which I knew IMG_1068far too little. The other part of my delight was because I recognised that with such a lovely group of poets we were bound to have fun. The other poets were Maggie Butt, Katherine Gallagher, Jeremy Page, Peter Phillips and Anne Stewart. I had published Maggie and Anne as Oversteps poets, and was well aware of the fine reputation of the others.

The visit was arranged by Lidia Vianu of the University of Bucharest Masters programme in Translation, and as the department was celebrating its tenth anniversary, celebration was in order. The idea was to spend four hours on each weekday morning at the Romanian Cultural Institute, working intensively with a group of students, and then to have a wide range of visits and special events in the afternoons and evenings.

IMG_1138I was allocated 13 students and thoroughly enjoyed my time with them. For the second year students’ final assessment they had been translating Romanian poetry into English, and our task was to help them ensure that the English was perfect. One of the poets had used strict forms, mainly sonnets and rhyming couplets, and I occasionally felt there was a risk of losing some of the poetry by slavishly replicating the rhyme patterns, so some careful judgements had to be made.

IMG_1082Early in the week we were invited to a reception at the residence of the British Ambassador, Paul Brummell, who gave us a delightful evening, introduced us to a number of dignitaries and also delivered an intelligent and relevant talk.

At the end of the week the six of us led a discussion on Shakespeare at the British Council, and then gave a reading of our work.
in full flight at British CouncilIn between these two events, in just 72 hours, an anthology of our poems was translated into Romanian, edited and published ready for distribution at the final event. TheIMG_1144 book was called simply ‘Six British Poets’. Our poems were translated by Ioana Ieronim, and published by Integral Press, Bucharest. I’m pictured here with Ioana, the translator.


In between these two official engagements, we had an enorIMG_1102mous amount of fun, and were looked after royally by our hosts. We had a memorable dinner at ‘Lacrimi si Sfinti’, the restaurant belonging to Mircea Dinescu. Mircea is one of the best-known Romanian poets, was very much involved in the Revolution against Ceausescu in 1989, and now owns a farm out in the country where he grows all the food IMG_1106and wine for his fantastic restaurant in Bucharest. Here he is pictured with his wife, Maria; and in the other picture you can see the band that entertained us as we ate.


Other highlights of the week included visits to various museums and to the Parliament Palace, the strange, over-sized palace constructed by Ceausescu, which he did not live to inhabit as he was executed more or less as the building was completed. No expense was spared in this palace, and although it may not be to everyone’s taste, it is certainly  impressive.Pariliament Palace

Inside Palace 1



on the steps




We were all grateful to the generous funders, who contributed in various ways to make our visit so successful: the Romanian Cultural Institute, the University of Bucharest, the British Embassy and British Council, the Writers’ Union, the National Literature Museum and the Government. We also made many good new friendships while we were there, and were very happy when Elena Nistor, who guided us around many museums and other places of interest during the week, invited us to lunch at her mother’s on the final  day. Another rich experience was spending half an hour at a service in one of the many beautiful churches on the Orthodox Palm Sunday.

Above all we are deeply grateful to Lidia Vianu, who runs both the MA in Translation and also Lidiathe Contemporary Literature Press, for organising such an amazing week for us, and looking after us so well. She, and others, are now engaged in producing another book, which will include some of the work done by the students, as well as more of our poems.

A final comment about Bucharest itself: as well as being impressed by many of  the older buildings we saw, we were thrilled by the presence of so many trees, both in parks and along the roadsides. It was because of the presence of so much woodland that we had the pleasure of hearing birdsong each day, even within the confines of the city.


Poetry Down Under

Three years ago, I was on my way to New Zealand where I was booked to do nine poetry readings, when the visit had to be aborted because of an accident. So I was very pleased to have another chance to go Down Under this winter, and as we were taking a holiday in French Polynesia (see previous blog) and visiting a number of relatives, I decided that one reading in New Zealand and one in Australia would be enough this time.

In New Zealand we stayed with my sister-in-law, Sarah, in Taupo and swam in the lake each day, enjoying the crystal clear waters – and especially the fact that the temperature of the water was 27 C. I also enjoyed the fact that although the weather was blazing hot, snow could be seen on the tops of the mountains at the other end of the lake, so the first thing I did each morning was to stand at the window and check that the mountain tops were still white.


Lake Taupo is the largest lake in New Zealand, initially formed during a huge volcanic eruption over 25,000 years ago. A further massive eruption some time between 180 and 232 AD ejected so much material that it seems possible that it was responsible for the red sky that appeared over Rome and China in the time of Pliny.

A New Zealand poet, Geni Johnson, had kindly invited me to read to Taupo’s Literary & Poetry Society, Live Poets, at a restaurant in town. IMG_0903 There was a good audience, including a couple of people who happened to have flown in from the British Council in Shanghai (not specially to hear me, I hasten to add). A few open mike slots gave me the opportunity to hear some local poets, and they were all very appreciative of my reading.

Moving on to Australia, thanks to Oversteps poet Glen Phillips, I received a IMG_1047wonderful welcome in Perth. Glen was the joint author with my predecessor, Anne Born, of ‘Singing Granites: Poems of Devon and Gondwanaland‘, which was the second book I published after I took over as Managing Editor of Oversteps Books

Because of other commitments, much activity had to be packed into just one day. In the morning Glen took me to visit his research department, ‘Landscape and Literature’, at the Edith Cowan University campus at Mt Lawley. Here I met and talked to a PhD student and learned something of the work being done there.

Glen then transported me to the CTV Perth radio studio for a half-hour interview conducted by Peter Jeffery. The quality of an interview is always dependent on the skill and professionalism of the interviewer, and Peter was fantastic, putting me entirely at ease and covering a great deal in the half-hour without making me feel rushed.

IMG_0923I had been invited to give a reading in the evening to the Fellowship of Australian Writers and Western Australian Poetry Inc. The meeting was to take place in the Writers’ Centre which is located in Joseph Furphy’s house.  I was driven slightly out of the city to what appeared to be a deserted wood, where there was one other car parked. I approached the house down a leafy footpath with some trepidation, thinking it was a long way to travel for a tiny audience; but I was delighted, and astonished, when we opened the door, to find the room heaving with people, with not a spare seat to be seen. I have no idea where they had all come from, or where they had parked their cars, but they gave me a wonderful welcome.

Water cart

This furphy, or water carrier, stands outside the house. It was made in the nineteenth century by J Furphy & Sons, and used to transport water to animals, and also to douse bush fires – though I think this amount of water would stand little chance against the horrific bush fires that have raged over Australia recently. People tended to congregate around the water carts and chat, rather as employees do around water fountains today, which is probably why the word ‘furphy’ is used by Australians to describe an unreliable rumour. John Furphy was the brother of the Australian writer Joseph Furphy, who wrote under the pseudonym Tom Collins, and his house is preserved as a Writers’ Centre.

Not surprisingly, this distinguished audience was highly receptive and appreciative, and at the end they not only gave me a fee, but also bought all the books I had with me, which lightened my luggage for the return journey considerably. I was pleased, in the course of the evening, to include a mini-launch of Glen Phillips’ latest collection, ‘Land Whisperings’, which comprised poems he had written as part of his PhD thesis and also includes some of the poems he wrote for Singing Granites. 
with Glen & X

With me in this picture are Oversteps poet Professor Glen Phillips and Dr Trisha Kotai-Ewers, both of whom are former Presidents of FAWWA.

So I have good evidence that poetry is alive and well in the Antipodes. At the end of this busy, happy and interesting day I received pressing invitations to return to Perth for longer, which I’m sure I shall do at some stage in the future.



South Seas Society


When I was travelling the world as Chief Executive of a couple of literature and literacy NGOs in the 1990s, I very much enjoyed the time I spent in the Pacific islands of Samoa, Vanuatu, Fiji and the Solomon Islands. I therefore leapt at the opportunity this winter to visit Tahiti on our way to New Zealand, and cruise round the Society Islands on the good ship, Paul Gauguin. We normally spend our holidays in our little camper van, so this luxurious cruise was a fantastic treat.

We started in Tahiti, and over the course of the following ten days, called at seven other idyllic islands, five of which were in the Society Islands and the other two are atolls of the Tuamotu archipelago.

Tahiti has been inhabited since pre-historic times. It was discovered first by the British explorers Samuel Wallis (in 1767) and James Cook (in 1773); and then by the French explorer, Louis-Antoine Bougainville in 1773. Owned by Britain for over 100 years, it then became French in 1880, and in 1950 voted to remain under France rather than choosing independence.

The work of two of my favourite artists, Paul Gauguin and Henri Matisse, was influenced in one way or another by the time they spent in Tahiti. I had therefore hoped to visit the Gauguin museum, but it was closed for restoration two years ago, and no one seems to have any idea when it will reopen. I spent an interesting morning at the Museum of Tahiti and the Isles, but unfortunately they have not seen fit to exhibit any Gauguin material in the absence of the specialist museum.



Gauguin’s paintings of Tahiti are all well-known, and none more so than ‘Women of Tahiti on the Beach’.

In 1930, Matisse also visited Tahiti, and at the time claimed not to have been very affected by his visit there. However, towards the end of his life his mind appears to have returned to the light of this area, and in particular the designs used by the Tahitians in the cloth they print for their clothes, which bear some quite striking similarities to Matisse’s wonderful late ‘cut outs’.

The Society Islands were most probably named in honour of the Royal Society in London, though some believe they were named after the London Missionary Society, whose missionaries took Christianity to the islands.

Here are some very short notes on the other islands we visited, followed by a few general observations.




There are two islands here: Huahine Nui (big) and Huahine Iti (small). There are some archaeological remains of maraes on the island, and a collection of famous blue-eyed eels, but we decided to catch the (fairly basic) local ‘bus (Le truck) in order to have a quick look around the tiny town before striking out along the beach to sink gratefully into the sea.


Bora Bora image

We spent two days in this Paradise. On the first day we took the tender to a private Motu (island beach) where I braved the heat on my first paddle board expedition, and also met a large and very beautiful stingray, which floated gracefully below me as I swam. The next day we went snorkelling in a coral garden known, with good reason, as The Aquarium.

Rangiroa and Fakarava

We had opted for the longer, ten day cruise, rather than the six-day one, and the extra part came next, as we sailed from the Society Islands to the Tuamotus Islands to visit the atolls of Rangiroa and Fakarava. In the Society Islands the islands are in lagoons, surrounded by coral reefs. The lagoons are a beautiful turquoise colour, laced by the white surf breaking on the coral reef. In the Tuamotus, we were visiting atolls, in which the coral reef surrounds a lagoon, with no island in the middle. Instead, the islands are part of the reef itself.

The lagoons were far larger than I had expected, covering many miles. Rangiroa is the largest atoll in Polynesia, and the second largest in world. It is 78 km long and 225km around, and contains 78 islands around a turquoise lagoon teeming with exotic fish.

was the ancient capital  of the Tuamotu Archipelago, and the old village of Tetamanu has one of the first Polynesian Roman Catholic Churches, built of coral in 1874. The whole atoll is now protected as part of the UNESCO biosphere.

We were by now many miles from the Society Islands, so had a 36 hour sea passage to return to the main archipelago. It was good to be out of sight of land for so long, to experience a little of the vastness of the Pacific Ocean.




Possibly the most exotic day of our exotic holiday. We were dropped on a private island Motu on the atoll, where we were treated royally. We spent the day as ‘lotus eaters’, swimming, snorkelling, kayaking and partaking of the lavish barbecue.







Our final port of call was the beautiful island of Moorea, where we spent two days. As with all the other islands, we moored a little way from the island and disemarked by tender. There are two deep bays, Opunohu Bay, where we moored, and Cook’s Bay.



Moorea is only seventeen miles from Tahiti, and we had looked out at its dramatic mountains in the distance on our first few days in Tahiti. After Tahiti, it is the most populated island. It is the remains of a volcano, and the outer rim of the crater is very evident in the sharp mountains that encircle the whole island.

image                                                                               Bali Hai

As we were nearing the end of the holiday, we splashed out on two expeditions: an afternoon on a jet ski on the first day – which involved driving over water at 64 knots – and a ‘bus tour of the island on the second.

After ten days of utter peace and beauty, we returned to Pape’ete, which appeared very busy in contrast.

General observations

UnknownOur ship, the Paul Gauguin, was extremely luxurious, and we were looked after very well. The vast majority of passengers were large North Americans, which was something of an education. I can now recognise women who have had a facelift; and I have sat at table with men who believe that the most important freedom, which they must retain at all costs, is the freedom to own guns. Being light drinkers and moderate vegetarian eaters, we probably didn’t get as good value from the deal as many of our fellow passengers – but we had a wonderful, relaxing time. There was a swimming pool on top deck, for extra swims between our sea immersions.

One huge concern to me was the number of plastic bottles of water that were consumed. Some sea water was desalinated, but the heat is intense and it really is necessary to consume a great deal of drinking water. We all know about the huge area of the Pacific that is now polluted by a raft of plastic, and everyone – tourists and locals alike – use several new plastic bottles every day. I don’t know what the answer is to this problem, though some new biodegradable materials are being developed. They cannot come too soon.


All the Polynesians we met were lovely people. Not only were they welcoming, friendly and happy, but in many cases displayed exceptional empathy, often intuiting what we were going to say before we opened our mouths.

Many of them are also ravishingly beautiful. We were treated to several Polynesian dance imageshows. These sinuous dances were banned by the missionaries, who presumably found them a little too suggestive; and the dances began to be rediscovered/reclaimed only in the mid-20th century. It is, of course, impossible to tell how close they now are to the original dances.

The islands are all Francophone, and everyone speaks the local Tahitian language as well. As usual when travelling, it was worth learning a couple of words of the local language; but everywhere we went, people were surprised and delighted that we spoke French.

The economy of the islands is based on tourism, black pearls and vanilla.

The main garment for both women and men is still what in Samoa I knew as the lava lava and in India as the sarong, and in Polynesia is called the paleo. Most of the designs are bright and colourful, and there are dozens of interesting ways of tying it.


All the islands we visited were unbelievably beautiful, set in turquoise lagoons, surrounded by coral on which white spray breaks constantly to form a lacy border. The coral is of many different colours and shapes, and the number and variety of fish defy description. Other wild life was not so plentiful, though there were plenty of frigate birds fishing round the islands, and on Tahiti there were minahs, pretty little ground doves with budgerigar blue faces and fine striped feathers; and tiny, multicoloured finches.

Both air and water temperature were a constant 31-34 degrees, so we could swim and snorkel for hours, only leaving the water when we were completely soggy. It was also of the highest salt content that I’ve ever known, so it was so buoyant one could practically sit on it.

Having enjoyed the holiday of a lifetime, it’s back to the camper van for the next few years!




An early adventure in computer poetry

In 1977, Robin Shirley, who had been a post-grad at UCL when I was an undergraduate, invited me to be part of a project creating computer-generated poetry, and then performing it to jazz accompaniment. Sunflowers, the group for performing the work, comprised Randy MacDogroup in the sunnald, a fantastic jazz saxophonist and flautist; the actor and musician, Gus Garside; poet and crystallographer Robin Shirley; and me. I was lecturing in Philosophy at Surrey University at the time, but was also a poet and musician. The  biographical notes that appeared in the programmes for some of our performances are at the bottom of the page, below the sample poem.

me in lecture theatre

I was young and fancy-free, and didn’t really take the project terribly seriously, though I was happy both to help create the poetry and also to perform the jazz. However, the whole thing took off, and before long we were receiving invitations to perform in various places, including one performance for BBC Radio, and one at a major computer conference.

By the time we moved on to other adventures, we had yards and yards of computer print-out of poetry, a number of photographs and some good newspaper cuttings and reviews. Then … it all disappeared, and for over 30 years I couldn’t find the files in which these archives were stored.

Then, a few months ago, I was approached by Jerome Fletcher of Falmouth University, who is doing some research into electronic literature in the UK between 1960 and 2010, to ask if I could provide information about Sunflowers. This led to total immersion in some of the boxes that were stored upstairs at home, and to my delight I was able to unearth at least some of the material. Hence this blog, to share a slice of history. Unfortunately most of the newspaper cuttings have not yet emerged, and the photos are rather faded; but this page should give a taste of what we were doing.

The general idea was to feed phrases into a computer that would make sense in whichever order they tRobinhen came out, and for each phrase we had to determine what the probability was of its occurring, and the possibility we wished to allow for that phrase to be repeated. The skill, obviously, was in choosing the best phrases to feed in; and some of the results were strikingly good. The computer programme we used was devised by Robin using the ICL 1905F computer at the University of Surrey.
It was called Bard 0, Robin Shirleyand was followed by Bard 1D and Bard 2S.

Randy on flute

GusRandy larger






The one cutting that has turned up was in the Computer Bulletin in March 1979, and in it John Lansdowne, reviewing our appearance at the Computer Arts Society, writes: ‘It says much for the quality of the poetry and the way it was presented by Robin Shirley, Alwyn Marriage, Gus Garside and Ranald MacDonald that they were able to give two consecutive 40-minute performances to enthralled audiences of all ages. The poem for three voices, May Carol,was especially well received, and I look forward to hearing the Wheel of Seasons cycle in full on some occasion when I’m not trying to run a computer art show at the same time.’
me on electric guitar
An early version of The Sunflower Suite had been performed at the 1973 Edinburgh Festival, and as well as developing that further, we created otme on keyboardher works during our time together, including ‘Pavan for the Children of Deep Space’ and the extended group of poems in the popular suite ‘The Wheel of Seasons’. We then took all these works and jazz improvised to them, using sax, flute, guitar and bass guitar, keyboard, voice and various percussion instruments. It was all good fun.


Randy and me on our headsRandy and I decided to stand on our heads to celebrate the upside-downness of the world.

Sadly, Robin contracted hepatitis on a work trip to Egypt, and died far too young. Without his drive, the group drifted apart. If anyone knows Ranald MacDonald or Gus Garside, please let me know.

With apologies for the poor quality of the photographs, some of which were actually scanned from tiny contact prints on our home scanner. I think it’s worth preserving them for their historical importance – and for reminding me of what I looked like when I was young!

Sample poem from the Spring section of The Wheel of Seasons:


A girl is dancing, singing after her tears, dreaming of the sea.
How many springs are feeding the river
reaching further into before?
Crustaceans waiting for the end of primrose conversation,
we are borne along, breathless, to inevitable growth.

There is a growing urgency.
How many springs are feeding the river,
eddies of doubt, stagnant pools of rejection, reaching further into before?
The present is opening into the future,
old, young, dancing, dying, dreaming of the sea.

Eddies of doubt, stagnant pools of rejection,
lines of love etched deep on chalk and clay,
reaching further into before, swirling in triumphant confidence;
in the changing, in the compliance, is the growing.
A girl is dancing, singing after her tears.

There is temporary pain in the confluence,
in the changing, in the compliance, is the growing old young dancing dying.
A girl is dancing, singing after her tears
from spring through singing to ocean swell,
lines of love etched deep on chill and clay
dreaming of the sea.

Sunflowers bios

It’s amazing what you discover when you follow a grasshopper

This isn’t actually anything to do with grasshoppers. It’s about Irish rain, Seamus Heaney, peat fires and kindness.

We’ve just had a week’s holiday in the north of Ireland, and despite all the gloomy predictions, we had wonderful weather for all but one of the days. We bathed in the sea at Ballygally, spent a day exploring the Giant’s Causeway in bright sunshine, and went out to the far west for a few days on the wild coast of Donegal, where we had fine sandy beaches to ourselves and carpets of wild flowers to dazzle the eyes.

The one day of rain, however, beggars description. It started before we woke up, and continued imagesunabated until we were tucked up in bed again that night. The roads turned into rivers, some with waves flowing along them, and we had to negotiate floods that came up to the top of our wheels. More than a day of that and we would have been applying for tickets to join Noah on the ark.

We were on our way back home, so needed to make some progress. It was also clear that free camping on soggy ground (or in the middle of a puddle) wasn’t a great idea, so we headed across moorland and hills to find a pub with an adjacent campsite that we’d seen on the map. As we arrived at the Shepherd’s Rest, tired and hungry, the publican came out to welcome us; however, when we said how much we were looking forward to a meal, he told us that they hadn’t got any food. Observing our faces falling visibly, he hurried to reassure us that he would rustle something up for us.

We didn’t even make it up to the official camping area, but anchored in relief in the car park and sloshed our way back to the pub, where there was a peat fire burning brightly, a large portrait of Seamus Heaney on the wall and, within minutes, a huge plate of food on the table before us. Our host, Colin, had clearly raided the ‘fridge. If any reader is ever looking for a campsite in Northern Ireland, I would strongly recommend this pub cum campsite.

Throughout the evening Colin plied me with poetry books to read and discuss, showed us the Visitors’ Book with the signature of Seamus Heaney inscribed within, and asked about my poetry. When we finally left, some hours later, he insisted that we should visit the nearby town of Magherafelt the next day, where someone called Eugene had a treasure trove of Heaney memorabilia which he would certainly be pleased to show us.

imageIt seemed a little impertinent to turn up at someone’s house unannounced, but the final line of one of the lovely Bod books we shared with our children when they were little popped into my head: It’s amazing what you discover when you follow a grasshopper. So we called on the house, met Eugene Kielt and spent the next few hours in conversation about Seamus and a number of other poets whom Eugene knew.

Seamus study

Just above the chair where I was sitting was a study of Seamus, done by the artist Peter Edwards in preparation for his portrait of the poet which is now in the National Portrait Gallery.

by Peter Edwards, oil on canvas, 1987-1988

by Peter Edwards, oil on canvas, 1987-1988





Although Seamus lived in the Republic, he was born in Northern Ireland and visited frequently. Eugene now leads tours of ‘Seamus country’ for visitors; and his guest house, advertised as the only poetry guest house in Northern Ireland, is stacked full of Heaney poems and memorabilia.

When Eugene offered to show us round the house, I was unprepared for the sheer number of poems and pictures on the walls. There were huge linen banners with Heaney poems on them (including one that isn’t in any of the poetry collections), and others on fine paper. Each suite of rooms was dedicated to a different poet, such as Patrick Cavanagh, Michael Longley and others. In each case there was a large portrait of the poet and a number of his poems on the walls (yes, they were all men, though in conversation I found Eugene also valued some women poets, including the National Poet of Wales, Gillian Clarke).

Eugene learnt to love poetry as an adult, initially through Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, but is now extremely knowledgeable about many 20th and 21st century poets. He has run two highly successful poetry festivals from his villa in the past, but is not rushing to organise a third as there is no one except him and his wife to do all the hard work involved. He does, however, host a number of poetry readings in the house. We spent a fascinating morning in his company, and departed feeling very grateful to Colin, Eugene, Seamus himself and, of course, Bod.
Bod 1


PosterI had an interesting three days this last week, with Everyman at the National Theatre neatly sandwiched between a gig in which I was to be found playing the cornet as I marched down Kingsbridge Fore Street accompanying the townspeople as they danced the Floral Dance, and an open air performance of The Taming of the Shrew by Guildford Shakespeare Company. ACADll three were hugely enjoyable, but this blog is about the National Theatre production of  ‘Everyman’ on the middle evening. The play is based on the mediaeval morality play, updated with a script written by Carol Ann Duffy.

Every now and then it is necessary to swallow my feminist ideals, and as this play is based on the mediaeval morality play that evolved many centuries before our awareness of the inequality that can be perpetuated by exclusive language, I won’t complain at the title. I’ll just point out that it’s a morality play about everyone, including women. (OK, that’s all I’ll say on this occasion!).

It is courageous to stage a straight morality play in the 21st century, and even though the programme suggests that it’s adapted for a secular age (whatever that is), the message of the play is old-fashioned religious, and at times probably reflects Carol Ann Duffy’s Roman Catholic upbringing. The story is of Everyman being visited by death at the end of his bacchanalian 40th birthday party, and told that he has to give an account of his life before God. Everyman tries various devices to get away from this horrible truth, and appeals, unsuccessfully, to friends, family and wealth to put in a good word for him.

It was a fast-moving, slick and satisfying performance. The wonderful actor, Chiwetel Ejiofor, was an appealing and convincing Everyman, well capable of representing us all. God who was played as an office cleaner by Kate Duchene, and Death (with an Irish accent) by Dermot Crowley, were both impressive. There were familiar songs such as ‘You’ll never walk alone’, Latin chant and plenty of contemporary music and dance, and the play starts with Everyman’s dramatic descent down from the roof to the pit. There was also some delicious humour.

If I had any minor criticisms they would be first that the dramatic first scene of the party, though brilliant in terms of chowith castreography, sound and visual effects, could have been cut a little: we really had got the message by half-way through the sequence; and occasionally we lost some vital words and therefore missed a joke or punchline. But all in all it was a wonderful evening, with fine dialogue, and exciting sound and visual effects, including a terrifyingly realistic tsunami.

The modern slant to the morality aspect took the form of an environmental emphasis, and as Everyman moves from mindless materialism to knowledge and humility, he also becomes aware of the way he has mistreated the planet, treating it as a coin to be tossed away. The message comes across strongly, and anyone watching the play must surely be reminded not only of the harm the planet has suffered through our ecocide, but also of our continuing complicity if we don’t work tirelessly to change the way human beings are squandering the earth’s resources and raping the planet that is our only home.

One of the pivotal points in Everyman’s journey occurs when he meets his younger self, Everyboy, and is told by him in no uncertain terms that he should remember to say thank you.

The final scene is probably the most moving. Everyman, having ended up being helped and instructed by a tramp (Knowledge) gains not only knowledge but also humility and gratitude, and comes to an understanding that he has a soul. I was reminded in the first case of T S Eliot’s ‘humility is endless’, and in the latter by the Ancient Mariner finding blessing when he became aware of beauty. Everyman’s paean of thankfulness was beautifully expressed, and covered all of his life and experience.

with GodGod (still sweeping and cleaning) is heard to comment on how she still loves him, which is a religious message if ever there was one. But apart from that, the splendour of the performance and the strong environmental message, the play reflects in the cast and the production the rich diversity both of London, and of life.

This modern version of the mediaeval morality play may seem a surprising choice for the 21st century London stage, but it was skilfully adapted, beautifully acted, challenging in its message, and offers an extremely rich and satisfying evening.


Walking through history

On Saturday we joined a group of about twenty five of our friends to spend a leisurely day in the region of Windsor Great Park and Runnymede, exploring various monuments before the crowds descend for the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta on June 15th.

IMG_0642Our first stop was at the Air Forces Memorial at Englefield Green, where the names of all the airwomen and airmen of the British Empire who were killed in World War II – all 20,456 of them – are recorded, carved in stone. The monument was designed by Sir Edward Maufe, who was also the architect of Guildford Cathedral; and as I know that building extremely well, it was fascinating to see many of the same motifs and architectural vocabulary here as in that other building. A spiral staircase led up to the roof of the monument, from where we had stunning views down over the river, the reservoirs, Heathrow airport and even Windsor Castle.

Our next stop was the Magna Carta Memorial itself – also designed by Maufe. The full name, Magna Carta Libertatum, gives a little more clue as to what it was all about. Sadly, though, no one took much notice of the original charter after it had been sealed, rather than signed, by the king; and it was repealed and reinstated several times through history. It didn’t really have much to do with democracy: it didn’t affect normal people, but just the relationship between the king and the barons. And yet we uphold it as some sort of founding document of our rights and liberties.

I think this is because it has become a symbol rather than an historical record. Although it didn’t really survive the vicissitudes of royal misbehaviour, or that of the aristocracy in the form of barons, much of what it signified has passed down to us in elements of, for instance, habeas corpus, the American constitution and our very ideas of what is a decent society. So, for instance, it established the fact that monarchs had to abide by the law as much as commoners, that miscreants should be tried by jury and that punishment should fit the crime.

We found ourselves whisked forward in time travel as inscribed into the stone were the words ‘This plaque was unveiled by HRH The Princess Royal, 15 June 2015’. As we were visiting on 13th June, we thought this solid assertion was a little premature, and we were left hoping that the princess did not suffer any mishaps between then and her appearance two days later.

Our final stop of historical importance was the John F Kennedy memorial. Here we entered the United States, as an acre of land was given by Britain to the US for a fitting memorial to their assassinated President. We climbed up the path through a peaceful glade to the memorial itself, which wIMG_0650as designed by Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe. Part of the inspiration for his work is said to have been Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, and the experience of climbing up to the monument had a contemplative feeling. I found myself reflecting, sadly, not only on that crazy death, but on so many other areas of violence and killing in the world today.

In between these visits, we watched pleasure craft on the Thames, relaxed under a huge oak tree in a meadow for our picnic lunch and, of course, engaged in constant conversation and general merry-making.



Moor art and poetry

We spent last weekend savouring two of the lesser-known delights of the South West moors. We started on Friday on Dartmoor and then moved on to Bodmin Moor that evening.

H at DelamoreDelamore House is on the edge of Dartmoor, and is of special interest to us because it used to be owned by the same family as lived in the house that now contains our apartment. Although it is considerably grander (our house was the family’s ‘summer house’), there were similarities and common features, including a tholos, or cromlech. tholos


‘Brick chair’ by Amy Cooper 

Every year, for the whole of May, Delamore House hosts an art and sculpture exhibition, and we just managed to get there before the end of the month. Both the ground floor of the house, and a stable block across the meadow, were full of paintings; and everywhere we went in the garden we found fascinating sculptures. Peacock, Dot Kuzniar

‘Peacock’, by Dot Kuzniar


‘Dancing meadow’ by Nicola Crocker

Dancing meadow, Nicola Crocker figure


I really liked this head sculpture, and its companion piece which was a sadder face. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to discover who the sculptor was, so if any of you know, please send me a message.


As one might expect with so many exhibits, they were not all of the same high quality, but in general the standard was good, and some works were excellent.

‘Floating glass sphere’ by Sue Smith
Sue Smith, Floating glass sphere

Quite apart from the art, the gardens were exquisite – and this is probably one reason why the month of May is chosen for the exhibition.

burning bush




more beauty

The reason for our visit to Bodmin Moor was that I was reading at the Bodmin Moor Poetry Festival. David Woolley and Ann Gray have been running this excellent festival for the last four years, and have created a very special atmosphere with a stunning line-up of poets. On the Friday evening we had a launch party, then settled down for the first reading, which in terms of quality and excitement set the tone for the whole weekend. The two poets this first evening were Sinead Morrissey and David Harsent, the latest two winners of the prestigious T S Eliot prize, and the festival could not possibly have got off to a better start.

Sinead MorrisseySinead led a very good workshop the next morning. The event sparkled from start to finish, both because of Sinead’s stimulating input on abstract and concrete writing, and also because the fifteen participants all had intelligent, sensitive and lucid contributions to make.

My reading came next, shared with two lovely Oversteps poets: Elisabeth Rowe and Mark Totterdell. We were in a conservatory room at this stage, and the sun was beating down; but both we and the audience stayed awake and everyone was ‘warm'(!) and appreciative.

Logo_BMPFThis was followed by readings by Matthew Francis and Anthony Wilson, which I very much enjoyed. I knew both of these poets a little, but had not heard them read before; so it was a great pleasure. Unfortunately I had to leave after this, as I had another appointment the next morning. I therefore missed a number of other treats. If the programme is anything like as good next year, I recommend that poetry-lovers make the journey to this corner of England, as Bodmin Moor is a festival that is well-worth attending. I shall have to hope that I get another invitation!

The venue for the festival is the Sterts Theatre at Upton Cross, and the theatre itself is a large amphitheatre covered by a giant awning. As the temperature at night was still a little low front coverfor the time of year, we were relieved to discover that the poetry festival actually takes place in adjacent buildings, complete with walls and roof.

We, of course, spent the night in our camper van, where we were both snug and peaceful. As I included some poems from my latest book (Notes from a Camper Van) in my reading, this was appropriate.

Congratulations to Ann and David on a wonderful festival.

Day off work: two exhibitions and a play

RAAs my sister has a season ticket to the Royal Academy, she kindly invited me to join her to see the Richard Diebenkorn exhibition there last Thursday. I knew only a little of this artist’s work before, and was pleased to have the opportunity to get to know more of his work.

There were three distinct rooms in the exhibition. The first room, representing Diebenkorn’s earliest work, comprised abstract paintings; the second room was entirely figurative; and the third room, though predominantly abstract, was in fact a very satisfying synthesis of the two.

Most of the figurative work was based on the female figure, but I was particularly taken with Diebenkorn’s pair of scissors. It’s amazing how a mundane household item can express what used to be called such ‘gay abandon’!

abstractThe abstract work displayed beautiful colours, mainly tending towards pastel shades. The early abstract paintings often used interlocking forms, some of which were tantalisingly recognisable as objects in the real world, so that one felt on occasions that the figurative was insinuating itself into the abstract. This is less the case in the maturer work, where one of the recurring motifs is the use of lines. These sometimes create dimensions or unexpected angles in the paintings and sometimes just emphasise the geometric nature of the work. This one, which was one of my favourites, was tiny, but others were huge. In the large ones it was perhaps easier to see some of the influences on Diebenkorn, such as Hopper, Matisse and even some mediaeval artists.

My one disappointment in this exhibition was that I had hoped to see some of the etchings done by the artist to accompany poems by Yeats, but there was no reference to this project.
I had read that in 1990, Arion Press published a catalogue of Yeats’s poems, selected and introduced by Helen Vendler and accompanied by six etchings by Richard Debenkorn. That treat will have to await another occasion.

Our intention was to move on to Tate Modern to visit the Sonia Delaunay exhibition. However, the rain which we had been needing for weeks had arrived with a vengeance, so we took refuge in the National Gallery and decided to enjoy the ‘Inventing Impressionism’ exhibition instead, particularly as the Delaunay is on until August, whereas the Impressionism one finishes at the end of this month.

This exhibition takes an unusual approach to Impressionism, by basing the exhibits around the art dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel – who was, of course, instrumental in the history of Impressionism, as he bought so many of the works and helped to make them known and eventually accepted. Initially it felt slightly uncouth to be approaching the art through the medium of a dealer, but the exhibition is so successful, showing the gradual development of the movement and celebrating a wide range of artists, that it felt OK. The first room was set out as a French salon, which immediately put us in the right mood and set the scene for the following rooms.

Man_and_Superman_poster_notitleDespite wet clothes  and shoes, the day ended by calling at the local cinema for the live screening of ‘Man and Superman’ from the National Theatre. G B Shaw’s plays can appear rather ponderous and preachy to a modern audience, but the acting was so superb that we were all carried along in the fun and the action. Unusually, the director had decided to include the amusing scene set in Hell, which is normally omitted. This meant that the play was a full three hours forty minutes long, including the interval. I very much enjoyed this extra scene, but don’t think it actually adds anything of much value to the play. All the acting was superb, and Ralph Fiennes, in particular, gave an absolutely stunning performance.