My poem “Back to the Six Bells” is based on two things: first of all, my second date with the man who is now my husband, in August 1990. (In case you wondered, our first date was the Brighton Beer festival, where he ate chips with mushy peas in the hope it would impress a northern lass.) We went walking in Sussex, and ended our walk at the Six Bells in Chiddingly, a quintessential English pub. It was a Bank Holiday weekend and as well as a fleet of bikers, there were Morris Dancers, warm beer, and a cricket pitch with a match in progress. The second thing was a dream I had in which England was presented as a quilt (I was glad to find there are artists that do make cartographic quilts, such as Alicia Merrett for example) and I pointed to that part of Sussex and said we should live there. To that extent it was a dream about going back to a beginning, maybe even a time before England went wrong, and that is reflected in the poem.
Back to the Six Bells
Sometimes I dream of England as a quilt that I run my fingers over, feeling the hum of motorways like the ribs of flat-felled seams, the velour of fields, and sequinned towns that catch beneath my fingernails. I feel the textured border separating Sussex and Kent, felted with hop bines and apple trees. We’re going to live… here, I say, among pantiles where the stately homes hold plant sales and vintage cars thread meadowsweet lanes, near the place where you and I first went walking. You, in a cowfield in a red T shirt. You, at the pub where cricketers and morris men wove through a village soft with sunshine. When we still had all of England spread out in front of us.
I workshopped this poem with my usual workshop group. A well-known poet, whom I really respect, told me that I couldn’t write about England in those terms any more, because the far-right now own that version of Englishness. When I was putting together my poems for The Ship-Owner’s House, I told this to my editor, the wonderful Jackie Litherland, who agreed with me that we cannot allow the far-right to define Englishness. We have to reclaim our culture in a number of ways, and poetry must be one of them. This thought is going to feature in my work for some time to come.
There have been so many poetry events in the last couple of weeks. On Thursday 26th April I read in York, at the lovely wood-panelled York Explore library, with Harry Gallager and Cherie Taylor-Battiste. It was great to catch up briefly with Carole Bromley. On Friday 27th I read from Deborah Alma’s #MeToo Anthology at Gill Lambert and Mark Connors’ Word Club in Leeds, where I also said hi to Zelda Chappell and met Lesley Quayle for the first time in real life. Those two events are why I couldn’t spend more time at the T-Junction festival, where the pamphlet was officially launched, at MIMA in Middlesbrough. The bits of the the festival I did get to were inspiring. Then yesterday, in tropical Hexham, I was delighted to read with the Vane Women as part of the Hexham Book Festival. I was dreading a hot, stuffy reading, but was delighted to find we were reading in a cellar bar; The Vault, on Hallgate. Although the venue was packed, it stayed cool, and allowed us to make jokes about Underground Poetry. The photo above is of the amazing Gillian Allnutt, reading as a guest of the Vane Women.
Now I’ve got all that excitement over with, I really have to think about writing some more poems. But first I think I should read some of the pile of poetry books on my bedside table.
The book exists in the real world. I collected a couple of boxes last Friday, and yesterday was the official publication day. Not only that, but you can BUY A COPY via the Vane Women Press website, which is here…!
I hope you enjoy it. Please tell me if you do – or if you don’t!
I should perhaps say something about the title poem. When we moved to Barnard Castle, we bought a big brick-built house on top of a hill on the edge of the town. It’s very windy and cold here sometimes, but the views over the back of Arkengarthdale are HUGE!
I did a bit of research into the history of the house, and found it was built by a local architect in 1916 for his own family, but by the 1930s belonged to a family called the Woodliffe Simpsons. Robert Woodliffe Simpson had made his money as a ship owner in Hartlepool. I wondered what he was doing living this far inland, then I came up with the idea that the house was a bit like a ship, riding the wild moors.
The pamphlet is going to the printer’s! Here’s the lovely cover, front and back, made by Pat Maycroft. I am so pleased with the sea monster on the back cover (I will love him and squeeze him and call him Brexit). The words are from my editor, Jackie Litherland.
So far there are plans to read at the following events:
A lovely thing has happened. After ten years writing poetry, I’m going to have my first solo pamphlet published early in 2018. Jackie Litherland and the wise Vane Women, who do so much to support women poets in the North East, have agreed to publish my work and we’ve been polishing a set of poems to include. If there is a theme, it’s disorientation, belonging, and what we mean by home; and it was born out of my move from the south of England to the north, and the many moves I’ve made in my life which were pretty much all necessitated by work. Anyway, here’s the cover, featuring a photo of the Last House on Holland Island, which sank into Chesapeake Bay in 2010. Despite that American reference my book is focused on England, plus a couple of poems about Northern Ireland.There are also steampunk birds, historical figures, red kites, a plane crash and a walk along a canal towpath. I’m excited about the prospect of introducing my poems to the world. Cover design is adapted from an image by baldeaglebluff, used and licensed under CCBY 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
Here is Sarah L Dixon, the Quiet Compere, whom I read with in Sunderland the other week. Sarah, recently settled in Huddersfield, has been organising poetry events all over England for a number of years now. The idea is, she doesn’t give the poets a massive big-up introduction; she lets them, and their poems, speak for themselves. Sarah herself has recently had a book published; it’s called “The Sky is Cracked” and it is published by Otley-based Half Moon Books. These are poems about love and break-up, and picking up the pieces again afterwards. Lovely stuff, and you can buy it here:
I was reminded by the Harvey Weinstein ‘affair’ about the hundreds of little microagressions that can make a woman feel unwelcome in a workplace. A few years ago I listened to a senior manager I was working with tell a joke that not only wasn’t funny but was in poor taste. The joke took place in a lift that was stuck. I wrote a poem to try to analyse how that joke made me feel. The lovely website, amaryllis – an offshoot of the remarkable Swindon poetry scene – featured my poem and here’s the link.
My journeys along the River Tees are continuing, and I’m writing as I go. I guess I am about a third of the way along my poetry journey but I am doing a little bit here and a little bit there, as time allows. The landscape certainly is inspiring. Here’s a shot at Cow Green reservoir, near the source of the river. Cross Fell, the highest mountain in the Pennines, is in the background.
And at the other end of the river, this is the old steelworks at Redcar, seen from Teesmouth. Such a mixture of rural and urban landscapes.
I believe there are good people still;
kinder, more patient than I could be, who ask
for nothing, but to go about their ordinary tasks
giving it their best shot, as you know they will.
Who, when a drunken evening hiccups to an end,
pretend to be ironic, hug each other, solemnly state
I love you mate. You’re my best friend.
The sort of people who don’t forget to feed
the birds, who plant the flowers beloved of bees,
who stoop to pat the mournful dogs who wait
outside the supermarket, asking them, who’s a
a good girl, a good boy? Yes, you are.
Who are more likely to weep while they are clearing weeds
from their smalltown gardens, than in a public place,
who smile at passers-by with open faces,
who put more than they can afford in the charity box
who pop in with cakes to visit neighbours.
Who draw the curtains in their children’s rooms,
switch on the nightlight, wish sweet dreams
and softly close the door. Who go downstairs
to watch the news and wonder what we’ve come to.
When it seems, on days like these, the poor old world
and all its folk are battered, beat, betrayed, do
what they have to; keep on keeping on,
and whether or not they have a god to pray to,
think to themselves; let the world be blessed,
and whisper quietly, beneath their breath.
Amen, let it be so, again; Amen.
It’s great to be teaching poetry again! I spoke to the people at the marvellous Witham Arts Centre in Barnard Castle and we’re going to be running some introductory poetry classes on Tuesday afternoons, starting on January 17th. I loved doing this in my previous location – everyone in the group seemed to get so much out of reading and writing poetry – so I am looking forward to working with some Teesdale people, to spread the poetry love and turn them into creative writers along the way.
So if anyone wants to join us, it would be great to see you there. Here are all the details of the new, ten-week Poetry for the Petrified course. After that… well, I’ve got some further ideas but let’s not get ahead of ourselves just yet.