Making the Most of Autumn

As we approach autumn, it looks like Covid-19 is still with us and more measures could be imposed soon to try to prevent its spread. Let’s hope it won’t be another full lockdown, so bad for mental health, with the lack of family and friends’ visits that made March through to June so difficult for many people. Most of us have already tried different methods of social interaction, from garden visits to online meets, but as winter approaches, the garden options may not be viable. A lockdown winter could be a hard one.
Here are a few things to think about while we still have good weather – though that is set to change soon. What kind of things can we do now to make winter easier to handle in the current circumstances? This is a personal list, and I am aware not everyone has an outside space or a garden, so I will include some alternatives where I can. I’ve never lived in a house without a garden, so I’m very lucky.

  1. Start feeding the wild birds now, then they will know where to come when harsher weather bites, and you will be entertained by bird-watching from your window. This can be done in a garden or back yard. You might also try your local park or any places near you where wildlife comes. Ducks often go hungry in the winter, so consider them too. Birds like to eat all sorts of things, not just commercial bird seeds. Bacon rind, scraps of fat from meat, fruit such as windfall apples, breadcrumbs. Ducks like sweetcorn and grain – so if you have nothing to give them but bread, choose granary. They get little nutrition from white sliced bread (and neither do we). If you are going to a park or wild space to feed them, you also get the benefit of a walk.
  2. If you can get to any woods where there are pine cones, go on a forage trip. We are lucky to have a pine tree in our garden, so I have been gathering there. Pine cones make great firelighters – for best results use up your left over candle stubs, melt in a double boiler, then dip the cones in once it’s starting to cool. Pine cones also make great seasonal decorations – but first you need to bake them in the oven for about an hour on a low heat, placing them on a foil-covered baking tray, to kill any insects hiding in there and to fully dry them. Then they can be painted, strung together, heaped in bowls, or made into miniature Christmas trees, whatever you like.
  3. I’m also harvesting windfall apples and freezing them down into stewed apple, which can be used in pies, crumbles and as an accompaniment to food. You may not have your own apple trees, but there may be some going free locally, or you may find some community apple trees. Ask around. People who have them often have more than they can handle and are glad to offload.
  4. If you have children, it’s fun to take a nature walk or treasure hunt this time of year. Acorn cups, beachnuts, sycamore wings, fallen leaves: there are many things around to collect for a temporary nature table. In the 1950s and 60s, it was common practice for schools to have a nature table, though the practice seems to have died out. It’s a great way to learn about nature, though washing your hands after handling these things is a good plan. It’s fun to look things up and write labels for them, and the display could be made permanent by taking photos.
  5. While charity shops are still open, do consider donating goods, but more importantly, purchase things. Charities have really felt the pinch, and you can help them AND yourself by buying winter reading, cosy blankets to spread around your living areas to save having heating on all day. It’s better for the planet to buy second hand clothes where possible, and prevent things from going into landfill by both donating and buying second hand.
  6. If you have sewing skills, unwanted garments can be reclaimed into fabric for new makes. Things like lavender bags only need scraps of fabric. Or start a patchwork quilt with your scraps and unused fat quarters.
  7. I’m starting to make Christmas gifts, and again charity shops can be a good source of goods to transform. I am thinking about small gifts like a hot chocolate kit. Buy a charity shop mug, make some chocolate spoons by melting chocolate into a shot glass or small jar, insert a pretty spoon (also from charity shops), slide out of the container when set and wrap in glassine or greaseproof paper. Put a couple of these in a mug with marshmallows and other treats, and wrap together. People who use foodbanks might like to have these too.
  8. I’m also knitting scarves, hats, fingerless gloves, small shawls and so on. These are fun to make and are great for using up yarn oddments. Knitting keeps you warm, and keeps your fingers agile. You could also consider knitting preemie hats and blankets for hospitals. I can’t crochet well but the same goes for crotchet.
  9. There are lots of easy one pot recipes for winter eating. Make casseroles with lots of veg, and some form of protein such as beans, or meat if you eat it ( we do). A little goes a long way, and stews and casseroles can have a suet crust or dumplings to make them truly one pot – or add potatoes to the mix. A nice recipe I make is red cabbage casserole. Chop the cabbage, red onions and a red pepper into a pan and sweat in a little oil, add chopped up apple and some walnuts, then bake in the oven, using veg stock or cider as the liquid. Serve with baked potatoes. Very satisfying. You don’t need recipes to make casseroles, just be inventive. Suet pastry or crust couldn’t be simpler. One ounce of flour per person, half the amount of vegetarian suet (because it’s nicer). Mix together with a knife add salt, pepper and any herbs you like (Thyme works well), mix into a stiff dough with water, and either roll into balls in floured hands and drop into the almost cooked casserole (while it’s still quite liquidy) and cook for a further 20 mins with the lid off, or roll out on to a floured surface and drape over the casserole contents and cook for 20 more mins without the lid.
  10. Cultivate the art of writing letters to loved ones you can’t actually see right now. Include photos, recipes they might like, quotes and poems you’ve found comforting. Little parcels can be really nice to get too. I’ve been sending my granddaughter little things, and will start this up again if we can’t see her. Things like colouring sheets, washi tape, and little home-made books and toys can bring a smile. I made paper dolls by enlarging a graphic from the internet and backing it with card before cutting it out. It’s lovely to receive real letters and parcels in the post. Perhaps time could be spent making Christmas cards to send this year, even just a few to special people, and having children make cards for the grandparents, aunts and uncles would keep them entertained on rainy weekends. Home-made cards are best kept simple.

collage art I made with an autumn thrush


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A Tribute to Anne Stevenson

Although I did not know Anne Stevenson well, I feel I must pay tribute to her, one small voice among the many tributes which will be written to say farewell to this fine poet and generous encourager of other poets.

I met her, as I met the late-lamented U. A . Fanthorpe, through my beloved friend Matt Simpson (1936-2009). He and Anne were of an age, and she was saddened by his death, like all his friends. For her 70th birthday, Matt Simpson and his friend John Lucas (Shoestring Press and also a fine poet, Jazz player and lecturer) created a marvellous festschrift, The Way You Say the World, with a large number of well-known poets as contributors. I was delighted to be asked to send a poem, and even more so to be asked to read it on the night of her party. Matt and I trundled up to Durham for it on a long train journey, meeting on route (and amongst many changes) with Roger Garfitt, whom we both knew.

The party was a marvellous event. All the great and good of the poetry world attended, and John Lucas’ jazz band provided the entertainment. Anne did one of her wonderful readings, and Neil Astley gave every attendee a copy of her poetry book, whose launch had been the smokescreen for the party. Anne was happy, frank and energetic as always, telling us how she was learning to hear again with her cochlear implant.

Anne was always a kind correspondent, always willing to offer critique as friend to friend, never compromising her high standards. Letter exchanges were replaced by emails over time, and if they were sporadic, it was my fault, not hers. I wanted to include one of her poems in my Austen anthology, Advice on Proposals, (Like this Press 2014), and not only did she allow me to do so, but said if there was a fee owning to Bloodaxe, she would pay it herself. This is typical of her kindness – and she also wasn’t too cross when there were lots of errors at the proofing stage, because I’d been lazy and picked it up from a website. As a result, she had the incorrect website copy altered, and even said she was grateful to me for the chance to sort it out.

She wanted to see some poems from my latest book, which came out from Red Squirrel in 2016, and wrote back with perceptive advice about one 12 line formal poem, which I had struggled to get right – she was very strict and told me I couldn’t rhyme’ bones’ with ‘alone’, because it was unprofessional. Not only this, but she also came up with a suggestion to fix it, which I was delighted to accept. She thought this book, when I sent it to her, my best to date, and said I’d really ‘come on’ in my work. Praise from Anne was always hard-earned but she meant it – no easy flatterer.

In many ways, she has been a role model to me, in the way she treated fellow poets. Her own work so mind-blowingly good, at one time I was planning to read for a PhD about her work, though that idea fell by the wayside when I moved jobs and simply had no time to study for further degrees. I have and often read, many of her books, but I need to complete my collection by buying the most recent. At least we still have her poetry books to read, as well as her essays, her work on Elizabeth Bishop and still the best biography of Sylvia Plath, Bitter Fame. Anne’s philosophy was not to seek fame and success, but to write the best poems one could. For such an accomplished poet, she was modest about her many successes and awards. I think there are many in today’s poetry world who could learn from that. Poetry is a service, a common humanity and a way of understanding the world. Anne Stevenson certainly managed all of that, with grace and humour, and a passion for the best poetry, wherever she could encourage it. I will miss her tremendously, as will all her friends and acquaintances, her partner Peter, and her family. I urge everyone to go forth and reread her work, aloud, as she was the most marvellous reader!


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What Marine Life Does For Us, what do you see, taste, smell, feel, hear? Share what you love about the sea using #NationalMarineWeek 25th July- 9th August, more like two weeks poetry and artwork challenge I’d love to hear all about your favourite marine wildlife, the actions you take to help our sea life, and what the sea means to you. First Seven Days: Saturday: Seawatch, Sunday: Rock-pools, Monday: Seabirds And Seals, Tuesday: The Strandline, Wednesday: Sand Dunes And Salt-Marshes, Thursday: Fish-Life, Friday: What Marine Life Does For Us. Please submit your poems and artwork by DM to me, or send a message via my WordPress “The Wombwell Rainbow” contact screen or my FB “Paul Brookes-Writer and Photographer”. Today: Friday: What Marine Life Does For Us?

Lovely feature for those missing the sea. Thanks to Paul for including one of mine.

The Wombwell Rainbow

Friday: WhatMarineLifeDoesForUs?

I see a thin line
which might be half sea
the other half, sky

-Elly Nobbs


tastes of particles of salt
in puddles of vinegar
Crunchy batter
The coast
Tastes of sugar
Sprinkled atop
Freshly fried
Babies in trollies scream
For smooth ice cream.

-Anthony J.P.


Sees him at the far end of the strand,
squamous in rubbery weed, his knees bobbing
urchins, his lean trunk leaning, sea-treasure for her.

After it all (they mate, like carapaces, in parentheses)
Dora feels coolness in new places, lifts a reused
razor shell, mother-of-pearly and straight

and signals out to the swell of mouldering green.
Dora is electric, in love, and deep water.
Dora, Dora, Dora, in which dread is.

People people the beach, peering
through splayed hands, appealing:

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How I’m Managing Lockdown

Before I start, I realise I am in a privileged position during this strange time. I already work freelance from home, so I am used to staying in, and because I am freelance, I don’t answer to an employer. I don’t have small children in the house, so juggling childcare and work is not an issue for me. I have enough rooms for a change of scene and I do have a garden. However, others in a similar position to me might just benefit from these tips. It isn’t all plain sailing and I too have down days and feelings of anxiety. Just recognising that and setting simple goals can really help.

These are the kind of things that I have found to be a good distraction from the current situation, in which missing family and friends, and the events I enjoy is a constant ache. These things are in no particular order:

  1. Continuing to research family history: I have putting together a file of things I’ve gathered over the years, to help me make further progress on my extensive family tree. I’ve rejoined a research website and I’ve also contacted relatives for information. I have realised this task helps with my sense of identity and pride in what my working class forebears endured and achieved, for example, two of my great-aunts lost husbands in WWI, two of my great uncles were killed and another died in his fifties as a result of his experiences. My grandfather fought and survived, as did his brother. There is a sense of triumph in finding information and checking it, and I’ve a few family members on the site, so we help each other, even though I’ve never met them.
  2. Sorting and finishing craft projects: if you have anything unfinished, either finish it or get rid of it. I’ve started some kits I’ve had around for a while, and been through them all to see what I will actually complete. I’m sorting them all into one specific sewing box. It’s ok to donate, sell or give away something you’ve started or will never do at all, even if it was a gift. Think what you would use it for after you have finished the work. The same applies to other kits.
  3. Declutter by using up all those pampering products you might have been hanging on to because they were ‘too nice’ to use up. If you like baths, a long pampering bath can be a lovely way to start or end the day. I’ve taken time to reorganise bathroom cabinets too, to find those things pushed to the back. You’ll soon realise which products you really like and want to replace when all this is over.
  4. Gardening: Sewing seeds really gives one something to look forward to, and we had lots of seeds that we hadn’t got round to using, so it’s fun to see whether they will still germinate. Without garden centres, it’s back to growing from seed or swapping (at a same distance) with friends and neighbours. Just a brief walk around the garden, or sitting outside on a bench for 10 minutes, can give our bodies their daily vitamin D, and is a boost to the spirits. If you don’t have a garden, try mustard and cress of herbs on your windowsill, and beansprouts in a dark cupboard are easy and satisfying to grow.
  5. Try making a junk journal. There are many tutorials on YouTube, and it’s not difficult at all. You can use recycled materials and spent a little time every day recording what you are doing. These are the historical documents of the future, as well as the artworks of today.
  6. Decluttering and organising can be very absorbing. Even if you just do one drawer a day, empty out, clean and then decide what goes back in there, often organised into dividers now you have the chance, can give a real sense of achievement. It’s great feeling to not have to search for things and open a beautifully organised drawer. You can find things to make dividers from what you already own, including plastic boxes that have lost their lids, or cardboard covered with pretty paper.
  7. Wardrobe makeovers: Take time to wear clothes you never normally reach for. You will either find out you really like them, or remember the reasons you don’t reach for them. I know we can’t go to charity shops at the moment, but you can have a bag ready to take when they reopen. I’ve been creatively mending loved garments that I wanted to keep, so my beat up old cashmere hoodie is now covered with crazy patches and embroidery. If lockdown continues for a few more months, I might even use my long-neglected sewing machine. Once you end up only with things that fit you and you will wear and love, you’ll enjoy your clothes again.
  8. Jigsaws and puzzles: these are a great way to keep the mind busy in down time. I had none, so I have been doing them online, but you may have some lying around forgotten, so dig them out and crack them open. Likewise books of crosswords etc.
  9. A lot of people have been baking and cooking. It’s a good time to try new recipes, or if you have never baked, time to have a go, it’s easier than you think! Home-made cakes taste so much better, Soups are very simple to make and are much healthier when homemade.
  10. Reading and audio books and podcasts: These help because it’s like someone talking to you. I’ve been deciding which poetry books to keep, by re-reading to see which still give me a thrill. Audio books are great when you’re doing something with your hands or if you live alone, while you’re eating. Audio doesn’t tie you in one place like a TV does: you can listen anywhere you can take your device.

Good luck and keep busy. This will all end one day just like the ‘Spanish’ Flu did. Meantime staying safe is the most important thing.

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January Decluttering

I was unwell and bed bound over Christmas and did a lot of thinking. I realised my huge collection of poetry books was actually crowding me out of my small study and I was spending my desk time cramped into a small alcove. I had amassed this poetry hoard over many years, perhaps in the mistaken belief that I would be a better poet for owning them. That does not work because I wasn’t reading them properly: I was just collecting them. The sheer amount of them was too intimidating.

I had often thought I needed to go through them, and I was intending to read them, and make each one earn its place. But somehow I never started that project… I didn’t have the time! Since I started collecting, the internet happened, and there are so many of these poems online to read when I need them. I also had tons of poetry magazines, especially Poetry Review, which as a member I can now access on line.

Charity shops locally struggle to sell poetry books. I actually suspect I am the only one who buys them. There are Oxfam bookshops but not all that local and I can’t manage heavy bags on the train. Fortunately for me, my friend Deborah Alma has opened a premises in Bishop’s Castle, Shropshire, to run her wonderful Poetry Pharmacy, and in the large upstairs room, where she hosts workshops and readings, she is building a poetry library. It’s purely reference, not a lending library, but I am overjoyed my unnecessary books will be where many people can access them and use them, and I can even visit them if I miss anything and want to re-read. The hardest thing is deciding which ones I can let go and which ones keep. Some are precious and will be kept, others have sat on shelves for years and have gone unread, so I doubt I will read them now.

I also had a large collection of early 19th century books with calf binding and gold tooling, that I wasn’t reading but enjoyed looking at. I have started passing those on to good friends who run a second-hand bookshop and bindery, so any books that might be worth anything can be rebound. I am of course keeping the ones I love to see and handle and dip into, but so glad I can pass the unwanted ones to these friends. I’ve also given novels to book swap libraries, my niece, local school libraries. It’s a responsibility to do the best I can to find the right new owners. But the poetry was the biggest section I had left. I am still working on it and my aim is to get a wall bookcase completely empty, so it can come down.  Book wallpaper can then replace the books I had that I liked to see on the wall but never opened. Less dust for me to breathe in, which sets off my allergies , and more space in this cramped room. That brown desk is going to charity soon too, so I can put my computer desk there and the books I still want in the alcove, which is going to have a built-in cupboard instead of a cramped writer who can’t even pull her chair in properly.


Ten Tips for Book Decluttering

  1. Do take books off the shelves to dust and clean them, but this also helps you find books you’d forgotten you had.
  2. If you haven’t touched a book that’s been on your shelf for more than 3 years, or not since you bought it, maybe you are never going to read it.
  3. if a book is covered with dust on the top, then it’s not been used for a long time and can be let go.
  4. Books are friends to many, including me, but a book that’s being ignored is not adding to your life, like a friend you lost touch with years ago.
  5. You don’t need a lot of books to prove you’re clever. People who know you already know that.
  6. Work out why you were hoarding books and see if that still applies to you.
  7. A kindle is great for novels and has really helped me part with hundreds of mine. I’ve pretty much stopped buying novels now, apart from some I need hard copies for, for my literary work.
  8. By keeping books in your hoard that could be loved and used by someone else, you are keeping birds in cages instead of letting them fly free to new owners who will appreciate their song.
  9. Once you have decided to let a book go, let it leave the house as soon as possible, or store out of sight until you are able to take them to their destination.
  10. You are not responsible for what happens to the book after you have moved it on.


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Twenty Ways to be Green

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI care deeply about the environment and have always been a tender of plants, a user of herbs, and a lover of green spaces. But now these things are no longer enough. I write eco-poetry some of the time, and my most recent book, The Five Petals of Elderflower, has many of these poems, as the main theme is our relationship with nature.

I wanted to explain what else I am doing now, to help the human race survive, at a time when we are ringing our own death knell. We all need to do our bit, and the actions will differ from person to person, depending on budget, time and so on.

What we do to be green in our family:

  1. We have solar panels on the roof. This was an initial investment but in terms of the planet, a small amount to help convert to green energy.
  2. We keep bees. We don’t sell the honey, though my husband does draw some down and we share it with family and friends. The bees are more like pets.
  3. We went down to one car and try to use public transport where possible, or share lifts.
  4. We try to walk whenever possible. It’s too easy to jump in the car when the journey is very local. Fresh air and exercise are benefits, as is enjoying local green spaces.
  5. We recycle all we can, and have a system in the house that fits in with our excellent local recycling scheme.
  6. We reuse and re-purpose what we can, particularly cloth, plastic and glass, boxes and paper items.
  7. We buy fewer clothes than we used to, choosing natural fabrics which last longer and have less impact on the planet, from sustainable sources. I mend and alter clothes, and when they no longer work for me they are donated to charity shops, or clothes skips, never ever in the bin.
  8. We garden organically and share produce with friends, family and neighbours.
  9. We have cut down on flights, though we still want to travel. We avoid large cruises as they are damaging to the seas and the places they visit.
  10. We rarely waste food, cook meals from fresh natural ingredients, forage for wild food, but never take it all. We are not vegan or vegetarian, but often eat vegetarian, and do not consume large quantities of meat. We do eat cheese but support small local businesses who produce unpasteurised cheese made the old-fashioned way.
  11. We have swapped most of our bulbs to energy-efficient ones, and remember to keep lights switched off as much as possible.
  12. Given the right weather conditions, hanging washing outside saves electricity and makes them smell wonderful.
  13. All year round we put food out for the birds and other wildlife, and make our garden nature-friendly with bird boxes, bat boxes and so on. Our mature trees make the space attractive to birds and squirrels, and we also have a fish-pond which is a haven for newts and a big hit with mating frogs.
  14. We have a herb garden and use it extensively for cooking, herbs and lavender products like lavender bags, which I make myself.
  15. As far as possible, we use online banking, email receipts and avoid printing out documents, to run a paperless ‘office’.
  16. We make Christmas presents, such as knitted garments, notebooks, soaps. massage bars, small textile gifts, collages and art pieces, food items etc. We do buy gifts too, but are careful not to add to people’s clutter. Vouchers can be appreciated, for example.
  17. We are clearing our own clutter by giving things away to people who can use them, or charity shops.
  18. Apart from essentials like socks and underwear, we wear our clothes until they actually need washing, so avoiding unnecessary wash loads.
  19. We use handkerchiefs rather than tissues, and have swapped back to using dusters made from rags, rather than wipes which include plastic. We use cotton dishcloths which can be washed and reused.
  20. We avoid food which include palm oil, the production of this is causing destruction of the rain forests the planet needs to breathe.

I am aware we could do a lot more, and would appreciate any tips in the comments. I continue to use my poetry as a vehicle for appreciating and informing readers about the importance of our environment. I will share one such poem with you. It was first published in The High Window, so I will include the link here:

The High Window Journal: Issue 1 Spring 2016

The poem I mean is called ‘Salgados Wetlands’, which is the first poem on the link. It may well be in my next book.

Angela Topping


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Whitby Folk Week Poetry Workshops Showcase #1

Some fabulous poems were produced at my workshops this year. Some participants kindly agreed to share their work. These two are from a brother and sister who attended together. Both are still at school, one secondary and one primary. It was wonderful to have them attend the workshops. Ages 10+ are welcome to attend and they do bring a breath of fresh air.

Bluebell by Holly Pugh 

Beautiful flowers

Lasting for weeks

Used for bouquets

Easy to spot

Bluebells catch my eye

Every time I step into spring

Lovely colours

Love how they fill me with glee

The Moon is… by Josh Pugh

The moon is undervalued,

Lonely, boring, dead,

In the eyes of mankind.

The moon is made of cheese,

An attempt at bringing life to it,

When in fact there is no need,

For the moon holds great power

It controls the tides,

Deciding the fate of those at sea,

It is the sun’s representative at night

Showing the presence of light

While looking majestic in the dark sky

However nobody sees this

So the moon is undervalued.


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Poems for Grenfell Tower #7 anthologies from 2018 I had poems in.

Like most people, I heard the dreadful news that the tower block was on fire in the night, with the likelihood of dreadful loss of life. People on the upper floors had little chance of escaping, and the worst aspect was the very many concerns residents had raised about power surges and other aspects of the building’s safety. The fact that the cladding which has been used to tart up the building without any benefit to the residents, and the outdated ‘stay put’ policy contributed to the deaths, did not go unnoticed. There had been other tower block fires but the warnings went unheeded. The Grenfell Tower tragedy was avoidable, which makes it so much worse.

I would never have presumed to make a poem from such a tragedy, as a mere bystander who could not have known how it was to deal with the situation; the struggles of people to escape, the valiant efforts of firefighters (one fireflighter has a poem in the book), so I wrote a poem from my own perspective. It was beautiful June weather. I had just returned from a stay with my Leeds family, rejoicing in playing with my little granddaughter, and I was making the house ready for a friend coming to stay. It struck me as so unfair that the Grenfell victims were not able to enjoy that day, doing ordinary things like exams, shopping for milk and bread, or planning to see friends. My poem came out of that.

I saw the call-out for poems on social media and sent mine in, thinking it had a slim to nil chance of being accepted. In the end it was. The book is a beautiful thing, on cream paper, with a good range of poems arranged into sections. There is also a wide range of international contributors. I won’t give names of poets here; this book is not about showcasing big names. It’s an act of collective mourning.

You can get the book here. David Lammy, who lost a friend in the blaze, wrote the foreword. To this day, many of the survivors have not been rehoused yet, which frankly appals me.



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Through My Father’s Eyes by Sheila Jacob

I was recently sent this beautiful pamphlet of poems by Sheila Jacob. I have just started reading it, turning the thick cream-coloured pages with pleasure. The opening poem had me hooked, as the poet goes through a photo album full of happy memories, until she reaches blank pages when her father stopped taking photos. The last few lines are a punch in the gut: ‘as though Dad’s box-Brownie/ saw him cough into his handkerchief/ and clouded its glassy eye’ (Camera Shy). Another poem compares the poet to the son she could have been and all the things she couldn’t be to please him, because she was a girl. But the epiphany of the poem is realised when the father is angry for her bad Maths scores, and she can say sorry to her father, hug him, and do all the other things her non-existent brother cannot. True, he can’t fail, but nor can he laugh, run and jump, sip pop through a straw, or cry against dad’s shoulder. (A Boy Called Anthony). Her father’s early death affected her deeply, and she remembers the dreadful experience of watching him fade, and losing him, in poems full of loving details, focusing on things like a bird caught in his sickroom because he always had the window open. ‘Rulers and Jacket’ is full of wonderful but poignant tactile memories of his working with leather at Remploy, then when he became to ill to work, sewing leather at home to make a knitting needle case for his wife, patchwork bags, paw pads for teddies. This is just a taster of these loving, yet never for a second sentimental poems. Working class, Catholic background, I also recognise many of the details of Jacob’s childhood.

Although this publication is all Jacob’s poems collected together so far, I hope she will continue writing and in time, produce further pamphlets. I shall be returning to these poems for further savouring. These poems are assured, confident, and what I would call ‘the real thing’. It’s not just the preserve of big name poets to write movingly and skilfully. These poems had to be written. They are sure-footed and I feel enlarged by having read them, reliving their memories alongside the poet. 

Thank you Sheila Jacob, for making a present of this book to me. I am honoured by your acknowledgment in the back, in your list of poets who inspire you. You have inspired me with these poems. Please don’t stop writing.



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My StAnza 2019 highlights


One highlight happened in advance. This year I was invited to write a commissioned poem to be part of the visual installation which loops in the Byre throughout the festival. Commissions are always a fun challenge because they take a poet out of their comfort zone. Postcards were made too, so it was lovely that people could take copies home, in a kind of ‘collect the set’ game.

This was my fifth StAnza, and I’ve got to the stage now where I have actually made friends there and look forward to seeing them again, as well as the raft of friends from the Scottish poetry scene and beyond, that I mostly made at Sally Evans’ wonderful Poetry Scotland weekends at Callander, now finished but huge fun while they lasted. It’s always tricky for me to get to anything in March, because it’s a peak time for the lectures I do for Sovereign, and World Book Day is during the same period. These days I mark the dates in my diary and try to keep them available. It’s become a fixture.

I would have liked to have arrived sooner, as I missed many good things, such as Emma Jones on Christina Rossetti – ironic because I’d spent weeks preparing a lecture on Rossetti myself which I delivered on 6th in Manchester. I sadly missed Fiona Moore’s 5 O’Clock Verses as well as Sally Evans’ ‘Border Crossings’ reading. But I did arrive in time for some real delights. As soon as we had unpacked, I darted to The Byre to get tickets for the Centre Stage Readings for Friday and Saturday, and a few other things I was worried would sell out. Sadly my health made me miss far too much of Sunday, including the never-before-missed masterclass. However, I will focus on the events I did manage.

For me this year at StAnza, the female poets were my highlights. That’s partly down to what I could attend, but mostly down to the fact they were all stellar in different ways. Jacqueline Saphra is a clear and warm reader, with succinct commentaries where needed. The first part of her reading she shared poems from her earlier collections, which reminded me all over again why I enjoy her witty and inventive poems. Then she read her entire sequence of poems about Lee Miller, with photographs shown on the big screen. It was fascinating; one of those readings you come out of feeling you’ve learned something and been moved by it. I’d heard Menna Elfyn first at StAnza five years ago, when I was new to her work, so I simply had to see her again. She writes such glowing poems, but she gives us the joy of hearing them in Welsh first, and she switches between Welsh and English unexpectedly, so it helps the non-Welsh speaker stay tuned. Welsh is such a poetic language and by, does she know how to pull the harp strings of it. Her poems about Aberfan were particularly striking. I was only a little older than those children, and I can remember the shock of it happening, and how a village was robbed in one mud-slide of the voices of children ringing in their streets, and a vanished generation.

I had the pleasure of hearing Saphra again the next day, paired with Caroline Bird, on their favourite poets, in a delightful event at the town hall, just before the poets’ market got underway. Saphra on Edna St Vincent Millay and Bird on James Tate: what a happy thing to hear these two enthuse and read some favourite poems.  The Poets’ Market was its usual unmissable flurry of chat about poetry, greeting old friends, gathering an alternative book hoard and pop up events.

I’d heard the delightful Liz Berry before, so I knew I had to get a ticket for 5 O’Clock verses. She’s an enchanting and engaging reader, and she charmed me once again with her dialect lexical choices. I could dwell on phrases like ‘tranklement cabinets’ which chink so winsomely on the ear. But make no mistake, her poetry is tough, and she read poems about some difficult experiences, as well as a lush poem about men making love to each other in the bushes in a local park, which was full of zest for the physical.  Another poem that struck me was about how lonely it can be to just be with one’s baby all day, without adult contact. I’ve been there.

Revived by fish and chips with a dram, I went to hear Caroline Bird. I became very drawn to Caroline’s energy when I was on an Arvon course she tutored, on which she, alongside David Morley took the participants to places they never knew they could write of, painful places in our pasts. She bounded on stage, fresh as a morning rose, and greeted us with “‘ello”, full of enthusiasm as she always is. Caroline’s work is surreal and pursues metaphorical truth. She tends to recite rather than read, so her uncompromising gaze arrested the audience, and the reading went by in a flash.

The only event I managed on Sunday was one I was determined to attend. I had never heard Imtiaz Dharker read before and I was excited to have the joy of an hour of her work delivered personally. Her poetry reaches out; it’s people-centric. Her poem about the boys she crushed on turning into authors she loved is a hymn to libraries too. I can’t remember the title but I must track it down and get the book it’s in. If anyone knows the title, let me know in the comments.

That wasn’t quite the end of StAnza 2019 for me. The next day I had a reading in a primary school, as part of the festival’s outreach programme into the local community. There is so much enthusiasm for poetry in Scotland. I was booked for an hour but ended up doing an extra 20 minutes because I arrived early and they showed me straight in. It was great to be able to chat with the very engaged pupils in between poems, and one girl even noticed I was wearing a dress with a print of books on shelves, because I love reading so much.

We had four more nights in Scotland, post-StAnza, which gave me a chance to rest and sort out my health, helped by a lovely doctor in Blairgowrie who gave me an emergency appointment.  So let me also heap praise on the NHS in Scotland!

Already looking to block off some time for StAnza 2020. If you have never been, give it a go. It’s for poetry lovers everywhere, not just for people who write the stuff. And St Andrews is such a lovely part of a beautiful country.


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