Working for Examination Boards

In 1993, I began working for a leading examination board, starting on the Tragedy paper of A level English Literature, because I wanted to sharpen my teaching and keep up my skill level, having taught A level English Literature for three years at Mid-Cheshire College, but moving to a school where I knew it might be years before I got any A level teaching. I also marked GCSE English Literature for two years alongside the A level. When the specifications changed, I worked on the Shakespeare Open Book paper, then in 2000, moved over to English Language and Literature because I was starting to teach that new syllabus and wanted to do it as well as possible. I learned such a lot about linguistics and how to apply it to literature. I worked on two coursework units and one examination unit, and was blessed with having wonderful colleagues who made the work a pleasure, and a superb administrator who was incredibly helpful. I was promoted to senior moderator on both coursework units, and I really enjoyed helping my teams and working even more closely with colleagues I admired. I also did two years on Creative Writing A level. Until fairly recently, there were January submissions and remoderations to do as well, and I even got to lead some staff training sessions in schools.

Now there are new specifications, and everything is changing. I recognise things are of their time. But the exam work made me feel valued and taught me so much about my academic disciplines, stretching me and sharpening my teaching. It gave me confidence when marking my own students’ work and standardising our department’s coursework in both the schools I taught in. It got me through some dark days in school, because my exam colleagues always valued my commitment and consistency.

I would strongly recommend to teachers to take up the challenge to try exam board work. You can earn extra money while gaining wider experience and the training given by all the boards in understanding how to award marks positively and apply judgements is absolutely invaluable. It will widen your reading and make you a better teacher. It will also allow you to see that examiners don’t want rote answers; they want to see students thinking for themselves and writing relevantly, making discoveries as they apply their knowledge and understanding to the task they have been set.

This year will be the first since 1993 when I will no longer spend May and June in my study, working every day to meet deadlines. I will miss the focus of our meetings and the professional discussions, I will miss the sense of purpose and the dialogue with teams. Of course I will miss the money. Most of all, I will miss working with some of the brightest, most professional people I have ever met. We worked hard and cared passionately about getting things right and being fair to students.

I have made some lifelong friends in the process but this year I am looking forward to being able to work in the garden at the best time of year, sneak in a few extra holidays and generally reclaim those two crucial months for myself. I left full time teaching in 2009, this feels like another step away from that role and makes more room for poetry and socialising with friends and family. So long, exam board, it’s been good to know you. writingCentre-792358

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Old Poetry Magazines

Recently I have been involved in attempts to de-clutter the loft, and have been bringing down boxes of books to look through. It was a rather sobering experience to discover a box of old poetry magazines, some of which have ceased publication or are under newer editors, others have ceased altogether. These were magazines I used to avidly study in the hope of being admitted through their hallowed portals into the world of publication. Now they are covered with a faint grit of plaster dust. Some I got into, some I never did, but I am only keeping the ones which have meaning for me. Or to put it another way, issues I got my poems into.

Looking through them, several things struck me. One was the quality of the publications, which has improved massively since the days when magazines had to be typed up rather than word processed, and standard of paper and binding used is now closer to book quality, compared to some of these very basic stapled pamphlet style books, probably done on a photocopier, though Ambit (one I never cracked), Stand (only got in for the first time last year) and Other Poetry (which I eventually reviewed for as well as having poems in lots of issues)  are rather glossy and professional-looking. I do have a fondness for the simpler designs, done on a budget by someone who clearly loved what they were doing but had no funding. The glossies, however, were the more prestigious ones. Orbis was the first magazine to publish my work after my self-appointed apprenticeship of a decade, and in those days, they even paid!



Another thing was the names of the successful poets. Many have disappeared without trace, who may have stopped writing altogether; others were being published all that time ago and are still writing now, such as Pippa Little, Roger Elkin, Jonathan Davidson, Katharine Gallagher and Philip Gross. This also applies to me. Others went on to become favourite poets of mine, like Jeni Couzyn and Elma Mitchell. Some of these poets I really liked have died and their work all but forgotten, casualties of changing fashion and the fact they are not here to promote their work: Dannie Abse, Geoffrey Holloway, Ken Smith, Evangeline Paterson – all fine poets. I wonder what happened to Lisa St Aubin de Terran after George Macbeth (another fine forgotten) died. There are plenty of poems here by people I never heard of again.

Flicking through these once so familiar publications from the 1980s made me realise, above all, that they are ephemeral. It is barely relevant now who was published in them and who isn’t. Poetry magazines come and go, they are of their time and showcase new work that might not even make it into the poet’s collections. They are try-outs like open floor nights. Of course we all try to gather lists of excellent magazines who have taken our work, but eventually they only exist in bibliographies.

Nowadays many magazines are on line, either in addition to or instead of print magazines. The content can be viewed as long as the website remains live. Print journals often seem more prestigious, but online has a wider reach and a greater chance of longevity. That’s a valuable lesson.

Another valuable lesson concerns rejections. In 20 or 30 years, you will no longer care whether or not you got into a particular magazine or not. Success and failure will mean the same thing, when these old magazines are archived if they are lucky and pulped if they are not. It’s a sobering thought.



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Poetry and Handbound Books

I am leading in a holiday in a country house near Keswick this coming September. The company arrange transfers from Penrith station, if you come by train. There is plenty of parking, if you drive. And if you come with a partner who doesn’t want to do this holiday, there are others running concurrently. 
It runs Monday afternoon to Friday morning, all the cooking is done for you and meals served in a beautiful dining room. At the moment, there are three people booked on the course and I’d love a larger group, though I’ve been told it’s viable already and will definitely run.
We will be reading nature poetry by a wide range of poets, and writing our own, using the stimulus of the extensive grounds. Alongside that, we will make a handbound watercolour paper concertina book with a hard cover, illustrated by a range of possible methods and including a poem you have written on the holiday, of your choice. There will be evening activities too, including a talk on bees.
The early bird discount is still valid. It’s cheaper than Arvon, but guests are waited on and served three course meals, restaurant style, extensive grounds, a footpath to Keswick, materials provided and everyone will take home a book they made themselves. 
This is the link to the holiday:


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Words by the Water 2017

I recently led a holiday for HFHolidays, to the Words by the Water Festival at the Theatre by the Lake in Keswick. I stayed at Derwent Bank, one of their country houses and took my party in by taxi to events of my choice, giving a talk to prepare them for each event the night before.

On Saturday we went to the talk by Edmund Gordon, the author of a new biography of Angela Carter, the first ever done about her. She died tragically young, aged only 51, but left a prodigious amount of work. She lived a very interesting life, travelling all over the world, and remained an avid reader throughout her life. I prepared my group my giving an illustrated talk with examples of her work and interesting facts about her writing themes and approaches to fiction. The event on Saturday took the form of a Q&A. The most fascinating part of it was when Gordon explained his methods of research and his careful corroboration of facts, because he had been told stories about her which belied actual events, and had had to sort out the truth from embellishments, including those from Carter’s own hand. Having written a book myself on Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories (for my money her best work), I was in a strong position to introduce her to others.

Focus carter

The guests went to other talks, but I made myself available to them all day, eating lunch with some and  showing others around Keswick. We returned to the house at 4.30 and I gave a talk on the next day’s even at 5pm. The event I had chosen for the second day was very different. It was Christopher Somerville, discussing his most recent book, The January Man. My talk for the group included points about the genre of creative non-fiction, a multi-media presentation about the new book, including Mike Harding singing the song which inspired the book, The January Man, by Dave Goulder, and an article by Somerville from his A-Z of walking. The event with Somerville on Sunday was wonderful. Again it took a Q&A format, though I’d have liked to have heard more from Somerville himself. He sang the song for us and showed photographs, and gave us many insights into the charms of the different locations he had explored. The idea of his book was to experience different parts of the UK which has special memories for him and show them across the seasons. We had done some sharing of our own special places as part of my talk the previous evening, so I think it all resonated very well with the guests.Somerville is the sort of person that one could imagine having as a friend.

The holiday guests had booked tickets themselves to additional events, as the holiday company includes two, giving them the choice for others, so because I wasn’t needed so much, I bought a ticket to Kathryn Hughes’ talk , ‘The Victorians Undone’. This proved to be fascinating. Hughes spoke from the lectern, after a short introduction, and it was easy to see her passion for history. She focused on a few case studies, such as why George Eliot’s family were embarrassed because she had one hand bigger than the other. In the book, she has written about even more case studies, including Lady Flora’s belly, which some might have seen a plotline about in the recently televised ‘Victoria’ drama, on the early life of the Queen.

Myself and my group returned to Derwent Bank in time for a feedback chat before dinner and some literary quizzes and puzzles which I had created for them after dinner. It was our farewell eventing, and there was much laughter and warmth between us and some wanting to keep in touch, which I welcomed. When I saw the guests off after breakfast, they were all very positive about what a good time they had had. I was very pleased that my first experience of being a holiday leader had gone so well.

I would have liked to have seen more poetry at Words by the Water. The events I attended were good, but there was a heavy focus on creative non-fiction, on politicians and critics. Being a poet myself, I was disappointed there was so little poetry on the menu and none of it on the weekend chosen by the holiday company, though Helen Mort had been on the previous weekend, reading from her new book.

The bookshop was doing well, however, with expensive hardbacks being bought and taken to the book signing table. It was good to see such enthusiasm for book purchasing. The theatre itself was, as usual, hospitable and comfortable. It was a pity the weather was rainy and chilly, but nonetheless, it was good to be back in Keswick.




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StAnza 2017

I had wanted to go to StAnza for a long time, but there was very often a clash with schools work around World Book Day, for example in 2013, I was away working in Cornwall for a fortnight, doing some outreach work for Falmouth University and a primary school day in Saltash for Able Writers, the scheme dreamed up by Brian Moses.

In 2014, my first time at the festival, I was booked to take up The Lightfoot Letters exhibition of my poetry and Maria Walker’s art, which was shown in the Preservation Trust. Because we had to mount the exhibition, with the help of one of their curators, we went up for the full duration and I was able to attend workshops with John Greening and Brian Turner.

I was not expecting to know so many people and to feel among friends.  But now I know that StAnza is one of the friendliest festivals. This is partly because the Scottish poets are very welcoming and partly because the hang out for everyone is The Byre, where many of the events take place. It’s a place where one can find oneself bumping into poetry friends and publishers, making new friends or casually striking up a conversation with one of the headline poets. No-one has any airs and graces, there is a sense of all of us engaged together in the serious game of writing, and trying to learn from each other.

2017 was my third time, and it will not be my last. Eleanor Livingstone and the committee set fascinating themes every year and invite poets from all over the world, giving the festival a really global buzz, bringing people together into a shared world with poetry at its heart. There is poetry in the street, in gardens and museums, all shared in imaginative ways like sound installations and exhibitions, all free to enjoy.

This year I particularly enjoyed the Katherine Towers poems at The Preservation Trust, and had to go and buy the book straight away, because I love herbs and natural remedies. There were also wonderful poems in the garden, displayed in lot of imaginative ways using natural materials.


Because of work commitments (the life of a jobbing poet always seems crammed), we couldn’t arrive until Friday, after staying at a friend’s house en route at the halfway point. There were events I would have liked to have attended on Friday but I contented myself with evening ones in case the journey took longer than anticipated. Instead, we spent some time looking at the exhibitions before going to the evening reading, with Jacques Darras and Kathleen Jamie. I particularly relished the French poems, which we listened to first in the original, wonderfully performed, and then translations were read with clarity and precision by Claudia Daventry. Afterwards I was brave and read two poems at ‘Risk a Verse’, which had always seemed a little scary, because the Byre is full of people talking, whereas I am more accustomed to rapt concentration at readings. But Andy Jackson did a great job of hosting it, making everyone feel valued.

Some of the events I’d have loved to attend sold out very quickly, so I make a mental note to be better organised next year. Saturday’s highlights were the ever-buzzing Poetry Market, where I had some great conversations with poets and publishers too numerous to mention by name. Unfortunately, we missed the launch of New Boots and Pantisocraties, because of an emergency at our digs but caught the Imprisoned Poets Reading with Scottish Pen, which was moving and fired me up to join the English one. The empty chair to represent writers in prison really brought the message home. I particularly loved hearing Patience Agbabi read.

The Saturday night reading, with Sarah Howe and Jackie Kay, was such a delight and a real highlight for me. Howe told us some of the stories behind her poems, and gave an enchanting reading, and Kay is always so warm, funny and loving. I caught her as she was leaving, as I just happened to be standing by the exit, having come downstairs, and she grabbed hold of my hand as I was saying how much I loved the reading. Myself and a poet friend had been sitting in the studio live screening and it was so nice that she referred to us and included us.

After that, we went to the slam, mostly to support friends like Sally Evans and Jill Abram who were competing. I have to be honest and say slams are not my thing. I hated the panto as a kid because of all the shouting, and I don’t like slams for the same reason. But some of the poems were very good, and thought-provoking. I’d personally prefer a slam where the audience made a poetry noise instead of screaming, but I suppose I am alone in preferring mmmmms to woowoowoos at the top of voices.

Sunday morning was the masterclass with Sarah Howe. It is like being at a critique group where other people’s poems are being dissected, so one can relax and listen and learn, unless one wants to chip in – there were people with roving microphones – but I preferred to glean nuggets from the discussion for my own consumption later.

We had to hit the road after that event, but I had had some wonderful conversations with so many poets, from booked guests to attendees, that I fell asleep in the car on the way home, tired but happy, as my husband drove. Huge congratulations to the whole team and every poet who took part, for another marvellous festival, a poetry party that lasts and lasts, and keeps one going for months.

Roll on StAnza 2018.



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Hygge Feature 33 # Against the Horror

When I started this feature my aim was to let poetry shine some light into the darkest time of year. 2016 was a very difficult year on the world stage. We are all aware of the results of two very important votes which rocked the fabric of society as we know it. The sense of hopelessness has been hard to cope with. Protests and anger have their place become exhausting. Like many people I personally am affected by cold, dark days both physically and mentally. I would like to thank the many poets who submitted poems for the feature, whether I used them or not. I was amazed and very grateful for the interest in this feature which some people have shown. It has been a lot of work to put it together but when people tell me it has helped them, that makes it all worthwhile.

I have been saving this poem by Sally Evans for the last day, because it expresses exactly what I was hoping to do. Sally was attending a Very Peculiar Burns Supper. organised by Ian Maxtone. Surrounded by friends, sharing poems, in difficult times – that is the notion of hygge I have been working with.

My own poem  shared below, is a fairly recent one, which was first published on I am not a Silent Poet. I too was sharing a meal with poetry friends, but it was a different kind of anniversary, one of war and death. It reflects on Brexit and Trump, and has no answers. Art provokes questions. And sometimes all we can do is hunker down with our tribe and practise a little kindness.


Photo of Sally Evans by Sweet Pea photography


“I don’t want to read a poem”

I don’t want to read a poem
for the simple reason I don’t want to write one.
I want to sit quietly watching
this part of the world go by
because it is hygge and simpatico,
complex words I have collected
for a warm presence of people
in a room that does its best
against the winter, against the horror
we have mostly experienced
in the past weeks,
the political maelstrom
that all deplore except those
who run with it,
crying Amen to decisions
we cannot countenance.

I want to sit among cheerful friends
looking across the tables
at broken crackers and candles,
tumblers with orange juice,
and the rich coffee we have ordered
but has not yet come –
writing away in a notebook
someone has actually given me –
they are these sorts of friends –
writers and those who understand them,
protesters and analysts,
recorders and accepters,
while windows onto the darkened winter trees
are ranged round the room between paintings,
bold coloured, abstract posters,
brightening this troubled time,
consoling the old, encouraging the young
and holding its own, this room
in a world of fascism and illiberalism
out of tune with our writing,
a world neither the old nor young
expected or deserved.

I have written so many poems
and this is where it brought us
so I do not want to read a poem
but to sit here and be content.


Sally Evans



Remembrance Day 2016

The train manager requests two minutes silence
as benevolent morning sun touches
middle England’s fields with gilt
while across the Channel, the Somme’s
sweet rolling hills are healing over
despite zig-zag trenches and craters
where paper poppies decay and fall
like blood-stained confetti.

Leonard Cohen has sung his last gravelly elegy,
so long Marianne and all the rest of us.
Obama leaves the White House,
Britain turns its back on the EU.
What vultures are hovering we do not know.
Over Mexican food three poets
talk passionately of politics, uneasy isms.
The papers continue to report things we cannot stomach.


Angela Topping



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Hygge Feature #32 Enduring Love

Valentine’s Day is not hygge, as such, because it’s about impressing the one you love with a dozen red roses and champagne, and other expensive gifts. It’s about romance. Love for me is what’s left when romance has gone and we are caught up in supporting each other through everyday life, good times and bad times, and in the routines we devise over time for our comfort and relaxation. That is hygge. This kind of love endures through years of togetherness, and does not go when the partner dies, but stays as long as the memories do.



Photo by Angela Topping


Marriage Tea

Tea is a hug in a china mug
hot and strong, without sugar
and only the merest whisper of milk.

First thing in the morning
it is the kiss for sleeping beauty
brought to the bedside as the sky warms up.

It can be dressed in finer clothes
but the everyday chipped mug,
after all these years, is enough for me.

Angela Topping

first published on Nutshells and Nuggets


You Help Me Fly

For Richard
‘He is my rock.’
she said,
as if with pride.

You, my love,
are not my rock.

For rocks immovable
smack too much
of millstones
round my neck.

Nor are you my anchor,
holding so tight
I cannot
ride with the tide
of my desire.

You are the string
on which,
kite-like I fly
and soar to heights
I could not reach alone.

And if I fall,
I know
that you’ll be there,
to catch
and hold me close.


Mavis Gulliver




Suddenly I’m old.
You never saw me like this:
the little wounded eyes,
the fleshy wrinkles
or the wayward wiry hair.
I’m not the woman you once loved.
Grief damaged me
but I survived,
the woman who loved you
and loves you still
but goes on, anyhow.

Linda Goulden

First appeared in Poems for Survival, The Fat Damsel


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