Category Archives: News

Hunters on the Hill

One year ago I received an email in Dutch from poet Elsa Fischer. She had read my second collection and related to the poems about the Second World War. Elsa and I have kept in touch by email. Her poems were featured here on 24 May 2020 – the end of that month we were going to meet in person in The Hague …

A 1,000-piece jigsaw of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Hunters on the Hill is waiting in the hall – a present for a friend. Seeing it there reminded me that Elsa and I have both written a poem inspired by that painting from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. On its website you can see all the works by Bruegel that still exist from their 2018 exhibition.

Jonathan McAloon published a fascinating article on Artsy “The Deadly Truth Behind Pieter Bruegel Elder’s Idyllic Landscapes” (4/2/2019). The winter of 1564-65 was the coldest winter of the century. Europe was living in what’s now called the “Little Ice Age”. It would be so cold that rivers froze enough for local people to have rent-free marketplaces on them. Frozen birds fell from the sky, people could enjoy themselves skating. There were also food shortages, resulting in illness and riots.

Elsa’s poem was published in the journal Poetry Salzburg. Mine is in the pamphlet A Stolen Hour (Grey Hen Press, 2020). We’ve both taken the viewpoint of someone in the landscape.

Hunters

I’ve come to feast again on Flemish grotesque
at the peasant wedding and Shrove Tuesday’s kermis.

To watch the hunters as they bring in the kill,
the trails of blood not far from where I stand

for cover. I hear branches and shrubs and ice
breaking and feel no pity until the knives release

a medieval agony of entrails, shimmering,
steaming, on to the floor of the estaminet.

The heady beer explodes, the pissoir smells.
I grab a cue at the billiard table. I am seventeen.

Piercing the cold like the crow’s flight I escape
into the northern twilight, away from memories.

In a far corner

It is a clear afternoon.
I hear children laughing,
the clacking of skittles,
skates carving the ice.

I know it is Friday and hear
the silence of crows.
My bones are strong,
my wife is in good health.

I do not yet know that
on the hill the hunters
with their wet and tired dogs
are heading for home.

I think about my wife,
heavy with child, her apron
as white as the snow
under my feet.

I see plumes of breath from my lips,
as though I’m a horse with plough.
Branches on my shoulder creak, shudder.
I’m yoked to this life.

Blackbird – poem

I am grateful to Josephine Corcoran for posting this poem on her And Other Poems site today. You can read the full poem and many other wonderful poems here Josephine had a brief submission window from which she selected those poems that would connect with many people, poems that would lift our spirit in these difficult times.

Blackbird

There’s a blackbird on the wooden fence.
It looks left, then right,
stretches up and its yellow beak plucks
an orange berry from the pyracantha.

Solstice – a haiku

It is almost Solstice, the day in December that means the most to me: the shortest day, the gradual turn towards the light.

I will celebrate with a short meditation, then some music and mulled wine. I send you warm wishes for Solstice, Christmas and for the New Year. Thank you all for your support and your comments. On Sunday 3 January I will post again.

The marvellous illustration is by gdizerega on Pixabay, and the winter solstice haiku by Matthew Paul. It was first published in The Haiku Calendar 2014.

winter solstice
the street-cleaner picks up                              
a glass half full

St Nicholaas 2020

St Nicholaas, Public Domain, Pixabay

St Nicholaas arrives in the Netherlands by boat, each year at a different port. He then rides through the town on his white horse. It’s on the mid-November Saturday. In the three weeks’ run-up to St Nicholaas Eve (5 December) he will appear in other towns, always with at least one Zwarte Piet who carries a large bag with goodies and, traditionally, a birch bundle to clean a chimney. But, as children we were told that, if you were naughty, you’d get spanked – even worse, you might be put inside that bag and taken away to Spain …

Since 2010, there has been growing concern about Zwarte Piet and racism. There have been demonstrations for and against the tradition. Motorways have been blocked. Arrests made.

St Nicholaas and Zwarte Piet, olliebrands0 via Pixabay


The arrival of St Nicholaas attracts large crowds: not good in a pandemic. This year the Dutch, pragmatic as ever, have killed two birds with one stone. The holy man arrived in a non-existent village, called Zwalk. The verb Zwalken means to drift, wander about. His arrival was shown live on Dutch television on 14 November. There were no crowds, no protesters.

Here is the white horse, a display in the famous Bijenkorf store in Amsterdam.

The traditional sweets connected with St Nicholaas were already in the shops late September when I was due to travel back to Manchester. Alphabet letters, capitals in dark or milk chocolate, along with marzipan figures, gingerbread cookies (pepernoten), speculaas filled with almond paste…

St Nicholaas sweets and cookies, nietjuh via Pixabay

Once children know the truth about St Nicholaas – that he is based on a Greek bishop who lived 270 – 343 in Myra, in what is now Turkey – and they have pocket money, they can buy presents for other members of their family. Traditionally, these are hidden in a surprise – a humourous, unusual or personalised packaging, made of papier maché and painted. These may come with a “poem” that is supposed to come from the good old man himself. Poor St Nicholaas can only compose doggerel!

St Nicolaas writes to my dear brother.
He wants to know: Why is it so much bother

for you to take a turn at doing the dishes?
The knives and forks are not dangerous fishes!

Coffee cups, soup bowls, the dirty plate:
Why do you always leave it so late?

The plastic bowl with soapy water isn’t deep.
Honestly, you won’t drown, you could do it in your sleep!

Promise St Nicholaas that you’ll improve
and he’ll send you some presents and his love.

Shoes and siblings

The Garsdale Retreat

This week I’ve been on a writing course at the Garsdale Retreat: Memoir/Life Writing. It was an intense four days with tutor Cathy Rentzenbrink. She wrote a successful memoir The Last Act of Love and has published two books since. Of course, we were meeting via Zoom. Rebecca emailed us recipes to make up for the fact we would not be eating her delicious, home cooking. There was an afternoon chatroom option, but it could never replace Rebecca’s home-made cake!


One way to elicit memories for a memoir is to think of objects. I’ve read exercises about shoes, seen a tutor on another workshop bring in her first shoes. I have no memories of the shoes I wore as a child, but I have fond memories of the green shoes with three tiers – glamorous and comfortable – I wore that year when I was doing my MA at Sheffield University.


I do recall the astonishing poem My Shoes by Charles Simic. It starts:

Shoes, secret face of my inner life:
Two gaping toothless mouths,
Two partly decomposed animal skins
Smelling of mice-nests.

There are four more stanzas, with a surprise in the second stanza – two dead siblings.

Last year at Garsdale, I was delighted to find that another woman on the course was wearing identical boots! Briefly, I felt like I had a twin sister …

Words to Remember

I am pleased to be one of the 43 writers who have contributed to this anthology by Printed Words. It includes fiction, creative non-fiction and poems. They cover writing about cancer and loss, but there are also pieces of writing that provide some lighter relief. The profits of the book are going to several cancer charities. Words to Remember is edited by Amanda Steel (@Amanda_S_Writer) and is available on Amazon as a paperback and Kindle Edition.


One of my two poems is Bitterne Park, Southampton. A friend who also used to work for P&O bought the house that I shared for just a few years with my late husband. I can still visit…

Bitterne Park, Southampton

The blackout curtains
don’t let the sun through.
I wake to the small sounds
that come with morning:
squirrels jump around the oak tree
at the heart of our cul-de-sac.
A bus strains up the hill.

At the Triangle, the bank opens
and the smiley greengrocer
limps his vegetable crates outside.
On the river Itchen
John strokes his beard, thinks
about brewing tea.

It is meant to be an ordinary day.
But this month is a long-distance runner,
this month is a marathon.

On the other side of the narrow bridge,
a woman is taking two large black bags
into a charity shop. Suits and shirts,
all washed, dry-cleaned, ironed.
She had forgotten the silk ties.
Now they’re rolled up, placed
in a see-through Biza bag
that once held duty-free cologne.

Hacker – a poem

Keith Lander

 

It’s a great pleasure to introduce this month’s poet Keith Lander. We first met early autumn 2004 in the Village Hall, Manchester where the poet Linda Chase was running a weekly poetry course, on behalf of the Poetry School. The Poetry School is the UK’s largest provider of poetry education, offering a wide range of courses at all levels.

Keith Lander was born and grew up in Manchester. At school he studied sciences and went on to gain a B.Sc. in mathematics from the University of Wales, Bangor. This led him into the IT industry where he worked as a software engineer and for several years was a consultant for Siemens in Munich.

He has had poems published in a number of anthologies and magazines including The North, Envoi and Obsessed with Pipework and has been long listed three times for the National Poetry Competition. He has an M.A. in Creative Writing from Manchester Metropolitan University.

The three poems feature the mysterious “Milo” character. You can find all three in the pamphlet Pandemonium, published by Yaffle Press in 2019. For more information about Keith Lander go to his writing website.

 

Hacker

This morning Wu Mian of Guangzhou province,
Zen hacker extraordinaire, Milo’s big buddy,
will smash through Mr C’s firewall
using a password provided by Milo.

He’ll be sitting alone in his garden
surrounded by clematis and acacia blossom
listening to the music of the fountain
while reading Lu Chi’s Wen Fu.

A trojan horse will appear out of cyberspace
and release its hidden hoard of phisher men
who’ll slide into the fountain,
hack their way into his heart
and steal his deepest secrets.

 

In theatre: Milo’s view

Milo tells me I won’t feel a thing.
He on the other hand will be awake
monitoring the situation.
He’s seen the videos on YouTube,
how they stop the heart, cool the body, pump
the blood through a machine. No way is he

going to get trapped in that infernal thing.
So he stays out of the arteries, surfs
from lymph node to lymph node, watches the surgeon
remove the right saphenous vein through a hole in my groin,
peeps gobsmacked as they graft it in place.
And how he cheers when they remove the valve,

the choked old squeaker. How sweet the bovine
replacement smells—green grass, fresh pastures.
He has to cling to a rib while they staple
the sternum back together, but then passes out
when they shock me back to this world.
Milo was right: I didn’t feel a thing.

 

Pandemonium-cover (002)
Retirement

After a shit life horse-trading with wankers
down back streets of shady deals
he sought nirvana
in a kingdom of ticky-tack and sushi
finding it here, in this place,
with its parity of peace.
The psychedelic visions of his gullible youth
have paled into shades of white.
At last he’s immune to most earthly hazards,
but at night, in his boxroom,
he’s started to have visions
of a black shadow—
Milo in his cave lurking just out of sight.

Southwold, Suffolk

Image (2)

Beach huts in Southwold, Suffolk

Later today, I’m on a ‘virtual’ writing weekend. Part of the preparatory work was to write a 16-word poem about a place on the coast, but not about Whitby – which is where we will be based ‘virtually’. That brought back memories of my many visits to Southwold in Suffolk. The expensive beach huts there are legendary. The smell of beer brewing at the local Adnams Brewery is an acquired taste!

Several times we rented Shrimp Cottage, at the front. Whoever stayed in the main bedroom on the first floor, had a view of the sea from their bed. We were the women I met on holiday in China, as one of our regular reunions. I’ve also stayed there with friends from Manchester and, twice, my brother and his family in the Netherlands got the ferry to Harwich and made the short drive up the coast.

Southwold Sailors Reading Room

 

I visited Southwold in all seasons. There was just one house between Shrimp Cottage and the Sailors’ Reading Room – a Grade II listed building from 1864 and still a refuge for sailors and fishermen. Another forty footsteps took us to the Lord Nelson pub. The poem is included in my second collection Nothing serious, nothing dangerous, published by Indigo Dreams Publishing Ltd  in November 2019.

 

Southwold posts

 

Nautical miles
The sign outside the Sailors’ Reading Room is

a series of thin wooden planks, painted white:
Den Helder, IJmuiden, Hoek van Holland.

Across the horizon, they are less than a hundred
nautical miles from Southwold in Suffolk

where the narrow beach of pebbles –
grey, brown, black mostly –

is held together
by couplets of groynes, slimy green.

Both our languages have the word strand.

 

 

Vlieland – Birthday island

 

Vlieland island

 

Earlier this week I celebrated my birthday. Up to 10 visitors are now allowed onto the camp site for parties and birthdays. However, I decided to celebrate over a 10-day period: some days the weather has been autumnal – cold, wet and windy. Inside the caravan I wouldn’t have been able to guarantee the 1m social distance. Besides, after months of social isolation, lockdown, shielding, I was desperate for proper contact and conversation with family and close friends. It was a marvellous extended week!

I vividly remember another birthday. With a close friend I had an overnight stay on Vlieland, one of the Frisian Islands in the Wadden Sea. We travelled by ferry from Harlingen (a peaceful 90-minute journey), stayed overnight in Hotel De Wadden that once was the island’s marine college, rented bikes, ate fish and chips, bought cranberries which grow there. We were blessed with the weather: sunny and a breeze.

 

A major storm in 1296 separated Vlieland from the mainland. It’s hard to imagine how important the island once was: in the 17th century hundreds of trading and whaling ships would have been afloat nearby. The tides and winds have shifted and changed the shape of the island. Now, it is only about 12 kms long and 2 kms wide at best and, mostly dependent on tourism. Visitors are not allowed to bring a car across – bring your own bike or rent one!

Vlieland ferry

 

Vlieland

Empty days
cycling on white paths
crushed shells
bless the lighthouse
on this island

Full nights
dreams of fishes
frogs, berries, seals
the white ferry
resting

Birthday
blessed July
sky, salt breeze
You look younger
on this island

Winning an Award

 

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I am delighted to share with you the wonderful news: I am one of five poets who have received a Northern Writers Award 2020 from New Writing North. The poetry entries were judged by Vahni Capildeo. They were said to be ‘highly impressed’.

New Writing North is a development agency that supports reading and writing in the North of England. It was established in 1996 to commission new work, create development opportunities, nurture talent, and make connections. Since 2000 NWN has also run the annual Northern Writers Awards. Funding for these awards comes from different sources, such as the Arts Council, TV’s Channel 4.

This year more than £45,000 was given to 26 winners from a record-breaking 1,800 entrants. I sent off my submission of 29 pages at the end of December. With everything that happened this year I had completely forgotten about it. I am going to spend the award money on getting a mentor as this current project is well outside my comfort zone.

The short poem below is the current title poem.

 

Remembering

Remembering is like hay-fever:
there before you know it.
Other people unaffected and smiling.

Remembering is a disease
with a double-barreled name
like Schadenfreude-Unheimlich,
and the GP whom you’ve waited

to see for at least a week
looks through you and says
she’s never heard of it.

It’s being back in a classroom,
you can’t read the blackboard sums
and the teacher is pointing at you.