Off the Shelf

October 21, 2015 § Leave a comment

I’m leading two events this weekend as part of Sheffield’s Off the Shelf Festival:

Spence Broughton – a savage tale for savage times.

A political reading of my sequence, reissued by Longbarrow Press this year, with Ray Hearne.

A carcass, tarred and put in iron,
cast up on a pole at the moor’s edge,
a message to all that pass.

Friday 23 October, 7.30pm, Walkley Community Centre.  £4 on the door.

Bringing History Alive Through Poetry

A workshop to make poetry out of the ‘shadows, losses and silences’ of the past.

Part of a day of activity at Walkley Library called Be a Writer, See a Writer, Hear a Writer.

Saturday 24 October, 3 – 5pm, Walkley Library.


The P word – some thoughts on poetry and politics

September 25, 2015 § Leave a comment

Politics in Britain, despite the best efforts of the establishment, has come alive this summer.  It made me reflect on the poet’s responsibility – and how some have articulated, or wrestled, with this.

Here are a few of them:

‘Do not feel safe. The poet remembers.’ – Czeslaw Milosz, ‘You Who Wronged’ (1950)

‘Only the very stupid or the very deprived can any longer help knowing that the documents of civilization have been written in blood and tears, blood and tears no less real for being very remote. And when this intellectual predisposition co-exists with the actualities of Ulster and Israel and Bosnia and Rwanda and a host of other wounded spots on the face of the earth, the inclination is not only not to credit human nature with much constructive potential but not to credit anything too positive in the work of art.’ – Seamus Heaney, ‘Crediting Poetry’ (The Nobel Lecture’, 1995)

‘It’s possible for me to write about the dead of Treblinka and Pompeii—included in that are the dead of Dungiven and Magherafelt. But I’ve never been able to write directly about it.’ – Derek Mahon, interview in The Paris Review (2000)

‘[T]here are many who share my experiences, who might think my same words, but who never have the opportunity to express them … to be able to write the poem, get it published, read it to an audience. I get to do that. And it’s part of my responsibility as a poet to do that, for those who do not get the chance to speak. That’s poetry of advocacy.’ – Martin Espada, ‘Poetry and the Burden of History’ (interview, 2000)

‘I once gave a workshop and I asked the women poets there, If you went back to that little town you’ve come from — these were from small towns — would you say, I’m a poet? And one of them said, If I said I was a poet in that town, they’d think I didn’t wash my windows. And that stayed with me for so long, the sense of the collective responsibility of someone as against the individual thing it takes to be a poet.’ – Eavan Boland, PBS Interview (2012)

Do you have comments from poets, or lines from their poems, which resonate with, or unsettle, you?


Pulp Friction

August 25, 2015 § Leave a comment

A bit of a shock earlier in the summer.  Smokestack, who published my latest collection, Yoke and Arrows, in February 2014, contacted me to say that unfortunately they would have to pulp their stock of the book.  They are a small publisher with very little external funding, and the company which stores their books had doubled their costs.  It was a stark illustration of the state of the industry.

I forked out as much as I could for a bank of copies; and the editor assured me that he’d keep back a good number for sales in the medium term.  However, I have to admit it was something of a blow.  I want my poetry to be valued by other people.  Whether this is about a need to communicate or share something at a complex level, or for more egotistical reasons (I suggest that for most artists it is a bit of both), the idea of it being destroyed is difficult.  Sure, poetry is an oral as well as a textual form; but in a literate culture, each are necessary elements.  We speak poetry to ourselves as we create it; it settles with us – necessarily imperfectly – into the ciphers of writing; finally, it comes out of the page and lives again as we speak it.

So, I have my small box of books; Smokestack have theirs; and those people who have bought copies thus far – as well as the (now finite) group of people yet to buy what remains – will be the only people able to resurrect the poetry into the air.

Apart from those that buy copies second hand, or remaindered from libraries, or read them online, or on their phones…

So get over it, Hindle.  It’s out there, rarefied by the exigencies of modern economics.  200 copies or so – but most of them on people’s shelves instead of waiting like Mahon’s mushrooms in an industrial estate off the A1.

Save us.

(Oh, and if you want a copy of this now-rare book, let me know!)


Spence Broughton, Rotherham and the Rights of Man

May 5, 2015 § 1 Comment

Spence Broughton, a farmer from Lincolnshire, was tried and convicted at York Assizes in April 1792 for his part in robbing the Rotherham mail.  He was executed at York Tyburn and his body transported to be hanged from a gibbet on Attercliffe Common, between Sheffield and Rotherham, where it remained until 1827.

As part of the South Yorkshire Poetry Festival, Ray Hearne and I will be giving an open-air performance of my sequence The Purging of Spence Broughton in the grounds of Boston Castle, Rotherham, on Wednesday 20 May. We will read and perform poems, songs and other texts that illuminate the life and death of the ‘Highwayman’, within the wider political and historical context of the most explosive – and oppressive – period of modern European history.

The event is organised in association with Longbarrow Press, who will be publishing a new, expanded edition of Spence Broughton for the Festival date.  Booking details and further information can be found at the Festival website.

The road between Sheffield and Rotherham crossed, in large part, a rural district interspersed with villages, farms and individual buildings, unremarkable in itself – except for the fact that, in its concentration of flowing water, limestone and coal, this landscape was, by the end of the 18th century, already one of the most important industrial sites in the world.

In 1788, Thomas Paine came to Rotherham  to meet the Walker family, owners of the ‘most eminent’ iron works in England.  He had a patent to build an iron bridge, and the Rotherham foundry was the best place for it to be built.  Over the next two years – between his travels to and from France and his battles at Westminster with Edmund Burke – the iron bridge was commissioned, designed, shipped to London and constructed.  Eventually, as he put it, ‘The French Revolution and Mr Burke’s attack upon it, drew me off from any pontifical works’; but he remained convinced of the importance of ‘bridges for the people.’

What drew Paine off his bridge-building was to have cataclysmic repercussions across Europe.  By the time of Broughton’s sentence, even robbing (without violence) a post boy of his bag was deemed worthy of capital punishment.  In 1792, the English establishment were looking in horror across the Channel.  The French populace had risen up against their masters: would not the English – and certainly the Irish – do the same?  Tom Paine’s The Rights of Man, published as a pamphlet the previous year and in wide circulation in England and Ireland (over 200,000 copies of Parts 1 and 2 would be printed by the end of 1793), sounded the clarion call:

“What are the present governments of Europe, but a scene of iniquity and oppression? What is that of England? Do not its own inhabitants say, It is a market where every man has his price, and where corruption is common traffic, at the expense of a deluded people? No wonder, then, that the French Revolution is traduced.”

A cheap edition was printed for mass circulation by the Dublin Whig Club; and organisations like the United Irishmen, advocating justice and democracy, were gaining popular support among its countrymen.

So Spence Broughton was not just hanged.  For his crime (the mail bag, perhaps significantly, containing nothing but a promissory note from a French bank), he was condemned ‘to be suspended between earth and Heaven, as unworthy of either’, ‘in order to deter others’.  For over 35 years, his tarred skeleton hung from its chains and manacles, close to the main road of commerce between the two towns at the hub of the new world.  It was there while Paine was tried for sedition and the French Republic grew into a Terror; while the United Irishmen rose up in Wexford and Ulster, and fell at the gates of Dublin; it was there throughout the wars with France and the Peninsular Wars, through Trafalgar – the Walker foundries working day and night casting arms, including cannon for HMS Victory – and Waterloo; it was there, still, when the 15th Hussars, bloodied and scarred from their fighting across the continent, mowed down their own people at Peterloo.

‘Why will the laws continue to sport with the wretched after life is at an end?’ he wrote, finally, to his wife.  The tale of those 35 years, from revolution and the hope of people for a just life, to the crushing, bloody reaction of those who maintained power through ‘iniquity and oppression’, provide the starkest of answers.





Aerg! Eeriness in the English Countryside

April 16, 2015 § 5 Comments

Robert Macfarlane’s essay on the ‘eerie’ in the Guardian Review attests to the current focus in landscape aesthetics on ‘unsettlement and displacement’ which is rooted in two key facets of late capitalism: environmental damage and austerity politics.  The former has resulted in the countryside being considered in terms of what is missing, and a return of the repressed; the latter in a cloaking of injustice through the re-emergence of the pastoral ideal, typified by what Joe Kennedy has described as the ‘cupcakification’ of England.

Macfarlane uses a story by M R James, ‘A View from a Hill’, to describe the phenomenon of ‘eeriness’.  Viewing a landscape in south west England through a pair of binoculars (made using the bones of executed men), the protagonist sees a transformed place: a wooded hill is made bare, topped with a gibbet from which a body hangs; other bodies lie in a cart beneath.  Later visiting the hill, he gets the feeling he is being watched, and flees in dread.

The etymology of ‘eerie’ is not, as I expected, the sensation of unease: it derives from aerg, an Old English word meaning timid or cowardly – and therefore describes a response to that sense of unease: the flight as opposed to the stricken reaction that typifies our comprehension of the horrific.  In this sense, the story’s effectiveness derives not just from what the binoculars reveal – or even the sense of unease the protagonist Fanshawe gets on visiting the hill, causing his flight: it is the implication that something awful might be hidden in every landscape – what Macfarlane calls ‘the skull beneath the skin of the English countryside’.

He argues that the violence committed on the rural English landscape, whether by corporations fracking the shale beds and their CEOs churning moor and meadow with their Range Rovers, or through the cloth-of-gold pageantry of heritage-craft manque baking shows, has led to an increasing interest among artists in the violent turbulence of the Civil War, whose bones and axes lie just beneath the surface of the landscape, and which offers an effective metaphor for current disruptions / dislocations.  I think this is fair enough.  However, I’m less certain about another contention which I think is being mooted within the article, in which the English countryside, as a result of past violence, is in some way inherently unsettling, even terrifying.  He refers to Ben Wheatley, the director of A Field in England, who described in an interview his ‘eerie’ relationship with the Essex landscapes of his youth:

‘somewhere in which violence was always imminent. “There was something in the land-scape,” he said, “that plainly terrified me … If you went out into it you could just be killed.” His comments echo those of Sinclair, who invoked King Lear on the heath: “You’re turned outdoors into something more savage than you are, and you know something terrible is going to happen.” ‘

My sense of countryside was, and remains, a place of freedom rather than threat: the English rural landscape does bear the scars, or wears the wellies and mascara, of capitalism; but my sense of aerg derives from current metropolitan savageries rather than glimpses of the chthonic.

The Sublime II: Horizon(tal)

March 16, 2015 § 3 Comments

When I arrived at Leeds University in ’87, a group of us was shown around campus by a 3rd year English student.  It was a brief, psychogeographical tour: the Refectory where Led Zeppelin and The Who had played; The Faversham, a pub where he’d seen The Wedding Present; and ‘the longest corridor in Europe’, in the EC Stoner (!) Building, where they’d filmed scenes from Blakes 7.

While the Burkean sublime derives from a contemplation of natural vastness which is particularly evoked by the dizzying vertical scale, and mass, of Alpine landscapes, it can also be apprehended in the horizontal featurelessness of deserts and wastes: the moorlands referred to in my previous post, for example; or, in the case of Frankenstein, on the glacier at Montanvert and, more particularly, in the barren Polar region.

The university corridor seems to me to share some of the qualities of these landscapes.  Although clearly of a different scale, its uniformity and scale (the corridor is over 300m long) provoke the observer to look  along the horizontal plane towards a vanishing point.  As such, it can be described as an example of architectural or urban sublime.

What distinguishes urban sublime from the natural features and landscapes it evokes is, obviously, that it is man-made.  I mentioned in the previous post that moorland has developed as a result of human intervention: but this is about management – human interaction with nature.  The urban sublime, though it might be imitative, is constructed.

Which, some might say, makes the corridor more disconcerting than the moor.  The latter’s existence indicates the limitation of human endeavour in relation to the natural world; the former, either hubris (imitation of superior agency) – or a willed alienation.  Designing a corridor long enough that you can observe someone receding towards a horizon until they disappear suggests an identification with the non-human.


The Sublime

February 27, 2015 § 1 Comment

In his recent book The Moor, William Atkins describes the flat, high, empty terrain he explores as sublime: not as Edmund Burke conceived it, but as a dismal, featureless, horizontal landscape.  In place of the uplifting, vertiginous Alps, the wide, barren moors stretch to the horizon, their monotone denudation inducing a sense of endlessness and immanence.  These spaces, Atkins infers, affect us in a similar – or similarly extreme – way to the vast mountainscapes:

Situated on the plateau above the far bank of the Taw, Cranmere Pool was one of the moors’ uttermost centres, a place of Wordsworthian ‘visionary dreariness’ – where dreariness was so absolute that it constituted nothing less than a form of the sublime.’ (p100)

Moorland, as Atkins stresses, is not a natural landscape, but a result of human management.  However, the processes involved in this management – deforestation, drainage (and later re-inundation), burning – have produced an environment which is hostile to human inhabitation and use.  The moors – once human homelands – now repel us.  They are treacherous, not only in their physical hostility, but as a no-mans-land: a wilderness, ecologically and psychologically, spectred by beasts and ghosts.

These terrains are richer for writers than they are for farmers.  Their fruitless, resistant qualities – and the whispers and echoes consequent upon this barrenness – are attractive to those seeking visions which are peripheral, antithetical or strange.  If the pay-off for social engagement is a necessary conformity, then the moor can be conceived as a place of necessary estrangement.


William Atkins, The Moor (Faber & Faber, 2014)