On Mary Mulholland and Larkin

The Monday before last I went to the Bedford, Balham, for the Live Canon launch of Mary Mulholland’s pamphlet, What the Sheep Taught me. It was and is a beautiful old pub, with an amazing performance space. Before Mary read, her guest readers were Simon Maddrell, Alice Hiller and Chris Hardy, all of whom read their fine poems movingly or entertainingly as appropriate.

What the Sheep Taught me consists of 27 poems relating Mary’s experience of sheep-sitting on a Wiltshire farm. The poems branch out in many directions, including relationships, resilience, the cosmos and beyond. What’s often so intriguing about them is that they rarely follow a logical path and instead invariably go off on tangents. In lesser hands, this approach could be off-putting, if not downright irritating, but Mary has an uncanny ability to trust the reader to follow her (counter-)intuitive leaps into the dream-like, e.g. in ‘Kiss’, which opens thus:

In the yard an olive-brown stone
covered in bumps is skulking away.

Once a man took me boating on the Thames.
He wore a green tweed three-piece, a flat cap,
bought a wicker-hamper picnic,
we saw kingfishers.


The poem gets stranger still, but in all Mary’s poems there’s an underlying truth which means that these ventures into the surreal keep the reader engaged and on their mental toes.

Mary’s pamphlet is available here.

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I can’t really not mention Larkin, since yesterday was the 100th anniversary of his birth. Last week, I spent a few days in deepest Holderness, the flatlands of East Yorkshire between Hull and the North Sea.

It’s the area celebrated in ‘Here’, the opening poem of The Whitsun Weddings, and which ends in one of trademark, secular-mystical epiphanies:

                             Here silence stands
Like heat. Here leaves unnoticed thicken,
Hidden weeds flower, neglected waters quicken,
Luminously-peopled air ascends;
And past the poppies bluish neutral distance
Ends the land suddenly beyond a beach
Of shapes and shingle. Here is unfenced existence:
Facing the sun, untalkative, out of reach.


Nowhere is that sense of ‘unfenced existence’ more apparent than along the spit of Spurn, which protrudes three miles into the last knockings of the Humber estuary, much in the same way that Southend Pier does at the end of the Thames.

A field near Spurn
The North Sea from Spurn
The lighthouse at Spurn

From Spurn Point at the end, you can see Bull Sand Fort, a derelict First World War fort guarding the approaches to the Humber. I wonder if it’s what inspired the strange phrase in Larkin’s ‘Friday Night at the Royal Station Hotel’: ‘How / Isolated, like a fort, it is’.

What’s for sure is that Holderness is little changed from Larkin’s time. Since he was still alive when I first became interested in poetry, I somehow think of him as being more contemporary than he is. It seems hard to credit that he was born in the same year as another great writer who inspired me to pick up a pencil, Jack Kerouac, though he, of course, had died long before (in 1969) I came of age. They both inclined to melancholy, and both loved jazz, though Kerouac’s hero Charlie Parker was a figure of hate for Larkin. But I digress. Neither has remained a great, direct influence, but bear repeated, pleasurable re-readings.

On Sickert

I’ve been to see the Sickert exhibition at Tate Britain, having meant to go and see it in Liverpool when it was on show there.

Poster for Sickert exhibition at Tate Britain

Sickert’s long been among my favourite British artists – and artists per se. The exhibition traces his development from his beginnings as Whistler’s protégé in the 1880s to becoming the grand old man of British art as Europe descended into war for the second time during his life. The curators haven’t flinched from questioning the ethics of Sickert’s nudes or his interest in the infamous Camden Town Murder, and outline how his pioneering usage of photographs paved the way for Pop Art. For me, it was especially good to see many of his Degas-influenced music-hall and theatre pictures assembled together; likewise with the ‘conversation pieces’, narrative paintings in shades of brown and muted ochre, which could have illustrated the novels of Bennett or Wells.

Here’s a poem of mine, written six or seven years ago, which focuses on three fine Sickert paintings in the Tate collection, all of which feature in the exhibition, two of them hung side-by-side.

Sickert: Minnie Cunningham at the Old Bedford, 1892, and Brighton Pierrots, 1915
Sickert: Miss Earhart’s Arrival, 1932

Sickertian Reds


Vermilion: the dress and hat of Minnie Cunningham,
vamping, for the Bedford Music Hall’s Friday-night delight,
‘I’m an Old Hand at Love, Though I’m Young in Years’.

Venetian: the suits worn by Brighton Pierrots, trotting out
patter to rows of vacant deckchairs, while poison-gas drifts
and chokes the No Man’s Land beyond Sickert’s Dieppe.

Scarlet: the mac defining a news reporter’s back, hunched
at the front of a vast crowd flailed by rain, waiting hours
for Amelia Earhart’s arrival at Hanworth Air Park, May ’32;

conception month of my parents, who grew up to nurture
such tasty Moneymaker tomatoes, lining them up to redden
on the south-facing window-sill, behind the kitchen sink.

On Ted Walker

Today is an exciting day for me because my essay on the poet (and writer per se) Ted Walker has been published on The Friday Poem, here. I’m very grateful to editor Hilary Menos for finding space for my rambling observations and, moreover, for Ted himself.

The essay took a good deal of reading and research, including a trip down to Lancing back in February (thus the photos); it was, and is, a labour of love. The more I’ve read by and about Ted, the more I’ve grown to like him and respect his considerable achievements. As you’ll see from the essay, he was critically acclaimed throughout his career, yet hardly anyone seems to remember him. My intention was to bring Ted back into the light, so that, with any luck, he might acquire some new readers. If that happens, then I will be very glad.

Hiatus

The summer is invariably a quiet time for me, writing-wise. There are too many distractions for one thing, but, in any case, I rarely get in the mood to write when it’s warm and pleasant outside.

Reading, though, is a different matter. Sitting out in the sunshine with a good book is, of course, one of life’s great pleasures. In the last three months or so, I’ve enjoyed new and old collections by David Cooke, Jonathan Davidson, Tim Dooley, John Foggin, Ishion Hutchinson, Simon Jenner, Anita Pati, Peter Sansom, Anne Stevenson and Sarah Westcott, as well as pamphlets by Amanda Dalton and Greg Freeman which I’ve reviewed.

On my to-read pile, are new collections by Cahal Dallat, Richie McCaffrey, Dino Mahoney, Helena Nelson and some old ones by Ken Smith, plus the Collected Poems of Lorine Niedecker. All of those should keep me busy when I’m off soon, in four of the six school holiday weeks. A few days in Marvell country, Holderness, will also be good for the soul.

It’s been lovely to see the excellent news lately that some of my favourite poets have new collections forthcoming, including Ramona Herdman, Marion McCready, Pete Raynard, Emma Simon and Matthew Stewart.

Meanwhile, the understandably long waits to hear back about various submissions go on and on, so in amongst my fretting about resilience and recalling of Eliot’s words about poetry being a mug’s game, I was chuffed to see, today, that Live Canon posted on YouTube the reading I did for them last year in their still-thriving Friday Lunchtime readings series. It can be watched here.

Public Sector Poetry

I have a poem, ‘Accommodation Strategy’, in the second issue, here, of Public Sector Poetry, which is a rather niche journal for people like me who work in the public sector and also happen to be poets. The events of the last two years have already rendered my poem’s content out of date, but it represents a certain point in time. It just goes to show that local government is rather more fluid and dynamic now than when I started it in an eon ago.

More poems on Wild Court

I’m delighted to have two poems on Wild Court again, here. Big thanks to its editor, and very fine poet, Robert Selby.

I could provide some football trivia as background to the Cloughie poem, but I’ll let the poem speak for it itself. I like to think it’s in keeping with David Peace’s brilliant 2006 novel The Damned Utd, which was filmed in 2009 with Michael Sheen fully inhabiting the role of Old Big ’Ead himself.

On Kathy Pimlott

I’ve written before on this blog about the excellence of Kathy Pimlott’s poetry – a review, here, of her first Emma Press pamphlet Goose Fair Night (2016). Kathy’s second pamphlet, Elastic Glue (2019), was just as good, and contained several poems concerning the gentrification of her neighbourhood of Covent Garden and Seven Dials in central London.

I was therefore delighted to be able to attend the launch, on Wednesday at the lovely setting of Phoenix Garden, of Kathy’s first full collection, The Small Manoeuvres, published by Verve Poetry Press and available to buy here. It was a very enjoyable evening, which included Kathy reading some of the fine poems in the book.

Like the two pamphlets, the poems in The Small Manoeuvres are full of Kathy’s clear-eyed perceptions, a palpable sense of social justice, deep respect for family, friendship (especially amongst women), history and memory, and finely-drawn character studies. They are, in the best way, very readable poems, without any irritating tricksy-bollock nonsense. For these reasons, Kathy is among my very favourite contemporary poets.

The first of the five stanzas which make up the poem ‘Weathers in the City’ exemplifies Kathy’s bravura, but also concise, tell-it-as-it-is style:

Our lead-laced down draughts gust
between high-rises, blow sex cards
from phone kiosks, shake plane trees
to sneezes. Not true winds as such.


The poem’s concept is an original one. It carries on to end as wonderfully as it began:

                                                 Without
oceans, rippling cornfields, crags,
we must find the sublime where we can.
Once, from the Lyric Hammersmith bar,

disappointed with the play, I looked out
and saw a triple rainbow, so clear it made

anything possible. And sometimes grubby air
rests on our cheeks as if we are loveable.


Aside from the incidental resonance for me of the mention of the Lyric bar, where I spent many lunchtimes with my friend James when we both worked for Hammersmith and Fulham Council in the late Nineties, this passage begs the questions of who ‘we’ might be and, intriguingly, why that ‘we’ might not usually be ‘loveable’. Is ‘we’ the city-residents, or does it also include all those who are just passing through as tourists or even as day-trippers? The idea of community is a key theme, sometimes more latent than explicit, in Kathy’s poetry.

‘Weathers in the City’ is one of several superb poems set in Kathy’s locale which form a core sequence at the centre of the collection, touching on Theatreland, West End pubs and all, but the book also encompasses jam-making, sloe gin and much else besides.

Here’s a picture of the poet herself at the launch.

Kathy Pimlott