The arch Deakin

Another entry in the wonderful Notes from Walnut Tree Farm, on pp.228–9:

Obscurity is what a writer needs to get on with work well away from the public gaze. Under the glare of lights is the last place you want to be, so, moth-like, you burrow away into some basement or corner of the country, where you can talk to yourself, pace about and think. [. . .] Above all else, though, the writer needs not to think too much about what he’s [sic] doing. [. . .] I blame the Romantics for all this self-consciousness about landscape and inspiration. Wandering lonely as a cloud may be the last thing you need sometimes. Going round the corner for breakfast in a steamy café may be much more like it.

Although he lived alone, on the edge of a common in Suffolk, Deakin seems to have been a gregarious soul, as happy in the city as he was in the sticks, and content to find beauty in the smallest of things. Kathleen Jamie’s description, in this review, of his friend Robert Macfarlane as a ‘lone enraptured male’, seeking out wild(er)ness like a Victorian colonialist, fitted Deakin rather less easily despite the latter often (including by Jamie) being cited as Macfarlane’s ‘mentor’. Macfarlane made several appearances in Notes from Walnut Tree Farm, as did Ronald Blythe and Richard Mabey, but Deakin spent more prose on articulating how he would miss his postman, who was moving on, than any of them.

I’m glad to have found a radio programme by Deakin, canoeing down the Waveney, here.

Incidentally, I wonder if the days of steamy cafés, with Formica tables and squeezy plastic tomatoes full of ketchup, are all but gone forever. When I was about 20, my list of books I would never get round to writing included a guide to where you could get the best all-day veggie breakfasts in London – it would’ve been an intense labour of love.

Return to Hope

No, this isn’t inspired by Johnny Mathis blaring out at all hours, but my Christmas Eve trip out into the Peaks. I caught the Hope Valley line from Sheffield and walked along to Brough, with the intention of finding the site of the Roman fort Navio, before taking an anti-clockwise route up Win Hill.

Navio, first established around 80 CE, was strategically important for the Romans because it was the next fortress across middle England from Templeborough, remnants of which now stand in Clifton Park, Rotherham, just down the road from where I am now. In his Roman Britain (1955), the first volume of ‘The Pelican History of England’ (sic), I.A. Richmond outlined its economic importance also: ‘Yet another exploitation is the lead ore from stream deposits found in the Roman fort at Navio (Brough on Noe), from which the district was in part policed.’ Lead was invaluable to the Romans as a source of silver by the process of cupellation, and no doubt a major reason why they hung around in this distant island for as long as they did.

There are all but the slightest traces of the fort on the site. Buxton Museum contains the artefacts recovered from it. It must’ve been a bleak place to be stationed, even with the view across the River Noe towards Lose Hill, and Mam Tor to the west. Auden’s couplet sonnet ‘Roman Wall Blues’, with its memorable opening, comes to mind:

Over the heather the wet wind blows,
I’ve lice in my tunic and a cold in my nose.

I didn’t go up Win Hill though, for two reasons: firstly, its summit, Win Hill Pike, was wrapped in low cloud; and secondly, my eye was drawn to a path which led from the road-bridge at Brough along the Noe to where it rushes in to the Derwent at the delightfully-named Shatton; and then by the path which followed the south bank of the Derwent to just south of Hathersage. On paper it looked an easy walk, and for two miles or so it was, until the path got muddier and muddier and so squelchy and slippery that my pace was considerably slower than the river’s.

It’s a wonder that I only fell over the once, and, moreover, that I didn’t slip down the steep bank into the river. As an exercise in eye–feet coordination, it was scarcely beatable.

mid-river riffles . . .
at right angles
to the flow

I was much relieved to reach the bridge at Leadmill and the wonder of pavement, leading to Hathersage.

On Roger Deakin

Back in the summer a new community interest company (CIC) self-described arts bookshop and work space called Typeset opened in Rotherham’s High Street – but this high street is the antithesis of most high streets in having only independent shops and businesses. It’s also really rather beautiful as high streets go.

So on the day it opened, I popped into Typeset, had a browse and happily found a secondhand copy of Roger Deakin’s Notes from Walnut Tree Farm. I read and very much enjoyed both Waterlog (1999) and Wildwood (2007) shortly after their publication, though the enjoyment of the latter was dampened by the fact that Deakin had died in 2006, at the age of 63. In the back of my mind somewhere was the thought that one day I would get round to reading Notes from Walnut Tree Farm, also posthumously published (in 2008), so I was very pleased to come across a copy, almost as if it had come to me.

The book consists of a selection, arranged from January to December, from Deakin’s notebooks, edited by his partner Alison Hastie and his friend Terence Blacker. Deakin’s home, in Mellis, north Suffolk, was an Elizabethan timber-framed house which he bought when it was in a state of dereliction in the late Sixties and then restored. His account of swimming in its moat is one of the highlights of Waterlog. The joy of the book, for me, lies in the variety of the entries, from nature notes and philosophical vignettes to descriptions of battles with bureaucracy, coppicing, conversations had in meetings or on walks with acquaintances, and much else. Here are a few examples:

The basic idea of consideration is at the heart of all true conservation. You act out of consideration, out of fellow feeling, for other living things, and other people. Most of the degradation of our land, air and water is caused by selfishness. (p.60)


The human relationship with farm animals is fundamentally a deceit. It is a betrayal of the animals’ trust, since all the time, as the farmer nurtures them, and their trust in him deepens, he is concealing in his heart a murderous intention. (p.62)


I am well on the way to becoming a tree myself. I put down roots. I sigh when the wind blows. My sap rises in the spring, and I turn towards the sun. My skin even begins to look more like bark every day. Which tree would I be? Definitely a walnut; an English walnut, Juglans regia, the tree with the greatest canopy. (p.69)


The experience of skating is so intense that it stays with you. The cold frosty wind rushes into your face, up your nostrils. The whole pond becomes a musical instrument, with the ice as its sounding board. There is a music of skates, a rhythmic ‘swish’ as the blades cut through the virgin surface of the black ice.

[. . .]

The world is made vivid by the reflected light of snow and ice. Skating is one of those words that may be relied upon to trigger a flood of memories. (p.77)


Some of these thoughts may be scarcely original, but it is the care which Deakin put into their expression, and the economy of words used, that appeal so much to me. His erudition could so easily have tripped into mansplaining, as plenty of his ‘New Nature Writing’ contemporaries’ did. (Incidentally, I like to think and hope that mine is the last English/British generation of men that was instilled at a young age with an innate propensity – and pomposity – to mansplain at every opportunity; in fact, I still hear and see myself doing it regularly, in spite of my attempts to check such atrocious behaviour. My daughter rightly called me out on it last week, despite – and because of – my protestation that there is a fine difference between dadsplaining and mansplaining . . .)

In many ways, the book reminds me of Derek Jarman’s Modern Nature, which is as fine a book of a similar kind as any I’ve ever read, with an awareness of mortality underpinning both. For me, reading Deakin’s words is the right experience at the right time – now I am old enough to appreciate what he was on about, and, moreover, just when I had started to slip into yet another slough of despond.


Postscript: I went into Typeset this lunchtime and found a 1987 King Penguin edition of Joseph Brodsky’s selected essays, Less Than One, so things are definitely looking up.


I realise I’ve written about it before on this blog, and in my essay here, but Patricia Beer’s poem ‘Lost’, about the Penlee lifeboat disaster, which happened 40 years ago today, can be read in its entirety on the LRB website, here.

As well as standing tall in its own right, ‘Lost’ makes for an exercise in contrast with Jennifer Edgecombe’s latter-day (2020) take on the disaster, published by Wild Court, here. Both poems, it seems to me, are brave; approaching the terrible events from different, oblique angles. Beer’s shows the impact from afar, on a village community in the neighbouring county of Devon, whereas Edgecombe’s, rather like Alice Oswald’s book-length poem ’Dart’, collages a series of voices, of those who bore witness at closer hand.

The RNLI continue to risk their lives to save others’, whatever the circumstances.

It was twenty years ago today

The Saturday before last, I went along to the launch of the Selected Poems of Harold Massingham, edited by Ian Parks and published by Bob Horne’s admirable Calder Valley Poetry. Despite torrential cold rain, there was a very good turnout. It was held at the former boys’ grammar school in Mexborough that Massingham and his slightly older contemporary, a lad called E.J. Hughes, attended (as did Parks, many years later). The excellent readings of Massingham’s poems were undertaken by different members of the Read to Write group, and even included a couple of musical settings for guitar and voice, plus some full-throttle Anglo-Saxon. It was a moving and memorable event, in part due to two of Massingham’s children being there. The book, with fabulous drawings by Pete Olding, is rather beautiful, inside and out, and I’ve been enjoying dipping into it.

Not much doing on my poetry front of late – but I’m happy with one new poem. Very unusually for me, it merrily decided it wanted to be a prose poem, a form about which I’ve traditionally been a little sniffy, despite including two in my first collection. In fact, I found writing and shaping it really rather enjoyable. It may well be to do with an exercise which Katrina Naomi put us through on the Arvon course last month, the effects of which are still on my mind apparently. I’ve also started writing poems in response to sculptures by George Fullard in Sheffield city centre – it’s early days for that project though.

I was saddened to be told the other day that the haiku poet Malcolm Williams had died. Throughout the 10 years or so that I dealt with postal submissions to Presence, Malcolm was the most constant and enthusiastic of submitters, and often a very good one, whose letters and cards I always enjoyed receiving. As with the example here (please scroll down), he sometimes wrote two-line haiku, which, in my experience, is very rare.

On the subject of mortality, today marks exactly 20 years since W.G. Sebald’s death. I’ve been thinking more about his life as related in the biography by Carole Angier; whether the details of his life, research and writing practices add to or detract from my understanding and evaluation of his writing. What’s perhaps as intriguing as anything about his life is the unique speed, just a couple of years, at which he went from being virtually unknown outside his academic field to being touted as a candidate for the Nobel, such that the interviews he gave were, and still are, regarded as the precious utterings of a sage for the Baby Boomer generations, and that ‘Sebaldian’ has become a synonym for writing infused with melancholy. There are certainly few prose writers whom I find as re-readable as him – maybe just Berger and Woolf these days. As I said last time, I think his poetry is yet to be properly appraised and will grow in stature as time passes. There is a brilliant review by Ryan Ruby of Angier’s deeply flawed biography in New Left Review, here, which forensically details its omissions, errors and dubious judgements. Amongst many things, Ruby is surely right about the weight which Angier accords to each of Sebald’s four major novels – I can’t say that Vertigo is anywhere near my favourite of the four; nor that it merits far more attention than either The Rings of Saturn or Austerlitz.

The highlight of my recent reading continues to be Gillian Allnutt. I love the polished simplicity of her poetry, which makes much contemporary poetry look and sounds overwritten in comparison. Take these lines from ‘Tabitha and Lintel: An Imaginary Tale’ from her 2001 collection Lintel: ‘Snails have crossed the doorstone in the dark night / secretly as nuns, at compline, in procession’. Probably not everyone’s cup of tea, but I like it.

November news

Where to start. Probably with what I was up to last week, which was an Arvon course, at lovely Lumb Bank.

It was tutored by Mimi Khalvati and Katrina Naomi and was as inspiring as I had thought it would be. There are always many things to learn, especially from two brilliant and wise poets as Mimi and Katrina are. Fortunately, my fellow participants were a really great bunch too, so in all it felt like a real pleasure. I got my head down and made the best possible use of all that writing time. As with previous Arvons I’ve attended, the end-of-week read-round proved to be revelatory and celebratory, with the fruits of hard work so evident.

My reading of late has been my usual mixture of systematic delving into poetry collections with non-fiction on the side. I hugely enjoyed Henry Shukman’s One Blade of Grass, which made me question, in a good way, the value of writing poetry in the grand scheme of things, but also flagged up the importance of meditation: how it had helped him with the clarity of his poetic vision, back in the days when he still published poetry. It’s a real shame for me that he no longer publishes his poems, but his book explained over the course of many years’ spiritual journey why he doesn’t.

I’ve been intrigued too by the poetry of Gillian Allnutt, whose 2013 collection Indwelling I bought in Nottingham a few months ago. Her poems are sometimes so short and gnomic that I find them disconcerting, in a beneficial way. Whilst at Lumb Bank, I took the opportunity to read more of her books and will continue to seek them out. I’ve enjoyed too, a conversation she had with Emily Berry, here, and another with wonderful Geoff Hattersley, here. In the latter, Allnutt compares the gaps in her poems to the holes in her mind which she wrestles with during meditative practice. I was also interested in what she had to say about when the use of footnotes (or end-notes) might be appropriate. For me, they are generous to the reader, preferably as end-notes so that the reader has more choice over whether to read them or not. Allnutt does acknowledge that most poets take the view that the reader can simply “Google it” whenever they encounter a reference with which they are insufficiently familiar.

I’ve read two hefty biographies, of near-contemporary Germans who both hugely enriched our culture here in the UK and worldwide: Nico and WG Sebald. You Are Beautiful and You Are Alone: The Biography of Nico written by Jennifer Otter Bickerdike and published by Faber quite rightly iterates the misogynistic treatment which Nico received throughout her indomitably creative years, not least at the hands of Lou Reed, and, most interestingly, has more detail from her years living in England towards the end of her life than any other period. It pushed me back towards her music, especially the trio of albums produced by John Cale – The Marble Index (1968), Desertshore (1970; co-produced by Joe Boyd) and The End (1974) – which are like nothing else ever recorded, except perhaps Agnes Buen Garnås’s collaboration with Jan Garbarek, Rosenfole. The book contrasts Nico’s dry sense of humour with her deep melancholy, which are the two personality traits which also shine forth in Carole Angier’s biography of Sebald, Speak, Silence, published by Bloomsbury. I went to an absurdly brief online interview which Angier gave under the auspices of the LRB Shop, and she explained that, whilst she had been able to draw on the recollections of many of Sebald’s childhood and adult friends, she hadn’t been able to convince Sebald’s wife to cooperate. The sense of omission is palpable in the book, but, as the first biography of him to be published, it outlines the basic facts and inspirations for his writing, which was clearly a gargantuan task alone. Angier also examines the degree to which Sebald stole, misused and appropriated others’ writings for his own. I don’t think the laying bare of these facts necessarily reduces my admiration for him as the great writer he undoubtedly was. Angier’s work was almost entirely silent on Sebald’s poetry, because she felt unqualified to write about it. I would dearly love to read a study of Sebald as a poet, as opposed to the superlative writer of unclassifiable prose.

Lastly, issue 4 of Kingfisher, a haiku journal edited by the fantastic haiku poet (and person) Tanya McDonald, has just arrived in sunny Rotherham. As with issue 3, I’m very pleased to have three haiku in it, because, as I’ve said here many times, I’ve written so few in the last couple of years. I’m grateful to John Barlow for nudging me to submit and very pleased to be alongside him, Simon Chard, Thomas Powell and a whole load of excellent haiku poets from across North America and beyond. Here’s one of my haiku from issue 3, one of the wordiest I’ve ever had published:

rain from nowhere
a short-horned cow snaffles
cobwebbed blackberries

The Friday Poem

I am delighted that my poem ‘Pathé News at the Ace of Spades’ is this week’s featured poem at The Friday Poem, here, and by the kind words of the editors, Hilary Menos and Andy Brodie, about it, not least because I’ve admired every poem they’ve published since they started the site back in the summer.

It took me the best part of five years for my poem to find its final shape and wording, so I’m very pleased that I persevered with it.

When it opened in the early ’30s, the Ace of Spades was England’s first roadhouse–nightclub, where the Kingston by-pass section of the A3 heads south, towards the countryside and on to Portsmouth. The roundabout at Hook is still known as the Ace of Spades.

OPOI reviews of Claire Booker and Ian Crockatt

Amongst the latest batch of ‘one point of interest’ (OPOI) reviews at Sphinx are two by me, on Claire Booker’s The Bone that Sang (Indigo Dreams) here, and Ian Crockatt’s Skald (Arc) here.

Dipping into OPOI reviews makes for a pleasant digression, as they are just the right length to give the potential reader of the pamphlet enough of a flavour to pique their interest (or not, as the case may occasionally be), and because some of the more regular reviewers have their own distinctive voices.

My thanks, as always, to Nell Nelson for publishing my reviews and editing them so skilfully.

The clocks going back

Fokkina McDonnell’s post on her ever-fabulous blog today – here – prompted me to dig out this poem, from The Evening Entertainment:


As Dad lolls down in the care-home armchair,
cleft double chin almost touching his shirt,
I ease him upright and, for what it’s worth,

unstrap his watch to wind it back an hour:
that Dad no longer knows the day, the month
or year is probably neither here nor there.

An un-drunk milky tea squats on a plate.
‘I was a crack shot; especially at
the Bren, but it was much too accurate.’

By night, he gets half-dressed for going out:
‘To interrogate a Russian spy, caught
red-handed with a nuclear secret.’

I ask him if he’ll eat his slice of cake.
‘I’m off to the school to teach them to waltz.’
The lead clinician laughs for laughter’s sake.

On Jonathan Davidson and James Caruth

Having enjoyed reading Jonathan Davidson’s On Poetry (as much, probably, as Glyn Maxwell’s very different book of the same name) and A Commonplace, I very much enjoyed Ruth Yates’s interview with him, here.

I especially related to these sentences:

I would, therefore, describe my role as simply a writer who wants to be read. There’s a novelty. Not to win, to be praised, to be advanced, to be ennobled, to be deified, to be paid, even, but simply to be quietly read by those who might quietly find pleasure in such reading.

I couldn’t agree more with these sentiments. Yes, prizes and competitions help to oil the poetry economy, but as a poet and a reader there’s nothing more I aspire to than to be read and to enjoy reading.

In the summer, I was one of about 15 poets/readers who met up with Jonathan at Grindleford station for a walk round Padley Gorge, interspersed by Jonathan reading his and other poets’ poems, in the spirit of A Commonplace. It was a memorable poetry occasion and the sort of thing which ought to happen more often. After almost two years of Zoom readings and workshops, it felt very special indeed to get out in the open ait with like-minded souls to enjoy Jonathan’s drollery, fine poems and good taste in other poetry.

I felt much the same the Sunday before last when I went into Sheffield to see/hear Peter Sansom introduce two more Smith Doorstop poets, David Wilson and James (Jim) Caruth. I hadn’t read David’s collection beforehand, but I had read Jim’s. It’s a bit like going to a gig – if you know the songs before, then your excitement at hearing them performed live will be enhanced, not least because you won’t know what’s on the set list. Anyone who knows Jim will tell you that he has the most mellifluous Belfast brogue, so when he reads out his brilliant poems, it’s as rich a poetry treat as anyone could have. His collection Speechless at Inch is sensationally good, but no doubt, for whatever reasons, it won’t get nowhere near any award lists. No matter – it’s an immersive and enriching experience for any reader and I can’t recommend it highly enough. The recent online launch, with Jane Clarke also reading, is available here – Jim’s reading starts about 25 minutes in.