Category Archives: books

Hip Hip Hooray!

So, I’ve been riding the waves of the past few weeks in the little ark that is this year’s Laurel Prize. Down to Birmingham for Contains Strong Language and The Verb, where I was able to catch the PoliNations landscape in Victoria Square. Good to see the centre of the city colonised by plants and poetry, rain-catching trees and resting places.

You can listen to this episode of The Verb on catch-up here.

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Then on to Yorkshire Sculpture Park for a day of readings and workshops. One of my favourite places, it was wonderful to be there on a day of sunshine, lighting up Robert Indiana’s powerful sculptures – the world of words and numbers re-imagined in his colourful configurations.

You can watch the prize ceremony, hosted by Simon Armitage, here and listen to us all read poems from the winning collections. Absolutely delighted that The Knucklebone Floor has been honoured in this way that highlights the past year’s poetry books entangling themselves with nature and the land. Chair of the judges, Glyn Maxwell, said:

‘Linda France’s The Knucklebone Floor leaves one with a sense of being guided through an infinite afternoon, green thoughts in green shades. The distant past and the dimly arriving future seem balanced in the hands of the blessèd guide who leads the reader through, a deep feminine spirit here to reclaim what can be reclaimed from the wreck of where we are, here to suggest myriad paths out of the wilderness. A work of deep music and wisdom, an enchanted garden of a book.’

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Everyone’s been so kind and warm in offering their congratulations – I’m very grateful – thank you thank you thank you!

I’ll be reading from it, alongside Helen Mort (whose latest collection, The Illustrated Woman, has been shortlisted for this year’s Forward Prize) at the Leper Chapel, Ripon, on Sunday 25th September 7.30pm – the closing event of Ripon Poetry Festival.

If you’d like to buy a copy of The Knucklebone Floor, please visit the Smokestack website or order it from your local bookshop.

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The Knucklebone Floor

Thrilled that The Knucklebone Floor has been shortlisted for this year’s Laurel Prize. You can learn more about the shortlist and details of the Prize here. If you’re in the vicinity of Birmingham or Yorkshire Sculpture Park on 9th or 16th September, do come along and join in the celebrations.

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I dug out a postcard from a few years ago of an earlier version of one of the poems in the collection.

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And looking up recently, I discovered a wasp’s nest in the roof of my little shed’s porch – a small beautiful construction – apparently what taught the Chinese how to make paper. Paper – the magical element that so binds and absorbs us.

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Laurel Prize Longlist

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Delighted that The Knucklebone Floor has made it onto this year’s Laurel Prize longlist. Many thanks to the judges and congratulations to my fellow poets. Some I’ve read and admired already but so many collections here I want to read…

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Here’s a review of The Knucklebone Floor on the London Grip site. If you’d like to write one of your own and have somewhere to send it, please contact me via my website.

Thank you.

LF

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Stop Press

This week – a reading and a workshop – do come if you can!

L

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LAUNCH PARTY!

Wednesday 18th of May, 7pm – Smokestack Books Showcase

Poets Linda France and Paul Summers read from their new collections, The Knucklebone Floor and billy casper’s tears.

Linda France has published eight full collections, including RedThe Gentleness of the Very Tall, book of days (also published by Smokestack), You are Her and Reading the Flowers. She won the National Poetry Competition in 2013 and received a Cholmondley Award for her contribution to poetry in 2020. She curated the collective poems Murmuration (with Kate Sweeney) and Dawn Chorus (with Christo Wallers) as part of her Writing the Climate Residency with New Writing North and Newcastle University.

Paul Summers was born in Northumberland. A founding editor of the magazines Billy Liar and Liar Republic, he has written extensively for TV, film, radio and the theatre. His books include Cunawabi, The Rat’s Mirror, The Last Bus, Vermeer’s Dark Parlour, Big Bella’s Dirty Café and Three Men on the Metro (with Andy Croft and Bill Herbert). His most recent books are union, primitive cartography and straya (all published by Smokestack) and arise! He lives in North Shields.

And on Thursday at the Great North Museum…

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Graphite and Rainbow

With my new book The Knucklebone Floor just out, I’ve been signing copies people have kindly bought. When they see me reaching for my pencil, many offer me a pen, as if I didn’t have one at hand, implying pencil is somehow inferior, regrettably contingent. It’s reminded me that a few years ago I was asked to write something about stationery. Here it is – in neither pen or pencil – I hope you might enjoy.

Happening upon this very short text again, I was glad also to be reminded of the excellent Lady Mary Montagu and The Toast of the Kit-Cat Club – poetic grandmother to The Knucklebone Floor: both biographies of bold women in verse, unauthorised, experimental. All, of course, written in the shadow of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando – probably my favourite book of all time.

Graphite and Rainbow

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Nature, who has played so many queer tricks upon us, making us so unequally of clay and diamonds, of rainbow and granite, and stuffed them into a case, often of the most incongruous, for the poet has a butcher’s face and the butcher a poet’s…

Virginia Woolf knew the importance of stationery and the complicated conditions that must be fine-tuned to enable a woman to write.  When not sitting at her desk, she engineered an arrangement with a plywood board across an armchair, where she could sit comfortably and write and smoke.

…the most ordinary movement in the world, such as sitting down at a table and pulling the inkstand towards one, may agitate a thousand odd, disconnected fragments, now bright, now dim, hanging and bobbing and dipping and flaunting, like the underlinen of a family of fourteen on a line in a gale of wind…

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Postmarked June 2003, an airmail letter lands from Canada with my name and address on the pale blue envelope written in pencil.  I imagine silver feathers, wings of graphite, propellers.  The letter (a spidery hand, also in pencil) is about Lady Mary Wortley Montagu.  The points are sharp, proxy for that brave soul who crossed the Alps in a basket, the first woman to travel beyond Christendom and write home of all the wonders she witnessed. 

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I become a convert to pencil, evangelical.  All my favourite ink pens dry up as I trawl the tiered stands of pencils in stationery shops, choosing my favourites (Staedtler HB, Papermate Non-Stop – good quality, nothing fancy, built-in erasers).  I start carrying a Swiss Army knife to sharpen them on the hoof.  Around this time, I give up smoking my beloved roll-ups and nimbly replace one ritual with another.  

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I’m reluctant to become dependent on certain conditions in order to be able to write but some things do help.  Familiarity.  Preparation.  Space.  Comfort.  Pleasure.

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Artists I collaborate with use pencil to sign their names on drawings and prints, adding a title here, an edition number there – grey less intrusive and distracting than black.  The silvery lead seems to hold some of their images’ lightness.  It lifts the words into an acknowledgement – a celebration even – of impermanence, always vulnerable to erasure, open to smudge or fade.  

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There is something wabi sabi about writing in pencil (a Japanese aesthetic that suggests immense care, work-always-in-progress, constantly flowing, as life does).  It recognises doubt, the tentative; freedom to change your mind; a belief in something before and after words on a page – the forever they so briefly interrupt.  Although just as human, intimate as a fingertip, it is the opposite of a tattoo, more forgiving than ink, less likely to be regretted.  Far from being noncommittal, pencil and writer become one, all their attention poured into the ongoing moment. 

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A pencil is child’s play, encouraging un-self-conscious abandon, a glorious antidote to unretractable digitalia.  A poet’s drafts are made for graphite, allowing a fluid evolution of scribble, crossings through, underlining and furious rubbing out.  We know not what comes next, or what follows after.  The whole swirling chaotic mess might slowly coalesce into some sort of order, almost geological – subtle shades of lead, gunmetal, ash settling into lines on the white page that, when you get it right, and know when to leave them alone, might, just might, shimmer with the colours of the rainbow.

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A Year of Two Books

There hasn’t been much activity here lately because I’ve been so very busy elsewhere, online and IRL.  Not long back from co-leading a retreat in the Trossachs, by Loch Voil, at Dhanakosa – a perfect place to step out of the hurtle of the digital and into moment-by-moment presence, with spring unfolding before our eyes.  I love spending time up there and it was wonderful to be back after three years’ absence.  You can find out more about their retreat programme here, if you’re interested.

As well as work continuing on my Writing the Climate Residency and various groups meeting regularly, I have a new book to celebrate.  The Knucklebone Floor is the story of Allen Banks and Susan Davidson, the Victorian widow who helped shape the landscape there with her wilderness walks, a tarn, bridges and summerhouses.  This is the sequence of poems I wrote as part of my PhD Women on the Edge of Landscape and it’s very exciting to see it about to spring out into the world.  Many thanks to Andy Croft at Smokestack for suggesting he publish it. And much appreciation to Matilda Bevan for the section of her Study of a Stream gracing the cover.

The first reading from The Knucklebone Floor will take place at this year’s Newcastle Poetry Festival on Friday 6th May, at 2.30pm.  I’ll be joined by Anne Ryland and Dave Spittle, who’ll also be reading from their new collections (Unruled Journal and Rubbles).  The day before I’m chairing a panel on Climate at the Emergency-themed Symposium (NCLA in conjunction with the Poetry Book Society) – with Jason Allen-Paisant, Polly Atkin and Sylvia Legris, whose new books I’ve really enjoyed:  Thinking with Trees, Much With Body and Garden Physic, respectively.  There’ll be plenty to talk about.  You can see the Symposium and Festival programme here – lots of unmissable events,  and I’m really looking forward to the chance for us all to gather as a community again.

More Knucklebone Floor events follow this opening splash – at Hexham Library, with Matthew Kelly, launching his book The Women Who Saved the English Countryside, as part of Local History Month, on May 12th, 7pm.  Then at Inpress‘s pop-up shop in Ouseburn, Newcastle (8 Riverside Walk, between the Cluny and the Tyne Bar) on May 18th, 7pm, with Paul Summers (reading from his new book billy casper’s tears, also from Smokestack).  I’ll also be at Allendale’s Forge in July and Ripon Poetry Festival in September – more of those nearer the time.

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In the midst of all this fizz, I’m currently editing another book, to be published in the Autumn, when my Residency winds down, and launched at Durham Book Festival.  This one’s called Startling and is an attempt to capture some sense of the vulnerability many of us feel in the face of our climate and ecological emergencies.  As Margaret Atwood has said: it’s not Climate Change, it’s Everything Change.   

Spring speeds everything up, like a time-lapse film and here we all are trying our best to find our place among it all and a way through, helping each other where we can.  A deeply challenging, unpredictable time but I’m with Leonard Cohen, hoping that the cracks will let the light shine through.

…we are always in free fall.  It’s not like we will find some moral high ground where we are finally stable and can catch all those falling around us.  It’s more like we are all falling above the infinite groundlessness of life, and we learn to become stable in flight, and to support others to become free of the fear that arises from feeling unmoored.  The final resting place is not the ground at all but rather the freedom that arises from knowing there will never be a ground, and yet here we are, together, navigating the boundless space of life, not attached, yet intimate.

Roshi Joan Halifax

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First Song / Last Call

Posting a few things here related to our Writing the Climate Dawn Chorus collective sound poem project as the closing date for submission’s creeping up. You have until 2nd August to send in your 30 seconds of poetry, thoughts, dreams and songs for the finished soundscape that will air as part of this year’s Durham Book Festival.

It would be wonderful to hear from as many people as possible – imagining what words you’d want to land at the beginning of a new day or even a new world. Every day we get a chance to start again. What would it feel like if we brought that freshness and creativity to how we’re approaching the climate crisis? Every day realigning ourselves with a vision of a fair sustainable future and renewing our efforts to make it possible, in our individual lives and within our local and global communities.

I hope that our Dawn Chorus will catch a sense of wonder and appreciation and remind us of what’s at stake if we ignore carbon emissions continuing to rise and the all too evident dangers of escalating temperatures across the globe. Last week in the UK the Met Office issued its first ever extreme heat warning. This is a tipping point. so our Dawn Chorus is also an alarm call – a cry for protection and an unshakeable commitment to mitigation. Singing ourselves awake includes the whole spectrum of feelings and responses. Everyone’s voice is welcome – all languages and accents.

You can find details of how to enter here

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An essay of mine that touches on the idea of the Dawn Chorus and poetry more generally is now available online as part of David O’Hanlon-Alexandra’s wonderful NCLA project New Defences of Poetry. Do have a read – the whole site is full of delights and provocations.

Another place for delight is a new book edited by Mike Collier, Bennett Hogg and John Strachan – Songs of Place and Time, Birdsong and the Dawn Chorus in Natural History and the Arts. It’s ‘a celebration of what it is to be alive and share our much more-than-human world with birds in their sheer exuberance of life at the dawn of day’.

This from the introduction:

Most of us accept that the climate emergency threatens the survival of our planet. One of the things we can do to raise awareness of this existential threat is to rekindle our imagination about what we have and what we stand to lose. we have the ability to imagine, and to develop a new narrative; it’s what we’re good at; good at imagining; good at telling stories. It’s our strength as creative people; and this is one way we may also discover our power to act.

The creative people in Songs of Place and Time include artists, writers, poets, academics, sound recordists, musicians and photographers. I’m very happy to be among their company. The assembled chorus of voices sings sweetly and gives rise to a sense of practical hope.

…an onomatopoeia of feathered things

that Emily Dickinson, dressed all in white,

heard as ‘Hope’, vowel and plosive, a gesture,

a giving of lips and throat –

how we learned

to talk after all, by imitating

these birds, borrowing their beauty, bringing

our very selves to light. And so we hear the compass

of our own hearts – tinsel and workshop, too many

messes to count; according to Emily, find ecstasy

in life, the mere sense of living joy enough –

turning it up, turning it up, us all, ratchet and caw.

(from Dawn Chorus, written for Compass, installation with sound artist Chris Watson at Cheeseburn, 2015)

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Bringing Death to Life

It’s Demystifying Death Week in Scotland and Larry Butler and Sheila Templeton, editors of a new anthology in progress Living Our Dying, chose the moment to launch their crowdfunder appeal to make the book happen.

Dying is part of life. How we live our dying is fundamentally important. What do we do when someone we know has died? How do we make our own dying part of our lives? Living Our Dying offers a fuller engagement with death, so that life can be rich; it offers ways to engage with pain, fear, anxiety, and loss of dreams. Dying is part of life. How we live our dying is fundamentally important.

The book’s all ready to be printed – here’s the cover with artwork by Pauline McGee. If this is something you’d be interested in supporting or receiving an early copy, please do visit the kickstarter page here.

I have a few poems in the book about ageing, loss and turning towards dying, all with a botanical theme, including this one:

Tattoo

When news came of her death

there was a breach in the weather,

east wind’s salt breath.

All the garden’s roses

lost their petals as roses

do when summer does

what summers do without

looking back. Not so the poet –

what else to write about?

Love, death, how we react.

I choose a single rose, black,

inked petals, scentless, intact.

Spring might be here but death is still in the air after such a long difficult winter. I’m pleased to have a piece in the latest Dark Mountain Journal, which in its beautiful shroud wrapped cover (by Graeme Walker) ‘revolves around themes of death, loss and renewal’, with a particular emphasis on grief for the world. The collection is a requiem, a memorial, a cairn of many voices.

You can find out more and order a copy here. My piece called Incunabula is reproduced here.

C.S. Lewis wrote in A Grief Observed:

I thought I could describe a state; make a map of sorrow. Sorrow, however, turns out to be not a state but a process. It needs not a map but a history…There is something new to be chronicled every day. Grief is like a long valley, a winding valley where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape.

The Living Our Dying kickstarter launch ended with a beautiful video of Sandy Hutchinson reading his poem, Everything. Sandy is no longer with us but his poem will stand as a coda to the book. You can watch it here.

And so we go on.

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Winter Market

My longtime collaborator Birtley Aris and I are delighted to have finished work on a new publication Dwelling Place, set at the National Trust site Allen Banks in Northumberland.  It features four poems and pen and ink drawings prompted by work I did for my PhD looking at Susan Davidson, a Victorian descendant of the Bowes Lyon family, who landscaped the grounds of Ridley Hall where she lived after her marriage to John Davidson, extending into the gorge and woodland at Allen Banks after his death in 1842.  As part of her vision, she created the tarn in Moralee Wood, bridges across the river, a network of footpaths and various summerhouses across her estate.  The Cedar Hut above Raven’s Crag on the cover is a modern reconstruction of one of these.

All of the poems in Dwelling Place are sparked by ideas of home and belonging, what we do to create spaces of shelter and sanctuary.  Birtley and I started work on it long before the pandemic but it seems to have accrued new layers of meaning in the light of this past year.

As we can’t launch the pamphlet in real life, we’re offering it here for sale at £8 (£10 including p + p).  Hopefully there’ll be an opportunity to gather together for a reading in Hexham and Newcastle at some point next year.  There are many things I’m missing at the moment but poetry events are among the top of my list.

Taking stock of The Bookshop under the Bed, there are also some copies of other pamphlets and books – some quite old and rare – that I can also send in the post for anyone who’s interested or looking for an unusual Christmas present.  The best thing, if you’d like any of these or Dwelling Place (or want to enquire about any other of my books), would be to email me at linda.france@cooptel.net, send me your postal address and we can sort out how you’d like to pay.

Acts of Love (Echo Room Press, 1990)  

Aerogramme (Talking Pen, 2004) 

Heartwork (Playspace Publications  2012)

Through the Garden Gate (NCLA 2011)

Border Song (Hareshaw Press, 2012)

another wild (Hareshaw Press, 2014)

All of the above are £6 each (+ £2 UK p+p) or any 3 copies for £20 (inclusive of UK p+p). I can look into international postage costs, if necessary.

I have unearthed one remaining copy of Acknowledged Land (Northumberland County Libraries, 1993) – an early collaboration with Birtley Aris, now extremely rare and much sought after – and am happy to consider offers.

I am offering these books as part of the Artist Support Pledge, where if I make £1000 (unlikely I know, but these are unprecedented straitened times…), I pledge to buy another artist’s work for £200.

Stay warm and well.

L

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August

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August is a yellow month – hypericum, mullein, alchemilla, ragwort, oilseed rape.  A small black beetle is inexorably drawn to all that yellow and the promise of protein-rich pollen, hence its generic name ‘pollen beetle’.  August is also the month for an insect less visible to the eye – the berry bug or harvest mite, in the Trombiculidae family, relative of the tick.

Every August the wily, indiscriminate berry bug (that the French call aoûtat after the wily, indiscrimate month) comes to my garden – and me – to feed, enjoying what sweetness I have left.  With its precise and persistent mandibles, the larva punctures my skin, injects a digestive enzyme, chews a hole called a stylostome and leaves raised red itchy spots on my arms, legs, torso, neck.  Without realising what’s in the air, I start scratching and then, it dawns – the hypericum’s in bloom, and I remember it’s that time of year again: August, the difficult month.

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Looking back, the long summer holidays stretched out into an infinity of sunshine and sand and no school – an exciting, dangerous mixture of freedom and boredom.  Where we lived, on the south coast, most of that happened near water, either salt or chlorinated, but sunny days that weren’t beach or pool days would be spent either ‘down the lane’ or ‘over the railway line’.  These were lonelier places and therefore potent with risk, though no one spoke of that; the taboo carrying a terrible weight of darkness.

‘Down the lane’ there was water, a trickling stream and a flat wooden bridge, and sometimes boys, precocious with leer and innuendo.  It was where I learned what an oak tree was, saw my first celandine and picked blackberries, scratched much worse than a hundred berry bug bites.  It was where a girl called Hazel from ‘up the road’ fell out of a tree and got spiked on a piece of metal jutting out of an abandoned van.  The drama – screams, blood, sirens, uniforms – hushed us all for days.

‘Over the railway line’ there were pigs that squealed and grunted and boys on scramble bikes that whined like giant insects.  Hidden by trees, there was a circuit they would ride around in pointless ovals on Sunday afternoons, a ritual of speed and petrol.  This was the place where every December Mum and I would go in search of a Christmas tree.  My mother trying to carry her saw nonchalantly, as if it were a handbag or umbrella.  Again, this was dangerous, forbidden but necessary, some ancient feudal right.  No one else used to have Christmas trees like ours, long-needled straggly pines, sticky with resin, rather than compact, domesticated, garage-bought spruce.  We’d spend a long time choosing ‘the best one’ – the right size (no taller than the ceiling), a good branching shape – and carry it back, Mum at one end, me at the other, like a comedy double act.

We’d also collect cones that my mother would paint white or scatter with glitter to make Christmas decorations, miniature worlds that confounded scale, where a tiny Santa Claus sat on his sleigh in a forest of enormous pinecones and a tall red candle that year after year was never lit.  We’d find holly and cut a carrier bagful to prop sprigs behind pictures or on the mantelpiece in odd little pots that only appeared at Christmas out of one of the big brown cardboard boxes Mum kept on top of her wardrobe.  The holly also scratched and prickled but it was easier to bear then because we were all wrapped up in coats and scarves.

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I grew up thinking that was what ‘Nature’ did to you – cut through your skin, made you itch, sometimes drew blood.  It wasn’t clear to whom it belonged, whether we were entitled to it or not.  It was all somewhere else, prepositional – ‘down’, ‘over’, ‘across’, ‘beyond’.  Entering it meant crossing a threshold into another world, transgressive, full of menace. Our occasional forays to find something we needed, according to the season – brambles or greenery – involved taking something that both was and wasn’t ours.  The house was changed by it, more and less itself.  It made me feel the gnaw of adrenalin, cortisol, that sense of a bigger, unknown world beyond our street, my school, the town.

My mother had a phase of making arrangements out of dried grasses and ornamental seedheads – arid affairs that gathered dust on the radiogram and windowsills.  I’d keep going back to look at them, touch them, puzzled by this bit of outside brought indoors, not knowing if they were dead or alive.

Because we lived in a flat we didn’t have a garden.  There was a small patch of green in front of our block planted with bland shrubs that never flowered, mostly waxy laurels, a single oak tree, with thin grass in between.  My mother was the self-elected custodian of this contingent green space, requiring her to go out with shears and saw at regular intervals to keep everything in check.  The job was really housework outdoors, a stay against chaos and doom, the shame of untidiness.

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A bookish child, I recoiled from anything with a whiff of animals.  The nearest I got to the countryside was Anne of Green Gables, and later Wuthering Heights – an unhealthy bipolar map of the world.  When we read The Wind in the Willows at school, I sulked and tuned out, listening to my own thoughts instead.  What had a talking toad to say to me?  I have great caverns in my imagination full of trapped rabbits and lost otters, caged bears and dark horses.

One reliable zone of fascination however was the wildflower series of Brooke Bond Tea cards.  It was incredibly exciting when my mother opened a new packet and I could slip my fingers between the green paper and the lining to fish out a new card and see what it was.  I learnt everything I know about flags of the world, the history of cars and costume from them.  And wildflowers.  That’s how I knew that the yellow flower that grew down the lane in the spring was lesser celandine, and recognized others from C.F. Tunnicliffe’s blurry paintings:  cowslip, sweet violet, foxglove, ragged robin. 

 Their names were enchanting – the sound of them like snatches of song, a spell, the sort of thing you might call someone you loved.  These flowers might have been printed on small rectangular pieces of card tucked inside packets of tea but I recognized them.  Naturally they became part of me, my story, an almost whispered, immensely seductive invitation to explore one corner of the natural world that didn’t bite and mostly didn’t scratch, that stayed still, didn’t run away and abandon you.  Flowers made no noise.  Among them there was no sense of trouble.  I knew I could go there because I was there already – I was ‘of’ it – a lesson in the genitive case.

Another geometric world I shared with my mother was more arcane – even the name sounded mysterious, like a flower itself.  Philately.  Around the age of ten I became interested in stamps and, with my junior kit (album, hinges, starter set and magnifying glass) bought from Woolworths in the town a bus ride away, I began collecting.  I soon graduated to being a specialist – having ascertained that a proper philatelist concentrated on stamps from one country, or illustrated with a chosen theme.  More for pragmatic reasons than patriotic ones, I decided to collect stamps from what everyone in those Commonwealth days called Great Britain.  I pounced on all the letters that arrived through our letterbox and soaked the stamps off their envelopes in saucers of water; big commemorative ones, a special prize.  As with the tea cards, this is where I extended my education and learned about the world’s currencies and capitals, British bridges, the origins of antiseptics and the Red Cross.  My mother and I would go to stamp fairs and look at thousands and thousands of stamps in an afternoon.  I’d buy a few sets or first day covers to add to my collection and when we got home we’d consult the Stanley Gibbons catalogue, amazed how much each scrap of coloured paper was worth.  Whenever a new set of stamps was issued, my middle sister, who still lived at home, would post me a first day cover.  Although the anniversaries they commemorate have long past, I still have them – Votes for Women (50 years), TUC (100 years), Captain Cook’s First Voyage (200 years); my sister’s rounded capitals in thick blue biro, my name and our address, before postcodes were invented.

Turning the musty yellowing pages of my home-made loose-leaf folder, which I still have, I discover the threepenny Spring Gentian issued in 1964 to mark the Tenth International Botanical Congress in Edinburgh.  There’s a smudge and a space where both the hinge and stamp have been lost above my note recording the ‘1/3d Fringed Water Lily’.  By the time I was nearly nine in April 1967, the price of a second-class stamp had risen to 4d.  There were four different ones in the British Wildflowers series – Hawthorn and Bramble; Larger Bindweed and Viper’s Bugloss; Ox-Eye Daisy, Colstfoot and Buttercup; Bluebell, Red Campion and Wood Anemone – all taken from Keble Martin’s classic Concise British Flora.  The 9d Dog Violet and the 1/9d Primrose were drawn by the distinguished botanical artist Mary Grierson.  Both their names in tiny capitals at the bottom of each stamp; I had no idea who they were, or what many of these flowers looked like in Real Life.  But I was touched in a place that stamps celebrating National Productivity Year or British Technology, or even the First Flight of Concorde, could never reach.

Despite my focus on British stamps, I also had a soft spot for stamps from other countries emblazoned with flowers, intriguing as book covers in a foreign language – lilies from Hungary (Magyar), cacti from Brazil (40 pesetas), waterlilies from Viet Nam, tulips from Afghanistan (‘Queen of Sheba’ and ‘Jewel of Spring’).  When I went to the Grammar School and started to learn it, I began to understand the usefulness of botanical Latin – all those different countries, alphabets and painting styles, using the same way of describing their flowers.

And for all their bright extravagance, it was comforting that they were contained in squares and rectangles.  Sometimes even triangles, from countries I’d never heard of.  The shapes were like flowerbeds, small pieces of garden you could hold in your hand, carry in your pocket or pencil case, put in a special book to look at on rainy days or lonely nights.

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Edna O’Brien called August ‘a wicked month’.  It is a difficult month for us all, I think, but especially for gardeners.  The big story about growth is past, fewer plants are in flower and things are starting to get blousy, set seed.  Hungry caterpillars and insects leave their perforated calling cards in petals, leaves and stalks.  Green is starting to fade and dry.  Karel Capek, in his curious and wonderful book The Gardener’s Year, published in 1929, says ‘a real gardener feels it in his bones that August is already a turning point.’

Those achingly long summer holidays.  Nights still short, showered with meteors, petals falling from the heavens. Postcards landing on the mat, pictures of faraway places and exotic stamps.  Tanned skin freckled with bites.  A big fat book to disappear inside.  My mother’s birthday, Lily – named after a flower – who showed me all she could of Nature, in that strange, tight world, the working-class garden of the 1960s.

 

I wrote this for Durham Book Festival nearly a decade ago when I began the botanical journey that led to my poetry collection ‘Reading the Flowers’, published by Arc in 2016.  To celebrate it being on this year’s new Laurel Prize longlist, initiated by Poet Laureate Simon Armitage and the Poetry School, Arc have a special offer throughout August.  You can buy the hardback for the price of the paperback (the offer also applies to my previous collection ‘You are Her’) via their website.  In these difficult times for small presses (and poets), buying poetry books is a great way to support literature and culture and keep us all thriving.  

Enjoy your August and stay well.

 

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