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The Stone Pickers

Sir George Clausen


Oil on canvas



After George Clausen

She’s light and wild enough yet to have more in common with meadow flowers.  

Stubborn flickers of white and bruised chicory scissor through the grassy slope 

while her grandmother, drab in sacking, nearer my age now, is stooped, almost

on her knees, apron weighed down with a harvest of scree and muddy limestone.

The girl’s face is tender though she already knows too much: a scarlet cloth 

flares in the tumbled basket and jug.  Thin trees jut against a northern sky –

all I can do is keep on, keep on walking towards them, and pick stones

from the furrowed page to make room for harebell, lady’s smock, three-leaf clover.



On a recent visit to the Laing Art Gallery I was pleased to spend some time with The Stone Pickers again – touched by a small detail I hadn’t noticed when I wrote my poem: the small stone still caught in the girl’s apron.

The wall text tells us that:

Clausen (1852-1944) was the son of a decorative artist of Danish descent (It doesn’t tell us if this was his mother or his father). From 1867 to 1873, he attended design classes at South Kensington Schools (known today as the Royal College of Art), and subsequently studied in Paris…He was influenced by French plein-air painting – the practice of painting outdoors – and began to paint the rural field workers around his Hertfordshire home in the 1880s. The Stone Pickers was purchased in 1907 from Artists of the Northern Counties, a selling exhibition held annually at the Laing from 1905 until 1935. Clausen was an official artist during the First World War.


Stonepicker from The Knucklebone Floor (Smokestack 2022).

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Some Things You Might Like To Know About

Tonight we’re having our very first podcast discussion group Listening to the Climate. Everyone is very welcome to come along. We’ll be reading and discussing the poems in my podcast series In Our Element – a poet’s inquiry into climate change. The introduction in the first episode includes Jorie Graham’s Why and my sestina, Elementary. You can listen again to the podcasts here and also find transcripts of the poems and the conversations.

If you’re interested in the discussion group (which I envisage as a sort of book group for the ears), you can register for a free place via Eventbrite. Look forward to seeing those of you who can make it at 6 – 7.30pm (Tuesday 8th February 2022). We’ll be meeting on the second Tuesday of each month at the same time, talking about each subsequent episode and the poems therein. I also hope people might point us all in the direction of climate and ecology related podcasts they’ve found interesting or helpful.

Our monthly Writing Hour will continue – on the last Tuesday of each month, between 1 and 2pm. All are welcome for a dedicated session of shared writing time. These seem to have become inspiring touchstones for a lot of people – in this country and all over the world. The next one coming up is on Tuesday 22nd February 1 – 2 pm.

Tomorrow night at 7pm (Wednesday 9th February) you have a chance to join the online launch of Candlestick Press’s new pamphletsTen Poems about History and Ten Poems about Roses. The event will be hosted by the Lit & Phil and readers include Sean O’Brien, David Constantine, Catriona O’Reilly, Kathy Towers, Tamar Yoseloff and myself. There’s also an open mike slot. You can find more details and book your free place here.

Next week I’ll be reading some poems at the Sonic Valentine gathering at the Queen’s Hall in Hexham 12 – 1.30 pm (Monday 14th February). Expect gongs, Tibetan singing bowls, music and poetry. A drop-in sound lounge for the healing of the world. See you there!

I’m a little late posting these various news items – lots of things suddenly emerging after the quiet dark of winter. Already nearly two hours more daylight since the Winter Solstice. And more to come.

May your sap gently rise.



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Spending so much time in the 19thcentury lately, I’ve been thinking a great deal about our relationship with time and history.  Not just because the present is so confounding, although that is undeniable. I’m struck by how little we seem to have learned from the past, every day faced with so many instances of collective amnesia.

But context is all and we must keep re-visiting history, our own and our shared inheritance, to re-view it in the light of the present.  Only then can we orientate ourselves in the direction of the most helpful choices, for our own individual and the common good.  Frequent pauses are necessary.  Moving slowly also makes it easier to see what is really needed.  Change is subtle as well as cataclysmic.

The most powerful new element affecting the way we relate to the quotidian and the longer view is digital technology.  My very first emails were sent back home from Internet cafés in India while I was away for six months, travelling there and in Sri Lanka, Nepal and Sikkim, in 2001-2. When I got home, I bought my first mobile phone and gradually the way I (and the rest of the world) communicated changed.  Happy to admit my ambivalence to our current dependence on the digital, I’m still resisting acquiring a smartphone but have plenty of other portable gadgets to keep me connected and distracted.


This is a SLOW introduction to letting everyone know that I have a new website (thanks to New Writing North and Creative Fuse’s recent DigiTransform programme).   At the same address as my old one, you can visit it here – and I’d be very happy to hear any thoughts you may have about it.  I now have the skills to update and amend it myself, something that wasn’t possible with my old site.


On another digital note, you might like to check out the Poem of the North, an exciting Northern Poetry Library initiative for Great Northumberland 2018.  It also does strange things to Time and Space, creating something new from the shared compass of the imagination.  My own contribution has just been added and you can learn more and watch it unfold here.


So, after all that clicking and coding, I feel the need to go back, a long way back and see things from the perspective of one of our most ancient plants – Equisetum.  A living fossil, which once dominated the understory of late Paleozoic forests, it is also known as horsetail, snake grass or puzzlegrass.


This poem by Joanna Boulter is worth spending some time with:



We live in droves.  Memory herds back

to a time before there were horses or pasture


when soil was hardly soil, inhospitable.

You ask why we still grow, abandoned here


after thirty million years,

left clinging out of our time


by brittle toeholds

to a past you can’t conceive of.


Our roots reach so deep

we can grow anywhere,


have done and will, in marshes or sand dunes.

We cannot be dug out.


Think of the silica spicules

that scaffold our stems –


part organic, part inorganic

things could have gone either way


for us, you could have been

the beached ones.


But we are still at the crossroads,

and you need us.


You need to think sometimes of sparse

harshness, of glassy grains without humus,


your world returning to that.


(from Collecting Stones, An Anthology of Poems and Stories inspired by Harehope Quarry, Vane Women Press, 2008)





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You’re always more unreal to yourself than other people are.

Marguerite Duras, ‘Practicalities’ (1990)

This is the epigraph to Deborah Levy’s new book, The Cost of Living (Hamish Hamilton 2018), the second instalment of her ‘living autobiography’.  It’s a compelling account of her attempt to create a new life for herself and her daughters outside the strictures of a long (middle-class) marriage.  Her reflections are multivalent – practical (the value of an electric bike), philosophical (re-reading Simone de Beauvoir) and psychological (grief at the loss of her mother around the same time).  The writing is unpredictable, playful and ultra-cool.

Just as when I read Things I Don’t Want to Know (her first memoir/instalment), my breath came in little bursts as I recognised so many things I felt about female experience but hadn’t quite been able to articulate.  This doesn’t happen for me very much these days and I am grateful for it – one of the deep delights of reading, helping clarify thoughts and grow a little.  It felt like one of those books that keep you pointing in the right direction, not not-saying.


I’m very lucky to have been chosen as one of the Featured Poets in Issue Six of The Compass Magazine.  It is a fine online space for poetry, sensitively edited by Lindsey Holland and Andrew Forster.  There are two fascinating interviews – with Sinéad Morrissey and Pascale Petit – as well as lots of exciting new work by a wide selection of poets.

I had the chance to include poems here that were written since my last collection was published (two years ago) and before I embarked on my new PhD project.  With hindsight I can see it is the place I sprang off from (somewhere along the Whin Sill).  A sequence called ‘Soil’ looks at the small patch of Northumberland where I live through the battles it’s become known for and shaped by.  The more time I spend looking at the past, the more things seem to have stayed the same.  Military intervention, power struggles, righteousness, xenophobia – these offer no sort of compass.


Two shorter poems, Her Voice and Tattoo, look at the whole business of trying to speak the truth, finding the right words and knowing what’s worth writing about.  There’s another page (‘Poetics’) where I attempt to review my position as a writer.  I could write a different piece on this subject every week – it turns with the world and the light.  It seems to be changing apace as the PhD process rolls on – doing strange things to one’s sense of ‘audience’ – mostly walking in the dark.

But the last words here are Deborah Levy’s last words:

When a woman has to find a new way of living and breaks from the societal story that has erased her name, she is expected to be viciously self-hating, crazed with suffering, tearful with remorse.  These are jewels reserved for her in the patriarchy’s crown, always there for the taking.  There are plenty of tears, but it is better to walk through the black and bluish darkness than reach for those worthless jewels.

The writing you are reading now is made from the cost of living and it is made with digital ink.


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Knowing Our Place


I had no idea that the Barbican had a Conservatory  – or a Library until a few weeks ago when I found myself there, reading at a launch of Issue 18 of Long Poem Magazine.  It was a friendly affair, surprising and happily sprawling like the unsung long poems and sequences the magazine does a wonderful job in drawing attention to.  We were tucked away in the Music Section, a niche of hidden delights.


I particularly enjoyed hearing Katharine Pierpoint read her poem Camelopard, trying (and succeeding) to catch the giraffeness of the giraffe and Anna Reckin’s graceful evocation of various emanations of Jade.  Also Alex Bell’s epistolary Dearest, lurking in the shadows of Victoriana, as did my own contribution – A Hundred Ways to Know Our Place.

When I was younger and a touch adrift I often read self-help books to check my bearings.  Most of them have migrated from my shelves now (apart from a few classics like Dorothy Rowe on depression and Buddhist angles on anxiety) but I was interested to trace a clear line of connection between those and the beginnings of the genre in the 19th century.


A Hundred Ways to Know Our Place is part of new work I’m writing for my PhD, an overture to a book-length piece.  If you’re interested in reading it and other longer poems and sequences, I’d point you in the direction of Long Poem Magazine, edited with passion and insight by Linda Black and Rose Hamilton.


Etiquette books also fascinate me.  It’s hard not to be braced by their arbitrary sharpness, like eating a particularly arcane olive.  Possibly after a long soak in a dirty martini.  Some Russian visitors I had once called that sort of snifter a ‘walking stick’, to be taken before leaving the house for any reason.  And in the right quantity (although this is hard to gauge) it can rinse the senses wonderfully.  Isn’t that what we want reading a poem to feel like?  To ‘take reality by surprise’, in Francoise Sagan’s phrase.

And so back to music (always)…My senses didn’t know what had hit them watching and listening to Ukrainian ensemble Dhaka Brakha perform at the Sage last week.   And it was a performance, highly choreographed and styled with stunning costumes riffing on traditional styles, as did the music that playfully transforms folk songs from their beleaguered motherland into something almost miraculous.  I was transported, utterly enchanted, and continue to be so listening to their latest CD the road.  Dhaka Brakha ‘know their place’ and invite us to spend some time there.  Foolish to refuse.

Down in London, I can sometimes feel like a bit of a country cousin.  Walking from the Tube station to the Barbican, I was very excited to see a plant breaking up the clean lines of the long tunnel of the Bridgewater Highwalk.  It wasn’t going to be told where it could grow and where it couldn’t, what freedom means.


Knowing our place is no easy matter – fierce, transgressive, and extremely quiet, it must take the risk of being there, doing it for ourselves.




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The Eye-Catcher


I heartily recommend this fantastic one man show about Capability Brown at the Moot Hall in Hexham on 12th October.  See details below.

I saw it at Kirkharle, Brown’s birthplace – in a marquee within a barn – and we were all entranced by John Cobb’s evocation of this literally ground-breaking landscape gardener.  Not much is known about the man himself, allowing plenty of room for poetic license, some beautifully inventive physical theatre and a rollicking text to remind you of the great number of commissions Brown undertook during his lifetime and his skilfully-cultivated connections with influential clients – all against the dramatic backdrop of eighteenth century history.

Catch it while you can  – a marvellous way to celebrate Capability Brown’s tercentenary.




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Auricula Theatre

I am fascinated by the way many aspects of the horticultural world are so arcane and specialised, marked by an obsessive attention to detail. National Collections and Plant Societies are just a couple of ways this manifests itself.  I stumbled upon a reminder in the glasshouses at Temple Newsam in Leeds last week.  Even the method of display reflects the emphasis on order and classification beloved of a certain type of gardener.  Apparently this particular type is called an Auricula Theatre – there is indeed drama in it, a striking sense of mise en scène.

photo 2


Lines To An Auricula, Belonging To –


Thou rear’st thy beauteous head, sweet flow’r

Gemm’d by the soft and vernal show’r;

Its drops still round thee shine:

The florist views thee with delight;

And, if so precious in his sight,

Oh! what art thou in mine?


For she, who nurs’d thy drooping form

When Winter pour’d her snowy storm,

Has oft consol’d me too;

For me a fost’ring tear has shed, –

She has reviv’d my drooping head,

And bade me bloom anew.


When adverse Fortune bade us part,

And grief depress’d my aching heart,

Like yon reviving ray,

She from behind the cloud would move,

And with a stolen look of love

Would melt my cares away.


Sweet flow’r! supremely dear to me,

Thy lovely mistress blooms in thee,

For, tho’ the garden’s pride,

In beauty’s grace and tint array’d,

Thou seem’st to court the secret shade,

Thy modest form to hide.


Oh! crown’d with many a roseate year,

Bless’d may she be who plac’d thee here,

Until the tear of love

Shall tremble in the eye to find

Her spirit, spotless and refin’d,

Borne to the realms above!


And oft for thee, sweet child of spring!

The Muse shall touch her tend’rest string;

And, as thou rear’st thine head,

She shall invoke the softest air,

Or ask the chilling storm to spare,

And bless thy humble bed.


Sir John Carr    (1772–1832)


The National Auricula Society

From the early years of the 17th Century there have been shows for florist flowers – including Auriculas. The early shows were held in public houses…

The National Auricula Society was founded in 1872-73. With the support of the Manchester Botanical Council the first revived exhibition of the National Auricula Society was held on Tuesday the 29th of April 1873. The prizes at the first show were of cash and appear to have been extremely generous. Class A for six dissimilar show varieties, one at least in each of the classes Green, Grey, White Edged and Self, had a first prize of 60s (£3.00). In the single plant classes the premium prize was 10s (50p) and first prize was 8s (40p) – these prizes would be more than most people could earn in a week.

The fact that only subscribers of over 10s could enter the multi-pot classes tells us that the early members must have been comparatively wealthy. In fact they were often manufacturers and professional gentlemen.  Ladies were still absent.

In 1890 it was resolved that supports, i.e. staking, would be allowed in all classes but packing in the truss was not to be allowed… In 1912 three cups were purchased: one each for Show Auriculas, Alpine Auriculas and Gold Laced Polyanthus, together with three medals and a die.  The total cost was £18-8s-3d…

The word Primula was added to the society title in 1948 and so became The National Auricula and Primula Society (Northern Section). 

(extract from the Society’s website)

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Botany Bay


One of the places I knew I wanted to visit before even coming to Australia was Botany Bay, the place where Cook and his men first landed in 1770.  On board the Endeavour were two naturalists, Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander, who gathered examples of local species of plants and insects.  In just eight days Sydney Parkinson, the ship’s artist, made as many drawings as he could of kangaroos, birds and flowers, as well as of the Aboriginal people they encountered. Altogether he made 243 drawings of Australian plants that have survived; although he didn’t, dying of dystentery and fever on the voyage home.


No one I spoke to had been to Botany Bay; most looked askance, muttering about oil refineries, heavy industry and the working harbour.  There is no train station at Kurnell, the nearest settlement – getting there would involve a train ride then a bus.  There’s a cycle route from where I’m based but it’s too far to walk.  Many places in Sydney are harder to reach than they look because of all the inlets – it’s taken me a while just to get my bearings, to know where people mean when they talk about ‘the North Shore’ and the ‘Inner West’.


In the midst of preparing myself for my departure, my lovely friend Donna kindly offered to drive me there on her day off.  We went south on the Princes Highway, crossed the Captain Cook Bridge over the George River and travelled down the peninsula to Botany Bay National Park.  They have renamed it Kamay Botany Bay to honour the original Aboriginal ownership and this sensitivity to its history is reflected in much of the interpretative information, created in consultation with local Indigenous elders.


When the Englishmen set foot on their land, the Aboriginals went into hiding, watching from a distance.  That has been their strategy ever since as the White man has claimed governance of the colony, refusing to countenance a world view other than their own – anthropocentric, rationalist, linear, hierarchical and competitive.  Only in very recent times have gestures begun to be made towards apology and healing, allowing the Aborigines to come out of hiding and start to share some of their wisdom.  In the midst of the current global environmental crisis, their deep understanding of the rhythms of the natural world has an important part to play in managing change.


When Banks took his inventory of the plant species at Kamay – first named Stingray Harbour by Cook, then Botanist’s Bay or Botany Bay because of the rich diversity found there – there was indeed a wealth of different trees, shrubs and flowers, recorded by Sydney Parkinson, and later added to Banks’s Florilegium.  In the subsequent years of clearing, development and industrialisation much variety has been lost and many individual species are in danger of disappearing altogether.  Work is underway to conserve as much as possible and regenerate ‘the bush’ here and elsewhere.  Although I’m afraid it will take a while – I’ve heard too many stories of a widespread scorn for anything ‘green’, seen as anti-patriotic and un-economic by many Australians.  Meanwhile scientists continue to report major extinctions of plant and animal life across this vast and beautiful continent.


There’s not much botany at Botany Bay but I’m glad I saw it.  Maybe I’ll go back some time and do some of the longer walks they’re creating in the National Park.  It feels an important place – where something noxious started that can’t be erased but that can, like a bushfire, set in motion a whole new beginning.


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Garden in the City of Cutlery

On a day when the world’s turned white and wintry, I’m sifting through my notes from the autumn trip south.  This is an abridged version of my notes on Sheffield Botanical Gardens.


A Monday morning, the end of October.  Up to now it’s been ‘I’ – today it’s ‘we’.   Across the busy road, we walk through the open gate, under the arch of milky stone, neo-classical and confident.  Everything about this invitation to enter communicates certainty, stability and security, announcing itself as Victorian and Yorkshire, with a brusque, no-nonsense pride.  The northern flank of the gatehouse is a shop selling postcards, books, pocket money toys and botanical ‘souvenirs’, many of which seem to have very little to do with actual flowers.  The southern flank is an information office, closed for half-term.

Passing quickly through, we are welcomed on the left by a strawberry tree, fat scarlet berries next to waxy cream flowers amongst sturdy evergreen leaves.  Arbutus unedo – we eat just one, as the name suggests.  The taste is nothing like a strawberry – no juicy citrus edge – plain and business-like, better than nothing but best for jam, wine or hungry birds.  It is so pretty and surprising, a treat to see it there, the first thing in the garden.


We decide to make a circle of the triangular-shaped gardens, restored to their original ‘Gardenesque’ style, and stroll anti-clockwise, beginning parallel to the road just on the other side of the railings, which used to be a high wall when the gardens were first built in 1836 and you had to pay a shilling to get in, beyond the pocket of most of the working people of Sheffield.  Along that top edge they’ve made a Four Seasons Garden, designed to provide plants of interest all the year round.  The most striking shrub has small pinky-red fruits, rather hard and patterned with dots like a cone.  It is unfamiliar, mysterious and has no helpful black label telling us its name, introducing itself and allowing us to feel as if we ‘know’ it. We’re drawn to investigate this alien plant but it resists interpretation, impossible even to know if it’s safe to eat the fruits.  We collect one that’s fallen on the ground and later when we come across one of the gardeners, all dressed in green, he tells us that it is Cornus kousa ‘Norman Haddon’.  He also says that you can eat the fruits but he’s heard they don’t taste very nice, although he’s never tried one himself.  We don’t either – not driven by hunger to risk it.

P1030176A landscaped mound planted with ornamental birches marks the far corner of the garden.  Below it there is a restored version of the original wrought iron turnstile gate, the word ‘IN’ set in the stretch of shiny black verticals.  At the end of each day a bell is still rung to let folk know the garden is closing.  Like a short, concentrated walk across the globe, we pass borders dedicated to plants from the Mediterranean, Asia and the Americas.  Most of the flowering plants are dying back now and it’s the trees that are getting all the attention.  The tame grey squirrels are busy being busy as if it were their best time of year too.  The ground is carpeted with swirls of yellow, brown and rust red – the strongest colour in the garden, despite the efforts of the gardeners with their leaf blowers and wheelbarrows.

P1030184Illuminating the layers of leaves, there are some patches of cyclamen and autumn crocus.  We are drawn to them – as if, like bees, we need to suck up their nectar to store against the winter dark.    At the southern corner, joining Thompson Road, we climb back up into the centre of the garden, past the sweet little South Lodge, set like a Wendy house by the side of the path.  All the buildings in the garden were designed to to be pleasing to the eye and add to the illusion of a ‘natural’ landscape, even though every square inch is clearly carefully managed by the curator and his crew of gardeners and the fleet of volunteers.

P1030190The heart of the garden is marked with a cast iron fountain, a heavy Victorian design, more interested in engineering than beauty.  But the energy of the cascading water is undeniable, refreshing and vigorous, and provides a focal point at the end of the Broadwalk.  Bordered by beds of herbaceous plants, this is a place to promenade, people-watch and take the air with family and friends.


A rather offputtingly named AGM Garden showcases plants that have been awarded the RHS ‘accolade for excellence’.  Sheffield houses the National Collections of Weigela, Diervilla and Sarcococca – shrubs that wouldn’t look out of place in a suburban garden.  The Marnock Garden, named after the original designer, is an area intended to inspire visiting gardeners with ‘ideas to take home’, particularly involving tender climbers and scented plants.  There’s a wooden sitooterie in the shape of an apple and a silver insect nestling among the plants.  A circular raised bed shows fragments of terracotta leaves, imprinted with words no longer legible, part of a poetry trail.

The Evolution Garden reflects the impact of the publication of Darwin’s Origin of the Species in 1859.  A series of signs direct the visitor to pay attention to how and when plants and animals appeared on the planet and evolved into the arrangement we’re familiar with today.  There are several examples of fossilized trees, clearly reminding people of how much longer plants have been on the earth than man.

P1030226The statue of Pan next to the Rose Garden is intriguing. This version is slightly sanitized, with human legs rather than the hairy haunches of a faun.  More Peter Pan or St Francis than satyr, he is surrounded by his friends, the birds and the mice, bronze worn shiny from much stroking by passing children of all ages.  A god of nature, Pan was earthy and sensual, unrestrained in his appetites.  Sexually predatory, he even managed to seduce the Moon, Selene.  From his name we get the word ‘panic,’ originally expressing the terror experienced in wild and lonely places.

We leave the garden by the turnstile gate.  I want to find the sign that says ‘Botanical Road’.  It sounds strangely literal, like so much in this garden, straightforwardly informative, like ‘Station Road’ or ‘School Lane’.  But in my mind it summons up images of plants and flowers, burgeoning and irrepressible, cleaning our air, stabilizing our soil, providing food for our bodies and minds, lifting our spirits with their natural beauty.  I take a photo, aware I want it to be a talisman, a signpost directing me on the course of my botanical adventures.


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