Stop what you’re doing – the birds are singing!

Photo by Bob Brewer on Unsplash

There are no adequate words to describe birdsong. Humans have tried to represent the notes and tunes with words like “trill”, “chirrup”, “twitter”, “tweet” (and these latter two stolen back to label the chatter from our phones). People have even named birds after the sound they make as in cuckoo, chiffchaff, macaw, kittiwake. As I listen to the birds outside my window flying between the branches of the rowan, the buckthorn and all the flowering shrubs I cannot fix on any way to accurately convey the melodious sounds that cheer and inspire me.I consult the experts. Bird books provide all kinds of interesting facts. I learn there are calls and songs. Calls are short, simple phrasings while songs contain more notes and are longer. I recognise these differences. Calls do sound more purposeful, a bit like the human “hey, watch out!” or “stop, pay attention!” Songs are more decorative, seem to be released from the bird’s throat just for the hell of it. Is it blatant anthropomorphism to suggest the bird may be simply feeling good and wants to put that joy out into the world? I suspect, yes.

I consult the experts. I discover that male birds make most sound in spring and summer because it’s all to do with attracting a mate and keeping away rivals from his territory. Females don’t sing – only call (except English robins). Birds that don’t sing at all (e.g. gulls and parrots) have numerous calls. Most common garden birds are passerines or perching birds and all passerines sing. I have also learned that woodland birds have longer, richer songs to penetrate the dense foliage. Marshland birds sing more simply and repetitively in their more open surroundings.

Birds and birdsong have been subjects for poets through the ages. One of my favourites is The Darkling Thrush by Thomas Hardy which boldly speaks of hope coming through difficult times.

And I’ve had a go too, to pay homage to the songs of birds that have graced my journey through gardens, woods and forests.

The Darkling Thrush – Thomas Hardy

I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
 Had sought their household fires.

The land’s sharp features seemed to be
The Century’s corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.

At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overheard
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.

I was inspired to write the following poem for a friend’s husband who chose to create beautiful objects to leave in the world as he faced his end of life.


(For the memory of Gregory)

A robin is singing from the top of the cedar.
You are listening to the bird.
Waiting for the trills to stop, for the short night
before another chorus at dawn.

This spring you’ve learned there will be no more
so you work all the days and nights you have left 
make chairs, tables, shelves to fill the space 
you’ll leave behind. Carving, cutting grooves and curves, 
following the lines with strokes, your hands 
smoothing surfaces. They absorb your warmth. 
You take a white cotton cloth, rub the stain into a circle.

Birdsong augured by the scrape and tap of tools.


Poetry and Music – Cardinal

Rhythm, rhyme, the expression and stirring of emotion, memorable phrasing, all elements of poetry and of music. All through the ages, poets have been inspired by composers and composers by poets. 

I got my chance, last year, to realise the magic that occurs when music and poetry combine. Isaac Zee, a highly talented young composer came into my life when he rented  a room in my house (how to pay the mortgage). He was invited to compose a piece for an innovative music project conceived by his colleagues Tristan Zaba and Mackenzie Warrener. Through their new company, Slow Rise Music they had landed funding from the Canadian Music Centre to produce three new vocal multi-instrumental compositions. Isaac was to write one of these and he needed lyrics. Would I be interested? How to say no! And yet I’d never before worked with a composer. 

The theme, initially inspired by the previous year of pandemic, was “Survival”. And yet we were invited to think more broadly on this theme. What did survival mean to me? I’ve always written landscape poems — survival of the environment; I’ve written about my mother, who I care for, surviving life itself (she’s 91).

I began to write a new piece based on notes I had made on the topic of domestic abuse. The “Me Too” movement had raised awareness of the endemic nature of toxic masculinity and its impact on women. In England, many of us were raw with anger and sadness after the murder, by a serving police officer, of Sarah Everard a young woman simply walking home. For myself, I know too many women who have borne the scars of abusive relationships. And I know women reject the notion of victimhood. Women survive.

Isaac and I began the work. We met over Zoom and had wide-ranging discussions about how a poem works: structure and form and elements of musical composition. How did I write a poem and how did he compose a piece of music?

Our collaboration brought the composition “Cardinal” into life. It was one of three pieces for voice, keyboards and guitar performed in November 2021 in a concert, “Hanging By a Thread”, for a small Toronto audience. Tristan, guitar and bass voice and MacKenzie, keyboard and soprano voice had begun to realise their goal of breaking down barriers between genres in classical music. Conventionally this concert would have been a quartet, two musicians, two singers. Pop music or perhaps folk, more associated with the set-up they chose. 

The video has a slow, silent start, be patient. Cardinal is the second song.

My thanks to Isaac for lifting up my words inside his music and to Tristan and MacKenzie for a profoundly moving performance.

What shines?

Photo credit:

I’ve had window blinds fitted in my flat today. I moved in six months ago but for some reason known only to the gods of procrastination its taken me this long to get round to it. In the bedroom, it’s a blackout blind as my building has outdoor security lights. I managed to sleep without disturbance for the first couple of months but, after a horrible bout of insomnia later in the year, I took to wearing an eye-mask. All animals naturally are awake and active in daylight hours and sleep when darkness falls. We all need sleep, powerful in its role in regenerating all the systems of the body. Darkness falls like a cosy thick blanket over me when I switch off my bedside lamp. I welcome the dark, feel safe and protected and sleep well.

Yet darkness can also be scary. Outdoors, when darkness falls we are naturally on guard for dangers that may lurk unseen. Walking home late at night many women in particular feel the push of potential threat. It’s something feminists have for decades pushed back at. “Take Back the Night” marches were frequent in the 70s. I went on lots but, in truth, despite feeling outrage at the seeming need for women to curtail their actions to avoid threats at night, I never totally shifted my uneasiness enough to feel confident and safe.

Flip this whole narrative into a pitch black night out on one of the Gulf Islands, off the west coast of British Columbia or up north where wilderness is easier to get inside. Now, darkness comes bearing gifts, pierced by millions, and more, brilliant holes – stars, planets, galaxies, constellations. Under a cloudless night sky I feel not only safe but filled with great comfort. I’ve lain out many summers on the warm earth to gaze up at the Persied meteor showers that occur every August. The black sky, deep as the deepest nothingness suddenly comes alive. As stars go off in rapid-fire shots of brilliance, my eyes become accustomed to the dark and begin to pick up more subtle movement in the glimmer of other stars and planets. I wrote the poem “Purden Lake” years ago after one such night of wonder.

Purden Lake

“…music that will melt the stars.”


If I had been dropped in here, into this small circular clearing, if it had been gouged out with no roads leading in, you’d never find me. I’d be alone at the base of a soundless dry well. I could walk, turn circles around the edges of gravelled earth but there would be no way out.

The only opening: up. Now, it’s gaping black and deep, beginning to break out its intricate pattern of stars. If they were music, the stars would begin inaudibly, build slowly, gather sound as more appeared. Is the music, are the stars constant, and only my attention lacking to perceive them? It takes a while but then I see the long trace, the shining blur that is the Milky Way: crescendo.

I know that some of these stars are dead. What I see is only light, millions of years away from the place where it started, light that long ago disappeared. Perhaps I can pull these from the sky. I could make some space in all that confusion of brightness. Find a way out. But what would I do with so much light? Could I hold it in my arms? Would it liquefy, run through my fingers and into the earth or remain hard-edged silver, prick my skin? What can light weigh?

From Parallel Lines by Pam Galloway: Ekstasis Editions 2006.

Review of Peter Street’s “Goalkeeper”

I met Peter Street at a poetry reading when he was reading from his new book of poetry.

(Remember when we used to do that? Go out of an evening to a venue, maybe in town, where people gathered, even sat down next to each other and talked face to face?)

I was drawn immediately to Peter’s voice in his poems which personified plants and tackled political, social and environmental issues in bold and often amusing ways. This, from a review at the time:

Everything natural is beautiful and itself and a metaphor at the same time; everything is dangerous and true “remembering those poor beetles  / who tested the waters and teased  the millions of elms into suicide  / even then we were still ignored”.  This is a book we all need to read. Caron Freeborn 

When Peter told me about his memoir, coming out later this year and asked me to review it, I was happy to do so.

But I’d like you to check out Peter’s poetry too.

Saying No To The Icebergs   Sand Sedge Carex arenaria

like all families we have fought

put it behind us
an army is washing
towards us

waves of them
from land of ice and water
we have to be ready

or be washed away

come and stand with us
here next to my triangular stems
shields against their salt-burn

we have to slow those waves down

take the battle to them here
on these dunes
Sand Sedges are natural warriors

we take root colonise
safe in numbers
know what we have to do
are you with us


Peter Street’s Goalkeeper – Games, secrets, epilepsy, love pulled me through its fast-paced story. With its weaving together of all that its sub-title promises the story grabbed my attention and was a quick read. It begins dramatically enough in war-torn Croatia in 1993 when Street has gone as a volunteer during the Croat-Bosnian war. Soon, his memories return to the streets of Wigan and Bolton, his home with “Mum”, Kitty, and “Dad”, Thomas, who is responsible for quite a few of the secrets. There are friends and more than one potential girlfriend who provide, at different stages of Street’s life, empathy, companionship, early stirrings of love and desire and tragic losses. But these are not Streets true friends. He describes the comfort and ease he felt when it was just “me, ball and wall” as he practised his football skills and played marbles in the old outside toilet where he felt safe and happy.

“On rainy days, I would spend most of my time inside that outdoor toilet. It seemed to come alive with purpose whenever I turned up”.

The heart of this story is in Street’s documentation of learning difficulties at school and in a string of soul-destroying jobs, epilepsy surfacing at the age of fifteen, ultimately ending his passionate wish to be a professional goalie. Not that he doesn’t have some success at football and there are gripping play by play accounts. Street also very effectively conveys his experience of being a child who was clearly showing signs of autism spectrum disorder from his very early years. He shows us what this was like in so many of his recollections by depicting objects as having agency, appearing to be more human than the real humans in his life. At first I thought that this way of describing things acting on him was a stylistic choice and perhaps rather over-used until I began to see that this was exactly how Street saw his world. The stairs and the doors are active players in his games of football, cobbles and steps walk him along, pictures in books admired him as much as he admired them. And the young lad, Peter, was more at ease by himself than with most other people. Being around people set off uncomfortable sensations and at times caused him real distress.

“To me, lonely was a kind of freedom for my ears and my whole body, giving the real me a rest”.

Goalkeeper includes charming pictures illustrating life in the North in the 50s and 60s that really bring Street’s account alive. It is a satisfying read that is often heart-warming and at times heart-wrenching as Street battled (even when not fully aware of the nature of his foes) all that life threw in his path. The human spirit is strong. Peter Street has become, if not a famous goalie, a talented writer and poet.

View all my reviews

Poetry saves trees

Forests are big in B.C. So is logging.
B.C’s history of clear-cutting vast swathes of trees to feed the ever-hungry forestry industry is legend. In this year of the 21st century the battle to protect precious trees goes on. As I write, a petition is circulating to demand the BC government put a moratorium on logging ancient trees.

I started out wanting to tell the story of activism that worked to save trees including an act of poetry-driven environmentalism. Today’s news comes to remind me that we must remain vigilant. The lungs of our planet need us to protect them.

Standing with the trees

Soon after I moved to BC in 1980, I joined environmental campaigns to convince governments at every level to end clear-cutting of ancient first-growth forests and to introduce more sustainable logging practices. One such massive effort to protect trees played out in Clayoquot Sound through the eighties and nineties. The “War in the Woods” began in 1980 when local First Nations began peaceful protests which grew in size and support. In 1993, after the provincial government published a land use plan which allowed logging in two thirds of the forest in Clayoquot Sound, protests became huge and emotions and determination ran high. Hundreds of protesters were arrested and put on trial. These protests in support of the Nuu-chah-nulth people’s rights to protect their unceded land and waters drew world-wide media attention. In 1995 the BC government accepted the recommendations of the scientific panel on Clayoquot Sound. In 2000, Clayoquot Sound was declared a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO. Meares Island Tribal Park was established in 2014. Now, in acknowledgement of indigenous Canadians’ sovereignty the re-named Tla-o-qui-aht Tribal Parks, has management of the land.

Poems in the trees

McLellan Forest, Langley, B.C. A small forest compared to the vast growth in Clayoquot Sound , the fight to save it no less important and I proudly took part in an action with poetry at its heart.In 2012 McLellan Forest was threatened by a cynical claim for land development. The local Township had the land up for sale to make way for the building of private estates.A protest group, Watchers of Langley Forest (WOLF) was hard at work trying to raise the $3 million to buy and protect the forest which held a 240 year old cottonwood tree at its centre. A valiant but not easy task.

In stepped the poets and artists!
Led by renowned BC poet, Susan McCaslin, artists, dancers, poets, photographers and student film-makers arrived at the forest to defend and protect it. Susan knew they needed to garner broader attention and that was when she remembered the ancient Chinese poet Han Shan of Cold Mountain. He was a recluse who wrote his poems on rocks and also hung poems from trees. Susan followed his example. She used social media to call for tree-inspired poems and received hundreds. She strung the poems together and draped them from the trees that now people from across Canada and the world wanted to save. My poem, Guardian Pine, hung from a cedar. Artist, Susan Falk embarked on a project to paint the forest and she included words from poems on 13 paintings. I was thrilled when she chose words from my poem.

I have listened to the chatter
of souls in the snap-snap of seeds
breaking from its cones in spring.

Artist-driven activism works. The BC Ministry of Environment declared McLellan Forest an “ecological reserve.” But provided no financial support. Over to the Mayor and Council who, in the fall of 2013, preserved part of McLellan Forest as a municipal park, now known as McLellan Forest Natural Park. A private donation secured the remainder of the land, now also a conservation area.

Maybe its time to send tree poems to the BC government. I believe I will do that.

Guardian pine

Nights, I’ve shut out the dark,
the real or imagined voices
percolating from beyond the window, 
pulled a shawl around my need for warmth,
blanket to my chin, grateful for latches,
locks and blinds.

This night, the blinds taken down,
the pine looms. Feathered-edged,
its silhouette presses toward the room,
black as the pupil of the watchful spirit
legend tells crouches in its branches
arms stretched over the living
and the dead.

I have listened to the chatter
of souls in the snap-snap of seeds
breaking from its cones in spring.
Now, winter’s deep and silent well 
has me submerged and I turn,
entreat that dark-eyed spirit
watch over me.

PG. From Passing Stranger (publ 2014 Inanna Publications, Toronto)

Looking for the Stanza Stones


An overcast but dry day waited for us to get going on our hike up Ilkley Moor. The moor, for those not familiar with the geography of Yorkshire sprawls above Ilkley a small town north of the West Yorkshire city of Bradford.

Moors are wild and often bleak places, uplands of low-growing vegetation, heathers and bracken with high rainfall and peaty soil which is a rich store of carbon. The website of Friends of Ilkley Moor tells us: “It is estimated that there is twice as much carbon stored in Britain’s soils as there is in its woodlands.”

On this typically British summer day, cloudy and just the right side of warm (perfect for a hike) my companion and I had a mission, a destination in mind. We were heading to the Beck Stone, one of seven large rocks located across the Pennine Watershed, each with a poem by Britain’s Poet Laureate Simon Armitage carved into its surface. This project was conceived by the Ilkley Literature Festival in 2010 who commissioned Armitage to write a series of poems for the South Pennine Watershed. Armitage wrote poems which, in his words, celebrated “the element which gave shape and form to this region, namely water.” Each poem describes water in a different form: Beck, Puddle, Mist, Rain, Dew and Snow. The seventh Stanza Stone was placed in a secret location and remains unfound to my best knowledge. Pip Hall, letter-carver, carved the poems with her assistant Wayne Hart and the Stanza Stones Trail, which covers 47 miles between Marsden, Armitage’s place of birth and Ilkley was devised by landscape architect Tom Lonsdale.

We set off on our walk from Darwin Gardens Millennium Green close to Ilkley town centre. The Millennium Green was built to celebrate the turn of the 21st century and incorporates its own carved stones to honour Ilkley’s famous one-time resident. We had fun tackling the stone flag maze at the Green’s heart.


My companion cheerily told me it wasn’t far at all to the Beck Stone, only a mile. When we were, later, scrambling up some rocky stretches at times unstable underfoot, I remarked in response “Maybe only a mile but you didn’t tell me it was a mile straight up!”

As well as the most obvious heathers and ferns, we also came across cottongrass, crowberry and bilberry and, as we climbed, a stunning vista opened when we turned to look down on the town we’d left behind.


In his introduction to the Stanza Stones trail guide Armitage refers to the tradition of carved stones across the moors. From pre-historic standing stones, boundary stones placed throughout time right up to contemporary graffiti, people have been placing and inscribing stone in the wild environment for millennia.

When we reached the Beck Stone it did not disappoint. Backstone Beck, trickles then rushes down the hillside and getting close up requires a small jump across the stream and a bit of a clamber onto an adjacent rock. I did it! I perched on the rock and read the poem out loud. Here it is:

The Beck Stone

It is all one chase.
Trace it back the source
might be nothing more than a teardrop
squeezed from a Curlew’s eye,
then follow it down to the full-throated roar
at its mouth – a dipper strolls the river
dressed for dinner in a white bib.
The unbroken thread of the beck
with its nose for the sea
all flux and flex, soft-soaping a pebble
for thousands of years, or here
after hard rain, sawing the hillside in half
with its chain. Or here, where water unbinds
and hangs at the waterfall’s face, and
just for that one, stretched white moment
becomes lace.

©Simon Armitage 2010

This poem evokes a perfect image of the beck, its persistence through millennia carving the landscape as the words are carved into the stone.

Our next goal was to find the Poet’s Seat promised to us beyond the Beck Stone. There, walkers and aspiring poets are invited to write and post a poem in the clever postbox which then spits out another poem left by a previous visitor to the Seat.

We walked on and gradually climbed and reached the Poet’s Seat where a family, mum, dad, uncle and kids were busy writing and talking about poetry. When asked if she had written a poem to post, one of the girls told us perkily, “Parent’s doing it”! Clear division of labour in that household.

We had brought poems to post but realising the intention to encourage on-the-spot composition, my companion took up the challenge and wrote a short ditty about coming across Simon Armitage on the moor. 


What more to desire — fresh Yorkshire air, glorious vistas of moor and communities below and poetry!  I’m looking forwad to finding another of the Stanza Stones on our next adventure.

Here’s a review of “Stanza Stones” the book by Simon Armitage, with Tom Lonsdale and Pip Hall
(Enitharmon Press, 2013); hbk, £15

Procrastination atop the Yorkshire moors

The stark and promise full moor beckons.
I might venture up to Stoodley Pike,
grand obelisk, peace built
into every brick, nothing surrounds it
taller than scorched tussocks, scrubby grass.
I could turn north, strike out for Haworth Moor.
What chance to come upon Emily dreaming there?
Perhaps a half-glimpse of her ethereal skirts turning
in a swirl of mist or her voice on a whisper of air.

If I head down toward the wooded valley,
dark gatherings of trees press close
to stone houses ranged on the hillside.
I can swish through knee-high grass in the field,
a picnic table beside a gnarly apple tree,
good rest stop. But still the need
to consider Blackshaw Head,
to imagine all its seasons beyond this
slow-breathing summer. Rain
lashing in at 45° or snow stacked against stone
like a battlement. Never a soft enfolding.

Also the necessity of bathing.
A huge breakfast cup
to stream water over my head
indulgence of bubbles, slosh of water
over my shoulders, breasts and belly,
water in big splashes, playful
and somehow surprising.

After dressing there are the plants
to water: greenhouse tomatoes, cucumbers
and all around the house, pots and baskets;
pelargoniums, hostas, petunias,
impatiens, and lined against a wall
or in a space between path and grass,
the ones easy to miss.

At last, I approach the blank page,
after I find the right spot, summer house
and bench in the garden too hot.
On the swing-seat I can sway, push into a rhythm
find words to match, fill paper
with this place.


img_0657My mother has just turned ninety years old. She lives alone in her house on the boundary of south Manchester and Cheshire, close to the now sprawling Manchester Airport. She and my father moved there in 1961 when Manchester was beginning a massive programme of “slum clearance”, demolishing thousands of Industrial Revolution era dwellings. Street after street of “two-up – two-down” or even smaller houses had provided homes for factory and millworkers and their families since the 19th century. They were tight-knit neighbourhoods and, in some ways, for demolition crews to suddenly move in with the bulldozers, distributing families far away to new Council estates in what was then Cheshire seems heartless. Neighbours who had shared their lives, ups and downs for long years, generations of families growing up on the same streets were suddenly parted, miles away. Very few working class people owned cars then so they might never see some of their old friends again. Bus rides possible but the fares difficult to afford. As for the houses, they were cramped, damp and insect infested with only one cold tap for inside plumbing (toilet in the back yard), clearly sub-standard by 21st century standards. Yet my memories of living there are all happy ones. One of my fondest is of bath night on Saturdays when Dad would carry the tin bath in on his back from the yard and Mum would boil water in the “copper” for our once a week family ablutions in front of the fire. Youngest, I was always first followed by my brother and Mum and Dad got their turns after we were in bed.

Mum has told me she and Dad thought they had been sent to Paradise when they first occupied the three-bed semi she still lives in. Situated next to a farm, a field of cabbage or potatoes right next door and the farmhouse and out-buildings a short walk away, the new house offered many rural delights. We spent many hours walking the nearby lanes, watching out for wildlife and the seasons’ changes in hedgerows and trees. That our house was part of what was then the largest Council estate in Europe seemed of no matter at all. We looked one way onto thousands of similarly built brick homes and the other onto fields, brooks, oak and ash trees, glowing sunsets. As Manchester, along with many cities in the UK, began to ban coal burning and cleaned up its blackened buildings, we truly breathed fresh air.

Mum’s memories of this time and times before from her childhood, growing up and into her married life are often at the heart of our conversations these days. At ninety, Mum’s recollection of short term events becomes difficult but she easily re-enters the scenes and events from past times. Mum has written about some of these times in her poetry. Her fiction draws on her life experience but is, for the most part not autobiographical. Poetry and art and music have been Mum’s lifelong interests. I’m currently assisting her to put together a collection of her writing, poems and short stories, planning to publish them this summer. You can read some of Mum’s poems on her webpage at You will also find some of her paintings there.

Spending more (and much closer) time with Mum this past year has inevitably led me to write poems for her.


( for Mum )

Your small hands
porcelain pale, threaded with indigo veins,
like gossamer and glass-winged butterflies,
your delicate skin slides
under my fingers, I massage, stroke
every arthritic bump and curve.

One hand lifts, then the other,
like winged creatures
making figure-eights
through music-filled air, piano, violin,
percussion; you shift sound.

You fold your hands in your lap
still and silent as nightfall.


For Lilian on her 90th Birthday
May 24th 2020

1930 was quite the year!
Mickey Mouse entered history
And way up in the atmosphere
Pluto was first seen, distantly.

Closer, across the clear blue sky
An airship floated off to Canada
And Amy Johnson waved goodbye,
Flew her plane, alone, to Australia.

Back down on Earth
A Gorton family awaited
A very special birth
And, a remarkable life was fated.

Lilian Morris, born in Manchester
A tiny babe, wrapped in oil and cotton wool.
From that Saturday on, all who met her
Would witness a life, brimful.

A sickly childhood, a school far away,
She formed a strong and determined will.
Inside her grew a love for art and poetry.
It blossoms in her still.

Music, too, has always filled her life.
Her sweet soprano in a workers’ canteen
Struck Gordon’s ear, he knew he’d met his wife.
68 years together, nothing could come between.

Now here we stand in 2020.
We raise a glass to this singular woman!
May your days unfold contentedly


Oh To Be in England….

Painswick Park

I arrived in England in early May, a little later than Browning’s thoughts at the start of his poem but certainly well in time for blossoms and birdsong. In fact, one of the things that I’ve been most enchanted by, staying at my mother’s house close to seemingly unstoppable airport expansion but on the edge of a blessedly still wild field, has been the constant trilling of birds. They go at it all day. I’m fairly useless at recognising the birds who entertain me so, but Mum tells me the loudest and most persistent is the blackbird. I think I’m able to distinguish a thrush too and some days we have visits from a collared dove with its gentle deep-throated coo.

Yesterday, Mum and I went for a walk through our neighbourhood and after stopping by the pond to watch the various water fowl waddle, peck at bread thrown by eager children and sail by, Mum told me about the time before the park was created. She described a large field, untended and bordered by tall nettles, dandelions and buttercups. She said that though it wasn’t at all picturesque, it nevertheless offered a place to sit on a spread blanket with a flask of tea and a few biscuits and perhaps imagine being in a more salubrious setting. A break away from the daily round.

These days, the park is a generous stretch of green, lush with mature bushes surrounding the pond which is home to mallards, Canada geese, moorhens, coots and sometimes, swans. Families play games and feed the birds there everyday. The grass areas are perfect for games of “footie”, there is an actual football pitch over on one side and the playground has been entirely re-modelled with equipment that satisfies 21st century mores around child safety.

I don’t remember at all the pre-park days and when I read its history I learned:

The site was originally farming land until the late 1950s. Its function then changed to a landfill site which in time was grassed over to form a mound. In 1962 the site was handed over to the council and an artificial lake constructed to serve as a holding pool for surplus flood water from the nearby Baguley Brook during severe rain storms. Painswick Park was officially opened 1968. The lake is stocked with a variety of fish and used by local anglers.

Its opening in 1968 was great timing for me as a mid-teen in the late sixties, in need of a place I could retreat on Sunday mornings, away from the curious gaze and questioning of parents, to sit on a bench and gather myself together from the hangovers I suffered after my Saturday nights out with friends, dancing my hopeful hippy heart out at school dances, illegally entered pubs and discos in Manchester. I have no idea if the pond was home to so many birds then as my eyes were mostly closed, catching up on lost sleep.
Sharing Painswick Park with Mum, when we are are both at such different stages of life, is an entirely new experience for both of us. I don’t think we ever went there together as it came into being when I was past my playground days. We have so much more in common now. Both women past menopause, we have our bodily changes, aches and pains to deal with. We have, each of us, spent many years of our lives with partners who are no longer in our lives. Mum has lots to remember and sustain her from her 68 years of marriage to Dad before he died. I look more to the future as I move on from a divorce after 30 years of wedded not-always bliss. We are learning, once again, the fun we can have together whether it be listening to the music of my childhood or Mum’s era or walking round the pond being entertained by all those birds.

Home Thoughts from Abroad

Robert Browning (1812–89)

OH, to be in England now that April ’s there
And whoever wakes in England sees, some morning, unaware,
That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf
Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf,
While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough 5
In England—now!

And after April, when May follows
And the white-throat builds, and all the swallows!
Hark, where my blossom’d pear-tree in the hedge
Leans to the field and scatters on the clover 10
Blossoms and dewdrops—at the bent spray’s edge—
That ’s the wise thrush: he sings each song twice over
Lest you should think he never could re-capture
The first fine careless rapture!
And, though the fields look rough with hoary dew, 15
All will be gay when noontide wakes anew
The buttercups, the little children’s dower,
Far brighter than this gaudy melon-flower!


Now and then

Today, I push you to the park.
Wheelchair resists the slope,
I lean in, listen over your shoulder,

Look, reflections…

sky                       drifts
between island clouds,
sun finds open water.
Your hand escapes your blanket,
reaches toward Canada geese
pulling their goslings in their wake
to water’s edge and bread tossed
by wide-eyed children.
Coots and moorhens want their share,
flap about on stick legs,

Oh! Dancing ducks!

Yet mallards stand apart

We sit by tranquil water
and you recall days before
the building of these lawns
spread with the spring snow of daisies,
before run-off was channelled into a pond,
water iris planted, (now waving yellow flags).

I liked to walk out, just sit here in the field…

ragged grass, tall nettles, thistles and hawthorn.
You escaped kitchen, kids, wifedom.
This place-apart for you
to lay a blanket, lean back,
stretch out your legs,
pour tea from a flask, raise a cup
to blackbirds and sparrows flitting
tree    to     tree.

What to do with the love poems?

“Pleasure’s a sin, and sometimes
sin’s a pleasure”

—Lord Byron

I’ve just finished reading Edna O’Brien’s short but gripping biography of Lord George Gordon Byron: Byron, A Short and Daring Life. I was thoroughly entertained and rather in awe at the accounts of the man’s lifestyle, his exuberance, certainly his daring in both love and war. I think I was perhaps a bit taken aback though, despite knowing of his reputation as an homme fatale. Byron, to use a contemporary colloquialism, definitely “put it about a bit”. By the age of 36, when he succumbed to an illness (and no doubt the doctors’ treatment of bleeding him which likely weakened him and even introduced further infection) Byron had had dozens of lovers both men and women (some little more than boys and girls). His greatest love may well have been his half-sister, Augusta who bore his child. He was also the object of almost hysterical infatuation from women in London’s high society. He lived through the Regency era when life for the aristocracy in London was far from reserved and pious but full of gaudiness and frippery. There was an awful lot of jumping into the sack, women taking as much advantage of the societal approval (or at least disregard) which seemed to prevail.

Reading all of this led me to think of my lovers. Compared to Byron, I’ve had very few – in his terms I should be embarrassed to admit how just how few! And contemplating the lovers brought up the issue of the love poems. What to do with them when the love has died and been well buried? Byron’s, of course, live on in all their beauty and passion.

[To Caroline Lamb]

Yet fain would I resist the spell
That would my captive heart retain,
For tell me dearest, is this well?
Ah Caro! Do I need the chain?

Mine, for the most part, lurk undetected in the depths of my computer in various Word documents and unseen by anyone past their first flush of mad creation, shared between the “he” and me. (for me, there have been only male attractors). And there, undoubtedly, they will stay. Not strong or universal enough to put out into the world, they are small pieces of my personal history tinged pink with my regret and embarrassment.

Not to say I haven’t written any worthwhile love poems. When a poem emerges, its intention well expressed through structure and imagery, it gains a life of its own and I can fasten its coat and pull on its hat and send it off to find its fortune. Sometimes, these adventurers find new admirers and future homes in journals, books or on poetry websites.

Here are a few.

For my longest and truest (but not forever) Love:

Dream Winter

Sunday mornings,
quilt pulled up to my chin,
I listen to trees lamenting
the memory of sun

and you serve me tea and muffins,
the butter drips, you lick it off my chin
and climb back under the covers
to break our bodies’ fast.
We are not interrupted by children.

Afternoons we walk for hours in the rain
ignoring the storm – as we stumble,
fake the need to catch each other
then fall again into a bed of moss
where rain becomes a distant phenomenon.
Like aging and aching backs.

Winter evenings we share silence.
Each of us living another world inside books,
only occasionally smiling
or letting our woollen socked toes meet
by careful accident.

There is me. And you.
And then I wake.

( Unpublished, 1989)


Huge-headed flower fills my vision
as I sit here with you
in this garden by the sea.
He loves me, he loves me not
would take forever. The dahlia’s petals
curl like tongues, too many.

Instead, I give you the bloom,
take it and know it grew
with light and care,
coaxed from a wizened corm
that held inside the beginnings
of this busy, articulate yellow.

( Unpublished, 1997)

The Artist’s Wife

Wake to an empty space beside you
sheets undisturbed after the nights he spends
with another love, unable to leave
the sensuous lines on a smooth canvas skin.

Languish in the sharp-edged smell of turpentine,
linseed oil or damar varnish.
It hangs in the air for days
through all attempts to let it out:
windows and doors thrown open, or to smother it
with the scents of coffee brewing, muffins baking,
armsful of roses carried into every room

It’s a life of lies
as he tricks you into believing
three dimensions project from every flat surface.
He entices you along forest paths
to the edge of cliffs
and up into the vaulted ceilings of cathedrals.
You believe him. Then its gone
with one sweep of his brush.

He brings these certain inconveniences
but your eyes grow accustomed to noticing the sky
washed with the subtlest violet hue,
the monotone of a rock face splintered
into yellows, blues and greens

and when he does lie beside you he talks
through the screen of night,
paints the fabric that is your life.

(Antigonish Review and Quintet, Themes and Variations, Ekstasis Editions: 1996 )

And more recently, for perhaps my most unfortunate fall into a love trap:

You Are Here

Walking my neighbourhood streets,
unaware I’m in need of direction,
the map addresses me boldly: YOU ARE HERE!
I consider the arrow that points
to a snake of paths.
Houses along the way marked
as little dark boxes.

And now, light and bright,
another small box
with the welcoming smile of a facilitator
and a hopeful semi-circle of chairs.
I sit beside you, follow the Powerpoint: prognosis, radiation therapy,
androgen therapy, prostatectomy…. glass walls
show me an unstained sky
while knowledge grows in me the way mistletoe
invades a tree, takes hold.
No, not here.
I have not a shred of interest
in being here.

I want my place beside you, my head on your chest,
my fingers tracing ribbons on your skin.
Your breath deep and slow, eyes closed.
When I lift my face, look up, sure enough
there’s a big golden arrow pointing to us.
You Are Here.

( Another Dysfunctional Cancer Poem Anthology, Mansfield Press: 2018)


Best when the snowflakes are big and slow,
when day has expanded
beneath the tension of a filling sky

until all movement, conversation, the rush of traffic
halts and the world accepts
that sky will shift solid grey
to shimmer, a buzz of frozen air,
then it’s time to open my mouth,
let snow fall in, seal my lips and swallow.

So little to let melt then slide, no more
than a tickle, unlike the small rock
that lodges when my throat closes
on words
that rise and swell
from my belly,
when I go inside the tomb
of a once-upon-a-time lover,
gone but ever present,
who is now nothing to me
but was all.

It snowed overnight and nothing yet
has spoiled its perfection. I remember
how I used to swallow snowflakes.

I lift up my face
wait for the sky to burst.

I ask my question again, “what to do with the BAD love poems? It seems fairly clear to me as I write this that I have answered my own question in this version of my question: bad poems. So, print all, rip and deposit down the toilet? Or go for a little more drama with a small bonfire (perhaps the photos can be thrown on top too). It’s possible there might be an on-line depositary for unwanted, no longer “felt” and yes, bad poems but then they’d have to go anonymously.

Byron, I’m sure, gave no thought to discarding any of his poems and neither have any of his subsequent editors as the tomes on my desk now attend. (The Complete Poetical Works, Volumes I – V, 500 pages each). To be fair, Byron is often referred to as “one of the greatest British poets” and “one of the leading figures of the Romantic Movement in early 19th century England”. I’m not quite up there. I’ll therefore happily strike a match and put it to the papers that no longer speak from or for my heart – maybe I’ll throw in a little dance around the fire just for the hell of it.