Poetry, and some great design. A perfect match.

I’ve been absent from my blog for a bit, due to working on exciting Other Stuff. I’m actually missing it a bit, which is either lovely or a sign that I need to get out more. Or both!

Sleeping Keys

Two things: Firstly, it’s National Poetry Day today, apparently. And, as luck would have it, I’ve just bought my first new poetry book in ages, after hearing the author Jean Sprackland on Womens’ Hour. (Yes, I do listen whenever I get the chance. I love it! AND the Archers. Although after that I do usually switch to 6music just to remind myself that I’m not actually my parents. Yet. And incidentally, whilst we’re on the subject of radio, I now find it impossible to do housework without listening – and singing along to – Absolute Radio 90s. Britpop and a bit of light house music turns out to be a perfect soundtrack to washing the kitchen floor and dusting. Don’t tell Blur that though.)

ANYWAY. Sleeping Keys is a really beautiful collection, and I can totally recommend it to anyone who likes easily accessible and elegantly crafted poetry. (Oh, and check out Jean Sprakland’s website. It’s also beautiful.) There’s also a great review of the poems here, which explains far better than I can why this is such a good collection.

Sometimes particular lines of poetry catch me because of their familiarity. In the poem ‘In’ she writes:

“First week in the new house and there’s a muddle over keys.

She’s back from somewhere with her daughter in her arms,

Three months old, electric with hunger. ”

I especially love ‘electric with hunger.’ The screaming of a hungry baby does have that about it. And I have done that very thing, and been stood in a doorway, sheltering from the rain, with a weeping toddler clinging on to my knee, and a screaming baby, realising that I am locked out. That is truly a feeling of utter despair, and possibly best viewed from a distance.

The other thing is that I while ago I mentioned that I’d had my blog header redesigned, and that I love it. The masterpiece is by a brilliant young lady called Beth Burr, who I ‘met’ totally by chance when I tweeted about needing someone to design some charity t’s. I was so impressed by her work, that I asked her to make me a new blog header too, while she was at it. She is clearly going to be a massive graphic-design superstar, and you should all check out her work here, immediately.

And the charity t’s? Well they are going to be in production very soon. But they’re so fab I can’t resist showing off a sneak-peek. They’re going to raise money for the charity which supports people with the rare condition that Polly was born with, PKU. They are so lovely I almost can’t get over them!

BethBurrPKU BethBurrPKU2

The patterns in the second one are based on protein structures. PKU necessitates a low-protein diet. I didn’t ask Beth to do that (I hadn’t even thought of it!) – she just did it. Such a simple idea, but it somehow makes these all the more special.

Poetry Monday: One Another’s Light

I found this poem by Brian Patten whilst I was looking for another one – but I really like this. About, I think, how occasionally you will meet someone who will change your life a little. Perhaps because of getting to know them you go off in a different direction, or maybe they change the way you see things. Either way, it’s not often that you meet people like that – they’re pretty special and certainly worth celebrating for this (rainy, dull) Poetry Monday.

One Another’s Light
I do not know what brought me here
Away from where I’ve hardly ever been and now
Am never likely to go again.

Faces are lost, and places passed
At which I could have stopped,
And stopping, been glad enough.

Some faces left a mark,
And I on them might have wrought
Some kind of charm or spell
To make their futures work,

But it’s hard to guess
How one person on another
Works an influence.
We pass, and lit briefly by one another’s light
Hope the way we go is right.

Brian Patten.

Brains in your head, feet in your shoes!

This post is a more upbeat one on the theme of children who are off to school for the first time. (Apologies to anyone still traumatised by that Abba song.) What a fab poem by Dr Seuss. Made for days like tomorrow.

“Your mountain is waiting.
So…get on your way!”

Congratulations to all my friends with kids off into the big world of school.

Love from Alice xx (Oh, and Dr Seuss.)

Today is your day.
You’re off to Great Places!
You’re off and away!

You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes
You can steer yourself
any direction you choose.
You’re on your own.  And you know what you know.
And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.

You’ll look up and down streets.  Look ’em over with care.
About some you will say, “I don’t choose to go there.”
With your head full of brains and your shoes full of feet,
you’re too smart to go down any not-so-good street.

And you may not find any
you’ll want to go down.
In that case, of course,
you’ll head straight out of town.

It’s opener there
in the wide open air.

Out there things can happen
and frequently do
to people as brainy
and footsy as you.

And when things start to happen,
don’t worry.  Don’t stew.
Just go right along.
You’ll start happening too.


You’ll be on your way up!
You’ll be seeing great sights!
You’ll join the high fliers
who soar to high heights.

You won’t lag behind, because you’ll have the speed.
You’ll pass the whole gang and you’ll soon take the lead.
Wherever you fly, you’ll be the best of the best.
Wherever you go, you will top all the rest.

Except when you don’t
Because, sometimes, you won’t.

I’m sorry to say so
but, sadly, it’s true
and Hang-ups
can happen to you.

You can get all hung up
in a prickle-ly perch.
And your gang will fly on.
You’ll be left in a Lurch.

You’ll come down from the Lurch
with an unpleasant bump.
And the chances are, then,
that you’ll be in a Slump.

And when you’re in a Slump,
you’re not in for much fun.
Un-slumping yourself
is not easily done.

You will come to a place where the streets are not marked.
Some windows are lighted.  But mostly they’re darked.
A place you could sprain both your elbow and chin!
Do you dare to stay out?  Do you dare to go in?
How much can you lose? How much can you win?

And IF you go in, should you turn left or right…
or right-and-three-quarters? Or, maybe, not quite?
Or go around back and sneak in from behind?
Simple it’s not, I’m afraid you will find,
for a mind-maker-upper to make up his mind.

You can get so confused
that you’ll start in to race
down long wiggled roads at a break-necking pace
and grind on for miles across weirdish wild space,
headed, I fear, toward a most useless place.
The Waiting Place…

…for people just waiting.
Waiting for a train to go
or a bus to come, or a plane to go
or the mail to come, or the rain to go
or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow
or waiting around for a Yes or a No
or waiting for their hair to grow.
Everyone is just waiting.

Waiting for the fish to bite
or waiting for wind to fly a kite
or waiting around for Friday night
or waiting, perhaps, for their Uncle Jake
or a pot to boil, or a Better Break
or a string of pearls, or a pair of pants
or a wig with curls, or Another Chance.
Everyone is just waiting.

That’s not for you!

Somehow you’ll escape
all that waiting and staying.
You’ll find the bright places
where Boom Bands are playing.

With banner flip-flapping,
once more you’ll ride high!
Ready for anything under the sky.
Ready because you’re that kind of a guy!

Oh, the places you’ll go! There is fun to be done!
There are points to be scored.  there are games to be won.
And the magical things you can do with that ball
will make you the winning-est winner of all.
Fame!  You’ll be famous as famous can be,
with the whole wide world watching you win on TV.

Except when they don’t.
Because, sometimes, they won’t.

I’m afraid that some times
you’ll play lonely games too.
Games you can’t win
’cause you’ll play against you.

All Alone!
Whether you like it or not,
Alone will be something
you’ll be quite a lot.

And when you’re alone, there’s a very good chance
you’ll meet things that scare you right out of your pants.
There are some, down the road between hither and yon,
that can scare you so much you won’t want to go on.

But on you will go
though the weather be foul
On you will go
though your enemies prowl
On you will go
though the Hakken-Kraks howl
Onward up many
a frightening creek,
though your arms may get sore
and your sneakers may leak.

On and on you will hike
and I know you’ll hike far
and face up to your problems
whatever they are.

You’ll get mixed up, of course,
as you already know.
You’ll get mixed up
with many strange birds as you go.
So be sure when you step.
Step with care and great tact
and remember that Life’s
a Great Balancing Act.
Just never forget to be dexterous and deft.
And never mix up your right foot with your left.

And will you succeed?
Yes! You will, indeed!
(98 and 3/4 percent guaranteed.)


be your name Buxbaum or Bixby or Bray
or Mordecai Ali Van Allen O’Shea,
you’re off to Great Places!
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting.
So…get on your way!

Blackberry Picking

Poetry Monday has been on holiday recently. It’s back on a Saturday night, in special honour of the great poet Seamus Heaney who died this week. Poetry doesn’t really do celebrities, but if it did, Seamus Heaney would be an A-lister. Nobel przewinner, poet in residence at Harvard, certainly one of the most celebrated writers of recent times, and yet so much of his writing is grounded in the everyday, and the ordinary. This poem is written precisely for this time of year. It’s from his Death of a Naturalist collection, (published 1966)  which was one of the first books of poetry I ever read, I think, as we studied it for GCSE. It was definitely one of those poems that made me sit up and realise that particular power that poetry has – and the way that the right choice of words can convey so much.  The meaning that I take from it is the illustraition of one of the lessons you have to learn as you grow up – that there are some things in life, some moments, which you must simply enjoy. They’re not to keep, or preserve or to hold on to.

Heaney’s writing, his poetry and his words, on the other hand; that we can hold on to.

Blackberry Picking

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
for a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
sent us out with milk-cans, pea-tins, jam-pots
where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
we trekked and picked until the cans were full,
until the tinkling bottom had been covered
with green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
with thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
the fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
that all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.

Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney

Poetry Monday (yes, alright, it is a bit late,) The Machine.

This was supposed to be posted on Monday. Let’s just say that the events of Monday were not conducive to writing about poetry, and instead I had a large glass of wine. I did, however, make a rather successful cake! (This deserves a mention because my successful cake to really-not-very-nice-cake ratio is a bit skewed in favour of ‘dry-ish sponge that sticks to the bottom of tins’ in recent times. This was an unusual, and therefore precious moment.)



It’s a Hugh-Fearnley-Thingamy (really, I cannot be expected to remember ALL of your names, double-barrelled people!) recipe I tried after tasting a (probably much more accomplished) version made by my friend’s mum. I tracked her down, extracted details of where I could find the recipe, and attempted it myself – it really was that good! A great way of using raspberries – not that you need an excuse. The raspberries were from none other than Grumpy’s Garden™ (Rich’s dad. He suggested the name Grumpy, I should add. It wasn’t just us being rude. He’s a great gardener.) The almonds were courtesy of my mum, as I was gripped with a sudden desire to make this fairly late on Sunday night, and no almond-stocking shops were open! In this moment of crisis, I did what any responsible grown up would do: called my parents and told them I would be arriving IMMINENTLY to relieve them of their almond supply. My mother rose to the occasion in magnificent style.”Do you want the good news or the bad news?  I’ve got almonds. A whole pack. The bad news? They were best before August 2009.” I took the risk. And on hearing the joyous news that ye ancient almonds had proved a success, she commented ‘you can’t beat a touch of maturity,’ which I think is a good lesson for us all.

If you want the recipe, it’s here. (Raspberry Almond Streusel Cake.) If you want some of my cake, tough nuts. The only drawback to successful baking: it vanishes.

Anyway, on with the poetry! This Monday (ahem!) I’ve chosen a bicycle-themed poem. This is because, throughout August, and perhaps a bit beyond, I will be writing a series called A Summer of Cycling, about how over the summer holidays, we’re trying  we’re trying to use our bikes much more as everyday transport. Cycling with children is an adventure in itself, but it’s something I am increasingly passionate about. To get you in the mood, this is a great poem about cycling. And harpsichords.


Dearest, note how these two are alike:

This harpsichord pavane by Purcell

And the racer’s twelve-speed bike.


The machinery of grace is always simple.

This chrome trapezoid,one wheel connected

To another of concentric gears,

Which Ptolmy dreamt of and Schwinn perfected,

Is gone. The cyclist, not the cycle, steers.

And in the playing, Purcells’ chords are played away.


So this talk, or touch if I were there,

Should work its effortless gadgetry of love,

Like Dante’s heaven, and melt into the air.


If it doesn’t, of course, I’ve fallen. So much is chance,

So much agility, desire, and feverish care,

As bicyclists and harpsichordists prove


Who only by moving can balance,

Only by balancing move.

Michael Donaghy (1954-2004.)

Poetry Monday: Tides

Tides. By Hugo Williams.

The evening advances, then withdraws again.
Leaving our cups and books like islands on the floor.
We are drifting, you and I,
As far from one another as the young heroes
Of these two novels we have just laid down.
For that is happiness: to wander alone
Surrounded by the same moon, whose tides remind us of ourselves,
Our distances, and what we leave behind.
The lamp left on, the curtains letting in the light.
These things were promises. No doubt we will come back to

Poetry Monday: if nobody speaks of remarkable things

Sometimes poetry exists by itself, and sometimes you find it woven into other things. Songs- really good songs – are poems; as are hymns, sayings, prose. About ten years ago, I was sloping about in a bookshop in Norwich with a voucher burning a hole in my pocket, looking for something new to read. I was hungover and sad, and I remember I had just finished reading Catch 22, again, and I wanted something less…biting. I always judge books by their covers – and their titles – in bookshops. I make no apology for this. Over the years it has led to some poor purchases, but it has sometimes unearthed some otherwise hidden treasures.

jon mcgregor 2

That day, I picked up ‘if nobody speaks of remarkable things’ by jon macgregor. (no capitals.) I knew from the title that it would be great; the cover photo just confirmed it. I opened the book. The dedication reads: ‘To Alice.’

The book begins:

‘If you listen, you can hear it.

The city, it sings.

If you stand quietly, at the foot of a garden, in the middle

of a street, on the roof of a house.

It’s clearest at night, when the sound cuts more sharply

across the surface of things, when the song reaches out to

a place inside you.

It’s a wordless song, for the most, but it is a song all the same, and nobody hearing it could doubt what it sings.

And the song sings the loudest when you pick out each note.’

And that’s what Jon Mcgregor does in the book: he picks out all the notes of all the stories of people living in one street, in one city, and he lays them out like a score for an orchestra.

“This novel owes as much to poetry as it does to prose. Its opening, an invocation of the life of the city, is strongly reminiscent of Auden’s Night Mail in its hypnotic portrait of industrialised society…An assured debut.” Erica Wagner, The Times.

jon mcgregor

I have a copy (we own three copies in total) of this book up on the wall in our house, in a frame. Partly because it has a great cover, partly because I like to catch sight of it out of the corner of my eye every now and then. I always recommend it to people who come over and ask why I’ve put a book in a frame – and then am struck by that particular kind of jealousy you get over reading things for the first time. It’s the way I feel about my children and Harry Potter books. I am so excited about them reading HP for the first time, but jealous too. I re-read books I love over and over, and they are always good. But you can’t beat that first read of a great book. Obviously, I recommend anyone who hasn’t read it buys it immediately, maybe from here, or from a lovely independent bookshop if you’re lucky enough to live near one. Jon Mcgregor’s other books are great too, if you’re looking for a summer read that won’t pulp your brain then try his collection of short stories titled ‘This isn’t the sort of thing that should happen to someone like you.’

(I do love brain-pulping novels too, by the way, The Da Vinci Code is like cat-nip for me, and I collect the Louise Rennison series with titles such as Angus, thongs and full-frontal snogging’ and ‘Are these my basoomas I see before me’, etc, etc.)

I love that every now and then, a book comes along that changes the way you think; just slightly. I can’t sit outside on a long evening in the summer in town, when everyone is still outside and busy, wrapped up in their own stories and not think of the line ‘the city, it sings.’

Poetry Monday: the radio’s prayer.

This is one of my all-time favourite poems.


Some days, although we cannot pray, a prayer
utters itself. So, a woman will lift
her head from the sieve of her hands and stare
at the minims sung by a tree, a sudden gift.

Some nights, although we are faithless, the truth
enters our hearts, that small familiar pain;
then a man will stand stock-still, hearing his youth
in the distant Latin chanting of a train.

Pray for us now. Grade 1 piano scales
console the lodger looking out across
a Midlands town. Then dusk, and someone calls
a child’s name as though they named their loss.

Darkness outside. Inside, the radio’s prayer –
Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre.

Carol Ann Duffy

The Times Saturday Review, 1992

If you miss hearing the shipping forecast read in the dulcet tones of a radio four voice – have a listen to this.

This was the only time that the shipping forecast was read on both radio and tv as part of the Arena Radio Night in 1993.

The forecast is read by Laurie MacMillan.

Broadcast Saturday 18 December 1993 on Radio 4/BBC2

If I don’t Know

Poetry Monday! Thank you to everyone who told me how much they enjoyed last weeks’ poem. I’m enthused by your enthusiasm, so today I’m including two poems! (enthused AND a bit indecisive.)

These are both by the brilliant Wendy Cope, who manages to be funny and insightful and sarcastic all at the same time, dispelling the idea of poets as lofty, miserable people who take themselves far too seriously. She even said recently

I’ve found that the most important quality is authenticity of voice – that is to say I’m put off if the poet seems to be using a special voice for poetry, rather than just being her/himself.”

I like her poems for precisely that reason. She writes as herself, in her own voice. These are both from the collection called If I don’t Know.

If I don’t Know

If I don’t know how to be thankful enough

for the clusters of white blossom

on our mock orange, which has grown tall

and graceful, come into its own

like a new star just out of ballet school,

and if I don’t know what to do

about those spires of sky-blue delphinium,

then what about the way they look together?

And what about the roses, or just one of them –

that solid pinky-peachy bloom

that hollows towards its heart? Outrageous.

I could crush it to bits.

A photograph? A dance to summer?

I sit on the swing and cry.

The rose. The gardenful. The evening light.

It is nine o’clock and I can still see everything.


Fireworks Poems

(Comissioned by the Sailsibury Festival to be displayed in fireworks)


Faster and faster,

They vanish into darkness:

Our years together.


Write it in fire across the night:

Some men are more or less alright.


I wish I had been at that fireworks display.