A Poem Upon the Ceremonial Opening of Coggeshall’s Listening Bench —

As part of our Heritage Lottery Funded project, You Are Hear: sound and a sense of place, we are working with volunteers to install listening benches across Essex. These solar-powered park benches play clips of recordings from the Essex Sound and Video Archive, recordings chosen and put together by our volunteers. The listening bench for Coggeshall…

via A Poem Upon the Ceremonial Opening of Coggeshall’s Listening Bench —

Birkbeck Forum for Nineteenth-Century Studies: Adapting ‘Our Mutual Friend’ for TV and Radio

Dickens Our Mutual Friend Reading Project

2331770873_e4a0de025fFor the next event of the summer term we are very excited to host a panel on ‘Adapting “Our Mutual Friend” for TV and Radio’, featuring Sandy Welch (screenwriter of the 1998 BBC TV adaptation), Mike Walker (writer of the 2010 BBC R4 adaptation), and Jeremy Mortimer (producer of the 2010 BBC R4 adaptation). This event will take place on Thursday 4th June from 6.00-8.00pm in the Birkbeck Cinema, Birkbeck School of Arts.

You can find more more information and see our full summer term programme here.

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The coming of spring

These rainy breezes which come like

Squall-driven seabirds, bearing a scent of hyacinth.


The eye bending towards the cold mainland

The heave of hill, the grassy banks

Rain-soaked, softened to blur,

Making the landscape look younger

In the rain-filled lens of your eye.


You step quietly, gingerly, like

One bearing lilies, pomegranates

Underfoot, the apple tree

Bending to your music;

Like it’s a visible act,

Like you’re a bride who whispers

‘Ah, Paradise’, playing for time,

A button horse stitched to your bodice

Rearing up, mane like a crested wave.


All eyes obscure, obscure eyes.

Our lord a spectacled lord,

Peering and squinnying,

Spring in his hand, sunlight

Spilling through his fingers, violets

In his hair.

Flat out of my comfort zone.

All over the world people are posting short stories about a flat tyre.  This is the fault of Ron Carlson and his chapter called A Writing Lesson: Three Flat Tyres and the Outer Story, Chapter 2 in The Cambridge Companion to Creative Writing. Carlson encourages his readers to write a story based on a flat tyre.  Here’s mine – a thought and writing experiment.  Out of my comfort zone.

It wasn’t even our car.  And I certainly had no idea what sort of car it was – maroon red, old – dull.  Smelling of mould and smoke, the grey cloth seats sticky-damp And I didn’t even know what that sound was – thought we’d gone over a bump and then a deeper thrumming, an irregular, unbalanced feel to the motion of the car.  “Flat” he said, pulling over.  I wound down the window, smell of peat, sheep shit, seaweed.  He got out, the boot screeching reluctantly as he searched for the spare.  I followed, walked up the deserted road, to stretch my legs.

 “Really out of our comfort zone now,” I thought to myself, thinking of crispy-skinned  fish and frying pans and a warm red fire.  It was dead cold.  A bright moon with inky clouds racing across.  The dark grasses bent and bowed in shivering rhythm to the bitter wind.  He was blowing on his fingers, tucking them under his oxters, and then lying on the gritty road to attach the jack to the car and crank it up.   The road ran round what looked like the shoulder of the hill – down below, a black invisible sea loch; beyond, dark hulks of hills delineated by the brighter darkness of the sky.

“I didn’t know you knew how to do that,” I said.  “How’d you learn how to change a wheel?”

“Everyone knows,” he said, not really listening to me, as he rolled the spare round to the wheel hub.  He blew sharply down his nose.

“Fucking spare’s fucking crap.”

It wasn’t actually true, though, what Lee said – lots of people drive cars who don’t know how to change a wheel..  Angela probably could.  My stupid mum and her bloke probably couldn’t.  They’d ring someone up, they’d sit in the car and wait for someone to sort them out.  Poor useless, helpless rabbits.   Fuck them.

“It’ll have to do,” he said, throwing the wheel and the jack back inside the boot.  He looked up along the road. 

“You cold?” 


“Come here then,” and pulling me towards him.  Sticking his frozen hands inside my jumper, on my breasts, my nipples dead tight and stiff with cold.  He laughed, playing with them.  It was nice.  I clung on a bit.

“Better get on,” he said, moving off and getting back behind the wheel, turning the ignition.  I ran round to my side and got in.

“How far to O-ban?”

“Oban.  Another hour, maybe.  We’ll leave the car in a car park and wait for the first bus.”

“What will your gran say when we turn up at her’s?”

“Dunno. She’s deaf anyway.”

“I can’t go back, Lee – they’ll do me for nicking Angela’s phone and all her money and that.”

“Yeah – and this car. We’ll tell my gran we’re on holiday.”  

The car thrummed on through the night, occasionally lighting up the bright yellow eyes of sheep that emerged out of the darkness.  

“They’re like bleeding zombie eyes, aren’t they?” I said. “Like in the films.”


The heater was on full blast; there was only a rubbish radio in the car and I could only get some kind of late-night phone-in with stupid music. I gave up and just watched the road for a bit – nothing, nothing, a sheep, nothing, nothing, a rock, a sheep….  What would happen when Angela found out that I’d fucked off?  She’d be upset, I reckoned.  She’d want to find me and sit me in her office and talk to me about myself.  She wouldn’t like it that I didn’t want to do that anymore, wanted to go with Lee and have a life.  Lee said we could work in hotels for the summer, make some money and then go to Norway.  One of his friends was on an oil rig in Norway.  Lee reckoned he could get him a job.  Lee said I could probably get work there too, because I look older than I am, and no-one could find us.  Or Iceland.  There were hot springs in Iceland, you could bathe naked in them with snow all round you.  Or we could go to Ireland, I told Lee, to my dad’s family – except to be fair we couldn’t – I didn’t really know where they lived, or even their names, really.  And they didn’t know mine, I thought, imagining walking up to some door in a terrace of grey brick houses and saying to someone with a weird twangy voice, “I’m Carly.”  “Who?” they’d say.

The car thrummed along, a grey line like a frayed edge appearing ahead of us in the night sky.  We could just keep driving, for ever, maybe, I thought.  Never stop, just keep going, drive past all the people jumping into the road, trying to make us slow down:  ‘stay here, we’ll get the police onto you, you belong to us, go to school, get a job,  fuck yourselves up like your parents did.’ We’d drive past them all, drive to Norway, no, we wouldn’t even stop there – just drive through the night, just me and Lee, in our crap car with its crappy spare tyre and useless radio, for ever and ever.   





This seems to be about hyacinths.

This post becomes something about hyacinths.  It’s 23.52 – nearly midnight.  It’s dark cold, it’s dead winter. I conjured hyacinths out of memory, out of a  buried yearning for something to grow, perhaps, some stirring of growth down in the darkness there?

But first I wrote this:

Today, I read fragments of things  – a fragment of an article about ‘third camp’ socialists; a fragment of an article about Robert Klein; a fragment of my daughter’s excellent piece about digital mapping.   Too tired it seems right now. to read anything through.  Maybe give it a go tomorrow.  At least I finally sent off student’s reference tonight.  I wanted to finish off reading Judith Butler’s article about Can we live a good life inside a bad life – in which she explains her concept of grievable lives.  And how this immediately allows us to imagine the ungrievable lives and how that is so immediately a concept that we needed to have. So ‘props’ to JB (I’ve just learnt what ‘props’ means!).

I printed more of my lino cuts of rose hips.  Cousin thought they might be pomegranates – a category of scale error, and perhaps not noticing the thorns!  But – with another who loves the proper terms for things  – cousin’s husband notes the ‘calyxes’ and presumes they are not pomegranates, though not sure what else they might be.  We have a  short discussion about the plural of calyx – I go for calyses!

Brother brings pink hyacinths growing in a bowl. Just green fleshy cones – about an inch or so high.  It’s the fag end of the year – who said that? – I feel the earth’s sullen deadness; I’m waiting for the planet to shudder on its axis and tip again towards sun, light, growth.  Grateful therefore for the gift of hyacinths, their green growth nosing out of the earth;  marvellous, later, those intricate, curlicued petals, massy, pink, perfumed.

It has to be admitted, though, that the hyacinths are not blue, and so are not perfect.  My mum grew blue hyacinths for me – what love to do that, to remember that I loved the blue ones, and make sure I had them.  I don’t know now why I have a fixed preference for blue ones. I suspect – responding to hints and associations that may mean nothing – that there might have been something in a poem or a novel or even in Greek poetry – Seferis?  Some imagist or modernist perhaps – or just Eliot and his lilacs? – that I wanted to emulate as the forgiveably posturing teen I was.

I used to take bowls of the blue hyacinths my mother grew for me back to Aberdeen after New Year.  They filled my student room with scent, through the cold blast of January and February. They scent my memories of those winters – the rain and sleet, the wind, the dark dark dark.

I like dark blue hyacinths best – not the Cambridge blue ones, Oxford blue, despite my years of sojourn at Cambridge.  Feel somewhat dissatisfied with the blue hyacinths of today that never seem to attain those dark blue hyacinths that live only in my nostalgia.

I lost my sense of smell and cannot smell the hyacinths anymore.

I miss my mother,  winter deadness.

The dark dark dark of you.




Texts for nothing – Samuel Beckett

An orchestral conductor beats a silent bar or so to set the tempo for the orchestra – a ghost measure called the ‘measure for nothing’ – that explains Beckett’s choice of title for 13 brief tales he wrote sixty one years ago, my birth year, actually. At the time of writing the tales, Beckett described himself as struggling to ‘go on’, and wrote these ‘prose stutterings’ which expressed, he said, the “failure to implement the last words of The Unnameable [an earlier work]: I can’t go on. I’ll go on.

The conductor’s arm sweeps, preliminary, gearing up the orchestra – poised, all enter on time, the first breaking of the silence, all the stuttering rehearsals done now, here’s the real thing…

Sometimes the writing is like that – stutterings, a text for nothing.


Trout Eggs in Boro Nashimescro Tan

Trout Eggs in Boro Nashimescro Tan (the place with the big racecourse – Romani)

In River by Ted Hughes – a collection of poems about a year in the life of a river and the salmon’s cycle – he writes, in ‘Flesh of Light’, about salmon eggs:  “eyes of ova/round and swell”  – and riffs on the earth as female, her great fertility in ‘Salmon Eggs’: “Perpetual mass/Of the waters/Wells from the cleft. / This is the swollen vent/ Of the nameless/Teeming inside atoms – and inside the haze/ And inside the sun and inside the earth.”  Hughes, later condemned by a certain period of literary feminism for his patriarchal oppression of Sylvia Plath, pondering the monstrous creativity of the woman’s swollen vent.

It’s 1967.  Some schoolgirls aged sixteen are crowding round a bench in a science lab, as their biology teacher shows them a wide, glass container filled with water and trouts’ eggs.  Light spills through the open,high windows, lemony May sunlight that warms the wood of the benches, the air is full of birdsong and Spring. On the bench, the eggs float in the water, inert, pale, round, each with its dark, mysterious dot of life.  In the course of time, in studious quietness, the girls draw the round eggs with dots, the dot lengthening to a comma, and finally th emergent troutlets, their organs shockingly visible through a still transparent body, a large fish eye shining.  

With Hughes hanging over my shoulder, his tweed jacket scratchy, his Yorkshire vowels and uncomfortable values scratchier still, I fall to thinking about the cautiously slow and indirect way in which we girls – ourselves with new breasts, teeming with eggs, with bleeding fertile uteri, full of hormonal yearnings for boyfriends in our hothouse girls’ grammar school, growing up in the decade of The Pill and sexual ‘liberation’ which was, however, not yet for us  – were invited, without explicit reference to this being our ‘sexual education’, to contemplate sexual reproduction through first, the buttercup – cross section diagram, and then the trout (same), before moving onto the rabbit (same) and finally a hasty glance at human reproduction as pretty much the same kind of thing really – sufficiently covered by labelling yet another mimeographed cross-section of the male and female reproductive system for homework.  In glass cupboards, glass jars contain dead animals – a mouse, a puppy, a seahorse – and, if you knew where to look, a human foetus.  Young girls ripe for sex crowd round the bowl of trouts’ eggs, witnessed by a lonely and forlorn grey-coloured infanta and her court of dead grey mice, puppies and seahorses.

On my bed one day then, the western sun falling on the bed covers, a small booklet with a discreetly grey cover.  Wordlessly placed there, an action as wordless as the purpose of the study of buttercups and trout and rabbits, a medical booklet written by ‘A Nurse’ described what girls should know about sexual reproduction, without once mentioning what actually happened to the penis that could be ‘inserted’ into the vagina, so that for too long a time I puzzled – wordlessly – about how the floppy object I’d caught glimpses of could ever – without such extreme social and physical awkwardness that one would be mad to bother – be so ‘inserted’.  The nurse’s grey information I hid in the airing cupboard, from time to time re-reading it to see if I could have somehow missed the telling fact.

Larkin, in his rueful manner, remarks that before the Annus Mirabilis of 1963 when “sexual intercourse began”, that “Up to then there’d only been/…A shame that started at sixteen/And spread to everything.”  The facts of life. The fact of life being such awkwardness, such wordlessness – out of which silent female seclusion we eventually burst into the bright colours and loud music of “The Sixties” – such a shout as would chase that furtive, whispered world into the shadows and out of our lives forever – a window that didn’t just open but slammed open, it seemed at the time, throwing light in and letting us out.