Sunday 11 November 2012

The Yellow Jar

Once, a girl was walking across a corn field when she came upon a yellow jar.  At first she thought the jar was a skylark's nest, then when it caught the light she thought it must be gold.  Only when the sun had gone behind a cloud did she realise it was just a yellow jar, though it was very pretty and decorated with chrysanthemums and yellow birds.  She took it home to the little one-roomed hut where she lived and put it on the table.

Soon she came to love the yellow jar.  Every morning when she awoke she would look at it because it was so fresh and bright in the morning sun.  Likewise every evening she would take it down and turn it around in her hands to admire it in the firelight.  She had the feeling the jar liked living with her too: ever since she had brought it home it had glowed a contended buttery yellow.

One day a travelling salesman came to the door.  He was known in all the surrounding villages as a particularly vain and untrustworthy man, who wore a coat of red ribbons with which he dazzled the ladies, but the girl had led an isolated life and salesmen rarely bothered to visit her home because it was too small and shabby, so she had neither met him nor heard talk of him.

The salesman took one look at the girl's home and decided that the only thing worth having was the yellow jar on the table and he hatched a plan to steal it.  With many a whirl and a swoosh of his red-ribboned coat he dazzled the girl until her head spun and her legs shook and she fell in a heap on the floor. 

The girl slept till sunset, long after the salesman had left.  When she woke up she rubbed her eyes and looked to the table.  She rubbed her eyes again.  She scrambled to her feet and searched the room, but the jar had gone. 

The next few weeks were the worst of the girl's life.  She cried every morning and evening and sometimes in the afternoons too.  She asked everywhere: the neighbouring villages had all had a visit from the travelling salesman, but he was long gone by the time she reached them.  She searched further and further afield  until she came to a town far from her home.  She went into a shop and asked the shop keeper if he had seen the salesman.

'Yes, I have,' he said, 'only two minutes ago.  He took the road to the sea.'

She followed the shopkeeper's directions and soon saw the salesman in the road ahead, his red-ribboned coat billowing out behind him as he strode along.  She ran, caught hold of one of his ribbons and stopped him in his tracks.

'I want my yellow jar back,' she said.

'You can't have it,' said the salesman.  'I've sold it to the king's courtiers.  They've taken it to the castle and now I'm going to sail to a nice sunny country and never come back.'

The girl kicked the salesman in the shins and hurried off to the castle.

She crossed the moat and banged on the gates.

'Who's there?' said a voice from within.

'I'm the rightful owner of the yellow jar,' said the girl. 'I've come to claim it back.'

'Nonsense,' said the voice. 'Go away.'  

The girl sighed.  Her shoulders drooped.  She was just turning to retrace her steps along the path when from behind the gates she heard a cough, and then another cough, and then a sneeze.  There was a flutter of wings and the hiss of locks being drawn back and the creak of rusty hinges and she saw that the gates were opening before her and from between the gates flew a yellow bird.  It flew over her head and away across the fields.

The girl walked through the gate and found herself in a courtyard.  There, sitting on the ground was the gatekeeper.  He held his hands to his mouth and stared before him.

'Well I never,' he said, still spitting feathers.  'I must have swallowed a bird with my lunch.' 

The girl left him opening and closing his mouth to see if anything else would fly out.  Soon she came to a golden staircase that rose to a golden door.  Two guards stood at the foot of the stairs.

'Who are you?' they asked in unison.

'I'm the rightful owner of the yellow jar, ' said the girl.  'I've come to claim it back.'

'Nonsense,' said one of the guards.

'Go away,' said the other.

But no sooner had they said that than they began to cough.  They coughed and they coughed again, and then they sneezed, and out of their mouths fell flowers, chrysanthemums, bloom after bloom tumbled onto the floor.  The guards fell to their knees, their hands to their mouths, their eyes wide open. 

'Well I never,' said one, spitting petals. 

'I must have swallowed a flower bed with my lunch,' said the other.

The girl gave them both a pat on the back to make sure they were alright and then she climbed the stairs.  At the top she opened the golden door and found herself in the throne room.  There on a golden throne was the king with his queen on a slightly smaller throne beside him (though she'd put lots of cushions on the seat to make herself look as tall and important as her husband) and all around him on golden chairs sat the king's courtiers.  Everyone stared at the girl.  The king frowned.

'Who on earth are you?' he asked and he banged his sceptre on the floor for added gravitas. 

'I'm the rightful owner of the yellow jar,' said the girl.  'I've come to claim it back.'

'Nonsense,' said the king.  'Seize her and throw her in the dungeon.'

The courtiers jumped to their feet and ran towards the girl.  Even the queen shifted a little on her cushions.  Just as the closest courtier was about to touch the girl they were all struck with a fit of coughing.  They coughed, and they coughed, and the king coughed the loudest of all.  Then they sneezed and the room filled with the sound of wing beats and everywhere there were yellow birds, flapping and swooping, and the floor was a mass of chrysanthemums.  It was bedlam, no one knew what to do or who to blame, so between splutters they shouted at one another.  No one paid the girl any further attention and when she saw the yellow jar, rocking precariously on a plinth behind the king's throne, she knew her task would be easy.  She took a step forward and then another step.  She reached out and the jar jumped into her hands.  She left through the golden door, descended the golden staircase, ran through the gates, along the road to the town and from the town all the way back home.  It was evening when she got home, so she put the jar back on the table and went to bed.  

Now, you may be wondering what happened to the travelling salesman.  Well, the money the courtiers gave him for the jar disappeared faster than he expected and before long he was forced to return to the kingdom in search of work.  Soon he heard what had happened at the palace, how there had been some sort of rumpus because a girl magician had enchanted the court with a bird show and then stolen the king's precious yellow jar.  The salesman thought to himself, She's no magician, she's just a girl.  If I could get my hands on that jar again I could present it to the king and earn myself a reward.

So the salesman went to the girl's hut.  He saw her pegging out the washing in her garden.  He tip-toed up to the open door.  There on the table was the yellow jar.  He crept through the doorway, looking all the while to make sure the girl hadn't noticed.  He took a step over the threshold.  He took another step.  He reached out - and then he coughed, and he coughed a second time, and then he sneezed.  It was a very noisy sneeze and it brought the girl running in from the garden.

Flap, flap, flap. 

There was no sign of the salesman, but the ground was strewn with red ribbons and there were some particularly long and beautiful ribbons dangling from the beaks of the plump-bellied yellow birds that flew around the ceiling, out of the door and away across the fields. 

Thursday 8 November 2012

A Stranger

 Pamela Coleman Smith, X Pentacles.

like a stone or winter
a shadow in the garden
a footprint in gravel
a neighbour's hammering
hinge grind
like a phone call or a fox
a crash of letters
a smack, a sneeze
a finger
like sabotage or bindweed
a falling glass, a cat's claw
sherbert, like spit.

Wednesday 7 November 2012

What Was; What Is; What Shall Be

The Chariot (a train; a horse; a tale retold)

I see you beneath a blue dome.  There you were music.  You were song.  You were red velvet.  You were two thousand people focused on a single point.  You were story: a hero failing, forgetting; a god fated to bind himself to deadly oaths; a jealous wife; a faithful daughter wrongly punished; a pair of lovers.  You were gold.  You began, expanded, coiled, called and called again.

Ten of Swords (a sleep; a dream; a rest between battles)

You are trying to find the word for that exact twist to the branch of the beech tree beyond your window, stretching your spine to bend and knot, spreading your arms and fingers to follow it, feeling for contact between your body and the sky, bearing the weight of clouds.

Five of Pentacles (snow; strife; a door shutting)

You'll be driven out where there's no shelter.  It'll be your own doing and no one will miss you when you've gone.  You and your companion will leave with nothing and in the weeks to come you'll bicker about whose fault it was.  You'll steal one another's food and only speak a kind word when you've something to gain or when you need to huddle together for warmth.  All doors will close to you.  There'll be no second chances. 

Tuesday 6 November 2012


worn jeans bare trees my too stiff neck and shoulders which need which need light bare trees glass winter stem frost samuel on the bed fur like sand dunes shoulders belly moving ripples dunes closed window four hens in the garden this book identical to the last worn jeans knees pale november watered sun dunes open door to the bathroom picture on my wall straight not straight a child in the centre phill's clock my clock tarot cards in their box telling fortunes to the lid sandy's hen shaped ocarina bowl of marbles plastic ruler clock frog charm from diana volume of medieval latin verse free translations one remove two three so free they may to november my neck my neck which still needs work lemon balm four hens in the garden grass aches and melissa

Monday 5 November 2012


John Tenniel, illustration to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
I have an unusually long and flexible neck, like a rubber band.  If I jump, my head bows as my body lifts and by the time my head's caught up my body's on the descent again.  At school I was allowed to miss trampolining. 

I've had part of my bedroom wall excavated so that I can lie in bed and keep my feet beneath the duvet.  My head fits into the recess in the masonry and I sleep on a pillow made of cavity wall insulation.

I can't reach my head to wash my face or hair or to clean my teeth.  Mine is a lonely life. 

If I look at my feet I fall over. 

At weddings I'm often asked to lie on the ground so that the happy couple can jump over my neck for luck.  I don't mind too much and am always flattered to be asked.  If it's rained recently the bride's family usually provides a tarpaulin sheet for me to lie on.  I've only once been kicked. 

Sunday 4 November 2012


I've finally put up pictures that have been hanging around the house for years.  Now they're all finding new homes, crowding together on the wall beside the staircase.  Some I love and am glad to give room to, others I'm not so fond of but don't feel I can give away.  They're just stuff.  Some were painted or drawn by friends, others were presents or junk shop treasures.

Really (and you must promise not to tell anyone this) my aim in hanging them all together is to hide the ones I don't like in a sea of jewels.  It's much the same with publishing a blog post everyday: good, bad and cringe-worthy, they're all going up. 

Friday 2 November 2012

The River's Daughters

I don't see the Thames, either when the train's pulling into Charing Cross or when I'm going home again.  In the morning I'm too busy reading Edna O'Brien and in the evening I'm writing.

The clouds are orange in the orange-blue sky and greyish, late-autumn light.  It's half-term, the train is packed and all around are children's voices: 'Dad.  Dad.  Daddy!'  The glass sides of buildings reflect the sunset and I wonder how the sky manages to be blue and orange at once, in the whole spread of it.

There's a man standing behind me.  He's reading a newspaper, turning the pages above my head.  The proximity of it makes the back of my neck flinch.

I catch sight of the sunset between buildings.  There's a cloud: 'Sometime we see a cloud that's dragonish'.  I love that line.  I remember Malcolm playing Mark Anthony at a theatre in Battersea when I was young and trying to act.  I was cast as Octavius (we didn't have enough men) and wore a wig that kept expanding on one side, so that by the end of the play I looked as though I had a growth.  During his meeting with Pompey, Malcolm unwittingly exposed himself to the audience because his tunic was too short and his pants ill-fitting.  We wondered why everyone was laughing.   

I'm full of bonhomie this evening because I spent the day with Terri at the British Library and we walked back together through Bloomsbury, where I picked up a leaf from the pavement while we were talking.  'For my blog,' I told her and she offered me a clean page from her notebook to keep it in and it made me happy because only a true friend would give up a page of her notebook.

The roofs of houses corrugate against the skyline.  I write that and then pause, satisfied with the beauty of my line.  Then I can't write anything else because I've dazzled myself.  I've begun to panic too about how to end.  It's always the same, another reason why I don't write prose.  How to end?  Tunnels, a crowded train, the setting sun.  The train says, 'List it.  List it.  Commit it to the page, to the screen.  Finish by pulling all the, no, almost all the threads together.  Say Goodbye, as we hurry to the Weald.  Say Goodbye as the sky darkens and the carriage becomes the day.  Say Goodbye as a child asks, 'Daddy, I don't want my drink, can you close it please?"

Thursday 11 October 2012

Agenda/St Leonards Mayfield Festival

This week Agenda magazine and St Leonards School, Mayfield are hosting their first International Poetry Festival, which I'm delighted to be taking part in.  It's already got off to a fine start, with yesterday's reading from Gillian Clarke.  Take a look at Agenda's website for further details.

Tuesday 31 July 2012


Johnny Marsh, The Art Workers' Guild

The launch of Ovid's Echo, at the Art Workers' Guild, was great fun.  I caught up with lots of old friends, made a couple of new ones and read from my papery bairn, while Rebecca and Jo kindly took photographs:

I don't have any pictures of Janet El-Rayess reading from Summer Visitors, but Jo and Rebecca took some of me with Barbara Hardy, poet, novelist, academic, memoirist and poetry god-mother:

and Matt McKenzie, the power and brains behind the Paekakariki machine:

At some point in the evening, Johnny nipped outside to draw the Guild from Queen Square.  You can see his miniature at the top of the page.

Summer Visitors, Ovid's Echo and other Paekakariki editions are available either direct from the Press or from Waterstones. 

Monday 30 July 2012

Poetry Wales

One for the forebears: my poem 'Fading House' appears in the current issue of Poetry Wales.  It's another excellent magazine and I'm overjoyed to be in it.

Friday 6 July 2012


In the evening of 18th July, Janet El-Rayess and I will be launching our pamphlets at the Art Workers' Guild, Bloomsbury, WC1N 3AT.  Please join us if you can.

Tuesday 26 June 2012

Ovid's Echo

Many months have passed again.  I've been busy, writing and fretting about writing, and I've made a website, which has liberated me from having to keep my blog up to date.  As I've mentioned before I'm no journalist: writing quickly and turning words out in the space of one day is something that reduces me to a hot-cheeked panic.  It takes months, sometimes years to make anything interesting of my work.  I'm just a slow developer: my childhood, teens and twenties were all painful, scary years, mostly spent wandering down the wrong paths or simply sitting by the roadside wondering how anyone managed to walk at all.  It's only in the last ten years that I feel I've accomplished anything significant; so I guess it's not surprising that I write slowly too.

Anyway, I'm here today because I have something merry to report: the publication of my first pamphlet, Ovid's Echo.  It comes out next month and you can pre-order it through Waterstones.   It's published by the Paekakariki Press, with illustrations by Johnny Marsh.  The picture above is more or less the cover, except that in the final version the text is an elegant burgundy, but you get the idea. 

Monday 16 April 2012

The Rialto

For those of you who don't already know The Rialto, it's a brilliant and beautiful magazine, edited by Michael Mackmin.  I have a poem in the latest issue and am pleased as punch about it.

Thursday 15 March 2012

Day 15

I'm not doing very well at posting every day.  The truth is that whenever I think of spring, I'm drawn into the garden, where before I know it I'm clutching a fork or a pair of secateurs and am clipping or tidying or re-potting something, or else I'm just smiling idiotically at the emerging plants and birdsong.  It turns out that blogging's not one of my spring activites and I think this will have to be, therefore, an early-spring tree of a project.  I'll add more once I've given my thoughts time to grow.

For today, here are a few photographs of the odd-shaped patch of land that takes up so much of my attention.

This is how it looked at 7 o'clock this morning:

And here it is this afternoon:

The daffodils always  come out late here: we're almost at the bottom of a west-facing valley.  It's noticeably colder, even in summer you can feel the temperature drop as you come down the hill, but it's a magical, hidden place, loud with birds, much to the cats' delight.  Here they are with their new obsession, the blue tits' nest on the ash tree:

I caught Hellebore shimmying around the tree towards the nest earlier, clinging to the trunk.  So far, she's been unable to reach the bird box, which is firmly attached to the tree, but the poor parent birds were obviously worried and were flying around the tree in an attempt to distract her. 

And here are the hens, back in their run for the evening:

Wednesday 7 March 2012

Day 7

 Vanessa Bell's cover design for To the Lighthouse

 A day of writing, talking, listening and laughing with Sandy and Steph.  Early Downland daffodils bloom in Sandy's village.  The sun's warm.  We sit in the study, surrounded by books and bird bones; eating hot cross buns; being visited by cats; passing ideas, confessions, impressions, between one another; catching thoughts, nodding in agreement; adding link by link to the chain of conversation.  Again, I remember the importance of collaboration to my work, of friendship.  We warm one another, bring spring to our wintry solitude.

Monday 5 March 2012

Day 5

Driving to Tunbridge Wells to teach, I listen to Under Milk Wood.  It's a clear morning, windy but bright after yesterday's rain.  Captain Cat longs for Rosie Probert and Mr Pugh dreams up his 'venomous porridge' to serve to Mrs Pugh.  Wind blows the daffodils on the verges as I pass. 

I talk with my class about fairy tales: what makes a fairy tale, what fairy tales can teach us about writing.  We tell tales, helping one another when we forget what comes next, squealing as the huntsman chops the wolf in two, right down the middle.  We're children again.  We learn that no one's too old to tell a tale or to listen.

I drive home.  My old tape of Richard Burton and cast goes round again.  A spring tradition.  I sing with Polly Garter, 'Little Willy Wee was the man for me.'

Sunday 4 March 2012

Day 4

A day of rain.  I leave the house only to let the chickens out of their run and take my catnip seedlings from the propagator to the greenhouse.  Three seeds have germinated overnight.  They are tiny and I wonder if they'll survive the shock of March cold.  The base of the seed tray is warm from the propagator's heat.  I hurry out and then back inside to my book.

Friday 2 March 2012

Day 2

 Rebecca Hurst, Infinity Sian

A day of Yayoi Kusama and Jacques Offenbach.  I catch the train with Rebecca.  She sleeps, I read.  We get off at London Bridge and follow the Thames Path to Tate Modern.  Kusama is brilliant, tense, wriggly, delicously dotty.  

Later, we meet Phill and go together to the fabulous ENO production of Tales of Hoffmann.  Rebecca draws Kusama-me. 

Thursday 1 March 2012

Twenty-One Spring Days, Day 1

Last night, Rebecca and I ushered out the old month in fine style at the Snowdrop Inn, Lewes.  We drank Snowdrop ale (too much of it in my case) and danced to some foot-tapping folk music. I slept last night beside Rebecca's river.

Today I've lurched about, achieving little, feeling vile but happy.  I ate lunch in the garden, watched the hens sunbathe and thought about all the things I could write if my brain hadn't turned overnight to Downland chalk.

Tuesday 28 February 2012

Twenty-One Spring Days

 Waina, Morning Snowdrops, Evening Shadow


Two months have passed since I last posted anything.  The days are drawing out, my garden's full of birdsong and, as spring is my favourite season, I've decided to spend the first three weeks of March writing about it.  I'll begin on Thursday, after tomorrow's leap.