The Fallen

He falls to earth at the drop of a hat,

crashing to the floor like a giant redwood,

no bracing himself for impact, no recoil,

just falling.

Plain and simple, no bells and whistles, no heavenly trumpet solo,

just no-frills falling.

He collapses silently with no witnesses

so he’s not even sure he fell at all.

There was a time, aeons ago, when he sliced through summer clouds,

like a Samurai sword,

wingtip to wingtip with razor-edged swifts,

now he wakes amongst drifts of dust and garden grit,

his head resting on pillows of grey fluff.

Teeth skitter like startled sheep on ice,

ricocheting off the skirting board;

his smile never quite the same again.

There was a time when he soared above shimmering pewter seas,

defending the oblivious innocents below;

the smell of engine oil and leather on his skin,

the infinite blue mirrored in his eye.

He can’t find anything to anchor him

in this darkest corner of the kitchen

and for a moment he forgets who he is and where he belongs.

He thinks he can hear the throaty song of Merlin engines

and the roar of the skylarks.

The floor is unyielding, harder than cumulus,

colder than a January hailstorm.

He notices, irritably, that a cupboard hinge is loose

and makes a mental note to fix it

when he’s vertical again.

He can’t remember how he came to be kissing the flagstones

and is worried he has left something in the oven.

He remembers the fierceness of flying

and the friends he lost along the way

and wonders how it could come to this,

just falling.

The Edge of Space and Greengage Jelly (Winner of The PHRAS National Poetry Competition)

Darkly curved the convent corridors in chocolate brown,

the squeak of plimsolls on lino,

the scent of incense from the chapel.

Jesus nailed above my head.

Filing crocodile fashion to the market town,

feeling a fool in white lace gloves and unholy guilt.

Everything neatly arranged in rows;

blazers, boaters, bicycles, girls.

Nuns sliding through shadows deeper than dark

and the carnal, bloody smells from the bacon factory

on Eau-De-Cologne Street,

mingled with the scent of menstruation.

Protected by the Holy Grotto

we swigged sweet cider and puffed on dog-ends,

lurking with intent behind Our Lady’s secret smile,

spirals of smoke drifting

from beneath her blue plaster skirts,

a miracle of sorts.

And at supper Dymphna McGuire said

she would gladly walk backwards and barefoot

to the end of the Universe

for a date with Ringo.

Which prompted me to explain my theory

on the edge of space

using greengage jelly.

Infinity is a bugger to unscramble

before double Geography,

on a Thursday.

If Wishes Were Horses (Shortlisted for the Bridport Poetry Prize)

Whatever you bloody well say

I will have a jackdaw for a pet,

blackest black right through to its heart.

I will circle its neck with a shining collar

barbed with sharpened spikes

and call it Odin or Beowulf.

With its evil white eye and ice-pick beak,

imaginary thumbs flexing imaginary braces,

it will perch on my shoulder

pleating creaky origami wings

under my chin.

How shall I capture this wild thing

and make it my own?

Shall I catch it stealthily

by dropping a net from a tree?

Shall I tempt it with exotic food and pretty words?

Shall I make it promises I cannot keep

or hypnotise it with my eyes?

And when he’s finally mine

and he stays out all night

with his flighty mates who lead him astray

with their raucous laughter, smutty jokes

and brazen infidelities,

shall I sulk then and throw dishes

at his smoky grey head

and wish he were just dull and faithful

with an anorak and a steady job?

The Year of Looking After Mum

In the half-light from the Anglepoise

she is a Limavady beach back in the fifties,

the pillow curving in sand-dune folds around her silver hair,

a beached and bleached mermaid - legs as useless.

This bedroom where you and he have slept and laughed and loved.

The wedding dresses twirled, the hair bedecked,

bridesmaids fluttering like cabbage whites over the brassica.

The mystery of the missing Doll’s House, solved.

The First Man on the Moon in shuddering black and white

on a grey plastic television, which creaked and pulsed with heat;

all six of us in your seven-acre bed.

The carpet, once fluffy vanilla clouds,

now matted and reeking like a damp Labrador.

The resident ghost appearing and disappearing here, in delusion and reality,

came to stay for good when the imaginary became your life.

Hallucinations so real you could reach through the shimmering portal

and pinch their warmly yielding flesh.

Your sightless eyes following apparitions in some other parallel bedroom

where all the abandoned boys in the world had ample chocolate

and the floor was flooded to your ankles, a rippling High Spring Tide

that wasn’t there.

Where nothing was real except my father.

Now it’s full of fading light and holding on.

Every dent and scratch on ancient walls have history.

Every mark, careless graffiti, left behind in war and peace.

What matters is the minute.

Nothing else.

She says he loved her in an instant,

although she was wearing a stained apron, a dirty tea towel in her hand.

I think I love you, he said.

Don’t be silly, she replied.

But he was right.

The next day he came back with two new tea towels - post-war gold dust.

He had a girlfriend called Misty - she went back to America.

Mum was sad for her.

Dennis Potter, Plum Blossom and Inspiration


I borrow and steal influences from everywhere, sifting and filing them in my head for later use: a newspaper photograph of a tornado tearing across Kansas, a painting by Remedios Varo, a haunting passage in a book, a magical poem, the sound of the wind in the eaves, a damning article on child brides, something my mother said, the unbidden idea that swallows could be evil - these random fragments feed my imagination and filter into my work; inspiration is found in the strangest places - you never know what will snap its fingers and make a connection. 

On the cusp of another typically English Spring, I was rummaging through teetering piles of dusty old papers, keen to clear some space for the imminent arrival of that very particular watery April sunshine, the kind that so cruelly illuminates the household neglect that Winter's bleaker months encourage.  As a small tower of postcards and letters, pamphlets and magazine clippings slid sideways towards the floor I spotted a wafer-thin, well-thumbed booklet which contained the last ever interview given by Dennis Potter to Melvyn Bragg - on March 15th 1994.

The memories of that interview are immensely strong even now, Potter wreathed in cobalt blue smoke from his awful, beloved cigarettes. And, forever, "the whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom" will be the words which light up the last days of Winter when the sap is rising and there is feverish hope in the air. In his last weeks he said he no longer just saw blossom - it was now the very best blossom he had ever seen.  I often take a moment and remember his last-minute greed for Earth's bounty and really pay attention to things I might otherwise merely glance at.   

I will always remember the sound of Dennis Potter's voice, with its soft green overtones from The Forest of Dean and dry rasp from decades of smoking: lyrical and lilting and somehow deeply reassuring.  There was aching darkness in his work, palpable pain, beauty and truth and great heart. Not, of course, to everyone's taste especially at the time, but, once seen, the sight of the adult children in "Blue Remembered Hills" is never to be forgotten.  

Thirty years ago I stood in front of Edvard Munch's painting of his dying sister, "The Sick Child", at the Tate Gallery...shedding tears like a fool.  He had carved his helpless despair into the canvas, gouging the paint with the hilt of his brush, and in those violent scarring marks we cannot help but feel a connection.  And then our eye is inevitably drawn to the angelic young face against the white pillow: she is already disappearing into the light.

That's what a painting should be - hard to forget.