(This post is incomplete – more photos to follow!)
I was delighted and honoured to be asked to read with Gaynor Kane as part of her launch of her 3rd collection of poetry, Eight Types of Love, from Hedgehog Press. The launch took place in Bangor’s Carnegie Library on a sunny afternoon last Saturday, 13th August. Also reading were Karen Mooney and Damian Donnelly. It was a gorgeous event, full of laughter and pleasure – and lots of cake! – as well as remarkable poetry.
I was particularly pleased that Gaynor invited me to read at her launch, because I feel as if I was midwife to these poems, in the sense that Gaynor asked me to mentor her (funded by ACNI) as she was completing the collection. I say ‘completing’, but in fact the poems were already there – but it was a brilliant for me to see the earlier versions of the manuscript and the journey of these poems to their final forms. It’s such a rich collection, based on the Ancient Greek taxonomy of different types of love. From Ludos to Agape, through Eros to Pragma and more, this collection is a cornucopia of delights.
Last Wednesday, 10 August 2022, Derry poet Mícheál McCann launched his gorgeous pamplet “Keeper” (edited by Ben Townley-Canning, fourteen poems press), at the Sunflower Bar in Belfast. It was a lovely evening. Ben came over from London to introduce, and myself and fellow poets Dawn Watson and Toby Buckley also read. It was great to have the opportunity to be part of this event, and many thanks to Micheal for his generosity in sharing the stage. Also thanks to a really supportive and delightful audience!
Keeper is a wonderful collection. Read it for its quotidian grace, the maturity and tenderness of its poems. Mícheál is a rising star. Keep an eye out for him.
My latest Country Diary on the much-loved colony of black guillemots in Bangor was a joy to write. Well, it’s true to say that all my Country Diaries are a joy to write, even when they mean getting up at some godawful hour – because the godawful hour always turns into a secret exhilaration. But, of the writing part of it, a lot of the pleasure is following what emerges from the gamut of experiences and research around the topic and working it into a piece of such brevity. It’s always a snapshot, and I’ve always reams of material left that I swear to myself I will write up a proper essay. As yet, that has not happened because I’m constantly working on other things. And there’s life in general. However, I live in hope that one day I will get back to this enchanting species.
Another wonderful thing about being a Country Diarist is that it’s a ticket to conversations and meetings with the most lovely and generous people. So, here we go for the acknowledgements: this piece was inspired by a talk by Daniel Johnston at the BTONI’s Wild Weekend. On that day, Stephen Hewitt of BTONI was, once again, crucial in putting me in touch with the right people. Both Stephen and Kevin Mawhinney of the BTO pointed me towards Katherine Booth-Jones, and ultimately Shane Wolsey. I know Shane of old, but we hadn’t met in a few years so it was great to catch up with him. It’s thanks to Shane that I got to see the nesting, or post-nesting, black guillemots at close quarters via his small “tender” (I love when I meet a new word – or a word whose meaning has another meaning in a different context). Aka, the inflatable from his boat, “Lazaway”. Shane, thanks a million for that brilliant morning, your time, your enthusiasm, your knowledge, and your kindness. I really appreciate everything. And sorry, I didn’t get to use your word ‘confiding’ about the guillemots after all! – maybe another time.
BTW, check out Shane’s blog – it’s a treat, and I particularly recommend the dolphins from June 16, 2022. Breathtaking!
Thanks too to Paul and Gillian who showed me their balcony decking with their built-in black guillemot nestboxes beneath. Sorry I didn’t have space to get to that either!
I can’t leave unacknowledged my debt to the work of the late, and sadly missed, Julian Greenwood, whom I had the pleasure of meeting a few times. It was Julian’s practical support of and dedication to the colony, and his research on it from the mid 1980s, that made a massive contribution to its success. This must be a factor in high regard, indeed the pride, with which the people of Bangor hold their “penguins”. I experienced this on several occasions when I went to watch the birds in prep for writing. I would particularly like to thank the early morning walkers and dog-walkers at the Long Hole, who saw me sitting with the guillemots, and gave us, or rather the guillemots, a wide berth and thus our privacy.
Over the years, there are many people who have been devoted to both caring for and researching the Bangor black guillemot colony. However, I would like acknowledge the late Barry Lightbody, and Ann Lightbody. I never knew Barry, but I did get to know Ann through my work as a Queen’s Open Learning tutor. In that role, I delivered some birding courses in Bangor, and Ann was the person who cued me into the Bangor Penguins in what were my relatively early days as a permanent resident of Belfast. So for both Ann and Barry, many thanks for the introduction and all the dedication.
As always, I am grateful to the The Guardian’s editor of the Country Diary, Paul Fleckney.
My latest contribution to The Guardian’s Country Diary celebrates the swifts of the Crescent Arts Centre; and, indeed, celebrates how the Crescent Arts Centre celebrates them itself, both in its care of the nesting colony, and through the Belfast Book Festival. Clearly that’s a lot of celebrating – not surprisingly with a species as exhilarating as this one.
Many thanks to Sophie Hayles CEO of the Crescent Arts Centre, and to Peter Cush of the Northern Ireland Swift Group for their inspiration and information. Also to Gail Jones, Communications Manager at the Crescent. And thanks, as always, to the Country Diary’s editor, Paul Fleckney.
Like one of the commentators below the article, I too grew up during the Troubles and was educated in a convent school. I have blogged elsewhere about the inimitable Miss Reihill, who taught me English for O’level, and thereby introduced me to Wilfred Owen in that treasure-chest of English Poetry, A Choice of Poetry.
However, like many adolescents, it was Owen who grabbed my attention. His work led to an obsession with both the Great War and the Second World War for some years. Perhaps those events felt like a safer way to grapple internally with the horrors of conflict than the low-grade war that I was actually living in the middle of.
Similarly to that commentator, I too knew Strange Meeting by heart; in fact, with very little prompting I still do. I recognise, as discussed by Rumen, that it is flawed; however its very flaws are part of its beauty. This article sent me off on a hunt to find my copy of ‘A choice of poets’, where I first encountered it. When I did, I chuckled at the scribbling that decorates most of the white space around it. While I was clearly an inveterate scribbler of notes, it’s not a surprise to me that this poem has been annotated intensely. I was clearly enthralled. I still am. It is such an important poem and at this time, with yet another tragic European war underway, it seems heartbreaking apt for the times. It’s also heartbreaking, as I noted above, (and I’ve no reason to doubt Miss Reihill’s word), that it was Owen’s last.
I was contacted recently by Summer Palace Press, who published my first poetry collection, Black Wolf on a White Plain. The launch of that book, way back in September 2001, was delayed by 9/11. I had exactly four copies left and had assumed that the book was entirely out of print. Not so. Kate, one of the press’s editors, told me there were a couple of boxes left of the original print run of 1000 books. Would I like to buy them (for an amount that included an extremely generous author’s discount) with the proceeds going to a charity for humanitarian aid for Ukraine? Of course I said yes.
It feels strange that this book has been bracketed by two wars, as it were. Its launch was marked by event that sparked the so-called war on terror; and a new war in Europe has prompted its final copies to come home to me.
Nevertheless I am very glad to have them. I wrote this book with so much hope and desperation, and out of the need for change in my life. I had no idea of all of the changes that would come. Many were good and have contributed to the extremely satisfying shape to my life today. I achieved what I wanted. My life is defined by writing, and far from losing touch with the biological sciences, my writing incorporates them, especially through The Country Diary. I use the experience of the (school) teacher that I was back in 2001 in every aspect of my facilitation and tutoring work. I have finally finished the novel I started way back in 2004. I also had the opportunity to do a Masters and redeem the 2ii that I was awarded for my first degree, a grade that scalded me for years (I got a Distinction in my Masters, so that kicked that well out of the water). That achievement led to my PhD, which had its necessary difficulties & hardships, but overall was sheer joy.
But. Getting hold of these remnant copies of Black Wolf also reminded me of some of the pain. How my poetry was thwarted for years by eldercare and financial issues involving the Office of Care and Protection. How a tremendous amount of time was stolen from me by circumstances outside of my control. How my love for my parents, and my labour and availability were exploited (I’d gone part-time, with the support of my partner, to devote more time to writing. That didn’t exactly work out, to put it mildly). It’s not an exaggeration to say that people I should have been able to trust nearly destroyed me. When my second poetry collection, Tribe, came out in 2008, it was almost a non-event in terms of progressing any nascent writing career. My father had just died and I fled to my Masters in Animal Behaviour. Retrospectively, I feel enormous gratitude that I had the means to do that, and ultimately it was the right decision. But it was also a decision prompted by my inability to write poetry any more. Events had driven out of me. Years would go by before I was able to come back to it.
In receiving these copies of Black Wolf, however, there is a tiny little feeling of redemption. God knows, it’s hubris in the extreme to compare with what I went through in the noughties to what the people of Ukraine are going through today; nevertheless, some emotional resonance feels true for me. How a life can be thrown off course by events that are entirely outside of one’s control. How you can be left bewildered, shocked, grief-stricken, utterly disbelieving at how structures suddenly collapse and the people responsible are blithely, callously, disregarding. Possibly even gleeful. Because you had a nerve expecting to be treated differently.
So I hope that the funds that Summer Palace Press are donating to the people of Ukraine make some small difference. Things will never be the same again – lives and dreams are smashed irreparably. But change will come. Lives will be rebuilt – differently shaped. The rest of us must be ready to help.
I’m a busy bunny at the minute, but the impending filing date for my April (!) Country Diary jolted me to the awareness that I haven’t yet linked to my February one. So here it is with a pretty poor photo of a local mallard pair pursued by two of those “surplus” males.
With all the excitement of Christmas and seeing folks over the hols, I entirely neglected to showcase my last Guardian Country Diary which came out on eve of New Year’s Eve. (I’m sleeping grand now, thanks).
And with the new year scarcely begun, I had a wonderful residency at the River Mill Writers Retreat in Co Down, where I met some old friends including the ravens that spill down from the Mournes, and a very alarmist buzzard. Thanks to the wonderful Paul Maddern for keeping this oasis of sustenance going. I don’t know how he does it but I’m very grateful, and to ACNI for the funding. After a long hiatus where I was largely focussed on other writing projects, I’m finally back writing poetry again. It feels good.
Finally, I’m back in the Marketplace Theatre and Centre in Armagh next week, delivering a six-week Creative Writing course beginning on 27th Jan. My first face-to-face work in almost 2 years! SO looking forward to it. I’m also giving a one-day “Spring Awakening” poetry workshop, 10am to 4pm on 19 Feb. Yes, yes, I know, I need to get this website updated properly, which is all part of my own spring awakening. There’s a grand stretch in the days already so I have time.
Today’s Country Diary in The Guardian. The whooper swans are among the many things that make Lough Beg special.
Many thanks to all the folks who helped me track down or provided detailed info about the breeding behaviour and movements of the local whoopers, including: Stephen Hewitt of the BTO; Terry Goldsmith, Seamus Burns & Gareth Bareham of the RSPB; Ciara Laverty of the Lough Neagh Partnership; and Graham McIlwaine of the Irish Brent Goose Research group.