Dad

On the wall of the box bedroom that I euphemistically call my ‘office’ when it’s really a dumping ground for old books, there’s a photo. I’m guessing it was taken c. 1988 by my mother. It simply shows the blazing Edwardian fireplace of our first home together as a new family, in Essex Gardens in Gateshead. In front of the fire my Dad lies on his stomach, clad head to toe in denim and cowboy boots on his feet. I must be about one going on two and I’m sitting on him as if he’s a boat or a horse, with me is our cat Jasper. He’s there for the heat, Dad too – he’s always had snake blood, but I’m there I think because must have known it was the right, safe place to be.

How does this picture make me feel about my father? Well, I certainly love the man even if as I’ve grown our affection has been much more verbal than physical, and even then it’s hardly an effusive expression of love. Stage four cancer on his part brought us closer together for sure, but we’re still so awkward around each other. On a core level we certainly love each other. In many ways I’m very similar to my father and totally different as well. But one thing I know we share is some sort of innate, deeply personal and individual ethical compass. I once wrote a poem haunted by a memory of my grandfather. He was a policeman, a job about which I have profound reservations, but he gave his whole life to it and to read his meticulous, cursive notebooks (all 100 of them) is to see a man who really cared about what he did. He was in the police all his life and only latterly, in the last few years of his working life was he made a detective and he hated it. He said all it involved was sitting around in pubs all day (doesn’t sound too bad to me). He was never really promoted because, although brilliant, he wasn’t a company man and he loathed the freemasons, which was kind of sine qua non. He told me once that I clearly had the gift that passed down the male line of the McCaffery family. Pressing him, he wouldn’t tell me what it was:

 

The Gift

Up to my knees in goose-shit,

I try to remember anything

you said to me years ago.

You were no miser of wisdom

but all I can remember are these words:

It’s something we do well.

 

I know you meant the men

in our family, but the details

of our gift have gone with you.

 

On days like these, I settle for knowing
I have it. Others, I count myself lucky
I don’t know what it is.

 

I think I know now – it’s following something in an utterly uncompromising manner and against the grain. It might sound selfish, but it really boils down to standing up for something you believe in, and with the McCafferys, the cause is always a beleaguered and unfashionable one.

Take me and my poetry – why would someone continue to professionally and financially handicap themselves in order to do something they love, even if society is against it, even if your contemporaries are hardly supportive – why don’t you do something that pays lots of money. The answer is simple: I haven’t the will-power and threshold for bullshit that you do, but I have an inexhaustible desire to do what I want to do, even if I don’t do it well. And the poetry world is based on demonstrable accomplishments, so if you’re like me – 33 years old and no prizes to show for it – then you must be in the wrong game, yes? No, hell no.

Dad began as a careerist. He fell into a really well paid job as a surveyor for the Opencast, then they promoted him to a site manager. The job, he recalls, was pretty laid-back and relaxed but then he got made redundant as coal mining was slowly dissolved in this country. He then trained as a lawyer – he spent three years and graduated top of his class. He came home from his graduation and told my mother that he’d never be a lawyer as long as he lived, it was an awful, morally bankrupt profession. So he went back to university, got a degree in urban planning and got involved in conserving old buildings. It’s something he’s utterly passionate about, but like his job at the Opencast, it’s something in direct opposition to the prevailing winds of taste. Nobody cares about really, truly conserving old buildings now unless they’re castles. Councils are so under-staffed and under-funded that greedy property developers know that they can rip out the old windows and features of a listed building, put in tawdry plastic shit and even if someone complains, it’ll never get taken to court. Not even a tree protection order works, because tree surgeons can be bought – all it takes is insisting the beautiful tree has some disease and must come down. The architectural fabric of this country is being ripped up just so the venal neo-Thatcherite greed-heads can get ahead and it sickens me, it really sickens him. Already in Amble, near where I live, the council have green lit a scheme to demolish a historically important building which currently serves a local function to build ‘eco townhouses’ which will sell to investors and rich people as holiday lets or holiday homes. This is the sort of shit they don’t prepare you for in school, how blood-thirstily avaricious people are that nothing seems to matter other than filthy lucre.

We’re like Ben Knox from Local Hero – the beachcomber who won’t sell his bay to the oil barons for all the tea in china, or grains in his hand. It might be a patrician position to adopt, but it’s one without money or glory and it takes its toll. It’s worth it though.

The RIP Race

I am starting to get to the age where my years are being bookended by the deaths of people from the poetry world, sometimes people I knew well, other times simply someone whose body of work resonated with and meant something to me. Last year, just after Christmas, my good friend the Anglo-Brugean poet Marcus Cumberlege died at 80, and just before him, Tom Leonard, a poet who, although I had prickly encounters with him, I never really knew personally but a poet with an oeuvre that meant more than diamonds and rubies to me.

This year (or rather at the end of the last) it was Alasdair Gray. Again, a man I’d only met a handful of times, but one whom I venerated as a writer and artist, and a generous soul who gave a feisty foreword to a book I’d edited (on Joan Ure) for nothing. His death was made more poignant for me by the fact that his sister is our neighbour, and we’ve often spoken about him and his work together. And now the news is coming through that Roddy Lumsden has died, at the rather poor innings of 53. Lumsden, like Leonard, had been hanging on from a shoogly nail for a while, so it wasn’t unexpected, but shocking nonetheless. I’ve no doubt he was a great aider and abettor of younger poets, but I never knew him. I saw him once, across a crowded pub in London – that’s it. Had I been a bit more outgoing and metropolitan, I might well have met him, or at least introduced myself. The extent of my contact with him is the few volumes of his I have on my shelves – I admired his almost Urquhartian logodaedaly – his playful dance in the company of exotic and abstruse words.

But what all this has brought out is this – when the news of the demise of someone culturally significant drops, why is there suddenly this frantic race to be the first to offer some sort of encomium? Alasdair Gray’s death generated a supra-tsunami of tweets and obituaries and tributes. You go on YouTube and like a rash, every video featuring the deceased is peppered with ‘RIP’ bromides. I remember as a child my father getting almost giddily excited when someone majorly famous died and being the first to announce it to us. I’m as guilty as anyone else – I mean, I wrote memorial blogs of a sort after the deaths of Marcus and Tom Leonard. But in most instances I managed to say to the face of the person / poet what their work meant to me (as if it ever mattered what I thought) while they still walked the earth. Even with George Ramsden, the antiquarian bookseller, on my last visit to his shop barely a month before he took his life, I told him that York for me was almost a bibliographic desert with the saving grace of his shop.

Death will, and always has, put a much higher value on the work of an artist, particularly a tragically premature death – the way signed copies of Seamus Heaney’s poetry collections skyrocketed in value when he died, because there won’t be any more (although the fraudsters on eBay might see to it that there are…).

But I’m also nagged by the vague memory of reading an account of a trip by Dylan Thomas to Edinburgh. At the time (I think the late 1930s, maybe early 40s), Hugh MacDiarmid was a desperately poor and increasingly marginalised figure in Scottish letters and Dylan Thomas gets up to address an audience and says something along the lines of: ‘this great man is suffering now, he needs your money and support now, don’t wait until he’s dead and pour money into erecting a statue to his memory…’. And when Thomas died young at the age of 39, MacDiarmid fulminated against all the elegists, opportunists and vultures profiting off their (often negligible) associations with the Welsh bard – they could say anything they wanted because he was ‘safely dead’ and now a prime target for being embraced into the canon and becoming a fetish of the tourism board. Again, I paraphrase from memory – I’ve not been able to find the source since, but am confident I haven’t imagined it.

But why do we wait? The day before Alasdair Gray’s death it was his birthday. How many wished him a happy birthday who also went on a day later to regurgitate tired truisms about his genius?

Barred by Barter Books!

I spend a lot of my time on this blog writing about my adventures in book shops, but my local bookshop is the behemoth that is ‘Barter Books’ in Alnwick, housed in a Victorian railway station and one of the town’s main tourist draws. Needless to say, I’ve had a bit of a strained relationship with the shop (I’ve been going in there for over two decades). My disillusionment with the shop began before the spike in tourism to the area, it began when I was told that I was bringing in books that required specialist attention and as such I was going to be rationed to one lot of books per month, instead of week as it applies to any other member of the public.

Maybe I should explain – Barter Books operates a bartering system whereby people bring in their old books and the shop appraises them and offers them shop credit in return. It’s a nice idea in theory, but in practice rather imperfect. But the purpose of my blog today is not to give the shop any more publicity, but to show you simply how draconian they are should you dare to voice your dissatisfaction. A couple of weeks ago I wrote this review, on Google reviews, and posted it under my own name because I don’t hide behind pseudonyms. I gave the shop a three star rating and followed it up with this review:

I live just around the corner from Barter Books and I’m forever having to fend off people saying that I’m so lucky to do so. Sure, I go in here regularly but that’s only because it’s close and the North East of England is so lacking in secondhand bookshops. I can’t believe that in a large University city like Newcastle there is really only the Amnesty Bookshop on Westgate Rd!

Anyway, I’ve been going to Barter Books for over two decades and I do use their barter system – bringing in my old books in exchange for credit. But it’s all rather like a Victorian miner getting tokens for the company store. The books in the shop are extremely expensive to account for this unusual system, but rarely are you given anything near half (or even quarter) the shop value in credit. The last lot of books I took in I got £60 credit for, and the ones they listed online (not all of them) came to over £400. This is not to say they’ll ever see that £400, but that’s still a hefty mark up considering no money is changing hands, only barter credit.

The other issue is that if you bring in books of genuine interest or value, they are often sent to a ‘valuer’ (who in effect looks them up online). This service takes longer and when the shop is busy (as it always is now) it causes frustration to the staff. As such, I am limited to bringing in one box of books a month, whereas any other member of the public can bring in a box of anything (from Readers Digest / Book Club Editions etc) once a week without any problem. As regards staff, some are utterly lovely, but considering the shop has 50+ employees, there are a few attitudinal ones as well.

Because the shop has a bartering system (and I accept this is one of its main ‘USPs’) it means that they have an enormous pool of people with barter books accounts full of credit just waiting for a book to come in to pounce on and spend it on. As such, anything really rare or unusual often comes straight in and out of the shop and anything popular has a short shelf life too. In effect, you end up with an immense bookshop with over quarter of a million books, a lot of which are hard to sell, outmoded and stick around for ages.

The shop is also what you’d call a classic case of a ‘victim of its own success’, it is rarely a relaxing experience now to go in there, as there is a constant flood of visitors at all hours, in all weathers. Also, their laissez-faire, live and let live attitude regarding dogs has meant that a lot of the time dogs outnumber humans in the shop (and Northumbrian weather is often a bit dreich and rain and wet dogs indoors are not always a winning combination).

A lot of the people reviewing Barter Books on here will see it as charmed tourists, who visit for the day then leave. People like myself who live locally often have a rather different experience. I still use the shop regularly, but it is mostly now as a means of recycling books I’ve read and no longer have shelf space for, in the hope that I’ll find something to spend my credit on, rather than a recreational activity in its own right (which it really should be).

Conceptually and aesthetically, it’s a grand place, but in practice it leaves a fair bit to be desired.

Two weeks later I got this letter in the post (apologies for the blurriness):

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If this is my reward for simply writing an honest, and not even particularly harsh review, it begs the question ‘Why even have a reviewing system, if you are going to penalise people for being critical?’

 

 

George Ramsden (1953-2019): Gentleman bookseller

In King’s Bookshop, in Callander, there’s some gilt writing on the shop window that boasts ‘It’s why you’re here!’. While this might not be the truth for some tourists passing by, it’s certainly the case for me that the only reason I want to go to Callander is to visit that bookshop. The same sentiment applies (or applied, rather) to George Ramsden‘s elegantly cluttered bookshop in Fossgate, York. On the extremely rare occasions I found myself in York, I was always heading for George’s ‘Stone Trough Books‘ – it was why I was there. The other bookshops in York are all rather predictable in terms of dull stock and bullish pricing, but George always seemed to come up with the goods, the better books with fascinating provenance and ex-libris plates, and his pricing was a very personal and emotional thing – not merely dictated by the internet.

The very lamentable fact is that George took his own life in April this year after enduring bipolar depression for a long time. I was never a friend of his (I only found out about his death, now in November, by accident), but on the handful of visits I’d made to his shop in recent years, he remembered me and with each visit, our conversations got longer, more revealing and meaningful. He reprimanded me in jest once for never having read anything by Anthony Powell, nor caring for anything written by Powell.

The most upsetting thought is that my last visit to the shop was just in March this year and he outwardly seemed much the same as before, same old tweedy jacket and threadbare (probably Jermyn St) double-cuff but uncufflinked shirt. I spent my usual hour or so in the shop but struggled (for once) to find much to buy until George recalled that he had a signed copy of a Sydney Goodsir Smith book in a cabinet downstairs. It turned out to be a spectacularly drunken, funny and effusive inscription, so I bought the book on the spot. George seemed a bit surprised at how pleased the book had made me, as if it had found its most sympathetic ’emptor’. When I left he made sure that he had my contact details noted correctly, because he was working on a new catalogue. This catalogue was finished two days before his death and has been published by London bookseller James Fergusson as a memento of Ramsden, who took inordinate time and care in making some beautiful book catalogues, such as one of AJA Symons, which is an essential addition to any Symons or Corvo collection. It was from George that I bought a copy of the first edition of Symons’ The Quest for Corvo, signed in beautiful cursive hand by the author. I was already an inveterate bibliophile before I read it, but it triggered my interest in collecting Corvo, as it must have done for legions of readers.

But the fact that at the time of my final visit he must have been struggling with immense burdens was not apparent to me. He seemed subdued and a little terse (a cliche, but ‘still waters running deep’ is the impression I got), but then he always had been (with me, at least). I’ve read a few obituaries for George and I’m struck by how many describe him as rather gruff or forbidding, and that his shop was some sort of ‘anti-bookshop’. I don’t recognise these depictions of him or his shop. The relationship between bookseller and customer is always a professional and financial one, but there are a small band of truly great booksellers who make you feel like an acquaintance, simply by remembering your name and your interests and engaging in some bookish talk with you. George was certainly in that latter camp. His death diminishes an already endangered world where secondhand or antiquarian booksellers care about something other than merely profit margins and still soldier on, trying to eke out a subsistence existence in order to be close to what they love. I think that’s it – that’s what distinguishes an average bookseller from a great one – the love of literature and the love of the book. George Ramsden was imbued with these very qualities, and I will very much miss him and his shop.  

He can be seen here (though, regrettably, largely unheard), in his natural habitat, in the first fifteen minutes of this interesting (if rather self-important!) short documentary called ‘An American Bookman in England‘.

 

Doing a Bernard Black

I don’t think I’ve ever made any secret of the fact that I love (esp. second-hand) bookshops and I know that, alongside proper pubs, they’re a curious institution that is under threat and needs our support these days.

But there does seem to have been a bit of a breakdown in relations between the owners and workers in these shops and the members of the public who patronise them. Maybe it began with Dylan Moran’s very funny Black Books sit-com, set in an elegantly faded London bookshop with a less than elegantly wasted and grumpy owner, Bernard Black. I doubt it, I think Moran merely bottled, or tapped into something that had always been there.

Second-hand booksellers are a beleaguered species – they’re up against the ruthless might and avarice of the online giants but they’re not trying to win our affections, at least not quickly. It’s taken me many years to get on first name terms with a lot of booksellers, and that’s after spending hundreds of pounds in their shops. There is now even a humorous sub-genre of journal-like books written by bookshop owners who have observed the endlessly baffling weirdness of the vagaries of their customers. First there was Jen Campbell’s series Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops and now we have two instalments of Shaun Bythell’s diaries as a bookseller and owner of ‘The Bookshop’ in Wigtown.

The sad fact is that I suspect that Bythell will be making more money through these two ‘bestseller’ books than he has done trying to peddle second-hand or antiquarian books for many years. Compared with Bythell’s ‘year in the life of a bookseller’ approach, Campbell’s admittedly funny series, is rather shown up as perhaps being a little contrived, or maybe embellished – the anecdotes are simply too polished and bizarre. Bythell’s by contrast are more believable and curmudgeonly, showing us that there’s ‘nowt a queer as folk’. But if he takes the piss, affectionately or otherwise, out of his customers, who does he expect will read his own books? Maybe you read them thinking to yourself, ‘well at least I’m not one of those’ but the truth is the Bernard Black attitude will do its best to make you one of the legion of annoying time wasters.

I’ve been to ‘The Bookshop’ in Wigtown about four times over the years, being where it is, it’s almost impossible to reach from Northumberland, about a round trip of eight to ten hours. I did once try to buy a book from the shop over the phone – a signed copy of Seamus Heaney’s translation of Sorley MacLean’s great poem ‘Hallaig’. It was listed at (I think £150), and the attitude was one of someone being massively put out. I was told they’d phone once the book was tracked down. No phone call ever came. I bought an unsigned copy a couple of years later for £15 from Last Century Books in Innerleithen.

I don’t think I’ve unwittingly given him any material for his books in my encounters with him, and I did buy a number of books each time, but I do recall him being prickly in general. Again, this is no personal criticism of Bythell – this seems to be the default defensively haughty mode of most booksellers. Perhaps they become inured against customers from years in the trade and having to put up with a lot of bollocks in general. Years ago, I was in Armchair Books in Edinburgh when I realised that a number of books in stock had belonged to the poet Sydney Goodsir Smith. At that time a lot of rather toffee-nosed Edinburgh students were employed in the shop. I went up to them to ask if they’d seen any other books in the shop with this signature of these initials in, to which they actually snorted with laughter. They were thrilled because I’d given them license to go into ‘Bernard Black’ mode. ‘It’s not our policy, har har har, to memorise the names in all of our books, har har har’. I did bite back and say it was their loss, because they should be aware of famous associations, because that’s where a lot of a value in a book lies.

The treatment of customers in bookshops is merely a symptom of a larger issue that I’ve noticed – in any public space that is set up for cultural or intellectual reasons, there’s this off-putting ‘de haut en bas’ attitude of those in charge. You’re more likely to be treated with a modicum of friendliness or politeness in a pub than you are in somewhere more highbrow, like a bookshop or an arts centre / hub. I’m a book collector with a literature PhD, and I’ve often been made to feel small or stupid or not worthy in these places, asking perfectly reasonable questions. I will say that via a war of attrition after many years of going back to the same shop, most booksellers open up as genuinely lovely and friendly people, others are resolutely disagreeable, even if you buy a £200 book off them. But please don’t try to be Bernard Black – it’s funny when Dylan Moran does it, tiresome when anyone else does.

Dogmatic dislike

I think it might just be the greatest heresy of our times to utter: I really don’t like dogs. I suppose I should qualify that quickly by saying that I probably dislike their selfish, entitled and careless owners more than their precious pooches. There’s a great tribal divide between people who like cats or dogs (and the narrow band who have both) and as the owner (or rather, property) of an elderly tom cat called Morris, you know fine well which side of the divide I occupy.

About a month ago, after a long hiatus, I took up running again. I used to do it pretty assiduously in my early to mid-twenties and then let myself slide into sedentariness. Not quite, I’ve always been a keen walker, but then I also used to go hill-walking as well, and life in a largely flat town is not quite testing my body as much as running can, so I’ve taken it back up. I hate running on roads because 1). there’s cars and bikes to contend with 2). the hard surface really isn’t good for your joints in the long run (no pun).

Ideally I want to run somewhere quite wild, with a varying surface and no people or dogs. Unfortunately in Northumberland, no such place exists. Plenty wild places with nicely textured ground, but with that comes droves of the dog brigade. Yes, I accept I’m a misanthrope, I just don’t like being where there are too many people. My latent somewhere-at-the-shallow-end-of-the-spectrum autism doesn’t deal well with having to continually judge whether or not I should say ‘Hi’ to a stranger I pass, because if they look down their nose at / snub me (as they often do) I burn with anger for the rest of my run.

But this is nothing compared to the army of dog owners that seem to be everywhere at any time. Having been brought up in Warkworth, I know there’s a really good mile-long stretch of track that runs behind the dunes at the beach, and if I run along it and then along the breakwater and then back again, it means I’ve been running continuously for 30 minutes. Let me stress here that I am not out to prove anything, running (or jogging) is a personal thing and has nothing to do with competitiveness for me. I like my sports without any element of sport in them, there are just too many show-offs in the world as it is. (As an aside, have you noticed in recent years how everyone seems to try to overtake everyone else in the street, or walking up stairs? Where did that come from, is walking now an Olympic sport – you can see some people clearly struggling to walk so fast, but they seem out to prove something?)

Anyway, if I go out along this track, it’s guaranteed I’ll encounter dogs. I’ll admit that most dogs seem better trained now than when I first started going out running. Back then it was an almost monthly occurrence that you got chased or attacked by a dog. Still, none of the dogs I see are on leads, and I just don’t trust them at all – no amount of protestations from the owner that ‘Fido wouldn’t hurt a fly’ will convince me. I passed a couple once who must have been professional dog walkers, because they had a pack of Dalmatians and Huskies – easily enough to pull a sled with Cruella de Vil on-board. One said to the other in audibly hushed tones ‘Watch out, there’s a slow runner coming’. That little judgemental pre-modifier was a nice touch, I thought. (Another aside, when did we all become such self-righteous health fascists as a nation? It’s not enough to exercise, you have to do it to a certain competitive standard, and with the right gear etc…?)

I hate stopping once I’ve started running – it’s hard to get the momentum back, but it’s also impossible to get past some dogs that all of a sudden decide to stop at a scent directly in front of you. Of course there’s the dog shit which is still a veritable pandemic – despite the doggy bags that you often see strewn in the fences and way-sides. Dare to mention to a dog walker that they are littering and you’ll get an angry response that they are picking the shit up on the way back. Weeks later, the same bag is still there… My mother is a guerrilla warrior against dog fouling – when an owner let’s their dog defile the path outside my mother’s house, she writes something choice in huge chalk letters on the path to make her feelings known.

Naturally there are responsible owners and bad owners but the main problem is there are simply far too many of both. As a nation we seem to have bypassed all common sense when it comes to dogs, a collective hysteria about canines. We seem to have used them as some sort of shorthand or semaphore for individuality and self-expression. I recall when pubs and restaurants and shops banned dogs, you’d see them tethered outside. Nowadays, they often seem more welcome than non-dog owning people in these establishments. Go to any pub in a popular area and dogs will outnumber people, with the staff simpering over them with treats (seldom washing their hands afterwards). Here’s an example – my mother and I recently went in a pub/restaurant in Alnwick and found there was only one table left, we sat down and almost immediately a dog appeared from underneath the table next door. It upset my mother, and while it was not badly behaved, it reeked to high heaven. There was no way we could have gone on to eat food, so we asked if we could change table to a place across the room that had just been vacated. The staff did not seem happy. Tough.

There’s the assumption that all people love dogs – that even non-dog-owners are moved into a frenzy of genuflection at their very presence. I hate being pressured into giving them any attention by their on-looking owners, often as they rub frothy slobber against my jeans.

My mother was mauled by a dog as a girl (I’ve been bitten twice, though not seriously – only once did one puncture my skin) and she has a pathological phobia of all dogs as a result. People think she’s overreacting when she’s sometimes reduced to a tearful wreck after a dog has playfully jumped up at her. Even if the dog means no harm, the owner should never let it get that far. I know this blog won’t win me any friends, but it’s about time we had a dissenting voice in this tsunami of adoration for dogs. Places like beaches are not the personal fiefdom of dog-walkers, nor are they toilets for their pets.

Quitting poetry

Of course, quitting poetry has nothing to do with stopping writing poetry, but everything to do with opting out of the hideous adversarial rat-race that poetry, as a marketable commodity, has become.

I don’t do social media – this, in fact, is my only tokenistic concession to the idea that poets need to have an online presence. (And recently I’ve toyed with deleting it in toto).

Recently I posted a blog about how I’d noticed that young people were echoing speech patterns that made them seem much older. Apparently this was reposted on Facebook by a friend and it provoked a bit of a negative response in the poetry ‘community’ – my first taste of being berated by the Facebook poetry ‘arbiters of taste’, some of whom were from my own publishing stable.

There-in lies the rub – see, the poetry world face-to-face is such a nice and supportive place, but it’s profoundly Janus-faced. Behind the scenes, people are getting verbally assassinated on a regular basis, and it’s mostly to do with who’s in and who’s out, who’s flavour of the month, and who’s inedible. The poetry world is a hail-fellow-well-met, fair-weather-friend realm. While you’re in, you could get away with publishing a shopping list and no-one would blink an eye, but when you’re out, nothing it seems will break through the barriers erected. And poets while they are in fashion are largely untouchable – they surround themselves with a clique of followers who will echo their opinions. The problem is, most of these followers are desperate aspirants hoping to end up in the same position. It’s an ugly symbiotic/parasitic quid pro quo thing.

That’s why I enjoyed Toby Martinez de las Rivas’s frank interview in the latest issue of The Dark Horse. As a garlanded, if (unnecessarily) controversial, Faber poet, it’s refreshing to hear him say that: An unfortunate truth about writing is that getting work published is often about being in the right place at the right time. So much of success in the poetry world now depends upon synchronicity – having the right face and back-story to fit. When I consider all of the poets I most admire, they were all people who largely shunned this limelight, though some had a chance at it.

I love reading and writing poetry, but I hate the nastily competitive, two-faced venture it’s become. We should be in thrall to the poem, not the poet and it’s such a shame we can’t see that. The poetry world really treats certain members who it thinks are of no or little use as lepers and that’s a far cry from Hamish Henderson’s idea that poetry and freedom ‘become the people’.

When I say ‘quitting poetry’ I mean eschewing the modern conception of what a poet is or should be. As far as I can see, the poet is merely the person who writes the poem, and they are only as good as the poem they are writing. It’s got nothing to do with awards or all of those silly distractions. Why lionise them beyond their latest poem?