John Manson (1932-2020)

John Manson at Saltire Society, 2012

Some people lead such quietly unassuming and self-contained lives that there can sometimes be quite a delay between their death and the knowledge of their death filtering out into the wider world. The poet, translator and independent researcher in the field of Scottish literature John Manson is a prime example of this. He’s brilliantly profiled in this short film by John Hudson. He died in August this year, but it was only yesterday that I found out about his passing, and then only by happenstance.

This, however, seems fitting – I met John only once and again this was by chance. In 2012 I was a writer-in-residence for a month at Brownsbank Cottage in Biggar, the last home of Christopher Murray Grieve (Hugh MacDiarmid) and his wife Valda. For anyone interested in MacDiarmid’s life and work one of the key scholars is John Manson, from his vital work in unearthing MacDiarmid’s WW2 poems to John’s huge academic magnum-opus Dear Grieve: Letters to Hugh MacDiarmid (Kennedy and Boyd, 2011).

One day I was in Edinburgh getting my messages in to take back to the cottage on the little bus to Biggar. At some point on Lothian Road, a face familiar from a photograph got onboard. I was pretty sure it was John Manson, and he was wearing the trademark black suit with tie. After a few minutes I moved to the seat behind him and introduced myself. Luckily it was John, and he was pleased to meet me – we’d corresponded when I was preparing to apply to do a PhD back in 2010 and one of the first expensive books I bought with my Carnegie scholarship money was a copy of Dear Grieve (now much thumbed).

I explained that I thought it was very apt that we’d meet on a bus heading for Biggar, after all so much of John’s intellectual energies had been focussed on a sympathetic rehabilitation and revelation of MacDiarmid’s vast body of work. John himself was just coming back from St Andrews where he had spent the afternoon with the poet Lillias Scott Forbes (then in a care-home and in her 90s – she died aged 94 in 2014). It struck me then as a magnanimous move – to spend all day in transit to pay someone a visit (he lived in Kirkpatrick-Durham), but John was extremely generous with his time and knowledge, not to mention patient with Scot-lit neophytes like myself.

My correspondence with John – always via letter, sometimes typed or word-processed, often handwritten – spans 2010 to 2017. The letters (40 or so) ended when I was in the preparatory stages of putting together a book on the poet Sydney Goodsir Smith. John helped me greatly in laying the foundations of that book and putting me in touch with people but unfortunately once I got involved in the writing and editing of it, I let John escape my mind and our letters petered out. He might, however, have forgiven me – John has a wonderfully arch poem about the self-absorption of the scholar:

There was a silent scholar near me

though many a time I saw him


and once he answered a question

I had addressed to someone else

and once he asked me,

‘Has anyone found The Monmouthshire Labour News?’

I assured him they had not

and he never spoke to me again.         (from ‘In the Library’)

Not only would his letters be bursting with valuable bits of information that he had worked hard to find himself and gave away so unstintingly, but they would also be prompt and punctual, sometimes even by return of post and enclosing all sorts of other things, such as translations or poems or articles John was working on at the time.

I feel bad that I met John after he had visited Lillias Scott Forbes in a home and for the last two years of his life I didn’t even send him a card asking after him. I had no idea he had moved to a care home himself in late 2018 and no idea until yesterday of his death. John’s great modesty prevented him from pushing his own poetry onto others and by today’s standards of over-production, his output was slender, whittled, pared down to the most necessary utterance. But my, could he craft an image when he wanted to. I’m thinking of his four line poem ‘Old Stab’ (a stab being a fence post) and the central image in it being as good as Georg Trakl’s opal which is said, on close inspection, to resemble ‘a village wreathed in withered vines’ (Will Stone’s translation):

The wood wears a grey skin

Lichen seals the ridges of fibres

The head is a ruin

Of concentric amphitheatres.

New poems by James Aitchison

A few months back, I shared a poem by James Aitchison on ‘Lyrical Aye Poems’. In my introduction to that poem I explained that the Stirling-based poet had suffered a stroke last year and was still convalescing. Since then James has sent me a dozen new poems from which I’ve selected a handful for this site, I very much hope you enjoy them and I wish James a full and timely recovery.



Sasquatch, Yeti, Loch Ness plesiosaur –
shy creatures hide from our monstrosity.



The first ball game was played with an enemy head.
The first red carpet was the blood of the enemy dead.



The Ratty Burn was an ancient drainage course
that flowed so slowly the water seemed motionless
as it crossed the Carse to the Carron and the Forth.

The Ratty was just beyond the boundary
to the back garden of our new rented house.

The council enclosed the Ratty with concrete pipes
and built more homes for families from the slums.

I didn’t know the rats were water voles
and their presence a proof of cleanliness.

A colony of black rabbits – cast off pets
gone feral? – nibbled the overshadowed grass
by the A91 just south of Bannockburn.

They were only rabbits but I learned to look out
for those black waymarks on our journeys home.

I haven’t seen a roadside rabbit, black
or brown this year or last in Stirlingshire.

Motorway journeys were more bearable
when kestrels hovered above the verges,
eyeing the long grass for the merest twitch:
a grounded nestling, field mouse, grasshopper.

How many years of miles before I saw
kestrels hovering in their absences?



In my new passport the photograph appears
younger, or less old, by twenty years.
He’s like no one I know or ever knew.
The photograph is fictional and true.

The palaeontologist who excavates
footprints on the shore of a lost sea
and classes them as humanoid, back-dates
a million years of our pre-history,
the age of chimpanzees, the Pliocene
age of the primate with a deviant gene.

Poetry’s congenital: I was prepossessed
and found my first poems on an autocue
in my mind. But now a palimpsest
is a truer metaphor, or less untrue.


A Small Child

A small child hears snakes hiss
in her parents’ whisperings

learns the first of guilt
in her parents’ undertones

is abandoned by her parents’ silences

fears snakes
when her mother switches off the light

is unborn in her parents’ absences

knows that the meanings in her parents’ speech
mean more than the meanings of spoken words

may be loved and yet feel desolate


A Paper-boy in Winter

When Mum wakes me at half-past six I moan
and groan. But I’m quite happy on my own.
I don’t feel lonely when I’m all alone.

Sometimes my round feels more like fun than work.
There’s lots of bright street lights in Oakhill Park;
even in winter it’s never really dark.

I saw a fox jump out of a litter bin.
And a strange blue-backed bird, a peregrine –
I looked it up. And a roe deer, twitchy-thin.

I used to tell my friends these things at school.
Friends? They called me a liar and a fool.
My Mum says ‘Just ignore their ridicule.’

I love the falling snowflakes’ spooky glow
around the street lights. And everywhere I go
I’m first to leave my footsteps in the snow.

Up and down garden paths from Oakhill Drive
to Millhouse lane, on snowy mornings I’ve
this feeling: I’m the only boy alive.

The Invasion of the Poetry Body-snatchers

One of the very first times I read a poem at a literary festival, the woman who was compering the event stood up at the lectern after I had read and asked what my mother thought about being cast in one of my poems as rather drunk and rather mad. The poem in question was ‘Spinning Plates’ with its opening line ‘My mother was mad as mercury…’. The idea of the event was that this person would quiz the poet about their poem and they would then get a chance to respond. So I stood up and said ‘My mother doesn’t read much poetry but I credit her with the intelligence of knowing that a character in a poem is not necessarily a real-life person’.

Perhaps my answer was a little too barbed and snitty, but it is one of those fundamental issues in poetry that gets my hackles up, rather like being asked the question ‘Are you still writing poetry?’ Both problems often come from people who are not poets or afflicted with the poetry bug themselves. And only recently a neighbour of mine, with the best will in the world, wrote a lovely and flattering email to me after having read my new pamphlet First Hare but they too said that they found it ‘uncomfortable reading’ considering that they knew my mother, me and my wife. They feared that I had spoken in too raw and candid a way about my life and my loved ones.

The thing is that poetry in bookshops, if it ever makes it that far, is it is often (bizarrely) classified as ‘non-fiction’. This too gets my hackles up because for me poetry is as fictional a form as novel writing – both take often real-life experience and transmute it via the imagination into something altogether other. I tried to explain it to my neighbour in a way that I hope wasn’t patronising, but I see it like this:

You can make a purely factual point in writing. For instance, you can write ‘The Battle of Hastings, 1066’. No historian will disagree with you (I hope, though Starkey might!). But where does this get us? You could write a book about the Battle of Hastings that is the most meticulously researched and factually sound of the lot of them but in the end it might end up a bit dull and worthy for its slavish adherence to facts. It would certainly be the case if you put it in the form of a poem. However, if you wrote about an ancestor who fought in that battle it suddenly becomes more interesting because it is closer to home. It doesn’t matter if this ancestor actually lived or not. But then again, if they did and you wrote a scrupulous and factual account of your family history, you’d probably discover that we are more boring than the family stories make out.

This is what I do in my poems – I use the real, material world in my poems and turn actuality and my experiences into something altogether more dramatic but imaginary. Poets like novelists are just yarn spinners. You can write something factually correct that is emotionally and aesthetically wrong but you can also write something that is an utter cock and bull story that is in fact emotionally resonant. It is about the feeling and atmosphere a poem conjures up, not whether or not it can be verified in a rational and scientific way. You sit down to write a poem with a vague sense of the narrative you want to convey and sometimes as you start to write you find your hand being hijacked by another force and a different poem unfolds. As such, the speaker of my poems is not necessarily me but someone (a la Norman MacCaig) speaking in my position.  My family are not necessarily the family that populate my poems, Though they might recognise aspects about themselves, they have been replaced by something else.

Two poems by Paul Waring

Today we have a couple of poems by Paul Waring who, in his own words ‘is a retired clinical psychologist from Wirral, UK who once designed menswear and sang in several Liverpool bands. His poems have been published in anthologies, print journals and online magazines, most recently in Prole, Atrium, Ink, Sweat and Tears, Dear Reader and London Grip. He came second in the 2019 Yaffle Prize and was commended in the 2019 Welshpool Poetry Competition. His debut pamphlet Quotidian is published by Yaffle Press.

I’ve read lots of secondary literature about Auden and his partner Chester Kallman over the years, a lot of it gossipy and prurient, but still endlessly fascinating. Paul’s poem is about an imaginary meeting with Auden and Kallman towards the very end of Auden’s life. What particularly struck me was the level of detail about the everyday tastes and foibles of the two men who were clearly amazing bon-vivants…


Lunch On Audenstrasse, 1971

At Kirchstetten station Auden greets, states in assured Oxonian
lunch is at one; face creased into ruts and grooves like a relief
map of the Balkans – but to Chester Kallman he’s 
cutesy poo.

They summer at this two-tone green farmhouse on Audenstrasse,
named in his honour. He smokes, heavily, but only half cigarettes,
as the last half is most dangerous.

Chester fetches Bloody Mary’s and lunch: cold cucumber and spicy
sorrel soup, ham and redcurrant jelly, fresh raspberries, local beer,
oil-thick espresso.

Our loft study talk of Isherwood, Spender and MacNiece; T.S. Eliot,
the influence of dead poets. The many collaborations: forthcoming
book of clerihews; Stravinsky and Mozart librettos.

On the blue and cream express to Vienna I picture Auden on long
summer days in his study; giants like Eliot, Yeats and Housman
looking over his shoulder – breaking bread with the dead.


When All This Is Over

When all this is over I’ll start afresh,
master the art of losing myself,
seek wide open space to stretch
out like a Thomson gazelle, take time
to study, see things in gap-stone stiles,
turn up in gardens unannounced,
observe and practice dance steps
of exotic insects, hear stamen tongues
wag in flowerbeds. I’ll stay up late,
tune into night orchestra; knit neurons
to needleclack beat of unclosed taps,
make ambient fridge belly rumbles,
banshee car and ambulance alarms
the soundtrack to my new life.

Four poems by Eileen Carney Hulme

As promised, today’s offerings come again courtesy of Eileen Carney Hulme. The previous set of poems by Eileen on this site were ‘prompt’ poems and they’ve elicited some of the most views of all entries and poems previously posted on this site. These poems come from Eileen’s upcoming pamphlet of love poems which is due from Indigo Dreams Publishing in 2021.


Come here

And I do
one step
I am leaves
to your branch.
It is summer
a storm
is holding itself
out at sea.
We are silent
this moment
has been long
in the making.
Let’s not move
let’s wait until
we taste rain
on our tongues.



Like island waves
you continue to return
rippling a sideways grin
holding out a hand
come dance with me

I gather pebbles, shells
pocketfuls of sunsets
and when I walk towards
or away
I leave a trail
so you will always know
where to find me

I call your name
out loud and the breeze
carries it to the shore
and like island waves
you continue to return

My heart waits
like sea glass tossed
as my former self.



The swifts came late
from their wintering grounds
keeping secret their routes
searching for dragonflies
building indoor nests.
You and I
blow as thistledown
wandering beachward
seeking the sea
where you tease
with your stone-skimming
skills and spin me
towards incoming tide.
I laugh and scream
repeating your name
you respond with silence,
lips finding the pale
shift of my throat.


In the slip of night

When worlds shift
and I cannot find
myself, I search for you.
In a house with no windows
I walk from room to room
opening doors into empty
I’ve brought no gifts
to tease you from your hiding
place. I call out your name
and the air does not stir.
And this pain, this small thing
I carry in my heart, travels
as the ghost of you.

Three prompt poems by Eileen Carney Hulme

Today we have something a little bit novel. The Scottish poet Eileen Carney Hulme has been much taken up recently with a poetry writing challenge. One day Eileen came across a post on the Twitter page of Cobh Readers and Writers Festival which was urging poets in lockdown to write a poem a day according to five randomly chosen ‘prompt’ words. Eileen now has over 90 ‘prompt’ poems as a result, so the three published here today represent but a tiny fraction of her recent output! I will follow up this post with another selection of Eileen’s poems, but ones written for a new pamphlet of love poems she’s working on (expected 2021 from Indigo Dreams Publishing). Her most recent collection is The Stone Messenger (Indigo Dreams Publishing, 2015).


Time stops
a younger skinny me
clumsy and self-conscious
in a post war mining village
posing with friends
and here I am again
skinny still
sitting on a doorstep
with my aunt
arms around each other.
I don’t remember those shoes
I’m wearing
how mum could afford them.
Two jobs to make ends meet
after dad died.
These memories, dusted
washed by rain
close the gap between
then and now,
ghosts from a box
comfort me
as the world splits
spills its pain.

Prompt words: 
Skinny, friends, war, box, clumsy


We place each cork
upon the windowsill
reminding us of celebrations,
a birthday, an anniversary
the festive season,
or the day our daughter
came safely through an operation,
distance a punishment
in times of crisis.
Eventually the windowsill becomes
crowded and we motion them along,
each one having absorbed our happiness,
life’s little miracles.

Prompt words:
Cork, punishment, operation, absorbed, motion


I wonder how my childhood
friends would classify me.
Only child, loner.
I am still that same person
who loved a spelling bee
hated maths
won an English prize
whose favourite toy
was a blackboard
to chalk up little stories
then rub them out
begin again tomorrow.
Currently I’m daily
trying to optimize 5 words.
I still write by hand
my crossings-out
part of my journey.

Prompt words:
Classify, chalk, toy, optimize, person

One poem by James Aitchison

Today’s poem is a rather poignant one, not in tone but in the circumstances surrouding it. James Aitchison is a poet who lives in Stirling. He was born in Stirlingshire in 1938 and has written a number of superb poetry collections over the years including a study of Edwin Muir’s poetry (The Golden Harvester) and the fascinating and ambitious New Guide to Poetry and Poetics (Rodopi, 2013) which explores the nature of poetic creativity. He’s a poet I discovered when I was starting to write poetry in earnest myself and he’s someone whose work I treasure very highly and return to regularly for guidance.

People who have encountered Aitchison’s poetry before probably know that one of his main themes is the mind itself, an epistemological focus on how it works (or not!), ranging from an awareness of our primeval pre-human consciousness to the very heights of artistic endeavour and how this is achieved. Today’s poem is a playful meditation on the mistakes we make as learners and looks at the eventual decline of the mind.

I began my intro here saying that this poem is a poignant one. This is because last year, shortly after this poem was written, Aitchison had a near-fatal stroke which resulted in some serious neurological and physical impairments. But he remains hopeful for recovery and is looking forward to writing poems and gardening once more. I wish him the very best and I am honoured that he has given me his consent to share this poem with you. His most recent collection is Learning How to Sing (Mica Press, 2018).


‘Have you crossed your teas and dotted your eyes?’
The headmaster was a gentle man.
I thought he’d spotted something on my face.
I was seven and barely literate.
I said, ‘Yes, sir,’ to agree with him.


I don’t notice my default spelling faults
until I’m keying in my longhand text.
Twowords are fused; a word’s las letter is los;
in ‘gentle’ and other ‘tl’ words
I often cross the ‘l’ and not the ‘t’;
the dot is usually adrift from the letter ‘i’.

Twigs and small branches of my brain’s dentrites
die back or break off. I’m seven years old again.

Three poems by Robert Selby

Today I have the great pleasure of showcasing a trio of excellent poems by Robert Selby, whose debut full collection The Coming-Down Time (Shoestring Press, 2020) is due to be released on the 25th of June. Having had a good look in advance at this book, I can assure you it’s a very finely crafted piece of work. These three poems are consecutive and complementary and are taken from the book’s opening sequence, written in memory of the poet’s late grandfather.

Robert is also the editor of Wild Courta terrific online literary magazine attached to the English Department of the King’s College London. He’s a very active, dynamic and supportive presence on the UK poetry scene and I wish him all the best with this new collection which I implore you all to order from this link.


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New pamphlet from Mariscat

I’m deleriously happy to announce that I have a new pamphlet collection of 26 poems due out very soon from Mariscat Press in Edinburgh. These are all poems written since my return to the UK and to my native Northumberland after four years away in Belgium.

It has been a great pleasure and privilege to work with Hamish Whyte and Diana Hendryon this collection. Robert Dalrymple has done an amazing design job on the pamphelt and I am honoured that the artist Brent Millar has allowed one of his artworks to be used for the cover image. Here it is:

First hare cover

For anyone who might be interested, here’s a flyer about the collection with details of Mariscat Press and how to go about ordering it, which I dearly hope you will:



Richie McCaffery, First Hare


The Duke’s selling off his farmland

to the developers,

and still there’s nowhere

we seem to be able to live.


We move so much I sometimes

think we’re stolen goods.

I helped you spot your first hare.

This fact seems important now.


from ‘Northumbrian’


A new gathering of McCaffery’s pellucid poems of love, life

and family – imbued with a Northumbrian flavour.


Richie McCaffery is a poet, critic and independent scholar of Scottish

literature. He has published two collections with Nine Arches Press

and two pamphlets, including Spinning Plates (HappenStance 2012).

He lives in Alnwick, Northumberland.


MARISCAT PRESS         ISBN 978 1 9160609 5 1               £6.00


Order by post (Mariscat Press, 10 Bell Place, Edinburgh EH3 5HT)

or by email:  (


Pay by cheque (made out to Mariscat Press and sent to the press at above address)

or BACS (Bank of Scotland / Sort code 80 15 59 / Account no. 00413102)


Three poems by Hayden Murphy for Bloomsday

Today is Bloomsday and as promised, we have another small selection of poems to mark this occasion written by Hayden Murphy. Two Bloomsday poemshave already appeared on this site, but these three are of an altogether more personal import. ‘Telemachus’ was written to commemorate Bloomsday 100 in 2004 and has appeared in an eighteen poem sequence relating to Joyce’s Ulysses entitled Modalities (Roncadora Press, 2005). ‘A Modest Proposal’ was for Bloomsday 2008 and ‘Second Sight’ for Bloomsday 2013.

Here Hayden himself explains the poems for Bloomsday project which he has been engaged in for over fifty years:

Since June 16th 1969, in Paris, I have attempted to mark Bloomsday with a “word offering”, in a limited edition (50), for distribution among friends. I have always tried to collaborate with a visual artist in these publications. I have been fortunate since 1992 to work with the Scottish artist and publisher Hugh Bryden. In 2014, to mark the 110 commemoration of the events related in James Joyce’s Ulysses, The Consulate of Ireland to Scotland, in Edinburgh, mounted a retrospective exhibition of our work together and a selection of correspondence with recipients down the years including the poets Brendan Kennelly, Edwin Morgan and Seamus Heaney and the dramatist Brian Friel ( Bloomsdays Abroad: June 16th-21st, ).


Hayden Murphy

Edinburgh: April 2020.





In a bright silent instant

Stephen saw his own image in cheapdusty

Mourning between their gay attires.

–  It’s  a wonderful tale, Haines said,

– Bringing them to a halt again.



Wave shaves wave in the tower shadow. Let

Day begin on this watercolouring trampoline.

Razor sharp summersaulting sentences


Let loose their words. They walk the tight

Rope held by their circus animals half

Tamed. Associate with strangers. Press on.


Recite again.    Stop, be  slow.       Recite

Again until the wordweave’s right. Now

Abandon silence. Sea salmon sirens leap.


Now we are tenderly safe to declare love.




For Frances


Say a few simple words

he could twist how he liked

not acting with precipit

precipitancy with equal candour

the greatest earthly happiness

answer to a gentlemans proposal



Take this hand

To tongue and tell

Its palm to salt

The moment for all


It’s worth. A moment

Of much that stills

The mouth until, word

Wise, abandoned silence


Tells of the taste

Of love’s song

Flavouring the air’s

Rhodendron breath.


Grace note be born.


The watchman going about

serene with his lamp….

Oh and the sea the sea crimson

sometimes like fire

and the glorious sunsets..where

I was a flower of the mountain yes





The kind of understanding that consists in seeing connections.

                                                                                                Ludwig Wittgenstein


Holding fast to the tender contradiction

Between sight and vision. A voyage on water.

Only a heart-beat lies in the eye-blink. The pause.

I hold fast to the words treasured in my tender lies.


Confuse me with brightness, please. Preferably by water.


Now let me leave the Joycewords for another day.

Now let sight associate with sound.


The eyes become curator rather than narrator.


The heart’s perspective, the peripheral slight of echo

In the memory. Nuance’s imperative. The distracting line.

The bird flight heard but unseen. A ship drydocked.

A dream stranded in these nights when eyes are closed.


Sailing towards Ithaca my Third Eye blinked.


The seal cavorting on the seaside of my eyes became

The night’s bat fornicating with the abandoned owl of day.


Holding fast now to the inside vision in this dream

Of this voyage in a returning ship narrated not curated

By my crew composed of my internal bestiary:

Owls, dragons, belfry bats and The Yellow Bittern’s ghost.


I travel only by water.


Now as this poem is ending I am blind

                                      To all but the weight of this poem non-ending.