Archive for the ‘Autobiographical’ Category

Is It Art? Who Cares!


Art was probably my weakest subject at school, but it never really bothered me. I’ve never been able to draw, and have rather envied those who can. Unfortunately, in secondary school I had art teachers who had no time for pupils who were no good at their subject. The worst offender was a Mr Tanguay, who took a particular dislike to me (the feeling was entirely mutual!) and used any and all occasions to pick on and humiliate me. It annoyed me, but I didn’t care, his subject meant nothing to me, and neither did he. I considered him a bad teacher who behaved in an unprofessional way. I was glad to be able to drop his subject when I could.

I came to appreciate art more and more the older I got. I admired the skill and expression of the artist, whether it was in painting, sculpture or whatever. I arrived at this entirely on my own; it had nothing to do with what I was “taught” by Mr Tanguay. My own “art” was writing which I started doing a teenager. I don’t know – and don’t really care – if I’m any good, I do it partly because I enjoy it.

I surprised myself then when I started dabbling in visual art. I had the idea for a collage about the various things we medicate ourselves with, and I also tried other collages cutting pictures from magazines and newspapers. This led to what I call splatter painting. Sometimes they work, sometimes not, but I would certainly never call myself an artist. As with the writing, I don’t know or care if it’s any good, I do it because I enjoy it. And also because it’s a belated middle finger to Mr Tanguay and his ilk.

So below are a few of my efforts to date.


No 1

No 2

No 3

No 4

No 5

No 6

The Execution of Piers Morgan


The Narrow Road to the Far North


When the doors of perception are cleansed
Man will see things as they truly are – infinite

(William Blake)

Voices piercing
by the sliding door –
Autumn wind.

(Matsuo Basho)

I heard and tasted the sea long before I saw it. Over the railway crossing with its brief whiff of oil, then the smell of seaweed hit me. I still couldn’t see the sea, the hammering waves were now a close boom. A short descent, a pile of lobster pots against the side of a hut, and there was the grey-blue heaving mass of the North Sea. Breakers crashed and smashed into rocks, hurling clouds of spray skywards. I tasted the sharp cocktail of salt, ozone and seaweed and drank deeply and gratefully of it. Along a narrow spit of rock ringed plovers pecked amongst the bladderwrack and kelp. I wondered how long it would be before the sea submerged it as it roared into the mouth of the Brora River.

The Beach at Brora


I looked past the estuary to the dunes beyond, and fading into the distance, the dark blue of the northward bound coast. A subtle change in colour marked Helmsdale and its river meeting the sea. I was heading that way tomorrow, and the anticipation was already welling inside me. I remembered previous visits, passing through on the train, where the railway takes a great swing inland to avoid the cliffs, climbing out of the strath up into the bleak heather and bracken of the Flow Country. And tomorrow I was heading that way again.

A day of slate grey clouds and heavy rain greeted me. The dark sea foamed and churned in the sharp wind. Sudden squalls rocked the car as I turned inland at Helmsdale. Though an “A” road, it was little better than a potholed lane, the tarmac wearing the look of something that has endured years of harsh weather and while not beaten was just about clinging on. Parallel to the railway but separated by the river, a train obligingly marked the route as it headed on its long southward trundle to Inverness.

As I passed from Strath Ullie into the Strath of Kildonan, the rain slashed down heavier than ever.

Kildonan –
Rain hammers car roof,
Logging lorries pass.

A897 near Kildonan

Baby trees when I first came were now mature. I wondered if the logs were from trees planted to give rich southerners a tax break in the 1980s. A tax break that dried out the bogs and seriously damaged a unique environment, the Flow Country. Profits for folks far distant from here. Out of sight, out of mind, ignorance was bliss as long as in that dawn their wallets were filled.

At Kinbrace road and rail were next to each other. Past Loch an Rhuthair, and a polished stone welcomed me to Mackay Country: Failte Dùthaich MhicAoidh. My Scottish grandmother (née Mackie) always said she was descended from the Mackays, so perhaps I was in some sense, home. What I’d seen from the train thirty years ago is fixed in my mind with little needed to bring it into the full colour spectacle of memory. A photograph, taken from the train window near Kildonan became an ikon of that journey, and has remained so.

On the train near Kildonan in 1988

I stopped at Forsinard station for a leg stretch. On a previous visit, I’d taken the train up here from Helmsdale. As I got off, the guard said “bet you wish you’d not got off eh?” Quite the reverse. As the train’s sound faded, a deep silence descended. There was little here: the station, road, a few houses and a hotel. And me. I the hotel, I was amused to see a Port Vale FC scarf slung over the bar (I then lived not far from their ground), and to be greeted with “yes duck, what can I get you?” from the landlady.

Forsinard station

Today, the place looked shut up. But there was now a nature reserve where the RSPB were trying to restore some of the damage caused by forestry. There was a footpath for ten miles across the empty bog to the roadless station at Altnabreac. Perhaps next time…

On into Halladale. I’d left the mountains behind now and entered moorland. The land was mostly tough grass with some bracken and heather, punctuated occasionally by small bits of cultivation. A tough life farming up here, I thought, recalling how the lands had been forcibly cleared in the nineteenth century to make way for sheep. To live in [here] is to be conscious/At dusk of the spilled blood/That went into the making of the wild sky/Dyeing the immaculate rivers (RS Thomas, Welsh Landscape).

After 40 miles of twisting narrow road, I reached the north coast at Melvich. I saw a sign for a beach, so followed it down the rough, unmade lane. A short walk through the dunes, my zipped cagoule immediately inflated by the wind, onto golden sands; wonderful and deserted.

Atlantic breakers
Over my sandy boots,
Let it rain!

I couldn’t have been happier standing there, even as the rain streamed of my coat and soaked my trousers.

A sudden squall
Curtaining the beach,
My soaking clothes.

I headed further west along the coast, glad to be on a decent road. A steep drop through rocky cliffs into Bettyhill – named after a countess of Sutherland, who deserved no such honour after her role in the local clearances. Sharp-peaked mountains rose in the distance, after miles of moors. The blue-grey remembered mountains I’d first seen twenty years ago. I recalled my disappointment that we turned south and away from them. Not today though. I drove past the road previously travelled by and continued west, with joy in my heart.

These were real mountains, rising sharply and sheerly with jagged peaks that would not have looked out of place in Middle Earth. Questing travellers, knights riding to rescue maidens, messengers with parchments sealed in heavy wax… The rain was finally easing and as I drove into Tongue, it had stopped and the looming mountain had resolved into the multi-peaked Ben Loyal. I stopped for fuel at an old fashioned filling station where I had to ring a bell for someone to come and put the petrol in for me. While I waited, I had my first encounter with the dreaded Scottish midges as a cloud appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, (how do they do that?!) and went into full attack. I dived back into the car and slammed the door, cursing the wind, which having been with me faithfully all day had now deserted me.

Near Tongue

Eventually, an old lady emerged and fuelled the car with some reluctance. She scowled as she took my money and was even more reluctant to give me my change. I’d wondered about getting some sandwiches, but she deserved no more of my money. Not quite the Basil Fawlty School of customer service – she hadn’t uttered a single word, nor even a grunt – but deserving of a dishonourable mention.

I’d stayed in Tongue Youth Hostel on a previous visit. One evening, I noticed the sunset and went outside. It was 1030pm, the western sky suffused with a deepening gold, which was perfectly reflected in the still waters of the Kyle of Tongue. The pungent tang of seaweed wafted up, a curlew trilled from the darkness below and a seal splashed its head above the water. Looking south, the water mirrored the mountains: the jagged peaks of Ben Loyal and the smoother Ben Hope, all the shades of rock and grass reflected there. I stood, transfixed by the quiet perfection of the scene. Well, near perfection: the lack of wind brought out the midges and they quickly made their presence felt. Such are the joys of the Far North…

As I drove over the causeway across the Kyle and headed further west, the clouds returned with squally showers.

Slow for a bend,
Road drops faster than my jaw –
Loch Eriboll.

Loch Eriboll

Loch Eriboll

Near Loch Eriboll

There it was, I’d seen it before, but I still gasped in wonder. A wide, nine mile long sea loch, that just appears, unexpected and amazing. Below a small island joined to the mainland by a thin spit of shingle, dotted with the ruins of an old lime works. The road fell and drew level with the water. As it reached the base of the loch and turned, there was a rainbow over the hill.

Loch Eriboll

Grey clouds crack,
A peep of sunlight stabs
My eyes – what joy!

And so to Durness, an Old Norse word meaning “wolf’s cape”. It was good to be back. The object of my first solo journey, reached after three hours on the post bus from Lairg, bumping and swerving along the 56 miles of single track road. The weather was filthy, and after leaving the Youth Hostel in the morning, I spent days walking round in waterproofs, sheltering where I could: behind walls, in the White Heather café, in the pub, until the Youth Hostel reopened at 5pm. But now, miraculously, the sun came out. I parked and followed the steps down the cliffs to the rocky beach and into Smoo cave. I was awed by it the first time, and it still impresses. The great arched space with a little brook – the Allt Smoo – flowing out of it. A wooden bridge leads to the flooded inner chamber into which the brook cataracts with a wonderful gushing roar from a sinkhole above. It was thundering in, throwing clouds of drenching spray back onto the bridge. I stood there for several minutes, watching, listening to this wonderful spectacle. There were a few others about, but was easily able to shut them out and the place became mine. I was it and it was me.

Smoo Cave

Smoo Cave

Smoo Cave

Smoo Cave

A short video of the waterfall:

The last stage of the journey took me south out of Durness. I passed the road to Cape Wrath (pronounced “rath”, nothing to do with anger, an Old Norse word for “turning point”) then the road followed the Kyle inland for several miles. The Kyle became the Dionard River which soon left the road and vanished into the heather and moss towards the rearing mountains of Beinn Spionnadh and Cranstackie. These swept up steeply to plateau like summits, sliced with frequent shining rills and cascades.

Kyle of Durness

South of Durness

South of Durness

South of Durness

South of Durness

After a few miles, I reached Rhiconich. The hotel was to be my base for the next few days, and my room gave views down Loch Inchard. Since my first visit, the road had been diverted onto a new wider road for the few miles down to Laxford Bridge. The old narrow road now led to a few cottages and was part of the hotel car park. After dinner, I walked a short way down it to the old stone bridge over the Rhiconich River. I looked along the narrow valley to the peak at Arkle, which reminded me of a volcano…

View from the hotel window, Rhiconich

old road bridge, Rhiconich

View of Arkle and Rhiconich River

I suddenly felt every one of the 500 miles to home. And the distance delighted me. Concerns, anxieties, all that gently fell away, and a calm sense of perspective moved in. My sense of wonder was fully engaged and would receive further stimulation over the next two days of exploring. I’d arrived. And it was wonderful.

From My Diary, June 5, 2017


An annoying day winds down, and I’m glad to see the back of it. It’s been raining and blowing hard all afternoon, and I’ve sat and listened quietly to it. No distractions, the block pleasantly quiet.

The driving drum of rain on PVC window frames is one of my favourite sounds, up there with sea crashing onto a rocky beach, a river’s rustle and the song of a skylark on a hot summer’s day. The open windows rattle and creak a little as the gusts bellow through the flat, a ship rolling in a heaving sea. The sounds surround me, wrap me gently in the warmest, softest arms and breasts. Annoyances hurled into the wind and carried away.

Time for bed, though it’s still light. A book open, music adds an extra background sound – the dreamy Sigur Rós () album seems to work well. It will soon be time to close the curtain and kill the lamp. But not just yet. Savour the peace a little longer.

Raining Again


It’s raining again, and raining hard,
Late August, and for once the building’s quiet.
I sit beside the open window,
Listen to rain pattering plastic windowsills
And imagine I’m back at Grandma’s house,
In a comfy chair by the picture window
Looking out at the wet green garden.

In winter, the fruit trees bare,
Rattling bones on each other,
Spring, wind blown blossoms
Snow confetti round the greenhouse,
Summer, the borders awash with colours
Brighter than a child’s painting,
Autumn, the leaf litter swirling,
Crunching underfoot.

All the effort they put in
Mowing, planting, pruning, weeding
(How did they ever have time to go to work?)
Worth every ache and pain
To create this small city Eden.

So I drink deeply of the rain soaked air and
Remember, remember that house, that garden
Of long childhood summers
That were never quite long enough,
A house forever more home than home,
A house that always comes to mind
Whenever rain tap taps on PVC.


Crossing The Usk


Crossing the Usk, a slow flow of mud,
Water rippling in the rain,
I’m going home, the train engine
Roars louder as it climbs through Caerleon.
Is it home? It feels alien now,
Familiar, but not home,
Not that cosy, sad, untidy place
Of long known stuff and clutter
To return to in stormy weather.
Sure, the room’s the same,
The stuff the same, even the clutter,
But somehow home no longer.
Have the recent storms blown it down?
When did it cease to be safe?
I cannot answer that, and
Should the train stop
And retrace its route,
I would not be sorry
(Though what would I tell the boss
When I didn’t show up for work tomorrow?)
Return to a place that, as a youngster,
I couldn’t wait to flee.
Nantyderry, and the sky clears,
A hint of rainbow
Between grey cumulus.
The old dears opposite crack open the wine,
Hey, pour me a glass, perhaps
That will clear the fog,
Light the way to answers.
Fix headphones
(They don’t like it up ‘em you know)
Shut out the boring conversations,
Thud of music, annoying ringtones.
Abergavenny, and rain returns
With renewed roaring violence
As more miles are eaten up,
Forever closer to the cluttered room
– Perhaps I should call it my cell –
Something to be avoided,
A reason to be discovered
But all I can see are question marks,
Thick, black and growing fatter by the minute,
Smiling the rictus grin of a madman.
Llanvihangel, the summit of the line,
And down the train races, faster
And faster, clouds smoking
Round the mountainsides,
I’d like to be among those empty hills.
Fields of yellow stubble
Catch the odd sunbeam to escape
Clouds’ grey grip, and briefly glow,
A field of gold, light that bathes me too.
Today and yesterday, to see again
Places known from years ago,
I felt happy (yes, happy, there
Of all places), no pain now,
The reason I was so quick to flee
Can’t hurt me any more.
And though I head back to certainty –
The flat, the clutter and daily routine –
It’s no longer cosy certainty.
I want that cosiness back,
Want the firm door slam
That shuts out the world –
No, just fuck off –
Dinmore, and at last the sun is free,
Glittering lake so bright
My eyes hurt, a sudden floodlight
Into a long shuttered room.
Let me keep this, all of it,
The rain, the clouds and muddy Usk,
Even the dead oak alone
In the field near Craven Arms,
Brittle fingers reaching skyward.
Let me reach skyward too, keep
This bright-gentle light around me,
Warm me when back amongst the clutter
And dust, that would dull the blade.
You can never leave yourself behind, but
This journey will still be here, and
I can make it whenever I want,
Without leaving the flat.

Written on a Cardiff – Crewe train, July 2006



The trees are surrendering
Their nakedness.
Blossom-heavy, ready to speak
Sheaves of green
And strew my path my wedding white.
In the grey damp of winter
I forget all this, can think
Only of short days, long nights
Scarf and glove wrapped;
As when in full leaf
Ringing with the birds’ full chorale
I’ll forget the undressed trees
And the grey silent air.
I’m pleased to stand here
In gentle amnesia.

Moving On, and Other Clichés


I’ve drawn a line.
It’s not thin or red
Or scraped in sand
But it’s a line,
And I’ve drawn it.

And after the line
There will be a fence
More than rabbit proof,
It will be high,
Submitted with barbed wire.

And after that a wall
With guards and dogs and guns
And nowhere to pass through.
No turning back now,
I’ve drawn my line.

Now let’s see it hold.

Tatton Park or Your Black Dress


When we met in the park today,
You had a new dress,
Short and black with matching tights,
It hugged you.
Once, the thought of seeing you
Blew summer heat into the frostiest days,
Today I could only shiver
As we walked the gardens and
I stared at your new black dress.
I envied the wool its closeness,
How it warmed you,
How it caressed bottom and
Cuddled breasts.
I envied it, and though it suited you,
Hated it for knowing you so well.
As we walked and I watched your hips,
That knowledge seemed a taunt,
A slap to an already stung face.
I hid behind sunglasses and
The roar of landing jets,
Dreamed myself to wool,
To hug, cuddle, caress.
A place too easy to get lost in,
But I know the way.

I think I’ll stay there.

Walking In My Shoes



I don’t like walking in my shoes,
Soles worn smooth and they leak.
I know there are many
Walking in poorer shoes, but
I don’t like walking in my shoes.

Slide and slip through puddles,
Stones always find their way in,
Cut through sodden socks
Until I hobble my way home,
I don’t like walking in my shoes.

The man in the bus queue
Has a sole flapping loose,
Another has string for laces,
I know these are worse than mine but
I don’t like walking in my shoes.

I’m tired of my own footsteps,
My feet are bruised and sore,
Don’t try walking in my shoes,
They may not be glued together, but
I can’t bear walking in my shoes.


I cannot walk in their shoes
No matter how well they seem to fit,
Their tidy gravel paths are not mine,
Nor heels filed from pressing gas or brake,
Nor pavement smoothed soles
Thinned by the same daily roads,
These are mine no longer
Though I still see them,
Treading my own track in leaky leather,
No part for me in that play.


Look at these shoes:
Scuffed white beyond
Hope of polish, heels
Smoothed to ankle turning curves,
Soles sanded so every step
Is on ice, only the laces
Are new, still shop clean.
They do scrub up well,
Though it takes increasing effort,
Hardly worth the bother,
I doubt they’ll be footworthy
Much longer: lived in, walked in,
Gone round the clock, block and bend.
Look at them, these old shoes,
Worn out and near past it.
A bit like me really.

Road Ahead Closed


A poem from last year. A bit rough and self-pitying, but “it’s how I felt at the time”.

We didn’t agree
To close the road between us:
It was your decision
No words of mine could change,
No entreaty could pass
Your stopped ears, and I,
The defeated state,
Had to accede.

You wanted a different road,
Narrow, pot-holed and twisted
Fit only for occasional use and
Subject to entry clearance.
Those were your terms,
And I, the defeated state
Had to accede.

If that’s the only choice I have,
I’d rather have no road at all.
Defeated yes, but alive,
I’ll find another road,
Build a new one if I have to,
Alone, I’ll accede no more.

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