‘80% of success is showing up.’

-Woody Allen

I was chatting with a student the other day when I said to them that the answer to their problem was not some magical lightning bolt of inspiration but just that they had to KBO.

‘I’m sorry?’ they said.

‘KBO,’ I said again. ‘You know. Churchill. KBO.’

‘I’m sorry, you’ve lost me,’ they said.

‘It stands for Keep Buggering On. He used to sign it on documents in the war.’

‘Oh,’ they said. ‘I see. What does that mean?’

I love KBO. I use it as a private shorthand to encourage certain of my friends (not just those with history degrees) when I know they are facing a particular challenge or pressure in their life or work. ‘I saw that thing you did/said/painted/wrote,’ I say to them. ‘Hats off! KBO.’

Here is an example, a tiny one, based on a true story from this blog. Ages ago I put up a poem here by Gwen Harwood, called ‘Cups‘. I knew I loved it, but had no idea how to go about communicating it. So I kind of sidestepped the issue and wrote ‘Sideswiped by poetry’. Which was both true to my experience of ‘Cups’ but not very particular to the poem per se. Life moved on and I forgot I had ever written about it.

As I was correcting the proofs to Lifesaving Poems, Neil Astley strongly encouraged me to think again about this particular piece. It wasn’t specific enough, he said. ‘It sticks out like a sore thumb’. Ouch. But I knew he was right. I felt two things simultaneously and with equal force: that I absolutely loved ‘Cups’ and absolutely did not want to write something fresh about it. Impasse and procrastination followed. A deep and sudden interest in the County Championship results; the form for the Grand National; my toenails; anything.

The great thing about deadlines is that they must be obeyed. And this one kind of needed obeying. With the reluctance I usually reserve for filling in my tax return, I set to work on piece #2 on ‘Cups’. I hated it. Loved the poem, hated having to do it again, all my old neuroses about school and homework and being ‘useless, Wilson’ rearing up to meet me rather like Beechers Brook on soft ground. All I know is words did emerge. And then some more. And then a coffee (or two). And then some more. Finally it was over. I found that the world had not ended and that the words were fine. (Good enough is good enough, I say to my students.) I could live with them. I had KBOed. It was a thing.

Fast forward to the thing becoming a book and the neurosis of people saying nice things/saying nothing about it, noticing/not even noticing it, seeing it in bookshops/not seeing it in bookshops, the sheer vulnerability, like walking round naked, all of that, that guff. And then silence. And then more silence. At which point I wondered if it had all been a dream and if  should move to the Yukon and become a miner. I bumped into my painter friend Lucy, who is one of the most encouraging people I know. To her credit, she went straight in: ‘I’m loving your book, Ant. And ‘Cups’, wow, what a poem! I read it to M, who loved it too. I’ve started a whole series of drawings based around it. Thank you so much.’

All of which kind of left me speechless. The life of the poem after the life I have had with it, now re-entering my life in another way, via someone else’s story. In short, because I KBOed, access to poem for Lucy and M is now available. To the extent that Lucy and M have KBOed in their own way in response to it. And so it goes on, via this story, and via the stories you will tell of it, hopefully reminding you of other stories of responses to other poems.

We all need to KBO. KBO, everybody!


  1. I love this poem, it was good to have it brought to mind this morning. I feel that I can get inside it and sit with the poet in the cuppy worlds described whilst it also encourages me to consider and place myself in cup worlds personal to me.
    I have chosen not to be a tea drinker due to fact that as a child my memory is of everything coming to a standstill whilst my parents had ‘a nice cup of tea’. I so didn’t want to stand still.
    I have mellowed, I now drink the occasional cup of camomile tea …. and enjoy the time it takes (and a lovely cup is all important!).

    Liked by 2 people

  2. You know what? I was feeling surly, resentful and sorry for myself, having had to cancel a much-looked-forward-to holiday on Skye, and here’s the perfect formula/antidote. KBO. I’d not known that. Infinitely more English than ‘it is what it is’, which I hereby foreswear

    Liked by 1 person

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