In service of silence

Shute Festival, 13 September, St Michael’s Church

The audience in pews. September sunlight and warmth still in the air, light on the fields and thatched rooves, appearing to light them up from within. I am in my crumpled linen jacket, and so is Paddy Magrane, my host. I look out at the audience. All of the men are in crumpled linen jackets. Perhaps I should go home.

Half-way through my reading I remember why I am here, why my poems are here, to commemorate breakdown and grief and loss. If I can just. If I could just let that happen, let that be enough.

Manchester Cathedral, 27 October, Manchester Cathedral Poetry Competition prize-giving

Poets have travelled to be here, from London, from Northumberland, Sheffield, Macclesfield… . John Maguire, whose stunning poem has won second prize, tells me he was last in Manchester 60 years ago as a Chemistry student. But I never set foot in this place, never dreamed I would be doing this one day. I used to go the climbing shop round the corner. It’s not there any more. Poetry can do this, I tell him.

My host, the extremely kind Andrew Rudd, puts on a playlist as people come in and start to mooch around. Children on the Hill by Harold Budd, Parce Mi Domine by Jan Gabarek and The Hilliard Ensemble. It’s like being at home, I tell him, how did you know. From your blog, he says. I know quite a lot about you from your blog.

I meet poets I recognise from my days on social media and poets I have met at festivals. I want to ask them what they are reading and who is good at the moment. At Shute Greta Stoddart recommended me Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett, which I still haven’t got round to reading. Must do better.

The winner is Ailsa Holland, with a stunning monologue in the voice of Mary Magdalene. I describe it as the poem that wouldn’t let go of me when I was out and about doing other things. At least four people come up to me to say they wish they’d used more swear words in their poems. Or written about nuns.

Half-way through my reading I realise why I am here. To read poems about suffering, loss and grief. I heard an actor say once that he tried to allow as much silence as possible between words, between speeches. When I feel as though it is becoming almost unbearable, that’s when I can start speaking again, he said.

EM Forster Theatre, Studio, Tonbridge School, 6 October

A tiny audience. Including the steward at the door, and my host and co-reader Peter Carpenter, we number eleven people. The day before Peter and I try to outdo each other with stories of the smallest audiences we have ever read to. His is four, in a Waterstones in Birmingham, one of whom was a tramp sheltering from the cold. From my band-days I recall a pub in Camden where we played to our girlfriends, two children and a cat.

We read poems we have chosen from The Tree Line (Worple Press, 2018), poems of ecology and, by implication, loss and grief. I close with four poems of my own. Suddenly I remember why I am here.

St Luke’s Chapel, Exeter University, 17 October, launch reading

This is the one. The home gig. The free hit. Friends, colleagues and students fill the space. I have been emailing them since August. Outside, it is filthy. The traffic jammed by an accident on the motorway and sirens everywhere. There won’t be another one like this for several years. As most of you know, I hear myself saying, thirteen years ago I had cancer. That’s not what this book is about, it’s about what comes afterwards. It strikes me that to the students in the room this will probably be news.

Half-way through a poem about my mother’s memory loss, I remember why I am here. I am listened to in complete silence for the entirety of the reading.


A woman emails me I’d love to come to your next readings please email me your next ones. I email them to her. She writes back to say she is away for all of them and I say not to worry but that’s probably it for now. And she says what about next year and I said there are none next year. And she says what and I say ask me how long I have been doing this this is how it works.

A woman comes up to me at Manchester and hands me her book. I wanted you to have this, she says. Your work is very important to me. No one has said this to me before. And I don’t know what to say so all I say is thank you so much.

It strikes me that the ideal reading would involve no reading at all, just everyone sitting together in silence.

In the middle of the Manchester reading I realise that the work contains more emotion than I had realised. I am not really ready for it. I need to catch my breath. I stand for a long time in silence between the poems which have caught me unawares. Part of me thinks

this. I have spent years writing this stuff I don’t want the work to go missing I don’t want to read in service of me I want to read in service of the work. I may not get to do this for another five years last year I did not read at all and the year before that hardly once. This is not complaining this is how it is. I get it. Part of me thinks

this. But what the world sees is you supporting your book and going for it all over the place. What the world sees is not what is happening at all. What is happening is that poems have come into the world and it may take years before people find them. Maybe they never will. Maybe I’ll be dead first. Or maybe just never. This is how it is, I tell myself. I get it. Part of me also thinks

this. I want to read in service of silence. I want to read in service of the grief and the loss. If people do not want that then that is sad but not the end of the world. It’s just that. It’s just that this is what the book told me it wanted to become and now it is here I can see it even more clearly. And though it hurts I am not afraid to stand in service of it. But what I am not standing in service of is me. I left the building a long time ago. All I want you to hear is the work. And the silence.


  1. Thank you for placing your particular poems in the world and for the way in which you signpost the work of others. I am the richer for it.


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