Tuesday, 16 July 2019


Memorial plaque to Winifred Holtby in Rudston church, East Riding of Yorkshire, the village where she was born and is buried.

This poem was written after a tour of the Yorkshire Wolds and Holderness, visiting the landscapes that, like me, Winifred Holtby grew up in and which inspired her writing, especially South Riding and Anderby Wold. The first stanza of the poem is the favourite quote of Sarah Burton in South Riding and informs the whole novel.

Take what you want – the landscape of Winifred Holtby

Take what you want,
said God.
Take it and pay for it. 

Take broad, straight-sided valleys,
chalk-strewn Wolds
and massive, open skies,
and across this landscape, wide and clear,
stretch your imagination. 

Take clay of fragile, sea-gnawed cliffs
and reclaimed river mud,
and mould from them a land
of breath-held liminality -
a strange, forgotten corner 
on England’s furthest edge. 

Take those who live here
and, like God himself,
create a world
that shows, in contrasts too-long hidden,
the strengths of women
and the weaknesses of men. 

But, most of all,
take compassion and equality
as your guides
and spread the words to even those
who do not choose to listen. 

Take all of this – and pay for it,
said God. 

Pay for it with a life cut short,
like all those brave young men 
with whom you went to war. 

Pay with the love of generations
that you won’t live to know. 

Pay for it at a price
that is, perhaps, too high,
but a spiritual bargain
you fully understand. 

Then, even though your work is incomplete,
take your rest in that same place
where you first saw the day,
and where, on summer mornings 
when the sun climbs orange from the sea
and a skein of wild geese splits the sky,
the shadow of the timeless Stone
pays out across the graves.

Rudston church and monolith - the Stone.

A typical view across the Wolds.

Dowthorpe Hall, the inspiration for Maythorpe in South Riding, currently the home of John Holtby, descendant of Robert Holtby, Winifred's uncle, who inspired the character, Robert Carne.

Thursday, 15 March 2018


I think of the Yorkshire Wolds as my spiritual home, especially those high ridges - often the sites of ancient barrows - where, on a sunny day, you can gaze down and see for miles and feel that you are closer to the sun than those below you.

Icarus of the Wolds

not quite in clouds but nearly there,
looking down across the sun-brushed land.
Not a bird, but hardly still a man.
Is this what death will be like:
a disconnection not completely made;
a time to leave
but wanting just a moment more
to linger?

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Spurn - a view from the edge of the world.

Spurn – a view from the edge of the world.

In so many areas of life, it’s at the edges that things are the most interesting, the most dangerous and, sometimes, the most magical. At the edge of the forest, for example, the increased levels of light that filter through encourage a greater abundance of flora and fauna – both prey and predator. The same thing occurs at field margins, where the rigidly controlled monoculture of a crop breaks free into an anarchic proliferation of wildness, and the cunning fox and mystical hare have their demesnes in the hedgerows. At the edge of society itself exist the poets, artists, seers and rebels (Nietzsche, in Human, All too Human, said that creative vision was the rainbow colours at the edges of human knowledge and imagination); and in that strange place where waking edges into sleep, the conscious and subconscious meet to create a curious medley of impressions on the verge of dreamland. Where the edges of two countries meet is often where alliances are forged – or where catastrophic conflicts begin as patriotism turns into violent jingoism. Even a well-baked cottage pie has the most delicious, crispy morsels at its edge, but only just before they become charred and burned.

Edgelands have never been for the faint-hearted or anyone who prefers a quiet, unexceptional and predictable life. They can be unsettling, lawless, even perilous places where comfortable rules and expected consequences do not apply. This is why many of the truly wild places in Britain are on the coast – the edge of our country where land and sea rage constant battles which, every time, the sea wins. But, even so, the sea can be magnanimous in victory, for it leaves behind, at the highest point of its incursion, a tantalising band of flotsam and jetsam that melds the minutiae and the excesses of the human race with the curious treasures of nature, all of which ‘doth suffer a sea change into something rich and strange’.

The coast of the East Riding of Yorkshire, from Bridlington down to its culmination at Spurn Point, is a raw and often bleak stretch of edgeland, constantly being eroded and changed by the sea. Under the waves there are the remains of numerous villages and towns that are now merely names on old maps: Auburn (coincidentally, also the name of Goldsmith's Deserted Village), Hornsea Burton, Old Kilnsea, Waxhole and many others that are set out in detail in Thomas Sheppard's 1912 book, The Lost Towns of the Yorkshire Coast. It is a piece of local folklore in Hornsea that on the timbers of the steeple of St. Nicholas' church, which was sent crashing down during a storm in 1714, there was the inscription:
"Hornsea steeple, when I first built thee
Thou was 10 miles off Burlington,
10 miles off Beverley, and 10 miles off sea."

There is obviously poetic licence in this as Burlington – the old name for Bridlington -  and Beverley are further than 10 miles away, and the church was certainly not as far from the sea as that, now standing less than a quarter of a mile from the coast.

The cliffs are renowned for being treacherous. It was along this fragile, friable, boulder clay that, in South Riding, Winifred Holtby’s flawed hero, Robert Carne, meets his untimely end as the cliff collapses, burying his horse and throwing him into the sea to drown.

What is washed away from the fragile cliffs may, I’m told, be deposited as far away as The Netherlands, whilst most comes to rest, along with smooth shingle and pebbles of many hues and geological ages from who knows what coast, at Spurn and into the Humber Estuary, around Sunk Island.

Spurn really is like the edge – or even the end – of the world. There is no place like it in the whole of Britain, but although it has had its place in history, few people outside Yorkshire now seem to even know of its existence. It’s a narrow and ever-shifting hook of land, bordered on one side by the unforgiving North Sea and on the other by the estuary and wildlife-rich mudflats of the seemingly placid, but often treacherous, River Humber. Had temperatures been a degree or two cooler at the end of the last ice age, 10,000 years ago, it would still be attached to Europe by what has become to be known as Doggerland.

One person who found Spurn to his taste was Philip Larkin. In a 1964 interview, he described it as being, “…on the edge of things”, adding, “I rather like being on the edge.” In his poem, ‘Here’, he immortalised it in these words, analogous with the end of life itself:

“Ends the land suddenly beyond the beach
Of shapes and shingle. Here is unfenced existence:
Facing the sun, untalkative, out of reach.”
Spurn Point is the title of one of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Six Studies in English Folk Song. It would be nice to imagine that he was inspired by a visit to Spurn during an easterly gale but, in fact, it was based on a song which he collected in Norfolk, The Wreck of the Industry, about a shipwreck which occurred on February 21st 1819 (although the tune is probably better known as that of Lord Franklin).

This disaster was reported in The Hull Packet:

“About seven o’clock on Sunday during a very heavy gale at E.N.E. the Industry, Richard Evans, of Yarmouth, from Leith with potatoes, was driven ashore on the Outer Brinks near Spurn Point, and before midnight fell on her broadside, and the master and crew were all unfortunately drowned.”

What the report doesn’t say is that Spurn had a lifeboat, which was launched and reached the stricken vessel in good time, and could have rescued the entire crew had not the Master sent them away, insisting that the vessel would refloat on the next high tide. As the newspaper report and the song record, it didn’t. The dangers of this coastline are such that, for over two hundred years, the Humber lifeboat has been the only one in the country with a full-time crew. Until 2012 they and their families lived at Spurn Point but now, because of the isolation and problems of being cut off by the sea, it is manned by two crews who work six day shifts.
Spurn was once far better known than it is today. On the seaward side, the town of Ravenspurg (another name for the lost town of Ravenspurn) is where, in Shakespeare’s Richard ll, Act 2, Scene 1, Henry Bolingbroke, setting out to dethrone Richard ll, is expecting his invasion force to land: “…eight tall ships, three thousand men of war, Are making hither with all due expedience”.

Further down was Ravenserodd, an important port well before the rise of Kingston upon Hull. This seems to have originally been a Danish settlement, a precarious toe-hold on this foreign coast. The first part of the word relates to the Danish standard, a raven, and the second portion, “eyr” or “ore”, denotes a narrow strip of land between two waters. Sheppard tells us that, “Ravenser is referred to at least three times in ancient Icelandic literature, in connection with the battle of Stamford Bridge, references to which in the Saxon Chronicle are well-known.” He adds that Olafr, son of Harold Sigurdson, led his fleet from England, setting sail at Hrafnseyri (the raven’s tongue of land), and in the autumn came to Orkney.

Stein Herdisson, an Icelandic poet from the mid-1000s, mentions this:

"The king the swift ships with the flood
Set out, with the autumn approaching,
And sailed from the port called Hrafnseyri.
The boats passed over the broad track
Of the long ships: the sea raging,
The roaring tide was furious round the ships' sides.”

The fourteenth-century Chronica Monasterii de Melsa ('Chronicle of Meaux Abbey') relates that, constantly embattled by the sea:

“…the inundations of the sea and of the Humber had destroyed to the foundations the chapel of Ravenserodd, built in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary, so that the corpses and bones of the dead there horribly appeared, and the same inundations daily threatened the destruction of the said town.”

The sea, of course, won the battle and Ravenserodd was finally engulfed and destroyed in the mid-1300s. From that time onwards, Spurn’s only permanent human inhabitants were the hardy lifeboat crews and their families, and those who manned the lighthouses. Now that they have gone, and a huge tidal surge in December 2013 left a washover area that is inundated by high tides, making the road down its length impassable except by the 4x4 ‘Safari’ vehicles of the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, it is a wilderness once again.

Standing at the end of Spurn, even on a fine day, it’s easy to experience Larkin’s ‘unfenced existence’ at the edge of the world. If you are brave enough to be there in a storm, you may imagine yourself in the fifth circle of Hell itself.

This poem is my abiding impression of Spurn, written – perhaps prophetically – before the surge of 2013.


Firstly, it’s the wind;
an earworm that burrows
deep into the brain.
Here, where the hook of land
catches the relentless tide
and sea collides with shingle,
it’s the wind,
scouring from the east,
that, even above the regular roar
of incessant, crashing waves,
is what remains in memory
a lifetime after leaving.
And in the wind,
sung to the beat of the sea
and shrieking through sharp grasses,
there will always be
The Song:
here on the raven’s beak
the raven’s tongue no longer speaks
broken in the swirling creek
washed and buried fathoms deep
though memories will never sleep
few for ravens ever weep
this land was never for the weak
all weaknesses the sea will seek
the proud inherit not the meek
not the meek not the meek

The name defines the place.
Being strong by ever changing,
Spurn rejects the weak,
showing there is strength in change
and permanence is weakness
when wind and sea and time
conspire against the land -
a salutary reminder
that this land was never made
for weakling man

Saturday, 20 August 2016

Roger Deakin - The Epitome of an English Eccentric.

Roger Deakin - The Epitome of an English Eccentric.

Today is 19th August 2016. It’s exactly 10 years since the untimely death of my old friend, the author, film-maker and environmentalist, Roger Deakin and, while I’m reminiscing, I’m thinking that if I don’t put down on paper my own memories of him they’ll start to fade. A lot has been written about Roger and he sometimes comes across as being a serious and even rather dour person. Not the Roger I knew. He was one of the few genuine eccentrics I have ever met. He had a wonderful sense of humour and a wicked, but never malicious, sense of mischief that endeared him to many – though not, I must admit, to everyone. He really did live life to the full, was massively energetic and always up for a challenge.

We first met in London in 1969 – some time in the summer but I can’t recall exactly when. I was working as a copywriter at a large, American-owned advertising agency called Erwin Wasey, housed in a brutal concrete building across the road from Paddington Station that we had christened The Ministry of Advertising. I was 20-years old: one of the louche, over-indulged, cannabis-fuelled creative brats who inhabited the late 60s London advertising scene – many of us the product of the then-famous Watford Copywriting Course. Our job was creating expensive, eye-catching advertising campaigns for large, wealthy companies.

Mike, the tiny, rather bemused, Italian-American Creative Director who ended every sentence with the word “check”, ushered Roger into the large office where my art director, Greg, and I had sole occupancy since the departure of another creative team for greater things. He introduced him as the new copywriter (“check”) then scurried away to safety. Roger didn’t bat an eyelid when he saw us seated on the floor and seemed to understand immediately when we explained that, since reading Dylan Thomas’ Adventures in the Skin Trade, we had decided to pile all the furniture up to the ceiling in one corner. He just came over, sat down next to us and started happily chatting away in his enthusiastic, slightly-clipped, public school accent.

I took to him right away but I could see from his horrified expression that Greg didn’t like him – and, to be honest, he never really ‘got’ Roger.

It was hardly surprising. Greg was a dapper, but rather defensive and introspective New Yorker of the type seen in the gay comedy film ‘The Boys in the Band’; always beautifully-dressed in expensive clothes from Simpson’s in the Strand where his boyfriend was a fashion designer. Roger was the absolute opposite. His curly brown hair was an unkempt halo around his open face, his Zapata moustache above the enigmatic smile was untrimmed and he was dressed in shabby jeans and an old jumper, topped – as always, for as long as I knew him – by a stained, thigh-length, leather jerkin of the sort worn by dustmen to protect themselves when carrying bins (he later told me that he had bought it for five bob from a fellow stallholder in Portobello Road Market, where he himself, on a Saturday, sold a curious, eclectic melange of odd crockery, restored furniture, and other bizarre bric-a-brac).

Roger and I hit it off as work colleagues and also became firm friends. After work, we’d go out to pubs in the evening, or sit drinking wine with his girlfriend and his cat in his flat just a few minutes away, and he would educate me on the finer points of English literature, as taught to him by Kingsley Amis, his tutor at King’s College, Cambridge. He was still friends with Amis and the only times I ever saw him in a suit and tie in those days was when he was ‘off to the Garrick for lunch with Kingsley’.

Sometimes Roger would disappear for days on end, as often as not driving to France, Spain or somewhere to buy a load of cheap local pottery, beaten-up furniture, 200 Russian sheepskin hats and several boxes of leather ammunition belts from some defunct army, to sell (or not, in the case of the hats and belts) on his stall. In those days nobody seemed to mind – or even notice he was away. Our working days were spent creating ridiculous press and TV campaigns for clients such as Cadbury. The high (or low) point was when we came up with a launch campaign for a dark chocolate bar called Plain Six and, using the pay-off line “So dark, ‘tis almost wicked”, created a series of commercials that were pastiches of Shakespeare plays. To everyone’s astonishment, the client loved it and we were given a huge production budget to shoot three commercials. The question was, who would we get to direct? Roger had one of his usual outrageous brainwaves. Dick Lester! He wanted to use the well-known director of films such as The Knack and The Beatles’ Help to shoot our commercials. “It’s alright”, he assured me, “I do vaguely know Dick. I’m sure I can persuade him”. And persuade him he did. Not only did the great Richard Lester shoot our commercials, but Roger, a budding film maker himself, made of film of the shoot which he then, I believe, sold to the client.

We parted professional company for a while when I was headhunted for more money than I could refuse, to work at Greys, another big agency just off Regent Street. Roger and I continued to meet, but less frequently, until I bought a house in Surrey then quickly sold it for a flat in then-unfashionable Chiswick and other priorities took over. Roger rang me one day to say that he had left Wasey’s and was going to spend more time renovating his derelict farmhouse in Suffolk. We didn’t see each other for several months.

I hated Greys. It was not a ‘creative’ agency and I was told by the Proctor and Gamble client that my campaign for Ariel detergent was ‘facetious’. Then, out of the blue, I got a call from Roger asking me to lunch at a now-defunct Italian restaurant in Soho. Over several bottles of wine he told me he had just been appointed Creative Director of an agency in St. Martin’s Lane called Interlink and he wanted me to go and work for him as a Group Head. When we were back together again, things started to get really silly. The lunatics were in charge of the asylum. Several years later I met the then MD again and he said, with a huge smile, that between us we had practically bankrupted the agency.

Thinking back on what we got up to, I can see why. Roger was a true, practicing socialist (he once insisted that I go and vote in his place for the Labour candidate at a General Election, as he was away at the time). For his creative department, this meant big salaries, well above the going rate, and big Christmas bonuses which we didn’t deserve. The agency had a directors’ and clients’ dining room with its own chef and a well-stocked wine cellar, and he insisted that the creatives took it over for a huge lunch once a month, often inviting one of his many well-known friends including Clement Freud and Dereck Nimmo. Needless to say, we got ridiculously drunk on expensive wine and usually disgraced ourselves in some way (which even now I’m too embarrassed to recount). Roger was never a huge drinker, but the rest of us drank incessantly, often not making it back to work in the afternoon.

Roger and I came up with ever-more ridiculous ideas. One commercial for the Solid Fuel Advisory Service had penguins sat around a roaring fire in a miniature set of a gentleman’s club. Nobody bothered to think that penguins hate heat, and they ran as far away from the fire as possible. In the end, we had to trawl around London buying or hiring every stuffed penguin we could find. In another commercial for the same client, to encourage people to stock up on coal for the winter, we piled hundreds of tons in a massive pile in the garden of a suburban bungalow and took shots from a crane. Of course, Roger insisted on a helicopter as well but, when it hovered above the pile, coal dust was spread across the entire neighbourhood and the poor actor/presenter looked like he had been ‘blacked-up’. Roger also insisted that, to curry favour with the client, we install a huge, modern open fire in the agency reception. Unfortunately, he didn’t get advice on installing a chimney, which proved impossible, so this great white elephant remained unlit.

Every Friday evening, Roger would set off for Suffolk in his beautiful, rare and much-cherished Morgan sports car – always with the hood down and always wearing the inevitable dustman’s jerkin and (still hoping to start a fashion trend and corner the market) one of his unsold Russian hats. Early every Monday he would return, covered in dust, grime, pigeon droppings and god-knows what else. He’d go for a shower in the directors’ bathroom, sometimes don the suit which he always had hung-up behind his door and settle down behind the vintage mahogany desk that he’d insisted on for his office, calling out to his long-suffering secretary to ring round to find the very best price on an Aga or some reclaimed bricks, or to try and track down a decent thatcher. He always returned from Suffolk with wonderful stories about the wildlife and the locals; how he’d slept in the open air, under a polythene sheet or in the inglenook of the roofless farmhouse, which was the only place to get any shelter. Once he told us how he had managed to start his ancient tractor in reverse and knocked down a wall he had just finished building. Another time he turned up with a bottle of water from his moat to get tested to see if it was safe for fish (or, more likely, to swim in). Behind his back, we emptied the bottle and all peed in it. The results of the test bemused him until we ‘fessed up and, of course, he saw the funny side of it.

One sad morning he returned minus the Morgan. When we asked what had happened, he said that he had agreed to lay a reclaimed brick path for top chef, Robert Carrier, at his Hintlesham Hall restaurant. Rather than find a lorry or trailer to cart the bricks, Roger had taken the passenger seat out of the Morgan and used that. Unfortunately, the weight proved too much for the poor car and it collapsed in the middle. Despite sending it off to the Morgan factory at Malvern, the car never ran again.

But it was with the poultry where he became really eccentric. One Monday he turned up with some baby ducklings which he then kept in the agency projection room for a couple of weeks. The mess was unimaginable. Another time he hatched out chicken eggs in a box in his office, under an anglepoise lamp, and they ran riot for a while. His biggest plan, though, was firmly vetoed by the MD. The agency was in the heart of Covent Garden, which was then still a wholesale fruit market, so every morning the streets were covered with discarded fruit and veg. Roger’s plan was to get a pig or two, keep them in one of the garages at the back of the agency, and fatten them up on the waste fruit. Free pork for everyone! One of his brilliant ideas that didn’t come to fruition.

We went our separate ways in 1975. For various reasons I had decided to go to live in South Africa for a while. I was flying out on New Year’s Day 1976 and we met up a couple of days earlier. Little did I know that that would be the last time I’d see him. He went off to live permanently in Suffolk and became an inspirational English teacher for a while. When I came back to England a couple of years later I always meant to get in touch but it wasn’t until I saw that Waterlog had been published that I actually wrote to him and told him what a great piece of writing I thought it was. His typically self-effacing reply was, “Coming from you, Pete, that’s real praise”. We corresponded on and off for the next few years but somehow never got together. I didn’t hear of his death – or even his illness – until late September 2006. A friend at work asked me if I’d heard. I was, quite literally, stunned and it took a few days to sink in.

As I said, Roger was one the few completely natural and unselfconscious eccentrics I’ve known. But a kind and humorous one with no hard edge. My experience of him was long before the publication of Waterlog and his deserved reputation as one of the new generation of nature writers, although, even then, we shared many of the same interests, especially in trees and the works of John Cowper Powys. He not only helped me in my career, he also encouraged me to write poetry and songs. As I was getting off the train back from work a few days after I’d heard he was dead, I looked up at the sky and this poem came, as if from nowhere. When I reached home, ten minutes later, it was complete.

The Swimmer (for Roger)

It was one of those moments when you feel the earth turning.
A three-quarter moon in a clear autumn sky
Brought into my heart a curious yearning
For things that have passed and have yet to pass by;
For friends who have gone and for those still remaining;
While the river of life still winds through the land,
Whose secrets, revealed by the long years’ waning,
Can slip through our fingers or be grasped in our hands.

There’s a feeling that time is not of the essence;
Not a fear of the future or delight in the past,
Just a space that is filled by a friend when his presence,
Is replaced by the pleasure of what he has left.
Now the spirits of the earth rise to embrace the giver
Like the low-lying mist of a soft autumn dawn,
And the swimmer goes down once again to the river,
Where, as sun glints on water, the dream is reborn.

Friday, 17 June 2016


This poem came from reading the extract below:

…I listened to the ancient, familiar, immortal, dear cricket sound under all others, hearing at first some distinct chirps; but when these ceased I was aware of the general earth-song, which my hearing had not heard, amid which these were only taller flowers in a bed, and I wondered if behind or beneath this there was not some other chant yet more universal.

Henry David Thoreau, ‘The Journal 1837 -1861’


Ethereal as emanating mist,
the earth-song is exhaled
by the fundament beneath old trees
where leaves have lain decaying
for a thousand years.
Its melody recalls
the whispering of wind
in forests on a summer night;
its words, the cry of hunting owls
and the winter creaking
of an old oak’s boughs.

No god or man or spirit
could ever make this song.
It was its own creator,
born of a long continuum
between the earth and sky,
and everything that’s lived here
has added its own note:
foxes, moles and badgers
who dig deep into the mould
where man was never buried,
and the subtle hare
who, living overground,
dances in the frosting hoar of March
beneath a smiling moon,
as the song comes seeping gently
from the woods and hedgerows,
through sodden furrows of the plough
and grassy meadowland
that never nurtured corn.

Sunday, 21 February 2016


Wild Days

On these wild days, when leaves
pile up beside the door,
tired earth itself
lets out a heartfelt roar,
as the sun, with corpse-pale face,
is sucked down out of sight
and beneath a windswept veil
extinguishes its light:
the wild days’ wilder night.

The wind does not begrudge the trees
their groaning, sighing song
but, like a martinet, insists
the tune is his alone
which, played on writhing willow
and steadfast, stalwart beech,
becomes an eerie chorus
that builds into a screech:
the wind’s unholy speech.

Vast wreaths of rooks rise from bare trees
and hang upon the sky,
darkening the darkening
while each imperious cry
creates a raucous chorus
that drowns out all dissent
and only the wind can disagree,
express its discontent:
the wild days’ wild lament.

Monday, 14 December 2015


Whinney Hill, taken from Millington Wood.

I'm constantly intrigued by how poems form out of a single word or phrase. This one came from the phrase 'England itself is sacred' in a book I was reading.

England itself is sacred.

Worship in the cathedral of the woods
for England itself is sacred
to those who bow their heads
before the altars of the hills
and make their solemn pilgrimages
to timeless places that exude
the divine and the profane.

Listen to the notes of wind on stones
for England itself is music.
The sound of falling leaves
builds to a crescendo that plays
where hares and foxes dance,
and the timpani of breaking waves
is heard above the still, sad solo
of nature’s faint, lamenting voice.

Read the arcane texts written on the land
for England itself is a manuscript,
a palimpsest
where each successive generation
inscribes its own life’s story
across the face of all the others,
leaving faint, intriguing clues
of what has gone before.

Follow in forgotten footsteps
for England itself is a pathway
taking us to places
where we long or fear to go,
saturated with the tread
of those who went before
and, failing to return,
have reached their journey’s end.