Friday, 29 November 2013

Surprise, surprise ... I win Cheshire Prize for Literature

Roger McGough, centre left,with High Sheriff, extreme left, and me (to his left) with Clive McWilliam behind, Tonia Bevins to his left and Russell Morris on the extreme right. Not politically of course ...
You could have knocked me down with a quill-pen ...

Completely out of the blue, I found I'd won the High Sheriff's Cheshire Prize for Literature. I arrived at the award-ceremony late (road-works) and nearly didn't arrive at all. Someone ahead slammed on their brakes and the bloke behind skidded and swerved half-way across the road to avoid running into the back of him. I had to stand on the brake to avoid hitting him in turn ...

To be honest, I wasn't sure whether to go. I'd assumed entrants would be notified if they were shortlisted and, much as I like Roger McGough who was giving a reading and presenting the prizes, I'd hosted an event for him in the summer. Wonderful though that was, would it be worth driving all the way up to Chester on a cold, wet night to hear him again and so soon?

As it happened, I thought it was. I even put the bi-monthly Poems & Pints I host at The Lodge, Alsager back to next week. If you can get there, do so. Andrew Barrett, Stokie poet will be there and my twin brother form South Wales. It promises to be a great night. 8pm upstairs at The Lodge pub on Thursday 5th December.

I'd moved it partly because it was only a week after Bob Doughty's Nantwich Poets open-mic at Willaston Social Club and partly because I was curious to see who'd won. There's a thriving poetry scene here in Cheshire but we all tend to know each other from the various readings and events. I knew every single person who won a prize last night.

We meet again ...
Roger was in full flow and on form when I sneaked into the auditorium. He was excellent as ever and just as engaging in the Q&A which followed. Then there were some speeches from a former High Sheriff - what a terrific old card - and the current incumbent. Isn't it great to live somewhere where they have High Sheriff's? It's not all Lincoln Green and velvet these days, of course, but High Sheriff ... 'shire-reeve' ... a role first introduced for the collection of Danegeld. Stroll on.

Then Emma Rees the English academic who heads the judging panel said a few words about the competition and introduced the winners in reverse order. 'Worthy winners,' I thought, as they were called forward. 'It's no shame not to have been short-listed when writers of their calibre were receiving their just rewards ...'

Emma then said that she hoped the winner was in the auditorium as nothing had been said in advance. I must confess, I did have a flicker of intuition that might still actually be in with a chance. But that was soon extinguished when she started to describe the winning poem. This couldn't possibly be my poem. Full of allusions, obviously written by someone who read a lot of poetry, all about finding the ordinary transformed ...

It was only when Roger got up to read the winning poem that I realised it was mine! I was stunned. I still am.

Roger recognised me from the summer and seemed quite amused and genuinely pleased to find out that it was me. So there we were on stage, having our photos taken, Tonia Bevins, Russell Morris, Clive McWilliam ... Andrew Rudd wasn't there but he'd won something too.

As I can't talk about the poem just yet, I can talk about photos. My aunt Helen in Australia sent me a scan of one of my Grandad's family, the subject of my last (first) poem to win a first prize. I can't publish the winning Cheshire Prize poem online until after it's appeared in the anthology that'll come out in the spring. I'll give that a plug. Buy it.

So, belatedly, here's a picture to illustrate the poem Her People which won the Nantwich Words & Pictures Festival Prize - see previous post.

All surviving Tonks to adulthood (L-R): Olive, Dorothy (Dot or Doll), Elsie (Else), Hilda,
Beatrice (Beat), Harry, my Great-Gran Tonks (behind Nellie in the wheelchair, bless her), Great-Granddad Tonks, Lil (she preferred Lilly), Jack (my Grandad), Min. All 'golden'. 

Friday, 11 October 2013

Simon Says: 'Her People' for 1st prize

Simon Armitage is the handsome one on the right.
Ee, I'm right chuffed. To my surprise, I won 1st Prize in the Nantwich Words & Music Festival poetry competition.

I was even more chuffed that I won with Simon Armitage as the judge. It's not everyday that I get a poem selected for a prize by one of the UK's leading poets.

Unlike my good friend Roger Elkin, I don't have a track record on poetry prizes. Roger wins them all the time. I was a runner up in the first Stafford Poetry Competition in 2009 judged by Michael Hulse and have twice been among the winners of the regular competitions in Poetry News. But this was a first for me - getting the first prize. Simon kindly signed the poem and drew a 1st Prize rosette on it - which was a nice touch.

I always enjoy hearing Simon read. I've heard him about four times now and I once even saw his band, The Scaremongers, perform in a Huddersfield pub. I've chatted to him a few times about bands and my native South Wales, about book-signings and about his harrowingly moving Radio 4 piece Black Roses about the killing of the Goth teenager, Sophie Lancaster. On that occasion he modestly gave the credit for the impact to Sophie's mum for her incredibly brave and moving account. I doubt if Simon remembers those conversations, he must have thousands along similar lines. I only hope he doesn't think he's got some wierd little Welshman stalking him around gigs in the North of England ...

So here's the winning poem, Her People. It's about my Grandad's family on my mother's side and begins and ends with my Great Aunt Lil' sat at the piano. The title comes from the name of a classic memoir by Kathleen Dayus, Her People: Memoirs of an Edwardian Childhood. It won an autobiographical award in 1982 and became something of a classic sociological text. Dayus died a few days short of her 100th birthday, the age Great Aunt Lil' reached, 'the first and last of twelve.'

Dayus's book was all about her childhood in Hockley, Birmingham, the same area where my Grandad, one of those 12, grew up. He was born in 1912 so the period covered by the poem is slightly later than the Edwardian Birmingham depicted in Dayus's book, but the conditions were the same.

It was the only book he ever read. "Our Else gave it to me," he told us, "'Here, our Jack, read this.' You know I'm not one for books and reading but because it was our Else, I gave it a go. I could not put it down." He handed it to us as if it were a sacred text. "Here, read it. Every word in that book is true ..."

He's the Jack I've mentioned in the poem. It covers the period from after the First World War to the 1960s when we used to visit our Birmingham relatives as kids. His father was living in a high-rise then, all the surrounding streets had been bulldozed, with just the pubs remaining at the gable ends. He peered at us and prised two tanners (sixpences) out of a tin box. I remember my Grandad telling me how he'd filched the coppers and tanners that his eldest sister Lil had been saving for piano lessons and spent them down the pub. She used to play for coppers and everyone said she'd have been quite accomplished if she'd ever been trained.

Johnny ('Jack') Tonks, my Grandad, was a strict tee-totaller. Not for religious reasons but because he'd seen the effect of booze on the family's meagre income. They lived in a two-up/two-down with an outside loo and a tiny yard where his father nurtured rhubarb with the pee he fermented in a tin pail.

I never knew my Great Grandmother, but she was a saint by all accounts. She had to be, the life she had. Some of her 12 children died fairly young and two had severe disabilities. I'll never forget my Great Aunt Nell. She was said to have the most severe case of cerebral palsy in the Midlands. When I knew her she was couch-bound and corkscrewed around so that her head was facing over her back. She'd have a towel to catch the spittle the constantly dribbled down her cheek. She'd literally squeal with delight when we visited and press tanners into our palms. Poor Nelly. Bright as a button with a dry sense of humour - they all had that - and a thing for Bing Crosby. The Prayer Book she gave us when we emigrated to Australia as £10 Poms remains one of my treasured possessions.

I didn't get to her funeral but my Mum still fills up talking about it now. It was the 1980s and the surviving Tonks 'girls' gathered around the graveside to pray - she'd been buried alongside my Great-Gran. My Mum says it was like a collective electric charge of faith mingled with grief. There was love there so thick you could cut it with a knife.

Sometimes, I'm not sure about this poem. But if it conveys that much, it'll be worth more than any prize.


She practices her scales, feels the promise
beneath her hollow palms, how it rises
from within the shuttered case -
Ragtime, Rachmaninov, Clair de Lune.

As the bar fills with hubbub, boots and smoke
she rolls out the barrel, follows the van,
clings to an old rugged cross till closing time.

She stores their tossed coins in a jar,
the way her father stands his stale
and frothy piss in a bucket in the yard.

When the factory whistle melts the men
into side-alleys, back-to-backs,
he sends their Jack to fetch his snap
to him in the snug, only brings his slow
unsteady stomp homeward after dark.

When the coppers rise and reach the neck
he turns their silver promise into a bucketful
of froth, pours it on the rhubarb out the back.

Each week they help their mother
fold their Nelly into a leather chair,
wheel her where nurses pummel
her fixed limbs, hoist her into harness
to stretch and tune her straight.

We want redemption. And if it's found
in suffering it's not just Nell but Elsie,
abandoned by her husband in the war,
or Min's own Dicky Dale forked on crutches
since a football kick connected with his spine,
Olive lost to kidneys at the age of thirty-eight,
Stanley taken from them at sixteen.

If time's the healer, hear how the old man prised
two tanners for us from a tin box, how the nurses
left Nell to nature with nothing but love to tend her.

Listen to her laughter as they fill kettles for her bath -
Dot' and Hilda, Harry, Beat'. See the vicar bring her Jesus
once a week. And if faith, let's end this litany where it began,
with Lil', the first and last of twelve, closing the lid gently
on her own century, its sounds and faces, their names.

Friday, 4 October 2013

Aaarggh!!-lton Towers

Face redder than our Kat's hair ...
Before last weekend, I’d only been to Alton Towers once. Now I'm publishing two blog-posts about it. One on my business blog and t'other here. Slightly different flavours on each. T'other one has some marketing observations. On this one, I simply go ... 'AAaaargghh!!'

I'd been there for a regional branch meeting of the Chartered Institute of Marketing. All very interesting too. Discount structures, special offers, the way they branded themselves as a 'resort.' The last resort if you ask me. It was also the first time I’d seen those therapeutic, toe-nibbling fish. Not that they nibbled mine but they did graze across my fingers picking off some loose skin.

I’d always felt guilty that I’d never taken my kids over, but consoled myself that there would always be school trips. They could go there on their own. They didn't need me with them. So when a young cousin from Australia approached us asking if he could stay and fulfil his long-held ambition of visiting Alton Towers, I guiltily agreed. I have a young aunt who had children later in life, so two of my cousins aren’t a great deal older than my own kids.

So, over we went, armed with vouchers and money-off tokens (there’s the discount structure) and up and over and inside out we all went.

My cousin insisted we went on The Smiler first, the latest fiendish device and, quite frankly, just one step up from something out of Guantanamo Bay. We didn't wear yellow boiler-suits but were herded through metal cages, bombarded with disconcerting imagery (think Michael Caine in The Ipcress File) and played a repetitive sound-track that mixed heavy-metal grind with diabolical childish laughter and a gloating nur-nah-nah-na-nar chant.

It was almost a relief when we were finally strapped into the carriage. After a second’s respite we were hurtled through 14 revolutions and supposedly ‘processed’ and ‘marmalised’. I’m not sure that the vaguely 1984-ish brainwashing theme was detectable during the fast – and mercifully short – ride itself. All I was conscious of was the grey tracks hurtling ahead and of losing any sense of orientation. The ride broke down when we were just 10 yards from the end and we had to sit there while they fixed it. I enjoyed that, a chance for some peace and stability.

Not wishing to wuss-out I joined my cousin and daughters in the queue for Oblivion, a sadistically ingenious ride where they suspend you for a second or two over a yawning abyss. The descent also turns you into a Peter Hain look-a-like – as you can see from the photo they ingeniously snap as you drop into the void.

Once we were out of the pit and up the other side, I quite enjoyed Oblivion. I enjoyed Air too. They fly you frontwards like Superman.  Nemesis was too much for me, though and I left the kids to it after that.

So, conclusions then?  Is Alton Towers still the last resort? Well, I came away with a lot of respect for the staff – they do their jobs courteously and with conviction – and a grudging respect for the warped minds that devised the rides. My cousin, of course, loved every minute. He knows his rides. He has visited all the big ones in the States. Alton Towers exceeded his expectations. You can’t say fairer than that.

After all, it's not every day the G-force turns a long-lost cousin into a Labour politician ...

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Wipe Clean Convenience

It was the Heritage Open Day weekend now just (as we'd say in South Wales).

You know, when interesting or historic buildings that are not regularly open to the public are available to view. I always get around some building or other. It's become part of my 'year'.

This year, though, I was invited to take part in an activity at one of them, an event at CoRE (Centre of Refurbishment Excellence) a magnificently refurbished set of buildings down in Longton. It's an impressive place, with conference facilities, workshop and exhibition space and all dedicated to urban regeneration and the skills and issues involved with that. More power to its elbow, I say.

I was there to take part in a poetry reading ably compered by local poet, Alan Barrett.

There were people from writers' groups across The Potteries and very varied and entertaining it was too. I particularly liked the contribution by a West Indian lady on how she'd wondered where the 'rice' was in the region's staple pie - was it in the flour used to make the pastry? Finally she clocked it, they were Wright's Pies.

Which leads me to my politically incorrect Potteries joke.
'What do you call three Wrights Pies, one on top of the other, in Bentilee?'
'A wedding cake.'

As we were in a centre of excellence for refurbishment and the built-environment, I read the following poem. As my compatriot Rob Brydon would say, 'It's a bit of fun ...':

Wipe Clean Convenience

Our street’s been PVC-ed.
At number 33 the conservatory
gleams very white indeed,
now it’s freshly PVC-ed.

Our street’s been PVC-ed.
‘Beverley’ and ‘Waverley’,
‘The Willows’ and ‘The Mead’
all smile so bright in plastic white
now they’ve been PVC-ed.

There’s still hard-wood down at ‘Windward’,
soffits resin-stained by trees,
sash windows down ‘The Crescent’
where they’ve not replaced their eaves.
Wooden sills and lintels there
are rotting by degrees,
while ‘Dunroamin’ and ‘Glenorglin’
no maintenance they need,
now their fascia boards and drainpipes
have all been PVC-ed.

With your moulded set of dentures
a welcome smile is guaranteed,
no warping doors, Polyfilla chores
once you’ve been PVC-ed.

Who wants leaded lights and stained glass?
from home improvement bills we’re freed,
thanks to door-to-door deliverance,
the fitter’s ready expertise.
Let’s carry a torch for the plastic porch,
it’s anonymity we need.
No pain, no stain, no smears from rain

now we’ve all been PVC-ed.

I must admit, we've had it done too ...

Poetic licence conceals a shamed-face.

Monday, 26 August 2013

A Room With A View

One of my eldest's shots from the living-room window at the top of the Torre Corso Donati
How’s that for a view from the living-room window? Well, it’s one that is available if you own a sensitively restored medieval tower-house in Florence. I don’t, I hasten to add, but I now know someone who does. We’ve normally been fairly abstemious when choosing where to stay on holiday, but this year we decided to push the boat out ... or, more accurately, to climb the steps ...

We all wanted to go to Florence. Pen’s been before and as both daughters were up for it – a remarkable consensus for teenagers – we thought it was too good an opportunity to miss. Who knows? it might be the last major family holiday before they start to fly the nest.

So, there we were, occupying the top three floors of one of the Torres Corso Donati, with spectacular views on three sides over Florence. The Duomo, Palazzo Vecchio, Santa Croce, San Miniato, the synagogue, you name it. It was more than we’d usually pay for self-catering accommodation, but worth every Euro and the 90-odd steps up and the further 31 spiral steps up to the living-room perched at the top of the tower. 

You can find details of this splendid two-bedroom holiday let here.

We spent much of the time with our jaws dropped open. Sometimes I felt as if we didn’t need to go out at all. We could just stand there, staring out of the window.
The view of our neighbours' tower

The Torre Corso Donati is mentioned in Dante’s Il Purgatorio. I had his Inferno with me. One night, I sat up reading it, sipping some Tuscan wine, then stared out of the window as a huge crescent moon drifted between the towers of the Palazzo Vecchio and towards Giotto’s Campanile. On other occasions, I stood listening to the bells reverberating from San Lorenzo to Santa Croce and all points between. The solemn tolling rolled across the pan-tiled roofs then faded to silence.

Of course, we did venture out ... to the Brancacci Chapel, San Marco, the Uffizzi ...
I took myself up to San Miniato and joined the monks and the faithful for Vespers, and briefly, for the first part of the Mass. I also headed in the afternoon heat for the English Cemetery, dry and dusty amid the cicadas and the cypresses. A single English rose-bush grows alongside the grave of Elizabeth Barrett-Browning. I pointed it out to an elegant Florentine gentleman who loaned me the plan of the cemetery the nuns had given him. He’d not heard of her but he nodded at the appropriateness of the rose. It was a macaronic conversation in broken French, Spanish and English. I’m afraid I don’t speak Italian and my Spanish is very basic. I do lapse into a kind of pidgin, tourist-English I’m afraid ... for which my daughters rib me unmercifully.

A tranquil spot and a 'community of consolation' -
The English Cemetery
The cemetery is cared for by a delightful English nun who crossed the Tiber after her Anglican bishop ‘bulldozed’ her convent. She gets the Roma children to clean and tend the graves in exchange for teaching them to read. It’s really a very special place.

Florence in August is hot, dusty and full of tourists and queues. But we found the Brancacci Chapel, parts of Santo Spirito over in Oltrarno and even San Marco relatively free of crowds. Best of all, we had a tower to retreat to, above the busy streets and a view ... what a view ...

Bird's eye view

Dusk and the Duomo

Amy (left) endures the Purgatory of a portrait with her parents

Saturday, 3 August 2013

All Blisse/Consists in this

I’m reasonably up on church architecture. I can tell my nave from my chancel, generally recognise Perpendicular when I see it and can spot a Romanesque tympanum from a bowshot distance. 

I never know, though, what to call the space tucked away behind the altar that you get in large parish churches and cathedrals. Sometimes these contain tombs and effigies, at others only a few step-ladders and stacks of unused chairs. In some places, Durham Cathedral springs to mind, they’re used for works of art. 

At All Saints in the centre of High Wycombe, one end contains a ‘Quiet Garden’.

An indoor garden? Well, yes, but one consisting of pebbles, a meditative, trickling water feature and a Bible opened at a passage in Matthew’s Gospel. Very calming it is too. I learned from a leaflet that it’s there as part of something called The Quiet Garden Movement.

I don’t know about you, but I wasn’t aware that there was such a Movement. What does it do? What is it for? I know all about the charismatic movement and the so-called ‘house-church movement’ and lots of other theological and spiritual movements – but I’d never heard of The Quiet Garden Movement.

Again, I don’t know about you, but when I come across the term ‘Movement’ I envisage something fairly active rather than contemplative.

‘What do want?’
‘Quiet gardens!’
‘When do we want them?’

‘Two-four-six-eight ... what do we want to cultivate?’

So, I was pleasantly surprised to find that not only is The Quiet Garden Movement an international one, but it has its own newsletter – Quiet Places – and its own website. It has friends in high places. The list of patrons includes Richard Foster – of Celebration of Discipline fame – the Most Revd Vincent Nichols, RC head-honcho here in the UK and the delightful Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia. There’s also the wonderfully named Sir Ghillean Prance of the Eden Project and A Rocha, the botanist and Christian environmentalist.

The Movement has gardens all over the world. There are Quiet Gardens in France, in South Africa, Australia, Canada, the USA ...

People sometimes open their own private gardens for groups and individuals to use for prayer and contemplation and reflection. As the newsletter says, the aim is for gardens to provide ‘one possible channel among many encountering the divine.’

It’s easy to be put off, to be a tad cynical about this sort of language. Many of us, I’m sure, can remember the rather twee Dorothy Gurney verses found in the municipal parks of our youth:

The kiss of the sun for pardon,
The song of the birds for mirth.
One is nearer God’s heart in a garden
Than anywhere else on earth.

I’m not sure we should let that rob us of an important dimension though, the sense that ‘we live as a world in which heaven and earth exist side by side.’

The word Paradise itself derives from a Persian word for a walled garden. The Quiet Places newsletter quotes the 17th century cleric and poet, Thomas Traherne.

All Blisse
Consists in this,
To do as Adam did:
And not to know those Superficial Toys
Which in the Garden once were hid.
Those little new Invented Things.
Cups, Saddles, Crowns are Childish Joys.
So Ribbans are and Rings
Which all our Happiness destroys.

I’ll be working in Wycombe for a while, a few days a week.  The Quiet Garden at the back of All Souls may see more of me yet.

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Roger McGough's choice of winning poems

You can read them here or on The Leopard blog if you prefer, but here are the winning poems of the recent Alsager Poetry Competition which I helped organise recently.

Here are Roger's comments and then the winning entries themselves, first the Junior Winners (11-14) and then the Adult Prize Winners.

Congratulations to the winners and a big thank you to all who helped - particularly Jude, Lynne and the wonderful women at Alsager Library. We couldn't have run the competition without them. They were marvellous.

Roger wrote:
I was very impressed indeed by the quality of poems, particularly in the adult section. I think that the subject chosen i.e. Books, really stimulated imaginations in often unexpected and exciting ways. Nothing dull or dusty here.

In fact I had a problem choosing an outright winner among the adult writers, and any one of the first four could have been selected.

The Missionary Book I liked because of its unusual setting, and the voice that carried the poem. ‘He carried his God inside a tree’ is such a great first line that invites the reader straight into the story, and he is not disappointed.

A Bookish Life was an elegant poem, musical and perfect with its sense of nostalgia moving on to the present day. Witty and ‘bookish’ in a stylish way. Clever rhymes and perfectly pitched.

Library Books I enjoyed for its sense of mystery. Who is this Mrs Allen? Mum and Dad, bullwhips and ‘hair interrogated by curlers’ all helped create an off-kilter strangeness that was attractive.

The Library Assistant Dreams of Books I enjoyed for the Marc Chagall, surreal picture the poet created. From the opening flutter of paper wings to the frottage amongst the thrillers the reader is immersed.

In the section for young writers, I had no problems picking a winner.

Read Between My Lines stood out because it was a poem that took the subject Books and found different voices to illustrate these objects that surround us, and which we take so much for granted.

Those trembling, clammy hands in the dentist’s waiting room, that book consigned to propping up ‘a chair with a limp’  Wonderful stuff.

Definitely and One Two Three I also enjoyed although they were not strictly about books.


3rd Prize | Ruth Stevens | One, Two, Three

A new aroma
A new horizon
A new world
A new adventure.

A distant memory
A long-lost friend
A familiar tune
A free souvenir.

A single wish,
pray it be granted
to live in the moment
my book began.

First time is an adventure.
Next a memory.
Third a wish -
and a new life for me.

2nd Prize | Fern Brown | Definitely

The list
Of things that will get done,
Definitely in the future.

That job.
Been there for months now,
Years now,
Definitely in the future.

That shelf,
Sitting there alone,
Definitely in the future.

The lawn,
Growing, growing, growing.
Definitely in the future,

The light,
The flickering light. Change,
Change it now,
Definitely in the future.

This list,
Is a book, now.
It will get done,
Definitely in the future.

1st Prize | Miranda McLaren | Read Between My Lines

I’m the book that
Collects dust on the third shelf down in the second hand books store.
Waiting, wondering, worrying,
Speculating over how much longer I will be here for.
Light fingers shiver down my spine
And pluck me from the shelf,
Flicking through my pages
Into my sentences they delve,
Carrying me over to the till
Placing me softly on the cold table
Asking how much I’m worth
Fumbling for my label.

I’m the book that
Is in a basket of toys at a nursery full of brats.
Tortured, tormented on a daily basis,
Read by the teacher to fidgeting kids sitting on mats.
They don’t think before they act,
Don’t think that books have feelings too,
My pages are always being scribbled over
And torn out to be flushed down the loo.
I’m the book that
Is used to prop up the chair with the limp, or to fan your sweaty face on a hot day.
I can be used to flatten pieces of paper
Or you can lean on me to write down a phone number, say

I’m the book that
Is clutched by trembling hands in the dentist waiting room.
I try my best to distract them
From the pain that will come soon.
But they just can’t seem to
engage in me right,
Unable to concentrate on a single line,
My cover is squeezed tighter with clammy palms
It’s not long until their time.

I’m the lucky book that
Is treasured beneath your pillow, and in your heart I will always keep
The best book you’ve ever read
I can make you laugh or cry. I can make you see.


Joint 3rd Prize Rob Blaney | The Missionary Book

He carried his God inside a tree
and said he would speak like a rainstorm
and burn like fire.

Its skin was like elephant hide
and its flesh opened like the  feathers of a bird.
And the  Missionary said the message would be proclaimed through men’s tongues
and the white God would speak in miracles.

We held the God in our palms and squinted
at its black fingers and golden faces
but it did not make rains nor save the crops
and sickness returned to swell our bellies.

They delivered more of their crop
and stored them in huts,
where they steamed in the season of rain
and browned in the dry,
and to revive our faltering belief
to each family he gave a God-Book.

We put it back inside its tree
and hoped it would grow like a yam.
We sang and we believed
but the tree bleached in the sun,
alive with creatures eating our silent God.

Joint 3rd Prize | Jenny Ryan | A Bookish Life

In the Junior Library, the thing I adore
Is the squeaky clean lino that covers the floor.
In crepe-soled Clarks sandals I tiptoe around,
Afraid I’ll be scolded for making a sound.
Waiting for Rupert to be stamped with a date:
Fourteenth of February nineteen fifty-eight.

A high school my fiction-fuelled fancy takes flight:
As Cathy I dream of my Heathcliff at night.
But in Bible black school clothes, allure’s what I lack
And sadly my Heathcliff does not fancy back.
I start reading Sartre, Jack Kerouac and Peake
In hopes to look cool, intellectual and chic.

At College my study room’s yellow and green:
Yellow jackets that cover my Garnier Racine,
Corneille, Jean-Jacques Rousseau , Verlaine, Baudelaire;
Rough pages remain to cut open with care.
And in new girl Virago’s thick forest of green:
Sackville-West, Barbara Pym, Mary Webb, Molly Keane.

My collection of books wed an Irishman’s choice:
Great names like his countrymen Beckett and Joyce.
Not only we two are together forever
My Girl with Green Eyes chats up his William Trevor,
My Portrait of a Lady hangs with his Dorian Gray
While his Robert Frost warms to my Frost in May.

So yes, you can read me by the friends that I keep,
So many in number they’re lined up two deep,
Familiar and comforting there on the shelves,
Defining their reader as much as themselves.
Will the rise of the Kindle leave rooms somewhat bare?
Will books not speak volumes, And, if not, should we care?

2nd Prize | Joy Winkler | Library Books

Dad: Bullwhips westerns until they give up their storyline,
groans when a woman comes on the scene, wants vittles
to taste like his  mother used to make. In the covered wagon
of his armchair, pipe-smoking, spurs on his slippers
he holds his hand poised for a quick draw,
sees nothing for miles but blissfully empty desert.

Mum: eats her way through Creasey novels
like McVities biscuits; one after the other,
sucks at the plot; juicy like blood oranges.
She takes him all around the house,
ends up in bed with him, her gritted teeth
in a glass, hair interrogated by curlers.

Mrs Allen: loves books. Doctors on pedestals,
nurses lusting after moquette three pieces, detached
houses in cul-de-sacs. She fingers the rose on the spine,
her legs on fat cushions aching for a hero, licks
her fingers which taste of marzipan, wets her
eyebrows, affecting surprise as she turns the pages.

And me: who trawls the library for a fat catch
to keep them happy for another week. They are
hungry, ungrateful, sometimes but Mrs Allen
gives me sixpence. I want to find the good books,
try from ‘Fiction A’ read all of Angela Brazil.
Repeatedly borrow Ballet Shoes: it smells of talc.

1st Prize | Clare Kirwan | The Library Assistant Dreams of Books

They flutter with paper wings around her
in visions where she is a slim volume
browsing in meadows, murmuring her reservations
as she herds returnees into Dewey order.

She sees the streets outside as aisles,
all vehicles compendiums and street lamps bent
over like reading lights, illuminating passages.
Houses are glass fronted cabinets, the birds

Bookmarks scattered across a blank page of sky.
Schools and factories are stacks, other people
are stories she may or may not have read
and either way she does not know the end of.

Her nightmares too are bibliographic:
great libraries lost to tsunamis, wash up
a flotsam of fiction on illiterate beaches long overdue
with all the people of the world withdrawn from stock;

Or date stamps pursue her through the stacks
for nights of erotic frottage amongst the thrillers,
imagining the borrowers licking their thumbs and

tenderly turning her pages.

1st Prize Winner Clare Kirwan with Roger McGough