This ae nighte, this ae nighte…

OK, so I grew up with Tolkein.  On the bedrooms walls of most of my fellow students, wedged between the one of Che in a beret and the one of the man with the very long legs striding above the legend Keep On Truckin’, was a purple and yellow one of Gandalf. I remember the coarse texture of the paper, and the violence of the colours.

So the idea of poems being spells or incantations is kind of inbuilt. How could they be anything else? But of course, that may be just a ’70s thing.

I wrote a poem about a mouse many years ago, as one does. This is it, it’s only little:

A Conversation

The Mouse sits on my shoulder through the night.

Again, I sharpen quills and drag my books into the light.

But oh, the hours are long and I grow old.

Magic’s not wanted now, I whisper

Spells will be mocked and songs are out of season.

All the more need for you, my Wizardess.

All the more reason.

Of course the Wizardess is me – all characters in people’s poems are aspects of the poet, just as all characters in a novel are aspects of the novelist. And the mouse is a kind of play on muse – Mouse/Muse? No? That’s why he’s got a capital letter, because really he’s a character from Greek Mythology.

However did I survive to be this old, if I felt that old in those days?

I have a habit of picking up a paperback, reading a few pages and putting it back on the shelf. Since the house is stuffed with paperbacks going way back beyond Gandalf and Keep On Truckin’ it becomes a kind of random, inspiration-finding exercise. I tend to believe connecting snippets of information, ideas,  thoughts – like Marvell’s nectaren and curious peach – ‘into my hand themselves will reach’ – from the rows of crumbling, tea-coloured paperbacks on my bookshelves.

This morning I picked up and briefly perused Understanding Poetry by James Reeves. This is a very old book (Australia 90c, South Africa 75c, United Kingdom 6/-) and James Reeves must surely be deceased by now but it remains one of the best books about poetry ever for the newbie poet (so hate that word but Needs Must When The Devil Drives).

And this is what I found:

A poem, then, is an act, not simply a statement… it is an act of magic. And of the magic of the act rhythm is an essential part.

He then goes on to include the Cumberland Lake-Wyke chant, which was a chant used at the death rites over a corpse in the north of England, up till as late as the 17th Century. He shared it with me and so I’ll share it with you, just for the magic of it:

This ae nighte, this ae nighte,
Every nighte and alle,
Fire and fleet and candle-lighte,
And Christe receive thy saule.

When thou from hence away art past,
Every nighte and alle,
To Whinny-muir thou com’st at last;
And Christe receive thy saule.

If ever thou gavest hosen and shoon,
Every nighte and alle,
Sit thee down and put them on;
And Christe receive thy saule.

If hosen and shoon thou ne’er gav’st nane
Every nighte and alle,
The whinnes sall prick thee to the bare bane;
And Christe receive thy saule.

From Whinny-muir whence thou may’st pass,
Every nighte and alle,
To Brig o’ Dread thou com’st at last;
And Christe receive thy saule.

If ever thou gav’st silver and gold,
Every nighte and alle,
At t’ Brig o’ Dread thou’lt find foothold,
And Christe receive thy saule.

But if silver and gold thou never gav’st nane,
Every nighte and alle,
Down thou tumblest to Hell flame,
And Christe receive thy saule.

From Brig o’ Dread whence thou may’st pass, Every nighte and alle,
To Purgatory fire thou com’st at last;
And Christe receive thy saule.

If ever thou gav’st meat or drink,
Every nighte and alle,
The fire sall never make thee shrink;
And Christe receive thy saule.

If meat or drink thou ne’er gav’st nane,
Every nighte and alle,
The fire will burn thee to the bare bane;
And Christe receive thy saule.

This ae nighte, this ae nighte,
Every nighte and alle,
Fire and fleet and candle-lighte,
And Christe receive thy saule.

I won’t go through and translate every word, thereby spoiling it, but if you’re interested go to I would link it but the elves at WordPress scarily ‘disappeared’ my entire draft post when I tried to and it’s taken me half an hour of exasperatedly Googling message boards or whatever those dire things are, to wrest it from them. (Oh, now it’s gone and linked itself…)


Featured Image: Cyra R Cancel, Florida: Black Cat & White Mouse-Wizards

Goodbye, Miss Chips

I originally trained to be a teacher. Three entirely wasted years at training college, using up all the grant students were then entitled to claim from their Local Authorities: bridges now were burnt; boats had been sunk; no second chances.  Why did I do that?

At eighteen, going on fourteen, I had based my decision on a range of factors, which were:

Not knowing what else to do, apart from getting a job, which I sensed (accurately) would be a disaster at this stage of my life. All I wanted was to be a poet, but there didn’t seem to be any openings for poets. A tutor suggested working in a factory while I wrote. I had never been in a factory and at that age was still running on the inverse snobbery of my parents, who were upper-working/lower-middle class. Only lower working-class people worked in factories. I had read Altarwise by Owl-Light from beginning to end. I had read The Wife of Bath’s Tale, albeit the bowdlerised schoolbook version. Duh! How could such a prodigy; a future poet almost if not quite as good as Dylan Thomas; such a towering intellectual be expected to work in a factory?

Later, I was to work in not one but several factories – collating greetings cards – week after week of sickeningly scarlet Valentines cards in the middle of July, I remember, glue and glitter that got everywhere – and a bookbinding factory. I would feel more at ease in such anonymous, uncompetitive, unchallenging environments than in any other. But at eighteen, going on fourteen, you know nothing and you think you know everything.

The shorter-than-me, half-Austrian boyfriend had accepted a place at a teacher training college in London. He was a maths genius, or so he’d been telling me for the past year. I had no way of knowing since I had never scored higher than twelve per cent in any maths test. I had spent the larger part of the previous year being dazzled by his talk of infinity and quadratic equations, while doing nothing very much in the way of studying English and French.  As a result I passed my two A Levels, but with grades so very, very low that to all intents and purposes they were fails; and this in spite of having achieved high-grade O levels in the same subjects.

I was supposed to be doing sociology A Level as well. People would joke that certificates in sociology were printed on toilet paper. I must be the only person from that era who hasn’t got one. I can’t remember a thing about sociology except that the textbook was heavy, and by Stephen Something-or-other. I must have stopped going to lectures early on in order to spend more time in the company of my long-haired pocket genius drinking black coffee and cheap cider, sharing plates of chips and learning about infinity and quadratic equations.

I knew I would never see him again but somehow my going to another, similar college maintained the connection to what had been the best year of my life in the sense of being alive. You don’t realise – the exhilaration of being eighteen and in love for the first time – the sense of possibilities – a whole vast planet yours for the taking. How soon that fades, but at the time you don’t realise, which is a mercy.


I needed to get away from Dad, but by some strange Freudian miscalculation managed to get myself accepted at a training college a short bus-ride away – so no actual leaving home and another three years of fierce and occasionally violent rows with Dad. I could have got away. And yet I couldn’t. It would take marriage – the classic short hop to another, similar man – to achieve that.

My mother said I was making a mistake – that I wasn’t temperamentally suited to be a teacher. But hey, I’m a trial-and-error kinda gal: I kinda have to do things, mess them up, realise I messed them up, then do the same thing over and over and over again.

So, for whatever reason I ended doing three separate six-week teaching practices in three separate schools and being dreadful on every occasion. I could hardly eat for terror during these six week torments. I hardly slept at night, knowing I would have to get up, get the bus and walk into that room full of evil, antisocial aliens all over again the following day.

Yes, I was the trainee in tears, who had to be rescued by her tutor from a room full of paper-aeroplane throwing, desk-banging, screeching, cheeking, fighting, mocking, singing, rioting teenagers.

I was the cowering, red-faced idiot in the too-short skirt being leered and sniggered at by boys taller, and only two or three years younger than myself, in black blazers. ‘Get yourself some glasses,’ my tutor suggested. ‘They’d make you look older: plain glass, of course.’

I was the one who had to be taught fractions in the staff room by the maths teacher before assembly, then fight my way in to 4B and teach a double lesson of it before it faded from short-term memory, praying the kids didn’t ask any questions because at that point I would be stuffed.

I was the inspiring young pedagogue who set creative writing tasks and got back forty-two almost identical one-line stories about Frankenstein creating a monster, the film having been on telly the night before.

The Certificate in Education, on crisp, cream paper with fancy scrollwork, which I was awarded at the end of the three years in spite of the above catalogue of disasters, apparently on the basis of an ‘outstanding’ in English (my Main Course) would rapidly become the albatross around my neck. Prospective employers would query, naturally, why, having studied for three years to be a teacher I wasn’t actually, now, teaching. And how could I explain without telling them the whole sad story I have just told you? Then they would have thought – what a dork. And why would anyone employ a dork? Nothing – believe me, nothing – fails like failure.

After a while I had a bit of a brainwave: what was to stop me leaving the Certificate in Education off my CV? And so I did that. It created a secondary problem in that with those three years  blank it looked as if you had been locked up in some sort of young offenders’ institution or living rough on the streets, but I found ways round it. I began to apply the only talent I actually possessed, and that in goodly measure – creativity/lateral thinking – the ability to spin an ever more intricate protective web of tales around myself – to my CV and other areas of my life. I became an invented, acceptable, suitable person. In the process, for many decades I lost sight of whoever was underneath.

But I survived.

When they get to the part where he’s breakin’ her heart…

Sorry, I’m distracted at the moment. House hunting. Practical stuff and writing don’t mix, for me.

So, tomorrow I’m going by train to a seaside town on the far side of the county, and then I’m going to walk across said seaside town to a part of it I’ve never visited before, to view a couple of houses. I am hoping against hope that one of them will turn out to be “the one” as I hate house-hunting with a passion. It is the most draining and solitary business, when all you want is to be feeding cats and writing – to be traipsing here, there and everywhere – to be trying to find places – to be waiting outside houses for estate agents – to be carted round house after house after house. Stone-cladding? Interesting… Oh, I see, quirky layout… I’ll mind the step then… ‘statement’ purple wallpaper with large red flowers? Colourful. When can I go home?

Except of course that it’s not home any more. It’s under offer and somebody – a rather nice man, actually – is keen to move in. Got to get the old skates on. No writing. No wafting about thinking beautiful thoughts. Phone calls, phone calls, phone calls. Houses, houses,  houses. More houses. All of them… nasty.

But tomorrow’s town brings back memories. It was where I lived for the first four years after I married Mr Wrong. We moved straight into a rented flat. No honeymoon. The best man gave us a lift from the church and handed us his wedding gift (two giant bath towels) as we got out of the car. He was probably embarrassed to be with us at that point, and glad to be rid. Off home to his Mum.

And that evening we went for a walk. We walked through the town and held hands – something I don’t remember us ever doing again – and we stood at some sort of wrought iron fence at the end of a cobbled street and looked down over the harbour; out over  fishing boats to the sea. And I was filled with a sense of destiny and fulfilment – sounds weird now – but I felt safe. I was married. We were married. That was my future sorted.

When I think back, that was our only happy day – the very first one. The following twenty-two years –  not so good.

However, I have always kept a fondness for the town. It suited me even if he didn’t. I liked its faded splendour, its shabby grandeur, the fairy lights looped through the trees, the lift going down to the beach from the cliff top; ranks of monstrous Victorian hotels; the art shop where he bought his supplies and the little old man in the fawn raincoat who ran it; the middle-aged shops; the pottery galleries; the library with its wide, brass-railed staircase and unread books; the drunkards after dark; the sea air; the pebbly beach; baby seagulls on the rooftops, brown-speckled and carolling; the grimness of November there; the bombed-out church; the way you could sit on a bench in the town centre and watch the world go by.

So, it will be strange going back. A journey into the past. I will walk past our old third-floor flat and look up at the balcony where I tried and failed to grow tomatoes in a pot, at the fairy lights in the trees, and I will remember the music that swirled around us; our hippie past already lost to us, though we didn’t realise it at the time. Our youth was close at our heels in that seaside town. Tomorrow, maybe I’ll catch the echo of it.