All posts by francesthomas

I was born during the War in South Wales, where my mother had gone to escape the bombs. My mother’s family was Irish and English, my father’s Welsh. Later we moved back to South London where I grew up. Since I was an only child, I read lots of books and when the books ran out, I made up stories, a habit I’ve never lost. Later I went to a convent school, where I was bad at needlework and netball. The headmistress didn’t like me because my hair was untidy – still is, I’m afraid. I read English at London University and took a teaching course. I married a historian, Richard Rathbone, and I have two daughters and two grandchildren. My most interesting work, apart from writing, was working with young dyslexic people. Contrary to what many believe, dyslexics can become passionate readers and imaginative writers – I look forward to seeing several of my ex-pupils featuring in the Booker Prize shortlist one day. My first children’s book, The Blindfold Track, was published in 1980. I’ve published many since, for children and adults, but I especially enjoy writing for children. My children’s books have been translated into ten languages. We lived for many years in North London, and I still think London is one of the most exciting cities in the world. But a few years ago, we decided to make a complete break, and came to live in this beautiful part of mid-Wales where we used to spend our family holidays. I now live here very happily, trying to learn Welsh (ond mae’n mor anodd!) going for walks on the hills, writing and painting.


( A proposal I wrote many years ago for a biography that never got written)

Who – or what – is L.E.L?  If you’d put the question in the 1820s, the answer would come readily -’L.E.L’ – or Laetitia Landon, who signed herself thus – was the most glittering of literary stars. Week after week, poems signed with those mysterious,liquid initials appeared in the Literary Gazette, sad poems of love and death, rich with dazzling romantic imagery. To many young poets, such as the two Rossettis, L.E.L was the role model of what a poet should be. L.E.L was a star.

She was born in 1803 to the usual family fallen-on-hard-times, a dreamy, romantic child, who was regarded, perhaps rather uncritically by her family, as a learned paragon. But she attracted the attention of the editor of the Literary Gazette when she was still in her teens, and those prolific, much published verses are very much those of a young girl. Fame followed; fame in the literary London of the 1820s and 1830s. Now we see this as something of a dull period in English letters – after the Romantics and before the Victorians – but of course it did not seem so at the time. Literary life fermented away as it always does, with its full quota of dramas and scandals. Bulwer Lytton – whom we now remember as the author of excruciatingly dull novels – was then a dazzling dandy with auburn ringlets,married scandalously to the equally dazzling Rosina. Caroline Norton, Sheridan’s granddaughter was there, with her heartbreaking attempts to gain custody of her children. Lady Caroline Lamb still gave off a fitful and dangerous glow, and Lady Blessington, confidante of Byron was feared and admired. Dumpy Miss Spence held a Salon at what she insisted on calling her ‘humble abode’ – Leigh Hunt, Disraeli, the young Carlyle, Haydon, Harriet Martineau, Miss Mitford, all flit in and out of the scene.

In person, Laetitia was much unlike her melancholy poetic persona. She was plump, warm-hearted, plain and talkative. She could be indiscreet too, in the days when a false step could lose a woman her reputation for ever. Rumours – and at one point anonymous letters – circulated about her indiscretions, and society which had so lionised her was quick to disclaim her. ‘She is Fallen!’ exclaimed Macready melodramatically, though most likely, she was  foolish, rather than fallen. At any rate she indignantly denied the rumours. But as the 1820s became the 1830s, L.E.L’s star began to wane. Now she  was viewed, not as a precocious, mysterious maiden but a foolish, chattering spinster. Her poems began to go out of fashion.

But throughout the twenty years of her writing life, she was anything but silly. Family circumstances meant that very early in her twenties, she became the breadwinner of her family. Numerous hangers-on clustered around her and demanded a share of her earnings. So whilst others could afford to sleep off the bright evenings of the salon, L.E.L sat working far into the small hours, turning out poems, criticism, novels and anything else that would bring in the money. To her, writing was a lonely, determined and not at all romantic way of earning a living. You soon sense a strain of real melancholy behind the cheerful front, and the easy fashionable gloom of her poems.

But stranger than anything was the manner of her death. To everyone’s surprise, in her late thirties, she became engaged to Governor Maclean of the Gold Coast, a taciturn and rather solitary Scotsman, quite the antithesis of her warm friendliness. She insisted on going back with him to Africa, despite his uncertain temper, the uncongenial climate, and rumours about a black princess whom he kept as a wife there. Africa had always been a romantic dream to her, ever since a favourite childhood book, The Travels of Sylvester Tramper. But there is something darkly ominous about this period, her friends’ forebodings, the unknown nature of what awaited her, the incompatabilty of temperament. Though she wrote cheerful and brave letters about how well she was adapting, one gets the sense of a woman frightened and alone.

My friends, my absent friends,

          Do you think of me as I think of you?

  she wrote, on the boat to Cape Coast Castle, in a poem that is still genuinely moving, and that drew answering poems from  both Elizabeth Barratt Browning and Christina Rossetti.

Cape Coast Castle proved to be as uncomfortable and as lonely as she feared, and she walked through echoing empty rooms, where ants swarmed everywhere, and books perished of mildew. But her possible futures, happy or unhappy, were suddenly curtailed, by the discovery of her body, two months after she’d arrived, on her bedroom floor, apparently clutching a bottle of prussic acid. Murder, said some of her friends, natural death, said others, suicide, others said. Her husband buried the body hastily that same day without a post-mortem and with only a cursory inquest, so the rumours multiplied as quickly as the West African ants.

After the brief frisson of her death, poor Laetitia was quickly forgotten, or remembered only in the memoirs her circle wrote in their old age.


This story, read glancingly, as I researched the life of Christina Rossetti, fascinated me, and the fascination did not go away. I was moved by Laetitia Landon’s  determined, dedicated professionalism, and the seriousness that underlay the cheerful, inconsequential manner. I saw her as in many ways adrift, and unprotected, in the cruel, backbiting literary world of her day; and like stars of our own day, those who adulated her one minute were only too happy to snigger at her downfall the next. Her mistakes seem to have been caused simply by a lack of judgement and discretion; in an age where women were supposed to tread carefully and veil their feelings, she was impetuous and impulsive. She wanted to give and take friendship freely, as men could do, without looking over her shoulder or calculating the risks. She seems to me an honest and brave person. Later, she was self-critical of her early and easy fame, and aware of the negative effects of adulation:

 Alas! that ever

        Praise should have been what it is to me-

        The opiate of my heart.

        She isn’t – and I wouldn’t claim it – a great poet. But she isn’t a negligible one, either. Having to churn poetry out as she did meant that a lot of it is weak. But at its best, it is charming and poignant. She wrote in the 1820s, so she is nearly contemporary with Keats, and earlier than Tennyson. At her best, she creates evocative and closely-textured word pictures, and vividly beautiful worlds. You can see why the young Rossettis loved her; she was a poet for young ardent Romantic poets, who loved her colours and music, without being too aware of her clichés.

     Her home  

                      Was now beneath the forest dome;-

                      A hundred knights had watch’d her hall,

                      Her guards were now the pine-trees tall:

                      For harps waked with the minstrel tale,

                      Sang her to sleep the nightingale:

                      For silver vases where were blent

                      Rich perfumes from Arabia sent,

                      Were odours when the wild thyme flower

                      Wafted its sweets on gale and shower:

                      For carpets of the purple loom

                      The violets spread their cloud of bloom,

                      Starr’d with primroses; and around

                      Boughs like green tapestry swept the ground.


Heady stuff, page upon page of it. It is easy to see why she became so fashionable, and just as easy to see why she fell out of fashion. And yet she’s one of those, like Sir Walter Scott, who influence the imagery of a generation to come. Much of Victorian art – especially Pre-Raphaelitism – would not have looked as it did were it not for L.E.L

But there’s another theme winding insistently through her works – the consciousness of being a poet, and how the dreams of being a poet seduce, irradiate and finally deceive their possessor.There are few other poets with so strong an awareness of the power of poetry, and its effect on a woman:


   I had no hope that dwelt not with my lyre,

               No bliss whose being grew not from my lyre,

               No energy undevoted to my lyre.

               It was my other self that had a power;

               Mine, but o’er which I had not a control.

               At times it was not with me, and I felt

               A wonder how it ever had been mine:

               And then a word, a look of loveliness,

               A tone of music called it into life…



Part of my story will be of the literary world of her day and the figures who pass through it; often more interesting in their stories than in their literature. I hope to evoke a picture of those days, a period suspended between the plain spoken, often crude wit of the eighteenth century, and the the stuffier politeness of the Victorians. It’s a period – just- before the effects of industrialization were widely felt; those who lived through it and into the end of the century wrote about the days of their youth as of a vanished epoch – they recalled link-boys, stage-coaches, public floggings, wives sold at auction, and the country-side soon to be obliterated beneath the inexorable march of London streets. It was a period that was hugely obsolete before it was even over – never did old-fashion seem so old-fashioned as the 1830s seemed to the 1860s and 70s.

I want to see how L.E.L fits into her background, and about the scandals that plagued her. Did she, or didn’t she? And if she didn’t, why was her circle so willing to believe she did?

There’s a deeper mystery too – just what did happen in West Africa? How much sense can we make of the events of her death? Was it an unlucky, but entirely natural death? Was it suicide, brought on by loneliness and neglect? Was it even, as some of her friends believed, murder, by the supplanted mistress, perhaps even condoned by her husband? I have my own theory, but I am interested to know if that theory will be the same after studying all the evidence. I am fortunate to be married to a historian of West Africa, and thus am well placed to find out as much as I can that will fill in the background, of this strange junction where glittering and frivolous salon society encounters the grimmer realities of African colonialism.

But I think the main reason why a biography of L.E.L will be interesting is because of the renewed interest we are taking in the women writers of the nineteenth century. We’re no longer so inclined to dismiss them with a sneer as ‘poetesses’ or to scorn their feelings as so much over-sensitivity. Suddenly the voices of these women, silent for so long, are being heard again. We can respect them for their professionalism, we’re no longer going to despise the unmarried ones – as many of them were – for being spinsters. We can teach ourselves to listen to what they are saying, to hear their voices. It doesn’t matter if L.E.L is not a ‘great’ poet – we can accept the interesting minor tone of a woman, just as we can accept it in a male poet.

My plan for a biography of Christina Rossetti was rejected by many publishers, because they thought she was dull and out of fashion. But I’m glad to say that there has been a huge interest in her since it came out. Now it seems that there will be an interest in her fellow-writers of the day. Isobel Armstrong is editing an Oxford anthology of women’s nineteenth century poetry, and there are several studies of their work. Apart from two fictionalised accounts of Laetitia Landon’s life – in 1928 and 1951, she has been almost forgotten in this century. Much remains to be found out about her background – her grandmother was a friend of Mrs Siddons, for example, and many of her poems have never been studied in the periodicals in which she wrote so copiously.

So can poets make a difference?

Well, can they? The last two years have been quite horrible for the world, and yet poets continue to write poems. Is there any point to it? Is an Isis bomber going to take his finger off the detonation button because a line of Shakespeare comes into his mind? Is a gun-laden American fanatic going to turn his automatic weapon away from his fellow citizens because he remembers some Wordsworth?    Auden wrote of a tyrant; he wrote poetry ‘that was easy to understand,’  and little children died in the streets when he got angry.  I doubt that Donald Trump either writes, or reads poetry.   Does it make any of us nicer?

Well, probably not.  But perhaps that isn’t what poetry is about.  Poets aren’t necessarily even very nice people.  But yet we – those of us who aren’t Donald Trumps – do continue to read, and to love, poetry.  You don’t need to share George Herbert’s beliefs to feel  greatly comforted by his poem which begins ‘Love bade me welcome, but my soul drew back.’ Or to be uplifted by Wordsworth’s assertion that there is ‘a motion and a spirit that impels, all thinking things..’ when you’re looking out at a scene of stunning beauty. Or,  remembering the sensations of your own pregnancy with Sylvia Plath’s beautiful poems on motherhood and babies; confounding the male critics who used to assert that these things weren’t suitable subjects for poetry. Every time I lose something, I think of Elizabeth Bishop’s stunning poem about loss, ‘One Art’.( Though this morning,  I kicked something that went tinkling over the floor, and discovered that it was the earring that I thought I’d lost the other day. There has to be a poem about the joy of finding.) I don’t normally like those ‘inspirational’ poems that people are prone to post on social media, but Derek Mahon’s ‘Everything is going to be all right,’ and R.S.Thomas’s  ‘The Bright Field’  can make me feel positive and optimistic, even on a bad day.

Yes, poems can be beautiful and enrich our own lives. But do they make any difference to the world? Looking at the favourite poems of those who are actually in charge of politics can be a bit depressing. Margaret Thatcher’s favourite poem was apparently ‘If’. (Though I also have a  memory of her lovingly quoting Rolf Harris’s ‘Two Little Boys.) Gordon Brown likes ‘Invictus.’ Michael Foot was fond of Shelley’s ‘Mask of Anarchy’ – ‘ye are many, they are few.’  All rather predictable.

What of W.H. Auden’s stunning ‘September 1st 1939′  with its stunning ending ‘We must love one another or die.’  Yet it’s not to be found in his Collected Poems, because he felt that the ending didn’t work – we’ll die anyway even if we love one another. Yes, but I wish he’d left it there. Even if the Donald Trumps of this world wouldn’t read it, or understand it if they did.

So poetry probably doesn’t make much difference to the world. But it does colour the lives of those of us who read it, letting us share for a moment the insights and imaginations of those far more insightful and imaginative than us. ‘What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.’

This, I suppose is the motivation behind two of my books, ‘A Bracelet of Bright Hair’ published in 2012, and its companion ‘Dancing in the Chequered Shade,’ published this year. Each is a journal of the events of my year, and how reading poetry has informed and enriched those events.  But I describe my second volume ‘Dancing In The Chequered Shade as ‘poetry in a difficult year.’ No need to enumerate the events that made 2016 a difficult year, or those which are making 2017 just as nasty.  For the first time in my life I find myself depressed and  negative   about the world I’m living in. Even our 1960s panic about the Bomb, or the unpleasantness of the Vietnam war didn’t make me feel quite as grey as the world does now- fanatical religions, insane gun attacks, unending wars spewing out unending streams of refugees. Reading poetry can seem like an indulgence, a fantasy, a turning away from reality.

But we go on reading it, and poets go on writing it. Can this be a bad  thing? I just don’t know? Can poets make a difference? I find , as I grow older, there are more of these questions I just can’t answer. And maybe there isn’t an answer, maybe I shouldn’t try to find one. Maybe just posing the question, and stopping to think about it is enough.

(p.s. I just googled Donald Trump’s favourite poem; apparently it’s a song lyric called ‘The Snake’ about a kind woman who rescues a snake, only to be poisoned by it. The Trumpians to whom he read it out applauded loudly – and of course it’s a poem about not letting in nasty refugees. So that poem might have made a difference in a bad way)


Five Books and a Cancer Diagnosis

Well,  nobody wants to be diagnosed with cancer. At the very least, it does  rather upset your plans. There are various ways you can react; my attitude has  been, Sod you, cancer, I’m not going gracefully.  You’re there, and I can’t avoid you, but you’re not who I am. The cancer I have has been described as Incurable, but Manageable, and the fact that I’m still here, admittedly running at half-speed,  four years later, seems to bear this out. And it can have some good results. Without the cancer, my last five books probably wouldn’t exist. And thanks to two excellent self-publishing companies, they’re now here and readable.

Two of them I’d already written; these were the first of a projected trilogy on the girls who played a part in the Trojan war, and the first one went through the dispiriting process of being rejected by conventional publishers, despite me being a published author, who’s won prizes. These kind of books don’t sell, said some. Your heroine isn’t feisty enough, said others (I think feisty now means she’d have to dress up as a boy and go around shooting people.) She spends too much time spinning and weaving, said others, as though women in ancient Greece didn’t have to do this. My heroines do their share of this but manage to get out of it wherever possible. If that’s not feisty , then I think feisty isn’t for me.

So I thought I had no choice but to forget about these two books, never mind the third of the trilogy which I had just started to write. These days unpublished books aren’t even manuscripts, they’re simply holes in cyberspace somewhere which only the writer knows how to find. They don’t exist in any real way.  Without you there to press the few buttons that lead to them, they’re nowhere.

That was where the cancer diagnosis came in. My first thoughts were the usual ones, worry for my family, for myself, anxiety about how the treatment was going to be, etc. But pretty soon down the line came the thought of those two books.  And again, my reaction was aggressive and angry rather than ladylike and accepting. Sod you, publishers, I thought. I shall publish them myself.  The excellent Silver Wood Books enabled me to do this, and the impetus of wanting to finish the series gave me an incentive to write the third, despite then being rather knocked out by chemotherapy treatment.  (I hope not being well at the time doesn’t show in the text – I don’t think it does.)The first book, Helen’s Daughter, and the second, The Burning Towers both came out in 2014, and the last, The Silver-Handled Knife in  2015.  They have lovely covers, and I like the look of them as much as anything I’ve had conventionally published. Self-publishing certainly isn’t to be sneered at.


And there was even a bonus – SIlver Wood invited me to do an ebook for a new series they were running, and this, The Beautiful One, the story of Helen of Troy as a girl, turned my trilogy into a quartet. The  chemotherapy had become less aggressive by now but I was pleased to find I was still able to write.

the beautful one cover

The fifth of my post-cancer books was something quite different. In  2011,I’d published a book called A Bracelet of Bright Hair, which was a sort of a journal of my poetry reading over the year and how it had enhanced my life.  It wasn’t the sort of book which fitted into any convenient category, and my agent wouldn’t look at it. Self publishing was the only answer, and Arima books did a lovely job with it. Although it hasn’t sold in huge quantities, it has acquired a loyal following, and people like to buy it as a present, often for those who are ill or bereaved, who can find comfort in poetry.


Well, the peculiar circumstances of my cancer years impelled me to start another such, which I wrote during 2016. This wasn’t a nice year, both politically and personally, yet my overall  mood I hope, was optimistic. It gave a sense of purpose to the year, to write about my daily routines, and the things going on around me, and find poems to suit the day.  The cancer stuff gets mentioned – it has to – but I wanted to show that there can be a lot more in a cancer patient’s life than just having cancer.  And while the world  was in a bad way, I managed to be fairly cheerful throughout – illness can concentrate your mind like this. I call this book Dancing in the Chequered Shade, because that suggested  the contrast of light and darkness which was that year to me.

Again my agent wouldn’t touch it, and self publishing was the only option, and I turned again to Arima. Now the book is in the final stages of preparation – they’ve promised me it will be out by Christmas, and I’ve already had the lovely jacket design.  So while I can’t exactly say thank you, cancer, for making this all possible,  there’s some good to be found in all situations.


So Who Was Helen of Troy?

Helen_of_Troy,_De_MorganThe most beautiful woman in the world? The face that launched a thousand ships?  Bitch-goddess and general whore?  Sad victim of an abduction? Or just one of the many made-up figures of Greek mythology?    Of course, like all the heroes of her long-ago epoch, Agamemnon, Menelaus, Achilles, Priam, Hector, we have no historical or archaeological  evidence for her existence, just the stories told by poets like Homer hundreds of years after the possible events of the Trojan war.

Even her birth is fantastic. Was she the daughter of Tyndareus, King of Sparta, and his wife Leda? Or was she the result of a rape by Zeus in the form of a swan? Did she come from an egg? Was her brother Pollux also the son of the god? But whatever the story, all the legends agree that she was exceptionally beautiful; so much so that when she was only a child, the lecherous Theseus abducted her; though she was protected by his mother Aethra, and eventually rescued by her magical twin brothers.  And then there are the stories of her marriage, and the suitors who couldn’t agree and became violent. Cunning Odysseus came to the rescue as he so often did, getting the young men to sign an agreement that they would abide by Tynareus’s choice, but if ever she was in danger they would come to her rescue; words that sounded  good, but were eventually to lead to one of the greatest wars of ancient days.

Nothing in Greek mythology is ever simple; characters  act, not from free will, but because they are caught in tangles of actions and reactions and recriminations ordained by the gods. And when the goddess Aphrodite promised the young Paris of Troy that he could have the most beautiful woman in the world for his wife, she was   throwing out one of those  disastrous  threads into the world. Helen left her husband Menelaus to elope with Paris, but maybe she was simply trapped in the goddess’s plan.

But there are many strange things in Helen’s story; one of the oddest, told by several ancient writers, is that she never went to Troy at all, but stayed in Egypt for the duration of the war, and the Trojans saw only a ghostly facsimile of her. Perhaps this indicated an Egyptian cult of her as a goddess.  There was certainly a cult of her and her husband Menelaus in ancient Sparta – archaeologists have found a shrine to them both, though they haven’t yet managed to find the splendid palace where she went on to live with Menelaus for many years in apparent harmony, after all the other Trojan participants in the war had been slaughtered or enslaved. (in ancient times, it seems that Sparta wasn’t ‘Spartan’ as we understand it now – that came later in classical times under Leonidas – in heroic times it was a wealthy and luxurious place.)

So was she the subject of a prehistoric cult, and her beauty only an attribute added to the story by later poets? Had an abduction of a royal woman by a piratical Trojan led to a long war? Was a city of Troy – whose ruins were more or less destroyed in the twentieth century in the name of archaeology by Heinrich Schliemann – destroyed in the 13th century BC by victorious Achaeans? What happened to the abducted princess then?  Who were the heroes that surrounded her story; Hector, Achilles, Odysseus? We’ll probably never know,  but the mystery is an exciting one for poets and writers and artists.

Castle Building

Caernafon_Chamberlain_Tower ’Where do you get your ideas from?’ is the question writers are asked most often. Well, anywhere and everywhere is the answer. But the truth is, an idea has to come to life before you can make it into a story, and sometimes it just won’t come But then sometimes it does,  and that’s the exciting part of the process.

One of my favourite stories about how this happens comes from the writer Anthony Trollope, talking about the origins of his books, a process he describes as ‘castle building.’ He writes about a young would-be author, obviously himself, crossing Regent’s Park one damp and grey afternoon. Coming hurriedly  towards him, he sees a little girl and her nursemaid. The little girl is well dressed, although her skirt is splashed with mud. As they draw level to him, he hears the little girl say  to the nurse ‘Oh I do wonder what he’ll be like!’ to which the nurse replies ‘Well, we’ll see.’ At once he was intrigued. Why were they hurrying so fast through the rain? Why couldn’t they have got a cab, as respectable people did? Where were they going? And most of all, who was the he that the girl was dying to see? A cousin, a long lost brother, a future lover? What would happen when they met?

At once the writer in him was sparked into life, and before he reached home, he’d composed a long an elaborate narrative about the pair ( making the girl into a slightly older maiden, so he could spin a story of drama and protection in which he played the hero)  The tiny incident had taken form and become a story, which, while it probably didn’t play a part in any of his later books, for those few hours and days was as real to him as anything in his everyday life. And he went on to write his great books, while holding down a full time job in the Post Office, and inventing the pillar box – he wrote in trains, coaches, using any odd moment; managing more words than most of us do in a lifetime.

Of course, I can’t pretend to be anything like Trollope – but the process of a story coming out of nowhere and then suddenly sparking into life must be familiar to all writers. I was feeling rather down after I’d finished my last book – I thought everything had dried up and I had no more ideas. Then Helen Hart of Silver Wood books invited me to write an ebook for a new series they were doing. I thought about my Girls of Troy trilogy, and wondered who else there was whom I could write about. There was Helen of Troy, of course, who’d played an intermittent part in the trilogy. Could I write about her? Could I write about her girlhood? Well, it was an idea, of course, but there was no life in it. Without that spark, there couldn’t be a story. So I put the idea aside in a corner of my mind, and thought about something else. I was weeding the vegetable patch at the time. And then all at once, there were voices in my head. Helen’s brothers, the magical twins, Castor and Pollux, were speaking to me. I listened to what they had to say.  And then Helen herself joined in, and I listened to her, put down my trowel, and tried to jot down what she had to say to me before it vanished.. The spark was fired – the story was there. My castle building had begun.


Me, Sir Kenneth and Charlemagne

Well, you wouldn’t even attempt it nowadays, would you, standing in front of the camera and pontificating in a posh accent about western civilisation. In fact even the idea that there might be such a thing as civilisation here in the west would be enough to cause half of Facebook to implode. And yet, the DVD of Civilisation by Sir Kenneth Clark which I’ve been watching again, has surprisingly a lot to offer, and defuses many of the prejudices with which one approaches it, along the way. For one thing, Clark doesn’t deny that there are other civilisations out there, though he doesn’t spend much time on them; and though there are a few uncomfortable gaps, what he says is balanced and intelligent. And unlike many modern documentaries, the camera moves slowly and carefully over the works of art he shows giving you time to appreciate them.
I realise now that much of the of the art that I’ve seen over the years was inspired by watching the series years ago (even though that must have been in black and white)Ravenna, Urbino, Mantua, Chartres, Assissi ; all those places I’ve been to because of Sir Kenneth.

And we’ve just completed another Sir Kenneth pilgrimage, we’ve been to Aachen, to see the treasures of Charlemagne. Aachen is a pretty little town, not ancient because it was destroyed twice, once by fire in the seventeenth century, and once -er- by us in WW2. But Charlemagne’s cathedral, which is at the heart of it, and really all there is to see, remains fundamentally undamaged. It’s a surprisingly tiny cathedral, built as an octagon, as Solomon’s temple was supposed to be, and though Sir Kenneth is somewhat disparaging about it, rises inside as a forest of fragile columns, in a shimmer of blue and white marble and golden mosaic. (the mosaics are 19thc but that doesn’t matter) We heard High Mass there on Sunday morning, and it gave me a frisson to know that we were sitting where Mass had been celebrated
non-stop for well over a thousand years. And the cathedral treasures – especially to those of us used to seeing cathedrals as grey stripped spaces, are quite incredible, exquisite manuscripts in minuscule, carved ivory and silver book covers, gem studded reliquaries (with some of the dodgiest relics you can imagine, still revered – Jesus’s loincloth, anyone?) Dark Ages, what Dark Ages? said Richard in amazement as we looked at them all. On the whole, as ancient despots go, Charlemagne didn’t seem to be too bad. He supported scholars, especially English ones, in his court, and promulgated learning as well as art. He was also – in a literal sense – the father of his people -siring so many children that today one European in five can claim descent from him. It was a magical weekend, we saw unforgettable things, and once again, I’m grateful to Sir Kenneth.
I’m a rather clumsy downloader of pictures, but the pictures I show are: an exquisite pulpit, which for reasons I can’t remember is more properly called an ‘ambo’, the restored mosaic and Charlemagne’s throne, made with marble brought back from the site of the Holy Sepulchure ds/2015/11/throne.jpg”>throne

a narrow fellow…

   Here’s another recycled piece from my 2011 Bracelet of Bright Hair.  I left it out of the finished volume because for complicated reasons Emily Dickinson’s poetry I think is still in copyright, though I don’t suppose anyone will track me down here.  Probably my list of Desert Island poems would be different now, but this is what it was then.

Lying awake last night, (or that dead time in the very early morning when your mind seems to run rather nerdishly into list-making, ) I thought of the question I’d been asking other people- and if someone had asked me for a favourite poem, what would it be.  Easy to ask, hard to answer. Instead, I tried to chose a DesertIsland eight. And that isn’t easy either.

The first ones come smoothly enough. There must be a Shakespeare sonnet, and it would probably be no 29,  When in disgrace with Fortune and Men’s Eyes, if only for the wonderful lift of those last lines:
             Haply I think on thee, and then my state

             Like to the lark at break of day arising

             From sullen earth…


There’d be a Donne, probably The Sunne Rising.  It’s one of the first I remember reading, and I recall my startled delight ; poetry can do this!  And without one of his nasty little anti-woman gibes – an undiluted love song.  There’d be Coleridge’s Frost at Midnight, simply because  it’s one of the greatest English poems. There’d be Arnold’s Dover Beach,  because  it sums up so movingly a crucial turning point in Western consciousness.

Okay – so that’s four. Probably The Bailey Beareth the Bell away because it’s beautiful, mysterious and works at a level you can’t quite fathom. Lyric poems only work in the moment – they are gorgeous, then they stop; the ripples cease and the shining water closes over them; they don’t go on working in your head like a ‘real’ poem – but beauty earns them a place.

There’d have to be W.H. Auden’s  As I walked out one evening,  a ballad turning suddenly sinister, which for years I treasured in an EP record (remember them?) read mesmerically by Dylan Thomas in his outrageously plummy voice.

Then at this stage, the poems start competing, and vying for space, raising hands and jumping above the crowd, shouting Choose me! Choose me!  While you’re aware that the quiet one saying nothing at the back is the overlooked one you really want….

Yeats’  Long-legged Fly .  though the second two verses don’t quite match the eerie and concentrated focus of the first verse.

Something by Emily Dickinson. What?  Wild Nights….  A Narrow Fellow in the Grass…  There’s a certain slant of light…the Soul Selects her Own  Society…  Impossible. But I’ve set myself this silly task, so I’ll choose A Narrow Fellow, because of the precision of her metaphors, the light conversational tone,  and the heart-stopping last line.

How many is that? And still no Seamus Heaney, no Gillian Clarke. Have I room for Denise Levertov’s The Secret?   Elizabeth Bishop’s One Art?

              What moron would even try and do something like this?


A Narrow Fellow in the Grass:   Emily Dickinson


                      A narrow Fellow in the Grass

Occasionally rides-

You may have met Him – did you not

His notice sudden is –


The Grass divides as with a Comb –

A spotted shaft is seen –

And then it closes at your feet

And opens further on –


He likes a Boggy Acre

A Floor too cool for Corn –

Yet when a Boy, and Barefoot –

I more than once at Noon

Have passed, I thought, a Whip lash

Unbraiding in the sun

When stooping to secure it

It wrinkled, and was gone  -


Several of Nature’s People

I know, and they know me –

I feel for them a transport

Of cordiality –


But never met this Fellow

Attended, or alone

Without a tighter breathing –

And Zero at the Bone -



Another forgotten writer

Muriel  Stuart (1885 -1967)  was a poet who was greatly admired in her day; Hardy thought her poetry was superlative, and so did High McDiarmid. She was of Scottish descent but lived in Norbury – where I also spent my childhood. Did I ever bump into her in Sainsbury’s, or Achille Serre, I wonder? Her most famous poem, In The Orchard, is a dialogue between a man and the girl he has just slept with, giving a very contemporary take on their different expectations of the act

I don’t know what happened to her in later life, but she gave up poetry and turned to writing about gardening. Some of her poerty is rather lush and overblown for today’s taste- maybe she just fell out of fashion. But I love this simple and evocative poem:

The Seed Shop       Muriel Stuart


Here in a quiet and dusty room they lie,

Faded as crumbled stone or shifting sand,

Forlorn as ashes, shrivelled, scentless, dry –

Meadows and gardens running through my hand.

Dead that shall quicken at the call of spring,

Sleepers to stir beneath June’s magic kiss,

Though birds pass over, unremembering

And no bee seek here roses that were his.

In this brown husk a dale of hawthorn dreams,

A cedar in this narrow cell is thrust

That will drink deeply of a century’s streams,

These lilies shall make summer on my dust.

Here in their safe and simple house of death,

Sealed in their shells a million roses leap;

Here I can blow a garden with my breath,

And in my hand a forest lies asleep.



This is the book I wrote in 2011, a journal about the poetry I was reading that year.  When I’d finished it, it was far too long and unwieldy, and also I had to leave out much of my original selection of poems for copyright reasons, so I’m going to post o a few of those omitted pages on my blog. This entry dated from September, and I’d been to the Poetry Library on the South Bank to find a book of poems by Meriol Trevor.,  Midsummer and Midwinter. I can’t find out very much about her – she belonged to that generation of quiet English writers, like Elizabeth Taylor, Frances Towers and the recently dead Elizabeth Jenkins,  who kept themselves discreetly – too discreetly – out of the male dominated babble of the literary world. She was born in 1919, of Welsh ancestry, though she didn’t speak Welsh. Educated at Cambridge she converted to Catholicism in 1950, and her biography of Cardinal Newman won the James Tait Black Memorial prize. She never married and at the end of her life lived in Bath.

I only read one of her books as a girl,  Sun Slower, Sun Faster, a romantic time travel saga, which I loved.She wrote a series of chronicles about a country  which she and a friend invented in childhood, and a number of stories  with a Christian theme, set in the late Roman British world. The last she could not get published- fashion, which had never really embraced her, cast her out altogether. I’d like to have read it – and I wish I’d written to her before she died in 2000.

Here is one of her poems. It makes a slow start, but then moves gracefully  through landscapes of the dead, starting in Italy or maybe Greece, then to London, and then to the English countryside, slightly uneasy, delicate, but startling. I especially like the last six verses , a gradual accumulation of wintery images, culminating in the sudden dazzle – and new life of Christmas. I love her deliberate use of half-rhymes; – meadows/widows, film/flame, houses, pauses.

                              The Days of the Dead                            Meriol Trevor

 Mist from the earth, rather like breath

Clouding the glass of air with a flower

From a warm mouth, stays underneath

The trees and strokes the fields over


Three years earth has sighed to me

Such a breath, but the words escape;

Between shadows the people walk by

In black, going to the dead township


A great shadow is an olive tree

Holding out oil and peace, but further

Along, poking the soft sky,

Grave tongues rise, cypress and cedar.


People are all ghosts in mist

Visiting these many quiet houses,

And, like hearts never quite eased,

The bells toll with long pauses.

They come with baskets on their heads

Set like crowns: red and white

The flowers start from the dim roads,

Life and death, blood and spirit.


All night planted in the dead

Candles burn and nobody is there:

Great sun, great God, this is the seed

You made, buried in grounds of fear.


In England, in London, the great city,

No one puts candles in dead hands,

But the man who tried to blow up the mighty

Burns on a bonfire for his friends.


They shoot stars and shout : O how bright

Are the catherine wheels like universes!

And on another day they wait

For maroons to make silence of their voices.


Poppies are given to the dead, these sons

Killed in the war, poppies for sleep,

To seal lips and wounds and our groans:

The last drug for the disease of hope.


The desire under the active face

Is sleep and the closing of the grave,

And so in the north they forget these days

Of souls and the strange life they have.


London lies stiff in the slim haze

An old man town, with the ground film

Creeping in the lonely streets of his eyes,

And no sun plants his heart with flame.

Even here, on the very island’s edge,

The fort of earth whose fierce teeth

Are worn smooth by the shifting seige

Of the sea’s hordes: here comes death.


The little flocks are on the hills,

The birds slide on the icy wind,

Sunday churches ring their peals

And plows roughen the earth’s rind.


But in the night when Orion rises

The farmer dies suddenly in his bed,

And stars grow thick as daisies

Over the place where he planted seed.


All the world is walking in winter:

People in the misty and frosty meadows

Far off are shadows and they are fainter

Than trees, and they are all orphans and widows.


But the children carry the Christmas tree

And thousand are the candles on that birthday

Come sun, and open your brilliant eye,

Come God, and bring out the new baby.

How much would you pay for me?

The subject that’s been obsessing me at the moment has nothing to do with my usual rants about grammar and books so please forgive me if I go back to The Unwelcome Guest.

A few weeks ago, the Cancer Drugs Fund in England decided to withdraw a number of drugs that it deemed were not ‘cost-effective’ The Cancer Drugs Fund was set up some years ago  with a budget then of £200 million, to pay for drugs that NICE (The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) wouldn’t fund) Costs of course have rocketed since, which is why the current decision has been taken.  Among the withdrawn drugs are the one I’m taking  now, and the one I’d hope to move on to next if this current one stops working. I ought to declare now that people still having treatment with these drugs won’t have them withdrawn, and for those living in Wales, as I do, the situation is different; access  has to be argued on an individual basis. – so I’ll be able to continue the treatment which has been keeping me alive and remarkably well for a year. But it raises questions which have been troubling me.

For one thing, the drug I take – and I just looked it up – is fiendishly expensive. But for the cancer I have, this is treatment, not end-of-life palliative care, as the CDF seems to argue some of its withdrawn drugs are. ( though of course that’s important too) And if I hadn’t been able to take it, I might very well not be alive now. Many  cancer sufferers on the forums I read are worried sick about the implications for them.

And my haematologist is as worried and surprised as I am – this decision was passed without consultation with them and without warming.  Surely they should have been given the chance to argue the case about cost-effectiveness?

On the face of it, much of the problem is with the pharmacists, who charge these prices, and in this case are refusing to drop them. They would argue that they need the money for research – and there’s something in that, as ‘my’ two drugs are derivatives of thalidomide,  which has revolutionised the treatment of the cancer I have, but caused horrible tragedies in the past by being rushed out.  But nevertheless something is wrong with their logic.

A  friend of ours with a different cancer which has now recurred, and whose saving drug has also been withdrawn, has managed to ensure treatment because her doctors have hurried the process of application through before the withdrawal date – so these drugs aren’t simply those that affect a few people and rare cases. The chances are that someone you know might be affected too.

Up till now, the NHS has been absolutely marvellous in my treatment – I have no complaints. And I know we’re nowhere near the situation that prevails in the USA where without insurance you die, and even with insurance the companies can quibble over what you’re entitled to. I’m aware of the huge amount of money I’m costing the taxpayers. And I’m not looking for a knee-jerk Oh Frances, of course you’re worth it reaction -I certainly would rather be alive than dead, but I do wonder about the cost of keeping this 73-year old lady going.

In a couple of generations, when they’ve discoved a genetic cure for cancer, the current method of flooding people’s systems with deadly and expensive poisons will seem barbaric in the extreme – and the pharmaceutical companies will have to find other ways of making their huge profits. But this is the situation we’re in at present. I’ve got no answers.  But there are lots and lots of questions. And it does seem wrong that people are now worrying about whether they’re going to be allowed to live that bit longer.