James Graham • Happy 80th Birthday • 13th May 2019

LINKS are in red

I joined Writewords in 2007 with no clear idea of where the writing would lead. I’d been writing poems since I was in school. I still have no clear idea. I wander hopefully. But along the way I have met some friends and a few great mentors, one of whom is the site’s poetry expert, James Graham. Nobody who has not had the benefit of James’ in-depth, insightful and gentle commentary on their work can appreciate just how many people James has nurtured over the years or how much he has contributed to their knowledge and skill as poets. Week after week James gives serious thought to the work of others and writes entire swathes of critique. He always prints the poems out. He makes notes. He questions, he suggests, he encourages. He sees each poem through to the end or to its abandonment. His perceptions are frank, honest and useful and of course his punctuation is unparalleled. He’d want me to point that out 🙂

James engaged in some Writewords work at my house. April 2019

Recently I have had the privilege of getting to know James better in real life. We met for the first time last September in Knaresborough.
This month he reaches the age of 80 and I am sure I am not alone in wishing him a Wonderful Birthday and Many Happy Returns of the Day.

James Reading his title poem from BECOMING A TREE

He has, by the way, read the following poem too and he wrote:
“there’s a particular stand of trees at Thorp Perrow arboretum, and I couldn’t help noticing that they were all, as far as I could see, practically the same height. As poets you and I both stand tall. No false modesty – I know I’ve written some good poems, but so have you. So have several other WW members – work that deserves to be far more widely appreciated. I couldn’t place us all in ranking order. Poetically we’re all handsome silver birches, all 80ft tall, give or take a fraction of an inch.”

The Art of Forestry
(for James Graham)

I met you
on your way to
becoming a tree,

at that point
where woodland paths
converge, we met.

You seemed always straight,
tall, rooted in
forest languages,

with leaf and bark,
versed in mossy soils.

We all grew stronger
under your branches.
Light, filtered through

your determined
shade, greened the sky,
measuring each day’s hours by a poem.

And you make sense
of all our knots,
tip us all a wink.

‘Time gnarls
everything,’ you say,
‘but the path always leads to

becoming a tree’.
Heaps of time pile up.
Leaves fall to their deaths.

Words bubble.
But what more could we poets ask?
It’s deep in our grain.

      by Oonah V Joslin


James Graham • in Northumberland part 5

LINKS are in red

Alnwick Gardens

All the other garden properties we visited are National Trust or English Heritage and in each case James was admitted as our guest at NO FEE. We are also yearly subscribers to the gardens at Alnwick which are part of the castle grounds and privately owned by the Duke and Duchess of Northumberland. This was the only place to charge an entrance fee to an elderly disabled person! I don’t think I need to elaborate on what I think of that?

I was glad the cherry blossom was still in the orchard. It’s a difficult thing to time right! Lucky us, there were still daffodils and pink tulips too and petals falling like confetti around us.

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We visited the walled garden. Of course it’s tulip time.

and the oldest tree. I think it’s 200 yrs old?

Poet, Tina Cole and her husband Peter travelled all the way up from Herefordshire to meet up with us at Alnwick. (I have mentioned before how many poets James has nurtured on Writewords over the past decade and a half.) Tina is another of those and she and I have met a couple of times. This seemed the ideal way to say thank you, and Happy 80th Birthday, to James.

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We had lunch at the Tree House.

I was a little disappointed with the Tree House this time. The service was slow and the food, although good, was not of the standard we have come to expect of this venue. Whereas any two courses last July cost £25, this time we averaged £27. That is not much of an increase admittedly but we noticed there was less choice. We didn’t have a cocktail. There was no liqueur on offer with dessert and the cheeseboard was a smaller selection. Altogether the food lacked the presentation and finesse of previous visits, the attention to detail. The WOW Factor, just wasn’t there any more! I am prepared to pay a bit more for WOW!! I didn’t particularly like the thick, thick chips that came with the steak. Had there been more choice I would not have had steak at all. In fact I much preferred their burgers! We’ve eaten there three or four years in a row now because it was so special and the set menu choice was so good. 

I noted too that the service in the cafe at the entrance was very slow this time. Takes ages to get a coffee because there’s only one till!?

After Tina and Peter took their leave, we took James to one place I knew he would love.

Barter Books.

where he satisfied his thirst for world history by buying a book. It was a good final day.

James Graham • in Northumberland part 4

Sunday at Belsay. What could be better? According to James, nothing!

As he was leaving he told me, that of all the places we’d visited, the Quarry Garden at Belsay is best!

From the Winter Garden, the landscape is pure Capability Brown. It melts seamlessly into farmland and woods. The quarry garden itself only dates from the 1980s but the rocks are old and one feels it, and the trees and plants, some of them very exotic, Iron Wood, Candyfloss, Falcon’s wing, Devils’ Walking Stick, Kiwi, Gunnera, Purple Tooth Wort, have taken well even in the quarry walls. Plants thrive here and bloom early, that would not happily grow anywhere else in Northumberland. It’s a place of shelter from the gusty winds. Let’s face it — this is a post industrial site! Men laboured here. Gardeners still do! Yet for me, as for the plants it nurtures, it is a place of shelter too and it embodies a deep sense peace. Between the quarry walls and under its arches, the garden is a testament to the skill of those who planted it and the many who work still to keep it beautiful. I wander there in my imagination whenever I am worried, sad or distressed. I pick a season. There is colour all year round — from the spiky yellow mahonia flowers of January right through to Autumn’s gold and December’s berries.

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Of course James couldn’t go everywhere in that scooter! But here’s some of what he missed.

Up in the Crag Wood, the bluebells will now be in bloom, along with the gorse.

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Down by the leat, there will be damsel flies.


In June, rhododendrons will flood the Winter Garden view with colour.

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We didn’t eat at Belsay, preferring to come the 8 miles home for a cuppa tea and a homemade scone on this occasion. There was chicken to put in the oven too. But I do recommend Belsay’s stotties if you want a substantial snack in the old kitchen cafe.

I was so happy that James loved this garden as much as I do. It is uniquely magical and such a relaxing place. There is something very Zen about this reinvented quarry.

Reading Quarry Garden

James Graham • in Northumberland part 3

NB: red means a LINK


I nearly always take visitors to Woodhorn Colliery near Ashington. The colliery has a fascinating (and very accessible) mining exhibition and of course, as all collieries, its share of tragic history. You Tube Video

The permanent exhibition at Woodhorn is well done, informative and amusing. There are temporary exhibitions, a light railway and a long walk round the lake. Woodhorn has a hotel right next door as well. A good place to centre a trip to Northumberland.

But the real reason I take people there is for something quite unexpected:

The Pitmen Painters

James, like most visitors, had never heard of them though Bill Bryson mentions them in ‘Notes from a Small Island’. There are 75 paintings on display by this marvelous group of miners. It is an impressive and unique collection. I make no secret of the fact that my favourite is Oliver Killbourn and, of his paintings, my absolute favourite is Coalface Drawers (1950). Please do, if you ever have the chance, see the work of these amazing artists of The Ashington Group.

James bought a book and a print for his wall. He was impressed.

There is a cafe at Woodhorn too and it’s quite good but we chose to go to Newbiggin for lunch so we could visit two more favourite haunts. The Endeavour Cafe provided the main course. Then we strolled across to Bertorelli’s for a scoop or two of their excellent ice-cream and coffee. I have to admit — it was ‘bliddy nitherin’ on the seafront! We didn’t sit long. Mission accomplished.

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Later I recorded James reading two of his poems.

Pork meatballs with pasta for dinner — we didn’t need much!

James Graham • in Northumberland part 2

NB: red denotes a LINK


Cragside is simply unmissable and especially for anyone who loves trees. There is a shuttle bus you can take from the car park to the cafe, formal gardens and house. That was very useful. The first house in the world to use hydroelectric power, the site was chosen and the entire landscape was managed to that end, yet it looks natural and it is beautiful and impressive.

James was very eager to know all about Lord Armstrong. I’m afraid I am not a great source of information so I got him a book. Noel knows more and happily chatted away. For me the scenery is the thing — and the 10 ton marble fireplace, which I am afraid was inaccessible as there are many stairs. But the kitchen is fabulous and there was a wee taster of some cheese scones to be had from two women who were there baking as a re-enactment. James and I were recalling scenes from our own past. We remember huge enamel sinks with wooden draining boards and our mothers using mangles! There’s a good chance all either of us would have seen of upstairs, in those days, was to set the fire or clean the rooms! Marble is vastly overrated.

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Once again the cafe provided an excellent lunch this time in the form of a one-pot lamb broth. And so what if we got a little damp? The chat was good and the scenery breathtaking.

That evening: Dinner at The Mulan with friends

James Graham • In Northumberland

NB: everything in red is a LINK

It was our privilege to have poet James Graham stay with us here for a week and show him some of our favourite haunts. James and I met on Writewords where he has been Poetry Host for 15 years. That means he oversees the forum and comments on the poems everybody puts up and his comments are always detailed and helpful. Over the years he has contributed an immense amount of time and effort into nurturing the talents of everyone with whom he comes into contact on that site and we all owe him an enormous debt of gratitude. During the course of the time I joined in 2007, we have had some banter and become friends. Last year we met for the first time in Knaresborough. I love how sometimes virtual friends become actual friends.

So…Over the next few blogs I will show the highlights of this visit leading up to James’ 80th Birthday on May 13th. On the first day we just went for a walk in Carlisle Park Morpeth to see Emily Davison’s statue and have a swift half in The Joiners but we all forgot our cameras!

Never mind… there was pulled balsamic slow cooked gammon waiting at home and apple tart.


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Wallington can provide a mobility scooter if you ask in advance. The staff couldn’t be more helpful and even the East Wood is accessible provided you follow the signs that avoid steps. You can get right down to the bottom of the walled garden and so I was able to allow James to meet ‘My Aspen at Wallington’ below (which is the title of one of the poems in my book).

James loves trees (of which more anon). His second collection is called Becoming a Tree.

Lunch at the cafe there is very good. James pronounced his pork pie with cheese to be the best he’d ever eaten. That’s a good enough recommendation for me — I really must try one of those in the future.

In the afternoon we spent an hour in the house. There is a lift but we didn’t have time to see it the entire house so we just took in the wonderful Northumberland panels in the main hall and the flower paintings which are my favourite part of that beautiful space.

Evenings at our house usually consist of nothing more than a good meal and conversation. On this occasion the fare was my Lamb Keema Methi, vegetable bhaji and home made rotis followed by a spiced yellow rice pudding.

APRIL • The Cruelest Month

April has indeed been cruel to The Linnet’s Wings. We lost Peter Gilkes. Marie has been in through the mill this month for sure. The title of our Spring Issue was never more appropriate and we salute their work together.

The Linnet’s Wings: Take All My Loves

I have the Easter Sunday slot with Easter Sunday at Writing in a Woman’s Voice. A memory of those spring straw hats with elasticated chin strap, and the deeper marks of Easter on a child’s mind.

Don’t forget to listen to the April poems in Gyroscope Review this month. I am up on the final day and there’s some fascinating poetry there. I love the voices — the accents. You can catch up HERE

March • No Spring in my step

Something took the spring out of my step, recently. GOUT. Oh the pain! If you have never suffered it, I hope you never do. There is a genetic element to it (isn’t there always) but yes too much meat (which is purine rich), too much rich food (sugary stuff, salty stuff). Purines are also in yeast and yeast products such as bread and beer, and eggs and dairy also have purines, so it builds up easily if you’re not careful. I wasn’t careful! Two weeks on I can get my shoes on at last!

So, despite the glorious early spring weather, I haven’t been out for my usual walks for a fortnight now and that really gets to me! Anyway — I’ve been off the meat and onto cherry and turmeric with black pepper and just about any cure I could access. Cherries are very good for gout — but I genuinely can’t taste cherries!

See Forever Berries.

Dark chocolate is also quite good apparently. Maybe if I ate dark chocolate covered cherries? It’s a thought!

So I offer you one I wrote earlier with photo from Nellie’s Moss Lake, Cragside Northumberland — complete with cute monster:

The Nellie’s Moss Monster

Nellie’s Moss monster sleeps the winter long
Her reedy mane defies the dark and frost.
The warmth of first spring sun and bright bird song,
and sap that rises through the bark, the lust
of frogs and toads that stir the lakes
at the full moon of March is all it takes.
She wakes up to the sound of honking geese
visitors’ feet, cars crossing the bridge.
Cameras click and she has all she needs,
for it’s on admiration that she feeds.

Nellie’s Moss Monster

I too feel as if I’ve been hibernating all Winter and a bit of admiration wouldn’t go amiss some days — but there you go. We are all monsters at heart.

I wrote a haiku a day all through February. I don’t know what to do with those yet. Some of them need honing. They will come to light eventually. I have also been devilishly clever with these double acrostic Up & Down poems. They took a bit of writing!!! I hope you enjoy them.

LEVEL CARBON in Bewildering Stories this week.

I may go for a walk tomorrow — if I can get my shoe on. See you soon.


Last week in February • A Reading and story for Andalusia Day

Why Andalusia Day? Because it’s this Thursday and it’s St David’s Eve.

Linnet’s Wings Editor Marie Fitzpatrick is based in Andalusia. And 12 years ago this very week I was there. I didn’t know Marie then. I was at a pretty low ebb, having just resigned from teaching in Autumn ’06. I felt very trapped having gone through a horrible year of being bullied out and able trust no one and at last I told them to shove it — but it’s a hard thing to put a career (and livelihood) behind you. My husband said we’d manage financially — but what would I do? I’d always been a teacher. I really wanted to move on but I was finding everything difficult! I was sad and hurt and had no purpose left in life. I was depressed! My husband, who knew what I’d been through, decided a change of scene was just the thing — and it was!

All packed and staring out of the window on the eve of the trip, I saw a little jasmine flower.

At the end of February jasmine flowers are dying, dropping to the ground. This one was trying to drop, trying to let go, but she was a bit stuck — like me — toying with change but not quite getting anywhere — not quite prepared to let go. Reticent. Afraid. And so, out of empathy, I wrote Catching the Wind (LISTEN using the link below)

While we were away, we watched a Lunar Eclipse over the bay at Benalmadena and we visited Tangiers on Andalusia Day (28th Feb). I was so stunned by the place, I wrote A TRIP TO TANGIER and when I got back and I posted it in Writewords and I posted my poem Catching the Wind.

And that was the beginning. I’d let go! I was away wherever the wind might take me. It took me to The Shine Journal who published Catching the Wind, to Bewildering Stories who took A Trip to Tangier, to Every Day Poets and to The Linnet’s Wings who published Three Pounds of Cells.

It’s a ill wind…as the saying goes.

Our Spring Linnet is due out in March. It’s looking great with some Irish poems for St Paddy and a nice shift in landscape between Winter and Spring. I’ll be back in March with another reading and some more reminiscences and maybe a bit more new work.

Happy Andalusia Day, Happy ST David’s Day and don’t forget Pancake Day!