I didn’t write any poetry when I was five and love was something people felt for me; they expressed it by looking after me and giving me things. I understood friendship but my best friend went to Wales and never came back.
I don’t think I could read before I went to school but I was read to. The books from that time that mean the most to me are Enid Blyton’s retellings of the Brer Rabbit stories and my favourite of them was Enid Blyton’s Brer Rabbit Book which contains ‘The Wonderful Tar Baby’ and ‘Mr Lion’s Soup’. When my daughter was born I scoured bookshops in Edinburgh—I was training there at the time—until I had a complete set. I’m pleased to report that she has much the same affection for them, despite my being unable to read them to her—her mother left me when my daughter was two and took the Brer Rabbit books with them.
40 years ago: 1974 (fifteen years old)
I enjoyed school. I loved learning and still do. The idea of being able to spend a whole day discovering new stuff is simply a wonderful notion. I never understood kids who hated school. I never skipped classes or feigned illness to avoid school. English was a favourite subject although at this point in my life I still had no aspirations to be a writer. I dutifully submitted a few dozen poems for the school magazine but that was about it. Here’s one I definitely remember being accepted:
One is an amazing number.
It’s the smallest but always
The books I read in my last two years at school—I left at sixteen—included Nineteen Eighty-Four, Billy Liar and Catcher in the Rye and all of these were major influences. But the most significant moment was being introduced to the poetry of Philip Larkin and in particular ‘Mr Bleaney’.
I was in love for the second time in my life at fifteen. This I suspect is atypical. I found virtually every woman—well, girl—attractive but I wasn’t the kind of kid who flitted from one girl to the next and yet when you look at the titles of poems from that time—‘Moira’, ‘Alison’, ‘Patricia’ (two poems), ‘Shirley’, ‘Lee’, ‘Fiona’ (four poems), ‘Rita’ and ‘Alexis’ (two poems)—it’s easy to see how preoccupied I was with the female sex. None of the aforementioned poems are worth replicating here not even in part and as I didn’t date my poems back then it’s impossible to say how many I completed but I would guess easily fifty, probably more.
30 years ago: 1984 (twenty-five years old)
I wrote eleven poems in 1984. I was infatuated with a married woman at the time. Most of the poems I wrote this year aren’t very good. I have written a handful of decent love poems but I tend to work better with negative emotions although I long ago gave up trying to establish rules. I writes what I writes when I writes it and I’m just grateful for whatever comes when it comes.
The last poem from that year is actually not bad and one I’m fond of. I used to visit the married woman—she was separated by this time—after her kids had gone to bed, hang around (yes, that’s a euphemism) until the early hours and then walk home. I lived on the other side of the town and on the way I would pass one of the many monuments to our national poet. Sometimes I’d take a break—it was about the halfway point—and we’d have a moment.
Burns Monument After Dark
Here we are again,
and your grey eyes and mine
avoid the distant lights –
still an afterglow remains.
I can deny reality
but what of my fears?
Secrets are just lies
by process of omission:
Shadows amongst shadows
and tonight the dark scares me.
20 November 1984
I have an older poem called ‘Burns Statue After Dark’, my version of ‘A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle’. This poem’s better.
20 years ago: 1994 (thirty-five years old)
I wrote sixteen poems this year after a three year gap. And two novels, my first. It’s therefore a significant year. The married woman I’d been seeing in 1984 had divorced her husband, married me and we were now separated, divorce pending. Amazing how quickly ten years can slip through your fingers. I was suffering from depression which wasn’t helping anything and by April it was all over. I’d quit my job—basically unceremoniously backed out of my life—and moved away. I don’t do well with depression. And yet after my wife and I broke up and at probably the lowest point in my life I noticed (and was noticed by) someone else and suddenly, so unexpectedly, I found myself bowled over. This is the first year where I actually managed to write a body of love poetry that I’m actually not ashamed of. I did it again in 1997, but it doesn’t fit into my 10 year structure.
She didn't see it at first
because the world was full of lights.
Then the lights went out
and the sky was filled with stars.
But when the stars fell down
and all was dark and cold
then she noticed it,
alone and unsure,
in a universe of darkness.
And it was for her.
7 June 1994
Practicalities got in the way of this relationship—we literally shared a single kiss—but maybe that was for the best.
10 years ago: 2004 (forty-five years old)
I wrote nine poems in 2004 including this one:
A Matter of Fact II
Kathryn talks to me every day –
maybe not quite every day –
some days she's just too busy.
It doesn't matter that she
doesn't talk to me every day.
It matters that she talks to me.
The words shouldn't matter but
they do you know and that's a fact.
Sometimes I even talk back
and imagine that she's listening.
18 September 2004
Some people have work wives. I had a work daughter. When I left I was convinced we’d stay in contact forever but we never did. The problem with work relationships is it’s work that’s the bond; when it goes everything else dissolves. She wrote to me in 2009 to say she’d fallen pregnant but lost the baby and apologised for not keeping in touch. I replied immediately and suggested we meet at a time and place convenient to her but I guess no time and no place was ever convenient. I’ve never heard from her since. I did write a poem for her daughter which I would’ve liked her to read but she never has and I’m old enough and wise enough to know when to let things go.
Now: 2014 (fifty-five years old)
So far I’ve written only four poems this year including this one:
“What are you
she asked as
her the notes.
“Love,” I said.
“Love? You’ll not
find that here.
sex as a
love. It’s not.
It is a
yes, but for
needs a place
to hide and
here is where.”
“So what does
love hide?” I
had to know.
Then she laughed:
“Truth, of course.
No one wants
to fuck with
28 March 2014
I’ve been married to my present wife for sixteen years. It’s the longest relationship of my life and the happiest. We struggle through poor health and a lack of stamina and enthusiasm but when she goes to the States to see her family I’m lost without her. My routine hardly varies when she’s not here but it’s always better when she is.
Now, of course, I see love, true love so called, for what it really is and like most things in life it’s not what people market at us. It’s why so many people are disappointed by love because of the hype. Carrie and I were like an old married couple from the very first day. As far as she’s concerned she’s been married for some forty-six years. There was a wee hiccup around year thirty—her husband gained a couple of inches in height, changed the colour of his beard and lost his American accent—but nothing she couldn’t cope with. This last poem’s not about us but it is about love and how I’ve stopped viewing it as something magical. Magic’s all about novelty. Just how many times can you watch a woman being sawn in half and be truly amazed? Well it’s the same with relationships. Occasionally I still surprise her. But mostly not and at our age we’re not really looking for too many surprises.