Tag Archives: Douglas Dunn

Henry’s Gift

3 Feb

In the summer of 1998 I found myself travelling to Sylvia Plath’s cottage in Todmordern on a Trans Pennine pacer train.

As I got on the train to sit down I realised that the carriage was packed, and I sat in the only remaining seat across the isle from a young family. A girl and boy no older than perhaps 7 and 5 respectively and their mother. The children seemed upset, and scared and the girl looked at me imploringly – their mother had fallen over across the seats and appeared to be unconscious, surrounded by miniature bottles of vodka.

The rest of the occupants of the carriage ignored us.

I put my rucksack on the free seat and spoke to the little girl, as gently as I could

“Don’t worry I’m going to get some help for you and your mum”

Conscious of the fact that I was looking a little feral, sporting a week’s worth of beard and a battered fedora hat. I wandered up the now moving train until I found a member of staff serving refreshments from the trolley.

“Excuse me?” I said “but can you help me – there is a bit of a situation in our compartment”

The very petite tea lady said “Of course!” Parked her trolley and followed me.

The diminutive Valkyrie took charge of the situation, and with no fuss, rapidly tidied up all the miniature bottles of booze whilst all the time making eye contact with the children and reassuring them in a lighthearted way. She also gently cleaned the mother up and brought her awake and into some semblance of decorum.

The passengers studiously ignored us.

The Tea Lady then arranged for the family to be met by her colleagues and receive further assistance at the next station.

Before I disembarked at Todmordern I asked the guard for her name and the address of her work. He was a bit suspicious – smelling a possible complaint in the wind – I reassured him I only wished to compliment his colleague on her professionalism.

When I got off the train I wrote a post card to the Manager of Miss Clare Rimmer – Tea Lady at Trans Pennine Rail.

Clare Littlewood (nee Rimmer) now runs her own business called Tea with Percie in Sheffield where she rescues jaded palates on Abbeydale Road daily with her quick hands, her wit and her baking. Her teas are of the finest quality and served in a proper pot – no tea bags!

In Todmordern I met a Rastafarian poet called Henry who told me: “You need to slow down man and step out of your groove”.

I met other helpful students of poetry and a tutor – Douglas Dunn.

Douglas Dunn explained that sonnets have a rigid structure with a rhythm based upon the iambic pentameter. The same meter of Shakespeare. This cadence is the rhythm of 16th century English Speech. The vernacular of peasants and the spine of the King James Bible. It is the beat of the human heart.

The sonnet is how he expressed his grief after losing his wife (an artist) to eye cancer ‘Elegies‘ – perhaps one of the finest works of 20th century poetry.

This was is my attempt at a sonnet.

Henry’s Gift

A friend of mine, he gave me his stairs,

His stepping stones, the river to his very God.

And just for breakfast bilberries I ran

To climb his steps, and find the morning sun.

A friend of mine, she gave her hands,

Her lightning wit, her beating heart –

Her blueprint/hotline to her very soul,

And the orthodoxy of ‘us’ in the finest cup of tea.

And so it is to me I gave a smile

at Henry’s waterfall. I ran a mile

to find a single berry and a seed,

a pool in which to bathe beside the trees –

where light and life are passing all the while,

illuminating dreams of Love for One and All.

HL 08/98


26 May

I am a sucker for a beautiful smile, yet, at 55 it was an enormous shock to me that I could still fall hard for a baby. When I met my niece, Hazel, for the first time last year she was about 5 months old and just beginning to charm the world with her curly locks and big brown almond shaped eyes. My brother Simon, simply handed her to me when we arrived at their home in Pacifica Ca., straight from the airport. She looked at me and beamed. I was her servant from that moment on.


This little girl is as perfect as a poem.

The sonnet is a perfect poetic form.

One of my favourite writers of sonnets is the Scottish poet Douglas Dunn. Here he remembers his first wife – an artist cruelly afflicted by terminal cancer of the eye.


A constant artist, dedicated to

Curves, shapes, the pleasant shades, the feel of colour,

She did not care what shapes, what red, what blue,

Scorning the dull to ridicule the duller

With a disinterested, loyal eye.

So Sandra brought her this and taped it up –

Three seagulls from a white and indoor sky –

A gift of artistic comradeship.

“Blow on them, Love.” Those silent birds winged round

On thermals of my breath. On her last night,

Trying to stay awake, I saw love crowned

In tears and wooden birds and candlelight.

She did not wake again. To prove our love

Each gull, each gull, each gull, turned into a dove.


I find the wistful mood created by Dunn’s Elegies most perfectly resonates with my own from time to time, for whilst we feel his sorrow at the passage of time and the tragedy of his wife’s passing before him, we cannot ignore the vibrancy and life within the language and imagery of the poem. Sonnets are very exacting to write, and I suspect that the discipline required to write this may have helped him to face his grief.

So why should Hazel’s smile make me think of this sad poem?

It is difficult to capture a mood in a painting, or a piece of prose and only the most talented artists can take us there. Something in us complicates our experiences with analysis and description. Reason and memory become like old paint on a fine ceiling moulding, blurring the crisp edge of the original. My experience with Hazel was very uncomplicated, because she basically liked me and she let me hold her while she comfortably watched her mum, dad and sister, Percie going about their morning routines,  making appreciative baby noises and grabbing stuff. Put simply, I could share the rhyme of her.

It is this over-complication and analysis which lies at the root of depression. When faced with a situation where experience no longer matches the expectations we have constructed in our head we can become very disappointed, frustrated and angry. If nothing changes in us, we may continue to experience external reality  with an unprepared (and closed) mind. the effects can be long lasting and ultimately disastrous.

Making stuff with my hands helps to keep me rooted in direct experiential reality – anchored firmly to the now. Unlike meditation, which can allow all sorts of old unpleasant memories to surface, making requires concentration and focus – it frees the logical mind from introspection and ennui, because it does not allow space for the mind to create objections to reality. Miss with the hammer and you hit your thumb.

It is not without significance that I met Douglas Dunn at the cottage of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes in Todmorden whilst on a poetry course back in 1998. Lots of the other students were in awe of him. I did not at the time know him from Adam, so I offered him a glass of whisky – he relaxed a lot after that.

Many things happened that summer. I discovered my first wife (we had been together over 20 years) had been having an affair – a reality so shocking I was unable to make sense of it at the time because it really did not match my cosy mental picture of our family. Then, like a bolt out of the blue I met the woman who was to become my new partner and with whom I fell in love, on the train to Todmorden – Clare was the ‘Trolley Dolly’ on the TransPennine express.  She made me a nice cup to tea on the way back.  I also wrote my first sonnet after talking to a Rastafarian poet called Henry (my English namesake) who told me; ‘Ya man, ya need ta sloooow down!’. He explained that in order (for me) to skip out of the deep groove I had worn in my existence I needed to let the world go by a bit and see the other grooves running alongside. The adventure was just beginning.

So forget reason for a moment, just pick up the baby, or read a sonnet.