Hearth by Angela Topping and Sarah James


Sarah James & Angela Topping

Mother’s Milk Books, 2015

James’ and Topping’s poetry duet explores ideas of home through memories and objects from childhood. Crows, sewing and laundry lines are recurring images; “The sister I never met hangs out my sheets” (The Washing Line, James) and “small acts of love, pinned up with such hope of drying” (Spring Lines, Topping) with a nod to Larkin and Hughes, amongst others.

Page-paired poems directly riff on shared themes but motifs play from page to page. One page’s poems are based on music boxes and their mechanisms and these echo in a grandfather clock and a wind-up toy. The same musical motif resurfaces regarding pianos and songs. Buttons – loose or in their tin – feature along with washing. “To watch the women pegging out, / you’d think the breeze was all for them / and not to hold us up in air” says a crow in the final poem duet.

These poems conjure safe, hard-working family childhoods. There is nostalgia but not the syrupy it-was-all-rosy -then nostalgia. It’s the sort that says we are older but we carry memories to pass down; a solid ground from which our families spring upward into a future distance far beyond us. In Firefighting, “It’s Mum’s job, down on her knees / on the rag rug, every morning, // Just as she did in service” (Topping) took me back to memories of my own Grandmother, born in 1902 who became a kitchen maid at twelve, just as WWI began. So many things in these poems echo my own childhood. So, as reader, the poems speak to me and to others’ similar childhoods despite age differences. If my childhood had been different, I think I would still be drawn to these references as they are so enticingly specific in detail and voice.

Mother’s Milk aims to promote “breast-feeding and celebrate femininity and empathy”. While I feel “femininity” is rather open to definitional debate, breast-feeding is A Good Thing if it is possible (physically and emotionally enriching mother and infant, scientific data confirms) and empathy is what glues human societies together: laudable aims. Hearth is a gentle, accurate, evocative duet that fits that remit perfectly.

I should also add that I know Sarah James (she is an excellent promoter and organiser in West Midlands poetry) and I am acquainted with Angela Topping from Facebook and a couple of readings. However, I have tried to examine Hearth independent from those friendships.

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Between the Lines

The other day someone asked me to bring Solstice to a gig, having come across it in Fox Unkennelled. It’s an old favourite so that was lovely … but, ‘You mean my poem about sex?’ I asked.

Almost no one (no, not even poets) spots the metaphor – despite the opening word (“Come!”) being a bit of a hint. But it doesn’t matter; people like the poem for itself, which is the main thing. I’d rather the metaphor was (too) subtle (even though I then tend to smack people over the head telling them about it) than in any way too obvious.

I lived in California in the ‘90s, long before I dared write. Driving along the San Francisco Bayshore Freeway 101 listening to local radio one of the bands making it then was Third Eye Blind (along with Green Day and No Doubt).

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This was – and still is – is one of my favourite songs and part of the reason is the way the lyrics say the exact opposite of what they really mean. It’s a brilliant piece of subversion.

When I say out loud
I want to get out of this
I wonder
Is there anything I’m going to miss

‘Cause I don’t care

The defiant narrator allows himself to wonder if it will hurt when they split up – they are fighting, the opening verse shows – and telling himself there’s “nothing” “between you and me” and they won’t even recognise each other soon. (Plus I love ramping up the volume and singing along in the car. It’s that kind of ballad.)

When writing, what you leave out (or edit out later) matters as much as what end up remaining.

At a basic level that means cut irrelevant backstory, cut ANYTHING that doesn’t take the story (or poem) forward. Cut the mush. Somewhere in the mulch of a first draft there may be a seedling of something that will grow into … oak tree/celandine/hemp/truffle/triffid/GMO angel. Or try the sculpture analogy: you need to cut away the material to find the shape within. Greek god or Hepworth abstract? Doesn’t matter but it must be chiselled cleanly and with clear vision and be yours.

On a more subtle level it means letting the characters leave out things they might – or should in a literal world – say. Think of the best romance scenes in books and films. How often does one – or both – parties not actually admit their feelings, perhaps (like in the song above) even to themselves? Pride and Prejudice, Gaudy Night, Twelfth Night … endless list. and if they do admit feelings it’s for a doomed romance.

We often say one thing and mean something quite different. We have unwritten rules in any society and its subgroups. There’s a game to be played for any group from immediate family through to country/religion: a wide circle drawn on a big piece of paper (or a loop of string on a table); write out rules for the group and then place them inside the circle (explicit rules) or outside (assumed rules). It’s easy to break the second set by accident as an outsider. Imagine your own street and the people that live there. Often that’s how we – as insiders – identify “other”s. However argumentative and annoying the community it has its own rules as well as those of the more general locality. It’s likely our biases make us police the rules more for some people more than others – we might be suspicious and critical of a single parent, for example, or a Muslim family (I hope not but judging by the UKIP votes I may be sadly wrong). I was very aware of being an outsider in the years I lived in the States.

This how-we-get-on-or-not in our families and wider communities is politics. Politics is inherent in Homo sapiens. Every factor of our complex social networking is political on an individual basis. At home it’s as basic as who does the dishes? Who’s on taxi duty for kids? Which neighbours do we like or fall out with, and why? Who do we fancy? Do we show it or hide it? Sex is political – in so many ways. We don’t think of these things as politics but, at the most basic level – shared with other primates (and other creatures – “pecking order” is not a cliché for battery hens) – it’s the measure of how we function in our social groups.

We seek love and approbation but that opens us up to rejection and scorn as individuals and as groups/tribes. Balance characters on that tightrope and make them strive for some (any!) kind of solid ground. Where do they end up? What are the social politics of your setting/characters – in a story/poem and/or in real life? How dishonest (deliberately or inherently) are they? What do they leave out?

PS The GMO angel is all mine – gorgeous as he is.

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A prose poem about political support

Political Support

The ‘80s Wonderbra is the lingerie equivalent of UKIP: attractively buoyant at first glance but built on false fillets with nothing to support its claims, embarrassingly prone to self-exposure and inevitably ending in tears. Trendy T-shirt lightly padded bras for those who refuse to admit to nipples are Labour yummy mummies wearing floral frocks and bearing half-baked cheery cherry cupcakes. The feminista Greens don’t see the need for Man-made Lycra, elastic and sweatshop-bent under-wires: they’ll take breasts as they come. Which leaves the Tories with the Playtex and the M&S matron ranges proclaiming their winning mantra, “Lift and Separate”.


Written in response to Luke Kennard’s guest prompt in Jo Bell’s 52 project last year.


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ConFab Cabaret with Matt Windle, Retinal Circus and Kurly McGeachie

Coming up tonight: ConFab Cabaret is back at the Mount Pleasant Hotel, Belle Vue Terrace in Malvern. Headliners Matt Windle (if you missed him last time don’t miss him tonight! – and if you saw him last time you’ll know how good he is and definitely be there!), Retinal Circus (the glorious Cragius Barry – ditto!) and the new-to-ConFab (and to me) Kurly McGeachie plus Malvern’s anything-goes* open mic for all-comers. Amy Rainbow will host with elegant aplomb and I’ll be cajoling a Fox Pops audience poem from you in the break while you all buy scads of tickets for The Silliest Raffle. Free to enter but bring a pocket of dosh for that donation (because that’s how ConFab carries on).

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*As long as it’s legal and not over 2 minutes – poetry, music, mime, dance, ventriloquism – anything you can dream up and attempt: BRING IT ON.

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Fox Unkennelled

“Gentlemen, I have dreamed to-night; I’ll tell you my dream. Here, here, here be my keys: ascend to my chambers; search, seek, find out: I’ll warrant we’ll unkennel the fox.”

Shakespeare, Merry Wives of Windsor, Act III

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Fox Unkennelled is my first pamphlet.

The first edition is a limited print run of 100 copies, priced at £5.00. If (when – let’s be gloriously optomistic!) a second edition is printed the cover colour will be different. (Hold out for a rainbow?)

It’s mine, all mine, in every way: I wanted something I can take to events and some of my favourite performance poets have taken a self-publishing route (Spoz, Brenda Read-Brown, Matt Harvey (at first) etc). I used experience gleaned designing publications for MWC and asked several poetry friends’ advice on which poems to include and their order. Stitching and trimming were done by Aldine Print Works here in Malvern. Copies are available – signed/dedicated as you will – for £5.50 including postage. Email me if you want one or – better yet – look out for me at events in the next few months.

In particular I should thank Dave for invaluable software assistance and James for unearthing (fox – earth!) the quote from which the title is paraphrased.

I also have to thank Dave for attempting to rescue my computer hard disc as it collapsed recently. He backed up all my writing and photos (already backed up elsewhere – belt and braces; sensible precaution) but we’re not sure the dying HDD is managing to mirror to a new HDD so there may be a big re-installation of everything. Ugh.

Meanwhile I have had a crash (another bad pun – sorry) course in Windows 8 and can only open writing in WordPad as this laptop only has a very basic Open Office and my computer had Word. However, Dave has managed to fix it so I have my big screen, keyboard and mouse so it’s (almost) business as usual. WordPad doesn’t have a spilling chucker so there’ll be an awful lot of tidying up to be done eventually.  If you spot any typos on my blog please let me know – my spelling ability is zilch and my typing is fast but well-dodgy.

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Wild Life

I finished the first draft of The Novel last weekend. It’s a strangely anticlimactic feeling. Eighty thousand words in a document … and? A vast number of notes (things to add, adjust and work out in the rewrite) and a sudden emptiness. I was tempted to dive straight in to editing but I’ve made myself take at least a week off. We did have a bottle of fizz (it was on offer at £6.99) to celebrate.

One sunny day I wasn’t at the day job so I drove over to Dymock and Kempley (near Ledbury) to see the wild daffodils.

This coming weekend (14 – 15 March) is their local Daffodil Weekend with guided walks, cream teas and lots of information. There’s a 10 mile marked walk (with map) available that includes the best sites. Inevitably the area is right on a join between OS maps.

I began at Kempley’s St Mary’s church and was delighted – it’s a gem dating from the 12th Century and with the remains of ancient wall paintings still visible. Outside, the porch, with it’s pegged stone tile roof, is simply a later addition to the building.

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Next I ambled through Dymock Woods listening to birdsong. Lots of evidence of deer (tracks and barked saplings). The daffs there were not out as yet (in the shade) and one of the smaller paths is almost impassably muddy. Even on a logging track gouged by heavy machinery, the daffodils were hanging on and budding.

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Dymock church is not so engaging as Kempley’s St Mary’s but someone was on duty supplying tea or coffee and a choice of rather gorgeous cake and there’s a lovely display about the Dymock poets.


In the lanes around the Poets’ Paths north of Dymock the daffs were in full bloom, brightening sunny hedge banks and field edges.

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Just outside Dymock itself I caught a glimpse of one of our rarely seen big cats. As I came through a stile something raced across the narrowest open grass of the field below me. “Cat” my brain told me automatically, then, a split second later, “No – too big – must be a black Labrador,” then, “WOW! it moves and is shaped like a cat but is the size of a Labrador” by which time it had zoomed – far too fast to grab my camera. So, yes, it might have been a silent, stray, short-legged, long-slim-tailed, short-muzzled, feline-running dog but the biologist (and natural history nerd) in me says “big cat”.

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Whale of a sign

Orca adjustment to a grazing stock warning sign near Guarlford, approaching Malvern from the Rhydd (on the B4211):


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