You can read ‘The Registrar’s Office’ by Karen McCarthy Woolf here. 

The more I read the more I realise I especially like poems which push you onto a conveyor belt and let you leap off at the end but leave you with the sense that the poem will go on without you – that the poet is still speaking even if you are no longer listening.  So no grand ending or build up or overly managed conclusion. You have a sensation of overhearing the whole thing and so feel strangely privileged.

The Registrar’s Office is a poem that comes in waves – first bitter, almost self-flagellating anger (‘loved up like the other mothers’); then an interlude of calm with the registrar and the ‘paper cone of iced water’ (just the right amount of detail). Then single syllables ramp up the speed (‘how her name was Lydia too, that / it was so quick and now this’) as the poem spirals into its nightmarish vision ‘of hell in a shopping centre’. Each wave is like a different part of grief; both this particular grief and perhaps grief generally.

The poem is tightly controlled but its rapid enjambment gives us a sense of overflow and chaos. The final few lines perform an act of transference which is perfectly executed. I love the slightly flustered, passionate repetition of ‘that’s not right’. The switch from ‘you’ (‘I will get you a window’) to ‘she’ (‘she’s a good person with a good heart’) gives us a sense of the narrator in motion; leaving the office and talking now perhaps to her partner or someone else; rambling almost – like she’s being gently guided out but is fired up by a new cause, a place to put her grief. The tone is conversational but still manages to work on two levels – the slightly off-kilter ‘when I get out of here’ allow us to infer (I inferred, anyway) that the poet is talking about her own grief again; she too will find ‘a window’ in time.

The poet leaves it there as we leave the office with her – but any hint of hopeful conclusion is so subtle that we still have that sense of the narrative continuing. In thirty four lines the poet has showed us the different forms grief can take; how it evolves and changes but doesn’t fade in a linear way – waves, rather than stages.

Buy Karen McCarthy Woolf’s book An Aviary of Small Birds (Carcanet, 2014) here.

POEMS THAT TOOK OFF THE TOP OF MY HEAD #5: The hospital café is almost empty


The above poem can be found in the Ver Prize 2016 anthology; it won 2nd prize in the competition judged by Andrew McMillan, and is my absolute favourite piece in the pamphlet. It’s a poem which creeps up on you and pushes you along from behind; it’s described in the judges report as ‘slippery’ which is the perfect word for it.

The hospital café is almost empty is a great example of using a title to outline context, so we’re already situated in the hospital when we start reading, diving straight into the poem’s stream of consciousness. It also forgoes punctuation completely, something which can easily misfire and become distracting, yet here it works extremely well with the theme and tone. Because this is a poem about lack of control; the impossibility of shielding yourself from the inevitabilites of ageing and illness. The opening observation of the pavement and  floor sets this up: ‘just a thin skin / between me and out there’, signifying vulnerability; symbolising how close we always are to disaster, or disease, no matter the psychological or physical defences we might create for ourselves.

The midsection – ‘when we are young chopping wood / digging this is unimaginable someone else’s life / poor chap’ – feels like the heart of the poem, skilfully evoking the physical vitality of the young, along with the way in which none of us ever really think we’ll get old, until we do. The surreal leaps in thought, and the wit (‘poor chap’) prevent this from becoming overwrought; I love the ‘golden columns’ of sunlight in the imagined scene, lending the youthful past a mythic, majestic quality.

I enjoyed re-reading this. The first couple of times I read it through I was so overwhelmed by the haunting closing couplet that I think I skimmed the rest, but it’s worth paying close attention to how the conceit is set up and ran with, as well as its use of plain language (always just enough – we know what a ‘white room’ in a hospital looks like; we don’t need anything else and the poet knows this), which has great power and integrity.

You can read more about Margaret Wilmot here. I highly recommend her pamphlet, Sweet Coffee (Smiths Knoll 2013).


The Light Collector
by Jean Sprackland (from ‘Hard Water‘)

He knows broad daylight inside out,
can’t get excited any more by the tawdry brilliance of it,
flattening everything, dumbing it down.
From an open window on the seventh floor
he watches the street scudding below, and thinks
I must make something of my life, as if it were
a bag of rags for recycling.

Gauzy scraps of dawn
have begun to bore him. He leans out
into the caramel light of late summer evening
smattering wet roofs and TV aerials: too rich, too obvious.

At night he daydreams tricks so bright
he feels they lend him context.
He knows he has a steady way with starlight,
can pick it up like sand on a fingertip.
He goes out under the moon, in the fabulous air
tasting of electricity. He lingers by houses with drawn curtains,
presses himself thin as a shadow and watches light
bleeding from the open doorway of a pub.
But it leaves him hungry. What he seeks
for his own broken purpose is smaller
more secretive sources: the bits you find
in the sweepings of a long day alone.
The cryptic blue cast by a computer. The smash-and-grab
of camera flash. The blade of light under the door
with voices glinting behind it.

He wants to stop all the draughts in this place
with light, he wants it to shed meaning.
In the dark kitchen he opens the fridge
and the light is so sweet and precise it leaves him aching.

When I first picked up Hard Water (the collection from which this poem comes) I thought that it was going to be a book of nature poems. I have no idea what gave me this impression – maybe because the cover is green?? This not being my favourite subject, I was sort of unexcited about the whole endeavour (once, upon reading a poem about swifts in my poetry workshop group, I commented obtusely that this was all very well but I wanted more depiction of the human experience. My tutor, rightly, said that we probably didn’t need this, because actually this was a poem about birds) but felt obligated to ‘tackle’ the author, who is major in contemporary poetry.

It turns out that although Hard Water does have quite a few poems set in the natural world, it also is a book of everyday life, identity, domesticity and childhood. I absolutely loved it, and I lovingly copied ‘The Light Collector’ into the front of my new notebook. There is so much to enjoy here. I love the ‘fabulous air / tasting of electricity’– I think it’s the unexpectedness of the subjective descriptor ‘fabulous’ somehow working with the noun ‘air’. Then the synaesthesia of ‘the voices glinting’ behind the door and the possibility of ‘stopping the draughts in this place / with light’. The sheer freshness of the language – the ‘gauzy scraps of dawn’ – is still as new today as when the poem was published in 2000.

It’s also funny in its way. The central figure in the poem is like a hipster of light, dismissive of the ‘tawdry brilliance’ of broad daylight and other clichéd forms of light – the ‘too rich, too obvious’ golden sunset.  And who hasn’t looked out the window and wistfully thought ‘I must make something of my life’?

Who is this figure and what is ‘his own broken purpose’? The poem can be read as an extended metaphor for the creative process itself – the collecting of light from ‘secretive sources’ representing the gathering of material for a poem or novel. The light collector searches for the right kind of light as the writer searches for the best phrases, images and anecdotes. But searching too hard can be in vain – it’s only when he appears to give up on the search, walking through the dark kitchen ‘after a long day alone’ that the starkly perfect surprise of the refrigerator light is bestowed upon him, ‘so sweet and precise it leaves him aching’ . It reminds me of those Magic Eye 3D images – you have to let your focus loosen a bit to see the pattern, just as a poet needs to let their mind soften in order to land upon the best material.

This is all lightly handled, however, with the sharpness of the poem’s images and its gentle melancholy meaning it never becomes too obviously allegorical. Jean Sprackland is an expert ‘light collector’ herself, to the extent that this poem left me aching a bit too.


Poetry Failure
by Mark Halliday (from ‘Jab‘)

For example, I wrote my first poem in 1976 about being in the Vermont house
after my mother’s death; she died the year before;
she loved that house. My father said he kept having moments
of thinking she must have just stepped outside for a minute
to weed the garden or to walk just a little way
along Prospect Street, for a few minutes only and now
almost now she’d be coming back, we’d hear the screen door,
Bev would be back and saying something casual about—

about the cats, Daphne and Chloe, or about Mrs. Yamokofsky next door
or about the pear tree, “or a colored stone she found.”
That was the phrase that ended my poem in 1976:
“or a colored stone she found.” The phrase rang slightly false
but I wanted it—the “ound” and “one” sounds sounded profound
and in 1976 “stone” was still a word guaranteed poetic.
But did my mother ever pick up colorful stones?
Wasn’t that more something I did fifteen years earlier?
In the poem I was trying to turn my ironic mother into
an ideal figure certified sweet like a child.

But what could I make her say? Something very sly and wry?
The poetry would be in her voice, the way of her voice being
hers—voice of my mother—whether the words were about
the cats or Mrs. Yamokofsky or potatoes to peel for mashing.
Not your mother. My mother. Poetry of her
saying in her Bev way “those potatoes” or “Mrs. Yamokovsky”
or “Daphne’s gone down by the Black River
but if we feed Chloe I’m sure she’ll be back.”
And my father and Kimbo and me just going “Yeah” or “In a minute”
because this was all just life.


In another poem, Lunch With Big Steve, Halliday writes:

‘Already the theorist told me on a hot sidewalk
that my notion of telling the truth is charmingly naive.
Poems should be aggressively fictive
since fictivity is mandated anyway. I guess I dig.’

Halliday is obsessed with getting to the truth through his work, hyper-aware of omissions or exaggerations made during the creation of a poem. How can a poet tell the truth about their experiences in a form which is traditionally sentimental, where the urge to simplify for readerly satisfaction and relatability is so great? Many of his poems in the collection I read, Jab, are engaged in this struggle, including ‘Poetry Failure.’ This struggle – the constant self-awareness and questioning, can get somewhat torturous (I love the detail of the ‘hot sidewalk’ above; it makes you think of an arduous conversation with a street fundraiser when all you want to do is go back to your nice air-conditioned house) and obsesses Halliday to the point where it’s a wonder he ever gets anything written. (In other poems, the struggle to get the truth across through language intensifies to the extent that he makes up his own nonsense words).

He says of Jab:

In that book I did give free rein to my tendency to set up an argument between the speaker and an imagined reader. The effect is slightly paranoid, like ‘reader, you are going to think the wrong thing about me and I have to set you straight, I have to protect myself against what you are going to think.’ Maybe I did that in too many poems in Jab. – Interview in The North, Issue 36.

In fact, I’m quite surprised I like Halliday so much, as I normally don’t go in for poets engaged in this kind of intellectual self-questioning about the poetic process; why are you choosing to write poetry in the first place if all you want to do is show how clever and cynical you are? Why not just write an essay? The sheer knotty cleverness can get wearying. But I enjoyed this poem, for a few different reasons.

One is Halliday’s accessible conversational tone (he cites Frank O’Hara and Kenneth Koch as influences) the way he puts questions to the reader, how he opens the poem with For example… as though you’ve already been chatting about failures of poetry together for a while. There is vulnerability as he confesses the ways in which he previously described the life of his mother did not do her justice: In the poem I was trying to turn my ironic mother into /an ideal figure certified sweet like a child. There’s humour in this and all of his poems: The phrase rang slightly false / but I wanted it—the “ound” and “one” sounds sounded profound. I love ‘Not your mother. My mother’ – don’t we all make poems about someone else about ourselves, whether we’re reading or writing?

Those are the reasons I enjoyed ‘Poetry Failure.’ There are many poems I enjoy but don’t love, and I initially thought this one might go into that mental pile. But I do also lovePoetry Failure’, it is also one of the poems which took off the top of my head, and I think that’s for one reason and it’s this: the final lines of ‘Poetry Failure’ are harrowing.

He describes how the things his mother actually said and did were dismissed or ignored in the typical, everyday way things mothers say often are: ‘my father and Kimbo and me just going “Yeah” or “In a minute”/  because this was all just life.” The things she said were not ‘poemy’, not ‘sly and wry’, were in the end irreducible to poetic language. They cannot ‘belong’ to the present-day Halliday as he would like them to; he cannot twist them into the poem he would like to write (or has already written) without it being a failure. There is a sense in which they are stuck firmly in the past, and he has missed out on the opportunity to be truly attentive to them, because she is dead. He can’t describe his mother’s voice in a way which allows the reader to hear it: all we are left with is: The poetry would be in her voice, the way of her voice being hers.

In this way the poem is not only a big twisty thought experiment about poetry itself, but is also about the loneliness of grief and remembrance. It’s a great achievement, and I think Halliday should put his pen down now, and stop being so hard on himself.

POEMS THAT TOOK OFF THE TOP OF MY HEAD #2: After Twelve Days of Rain

After Twelve Days of Rain
by Dorianne Laux (from ‘What We Carry’)

I couldn’t name it, the sweet
sadness welling up in me for weeks.
So I cleaned, found myself standing
in a room with a rag in my hand,
the birds calling time-to-go, time-to-go.
And like an old woman near the end
of her life I could hear it, the voice
of a man I never loved who pressed
my breasts to his hips and whispered
“My little doves, my white, white lilies.”
I could almost cry when I remember it.

I don’t remember when I began
to call everyone “sweetie,”
as if they were my daughters,
my darlings, my little birds.
I have always loved too much,
or not enough. Last night
I read a poem about God and almost
believed it—God sipping coffee,
smoking cherry tobacco. I’ve arrived
at a time in my life when I could believe
almost anything.

Today, pumping gas into my old car, I stood
hatless in the rain and the whole world
went silent—cars on the wet street
sliding past without sound, the attendant’s
mouth opening and closing on air
as he walked from pump to pump, his footsteps
erased in the rain—nothing
but the tiny numbers in their square windows
rolling by my shoulder, the unstoppable seconds
gliding by as I stood at the Chevron,
balancing evenly on my two feet, a gas nozzle
gripped in my hand, my hair gathering rain.

And I saw it didn’t matter
who had loved me or who I loved. I was alone.
The black oily asphalt, the slick beauty
of the Iranian attendant, the thickening
clouds—nothing was mine. And I understood
finally, after a semester of philosophy,
a thousand books of poetry, after death
and childbirth and the startled cries of men
who called out my name as they entered me,
I finally believed I was alone, felt it
in my actual, visceral heart, heard it echo
like a thin bell. And the sounds
came back, the slish of tires
and footsteps, all the delicate cargo
they carried saying thank you
and yes. So I paid and climbed into my car
as if nothing had happened—
as if everything mattered — What else could I do?

I drove to the grocery store
and bought wheat bread and milk,
a candy bar wrapped in gold foil,
smiled at the teenaged cashier
with the pimpled face and the plastic
name plate pinned above her small breast,
and knew her secret, her sweet fear—
Little bird. Little darling. She handed me
my change, my brown bag, a torn receipt,
pushed the cash drawer in with her hip
and smiled back.

Not much happens in ‘After Twelve Days of Rain’. The narrator does some cleaning, gets gas for her car, reminisces a bit, and buys some groceries. Yet somehow it’s a poem about everything. It’s a poem about ageing, loneliness, secularisation, the whole vast and turning world. It’s an epic work of philosophy: we journey through alienation and nihilism and a kind of conciliatory humanism in just five stanzas. I think it’s magnificent. The first time I read it, I cried, and then felt very peaceful.

An interesting thing about this poem is that it’s almost entirely devoid of metaphor. We have her alone-ness ‘echo/like a thin bell’ (how perfect!) but that’s pretty much it. Laux is a poet who absolutely trusts the physical details of the world to do the emotional work for her. For instance, she describes herself as ‘hatless’. A simple detail and a literal one: she is not wearing a hat. But the detail is perfect because the poem is about being ‘hatless’ in a wider sense of going unprotected against painful realisations. And also about being ‘hatless’ in a sense of letting the world touch you – physically (the rain on her head) but also spiritually – really noticing the colour of a candy bar wrapper, the smile of a teenage cashier, and letting these things bring you comfort. It’s a poem which encourages us to just sit in the present with everything that is – although we will all eventually grow old, die, get ill, feel lonely.

Other things I love: the ‘slish’ of tires, which jog her out of her reverie; the torn receipt, the ‘unstoppable’ seconds. Again, the details work hard, effortlessly embodying the quiet despair which underpins everyday life. At the close of the poem – and this is absolutely key to its success – Laux resists the temptation to explain the conclusion (if things actually are resolved) she reaches. She simply goes on ‘as if everything mattered’: cataloging and appreciating, with her keen eye, the gold foil of the candy bar, her brown bag, and the cashier pushing the drawer in with her hip.




 #1 The Last Time

I recently read ‘Lifesaving Poems’, the fantastic Bloodaxe anthology by Antony Wilson, which started life as a blog. I loved it so much that I’ve decided to start cataloguing my own ‘Lifesaving Poems’, trying to get to the bottom of why I like them so much. Obviously I couldn’t call the series ‘Lifesaving Poems’, and ‘My favourite poems’ felt twee, so I’ve borrowed Emily Dickinson’s axiom, If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” These are the poems that took off the top of my head. That punched me in the stomach. That made me go ‘ohhh’. That made me groan like the lady in the Herbal Essences ad. You get the picture.

It’s also because I love poetry, and I want everyone else to love it too (in this way I feel I’m the opposite of my 14 year old self, who secretly felt convinced that converse shoes were ‘her thing’ and didn’t want anyone else to like them).

I’m starting with a poem by Marie Howe, the American poet whose three books of poetry (‘What the Living Do’, ‘The Kingdom of Ordinary Time’ and ‘The Good Thief’) I’ve read so much that I’m going to have to tape up the spines soon. (I just looked her up on Amazon and saw that there’s a new book ‘Magdalene’ coming out and now I’m so excited I need to pee.)

The Last Time, by Marie Howe

The last time we had dinner together in a restaurant
with white tablecloths, he leaned forward

and took my two hands in his hands and said,
I’m going to die soon. I want you to know that.

And I said, I think I do know.
And he said, What surprises me is that you don’t

And I said, I do. And he said, What?
And I said, Know that you’re going to die.

And he said, No, I mean know that you are.

I’m convinced that the key to The Last Time is those white tablecloths.

The book this poem comes from, What the Living Do, is in part an elegy for the poet’s brother, who died of AIDS in 1989. In the poem, the narrator and her brother have a conversation at a restaurant. The conversation itself is devastating – wise, unexpected, shocking in its concision, impossible to forget. But it’s the spare detail of the white tablecloths which tells us everything we need to know about the siblings, their relationship and the situation: this is the last time they are visiting a smart restaurant together; they enjoy going to restaurants together, so they must be close. They are trying to have a special dinner together. That fact alone is kind of heartbreaking

And the tablecloths also add a note of formality, which is telling, because death is awkward. If you are going for dinner with somebody whom you love, aware that it may be the last dinner you have together, it’s all you can do not to just start bawling in public, so formality helps. There is an invisible wall between those who are living and those who know they are going to die soon. To be living is to always be in a state of denial, because if you really realise that you’re going to die, actually admit it to yourself, you’re not going to be in any fit state to be eating a nice meal in a restaurant. The white tablecloths represent that formality and make it real.

Then John breaks through that invisible barrier by leaning forward and taking his sister’s hands. We then embark on this incredibly powerful conversation, which gains its power partly, I think, from the repetitive use of ‘and’.  The narrator initially misunderstands her brother and fails to ‘get the message’: ‘I think I do know.’ The reader is carried along with her in this misunderstanding.  The pattern of ‘and I said / and he said’ staggers the misunderstanding and delays the ‘revelation’ at the end, making the closing ‘punch’ so much more brutal.

I urge you to buy Marie Howe’s books if you are grieving, if you’re new to poetry (‘What the Living Do’ is particularly ‘plain-speaking’ in a way that’s brilliant if you think poetry is obscure and inaccessible), if you’re struggling with life, or just if you’re a human.

On playing


I am lucky enough to have grandparents who live in the green, glowing heart of rural Sussex, where lambs gambol, bonfires flare and dogs rule the land. It’s brilliant. The air is clear and the fields endless. It’s the kind of place where you can imagine yourself taking up residence in an abandoned cottage and living off the land for the rest of your life, before dying in an honest, earthy, violent way – shot by a stray bullet from a farmers’ long, wood-panelled shotgun, perhaps, or minced up by a combine harvester. Rather than, as is more likely, killed by slow neurological decay, or a series of heart attacks brought on by a lifetime of stressful commuting under halogen light.

A while ago I was out for a walk in their paddock when I came across a large rubber tyre, half buried in the ground in such a way that it was wedged in, and you could bounce from side to rubbery side without fear of dislodging it. I did so, climbing up on the tyre and jumping across its diameter like a child. The trees swayed above me. Bouncing from side to side, I had the weirdest feeling: a strange, quivering peace, cut through with nostalgia. Time slowed down. I felt light and wobbly and expansive, like when you step out of a hot car at the end of a long journey. I realised that I was doing something I hadn’t done for years: I was playing.

What is play, and how does it differ from work? I would say that play is any fun, relaxing activity characterized by the following:

  1. No clear ‘finish line’ as with e.g. washing dishes. Play is never ‘complete’ or ‘done’ in the same way that work is.
  2. Does not involve goal or target-setting; purposeless.
  3. Something you can’t be ‘good’ or ‘bad’ at, skilled or unskilled at.

To clarify: you can play an instrument (tinkering with the piano keys for an indefinite period one lazy afternoon, playing snatches of melody or composing bits and pieces of your own), but you can also ‘work’ at an instrument (spending an hour learning a piece by heart.)

The recent trend in adult colouring books represents our collective desire for more play in our lives. Sketching, climbing trees and doing handstands in the park also count as play. I think parkour is a pretty good example of a ‘playful’ physical discipline; some people actively build strength and practice their skills in order to master a particular move, but you could also spend a happy hour jumping around and hanging from things aimlessly. But play could also be something as simple as sitting in a field and tying two strands of grass together, or skimming pebbles across a lake.

Why play? Why find time to play when you’ve got work to do and people to see and laundry to do and articles to read and emails to check and tickets to book and only so many hours in your precious and all-too-short days? A couple of reasons:

1.  Play enhances creativity
During play, the mind relaxes and makes connections it wouldn’t make when on its treadmill of work, socialising, food and sleep. Play, apparently, is a precursor to achieving ‘flow’ – a psychological state in which you are totally and happily immersed in what you are doing.

2. Play is good for mental health
Just as the modern working week makes us all a bit nuts, making time to play can reduce stress, depression and anxiety. Play is closely linked to the principles behind mindfulness, as a way to fully inhabit the present moment.

Because play – like meditation, yoga and walks in the sun – is so good for us, Google and other corporates have installed ‘playstations’ at their campus, where employees can take a break to play with lego, or have a game of pool. This is all part of the monetisation of wellbeing: play enhances creativity and is good for mental health; happy and creative employees are good for business. (See also: this article on happiness as a business resource).

There are very, very few things you can do now that don’t result in some sort of economic output (spending, selling,  producing, consuming) even if they’re (on the surface of it) free. Watching a Youtube video? Revenue from the  20 second ad at the beginning is trickling into someone’s pocket.  Taking a walk at lunchtime? Think of that increased productivity! We inhabit a cultural moment in which natural, simple activities – like running, drinking water, growing vegetables, eating cereal, and breathing – are being commodified ( in the form of gym memberships and fancy running shoes, those weird cylindrical embossed glass drinking bottles, pricey allotments, the Cereal Cafe, meditation apps).

Play is one of the last remaining activities – or non-activities – that can offer genuine escape (as opposed to the artificial ‘escape’ exemplified by the £9 jam-jar cocktail) from the exhausting, tedious, capitalistic cycle of  Instagram and fitness classes and Groupon and vloggers and 2 for 1 and spa breaks and job applications and zero-hours contracts and Amazon and TimeOut and hashtags and work, work, work.

That’s why play – when practised (I originally put ‘done’ but that doesn’t feel right – play is never ‘done’) far, far away from the Google campus – is a tiny, quiet form of rebellion. If you do one thing this bank holiday, please walk to the nearest park and make a daisy chain or do some headstands, just because you can, and don’t take photos on your iPhone, or tell anyone about it.

Happiness, corporate culture and ‘The Case for Working With Your Hands’


From July to December after I graduated, I worked part-time at a small cupcakery. I was the assistant baker, helping out the head baker for day or two during the week and working alone at weekends to keep the shop stocked and to make orders for birthday parties and corporate events. I would get in at 7.15am, open the window, crank the ovens up to 150, make a strong coffee, switch the radio on and set about making thick gloopy batter. I would be alone until about 9.30am, when the sales assistants would arrive. I cracked a lot of eggs and whipped a lot of buttercream and piped a lot of pastel-coloured swirls and, on one memorable occasion, fashioned some lego bricks out of red, blue and yellow fondant. At the end of the day I would wash up, clean the kitchen and lock up shop, my whole body aching. It was wonderful.

I mean, obviously in many ways it was terrible. During busy periods, I would be in the kitchen for twelve hours straight, delirious with tiredness, leaving only to grab a sandwich from Prêt or run out to Tesco to stock up on Oreos or baking powder. The work was repetitive and occasionally maddening. The radio was stuck irreversibly on Kiss FM, which back in 2013 usually meant having to listen to Robin Thicke’s menacing ditty, Blurred Lines, eleven times in one day. Once, a jug of red velvet batter flew out of the fridge and directly onto my shoes. Interesting new pains blossomed in my wrists and hips and feet. Flour became embedded in my skin in such a way that I’d constantly smell starchy. Little stinging burns peppered my hands. I would head home at 8pm only to find that, full of adrenaline (and, to be honest, filched buttercream), I could not sleep.

But something about it, something beyond the solitude, the sugary air and gleaming silver trays, was immeasurably reassuring. The closest I came to defining this was to say that the job was simple. I had a job I could explain to a child: baker. Like nurse, singer, cleaner, writer. Not like ‘brand consultant specialising in search-engine optimisation.’

The changing nature of work in post-industrial society is a topic of growing interest to philosophers, economists and sociologists, bearing fruit in the form of titles such as Alain de Botton’s The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, Martin Ford’s The Rise of the Robots and Joanna Biggs’ All Day Long: A Portrait of Britain at Work. Matthew Crawford’s The Case for Working With Your Hands: Or Why Office Work is Bad for Us and Fixing Things Feels Good is an illuminating and critical study of the rise of ‘knowledge-work’ and corresponding decline of the manual trades. Crawford argues that this shift – compounded by cultural assumptions about the inherent superiority of knowledge work – steers young people towards ‘the most ghostly kinds of work’ and is responsible for the decrease in individual agency and fulfilment throughout working life.

The central problem, Crawford theorises, is that those who work in an office often feel that, despite ‘the proliferation of contrived metrics they must meet, their job lacks objective standards of the sort provided by a carpenter’s level – so there’s something arbitrary in the dispensing of credit and blame’. Simultaneously, the rise of ‘teamwork’ culture makes it difficult to take individual responsibility for anything. (9) The epitome of this is the management consultant, ‘who swoops in and out and whose very pride lies in his lack of particular expertise.’ (20)

Crawford describes the way in which, in an increasingly globalized world, the activity of self-directed labour planned and conducted by the worker, is ‘dissolved and abstracted into parts and then reconstituted as a process controlled by management.’ (40) White-collar professionals are being subjected to the same degradation which hit manual work a hundred years ago with the introduction of the assembly line. Cognitive elements of a job are appropriated from professionals, instantiated in a system or process and then handed back to a new class of workers – clerks – who replace the professionals. Research has shown that types of work where individuals have no skill discretion or decision authority trigger the release of cortisol into the blood. Feelings of malaise and restlessness – the feeling that one never really accomplishes anything tangible at work – are therefore attributable to economic and political forces which lie largely beyond our control.  Meanwhile, the self-employed mechanic, who is responsible for the process of fixing a sink or motorcycle from start to finish, enjoys a feeling of mastery and agency. It is no coincidence that plumbers consistently rank among the happiest of all professionals.

Imagine you are a fresh-faced humanities graduate who has just started working in the marketing department for a company that makes juice drinks. You like juice, and you like writing, and you want to be creative, so this seems like a great idea. What you’d really like to do is open up your own juice company and have a little market stall where you stand in the sunshine and sell delicious juice to stressed-out commuters. But you also need to pay the rent, so you knuckle down enthusiastically in the office of Big Juice Company, which is nicely air conditioned and full of colourful pod-like sofas. You learn that the juice production is broken up into innumerable stages which are then outsourced to various people, many of whom are literally on another continent. The marketing for the juices is also broken up into various different stages, coordinated by different departments. Among other life-changing responsibilities, you are put in charge of scheduling tweets on Hootsuite (for the Raspberry Rhumba and Lean Green Dream accounts only)*. You are not allowed to actually write the tweets, even though you are more than capable of doing so, because that is the responsibility of the Marketing Officer, not the Marketing Assistant. Your working day is fragmented, bitty and, as with most office jobs, principally involves emailing people. You leave feeling restless and rubbish and not really knowing why – you have a cushy job, in your chosen industry: juice! And being paid for it! Real money, once a month into your account! You are supposedly living the English-graduate dream. But you don’t – and this is REALLY common – feel like you are accomplishing anything. When people ask you what you do, you say marketing and hope they don’t ask for further details. You are a stressed-out commuter. And you really, really hate juice.

The increasing proliferation of ‘bullshit’ jobs, where professionals aren’t 100% clear on what it is they actually do all day (you only need to look at this Armstrong and Miller video if you’re not sure what I’m getting at) is coupled with a pressure to identify with corporate culture and exhibit a high level of ‘buy-in’ to ‘the mission.’’ The lines between private life and work life are blurred (as Robin Thicke prophesised) as we work longer hours, answer emails on our commutes and attend ‘enriching’ networking events in the evenings. Our employers have a vested interest in our psychological and physical wellbeing. We are all encouraged to love our jobs and the organisations we work for – if we don’t, we are possibly mentally ill. (This enforced merger between personal and work lives is beautifully satirised in Dave Eggers’ The Circle).

The Emperor’s New Clothes is a fairytale of two dressmakers who promise an emperor a fine new suit of clothes invisible to people who are unfit for their positions, stupid or incompetent. When the Emperor parades before his subjects in his new clothes, no one dares to say that they can’t see any clothes at all until a child cries out: “But he isn’t wearing anything at all!” The clothes don’t actually exist, but loath to go against the grain and be called stupid, no one points this out. It’s a beautiful little illustration of group psychology. In some offices, life in the workplace feels akin to one big game of the Emperor’s New Clothes. To sustain the collective illusion that everyone is devoted to their (probably shit) jobs, people stay after hours and work through their lunchbreaks and let out tight little laughs after they get back from holiday and say ‘I actually quite missed it here!’ And the hours and the days and the weeks pass this way, until they leave or go crazy or both.

Reading The Case for Working with Your Hands helped me to pinpoint what exactly was so good about working at the bakery. The job was logical. It made sense. There was a product to be made, I made enough of the product so we could make a profit, and then I was free to go home. If I worked faster, I could go home earlier. As William Davies puts it in The Happiness Industry: How Government and Big Business Sold Us Well-Being, ‘traditional paid work has a transparency around it which makes additional psychological and somatic management unnecessary.’  There were no emails to check on the tube. No pointless meetings to go to with middle-managers allegedly keen to discuss ‘recent cross-organisational learnings’. There was no requirement, explicit or otherwise, to be committed to the bakery, above and beyond getting the job done to the best of my ability. I didn’t need to rhapsodise about how great the company was with evangelical fervour. I didn’t need to sit sheepishly at a desk during quiet periods with nothing to do, feigning busyness. I wasn’t forced to attend those awkward appraisals with a manager where you pretend you want nothing more than to grow within the organisation and definitely aren’t planning to leave as soon as possible. I didn’t have to go to sinister corporate away-days and have profiles made about my personality. I didn’t have to eat lunch at a desk. Best of all, I didn’t need to action anything. Work was work. And then I’d go home and play.

Crawford states that the purpose of his book is not to provide a solution to the problems of post-industrial society, beyond his suggestion that school-leavers and graduates should try and find work which thwarts the damaging logic of fragmentation and outsourcing (he suggests academia and engineering as potentially fulfilling career paths: Crawford himself is an academic and a self-employed bicycle mechanic). Increased technologisation and globalisation are inevitable at this point; becoming a self-employed craftsperson is rarely economically viable, though people try (think of all those Etsy shops). A few months after I left, the bakery closed down, presumably because it wasn’t making much money.   In the Starbucks age, maintaining an independent business is a long uphill struggle.

So at some point, you’ll probably have to do a ‘ghostly’ job. You’ll coordinate or consult. You’ll spend your days doing a series of surreal things that don’t really feel much like work at all – ‘connecting’ on LinkedIn or sitting in meetings for no particular reason or sorting your emails into different categories. But please read Crawford’s book and try to understand that you’re not going mad. Although you may not actually want or be able to ‘work with your hands’, the book still offers valuable insights about the importance of individual responsibility, mastery of specific skills, and leaving work at work. Not everyone can become an academic or a motorcycle mechanic, but if you are in a fortunate enough socio-economic position to be choosy, think outside the box.  Thinking long and hard about the kinds of jobs that might actually be rewarding  – not by virtue of being cogs in glamorous multinational media conglomerates but due to the genuine levels of responsibility they offer – will help you (again, this only applies if you’re in a position to make choices about your career path).

Because not everyone is in a position to up-sticks and open their own business or re-train, the responsibility for rethinking work lies with companies themselves. To employers – might it be better if we let work be work? If employees were free to leave as soon as they’d finished their tasks for the day? (Professor John Ashton, among others, has argued that a 4 day week is the best solution to the problems of both overwork and underwork, both causes of stress.) If you weren’t implicitly obliged to be contactable outside of office hours? If you could do your tasks and leave without having to make your entire identity about work? And then when you went home – at 3pm say – you could get on with your reading or surfing or tapestry or painting or whatever other small silly thing it is that sets you on fire.

I don’t know if any of these suggestions are tenable. But what I do know is this: working in the bakery, I was exhausted and poorly paid. But I was, in a modest but important way, my own master, and the day this way of life becomes unfeasible is one to dread. As I wiped the sweat from my brow, taking a minute to watch the daylight slowly dying outside the window before removing the last batch of hot, spongy cakes from the oven, I’d feel like the queen of the world.


*Obviously, I am never going to run a successful juice business.

Poetry, dementia and ‘The Hard Word Box’


Dementia is the umbrella term for a range of conditions including Alzheimers’ disease which mostly, though not exclusively, affect people over the age of 65. Symptoms include memory loss – which begins as short term memory loss and then long term as the disease progresses – difficulties with communication, coordination, mobility and executive functioning, changes in personality and hallucinations. 1 in 14 people over the age of 65 have dementia. It is progressive. There is no cure.


I recently attended a panel discussion, Making Up Memories, at the Southbank Centre. One of the panelists was the filmmaker Lotje Sodderland, who experienced a brain haemorrhage aged just 34 due to a vascular abnormality present before birth (her Netflix documentary, My Beautiful Broken Brain, chronicles her life post-stroke). Now largely recovered, Sodderland mentioned that she still does not watch television or read much as she finds plots overwhelming. People with dementia, too, can struggle with following linear narratives. Perhaps poetry, which picks out the essence of a life story rather than laying out a chronological narrative, is a more appropriate expressive medium for people with dementia.

This is the view maintained by the poet John Killick, author of the groundbreaking book You are Words. Each poem in the volume is comprised entirely of words spoken by somebody living with dementia. The results are startling, disorientating and sometimes heartbreaking poems which both express the often frustrating present day realities of the people with dementia as well as drawing upon fragmented past memories:

‘Have you seen my barrow?
I joined the group,
and now it belongs to all of us.
But I don’t know where it’s gone.’

This summarises, in four lines, the essence of what it’s like to go into residential care; although you might not literally have to surrender your possessions, something deeply personal is lost as you become another name on the list.

We don’t remember days, we remember moments. Who was it who said that? It has a ring of truth, and perhaps especially for those living with dementia. A merit of the poems in Killick’s book is that that capture this ‘momentariness’ – the fleeting images, emotions and sounds that make up memories – without striving to fill in the gaps:

 ‘There have been other loves
but none like that of my mother.
She had birds that came onto her hand,
pecked, and flew away.’

The results are disjointed and not always satisfying – these aren’t poems which are going to win the Forward prize, but that’s not the point. What the poems do is give an insight into the mindsets of those with dementia in a way that reading the first paragraph of this piece, for example, could not.

As a support worker for people with dementia, and as somebody who is interested in what poetry can do, I couldn’t not read Sarah Hesketh’s The Hard Word Box (Penned in the Margins, 2014). The book is the result of Hesketh’s Arts Council-funded 20-week residency in Lady Elsie Finney House, a care home for people with dementia.

In Hesketh’s circumstances, it might have been tempting to write poems reminiscing about the past lives of each resident, the time before their world shrunk to the four walls of the care home. This undoubtedly richer time before might have lent itself more easily to the writing. But Hesketh is acutely aware of the social and political implications of writing in this way, rather that representing the voices of the residents as they exist now:

‘When I first started working on Where the Heart Is, I thought my job would be like that of an archaeologist. That I would help people recover who they had been, and explore new ways to hang onto that. Instead, I realised what was most important, was not that Maureen used to like jazz, or that Bill had once been a butcher, but that Jack tells great jokes, Phyllis likes helping others to the table – that’s who these people are now. They are still living their lives, and those lives are what need to be represented – in art, in policy, to families. Especially if the lives people are living in care are to change for the better.’

With great sensitivity – and at points, quite a bit of anxiety – Hesketh diligently represents the voices of the residents, and in so doing gives them something powerful: the present tense. A poem about a resident named Doreen is comprised of her care plan interspersed with transcriptions of Doreen’s speech:

‘Doreen sometimes likes a [SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UP] sing-a-long.’

It might have been easier to write about Doreen if she hadn’t been so angry, confused, and inarticulate: if she’d spoken in a sweetly metaphorical way, or rhapsodised about her past. But Hesketh chooses to represent her the hard way, transcribing her angry, confused voice as it really is:

‘Doreen loves [HORRIBLE HORRIBLE HORRIBLE HORRIBLE] gardening, and was always happy when spending time in the garden.’

As with Killick, many of the poems are ‘found poems’ taken from texts (care plans, instructions) found around the care home or combined from real phrases said to her. However, as Hesketh chooses not to limit herself entirely to this method, her poems naturally have the capacity to be richer. Her imagery is unpretentious, unflinching and exact:

‘How else to explain her feet
stuffed like potatoes into a cocktail glass?’


Empathy is clearly important to Hesketh and each poem is its own struggle to get inside the mind of somebody with dementia. Again and again she demonstrates that poetry is the perfect form for accomplishing this, as it lends itself naturally to fragmentation and interruption, being unconstrained by the laws of grammar. She carefully treads the line between lucidity and total obscurity to great effect:

‘Everything is so/balled heart. Too much muscle/in the sound of thinking.’


Dementia is frightening. But Hesketh refuses to let herself be overwhelmed by fear or sentimentality. Instead she dedicates one poem in the whole volume – This Place – to her own personal fears, her awareness that dementia could also happen to her. And what a poem.

What’s more, this is a poet acutely aware of her position of power in relation to the care home residents and her corresponding responsibility to them. She is all too wary of the pitfalls of objectifying people more vulnerable than herself, of ‘using’ them for artistic purposes (think of the photojournalist Kevin Carter and his infamous ‘vulture’ photo).  In the titular poem:

‘You might enjoy the ruins
of our grammar, the way we
chew up our nouns to song.
It’s not your hand that’s getting
thinner on the blanket.
Please don’t ask us to speak
the hard words all at once.’

I do think this must have been an incredibly hard book to write, not only because of the artistic challenge of representing the voices of those with dementia accurately and authentically, but also because of the demand to avoid the charge of objectification or romanticisation while also being ‘poetic’. In her introduction Hesketh recalls a member of the care staff at Lady Elsie Finney House saying: ‘Just remember us, and tell it right.’ A lesser poet might have shied away from this challenge. Instead, Hesketh has produced a book of gorgeous, sad, empathetic poems which are poetically and philosophically interesting while also being a tribute dedicated to the real people she met during her residency. As for telling it right goes, I really, really think she did.