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Hull Tidal Barrier: new painting

Friday, 27 April 2018 at 10:12

No Text

I've just finish this second large painting of the Hull Tidal Surge Barrier, which is just along the River Hull from my studio in the Old Town. The painting is the same size at the first one, 102cm x 127cm (40" x 50"). Whereas the first paint looked west, inland towards the post-industrial strech of the river, this looks out east and focuses on the light. I've adopted a different strategy here, simplifying the architecture and the structure of the piers and abstracting the light and reflections into harder-edged patterns and allowing faily large and luminously empty stretches.

We'll be having a retrospective exhibition in the new Hull College gallery in The Precinct, Hull, in early May, followed by an end-of-year show in June. I'll post details in a day or two.


Voyage: The Arctic Corsair

Thursday, 22 March 2018 at 19:03

The Arctic Corsair - aquatint

Here's the latest etching in the series to illustrate the Voyage poems / musical collaboration with Deborah Pritchard and trumpeter Simon Desbruslais. The long-retired Arctic Corsair trawler is now a museum piece moored on the River Hull.

I was originally commissioned, along with Angela Leighton, Carol Rumens, and David Wheatley, to write a poem to celebrate the unveliling of Steinunn Thórarinsdóttir's Voyage statue in Hull in 2006. The event was attended by the Icelandic Prime Minister, who arrived in Hull aboard an Icelandic gun-boat which docked not far from the Atlantic Corsair. The last time the two ships had been that close was decades earlier during the Cod War, when I believe the Hull trawler had rammed the navy vessel. This was also the last voyage for the gun-boat which was going bak to Iceland to be decommissioned.

State of Independence#

Tuesday, 6 March 2018 at 20:02

State of Independence

I'm reading from Satyr (and maybe a little else besides) at lunchtime (12.30-1.15 pm) on Saturday at The States of Independence one-day festival at De Montfort University in Leicester with fellow Shoestring poet Miriam Nieger-Fleischmann.

Miriam Nieger-Fleischmann has been writing poems for thirty years, in Hebrew, a selection, Death of the King, has recently been published in English, translated by Tony Rudolph.

Details here:

River Hull Tidal Surge Barrier

Wednesday, 21 February 2018 at 13:48

Painting by Cliff Forshaw:Hull Tidal Surge Barrier

Hull Tidal Surge Barrier, 102 cm x 127 cm, 2018.

Here's the now completed painting of the Tidal Surge Barrier, which is a few hundred yards away from the studio. It's another large piece: most of the Hull Cityscapes are on this scale.

I'm now hoping to do some more paintings of the River Hull over the next few months. For an enlarged image, please check the lightbox facility on the Hull Cityscapes page.

The Truelove

Monday, 5 February 2018 at 21:07

Truelove, Hull

Here's an etching from the Voyage series in progress. It's an aquatint to illustrate a poem from Pilgrim Tongues commemorating a couple of travellers who fetched up in Hull. You can see the sculpture a few hundred yards from the studio where I work. Still need to do a little more work on the plate... lots to learn about etching and printing generally.

The Truelove

In 1847 a young married couple Memiadluk and Uckaluk arrived in Hull aboard a local whaler, the Truelove. The following year they set sail for their home on Baffin Island. Uckaluk died following an outbreak of measles on board. There are casts of their heads in Hull Maritime Museum and on the Humber near the spot where they landed.

Among the dreams of hulks,
Inuit voices still
ring in the ship’s bell:

Memiadluk and Uckaluk,
this couple off the Truelove,
strange honeymooners stuck in Hull.

After the outbreak on board,
alone, on a trawler’s whale-back, he rode
the cold whale-roads back home.

What’s left could be death masks:
the eyes in their heads are closed,
cast in plaster like dirtied Newfie snow.

Now, down by the Humber,
another pair of heads fetch up,
in battle-ship grey

beheaded on a bollard
that might as well say
Greenland or bust.

They’re a long, long way from home,
that Esquimaux lad and his lassie,
blind to glass case or estuary,

pondering, since 1847,
Jonah, whalebone corsetry,
what the preachers tell of Heaven,

this place called Hull,
what they warn of Hell.

Hull Tidal Barrier

Monday, 5 February 2018 at 20:26

Tidal Barrier painting

I've been working on a painting of the River Hull's Tidal Barrier. It's gone through a lot of permutations over the last couple of weeks: the winter light changes rapidly and the the mud is different every day. It's still not quite finished yet, but I hope to put the final touches to it this week.

I've been running out of high vantage points for my cityscapes and am now concentrating on the River Hull, which flows right past the studios. I'm also working on a series of etchings of the river as part of the illustrations for the Voyage for Solo Trumpet poem sequence, and will post a taste of that project shortly.

Meanwhile here: a child, a dog and a lone sandpiper (too small to see in this reproduction, but he's there on the river's edge) punctuate the industrial landscape. I suppose this is essentially about gaps and strata: gaps in the railings and reflections; the strata between the primeval mud, old piers, functional tidal barrier and walkway, and the post-modern stylistic mashup of the Premier Inn (which was the vantage point for a previous painting, looking out over the River Hull and the Humber).


Monday, 22 January 2018 at 20:29


I've not got round to adding to the blog for sometime. Here's a piece I wrote several years ago, for Abegail Morley's Verse Palace. When that website became defunct, I posted it here as my first blog entry. It then fell off the end when I updated this website two or three years ago. It's dark winter outside, and this seems a good way to get back intoposting entries for the blog. I'll be putting up some poems and new images over the next week or so.


Mid-winter and midday feels like dusk. Cold and wet outside; inside it’s dark, cavelike. Light seeps in around the windows, but not enough to blunt the glow from laptop, lamp, the radio’s digital display. It seems a good time to make soups, stews: have things simmering on the stove, hoping some sympathetic magic will help word-broths thicken through the dark afternoons. The days are not so much short as weak: half-hearted respites while the night gathers strength. A sudden snowfall overnight and the contrast is turned up loud. Night seems pushed back, the sun, as John Updike has it, “a spark / Hung thin between / the dark and dark.”1 It seems a good time to think about darkness.

In the city I miss star-thick winter nights. Something evocative remains in the first smoky weeks of the autumn: the bright-dark dusk as you notice the brake-lights stabbing on, the slow sulphurous warming up of streetlights. But soon it is all top-lit amber-grey which flattens the street and lids the sky.

The bright-dark encourages dreaming. The word “focus” is cognate with “fire”, the hearth which the family gathered round and stared into. Behind them, the flickering flames shifted the room’s perspectives. A little away from the family, a candle cast a cold halo over book or writing table. Imagine how that would seep into your writing. Now shadows are banished from corners. Central heating and screens in every room have left the grate unfocused. The gas fire may have retained some vestigial warmth, but, as Tony Harrison noted, sitting with his father, it’s “Not as good for staring in, blue gas, / too regular each bud, each yellow spike.”2 The coal-fire simulacra cowling some gas fires settle for a bed of lumpy warmth rather than spooky rainbow-plumed updrafts and shape-shifts, though even that effect is defeated by electric light.

Darkness and light. Liminal / luminal. You need darkness to see certain lights: stars, sparks, glow. Heaney tells us that all he knows is a “door into the dark”. Inside “The Forge” is an “altar” where, in an “unpredictable fantail of sparks”, the blacksmith “expends himself in shape and music”, beating “real iron out”. The dark is sacred, mythic, magical, but also somehow more authentic than the contemporary world of traffic “flashing in rows”. In the dark we see a vanished world, like the one in which the Bard Schools nightly set apprentices themes to work on “the whole next day in the Dark, till a certain Hour of the Night, Lights being brought in, they committed it to writing”. 3 The dark allows imagination to roam, feed on memory, conjure visions. Seeds grow in the dark earth, but they grow towards, and flower in, the light.

The archetypal poet Orpheus bears a name which is probably connected with “darkness” (Orphna). The Underworld is peopled with shades: these dead give wisdom which we can retrieve into the light. Following Orpheus, the Orphic Mysteries proclaimed a cycle of death and rebirth, darkness and light. The Orphics revered Phanes, the god of light, but also Persephone, seasonal goddess who wintered underground in Hades to be reborn each spring. In Hades, the dead may choose to drink from Lethe, forgetfulness, or Mnemosyne, memory: the latter guarantees rebirth with the knowledge of past lives. Mnemosyne is also the Mother of the Muses. The descent is only part of it; we must learn from the shades then reascend into light; to wallow in darkness is eternal death. Dante is guided through Hell by Virgil who had his hero Aeneas also descend. “Facilis descensus Averno”: it’s easy to slip into Hell, Virgil tells us: climbing out is what’s difficult. The inchoate and dreamlike beckons, but the gradus ad parnassum, the slow ascent to craft, requires perseverance and guidance from the shades.

Darkness is, of course, also a metaphor for depression or mental torment, the time of ashes. Roethke writes: “In a dark time, the eye begins to see, / I meet my shadow in the deepening shade”.4 This “darkness” is beyond seasons. Tennyson’s “dark and true and tender is the North” contrasts with the “bright and fierce and fickle” south.5 But fierce bright Spain gives us Lorca’s death-haunted duende: “all that has dark sounds has duende” – and St John of the Cross’s dark night of the soul.6 For Scott Fitzgerald “in the real dark night of the soul it is always three o’ clock in the morning”,7 while for Nathaniel Tarn the terrible thing about la noche oscura is that it comes about in broad daylight.8 A gloomy January afternoon, however, can make even “the long dark tea-time of the soul” seem more like Eliot than Douglas Adams.

Google “poetry and darkness” and you discover the vast goth subculture in which psychic darkness complements the subfusc dress-code. “Emo” poems peep out from behind stage-scenery that was already looking rackety by the time of Baudelaire and the druggier decadents. Some sites give tips on writing “dark poetry”: “think of dark things… death, blood, negative thoughts, depression, anger, hate, fear and the supernatural are good things to start off with. Add in anything else not listed here”; “If you cannot think of anything else, write about death.”9 Black has always been the new black, since melancholy or “black bile” was the admired mode on Elizabethan page and stage. Though Robert Burton claimed to write his compendious The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) in order to avoid the condition, later writers seem in love with it. “O melancholy Brothers, dark, dark, dark!” writes James Thompson in The City of Dreadful Night (1874), anticipating the ironically gregarious nature of the black-clad virtual brotherhood now baring their dark souls on the web. Dark fashion outlasts seasons by ignoring them.

Most of us spend our season in Hell and move on. “Darkness” is seasonal, or was. Traditionally haiku contained a season-word and were often grouped according to the four seasons. This system was robust enough to accommodate the bombing of Hiroshima [6 August] and Nagasaki [9 August], though the ancient lunar-based calendar meant that the first fell in summer and the second in the autumn. Since the adoption of the Gregorian calendar by Japan in 1872, there have been problems reconciling lunar festivals with the solar calendar. This, and the diminishing influence of the seasons on modern urban life, have led to the growth of new categories: tsûki [“spreading through seasons”] and muki [“no season”]. Though western poetry traditionally mirrored the seasons and the ecclesiastical calendar, meaning has now effectively been banished from both. We have Kenyan green beans, Spanish strawberries, all seasons and none. Seasonal Affectless Disorder: our season-words become as incomprehensible as Shakespeare’s old measurements of rods, chains, furlongs, perches.

Darkness may signal the end of seasonality itself. From Biblical punishment to Milton’s “darkness visible” it has been also been retributive. In Byron’s “Darkness” “The bright sun was extinguished” and the world doomed to be “Seasonless, herbless, treeless, manless, lifeless – / A lump of death – a chaos of hard clay.” Not so long ago, the Cold War threatened us with a Nuclear Winter; today global warming seems more likely to banish seasons or twist them out of kilter.

In a way I’ve returned to where I began: dark skies. A bare-light bulb you can’t turn off is torture and now the American Medical Association warns of “light trespass”: “Many species, including humans need darkness to survive and thrive. Light trespass has been implicated in disruption of the human and animal circadian rhythms, and strongly suspected [of causing] depressed immune systems and increase in cancer rates…”10 Poetry adapts. Nick Laird, for example, has a poem called “Light Pollution”, but it’s difficult to imagine a genre growing out of the night-time glare and the buckled seasonal wheel bewildering man and beast. Slowly we recognise that “Darkness is as essential to our biological welfare, to our internal clockwork, as light itself.” It may also be essential to our poetry.

[1] John Updike, “January”, A Child’s Calendar.

[2] “Book Ends”.

[3] 1772 source quoted by Daniel Corkery in Hidden Ireland; also in Michael Parker, Seamus Heaney: the Making of a Poet, p.79.

[4] Theodore Roethke, “In a Dark Time.”

[5] “O swallow, Swallow”

[6] In Lorca’s lecture “The Theory and Play of the Duende.”

[7] F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Crack-Up.

[8] In, I think, the collection A Nowhere for Vallejo.


[10] Verlyn Klinkenborg, "Our Vanishing Night," National Geographic magazine, November 2008, also at

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