On First Visiting Maggie’s West

Read by Di Sherlock
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Maggie’s sits outside and inside the hospital. The building – ‘a tangerine puzzle– is connected to the hospital yet stands apart, visibly different. Maggie’s respects hospital protocol but also has its own rules and ethos. Maggie’s Centres are designed by internationally renowned architects, in accordance with guidelines about ‘healing architecture’. Several participants referred to Maggie’s as ‘a second home’ and Charles Jencks apparently coined the term ‘kitchenism’ for a key element to the design that enables patients and carers to come and go when they wish and simply gather around the kitchen table for a cup of tea in a proper mug rather than a hospital-issued plastic cup. See The Architecture of Hope: Maggie’s Caring Cancer Centres eds. Charles Jencks and Edwin Heathcote (2015 [2010]). Maggie’s regulars were sometimes reluctant to leave at the end of the day, even though Maggie’s staff are very clear on boundaries (see The Man From Cavan).

On the roof you are both inside and outside the building and downstairs where people sit, there is also an inside/outside space. Inside/outside is a recurring motif that explores the sense of standing on some kind of threshold which may evoke feelings of separation or not-belonging. Di, afraid she might be mistaken for someone living with cancer (and therefore behaving like an imposter) was stuck at the door, not knowing how to act in this situation nor amongst these people. Sophie described similar feelings. Volunteers likewise allow the outside in without quite knowing what might be arriving since, at Maggie’s, volition applies to both sides of a transaction. There’s a sense of coming and going freely that begins with finding your way into the building, when and how you please. The idea that you have to find your own way onto the one path shared by all is another recurring motif. This was illustrated on a mundane level by the writer failing to get into the building until she discovered what to others would appear the obvious – and only available – path.

This first visit was in mid-April 2019 and the sky very changeable, which seemed to reflect life at Maggie’s where people and things are in constant flux, reconfiguring and adapting to circumstance (see Knights of the Oblong Table). Round the kitchen table a vigorous discussion of Brexit was going on.

In the precinct of the Hospital
outside its jurisdiction
an Orange Box –
tangerine puzzle between worlds
roof in flight
entrance hidden
like something from the pages of Ruiz Zafon
or Harry Potter –
when you know where to look.

The visible and the invisible,
the in and the out,
is at the heart of this place.
We come and we go.

Lost on the outside
I am lost on the inside.
A moment of suspension,
rush of anonymity.
I could be anyone
feel the need to identify myself
despite the open door,
look for a gatekeeper.
A woman volunteers a smile.

The Box unfolds
an origami of light.
The fickle Spring sky is everywhere.
Rainbows glimmer on wood
as the busy kettle serves
the Kitchen Table –
the hub, nub, agora
where keen minds and long memories
dissect the latest bulletins
from the ruinous body politic.

Away from the Table
quiet spaces offer themselves
or hide round corners,
hearth and book
flower and stone
home and not home.

A stairway points skyward
as a ladder in a children’s game
or Jacob’s dream.
Up here, the Team
keep the architectural starship
live on the radar.

The roof beckons –
sun and shade in equal measure,
tree and bird
reaching, curling, swooping,
the leafing of the vine
a promise in the making.

In the Picture

Read by Harmage Singh Kalirai
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Malcolm tells his story in pictures, beginning with his photograph in Life – a collection of portraits of visitors to Maggie’s by photographer Zoe Law. He joined the UK book tour for Life speaking at various venues and he showed another image of himself standing in front of his super-size blown up image advertising the launch of this book. He retrieved this and many other images from his phone which became an active partner in storyboarding his life.

The poem speaks to themes in our project ‘People Like You’ in which we investigate the many connections between ‘liking’ – a photograph for example – and ‘being like’ or similar to others. ‘People like you like things like this’ is one version of the recommendations we get when we shop. In sharing the photographs he likes and talking about them, Malcolm derives three sets or groups in which he features. He joins other visitors to Maggie’s Centres featured in Life; a workforce in the aviation industry and a group of 70 year olds who applied through The Sun newspaper to join HRH on the stairs at Spencer House for a portrait. Through the combination of these three sets and further relations to his mother and father, other relatives and their common circumstances, Malcolm also pictures himself as a unique individual. While Suzanne (Per Ardua ad Astra) puts Di ‘in the picture’ kaleidoscopically and the sitter in Howling Wolf with precise chronology, Malcolm is ‘in the picture’ as he sequences his images into a storyboard.

He sits
a modern Maharajah
with Bollywood smile
four-square to camera
pitch perfect
in black and white.

At the book launch
he takes the podium at Christies,
speaks of his years at Maggie’s
‘Life’ the book
and the human condition.

On tour
he goes to the Scottish Parliament,
his image hangs in The Lowry.
He’s travelled to Australia, Rio,
but he’s never been to Manchester.
He notes with satisfaction
the average buildings are not more
than two stories high.

Turbo charged
the story continues
as Maurice gets the tea.

He’s an old BOAC man,
worked in sales in a luxury office
where celebrities dropped by.
For twenty years he works for BA
then joins Gulf Air.
From Toronto to Palolem Beach
people and places fly across time and space
captured on his phone.

He used to put things on the back burner
he says,
now he’s the opposite –
What? When? Where? –
doesn’t let the grass grow under his feet.

He hits seventy,
happens on a copy of ‘The Sun’:
Seventy inspirational people wanted
to celebrate their Seventieth with HRH.

And there he is smiling to camera
on the spiral staircase at Spencer House,
one of the Celebratory Seventy
framing the septuagenarian Prince.

Round the Table anything goes
but his casuals are selective,
dashingly accessorised.
At twenty-one
he had a suit with pocket handkerchief.
His Dad was always smartly dressed.

You can picture him at the Taj
taking tea
but he’s no toff.
He knows hardship.
At the age of twelve his mother dies –
he and his sister come home to Dad
and an empty house.
“You dust yourself off.”

He talks fondly of India
where people may be dirt poor
but will gladly share an orange with you,
conjures a crescent beach with quiet palms
in South Goa
where he has an apartment.

The ring of black onyx catches the eye
as he indicates Carol’s home-made cake,
helps me to a slice.
Then, with consummate gentility,
he turns to a lady – hovering, uncertain,
her first day at Maggie’s –
and easing her to the Table,
explains how things work.

His gaze returns to ‘Life’ –
“When I’m gone it’ll be here, this book” –
checks his phone and stands.
Life calls.

Per Ardua ad Astra

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The title of the poem is taken from the title of a piece that the sitter, Suzanne, wrote just before or during chemotherapy. Her Per Ardua ad Astra was published by University College Hospital Cancer Fund as part of the collection Words From Around The Table. Suzanne talked of a life-long interest in the stars – scientific and spiritual. The title of the poem, Per Ardua ad Astra, metaphorically echoes her cancer journey, which she embraces both as a scientist keeping up to date with the latest research, and as a Christian working through faith and prayer.

An extract from this piece is italicised and in ‘single quotation marks’ to indicate that it is published, unlike her father’s memoir – The Spirit of Adventure – also referenced in the poem, which is italicised but without quotation marks as it is unpublished. Throughout there is an intricate layering of citation, beginning with the opening verbatim.

Suzanne weaves a view of herself as a ‘fractal person’ in relation to her mother, father, sister and other people. She speaks of herself through accounts of and references to family members, living and dead. She also seems to adopt their positions  – and the writer’s – in an almost cinematic register and feed them into her own. At times, the conversation paused and Susanne moved to topics which appeared new or divergent, following an inner logic. At other times (‘Beneath the pacific surface’), the patterning appeared as a never-ending fractal that repeats itself at different scales of self-similarity. Natural fractals include the branching patterns of trees, river networks, blood vessels and the spiral patterns of seashells and galaxies. In computer fractals like the Mandelbrot set we can zoom in forever.  Suzanne puts the writer ‘in the picture’ while Malcolm puts himself in the picture by relating one image to another on his phone (see In the Picture).

This is the only poem which refers to the event of writing itself, addressing self, sitter and reader(s) equally – a meta-dramatic impulse that came out of the collapsing of past (the noted/remembered conversation), ‘the other’ (sitter), the present (the act of writing in the park) and the ‘I’ (the writer). It was, Di felt, the only way to truly express the nature of the exchange. In giving back the poem it became evident that approval had to be obtained from Suzanne’s others too. Her sister exercised significant editing rights, censoring certain family references she found intrusive. Debate continued between the two sisters until, after a couple of drafts, a satisfactory conclusion was reached (see Magic Words).

“I’m a Christian,”
she says with a smile
that suggests more
than meets the eye.

The dark amethyst of the jacket
has something of the bishop’s purple
but she doesn’t look like a Minister –
though she could have been once.
But she does preach
six times a year
at a community church in Fitzrovia.
Then I notice the cross –
A gift from Ethiopian friends
she thinks.

Beneath the pacific surface
a confluence of blood –
British, Danish, French.

Her father, an Englishman,
meets her mother in a cafe,
recounts events
in his signature rhyming couplets:

I saw sitting on a chair
a Viking maiden blonde and fair..
..Betty was the maiden’s name
and so into my life she came.

The lines, part of a longer ode,
are penned neatly but freely
on stationery of the time,
though, she says wryly,
the back of an envelope would do.

When war comes
he shaves a few years off his age
to get into the RAF.
Years later
when she takes him back
to the Canada of his youth
to celebrate his 85th
he’s turning 88.

is an incorrigible free spirit,
I like to have the feeling,
I can go where, when and how I like.

But when her mother becomes ill
he must stay put. And so
to stay his Wanderlust
he picks up the pen abandoned
after the War
he never talked about
and writes The Spirit of Adventure
a song of himself
in metre and rhyme joyous
as Walt Whitman.

From an early age he’s raring to go.
Australia, New Zealand, beckon,
but an assisted passage is not for him.
The money he’s saved in secret
will get him to Canada though.

Leaving his family open-mouthed
he steams out of Waterloo bound for Quebec
to try his luck as a farmer’s hand
in Winnipeg
‘Queen of the Prairies’.

he crosses the border
without a passport
to find English pals in New York,
goes with one to Chicago
where Al Capone’s in town.
Heading back
on the roof of a freight train,
they wind up in jail –
murder suspects
in a case of mistaken identity
worthy of Mark Twain.

It’s a rollicking tale
of a young man’s quest for adventure
in the America of the late 1920s,
a lust for life that sees him
up and down the West Coast –
from Charleston to Los Angeles,
Frisco to Seattle,
passing through the Panama Canal
eight times
as ship’s fireman.

He’s caught in a hurricane
in the Caribbean
and the dry land equivalent –
The Wall Street Crash.

But the youthful gaze
sees not risk, only adventure,
inspired by a mother who had
circled the globe a few times
and to whom travelling was almost life itself.

With a wry smile she observes
his mother, a Frenchwoman,
was a companion most like –
not an adventurer like him.
He dies at the age of ninety-nine –
“one year short of a helicopter ride.”

She reflects for a moment.

“Sometimes people say the expression
on my face is my mother” –
a woman who considered herself
absent too long from her Danish homeland
to collect the pension due.
“There was a lot of sorrow in my mother.”

As she talks
the glasses poised between finger and thumb
turn this way and that, a pendulum
of motion and emotion.

A writer herself
her voice is silent
till following the father’s cue,
she begins her own journey into the labyrinth.
It’s life and death
but not as he knew it.

She comes back from the hairdresser
to find not the thin envelope
she usually got after a mammogram
but a fat one.
It was a swift call to arms –
surgery, chemo, radiotherapy,
over ten months.

“The day of the biopsy was for me
one of the darkest hours of this journey –
I wished my mother was alive.”

Still in shock
she begins treatment,
choosing Charing Cross over UCH
because she had a good nurse.
From her hospital room
the sister who took care of her
looked out at her old school.

As she begins chemotherapy
she has a dream –
she’s standing before a dark tunnel
she knows she must enter.
It speaks with Jungian prescience.

Her mind goes back to Ghana,
her VSO years
teaching physics and chemistry
where “the thorns were sharp and the roses beautiful.”

She gets malaria and hepatitis,
ravaged by sickness
walks between worlds.
But at the end of the night
the Morning Star
always brought
the return of the Light.

all dying, changing matter
into energy…
take me to a place
where the stars will shine…

And let the morning star shine
in my present darkness,
elling me dawn will rise.’

Since the biopsy
she has not cried.
Nine months later
on the radiotherapy table
the unshed tears break free.

‘So let the tears cascade down
like torrential rain.
One day all my tears
will be wiped away.’

The conversation winds,
pools, surges forwards,
each piece of the story
diving into itself
patterns emerging
like rock pools that vanish
at the turn of the tide.

Before the cancer
she did a lot of etching –
donned the white gloves
in the British Museum
to leaf through Da Vinci and Rembrandt
then sit behind perspex
translating the Masters
to her own page.

She still sketches, admits
to once having a drawing on show
in Tate Modern’s Community Room.
I mention Van Gogh.
The eyes smile.
“My grandmother’s name may be Flemish.”

At home she has a Danish flag,
cooks a traditional beef dish with prunes
and celebrates Christmas on Christmas Eve.
She wears a ring of Danish silver.

“It’s very much to do with my heart,”
Then adds with a grin,
“But if England were playing Denmark at football
I’d support England.”

The conversation takes an unexpected turn
and I’m doing the talking,
recalling my journey through
my mother’s dementia and the cancers
that took my father and brother.
The pastoral gaze is clear, penetrant,
the eyes infinitely kind.

I begin this poem in Regent’s Park.
A butterfly lands bright on the page
and for a moment the sun breaks through.
The obscuring wind blows
and it’s away.
And it occurs to me
our conversation was like this –
a meditation
in and out of darkness and light,
feet planted firmly as they can be,
eyes to the stars.


An Occasional Inconvenience

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The sitter has an optimistic, sociable and active approach to life, suggested by his ‘sanguine Humour’ (the Four Humours in mediaeval times were believed to determine a person’s physical and temperamental disposition) and his Jovial — Jove-like — presence at the Table. For him cancer is one of many issues in his life and he refers to it obliquely as a dance partner (see too Fragments and Curveballs). He seems to value inclusion and correspondences rather than identification with defined groups. Note, for example, how he neither identifies with nor disavows his father: sculpting like his father but in wood not stone (the image he sent from his mobile phone is of an oak drinks cabinet that he made). It is interesting for our project, ‘People Like You’, to see how the sitter shows that he belongs to categories such as men with prostate cancer, men who sit around the Table together and people who work to keep their brains active. At the same time, he makes it clear that he sets himself apart from the rest of the men round the Table and believes the feeling is reciprocated – i.e. they set him apart. Having made this observation, there was then a pause in the conversation. After a bit, he reflected, “We’re all different here”, which seemed to indicate the subject had been sufficiently explored.

“I don’t let cancer run my life,”
he says,
a sanguine presence,
heart stopped and rewired
half a dozen times or more.

With “three life-threatening conditions
on his dance card,” he is
“slightly less concerned about cancer.”

Born into six generations
of monumental masons
he’s familiar with death
from an early age.

As a teenager
he’s tasked with exhuming nuns
in a Sussex nunnery destined for a housing estate.
The bodies lie in the erstwhile kitchen garden.
“Great vegetables!” he grins.

His bone-shifting comrade
is a Scots lad bristling with bravado.
Next morning he wakes
to find his pal’s done a runner
and taken his mattress with him.

His father hewed the first stone
for Churchill’s grave,
but he’s not fated to be
a chip off the old block.
The world and his mother
have other plans.

He laughs.
“I’m no Michelangelo.
I don’t have a delicate enough touch
not to smash the rock.”
Though it’s delicate enough
to turn elegant pieces out of wood.

he becomes a mechanical engineer,
PR man in the music business,
seller of “interesting things,”
player in the property game,
promoter of motor sport.
“I’ve had a varied life,”
he says devilishly.

He’s also been a carer.
For fifteen years he shared
both mother’s and father’s journeys
through cancer.

“We’re afraid of death,”
he reflects,
attributes the modern condition
to living “risk-free” –
not the case in wartime.
“Insurance companies have a hard time of it.”

When he’s diagnosed himself
in his middle years
he’s wryly philosophical.
“Having a limp dick I can live with.”

For him illness is part of living.
But not everyone shares his view.
To some round the Table
he appears frivolous.
It sets him apart.
His own suffering, he feels,
is incommensurate.
There is a sense of guilt.
He smiles.
‘We’re all different here.”

There is something of Balzac or Dickens
in the sweep of the gaze,
the playful badinage.
His features are more in line
with his ancestry on his father’s side –
a Hanoverian connection
not proven but probable.

He’s read Kafka, Goethe and Nietzsche –
though does not purport to understand
the creator of the Übermensch.
He read him because
“he had to mentally.”
He also has to do crosswords –
though not The Times –
and writes a good letter of complaint.
Keeping the brain agile
is a common theme round the Table.

Brunel and Stephenson are his heroes,
steam trains a passion.
“I’ve done the whole nine yards
of standing at the edge of Kings Cross Station,”
he fesses with broad-gauge grin.

He cooks for himself – a sound diet
with fresh fruit and veg.
And yet.
“I don’t know what I’m doing wrong!”
he wails bleakly, surveying the girth
magnified by the acute angle
of the gaze.
It troubles him constantly.

on the other hand
is “an occasional inconvenience.”

Howling Wolf

Read by Lin Sagovsky
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The sitter arrived an hour later than arranged. Her one-word explanation for the delay – “Oncology” – assumes it’s common knowledge that hospital appointments overrun. She had limited time but found the portrait wasn’t full enough when she read the first draft (see Rewilding the Self) so a second session was agreed. In feedback sessions she was particularly focused on punctuation. Punctuation divides the poem into units which indicate what hangs together in terms of meaning. Where there is an absence of punctuation the reader is free to interpret the grouping of lines and meaning for themselves. The sitter was keen to change or add punctuation to avoid any play on ambiguity. When Di is ‘in the picture’, therefore, she has ‘properly’ transcribed the course of events (see Per Ardua ad Astra, In the Picture).

At the time of writing the sitter had gone back to live with her mother while she underwent chemo. The night before the second ‘sitting’ she’d been crocheting and woke her mother up, apparently making a sound her mother described as howl-like. She was unaware she was doing this.

There are many forms of cancer treatment: chemotherapy inhibits all cell division – it is toxic to cells (‘cytotoxic’) – while targeted therapy, as the name suggests, is more selective and often carries fewer side effects.

She sweeps in –
an aria of black and purple
back-laced coat winging behind –
like one of Poe’s Gothic beauties
or a sweet faced assassin
from Kill Bill.

she says

Consulting her watch
she informs me
how many minutes I have
of her time.
I’m struck by the turn of phrase
at once entirely practical
and an adroit reminder
Time is a commodity
apportioned to each
not to be wasted.

chronic time-keeper,
governs her stars,
but had she been born a month before
as expected
she’d be a Sagittarian.
Now her Sun, almost in Aquarius,
touches the rod of the stern god
with a wand of air.

“I like a bit of structure,
but at the same time I like to go
with intuition, gut instinct.”

Her Chinese horoscope,
aligned with her ancestry
on her mother’s side,
shows the element
Water –
intuitive shape-shifter.

Her mother is a Water Dragon.
The oldest of eight children,
she soon learned to be
“a think on your feet kind of person.”
Looking after her seven siblings,
cooking and cleaning,
sewing and handcrafting,
whilst going to school,
the Dragon gathered her forces.

Later, as a chef with her spouse
in a Chinese restaurant,
she keeps a lid on the pressure.
“There’s no messing with her,”
says the daughter, turns now
to her own story.

She wanted to be a computer programmer,
even a chef –
though this she admits was a long shot –
trained as a nurse.

Technically she’s retired –
hasn’t worked for three years.
Being a nurse is a disadvantage
she says,
“because you want to know more.
You want to know the terminologies and everything.”

Tempus fugit.
She cuts to the chase.
Coordinates of time and place
she delivers with the exactitude
of an atomic clock.

11th April 2014.
It begins.

She’s on the phone
to her soon-to- be- ex partner
randomly checking
when she feels something
in the right breast.

1st July 2014.
She has a mastectomy reconstruction.
There are platelet problems.
Two days later she undergoes
haematoma correction
and a blood transfusion.

19th August 2014.
A fateful date.
First chemo begins.

“Six cycles every week
split into two cycles of three:
the first three cycles
only chemo,
the second three
chemo alongside eighteen cycles
of targeted therapy.”

Like Ada Lovelace
at her Engine
she dissects the years
that follow, computes the sum
of the telling,
proofing my notes
as I make them
as the unstructured nature
of the jottings
may lead to inaccuracies.

Over the next five to six years
she has seven different diagnoses
including a brain tumour –
“a ticking time bomb” –
ovarian cysts
and migrainus headaches,
not to mention
anxiety, depression
and two falls.

18th June 2019.
They find an 8 cm cancer
in her small left breast.

19th August 2019.
Five years to the day
of the first chemo
second chemo begins.

Six cycles are scheduled
every three weeks
“but ended up being five cycles
whilst on targeted therapy
for full eighteen cycles.
Chemo stops two days before surgery.”

Satisfied I am now
properly in the picture,
she closes her diary.

The raven’s wing of hair is gone,
reveals the beauty of the bones,
the calligraphy of the eyes.
But this is not what she sees.
“Tin-Tin with less hair.”

She rises,
a dark hellebore,
an echo of the goal–scorer
on the netball court,
the ballet lessons,
in the lengthening spine.

“I don’t know when I’ll see you again,”
she says with a lupine smile
in a flick of a coat tail
she’s gone.

I’m fortunate to catch her again –
nimble fingers playing on her phone
as she chomps on a burger.
it’s like netting phosphorescence
or a flying fish.

She gets up to hug a woman
she hasn’t seen for a while.
Ever alert to the comings and goings
of the pack,
she’s quick to show affection,

Sleep hijacked by chemo,
she was up all night
crocheting a blanket –
a multiverse
of hexagonal shapes
barely begun
she may yet abandon.

In the darkness
her mother hears her
working the wool,
with her Spirit Animal.

Holding the Sky

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When Di arrived for the ‘sitting’ the sitter was busy introducing people round the table to Modernism and Bauhaus in particular. On previous visits it was clear he didn’t ‘do chat’ but enjoyed inviting people nearby to lively debate about politics and architecture. For the sitter, the two are inextricably linked. With Di he discussed ideas on art and freedom, quoting Gustav Klimt:

Die Zeit ihre Kunst
Die Kunst ihre Freiheit

which translates as:

To every age its art,
To every art its freedom.

Klimt is specifically referring to Painting, Sculpture and Architecture and the sitter made it clear he wholeheartedly echoed Klimt’s view, as expressed in the lines quoted.  He went on to unpack the internal structure of Maggie’s West. The design of each Maggie’s is site-specific, created by internationally renowned architects of the day (see On First Visiting Maggie’s West). Later he reflected on the monumental architecture of antiquity, singling out the Pantheon in Rome as a particular example of excellence. When invited to send a picture to accompany his ‘written portrait’ he emailed:

Now searching through boxes for old portfolios, kindly but hurriedly packed away by my brother when I got cancer. The sketches I made in Rome will probably be the most suitable.

He also handed on his skills. His daughter – schooled by her father ‘to see’ – designed a line of lingerie that echoed the Lloyds Building.

He parks his scooter –
the hipster variety –
ready to ride the rodeo
in the Fulham Palace Road.

As an architect
the Park and Ride in Seattle
was his first big project –
a multi-storey design
with staircases and a bridge
to catch the bendy buses.
Parking for 1,200 cars.

He was a carpenter first,
trained with Bovis at the Trocadero
then worked as an exhibition builder –
the NEC, Olympia, Le Bourget –
ends up in Virginia
inside the Philip Morris building.

The eyes that view the world
of strange
with equanimity
“I had one of the weirdest experiences of my life.”

Inside the building
smoking is strictly forbidden –
even in the car park –
though at the time
you could smoke in airports
and hospitals in the US
and this is after all
the Headquarters
of Marlboro Cigarettes.
The corporate fear
of passive smoking
does not pass him by.
“Bit sinister,”
he says with a grin.
“Put me right off smoking.”

He gets his professional wake-up call
building luxury yachts.
He’s making curved staircases –
notoriously tricky –
with marked success.
The Chief Naval Architect observes
if he wants to design
he should study architecture.
So he does.
Graduates from the University of Washington.

Back in the UK
he designs the Ballroom Wing
of the Heythrop Park Hotel Golf and Spa.
Once a Jesuit college
the ecumenical is gone
but the house
retains its earthly glory.

The human imagination
hewn in brick or stone
commands respect,
has him seeking strategies
to fight the value engineering
that “strips the architecture out of the design.”

Acts of demolition
are ruinous reality.
I love these old buildings
is the standard joke in architects’ circles
he says with a bleak smile.

Humour – wry, playful –
is his default setting.
Eschewing small talk,
he prefers to argue the politics
of Modernism, quoting
the fin de siècle mantra
of Klimt and company:
Der Zeit ihre Kunst
Der Kunst ihre Freiheit.

The British Museum
with its Grand Orders and Great Court,
Lloyds of London,
have his admiration.
The National Gallery
prized by HRH does not.

Next to St Martin in the Fields
it’s “a mish-mash,”
the portico of the church,
an artful nod to the Pantheon,
exposing the muddle
of the monument to art.

Dismissing the Royal champion –
“an anachronism” –
he references Pevsner and Summerson,
Heritage luminaries
and critics of the building.

“It has all the finest ingredients
but lacks a good chef,”
he says, twinkling.
Then, suddenly serious,
“Architecture is frozen politics.
It’s colossally important.”

He deplores emotional attachment to ideas.
Liking or not liking
have nothing to do with aesthetic values
he argues.
But when it comes to a personal favourite
the Venetian Gothic of the Ca D’ Oro
has him waxing like a gibbous moon
over the Grand Canal.

Conjuring the image on his phone
he explains the lightness,
the play of the facades,
the quatrefoils that turn like trigonometrical keys,
the virtuoso counterpoint of symmetry and asymmetry.
As with all design, he looks for
“the way the building holds the sky.”

He shows a second image –
seductive lingerie that cleverly echoes
the inside out of the Lloyds Building
designed by his daughter
clearly schooled in seeing.

His aunt Mary
knew Seamus Heaney.
In Ulster
the naming of place
is a baring of bones.

The teacher of Gaelic,
the poet,
travail the tongue,
in the cavern
of mouth and sky
words re-sound.

working on The Spirit Level
in Harvard,
pens a dedication
to her nephew
he barely knows
working on the yachts
in Seattle.

They meet
in Wicklow
at Mary’s funeral.

The eye of the Poet
once saw him
at work on the boats
keeping the spirit at sea-level.

Now the Architect
works the Table
questioning the spirit
that would hold the sky.

Fragments and Curve Balls

Return to Poem

Di met Emma, who she’d never seen, in the foyer of the Wellcome Gallery on Euston Road. She identified her immediately because she belonged in some way to the set of Emmas – real life and fictional – with which Di was familiar. The title of the poem is how Emma described her life-journey to date (verbatim). The telescoping of the personal and the mythic, the mundane and the fairytale is a thread that runs through the poem. The giant pink O design on her jumper instantly suggested Alice in Wonderland’s rabbit hole. She seemed sprung from the pages of Arthur Rackham, a celebrated Victorian book illustrator whose works include illustrations to European fairy tales and folklore, and her description of home life on the narrowboat was gothic – ‘schauerlich’, meaning gruesome or blood curdling, is a recurring adjective in German Gothic literature (ETA Hoffmann, Brothers Grimm). The ‘O’ that recurs through the poem is also performative – referring variously to sounds made in conversation – as in the oh! of surprise, the oh no! of dismay or the oh of recognition.

In the UK, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) assesses new drugs and treatments to decide whether they represent good value for the NHS and improved outcomes for patients. But patients may receive unlicensed treatments in research studies, as Emma reports. A separate Cancer Drugs Fund established by Prime Minister David Cameron in 2010 was discontinued after unfavourable review but, in 2016, NICE took on elements of its role by allowing interim use of treatments prior to licensing and full review. Overall, 64% of NICE recommendations since 2000 stated that the NHS should use the new cancer drugs that NICE had assessed. Initial cancer treatments are ‘first line’ and, if they stop working or have significant side effects, your options for ‘second line’ treatment in the NHS and in research studies will depend on the treatment you have already had as well as other factors.

in the dog rose
inked on skin
jacket of coral
Beanstalk green
boots brown as paths
through summer woods
or muddy beelines
on the allotment.

People are rarely
how you imagine them.
She is.
“Emmas are Emmas,”
she laughs.

This Emma
has a Masters in Fine Art.
with the insider narratives
of the art world
she takes a job in an electronics lab.
Soon she’s running it from scratch.
“I’m quite quick,”
she grins.

The mobile features morph
like clay on a potter’s wheel.
A steal of something French –
though she’s a Londoner
growing up in Devon –
a flash of Louise Brooks,
a swirl of Arthur Rackham.

Rose madder
pulses on grey jumper
pulls the listening I
down the rabbit hole
into her story.


Trading land
for water
she suggests “a moving house”
to accommodate
the wandering spirit of her husband –
a trained violinist
who resists
the lunatic fiddling of devils,
the harmonics of poets,
to gig with the band.

Inside the boat
space is tight.
Spiders in the bed,
earwigs in the wooden spoons
but a successful year on the road
will mean they can upsize.

She discovers a lump
in her right breast,
has “a full dance card of cancer treatments.”
While it goes swimmingly with the band
she pukes her guts up on the sofa.

Mum and sister
fish her off the boat
land her in a flat in Peckham
where Mum can stay.
Younger sister
who she says
“wants to be older than me”
exerts an authority she does not have.


Two years later
a 70 foot narrowboat
is home.

“A hat-trick of mets” –
liver, lungs and bones –
she’s hobbling around like an old lady.
But she’s taking her meds, making it work,
“one foot in front of the other.”

She shrugs off the memory
like a scratchy sweater
or an old skin,
says cancer is one more curve ball
Life’s thrown her way.

As we speak
the pink pen wefts
scraps of conversation to the page,
ruffles and arrowheads.

She mines words,
understands performance,
has “loads of sketchbooks.”
She’s worked for The Arts Council,
The British Council,
The Whitechapel Gallery,
The Poetry Cafe.
But in the holograph she calls
she sees a crazy cartoon character
swerving this way and that
knocked off her bike.

She is
as the girl
in the fairy tale,
as the child
in the ring o’ roses.


She hasn’t worked since 2016.
Before then
jobs went wide of the mark
or never found purchase.
But in not working it seems
she’s now on target.

Metastatic cancer is deemed
treatable not curable.
Access to drugs is critical.
She badgers her oncologist for a drug
available in the US
but not here,
gets put on a trial.

she campaigns for Pfizer
to drop its price, make the medication available.
But not entirely.
The drug’s approved as a first line therapy only
which means
at the time she was diagnosed
she wouldn’t have been able to take it.

She talks at The Crick:
How I hadn’t been cured
and why that might have been.
Barriers to cancer care,
accessibility of data outcomes,
she weighs in.

The arrows are starting to prick
the body politic,
bringing, she says,
a sense of ownership.

Near their mooring
they keep seven chickens in a run.
The chickens are not free
to do as they please
because there’s a fox
who lives next to the door of the run.

In this Morality Tale
she is the Fox –
a philosophical one.
The protected Pharma-fowl
gobble up the returns
but she’s unwilling to demonise,
“It’s human nature to take a bit more.”

As if sprung from the pages
of the fairy tales that fascinate,
she can knit, embroider,
whittle spoons out of wood.
I picture her
in the heart of the Forest
Red Riding Hood
busy with her to-do list,
rewinding the curve balls,
The Woodcutter
whittling the block to her will.

The Story continues.


The Three Musketeers

Read by Chris Barnes
Return to Poem

Chairs round the kitchen table were available to all equally. No one had precedence, but Dave favoured a particular chair, which was universally acknowledged as his chair.

In the past Dave and Ray belonged to two distinct and opposing sets  – Mods v Rockers who wore different ‘uniforms’. Dave’s and Ray’s uniforms speak to their sparring relationship. They joined people like them (that is, with prostate cancer) in the biopsy queue. In line, they waited one after another for treatment: at once ‘you plural’ and ‘you singular.’ Subsequent references to the music that fits with each of their sets shows too that the boundaries between Mods and Rockers both separated and connected them. The Goldhawk Social Club in Shepherd’s Bush is where Roger Daltrey hung out and regularly gigged with The Who.

A sitter’s story is sometimes told by some other person in the presence or absence of the sitter. Both instances occur here – Ray tells a story about Dave and Dave listens to a story about himself but Andreas’ portrait, the third musketeer, is told in his absence. It is a portrait by proxy and also a work of the imagination since Di never met this ‘sitter’. His likeness emerged gradually over several weeks when Di heard what had happened in between her visits.  There was a figuring and reconfiguring of information as time passed, rather like the ‘origami’ of On First Visiting Maggie’s West 


“The Three Musketeers,”
they say,
but only two are in service
round the Table.

Diagnosed at the same time,
they’re old sparring partners
since Dave jumped the biopsy queue.
“I didn’t only say Oi!” says Ray.
“Now I can’t get rid of him.”

He gives Dave an almighty squeeze
on the kneecap
that prompts a yelp worthy of Beaky,
Dave’s greyhound, an old racer –
called Beaky ‘cause of his big beak
says Dave
tracing the muzzle in the air.
Always tells it like it is.

With tattoos and grins piratical
they’re like a couple of old-time comedians
always quick off the mark
with ready wit and repartee.
Weren’t always.

“Ray was a bag of nerves when he came in,”
says Dave.
“This place lifts you.”
Ray, snaffling Dave’s cake, nods.
One thing they can agree on.

the Nordic Walkers limber up.
The leader checks in.
Some are sore, some ache,
one says she’s always under the weather.
The naming round the circle falls apart.
“Never works,” the leader laughs.

Ray joins them,
but Dave’s grounded with a broken rib
since Beaky pulled him over.
“The sod. Would have to be the side I lie on.”

A cloud of histamine descends
from the sweaty London sky,
swallows the walkers.
Dave remains in the chair
that’s got his name on it.

His grandad was a miner from Matlock
then the family moved to Shepherds Bush.
All rank QPR supporters now
save one brother, a Spurs fan.
“An outcast,” he snorts.

The family took him down
since he was five.
On match days
he gets fish and chips on the way,
pie and mash with gravy after.
Beaky gets his share.
He’s not a fussy eater,
even likes a bit of curry,

Chinese as well.
But you won’t get him on a bus.
“Goes in a taxi though.
A luxury breed.”

He talks of greyhounds
past their use-by date
dumped like garbage.

The eyes that like a bit of fun
grow luminous.
Behind the banter
the chiaroscuro of the soul.

The conversation turns to abseiling.
Several have signed up.
Not him.
Not since he took a nasty tumble
from the top of a ladder
he didn’t tie off.

Dismissing the Spidermen,
he talks of music back in the day –
Marty Wilde, Joe Brown,
and, a glint in his eye,
Marianne Faithful.

“Be very careful, dear,”
says ‘Saint’ Peter, leaning in,
“he’s trouble.”

There’s a diamond wink
from the earring he’s worn
since he was a Rocker.
“You are what you are,”
he says with an impish grin,
“inn’t you?”

Ray was a Mod,
“suited and booted.”
Wore a Parka not a leather jacket
like Dave
who once bought a Parka by mistake.

Listened to The Who,
local to where he grew up
in Shepherds Bush –
though there’s some debate
whether they were Mods.
And what about The Stones?
Mods or Rockers?
The Moody Blues –
no question there.

He was the youngest of five,
remembers his Mum,
the jobs she had to take
to keep them
when his Dad passed at fifty-one.
“We were poor,
but we had good dinners.”

On a Sunday
the Winkle Man’d come round
with his barrow or his van,
they’d go down the road
to the neighbours’
to watch telly.
“They were good days.”

But not without their ups and downs.
Ray gets in a bit of trouble.
His Dad has a word
and the boy goes down
the Goldhawk Social,
puts on the gloves.

For three years he trains,
loves it, but “was never no good” –
not like his brother
who showed promise
and could kick a ball too.
He tried for QPR and got in,
but when their Dad passed,
a Brentford supporter,
he changed his strip.
He could have been a contender
Ray muses,
but “he discovered women”.

A memento of his old sparring days
gleams on a chain round his neck,
given to him by his son.
He’s got memorabilia from Nigel Benn,
Chris Eubank – also presents from his son,
who he doubts knows what else to get him.

The ghost of the young pugilist
darts across the solid features
softened by life and time,
the jab
a friendly handshake now,
the hook
a good natured jibe.

You can take the dog out of the fight
but you can’t take the fight out of the dog.

He got his diagnosis the day he retired.
Went for a test
cos he happened to be watching telly
and saw Bob Monkhouse in a Macmillan ad.
Like Dave
who went in with a sore throat
to find the problem was
“with the lower works”
it’s a bolt out of the blue.

It was the gym that got him to Maggie’s,
wasn’t interested to begin with.
It’s getting on five years now.
“The people who work here are diamond.”

When he lost his second sister
he took it really bad.
He looks at Dave
working on his art,
it being Friday,
“He livened me up.”

The busy colouring pencil stops.
Quickly he redresses the balance.
Tells how Dave phoned him up
beside himself
when his dog died.

He went round
and carried the beloved lurcher
who’d died on Dave’s bed
down the stairs.

An act of camaraderie
to be expected
from an Inseparable.

The missing Musketeer
is known for his paella
and mean patatas bravas.
But he’s not eating.

“He’s not all that clever,”
says Dave.

Time passes.
Andreas is not mentioned.

When I ask
fearing the worst
Ray lights up.
“He’s sounding perky.
Bright as anything.”
He hadn’t seen him, just talked.
“Andreas says the food’s not bad at all
in the Care Home.”

Then it’s all changed.
Andreas wasn’t eating after all,
just said so
to please his sister.

Ray goes to visit,
sees him take three spoons of soup
and wave the dinner away.
He’s brought diet coke
but there’s no fridge in the room
so Andreas drinks half, leaves the rest.
Won’t drink it warm.
He hates it there
but they won’t move him now.

“He’s dying,” says Ray.
The words settle on the air
nowhere to go.

In Margravine Cemetery
long fingers of elder
bow to the earth
beckon the silence.

The Third Musketeer
on a full moon
in partial eclipse.

The Art Class

Return to Poem

Rewilding the Self

The first draft of the poem did not include the first two verses beginning “And throughout with a front row seat”. After the giving back, the sitter felt the need to extend the voicing of gratitude to include ‘everyone’ (see also Woman of Heart). A list gives a sense of the non-finite ‘wealth of things’ as the sitter lists one particular connection with her situation and then a second and a third. She was keen to share the reworked poem with her parents and close friends.

In a subsequent email she writes:

our conversation about the inclusion of my artwork on the opposite page from the poem and the creative process of the poem has inspired me with the perfect title for the finished piece of art, ‘Loved to bits’. ‘I love you to bits’ is a very Liverpudlian thing to say.

True North

Di (who started out as an actress) instantly recognises the sitter as a member of the acting profession by her trained voice and so, from the start, a likeness between writer and sitter is established. During the conversation it became apparent the sitter was also a writer. Discussing her weakness as a playwright, the sitter referred to Aristotle’s Six Elements: Drama, Spectacle, Character, Plot, Diction, Melody, and Thought – which is taught to would be writers of (classical) drama. Forum Theatre breaks with Aristotle’s rules. Pioneered by Brazilian radical Augusto Boal, a scene is shown twice and, during the replay, any member of the audience is allowed to shout ‘Stop!’, step forward and take the place of one of the characters, showing how they could change the situation to enable a different outcome. A path through a scene can be variously reconfigured according to different points of view in Forum Theatre (see On First Visiting Maggie’s West where there seems to be only one path). The technique is now widely used in corporate training.

Throughout the feedback sessions the sitter focussed equally on content and style. Consequently there was a fair amount of literary analysis. Through amendments and additions, the to and fro between Di and her sitters in Rewilding the Self as well as True North added new layers to the poems.

As with Suzanne (Per Ardua ad Astra) there was substantial conversation about ancestry. The sitter loved the image of the Steppe eagle – and also felt the need to point out that her father was from St Petersburg not the Steppe. However, she mused, her surname possibly had Cossack roots, making the reference to the Steppe perhaps resonant after all.

Cancer treatment can cause joint pain or aggravate arthritic conditions and, since writing the poem, the sitter of True North has had a hip replacement.

Inside out 

The illustration ‘Pineapple’ is from Julie’s art book. Di chose this rather than another picture because she liked it and only later found associations that resonated throughout The Art Class, layering three individual poems within the group portrait: the pineapple is associated with the goddess Cybele, mother goddess of Rome (looping back to the painter –sitter of the Trevi Fountain in True North) and, among other attributes, she is custodian of wild nature (looping back to the painter-sitter of Rewilding the Self).

She moves through the room
an East Wind
arranges tables, materials,
to a familiar pattern.

A single table for the group
would be her choice,
but a crafted piece of furniture
landed from on high
means partition.

And so two tables,
laid with paint and brush
immaculate as a royal garden party –
“lots of bits” to tempt the palette.

We wait.
“It can ebb and flow,” she advises.
Today, thanks to the murderous rain
that’s already claimed a victim
by the Hammersmith flyover,
it’s a still pond.

Not quite.

A lone figure clips the surface
deft as a dragonfly,
settles at the end of a table.
The stern gaze fixes on the piece
in front of her.
A collage.


Rewilding the Self

This is no simple collage.
The cut-up is a snapshot in time –
the cards of well-wishers, friends and family –
some no longer here.
She has no plan, no outcome in mind,
is just going to see where it ends up.
In this she echoes certain contemporary artists.

I fall into the fast flow of conversation.
The Celtic features morph –
Vermeer, Dürer, Modigliani.

She documents her diagnosis and treatment.
Dates, procedures, fly like arrows
fletched with social and political thinking
born of experience not spreadsheets.

The cancer was self- diagnosed.
She knew nothing of the silent killer,
knew only that despite the healthy life-style
and appetite with which her family is blessed,
she couldn’t eat so much.

Lucky for her
she has a GP who can read the symptoms
and acts.

She details the dark history of women’s healthcare
in the hands of male practitioners.
“Women don’t understand this,”
she explains.
She’s for education, empowerment.

Again she enters the room
where she received her diagnosis.
The male Consultant
and female Clinical Nurse Specialist
are there,
but her chair is positioned
so her back is to the Nurse.
She turns the chair round.
Now both are present.
“You have to speak up.”

Censure turns to gratitude,
remembrance that extends
beyond our conversation.

In diagnosis, treatment and recovery
she feels “part of a super-organism
of love, care, kindness, thoughts and prayers –
friends and family, friends of friends
and family of friends. In fact there were
a lot of people I didn’t know praying for me!”

There are gifts of time and conversation,
a wealth of things –
a homemade crocheted blanket,
a Nutribullet,

She recalls the brother who’s there
post diagnosis
when her “brain cuts out” in Liverpool Street Station,
the gracious support of work colleagues
and the NHS,
which gave her, she says,
phenomenal care.
She gives thanks to the surgeon
who gives her his mobile number
and speaks to her Dad
and the hospital staff from across the globe
who give kindness
and professionalism
and persist
in a thankless world of Neo-Liberal values.

And throughout
with a front row seat
her remarkable parents
whose duty of care is sublime,
surrender unconditional.

“It was the best and the worst of times,”
she says
without irony.

She’s turned fifty but doesn’t look it.
“Good genes,”she laughs.
But the birthday was a trigger.
“There’s nothing there now.”

The conversation eddies, turns.
The moss green ankle boots insinuate
woods, earth.

She knows the ways of flowers,
the needs of bees,
a tree’s quest for light and air,
and the cost of human meddling.
“We just need to step back.
We don’t need to over-engineer things.”

The commitment of young people to the planet,
our urge to re-wild ourselves,
bring hope.

As a Community Gardener,
she teaches a reluctant walker on sticks
plant identification.
Now she walks more, noticing
what’s around her.
“It’s changed the way I look at the world,”
the old lady says.
She’s chuffed.

Her favourite tree is the apple.
Pruning the family trees with her Dad
is a ritual.
Why the apple?
“It’s beautiful and useful”
is the reply.
She knows how to be both.

Despite the meteorological mayhem
others have joined the class.
Julie, who runs a balanced ship,
invites me to another table
where aphid green tipped with fuchsia
makes petals on black,
the trunk of a tree is shaded
and tubes of watercolour
never properly put back,
are being restored to order.

I have barely begun my introduction
when a well-modulated voice
with perfect projection
asks me to speak up.
Clearly I am in the presence
of a professional.


True North

She presides leonine
over the Trevi Fountain
photographed in black and white,
preferring, she says,
to work with a limited palette.

Whilst eschewing glorious technicolour
she’s not exactly what you’d call
The blue-handled brush,
echoing the various blue of her ensemble
with painterly insouciance,
hangs like a hiatus in the air.

“Acting is written on my heart,”
she says.
The eyes, piercing azure
behind the specs,
tell me she knows I know
what that means.

And so
with the complicity of old thesps,
we open her particular volume of The Actor’s Life,
delivered with a jovial humour
and the brutal precision of a Steppe eagle.

Her pedigree is impressive.
Her father, born in Tsarist Russia,
an artist, worked in film,
her mother, a writer of children’s stories.

She trains in Bristol.
With a voice made for the airwaves
she’s in regular work –
radio, TV, audio books.

Then everything changes.
Home life splinters.
“I felt as though I’d had a cannon ball
blown through my middle.”

A drowning woman,
she’s “thrown a life-raft” –
an eighteen month contract in Radio Rep
with The World Service
will surely open other doors.
She moves from Bristol to London
to reinvent herself,
become buoyant once more.

But Bush House is a lone Colossus.
And the timing couldn’t be worse.
The acting profession –
precarious at the best of times –
is hijacked by the Reality Show.
The RP voice and actors doing accents
are old-school.

She talks with a robust vigour
sorely at odds
with the arthritis in her hip.
“Cancer was a breeze compared to this.”

For the first time
cancer gets a mention
where osteoarthritis
now hogs the limelight.
“I could play a gender-blind Long John Silver,”
she offers dryly.
But she’s not about to quit.
“I love my work!”
The deco earrings,
delicate aspens,

she’s turned the kitchen cupboard
into a sound booth,
embracing the digital future –
if not warmly.

She has a Masters in Playwriting,
can tick the Aristotelian boxes,
but, she wails,
“I can’t write plot!”
Forum Theatre now offers
an alternative script.

Actor, writer, poet,
the class is her oasis.
“When I had the cancer
I cleared the table and put out my art stuff.”

Mulling over a possible theatre job
she returns the Trevi Fountain
to the bookshelf.

I watch her walk away
down the bendy path,
the skewed lower torso
the trunk of an embattled oak,
the bone forcing the compass
in a new direction.
It is not True North
and awaits correction,
but she has found the light she needs
to push forward
indomitable and splendid
as Sarah Bernhard.


Inside Out

When she began
to do teaching
people would talk to her
about things
as they made work
as if taken to a place where
would out.

And it struck her
was a vehicle.
And so
with an MA in Art Psychotherapy
she gets a placement at The Royal Marsden
and for the next ten years
works at Charing Cross
bringing trolley and board to the bedside.
Now she brings art to the group.

Being there, she says,
can be “the very start of recovery.”
But making it through the door
isn’t always easy.
“Sometimes this is the first group they’ve joined
after treatment. Very often they’ve had a year
of people making decisions for them.”

Now they’re making the choices.
Do I use pastels? tinsel? tissue paper? foil?
watercolours? gouache? clay?

She tells of a lady who came
and went after twenty minutes.
Gradually over time
her anxiety abates,
she stays longer, makes more.
Observing her artwork,
she introduces a new material –
“materials are the backbone of everything.”
Now she comes early.

“When you give people power back,
it’s the start of getting back to where you were
before the diagnosis,” she says –
smile the homespun sweetness
of primrose, bluebell, lily of the valley;
passion adamantine.

The measured gaze
follows the swim of the group
trusting the group, allowing it to work,
yet vigilant, ready to dive in
and give support.

“It’s a great place to tackle the question
Who am I now?” she reflects.
Equally it’s just a great escape.
“I just work with what comes through the door.”

The words suggest
a levity that is effortless.
But holding the space,
being fluid,
demands total presence.
“Sometimes you leave feeling like you’ve been thumped.”

The turquoise earrings
to the blue of the eyes.

She’s a painter,
still paints.
In the room
her work
is nowhere to be seen.
A pity
say the class.
I agree.

It would be an inspiration
a privilege
to see
her elusive

Knights of The Oblong Table

Read by Chris Barnes, Siobhán Nicholas, David Kelly, Rafael Peñas Cruz
Return to Poem

Positions around the table take account of who’s there and who isn’t in relation to absences as well as presences, and preferences, which shift. Over several weeks, the group appears through shifting patterns rather like time lapse photography. Note how the pattern of the group emerges here through the rhythms of the poem.

No Joke 

As members of the group came and went, consent had to be renegotiated several times. This is another instance of configuring and refiguring over time. It also raises important questions. In our research for ‘People Like You’, written consent was required to indicate participation in the project but, as the ‘Knights’ make clear, we had to negotiate consent in practice each time we met. We also negotiated the shape of articles, poems and reports that we produced from our conversations. To ask each time is to show respect and to recognise that things may have changed in the meantime. The sitter’s condition for sitting was that he remain anonymous; equally, he wanted to sit because he wanted his voice to be heard.


The elusive sitter cut short his sitting in order to help organise the Science Cafe that evening. ‘People Like You’ hosted a series of Science Cafes with Kelly Gleason 2018-2019 on the topic of Personalised Cancer Medicine (see The Art of Medicine).

Occasional Women

The bringing of home-made food to the kitchen table is a Maggie’s ritual in which particular people are celebrated (see the mention of Carol in In the Picturealso the note on mutualism in Everyday Heroines). The sharing is not restricted to food – Dave regularly brought flowers to the table and his – at times flamboyant – choices were also celebrated.

When I call them
Knights of The Round Table
it’s a spur to the collective wit.
The nomenclature derided,
others are proffered, dismissed,
until, all things considered,
someone comes up with
Knights of The Oblong Table.
There we have it.

The confederacy shifts
presence, absence
configure, reconfigure
in the uncertain wind.
The Table a stout ship,
the Crew vociferous –
riffing, roaring,
cursing, complaining,
joking, jibing,
expleting, explaining,
sparing, sparring,
fooling, finagling,
loquacious, voracious,
complicit, explicit,
hopeful, doubtful,

No captains

by invitation only.


The Man from Cavan

“I’m not boasting or anything,
but since I got diagnosed with cancer
I’ve become a better person.”
Is he joking?
He assures us he is not –
though he could be.

At the blood test,
he continues,
the nurse told him to stop drinking.
He hadn’t drunk for thirty years.
The gaze is sober
not without compassion.
Nobody laughs.

He cracks up like a schoolboy.
“You know I’m joking, don’t you?”

Now I have the measure of him
I ask where he’s from.
“Cavan,” he says.

The silence of brains racked
to no effect
till the owner of an ancient Nokia –
itself a cause for merriment –
asks the topographical question.

A man present by chance
his wife having an appointment
at The Hospital,
seizes the moment.
An Irishman himself
he locates the unknown county
passed over by tourists and literati
with firm tones
and foggy coordinates.

The Man from Cavan
parts the stubborn Irish mist.
“It’s an Ulster county
but in the Republic.”
A perfect riddle- me – ree
which the Table digests with effort.

The conversation lurches
over Irish history, global warming
and moon exploration
like a Beckettian bicycle.

“They’re taking the mystery out of the moon!”
laments the man from Cavan,
preserving his own air of mystery
till we get our marching orders,
concedes his name
when bags and jackets are got.

He’s miserable on his own
he says,
hates winter,
likes the bright summer evenings
when home can be put off
with a good walk.
More could be said
but a member of staff
all out of patience
indicates the door
with a hand like a flaming sword.

“This is a very joyous place to be,”
he reflects,
the blue eyes
under the bushwhacker hat
wide as the open sky.

No Joke

He could start
a whole new genre –
Medical Stand-Up.

Caveat auditor!

What begins as a twinkle
may end in cold fission
light years away
from the jocular.

Confronted with the Bag
and a clueless Catheter Nurse,
he suffers the indignity
of a clueless Patient.
His unlikely saviour –
the Night Nurse.

“It’s assumed
it’s common knowledge
what to do with them.
A user’s guide is needed.”

The Bag
slaps between his legs –
metaphorically speaking –
as he holds the Table captive
with a signature mix
of humour and outrage.

He turns his attention
to the matter
of his operation.

He does not meet the Surgeon before
does not expect to meet him after.
To this day
he has no way of knowing
how it went.

The Registrar addresses him –
“zonked out” –
in heavily accented English
hard to decipher at the best of times.
When he emerges from
the post op fog
the man is gone
and with him all hope
of a narrative of proceedings.

Professional ineptitude,
the casual lack of thought,
of respect,
is laid bare
exact and unsparing
as a Gillray cartoon.

A provocation
to laughter
that packs a very human


Because the cancer was caught
in time
there’s extra time.

for a glass of wine and a sandwich by the river,
to ignore the demon that hisses
Get off your arse,
for the farm in Norfolk.

Round the Table
his absences are noted.
The Knights are quick to speculate,
like wind that sings through
certain rocks in Africa
opinions gong.

The Table detectives
map fragments of conversation,
words dropped, hearsay,
onto possible coordinates,
tailing the professional sleuth
of pilfered artworks.

Like a figure from the pages of Dan Brown
or Derren Brown
he ghosts at the Table.


Occasional Women

From time to time
a woman
lands in their midst.

One sits,
tousled blonde hair
against grey sky,
damson sweater
flirty and fun as Jane Avril.

“When you walk up you’ve got
the world on your shoulders.
Then you forget. Sometimes
I just sit here and watch
and get lost in it.”

Nails of plum
tap a brisk kathakali
on the mobile,
chasing the digital world
she says she can’t keep up with.

To her side
in heron-like stillness
another woman.

“She’s a writer!”
the Knights chorus.
She contests it
with the folded smile
and watchful eye
of Jane Austen.

Another settles,
momentarily displacing
the thrum.
Knits of indigo, cobalt, lapiz,
crystals of blue chalcedony,
conjure the magic of Egypt,
Persia, the Tigris and Euphrates
of her homeland.
Beneath the liquid softness
of the eyes
a gravitational pull.

Her family story,
the narrative of her cancer,
is dark matter
in her smile
impossibly shines.

Often she brings food to share,
home cooked for optimum health,
seasoned with spices and flavours
of the Levant.
Some of the Knights partake
with gusto,
the rest continue snacking
on biscuits and cake.

Whatever the uptake
she smiles.
They are obdurate now
but she is a river
that carves stone.