Tuesday, 10 April 2012


A couple of years ago now, an acquaintance kindly offered me the use of their country holiday cottage (a converted cow shed) out-of-season.  Part of the reason for the escape was to get some writing done in peace in quiet, but as I rapidly found out, it's not peace and quiet I actually respond to.  I like to be surrounded by people, incidents, movement and life, not cows and fields (and those bastard cows never did take to me anyway, huffing and scraping their hooves in an intimidating manner).  The local pub was brilliant and the environment pleasant, but inspiring? No.

So it turned out that this was the only poem I managed to produce in the entire time there, and I featured in The Poetry Society's "Poetry News" periodical to talk about why retreats don't always work for writers, stating that: 

"Disappearing to a converted cow-shed in the middle of nowhere with my wife was one of the most pleasant mistakes I've made in my life.  As a holiday, it was recuperating and refreshing, and we were surrounded by some of the most beautiful countryside in England (near Shaftesbury). In terms of getting things done, however - which for me involved writing new poetry, and for her involved starting her Masters dissertation - it was a disaster.

In my case, this perhaps shouldn't have been surprising.  Anyone who has been to a reading of mine will tell you that I haven't focussed especially heavily (or even fleetingly) on the topic of cows, and nor have 17th Century churches or sprawling valleys been common themes. Unfortunately, our location had plenty of these and a total lack of people and movement, which (very loosely speaking) are the usual things which inspire me to get the notebook out and write.  On the one day I actually forced myself to sit down by the window and not leave
until I'd fully completed something - *anything* - I ended up focussing on the local farmer in his light aircraft, and immediately realised that I might just as well have retreated to the Premier Inn hotel bar at Luton airport.  Nature itself and quiet locations obviously didn't inspire me, and I spent the remaining couple of days just enjoying the holiday.

Where retreats are concerned, I think there's a common assumption that all poets are somehow identical in nature and will respond in an inspired way to peace and quiet, or the same sets of visual stimuli. Literature would be incredibly unvaried and dull if that were actually true. Oh, and I almost forgot.  There was a fantastic award-winning country pub only half a mile away.  If you have a particularly weak will, I would recommend a retreat that doesn't have a high quality bar anywhere near the place you're trying to get work done.  Perhaps poets actually are quite alike after all."

I don't think "Poetry News" actually ran all of the above in the end and I came across as a very smug, contrary, mocking man next to the other writers talking about their wonderful, inspiring retreats (so what's new?) but anyhow... all this is far too much background information for what is actually a very short poem.  Is the below worth a one-week stay in a country cottage? You be the judge.  


Four miles away, the
cars on the horizon
slowly scrape the bushes,
razor blades scuffing stubborn
stubble, as cows take their own
sweet time in shaping the
valley, weeding the
wilderness like bakers
shape the birthday cakes of boys.

You see this all as you
“ohm” overhead, spitting and
wasping unwanted migrants
out of the way,
wondering why the walkers
nearby, scowling,
applaud only the efforts
of flesh.  

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