FRIENDS PAST AND PASSING MATTHEW SWEENEYDr JohnsonJames StephensMadge HerronIan Cochranejohn heath-stubbs





I suppose in time a sadness comes

but first there is the shock and in that shock the scrolling down of years

and incidents, all fast-falling …

all the rushed things, the all too fast things … until grief

becomes time.


And then again, just sadness; which

in its own time, from that bucket-well of tears,

becomes remembrance.


DR JOHNSON in Streatham, south London

Published in the Summer 2015 issue of The Author, journal of the Society of Authors

Read offline

Donegal and Paris

My Life as a Painter, Matthew Sweeney, Bloodaxe, 2018, 79pp, £9.95 (paperback)

King of a Rainy Country, Matthew Sweeney, Arc Publications, 2018, 130pp, £10.99

Matthew Sweeney, who died in August 2018, was, for his generation, a major innovator in English poetry. Like his close friend and collaborator John Hartley Williams, Sweeney woke up one morning to realize that he should begin to write out his vision of an alternative reality, in a form he was later to describe as ‘imagistic narratives’. The poems that resulted were often shocking, dark and bleak; but always had a pithy and lasting sense of dark humour. They were oblique, but directly spoken, and contained within them a commitment to the art and craft of poetry. The resultant work won prizes and was translated into many languages, gaining him a significant international reputation. In his native Ireland, he was elected to Aosdana, that country’s highest creative honour. April 2018 saw the publication of a new collection, My Life as a Painter, and then in November, King of a Rainy Country, a very different kind of assemblage.

In spite of its title, My Life as a Painter, is not consistently ekphrastic, but its masterful title poem describes a picture that Sweeney would like to paint. It is a literary painting in that it tells a story, brooding with the sinister dark browns and russets of the Old Masters. Three birds – a snipe, a crake and a wood-pigeon – wait on a plate to be eaten:

The three small birds my father brought me on a plate had been shot by him a week before, then plucked, gutted, and pot-roasted … not by him, but my grandfather …

On seeing this nature morte, Sweeney speaks directly:

I often find a wish going through me to remake myself
as a painter. These three birds would be perfect
for my first work.
He considers adding a few colours and then:
I’d follow up with a long, flat portrait of three
spectacularly blue-moulded loaves, all of them rye.

References to the poet’s father and indeed his grandfather, those who shot the birds and plucked them and brought them to the fledgling poet, suggest a family portrait with indeed brooding connotations. In the introduction to his 2014 collection, 21 Men and a Ghost, Sweeney stated that he was ‘made’ by the people he met, friends, men and women. Here we have a development of that and one closer to home – early family influences.

Another poem, which does have an ekphrastic quality, is the moving Dialogue with an Artist, in which Sweeney ‘becomes’ L.S. Lowry and speaks of that artist’s loneliness to suggest how that painter served as his inspiration:

I would stand for hours in one spot
and scores of little kids who hadn’t had
a wash for weeks would group around me.
Had I not been lonely, none of my work
would have happened, I should not have
done what I’ve done, or seen what I’ve seen.
There’s something grotesque in me …

Again, in 21 Men and a Ghost, his oblique autobiography, Sweeney sees himself as finally unloved and wonders whether, should he return as a ghost, he will  be welcomed. The implicit question is whether there will be redemption. In the Lowry poem, that sense of the grotesque is indeed redeemed:

You’re right, there are grotesques who shine
a dark light that lures us just as the sirens
tried to lure…
and yes, maybe we are among the grotesques, but
there are also the beautiful who …
save us from ourselves …

The compelling idea is that the ‘grotesque’ – in whatever form – can be saved not by art, but by loving people and it’s one that plays out here.

Sweeney had always used many different personae in his poems; in this collection, The Old Xmas Tree, has him imagining himself as a tree discarded after Christmas, that is left abandoned and again seeking a kind of afterlife or, indeed redemption after being discarded. He writes:

I lay down where it had been
and I slept, and dreamt of Xmas,
and presents placed under me,
the gonks, the cards and angels in my
branches, and me green again.

This is a sombre collection with many poems about death and superstition, and is not generally relieved by Sweeney’s familiar black and often surreal humour. But there is a trace of that surrealistic imagination in the final poem, The Yellow Pole, which also contains a sense of benediction:

Paint the pole yellow,
stick it in the grave
of a poet, but make sure
the poet’s lying there.
Bring some new jazz to the ceremony (maybe German) and French wine, a case of twelve, at least.
At the stroke of noon, produce from your rucksack the white snake, and the red lizard, and allow them
to climb up the yellow pole, the snake last, and both
to sit there, like the flag
of poetry, or of existence …

King of a Rainy Country, arrives as ‘something completely different’. It is ostensibly a series of short pieces of writing, rather like diary entries, that recall in detail a month’s visit to Paris. Almost a travel book, it is lifted from that genre by Sweeney’s poetic prose and beautifully modulated poetic diction – and by his clearly stated poetic ambition:

I’ve bought Baudelaire’s Le Spleen de Paris in translation, hoping that (even at this distance in time) they’ll offer a guide to this weird city that used to be his. That still is. And I’ll study them well, and learn how to negotiate the rapids of no line-breaks, no easy rhymes,
no verse-rhythms, then I’ll become a modern version of that flâneur he was, and go out with my yellow notebook, my green pen, and
maybe I’ll find a response.

Le Spleen de Paris was a series of fifty petits poèmes en prose (as Baudelaire described them) and Sweeney has produced here fifty short prose pieces, diary entries, and bits of flash fiction – each describing the events he witnessed and banlieues visits he made in his month in that city in 2016. They are a tribute to Baudelaire and, for the first time in his work, an otherwise elusive poet speaks directly to his readers without recourse to metaphorical camouflage or to any surreal tendency. It is as though Sweeney for the first time is unguarded and natural in this new (and securely imitative) form.

Although Sweeney writes with exemplary clarity, he does allow his ‘green pen’plenty of flourishes, and so each short piece becomes a well-told and colourful story that might befit any legendary Donegal seanchaí. He does not seek out the bizarre, but it does often find him. It is as if he were an innocent bystander and witness to some ‘mad’ events.

One of the more bizarre is an encounter with Les Saltimbanques – a family of street performers: a father, mother and ten-year-old boy. The man is dressed in a striking yellow and blue outfit with white leggings and black shoes and the boy in a checked black and white jump suit and is playing on a tambourine, while a black and white dog performs in step alongside him. The woman is dressed in red and is playing on a red tin whistle, on her head a white hat around which a snowy white owl flies about. Sweeney observes it as a picture worthy of the young Picasso or the old Chagall, or perhaps Gustave Doré. The cover of this book is indeed a reproduction of Gustav Doré’s famous Les Saltimbanques, a picture I find both bizarre and rather frightening; it lends an ominous (albeit unjustified) tone to this book.
One of the more amusing anecdotes, diary entries, petits poèmes en prose, is of a visit to the Cimitiere du Montparnasse in search of Baudelaire’s grave. On the way he visits the resting place of Samuel Becket and remembers a previous pilgrimage:

As I was here, I decided also to pay homage to Becket. I’d once found his grave before and left a note on it – Godot here, where the fuck are you?

He then finds the tomb of Baudelaire and describes it tersely:

An off-white tombstone rising from the cement grey and white stone that I would call scruffy. Not what I’d expected for arguably Frances’s greatest poet … on the flat stone loads of flowers, red mainly, a preponderance of roses. Some of these were withered. There were also, oddly enough, a number of Metro tickets, a twenty-cent coin, and a cigarette.

Sweeney then seeks to converse directly to his long-dead guide and mentor and asks him what he thought might happen next in France and if there was any way this living poet should be responding to what the nineteenth-century Baudelaire might be thinking – but no reply is forthcoming. Sweeney ponders whimsically upon the thought that perhaps Baudelaire didn’t receive ‘transmissions’ in English. This passage reminds me of a poem Sweeney wrote for his dead father, again trying to communicate beyond the grave, which ponders whether he might try communicating in Irish rather than in English. I find it moving that this yearning for a truer link between the Irish poet and Baudelaire is so personal; it makes, after all, the concept of this literary imitation all the more sincere.

At one point, Sweeney rather charmingly acknowledges a sense of shame that he has not learned to speak the French language to a better degree and recalls an extraordinary example of EFL in reverse in his native Donegal:

I am ashamed that my command of the French language is so awful. I did one year at secondary school in Donegal and remember little except the priest who taught us (who later became the Bishop of Derry) had two straps for punishing us boys, one soft one he called madame, one tougher one he called monsieur.

Each of these fifty short imagist narratives are beguiling and amusing and they cover many banlieues in daylight while reeking of late-night fumes from wine bars and brasseries that intimate Baudelaire. It is a kind of intended interlude between more conventional collections. Sadly, it became his last publication for Sweeney died at 65 from motor neurone disease, just before publication of this book, the historic irony being that Baudelaire also died just before publication of Paris Spleen.


James Stephens

James Stephens
James Stephens
On National Poetry day I commemorated the work of Irish poet James Stephens by reading one of his poems over his newly discovered grave.

The grave is in Kingsbury, London, in the graveyard of St Andrew’s Anglican Church NW9.

I first got news of this through an article by Peter Beresford Ellis in The Irish Post and I was shocked that such a famous and popular Irish figure could so quickly be forgotten to the extent that his grave is overgrown and the tombstone broken and there is graffiti. I have begun the process of communicating with those with some degree of responsibilty and they in their turn have undertaken to renovate the grave and erect a memorial stone.

The grave was discovered by a local resident who happens to be (like me) a Stephens fan.

When I compiled THE POOLBEG BOOK OF IRISH POETRY FOR CHILDREN back in 1997 the work of James Stephens which is included there shone through.

Here is my favourite poem of his, WHITE FIELDS, simple, lyrical, an air of foreboding maybe, a mystery


In the winter time we go

Walking in the fields of snow;

Where there is no grass at all;

Where the top of every wall,

Every fence and every tree,

Is as white as white can be


Pointing out the way we came,

Everyone of them the same —

All across the fields there be

Prints of silver filigree;

And our mothers always know,

By the footprints in the snow,

Where it is the children go.

Amongst his many literary friends was James Joyce, who, suggested that Stephens finish Finnegans Wake should Joyce himself fail.





Shaun Traynor remembers Madge Heron who died this summer in a nursing home in North London.

Madge Herron was born in Donegal in 1916, she died in London in 2002. What a lot happened in between!

I first met Madge in the 1970s when she was a wild and stormy figure in the world of Irish letters in London. She presented herself as a kind of crazy hag, a bag-lady, an Irish peasant. She was no such thing. She was as cute as a fox and had all the skills of the chameleon.

As a young actress she began life at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. She had her picture in a programme and many young men were enraptured by her. When she came to London she worked for George Bernard Shaw and took part in a play for radio produced by Louis MacNeice.

She was however, primarily, a poet and the declared enemy of pomposity. Once, when asked to read her poetry at some grand venue, she cutely asked the organizer if he would send a taxi for her, for her and her two dogs, her cat and a wild pigeon she had befriended; all this from a bed-sit in Kentish Town!

Yet when she finally returned to the Abbey Theatre she looked radiant, like a princess. It was fitting that one of her last readings should have been there, courtesy of playwright Shane Connaughton and writer Kevin O’Connor.

Little of her work is available to the general public, she wrote little down, carried the poems in her head and recited them wildly, it was thrilling to hear her, you knew you were in the presence of greatness. Here is an example of her poetry:

Long ago before the world began, there was Ireland

and we were children, walking there, hand in hand,

we came to Lissadel.

Coming up to noon, we met a man called Yeats,

who asked did we believe in fairies?

We answered that we did, but only now and then

and when we were together.

“Once,” he said, holding out his hand,

“Once I saw a fairy, no bigger than a finger full of light,

and instead of hair had flowers growing out of its head.

If you’d care to wait, I’ll go and find him

and fetch him in my cap!”

“Oh but we cannot wait,” I said, “We must still come through the night.”

“Ugh!” said Yeats, “I never fear the dark,

for what in night but the tail end of the day dyed black?

Will you stop and eat bread and drink white milk with me?”

“Oh but we cannot eat before the sun has set,” I said.

“Well then,” says he,“I have nothing left to add.”

Bowing, he left, turned

into the road that leads to the world’s end

and we came out of it laughing;

concerned about what we had seen and heard,

how we had come to spend a day at Lissadel

and how that no-one – not even he –

knew who we were.

I am grateful to Eddie Linden, Kevin O’Connor and Shane Connaughton for information to help me write this remembrance piece.

© Shaun Traynor 02



A Northern Irish writer of genuine independence and originality, Ian Cochrane came to England to be his own man, to write in his own way - and he succeeded.

More than that he began a style of writing that has influenced future generations; Ian was the first of his epoch to view the world through the eyes of a disturbed child and observe with relish, devilment and a mock innocence, the foibles of his peers. Pat McCabe (of “The Butcher Boy” fame) was aware of Ian’s writing and pays tribute to it: “Ian was a big writer. In fact there a number of writers of the seventies who haven’t got the full credit they deserve.”

British mainstream critics were also quick to recognise Ian’s genius. Many accolades were heaped on his young head as he produced novel after novel, all with beguiling and slightly mad titles – Gone in the Head, F for Ferg, Jesus on a Stick, Ladybird in a Loony Bin. Gone in the Head was runner-up for the 1974 Guardian Fiction prize.

By the end of the nineties Ian’s books were no longer being printed, film deals hadn’t materialised; the remarkable thing is that during these years of wrongful neglect Ian remained working optimistically and when out for the evening, looked even more dapper.

The Churchill in Kensington Church Street was his chosen hostelry and always with his buddies Shay and Imelda Kelly and (twice Whitbread prize-winning novelist) literary buddy, Maurice Leitch. These two Ulster Protestant writers were the contemporary James Stephens and James Joyce.

Gerry O’Brien, landlord of “The Churchill,” recalls Ian’s nightly visits:

He always stood at the same section of the bar, he never sat down, always stood in just the same place. I loved the tone of his voice, it was melodious and low. People loved to listen to his accent and his stories. He could make craic out of anything. I am going to have a plaque made for him and have it put on the bar just where he used to stand.”

Shay who owns an upholstery shop in All Saints Road, remembers Ian in the following way: Ian was great company and a great friend. He was the first and essential guest at all parties. I would be the one dispatched in my van to pick him up and deliver him on time to the latest venue. Juno, Shay and Imelda’s daughter for whom Ian often baby-sat, remembers Ian as kind and generous and the best cook in the world!

There is no doubt the seventies and eighties were Ian Cochrane’s mad and glorious floreat yet his influence survived as his books were remaindered. We, his friends, remember him as someone you always liked being with. As Imelda says, “The sun has gone out of our sky.”

Ian died at home in Notting Hill on Thursday 9th September 2004 and was buried on Tues 21st Sept 2004 in the tiny Kent hamlet of Goodneston. He was sixty two years old.


john heath-stubbs

John’s Last Reading

Sunday, January 14, 2007

(from Shaun Traynor’s blog)

I feel I need to record some details of this since only I had witness to a lot of it. I had been detailed by Christopher Arkell to get John safely up to Torriano to do a reading. Knowing how difficult this was going to be I arrived outside John’s flat in good time having first secured the co-operation of a taxi driver, explaining that John was elderly and blind and very tall and would find it awkward getting in and out of the taxi; I expressed my hope that the taxi driver would be sympathetic and patient.

The first driver I button-holed was indeed very understanding and sympathetic. He said he knew John, John had been in his cab before. Had he not entered this contract I would have tried someone else; in the event I was just very relieved that the first taxi driver seemed more than pleased to co-operate.

Getting John out of the flat was very difficult, he was tired and quite unwell, he was only going because he had promised John Rety, he would. He kept saying, “I promised John I would be there. I must keep my promise. . .” then added darkly, “But Shaun, this is the last time I’m going to leave this flat. I am not going out again. This is my last reading.”

All this was muttered whilst getting ready and gathering together a sheaf of poems. He fussed about a lot to find his latest poem; we finally found it. He was then distressed that he might not remember it all, would not be able to speak it ex tempore since it was so new. I said I would read it for him if he wanted. He said, “No. Shaun, not you, if anyone other than myself is to read it I would prefer it to be Dinah; Dinah has excellent diction.”

The driver and I got him into the taxi with some difficulty and we were all aware time was getting on a bit even though I had called for John a good half hour in advance of a reasonable time for leaving. Alarmingly on the way, it became apparent that the taxi driver wanted to be part of our conversation which was a discussion between John and myself about what poems he would read that evening at Torriano.

As we careered through Lower Hampstead, the driver interrupted us impatiently to declare himself a poet and he began reciting some of his verses from his time of active service in the Second World War. The versifying went on and on and John began to mutter ever more audibly,

“This is really no good at all!”

Knowing I would soon need assistance again, I appeased the taxi driver (whose poetry wasn’t actually at all bad) by asking him to re-recite a couple of his poems and explain their context; this kept the peace until we arrived at Torriano Reading House.

Getting John out (as always) proved to be impossible by normal methods and at some point John himself suggested he crawl out.

This meant getting down on his hands and knees on the floor of the taxi and then crawling - head first - down into the gutter and then up on to the pavement.

Then I and the taxi driver managed to lift him upright.

John is a very loud “sigh-er” and there were lots of groans and sighs. It was in fact very, very harrowing.

John Rety who was organizing the reading peered out and came to help.

As John entered the poetry house, a booming, female voice boomed: “Hullo John, I’ve been delegated to take charge of you and take you home in my car.”

”Good luck, dear!” I thought.

The reading was excellent, vintage stuff and after John’s reading it was the turn of the audience to read their (unpublished) poems, at which point I left.

The next morning found me anxious and feeling a bit guilty. I rang John, “Did you get home alright?” I asked.

“No trouble at all!” He replied.


John’s Funeral

from my blog/Saturday, January 13, 2007

The funeral of poet, John Heath-Stubbs OBE
Wednesday 11.01.07 St Matthew’s Church, Bayswater, London W2

Ursula and I arrived early and so had time to soak up the atmosphere (or the lack of it) in this high ceilinged old Church of England Church. One’s first thoughts really were, “It must be a trial to heat this place!” Yet it was warm and there was a warm welcome from the vicar and from the Ladies of the Parish. Not many people came but they were all literati. John’s closest friends were there, his inner circle, Guthrie, Eddie ....

After the service the coffin was spirited away to Kensal Green cemetery where John was buried. We were invited to stay at the church and refreshments were provided so there was no graveside farewell. However as I had had an aisle seat, I was very close to the coffin as it was borne out of the church and could see quite plainly what was written on the brass plaque,


As the coffin went on its way past me, I realised urgently that I would not be seeing John again and the tears welled up and then fell. Everyone was weeping. The hymns had been a dirge!

Then to some extent a party began, there was a lot of wine and people mixed easily, Anthony Astbury, Bernard Saint, Sean Hutton, Kit Wright ... it was actually very like one of John’s parties or a party at which John might be present in as much as on those occasions you kind of milled about and inter-acted and then from time to time one would go to talk to John who would be sitting all the time in the one place. It was a bit like today except he wasn’t here. I kept looking for him.


From my blog

So to the poem John wrote for and read at my wedding:

For Shaun and Ursula

On the Blessing of their Union

St. Mary of the Angels, Bayswater, London W2

4 November 1989

Here, beneath the Scorpion sign,

May your hands and hearts conjoin,

Hence, ill omens of the season –

Whiff of gunpowder and treason;

Hag and goblin, be not seen –

Revellers strayed from Hallowe’en

Most of all, be absent, you,

Brash, discordant bugaboo,

Asmodeus – back to hell,

At my verses’ fish-like smell!

But - it’s just a rustic story –

From the gates of purgatory

Stream forth holy souls, released

In this misty month – to feast

On the sable blackberry,

Just for thirty days, they’re free.

Can you hear them sing? – the theme:

“Nothing is Love can’t redeem –

Not one false step of the past –

Here below, while time shall last,

As the sun and planets track

Round the clock-faced zodiac

And beyond, above, the free

Citizens of eternity,

Issued each with harp and crown,

Rank on glittering rank, look down.”

John Heath-Stubbs

Subsequently published The Tablet 150th issue 19 May 1990

Its publication was quite interesting and revealed much of John’s modesty or any poet’s uncertainty about their own work; John rang up a while after the blessing and asked me innocently did I think the poem “good enough” for possible publication. I had no hesitation whatever, I said yes. It was subsequently published, details above.

S.T. 2008