Uncommon Harmony 1

OK, this is not poetry. I have joined a memoir writing group, and the wonderful phrase “uncommon harmony” comes from Faye Benedict who is a really gifted writer in that group. It was that phrase that made me decide to write differently, it seemed to make sense of what writing memoir might be. Though, it is likely to be me, me.

The Red Suitcase

I am 21 years old. My aunt Sybil gave me a red suitcase “in case I want to travel”. It was something like 18 by 12 inches, and 8 inches deep, measurements in inches of course, no-one said centimeters then. It was the kind with one handle on a long side, flanked by spring clips. I think it was taffeta satin inside some kind of pressed cardboard covered by faux leather. That was red, very “mod”. I returned to Belfast, my final year at university, my first year out of “halls”, sharing a rented ‘flat’ that was actually just a large victorian front room with kitchenette carved from the rear and a bathroom shared with other ‘flats’ down the hall. The suitcase went under my bed, a twin facing Jean’s twin on the other side of the room, a wide rug in between. Do you remember 77 Sunset Strip? We were 77 Botanic Avenue, Ground Floor.

The Applied Maths Department was up the hill. five minutes walk to all my classes. Jean was ten minutes further, English Department and Library. There was a table to eat at, but not much space for desk work, so I lay on my stomach on the floor to read, between the beds. Sometimes it was Lord of the Rings, or Georgette Heyer, my wonderful honours english Jean provided the library at number 77. Sometimes it was Quantum Mechanics or relativistic something or other I have long forgotten. Sometimes it was my sort-of-secret indulgence Hardy’s History of Mathematics. There’s a story behind where that came from.

To look back, the suitcase, three or four times as heavy as my current wheelie bag that moves at fingertip touch, was not the only thing that had to change.

That year, there were twenty-one of us in applied maths honours, three girls and eighteen boys. We said girls and boys, not men, women, nor male, female. (And I at least had never heard of LGBT). This number, three girls, was unprecedented. The history love came about through a girl thing too. A few years before, as a fresher straight from a country school, I had happily and dutifully joined the university maths society, as one did if one had arrived to study maths. And, as a girl, I got the privilege of arranging meeting refreshments, the tea and buns. I discharged this duty so faithfully, clearly able to count the cash, that the following year I progressed to being treasurer. (I have never since taken on being a treasurer.) This post put me on the committee with the professors, lecturers and postgrads, who also served. I became part of the welcome for the visiting speakers, possibly the committee showed their modernity with this, I say it myself, quite attractive female person. Then I became the person who arranged for speakers. Being a girl, who knew her place was to serve and agree, in the year before finals, I was asked to be President, President of the University of Belfast Mathematical Society. Yes, said Elspeth, the first ever female undergraduate president.

The following year, Jean also lent me Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. When I read it lying on that floor, I was again saying Yes, Yes, some different kind of yes articulation on its way.

It sounds like I was a with-it achieving person, but the reality was that I did not actually know that the president had to give a presidential address, had to be a speaker offering a topic of interest to the whole of the society. I was an undergrad whose only discovery so far had been that being very clever in a small school didn’t mean I was particularly outstanding among other really clever students, let alone someone who knew enough math to address the society. I didn’t have either a “Beautiful Mind” or a new idea for proof theory. In fact, I didn’t have any idea, but fortunately I had a good friend in the postgrads, who said “Do History”. So I did, with a brief byway into philosophy where the history books took me. I remember only the title “Development of Calculus from Anaxagoras to Newton and Leibnitz”. But, I found a love, the thought and curiosity that led to my life had happened to happen. Or, not yet, as like the Second Sex, it took time for what had been begun to emerge.

Our final year in applied maths produced something else unprecedented in the department history. Four, four students achieved first class honours, in those days something that did not even happen every year, was achieved by two boys, and two girls, Heather Knox and myself. Now I know about the resonance effects of diversity, connection and positive motivation in groups, I wonder, did that achievement we each claimed as our own, which it is, also owe something to the contributions of all twenty one of us feeling some change in the blowin’ in the wind? Dylan’s song recorded first in 1962, our year was 64-65, was frequently sung, along with We Shall Overcome and folk songs from Ireland, not to mention hot debates on the papal encyclical 1965 that repeated the Roman Catholic Church position decrying birth control.

Whatever, the first class boys both joined one of our professors at post-graduate work, exported with him to MIT in Boston, USA. In my final interview with the Head of Faculty, seeking advice, he suggested that teaching was a good career for a girl. Maybe he had seen the ring I proudly carried on my third finger, another clear expectation of going to university being to meet a better class of man, and the ring was the visible sign that I had achieved that too. Maybe he knew I was already pregnant, though at three months in, just finished final exams, and meeting up with my mother to plan the wedding, I had hardly registered the consequences of that finding myself. The man of good class also graduated, though in psychology, second class. We made the local papers as the human interest couple who returned from their honeymoon to be present at the graduation ceremony, in my case in forgivingly covering graduation robe. They all asked an embarrassing “class” question. Nobody noticed that no-one would have cared if the first and second had been the other way round.

I had not registered that after achieving aims, there was a new place to be, a change. I had not registered that ‘being a girl’ was going to have to change. The red suitcase retired to store in my mother’s attic, never again big enough or useful enough for any journey.




Past Present Future

A prompt from Jackie Kay’s Fiere, “and child in that back garden waving at this steam train” – hence this poem arrives writing itself

Past Present Future

Railway lines were always built
as straight as the engineers could make them.

Regardless of the local communities passed by
even when now and again they had to bend
or wind around the base of a hill.
After all, that’s what the train is for:
to take those in it, or the quantity of goods
or cattle carried
As far as wanted.
In a much shorter time than the horse
ambling along the canal bank
or clopping the lane that then was
more or less all grass
and certainly grass up the middle.

So the attention of the magnate
and the engineer, and the platelayers
and eventually the drivers
is always ahead, along, arrowing
to a future, and so they miss it,
the future, the one waiting to be.

There is a child there in that back garden
Waving, waving as the train moves steadily
steaming unsteadily puff puff
Going there, going there, going there
as the hand of the child flies
Left Right, Left Right, See me, see me

At last the fireman rests his shovel
Glad of the chance to take his cap
And wave while the sweat dries.



Emergence, a wreck?


Photo from one of Armagh’s cathedral sites. There are also some of John Hewitt’s words there, a more hopeful and generous perspective.

When I saw the title with South County
My mind reversed the words.
From a childhood place
I see Armagh, the county south
of my own county,
A place of orchards and apples.

Small hills topped by two cathedrals
Both called St. Patrick
Looking at each other across the town
Glaring rather. Or ignoring.
More, I am the high point here,
So long as I pretend you are not there.

Emergent intolerance and ignorance.
Trouble. I wish I saw a change.
I think I see the brittle ribs of hate
Slipped a little while under the sand.
The cathedrals on the hills still stand.
Waiting. Watching. Ignoring their arrogance.


When I write poetry I think I am often simply exercising “free association”. Is this is why prompts enable me to get around to it? The prompt on this occasion, here in USA, was in a “South County news report” with a headline “shipwreck buried under sand emerges on Charleston Beach”



Ubiquitous Bic

Ubiquitous Bic biclighter

(prompted at writer’s group by an old lighter)


It’s a bic lighter
Not alight even though
I have seen it used for the gas
I suspect somewhere there is a roll-up
Flimsy paper, sticky flakes
a stash, hash.

Lighten up people
What do you know about
some of this?
Names you talk about
without experience?
Lighten the load.

Anyway I go my road
Flame flickers yellow
Coward, frightened, burnt,
back-lit shadowland.
Never see the sun rise
No shining eyes.

Let it go to landfill.
Emptied now
Like life
Where went the light?
While I flew to the flame?


The king was in the Counting House

for a more ordered view on the subject of this poem look at what Ivo Mosley’s writes

The king was in the Counting House…

Banking is business
That’s what we do.
We produce money
and sell it to you.
We make it from nothing
[it’s not really real]
Everyone trusts us
There’s no need to steal.

You didn’t know this
Well that’s no surprise
It’s not that it’s secret
just hidden from eyes
behind lots of numbers
and labels and jargon
You need lots of patience
to get a translation.

In fact when we say
“We promise to pay”
it’s really quite funny
it’s never your money.
We’re owing you money
that we have just made.
We say that on the paper
And you are misled.

It’s a sort of in-joke
more a pig-in-a-poke
what you think is your money
is always a debt.
Whether yours or some others’
does not much matter
somebody owes us
and interest gets fatter.

you look for your earnings
the products of work
so does the businessman
he’s not a jerk.
You both use up energy
make things of worth
that’s goods and services
needed from birth.

These things of worth
start from gifts that are free.
The sun and the rain
fall on our earth
bring harvests of bounty.
Yes they ask for your effort
your skill and your sweat
Sharing them round is not happening yet.

If we make the money
then sell debt to you
Your work pays us back
Always more than was due.
For banking is business
and that’s what it does
But who ever decided
We wanted to lose?

Money is thinking
Just an idea
To help us move something
From somewhere to here
To privilege banking
above all our gifts
is saying capital isn’t for us,
just the risks!

Bosses and workers
Are both the bank clients
Their money is debt
It’s not rocket science.
The bank’s interest is interest
So everyone’s stressed
by the law that allows banks
to say debt is best.

Why is the money
issued this way?
if it’s just an idea
to help plan our days?
Just as the sun and the rain are for free
We can decide if we want to be!
We could decide
how we’d make the money!

Let the banks do the managing
They do that well.
Take from them the privilege
that acts like a spell.
As if we were unable
ever to choose
how the need for the money
could be planned for our use.

Freedom to choose
brings trusting and risk
that’s why we duck it
and give up our task.
That’s why we labour
give power to the banks
give up our lives
and forget to give thanks

For the freedom to live
For the free gift of life
For the capital in us
For sharing not strife.
For the money we could
if we wanted agree
Belongs to us all for our needs
Make it free.

Remember to look at Positive Money, and all the resources available there, if you want to learn more about what money really is in today’s global world.

Bees Know

Bees know

No-one told the bees to make honey
but they do.
No-one needs to know how the grass grows
but it does.
When the tree falls in the forest we do not hear
but fungi flourish
We have not asked the sun to rise and shine every time
Morning comes
In a darkened night we lift our eyes to the stars, or sleep
and dream.
Did you hear the rain pitter patter your window, or the wind’s rattle?
Planning permission not required.

Did you hear about the bananas? Dole’d to consumers faffing and Fyffing
Wanting golden skinned
Nations unfed while consumers led to love the bananas
not too soft or black
tons crated from plantations and tonnage tossing over seas,
Hands harvest the hands.
Fair trade or agribusiness. How do you know there are bananas
in your fridge?
Are you bananas? You forget the world will touch you with its gifts
Let your skin take it in
While the bees buzz on busy honey making.

No-one told you: you will get something for nothing every day
No-one told you: you will be born and grow
No-one told you love, or hate or fear or pride or joy
Let them come, as they will, as surely as the sun shines.
See what honey comes.

Inspired in part by ARTIST ROOMS, Joseph Beuys, A Language of Drawing, at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, 30th July − 30th October 2016

From the Life of the Bees, Joseph Beuys.






The Artist’s Room

It is infuriating, I can’t find the image of the picture that prompted this poem – it was a trompe l’oeil picture within a picture, and I can’t remember the name of the artist either. The artist had put himself within the picture, looking out, and most of the room lay behind him.

Feast the eye, or fool it. Trompe l’oeil.
I saw a window at the gable end of a house
A white painted house.
There was a woman leaning over the sill.
And then, and then, still
She leaned from her painted window.

Eyes see fleetingly, thoughts gather,
From fleeting feeling maybe never reaching thought.
This artist raises eyes with such apprehension,
Query, will you believe this story?
Will you believe this space stays, still,
this way I paint it, for your perception?

Disbelief and skepticism mount.
An artist’s room that never changes,
Ha! Who are you kidding?
He never dropped red madder on that floor
Never stood on a tube of burnt orange
Never threw his brush in unrestrained frustration.

The still life looks too still.
He watches me looking, watches me
Seeing the still studio he stands in
Dares ask us future watchers
Do you know how it is that I am? Still,
Here painting the room that is behind me?

I think this artist knew, as well as anyone,
at least as well as a poet,
that once you start the art, it takes your pen
your brush, your tongue, your heart and skill.
It follows its own theme, until
It comes with truth or lies, crystallized, forever still.


A picture of my own room. Not quite the same. But I am sitting on that sofa as I write.