Remembering Henry: poets gather to aid children’s cancer charity
This weekend marks the Morpeth Northumbrian Gathering, a three-day festival of street entertainment, indoor events, music, dance, craft, dialect, heritage and general fun that’s held the weekend after Easter in the medieval market town of Morpeth, north of Newcastle.
On the eve of the Gathering – on the fringe, you might say – members of Morpeth Poetry Group assembled at St George’s URC church, that overlooks Thomas Telford’s bridge above the river Wansbeck, to give a poetry recital in aid of Henry Dancer Days, a charity that helps families of children with cancer.
The group’s hard-working organiser Barbara Ross introduced the evening, promising a rich variety of poetry that was bookended by two local dialect poets, George Robertson and Eileen Beers.
George served in the submarine service of the Navy for over 20 years, before becoming a primary schoolteacher. He only began writing poetry during Covid lockdown, but speaks with a passion and love for the old Northumberland pit communities. ‘Druridge’ celebrates and mourns at the same time a “Foreshore strewn with ornaments of a recent and distant past, / Accents, dialects, people gone, and questions aplenty to be asked, /Concrete blocks, colliery bricks, cobles, cobbles and secrets held.”
‘Canny Line of Weshing’ on the other hand is a high-spirited look back at washing day rituals of the not-so-distant past:
Weshing day arrives, mam’s full of gan!
Oot hoose ready, boiler filled, everything’s gan to plan.
Pit claes sorted, whites ready to boil; Claes horse oot!
Monday early morn, gotta be on her very best front foot.
As a fellow member of Morpeth Poetry Group, I know that George turns out these hymns to yesterday at an impressive rate of productivity, digging into his rich seam of memory like the most industrious of colliers. I can’t wait to see his work in a published collection.
By contrast, Gene Groves has been a poet for much longer, with an impressive track record of poems published in magazines. Her poem titles included ‘Headlice’ and ‘Saucepan’, and two particularly poignant ones – ‘Disappearing Act’, about family photos, and ‘Missing Her’, the view from a house now standing empty, with the doormat buried under leaflets, spiders thriving, and the garden becoming overgrown.
Roy Matthew Heath is proudly Hull born and bred, and that’s clear in his poem ‘Mud of the Humber’, which focuses on the place where the river Hull meets the Humber, and the water sometimes “looks like it’s boiling”. There’s a sense of loss with the vessels “now here purely for pleasure”, amid the mournful sound of the foghorn. The tone and location reminded me of Philip Larkin, inevitably. Less so, admittedly, in Roy’s next poem ‘Songbirds’, for which he donned a hat festooned with feathers and small birds, and reported that “In winter I’ve got blue tits, and my nuts are dangling down.”
You had to hand it to Roy for the variety of his set, even if ‘Archibald the Pigeon’ also had an ornithological flavour, especially as the “pesky podgy pigeon” ended up in a pie. Roy opened with a poem about refugees that he confessed to rewriting just before coming on stage. A poet that takes both his craft and performance seriously.
Jan Clarke’s latest collection Wansbeck Rising has a cover image of the disastrous Morpeth floods of 2008. It includes ‘Stella Quinn’, a rumbustious revenge on a love rival; ‘The Turning’, a rich collection of images of autumn; ‘A Vegetable Bouquet’, with a shallots punchline; and ‘50s Born’, a lament about the trick played on hard-working women of a certain age looking forward to their pension, but not just yet. She concluded with a more recent poem, ‘The Arrival of the Council Tax Bill’ - proof, if it were needed, that absolutely anything can be a subject for poetry.
Wansbeck Rising has been published by Morpeth Poetry Group, with all proceeds going to the charity Henry Dancer Days, a national charity that originated in the north-east. Henry Dancer was aged 11 when he was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a primary bone cancer, in his leg. The disease had already spread to his lungs and he never walked again, and died 348 days later. His mother Jane wrote a book about the family’s experience, and set up Henry Dancer Days, to help other children and families in the same situation, which includes a hardship support scheme, storytelling therapy, and a pottery project. At the poetry reading Henry’s grandmother Gillian Irvine paid tribute to her grandson’s bravery and cheerfulness as she explained the project in detail. Its patron is Alan Shearer.
Poetry group member Adrian King launched the second half with two light-hearted contributions – ‘The roofer came to call’, about his neighbours’ trial and tribulations with a roofing project, in the style of the Flanders and Swann song about the gasman, and his take on the Chuck Berry song ‘You Never Can Tell’, about his own teenage wedding.
Valerie Apted’s poems included a particularly moving one about caring for a loved one with dementia: “I put him to bed like his mother, not his wife … we live together, alone.” She finished on a delightfully lighter note, by looking back to her youth and the magic of the funfair coming to Morpeth, recalling in ‘Only Sixteen’ that “the smell hit you first, long before you got there … sizzling fried onion, hot engine smoke”. She and her friends screamed on the rides so the boys would notice them. When they did, the “furtive kisses” tasted of hot dogs, or stale cigarettes. Bobby Darin’s Dream Lover? Perhaps.
Gez Kelly is a newcomer at the poetry group - a former lecturer at Northumbria University, with expertise in dialect pronunciation, and a southerner with Irish parentage who has lived in the north for many years. His poem ‘Honorary Northerner’ examined the dialect and vowel contradictions of his mixed affiliations. His first poem, ‘These are not just soldiers’, thought hard and asked questions about the differing characteristics and ages of those men conscripted to fight for Ukraine.
For Barbara Pringle, Morpeth is her “forever home”. She delivered two longish poems – ‘The Secret’, about two girls sharing a confidence and friendship throughout their lives, and ‘Arabrab the Bluebell Fairy’, a remarkable, phantasmagoric, imaginative journey – with emphatic enunciation and brio.
Eileen Beers is well known locally as a dialect poet, and has won a Morpeth Gathering trophy in that regard. Her amusing and entertaining poems included ‘Bonny Lass’, in which a tender, loving side comes through, and ‘Lizzie’, an account of the hard times a young woman might suffer back in the day after having a bairn out of wedlock, including workhouse, asylum, and care in the community. All because of “Langfram Mick”, who hailed from the village of Longframlington, 10 miles up the road towards Scotland.
On the eve of the Morpeth Gathering, this poetry night was some gathering too, in its own right. Morpeth Poetry Group meets monthly on every last Thursday, in the back room of the Tap and Spile pub in Manchester Street, Morpeth.
Postscript: It's worth pointing out that two days later both George and Eileen were named dialect poetry trophy winners at the Morpeth Gathering. Congratulations to both!
Sun 16th Apr 2023 16:46
Thank you, bonny lad. They're a canny bunch of poets up here!
Sun 16th Apr 2023 12:28
To say the words ‘died and gone to heaven’ sound a little out of place but for you my friend and your lovely wife I feel it’s true. Long may you keep both feet in this one though.
A wonderful report Greg, thank you
Sun 16th Apr 2023 09:24
Thanks, Steve. I really think that we have!
Sun 16th Apr 2023 08:16
Thanks for this report, Greg. A really worthwhile event, it seems, with a fascinating range of poetry and cast of characters. It sounds as though you have moved to the right place!
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