Autobiographical Alphabet
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My father did conjuring tricks, mostly with cards and coins. I enjoyed them but I was intensely curious about how they worked and frustrated when he wouldn’t tell me.

One Christmas I was given a box of conjuring tricks: high on my list of best-ever presents. I could change ink into water and make a wand and a coin disappear. There was also something involving silk handkerchiefs but I can’t remember what I did with them. When my younger sister had a birthday party I performed some tricks and it went quite well. She begged me to tell her how they were done.  I relented eventually.

When I was grown up and still asking, Daddy told me the secret of the card tricks. He had a special pack with very discreet markings on the back. I’ve still got them somewhere.



(Trigger warning for vegetarians)

My favourite meal as a child was bacon and egg. When we went to London I liked to go to Lyons Corner House opposite Charing Cross station and eat in the section called The Bacon and Egg. It was decorated with cute pictures of pigs and you could watch the rashers sizzling while the staff cooked them.

Nowadays we hardly ever have bacon at home because they say it’s carcinogenic. I sometimes give in to temptation when I’m staying in a hotel.



The late Richard Boston told me he became a writer because he had a great big sporty older brother and couldn’t compete at anything physical. But he was much better than his brother at reading and writing and spelling so he made the best of that. I was hopeless at games and a bit overweight. Being brainy didn’t feel like an adequate consolation at the time but it was something. There’s a line in my poem Tich Miller about sneering at hockey players who couldn’t spell.

I learned about writing and spelling by being a bookworm. Reading was what kept me going during a not very happy childhood. I believe this is true of many writers.



I’ve met Benjamin Zephaniah a few times. I like him.



I was having trouble with this so I asked Lachlan (my husband):

“Am I an egotist?”


“Can you give me an example of someone we know who isn’t an egotist?”

(After some thought) “No”

“Is everyone an egotist then?


It didn’t help much.



A mixed blessing. I think it was the late, great poet Les Murray who said everyone wants to be famous until it happens. He paid a high price for it in his native Australia. Apparently there were two schools of poets there, Anglophile and pro-American. The one thing they had in common was that they all hated Les.

I was at my most famous in 1986 when my first book was published and got lots of publicity. This resulted in a great deal of hostility in the poetry world. Some people who had been friendly in the past refused to speak to me. When I was introduced to a poet I’d never met, he or she often looked as if they were being asked to shake hands with Hitler. I remember saying to the editor of this magazine, “I imagine they hate me a bit less than they hate you and a bit more than they hate Oliver Reynolds.” Oliver’s first book was published at around the same time and he had recently won a big competition.

The hatred died down after a while, although it has tended to emerge in a milder form whenever I publish a new book. I should add that there are quite a few poets who have always been kind and supportive and are still my friends.

There’s an upside to fame, of course. My book sold well and I was offered a lot of paid work, which, as a freelance, I needed. I met interesting people, not all of them poets, and got invitations to travel abroad.  But at one point, when my agent rang and offered me an opportunity that would raise my profile, I said, “No. I’m as famous as I want to be”.



The OED definition is “solemn demeanour, seriousness”. As my dear friend Gavin Ewart always insisted, you can be serious without being solemn. I’ve spent more than three decades insisting that a humorous poem can also be about something important and deeply felt.



Around 1990 I had an attack of shingles, otherwise known as herpes zoster. It was on my face so, as well as being in pain, I looked awful. The doctor said if it had been nearer my eye he would have put me in hospital. I recovered in a few weeks. A free vaccination against shingles is now available to people of my age, and I’ve had it.



My father was good at drawing and painting; so is my sister. Where the visual arts are concerned there are chimpanzees who are more talented than me. My sister also inherited my mother’s good ear for music. Mine is average. Then there’s intelligence. I have to be careful what I say about that.

When my mother died I inherited some money, which makes me luckier than most people, although it wasn’t very much. She had dementia and we had sold the house to pay for her care. The Conservatives are promising that no-one will have to do this. I don’t think it would be fair for taxpayers, many of whom don’t have a house in the family, to subsidise those of us who do. But something should be done about the social care lottery. I favour a cap on the amount that anyone has to pay, as suggested in the Dilnot report.

There was a great cartoon in a recent Spectator. Two youths wearing Corbyn t-shirts are sitting with their parents. The caption is “So you’ll be pleased to know that we’re leaving Corbyn this house”.



Guide me, O Thou Great Jehovah is Lachlan’s favourite hymn. He says he wants it at his funeral. It’s one of my favourites too but now I can’t sing it without imagining his funeral and crying.

In some hymn books it’s Guide me, O Thou Great Redeemer. The original, by William Williams, was in Welsh and includes the Welsh word for Lord. ‘Jehovah’ was the choice of the first translator. Presumably a later editor decided ‘Redeemer’ sounded more Christian.



It would have been fun to have one of these when I was teaching music in a primary school. It would have been at least as popular as the big drums and an incentive to good behaviour (“People who talk while I’m talking don’t get a go on the klaxon”). It would not have been popular with teachers in adjacent rooms.



On one occasion I decided it would be a good idea to wear bright red lipstick for a television appearance. It looked dreadful. I sometimes wear lipstick nowadays but in subtle pastel shades. And I don’t do television.



These days I have a few prescription medications – statins, asthma inhalers. I also have a huge stock of over-the-counter stuff for every possible ailment. When I travel I take it all with me in case I get a headache or indigestion or an earache or blocked sinuses or a little cut that needs antiseptic, and so on. It takes up a lot of space in my luggage. Since a friend told me about her husband getting anaphylactic shock from a bee sting, I also carry Piriton. Apparently it gives you an extra half hour to get to A&E.



Poor Theresa May. I hated the way she was sneered at for saying the naughtiest thing she had done was running through a field of wheat. I’ve always disliked people who say they prefer naughty children to good ones, and also anyone who boasts about being expelled from school. What’s so wonderful about making your teachers’ lives a misery?  I was mostly well-behaved, largely because, if I wasn’t, there was hell to pay at home.

The naughtiest thing I ever did, probably, was putting the clock forward in a needlework lesson, so it would be over sooner. I was caught but luckily my parents didn’t hear about it.



Despite what I said about fame (see above) I wouldn’t want to be an old lady nobody had heard of.



An Oxford tutor told me that Platonists prefer cats and Aristotelians prefer dogs. That sounded right. I prefer dogs and Aristotle, although I can’t now remember a lot about what he says.



I am very British and authoritarian about these, and have been known to make a loud comment if I think somebody has pushed in.



It is important to eat plenty of this and I do, including some prunes at breakfast time. Lachlan finds prunes very amusing. I believe this is a man thing.



I still have a cardigan Nanna knitted for me several decades ago, although it no longer fits me. That’s irrational but harmless. Sentimentality in poems isn’t harmless.



I’m not acquainted, as far as I know, with anyone who makes the mistake of wearing a toupee. When my grandmother’s hair got very thin, my mother persuaded her to wear a wig. It wasn’t a good idea.



As teenagers at boarding school we had to wear two pairs of knickers, one white, one green, and a suspender belt attached to hideous thick brown stockings. Tights were not widely available until after I left school. They made life better.



I’m embarrassed to admit that I have two pairs of shoes that fasten with Velcro, although I’m not really old enough to be wearing care-home clothing. They are very comfortable.



The automatic washing-machine is a wonderful thing. I was in my late thirties before I could afford one.  Few people have to wait that long nowadays, hence the disappearance of launderettes.



Wendyx is a useful way to end a message when ‘best wishes’ doesn’t seem friendly enough and ‘love’ sounds too friendly. Wxx or xxx are for close friends and step-children. Lachlan sometimes gets xxxx plus an emoji heart, if I’m in a particularly affectionate mood.



Middle-age suited me better.



I’m more of an Eeyore than a Tigger.





'Arete is a journal as exquisite in its execution as in its intentions.'
John Updike

'Vous m’avez donné un grand plaisir … votre revue m’est très sympathique et proche.'
Milan Kundera