Wilhelmina J

Today, April 10th 2021, is the thirtieth anniversary of the sinking of the Portsmouth based scallop trawler Wilhelmina J.

Wilhelmina J, a 26m beam trawler left Portsmouth on April 9, 1991, to trawl for scallops in the English Channel near fishing grounds known as Horseshoe Bank. But at 2am on April 10, the vessel was involved in a collision during foggy conditions with MV Zulfikar, a 142m Cyprus-registered cargo ship.

All six members of the Wilhelmina J’s crew were lost.

The six men who died were; Jeff Alan Venters, Michael James Bell, Mark Warwick Fitz, Christopher Clifford Thomas, Guy Ransom Davies and Matthew James Hodge.

Their names are on a plaque in Old Portsmouth Fishermans Quay, a memorial in the Old Portsmouth cathedral and a plaque in the Bridge Tavern pub.

I didn’t know any of the crew, but wrote a poem about the sinking a number of years ago. It’s based around the marine accident report summary of what happened that night.

It is one poem in a long sequence of poems, (currently unpublished), themed around my running the perimeter of Portsea Island whilst training for marathons – the circa 16 mile run goes past the small fishing harbour where the Wilhelmina J was based. I thought now was as good a time as any to share it here (it was previously published in South Poetry and on the Places of Poetry website.

I read the poem at an event in Southsea and someone came up to me afterwards saying they knew one of the families who had lost someone, and asked me for a copy of the poem (which I gave them, obviously), so that they could give it to them. I can’t imagine that it helped in any way. But maybe it did.

My thoughts today are with the families of those who were lost. I can only imagine what they have gone through over these years, what they are going through today.

I’ve posted a link at the bottom of this post to the donation page for the RNLI who, whilst they couldn’t have done anything in this case, save hundreds of lives each year around our shores. I raised money for the RNLI the first time I ran the Great South Run. It’s a charity I have a lot of time for.

Wilhelmina J

At sea
it is the small decisions that count;
to rely on assumptions,
or not,
to check all frequencies
make sure your lookout is on watch,
or not,
to see a shape in the swirling dark
in the shifting canvas of fog

As always
a series of coincidences
of misunderstandings and mistakes
and not,
this damp wool-blanket of a night
heavy on ship and water alike,
and not
names on a plaque in the Bridge Tavern
in the apportioning of blame.

And so,
running past a pile of lobster pots
a chiller trailer and fishing boats,
is not
the time to think of giving in
to aches and pains of inconsequence,
but is
the point to pick up your heels
and live life fast as long as you can.

If you wish to support the work of the RNLI, please go to;

https://rnli.org/support-us/give-money/donate

On Rejection

I received my first poetry rejection of the year last week. I’ve had enough over the years to not be bothered by them. They come with the territory, no matter how good a writer you are.  “I love my rejection slips,” wrote Sylvia Plath. “They show me I try.” 

A rejection means very little in terms of meaningful judgment on the quality of the rejected poem, or poet for that matter. Rejected poems can do very well elsewhere – see this article in the Irish Times about Damen O’Brien’s poem that won the €10,000 Moth prize last year.

https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/a-10-000-poem-read-nave-winner-of-the-moth-poetry-prize-1.4242121

It’s a subjective business, and each editor has different perspectives on what they are looking for. It can often be down to what else has been sent in. Sometimes a theme will come together based on other submitted work, leading to poems that had been strongly considered being discounted (this happened to me last year). Alternatively, an editor may receive several perfectly useable poems that are all about the same subject. I’ve been part of the editing team for South on three occasions, for one of which we received three poems by different poets about a relative’s glasses. They were all perfectly publishable – but were we going to accept all three?

There’s also the volume of submissions to consider. Some magazines get several thousand for each issue. Even the lesser-known online publications will get submissions in the hundreds. Again, judging by my experience as an editor, most of these will be pretty good. So rejections are par for the course.

So getting a poem accepted is a joy rather than something to expect. My numbers from last year are as follows – I didn’t send out as much as I would have liked – whilst some seem to have been able to focus on sending submissions and / or writing about Covid, I couldn’t.

Magazine Submissions 23 – Acceptances 3 – New Magazine Acceptances – 1

Competitions 4 – Acceptances / Placements 2

I also had 6 poems appear on blogs (other than this one!) in 2020

Not really much to shout about is it? But that’s the point of this post. As writers we have to enjoy success in whatever form it comes , and not be disheartened by the failures.

Anyway, each time a poem comes back, there’s a chance to to find a home for it somewhere else. Obviously after 5 or 10 rejections it might be worth reviewing and editing before sending it out again, but you’ve just got to keep moving, keep sending the work out, in the knowledge that some of it, somewhere, will stick.

I guess what goes for poetry submissions goes for life in general.

Keep on keeping on.

Oh and the photo at the top of this post? It became the front cover for my first poetry collection which came out in 2018. If you’d told me a year earlier that I’d be launching my first poetry book in September 2018, I’d have asked you what you were smoking. Sometimes success is closer than you think.

A Sea of Blue

In other circumstances I would be at Wembley today, along with another 50,000+ Portsmouth FC fans, for the final of the Leasing.com Trophy. Blue skies, a beautiful spring day, the stuff of memories (or nightmares depending on the result!). A real shame – though the stadium’s empty silence today is of course of minor consequence compared to what else is happening in the UK and around the world right now.

I’ve been lucky though. If you had told me twenty years ago that I would have seen Pompey at Wembley 6 times already (two FA Cup Finals, two Semi Finals, a Charity Shield and last year’s Checkatrade final – from which the cover photo is from – I wouldn’t have believed you). I feel very sorry for those Liverpool fans waiting at Anfield for 30 years for a league title.

In 2008 Pompey won the FA Cup for the first time since 1939. During the course of the war, the trophy travelled around various safe houses, eventually ending up at the Bird in Hand pub in Lovedean, where it was kept above the bar for three years. In 2009 the trophy went back there for one night of celebration, and I was lucky enough to be in attendance, (there is a photo of me on a hard drive somewhere holding the FA Cup).

The poem that follows is about that evening, and about that sunny spring day in 2008 when the cup was won again after a gap of 69 years. It’s also about my home, this city by the sea and how much it suffered between 1939 and 1945.

It first appeared in South Poetry Magazine, appears in Landings , and can also be found placed on the Places in Poetry map on the Bird in Hand pub in Lovedean, a few miles north of Portsmouth.

Apart from the connection to today’s non-event, I thought it worth posting at this time because of the ending. Whatever happens over the coming weeks, most of us will get through this, and have plenty of future opportunities to live, to celebrate, to enjoy each of our own personal victories over the coming years. Good luck and good health.

Bird in Hand

The FA Cup 1939 – 2008

We drink in the presence of greatness.
A glorious bird of paradise
that fills the room with life.
Wanderers to Portsmouth all roads between,
a coach trip ride through hedge-screened fields.

This monochrome world that we engraved
as so many lives were sliding past.
Waiting for the blackout to end,
as if nothing we did really mattered,
as if watching was all that there was.

So we taped up all the windows,
made do with any small victory,
turned out the lights and kept quiet.
As the radio spat static and crackled,
keeping our hopes in the dark.

And here we are only nine months on,
a country pub where they kept it safe
for five lost years as the city burned,
payloads emptied on a scrap of earth.
Abide with me all flags at half mast.

Abide with me and a sea of blue.
Wembley stadium and Kanu scores,
forty-something men so close to tears,
my daughters and I in our Pompey shirts.
The final whistle on a perfect day.

And here we are on the journey home,
brilliant colours will fade to none,
as the flags we carry are furled away.
Like Tommy Rowe at ninety-two
leaving all thoughts in the dark.

So drink to the presence of greatness,
for everything you do really matters.
Enjoy all of your victories.
Turn on the lights and sing out,
for living is all that there is.

* Wanderers were the first winners of the FA Cup. Tommy Rowe was the last member of the ’39 team to die. Abide with Me is sung at the start of every FA Cup Final, and often at remembrance day services.

Stinking Cleg

This post has been prompted by #FolkloreThursday on Twitter.

I’ve long been fascinated by folklore, myth and local legend – growing up in the heart of Wessex and living in a city such as Portsmouth, these are topics that resonate and they are obviously great starting points for poetry. There are lots of urban legends, myths and ghost stories centred on this small island on the south coast of England, some of which I have written poems about. They seem to go down well when recited at poetry events particularly when performed in an over-the-top thespian voice!

One such story relates to an unfortunate Portsmouth vagabond from around 1900 who was apparently beaten up and thrown into the harbour where he subsequently drowned.

Stinking Cleg (no relation to the former leader of the Lib Dems) can apparently be encountered on particularly foggy days in the Arundel Street area of central Portsmouth. His distinctive odour, a combination of rotting flesh, maggoty fish and brine is smelt by the intended victim long before his hideous features are seen.

This poem first appeared in issue 60 of South Magazine, when I was the featured poet.

Stinking Cleg

He will return when the smog descends;
when slate skies leech into concrete,
buildings dissolve into the peripheral,
side roads are a figment of memory,
and you are alone, so very alone.

This smothering veil of murk
will cling to skin like an old dank shroud
as pavements seep into nightmare;
the whole island muffled silent,
your footsteps deadened to nothing.

It’s the smell that you will notice first
as he glides in from his harbour-grave,
as the tang of brine clags into rotting flesh;
of one whose revenge from a violent end
is to stalk the living on a night like this.

On Inspiration; Philip Henry, Steve Knightley and the Meaning of Gobstoppers

Apart from Brexit and being off work for the tail end of the week – and missing today’s Pompey home game due to having a heavy cold, it’s been a good few days. On Wednesday I headlined at Chichester Poetry, which was great – a nice appreciative audience, and some excellent open mike poems from poets I was unaware of beforehand. I also had a poem accepted for the next edition of South Magazine the same day.

On Thursday we went to hear folk musician Philip Henry perform at the sadly-closing Tea Tray in Southsea. It was an excellent concert (I managed to keep quiet by overdosing on cough sweets). His Underground Railroad harmonica solo was astonishing and all the audience members that I could see were open-mouthed in amazement. http://www.philliphenryandhannahmartin.co.uk/ for details. Shout out also to Square Roots Promotions who do great work promoting roots and folk music in the area. http://www.squarerootspromotions.co.uk/

Last night we were at the Shelley Theatre in Bournemouth to see the consistently brilliant Steve Knightley (of Show of Hands fame – https://showofhands.co.uk/steve-knightley-tour-dates ) on his latest tour. Some of his tours have a theme to tie the songs together, this one’s theme is about where his songs come from. As a writer myself I found this particularly interesting – a lot of ideas for me to take away from the evening, including performance structure / thematic approach, and a lot of parallels in terms of where my poems come from; a photograph, historical event, building, local myth, or simply something someone has said.

One prose piece that always seems to go down well came from something my son said two days after his seventh birthday. It’s in Landings and first appeared in Orbis Poetry Magazine ( http://www.orbisjournal.com/ ). It’s a poem about choices, about making the best of what we have, about making our own way in life. A cliche perhaps, but maybe something to hold on to in troubled times…

It Was Only His Second Ever Day Of Being Seven…

…and he was having a gob-stopper as a treat after a swimming lesson. They were waiting for his sisters to finish getting changed. His father was trying to read the paper. The economic outlook was not good. An election was near. Pompey were about to get relegated. Rolling the sweet around the roof of his mouth, he held it out between his teeth. “What colour is it, Dad? “ he said. “Red, the colour of lava spewing out of the earth, or that Kit-Kat wrapper,” his father replied, pointing towards the floor near a bin in the corner. The boy laughed. A few moments later, between the local and international news, he asked again, “What colour now?” His father looked up.“ Orange, the colour of the sun sliding over the horizon, or a bottle of Lucozade from the drinks machine” The boy smiled. Skipping the letters page, his father had a half-hearted go at the Sudoku. “What now?” “Yellow, the colour of sand on a tropical beach, or a packet of Starburst.” The gob-stopper had shrunk considerably the next time he asked, somewhere in the editorial comments. “Green, a canopy of trees, just after rain, or a bottle of Sprite”, came the answer. As the minutes slipped past, they kept going, through Football, Rugby and Motor Sport , each time the boy asking the same question, as the world in his mouth got smaller. “Blue, for the sea on a Bounty bar wrapper”; “Indigo, for a packet of pickled onion monster munch”; Violet, for the colour of dark, an hour before dawn. Asking again, his exasperated father replied “What colour do you want it to be? It can be any colour you want. You decide.” The boy opened his mouth and held the small globe of sugar on the tip of his tongue. It was white, all colours and no colour, like a ball of light at the beginning of time. The boy tipped back his head, swallowed it whole.

Springwatch 2029

I just found an attempt at an environmental themed haibun on the Poetry Magazines website at the South Bank. This was one of a pair that originally appeared in South – this one in issue 41, from April 2010. It’s interesting looking back at old magazines, plenty of familiar names whose work I admire and who are continuing to develop as writers, following their own path.

As for the subject matter, irrespective of the merits or otherwise of this poem – which didn’t appear in my (only) collection, I’ve struggled over the years to write about the environmental catastrophe we are facing. It’s a theme I often return to, more so now. This poem was a relatively early attempt to tackle this subject. I’m not sure it works – but would be interested in any comments.

It was also an early attempt at a haibun -a form I really need to revisit and learn more about . If anyone has any suggestions as to writers or poems to read then please comment accordingly, thank you!

Anyway, enough waffle – the poem…

Springwatch 2029

If CCTV cameras still worked, still ran their twenty-four-seven-three-six-five loop,then it would end like this. A breeding cliff of guillemots on the high Guildhall walls. Fulmars nesting in a roofless ruin of pubs. A cormorant drying wings on the balcony of the Theatre Royal as the tide licks what remains of the Walkabout Bar. A beach of glass stars, ground down rubble and shipwrecked steel. Girders the ribs of near-skyscrapers. Corralled at the storm line on Winston Churchill Avenue, a twisted pile
of cars, waiting in turn. A church near-obliterated by the shock of it all, roof tiles scattered as confetti. Thrift greens the gaps between pews, pink flowers carpeting the nave. Further out, salt water rules. The Solent flows around museums, swallowing debris. Foundations split open, currents pull history into the sea. As tower block stacks collapse, windows guillotine reflections, slicing the past. What’s left of the harbour station, a reef of brick and metal, train tracks ending in mid-air. Above churned-up surf, gulls roller-coaster a spiral of wind. But underneath is calm. Go deep enough and underneath is always calm. The soundless feeding of a slowly
dancing shoal. A silver slivered slick-stream of eels. The swaying ballet of seaweed.

Endlessly shifting
the margins of existence
a mud-spit of life

South Poetry Magazine Issue 60 Launch

I’ve had poems accepted a number of times by this magazine, which as it’s name suggests, is based in the South of England (though they accept submissions from anywhere). The contents are selected by different guest poets, and all submissions are judged anonymously. Each issue also has a larger selection of poems by a profiled poet, alongside an editorial piece to accompany the poems.

I was delighted to be the profiled poet for issue 60. The editorial piece was kindly written by Denise Bennett, who is an excellent poet whose books are worth checking out if you aren’t already aware of her writing.

There is a launch reading event for each issue, where poets appearing in the magazine can apply for a reading slot – the first time I ever read any of my poems was at a South launch event in Bournemouth.

The launch event this time was in Southampton. As a Portsmouth supporter with a couple of poems in the selection that reference Pompey, I was slightly concerned that I might be ambushed by Saints fans. Whilst this didn’t happen (despite some good natured banter!) my chair did collapse when I sat down after finishing my reading, so perhaps there had been an element of sabotage after all !!

The profiled poet’s reading is recorded – if you are interested you can see mine here on Youtube – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BYz764EhgoA&t=308starget%3D_new .

For more information generally on South Magazine, please go to www.southpoetry.org

Landings – Third Review

The third review of Landings appeared in South Magazine issue 59. As South is a print only publication the review can’t be found online, so I am copying the whole review here in full.

Landings – Richard Williams Dempsey & Windle 57 pp £8.00 (ISBN 978-1-907435-591)

Language in this memorable collection is both precise and lyrical. In The Feng Shui shop on Fratton Road the area is bright with “sleet and oil and rainbows”. In Lighting up the chiminea the poet urges us to turn our backs on “the dying of the sun” and “mellow the dark in an orange glow” while remembering “Soft memories of gold” and allowing words to “dance to our shadows” before “terracotta turns cold”. There is a strong sense of place in this poem as there is throughout the collection, an emphasis on “this dusty earth,/this Hampshire chalk, these rolling fields” – all of which are being eroded as the past sifts “through our hands”.

Dust is an image that predominates. Landings begins with poems (The King of stationery and Contents of the loft of an eBay trader) which present a landscape, part rural, part suburban, where things are shrinking and marginal, missing, out of date, unused or discontinued.

The world is also getting smaller in a remarkable prose piece (It was only his second ever day of being seven) where the current affairs the father reads about in a newspaper are juxtaposed with images of sweets and drinks that appeal to his young son. Eventually these images shrink to the size of a “small globe of sugar” which resembles “a ball of light at the beginning of time” and which the child, dipping back his head, swallows whole.

‘Landings’ is a strong collection of poems filled with nostalgia and sadness at loss. There is urgency too, a need to hang on to what is left and even to try and “restock futures left discarded” in a different ocean “full of fish and full of light.” (Map-making). A perfect image of hope. Mandy Pannett

South is a long established magazine from the southern counties of England. More information can be found here: http://www.southpoetry.org/