The Ghost Guide’s Tale

Outside the Minster, every eventide,
You’ll see him wait- the smiling Ghostly Guide.
Top hat on head, dressed in Victorian fashion,
He’ll tell you stories full of gore and passion.
“For just three pounds I’ll chill your blood,” he cries.
And people pay him, though they know he lies.
At half past seven by the Minster clock
He’ll gather them to him, like a dog his flock
And fleece them.Then when all have paid him money,
He’ll charm them with a voice as sweet as honey.
Dead Romans,phantoms, corpses limp and gory
Drag bloodstained footprints through each shocking story.
From Minster on to Bedern and the Shambles
He’ll lead his nightly paranormal rambles.
Then, at the end, he’ll finish with a joke-
A jolly ,cheerful, normal sort of bloke.

But take him to the pub and buy him ale-
A pint or three- he’ll tell a different tale.
“Twas late last year if I remember right-
A windy, drizzling, miserable night
In late December. Misty drifts of rain
Shrouded the city from Walmgate to Lop Lane.
I had a party booking- thirty one
Retired teachers from South Hillingdon,
All dressed in anoraks and sturdy shoes.
“Come on !” I said, “There is no time to lose.”
“Just wait a moment more- there is no hurry,”
Their leader said, “We’re still one short- where’s Murray ?”

Chubby and pert, a dapper little chap,
Round as a Christmas pudding, woollen cap
Upon his head, came trotting up and smiled.
“Sorry I”m late.It was a pint of mild
Detained me at the pub.I feel so foolish.
I’m dying to hear of ghosts and all things ghoulish.
Please start at once.” And so the tour began.

Along the Minster’s length to College Green
We trudged.I pointed out the ghastly scene
Where once a man, weighed down with murderous knowledge,
Paced up and down inside St William’s College.
And then to Bedern where the children haunt,
Lurking in shadows, wild-eyed ,pale and gaunt.

For every storyteller it makes sense
To keep a sharp eye on your audience.
To check if they are listening or no.
So as I talked my glance flicked to and fro.
I looked at Murray; terror numbed my mind-
He stood wide-eyed and smiling but behind
Him stood another, shadowy and dim.
His robes were all of black,his face was grim
And corpse-pale, but his eyes were black as coals.
I knew that he was Death, who steals mens’ souls.
I looked round at the others, wond’ring why
No-one saw the horror, only I
And then I knew- their faces blank and blind
Saw nothing of the ghoul that stood behind
them. Spreading wide the folds of his black cloak
He wrapped them round the jolly little bloke,
Who fell down to the ground and gasped for breath,
Twitched and lay still, for he had found his death.

The tour broke up; there was no more to say.
An ambulance arrived to take away
his mortal remnants.Someone phoned his wife.
“He was so happy ! Always full of life !”
The leader said,”He wanted to find out
Within this hour what phantoms were about.
And now he knows.Our souls are full of sorrow.
Just thirty of us will return tomorrow.”

For ten long years I’ve walked the alleyways
Where echoes of the past seek to amaze
and frighten the unwary.But that night
Destroyed my courage and unnerved me quite.
And now when I go out upon a tour
I keep on looking round me to make sure
There’s no-one at my shoulder. Yet I know
When my time comes to leave the world and go
into the unknown, there’ll be no ghost
With ash-white face and graveyard breath to tap
me on the shoulder. He I fear the most
Is plump, and smiles , and wears a woollen cap.

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I live in a city two thousand years old. If you live in York, the past is always looking over your shoulder.  In the seventies, a archeological team came across a stone tunnel. It was the drain for a Roman bath. I took this as the basis for the poem below:


Ten feet below the ground
they found a tunnel
arched and lined with stone,
the trapped air tainted
by twenty centuries of cold
and silence.

There lay in the dust
all the detritus of daily life –
gaming counters, pocket change
and jewels.

Chalcedony, carved with a crescent moon
and six stars for the dead.
Cornelian, grey and shifting,
uncertain as a drop of water,
and jasper, marble cold,
a scarlet bead of blood inscribed
with the figure of a man
helmeted and holding up his sword.

Resting in the exhibition case they split
the sunlight into rainbows,
make the six stars shine again,
give a bright edge to the soldier’s sword.


Read my new poetry book here

Something to get your teeth into

My dentist has retired after twenty five years faithful service.  He is a gentle, slightly lugubrious man, who has poked and prodded at my gnashers, like some archaologist  exploring one of the duller bits of Hadrian’s Wall, on about sixty occasions. Our meetings always follow a strict protocol. After exchanging family news I get into the chair, he  swings down the floodlight, and begins to explore  my dental kit with what looks like a billhook.

There will be blood. I’m good with teeth. I clean them twice a day. I even use those nasty, rubber -tipped spears you use to pick out food debris. But I always miss something – something which requires him to scrape and poke with the billhook.

” OK ?” he  says.”

“Orarrgh !” I reply, feeling the blood trickling out of a  corner of my mouth.

When all is done, I rinse my mouth with something that tastes like turps while he writes up the morning’s work.

” Not bad,” he said on our final meeting, “You’re winning”

And as we shook hands, I wondered how many tens of thousands of mouths he’d  protected and preserved over the years, how many frightened kids he had reassured.

” Enjoy your retirement ” I said , ” What are you going to do ?’

” I’m going out to Africa,” he said, ” To give them a hand over there.”

What a man. Thank you, Robert.


Buy “Quantum Theory for Cats” here



Would you like that poem with print or audio, sir ?

It’s an argument that’s been carrying on for years. Which is the most powerful medium for poetry ? The voice, or the printed page ?

It’s a matter of horses for courses. When I was doing my A levels we were treated to an Argo recording of TS Eliot reading “ The Waste Land.” It was an old 78 record and it sounded as though TS was whispering his masterpiece down a tuba. He read it in a quavery, dry as dust voice which gave nothing to the poem, and took everything from it. Eliot was one of the first to use “ The Poetry Voice” – a kind of pretentious whine, portentous and off -putting.

Although it has been largely superseded by the cheerfully loud performance poets, you’ll still catch a whiff of it from time to time. Nowadays spoken poetry mean Performance Poets. My knowledge is a bit thin here, but I’ve heard John Cooper Clarke ( grittily and convincingly northern) and Kate Tempest who has the ability, both to write some rich, thoughtful work, and the stage presence to carry it over. It’s broad-brush poetry- passionate, hectoring, cheering – it’s a communal experience.

Not every poem can stand up in front of an audience. A lot of poetry happens inside your head. Look at Shakespeare’s sonnets. Everyone gives them passing respect – but who actually reads them ? Try one. It’s like taking a Swiss watch apart and then putting it back together.

The poem is a link between poet and audience – something you create using the words on the page. And it’s a secret between the two of you. Or would you prefer an actor whispering the text in your ear ? You could argue that an actor’s voice is a barrier to understanding, but on the other hand, it could open up areas of the poem you missed.

Of course – you don’t have to choose. I’ve had a go at both text and talking with my book “ Quantum Theory for Cats” It’s available in both paperback and audio versions – and you can find both here.

Quantum Theory for Cats


When you can’t think of anything to write

If you can’t think of anything to write about – listen to some music. It doesn’t matter what it is – blues, classical- it will trigger ideas, sometimes tangential, sometimes direct. It’s never failed for me. I wrote this poem a few years ago, wasn’t quite happy about it and dumped it in the ” Maybe” file. I was listening to the music the other day, remembered the poem, and gave it a tiny tweak. And here it is


Funeral Music for Queen Mary- Purcell

Four muted trumpet notes, the sound
of darkness. Out of shadows come
the booted feet, the banners and the drum
driving them to the graveʼs edge.

Black clad choirboys give a voice to pain.

Torchlight can touch a cheek, trace
Fear and pity in a public face,
but echoes fade to silence, and the night
takes mourners and the mourned in its embrace.

Six swans and Author Central

The six swans first. They were on the lake this morning – three adults, two juveniles and a cygnet. It was really cold,a sharp wind whipping off the lake, and I wondered why they had come up from the middle of town, where there is more shelter. On the other hand, there’s been a singleton swan on the lake all week, tucked in to the bank. I wonder  how they make the decision to come here- and how they navigate there.

Geese have had it worked out for years. For long range flights they follow the motorways.

Now for Author Central. Amazon have launched a kind of directory of writers. If you’ve written something in the Amazon bookstore, then you can have a free page to sell your wares- and it’s free.

This is my link


Amazon Author Central Page

As I was saying….

Fortune is kind. Just when I thought I’d run out of jargon to complain about, a whole lorry load of linguistic horrors tips out its cargo at once.First of all, though, I’d like to pick on one or two I forgot to include last time.

Let us consider ” passionate.” It used to mean Romeo and Juliet, Cathy and Heathcliff, King Lear, Churchill’s speeches. No more. It is now nothing more than a husk of a word, a meaningless mouth noise, something to paint on the side of a van. I have seen ” We are passionate about roofing repairs” and ” Waste disposal is our passion” You cannot be serious , man ! Are you telling me that Tom the Roofer would prefer to lay tiles in the pitch dark, rather than go home to his wife and children ?

And then there are “solutions” – they used to be coloured liquids in the chemistry lab. Now they promise instant gratifications – “Dirty laundry solutions”  “Lawn Seeding Solutions” – I even saw ” H2oHighPress Solutions for all your cleaning problems” – which is redundant in about four different ways.

However, I have tapped a rich vein of verbal manure in the business section of the current BBC website. It’s about Davos  (wasn’t he the villain in Doctor Who?) and the economic gobbledegook which passes for conversation there.

How about ” web of interconnectedness”  Could you have a web of disconnectedness ?


“Thought Leader” – I’ve no idea what it means and it scares the crap out of me. It has strong hints of Orwell and “1984” Is – and I whisper the thought- Trump a Thought Leader ? Nah… He doesn’t do thinking.

Last one, I promise:

“Multi-stake holder platforms”

I know what this is. It’s all to do with railways. Every station will have special platforms for passengers holding more than one  Big Mac – (multi steak/stake holders.)… geddit ?


Quantum Theory for Cats

We need to talk about jargon

When I was a student and green in judgement, I thought, foolishly, that the purpose of language is to communicate meaning. I was wrong. That’s part of it, certainly, but it has many other purposes as well.

Language, and the way we use it, is a social indicator. People who have a shared purpose, or  come from the same social class, usually have a shared language. Recently I read an interview with the head of a new academy in London. He said that mid morning break would cease, and lessons would run straight through till lunchtime.The interviewer asked him how children could get a drink mid morning, and his reply was ” Pupils will be able to self-hydrate during the teaching process” which means, in English that the kids could have a swig of juice during double maths. What he was really saying was ” Education is a complex process, with its own language, which is far too complex for snotty journalists to understand.” He was using language as a barrier, not a gateway.

Sometimes jargon starts as an imaginative use of language and ends in a cliche. How about “level playing field”- as opposed to those sixty degree playing fields where the players have to rope themselves together before taking a kick. Or ” across the piste`” which takes you to blue skies and crisp snow and away from deciding which internet provider you will choose. Or what about “roll out” as in ” the roll-out of a new government initiative” – do you know where it comes from ? The aviation industry. It refers to rolling the latest superjumbo out of the hangar. Well..maybe it was a bit clever once…but’s a mega cliche.

But the worst kind of jargon is the stuff which is just gobbledygook. When Theresa May says ” I am clear” – which she does every five minutes – it means nothing. If it means anything at all, it means ” I know” – and if you do know, why do you have to tell everyone about it ?

“Going forward” – need I say more. It is a waste of breath, a mouth filler which gives you time to find out what you want to say next.

But the one which really bugs me is “unacceptable” – it’s a mean, weaselly, milk-and-water word. A magistrate who says ” Your behaviour his unacceptable” to the crim in the dock is dodging the moral element. If he belted an old lady over the head it’s not just unacceptable, it’s downright wrong.

It is time for my lunch. I shall self-hydrate during the eating process and watch the tv news which will update me on the latest roll-outs across the piste. I am clear about this.

Quantum theory for cats


I’m soooo …like …pissed

Let’s get this straight from the start.I’m not one of those ancient fuddy-duddies who believe that the Queen’s English should remain sacrosanct  and never change. I’m just interested ( and sometimes perturbed) about the way spoken English is changing at the moment.

Let us take, for instance, pissed. In English English it has always means drunk – “pissed as a newt” for instance. But in American English it means” angry” as in “pissed off” I was a bit frightened to read that  President Trump (whom God preserve) was seen to be “pissed” – I thought for a moment that the Leader of the Western World was rolling around on the floor singing ” Nellie Dean.” Sadly, he wasn’t.

So we come to “so” It’s always been a useful little word – a conjunction that links two halves of a complex sentence viz :

“It was raining SO he took his umbrella”

Or as a way of measuring :

“It was so big, he had to buy an extra seat for it on the train”

This second meaning is soooooo common now, that a neat little word has blossomed into something that sounds like a sick cow. Its use is very colloquial  and ( maybe I’m wrong here) slightly camp.

So has also  taken on a new role as throat clearer. It gives the nervous tv interviewee a moment to gather her/his thoughts before answering the question.

So I’m happy about pissed (just about) and I’m soooo delighted for so. But I really dislike…like.

It’s real meaning has almost completely disappeared. It is nothing more than a verbal tic-

“He’s like…and I’m like…..and then we like….”

“Like” is a BAD THING because it fudges and distorts  meaning. It makes language cruder and less precise. I’m a bit pissed about “like” – in the American sense.

Everything changes  going forward…you see…going forward ! Don’t get me started on that one. ” Going forward” makes me really pissed.


Quantum Theory for Cats