Which witch ?

Sylvia ? It’s me darling. Listen.
I want to ask the most enormous favour.
I’ve heard from Big Mac again! Yes !
He wants another seance –
still has issues around his career development plan
going forward.
He wants to come round tonight !
Just a little kitchen supper like before.
Could you have a word with Susie ?
See is she could make it as well –
and tell her to bring her leotard.
That Progressive Dance thing she does
really gets the spirits going.

No. My real problem is the food.
I’ve got some fenny snake in the freezer
and there are some newts’ eyes and frogs’ toes
left over from last time.
But I’m totally out of wolfs’ teeth and bats’ wool.
I don’t suppose you’ve got any, have you ?
And if you haven’t
could you teeter down to Waitrose and get some ?
They have some lovely artisanal stuffed bats
and you can pluck a bunch of fur
whenever you need it.

I’d go myself
but I have to collect Piers from his playgroup.

Be a darling.

Ann Shakespeare


I hold his hand.
Broad palm. Strong fingers.
Underneath the fingernails
a crescent of black ink,
and on the second finger
a pad of fat has grown to rest his pen.

All those quill pens. And the paper.
So much writing…..
He bought this house with words –
and hence had few enough to spare for me.

Virgins when we met, and married
six months later. Our first girl
came three months after that.
You can add it up.

It was not words which bound us both
but deeds and shame.

That’s why he left for London.
No word for weeks, and then a hurried note,
a bag of coins, an empty promise.
That was the way of it for years.

Then our boy died. My grief was real enough
though his was make-believe and came too late.

Now he’s back here to die –
a kind of compliment, perhaps
or simply a return to his beginning.
I do not know.

The sweats that left his flesh corpse-cold,
the dry, hoarse cough
all that is done now.

His slow breath whispers wordlessly.

Beyond the candle light a blackbird spills

bright pearls of sound

across the velvet dark.


The Queen


Of course I drink.
I couldn’t make it through the day without
a shot or two of schnapps or whisky sour
to keep me sane. The castle’s an asylum
for the upper classes. And who can tell
attendants from the criminally deranged ?

That’s why I sneak down here, back to my roots –
the bar I worked in when I was a kid.

Take the PM. I know he looks the part –
that silver hair, the patronising voice.
It’s just a front.
His brain is riddled like a mouldy cheese.
Tormented by his girl’s virginity
he eavesdrops on her every word,
salivating at each hint of sex.

I envy her soft skin, the swelling breasts,
but not her innocence. Virtue must be spent,
not hoarded, else it soon turns sour
and that leads on to madness.

No-one has the right to be so pure.

My son. The necessary heir. After the birth
his brutish father died. What choice had I
but wed his uncle ?
No child can rule a kingdom.

Get me another drink. Make it a double.

We never bonded.
I hated touching him.
His skin was always cold.

And now he’s grown
there’s even less between us.
He loiters with his college friends
in shadowed corridors,
blows me a kiss as I pass by.
I hear him sniggering behind his hand.

There is an emptiness behind his eyes
as though his life’s a constant agony.
I can relate to that.
Sometimes he frightens me.

One more for the road, then I’ll sneak back
to the asylum.
Drink up ! I swear
this stuff will be the death of me.

Jane Nightwork

Jane Nightwork was one of Shakespeare’s characters who never quite made it on stage.
She’s mentioned briefly in ” Henry IV Pt 2.” Two old country lawyers, Shallow and Silence are looking back fifty years to the time when they were at university when they were roaring boys, drinking and wenching. Jane Nightwork was one of the ladies of the night, who relieved them of their money, as well as their virginity.

I decided to give Jane a voice.

Here she is.

Flat on my back
in the black grass,
daisies, like fallen stars
about my face,
and his hand
up my petticoats
and heading slowly north.

We haven’t got all night.

I am his first time.

He is fifteen.

Our clothes fall, rustling, to the ground
and he is on me, gasping, urgent,
shivering between fear and lust.
My fingers skim his chest, feel
the soft skin, the beating heart beneath.

Flat on my back
in the black grass,
open as earth
and he the plowman.

Afterwards he wept – they often do
that first time, then
I kissed away his tears
and we danced again.

Underneath his cloak we lay
and watched the circling stars until
dizzy with their reeling,
we fell asleep.

The moon tilted, tipped
her bowl of light
so the air shimmered,
each field was spiked with frost,
and the river slithered sleek
as quicksilver
through the sooty dark.

We dressed, backs turned
and took our separate ways,
each nursing our delight, and shame
like Eve and Adam
that first night in Eden.

Full of sound and fury…signifying nothing…


I went to the theatre at the cinema yesterday- you know- it’s a theatrical performance with cameras- and it works very well.

I went to see the Kenneth Branagh “ Macbeth” which has had rave reviews all the way through its run at the Manchester Festival. I was really looking forward to it.

And it was dreadful. I have never see such a train crash. Kenneth Branagh was brilliant as Macbeth, obviously- he’s a born Shakespearean actor- it’s in his blood. I’ve never seen him put a foot wrong. And he was a terrific Macbeth- thoughtful, uneasy at the start, and as he travels down into his personal hell, he becomes petulant, childlike, horribly aware of what he’s gained – the throne of Scotland- and what he’s lost- his own soul.

I have no complaints about Ken Branagh- it was everything else that let him down. The play was put on in a deconsecrated church and the playing space was a long narrow rectangle- perhaps twenty yards on one side and three or four on the other. The audience sat , facing each other on the long sides. Well, that was problem enough. It meant that you could never have any depth in grouping the actors- there wasn’t room. And they had to be in constant movement up and down, so that the audience could see them.

But then they turned this narrow rectangle into a muddy lane. Real earth, real mud. It was great in the battle scenes- they even had real rain pouring down. But all the interior scenes went for nothing. The great banquet, where the ghost of Banquo reappears, was a modest table with six IKEA stools,- set down in the mud. All the intimate scenes between Macbeth and his wife were, it appeared, set in a field.

When you see a play, you suspend your disbelief, right ? You know it’s just actors, pretending…but you go along with it for the story. The only time I got involved was when Branagh was speaking. The rest of the company were passable, or would have been if they hadn’t had to tramp through a morass to say their lines. The witches- crucial to any “ Macbeth”- were- I’m really sorry about this, honestly- utterly dreadful. Painted green, they writhed in the mud and talked like Daleks. The Porter scene was unintelligible- as was the Porter.

This “ Macbeth” was set in the non-specific distant Scottish past, which meant that all the men wore sacking kilts dyed with potato peelings and all the women wore generic medieval frocks. The battle scenes at the end looked like the British Lions taking on some tough opposition, and there was much brandishing of swords and Manly Hugging ( sounds like a little village in Gloucestershire) at the end. I breathed a sigh of relief when it was all over. Me- the man who would offer a pint of his own blood to see a Shakespeare play.

And what do I take away from all this ? Even Kenneth Branagh makes mistakes. Shakespeare is bullet proof, and will survive another day. But the thing that cheered me up was that the cinema was crammed- and not just with old fogies like me. People came and saw and no doubt made up their own minds.

That’s got to be good. Eh ?

Darth Vader in a doublet


I’ve liked Shakespeare since I was ten years old- and I owe it to my dad. We used to read bits of the plays aloud ( this was before tv and shortly after The Flood.) He used to explain the rude bits to me and we would do the Prince Hal and Falstaff scenes from “ Henry IV” or the rude mechanicals from “ Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

I totally fell in love with Shakespeare in the summer of 1964 when I saw the Peter Hall’s “ Wars of the Roses” sequence. That year the RSC did all the histories from “ Richard 11” to “ Richard 111”- and every weekend during the season they did all three parts of Henry V1 in one day. Nine hours of Shakespeare- and I got a seat right at the front. It was incredible- blood, battles, love affairs, hangings, evil plots- all happening two yards in front of me. I was totally blown away. I loved the spectacle- and I loved the story too- the great rambling, blood soaked tale which started with Richard 11 and ended with Richard 111 ( Ian Holm) twitching like some crushed spider as he died. I love Shakespeare. I think I’ve made the point.

I love “ Star Wars”- I always did. I love the visuals- swirling galaxies and space ships which looked….like real space ships would look. They had bumps and fairings and gun ports. They were the real deal. The story has everything a story should have…a boy on a search for himself, a beautiful girl, a buccaneering pirate of the spaceways and a robot double act. And it was so clever- Darth Vader is so much more than a pantomime villain; the bad guy storm troopers wear glossy white armour. Quest, love story, saga-Star Wars has the lot.

I love Shakespeare.I love Star Wars. You can imagine how I felt when I read” William Shakespeare’s Star Wars “ by Ian Doescher. Ecstatic doesn’t even get close.

This wonderful script is a re-imagining of “ Star Wars” written through the lens of Shakespeare’s writing . It’s in blank verse and Ian Doescher borrows shamefully ( and wittily) from the plays. At the very start of the play C3PO says:

“ Now is the summer of our happiness/ made winter by this sudden fierce attack”

That ‘s kind of familiar, isn’t it ?

The end -of-scene couplets are there as well: Luke says boldly:

“ A Jedi shall I be, in all things brave-

and thus shall they be honoured in their grave.”

There are lovely, perceptive touches. Han Solo is described as “ a smuggler with a lover’s kindly heart” and C3PO describes Vader as “ split ‘twixt manhood and machine.”

Great stuff, isn’t it ? But it isn’t just the language that shadows Shakespeare’s plays. Just look at the characters. Who is Luke but Hamlet, uncertain and unsure as his personality unfolds. Obi Wan is Prospero while he’s alive and Hamlet’s Father’s Ghost after he’s dead. Princess Leia is all the tough, brave girls in the comedies – Rosalind, Viola. Jabba is either Sir Tony Belch or Falstaff. Oh…and there’s one other clever reference…. Puck the mischievous sprite from “ A Midsummer Night’s Dream “ is…R2D2. All those beeps and trills are just a front. R2 speaks !

I cruised at light speed through this book in an afternoon, and now I’m going to start it again. I’m sure there are plenty of touches I’ve missed first time around. If you like the idea of Darth Vader in a doublet, then this is for you.

Just suppose that you were servant to……Macbeth…


He will be dead soon
because there is nothing left to live for.
His wife is dead. She hanged herself,
death being preferable to a life
spent facing down his cowardice,
his childish terrors.

He will be dead soon
because of the many friends he killed.
And when the killing slowly shifted
into tedium,I killed for him.

He will be dead soon
because he welcomed in the dark-
those crazy women, that endless line
of ghouls. They hollowed out his soul
as a boy might suck the jelly from an egg
and spit it out.

He will be dead soon
because the castle is surrounded,
because he is alone,
because I have unlocked the west gate,
because I hear them coming up the stairs…

Dumped by Romeo


Have you ever wondered what happened to the middle ranking characters in Shakespeare plays ? If it’s a comedy, the principal characters get married- Beatrice and Benedick, for example. And if it’s a tragedy, they die- Hamlet in a duel, Macbeth in a brawl, Lear of shock and old age.

But what about the characters left behind. What kind of a marriage do Sir Toby Belch and Maria have ? What happens to Seyton ( or is it Satan ?) Macbeth’s sinister bodyguard ? Does Horatio just go back to being a university don after the death of his friend ?

I’ve been thinking about Rosaline, the girl Romeo is passionately devoted to- at least until he meets Juliet. What happened to her ? And just suppose Romeo didn’t die of poison after all and….just suppose it all happened in the 21st Century…just suppose….

Have a look at this poem and let me know what you think….


We’re very comfortable- he’s a lawyer,
a specialist in conflict resolution. Senior partner
at Montague and Capulet. The old man died
ten years ago but still he kept the name.
I wish he wasn’t so fastidious.

At first we thought of moving from Verona
but we were brought up here-
childhood sweet hearts you might almost say.

I find that I still hate her, which is strange
for thirty years have gone and I’m not prone to hate.
A leggy girl with eyes like bright jade chips
and hair- I envied her the hair- a cloud
of red gold sparks where mine was merely black.

She grabbed love from him like a greedy child
while I held back, not daring to believe
that everything he said, he meant.

That business at the tomb- the poison bottle-
I shudder when I think of it.
That first night in the hospital. His skin
corpse cold. And later the long months
of therapy at that clinic in the Alps.

Then he was good as new- almost.
We married- it was a kind of reflex action.
No talk of love-it was an understanding-
something altogether more reliable.

He’s gentle and considerate-. Separate bedrooms.
That side of things was always a formality.
He sees his Roman mistress once a month
and I pretend a placid ignorance.

In thirty years we’ve only argued once-
in the clinic after I’d given birth
to our only child- a daughter.
Weeping, he begged to call her Juliet
but I refused. She has my mother’s name.

He drives into the office every morning
the house is left to me- it’s my domain.
A cook and gardener see to all my needs.
We have a small apartment in Geneva
and fly off to the Maldives every summer.

By the way, Susan Daniels has written a cracking Ophelia poem. Punchy, economical, it brings Ophelia into the present day. You can find it here:


I got rhythm


I got rhythm.
So has everybody. It’s built into us. We’re tuned to the rhythm of light and dark, the beating of our hearts, the in-and-out of our breathing.So it’s no surprise that rhythm is a crucial tool in the poet’s toolbox. I use that simile quite deliberately, because writing a poem is making something just as much as someone making a chair, or a carving, or a painting. In fact the early Scots poets were called “ Makars” for that very reason.

OK – what does this miracle tool do, then ? It gives shape to the poem. By and large prose is a continual stream of thought, structured into sentences and paragraphs. But poetry needs rhythm to mark out a territory, indicate a change of mood.

There are plenty of other tools of course- rhyme ( obviously) imagery ( metaphor and simile) and all those tricksy little things you can do with the sound of words -onomatopoea, for instance. ( I only put that in to show you that I know how to spell it.) But we’re not going to deal with all that stuff in this post. Maybe later.

We British poets write a five stress line.

Hang on a minute. Look at that again.

We British poets write a five stress line.

Do you get it ? A line of ten syllables with five of them stressed.

The posh name for this is iambic pentameter (“pent” as in five- yes ?)

French poetry tends to add a couple of syllables and an extra beat. Actually some people say that we have the five stresses line because that’s about the length of a single breath. Maybe the French breathe more deeply. But I digress.

We use iambic pentameter all the time. Every day.

I’m going to the shops to buy some bread.
My bike has broken and I need some help.
My sister’s got the measles ! Fetch the nurse!
Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York.

Haha ! you weren’t expecting Shakespeare in there, were you ?

In fact Shakespeare is the King of the iambic pentameter. He writes prose- sure- but always for a reason. And his iambics don’t plod a long like a trotting horse. He riffs on the idea of the five stress line; he plays around with the pause (caesura) in the middle. And his audience loved it. They didn’t think his plays were written in a posh inaccessible way- they recognised that he wrote in their ( and our) daily speech. And the five stress line was a real help to the actor too- easy to learn, flexible- you could play around with pauses, and yet come back to the beat at the end of a line.

And yet…and yet…there’s no law saying you’ve got to write in iambic pentameter. You can play around with rhythm. Try changing the rhythm when you change the mood. Try a four stress line ( I find it clumpy, but give it a go)- or challenge the French at their own game and roll out might alexandrines.

That’s about it for now- on rhythm. But I’m going to stick one of my poems at the bottom here. The rhythm is largely three stresses- but it isn’t regular. But there are other things going on which we will discuss some other time.

Only the heart

Sky so cold it could
crack like an eggshell,
clatter to the ground
in shards.

Earth so hard it hurts,
ridged and rutted,
treacherous, bruising.

Air so sharp,so full
of pins,it stings the throat,
turns to steam
before your face.

Only the heart ,so old and full of winters,

still burns for love.