Silent upon a peak in Darien?

Or perhaps that should read silent beside a little canal on the Guidecca?

Brick wall on Guidecca.

The garden of no return


How could I have thought, when I embarked on the mad enterprise of writing  a novel for the first time, that today I would be printing up the first 42,000 words – half the drafted book – in a form I am happy to share with any good friend patient enough to take it on?  This will  be the twelfth draft, of which the remaining 40,000 words are waiting for just one more edit before they come on stream.

In other words, The Venice Book exists.

I shall be talking about the journey, briefly, as my contribution to the morning workshop at the June 1st meeting of the Bath Writers & Artists group.  Specifically, the problems for a novice of coming to grips with the question of Point of View.  An ‘angels fear to tread’ issue, this one, and only someone as ignorant as me would have let a story evolve over places and generations without realising what an issue Point of View was going to be.  ( I didn’t at all feel like pretending to be an Omniscient Narrator, unsurprisingly for someone so new to this hard game!)

Dorsoduro puppets

The origin of every puppet in my book

I am also doing a short slide presentation in the June 1st afternoon session showing how some of the camera images I brought home from Venice evolved/dissolved into key content in my book.  Evolved/dissolved so much that I now see the original pictures as if they were taken by another person and came from another place – at the same time  knowing that collectively ( I took 1,500 over three years ) they were indeed the inspiration for almost everything in The Venice Book.

Calle Amor dei Amici

How could I not have been inspired by this street name?


This seems a good time to begin thanking the people who have supported me on this journey.  I have three ‘readers’ who have kindly borne with me almost from the start – they came on board the early chapters of the fourth draft, and two of them were brave enough to come back with the questions and comments which made it possible for me to carry on doggedly to reach the twelfth.  ( The friend who never raised an eyebrow, the wonderful illustrator of my Letters from Mexico, Jude Wisdom,  just made me glow with hopefulness every time she ‘liked’ the latest section of the book.)

Poet Antony Mair has been one of my readers, poet Ann Preston another, and I am hugely grateful to them both.  Audiences at Bath Writers & Artists have listened kindly to a few short readings at different times and this sense of having a supportive constituency has meant more than I can ever say. I am also very grateful to Dawn Gorman for having bent the rules at one of her marvellous Words and Ears events in Bradford on Avon and let me stand up as the prose writer I was trying to become, rather than as the poet I had been.

When I began The Venice Book, it saw itself as a fairly conventional love story which happened to locate itself behind a particular red brick wall on the island of Guidecca. (See my photograph above.) The tragedy of the surrounding city was not my subject and I would not have felt competent or confident to take it on.  But as I started following blogs by some Venice residents, it became less and less possible to keep the encroaching darkness off the pages of my book.  It insisted on seeping in.  It became the story which refused not to be told. I am still not competent to tell it well, but I am trying.  And in the end, I hope that the Venetian writers I follow so respectfully might  be able read The Venice Book as a small contribution, by an outsider,  to their testaments.

Writer Erla Zwingle is one of the people I need to thank, for her excellent blog I am not making this up and the Campaign for a Living Venice site for reminding me all the time that a true city is not a tourists’ comfort zone. I try very hard not to ‘borrow’ (aka ‘plagiarise’)  from these posts, but I hope they are keeping my head open to the things which I used to be too raptured by the dazzling surface of their city to understand.

Guiseppe's point of view

Guiseppe’s point of view







Update on The Venice Book


THE VENICE BOOK is in complete draft now  ( fourth draft complete and fifth draft on its way out chapter by chapter to the wonderful friends who have offered to read for me.) Huge thanks to ANN PRESTON, JUDE WISDOM and SARAH GREGORY for being willing to do this.)  It actually has a bit of structure now.   The index page looks like this.

Chapter One: Photographs in the Snow
Chapter Two: A Trip to the Puppet Barge
Chapter Three: The Costume Seller’s Child
Chapter Four: To Live  in Readiness
Chapter Five : The Underbelly of Masquerade

Here is a paragraph from Chapter Two that Sarah Gregory has liked. Angus is not a lover, but a dog.

If anyone else likes Mrs Maybury, I would be delighted to have more critical readers to help me improve my book.

Mrs Maybury’s  living room was packed with salvage from productions in which visitors were encouraged to believe she had taken part, the walls festooned so thickly with her scraps and trophies that they closed in like a womb. An ancient sofa had pride of the living space, its missing leg replaced by a pile of tattered encyclopaedias. Visitors assumed that the flat must have a bedroom, but the ancient sofa was, in fact,  also the bed on which she and Angus curled up companionably at the end of their busy days. Many years later, when Frederick Westwood offered Mrs Maybury a set of rooms in his house in Sussex, she declined.  I do not feel the call of the wild, Mr Frederick.  Even when Angus was with me, I can truly confess we never felt that call.


The Letters from Mexico

Coming up to the Queen Square launch and I am really delighted that marvellous SARAH ACTON of Black Ven Press is allowing me to use what she wrote about my book.

“entering the dark theatre of the wood…”

I have been reading Letters from Mexico and feel very moved. The blend of extracts, beautiful illustrations and sonnets brings a dream-like quality of film scenes wrapped in a ghostly voice-over, and in my head, the tragedy of the ending is present in every line. Since very young, too young really for Pope, I have loved Eloise and Abelard. It is a joy to have this book, fresh and exciting to read, with a hint of the danger of the lovers.  I bet it is quite an experience with music too. Congratulations, a fine book, and great collaborations.

Sarah Acton is the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site poet-in-residence, working with local organisations and museums along the 95 miles of Jurassic coast and 185 million years, to produce site-responsive work inspired by the living coastal landscape and earth history. Sarah also runs poetry workshops, walks and an open mic night in East Devon and West Dorset under the name Black Ven Poetry, connecting creativity with the local natural environment. Black Ven is Europe’s largest mudslide, and sits between Lyme Regis and Charmouth beach. It’s famous for its rich ammonite and other fossil deposits as the cliff naturally erodes and slips into the sea.


The Fortunate Voyager

After two years working on my first novel, it seemed a good idea to rename this blog so that I could explore prosaic matters as well as poetry.  The Fortunate Voyagers is the English name of one of the art installations which feature in my Venice bookUnder its Italian title, I Viaggatori Fortunati will be privileged to be chosen for a fictional biennale – not so privileged to have its pavilion swept away in the storm surge which will desolate the outer islands and lay waste to a much loved garden on the Guidecca.

The Venice book is finished now, after two roller-coaster years, and I am truly fortunate to have so many good friends willing to read and comment on the fifth draft segments as they pluck up courage to brave the light of day.

Thank you so much to SARAH GREGORY, ANN PRESTON and JUDE WISDOM for offering to do this.  And to my blog friend ERLA ZWINGLER who has so kindly advised me about the correct month in Venice for buying persimmons.  I hope that those of you who have been following Exploring Poetry will continue to follow my journey on this newly titled blog.




First Thoughts Returning We Hear the Larks



There's a Long Long Trail

Ann Cullis printed 100 programme sheets for our Remembrance event on Monday night. There were only 12 left at the end.  And I’m not even certain that all the cast would have taken one away since they each had their own full scripts.  The Elwin Room was a buzz of people fifteen minutes before the official opening of the doors.  We had to  lay out two more rows of seats .

After the presentation, nothing but rapturous and admiring praise for the readers and singers.  “They must have been working on this for months,” several people said.  “They are so professional.”  ” Their timing is immaculate.”  “They work so well together.” “Everyone reads so well.”

All of this was totally deserved.  But the audience was mislead.

The wonderful cast had just one rehearsal for Returning We Hear the Larks.

I will post up other comments as they come in.


Returning We Hear the Larks Monday

When a ‘dress’ rehearsal goes as well as it did last Saturday, it is hard not to wish away the hours until we can at last present this year’s  World War One Commemoration programme to our audience.  The script – poured over for so long, meticulously edited and tweaked by so many hands – on Saturday came ‘live’ at last.  For the first time, we could take possession of our lines and of the imaginative spaces we will be trying to conjure for the audience.

We are now not just readers of our script, but its inhabitants.

The programme features poems by Richard Aldington, Vera Brittain, Wilfred Gibson, AP Herbert, Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon , Alan Seeger and Edward Thomas as well as prose testimonies from some of the servicemen and nurses who shared the griefs and horrors of the Western Front.


War and the pity of war….the words in our 1917 programme are obliged to tell of almost unimaginable waste and suffering, but all the way through we are also trying to convey a parallel story of harrowed compassion and companionship.  Images of the stretcher bearers crossing the wasteland of Passchendaele ….. the extraordinary Benda drawing of the soldier carrying a wounded ally …. soldiers clustered round to try to pull a pack animal from clutch of the Flanders mud …. .the archival photographs seem to have become more and more eloquent, and more central to our programmes year on year.

The war photographers, like the doctors and the nurses, worked among their subjects, knowing how many of those who were well and waving to the cameras when they clicked the shutter would soon be among the wounded and the dead. Nurse Vera Brittain tried to capture this sense of helpless sympathy in The Troop Train,  but not even the best of the  poems can bring us as close as the photographs to the men being transported to and from the Flanders front.

We die with the dying: 
See, they depart, and we go with them.  

Departure for Arras 1917


Guest readers : His Worship the Mayor of Bath, Councillor Ian Gilchrist; Betty Suchar,  Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution Chair of Management; Ann Cullis, Bath & North East Somerset Senior Arts Development Officer

Technical tower of strength: Councillor Rob Appleyard, Lambridge

Lead singers : Bella Eliot and Andrew Lawrence from the Walcot State Choir

Readers : Sara-Jane Arbury, Stephanie Boxall, Sue Boyle, Mark Eliot, Brian Goodsell, Dawn Gorman, Caroline Heaton, Sue Sims, Harry Thurston, Shirley Wright

Compiled and Scripted by Sue Boyle


Troop train 1917






Building Kelston Barn

A chorus for eight voices

Many thanks again to the 26 wonderful writers and visitors who created the magical afternoon at William Heath‘s Kelston Barn on Sunday 17th September. Their names appear below this performance poem which I compiled from their collaborative work. We are hoping to have news of the date for the performance of this, and their individual pieces  inspired by the Bathscape Project, very soon. Photograph by Matt Prosser. There are terrific photos of the actual workshop under the Bathscape link.


first  voice 

Ice broke this land to life,
this humpbacked hill,
water split it open
and drank the light,
wind blew these trees
out of kilter, their lanky limbs
boxing like love-struck hares.

second voice

The land stretched out
like a dog at the hearth and said,
Here you may build your barn,
enclose this piece of world
to be a haven on this broken hill,
nourished by the view, the skies, the stars,
the ever-changing light a sanctuary,
a safe place for travelling souls.

third voice

Though rain may lean its grief against your walls,
though storm may crash against your sacred space,
and folded clouds smear darkness through the gloom,
you will be graced by sunshine here,
cold sun on the silver days
in this nest of stone.

fourth voice

Here will be windows open to the sky,
here will be space to watch the drifting clouds,
here there will be time
to listen,
to stand in the rain and look towards the sea,
to share your hopes,
to grow your fellowship,
to kindle spirit brighter than a fire,
to share your memories.
Here you will be free
to travel beyond yourselves.

fifth voice

We do not work the land.
Earth called us here
as it called our ancestors,
men with the will to work,
masons, labourers,
the six-fingered carpenter
between them finding out
the alchemy of stone,
the bones of timber.
Something pulls us,
something draws us in.
Wind-scoured and weathered,
lifting by stages to the rising sun
in this tree-gifted place,
evolving against the backcloth of the sky,
a beauty grows itself.

sixth voice

I was drawn a pilgrim to this place.
Lost voices spoke.
Lost wisdom came to me.
I was alone, but I was not alone.
I felt no fear.
I was held.  I was sustained.

seventh voice

Apart and yet a part,
mortar and mortal,
wood, wit, unstained stone.
As the barley loves the blade,
as the wheat longs for the scythe,
to turn promise into purpose
I want to walk the path into the fire,
to be so consumed,
to be so changed.

eighth voice

All who come with shadows as well as stones,
whose lives are locked in anger and in grief,
all who bear heavy weight,
all who fear the failing of the light,
all who seek to breathe a clearer air,
who ask time to pardon them,
all who long to speak and to be heard,
all who have fallen, all who carry dreams
are welcome.

A Poem for Performance created by Sue Boyle, Claire Coleman, Darren Evans, Jill Field, Louise Green, Tanya Guildford, Charlie Hancock, Meretta Hart, Margaret Heath, William Heath, Caroline Heaton, Radha Housden, Rosie Jackson, Andrew Lawrence, Michael Loveday, Helen Mumford, Ras Nyah, Ann Preston, Tekla Selassie, Phillip Shepherd, Tessa Strickland, Liban Suleiman, Eliot Warwick, and Conor Whelan on Sunday 17th September 2017.

Photo by Matt Prosser, selected by Sue Boyle.

Part of the Bathscape Walking Festival supported by Bath & NE Somerset Council.