Tell us a bit about yourself.
I was born at Redhill General Hospital just in time to see England win the 1966 World Cup. I grew up with six brothers and sisters in a house beside the main London to Brighton road. Home was pretty suburban but backed on deciduous woods and open farmland. I attended Reigate Grammar School, read English Language and Literature at the University of Hull and took a diploma in Newspaper Journalism at The City University, London, in 1989. Subsequently working as a financial journalist at The Independent, The London Evening Standard, The Times and Reuters, I lived in Stoke Newington, Highgate and Hertford before moving to Brockley, London SE4 in 1999.
My wife is called Emma. I have four children: Beth, Jojo, Maurice and Tilly. I like to walk, read, write, garden, take photographs, watch some sport, go to the theatre, cook and muck about with the family. I also have a thing about post boxes; I call it Trollopsarianism.
Do you have any life mottos or wise words to live by?
Fear the worst; hope for the best.
I like it. What is your earliest memory?
Letting the handbrake off our 12-seater Bedford minibus when it was parked on the hill outside our house. Mum rescued me. The minibus was racing green with bright orange seat covers. It had sliding doors and, when it was hot, Mum and Dada would open them even as we were driving along.
Oh my goodness, that sounds terrifying. Do you have any phobias or recurring dreams?
Yup. I am a fearful person. I particularly dislike conflict, mindless insensitivity and airports…and yes I have recurring dreams, or at least a recurring dream-theme. The scene changes but the plot never allows me resolve the problem or difficulty I find myself presented with.
Yikes. Do you know any good jokes?
No. But I do know what you should do if you see a spaceman. You should park in it, man.
So, I have to ask: what is your all-time favourite book, that you keep going back to?
The Book of Psalms.
Very interesting. When did you discover you enjoyed writing poetry?
I was a teenager. Back then, however, I very fortunately realised the stuff I was writing was so bad I had to give it up. I did promise myself that I would take it up again later in life, though. So I guess I was in my later thirties when I discovered that I liked writing poetry.
Which writers inspire you the most and how do they influence your work?
Philip Larkin is the one, really. It’s the way he combines form and subject and theme. To me, it is also important that Larkin had what you might call a proper job, because it gave him everyday material to draw on. Now of course he is seen as a great poet, and he is. I think of him as a librarian who wrote poetry and liked jazz.
Describe your writing process. Do you have any techniques you use to get your creativity flowing?
There are no techniques I know of that can force the flow of creativity. If some sort of creativity is flowing, though, I try to do some jotting in my notebook, or on whatever scrap of paper comes to hand. I feel almost undressed if I am not in easy reach of a pen.
Back at my desk I will draft a version on my PC. As I do that, I will see if there is a poem from the canon whose form seems to suit the jottings; or if there is a classic poetic form that seems appropriate; or if it seems right to take a free-form approach. I will then spend many hours writing, defining, rewriting, and refining. Then I will apply polish and repeat the process again and again until I am sick of the sight of the piece.
How does a poem begin for you – an idea, picture, feeling, rhythm, or something else?
It’s like Wordsworth said: ‘Poetry is the spontaneous overflowing of powerful feelings.’ I am occasionally successful at capturing the feelings – or impulses – and find the desire to explore them in the creation of a poem. Behind the feelings, usually, are thoughts that I may only discover as I write.
How long have you been working on this collection?
The glib but accurate answer is ‘all my life’. I have been actively writing the poems in this collection since September 2002, and working them up into this book for around three months.
London Poems is a pretty varied collection. Do you write primarily about yourself, or do you often take inspiration from others’ life stories? Or a bit of both?
The poetry is largely observational. I try to avoid writing about myself but sometimes fail in that regard.
What is your personal favourite of the London Poems, if you had to pick just one, and why?
‘Going to Bed’ – because it speaks of the people dearest to me.
How does the collection fit into your life’s work?
It fits in around the edges, in and between my roles as a husband, father, and son, a financial journalist, and a postbox spotter. The poetry is, however, closely intertwined with these things.
Tell me about why you wrote these particular poems at this time of your life. Did any event or circumstance prompt you to write them?
There will be a different story for each of the poems. There are two or three sorts of themes I seem to go back to, though: family, home, and the people and places I love.
In one sentence, what would you want readers to take away from reading London Poems?
Tell us something about yourself that most people don’t know.
If you go to Shardeloes Road, near my home in South-East London, you will see a poem on the wall. The steel letters used are three feet tall. All told, it is about 180 yards long. The words are mine.
What are the best and worst things about being a writer, in your opinion?
The best thing is that it beats working for a living. The worst thing is that it doesn’t provide a living.
What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done?
Publish a book of poems.
Robert, thank you for your delightfully interesting answers, your poetry, and your time.
Robert Cole’s London Poems will be available for you to buy and read for yourself soon. The e-book is priced at £3, and can be downloaded onto your Kindle or other e-reader.
If you can’t wait, you can read a preview of 3 poems in the collection right here.
Feel free to keep voting for London Poems, to show your support and to be notified when the book is ready.
London Poems is a slim volume written by a middle-aged English fat bloke. The poems were composed in London, about places in London and in reference to feelings that emerged as the writer found himself processing random thoughts in or near London.
The subjects of the poems are those, pretty much, that have preoccupied practitioners since the year dot. They are about love, loss,self-examination, and the woes of the world. A few more uplifting verses are chucked in to deflect accusations of rank melancholy.
Readers may spot the poets of the great tradition to whom debts are owed. One of the writer’s methods is to match the occasional overflow of powerful feelings to a poem from the canon. It doesn’t matter whether readers’get’these references. It is appropriate, however, to give credit where it is due.
Robert is especially indebted to Elizabeth Browning, William Blake, Gaius Valerius Catullus, John Cooper Clarke, Wendy Cope, Emily Dickinson, TS Eliot, UA Fanthorpe, Stephen Fry, Thomas Gray, Thomas Hardy,Tony Harrison, AE Housman, Patrick Kavanagh, Clive James, John Keats, Philip Larkin, John Milton, Adrian Mitchell, Ruth Pitter, Dylan Thomas, Wilfred Owen, Brian Patten, Christina Rossetti, VikramSeth, William Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, WB Yeats, and Benjamin Zephaniah.
“At a time when almost everyone writes poetry but scarcely anyone can write a poem, it is hard not to wish for a return to some less accommodating era, when the status of a ‘poet’ was not so easily aspired to, and the only hankering was to get something said in a memorable form. Alas we would have to go a long way back.”
“(The poet) is unusually sensitive, unusually aware, more sincere and more himself than the ordinary man can be… He is a poet because his experience is not separable from his interest in words.”
No prayers nor bells: we shoot in scuttling shells
up and down the line. We go and return,
passing Arras, Béthune and Neuve Chapelle,
the Bois de Noulette, Messines and the Marne.
From Calais, past Flesquieres and Verdun,
with only the Alps in mind, we hurtle
through demented days, dusks gilded by sun
and black rain, in skirmishing battles
of the road. Through grey-day pallor we see
the brown, wide-open acres where they fought;
and sense the eerie emptiness reploughed.
At night, headlamps flare and brake lights bleed
sudden fear of hasty death into my heart,
spearing the tensioned tedium like a dart
whose aim is true, then redirected, then gone.
All around here they died for us;
now they lie under stones etched and erected
to the left and right, at Mametz and Loos;
at Langemarck, Vendhuile, Cambrai and Lens;
on either side of this paid-for auto-route,
dotting countryside, cresting horizons.
Between Le Touret and Richebourg L’Avoue,
on land once used by field ambulances,
thirteen thousand men of no known resting
place are remembered. It’s ground holding
my great uncle Jack, too. There, inside a fence,
under mown lawns, lies John Wesley Davies,
31, of the Royal Welch Fusiliers.
Further on, teams of gleaming windmills now stand
where once cold trenches were dug. In place of mud
and bloody hell, turbines mourn in silence:
generating clean warmth, dry light, hot food.
These are monuments also: testaments
to doomed youth on euro no man’s land.
In volleys to and fro, we, the fragments
of dead men’s shattered futures, pass fast and
glide, stuttering only at péage
queues. In our comfortable distress, our health
and holidays, our years, we have the breath
they did not have. In our petty rages
we drown the fading echoes of their cries,
their tender patience, their lingering goodbyes.
Passing through Denmark Hill and Peckham Rye
on the warm, late-running 15.05
from Farringdon, the single-amber sun
skims across the roof tops and behind
leafless trees. As the cold daylight thins,
and while the wintry sunset glow survives,
silver jet-trail cuts score the evening sky.
When Mum leaves the clean-kind nursing home,
and joins Dada in the cold Merstham grave
dug in chalk and clay a dozen years ago,
and rests with him on the lives they gave,
in his strong bare-boned frame, consummate,
beside people with whom they spent their days,
the snowdrops she worked hard to propagate,
and the road, I will plant wild strawberries.
I will plant them in the re-turned strip:
beneath the headstone, and the uncropped grass,
beyond the reach of absence, kinship,
fear, and the dismantling. In the balance
wild strawberries will root, grow, and fruit red
out of the love they made and left unsaid.
The tide is on the turn, it’s being held.
Waves still come: sailing in and heaving sighs,
marching up to whisper rushed hellos,
and breathe farewells. The popping surf, switching tack,
glazes the foreshore, brushes left and right,
and slopes off, jostling for position.
Seascapes are a constant animation:
a restless sum of nature’s forces equalled.
The water fell quite quietly last night
and flowed again as dawn light streaked the sky.
At noon, the tide crouched, ready to attack:
now it’s swollen, a greenish-blue wallow.
It moves with single-minded pace. It’s slow,
sometimes: always it changes. Stormy seasons,
clashing with the lunar almanac,
heap the sand dunes and lay the bevelled
pebble shores; they carve headlands and high
chalky cliffs. The tide moves with terrifying might,
milling the shingle in a twice daily rite,
flooding salt-marshes and sluicing shallow
pools. Twice it leaves the broad beaches dry:
twice a day it soaks them. With devotion,
twice a day, the estuary is filled:
twice it drains away, twice the seaweed black
and knotted is lifted swaying from the rocks.
In succession, twice a day, the aqua-flight
is grounded. In sheltered spots, barnacled
boats are tied to weedy moorings. Flags billow,
buoys bend and seagulls play on the ocean-
going breeze. On sunny days bathers lie
or swim; others walk their dogs, fish, or fly
leaping kites. This sea, now taut, will slacken.
Having paused for fugitive reflection,
it will ebb. It doesn’t want to end the fight
but ancient orders tell it where to go.
The tide, its authority sapped, will be quelled.
High above, creating and reflecting light,
hang heavenly things: below is motion.
I stand back, then drift away, unsettled.
The Lake and the Isle
Tomorrow I’ll go home for the last time.
Unanswered memories will I have there:
of games I played, books I read, trees I climbed;
of flint, creosote, and Parker Knoll armchairs.
For I enjoyed some peace there: peace contained
in Airfix planes; fresh and frozen blackberries;
and a barefooted bee-sting in the garden
created by the two I love, and who loved me.
Tomorrow, van and man on hand, I’ll
empty the place I’ve known for fifty years.
A sideboard, a table, and a box of figurines will
be exchanged for all that’s disappeared.