Dartmoor dozen

In mid August, I stayed with a friend in Chagford, and on my last day on Dartmoor, headed back to Powdermills Farm, where I had spent many Easters and Summers in the 1960s and 1970s, when it was still a working farm, with Mr George Stephens at the Farm House. It was a typically Dartmoor summer’s day – ferocious rain followed by splashes and sprays of warm sun, when the green of the grasses alongside the Cherry Brook was an almost supernatural, Robin Hood, Greenwood green of ergot hallucination and hypnogogic inner voyages. I made a lot of fast field drawings on the farm, then worked on seven larger acrylics on board, and here’s a selection of them, alongside an account of life on Powdermills Farm almost half a century ago. 

Long summers and fragile Easters largely made up our family’s moorland calendar. The moor I remembered was scored with ancient mine workings, fearsome muses, stone circles, standing stones, kists and dolmens as well as the naturally, spectacularly weathered granites atop the famous tors – the ragged profile of Old Crockern and his ilk. Through the Fifties and the Sixties – the rock n roll years – as each of us arrived from the children’s home, the growing family would bivouac on a patch of emerald green grass, perhaps the only patch on the north moors – beside a little russet brook, the Cherry Brook, on a farm called Powdermills in the middle of the moor, north of the B-road between Mortonhampstead and Princeton, with its prison.

Powdermills had been chosen in the 1840s as a site suitably remote enough for the making of gunpowder, the ripe charge of saltpetre, sulphur and charcoal. The land was littered with ruined granite outhouses, workers’ cottages, two giant chimneys, and leats, channels and clitter-filled drops that once housed water wheels powered by the Cherry Brook to filter out impurities from the finished product. The gpowdermills 09001unpowder was delivered to local magazines by horse or steam and from there to the quarries and mines that blew their way into the earth for metal and stone. Some of the tin workings in these parts are very ancient indeed. Without them, there wouldn’t have been any Bronze Age.

The farmhouse had been the foreman’s house, the farm buildings workers’ cottages. There is a story of one worker, by the name of Silus Sleep, who chose to eat all his day’s meals in the morning – so that in the event of an explosion, he would meet his maker on a full stomach to soften the blow. Two testing mortar were set either side of the track from the road. Three thousands US troops were station at Powdermills in the months before D-Day and a group of them took the cannon with them. They were retrieved at Plymouth Hoe and returned to the moor, and to Powdermills, where we’d clamber over them to play.

Dartmoor Powdermills rainStorms lash Dartmoor even in the height of summer, and there were floods, collapses and other camping calamities until Dad gave up bivouacking for one of the farm cottages, The Blue Cottage, hired from the Duchy for seventy pounds a year, and one of a row of two between milking parlour and barn that looked directly over towards Bellever forest. The forest was thick but young – post war pine and Forestry Commission pathways. It rose up dark and solid towards the summit of Bellever, like a troubling dream, the approach to the peak ringed by wild blueberry bushes yielding handfuls of tiny bittersweet fruit to assiduous foragers and thirsty mouths. I remember following a stream through the forest, as if it were the compelling plotline of a fairy story, taking you deeper into the wood but forever holding the light of the sky below the crowns of the tall dark handsome pines.

The Blue Cottage had a tiny front garden, and a rock strewn paddock ran the full length of farm buildings behind us. In shearing and lambing season, the farmer George Stevens would round up flocks from the moor – whistling and calling his dogs up the slow slopes of Longaford and Higher White. Sleeping through the sound of several hundred sheep in the paddock at night, as if the sound itself took on the properties of wool and pillowy warmth, a quiet Celtic kid like me would feel the whole of the universe expressing its sheepness.

The cottage at Powdermills had no electricity or running water. We drew water from a Dartmoor Aug 19 2well using a long iron hand pump, and lit the rooms with oil lamps and candles and the light of a rayburn. In later years, the landowner Mr Russell had a generator installed, but our cottage was not connected to the 20th century in any direct manner, and I relished the time travel. It was haunted, too. The voice in the ear in our parent’s bedroom. The spirit that troubled my brother in bed by the stair wall. All drowned out by the generator sat shaking and growling in the old barn where dad and Mr Stephens had once tended a dying bull ‘whose blood had turned to water’, like the Mass in reverse, and a bull, too, that creature of the cave wall.

Mr Steven’s farmhouse was a large, square grey shale-covered building of weather-worn Georgian proportions at the end of the row, and through the gate by the farmhouse the path took you to Cherry Brook, and the old gunpowder works, the gorsey slopes that led to Longaford and over the other side, a line of Bronze Age stones leaning towards the westerly sun and the great north moors, the green desert of Britain. The silver flashing Devonport leat wound through the bottom of a valley running east through Wistman’s wood, an acreage of primeval forestry, its gnarled and stunted oaks strewn with boulders, nests of adders and cushions of moss.

These trees, these few little acres of land, were the last remnants of Dartmoor’s original forest, the lay of the land before Bronze Age settlers built and raized and passed. Wistman’s was full of legends, boggy with them – the name from the Celtic for wise man, the Wood of the Wise, and from Wisht, for pixie-led, for haunted, eerie, uncanny. It’s not a place that many care to enter. The Wisht hounds are reputed to thunder through on their wild hunt for the souls of the sinner and the unbaptised. Dartmoor tales wrapped round each other and the landscape like those gnarled, twisted, stunted oaks and made objective truth impenetrable. Dad made studies of the wood, using an impasto of his own making, monochrome miniatures that captured the eerie density of the contorted, wizened oaks that grew as if one creature, wrapped up in itself and admitting few strangers.

I was too far from Powdermills to fold it into my route map, but I was back on the moor, Dartmoor Powdermills pathwaydrawing down the family myths and west country tales, and taking a lunch of shepherd’s pie at The Tors Inn after a walk through a farm gate by a grassy knoll onto the moor, and the widescreen desolation that embedded itself into your expectation of it, so that you had the faint, curious sensation of reliving an older time. There’s little husbandry on the moors today. You’ll find a few heads of sheep, cattle, the wild ponies and adventure sports enthusiasts. The Duchy had turned against digging channels to drain the bog for pasture, preferring the concept of a more natural abandonment.

On Powdermills, what used to be George Stephens’ vegetable garden is waterlogged mire, packed with clumps of pixie grass. A few fresians loll and amble on higher ground, near the road, turning slowly like weather vanes in the wind.


Tolmen stone

The Tolmen Stone, Upper Teign River


Catastrophically, I posted the wrong date for the launch (Thursday 9 July)
It is, of course, Thursday 11 July. Thursday. Thank you.
A picture, and a poem from the new book, in recompense.

wisteria 12 may 3 19


Radio Carbon

Cosmic rays stroke the atmosphere,
smoky signals burnished by our passing, wave
after wave spinning the dial of radio carbon
against the background hiss of all creation,
measuring out our time to the core, dancers
at the back of the cave guttering torches
in the mind’s eye. Signals run out beyond here.
From this point on the choir becomes
a murmur then vanishes, water running
silent beneath ice. We bury our dead
in the ground and listen, the gauze curtain
of cosmic forces that calibrate a human hair
rippling like a field of wheat through air,
sackcloth through the ether – another
medium we don’t believe in anymore.

Knuckle: a new collection from Pitt Street Poetry

Knuckle Cover_v2

Knuckle enjoyed its first launch event in London, at 49 Great Ormond Street, the oldest house in Bloomsbury, on Thursday 11 July, with special guest Martina Evans.

Below is an image cluster of contents, a self portrait with flint figure found near The Grey Mare and Her Colts – what remains of a Neolithic longbarrow on the West Dorset coast – and a draft of one of Knuckle’s poems.



Knuckle is available at The London Review Bookshop, Bloomsbury Books
and soon, on the publisher’s website. 

And here’s a link to a film of one of the central poems from the book, Earshot

Follow the dog ….. 

Ghost dogs 1

Blues for Persephone

Six pastels and a poem from later winter, made over the weekend of 11 and 12 May in the garden under new wisteria, mature at the root, in the slim-ankled season of Demeter and Persephone, first bud of fleeting appearances, the faint colour of memory in May, brief life and little death in sexy breezes swaying before big winds take them away. 



I could hear her but she wasn’t there,
the room was dark and damp underfoot.
A daimon had risen inside her,
spreading out like flood water,
tied up in the hair of her own spring tale
and letting it flow down the back
and shoulders, dark strands floating
on the surface, a sigil for retreat
as she stepped on the tiny blue
flowers of her dreams,
clothes falling from her frame,
voice calling from a very high window
in a tower with a spiral staircase
boring deep underground,
every step of the way
opening up like a suitcase
containing a bomb, blood,
a flash of dark hair on dark water,
voices cracking in sealed jars,
mouth Mercury, Pluto dipping its finger
and smearing the waxy moon with its pitch.

Well Loved Tales and the Galway nine

The Galway Nine

Dropping a two-in-one post – a set of new poems from a new book coming out later this year, KNUCKLE, and some artwork from Galway City, where at the irresistible invitation of Kevin Higgins I read at Galway City Library on Thursday 24 January – Burns night, as it happens. It was a great evening and a great day after too, walking the town and the bay, doing drawings. Here they are. My thanks to the staff and drinks at Dock One, Wards Hotel, McDonagh’s Fish and Chips, Quay Street Kitchen and Sonny Molloy’s whisky bar, among others.

Well Loved Tales

Here’s the link to the new poems and prose at Live Encounters, edited by Mark Ulysses in Bali – and as a teaser here is the text of Well-Loved Tales, about the power of fairytale, the first story I could properly read, as a remedial pupil, at around the age of eight. Rapunzel. The title refers to the classic 1960s Ladybird editions of the tales. The story of the girl child given away will never, ever lose its power.


Some events in life remix your colours in ways you can’t imagine. Mind and matter mix like pigments and it’s the strong colours that bleed through. Your gravity shifts, you hear a new bass line, and your moves change. Being adopted, exchanging one name for another, is like being mugged of your identity. There’s a violent wrench a long way beneath the surface and all this wreckage to deal with after the storm, except you can’t classify it as wreckage because you’re dealing with the basic material that makes up your life. And the most basic of all is that identity switch, the first dislocation, the unexplainable disappearance of the mother who bore you. It’s the plot of a fairy tale. Sublimate it and bury it as deep as you like in anger or acquiescence but it’s not going anywhere. It surrounds you, it’s your wagon train. It’s your story. How are you going to tell it?

The first story I ever read was Rapunzel, a Ladybird edition with watercolours on one side, 14-point text on the other. Whoever did the Ladybird watercolours were professionals of their craft. The tale is full of nasty forks and twists and I felt them all. The couple who can’t have children, the wife who conceives a child and pines for the old woman’s greens, the sustenance she lacks. The timorous husband who climbs the walled garden, way beyond his years, and picks the vivid salad greens from their beds of saturated colour, a colour so strong it has a life and movement of its own. His capture, their agreement. The birth of the child and its adoption by the old woman – with fairy tales, it’s amazing how many foundlings and orphans and adoptees blaze in their furnace.

The old couple disappear after that. Whatever they did was irrevocable, and it was done. They cross the line then fall into a vacuum of not here, never was. The woman will pine for the witch’s green rapunzel till the universe spins itself out to a series of dots and dashes. Rapunzel, Rapunzel… Let down your hair… The young beauty in the tower, the young wandering prince who climbs her tresses and makes her fat with sex and progeny. The old witch puts a measure to the girl’s waist. She is the hated Second Law of Thermodynamics. “Something from nothing? You dirty little bitch!”

The pictures in my mind of the witch’s garden, and the tower through the trees of the forest that the young prince sees, I’d feel them twang and vibrate and shimmer. They’d begin to move, and I’d see the old man creep through the darkness, enormous dark green leaves hanging in still air. Not a sound, not a breath of wind – and then the witch’s finger.


I twitched, looked up from the first story I could read, climbing the fine hair pinned by a nail and ending in dead fingers, speaking in tongues. What was the girl virgin to the old witch? And when she was swollen with child and cast out into the thorny wilderness, I saw the skulls of Golgotha in dad’s painting above his bed, done some time between art school and the war. Christ on his knees at the mouth of a cave at night, black and grey but for his crimson djellaba. Dad’s voice from an underworld studio.

“Rose madder.” Madder from Friesland, a plant for the colour of panic and life and blood, the prince’s eyes bloodied by thorns, the thorns and petals of a red briar rose. I can remember learning to read the thorny black marks into words, the prince stepping through the parting wood and looking straight at me.

And then the witch vanishes, and so does the tower, and the rapunzel. Never here, never was. Just years in the wilderness, until he hears her sing and her tears heal his sight. Remote vision: I remember the ache and terror built in to that little paragraph: “And he wandered alone for many years.” So light on the tongue and the fingers, and so unendurable. I stared into the mouth of the story and never blinked. It was like staring into the mouth of a dark cave, one that had once been inhabited, and you could very faintly scent the habitation. The thorns, the prince and the old witch and the girl in the tower and the fearful husband and the greedy wife – they moved and flickered like figures on a cave wall under the light of a fat lamp. Fairy tales are the cave art of the ears and tongue. I think they are just as old, stirring in the minds of the young.

Every terror in life, and the terror of death, has been felt out first for us in fairy tales. A great scientist once acquainted them with stories for people afraid of the dark. One of his anti-religion raps. He didn’t know his subject. They are instructional, not escapist. They’re there to make us fear the dark, not protect us from it. Riddles wrapped inside an enigma dropped in to a well, and you hear a faint echo.

Like you’re on the way to Thebes, and there’s this floppy bitch with claws resting under her dugs, waiting to tear your head off and feed it to a ravenous, disc-shaped sawmill of a mouth. The name’s Oedipus, and you’re the original tragedy. The foundling marked by the claws of an eagle. All adoption stories pull in their thread from the labyrinth and they all end at the foot of Oedipus, the baby tossed in to the wilderness because of a promise and a curse.

“Motherfucker killed his father, sired his own brother.” Kept on punching holes in his social network. He married his mother and killed his father and solved the riddle. How would my fate slot in to that mythic template?

Because they are questions loaded with weapons, riddles feature large in myths and tales and songs, like holes in a Swiss cheese. The current academic fashion is to date nothing in folklore further back than its first documentation. It’s an odd twister of a position to take on an oral lineage of descent from the collective tales Carl Jung wrote about, the prince and the witch and the girl in the tower, forbidden fruits and blinding thorns. They live in a steady state, way older than written matter. It’s worth noting that one of the Grimm’s sources for the tales they collected was a neighbour woman who came to clean their house. Once, after telling them a tale, she returned, concerned that she had placed a word incorrectly, and in the tales she told and had heard and learnt, every word had a place as firmly fixed as the stars.

Songs, we know, are more protean; they’re carried to be spilled, and one song often pours through another. The devil riddles a young boy on the road; a gentleman lover puts life-changing riddles to the beautiful young sister who will take him to her bed; The Bells of Paradise is all riddle, drenched in the musk of grail imagery. “One half runs water, the other runs blood.” John Barleycorn, dealt with as if he was one of the bog people garrotted over the peat workings of ancestral neolithics. Barleycorn finds an antecedent in the Exeter Book of Riddles, pages of which were used, some time in the 10th century, as beer mats.

So, riddle me this: did I have to kill my father and marry my mother?

“If I saw her again, I’d kill her.”

I once made good friends with Nabila, a young British Pakistani woman. She was the accountant, I was the copy writer. We were often alone in the overspill office together. There was a spark, and the same with anyone I liked, she soon learnt about my children’s home origins. “If that happened to me,” she said one day, apropos nothing in particular – she was settling some petty cash accounts for the book reps – “I would find them and kill them both.” Then she gave me a dazzling smile. Not long after that, a young accountant working on the end-of-year books nodded towards me and Nabila and murmured to his younger male colleague: “He is her comrade.” Their eyes were still and pointed. I was being watched, like the witch watched Rapunzel. A few months after that, her marriage was arranged to a dull fellow with a scratchy beard, and here comes the groom-to-be’s brother to work in the warehouse, to keep eyes on the valuable bride.

Brexit Cut Up 21 January


Automatic writing at its most pure. No authorial hand was seen at play in the making of the Brexit cut Up. The method was to combining Theresa May’s speech following her record defeat in the Commons with Jeremy Corybn’s speech the following day in Hastings, and feed them into the Cut Up machine on the Language is a Virus site. Repeat three times then extract and trim. Nothing added, only taken away.

William Burroughs saw cut-ups as a way of letting the truth come out. Let’s see what it does with Brexit’s cloudy murk.

And in remain us divide the I with if
which Parliament voted support.
Speaker again whole.
But we’ve Conservatives out to Opposition
laid that single parties option
and permanent how would Government House overcome decision.

Wealth reap right strong tomorrow.
Out intends this union of intransigent parliament.
Evening happened. All the remains leave
about to vote whichever of what importance.

The disaster on the table.
Clear only that alternative because backing Confidence
will vote dodge required crisis party.

The term way out work living setting is of citizens.
Meantime the party brings divisions
remain that needs potential people to the blocks.

Supply took support.
Labour’s is senior.
This deliberately paced nothing
has their – listen – the will House.

Its help time best potential
we have Mr EU future taxes work.
Keep within to alternative the Labour clarity through set confidence.

With them tabled debate concerns.
It’s we the say be citizens proceed
and how to government other not this.
First if deal together secure next questions.

Nothing here a severity.
I forward rights and deadlock of tomorrow
and in back confirm table is British.
Rules would bring the guarantee
so provide to those then confidence.
People who to honour majority
country because for not the sensible will.

It deserve tonight’s required set
therefore believe environmental taxes
and does the rule our referendum
win country EU permission.

Such essential wish trade then
what a wrong rely is the election
has general meetings their hold do the few
Those would make out the based serious for deliver
form our support clarity
as if Government motion made any duty consumer decline many.

Come within Earshot

Migration and movement, quantum eroticism and the movement of bodies of all kinds …..

Tim Cumming

Ghost dogs 1

Earshot  with Eyebrow:
a new film poem

Eyebrow, comprising Get The Blessing and Three Cane Whale trumpeter Pete Judge, and percussion Paul Wigens made the music.

The film footage is of a journey from Deptford to Clapham Junction on the night of St George’s Day; I’d been performing at a festival at the Master Shipwright’s Palace at the request of Sam Lee, and the nestcollective.

As for the text of this poem, it was begun listening to vintage sounds on an Analog Africa album of rare West African discs. That led to thoughts about movement, movements of all kinds. Movements of love, hate, expulsion, of atoms and ships and dancing bodies and bodies that can dance no more.

Earshot was first published by Rupert Loydell in International Times online. It will be published in KNUCKLE from Pitt Street Poetry, Australia, in 2019

This is the first film…

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