‘How does the miracle occur?’

This is You, Dear Stranger, by Fife poet Paula Jennings, has arrived in the world, thanks to the remarkable Red Squirrel Press. The poet’s first book dates back to 2002, so there have been a mere twenty-two years (and two pamphlets) since then. And frankly, this beautiful publication is a miracle.

How and why? It’s been a strange story. The work was originally scheduled by Red Squirrel mastermind Sheila Wakefield for 2025. However, late in 2023, Paula was diagnosed with a brain tumour. She might not be around in 2025. She hastened to finalise the manuscript, with the support of her friend and fellow poet Anna Crowe. Meanwhile, Sheila offered to bring the publication date forward by more than a year.

By January of this year, the manuscript was with the publisher. At this point, Sheila asked me to help with the final edit. She herself was feeling awful. Having had had a heart attack two years previously, she feared her acute exhaustion might be heart failure. Basically, both poet and publisher were seriously ill, although Paula, supported by her niece Emma, managed a riveting reading at a ‘Platform’ event in Tayport on February 24. Those who were present are unlikely to forget it.

Meanwhile, with some come-and-go between me, Paula and Anna, minor changes to the manuscript were agreed, dedication and acknowledgements added, and Sheila sent the whole clamjamfrie to her typesetter, poet Gerry Cambridge.

By the time Gerry had designed and typeset the volume, and the proofs were ready to check, Paula’s illness had advanced. Her two sisters were taking it in turns to provide the increasing support required. Mary was travelling all the way up from Surrey regularly; Anne, from Sussex. Paula was less able to respond quickly on publication matters. Publisher Sheila’s health hadn’t improved either.

Everything necessarily slowed down. But gradually all the book elements came together. A photo for the jacket was sourced by Eddie Gibbons and two lovely endorsement quotes arrived from Vicki Feaver and Jane McKie, each of them straight from the heart.

In April, the book went to print. By this time, Sheila had been diagnosed – not with heart failure but anaemia. She was, nevertheless, soldiering on, accomplishing the numerous invisible aspects of book production: allocating the ISB number; negotiation print run and costs; paying the printer; registering the book; commissioning jacket image for the webshop; ordering and checking hard copy proofs; communicating with all concerned etc. And this was not the only publication Sheila was working on. If you thought a poetry publisher’s life was relaxed, think again!

Finally, in the very week that Sheila received the books, she had a crisis. She lost partial vision in one eye, which led to a night on a waiting-room seat in A&E. In the days that followed, this drama was repeated twice. There were mutterings about TIAs (one possible explanation) and retinal emboli (later discounted). Nobody was sure what was wrong but Sheila spent as much time in a hospital that week as she did at home (she must be on first-name terms with the ambulance service now). Meanwhile, the brain tumour was taking its implacable toll on Paula in Cellardyke. She was longing to have her book in her hands. Did it really exist, or had she imagined it?

Despite partial vision and medical summonses, Sheila (with the help of her own family) managed to get a box of books by courier to Fife, where Paula and sister Anne were waiting. Amazingly, four friends arrived at Paula’s house later that week and on May 3, there was an impromptu launch, reading favourite poems aloud, with coffee, cake, anecdotes and laughter. This is You, Dear Stranger had officially arrived in the world and the author, though terribly poorly, has some comfort in that thought. All prayers, warm thoughts or supportive vibes are welcome right now. It’s a horribly difficult time for her. It cannot be other.

This book is something to be proud of, something that will endure. It doesn’t address the experience of brain cancer. It was assembled before the poet had that diagnosis. But Paula has always been a magical person. Her poems are prescient in their evocation of the shadowy margin between the living and the dead, between this world and the next. At times that prescience is eerie.

Once a formal publication exists – a real book – there’s no holding it back. If you’d like to purchase a copy of This is You, Dear Stranger, please, please do. It’s somewhat special. I do believe you will enjoy it. Here’s the link: https://www.redsquirrelpress.com/product-page/this-is-you-dear-stranger-paula-jennings

I will never again take a shower without thinking of the title poem. Here it is.

These are the first moments of the day:
one pillow under your head,
the other in your arms
and you are in this slash of light,
your slopes of skin buzzing with lost hormones.

Outside, the sun scratches furrows up the crags,
a blackbird anxiously practises two phrases

and inside you are about to invent a feasible day.
How does the miracle occur?

In the shower you are still no more
than a spinal column topped by
a roundish ball of memories.
The water taps and taps at you
like a patient sculptor
and then

there now
that’s you in the mirror, behind the steam;
this is you, dear stranger,
tying on your bones, your strung muscles.


Age. There is a demographic thing happening and we are in it.

Ten million people in the UK are over 65 years old. The latest projections are for 5.5 million more ‘elderly’ in 20 years, and around 19 million by 2050.

I can’t hold these statistics in my head. I can only balance the fact of friends who have died in their forties and fifties against the phenomenon of a mother who is 91, and an uncle who is nearly 89. My dad died in 1987, at the age I am now.

So when my 91-year-old mother had a bad fall three weeks ago, it seemed almost attention-seeking to make a fuss. My sister and I had each other, and our partners and children, and our own reserves of health and strength. We were coping fine with the hospital visits. And mum has had a good, long life. And yet.

She also has that illness you now hear so much about: Alzheimer’s Dementia. This meant she didn’t remember the circumstances of the fall, and didn’t understand why she was in hospital, more confused than usual, and in pain from the terrible bruising and broken wrist. She was frightened. She was frightened in much the same way my granddaughter might have been. My mother wanted her mum.

It’s not uncommon in people with dementia to ask for their mothers. Nor is it as tragic as it sounds, because although these mothers are long dead, that fact has been forgotten. It seems the missing mothers are simply detained somewhere; they may arrive at any moment. In fact, if someone hugs the confused person who is looking for her mother – even she is hugged by one of her own daughters – she may feel that daughter is her mother, and be comforted.

By some odd synchronicity, mum’s crisis co-incided with the publication of Paula Jennings’ Under a Spell Place, a sequence of poems in the voice of a woman with dementia who communicates in a way that is both rich and strange. And that’s what happens with this illness. Our brains – even when damaged – make extraordinary creative leaps of communication. My mother, who was doped up to the eyeballs with analgesia, said ‘I’ve lost me. Help me find me.’

I don’t mean to write about this in a tear-jerking way. Mum was simply being accurate: that is how it feels. And she has recovered her ‘self’ for the time being, through the affectionate and supportive care of nursing staff, family and carers. Soon she was mischievous and funny again. When offered painkillers, she said, ‘No thank you. The pain is killed.’ And to me, ‘This will be you one day, you know.’

It is not a tragedy. It is just another thing that happens to us, and the chances are greater the longer we live: the brain going AWOL, the confusion and the absurdity, and the loving reassurance that mysteriously arrives from unexpected quarters.

All of this is in Paula’s Under a Spell Place, and it was in my life too last week. ‘You’re going to have to drink quite a lot of tea,’ says the poem. And I did. ‘It can be really delicate to get there / and come back again.’ Indeed.

Our mother is unlikely to go back to the house where she was living before the fall. It’s time for her to live with other people in a safer environment. A ‘home’, yes. So my sister and I started to sort out papers that she now can’t sort out for herself.

She used to write a lot: stories, poems, quotations copied from here and there. In her honour, here is one of the faded scraps we came across. I think she wrote it herself, a long time ago (it is certainly typed out by her on her old typewriter, with a couple of pencil corrections in her own hand) but I don’t know at what age, or why, or what the context was. Only that there was undoubtedly a context, and when my sister and I found it, we were moved.

Our mother was once good at telling her own story. I should perhaps add that she was, for many years, a primary teacher and read stories to hundreds of children in her time. Here, in her own words, is a bit of her. What are we, after all, but bits of stories, told and untold?

The Gift
by Kathleen Curry

When he saw the shining gift of Love he became angry, and refused to accept it. At first the girl could not believe it, but at last she saw the coldness in his eyes and sadly she took her gift home again.

For several years it lay on the shelf, and every time she looked at it she felt a great ache in her heart. Then one day there was a knock at her door – he had come back! This time she could see he needed the gift even more desperately, and with light feet she ran to get it and placed it in his arms. When he had gone away with it, she felt greater joy than she had ever felt in her life before. The day seemed full of sunshine, and nothing was an effort to her.

For two weeks she felt life was wonderful, and then it happened. She found her lovely gift left on her doorstep, with a little note to say he had decided not to keep it, as it was rather a bother to look after. ‘I expect that I shall be able to find enough old bits of love lying around to keep me going,’ he wrote.

She thought her heart would break. She laid the gift back on its shelf, but she could hardly bear to look at it. At last she decided it was a pity to waste such a wonderful gift, so she took a sharp knife and cut it into sixty pieces. She gave the pieces to sixty children she knew, and they each took it out into the world with them where it grew and spread, and shed its own special warmth.

As for the girl, once the gift had been given away for good she felt at peace. The great joy she had once known never came back, but in a quiet way she was just about as happy as people ever are.



There is Jim C, and then there is Jim . . . C.

I should have known it was a mistake to release two publications by poets with the same first name. Both Scottish. Both charming gentlemen, whom I would not wish, in any way, to offend.

However, Jim Carruth (author of Rider at the Crossing), when abbreviated becomes Jim C. And Jim Wilson (author of Will I Ever Get to Minsk?) is also . . . er . . . Jim C Wilson, and therefore I often save files of his as Jim C.

So more than once, I have sent communications about Jim C to Jim C. I mean, Jim C Wilson to Jim Carruth. And to add insult to injury, I have kept referring to Jim Carruth’s pamphlet, Rider at the Crossing as Rider at the Crossroads.

The Two Jims will have a Christmas launch at the Scottish Poetry Library on December 15th (a Saturday afternoon), and there will be several Zaleo wines and some interesting sort of tasting going on. What are the chances that I will introduce the Crossing as Crossroads, and Jim W as Jim C?

I think I ought to say that although the two Jims are Scottish and share a first name, their poems and their personalities are nothing like each other. They are men of distinction and character. Both can be funny, but in very different ways. One is West, one is East. One is Jim C and one is Jim W.

For Jim W, the collection represents many of his best poems from the last several years, and some of them recall other great personalities from Scottish poetry, people Jim met in person and remembers here: Norman MacCaig, for example. He is a rich source of anecdote and tradition, and he always has a little mischief up his capacious sleeve.

For Jim Carruth, often known for his settings in field and farm, there is not a farm in sight. But there is much else: fun, and sadness, and the feeling of a bit of a crossroads. I mean crossing. No, I do mean crossroads. You have the sense he is mid-career as a poet, looking back and forward, appraising the road already travelled, weighing up what’s on the horizon.

Paula Jennings will not be surprised at my getting things wrong. Her lovely and unusual collection, From the Body of the Green Girl, stuck in my mind as Out of the Body of the Green Girl, and as a result I kept putting that erroneous title into bits and pieces of things, including the official registration for the publication. I had to go back and register the correction. In fact, even a few moments ago, I typed them the wrong way round. But I think she has forgiven me.

I am in many ways a perfectionist, so these things are painful. How on earth did I manage to publish four poets whose first name was Martin? (If you have just sent me a submission and Martin is your name, it will not increase your chances of success.)

My level of confusion rises when exhaustion sets in, and exhaustion, like strawberry jam with additional pectin, has certainly set this week.

As I am all too fond of reminding people, it is not easy to sell poetry. Although that literary form is still somehow regarded as rare and beautiful, most possible purchasers are content to regard its beauty from a distance. So the business of negotiating, designing and printing a small pamphlet publication is the least of it. After that, there’s the flyer to design, the book to register, the online shop to populate, the poets’ bio pages to complete, the copies to post to the National Library, the Agency for the other copyright libraries, the Scottish Poetry Library, the London Poetry Library, the authors (some in packets, some in a large box), the queues in the post office, and so on. Later, it’s review copies and fulfilling the online orders, which start trickling in.

The poets themselves will shift some copies. This is good but it won’t be enough (or it rarely is). This is where the subscribers come in, the wonderful people who formally express an interest in HappenStance, in the form of a £7.50 payment. For this, they get (at the moment) an annual chapter in the story of the press. This year, the chapters vanished completely and one day these things will have a value, so if you have Chapter 6, hang onto it. They also get a pamphlet of their choice.

After that, they also get approximately two mailshots per year by post. By good old-fashioned, and now extremely expensive, stamps. The Christmas mailshot has just gone out and this year it even contained a free gift, a small and lovely little thing designed by Jenny Elliott and her secret and mischievous Shed Press. And there’s the Christmas card: 300 were handfolded last week and enveloped.

I have always been better at giving things away then making money. So it’s a particular point of pride to me to design attractive flyers for each publication, with a sample poem on the back, and these go in the mailshot too.

Of course, I hope some people will order some pamphlets as a result of all this, not least from the two Jims, and most subscribers do order at least two or three publications a year – the point at which the subscription scheme starts to cover its costs and put some cash back in the bank. And at least those who can’t afford to buy, or who don’t fancy the current bunch of poets, get the flyers and other bits and pieces.

Over the years, the subscriber list has grown steadily. Each person has a number and I am now up to 384, I think. In real terms there are just about 300 ‘live’ subscribers, several of which have become regular correspondents and friends. I’ve lost 80ish. When I say ‘live’, some of my subscribers really have died, to my particular grief. These have included, for example, Julia Casterton, Cliff Ashby, Tom Duddy and Bertie Lomas. Others simply drop the subscription, either because they don’t like most of the poetry I’m publishing (a wholly valid reason for dropping out) or because they only subscribed because they were sending in a submission of their own, and I have not come up trumps.

Most of the poets I have, in the end, published do continue to subscribe, and there are a lot of them now. I once calculated that if I had eventually published 500 poets (I am up to about 130), and if they all continued to support the press and purchased two pamphlets a year at full price, or 4 at half price, I could continue to fund six new pamphlet poets annually, and do all the other poetry stuff I do. Or almost. Now there’s a thought.

But it’s not just the business of buying things. Or selling things. It’s the issue of a proper readership. What I hope for in the HappenStance subscribers is people who actually read the poems—and preferably tell me what they think of them. Because the current list of publications reflects something in the story of literature. This list is current and contemporary. This is some of whatever poets are doing right now, at this minute, in the UK. And at some point, folk will look back on it and maybe say, ‘Now that was quite interesting.’ Or ‘Now that was bollocks’, or ‘How on earth did they underestimate that one?’

When I was at school, and even at university, I read dead poets. Nothing against dead poets. I like dead poets. But when, back in the early 1970s, I picked up a copy of a contemporary magazine – like Poetry Review for example, which I had even heard ofI didn’t like most of it. It didn’t live up to whatever it was I expected from the rare and beautiful thing poetry was supposed to be. I didn’t know where to start to find the thing I would like or did want.

Even now, it’s difficult, isn’t it? I read a ton of poetry every year. We have to heave it away from the door in buckets. And lots of it is okay. Some is good. Hardly any is rare and beautiful. Even the best poets alive write little that’s rare and beautiful.

People sometimes ask publishers why they started. In my case, there are many answers to that question. One of mine – and I don’t often admit it, because it feels risky – is that I wanted a say in what was going on. Someone always has a say in what gets to be Literature. But actually, anybody can have a say. It’s not as difficult as it’s cracked up to be.

Besides, it’s one of the best rides at the workaholics’ theme park.