Anne-Marie Cockburn on publishing 5,742 Days

18 December 2013 by in 5742 Days, Book publishing

by Anne-Marie Cockburn, author of 5,742 Days

I get a call from my publisher to say copies of my book have arrived. I jump on my bike and cycle the two miles into town to collect a few copies. I bring them home and sit quietly looking at them – Martha’s beautiful face on the glossy cover stares out at me. Am I doing the right thing Martha, I wonder? Too late now, I add. What am I worried about? I suppose it’s fear of the unknown, which is fair enough – over the past few months I’ve had enough shocks to last a lifetime.

I think hard about why I’ve gone as far as publishing a book; it’s not something I planned strategically. The writing flowed out of me every day and this activity instantly made me feel better. I didn’t write thinking it would be read, which is why it’s written entirely without any self-conscious filter. The book is a by-product of my reaction to Martha’s death and my use of writing as therapy to help myself cope.

I needed to place my focus somewhere and make use of all that hope I had been channelling into Martha’s life. Having something to do, a new project to occupy me, distracts me from the darkness that echoes around my mind. The book is helping to shift the focus away from my first Christmas without her.

Today, the Guardian published my first official interview, which includes excerpts from the book. I was shaking last night as I thought about where this will all take me when my story is out in the public domain in such a raw form. I’m not media savvy and despite my inner strength, I’m also never too far from fragile, so I understandably don’t want to jeopardise my recovery by adding any undue stress. So I remind myself that writing has enabled me to gather my thoughts and journal experiences I would otherwise be likely to forget. Simple as that.

I don’t need to worry about how this is received by the wider media as the story really speaks for itself – no need for any embellishment or added drama, it’s sobering and grounding in its simplest format.

Anyway, I felt that the Guardian feature was a beautiful account and the overall tone was faithful to my voice and emotions. The headline is ‘Losing Martha’, which made my stomach churn as I glanced at it for the first time, next to her beautiful photograph. I read the story eagerly and was relieved that there was nothing to be concerned about.

One comment on the Guardian website read, ‘So stark. So beautifully written – but so hardwired from the heart, it is almost too painful to read.’ I like to think that this opinion will change once the reviewer has read the entire book, to something more like ‘Positive and uplifting, full of hope and determination’, but everyone is entitled to their opinion. At first glance, you would definitely think that my story would be too much to take – but in reality it is not like this; it’s a journey, an interesting, gripping and hopeful one.

My way of grieving is personal to me, but it’d be nice to think that I can show people that there is another way, one that can include laughter, joy and self-belief, alongside the inevitable emotional turmoil and anxiety. I’ve deliberately avoided wearing black and I’ve been tough with myself. For instance, if I was reminded of Martha in a specific shop, I’d force myself to go back there a few times so that the reference is no longer about her but about me. I don’t want to be constantly haunted but there are sixteen and a half years of rewiring to do and that would be an impossible thing to try to achieve.

I wonder how people felt as they read the article: did they have to stop and move on to something lighter such as the food section, relieved that they are not me, or did they persevere to the end? Did my story make them grab their children and hold them tight for a moment, glad that they’re safe and well? Or are there others out there like me who have outlived their own children, my story reminding them of their darkest hours?

I receive an email from a mother who saw a recent article written about me. She said, ‘…Heartiest condolences, I have no words that could properly express how sad I feel at what happened to your daughter. I would like to thank you for sharing your raw grief, I feel it will help other people a lot. Personally I will make sure my two daughters read your book before they try any drugs if they choose to. I believe children should be helped to make up their own decisions, and your work helps to show how dangerous a single moment can be and provide a perspective on the issue that is often lost. It is a great help to me as a parent to be able to present this information to my children.’

This email helps to banish any doubts that seep into my mind and confirm that what I’m undertaking is going to help others. It’s great to receive feedback of this type as it endorses what I hope to achieve over the next few months.


Today’s newspaper is relevant for 24 hours. It’s now 22:02, so as the piles of today’s newspapers are gathered up and dropped into recycling bins, my beautiful girl’s face looks up at them and fades like a ghost. I can’t close the newspaper and forget, I can’t sigh with relief and be grateful that it didn’t happen to me. I still struggle and find it hard to believe that it did happen, but I have to detach myself from the truth sometimes in order to cope. I wish I could glance through the article and be horrified for someone else – but I stop myself as I wouldn’t want to inflict what I’m enduring upon another living soul. I wish this wasn’t my story though, I don’t like this story. I’ll take my story to the library and swap it for another one – something lighthearted and fluffy would be nice.


2,221 forgotten poets of the First World War

3 December 2013 by in Book publishing

by Richard Burton, author of A strong song tows us

Liam Guilar’s thorough and thoroughly positive review of A strong song tows us in Lady Godiva and Me is a delight. Towards the end of his review Guilar raises some interesting points about how poets’ reputations are built and how the fact that they (sometimes) survive is at the mercy of the whirlpools academics create as they forge their own careers. It’s a point that he develops in his blog of 24 October 2013: “The shrinking of poetry from the public domain into academic institutions means that what gets read at school and taught at university, sets up a perverse kind of brand loyalty and what is read at school has more to do with what schools have to do, than with any kind of poetics. If no one ever published another poem, schools could continue blithely teaching their compulsory version of poetry because it has never borne much relationship to how poems operate outside.”

Basil Bunting with his father Thomas Lowe Bunting during World War 1

Basil Bunting with his father Thomas Lowe Bunting during World War 1

I hope his conclusion (that “Bunting is not appearing any time soon on a school curriculum”) is wide of the mark, but I suspect he is correct. The example he gives of my misunderstanding of the way the curriculum gives life to poetry is my assessment of the poets of WW1. He quotes this passage from A strong song tows us:

“We now think of the poetry of the first world war as overwhelmingly critical of political and military leaders’ strategy and tactics, articulating a sense of the hopelessness of valour in the teeth of insuperable horror, but that is largely because the poetry that has survived (because it is the best) was written by poets – Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg, Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves – who subscribed to the view that it was the futility and horror that needed to be in a perverse sense celebrated. In fact of the 2,225 poets who published during the years of the war hardly any expressed the views that have for generations of students defined its poetry.”

Guilar writes of this that “It’s the bit in brackets that betrays him: (‘because it is the best’.)

Is it? On what grounds?

Poems get chosen partly because of the syllabus requirement, but partly because of the values they espouse. Are those four poets Burton names really ‘the best’? Are there really no good pro war poems written by one of the 2,221 other poets?”

I have missed out an important part of Guilar’s argument here to save space but I’m not disagreeing with him. War poetry is not my area of expertise and I’m happy to be proved wrong about it, but it seems to me that the only way to advance the argument would be to give some examples of poems written by the other 2,221 poets that stack up against Futility, say, or Break of Day in the Trenches. Perhaps there are some gems to be found. It will be finding volunteers to read the works of 2,221 forgotten pro-war poets from 100 years ago that will be the challenge.

For more information on the life and work of Basil Bunting, visit our dedicated site at

Bunting at Tom Pickard’s trial

27 November 2013 by in Basil Bunting and A strong song tows us

by Richard Burton, author of A strong song tows us

Liam Guilar, in his review of A strong song tows us, was sorry that I missed one of his favourite Basil Bunting stories: “It’s a fine book. There are a couple things I was surprised to miss: one of my favorite Bunting stories is about his appearance at Tom Pickard’s trial: Alldritt tells it briefly. Pickard tells it dramatically in More Pricks than Prizes building to a great exit line. But you can’t have everything.” The reason I didn’t tell it was that I was very dubious about the source and I hadn’t at that point seen Pickard’s memoir. Pickard was arrested in the mid 70s for his (relatively minor) part in a smuggled cannabis deal. As Pickard tells it:

Bunting with Tom Pickard (left), Gael Turnbull (rear) and Stuart Montgomery (front), Wylam, 1966.

Bunting with Tom Pickard (left), Gael Turnbull (rear) and Stuart Montgomery (front), Wylam, 1966.

“At the end of my long cross examination, it lasted a day and a half, I shakily resumed my seat next to [co-defendant] Costos while witness to my previous good character were drummed in. Amongst others, Eric Mottram and the film director, Lindsay Anderson spoke eloquently but the prosecutor ignored them until my final witness, Basil Bunting, took the witness stand…Bunting was someone the jury clearly felt comfortable with, which may be why the prosecutor rose to ask a question just as the old gentleman picked up his walking stick and was about to be helped from the witness box.

‘Wing Commander Bunting, would you still think so highly of Mr. Pickard if you knew that he took drugs?’
He smiled benignly and without a moment’s hesitation replied. ‘I would be surprised if a man of his generation didn’t.’
As Bunting walked out of the court Costos said, as much to himself as to those in earshot:
‘What a fucking beautiful old man.’”

From Tom Pickard, More Pricks than Prizes (2010) pages 63-68, by kind permission of Pressed Wafer.

ps. Pickard was found not guilty by a majority verdict.

For more information on the life and work of Basil Bunting, visit our dedicated site at

From getting ahead in business to beating cancer, could one gene hold the key?

21 November 2013 by in Lifestyle

Infinite Ideas author (ex-Burger King CEO Barry Gibbons) today shocked the scientific establishment by unveiling work that claims to prove that one gene is responsible for success in a variety of endeavours.

Without a microscope, any scientific training and through experiments on only one animal – himself – Gibbons has managed to isolate the elusive W Gene*. Unharnessed, this rogue gene, found mainly in the human male, can cause disastrous life consequences but, claims Gibbons, it has astonishing potential when brought under control.

“It triggers a strange behavioural pattern in those who possess it,” says Gibbons. “When things are going well, when recent life has been a sequence of climbing small ladders, this demographic, for no apparent reason, does (or says) something which provides a snake to slide down. But the W Gene might be controlled, and even harnessed, with positive results. Under certain circumstances the W Gene might prove to be an ally.”

It is estimated that only a small proportion of the population carries this gene, though incidence of W-Gene affected people seems to be particularly high in the north of England (Gibbons himself hails from Manchester), among football managers and in all strands of the media. Diagnosis can take years but signs include:

  • An uncanny ability to mess up one’s life, particularly when it’s going well – the W Gene seems to switch on when things get ‘boring’;
  • A heightened ability to say the wrong thing to the wrong person at precisely the wrong time;
  • Possession of a finely tuned bullshit detector;
  • An unwillingness to suffer fools at all;
  • A mischievous sense of fun and dry wit, neither of which is tuned to appropriateness of situation;
  • A highly developed sense of right and wrong and an unwillingness to pursue any other course, regardless of consequences.

Pushing doors marked pullOnce Gibbons discovered this genetic quirk it became clear that it was behind both his career accomplishments and his continuing successful battle against bowel cancer. More detail on this potentially world-changing discovery can be found in Gibbons’ new book Pushing doors marked pull. Rude, funny, revealing and straight talking, this book is for anybody who wants to know what it takes to succeed in spite of, or perhaps because of, yourself.

*Also known as the Wanker Gene, this hereditary gene most usually occurs in men, and can cause a range of irrational behaviours.


Bunting’s saqis

15 November 2013 by in Basil Bunting and A strong song tows us

by Richard Burton, author of A strong song tows us

I was grateful for Matthew Sperling’s positive review of A strong song tows us in the Literary Review and like him hope for a revival of interest in this great poet. I should clarify my position on one point that Sperling raises, not because it represents a mild criticism of my book but because it opens up a much wider and more important issue. Sperling suggests that I may, in my account of Bunting’s apparent predilection for adolescent girls, be a victim of ‘wilful blindness to a clear pattern in Bunting’s life’.

I thought longer and harder about this particular issue than any other, and I did so precisely in the light of the post-Jimmy Savile media hysteria to which Sperling fairly refers. The fact that I describe Bunting’s relationships with these young women should indicate that I am not blind to the pattern. Sperling may be correct about an element of ‘stunted, nostalgic sexual desire’, but in current circumstances that is enough to turn the man into a dangerous sexual predator. The reason for not drawing that conclusion is that there is not a shred of evidence that he was. I asked a number of people who knew Bunting well if they thought he had ever done anything for which he might be questioned in today’s febrile climate and received not one positive response. I am not blind to the possibility that they may have been protecting him but most of them had no particular motivation to do that. I am not suggesting that Matthew Sperling is making this particular leap from ‘pattern of relationships’ to something more sinister, but others undoubtedly will.

One of Bunting’s saqis, Hugh Kenner’s daughter Lisa, wrote about her relationship with the poet. Her account of a reading at which she officiated is a touching account of friendship across generations: “I was inexplicably moved. All thoughts of the hard bench and the itches on my nose and my aching back left me. I was no longer mesmerized by his eyes; actually, I felt that I could not truly see them, because they were not registering on this plane. It was his voice – raspy, deep, purring, falling like water – that carried me away to a level of thinking which I can barely describe, truly remember or convincingly relate. All I know is that we were alone (he and I) in poetry. We were a self-sufficient unit which read poetry and poured wine … What else could I feel but love for this old man who linked arms with me at cocktail parties … After going upstairs and pulling out the book of poetry he autographed for me, I flip through the pages trying to impress on myself the genius of this man. All the same, it is not a celebrated English poet whom I miss; rather an old man who shared a week of his life with a lonely ten-year-old.

As Sperling says, it is a ‘delicate issue’ and I tried to handle it with care. Bunting’s saqis are around to tell their own stories if they choose to. I suspect that Lisa Kenner told us all we need to know.

For more information on the life and work of Basil Bunting, visit our dedicated site at

Basil Bunting and Lorine Niedecker

8 November 2013 by in Basil Bunting and A strong song tows us

by Richard Burton, author of A strong song tows us

In his Spectator review of my life of Basil Bunting, A strong song tows us, Wynn Wheldon asks if we ‘really need to read correspondence from someone who “nearly met Bunting”’, offering this as evidence that the book was ‘not terrifically well edited’. In my view A Strong Song Tows Us was expertly edited and it would be a shame if readers were discouraged from engaging with the life and work of Britain’s finest modernist poet by the suggestion that it wasn’t. The ‘someone’ in question here is the American poet Lorine Niedecker and it was only on the Bunting_cover_hboccasion of writing this particular letter that they ‘nearly met’. As is made abundantly clear in the book they did meet and formed a close poetic association. Bunting regarded Niedecker as ‘easily America’s finest female poet’ and her ‘Ballad of Basil’ captures his poetic independence with the surest of touches. As the only woman to be associated with the Objectivist movement in American poetry and as a formidable poetic talent in her own right it seems reasonable to record her opinion of Bunting, especially as the particular letter to which Wheldon objects is the only evidence we have that Bunting nearly went into business as a commercial fisherman.

She clearly loved his gravelly Northumbrian voice: ‘It was so pretty as we drove into our yard the evening we came home,’ she wrote to Cid Corman in October 1968. ‘So pr-r-r-r-it-ty as Basil said.’ She confided to Jonathan Williams that Bunting’s visit was a high point in her later life and by the end of 1967 she had completed ‘Wintergreen Ridge’:

Nobody, nothing
ever gave me
greater thing
than time
unless light
and silence
which if intense
makes sound
by man
thin to nothing lichens
grind with their acid
granite to sand
These may survive
the grand blow-up
the bomb
When visited
by the poet
From Newcastle on Tyne
I neglected to ask
what wild plants
have you there
how dark
how inconsiderate
of me

Niedecker and Bunting had the highest regard for each other. Her ‘The Ballad of Basil’, in mentioning Bunting’s influences, quickly identifies him as completely his own poet:

They sank the sea
All land
He saw his boats stand
and he
off the floor
of that cold jail
(would not fight
their war)
sailed anyway
Villon went along
and the Persian
Firdusi –
for his own

Basil Bunting around the time of his first meeting with Lorine Niedecker

Basil Bunting around the time of his first meeting with Lorine Niedecker

Bunting said of Niedecker that ‘No one is so subtle with so few words’, and when she died in 1970 his daughter remembered her father’s anger that the event didn’t get the media attention he felt it deserved. A few years later he paid her a significant posthumous compliment: “There are some very fine female poets. One of the finest American poets at all, besides being easily the finest female American poet … – Lorine Niedecker never fails; whatever she writes is excellent.’ When Jonathan Williams was considering an edition of Niedecker’s poems in the 1960s Bunting was delighted. ‘Nobody else’, he complained, ‘has been buried quite so deep.’ He considered her a ‘much better’ poet than Emily Dickinson.

For more information on the life and work of Basil Bunting, visit our dedicated site at