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I am a couple of minutes late.  The others are all squashed round a too-small table, announcing themselves, one by one.  I pull up a chair on the corner of the table, next to the tutors, and slot myself in at the end.  I am distracted, needing to take off my coat, find a pen, blow my nose, and I want the caffeine that all the others have in front of them.

I barely listen to our first task.  Write down eight statements of things you either have done or have never done.  Obediently I do that.  Choose one and write a poem about it.  You have four minutes.  The important thing is not to stop writing.  Shit.  This is not what I expected.  I want to go home.  But, being obedient, I wrote.

About not having had a son, since I had had a dream about that the previous night and it was top of my list of things I had not done and I’d been thinking about what it would be like a bit.  They asked some people to read out their poems.  A woman volunteered.  Smartly dressed, well spoken, about sixty five.  Her poem was brilliant: now I was seriously terrified.  Another person read their polished piece.  And another.  And with each new burst of speech I slunk smaller in my chair and Jemima started poking me.  We wanted out of there.

Next we read a poem about the first hour of birth, and then we had four minutes to write our own.  I’d given up caring.  What the hell.  November, the day before Armistice Day, cold, grey, bleak, wanting to be back inside and alone with myself, singing a lullaby to myself.  There, there.  Again we had to volunteer to read out our poems, but it wasn’t really volunteering because you knew that, sooner or later, you were going to have to read out yours. So I chose sooner and spoke my words.


Nobody said a word, then a few small sighs.  And my language in my head deteriorated beyond bluddy to something much worse.  This was horrible. We wrote eight poems, if you could call them that, that morning.  Each in four minutes or less.  At lunch time we had to choose one, write it up neatly, get it photocopied ready for half the group to tell us what was right and what was wrong with it.

At coffee I exchanged words with a man I used to work with at the Refugee Council who I was quite sure had formed the view long ago that I was a stuck-up-middle-class-do-gooder although I had worked especially hard to convince him otherwise.  The sight of him at the end of the table had provoked another expletive earlier.  I tried again to get him to like me, with moderate success, and I realised it was him, not me.  At lunch I tried quite hard with the people around me.  They were all published poets of sorts and exchanged gossip about poetry magazines and poetry cafes and I realised that I did not know anything about this world and that a lot of poets were closed.

I did not like many of the poets much, so I withdrew into reading a magazine I found on the table.  It had an interview with Margaret Attwood.  I did not like her very much either.  Perhaps I just do not like poets.  They mostly like cats, and I am not very keen on cat people.  Perhaps I should stick to prose.  I remembered the pink bum hole on  Margaret Attwood’s cat.

Margaret Attwood was being difficult in the interview, disagreeing with everything, but her views were interesting.  She says that prose writing and poetry writing come from different bits of the brain:

“The part of the brain that engages itself with poetry is a lot closer to music and possibly mathematics, and the part writing novels (which isn’t quite the same as prose in general) has to do with ordinary speech in which we do social interaction and gossiping.  I think they’re two different functions of the brain.  And what happens with me is not that I shove the prose aside in order to write a poem; I’m either in one phase or the other.  So if I’m writing a novel, I don’t write any poetry and if I’m not writing a novel, I’m likely to write poetry, in response to the depression of actually publishing a novel (laughs).”

I thought she was describing functions that belonged in the left or right brain and I felt even more depressed because I didn’t think my poems came from the left side of my brain: I wasn’t much good at musical composition or mathematics.  I thought I liked poets even less.  Later on she is asked how you know whether a poem is alive or dead, and I hammered a couple of nails into the coffin:

“MA: (laughs) I was once speaking to a friend of mine who teaches creative writing poetry classes in the United States and I said to him “How are your students?” and he said “Let me put it this way, in World War Two the British built pretend planes out of plywood to deceive the Germans.  They had lights that went off and on, and looking from a distance you’d think they were planes, but they didn’t fly.  My students’ poems are like that.  They look like poems, you would say they are poems, but they don’t fly.”

Encouraged by that, I went to find the group who were going to tell me why my chosen poem did not fly.  You see, this workshop was taking place in a small hick town not close to anywhere and I hadn’t realised that one of our tutors had been described by the Guardian as the best poetry teacher in the world (in the world!), nor that a national poetry organisation was running the workshop, nor that people would have come from miles away, nor that they were all serious people who wrote proper poems and put time aside to do so.  My mistake.  I was just there on a whim because I thought it sounded like fun (laughs) and it was good value.  Only £45.00 for the day including lunch.  And it was being held in a small arts centre that I liked because I’d once been to see a mad group of Slovenians play there, some of my favourite musicians.

I had chosen to allow the others to dissect the first flightless poem that I had written, about Mothers of Sons. A nice man next to me had chosen the poem he wrote about the happiest day in his life, when he stood knee-deep in seaweed, drunk on Jamieson’s, and threw his infant son, like a rugby ball, to his best friend.  I told him he sounded as if he hadn’t enjoyed being a parent, with all the parental responsibilities, and that he’d enjoyed this day because he’d been able to slough off that older skin and become a child again.  He looked at me, shocked, and I decided that I could enjoy this.  This was brilliant fun.

All of these people had been forced, because of the time pressures, to unlock bits of their psyche and spread them on the page, and I got to see them.  A woman had chosen to write her “In Praise Of” poem about ironing, except it wasn’t at all about ironing, but about her very strong Prostestant work ethic and how she could not justify to her family doing nothing and especially not writing poetry.  So she ironed, as a smoke screen behind which she had exciting thoughts in her head.  I felt sorry for her, not being able to smoke in public.  A woman-I-liked-the-look-of-a-lot had written a poem about Richard Burton’s cardigan and how she’d pressed her face into the grey of it, smoky as a Welsh valley.  Another man had not chosen one of his morning’s poems at all, but had written something else during the lunch break, about a clock whose hour hand had fallen off.  There was nothing of him in it at all, though it was quite clever.  The woman running the arts centre had gone away and typed hers up and it was perfectly centred and smug, about silver spoons and private clinics and being her mother’s favourite child in a ditch lined with primroses.  She was intimated by me, though I hadn’t faintest idea why.  Afterwards I told her that I’d never done anything like this before and she said “Oh, I thought you’d either done loads of these, or you were incredibly good at bullshit.”  Incredibly good at bullshit, I told her, while marking her down as a younger sister.

Afterwards I read my poems to my husband and my daughters and they rolled on the floor laughing and then tried to write a poem about the first hour of their birth in only four minutes, and my husband managed to rhyme “shit” with “tit” and my elder daughter screamed with frustration at the pressure of it and scrumpled her paper up in a ball, and my younger daughter wrote about the warmth and comfort she felt lying on my body.  Then my husband and younger daughter tried again, and my husband, ever the wordsmith, wrote a beautiful little poem about Mahatma Gandhi’s glasses from the left side of his brain and Jemima stamped her foot.




From The Times, April 27th 2008.

Men and their mothers. What’s it all about?

Ask any man when he last phoned his mother, and he will pull a guilty face. Ask him when he last talked about her to his friends and he will look at you as if you are insane. Why is the mother-son relationship so complicated? To find out, our correspondent asked someone who should know – his mum



Men are more likely to confess to a predilection for pornography than admit to a close relationship with their mother. There isn’t much left that the modern man is made to feel ashamed of, yet confessing to your friends that you sometimes call your mum for a chat is something few do. Even though a man’s mother is likely to be the second most important woman in his life, even though he may have deep feelings of love for her, this is a relationship about which men are sheepish, secretive and often outright embarrassed.

Why are men ashamed to be seen being kind to their mothers? Cultural pressure is a factor. On film or television, if you see a man talking to his mother, or (heaven forbid) listening to her advice, you are probably watching a comedy, and the conversation will be the screenwriter’s way of letting you know this is the kind of guy you can push around. But is there something more complicated at work here? And how do mothers feel about their sons’ reticence? There is only one person to ask: my mother.

I call her up. She is pleased to hear from me. Of course she is – she is my mother. When I explain why I am calling, she tells me that she is, at that moment, listening to a radio dramatisation of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, in which the arch-creep Widmerpool is always talking about his mother.

“Isn’t this very hard on mothers? And unfair?” I ask her. She responds by reminding me that she is a woman as well as a mother, and every woman knows that there is something unhealthy and unattractive about a man who is too close to his mother. As a mother of boys, you know that your job is to prepare them to be handed on, she tells me. You know that you harm them by keeping them too close for too long. “I was constantly torn between not being overinvolved and not seeming indifferent,” she tells me. “It’s a hard balance to strike, and you never know when you’re getting it wrong. I still don’t know.”

I have just written a novel about adult men and their mothers, in which three women, all with childless, thirtysomething sons, persuade one another to go and visit their uncommunicative progeny, uninvited, for a week, to find out who they have become. My mother has read the book, and she says she likes it (she is my mother, so that is not saying much), but only now, on the eve of publication, have I asked her if she thinks I got it right. The book, ultimately, is rather hard on the sons. It puts forward the idea that mothers get a pretty raw deal from the men they raise. It suggests that, after all the effort women put into the first 18 years of their sons’ lives, what is subsequently given back is a pretty meagre reward.

Her initial response comes as a shock to me. Having written a book about how cruel it is that sons don’t give their mothers a second thought during their twenties, I’m now told that she didn’t give me too much thought at that time. It was, in some way, a relief, she says, to reach the “job done” stage and to be able, at last, to throw herself wholeheartedly into her work. She reminds me that if adolescence is the process by which children cut themselves loose from their parents, it also works the other way. Teenage behaviour helps parents to cut themselves loose from their children: as your children love you less, they, rather helpfully, become less lovely.

I remember the urgency with which, as a teenager and a young man, I sometimes felt the need to get away from my mother. Stupidly, I never paused to wonder if she felt a complementary urge to get away from me.

As we talk, her take on the subject softens. “All mothers feel the pain of no longer being needed, but we don’t admit to it,” she confesses eventually. “It’s not an unmixed pain, though,” she says, hiding a little behind the double negative. “You wouldn’t want it any other way.”

When I ask her why nobody admits to it, she says: “You don’t want to seem abject.” She is rather pleased with her choice of word. I ask her what she means by it, and she comes up with another. “Discarded. You know that you’ve been discarded. You passionately want your son to find the right woman, but you know that when it happens, you are cast aside.”

A psychoanalyst might have something to say about her use of the word “passionately”. Perhaps it does all come down to Oedipus after all: the mother-son relationship is a deep and intense one during childhood, but, unlike the mother-daughter bond, a specific rupture has to be made before the child can be fully adult.

This is why men don’t look cool talking about their mothers. Women – with good reason – run a mile from a man who loves his mother too much. However wonderful and adorable a man’s mother is, the slightest mention of this fact makes him look as if he has not quite grown up and, therefore, deeply unattractive. A woman who reveres her parents will make a different impression.

There is an irony in all this, of course. That the pressure to disavow our mothers might come not from fellow men, but from women – the very women who are theoretically sizing us up as the person who might, ultimately, turn them into a mother – is curious to say the least. Are men, perhaps, merely the intermediaries in an intergenerational rivalry between women?

There is, however, another phase of life that changes everything. When a man becomes a father, his mother becomes a grandmother and everything is transformed. The process of separation goes into reverse. Quite aside from all the pleasures of becoming a grandmother, my mother tells me that you also, in some way, get your son back. Sharing love for the same child and interacting in new ways around the child pulls the whole family back together.

It was only as I looked after my own baby that I gave any thought to the first three years of my own life – to the time when my mother was my universe. And as I struggled with the exhaustion of parenting, I began to get my first genuine inkling of what my mother once did for me.

It’s a little late, of course, for gratitude, but I now know that as a parent, gratitude is not really part of the equation. At the very least, I now have something meaningful to talk to my mother about on the phone. And for the first time in years, I call her relatively frequently. Even if it is just to ask her to baby-sit.

Whatever Makes You Happy by William Sutcliffe is published by Bloomsbury on May 5, priced £11