Thursday 20 December 2012


Troubadour International Poetry Prize 2012: some of the prizewinners at Troubadour Prize Night on Mon 3rd Dec 2012 (l to r) Gillian Laker, Helen Overell, Gerrie Fellows, Caroline Smith, Richard Douglas Pennant (Cegin Productions), Anne-Marie Fyfe, Bernard O’Donoghue (judge), Betty Thomson, Nicky Arscott, Jane Draycott (judge), Judy Sutherland, Vanessa Gebbie, Judy Brown and Paul Stephenson 

Cue two stressless train journeys from Edinburgh to London and back the following day, to attend and read at the Troubadour Prize event.  I can spend the stressless train journeys working - so I won’t miss too much precious retreat time. I am mid-Hawthornden month... note the repetition of ‘stressless’ there? ‘Let the train take the strain’ - remember that old advertising line? I will have a restful hour at a hotel in London before the event, a relaxing bath. I can change from my travel clothes into something  poetic. Stick make up on, become 

Actually, it would not ever be entirely stressless. I have never read a poem in public. Oh sure - at the three workshops I’ve attended..first draft stuff. Does that count? But this is like sending an untried violinist to do a solo at the Albert Hall. Or it feels like it. 

I have practiced reading my winning lines, helped by the lovely Andrew Forster  back at the castle... and am trying to run through the rhythms and pauses in my head as I collect my tickets from the machine at Edinburgh Waverley. A  counterpoint of tinny carols doesn’t help. There IS no Christmas at Hawthornden. It is like Narnia. Being out here is surreal.

But machines are efficient, and necessary, and I punch in my ref. number. Click. Buzz. Click. Oh...I reckoned without technology. Oh bring back the quill and dippy ink.  Oh bring back one price for a simple train ticket. 

  • Booked from return tickets to London.  
  • Delivered by machine at Edinburgh station: one single ticket. Stamped ‘Single’. 
  • Machine says, ‘Get thee to the ticket office,  this is a partial delivery’. 
  • 25 minutes to go to my train’s departure.
  • I go to the ticket office and queue. Eventually, a dour Scot says, ‘Nothing to do with us. Get thee to Scotrail offices on Platform 14. Tis a Scotrail machine.’ 
  • Platform 14 needs a train ticket to access. Dour station employee says, ‘Are you sure you are going to the office? We get a lot of this.’ I check watch. 
  • 20 minutes to go. ‘Yes. I need to get on with it.’ Am let through. 
  • Scotrail official, putting down coffee, checking screen (this is a hard, hard job): ‘There is no record of your booking.‘ Me: ‘But there must be - look.’ I show him the ‘single’ tickets.  Scotrail: ‘So you’ve got a ticket. What’s the problem?’  Me: ‘But... what about the return? I’ve paid and not got the ticket...’ Scotrail: ‘Not our problem.  If it’s anyone’s fault, it’s The’s.’ He goes back to his coffee. I give up. 
  • I need to get back to the concourse. 
  • 15 minutes to go. 
  • Platform 14 barrier needs a train ticket ... I find another official. ‘Please could you let me out, I’ve just been to the office?’ Official: ‘How do I know. We get a lot of this.’ Me: aaagh. They let me out.
  • I reckon the first class lounge might have a phone. They do. Official very helpful, rings on my behalf. 
  • 10 minutes to go. 
  • Trainline: ‘Our system shows that all tickets have been collected.’  Me: ‘No, I have one stamped ‘single’. No return ticket for tomorrow.’  Trainline: ‘How do I know that?’  Helpful Official takes phone: ‘I can see the ticket. It says ‘Single.’ Hands phone back. Trainline: ‘What does the receipt say?’ Me: ‘Nothing. I do not HAVE a receipt. The machine...’ Trainline: ‘Stay by the phone. I am going to call Scotrail offices,  which are at Edinburgh... Me: I know, I’ve just been there.’ Trainline: ‘I will try. They will print you another ticket, and...’
  • Trainline man leaves me on phone, waiting...
  • 5 minutes to go.
  • 4
  • 3...I put phone down, can’t wait. Say thank you to nice official, and run for my train.
  • On train: Courtesy of East Coast Trains wifi I now have an email from visible on my laptop showing I have bought and paid for a return. I talk to the guard when he/she comes round. Can they help? 
  • Guard: ‘Hmm. It’s not East Coast’s problem. It’s a Scotrail machine.‘ ‘Me: And Scotrail say they have no record. And Trainline say all the tickets have been dispensed. And Edinburgh Station say it is Scotrail’s responsibility.  And Scotrail say...’  ... (Obviously look distraught.) Guard: ‘So everyone’s passing the buck...’  Me: Sniff. Guard: ‘Let me see. I’ll ring East Coast..’ disappears.
  • Guard, whose name is Eddie Barr, comes back. He is a delight, lovely, wonderful. I am setting up an Eddie Barr Appreciation Society. East Coast are aware, but there’s not much they can do... but he can try, at least. Eddie checks the email, prints out something that isn’t a ticket, but says what train I’m meant to be on the next day, complete with reservation seat number.  He  then writes a little letter to any interested officials the next day, giving his name, his mobile number, explaining the situation, that East Coast are aware - etc etc. He tells me to get a printout of the email. And to get to Kings Cross tomorrow with his ‘ticket’ and the email - leaving plenty of time for arguments, and ‘keep my fingers crossed’.

Bless Eddie. But I am now a wreck, and there is no way I can work.  Spend journey doing sudoku to try to stop myself worrying about the next day's journey. 

  • Until we stop. Before York. And don’t get going again. Some poor sod has jumped in front of a train down the line and there needs to be... and...delays... all trains are being held. My head is full of visions of whoever has this ghastly job sorting this out in the dark. I am hoping someone is looking after the train driver. After half an hour we pull slowly into York, and stop, and wait for an hour and a half. I email Anne-Marie Fyfe at The Troubadour to explain - I can do nothing, but will get there as soon as I can.  Bugger.

OK. I got there. Just as people were taking their seats.  It was packed.  No, I had no bath, no leisurely change of clothes. I had on my warmest unsmart, unpoetic woollies, suggested earlier that day by  Hawthornden's chill, my walking boots. No make up. I sat with the two judges, Jane Draycott and Bernard O’Donoghue, both of whom were terrific. I listened to wonderful, wonderful poems from the runners up.  I read my poem. I was presented with a lovely cheque. Met some more smashing people.  Listened to a great routine from a stand up comedian. Listened to the judges reading their work... unforgettable. Went out afterwards for supper, with said judges,  the sponsor Richard Douglas Pennant of Cegin productions, the organiser, Anne Marie Fyfe. A very charming poet called Paul Stephenson who came second with a poem he’d entered twice before.. now there’s a lesson! 

Fell into bed at just gone midnight. Did not sleep, worrying about the journey back. No proper ticket. An email printout. 
  • And no - it did not go smoothly. East Coast office had not kept a record of yesterday’s conversation with Eddie.  They suggested I buy another ticket, and claim my money back from Trainline...and do we think I’d ever have got my money back? Nope. 
  • I decided, as Eddie had been so sensible, practical and nice, I would try my luck with the guard on today’s train. 
  • To do that, I needed to get to the train.  
  • The nice official guarding the barriers at Kings Cross would not let me through. Official: ‘But what if everyone just came with an email and half a ticket signed by someone who says he is a guard...?’  Me: ‘That would be awkward. Why not ring Mr Barr - look, his number's on the note?’ Official:  ‘How do I know that's him? Could be anyone.’ Me: ‘How would I get hold of a blank ticket, half print it, look -  it tallies with this email from Trainline...?’
  • Official: ‘I’m letting you through this once. Don’t let this happen again.’

Don’t let this happen again? So the whole thing was MY fault? Oh, I see! And all the tens of thousands spent on customer service courses... 

The guard on the return train was lovely. No problems. 

But you see - that’s LIFE. And Hawthornden Castle Fellowships are a rare and precious gift, to enable you to dispense with LIFE whilst you focus just on your work.  Moral of the tale is, do not leave for a day or two if you are lucky enough to get one. Lovely as it was to win The Troubadour, I should not have gone to London - the universe was telling me that, shouting it as loud as anything. 

PS - I have written to East Coast Trains. Not to complain - it was no one’s fault but some alchemy between and Scotrail machinery. But to commend Eddie Barr - as a jolly helpful, good guy. They are lucky to have him. If it was up to me, he’d be in the Cabinet. 


Thank you to everyone, organisers, and judges, at The Troubadour International Poetry Prize - who are in no way to blame for the trains and technology (!)

The following prizewinning poems were chosen by judges Jane Draycott and Bernard O’Donoghue who read along with winning poets at our annual prizegiving event at the Troubadour on Monday 3r d December 2012. All the poems can be read on their website
  • First Prize, £2500‘Immensi Tremor Oceani’, Vanessa Gebbie, East Sussex
  • Second Prize, £500The Teenage Existential, Paul Stephenson, London
  • Third Prize, £250Explaining the Plot of ‘Blade Runner’ to my Mother who has Alzheimer’s: C.J. Allen, Notts
and, with prizes of £20 each:
  • Horse As Accordion, Nicky Arscott, Powys
  • A Tale from the Town Maze, Mike Barlow, Lancaster
  • East 17th Street or How I Met My Husband, Mara Bergman, Tunbridge Wells
  • The Third Umpire, Judy Brown, London
  • The Ledge, Miles Cain, York
  • Brood, Claudia Daventry, St. Andrews
  • The Language of Memory (The Bees), Gerrie Fellows, Glasgow
  • Lost, Rebecca Goss, Liverpool
  • When Jesus Played the Piano, David H.W. Grubb, Henley-on-Thames
  • Woman on a Cliff, Peter Gruffydd, Bristol
  • X-Ray Vision, Alex Josephy, London
  • Woolpit Child, Gillian Laker, Kent
  • October 1962, Shelley McAlister, Yarmouth
  • Burning the Clocks, John McCullough, East Sussex
  • HazMat, Dawn McGuire, Orinda, California
  • A Psalm for the Scaffolders, Kim Moore, Barrow in Furness
  • The Mercedes, Helen Overell, Surrey
  • The Scarlet Lizard, Caroline Smith, Rickmansworth
  • Underworld, Judi Sutherland, Berkshire
  • Peter Doig’s Studio, Betty Thomson, Co. Wexford

Monday 3 December 2012


Hawthornden Castle

I am here, for four blissful weeks, and there is no internet. How, in that case am I posting this? Ah, I've been let out for a poetry event in London and there is wifi on the train.

Happy writing.