26 Fruits


Dark Angels in Spring

I’m just about to go off to Scotland to run my next Dark Angels course with Stuart Delves. Stuart and I, with Jamie Jauncey, have been running these courses for five years now and the programme has developed in ways that have pleased and surprised us. www.dark-angels.org.uk

We now run courses of different lengths and levels, always taking a group away to a location that’s unlike our normal working surroundings. It always seems to work: people love the time, space and encouragement to write more creatively – for themselves and for work. We believe that there is a close link between the two; become a better writer for yourself, you’ll become a better writer at work.

We now have foundation, advanced and masterclass levels (we had to add ‘advanced’ and ‘masterclass’ in response to people asking “What next?”) We ran the first masterclass at the beginning of April, taking a group of nine dark angels to Merton College, Oxford, for four days. Again it was transforming, liberating and moving, again the question was “What next?”

This time we suggested that the group should take it in turns to set a writing brief that the other members of the group would respond to. Heather Atchison set the first peach of a brief, inspired by EE Cummings’ “Spring is like a perhaps hand”.

Writing in the month of
Spring is like a perhaps hand
(which comes carefully
out of Nowhere)arranging
a window,into which people look(while
people stare
arranging and changing placing
carefully there a strange
thing and a known thing here)and

changing everything carefully

spring is like a perhaps
Hand in a window
(carefully to
and fro moving New and
Old things,while
people stare carefully
moving a perhaps
fraction of flower here placing
an inch of air there)and

without breaking anything.

Heather explained: I love this poem and the way it captures the almost imperceptible movements of spring. But it also makes me think of the subtle changes involved in our craft, writing – how replacing or shedding or rearranging a few words can transform the whole feel of a piece. ‘Do it’ doesn’t quite have the same ring as ‘Just do it’.

Your task this month is to write something inspired by the idea of similar but different versions. Maybe a story with alternative endings, two versions of a poem each with a different drift, or a slight rewording of something you’ve written for work showing how small changes have big impact.

And if you’re really up for a challenge, include the last line of cummings’ poem in your piece.

My response was suggested by going to see the Picasso exhibition at the National Gallery. It seems to me that Picasso and Cummings were often trying to do similar things, one visually, one verbally. My poem draws on Cummings’ own words, shifting them, to describe Picasso’s work.

I hope other Merton Dark Angels will post their responses here, or let me do it for them.

18 Responses

  1. John Simmons says:

    EE Cummings meets Picasso

    “Yo Picasso” signs himself faintly top
    left: thanking You God for most this amazing
    gift of seeing with these eyes lit up
    with the dreams of infinite life and everything

    (now the ears of my ears awake and
    now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

    the Ear shifts gear
    crashing eyesonmouthonnose
    in a carnival tremB
    -le to a: fixed

    without breaking anything.

  2. John Simmons says:

    Martin Lee’s response

    Same difference

    [Classroom setting – teacher and a group of children, approximately sixteen years old]

    No, it’s not the ‘same difference’, as you insist on calling it, Amiss. Actually it’s not.

    Tis, miss.

    No, it’s not. And I suppose you think this ‘same difference’ phrase is clever, do you, just because it’s oxymoronic.

    Are you calling me a moron, miss?

    [General giggling]

    Very good, Amiss. But no, not yet. However, for the very first time since you’ve been in my class, you have given me an idea, so for that at least I congratulate you. It’s progress of sorts.

    [Amiss has an undaunted, smug look on his face. The teacher can’t help himself, so, despite his better judgement…]

    So, are you going to enlighten us all then Amiss?

    Well, it’s about my parents, like, when they were at school.

    Yes, carry on.

    So then my mum, she got 99% in her maths exam one year.

    Yes, and your point is…?

    And she got on her report, ‘Could do better’. Just like you put on mine. ‘Could do better.’ So, same difference. Same report.

    Yes, but even in her case, the report was correct, even though you think it’s harsh. However, Amiss, the facts are, coming screamingly up to date, that in your case there is somewhat more headroom for improvement than with your mother, given that you got 30%.


    Ah, but that’s my point you see. Because my dad, see, he… well, he wasn’t in, like, the same school, but in his exam, he got 30%, just like me. Same difference again… And do you know what his report said?


    I’m sure you’re just about to tell us.

    ‘Couldn’t do better.’

    [Laughter from the class, who are all enjoying this.]

    So my question to you then, miss, is, who was best served by their report?
    My mother, who, on the brink of perfection, was told that she was nevertheless falling short, or my father, who, in his failure, was comforted by knowing that he’d fulfilled his potential?

    [Outbreak of support – ‘Yeah, good question’, ‘Answer that one, miss’ etc. Amiss rests his chin in his hands and gazes at Teacher in a parody of rapt attention.]

    Listen, Amiss, you’re not going to draw me into this philosophical conundrum. The thing that is at issue here, I repeat, is that you got 30% in your exam, and you emphatically could do better.

    But we all think it’s relevant, miss. Think about how my poor mother felt. 99%, and not good enough. What kind of way is that to motivate a child do you think?

    [Further outbreak of support. Teacher permits the hubbub while he thinks.]

    Alright, Amiss. Let’s allow, for the purposes of this conversation, that 99% is a magnificent result, and never, under any circumstances, is worthy of any exhortation to do better. Now let’s imagine that you are choosing to go on an airline flight, and you have a straight choice of flying on an airline with a 99% safety record, and one with a 100% safety record. Which one are you going to choose?

    That’s not a fair comparison, miss.

    Ah, welcome to the debate, Watkins. And why is it not fair?

    You’d have to take the quality of the food into consideration.

    [Uncontrolled laughter.]

    Yes, Watkins, I think we can all recognise that in your case alone, as the plane hurtles towards the ocean, you’d still be preoccupied with the possibility of an extra packet of Pringles, and full credit to you for your single-mindedness there. However, back in our hypothetical choice, which way are the rest of you going to decide?


    Amiss? Are you still finding the sums troubling, or is this one a bit more straightforward? Should we be showering air traffic control with praise if they manage a 99% safety record? Are you still saying, ‘same difference’?

    Of course not, but Sam is right, it’s not a fair comparison, but I just can’t work out what’s wrong with it.

    Right, well, time’s nearly up, so you carry on thinking. And there’s no formal homework from the syllabus this lesson, but this conversation has got me thinking. So for next time, I want you to all come back with one example of an important small difference in mathematics. For example, Watkins, how many degrees of difference are there between acute and obtuse?

    [More laughter]

    That’s totally unfair, miss.


    And finally, I know you’ve got Chemistry next, and I’ve got a message for you from Mr. Bell, who’s not well today, and you’ll be taught by a supply teacher. He’s appalled by the amount of equipment that has had to be replaced this term after your lessons, so can please get through at least one lesson without breaking anything.

  3. John Simmons says:

    Anelia Varela’s response

    Alternative ending

    a sledgehammer blow
    liberation is concrete
    shattering, certain.

    A sledgehammer blow.
    Order crumbles. Proud nation
    reduced to rubble.

  4. John Simmons says:

    Thomas Heath’s response

    Two breakfasts

    Big brunch home alone.
    Precious feast of the last rite.
    This life feels porous.

    Let’s have some breakfast!
    Share familiar delight.
    You’ve staunched life’s sad ebb.

  5. John Simmons says:

    Heather Atchison writes

    Haiku #1

    We weave words daily
    Without breaking anything
    Just the odd story

  6. John Simmons says:

    Another from Heather

    She raised two daughters
    Without baking anything
    Not her mother’s girl

  7. John Simmons says:

    Chris Davenport writes

    Hype heaped on promise
    Till my team failed to turn up.
    Football. Bloody hell.

  8. John Simmons says:

    Seldom is such joy
    Released across the nation
    Without breaking anything

    Except perhaps the rules of haiku…

  9. John Simmons says:

    Paul Redstone writes

    Some well chosen words
    Five syllables or seven
    Who decides the rules?

  10. John Simmons says:

    Martin Lee writes

    This haiku fest is putting me in mind of two such efforts written by Roger McGough many years ago:

    Only trouble with
    Japanese haiku is that
    You write one, and then

    Only seventeen
    Syllables later you want
    To write another

  11. John Simmons says:

    Heather Atchison writes

    Haiku #3

    He tiptoed to bed
    Without waking anything
    She breathed, innocent

  12. John Simmons says:

    Thomas Heath writes

    He howled through the night
    Without pleasing anyone.
    Please pass the manual.

  13. John Simmons says:

    Chris Davenport writes

    The Karma Sutra?
    Sounds to me like one good stitch
    Deserves another.

  14. John Simmons says:

    Paul Redstone writes

    Heather’s brief got me thinking about the different, often conflicting, ideas that people have of each other. Sometimes they’re completely different versions of the same person.

    I think back to my granddad’s funeral some years ago (he had a stroke in his 80s and died a few years after). My parents divorced when I was around three, and we three kids and my mum moved in with my grandparents. We grew up living with them. They were both domineering people, and I always saw my
    granddad as rigid, narrow-minded and intolerant. We didn’t exactly see eye to eye!

    At the funeral the priest (who had barely met him) began to describe this extremely open-minded, tolerant individual, who I barely recognised. Casual acquaintances often did see him this way.

    So this is a poem about my granddad, those conflicting, alternative versions, and inconsistency within and among people.


    A charming man the gutter unthinker
    Always a cheery word
    When beating, hands inflated
    Open minded eye-beam ideas
    splinters really
    All patient explosions, thoughtless caring
    Serenely knotted raging Reasonably against god’s kind crippling
    and without breaking anything

  15. John Simmons says:

    Claire Falcon writes


    Benn came from Paris, Guy from Edinburgh, I from Cambridge, Richard and Dan from other parts of London. The girls were too young.

    ‘You’d better say goodbye,’ said the ever-faithful Dr Stock. ‘But she did the crossword!’ I exclaimed, having noticed on the bed the familiar sight of the Daily Telegraph folded to the crossword page, squares filled in with her spidery writing.

    We trooped home, leaving our mothers with theirs. Endless cups of tea were made and half drunk, countless cigarettes smoked as we lolled around chatting about nothing, dozed, comforted the dog. The door banged at quarter to one. We looked at each other. Sam licked my hand and, for once, it comforted me.

    It was Remembrance Day.

    She was Granny. Like it or not, the other grandmothers in the family had to accept a different name. She was everyone’s refuge. Not just for us and the cousins, but for a stream of nieces, nephews, great-nieces, great-nephews, and all our hangers-on. It was always open house at Crouch End, and an unfamiliar face appearing at the breakfast table was put at ease by a welcoming ‘how about some toast, dear? Or bacon perhaps?’

    Anyone less like a matriarch is hard to imagine, though. Her bright eyes and slight frame, with its unexpectedly generous chest, gave her the look of a blackbird, and she maintained til the end that she was exactly 5’, although she confessed to me once that she’d shrunk half an inch.

    ‘You should be dead!’ the less guarded students at Brompton Hospital would say, when called in to see the interesting specimen of Granny’s asthmatic lungs. ‘Be a darling and find me the puffer in my handbag,’ she’d wheeze as she paused on the landing, stood up from weeding the garden, or leant against a tree while we were in the woods with the dog.

    She was always gadding about, much to our delight and her doctor’s dismay. ‘Thank God I got my licence before driving tests were invented,’ she’d say, after another near miss in the elderly Ford Fiesta. When she said ‘thank God’, though, she usually really meant it. After Grandpa died (‘life with your grandfather wasn’t exactly easy, but it was never boring’), Granny became a staunch church-goer, although she never could quite take seriously the desperately earnest vicar.

    There was nothing that annoyed Granny more than apathy or inertia. ‘I don’t mind’, our standard teenage response to subjects varying from what to have for dinner to what we wanted to do with our lives, was met with a bracing: ‘Well, have a mind – really dear, do buck up!’

    She was always on our side, though. Her role as guardian to my brothers and me while Mum and Dad were abroad compelled her to play the authoritarian figure on occasion, but her heart just wasn’t in it, particularly when she was secretly amused by the miscreant’s activities. Aged 17, Guy was suspended for brewing beer in his cupboard, and Granny punished him by not allowing him to stay in bed after 11am and taking him to the cinema only twice during his ‘week of reflection’. She did, however, make him promise not to do it again, allowing her to report to his housemaster: ‘Yes indeed, I’m being quite strict with him, and I’m certain you’ll see no repeat of such dreadful behaviour.’

    ‘Darling, do get a handkerchief!’ Sniffing was Granny’s bête noire, and good manners were essential, especially at the table. This didn’t preclude lively conversation, however, and meals at Crouch End were always convivial, if not always of the highest culinary order. Years of domestic staff meant that her own talents in the kitchen, acquired late in life, were limited to steak and kidney pudding, roast chicken and apple pie.

    The hour after lunch was devoted to the crossword. Daily Telegraph Monday to Saturday, Sunday Times on Sunday. Curled up next to Granny on the sofa, over the years I slowly learnt how they worked. But I never could beat her, even when, as she got older, she dozed off between clues. After a gentle prod, her eyes would open and she’d say, ‘Ah, yes. 16 down, “quintessential”, don’t you see, dear?’

    I was staying at Granny’s when my A-level results came through. Flunking history seemed the most unfair thing that had ever happened to me. What’s the point of working hard if this is what you get? How I hated the world. But instead of departing for a gap year, I spent the next four months living with Granny, studying for the re-sit. She died less than a year later – shortly after I’d gone up to university, having got the grade in the end. Since then I’ve always believed in the possibility of a blessing in disguise.

    In those four months, in her unassuming way, Granny told me a lot about life. Now, when things don’t go to plan, I try to remember what she said. ‘Clairey darling, know your own mind. Always do what you think is right, but be kind, and try to do it without breaking anything.’

  16. John Simmons says:

    Andy Milligan writes


    I have fallen on hard floors
    Without breaking anything
    You have stumbled into shelves
    Without breaking anything
    I have walked into doors
    Without breaking anything
    You tripped over your words
    Without breaking anything
    We shared others’ secrets
    Without breaking anything
    We shared a silence
    Without breaking anything
    But can I say “I want you”
    Without breaking anything?

    Susannah Hart writes


    You fell from the top of the climbing frame
    Without breaking anything.
    I dusted you down,
    Wiped the grazes, kissed the bumps,
    And we walked home companionably
    Holding hands.
    After your bedtime, when the wine was poured,
    I tried to tell your father
    What I thought mattered most,
    But I wasn’t sure that I could do it
    Without breaking anything.

  17. John Simmons says:

    And, the last word in May goes, appropriately enough to Heather Atchison

    We quaffed happily
    Without slaking anything
    Specially not our thirst

  18. John Simmons says:

    Chris Davenport writes, on the last day of July


    “Reach out and grab this,” said Manus holding up a reel of twine.
    The boy reached out and seized it.
    “How did you do that?”
    “Just grabbed it,” replied the boy.
    “Easy wasn’t it?”
    The boy nodded impatiently, looking intently at the twine and wondering what the old man was driving at.
    “You didn’t even have to think about it, did you?”
    The nod became a shake. Manus picked up the wooden cross in his right hand. The lines tightened as though taken by a fish, and the limp, lifeless figure rose up from the cold stone floor in a wisp of dust. In that instant, he was alive. The feet tapped the tiled ground ever so slightly. The knees and hips were poised. The trunk seemed to rise and fall almost imperceptibly, breathing in time with the old man. Even the eyes took on an extra quality. They fixed the boy with their sentience. They dared him to question the life behind them.

    “The thing is, you do think about it, only you don’t. It’s not just a case of your brain telling your arm what to do. Sometimes, your hand tells your brain what to think.”

    With difficulty, Luca broke the stare of the puppet, and traced the flashing lines of light betraying the threads above the hung figure. Up the threads, into the tips of the old man’s fingers which gripped and caressed the cross as an artist might a pencil. He noticed the sinews flexing and dancing under the weathered skin, up the lean, sun-tanned arm, still scanning, still a figment of the movement across the trapezius bridge of the shoulder as the old man’s pale blue, slightly moist eyes fixed those of the boy.
    “There is no divide between mind and arm, arm and hand, hand and finger. Do it long enough, and there is no divide between finger and string. I feel these threads like they were my own nerves.”

    Manus stood up slowly from the low wooden stool. His knees clacked and the puppet started then settled.
    “Eventually you become the puppet.” He raised his left arm, and with a deft twist of the right wrist, the puppet followed. “And the puppet becomes you.”

    He dropped his head, stared at his worn boots, and pitched his hand forwards so the puppet’s head did the same. The boy found himself mirroring the movements of the man and the model, so with an allegro jaunt, Manus roused the three of them to dancing an imaginary reel. They clipped and clopped their way about the room, picking up pace quickly and clumsily voicing the rhythm, if not the tune of the dance. The jig got faster and faster, eyes flashing from man to boy to puppet so it wasn’t clear who was leading who, feet flailing, kicking up a whorl of dusty ash and din until the clamour peaked and the old man collapsed back onto his stool, spluttering and wheezing. The boy stopped and caught his breath. He looked at Manus struggling for air in and felt bad for whipping the old man up into such a frenzy. The white prism of light from outside eddied and swirled in the dark of the workshop. Between coughs, Manus looked up and nodded to Luca to show he was alright, then raising his left palm as though confirming it to himself. Eventually he sat back with a long, uneasy sigh. Pinched between the thumb and forefinger of his limp right hand, the cross. Sprawled on the floor in a flaccid recovery position, the puppet. Between, the threads, twisted but still connected.

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