Knitting in eastern Aleppo

73 stitches cast on for the button band.
So much for the ceasefire.
K four rows.

On the second the camera crew
chooses a Medium shot.
A strange and unnatural angle,
a Bird’s-eye view, looking down
on the action, making it seem insignificant
and ant-like.

And there you are. The top of your
small sweet head

From my God-like angle digging figures
struggle to bring you out,
to clear the bomb-bleached dust and rubble
from your face.

Then gently, oh so gently, lift you
into the Love of strong arms and gazes.

Every man there wants to hold you close.

You pass me in a Close-up view,
your ashen head buried in his warm neck.
The Long-distance shot rushing you to safety.
and you are gone.

I can’t follow, darling little man, but
you are our child.
See this coat to keep you warm…
with hearts for buttons.


Eileen Walke

Have we got a goat?

I was sitting, sleepy-eyed, halfway down the stairs, looking at the cuckoo clock and listening to the tiny bleat on the air. All the lights were on and hushed voices murmured – not wanting to wake us children up. Dad came into the hall, caught sight of me and beckoned me. I moved down the stairs, looked at him and asked, “Have we got a goat?” He smiled and shook his head as I followed him into the living-room.

Sitting by the fire, with a bundle on her knee, was Dr Fitzmaurice. “Look at him” she said, “your little brother.” I sat down cross-legged in front of her on the rag rug and she placed the tiny bundle on my knee.

It was love at first sight – not because he meant I could sit and wonder at him into the early hours, but because he was so tiny, so neat, so peaceful and because he held my finger as he slept. That’s how Les and I met in May 1954. I was eleven years and eleven days old.

I can remember how happy my parents were at that time – my Dad leaning over the bump in my Mum’s brown woollen skirt to kiss her and their arms holding each other and their babe. This joy grew when Les came and added to it. The house became a busy place, full of love – a place to grow. No one was more happy than my Dad and the bairn was the apple of his eye.

Les in Duchess RoadLes and Dad at Land's EndThe next day, at dinner-time, I ran all the way home from school to make sure he was still there. He was, to my relief. I have so much to thank him for and my love for him has grown to this day.

Les in Bedford 1954

Happy Monday poem!

one winter afternoon

(at the magical hour
when is becomes if)

a bespangled clown
standing on eighth street
handed me a flower.

Nobody,it’s safe
to say, observed him but

myself;and why?because

without any doubt he was
whatever (first and last)

mostpeople fear most:
a mystery for which i’ve
no word except alive

-that is,completely alert
and miraculously whole;

with not merely a mind and a heart

but unquestionably a soul-
by no means funereally hilarious

(or otherwise democratic)
but essentially poetic
or ethereally serious:

a fine not a coarse clown
(no mob,but a person)

and while never saying a word

who was anything but dumb;
since the silence of him

self sang like a bird.
Mostpeople have been heard
screaming for international

measures that render hell rational
-i thank heaven somebody’s crazy

enough to give me a daisy


e.e. cummings




I met the sweetest nurse this morning. Her name was Gabrielle. She’s from Co. Wexford and is looking forward to taking her children over to see her parents at half-term. I told her how much I love Ireland and stopped short of all the background stuff…but I did mention that the only other Gabrielle I know is my German penfriend – still call her my penfriend because we haven’t met for the last fifty six years. We write.

As you already know, sweet readers, I am a War Child born in May 1943 in Bedford, England. There is another War Child who has had a  significant influence on my life, born in Celle, Germany, in July 1943, just eight weeks after me – Hedda Gabriele Weichler. The baby girl, I understood, was named after Ibsen’s heroine cos her Dad loved that play. Today she’s Hedda Luftmann, but always Hedda Gabriele in my mind.

My early years were spent in an anti-German world. Films, songs, snatches of conversation, men and women in military uniforms, tanks and jeeps on roads, Civil Defence, air-raid shelters, toy guns, children’s war games with toy soldiers… and in the skies…. well, Celle, like Bedford, was close to military airfields, so as we grew up, Hedda and I shared the sights and sounds of bomber and fighter planes flying low over the town to and from their bases.

We wrote to each other from 1959. That was the year I started learning German and after four years of learning French, I fell in love with German’s depth of music and clarity of structure. When we were sixteen, an exchange visit between our schools was  on offer. I didn’t dream my parents would be able to pay for it, let alone agree to it – but, for which they have my eternal gratitude, they found a way to do it and in April 1960, Hedda came to Bedford.

Of course, we did the whole sharing of what goes on in an English girls’ school and  the group visits to London, to Cambridge and to Whipsnade Zoo. Yet what stayed with me  was memories of Hedda in my home. I loved the way she called my parents Mum and Dad. I think now of how daunting it must have been for her to suddenly have three English brothers – and the youngest just six years old. Hedda is an only child and I’m one of four children. Our home was one where  all the adults chipped in to find ways to make ends meet.

Meals were more fun than usual with Hedda, like Sunday dinner with Yorkshire pud and gravy first, then vegetables, followed by rice pudding. Heaven knows what she thought! One teatime I remember as clearly as a starry night!  She took a slice of my Mum’s ginger cake and solemnly placed it between two dry (no margerine) slices of bread and sat happily munching it. I also remember her telling me that her Mum had asked her not to mix with any existentialists! She was certainly mixing with Geordies in our home – and to this day I wonder what she made of the accents outside compared to the inside accents of our daily life in exile from Tyneside. She loved to listen to my Nan.

In the summer of 1960, our school group saw Europe for the first time. From Calais onward, I looked out on miles of cornfields as we passed through Belgium and on up into Lower Saxony. The coach which met us delivered each girl to her penfriend’s house  and I started to notice windows for the first time. The little houses had plants on every window sill. The net curtain didn’t cover the whole window like a shroud as it did at home, but hung high above the plants, giving them a frilly and sometimes a coloured frame. Windows are still very important to me. Like eyes.

Hedda lived in an apartment on the top floor of an older house – something totally new to me. It seemed dark at first, but I soon got used to the ways of things. I met Mutti. She has always been my Mutti. I know now how hard she must have worked to keep things going in that little home. Out early in the morning to a job in the court in town. Mutti was always smart, with short dark hair and a straight bearing. She loved, or needed, her cigarettes. At first, she made me anxious, with something of the stern primary school teacher about her, but I gradually learned about the love offered in their home.

And I met Omi, Mutti’s mum – and Hedda’s Nan. Omi lived with us – a small, active woman, with her grey hair drawn gently into a loose bun and always wearing her apron over her dark dress. I did not find it easy to understand Omi’s words, but I understood the woman and tried to respond to her. One day she showed me a small black and white photo, no bigger than two inches square, with a large family group on it. I remember holding it up between my fingers to look at it as she repeated ‘Meine Familie.’ Gradually I understood that this was all her family in East Germany and that she was cut off from them.

I met Hedda’s cousin Rainer, his mother Tante Anneliese and his father Onkel Fritz. Rainer was the closest Hedda had to a brother and he visited most days or we would catch him rolling along on the cycle path to school in the early morning. School in Germany started early.

Coffee and Torte in the late afternoon with Mutti and Tante Anneliese was a new treat for me. Coffee? I’d hardly smelt a cup of coffee until I was in Germany. I’d seen Camp Coffee liquid in a bottle at home, but this was the real thing. The food was exotic:  raw fish, fresh salad, cold meats, asparagus, quark, sauerkraut and black bread – a whole new realm, far removed from the bread and dripping, bread and marmite, bread and rhubarb and ginger jam or home-made scones and ginger cake at home. Peanuts too – we seemed always to have peanuts to dip into.

Sudwall, where Hedda lived, is a road that runs next to the Franzosische Garten in Celle – a beauty spot. The old town of Celle escaped the bombing and looked to me like a fairy tale set, with painted house fronts in many colours and open spaces. Sometimes, on the way home in the evening, we’d come across British soldiers making their way back to the barracks and they always seemed scary and so out-of-place to me.

We went to Hanover and sat in the Herrenhausen Gardens, while fountains played alongside a son- et- lumiere performance of Handel’s Water Music. We went to Luneburg and to the Luneburger Heide, where I had my first glimpse of watchtowers and barbed wire, the symbols of a Cold War. Celle, it turns out, was one of the larger towns en route to what had been the Bergen-Belsen POW and concentration camp. I knew nothing of this. Things might have been said to me about it, but neither my German nor my inclination were strong enough to take it in. Later I learned that it was on Luneburger Heide on 4th May 1945 that the German army made its unconditional surrender. Hostilities were to cease from eight o’clock on May 5th, 1945. Hedda and I were the same age that my beautiful granddaughter Ella is now – almost two years old. And as I write, there is a ceasefire in Syria. May it hold.

I missed knowing Hedda’s Dad. I knew he had died – that was all. I didn’t ask any questions. He was very present in that home and I would love to have met him. It was many years later, when Mutti died that I heard from Hedda he had been a journalist before the war and that she now has all his letters. There’s a bit of a writer in Hedda Gabriele too. Over the years we’ve shared baby clothes, sent postcards, letters, music, Christmas gifts, photos – especially of our beloved grandchildren – and all this I see as a precious gift. Her father was killed at Stalingrad the year we were born, in 1943.

The gift they gave me is the insight  into what people like Mutti, Omi and Hedda had lived through and how they loved and cared for me. I sensed  the futility of war and these things live in my heart. Today, Hedda and Heinrich sing in Munster Capelle Choir and their music and singing sounds to me like managed hopes and their daughters, Iris and Julia, with husbands Stefan and Ole and the grandchildren Marthe, Justus and Malte, part of the beloved families we are blessed with.

aus Die Achte Elegie

Wir haben nie, nicht einen einzigen Tag,
den reinen Raum vor uns, in den die Blumen
unendlich aufgehn. Immer ist es Welt
und niemals Nirgends ohne Nicht: das Reine,
Unuberwachte, das man atmet und
unendlich weiss und nicht begehrt. Als Kind
verliert sich eins im Stilln an dies und wird
geruttelt. Oder jener stirbt und ists.

Rainer Maria Rilke

from The Eighth Elegy

We never, not for a single day, have
before us the pure space into which flowers
endlessly open. Always it is world,
and never nowhere without the no: that pure
unsurveilled element one breathes and
infinitely knows, without desiring. As a child,
one may lose oneself to it in silence, and be
shaken back. Or die and be it.

Claraland and the Grace of God

Hello sweet readers, let me tell you about Claraland…

After my nephew Gavin and his wife, Amanda, came to visit us some years ago with their three children, Oscar, Clara and Heidi, we started to refer to our home and garden as Claraland. And it stuck.

So let me tell you about the Grace of God in Claraland, because this is about my beloved partner John, whose given name in Hebrew means God is gracious. He’s also known as Dad, Da, Grandad, Dadi, Poppajohn, Uncle John, Captain America, Mr. Cook, Cookie and Urchin. And Beethoven’s Batman.

We’ve lived together for thirty four years, four months and one day and we’ve shared a path through the joy of births, birthdays, engagements, weddings, anniversaries and moments, as well as through sickness, rage, sadness, suffering, funerals, bereavement and moments. It’s a wild, quiet and worthwhile life we share.

John is the heart of Claraland.  He’s my very own Man in the Moon:  reflective and content to move through darkness. He’s my Morning Glory and my Midnight Sun, creating comfortable places for people wherever he can.

He’s like the standing stones of Wigton, where we circled and prayed in the rain, with a silent herd of damp cows gazing at us in compassion. Solid, wet, grey, sheltering stones, ancient in their wisdom and rust-green with lichen .

John loves moss and even paints walls with yoghurt to grow it.

He has laid stepping stones in our little garden, of different shapes and sizes, where fairies and short people can dance from one to another . He built the sturdy frames and arches that secure the roses, wisteria, honeysuckle, clematis and jasmine. And it’s John who prunes, clips, strims and deadheads and I nip in and out, like a starling in a car park, with seeds, plants and a watering can. That pretty much sums up how we live life in Claraland. A duet of a dance.

There are some night-sky moments  when I discovered he could name all the constellations we could see  – and another where, standing together high over Manchester, the stars and the city lights were so clear and bright they seemed to be all one, the same backcloth to our stage.  Clouds are John’s love in daylight – their shapes and shapeshifting are his muses – his shade from a hot sun  and part of his weather-telling.

We spend quite a few hours in hospital waiting rooms these days. Once he’s settled in, taken in the layout and atmosphere of the room and how comfortable I am, John will take out a little sketch pad and start to draw. He must have a  series of hospital waiting room images and his pencil is a lead magnet to people sitting around us. Sometimes they watch and wonder, too shy to intervene. Once, in the Genetics clinic in St. Mary’s, I watched a young boy – he must have been about eight – leave his seat next to his mother and come and stand beside John, watching the pencil working. Slowly and intently, with all the wonder of childhood, he sat down beside John, gazing at the hand and the pencil tip, completely in the moment.

Claraland is full of paintings and sketches. We are the curators of secret and hidden galleries that John occasionally opens for a visitor – more often for those visitors he loves. He’s an observer who senses genuineness. This always warms him. His silent observation can be a bit disturbing and it’s as if his role is not to be a physical part of what’s going on.  I often see the child called John, separated out, learning the hard way how to observe and deciding what to do with it.

He loves sunsets. Here in Oldham we have long evenings in the summer and autumn and there is a time of day when John disappears. It is a special kind of light that draws him and he melts into it. You might know the kind of light I mean, it’s mellow – as if the whole world is lit by candlelight. John and that light are one.

He sings to express himself, but only in public – not in Claraland. He’s a good listener too, looking for the gaps and chances to transform any crap he hears into something positive. He fixes holes where the rain gets in and shares his tools with his youngest grandson, who makes more happy holes. There’s something of the carpenter and the shepherd about him. I don’t mean like a shepherd working a sheepdog, but more like the one I apprehended on the Ring of Kerry near  Valencia when I was nineteen. He loomed up out of the thick Atlantic sea mist, a grey figure in a long wet coat with a wide-brimmed hat, carrying a crook taller than himself. It seemed he might have been standing there with his sheep all night long, ready to be near with a helping hand  in that soaking April lambing season.

John is the much-loved father and stepfather to our six children and I know that when I shuffle off this mortal coil, they will watch over him and always be his friends. They know  the  lovingkindness of the artist and inventor, who can guide a small team of family elves  to create wedding flowers fit for Titania and Oberon or share his motorbike and helmet with curious would-be riders.

You’ll recognise when we are one and when we are separate if you walk through a wood and notice how the trees’ branches and leaves intermingle, but how their roots are in their own space. The roots  lie in the same earth and the branches reach up to the heavens. In our old age, the dry leaves are beginning to fall all around our feet, but in our life together, we’ve planted a few trees:  a Lebanese spruce, a Kilmarnock willow, a silver birch, a larch, a eucalyptus, a rowan and roses and hawthorn galore.

John’s a north-countryman. The moors are his vision of the road to the wider world, to light and to escape. He loves to come back to them and lives near the city knowing they are there to guide him away. The heather’s in bloom at the moment and the bog-cotton is sleeping.

How can I ever thank him for his lovingkindness? Thank the thinker… think the thanks…I love him so much.

Beside his fabulous neck and bum, the thing I love most about John is his smile. When he gives a real smile it shines out on the world like the shine of a newly-cut diamond – with all it’s many faces lit up.  That smile sounds like the peal of bells across the fields in the early morning. And I look down at my feet, wet with dew as I walk on through the water-meadows.


This home rolled in the eye of the storm
With its contents whirled and scattered
and its chatter stilled.

‘Til its outward aspects turned inward, to gaze
on what Love really is.

Eileen Walke