Writing is a journey, both imaginary and physical. My first book took me to the Arctic to 'catch the colours' of the Northern Lights. Then I hunkered down to catch the wind-blown voices of polar explorers on Shackleton's 1914-17 Endurance expedition. More recently I'm obsessed by space: the race, the rockets, the final frontier.

Hear a BBC Radio Leicester interview about my space poetry at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p03wfpyp
Explore my digital narrrative PHILAE'S BOOK OF HOURS, published by the European Space Agency, at:

My prose-poetry collections FIREBRIDGE TO SKYSHORE
and MAD, HOPELESS & POSSIBLE are both published by Original Plus Press at:

Contact me for signed copies or bookings at:

About Me

My photo
Leicester, East Midlands
As a storyteller, my work crosses boundaries of myth, science, history and spoken word. It has been presented in the British Science Museum, Ledbury Poetry Festival, National Space Centre and the European Space Agency website. In 2014 I ran a digital residency on WW1 for 14-18NOW and Writing East Midlands. I teach Creative Writing at De Montfort University and have experience of leading school events, workshop tuition and mentoring.

Friday, 7 October 2016

How We Learned to Love our Machine

The room is a hush of people studying computers. On screen, a black window with white grid-squares and pulsing green line. The heartbeat. We watch it for five more tense minutes leaping and spiking and then – the zig-zag falls away to a background fuzz. We know it's flat-lined when the Operations Manager removes his headphones and begins to embrace the other engineers, almost all men. In their black crew-shirts, they are mourners at an interment.
The Machine is dead. The Machine is broken, an abandoned shell on a desolate body. Indeed that jittery green line was already a ghostly echo because the deed was done 40 minutes earlier at the other end of the solar system. Rosetta was instructed to self-terminate on impact, for a 'clean ending'. The Machine has been 'passivated', some will say killed.
As I sat riveted to the livecoverage of Rosetta's descent from ESA headquarters at Darmstadt, the high emotion emanating from that inner sanctum was unmistakeable. At times during Rosetta's two year long dance with comet 67P, the anthropomorphism seemed mainly a device to engage the public. The cartoon cuteness of mother-ship Rosetta and its adorable bot-child Philae. The Twitter-feed messages: #AreWeThereYet? The cuddly toys. But it turns out that no-one had bonded emotionally more than the engineers and scientists who lived with this project for decades. Here are some of the comments from that gathering at Darmstadt:
'Everybody is very sad but it's a spectacular way to do it.'
'Now it's time to say sleep well, Rosetta.'
'Philae was such a brave little boy, sitting in a ravine, still doing fantastic science.'
'It's like Sleeping Beauty – I keep hoping some Prince Charming from ESA or NASA might come to wake Rosetta up.'
'It's like cosmic euthanasia – we just pulled a plug – a very sad day for me.'
That last muttering was from Matt Taylor being interviewed live by BBC'sSkyat Night. Grief was obviously catching because Chris Lintott introduced the programme as marking the 'extraordinary feat' but also the 'tragedy' of the Rosetta mission. The last act of Hamlet it wasn't – and there was much elation at a perfect descent from Rosetta capturing one last dust-jet of data as it drifted down to the comet. Still – why did so many Earthlings 'have something in their eye'?

In truth attributing human characteristics to our machines is nothing new. For centuries we've given our ships, cars and flying machines personal pronouns and names, often female ones. We routinely project human emotions and personalities onto objects. If Tom Hanks can paint a face on a football and talk to it in Cast Away, no wonder we loved TheClangers and Robbie the Robot? Borg-like, we are more and more hard-wired into a dialogue with our technology as it wraps itself around our lives. There you see; personification again. Our daily use of IT may just be re-programmingthe way we communicate, use language and think. Meanwhile the TV series HumanBeings explores android-human relationships with the latest robot technology that is already here. Responding to a Rosetta fan on Twitter recently who was lamenting the crash-landing plan, Matt Taylor referenced the Replicant's last speech in BladeRunner:
    @tomgauld @newscientist IT IS A ROBOT!!! It has seen things you people wouldn't believe... Time for electric sheep @ESA_Rosetta
We would believe it because, thanks to Rosetta's OSIRIS cameras, we peered onto the cometary surface of 67P like space tourists at the portholes. But Rosetta and Philae revealed to us not only an alien world but also ourselves. In a week when Teresa May invited us to discard the humanity of our foreign-speaking neighbours, our identity as citizens of the Blue Planet (or PlanetNowhere according to May), is put in doubt. Could some of us more easily project humanity onto a washing-machine sized box on a comet than an immigrant or refugee? One striking thing about the ESA Rosetta mission is that it has involved such complex communications in many languages in numerous European countries to construct and operate this machine across the solar system. It is a miracle of co-operation and far-sightedness without borders. That might be more futuristic than the technology. Or not. Perhaps that spirit is as tough – and as fragile – as the aluminium skin of Rosetta's craft. We should cherish both.

Monday, 12 September 2016

Where PHILAE Boldly Goes ...

We follow. #AreWeThereYet? What's not to love about a space mission that delivers more drama, danger and comebacks than a sci-fi franchise? Only last week, we got another cliff-hanger as space-craft Rosetta tracked down its long-lost lander Philae. Marvellous as the engineering has been, it's the imagination that's kept me riveted to my desktop porthole. ESA transported us across the solar system via our Twitter-feeds. Beam me down, Scottie. Those razor-sharp OSIRIS photos of comet 67P put me right there, kicking up carbon-dust.
Where early Egyptians drew constellations on coffin-lids to guide departing souls, ESA let us ride the stars. This virtual adventure inspired me to create a poet's saga for the digital age: Philae's Book of Hours. So Philae is a chattering soul-bird. And though its song has since fallen silent, it had us spellbound in its season. Its cometary resting-place Abydos was named for an ancient cemetery. In Egyptian mythology, after death a human-headed soul-bird flits between the lands of living and dead. I thought of ESA scientists at computers communing across vast distances to their metal avatar in this underworld. But Philae ventured into the dark on our behalf too, an android explorer probing an icy wilderness, an ingenious box of tricks sifting air and dirt for the secrets of creation. And most extraordinary of all, it talked to us. Well-named for an obelisk that unlocked an ancient language, it kept up a stuttering dialogue for days. #LifeOnAComet Its subsequent silence always hummed with the promise of more.
'You bide your time, faithful
as a mummified dog... When
you wake at last, Philae
you are babbling to yourself
a snakeskin song of telemetry
a cometary Book of Hours ...'
Rosetta is the mother-ship goddess, blue-winged like the protective figure of Isis, who knew a thing or two about resurrections. So whip-smart, quick on its feet, engineering with attitude. Think Princess Leia before the bikini. But this solar-panelled spacecraft could also be sun-god Ra's midnight barge crossing the dangerous realms of the afterlife. When ESA's scientists described the comet's icy jets as a 'living thing, a dragon waking up,' the storyteller in me was hooked. Rosetta's zig-zagging course was a pyramid trajectory. It had to dodge comet 67P's fierce outpourings, just as Ra and his 'crew of gods' had to steer past Apophis, the fire-spitting snake. Surely this is a classic Hero-Quest, a space-voyage in an aluminium boat on a wing and a prayer. Han Solo minus the laser-gun.
And then there is the comet, captured in mesmerising black-and-white shots in all its rugged variety. I am addicted to those OSIRIS close-ups. Tracts of wildernesses marked not by space-boot but by Philae's human-made SESAME feet. I see comet 67P as a book. Let's call it a book of maps, a cartography of 26 alien regions 'named for Gods of the Old Kingdom'. All very Star-Gate. ESA's Egyptian analogy for the space mission finds its fullest expression in their colour-coded maps of 67P's rocky terrains. Rosetta's own burial chamber will be a cometary pit of hell. I love that it's named for Deir-El-Medina, an Egyptian archaeological site filled with tomb-workers' rubble. But the comet is a book of spells too, a book that spits and fires and sings. A book that hides its secrets deep in pages of ice-dirt, in a crease of rock or sudden abyss:
'… The comet is spitting creatively
uncharted twinklings, carbon-glints,
constellations of grit, a cosmic
sneeze of light.'
Some Earthlings are sad that the mission is drawing to a close.* That we will cease our conversation across space with Rosetta's satellite. No more fly-by postcards from the underworld. No time-delayed messages from the box-robot forever hanging on its cliff. Yes, I'll miss all that. But the scientific stories that Rosetta-Philae gifted us are still being decoded. We will be thumbing the pages of 67P for decades to come. And this space-epic has already become a tale of us at our best, coming together in many languages, to achieve an extraordinary feat. No wonder we painted a face on Philae and begged it to call home. Like the Egyptians, we've daubed this fable on our walls. Rosetta and Philae are celebrated in our poems, rock albums, t-shirts, e-wallpapers, sculptures, cartoons, comet-shoes, installations and origami. They are already legends. As the Pyramid texts promise, 'you have died but you will live.'
* ESA has invited followers of Rosettta & Philae to 'Share your personal experiences and feelings about the mission' on a Rosetta Legacy Page. See: http://rosetta-legacy.tumblr.com/  This blog-post appeared there in September 2016.

Saturday, 2 July 2016


I was moved by pictures of yesterday's 'WE ARE HERE' Somme commemoration. More than 1,500 men appeared in WW1 uniforms in cities around the country. These 'ghost-soldiers' stood around silently in groups and if passing commuters or shoppers tried to talk to them, they handed out a small printed card with the name of a soldier who died on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. It looked powerful on You-Tube clips so what must it have been like to witness it live? Since the 'life' of these dead soldiers was the point. From time to time they broke into a popular song from the WW1 trenches: 'We're here because ... we're here because ... we're here because we're here ...'  The circularity of the song's lyrics, sung to the tune  of Auld Lang's Syne, captures both the weary stoicism of front-line soldiers and the senselessness of the carnage that followed.
Many of these visitations occurred at railway stations, so associated with the transport of troops in 1914-18. Two years ago, I was leading a residential workshop to help members of the public find a way to write letters to the Unknown Soldier of Paddington Station. The Tommy on the plinth was one of 20,000 railworkers who lost their lives in the war. The letter campaign was an initiative launched by 14-18 NOW and supported by Writing East Midlands. Inevitably, it drew in writers who had very personal family histories from that period. And we began on day one of the week's course with the sounds of Paddington Railway station. For myself, this soundscape triggered a poem that, like yesterday's enactment, blurred the boundaries between then and now.

Eyes half-closed, he hears
the pulse of place as a full-tilt stream
that familiar suppressed roar:
a piston's disconnect, whoofs of steam
those far-off whistles piercing
Paddington's glass-domed roof.
And then it's a day at the Somme
the Corporal's whistle insisting on 'NOW!'
A row of Tommies stumble to the top:
one man hesitating, is too slow,
his puteed legs sawing at the mud;
as his head clears the ridge
he slithers back, rifle abandoned
face-down in the trench.
And they are already gone, his comrades
over a weed-straggled field
vanished into shellfire and rain.
Those ruddy whistles – and right on time
the slamming of doors like the rat-a-tat
of machine gun fire; echoing calls,
the distant halloa of a guard
or a Pal down the Line:
boot-falls clattering on duckboard
commuters, day-trippers, the lost patrol
looking for a funk-hole:
a child crying Mumm-eee, lads
on the wire, the tink of mobile phones
metallic clinks high in the eaves
where nesting birds hide.
A tannoy announces a platform change
signal for this marching tide of feet
to work, to war, to the last troop train:
those bleeding whistles again.
Pistons and engines, now as then
sounding their Misere Mei
rising like Brunel's cast-iron girders.
Fractured light in the end-screen's filigree
curling like Tommy's last ciggie:
and after the battlefield, smoke
writhing between the splintered trees.
He listens and remembers it all
the boy on Platform One.

Thursday, 16 June 2016

When Song Breaks in Leicester

This week is Refugee Week. It's not an appeal for charity but a countrywide celebration of how our communities are enriched by migrants - exactly as Jo Cox outlined in her maiden speech. "While we celebrate our diversity, what surprises me time and time again ... is that we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.”
At this moment in 2016, we more than ever need to celebrate not only the contributions of refugees but the possibilities that solidarity bring for all of us. We have done some hard mourning this week. Now we will do some singing of our shared story.
Credit: Ambrose Musiyiwa
Local organisers from the Leicester British Red Cross promise a day of 'A free and fun day out for all the family, a fusion of talented musicians, dancers and performers all drumming up noise for Refugee Week.' I've been lucky enough to be involved in Refugee Week Celebrations in this city for a few years now. And I especially pleased this year to be taking part in readings from an anthology published in 2015 to raise funds and support for refugee charities: the 'Over Land, Over Seas' anthology by Five Leaves Press. 'An anthology of 102 poems expressing solidarity with the refugees who are currently receiving so little welcome as they take to boats and rafts to cross the Mediterranean and make their way with difficulty through Europe. Readers are invited to take a view of the situation which is not governed by the fear and hatred whipped up by the language of media and many politicians.' You can hear some of these remarkable poems on the acoustic stage in Leicester's Town Hall Square from about 11.45 onwards.
Later in the same week I'll be joining co-editors Emma Lee and Kathy Bell with other readers at an event called VOICED on Thursday 23rd June at the Exchange Bar from 6pm onwards. This will again feature artists and musicians, including those from the refugee community. Poetry and story will be interwoven through a fabric of sound: 'HAIKI - blending soul and jazz sounds deriving from Ethiopia, MARCUS JOSEPH, who combines resonating rhymes and smooth saxophone'.
Finally if you want to get a flavour of what a vibrant joyful celebration of refugees in Leicester looks like, check out these wonderful photos from Ambrose Musiyiwa from the 2014 event in Town Hall Square. We were rained off last year but are hoping for a break from the Leicester monsoon this weekend! Either way we'll be making the music of our shared humanity. Join us why don't you if you're out and about.

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

2016: ESA's Space Odyssey

Being lost in space is not so bad. In the freezing dark of the solar system's furthest reaches, you can witness epic adventures unfolding. Streamers of light two million kilometers long. Exploding slabs of ice-dust. A metallic blue-winged bird whose god-eye sees all. I'm talking of ESA's Rosetta space-craft and its miraculous OSIRIS camera tracking the progress of comet 67P. Like Rosetta, I have been zig-zagging around this black rock for some 20 months now, mesmerized by its sublimations and buried secrets. Finally this summer I got to land in ESA's webspace among a galaxy of artworks inspired by its extraordinary mission.

Rosetta has been chasing this comet for over a decade but for me it all began with the dramatic events of November 2014. Not since NASA's Apollo days can I remember a space mission capturing the world's imagination for one moment in time. It didn't feel like a scientific-body was landing this probe on a speeding comet. Rather it was we as a species who were exploring an unknown world millions of miles away through our robotic 'soul-bird'. On our television screens ESA's Philae lander was a frail white shape against black, a 'may-fly winged' metal box, plunging into the comet's underworld. A recent ESA video let us follow the lander tumbling like thistledown in the comet's low gravity, scuffing up surface dust, before latching onto a cliff-face out of Rosetta's sight. What an opening scene! The storyteller in me was immediately hooked.
Another unique thing about this mission was the way ESA narrated that story and shared the unfolding adventure with weekly updates on its blog and other social media platforms. Even the trusty lander Philae had its own Twitter account. As I began researching a poem-cycle about the adventures of Philae and Rosetta, the ESA blog was an invaluable resource. Over several years I've become quite addicted to my fix of black-and-white photos of the comet's craggy landscape, relayed back to us by Rosetta's OSIRIS camera. And I couldn't resist allusions to Egyptian mythology in ESA's naming of their space-craft but also their mapping of the comet's terrain. I became fascinated by accounts of the sun-god Ra's nightly journey's into the Egyptian underworld Duat. The analogy with Rosetta's 12 year voyage and Philae's descent let me knit the two narratives, ancient and modern, into one space-age adventure.
Initially my poem-cycle was written  for a special event celebrating a high point of the ESA mission in August 2015. To Perihelion and Beyond! was a show I staged at the National Space Centre in collaboration with Leicester Astronomical Society. In a piece of pure theatre, NSC's Josh Barker threw together a DIY-comet with iron filings, dry-ice and a splash of Shiraz. Professor John Bridges of the University of Leicester explained Rosetta in the light of science's centuries-old quest to understand our own origins by studying comets. And I performed my Book of Hours 'spells' or verses to guide Philae through the underworld of comet 67P. Reviewers described it as 'one of the more unusual spoken word events in the known universe’. 

My Book of Hours took the earthly form of an Egyptian scroll but when ESA contacted me to seek permission to publish this work, I rethought that. Teaching a module on New Media to Creative Writing Students at De Montfort University gave me the idea of re-crafting this narrative into a digital story. Now the Book of Hours is an interactive adventure where the reader or 'player' finds their own pathway through the perilous landscape of comet 67P, with its fire-spitting dragons and Mummy-King. Hyperlinks will transport you to another region of the underworld or to a fragment of Egyptian mythology or to ESA's blog where you learn more about the mission. Like Ra's 'crew of gods,' you can steer the 'midnight-barge' through false-stars and ice-dust jets to make it back to the light of day. Take a trip across our solar system, if you dare. The boat embarks at: https://sites.google.com/site/philaesbookofhours/