Connie Bensley

After scooting through three female contributors in chapter ten and five more in chapter eleven, what I really want next is a chapter devoted to a single woman. Step forward, Connie Bensley.

PEN New Fiction 2 contains a simple, moving story by her called ‘The Bad Day’. 80-year-old Emily goes for a walk to the common from the small house where she’s been living since her husband died. She finds the summer day too hot, but makes it back to her house where she goes straight to the bathroom. Only it’s not her house but the large house she used to live in. After some confusion, the present owners of the house realize what’s happened and take Emily home, where, on being asked by her daughter on the phone what kind of day she’s had, she deftly deflects the question.

Bensley was in her mid-fifties when she wrote this. Already she had two volumes of poetry published by then. A recent online biography reads: ‘Connie Bensley was born in south-west London, and has always lived there, apart from wartime evacuation. Until her retirement she worked as a secretary to doctors and to an M.P. and as a medical copywriter. Her latest book from Bloodaxe presents new work together with poems drawn from six previous collections


So she’s got quite a back catalogue. Also, a poem of hers often appears in the Spectator. A recent example, published on December 12, 2015, is a nature poem. It might almost be what Emily would have gone on to compose, having had her imagination fired by a rabbit on the common, had her sore ankle not broken the spell. But more typically Connie Bensley is a poet of the London suburbs, focusing on the nuance of everyday human activity.

Although Connie is now in her mid-eighties, I try and get in touch with her via email. I write, care of the editor at Bloodaxe Books. After introducing my project and asking if she attended the book launch in 1987, I say:

I very much enjoyed reading your story, 'The Bad Day'. Poor Emily. I was relieved when she got back home safely. I wonder what prompted you to write it as a woman in her fifties (are there autobiographical elements?), and what you think of it thirty years on.

It would also be good to read or hear what your literary aspirations were back in the '80s and how those have changed over the years. I am discovering that the class of '87 was a very disparate bunch with one fellow contributor having sold 30 million books and another currently in prison.

After a day or two, I receive this reply:

Dear Duncan:
I’m attaching some thoughts on the anthology.  They seem rather brief, but let me know if you need more information.
Best wishes, Connie

The above email and the attachment are rather brief. The latter is also full of interest. It tells me that Connie kept a journal fitfully in the 1980's. She looked up January 1987 but found a rather unsatisfactory entry on the 3Oth:

‘I haven't described the launch of the Pen anthology but have done so in several letters and can't go over it again. It was nice to see Dan.’


She means our fellow contributor, Dan Corry, who was a friend of her son’s. In the attachment, Connie goes on to say:

I'm afraid I can't remember anything about the occasion at all, how annoying. As for what I've been doing since, that's rather sobering to contemplate. In the 1980's I was keen - having started rather late - to try my hand at plays, short stories and poetry. I managed two short radio plays and a four-minute TV play, and then the Muse - as Larkin put it - went to sing on some alien shore. I won one prize for a short story, but then decided that poetry was more my line. I did persevere rather more with poetry, and over the years have had seven collections published - the last being 'Finding a Leg to Stand On' (Bloodaxe Books). Last year I recorded for The Poetry Archive, which was pleasing, as I don't do poetry readings now that I'm in my mid-eighties.

So, a quiet sort of literary dabbling, but at least I've escaped imprisonment. And I hung on to the Anthology through two house-moves, and just re-read my story. I actually thought it was quite moving, and I might easily find myself in Emily's predicament one of these days, now that I am in her age bracket. I shall be very careful setting out for walks in the heat of the summer, and will choose a cool day to go blackberrying.

I see that you yourself have been creatively busy, and I'm looking forward to reading 'Evelyn!'.

Please let me know if any further text is needed. Is this a commercial book or something for PEN members?

Kind of Connie to take the trouble to respond to my enquiries. I must ensure she doesn’t come to regret it.

I’ve also got to hand the transcript of an interview she gave to a poetry magazine. From this I learn that her father got her on to both Edgar Allan Poe and
The Rubaiiyat of Omar Khayyam when she was a child, and that Tennyson was her favourite poet at school.


When the question: ‘Your poems are minutely detailed observations of suburban life – to what degree is this a political comment?’ is put to Bensley, she answers that she thinks the suburbs have got a bad press and that she likes the idea of stability and order that they represent.

When asked if she was attracted by the feminist movement, Bensley answers that when she first read a book about feminism she was in hospital having just given birth ‘I don’t think the time was propitious for me to read widely,’ she says dryly. Bensley does suggest that she would have been a suffragette if she’d been born a few decades earlier. Re political action in general, she volunteers the information that she marched for CND and, years later, against the invasion of Iraq, though as far as the latter was concerned ‘she might have saved her shoe leather’.

And when asked what is the role of poetry, she answers: ‘To give aesthetic pleasure or entertainment to the poet or to the reader. Or, ideally, both.’ No mention of a mission to change the world, then.

OK, with all that in mind, let’s get back in touch.

Hi Connie,

Thanks very much for your reminiscence. Just what I need.

If it's not presumptuous of me (and it is a bit) I like to think that in those minutes that Emily was sitting on the loo in her former home, the minutes she could not afterwards recall, she picked up the latest copy of the
Spectatorwhich was lying on top of a pile of magazines, and read, ‘Heron’:


Walking to the bus stop
after a hospital visit,
in an unfamiliar, dusty suburb,
I pass a small park on the left
with a stream which dives
under the road, and here
only a few feet away, by the water,
is a heron — surely larger than life
and with each feather accurately modelled.
I think how grateful we should be
that some municipal person
has commissioned this work of art
and placed it where it can give pleasure
to passers-by. But startlingly
a breeze flutters the bird’s feathers,
and it slowly turns its head,
so that we find ourselves gazing at each other.
It is so exciting that I want to stop someone
and share this marvel
but no one is handy, and in the end
I calm down and walk to the bus stop
like someone just having an ordinary day.

I bet that would have given Emily a feeling of déjà vu, remembering the rabbit on the common. It might even have turned a bad day into a good day. What a timeless story you wrote. And what a timeless poem you write.

It's a 'commercial' book I'm writing that will be published by Harbour Books. Harbour made an excellent production job of
Evelyn! and the book was very well reviewed in several broadsheets and made Book of the Week in The Daily Mail. But it's only sold a few hundred copies so far. I will be hoping to get better publicity (somehow) for this new book. Indeed, I will need to get much better publicity (somehow) if I am to catch up with our fellow contributor Ian Rankin's 30 million sales to date.


If anything else comes to mind PEN-wise, please do write to me again. 

Best wishes, Duncan 

A week later Connie replies, telling me that she thinks Emily, in the midst of her predicament, would have been ‘too agitated to concentrate on a poem!’.

She also tells me that she’s been suffering from a virus but that she’ll read the other stories in the anthology and get back to me about them when she feels more alert.

When I started out on this project, I was thinking about the significance of contributors going from aged 30 to 60, from a time of unrealized potential to one of artistic maturity. I now realize that, in parallel, a minority were going from their fifties to their eighties, from their prime to their old age, and that there would be poignancy in that.

Or has time stood still? Connie Bensley, in her mid-fifties, via her character, Emily, holding the gaze of a rabbit; and in her mid-eighties, as herself, doing the same to a heron. The considered life – the considering of life - goes on.

Several of the women who contributed stories to
PEN New Fiction 2 have gone on to publish collections of poems. Indeed, though none of the sixteen male writers have had their poetry published commercially, between the five of them, Connie Bensley, Penelope Shuttle, Elsa Corbluth, Elaine Feinstien and Val Warner have gone on to publish a total of 27 volumes.


Which is approximately the number of crime novels that Ian Rankin has written in those years. I can’t think that the 27 volumes of poetry have sold more than a couple of hundred copies each, perhaps 10,000 in all. So the five women’s total sales of poetry books from 1987 to 2015 comes to less than a thousandth of Rankin’s sales of crime novels in that period.

Ah, but poetry is high literature while the crime novelist’s achievement is in the realm of entertainment, some would argue. Well, let’s consult the pages of
The Spectator, where Bensley’s poems are presently published, to see how such an essentially highbrow journal responded to the release of Rankin’s Even Dogs in the Wild.

‘Rankin puts his books together in a methodical way; line by line, idea by idea, the story builds up and takes you over. His style — bone dry, observational, even distant at times, but glinting with poetry — proves hypnotic.’

Glinting with poetry, eh? There’s the rub.


I’m ashamed to say that’s as far as I took my study of Connie Bensley until now (months later). In the first draft of PEN Pals, I switched over to investigate fellow contributor Dan Corry at the half-way point of the chapter. My only justification for doing this was that Dan Corry had been a friend of one of Connie’s sons at the time of PEN New Fiction 2’s appearance. Quel cop out.

But now I’ve broken through some barrier and feel ready to more fully consider Connie Bensley’s writing. What has made the difference? Indirectly, Wendy Brandmark has brought to my attention that I’ve been committing to male writers in a way I haven’t been to women writers. And I can see that I’ve ignored the poets in particular.


Let’s start to put that right. Elsa Corbluth and Connie Bensley share similar biographies. Both were born in 1929/30. Both were evacuated from south London/north Kent during the war. Both left school early and worked for a living. Elsa had a variety of jobs while Connie worked as a secretary and copywriter. Both found time to marry and raise children. In Elsa’s case, a boy and a girl, while Connie is the mother of two boys. Actually, I’m going to drop this ‘both’ business. Elsa Corbluth is dead and I feel I’ve taken my examination of her work as far as I want to in this PEN Pals context. Connie Bensley is the way forward.

It was in 1976, when Bensley was 47 and her sons were leaving home ‘in a tentative and intermittent manner’ that she joined a poetry class, which was reading Philip Larkin at the time. This ‘lit the blue touch-paper’ as far as her creativity was concerned.

Bensley’s first collection was published in 1981, when she was 52. Ironically called
Progress Report, the poems are very much concerned with the passing of time. ‘I have sat here at this table now for years’ the first one begins.

Mother-child relations are given consideration in a few of the poems. In ‘Paterfamilias’, she talks about a house being ‘uneasy with adolescents’ wearing ‘strangling jeans’. And the mother, the first person protagonist, admits to having lost her position as head of the tribe. Best lines?

Well, it’s nothing to do with me
As we’d all be the first to admit.

Relationships between lovers are commented on in several of the poems. I don’t actually have a copy of Progress Report. But in Bensley’s third collection, Central Reservations (New and Selected Poems), 42 of the poems from Progress Report are included. And 34 of these even make it into the second retrospective collection, the seventh in all, Finding a Leg to Stand on (New and Selected Poems). Oddly, my eye was caught by three of the Progress Report poems that make it into the third collection but not the seventh. Connie may have edited out the more biographically revealing poems as time went on.


One poem that does not make it into Finding a Leg to Stand On is ‘Progress Report’ itself, which contrasts the aging of the body with the continuity of desire, bemoaning the lack of congruence. But I’ll quote from a poem that does make it from first collection to last, ‘Hiatus’. Here is the first of its two verses:

Ragworn with our emotions, out of sight
Of reason; ash-trays brimming by the bed,
We drag on through the fitful, racked-out night
Reiterating all that we have said
Ten times or more before, and still it fails
To lead us from the maze.

That raises biographical questions. Are the smokers the parents of the jean-wearing adolescents downstairs? Is the woman sleeping with her husband, or another lover? What is the difficulty that they can’t work out? Let’s see what the second section brings:

At last the dawn
Prefigures some release. The window pales,
I rest my head against it. On the lawn
I see the starlings quarrel, strut and jerk,
(Like some old newsreel, grainy black and grey),
Their energies close-channeled to their work:
Survival. Well they manage, so we may:
The day will come, and like awaited rain,
Will make our lives move forward once again.


That doesn’t give me answers to my questions. But it does show one of the ways in which we get a perspective on a situation and put our problems behind us, allowing us to get on with life.

While Connie Bensley’s poems are clearly personal, they are also private and I think this allows the universal to shine through. Do I mean universal? Starlings on the lawn; ashtrays studded with cigarette butts. These images take me back to my own suburban upbringing, in a West of Scotland town in the 1960s. They won’t mean the same thing to a generation that hasn’t observed these phenomena. Flocks of starlings and chain smokers have both pretty much bitten the dust.

How have things moved on for Connie Bensley by the second collection,
Moving In, which was published in 1984, when Bensley was 55?

Again I don’t have the original collection. 39 of its poems make it into
Central Reservations and 27 into Finding a Leg to Stand On. ‘Loss’ seems to deal with the death of the poet’s mother. The first part is simple, descriptive and moving. With the poet’s permission, I’m going to copy it out in full:

When at last she died
in the nursing home, where nuns
whispered along the Spanish-tiled passages,
she left a list, in shaky writing:

These are my things:
the small chair by the window
the picture by the bed
the blue ginger jar
and the box of photographs.

I folded the paper, laid it
in the empty ginger jar
and replaced the lid.
Some things don’t bear reading twice.


The irony is that by including those abject words in a poem, Connie Bensley will have read that note many times.

The second part changes tone and ends:

A parent owes it to a child to be in keeping:
first present; then distant; and finally
absent. But all without screaming.

The child is given the right to scream. At least I remember doing so when my mother died. A scream of release that the long dying process was ‘at last’ complete. A scream that acknowledged that the person who had brought me into the world was now forever lost to me.

Two poems in
Moving In might deal with the aftermath of the all-night smokers’ relationship. First, ‘Mutability’:

Some months after it was finished
(the raw emotions concreted over)
she saw him again, and was amazed at the change.
Surely he was shorter by at least an inch;
coarser at the neck and waist;
and the endearing imperfections overtly more imperfect
and less endearing; why had he changed so much since she stopped loving him?

She smiled in condescending sympathy:
but then so did he.

It’s only right that if the poet has the capacity to turn a cold objective eye on someone else, they don’t omit to treat themselves to the same scrutiny.


Connie Bensley was 61 by the time she published her third collection, Central Reservations, in 1990. Which makes it her first post-PEN volume. The next poem I’m going to quote might conceivably have been written in the aftermath of the PEN New Fiction 2 launch party. I’m trying to think of Connie Bensley as the second-person protagonist in ‘Cut and Thrust’, and Ralph Goldswain as the male interest:

‘A man much younger than yourself, personable, smiling
falls into close conversation with you at a party.

His shoulders block off the room – his eyes widen politely
when you recite the ages of your children.

He touches your sleeve, fills your glass,
reads your palm. Ancient machinery,

Fitful and reluctant, starts up inside you,
whirrs. You fan yourself a little.

A stir of introductions separates you;
but he returns to breathe some gossip into your ear.

When you are leaving, coming down the stairs,
searching out your car keys,

he is standing in the hall looking up,
‘Goodnight,’ you say, but he doesn’t answer;

and he beckons, smiling his personable smile,
at the blonde girl in sequins behind you.’


The blonde girl in sequins? Connie might be thinking of raven-haired, serious-minded Frances Fyfield. If so, she’s putting readers off the scent, which is an old trick of poets and novelists both. As for the gossip referred to. I’m imagining it to be the information that Allan Massie didn’t make it to London for the launch of his own book because of a chance meeting with a former lover with whom he felt compelled to spend the night. Groundless speculation, of course. But I picture Allan, dejectedly throwing his first cigarette of the morning from the upstairs bedroom in the direction of the body of a starling lying dead on the front lawn. Why is Allan sad? Because he knows he did a good thing by accepting the stories of three ex-state school lads. He knew he would have done an even better thing if he could have met them in person and urged them on to greater heights.

There are a couple of poems in the 1990 collection recalling Bensley’s mother, but none about her children as such. Instead, it’s lovers that dominate this book. Lovers that scorn the poet. Or are scorned by her. The final poem can’t help but give away biographical data:

He made restless forays
into the edge of our marriage.
One Christmas Eve he came late,
his dark hair crackling with frost,
and ate his carnation buttonhole
to amuse the baby.

When I had a second child
he came to the foot of my bed at dusk
bringing pineapples and champagne,
whispering ‘Are you awake? –
singing a snatch of opera.
The Nurse tapped him on the shoulder.

At the end we took turns at his bedside.
I curled up in the chair; listened to each breath
postponing itself indefinitely.
He opened his eyes once and I leaned forward:
‘Is there anything you want?’
‘Now she asks,’ he murmured.


Two sons and a husband are alluded to in this poem. But it is the friend who is given the lead role in the poet’s life, on this occasion. And that seems appropriate, if a little sad.

Bensley’s fourth collection, Choosing to Be a Swan, came out in 1994, when she was 65. ‘Thin Ice’ reads:

What I’m trying to do
is to get through to the end
without anyone noticing (or saying to my face)
that I am an immature person who is
only pretending to be an adult

That’s fair enough. It’s what I’m trying to do. Though of course ‘A Friendship’ suggests a certain maturity of outlook on at least Bensley’s part. In other words:

What I’m trying to do
is to get through to the end
without laboring the point

that I am a mature person and
this is all that maturity amounts to.

Which takes us to ‘Last Haiku’.

No, wait a minute,
I can’t be old already:
I’m just about to

Just about to what? Take a new lover? Publish an ambitious new collection? Eat out at the fabulous new restaurant? Or, in fact, anything but die.

Perhaps there is a clue as to what she’s about to do in some of the poems that concern men. In ‘Jump’, the poet’s looking to escape from her would-be lover. In ‘Poilteness’ she’s trying to hide a lack of enthusiasm in the face of her lover’s ardent desire. In other words:


No, wait a minute,
I can’t be old already:
I’m just about to

give him the elbow.

In 2000, six years older than when she chose to be a swan, Bensley published her fifth collection The Back and the Front of It. For me the stand out poem in this collection is ‘Holding Hands in the Movie Show’. She recalls being sixteen and sitting with a boy watching a film:

Difficult to know
who was the more nervous. His hand
creeping over the armrest,
infinitesimally slow,
his shoulder touching mine, my heart
in a frenzy, the film a vague blur.

The virginity of the girl’s palm is breached in the second verse, which goes on:

passionate squeezes, delicate tracings
and strokings – furtive and illicit, perhaps,
or familiar, comforting.

The poem then cuts to fifty years later, sitting with her grandchild, his hand clutching hers as he cowers from a monster on the screen. And when she murmurs into his ear “Come on, be brave, it’ll all be over soon,” the reader is aware that on one level she means his whole life will soon be over.


Now that is an old person’s perspective. When everything has already happened and is condensed in the mind. A very different mind from the empty one of a child, where everything is out there in the world, still to happen.

Did Connie Bensley see herself as old, or ancient, or what, by the time of the sixth collection,
Private Pleasures? It came out in 2007 when she was no longer 52 or even 55. No longer 61 or even 65. No longer 71 but - God help her -78.

In several poems, the poet is looking back over her life but still anchored to the present. In ‘Universal Primer’ she is repainting a room and has to remove some old diaries from a shelf. Over coffee, reading a diary, she tries to remember who it was she was in love with – referred to by ‘guarded initials’. The detail reminds me that in the interview with Bensley I cite earlier, she refers to her husband with three initials that were inscribed in the front of The Oxford Book of English Verse that ‘JAB’ gave her in 1946. I’m again reminded of the personal-yet-private dimension to Bensley’s work. 1946, though. That’s a full 35 years before her first Progress Report.

One poem is called: ‘To Those People I’ve Annoyed by My Infatuation’. The list includes a boy, a music master, a gynaecologist, and an Austrian, before concluding:

I’d like to apologise to you all
for the inconvenience caused

by my tears and sighs,
intrusions and lingering looks.

I am quite better now.

Was the 78-year-old over all that? Judge for yourself. Here is the last poem in The Front and the Back of It: ‘Why Didn’t You Tell Me You Were Dead?


It was odd the way I found out
coming across your name on a plaque on that bench
(in Roman caps, HE LOVED THIS VIEW).

I thought of you –
never one to commend any view –
rebellious, cranky, funny;
touching my life then losing touch.

The years wound back
to you, leaning forward
either to kiss or to mock
your beard vibrant with intent.

The beard crops up elsewhere in the collection. And I soon track it down in Finding A Leg to Stand On. Well, no, I have to flick back through two collections, back past 78 and 71 to age 65 and Choosing to be a Swan. The poem is called ‘In the Conservatory’. It’s just three lines long:

Though we spring apart,
my earring, caught in your beard,
winks indiscreetly.

I think those words would make an appropriate text for a plaque on a bench. Rebellious, cranky and winking vibrantly.

Bensley’s penultimate collection also contains another of her poignant family pieces., called ‘In a Flash’. The poet is handed a photograph of her adult son cheek-to-cheek with his first-born. She realizes it seems like just a moment ago that her son, the father, was a baby, lying on her bed, staring at the wallpaper. Life happens so quickly. Or as she puts it at the end of the poem:

The photos fly in and out of the albums
like snow, like melting snow.


And so to the seventh and most recent collection, published in 2012 when Bensley was 83. There are 35 new poems in Finding a Leg to Stand on. They first appeared in eight different journals so Connie has been continuing to put it about a bit. Several of the poems refer to dead things but it’s all fairly lighthearted. Actually, life is looked at from many an odd angle - and generates a range of emotions. Here is: ‘I Am My Son’s Fourth Child’.

The other three are off his hands
but now he has acquired this fourth.

who falls over, loses keys, socks,
and the thread of the argument;

has phases of monomania
and responds poorly to suggestion.

Boarding out is a possibility;
expensive, but worth every penny.

Connie Bensley retains her independence. When I send her an email I expect it will come to her attention. More than that, I have high hopes of an answer.

Hi Connie,

Sorry it's been a while since I've ben in touch. I don't know what I was thinking of when I took on a project involving 32 writers. It certainly eats up the time.

I wanted my editor to see what I'd been doing and he came back with a request for more on each writer's sense of 'mission'. I don't think you have a mission exactly, but I found it useful to read the photocopied interview you gave me when I dropped by. Mission statement: 'to give aesthetic pleasure or entertainment to the poet or the reader. Or, ideally, both'. Hear, hear!


I now realise that my first draft of PEN Pals deftly evaded actually reading many of the writers in any depth, and I've recently been trying to put that right. I have now read all your collections (at least all the poems in Central Reservations, Private Pleasures and Finding a Leg to Stand On. And of course two of these books include poems from the other collections.) So in some ways I'm getting up to speed. Apologies for my tortoise-like approach.

Let me ask you a question(s) about each of the collections and maybe that will add up to something. Hopefully something less than if/when I get your answers:

I now have Connie’s answers, which I will incorporate in my own email.

1) Progress Report. Hiatus.
I wondered if the couple liyng in bed with only ashtrays and starlings for company were any relation to the jean-strangled adolescents in 'Paterfamilias'. Although your poems are very personal, they are also private. You may not want to tell me if the couple involved in that poem were you and your husband, or other people entirely. You may want to say something entirely different about where you were when you wrote that poem or collection.

CB: ‘I am shocked at re-visiting Hiatus - all that smoking! I was convinced that I only smoked occasionally, but then that was obviously an occasion, and drawn from life, as we divorced, rather amicably, not long before the poem appeared.

I can't add much to the 'Paterfamilias' poem, as it was just a reflection of family life at the time.’


2) Moving In. I wonder what you eventually did with the blue ginger jar that you put your mother's list of her last possessions in, referred to in 'Loss'. Can you remember? (Please forgive the autobiographical assumption.) 

CB: ‘I had the ginger jar until just recently but now can't find it, unless it's in the bottom of a box in the shed. It will be in the Oxfam shop I expect, where so many of our treasures end up.

3) Central Reservations. (1990) Re the poem 'Cut and Thrust,' I've pretended that the party you have been attending was the PEN2 party in 1987, and that the man who was paying 'you' attentions was our fellow contributor, Ralph Goldswain. Isn't that terrible of me? It's only for a line or two, and I'll be sending you the draft of the whole chapter once I've incorporated your responses to this email. I will have to, as I've quoted verses from several of your poems and will need your permission before I can publish the material. 

CB: ‘Poor R. G. - re Cut and Thrust . I think this poem was a complete fabrication. I shouldn't think he'd like having such fickle behaviour assigned to him! And I don't much like my role.’

Poems about lovers dominate this particular collection and perhaps that is understandable: despite the gist of 'Cut and Thrust' you were still relatively young then. (You may say you are still relatively young now.)

Choosing to Be a Swan. Poems like 'Thin Ice' and 'Last Haiku' show a light touch about age. You were 65 by the time this collection came out. Does that seem a long time ago now? Perhaps that's one of the valuable things about your oeuvre, It shows how one woman felt in her 50s, 60, 70s and 80s. Four distinct decades; one particular person.

CB: ‘65 seems ages ago, yet v. recent, in the way that putting out the recycling does. Still picking my way over thin ice, still immature.


'Last haiku' was read at a friend's funeral last week and various mourners came to make a note of it, so perhaps it is my hit single. (It also appeared in a huge volume of American literature, having furtively made its way over there.)

5) The Back and the Front of It. The poem 'Holding Hands in the Movie Show' has a breathtaking ending. Has anyone in your family ever commented on it? When a new collection comes out, who do you give your free copies to? Friends and family? Or do you let people find their own way to the work?

CB: No-one in the family has commented, not even the granddaughter, now aged 26. No harm done.

6) Private Pleasures. You seem at a distance from your younger self by the time of this collection. Lightly mocking love affairs in 'To Those People I've Annoyed by My Infatuation' and 'Why Didn't You Tell Me You were Dead?'. Any connection between the beard in that last poem and the one a couple of collections back that crops up in 'In the Conservatory'?

CB: Both 'beard' poems are complete fabrications, triggered by some slight happening from left field, e.g. in the haiku, getting my earring tangled in someone's hair during a polite greetings hug; and in the other, seeing a half-remembered name on a bench.

7) Finding a Leg to Stand On. Re 'I am My Son's Fourth Child'. These care homes are not really worth every penny. You do know that don't you?!

CB: Hope I don't have to find out.

Can we expect an eighth collection? I for one greatly look forward to seeing where yet further 'ageing' takes you. I do hope that you get through to the end without anyone noticing (or saying to your face) that you are an immature person who is trying to be an adult! That is very much what I hope for myself.


Hoping very much to hear back from you. But if you don't have the time or inclination to answer all (or even any) of my nosey questions, just tell me you are in good health and I'll be delighted.

Wishing you well.

Your PEN Pal, Duncan

Of course, Connie’s replies to my points means that another email to her is required. I expect I’ll incorporate her answers within it:

Hi Connie,

Yes, thanks for your answers - much appreciated.

So some of the poems I mentioned are based on actual events while others are 'fabrications'. Presumably the fabrications still reflect your own position. So when you tell me Cut and Thrust was a fabrication, I expect it's nevertheless true that at that stage in life (around 1990, when you were about 60) you were feeling that you were becoming invisible as a sexual being. Is that fair comment?

CB: Re Cut and Thrust - it could be as you suggest, doctor, or it could just be a comment on the ebb and flow of party relations. Not a favourite of mine anyway.

‘Similarly the 'beard poems' being 'complete fabrications': I'm supposing that behind the fiction lies an element of truth regarding your retrospective feelings about romantic/sexual encounters.’

I'm wondering if another part of your 'mission' (as is true of Evelyn Waugh, for example) has been to put over an essentially true picture of yourself. This would not be so if some of your poems' first person protagonists were definitely not you. That is, where the attitudes and experiences were different from your own.


CB: I don't know what a true picture of myself would be like.

In the last poem in Central Reservations, 'A Friendship', the references to two children seem autobiographical. And although the precise hospital bed role played by the male friend may or may not have been made up, I guess you are putting over the gist of a real long-term relationship. Is that the case?

CB: ‘A Friendship' was based quite closely on a true event. Strangely, it was reprinted in an architectural book featuring the architect in question, with whose widow I am still close friends.

I may be exaggerating this autobiographical impulse in your work. (Just because Evelyn Waugh had it in spades, and I have it, doesn't mean every artist does.) In other words, my antennae may have been on the lookout for poems of yours where I thought there was autobiographical underpinnings.

CB: I think you've struck an interesting subject in the truth/fabrication area. I notice that I've quite often written in the persona of a man; but I don't feel a bit bisexual! At least I haven't, like Ian McEwan, personified a foetus. And how can the reader tell if you are being true or fabricating? Perhaps it doesn't matter. Perhaps everything is faction...

I’m very grateful to Connie for her patience. And for her observation that everything in her work may be faction. Everything in
PEN Pals is faction, that’s for sure. By which I mean it tries to be objectively true about some things and subjectively true about others. Ha-ha.

Time I wrapped up this chapter. And I think I know exactly how to do that.

No, wait a minute,
It can’t be the end already:
I’m just about to


pen pals - Version 6

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