to Norfolk Interviews
Where did the idea for Poets' Graves come from?
In 1994 I spent a holiday in the south of England and
visited Hardy's grave at Stinsford and Eliot's grave at
East Coker and it occurred to me that 'Poets' Graves' would
make a good book. ( I had previously been to Drumcliff in
Ireland and to Grasmere in the Lake District.) When I got
home I wrote to about 15 publishers - but when 15
rejection letters came back I filed my notes and forgot about
it. By 2003, however, I
was starting to play around with websites and then suddenly remembered PG.
Is it true that the BBC were interested?
1994 the veteran BBC producer Edward Mirzoeff phoned me
up and was considering it as a vehicle for Lucinda Lambton. He
thought the title was a bit gloomy though. So I said,
'Change the title!' However,
in the end, nothing happened.
Did you suspect that PG would become as popular as
Not really no. By 2003 I understood how search
engines worked and I knew that there would be a certain
number of people 'out there' searching for information
on poetry. However, when I was writing it, the hit rate
rose very rapidly and after only 6
months I was up to about 1000 unique visitors a day. It
was the glossary of poetic terms that really seemed to
hit the spot. Today it averages 2000 unique visitors a
When did you add the poetry forum?
The poetry forum was added in 2004. I had previously
taught creative writing so I knew that poetry could be
improved by constructive feedback from other poets.
At that time, most
of the forums on the internet were (and probably still
are) either teen angst
dross or cheesy, greeting card dross. From the start I wanted PG
to be a serious critical place and so I set about
critiquing a lot of the poor quality stuff that was
being posted. This started to pay off as serious poets
started to sign in. One of the first of these was 'camus'
from Grimsby who was (and still is) an original and talented poet.
Others soon followed and an atmosphere of constructive
criticism was established. To be honest, I hardly ever
look at the forum these days - but it's still going
strong - thanks mainly to our excellent team of moderators.
So when did Literary Norfolk come along?
Lit Norfolk actually surfaced in 2007. Originally I
pitched it at Norfolk County Council as an idea for a
leaflet-based literary tour. As normal nothing happened - so I launched it as a
website instead. Working on PG had made me acutely aware of literary landmarks
and had also focused my attention on local poets. In fact, in
the first grave I visited was William Cowper's at St.
Nicholas' Church, East Dereham. I was also influenced by two splendid books:
East Anglia - A Literary Pilgrimage by Peter Tolhurst
and Literary Norfolk by Julian Earwaker and Kathleen
Becker - both of which are now sadly out of print.
What advantages does a website have over a book?
Well there are advantages and disadvantages to websites.
On the plus side websites are as easily accessible in
Australia as they are in Dumpling Green and, barring
server problems, are viewable 24/7. Surprisingly, they
also have greater longevity than local books which tend
to go out of print after a couple of years. Also,
without wishing to sound like a control freak, they
allow me complete hegemony. I write the content, take
all of the photographs and make all the decisions. The
main disadvantage is that no one pays you any money but, as a poet, I'm used to
that. Actually I do make a few quid selling books via
Talking of photographs, what camera do you use?
Originally I used a Fujifilm 'point-and-shoot'
but now I use a Nikon D40. In fact, photography has
recently become a bit of an obsession with me.
Travelling round the Norfolk lanes and the Norfolk
churches is really as good as it gets.
Recently, I've even set up a Flickr site to showcase
some of the best photographs.
You obviously love Norfolk? Where is you favourite
I was actually born in Cambridge but my family moved to
Poringland in 1964 when I was 2 years old. With the
exception of a few years at University, I've been here
ever since. I suppose I love the fact that Norfolk isn't
on the road to anywhere and is also essentially
unforthcoming. I'm not sure what my therapist would make
of these projections though.
favourite place would probably be the Tas valley as it's
where I spent much of my childhood: cycling or fishing
for dace. And, at the heart of the Tas valley for
me, is Shotesham Mill
where we used to swim
in the old mill pool under the giant horse chestnut
I notice that the site is supported by Norfolk
Yes, they kindly agreed to cover the web hosting and
domain name costs for me. I think they see the site as
contributing in some way to 'cultural tourism' in the
county. It arose from my original approach to them.
Although I have to confess that I'm not entirely
comfortable with anything that markets the county too
forcefully. I suppose I'm probably part of the
'drawbridge' Norfolk brigade at heart.
I understand that humour is very important to you?
And in particular Norfolk humour.
Yes, absolutely. Many people look at my websites and
assume that I must be some dreadfully earnest guy who
spends his life poking through graveyards and second-hand bookshops. (Not that there's anything wrong with
that you understand.) But, actually, I came very
close to making it as a sitcom writer. Long before
I was gripped by Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes, I was in love
with the Pink Panther films, Monty Python and The
Norfolk has a great humorous tradition you know. My parents inherited a copy of
'The Boy John Letters' from an old lady who lived next to us in Poringland -
and the book somehow found its way into my possession.
Grapes' work has certainly influenced my
own poetry and also some of my (un-produced) plays. I also remember seeing The Kipper Family at the Arts Centre in
the 1980s - which was another important moment for me.
The Nimmo Twins are pretty damn good too.
Are there any plans for 'Literary Suffolk'?
Probably not. I reckon there's another couple
of years left in 'Literary Norfolk' yet. And when that's
finished I might go back to 'Poets' Graves'. Suffolk
is full of interesting literary locations but it's 20
miles further away and I'm keen not to
pollute the environment while searching for literary landmarks.