Kolkata (Calcutta)

Sometimes it’s easier to write about negatives than positives. When one feels disgruntled about something, it’s normally easy to articulate the source of said disgruntlement. Therefore, writing about my recent trip to Kolkata is comparatively difficult, because the trip was absolutely perfect.

I don’t like leaving unfinished business. In a sense, this applied here because I’d visited once before, but was uncharacteristically unwell and didn’t see very much. This time, I travelled in a way I haven’t travelled before, namely spending all of my time (19 days) based in one place. I didn’t get bored, and although I’ve seen now most of the touristy things and achieved my poetic goals, I’ve left thinking a return visit is certainly high on the agenda, and not just for poetic reasons.

Kolkata (often still called Calcutta, including by at one major national newspaper, but I don’t want to appear to be colonial) has a reputation for being the most cosmopolitan, liberal, artistic and interesting of the four great Indian metropolises. I haven’t spent much time in Delhi and Mumbai, and I haven’t been to Chennai/Madras at all. However, Kolkata has all of the aforementioned qualities in spades, so I’m prepared to believe the claim.

Touristically, it doesn’t have the ancient monuments Delhi has, but there is lots of more recent history, much of it concerned with the British Empire. Until 1905, Calcutta was the capital of British India, and London was the only city in the Empire which was bigger. Much of the colonial architecture is still standing, and it’s very easy to get a feel of how the city was back then. Lots of churches are still standing, plenty of old commercial buildings and very informative places, like the Park Street Cemetery, where the young ages on the headstones demonstrate chillingly why workers who made the move from the UK were very handsomely rewarded for doing so.

Modern Kolkata is comparatively user-friendly. Most of the touristy things are in a fairly compact area. For those which aren’t, India’s only metro system (cheap, efficient and under expansion) serves well. The chief backpacker area is Sudder Street, slightly north of centre. I stayed just off Park Street, ten minutes’ walk away, and more upscale, but right on the doorstep of the Lit Fest venues, including the venerable Oxford Bookstore, which organises the Festival.

For the first half of my time, I mostly played tourist, rather than poet, reversing the roles for the second half. As well as the major attractions of the Victoria Memorial and the Indian Museum (the country’s largest), the Asutosh Museum, the Planetarium, the remarkable Z Planet art deco house, the Botanical Gardens (containing the world’s largest tree in terms of canopy cover) and a few smaller galleries kept me well occupied. Throw in a side trip to the Sunderbans Eco Reserve (in theory, you can see a Bengal tiger, in reality, there’s more chance of the Loch Ness Monster) and the pre-Lit Fest time was filled easily and enjoyably.

The poetry side was an absolute pleasure. At the Lit Fest, I performed a few poems, and also took part in a panel discussion on Gender Sensitisation in Children’s Literature. I was a bit nervous about this, as I haven’t done such a thing before, but all went well, not least because the other panellists are established high-profile children’s authors, who generated plenty of ideas to talk about. The whole Lit Fest was great fun and very well organised by Maina, Anjum and their team.

Lit Fests also throw up the unexpected. The best example I have this time was that I talked football for fifteen minutes or so with a very nice man called Lorenzo, who happens to be Italy’s ambassador to India. He’s also a writer, and wasn’t just there for ceremonial purposes. Highest profile guest in terms of writing was Andrew Sean Greer, an American writer who’s just won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction, with his comedy novel, which I’ll be reading before too long. He’s been writing for quite a while with limited success, so I take my hat off to him for his perseverance and achievement.

The final few days were taken up with three workshops I managed to organise while in town. So, thank you to The Creative Arts, led by the indomitable Ramanjit Kaur. Two of the workshops happened at this excellent organisation, one with child actors and another with women actors. For the third workshop, thanks to The British Council, where several staff joined forces to organise a stellar workshop attended by a whopping 26 students, mostly young adults. At all three events, the commitment, passion and generally being up-for-it-ness were amazing.

And last, but certainly not least, thanks to Saikat and Aquib, who at different times were most helpful with tea, directions and wholehearted attentiveness.

Finally, there’s a poem below that’s my thank you present for the whole experience. This year was the 10th year of the AKLF Lit Fest. It’s theme was ‘Celebrating Park Street’, where the festival is organised. Therefore, the below is appropriate, and features many of the street’s landmarks.

Finally finally, if anyone is facing a massive dental bill and fancies getting the work done well and cheaply while abroad, I can recommend Kolkata, and recommend an excellent dentist to anyone who asks for details. My Upper Left 6 hasn’t felt so good for ages!!


Park Street, End of the Festival


As the sun sets

For the tenth time





To an embryonic horizon


Poets, playwrights

And the rest

Take their bow

Take their leave



Take to their nests

Sleep sixteen hours straight

In a flurry of sweet dreams




As always

By the thought

Of a Job well done


The old ones are the best


Jit Paul

Cracks his familiar smile

Holds a balloon

Bought from a child






The Park Hotel



Paints a brave face

On a five-star hangover


While in the cemetery

High spirits

Raise another glass


The late Metro News


Oxford blues

Illuminate to Mansion green


As an antique gas lamp

Feigns death

With a rag shroud


To deny

The naked eye

A glimpse

Of the tiny inside spark

It nurtures

To provide


2020 vision



Refugee Week

Crikey. This site’s supposed to be easy to use, but I always struggle. I suppose with computers, there comes a point where you’ve either got it or you haven’t. I’ve been dealt a pretty good hand in life, so I guess I can live with it.

And on the theme of the hand life deals you, I’ve actually sat down to write something about this week’s activities in schools for Refugee Week. Poetry workshops. Eight schools in Birmingham (8 primary, 2 secondary) and around 400 children, all of whom gave it their best shot at imagining being a refugee, or, in the case of quite a few, writing about really being a refugee or migrant.

I’ve long since suspected that pound for pound, children are far more open-minded and tolerant than adults. I’m now sure this is the case. 400 children aged 8-13 worked solidly for 2-3 hours and not once did I hear a word of the tired old racism propounded by the readers of our more ignorant newspapers. Discussions were measured, listening was attentive, and, crucially, those who disagreed with a point of view did so with respect, rather than dismissal. The work which was begun in our sessions (to be completed with the children’s class teachers) also showed a depth of perception which many outside the school system wouldn’t expect.

So, what did we do?

We looked at elephants! To be precise, David Attenborough’s ‘Spy in the Herd’, where a herd moves as they have no food. This necessity to move, making the elephants refugees, rather than migrants. (In all of the schools, the children understood this difference. I wonder what percentage of the adult population would get this right, or even think it important?)

Although it wasn’t the main focus of the project, as an English teacher, I wanted this work to enhance and reinforce literacy, so from the clip, we came up with some WOW words (one of my favourite phrases) to describe the feelings of the baby elephant as it was on the move. We then went on to looking at how the pachyderms’ (WOW word!) was a metaphor for human refugees.

This was followed by some clear and confident reading of a couple of my poems on the subject, and then the children planned their own and began to write them. This gave an opportunity to revise poetic terms learned, and they only needed a few thousand reminders that POEMS DON’T HAVE TO RHYME, AND ARE OFTEN BETTER WHEN THEY DON’T!!!!! And did this stop a few brave/silly souls from doing it anyway? Rhetorical question!

The aim of this work was to raise awareness of what it’s like to be a refugee. To be honest, the schools had done a pretty good job of this anyway (one school has used a classroom to make a mock-up of a refugee camp; another has written postcards of support to give to refugees). As I wanted expression and empathy to be the keynotes, pupils who have a second language were allowed to write in that language if was easier for them, or if it simply suited them better. Some work came out which sounded beautifully soulful, even to those of us who didn’t understand the words.

Once the teachers send me some of the finished work, it’ll be posted with due acknowledgement of authorship.

Hopefully, this will be repeated next year and rolled out to schools elsewhere in the country.

Meanwhile, I give heartfelt thanks to

About 400 children

Numerous teaching and teaching assistant colleagues

Carl Marshall and Razia Butt from Birmingham City Council

Schools of Sanctuary for supporting this project…

… and especially Barbara Forbes from Schools of Sanctuary who enthused about this from the moment I floated the idea, obtained the funding for it to take place, and put me in contact with her contact in the schools. Without Barbara, this really wouldn’t have happened.

Now for the hard part. Can I publish this without deleting it instead?







Love In…

At McDonalds

I saw…

A woman
With a face
Like the sludge
On her boots

A man spitting
Into a plastic cup

A man
Chastise his son
With the C word

A woman
By hope

A backside
That never sees home cooking

A couple
Of cracked statues

A guy talking into his phone
As if
He were alone

A woman

By everyone

Their kids all ate Happy Meals


The Sikhs’ magnificent Harmandir, or Golden Temple, is the centrepiece of the temple complex in the holy city of Amritsar. Tourists are welcome, and when i visited, I saw the following act of humility which on the surface looks small, but which is imbued with huge significance.

Respected, Rich
Humbles herself

Knowing what pride precedes
Hitches her sari above her feet

A forward thinking lady
Descends the stairs


Clears her mind
Cleans God’s house
For the pious
For the tourists
For the peasants who spend their lives
Swallowing dust

Not born to be a cleaner
She sweeps
Right to left
Right to left
Gathering tiny piles
Of unholy dust

Each movement
A speck of dirt

Each movement
A broadstroke golden universe
Of love and hope

Unkind thoughts
Everyday sins
The one thing
No rug is big enough to cover

Sweet water reflects
Ten heavenly smiles
Nanak to Gobind

The eleventh
Pauses its reading
And bookmarks
The purity
Flowing in and out
Of four open doors

My Second City

My Second City

My second city
Is called the Second City
It’s very different from my first

From date palms
To packaged dates
From cows swishing flies
To a bronze bull
Girls in jeans

I wonder what that word means?

Safe new friends
A school with books
Free bus rides, with unfriendly looks
Sky-high prices
Everything’s sort of clean and neat
Just don’t even think of stepping out in bare feet

A sanctuary with a leaky roof
My shiny blue raincoat drips daily proof
My Second City gives me every little thing I need

Except love

When I think of my first city
I laugh and I laugh and I laugh
Until it hurts

In my Second City
Nothing waits
No-one waits
But we wait and wait and wait and wait
For permission to unpack ourselves and stay
I’m really sure I’d like to stay

Perhaps for a few more days


On my recent trip
To Gujarat

I took
Pretty photographs

Of Modhera
The White Desert

And other pretty places


The image
I can’t delete
From my heart

My hard drive

Is of a ragged street child
At Vastrapur Lake
Who stepped out
From the promenading crowd

His left
Index finger
Into the stifling
Late afternoon


And drew
A rectangle
To take
An imaginary selfie

With me