Olds Friends

The week after I finished my journalism course I became a business reporter.

It was not a great time to be alive. 

I'll insert a Venn diagram to explain it:

As part of my job (the only bit that was remotely bearable) I covered social events in the business world.

I met Daniel at one such event, a charity dinner. He was the PR guy for the organisers. I didn’t want to like Daniel because...PR...but he turned out to be alright. 

We were put on the same table as the evening's entertainment: a magician. The magician seemed to be very on edge and emotional. I overheard as he explained to a child that he used to be a very famous actor.  Grim. After the meal, he pulled ten pence from behind my ear. He was pretty good, I mean, how did my salary get behind my ear?

Daniel was a bright spot on the evening. He was funny and thoughtful and we had enough in common for a viable friendship to commence and so we did that. We lived in the same neighbourhood and hung out on the weekends in Hyde Park and Holland Park.

Daniel gave me Stag's Leap by Sharon Olds when it came out in 2012. It's a collection of poems about the end of her marriage and hope that comes with healing. Olds won the T.S.Eliot Prize in 2012 and a Pulitzer prize for it in 2013.

I changed jobs, flats and some life stuff happened. We lost touch and three years passed. 

About a month ago I had to travel across town to a meeting. Mid-meeting I remembered that he worked in the same building. As I had no other means of contacting him, I sent him a message through Linkedin (who knew that would be useful?) 

Anyway, to conclude the story, he’d moved to China and wasn’t in the building. We're now back in touch. Good news. 

Throwback Thursday: Robert Burns

In the week that Jackie Kay was named Scotland's national poet, or makar, I thought I'd look to Robert Burns for this week's historical gift-giving story.

Robert Burns, perhaps Scotland's greatest poet, gave this inkwell to his friend, John Lapraik, in 1793.

John Lapraik and Robert Burns Inkwell | Laughing Heart

It is made from the hoof of a pony. Weird, but not uncommon.  The hoof of Napoleon Bonaparte's favourite horse, Marengo, was made into an inkwell.

This particular inkwell features an iron shoe, a silver plaque bearing the presentation date and a brass lid engraved with the following: 'Presented to Mr Lapraik by his Much respected Friend Robt Burns'.

Born thirty miles and thirty years apart, Burns and Lapraik were from farming families in Ayrshire and, as Lapraik put it in a poem to Burns, ‘A mut’al flame inspires us baith’ meaning the two were poets.

Lapraik was an early supporter of Burns but he didn’t come close to achieving the level of fame or commercial success as his young friend. His contribution to Burn’s work can be seen in the ‘Three Epistles to John Lapraik’

An inkwell is a good gift for a writer. However, the reason I find the gift so poignant is that Burns was already enjoying notoriety in 1793. Lapraik by that time was already 66 years old. By giving Lapraik the inkwell, Burns is both practically and symbolically saying to his friend: ‘You must keep writing too’.

As an object, the hoof is as much associated with forward movement as it is with the earth. As my old professor Robert Crawford said of Burns, ‘No poet has been at once so brilliant and so down-to-earth.’ An ornate silver inkwell wouldn’t have been quite right for an old friend.

I don’t love the idea of an inkwell made out of a pony’s hoof but as far as gifts go, this gift ranks highly. It is as symbolic as it is practical and I like it for a’ that.

O wad some Power the giftie gie us...

If you'd like to read more about John Lapraik, www.lap raik.com   is a great site to visit. 

Visit Robert Burn's House in Dumfries:

Burns Street




01387 255297



Throwback Thursday: Sappho & the purple headband

This week’s Throwback Thursday post is about the Greek poet, Sappho, and a gift she couldn't give.

Few facts exist about the woman who we now refer to as ‘the first woman poet’, ‘tenth muse’ and slightly-misinterpreted icon of lesbianism.

We do know that she was a native of the Greek island of Lesbos, located a few miles from the Turkish coast. We know that she lived on the island during the late seventh and early sixth century B.C but did spend time in Sicily as a political exile. It is believed she married and had at least one daughter, Cleis.

Her lyric poetry survives on fragments of papyrus. One poem, addressed to daughter Cleis, caught my eye.

Dr. Philip Freeman, Harvard classicist and author of the excellent Searching For Sappho, kindly gave me permission to reproduce his translation:

For my mother used to say

That when she was young it was

A great ornament if someone had her hair

Bound in a purple headband.

But for a girl whose hair

is yellower than a flaming torch…

Crowns adorned with

blooming flowers…

Recently a decorated headband

…from Sardis


But for you, Cleis, I have no beautiful headband

Nor do I know how to get one.


In this fragment, Sappho remembers her mother’s words that when she was a girl, there was no finer adornment than a purple headband. For fair-haired girls, flowers were the perfect ornamentation.

However, more is conveyed in this poem than just mother-daughter style advice.

It is a sad and nostalgic poem; not only is Sappho unable to give her own daughter  a headband, we get the impression of Sappho as a displaced figure, separated from the people and places able to supply such a thing. Mytilene, the capital of Lesbos, was a busy centre for trade would have been the obvious shopping destination for Sappho but she seems unable to get there. Perhaps this is a poem created in exile. 

The idea of separation is compounded through her reminiscences. She is separated from her mother by time. 

Though I've talked about separation, it's connection which has kept Sappho's legacy alive. Sappho’s work survives because she can describe human experience in such a way that a modern reader can identify immediately. For example, she describes love as a ‘loosener of limbs’  and  ‘a subtle/fire races beneath my skin./ I see nothing with my eyes/ and my ears hum’. She felt it as we feel it.

The shared experiences don’t stop there. Extensive googling proves that beautiful purple headbands are just as hard to come by today as 2600 years ago.  I challenge you to find one. It doesn’t even need to come from Sardis (modern-day Turkey).

And I agree with Sappho's mother, flower crowns are the perfect ornamentation and are much easier to come by.

The index picture I’ve used with this blog was kindly provided by Bee from The Honeycomb. Bee makes the most beautiful silk floral crowns by hand. Evidence below! 

Philip Freeman's Searching for Sappho is out in the U.S and will be released in the UK on the 11th March. I picked it up during my recent trip to America and I'm so glad I did. It is a fantastic read for anyone interested in literature, history, women's studies or classics.