Dangerous Pursuit of Yellow

Ochre, Saffron, Gamboge, Indian Yellow, Orpiment, Cadmium. Yellow is the colour of summer and the colour of money. It’s the colour of New York taxis, TNT, sunflowers, cowardice, fire, yellow-stars and the earliest pigments found in Palaeolithic cave-art. Dangerous Pursuit of Yellow explores the contradictory associations of yellow and its highly volatile nature. It is a book about nature and art, kitchens and bedrooms, about yellow-fingered munitions-workers in the Second World War, a tenth-century Chinese poet, Frida Kahlo, Dana Schutz, and about the bright, volatile, fading colours of family memory.

Sample Poem

Aycliffe Angels

‘Those little angels of Aycliffe won’t get away with it – the Luftwaffe will bomb you out of existence.’
Lord Haw Haw

I	The Shifting House

The drill: strip off, don thick white overalls,
check for contraband – cigarettes and lighters,
matches, jewellery, powder, lipsticks – anything
that might cause a spark. Only married lasses
could keep their wedding ring, taped over
with sticking plaster. We looked a sight, nothing
to write home about, in makeshift, knotted
turbans – hairclips not allowed – slathering
barrier cream into hairlines, faces, hands.
In the lines to cross over to the Clean Side
a sudden hush, as if we’d heard a pin drop.

II	On the Clean Side

When I was told I’d been recruited for Filling
I thought that’s nice; it sounded better than Explosives.
I wrote my mam that I’d been put on filling shells.
She was pleased, saying I’d always had light hands
for cakes and pastry. I didn’t let on, found lodgings
in Darlington. I was assigned to workplace 29
in Sector 7A. When I walked in, the whole place smelt
sweet, like York in the rain, only it was cordite
being prepared for bullets. On first shift each week
the Blue Band read the rules. No Talking –
you could hardly hear above the drill of the machines
but it was bleak as prison, working in silence.
We packed shells with fulminate of mercury, sodium
thiosulphate, lead azide and placed the detonators.
You’d to keep your workbench spotless. Strong Discipline,
Absolute Routine, Precision. No. Margin. For. Error!
I learned slogans – A Concealed Mistake Is A Crime.
Total concentration is the best way of killing time.

III	The Fundamental Things Apply

In February 1942 we’d been on earlies
so Audrey and me arranged to meet one Friday
for High Tea and the pictures.
When it was our turn in the queue
a chap behind us started whistling
and his pal called out, Well blow me,
if it isn’t a pair of Aycliffe canaries!
We went beetroot, under yellow stains
that all our scrubbing couldn’t hide.
Audrey dug her hands deep into her pockets.
You pay, she whispered and I did
because my fingers were only a little brown.
We were all right in the dark
with Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman.
I wanted her to leave Laszlo, return to Paris
with him, even though you knew she couldn’t.
When Rick put her on the plane with Laszlo
not himself, I sobbed and couldn’t stop.
Next morning I could hear A kiss is still a kiss
as the Blue Band asked us to stand. I knew immediately.
There’d been an accident on lates –
two hundred pounds of fulminate exploded.
Edna, Irene, Alice and Phoebe gone,
instantly. We’d a minute’s silence.

IV	Mad as Hatters

We needed cheering up that Spring
tramping in through unseasonal snow,
pathways sludged to mucky brown, so
when rumour of a visit to beat the King’s
goes round, we’re gathering snow in May,
buckets and shovels to the fields, in a rush
to lay a white carpet on top of the slush
for Churchill visits the Angels today.
Gladys Stoddart, demurest by far,
is chosen to greet him. We’re in the line-up
praying Winnie’s been warned not to light up
as she gives him a kiss – and a whopping cigar!

V	The Mixing Shop

Jean volunteered for Sector One – I was never
brave enough, the ‘suicide group’ their nickname.
On second shift they heard a blast. White faces
peered out, saw a carrier girl stumbling blindly
on the dirty side. Propped against the shop door
lay the mixer lass, her hand blown off,
the white magazine suit ripped open, her body
torn and bleeding. The foreman caught
her last words, Oh my poor bairn, my poor bairn.

VI	Waving the Flag

Doris had to escort the detonators
to be tested. She’d to walk slowly
waving a red flag, thirty yards
in front of chaps wheelbarrowing
the batches. Workmen repairing
the roadway thought it a huge joke
leaning out and resting on their picks
calling out all kinds of darkness
never knowing just one spark
could have blown them all sky high.

VII	The Lighter Side

We’d knock off, clatter up to Heighington
and let our hair down on the journey home.
I remember one young lad, green as willow,
got in our carriage after his first day.
Well, we’d high jinks, bumping into him
and jostling him into the middle.
Then Hannah Dixon calls out, Eeh pet,
does your mammy know you’se out?
We shrieked, his little face was scarlet
and someone starts up singing, Mammy, mammy,
how I love you, how I love you. We join in
singing and blowing pouty kisses. A big lass
plants a lipstick smacker, gets him in a dancing
hold, then grabs him by the belt and yells,
Come on Johnny, give the girls a treat, show us
your maiden’s prayer! At him lasses!
We all pile on, wrestle him down and grab
his legs. Someone gets his shoes off,
a tussle for his trousers and they’re hoyed around.
That’s enough ladies, keep the poor lad decent!
It was Olive Moreland rescued him, but not before
his trousers had been hung out the carriage window.

VIII	The Final Blow

News of Hitler’s death came over on the wireless
and made the morning papers. Like wildfire spreading,
everyone was saying it couldn’t be much longer,
daring to believe it really was the end, so whether
someone was lax we never knew, but the worst
blast of all happened that morning of May 2nd –
they heard the explosion in Darlington. We lost
Alice Wilson, William Mitchell, both single,
James Brunton, Isabella Bailey, William Hobson,
Christopher Seagrave and Edmund Smith, all
married, and Elsie Barrett, widow. the cruellest
blow; six more days and they’d have made it safe.

IX	Now the Blinking War is Over

When it ended I was very sad.
We had our photos taken, section by section
No more ROF for me
Once we’d partied for VE day and toasted
lost friends, it was tidy up, wait for decommission
You can tell the blinking Blue Band
Where to shove the blinking pass


‘There is a brightness to her delight in the physical and natural world; a warmth to her memories of people and of places.’

Tom Pow

‘In a word – yellow – sunlight, poison, warmth, bitterness – is all that the mind of the poet can discover in concentrated memory, imagination, research. A vivid, original collection of poems.’

Gillian Clarke

‘A bold and bright poetic composition.’