Thursday, 28 November 2013

For Your Eldorado - a tribute to Graeme Miles

It's always a rather awe-inspiring moment when a poem escapes the clutches of the poet and takes on a life of its own, beyond the creator. A few days ago I had the honour of hearing my poem For Your Eldorado read out at a packed concert in celebration of a great songwriter, social chronicler, and one of the first people ever to champion my own writing.

In his inimitable, quiet way, Graeme Miles is something of a local legend in the north-east of England. In a period of just over 20 years spanning the 1950s and 60s, he wrote 300-odd songs chronicling the landscape and the changing way of life in the Teesside where he grew up, lived and worked. A disciple of the Folk Revival, Graeme's songwriting was heavily influenced by the traditional music of the area. Many of his songs are shared and passed around Teesside today as if they were true folk songs, or nursery rhymes.

Graeme Miles passed away earlier this year without ever becoming a mainstream name in the arts world. He'd never have wanted such recognition. He was humble, dignified and self-effacing. For Graeme, the created work mattered far more than the creator. When traditional ways of life were coming to an end, and changing economic fortunes were dealing hammer-blows to the established industry of the region, Graeme saw his songs as his contribution to a shared heritage, a collective memory capable of withstanding the changes all around.

I had the great privilege of getting to know Graeme very early in my journey as a poet. Some fifteen years ago, I became a member of Jackdaw, an informal little poetry circle in Durham, which was attended by Graeme and his artistic collaborator Robin Dale. Graeme was the quiet member of the group, but his creativity was clear from the start. He was an aspiring poet, striving to write “good, bad and indifferent verse, but not necessarily in that order” (his words). He produced a series of wonderful illustrations for the first Jackdaw anthology (including the magnificent cover picture that graces this article). And it was through Robin's haunting performances of Graeme's songs that I first got to know his incredible back catalogue. Pastoral poems, work songs, chronicles of changing times: it seemed Graeme had written them all.

I had no idea how far Graeme's music had travelled until I started to venture into the idiosyncratic world of the region's folk clubs. It was a surprise to me just how many musicians – from fireside amateurs to bona-fide, touring professionals – had Graeme's songs in their repertoire. They had a natural home in north-east England, but many were known across the length of the UK (and even beyond; another exponent, Martyn Wyndham-Read, has exported the Graeme Miles songbook all the way to Australia!). I once heard Bob Fox sing The Shores of Old Blighty to a field of 10,000 people at the Cropredy Festival – and most of those 10,000 joined in the refrain.

What makes Graeme's songs special isn't just their role as sociological record. These are songs with immense heart: poems-set-to-music which are filled with love and loss, dreams of peace and hope for a better tomorrow. As a writer, Graeme was always among the people. He took on back-breaking manual labour in order to celebrate the labourers in song. He slept rough in the bitter winter of 1963. He walked the long march from Aldermaston with the original Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. His songwriting was political, but not in any contrived or self-important way. His depiction of the wind across the North York Moors in Horumarye may have been intended to salute the timeless pilgrims of the Lyke Wake Walk; but when he sang “Cold blows the wind over Fylingdales”, it was impossible for a listener not to form a mental image of the frightening outpost of Cold War paranoia that dominated the landscape in Graeme's own lifetime. He could discuss world peace in grand allegory in The Eagle and the Dove, or through the simple dreams of a conscripted squaddie wishing for The Shores of Old Blighty.

I didn't know it at the time, but Graeme had known his share of romance, and romance gone wrong, in his younger days too. His first love song – the enigmatically titled Exercise no. 77 (only recently re-catalogued as the much more poetic Amouret) – is one of the finest pieces of romantic poetry I know. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that Graeme and I first became friends. At a turbulent time in my own private life, Graeme understood the subtext in my poetry, and encouraged me not to be afraid to express what I was feeling. He even illustrated a couple of those early attempts.

And this is where I owe Graeme a real debt. I'd only been writing poetry a couple of years when I joined the Jackdaws. But very early on, Graeme found a point of connection with my writing, and became a generous champion. I was still far from the point of actually submitting my work for publication; but it's in no small measure down to the confidence that Graeme always placed in me and my writing, that I was eventually able to do so. Perhaps it was because we shared subject matter – the natural world, love and heartbreak, occasional political comment. More likely, it was just because he was a generous, thoughtful man, keen to nurture creativity wherever he found it. He was scathing in his dismissal of the fake and the superficial. But when he found something genuine, he was passionate in his nurturing of it.

Graeme and I corresponded for several years after I left Durham, and gradually became what I hesitatingly describe as “a serious poet”. One of my most treasured possessions is the signed copy of Songscapes, his first published volume of songs, which he gave to Kath and me as a wedding present. I've watched – admittedly at a distance, but with pride and delight – as Graeme's work has attracted serious recognition (notably from the English Folk Dance and Song Society) and new generations of musicians have declared their allegiance. The Unthanks, the master reinterpreters of north-eastern traditional music, and up-and-coming rabble-rousers The Young 'Uns, are just two of the bands who have found inspiration from Graeme's work and his outlook on his art.

News of Graeme's death earlier this year was, of course, a great sadness. But it was a fitting tribute to the man and his music that his devotees were able to fill Cecil Sharp House on 23rd November for a celebration of Graeme's legacy. The Unthanks, The Wilsons, Martyn Wyndham-Read, The Young 'Uns and even Robin Dale performed a wondrous mix from the vast Graeme Miles repertoire, from the simple solo voice (Robin's haunting rendition of Exercise no. 77 still sends shivers through me) to avant-garde arrangements with brass, fiddle and sample loops of Graeme's own voice reading his poetry.

My poem, For Your Eldorado, played a small part in the proceedings. Written in 2008, and taking its title from one of Graeme's best loved songs, the poem was my thank-you for his wonderful music and for the encouragement and inspiration over the years. By a circuitous route, the poem had managed to find its way into the hands of Martyn Wyndham-Read, who judged it fitting to be shared during the evening, and contacted me out of the blue to ask for permission for it to be read out.

I probably won't ever know what Graeme thought of the poem. I sent him a copy, back when it was fresh off the printer, but we had already lost touch by this point, and I didn't get a reply. I hope he appreciated it. For now, it stands as my tribute to a generous hearted, intelligent, wise and creative writer, and a gentleman of the first order. For me, Graeme Miles was and is a poet among poets. If my creative work can in some small measure live up to the example he has set, then I’ll be a very proud man indeed.

(All illustrations in this article are by Graeme Miles and appeared in the Jackdaw writers' anthology in 2000. The text of my poem For Your Eldorado can be found at

(For more about Graeme and his music, visit