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Before yesterdayPeter Kenny : a writer's notebook

On waiting and waiting rooms

An old man with a flat cap and walking stick sits, head bowed, on a bench in a Barcelona park. Spain 1985. Photo ©Innis McAllister

I think about medical matters lots, and not just because I am a hypochondriac. My sole scientific qualification is an A level in biology (my degree was in philosophy and literature) but in my twenties I worked for a charity fighting for compensation for those with industrial diseases such as asbestosis.

Around that time, one of my best friends contracted HIV. Reluctantly, I had a front row seat as that tragic epidemic unfolded and I visited many people who were losing their fight against the disease in hospital.

For the last twenty years most of my paid work has been about creating concepts and copy to be read by medical professionals and patients who are facing disease and illness.

A year before the pandemic, I spent a day in a series of waiting rooms with the late Dr Janet Summerton, a dear friend and mentor who became seriously ill not long after. Together we had hours to talk about the impact of waiting.

I’d like to stress that the following is absolutely not intended as an attack on the NHS. The hospital we were visiting was enduring a difficult day of staff shortages combined with an unusually inundated A&E department. But the experience of waiting is replicated around the country — and has only been exacerbated as we continue to deal with the aftermath of the covid pandemic.

In a nutshell… I think we need to rethink waiting, and focus on what happens in waiting rooms.

‘High noon,’ Janet says, arriving for her appointment.

I can tell she is scared, so I am pleased I turned up in good time to support her. A nurse takes us to a windowless examination room, with an adjustable couch, two or three chairs and blank beige walls. The registrar enters. I notice his blade-like trouser creases.   

He begins firing questions.

‘Is your appetite poor?’  

Janet provides context. She says said she had called her GP in the first place because she felt panicky after her sister’s death. Her husband’s dementia means she feels isolated. There is no one to talk to—  

‘Is your appetite poor?’ repeats the registrar. He is treating Janet as if she were confused. I bristle. Janet, my mentor for years, is 79 and remains one of the smartest people I have ever met.    

He examines her briskly. Yes, he can feel a lump on her liver. He orders an immediate CT scan and blood test. 

We wait again. This time in the corridor. 

I tell Janet how much I disliked the registrar’s manner. But then he proves me wrong, reemerging from his office to kindly lead us to the waiting room of the Emergency Ambulatory Care Unit (EACU). 

So what’s the big problem with waiting?

‘Nothing to be done.’ The first line of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot encapsulates the problem.

The play’s aimless, shambolic characters, Estragon and Vladimir, wait forever for the mysterious Godot, a figure whose arrival will somehow change everything. Famously, of course, Godot never arrives.

The big problem with waiting is that it puts our lives on hold — there is nothing to be done. At its worst a waiting room can be a limbo of boredom and anxiety. Janet has no control, no power over when she will be called. But, after all, she is waiting to be helped, so why does it feel like torture?

Hospitals units, particularly A&E and EAC, must adapt to dynamic demand, epidemics, RTAs, even boozy nights in seaside towns can all cause a surge in cases. 

Post Covid-19, the NHS faces many challenges: an aging population, difficulty hiring staff post-Brexit, and so on. Waiting room congestion is still commonplace. 

For patients, powerless in the face of often-unexplained delays, boredom and anxiety are rife and feelings of frustration can boil over into arguments and violence. 

As for the staff… The busier waiting rooms become, the more they feel besieged by escalating numbers of queries and interruptions.

Not just healthcare

Being compelled to wait is a fact of life. Listening to music while you’re waiting to speak to someone at the bank or utility company. Waiting for planes or trains. Waiting for bureaucratic wheels to turn, waiting to get a job or have an invoice paid… Waiting is built into society.

Some people, who tend to be wealthier, are able to reduce waiting in their lives: think private medicine, private jets, even tables in restaurants and so on.

But all of us know what it is to wait. In certain contexts – such as in hospitals – the negative effects of waiting are particularly detrimental. 

The waiting room as a ‘non-place’

A waiting room is an example of a ‘non-place’ where social interactions are fleeting, and people have no emotional attachment to the physical space around them. 

According to philosopher Marc Augé (b. 1935) in his 1995 publication, Non-Places – An Introduction to Supermodernitypeople spend increasing amounts of time in non-places such as supermarkets, airports, train terminals, waiting rooms and so on. Places we pass through without wanting to stop. 

Augé suggested that the new kind of alienated solitude these non-places create in people should be studied. 

“…non-places are there to be passed through, they are measured in units of time. Itineraries do not work without timetables, lists of departure and arrival times in which a corner is always found for the mention of possible delays.”

Marc Augé, Non-Places An introduction to supermodernity

In other words, we experience a waiting room as a place where time passes. And in waiting rooms the passage of time is glacial.

Janet is anxious and upset. I try to distract her with conversation. Attempting to joke, I remind Janet that Sartre’s hellish play No Exit, famous for the line ‘hell is other people’ has been staged with the set replicating a waiting room. I soon wish I hadn’t.

To pass the time, we people watch. I think of the kinds of specific worries people have in waiting rooms. What happens if I am called when I am in the toilet? Why is that person being seen before me? Will I be called next so I can escape? 

Janet is full of dread. Not every health problem can be cured. Two hours elapse, then there is some activity. 

A senior health assistant leads Janet and I off to take her blood. He says the blood results will take up to an hour and a half to arrive, but the CT scan will be done shortly.  

The catheter is making Janet’s arm sore but we are buoyant. An hour and a half is a finite amount of time. We visit the counter down the corridor to buy a snack, and return to waiting room. We chat about mutual friends, about books, politics and the news. We look ironically at The star of the month, a smiling unit staff member, and smile at the Offensive Waste bin.

But other than a poster about sepsis, there is nothing else to look at. If you stand up, however, you can at least glimpse the sea through the window, a reminder of how beautiful the world is. We feel exiled from it already.

The hours drag by. Intermittently, Janet becomes distressed. I try to make her laugh, persuade her to help me invent a board game, The Waiting Room, (a.k.a. Nothing To Be Done) where the boot, scottie dog and top hat tokens of Monopoly are replaced by miniature busts of Samuel Beckett, Franz Kafka, and George Orwell. The board itself has a baffling design by Escher. You will never pass Go.     

After four hours of waiting, Janet becomes furious. At the desk she demands to know what is happening about her CT scan. 

‘Ten minutes,’ they say.  

No Exit

The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre thought that it is only by making decisions that you can prove to yourself and others that you exist. The waiting room, of course, is a place where decision making is reduced to: Shall I risk losing my place in the queue if I get a cup of coffee and if the machine is still working? For many this inability to do anything means drifting into a state of anxiety and dread.

For Sartre, the reason we experience anxiety is to make us feel so wretched that we are forced to decide to do something about it. One problem with waiting rooms, of course, is that there are no decisions to be made and we remain in a state of anxious non-existence. In an early novel, Sartre described this feeling as a kind of ‘nausea’.

If there is a choice it is a bleak one.

Janet can only wait for the treatment she needs, however damaging this is to her mental health — or she can leave. But leaving is, of course, self-defeating and potentially harmful.

So the waiting room is a no-win situation.The longer we wait, the more powerless and anxious Janet becomes.

These are a few of the words I associate with being in waiting rooms: anger, anxiety, boredom, depression, desperation, dread, ennui, hope, need for reassurance, panic, staff-pestering, rage, resentment towards others in the room, unfairness, violence and worry.

After five hours of waiting, we fall silent. Janet is silently crying with anger. ‘Why are they lying to me?’ she says. 

The staff are overstretched. She has been fobbed off.  Now nobody knows how long it will be before she is called to Radiology.  

Eventually, in our sixth hour of waiting, we are led to the Radiology department waiting room. 

‘You should be first,’ the senior health assistant says, ‘you’ll be done in ten minutes.’ 

We are not first. We are not done in ten minutes, because another patient, an amiable but confused elderly man, had arrived just ahead of Janet. 

Some questions about waiting rooms

  • Is waiting really inevitable? Something we’re all so accustomed to accepting, that we don’t imagine there is another way?
  • Shouldn’t care start in the waiting room?
  • Why isn’t the management of waiting seen to be more important? I don’t just mean trying to speed the time people wait for operations, I mean thinking of waiting as an opportunity for therapy.
  • What if actively reducing waiting became a goal?
  • How do power imbalances relate to waiting? Why are we made to wait?
  • Why don’t we directly address the cause of anxiety and help people feel in control in medical waiting rooms? When I go to see the vet with my cat, the waiting room is full of cat-soothing pheromones. That’s because feline wellbeing has been taken into consideration. So how about us humans?

Some things that appear to help the waiting room experience

  • Being expected
  • Friendly reception staff
  • Good staff morale
  • Hygiene
  • Magazines and reading material
  • Natural light
  • Pictures on walls
  • Punctuality of appointments
  • Playing on your phone
  • Reading a book
  • Taking a friend
  • Ticketing systems

Twenty minutes pass. It seems Janet has been forgotten. I go to the office and flush out a radiologist. She agrees to talk to Janet.

 Janet cannot understand her.

‘Put in your hearing aids,’ I say.

‘Your blood test shows that your kidneys are not working well today,’ says the radiologist. ‘Did anyone tell you to drink water?’

‘No,’ says Janet. 

‘The dye will put a strain on your kidneys so we can’t do it unless you’ve drunk half a litre at least.’

Luckily, as it is a hot day, Janet has drunk enough water. 

‘Good. Just wait a bit longer, you’re next unless we get an emergency from A&E.’ 

In the seventh hour of waiting there is no emergency from A&E. Janet receives her scan and we return to the EACU waiting room. 

Ten minutes of waiting, then Janet is — at last — discharged. We are free to go.

I believe that care can start in the waiting room in every hospital. 

I am a lifelong supporter of the NHS. I think it is one of the UK’s finest achievements. But it faced unprecedented challenges during the time of covid, and has come through at enormous cost to the wellbeing of its staff. This achievement is even greater when we consider that it is being stealthily undermined by a government ideologically opposed to its continuation.

The difference money makes to the waiting process is astonishing.

Two weeks after my day with Janet in an overstretched NHS hospital I am in the reception area of the Montefiore Hospital in Hove, graced by Brian Eno’s 77 Million Paintings for Montefiore, a slowly-mutating light installation, accompanied by soothing ambient sounds.  

I pick up the comments book and read, ‘you can feel your blood pressure calming by the minute. It made me think of cells and change and the beauty of life.’ I turn a page. ‘The best waiting room experience I’ve ever had.’  

This waiting area is welcoming, even uplifting. It has smiling reception staff, flowers, natural light, help-yourself coffee and tea. This is definitely not a non-place. It feels human, and permanent. It could not be more different to the waiting rooms Janet and I had been in, where slow time was filled with depression, anxiety and anger. 

The Montefiore Hospital is private. There is no A&E department, and no need to respond to unpredictable influxes of the patients that can cause crowded waiting rooms.   

I am shown to another Eno installation downstairs. It is inspirational. The Quiet Room for Montefiore (below) is used by patients after chemotherapy. Lights softly change colour as ambient music drifts and soothes. Both installations contribute to a therapeutic, humanising tranquillity. But even if we could put an Eno installation in every waiting room in the UK, there is much more to do. 

The Quiet Room for Montefiore, Brian Eno

Soothing people is not enough

People feeling extremely panicky or angry are not always going to be calmed down by a picture or even a tranquil Eno installation.

Creating a calm environment helps, and changing the way the waiting room is organised. But why not address what causes the anxiety and help people process it?

Staff morale is critical. Cheerful, efficient reception staff can set the tone for the whole room. Small things like natural light, pictures, enough seats, and pleasant colours contribute too. While simple ticketing systems help people understand where they are in the queue, so they can at least decide if they have enough time for a pee or to buy a cup of tea.  

We have to better manage the psychology of waiting, to alleviate patient anxiety and stop the pestering of overstretched staff. 

How can we help people feel more in control when they are waiting?

I suggest one way is to give the patient a feeling of agency, and a way of taking decisions. If we accept that waiting rooms will always exist in hospitals, why not help people find a way to make some decisions?

While we were waiting, Janet and I invented an imaginary app to help people in the room. It asks people how they are feeling in the waiting room? Panicky? Then here are some techniques you can choose to take control — give them a list of mindfulness techniques. Anxious? Tell them feeling anxious is normal, let’s address what’s worrying you. Irritated? Ask what’s bugging them. Is it missing their turn? Is it the time? Tell them what can be done and why these delays are likely. Help them calm down. Bored? Here’s a game to play. Here’s something interesting to read. Happy? Have you thought about chatting to someone who looks like they need help? And so on.

Janet spent well over seven hours in hospital that day. The registrar conversation, the procedure of blood test and scan, took less than 30 minutes. This means that just over 92% of her experience was spent waiting, feeling scared about what was happening and in the dark about when she would be seen.

I’m not suggesting the simple idea for an app that Janet and I dreamed up (maybe it’s wall mural or a z-card brochure with the same information) is any kind of a silver bullet.

But addressing the problem of waiting rooms seems to me a huge opportunity to improve the patient experience.

The first step, of course, is to believe with seriousness that better is possible. Anyone want to help?


The wizard and the birdcage

It has been a while since I updated this blog. I like to lead a double life, and my commercial work with my favourite art director Keith Hardy has taken up lots of my time and energy.

Luckily, I have made time to continue to present and produce the Planet Poetry Podcast with my pal Robin Houghton. Being able to interview unusually excellent poets is really stimulating. Not only does hearing their stories make for a good listen, but these conversations have helped me think about my own creativity and methods anew.

Behind the wizard’s curtain, working with Robin is effortless and I think this comes across in our conversations. Most of what we do — interviews and conversations with each other and our guests are conducted remotely and we use Squadcast to do our recordings. Like a zoom or microsoft teams meeting, we can see each other’s faces but we only make an audio recording. I have earned lots from Robin as well as hearing from the poets (in recent episodes we’ve chatted to Joolz Sparkes and Hilaire, J O Morgan, Sasha Dugdale, Janet Sutherland, Jeremy Page and others).

Naturally doing the podcast means I read more poetry than I might have done. It is sobering how often I have been forced to revise my opinion on certain poems and poets. My first impressions are often wrongheaded but I am, at least, prepared to admit it!

As for my own work in poetry, I am herding the cats of my poems and trying to make them into a collection. I have, after many false starts, finally arrived at a shape and subject and am now writing additional poems to join the dots. I am enjoying the process and the work is surprising me. Should this collection see the light of day, I will be happy. I have, however, grown fairly Buddhist over the years and simply try to do the best work I can, and not be too attached to outcomes.

I recorded two poems for the launch of Ireland’s excellent Channel magazine. You can see this below. I was very subdued in my reading, but it was a day before I started testing positive for Covid so that might explain it.

One was a recent poem, Snow on the Hillfort, which I wrote about walking to the iron age hill fort at Hollingbury on the northern outskirts of Brighton. And as the magazine has an ecological bent, I read a poem I wrote after my trip to see the effects of desertification on the population of a village in Chad several years ago.

I also had a couple of poems in Black Nore Review. I have been writing about memory, and researching a good deal about the subject. Memory is one of the foundation stones of how we build our identity, but it is very unreliable. One of the poems here ‘Little Bastard’, is one of my earliest memories, but the story is told not from my perspective but that of the person who was supposedly looking after me.

One of my favourite metaphors for memory is from Plato who, I discovered, suggested the memory could be thought of as a kind of birdcage. As you live, you store your memories in the aviary. In later life perhaps, when your birdcage has become very full, you reach in and pull out the wrong bird — a pigeon rather than a wood pigeon for example. And get your memory wrong. There are lots of reasons why this is not an adequate description of the memory process, but it’s at least easy to remember!


Now, where was I?

7 October 2021 at 09:20

I just finished another freelance job last night. And feel like a young otter released back into the wild. Is it just me, or do you do this too? As soon as I create a clear and focused plan about what I am going to do in my life, something else happens. My noble literary plans this year have been swept off the table by the Mr Hyde of my commercial writing alter ego. One of the downsides about leading a double life, along with those mysterious bloodstains, is that I often have had to ration the time I spend on things that give me joy: writing poems, fiction and making the Planet Poetry podcast with my pal Robin Houghton, to focus on filling the echoey Kenny coffers with a few doubloons.

In a few lucid moments, I have written several new poems and many of them sparked by diagnosing a fault in my writing: wanting to be likeable. So I have begun writing poems that do me no credit as a human being, but are at least honest. In my own mind I find writing about my ‘unfinest’ hours is actually quite liberating. One of these new-for-me poems was accepted by Richard Skinner for his stylish 14 Magazine which only prints poems of 14 lines.

Here’s the poem…

This is not exactly confessional poetry. But at the poem’s heart is a real death of a former friend and my own shabby response to it. Remembering this makes me physically squirm as I sit at my desk. In fact I have decided that if the new ‘unfinest hour’ poem I’m working on isn’t making me cringe, then it just ain’t working.

I also had a poem in Jan Heritage’s excellent Finished Creatures magazine. And even attended a reading organised by Jan in Lewes. It was great to go there, hear poets read poems and bask in the sunshine having beers with some of my favourites. This poem was about the Mezquita, which readers of this blog may remember me banging on about here.

Meanwhile my stealthy and malevolent progress in horror continues. My tale The Grieving was published in Supernatural Tales 46 — edited by David Longhorn. Suitably gruesome cover art by Sam Dawson and crammed with excellent tales — from Kathy Hubbard, Sam Dawson, Jane Jakeman, Michael Chislett, Tim Jeffreys and Jon Barron.

The Grieving is about an art piece that sends the nephew of the artist mad with grief, and is underpinned by anxiety, and unpleasant feelings about family. Which is all good stuff if you are trying to write weird fiction. You can buy a copy from the supernatural tales site (link above) or download a copy here.


Doctor Spotlight

I don’t know exactly where I first heard the term ‘Doctor Spotlight’ to describe the way that being in the spotlight can momentarily conceal, for example, the terrible hangover or malaise you might be experiencing.

In the early nineties I was knocked off my bicycle one morning cycling down Chiswick High Road, and sustained quite a nasty injury to my hand. I stood in shock and dripping blood. I wandered over to a policeman who said, ‘you’ll live’. He was right.

After being stitched up in Charing Cross Hospital, I made off to my evening engagement. I was doing a poetry reading at the Commonwealth Institute in support of a mental health charity. The star was Spike Milligan who had generously asked for some local poets to be involved in the reading. Of these was a young Mario Petrucci (who second to the great Spike rather stole the show), Rosemary Norman, and I was one of two or three other poets Rosemary had called on.

I arrived early, and made straight for the bar to add booze to the shock, adrenaline and anaesthetic cocktail I was running on. The show opened with Rosemary, Mario and the other poets reading before Spike Milligan. He asked not to be last, so someone was needed someone to finish off. Weirdly, this was me. Sat behind the curtain, in the order of reading, I wound up next to Spike for a couple of hours. He was lovely, but distracted and clearly did not want to talk much.

As the audience, in the hundreds, filed in the PA began playing an interview the great comedian had given the BBC about his depression. After five minutes of this, he leant over to me and asked who it was speaking. I said, ‘It’s you Spike,’ which seemed to surprise him.

Every now and then he tried to escape. He sprang up and wandered distractedly into Kensington High Road, followed by a panicking stage manager, who would shepherd him back.

As the evening wore on, I was left with Spike alone. To me he seemed too distracted and ill to even walk to centre stage, and absolutely not able to perform. Perhaps it was just nerves, I thought, but I was seriously worried about him. But as his name was introduced, he got up, straightened out and strode onstage. Suddenly he was the wonderful entertainer and comedy genius the audience had come to see. He delivered a dazzling performance. For me watching that instantaneous transformation was unforgettable.

Anyhow… This is a roundabout way of saying I have a short story on the Horla website, called Doctor Spotlight, which draws on my experience of seeing the magic the spotlight can do. Hope you like it!

I really have to thank again here, the wonderful short fiction writer Matthew G. Rees, who edits Horla, but also was responsible for kick starting my return to writing short stories.

READ Doctor Spotlight by Peter Kenny here.


Learning by listening

Recently my conceptual copywriter alter ego has been roughly shaken awake and made to get on with some work for a change. After a year of freelancer’s famine, I have been scrambling to manage a weird glut of work over the last couple of months.

Not having to commute allows me the odd stolen hour to tinker with my own writing, and I notice that something has changed.

For the last year I have had what I think of as my ‘pandemic anxieties’ going off like a smoke alarm in another room while I wrote. It made concentrating very hard.

I now realise there were two alarms. The other one was ‘money anxieties’. To a certain extent, now that a few doubloons have disturbed my dusty coffers and most of my loved ones (in the UK at least) have been jabbed, the alarms are more muffled, and my ability to concentrate has noticeably improved.

I am even working on my own poems again. Doing the Planet Poetry podcast with Robin has required me to hear amazing work from poets, some of whom were new to me. It has done me the world of good to be in ‘fan’ mode, and just listen and read. The result is that some of my ossified attitudes have received a much needed rattling. I have steadily collected ah-ha! moments as Robin and I have chatted with Pascale Petit, Clare Shaw, Tess Jolly, Charlotte Gann, Jack Underwood, Mario Petrucci, Katrina Porteous, Sarah Salway, Mary Jean Chan, Rhona McAdam, Inua Ellams and Kathryn Maris in our first eleven episodes.

Although a firm believer in a poem being able to stand on its own feet (ah-hem) I am also a reader who loves to understand the context the work sprang from. Who better to learn this from than the work’s originator? One thing that has emerged from this is how hearing the tone in which a writer talks about their work reveals flashes of deep emotion, sincerity and thought. If the conversation were transcribed, much of this colour and insight would be lost.

For me the boon of encountering such accomplished writers has highlighted two all-too-familiar questions. What makes a collection? And how interesting is the story you can tell about your collection?

I don’t know if you are like me, but one of the most tiresome things in life is having to relearn the same lessons time and again. Over ten years ago, I launched A Guernsey Double with my pal Richard Fleming. We had a story to tell: the book was about the island of Guernsey seen from two perspectives. The book was, therefore, in two halves, my half was called The Boy Who Fell Upwards and was a collection of poems about a childhood and exile. While Richard’s side, The Man Who Landed, was about coming to the island to settle and shelter, having experienced The Troubles in Northern Ireland. We had a coherent story, so when we were chatting on local radio and reading at the launch, we knew what we were about. Having a two person collection was also a novelty. So lesson learned, right? Of course not. D’oh!

So relearning all this means I have cast an icy eye on the manuscript I was working on. Now I have a completely new title and focus. Also I need to get a blinking move on because, as we have all been forcibly reminded lately, life can be short. The MS needs some more poems to fill in the gaps but I feel that I have clarified my own poetic mission and that is, in itself, a big win after a year of near stasis.

Finally, as a devotee of the US comedy Frasier, I was delighted to hear it is returning. I have been a fan since it was first broadcast in the 90s, I have always harboured a secret desire to be a radio host. While our wee podcast is not quite the same thing, it certainly feels like I am living the dream sometimes and I couldn’t have done that without Robin Houghton. So here’s to your mates, and learning stuff from other people. Cheers!


Jazz Baby

22 February 2021 at 10:49

So here is your humble blogger as a young hepcat. My parents were in their teens when I was born in October ’59. My father, last glimpsed by me when I was five, worked for a while as a policeman. My mother had served coffee at Ronnie Scott’s club in its earliest days and was friendly with Stan Tracey whose tune Starless and Bible Black is awesome. When my mother remarried, my stepfather was also a jazz fan, and jazz has continued to be part of the soundtrack of my life.

I am writing about memory at the moment. My own memories date back to being very young indeed. Memory is of course unreliable — especially when you are imaginative by nature. However, because I was moved from place to place, I can remember being in several houses and situations that date back to toddlerhood. I have no recollection of the scene above however (which is what makes it attractive to me) although I vaguely recollect the Police flats in Belsize Park where we lived, especially the bedroom I slept in. It was there I had a recurring nightmare of a man in a hat climbing into a wardrobe. That man in a hat has featured in at least one poem, as well as being a sinister figure in my play A Glass of Nothing.

Having Spotify and Google I was able to track down the LPs and EPs that are in this photo, and then make a playlist of the tunes on it. There are tunes by Stan Getz, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Johnny Hodges and Wardell Gray. I am listening to the playlist as I write. Very cool, and full of saxophones and sophistication. I am hoping a Proustian memory will be triggered by a trumpet run or tune, but so far there is nothing. The Miles Davis EP, however, features Milestones. To this day it is one of my favourite pieces of music in any genre.

I am enjoying the exploration of a soundtrack to my temps perdu. I am thinking of Keats now … ‘Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter‘. Yeah man.


Proof positive

20 February 2021 at 10:37

I want to heartily recommend Tess Jolly. Not only is she an amazing poet but she is also a fabulous proof reader. I asked Tess to proof a few of my short fictions which I am tentatively starting to assemble into a collection.

She found a fair amount to fix: including a regrettable promiscuity with commas and the odd toe-curling typo (including the classic patios when I meant patois) the odd tautology and so on. It was great to feel the MS was now more watertight.

Little bad habits, invisible to you as the perpetrator, being made suddenly visible was a little like having a writing masterclass. I fully intend to use Tess’ eagle eyes on my prose projects from now on. I can wholeheartedly recommend her.

You can find out more on her Poems and Proofs site here.


Twice is a charm

18 December 2020 at 10:18

Merry Christmas! With 2020 heading for the dustbin of history, I’m beginning to take stock of what has been — at the very least — a year of thwarted plans.

However, it has forced me to innovate a little. And one of the best innovations was starting the Planet Poetry podcast with Robin Houghton. The latest edition carries an interview with Jack Underwood, and discussions of books by John McCullough, Caleb Femi, Maureen N. McLane, and Ilya Kaminsky. We’ve breaking for Christmas, but we’ll kick off the year with a deep exploration of the work of Mario Petrucci. The Podcast gives Robin and I a chance to chat to poets about poetry. One of the best things about it is that it has turned me into a fan again.

I have been through times this year where I have experienced the kind of anxiety that makes it hard to settle down and focus on reading, or I found I was reading but not giving a text my full attention. So it was only the second time I sat down to read Charlotte Gann’s The Girl Who Cried, that its power really hit me. It is a book I find quietly magnificent, and has moved me to tears on more than one occasion. There is nothing that’s extraneous or doesn’t feel true in these poems, and they hit you in unexpected ways.

Charlotte has agreed to be interviewed for Planet Poetry soon, about her new book, and its predecessor Noir, which I looked at here. The Girl Who Cried is definitely one of my books of the year.

I also reread Joy Harjo’s She Had Some Horses, first published in the 80s. It is one of those mic drop books — so brilliant that if she never wrote another book ever again, it would be enough. It made me download Crazy Brave, her memoir as an audiobook. It is only about four and a half hours long, but it is a fascinating listen, and weaves mythology and dream into the story of her childhood.

Joy Harjo is also the main editor of a new Norton Anthology, called When the light of the world was subdued, our songs came through, which I have just started. It is an anthology of Native Nations poetry and is quietly blowing me away. This, from Joy Harjo’s introduction, was very sobering.

‘We are more than 573 federally recognized indigenous tribal nations in the mainland United States …. We speak more than 150 indigenous languages. As contact with European Invaders we were estimated at over 112 million. By 1650 we were fewer than six million. Today we are one-half of one percent of the total population of the United States. Imagine the African continent with one-half of one percent of indigenous Africans and you might understand the immensity of the American holocaust.’

This anthology represent a genuine cultural landmark for Native Nations people, and a testament to their survival against all the odds. For that reason alone it seems this anthology has enormous significance.


It’s uncanny – Tess Jolly and Krishan Coupland on Planet Poetry

4 December 2020 at 07:57

Robin and I have just uploaded the latest episode of Planet Poetry. This one dabbles in the Uncanny, and is an overlap in the Venn diagram of my interests, with my interests in dark fiction and black comedy.

Tess Jolly has cropped up severally in this blog. I have always been a fan of Tess’s work — for my first glance at her earlier pamphlets see here and here on this blog, and I am delighted she has been snapped up by the excellent Blue Diode for her new collection Breakfast at the Origami Cafe.

Krishan Coupland is that rare thing, an accomplished editor with a particular vision. I have subscribed to his magazine Neon, and it has marked out a distinct territory for itself both in poetry and prose… And it looks great too.

Listen to the podcast where you normally would get podcasts, or simply click here…


Zoom launches, Planet Poetry, and a spot of horror

6 November 2020 at 05:58

England is in its second day of its second national lockdown. The outcome of the US Presidential Election is on a knife edge, but I know readers of this blog will have lain awake at night wondering what on earth has Peter Kenny been doing?

Yesterday Robin Houghton and I — the Smashy and Nicey of poetry podcasting — released another episode of Panet Poetry into the wild. There’s a fascinating interview by Robin with Clare Shaw, who discusses and reads from her book Flood triggered by the flooding of her hometown in 2015. Robin gave me Flood recently, and I can heartily recommend it. In the podcast I also chat with Elizabeth Murtough the thoughtful and highly talented co-editor of  Channel, Ireland’s Environmentalist Literary Magazine. You simply get the podcast wherever you normally get podcasts or go here.

Robin and I have only met twice in person since Covid struck and we decided to launch the podcast in the first lockdown. A couple of days ago, we met up in Lewes, and ended up having a solitary drink in an empty open air terrace on top of a pub in Lewes called The Rights of Man, doing a bit of recording, drinking a couple of drinks, and eating crisps with freezing hands as the November sun sank and imaginary penguins, arctic foxes, polar bears etc. stirred in the shadows. We were outside and there was only one other person there, who left pronto when we started muttering about poetry. Lewes’s famous Guy Fawkes bonfires and fireworks had to be cancelled this year. For enthusiasts of explosions, 2020 was a damp squib.

That said, I am thoroughly enjoying Zoom poetry events, such as the launch of Tess Jolly’s Breakfast at the Origami Cafe from Blue Diode Press. Regular visitors know I’ve admired Tess’s poetry for a long time, and I am really pleased for her. (I have interviewed her for a forthcoming Podcast too). Tess read with Charlotte Gann, another of my personal favourites, who read from her new collection, The Girl Who Cried which is a tour de force — another launch I attended online this year. Also reading was Karen Smith, whose reading made me want to investigate more. Rob MacKenzie from Blue Diode, based in Leith, hosted — and is clearly an excellent and supportive Editor. I got to hang out with some friends in the zoom audience afterwards and talk a little to Ann Perrin who I only encounter in cyberspace.

As for my own poetry, apart from a stonking January 1st, when I had my 24 poem sequence published online at e.ratio in the USA. I have not written or published much this year. I had a small poem The Door in The Wall, which in part refers to the story of the same name by H.G. Wells, in London Grip, and I am very grateful to its poetry editor Michael Bartholomew-Biggs. I began scribbling again last month however, so maybe not all is lost.

As for my horrific side, a couple of days ago I was chuffed to learn that I have one of my new short stories, The Grieving, accepted by Supernatural Tales. As Skelton Yawngrave I also have been writing a sequel to my children’s book Magnificent Grace, but although I have made some progress, I find my elevated anxiety levels, always pretty high at the best of times, makes the prospect of holding a larger project in my head quite challenging. I had been going into schools before the first lockdown doing readings and selling books by the boxload, to try to get momentum going for this self-published experiment. But sadly Covid stubbed that toe too.

All the best to everyone reading this. Stay safe and keep smiling!


Planet Poetry launches with an in-depth interview with Pascale Petit

22 October 2020 at 11:09

What’s that? The sound of virtual corks? Wish us luck as Robin Houghton and I launch our podcast on an unsuspecting planet.

To be honest, it feels a bit like standing on a diving board, and gazing into the cold deep water with trepidation. But here we go! The first episode of Planet Poetry is now live, and available wherever you get your podcasts.

In our first episode we were absolutely delighted to meet multi-award winning poet Pascale Petit and explore the lush Edens of her poetry. Hear Pascale talk frankly about the troubling shadows cast by her mother and father on her life and work.  Enjoy her readings from several collections, including the recently published Tiger Girl, which describes the sanctuary offered by her relationship with her Indian grandmother.

In this episode Robin and I shoot the breeze about Home Farm by Janet Sutherland and Wild Nights: New & Selected Poems by Kim Addonizio

You can also listen to the podcast here….



Counting down to…

18 October 2020 at 23:30

So the podcast is called Planet Poetry and we have a wee trailer ready to listen to

Just a few tweaks here and there, and ensuring the podcast is available on your favourite podcast platforms… Before Robin Houghton and I press the big button, with any luck, later this week.

The first episode will feature a long conversation with the multi award wining Pascale Petit. Fingers crossed — we are a few days away from launching now.

Feel a bit like I have a parachute strapped onto my back, and about to leap out of the side of a small aircraft — but in a good way.


A poetry podcast? Why not!

8 October 2020 at 08:30

Robin Houghton and I have teamed up again, and we are about to launch a podcast featuring poets, influencers and editors. We are preparing to launch soon — so expect us to be parping enthusiastically on our social media trumpets with more details than you can shake a stick at very soon.

Delightfully, this project has reminded me that, first and foremost, I am a fan. The fact is, I straightforwardly love poets and poetry. I have found it absolutely fascinating to begin to talk to accomplished poets and publishers about their work and how they function in today’s world.

Yes it has been a steep learning curve, and there is still plenty of that curve ahead. But apart from, ah-hem, occasional John Cleese style IT rages, I have loved every minute of it. Robin says she has too.

Obviously none of this happens in a vacuum. Our better halves have been top too. My Lorraine, home from a hard day’s headteachering, has been compelled to tiptoe around the house, while Nick, Robin’s professional musician husband, has been warned away from the piano on more than one occasion.

Robin and I have interviewed all our guests online, and chatted to each other in the same way. Only once, a few weeks, ago did Robin and I actually meet up on a sunny day in an empty pub garden in Brighton for a few beers and a chat. The podcast is a product of its socially distanced times.

Meanwhile here is a pic of me and Robin from March, when Robin was launching her latest pamphlet in London, taken by our pal Sarah Barnsley. Just as the time that you could actually have a beer with your mates (without cringing) was coming to an end.

Here’s to happier days! More news very soon 🙂


Peter Kenny and Robin Houghton


Poetry South East 2020, edited by Jeremy Page

This week I received a copy of Poetry South East, an excellent anthology produced by The Frogmore Press. According to Frogmore, ‘the original series was published by South East Arts between 1976 and 1983, with Howard Sergeant editing the first and Anthony Thwaite the last. The Frogmore Press revived the series with Poetry South East 2000 and published Poetry South East 2010 ten years later.’

I read the anthology from cover to cover, and what leapt out right away, even more than the individual talents, was how well the anthology had been edited. Each poem passes the baton without a false step or an uncomfortable fumble. Jeremy Page’s selection and arrangement — all conducted under lockdown conditions of course — is absolutely exemplary.

Fifty two poets are each represented by a single poem, and it is a pretty convincing snapshot of poetry written for the page in the South East. I am delighted to be one of them, and there are real treats in this collection from wonderful poets, many of them such as John Agard, Brendan Cleary, Sasha Dugdale, Maria Jastrzębska, Patricia McCarthy, John McCullough, Grace Nichols, Catherine Smith, Susan Wicks and Jackie Wills, who are rightly famed in the region. There are lots of my poetry pals in it too, such as Robin Houghton, Sarah Barnsley, Charlotte Gann, Stephen Bone, Antony Mair and more all shining.

And the cover by Neil Gower is gorgeous too.



In March, when people had started self-consciously bumping elbows, my pal Sarah Barnsley and I trained up to London, to see our friend Robin Houghton launch her new Live Canon pamphlet, WHY? AND OTHER QUESTIONS. It was an excellent afternoon, and Robin read with fellow pamphleteers Tania Hershman, Miranda Peake and Katie Griffiths at the Boulevard Theatre Bar, London. 

I thought sharing something about these poems is well overdue.


What is suggested, in a horror movie for example, is invariably more unnerving than the monster when you get to see it. The terrors and sublime pleasures in Robin Houghton’s poems are always suggested, and the bathos of wobbly latex is carefully avoided.  

The poem Was it the Diet Coke? is perhaps the most straightforward example of her potent command of suggestion.

offhandedly lefthandedly
drunk by the can-full
my dose of phenylalanine
my be-my-baby ringpull

Here we have dipped into a relentless anxious inner monologue; a chatter in the void like some lost soul in Dante’s Inferno.

what it my fault or God’s
did I do wrong break a law
was it bad timing was it
me   fuck   was it me   or

In The Retelling the story, a memory of war, the incident being related is barely sketched, but there is a horrific glimpse of the blur and confusion of war.

some throat opened and the long night’s breath
tumbled through the lift shaft of his lungs, threw
up knives, a scything freak show in his brain.
The flapping mask, the call to brace, the prayers.

But the focus of the poem is on what it is to be able to tell such a story, on the storyteller.

This void sits at the edge of several of Robin Houghton’s poems. In ‘His hope was a waking dream’ the note of the poem refers to a man falling into an Anish Kapoor art installation. Again without capitals, and this time completely unpunctuated, the poem lists reasons for falling, and again there is that sense of the unresting interior monologue unable to reach a firm conclusion.

he wanted to step quickly
he absented the light and his body gave way
into nothing in it

he fell in love with nothing
he fell into lies and he wanted to go in
out of the outside in

We see in Drowning the Doves, 1916 what may be T.J. Cobden-Sanderson, co-creator of the Doves typeface, casting the metal typeface into the Thames,

                                              … By spring, handfuls of ‘a’s

and ‘m’s he starts to cast as seed, or throw–with hope,
like confetti–the pebbled water laughing up at him.

With each piece of type, a piece of himself also–the moon
as witness–bequeathed in bits to the river, rag and bone:

four parts sacrifice, six parts revenge.

It’s twinned poem Under Hammersmith Bridge, 2016, sees the letters salvaged. I love this metaphor of strewing language into the water, which felt to me like a metaphor for writing itself.

There is a beautiful, Samuel Beckett bleakness in some of Robin’s work. The setting for the final poem of the collection, Ladies’ Hour features a terrifying scenario: the swimming bath on one of the middle decks of The Titanic.

between me and the sea
just the smell of steerage,
the low belly of a boat, the swell.

While a disturbing void haunts these poems, in this collection. There is also an enigmatic beauty about many of the poems. I find the exquisite poem ‘I ask what colour is the sea’ to be heartbreakingly beautiful.

I find it greyscale of gull belly caught in a squint, a hint of gravestone.
Some days a sick greenish grey. But I ask the world and it says blue.

WHY? AND OTHER QUESTIONS is a profoundly moving pamphlet, with quiet moments of dark and painful beauty.  It’s just wonderful.



Barking Mad! By Jane Mosse

418CImAzKeL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_Barking Mad! by Jane Mosse published by Blue Ormer

What with one thing and another, I have found it hard to read lately. It’s as if a smoke alarm keeps going off in the house. Yesterday, having a hateful ear infection, I opted for a sofa day. When I wasn’t dripping antibiotics into my ear and moaning peevishly, I was completely taken by the highly-diverting Barking Mad! by my Guernsey based pal Jane Mosse. Her last project mentioned on this blog was Guernsey Legends — but this is a very different book, being a fictionalised account of several years of pet sitting with her husband Richard Fleming.  All they have to do is live in stranger’s houses, and befriend their pets. Sounds simple doesn’t it? Luckily for the reader, things are rarely straightforward.

Travel, plus animals, plus nosing about in other people’s houses? It’s a perfect formula for an enjoyably escapist read. You can imagine yourself anywhere from arriving in Alderney in a tiny aircraft on a rabbit sitting mission, to the ballroom of a grand estate in Northumbria with a Shetland pony that lets itself into the house from time to time, freezing in Prague as the boiler goes kaput before Christmas, or in a lock keeper’s cottage deep in a northern industrial wasteland.  There is a panoply of loveable pooches and pampered cats — not to mention the cast of eccentrics who hand them into our heroes’ care. Our pet-sitting wanderers also encounter all manner of other critters on their travels, from water snakes to deer, mosquitoes to rabbits, piglets to a lugubrious bathtub carp. Many of these creatures harbour ideas of their own so they certainly give their temporary minders plenty deal with.  

Part of the fun of course, is getting an real insight into their host’s lives. So if your sanity could benefit from imagining yourself basking in Tuscan sunlight under lemon trees as cats haunt the shadows, or gazing out on snowy, deer-filled parkland just before Christmas… Then you’d be mad not to simply get yourself a copy of  Barking Mad!  



Peter Kenny’s Little Horrors

Is anyone in their right mind interested in horror stories at a time like this?

Despite this, I find uploading readings onto YouTube is helping me manage my anxiety.  I was talking to my pal Robin Houghton yesterday that this outbreak makes me want to upload all my best work. Robin said it made her want to burn things, which made me laugh.

Anyhow… I intend to upload a few readings of published horror stories just for fun. Peter Kenny’s Little Horrors allows me to give published stuff another airing for a different audience, and to be there for posterity. 

This story was first published by the excellent Jeremy Page in The Frogmore Papers, in 2019. Hope you enjoy it….


My reading for The Island Review

With my brand new, and attractively-priced Blue Snowball Ice microphone I recorded a reading for The Island Review, with their hashtag #islandreadings. If you’ve not visited their site you should do. It harbours all kinds of good things there.

The Remembering Cliffs is an old poem, in fact one I wrote in my twenties, eventually collected in A Guernsey Double (2010) my collection with Richard Fleming. It was also republished online by The Island Review a few years back. If I had to pick my handful of my poems which were most heartfelt this would be one of them. Funnily enough it was written at a time of great personal anxiety, back in the 80s, and it has a self-soothing quality which I hope works for other people too.

I hope you like this. The island review page is here. Big thanks to its editor Jordan Ogg.

And here is my reading.


Watch Skelton Yawngrave TV

Hope all casual droppers-in to my blog are keeping fine. Here’s my Skelton Yawngrave TV YouTube channel. I am hoping, to upload a chapter a day of my story Magnificent Grace during this lockdown.

I had such fun reading to children when I was visiting schools in Brighton and Sussex, I thought I would take it online, something for children with busy brains to do during lockdown. So if you happen to know of an imaginative whippersnapper in key stage 2, 9-12 years old, perhaps they might enjoy being pointed to to Skelton Yawngrave TV.

Here’s me reading the first chapter.