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In the Isle of Dogs by John Davidson 1895


John Davidson by Walter Sickert (British Museum)

The Isle of Dogs is not often the subject of  poetry, however recently I have come across the following poem by John Davidson.

John Davidson was born at Barrhead in 1857 and after leaving school at 13, trained as a pupil teacher and then a teacher in Scotland. He had longstanding literary ambitions and decided in 1889 to go to London to find fame and fortune. He quickly joined other aspiring poets and writers such as W.B. Yeats and formed the Rhymers Club  which met at the ‘Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese’ pub in Fleet Street.

To make a living, Davidson wrote numerous articles, plays and books. However he barely made enough money to survive , although he often socialised with other writers such as Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw.

Frank Harris who knew Davidson well wrote :

His manners were perfectly frank and natural; he met everyone in the same unaffected kindly human way; I never saw a trace in him of snobbishness or incivility. Possibly a great man, I said to myself, certainly a man of genius, for simplicity of manner alone is in England almost a proof of extraordinary endowment.”

For all the support of his fellow writers, his work never caught on with the general public which meant his prolific output bought very little financial security.

In 1906 he was awarded a civil list pension of £100 per annum , however the years of poverty, overwork and ill-health began to take its toll and late in 1908, Davidson left London to live in Penzance. On 23 March 1909, he disappeared from his house, some months later his body was found in the sea. From the letters he left behind it was clear that he intended to kill himself.

Davidson did not find fame in his lifetime, but is seen as an influential poet by later poets. T. S. Eliot was a great fan of Davidson and acknowledges his influence when writing The Waste Land, he especially admired the poems ‘Thirty Bob a Week’ and ‘In the Isle of Dogs’.

Davidson was researching a book when he visited the Isle of Dogs in the 1890s, he was walking near the Millwall Docks when the sound of an organ in the street triggered memories of his homeland.


While the water-wagon’s ringing showers

Sweetened the dust with a woodland smell,

” Past noon, past noon, two sultry hours,”

Drowsily fell

From the schoolhouse clock

In the Isle of Dogs by Millwall Dock.

Mirrored in shadowy windows draped

With ragged net or half-drawn blind

Bowsprits, masts, exactly shaped

To woo or fight the wind,

Like monitors of guilt

By strength and beauty sent,

Disgraced the shameful houses built

To furnish rent.

From the pavements and the roofs

In shimmering volumes wound

The wrinkled heat ;

Distant hammers, wheels and hoofs,

A turbulent pulse of sound,

Southward obscurely beat,

The only utterance of the afternoon,

Till on a sudden in the silent street

An organ-man drew up and ground

The Old Hundredth tune.

Forthwith the pillar of cloud that hides the


Burst into flame,

Whose alchemy transmuted house and mast,

Street, dockyard, pier and pile :

By magic sound the Isle of Dogs became

A northern isle

A green isle like a beryl set

In a wine-coloured sea,

Shadowed by mountains where a river met

The ocean’s arm extended royally.

There also in the evening on the shore

An old man ground the Old Hundredth tune,

An old enchanter steeped in human lore,

Sad-eyed, with whitening beard, and visage lank:

Not since and not before,

Under the sunset or the mellowing moon,

Has any hand of man’s conveyed

Such meaning in the turning of a crank.

Sometimes he played

As if his box had been

An organ in an abbey richly lit;

For when the dark invaded day’s demesne.

And the sun set in crimson and in gold ;

When idlers swarmed upon the esplanade,

And a late steamer wheeling towards the quay

Struck founts of silver from the darkling


The solemn tune arose and shook and rolled

Above the throng,

Above the hum and tramp and bravely knit

All hearts in common memories of song.

Sometimes he played at speed ;

Then the Old Hundredth like a devil’s mass

Instinct with evil thought and evil deed,

Rang out in anguish and remorse. Alas !

 That men must know both Heaven and Hell!

Sometimes the melody

Sang with the murmuring surge;

And with the winds would tell

Of peaceful graves and of the passing bell.

Sometimes it pealed across the bay

A high triumphal dirge,

A dirge For the departing undefeated day.

A noble tune, a high becoming mate

Of the capped mountains and the deep broad firth ;

A simple tune and great,

The fittest utterance of the voice of earth.

organ grinder

Looking at Orion – An Interview with Rosie Johnston (Author and Poet)


Rosie Johnston (Picture jamesperrin.com)

It is always a pleasure to come across writers or artists who live on or are inspired by the Isle of Dogs.

Recently I have come across  Rosie Johnston whose work includes two novels Wysighost and A Most Intimate Place. Recently she has also  produced two collections of  poetry Sweet Seventeens and Orion.

Rosie kindly agreed to be interviewed about her work and how she helps other writers, but first here is a selection of poems from her collections :

Sirens,  foxes, buses, screams:

Midnight London’s

Off – on cacophony


 A sweet tingle pulses on

My tongue,

One word unspoken lies there: Love.


Rolling fingers and thumb

Absent-minded, I

Conjure his milled-flour skin.


Love’s a mongrel whining at my


I learn to smile and let him in.


In imperfection waits the


Hope of finding perfect answers.

Rosie, could you tell me a little about your background

I was born in Belfast and have been a happy Londoner since 1978. I brought my kids up in Greenwich and Blackheath – my children’s ghost novel Wysighost is set there – and didn’t discover Island Gardens until December 2010. I love the community here, the way we bother to speak to our neighbours, take time to walk along the river path and look after the area. As I’m writing this, a moorhen is fussing at the end of my garden in one of the landscaped ponds the Isle of Dogs does so well. Where else in London can you enjoy that?


 You have had two novels and two collections of poetry published. When did you start to write seriously?

I remember being wrapped up in my own writing world when I was little, the pleasure of that, but it wasn’t until I was about 40 that I gave myself permission to take it seriously. I was a journalist then with three small children so there wasn’t a lot of free time. I started going on courses (www.arvonfoundation.org is a favourite) to study the craft. Writing is like sculpture, composing or even making a garden from scratch. There are many steps and craft elements involved, to do with making sure your story reaches the reader in the best shape. The writers who do best are the ones who enjoy that process.

Orion photo

Recently Orion your second collection of poetry was published. What was your main inspiration for this particular collection?

After Sweet Seventeens came out, poet friends and my publisher kept encouraging me to write something longer than 17 syllables. So I pulled together some of the new 17s I had on the go, to see if they fell into any shape. For me, there’s always got to be a human story, a drama of some sort, so Orion became a love story. Was it ‘inspired’? I’m not fond of that word really. Sometimes the lines do seem to fall on the page like a gift but mostly they need a good old polish before they’re fit for strangers to see. WB Yeats wrote: ‘A line will take us hours maybe; Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought, Our stitching and unstitching have been naught.’

You have a rather unusual method for your poetry using only 17 syllable verses.  How did you develop this particular method ?

Sometimes the writing won’t come. It would be nice if you could turn it on like a tap, and in my groups we work on techniques to develop that tap-turning ability. But sometimes life gets in the way and in 2009/10 that was happening to me. A Californian writer whose name I’m afraid I’ve forgotten recommended loosening up by writing one piece every day, just 17 syllables long.

At this point I want to steer well clear of the haiku police and say that my little pieces are not Japanese nature poems. They’re often little dramas, or thoughts about this weird business of being human. Whatever catches me. There’s something about the rhythm of 17 syllables that appeals to me, and the discipline of it. Try it yourself – it’s amazing how powerful something short can be.

You run a couple of writing groups, one in Greenwich the other in Cambridge.  Writing is often seen as a solitary occupation, what do you think are the benefits for writers to join a writers group?

There’s no ducking the fact that books don’t get written unless we spend a lot of time alone. Nothing beats getting to the page or screen and staying there while the words and pages stack up. That can feel isolating, especially if the people you live with don’t really get it, and not many do. So the biggest advantage of a writers’ group is for us to get together and bang on about writing for a while. It’s wonderful! Bring in a bit of experienced advice and healthy feedback, and it’s even better. It has to be healthy feedback – the wrong feedback at the wrong time can stop writers dead in their tracks. I’ve seen that happen. That’s why I work hard at making all the feedback in my groups as positive and nurturing as possible.

Both my groups have recently subdivided by the way, because of expanding numbers. In Greenwich Waterstone’s we have a new group on Monday mornings, 10 – 12, as well as the Sunday one, 2.30 – 4.30pm. Everybody’s welcome.

With the advent of E Books, it is probably easier than ever to self-publish; however with increased competition is it more difficult to get your work noticed?

Self-publishing has always been around. Beatrix Potter and William Blake used it because they were fussy about having their own art and their words together, and they didn’t fit into the usual categories. Even Jane Austen used a form of it to catch a publisher’s attention. It’s never been easier or cheaper to see your own words in print and I think that’s great. I’m very glad too to see things open up to everybody so that the days when only dead, white guys got into the ‘literary canon’ are well and truly over.

Just one thing though – the joy of completing your first draft can blind you to its faults. You think your book is finished when it’s not. Friends and family might help you with this but good agents and publishers are better. They’re the experts and can help you improve your story in ways you wouldn’t have dreamt. They also deal with all the layout and printer faff, can get your book reviewed and into book shops (who usually still like to see a publisher’s name on the spine) and they can nurture you into writing more books and making a career of it. A self-published book is a good showcase and shows your commitment, so it’s still a great place to start. And you might strike gold on your own, you never know.

What particular writing are you working on at the moment ?

I’m working on a handbook for writers at the minute – Rosie’s secrets and shortcuts. There’s no shortage of ‘How to’ books on any subject and my writing favourites are Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer,  How to Write Fiction – a Guardian Masterclass and Stephen King’s On Writing. What If? (Bernays & Painter) is a great collection of writing exercises to help you write around your subject as you discover it and to build up your unique voice.

My contribution will be about the practical things I wish I’d known when I started, things I’ve learned the hard way about writing and getting published that might save other people time and heartache. The book is still in its first draft and has no publication date yet but there’ll be details on www.rosie-johnston.com in due course. And the wee poems keep coming too of course.

If you wish to buy some of Rosie’s work or want to find out more about her writing groups please go to her website http://www.rosie-johnston.com/