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Julia MacLaurin, “Dream”, watercolour, privately owned, 1995

Sixteen years ago this month I was on a teacher training course where Michael Benton gave a talk about ekphrasis, something I’d never heard about before. He and his brother, Peter, had published a book called Double Vision (Hodder & Stoughton, 1990), a book I have often used since in my teaching. He told me he was looking for poems and paintings where the one art-form inspired the other for a book for 11-12-year-olds. I wrote to my sister, Julia, an artist, and asked her whether she had anything suitable. She sent me the above photo.

In July I wrote a verse:

Oh dear, Mrs Cat, you’re a little too fat,
unless you’re about to have kittens,
but no matter which, that’s one hell of an itch
you’re trying to scratch with your mittens.

And nothing more was forthcoming.

In October I gave the painting to one of my classes to write about, and one student, Mads Björn Nielsen, wrote a good piece, “Ship of Dreams”, that he composed music to and performed for the class:

Every night when I sleep in my bed
I see pictures inside my head.
I’m in the middle of a colourful stream
of beautiful pictures. This is my dream:
I am sailing far out on the sea
with this cat, a stranger to me.
We’re sitting talkin’ ’bout diff’rent things,
when all of a sudden my heart just sings.

Of course I know he isn’t real
but that won’t change the way I feel
about the cat, my fav’rite friend.
Tonight I’ll meet with him again.

I’ll tell the world about my cat!
I’ll tell the world about my cat!
Together we make a perfect team;
he’s the captain on the ship of dreams.

Have you heard about my cat?
Have you heard about my cat?
Together we make a perfect team;
he’s the captain on the ship of dreams.

The night is falling and now I go to bed –
I can’t wait to see my fantasy pet.
I’ll weigh the anchor an’ set myself free,
gonna dive in the ocean an’ find the real me.
I hope this dream will never disappear:
losing the cat is my biggest fear.
He’s shown me a place my vision can live –
I’m sure it’s him that makes me positive.

Of course I know he isn’t real…

At the beginning of 1997 I wrote two more verses:

Do you think you could fly like that bird in the sky
if no one was clipping your wings?
Or do you just wish you could swim like that fish,
or dance like those butterfly things?

No, you won’t ever be those creations you see,
not even if sometimes you catch them;
for a life that’s fulfilling, you have to be willing
to carry nine lives and then hatch them.

I immediately sent both Mads’ song and my piece to Michael Benton. He replied promptly. He liked the painting as well as both pieces and felt they were suitable for 11-12-year-olds. But unfortunately he’d already completed the galley proofs, and publication was scheduled in April/May. We’d missed the boat.

In September 1998 our two pieces were published in Anglo Files, the journal of the Danish Association of Teachers of English, where Julia’s painting was on the front cover.

A few things have now come full circle.

1. The present issue of Anglo Files has the Teun Hocks’ “Knit-wit” photo/painting (that is also on the front cover of my collection of sonnets, I Sing the Sonnet) on the front cover and my sonnet, “Teacher”, on the back.

2. Just recently Mads Björn has had great success in Denmark with his album, Monolith. The single from the album is called “New Sailor”:

3. This year for the first time I am an advisor for a teacher candidate, Sabrina Buch Hansen. I’ve already paid tribute to her in the final sequence of my sonnet collection with my sonnet, “To a Promising Teacher Candidate”. She’s just back from the current version of the course I was on, full of good ideas.

4. And today is Julia’s birthday. So here’s a recording of my piece in tribute to her and her painting: