Thursday, 29 September 2016


With my third leg, old gun, comrade-in-arms,
you have stood resolute, fought alongside me.
I have drank to you on many an occasion
for you loved me like our country's pubic treeline;
a messenger of pride and servitude,
alive to any woman's leg show. Sworn in,
tucked away in my hidden valley
you were ripe as any forbidden fruit,
you who were always about bright and early,
a perky-headed recruit when time began;
though for you no priest's mark of revision,
skinned as natures leftover unclean act.

Later, on frenetic nights, I unleashed a wet habit,
a sudden pasture land lay underneath me,
the gun misfiring in its own territory.
Then I was paraded in front of the doctor.
So a lead was hitched up with a pad each night,
wired to a box to trigger me a warning,
the body awakened and us in cahoots,
enough times to work on our own behalf.
The patrol dismissed, we saluted each other.
You back as ever part of my landscape,
yet untainted like an unclimbed mountain,
the gun still in its holster.

What did those girlie playing cards do for you?
A secret professional away from the kit room,
that passing pleasure always kidding yourself
like those days on the range you went firing blanks.
Confined to barracks you awaited further orders,
you were always there when I needed you,
your gun fully-loaded, ammo as fertile ground
and what led to reinforcements. Once bridal
two warriors were in the making. Such fun.
They with water pistols at the ready.
But you were never the one for the shooting gallery,
you kept at your post and the only target you knew.

All this time a lone gunman in camouflage
crawled his way into my hidden valley,
living off his own rations to creep on,
undetected, making a mockery
of our love channel, with me in his sights.
His footfalls left behind much muck and dirt,
keeping going, further into the interior,
ever onward, but knowing there would be no return.
At last, both of you came out into a clearing
as if here you could size each other up,
guns loaded and cocked for a big show down.
So the tale goes, you gave as good as you got.

G. F. Phillips

Sunday, 4 September 2016

Thomas Spence and Robin Hood

Thomas Spence passing through Barnsdale,
Making his way through a wood,
When there stepped out from the shadows
The figure of Robin Hood.

“I have no gold,” said Thomas Spence,
“No jewels or property,
For the only things I value
Is the gem of liberty.”

“It’s a shame you’re not a rich man,”
Replied Robin with a curse,
“As I can’t use your liberty
To fill up a poor man’s purse.”

“I know you rob,” said Thomas Spence,
“Only for the poor man’s sake.
I can salute your endeavour,
But then condemn your mistake.

“Whatever you redistribute
From rich to poor, you must know
While the wealthy hold the power
Then, through taxes and the law,

Through rent, through credit and through debt,
Through low-waged labour, it’s plain,
No matter what you liberate
The rich take it back again.”

Downcast, Robin Hood stood aside,
Sadly unstringing his bow,
While Thomas Spence went on his way,
A path hard and long and slow.

There’d be judges to pass sentence,
Keep him under lock and key,
But, any cell that he sat in
Was his hive of liberty.

Dave Alton

Thursday, 1 September 2016


Follow the Sun Book Launch: Celebrating the 200th Anniversary of the Dial Cottage Sundial

George Stephenson Museum, Dial Cottage, 108 Great Lime Road, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Tyne & Wear, NE12 7DQ

A special event organised by Northern Voices Community Projects to mark the 200th anniversary of the creation of the iconic sundial by Robert and George Stephenson at their Dial Cottage home. The event will include the launch and readings from 'Follow the Sun', a new book commissioned to commemorate the bi-centenary of the sundial. Contributors to the book will perform their poems, stories and songs as well as new materials inspired by the sundial and Stephenson legacy. They will be introduced by local poet and editor Keith Armstrong with specially commissioned music from the Sawdust Jacks Folk Group and folk singers Gary Miller and Tony Morris. Also featuring Ann Sessoms on Northumbrian Pipes with a selection of appropriate tunes, and others.

Opening Times
Friday 9 September: 10.30-11.30

Saturday, 13 August 2016





You picked splinters

with a pin each day

from under blackened fingernails;

shreds of metal

from the shipyard grime,

minute memories of days swept by:

the dusty remnants of a life

spent in the shadow of the sea;

the tears in your shattered eyes

at the end of work.

And your hands were strong,

so sensitive and capable 

of building boats

and nursing roses;

a kind and gentle man

who never hurt a soul,

the sort of quiet knackered man

who built a nation.

Dad, I watched your ashes float away

down to the ocean bed

and in each splinter

I saw your caring eyes

and gracious smile.

I think of your strong silence every day

and I am full of you,

the waves you scaled,

and all the sleeping Tyneside streets

you taught me to dance my fleeting feet along.

When I fly, you are with me.

I see your fine face

in sun-kissed clouds

and in the gold ring on my finger,

and in the heaving crowd on Saturday,

and in the lung of Grainger Market,

and in the ancient breath

of our own Newcastle.


'This is one of the poems I'll never forget. I see the struggling of my own dad in your words. 

Thanks for your fine poem.' (Klaas Drenth) 

Beautiful poem. Loving, moving memories. Most excellent Keith.’ (Strider Marcus Jones)

'Love the poem Keith. That’s my dad.’ (John McMahon)

Annie Sheridan 'Beautifully visual Keith ,nice to share your memories.' x

Imelda Walsh 'Lovely poem, loving memories too.'

Kenny Jobson 'So, so good, Keith - I'll share this, if you don't mind.'

Saturday, 23 July 2016


I am now at the stage of shutting doors, against

Rainfall and nightmare; doors, left carelessly half ajar.

At the half-way stage of rusted wheels and wires,

Entanglement of sharp thorn- branches, closing off

Invisible roads, obscure signposts, of what

Once was, but cannot be born again now.

I bend down to pick up scattered dusty shards,

Tea-cups, torn papers, full ash trays left on a small

Table, and carpeted corridors, empty of unexpected

Visitors, who seldom knock, but enter now,

Or leave early if they do, without pebbled words

In their mouths, or acknowledgement in glazed eyes.

I am now at the time of carefully locking windows,

And doors at night, before mounting stairs,

To sleep, or else to lie with scratched open eyes,

Staring at dark walls, blank ceiling, or shut windows;

I am an insomniac, turning like dark waves,

The noise of waters, against a dark shore.

When at last, asleep, I recall – myself, alone

Outspread like water or a bent flower.

Where the sun takes off her shoes and walks

Among trees, splashing like wind or rain;

And the moon removes her clothes and sings

Like a nightingale, lost among green branches,

The moon’s body is made of mother of pearl

She shines like a candle-lit human skull;

I want to embrace her naked as wind,

I want to embrace her as a sultry wind

In Spain does, among chill cherry trees,

Or distant hills of mist before ashen nightfall.

Alan C. Brown

Thursday, 14 July 2016


(for Helmut Bügl)

On this evening flight,
necks stuck out,
we dart in formation
to a Stuttgart dream.
Complete strangers,
we share a common French wine
to celebrate clouds.
With your rough words,
you ask me what I do.
“Write poetry”, I say,
and sign away a verse or two for you,
hovering in mid-air, between snow and sun.
“And you?” “I breed pigs I do”,
flying home from a swine seminar in Montreal.
To prove it, you sign me a photo of six of your litter,
the Swabian breed of Helmut Bugl.
It’s a flying cultural exchange,
a rhyme for a slice of time.
The stars are sizzling in the thrilling sky
and, tonight, pigs might fly.
Tonight, pigs might fly.

Keith Armstrong

Monday, 4 July 2016

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

From the Blackboard of Darkness

Trapper, scholar, Shakespeare’s custodian,

Unlettered pit-boy out of Percy Main,

Illuminating the blackboard darkness

With the lamp of his imagination.

Hewer of knowledge from the dust and gas,

Picker of words from amongst cobs of coal,

Drawing on fossils of creation

With a stick of chalk. Then his poet’s soul

Took wing, flying up and out of the shaft,

His tongue no longer tainted by the damps,

Though never lost the taste for those who graft

In the petrified colons of the earth,

Pressed between floor and roof into the cramps

Of crevices, when every shift could be

The very last for all eternity.

His verse – their voice, their words – his poetry.

Balladeer for those who had no reason to rhyme,

Who had no talent for pens, had no time

To make their marks on paper, a collier

Working those rich seams of community,

Willing to dig deep and ever deeper.

When the roof fell in, when the beam broke free,

He told the tale with truth and strict metre.

Miner poet, his three score and ten spent,

Returned to the Tyne where, to the theatre

Deep underground, a seven year old was sent.

Dave Alton

Thursday, 9 June 2016







93 Woodburn Square, Whitley Lodge, Whitley Bay, Tyne & Wear NE26 3JD
Tel. 0191 2529531                                                                            

It’s good to welcome the establishment of The Thomas Spence Trust, founded by a group of Tyneside activists intent on celebrating and promoting the life and work of that noted pioneer of people’s rights, pamphleteer and poet Thomas Spence (1750-1814), who was born on Newcastle’s Quayside in those turbulent times.
Spence served in his father’s netmaking trade from the age of ten but went on later to be a teacher at Haydon Bridge Free Grammar School and at St. Ann’s Church in Byker under the City Corporation. In 1775, he read his famous lecture on the right to property in land to the Newcastle Philosophical Society, who voted his expulsion at their next meeting.
He claimed to have invented the phrase ‘The Rights of Man’ and chalked it in the caves at Marsden Rocks in South Shields in honour of the working class hero ‘Blaster Jack’ Bates,  who lived there.
He even came to blows with famed Tyneside wood engraver Thomas Bewick (to whom a memorial has been recently established on the streets of Newcastle) over a political issue, and was thrashed with cudgels for his trouble.
From 1792, having moved to London, he took part in radical agitations, particularly against the war with France. He was arrested several times for selling his own and other seditious books and was imprisoned for six months without trial in 1794, and sentenced to three years for his Restorer of Society to its Natural State in 1801.
Whilst politicians such as Edmund Burke saw the mass of people as the ‘Swinish Multitude’, Spence saw creative potential in everybody and broadcast his ideas in the periodical Pigs’ Meat.
He had a stall in London’s Chancery Lane, where he sold books and saloup, and later set up a small shop called The Hive of Liberty in Holborn.
He died in poverty ‘leaving nothing to his friends but an injunction to promote his Plan and the remembrance of his inflexible integrity’.
The Thomas Spence Trust organised a mini-festival to celebrate Spence in 2000 when it published a booklet on his life and work, together with related events, with the aid of Awards for All.
Trust founder member, poet Keith Armstrong has written a play for Bruvvers Theatre Company on the socialist pioneer which has been performed at St. Ann’s Church and other venues in the city.

Now the Trust has successfully campaigned for a plaque on the Quayside in Newcastle, where Spence was born. The plaque was unveiled on Monday June 21st 2010, Spence's 260th birthday, with a number of talks, displays and events coinciding with it.

A book 'Thomas Spence: The Poor Man's Revolutionary', edited by Alastair Bonnett and Keith Armstrong, was published by Breviary Stuff Publications, with launch events, in 2014, the 200th anniversary of Spence's death.

Further information from: The Thomas Spence Trust, 93 Woodburn Square, Whitley Lodge, Whitley Bay, Tyne & Wear NE26 3JD. Tel. 0191 2529531.


On behalf of The Thomas Spence Trust and Newcastle City Council, I’m delighted to welcome you here today to unveil a plaque in honour of that great free spirit, utopian writer, land reformer and courageous pioneering campaigner for the rights of men and women, Thomas Spence. Myself and other members of our Trust, especially Peter Dixon and Tony Whittle, with the support of people like Professors Joan Beal, Alastair Bonnett and Malcolm Chase and activists like Michael Mould, Alan Myers and Councillor Nigel Todd, have campaigned for well over 10 years for some kind of memorial to Tom Spence and it is with great pride that we assemble here with you today.
We know that Spence was born on the Quayside on June 21st 1750, 260 years ago to this the longest day and Summer Solstice. We know that his father Jeremiah made fishing nets and sold hardware from a booth on Sandhill and his mother Margaret kept a stocking stall, also on Sandhill, but it has not been possible, all these years on, to pinpoint the exact location of Thomas Spence’s birthplace, which is why this plaque has been installed here at Broad Garth, the site of his school room and debating society and where he actually came to blows with Thomas Bewick because of a dispute over the contentious matter of property. Bewick gave Spence a beating with cudgels on that occasion but, surprisingly enough, they remained lifelong friends. As Bewick said of Spence: ‘He was one of the warmest Philanthropists in the world and the happiness of Mankind seemed, with him, to absorb every other consideration.’
In these days of bland career politicians, Spence stands out as an example of a free spirit, prepared to go to prison for his principles - the principles of grass roots freedom, community and democracy, for the human rights of people all over the world.
Spence mobilised politically in taverns in Newcastle and later in London. That is why this afternoon, after this short ceremony, you are all invited to join us across the road in the Red House to raise a glass for Tom and to hear informal talks, poems and songs in his honour. You can hear further talks on Spence tonight at the Lit & Phil, courtesy of the Workers’ Educational Association, and next Monday at Newcastle Library, along with a display of his works, and, if you like, you can join some of us at Marsden Grotto, South Shields, tomorrow lunchtime, where Thomas first chalked the phrase ‘The Rights of Man’ on a cave wall, to raise another glass for this man who in his own words ‘dared to be free.’
This plaque puts Thomas Spence on the map for all of those pilgrims who hold human rights and political freedoms dear. It does not trap his free spirit rather it gives his life and work fresh wings.
Thanks to you all for coming this afternon on this proud day for The Thomas Spence Trust, Newcastle City Council and the citizens of this great city of ours.

Monday, 30 May 2016


(I wrote the following jeu d’esprit in the year 1852 and had it printed anonymously. It was meant to represent, with that spice of exaggeration permissible in such good natured squibs, the condition and aspect of the Shieldses – South Shields more particularly – as they struck a dispassionate resident in that remote era, before the local sanitary reformers had set about their Herculean task, towards the accomplishment of which they have since gone a great length).

Farewell to Shields, the filthiest place
On old Northumbria’s dirty face,
The coal-hole of this British nation,
The fag-end of the whole creation,
The jakes of Newcastle-upon-Tyne,
The banquet-house of dogs and swine,
The paradise of bugs and fleas,
And human vermin worse than these;
A mass of houses – not a town -,
On heaps of cinders squatted down,
Close to the river’s oozy edge,
Like moulting hens behind a hedge;
Huge ballast heaps, from London brought,
And here, like churchyard rubbish, shot,
Half-clad with scurvy blighted green,
Alone diversify the scene,
And furnish, when the weather’s dry,
An inexhaustible supply
Of dust, with every breath that flies,
To torture and to blind the eyes,
And, when it rains or thaws, a flood
Of sticky, stinking, coal-black mud,
Oft ankle-deep, in Claypath Lane,
Making the use of blacking vain;
Brick-yards, the nastiest smoke exhaling;
Green scummy ponds, a source unfailing
Of fell disease, foul middensteads,
Where everything infectious breeds;
Steam-tugs, whose smoke beclouds the river;
Chimneys, forth vomiting forever
All sorts of gas, to taint the air,
And drive the farmers to despair,
Blighting their corn, their quicksets blasting,
And all their prospects overcasting;
For scarcely even a weed will blow,
For miles around no trees will grow
In stunted copse or rugged fence,
Within their baneful influence,
And where stray birds have planted them,
In former better times, each stem
Looms on us, bare, black, mummied quite,
A ghastly and unnatural sight.
Streets, - if the name can be applied
To dingy lanes not ten feet wide,
Bordered by wretched tenements,
Let to poor devils at high rents;
Houses, on Dean and Chapter Land
Which, if not close packed, would not stand,
Whose perfect matches can be found
Nowhere within the empire’s bound;
Sewers, that only serve to stay
Stenches the wind will blow away,
And guide them to our outraged noses,
Concentrated in double doses.
When his sweet pipe Amphion blew
The enchanted stones together flew,
And formed a city. Widely famed,
Thebes by the Syrian Cadmus named.
Not such a dulcet origin
Had Shields, but to the cursed din
Of wheels and axles, saws and hammers,
And competitions thousand clamours,
It rose around St. Hilda’s pit,
For sooty fiends a dwelling fit.
Since Sodom and Gomorrah fell,
By bolts from heaven and blasts from hell,
Satan, with all the skill he wields,
Has formed no counterpart to Shields,
And, in futurity’s dark womb,
Laid up for Shields is Sodom’s doom,
For all that store of bitumen
Was not placed under it in vain.
He who perambulates the place,
Needs no uncommon skill to trace
The features of the inhabitants,
Whose instincts, appetites and wants,
It suits to such a nicety,
That nothing lacking they can see,
But shout “Hourrah for canny Shields”
And deem the Bents the Elysian fields.
Take from the mass a score or twain,
Honest in heart and sound in brain,
Free-spirited, intelligent,
Friendly-disposed, benevolent,
And all the rest are chaff and sand,
Fit only to manure the land,
Mill-horses, pacing round and round
The same eternal spot of ground,
To pick a paltry pittance up,
And smoke and snooze and eat and sup;
Gross gluttons, worshipping their belly;
Boobies, with brains of calf’s-foot jelly;
Creatures, whose souls are in their dress;
Base crawling serfs, idealless;
Crouching, dust-licking parasites;
Prim sanctimonious hypocrites;
Fellows whose lives are one long lie,
To meanly cloak their poverty,
Who, with the bailiffs at the door,
Turn up their noses at the poor,
And living upon shift, despise
The drudge from whom they draw supplies;
Magistrates, void of all pretence
To morals as of moral sense,
Leaving the beershop for the bench,
To send to Durham their own wench;
Lawyers, who know no more of law
But from their clients fees to draw;
Clergymen, dull and dry as dust,
In whom old women put their trust;
Doctors, a shallow, quackish crew,
But that, alas, is nothing new;
As for the so-called “vulgar rabble”,
One learns their status from their gabble;
They can’t be said to speak at all,
But jabber, croak, grunt, burr and drawl;
'Tis neither English, Scotch, nor Norse,
Though it partakes of all, and worse.
If brutes have souls, as some pretend,
And after death to Hades wend,
And learn to speak, I do expect,
'Twill be in the Shields dialect.
Farewell to Shields! I shout again;
A long and glad farewell! Amen!
I never liked the place, nor did
The place like me; but God forbid
I should bear witness false against it;
I have writ truth, and here attest it.


On board ship “Lizzie Webber”.

Written by William Brockie (1811 - 1890)
Born at the East Mains of Lauder where his father was the tenant farmer, William was educated at the Parish Schools of Lauder, Smailholm, Mertoun and Melrose as his father changed farms.
Starting work as a teacher - he was at Kailzie prior to 1843 - he decided to pursue his real love, writing, and in 1842 he set up the "Galashiels Weekly Review". He also wrote articles for other publications including the "Border Treasury". Before long he was the editor of the "Border Watch" which was to become the "Border Advertiser".
In 1849 he crossed the border into England to become editor of the "North and South Shields Gazette", later becoming editor of the "Sunderland Times" from 1862 to 1872.
During all of this time, he was also busy researching and writing, particularly in the field of local history and folk legends.
Amongst his best known works are:
"The Gypsies of Yetholm" (1884) for which he is best known in the Borders, "Coldingham Priory" (1886), "A Day in the Land of Scott", "Leaderside Legends", "Legends and Superstitions of the County of Durham"(1886) and "Sunderland Notables"(1894).


The Lizzie Webber was built in Sunderland in 1851-1852 and sailed from Sunderland to Melbourne 31-7-1852 arrived 4-12-1852.