The John McGivering Writing Prize 2021 – Winning entries

Poems of Travel

Joint First Prize: Siobhan Flynn and Peter Sutton   


(Almost) Sestina of the Seasoned Traveller

I used to make big plans to see it all,
to travel all the way around this world.
Maybe give up the daily grind for good,
take my time, it wouldn’t matter how long
it would take to get this expedition done,
then I’d choose my favourite place and wait to die.

I’ve always loved Italy, so Sicily could be good
eating pasta con le sarde and cannoli ’til I die,
but sometimes it’s too hot and I would long
to be somewhere cool with snow blanketing all,
like St Petersburg in mid-winter, a twilight world
of cosy evenings sipping sbiten and reading Donne.

But do I need extremes when all is said and done?
Maybe a temperate climate, an in-between is good,
somewhere in the middle latitudes of the world
where plants without constant attention will not die.
I don’t want to have to labour in the garden after all
to have something lovely to look at the whole year long,

like the gardens of Versailles, or the view along
the flower fields of Keukenhof, the gardening done
by other people without any effort on my part at all,
maybe enjoy hanami in spring in Japan, it’s all good.
But everywhere has a season, plants bloom then die,
so what are the things that last forever in this world?

Everybody that I meet on my travels in the world;
shared meals, the conversations on a train, the long
journeys made shorter, friendships that will never die,
the kindness offered and the favours done,
the delight most people take in doing good,
these things can happen anywhere at all.

There are wonders in this world, amazing things are done,
but it’s where love is that I belong, that’s what feels good.
It’s not important where I die, it’s life that matters after all.


Shipping Out

Lurching across a sea of slime, glancing from side to side,
the youngster who’s the skipper of the good ship
launched with such grandeur and swept by the tide,
is watching for whiz-bangs and flares.

Where are the shells and the shallows, the slips and wreck-strewn shoals,
the crown-and-anchor shadows, and the rips and shrouds and reefs,
whose are those voices of wandering souls
reminding of childish beliefs?

Wiping the sleep from landlocked eyes, checking the compass
he keeps his course to eastward, to confront the blood-red test,
ready to follow the squadron he chose
away from the isles of the blest.

Knowing he must maintain his way if he’s to stay in line,
he clamps his helm amidships and he scans the fog ahead,
hearing the leadsman rewinding the twine
to read out the name on the lead.

He did not sail to foreign lands, learning how others live,
to Africa, to India, Brazil, as I have done,
only the once to the trenches to give
his life for a kingdom. My son.

Second Prize: John Gallas


‘The Yellow-Blinded Fale’

So somewhere I arrived, who travelled dumb
and careless there by plane and bus and bumboat,
bored, with fading worry and in light as gleaned as glass,
till sleepysoft I stood, a little shaky in the sun,
and watched the sea wash up towards my toes:
and saw the waves’ whole softly pumping ring
around me and this place, smaller than my mother’s lawn.

A few bent trees. Some bunches of bamboo, a little torn,
fingering the light. One hot ’aute bush, purple-burned.
Nothing more. Even the sea said hush around my feet
as if it asked why move? The only house is near enough:
two yellow wall-blinds tied between the two blue vasts and me,
like squares of sunshine’s skin. Imagine: in the atlas of my soul
I could not make a thing so emptied of all thought.

It was not beauty, but a blanch: and I dissolved, brought,
outdone and dazzled, to an island blank and bare as being.
Later, who knows when, the bumboat burbled back to pick me
who had not moved. The yellow squares took fire.
I watched them fall astern, distilling to a tiny orange flare.
I found a sticky seedpod in my hand. But not one memory.
Only the yellow blinds between the sea, the sky, and me.

fale (Samoan): an open-sided house with a thatched roof
’aute (Samoan) hibiscus plant


Judges’ Report
By Harry Ricketts and Jan Montefiore


The general standard of entries was high, and exhilarating to read. Only a minority of entries engaged with Kipling’s work, but the topic of travel was almost always handled with liveliness and skill. Siobhán Flynn’s ‘(Almost) Sestina of the Seasoned Traveller’ and Peter Sutton’s ‘Shipping Out’ were jointly awarded First Prize of £200 each, and John Gallas the second prize of £100 for ‘The Yellow-Blinded

‘(Almost) Sestina of the Seasoned Traveller” riffs brilliantly on  Kipling’s ‘Sestina of the Tramp-Royal’, while standing on its own  feet as an independent poem. It handles the complex sestina skilfully,  ringing fresh and lively changes on the theme of travel and sounding  natural throughout. The conclusion differs from ‘Sestina of the Tramp-Royal’, but Kipling might not have disagreed with it.

‘Shipping out’ is a moving and accomplished poem that skilfully deploys the figure of sea-crossing in Kipling’s imagined elegy for hi son’s death in World War I. The allegory of battling a storm for trench
warfare works admirably, as does the subtle allusion, via the phrase ‘isles of the blest’, to Kipling’s own deployment of a similar metaphor to very different ends in his poem ‘The Three-Decker.’

‘The Yellow-Blinded Fale’ was the finest of many submitted poems of travel: an intelligent meditation on an experience of thought overcome by visual/sensual experience, carried off very well indeed. Form
and diction are very accomplished, with subtle use of half-rhyme and  linking between stanzas. Though not directly connected with Kipling, this poem was too good not to be in the top three.


Highly Commended:

‘Chinaperson Messages’ by Hadyn John Adams
‘A Scottish Lament’ by Jonathan Campbell
‘Humans’ by Verity Crosswell
‘A Tale from the Plain’ by Carol Gilfillan
‘Having Good Time’ by Gabriele Griffin
‘Immigrant’ by Candy Neubert
‘I Walk before Noon’ by Marjory Woodfield