Our first question to Stephen Dixon is simple: how long do we have? It’s an unspoken golden rule that interviews need to stick to some sort of an allotted timeframe, writes Breaktime News Editor, Duncan Little.
Politicians will quickly be in and out of any studio so they can be whisked away for their next grilling. Film stars need to be quick as they need to fit in x number of interviews during a single day. All charming. All lovely. And all superfast.
As such, the interviewer’s job is to make sure the most important questions are answered quickly – while appearing to be nice and calm. All the time in the world.
Laid back and chatty (even when they know they’re completely up against the clock). Get everything in the can. Fast. And then it’s a wrap. Except not today.
‘As long as you’d like,’ comes the reply from an exceptionally relaxed looking Stephen. Phew! We had been swatting up on some long-forgotten shorthand techniques to try to prepare for some serious speed note taking. The pressure’s off.
Stephen laughs as we both reminisce on the hours’ spent learning the technique. He mentions the magical word ‘Teeline’ and we instantly reach for the smelling salts.
We’re off to a good start. We’ve bonded over that journalistic rite of passage to master all the weird and wonderful shapes which create the hieroglyphics of Teeline shorthand.
Note taking aside and our goal is to chat with him about ‘Love is the Beauty of the Soul.’ The book was published in 2018 and consists of a collection of his poetry.
Yours truly immediately snapped up a copy. Why? Coz’ we lurve the stuff. It’s not currently trendy to say you like Tennyson, Betjeman or Hardy. And that’s a shame. Open any weekend paper and go to the book review section. How many books of poetry are there?
Normally none (May 2022 is an exception to the rule as an excellent book looking at the life of Ted Hughes just been published). Look at the bestsellers’ section. How many books of poetry can you see residing on them there shelves? Very few (if any).
And so, here we are. Break Time News approached Stephen’s publisher as we were keen to talk poetry. Not couplets or iambic pentameters. No, sirree! We wanted to find out more about the inspirations behind their creation. The reasons for their being.
Phone calls were made. Emails exchanged. Zoom links sent. Pots of tea were brewed. And so, here we are. A cosy remote chat over a nice hot cuppa.
Inspiration for writing
‘I’ve been writing for years,’ he says. ‘Doing a bit every now and then. Would this be any good if it was published? Would it get anywhere? I had only written for myself and so pleasantly surprised that someone else was interested.’
‘The submission was the hardest part as I realised that I was very vulnerable as I had let someone else read it and then gently getting it out there was fine. I felt embarrassed to let other people read them. Some are personal. Some are abstract.’
‘I re-read them before talking to you and it struck me that some are quite dark. Baring your soul, which is a slightly scary concept in our line of work as it’s not something you normally do, it’s a strange experience.’
‘There’s an audience that think of you in one way with a performance onscreen and then you open up and dare to show the person behind the mask.’
‘It allows me to show that I have a more gentle, pensive side. It allows me to show who I am rather than what I do in terms of just interviewing politicians.’
BTN is about to get a little bit arty. So, if you wish to avoid a second-year university styled seminal discussion on poetry, and want to focus solely on the interview, then skip to the paragraph which starts with: When published, Stephen’s poetry hit the mark.
It sometimes feels like poetry is increasingly hidden away in some remote corner of the library or has been jettisoned into the outer reaches of bookstore wilderness.
Reading is accompanied by a percussion of clunking coffee cups and the chattering of hassled office workers, all of whom are in a desperate hurry to grab their next caffeine fix.
And yet, poetry isn’t about rushing. In the main, it’s about peace. Calmness. Tranquillity.
Perhaps forgotten is the notion that some of the greatest literary works consist of verses produced by the likes of Milton, Dante and Herbert. More recently: Wordsworth, Keats and Coleridge.
And poetry packs a punch. Take W.B. Yeats. How about the following? ‘But I, being poor, have only my dreams; / I have spread my dreams under your feet; / Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.’ (He wishes for the cloths of Heaven).
Yeats died in 1939, but, even today, we have an occasional nod to the poetical geniuses of yesteryear. Think Dead Poets Society (1989). And how about President Thomas J Whitmore’s rousing speech in Independence Day (1996)?
Bill Pullman’s delivery of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas’ ‘Do not go gentle into that quiet night’ is one of the film’s sparkling moments. Fans of American cop drama, The Mentalist, can probably recite verbatim William Blake’s ‘Tyger, Tyger.’
The poem in question asks how God can both create an innocent lamb AND a man killer? A real case of Beauty verses The Beast. And all in just 24 lines! Wow!
It becomes a central theme in the series with the arch villain quoting the opening verse to a tied and bound Patrick Jane (the hero figure).
In other words, poetry is alive and well within our popular culture, even if it lurks slightly beneath the surface, where all is not immediately visible.
And this stuff matters. A book takes time to read. Perhaps days or weeks. Sure, some poems are lengthy, but, equally, others can be happily consumed during a work break.
A wonderful five-minute rest period where you can transport yourself into another world. Think new things. Experience new perspectives. And provide nourishment for your soul.
The quill of yesteryear’s poets has now replaced by the gentle tap, tap, tap of their modern-day equivalents gently hitting buttons on a keyboard. The means may have changed; but the power of a poem’s wording hasn’t altered one single jot.
Hitting the mark
When published, Stephen’s poetry hit the mark. ‘It was nice that it touched on a lot of people. I was interviewing someone on Sky, and, at the end of the interview, he said how much he loved the poetry.’
‘It means something different to someone. When you read a novel, you can picture it in the brain and that is different for each and every one of us. The words are the same, but the perspective is different.’
‘It’s a unique experience to everyone who likes it. It’s nice to get someone else’s perspective, to share inner thoughts and feelings and know that other people can connect with it. Other people feel some of the things that you feel.’
The back cover says his work has provided ‘a fascinating insight into the thoughts of someone many people feel they know through the TV screen but whose true feelings are often held close to the heart.’
‘There is a change from news to poetry,’ he explains. ‘It’s a strange experience as I feel that I’m not writing it. I don’t sit down to say that I will write a poem, but phrases come into my head and a pattern of words form.’
‘I get a tingle and sit down and write it in five minutes. It literally comes out in a first draft. It feels like I’m not writing the poetry, it’s out there and I’m a conduit for it. I know it sounds airy fairy.’
For Stephen, his poetry allows reflection on key parts of life. The book contains a myriad of themes and concepts which anyone of us could easily relate to.
We turn to a page marked with the title ‘Friend.’ There are some wonderful phrases contained within the four verses. It opens with the lines: ‘There are good friends and best friends / And then there is you.’
We’re tentative to ask who provided the inspiration as the poem’s key character. Afterall, this is a person who goes: ‘tut tut tut tut / Raising those eyebrows / When I start the smut.’ Who could it possibly be?
Stephen stands up and picks up a framed photograph of himself with Gillian Joseph, his co-presenter from his days anchoring the Sky News’ Breakfast show. The frame has a handwritten note on it: ‘Best friends and then there is you.’
Best friends and then there is you
‘The wording sparked something and off I went. It’s an odd experience. It comes out of nowhere and it happens. I’m not pondering for hours. It just comes out. It’s a nice way of working. I have no idea where it comes from. I just don’t know.’
‘I write something and then come back to it later and I think, that’s good. It’s almost not me. It’s very strange but it seems to work.’
One of the great things about poetry is there is always something to match your mood. Need to relax? Read a poem!
Stephen’s collection contains a blend of therapeutic thoughts: ‘As notes of honey wash me clean’ (Sweet Sax), ‘The winter storms against the pane’ (Seasons) and ‘Tranquillity and gentle calm / Were warmly wrapped around his soul.’ (Slumber). This is cosy, soothing stuff. Log fire territory (complete with the crackle). Just what the doctor ordered.
Equally, if you’re looking for something a little more emotionally challenging then poetry can offer up its’ own version of Trick or Treat. ‘Bleak and Grey’ pulls no punches with its opening stanza: ‘I stare across the sea and sea / Bleakness, grey and misery.’
‘This is one of the really old ones. I was living in Canary Wharf and I wasn’t particularly happy. It was late at night and, looking across the Thames, it was quite grim in a way.’
‘It really resonates with me: hoping for something on the horizon. I’m in a much better and happier place.’
‘We deal with so much grim stuff (in television). I empathise with the suffering we report on, but you have to draw a line when work finishes.’
‘But I wonder if some of this was coming out in terms of where this darkness comes from, I wonder if some of that comes from there.’
Lighter stuff and teamwork
‘It’s so important that there’s something lighter as it does get so very depressing with all of the stuff that goes on. At GB News we do try to throw in lighter stuff.’
‘GB News is a friendly, small, lovely place to work. There’s real teamwork there and I’ve never been happier in a job than in this one. It’s a strange feeling. The figures are good.’
‘Bleak and Grey’ is at the start of his collection, and we follow his own life journey as we meander towards the end where his favourite poem resides.
It’s at a point of the book where it can be comfortably curl up between the pages – and yet be happily nestled tightly towards the back cover.
It’s very quick to see that ‘Timmy’ is referring to his cat and that special bond which animal lovers across the world can relate to.
Its four verses examine the questions and thoughts which often bewilder cat owners: ‘He looks at me with eyes that say / I can’t be sure just what you are. / Trust you? Yes I’m sure I can, / But are you cat or are you man?’
‘I’m fond of Timmy which is about my cat. It seems so accurate to me. Are you cat or are you man? That seems accurate. He loves me and trusts me, but does he know what I am? It’s so truthful and honest.’
‘It’s a perfect little line as it’s just him,’ says Stephen. We chat about how animals may perceive us and the natural love we feel for them. This is deep stuff and a far cry from the artificial settings of a news studio.
Television is a highly controlled mechanistic environment. Some may say it’s a contrived place to work. Greenscreen backgrounds. A place where everything is designed to look real – but where nothing ever is.
Writing and television
‘Everything on television has to be fake. The only way to make television is to fake it. You sit in a room talking to yourself, surrounded by microphones and bright lights.’
Broadcast news has a simple style of writing. Short sentences. Simple words. Put simply, it’s conversational. Before any broadcast, producers load the scripts onto a teleprompter (autocue).
Teleprompter’s lettering is BIG so it’s easier to read from a distance. And, because it’s big, the sentences are very, very short. In fact, they’re so short that they remind us of how some of Stephen’s poetry appears on the printed page.
‘I certainly think that script writing is part of it. It’s like radio copy. It’s brief. It has short sentence structures. I couldn’t write for newspapers.’
‘I enjoy novels but couldn’t write one as I wouldn’t be able to hold an intricate structure together. Radio copy is all about getting facts across in three paragraphs. I do write in a broadcast way.’
We turn back to Stephen’s poetry. We’re midway through his collection and we reached a poem which consists of a single verse containing 21 lines.
The first two lines of ‘Saints’ packs a punch, and they draw you quickly into wanting to read the rest: ‘If God exists what does she think / Of human kind, the human stick.’
There’s no cosy chocolate box cover stuff here. No warm comforting fireside with its hot cup of cocoa. This is old school poetry which is designed to make you sit up and think.
‘Saints is a lot about love and goodness. I passionately believe in goodness. I see it as a piece of truth. I refer to God as a female and, in some senses, it’s controversial.’
‘I’m not sure what God is but I do believe in something and don’t believe they would have a gender. He is just as relevant as She.’
‘What a lot of people focus on is being rich, powerful or influential, but this doesn’t matter. What does matter is the friendly neighbour, having a chat with the person in the street.’
‘What matters is not the nonsense that we’re fed about being successful and rich, as I don’t believe that anyone is any more important than anyone else. Success can breed selfishness and arrogance which is very unattractive.’
‘Sights of mountains / smell of peat’
Stephen’s working-class background is, perhaps, a good antidote to the trappings of materialism and consumerism which constantly surround us in our modern world.
We chat about the type of family lunches which would be enjoyed back in the 1970s and 1980s. Simpler, happier times. The idea of a mobile phone was the stuff of Buck Rogers and the notion that one of these futuristic devices would ever been seen at the table, next to the Sunday Roast, would have been utterly unthinkable.
‘What is working class? A lot of people will say “but you’re not working class” as you work in this industry. But it’s not about what you earn, it’s about your values.’
It’s a sentiment very much reflected in HOME. It’s the only poem in his collection which has the title in block letters.
It reflects on the wonders of the great outdoors and the place which is very close to his northern roots: ‘Although I moved so far away, / Those distant country longings stay, / The thrills of city can’t compete / With sights of mountain, smell of peat.’
‘It’s a Wordsworth style thing and the thrill of being back and the feeling of a connection with the Lakes and being generally at home and in the working-class north.’
‘I’m very much the boy I was born and am very much about countryside. It’s all connected to the emotional side of being a boy from Barrow and not a trendy media luvvie type. There’s nothing like being on the side of a hill in the freezing cold.’
Cumbria has long been a source of inspiration for countless artists and poets over the years. Wordsworth’s Daffodils is, perhaps, one of the nation’s best known (and loved) poems.
It even became the centre of a tongue in cheek lager advertisement in the 1980s. The advertising team assuring us that the ‘I wander’d lonely as a cloud’ line could only ever have been dreamt up by consuming some appropriate liquid refreshment. Their product being the only one which could reach the parts that others couldn’t.
Cumbria has long been associated with some of the Greats. Coniston influenced Ruskin. Keswick worked its’ magic on Tennyson. And Grasmere played on the mind of Wordsworth. BTN asks if Stephen’s work was influenced by Romanticism.
‘I’ve been asked before as comparisons have been drawn. I’m not knowingly influenced by them but it’s interesting to think about if there’s certain paths of phraseology and words which pop up.’
Trees, waterfalls and mountains
‘You never know what’s imbedded in your brain in your youth and what comes up later in life.’
‘There’s something very beautiful about living in The Lakes and reflecting on tiny bits of nature that are around us on a daily basis.’
Poets conjuring up imagery of trees, waterfalls and mountains transport us away from our day-to-day problems and provide us with a crucial bit of TLC. A big hug sent to us from a well-meaning poet from times long since passed.
Fast forward to the here and now where our conversation is being accompanied by the gentle pitter patter of rain on the office window. An apt soundtrack for ‘Nature’s Kiss.’
The poem brings us the joy of the wilderness with its ‘wind and rain’ and ‘thunder filled spring afternoon.’
‘It’s all about getting back to basics. It’s an absolute reality. Lying on the grass. I like nothing more than getting out and walking and getting out camping.’
But, of course, the nature of his work means he is predominately based in The Big Smoke which can provide a different type of inspiration – and where his pallet of vocabulary can stoke up a snapshot in time.
Glimpses of modern Britain
All writers discreetly observe their surroundings. It doesn’t matter if they’re writing fiction or fact. They’re modern day flaneurs: the men and women who made up the ranks of French impressionism.
Painters who would saunter through society and paint what they saw. Capturing those all-important snapshots in time.
Watching is a poem which resonates with the flash of a photographer’s bulb. This is the journalistic version of a modern day flaneur. Four verses which provide a glimpse into modern day Britain: ‘Meetings, greetings, always late, / Collars high against the rain.’
‘It’s my thought process about what people might be thinking. People dashing by and blurred imagery.’
‘It’s selfish poetry as it’s my perspective on everything. It’s just imagining what people are doing. We pass thousands in the street, all of them have individual lives and each with their own story.’
‘We don’t know what’s happening in their lives. We all make judgement calls just by looking at them, but we could all be quite wrong.’
‘Journalism is all about dealing in facts. Watching is the opposite of facts as it’s based on assumptions which is what we do in real life. It’s the exact opposite of work. It’s quite nice to just imagine and to assume.’
Reporting often centres around the edifice of politics. In the weeks following our interview, Westminster sadly (again) became weighed down by scandal. Political disappointment is standard fare for newsrooms.
The Call was written years before the latest myriad of allegations, and counter allegations, made their way into the public arena.
The poem is powerful stuff: ‘Our leaders tell us to believe, / They say that we must trust, / Ignore the call of our own hearts / And turn our hopes to dust.’
‘Reading it in the current context and it sounds very political, doesn’t it? Politically, I never understood people who are blue through and through or who only ever vote Labour. When it comes to it, listen to the arguments and vote for who you believe,’ says Stephen.
‘This poem follows the heart to do what you feel is right. It sounds like a protest call but I’ve never been on a protest in my life.’
‘I do believe in standing up for what is morally right. I will make a case for something but will always be willing to have my mind changed and perhaps that (The Call) reflects it a little bit.’
‘The Last Goodbye’
We’re into the ‘T plus 60 minutes and counting’ stage of our interview and heading into weightier territory. Our selected pieces are becoming more reflective in tone.
The Last Goodbye appears close to the end. The first verse causes goosebumps: ‘The time had come to say goodbye, / A last farewell to one so loved. / Filled with nerves, touched by fear, Of seeing life in lifeless state.’
Five verses follow on. A total of 38 lines. All of them focused on a love which was there ‘in waves and waves.’
‘It’s unusual poem and it’s about my Grandma. The flow and structure are very different as I tend to naturally go for rhyming couplets. Vivienne Dixon was born in 1908 and lived with us when she became a widow.’
‘I think of her all the time and looking back on the poem and reflecting on all she did and all she was. She spent the last nine months in a home. She said, “don’t shed any tears for me, it’s time for the cemetery.” She was nearly 92.’
‘She died in 1999. A long time ago. I wish I had touched her face when in the coffin, but it didn’t look like her.’
‘I didn’t think I would read these phrases again and smile so heavenly but it’s lovely to read some of these things,’ says Stephen, whose face lights up at her memory.
‘It’s very sad in many respects and it’s also a joy and a bit of a celebration as I have wonderful memories of her. It’s so nice to reflect back on. It really makes me smile. They are very personal. Just bits and bobs that she did.’
‘She brought tea as a treat in bed. There was lots of love there and looking back gives me a lot of pleasure.’
‘In our family, we do talk about death and wills and things without any fear. A lot of people have a fear of death, but we talk about it openly. People worrying about dying rather than enjoying living. I absolutely truly believe in it.’
‘It’s really how I feel and deal with it and not be fearful when the time comes. I find it very comforting. I’m not going to worry about it or shy away from the inevitability.’
‘We should be able to discuss it as I don’t agree with taboo subjects. It’s not healthy. Death is going to happen sooner or later.’
‘The present is everything / Just be who you’ll be’
And it’s that journey through life towards death which has been a core piece of DNA for so many poets. George Herbert’s The Pilgrimage. T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.
And back to our earlier theme of popular culture, who can forget David Bowman’s journey in 2001: A Space Odyssey? The immortal line: ‘My God, it’s full of stars’ is said moments before Dave’s death – and subsequent rebirth.
Stephen and I finish our chat with ‘The Now.’ It’s an apt poem to end on as it talks of future dreams and past ponderings. The importance of moving on. New hope.
It’s the final line which seems to perfectly sum up our conversation: ‘The present is everything / Just be who you’ll be.’
‘If you’re worrying about the future then you can miss what’s happening now,’ explains Stephen. ‘Enjoying the moment is important. Cats and dogs live for the moment, and I think that’s a good thing to do. The dreams of youth are precious and should be appreciated even if they don’t go according to plan.’
Adapting to changing events. Living in the moment. It’s what makes a journalist tick. But today’s headlines are tomorrow’s fish and chip paper. The chance to reflect on things is perhaps what makes a poet’s work not just memorable but also very different to news.
And so, it’s time to call a halt to the interview. All questions asked and answered. It’s a wrap at T plus 90 minutes.
‘I’ve done a couple of interviews about poetry and that’s the longest chat about it to date,’ reflects Stephen, prior to us both wishing each other well and then saying our goodbyes. And at just over 4000 words, it’s probably one of the longest articles we’ve ever written.
Images of Stephen Dixon supplied courtesy of Stephen Dixon / Olympia Publishers. Front cover design of Love is the Beauty of the Soul supplied courtesy of Olympia Publishers. Additional photography of The Lake District supplied courtesy of Ben Lang.