In Memory of Jean Harrison

Jane Routh remembers Jean Harrison – poet, novelist, teacher, and founder of Settle Sessions.

Jean Harrison

Was it Jean who introduced me to The Poetry Business I wonder now, looking back to the end of the 1990s? Certainly our friendship was rooted in poetry: we both made that tortuous Saturday morning trip across to Huddersfield for the workshops. In her first book, Terrain, Jean acknowledged The Poetry Business Writing School ‘invaluable’.

Jean was a sharp critic in workshops, and of her own work too. I think of her writing as characterised by an extraordinary inventiveness and intense, detailed observation. They’re there in ‘Woman on the Moon’, a poem first published in The North (and later in her second book Junction Road) which was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for the Best Single Poem 2004. They’re there in her two novels also published by Cinnamon Press – On a Wandering Planet invents a dystopian future in which social dislocation uncannily prefigures much of our present situation. Jean’s last publication was a Wayleave Press pamphlet, The Tilt – poems which span half a lifetime of teaching in Ghana, rich in detail and subtle in their critique of colonialism.

She was also a founder of Settle Sessions, intent on bringing good readings to her adopted home town, but ones which also engaged a wider community than her poet friends.

Jean died on 5th April. No, it wasn’t coronovirus; she’d been in and out of hospital for a few months, making determined and surprising recoveries. She was at home in Settle for the last weeks of her life, cared for by a good friend with the help of palliative care nurses. By then her friends were no longer able to visit, nor were we able to be at the green burial ground for her funeral. We made do with reading her poems.

Her family plans to hold a celebration of her life and poetry in a year’s time, in Settle.

Here’s her Forward shortlisted poem:

Woman on the Moon

This is the longest night I’ve ever faced.
I’m putting it off while I write to you 
watching blues creep up. 

 The earth has been huge in our sky all day 
and as it sank, I felt I could reach out 
and touch you, but all the time indigo 
was seeping into the valley. 
Now it’s flooded and the hills 
are like shadowed snow.
An hour ago we spoke by satellite.
You told me all you’d been doing.
I said I’d being X-raying moonrock
and you went quiet; that I’d been walking
and my footsteps would lie there always, 
that there’s no wind 
and you said, ‘There must be.’ 
I said, ‘The light that comes here from earth
is blue and I’m losing it. Nights here 
are as long as fourteen days on earth,’
and you said, ‘That doesn’t make sense.’’
It should soon be time for your father 
to give you your supper and afterwards
both of you will go into the garden  
but I’ll be on the side of the moon
that’s turning towards space.

This next poem opens The Tilt, with the young woman in Jean we didn’t know at the beginning of adulthood.

We were the ones

          The cockerel shouts, The dawn comes because of me.

In those glorious years
when the world had turned its back on war,
we swarmed through a city’s streets
striped scarves flying,
piled bikes three deep against its railings,
strolled in and out
of lecture rooms and weighty colleges,
chattered and laughed, still at heart those kids
who’d flown clear of the earth
on the VE day chairoplanes.
We’d taken exams while Europe was rebuilding,
heard on the wireless the Viceroy had saluted
as new flags
broke into the winds of India and Pakistan,
a generation convinced
that in our time and with our help
other colonies still waiting now
would gain their independence.
We talked and talked, assured
our parents’ world had gone –
for there were clothes to buy
without coupons, cakes without coupons,
crocuses were flowering under the lime trees,
we could make toast in our rooms.

The third poem is one Jean chose at the other end of her life for the Settle Sessions website.


Settle to Sheffield –
that’s far enough, I’ll no longer try
to blow my mind by running round,
though I still picture TRAVEL AND SEE, proclaimed
on mini-buses, from bush villages, faces staring out
at traffic lights, government buildings
the way I stared at surf-boats, palms, a woman
skinning an orange with a cutlass,
and thought, them and me, new here
and out there, more
mountains, seas, forests, cities, countries, languages, skills –
learn, understand, be amazed by.
Today I want to sit, or kneel, in a small place –
back garden will do – hold a magnifying glass
close to pock marks on stones,
see the hooks in a bee’s tongue
how long it is, how the insect thrusts it down
its feet on a petal,
record nothing, sit and look,
and this will be the way
I’ll journey into praise.