16 June 2024

Richard Harries: in his own words…

A local poet whose journey in rhyme began 15 years ago with the composition of comedic poetry for friends, family and colleagues has turned a flair for writing into an award-winning post-retirement career, writes Tim Nuttall

For 71-year-old Richard Harries, his early works unlocked a previously hidden talent and a passion for poetry that has paved the way for international publication, appearances at countless events, collaborations with fellow performers and the receipt of numerous awards.

Explaining how he first found his flow, Richard said: “I started writing poetry just before I retired from work. I was challenged to turn Wordsworth’s Daffodils into a funny doggerel, and folk loved it. I then wrote a poem for an office card about my boss’s engagement and received a great reaction to that, so I decided I had a talent and started writing poems.

“The first one was, I think, a comedy poem entitled Cats. I used to sit outside my home and five neighbours’ cats sat with me. Folk started to comment that I was mad to have so many, but I did not own a single one!

“Another early poem, Pirate Izzy, was about my granddaughters and a game of pirates we played when they were little. Pirate Izzy became my first video on YouTube, which I placed there so my grandkids could see it long after I am gone. My channel, rcpoems, now has over 170,000 hits.”

As Richard’s talent evolved, so did the style and content of his poetry. While comedy remains an important strand, his work also taps into more difficult contemporary issues for inspiration.

“I write from my heart and soul. It’s all from emotion but I can’t just write about anything – I have to be moved. I can write from joy, anger, irritation, exasperation, fun – anything that moves and affects me. I can write about silly things, but I can also write about the environment, homelessness, depression and even suicide.”

This wide range of writing has led Richard’s work to be read, heard and performed in a variety of contexts. A poem inspired by the First World War, entitled Twelve Hours, was read to the descendents of those who died in battle on the fields of Bellewaerde (Ypres) as part of the 100-year commemorations of the commencement of war. Other works have been used by global environmental movement, Extinction Rebellion, and have also been heard at pro-refugee and anti-austerity events.

Meanwhile, on a local level, Richard’s emergence on the area’s events circuit happened shortly after moving to Withernsea 15 years ago. Accompanied by wife Eileen, Richard began attending Keyingham Folk Club where he found an appreciative audience for his poems.

“There were a couple of people who performed classic monologues, so I decided to bring my poems on the next visit. I did so and they were loved. I had a huge applause for Pirate Izzy. These appearances led to me being invited to open mic nights and, within weeks, local singer-songwriter Katie Spencer had invited me to perform at the Raine Club in Hull.

“Shortly after, I was asked to appear at the Freedom Festival where I was asked to record Pirate Izzy. Throughout the duration of the festival, that recording was used ahead of the dial tone in public phone boxes around the city. All of this happened within weeks of going to the folk club.”

Richard has since performed at countless events, many of which he has helped to organise himself. As a champion of the local area, many of these events have been fundraisers for good causes and community initiatives. As a committee member and director of fundraising, Richard was instrumental in helping to raise funds for the Pier and Promenade Association and its plans to rebuild Withernsea Pier. He has also been actively involved in raising money for the RNLI through the staging of events and the sales of albums featuring his poems set to music provided by local talents including Henry Priestman, former member of soul and sophisti-pop chart stars the Christians.

“I have been organising events in Withernsea for over a decade. As soon as I came to the town, I met some RNLI fundraisers and immediately joined their fundraising committee. I was with them for about five years and even got to be vice-chairman. During that time, I put on some lovely concerts and events, acting as compère and performing poems in between the acts.

“I also joined in with the Pier campaign and staged many events in venues like the Alma, the Willows, Ellis’ Café and Captain Williams. Very special were the monthly open mic events involving many local performers at the Old Boatshed. These were highly profitable, packed and popular. We also did summer performances at Pier Towers that could be heard all over Valley Gardens and up to Aldi. A cafe at Willerby also joined in and we held events there for the Withernsea Pier fund.

“It was also a joy to be so involved with Withstock, in its various guises, for almost a decade. For much of this time I was deputy chairman of the festival committee. I suggested that we have an acoustic and spoken word tent. We first used the Meridian Centre and when that was a vast success, we got a large marquee. I booked mainly local talent and we packed the tent for all three days of the festival. Year after year I booked all artists and acted as compère and performed between acts as the next act setup. I have happy memories of my time with them and so many musicians involved became close friends.”

Internationally, Richard has been privileged to headline a number of online events launched in France, Italy, the USA and Canada. His work is also popular in India, from where he has received a number of awards for “literary excellence” and “literary appreciation”, and his poems have appeared in three anthologies on the topic of world peace.

Closer to home, Richard has performed in-person at numerous festivals including the Beverley Arts Festival, York Literature Festival and Filey Folk Festival, where he enjoyed featured spots and a stint as poet-in-residence. He was also selected by a jury of young people to appear at a youth culture event in Hull that was broadcast on BBC Radio Humberside.

“I was 68, and the oldest person to vote was 24. When I walked into the green room, the other acts thought that I was the caretaker!”

Richard credits this BBC radio performance as being the catalyst for securing a publishing deal. The following year his first book of poems, Awakening, was published by Stairwell Books of York. As Richard turned 70, his second book of poems, Iconic Tattoo, was published by the same company. With two new books recently accepted for publication, and proofreading currently ongoing, Richard looks set to head into 2024 with a further two books to his name.

“At the age of 69, having my first book of poems published was fantastic. It was their best seller of the year and they have referred to it as a ‘wild success’ in print and at live events. The second book achieved similar success and now, with a further two books accepted, to have four possible published books to my name is utterly amazing.”

Reflecting on the poets that have inspired him, Richard said: “My favourite classic poets are Anne Brontë, Sir John Betjeman, John Donne and Andrew Marvell. Brontë’s ‘I hoped that with the brave and strong’ is especially dear to me. As a teenager, her melancholy poetry, full of her soul and heartache, moved me to tears.

“I was invited to perform at the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth where I read The Headless Ghost and the Wolves – a poem of mine inspired by Brontë’s book The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. To perform where one of my heroines had once stood was incredible.

“I love the mischief and fun of Sir John Betjeman, where the joy of life bursts from every sentence. I especially love The Diary of a Church Mouse. It is glorious and I am aware I could never write anything as perfect. I also love the work of metaphysical poets, John Donne and Andrew Marvell.

“Of modern poets, I love Hollie McNish and was blown away to actually perform on the same stage as her in Hull. Scotland’s Fin Hall is amazing. Robert Garnham is a comedy master from Cornwall. Gerald Kells is wonderful, as is Julian Matthews from Malaysia.

“Of the local poets, I love the work of the late Clint Wastling from Beverley, Hull’s Jim Higo and Peter Cullum from North Lincolnshire.

“I think the local talent is fantastic, and I am so sad when I see folk on Facebook say nothing happens in Withernsea when there can sometimes be five events put on in one night. I have a poem called Hull is Exploding with Talent and that applies to Withernsea too.”