London Grip Poetry Review – John Weston



Poetry review – MINDFUL: Neil Elder is shaken by John Weston’s pamphlet which is as much a social and political document as it is a sequence of poems


John Weston
Shoestring Press
ISBN 978-1-915553-36-2

Some works of poetry are so bound up with a poet’s own life that it is difficult for readers to find a way into the poems. However, John Weston has accompanied his poems with two pages of background to the pieces, and this is extremely helpful. Of course, I now wonder how I would be responding to the four poems, in this slight but powerful pamphlet, were I without the background information, but layers of insight are, in some ways, what this work is about. The poems give a glimpse into a world most of us (thankfully) know little about.

Mindful is a “short poem sequence”, just four sonnets, responding to real events in John Weston’s life (and that of his family) from the years 2018 – 2023. The focal point is Weston’s son and the “acute but transient psychotic disorder” he suffered which resulted in time on remand at Wormwood Scrubs and treatment in an NHS psychiatric hospital. However, the subjects of the pamphlet are various, and its short length belies the power and range of points being raised.

The “uneasy relationship between psychiatry and the law” is at the centre of this piece. The starting point for Weston is the psychotic episode his son suffered. We are not told the son’s name, but we know from the background given that he was “a highly successful businessman” and the terrible series of events that followed this episode leave me saying “There but for the grace of God …” Essentially what happens is that an upstanding member of society is swept away by events, his life is turned upside down, and then he is dealt with in terrible fashion by the prison authorities and NHS. Weston makes us all “mindful” of how precarious life can be;

Could anyone go down with this illness? Yes,
And at any time.

Mindful is the anguished writing of a father, made cynical by experience. That is not to criticise, instead it is the basis of how we might understand that the text must be operating as a kind of catharsis for the writer. Weston has a strong track record in poetry, but he hit the buffers in light of the events portrayed in this work. He writes “Blockage of any further work by me seemed inevitable,” and yet with the aid of epigraphs to “jump-start” poems he was able to find ways of channelling these experiences. Indeed, without giving the game away, there is a nice little method of dealing with writer’s block embedded in these poems.

It is tricky to separate the poems from their genesis, and perhaps it is foolish even to try to divide the two. What we end up with here are snapshots of a life in turmoil. We start with the idea that somewhere destiny was undermining a stable life, “the Fates were at their looms”, and from there we go, via the horror of life on remand (“your smashed left temple”), to some sense of life after turmoil and “promised release” from “the dark web” that first ensnared Weston’s son.

The poems are moving and terrifying, but they are also full of love for one who is almost beyond reach because of the system they become caught in (that web, again). I found wisdom in the idea that grandparents “have life experience not / once, but three times over.” and I recognise Weston’s point about how people are shaped;

We are all burdened
one way or another by
the weight of history.

I imagine that, for Weston, there was a great lifting of the burden when these poems came into being. If I have said little about the finesse of the writing – the kind of analysis of technique that a typical review might include – then it is because the subject, the depth of feeling and the very real issues that are raised about justice, NHS provision, and pressures in the world, dominate the sonnets and reduce those to side issues. The sonnets themselves are fine, but it is the pamphlet’s cumulative power, the narrative and background, that make this a work that has stuck with me for quite some time and that still moves me. Mindful is well worth anyone’s time, and needs to be read by those in charge of the institutions involved.

Neil Elder has won the Cinnamon Press debut collection prize with The Space Between Us,as well as their pamphlet prize with Codes of Conduct which was also shortlisted for a Saboteur Award.  His latest work is Like This, available from 4 Word Press. He occasionally writes at