John Illman on Paul Lawless’ late, and surprising journey

By July 15, 2023Books, Public

Contact John if you would like to speak to Paul on his poetry and journey through grief

Journalists don’t normally alert potential rivals to topics they are writing about it. I’ve never done so before, but some things transcend common rivalries.

But first, the story within the story. Paul Lawless is a retired professor in urban planning. My wife Liz and I have known him for more than 50 years. He went to Cambridge from a grammar school in Sheffield. He finally settled in Sheffield with his wife Mary, who trained as a nurse with Liz. Mary and Liz were very close. 

We thought we knew Paul well. He and I had much in common, including a passion for cricket and wide open spaces. Paul took us on many spectacular  walks in the Peak District. We also share a love of words. Widely read, he has six academic books to his name.

But he never expressed any interest in poetry — and so we were shocked to see A Late Journey, his first collection of poems.  

I was amazed that he had written it at all and even more so by how good it was. Yes, I am biased. I am not a literary critic but I can recognise extreme emotional elegance expressed in words. There was another quality that critics would not have recognised unless they knew Paul. Liz summed it up succinctly: “He’s speaking in a voice I don’t recognise.” Paul is the stereotypical, plain-speaking, no nonsense Yorkshireman. 

Someone else who was also shocked was Paul himself.  A Late Journey was a response to Mary’s death. She died from cancer in 2020 in the hospice where she had worked. 

Paul, 75, also has cancer. He wrote his first poem in 2021 during the pandemic when most people had more time on their hands. He recalled: “I remember walking in the park thinking I need to do something. I was just going down and down after Mary’s death. I needed to respond to this grief. I had to get something down on paper. So I brought a notepad at the Post Office, came home, sharpened pencils and just started.” 

“I never thought I’d end up with a collection of published poems. I was just doing it for me. The more I wrote, the better I felt. The poems in the last section are more optimistic.” 

Did the optimism spring from the poetry. “Definitely. I think I can safely say that if I’d never written a word, I would have come out of it eventually. I’m a glass half-full kind of person, but it’d definitely made me focus on the good things. It made me understand what had happened to me, and it made me realise that I was slowly, and then, suddenly, quite quickly, coming out of it. 

“I doubt writing of it itself cracked it, but equally so I am sure it helped. Writing as therapy? It might catch on.”

Age has shaped his writing, making him less cautious. He says: “I wouldn’t have published this at 45 — but at 75, who cares? Tell people how it is.” Paul may be someone to turn to if you are writing about grief. Please contact me on 07973 897 623 if you would like to speak to him.

A Late Journey by Paul Lawless. Olympia Publishers. £6.99

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  • Christine Webber says:

    I found this very interesting. Thanks, John. Funnily enough, my next week’s column in the East Anglian papers is about writing your way through grief. And this sprang out of being booked to speak at a conference in Wales next year on the topic. I certainly kept a diary through David’s (Dr David Delvin) final illness and continued with it sporadically afterwards, in a bid to make sense of it all. Writing for so many of us is a refuge and a catharsis.

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