Flights of Freedom

“I love trees. They are so solid. They give me strength and support. There they stand, surviving for years and years and years – roots going deep down, right to the centre of the earth… What kind of tree would I be, I wonder? I know. An oak tree. The strength of it. The power.”

(Rosa Peterson)

SIX MONTHS AGO, I sat down next to Rosa Peterson and we started to write a play together. A short piece – just fifteen minutes long – to be performed, alongside two others written in the same way – at West Yorkshire Playhouse’s ‘Every Third Minute’ Festival. The festival (brainchild of the formidable Nicky Taylor), was so-named, because every three minutes in the UK, somebody gets diagnosed with dementia, and was a groundbreaking theatrical investigation into, and celebration of, people’s lived experiences of dementia. More than that. Their creativity and resilience. Each person’s story: unique and special. Life after such a diagnosis. What can that be like?

Well, surprising and strange and different, reports Rosa, who spent three months sharing with me her own particular story. She has lived with dementia for the past three years. Her life – both prior to her diagnosis, and after – has thrown up many challenges. Indeed, they come on a daily basis. The lows can knock her down into a dark place. But what I didn’t expect, when I first began to write with her, was her wit, her strength of mind, her charm. And her wild and wonderful imagination.

Certainly we talked about the bad times: the hallucinations that come at night; the strange visual tricks her mind plays upon her – making the simple act of walking down the street, or crossing a threshold, sometimes difficult, even frightening; the disorientation and memory loss; the flashes of frustration and the real core of anger at her situation.

But, just as powerful, was the clear eyed wonder that Rosa takes, in the simple, natural joys of the world around her. She is someone who has never written a word in her life. Yet with a little gentle coaxing from me, the poetry soon began to flow. And she taught me to see with fresh eyes, just what beauty there is, in everyday life. How we must never take that for granted. Not for a second.

Images – of clouds, of trees, of waves, of horses – came unbidden to her mind. And very soon, a play began to emerge, shaped and moulded by me, but the words – entirely Rosa’s own.

We called it ‘A Horse Called Freedom’, and a woman called Ruth was its central narrator.

Often, it is the things that happen early in our lives – in childhood, or adolescence – that imprint themselves most strongly in our imagination. And if the memory is good, then we can return to it in our minds: catch it, like a talisman, to help us through the more complex pathways of adulthood.

So it was for Rosa. “When I was about fourteen,” she told me, “I used to go riding. I loved those horses. They said I was a natural. Sometimes we went bareback, too. No saddle, nothing. We just took them to the field and climbed on. What a lovely feeling it was. The freedom of it. Being out in the open, with the air on your face, the wind in your hair – just you and the horse beneath you, and nothing else mattered. Nothing.”

Rosa walks with a stick, after surviving a stroke fifteen years ago. These days, she has the vicissitudes of vascular dementia to deal with, too. So it’s not hard to see how magical this remembered feeling of freedom – the reality of the horses, with their power and animal vitality –  remains in her mind. Better than that – her favourite horse, Jet, “black and fierce and strong”, once set off like thunder, with her still on his back, clinging on for dear life. “It was so thrilling,” she remembers, “galloping away like that!”

In the final scene of the play, after Ruth has described the predicaments she faces in her ordinary daily life, the struggles, the barriers and the disappointments, it is – appropriately enough – Jet himself who takes centre stage. He carries  his rider Ruth off through the woods, faster and faster, till he sprouts wings, as wide and feathered and beautiful, as any mythical Pegasus, and flies high above the clouds, deep into the vault of the sky, into the wide blue yonder. To freedom.

And now, although the play is finished, and our weekly scribblings have come to a halt (like the runaway horse, back home in its field), I am still held in thrall to the power of Rosa’s imagination – her courage and her indomitable strength. She is an oak tree, indeed. And her wise words – and wicked laugh – resound loud in my mind and in my heart.

“It’s cool and clear

In the deepest night

There’s a handful of stars

Glittering – bright

Although they are really

So far away

If I reach, I can touch them

And here’s what they say.

It’s a message of hope

They are shining on me

‘Hang on’, they are saying

‘Soon  you’ll be free.’

‘A Horse Called Freedom’ was first performed at West Yorkshire Playhouse, Courtyard Theatre, on March 9th, 2018, alongside ‘I See Land Ahead’ by Bob Fulcher and Dominic Gately, and ‘Hamaari Yaadain/Our Memories’ by Hamari Yaadain Memory Cafe and Ming Ho, as part of the THREE trilogy of plays in the ‘Every Third Minute Festival’, Festival Director Nicky Taylor.






Hungary calls her – this curious, displaced, skinny English girl

pulls her under its blanket of Cold War snow

draws her to its jealous magyar breast

and suffocates her.





Just before the wall comes down,

just before the end.


And always she is struggling here,

in the bone shattering winter – city statues wrapped against the crack of cold,

and the stifling heat of an East European summer.

Such melancholy in that fresh, bright, cherry blossom spring.


How she longs to be in England –

on those dirty London streets,

where people know her name

and say it in a language that is forever hers.


Clear the call to leave:

but her heart is split in two.






And when she does go home

in that hot, hot summer of 1989

when the borders are flung open – and the West says “Come!”-

and the people sing their long lost songs of liberty,

it is too late for her, too late.


And she is homesick once again,

for a place relinquished,

for a man who has refused her,

for a country – harsh and full of paradox –

its language a mystery and a music forever on her tongue,

where she will always be on the outside, looking in:

nose pressed to the sash window,

as the heavy wooden blind falls shut.

Frontier to a vanished freedom – no longer to be crossed, or found.


Barney Bardsley

This poem was inspired by a call for submissions to an international anthology on the theme of HEIMAT or HOMELAND, by a group of German writers in Dortmund, which is twinned with my home city of Leeds, UK . The project got me thinking, right away, about my long connection with Hungary, and how I feel pulled – both towards and away – from this home-that-is-not-my-home! After the intense experience of my youth, encapsulated above, I was absent from the country for the next 20 years. But when I returned, in 2009, the feeling for the place was just as strong, and now I study the language seriously, have a wonderful circle of friends there, and return every year. Nothing is quite so powerful in my mind and heart, however, as the memory of those first days, in 1988 and 1989: spent in a country locked behind the Iron Curtain, yet open, warm and loving, to a stranger in their midst. Magyarország, annyira szeretlek.äge-für-internationale-anthologie-gesucht



December 25th

Winter Walking

Winter walking

In the stripped back branches of the mind.

When the wind hurls itself at the black windows of early morning

And the broken and bruised pieces

Of the body – hacked like a Christmas turkey

Throb with familiar soreness and fatigue.

Winter walking

As the small fading light of the year’s remembering

Gradually extinguishes itself.

And this – this mere survival – has its beauty.

And here – this waking solitude – is celebration, of sorts.

Without salvation or divinity: a kind of  prayer.


Sheer Poetry

IT”S NATIONAL POETRY DAY! To celebrate this, I have chosen the first part of a favourite Hungarian poem, by Attila József, and attempted a rough simultaneous translation into English. See below. It was the Hungarians who first got me mesmerised by poetry, and I love this poem in particular, which I write more about here . And by some strange synchronicity, it is the two countries of Britain and Hungary who are twinned to host the European Capital of Culture 2023, with my home town Leeds as a mighty contender in the bid. Here goes then… Here’s to the power of poetry and internationalism. (The picture above is a typical Budapest corridor inside a block of flats.)

Reménytelenül/ Hopelessly   by Attila József (trans. Barney Bardsley)

1. Az ember végül, homokos,

szomorú, vizes síkra ér

szétnéz merengve és okos

fejével biccent, nem remél.

He is one who comes to rest at last

by that sad and sandy, dampened shore.

He looks around him, undistressed,

nods his head, and hopes no more.

2. Én is így próbálok csalás

nélkül szétnézni könnyedén.

Ézüstos fejszesuhanás

játszik a nyárfa levelén.

And I, too, try to turn my gaze

without deceptions, gracefully.

The swish of a silver axe now plays

on the soft leaves of the poplar tree.

3. A semmi ágán ül szivem,

kis teste hangtalan vacog,

köréje gyűlnek szeliden

s nézik, nézik a csillagok.

On a branch of nothing sits my heart,

it silently trembles from afar,

gathering gently, round they come –

and watching, watching, are the stars.