He is GoneYou can shed tears that he is gone
Or you can smile because he has lived
You can close your eyes and pray that he will come back
Or you can open your eyes and see all that he has left
Your heart can be empty because you can’t see him
Or you can be full of the love that you shared
You can turn your back on tomorrow and live yesterday
Or you can be happy for tomorrow because of yesterday
You can remember him and only that he is gone
Or you can cherish his memory and let it live on
You can cry and close your mind, be empty and turn your back
Or you can do what he would want: smile, open your eyes, love and go on.

David Harkins

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The accidental laureate

Matt Seaton @mattseaton

Monday 16 September 2002

Twenty years ago a shy, lovelorn Cumbrian baker, David Harkins, wrote a poem. This year, the Queen read it out at her mother’s funeral. Matt Seaton hears his extraordinary tale
 ‘The first I knew of it was during the week of the Queen Mother’s funeral. We read it in the Times. The words were slightly different, but there it was.” The “it” in question is the poem chosen by the Queen to be read at the funeral of the Queen Mother. Reportedly, the Queen had read the lines – entitled She is Gone and credited only to “Anon” – when she was sent a copy of the order of service for the funeral of the late Dowager Viscountess De L’Isle, whose family had found the poem in a small anthology published in 1999. Evidently, the Queen was touched by its simple sentiments and slightly upbeat tone.

Such was the popular mood (remember the queues across the bridges near Westminster Abbey) that the words of the poem, so plain as scarcely to be poetic, seemed to strike a chord. Not since Auden’s Stop All the Clocks in the film Four Weddings and a Funeral had a piece of funerary verse made such an impression on the nation. In the days immediately after the service, there was frantic correspondence and speculation about the poem’s possible provenance. “Systems crashed and telephone lines were blocked at the Times,” reported columnist Philip Howard, and the lines were attributed variously to Immanuel Kant, Joyce Grenfell and nameless Native Americans. “Anon” seemed the best bet.

But now, by way of an epilogue, it has emerged that the poem was written by David Harkins, a former factory worker and motorway service-station cleaner from Cumbria who now makes a living as an artist, chiefly by selling nude paintings of his wife on the internet. So how did Harkins feel when he saw his words published on this most grave and ceremonial of state occasions?

“I was shocked. At first, I couldn’t believe it,” he says. “I felt proud, humbled. I wasn’t aware that people were using it for words of comfort when they’d lost loved ones.”

The original version, written 20 years ago and then entitled Remember Me, was never intended as a work of condolence. Rather, it was written in the spirit of unrequited love.

“I was 22, 23 years old. I was terribly shy,” he says, in his soft Cumbrian accent and slightly piping voice. “I became obsessed with a girl, but I was very intimidated. Rather than ask her out, I poured it all into poetry.”

Did he never tell his love? “She knew how I felt, but she wasn’t interested.”

At the time, Harkins was working in the same Carlisle bakery factory as his father. The second of four brothers, he loved poetry and paintings as a young man. Although these artistic interests tended to set him apart in his working-class milieu, they were also his consolation, he says, for his shyness. He wanted to go to art college, an ambition never realised.

“My family needed the money. I was obliged to work,” he says. “But I also lacked the courage. I’d say, ‘I’m going to get a flat.’ My mum would say, ‘And who’s going to make your bed then?’ And that would be that. I had no confidence.”

Life was a slog: he worked 12 hours a day, six days a week, in the bakery. “At least the money was good,” he says; it gave him the means to travel down to London to see the ballet or visit the Tate. One year, he visited Paris and saw the Louvre. He spent the rest of his time in his bedroom trying to write poems, plays and novels.

“I used to watch the South Bank Show and imagine myself being interviewed by Melvyn Bragg,” he says. “I wanted to be the next Harold Pinter. But I never got beyond Act 1, Scene 1.”

This Billy Liar-esque existence was interrupted in 1985 when he and his father were sacked for stealing a loaf of bread; Harkins spent the next two-and-a-half years out of work. Still he wrote, but without success. He sent various poems, including Remember Me, to numerous magazines and publishers. The nearest he came to literary achievement was when the Sunday Times magazine bought a piece he’d written for its “Day in the Life” slot. It never ran.

But it was during this period that Harkins’ verse of forlorn love went out into the world, was lost to literary culture for several years, only to re-emerge as a poem of consolation to the bereaved. Harkins used to type his name at the foot of every poem, so somewhere down the line someone must have retitled and doctored the poem and decided it should be “Anon” – the guilty editorial meddling, one might speculate, of an anthologist who no longer had any idea who David Harkins was, nor how to find him.

In 1987, the shy but dogged artist finally completed a one-act play, entitled Pam. In a rare entrepreneurial fit, Harkins formed his own theatre company with a friend to direct and a young woman to play the female lead. Harkins himself played the other part.

“We ran for one night at a community centre,” he says. “There were 16 people in the audience. Ten of them were my family.”

The very next day he started a new job, in Cavray’s food factory in Carlisle. That same August evening he met Jane. Buoyed up by the “success” of his play, he found the confidence to ask her out. She was his first real girlfriend, he says. They married in October and have been happily married since.

He gave up writing immediately – “when I found what I was really looking for” – and worked either in the factory or as a cleaner for several years. They have a son, Jonathan, aged 12, who has severe learning difficulties and is looked after by Jane. The family moved three years ago to Silloth, a few miles along the coast from Carlisle, and live in a three-bed semi, stacked with paintings.

Ah yes, the paintings. He started in 1997 – “I just needed to express myself.” He was able to paint more when a period of ill-health forced him to give up work, and last year had a show at the library in Carlisle. His subjects are almost exclusively nudes, which may have something to do with his new-found success. In the past three months, he has sold enough to come off benefit.

His wife is his main sitter. Doesn’t she mind being “on view” in his pictures?

“Not at all,” he says. “She’s a martyr to art.”

But how does she feel about posing for him?

“Oh, fine – she usually falls asleep.”

But who could begrudge David Harkins his late recognition? His story is a kind of triumph of art over life. Up to a point, he – ever modest – would say.

“I was never a good writer, and my poetry wasn’t very good either. I know that,” he says. “I’m not bitter at all. I just wanted to put the record straight.”

And so he has. Poetic justice.

© the guardian