Found in the woods

This poem taught me that, when I’m feeling stuck, I need to stop trying so hard and just keep my eyes and mind open.


Still empty despite lunch
I take the dog and my mind
To the woods
And let them off the leash

In a clearing
We meet Jim
Sitting in the sun

I see him most days
In town, yet never here:
His presence jars
Like a concrete lamp-post.

Twice a week
He says
He comes out here
To gather firewood.

We talk a while
Of work we could
Or should be doing, dogs,
And spending money we don’t have.

Till he nods his acorn-shiny head
Heaves himself up
And shuffles off
Gruff and lonely

A landlocked beachcomber
In his paunch-strained t-shirt
Denim cut-offs and blue tattoos:
The poem I came to find.


Goodbye, Granny

Today was my grandmother’s funeral. She died last week aged nearly 95, having spent her last years in various hospitals and care homes. Her difficult childhood marked her for life, and none of us, including my father and his brother, were really close to her. I read a prose piece at the service: with the benefit of a few hours’ reflection, I’ve now come up with a poem. Goodbye, Granny, and Godspeed.


A strange farewell
To one already gone
Ten years: done
With this world, yet
Not quite ready for the next
Until you slipped
Out of your endless evening
Into patient Night
With your lifelong lack of fuss.

Sadly, there are no tears:
Your long years
Lived in silence and self-restraint
Leave a dry, uncertain sorrow.

So we few family,
And fewer friends,
Part from you today
Correctly, cordially
And with affection
But really none the wiser;
Much as we ever did.

More fighting talk

This week, I’ll be finishing a beginner’s archery course run by a local club. I’ve wanted to try archery for years, and so far it’s more than lived up to expectations. It’s both very simple and incredibly subtle, with even the smallest error or inconsistency in the draw, aim or release ruthlessly and publicly exposed by an arrow going high, low, wide or missing the target altogether. When it comes right, though, it’s fantastic: the hiss of the arrow leaving the bow, followed almost instantaneously by a good solid ‘thwack’ as it buries itself in the gold.
The 14th Century law that required all Englishmen to practise archery on a Sunday morning was finally repealed in 1960. But standing on the shooting line with my fellow apprentices, I get a real sense of being part of a tradition stretching back to Crecy and Agincourt. 


By right, if not by law,
I should be at the butts now
Putting in my two hours
With the longbow
As ordered by a long-dead king:
Schooling my arm
To a hundred-pound draw-weight,
Matching my own eagerness
To the taut string and Spanish yew
Pleading for release
To send the clothyard arrow
Singing to the gold.

The law that laid low
The fairest of France at Azincourt
Is now repealed
And Englishmen are free
To make their Sabbath as they will.
A few, and fewer, file faithfully to church
While most cut grass, stalk shops
Wash spotless cars
Wheeze and roar on the football field
Or sleep off Saturday.

The butts are lost
Under homes we cannot
In all conscience call our castles
And with them the keen eye,
Firm hand and loyal heart
They bred in us.
Men without a target
In a land with no true aim.

Freedom of the press

You have to love the British tabloid press: no one understands or panders to their readers’ prejudices like they do. Foremost among these paragons is The Sun, which today ran a front-page picture of England’s footballers (who, having scraped a win in their final group game yesterday, will now play Germany on Sunday) under the headline ‘Job done…now for the Hun’. Makes you proud, it really does.


I wish my job was writing
Front-page headlines for The Sun;
No fear or favour anywhere,
Offending just for fun
And feeling justified
In calling Germany ‘the Hun’.

I’d have a licence to insult
Belittle, shame, abuse:
My petty spites and prejudice,
All my outrageous views,
Would gain respectability
Because they were the news.

Peasant's revolt

One of the many amazing vernacular buildings at the Weald & Downland Museum is a 14th Century cottage, painstakingly reconstructed based on evidence from a medieval dig at Hangleton, near Brighton. Exceedingly basic, it makes you realise just how many of the things we believe (or are led to believe) we can’t live without our ancestors – well, lived without. We’ve gone soft in seven centuries, a nation of designer peasants, for whom ‘country living’ has become a lifestyle fantasy.


Simply built, but strong
To ward off a hostile world:
Thick reed thatch
Wattle-and-daub walls
And an open hearth
In a floor of beaten earth.

Few comforts in those dark days
When a horse was worth more
Than the man who drove him:
And when the mills and factories came
The workfolk rushed to flee the land,
Their poverty and shame.

Yet to live their way –
Tend my own flocks
Kill my own meat
Reap my own grain
And cook them over a fire
Made from my own wood

Pass my days under the sun
And withdraw at night
To a corner of the world
Free of others’ noise and light –
Is a dream reserved for millionaires –
Not simple folk like me.

Midsummer musing

I went out for a ride late yesterday to celebrate the longest day of the year. The countryside was so beautiful that I didn’t even try to write anything, knowing I couldn’t possibly beat Nature at her own game. But once again, Shakespeare came to the rescue, so here’s my own, very humble contribution to the Midsummer literary canon.


After the long haul out to the solstice
The year begins its steady slide
Back down into the dark.
But on Midsummer’s Day Plus One
I cannot turn my mind to Winter
With its frosts, sodden ground
And the dusk closing in at three:
The hay lies in the fields yet,
The swifts cut crescents in cobalt skies
And the evenings are heavy
With honeysuckle, elderflower
And all Titania’s bower.
While Puck goes smiling about his mischief
And Oberon sits
Enthroned beneath the hedge
Toasting Summer in golden ale.

Chasing Gabriel

One of my favourite Thomas Hardy characters is Gabriel Oak, first shepherd, then bailiff and, after many trials, husband of Bathsheba Everdene in Far From The Madding Crowd. The early chapters include a memorable description of his shepherd’s hut on Norcombe Hill, and I was reminded of it yesterday at the Weald & Downland Museum, which has just such a hut in its collection. Made from corrugated iron, with a curved roof, and mounted on iron wheels, it’s a cross between a small caravan and a railway wagon. It looks very cosy on a summer afternoon, but I imagine its charm would pall on freezing winter nights in the lambing season. Still, it was another reminder of my college days when I worked on a sheep farm. In those days, I still nurtured the hope that, like Gabriel, I might one day ‘by sustained efforts of industry and chronic good spirits lease a small sheep farm’ myself. It never happened, of course, but something of that dream evidently lingers still.


Take me back to when these oaks
Were no thicker than my arm
And the Southdown flocks
Covered the Hill like clouds.

Let this be my fold
Of hazel hurdles roofed with straw,
And this my flock
Safe from rain and gale within.

Let that be my dog,
Silent, knowing,
Waiting for my whistle
And curt ‘Look back’ to set him running.

And let this be my hut:
Corrugated iron against the weather;
Inside, close-planked with beech
Snug as a ship’s cabin.

The floorboards are stained red with raddle;
My crooks and candles, shears and sheep-bells,
Adorn the walls. An exhibition of honest labour
With Time and custom for curators.

And let that be me,
Stamping in, red-cheeked, snow-cloaked
From the midnight watch,
Throwing off my hat and coat

Reaching for the stove’s warmth and flagon’s comfort
Like a drowning man for a floating spar,
Snatching a soldier’s sleep before standing-to
Among my ewes in a bitter Downland dawn.

Let those be my wethers
Bearing my mark on ear and flank
Grass-fat and fit for droving
To the sheep-fair at summer’s end.

And though Gabriel Oak be gone
And all the shepherds from the Hill
This can be my dream.
Let it be.

Work and play

Yesterday, there were special Fathers’ Day activities at the Weald & Downland Open Air Museum. For me, the main draw was the chance to drive a tractor, which was how I spent my summers in my student days. It’s been a long time but, like riding a bike, you never entirely forget how to do it. And even though it lasted just a few minutes, and I was simply trundling round a field between traffic cones, it brought back some happy memories – and stirred some old regrets.


Two steps up into the dusty cab
Is all it takes to leave the world
And twenty years behind me.
One hand falls to the wheel
As surely as it lights on
A switch in the dark;
I sit half-turned in the ragged seat,
My eyes everywhere
Alerted by old instincts and recalled disasters,
Though today there’s no long trailer,
Plough or harrow hanging off the back
To swing out wide;
No fence, gatepost or steel stanchion
To gouge and smash in a moment’s inattention.

There will be
No more long nights hauling the harvest home
Ten tonnes at a time,
Ripping September’s stubble open
Rolling down miles of shining leys
Or coming in from spring seedbeds
Every surface dredged with a grey flour of clay.

Yet in a five-minute spin
On soft turf and a sunny Sunday
I can still connect to shirtless summers
Of big kit, hard hands, boots and jeans blotched with oil,
The smell of straw, the taste of dust.
The labour of life. A man’s work.
The first and last I ever did.

Race of truth

Last night, I rode my first time-trial of the year, which was also my first competitive event since the whole osteoarthritis thing kicked off. It was wonderful to be back in that world, so familiar to me yet so strange to those outside it. As usual, I went along with my best friend Kev, who did the decent thing and went off a minute ahead of me to provide a suitable target. I didn’t quite catch him (I finished six seconds behind him, which meant I beat him by a tidy 54) but I did overhaul the guy who started two minutes before me, which is always a nice feeling. Anyway, the knee held up, the Madone performed flawlessly, and I managed eighth out of 23. Perfectly satisfactory, the more so as I was also 44 seconds faster than my best time over the same course last season, when I was still in full training. In fact, my average speed of 24 mph was the best I’ve ever posted in a time-trial. (I never said I was good at this.)
All round the course, I was reminding myself that four months ago, I wasn’t sure if I’d ever ride a road bike again. It’s a cliché, I know, but on this occasion, it truly was the taking part that counted.
The French call the time-trial la course de verité – the race of truth – because it’s just you, alone, against the clock. There is no simpler, or more brutally effective, way to see how good a rider you really are. As I said, it’s an odd, insular world, but I’m thrilled to discover I can still be part of it.


– I-
Out here
There’s nowhere
To hide
From the wind, the clock
Your own weakness and desires.

– II –
You tell yourself
It doesn’t matter.
But it does matter.
Your head and hands and guts
Can’t sustain the lie.

– III –
The guy in front
Is my best friend
But for a penny
I’d pound him into the road
And hand him my dust on a plate.

– IV –
Everything –
Legs, lungs, back, even eyeballs –
Hurts. But to quit
Would be unendurable.
So you ride on, through it.

– V –
There’s a line that lies between
What you just can
And what you just can’t do.
The trick is to find it, then follow it
Until you drop.

– VI –
When it’s over
We swap times, slap backs and laugh
On our re-entering the world
They call the real one
But seems a shadow now.

– VII –
Spin home in a bunch,
Heavy-legged, smiling-warm
Each both wholly man and boy,
Loving the bubble we’re in,
Separate, special. The chosen few.

Security detail

During the same walk that inspired yesterday’s ornithological musings, I was made to feel distinctly unwelcome in one particular meadow by the lapwings who’ve chosen it as their summer residence. I always admire the sheer guts of any birds prepared to defend their territory against us, their largest and most potent enemy. These lovely farmland residents (which are also known as peewits on account of their display call) aren’t actually aggressive in the way terns, for example, can be, but they made it fairly clear they wanted me out of there, right now. And who was I to argue?


They’re on alert
The moment I’m over the stile.
Six of them rise on oven-mitt wings,
That flop and stir the air like broken oars,
Their weird piping raising eerie echoes
Of lonely wetlands and winter plough.

Five wheel away
To engage a pair of trespassing crows
And eject them into the wind-thrashed trees,
While one keeps station
Twenty feet above my head,
Like Security escorting me from the building.

And when I’m safely off the premises
And all the company’s nests, eggs and
Earthbound young are safe
The squad resume their foot patrol
Shrugging and swaggering in their green-black coats
Daring me to try it.