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.

UNLOOKED-FOR

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
Alone.

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.

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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.

LAST RITE

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The 14th Century law that required all Englishmen to practise archery on a Sunday morning was finally repealed in 1960.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. 

STRAIGHT SHOOTING

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.

FUN IN THE SUN

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.

DREAM HOUSE?

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.

MIDSUMMER NIGHTS

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.

CHASING GABRIEL

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.