War in the air

The water-meadows are alive with insects as we approach midsummer, and the birds are taking full advantage of the seasonal bounty. On a riverside walk yesterday, I was delighted to spot a hobby (Falco subbuteo) as well as the usual squadrons of housemartins and swifts. This gorgeous bird of prey, about the size of a kestrel but with the rapid, swooping flight of a swallow, is a summer migrant visitor to these shores. Fantastically fast and manoeuvrable, it snatches dragonflies out of the air – a truly astounding feat of talon-eye coordination – then eats them on the wing. I can’t help noticing that Nature is often at her most beautiful and inspiring when predators and prey come together, even if it’s just birds and buzzing things in the drowsy fields of a Sussex summer.


Summer has made this peaceful pasture
A theatre of operations,
Where two vast blocs – immortal foes –
Are flung together for another round of attrition.
On one side, the teeming insect hordes
Infinite in scope and number,
Seethe and swirl in Brownian clouds,
Dab momentary circles on the water.
For every one that falls, a million wait to take its place.
Ranged against them are the birds.
The hobby, hanging on the wind,
Makes sweeping skirmishes along the riverbanks,
His thought-quick talons take down
Dragonfly and demoiselle in savage, surgical strikes.
The swifts and martins skim the grass like glossy scythes
Slicing gnats and mayflies from the air above the silver meadow.
There can be no armistice, no truce or treaty
In this Million Years’ War both sides are doomed to lose.
And in their beauty, and mastery of their savage art,
I claim the spoils of this sublime and graceful slaughter.

Busy doing nothing?

A lull in my day-job has allowed me the luxury of watching Nature being busy this morning. Poetry isn’t important work in the great scheme of things, but at least it’s a job for life.


The wind is at work
Rushing round the trees
Like a zealous inspector
Looking under every last leaf.

The birds are busy
Flying endless sorties
Forcing down insects, strafing worms
To satisfy their voracious fledglings.

The sky is a stevedore
Stacking clouds like crates and fat grey sacks
Each packed tight, freighted with rain
Ready for tonight’s delivery.

The land is labouring
Thrusting up shoots, filling leaves,
Emptying itself into fruits,
Cracking under the strain.

My work’s worth is nothing
Against their world-shaping toil
Yet the moment I take up my pen
All creation is in my hand.

Near-death experience

I’ve had many, many near-misses with vehicles in my time as a cyclist. It’s not surprising given the number of hours and miles I’ve put in on the road: the laws of probability must be upheld. Still, it’s been a while since the last really close call, so this afternoon’s little encounter was unsettling, to say the least. It wasn’t even some teenage hot-shot in a dented, souped-up hatchback just after the pubs have closed, either; it was a bloke in his fifties, driving a mid-range, late-model VW Golf, at 3.45 on a Sunday afternoon. You see many cars with a ‘Baby on Board’ sticker in the rear windscreen: I’ve often thought I should have a cycling jersey emblazoned with ‘Wife and Child at Home’. Sadly, such is the hatred – in some cases literally murderous – many British motorists harbour against cyclists, it wouldn’t change anything – indeed, it would  probably make me even more of a target. As you know, I normally write about the joys of riding a bike: today, I have to consider its dark side.  That’s art, I guess.


This is the part
They don’t mention
When they tell you how good
Cycling is for you:

The part when
My innocent Sunday-afternoon spin
Is shattered
By his engine’s downshift-strangled howl:

In my hundredth-of-a-second reflex-look-back
He’s on my wheel, like a wave
Ready to roll right over me
Without breaking.

Clear road ahead
But he stays inside the white line:
Making it clear I should not be here.
My elbow fills the hole his door-mirror makes in the air.

Cutting back in
Inside his own length, taillights on my front tyre:
A last hot blast of fumes and spite
Spat in my face, and gone

Leaving me to ride
The last mile home
Shaking, raging, too angry to be happy
Just to be alive this time.

An important statement

Let the record show: there is one man in England at least who, quite literally, couldn’t care less about the nonsense in South Africa. And that if makes me a traitor, I’ll happily spend the next month locked up in the Tower of London. Anything to get away from it all.

UDI (Unilateral Declaration of Independence)

For the duration
I’m not part of this nation.
I’m a breakaway republic of one,
Cutting all ties
Severing relations
And if I had an embassy
My diplomats would all have caught
The last plane out
Before I closed my borders.

I will not align myself
With the England
The world sees now –
Chanting, jeering
Bestial, bare-chested
Wrapping itself in the flag of St George
To hide its naked hate.

That corner of a foreign field
Is not the England I was born in
Walk my dog and ride my bikes round
Where I write, and raise my girl.
So please don’t look for me
Among those painted faces:
I am of a different stripe.
And I’ll be reunited with the Kingdom
When it’s all over.

Tinkering (3)

Picking up a thread from a few weeks back, another poem about the pleasures of tinkering with bikes. Today’s victim was my Pashley Paramount, a wonderful British-built bicycle that faithfully replicates the BSA bikes issued to paratroopers on D-Day. A hefty beast, to be sure, made of steel and equipped with a leather Brooks saddle and Sturmey-Archer hub gears and brakes, but a truly charming machine that always makes me smile. All it required was its chain tightening a tad, but even this simple procedure feels like ‘proper’ mechanical work. I don’t find it easy, but that just makes it all the more satisfying when it goes right, as it did today.


They don’t make them like this any more –
And no wonder:

What with wheel-nuts
To be slacked off with a spanner;
Brake and gear cables to disconnect;
A brute tug-of-war to snug up the chain,
Before all the adjustment, tightening, testing
And starting all over again.

A job for the workshop
At home, in the dry,
With plenty of time,
Rags, the manual
And a mug of hot tea,

Not out on the roadside
With my face full of fumes
Grass and grit waiting
To absorb tiny vital bolts
And the rain running cold down my neck.

But when those five speeds
Shift with buttery smoothness
And the hub settles into its soft
That tells me
As sure a regular pulse informs
A doctor that all’s well within

I take a desk-man’s pleasure
In working with my hands,
In being anointed with the holy oil
Of the one who makes and mends;
In understanding
Not just using
And keeping the bike I ride
On the road.

Another cycling poem

I seem to have been distracted by nature and history lately, so here’s a new cycling poem to restore the balance. It was late in the evening before I managed to get out yesterday, but it was a classic ride with all the elements that keep me in love with this ridiculous sport: the Madone purring along the road in the warm summer air; carving through bends at high speed; no pain anywhere; and little groups of riders heading home from a local time-trial to create a suitably target-rich environment. Developing arthritis has changed many things, but it hasn’t altered my desire to be in front. And though I blush to admit it, I had a lot of fun chasing down the other guys. I’m paying for it today with some grumbling from my knee. But for the psychological payoff, it was worth it.


Last night
Was just like
Old times:

Cruising the lanes
Like an electric-blue
Hunting convoys
Of home-going riders,
Stalking them on the flats,
Hiding in hedgerows
And bends in the road;
Reeling them in
Then making the kill
On the next hill –

Spinning by, easy,
With a nod to their rolling shoulders
Wide eyes
Open mouths.

Then slipping away
Over the summit
And vanishing
A bit of their souls
In my back pocket.

Museum pieces (3)

I approached the last of these poems with some trepidation. The Sutton Hoo helmet is among the most famous artefacts in the British Museum, and the centrepiece of what’s widely considered the most important British archaeological find of modern times.
Dating from the 7th Century, the helmet was interred with a (still unknown) East Anglian warrior in a Scandinavian-style ship burial. Its discovery, as part of a hoard of fabulous treasures,  in 1939 completely overturned our perceptions of the Anglo-Saxon period, long dismissed as ‘the Dark Ages’, as a barbarous time devoid of skill and beauty.
For us poets, it also makes a tangible link with one of the foundation-stones of English literature; the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf. In Seamus Heaney’s masterly translation, the poet tells of Beowulf’s ‘glittering helmet…of beaten gold, princely headgear hooped and hasped by a weapon-smith who had worked wonders in days gone by and embellished it with boar-shapes’. When the Sutton Hoo helmet, broken in 500 fragments, was finally reassembled, it was almost exactly as the writer had described, right down to the bronze boars’ heads protecting the wearer’s temples. Surely a case of life imitating art.


It’s just a poem
They sniffed:

A fantastical
Mead-hall tale

Of monsters
And imagined battles

By a poet
Without a name

About a hero
Who never lived.

Till on the eve
Of their own war

They woke the Suffolk sand
From a thousand-year sleep.

The land yawned, casually
Handed them the helmet

And Beowulf’s boars
Winked at them with garnet eyes

As if to say
He told you so.

Museum pieces (2)

Another poem from the British Museum, this time inspired by an Anglo-Saxon knife, called a seax, that was found in the River Thames. Dating from the 10th Century, it’s of huge archaeological importance because the blade bears the only inscription we have of all 28 letters in the Anglo-Saxon alphabet, or furthorc. The other runic word is Beagnoth, which is the name of whoever made or owned the seax. Who they were and how they were parted from this magnificent weapon, which was used for hunting and fighting, we’ll never know.


Once, it was whetted for war and the hunt,
Its iron blade burnished. Then, abandoned, mislaid
Or hacked from a hand in the heat of a fight,
It spent long dark centuries sunk in the mud
Of the Thames. Disinterred, a lost tongue was revealed:
The furthorc, in full, finely-wrought on the blade.
A plea for protection or profitable hunting?
Unknown and unknowable. But the name, Beagnoth,
Removes the Museum glass, makes it a possession
A person once prized, and part of a story.
A shard from the shadows, time-shattered, the knife
Still pierces perceptions, and presents us a life.

Museum pieces (1)

First of a few posts inspired by a trip to the British Museum in London last week. Of the seven million or so items in the Museum’s collection, my favourites include the Lewis Chessmen. These were carved from walrus ivory in Norway (it’s thought) about 1,000 years ago; somehow they ended up buried in a sand dune on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides (off the north-west coast of Scotland) where they were discovered completely by chance in the 19th Century. They’re exquisitely detailed, with wonderfully vital expressions. I hope I’ve done them justice with these two short pieces; the first is written in the Anglo-Saxon style, which would have prevailed at the time they were made.


Lance raised in readiness, the knight rides out to battle
A foot-soldier at his side. He surveys the waiting enemy,
A fierce scowl on his face, unafraid of the king
Who sits, stone-faced, his sword in his lap
One hand on the hilt, one holding the scabbard
For a quick draw. The queen is quiet, the mother’s
Wartime worry in her wide grey eyes,
While beside her, the berserker bites his shield,
Frantic to be flung into the fight and make his end.
On both sides, bishops watch, emboldened by their crosiers
And knowledge that Another will annihilate the foe.
The front ranks have no faces. Their fear will not be shown
As dutiful and defiant, they march to death, unnamed, unknown.


An army worked in walrus tusk:
Weapons from weapons
That saw service in a savage sea;
Commissioned by a king, perhaps,
Crafted on a cold coast
By a Norwegian anonymous,
They took ship for the south
But, foundered or plundered,
They were lost on a lonely island
Halfway to Odin-knows-where.
In every sword, crosier, fold of cloth,
Crown, carved chair and wide round eye
I see a skill that dares me
To call their ages Dark;
Paraded behind museum glass
They look out at me
With familiar, lively faces younger
Than their eight hundred years.
And if I could
I’d make a series of illegal moves
And take every one of them.

Wild times

Rain, cloud-base just above my head and temperatures in the mid-fifties: thus June arrives in Sussex. The Madone doesn’t go out in such weather, so this afternoon, determined to salvage something from the day, I took my faithful Marin Muirwoods for a spin.
Trundling along a lane through the woods about four miles from home, I caught a glimpse of a russet-coloured animal between the trees. I stopped, turned back and realised I’d seen a fox – I assume it was the vixen – disappearing into a large earth a few yards back from the edge of the road. I waited and watched more in hope than expectation, and was rewarded with an encounter with one of her offspring that made me forget the cold and drizzle completely.


This is not the town:
Out here, in the damp woods,
Reynard is shy, wild, wary.

I spot her first – clay-red among the bright chestnuts
And washed-out bluebells.
Stop. Turn back. Wait
On the roadside, mouth-breathing.

The cuckoo calls deep in the shaw.
Rain drips from shining leaves,
Drowning the last car.

He emerges
Out of the earth like a soldier
After the bombardment.

He sits, sniffs, turns his head
And sees me.
One dark-tipped triangular ear flicks
A quizzical, comical,
Semaphore between our species.
He seems to shrug, then scratches a shoulder, shakes,
Takes a few steps, sits again.

A red van passes, fast,
Slams a manhole.
I curse.

He’s back,
All soft black eyes, big paws and stiff, still-growing fur;
You’d tuck him in your poacher’s pocket
Like a woolly hat or pair of gloves.

My smile feels false.
He will spend what years he’s granted
Stealing, running, hiding from me.
There is every chance
He’ll die by my hand –
My hound, hell-brew, gun, gin –
Or underneath my wheels.

For all our brief communion
We can never be brothers,
Separated as we are
By ten yards of road,
And a thousand years of enmity.

His friends for life
Are his speed
And the sheltering earth;
And though I’m told
I have dominion over him
He’ll never let me
Get so close again.