A necessary evil
How the words must hate me.
All day I forced them
Into acts of petty crime;
A thousand pretty perjuries
Committed to save my skin.
I twisted them,
Bent them into cunning shapes
Corrupted and persuaded them
To say one thing
Hollowed out the truth
Then stuffed it full
Of fat, sweet-smelling falsehoods;
Bit my mother tongue
Until it bled.
I can make my peace with them;
Restore the sacred trust
I sold for tarnished silver.
This is my penance
All is forgiven.
The job is done.
As well as (more or less) paying the bills, writing for a living can be a lot of fun. But sometimes, making words perform circus tricks feels like betraying them; they are my friends, after all. I’m never asked to tell outright lies in my work – God bless the Advertising Standards Authority – but it’s often a selective, filtered version of the truth. Poetry keeps me grounded, and ensures my own voice never gets wholly lost in all the smoke and mirrors.
A price on their heads
Out on the Forest feeding sheep
Marking time on rented keep
Too meagre for such eager beggars.
Haul out two bales of precious hay;
Enough, I hope, to last the day
And overnight. A sodden August
Followed by a savage winter
Has made barns into bank vaults,
Stacked to the roof with summer’s riches
Bound in bales, tight as wads of tenners.
I slash the strings,
Releasing long-imprisoned scents
Of late July, and shake the flakes
Into the rack with the careful hands and watchful eye
Of a chef preparing Alba truffles
For a visiting head of state.
And the woolly starveling mob crowd in
Rowdy as schoolboys at the bell,
Tearing, greedy, at the pale green stems
Like shoppers in the New Year sales.
I watch them, forgetful of the cost
In their contentment. And long for spring.
I’ve finally managed to return to my shepherding roots in a small way, as a part-time volunteer helping out with a conservation grazing project on the Ashdown Forest. My charges are 240 Hebridean sheep, an ancient breed from the far north-west of Scotland. They’re tough, hardy beasts, but good winter grazing is hard to come by, and they’re on pretty thin pickings at the moment, with the soil still too cold for the grass to start growing in earnest. We’re having to supplement their diet with hay, but prices are at an all-time high, and we’re longing for the day when they can leave their winter quarters and go up onto the Forest and start doing their job properly.
My feet fell in
With Dylan’s way
Along the Aeron,
Where it slips and tumbles
Demob-happy as it nears the sea
Dipper-deep over salmon-smooth stones.
The red kites rode the wind
Over the woods
And I drank deep
As the Young Dog himself
On the lash in Laugharne
Of the giddy, untainted air.
Dylan Thomas loved the Aeron valley in Ceredigion, and regularly walked along the lane that runs past my mother-in-law’s house. His ghost is good company.
On some days
The words just appear
In a quicksilver surge,
Irresistible as Spring,
The old pen leaping in my grip
Like a live thing.
I’m hauling them up
Like huge rusty anchors
On slimy miles of iron chain,
And every straining tug and slip
Brings its own pain.
I may turn out to be
Some lyric magician
Or manacled convict breaking stone.
But gladly taking my next trip
Into the unknown.
I don’t think we necessarily choose to be writers; I think very often it chooses us. I write for a living, as well as for fun, and I find both aspects of the craft incredibly, heart-breakingly hard sometimes. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I’m taking a few days off now, heading down to the wild west of Wales to enjoy the restorative effects of clean air, long walks with the whippet, time with my girls, red kites overhead and regular exposure to my mother-in-law’s superlative cooking. Thanks to everyone who’s been reading and commenting; your generosity and support are truly overwhelming. Look forward to being back with you all soon.
A NEW LEAF?
I thought that I should never see
This triumph of democracy;
Our voices raised across the land
Forced ministers to stay their hand,
And cancel plans to sell our oaks
And other trees to greedy blokes
Who only see the beech and ash
And chestnut as a source of cash
And would have curbed our ancient right
To walk the woodlands. So in spite
Of pressures on the national purse
Our leaders paused, engaged reverse
And said that they had got it wrong
(As we had told them all along).
The law is made by fools, you see;
But only God can make a tree.
A follow-up to yesterday’s U-turn by the Coalition on its proposed national forestry sell-off. Alfred Joyce Kilmer’s poem ‘Trees’ has been parodied many, many times, most famously by Ogden Nash. I figured one more couldn’t hurt.
The Coalition has just announced that it won’t be selling off our publicly-owned woodlands after all:
If you were one of the half-a-million people who signed the petition against the plan, thank you. Occasionally, just occasionally, democracy can be seen to be working.
is the colour of getting things done;
at my desk,
could go either way
But blue –
is an invitation
with outstretched hands
a girl in a meadow
in her light summer dress
and she knows
I can’t resist.
You stand out front,
A firm grip on your bow
And their attention.
Rapt, upstanding, desperate to please,
Two dozen Heifetz aspirants fall in and follow –
Up-bow, down-bow –
Through dense quaver thickets
Up and down arpeggio hills
Along broad, smooth andante trails
Over jagged heaps of broken thirds,
Filling the room with smiles, swarms of sound
And me with longing and regret
That you were not around
When I was young;
And the wistful, certain knowledge
I’ll never be in your class.
Inspired by and dedicated to the wonderful staff of the East Sussex Music Service, and in particular my daughter’s violin teachers. There is no praise high enough for their dedication, enthusiasm and musicianship.
Now, he sleeps
In a croissant curl;
Warm as new milk,
Upholstered in butterscotch velvet.
Is his sleep-soft jaw
Filled with fur and bone,
Teeth closing tight as shears,
The boiling blood racing beneath the skin?
And in his stillness
Does his unseen self
Slip back to stand sentry,
Breath steaming from his laughing mouth,
Over the limp and cooling evidence
Of his first kill?
No one calling him away,
No snap of lead on collar:
Or perhaps he simply sleeps,
And all sense of deep things clicking,
And purposes fulfilled
Is mine alone.
With thanks to Kiersty Boon. You were right.
Beneath a waxing moon
And Orion like seven silver nails
Hammered into heaven,
The tawny owls’ hollow fluting,
Lonely as train whistles in the dark,
Reached me from the shadowed woods
And I smiled:
As a child
My bedtime prayer
Was for protection
From their forebears
Who haunted the beeches behind the house.
And I wished the new-hatched brood of terrors
Winging through my wide-eyed nights
Were so easily reduced
To harmless noises on the wind.