A necessary evil

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
While meaning
Quite another;
Hollowed out the truth
Then stuffed it full
Of fat, sweet-smelling falsehoods;
Bit my mother tongue
Until it bled.
Now
After hours
I can make my peace with them;
Restore the sacred trust
I sold for tarnished silver.
This is my penance
And redemption;
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.

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Sunday shepherding

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.

In the master's footsteps

Dylan’s way

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 writing

THE WORK

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.

On others
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.

And today
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.

Democracy in action

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.

Colours of day

Sky-writing

Grey
is the colour of getting things done;
a day
at my desk,
driving,
unbegrudged domestics.

White
could go either way

But blue –

Blue
is an invitation
to truancy,
laughing, teasing
with outstretched hands
and promises

a girl in a meadow
in her light summer dress

and she knows
I can’t resist.