Harmony and discord

News of the world

Eight voices
Reaching across five centuries;
An old motet,
Its golden notes as rich and clear
As honey in the comb,
Pouring from my radio
Over the kitchen counter
And the breakfast bowls;
Eight parts intertwining, rising
Bass to treble,
Earth to heaven:
Nesciens mater virgo virum
A purity unstained by pride,
A verity undimmed by time,
Whatever you believe.

Eight a.m.
Six pips count the seconds down
And my own century smashes in
With yet more news of war and cuts,
Protestors, rebels, innocents
Lands torn up by natural forces
Ideology and isotopes.
And Mouton’s melodies are blown away
Like dandelion seeds.
Agnus Dei, qui tolis peccata mundi,
Miserere nobis.

Like Charles, I’ve despaired of the news, which is why I’ve finally kicked the Radio 4 habit (and as any regular listener will tell you, that’s like converting to a different religion) and transferred my allegiance from The Today Programme to highbrow music station Radio 3 when I’m unloading the dishwasher and preparing breakfast. Even here, though, the BBC insists on providing an hourly news update, and this morning, I just wasn’t quick enough with the ‘off’ button.

First week away

Counting down

At three
She’ll be home:

An hour remains
Of this week in my own skin
Before I assume the shape and antics
Of Daddy once again.

I should spend
These sixty stolen minutes
Savouring the peace
The lightness of heart and head
Freed from questions
Relieved of needs –
Live a little longer
At a grown-up pace.

But I’m waiting.

Quiet has become
Silence;
Space, emptiness;
Liberty, the lack of her.

And for all I wish her
To go free
Explore
And seize her world

Mine is flat
When she’s not in it
To give it roundness
And horizons.

Weeding wheatfields by hand

Roguing

Sometimes
Fickle Summer picked up her skirts
And took a short, unscheduled break,
Lending the farm to Autumn
Who, having no truck with harvesting,
Drove us from the fields
With a thin and ruinous drizzle.
Other times
A snapped belt, sheared bolt or burst hydraulic hose
Deep in the combine’s vitals
Would leave the big machine
Bellied like a bog-bound mammoth,
Spilling its guts in gouts of oil
Across the gasping stubble.
As such times
We lads, not seeking or permitted
To wait out the delay with idle hands
Would fill the old blue van with plastic sacks
Then bundle in ourselves
And rattle to some distant field
To hunt out rogues: the wild oats
Whose tasselled heads rose, mockingly,
Above the standing crop.
We’d deploy along the headland, sacks in hand,
And take a tramline each, walking steady
Like policemen on a forensic sweep,
Stopping to pull the rogues up, roots and all
And bag them for the bonfire. To relieve
The tedium, we’d tell the green boys, out from town,
Them ol’ rogues’ll hear you comin’, see,
And bein’ woild, they’ll duck down quick
And ‘ide till you’ve gone boi,
Then pop’en up again, so moind you watch ‘em.
We learned to curse those wily weeds
And the gaunt, grey man who sent us there:
Four-pound-fifty seemed so little
For an hour that felt so long,
And all the while we knew
The rogues would not be vanquished
And we’d be back to pull more out next year.
A hopeless task, but honest, and somehow
No crazier than the work I’m doing now.

Rogue n a plant that falls short of a standard, or is of a different type from the rest of the crop; vt to eliminate rogues or inferior plants from (a crop, etc)

Roguing is the traditional way of keeping the harvest help occupied when inclement weather or the inevitable mechanical catastrophes bring the main activity to a halt. I know weeding a fifty-acre wheatfield by hand sounds daft, but compared to some of the so-called ‘proper’ jobs I’ve been given since my far-off student days, it  seems like a sensible use of time.

A tale of our times

Cuts

He walks
Towards the grey stone house
Like a battlefield surgeon coming down the line
Or a man who, shaving hastily, contrived to nick
An artery in his neck.
The warm red rain has spattered his face,
Soaked his cap and shirt-collar,
Stained overalls and hands like some apprentice butcher’s.

He knows
This was a task he should have tackled
Back when they were calves,
The horns mere buds, and their removal
No more than a touch of glowing iron,
A brief sharp stink of burning hair –
A job for life in a minute’s easy work.
Now, left so late, it took three men
And a whole sodding day of trodden feet,
Shouting, straining, geysers of muck,
Maddened beasts slamming on sleepers and steel;
An improvised corrida, short on finesse,
Long on blood.

He begrudges
The time, the hurt, the fat fee to the sweating vet;
Still, it had to be done:
Seeing them swaggering into the yard,
Cocksure with their weaponed heads,
There was no question. The wounds, torn wire
And their seigneurial strutting at the trough
Left him no choice
But the crush, the needle and the blade. Yet

He finds
He cannot say who won this one. He’s left
Slumped and blasted, arms hanging like empty sleeves; the beasts
Bewildered, polls still stunned
By adrenaline local and the shock of shears.
All change in the herd, he thinks:
A social shuffling, a shift in power.
A bullet bitten, the right thing done.
But as he stumbles in to wash and eat
He shakes his head. And does not smile.

Leap of faith

A staggering feat

‘Jumps like a stag,’
The ads for hunters
In the Horse & Hound declare;
The familiar, forgivable
Hyperbole of horsemen;
Count your fingers after you shake hands.
Caveat emptor. Let the buyer beware.

For no horse I sat in twenty years
Could match the handsome cocoa-coated
Four-point buck I flushed today:
Straight over a breast-high hawthorn hedge
Off a two-foot verge from a standing leap;
Then popped the sheep-net fence beyond
And blithely bounced away.

For no horse living ever knew
The tearing fear of running wild
From shining monsters borne on wheels
And finding ancient bolt-ways blocked
By thorn and wire and tarmac road.
To jump so high perhaps requires Man to be
Not on your back, but at your heels.

Will and me

An effort of Will

He watches me
With dark, half-laughing eyes
From the postcard pinned
Above my desk;
Gold earring gleaming
And, I like to think,
A wink of fellow-feeling
Crackling beneath the paint.

His presence there
Does not intimidate;
We’re confederates, co-conspirators,
Rattling off the long day’s paid-for pages head-and-hand
While the heart beats to the rhythm
Of words that will be written
When doors are closed, lights dimmed,
And the world looks the other way.

Two country lads:
One weaving his boyhood’s woodbine and eglantine
To make a bower for a fairy queen,
And placing a bouquet of well-remembered weeds
In poor Ophelia’s hands;
Winding his word-girdle round the world
Unknowingly; lines penned to play for pay tonight
That would stretch a thousand years.

The other
Labouring under the master’s gaze
With foolish tales of tractors, trees
Shepherds, birds and hunting-dogs
In his own daily comedy
Of errors. I look on Will
And know that his perfection’s out of reach.
But I would learn from all he has to teach.

Black and white decision

Gone dry

We tried, but now it’s over:
We’ve finally closed the gate.
No milk today, nor ever –
Not from us, at any rate.

They milked here for a hundred years.
Now Daisy, Mabel, Ethel,
Buttercup and Blossom have all gone,
Reduced to lot numbers and guineas-per-head
Under the auctioneer’s hammer.
Enough to pay the bank back
And leave the family in the clear
Without a penny over.
Three lifetimes’ work
Leaked away
A litre at a time.

No waiting now for cows to cross
The road twice-daily.
No forager’s snarl, no rumbling trailers
Hauling home the rich first cut.
No rustling maize rainforest rising nine feet high.
No kicking-up-of-heels
As the ladies leave their winter quarters
And dignity behind
And feel the new grass underfoot.

The herdsman, stockman and relief
Have been let go,
And the farm is worked by just one man
With a big New Holland
And a hunted look.
The leys are ploughed under
And put down to wheat.
The sheds stand like deconsecrated churches,
In silent communion with the swallows and spiders.
And the black-and-white company’s memory
Is fading into grey.

And in the supermarket
Milk’s down two pence today.
Cheaper now than ever.
Getting dearer by the day.

 

Britain is currently losing two dairy farms a week. The main reason is the milk price: farmers receive, on average, three pence a litre below the cost of production, thanks mainly to the supermarkets and the country’s obsession with ‘cheap’ food. We could be effortlessly self-sufficient in milk  – indeed, we’re so good at it, quotas had to be introduced to curb overproduction – but today, we’re a net importer. No dairying means no cows. No cows means no grassland. No grassland means no hedgerows. No hedgerows means no birds, and so it goes on. Meanwhile, dairy farmers are rushing into arable – not because they want to (dairying is a life’s work, a family tradition and a labour of love in the truest sense) but because last year’s disastrous harvest in Russia means world wheat prices are sky-high, and farmers have to make a living the same as the rest of us. 

The farm I worked on as a student recently sold off its dairy herd after more than 100 years and four generations of the same family. It’s a story being repeated all over Sussex, and the country as a whole. It’s sad, avoidable and wrong.

Under pressure

Under pressure

The big John Deere
Is working late;
After so long waiting
For a reborn sun and drying wind
To strip winter from the soil
They’re staying out,
Getting on.
The ten-foot, two-tonne roller
Treads thick, green scents
From the tender grass;
Driving in frost-lifted stones,
Making pancakes out of molehills,
As it wraps broad silver bandages
Round the bruised and pummelled pasture.
But these bent blades will be re-forged,
Stronger, and in greater numbers,
Ready for the tearing mouths
And hooves of summer cattle.
The roller passes on –
No time to lose –
And the soft earth breathes again:
When pressed, we do not break;
Though crushed, we do not die.

 

I promised my good friend and fellow poet John Stevens another tractor poem; I had something different in mind, but this one came along first, during a ride on the Paramount yesterday as afternoon gave way to evening. Apologies for the pic; a long-range phone-camera effort, I’m afraid.

Notes to self

Silver bullet

My mother
Never understood how I
Could play this thing
When I couldn’t see
What my hands were doing, or
Which finger pressed which key.

My father
Couldn’t fathom embouchure;
And though he tried
He could not begin
To see the simple physics
Of blowing over, and not in.

My classmates
All clamoured for their turn
Then wondered why
They could not make it speak
Beyond a hollow, windy hissing
Or sudden, scalded shriek.

And I was grateful
For their foolish questions
Which moved my mind
From darker, deeper fears
That occupied it then, and still
Endure despite the years.

And even now
The asinine demands of others
Fade into forgetfulness
Whenever I take up this length
Of slender silver, close my eyes,
Reach back in time, and breathe.

On one level, the flute is a very simple instrument: you only play one note at a time (no chords like the guitar, or double-stopping like the fiddle) and only ever in the treble clef (it doesn’t go lower than middle C). At the same time,  many people find it fiendishly difficult, or even impossible, to produce a single note (the idea is to blow across the hole, rather than into it). And while it’s sweet and soulful, it can also be very powerful, cutting through the sound around it like a silver stiletto.

I’ve been a flute-player on and off since I was nine years old. After being ‘off’ for most of my thirties, I’m now playing regularly again, as precisely half the flute section in our local community orchestra. We’re a small ensemble, mostly ‘of an age’ and pretty rusty, but through our weekly rehearsals, I’ve rediscovered the sheer joy of making music again.

Although the ol’ brain and fingers don’t work together quite so well as they once did, I’ve surprised myself with how much comes back to me when I stop trying too hard.

The road twice travelled

A different view

The spirit that drove us
Off the plain, over the water,
Through the mountains, to the moon,
Rebels at retracing a single step.
But every road
Is two roads:
Heading out
That flock of pigeons lent the shaw
An outlandish foliage of white and grey;
Now they dot the grass below
Like morning mushrooms in September;
When it was on my left
I never saw that ditch was newly cleared,
Its sloping sides scraped clean, and smooth as butter;
Those ponies are on their feet now;
A new buzzard casts its shadow over Plashett Wood;
My old friend the kestrel
Is back at his habitual post on the telephone wires,
Where his vole-revealing eyes relentlessly defoliate the field;
And I’d swear those primroses
Weren’t shining palely in the hedge-bottom
When I passed five minutes back.
In the time it took
To stop, decide, dismount and wheel around
The world has turned,
Reshaped itself:
The steep ascents I struggled up
Are gentle swoops and whooping glides;
The sun is warm and on my face
And those two magpies in the meadow
Cancel out their single, sorrowful brother
And send me smiling home.

Reckoned it was about time for another cycling poem. Normally I aim to ride in loops, but on Monday, I ended up doing an out-and-back. A simple switch of direction and suddenly everything was different. I was amazed by how many things (even if only small) could change in a few minutes, and how much I noticed going back that I had missed completely heading out.