Avant moi, le deluge

The river, bored with lying in its bed,
Had yawned and stretched, then risen, gone outside
To run across the road and fields instead.
And thus I met it, midway through a ride.
We stopped to shoot the breeze a while. It told
Me tales from way upstream, showed me the sticks
And branches it had carried in its cold
And brown embrace. It promised me: no tricks –
But I did not believe it. Treachery
Was ever in its heart, so hoisting high
My bike, I took the walkway, carefully
Avoiding its soft voice and gleaming eye.
Then rode on, proving once again how far
Superior the bike is to the car.


Bang to rights

A fine mess

I’ve had it. One split second’s all it took
To bring that threatening letter in the post,
Informing me they’re going to throw the book
At me. They have the evidence. I’m toast.
Last week, they claim, they clocked me cruising by
At thirty-five, although the limit’s thirty.
They’ve got me cold: the camera doesn’t lie;
Just leaves me feeling stupid. Shameful. Dirty.
So now I have a choice: stump up the fine
And take three points; or spend three hours in school
To gain Awareness, learn to toe the line.
Whichever way you slice it, I’m a fool.
A momentary lapse, but it’s too late
To go back now, ease off – and concentrate.


It was a fair cop. It was evening, I’d been up since before six, and my brain was fried after a day of meetings discussing, editing and restructuring a 400-page document. Took my eye off the speedo, didn’t see the camera van lurking in the lay-by till it was too late. No excuse. First offence in 20 years, during which time I’m sure I’ve exceeded the speed limit on at least a couple of occasions…so, I’ll take it on the chin, hand over my hard-earned for a half-day’s Driver Awareness Training, and be more careful in future. It’s so easy to become complacent about driving; I’m already thinking that a wake-up call like this perhaps isn’t such a bad thing after all, and I definitely feel better about it for ‘fessing up here. As a wise man once said: experience might be the best teacher, but the costs of that kind of schoolin’ can run awful high. N.

Ruba’i: If wishes were horses

There is a horse for me to ride
Out there, my brand burned on his hide
His bay coat shining in the sun
With all the country open wide

Before us, and we’re free to run:
We’ve paid our dues, the work’s all done.
And so we’ll roam the smiling land
Our minds in tune, our wills as one.

This horse of mine’s a real hand;
He knows his stuff, and has the sand
To go all day, then go some more.
We need no words: we understand

Each other perfectly. I’m sure
He reads my thoughts: even before
I’ve asked, he’ll speed up, turn or slow
Then bring me safely to my door.

He is not real, of course. I know
He’s just a crazy dream, and so
I guess I should just let him go.
But it’s so hard to let him go.

Free as air


Seems in some past life, I pulled off a crime
So heinous I have been condemned to years
Of penal servitude. I do my time
Inside, until some clement spirit hears
My plea and turns me loose. Today’s parole
Came in the afternoon – a chance to ride,
Cut free the chains of commerce from my soul
And breathe the clean and healing breeze outside.
A hilltop stop to shed my jacket. There
He was, dark blue and scarlet in the sun,
Forked tail tuning up the April air,
First with the news their season has begun.
One doesn’t make a summer, so they say;
But he was just enough to make my day.

Double sestina


Double metric

And so it was decided: on that day –
Midsummer’s Eve – together they would ride
Two hundred k. A long day on the road,
The double metric; yet the fire inside
Would not be quenched, despite the threat of rain.
The workshop lights burned late: tea cooled, time slowed
As tyres and chains were checked one final time,
The last dust speck removed from frame and wheel,
Until, at length, the moment came to climb
The stairs and sink in dreams. The work and pain
Could wait until tomorrow to be real.

They’d known each other many years. A real
And lasting friendship had been forged one day
When Dave ran through a pothole, smashed a wheel
And crashed, a flailing mass of limbs and pain.
A minute back, Mike saw it all and slowed,
Pulled over, made the calls, then set to ride
Behind the ambulance. Dave healed in time
And when the moment came to take the road
Again, Mike nursed him up each breathless climb
Gave confidence on roads left slick by rain:
They’d ridden countless miles since, side by side.

They knew their plan was on the crazy side:
What looked fine on the map might not, in real
Life, work so well, especially in the rain.
Mike warned: “Two hundred clicks is a long way
If everything goes perfectly; but slowed
By mishaps, weather, it’s a nine-hour day
At least.” But they were still resolved to ride
And serve their time as convicts of the road;
On burning, windswept flat and airless climb,
Legs leaden, stinging eyes fixed on the wheel
In front, tap out the rhythm, block the pain
And narrow down all sense of life and time

To This and Now. Dave woke at six, in time
To get up, dress, eat hugely, crack the side
Gate open with a burglar’s stealth. Mike slowed
And stopped outside. “No sign of rain,”
He grinned. “All set? Grand. Let’s get under way.”
And in that moment, everything was real,
And as they laboured up the day’s first climb
Dave knew that they were truly going to ride
The double metric. No cars on the road
At this ungodly hour; any pain
In joints and muscles quickly gone; the day
Yet fresh and cool; the hum of wheel

And purr of chain the only sounds as, wheel-
To-wheel, they ticked off clicks and time.
With thirty gone, they stopped to stuff their rain-
Proofs into jersey pockets. “That last climb
Was pretty tough,” Dave panted. “And the day
Ain’t over yet,” Mike quipped. “Lot more to ride
Before we stop for lunch.” Both riders slowed.
“Sit on my wheel for now. I know the way:
We’ve got a stretch of fairly easy road
Ahead; it’s rolling – sprinter’s hills – no real
Big climbs.” Dave nodded, then slipped from Mike’s side
Into his slipstream – balm for cyclists’ pain.

At eighty k, another dose of pain:
A hill so steep, each felt that his front wheel
Might rear up any moment. Then the rain
Began, just lightly, as they topped the climb.
“I guess we’re lucky we got all this way
And stayed dry,” Mike remarked. “Ten more to ride
Then lunch.” They rode into the village, slowed
By cars, then found a café as the day
Was turning wet in earnest. “Now the real
Fun starts,” Mike chuckled. Both men took their time
With sandwiches and cake. Meanwhile, outside
The rain lashed down. “Come on, let’s hit the road,”

Dave said. With jackets zipped up high, they rode
Out of the village. In a window pane
Dave saw himself reflected. As he slowed
To look, he thought of all the time
And work that he’d invested, and a real
Pride rose in him. He knew this was the day
He’d finally made it back. “Hey, Mike – let’s ride!”
He yelled, exultant. On the first big climb
He set the pace, bike rocking side to side
Beneath him as he stamped the pedals; rain
Flared up in fantail fountains from each wheel.
He reached the top, looked back, and saw that way

Behind, Mike laboured, trying to find a way
To keep the gear going over. But the road
Is merciless to those who have no wheel
To follow. So Mike struggled through the rain
Alone, until he finally reached Dave’s side.
“I didn’t mean to drop you on that climb,”
Dave said, shame-faced, remembering the day
Mike stopped for him, “I know I should have slowed
And…” “That’s OK,” Mike gasped, “I tried to reel
You in but you were too strong. Dished out pain
Like that when I was your age. Guess that Time
Is catching up with me at last.” The ride

Now took them through deep woods. There, on a ride
Cut through the beeches, nine deer made their way.
Mike pointed to a doe, her fawn beside
Her. “Love a sight like that: just makes my day.”
The rain eased off, then stopped; and from the road
Steam rose and sunlight glittered. “About time,”
Dave beamed. They didn’t stop but simply slowed
To tear off waterproofs, then hit the climb
That turned them homeward: each spin of the wheel
Now brought them closer to the end. The pain
Could be endured; they’d stepped outside of Real
Life, as it’s called, embraced the cold and rain

And come through smiling. But the summer rain
Had one more snare for some unwary wheel.
The runoff spread sharp grit across the road;
In gutters, flint-shards waited for their time.
Just as Mike said, “We’ve made it through the day
Without a flat,” he heard the hiss, cursed, slowed
And made a gentle stop on the roadside.
Both felt the miles in legs and back. To climb
Off, break out tools and spares, get under way
Again was cruel work. “Man, what a pain,”
Mike groaned; “Why then?” and Dave agreed with real

Warmth, nursing throbbing fingers. Now the real
Fight started. Though the skies were clear of rain
They faced an older, stronger rival: Time.
The hundred miles they’d done began to weigh
On them. The minutes passed, and yet the road
Seemed to stretch longer. Each withdrew inside
A private world, no wider than the wheel
In front but infinitely long. Each climb
Became a Calvary. The will to ride
That had sustained them through their epic day
Now floundered in a rising tide of pain;
Tired muscles cramped, legs stiffened, pedals slowed.

The final forty. By now they had slowed
To touring pace, and nothing seemed quite real:
Bright sun now burned skin soaked and chilled by rain
Not long ago; there was no World, just Road,
And when he closed his eyes, each saw the wheel
In front he’d watched for hours. Then the pain
Was over, finally, as, side by side
They pulled up at Dave’s house. Nine hours the time.
They shook hands, smiled, and Mike was on his way;
A quiet end to their grand Midsummer ride,
But all they’d shared, each minute, mile and climb,
Went deeper than mere words could go that day.

For it’s on life’s hard roads we find our real
Friends, and ourselves. On that steep climb, the time
You couldn’t hold the wheel, but they slowed
And helped you find a way – out on the road
Through wind and rain, however far you ride
You’ll make it through the day, endure the pain
When you’ve a true companion by your side.


Well, I finally did it: the double sestina. I won’t weary you with the prosodic intricacies of this frankly idiotic form; suffice to say it has 12 end-words (the ‘standard’ sestina has six) which are used in a set order to create 12 stanzas of 12 lines each – plus a final stanza, called the envoi, that uses them all, again in a set order. Even for me, 150 lines of iambic pentameter feels like rather too much of a good thing, but I could hardly go through the Year of Living Metrically without giving it a go. And now I have, I feel no need, or desire, to do it again!

The ‘double metric’ of the title refers to a ride of 200 kilometres. (A 100-mile ride is a ‘century’, and 100km is a ‘metric century’.) I’ve ridden the double metric on quite a few occasions, and I have to say it’s a lot less exhausting than the double sestina. N.

Mending fences

The wind ripped out the flimsy fence that kept
A fragile peace between the warring horses.
In haste, we gathered torches, hammer, nails,
Electric wire, stout wooden posts and rails,
Zipped coats, pulled caps down tight and then set out
Like rustic sappers going up the line,
A slipping, stumbling, tripping, fumbling, slog
Across a no-man’s-land of mud and weather.
Together, in that wild, gale-whipped world
Of liquid ground and winter-hardened rain,
We drove posts deep, strung wire and hoisted timber,
The watching horses wondering why we laughed.
Till filthy, frozen, with our task fulfilled,
We marvelled at the first enduring thing
We’d ever built between us. And the last.


Another blank-verse retread of an old, previously unpublished free-verse piece, this from 2004. When I was about 15, my dad and I dashed out one foul winter night to the yard where our horses were living, to make some emergency fence repairs by torchlight in a howling gale. It’s getting on for 30 years ago now, but I’ve never forgotten the feeling of being out there with him, doing a real job of work together. This one’s for you, Pa. N.

Culture shock


She can’t abide my music: ‘It’s so sad,”
She groans, “embarrassing, old stuff.”
I start a disc, she stops her ears: “NO, Dad!”
A single bar of some tracks is enough
To send her running from the room. So now
I guess it will be years before we see
Things quite the same way, and I wonder how
And where we’ll differ (not just musically)
These songs sit at the heart of who I am:
I won’t forsake my country, rock or folk.
There’s nothing in the charts now worth a damn:
Those ‘talent contest’ winners – what a joke.
But give it time: I know that she’ll come round
And recognise my tastes as truly sound.


I wanted to end the week on a bit of a lighter note, and my beloved daughter gave me all the material I needed en route to her piano lesson this afternoon.

Out and about


This is not the contented solitude
Of my deep woods, quiet lanes, familiar fields.
Out there, alone, I have no time to brood:
My mind’s too occupied. Truth is revealed
When all the clamour of the world’s shut out,
With breeze and birdsong all that I can hear;
The earth beneath my boots dispels all doubt,
While under ageless oaks I know no fear.
No, this is different. This is being lost
And lonely, wondering how the hell I came
To be here, at this time, and at what cost –
And wishing there was someone else to blame.
For now there’s work to do. I’ll hold on tight
Until I take that homeward road tonight.

Crow and dove

In ash trees whipped by fierce, unspringlike weathers
A crow alights, hat-black and hungry-eyed.
Untroubled by the gale that frays his feathers,
Imperious and bold, no need to hide:
The buzzards do not come here, as he knows
Full well; the sparrowhawk inspires no dread
In one his size. Cocksure, his disdain shows
In every jaunty tilt of his sleek head.
And then, from nowhere, comes a flash of grey –
A collared dove, in fast and fearless flight
To drive the hated nest-robber away:
The great peace emblem spoiling for a fight.
When my dark terrors gather to attack
I’ll rouse my mild soul – and strike them back.


From our kitchen window, we watched this little commonplace drama being played out in our garden this morning. I found the idea of a big, wind-raggedy crow being angrily shooed out of the garden by the universal symbol of peace and reconciliation rather appealing – and felt there was a lesson there, too.

Note to self


The day that I left, I came out here
Alone, to the woods. As I stared
Through the trees, felt the summer breeze stirring,
I gazed into myself and declared:

“Don’t ever forget where you come from:
This new life that you’re ready to start
Will be full of things trying to persuade you
They’re important. Stay true to your heart

And this place: what’s around you now matters:
It’s unchanging and won’t let you down.
So remember – these trees, fields and hedgerows
Will be here when the bright lights of town

Have grown dim, and you’re starting to wonder
Why the cash and the company car
Aren’t enough to make life worth the living
And you’re no longer sure who you are.”

And I proved myself right. So I come back
When I can, just to walk here, and grieve
For that lost self – the boy from the country
Who, in truth, never wanted to leave.


Went for a long walk with the whippet yesterday in some beautiful woods not far from my parents’ place. Haven’t been there in ages, but it was just like old times – in so many ways. N.