How many times have I sat on this train
With questions flashing through my restless mind
Quick as the country passing. Yet again
I’m leaving all familiar things behind
And heading to the city’s dust-blown streets
They say are paved with gold in search of pay;
I’ve scored small victories, suffered sour defeats
And smiled home with the dying of the day.
So what of this adventure? Do I ride
This iron road to glory? Will tonight
See me return in triumph, or denied;
My little hopes undone and lost to sight.
Stout hearts march onwards, never looking back:
Have I the steel to take a different track?
Scribbled (most of) this in a notebook on the way to London yesterday. Needs must when the Devil drives and all that, but I cordially detest the capital; fortunately I don’t have to go there very often. The radical 19th Century writer William Cobbett, best known for his Rural Rides, positively loathed the place, famously calling it ‘the Great Wen’. I think he and I would have got on rather well. N.
Out of the alders
The kestrel arcs
Like a thrown knife;
Drives himself deep
Into the oak. Glares,
Dares me to want or wish for more
Than this short, sharp shot of him.
In a kinder, saner life,
That scimitar slash
Of slate and copper
Would be all I needed:
Inch-deep in leaf-mould and winter slop
I feel the weight of this
And all the riches of his weaponed grace
Settle in my pockets –
The harsh, hard coin of worlds
Away from our imagined realm
Where debt is credit
Gluttony no mortal sin
And greed is made
Our highest good.
As so often before, I find myself gratefully indebted to Tom Davis. I’d been thinking about writing another ‘bird poem’ for a while, and when I saw our resident kestrel down in the woods yesterday, I knew I had my subject. But it was Tom’s comments on my previous piece, Battleground State, that finally crystallised my ideas; I hope he won’t mind my appropriating some of his wise words for this brief detour into free verse. N.
A shocked and blasted silence. All is still
Except the crows that blow like tattered flags
Among the shattered stalks reduced to rags
And splinters by steel blades and iron will.
Both sides dug deep: across the battlefield
The breastworks brood where tyres and heavy clay
Clashed in their ancient feud. Machines held sway,
Forced sodden crop and stubborn ground to yield.
A triumph, then. Yet this exhausted land
Remains unchanged: in time these marks will fade
And then the victors will be forced to trade
Once more; release the throat, and clasp the hand.
To leave enough to do it all again.
The truest test of country, and of men.
On Thursday, I passed a recently-cut field of forage maize, which, to judge by the mud and ruts, had put up quite a fight. It made me think of the US election: all that time, effort, money and struggle, yet nothing fundamental appears (at least to an outsider like me) to have changed very much; on our TV news here in the UK, pundits are already talking about the challenges facing whoever comes after President Obama. Seems to me that, just as farmers need to keep their land in good heart while striving for the greatest possible yield, our politicians need to remember that, even if they win this time, they’re going to need our goodwill again somewhere down the line. N.
I’m pleased to announce that my third e-book, More Modern English Riddles, is now on sale in the Kindle store at amazon.co.uk and .com – a further 10 contemporary word-puzzles, gloriously illustrated once again by my gifted partner-in-crime Dan Tero. If anything. I’ve had even more fun writing this second collection, and I’m thrilled with how it’s turned out. All comments and suggestions welcome as ever!
I’d already decided to dedicate this volume to my English teacher from way back in 1980-2, who really got me enthused about both poetry and Tolkein. Before I hit ‘Save and Publish’, I did a quick Google search to see if he was still around – and lo and behold, I found a Derek Flatman working as a deputy head in a school near to where I knew him 30 years ago. I took a chance and emailed the school, and a couple of hours later, I received a reply. It was indeed ‘my’ Mr Flatman, and he was gracious enough to say he’d be ‘honoured’ to have an e-book dedicated to him.
So, a double delight: a new e-book out, and an old friend and mentor rediscovered. It’s been quite a day.
My heartfelt thanks as always to everyone who’s encouraged and supported my humble efforts, and got me to the point where I felt ready to do this. It means more to me than I can possibly say. N.
Grey-barked, black-budded, hung with lockless keys
They stand in shaws, haunt hedgerows. In these parts
Men called them widow-makers; now the trees
Themselves are facing death. Suspicion starts
To gather: are those leaves just autumn-browned?
Is that a patch of lichen, nothing more –
Or have these woods become a battleground
Where every ash is readying for war?
For once again, the Norselands send their raiders
To pillage England: not with sword and axe
But microscopic spores; unseen invaders
With thirty million targets for attacks.
In dieback lies the ruin of us all:
For mighty Yggdrasil itself will fall.
Ash dieback has been confirmed in the neighbouring county of Kent, so we’re now just waiting to see whether our Sussex ashes succumb to Chalara fraxinea. Ash trees were known as ‘widow-makers’ hereabouts because of their unfortunate tendency to drop large branches without warning. Despite this ambivalent relationship with mankind, they’re very much a part of our local landscape. If dieback takes hold, we could be looking at destruction on a scale we haven’t seen since the Great Storm of 1987.
A thousand years ago, Sussex was ravaged by the Vikings: like them, ash dieback has arrived here from Scandinavia, which gave me the idea for this piece. That Yggdrasil, the great tree that holds up the world in Norse mythology, is an ash seemed the perfect crowning irony.