Between seasons



Now we’re getting in
To the days when getting out
Gets harder:

When the tan-lines blur

Old hacks get the daily nod

And kit we last wore
Before the Tour
Of Italy

Goes on

(And on

And on.)

As we descend
        into the dark and frigid
            lower circles
                of l’enfer

The shorts-and-short-sleeves days
That were all-but guaranteed
Can now be counted on
The fingers of one gloved hand:

Feet marinated in rain and road-filth

Fingers cramped to cracked red claws

And a nose like a leaky tap

Are now the norm

And warm

Is just a word

We once heard

But never seem to feel.


Beyond the Pale

To stand here would have been the death of me
Six centuries ago, when Ashdown lay
Sequestered, sole preserve of royalty,
Where kings and noble sporting men might play
Untroubled by the unwashed working folk.
Inside the palisade, the sleek harts fed
At ease: the desperate villager who broke
The fence to feed his family chanced his head.
Today, commuters course across the hill
Unhindered, hasty, heedless of the deer.
The hedge and ditch are gone: we’re free to kill
Two hundred with impunity each year.
So who’s the villain in my bloody tale?
And what, and who, is now beyond the pale?


For some time, I’ve wanted to write about the great fence, or pale, that enclosed the royal deer park on Ashdown Forest. Precise details of when, how and by whom it was built are hard to come by, but it certainly existed in medieval times, when Edward III granted the Forest to his son, John of Gaunt, as a hunting ground, and it became part of the vast Duchy of Lancaster. By the 17th Century, the pale had fallen into near-total disrepair; today, only traces of the ditch, bank and palisade that once ran for 23 miles over the heath remain.
Driving over the Forest yesterday, I saw a sign indicating that there have been over 250 deer collisions on its roads so far this year. It’s a route heavily used by commuters, and such grim casualty figures are perhaps inevitable. Equally predictable is the reaction of drivers and local politicians, who, in the face of such slaughter, are calling not for lower speed limits or improved awareness, but a cull of the deer population. I wonder what our medieval forebears, prince and peasant alike, would make of it all. N.


I hope you’re sitting down, for I’m about
To hit you, readers, with a heresy.
Long cogitations leave no room for doubt:
I don’t believe I have a book in me.
I’ve done the exercises, tried to find
A setting, plot and characters; in vain.
No openings or endings spring to mind;
No Booker winner blazes in my brain.
For me, though rhyme and rhythm bring no hoard
Of gold, no prizes, TV shows or fame,
To give the land a voice is my reward;
My hope, to be a poet worth the name.
Let others write their novels: I will stay
True to this path. I know no other way.


It’s accepted wisdom – a cliche, in fact – that ‘everyone has a book in them’. I beg to differ. After years of fruitless labour and self-deception, I have finally accepted the truth: I am not a novelist, and never will be. I’ve filled dozens of notebooks and a good chunk of my hard-drive with synopses, character sketches, opening chapters and stories that expired midway through Chapter Five, choked on their own convolutions and contrivances. How anyone manages to sustain an idea long enough to write 80,000-odd words is beyond me. I’m not claiming to be a poet, either, let me hasten to add. All I know is, poetry is where I feel , at last, that I belong. I know there are some readers out there who successfully write both poetry and prose: has anyone else tried writing novels, but just can’t seem to find it in themselves? Or is is just me?! N.


Climb in and close the door. So far, so good.
Insert the key. The starter motor’s hum
Is hesitant. The diesel drum that should
Now beat us briskly homeward does not come.
Oh God. A helpless, heartsick silence falls.
I stare, mind blank, all plans in disarray.
My fumbling fingers scrabble: frantic calls
Bring promises of aid – an hour away.
I’m left alone; cold, shackled. This machine
With all its country-crossing power stands
Inert and useless. Would that I had been
On foot, I’d not now be in others’ hands.
A routine magic we rely upon
Whose freedom we wear lightly, till it’s gone.


On Saturday morning, I dropped our daughter off at music as usual, then drove across town to Waitrose. I came out of the supermarket exactly on time to go to pick her up – and our faithful Renault refused to start. Being stranded in a dank, drizzly car park eight miles from home was bad enough: worse, and contrary to usual procedure, the wretched child’s mobile phone was switched off precisely when it should have been on. My reverend father, bless him, made a 40-mile round trip to rescue a somewhat chastened girl, and my rapidly defrosting shopping: I was then left to wait for the mechanic.
When he eventually arrived, he was the soul of kindness and competence. It turned out that, owing to a misplaced protective sleeve, the engine cover had worn several tiny pin-holes in the plastic fuel pipe. The engine had been running perfectly happily for months, but for some reason chose that moment to decide there was too much air in the diesel and, in true Gallic fashion, come out on strike. Ten minutes and some jiggery-pokery with a brass airtight fitting later, I was chugging gratefully home, wrapped in a blissful post-adrenaline-rush haze. No harm done, but salutary nonetheless. N.

The faeries’ lament

Time was, you saw our mischief in all things
And wound yourselves around with ancient charms
To keep us from your cradles, stables, farms
And houses. You attributed the rings
Of mushrooms in your meadows to us, too;
A broken cup, soured milk – we got the blame,
And yet you dared not speak of us by name
For dread of other dark deeds we might do.
Now Oberon has lost his crown, it seems;
All is explained and known; no mystery
Attends mishaps of home or husbandry,
And we live only in midsummer dreams.
The faerie realm is fading with the years.
Soon we shall all be gone. But not your fears.