Social not-working

Too long I’ve lain here, unremarked, in quiet obscurity.
No more: I want my fifteen minutes too. It’s time for me
To take this show out on the road, break through these prison bars,
And see my name in lights, high places, headlines, and the stars.
I realise I’ve been selfish, blinded by a foolish pride:
I’ve kept my movements secret, locked my private thoughts inside
When I should have given freely, told my guard to take a hike,
And made Friends of perfect strangers. Turns out all you need is Like.
Am I so high-and-mighty I can stand aloof, declare
I’m remaining off the radar; that I have no wish to share
My whereabouts, with whom, and what I’m doing, day and night?
This is the way to go. A billion people must be right.
Just pick a snappy user name, sign on the dotted line.
A keystroke here, a mouse-click there, and all the world is mine.
Maybe the moment’s come to blow my cover, show the light
Beneath that bushel. Brother, can you spare some dynamite?
Can I persuade myself my life’s a story fit to tell?
If so, I’ll lay the charges, light the fuse – then run like hell.


People keep telling me I should join Facebook, Twitter and the like. They’re probably right, too, but as this poem suggests, I’m yet to be enticed by the whole social-networking brouhaha. I can see the potential benefits, of course, and I’m sure that, to some degree, I’m cutting off my nose to spite my face by staying out of it. I daresay I’ll surrender to the inevitable one day, but I’m not going down without a fight! All thoughts and suggestions welcome. N.


Union Pacific

Wish I could buy me a ticket
For the Union Pacific:

I might go to Idaho, lie low in New Mexico,
Hear that lonesome whistle moan across the sage in Arizona
Or the roaring of the motor on the road to Minnesota.
Wander far in Iowa, spend days roaming in Wyoming;
Watch a mile-long line of freight wind across the Sunshine State,
Armor Yellow and Old Glory flying proudly through Missouri.

Texarkana to Topeka, San Francisco to Chicago
Arkansas and Colorado, Texas, Utah, Tennessee:
Oklahoma and Nevada, Illinois, Louisiana
Manifests from east to west. But there ain’t no ride for me.

Long ago I could have planned to take the fabled Overland
Hopped the City of Salina or the westbound Columbine.
Now intermodal double-stacks and bulk coalporters own the tracks;
For the drifters and the dreamers it’s the end of the line.

Still, I can take a journey just by reading down the list
Of the states and mighty cities spread through Uncle Pete’s domain.
And perhaps some day I’ll stand beside the line and raise my hand
To the shade of Casey Jones – but I’ll get there on a plane.


If, like me, you love railways, living in Britain is like being a vegetarian in Texas. Our railways are under-funded, overcrowded, and have the most expensive fares in Europe, if not the world. As the journalist Matthew Engel says in his witty and erudite book Eleven Minutes Late, they’re regarded as a national joke, when in fact they’re a national disaster.
Post-privatisation, we have a plethora of different companies running our trains, and not one of them has a name so resonant as the Union Pacific, which operates across more than 20 US states from Washington to Wisconsin. These days, it’s freight-only: passenger traffic ceased in 1971.
For my generation in particular, much about America remains impossibly romantic. To my US readers, names like Topeka, Wichita, Kansas City and Chicago probably sound as enticingly exotic as, say, Doncaster, Swindon or Crewe might to us here in the UK. Yet to me, they read like an incantation, summoning visions of empty lands and wide horizons. I’m sure the reality is nothing like my dreams. But for now, dreams is all I got.

Gun for hire

That time has come. The streets are silent, cleared
Of people. Even dogs have disappeared.
All doors are bolted, blinds and shutters down.
A fear spreads like a sickness through the town.
And so the morning’s passed. The sun hangs high.
Hawk circles slowly in an empty sky.
Bare brown hills shimmer in the summer haze.
Clock on the wall counts down the end of days.
How many times now have I faced this pain:
Seen it go down, then watched it rise again.
One round is all I have, and if I miss
I’m dead for sure. How did it come to this?
The church bell chimes, and as its echoes fade
I step outside. This is the only trade
I know: another day, another fight.
Collect my fee, move on. No end in sight.


Don’t get me wrong; working freelance has its benefits. Lately, though, the pace has been relentless, and it’s felt pretty lonely; but when you’re being paid by the hour or by the job, it’s hard to turn any assignment away. I guess this poem could also be about anything we find ourselves doing over and over, wondering when we can finally hang ‘em up and find a little peace.

Prosody note: the couplets were there right from the start; I was 10 lines in before I realised I was writing in iambic pentameter. Just sneaked up on me and shot me in the back.

Winter reflects

White-haired, crooked as a cottage beam,
He shuffles through the quiet wood;
Runs crabbed fingers over the young hornbeams’
Cool, straight limbs, picks at their tight bark
With cracked grey nails
And sighs. For these last months
They have been his, stripped bare and helpless,
Bending to his will.
But now
He hears her singing far off,
Sees her first shoots spearing through the slop
And knows: she’s coming.
And beneath her softness she is strong –
Too strong for him, that’s certain –
And with her steely sweetness she will win back
All he’s called his own
Then fill it with her colour, drive away
All trace of him, send warming breezes where
His chill breath lingers, melt his footprints,
Send him to some strange and distant country
Where he’ll lie in iron chains
Until the trees wax fat and sleepy,
Eager for his touch.


Nothing to say that hasn’t been said.
Nothing to write that hasn’t been read.
Don’t have a song that hasn’t been sung.
No bell or changes that haven’t been rung.
Nothing to do that hasn’t been done.
Nothing to win that hasn’t been won.
No words to speak that haven’t been spoken.
No ground to break that hasn’t been broken.
Nowhere to go that nobody’s gone.
No light to shine where it hasn’t been shone.
No battle to fight that hasn’t been fought.
No lesson to teach that hasn’t been taught.
No axe to grind that hasn’t been ground.
Nothing to seek that hasn’t been found.
Nothing discovered not already known.
Nothing revealed not already shown.
Nothing attempted that hasn’t been tried.
Nothing admitted that can’t be denied.
No insights or wisdom, no viewpoint or voice.

No quitting, no turning.
No changing.
No choice.