Perfidy

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Storm gathers over Albion. The realm
Is riven and corrupted: reckless rogues
Have seized it for themselves, and sold it cheap
To unseen powers and shadows. We are lost.
Where now is Arthur, once and future king;
What of his pledge to rise again in days
Of dreadful need and peril, and return
With shining sword to save us from ourselves?
Let word go out to Avalon; a plea
For aid and comfort in these fractured times:
Shake off the sleep of centuries, and ride
To drive the rot and ruin from our land.
A land undone, of hope and truth bereft,
Where only myth and fantasy are left.

 
 
 

The myth of King Arthur’s messianic return to save England from dire distress first appeared in 1125AD (and it was an old tale even then) when it was set down by the Anglo-Norman historian William of Malmesbury. Despite there being no documentary, archaeological or other credible evidence that Arthur ever existed, the story and its prophecy remain potent; and if ever there was a moment when Rex quondam, rexque futurus was called for, it’s now. Plus, let’s face it: is the resurrection of a fictional 6th-Century monarch any more far-fetched, or less likely to happen, than the deluded fantasies our present so-called leaders are pursuing? N.

Joik

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He sings for the land.
Not his by title deed
But by ancient rights
Long denied, hard-won.
And he loves it
With a depth and strength
Only centuries
Of labour, lives and deaths can breed.
The song rises in him
Like sap in springtime;
And he feels every word
Like his own heartbeat.
The land, the man and his strange words
Become one,
Like the grey fjord and the ocean
The forest and the mountain
The reindeer and the snow.
And as he sings
There is no ownership
Only belonging.

 

During our trip to Norway, we visited a Sami reindeer herder, Johan Isak Oskal, who is one of the most genuine, inspiring and quietly determined people I have ever met. As well as introducing us to his beautiful animals, he told us about the Sami way of life, showed us artefacts, and treated us to a joik – the traditional Sami song whose sounds and origins have much in common with the Native American chants. I can’t share it with you since he (quite rightly) asked us not to record it, explaining that the song belongs to the land; but it was extraordinarily moving and powerfuly atavistic. Do have a look at his website Tromso Arctic Reindeer – the videos have joiks as their soundtracks. 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.

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.

Following a hunch

Well, Crookback; here you are again. We’ve found
Your slight and poor remains, five hundred years
And more since Bosworth Field. No contrite tears
Were shed for you in England – and what ground
You lay in all that time: no royal bed
Or gilded tomb to pass eternity;
Just common clay, and for a century
We parked cars on your uncrowned, sword-hacked head.
But we’ve been led astray by Will, it seems,
Maligning you as monarch, and as man.
Your kingdom must recast you, if it can
From halt and hunchbacked monster of dark dreams.
Though now we look more kindly on your age
You’ll always be the villain on the stage.

 

The mortal remains of Richard III have been dug up in a car park in Leicester. Sometimes, this is a great country to live in. And while Shakespeare may have propogated rumours, half-truths and a good many outright whoppers about the last Plantagenet king (a sensible move for a playwright working under the Tudors) he did get one thing right in Hamlet: we all end up as dust, be we commoners or kings. N.

Warhorse

They built it for the battlefields of France
In ‘forty-four – a paratrooper’s way
Of gaining rapid ground as the advance
Drove inland from Gold Beach that Longest Day.
Our active service won’t force us to face
The wait inside a dark Dakota till
A green light sends us roaring into space –
And time’s the only thing we’ll ever kill.
But still, we’re comrades in a long campaign
Against our cratered roads, the armoured might
Of cars, wild weather, human weakness, pain;
A just and righteous war we’re proud to fight.
Each day a small but vital victory
In life’s unending struggle to be free.

 

A little tribute to my faithful 1940s-replica Pashley Paramount: now the snow’s gone at last, we’re back on the road, doing battle with floods…the poor old bike certainly doesn’t look as shiny as it did when I took its picture in Brittany last summer. N.

Englyns: From Ceredigion

1.

I’m lost. I had not planned to come this way.
Heart gripped in Fear’s chill hand
For there are, I understand
Dragons living in this land.

2.

An island in a sea of rain-raked grass
Where kites wheel watchfully.
Thick-walled, four-square sanctuary
With food, fire and family.

3.

Two circles, dug deep, high on this bleak hill.
Walled with stone, roofed with sky.
Where we watch the red kites fly,
Armed men stood once, doomed to die.

4.

The red kite, wind-borne, keeps his lone watch while
The frozen forest sleeps:
In the hearth a bright fire leaps;
Round the house, Midwinter creeps.

 

The englyn is new to me, but it is, of course, a very ancient form: part of the Welsh bardic tradition, englyns are still regularly recited at Eisteddfod. Like the Japanese haiku, the englyn is based on syllable count – 10 in the first line, then six, seven and seven – with the added twist that the sixth syllable of the first line introduces the end-rhyme for the following three lines. Confused? I was.

Anyway, we were staying with my wife’s family in west Wales over Christmas, so it seemed the ideal opportunity to blend medium and material. The second poem in this sequence is about my mother-in-law’s house, while the third was inspired by the Iron Age fort on the hill above it. No apologies for the repeated red kite references: having once been hunted virtually to extinction, they’re now as common as sparrows in those parts. And very beautiful they are, too. Happy New Year to one and all. N.

Winter solstice

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No. Darkness shall not rule the earth.
Though woods and fields lie still and cold
This day brings promise of rebirth;
The great wheel turns, a gift foretold.

Though woods and fields lie still and cold
The road leads back to life and light.
The great wheel turns, a gift foretold;
Hope blazes in midwinter’s night.

The road leads back to life and light;
Raise fire and song – Yule has begun.
Hope blazes in midwinter’s night;
We greet the great, unconquered sun.

Raise fire and song – Yule has begun.
This day brings promise of rebirth;
We greet the great, unconquered sun.
No. Darkness shall not rule the earth.

 

Haven’t written a pantoum for ages; its measured, rather portentous pattern of repeating lines seemed just right for a poem about the rolling of the year, and the long walk back to Spring that starts at 11.11 GMT tomorrow. Can’t wait! The line that ends the third stanza, and comes second-to-last in the final one, is a reference to the Roman festival of Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (‘Birthday of the Unconquered Sun’) which took place on 25 December: some claim our Christmas Day was chosen deliberately to coincide with, and thus suppplant, the old pagan rite. In much the same way, I’ve unashamedly borrowed the ancients’ lovely ringing words for my own purposes here. N.

Ashes to ashes?

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.

Curtain up

Oh, Will. We’ve found it. After all these years,
We’ve dug it up at last – your wooden O,
That in your day resounded to the cheers
Of lords and groundlings. How were they to know
Their Sunday entertainment would endure
Long after every trace of seats and stage
Had vanished – or that you, a poor, obscure
Hired player, would cast their world, define their age?
Perhaps now we can finally close the door
On those misguided souls who still debate
Who wrote your work – because, they claim, it’s more
Than one low lad from Stratford could create.
It’s not just mud and scattered stones we’ve found
In Shoreditch. It’s our roots. And sacred ground.

 

This made my day. N.
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-18351007