A part to play

What is the point of poets?
What exactly do we do?
By all conventional measures
We’re a waste of space. It’s true.
We stare out of the window,
Go wandering in the woods;
Far more concerned with dreaming
Than delivering the goods.
We have no head for business:
Profit motives have no hold.
We’re a terrible investment;
We can’t be bought or sold.
And yet, we have our uses:
For we come into our own
When you want to tug the heartstrings
Or cut right to the bone.
When no one else can capture
All the things you want to say
In a few short, ringing phrases
The poet finds a way.
You may not need us often
And we’re thin upon the ground.
But when that time arrives
You’ll be relieved we’re still around.

Had the opportunity last week to produce a couple of poems as part of a proper ‘work’ project – only the second time, I think, this has happened in my 24 years as a freelance writer. It was so much fun; and, even better, the experience prompted me to write another one. I’ve always regarded poetry a calling, not a career, but it’s cool when the two worlds overlap, albeit briefly and at long intervals. N.


Distance no object

The other day I met a man – a cyclist just like me –
Who told me of the goal he’d set himself. An odyssey
Not undertaken lightly, nor done easily (or soon):
His one small step, and giant leap? To cycle to the moon.

Not literally, to my regret; but the miles accumulated
Between Earth and its satellite. And he had calculated
He’d hit the quarter-million mark when he reached eighty-five
At his current rate of progress (and if he was still alive).

And in return I told him of my own more modest ride:
A circumnavigation never venturing outside
The limits of my county; endless loops joined in a chain
Each one beginning at my door and circling back again.

Preposterous? Pointless? Well, perhaps: but in these quests we find
Some purpose, peace and agency; light heart and easy mind.
And bless the bike for giving us the means and will to say
It might not make much sense; but hey, let’s do it anyway!

The man in question is the wonderful Dr Mark Williamson, co-founder and director of Action for Happiness, fellow cyclist and all-round good guy. We ‘met’ for the first time last week via Zoom to talk about cycling, books (written and prospective) cycling, mental health, work, cycling, personal goals, families and future plans. We might have mentioned cycling, too.

Mark’s a serious bike-rider and has done all kinds of amazing stuff; and in the course of conversation, he casually mentioned he’s working towards a lifetime target of cycling the distance from Earth to the Moon (384,400 km or 238,855 miles)*. How could I not write a poem about that? And more broadly, I’ve found having goals, even entirely arbitrary ones that make no sense to anyone else, can be very helpful for my own state of mind. Bon courage, Mark!

*My rather inadequate response was that I’m rapidly closing in on riding my e-bike the equivalent of once round the world (a mere 40,075 km or 24,901 miles) – all from and to my own front door and without ever leaving Sussex!


They named you well: The Masterpiece –
The finest of your kind:
The ne plus ultra, best-in-class,
Ineffably refined.

All black and gold and platinum
And subtle ornament;
We must not call you ‘fountain pen’
But ‘writing instrument’.

And we have been together now
Through long and trying times
Of boring meetings taking notes
Or wrestling with rhymes.

Then suddenly you let me down:
No explanation why.
No fond farewell, no parting word;
Just left me high and dry.

And so we spent some time apart:
You went to distant lands
While I remained here all alone
No work for idle hands.

But lo, you are restored to me
All fixed – oh happy day!
Yet now the ink flows free again
What do I have to say?

My Mont Blanc Meisterstück is one of the very few true luxury objects I’ve ever been lucky enough to own. A gift from my parents on my now long-ago 40th birthday, it’s far more than ‘just a pen’ to me: it’s a talisman and token of my trade (as well as being lovely to write with, especially with Manganese Orange ink) so I was rather bereft when back in November, it inexplicably stopped working. Happily, through the good offices of the Bond Street store, it’s been back to the factory in Hamburg and is writing perfectly again. Now just need to have an idea worthy of it!

Duet: a love story

At break-time in rehearsals
A flute lay on a chair
And let out little silvery sighs
Of sorrow and despair.

Her heart had just been broken
By a cruel cor anglais
Who’d charmed her with his double reed
And smooth, seductive ways.

He’d loved her con fuoco,
Their passion burned con brio
Till he spoiled it by asking
If she’d care to form a trio.

Betrayed, abandoned, cast aside
The poor flute wondered whether
She’d ever find a soulmate who
Would want to play together.

And then she saw another flute
Reclining at his ease
And as she stared a shiver ran
Along her trembling keys.

He shimmered in the spotlights’ gleam
That subtly revealed
His head-joint made from finest gold –
“A Louis Lot!” she squealed.

But then she wept, resigned herself
To love him from afar:
He’d never give a second glance
To a humble Yamaha.

But when the orchestra returned
Replete with cake and tea
He met her gaze and whispered
That he loved her ardently..

He wooed her with a Bach bourrée,
And a Mozart minuet
Then they made a little night music
As they played their first duet.

So now they’re happy, side by side
In harmony – and, who knows?
Perhaps they’ll quit the concert hall
To raise some piccolos.


The book I’d like to read has not been written;
The tune I want to hear has not been played.
No painting is precisely as I’d wish it;
My perfect movie is, as yet, unmade.
What song would soothe my ear now, there’s no telling;
No architect’s creation holds my gaze;
I fear my feet would find no fun in dancing;
No appetite for even Shakespeare’s plays.
And what of my own kindred: do the poets
Have powers to aid me in these fevered times?
Perhaps I might discover some great secret
Concealed in their cadences and rhymes.
For poets speak of love and truth and beauty;
Show us a new and grand reality.
A vision of a world unspoiled, unburdened;
Not as it is, but as it ought to be.
And yet I see no promise of redemption:
All things are tainted by the touch of hands
Intent on harm and hurt; no thought of making
But only breaking, ruining our lands.
And there’s no comfort in the old religions
No hope in our so-called democracy:
And even at the bottom of a bottle
There’s no long-term solution I can see.
So I will go out early in the morning
Ride through the country, where I hope to find
A truth no human art has yet imparted
To my world-weary heart and troubled mind.

life cycle

How can it be that

after so many years
all those miles
half a lifetime willingly paid over

I can still forget that

after so many hours
all those words
hollowed out by all the hiding

I can repair all that

after just a moment
stolen from reality
with this magical machine.

And I am thankful that

after each forgetting
it is there to remind me
and pick me up again.

Missed a couple of days on the bike this week owing to poor weather and work commitments. Felt awful, darkness closing in etc. Went for a ride yesterday and things got themselves back into some kind of balance. Can’t understand why that surprised me; or why I so easily forget that, very often, that’s all it takes. Yes, I’m obsessed, and should probably be worried that my mental state is so bound up in whether or not I’ve managed to get out today. But I am absolutely certain that the bike has saved me from seeking solace in things that would be a lot worse for me; and I am so grateful to it for finding me all those years ago. (The pic is my much-loved Brompton outside the church in La Chapelle-au-Mans, Burgundy, on a very hot day back in June.)

in mundo inter mundos

A drowsing acre of rough-cut grass
walled off from the waking world.
Beneath pale stones, splashed with flowers
the founding generations mingle,
one with their home ground,
as their crisply chiselled names
bookended with joy and mourning
slowly soften with the seasons.

Spinning down to this quiet corner
from the village on the hill –
the home I left long years ago –
I find myself among old friends
see more familiar faces here than there;
my past interred in ordered rows.
And so I turn back to the road;
my world between two worlds.

Out of here

Maybe I’m dreaming
and all this scheming, screaming
madness in the land
dwells only in my spinning mind
and one day I’ll awake to find
it’s washed away like footprints in the sand.

So cruel and uncaring;
I’m despairing as they’re tearing
everything apart.
They take and take and never give:
tell me how I am meant to live
like this, bereft in soul and sick at heart.

I’m done with all the hating
baiting, dissimulating
hopelessness and pain.
So now I’m getting out of here:
switch off, drop out and disappear
to seek my peace out on the road again.

Time for change

A day to set the tarmac popping underneath my tyres;
A day sent straight from Lucifer and his infernal fires.
The smell of dust and molten rubber in the stifling air.
And some are going to die today; but you don’t seem to care.

It’s fine when I can stick to backroads under shady trees
Or racing down a long descent, creating my own breeze.
Compared to those indoors I know how fortunate I am;
But something’s gone profoundly wrong; and you don’t give a damn.

And still you prattle on about the wondrous things you’ll do.
A list of golden promises. And not one word is true.
So while we watch – scared, weary, sickened – as you play your games
Our country’s going down the drain – and our whole world up in flames.

To the sorry collection of idiots, incompetents, fraudsters, fanatics and fantasists currently vying to become leader of the Tory party and the next Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. All obsessed with tax cuts, culture wars, stroking division and refighting the Brexit battles; and not one of them will do a single solitary thing about the climate emergency. We can only hope that today’s record-breaking temperatures (set to exceed 40C in the UK for the first time ever) are a foretaste of what awaits them in the afterlife. It is the very least they deserve.

driven out?

I thought I might
go for a ride;
a short, easy spin
to clear the head
remind legs, lungs and heart
what this is all about.

But now
this simple, innocent act
is made political
pitting me against
the full inchoate outraged weight
of hate and spite and bile;

a target painted on my back
fear following me like my shadow
and I wonder when and how and why
we found ourselves
heading down this road
and what could turn us round.