As a man
Schooled in science
Raised on reason
And living in such times
I have my doubts.
So tell me
What impulse drives me
To seek solace here,
In God’s own acre,
Among his departed faithful;
What comfort can I hope to find
In ancient stones, knapped, dressed and chiselled
To the glory of one
Whose face seems turned away
And mighty arm withheld.
One last, frayed strand that will not break;
Something draws me to this place
And I find peace, out here, under heaven
If still not yet inside.
Plein air, St Peter’s Church, Firle, East Sussex
The fear follows me
Even out here
To the edge of the stubble
Where bales are scattered like erratic boulders
Left behind by a vanished ice-sheet.
It wraps itself around me
Like a dark, heavy cloak
And even in this hot July
It chills me to the heart.
Plein air, near Ripe, East Sussex
I cannot stop you tearing up the land;
Turn back the clock or stay your heedless hand;
No word of mine can still your crushing wheels;
My flesh and bone no match for your cold steel.
But what I can, I’ll do. And so I lay
This charm upon you and your deeds this day.
From sullied soil, let briar and bramble spring –
Let thistle burn, thorn scratch and nettle sting;
And when the summer sun warms earth and sky,
Come, adders, sharp of fang and cold of eye.
In every vehicle that you blithely ride
Let spiders big as saucers now reside;
And in the cabin where you take your rest
Bid hordes of wicked hornets build their nest.
Then let it rain and churn the clay to mire
To grab and grip and clog each helpless tyre;
And when the cries of rook-bands fill the air
May you hear mocking laughter everywhere.
Now let this doom hang heavy round your necks;
A right reward for him who rips and wrecks
Without regard or care. My rhyme is done.
But not the charm. Its work has just begun.
To my left-brained
Eye and mind
These fields should now
Be an abomination;
No discipline by plough
Or corrective cultivation.
A shameful parade
Of gleeful weeds appears;
Led by a brigade
Of over-eager volunteers.
But as I look around
All that I can see
Is my native ground
As it’s meant to be.
The fields close to our home have been left uncultivated this year and the weeds – and we – are making the most of it. As well as wheat plants seeded from the previous crop (known as volunteers) there’s an amazing profusion and diversity of wild plants that would normally be sprayed out of existence. We’ve followed the rewilding process right through the lockdown period (we’ve been allowed to go out for exercise) and it’s been fascinating and inspiring to watch. Sadly, all the plants, and their attendant birds and insects, are doomed, but not for reasons of husbandry: the entire farm is a development site and is slowly disappearing under what will eventually be 1,000 new houses. I studied agriculture at university years ago, and I still like to follow the rhythms and workings of the farming calendar. But this spring, I’ve learned I’m even happier seeing what Nature can do when left to her own devices. N.
We know what’s coming
From the pictographs and hammered posts;
Spray-painted warrants of execution;
Whole acres marked for death.
But who will tell the trees
Inform the flowers, tip off the birds and animals?
If I could, I’d pick them up
In my two hands, spirit them away
But I’m condemned to stand and watch
The steel blades bite, the heavy wheels shake the earth
See all I’ve know and come to love
Torn up, despoiled and thrown aside
Entirely unconsoled by knowing
There was nothing I could have said or done.
What dream is this that comes upon me now;
Appearing out of nowhere, filled with fields
Of flowers, summer grass and grazing cows
Deep in some hidden corner of the Weald.
My younger self strolls easy, dog at heel
Along a sunken lane roofed in by trees
While overhead the broad-winged buzzard wheels
And all is as it was, and meant to be.
But on the grey horizon, dark clouds grow;
The grass bends in the breeze; and all at once
I see a hooded figure on the road
Ahead. No time to turn. No place to run.
A simple wish for one more carefree day
Now haunted by a fear that has no name.
Wanted to see if I could stick to the basic sonnet formula while mixing things up a bit, so I tried playing with the end-words, allowing myself more latitude than usual with the consonants as long as I maintained the correct vowel rhyme. Turns out that breaking one rule consistently and deliberately is actually just imposing a new one. Interesting. N.
Big yellow machines
Crawl over the shingle
Like an armoured division
On a seaside day out;
A Tonka Toy D-Day
Securing the beachhead
Ten tonnes at a time.
Shifting and shaping
Loading and levelling
Leaving their track-treads
Ribbed in the stones;
Shoving the longshore drift
Yet as they labour
Grey-green waves gather
Freighted with foam
And the weight of the world;
Breaking in thunder
Laughing at diesel
Hydraulics and steel.
Haul down the standard
Hand in our weapons
Know when we’re beaten
Withdraw from the field.
Or dig in deeper
Shore up our defences
Think of our loved ones
And fight to the end?
A couple of weeks ago, I took a ride to Seaford on the Sussex coast, where the local authorities are engaged in one of their periodic attempts to redistribute the beach shingle, which the sea relentlessly transports from west to east in a process known as longshore drift. Even as the phalanx of heavy machinery toiled, a powerful westerly drove huge waves against the beach, underscoring the ultimate futility of the endeavour. I was a boy once, so I enjoyed watching it all and wanted to write about it: it took me until yesterday to make the election connection. N.
From the hot road
I watched combines make wide-wale corduroy
Of gasping fields cast in bronze and gold;
Racing balers trailing fine brown dust
Build their fleeting henges and tight-rolled scrolls of straw;
Felt the fat, satisfied summer –
The goodness and greenness of the place –
Wrap itself around me.
I come from here. That can never change.
Its deep rhythms are my heartbeat;
By its moods and seasons, I measure out my own small days.
In these dark times I cannot look upon it as I did:
Forces far beyond these gentle hills conflate
A love of one place with a hatred of The Other.
But this country is deep-grained in my hands, clings fast to my boots:
I am bound to it, and it to me
Until I too am gathered in, and finally ploughed under.
Events of the last three years have changed the way I look at the UK. But on a long, hot ride yesterday, I came to realise that it’s not my local tract of countryside that’s changed: it remains as lovely as it ever was, and I still feel very deeply about it. That, I guess, is one of the worst aspects of what our politicians are doing: their nationalism taints any innocent expression of love for the place one lives in. Just one more item on the lengthening list of things I’m not sure how we fix, or forgive. N.
Easier to count
The days I don’t see your lesser kin;
Familiar, worthy of a look, a nod
Like neighbours passed in the street.
But you. What wild wind
Blew you out here;
A foreign shadow falling on the field,
The crows in uproar, the air alive;
All things made smaller
By your breadth and heft;
The flash of copper on your wings
The glint of a drawn sword.
A wanderer from beyond our bounds,
Rarely seen and half forgotten.
But you are surely welcome, stranger.
The great world turns. Not all is lost.
Buzzards are common as sparrows rouhnd here these days, but their larger cousins, red kites, are still pretty rare. I saw one today, though, for the first time in ages, set against a bright spring sky. Of such true and noble things is happiness made in times like these. N.
And yet, I know there is another way:
A tangled net of narrow country lanes
And backroads I know better than myself
And could ride blindfold; every hill
And hedge, each field and farmhouse, every curve
And corner as familiar as my face;
A constant heaven I can call my own
Where seasons roll yet decades leave no mark
My past and present blurring as I pass.
This road is in my head and heart and legs;
Its every inch is graven in my skin.
I’ve sweated through its summers, felt its chill
Chew through my clothing, biting at my bones.
And as all other things are lost, this place
Might be all that remains to me; a road
That I can always take on trust, forget
That hellish other beaten out for me.
Where I may live and wander as I choose.
A paradise that I can never lose.