…and an old heaven

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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.

A new hell…

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A long road and a hard road lies ahead:

A Paris-Roubaix of the mind, a Ronde
Van Vlaanderen of the soul; all cobbles, mud,
Flat tyres and fractured frames; an Arenberg
To test the strongest limbs and stoutest heart.
A new Enfer du Nord that we must ride
For mile on bruising mile through choking dust
And bitter headwinds, with no victory lap
Or trophies waiting for us at its end.

I fear I do not have the legs for this;
Long miles and years have left me unprepared
In mind and body for this coming hell;
The broom-wagon is waiting on my wheel.

But tell me, then, what else I could have done:
I’ve ridden hard and clean and held my line
According to the code. I could not know
The commissaires themselves would shred the rules.

And so we wait now for the flag to drop;
Not knowing where to go, or when we’ll stop.

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.

Tree of life

-I-

No-one in town forgot that summer night.
A sultry, restless afternoon gave way
To dusk descending in ramparts of bruised
And brooding clouds. The sun was shuttered out,
The mountains melted. Nature drew a breath
And held it.
                          People scanned the sky. They sniffed
Rain on the air, brushed clinging tentacles
Of hair from sweat-dewed foreheads, hurried round
To check on horses, shut car windows, send
Their pets and children under cover, then
Stood on verandas, watched from kitchens. Now
The weight of air killed every sound, and talk
Dried like cut grass. The storm hung like a great
Black hammer, raised and ready to be swung.
The townsfolk drifted limply off to bed,
Oppressed by heat and silence. Wringing sheets
Were thrown aside with weary sighs and groans.
And then it came: a stranger’s hesitant
Knock at the door. The lucky few who slept
Murmured and shifted. Now the first shy drops
Of rain tapped on hot roofs. The clouds conferred.
Then, reaching an accord, the sky gave way
And fell. Like echoes from some monstrous cave
A thousand miles beneath the earth, a deep
Flat detonation boomed. Hands flew to ears,
Small dogs dived under couches, houses rocked.
The aftershocks rolled round the cowering hills
Like boulders in a snowmelt spate. Again
The clouds collided, heralding the rain
That hurled itself upon the helpless earth
With savage force. Roads ran like creeks, bare ground
Seethed like a boiling pot, and tender plants
First bent, then broke, beneath the water’s weight.
A silver blade sliced through the dark. It seared
The retinas of watchers. For what seemed
An endless age the landscape lay exposed,
Stark, petrified in aching brilliance,
Then vanished. Those who saw the strike would swear
They heard a manic laugh, or shriek of pain.

-II-

Far from the town. A lonely, trackless tract
Of forest on the steep and dusty rim
Of some lost canyon on the mountain’s flank.

The bolt that lit up half the world had struck
A mighty pine tree.
                          Thirty thousand amps
Coursed through its ancient trunk. Yet in that one
Ecstatic microsecond, no harm came.
The tree did not catch fire. It did not split.
The energy blazed through it like the surge
The soldier feels the moment he’s aware
He’s in the sniper’s sights.
                          And suddenly
It was transformed.
                          From all its millions
Of stomata, the tree began to breathe
Out poetry. Experience trapped in
Its wordless wood for three long centuries
Rose from it in a vast exultant cloud.
The tree had found its voice. It spoke with joy
Of water entering its roots. It groaned
As it recalled the agonies of sap
Returning in the spring. It took the songs
Of birds that nested in its branches, wove
Them with the rustle of the breezes through
Its needles in a silent symphony.

The tree told of all science had observed
But never felt, and could not understand:
Of water pumping through its phloem; how
Its cells swelled and contracted; of its deep
Slow drawing in of CO2, and clean
Life-giving exhalations; how it caught
The sunlight in its leaves, and fed on stars.

Its voice filled all the forest, mingling with
Steam rising from the sun-warmed undergrowth
And searching out each hollow of the hills.
And as the sun rose higher, so the song
Grew louder – a gigantic chorus missed
By elk and eagle, bear and butterfly.

The tree spoke on. Its understanding grew.
Reflex responses turned to acts of will.
It realised it was no longer bound
By those laws that had governed it, and all
Its countless brethren, since the first seed stirred.

All summer, then, the tree declaimed and learned
Until its consciousness awoke. In shock
It realised the other trees had heard
No word, no single syllable – and if
They had, they’d not replied, or understood

The tree now knew its voice would not be heard
Among the grey-green ranks of its own kind.
To stay was to remain a lump of wood,
Unheeded and unseen. It had to reach
That other world it sensed must lie beyond
This lonely place. It must escape – or die.

Slow. Slow. Deliberate as a man
Who peels a Band Aid from his hairy leg
The tree began to rip itself away
From stony soil baked brick-hard by the sun.
The dry ground pulsed, heaved, cracked as knotted roots
Convulsed and flexed like hatching snakes. And though
Each torn stump flamed, the tree would not desist.
It laboured on: its trunk twisted and writhed
Though no wind blew; from fissures in its bark
Came moans of pain, while resin seeped like blood.

The beauty of its poetry gave way
To ugliness and violence; its sweet
And lyrical refrains were now replaced
With savage imprecations poisoning
The air; its clear songs lost in howls of rage.

But it was done. One last, titanic thrust
And from the place where it stood undisturbed
For fifteen generations, it was free.
It stood some hours, recovering its strength.
The burning of its torn and broken roots
At last subsided.
                          Then, uncertainly,
It grasped the startled earth, and tried to move.

At first, its gains were too small to be seen.
Its roots were weak, and any sudden shift
Could topple it. The roots felt out the ground
As delicate as surgeon’s fingers, gripped
With power to shatter concrete. Driven on
By some deep impulse, it began to crawl.


-III-

The forest ranger spotted it. And screamed.
He hit the brakes. The truck fishtailed. Stones flew
And dust erupted. When it cleared, he threw
Himself out of the door, heart thudding, ran
Towards the apparition. Everything
He knew and understood tried to deny
What he was seeing. Yet there was no doubt:

Slow, steady, purposeful, the tree advanced
Along the logging road, bending this way
And that to keep its balance.
                          And the man
Stood stricken with confusion, dread and doubt.

He slipped and scrambled to the truck and called
The office. Though they laughed at first, the fear
And passion in his voice were all too real.
Was he a lunatic, or did he speak
Some dark, disturbing truth? The boss was firm:
Stay where you are. I’m coming. Do not move.

He found the ranger standing, stunned and mute,
Right where he said he’d be. The boss’s jaw
Fell slack. But not for long. The dollars flashed
Like fireworks in his mind. Man, this was it:
The winning ticket in life’s lottery –
A goddamned miracle! With hands that shook
And trembling voice, he called the newspaper.

-IV-

It did not take them long.
                          By noon next day
The town was overrun. Battalions
Of journalists moved in. The cameras rolled
And satellites bounced images into
A billion disbelieving eyes and brains.
Newspaper headlines blazed. Switchboards were jammed.
Hotels rooms, flights and rental cars sold out
In seconds as the story swept the world.

Behind the news teams came the scientists:
A task force of the brightest botanists
Geneticists and biochemists streamed
From universities around the globe.
They measured, probed, examined leaves and bark,
Took samples of the sap and roots. They swapped
Hypotheses and theories; plans for clones
And micro-propagation were proposed.

By now the true believers had converged.
Some claimed it a as god, while others saw
The devil’s hand at work.
                          All were agreed:
A strange and wondrous thing had happened that
No science or religion could explain.

The money men won out, of course.
                          They sent
A helicopter and a sling, and plucked
The tree out of the forest, set it down
Inside a giant city stadium
Where people paid their dollars just to sit
Entranced and watch, heads shaking, from the stands.

-V-

Slowly and aimlessly, the tree patrolled
The vast and empty space. A sombre cloud
Of poems rising imperceptibly
Above its tattered branches: a lament
From some forgotten world; the lonely cry
Of all the Wild imprisoned: far from home,
Bewildered, lost, abandoned, and afraid.

The tree sobbed out its heart. Its poems rose
Unheeded in the gritty, choking air.
The fumes and filth infected every line,
And tainted them with rage, spite and despair.
The concrete rubbed its roots raw; and the din
And clamour of the city drove like nails
Into its flaking bark. It knew no rest
And craved the silent precincts of the woods.

New revelations broke upon the tree:
Though millions watched and wondered, no one heard.
They cared not for its wisdom; all it might
Have told them of the world. Its quest had failed:
The separation ran too wide, too deep.
All it had suffered, striven for, was lost.

A shimmering of falling needles. Bark
Cracked like old parchment. Shrivelled roots. Bare limbs.
They fed and watered frantically. In vain.

With its last failing gasps, the tree now spoke
Of forests long forgotten, bright clear streams,
Of sharp, sweet air, and vast unfathomed nights:
A vanished world passed down through root and seed
It could have shared, had they had ears to hear.

The tree was still. Its songs and poems ceased.

And with it died a dream. Humanity
Forgot, disowned, denied all it had seen
As some collective madness, or a trick.
The scientists retreated to their labs,
And there resumed their work unravelling
The inner mysteries of plants. They wrote
Arcane and learned papers only they
Could understand, and flew to conferences around the world
To argue every detail.
                          And the one
That could have told them every secret stood
Encased in glass and silence for all time.

The dark side


 

The sun’s long gone; the summer evening makes
The first down-payment on the winter night
To come. Long shadows creep out from the woods
And over hilltops, driving colours deep
Into the still-warm soil to sleep till dawn.
But in the mothy dark, new sets of eyes
Are opening; the bright, all-seeing stare
Of sleepless beasts whose labours will not cease
Until cold dews come down upon the crops,
Or diesel tanks are hollow, drained to fumes.
They sweep the stubbles, flood the fields and gaze
With halogen intensity on plough,
Ring-roll and tillage-train; while in the lanes
Red pairs blink bright on bends, then settle to
A ruby glow that dwindles on the straight
Run in to barn or silo. They will haunt
The land a little longer, then be gone
Like swallows. All their mighty works complete,
They’ll drowse the dreary winter months away
Snug in their sheds, while night is handed back
To fox and owl and badger, who will reap
Their harvest from our acres as we sleep.

 

Photo credit: CLAAS GmbH & Co KGaA
http://www.claas.com

A good bike

 

Is there a better thing, I ask myself
In this world than a Good Bike? And by that
I mean the bike that runs exactly as
You want it to, and makes you happy when
You look at it; whose little dings and scuffs
Aren’t flaws but battle honours; and you’d know
Within an instant if the saddle height
Were altered by a fraction of an inch.
A bike like this cannot be bought: it’s made –
Transformed from shopfloor-shiny by the road,
Necessity, communion and time.
So one-and-only, so completely yours
You’d know it at a hundred paces. Build
Another like it, piece by piece, down to
The smallest bolt, it wouldn’t be the same.
Now your idea of what makes a Good Bike
Won’t be the same as mine. You may define
It as the latest, lightest, fastest, made
From moondust, spider-silk and starlight. Or
Could be the budget gas-pipe clunker: fell
Out of the Ugly Tree and hit each branch
On its way down, but never failed you yet.
A Good Bike is the one you’re always glad
You took today. And want to ride again.

 

My Pashley Paramount, on its holidays in Brittany this summer. A Good Bike if ever there was one. N.

Tour fever

Each year I say I won’t succumb. Not me:
I’ll fight, resist, be strong, remain untouched.
But here I am again, once more laid low
With an acute attack of Tour Fever.
An ailment rarely known now in these isles
Where most of us are inoculated
Against the bicycle in childhood.
The peloton bug bit hard long years back
When Big Mig’s five-straight run of victories
Had sputtered to a sad, untimely stop
And challengers flocked in from other lands
Like post-Pendragon knights desperate to draw
The sword from stone and anvil, claim the crown.

And my affliction flowered, leaving me
Prostrated on the couch for hours and days
With shining eyes, delirious with dreams
Or falling into darkness as one more
Of summer’s gods proved false. With each new wound
I thought that my immunity would grow.

But every August’s cure proved incomplete.
And so, as summer waxes, I can feel
My pulse-rate rise, a stirring in my blood,
And all my thoughts slip south. My heart prepares
To race, to sink, to fill and overflow
And probably be broken once again.

Ride of my life

I saw it on a Tour team-car roof-rack
In ’99. Pau. Frame greyed with the grime
Of rock-hard Pyrenean cols like coal-
Dust on a miner’s face. A strip of tape
On the top-tube, which bore, in small neat caps,
A name that blazed across the world that year:
L. ARMSTRONG. His. Right there in front of me.
Took five years’ waiting
                                  but I got mine. That
Changed everything. Just-going-for-a-ride
Became twelve thousand k a year; the road
My second home; the bike a part of me.
And it was war, fought on so many fronts –
Fatigue, foul weather, gravity, the grind
Of spinning out the endless hours alone;
The predatory cars, the sudden crash
As glycogen reserves ran dry. I lost
Some battles; won my share. My days had shape
And structure: strong, continuous and true
As my bright-silver-spinning handbuilt wheels;
The steady scrolling of the countryside,
The hollow roar of tyres, purring gears
The biopic and soundtrack of my life.

And that was just the way it was. For years.

I tried to quit. I swear.
                                I went two weeks.
But my heart hurt more than my ruined knee
So I came back. A little easier,
Though still five days a week: the full-time job
Of being alive. Not all addiction’s bad.

I still waste hours in wondering, chasing wild
Geese up blind alleys, trying to figure out
All kinds of why and what-the-hell and how.
And all the time the answer’s waiting there
Downstairs. It slouches up against the wall
Like hired muscle: hard, honed; clear intent
In each smooth tube, taut line and swelling curve.
A circumnavigation on the clock
Now, memories bound tight in every strand
Of carbon fibre in its frame. It is
The constant – one of very few I have –
And balance-point of life. So if I ask
About my calling, cause, trajectory
I beg you to remind me – it’s the bike,
Stupid. Then send me back out on the road,
Where I find all this crazy world reduced
To simple, fundamental principles
And I am certain – just the way I was
Behind the finish line on Stage 16 –
Of all I want and need. It’s still the bike.

Mending fences

The wind ripped out the flimsy fence that kept
A fragile peace between the warring horses.
In haste, we gathered torches, hammer, nails,
Electric wire, stout wooden posts and rails,
Zipped coats, pulled caps down tight and then set out
Like rustic sappers going up the line,
A slipping, stumbling, tripping, fumbling, slog
Across a no-man’s-land of mud and weather.
Together, in that wild, gale-whipped world
Of liquid ground and winter-hardened rain,
We drove posts deep, strung wire and hoisted timber,
The watching horses wondering why we laughed.
Till filthy, frozen, with our task fulfilled,
We marvelled at the first enduring thing
We’d ever built between us. And the last.

 

Another blank-verse retread of an old, previously unpublished free-verse piece, this from 2004. When I was about 15, my dad and I dashed out one foul winter night to the yard where our horses were living, to make some emergency fence repairs by torchlight in a howling gale. It’s getting on for 30 years ago now, but I’ve never forgotten the feeling of being out there with him, doing a real job of work together. This one’s for you, Pa. N.

Old faithful

 

She’s standing in the yard: a runabout
Hitched to a feeder wagon. Grubby, old –
She’s twenty-five if she’s a day – and with
A million hours on her.
                                 She was mine
One sacred summer when we both were young:
Together we hauled ten-tonne loads of grain
And shifted straw-bales by the thousand, cars
Strung out behind us like a comet’s tail
Along the gasping lanes. Deep in the night,
We rolled beside the combine, halogen-
Lit like an offshore oil-rig, tawny ropes
Of wheat unwinding from the auger, down
Into the trailer’s famished metal mouth.
And I felt like a king, enthroned on that
Air-cushioned seat, my CB radio
A-crackle, Steve Earle in the tape machine,
Rear window open, orange warning light
Up on the roof: all any boy could want.
I took her home at lunchtime: parked her up
Outside my parents’ house, then swaggered in –
Her oil on my jeans, dust on my boots –
Ate fast and hurried out; just couldn’t wait
To fire up the diesel, go to work.

And after all these years, she is still here –
They couldn’t do without her now – while I
Roam, restless, heartsick, purpose still unclear
And dream of those lost days, that cloudless sky.