All I know of you
Is endless steps and winding stairs
Broad boulevards and sweeping squares
Your swirling traffic, streams of lights
Your blazing days and balmy nights
Your great cathedrals, famous shops
Your bicycles and Métro stops
La Place d’Étoile, Champs-Elysées
Love locked to lampposts by the Seine
The moon above La Madeleine
Bastille, Abbesses and St Lazare
La Gare du Nord and Eurostar.
Your Rivoli and Rue Royale
Your Clichy, Moulin Rouge, Pigalle.
Your buskers, beggars, hustlers, touts
Your desperate drunks, your down-and-outs.
Your wounds that run so deep, still raw;
The guards and guns at every door.
A glance, a smile, a brush of hands
Then gone. Who better understands
This coup de foudre; who but you
Could strike so swiftly, win and woo
At once? I’m not the first to fall.
One taste. And now I want it all.
Just returned from a two-night break in Paris for our daughter’s 16th birthday treat. I’ve been to the city a few times since my first visit, aged 12, on a school trip, but only ever for a day at a time; this was my first chance to get to know it just a little better. And what a mesmerising, horrifying, glorious, impossible and utterly magical place it is. I couldn’t live there – it would drive me crazy inside a week – but I love it, and can’t wait to go back. The rhyme and metre is inspired by the techno classic Tour de France by Kraftwerk. N.
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.
This is my kind of road:
Except for agricultural vehicles
A gentle road, benevolent,
With its priorities exactly right –
A road on a human scale,
Where I might meet
Madame on her old Motobecane
With baguettes in her basket;
A tourist couple, side-by-side
Puffing, sweating on their shiny his-’n’-hers,
Or a quartet of ancient Anquetils,
Paunchy on immaculate Looks and Lapierres,
Trusting in cash and carbon-fibre
As specifics against the years.
A John Deere hauling big round bales;
A rusty Renault puttering home
With a couple of hundredweight of hay;
Dusty Axions, hot-running, gunning it at 30 k,
Ten-tonne loads of wheat and barley bucketing behind,
Or a Lexion, filling the lane from verge to verge,
All flashing lights and turbofans, a factory on wheels.
A thoroughfare of real life,
The traffic of an older, saner time
Where nothing’s moving faster
Than a decent horse can run,
And everyone is close to home.
A road that truly gets me
Where I want to go.
Another piece from Brittany. The fact that it’s in free verse (almost the first I’ve written all year) is a good clue that I was finally starting to relax by this stage of our holiday! N.
It does not speak to me, this sea. I find
No wisdom in the suck and swish of sand,
No music in the whining of the wind,
No conversation where it meets the land.
It is a thing half-known: a childhood friend
And playmate; now a stranger, grown apart.
I never dreamed those summer days would end,
Or guessed at this indifference in my heart.
Some men it calls to sail away: the weight
Of water and the world pull them. To go
Down to the sea in ships was not my fate:
The landsman’s life’s the only one I know.
I’ll breathe salt air and open up my ears
To catch a voice that calls across the years.
Back from three weeks on the beach in Brittany with notebooks stuffed with ideas, my head bursting with plans, and the car full of sand, seashells and baguette crumbs. The unmistakeable signs of a good, and much-needed, holiday. I started this piece the day after we arrived; I’ll post the follow-up I wrote a couple of weeks later in due course. N.
Il fait du brouillard
The blinded lighthouse
Calls out in the gloom
Its foghorn telling the misty minutes
Like a doleful speaking clock.
There’s a Hebridean sting of salt
In the sea-smoke wrapped around the headland
Like a scarf; and the summer beaches
Are veiled and secret, empty, Arctic white.
The gulls and waders could tell me
Where I am; beneath the sky-cloak
They chatter heedless, brash and jeering,
Safe in their local knowledge.
Not that I’m asking. A dog, the dunes
And the distant booming of the surf
On the reefs far out are all the signs I need:
I am here. Now. And all is well.
Same old cycle
Right about now
I’m laid low
With an acute attack
Of Tour Fever.
A curious ailment
Rare now in these isles
Where most are inoculated
Against the bike in childhood.
The peloton bug
Bit hard long years back
When Big Mig’s five-straight run
Was sputtering to a stop
And challengers flocked from other lands
Like knights desperate to draw
The sword from the stone.
My affliction flowered
Prostrating me on the sofa
For hours and days;
Delirious with dreams
Or falling into darkness
As another god proved false.
And with each new wound
My immunity would grow.
But the cure’s proved incomplete.
And now, as summer waxes,
My pulse sets up its hammer beat
My thoughts slip south
And my heart prepares
To be filled to overflowing
After yesterday’s dramas and traumas, today’s flat run from Cambrai to Reims was bound to be a bit of a comedown. It certainly was for Mark Cavendish, who trailed in 12th on a near-perfect day for the sprinters. The main contenders called a truce as expected, so there was no change in the overall Tour standings.
While I wouldn’t have changed places with any of the riders yesterday, I couldn’t help envying them today, as they bowled through the rolling fields of Champagne. Professional cyclists lead a hard and dangerous life, but it looked pretty good to me this afternoon. And I think they knew it, too.
Warm sun, light winds,
Wide views over endless fields
Bristling with windmills.
Hard tyres, smooth tarmac,
Deep carbon rims
Slicing the summer air.
High speed, low effort,
Hands on the hoods,
Chatting with the boys.
Unladen bike, empty pockets,
Food, drink and spares
Following in the car.
Short stage, quick finish,
With massage, dinner, bed
Waiting at the end.
Easy day, simple task,
Three hours on the road.
Knowing how lucky they are.
Won by Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre-Farnese Vini)
Maillot jaune: Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank)