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.
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.
An island in a sea of rain-raked grass
Where kites wheel watchfully.
Thick-walled, four-square sanctuary
With food, fire and family.
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.
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.
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.
“Summer is a-coming in,” they sang,
“Groweth mead and bloweth seed, and spring
The woods anew.” How sweet their voices rang;
The ancient round still with the power to bring
The scent of flowers and new-mown hay to mind,
And conjure skylarks in a sapphire sky,
While for a moment, Winter’s wicked wind
Was turned aside. Long centuries roll by
But cannot touch the melodies and rhymes
Our fathers made to lighten scythe or plough.
What music of our own impatient times
Will children sing eight hundred years from now?
What legacy will we be handing on
For them to marvel at when we are gone?
At my daughter’s violin class yesterday, teachers Miss B and Miss Y had them playing, then singing, ‘Summer is a-Coming In’, a round dating from the 13th Century. Slightly incongruous in February, and with snow imminent, but a wonderful treat for us parents – and for the children too, I think. They certainly seemed to enjoy it, especially when they divided into six different parts, with the melodies and harmonies repeating and interweaving in a single swell of sound. Glorious. I believe it’s really important that these old songs are handed on, generation to generation, as reminders of who we are (or were) and where we come from. As a nation, we’ve been very careless with our folk history and memories; other countries seem to do these things much better.
I’ve said it many times before, I know, but Miss B, Miss Y and the other East Sussex Music Service staff are beyond praise, and do brilliant work with literally thousands of kids all over the county. Which is why I’m so incensed that the Service faces a 10% cut in its budget this year, and will eventually lose HALF its funding to government cuts. I fail to see what possible impact these savings could have on the overall deficit – meanwhile, we risk losing some thing truly worthwhile and inspirational that our kids will remember (and possibly even thank us for!) all their lives. Some legacy, huh?
You talk about the old days;
You talk about the old ways:
My course has run unaltered
These five hundred years and more.
Great estates and families faltered:
I endured, enshrined in law.
Each generation knew me,
Their boots and habits drew me:
The traveller and teacher,
The journeyman for hire;
The ploughman and the preacher
The shepherd and the squire;
The heedless, hopeless lover,
The poacher back from covert,
All passed this way. I saw them
In all weathers, season-round
By bridge and stile I bore them
Safe wherever they were bound.
And when the oil stops flowing
And the world is clean at last,
I’ll still get you where you’re going
As I did in ages past.
In Witches Lane the spell is cast,
And suddenly it’s clear to me:
In all the signposts I have passed
There is an ancient poetry.
Sheepwash, Slugwash, Snatts and Scallows
Soften with their euphony
The unquiet echoes of the gallows
On Hanging Birch and Deadmantree.
Lost village life in Pump and Pound,
Gun and Thunders wreathed in smoke:
How blessed was the peace once found
By travellers on Resting Oak.
My bicycle and I now follow
The tracks of long-dead industry
Down Tanyard, Scrapers, Pit and Hollow,
Up Powdermill and Nursery.
Shepherds, Sharlands, long and steep,
Markstakes winding through the trees
Rocks and Sandy, driven deep
By feet and wheels and centuries.
Ragged Dog, Darp and Dern,
Through Langtye’s sweeping bends I fly,
Take in Potato, Ham, then turn
Down Robin Post to Bird-in-Eye.
A thousand years of history
Enshrined in Hill and Road and Lane.
They share their tales and mystery
And lead me safely home again.
I’ve accumulated 13 years and literally tens of thousands of miles cycling the lanes around my home, but it was only the other day that I really started thinking about their names. They’re historic, quaint, comical and vivid by turns: I can’t quite believe it’s taken me so long to realise this, and then string some of the choicest together to make a poem.
They broke me in the morning of the world.
With iron axes, oxen, fire and toil
They stripped me of my trees. A dark smoke curled
Into the sudden sky. My restless soil
Awakened by those ancients has not slept
These thousand years. Each autumn I’ve been torn
By plough and harrow; every winter kept
The new seed safe; in summer felt the corn
Stir with the wind, but never will again.
The concrete pours, the excavators bite:
My acres, seamed with sewer, duct and drain,
Will yield two hundred houses, packed in tight.
They’re breaking me again, and in a year
You’ll see no sign that I was ever here.
One of my regular rides takes me through the parish of Chiddingly (in accordance with local custom, the ‘-ly’ is pronounced ‘lie’, not ‘lee’) which, like Rome, encompasses seven hills. My route crosses three of them in succession, and I’ve always liked the historical logic of their names that allows me to track my progress. From north to south, they run as follows:
ROAD TO WAR
Ride over Pick Hill,
Whose sandstone sides
Were first cratered for their ore
To arm the legions,
Its quiet woods scabbing over
Long centuries of plunder.
To Gun Hill
Where the ironmasters cast
Culverins and cannon
For Device Forts and men o’ war;
Our stolid breed of Sussex men
The muscle in Good King Hal’s arms race.
Then Thunders Hill –
These days disturbed by little more
Than tractors, Sunday motorbikes
And neglected car exhausts –
Still echoing to the martial roar
Of the past along the road.
Another ploughing-match poem…
Inching forward, earthworm-slow,
Eyes front, rigid as a guardsman
He opens up the ground.
From this first furrow all others follow;
With coulter, mouldboard, share and landside
The battle line is drawn.
At once, the Sussex clay
With a night and day of rain in it
Clogs and butters churning tyres
Sets front wheels slickly sliding
Plucks at the plough; leaks, collapses.
But in our annual fixture with the fields
We lead the land three thousand-nil
And this year will not break our streak.
A poem inspired by the many vintage tractors I watched doing their stuff at a local ploughing match yesterday.
POWER ON THE LAND
I should hate them:
Raucous, oil-burning beasts
That condemned my quiet, beloved horses
To exile and extinction.
Yet my heart warms
To these homely stalwarts, still game
To plough and till the stubborn clay
Three generations on.
So simple I could drive one
In my sleep (and often did)
But with enduring rightness
Wrought in each casting and component
And the motive power of twenty teams
Compressed into a one-ton slab of steel.
After sixty years and more
They turn the earth
Beneath their wheels
And hand a man like me
The means to shape the world.