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
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.
Grey-barked, black-budded, hung with lockless keys
They stand in shaws, haunt hedgerows. In these parts
Men called them widow-makers; now the trees
Themselves are facing death. Suspicion starts
To gather: are those leaves just autumn-browned?
Is that a patch of lichen, nothing more –
Or have these woods become a battleground
Where every ash is readying for war?
For once again, the Norselands send their raiders
To pillage England: not with sword and axe
But microscopic spores; unseen invaders
With thirty million targets for attacks.
In dieback lies the ruin of us all:
For mighty Yggdrasil itself will fall.
Ash dieback has been confirmed in the neighbouring county of Kent, so we’re now just waiting to see whether our Sussex ashes succumb to Chalara fraxinea. Ash trees were known as ‘widow-makers’ hereabouts because of their unfortunate tendency to drop large branches without warning. Despite this ambivalent relationship with mankind, they’re very much a part of our local landscape. If dieback takes hold, we could be looking at destruction on a scale we haven’t seen since the Great Storm of 1987.
A thousand years ago, Sussex was ravaged by the Vikings: like them, ash dieback has arrived here from Scandinavia, which gave me the idea for this piece. That Yggdrasil, the great tree that holds up the world in Norse mythology, is an ash seemed the perfect crowning irony.
Stuck the knife in
And laid it on thick:
The wheel to follow.
Not taking it.
Picked up a tailwind
Blew down Sloop Lane
A two-wheeled man ’o’ war.
Long drop on Ketches
Pulling hard as the hangman’s rope
Through woods slowly bleeding to red-gold death
Witches Lane. Flying,
Burned Down Street
To the old powder mill.
Blasted the climb beyond.
Rolled up Rocks Road.
High Street shuffle.
Last hill home.
Seeing the signs.
Feeling my way.
Reading the road.
Free-verse recall and redolent Sussex road names from yesterday’s ride. Our Ketches Lane has an ‘e’ Charles II’s notorious hangman never had, so there’s probably no connection, but I can’t help thinking of Jack Ketch and his eponymous knot every time I ride along there. N.
It’s not exactly thrill-a-minute stuff:
A straight-line dash at half-a-mile per hour.
A test of skill, not speed or human power
Played out on dry ground bristling with rough
And tawny stubble, under autumn skies.
No city raised a stadium so grand
As this, where our long struggle with the land
Is made a gentle game, and neighbour vies
With neighbour for rosettes. When we compete
On level terms for small rewards, we hold
Fast to reality. No one wins gold
Today – and no one truly tastes defeat.
For every man who took the start can say
He went out there and changed the world today.
Been working till all hours the past couple of weeks, but today I took The Guv’nor and rode an easy 15 miles or so to a ploughing match. Spent half an hour watching modern and vintage tractors, plus a couple of horse teams, striving to turn perfect furrows on the sunlit slopes of the South Downs, then trundled home again for lunch. Hard to think of a nicer way to spend a morning, really. And yes, I do know how lucky I am! N.
The day that I left, I came out here
Alone, to the woods. As I stared
Through the trees, felt the summer breeze stirring,
I gazed into myself and declared:
“Don’t ever forget where you come from:
This new life that you’re ready to start
Will be full of things trying to persuade you
They’re important. Stay true to your heart
And this place: what’s around you now matters:
It’s unchanging and won’t let you down.
So remember – these trees, fields and hedgerows
Will be here when the bright lights of town
Have grown dim, and you’re starting to wonder
Why the cash and the company car
Aren’t enough to make life worth the living
And you’re no longer sure who you are.”
And I proved myself right. So I come back
When I can, just to walk here, and grieve
For that lost self – the boy from the country
Who, in truth, never wanted to leave.
Went for a long walk with the whippet yesterday in some beautiful woods not far from my parents’ place. Haven’t been there in ages, but it was just like old times – in so many ways. N.
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.
They’re lost. I know before they tell me. So
I offer help: consult their map and guide
And see at once which way they’re meant to go;
There are no secrets that this place can hide
From me. I could, if asked, say how this lane
Links up with every other; bend their ears
For hours with village gossip; and explain
Each field’s crop rotation down the years.
Yet though I speak with such authority
This local knowledge, intimate and broad,
Is not the resident’s, but memory:
I’m long gone – no house here I can afford.
Life’s handed me this pair of travelling boots,
But it will never rip me from my roots.
Four horses browse the field beside the brook.
Not so remarkable, you’d think. Except
When I was young and this was Warren’s land
No hoof was suffered here. And as I look
Around this farm, whose features once seemed set
Like sun-baked Sussex clay, I see the hand
Of Time at work, reshaping subtly
The world I knew, and thought would ever be.
I learned the fields and footpaths, secret ways
Through woods, the course of streams, each gate and stile,
And where the first wild daffodils were seen.
I carted straw, hauled grain in holidays
And made this land my office. All the while
I wrapped myself within its folds of green
As camouflage against the life that stood
Awaiting me beyond, in adulthood.
They’ve sold the farm. No dairy herd here now:
Those horses all the livestock left. The grass
We cut and clamped for silage every spring
And hay in summer, gone and under plough.
And I left too; to study, then to pass
Long years in misplaced toil and wondering
What should I do and where did I belong
When my heart knew the answers all along.
So. Now a quarter-century has flown
And here I am, in boots, with dog at heel;
No prospects, plan or penny to my name,
Still wandering these familiar fields alone,
My head still full of songs and rhymes – my real
Life’s work, it seems: that much has stayed the same.
The horses glance, then drop their heads to graze
And I walk on, my mind on distant days.