War poem

They handed us our call-up papers
Along with our degrees
In the golden summer of ‘91;

Another generation
To be thrown into the endless fight
And lost. But I refused.

So while my mates
Packed up their kit, pulled on the uniform
And went to take on the world

I dug in among my fields and woods,
Watching the battle’s bright sky-bursts
And hearing its rough thunder from afar,

Raging against the folly of it all
With quills cut from white feathers
I was handed in the street.

Now they sit, gloriously pavilioned,
Freighted with honours and worthy scars
Commanding legions, lands, and all the spoils.

While I fight on,
Day-by-day and hand-to-mouth,
Beneath no banner but my own

And though my gains and conquests
Are slight and insecure
I claim each little victory as my own,
And trust that I will triumph in the end.

Hello, helo

Helicopter passing low above the sleeping streets,
Twin rotors chop the darkness into tumbling chunks of noise.
Where do you come from? No one knows. Your swash of sound retreats
Into the night, a mystery ship. Where are you heading, boys?
To barracks down on Salisbury Plain? Or out on exercise?
Are you weighed down with men and gear, or empty? What’s the plan
You’re part of: will your mission whirl you from these friendly skies
To sweat the bullet-spitting badlands of Afghanistan?
Fat men in suits on their hind legs in Westminster will claim
Your presence in those dusty wastes protects us from attack.
But I’m not asking you to go: you’re not there in my name.
So if you’re flying out tonight, pray God you’ll all come back.


Most nights now, at least one big, green, tandem-rotor Chinook helicopter goes whop-whop-whopping low over the town. The Chinook fleet is based at RAF Odiham in Hampshire, so the westbound ones are probably heading home – but from where? And what about the ones flying east? Got me thinking…

Fields of fire

Night fighters

A white beam
Sweeps the midnight fields
Like a hand searching under a bed.
Grass-blades caught beneath its bright gleam
Bristle black; a million tiny gnomons
Telling the rapid hours
Of this unwonted, sudden sun.
The woods recoil before
The engine’s heavy throb,
And poplars flare
Like burning buildings
In the tail-lights’ angry glare.

Two shots.

The echo rolls
And ricochets around the farm.
Keep your head down, Reynard;
Squeeze tight the shining eyes
That will betray you
And seek the shelter of the earth.

At half a mile, my skin grows tight
Waiting for the spent stray’s bite;

Then wonder. The hunting dog is gone
In search of rabbits on the wrong
Side of the hedge. Caught in the edge
Of that cruel light, a half-second’s untutored sight
Of that long nose and wolfish gait
Would be enough to seal his fate.
I call him, with the sickened urgency
Of frantic fathers trapped in Tripoli
When unseen hunters rip their night
With noise, and death’s unholy light.

Harmony and discord

News of the world

Eight voices
Reaching across five centuries;
An old motet,
Its golden notes as rich and clear
As honey in the comb,
Pouring from my radio
Over the kitchen counter
And the breakfast bowls;
Eight parts intertwining, rising
Bass to treble,
Earth to heaven:
Nesciens mater virgo virum
A purity unstained by pride,
A verity undimmed by time,
Whatever you believe.

Eight a.m.
Six pips count the seconds down
And my own century smashes in
With yet more news of war and cuts,
Protestors, rebels, innocents
Lands torn up by natural forces
Ideology and isotopes.
And Mouton’s melodies are blown away
Like dandelion seeds.
Agnus Dei, qui tolis peccata mundi,
Miserere nobis.

Like Charles, I’ve despaired of the news, which is why I’ve finally kicked the Radio 4 habit (and as any regular listener will tell you, that’s like converting to a different religion) and transferred my allegiance from The Today Programme to highbrow music station Radio 3 when I’m unloading the dishwasher and preparing breakfast. Even here, though, the BBC insists on providing an hourly news update, and this morning, I just wasn’t quick enough with the ‘off’ button.