For most of the year the field is like a sheet of writing paper covered with invisible ink. Words indivisible from the page. Blank every morning save for brown-blot molehills. But the overnight snow has rendered the lines for all to see. All at once. An animal track heat map, only cold. Footsteps frozen in time and place.
Much is indecipherable. Unknowable. But some is observable. Or deducible.
The ink is barely dry on the sheep paths. Close up, the freshest, once-trodden tracks are, in fact, two closely-spaced furrows with a distinct ridge in between right and left ploughshare hooves. No such distinction in the oft-trodden lamblines where the front leg dots and hind leg dashes have worn through to the grass beneath. Feint blue becoming bright green.
Other writers have left strings of single letter words and flown. The Y Y Y of bird feet. Serif here. Sans serif there. Upper case. Lower case. Bold buzzard prints. (I know they were left by a buzzard because I saw it fan down from its perch in the snow-shadowed oak – gracious in flight, but grounded, stamping cold feet like an angry child in oversize wellies). Italicised wagtrails. Barely more than scratches on the crusted surface of the snow. Spokes leading to the stock feeder hub. Hay for the sheep. A meagre harvest of flies for the birds who’ve been forced down from their usual haunt on the clay tiles of the barn roof.
By the brook where the flood water has congealed then dropped to leave a glass dance floor, there are the arrowheads of a pheasant. Pointing back from where it came. And ending abruptly. Mid sentence. With a tail-dragging smudge and a silent squawk. Only to start again somewhere else. In another field. The other side of the stream. On another page.
The writing paper field.
Freed from the conventions of verse form, I find prose poetry easier to compose. So it’s my go-to style. That said I hope this latest piece in the Field series still has poetic qualities in its use of imagery, metaphors and symbols.
Taking pictures forces you to look at the world more carefully. You see things through the viewfinder that you might miss with the naked eye. And yet more detail resolves itself in the taken image.
So it is with recording sounds. You hear things through the headphones that might otherwise be lost in the background noise. The squeak of freshly fallen snow under foot. The scrunch of that same snow after a hard frost. The splashing of drips. Drips becoming trickles. Trickles becoming streams. Melt water tumbling over stones. And listening back, the source of each sound can be clearly “seen.”
Ears have eyes.
Ridiculously pretentious I know, but like Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, The Shropshire Symphony will eventually have four movements. You can listen here to the Spring movement I recorded during the first lockdown in April 2020.
Paper lantern queen Your subjects crawl on their knees No sting in the sun.
For me the soundtrack of the first lockdown was the bumblebees feasting on the nectar in the blossom of our cherry trees. It’s a different kind of buzz this time round as we enter winter and a second lockdown – wasps. Drones falling like autumn leaves from their nest in the gable end of the cottage roof. Dazed by the cold. Angry like prize fighters losing their prowess. Drunk on the juice of windfall apples. Lurching not flying. But still capable of delivering a stinging blow. They won’t survive the winter. Their job is done. Only their queen will survive. And even that is not guaranteed.
Colour-eating cloud West wind-stacked silver strata Fading green to black
I love the easy discipline of Haiku. Just three lines: the first of five syllables; the second of seven; and the third back to five. It’s the sort of poetry you can write anywhere anytime you have a few moments to spare. And I often find that the images the words conjure up (if not the words and lines themselves) lead to bigger works – weeks, months or even years later.
From early morning geese to late night owls via a blackbird serenading from his perch in our cherry tree, all these natural sounds were recorded over the four days of Easter in our garden near Ludlow.
To my way of thinking there is little or no separation between sounds and words. The best words are visual – in the sense that they readily conjure up a mental image. Sounds do the same. So I hope you can “see” the source of the sounds in this composition with your ears with the same vibrancy I first saw them with my eyes.
You didn’t like people making a fuss of you. So you weren’t a big fan of Mother’s Day.
Before it all became what you disdainfully called Americanised, I do remember me and my sister bringing you breakfast in bed. Dad was in on the annual conspiracy and I’m sure you knew what was happening from the clatter in the kitchen. But you always feigned surprise when Joanne carried in the tray and I, her younger brother, theatrically threw open the curtains to let the morning shine on Kellogg’s Cornflakes, a boiled egg and toast (which left crumbs on the sheet we could feel through our pajamas when we were allowed to snuggle up next to you). Thank you for your indulgent smile that morning and every morning.
You still have it. Dementia may be emptying your mind. But it’s not draining your face. I’m picturing it now. It’s your gift to me this day (because mothers everywhere give far more than they can ever receive).
Sheila is 85 years old.
Sheila has dementia.
Shelia lives at Ridgeway Lodge care home.
At night she curls herself into ball and sleeps under a single sheet.
Like an ammonite in a museum cupboard.
Visitors need a PIN number to get in.
Just four digits.
But ten thousand possible combinations.
1 2 7 9
First a one and a two, then a seven and a nine
More a pattern remembered, not numbers, a rhyme
But the rhyme is not working. All visits are banned.
I can no longer sit and just hold her hand
1 0 0 0 0
So now I’m holding her hand in my head
And I’m that ammonite curled up in my bed.
Eyes screwed shut against the start of the day
Ears not hearing the birds as they play
But feeling the flesh of my kith and my kin
The warm reassurance of skin upon skin…
1 9 6 4
My earliest memory. Here roles are reversed.
The mother is young it’s the child who’s nursed.
A doctor is summoned. The boy is not well.
Perhaps scarletina he really can’t tell.
And my eyes are screwed shut as they kneel to pray
Ears not hearing a word that they say
But feeling the flesh of my kith and my kin
The warm reassurance of skin upon skin…
2 0 2 0
The warm reassurance of one hand in another
First mother to child and now child to mother
We speak mostly nonsense because how do you say
That you might not be back for a month and a day
So my eyes are screwed shut because I don’t want them to be
Ears not hearing her last words to me
But feeling the flesh of my kith and my kin
The warm reassurance of skin upon skin…
I’ve just found a notebook in which Sheila May Marshall started writing down her childhood memories. It might be written for my sister and I although not explicitly so. The first entry reads: “Your mother walked eight miles a day to and from school.
“Grandad met me at the ‘busy’ road.”
On the next page she’s written ‘schools’ in capital letters with a squiggly line underneath and listed those she attended from age 5 to 16. Tantalising glimpses of the child I never knew appear next to each.
During the war lessons were often disrupted as she and her classmates were led to the air raid shelters.
At Tollington School for Girls in Muswell Hill she wore a green uniform and was in Royden House – one of four named after notable women. Astor, Allen and Normanton were the others. I must look them up at some point. But for now I’m only interested in the notable woman that became my mother.
But the next page is blank. And the one after. And the one after that…
It’s only when memories are written down that they turn into a history that can be passed on.
Next to the notebook is a contact directory. The oldest entries are in the neatest handwriting. Names I recognise. Tom and Elsie. Madge and Harold. John and Audrey. Uncles and aunties. Tom who worked full time until he was 91. Harold who said heavens and by jingo. Madge who made impossibly sweet tea with evaporated milk that my sister and I fed to her aspidistras when her head was turned. But their names are all crossed out. And next to one of them are the letters R.I.P in a much more spidery hand.
This is the first in an occasional series of posts about dementia prompted by my mum’s diagnosis with the disease.
Let’s face it cyclists aren’t a very creative bunch. Or certainly not if the names they give their rides on Strava are anything to go by. A quick and dirty tally of my activity feed over the past few days looks something like this…
Original names are few and far between. There’s one airing the grey matter but given the rider’s a psychologist it’s a tad too obvious. And as for evening pootle and a few hard efforts (you know who you are), you didn’t buy £10k’s worth of carbon fibre racing machinery between you to take it easy for god’s sake! Show some self respect. I think I’d prefer plain old evening ride to those two.
It’s not like we don’t have the time to think up original names. I mean we have enough for drinks stops and cake stops and more cake stops and toilet stops and yet more cake stops. And if we’re riding in a group we’ve got time to talk about stretch lycra, salbutamol, Bradley Wiggins, and to ponder the eternal question: to shave or not to shave. So surely we can spare a few moments to to come up with something that sums up both the ride and our personalities? Here’s my top 10 creatively named rides which if they aren’t on Strava yet damn well should be. Please add yours in the comments box at the end.
You can see the dags from here
A ride name that must have originated in the Antipodes where the word dag refers to the dried faeces clinging to the wool on a sheep’s arse. In other words, unshiftable without a 200psi pressure washer – a bit like grit on a chain. You can see the dags from here is taken to mean that the rider has had such a close encounter of the turd kind (a variant of the name) that he or she could actually count the individual dags. Other variants popular with Northern lad and lasses who do most of their riding on unfenced, upland roads include: smell the lanolin, as in “t’ little feckers were reet close ‘r kid I’ll swear y’ cud smell t’ lanolin;” and lambs to the slaughter aka silence of the lambs where, as the names suggest, the gambol doesn’t pay off, you roll over a hyperactive, day-old ovine and kill it.
Fish in baby oil
As in, as slippery as a fish in baby oil. I’ll confess this was actually one of my rides. Pride, they say, cometh before a fall and it certainly did in this case. On what would otherwise have been my plain, old evening ride, I attempted to impress two young ladies out walking their dogs, by cycling through the ford barring our collective way, rather than taking the footbridge as they sensibly did. In a splash my tyres lost their grip on the algae-slicked cobbles. I took an early bath. And they had an early laugh.
Up sh!t creek without a pedal
Water and bikes clearly don’t go together. I lost nothing more than my pride in the preceding ride. This rider clearly lost one half of his drive train. Sh!tty because one tends not to carry spare pedals on most rides. Inner tubes, yes. Tyres even. But pedals, no.
Pot holes are a pre-occupation (and an occupational hazard) for most UK-based cyclists. Particularly as our dear, non-cycling leader (she prefers walking barefoot through corn fields apparently) is preoccupied with Brexit and not running the country by fixing roads, the NHS, the economy, housing, etc. Such is the scale of the crisis that this and the next two entries are, unapologetically, variations on the state of the roads theme. The Miner’s lamp ride is assumed to draw it’s inspiration from the brass safety lantern, invented by Sir Humphry Davy, carried by miners to illuminate the darkest recesses of the deepest mines. There is, however, a school of thought, which suggests it’s not an ironic reference to the depth of some potholes at all but rather a corruption of “I’m a stupid bugger I went for a night ride minus lamp and had to turn back.”
Clearly a ride taken by an educated cyclist because speleologist is simply a posh word for a caver – troglodytes who get really worked up if you don’t know the difference between stalactites and stalagmites. Apparently stalactites hang down and you can remember this because they have to hold on tite to the ceiling. Blah, blah, blah. The ride name is widely considered to be another reference to the ridiculous depth of potholes – especially after last winter. But there are some who think it originated from an eye-watering peloton accident where the lead rider braked too hard and the following riders disappeared down a black hole.
The state of the roads really must be getting to people because this is the third ride in my current top 10 concerned with potholes. It goes something like this: “if they get much deeper I’ll have to take a canary on my next ride to check for methane.” Like so many rides, there is a possible alternative origin: that the rider was dressed from neck to knee in bright yellow bib shorts and vest and was greeted with the cry “canary” by his fellow riders and sundry motorists. Actually scrub that alternative because, if it was true, the ride would’ve been called Tweety Pie or just plain Twat.
Not the interpretation you might expect, which is why I’ve chosen this one. Turns out the rider wasn’t in the hills and constantly selecting the small gear or granny ring up front. No, the ride was stop start for a different reason – his actualgranny rings him during the ride to ask if he’s seen grandad who’s got a touch of Alzheimer’s and has gone walkabout yet again. This proves to be a bit of a dilemma for our cycling grandson; does he quit the ride and miss the cake to join the search or hold the phone into the breeze, mumble that it’s a terrible line and that he can barely hear, before making a superhuman effort to get back on? Surely the best solution would be to sign gramps up for Strava, strap that spare mobile to his slippers and follow his perambulations on Live Track?!
I’ve a strong suspicion this ride was named by somebody who, like me, grew up in the Seventies. “Burn baby burn it’s a disco inferno” were lyrics from a 1976 hit by an American outfit called The Trammps (yes, with two mms). My hunch is that somebody was grinding up a big hill – definitely not in the granny ring (see above) – and was feeling the lactic acid building up in their legs. You can well imagine their inner voice “ooh the burn baby burn it’s a disco inferno.” Not quite shut up legs but it takes all sorts.
Let them eat cake
There’s always one ascetic* who sips only water at the stops and sucks on lettuce leaves when everybody else tucks into slices of carrot. Carrot cake that is. He gets back 4kg lighter and 6kg smugger than when he set out and chooses a ride name that really sums up his approach to life, cycling, the Universe. He doesn’t know it (until now) but his fellow riders have an alternative name for the ride that does just that: tosser.
The perfect ten
If anyone I know calls their ride this, I’ll run them off the road next time I’m on four wheels and they’re on two. Any ride name with the prefix perfect in it almost certainly wasn’t anything of the sort. It’s a sure sign the rider’s straddling something that’s worth close to the price of your house. “I’m telling you (they’re always telling you even if you don’t want to be told) that was a great ride mate. Fantastic wheels those Zipps. And the skin suit, wow, definitely shaved a few seconds of my KoM. I’d say it was the perfect ten.” You want to punch him on the Rudy Project Aero Helmet, but, before you land the first blow, think better of it and instead cycle as fast as you can – without Zipps or a skin suit – in the opposite direction. With a bit of luck the quick getaway will allow you to steal his KoM. What, I hear you say? The perfect ten?
So you’re on notice: if you don’t at least make an effort to rename your ride I won’t unfollow you but I will withhold that kudos.
*Ascetic (noun) – one who leads a life characterized by severe self-discipline and abstention from all forms of indulgence. Synonyms: austere, self-denying, abstinent, abstemious, non-indulgent, self-disciplined, frugal, simple, rigorous, strict, severe, hair-shirt, spartan, monastic, monkish, nunlike, boring (I made this last one up).
Like many MAMILS (middle aged men in Lycra) you are the reason I got back into cycling forty something years after hopping off my Raleigh Chopper when I gave up my paper round as a 16 year old. I loved your lamb chop sideburns. I loved your Northern deadpan. I loved your taste in music. But most of all I loved the fact that a seemingly ordinary bloke could be extraordinary. It gave this not-terribly-sporty ordinary bloke, who got picked last and then reluctantly by the captains in a game of playground footy, something to believe in. You could call it a bromance. My wife did. There are three of us in this marriage she said, only half jokingly before buying me some eye-wateringly expensive Team Sky kit and a Wiggins Number 1 tee shirt for Christmas. That’s true love for you.
So I’ve had your name bobbing up and down on my buttocks for the last four years. As mobile billboards go I’m the first to admit it’s not been the most striking advertisement but all the same I want my money back plus interest (or rather Mrs Uridge does). Seriously. They were sold to us under false pretences. Plus the logo wasn’t terribly durable.
But there’s another altogether more valuable contract that you’ve broken if the DCMS select committe report is accurate: the notion that just about anything’s achievable with the application of hard work, dedication and attention to detail. You encouraged me (and countless thousands others) to believe in that approach. I applied it when I cycled 3,000 miles across America in three weeks. I applied it when I cycled in your Tour de France tyre tracks over the Alps from Paris to Nice. I’ve applied it for the last three years trying (in vain) to get an age group podium in the Storm the Castle duathlon in my home town of Ludlow. Fifth, I think, is the best I’ve done. And do you know what? I’d rather come fifth for the rest of my life and know that I’ve done my best than come first and know that I’ve done my worst. Because that’s ultimately what crossing an ethical line is: doing your worst not doing your best.
So slink off into the shadows Bradley. I’m sure you won’t miss me. I sure as hell won’t miss you. If you find yourself short of friends I’m sure Lance Armstrong will take your calls.
For what it’s worth I had my suspicions. Bromance, romance. They’re not so different. You get the feeling you’re being cheated on long before the confirmation. But when it comes the evidence you “crossed an ethical line” – or rather the highly suspicious lack of evidence that you didn’t – still sickens you to the core even though you’ve moved on and re-partnered (in my case to that nice Mr Froome).
I’ve just listened to what you’ve said in your defence. I’m not convinced. There’s lipstick on your collar so to speak and you can’t or won’t explain how it got there.
PS If you’re wondering why I’ve sent this letter in a Jiffy bag…
PPS One or two pedants have pointed out that the select committee report doesn’t accuse you directly of cheating – only that your team “crossed an ethical line.” And nor do I. Like I said, part of your appeal is your plain-speaking. I’m sure you’ll understand the difference.