Shaving

I see him still, his face in mine.
In this grey hair, that laugher line.
Me on a chair to match his height
Dad shaving in the morning light. 

Reflecting back a boy and man
The man now gone the boy a man
Dip the brush and whip the lather
Foamy-faced now I’m the father

And on the chair stood next to me
A little boy his dad to see
Now wet the razor scrape the skin
From neck to jaw from ear to chin

This morning though I’m all alone
The boy’s grown up and left our home
But when I look into the glass
I never let the moment pass

I see three faces not just mine
Young shavers standing in a line
Across the years and out of time.


The featured image is of my father, Brian, with me and my sister, Joanne, I think on holiday at Swanage, Dorset, in the early 1960s. Clearly the photograph was taken (by my mum I’m guessing) well before I started shaving. But sadly I don’t have anything other than mental images of the daily ritual that unites fathers and sons everywhere (or certainly those who aren’t bearded)!

Swift

First south and west, then north and east, I quarter up the sky.
I’m watching for your sickle wings to scythe across my eye.

I look, I look, then look again and listen for your scream.
But bar the clap of pigeon wings there’s nothing to be seen.

The mewl of buzzards overhead, spirals on upward air.
An aerial feat, though quite a treat, no answer to my prayer.

And still they go unanswered though the grass is growing long.
And the swallows and the martins have joined the heavenly throng.

I love their eaves-hung mudhuts and their lineups on the wire.
But you dear swift, my feathered friend, you set my heart on fire.

So I look and look again for gracious airborne crescents.
Vesper flights in evening light please grace us with your presence.

And then you’re here and I thank god for sending you to me
Although I never crooked my neck the vicar’d church to see.

You are my priest of summertime. Your pulpit is the skies.
And when you leave and head back south a bit inside me dies.

The vane turns north, the wind is cold, your ministry I need.
My head swings south beyond the spire I’m wishing you Godspeed.


The modest spire of St Peter’s Church, Coreley, across the orchard from our Shropshire home inspires many of my equally modest scribbles. This poem was written for when the weathervane swings back to the south and heralds the return of one of my favourite birds.

We shall sight them on the beaches

They didn’t want to be fishers of men
Women and children first hauled from the sea
And laid out on the deck like a prize catch
Gently by hands that are roughened by salt
Calloused but not callous softened by salt
Tears that fall from the blinking eyes of men
With their own women and children ashore
Where with warm feet firmly on the dry ground
We catch “chuck ‘em back in” on the air waves
Crashing hopes and dreams into a fine sand
Which next summer we will make castles from
And stand watching the fishing boats set sail
Disciples of cod not fishers of men. 
Red hulls, blue skies, white cliffs. Gulls in the wake. 
Christ! More people flock to a stranded whale 
Than this half inflated greying carcass
A little ship of Dunkirk lifeboats then 
But now no Newhaven, no safe harbour
From wars that are not finest hours but yours
You fight them on your beaches. This is our 
Landing ground and we shall say that this was
Our coarsest hour. 


This is a work in progress. So forgive the rawness and the rough-around-the-edges anger. But I wanted to post it while the inspiration is still fresh in our minds and on our news bulletins.

Since I wrote this draft the first victim of the mass drowning in the English Channel/La Manche off Calais has been named as Maryam Nuri Mohamed Amin, a 24 year old Kurdish woman from northern Iraq. She was texting her fiancé in Manchester as the flimsy boat carrying her and 28 others began to sink. All but two perished.

Maryam Nuri Mohamed Amin

Biology with Mr Fisher

Lesson one: let nature be your teacher.
No scrape of chairs indoors, no blackboard chalk
For him. Classroom fields. An outdoor creature
Who smelled of earth and planted with his talk…

Elms. Galleons afloat the pasture seas
But scuttled by scolytus. Now un-helmed
Hulls, boreholed by the scurvy of disease,
Sink. Memory leaves where landscapes are un-elmed. 

Above the broken hulks the ravens croak
While ivy-anchored masts are felled and fall
Then flare in pyres whose embers spit and smoke
On sunflower heads inclined towards the pall.

To school, to chairs, to books, to bells, to learn. 
Through windows daydreams fly like birds and yearn.


I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Mr Fisher who taught me biology at Parkfields School, Toddington, in the early 1970s. My time there coincided with Dutch elm disease which ravaged the Bedfordshire countryside. He lamented the loss of these majestic landscape trees but turned arboreal tragedy to educational triumph by using it to explore nature in a way that has stuck with me ever since: up close and personal. Me and my classmates peeled bark to reveal the boreholes of the scolytus beetle larvae underneath. We examined the fungus the insect carried (the real killer) under microscopes. He sowed seeds in fertile young minds. Those seeds took root. There have been many fruits since. This poem is but the latest picking. Thank you Mr Fisher.

Dr. Mary Gilham Archive Project / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

An open letter to Strava

Dear Strava

I really like your app. I’ve been using it for many years now. In the early days and as an early adopter I even managed to be King of the Mountain once or twice. Or at least on those hillocks (that’s a better description) so far off the beaten track absolutely nobody else had heard of them, let alone ridden up them. Now I have to settle for Local Legend which again is easy to achieve when you live in the middle of nowhere. But that’s not why I’m writing. 

No, I’d like the boffins at Strava HQ to invent a new category of winner. Or perhaps I should say loser. I suggest you call it Local Bellend.

Local Bellend

Here’s how it’d work. Cyclists earn points for being polite, not just to one another but to other road users too, including pedestrians (no more seeing how far out of their skins you can make them jump) and horse riders (no more seeing how far you can make them fall). Say “hello” or “good morning” or “what a gorgeous day to be alive” or “coming through” and you’d get, say, 5 points per politeness. Okay, I appreciate it may be a bit tricky to design and will require accessing our ride computer or phone microphones. But, hey, if GCHQ and Google can eavesdrop on us why not Strava, eh Alexa? 

Now at the end of each week or month the cyclist with the fewest points would become the Local Bellend. One you wouldn’t want for your virtual trophy cabinet. But one I reckon there’d be stiff competition for.

I’ve been experimenting. When I go out on my state-of-the art, carbon-fibre, weighs-less-than-a-sparrow road bike, clad only in the most eye-wateringly expensive (and eye watering) stretch Lycra, fellow cyclists on similar bikes and in similar clothing say “hi” or, at the very least, raise their eyebrows slightly skywards (it strikes me it’s about the only part of their body they don’t shave or pluck). 

When I go out on my mountain bike wearing mud-spattered baggy shorts and a sweatshirt, the same cyclists treat me without so much as a wave. Fellow mountain bikers, however, don’t just wave, they do a bunny hop or a back flip or a forward roll. Like puppies pleased to see another puppy. 

Cyclism

A kind of cycling apartheid has emerged. Elitism might be a better word. What I call cyclism. And it’s got to stop. So calling out these cyclistes for what they are – Local Bellends – would be a good place to start. What do these guys (and it is manly guys I’ve found) call their rides when they get home? Misery guts? Bah humbug? Stop the world I want to get off? I’ll have to update You Can See the Dags to accommodate.

I guess it might take a few weeks for you to update the Strava app. In the meantime I urge polite cyclists everywhere to do what I do when confronted with a rude one. Call out (under your breath if they look bigger and faster than you) “Bellend!” Makes me feel better anyway.


You can read my other cycling-related posts here (if you’ve got nothing better to do – like go for an actual ride).

We Are Cycling UK
British Horse Society

Little Rocket Man

A lot has been made of Jeff Bezos’s short jaunt into space: whether he might have spent his money more wisely; as world leaders gather for COP26 what impact his venture might be causing the environment; even what constitutes “outer space” given that he barely crossed the Karman line (the not universally-recognised end of the Earth’s atmosphere); and that 60 years earlier – the year of my birth and hence my interest in these things – the Soviet cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, went three times further in Vostok 1. So I’ve been doing some maths.

Now maths wasn’t my strong subject at school (I famously resat my maths A level having gained a D first time round and subsequently got a U which is why I’m a journalist and not a rocket scientist)! What I’m saying is please do check my working out and tell me if I’m wrong. But if I’m right then…

Given that astronauts have been to the moon and back I decided to use the distance to the moon from Earth as my reference point. That’s 384,400 km give or take. Bezos’s New Shepherd capsule reached an apogee (maximum height) of 106 km. Dividing 106 by 384,400 and multiplying the result by 100 gives you the percentage of the distance Bezos got to the moon – a meagre 0.0275754% of the way.

Of course, it’s hard to imagine such a tiny percentage of such an incredibly long journey so I looked for an equivalent here on earth and settled on London to Leeds at 272 km as the crow flies. And here’s the stunning part. In comparison to the Apollo moon shots, Mr Amazon’s space flight was the equivalent of setting off for Leeds from Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square and getting no further than the north side of the square – just 75 metres – before turning round and coming back!

A bit more maths for you to check: I’m told he’s spent US $5.5 billion on the Blue Origin venture so far which means, in effect, that each of those 75 steps towards the National Portrait Gallery will have cost him an eye-watering US $73.3 million. Cheaper to walk Jeff. And better for the planet.


Image credit: Chuck Bigger/SpaceNews

Juji

Juji is a mynah bird. Caught up in the evacuation of Kabul along with a young Afghan girl and carried to freedom in a cardboard box, this is quite simply the most moving and beautiful story you’ll hear for a long time. Please do listen.

Credit: BBC Radio 4 Today programme

Photo credit: Xavier Chatel

Night farming

Furrows the Plough ‘cross the field of night.
Bellows Canis at the owls out of sight.
Callow Orion unbelted his might,
Shallow-breathed Virgo sowed without fight.

Sorrows the brow, Cassiopeia the queen.
Mellow the music of Lyra, unseen.
Hero Perseus his sword broad and keen.
Hallow’d Aquila surveying the scene.

Meadows by daytime all scattered with red.
Billow the poppies no sign of the dead.
Fallow the ground it was all in my head.
Fallow the woman beside me in bed.

Footprints in the snow

Eastern ashes astir aglow
As new moon lips mouth morning’s breeze
The arc then melts like springtime snow
Unshackling Earth from night-time's freeze.
Nocturnal creatures can’t be caught
By hieroglyphs to leaf-lined lairs 
Their secrets safe in shadows short
Billowing steam in sunbeam snares.
By eve the hearth coals shrink and cool
What was blunt is keen to sharpen
Penumbra from the blacksmiths tool
Hammer gripped and sinews stiffen.
The western foundry’s gutt’ring flame
Is sparking stars for night again.

At night the stars leave tracks in the sky and animals leave tracks on the ground. By day they disappear. Only to reappear as the sun sets and the moon rises. This poem was written as an exercise in sonnet form (ABABCDCDEFEFGG). According to convention each line ought to have ten syllables (the five “boom BOOM” heartbeats of iambic pentameter). This has only eight per line (the 2 x 4 of iambic tetrameter). I’ll let you, the reader, decide whether this disqualifies the piece as a sonnet.