He didn’t have anywhere in particular to go. No time to be anywhere in particular. So he walked. Walked past the chain stores in the centre of town. Past the charity shops in the gaps. Past the empty shops on the outskirts. For rent. For sale. For nothing. And on. And on. On into the suburbs. Past neat gardens. Past overgrown gardens. Out. On. Past open curtains. Past windows framing flicker blue screens. Daytime television. The curl of a cat on a sofa. A dog by slippered feet. Outwards. Onwards. To where the city hadn’t yet ended but where the countryside hadn’t yet begun. Field. House. House field. Cows and cars. Not just cows. His pace slowed. His heart stilled. Granite gave way to green. He glanced back. And shivered.
I’m woken by the Dawn Chorus. Not yet the full orchestra. A solitary blackbird playing oboe (chirping is too unrefined a word for it) from the uppermost branch of the wind-stooped apple tree and the dot-dot-dot-dash-dash refrain of a wood pigeon playing Morse code in the rhythm section where the telephone wire arcs up to meet the pole: that tar-barked tree which a bar later reverberates to the staccato beat of a woodpecker tapping up breakfast or test drilling for a new housing development.
I’m up now. Watching as well as listening. A cock pheasant is picking his way across the silvery field like a cross-dressing party goer in high heels. Not wanting to get his feet wet and weaving a snail trail across the dew. All burgundy and wine bottle green with neck curved up and tail curved down. A tipsy tightrope walker turned through 90 degrees.
The hen bird is dowdy by comparison. Brown but not mousey. Making her way up the hedgeline from the stream with an arthiritic strut. More Max Wall than Max Factor.
They’re on a collision course these birds of a feather. Choreographed perhaps? (It’s not just the sap that’s rising). A dance set to music. But if it is, he doesn’t know the moves and she rises entrechat* in a crescendo of ruffled pride. Her alarm muffled like an overwound clockwork toy heard through a blanket. And for a moment the chorus is quietened.
*Entrechat (pronounced: ahn-truh-shah’) is a ballet term which means to jump in the air from two feet – beat the legs together in the air, land either on one or two feet.
I’m sitting face to the sun like a Spring flower listening to the sounds of south Shropshire. A wedge of cold air – a thin blue arrow at the horizon and as tall as the stratosphere itself above my head – has lifted the rain clouds that earlier varnished the already sodden ground with wet snow: tears for the end of winter. Each thread unpicked from the aural rope that anchors me to this spot…
The bleat of sheep.
The breeze stirring the sky-scratching twigs of the black-tipped ash.
The clap of the pigeon’s wings.
The laughter of the raven.
I lose count with the premature hoot of an owl woken from its roost perhaps by the gust of wind that’s dizzied the weathervane and spun the blue sky black.
Winter, for now, has returned. And the sound-deadening snow – more flakes than tears this time round – has ravelled the notes back into one soft symphony.
There was three things in Civvy Street wot gave me untold pleasure,
Me Boston cut, me Windsor knot, and me creepers made to measure.
On me first day in the Army, though, they gives me quite a scare,
For a moosh they calls the Provost Sarge nabs me crossing square,
Shouts ‘e in voice so loud and clear it rends the morning air:
“Oi, soldier. ‘Ere. Double, lad. Wot yer doin’ wiv all that there?”
Says I to ‘im in tone of slow deliberation:
“I’ve got a permit from the Spivs’ Association.”
At that he laughed, he didn’t even ask to see me card,
Just “Wochyersel. For you, my son, I’ll make things mighty ‘ard.”
Then round to Regimental Barber, he plonks me in the chair.
And in a jiff I’d lorst me quiff and all me wavy ‘air.
But that weren’t all I was to lose,
For next they whips me lovely shoes.
It ‘appened when I’d been a soldier almost for a week,
And wiv all the ruddy marchin’, corns was coming on me feet.
So up I nips to Barrack Room, pulls orf each boot wiv glee,
And swops ‘em for me creepers and yeller socks, yer see.
’Twas at that fateful moment that the Corp comes to me bed space,
He looks me up, he looks me dahn, Gawd! You oughter ‘av seen ’is face.
‘im bein’ a National Serviceman I thought he was a sport.
Gern! Took ‘im 15 seconds dead to place me on report.
Next day he marches me – no ‘at or belt – before the blinkin’ beak.
LEFT-RIGHT, LEFT-RIGHT, MARK-TIME and HALT, so quick I ‘ad no time to speak.
Said Corp ”I’ve charged ‘im under Section 40.”
Said Major “You are very, very naughty;
I fear you can’t do this with me’ and gave me seven days’ CB.
Then added as an afterthought, “Spiv’s shoes in camp you will not sport.”
Well, wiv that you’d think I’d ‘ad me lot,
But arf a mo, I’ve yet to tell yer ‘ow I lorst me knot.
On the Friday after finishing orf me seven days’ confined,
CO decided he’d inspect (wot a blasted bind).
Ah well, says I, feelin’ me crop, the ol’ man won’t catch me,
Me boots was bulled so ‘ighly me reflection I could see.
On the day of the inspection I ‘eld my ‘ead up ‘igh,
Smartest soldier on parade without word of a lie.
When CO glanced dahn at me boots ‘e ‘ad to turn away,
The light it nearly blinded ‘im – reflection of sun’s ray.
I smirked wiv pride as CSM came up to whisper in me ear,
“A stripe wivout a doubt” thinks I, holding back a cheer.
Says he – “YOU CLUMSY, CROSS-EYED, STUPID, IDLE, IDIOTIC CLOT,
You’ve been and gorn and tied yerself a ?*=xx!? Windsor knot!”
My dad, Brian, gave me many things – not least a love of poetry. He was an inveterate scribbler. And he scribbled these lines whilst doing his National Service as a young man in the early 1950s. Brian was born in Finchley, North London so the words are best read in a “Lahndon” accent.
Picture credit: Imperial War Museum.
“This train is for Cardiff Central.”
Blokes in ones and girls in twos.
Some in boots and some in shoes.
“All tickets please.”
Punk with nose ring. Ginger hair.
Babe in arms. Collapsed pushchair.
“The next station is Stockport.”
Kids with phones. Teachers with papers.
Both reflecting that day’s capers.
“He was like in capital letters SCREAMING at me.”
A wondrous landscape sliding by.
Look out the window: azure sky.
“Yes he’s been working hard that boy.”
Substituting sylvan March of green
With a silvery iPhone screen.
“Hang on I can’t hear you.”
3G. 4G. Two bars. One.
Battery dead. Or signal gone.
“We will shortly be arriving at Crewe.”
Lunch unpacked from ice cream carton.
Tattooed roses in white flesh garden.
“She’s been snapping at everyone.”
Shirts. And socks. Shorts. And blouses.
Trolley tea. Then terraced houses.
“I’ll have to check with Christine.”
Lives wide open. Windows closed.
Our hopes and fears and thoughts exposed.
“She was proper fit I can tell you.”
Too loud the sinner and the sinned.
All caution thrown into the wind.
“The next stop is Ludlow.”
The man looks up. Sees his reflection.
Shit he says there’s no connection.
This poem was inspired in general by a journey on the Arriva Wales train service from Manchester to Ludlow and in particular by the girl with the tattooed thighs. The words in quote marks are either overheard snatches of mobile phone conversations or announcements made over the tannoy. Both are reported verbatim.
His work hangs on the gallery wall.
We hear its buzz.
We’re in its thrall.
Each piece still humming with the thrum.
As strong as when the work was done.
That clay was soft and took the mould
Of artist’s hands and brush strokes bold
Laid down their layers one by one
Upon the canvas taut as drum.
And so lives on the artist tutor.
Who has a past as well a future.
Whose work transcends the passing years
Through others’ eyes and hands and ears.
We hear the echo loud and clear.
The artist lives! Ne’er shed a tear.
These words came to me after attending a preview of the Man and Light exhibition running at Gallery 131 on Corve Street in Ludlow until March 19th. The exhibition celebrates the work of the Midlands artist Arthur Berridge (1902 – 1957). Opening it the sculptor Stephen Cox RA explained how Berridge was underrated – both as an artist and as a teacher. It struck me then that echoes of the creative compulsion that drives artists like Berridge and Cox reverberate indefinitely: directly through their work (and more loudly when many works are brought together in one place); and indirectly through the work of others they’ve taught.
I heard these echoes and wrote them down.
Now as the dusk is drawing in
Around these weathered cottage walls
The birds sing out an evening hymn
Their last before the darkness falls
And carried on a gentle breeze
Which shimmers through the grass and trees
A haunting curlew calls.
Farmland and hills soon disappear
Shrouded beneath the cloak of night
And Springtime flowers held so dear
Are safely hidden from our sight
By day the golden tulip blooms
Reflect the warmth within these rooms
Now bathed in candlelight.
Comforting chair by fireside glow
When daylight struggles once more cease
Thoughts that surround us ebb and flow
More mellow as the flames increase
The fiery dance directs our gaze
Enveloped in the tender blaze
We find refreshing peace.
This Shropshire home is sleeping now
Beneath a starry, jewelled sky
While somewhere on a moonlit bough
A lone owl hoots his lullaby
And lying still we long to hear
Piercing the darkness plain and clear
Another bird’s reply.
I’ve only just rediscovered these wonderful lines. They were composed after the poet stayed at Crosshands with her family a few years ago. Written in a neat hand on a scrap of A4 they’d been tucked inside a book for safe keeping. And that’s where they might have stayed if I hadn’t been leafing through the book (by Clive James) for some inspiration. I hope you’ll agree it’s a cracking poem. And I like to think the Aussie wordsmith wouldn’t have minded keeping it safe all this time. But then I’m biased. The poet is my sister. Proving that our father, Brian’s, love of words rubbed off on both of us. Thank you Joanne, thank you Clive and thank you, most of all, dad.
I whisper je t’aime.
You shout hate.
I hold hands.
You hack them off.
The stain on my tablecloth is wine.
Yours is blood.
I bare my throat for a kiss.
Not a knife.
Strap children to my chest.
Once we were at war.
We cut off your fingers.
Saluted you with ours
Where I’ve loved.
And been loved.
Walked along your river.
Climbed your tower.
Sipped your Champagne.
Dipped in your river
Ogled your cancan girls.
Haggled for your Impressionists
Winter may be bitter.
But Spring will return.
He’d forgotten how to listen. To still his knotted mind until the sounds untangled. Untied one by one from the thrum.
Registered. Identified. Appreciated.
More, much more than mechanical.
No eardrum beat alone. But notes in a symphony. The orchestra all around. Violin, horn, oboe. Dunlin, dawn, crow.
As he listened each sound got louder. Or rather expanded. Until it filled the concert hall of his mind. All other thoughts displaced. The frantic rhythm paced.
He started to cry. Or it started to rain. Perhaps it was both. Tambourine drops rattling the leaf litter at his feet.
Slowly, quietly. Adagio, pianissimo.
Louder, faster, Più forte, accelerando.
Dampened, dying. Smorzando.
Is a sound unheard a sound at all, he wondered?
And in that moment remembered how to listen.
Butterfly wing tip
Kaleidoscope fragment of
A summer now past