It’s only in towns like this –
with unpeopled streets, February-gaunt,
under dusk hugging sleet;
built for function, no display to taunt
us with glamour and wealth,
modest, shops shyly in wait
behind small windows and narrow frontages
waiting to serve needs
stimulated by the land’s labour;
untouched by the lustre of greatness
or the lust for consumption –
it’s only in towns like this
that we must face our ignorance,
our not knowing of the town’s truths.
We can dig down a little,
to where neighbour acts on
uncollected milk, or to
where ladders are held steady
in Autumn winds.
But truths of grief, joy and love,
the ambivalences of mutual
dependence, the driving forces
of creation, these remain hidden
behind narrow streets and rough faced walls.
The roads tiptoe across the rock-studded
land, tripping between dark pools and peat-scrapes.
They’re like tourists in an ancient culture –
a surface noise that slips across the truth
of the island where always the wind is king.
Homes hunker down trying not to be seen
by the shrieking rage of regal vengeance
once it has wiped the fixed grin of Summer
from its fury. It yearns to scour the earth,
to scrub it until the old bare sculpted
rock shines new and clean in the Winter cold.
Only the patterns of lichen as friends,
the wind wraps its solitude in wildness
and hurls the rain at shivering heartbeats.
Like a silted puddle in a derelict
Scrapyard, I lie undisturbed by striving.
Behind me stands a grave of industry
Scarring the mountainside.
Before, the growl of restlessness
Sweeping by on its concrete stilts.
This town is a cemetery –
Old chapels slump open mouthed
Gaping monuments to lost modesty –
Shops bleed unwanted mail
In their bankruptcy –
No curtains twitch –
No laughter echoes –
The sea rolls against the unkempt shore
Beyond the piss-stained underpass.
God it seems has retreated
To the road to the hills,
To take rest behind walls
Of stone in lovingly tended
Gardens, where birds sing their songs
Where the fox ambles through my dreams.
The house on the rock
The house on the rock shows no defiance
In its lone stance between harbour and sea.
It leans respectfully to the waters,
Thick clad as a fortress, but defensive
And protective of a quiet courage.
It turns its eye from the strolling tourists,
The commercial trading of the sea’s harvest,
The signs of decay on the fenced off pier
And the lure of retail entertainments.
Its gaze is only for the changing lights
Of the Forth, the distant glint of Bass Rock,
The surge of adventure in the rolling
Gait of the boats, and the city’s night glow
Far off in the south west, another world.
At the heart of the quiet valley, pine clad
And aromatic, shielded from the turmoil
Of a war fuelled scramble for advantage,
The monks scraped and painted their shrine
As they reached for something that would approach the eternal.
A light spirit breathed, rain drops refreshed
And conjured scents from the terraced gardens;
The return of sunlight charmed the pilgrims
(If that we were) and warmed our stroll
From the filmic guardians into the cloistered spaces.
To all sides there was that that was foreign, strange.
The shadowy monastic bearded presences
Who were still making their distinctive yet elusive
Impact on a fleeing world, shuffled
And were barely seen by the enchanted strollers.
In the sombrely rich ikons echoed
The dark modalities that found expression
In the liturgical chants of the Orthodox Mass.
In these ancient drones, hypnotic and timeless,
From this distance I caught the timbre of my father.
From the scholarly Greek intonations, in their public
Declamation and their promise of a studied wisdom
Could be heard the constrained music that I find
In my memories of what moved my father’s spirit –
A John stirred by the rhythm of the Word.
Here, on the edge of home
Cold blasts clatter
Whine and whistle through the ropes,
The rigging that line the harbour.
This night we can stagger
But smile as our painted facades
Are whipped by these bitter
Emissions of ice.
This is a place of rest;
Round shouldered men
Follow dogs to the sea’s call
Accepting the given routine.
Above though, in the winds,
A grim struggle for survival
Is hymned by the sad mew
Of the fading buzzards.
Now, it is the kites who rule.
Borne by Nature’s
Inexorable tides, surfing
The wild waves of history
With a confident turn
Of tail feathers. They lift our eyes
From the mud sodden tracks,
And the kiss of brambles.
Beauty in this hinterland
Lacks the glamour
Of wilder lands, its cliffs
As pit workings, as demolished
Ruins, its beaches lined
With plastic, and tumbling stones grey,
Industrial, dust clad
Unwashed by the brown sea.
No more the boat builder’s hammer,
No coal on the quayside,
No song of the railway.
Glory in this land is found
Through faced stones and cobbled
Yards, and in the smell of the winds
Briny, robust, spray soaked.
Where the work was born,
Where calloused hands had been,
The town had been scrubbed clean;
The timbers shaped and sawn.
No workplace waste remained
Tidied all away,
Streets polished and unstained,
A ‘Guest room’ on Sunday.
Caught between life and sea,
A still beauty hung
In silence, telling me
“Gone’s the time to be young.”
Youth took its place elsewhere
Bustling and unkempt
Viewing tourists’ stare
With ill concealed contempt.
Grave though it may have been,
It was thus displayed,
Pretty and pristine
A fitting serenade.
A Day in the Malverns
The road to the roof of Worcestershire
Rises from a place of preservation,
Its metalled surface extending
The idea of comfort and security
To the idea of wilderness.
Behind us, the mothballed propriety
Slipped out of our minds, as the icy
Winds scorched our cheeks
And legs protested at the strain
Of the climb to the summit cairn.
There was a front and back to the landscape –
The south facing slopes open to such warmth
As could be gleaned from the Winter sun,
The north, shaded like back yards,frozen
And friendless – a place to tread carefully.
Sounds denoted movement – the rumble
Of trains, the passing conversations;
Shadows stretched their limbs over the hillsides
Giving shape where there had been texture,
And the sun could draw our eyes to the sky.
An inside and outside too – there, outside,
The clear light brought the Forest of Dean,
The Wrekin, Hay Bluff, and the Cotswold hills
Into one connected image
In frozen stillness beneath the wind’s whip.
Inside the view, memories stirred – of youth
Spring and romance – of Elgar’s glorious
Celebration of England – images
Of naive hope, of the freedom to fly
With the skylarks above all troubles.
First Impressions of Provence
For all the starlit names; St Tropez, Cannes,
Monte Carlo – this land is full of ghosts
Amongst whom Hercule Poirot seemed the most real.
Our train was blue, certainly; compartments
Though were suited to unshaven students,
Brown, dusty, crowded, untouched by service;
Nice station was hemmed in, penned by roadworks,
Interior design marked by fatigue.
The life of glamour has moved to airports,
Private rooms and choreographed ‘public’
Moments corralled by journalists’ lenses.
Towards the hills, the glittering past finds
A surer life in the colours Cezanne
Recorded, scrupulously it seems, bark
Dabbed by red grey and brown in dappled shade.
This contrasts two exhibitions, one of paintings from an earlier era and the second of contemporary art. You will see I wear my prejudices on my sleeve!
Newlyn and Penzance
An exhibition in Penlac House Oct 2006
Here were observers, students and craftsmen
Seeking to make a living from their art
But without grandiose expectation.
They came to learn rather than to display
And their vision drew charm from an old face,
New colours from the rocks, worth from sickness,
And dignity from drudgery. They served
The grandeur that surrounded them, and so
Led us towards it.
In another room
The egotists displayed their brilliance.
Stark originality, a boldness
Of line and colour, their personal take
On expressiveness, their self confident
Desire to change ways of seeing are thrown
In our faces, pushing aside the old
Domesticities and indifferent
To the quiet humanity shared below.
Theirs is international ambition
But it seems cold, cosseted, evasive,
Comfort and privilege with a cloak of
Sensitivity, and disengaged from
The truths which are imperfect and human.
Is it only in a land of such quiet
Poverty, with a past of marginal
Significance to this glittering age,
That this dark modernism could be built?
Men here accepted the bad bargains
Necessary for some kind of living –
The death dealing pit shafts and their lethal
Clouds of dust and gas; the wind swept waiting
In bitter cold for soups boiled from the bones
Of skinny sheep; the sea harvests garnered
In the teeth of gales, paid for with the drowned
Fathers and husbands. Where else to construct
The silent invisible source of heat
That must be interred for generations,
Poised on the brink of destruction, pulsing?
Where else to fashion a monstrous tower,
In defiance of the lyrical crags
Of the Lakes; in a two-fingered gesture
To the tree framed rapture of fold and fell
Stretching eastward, back turned to this squalor.
Clawing through memories, the tight enclosure
Of dark mill–walled childhood crawls out, its grip
Undiminished. The scoured moorland still frames
The grey smoke-charred stone; heads remain burrowed
Before the wind which dredges its furrow
Across brows, there long fixed and fossilised
By sermons of grim sin-filled salvation.
The wash of the new is pasty gruel;
Crags, stacks, ginnels grind deep paths into lives
Untouched by these liberated God-free
Spirits of earnest sensuality.
I wrote this just a few months after I retired:
The rain grizzled, the town sagged its shoulders
And gasped fitfully, sand blown and driven
Over the car park, up the artery
That brought steam driv’n money from the cities.
Alas! Those days of plenty are long gone;
Boarded windows, sales of desperation,
Gutters reclaimed by weed-filled shabbiness –
The town is mocked by mountainous grandeur,
With a trickle of elderly tourists
Looking for the picturesque in decay.
In this way is captured a kind of truth
About ‘retirement’; no neat rounding off,
But an untidiness, an emptiness.
The old purpose lingers erratically –
Sea front cafes with stained menus, gift shops
Low on stock but filled with a cold dampness;
An arcade caught between the slot machine
And the digital age; a tired hotel
Pebble dashed once in pink but scarred by salt
And turning a bleary eye on the sea.
At some point, there was a lurch to new hopes
A bizarre striving to give new force
To the town’s life blood, to keep death at bay;
A congregation of Buddhist gift shops
Aim for exotic creativity
But provide only a tacky balance
To the dreariness of empty cafes.
Only from the lonely wind sodden strand
Can the wrinkles and scars of old age be seen
In their true beauty, defiant, at home.
Llareggub in January
Death and delight dwelt in this town’s marrow
Feeding its blood with the life of pleasure
And bitter endings. Just one strand, the sands
The relentless sea, the sheltered harbour,
The freshly coloured, the jaunty houses,
The pleasure of release from drudgery,
The time to watch human absurdity.
Entwined, the broken livings, the empty
Cafes and closed shops, the sand buried chains
Connected only to garish plastic,
Snaking their message of redundancy
Beneath the holiday play of children.
Tired cliffs fell below careworn caravans
Grieved by neglect and routine, sea mud grey.
And the denial of death’s dominion
Was drowned by the drip, the drip drip of drink.
On Crosby Beach
The figures, sightless, stare through gales, careless
Of Winter’s blasts of loneliness and night’s
Grey spectres; vandals hold no fears, seagulls’
Demented cries arouse no ire. They stand
Inviting telling words and metre, rhythms
To give a sharp perspective, wisdom, truth
To Life’s odd mystery. They wait, expecting,
It seems. A silence circles, calling me.
Should we rebel against these fancy notions?
Life after all is found
Not in these arty statues’ wordless promise
But in a messier place,
Backdrop to sand and sea, where no-one sketches;
Statues may turn their backs –
Poetry does not spring from metals or from
The choice between refined aestheticism
And work-a–day communal life
Is my mistake; no exhibition here,
No place for looking on at art.
The statues are companions, also born
Of struggle; we together look
With disappointments at our back, with hope
Ahead in nature’s shifting seas.
Canterbury on a Cold February Day
The cathedral stood
As a gravestone to history
Boxed away, a no fire zone
Protecting the sepulchre
From the messy tussles of life.
We are intended
To imagine a quieter time
I suppose, with prayerful steps
Around the silent cloisters,
Footfalls, murmurs, the songs of birds.
But these dark cloisters
Were the centre, no retreating
Backwater; a working place
Full of business and intrigues,
A point of reference to the world.
The graves of bishops
Are memorials to worldly men;
Politics, struggles for power
Defining their daily round
Here inside the echoing stones.
And so the turnstile
Removes from me more than four pounds.
It isolates faith in God
From communal experience
And gives me access to ruins.
28th February 2004
The King and Queen
We approach rightly from below
Looked down on, by the couple
Whose royal gaze
Takes no account of the driving rain
Nor the human particularity
Of the attention
That I bring to this hillside court –
My escape from pain, my wonder
At the beauty of curves and hollows,
My sense of a loved father brought
To something eternal – Castleford
To the music of sculpted forms;
The same prosaic rootedness
Of the Yorkshire idiom, factual
But become a poetry through broad backs,
Curved shelters, sensuous bones.
All this the regal pair look through,
Above and beyond, yet bound together
By their role, needing each other
So as not to face alone
The unforgiving corrosion
Of time and the elements;
Fragile in their power,
A power not to change the world
But to survive tempest and scorching sun,
A survival with their human scale
That brings hope, a kind of meaning
A joy, etched in souls
As we stand drenched in the greyness.
This was written 18 years ago, before the sad theft of the sculptures in Glenkiln in Dumfriesshire in Scotland. The King and Queen of Henry Moore, I love. I always saw a bit of my Dad in Henry Moore – my Dad was born and brought up in a town just down the road from Castleford, Moore’s birth place and Moore spoke with the same rooted practical accent that my Dad had, but was able to chisel out lyricism and sensuality that was usually well hidden in my Dad.
The Long Mynd
So much of our character is formed
Out of parents’ quiet unhappiness.
They cried secretly; despaired alone; stormed
With rage; discovered their own cold hardness.
The yielding softness of our dreams remains
What we think brought us up. It had its place.
Perhaps we know this deep in our bones.
So we walk amidst the wild Long Mynd wastes
Where heather is charred, blasted by the groans
Of sweeping icy winds, where the sweet tastes
Of summer are driven from chapped lips, numbed
And silent before desolate expanse.
Yet the view is a nursery song, hummed
Quietly, a warm fire, a loving glance.
The mystery of suffering thus stains
Our lives with beauty, marks our hearts with grace.
Gliderau at Easter
The way is up to wilderness – snow sprinkled, moss moulded
Peopled with savagery – the desperation of survival
Etching its mark – on every mud kissed stone.
The only music here is the coarse seagull cry – barrenness is this world’s art.
There comes a domestication at Easter,
Walkers for whom the picturesque
Is formed from these muddy rocks;
Children introduced to a new thrill
By clambering up to a packaged
Wilderness, a controlled adventure
Bringing a background hum of laughter
Map scratching and view marking.
The truth is that we are just passers by – looking on, hoping
To remain outsiders, viewing desolation, a secular Calvary –
Looking towards colour and gentleness, and soured, afraid
When mists confine us to the grey deathscape that surrounds us.
Quicksilver Tourism at the Barrier Reef
Another postcard. Written just after visiting the Barrier Reef on a tourist trip. I obviously was in some ways disappointed and must have been expecting magic but I did find a sense that the reef was a practical living space for life! The experience has become a marker for me of the inadequacy of being a sightseer.
The Barrier Reef was not disappointing.
That feeling comes from when the day is over
And the passing of time is reductive –
Planned for months but reduced to the same span
As a day at the office.
The Barrier Reef was not disappointing.
Yet its grandeur did come in dull colours,
Not the dazzling postcard kaleidoscope.
It was not the grandeur of majestic
Structures visible from space.
The Barrier Reef was not disappointing.
It was harder to reach than expected
Hardly visible to the passing glance
But, once the head dipped below the surface
A living reality.
The Barrier Reef was not disappointing.
Its domesticity in greys and browns
Was home for life in all shapes and sizes,
Ancient and modern, interdependent,
February, Northumberland, a few years ago. The Roman camp lies above a river valley into which it seems destined to fall as erosion wears the hill away.
It was manicured, like the landscape,
Deep cleaned in the free sweep of rain
Across the pale openness; the shape
Of history buffed, scoured of the stain
That comes seeping through the pores of life.
The squareness sought to tame the waste lands,
Lines cut into hills with a knife
Wielded by earthy dreamless hands,
Bent to practical day to dayness,
Logistics engineered, a machine
Mindset. It may not have the finesse
Of dreaming, the life giving green
Of the artist whose eyes are lifted
To the breathtaking horizons
In the sunshine, whose spirits sifted
Their times for nobler pretensions.
Yet Nature’s immeasurable grind,
(The handfuls of wind-blown soil dispersed,
The insinuation of water
Into rocks whose destiny is cursed,
Doomed before erosion’s altar),
Pays no regard to machines or dreams;
Surveyor’s lines no soul will find
As ruins fall to shape the stream’s
Passage below; earth’s abstract beauty
Returns, with its story telling
Patterns, sculptured forms, all devoutly,
For vanity, their bells knelling.
On Gwithian Sands
As I stand on the beach, swept by cool winds
I look for an explanation
In rhythm rather than pattern.
Dispensing with the dimensions,
The history, the purpose and outcomes.
Blue glinting movement is lit from within,
The sands shine, the whole world is charged
By colour and light answering
The sun, in love with each other
Indifferent to man’s analysis.
For all the sumptuous visions of gold
And blue that dazzle and inspire,
The sea flows, changes, is alive;
And that is where the power lies.
I watch, stilled, alone, dry eyed and silent.
It can frighten with its unresisting
Absorption, an apparent lack
Of what seems an identity
That can be grasped, or fought against
Like chiselled granite, to reassure me.
But this is a shrunken view, limited
In scope, head bound and impotent;
Listen to the music, the beat;
Half close the eyes and glimpse rocking
The rise and fall; breathe in the wild perfume.
From Uluru to Surfer’s Paradise
Perhaps eight years ago, I went to Australia and did the usual package tour taking in Uluru and after the Barrier Reef on to Surfer’s Paradise. The apparent disconnection between these two places was bizarre, one still housing a relatively poor community with a culture springing from a reverence for their landscape and the other housing a rich conspicuously consuming people who saw the landscape as being there to be used and dominated. When I wrote this I must have had an idea about there being something in common (other than their presence on the standard tourist route). Looking now, I suspect that finding a connection was more a displaced distaste and anger about the conspicuous consumption of the brash east coast, and my idea seems unsatisfactory. Of course, one of the problems is that I belong to the brash consuming culture, however much I may dislike it. Still, I’ll launch this on to the airwaves……
The red mass glows with Aboriginal
Stories, carved, painted, dreamt on its face.
Shaded by echoing birdsong, quiet pools
And hushed murmurs from modern visitors.
Its glow is obvious; a replica
Of a thousand over-saturated
Postcard images, yet snapped to order
Still by regiments of brochure fodder.
But its warm curves, tender and nurturing
Can only be discovered through quiet strolls
In the shadow of its immensity
In privacy and a hushed reverence.
What strange connection links life in red dust
In the savage beauty of desert life,
With the raucous high rise man made display,
The motor fuelled adrenaline rush?
Here there are no dreams and no strange stories;
Nature is ridden, or buried beneath
Noise, glamour and driven recreation
In the brash theatre of self-absorption.
Yet, they both reveal our need to escape
Beyond the domestic and the humdrum
To some kind of drama, celebration,
Set against the vastness of sea and land.
Making friends with Gran Canaria
It took me a few days to warm to Gran Canaria.
Making Friends with Gran Canaria
Such gritty ugliness, a resistant landscape
Spits its protest against such progress
As men can imagine, to house refreshment
From life’s routine.
Bright coloured apartments sit above their shadow
Wasted lands piled with the defecated
Wire, plastic and rock dust, the mountain’s revenge.
Their peaks look down protected, sheltered
By heat’s soft haze.
Turn inland however; make friends with the awkward
Shapes, the scratchy untamed rock faces
Set against prettiness, determined to remain
As they are in their own way, alone
Not wanting love.
Then seeming barrenness assumes a new aspect.
Rustles of life stir in the scrub;
Wild hunting survivors soar overhead seeing
Every detail of movement below
In someone’s home.
A Postcard from Gran Canaria
Eight years ago, I had a holiday on Gran Canaria. It was my first visit to the Canaries which I had imagined as a white sandy paradise. Instead I found a rather ugly land defaced by cheap holiday developments. I wrote two postcards and this was the first when I was still struggling to like the place. I had walked from our villa into ‘countryside’ and found the start of another new holiday development dug out of the volcanic rocks. As I stood quietly, the rustles of lizards surrounded me and butterflies rose from the rough soil.
Gran Canaria – first ‘country’ walk
A voice crushed to a trickle inside rocks,
Imprisoned by brute volcanic rubble
Born of a dreadful alliance between
God and man; the men at home who shout with
Certainty, who build, repair, make money
Leaving unconsidered waste and trouble.
Here their plastic piping, concrete grey blocks
And shards of broken glass mingle with dark
Unformed hillsides that wait for the sculpting
Force of wind and water. Trackways mark out
The patterns of greed to come; alongside
Their rough stubble, haunting blocks graffiti
Painted show the insensibilities
That grow with this institutionalised
Island – a prison of escapees.
I dare not speak – I am too full of fear,
Waiting to be crushed by the loud voices
Of those whose world this is. Invisible
Seems a better option, one that is shared
With the darting lizards hiding behind
The same unlovely rocks and rubbled waste.
We can but dream of the airborne beauty
Of the drifting butterflies who outface
This ugliness without a word or sound.
A Shropshire Church
The silver light made a space for beauty
A coolness that allowed the domestic
History of this small parish to shine
Like a candle, so still, pure and silent.
This was the antidote to ambition,
The smallest living that could give no birth
To bishops; the irregular archways
A testimony to simple craftsmen
Who had no dreams of cathedral drama.
Here terror is confined to memory
Of child pilgrims transported to their death,
Or distant sounds of pheasants’ blind panic.
Here it is safe to be alone; nothing
To come between me, the place and our love.
Here in the cool shade, sheltered by arches,
Pillars giving a weightlessness
To the severe load of burdening prayers
Hard living and disciplined rules.
A span opens out and I feel pressure
Softening on my eyes, a breathing space,
To feel the soles of my feet firmly planted
On a cool patterned tile surface.
Here the shadows and wide spaces provide
A sanctuary to meet God
In humility, out of the judge-line
Of watching eyes, just as myself.
I have no wish to step into the glare
Of the courtyard to bake in heat,
Nor to be drawn to the brash Christian stage
In which public demonstration
And glittering sunlit gold sets the tone
Of more self satisfied grandeur.
The tourists seem drawn as moths to the flame
To flutter in this bright centre
Happier perhaps to escape the quieter
Encounter with our weaknesses,
With our simple poverty of spirit,
Our powerlessness and our need.
Fell Foot Park
There, it is lake
Unmistakeably so –
Expansive and open
To the games played
On its complacency.
There it is river
Its purpose stated
For all to see,
Directed and in dialogue
With the resisting banks.
Here it is neither –
Or both rather,
The inexorable drive
Below the posing surface.
It is the end of something –
And the start; at the mercy
Of a larger landscape,
But still caressed
By the waving reeds.
The birth in the thrill
Of mountain peaks,
Storms and the cry of ravens,
Is long forgotten.
To come is the mystery
Of immersion in the salt
Of endless seas,
That cannot be known.
The Lowry Centre
Stolid champion of everyman
Burrowed down in the solitude
He fashioned from abstract
Empty seas, and the tumult
Of the Masses pouring on to streets –
Urgent, active and going elsewhere.
He was never inside the factory,
Or on the football terraces –
He had vanished behind his brush,
Unmoved by anything outside
His line of sight, excepting
His bed ridden mother.
But now he was placed
In another ambiguity.
From celebrating a communal life
He stood outside, to being celebrated
In a modern space, designed
To sit beside the fashionable monied,
The celebrity makers,
The financially savvy –
All factories demolished here
And sports grounds a car ride away
But still shut away in a Northern
Backwater. We keep the magic
But lose the man.