Archive for October, 2013


In the auction room – once a Methodist Chapel –

on the Holyhead Road to Llangollen,

above the gorge the River Dee cut

before the last ice age, Lot 59

is an Arctic Fox: in the catalogue:–

‘A good example of Victorian

taxidermy, with some discolouring

of the tail. Circa 1845’.


That year, Franklin’s expedition left the Thames

to chart the North West Passage: lead poisoning,

learning nothing from the Inuit, ice

killed them all. Now, as the fast ice retreats,

year by year, and the pack ice diminishes

new expeditions weigh anchor in the sounds.

The deniers are drilling for gas and oil.


The fox, immortalised in winter pelage,

is about to pounce – on some imagined

vole or lemming beneath the fictive snow.




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The rising wald is auburn, the lake

so still swans seem painted and the hotel’s lawns

that last, lush green before October dies.

Breakfast is muted. Beyond service doors,

a wireless is switched on. Each swing utters

a broken voice. “Oh Mensch! Gieb Acht!…sorrow

is deep…but joy more profound than the heart’s

agony…” And most of the guests look up

towards sun on the woodlands, the war

and smile. But some, as yet only a few,

say to themselves, “The forces of love

are seduced in the marches of the will.

Under glittering waters is oblivion –

but not soon, please, not soon!”




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Turn one way and scores of Little Egrets

are roosting with complaining Carrion Crows

in aged ash trees. Turn half a circle and,

beyond the marsh, in Wales, Tata Steel thrums.

(Ironically, most of this is a built

environment. Canalising the Dee

silted the estuary, created marshland.

The RSPB has re-engineered

the wetlands, constructing pathways and hides

so we can see and preserve). Earlier

there was excitement – a solitary Jack Snipe

was twitched and a Glossy Ibis south west winds

had blown from southern Spain. Distantly,

wild fowlers were shooting at the marsh’s edge.


As we leave, an autumn sun is setting

behind the Halkyn mountain plateau

and skein after skein of Canada Geese

descend and descend on the gloaming meres,

raucously clacking, and we watch – enthralled

by this potentially pestilential breed –

until the light has gone.




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Along the avenue of shorn maples,

leaded lights are discreet – distantly,

the cathedral darkens in a rose sunset.

A piano lesson begins, as cars turn

into drives and a door opens broadcasting

the six o’clock news. At an upstairs

window, a woman holds a baby, sees

nothing in the crepuscular room, hears

only the snuffle of breath on her neck,

the small heart’s beat, the swaying lullaby –

amid ordinary, pink perspectives

of curbed greenery, herbaceous living

and bells telling the hours.




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On the manicured corniche between Elounda

and Plaka – before the balconied hotels

that rise up the mountainside tier by

expensive tier – is the Turkish Governor’s house,

abandoned for nearly a century.

We venture up the steep, pitted drive

but sudden howling from unseen dogs

deters. On the opposite side of the bay,

where only widows on donkeys go,

the shore is festooned with plastic bags

shredded by the tides and bleached by the sun.

The foundations of the antique city

of Olous shimmer beneath the water.


The French dug a canal, near the salt pans

the Venetians laid out, between the bay

and Mirabello Gulf. The Canal Bar,

ruined now – the owner’s wife died, his daughters

left to work in gift shops in Heraklion –

was popular with tourists, mostly Brits.

Elounda is populous with ex-pats.

Imperial Airways’ Short Brothers’

flying boats, en route from Southampton

to erstwhile Bombay, would refuel nearby

and passengers overnight at an hotel

in the town – among them Churchill, Ghandi.


From our table at Plaka’s Giorgos

Taverna, we are fanned by zephyrus airs

and see the deep blue of the bay and the isle

of Spinalonga – first a Venetian

then Ottoman fortress, then lazaret

(in effect, a leper prison) and now

a heritage site. Inmates sometimes

would swim for freedom across the bay.

The Werhmacht was stationed here. For sport,

soldiers would shoot, night or day, at fugitives.


We are eating grilled kefalos – mullet –

with aubergine au gratin and frites,

and drinking bottles of Mythos beer.

The couple at the next table are French. They are

treating their Spinalonga guide to lunch.

He speaks English. They do not. They ask us

if we speak French. We reply haltingly.

The young waiter, who is Albanian,

steps forward, deferentially. He informs us,

modestly, in the relevant languages –

that he speaks some English, French and Greek.

Emboldened by our immediate respect,

he tells us he is a first class graduate

of the modern language faculty

of the University of Tirana.

‘Balkans is no good now!’ he exclaims.

So exiles become polyglots. A youngish

Israeli family – father, mother,

twin girls – arrive. We hear the children’s

bubbling Hebrew while they all study

the menu outside. As they enter,

the waiter greets them in English. They respond.




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