Archive for August, 2014


An exceptionally sunny, cloudless day

has packed Benllech Beach at low water

with hundreds of gaudy strangers. Meanwhile,

the pomp begins and ‘sacrifice’ is talked of

as if the lambs themselves had chosen it.


On the clear horizon, container ships

and oil tankers are hoved to, waiting

for high water so they can safely clear

the Liverpool Bar – a compacted sandbank –

something I have seen many times but

only now recall a great grand father,

retired from sailing ‘coffin ships’ to Boston,

was captain of the Bar lightship. He died

before the century turned so never saw

his oldest son earn his Master’s Ticket

nor learn he had chosen to go down

with his ship, torpedoed off Cape Verde.


As the waters rise the fainthearted leave.

The inexorable ships steer east.

The day will end with Sir Edward Grey’s

metaphor of the lamps made fatuous.




, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

No Comments


They kept their medals in a brass box – Bill James,

wounded at Mons, where defeat was clutched

from the jaws of victory, and his stepsons, George and Tom,

gassed at Ypres, where victory followed defeat followed

victory followed defeat, nose to tail, like elephants.


The box was a 1914 Christmas ‘gift from the nation’,

inspired though not funded by Princess Mary

Saxe-Coburg und Gotha.


They died before I was old enough to ask. Anyway

they had volunteered – and theirs were reserved generations.


One night in ‘64, fifty years on, outside the Philharmonic pub

on Hope Street, a slightly oiled and tearful veteran approached.

‘You’re an educated man. Why did they give us a jigger of rum

every time we went over the top? Tell me that!’

‘You know why – now,’ I said, and he laughed.




, , , , , , , , , , , ,



Each Armistice Day, she remembered it.
A walk along the riverbank. Her teacher took them –
one Saturday when the hawthorn was out
and the river slow after weeks of sun –
her and three of the other older girls.
Miss Davies’ young man came too –
in his uniform, on leave from the front.

When they all rested in the shade of a willow,
he unwrapped a large bar of chocolate
slowly, looking away, or pretending to,
across the river.  Suddenly he turned.
‘Voila!’, he said, holding it out to them.
‘Pour vous. From plucky little Belgium.’

Miss Davies and her young man went and sat
at the river’s edge, their heads almost touching.
Two of her friends began whispering – another
pursed her lips and kissed the air. The others giggled.
She lay back – and squinted at the sun through the branches.
‘Look’, said one of the girls. The soldier was pretending
to dip the toe of his boot in the water.
Miss Davies laughed.

On the way back, ‘Listen’, he said, and they stopped.
On the dappled path, blocking their way,
a song thrush was striking a snail on a stone
again and again and again.



Note: the poem was one of the first pieces to be published on the site in April 2009  and has been subsequently published in ‘A Jar of Sticklebacks’ –







, , , , , , , , , , , , ,



The Last Absolution of the Munsters at Rue Du Bois, by Fortunino Mattania, depicts an event which took place on 8th May 1915, near Neuve Chapelle.

The push for Aubers Ridge had been postponed

because of rain. But the Saturday

was dry and sunny. Going up the line

in the early evening, the battalion

stood easy at the shrine to Our Lady.

‘…in remissionem peccatorum…’

By noon, next day, nearly half were dead,

caught on the German wire Haig’s ill equipped

artillery had, once more, failed to cut.


In Mazingarbe, an industrial town

ten miles south, the British commandeered

the abattoir. The first to be shot at dawn

was a Munster regular from Cork.

‘…in nomine Patris…’



Note: The poem was first published on the site in November 2012.




, , , , , , , , , ,



The Allies were waiting to go over the top

to attack a weak enemy position.

The British used gas for the first time.

Unfortunately, after a half an hour,

the wind changed and it all blew back

over the King’s Own Scottish Borderers.

Unsurprisingly, the men were distressed.

Lieutenant Young called out, “Pipe them together,

Laidlaw, for God’s sake, pipe them together.”

And the forty year old veteran climbed

the ladder, tuned his pipes and marched back and fore

along the parapet, playing first

‘The Blue Bonnets O’er The Border’ – about

Bonnie Prince Charlie’s invasion of England –

and then ‘The Standard On The Braes O’Mar’ –

about the raising of the Jacobite flag.

He marched until shrapnel in his leg downed him

then, sitting, played on. And the laddies were

‘piped together’ and went over the top.

They were almost immediately

in enfilade from the German gunners

in an abandoned factory. Nothing

was achieved. No ground was gained or lost.

Piper Laidlaw VC died nearly eighty

and was buried in an unmarked grave.


This almanac of ironies is truly

beyond satire for something in this story –

and the paintings, photographs, footage

of other Pipe Majors playing the pibroch

on other parapets, in No-Man’s-Land –

moves to tears not laughter: certainly

the music – the chanter and the drone –

the selflessness, of course, and, perhaps,

the conviction that their history

and their traditions would transcend misfortune.




, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

No Comments