Archive for January, 2016

BRITISH VALUES

Within furlongs of the refinery,
the car show rooms and the retail park
are Viking colonies – for fish and farm
in the rich, marshy land on the south bank
of the estuary, where the river’s
current made a wide, shallow pool before
the mammoths and the sabre-toothed tigers left.
Some of the hamlets are part of the town –
others are down haphazard hedgerow lanes.
Upstream the sugar ships docked, the slavers sailed.
In the town, on the railings of the nascent
mosque erstwhile Wesleyan chapel, beneath
high rise flats, a pig’s head is skewered
a couple of streets from the nearest food bank.
Under the wide arcades of the retail park
women in burqas stroll.

 

 

 

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THE LEGACY OF THE CLERKS

The most senior staff had their offices
at one corner of the building, stacked
one above the other. From their desks,
through one of their three sets of long windows,
they could watch the tidal river’s ebb and flow
and the decline of the salmon. If they stood
at another they could see upstream
to the medieval sandstone bridge – the river
susurrating beneath its arches –
and, beyond, the meadows prone to flooding.

Like most county halls it was an empty
rectangle. Of those with their own offices –
our names and titles plated to the doors
and all, but the most senior, with only
one set of windows – location was all.
A view outwards – even if it were only
the canyon-like yard where the prison vans
debouched – indicated rank. On balance,
we did more good than harm. Things worked:
schools were opened and closed; bridges made safe;
fires attended; streets kept orderly.
We were an embankment to stem havoc.

Though the ubiquitous tea trolley wheeled
through the corridors of power promptly
at 11.00 and 3.00 was a leveller,
my office faced inwards to white tiled walls.
The room had a piece – the last extant, old hands
claimed – of the former Chief Clerk’s carpet:
yellow, sixties, a ‘contemporary’ design
with fussy circles and curlicues
perhaps belying, on the reverse,
the Free Mason’s chessboard. I never looked.

Through my window I could see the tent of sky
criss-crossed by skeins of gulls and flights of pigeons.
I would imagine the heaving waters
from the mountains curbed by the ancient weir
above the bridge – and, on a branch wrenched
in some forgotten storm and caught on the weir,
a cormorant waiting.

 

 

 

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ODYSSEUS

This is the hardest month. Five days ago
clouds, as big as ships, in a blue sky blew fast
southwards. Next day there was an icy fog
that had silvered the lichen on the copse.
The sun had caught it. As the light rose the fog
dispersed and, through the damaged branches,
a church tower appeared – high, square, gothic.

Three days ago I crossed the motorway.
(I had entered the wrecked services first
to collect bottled water and oat bars).
A jack-knifed artic was still smouldering.
I looked away from the cars, the still figures.

The following day, I took to the canal.
The towpath was clear but the drying bed
was beginning to smell of diesel.

Yesterday, I walked the old toll road
towards the mountains. At first, its emptiness
pleased me. But I heard shouting somewhere close
then an engine catch and die. Last night I dreamt
of sheep high on the sides of the wide valley.

As I scale the last quarter of a mile
to safety, I cross to the narrow stream
falling near me. I dip my fingers.
The water is pristine. I mount the ridge
as snow begins to fall – but there is the lake
and sheep still grazing at its verdant margins.
I hear crows and see their blackness vague now
in the white against the sheer crags – then a blurred
orange. I focus the binoculars.
A climber, neck broken, long hair loose is
swinging in her harness…

 

 

 

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CROW CASTLE

Something – among the sparse, medieval ruins
silhouetted against a powder blue sky –
is catching the sun intermittently.
Something, at the top of the steep hill – from here
by the town’s tumultuous rapids
more than a mile away – large enough
to flash in daylight like a lighthouse beacon.
A figure appears then two – small sticks
among the stones – and the light has shifted
from the stark gatehouse to the empty keep.
It shines steady and bright as a prying star –
then sun, wind, whim change and there is nothing.

Perhaps it was a weather balloon fallen
on the crags, forecasting all but its own
demise. We climbed there – we three –
more than thirty years ago and saw
the summer valleys oozing sea green,
the layers and layers of limestone cliffs.
Maybe we will climb it again – with a fourth
and fifth. Who would have predicted the light
twinkling so like a star!

 

 

 

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ORACLE

In Funky Town – where small children govern
among the brightly coloured soft play kit
that is piled high in this former warehouse
and their cheerful, rumbustious music plays,
where they act with artistry and disdain,
form intense friendships that last a morning
and are comforted with varied ice creams,
and where assorted multi-cultural,
inter-generational adults,
snack on americanos with cold milk,
builders’ tea, apple crisps and burgers
with brioche buns and caramelised onions,
and by each table there are children’s shoes
and the occasional grown-up’s – a tv,
above the café counter, shows wide screen,
muted, sub-titled 24/7 news.

Unremarked by the innocents but noted
by their guardians then relegated
to somewhere darker, Auschwitz appears
with its many neat hectares of industry,
its pyramids – shut spectacles, emptied
suitcases, shoes.

 

 

 

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