Archive for January, 2017


Where the estuary suddenly narrows

and the river begins its slow bends

through the valley, white smoke is drifting

from a thicket of trees where egrets roost.

The birds are rising, like sudden flags

fluttered, bright cloths flung into the air,

their dry, rattling calls echoing

across the empty river just at its flow.


Above where the sage hills become lilac

mountains, beyond where the invaders

ever went, high on the summer pastures

with the sheep fattening for the valley,

the shepherd sleeps in a ruined cottage

and dreams of wild goats nobody counts.

He does not hear the shotgun’s blast nor breathe

the black smoke that gouts from the tumbled stones.


She saw the dark plume first then the yellow-white

scatter of the sheep then the lick of orange

and last the birds over the river

and the wisp of smoke drift as her boat dipped

and bucked against the now ebbing tide.

The thud of water kept her in ignorance

as the flags snapped at the stern. She steered

towards discovery and desolation.



Note: The title is taken from the last paragraph of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dedication to his friend, Charles Baxter, in the first edition of his novel, ‘Kidnapped’ –

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What marks it is not her correct usage

on a card, unprompted, of apostrophes,

nor that we can trust her now to cycle

undistracted – even by the ice cream van’s

heralded arrival – around the park,

though intermittently out of our sight

behind mighty limes and conifers,

but, sleeping over one night – her parents

working many, many miles away –

waking, coming down, preoccupied,

confessing oh so reluctantly

to ‘a bad thought’, a terrifying

what if, her parents’ death.




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Before it was the Everyman Theatre

it was Hope Hall Cinema – and bar –

frequented by Dooley, Henri, McGough,

the Liverpool Scene. I saw Jean Renoir’s

1939 black and white ‘La Règle

du Jeu’ – Chekhovian, dystopian

entre deux guerres – in what was an untouched

dissenters’ chapel four-square between

the two cathedrals on Hope Street.


It became a theatre known for new writing,

new music – all with a political edge

and with humour, thumbing the collective nose

to one rule, one game – and genuinely

original staging of classics: the Bard’s,

Brecht’s, Brighouse’s examination texts.

Coach loads of young people from Liverpool,

Lancashire, Wirral and Cheshire would watch

the likes of Julie Walters, Jonathan Pryce,

Antony Sher, Alison Steadman

perform at rapt matinees, their teachers

relaxed that all was as it should be,

that they would never forget that afternoon.


That group of boys had seen ‘Hobson’s Choice’

the year before and we prepared for

‘Julius Caesar’ even more thoroughly,

listening to the Argo recording –

with Richard Johnson as Mark Antony –

while following the text. At what point

the parallel plan began to take shape –

with such diligence and application,

such textual scholarship and retail research –

or what inspired it or whom, I never

had the humility or joy then to learn,

and now too many threads have been unravelled.


As Act Three began – ‘The ides of March are come’,

‘Ay Caesar but not gone’ – some of the boys

began to be restless. ‘You gentle Romans -‘

Alan Dossor, the Artistic Director,

as Mark Antony, began. ‘Friends, Romans,

countrymen, lend me your ears.’ I can still see

the pig’s ear arcing towards the stage,

hear the audience’s gasp. Dossor paused,

picked up the ear by its tip and tossed it

stage left to much applause.



Note: the poem was inspired by current developments at the theatre:




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To choose this as a classic Christmas card –

this composite landscape of Flanders,

Italy, the Alps, this Yuletide Europe – is

unintentional satire. The hunters

have caught just one fox. Even the hounds are hangdog.

Hunched the men trudge on past the tavern.

The sign is inscribed ‘Under the Stag’,

has an image of St Eustace, patron

of hunters, but hangs askew by one hook.

Beneath it a man, a woman and a child

are singeing a dead pig. The flames are reaching

a window of the inn. A solitary

magpie takes our view onto the plain:

the iced up mill wheel, indifferent skaters,

chimney on fire and tiny figures

running with pails; the walled town abutting

a frozen sea; the rearing mountains.



We had prints at home – ‘In the Orchard’,

‘Off Valpariso’, ‘Hylas and the Nymphs’ –

but nothing like this. I saw it first

at the back of a schoolroom when I was nine.

My desk was beneath it. I found a copy

ten years later and felt I had retrieved

a lost gift, a book only half read

then mislaid. More than half a century on

framed now it hangs in our dining room.



My grand daughter says, ‘I love that picture.’

‘Why?,’ I ask. ‘Don’t know,’ she mumbles. How crass

to have asked! I would not have known then

if anybody had cared to question me.

The print hung on the class wall unremarked.

While we did sums and spellings and tests,

the perspective at the back of my head

beckoned me.




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Driving northwards, driving homewards, we pass

inundated pasture – mercurial

in shape and colour – its sheen reflecting

the late morning’s rare roseate sky.

Bared trees and bushes are a dull amber.


In time, cloud cover becomes leaden –

then snow falls: the downy flakes like weightless

seeds, which the windscreen wipers flail clear

again and again. The empty fields fill,

remorselessly, as early evening comes.


Miles on, the snow no longer falls. It has

settled. The ancient, snow-filled woods are lovely,

luminous. How far we have come in love!

How soon we will be home!




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