Archive for July, 2017

ANOTHER PLACE REVISITED AT LOW WATER


‘It is no hero, no ideal, just the industrially reproduced body of a middle-aged man trying to remain standing and trying to breathe.’ Anthony Gormley

 

They are still standing and their slow carapace

of barnacles breathes. Small pools of eaten

razor clams and star fish lie at their feet – fry

dart amongst seaweed fronds and the dead.

An off shore breeze brings the calls of distant

sea birds close. The RNLI flag stiffens

and plastic kites, on the slight headland, swoop –

but the cumulus clouds and the con trails,

across the Atlantic, are almost still.

Wind turbines proliferate on Burbo Bank

and, beyond, along the North Wales coast.

Over the horizon, the world awaits

high tide. Meanwhile, on tricky sands, we move

with care among these icons of cast-iron

steadfastness and promise.

 

 

 

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A TERRIBLE SILENCE

‘The sounds of people drowning are something that I cannot describe to you, and neither can anyone else. It’s the most dreadful sound and there is a terrible silence that follows it.’

A GIRL ABOARD THE TITANIC: A SURVIVOR’S STORY, Eva Hart

 

We found ourselves spending time in Godalming

on one of those sun baked, humid July days

that surprise England. The air was thick

with flying ants. We sought shade under willows

on the banks of the Wey, that meanders

through meadowland. Brindle cattle grazed

and flicked their tails. Gnats and midges sought us –

so we walked on beside the river. Boys

from Charterhouse canoed past us hooray

henrying as we entered the cloister

on the Jack Phillips Memorial Ground.

 

Phillips, senior wireless telegraphist

on the Titanic, was a local chap,

son of the manager of a draper’s.

Built – perhaps as much for sense-making as

grieving – the year after the disaster

and some years before the slaughtering began,

the cloister is in Surrey brick and tile,

with a lily pond and dragon flies

darting, hovering. We sat in the arcade’s

shadows, silent then sharing our thoughts.

 

His commissions or omissions were

or were not instrumental in the sinking –

the message about icebergs and field ice

directly ahead from another ship

was recorded, put to one side, forgotten

as he cleared a backlog of telegrams

from first class passengers. How do they compare

with watertight compartments that were

anything but, a lack of lifeboats,

no drill of any sort, vain glory?

‘He died at his post,’ the inscription reads.

 

On our way back to the High Street we passed

the Parish Church with its memorial

in bronze to Jack – and one to the small town’s

two hundred and eighty one Great War dead.

The church doors were open and the day’s heat

brought out the smell of musty hymnals

and dusty hassocks – a silenced heat,

one burdened with class and protocol,

suppressing anger, guilt.

 

 

 

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AT CHESTER CROSS

I am standing near the loud evangelists

by the medieval sandstone cross that marks

the centre of this erstwhile Roman camp,

Castra Deva, base for two centuries

of the Twentieth, Valeria Victrix

streets south and west to the Dee, east to forests

and the lush plain, north to sandstone outcrops.

 

The Presbyterian rhetoric

of Damnation and Sweet Jesus keeps

other spectators away, gives me

a clear view of the midsummer,

pagan parade – ‘I am the good shepherd:

the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep’ –

with its Hell’s Mouth on wheels, its samba band –

‘…he that is an hireling…whose own

the sheep are not, seeth the wolf coming’ –

with its Romans, Vikings, giants, a dragon –

‘and fleeth: and the wolf scattereth the sheep’ –

with its Saint Werburgh, the city’s patron saint

(famed for resurrecting a goose)

and my three geese in white gowns following –

wife, daughter, granddaughter – but no sheep.

 

I move to a spec on one of the Rows,

unique first floor arcades, their origin

unknown but much admired by the Kaiser.

When I was at school in the city,

we would come to these Rows for a smoke,

our striped caps folded in our pockets.

Below was a tobacconist who sold

Cuban cigarettes in packets of 5.

How I would dream of the wide avenues

of a metropolis – of fame, romance

in its concert halls and libraries!

Directly opposite where I am waiting,

behind a Greek revival portico,

is a private club, its Masonic curtains

drawn. Here was the camp’s principia

headquarters of the legion and the province.

If the Empire had continued to expand

not consolidate before collapsing –

despite Rome’s alarming geese! – Deva

would have been Britannia’s capital.

 

The procession passes beneath me

in triumph – led by two street theatre

professionals, a husband and wife,

consummately engaging the crowds.

The evangelists are hectoring still,

threatening distantly, out of sight.

My geese are smiling still, cavorting,

even the littlest – earnest, seemingly

untiring – and my lucky heart fills with love.

All three are holding up their goosey standards

made by an artist – painted, sculpted

papier maché glued to frames of withies,

those lithe willow branches, slender, sturdy,

infinitely flexible, which have been used,

since antiquity, to keep safe ewes and lambs.

 

 

 

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THE KING’S WORKS IN WALES

Edward I’s decision, announced on 17 November 1276, to go against Llywelyn as a rebel and disturber of the peace, had, as not the least notable of its consequences, the inauguration in Wales of a programme of castle-building of the first magnitude.

THE HISTORY OF THE KING’S WORKS, HMSO, 1963

 

Maître Jacques, castle builder from St. George,

Savoy, walked the crag’s perimeter

two hundred feet above the breaking sea

that would ensure supplies during sieges,

and advised the king in what was due course then –

a relay of messengers riding to

wherever the court was – to build at Harlech,

Welsh heartland, dominate that long coast,

be grander even than Caernafon or Conwy.

 

Carpenters, charcoal burners, diggers, dykers,

plumbers, masons, sawyers, smiths, woodmen,

quarriers and labourers – all from England –

together with Master James have ensured

the elegant, sturdy walls and towers

have lasted beyond Glyndwr’s uprising,

the Wars of the Roses and Cromwell,

though some of the limestone from Penmon

and most of the steel and iron from Chester

have been snaffled over time by locals.

 

Victorian tourists, informed by guide books

in the grand tour style about ruins,

could catch the Paddington train to Oswestry

then the stopping train to Barmouth, alight here,

take the pony and trap up the hairpin road

to the Castle Hotel facing the keep.

 

The hotel has been refurbished: on two floors

luxury apartments; on the ground floor

the visitors’ centre with time lines, a/v,

museum shop, and café where there is

Fair Trade coffee, speciality teas,

paninis, scones – and all day full Welsh breakfasts

very popular with local builders.

 

 

 

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SEA URCHINS, HARLECH BEACH

Walking north towards the estuary –

the high dunes on our right, the surf direct

from Ireland on our left – we come across first,

at winter’s high tide line, a scattering

of too many empty razor shells to count,

and then the urchin skeletons, maybe

a hundred, two, whitened by the wind,

some almost placed like letters the sea has scuffed.

 

These are ‘heart urchins’ or ‘sea potatoes’

misnomers for this lapidary piece

of calcium almost weightless in my palm,

patterned with pinprick embossing and tiny

repoussage. What storm gouged these burrowers

up onto the strand for gulls to disembowel?

 

Storms made the dunes half a millennium

ago – and sea urchins have been here

for nearly half a billion years but this

is the age of the Anthropocene.

We make the weathers now! Criccieth’s castle

is over the bay and, behind us, Harlech’s –

their quarried stones mortared with lime and beach sand

abounding with the dead.

 

 

 

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