Poetry

ALMA MATER

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When Queen Elizabeth died I remembered

that my uncle Tom died the same month

as her father, King George. Both were veterans

of the First World War – one of the Battle

of Ypres, one of the Battle of Jutland.

Both private and prince were heavy smokers

till near the end – roll ups, Benson & Hedges.

 

Tom was gassed at Ypres. After the war

he became a pastry chef until

the Depression. Later, during the next

World War and subsequently, he made

packing cases in an aircraft factory.

Children take for granted the adults

around them. Later we avoid unpicking

memories – so it had not occurred to me

until now that Tom appeared to have no friends,

no interests, or possessions, or

to wonder why. And, of course,

there is no one alive left to ask.

 

After his death, I was moved into his small,

impersonal bedroom above the hall –

in our 1920s rented, pebble-dashed,

three bedroom semi with a privet hedge.

When Tom was alive six of us lived there.

The five who remained were me, my mother,

her older sisters, and my grandmother;

an only child, two widows, and two spinsters;

four formative women, who are still vivid in my heart.

But Uncle Tom evades me. Perhaps

he had shut down his life some time before.

 

I lived there from age five to sixteen.

Though death and loss and regret were near

neighbours, and my granny and her daughters

talked mostly about the past – making me

both risk-averse and ambitious –   it was not

a cheerless place. It was a house with books;

an upright piano, which I learned to play,

and for which I had a ready audience;

and a number of pictures – including

a print of Somerscales’ ‘Off Valparaiso’

on the wall at the bottom of the stairs.

So we all passed it at least twice a day.

 

Tom would have looked at it, presumably,

though perhaps he was always too fatigued

in his fifties then from physical work

with lungs damaged in youth by the mustard gas.

Whether I actually did or not, memory

tells me I would stop and study the print.

Someone must have told me Valparaiso

is a port on South America’s west coast,

and the ship featured in the picture

must have been heading for the harbour,

since a pilot boat is waiting for it,

which the ship acknowledges but refuses.

The three masted barque, from beyond Cape Horn

and the Southern Ocean, into the azure

Pacific seas, is steering almost

towards us, the wind in its sails – an image

of grace and purpose, of power, and of risk.

 

 

SNOWDROPS

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In a weathered flower pot, its dark green glaze

inscribed with abstractions, are four snowdrops,

carefully planted like the four points

of a weather vane, their blooms, as yet

still tight, unopened, like paper lanterns

on long curving poles – as if in the lush heat

and humidity of some miniature,

ornamental, oriental garden

replete with palm fronds, and liana,

and distant gongs. In an easterly wind –

that has been blowing for days from the tundras

of Siberia, over the vast lowlands

of the European Plain, and the grim

North Sea, across the moorlands of the Peaks,

and the clayey fields of the Cheshire Gap –

they are trembling slightly.

 

 

STILL LIVES

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The painter, Giorgio Morandi – who lived

most of his seventy four years at

39 Via Fondazza, Bologna,

in a second floor apartment with his three

sisters, in the medaeval soul and heart

of La Grassa, with its imposing towers,

its red tiles, narrow streets, and arcades –

specialised in Natura Morta, Still Life.

 

The apartment and the Renaissance building

it houses have become a museum,

preserving his studio, and his props:

glazed ceramic vases, bottles, bowls, jars,

pitchers, kitchen utensils, and table cloths,

which appeared many times re-arranged,

in ochres, browns, greys, with their shadows falling

variously on a neutral background –

through two world wars, Mussolini’s rise and fall,

and mass migration to the industrial

north from all parts of the Mezzogiorno.

 

I have come to acknowledge Morandi’s

almost compulsive, obsessive focus

on the same small number of objects

in different conjunctions, depicted

with the same limited, disciplined palette,

the same minimalist and easily

adaptable format, capturing how,

at any given moment, things might have seemed.

 

There are no self-portraits, or depictions

of his sisters, or his dog, Pluto.

There are posed photos of him – serious,

in horn rimmed glasses, jacket and tie,

and always about to light up a Muratti.

 

Since he preferred “tranquillità e pace”

what would he have made of Via Fondazza

now it has become a ‘Social Street’?

One of its residents, to “combat urban

loneliness”, set up a private Facebook page.

Neighbours can put a name to a face,

and greet each other confidently in

the Osteria Della Fondazza or

Morandi Frutta Di Masood Maryam.

 

Maybe one of his neighbours would ring the bell

at 39 to present him with

a favourite jug or carafe to be

immortalised. Perhaps the oldest sister

would go down to the building’s main entrance,

open one of the double doors, and say

something ambiguous, enigmatic,

emollient, thus leaving the supplicant

not without hope.

 

 

 

THE YEAR’S MIDNIGHT

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Though only on the edge of the long darkness

of the north, the days, as they always do,

had shortened here to barely six hours

of daylight. The next day, imperceptibly,

the light began to change, to lengthen.

 

…as if on the bridge of some vast ship

the command were given to turn the wheel

scarcely a degree, and sail the vessel sunward,

the rigging taut with southerly airs,

storm petrels following in the ship’s long wake…

 

For a week now a pair of blackbirds

has visited the terrace each morning,

in the best of light, to dart and peck

for insects. Each year the weather warms.

Each year the nesting begins earlier.

 

…as if two lovers shared the same dream –

a garden of lemon trees and apricots,

of music and poetry and fountains,

where their companionship might prosper – but woke

to find themselves in a windswept boneyard…

 

Although the physics of this mystery, this

near miracle should last, the biology

may not – the sun will still probably shine

in a world without birds and nests and eggs,

and the silent earth spin.

 

 

THE WALKING STICK PHILANTHROPIST

For Elise Oliver

 

A Facebook acquaintance once shared a story

about her maternal great-uncle, George,

who, for thirty nine years, drove a steam engine

– a Hunslet standard gauge made in Leeds –

pulling goods wagons of coal and clay

from the marshalling yards in Stoke-on-Trent

to the pot banks in Burslem, Tunstall, Longton,

Fenton, Hanley, and brought back finished pots.

 

His father had left labouring on a farm

in Rugeley to labour at a bottle kiln.

The family of nine lived in poverty.

George never married, and shared,

with his surviving sister’s family,

a red brick railwaymen’s terraced house

somewhere in Shelton behind Stoke station.

“It’s a stop and start sort of job,” he would say,

“waiting in sidings for the main line trains

to pass, and shunters to fettle the wagons”.

 

His favourite haul was to ‘Etruria’ –

“not the place in Italy!”, he would joke,

but Josiah Wedgewood’s estate outside

the Six Towns, to where he had moved both

his works and his family to escape

the sulphurous smog. By the siding

mountain ash trees grew on an embankment.

George would set the fireman/trainee driver

to brew the tea, lend him his Daily Mirror,

step down, and peg a likely sapling

to the ground with twine. In time he would harvest

the bespoke canes and give the primitive

but sturdy walking sticks to needy neighbours

in the narrow, cobbled streets of Shelton.

 

 ***

 

Travelling back from London by train

in a carriage full of masked strangers,

a wild, darkening autumn afternoon

flinging leaves at the windows, I fell asleep,

dreaming of two old bald men fighting

over a comb, of a couple of giants

clubbing each other to death in quicksand,

of billionaires rocketing into space

the better to see the forests burning.

 

I woke to an unfamiliar landscape,

and feared I was on the wrong journey.

We came to a deserted station.

The train slowed. I read the sign – ‘Etruria’,

and was transported briefly to a world

of china blue, and elegant white figures

in Attic poses – then realised

we had bypassed Stafford, its castle ruins,

and closed factories. I thought of one man’s

enterprise, and kindness.

 

 

SUFFER THE LITTLE WALLABIES

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I very seldom sign online petitions

regarding the welfare or otherwise

of non-human animals, assuming

that if we gave proper consideration

and care to one another the rest

of the animal kingdom would prosper

accordingly. I made an exception

today signing and sharing one entitled

‘Save the Wallabies of Loch Lomond’.

 

The Loch is a freshwater lake whose north

is in the highlands, its south in the lowlands.

It is the subject of a Jacobite song of love

and death – ‘The Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond;

has more than thirty islands, some crannogs

man-made in prehistoric times, most

organic, all uninhabited, like

Inchconnachan, ‘Island of the Colquhons’,

whose property it was from medieval times.

 

For Fiona, Countess of Arran, née

Colquhon, Scottish power boat champion,

‘the fastest woman on water’, from childhood

the island was a haven. In time

she built a timber-framed bungalow,

boathouse and pier for her personal use.

On their estate in Hemel Hempstead,

near St Albans, in the Home Counties,

she and the Earl kept non-native mammals,

like llamas, alpacas, and wallabies.

Shortly after the end of World War II,

for some unrecorded reason she settled

a troop of the marsupials on the island.

For more than seventy years they have lived

in harmony with native flora and fauna.

 

The new owners want the wallabies removed,

whether exiled or culled is not clear –

hence the petition. Some see them as a

rather charming quirk of history,

a useful tourist attraction – others

an invasive species. These wallabies

are yet another victim of the British

Empire, and the selfish, careless whimsy

of landowners ancient and modern.

They are no more responsible for where

they are or what they are doing than escaped

mink eating grouse eggs on some money-making

moor, or, from some vast estate, self-seeded

rhododendron, lush and exotic

in the acid soils of Scotland’s west coast, its

empty glens cleared of folk.

 

 

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