POETRY

LORD WOOLAVINGTON’S SHOOTING PARTY

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Jimmy Buchanan, self-made whisky tycoon,

became Lord Woolavington of Lavington,

Sussex, in January ’22.

He acquired his peerage, it was said,

with a post-dated cheque signed ‘Woolavington’.

To celebrate he hosted a lavish

grouse-shooting party that Glorious Twelfth

on his moorland estate near the Moray Firth.

 

To prepare for the party, heather had been scorched

so young grouse might fatten on the new shoots.

The corpses of polecats and pine martens

had been hung on gates and from fence posts,

and skies emptied of hen harriers,

and purged of the dancing of red kites.

 

There is a photograph of a guest posing –

in tweeds, sporran, kilt, a gillie beside him,

a retriever at his feet – with his shotgun

at the ready. He is standing in a butt

of cut, piled heather. He is waiting

for the hired beaters to drive the birds up

so they are silhouetted against the sky.

 

 

CEMLYN BAY, YNYS MÔN

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Across the bay – with its sweeping shingle beach –

is Wylfa nuclear power station,

outcome of ‘the white heat of technology’,

a Harold Wilson ’60s slogan, and now

in the process of being decommissioned.

Not for it the brutal elegance of

cooling towers. It looks like a motley

of allotment sheds some Gargantua

might have thrown together from discarded sheets

of asbestos and corrugated iron.

 

Beneath the headland path we are standing on

are petrified sediments laid down

perhaps five hundred million years ago.

On either side among the grasses

are thrift, bird’s foot trefoil, and sea kale,

and, crossing it, a fox moth caterpillar.

We can hear oyster catchers and terns

on the salt water lagoon behind a ridge

of shingle along one stretch of beach.

 

***

 

The lagoon was mud-flats, breeding ground

during summer’s low tides for mosquitoes

not seabirds, until one Captain Hewitt

RNVR Rtd. had a weir built

to keep the water levels high throughout the year –

and now as well as terns  and oyster catchers

there are mergansers and little grebes.

 

Vivian Hewitt – son of a brewery

magnate; plutocrat;  apprentice

railway engineer; Royal Navy test pilot;

collector of Great Auk skins and blown eggs;

first man to fly from Wales to Ireland,

to be exact from Kinmel Bay, Rhyl,

to Phoenix Park, Dublin, through dense fog,

in a Bleriot-type wood and wire bi-plane,

an event eclipsed by the Titanic’s

sinking some thirteen days earlier –

looked for somewhere deserted to live

on the ship wreck prone north coast of Anglesey.

 

He bought a seventeenth century farmhouse

a hundred yards from the bay, and a mile

and more from the nearest neighbours; lived there

for thirty five years with his housekeeper

and her two sons; constructed the bird reserve

and sanctuary. Around a large area

of land adjacent to the house he had

local craftsmen build a twenty foot high

brick wall to keep the non-native trees, shrubs

and flowers he planted and re-planted

safe from the prevailing and unstinting winds.

Each experiment died or failed to thrive.

 

***

 

We post some photos on social media.

A friend on Facebook tells us that, this spring,

walking to Cemlyn Bay on the coastal path

through the old wind-swept woodlands in full leaf

beside the power station, he could hear,

beneath the bird song that filled the green air,

the unrelenting hum of giant fans

cooling forever the reactor’s

redundant and myriad rods of fuel.

 

 

 

HISTORY LESSON

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Gaza, according to the Old Testament,

was, directly or indirectly,

frequently in receipt of God’s wrath,

most spectacularly when the Jewish giant,

Samson – who had been there whoring – was blinded

by its unsavoury residents, and bound

to the pillars of their heathen temple.

He brought it down around their ears, and his.

Millennia later, John Milton wrote:

‘Gaza still stands, but all its Sons are fall’n’.

 

***

 

Once, when we were learning about some outrage

or other, our history teacher observed

that there were two types of human being:

those we could imagine invading our homes

in the dead of the night, assembling us

in the street, and harrying us onto the trains

for Auschwitz – and those we couldn’t. Though perhaps

some of my peers wondered who they might be

it never occurred to me I would not be

one who felt for the oppressed: for the Jews,

of course, the Irish, Roma, Kurds,

Palestinians – all the migrant

and indigenous peoples of the earth,

defiled, displaced, diminished, denied.

 

***

 

The history of humankind seems to be one

of small tribes continually warring over

small plots of land that might produce

the odd pitcher of milk and honey.

And, it seems, in any particular place

or time, the tribe that gets to write the book gets

to invent the past or tell the truth, gets to

destroy the present or make it, gets to

determine the future.

 

 

AT WORLD’S END

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For Tricia Durdey

 

As she walked up the muddy, overgrown path –

a path that was sometimes beside the river

in white-water spate from a night of rain,

and sometimes through the oak woods, leaves falling

gently as if choreographed – she thought

despairingly of events half the world

away, the rights and wrongs of ancient horrors,

modern outrage. When she reached the summit

there was World’s End: a ruined chapel.

A crow flew up noisily from what

might have been the altar. From crevices

in the tumbled walls ferns grew, and moss

covered the floor’s broken paving stones –

a seemingly romantic, gothic folly.

Local legend had berserk Norsemen slaughter

Celtic Christian families hiding in the chapel,

and set the oaken roof-beams alight.

 

She began to descend, thinking how easy

the legend made choosing the right side,

the side of goodness, and kindness, of hope

not despair, however much such a choice

was a considered act of faith and balance –

like walking downhill on that muddy path

safely beside the tumbling river.

Suddenly she thought we are more than our lives,

and smiled at such mystical metaphysics,

but said out loud, ‘Yes, we are more than our lives’.

 

 

ARMADA

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‘Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.’ Inaugural Address, University of St Andrews, John Stuart Mill, 1867

 

After the Toxteth Riots when Liverpool’s

black community fought back against

the systemic racism of the police

the UK government invested money

in regenerating parts of the city

including the disused Victorian docks.

 

The Albert Dock includes an art gallery,

two museums, eateries, gift shops,

and apartments overlooking the Mersey,

the King’s Dock hotels and entertainment/

exhibition/conference venues. Except

for a taxi from Lime Street Station,

one might stay in Liverpool and avoid

the city centre not just impoverished

areas like Chinatown or St James.

The Labour Party’s apparatchiks chose

to hold this year’s annual conference

in the Albert and King’s Dock complex,

and had carefully planned master classes

in the crafts and arts of fence sitting.

The first day was Sunday, October 8th –

oblivious still of the horrors

of Black Saturday, and its challenges.

 

We were visiting Tate Liverpool,

the gallery in the Albert Dock, and sat

at one of its café’s alfresco tables

in the arcades. Through the passing delegates –

lobbyists in suits, young activists,

weathered politicos, corporate journos –

we could see the glow of the setting sun

on the walls of the Slavery Museum.

 

One of the exhibitions we had seen

was Hew Locke’s installation ‘Armada’,

comprising forty five miniature vessels,

hung at shoulder height from the ceiling:

fishing smacks, container ships, galleons,

rafts, caravels, sampans, schooners, dhows.

There were no slavers there, or prison ships.

Those were votive boats to save our hearts and souls;

laden, armed with expectation, hope, and, yes,

fear; a flotilla of ethical choices;

the enemies of indifference.

 

 

OCTOBER MOON

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That Friday night, a slow moon rose, blood-orange,

huge, over the sea’s horizon. Trails of clouds

were silhouetted across its deserts

like black smoke. Next morning, a drear sea-light

filled the rented cottage in the dunes

by the shore. A heron was wading slowly,

purposefully along the water’s edge.

 

He had gone to that tiny, remote island

off the Atlantic coast, accessible

at low tide across a sand bar, to finish

his latest book: ‘Looking The Other Way –

Genocide In Rwanda’. He was working

on the index. He had reached Complicity.

 

Prompted by a text from a friend late

on Sunday he turned on the tv news –

saw pictures of that Saturday’s massacre:

edited images of the aftermath

of the murder of innocence, and real-time,

incriminating footage of armed men

oppressing distraught women and children,

taking hostages for ransom or slaughter.

 

The days then weeks that followed were lit

by the graphics of the after effects

of the bombardment, the deliberately

chosen response – a life for a life,

a death for a death, rubble for rubble.

And gaslit by hours of talking heads

oozing bombast, lies, and casuistry.

It was a time too illuminated

by the courage and humanity

of the living victims of loss and horror.

 

Each day he would walk along the shore

round the island until he could see

the range of mountains inland across the fields.

The peaks were increasingly hidden in shifting mists.

The hedgerows of hawthorn and traveller’s joy

edging the fields were turning to yellow.

He would think of the fire-bombing of Dresden,

of the razing of Lidice, of Stalingrad –

and of Goya’s painting of two giants

clubbing themselves to death as they sink

ever further into a bog, like some

danse macabre of self-destruction.

One day he suddenly thought of the books

in his study at home, a collection

of sixty years, and was overwhelmed

by their number, their seeming irrelevance.

 

He watched the progress of the moon as the month

waxed and waned: sometimes obfuscated

by clouds, or smoke, or dust; sometimes bright as

a ‘bomber’s moon’. The stars appeared. The sun rose

above the horizon. The sea ebbed, flowed.

And thousands, thousands of children were slaughtered.

 

 

SPEAKING OF STONES

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