From my Poetry Bookshelf – Peter Reading – Perduta Gente

1989. The year the wall came down. Tiananmen Square. Exxon Valdez. A year bookended by George HW Bush becoming president and Ceausescu being deposed. I remember watching the latter in my grandmother’s house in Portchester Road, as we went there most Christmases. Such. A. Long. Time. Ago. So much has changed. Yet so much hasn’t.

Today’s book from my bookshelf is a case in point. Published in 1989, Peter Reading’s Perduta Gente, with its’ central theme of homelessness is as relevant today as it was then. Perhaps more so, after forty years of the sham of trickle-down economics, and the last ten years of austerity. Even after the magical thinking and ridiculous economic self-harm of Brexit, the UK is still the sixth richest country in the world.

A famous quote from Mahatma Gandhi springs to mind here: ‘the true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members’. So how do we stack up here in Britain? How do we treat our destitute, our disabled, our ill? We vote for Boris Johnson. We vote for Boris Johnson. We vote for David Cameron. We vote for the rich getting richer. We vote for those who come down hard on asylum seekers. We vote for those who want to commercialise the NHS, who cut funds for social services, welfare and education. Well enough of us do.

I’m not going to try and understand why people vote the way they do. I’m sure that many who vote Conservative are compassionate, caring and kind individuals. However, as Reading states;

Don’t think it couldn’t be you –
bankrupt, batty, bereft,
huddle of papers and rags in a cardboard
spin-drier carton,
bottle-bank cocktails and Snow soporifics,
meths analgesics,
beg-bucket rattler, no-hope no-homer,
squatter in rat-pits,
busker in underground bogs
(plangent the harp-twang, the Hwaet!
Haggard, the youthful and handsome whom I
loved in my nonage;
vanished, the vigour I valued;
roof-tree and cooking-hearth, sacked).

Bankrupt, batty, bereft –
don’t think it couldn’t be you.

Peter Reading was born in Liverpool in 1946, and was educated at the Liverpool College of Art. After graduating he taught for a few years before obtaining a job as a weighbridge operator at an animal feed mill in Shropshire – where he remained for 22 years until he was sacked for refusing to wear a uniform when a new owner took over. He liked the work because he said that it gave him time to think.

He was a prodigious poet – writing a total of 26 collections. These collections were unusual because they were fashioned more like novels with themes and plots and often featured: characters, newspaper cuttings, letters, found poems, crossings out, different type-faces and pieces of prose. The poems that did appear were often untitled. He once said: ‘The concision of poetry appeals to me, but the novelist’s job – big-scale serious tackling of things, as in Dickens and Smollett – is something I try in a smaller way to get into what I do.’

The above two paragraphs were taken from this biographical post on the Poet’s Graves website.

https://www.poetsgraves.co.uk/reading.html

Perduta Gente is filled with anger, power and compassion. As with his other work, it’s a mix of untitled poems, prose pieces, snippets, collages of newspaper clippings and headlines, and handwritten diary entries;

Or this;

Some of the poems are written in the vernacular of the street, or at least in Reading’s interpretation of it. I think this is a way to try and bring their voices and experiences to life.

gizzera quiddora fiftyfer fuggsay
mistera tellya
tellya da missiziz fugginwell whatnot
fugginwell ampute
afer da nackerup arm

I’m not sure how well they work, compared to some of the others here, but they broaden the scope and language in what is a relatively short collection.

Incidentally there are no page numbers in Perduta Gente. It is a book that is not meant to be read in any particular order. You dip in and out. It is unstructured, rootless, a collision of styles and formatting. Which fits well with the subject matter.

One thing I have tried to do with my weekly blog posts is illustrate the sheer range of poetry available. I know a lot of people who say they don’t ‘get’ poetry, it doesn’t speak to them. My reply is that they just haven’t found the right poet yet. As for Perduta Gente, It’s safe to say that if you are looking for gentle, easy reading, lyrical poetry, then this isn’t the book for you.

Newspaper, wrapped round the torso between the
fourth and fifth jerseys
(night attire proper for doing a skipper in
icy December
under the Festival Hall),
carries a note to the Editor, from ‘Ex-
Soldier’ of Telford,
outlining plans to withdraw
DHSS cash from those
no-fixed-abode parasites.

Wound round a varicose indigo swollen
leg, between second
and third pair of trousers (which stink –
urine and faeces and sick),
Property Pages delineate bijou
River-View Flatlets
£600,000 each.

The house prices may have increased, but so has homelessness. Where is the anger? Why are we so accepting of this?

Perduta Gente is out of print, so if you want a copy you’ll have to pick one up secondhand. You won’t find it on my bookshop.org page.

You can, however, listen to an audio recording of Perduta Gente here;

What do you think? Do you prefer poetry that is less angry, less politicised (in the small ‘p’ sense of the world), and conservative (in the small ‘c’ sense)!. Or should there be more writing like Perduta Gente being published now? How does what you’ve read here compare to the contemporary poetry you see in magazines, online publications and new collections and anthologies?

And for those of us who write poetry. Do we take enough risks with our own writing, with the subject matter, language used or poetic form and structure? What if we don’t want to? Does it actually matter? Can it actually achieve anything? Maybe that’s something for a future post.

Saying Goodbye to the Wild Geese

I’m lucky to live within a five minute cycle to the sea. Living in Portsmouth, it doesn’t matter where you are, you are always within a 5 to ten minute bike ride from salt water. It’s one of the benefits of living on Portsea Island, along with the lack of hills.

With the sea comes wildlife that you wouldn’t otherwise expect from the most densely populated city in the UK. Families of seals. The occasional porpoise. A wide range of seabirds, including some that are very rare elsewhere.

If you are out on the South Hampshire coast between October and March you are likely to encounter flocks of Brent Geese. They’ve gone now, back to their summer grounds in the tundra of northern Siberia. With such a long migration, this small (Britain’s smallest) and rather unassuming goose is perhaps the most remarkable we have in the UK.

Their feeding grounds here are under significant pressure – here in Portsmouth from the ridiculous decision to allow a company to lay an energy pipeline right through an important wildlife area, to other plans to build housing on wasteland to the west of the island.

I’ve been in touch with my local councillor on the latter matter – his response was actually very good – full of detail as to the realities of the situation faced by Portsmouth City Council. The financial penalties that local governments get for non fulfilment of central government set housing targets are severe. So what does a cash-strapped council do in such circumstances? What really can they do?

Meanwhile, our Prime Minister pontificates on Earth Day. I couldn’t be bothered to watch his speech. This is the man who wanted to destroy green space and mature trees for a vanity-project garden bridge. Whilst this was just a local planning issue it shows where his priorities lie. There are plenty of other examples of his hypocrisy and contempt for the environment. The man is an utter disgrace.

But we carry on. We carry on hoping, that despite the negligence, corruption and greed around the world, that things will change, that there still is time.

I think there is, just.

I’ll finish this post with a poem that first appeared on the One Hand Clapping website last October. Take care everyone, and good luck.

Reclaiming

This runt-scrap of land.
This pith of earth.
Half-soil,
half-salt,
all howling sky.
For now this silt’s still ours.

A concrete sea wall;
impervious,
half-toil,
half-hope.
Already dissolved
in the future’s slewing surge.

Today the light is fragile blue,
foreground a smear of sea.
Brent geese flying in
from what remains of the Arctic.
Where do we go from here?

From my Poetry Bookshelf – Saughton Sonnets Anthology

I received this book as a birthday present earlier this year. It’s an anthology of poems written by residents of HMP Edinburgh (Saughton) during lockdown amongst the COVID 19 Pandemic.

The book came out of a project by First Time Inside, who give support to those who have experienced, or are currently experiencing, life within the justice system in Scotland, particularly those going to prison for the first time. Ostensibly set up as a poetry competition, it was an initiative for those participating an opportunity to engage with a community wider than is normally the case.

It was a way for them to share their thoughts and experiences, develop skills and gain confidence which can help them to move forwards with their lives. As quoted in the introduction to the book, it was an initiative designed to challenge aspiration poverty whilst also tackling commonly held negative preconceptions of the prison populations in Scotland.

You can find further information on the Hidden Voices project on the First Time Inside website here. It includes poems from the anthology, letters and interviews with some of the contributors. It’s a huge eye-opener and really shows the importance of projects such as this.

If you only read one article on this website, have a look at what Paula, the Bubbly Poet has written, (her poem, about an encounter with a mouse, is one of my favourites from the anthology).

So what are the poems like? They are a mix of a wide range of emotions – raw, powerful, angry, sad, funny, and in many cases, with a strong element of hope for the future. Stylistically they vary greatly. Each voice is unique and, of course, fully authentic. There’s also a good mix of subject matter – as an example an absolutely brilliant poem about making yoghurt!

I’m going to share one of the other poems here – I hope it’s OK to do so.

Lockdown

1. The lockdown means visits every day,
from every thought you’ve worked so hard to keep away.
2. It’s praying every single night to a God no where in sight
that those you love will be alright.
3. It’s looking up at the nighttime stars through reinforced
iron bars while the world outside drifts ever far.
4. It’s loneliness and fear, vague answers that are unclear to questions
no one wants to hear.
5. It’s getting tea at 4 as if we’re 4 knowing we got 6 hours more to endure,
pacing the floor, bunker to door wondering whether
it goes on 6 days, 6 weeks, 6 months or more.
6. It’s getting locked up for public protection then getting l
ocked up extra to protect us from the public!
7. It’s watching our brave doctors and nurses get praised
by politicians that spent years emptying their purses.
8. It’s waiting all day for just 5 minutes on the phone to
remind those we love they’re not alone.
9. It’s taking time to write a letter to say,
‘stay strong things will get better’.
10. It’s finding the inner drive to survive and thrive,
to not become defeated as day on day the routine’s repeated.
11. It’s finding strength you didn’t know was there,
accepting responsibility we all now share, finding new ways to show
we care and pushing the limits of what we can bear.
12. It is standing strong, it’s digging deep, it’s finding a little peace to sleep,
it’s focussing on ‘just today’ and all the other overused cliches.
13. It’s preparing to pick up the pieces and begin again and knowing,
no matter how long this last, it WILL END.

The above poem was one of the winners of the competition, but all the poems are compelling, and shine a light on life within the prison system here in the UK. I could easily share any of the other poems, but I’d rather you bought the book and help fund future work of this kind.

If you want to do so, please follow the link below.

Taking another quote the introduction of this book, It’s simply not good enough in 21st century Scotland that someone should hold the belief that prison is the best version of life they can hole for. Neither should we – living in a progressive society – conform to lazy, Victorian values which prescribe to punishment without compassion.

Lack of compassion is a huge issue in this supposedly caring country. We see the same attitude towards many other marginalised members of society, often encouraged by inflammatory comments by high profile politicians.

A number of years ago I was involved in setting up a series of poetry workshops in Haslar Immigration Removal Centre. The subjects these asylum seekers, (or ‘economic migrants’ as Priti Patel and others would label them), would want to write about? Home, family, friends, food, society. All which they have lost in flight from war, famine or persecution.

Then look at how certain MPs, Conservative mainly, describe the urban poor, or single parents, or travellers. Victorian values? This would be a step up form some of them.

Anyway, I digress. The Saughton Sonnets anthology really is an excellent collection, and one I highly recommend, and all sales go towards supporting a very good cause.

For more information on First Time inside go to;

The Hospital on the Hill

I keep looking back at my posts from January and February last year. Those days before Covid. How little we knew then. I’m sure many others are doing the same, whether it be on social media, or through apps like 1 second every day ( https://1se.co ) . Our lives are lived in full view. Our thoughts, however inane, are captured for future review. Whether this is a good thing or not is for a future post.

The main hospital in Portsmouth is at the top of Portsdown Hill, on the outskirts of the city. After dark it can be seen from miles away, like a vast, recently landed spaceship of concrete and light. Think Close Encounters of the Third Kind without the music and urge to mould models out of mud. In times like these, it is a reminder of what is important, and how fragile our existence actually is. How little time we have. I hope when we finally come out of this crisis, that people take stock, reflect on what really matters, and live their lives accordingly in the future, as much as they can. I know I will.

I also fervently hope that those in this country who have made this crisis so much worse than it needed to be, get exactly what they deserve. There will be spin, of course. There will be attempts to obfuscate, to blame others, but we must not let them. The UK has had one of the worst death rates per head of population in the world. Many health professionals have died due to inadequacies of PPE procurement, whilst companies that have had no experience in the area have been given massive contracts for equipment that was not delivered, or was faulty when it was. Health workers in the sixth-largest economy in the world had to resort to wearing bin bags for protection.

Of course there is the counter-argument of the highly successful and efficient vaccine rollout. But notice how the politicians call this NHS run project the ‘government’s vaccine rollout’ whereas £22bn was wasted on an outsourced ‘NHS track and trace’. Language matters.

Oh, and as an aside, if Brexit is your thing? One country with one of the highest rates of vaccination in the world is Romania. Whereas other EU countries tried to do things jointly, (and the EU made a complete hash of it), they just went ahead and sorted out their own vaccines. As with blue passports (Croatia), we could have done the same. Don’t believe the BS.

Back to QA Hospital. Like every other NHS hospital in the country they have been close-to-overwhelmed, converting non-essential wards to high dependency units, the staff working flat-out, doing what they can, under conditions of extreme stress and exhaustion, and of course with an underlying knowledge that they are at heightened risk themselves from this horrendous disease.

Another aside: Some prat went into the hospital and filmed empty corridors on their mobile phone as a way to prove that the virus was a hoax. All the Covid patients are suffering from a highly contagious disease and are in high-dependency wards. Do you really think they would be in hospital corridors? Idiot. Anyway, I digress.

I was recently asked to provide a poem to be placed in one of the high dependency Covid wards. As someone who doesn’t work in the NHS, but knows plenty of people who do, it wasn’t exactly easy to get it right. The poem I wrote, which appears at the end of this post, has been accepted, along with lots of other poems from staff and other poets. It may not be a particularly good poem, but hopefully it will help someone in some small way with what they are going through.

A third and final aside: The poem mentions ‘grey hulls’. With the hospital being at the top of Portsdown Hill there is, from some windows at least, an excellent view of the city, including the Portsmouth Royal Naval dockyard and Royal Navy fleet.

So now we wait. As we did before. Hopefully this ‘road map’ out of lockdown will work. I remain worried that with plans to open up all schools at the same time and the risk of new virus strains that this crisis still has a long way to go.

In the meantime, all we can do is keep trying to follow the rules and give huge thanks to all those who are working through the storm, whether emergency workers, NHS staff, (including cleaners, porters, back office staff and non-emergency workers without whose efforts the system could not function), other frontline employees such as those working in transport and retail, without whose work, and in so many cases, sacrifice, our year of Covid would have been so much worse. Thank you.

Pieces

Look at all the grey hulls
lined up in the Solent;
A ship needs every rivet
to stop the sea from surging in.

Stop and take a deep breath.
A jigsaw needs every piece,
a book needs every page,
to make any sort of sense.

Here as with everywhere,
this day can never be won,
by standing on our own.
We fall and rise together.

Trapped in layered protection,
around our brittled light,
forgetting who we are,
forgetting how to see.

A smile behind a mask,
is a crack in the bitter dark,
that will widen, as it always does;
these times will one day pass.

Beyond the cliches of politicians
are real words and thoughts and prayers.
I would bring them to you here,
to your exhaustion of despair,

to all that you have witnessed,
to all that you’ve endured,
to all that you have done,
and all that you could not.

I’d remind you that you’re loved.
I’d remind you that you’re valued.
Just because people are too tired,
too busy or stressed to say it,

doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

Harvest Time

So here we are. A government that either a) continues to pursue a reckless brinkmanship strategy with regards Brexit or b) actually wants the chaos that a no-deal Brexit would bring.

A government that instead of using existing local expertise to provide a track and trace system, as for example the German government have done, gives £12bn to Serco so that they can screw up yet another public sector contract. If you think this is the first time that they have messed up, then you really aren’t paying attention. And then of course there are all the other ‘intriguing’ non-tender contracts for PPE etc, to companies with less money in the bank and less turnover than my little sideline art & sporting memorabilia business that I run on a part-time basis instead of watching TV.

Oh and then there’s HS2, another £800m and they haven’t even started building it yet. Just destroying ancient woodland and SSSI’s. What a white elephant that will prove to be by the time it has been completed.

But this government doesn’t do mistakes. They don’t admit to getting things wrong, they just blame other people and wait for any storm to pass. Hence the way they have handled the Marcus Rashford campaign. Its’ feckless parents or local councils who are to blame.

But what did anyone expect? Irrespective of your political beliefs, (and this isn’t meant to be an overtly political blog), the signs were clearly there. You could see this attitude in the Cameron government (Lansley NHS reforms, Libya etc), in that of Theresa May, ( red lines and triggering article 50 without proper consultation or planning). But it’s not just the Tories. Iraq anyone?

But for sheer incompetence and brazen opportunism the Johnson government has to be the worst, surely?

No matter how you voted in December, we all get to enjoy the resultant fun and games, so different from the promises of the election campaign. Covid has only highlighted the difference between the two.

Harvest

A field of corn is a field of promise
in the fiercest heat of summer.
But there always is an after,
always a smouldering of light,
an eye-stinging of ash.

So sup your ale to your imagined past,
wrap yourself cosy in your Blighty-coat myth
It’s more than stubble burning
on the smoke-stained lie of the land,
and like that our dreams are gone.

For always the world is theirs
to choose which promises to break
in an eye-gouging of cash
as Albion sleeps;
as if you thought they did it for you.

It’s Been a While

It’s been a while.

In the time since I last posted I’ve started my new role as a social media specialist rather than a recruitment consultant. I’ve not really had time for poetry blogging – my focus has been in other areas. Not just getting a handle on the new job, but also working on my ECM Sales sideline business (www.ecmsales.co.uk if you want to find out more!).

I haven’t had much time for writing. I’ve also struggled to write about the lockdown. I know plenty of poets who have come up with something memorable, but I’ve found it difficult. I am so disgusted by our government, and so disappointed with their political opposition.

And we still have Brexit to look forward to. If you are reading this and haven’t started stockpiling – why not? You’ve seen the quality of the UK’s ‘leadership’. We might end up with them caving in and accepting the EU’s terms right at the end of the year in order to prevent food shortages and mass civil disobedience, but we may just as easily end up with no deal. So I have tried to avoid the news, tried to avoid letting the fury get to me. I can feel the rage rising in me just writing this!

From a poetry perspective, I have been focussing on other projects – I have a book length sequence that I’m trying to knock into shape, and have been submitting mainly older poems to various magazines. I’ve also tried my hand at creating video poems, which I will share here at some point – once I have worked out how! I probably need to start a YouTube channel or something similar. I also joined a daily haiku group on Facebook, and managed to post a few attempts.

I’ll finish with one of them today, which based on what I have just written is fairly appropriate. But this post is really to say that I’m back on the poetry blogging scene following my meagre activity of the last couple of months!

Oh and you’ll have to forgive me for the block and font change – I’m having trouble converting the haiku text to the format I would like it to be in. Maybe it’s my new Mac. Maybe it’s just general incompetence!!

the daily paper
ink stains on each fingertip -
and under the skin

 

Ashes

I shouldn’t be writing a blog post today.

I had managed to secure tickets in this year’s ballot for the first day of the test series against the West Indies at Lords, where I have never been for a match before. In the grand scheme of things, it’s not a big deal. But it was something I had been so looking forward to. Especially as today is my 26th wedding anniversary.

Oh how I miss live sport, live music, live theatre, comedy, musicals. I don’t think the so-called leaders we have in this country at the moment realise how important these are. They certainly don’t appear to care, judging by their response so far to the desperate state most theatres and arts organisations are in at the moment. But then why should I be surprised? On purely financial terms, the arts are one of the most significant economic sectors for the UK, ( far more than say fishing). We are, or we were, global leaders in many fields. Yet arts organisations, and businesses involved in arts related fields, (such as computer gaming), which rely on freedom of movement and international collaboration have been pretty much ignored by government since Brexit.

Let alone the benefits to society, to our mental and physical health.

Did I mention Brexit? I remember going in to work the day after (24 June 2016) to be met by a few smug comments (everyone knew where my thoughts lay on this issue). Around 70% of the people I worked with at the time voted for Brexit. Four years on and with no deal more and more likely, (whether by design or ineptitude it is irrelevant), I wonder how many of them would vote for the version of Brexit we are going to get as opposed to that of the campaign lies of Cummings and co. ?

It’s a bit like the people I know who voted against electoral reform because they wanted a better type of electoral reform than that which was on offer on the ballot paper. Maybe vote differently next time, in what, 40 years or so?

Four years on from the referendum and I remain deeply saddened by its’ impact on the direction in which this country appears to be going.

I so hope that this part of this post ages badly and that Brexit, and the type of deal we end up with works out well. But I just don’t think our politicians are in any way competent enough for the task, which would be incredibly challenging even without Covid-19. Anyway, rant over.

But that’s where live music, theatre, musicals, comedy and sport events come in. They are such a useful pressure release, such a great way to feel alive, to escape from the monotonies and frustrations of everyday life. I miss them terribly.

But here we are.

If you have got this far then apologies for the rant. I’m just feeling grumpy because I’m missing the cricket. And it’s hot outside. And next door have got builders in their garden so I can’t properly relax.

We are were we are.

Still, this gives me an excuse to share another poem. This one originally appeared on the Places of Poetry website. A good poem shouldn’t need additional notes. The ones for this follow afterwards…

Ashes

It’s deepening now this evening blue,
counting stars as they pinprick through,
darkness sweeps in sure footing lost,
this trellised fence a horizon’s seam,
the sky so earthed in shaky dreams.

On my wi-fi playlist the same song replays,
pour another drink as our days decay,
to a long hot summer of a water ban,
stubble scorched grass in Victoria Park,
football and cricket and back before dark

Pete Fran Chris Ade and sometimes Steve,
final score then evening chorus so time to leave,
and walking home along Somerset Road,
and shadows locking arms on the final climb,
a row of elm and am I running low on time.

Scuffed leather skin a stitch half picked out,
sleight-of-hand spinning a googly of doubt,
corner creased photo in a battered tin box,
the energy of youth in our seventies clothes,
two months away from the Damned’s New Rose.

I could open the bowling at the County Ground,
or play the keyboards in a prog rock band,
when empty shops circle the market square,
shuttered ambitions are left fly-posted again;
I had my hopes, I guess we all did then.

This failing light too weak to forestall
will my kids ever hear a cuckoo’s call;
another cold beer as the silence grows,
no song thrush, skylark or nightingale;
the last ball bowled now we’re burning the bails.

Notes: The Victoria Park of this poem is in my home town of Frome in Somerset, not the one in the centre of Portsmouth. I used to spend much of my time growing up playing football and cricket there in pretty much all weathers, (with Pete, Fran, Chris, Ade and sometimes Steve). Not something that kids seem to as much nowadays.

The Damned’s New Rose is generally recognised as being the first punk single. It’s obviously a metaphor here of change, of growing up. A moment in time after which everything was different.

As I have mentioned in previous posts, the Frome of my youth was pretty run down – there were a lot of empty shops in the town centre – it’s a much more vibrant place these days.

The English Elms of my walk home, (sadly no more following the ravages of Dutch Elm Disease) and the final stanza are all, of course, references to a much greater change that we are in the middle of, against which the chaos of Brexit and my woes of missing a cricket match at Lords due to a global health pandemic pale into utter insignificance.

When was the last time you heard a Cuckoo’s call?

The Past is a Journey I Used to Know

We truly are living through momentous times. Of course this may be just a foretaste of what is to come over coming decades, but still it seems that something is changing, has changed. Perhaps permanently. Blindfolds have slipped a little to reveal a world as it really is.

How do we as poets respond to events such as these? How do we write with credibility about events for which we have no personal experience. Maybe my imagination isn’t strong enough, but I would feel pretty queasy trying to write from the perspective of someone in a concentration camp, or a Soviet gulag, or a black man in America today. No matter how hard I tried, my own hidden and unthinking biases would surface at some point. At the very least, it feels somewhat voyeuristic.

But we should write about these issues shouldn’t we? I fully understand why many won’t tackle them, but I think that’s a mistake. I’ve written about historical events, such as the sailing of HMS Sirius, the sinking of the Wilhelmina J, even the opening of a swimming pool in Portsmouth, but some subjects are much more challenging.

As a 50+ year old white man who grew up in a market town in Somerset, how can I relate, for example, to the Black Lives Matter protests? But to do nothing, to write nothing, is to acquiesce. Maybe the poems we create at times like these are destined for the reject drawer, but at the very least the process of writing can help change the perspective of the writer.

It’s all part of the journey, all part of the learning process.

This poem takes as its’ starting point school trips I made to a West Country concert venue.

For Now That Name is a Spit of Shame

Ian Gillan, Whitesnake, Cozy Powell
sewed on patches on denim jackets.
Hard-rock ride for the 6th form crew, 
bench-seat Transit from a satellite town. 
forty years on and time’s dull stun
I’ve nothing left but a building’s name;
so long then riffs from the Colston Hall.

Some energise their lives with memory
So why does it always make me feel so tired?
The past is a journey I used to know.
A programme maybe in the loft somewhere
could reset the dial but I’m too gone,
from banks of speakers and arcs of light,
relays unplugged for the feedback’s cut.

Encore over and with ears still ringing
I guess we’d clamber in and drift asleep,
half-conscious to the dark outside.
Wipers swinging in the spittle rain
with all our choruses as yet unsung;
loves and hopes and joy and loss unknown.
But the reverb still weeps as years roll on

For I am forced to reconstruct what was
from dockside scrap of battered bronze,
the whiplashed scars we all ignored,
the lost laments beyond my listening range,
true meanings of words not histories spun
I can’t breathe in New York City;
the world is change but still the same.

Notes: The obvious reference point for I can’t breathe is George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, but this poem actually references Eric Garner ‘s six years previously. There have been countless others, of course, and will be countless more if the status quo persists.

As for the Colston Hall, I had no idea growing up that it was named after a slaver. Why would I? As a child the history I was taught still spoke of the benefits of empire, and when the slave trade was mentioned (as a footnote) it was only in the context of Wilberforce, the abolitionists and the role of the Royal Navy in shutting it down. A source of British pride, not shame.

But when you actually start to look properly at the impact of the slave trade on the Britain, you see that it was such an integral part of the economics of empire, on the wealth pouring into the country, (not evenly distributed of course), that it is impossible to ignore. British society as we know it was built on the backs of slaves.

Some of us are still grappling with the past as others grapple with the future.

This poem and post is dedicated to the memories of Eric Garner, George Floyd, and all those countless others who couldn’t breathe due to racial oppression and / or slavery around the world.

How Easy it is To Make a Ghost

Today our house is bedecked with flags. A social distancing compliant street party in the afternoon. We have our finger buffet prepared. There will be a quiz. Good natured conversations over garden walls. Maybe some Vera Lynn or big band jazz. It should be fun – and the end of the war in Europe is something to celebrate and remember, despite the attempts at hijacking of anniversaries and national memory by certain individuals and groups for their own ends.

That rant is for another day though.

V.E. Day 75 is also of course an opportunity for remembrance and reflection for all the trauma and lives lost in Europe over the course of those terrible years. It’s also a chance to reflect on what came afterwards, and how people generally tried to create a fairer and more equal society than that before 1939.

Maybe there will be a similar shift in attitudes here once Covid-19 has run it’s course, although comparisons between then and now are facile; as an example, today’s Twitter storm over whether Boris Johnson is this generation’s Churchill or Chamberlain, which is a slur on both of Britain’s wartime Prime Ministers.

Comparison to Chamberlain is very unfair – he was wrong ultimately, but he had lived through WW1 and it’s consequences which had a big influence on his and most other’s thoughts at the time.

In addition the RAF in particular were in desperate need of modern fighters – and at that time after Guernica there were real fears that a single air raid on London would raze the whole city to the ground – so there was I’m sure an element of buying time in the decision making process.

As for Churchill, which aspects of his career are we comparing Johnson with ? Dardanelles or D-Day? Bengal Famine or Battle of Britain? And you really can’t compare Churchill’s views and writings on race with those of our current Prime Minister. Different people, different times, lazy stereotyping. Johnson should be judged on his own actions and merits, not compared with the ghosts of the past.

I’ll finish with a poem by Keith Douglas who died on June 9th 1944 during the invasion of Normandy. This is one of the best poems I have read as to what war is really like. Hopefully once all the flags and bunting are put away, and all the politicians words are forgotten, we can remember this.

How to Kill

Under the parabola of a ball,
a child turning into a man,
I looked into the air too long.
The ball fell in my hand, it sang
in the closed fist: Open Open
Behold a gift designed to kill.

Now in my dial of glass appears
the soldier who is going to die.
He smiles, and moves about in ways
his mother knows, habits of his.
The wires touch his face: I cry
NOW. Death, like a familiar, hears

And look, has made a man of dust
of a man of flesh. This sorcery
I do. Being damned, I am amused
to see the centre of love diffused
and the wave of love travel into vacancy.
How easy it is to make a ghost.

The weightless mosquito touches
her tiny shadow on the stone,
and with how like, how infinite
a lightness, man and shadow meet.
They fuse. A shadow is a man
when the mosquito death approaches

By Keith Douglas

Some Days the Sky Is Brittle Clear

I’m very aware I haven’t written anything here for a few days. It’s a good job I don’t have many followers! A lot of writers seem to be finding these times inspiring from a creativity perspective. I’m not. I have managed to write a couple of haikus for a daily Facebook page – and am quite happy with one of them. I will post it and share others from the Daily Haiku page here as and when I think it appropriate.

During lockdown I should have plenty of time to utilise writing exercises and play with various formal structures and prompts, so as to respond to all the activity out there and be a part of this cultural dialogue, using it as a spark for new work. But I’m not currently in the mood for writing anything about the Coronavirus pandemic.

Part of this might be around trying to avoid being overwhelmed by what is going on right now. I write using a laptop, and could easily spend hours on Facebook, Twitter or various news pages, getting lost in the latest reports and opinion pieces covering the feckless ineptitude of this government in their handling of the crisis.

Like many people I have to be careful. I was diagnosed with depression in 2015, (though may have had it before – the poem at the end of this post is at least twenty years old). It’s a relatively mild form, so I am able to function normally most of the time. It doesn’t noticeably affect my day to day work. I really feel for those whose “black dog” is bigger and more intrusive.

There have been occasions where I have felt the need to take a step back from non-core activities to protect my health – I gave up my roles as chair of governors at a local secondary school and chair of Tongues and Grooves in the Community because of it. I’ve also skipped a good number of events for the same reason.

I do know the poems about Covid-19 will come – whilst I have written very quickly about specific events previously, sometimes it takes a little longer for the ideas to germinate into something for the page. In the meantime, I’ve been working on my annual business accounts, keeping the house reasonably tidy (ish), and playing Fallout 4 – a post apocalypse survival game – on the PS4. Well it’s good to be prepared.

Anyway, what started as a post about one thing has turned into something completely different. Clearly many people’s mental health is going to be very fragile during and after the lockdown. So please be gentle, be kind, and look after yourself and others around you.

Darkness Sometimes This Way Comes

…as a hulking fog-front snuffing out the sun.
Most days it is a vague shape on the horizon,
waiting for the weather to turn.

The worst are those when the sky is brittle clear,
cold enough to snap
into so many defenceless pieces.

These are the times you can’t see it coming,
can’t stiffen or prepare
for this whitening suffocation of thought.

Clouds are clouds whether visible or not,
as rain starts pouring
through cracks in a porcelain sky.