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?

Wilhelmina J

Today, April 10th 2021, is the thirtieth anniversary of the sinking of the Portsmouth based scallop trawler Wilhelmina J.

Wilhelmina J, a 26m beam trawler left Portsmouth on April 9, 1991, to trawl for scallops in the English Channel near fishing grounds known as Horseshoe Bank. But at 2am on April 10, the vessel was involved in a collision during foggy conditions with MV Zulfikar, a 142m Cyprus-registered cargo ship.

All six members of the Wilhelmina J’s crew were lost.

The six men who died were; Jeff Alan Venters, Michael James Bell, Mark Warwick Fitz, Christopher Clifford Thomas, Guy Ransom Davies and Matthew James Hodge.

Their names are on a plaque in Old Portsmouth Fishermans Quay, a memorial in the Old Portsmouth cathedral and a plaque in the Bridge Tavern pub.

I didn’t know any of the crew, but wrote a poem about the sinking a number of years ago. It’s based around the marine accident report summary of what happened that night.

It is one poem in a long sequence of poems, (currently unpublished), themed around my running the perimeter of Portsea Island whilst training for marathons – the circa 16 mile run goes past the small fishing harbour where the Wilhelmina J was based. I thought now was as good a time as any to share it here (it was previously published in South Poetry and on the Places of Poetry website.

I read the poem at an event in Southsea and someone came up to me afterwards saying they knew one of the families who had lost someone, and asked me for a copy of the poem (which I gave them, obviously), so that they could give it to them. I can’t imagine that it helped in any way. But maybe it did.

My thoughts today are with the families of those who were lost. I can only imagine what they have gone through over these years, what they are going through today.

I’ve posted a link at the bottom of this post to the donation page for the RNLI who, whilst they couldn’t have done anything in this case, save hundreds of lives each year around our shores. I raised money for the RNLI the first time I ran the Great South Run. It’s a charity I have a lot of time for.

Wilhelmina J

At sea
it is the small decisions that count;
to rely on assumptions,
or not,
to check all frequencies
make sure your lookout is on watch,
or not,
to see a shape in the swirling dark
in the shifting canvas of fog

As always
a series of coincidences
of misunderstandings and mistakes
and not,
this damp wool-blanket of a night
heavy on ship and water alike,
and not
names on a plaque in the Bridge Tavern
in the apportioning of blame.

And so,
running past a pile of lobster pots
a chiller trailer and fishing boats,
is not
the time to think of giving in
to aches and pains of inconsequence,
but is
the point to pick up your heels
and live life fast as long as you can.

If you wish to support the work of the RNLI, please go to;

https://rnli.org/support-us/give-money/donate

The Poetry Place

A brief post to share the link to the February edition of the Poetry Place on West Wilts Radio, on which I read Bird in Hand, amongst 10 other poets.

https://westwiltsradio.com/shows/the-poetry-place-14-28-02-21/

It’s worth a listen – not so much for my poem, as for the other poets. There’s a really nice range of voices this month.

Football Poets

Just a quick post to mention that my poem Bird in Hand is the featured poem on the Football Poets website today. I’ve posted a couple of other football related poems there as well. If you pop over to the site you’ll see loads of other football poetry alongside my three efforts. There are new poems being posted on a daily basis.

This is one of the great things about poetry – there are poems for everyone, no matter what you are interested in – I am sure most genres and subject matters have dedicated sites for you to find across the web

Three Films

During the first lockdown, I made some very basic poetry films. These were in response to a couple of requests for material for online events.

The three poems are;

The Transmutation of Geese, Metamorphosis in a Copnor Garden & The Domestication of Ghosts

The first and third poems have previously been published, in South and Orbis magazines respectively, and subsequently appear in my first collection, Landings (published by Dempsey & Windle Publishing in 2018). The second poem, (and film), was a direct response to the lockdown itself.

If you are interested in watching them, they can be viewed as one continuous video here;

Don’t worry – I’m only speaking to camera in the second poem – the first and third poems have still images as the visual element. In the first poem ( The Transmutation of Geese) these are photographs I took whilst running around the perimeter of Portsmouth training for marathons, and the final poem (The Domestication of Ghosts) has images selected from Wikimedia Commons under (I believe) the appropriate usage license. Feel free to contact me here if you are the license holder and I have made a mistake in this respect.

If you do watch them, please let me know your thoughts – good or bad. The feedback would be useful- even though I don’t currently plan to create more poetry films – I think I’ll leave it to the professionals! If you want to see the difference that a talented filmmaker can make, see my earlier posts about the films created for my Swordfish and Of Whales and Mermaids poems.

Places of Poetry Book Launch

It’s the day after National Poetry Day – I should have posted something yesterday, but much of my day was taken up with dealing with a deceased fridge-freezer. Anyway, this film has been released about a wonderful project I was involved with – Places of Poetry is a website where people posted poems on a map of England & Wales. It is open for additional poems to be posted until the 10th of October.

One of my poems was chosen to be filmed, and a book was made of some of the contributions.I’ve shared the poem here before – this film isn’t of the poem itself, but is about the project – and the results of the interviews of two other poets and myself who were filmed reciting our poems.

The book was launched last night, with this accompanying film. If you are having a tough time at the moment, or even if you aren’t maybe try reading or writing some poetry?

Nice also to give my home city a bit of publicity

Remembering the Wild Mouse

Sometimes the past rushes back in an instant. It doesn’t take much. I was on Facebook yesterday, completing a song-title list challenge;

Ok music lovers — here are the rules:Answer each category with a SONG TITLE. No repeats and don’t use the internet (it’s tempting but try not to). Go with the first song that comes to mind, change the answers to your own.

My list was as follows;

* Something to wear – All I Want for Christmas is a Dukla Prague Away Kit (Half Man Half Biscuit)
* Something to drink- Whisky in the Jar (Thin Lizzy)
* A Place- Lost in the Supermarket (The Clash)
* A Food – Chocolate Cake (Crowded House)
* An Animal – The Seabirds (The Triffids) – if that’s not specific enough then Hungry Like the Wolf was the second animal I thought of… (Duran Duran obv.)
* A Number – Pop Song 89 (REM)
* A Colour – Deep Red Bells (Neko Case)
* A Girl’s Name – Yolanda (Bobby Bland)
*A Boy’s Name – Joeys on the Streets Again (Boomtown Rats)
* Profession – Here I Dreamt I Was An Architect (The Decemberists)
* Day of the Week- Friday I’m in Love (The Cure)
* A Vehicle – Rollercoaster Song (Lilac Time)

Not necessarily what would be my considered choices in each category, just the first ones I thought of. That last song though. Stephen Duffy (yes, original member of Duran Duran) wrote some brilliant English folk-rock / pop songs. It remains a favourite, along with The Girl who Waves at Trains. I have great memories of singing along to both of them with the the rest of the family in our old Vauxhall Zafira. He may have written better songs, but none of them made our family holiday compilation CDs for the long journeys to Cornwall, Norfolk Scotland or Wales.

As for rollercoasters, I love them. New ones can be great – there’s a few at Thorpe Park – Saw, Stealth and Swarm – that I really like, but it’s the old wooden ones that are the best. The rattling and shaking, that slight worry that the whole thing might fall apart whilst in mid air, the inevitable bruises. What more could you want? I’ve been lucky enough to ride the Vuoristorata in Helsinki, built in 1950 and with a brakeman at the back, Cyclone, the famous Coney Island coaster (the one that Spiderman sits on in the Marvel film), which was built much earlier, (in 1927), and of course the Big Dipper (1923), Grand National (1935) and Rollercoaster (1933) at Blackpool Pleasure Beach.

Then there was the Wild Mouse (1958), which was pulled down in 2018. Despite appearances, it gave a huge adrenaline rush. A small track with lots of hidden sharp turns and dips and plenty of ‘air time’. We also had a Wild Mouse at Clarence Pier here in Portsmouth, which I didn’t get to go on before it was replaced. I think I was too young. But it was made of metal – It would have rotted pretty quickly if it was made of wood as it was out over the sea and often soaked in spray.

I only managed to ride the Blackpool Mouse once. It must have been almost thirty years ago. A group of friends from Middlesex Polytechnic for a catch up drinking weekend. One of them Andy ‘H’ Howard, told us how his parents courted on the same ride, thirty years or so before.

I lost contact with Andy for a number of years. He’d moved back to Droylsden in Greater Manchester, and I’d moved from London to Portsmouth and was building a new life here on the south coast. Out of the blue I received a phone call from Andy for a catch up. He’d had a really tough time, having been diagnosed with cancer. We talked about his treatment, and how he was battling the disease. I promised to visit him in Manchester when he was well enough to see visitors again. I didn’t realise he was calling to say goodbye.

I can remember the conversation as if it were yesterday. It doesn’t take much to bring it back. Just a Facebook challenge and a single song title.

The poem that follows was written a few years afterwards, and tweaked when the Wild Mouse was removed. A version has been posted on the Places of Poetry website, approximately where the ride stood on Blackpool Pleasure Beach.


Remembering the Wild Mouse


That old rollercoaster
where your parents courted,
memories pulled upwards
to the point of no recall,
unclipped at gravity’s pace.

In winter repairs,
life as a clean coat of paint,
each year of change
new as old as new.
A different same;
so with us all, as once with you.

Back at the tipping point
their hearts rising, confetti falling,
bends sharpen then straighten,
time slews so nearly splintering;
but foundations still hold,
keep rails in line.

I hear it is no more,
no last chance to renew,
as one day with us, as now with you;
when all that remains is memory,
this point beyond return.






For H

Sailing the Lockdown

It can be a real challenge to write about something such as Covid-19. By write, I mean in the context of something that is publishable. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed. There are times when I think I should be writing directly about our current situation, as if I have some kind of social duty to do so. Yet most of what I have written about Covid has been pretty marginal in terms of quality (and that’s being charitable). Thank Christ I have no chance of being poet laureate!

Part of the issue is trying to write something that is different to what everyone else is churning out. It will be interesting to see what poetry from these times lasts. I suspect, as usual, it will be the oblique poems, the ones with a very narrow focus, or the blunt political ones, (let’s face it there is plenty of subject material here to focus on!) that resonate the longest.

I did enter one of my Covid poems into this year’s Portsmouth Poetry competition. It didn’t place – which I was half-expecting. It was great to see some familiar names in the prizewinning list, including Mark Cassidy who won overall, and is an excellent poet who should have a published collection by now. Come on Faber – give him a call! As for my entry, the judges very kindly gave me some feedback, which I will share here.

Rejection is all part of the process with poetry, and any other writing for that matter. If you cannot cope with it then my advice is to not bother sending it out. Work is rejected for all sorts of reasons, and not just down to the perceived quality of what has been submitted – does if fit with the magazine, the theme of the issue, it it too similar or different to other poems already selected? It’s rare to get a reason or any specific feedback, which is why I was delighted to hear back from the competition judges.

Incidentally, I actually agree with the feedback. I had a few qualms about the poem when I sent it in – did it read as if I was trying a bit too hard? Was it a bit hackneyed in terms of imagery / subject matter? Was it just a bit meh?

Their feedback is as follows. It’s positive, it’s encouraging, but I think it nails the issues with the poem itself. Let me know your thought . Is it salvageable? As it stands it’s going nowhere near my next collection! It’s also too long for most magazines, so I may as well share it here instead!!

“Sailing the Lockdown” 

The use of the image / concept of sailing as a metaphor for the journey experience we have all undertaken is a good one. The problem with such metaphors is that they can easily become over-stretched and start to be clumsy and lose their impact. We felt that this poem ‘sails’ close to that reef, too close on occasions and sometimes tries too hard to be ‘poetic’ and meaningful. Generally, however, you avoided the pitfalls and there are some really good metaphorical concepts and some lovely poetry such as “constellations of memories” Well done 

Anyway, the poem. Still struggling with the formatting of poems on WordPress.com with my Mac, so have posted it as a quote – which I think looks a little better than the default format for poems.

Sailing the Lockdown

So we shaped our horizons
with hands made of clay,
cupping the water,
sculpting decks for the sky,
but skin kept on shedding,
kept dusting the wind,
for our hands were still clay.

Stuck here in the dry dock
as days roll by in waves,
stale tang in the air;
whether Covid or calenture,
it’s the missing that kills us
and I’m shedding my future
sick from the swell.

Light makes a filagree
in the coruscation of surf,
the roil and the surge,
the shimmer shine of shingle,
the skin pricks of spray,
and all I can do now
is sit here and wait.

Sunrises sunsets and stars;
constellations of memories
are salt scars and rope marks,
as individual as fingerprints
on these cracked hands of clay,
and now they are fading,
with every layer I shed.

Card decks are collapsing
as our horizons recede, 
clay turns to sediment
in this dissolution of days;
the ghosts of lost landfall,
we thought ours for the taking,
to till as we willed.

But someday we’ll sail,
lash pasts to the main,
fast our eyes to the storm
near-drowning in hindsight,
as our spinnakers fill;
ebb tide to a new future
from this churning of ways.

HMS Swordfish

Built in 1932, HMS Swordfish was one of the first batch of S-class submarines to be built. With a normal crew of thirty-six, these were primarily designed for British coastal patrol duties, and as a consequence were smaller and far more vulnerable than later boats (in naval parlance submarines are always known as boats, not ships). Of the twelve that started the war, only three made it to V.E. Day.

After eleven relatively uneventful patrols, HMS Swordfish left Portsmouth for the final time on November 7th 1940, disappearing shortly after. Initially it was thought she had been sunk by German destroyers, but her wreck was found in July 1983. She had hit a mine.

Just one tragedy amongst so many others.

A memorial service was held later that year, 43 years on from her loss.

I came across the story whilst doing research for an (as yet unpublished) sequence of poems about running around the perimeter of Portsea Island whilst training for various marathons. The poem that follows was written as part of this sequence, which has certain word and phrase repetitions / near-repetitions linking different poems and themes. The sequence is fifty – one poems long. Some of the poems have appeared on a standalone basis, both in my first collection and elsewhere; online, in print and in a couple of cases, as poetry films.

I posted my Swordfish poem on the Places in Poetry map, where it can still be seen, placed over what was once HMS Dolphin, her home in 1940 (with the exception of the nuclear armed boats, all British subs are now based in Devonport) . A few months later it was one of three poems from over 7,000 on the site to be selected to be turned into a film. In view of the volume of high quality poems available I was surprised and honoured that one of mine was chosen.

You can see the results of a day’s filming, plus lots of editing by the very talented people at Preston Street Films here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SrZcNMi3xQY

Thanks also of course to everyone involved in the Places of Poetry project. If you haven’t already had a look at the website then it is at; www.placesofpoetry.org.uk

I hope that both poem and film do justice to the original subject matter.

Swordfish

Just in earshot
over the hush now shush of traffic,
all the rumours of a city,
fully awake but not.

Swollen sea churning,
brown black blue black
steel black
black,

White black white.

Swordfish

pebbles kiss,

Swordfish
Swordfish.

November 1940
a blue grey steel grey sky,
she is still waiting,
still hoping.
Knowing and not knowing,

until ‘83,

a memorial service,
washing away
forty years’ silt
in a brine-filled blink.

A Sea of Blue

In other circumstances I would be at Wembley today, along with another 50,000+ Portsmouth FC fans, for the final of the Leasing.com Trophy. Blue skies, a beautiful spring day, the stuff of memories (or nightmares depending on the result!). A real shame – though the stadium’s empty silence today is of course of minor consequence compared to what else is happening in the UK and around the world right now.

I’ve been lucky though. If you had told me twenty years ago that I would have seen Pompey at Wembley 6 times already (two FA Cup Finals, two Semi Finals, a Charity Shield and last year’s Checkatrade final – from which the cover photo is from – I wouldn’t have believed you). I feel very sorry for those Liverpool fans waiting at Anfield for 30 years for a league title.

In 2008 Pompey won the FA Cup for the first time since 1939. During the course of the war, the trophy travelled around various safe houses, eventually ending up at the Bird in Hand pub in Lovedean, where it was kept above the bar for three years. In 2009 the trophy went back there for one night of celebration, and I was lucky enough to be in attendance, (there is a photo of me on a hard drive somewhere holding the FA Cup).

The poem that follows is about that evening, and about that sunny spring day in 2008 when the cup was won again after a gap of 69 years. It’s also about my home, this city by the sea and how much it suffered between 1939 and 1945.

It first appeared in South Poetry Magazine, appears in Landings , and can also be found placed on the Places in Poetry map on the Bird in Hand pub in Lovedean, a few miles north of Portsmouth.

Apart from the connection to today’s non-event, I thought it worth posting at this time because of the ending. Whatever happens over the coming weeks, most of us will get through this, and have plenty of future opportunities to live, to celebrate, to enjoy each of our own personal victories over the coming years. Good luck and good health.

Bird in Hand

The FA Cup 1939 – 2008

We drink in the presence of greatness.
A glorious bird of paradise
that fills the room with life.
Wanderers to Portsmouth all roads between,
a coach trip ride through hedge-screened fields.

This monochrome world that we engraved
as so many lives were sliding past.
Waiting for the blackout to end,
as if nothing we did really mattered,
as if watching was all that there was.

So we taped up all the windows,
made do with any small victory,
turned out the lights and kept quiet.
As the radio spat static and crackled,
keeping our hopes in the dark.

And here we are only nine months on,
a country pub where they kept it safe
for five lost years as the city burned,
payloads emptied on a scrap of earth.
Abide with me all flags at half mast.

Abide with me and a sea of blue.
Wembley stadium and Kanu scores,
forty-something men so close to tears,
my daughters and I in our Pompey shirts.
The final whistle on a perfect day.

And here we are on the journey home,
brilliant colours will fade to none,
as the flags we carry are furled away.
Like Tommy Rowe at ninety-two
leaving all thoughts in the dark.

So drink to the presence of greatness,
for everything you do really matters.
Enjoy all of your victories.
Turn on the lights and sing out,
for living is all that there is.

* Wanderers were the first winners of the FA Cup. Tommy Rowe was the last member of the ’39 team to die. Abide with Me is sung at the start of every FA Cup Final, and often at remembrance day services.