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?

Write Out Loud Beyond the Storm Competition

Second post today – this time to flag the deadline for Write Out Loud’s current poetry competition (which is today). The competition, which is free to enter , is looking for entries on the theme of the Covid-19 crisis. Donations are requested for the NHS Charities appeal should you decide to enter.

The competition can be found at www.writeoutloud.net/beyondthestorm

Campfire World

A quick post to share an event this weekend that I am performing at (virtually obviously) Campfire.World is an online festival running from today, Friday 19th , through to Sunday 21st June.

Full details can be found at Campfire World https://www.campfire.world/?fbclid=IwAR0l2Ox1snVwTyMVyamkl73ozX2Ju46GVLKW7m1dZ2El6NHkzq4P-eAX-WA

Lots of great acts, talks and events. I’m appearing as part of the Front Room series of events on Sunday afternoon – under my stage name “plus many more” :-).

You can download the full programme from the site.

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.

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.