(elegy written in a city junkyard)
We’re floating, drifting down the old Missouri.
The old man holds the paddle in the water
more to keep the course than anything.
I’m leaning lazy on a box of furs
watching Mr Bingham while he sketches.
Old Darkness, she stares at him too.
Light just falls into her: I wonder
how he’ll paint her, if he’ll maybe
leave her out the picture.
I am strangely engaged by Haggerston
If I’d won a million quid
I might have gone and lived there
As it is I’ll just say that I did.
(another prelude in another flat)
Bill Wordsworth! Sammy Coleridge! I have stood
where you guys wandered lonely, wrote your stuff
(Don’t worry, guys, I don’t mean to attempt
rhyming with pseudo-Byronic audacity
I’ve no doubt I lack the poetic capacity).
I have walked the Quantocks and the Lakeland
Fells with you (and Wainwright too, equally
poetic in his gruff way). Of course these places —
albeit I was led there by the whim of colleagues
or a comic-sounding euphony of name — have
yet inspired the soul: my heart has danced
with daffodils; I’ve wondered at the prospects of
Helvellyn’s daunting mass from Striding Edge,
looked out across the Levels from Will’s Neck
Naked, once, atop the Quantock Hills, I made
my solitary salutations to the dawn, rolling
in bracken, dew-soaked, caressed by her rosy
fingers; in company with none but deer
and badger and the members of the chorus.
How free, almost alive, I felt for that brief while
before I dressed and headed down the hill
From the earliest have I loved
the wild places and the village greens of England.
As well as my native Nottinghamshire rides, cycling
with friends from school, there were the hikes;
the hills and edges of Hathersage and Shropshire:
these places have I also walked, in all weathers
in my youth, my Nineteen-Sixties adolescence.
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young
as the poet might have said, was fucking ace!
The sweaty club, school disco, city streets,
but also walking in the far, high hills. In each
I felt at home, in each alive. Symphony concerts
or progressive gigs, these spoke to me alike.
The city bar or village pub: I explored both
and, underage, delighted in both. But always dreamed
my latter days would tend to the bucolic, rural life.
A house and acres, pleasant vistas of gentle, rolling
hills, wherein my love (whoever that might be)
and I, maybe with a brace of sturdy dogs, would walk
or even ride our trusty steeds. A pleasant garden
(with a well-kept croquet lawn), a swing-seat
from where, hand in hand, we’d watch the evening sun
setting behind the not-so-distant hills, as evening
swallows flitted o’er the streams.
My God, how dull
and stultifying that now seems!
And so, a cri de coeur :
one day I scribbled on a scrap of paper, one brief piece
of doggerel from my small-town Midlands home:—
I’m tired of all these tiny-minded people
Living out their tiny-minded lives
I long to breathe on Hampstead Heath
Or rot in Soho’s sordid dives.
Now, as Time’s wingéd chariot roars on, intent
on crushing me beneath its welcome wheels, I know
the city is my natural home. Give me bustle, give me
noise and things to do: culture, conversation,
crowded bars and quiet cafés.
And so at last
I moved to live not far from Keats’s place, looked down
on the Great Wen from Parliament Hill, saw that lamp
that was the town’s from Campden Hill and Camden Lock.
The Heath my fells and woods, the number Twenty-Four
my wingéd chariot to culture and conviviality.
And while I still delight in Nature’s bounty, still yearn
to visit spaces open, green and wild, the centre of my life,
shifting from the narrow streets of crazy Cádiz town
and guid Auld Reekie’s lively bars and drunken clubs
now looks like one long slide, inexorable — and maybe
not by way of Kensal Green — to Haggerston.
Roll the sounds around my mind
‘South of the Balls Pond Road’
‘Down from De Beauvoir Town’,
Time was I wanted to live
on a canal. A vaguely traditional
narrow boat (plus some mod cons):
a vagabond existence, the boatman-
bane of bureaucrats and the
British Waterways Board.
A permanent mooring would not do for me:
give me a sanitation station key
and let me wander, like a diesel-powered cloud
through pastures ever-changing, ever new.
No regrets now though;
no wistful looking back;
happily convinced it would all have been
a lot more trouble and a lot less fun
than even a lazy pessimist might foretell.
But still that silver ribbon plays its part
and features in my dreams of Haggerston.
I never went to Shimla.
In fact I never went
to India at all. I never
even worked out why
I wanted to. Someone
said once that if I had,
I could only have been
that’s true. But having
never had a fixed idea,
a vision, or an expectation,
it’s hard to see whence
disappointment might have come.
I used to joke I must have lived
in Shimla in a former life —
an officer or soldier in the Raj,
a punkah-wallah, sepoy — or a Prince —
and something special must have
happened there; perhaps some business
left undone still haunts my soul
and calls me back. But if
it ever did, it’s gone quite quiet
of late. I hardly ever think
of Shimla now.
(los diarios de repartadores de pizza)
The plan was simple:
Visit Buenos Aires, stay with Cris.
Get jobs delivering pizzas, nick the bikes;
head for the Andes, share the now-cold snacks
and revolución with campesinos.
Down to the coast — Valparaiso!
Unlike Che, try not to wreck the bikes —
When I say ‘simple’ I am well aware
that in the dream-state called the ‘real world’
riding through mountains into tropic lands
is far from easy, even for those folks
with previous experience of bikes.
Back up the coast and once again the climb
into the Andes, through the border towns
(a Titicaca steamer is a must).
The most romantic place that one could die,
my wife claimed, is a mountain in Peru;
so we’ll stick to Bolivia and pick our way
to Riberalta and the Rio Madeira;
alternating boats and jungle roads
until we meet the mighty Amazon.
And why Manaus, once wealthy centre of
the rubber trade? My friend Virginia, from
my life in Spain, had married a Brazilian
living there: one needs no more excuse.
Then trace the Amazon and Rio Negro —
God knows how long all this is meant to take;
Fitzcarraldo would not choose as grim a task
as climbing up from trackless jungle wastes
to gain the table lands and Bogota.
As for my own roots,
I feel no need to trek to Vilnius
or Eastern Poland, seeking histories,
insignificant, ill-fitted for romance;
while second-hand nostalgia (fanned by love),
for little-known Hispanic heritage,
in tropic climes with mountains, jungles, lakes:
will do me fine — it sounds more fun than mine —
Then it fell apart:
Cris moved to the seaside
Ginny returned to Spain
You sought a new direction
And I’m alone again
‘Driving’ round our online maps
the places of the mind have now become
places we can visit from our laptops,
even phones, viewed from the roof
of a recently-cruising Smart.
I fear the death of mystery;
that dream which hovers, somewhere
out of reach, which ignorance
(and laziness and apathy)
prevent me from quite knowing;
a rather humdrum grail,
it must be said, but a grail
(of sorts) nonetheless. Where is
the magic of Haggerston for me,
when I can see anonymous figures
waiting drably for the bus to town
in some grey urban sprawl?
Oh, Haggerston! I’m going
to preserve you. Never be more
than lines and colours in my A to Z.
Googlemaps will not destroy
my numinous and half-formed fancies
of your Shangrila-like setting.
It’s only a fanciful notion
Without any meaning or worth
And I prob’ly won’t fly down to Rio ——
I’ll just look at it on Google Earth
(to those who have gone before)
tread softly as you walk these London streets.
treat my dreams of an unclaimed future
with the same respect as you should
my irredeemable yet still essential past
uncertain streets are more than half deserted
on a chilly springday morn. a distant
siren ruffles the canal. gulls squabble
strident over rubbish by the water.
an icy breeze
sharp as a con-man’s smile
cleans the mint-blue air of shame
and makes the buildings sparkle
rosy in the rising sun.
or does it?
no sedge droops withered on the towpath
I doubt that even in the city farm
sweet bulls brag much in Haggerston
or that many spuggies fledge at all.
(false memory syndrome: Laburnum St Sonnet)
I muse on days when we'd arrange to meet —
A London geezer and his London gal —
Outside the school gates on Laburnum Street
To take a stroll along the old canal.
I hear the dead leaves scrunch on Autumn nights —
The soundtrack to our romance in the Park —
The bare trees breaking up the City lights
Keeping our teenage fumblings in the dark.
Who cares that I'm in fact a Midlands lad,
And you no more than mid-life fantasy?
Sometimes the memories we never had
Mean so much more than mere reality.
Just light my last years dimly with the beams
Of sorrow, shining softly from my dreams.
END OF PART I
(lost pen interlude)
I don't like writing poetry in pencil.
Don't ask me why. It just feels wrong
somehow. In trusty pen I constantly
amend, cross out and squeeze in extra bits,
there's something in the feel of a biro
(for preference, hexagonal, a Bic)
and most of all this feeling of commitment —
like sketching nudes in ink, a sort
of risk, an antidote to hesitancy.
When drawing with pencils, a certain
vagueness creeps in, dithering lines
that somehow come together nonetheless,
even if lacking the vigour of a bold
inked line. With poetry (or even prose),
grasping a pencil in my hand inhibits,
paralyses, saps my will and beats
imagination round the skull, like that
damned van that revs its engine
in the street below, the nagging lyrics
of a radio song or the half-heard sounds
of chatter on a train or in a caff.
(on the bridge at night, alone)
I have stood by the Housatonic
near Stockbridge as the sun went down;
no hymns drifted over the water:
only the hum of the town.
In my mind’s eye alone have I drifted
down the ol’ Mississippi with Huck;
heard the chug of the paddle steamers
where the gamblers tried their luck.
And now, by the lockside in Hackney,
it’s to Owl Creek I look for my fate;
in no one’s prayers and no one’s hopes,
as I stand on the bridge and wait.
(to Pablos everywhere)
Some have exile thrust upon them
while some are ever exiled in their souls
It feels a bit pathetic to complain
when Chileans and Spaniards, kept from home,
don’t know if they will ever see again
the land that made them, all they once held dear.
And what of those, from poverty or war,
forced to be strangers in even stranger lands?
And yet to feel you simply don’t belong,
in spite of manifest gemütlichkeit,
can torture like a rampant Minotaur
or set the leaves a-tremble in your soul.
But poets are like that. Molehills
and mountains are all the same to us.
A vague alienation or bleakest galut.
You make your own significance,
choose your perspective. Some
of us just create our own small exile.
In every dreamworld a headache
And every pill I take
Takes me further from Hoxton.
What’s left in Hoxton?
It’s so last millennium.
(only a paper moon)
In Somerset did Coleridge
A masterpiece of poetry intend.
With chemicals he made that trip,
Cut short before its end
The bells that sound on Bredon
Did so in Housman's mind,
In his scholarly rooms in London,
With the Marches far behind
So let it be with Haggerston for me
When all is said and done;
All seasons shall be sweet to thee,
And little 'twill matter to one.
There’s a sex shop for ladies in Hoxton
Or there was the last time I was there.
None of your Soho-seedy shit —
A subtly exotic affair.
With toys of all shapes and all sizes;
All jellified, nobbly, metallic:
All shaped for the clit or the G-spot —
Denying the need to be phallic.
They can show you so many devices
To stimulate, tingle or lube —
And even for guys it’s less daunting
Than a visit to Jopling’s White Cube.
There’s a sex shop for ladies in Hoxton —
At least there was last time I looked —
I'm unlikely to go back to Hoxton —
And less likely still to be fucked.
(a Shropshire lad)
It's only two more years before
I'm due to walk the Mynd again
Fourth sesquidecadal visit and
by far the least looked-forward to;
but I must walk those blue-remembered
hills for one last time, alone.
Pocket transistor, Sixties precursor of the mp3,
its single earplug like a cheapo hearing aid.
Radio Three was the Third Programme then, music
a new enthusiasm. Emperor Concerto, Schumann
number Four, as we climbed up from Plowden —
I assume: all these years later I forget the route —
even the physics master's name who dragged us all
from Nottingham. But the music, I remember: years
before my time in sonic isolation.
Other isolations nothing new. Lacking
the nerve to buy booze underage, after
the lunchtime scramble down the hillside to
the Crown at Wentnor, standing in the yard,
feigning an unconvincing lack of thirst,
while fifteen-yeared contemporaries swilled
their pints of local ale with the teachers.
I remember the gliding club, watching
the sleek cylinders with their overreaching wings,
winched skywards, soaring on currents of rising
air, blown in from Wales. Fear of heights vying
with youthful, primal needs and dreams. And lying
in the ling with Susan Smith, once more too shy
to take the offered intimacy, fearing sharp rebuff
as prize for misread signals. We descend to Ashes
He's a big Tolkien fan, and likens views
to his own images of Middle Earth. I'm also
reading, and it's me that points out how
the hill above World's End (you cannot buy
much better symbols) would suit a Hobbit-hole,
a site I often dreamt of occupying. And finally, by
the coach in the Carding Mill Valley, Victorian
machines, from fairgrounds and arcades: gruesome
tableaux, bagatelles, galvanic handles for a penny
shock, once deemed salubrious. Things that stick
while others fade from view. Ah yes — I think
his name was Geoff.
'Mrs Noblett' is a name that sticks. A lovely lady but
all this is down to her, at least in part. 'Twas in
her B&B in Carding Mill where I, in jest, declared
that walking on the Mynd was a tradition, one
repeated every fifteen years. How old she thought
I was, I cannot say. More like she hadn't thought
it through. And though I did explain that I was
thirty, this my second time, the seed was planted
firmly then and there. Of walking, with my wife, I don't
remember much; no routes, no incidents. I do recall
the food our hostess skilfully prepared, happy
to use her skills and training on appreciative guests,
unlike the too-familiar 'where's the chippie, where
the curry house?' And the dog, a boxer,
larger than the Noblett sprogs,
but oh so patient, who came in
and sat down drowsy by
the fire, until, worn down
by their persistent
coaxing, she got up and
with a shrug of resignation
went back outside to play.
Back down to Ashes now I’m forty-five.
Yes it’s back down to Ashes now I’m forty-five.
A new hostess in the same old B&B.
No caterer manqué this time: basic
breakfasts only. Jaipur, Church
Stretton’s Curry House, not far
to walk. How clearly I recall
the meal that disagreed with
Judy’s guts, the midnight accident
in an ill-lit bathroom, the trompe-l'œil
loo seat that she’d thought raised.
another partner in my life, and this time
with a car, to visit the Stiperstones
and stand on Wenlock Edge, as once
the Roman stood; to climb Caer
Caradoc and lunch on sandwiches
and cans of fizz, where bold Caractacus
made his last legendary stand.
the Mynd, its slopes and hollows, its outsize
skies, its bracken, springs and sheep. Still
it calls me to lie down gentle in its folds,
remember Judy, Helga, Susan Smith —
think on what was and on what might
have been with them and one who never
walked the Shropshire Hills with me.
everybody needs a bosom for a pillow.
Everybody needs a bosom.
Am I allowed to cheat, I wonder? Take
a taxi to the top and walk along and down?
My heart and lungs complain enough at
strolling up the Mound from Princes Street.
I’m not sure it’s my age
I feel, as such. I lack
the motivation to look after
myself, to carry on. Staying
alive seems hardly worth the
bother half the time; keeping
fit is just a joke. Weltschmerz
is a lovely word; and so is
no longer fashionable.
A four-year stomach
ache, chest pains and general
feebleness — by day so hard
to stay awake, by night
impossible to sleep.
It’s all in your head, it’s your soul that’s dead
(no, this is not self-pity, self-loathing neither:
my indifference to the guy is overwhelming —
call it, perhaps, zen nihilism – that’ll do).
Perhaps the prospect of this one last trek
is what I need to get me off my arse —
twenty-five whole months of exercise,
starting gently. Walking to a gym (not
going in — do you think I’m mad?);
doing the hills, Auld Reekie’s dead
volcanoes, starting with the High Street,
then up Calton Hill and round the monuments,
and aiming, late next year, at daily runs
up Arthur’s Seat.
I saw this crazy Swiss guy
on tv, who scales the North face of the Eiger,
taking less than three hours for the trip.
If I can do the easy slope of Salisbury Crags
in twice that time, I’ll know I’m ready for the Mynd
from any angle. Maybe I’ll start my new regime
occurred to me there is no rule, not
even in my self-imposed observance,
that says I have to stay in Carding
Mill, nor any casual vow, committing
me to making an ascent on foot.
Atop the hills, close by World’s End,
there sits the looming, faded-grandeur, fin de siècle
pile of the Long Mynd Hotel. Like me it may
have seen much better days, yet still affords
a few fine prospects. Crumbling gentility —
what better base from which to strike out, perhaps
in sturdy tweeds, befitting the English gent,
on a gentle exploration of the ridge?
to and from the Station: problem solved. That’s
what I’ll do, assuming that I live that long.
No need for boring exercise and fat-free diet
at all. I feel a whisky coming on …
(better the devil you know?)
What you’ve never had, you never miss
By all let this be heard —
Like many another cliché
The claim is quite absurd.
That you cannot lose what you never had
Is self-evidently so,
But some men need the dreams it breeds
And God, I'm one, I know.
It's less than five hours on a train
From here to King's Cross Station
But shorter by far in the Pullman car
Of my imagination.
No special route, no magic bus,
No 'right, straight on till morning';
Just believe and you'll receive
Salvation without warning
No need to click my ruby heels —
Just wish, and thereupon
Auld Reekie is dissolved away
And I'm in Haggerston.
O, my Shambhala! O, my unfound land!
My Avalon; my Tír na nÓg; Cockaigne!
There'll be no peace within my soul
Till I walk your streets again.
Hold me, Haggerston.
Help me keep it together
while I fall apart.
A toast to all those poets who dream
of green hills far away;
although I’ve never been,
they call me back to Mandalay.
But the best of lost horizons
all share one tiresome catch:
they’re coloured in with magic paint
reality can’t match.
Real life comes with a side-plate
of pickled flies in ointment,
so some build castles in the air
to ward off disappointment
while more Arcadian egos
find new determination
to make this world a closer fit
to their imagination.
However fatuous it seems
the Quixotic has its uses;
our lives are built upon our dreams,
be they spurs or mere excuses.
But the cynic life-accountants
still ask what things are for;
if they have no music in their souls
can they ever know the score?
The Niké swoosh ‘just do it'
is fine for those who follow
but to those of more creative bent
its ring is flat and hollow
and far from broadening the mind
travel often goes to show
that souls which look but don’t engage
never to heaven go.
Who’d be a half-cut expat,
living bitter British bland,
in some safe non-foreign corner
of some warm exotic land?
Your body’s been to Thailand
but the reason for your trip
was just to neck a load of booze
and watch some poor birds strip
Don’t call me unadventurous,
you fucking Biedermann,
I’ve spent more scintillating hours
in a Skegness caravan.
From Mandalay to Briggflatts
Sod those unromantic cunts
Who sneer while Rudyard Kipples
And laugh when Basil Bunts
The rear doors of their wardrobes
Locked tight against the snow:
What do they know of Haggerston,
Who only Hampstead know?
(January—April 2011, Edinburgh)