Thursday, 26 March 2015

The day thou gavest


(after conjectures that the hymn tune 'St Clement', long attributed to the Rev. Clement Scholefield, might be in part the work of Arthur Sullivan)

What part is Clement, what part Arthur,
none now can hope or need to tell.
The hymn the singers love is seamless;
if sewn, then sewn together well.

Whatever zones part eve from waking,
the shadow edge of light in air
moves elegiac in its raising
along the spine and through the hair.

And did the famous aid the cleric,
whose other music fell away?
The question stands, and needs no letters,
no fingerprints, no DNA.

And only wishing tells us Clement,
himself a part of all he'd met,
once only found, once only, music
more great than most, more nearly great.

This poem was written in 2013 for the Mirehouse/Words by the Water competition, whose theme that year was the Tennyson quotation "I am a part of all that I have met." I cannot remember what led me, at about that time, to the Wikipedia page for the hymn tune 'St Clement', so effectively tied to the words 'The day thou gavest'. But here was a story of authorship questioned after more than a century, and blurrings of individual contribution that had become impossible now to determine. I thought it fitted well with the quotation.

I've now entered the poem in a Poem Pigeon competition on the theme 'Awakenings'.

Saturday, 7 March 2015

The finest-hour syndrome

The finest-hour syndrome

(A minister became convinced that God was telling him that his wife would die and he was then to marry Samantha)

Perhaps he spoke as other men had,
only the God-talk more;
I don't know if Samantha'd been
through the same pattern before.

I believe the minister had been
a captain of high finance.
Oh, utmost probity, no swindles;
no hint of dalliance...

I suppose, though, he'd told young Alison
Sylvia would soon retire,
and I suppose he took pride
in Alison as she flew higher.

And I suppose a still small voice
said ten years long he should quit
the firm, and voluntary church work
would not silence it,

but I suppose when he gave in
to study for the ministry,
surrender wrenched him like tooth loss,
hard-cold as January.

I believe the finest-hour syndrome
is what happens when
somebody foils a blaze then wants
the buzz all over again,

studding the rest of his career
with unexplained small fires.
Pray God the minister was no worse
than such artless self-liars.  

This poem was written in 2000 and published in Orbis 170, winter 2014, p.69.  The version in Orbis, reproduced here, has benefited from some editorial suggestions by Carole Baldock.

The term 'finest-hour syndrome' is my own invention.  The phenomenon of serial arson by a former fire hero is one I first heard of ca 1996 in the course of training as a Fire Safety Manager at work.  In all the refresher fire training I've had since then, I haven't heard of it again.  Googling in search of more detail, I've had the impression that former heroes are very much a subset of the would-be heroes' subset of serial arsonists.

The minister's error, as described in the title note, is close to events I read of as having happened at a church in London in the early 1990s.  But the poem's prequel to that story is entirely speculative.

Saturday, 31 January 2015

A couple of wildlife poems

Urban Fox

Seen, racing out of a leafy side-street,
its tail cartoon exhaust fumes (Samson's fox-fires?);
heard, perhaps, in the night, if fox not wind
and drain-pipe made that dog-bark didgeridoo;
tweeted by me, sleepless, asking that question.
Side-street, cartoon, exhaust, Bible, pipes, Twitter,
for me; not the wild Scarp, the branch-caught paw,
the pelt still covering the skeleton.

Ticking the Boxes

Projecting from the rosemary bush,
spaghetti-thin but green,
rigid but with self-moving end --
no other tweeps had seen,

no, nor gardening kinswomen
when I described this growth.
So was it life? and was it wild?
I'm ticking Yes for both.

I'll think about what uses I
can make of that decision.
Is wildlife still what people plead
for watching television?

'Urban fox' was written for the Barn Owl Trust poetry competition at the beginning of 2013, and published in the course of submission to the 2014 Earth Vision contest.  Scarp is the book by Nick Papadimitriou, a remarkable piece of reporting and meditating on a 17-mile ridge of broken land on the edges of North London.  Nick Papadimitriou's power of evoking the place is something I can only envy, but 'Urban fox' is based on something I actually saw.  And I heard the nocturnal dog-bark didgeridoo too.

'Ticking the boxes' was likewise written for the Barn Owl Trust competition and published by Earth Vision.  The first six lines are straightforward reporting.  I genuinely did  see such a thing in our garden, and asked around ("tweeps" are Twitter people, for those who don't know).  Current theory makes the thing a shoot, or possibly a leaf in misleading visual alignment with something else, pulled about by a  spider's web.

In Earth Vision, 'Ticking the boxes' won!

Saturday, 22 November 2014



(Written in January 2008, when my part of England had had little snow for some time)

1930s New Jersey, snow.
"Momma, do we believe
in winter?" Alex Portnoy asked,
hopeful, and caught naive.

The joke has turned since then. Winter
the Pole and winter's death
alike bear claim and counter-claim
and evidence and faith.

And if we hear, on Christmas Eve,
"Hey, it's begun to snow!"
we turn and look across the room,
hoping it might be so,

earth white, sky dancing, rivers ice,
railways camera-black-
and-silver, faces sunset-red-blue.
Nostalgia wants them back.

In my home city, snow is rare,
these years. Some winters tick
snow-free. Beliefs change, winters change,
old times ache. Homesick. Sick.

The genesis of this poem is explained in the title note, which I added when the joke turned again and snow returned Cambridge, as it did within months of my writing.  I have just entered the work in PoemPigeon's competition on the theme of winter -- one of those in which, as I have explained before, the mode of entry is by posting on the web site.

You probably recognised the allusions to Philip Roth's novel Portnoy's complaint and Thomas Hardy's poem 'The oxen'.  But I don't think they need any explanation.

And -- yes, of course I know that the impact of climate change goes deeper than playing games with one person's nostalgia for snow.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Memory stick


You're piecing who said what to whom and when,

to understand a new experience

and make the telling of it a less pain.

Remembrance isn't living in that sense.

Then, of course, I remember. And the day

clouds over at this knowing what you've lost,

the clouding not the greatest price you pay.

Remembrance isn't living at that cost.

Every moment jabs with old silliness.

Remembrance isn't living so. It goes

its round with shared meals, bonfires, poppies. Yes,

remembrance lives where much has reached a close.

But there are injuries on Bonfire Night.

And grouped remembrances will start a fight.

This poem was written for a competition organized by Rhyme and Reason, the poetic fundraising arm of Rennie Grove Hospice Care.  It didn't win any prizes, but it was included in the longer list of works published in the charity's 2015 desk diary.  The theme of the competition, and of several others in 2014, was 'Remembrances'; highly suited to publication in a desk diary.  I'm buying one. Unlike a pocket diary, whose purpose -- prospective memory --  is far better fitted now by an online calendar, the desk diary goes well with retrospect, with noting the day's events after they have happened.  The 2015 Rhyme and Reason diary will continue the record I have kept every day since January 1969.

The quotation in italics is from C.S. Lewis' A grief observed.  Also feeding into the poem, undoubtedly, is the reading I did in 2014 for 'Heritage wars', the Haddon Library's contribution to Cambridge University's Alumni Festival. 

Saturday, 26 July 2014



Two hundred years ago, Linnaeus saw
the long heath of some English upland, yellow
with tawny blossoms of the common furze,
fell on his knees and wept aloud for joy.

One hundred years on, Gerard Manley Hopkins
saw sky of shires-long pearled cloud under cloud,
each row grey-underlined, in fine July,
beautiful yellow blush of uncut ryefields,
white wheat-ears, light throwing a goldleaf square,
and would not look again, as he had talked
too freely and unkindly over dinner,
and had to do a penance going home.

I saw a strip of lawn the other day,
passed every day, four times, but this new way
showed it way down the street, the morning light
smite it so hard it gleamed into the day
green-gold, a cyclist's belt against the night.

So pleased at having even noticed it,
I chose to match the fluorescent fit
of self-congratulation with a cake.
We had some Chelsea buns for coffee-break,
the second time that week, and swamped the sight
with the reward paid into appetite.

I suppose I had better give my sources.  I hope they're well enough known that my use of them counts as allusion not plagiarism, but I will name them to make sure.

Linnaeus saw the long heath: Oscar Wilde, ed. Rupert Hart-Davis.  Selected letters (Oxford: OUP, 1979), p.237.  I don't know the date of the story Wilde alludes to, but Linnaeus' English visits were in the 1730s, and he died in 1778; "Two hundred years ago" requires, I know, I measure of poetic licence.

Gerard Manley Hopkins saw sky: Gerard Manley Hopkins, ed. W.H. Gardner.  Poems and prose (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1953), p. 131.  The story is in Hopkins' diary entry for 23 July 1874.  I marked the 140th anniversary of the incident with a tweet, and hoped I might blog this poem on the same day, but I am a couple of days late with it.

I saw a strip of lawn: I don't seem to have made any diary entry for this observation, but from references to bike repair at Hayward's I would place it on 21 or 22 November 1989.  The grass was in front of  Cambridge University's  Earth Sciences and Archaeology and Anthropology buildings, on the south side of Downing Street, glimpsed at around 08:55 from the bend in Pembroke Street where they become visible.

I wrote 'Yellow' in December 1989, and it appeared in Streetwise 2, March 1991, p. 18.  For other colour poems of mine see this post and this and this.

Monday, 21 July 2014

City rules


So there's this law that we prefer straight streets,
most of us, at most times, Pareto-fashion,
hitting four-fifths with one-fifth effort; dust
gathering meanwhile on the other fifth.
My other fifth is ancient offprints, gems
in dust: John Gunn's woeful extempore
about a Norfolk ruin, or the Baptists
clinging to the equality of races
despite all science, or the Carey Street site:
four thousand people having been turned out,
and houses cleared away from those prime acres,
the Courts of Justice rose in Carey Street --
public knowledge -- no note of disapproval --
eighten-sixty-something... seventy years
deeper in dust than Cable Street... forgotten...

I wrote the above poem in 1996, for a competition organised jointly by the Times literary supplement and Poems on the Underground for poems with an urban theme.  Other poems I entered in that competition are here.  The poem was published in Cambridge University libraries information bulletin 40, 1997, p. 16.  You'll find CULIB at , but unfortunately its online presence doesn't go back before 2000.

The offprints referred to are in the Pitt-Rivers collection at the Haddon Library of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge, where I work.  You're welcome to come and see them in the Haddon!  Failing that, here are the references to the articles concerned.

John Gunn's woeful extempore: 'General meetings and excursions.'  Quarterly journal of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and Natural History, January 1869, pp. 2-17.   The excursion in question was the SIANH day out with the Norfolk and Norwich Archaeological Society, 16 September 1868, and the full embarrassment is on page 16:

"Flixton Ruin was the next locality, where the Rev. John Gunn should have read a paper; but owing, he said, to the fact that fifteen years had elapsed since he visited the locality, he was scarcely prepared to trust his memory."

The Rev. John Gunn was vicar of Irstead and Barton Turf.  It would seem the vagaries of his memory were famous -- and so were his kindness and conscientiousness as a parish priest, and his scientific turn of mind.  A good man, and one hopes his memory did not allow recollections of the Flixton Ruin gaffe to torment him for the rest of his days.


the Baptists clinging to the equality of races despite all science: Bedford Pim,  The negro and Jamaica.  London: Trübner, 1866.  I believe this is the source.  It seems in 1996 I was exercising a dash of poetic licence.  The quotation I'd been spurred by was almost certainly this:

"I shall therefore speak of the negro as I find him in history and in life, though in so doing I may be compelled to present him in language somewhat different from the maudlin eulogiums bestowed on him of late by the enthusiastic negrophilists of Exeter Hall."

Exeter Hall in London was used as  a meeting place by anti-slavery organisations, and the name did not necessarily have the religious connotations I supposed in 1996.  But the science was implicit in the fact that the paper was presented to the Anthropological Society of London.

four thousand people having been turned out: Wilfrid H. Hudleston & F.G. Hilton Price, 'On excavations on the site of the new law courts.'  Proceedings of the Geologists' Association 3(1), 1873, pp. 43-64.  The paper begins:

"It is well known to most of the inhabitants of London that the Government have decided to erect the long-talked-about Courts of Justice in the Strand, upon what is called the Carey Street site.  This site, occupying an area of seven acres, was cleared of its houses about three years ago, when nearly 4000 people were turned out."