Saturday, 23 May 2015

Marc Vyvyan-Jones

This is my wife Clare in 1985:

Clare in those days was a physics PhD student at Bristol.  The image is from a new-address card she commissioned from a friend, and it came to light again, many years later, in a clear-out of Clare's room at her parents' house.

The writing embroidered on Clare's leg reads "Please look after this Clare."  That drew from me a limerick, 11 years before we were engaged:

I'd love to look after this Clare,
blonde and plump like a girl teddy-bear.
I just hope that her rump's
not too bruised by the bumps
which arise from the wheels' being square.

The teddy-bear in Clare's lap had been a birthday present from friends, a couple of years earlier.  She believes she passed it on to a child in 1990, when she had to shed so many possessions for her post-doc year in the States, and she cannot now remember its name.

For those too young to have seen floppy disks, I'd better say that they were at least as square as shown in the picture, and not the sort of Daliesque thing the name suggests.  The title of Dali's painting The persistence of memory has acquired a secondary aptness from the transience of floppies.

The artist was Marc Vyvyan-Jones.  It was his first commission, he told me recently; billed then on invoice 0001, and reproduced now with permission.  His career as an illustrator continues to thrive, with an emphasis on the quirky and gallimaufrageous.  Who's next up to offer him a commission?

Monday, 18 May 2015

Radio poem

RADIO POEM

Today's radio dial's not just a dial.
It's a display: gives you more information
running, but goes to blank at rest. Old-style
analogue dials, over the base gradation
of kiloHertz and metres, still when still
were effervescent with their banded cities.
And when I was a boy, with time to fill,
I could sing at the possibilities
for hours. They belonged with binoculars,
maps, number-plates, star-charts, but came to displace
astronomy, which was the previous
interest. Today I'd call the phase
that happened next addiction. I first found
Radio Moscow's English under June
sunset, and it became a nightly round
by the autumn of 1971 -
Tirana, Moscow, Prague, Warsaw, and later,
drab 1972's political
balance, west dictator for east dictator,
the fifties sound of Radio Portugal.
But why - given ten words to improvise
some verse around, an email parlour game -
pick as a subject for the exercise
the story of a former hobby's claim?
Because the words suggest it. I can say
how new and various the short wave shone,
what pleasures it delivered in its play.
The pleasure of the hunt, the catch, was one.
CBA Moncton, netted from my bed
in Nottinghamshire winter - that was great.
But Radio Tirana, wishing dead
so many, I could only hate,
and hate's a noxious pleasure, lashing sweat.
That was the sour inside the bright kumquat.
Then hate and hunt gave less and less to get.
I scanned the dial for them, and scanned, and that
was the addiction, radio quagmire.
But I have seen the quagmire sink, not me.
I put restraint on radio desire
as early as Lent 1973.
It faded slowly, surged in my French year,
and again more than ten years on, a freak
throwback stunt for One World Week, but there
it ends. The world's got other ways to speak.

And I shall not be one of those who fret
to hear of kids addicted to the net.


The above was my entry in the CV2 2-day Poem Contest 2009.  The key point of the CV2 contest, for those who haven't followed that link, is that the entry has to be written in 48 hours and include ten words specified by that organisers at the start of that period.

My excuse for blogging the poem is that I have recently tweeted the concluding couplet, thereby presumably rendering the poem ineligible for entry in competitions that disallow published material.

Another piece of poetic fall-out from my foreign-radio phase is this haiku of January 2013, 'Tirana's trumpets'. And you might also be interested in this article, published in Cambridge University libraries information bulletin 60, 2007.

Saturday, 2 May 2015

Kirkconnel's bard

KIRKCONNEL'S BARD

(The bard is Alexander Anderson ('Surfaceman'), 1845-1909)

Kirkconnel's bard sang progress, engines' strength
made greater by the discipline of rails,
his rhymes and grammar sound, his metred length
of line hard-fixed as ever was with nails.

Nick Drake sang questions, ways lost, light flown, blue
of waves and sky the video shows grey,
gates waited at in hope of looking through,
a plea for somebody to show and say.

Kirkconnel's bard praised Whitman's free lines, praised
his fellows, wrote in voice of the bereaved
mothers.  Read in our day, is he appraised
with more along the track than he believed?

Would he have prayed, trusting in God to hear,
that Nick Drake's heaven-signal stood at clear?


The above poem was my contribution to the 26 project 'Under a northern sky' -- the brainchild of two 26 members, Sandy Wilkie and Michelle Nicol , one from Glasgow and one from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and both fans of the singer Nick Drake.  Michelle's account of the proceedings is at http://bit.ly/1PeKO91 .  Project participants were assigned one song by Drake and one station on the Carlisle route from Newcastle to Glasgow, and asked to write poetry or prose, performable in under 3'44", that linked the two.  My station was Kirkconnel and my Nick Drake song 'Way to blue'.  And on 25 April 2015, as many of us as could made that journey by train, reading our own contributions, and those of the people who couldn't be present, at or near the stations in question.

I was lucky in that Kirkconnel has a literary figure of some note in Alexander Anderson.  I won't link to all the poems of his that I allude to, but I should perhaps say that my last line picks up on 'Stood at clear' from his collection Songs of the rail.  A train driver is questioned after a rail crash:

"Speak to him-quick!" they bent and said,
"Did the distant signal stand at red?"

Broken and slow came the words with a moan,
"Stood—at—clear," and poor Jim was gone.

I turn'd my head away from the light
To hide the tears that were blinding my sight,

And pray'd from my heart, to God that Jim
Might find heaven's signals clear to him.

I believe the narrator is deeply disturbed by the probability that signal didn't stand at clear, and that a much-loved friend has died with a lie on his mouth.  Is there more to be said on this by readers who know Alexander Anderson's work better than I?

Thursday, 26 March 2015

The day thou gavest

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

Snowlines

SNOWLINES

(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.