Saturday, 30 November 2013

Two fire poems

Poem Pigeon has been running a competition for poems on the theme of fire.  I posted on the site two from my back catalogue, and entered one of them in the competition.  See my post of 6 October 2013 for my take on this way of entering competitions by web posting.

The poem I entered in the fire competition was 'Testing' from 2004, drawing on my experience as fire safety manager at work.


Some have professed they cannot tell
the weekly testing of the bell
from fire alarms. So let's spell out
the difference in case of doubt.

Testing the bell's a burst of clang,
over if it's a second long.

But clang that bursts and goes on bursting,
doors swung to, opened, swung to, swung to,
voices, feet, then no feet, no voices,
and clang goes on, and through the window
flashes of orange, knots of people,
and clang goes on, and clang goes on,
that means get out, the clang's a drill
for real, burst dress-rehearsalful,
get out, the clang's a clang for fire,
or drill for fire, get out for real,
find the fresh air, get out for real.

Let that become the meme of bells.
Let people know it in bones and bowels.

And the one I posted on Poem Pigeon, without, in the end, entering it in the competition, was the fourth from a sequence of seven that I wrote in the late 1990s, exploring animal metaphors.   The title of the sequence was 'Beasties'. Maybe I had no business co-opting fire into the animal kingdom, but it seemed to work at the time.



Another beast -- it rhymes with liar --
will suit our purpose, namely fire,
fire, the old process, virtual
spirit, virtual animal:
from her straight yellow stream of hair
like candlewax half-dried in air,
through all the risks attending paper
when file or bin did not escape her,
down to the glee she took in blame
and fanning issues into flame,
she was a fire; even the one
leak that she sprang quite early on,
by way of an experiment
in trouble (should she reinvent
her problem as incontinence?),
does nothing to put out the sense
of fire -- no, still retained from school,
a Latin verb is pungent fuel:
uro, burn, worry, chafe, annoy.

For traceless killing, hear the ploy
that gangsters used: a cylinder
of CO2 against one ear,
release the pin and squeeze the handle,
and blow the brain out like a candle.

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Death loss of eyes/limbs

This is a song that I've been singing at times of moderate distress -- glumph and peeviour level -- since 1982.  Its starting point is a line from an insurance policy, which became a surrogate oath of mine.  The song lyrics achieved publication of a sort recently, in that I posted them in the course of a Twitter exchange with Phil Lucas.  I was delighted to find that a single tweet would encompass the whole lot.


Death loss of eyes/limbs, face and hands
Sellotape glue elastic bands.
Heartbreak and shattered memory
coffee tea smiles and sympathy

Oh and here's the tune.  

The closest affinity of this sort of thing is with the wilfully vacuous ditties from Monty Python, though I admit that the Python specimens are funnier.  Unlike the blurts, 'Death loss of eyes/limbs' did not go into hibernation during a time of acute anxiety over a work project.

Uploading the tune, by the way, was my first experiment with uploading a video to the blog, but what you see is several experiments later.  I made the mistake of using Freemake to reduce the video to an uploadable size.  I quickly found, after downloading Freemake, that I had lost control of Firefox, in frequent crashes and unexpected links.  Freemake appears to be every bit as bad as described at Keep Browser Safe, and removing traces of it is a protracted business.  Avoid.  Or sing 'Death loss of eyes/limbs' over it.

Thursday, 31 October 2013

How to get rid of trendy left-wing sociologists

Dear Colonel Sixty-Biff,

I refer to your recent letter to the Daily Telegraph.  

I have got a plan to help you to get rid of all the trendy left-wing sociologists in your letter.  I have thought the plan up myself but am doing it on Uncle Mark's typewriter.  About three miles from our house there is a bit where the road comes down to the river and it comes to a dead end.  If you say you are having a protest march all the trendy sociologists will want to come with you, and when you get to the river you can stand to one side and they will all walk over the edge.

Best wishes

Sonia Bingham (age 9)

The  above composition made its first public appearance in UCAS 12: Upper Class Action Sussex bulletin 12, a spoof broadside that I distributed, with the help of the accomplice who typed it, in the refectory at Sussex University on 1 April 1981.  I may blog other UCAS passages if the mood takes me.

I met the accomplice again in April 2012, at her father's funeral.  She had no recollection of the escapade!

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Even without a great blow

This is a new poem -- written for a Poem Pigeon competition on the theme of autumn.


"Dark November nights!" I said,
too eagerly too often,
as I anticipated
in the year I was seven
nights as they'd been, November
of the year before,
the first when year was number,
month name. I remembered fire,
headlights, clouds, coke stove, sparklers.
Written recall of childhood
memories, having less loss
than mine in the writer's head,
and set forth with greater skill,
makes old autumns evergreen.
Nostalgia I first felt at school.
It's something I've since outgrown.

Entry in Poem Pigeon competitions is by posting on the Poem Pigeon site.  In other words, a poem entered there is automatically a published poem.  Most poetry competitions, meanwhile, continue to favour a set of rules in which entry is anonymous and published work is ineligible.  But the 'entry by web publication' model is one I've encountered increasingly often -- in the 2012 English National Opera Mini-Operas contest, for example -- and it'll be interesting to see how these two systems co-exist.  

And what effect will the growth of the web-entry model have on my output and on this blog?  Much of my poetry is unashamedly written for competitions, and my rule is to blog only poems that have achieved publication.  The web-entry model will let me blog poems much closer to the time of writing than I have often done.  

The anon-unpublished-entry model, on the other hand, has some effect of quality control.  For this blog, that effect is limited.  Some of the poems I've accounted as published (and therefore bloggable) have been self-published, or published in outlets where I was a member of the editorial team.  I'm not a member of any editorial teams at the moment; will Poem Pigeon take their place?

I have no quarrel with the winning poem in the Autumn competition, 'Autumnal wish' by Deborah Kellogg.  It's a good 'un.  What do you think?

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

What darkness can do

This is a new poem, written for the Paragram Poetry Competition.  In 2013, this competition took as its theme the Emily Dickinson quotation "a slant of light".

Follow the links for the competition shortlist, which my poem just missed, and the winners

The poem describes something I remember from childhood, but my brother Hugh says he has no recollection of it.


Aged six and five, we struggled to ignore
the shape at night light up the cupboard door,
upright with overhang. Then having seen it,
and dared to speak of it, we dared demean it,
called it the Rude Ghost's House, defying fright.
In fact it was all curtain and street light.
I can recall no learning of that, no
relief in finding it a shadow show,
but till I came to be indifferent,
seeing the light I would dislike, resent.

Monday, 9 September 2013

Library Camp East, Harlow College, 7 September 2013

I attended the Library Camp East unconference and learned a great deal.  But my notes from the sessions, including the sessions I had myself pitched, were extremely sketchy.  In consequence, this write-up consists mainly of nuggets and links.

Get creative with your CPD - Claire Sewell (@ces43). 

This group discussion on continuing professional development for librarians called up a number of resources that I shall investigate:

Claire's blog post 'CPD for free!'

The International Librarians Network -- penpals with an agenda

Barbara Allan's No-nonsense guide to training in libraries (London: Facet, 2013)

I offered my own fourpenn'orth about courses.  After taking time out and spending money on a seminar that hadn't helped me in proportion, I was advised by my mentor to sign up to email lists that would throw many course advertisements at me.  I'd thus be forced to adopt 'No' as a default response.  In time, I came to refine that into a 3-grade escalation:

plan A: ignore the course altogether
plan B: if course seems worthwhile, look out writings by course presenters, whether online or print on paper, and read those in preference to attending
plan C: attend the course

Sticks and carrots - Aidan Baker (@AidanBaker)

This was the session I pitched on reward and punishment in libraries.  I was daunted to find it attended by librarians of the seniority of Liz Jolly and Andrew Preater.

I had hosted a discussion by librarians from around Cambridge, a few days earlier, on the subject of library fines.  No one at that discussion worked in a library that rejected the idea of fines.  At the Library Camp session, on the other hand, the voices in favour of scrapping fines were many and strong.  An anecdote that was cited was from Freakonomics, and concerned not libraries but nurseries: the introduction of a charge for parents who were late in collecting their children was followed by a rise in the number of late collections, as the guilt that might have driven early collection found another channel in the paying of the late fee.

The Library Camp discussion also touched on the setting up of friends' groups for libraries.  A good insight from public libraries was that friends' groups that were integrated into the work of the library, and able to see themselves as partners with it, thrived better than friends' groups whose origin was in campaigning.  The latter tended sometimes to see themselves almost as rivals to the library.

Fifteen years in libraries - Group discussion led by Anna Martin (@AnnaLMartin) 

Anna led this discussion around her own life story.  See Anna's blog for what she is prepared to make public about this.  Her questions in the session drew some interesting comments.  A mobile library manager ruminated on the havoc that love could wreak in a well-run system.  And there were tears; not seen by me at the time, but found in a tweet afterwards: a participant told the world she was "Failing not to cry because session facilitator just talked about having mental health issues AND being successful and employed".
How do I get the hang of ...? - Aidan Baker (@AidanBaker)

This discussion of current developments in the library/information world -- e-books, open access, RDA -- I had envisaged first as drop-in/surgery-type sessions.  In the event, we were perhaps a couple of dozen people in a ring, some of whom were brave enough to answer questions. 

Daphne Dashfield took that role with regard to open access.  She explained the difference between gold and green OA.  The Open Access requirement is that papers (not books) reporting research funded by Research Councils UK must be made freely available online.  Gold OA has that business being handled by a mainstream publisher, whose charge to the author for this service may be as large as £3000.  Green OA is author's online self-archiving; often where the paper appears in a mainstream journal, and the journal's publisher allows the author to self-archive, sometimes with many conditions.  Daphne referred us to the Sherpa/Romeo database for more information on this, and to the training pages at her workplace.  And why was I so unconfident as not to cite the equivalent pages at my own workplace, which I had circulated to academics earlier in the year?

Claire Sewell answered questions about RDA, beginning with the expansion of the abbreviation: Resource Description and Access.  It's a compromise between what is needed and what is compatible with its predecessor AACR2.  She too cited her workplace's training material.

Finally, in this session, Katherine Rose (not on Twitter) of Regent's University, London, served as the ebooks expert.  I solicited her opinion of a prediction in an article I had read in the spring of 2012, that ebooks were likely to be superseded by pdfs.  Wrong question, perhaps.  Pdf is one format for the publication of ebooks, sometimes considered the laziest one; it is part of ebooks already, and can't be considered as their future.  Indeed, several in the group considered that publishers were exploring the possibilities of ebooks far too enthusiastically to be shoe-horned back into something as basic as pdf.

And there was a postscript.  A member of the circle asked how best to keep up with developments -- the three that had been discussed being only part of the changes to the profession.  A reply that I scribbled down was to follow the blog Librarian by day from Bobbi Newman.

I is for Idea... S is for Support... A Creative Library Alphabet - Gary Green (@ggnewed)

This was the last session I went to.  The aim was to gather words that would make a publicity alphabet for libraries.  There was some contention about the inclusion of the word 'books', but I think it eventually went in.

The day was a great one for all concerned, and I've seen a lot of well-earned tweets thanking Lisa Hutchins, Andy Darley, and Jo Harcus for pulling it all together.  You bet!

We all contributed food.  I brought pork pies from the Co-op and cakes made by Clare, who was sadly unable to attend in person.  They were popular.


Saturday, 7 September 2013

Played out

Here comes a poem from 1991. I was reminded of it by Sarah Stamford's tweet, apparently following a presenter's slip of the tongue in the last night of the Proms 2013, about Vaughan Williams making a similar posthumous appearance.  It was published in Cous-cous 8, August 1995, p. 8.


I dreamed it in the autumn: a late work,
Rachmaninov's symphonic miniature,
written in nineteen-seventy-five, The Yawn ...
tired twilit composition, half a minute
of themes long worn ... it had its premiere
in nineteen-eighty-six: Rachmaninov
himself conducted, made a modest speech
faintly across the air: we heard him hope
they would not ask for the Symphonic Dances
as an encore. Laughter, polite applause.
Conducting's such a task when you're a hundred
and thirteen years old, dead for forty-three.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Decades apart


She called herself a chump for having given
men the white feather. She was one of two
women who owned to it on television.
Live with that thought on everything you do.

The above was meant to be my entry in the Poem Pigeon competition, for work including the word 'feather'.  I posted it on the day of the competition deadline, having heard of the competition earlier in the week. 

Entry in the Poem Pigeon competition is by posting on their site, where everyone can see the work.  The poem is up now at .  I'd have done well to look out the rules first hand.  I understood that the competition was for poems no more than 10 lines long.  In fact, the stipulation was for no more and no less than 10 lines -- so my poem isn't eligible.  But publication in that website makes it eligible for inclusion in this blog.

For much more about the story, see the post 'White feathers: stories of courage, recruitment and gender at the start of the Great War' in George Simmers' research blog 'Great War fiction'.  And, to give further credit where it's due, I heard of 'Great War fiction' via the blog of singer and musical scholar Philip Lancaster.

'Decades apart' was one of four poems I wrote in August 2013.  The others, I hope, will make their way into this blog by the usual process.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

For Clare

The librarian's bear is an articulate bear.
The librarian's bear is a biophysicist bear.
The librarian's bear is a Christian bear.
The librarian's bear is a dancing bear.
The librarian's bear is an eager bear.
The librarian's bear is a female bear.
The librarian's bear is a Guardian-reading bear.
The librarian's bear is a happy bear.
The librarian's bear is an intellectual bear.
The librarian's bear is a journalistic bear.
The librarian's bear is a knowledgeable bear.
The librarian's bear is a little bear.
The librarian's bear is a massaging bear.
The librarian's bear is a nominally plump bear.
The librarian's bear is an optimistic bear.
The librarian's bear is a popular bear.
The librarian's bear is a questioning bear.
The librarian's bear is a round bear.
The librarian's bear is a solid bear.
The librarian's bear is a trustworthy bear.
The librarian's bear is an uncommon bear.
The librarian's bear is a valuable bear.
The librarian's bear is a web-whizzkid bear.
The librarian's bear is an extrovert bear.
The librarian's bear is a young bear.
The librarian's bear is a zestful bear.

The above lines were written in 1998, the year Clare and I married, and were published in Streetwise 32, autumn 1998, p. 18.  I should say that I was editor of Streetwise at that time.  I am posting them on the eve of our 15th anniversary.

Strictly speaking, Clare is not much like a bear, and has never been seriously plump.  However, when we met in 1982, she was less slight than the woman I had been told she resembled, and 'plump' is a word I like the sound of.  I draw on that first plump impression for a continuing licence to say it.

Clare is the first person to see my poems and comment on them, and they sometimes reflect her work in science journalism.

Thursday, 27 June 2013


This was my entry in a competition, in Kudos in 2010, for poems containing the word 'beacon'.  The poem was highly commended -- not published, but even commendation in a competition is enough to rule it out of many future contests.  So it gets the blog treatment now.

Leslie Hore-Belisha, the subject of the poem, was, as Minister of Transport in the 1930s, responsible for the introduction of the driving test and the flashing Belisha beacon at zebra crossings.  That by itself was enough to make me write about him in connection with beacons.  My knowledge of him was tiny, but it included the story that he had changed his name from Horeb-Elisha in order to appear less Jewish.  Reading his Wikipedia entry, in preparation for writing the poem, I was most intrigued to see that the story is apparently without foundation; in consequence, it drives the entire poem.

The crack re-split the livewire's double-
barrelled surname, like rock,
into two Bible names, a trouble-
and thought-free ethnic mock.

And the Horeb-Elisha joke
so wholly stuck to him
it was the truth to many folk,
his name the pseudonym.

But where, joining two sides of road,
a way's stitched black and white,
not crossword play nor Highway Code
but right split names the light.

And somebody's eureka
that gave his name a crack
softens at the Belisha
beacon, steady flash.

Friday, 7 June 2013

Tree poem

This quatrain was written in November 2010 for a competition organised by the Clyde Valley Orchard Group. It has now found publication in connection with another Scottish arboretum: the Redwood Avenue at Benmore Gardens in Argyll.  The avenue is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, and the Gardens' writer-in-residence, Sue Butler, has put out an appeal for 150 4-line poems on the theme of trees. I am delighted that she has used my contribution.


Apology as apple seed.
Some day, a tree, a bough,
and fruit of knowing them again.
Best not risk that just now.

Monday, 20 May 2013

Four gaffes about homelessness

This was written in 2000 for a competition run by the Big issue.  It was highly commended by George Szirtes in the 2006 Norwich Writers' Circle competition, and published in the competition anthology Reverie (p. 30).


The other news of 1963 –
the Skopje earthquake – was a hoot to me,
age six.  I laughed out loud when first I read
of people sleeping in the street, not bed.

In the Guardian
(of all places) by one
who should know better: “How can
homeless people ever complain
of what they see on television?
I mean, where would they find to plug it in?”

“Evangelism,” I was keen to note,
“we do not force down anybody’s throat,
but prayer and any needed explanation
happen as part of rehabilitation.”
The answer was, “To rehabilitate
the homeless, what a job, you’re doing great!”
You’ll know she wrote it drily.  I did not;
but irony was always my blind spot.

A short history
by my then MP
of the Africans’
building traditions
(this was off the cuff,
he hadn’t read enough –
not familiar
with Paul Oliver):
“Of course, a hundred years ago they were still living in trees.”

Monday, 13 May 2013

Music, colour, war

These three poems from the 1990s are all responses to war, a subject I don't deal with much, for lack of experience.  Their publishing history is undistinguished.  'An anthem dated 1925' was self-published, in a poetry address book I circulated to friends in 2000.  The other two appeared in what I call payload anthologies: 'The start of the war' in Guardians of the state, edited by Ian Walton (Peterborough: Poetry Now, 1992), and 'Blue' in Best poems of 1995, edited by Cynthia A. Stevens and Caroline Sullivan (Owings Mills, MD: Watermark, 1995).

In 'An anthem dated 1925', the anthem in question is Faire is the heaven by William Harris.


Nostalgia aches for endlesse perfectnesse,
the Archangels and Angels, the eternall
burning Seraphins, bright Cherubins
with golden wings all overdight, the heav’n
where happy soules have place.  John Rutter sees it
as a cathedral window.  I see autumn:
people dwarfed by a cathedral wall,
stones to the memory, and mortal tongue’s
receding semitones, seven years after
war ended war, the twenties still aware
of gaps, and blanks, and overflying silence.

'The start of the war' is a squib I wrote in 1991, following the invasion of Iraq.


Admit, if only in a graceless mutter,
America had grace enough to take
a mouthful, anyway, of bread and butter
before rushing on to the cake.

In the immediate aftermath of the war, I was duly humbled to learn that a friend of mine was going to Iraq, with a group of peace activists, to survey the devastation.  This was the artist Caroline Dobson (now Caroline Saltzwedel).  Of the images she produced from her experiences in Iraq, one which particularly moved me was Invasion of privacy, from her visit to a bombed-out hospital. My response was this:


Concrete structure, reinforced.
The shelling couldn't break
down the frame.  The lower wards
have creaked back from the ground.
On the top floor, not used, hang
for anyone to see
bits of wall and ceiling, ends
of steel, sky stretching whole
round invaded privacy
again, sky stretching whole,
blue, silent, unearthed.

Friday, 3 May 2013

Through the sky


We emerged on to the tower roof:
sky luminous, pale blue, spring afternoon.
Ely Cathedral faint and far away,
a band of drummers, taut, filling the square,
Cambridge around us, with its grit of churches.
And climbing down the spiral steps we passed
woodwork and ropes hung silent, vertical.

Although it was not in my gift
to clear the Earthward trip from Pluto,
I gave the signal to the lift
at the wrong time for me to do so.
The lift once set in that career
would burn its passengers to ash
from friction with Earth’s atmosphere,
or hit the ground a deadly smash.
I called the passengers.  They gripped
survivor hope against all hopes
with hands that bled and chafed and ripped
stopless on solar system ropes.
Was there still time to show a care
by telephoning and confessing
my guilt before it hit the Chair
at second hand from others’ guessing?
O no, the Chair was off that day
in Mozambique, somebody said,
out of all reach that I might say
on this.  Besides, the line was dead.

Waking from that: new file over the botch
(still live, unclosable); the wake of guilt
receding with the tide; less shed than fade;
I lay not lied; Earth was under a cloud:
a weight, a poor fit, something disallowed.

This was my entry in the Lymm Lines competition in 2006.  I am afraid I cannot now remember the theme of that year's competition.  The poem's most recent outing was to the Fosseway competition, judged by Liz Cashdan -- and she was kind enough to give it a commendation.

The poem reports. with a minimum of poetic licence, on a weekend in March 2006: a climb in the tower of Great St Mary's, Cambridge, followed by the dream about Pluto.  I cannot say what lay behind the dream, beyond the guess that it's likely to have involved anxiety over something.

Monday, 22 April 2013


This poem was written in 2006, as my entry in the DiVerse poetry competition, which was on the theme of co-existence.  It was published in 2009 by Fearless Books in their anthology The light in ordinary things ed. D. Patrick Miller and Sari Friedman.  Thanks, Fearless!


The paving stones through leather hit
the pain upwards into the feet.
Church magazines weigh heavy on
strained arms that long to lay them down.
Sensible letter-boxes hold
roughly the same height as a hand,
lie horizontal in the door,
and open outwards into air.
They’ll accept A4 whole and then
let their flaps’ weight drop shut again.
We find such boxes and rejoice,
going like post from house to house.
Others we have to kneel to, fight
aggressive metal, twist to fit.
The force of any letter-box
holds both sides of the paradox
of barriers. We see them be.
We see them open sesame.
We see their need for both of those.
We see them close. Their need to close.

Monday, 11 March 2013

A hit

This had its first submission in the Interpreter's house competition in 2002, but that competition doesn't appear to have had a theme.  The poem has now finally achieved publication online, as one of the also-rans in the Little gold pencil competition for writing on the theme of a night walk.


The car was speeding and the street was steep
and had no place for feet and we were walking,
north of Salisbury Plain.

Walking at night, winding our clockwork torch --
the music festival a village back,
north of Salisbury Plain.

Walking on sufferance, the road not wide.
The verge was high-stepped and steep fields lay upwards,
north of Salisbury Plain.

The moon steady over the fields.  Our torch
lighting the shiny signs.  The road dark, silent,
north of Salisbury Plain.

A car a minute.  Distant lights, sound, action    
(step on to verge), noise, brightness!  Darkness, silence,
north of Salisbury Plain.

We reached our village.  Walkers were a hazard,
shadows in a red triangle, no footway,
north of Salisbury Plain.

And one car came too fast, the road too narrow.
We hutched against a wall, for want of footway,
north of Salisbury Plain.

And, with respect, I shone the clockwork torch
straight at the windscreen.  It worked!  The car slowed down!
North of Salisbury Plain,

the clockwork torch was mightier than the car!
A paradox, not always true, by far.
Southwards, the steep fields, and the firing range,
and Porton Down, and moonlit Stonehenge,               
on Salisbury Plain.

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Music about fighting

In 2006, I entered a competition for a piece of writing in Easy-Read English -- the adaptation of language for people with learning difficulties.  My entry didn't get anywhere in the competition, and, not seeing any other market for it, I let it stay in the depths of filespace. 

Recently, however, I came across an opportunity to revamp it.  The Up-Goer Five Text Editor enables you to type text using only the 1000 commonest words in English.  I copied my 2006 piece into Up-Goer Five, and was told immediately that many of my words fell outside that thousand.

The list of prescribed words is indeed an amazing one.  Block, blonde, and blood are in it, all in a row, but not sing, clap, or war.  Does anyone know how far Up-Goer Five matches the vocabulary used by practitioners of Easy-Read?  Where I didn't find synonyms, I set about excising passages rather than writing longer explanations. This operation shortened the thing from 674 words to 479.

The result is below (and on Up-goer Five here).  Easy-Read and the constraints of Up-Goer Five can be likened to txtspk, Twitterspeak, and the Victorians' telegramese -- adaptations of English for a particular purpose, and most unlikely to be the future of English prose.  But constraints can be stimulating.  Think of the 14 lines of the sonnet!

I must give credit where credit is due.  My coming across Up-goer Five was thanks to Dixe Wills' article in the Christian magazine Third way.


We are working on a big piece of music.  It is by Mr Britten.

We start working on it in the cold.  The music seems strange.  Parts of it are not what we expect.  We go wrong.

I look over my music book on trains.  We are getting there.

As we get closer to the date, we work harder.  One evening, we try the music with the band and the kids. We go wrong in new ways.  Is it because we are not used to the band?

I ride home very fast.  The music feels like the ride.  It is under control.

Then we try again, in another building.  The stars join us for the first time.  I go wrong in more new ways.  The ride home is shorter.

On the date, we try the music in the afternoon.  Many of us come by car.  They are late because of road works.  I go wrong in parts of the music that were all right before.  The music feels much harder now.

The time comes.

We give the music sitting down to begin with.  The music starts quietly, with deep notes and bells and us.  We get through the first part and don't go too wrong.  But by the end of the second part we have gone wrong in places.

The music has six parts.  The last part is the hardest.  We know we have gone wrong in many places already.  Can we get through this hard part?

We struggle.  We know we are struggling.  Lots of people have come to hear us.  Do they know we are struggling?  Will we have to stop?  The man waves his stick to lead us.  His waves get bigger and clearer.

The music ends as it began.  It ends quietly with bells and us.

After our last note the man puts his stick down.   Then everyone is silent for a long time.  The music has made us all want to be silent.

Then someone makes a noise with their hands.  The noise means "We like the music."  Then others join in.  They make a loud noise with their hands for several minutes.  The stars lean forward.  Leaning forward means "Thank you for liking us." The kids and the band and the small band all lean forward.  And we too get asked to lean.  Thank you for liking us.

We walk off the raised floor.  My wife comes to meet me with a friend of ours.  They tell me how much they liked the music.

Other people are saying the same thing to their friends.  They did not notice we were struggling.

We know we were struggling.  We know we could have done it better.  But the music has worked.  It was beautiful.  It has made people think about what fighting is like.

Listen to Mr Britten's music if you can!

Saturday, 2 February 2013

More numbers poems

In 1986, I wrote a poem called 'Values: what the parties think of the number nine'.  A couple of years later, I conceived the idea of incorporating 'Values' into a sequence of poems, one for each of the digits 0 to 9.  I wrote all of the projected poems, but soon realised that I had to deal with them separately, if I wished for any hope of publication.  I evidently came to that decision long before I began keeping my poetry card index in 1994, and I cannot now lay hands on a copy of the sequence as a whole.

The poems for 3 and 4 I put together.  They were published in Streetwise 12, October 1993, p. 26.

3 4
4 4

hard to hold against pulse and a holding
in balance in tension impossibly
big for cohesion and tight for division
three is a time and a stretch and a way

Four, plus-minus, fridge, central heating, neat,
clicks over, give or take, its even beat,
four weeks a month, an issue every quarter,
four simple elements, earth, air, fire, water,
four mind-forms, melancholic, or phlegmatic,
or sanguine, or choleric, automatic
four strokes to turn an engine. Give or take,
four is for things we comprehend or make.

The poem for 7 doesn't explicitly mention the number at all, but it mentions the whole-tone scale, which has seven notes, and the last two lines have seven syllables each.  It was published in the Poetry Now anthology Mating rituals, edited by Veronica Hannon (Peterborough: Poetry Now, 1993), p. 142, and is, I suppose, the kind of thing I have had in mind when I've described myself as partly failed puritan and partly failed enfant terrible.


Straights are major, gays are minor,
transsexuals bitonal,
and awkward in their whole-tone
scale some choose to be alone.

The poem for 8, on the other hand, names the number in the title and first line.  It is concerned mainly with visual images; the date in the first line has to do with the figure 8 as a sun and its reflection, not with historical events.  The picture that I had in mind when writing the quatrain was the cover illustration of the Unesco Courier for November 1987.  It shows the remains of a ship, which went down two centuries ago, caught by sonar imaging on the floor of one of the Great Lakes, with masts still standing.


The eighth of August eighty-eight,
a shimmer of reflected suns,
the water heating back the light.

Sound shudders through, down, octaves down,
echoes the vessel, fathoms drowned,
displays green of years or water,
shadows two masts on a deep ground.

'Eight' was published in Saint Matthew's church magazine, Cambridge, May-June 1989.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

First poem of 2013

My first of 2013 is a haiku, written out of a Twitter conversation with school librarian Nicky Adkins and, would you believe, BBC Radio 3.  I don't know who does Radio 3's tweeting.

You can look on Twitter for the entire conversation.  I had recalled that BBC R3 had become my home station even amid my teenage explorations of Radio Tirana and such.  Radio 3 replied with thanks and a recording of  Radio Tirana's sign-on, at , as I remember it from forty years ago.  This has just drawn  from me the following lines:

Tirana's trumpets
rise from 70s shortwave
like Titanic rails

and I have duly tweeted them.

Those of you who don't remember my 1970s addiction to foreign radio listening might be interested to read this article I wrote about it long afterwards.