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."

Monday, 14 July 2014

Men at arms


(reflecting Evelyn Waugh's novel of that title)

The thunderbox, where Apthorpe sat to judge
his fellows, pulling all he could of rank,
the box he pulled with Guy, for all the grudge
of charges, and for all it stank,
one morning, in a corner of a field
("obvious what had happened" gives the drift
another novelist would have revealed),
being spiked, blew up under Apthorpe. Biffed.

The thunderflash, the scaled-down training bomb,
and 80s Apthorpe, bored as a cadet –
don't ask me where a dare like this came from –
who mooted and who meant is to forget –

but thunder flashed in 80s Apthorpe's face,
and fixed his shadow till his end of days.

Waugh's novel and its sequels were lent to me by a kinswoman in the summer of 2012, and gave me much relief during the stresses of a project at work.  I wrote the poem rather later, for the 2013 Cannon Poets competition, which favours sonnets.  The poem is now posted on the PoemPigeon site.  PoemPigeon runs a new poetry competition every month, always with a thematic or formal requirement, and the requirement for July 2014 is sonnet form.

Readers of this blog may know all about my penchant for themed or formal poetry competitions.  I don't see myself going for PoemPigeon every month, as that would leave me with no time or creative juices for anything else.  But my poetry card index has, by now, quite a few eligible sonnets in it, and I liked the idea of pulling a recent one out and sending it off.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Specs and the bike

This poem won third prize in the 2006 Forest Arts competition.  I seem to remember the competition was sponsored by Dollond and Aitchison, and the theme was 'Vision'.


Don't scrape your face with chains, don't even dare
ride redesigned wheels fashionably square.
That isn't how it works.  But, if you like:

    Both have two discs, not touching, edge to edge.
    Both have a frame that's set up to engage
    with human flesh.  Both work best in the light.
    And both bring what you'd not have seen to sight.

In those ways, glasses map on to a bike.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

The St Pancras resonances

This is a poem sequence I wrote in 1992-1993.  I have alluded to its origins before: around 1988, in a Guardian interview with Stephen Poliakoff about his film Hidden city, I read the sentence (I quote from memory):

While filming at St Pancras Hotel, he was told of another complete station underneath St Pancras, which was bricked up like a time capsule at the end of the last century and now, presumably, awaits the mega-development of the site.

That became an obsession of mine partly because it made me think of so many other things.  The poem sequence looks at them one after another.

A few disclaimers are in order:

The date in Resonance 3 is incorrect.  It derives from a half-remembered entry in a Nicholson's guide.  The closure of the Chesterfield Canal west of Worksop happened rather later.

In Resonance 7, no link is intended with any real person, living or dead.  Googling the words St Pancras Trust (as one couldn't in 1993) brings up links to several organisations with those words in their name, all of which are concerned with far better projects than the truthifying of an urban legend.  And I had better not give any more time to changing the names of the characters.  The characters bear no resemblance to people of similar names who are known to me.

'The St Pancras resonances' was published in Cous-cous 4, March 1995, pp. 10-11.


"Underneath St Pancras lies
    bricked up at the end
of the nineteenth century
    like a time capsule
waiting for the other works
    to complete the site
such a darkened terminus."

Resonance 1

The house was old: of course it had a tunnel.
We wished it didn't, but we hoped it did.
We hunted it by tapping on the walls.

    tap    tap    tap

    tap    tap    tap

    tap    tap    tap

    B W A R M ! ! !
  B W A R M ! ! !
  B W A R M ! ! !

which knocked me cold awake.

Resonance 2

The book where Mozart notes the work he's done
is dated seventeen-eighty-four dash one
-- century blank.  Eight years remain unrun.

Resonance 3

Brindley's canal winds level:
north, the remains of brickworks.
West, above Worksop, steeper,
a heavily-locked section,
closed in eighteen-ninety-six.

Resonance 4

Even the twomost years at length
came round again to May,
evening, and they began to end
his time away.

In plain clothes but accompanied
and reading upside down,
Westbourne Park, night in Pentonville,
then fetched through town

by cab to Bloomsbury, fresh clothes,
breakfast, reunion
with many friends, so many, late
into the afternoon,

night passage to Dieppe, spring dawn,
high spirits, Reading charmed
into the castle of a myth,
the King unharmed,

the Queen fêted with strawberries,
sirop de grenadine
for fifteen gamins, and a cake
in pink and green,

much gratitude, much joy in life,
new life, and a new name,
and waiting in the air the plays
that never came:

the work so rich in beauty that
it would shine back the phrase
of those who sneered that such a life
had led such ways

darkened inside him.  Three more years
creaked festering and black
up to November nineteen-hundred,
end of the track.

Resonance 5

Two hundred years apart, and parting two
quite other other worlds, having in view
centuries' ends, the stones torn down by rage
turned round at once and parted age from age.

Resonance 6

The run up to the one hundredth psalm
is a run of mounting exultation:
a run all through the nineties
shouting louder and louder,
the whole run, jubilee, coronation, power
over the thunder of floods,
and the roar of the sea itself
declares the glory of God,
the many coastlands rejoice,
the hills sing together for joy
and worship by his holy mountain,
one whole world joyful in the Lord,
serve him with gladness, come before
his presence with a song,
all generations gathered up
in the Old Hundredth,
all people that on earth shall dwell.
Then the mirror quivers in the sun
at slanderers I will destroy,
haughty and arrogant I will not endure,
I will know nothing of evil,
and again it goes off a little.
And next morning --
oh, it's a bit like the first week in January,
it's almost like the-silver-wedding-and-then-the-countdown-began.
There is a forgetting to eat,
and strength broken in mid-course,
and a long time,
a trudge of psalms,
a limp of inventories,
a c.v. of as many blessings as you can find,
before it will go bright again.
But it has more good to run:
the end of the psalms is in mid-century,
a soaring trajectory of praise.

Resonance 7

Lyn discovered she had been once divorced.
We hadn't touched on it for years, and then,
coming up from a conversation -- oh,
money, my work for the St Pancras Trust --
but coming up from that, you know, and after
the News at Ten, I made some cocoa for us,
not fishing for apologies, and held,
she grimaced as I held her hand a bit, I said,
then or later but that day or that week,
I said We've made it up to fifteen years,
anyway, and still going strong, and then,
tactlessly, stupidly, I don't know, I said
That's five times where you got with Harry.  She said,
Harry?  I don't know anyone called Harry...
As if I'd made some silly accusation.
Harry was her first husband.  And, OK,
I know we've talked about it less and less,
as time goes by all memories get awkward,
but there are documents, old letters, photos,
cuttings even.  I got the box, went through it,
showed her them, wished I hadn't, as I think
it left her rather shaken.  No, it's not
a sort of shadow life, with shadow kids
growing and eating, winning shadow prizes.
Harry and Lyn were married just three years.
They hadn't any children.  Was I right
to resurrect it after all this time?
I think so.  She is a librarian,
she tends, or did tend, I should say, to make
herself the rational, the academic,
married as if by accident, and me
harmless enough with my St Pancras Trust
but -- Well, anyway, I think the raising
of her amnesia -- five years of it --
has let her see that (a) she too can be
deluded -- self-deluding -- and, much more,
there really are enclaves of the unseen,
even in your own life.  Who knows, will Lyn
one day again be helping with the Trust?

Yes, the St Pancras Trust -- just Lyn and me
to start with, she was with Harry still,
but the last ten years have seen such a huge
upsurge of interest that I devote
myself to it full-time -- it aims to settle
the truth about the buried terminus.
Because officially there's nothing there,
just a staff car-park that was once a depot
for beer-trains in from Burton-on-Trent, or some say
the old St Pancras Underground -- you see it
west of King's Cross St Pancras, one dark platform --
when that was closed and bricked off, that must be
the grit inside the buried-station "myth".
Or: is it really there? did funds run out?
were the plans lost when history
derailed everything in nineteen-fourteen?  Who knows?

I sometimes dream about the buried station.
The other night, it was a bright March morning,
I was on Euston Road and walking east.
St Pancras clock tower -- in the dream it looked
like Westminster Cathedral -- had a clock
which showed the time with numbers coming out
like the blades on a large-scale working model
of a Swiss Army knife -- you've seen it too.
And this clock signalled, eighteen-ninety-seven!
I ran across the road -- this was a dream --
hoping the buried terminus was open,
and, you know, what else will it restore?
Lyn and me happier again, or reconciled
with Harry, as it does from time to time
trouble my conscience, or them never married,
Harry not outrageously patronizing
to his own assistants, or to me, or ...?
I reached St Pancras, I could see the platforms,
which I had seen in dreams before, dark, empty,
and they were bright, with trains and people -- people
I could recognize in the dream, and shall
if I should ever meet them, but the blades
moved on again, the radio alarm
was hardening the real world, I was waking.
But it occurs to me, that was the day
that ended with her big discovery,
and I think -- touch wood -- ushered in the spring.
That was it, yes.  That was the dream I had --
that was the day, I'm sure!  That was the day!

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Trees and virtual teaching

This post contains two poems.

I entered the first one in the Guardian Poster Poem competition for March 2014, in which the mode of entry was to upload the poem among the blog comments.  The poem was written in 2004, as my entry in another competition -- to celebrate the 90th anniversary of Joyce Kilmer's poem 'Trees'.


So the poem by Joyce Kilmer

adds trees to what we remember

1914 for. Another year --

of the Zeebrugge ferry disaster,

of the Hungerford massacre,

of the underground King’s Cross fire,

of no summer -- I read from cover to cover

Mitchell and Wilkinson’s Trees of Britain and Northern Europe;

and the way its entries trace

lines between the names of place

and evoke the scent of trees

marked it with poetic grace. 

The second poem is by way of a makeweight: a haiku.  Clare gave a presentation, at the March 2014 Experiential Learning in Virtual Worlds Inter-Disciplinary Project conference in Prague, on her report Higher education teaching in virtual worldsConference participants all rose to the informal challenge to write haiku on their presentations.  Clare is tweeting hers, and she suggested that I, though unconnected with the conference, might like to have a go.  This is it:

SL failed to blaze 
every candle at both ends 
but it can help teach. 

Sunday, 23 February 2014

A couple of limericks


St Matthew's church, known as St Matt's,
defies imitation by cats.
Though the man who designed
it had sewers in mind,
it gets pigeons and bats but no rats.

Picture (c) Clare Baker 2012

St Matthew's church is where Clare and I are most Sundays.  I have no business imputing to it a defiance of imitation by cats, an attitude suggested only if one is expecting an English parish church to have a tower, topped by pinnacles, at one end.  Not everyone shares that expectation.  The architect of St Matt's was Richard Reynolds Rowe (1824-1899), designer of Cambridge Corn Exchange.

The poem appeared in the church's magazine Streetwise 45, Christmas 2001, p.5.

Here comes a more recent limerick, which made an appearance spread over a couple of tweets on 22 January 2014 -- my first poem of the year.


No selfie depicts the librarian
fighting doors, lights and stairways to ferry an
array of files, books
and sack, but it looks
most textbook unhealth-and-safetarian.

I'd like to say I knew better than to take a selfie in such a situation, but in truth the idea did not occur to me until later.

Monday, 27 January 2014

Shadowing people who use book houses

This post has me doing two things I've done before: writing what would be my entry in a competition, if I weren't disqualified from entering because I'm the organiser (cf. this post from January 2012), and restricting myself to the thousand commonest words in the language, using the Up-Goer Five text editor (as in this post from February 2013).

The competition in which this new work will not be entered is for accounts of any aspect of the libraries@cambridge conference 2014.  Frankie Wilson's presentation was entitled 'Quality in libraries -- it is all about people'.  The presentation itself is password-protected, so I won't link to it from here, but if you go to Twitter and search on #lac14 that'll give you some idea of its content.  Note that the #lac14 hashtag has since been used for another conference as well, so you'll need to look for the tweets around 9 January, the day of libraries@cambridge itself.

The Up-Goer Five list of the 1000 commonest words does not include the word 'library'.

Why don't you have a go?  Email me your entry by 23:59 on Friday 31 January.  Prizes include wine voucher from Cambridge Wine Merchants and cake made by Clare.


This is from the talk Ms Wilson gave to the meeting of people who run book houses. The talk was all about how to make book houses better by taking notice of the people who use them. I was much interested in one idea -- to ask people who use book houses if we can shadow them and watch them at their using.

Ms Wilson was clear that this shadowing would have to be different from following people to hurt them. We would have to ask people if they would like us to shadow them, and asking could be done with cups of coffee. This might make people happier to be shadowed.

Shadowing people was only one of the ideas Ms Wilson put forward, but it was one of those that most hit me. I took it back to my own book house and talked about it the next day with the other people who work there. They could see things I would have to think about before trying it in our book house.

One was the question, would shadowing people in this way be much different from the kind of standing behind them, in order to see how they look for books and other things, that work in book houses often needs you to do? Another was the fact that many people who use our book house do their looking for books before they come to the book house. Would we be asking to shadow them in their offices?

Another person in our team told of an idea he had heard in another part of the meeting: instead of shadowing people, ask them to write down, with a phone, what they are doing at some set times of the day.

Shadowing could be set up more easily than asking people to write things down with their phones. I know its picture of how people use the book house would not be complete. But I work most in an office away from the people who use the book house, and shadowing might show me things I had missed. I think it's an idea to keep at the back of my mind. And maybe ask Ms Wilson how she does it!