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.