Let the Poetry Begin!
I read my poem, ‘Desert Piece’, recently (see below), to try to remember the young me. The poem felt so sad and desolate, that I felt I needed to redress the balance and write a poem of hope. After all, failure at twenty-one doesn’t have to mean failure for ever! Actually, it made me doubly determined to carve my way and to create a curriculum vitae that was, at least, interesting.
In the fifty plus years that have passed since 1968, I have had many successes and not a few failures, and have learnt that in life you win some and you lose some! With this in mind, I thought that I would use the Australian outback as a theme once again and find a real positive in its mystery and its contrasts, its rain forest and its deserts, its mountains and plains, its drab and its colour, its wet and its dry. Australia is a continent of stark differences. There is life in the dry centre, where logic says that there should be none. Bush fires destroy everything, but they also prompt the germination of new growth in a regenerative cycle that has taken place regularly over millennia. When the monsoon-like rains finally fall on the centre, following years of drought, there is life a-plenty in its wake. After the flood the desert becomes a sea of wildflowers.
Recently, thanks to global warming, there has been an excess of fire and flood in Australia, often arriving unexpectedly and causing heartbreak and disaster for its inhabitants, human or otherwise. Traditionally, life goes on. For me, the outback will always be a country where triumph and disaster go hand in hand. It is a land of extremes, where people, animals and vegetation just keep going, riding the onslaughts, living their lives, and delighting in their unique environment. Surely that is an image of optimism and worth a poem!
There is hope in the centre,
In the dry, scorched desert,
In the dusty billabongs,
And ancient mountain ranges.
There is life.
Rustling creatures, powdered red,
Commute with industry,
Prowl with intensity,
Living spirits of the dreamtime.
Too, there are men,
Old as the hills,
Who know their way,
Who share the outback sand,
In harmony. Who understand.
And there are seeds.
Dusty seeds, underfoot and under belly,
Waiting for the ten-year rain
To slake their thirst.
Inert they lie, alert,
Suckled by the centre,
Patient, parched and waiting,
For the warm wet wind of India
To spark a desert fire,
To flood the desert floor.
And soon, Sturt’s rose and suncap,
Dandelion and marigold,
Will blaze on damp sand,
And set the central sea aflame with flower,
Raging and roaring like a blacksmith’s hearth,
As summer’s silken waters ebb.
I wrote ‘Desert Piece’ at the age of twenty-one. It was my first poem as an adult. I was feeling very depressed about life in general and life in Australia in particular. Two years earlier I had arrived in Queensland with my parents and twin brother, Jim, determined to make a success in my new home.
My school experience in a Somerset public school had been less than an overwhelming success. I disliked the system, which was designed to subdue the individual and to promote obedience and uniformity. Going to Australia, the land of huge spaces and individualism, seemed perfect for me.
I wanted to go to university, to study English and, above all, I wanted to be an operatic tenor! My first move was to get into Queensland University, in St Lucia, Brisbane. I enrolled with the Queensland Correspondence School and did a crash course to pass my Senior Public Examination in five subjects in just over six months. I had no conflict with teachers to distract me and passed with flying colours. Unfortunately fate then stepped in.
I was called up at the age of nineteen for National Service in Australia. Only one male in ten was balloted and Jim and I were among the lucky ones! I volunteered to apply for officer training in Portsea, Victoria for eleven months, and was accepted. As a twin, Jim could then do six years in the Citizens’ Military Forces as a part-time soldier. I didn’t particularly want to be a soldier, but it was the start to a career, and I badly needed a career. For reasons best known to my training officers, I found myself a bit of a square peg and resigned, after ten months, before they could kick me out! I behaved impeccably, but apparently, lacked leadership qualities! Oh well!
I was back where I had started, but a year older and totally lacking in self-confidence.
It seemed to me that the dry outback was just the right image to describe me! I wrote this poem as a way of expressing my feelings of frustration with life and felt better afterwards. Years later, I realise that, while poetry can’t fix the world, it can release ideas and images which are both therapeutic and insightful. As with most things in life, things got better with a bit of hard work and application. The good thing is that I am left with a poem to show for it. Better than a medal!
I’ve trudged the dry outback –
A rolling patchwork back-drop,
Scrubby dust and flies,
The country talking in their shivering wings grizzling.
I’ve seen sun’s fried egg on blue
Snap the bouncing dust-ball
And so, too, have I been
Sucked of moisture, spat
And fallen, dried sand, to the ground.
We arrived home at 3 am on Easter Monday 18th April, this year, following a five- hour drive through the night from the ferry terminal at Caen.
As we unlocked the gate, to drive in, we heard that sound again. It was unmistakeable, the nightingale had returned!
We stopped in our tracks, amazed. All the tiredness of our drive evaporated, as we listened. Ruth recorded the song on her mobile phone. The church clock of St. Vincent Sterlanges, a mile away, can be heard faintly, striking three, through the birdsong, 2 mins 48 secs into the recording. We went to bed smiling very soon after.
What struck me during the next few weeks, was that the nightingale seemed to sing both night and day to attract a mate. Its song was always beautiful, but, after a few days of incessant singing, it began to sound desperate, and my heart went out to it. It was as if the bird was destined to sing until it found a mate or perish in the attempt. (The effort of singing through fifty per cent of the night causes it to lose much of its body weight, which has to be replenished by vigorous eating during the day, according to Wikipedia)
I was reminded of Moira Shearer in the 1948 film, ‘The Red Shoes’. Once the young girl tries on the beautiful red shoes, she dances sublimely, ferociously well. The problem is that she can’t stop dancing, nor can she take off the red shoes.
Day after day and night after night, we heard the singing, feeling a mixture of joy and sadness, until his voice became a background to other events in our lives. Finally, we didn’t hear it. It was like looking at a faint star in the night. Full on, we didn’t notice it, but caught in the periphery of our vision, knew that it was still there.
No doubt, our songster was successful in finding a mate, and has reared its chicks in our garden. Strangely, our human concentration span was so short that we quickly stopped noticing the nightingale’s very obvious presence.
I’ve called this poem ’Rossignol’ which is the French name for the nightingale. Incidentally, it is also an old Languedoc term for a singer or someone with a pleasant voice.
Footnote: As I finished writing this, I went outside into the garden to collect something from our Garden Room. Once again, I heard the song of the nightingale, less strident, less frequent, and more comfortable. Could it be that it has found love, at last?
You catch my breath
With your love song,
Rattling, chirping and fluting,
A capella, bravura, coloratura,
Guttural, chuckling, swooping
And sweeping centre stage.
Incognito, you bow and bob,
To hedge and tree and furrowed field,
Inimitable, indomitable, unconsolable,
Night and day you plead.
Such talent, such devotion, such élan!
Until, like dancing droplets
Trilling in some lonely stream,
Your voice becomes invisible,
Your misty song a distant dream.
For my daughter, Kate. And for my grandson, Alexander, born today.
It was in Spring that we first heard it and couldn’t believe our luck. From an ordinary tree not two minutes into our regular daily walk from home in the heart of the Vendee, came the compelling sound of a bird in full voice. We stopped without a word, standing in the middle of the quiet lane, craning to catch a glimpse of the bird.
“Is that…”, we both whispered, “Is that a nightingale?”
We knew it had to be. There was a power and a virtuoso athleticism to the song, which marked it out from other birds we were used to hearing on our walks. Finally, as if acknowledging our admiration, the nightingale took a bow, appearing to us quite boldly, for the first time, at the very top of the tree. There could be no doubt of his identity. I say ‘his’ because, later, on looking through our bird guide, I gathered that it is the male who sings to attract his mate. She may take him or leave him, depending on whether his arpeggios, turns and roulades are sufficiently enticing! We listened, as he ran through his simple encore.
We walked on in silence. We could still hear him.
Does not dress-up to kill.
He wears, instead,
A simple fustian suit
Of undistinguished brown,
As, hidden high, he chants
And swoops, beckons, taunts, seduces,
Plagues us with his shimmering song,
Whisks our feet from under us,
And offers us a simple choice,
“Hear my song,
Or pass along!”
The wise ones wait.
When I was about twelve years old, my class had to learn poems by heart. These poems have stayed with me and remain vivid. One was called ‘The Destruction of Sennacherib’ and was written by Lord Byron, about the siege of Jerusalem in 701 BC, in which the Assyrians not only lose their battle, but also one hundred and eighty-five thousand men. The first two verses of the poem describe the massed forces of the invaders and their pitiful state after the fight.
“The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold,
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.
Like the leaves of the forest when Summer is green,
That host with their banners at sunset were seen:
Like the leaves of the forest when Autumn hath blown,
That host on the morrow lay withered and strown.”
There was a field of sunflowers growing behind our house this Summer, which reminded me of the tale of Sennacherib. Over a period of months, I watched the thousands of plants grow and flourish and the flowers become more and more prominent, until they opened. By Summer there were thousands of splendid sunflowers. Come Autumn they ‘lay withered and strown’, awaiting the harvester.
I love sunflowers. I think that they are magnificent flowers. But it didn’t take too much imagination to compare their rise and fall to that of countless populist armies over the centuries.
Old greenwood forests have moods, which speak to our senses. We all know how wonderful it is to see the fresh buds of spring on the trees, the songs of birds as they sit busily on branches high above us, and the flurry as they fly ahead at our approach. In spring all is renewed. Animals procreate, birds nest, new growth peeps shyly from the forest floor. Summer and autumn too, have their seasonal joys. It is not difficult to feel optimistic when the sun shines lazily through the foliage or we walk ankle-deep in dried leaves, at once entranced and bewildered by the season’s new patterns.
But, winter, and woodland can test the boldest of spirits. They remind us of our own mortality, of the relentless passage of time, of our own ageing and the coming of old age to those we love. On the other hand, most of us can see that winter doesn’t have to be the end of things. In many ways, it is a new beginning, and we only need be a little patient to see the signs of new life coming stealthily all around us.
The woodland’s breath is rank.
Dead trees like rotting teeth,
Gape, sweet and musty with decay,
As we approach.
The fallen trunks like cold Crusaders,
Long dead, lie in posey prayer,
Sightless, gazing at the vaulted,
High cathedral sky.
Beneath our feet, the leaf mould,
Damply, springs and sighs.
The velvet greens of mosses,
Cushion-plump and odious,
Cloak the stumps and boles
Of oaks and birch and beech.
Fat toadstools, sulphurous, pink, and brown,
Infest the forest floor.
“All things must pass”, it seems to say.
“All things must fade and die away.”
But my feet dance, on beech-nut mast,
For there I see,
Beside the crumbling, ivy-covered tree,
A fresh-sprung snowdrop nod his head to thee.
In 1981, after a brief but exhilarating career as an opera singer, I started to work in residential care with elderly people. It was then sixty-six years after the end of the First World War. Many of the men I met during these years had fought in the war, as had my grandfather. Unlike my grandfather, they had survived, had cheated death.
One of the residents of Laburnum Lodge in Littleport, near Ely, was called Bill Waddington. He was a charming man, who had lost a leg in the First War but made little fuss about it, even though it made his life as an old man much more difficult than it would otherwise have been. He was the first old soldier I looked after and his situation made me think, for the first time, about the legacy of war on our old people. Bill was able to tell me about the trenches and his injuries. He expressed his amazement to me that he had survived. Another old gentleman I met was six feet four tall and had survived four years in France in the trenches, with the Suffolk Regiment. He, laughingly, said it was a miracle that he hadn’t been picked off by a German sniper and had spent most of the war bent double!
In 1914 men such as these, held out against an army five times their size, until the British were able to form a line of defence after the first battle of Ypres at the close of 1914. These men were said to have been described by Kaiser Wilhelm as ‘a contemptible little army’. The name stuck and these brave soldiers have been known ever since as ‘the old contemptibles’. Most of them died in the early years of the war.
Sadly, after the war, the survivors, many of them missing limbs, or suffering from ‘shell shock’ or damaged lungs from the gas attacks, were left to their own devices, like other soldiers before and since. Surviving the peace became their next battle.
By 1984, when I wrote this poem, it was all ancient history, as was the Second World War. Countless books had been written and the two wars had become subjects of academic discussion. The few surviving soldiers were still there, though, largely forgotten, except on Armistice Sundays, when a few were still able to parade and remind us of past conflicts. Otherwise, they were on their own. They had sacrificed years of their lives, of their youth, lost family and friends and lived
with the sort of memories no one other than the serving soldier can ever experience.
I wrote this poem in November 1984, thinking of the plight of all old soldiers who have served their country before and since the Great War and who have been forgotten with the passing of time.
Old age has wearied him,
His face condemned by years,
Bob Jobbins, old, contemptible,
Stands blinking through his tears.
His thoughts are shattered friendships,
And broken, rotting boys,
When fallen youth lay dying,
Wide-eyed in battle’s noise.
He clasps synthetic poppy,
That even time can’t fade,
And gazes in memoriam
As wreath by wreath is laid.
The tears creep on, relentless,
As years that line his face.
His mind grows lost and lingers
In some dark, mud-spattered place.
He hears the bugle moaning
In his dreams and far away,
And he weeps, but not for soldiers-
For himself and for today.
For the knotty bones and body,
That stands with mourners grim,
For the quick, sharp death of the soldier,
For the end that was not for him.
And most of all, he sorrows
For the years of love he gave,
To a world which now rejects him -
For his own inglorious grave.
We use words like happiness and love very loosely. Is happiness an ice cream and sunshine at the beach? Is it a new baby or a promotion at work? All of these things can make us happy and we can honestly say to ourselves, "At this moment I feel happy."
Love is a bit more complex. We know we love someone but we keep asking , "Is this really love? How do I know if it's the real thing?" The truth is that you never really know until much later, when you are better able to see through the tangle of emotions and can reflect calmly on your feelings. In the meantime you can only act on instinct to give you an answer.
Joy is an even harder emotion to grasp. You may be happy. You may be in love. You may look for joy, but can't seem to find it. This should not be surprising, because joy will not be found, so don't go looking for it! You never know, it may catch you by surprise when you least expect it.....
The paradox of Joy
Is that it dances round
The corner, just as you
Try to clutch it;
A little like Love,
Which is slower on its feet,
And may yet be snatched.
Joy, unlike Love,
Will not submit
To the hard-luck tale,
Or the tempting
Hot breath of passion
Of the ardent suitor,
Or the one-night stand.
Nor does it smile on those
Whose backs, through toil,
Are turned hard away,
Day after day,
Who cannot feel
The feathered touch of Joy
When it appears.
For Joy will stalk you
Like soft zephyrs
And touch your naked body
Should it choose.
It is not to be found -
But it may find you.
We lived in a large, converted barn of thatch and stone in Dorset. Barton Barn was the old Squire's barn, settled comfortably between the inn and the church, in the village centre.
Some time in the mid-nineteenth century Thomas Hardy was born, in a small cottage not two miles away. He went to Stinsford school and attended Stinsford Church, where his heart is buried. The rest of him is interred in Westminster Abbey. ' Max Gate', Hardy's home is only two miles away. If you were to ask a local where they lived, they might say, "In Wessex, you know, Hardy Country, near Dorchester." They might even say that Tess walked through West Stafford to get to Talbothayes, where she worked as a milkmaid and first met Angel Clare.
Such is the confusion between myth and reality in Dorset. Wessex doesn't officially exist anymore. The village has neatly trimmed lawns and is peopled by retirees and professionals. It has granite kitchens and a gastro-pub. There is little of Hardy's Dorset left, but the myths remain.
Recently, Stafford House has been the home of Baron Fellowes of West Stafford, author of 'Downton Abbey'. Could this further confuse things? Did Mr Bates, the valet, court Anna in some dark corner of West Stafford churchyard? Maybe Thomas Barrow and Miss O'Brien plotted against Bates over a pint in the 'Wise Man'?
Ruth and I were really there, after 'The Mayor of Casterbridge' and before 'Downton Abbey', lost in love and wondering about the future as the millennium mid-night came and went. Meanwhile, the old barn looked on...
In the mists of Middle England
Merge Melbury and Budmouth town,
And Egdon Heath and Casterbridge.
Here, Dorchester meets Borsetshire,
Where Piddles became Puddles,
And Martyrs met on Mondays,
Where hired hands sowed and mow
The Wessex wheat,
On weekdays and on Omnibus.
And in this whirl of pith and myth -
The milkmaids who fight it,
The farmers who like it,
The workers who work it -
The Barton Barn presides.
And haunted paths,
It knows the lives
Of Dorset men and girls,
The farmyard fowl,
The barnyard owl,
The flutter of feathers,
The kick of kine.
Like rooted Church,
And mossy moat,
Like hill and massive oak,
Of Dorset stone
And angled beam.
And there, inside, treads Tess.
Tess with Angel.
She and I,
Who live our own mythology.
At midnight, through the windows,
Two feet deep,
Like Hardy’s folk in aspic steeped,
We hold each other tight and sigh -
And, fearful, watch the century slip by.
What's the best day of the week?
For couples who work all week and play on Saturdays, it has to be Sunday. For busy people, Sunday morning seems to beckon to us through the week.
We all have an idealised image of Sunday morning. For families with young children, a peaceful Sunday morning together may seem like a pipe dream. Never mind! In time, you'll get your Sundays back!
For me it is characterised by a lie-in, followed by a relaxed breakfast and some togetherness. For those of us of a certain age, every morning could be Sunday morning! On second thoughts, perhaps too much of a good thing might do more harm than good!
If somebody should ask me
What I most would like today,
I think I know just what I’d have to say -
Croissants in the oven,
Spluttering coffee on the brew,
Some early morning sunshine
And a table laid for two.
And no-one but my love and me
And nowhere else to go
And Sunday morning silence
With nothing else to do.
But more than this
I’d like to see,
A shy, soft smile
To welcome me.
For then I’d boil the coffee dry
And burn the buns
I was born in England soon after the war. I moved , with my family to Australia in 1966, where I was a soldier (briefly), a public servant, an opera singer, and an English teacher.