It's fourteen years since we stopped smoking in the pub;
ripping out a Rizla, folding in Old Holborn,
liquorice papers the favourite, with a fibrous roach,
the air grey as a smoker's lung, like a descending fog,
bar lights filtering through this self-imposed fug.
Yet the wonderousness of rolling a perfect, cylindrical fag,
with the correct compaction for a satisfying drag,
whilst caressing a pint of cider, an Ambrosian delight,
a draught between each toke of carbon monoxide death,
is a smoky reminiscence of a joyous freedom from
an engine conditioner's workshop, where trichloroethylene
induced psycho-dramas and a high-stepping gait
were hazards to avoid; a far more noxious environment
than the public bar of The Ferryman's smoke smothered walls.
So every night at ten o'clock, the five of us would meet,
Darren, Ady, Roger, Mark and me in that bar,
a raucous drunken reprisal of the night before;
Strongbow, Stella Artois, Irish Stout, combustible
conversation, rollies flying off the fingers
for the final hour and on into the lock-in;
years before the lock-down, smiles our only masks.
It's fourteen years since then and I've cast off the coughing,
revivified the lungs, moved Up North, the air
a pristine Pennine flavour now the mills are gone,
a butchered working class wandering the estates
and the soot blackened pubs, but smoking now outside
of the freshly painted tap rooms, in the dog-end littered street.
My hands are free of grease, my lungs purged of tar;
perhaps a pint of light mild slips down better for that.
But now the hazard to be rid of are the neo-liberal thugs
who blight we workers lives with their oligarchic cant;
that is, until the red flag flies from all town halls.
For Arthur Wesney 1915-1941
If I could, I'd come to visit you,
where your bones have lain these eighty years.
In Libya's dangerous soil you are interred
beneath the ground you died on as a youth,
so many dreams unfulfilled and gone.
My father, who fought with you, is now gone too,
but died an old man, lying in his bed
still thinking of the way you fell in battle,
your sacrificial blood drained in the sand.
What would be gained by coming to your grave
is indefinable. I cannot tell
you of the millions subsequently slain
and feel your sorrow heave beneath the earth,
but only kneel to give you back your name.
A Happy Life
I've grown bewildered, loving life
as much and often as I do;
pleasures, such as I have known,
seeded, watered, carefully grown
have nurtured love, the love of you,
my happy, caring, loving wife.
Bewilderment's a happy way,
a moist condition lightly borne,
defining not a fuddled mind
but clearly knowing to be kind
despite those things we find forlorn,
cherishing that which makes us stay.
So we grow older, as we must;
we settle in each others skin,
sampling all the pleasures we
have cultivated in the tree
of life; and know that, deep within,
is rooted care and love and trust.
beating, reaching, running
into the southerly
mains'l and jib
sucked into the wind
spray like white fire
scalding our skin
as we tack
(mind the boom)
onto a broad reach
astride the gunwale
raising the genoa
relaxing the sheets
like flying fish
ecstatic in speed
a force five
flushing us easterly
it's as if the wind dies
as we run with it
blocking the sun
we relax back
into the cockpit
seemingly at standstill
but doubling our knots
beer in hand
heading for home
1st September 1939-2019
You can see what Auden meant,
Sitting in one of his dives
Eighty years from here,
Supping the depth of his pain
To the bottom of his glass;
He felt Enlightenment's loss
Like a tumour in his brain,
The darkness closing in,
Conspiracies of hate
Calculating the lives
They can forfeit to the cause.
The darkness was allayed
By millions sacrificed;
These men and women died
On the walls of Stalingrad,
The beaches of Normandy,
In parched El-Alamein,
Building a better world
From the ruins of ancient sites;
The remnants of the maimed
The Enlightenment reclaimed
On the bones of the betrayed.
So a fairer world was built,
At least, the industrial West,
The proceeds of capital
Shared more evenly
As espoused by Keynes;
Of all the utilities,
For wages and conditions,
Public health for all.
Meanwhile, the nagging guilt
Was to be assuaged
By countries taken back
By to whom they had belonged
Before their exploitation;
Hundreds of millions wronged
By thievery, rendition
Of their mineral wealth
To imperial banks
And oligarchic frauds.
For forty years it seemed
As if the Enlightenment
Was slowly creeping back;
Community on the rise,
Public policy aimed
At homes and jobs for all;
Equality was the prize,
Ordinary folk in thrall
To the prospect of a life
Free from poverty;
Then Thatcher stuck in the knife.
She twisted it to the core,
Clawed back the progress made,
Stole the hard wrought goods
We'd moulded from the ashes
Of our predecessors' bones:
For another forty years,
Destroyed our hopeless dream
Of a world-wide social state
Where workers are not abused;
Instead, we've ended up
With homeless paving the streets.
What little wealth we had
Has been stolen by the rich,
The bloated oligarchs
In their shining, slippery towers,
Lauding themselves, their acts
Leading to our planet
Destroying itself at last;
They feast upon the bones
Of the poorest of the poor,
Squashed beneath the heels
Of these cannibalistic powers.
Bemused, bewildered, betrayed,
The ghosts of those who fought
To build that world of light,
Defeat the fascist fiends
Of whom Auden despaired,
Weep into their graves
Their sacrifice as naught;
The avarice unfurled,
We mourn it was not stayed.
Yet love is what they taught;
This struggle never ends.
The Penguin Book of English Verse: 1970 Edition
I hold here in my hands
a book of English verse
collected over years
from English speaking lands.
The centuries traverse
this plenitude of peers.
All speak of love or death,
those two commanding states,
urgency of desire,
the quickening of breath
to which desire relates;
the all consuming fire
which all pervades our living
with the knowledge of our fate,
compassion and forgiving,
the struggle against hate
are subjects they define.
In one small volume here
the power of poetry
enraptures and enrages.
Contained is sage and seer;
our frail humanity
is written in these pages.
All speak of love and death,
the aching void of parting,
that rapture of desire
which overtakes the breath;
and of love departing
to the waiting funeral pyre.
She hardly could conceptualise
without the evidence of her eyes,
the touted, much praised, paradise
that haunted all her childhood dreams,
had taken up so many reams,
so many books that burst their seams
with images; an imagined place
the faithful wanted to embrace
before it vanished without trace.
How could it vanish? Some might say,
'surely it is here to stay,
our place assured, although the way's
so potholed with each vice and sin
you wonder how you can begin
to recognise the door marked In.'
So she decided to forget her
wonderings of the Begetter;
further musing might upset her.
Respecting, though, the people who,
through faith, believed it all was true,
whose happiness was like a glue
that bound together broken hearts,
the sum much greater than the parts;
unlike the knave who stole the tarts
she left them basking in their bliss,
feeling it would be remiss
to share with them her deep abyss.
They'd lose the toss and invariably take the field,
eleven in white on a Sunday afternoon,
a midsummer day, the sun at it's hottest height,
surrounding trees like ancient supporters applauding.
The umpires signal for the match to begin,
the fast bowlers on before they turn to spin,
and progresses through the long bee-hummed day.
He's fielding at mid-off, his gaze often drawn
to the varied greens against the spectating sky.
The batter plays to mid-wicket off his legs
but mistimes the stroke, ball catching the leading edge,
arcing steeply through the air, looping his way.
He's taken so many catches like this before
and cups his hands like a heart to receive the ball.
He's set and steady, it's descending at speed,
he hears it humming like bees as the seam rotates,
catching the air like a comet crashing through
a planet's atmosphere, till it slaps his palms,
the centrifugal force twisting it away
and down to the grass before he can react,
a misjudgment later ridiculed in the bar.
A dropped catch seems important at the time
and the match is lost but not just through his mistake.
The evening sun is lowering in the sky
as the aging trees still sway indifferently.
My Old Guitar
The battered old guitar I've played for fifty years
sits dustily in the corner, its harmonics muted,
no doubt still awaiting the arrival of a player
adept enough to release it from the monotony
of the same old three chord trick to which it's been subjected,
having drawn the short straw of being sold to me,
a mediocre musician with a semi-discordant ear,
who struggles to sound a note, often losing the key.
It's longing for a Django or, classically, a Williams
to release it from its torpor, condemned to the occasional strum;
to feel some finger picking, to take off on a flight
of rapacious arpeggios, an all consuming riff;
to find, at last, its voice, to feel, at last, its potential,
free from all constraint, to drift into its dream
of Hendrix, Page, Santana, who all have passed it by,
this Yamaha FG One Eighty, Red Label Nippon Gakki.
Strangely, it's become a collectors item I'm told,
sought after by the folk who think things can be owned.
Yet, despite my ineptitude, I couldn't let it go,
because it has become a symbol of something more
than just an instrument longing to be tuned.
It's something symbiotic I couldn't do without,
nor, I think, could it do without my love
of its mellow tone, the timbre of its veneer.
I have recently had it re-fretted and restored,
returned to the beauty of its former days.
The action has been lowered, effortlessly it plays
all those three chord tunes I struggle to recall.
And I have been inspired to honour its stoicism
by tending to its needs each ensuing day,
forgoing that neglect which I previously offered,
seeing it for itself; the core of my beating heart.
To get across a life it's bridges we build,
span the light of our waking days
with alliances, compromises,
negotiate our walking routes,
cut avenues through the undergrowth.
These hours are lush like vegetation,
alive and drinking the succulent rains
that swell the raging rapids of desire,
the swirl and boil of racing, constant hearts.
These bridges can be made of ancient stone,
a huge suspension wrought of iron and steel
or merely a plank placed across a stream.
All have two purposes; to set us free,
so we can feel the joy of coming home.