Ditch Diggers

They dug the ditches deep back then;
They had to –
Beating back the boundaries
Of nature’s millennia
Never had an adze or briar hook been seen
Until then.

Narrow blades; course hammered,
Drain spades and trench shovels
Lugged and bent
Where the shaft hooked the housing;
Sure footing for the sure-footed boot
To stand on, force, rend, cut.

The Navvy’s forebears,
Local stock, not travelled,
Except by foot or ox cart
Descended like bloody midges, swarming
To the Mop Fairs, hiring out blistered hands,
For work, for women, for wealth.

And they broke –
Broke the turf-sods and clod-soil,
Broke the rootstock and tap shoots,
Broke, with badging tools and sickle-scythes;
Broke, with froes and beet hooks;
Broke their backs for coppered toil.

These days, we dig and cover –
The shovel-scoop of the iron ox forces, rends and cuts
The drains, grey tubes, flushing, free –
But look close,
Where the litter lies in the old hedge line
Where the soft mud gathers, draped in half-mulched leaves –

There, lie the shallow trenches
There, the mark of the old ditch diggers
Cruddy trickles;
Chip wrappers, rusting beer cans
Their memoriam;
Their last will, their testament.

Baying at the Moon

A muggy September day
Close and clammy like a secret uncovered
Yet broken with a shock, a jolt
As all the heaven’s pent-up frustration,
It’s potent fury, clashes and bangs
Together, squeezed into a release
Of swingeing torrents of elemental vengeance 

That night, an hour no more
After this Armageddon
The sun swatted below the horizon
By our racing rock’s twitching flight path
Clouds drift lazily,
C
atching their breath, collecting their wounded
Our moon beams through, brighter than ever
As if it’s just been buffed, polished
By whoever keeps shop up there

A hazy light, refracted, split, soft
Is the light that falls on me
Like moon dust – I can feel it
Raising my hackles
Twitching follicles
That imperceptible shudder
Of walking over a grave

I look up; I sense it’s calling
And in my mind’s eye
Pulsing through my lunar veins
I dream, of throwing back my head
And baying to the Moon
A primal howl – proof, if needs be
That I am no wolf
But a mere servant, an unwitting slave
Of these dancing rocks
That spin through space and time

Fragments

needwoodReclaimed from the plough
The soil, still cloddy, cratered
By last night’s heavy squall;
Cobbles, palm-sized, glossy
As the promised talons
Of the high street nail shops
Turned over, dredged from the deep
By hundreds of years of harrow and furrow,
Sparkle, aglow.
Climbing, through the brambled hooks
Of thistles and leggy hawthorn
Up to the kissing gate –
There the world transformed:
Dappling glades
Like those you imagine
In your sweetest dreams;
Old trees, broken, suggestive,
Illuminated by shafts of forest light
Here a cackling witch,
Huddled, bent, cloaked in mystery
There a shepherd, braced to the wind
His sheep, the undercover,
Wizened  hollies, starved of light,
Fumbling for opportunity.
Beyond, like mystic isles,
Floating in a forgotten sea –
Fragments –
Fragments of the Needwood
The ancient wood that
Grew hereabouts; pioneering
As the ice withdrew
But slain by man and his piteous greed.
Fragments, though, remain,
Living memories, old, misshapen
Beacons of aged hope
A hope for those, like me
Who stare down on them
Like Atlantis, re-emerging.


September, 2016,  Brankley

 

Doggerland

Far out, across the choppy billows
Pushed up by the shallows of the Dogger Bank
Probing lights sweep the wave tops
Blinking spots on a radar screen
Focus down, target the shoal
Unbeknown, the flicking shards below
Silver-backed, iridescent, pearly-oil slicks
Of the herring-hive, dart and flare
Their fate ominously stalking

Weighted nets plunge and drag
As the coughing diesel bucks and pulls
The mighty haul plunges too
Into the inner depths
Of that greasy tub,
Tomorrow’s fodder, soon dispatched, soon packed

Back on the slippery quay
A catch of a different kind
Is left in wonderment
No pennies here for the grizzled fisherman
No exotic flatfish for Billingsgate or La Boqueria

Bones, bones…
Stripped of flesh, polished
By the gentle swash and wash
On the sand armed sea floor
Bones, bones…
Thigh bones like the Flintstones
Antlers of mega deer
Ivory, pocked with cavities, long-term decay
Bones, bones…
Clues of a different land
Remnants of grasslands and river banks
Memories of once great plains
That swept from Pacific to Atlantic
Scarified by bitter winds
Sun baked and buzzing with life

The last remnants –
The reminders of the past –
Our past, of Doggerland,
And maybe, of our tomorrow

Some look to the sea

Some look to the sea.
It’s in their bones, somehow;
Deep within, buried, innate –
In their very marrow, their blood,
Maybe not real, except to them –
Inexplicable, but there all the same.

Some look to the land.
Grains through their fingers
A brittle loam, dry, yet life packed,
A call – of the river bank, of the oak
A call – of the path, of the long grass
Silent, but there all the same.

Some look to the sea.
An iron rod, yanked by a magnet
The irresistible tug of the moon
On man or wolf, gentle, relentless
Unheard, undetectable
Unseen, but there all the same.

Some look to the land.
They feel it, heavy on their shoulders
Gravity weighing on them alone
No burden though – inescapable joy
Oneness, connection, shared beginnings
Unprovable, but there all the same.

Wall

Eight foot six
From toes through hips
To the far-off tips
Of fingers spread,
Little is said
Of such common things
Lost in the everyday –
As stretchers and headers
Soldiers and sailors,
Or simple baked bricks
Lovingly laid, end to end
Leaving a gap – a perpend
Sloughed with mortar,
Or comfy in a bed
Whereupon happens
Such intricate patterns
The saucy stuff, the bonding:
English, Sussex, Flemish, Monk –
But nothing, no, nothing
Quite compares
To quoins and half-bats
Shiners and rowlocks;
For me, it is a simple call
The easy beauty of a well laid wall
More – my very heart goes a’throbbing
At haggard old beams
Standing proud or unseen;
And the merest glance of good brick nogging.

Snickets

Round that old, old town
Looped by green waters
Wooded thick as an old fur coat
Of old trees
Round the castle and cathedral
Man’s settlement grew unplanned
Stone on stone, brick on brick
Generation on generation
Each building over the next
Following twists, knicks, bluffs
Undulations of rock and soil
Sinuous sinews of habitation
A ground plan like veins
Shadowed alleyways; steps worn
By countless hobnails
Stilettos and segs,
Home to bill stickers
And teenage tags, urban art.
We argued that weekend
Whether these snickets were just that –
Snicking away into dark depths
Or were they ginnels up here –
Narrower somehow, longer perhaps
Going deeper; ‘ginneling’ lower?
I’ve heard them called ‘jintys’ or somesuch
And they could be; playful, avoiding highways
Cutting their own path, jauntily, ‘jintlely’
Elsewhere, ‘ten-foots’ – not sure if
It’s ten foot wide
Or ten foot deep
But it was all in vain
For these snickets aren’t snickets
These ginnels not ginnels
They’re not ten foot neither, nor that jinty
Round these parts, they’re vennels
He said, the bearded local
As he squeezed the air
From the Northumbrian Pipes.
With such certainty, it settled it.
Nice snickets, all the same.

Volcán

For months it was said
The land rumbled and creaked –
The deep reverberations
A stomach unfed, fretful.
The priest, brim-full with fear and piety
Seeking mercy, or sanctuary –
Scrambled up the crackled crest
Over sharp black rock
Edged with knives, devoid of life
Pock-marked with worm holes
From venting gas years past
In hemp and rope sandals
A hessian smock, scrabbling
To witness… what?
The Lord himself, surely
Rip apart the land
Pull it, lever it, break it, wrench it
Smash it. Smash his creation,
Swallowing farms, feasting on livestock
And the fields themselves
And then –
Volcán came.
The breath of the Devil
The spittle; the fume; the bile
An inferno bursting like pus
Villages lost, eaten whole, or throttled;
New rivers made –
Ash, smoke, dust, flowing fire;
Endless fire, endless.
One man did not run;
He beat back the bubbling river
With a bucket, and a straw shoe;
Gone.
Three hundred years hence,
They will not forget, surely
What happened here –
What he witnessed –
From this chimneyed eyrie
Soot-pasted, choking,
The breath of a Cuban,
Dry, acrid, pungent, dusty;
Yet now they play like kids
Round – in! – the crater
Mark it with stones, and crosses
Build their cairns; make their names with rocks
Oblivious it seems
To the dormant power
The impassive evil
That lies here, sleeping.

Waiting.

Piston Slap

It started with dripping oil,
Dark smudges, smeared by tyres
Pounded into the new-laid tegula
Dusty blurs, like human shadows
Following a nuclear strike

Then gargling, spitting
A mist of greasy invective
Black words, barking
From the tailpipe, exhausted
A hail of mechanical fatigue

So in it went, to an ‘engine shop’ –

Spluttering, gargling to the far side of Needwood –
Trent one-side, power station the other
Flush to the canal, banged up behind
The digger plant and an old signal box;
Bletch-covered sleepers under edge-rusted rails

Yet lo! Empowered by oil
Uplifted by wrenches and spanners
Tar-smeared power tools
Pits, winches and inch-thick chains
I transformed. The engineer. Stephenson. Brunel.

Me.

It’s likely the stem seals”, he said
Or maybe the inlet rings.”
Hopefully not a re-bore
I bluffed, a parry. Nothing more.
Might do”, he rumbled, gruffly

But who was to know?
Emboldened, now I dared to speak
The lost tongue of my father;
And before him, his father, William
Or Frank, his step-father, engineers all.

And the language of George,
Grandad, Mum’s side –
The tinkerer, the fixer, the trucker
Whose thick palms, nimbly dexterous
Were ingrained with oil and engines.

Never me.

So I animatedly spoke to my dad
Of O rings and rod nuts
Of engine shops and re-bores
Of widgets and grommets
Of gaskets and piston slap

His world, his words,
So I thought,
Benignly he listened; gently he shook his head
Amused and bemused
By my fluent influency.

Scrublands

The hard edges advance daily;
The kerbs, pavements, the flyovers
Storm drains and run-offs
The push and probe of new roads
Endless spans of concrete
Tarmac and stone –
But as the wild is sent
Into seeming retreat
So it finds new avenues of its own
To push and probe
The verges and ditch sides
The verdant hillsides of cuttings
And meadowlands renewed
Upon our fair embankments
These scrublands, these wild worlds
Lost in full view
Owned by no one but us all
Milkwort, Hawkweed
Muskmallow and Knapweed
Hoary Plantain, Oxeye Daisy
Meadow Cranesbill and Great Mullein
Tended by no one
Except the feather dusters of the bees
And the inquisitive nose
Of the dog or vole.