Conkers lie dying

The slopes of Tall Chimneys –
Vengeful with grasping hands
Eager teens scratching; raking through dirt,
Scrabbling in the root boles
For nature’s Gold;
No fools here, real treasure,
Traded on the Clippers and Skiffs
The Junks of school boys’ pockets –
Shards of snot rags sieved out;
Old sweets, dented half Pennies;
Removed, to leave true worth.

Down in the park,
Bedraggled Horse Chestnuts
Coated with dappled leaves
Under fire from the artillery
Of bald-headed tennis balls stuffed in socks
Of snapped branches, hurled in spinning arcs;
The collateral damage of this onslaught,
This barrel bombing…
Leaves’ fall forced, Autumn early
A camouflage carpet
Covering the prize.

Yet they were found. All of them.
Fine Fare carrier bags, old hats, stuffed
Even the faux-furred hood
Of the old plastic Parka,
Ragged with chewed sleeves
And stained elbows –
Jewels, roundly prized.

Then the piercing.
Innocently, with a bradawl. Or a meat skewer.
Maybe a lump of plasticine or blu tac under,
Eyes half closed, concentration
The intent brute force of 13 year muscle.
Old laces, the plastic end long lost, frayed.
Rolled in saliva, sharpened to a quill point,
Eyed through, knotted –
Ready for war.

Some baked them, long and slow.
Others soaked them in cider vinegar, or linseed.
All agreed, size wasn’t the prize.
The big ones, lustrous, fleshy, glitzy even
Cuff polished – but an easy target;
They would snap and die with a dull thud
Their lemon yellow flesh ripped open.
The best were like gobstoppers,
Coppery dark, ever-so wrinkled;
Hard to pierce, ominous.
Their weight belied their size;
They hung on a straight lace, plumb.
My view? Last year’s crop, well hidden.
But who knows?
And who cares when they whistle and swing,
Trailing destruction, shrapnel, bomb casings –
And the winner’s spoils, hanging,
Forlorn, like scalps around the collar.

Today though
The conkers lie dying.
One tree, just up from us,
Is gnarled and proud and fecund –
But it’s spawn lie at its feet,
Crushed by trainers and the knobbly wheels
Of strollers and flat-land mountain bikes.
No plastic bags of sweating treasure –
No skiffs or junks of the teenage trader –
Just silly rules, “health and safety”…
And childhood memories never known.


National Poetry Day, 2016

Clinker built

It was a pleasure skiff hoiked up on the back of a trailer, held in place by crude-cut chocks, vivid yellow straps with self tensioning ratchets and thick rope, twisted at points into hand-sized knots and hairy with stick out wild strands of twine. A cruising boat; bicep-powered, now cruising up the dual carriageway to who knows where? The hull was chestnut brown, brush-swept varnish strokes caringly applied, it gleamed with buffed love but not so much that the knurls and knots couldn’t show through, the heartwood breathing beneath. A high back chair across the rear portion with a wrought iron topper the only concession to fashion; otherwise this high sitter was custom made for a proud Victorian gentleman, boater-topped with a rakish cravat and a blouson shirt opened up more than modesty should allow, riffling in the breeze.

But the boat, the hull, the bow: that recalls a much earlier time. Clinker built, overlapping stanchions, smooth-planed stringers and internal trusses hand-worked not machined. On a trailer, up the A38; a craft rooted in more than 1,300 years of history. Scaled up and mast added, it could take a sail, a sea, a journey to Vinland, or a rich Abbey on the coast, swilling over with gems, Communion wine and sacred texts. Although planed and sawn by man, the lines remain organic; the wood is cut but then seems to adapt and grow back, plank over plank, the caulk the underwear; the ribs the shoes. A work of beauty, Viking designed, still functional today and being put back to work on a boating lake in Rotherham or as a daily hire on the Ouse, who knows?


Edward Cove hung himself, I recall, from a beam in the roof of his boat shed on Shadycombe Road. It was called the Island Quay boatyard; I was 12 and remember it vividly, front page news in the Gazette. The family couldn’t agree over which way to take the business and Edward could take no more. The end of over a hundred years of wooden boat building tradition was precipitated.  In that time, one of the few concessions, the fitting of choking, coughing inboard diesels, puthering and thrusting out their sooty smoke.  But these too were clinker built vessels and I loved them, the East Portlemouth ferries the police-jacket blue icon of the type, hunkering down and riding the waves, not fighting them, cutting them, pitching violently but conversing with them and reaching a rolling agreement.