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

Tall chimneys

The part of the world I’m originally from is known for its black and white (or ‘Magpie’, funnily enough) buildings. Crooked oak posts, cruck or ‘A’ frames, intricate carving counterpoised against rugged adse-hewn joints. The timbers are paint blackened, countless coats over hundreds of years, with jettied floors ideal for jettisoning night soil. The infill though is far from soiled, it is whitewashed, brightly pronounced even when a new splash is needed. But despite being seemingly too stark for a countryside setting, somehow the opposite becomes true, they fit into their surroundings, dig in, natural, at one. For me, though, it’s not the body of these vernacular buildings that I enjoy most, it’s the head, the hat. The chimneys weave and wind, often the chimney breast is concealed inside the house and the stacks suddenly erupt in swirls and twists.

IMG_3303Travelling south and east though into the Midlands, the black and white houses ebb away. Timber buildings are still here, but the timber is usually left alone, or more typically hidden by the façade, brick or otherwise. And the chimneys too seem less grand. Maybe us Cheshire folk have always been a bit showy, but these Staffordshire chimneys are straight, honest, workmanlike. Maybe they just put their money into the parts of the house they could see when reading a book. But then you get a surprise: stuck in traffic in the old Cathedral city of Lichfield a few days ago, I see these beauties on the old hospital of St John (no Knights Templar as far as I could see but there probably is a connection). A row of tall chimneys rising from the pavement up. Not an afterthought, but so essential to the buildings, they seem almost like an enceinte, a castle wall, a fortification, a warning. Proudly vertical then, reaching up towards the clouds, but in such profusion that they have a strong horizontality  too, strengthening the roof line, the line of the lintels and leading the eye along and away.

Green Lanes

It is said that man makes paths; marks in the earth that pass through the ages.  For me, the opposite is true. The paths make marks on man; lines, etched in earth and etched in memory. Trod in, stamped through. Lasting through life.

One. The green lane to Tall Chimneys. Cuts down from the main road; high hedges of hawthorn, hollin and beech, bowl out, beer paunched. The road arcs down the valley side, descending into perspective, the hedges narrow it further. The lane, stony at first, rim-rutted and hobnail trod, becomes rougher still; and as it sesses down the shadow dappled bank, clinging on, it is more worn, escaping grit and cobbles slide away under foot, hissing and skipping away towards the brook. The verges, thin and feather-edged, soak up feet marks like moss or putty or ebb-washed beach; pliant, moist. At the breach where the pitch steepens, the green lane has cut through; not the cut of a knife or a digger trough, but of feet, of soles. Working boots, cussed and torn; northern clogs clontering & sparking on old river cobbles, long white scratches; Sunday School best, moving lithely to and fro, avoiding the holes where the skin of the lane has rubbed free. Trees overhanging, branch and leaf locked together like a children’s party game: elder and buller, rowan and hazelnut, fingers intertwined.   For the Horse Chestnuts they come, roots like flying buttresses propping up the steep soil sides; a mangrove in temperate loam.  A rope swing over the water; conkers like Morning Stars, or comets, with flying tails in the night.

Then. The green lane at Timbersbrook. The roads round The Cloud follow contours, from above, rings of ever decreasing horseshoes. Not the green lane; clambering straight up joining one road to another: a shortcut for people long forgotten, stopping before the steep face where we used to boulder. Lichen shod, mortar-free stone walls of uneven shards of black-flecked gritstone, furry with moss, topped by beech & ash. The lane, not green but grey, rutted, rocky, a river bed made by man. We drove up; wheels bouncing and skidding; tyres pinging with air-taught melody, the steering wheel turning unrestrained, bruising fingers, snapping at thumbs. My forehead, a damp coldness of fear. This was not my car.

Two of the green lanes in my head.

Green lane_fotor