Monday, 23 December 2013

Four Answers Above

The thick face of the sky, marked with a blemish
And strung with stars like fungus, is awake,
Accepts my questions. What will satisfy
The urge to use these energies? “Life.”

Life didn’t. For years I trod the numbed path
To the Works, and in a tin-roofed office
Filed my days like paper; on Friday nights
I’d ask: to what will I go home? “Love.”

I didn’t. With the children put to bed,
The mortgage money loud in its jar, we
Bickered across the room; I slammed the door.
Will there be calm before the end? “Age.”

A lie. Age tortures me. My broken bones
Bent like gargoyles, I sit here sucking breath.
A cloud fumes on the sky; now I am old
And think on life, what will be mine? “Death.”

© circa 1973-76

Friday, 6 December 2013

Alcoholic: Fifth Hants Volunteer Arms

The Fifth Hants Volunteer Arms was (perhaps still is) a rather louche pub in Portsmouth in the 1970s frequented by students and a small group of hard if harmless drinkers. The students used to gather to watch 'Kojak' on the television over the bar and then 'deconstruct' it marxistically. What fun. The youngish subject of this poem caught my eye; if he continued drinking he must be long dead.


From the black void of day and hopeless night
They reach the bar. Gathered into a grim
Intense concern, cued by a mouthing telly,
They wheeze and smoke, hands resting in a forest
Of drink. The youngest entertains, jerking
Out his stern absurdities like a drunken
Butler. Doubled-up they break before him
Into a shuffle of balding greasy heads.

Already his paste-grey skin is smeared with
A drinker’s blush, black on his cheeks; he weaves
An impossible commission: “Oh, I can
Speak the pleasantries to Eddie...” His shirt
Lags from a sweater picked to curls of snot
Beneath a shroud-like jacket, colourless
With beer and ash. His cigar arcs the air;
He sways but turns it to a twist of interest.

When he leaves to make the round none will call
Farewell; he’ll slip forgotten from the door
Whilst the others squabble over glasses:
Tomorrow he’ll return, they know he must.
But in a pause which is almost like a death
He stares, his chin drops, his eyes flex to points
Of pain, and empty worlds descend: he sits –
A life lost in a shaking bag of flesh.

© circa 1973-76

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Going for the Paper

Something from my (very) shortlived Marxist phase. I remember spending ages trying to write a poem about a factory chimney (a metaphor connecting the world of material with the world of mind/spirit - the sky) but it wasn't successful, largely because of the natural religious bent of my mind. The drafts have disappeared. I also remember being ordered out of the car of an International Socialists activist who was hoping to recruit me to the IS (forerunner of the ludicrous Socialist Workers Party) when I told him I was more interested in beauty than the rigours of Marxism. Happy days.


Early day: air like a raw, shot-blue wool
Scratches my face to plaster. Water cracks
Like plastic from a pipe; the pavement frost
Splinters. At the bread factory men pull
Shattering trolleys out to the van’s racks –
Where someone crackles past, brown as a ghost.

The housing estate is Leggo, its stages
Already lit and acted on. The sky
Swills like an inverted explosion, shuts
Down on the Ring Road where a Greenline pages
Custom; the whistling tunnel batters the eye.
From the harbour Behemoth humps his guts.

They’re building at the station. In the cage
Men crawl like snub-nosed worms, night-lights smoulder,
Festering in the belly. Not much to say,
Waiting to be shunted; someone flicks a page,
Someone spits, faces scoured and grey; it’s colder;
A shivering lad has clocked his thousandth day.

© circa 1973-76

Friday, 8 November 2013

Writing Poetry

Taken by chance from a surface,
Partial yet whole as a stone,
It nags, creeping aboard the flesh
Like a worrying stain.

The world curls up like a shadow,
The day dumps all it might bring,
And eyes stroll off at a tangent
With a pin in the brain.

But worst, and best, are the hours
Awake and aware of your spine,
When a perfect phrase disturbs you
Like a cold night-rain.

© circa 1973-76

Friday, 25 October 2013

The Dealer

The joys of pubs in the old days - full of smoke, overflowing ashtrays and bits of cellophane (from cigarette packets) everywhere! How anodyne they are now.


Subject to all attentions, Queen of Coins,
Creates her court in nervous, light-stabbed dark;
Gathers the still-faced from an arras of noise,
Robber barons with quick hands and no talk.

Takes all comers at brag or dice, a shrewd
Look to the eye, weighing chances. Scoops beer,
Ash, cellophane, plus winnings, in a broad
Sweep to her side; leads new stakes from her sour

Morass of shillings. Red with sweat she sends
Them higher, sensing the hunt which pulls words
Short, involves a chasing eye, expert hands –
Imminent victim – tracking the splayed cards.

Nights now have been like this: a cigarette,
Replenished pint of lager, unwashed hair
Pulled by a band in fingers on her neck,
Something from a bottle: her eyes are clear.

Like a white creature she grounds in sallow
Sheets; creeps to life when the pointed demands
Of day have been evaded, head below
The nightline, face like ash and back in funds.

Beyond me, she skids around, more adept
(Her eyes are clear) as fear and the bright light
Push deeper. Forensic, I trim and cut,
Raking the ashes of a life for content,

Some human fragment. Her switchback stupor
Lifts across moments; ambiguous, I stand
By fruit-machines and play a coin for her –
A joker, cherries, giving no dividend.

© circa 1973-76

Tuesday, 1 October 2013


Suburban roads; minor
repairs, cold trees propping
dead time in a low sky:
the grey stone of cloud.

An office; clean shirts, sound
of the shopfloor, warm dust
under paper, a bulb:
the white stone of heat.

There and back; past building
sites, gouges; watching things
deepen as something forms:
the brown stone of earth.

A park; a pleasant walk,
some questions. Beneath depths
a lake grins at itself:
the black stone of water.

Gathering up these things
in the weight of my head,
beat of my chest, I sucked
the iron stone of silence.

© circa 1973-76

Wednesday, 18 September 2013


The clock whirs in its case. This crazy dark
Leaps with energy as I heave a side,
Sweeping the septic sheets into a mark
Of sound. I’m trapped in the mesh of a net.
What lies between us, a chasm as wide
As this city? Every chance, each hot fear
Dances, explicit as an unpaid debt.
Crouching, I explode the sheets in my ear.

I remember. Determined at your dusting
You were moving flat and in a conscience
Had scattered the place. I libelled the rusting
Cooker: you grinned, in a mock rage straightened
To cow my eye; but you rattled the fence;
Cataracts of custom fell, and your face
Was open; we hung; what had we frightened?
It was my move, sweat on my back like lace.

You on a bed! Those tumbles which surprised
Us; daft squeaky moments pulling a gasp
From tight ribs. A word in the gut survived:
You turned the blush of your body as doubt
Gagged my throat; I leant; your eye was a wasp
Active in its lid. Now the sheet above
My hairless chest chuckles and hisses out
The lonely times we managed a sort of love.

A siren screams like a drill. In the far
Night a flightpath mumbles fretfully                                                       
Beyond the frantic buzz of lights which mar
The silence, stalking the empty streets. Love
Is this – each pore a crater as I lie
Picking faults like grit in the bed. I suppose
There’s an end, a settling, like the sift of
A wave leaving its sound after its loss.

© circa 1973-76

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

My Living

Before you there was drought.
Mind laboured on stiff ground,
Turning stones, prodding cracked
Pores, bent across places.
And each day like dead bark
Fell from a gasping tree.

Now there is work; ground turns.
That sudden muddy eye
Has spread across plains and
The low bush has budded.
Bringing space in cramped air,
Your rain is my living.

© circa 1973-76

Tuesday, 20 August 2013


I never thought to have such thoughts as these,
Such thoughts as shake the bed-clothes late at night;
But having them their trouble starts to please.

The Stranger caste our fates upon his knees
But vanished with the warm card brought to sight;
I never thought to have such thoughts as these.

He left small doubts and crafty fears to ease
A tremor in the brain-pan’s dark and fright;
But having them their trouble starts to please.

The door with gargoyles swung before the keys,
A window smiled, and you, your skin like light;
I never thought to have such thoughts as these.

Our days proceed. In shop queues someone sees
Me distant with my thoughts, their failing fight;
But having them their trouble starts to please.

For I can think you naked like a tease
Or old and docile still as warm at night;
I never thought to have such thoughts as these,
But having them their trouble starts to please.

© circa 1973-76

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Love Story

Drunks in the street stagger to waiting wives
At chucking out. The cold road gleams like oil,
Littered with light from a few shops gazing
Empty-eyed into the indifferent night.
Buildings squat like black irregular teeth
Gapped by the silent cave of sleeping roads.
Another day has dropped from a useless life:
I’ll wander home, make coffee, go to bed.

Lunchtimes and evenings spent in public bars
With darts and talk, watching a silent telly
Shelved above the barmaid; the puerile jokes,
The loud and lengthy laughter, spittle strung
In an open mouth, a pint glass wobbling on
The table – these define my life waiting
For the door to open: lost love crouches
Beneath its shell, its smoke-stained sour charade.

I know an upstairs room where I could get
Some comfort, past the black grease of landings
Where thin doors hide the lonely toil of life.
But such a grim fumble sickens the past
And fouls the hour when I must face myself,
Loosed on the street, the cramped throat of the city,
Lonely without you, my lover, my love.
I’ll wander home, make coffee, go to bed.

© circa 1973-76


Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Parting Ways

Parting ways: when dividers inched apart
And a little daylight sprang the knowledge
That a moment had slipped unspoken – brief
As a gasp. Paths and channels became futile
And all that remained was to walk down roads
Which spread the town, putting houses and jobs
Between us: the public personas
We’d mixed agreeably sought a new milieu,
Cold at the farthest points of the compass.
Your loss may be a temporary pain,
But not our flight from the admitted risk
Of honest talking; our failure to find
Ourselves, even in the warmth of a bed.
For now I deduce from your stubborn pout
The life you’re launched on; briefly see the stains
On that rigid mask in the High Street bustle,
Defeats of time and place as your form recedes;
Your lineaments wholly apart from me.

Someone I worked with said once how it made
Her sad that the bland acquaintance of work
Would sharpen when someone left to a crack
In the texture of the day, yet reduce
So soon to a weak stain of memory:
Friendliness was lifted like a mantle
And shifted to another. Dear Peggy!
Forty-ish, with kids, vital as a pin,
Yet fidgeting to know what made her tick,
Stuck like a clock hand on the vacant face
Of housework, part-time job, and a husband
Preparing already for retirement.
Her days were troubled by glimpses sneaked through
Doors which snapped with a muffled thud. A shriek
Was always in the air. Yet I recall
Her less than well. The brain blurs the fading
Print which gradually loses precision.

So what am I to say of you? We fenced
So long; we lay together, at the best
We laughed together, eyes at an angle
And truth a fiction written day by day.
I think of the far North: a headland’s snout,
Lip-tight, butting the cold douse of the tide;
And the white South, that plateau declining
With its back the friendly tapping of currents.
And vague beneath horizons I think of you
Swinging crazily on a nub from “Yes”
To “No” like a needle tipped with a plea.

Well, whatever is what it’s happened. Alone,
I’m off on the next slow haul. May your way
Be easy, your compromise acceptable
(As mine must be). Abandoned in the cold
Defining of our days, I wish you well.

© circa 1973-76

Friday, 5 July 2013

"Though the Weekday Go..."

Though the weekday go and the moment
   Tarnish, I will give you flowers
Intricate as a thousand welcomes.
   Fling down the white flame of your smile,
Set fire to light, and purge with petals
   The grey dross of the table’s dust.

Doubtless the pen-chewers will sniff from
   The desks of their lives, denouncing
This bonfire of flowers with a parched
   Look. They are a blast of winter:
Abrupt as a cold hand they would sneer
   At a woman in her passion.

You whose absence has been the silence
   Of a god must walk with me through
The darkened rooms, touched by the brute storms
   Of night. But none can abandon
The brief burn of the sun, denying
   These moments, their absolute health.

© 1976

Friday, 28 June 2013

To An Acquaintance Gone Into The Country

"Piccadilly and its halls" - Piccadilly underground station was notorious at this time as a meeting place for homosexuals; "County Hall" - the headquarters of the Greater London Council, subsequently abolished by Mrs Thatcher after it developed tendencies to regard itself as an independent socialist republic.


The moral life, who cares for it one jot?
The folk of this benighted town do not!
From fops dissolved in giggles that they be
A part of Islington society
Where politics and fashion daily mix
And make acceptable the Dance of Dicks,
And beefy women crammed inside their jeans
Discuss what “Deconstruction” really means,
To sharks and youthful spivs who hang about
And play the coward or, when safe, the lout,
Lifting a wallet, swilling cans of Coke,
Daring the knife-edge between Threat and Joke –
All, all agree that someone is to blame
For that Dissatisfaction with no name
Which, on their shoulders, urges them to act
By throttling Reason and destroying Fact.
The rich and handsome, bopping in the street,
Fling down a vicious gauntlet at your feet,
The gays in Piccadilly and its halls
Descend to darkness and the grope for balls,
The wasted winos, loose in Leicester Square,
Demand your charity with half a glare,
The politicians, mad at County Hall,
Make one decision and begin to brawl,
And lo! the clergy in a final cod
Embrace The Issues and denounce their God!

A change of scene – what finer remedy
For stark disgust with man and accidie –
Takes you to purlieus where the skies are blue,
Where life is different and decisions few.
But what is this beside a bubbling beck?
A trailer park and gaudy discothèque!
And squatting loathsomely beyond your arm
Battery units have engulfed the farm.
Out in the fields a tractor roars its way
Across a monoculture all the day,
Grubbing up hedges, charging at the wood
Where fifty of the finest oak once stood.
A countryman, by wisdom deeply scored,
Allows you access to his hidden hoard
And taps his nose across the public bar
To let you know he knows just what you are.
He leers and shows his teeth and pulls an ear
And taps his nose again and drinks his beer,
And with an air mysteriously-wise
Makes up false maxims and then tells you lies;
And later, all goodnights devoutly bidden,
Strolls off to wisely contemplate his midden.     

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Dr Swift Considers an Arts Council Grant

This poem is redolent of a different age, one of arts funding largesse. The poem's argument is jejune in places but just about holds together. In 1980 the then Arts Council of Great Britain had sumptuous headquarters in Piccadilly. Havergal Brian was subsequently remembered for producing over thirty symphonies in almost complete critical neglect. The Faber poetry list was, of course, in its heyday - although not to my eyes; the Northern Ireland Troubles were in full swing and the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan.


Suggested by a sentence in Ifor Evans’ book Portrait of English Literature.

A cloud of dust is in the Strand
Where students march and raise a hand;
They stop the traffic, block the road
And roar with all the might of God.
Their banners and their shouts declare
The apotheosis of hot air,
And uncouth dress and surly ways
Are loci where the state decays.
They treat the people in the streets
As little more than bourgeois cheats,
Though in the respite of a pause
They claim they share a common cause.
Policemen herd them to the kerb
Where someone flings a basic verb,
And ushered on in disarray
They curse the night and damn the day.
(A lonely creature in his sleep
Hobbes turns and shudders all the deep:
The pages of Leviathan
Tremble for the fate of man.)
I came my way through the East End
Where the right price will sell a friend,
Where those who use coherent words
Are suspect like exotic birds,
And the local style is populist –
Which means that people use their fists.
Quarrels spike the muggy air
And someone rages, “I don’t care”;
A reasonable request is turned
Into an order duly spurned,
And deference, the social key,
Becomes a thing of history.
Unhappiness and pointlessness
Drape Aldgate High Street like a dress,
And the old woman in her room
Fears a sudden, bloody doom
While outside like a metaphor
The ceaseless lorries roar and roar.

Monday, 3 June 2013

A Remnant

No, not a sonnet,
Flush with fervour
Like a Victorian hymn;

Not an ode, nor an elegy,
Sweating like faces
With the tears of truth;

But a bone
Sprung from the furrow,
Crazed with the runes

Of the inarticulate earth –
Such, such is my love.
Dear, will you risk a finger

On these splintered pieces,
Bathing them once more
In the balm of your hand?

© September 1984

Monday, 27 May 2013

A Tardy Epithalamium

For X and XX

All vows given and received, all papers signed,
The wedding breakfast eaten and guests roundly
   Thanked, the car with tin cans and streamers
   Is despatched with deep elemental

Leers. Later, after the disco, as tipsy
Voices disappear down darkened streets, a last
   Light is flicked on and off, a door tried
   And a key turned as everything drains

Into the vast breathing silence of the night.
And so another occasion by which we
   Measure the old, slow wandering of
   Time is placed in an album or ranged

On a mantelpiece and we can turn back to
The curious business of living in which
   Days, weeks, months are lost without a trace –
   Can it really be six years ago?
On chilly autumn Saturday mornings you
Drag yourself from your musty cave of breathing
   And stand before the shaving mirror
   All bleary eyes and dreary soap suds –

How did this tyranny of weekly shopping
So easily assume undisputed sway?
   After a long week of bought ledgers,
   Angry telephone calls and delays

On the trains (how often do you get home at
Past eight o’clock?) a Saturday lie-in would
   Have been a more than necessary
   Treat, but here you are listening to

The ‘Early Show’ and wondering as you shave
If that creaking plank can really be your neck.
   Through the window in the October
   Gloom you can all too visibly see

The frankly mutinous realm of your married
Estate: the lawn with its weeds, the roses which
   Were never dead-headed and, under
   Your nose, the side-wall spitting out its

Pointing like a baby’s first teeth. Come Monday
And you will stand on the station with hundreds
   Of others, all ruefully counting
   The lost years and wincing at thinning

Crowns, dubious after all about the joys
Of ‘Begonia Close’ and a one hour rail
   Link with London. And it’s then that you’ll
   Cling to this Saturday shopping as

A chore which silences awkward thoughts, which puts
The workaday stumble into perspective
   And lets you believe that should life turn
   Lucky, you with your choices would stroll

The High Street, day in day out, watching the herd
Rush to be shouted at or glumly ignored,
   Thinking, “The sun shines on the truly
   Free. If only there were no winters...”

Monday, 20 May 2013

The Self-Condemned

Last night as an August warmth
Chilled into September
I completed my education.

Autodidact of sorrows,
Arranging my systems
In exquisite precision

I subjected them
To the test of tears.
They crumbled. In the ruins,

Half-sought, half-forgotten,
Was a word shattered like a
China cup. The word was Love.

For years, shunning
The basking crowd,
I sought for the Good,

Read books and made notes.
A woman – my wife –
Brought me food and listened:

My chin chafing my collar
I informed her of the nature
Of things. As she closed the door

Her eyes were awash.
I considered the facts briefly
But could find no explanation.

One night I started:
I was reading Spinoza
When a thought like a knife

Turned in my brain,
“How hateful
Is an abstract love.”

Longing for her hand,
The shy hiss of her breath,
I ran downstairs

But she had gone.
She had left a note –
“I, too, am human” –

Her suitcase had scuffed the hallway.
Collapsed on the stairs,
Shaking the banisters like a child,

My tears melted her words.
Overhead, swollen like tumours,
My books were suave, replete.

© August 1983


Thursday, 9 May 2013

Mr Longley's Dream

This is something of a rarity for me. I think I was aiming at the 'younger market'. I subsequently went through a period as a vegan - it was hard work. Nevertheless, man's mass, indeed industrialised, cruelty to animals is a mighty problem.


James Longley was in business,
   He did it very well,
Battery farming was his line,
   He gave those creatures hell.

His farm was many acres
   Stripped of tree and hedge,
Long grey factory units
   Stood on a concrete ledge.

His birds in semi-darkness
   Lived four or five to a cage,
They were not allowed to turn round
   Or else he got in a rage.

Mr Longley went home to dinner,
   Slapped his paper with a hiss,
“I gave an interview to that man –
   The result is this.

Says I mistreat my chickens,
   Says I’ve done it for years,
But I’ve never had a single one
   Come to me in tears.

Of course some die in their cages
   Gone mad or pecked to death,
But the rest are blithely happy
   And as buoyant as a breath.

My technicians tell me often,
   Pointing to a chart,
That the optimum production curve
   Puts them in good heart.”

Mr Longley filled his wine glass,
   Picked his teeth with a pin,
Thought of all the hungry people,
   “Doesn’t he know the world’s starving?”

Later in bed he snored so hard
   The moon could hardly hear
The chickens in their batteries
   Muttering in their fear.

Friday, 3 May 2013

A Transatlantic Call

Our condition is contentious. Ill-at-ease,
Clinging with cities to a crust of rock,
We manage history, that sprawling torque
Of nations, contracts and economies.
And love, your dear voice rising through a surf
Of sound, made neutral by the nasal sting
Of distance, tells me that though still breathing
We have yet to sign a treaty with this earth.

Now, like a conscience, dusk disturbs the sky
Troubling a well-fed moon become insane.
Elsewhere, as the turbid day is burning south,
Caring for disease and rags on the plain,
Someone is allotted language – a cry,
Which bubbles in blood upon a fly-black mouth.

© 1976-77

Friday, 26 April 2013

Four Last Things

Death, judgment, heaven, hell.

Karl Rahner writes somewhere to the effect that most men do not reach a spiritual level in this life worthy of being judged.

He was enjoying another good argument,
His brain as active as the froth on his beer.
His hand was busy declaiming,
Cranking his face into pictures of moral commitment.

He was cold and sweating, shrunk inside the skin of himself.
His final argument lay in his mouth like saliva.
Death with a small black pin was striding through the air:
He had left it too late to discover what he really thought.

He had left it too late to discover what he really thought.
The human heart descending slowly in a pair of scales –
The musty creature sprouting feathers and nestling in the dust –
Was this what judgment was?

He had read many newspaper articles,
And had taken the Book of the Month regularly;
But none of this had seemed to prepare him
For the questions now being asked.

For the questions now being asked
Good God I thank you.
I know what I think about other people’s motives
And it is a joy to be able to hold forth.

Who would have thought that heaven was so simple,
That I could encompass it all in a witty phrase?
What with the beer and the women and the one howling bore
I am having the time of my life.

I am having the time of my life,
Though I am troubled by a vision like a face behind cloth.
Somehow I have lost my cheerfulness
But I win all my arguments and drink much wine.

To be as convivial now as I was in the past
Is something that puts hairs on my chest.
I am not sure if this is heaven and I do not much care,
I have reached my “summum bonum”. Do I dream?

© December 1979