We all of us – well, many of us – carry through from childhood certain key interests or preoccupations. Living under what was then the London Airport flightpath, I grew accustomed to seeing at comfortable height pretty much everything that left the ground and traveled from it. I still feel a frisson of excitement when I hear the sound of a piston aircraft engine. And if it’s a Rolls Royce Merlin… But this is to lapse too much into a time when the machines of war were just the whirling hardware of excitement and adventure. Now it’s their shape and sheen, the pure aesthetic of form. Taken in the moment, it can just about transcend function.
Here are three poems about aeroplanes. They can be found in my first collection, Ancient Lights .
OUT OF THE DUST – 1913
The strangest of times: a skein of geese
crossing the bedroom window, heading west
and no body of water within seven miles.
I am playing the pagan – sleeping late amongst
the Sunday morning bells.
Heaven is a cloudless sky
in late September, harvest past,
leaves on the turn.
At first I think I hear the binder,
wheels beating, turning at the headrow,
but the fields are bare.
Such a beating, a clattering.
More geese searching for a lake
in this land of furrows? Or
the rector in his Wolesely
come to seek me out?
And then my window darkens
into the shape of wings, jagged wings –
Weston mill uprooted, reeling across the fields?
Certainly a hurricane of sorts
in the throat of this beast
squatting low over the beeches,
dabbling its feet in leaves, roaring
in a black updraft of rooks.
An aeroplane, fearful in the untried air –
nothing like the rising bird
it mocks. This is a man,
dressed in wire and canvas,
climbing out of the clover.
This is a godless man ascending,
out of the dust, towards the light.
A DREAM OF AEROPLANES – 1940.
It’s a fire next time in scripture. And when it came
it was sky-borne. Some had said at first
that out of it might come a cleansing;
out of the sky might fall a fire
bright and holy, prophecy fulfilled. September,
and I trimmed the ivy round the lych-gate.
It was lifting tiles clear of the joists
and my gardener was still in France.
That was about as close as the war
had come – censored letters, rumours,
like an invisible tide you can hear at the edge
of the world. Little to see beyond uniforms,
gas masks in boxes, gummed paper stretched
over windows. And then, that afternoon, flying west
and in and out of cloud, the planes, a geometry
of crosses. I watched and all around
the earth stood still. The organ voice
of their passing scattered rooks, rippled
the water in the rain-butt, rattled a latch.
And then we carried on, conscious only of a sniff
of autumn in the air, the planes forgotten
in an empty sky. That evening we were told
of the bombing – docks ablaze, the tram wires down,
parish halls as hospitals. But still it came
from the wireless voices, morning papers and
the travellers’ tales at the village bar. Birds trilled;
I picked a sprig of yarrow for my hat, and rain
rushed across the lead roof of the transept.
The the Messerschmidt came. Not quite, as they say
in comics ‘out of the sun’: it was a dismal morning
stacked with cumulus. But we can all remember
from our kitchens, hayricks, lonely bedrooms
(I was in the vestry hanging surplices) the sound –
a falling cadence, like a voice that begins
in the throat but can’t find words. ‘Despair’,
it would have said. We heard it, all of us.
But no one saw the plane come down,
just the gout of fire that coiled and spun above
the oasthouse. Then, when they searched
the fields around, those Home Guard amateurs
(the lads who filled my pews at evensong),
they found a booted leg, bloodless, like a spare part
brought along in case of need. Little Sammy Scase
took the joystick home and his granddad scraped
the handle clean. (‘Viscera’, the vet said later
in the milking parlour). Then it rained again
and the army came to haul away the wreckage.
And no-one paid for Vincent’s oasthouse.
FLYPAST AT OLD WARDEN – 1998
Even now, here, this past
before my past leaks down
the long conduits, the time-
channels, weed-locked with
my own memories. Back then,
on corner bombsite, in the
air-raid shelter under the apple trees,
that past before our past
bellied up, breathed in our faces.
Churchill, Hitler, Uncle Joe bowled
down cinema aisles and into
our infant dreams. Parents’ stories,
shed headlines from old newspapers
feeding the living-room fire, comics
swapped in playground corners, Belsen
photoes, shifted sideways through
a conspiracy of desks – war-echoes
blew like late rumours from a world
still turning out of darkness. Our legacy
was smoke from fires still burning.
And now, trailing tails of smoke,
red, white and blue, the parachutists turn
and turn in a blank sky. The last Lancaster,
Spitfire, Hurricane tug their trinity
of shadows over the aerodrome, over
the lifted faces of the crowd, across
the eyes of old saluting men,
remembering. Their past before
my past speaks in the beating
engines, the ghost-passage of three
black crosses over September fields,
heading east to the world’s edge.
I’ve always particularly liked no. 2. (But ‘Messerschmitt’, surely?) Duxford cancelled this weekend, but Old Warden ‘drive-in airshow’ the following weekend going ahead.
When I was little we lived up the road from Scampton airbase. At the gate stood what was known as “the Last Lancaster”. There seem to be several! It enthralled me when I was six. As a grown up I’ve always lived with the conundrum that although I abhor what it and machines like it are made for, I’m still enthralled. I’d love to go inside one and I covet a local ham’s collection of Lancaster radio equipment. When we lived there, of course, things had moved on. It was all Vulcans and bunkers full of atom bombs. I’m pleased I was too young to get it back then. It, too, was a world of crows, threshing machines (just) and aircraft overhead.
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