During the three consecutive summers of 1990, ’91 and ’92 in company with students and fellow teachers from Frensham Heights School, I visited Russia at a time of extraordinary change. Although our visits were relatively brief – each one only lasted 14 days – we caught fleeting but intense glimpses of the bloodless revoltuion that was under way at that time.  In 1990, the Moscow streets teemed with bikes, buses, trucks, jaunty blue Cossack motorcycles with sidecars and resolutely Soviet automobiles, these ranging from wheezing Zaporozhets to top-of-the-range Ladas and Volgas. Everything on wheels spoke of the Soviet experience – outmoded design values, built-in expendability and, under the bonnet, an engine fatally compromised. And then in 1992, just three years on, we saw driving triumphantly through the same streets that universal automotive symbol of arriviste power, the Mercedes.  Flanked by BMWs, Audis and a diminishing hierarchy of other European makes and models, they administered the final consumerist coup de grace to the great Marxist dream…


  1. Balashika
    As darkness falls, the bus shudders to a halt outside a seedy-looking apartment block. Children and teenagers lounge around the entrance. As we tug our bags from the bus they stir languidly and surround us, watching with the implacable fixed focus of native souls everywhere in contemplation of the arrival of the first importunate Westerners. 
    The lobby of the building is dark, dank and decayed. Naked bulbs shed grimy pools of light that seem to evaporate within a meter of their source. Several huge old women sit on benches against the peeling walls talking quietly. In contrast, they ignore us completely. We load the luggage into two tiny lifts. The English speaker of our two hosts Igor clambers over baggage into one and Russian-only Yuri into the other and we watch them ascend as if in some slow, hallucinatory dream towards the 9th floor. The rest of us trudge up the stairs, pausing to catch breath by shattered windows and gap-toothed banisters. 

Rooms are selected, each one as desolate as the other. Tubular steel beds with bare, grey mattresses comprise the only furnishing. Again, the unshaded lightbulbs only serve to emphasise the powdery gloom. As I look around an association nags at the edge of recognition. Of course – Orwell’s Victory Buildings in ‘1984’. I can imagine Winston Smith walking these desolate corridors, barely conscious any more of the pervasive odour of damp plaster, crumbling cement and exhausted plumbing. 

An inspection of the shower room and the adjoining toilets consolidates my gathering sense of alienation and despair. The shower room is untiled with stark, once-limewashed walls. Only three tottering basins and a single pipe running up one wall, its terminal length bent over into an inverted ‘U’ indicate the room’s purpose. Each basin is supported only by its down-pipe; only one of them is served by a tap with a handle.  I twist the tap. Moments pass and then from somewhere deep inside the rotten heart of the building, a heartbroken sigh flutters. The tap lurches once and discharges a single oxidised tear. Feeling that despair must have touched bottom, I peer into one of the four toilet stalls. Momentarily, all is concealed in shadow. And then, as my eyes adjust, I back away, appalled. The absence of water hasn’t deterred what seems like several generations of residents from using the bowls in the conventional manner and the evidence of each visit remains unflushed…






When we arrived in the Urals city of Sverdlovsk – before the Russian Revolution and after Glasnost named then renamed Ekatarinburg – the Frensham Heights students took up residence in the homes of the Russian students who, later in the year, would be housed in the school during their visit to us. I had my own room in Igor’s flat in the centre of the city. Every night was a late night, sitting on the narrow balcony smoking cigars and making our way through the Scotch whisky that was the bounty brought over from the Free World. Along the jagged skyline of apartment buildings, the sun that never quite set left a white-edged glow that silhouetted the flat roofs and their raised nests of television aerials.

On one of the many fascinating trips out into the city and beyond we passed a huge field, overlooked at one end by three apartment blocks, each one bearing a huge stylised propaganda panel. Stark symbols of an empire locked firmly into its revolutionary past, each panel covered 9 floors and concealed 18 windows. But if that enforced tribute to 73 years of the Soviet Union wasn’t remarkable enough on its own, moving patiently across the width of the field was a gang of mowers, each one swinging in rhythmic precision a scythe. No tractors or combine harvesters were anywhere to be seen. All that served the mowers was a single wagon with a horse between its shafts…

The juxtaposition of mighty social and political transformation and the endurance of a process hundreds of years old in the implementation struck me forcibly. I saw many remarkable things during that first fortnight in and around Sverdlovsk, but the resonance of those agricultural workers in their smocks and caps overlooked by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin stayed with me most persistently as we took train back to Moscow. When got home I wrote the following poem.



Across that single wide flat road, potholed
all the way to Moscow, we were told,
grasscutters move like dreamers through a gauze
of dust. An old man stoops and slowly draws

the dry stalks into shocks. Then next, a child
hefts with a pitchfork twice his size the piled
grass onto a cart. Between the shafts
a cartoon horse shimmies its tail through drafts

of summer flies. Behind, at the other side
of waste ground, lifted on a crooked tide
of flats and billboards, Uncle Lenin gazes
po-faced from the recent past, appraises

the shifting grass, the painted sky behind
and a red sun sinking fast. Wall-eyed, he’s blind
to the eternal – this, the steady, slow
caress of a young man’s scythe, the scavenger crow

dogging the mowers as the new wind twists and turns
the poppies’ scarlet faces. Lenin burns
brief in the sunset. Then the shadows blur
that too familiar gaze and now confer

upon the flats the anonymity
of dusk. Rocked home in a crosstown tram, we,
the gilded pilgrims from the rotten West,
witnessed the ancient world – a horse at rest,

the stacking of the sheaves through dust, the drift
of a mower’s scythe, the steady lap and lift
of sleep, of awakening. A harvest, it seems:
a gathering in of those early summer dreams.



2. The Trans-Siberian Railway
Guided by Igor and Yuri through the formless, milling crowd that fills every corner of Yaroslavl Station, we struggle onto the train. Having assumed that the domestic facilities of the Trans-Siberian Railway would reflect our experiences so far, we are dreading 26 hours of privation on wheels. Relief is overwhelming as we settle into roomy compartments with comfortable bunks that disappear seamlessly into the wall. The small, brave party that goes to check out the toilets returns with the news that they function with Western efficiency and that the basins produce colourless water, some of it hot. 

Slowly, very slowly, the train pulls away from the low platform. Friends and family of those travelling drop casually from carriage footplates and walk its length. A gathering sense of the thousand-mile journey ahead of us intensifies during the long farewell and by the time the train picks up speed and the scattered apartment blocks and intervening scrubland fall away, the long dream begins. 

Within the hour, bunk selected and bags stowed, I stand by the corridor window opposite our compartment door, motionless and transfixed. The track is lined by an unbroken parade of trees: a scattering of chestnut, oak, beech and larch, but mainly silver birch – the beriosa. The chanting of the wheels, the priming of the vacuum brakes, the rhythmic swaying of the train and the stroboscopic flicker of the birches merge into a hypnotic narrative. Time passes imperceptibly, its passage blurred by speed, distance and a sense of unimaginable space. At some point after hours, with an orange sun sliding down behind the shifting screen of trees, I am conscious of others similarly positioned, motionless and transfixed, at windows the length of the corridor. Together we seem to be sharing barely comprehending witness to something momentous. 

After a late bedtime, sleep is deep but fitful.  I am simultaneously exhausted and wired and a couple of hours of dreamless slumber curled with face to the wall, relaxing into the pulse of wheels on rails, cease abruptly as the train judders to a halt. I glance at my watch – 4.17 a.m. – and peer through the quarterlight above the cabin window. ‘Belazino’, I translate laboriously from a dimly-lit sign. A bell tolling; men’s voices shouting down by the trackside; a sudden tannoy, a woman’s clipped metallic tones. “Sixteen minutes”, Igor tells us as he runs along the corridor and stiffly we clamber down the precipitous steel steps. Along the length of the train passengers are disembarking, stretching and gathering in groups. Old ladies in bright headscarves and long aprons sit in rows along the platform holding up paper cones containing blackberries. A young girl in the dark blue uniform of the state railway moves along between the ground-level platform and the track. With a long-handled hammer, she strikes each wheel and, crouching down, listens to the ring, testing for cracks. Above us the fading night is clear and still starlit. Each brazen human noise, no sooner made, is swallowed instantly into the vast silence.  

I rise at 6.00, refreshed against all reason since Igor, Yuri and I managed to tuck away three bottles of Georgian champagne into the small hours. I take up my post by the corridor window and gaze out onto open country. Now the land spills away from the trackside and is open all the way to the horizon in folds and furrows of short turf. Huge fissures run through this strange heathland like the scars of some primeval earthquake. Tiny villages surrounded by open fields patch the landscape – twin rows of square, single-storey log and plank houses with heavily embossed sash windows in pastel blues and greens, either side of a single unmade street. Occasional tractors and lorries share track space with the horse-drawn carts that seem to be the main mode of transport. Men in flat caps and women in headscarves glide through the fields with scythes and sickles. Once again, time unravels and only the dipping of the sun towards dusk tells of its passing…



At Belazino Station we disembark in silence
under the great arch of night. First
whispers leave breath hanging, shining

like bright smoke.  The old moon
leans through thin cloud.  A silver wind
blows the stars about like spray.

The tide of the trees floods the half-dark,
sucks at the line’s edge.  Motionless,
we diminish, here at the junction between

two hemispheres.  Behind us bloodless territories
of turned soil and domestic waters
and beyond the taiga, the first forest

to come tumbling out of the young dreaming 
of the world.  And now the thin edge
of an eastern wind brings tears of resin,

a scent of green disorder, a cataract
of leaves and berries far ahead.  Darkness
crowds us back onto the train.  Rocked

but sleepless, we stand by night-
curtained windows, watching the dim images
of ourselves watching the flying trees.






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50 years since the first moon landing. What of Michael Collins, who stayed on board Apollo 11..?



I am elected watchman. It’s my lot
to turn and turn in my tiny cradle. Not
my fortune or my obligation
to first-foot the moon or talk of it to nations.

Not for me grey beach or empty ocean,
not for me earthlight or the silent locomotion
of the stars. Uncrowded by the voices
of the world I slip away. The world rejoices

and I fold myself into the secret night
behind the moon. Afloat in amniotic light
I remain an embryo, a diagram, a plan.
This egg will carry me unborn while man

takes giant steps below. But unevolved, unhatched,
Columbia and I become initials scratched
on incomprehensible darkness. I’m serene
in my awful solitude, turning through this lane between

the impassive weight of galaxies and the husk
of the moon. I close my eyes; a kind of dusk
prevails, half-recollection of diurnal time,
a rhythm bound into the rhyme

of seasons. And I dream of the grass
of prairies, lost highways that pass,
relentless and unbending, by abandoned outposts,
forts and cowtowns whose brave boothill ghosts

still ride the range; the empty-hearted homesteads
whose screendoors bang on windy nights; dry riverbeds
enclosed by old barbed wire, and oil-well donkeys, one end
gazing at the sand, the other at the stars. Old trails bend

and turn upon themselves and men and women pause
inside their journeys, build fences, write down laws
and call their scratches in the sand Jerusalem.
But clear night brings the stars – still over Bethlehem

or singing like a choir in Cassiopeia. And I ride
Columbia back into the hard blue scrutiny of earth. The tide
of their voices wakes me. Exultant, I invoke the charter
of my race: small steps like mine are mighty steps, ad inexplorata.

From ANCIENT LIGHTS by Dick Jones.


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The Light of the World William Holman Hunt


They gave us God at infant school: some illustrated stories
          and a picture on the wall –
          that Jesus with a lantern lifted high. He’s looking for a sheep,
          they said, a sheep that went astray.
I liked the guy – that tangled hair and beard and dressing gown.

In junior school they ramped him up a bit:
           a hammered piano nailing down the big, fat hymns,
           the manger babe, the prince of peace,
           and how he drowned the multitude but let old Noah go.
I kept him on through two bereavements in my teens
           and I thought I heard him breathing deep inside
           some Bach chorale beyond.

But life itself came tumbling in – a cavalcade of
           silk ropes
           and roses.
And one day he wasn’t there at all.
Instead, out on the road, across the fields,
over the trees, in the sky,
           everything else was.

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There’s much to be said for the well-made door.
This one, smoked black by time, hangs like a heavyweight,
shuffles through his quarter-turn singing deep
of the long years, of a conspiracy once of oak and iron:
studs and hinges, chamfered panels, bolts and latch.

Speaking too of what it is to witness:
     the quotidian passage of the unwary child who swings in passing,
     left hand yielding to right hand round the circle handle,
     intimate, even loving for that moment that she dances
     out of dimness into brilliant light,
          every candle in the hall a celebrant.

People turn and smile and turn away again and the candles gutter,
each in its turn, sending up a thread of smoke towards
the unregarded ceiling high above the vaulting beams,
     black with smoke and time.

And the door stands ajar, poised in its prescripted journey,
something of the dusk of the outer chamber
     tainted by the dying light beyond.

This until the old man, remembering the book he left behind,
lifts a burning candle high and –
     slow, a little circumspect, but steady, book under arm –
     steps from waning light into the dark beyond
     and shuts the door.





Every door has its voice and every voice speaks its single word
into the singing bowl through the days.
       Hear each time that importunate tongue kissing
       the word ‘closed’ into a brass mouth.

And hear too in memory the voice that calls,
“I’m home!”
and the voice that answers,
“We’re in the kitchen!”.

       And then hear too the voice
       that gasps its severance from enclosure,
       mouth tugged open, jaw ajar. Then ‘closed’.
This is the voice that
doesn’t call “Goodbye”.

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As we move deeper into the 21st century there can be few across the span of generations whose lives have not been, or are not now, touched by that broad musical genre whose pan-cultural influence has been an integral part of our lives at least since Philip Larkin’s identification of the year 1963 as its prima causa. ‘Let me tell you, baby, it’s called rock-and-roll’, this nomenclature widely attributed to Alan Freed in depiction of the rhythm-and-blues he played on the Cleveland radio station WJW.

But it was the advent of the Beatles and their darker alter egos the Rolling Stones that ensured that none should easily evade the social declassification, the stylistic innovation, the sexual liberation and the powerful notion that anyone can dance that so swiftly followed. And nearly 65 years from Lonnie Donegan’s presentation of the guitar as an instrument across which anyone could finger three chords, only advances in technology have modified to any degree the original template: still the guitar is the weapon of choice and still it is the man who wields it with a will who is the warrior hero.

Since the potency of rock-and-roll derives from its synthesis of lyric, melody and instrumental delivery, attempts in fiction to cast a net of words over the process have, in general, delivered little more than arid analysis or histrionic reportage. As far as I’m aware, poetry has, by and large, left the territory unexplored. So my desire to try to write a sequence of poems about an individual musician’s experience of the suffocation of creative endeavour by the payload of commercial and cultural overlay that is so much a part of the phenomenon seems ill-advised, even a tad arrogant, so many having failed thus far.

But that first superstructure and the skeletal infrastructural notions that followed them won’t go away. Originally I wrote a first stanza, a sort of chorus that I decided would intersperse subsequent sections. Now it just sits at the top of the poem as a sort of testament to what it is that in performance fires the adrenaline and pops the endorphins. The rest – the narrative content, the pumped language and the form that contains it – keeps shifting every time I return to it. All that reiterates after the abandonment of one version after another is the drive to bring something into being. So here is how it lies across the page at this precise point in time…



Johnny walks the wire tonight. The walls expand;
oxygen pops in his blood; mercury climbs behind
his eyes. He curls his language out across the lights
to another riptide congregation. Sweat is the sacrament,
tears are the benediction, communion the key.

Johnny is anonymous. Chrysalis days…
Johnny One-Note, tangled up in dreams and visions.
(“Moonstruck waster!” That’s what his father says.
”An education being pissed away”). Slung across
a stranger’s bed, he wakes into noonday light:
60 watts and flickering, filtered through
a bedsit shade. She’s done her best, he sees,
on student pickings: strung a map of Tuscany
across the kind of wallpaper that no-one ever buys
(it grows on loneliness, like fungus). She’s standing,
back turned, by the sink and brewing tea.
She’s wearing bare brown legs and Johnny’s shirt.
Turning, she grins the grin that would have hung out
the moon to dry last night, drunk or sober.
He grins back. Under a pile of dirty clothes,
an old guitar. He lifts it out, leans back
and tunes to open G:
I gotta mojo hand…

Johnny on a scout hut stage…
Gerry’s daughter’s 9th birthday and Johnny’s depping
with Les Paxton’s covers band. “Do we know The Birdy Song?
Darlin’, of course we do. We wrote it!” Clicking in
a beat of four on his sticks, Les shouts, “Key of G!”
and in they go. Johnny watches the time go shuffling
round the wall-clock face while kids in Cinderella lace
and Batman blue careen around the floor like phosphorous.
A 20-minute break, a fag and a can of Foster’s. “This
is a piece of piss”, the singer says. “Fifty quid a man
for sleepwalking through horseshit. Stick with us, mate.
Beats rehearsing in your garden shed!”. Johnny sighs
and shrugs the Gibson back around his shoulders.
Just another 30 minutes ‘til the folded fivers, then
time enough for pie and chips, another can of Foster’s
and an early night. Johnny clangs eight bars of
John Lee Hooker bang into the middle of a disco set
and grins like a kid as the engine skips a beat:
Let that boy boogie-woogie. It’s in him
and it’s got to come out…

Johnny is a sudden Baptist…
Lifted out of moil and toil by his gift of rapture,
a sanctified sinner in his bliss, dancing his art
before those first great gatherings, between
such humble walls, within such unconsidered streets.
But faces tip and spin like moons in moving water
and everyone’s a stranger, born again inside this
roomful of blues. Curling the notes like lemon peel
across the darkness, Johnny jigs and reels between
drum riser and a bassman on the nod. He snarls
like a jackal, cries like a child and a kind of wisdom
leaks like steam through the architecture
of the song: old shadows, smoke over fields, green
leaves in the river, someone else’s dream cut free
and floating like a cotton boll, blown by a shower
of notes through time and into the here and now.
Under strip lights, lost amongst the coiled leads
and boxed guitars, Johnny, cross-legged, smiling
like a Buddha, presses the last few acid drops
out of a sweated fretboard:
The blues are here to stay…

Johnny is a buccaneer ashore…
Swinging down from the bus with hours to spare;
logistics in the car park for the crew: the amps,
flight-cases, drugs and booze. For the band,
some time to kill on High Street, Anytown. A cloud
of silver frames them here on land. The static
crackles; ozone tints the atmosphere. Heads turn
as they hit the bars. The girls who speculate (always
the one who stares you down, unsmiling, certain).
Guys who smoulder, hunched and lary – somebody
walking and talking the dream, so close, so near
the penumbra. They sniff the air, the moth-dust
hanging, breathing a draft of the other side. Johnny
watches the world through smoke – fag on, shades down.
An anthem chimes from the downhome jukebox.
Johnny’s fingers close around the tune. He grins
and shuffles to the rhythm, chewing out the words:
I’m a man, I spell M-A-N…

Johnny stranded on dry land, a cod philosopher:
Too many lights and all too bright. Some girl who’s
seen it all gets busy with a powder brush. (Another
laid six lines of powder like a fateful hexagram
along the bar in Hospitality). Three fingers semaphore
a backwards countdown and the camera light blinks red.
Johnny is locked inside 8 million televisions. Every word
is sound turned into light; each syllable, however slurred
or hesitant, a bubble from the fount of truth. He muses:
it’s a pronouncement. He wonders: it’s a proposition.
His inquisitor – all permatan and silver thatch – grins like
the smiler with the knife and, with the world as witness,
he slices Johnny paper thin like Parma ham. And Johnny,
skinned and pinned to the electric wall, his sorry truths
and petty lies still drying under a studio sun, hides behind
his National steel and sings the blues:
All the friends I had are gone…

Johnny as Christ self-crucified…
Ecce homo hanging high above the crowd, a Breughel skull
chinning his shoulder. This is the fable of blue veins,
the night sweats, needles and the damage done. No
bolt holes, cavities or accommodating shadows here
in the feasting hall. He’s stripped and pinioned,
trussed and trimmed like a gamebird and we’re diners at
the banquet. So it is, as ever, at the end of that crooked
path: from adrenaline dream, through days and nights
in which he ran his fingers raw and every inhalation fed
the shower of notes he blew before him, until under
months of a neon sun and a sulphur moon to slip and slide,
peep and hide while the music turned to dust and vapour.
And then one morning just like all the rest, in a white house
in a white room with a porthole in the door and keycard lock
on the other side, Johnny picks one-fingered at a keyboard:
a minor C, a steady climb, a two-bar rest,
and four notes down and then a hand-span resolution
wide across the major chord. Da capo then a steady
climb, a two-bar rest and four notes down and then
two hands, settling like wings across the octaves.
It’s dark outside when Johnny pushes back the chair.
Stars shining silver in a chain. A silence all around
the world. He sleeps and in his dreams that night,
a breve, a semi-breve, a minim, crotchet, quaver, semi-
quaver, linked and shining like that chain of stars. And,
when he wakes into the light, he spans the keyboard, walks
the short walk, long walk back towards the crossroads.
I got the key to the highway and I’m billed out
and bound to go. I’m gonna leave here runnin’
‘cause walkin’ is most too slow…

Johnny as willing phantom…
More so now in age he walks like a man pacing out
his own shape in the ground. He whistles up the dog
and climbs the path towards the Dower House.
Security trips the switch: lights burst against
the dark like flowers. Ambushed by their blooming,
Johnny ducks, combat weary from the paparazzi wars.
He punches in the code, pushes at the Tudor door.
An owl hoots in the spinney. Johnny turns, breathes
deep and smiles into the night. Later, in his room
of blues, he reaches down the Gibson and brushes out
12 bars, unplugged, whispered, razor-thin, a chanted
chorus over and again:
It’s a long lane that’s got no end; it’s a bad wind
that never change…

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There was still something I could do: I could tell the world.
Leslie L. Hardman, ‘The Survivors: The Story of the Belsen Remnant’.

A couple of years ago, with my sons Lindsay (who lives and works in Germany) and Reuben and grandson Josh, I visited the site of Bergen Belsen concentration camp, an hour’s drive from where Lindsay and family live. We walked along the gravel paths that bisected the terrain, now reclaimed by grass and trees. The August day was pleasantly warm and had we been walking anywhere else in the gentle countryside in that part of Lower Saxony, the air of tranquility would have been appropriate to both weather and surroundings.

But every few meters there were reminders of what once had been in place there. Individual gravestones and granite memorials recorded the 50,000 deaths of prisoners interned between 1938 and 1945. Most of them were Jewish, but Belsen also housed  Russian prisoners-of-war, Gypsies, homosexuals and survivors of the Warsaw Rising.

But of the horrors revealed after the liberation of the camp in 1945, the most graphic relics by far were the mass graves. Great featureless barrows covered with couch and tufted hair-grass amongst which wild flowers – harebells, daisies and celandines – grew, they lay around the perimeter of the site. Each one was surrounded by a low retaining wall, across the shorter end of which was inserted a raised flat eminence engraved with the number of the dead. Along the top of each eminence visitors had placed stones, some of them marked with scribbled names.

The main pathway led directly to a tall, tapering pylon made from slabs of granite set on a raised platform accessed by a wide span of shallow steps. Behind it was a long wall of the same materials bearing inscriptions commemorating ‘those who died in this place’. Its embossed lettering was filled and topped with the same collections of variegated single stones,

Returning towards the entrance area, we went into the museum building. Constructed out of huge square blocks, it managed an extraordinary synthesis of the forbidding and the dignified. Long rows of ceiling-high panels bore documentary evidence – photographs, official documents, identity papers, handwritten statements of personal witness – of life and death within Bergen-Belsen. And let down into the floor of the walkway between the panels were reinforced glass-covered chambers, each about the size of a packing crate and illuminated from the sides, in which were contained artefacts found beneath the huts when they were destroyed after the emptying of the camp.

A great deal of thought and planning had gone into the manner of the preservation of Bergen-Belsen. The absence of any of the accommodation huts, the vehicle parks, the workshops, the guards’ quarters, the administrative buildings that had once filled the grim estate and the restitution of the heathland and copses that had gone under their foundations creates a powerfully moving sense of a territory both haunted by the unendurable horrors of the past and yet now salved and dignified by nature. It’s an extraordinary place – an eloquent testimony both to utter destruction and tenacious survival. I shall never forget our quiet, slow day amongst the harebells and the graves.








(Anne Frank and her sister Margot died of typhus in Bergen-Belsen).

28.RELICS 4*

25. RELICS 1*




There is the heaped equality
of spectacles, the comfort
of linked arms –
wire, gold and tortoiseshell,
the white opacity
of the tilted lens.

There is the kicking scramble
of empty shoes, piled
like bean pods, shelled
of movement, scuffed and dusty
from the longest walk
in the world.

There is the hollow clothing,
the empty-handed gloves,
the headless hats and cap,
the hanks of hair, bagged,
sprung teeth in boxes,
stamped and labelled.

Bones we know;
we scrambled up and out
of the millennium
on bones.  These clothes,
these artefacts endure,
undiminished, unconsumed.

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There never was a golden age of bucolic bliss in our green and pleasant land.  No black-iron range in a stone-flagged kitchen, no sides of cured ham and dried herbs hanging from the rafters, no hollyhocks and roses in full flower gathered around the brightly painted cottage door.  Instead, two rooms, dirt floors, rats in the thatch and unglazed windows; frostbite and chilblains in winter and cholera in the summer, and infant mortality and early death the year round.

However, given a choice not driven by economic necessity, in post industrial revolution times, most folk would have preferred to starve surrounded by trees, fields and birdsong than trapped within the streaming walls of urban terrace or tenement. And if the rural idyll represented pictorially by Constable and his acolytes, or musically in the lush meditations and melancholic of Vaughan-Williams and Delius, is romantic indulgence, there is a seed of truth planted deep that, for some, has flowered into reality.

When my father was 11 years old he contracted a form of rheumatic fever.  As part of the treatment, the doctor prescribed respite from the frequent smogs that afflicted even the outlying regions of London.  So skinny Jack Charles Jones and kid brother Frank took train from Balham Station to Kings Cross and thence to Market Harborough in Leicestershire.  From Harborough station Uncle George Jeffrey (actually just a friend of my grandfather’s; they had been footmen together at Luton Hoo Hall in Bedfordshire, just down the road from where I live now) picked them up in Auntie Nellie’s trap and returned all three of them to the Nevill Arms in the village of Medbourne. 

George & Nellie had been landlord and landlady of the Nevill ever since the former left service just before the First World War.  One of two village pubs – the other was the Leather Bottle, a distinctly inferior hostelry – the Nevill was an impressive building, significantly older than its establishment as a tavern in 1863.  Even George’s volatile temper and generally bleak view of the bulk of humanity failed to keep the public at bay and, as a local, the Nevill was favoured way beyond the bounds of Medbourne. Nellie Jeffrey possessed a sweetness of nature in such stark contrast to her husband’s misanthropy that my father, in later years, judged the polar opposition of their personalities to account for the pub’s popularity: people were fascinated by the balance of the foul and the fair.

After that first long summer holiday in 1922, Dad returned every year for the next 12 years.  A couple of photos show him in raffish sports jacket and flapping cricket whites straddling a stile and gurning wildly for the camera from the midst of a picnic party on top of Nevill Holt Hill. 

The last time he visited Medbourne, he was in his late 70s. I drove us both up there from Guildford, where my parents were then living.  George and Nellie were, of course, long gone – the former from a heart attack, the latter, tragically, after falling into the kitchen fire. Their only son Mal was living with his wife Maureen at Nutbush Farm, bought by George & Nellie after they sold the Nevill.  The farm had long ceased to be a going concern. George loved his animals – his beasts, as he called them – but, coupled with absolutely no head for business, he had his father’s profound mistrust of and dislike for his fellow man (he was a little less disenchanted with women). 

Dad and I got on well with Mal. He had passions.  There were three principal preoccupations – his beasts, Reliant 3-wheelers and clocks (the tiny living room was full of them, chiming for a good 10 minutes either side of the hour). He was also a dedicated hoarder and upstairs he had stowed away nearly a century’s worth of family artefacts. There were ancient laundry boxes full of Victorian nick-nacks: postcards, seaside souvenirs, paperweights, button-hooks, candle snuffers, a lady’s pearl-handled revolver, and sealed sandalwood cases of Corona cigars, George’s particular weakness. 

One night during that last visit, just after supper, Mal reached for his pipe and realised that he’d left his tobacco pouch at the filing station where he worked part-time on the pumps.  We heard him rummaging under the huge double bed in the spare room. There was a muffled cry of triumph followed by the sound of his stocky legs stumping downstairs.  He dropped into his armchair and tugged open the lid of a plain cigar box.  Knowing my penchant at that time for a good Corona, he thrust the box towards me.  I looked down at the cigars nestling like torpedos, unexposed to the air since their incarceration many years before.  In fact, their vintage to within two or three decades was not difficult to estimate.  Each simple, white, unadorned band bore the same three letters in gold – WSC.  I looked up at Mal, busily crushing a cigar back to dead leaf form and cramming it into his pipe bowl.
  “Mal”, I said quietly. “Have you any idea where George got these cigars from?”
Mal shrugged.
  “Some gift while he was in service”, he answered indifferently in his Leicestershire drawl, drawing the match flame down onto the composted cigar.
  “Do you know what WSC stands for?”
 He shrugged again & leaned back into his cushions, puffing hard.
   “Winston Spencer Churchill”, I answered.
And I carefully slipped the sandalwood sheet over the remaining cigars & closed the lid.



During my father’s first visit to Medbourne, he wrote a diary. On the surface, it’s an unremarkable document, but it has interest for two features – his precociously fluent compositional style at the age of 11 and the picture that emerges of a countryside absolutely unmarked by any elements of modernity.  The day-long rambles through fields and through woodlands would have shown my father a setting virtually unaltered since the 5th century when the Saxons laid down the foundations of farming processes that still prevailed.  In reading this plain little journal – written as an assignment to be carried out during his absence from school – one is acutely conscious of the massive changes that were close at hand.  Although, in fact, that corner of Leicestershire was relatively untouched by the post Great War metropolitanisation of rural areas within 10 miles or so of the big cities – Leicester, in this case – that took place in the ‘30s, in all respects Dad saw the last of the uncompromised older ways.

When I went up to Medbourne as a child there remained enough of the traditional patterns to allow a taste of those times. Auntie Nellie kept the pony and trap; Mal rode down the hill into Medbourne on the carthorse; in the evenings the grown-ups sung music hall songs and parlour ballads around the out-of-tune piano.  And I sat high on top of the haywain after a harvest gathered in by scythes, sickles and reaphooks alongside the only combine harvester for miles around.

But all is change there. Now Medbourne is a retreat for wealthy Leicester immigrants.  New detached houses straggle up Manor Road hill, their gardens and their paddocks for the kids’ ponies fenced out of the fields and meadows. The Nevill Arms flourishes still, its fascia largely unaltered, its view across the packhorse bridge to the church largely unchanged. It offers a high end menu within and the ‘popular but personal’ Café Nevill on the rear terrace. The beer it serves is, I believe, Ruddles from nearby Rutland and the pub is still a gathering place for the inhabitants of the villages all around. Few of them, if any, however, are agricultural workers. And Medbourne itself is now designated as a suburb of Market Harborough.

When A.A. Milne’s Christopher Robin is asked by grown-ups what he’s going to do today, he says, “Nothing”. My dad’s diary is all about doing ‘nothing’. Jackie and Frankie Jones were busy doing nothing in the fields and lanes around Medbourne at around about the same time that Christopher Robin was roaming the pathways of the 100-Acre Wood near Crowborough in Sussex. And I for one am proudly fogey-ish enough to lament the passing of the glorious nothingness that once abounded in the open countryside.


My Visit to Medbourne
(July 29th to September 1st 1921)
Jackie Jones (aged 11)

July 29th. Today has been a very exciting day, because we are going for our holiday. Frankie while he was in the train put his head out of the window, daddy was afraid he would lose his hat, so he told me to put it on the rack, which I did.  Suddenly I said, “Frankie’s hat has blown on-to the lines!” Daddy looked up to the rack, but Frankie’s hat had gone.

July 30th.  I got up at 8-o-clock this morning and Frankie came with me to feed the hens.  After breakfast I got a racket and ball and played till Gwen, my cousin, came to play tennis with me. For the net we used two posts stuck into the ground with a piece over the top. In the after-noon Roland, my friend, came; we had another game of tennis. When Roland went away Gwen and I beat down a jungle of nettles.

July 31st. I went out before breakfast today and me [and] a little boy named Billy Adams.   When I asked him whose boy he was, he said, “My muvver’s”. He then asked me my name and I told him Jackie Jones, he would not believe me and said, “There’s no such word as that”.

1st August. To-day we tried to get up the tennis net but without success. Roland, Gwen, Frankie and I went over to my Uncle’s garden to pick gooseberries in the morning.

2nd August. When I was going up the street this morning with Roland, I met Bob and Frank Bull. Roland was going hay-making that afternoon so we decided to go also.  In the afternoon, we did go. A boy named Reuben Garfield found a hedgehog and threw it in the river but it swam a-shore again.

3rd August.  We went up on to the moors this morning to gather mushrooms when we brought them home we found that they were all poisonous.  This afternoon we were going to get some hay but it rained and we had to go into the club room and play.

4th August. To-day we did succeed in putting up the tennis and we all played.  The side that I was on won two sets. I went with my Uncle and Frank to get the puppies this evening. As we were going along Frankie who was talking about cows said, “And he crowed just like a cow”.

5th August. Today we found some time so we marked out the tennis court. In the afternoon we had to go into the club room because it was wet.  When we had been thinking some time we decided to play hide-and-seek.

6th August. To-day the weather has been very showery, but we did go for a walk in the evening. It started to pour with rain about 10-o-clock at night.

7th August.  This morning when I got up, I looked out of the window and I noticed the brook had risen 4 or 5 ft and was still rising. The water was all on the roads and it suddenly dawned on me it was a flood.  Everybody was a-stir, the cattle had to be fetched from the flooded fields.  All the other rivers and brooks round about me were flooded too.  Roland came over when the water [poured] into his house. Many cars got stuck in the flood and had to be drawn out by horses. In the afternoon, we went down to see the flood on the fields. When we got there we saw nothing of the fields but a mass of water.  When we were coming back Roland and I were fighting and having games with my cousin and brother.

8th August.  Roland has gone to Ashley to-day for a week and Gwen to [blank] for the night. This afternoon I went down the waterfall to have a game of quoits. I was just going to play when my mother came to say that tea was ready. Today is my brother’s birthday he is 6 years old…


Jackie Jones died peacefully in 1999 at the age of 88. Not long before he died the two of us reminisced about Medbourne and our separate and shared memories of place and people.  When I mailed out notification of Dad’s death to all the names in his battered and bulging address book, condolences came back from Roland Orton and Bob Bull, both still at that time living near Medbourne 70 years on.

Little Frankie – my larger-than-life Uncle Frank – died in 2004, peacefully like his brother.  He was 89.  For the last 30 years he had lived in the seaside town of Salcombe in Devon, where for the greater part of that time he worked as engineer at the famous Salcombe Yacht Club.  An heroic drinker, his life was commemorated in the Ferry Inn, each participant toasting Frank in his favourite headache, a ‘blacksmith’ – a three-quarter pint of Guinness topped up with barley wine.

Medbourne is a two-hour drive up the A1 from my bit of North- Herts.  Each summer I ponder just the wrong side of a provisional decision the possibility of the journey. And then – reinforced with a pint of Ruddles County at the Nevill Arms – the walk up the Manor Road hill from the village. Nutbush Farm is gone; there’s a huge house sitting on the rise where once the farmhouse stood.  But there will remain unaltered patches here and there where I can stop for a moment and watch Jackie and Frankie Jones chasing butterflies with Roland Orton, cousin Gwen and the Bull brothers, or Mal driving his few cows into the tiny milking parlour, pushing at their rumps, growling “Goo on, goo on, ya buggers!”…

And what of Mal, last of the Jeffreys? Maureen’s patience with her husband’s stubborn insistence on running the farm his way in the face of the swift and mighty changes taking place in agriculture across Britain was unwavering. And when the farm failed and Mal had the first of a series of increasingly debilitating strokes, Maureen become the sole wage-earner, cleaning and serving meals at Nevill Holt Prep School a short walk away from the farm along Manor Road. Then finally, the long Medbourne saga came to an end in May 1999 when Mal died of a final massive stroke on the same day as and just an hour after the death of my father…



Strange word, ‘stroke’ – a gentle sleep
and then you wake up, changed. 
Caressed by infirmity on the brown hill,
kissed by disability as you climb
the long drive. The farmhouse tips
and, heart in crescendo,
you embrace the grass.
Indifferent sheep manoeuvre,
crowding out your sky.
You lie in a lump, adrift
at the field’s edge, floating
on the dead raft of your limbs.
And the sun nails light
into your one good eye.

Near dusk her scarecrow voice
scatters your crowding dreams:
she calls you from the house,
the sound of your name
curling out of the past,
a gull-cry, fierce, impatient,
tearing at the membrane
that dims your world.
Root-still, potato-eyed,
you are another species now.
Your medium is clay and saturation.
Mummified, like the bog-man
trapped by time, you lie dumbfounded,
mud-bound and uncomprehending
as the sun slips down behind the hill.

Urgent fingers scavenging for a heartbeat,
fluttering like bird-wings at your throat,
are busy in the dark.
You feel nothing
of their loving panic, their distress.
All love, all optimism, pain,
all memory, desire coarsen,
thicken into vegetable silence.
A dim siren wobbles in the dark.
And then rough hands manhandle
your clod-heavy bulk.
Night swallows the spinning light
and closes in like smoke.



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