I was 13 and staying with family friends in a damp, dilapidated but beautiful manor house called The Old Hall just outside the village of Reedham in Norfolk. Family friends John and Joyce Jacobs were running it as a combination guest house and small livestock farm, motivated more, I realise now, by a romantic notion of rural idyll than the desire to make fat profits.

And in those days ‘romantic notion’ could get you quite far before the bank foreclosed or you flitted away in the night with your belongings in a couple of suitcases. And at that time ‘rural idyll’ still had a little currency. There remained the residue of a working countryside; independent farms with relatively little acreage could just about make a living and the pace of life was still largely dictated by the seasonal tides. So the raffish, slightly bohemian Jacobs family sat around the Raeburn cooker in the unreconstructed authenticity of a manor house kitchen of a morning planning the day’s events

For me the glory of it all was the freedom. I was left entirely up to my own devices and I roamed for entire days across the endless flat fields, following the lines of the dykes – the deep, carefully maintained drainage streams, that bisected them. For the first time in my life I was entirely on my own. I could clamber up onto the railway embankment & trudge along the shingle in between the sleepers for miles in a dead straight line. I could select a windmill, seen as tiny scribbled letter ‘X’ against the horizon, and make my way towards it across a multitude of five-bar gates and styles to stand beneath its clinker-built bulk, mighty sails locked into position, or, rarely, turning majestically in the breeze that always shifted across the constant plateau. Or I could simply lie on my back in the dust and chaff of a recently harvested field, staring up at the bubbling summer clouds, watching & listening to the skylarks that wheeled and climbed in such abundance at that time. And, of that genuinely idyllic six weeks, I remember with most clarity the prickle of the stubble, the throaty dryness of the dust and those soaring skylarks, alone amongst the clouds.

A few years ago, in mid-July, I revisited Reedham. I stood at the edge of the first field, the one that bordered the rambling gardens of the Old Hall and across which I used to stride at the beginning of my explorations. Initially it looked much the same, but a cursory inspection swiftly revealed the changes: the windbreak hedgerows had gone; the crop had been harvested already; not a single skylark spiralled high into the clear air.

I learned recently that since 1970 the skylark population has declined by 52%. Major changes in cultivation and harvesting procedures are thought to be responsible for this, notably the switch from spring to autumn-sown cereals, the disappearance of the hedgerows and the vulnerability of birds to the massively increased use of insecticides and weedkillers.

It would seem, then, that the skylark – a bird whose rural associations transcend entirely the phoney bucolic Merrie England clichés – is another casualty of the late-20th century. Apparently not. Although a 52% decline in a little over 30 years is dramatic and alarming, a government-funded study has demonstrated that merely the provision of two small patches left untouched within a hectare of cultivated land can reverse local decline. Experiments done over a two-year period resulted in an increase of nearly 50% in skylark breeding. So to encourage the process, farmers are being offered £30.00 per hectare to join a scheme involving small, undrilled patches across their field systems.

A small resistance to an advancing tide. ‘So shines a bright deed in a naughty world’. If the farmers of East Norfolk are an enlightened crew, maybe I’ll be able to lie on my back in the great fields by The Old Hall, Reedham again in a year or two, watching & hearing the larks ascending.


The Lark in the Clear Air

Dear thoughts are in my mind
And my soul soars enchanted,
As I hear the sweet lark sing
In the clear air of the day.

For a tender beaming smile
To my hope has been granted,
And tomorrow she shall hear
All my fond heart would say.

I shall tell her all my love,
All my soul’s adoration,
And I think she will hear
And will not say me nay.

It is this that gives my soul
All its joyous elation,
As I hear the sweet lark sing
In the clear air of the day.

(From ‘The Lark in the Clear Air by Samuel Ferguson)


The lark in the morning she arises from her nest
And she ascends all in the air with the dew upon her breast
And with the pretty ploughboy she’ll whistle and she’ll sing
And at night she’ll return to her own nest again

When his day’s work is over, oh what then will he do
Perhaps then into some country wake he’ll go
And with his pretty sweetheart, he’ll dance and he’ll sing
And at night he’ll return with his love back again

And as they returned from the wake unto the town
The meadows they are mowed and the grass it is cut down
The nightingale she whistles upon the hawthorn spray
And the moon it is a shining upon the new mown hay

Good luck unto the ploughboys wherever they may be
They will take a winsome lass for to sit upon their knee
And with a jug of beer boys, they’ll whistle and they’ll sing
And the ploughboy is as happy as a prince or a king

(‘The Lark in the Morning’ – traditional English song)


He rises and begins to round,
He drops the silver chain of sound,
Of many links without a break,
In chirrup, whistle, slur and shake.

For singing till his heaven fills,
‘Tis love of earth that he instils,
And ever winging up and up,
Our valley is his golden cup
And he the wine which overflows
to lift us with him as he goes.

Till lost on his aerial rings
In light, and then the fancy sings.

From ‘The Lark Ascending’ by George Meredith


The Lark in the Morning’ – a version by Maddy Prior.

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The wall is down. Incredulous
we contemplate, through raw gateways,
dawn in the West. You, the baker,
me, the busdriver, there the student
carrying a flag, there the woman
who cannot forget or forgive;
we move through rubble,
through the searchlights,
through the watercannon’s crazy rain.

This is the real dance;
we stitch its paces
over the Kaiser’s cobbles,
in between the Weimar tramlines,
through Hitler’s broken archways, empty squares,
up and down the grim lattices
of Russian tanktracks.
Laughing, we invade the territory
inside each other’s arms.

Published in Amnesty International anthology SING FREEDOM, Faber & Faber (1991) and in ANCIENT LIGHTS, Phoenicia Publishing (2011)


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In 2015 Natalie d’Arbeloff and I had our collaborative work on Blaise Cendrars’ ‘La Prose du Transsiberien et de la Petite Jehanne de France’ published by the Old Stile Press, I translated the epic poem and Natalie created the illustrations. The ‘Trans-Sib’ went through 10 drafts before I settled on the version that went, with Natalie’s illustrations, to Nicolas Mcdowell at Old Stile for hand-printing.

For panoramic sweep and sheer chutzpah, Blaise Cendrars never quite matched the ‘Trans-Sib’. But his stature as an observational, surreal and quirkily lyrical poet is substantiated by much of his other output. Here are some translations of shorter poems by Cendrars. Most of them are still going through drafts and so are likely to be further tweaked.



Sea vistas
Trees long-haired with moss
Heavy rubbery glossy leaves
Glazed sun
High burnished heat
I’ve stopped listening to the urgent voices of my friends discussing
The news that I brought from Paris
On both sides of the train close by or along the banks of
The distant valley
The forest is there watching me unsettling me enticing me like
a mummy’s mask
I watch back
Never the flicker of an eye.



The windows of my poetry are open wide to the
boulevards and their shop window displays
The jewels of the light
Listen to the violins of the limousines and the xylophones of the
printing presses
The painter wipes his hands on the towel of the sky
Everywhere swatches of colour
And the hats of the passing women are comets
across the blazing evening.



There goes another year in which I haven’t thought about You
Since I wrote my penultimate poem Easter
My life has changed so much
But I’m the same as ever
I still want to become a painter

Here are the pictures that I’ve done displayed up on my walls this evening.
They reveal to me strange perspectives into myself that make me think of You.

See what I’ve unearthed

My paintings make me uneasy
I’m too passionate
Everything is tinted orange.

I’ve passed a sad day thinking about my friends
And reading the newspaper
A life crucified in this newspaper stretched wide that I hold at arms’ length.
Like a crashing aeroplane
That’s me.
No matter how much you try to stay silent
Sometimes you have to cry out
I’m the other way
Too sensitive



I’ve spent most of the night on deck
The familiar stars from these latitudes stretch stretch across the sky
The Pole Star slips further and further towards the northern horizon Orion – my constellation – is at its zenith
The Milky Way like a luminous fissure expands each night

The Great Chariot is a smudge of fog

The south darkens increasingly before us

I can’t wait for the appearance of the Southern Cross in the east
To divert my impatience Venus has doubled in size and quintupled in brilliance

like the moon she trails her light across the water
Tonight I watched the falling of a shooting star





For weeks the elevators hoisted hoisted
crates crates of compost
By dint of cash and patience
The shrubbery is blooming
The lawns are a tender green
A vital spring gushes forth between the rhododendrons and the
At the summit of this edifice this edifice of bricks and steel
The evening
Waiters grave like diplomats clad in
white lean out across the chasm of the town
And the flowerbeds are alight like a million tiny multicoloured
I believe Madame murmured the young man with a voice
tremulous with suppressed passion
I believe that we might do very well here
And with a sweeping gesture he displayed the vast sea
Its ebb and flow
The riding lights of its huge ships
The towering Statue of Liberty
And the mighty panorama of the city crisscrossed with shadowy
perpendiculars and glaring light

The old philosopher and the two billionaires are alone on
the terrace
Beautiful garden
Great banks of flowers
Starry sky
The three old men stand silently listening
to the laughter and the happy voices rising
from the bright windows
And to the murmurous song of the sea that mingles with
the gramophone


The electric dinghy glides noiselessly between the multitudes
of ships at anchor in the immense estuary flying
the flags of every nation of the world
The great clippers loaded high with Canadian timber
furl their huge sails
The iron steamers belch out torrents of black
A population of dockers from every race in the
world bustles within the turmoil of sirens and steam-whistles
from factory and train
The elegant launch is fashioned entirely from teak
Rising from its centre is a cabin resembling that
of a Venetian gondola


After dinner served in the winter garden amongst
the groves of lemon trees jasmine orchids
There is a ball on the lawns of the illuminated park
But the principal attraction is the gifts sent
to Miss Isadora
Of particular note is a ‘pigeon’s blood’ ruby
of a size and brilliance beyond compare
None of the young girls present possesses a gem
to equal it
Elegantly dressed
And vigilant detectives mingle with the crowding guests
to watch over and protect this jewel


Radiators and ventilators running on industrial gas
Twelve telephones and five wireless radio points
Marvellous electrical filing systems containing
countless industrial and scientific dossiers on
a multitude of subjects
The billionaire only feels truly at home within
this place of work
The huge windows look out over the park and the city
Each evening the mercury vapour lights shed
a soft blueish glow
It is within this place that demands to sell and to buy
sometimes topple stock markets across the wide world


A light dress in crepe de chine
The young girl
Elegance and wealth
Hair a tawny blonde within which shines a string of pearls
A face composed and calm reflecting both sincerity
and kindness
Her wide sea-blue eyes almost green are
clear and bold
She has about her the special downy-fresh and roseate tint that
suggests the privilege of the young American.


He’s the Beau Brummel of Fifth Avenue
Cloth-of-gold tie stippled with a froth of diamonds
A suit in metallic fabric pink and violet
Ankle-boots in genuine sharkskin each
button a tiny black pearl
He flaunts pyjamas of asbestos flannel another suit
fashioned out of glass a crocodile-skin waistcoat
His valet scrubs his gold coins with soap
He packs only brand new scented banknotes in
his wallet


Criminals have just blown up the railway embankment bridge
The carriages have caught fire at the bottom of the valley
The injured swim in the boiling water seething from the
ruptured engine
Human torches run amongst the wreckage and the
jets of steam
Other coaches dangle suspended 60 meters up
Men carrying electric torches and acetylene cutters
clamber down the valley track
And in silence the rescue is swiftly organised
In the shelter of the bulrushes the reeds the willow the
waterbirds create a happy commotion
Dawn is long in breaking
But already a team of one hundred carpenters summoned by
telegraph arrive by special train to begin to reconstruct the bridge
Bang bang-bang
Pass me the nails


If you come across a certain river or a deep valley
you’ll cross it by a wooden bridge until such time that
company revenue permits construction of one
in stone or iron
American carpenters are without peer in
the art of constructing these bridges
You begin by laying down a hard rock bed
Then you erect your first trestle
Which will support a second then a third the
a fourth
As many as it takes to reach the level of the bank
On the last trestle two beams
On the last two beams two rails
These audacious structures are neither reinforced by
a St Andrew’s cross nor by iron T-bars
The whole is held together just by a few supports and a few
bolts which determine the gauging of the trestles
And it’s what it is
It’s a bridge
A beautiful bridge




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As stated a few weeks back, I visited Russia at the end of the ’90s and witnessed briefly the beginnings of the silent revolution that brought about the collapse of the Soviet Union, briefly presaged the advent of authentic democracy in a nation that had lurched bloodily from absolute monarchy to the dictatorship of the proletariat and then slid backwards into the bleak comfort of oligarchy.

My memories are of seemingly limitless space and breathtaking beauty. These two poems celebrate both. The first recollects a brief halt on the Trans-Siberian railway; the second a trip up the Chusovaya river and into the Urals.



At Balezino 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 cloud. A silver wind
blows the stars about like spray. A tide of 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 sit
and stand by night-curtained windows, watching
the dim images of ourselves watching the flying trees.



High flat sun, sour light draining like whey
through muslin cloud. This bird’s hanging
under shredded sails, turning on the axis
of its hunger, reordering the sky. The berkut,
summer eagle, sideslips into the treeline.

Where the river croons over stones, where
we drink from clear channels, this bird scars
the water’s skin. The swallow, stippling
the ribbed water, turns on a wide wheel
centred in a flat blue orbit.

Night’s sheet is torn at the corner. This bird
has a knife in its voice. It slides on a wire,
the owl, from maple to beech, yellow light
around its black eye, acid on its tongue.

Night rain boils in the river. Young moon
hooks clouds into ribbons and rags. This bird,
the heron, rising from the reeds, climbs on its
long arms from dark towards light.


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Full moon
bold as a cry,
clean as new ice.

Two men running
noiseless across
frozen fields.

Gin traps in
canvas bags
rattle like teeth.

They fall laughing
in clouds into
the lee of a wall.

A dog barks;
a man calls.
The sounds curl away.

The men sleep
wrapped around
their prey
like lovers.


Linocut by Celia Page. 

NIGHT POACHERS read by Dick Jones.

DELAY (rough mix). Guitar / Doug MacGowan : Viola, vocals and audio mixing / Emma Semple


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A Clear Blue Sky

My dad was a man of prose – a specialist: words used
like gardening tools to conjure shapes, to fashion patterns.
Language mattered: correspondence ran to pages –
letters to the council; ‘thank you’ cards to nurses
that read like testimonials. Even notes to the milkman
came across like billets doux to an old and valued friend.
And the writing: tiny box-shaped words in biro,
whispering in lines, or gathered quietly in the margins,
small-voiced but insistent, looking for truths.

When he knew that he was dying, he sat at the edge
of his life, scribbling a commentary. Twinges
from a cancer hotspot got a note immediately,
draped around the Guardian crossword clues
or squeezed between the calculations in his ledger:
where it hurt, for what duration, and, in imagistic detail,
the character of pain (like a voice, like broken glass, an ache
like winter rheumatism). And, towards the end, in his little diary,
potted phrases: “Slept well”, “Insomnia”, “Coughing still”.

For we who sat around his bed, it was the silence
that confounded. To the nurses plumping pillows, lifting cups
from which he didn’t want to drink; to waiting family
fiddling with the radio, sifting through his laundry,
he said nothing. All his words were spent just days ahead
of the breath that carried them. And then, the afternoon
of the day he died, the clouds drew back, late spring appeared.
Mum leaned back towards the window, smiled and said:
‘Look – a clear blue sky’, and we turned to see.

My father didn’t turn his head. Whatever sky he saw
was far behind in time, or maybe just ahead. Whatever sky it was,
no messianic veil, no chariots of fire obscured the view.
His great abundance, just like ours, was absolutely empty –
birdless, sunless, silent and ineffable, mocking the mad commotion
down below. He drew in breath, breathed out and said:
‘A clear blue sky’, floating the words on the sterile air
like leaves. He didn’t speak again; he died that night and,
one by one, the stars went out, a lexicon set free.


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The morning after you left I drew
the curtains on the seven-acre field.

Two hares were bowling through the stubble,
wind-blown, skidding like broken wheels.

They danced and sprung apart and danced again
and then were gone, beyond the tidemark

of the tree line. Then a mob of seagulls
swung downwind from the west, scattered,

gathered again in a brawl of wings and then
were gone, into a bleak neutrality

of towering clouds. Love or combat, the wind
blew them into the world and out again,

these dancers, bound only to the end
of their measures and not beyond.

From my first collection ANCIENT LIGHTS.

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