MEDBOURNE

Picture2

MEDBOURNE 1.

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.

MEDBOURNE 2

MEDBOURNE 2.

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.

JACKIE JONES' DIARY

My Visit to Medbourne
(July 29th to September 1st 1921)
by
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…

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MAL

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.

MAL & MAUREEN

:::

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BINNERS.

CLAYBURY2

CLAYBURY HOSPITAL

Shortly after leaving Goldsmiths’ College back in the late ‘60s and whilst awaiting creative and commercial success with what our agency touted as ‘South-East London’s First Flower-Power Band’, I took a job in the laundry at Claybury Psychiatric Hospital. Phil the drummer (he was a porter at Claybury) and I would rise at 4.00 AM and cross London in his tiny Thames van to check in at the huge custodial gates with the sun rising two hours later. While Phil patrolled the long Victorian corridors and vast high-windowed wards, my co-workers and I, wearing wellington boots and butcher’s oilskin aprons, filled the great cylindrical belt-driven drums with reeking sheets and soiled garments.

Phil and I followed this surreal routine until a couple of months into the process gigs with the band had increased enough to sustain us from day to day. And the Withnail-and-I squalor of our subsequent rock-and-roll existence notwithstanding, I didn’t regret for a moment leaving behind that cavernous, steam-filled space, clamorous with the sound of revolving cylinders and the call-and-response shouting of the laundry workers and the singing and wailing of the roaming patients.

My memories of that brief time are vivid still. They fed the writing of the poem below, which, once started became something of a therapeutic exercise, displacing and rendering into focus a set of linked experiences more typical of Dickensian times than the bright, brash 1960s. The now long-demolished Claybury Hospital was no institution of enlightened treatment and permanent cure. It was, quite simply, a lunatic asylum peopled by lost souls washed up by the tides of primitive ignorance and prejudice across the first half of the 20th century. And we who maintained the services that provided the most basic day-to-day conveniences for those sad, wronged casualties survived the quotidian grand guignol horrors of the place either through elective blindness and deafness or wilful callousness and outright cruelty…

o0o

BINNERS

I work in the asylum laundry,
dawn ‘til two, forking bedsheets,
wet and grey like tripes,
into the drums to cook.

Booted and wrapped, shiny
white in oilskin aprons, angel
butchers, we move through steam,
feeding the ironing room.

We, the furtive and the cruel,
duck behind nicknames, aiming
to pass unnoticed or unchecked
within this strange nation:

Fish, the foreman, with the
glaucous eyes; me, the Friar,
for my pelmet fringe;
and crew-cut Stig of the lipless

v-shaped smile, like a deft
two-stroke razor slice. Ours
is a realm of clouds, high windows
sweating kitchen dew and doorways

like dream portals, indistinct
amongst white streaming tiles.
And passing between these shape-
shifting apertures, the strange

quotidian traffic. We float
inside their world like unshelled
crabs, sidling our tasks between
heap and drum, heads down

and purposeful, breathing only
our own air. And they move
between us in their own
fashion: the dancers, shapeless,

ageless in their smocks,
spinning and turning to
secret tunes in undiscovered
keys; the counting man

who circuits the vast estate,
enumerating fetishes – certain
lintels, keystones, door handles,
a smoked glass windowpane,

a beech tree root, tapping
each one with crooked
forefinger and then
moving on to align

some other crucial fuse
while the sun is high.
(I watch him secretly,
like a bird at work);

and last, within the dust
of the parade, precarious
as a shard of glass,
jagged Mary. Fizzing on

the threshold, she tests
the air. Her top lip
puckers, lifts over
a black bucket of

horse teeth. She snickers
and pushes at her brush-
fire hair, a corolla
of torn flames, the colour

of rust. Pale, pale
blue eyes switching and
slipping, making of the world
a place of fumes

and snapped filaments, only
an inkblot atlas to guide her
through black land
and fathomless sea.

And it’s here and now,
within the splay and straddle
of her limbs inside the doorway,
between one clumsy

heartbeat and the next,
that there might be
deliverance – a rough facsimile
of love as nurse or porter

turns her round, the pressure,
gentle, solicitous, the voice
a fuzzy burr, back along
white corridors, white corridors.

But no one’s there
and Stig is sprung-wound
and ticking close beside me.
I can smell his musk

through boiled linen and suds.
Dipping armpit deep into the drum,
he tugs out cotton knickers,
red as a haemorrhage,

and dangling the deep, sad
weight of them like a toreador,
he edges forward. His thin rudiment
of mouth beaks into a pouting kiss

as he sashays onto the walkway
where she stands. In that sweat-
heat, she is, in the moment,
rabbit to his serpent.

Fish draws hard on a cigarette
and turns away, but I am
complicit, witness from the start,
hiding amongst the rank

garment foliage like a naturalist,
sensing that what must now
transpire will strip us
to the quick. Clocks stop

inside that doldrum pause.
And she begins to keen,
a sound thin and high,
like wire hard drawn

through the membrane of
the air. And Stig two-steps
sideways, flicking the bloomers,
chanting on a breath:

“Crazy Mary, crazy bitch,
come on and love me, crazy
bitch, come on”, and laughing
high and wild like a child

on a rope over water,
innocent and dangerous
in the free air, he dances,
now scampering forward

and back, forward and back
under a blood-red flag.
The air shimmers and stiffens
and Mary shatters it

like a pane of glass.
There is a quality
of sound – a mud-born
eructation from the throat

of a marsh bird, or
some searing midnight
heartbreak called from ridge
or hillside – that curls

around the edge of time
to bear witness to what
we have never known,
should never have to know.

And Mary shrieks from that
elemental place, her mouth
split earth and her voice
magma, sudden and naked

in the wrong world. Stig
stops dead, poised like
a mural dancer because
raw noise has clogged

the air into something
like fog or darkness
and our ears sing with it
and we can’t see for tears.

Stationary, rooted, like
a screaming tree, she flails,
ululating from within the
perfect storm, an ecstasy

of rage, crystal-pure and
targetless, uncorrupted by
concern or issue, inchoate
and of itself, primordial.

From its spotless light,
its impeccable heat, stars
and their matter draw
their source. This is

the ultimate release,
a hideous, intoxicating
freedom. Like some twisted
Breughel sower, she scatters

the molecules of reason
into this coruscating wind
and for its duration
both of us are blasted white,

Stig and I, reamed as clear
and vacant as blown eggs.
And now inside the cone
of silence that crowns

the thunderclap, we stand,
Stig and I, each in
his moment, the one
a still life in white and red,

caught at the edge
of the breath before
panic animates; the other
a dumbstruck initiate,

hearing in the soaring
engine of the scream
a wild music, seeing within
the beating Shiva arms

a terrible beauty, the purity
of free-falling water, the
rootless, boundless liberty of
the infant and the lunatic.

Is this how we sunder
gravity, leave the earth
and fly? Is this shame
I feel or yearning?

They come for her and,
with dreadful skill, they
truss her as she stands
and bundle her away.

The sounds diminish, dwarfed
and dopplered through the
labyrinth beyond and,
in the laundry, drums

grind and roll and steam
embraces. But I am marked
now, an initiate. I know
of their mission this much:

that it is not to care
and cure but to contain
and then conceal. I wear
the secret like a scar.

BINNERS read by Dick Jones

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THE WAY THINGS ARE

We are informed that digitisation will, ultimately, replace every function currently managed by human agency. We will be counselled by robots; automated doctors will diagnose and prescribe; classroom learning will be directed by a disembodied electronic presence; all vehicular transport will be driven by software linked to monitoring centres… Our enslavement will no longer be to those whose brute ambition has carried them to seat of power. Now we shall be in thrall to voltage, circuitry, polarity, current.

But what of the interrogator? How could any robotic medium replace the infinite subtlety of an O’Brien? Surely the wayward passages of the human mind can only be apprehended by another human mind, one which, however detached now, however depraved, has experienced the shock of love, the submersive power of gilded memory, the cataract of fear…

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THE WAY THINGS ARE

“There are things we kept secret
after the locking of the doors,
the drawing of the curtains. Please
read this by candlelight and then
burn it to a flake. Be safe and reach
through shadows silently towards the light…”             

Sit down here, by this closed window
and consider it this way:
that not even dust remains
of how things were
before the sleep of reason;
that not a carbon trace is left                               
of what once might have been.

Relax. Sit back in your chair
and listen to my voice.
                                  
You know the properties
of hope,
of dreams,
of rumours.

You know how rich
the imagined landscape,
and how true that stranger’s voice,
its cadences so clear.

And then a sighting here and there
of those enchanters in their motley,
dancing by firelight and singing
in the old tongue?

Maybe. 
                                         Maybe.

But now consider this:
here, the light that shivers in my paperweight,
these, the blue fumes from my cigarette,
they are of the real world.
Watch them with me now,
just the two of us, and know
from these my words and this
the sound of my voice,
the way things are.

THE WAY THINGS ARE

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WAVELENGTHS.

antenna

PUTTING OUT THE CALL…

Way back in 2003 one of the first posts that I uploaded to my hip new blog, the Patteran Pages (this via the steampunk software adopted by the American news and culture site Salon, who were at that time swiftly clambering onto the digital bandwagon) was an account of my terminally unhip identity as a radio ham. Whether I intended some sort of self-outing as an unrepentant proponent of decidedly analogue communications technology here in the zeitgeist zone of the nascent blog, or I was just stumped for material on the edge of this new and uncharted frontier, I no longer recall. But I was at the time a very active operator, fortunate enough to be running a well-constituted school amateur radio club station and, by the standards of such ventures, we were doing very well. Here’s what I wrote.

I am a radio ham.  40 feet above a shed in the school grounds there revolves an industrial strength aerial made of tubular steel and capable of sending and receiving hundreds of watts-worth of one-to-one conversation.  Crouched at a desk beneath it, I have spent long hours conversing earnestly with fellow operators around the world. 

As tools of the trade I have an old pre-digital age transceiver built when the abacus was high tech, a pre-Soviet collapse Times World Atlas so large scale it’s got your house on it, & my very own callsign – G0 EUV. With the aid of these accoutrements I can select a radio frequency and, when I have located another similarly inclined (& licensed) hobbyist, I can engage him or her in lively intercourse about the strength of their radio signal, the make and model of our radio equipment and the weather outside. (Sadly, not for us the political affairs of the day, or the blessings and iniquities of religious faith. These subjects are forbidden pretty much worldwide to licensed ham radio). So then, the limits of the contact’s English vocabulary having been reached and with all  permitted conversational gambits exhausted, we will bid each other farewell and the two of us will repeat the procedure all over again with someone else. Which process is, even for the enthusiast, about as dull as it sounds.

But constantly, in the gaps between each of these workaday link-ups, the operator is vigilant for the rare fish, the almost imperceptible flicker within the mighty shoal. Because buried within the constant European babble that shoots up and down the invisible conduitss between transceiver and ionosphere there may be heard on occasion, if conditions are just right, the still, small voice of the lone operator in some mightily distant and/or normally inaccessible part of the world. A tiny island in the Indian Ocean; a polar research station; a remote medical or military outpost in the middle of the tundra or the desert; a yacht crossing the equator… Rare DX – the stay-at-home suburban radio ham’s dream..!

I don’t do radio nowadays.  The old passion that would have me winding the aerial up its 40’ mast in a force 9 gale so that I could catch the Australians between 05.00 and 07.00 has been necessarily stilled. No more chasing the fluctuating ionospheric conditions to bag a 5-second contact with that lone operator on some lump of rock in the Indian Ocean.  No more regular ‘skeds’ with the guy in San Antonio who sounded just like Jack Nicholson; or the Russian doctor in a desolate oil pipeline outpost in Northern Siberia who wanted to learn English; or the Australian fence-mender 50 k. from the nearest shop and bar; or, as once, the panicky weekend sailor whose yacht was shipping water fast off Mauritius on whose behalf I had to phone the Grand Bay coastguard. It was always the romance of contact with the beleaguered or self-exiled individuals in exotic locations, the two of us fighting against fading signals or interference from the hundreds of other stations out there on the same wavelength wanting to touch base with the rare DX station with whom you alone are in contact. Those few minutes of shared alternative culture across thousands of miles of earth and sky are worth all the solitary hours of static crackle and atmospheric hiss.

There aren’t very many poems about people talking into two-way radios.  In fact, I’ve never come across any!  So for the time being this is it.  So whether this poem is a work of quality is hardly the issue.  That anyone should want to produce a piece about people talking into a radio microphone should be enough to turn our heads…

DJ AT RADIO

WAVELENGTHS

iMac 3.2 GHz Intel Core i5

I paddle the keys and pixels break surface
like bubbles. The blue window shivers into a spray
of letters, uniform, a lingua franca. The world and his wife
are talking hard, a promiscuity of speech that melts
into the pool, unvoiced. This is language out of light,
words squeezed and shredded out of shape and form,
electronic runes and glyphs squirted into bits
and bytes down filaments. These digits, these encryptions,
they’re mouthless, lost in space. No tongues or lips
articulate the cries and whispers of the slave electrons
working the binary roads. Behind the brilliant lexicon,
just the insect voices and the hum of spinning disks.

Yaesu FT-847 Multiband Transceiver

Still dark outside. 0500 zulu and a cold wind
rocks the antenna tower. I’m beaming west
on 20 meters, listening through the chuckle
of morse, the whooping spherics. I’m looking
for Australia on the long path, vaulting scraps
of landscape and the great bare, muscled back
of ocean; skidding in across the eastern shores,
magnet-voiced and listening hard. A VK3,
a loner by two hundred miles of fence-line;
a little wooden house, a splinter in the prairie skin.
Just him, his wife and daughters, fixing the broken wire
that separates the cowboys and the kangaroos
from dreamtime. Now the aerial image shimmers,
breaks. I lose his voice as the skywave shifts;
lose his tale of full moons, crowding stars
and voices in the wind. I drift with the tidal ebb
and flow of distant storms, spikes of wireless sound
and silence. But I’ve spoken; he has spoken.
Breath has shaped and joined our words.
We have thrown a line across the earth
and tugged it once or twice.

Glossary:

20 meters – The most commonly used HF radio waveband.
Spherics – Naturally generated electromagnetic atmospheric sound.
Long path – Turning the antenna (see photograph above) so that the received & transmitted signals travel not by ‘line of sight’ but right around the globe & in via ‘the back door’, this done to avoid radio interference from the landmasses in between.
VK3 – An amateiur radio callsign registered in Victoria.
Skywave – The propogated radio wave that refracts through the ionosphere & returns to earth.

 

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DRIVING TO AMERICA

DRIVING TO AMERICA

GO WEST

Nearly two decades ago, I read Barry Miles’ just-published The Beat Hotel. The book depicts an on-&-off six-year period spent by Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso & William Burroughs in a run-down little hotel in the back streets of Paris.  Behind the accounts of their day-to-day lives – Burroughs’ constant quest for exotic drugs, Corso’s womanising & trips into Europe, Ginsberg’s attempts to interest publishers in France, Britain & America in the work the three of them were producing – is a delightful picture of the Europeanising of those three American pilgrims.  There seems little doubt that the breadth, depth & character of the writing that emerged from all three during the late ’50s & early ‘60s owed much to their apprehension of a larger, more cosmopolitan world, experienced within that most cosmopolitan of cities.

For me, middle class & English, the preoccupation with America began in early childhood in the ‘50s – an easy obsession in a Britain still under the post-war spell of American culture.  With enormous reluctance, my grandmother took me to see a garish Western in a dark & smoky South London cinema.  While I fell in love with James Stewart in a sheepskin jacket, she counted the minutes. 

But from that brief encounter on, I was entranced.  The scrappy back garden of my grandparents’ apartment, the local bombsites, Balham Common all became part of a dreamscape of high bluffs & roaring rivers. Wearing my grandfather’s panama hat & a bright orange cowboy shirt with white piping around collar & cuffs, & packing a golden Lone Star six-shooter, I roamed the range. And then, when pocket money started – in pence first, then shillings – I began the huge collection of Western novels, biographies & histories that still fill shelf space in my bottom-of-the-garden library. 

Later, the sense of a mighty landmass on which those early settlers made so little initial impression was augmented by a powerful awareness of its urban culture. The hurricane impact of rock-&-roll came first to this pre-teenager & then shortly afterwards the glorious brass-&-woodwind of New Orleans jazz. I was a porky little boy with a side parting & sensible shoes, transfixed by the barely contained hysteria of Presley’s rockabilly & the thick, glossy shufflebeat of Fats Domino. I wept at Buddy Holly’s death; I rejoiced at the arrival of the 45 rpm disc; I learned E, A & B7 on a Spanish guitar.

The arrival of adolescence & the discovery of the Beats occurred simultaneously.  As if timed to accommodate that first testosteronal rush, a fat little paperback appeared in the station bookstall: Protest – The Beat Generation & The Angry Young Men. I couldn’t identify with the latter – all those disaffected British working class youths who’d just missed the War & were pissed off with absolutely everything in a beer-&-fags sort of way.  But the Beats seduced me instantly.  Where once I had been John Wesley Hardin, hands clawed over my low-slung guns, or Gene Vincent, pop-eyed & skew-legged at a microphone the size of a small icebox, now I was Dean Moriarty & Sal Paradise digging Charlie Parker in Birdland.  I filled school exercise books with infatuated pastiches of Kerouac’s laconic, Corso’s manic & Ferlinghetti’s epic verse.  I wore a huge black jumper & tight black jeans. (I drew the line at sandals: my dad wore them all the time, with thick grey socks). By the time that The Beatles arrived & were swiftly superseded by The Rolling Stones & Bob Dylan as icons of cool to die for I was way ahead of the game.

The world turned & turned again.  With bewildering speed we stumbled out of the 20th century, mass-communicating & multi-tasking like professionals so that even the enemy – the old, &, more deadly still, the middle-aged – knew the meaning of zeitgeist. 

But from within this postmodernist intersection of merging & synthesising Anglo-American influences I look back sometimes with a nostalgic frisson to the innocence of my own Wild West, my own jump-jive rockabilly parties, my own Greenwich Village coffee house poetry readings.  Purity & unadulterated essence are what we all seek to restore, I guess.  And that dreamtime America provided both landscape & soundtrack to my childhood & youth.

Well, the overwhelming message is that dreams are dreams & the real world of school, work, tears & laughter, ill health & death is where we should spend our days.  But the weirdest of codas to my own dreamtime USA was provided when I visited the States for the first time in the early ‘90s.  As I stood by the Pacific on the North Oregon coast, or watched the trucks barrelling down through Seattle, I realised that in some strange, prescient way I had anticipated what I now perceived & that dreamtime & realtime America were very close &, without having noticed, I had stepped across the dividing line because it wasn’t really there.

Sitting in a pickup truck, waiting for my companions to emerge heavily-laden from a Kroger store, I started to write this poem. I intended a gentle, affectionate parody of the Beat chroniclers whose narratives had illuminated my teenage years. And yet as it proceeded down the page, it began to speak more and more to my sense of a charged and passionate childhood vision of ‘old weird America’ whose substance was in no way mitigated by my presence here and now in that very land.

jazz-collage

DRIVING TO AMERICA

From that very first bright prairie morning
at the frontier of my days
      I have been
      driving to America.

From the flock and horsehair saddle
of a South London cinema seat –
Jimmy Stewart shrugging on
a sheepskin coat in Where The River Bends
      I have been
      driving to America.

Through the canyons
and the arroyos
and the sagebrush trails
of a suburban garden,
lost in the folds of
of a bright red cowboy shirt
(man-size, a prairie of cotton)
and squinting from beneath
the brim of Grandpa’s panama,
      I have been
      driving to America.

Through the longing
for that golden Lone Star pistol,
hinged like for real before
the trigger-guard, with a cylinder
that actually revolved
and a hammer you could cock
(the double click:
warning and prelude)
in a tasselled yellow holster
with a silver horseshoe buckle,
hanging low,
      I have been
      driving to America.

Through the pages
of the yellow paperbacks
that ranged along my windowsill
(Triggernometry: a Gallery of Gunfighters,
Desperate Men: the James Gang
and Butch Cassidy, Wyatt Earp:
Frontier Marshall),
through the pages of their dusty streets
and through the batwing doors
of their saloons
and in the cool and sunstreaked dark
of their livery stables,
the bright noon heat of their desert days,
and in the cordite reek
of their gun battles (the OK Corral,
the Lincoln County Cattle Wars,
Jack McCall shooting Hickock in the back
in Deadwood, South Dakota),
      I have been
      driving to America.

Then through the skidpan hiss
of blue and purple-labelled 45s
(London American and Capitol),
the jump-jive scamper of Gene Vincent’s Bluecaps,
or the thick fat gumbo beat of New Orleans –
Let the Four Winds Blow, I’m Walking, Blueberry Hill,
or the Macon, Georgia scream of Little Richard,
calling out the flat-top cats and dungaree dolls,
or the hound dog longing of One Night (With You)
Presley’s eyes sleepy with lust,
the lip flickering into a sneer…

Later, later (though now harking back)
the windpipe wheeze and clatter
of the New Orleans Rhythm Kings,
the wistful lemon twist of Beiderbeck
in a melancholy mist;
through the rattling snares
and sneezing cymbals in the blare
of Ory’s blue trombone, the white-heat
whiplash of Armstrong’s cornet…

And then the crosstown traffic clamour
of Gillespie, Parker, Monk;
Chet Baker, his breath whispering heartbreak
into the leadpipe;
the high water, muddy river surge
of Mingus, Jimmy Knepper, Roland Kirk,
nosing in the eddies round the roots…

To the basement pulse of Howling Wolf
and Little Walter, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy,
under the Clarkdale and Chicago stars;
B.B., Albert, Freddie King, rocking with eyes tight shut
in front of a herd of nodding saxes;
through the tumbleweed, alfalfa, cottonfield
and city cellar intersection chaos of its music,
      I have been
      driving to America.

On the flatbed back
of a farmboy’s truck, heading south
from Iowa to Denver, Colorado,
Montana Slim, Sal Paradise
beside me on the dream-freeway
to Anywhere, USA;
through mirror shades, the smoke
from a chewed cigar, blue diesel
haze, the silver powder of a starry night
or the yellow flare of what might be
a prairie moon,
      I have been
      driving to America…

And now, anonymous, unshadowed,
hidden in the lee of a southbound truck,
I wait at the border.
Five black Canada geese
yank themselves across the sky,
quitting the mudbanks
of the Fraser River
for the deep-rift gorges
of the long Columbia.
A high sun straddles the 49th
and through its dancing tarmac mist
we roll like dusty conquerors who have crossed
immeasurable distances and now awaken
from a thundercloud of dreams
in clear light on the real highway,
      driving to America.

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names of the moon

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names of the moon

sucked pebble:
tongued smooth
by ancient salt night /
starflecks in a
quantum field /
sour white
beached as blue-black
sucks out //

old coin:
dun metal
edged like a
flint scrap /
spent / effaced /
old currency /
the ghost profile
watching the filings drift //

bleached horns:
hook hanging
depending nothing
but planetwrack
the dead hair of comets
defined by light //

broken button:
tugged & twined
frayed against
the cape the cowl
the collar /
shrugged high
against the iceheart
marrowbone dark //

flat cataract:
milk or smoke
or silica
obscuring the macula /
watching now only
what she remembers
of red shift / of
spectral drift //

abalone pearl:
effaced by
a drugged horizon
now pink & sable
deep elliptical
frozen albumen //

you & i once in a way
wolf moon /
moon of ice /
worm moon /
frog moon /
hare moon /
green corn moon /
thunder moon /
sturgeon moon /
singing moon /
blackberry moon /
tree moon /
longnight moon

world eyes in the night:
tsuki /
menes /
chand /
spogmay /
he’ni /
loar /
thoth /
tsukuyomi-no-mito /
igaluk /
abaanqui /
namwaikaina

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ms2_XTgTxYk

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mq_d-H6nIh8

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MORAIRA 1

Moraira is a small coastal resort about an hour’s drive from Alicante. 

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MORAIRA 1.

We each of us carry a strange portfolio
        of ghosts and vipers
        spiny things and ticks that burrow
              wherever we go.
And self-securing then self-releasing
        like a magical Gladstone bag,
it can hold in check and then deliver all
        at the sudden doorway of the moment.

Here, the sliders, the shiny-shelled, the leggy things
are eclipsed in nature: walls and trees bear their weight
in a symbiosis of colour, form and texture.
        Good to see them free, untrammeled,
        where they ought to be amongst the webs,
        the moth husks and the tendrils.

And the ghosts:
   each baggy, flapping bedsheet sham
      caught by the hem amongst alien thorns
         as long as bread knives, caught
            on the rough-tongued bark
               of the Bismarck palms, until
                  blue dawn finds them
                     white, creased and silent.

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