Steve Moorby : guitar/keyboards/mandolin/pedal steel/vocals
Gemma Moorby : guitar/keyboards/drums & percussion/vocals
Dick Jones : bass guitar/bouzouki

One of the very greatest English singer/songwriters Richard Thompson was asked whether he thought of his lyrics as poetry. He answered: I think they would incorporate a few of the virtues of poetry at one time or another, though in a more dilute form. In a sense, they are aground, lacking the depth to make them float on the cold page, needing the tune to lift them up off the sandbank. There are many poets who have written good, sing-able lyrics, like Walter Scott, Burns Yeats, etc. I think of Leonard Cohen as someone who does both poetry and song well, and it’s interesting, I think, to see how simple his tunes can be to carry various levels of complexity in the lyric.

In respect of my own song lyrics – written these days for songwriting trio Moorby Jones – I’ve always tended to discount them against my poetry, seeing them somewhat as second-class citizens, drones with a narrowly specific role in the scheme of things. Whilst making no great claims for the poems as being driven by the fiery heart and soul, I incline to the subjective view that the creation of a song is more a function of craft processes, like the building of a well-constructed wall. Its principal purpose is to accommodate – to contain narrative and to direct sentiment and to be served in this by an equally skillfully crafted melody. The success of the enterprise is in the synthesis of the two.

Richard Thompson refers to the simplicity of Leonard Cohen’s tunes as the appropriate counterbalance to the complexity of the lyrics and I think that there’s a fundamental equation at work there. Now that Steve Moorby and I have been back in close partnership again for some four years, any new lyric that I write tends to anticipate from the start the kind of setting that Steve will provide. Not that I make any attempt to assemble words towards a particular kind of treatment: it’s entirely a function of the symbiosis that develops between lyricist and melodist. And not infrequently Steve will surprise me with the direction he’s taken so that the contemplative ballad will rock out and the robust narrative will come back reflective and low key.

A case in point is Becoming Ghosts from the album The Open Road. The song was based on a poem written a number of years earlier. The poem records somewhat archly a secret liaison that takes place during a weekend amongst friends and its tone embodies a fleeting encounter that must never be repeated. However, Steve’s treatment drives the transmuted song along with a vengeance, replacing wistfulness with defiance so the original intentionality has no place in the new version.

Here’s the poem…


There’s a bucket of lights on the cliff top
squatting at the track’s end and there is
the great swarm of the summer dark.

Its night-roots are tugged by the sea;
its black branches clog the pathway.
We two climb blind, both naked still

under towelling robes, rime in hair and
on lashes, late love tattooed in wheals
of sand, communion salt on our tongues.

I smile into the darkness. Ahead of me,
a thick shadow, I sense you smiling too.
We’re drawn by obligation and now,

by shame a little: company is waiting on us –
over the breathing of the waves, voices rise
and scatter like sparks, music pumps. Soon

(another stumble upwards, one more turn
through gorse, its candles dimmed) we’ll be of
the world again, restored, reconstituted. And

from thereon, bleached by light, we’ll turn into
a pair of ghosts, doomed, blessed to haunt
each other through the falling of the years.

And here’s the song lyric and the song:


There’s a houseful of lights on the cliff top up high.
At the end of the track there it’s shining.
And the summer dark swarms like invisible wind
all around us where we two are climbing.

There’s sand on our skin and rime in our hair
and salt on our tongues as communion.
I smile in the dark; I know you’re smiling too
as we clamber towards the reunion.

It’s deep into night and we’re stumbling blind
with just candles of gorse here to guide us.
Voices rising like sparks: friends and lovers above
and a world that must shortly divide us.


As we rise into light and our story is told,
we take up our place in the chorus,
ghosts in the present, ghosts in the past,
ghosts through the long years before us.

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The trick is
to let slip
the ladder

that brought you
climbing to this
point. Unknot it,

let it fall away.
Then reach up
through the half-

dark and flick
the latch and let
the shutter fall.

No route back
down to how
it never was;

no liar’s light
above on how
it’s never going

to be. Just
this moment,
then the next

and darkness
either side.
Like any trick

worth knowing,
it’s a lifetime
in the learning.

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Conventionally, lovers should part
in a soft storm
of blown hopes
and unconsumed potential.
Tears blur
the old horizons
and refract a new world
where one is the number.

Some might perceive a beauty
in this crafted heartbreak, others
simply paradox:
from the grit of parting
the tears that form
are like pearls.

Or blood may be shed:
spitting slanders
the lovers may wheel and dive
like wolves in a corner,
the one heartsick
on the arsenic of betrayal,
the other punch-drunk
on guilt.

Little to choose, maybe,
between the vale of tears
and the killing floor,
but passion spent
and smoke where once there was fire
are markers for despair.

The truth is more prosaic.
Just after dawn
they’re sitting in a car.
The street is narrow
and the houses small and terraced.
The engine mutters
and he leaves it running,
a monologue all about departure.

A man clips a breakfast rose
and goes indoors.
“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may”,
she murmurs
and the silence shivers
but it doesn’t break.

He lifts her tear
onto his knuckle,
tastes its salt as last communion.
He floats the final words
and they remain face up,
their shadows hanging.
She steps out
and he drives away.


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The ice is melting.
It pinks and shivers
like thin music. Black

windows in the ground
go soft and vanish.
Cobweb dewdrops glow

like moonstones in the
dark blue before dawn.
You wake. You breathe

deep. First light, bright
like spray across the ceiling.
You’ve slept and dreamed

beneath this cracked map
of an inverted world
too long. You’ve read

your fortune in its
one-lane highways,
nowhere roads too long,

looking for compass north.
Now the ice is melting. Breathe
deep. Rise into light.

UP read by Dick Jones

FIRST LIGHT – Brian Eno and Harold Budd

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I saw Eternity the other night
Like a great ring of pure and endless light…

A dark treat, this sudden encounter with death.
Entering the unlit room and expecting
the shadow-flicker in his neck,
the guttering fuse, she saw instead
that he lay quite still and that
a fine silver dust hung in the air.
Silence boomed in her blood.  She forgot
to breathe.  She stared into the hole in time
through which he’d slipped .  She saw dark wings
that beat too fast for angels’, saw
the place where bones come from
and where bones go.  All this in a heartbeat –
wiser than scripture, swifter than light:
a destination on the other side of grief.

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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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