Heart Sutra 1.

(for R, R and M)

Dream and fable,
the dark that lies
on your eyes,
or the busy stars
that celebrate
the open window,
this basket of love
that binds you –
may they prevail.

There’s nothing
so precious within
the here and now
where we,
the gruff
and lofty ones
belong, that you
should crave
before its time.

So for you
for a little
longer yet
may water run
uphill, may nights
square circles,
rattle the key
in the lock,
and may love
be unconsidered.

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DJ and Doug MacGowan, summer 2019.
Guitarist, banjoist, singer and songwriter Doug and I have been musical compadres for many years and now with my partner Emma Semple on violin and viola we’re putting together a trio, as yet unnamed.

The poem is in memory of Doug’s mum Joy, written as an accompaniment to Doug’s tune ‘Joy’ 


A long time gone.
New traffic on the stairs
tracing your even pace
over the risers;
other long fingers
turning, turning
the wine glass stem;
other laughter wrapped
in the leaves of your voice.

How easy to live
in this reconfigured world:
an exchange of horizons,
alternative sunsets, a hill,
or no hill at all.

But easy too the swift
self-gathering into
one’s own shadow
on street, in hallway,
or on that same staircase
when tears reflux
without warning
and there is only
what was.

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“Education, education, education!” Tony Blair cried 22 years ago as we were promised root and branch change within primary and secondary schools. And there was a massive financial investment in education resulting in a significant increase in the number of teachers, the creation of the teaching assistant role, a decrease in class sizes, particularly in  the primary sector and an increase in GCSE and A-level results. But as time went rapidly by we saw the entry into the process of reform and reconstruction of private educational initiatives within the state infrastructure, the creation of the notion of the ‘bog-standard comprehensive’ and the stigmatisation of struggling mainly inner city comprehensives as ‘failing schools’. And if anyone had drawn hope from Blair’s excelsior call back in 2007 that there might be a fundamental shift in emphasis away from the vigorous quantitative drive towards results to a qualitative emphasis on creativity, individual enterprise, authentically child-centred education out of which real personal choices might be made, then deep disappointment was swift and lasting.

And what lies before us as the most right-wing government since the Thatcher administration of the ’80s beds in and begins to look around? Surely only the substantiation of the arid, punishing, results-orientated curricula that dominate both educational sectors now.

How incredible is it, then, that to seek out radical alternatives we have to go back to the future? What follows are two autobiographical accounts of experience in the 1950s, each one providing an account of my life and times in a small, independent progressive school in the lee of Epsom Downs. Even today, when occasionally in company reminiscences of schooldays arise, my depiction of New Sherwood School can provoke shock and disbelief. ‘But how did you have any respect for your teachers, calling them by their first names?’ ‘Why didn’t you all run riot; I know I would have!’ ‘Voluntary attendance at lessons? I’d have hopped off all the time!’ ‘Kids making up rules? How come you didn’t have daily chaos?’

Well, we did respect our teachers, as they respected us. And there wasn’t chaos, there was order, consensual order. This is how I remember it…


Latchmere Road Primary School was a small, red-bricked, white tiled, parquet- floored establishment, safe, comfortable and traditional. With one or two monstrous exceptions, the teachers were kind and supportive. The headmistress of the infants’ school was archetypically maternal; the headmaster of the junior school was avuncular. It was a stable, happy school. And I was utterly miserable there.

After so long a time it’s difficult to identify what frightened and oppressed me most. I have murky recollections of asphalt wastes patrolled by fierce, bulky boys smelling of penny chews and unwashed clothes. Their sticky hands pushed you hard in the chest; their scabbed forearms compressed your windpipe, locked your head to their panting chests in dispassionate and unmalicious aggression. Asexual voices bayed and shrieked, whistles blew and ragged queues formed. Boiled meals reeked and steamed; you had to eat the beetroot, the pink mince, the frogspawn semolina. Incomprehensible prayers and sermons were uttered from the stage; discordant hymns punctuated the ritual, and we filed out to Sheep May Safely Graze played on an upright piano by a fierce little woman with hair coiled in cartwheel plaits over her ears…

The safe, predictable, instantly identifiable atmosphere terrified me. Why, I don’t know; the passage of time and the depth of the imprint defy analysis. But my mother tugged me onto the 604 trolleybus every morning, both of us in tears, both of us anguished and baffled. At night I dreamed about corridors, classrooms, the banshee voices of wild children. By day I cowered in corners, hiding from the pounding, reeling jungle of it all. Without recourse to the post-‘60s label, ‘school phobia’, my parents had a problem on their hands: if I was rejecting school at the age of seven, in what educational condition would I be by the time that the implacable social and intellectual divider of the 11-plus exam stood between me and secondary education

A mildly radical past and a subscription to the left-wing weekly the New Statesman provided a possible answer. As a pipe-smoking, corduroy-wearing member of the Independent Labour party in the 1930’s, my father had read Neill’s prototype Summerhill book That Dreadful School. Recollections in the ’50’s of its cheerful, vernacular style and refreshing absence of cant were jogged by a small ad on the back of the New Statesman publicising a little independent progressive school in the nearby market-town of Epsom. It was called New Sherwood School and in the summer of 1953 we drove in Dad’s new Morris Minor to see the school and meet its headmaster John Wood.

The school was housed in a large, white, mid-19th century lodge in about an acre of grounds with a two-acre paddock attached. As we drove in through the front gates, the sense of a sprawling, bohemian family environment was immediately apparent. Thick climbing ropes hung from trees; there was a wooden climbing frame built against the bole of a huge beech tree; three gaily-painted cart-wheels mounted horizontally on three-foot high posts acted as roundabouts; doors in the house bore scuff-marks and windows were patched with corrugated cardboard. John Wood approached us along the gravel driveway that surrounded the house and he guided us over to the roundabouts. The interview was entirely informal: John – bearded, tieless and kilted, a dead ringer for Rob Roy – chatted gently about the philosophy and practice of the school, pushing himself to and fro on the wheel. Behind us, a tiny, dark-haired boy of about six ran tirelessly around the house, pausing only to yell, “Fuck off!”, as he approached our small group. Initially, John ignored the demonstration. After one particularly shrill utterance John smiled and remarked that Mikey had only just learned the phrase and that we mustn’t take the invocation too seriously.

So, in the autumn of 1953, I joined the sixty-odd pupils at New Sherwood School as a day-pupil. My initial reports home were ecstatic: no more beetroot, no more asphalt battleground, no more booming corridors, no more hymns. My perception of the school was determined at first by what it didn’t have. My experience was all of freedom FROM and, in my early days, I could make little sense of the implications of freedom TO. Day-to-day life was a process comprising fitful attendance at the voluntary lessons and long, absorbing periods in the sand-pit building castles and railway systems.

Time passed and the old horrors receded completely. I made friends and found that my fear of sport and competitive activity was offset by an ability to initiate and sustain imaginative games. When, after a year, I began to board, my relationship with, and understanding of the nature of, the school deepened. Slowly I began to recognize the teachers and other adults as congenial individuals, much as were one’s parents’ friends. Increasingly I came to see them as larger, wiser versions of us, providing security and support and yet immediately responsive at the intuitive, affective level at which we children operated. (John and his wife, Irma, would tend to refer to the adults in the community as ‘big people’, this somehow expressing the differentiation between staff and pupils in terms of physical size rather than status). It became apparent that I could argue with teachers and that they would respond in kind; that I could wrestle with them, or fall asleep with my head in a lap; that in calling them Ted or Mary or Gerry I was permitted an intimacy of contact that bridged the interstellar distances that I perceived to exist at Latchmere.

The functional life of the school fell into three main categories for me: lesson-time, the School Meeting, and boarders’ free time after the school day had finished. Lesson time followed a fairly conventional and thus familiar pattern during the school day. By School Meeting decree the lessons were voluntary, although, out of fairness to the teacher and the rest of the class, the absentee had to announce his/her intention to miss lessons and then had to remain out for the remainder of the week. The lessons provided some shape and focus for the day and they were well-attended. Missing lessons tended to occur collectively when something clearly more important than lessons came up. During one term, virtually the entire school population gave over two or three weeks to the building of a stockade in the paddock. At other times activities like school plays needed extra work and they replaced the scheduled timetable. I have a clear recollection of both those lessons that entranced me and those that brought back the sense of oppression that blighted my previous school experience. History and English fed my imaginations; Maths filled me with a claustrophobic sense of failure and hopelessness that even the congeniality of my environment could not dispel.

The aspect of community life that established most manifestly the functional equality of children and adults was the Friday School Meeting. Modelled on John and Irma’s experience of self-government at Kilquhanity (where both had taught previously), the meetings were chaired, and minutes were taken, by pupils. All those who attended had equal voting rights, regardless of age or status. In principle, and sometimes in practice, children could outvote adults. Initially, this reality appalled me: this disempowerment of those who legitimized our existence seemed a heresy of the first order. But within a short time it became a normal aspect of life at New Sherwood, its processes facilitating, rather than impeding, the social order. Indeed, it was John Wood who proposed the abolition of all the school rules in order to re-legislate from scratch and it was the pupils whose caution moderated the proposal.

After 4.00pm the school belonged to the boarders. Numbers fluctuated between eight and ten in my five years at the school, accommodation comprising three rooms and a pre-war caravan. With such small numbers, the family ethic that lay at the heart of the school flourished most effectively. We all dined together, bathed together, lay around John and Irmas’ bed-sitting room floor listening to Journey Into Space and The Goon Show, bickered, sulked, wooed each other back into the fold, and grew from childhood towards tentative adolescence together. My chief recollection – lent enchantment by the distance of years – is of the enormously elaborate fantasy games that we played around the building and grounds. Each context carefully chosen, each scenario carefully prepared, we would dress up in an approximation of the appropriate costume – American Civil War, Second World War, Arthurian myth – and launch ourselves into late summer sunshine or evening winter snow. The adults that we encountered in our unimpeded activities would be pressed into service. Gerry, the English teacher, caught relaxing in his caravan, would become Gandalf, from our favourite book of the moment, The Hobbit. Long-sufferingly, he would re-create the voice he used when reading to us before lights-out. Mary, the Bavarian cook (whose English husband had been a prisoner-of-war), would tolerate – even indulge – our insensitive representations of ‘typical’ German behaviour when rounding up our war-game captives. Obligingly she would goose-step into the kitchen, wearing one of our most cherished props, a genuine German infantryman’s helmet, to make us massive cheese-and-pickle sandwiches for supper. We would go uncomplainingly to bed, still in role, exhausted from our labours in the other lands and other times that were encompassed by the small New Sherwood estate.

I left when the Woods emigrated to New Zealand, and went to Wennington School in Yorkshire. The advent of my teen years, 16+ and 18+ exams, the more formalized structures of the school drew a curtain across my time at New Sherwood. I lost touch with my friends there (although my family maintained contact with the Woods) and the school closed not long after I left, unable to find alternative premises when the lease on the estate was not renewed.

A few years ago I revisited that little corner of Epsom and found the surrounding roads more or less unchanged. The estate itself had disappeared under high-intensity housing; neat gardens and mock-Georgian fascias reside where once beeches had accommodated tree-houses and uncut grass surrounded sand-pits. In mid-1993 a letter from Irma announced that John was dying of cancer. With customary courage she faced this event and after it she sent a videotape of John’s memorial service around the scattered New Sherwood community. The various tributes to John’s ingenuity, imagination and vision recreated vividly for me the qualities of that unique little community. As I parceled it up for the next recipient, this educational ‘samizdat’ document bearing revolutionary good news, I reflected on the acute need for hope and action on the part of those of us who look upon the educational wasteland and are tempted to despair. I thought of Joe Hill’s great cry, “Don’t mourn: organize”, and – in spite of the torpor of middle age – I felt the blood quicken…
Reprinted from the Friends of Summerhill Trust Journal, Summer 1994


1956 copy copy



What do you do when,
from dream to mortar,
you build a school?

Is it like building a house
with the values locked
into the discipline of bricks

on bricks? Or is it like
the building of a church,
into which somehow

you must incorporate
the numinous, the hushed,
the obedient? (Here

the story’s easier to tell
behind rich windows, in
the organ’s smoky voice.)

Or is it like a glass
solarium, prima vera
all the year, an investment

of light, the incubator’s
catechism chanting hare’s foot
weeping fig and fern

towards glory; fruits exotic,
hand-reared and fat
and green, each one.


Don’t build. Just find intact
(albeit cracked and leaky)
a house that’s there already,

one that’s rooted
firm and knows its skin;
that’s free of pain

and ghosts, with trees
and half-forgotten gardens,
mossy cold-frames, twisted

vines and sudden sundials
in the long, uncultivated
grass. Then let us blow

like puffball parachutes
in a random wind,
the achene fruit

that falls and germinates
when and where
it will.



Friday. It’s 6.30 in the morning. The racehorses wake me. They walk them from the Roseberry Stables, round Worple Road and up onto the Downs. My caravan’s parked against the high wall at the edge of the school grounds, and every morning they come along the lane high stepping and snorting, sometimes shuffling nervously, quietened by the grooms’ gentle voices.

I lie in the narrow bed. Another full night’s sleep. During the few weeks since the beginning of term when John and Irma moved me from the boys’ room to the old caravan, the insomnia has ebbed away, and with it the fear of the night’s long flood tide. Out here, once the light is off, the darkness is total. And within those first few nights while sleep still eluded me, I could hear the screech owls calling from the big beech tree in the Paddock. Once, in the small hours, one landed on the roof. The spread claws skidding as it landed woke me. It called twice – a haunting whistle on a falling note – and then took off. My fear then was real. But it was a gut sensation, visceral. Not the spectral terror of being alone in a night that will never end. I fell asleep oddly comforted.

7.00. I scramble out of bed and pull on jeans, a shirt and a jumper and my wellingtons. My breath clouds the air. I run across the dew-heavy grass to the side of the house, stopping by the kitchen door. An old ship’s bell hangs in the angle between two walls. It’s shaped like an inverted bowl and resting against its upper edge is a hinged clapper. I relish this moment of my appointed office, lifting the clapper slowly. A shiver passes through me and I slam the clapper against the bell, seven slow strokes. The sound, importunate, officious, thrills me even as its volume makes my eyes water. I take the stairs in twos and, bursting into the boys’ room, I jerk the curtains wide and tug the bottom half of the sash window upwards.
– Wakey, wakey, rise and shine! I yell.
Somebody throws a slipper at me; it hits the upper windowpane. Down the corridor I can hear John and Irma’s lavatory flush. Outside on the landing one of the girls – Miranda, probably; she’s an early riser – yawns extravagantly and slams the bathroom door.

7.45. In the kitchen Mary stirs thick Scottish porridge in a huge aluminium saucepan. She steps back to peer through the doorway into the Scullery.

– Who’s here now gets to eat, she announces in her dense Bavarian accent. Who’s late gets it all cold.

John comes in, scratching his beard. He wears a shapeless cable-knit jumper and his Hunting Stewart kilt.
– Hulloo, wee-‘uns, he greets the kids. As he walks past Hessie’s tilted chair next to yours, he grabs it and holding it firmly, tips it swiftly backwards to the floor. Jessie tumbles off it and seizes John’s legs.
– Are you on duty, John? he asks, pulling himself up.
– For my sins, yes, I am, John answers, entering the kitchen. Tea, please, Mary, black as tar and twice as thick!

9.35. Gerry watches his English class racing towards the shed for saws, hammers and nails. Under his arm is King Solomon’s Mines, which he would have read them had they not called the lesson off. In fact, there were to be no lessons at all this Friday. Strictly speaking, a day’s lessons could only be cancelled by a majority vote in the School Meeting the week before. But during the holidays several beech trees on the Ashley Road side of the Paddock had had to be cut down and now that the branches had been sawn off and stripped, the plan was to build the biggest camp yet. In company with all other teachers with scheduled lessons, Gerry accepts force majeur and lets them go to join the others, jostling and yelling. But he tells them in the few impatient seconds between announcement and release that he intends to bring them all up in the Meeting that afternoon because they are breaking a rule that has been declared by the entire community.

12.20. I can’t choose between labouring packhorse or Canadian logger as I seek out a role, hauling two long, ragged branches across the grass towards where the camp is to be sited. As I wrestle them into the loose heap and shake off the ropes I can smell the sweet, juicy fragrance of freshly sawn wood.

Already several shorn branches are seated upright in a long, deep trench and Jules is pounding them into the earth with a rubber-topped mallet while Robbie nails crosspieces in place to bind them together. Supporting the branches gingerly are Mikey and Miranda. Jules is teaching them a song in his almost impenetrable Ayrshire accent. With the precision of a chain gang chorus leader, he bawls the strange lyrics on the downward stroke of the mallet:
– Wha’ saw the tatty howkers? Wha’ saw the eenawar? Wha’ saw the tatty howkers, workin’ in the Broomilaw?
I lean against the trunk of the big beech around which the camp is being erected. Jules pauses, downing the mallet and leaning on the upturned handle.
– Now, he says, catching his breath. The next bit’s the best bit so listen, right? Some o’ them had bums like beetroots, some o’ them had een at aw, some o’ them had cocks like carrots, working in the Broomilaw.
Everyone laughs too loud, shedding tools and falling upon one another. I grin and make my way back to the woodpile for more branches.

4.10. Lunch is taken in shifts, the keenest builders carrying their plates out to the site. Eventually Mary brings the saucepans full of macaroni cheese to the Paddock and serves the workers in situ. By 4.00 a few day pupils drift away to collect their bags and go for the bus home. Reluctantly, the remaining work force moves away, wandering back towards the school building. School Meeting starts at 4.15 and John has asked that as many attend as possible because he has an important matter to raise.

As I reach the hedge that separates the Paddock from the old tennis court and the frontage of the house, I turn and look back at the day’s work. A ring of stout branches, part woven and part secured by nailed crosspieces and rope, contains the beech tree within a pygmy stockade. A frisson of excitement and pride trips my breathing for a moment. One more full day’s work to be done…

4.20. The Big Room is full. All the boarders are present and the majority of the day pupils and teachers. Most, like me, are perched on the tiny blue kindergarten chairs that line the walls. Only the Chairman & Secretary – Peter and Janine – are seated in comfort on a pair of winged library chairs behind a low table. John is seated, leaning against a closed door, cradling Cordi, who is only 4. Irma sits cross-legged beside them.
Peter raps the table with the side of a ruler.
– Order! he calls in his high unbroken voice. I’m opening the meeting at…4.20. Janine’s going to read the minutes of the previous meeting.
Mary had complained that a loaf of bread had gone missing from the larder. The Meeting directed the guilty parties to own up immediately. Jackie & Dilly admitted to having removed it and both were fined 1/- each and denied jam allowance for one week. John had said that boarders had been seen climbing on the downstairs toilet roof. The tiles were not secure and if anyone slipped and fell the school would be liable for any injuries resulting. He wouldn’t ask the Meeting to support a proposal for any kind of action in this instance; he just hoped that the boarders would be sensible in future. Robbie, Mikey and the Burch twins had proposed that there should be a rock-and-roll hop for pupils and friends for the weekend after Half Term. Gerry had asked if teachers and parents would be allowed to attend. 
– Any matters arising? asks Peter.
Sally Burch raises her hand.
– I’m not going to the hop if my parents are going to jive! she declares. And teachers too! And I won’t be the only one! It’s just embarrassing!
The Meeting defeats a motion to ban all dancing grown-ups by a narrow majority and moves on to new business.
John raises his hand and is acknowledged by the Chairman. Still cradling the sleeping Cordi, he stands.
– I should like to suggest that we abolish all school rules forthwith, effective as of this Meeting.
He pauses. A ripple of shock passes around the room. A few kids laugh. I am appalled: a thin line between the silent, invisible machinery of ordered freedom and downhill chaos is about to be crossed.
– Do you have a seconder? asks Peter.
John leans down and gently passes Cordi to Irma.
– Well, it’s not a proposal at this stage. I simply feel that we have too many rules now and that to try to pick our way through all of them piece by piece, weeding out the unnecessary ones, will be too time consuming. So why don’t we just scrap all of them and start again?
He sits down. For a moment the Meeting is still. Then, one by one, hands go up, some assertively, demanding attention, others more tentative. Peter inspects the display.
– Gerry?
– I’m not out of sympathy with John’s suggestion. But before this gets any closer to going to a vote, am I in order in bringing up my English class from this morning for breaking the cutting lessons rule? I think they should be fined and if we sweep away all the rules in one go right now, an important principle’s going to go with them.
Peter leans towards Janine and they consult for several seconds. Peter straightens up.
– No, Gerry, you can’t. We have to finish this business before we can go onto new stuff.
I realise with a sort of disembodied surprise that my hand is raised. Peter’s cool scrutiny passes around the room.
– Rich?
I swallow hard. When I speak my voice sounds alien, as if someone close by is mimicking me.
– But if we’ve got no rules at all then why would anyone…what would stop anyone from, like, breaking a window or, say, smashing down a camp..?
John smiles and begins to address me directly.
– Through the Chair, John, Peter interjects sharply.
– Sorry, Peter, through you. Now, that’s a fair question and I guess the immediate answer would be nothing at all. But here’s the crucial issue: no one person here at Sherwood has ever put together a list of rules and regulations and said, ‘Right, everyone, here’s what you’ve all got to do and you do it or I’ll tan your bum…’
The little kids all laugh. John takes a short step forward and leans an elbow on the fireplace mantelpiece.
– We make the rules. All of us. Together. From the wee kids right up to the grown-ups. And we do things that way because we all know that the rules we have make sense because they’ve come from what happens to us in our daily lives. So – safety, health, convenience, thinking about each other and not just ourselves. Each good rule grows from these sources. I think we’ve got a bit carried away recently and we’ve gone from saying no-one’s allowed to leave school by the main gate because it’s on a bend in the road and it’s dangerous, to things like if you spill sand more than a foot away from the edge of the sandpit you have to pay a 3d fine. And I think that’s a bit crazy. So I propose we dump the lot now and go back to the starting line. No rules, then good rules.
John turns and sits, lifting the still sleeping Cordi back onto his lap.
– Do we have a seconder? Peter asks the Meeting.
My actions still apparently governed by remote control, I raise my arm. Janine scribbles my name in her notebook as the debate breaks on a tideline of waving hands.

– Wha’ saw the tatty howkers…? Jules howls as the boarders climb the stairs for bathtime and bed. Ruth, on bed duty, grimaces from her doorway. I carry my wash bag and towel, granted first ablution privileges so that I can make my way out to my caravan. As I clean my teeth in the basin I can hear five voices at various stages of pubescence following Jules’ lead:
– Some o’ them had bums like beetroots, some o’ them had een at aw, some of them had cocks like carrots, working in the Broomilaw…

It’s a fine autumn night under a full moon. Silvery light shines around the gaps in the rudimentary curtains. I lie staring up at the curved ceiling of the old caravan, wide awake but free from fear. In the great beech in the Paddock, the screech owl quavers and I smile into the darkness.


The Downs = Epsom Downs, site of the Derby horserace.

Wellingtons = Rubber boots.

‘Wha’ saw the tatty howkers, workin’ in the Broomilaw?’ = ‘Who saw the potato pickers working along the Broomilaw Road?’

‘een at aw’ = None at all.

1/- = One shilling in pre-decimal coinage. Value, 5p.

3d = Three pence (pronounced ‘thruppence’.) Value, about one pence.


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Looking for U2…

In the summer of 2002 Emma and I took an isolated house in a small inlet along Bertraghboy Bay between Cashel and Roundstone in Connemara. There was electricity and running water, albeit of a peaty brown, but no mobile phone coverage. Evenings involved cards, glasses of Paddy whisky and long watches through the window as the cormorants dried their wings and seals’ heads broke water. Then, one evening in Boulger’s Bar a rumour spread that U2 were visiting their Cashel bolt-hole just along the shoreline from our house…


ROS RUA: Looking for U2

And word came down from Boulger’s Bar:
Bono, The Edge, those shades, that stetson hat,
buying two bags of groceries from the shop
next door. An Audi TT kicking gravel into
Cashel Bay and heading down the mile
of rocky track towards Ros Rua.
For me behind binoculars, stretched along
the dry-stone wall, the music clinched it.

Wired to the sky like summer smoke,
a melody ascended, needle thin, undefined,
above the low-pitched mossy roof into
the afternoon. (I see them wedged in primitive
splendour: Bono, the Edge on a broken sofa;
Mullen, Clayton, heads together, tracks
mixed onto laptop, a picture window
open to the pale sun, the breathing sea).

Stalked by gulls, mobbed by gorse, I crawled
like a lone commando down where the fields
broke cover over rocks, down where the swallows
stitched the sky to water. Voices crooned
in the telephone wires, a heartbeat away
from the green front door. (Bono, The Edge,
a bottle of Mouton Cadet blanc between them;
Mullen trailing a pensive finger round the rim
of a crystal glass, Clayton watching
the bobbing seals in Bertraghboy Bay).

And then the door swung wide
and the music bloomed like a tin flower:
John McCormack singing The Rose of Tralee.
And a four-square farmer’s wife came stepping
high over the tussocks, scarved and booted,
ringing a bucket like a broken bell.

And she’s singing too, singing in a wild
soprano, keen as the edge of a spinning
slate, plaiting her voice around McCormack’s
skinny tenor, scattering the gulls and lifting
a fishing heron out of the shallows
and into the all-accommodating sky.


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Mr Moore lived on his own in a lean-to shack
(two-roomed and shingle-boarded) at the back
of the barn where Grandad kept his car.
Clad with roofing felt and thick with tar

that bubbled in the sun, the dwelling shrunk
into the lee of the outbuildings, sunk
deep in a reef of marigolds and nettles,
like the old shipwreck that tilts and settles.

Running through the light of the seamless days,
we children wound an orbit round pathways
of cinders, followed the beaten circuits through
bluebells and cabbage-patches, then we flew

back to the cottages when the old sun set.
The world was a restless sea, the sky a net
that trawled us through the seasons. Spinning time
was a circle dance, two hands that turned in rhyme,

rolling, trapped, around the Roman face
of Mr Moore’s Prince Albert watch. And time and place
conspired: late spring, a watch chain swinging
in the sun; our heads inclined to hear the singing

of the wheels. Snapping the brass lid shut,
he turned and muttered, “Tempus fuggit”. Cut
free from the web, we turned and reeled away
around the orchard tracks. And then, one day,

one June, I was curled inside his smoker’s bow
beside an empty grate. Outside the undertow
of low clouds hissed against the single pane,
rattling nettles, damping dust, a trailing rain

from the east. Granny plumped his pillows, twitched
the patchwork counterpane his wife had stitched
in the old queen’s days. Still as a log he lay,
dumb, dream-bound, and seventy years away

across the breadth of Vinson’s paddock, chasing
clouded yellows. Granny fussed, replacing
meadow flowers unnoticed, winding up
the lamp-wick, slipping the sill of a china cup

beneath his Kaiser Bill moustache. And coiled,
I lay in the cage of the hearthside chair, in oiled
darkness, breathing phantom fumes of black tobacco,
calcium tang of plaster and lime, scent-echo

of primeval caves. And behind the chanting
rain, a tenor voice called time, counting
down the seconds: the wall clock, stalking
shadows on one brass leg, soft-talking,

like the go-between whose tale is too important
to be shouted loud. This harbinger won’t rant
about decay, the end of worlds. So, doomed,
I watched and heard the hours unwind, consumed

by the oldest story. Mr Moore slept and I dreamed
for the last time. And how brief the story seemed –
the fable of the wheel that turns from light
to shade, from my midday to Mr Moore’s midnight.

From my collection ANCIENT LIGHTS.


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With age comes impermanence. It’s always there, of course, but back then it’s a football team’s trajectory of success, the potted plant that you want to make it past autumn, your child’s delight in things that are not of this world. Now it’s everything bound by time.


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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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