Here I am, said the old man
still young, trapped between
ship and shore. I understand
that we’re always on the gangplank,
having just arrived or just heading
for departure. There’s always
someone to talk to, someone pausing
to put that suitcase down and then
rub chafed hands. “I’m heading south,
old son. Didn’t work out over there.
East, west, home’s best, eh?”
Yes, I guess so. And I turn to watch
a shimmying flag at a lonely masthead.
All to play for across a monotony
of waves. No suitcase for the next guy.
He’s a nomad under a hundredweight
of rucksack, thumbs under the straps.
“I’m off to Panajachel to join
my girlfriend. The most beautiful place
on earth, she says!” Yes, I guess so
and I turn to watch the only cloud
pass behind the funnel. Fortune
favours the bold under a limitless
certainty of sky.

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dog sutra §1

leaves turn into butterflies
they’ve understood 
that as winter bites
they might fly away

dog sutra §2

leaves go to earth
berries hang
like bright bells

dog sutra §3

the two of us
you running
into your future
me as slow
as one step forward
and then the next

dog sutra §4

between the sloe
and the oyster
a tree singing

dog sutra §5

we hang on in hope
but you know nothing
of winter’s tooth

dog sutra §6

mist lying in pools
another country
arrive and it’s gone

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The Dog Sutras and their accompanying photos all derive from walks with Lupin across and around the fields, meadows and woodland near our home in North Hertfordshire.


leaves go to earth

berries hang like bright bells

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‘Songwriters are not poets, Or songs are not poems, I should say. In fact, songs are often bad poems. Take the music away and what you’re left with is often an awkward piece of creative writing full of lumpy syllables, cheesy rhymes, exhausted cliches and mixed metaphors.’

By and large, I wouldn’t disagree with Armitage’s claim. The vast majority of song lyrics exist simply to keep the walls of the song from falling in. There’s always been more than an element of service industry to the work of the professional song writer. Horses for courses is the intention and it’s the overall subscription to the genre/style in question.

For me, only a handful of lyricists’ compositions stand up proud without the superstructure of music around them. Amongst them, I’d nominate Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Ian Dury, Richard Thompson, Bob Dylan…

Now, having set myself up for ridicule and scorn, here’s a group of lyrics that I wrote for my good friend Steve Moorby to set to music. Each one has been fully arranged and, until lockdown, was being played at gigs by the trio we share with fellow songwriter Gemma Moorby, named, somewhat unimaginatively, Moorby Jones.

I don’t know whether they have life beyond the vehicle of the song. But they derive from the same underground source that produces my poems so at worst they have the status of cousins. Here they are, all standing up stark naked, waiting patiently to be cloaked once again in music…


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.



This is where they live, the wise ones,
in the gap between each heartbeat,
in the space between each breath.
There the light will always find them,
clear before, no ghosts behind them,
cold eye cast on life, on death.

Past is past,
it’s just a story,
evening primrose,
morning glory.
What’s to come
is just a notion,
part still life
and part commotion.

On the way
we count each second,
minutes tallied,
hours reckoned.
gliding by;
each star numbered
in the sky.

Now’s the moment,
grain of sand,
countless falling
hand to hand.
Pinch in passing
every one
or watch them dwindle
down to none.



It was snowing hard that day in New York City,
drifting deep all the way down Amsterdam.
I stopped at EJ’s Diner along West 59th,
checking out of limbo, out of winter wonderland.

Davy Jones is crooning in the neon light.
Crazy Jane slips off her stool to dance the blues.
I’m seeking broken ghosts within the shadows that she throws.
Time, old man, I say, to shift your highway shoes.

Yellow cabs and police cars are spinning in their chains,
caught within the frozen river’s flow.
I navigate the canyons like a pilgrim in his time,
walking down from Riverside and a mile or three to go.

Dreams are made in fire and thoughts are made in ice.
We burned our dreams in Gramercy that night.
Booth looked down and smiled, his hand upon his breast
and the snow came down between us and took away the light.

On East 11th I’m standing like a tracker out of trail,
but Biaggi’s slinging pizzas hand to hand,
and the lights above O’Halloran’s spell out ‘Home is in the heart’
and like St Paul, Damascus bound, I think I understand.

True love’s like a compass with its needle spinning free,
from magnetic north to east, to south, to west.
If your heart can be your lodestar and you let it spin its fill,
magnetic north is where the needle comes to rest.

Light spills out like honey on the sidewalk in the dark
and the door to Benny’s Bar-and-Grill swings open.
Lovers who were strangers are now lovers once again
and the song up on the jukebox is ‘The Circle is Unbroken’.

Too much of distance,
too long of time,
too many stations
from the old borderline.
Two drifting solo
like boats out at sea,
to the edge of forever,
from our same old used-to-be.




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Right from the beginning of lockdown in March I started writing again. Two sequences of poems, each on a linking theme, are still under way and several single poems got themselves written too. Here are three of them, all very much in first draft form…


Here I am, said the old man
still young, trapped
between ship and shore.
Now, I understand that
we’re always on the gangplank,
having just arrived, or just
heading for departure. And
I know too that there’s
always someone to talk to,
someone pausing to put
that suitcase down
and rub chafed hands.
“I’m heading south, old son.
Didn’t work out over there.
East, west, home’s best, eh?”
Yes, I guess so. And I turn
to watch a flag shimmying
at a masthead. All to play for
across a monotony of waves.
No suitcase for the next guy.
He’s a hero under a hundred-
weight of rucksack, thumbs
in the straps. “I’m off to Kasol
to join my girlfriend.
The most beautiful place
on earth, she says.” Yes,
I guess so, and I turn to watch
the only cloud pass behind
the funnel. Fortune favours
the brave under a limitless
certainty of sky.

§§ §§


Anarchists should open cafes.
Spill the ill-assorted chairs
and tables onto the pavement.
Go heavy with the red paprika,
shower down the black pepper.
Have trans and Gypsy waiters
to glide between the tables,
taking orders couched as poems.
Decorate the walls with graffito
pics of Emma Goldman, Patti Smith,
Pete Kropotkin, Allen Ginsberg.
Sit the refugee next to the barrister.
Welcome dogs of all persuasions.
Usher in the teenage truant.
Request that anyone in uniform slip
into all-encompassing rainbow robes.
Feed the snap-trap eager-beaver
TV MPs vegan burgers ‘til they go
all Paulo Freire, shouting, We are
new in heart and soul, come to
change the way things are!

§§ §§

GRIEVING (from and wait for an echo)

a man has
his hands
on his face
the heels across
his working mouth
that sound is
told in an
animal’s voice
one brought down
but not yet dead
he has to
enunciate the pain
so he selects
a sort of cataract
of vowels to drain
the airtight sack
of his grief
his wordage is
of the blown foxhole
the riven trench
i heard once
of a soldier
running along the
duckboards his jaw
taken away
by shrapnel
the story was
of the sound
he made
he who once
knew words

§§ §§


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We all of us – well, many of us – carry through from childhood certain key interests or preoccupations. Living under what was then the London Airport flightpath, I grew accustomed to seeing at comfortable height pretty much everything that left the ground and traveled from it. I still feel a frisson of excitement when I hear the sound of a piston aircraft engine. And if it’s a Rolls Royce Merlin… But this is to lapse too much into a time when the machines of war were just the whirling hardware of excitement and adventure. Now it’s their shape and sheen, the pure aesthetic of form. Taken in the moment, it can just about transcend function.

Here are three poems about aeroplanes. They can be found in my first collection, Ancient Lights .









The strangest of times: a skein of geese
crossing the bedroom window, heading west
and no body of water within seven miles.
I am playing the pagan – sleeping late amongst
the Sunday morning bells.
Heaven is a cloudless sky
in late September, harvest past,
leaves on the turn.

At first I think I hear the binder,
wheels beating, turning at the headrow,
but the fields are bare.
Such a beating, a clattering.
More geese searching for a lake
in this land of furrows? Or
the rector in his Wolesely
come to seek me out?

And then my window darkens
into the shape of wings, jagged wings –
Weston mill uprooted, reeling across the fields?
Certainly a hurricane of sorts
in the throat of this beast
squatting low over the beeches,
dabbling its feet in leaves, roaring
in a black updraft of rooks.

An aeroplane, fearful in the untried air –
nothing like the rising bird
it mocks. This is a man,
dressed in wire and canvas,
climbing out of the clover.
This is a godless man ascending,
out of the dust, towards the light.




It’s a fire next time in scripture. And when it came
it was sky-borne. Some had said at first
that out of it might come a cleansing;
out of the sky might fall a fire

bright and holy, prophecy fulfilled. September,
and I trimmed the ivy round the lych-gate.
It was lifting tiles clear of the joists
and my gardener was still in France.

That was about as close as the war
had come – censored letters, rumours,
like an invisible tide you can hear at the edge
of the world. Little to see beyond uniforms,

gas masks in boxes, gummed paper stretched
over windows. And then, that afternoon, flying west
and in and out of cloud, the planes, a geometry
of crosses. I watched and all around

the earth stood still. The organ voice
of their passing scattered rooks, rippled
the water in the rain-butt, rattled a latch.
And then we carried on, conscious only of a sniff

of autumn in the air, the planes forgotten
in an empty sky. That evening we were told
of the bombing – docks ablaze, the tram wires down,
parish halls as hospitals. But still it came

from the wireless voices, morning papers and
the travellers’ tales at the village bar. Birds trilled;
I picked a sprig of yarrow for my hat, and rain
rushed across the lead roof of the transept.

The the Messerschmidt came. Not quite, as they say
in comics ‘out of the sun’: it was a dismal morning
stacked with cumulus. But we can all remember
from our kitchens, hayricks, lonely bedrooms

(I was in the vestry hanging surplices) the sound –
a falling cadence, like a voice that begins
in the throat but can’t find words. ‘Despair’,
it would have said. We heard it, all of us.

But no one saw the plane come down,
just the gout of fire that coiled and spun above
the oasthouse. Then, when they searched
the fields around, those Home Guard amateurs

(the lads who filled my pews at evensong),
they found a booted leg, bloodless, like a spare part
brought along in case of need. Little Sammy Scase
took the joystick home and his granddad scraped

the handle clean. (‘Viscera’, the vet said later
in the milking parlour). Then it rained again
and the army came to haul away the wreckage.
And no-one paid for Vincent’s oasthouse.



Even now, here, this past
before my past leaks down
the long conduits, the time-
channels, weed-locked with

my own memories. Back then,
on corner bombsite, in the
air-raid shelter under the apple trees,
that past before our past

bellied up, breathed in our faces.
Churchill, Hitler, Uncle Joe bowled
down cinema aisles and into
our infant dreams. Parents’ stories,

shed headlines from old newspapers
feeding the living-room fire, comics
swapped in playground corners, Belsen
photoes, shifted sideways through

a conspiracy of desks – war-echoes
blew like late rumours from a world
still turning out of darkness. Our legacy
was smoke from fires still burning.

And now, trailing tails of smoke,
red, white and blue, the parachutists turn
and turn in a blank sky. The last Lancaster,
Spitfire, Hurricane tug their trinity

of shadows over the aerodrome, over
the lifted faces of the crowd, across
the eyes of old saluting men,
remembering. Their past before

my past speaks in the beating
engines, the ghost-passage of three
black crosses over September fields,
heading east to the world’s edge.

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DREAM DAD – a live reading.


                                     DREAM DAD by DICK JONES
                                   (Please wait for the video to load)

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Lockdown Readings §1: PILLOW

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Back to the beginning, then.
Who lives here still? Some shepherd swain chewing
on a stem, staring over the lonely treetops?

Fool if you expected silence,
or thought that the trees would be empty.

But the contrails have gone and the big roads
are all but deserted. I don’t hear the kids
with their acrobat bikes and clattering skateboards.
And no Mr. Singh (“Call me Ajay”) with his deep,
deep voice over the parcels and stamps. All the buses
are empty when they stop at the curbs.
Or are they discharging ghosts?

Get used to the diet! Now the barn owls glide by day.
You’ve heard that inappropriate warble blown across
the pigeon’s flightpath. All is change, or all is reversion.
There’s the groundsel shouldering through the tarmac
now that no one’s standing between her impatience
and the sun. And yes, the sky’s as blank as paper.
Not a chalk mark or a water line across it. And the field
before us goes unkicked, unfurrowed. Hares are tucked
into its hollows. By night the fox will lift fastidious feet
on the way towards our overflowing bins. Each morning
butterflies that hadn’t been invented just a month ago
adore each other’s colours on the honeysuckle.
So watch the grass grow blade by blade for times
this succulent won’t come again. And just across
the treeline lies the town with its waiting rooms
and corridors and wards and the great hearts huddled,
distant but intimate over the tubes and the lines.

LOCKDOWN read by Dick Jones.

ECHOES by mUmbo.

mUmbo are Emma Semple: violin, viola, vocals and video creation
and Doug McGowan: guitar.

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Language ought to be the joint creation of poets and manual workers.
George Orwell

Ever since the acquisition of words provided me with a receptacle for memory, I have loved language.  Its music, its power to evoke, its absurd variety delighted me as a child and my joy in it flourished into my adolescence and youth.

My love of language drifted me into teaching – English first, then, for the greater part of my career, Drama.  As during my time in teaching time passed and experience accumulated, goals shifted, routes changed and strategies altered. But one constant remained at the heart of whatever version of whatever syllabus I followed. It was contained within a small but perfectly formed lecture that I would deliver, not particularly original in content but imparted with a messianic zeal undiminished by time and repetition.  

In it I would urge my students to take every opportunity they could to broaden their vocabularies and to recognise in language the key to knowledge, understanding, independence of mind and, ultimately, a degree of real personal autonomy. A keypoint of this address was reference to George Orwell’s 1984 and the mighty and potent weapon of Newspeak.  I would ask them to examine their own speech forms – the unquestioning reliance that some may have had on deliberately vague, oblique or discursive vocabulary, or on acquired slang forms whose terms of reference, however linguistically rich in their own way, were meaningless within the cultural territory that these middle class students occupied.  

I would proselytise further about language as a universal resource whose capacity for articulating beauty and truth as we understand them need not be limited or constrained by social or cultural circumstances.  I used as exemplars of this certain Gypsies I have known whose illiteracy, far from being an impediment to the development of language, actually provoked the need for an enhanced flexibility and richness of expression because of reliance on the purely oral form.  I asked them to see that there need be no conflict of interests between their acquisition of linguistic skills and nominal subscription to a resolutely anti-intellectual culture. Indeed, such skills would provide an opportunity for agile movement across cultural territories. I would insist that the objective must be always to avoid being trapped within one register of language usage, unable to move with ease and grace from level to level.  

I would conclude by telling them to read, to read anything and everything. To make it a habit; to regard every unfamiliar word, phrase, term and figure of speech as a challenge to understanding that must be met.  Master language and ultimately you need never be manipulated, exploited, controlled, owned by anyone! 

And they would listen politely, only glazing over if I ventured too far past the 10-minute mark.  Occasionally, long after the event, the odd ex-student has made reference to the sermon and expressed gratitude for having been nudged towards a greater respect for language at just the right moment.  


For all that I can sometimes add to a well-turned sentence a word too many, only to have it collapse in on itself like some poorly constructed architectural folly, I loathe promiscuous language.  Listening to cornered politicians turning on the tap and shamelessly letting it flow unchecked has me barracking from the sofa.  Hysterical Oscar winners in verbal free fall, pretentious artists endeavouring to translate piles of house bricks into meaningful messages, pop stars who read a book once and now imagine themselves to be sages – all who sling words around like frisbees – piss me off to the point of inarticulacy, which, in current context, is ironic.  This is not language in reaching for light; it’s language whose sole achievement is pure sound.

But what really brings down the red mist is the use of language as a means to exclude all but the cognoscenti. When language becomes so abstruse, so convoluted, so comprehensively up its own arse, I know that I’m dealing with a man (almost invariably) who, were he not overdriving the keyboard, would be driving a very fast car very fast.  These professional intellectuals – almost all of them inhabiting the worlds of recherché philosophy, arts theory or, God help us, linguistics – have no interest whatsoever either in language’s capacity to communicate complex concepts with absolute clarity or in its intrinsic beauty in utterance or on the page.  The wielding of language is for them a kind of aristocratic sport by whose obscurantist rules and protocols they may celebrate their membership of an exclusive higher order of being.

Meanwhile, out in the bearpit a similar, if less refined game is being played. Consider the out-of-control IT jargoneer, the estate agent (realtor) describing a property and those drones who compose the letters that banks send you when you’re overdrawn. Each mangles and distorts language into something convoluted and grotesque, seeking to establish through it only the branding of his or her particular agency.  

These are the true perpetrators of word crimes, not those whose earnest attempts to communicate are hampered because their command of classical grammar may be faulty and their non-colloquial vocabulary sparse.  The latter struggles for meaning and truth; the former intends the obscurantist tyranny of trade jargon .


Now, how about this document.  I stumbled across it whilst doing some internet research and as I read it I searched in vain for irony. I present it as evidence for the prosecution, item 1. It comes from a PhD dissertation entitled Immersive Ideals/Critical Distances: A Study of the Affinity Between Artistic Ideologies Based in Virtual Reality and Previous Immersive Idioms. Okay, I might be accused of emulating Hermann Goering and reaching for my revolver at the utterance of the word ‘culture’, but please – is this an authentic statement about an area of art theory and practice so arcane that it can’t communicate its specifics without the exclusive use of entirely specialist language – or is it simply check-this-out bollocks?

A lacunae world of incessant transmutation has emerged in art and established a seemingly unrestricted area of prodigality which I identify as viractuality. With the increased augmentation of the self via micro-electronics feasible today, the real co-exists with the virtual and the organic fuses with the computer-robotic. Consequently, I am interested in a new interlaced sense of artistic viractuality which couples the biological with the technological and the static with the malleable. As such, viractualism strives for an understanding and depiction of an anti-essentiality of the techno-body so as to allow for no privileged logos. Here images of the flesh are undone by machinic viral disturbances they cannot contain. Here thought detaches itself from the order and authority of the old signs and topples down into the realm of viractual reverie.

Thank you for your attention. Any questions?


A final reflection on language and meaning. In 1962 the late Harold Pinter made a statement about his perception of the real function of much the speech that we utter, ostensibly for the purposes of communication.  It’s a difficult statement that requires careful reading and subsequent reflection. But there’s a world of difference between the narcissistic game playing of the writer just quoted and the elegant and painstaking proposition that is now seen as informing at the deepest level Pinter’s extraordinary work.

There are two silences. One when no word is spoken. The other when perhaps a torrent of language is being employed. This speech is speaking of a language locked beneath it. That is its continual reference. The speech we hear is an indication of that which we don’t hear. It is a necessary avoidance, a violent, sly, anguished, or mocking smoke screen which keeps the other in its place. When true silence falls we are still left with echo but are nearer nakedness. One way of looking at speech is to say that it is a constant stratagem to cover nakedness.

In conclusion, I must acknowledge that much of the above may be seen to achieve little more than to prove through example the author’s claims. If that is the case then I’ll just have to try harder to pursue Samuel Beckett’s paradoxical aim of trying to pare language back to the bone through the use of language.

An earlier version of this post appeared on the Patteran Pages in February 2007and here in January of this year.


Here’s a poem that ponders the origins of language and the duality of form that emerged as class and hierarchy established themselves over time.


A manuscript or piece of writing material on which later writing has been superimposed.

When we began
the world was made
of hands and eyes –
fingers and winks.

We wove a sense
of what the light
revealed and the dark
consumed by dancing

our extremities
in plain sight, waving
our meaning, daubing
our understanding

onto walls and
growling out
a soundtrack like
the wolves and bears

Words were licked
into life by tongues
stirring in their
bone and water beds.

Ululation into utterance,
one day, one night
when sudden light
or no light at all

twisted noise into
a loop of syllables;
or something was born
by breath in the heat

of loving after the fire
had died; or something
out of grieving congregated
in a mouth a drift

of stones that rattled
into meaning and spat
sense that all could share
and speak again and again.

Then the scribes tugged
our pictograms from walls
and with those tongues
pushing out a bottom lip,

they penned them slowly,
rush-lit night and day,
across the calfskin, line
upon line. Golden ciphers,

language wrapped in
arabesques, concealed in
foliate compartments,
locked into floral curlicues

and stalked by fantastical
beasts across the vellum.
All our words licked now
by gall and gum, by

iron salts and lampblack,
a cultivation so sublime
that each word lifted
sits in the mouth

like a fig plucked from
the highest branch. Princes
and priests turn the juices
on their tongues and tell

the kneeling penitents
how good they taste.
O believe! Have faith!
You only need to hear

our words beneath
a vaulted ceiling and
transaction, intercession
are assured. Your hollow

syllables turned into a fall
of bells, all your raw vernacular
stacked like bricks inside
the architecture of a hymn.

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