This is one huge post so I’ll kick off with the simple stuff.

Immediately above is Martin Carthy singing a song called The Famous Flower of Serving Men. Please give it a listen by clicking on the text.

Immediately below is a link to a detailed explanation of the origins of said song, Child Ballad 106,The Famous Flower of Serving Men, a traditional English ballad collected by the American folklorist Francis James Child in the late 19thcentury.


My connection to the above. In 2005, I wrote the first draft of a poetic extrapolation from the Martin Carthy arrangement of the song. Thirteen years later I have arrived at something resembling a final draft. It may be another Dick Jones grande folie or it may be a work of some reasonable substance. All I know now is that the writing of it absorbed my creative energies as few other longer pieces have and I enjoyed enormously my time spent in the hallways, fields and forests of the unnamed kingdoms inhabited by the protagonists.

By all means, if you’re sticking around for a bit, progress directly from Carthy’s performance to the epic poem called The Famous Flower,leaving all the verbiage in between to look after itself. Alternatively, if you have unassigned time in abundance on your hands, then please read my contextualisation of the epic poem that has grown so gloriously/so grotesquely from the source work. Or, of course, assuming you’ve even got this far, make a note to self to come back and check this out when the kids have been fed, or those income tax forms have been filled in, or that box set has finally been swallowed whole. Here we go…

These are exciting times for the arts: eyes and ears are open wide and there are few if any barriers standing in the way of experimentation. So within these exciting times of relative freedom from the constraints of rigid tradition and strict orthodoxy in style and form, it’s a truism to say that art thrives on synthesis. In all regions of the wide cultural territory that lie before us in the early 21st century, there is abundant cross-fertilisation, the elements of which are drawn from the most disparate of sources and made subject to the broadest of influences.  For painting, for music, for dance, for theatre, for poetry, these are, in many ways, the best of days.

One who showed the way through example was Bertold Brecht. His passionate search throughout the first half of the 20th century was for a theatrical form that would present human truth to the world, not as bound by the constraints and limitations of the immutable individual character of naturalistic/realistic theatre, but as a collective phenomenon through which human character is shown as being both formed and modified by the social, cultural, economic and political context. His search was characterised by an omnivorous appetite for artistic forms, styles and influences from across the world and the melding of them into a homogeneous whole, this prefiguring by decades the post-modern readiness to absorb and synthesise.

In his presentation of formative influences, Brecht makes enthusiastic reference to a treatise by Goethe and Schiller. Through it they sought to apply to the poetic dramas of the late 18th century, principles established in Aristotle’s seminal work On Poetics.  Aristotle established – and Goethe and Schiller reiterated – fundamental distinctions between two different narrative devices available for the telling of tales. There is the ballad (identified by Goethe and Schiller in the treatise as ‘drama’ because all plays were in verse, the two modes enjoying a relationship now largely abandoned) as presented by the minstrel, the storyteller, its structure formal and its method of presentation bound by fixed conventions and devices that remove from it any sense of immediacy. The spectator now listens to the storyteller, rapt and absorbed, but able still to maintain alongside his/her involvement in the narrative, a necessary degree of objectivity and detachment whereby to enable reflection and judgement even as s/he is taken up by the tale. And there is the ballad presented as if the events were unfolding before the spectator in the here and now, drawing him/her in, implicating him/her in a course of action that, because it is immediate, is unchangeable. And, as an inevitable result of the well-told tale, these unalterable events must provoke empathy for the inevitable sufferings of the protagonists.  As the protagonists pass through the fire and emerge purged, so the spectator, through the processes of catharsis, is purged too.

Here’s how Goethe and Schiller characterised these distinctions.

Concerning the treatment of the whole, the rhapsodist, who presents what is completely past, will appear as a wise man, who, in quiet self-possession, surveys what has taken place; the purpose of his presentation will be to quiet the listeners, whereby they will listen to him protractedly and gladly, he will distribute their interest evenly, because he is not in a position to quickly balance an overly lively impression, he will refer backward and forward and wander at will; one will follow him everywhere, because he has only to do with the imaginative power, which generates images for itself, and which, to a certain degree, is indifferent to which kind it calls up. The rhapsodist should not appear himself as a higher being in his poem; he should, at the very best, read behind a curtain, so that one might abstract from all personality and only the voice of the muse would be believed to be heard in general.

The mimic actor, on the other hand, is exactly the opposite case; he represents himself as a definite individual, he wants one to participate exclusively with him and his closest surroundings, that one sympathize with the suffering of his soul and his body, share his predicaments, and forget oneself by way of him; certainly, he will also go to work in stages, but he can dare much livelier actions, because with sensuous presence, even more so the stronger impression can be destroyed by a weaker one. The onlooking listener by rights must remain in a constant sensuous exertion, is not allowed to elevate himself to reflection, he must passionately follow, his imagination is completely reduced to silence, one is allowed to make no claim upon it, and even what is narrated, must be as if it were graphically brought before one’s eyes.

Brecht fell upon the former category and, through a delicate and masterfully judged balancing of individual character idiosyncrasy and, through specific performance and design theatrical devices, a carefully managed distancing of the audience from emotional identification and the perceptual pitfalls of catharsis, he set the protagonists within the wider social context, all now agents of their own fortune. The audience is thoroughly entertained because Brecht was a master of spectacle within which dark drama was interspersed with musical interludes, commentary and humour, frequently pantomimic and bawdy. But, ideally, through the questions constantly provoked by the actions of the play, they learn too and with consciousness raised they come to appraise and assess their own position in the scheme of things differently.

Great folk song falls very much into the broad categories of that former category too. Indeed, a principle function of the early ballads was pure reportage – a rendition of actual contemporary events placed within certain universally recognised stylistic forms that must with the passing of time adopt the status of myth, uncoupled from the now forgotten situational provenance of the tale. Thus character, rather than being at the living centre of the narrative, becomes more a symbol of a range of moral constants carried by the story. The listeners are entertained, enraged, moved, made to laugh and through the seamless combination of powerful words and beguiling melody they learn and with consciousness raised they may come to view their own position in the scheme of things differently.

Whilst driving through country lanes listening to Steeleye Span singing The Dark-Eyed Sailor, I began to ponder this demarcation between the immediate subjectivity of the ‘dramatic’ and the relative objectivity of the ‘narrative’. Suddenly it occurred to me that it might be interesting to tamper with the equation as interpreted by Brecht in his re-articulation of the Goethe/Schiller proposition and extract a poem from that traditional English ballad that moved back through the formalised structures of the rhyming ballad towards the immediacy of the events that inspired the song in the first place.  The unifying themes, the sequencing of events and the ‘rhapsodic’ narration would remain the same, but there would be applied to the storyline an element at least of the emotional interactions between the human protagonists themselves and their experiences within the wider context, this forming a kind of ostensible mésalliancebetween the two oppositional modes that might, in fact, actually work.

Drawing on the storyline of The Dark-Eyed Sailor, the resulting poem was entitled, rather lamely, Folksong 1 and I posted it to Dick Jones’ Patteran Pagesin 2005, accompanied by a podcast of the song as performed by Steeleye Span plus a reading of the poem and renditions of other folk songs plus commentary. The relatively few reactions it provoked were cautiously positive. Maybe I should have taken heed of the fact that there were relatively few reactions, but I blundered on, this time with a much more substantive source-work.

Later in the year 2005, I bought the box-set The Carthy Chronicles, a four-CD retrospective tracking Martin Carthy’s long career as Britain’s premier performer of traditional folk song. On it I rediscovered Martin Carthy’s 1972 version of the extraordinary ballad, The Famous Flower of Serving Men. The song is not in fact a pure folk song in that, although it has some traditional provenance, regarding this version, both its authorship and the date of its publication are known (the balladeer Laurence Price and 1656). But it tells a tale of infanticide, flight, cross-gender disguise, occult revelation and savage vengeance absolutely typical of many ballads from the English tradition. In Martin Carthy’s version (to which he added some material) the musical setting provides a striking synthesis of sparse, driving melody, percussive picking and dry, woody voice that lifts the powerful and compelling words to the level of masterpiece. On playing it just the once, it wove its spell on me all over again and I couldn’t get either melody or lyric out of my mind. Instantly, it presented itself as providing potentially a much more fully developed example of my notion of a poem that seeks to bridge both the epic and the dramatic. Narratively, it wouldn’t attempt to embrace Brecht’s highly personalised version of Marxist dialectic as the informing force but would rather fall back on a more ancient understanding of ethics and morality – one based on an implacable adherence to a code of justice through vengeance. And living and breathing within this superstructure would be two protagonists reflecting constantly on the meaning of the events that, like tangled currents, rush them along.

Since 2005 I have been writing and re-drafting a poem called The Famous Flower, which attempts to apply to the song The Famous Flower of Serving Men the same principles that drove Folk Song 1, albeit on a mightily amplified scale. In 2008 I posted to the Patteran Pagesa draft of the first few hundred words of the poem, just to invite a response to what was emerging as, to all apparent intents and purposes, a piece of fantasy literature in verse form – not everyone’s favoured medium by a long chalk! It drew a handful of somewhat equivocal responses, suggesting, maybe, that in heading in a direction so fraught with cliché landmines, I had bitten off somewhat more than I could chew! But sometimes against reason and inclination a deeper dog-with-bone stubbornness and tenacity prevails and so here, pretty much 10 years on, is a draft – far from final – of The Famous Flower. Sisyphus Ascending doesn’t have anything close to the readership that my previous blog enjoyed in those earlier days of shared endeavour and mutual support. Only a few old friends ever respond to my posts and I apologise to them for heaving this huge, unwieldy archaism up the hill with Sisyphus. By all means allow it to roll back down again alongside that persecutory stone to lodge then amongst my unheeded back pages! But at least bear with me because I have to do this…


An adaptation by Dick Jones of the ballad ‘The Famous Flower of Serving-Men’ 
as arranged by Martin Carthy


  This is how it was. So long a journey from that place of blood
to this whitethorn fire; from the scattering of the may blossom
    to the blowing of these hag-tree ashes amongst the bones.

    This is how it was. I must draw the deepest breath to wrap this
story in – a broad breath both to feed the birthing and then to clothe
          a tale that comes brawling into the world on a bloodtide.

For this is how it was.

This is how it was.
It is a spring night.
A hunter’s moon
is trimming back the clouds.
A vixen cries in the coppice.
My baby suckles, eyes closed
against the pulse of milk.
My lover lifts an apple bough into the fire
and turns to reach for another.

And, noiseless from the steep stair,
    like wraiths who find their form
       only in firelight, five men
          are in my chamber.
One has drawn his sword;
    the others bear knives.
       And unhindered by passion,
          free of guilt, they work
             like men harvesting
                in advance of a storm,
                   brisk and thorough,
                      tight-lipped and breathing hard.

    My lover barely rises to his knees and they cut him down,
his mouth in a gargoyle rictus, lipless and wrapped around his jawline.
Two more strokes and his right hand goes spinning down
into the hearth like a shed glove.

        Then a silence thickens the air. A light, green and glaucous,
like through deep water, traps us between one moment and the next.
    The men pause, breathing heavy still, like cattle who have run
  the length of a field. And motionless, looking beyond the instant,
        I am a dreamer:
(I am a child wrapped in white furs,
    sleigh-bound across deep snow.
       I am a lover bearing the blessed weight
          of a lover on a bed of moss under pines).

              But my baby moves in my arms.
         He shifts his warm body inside the plaid shawl
    that wraps him, cranes his head to see our visitors
so as to smile around his two small pearly teeth at them,
    so as to fix his round sea-blue eyes on them,
        so as to welcome them to our hearth
            with his precious early words.

And one cuts him down.
    With skill. It must be said,
        with skill for his black blade
            passes my face in a whisper,
                a thing half seen, half-imagined –
                    the swift clean arc of a bird
                       glanced between two clouds,
                          or a leaf blown in a hard wind.
                             I feel its dangerous breath;
                                 I feel its voice deep within
                                    my cage of bones
(as now I hear it; as I shall hear it ever).

    And my milky babe makes no sound
    as he passes swiftly from this place.
Was present, is absent with no sense of the journey made.
(And this small grain of mercy, dropped from the store
    whose bounty it is God’s to grant or to withhold,
        is what I have hoarded through the long years).

They turn to go, their black cloaks gathered
        like Dominican shrouds.
    Save for the sword-bearer, the
        baby-slayer. He turns back his head
            and his cowl falls away to bare his face
                 to show across the left cheek
                     a lattice-work of scars,

        So it is. My stepmother’s man.
    Now all’s as clear as a chain of falling water:
        my mother’s man, her seneschal,
       and this disfigurement her work,
    her hand in his hair in sudden anger
    on a winter’s morning in the servants’ hall,
    the cause forgotten now, and she pulls him
     by his donkey’s mane to the kitchen grate
                and thrusts his face against
             the bright hot morning griddle.

And yet still he does her will – this, all this,
for her, his black, disfiguring angel, all this
to forestall the white dove’s prophecy that,
 my father slain, the bastard son shall rise
and rule in my unblooded mother’s stead.

    And now he strikes the sullied sword twice
upon the granite hearth, sheering the blade in two
          and casts the hilt behind him for man
may not sheath a sword that bears a baby’s blood
    and even now he fears for his immortal soul.
Hilt and blade sing off the stone they fall upon.

He turns and follows his companions
        down the winding stair,
            the scuff of their falling feet
                their valediction into the night.


  The earth at the moat’s edge is soft with the night’s rain.
 It yields to the broken sword, its hilt and tongue of blade.
The winding sheet must be the plaid shawl that wound me
  through the winter by the fire as I gave breast and crooned
        the songs he took with him into his moonlit dreams.
  The sword, its hilt and bloody blade are the cross of Christ
to raise above my boy. The bell that tolls him through Eden’s
  gate is the blade struck hard against the mounting block
           (that block from which in spring, in summer
               I would ride, laughing, to hunt the hind).

    His marker is a hawthorn spray,
placed by this witness cruelly spared.
        And the psalm is wound
    into the wordless sounds that,
like some beast, its tongue ripped out
    by the root, I cry into the night.
And as dawn arises – curds and whey
    in a heartless sky – I hack away
my sunset locks, the hue of brass and gold
    that once my lord would comb and plait
so that I might slumber, weightless,
         timeless and wave-borne.
And the bone-white face, bound in a corolla
   of ragged flame, that shivers back at me
from the white sun in the morning water
  weeps for the last time. A man’s face now,
       drawn and grim, with sea-grey eyes
       that must look back always towards
where the hills encircle the birthing place,
    the bower, the hearth, the fire that died.]


        Clad in his hauberk and helmet
    and with his surcoat stained to black
         from the ashes of that final fire
     and the moat-side mud wherein lies
    my babe, I climb astride my dead lord’s courser.
 I cross bridges numberless, pass over
    close waters that roar like oblivion
  or within the deepest gorges slumber,
  out of seeing and unheard, until the marches
       fall away and the long, sad, flat reaches
    of the fens lift towards gentle hills and valleys
               and the questing loops and curls
                    of hearthside fires rising.
But pacing me south like a woven skein I see
    the forest’s edge, now close with elm
        and larch and beech and oak, plaited
           against the light, now rimming the horizon
              like the faintest memory of trees



Thus it begins, as in the manner of all such things:
a horseman comes alone out of the north, wearing
the threads and hide of a week’s desperate weather.
I watch him from high above, the slow, unguided
pricking steps towards the gate that he senses
more than sees. Only a child or a woman should so
embrace a horse’s neck, I note, as I turn toward
the narrow stair and so descend to greet my fate.

It is said that all may know the road from
its first few stones. Yes, and so it is.
The courser stands at my bridgehead, blowing,
his great head hanging. His rider lifts a bone-white face.
Two sea-grey eyes look down. They neither ask,
nor do they demand, nor do they plead. And
as I wave away my two gatemen and step
onto the bridge; and as I take up in my right
hand the hanging reins; and as I brace against
the heft of that slim body sliding down the horse’s
sweating flank, I know of my heart’s turning; I know
that now no other moon will ever tug my tides again;
I know in this instance that I am a king in chains.

‘My famous flower’, I dub him, my Sweet William,
    and I bind him to me as my chamberlain,
        my chatelain, the hoops of keys chiming to sound
            like muffled bells within the flowing robes he wears.
Moons come and go unheeded; leaves form and fall
and ever he moves down passages, through doorways,
under arches cowled like a fragrant, pastel-drawn
Dominican, his voice, so rarely heard, a grass-blown
whisper. Some deep and distant sorrow hoods his eyes.
He sees amongst the blazing logs and branches
late at night swift phantoms, shifting spectres.
From my chair I watch him, turning and turning
his empty flagon, fire blooding the marble
of his cheeks. And if I speak of this, my fingers
on his wrist as one might seek to still the pulse
of a sickly child, he leans away towards the dark
beyond the fire and I’m alone inside the light.
And yet come dawn he pours my water –
    lifts the ewer like an offering,
        fills the bowl, watching
            the water fall as if in benediction.
All is ceremony:
    the cloth across his arm,
        the opening of the casement,
            the tipping of the ewer,
the turning with the heavy bowl.
And as at the heart of all such sacrament,
there is, I know, I know, across the reaches of
the passing days, the flame incarnadine of love.
Not worship, fear or fealty, but love unlimited.

And from the tail of an eye I can spy them
smirking like children, even those who wear
my favours in their caps, those who hold
their fortresses and fields at my good behest,
those who have my love as won in battle. Loyalty
is mere duty. To know the lineaments of my soul
so as to read my true intent – there’s no one here
can see beyond the radiance of my crown, behind
the lion’s golden face. No one save, perhaps,
my silver son, my close and bounden one, my
Sweet William, famous flower of serving men.


                    FAIR ELEANOR

    With the owl still calling from the oak
    and only a rim of red above the hills,
my lord goes riding. Even before I have risen
    and slipped into my robe and tried the door
            between our chambers, he is gone.

Although he keeps his unstrung bow and his quivered arrows
    in with his tack below, I know he’s off to the hunt
    for his jerkin’s out of its press and his water’s poured.

        Whenever he rises as the stars fade, he goes alone.
His bright hair coiled within his hood, the cloak that wraps him
      fashioned from darkness itself, he sets his saddle
   while the grooms sleep on. By dawn he’s cleared
the brakes and dykes and he’s reining in at the forest’s edge.
He knows where the hind drinks and where the boar roots
      and he would bring down with a single shaft
the one who follows with officious sword and shield
    to guard his king as he chases his chosen prey
                      through copse and thicket.

This quest is his alone,
   its purpose and its urgency
        denied even to the one
            who keeps his keys and who
                – if the stars were scattered differently –
                   would unlock his heart.

  The wind rolls gentle from the west
and as the sun’s wheel turns the day,
  the boys run down to the river where
    a ship with two indigo sails docks
and unloads spices, bolts of cloth and three
  caged falcons. And then, running from
the sudden rain, tossing between them
  a painted leather ball, four-and-twenty
of my lady the mother-queen’s maidens.
  Now, joined by their lords and suitors,
they scatter crying like seaside birds about
  the empty hall, chasing the arcing ball
through fading sunbeams and gathering
  shade. Alone beneath the great mantle
beam, before the unlit grate, I watch
  and yearn as the brace and girdle of
tyrant memory hold me fast. And here,
  most alone, I close my eyes and cross
  my arms across my breast as one
  in the fastest sleep, a replica of death.

And through the whoop and halloo of
  those scampering fools, I hear as
  a deep enfolding echo the boom of doors
    flung wide and the iron-shod clamour
     of a horse’s hooves on flagstones. As
    I drop my arms and open my eyes
to the dusty gloom, all in a moment
 my lord is high above me, wrenching
his skittish courser sideways so the better
    to lean and gather me up before
  his pommel, half across the horse’s
   neck and half in his encircling arms.
And before the stilled and unbelieving
  crowd, he kisses me cheek and chin
and eyes and hair and weeps as one
  distracted. Holding me hard with one
tight shuddering arm as if I were
   to drown, with his free arm he flails
the air and cries to the company within
   to quit this hall on pain of slaughter.
And as they tumble in a moiling flight
  of legs and turning heads through the
open doorway, we must tumble too, out
    of the saddle and into the ashes of
 the empty hearth. Face to face we kneel
    like marble saints, his hands amongst
my cropped inglorious curls, his eyes
   defying mine to spurn his gaze, begging
that I should read some diamond-hard
    effulgent truth within and so believe
far beyond the call of simple hollow words.

But I am in retreat as all refracts
    and shivers into a halo of tears and all
        that’s true and palpable are his two
            hands around my face and his breath
against my lips. Rising, he lifts me and
    I’m guided gently pacing over rushes
        to a settle flush against the wall.
            We sit and with crooked finger,
                knuckle raised, he draws my tear
                    back to its source and sighing deep
                        and long just once, he tells his tale.


           THE KING

In at the day’s birth as I strap the girth
beneath his belly. I hug his great head
to still the hooves treading the straw,
and kick closed the stable door. I want
no bleary grooms fresh out of their dunghill
dreams to reach down bridle and harness
half asleep, or a watchman, fresh on his rounds,
eager to jump step and dance attendance
on his king. I long for the dew to rise at my gallop;
for the black air to part against my speed.
I need, oh need, to bleach the livid phantoms
that visit me by night to tug intangible
at my sheets, that would have me cast off
my garments and cross those twenty paces
to your door and through to unleash havoc.

    So as I rein in at the forest’s edge and stand
    high in my stirrups, I rejoice in my solitude
    and breathe in lime and leaf-mould. Here,
    where the sudden trees crowd deep, I am one
    and one alone. And now as I edge us in between
    the mighty boles to find the ancient tracks
    laid down before (so long before) our hubris
    had us call each other king or commoner, I’m
    in my peace. My eyes are honed on the dark:
    I read the arcane script engrained in trunk
    of oak and sycamore; I watch the ooze of silver
    sap from the birch and golden from the maple.
    My ears are sifting every tiny sound – the fall
    of a single leaf through buttresses of branches
    high above; the switch and turn of a weasel
    deep inside the forest floor; the clap of the
    pigeon’s wings in a clearing half a league away.
    I urge my Champion forward. He picks and steps
    across and around the twisted roots and down
    the mossy banks. I stoop low in my saddle,
    my face along the horse’s neck and branches
    plucking at the bow across my back. One
    clearing and another and the bramble and
    the bracken yield to a pathway laid through
    thickets fettle-deep. I crane down low, half
    hanging, stirrup-free so as to seek for scats,
    or broken stems, or the trace of cloven hoof.
    I straighten and my yellow hair is laced
    with the rust of ferns and tiny flames of gorse.

And I rise into silence. All is still and clear,
as if the forest should slumber on the instant.
I sit, ear tilted to the breeze, like a rabbit
on a stump. And even as I sit the last breath
of air subsides and all there is to hear is
the blood-beat of man and beast, hunter
and steed, two hearts that cross and chime.
Light arrests and shadows freeze. I close
my eyes against the mass of silence, here
on the cusp of old familiar day and something
just beyond, something half-familiar from
the hinterland of dreams and the dawn of
just awakening. I open my eyes and there
in three long shafts of light shining through
the rising terraces of a mighty beech,
a hart of purest white stands motionless on
a catafalque of woven fern and purest moss.
His perfect neck is yielded as an offering,
a steady pulse embossed like a silver cord
from jaw to scapula. As one in the honey weight
of sleep, against the sense that all that’s due
is homage, I slide my yew bow from back
to hand and lift an arrow to the nocking point
and draw the bowstring back to where
my knuckle for a heartbeat touches the lobe
of my right ear and I let the arrow fly.

Even as I lower the bow and grasp the pommel
as my horse goes turning, turning in a gyre
of sudden fear, I twist to see the ash-wood
arrow run the fifty paces from this patch
of earth to where the milk-white hart awaits,
still as a patient lover. And that nave of air
between us turns into a chamber charged
with some strange humour, thick yet aqueous
and my arrow passes like a cautious fish that
noses forward, straight but circumspect.
I watch the fletching ripple in the current; see
the nock engraved like the cross of Christ; and
I note the kissing moment of the head against
that silver corded pulse to loose a plait of blood
go twisting, purest red against the ivory. Then
so lifts the caul, the amniosis and my horse,
my brave, strong Champion, his nostrils drinking in
the air like a swimmer risen, hacks back
a step or two. He staggers and his haunches drop
so that when I turn to spy the star-white hart,
he’s gone. There’s blood upon the leaf and branch
and fallen like ruby tears on the forest floor,
but never a broken twig nor trampled covert,
never a parted thicket nor spray upon the sand.

As if she flew thus trackless, the blood-trail
tugs me spellbound through that dappled day,
winds me into coiling nets of brambles, under
the grappling arms of beeches, down through
root-bound tunnels plunging, up the ferny sides
of valleys, scattering pebbles crossing runnels,
racing the long beams of the setting sun across
the sudden swards, chasing the bloody pearls
that shine like buboes in the dying light until
at last the trail ends in a sanguine cross laid
like a marker at the forest’s edge and we spin
and turn and sink, winded and blown, beneath
the tresses and against the waist of a mighty oak.

Great shadows cloak the spreading moss beneath.
Foxglove, heather, bluebell gleam within the gold
and copper pools. And before us, laid like a mighty
green and velvet cloth amongst the cautious trees
that dare not tap the sacred earth beyond,
a smooth and grassy glade. And in the centre,
fixed like a boss, a tomb aligned from east to west,
a single basalt box, the length of a man who would
be blessed either head or foot by the long walk
of the sun. And even as we catch our breath
beneath the hanging branches, all the forest
stills once more like a great settling of wings.
Light withdraws; shadows blacken the turf
like water rising from beneath its roots. No bird
lifts or settles; no creature scatters the leaf-mould,
troubles the canopies of leaves. Horse and man
as one in battle, bold Champion and I hold hard
to the shade. He snickers once and tilts a hoof.
I rise up in the saddle, shift a hand from pommel
to sword hilt, watch unblinking as for a glint
of dying light from a blade, or a thread of smoke.

Then, even as I gaze into the far treeline,
a spectral form like a grounded cloud bleeds
into the gap between two trees. In motion yet
glacial too, standing clear as if forever
fixed in place and time, the white hart, head
turned back, the arrow proud and a bright chain
of blood from neck to flank to earth that seems
to tether him for the taking. I draw my sword
(for arrows seem to pierce this beast in vain)
and blade before, I heel my charger forward.

From the touch of frog on clover, a hoof parting
the paper bells, a song begins. Full-throated but
so far away, as if it were blown like vapour through
the crowded trees; so many voices pitched from
keening trebles out of the thinnest air down to
rich profundo rolling out of thunder, wordless,
or in some tongue unspoken since the first footers
made their mark on sand or parted grass. As if
these tussocks were spikes of mist that rose
from the skin of some enchanted lake, we glide,
unsailed and rudderless, onto the lawn.

As the pagan introit melts back into the trees,
so fades like a fume the phantom hart, once chalk-
white pelt, now smoke, now dream. Again, I close
my eyes and shake the fancy out of seeing;
open them and in wonder watch a dove – fashioned
surely from the very salt and snow of my errant
hart – go soaring high from that self-same place,
into the dusky blue, now pocked with early stars.
Then, like one such star, the dove comes falling,
wheels and turns and alights upon the northern
head of the sable tomb. I sheath my sword
as we tread the carpet grass. Against the
flawless black, the dove is silver now, tipped and
still like a crescent moon. And as we draw
beside the tomb, it seems that through some
silken valance, rippling like water, first a sleeping
face and then the outstretched form, full and clear,
of an armoured knight reveals within, shield arm
across a naked sword, sword arm severed from
the wrist, his feet upon a serpent, coiled
and striking. And as I slip to earth and make
to kneel in some obeisance to this marvel,
a voice as deep as the fastest clay, yet as close
as two lips pursed in secret discourse at my ear
begins at once to speak.

And the tale is your tale
    from the apple bough fire
        to the slaughtered babe,
            to the sword cast down
                by the hoodless murderer,
                   your stepmother’s thrall.
I feel the slicing of the air
    by silent blades; I hear
        the breath in the throats
            and mouths of labouring men;
                I smell the blood that gouts
                   and eddies over the flags.
  And I see your grey eyes
      in my own contorted face,
          hanging over the moat-water.
             And your grief, red-raw,
                laid open to the briny air,
                    beats inside my own heart’s pulse
                        and stills my very breath.


               FAIR ELEANOR

   Oh, the bee’s-wing brush of fingers
 on my lips, the tender tug of fingers
    in my hair, the dry leaves of a voice
 falling to silence through dust and dark!
   For a lifetime moment in the wake
of the tale, there is the sound only
    of the wind in the chimney breast and
 a pigeon’s wings as she passes from
    one high window to the next. And then
  he rises, rises as one so weary of
    the darkest transports of this world,
        and he stands half shadowed,
    half illumined and all about us in
 that empty hall the strands and tresses
    of the two tales, his and mine, settle
 amongst the leaves and dust and dark.

    But he is a king and bred into the warp
and weft of pledges, oaths and fealties.
His sword is dinged and dented from
a hundred battles fought to break
or build within his realm of mountains,
meads and rivers and beyond. And now
as he slowly turns as one out of late
dreaming and into this time and place
of honour, debt and obligation, fire
rises behind his eyes, bone and sinew
realign and his sword hand strays
to the hilt. I am looking up at a man
who will reach for his bridle, who will
climb into his saddle and set his eyes
on one dark mark upon a long horizon.
And he will ride as straight and true
as the multitude of roads and passes
will allow, untroubled by reflection,
guided by the lodestar retribution
and the love entire and boundless
in whose radiance I am standing now. 


                         THE BLOOMING of the MAY

    He takes a cohort of his finest – each man strange to mercy
 in the service of his king. And beneath a new device – a dove
upon a sable field – in three days they are clear of our gentle lands;
    in four they cross the fens; and in a further six they reach
the same hills that encircle the birthing place, the bower,
            the hearth where the fire died.

And on a lambent dawn fashioned more for the properties of love,
         they burn her gatehouse, breach her mighty gates
                     and sack her citadel.
    In a corner of her hall, she crouches like a shitting beast
 behind her seneschal. He swings his mace right-handed; in his
left he wields a sword. He knows that he shall die and as he turns
   and turns about, he sings out loud a wordless song. My lord ensures
        within the circling of his blade that, with a stroke, he severs
             the seneschal’s right hand and with another he guts his man
             from groin to jawline and then steps back so both
                may watch him die amongst his liver and his lights,
                                unsinging and unsung.
   And she my stepmother, her eyes crazed white
and spittle on her chin like some trapped and fevered dog,
   attempts to rise, but falls back into her own rank juices.

So then she’s taken from that place
  and down through all the broad lands
    to our hearth and home. For near a year
      she languishes in irons bound, awaiting
        the blooming of the may again so that
          she might be brought into the spring fields
            for the reckoning.

      And now the may is blooming
and dressed in a verdant gown and crowned
  with plaited quickthorn, she is queen of the pyre.
Some dance at her foot, circling and circling
   the maypole’s axis mundi, singing the catches
  of the season. Others grim with purpose lift
     and heave and stack the thorny bundles high.

    I sit upon a white mare. Now my hair
 falls down my back, held at my nape
     by a twisted silken cord. Mounted close,
my lord’s right hand covers my left.
   His middle finger turns my golden ring.
We are still; we are silent. There is
  no triumph in the directing of these
    engines of redress. All must submit
  to the greater will that binds us
in the dark. And so he tips his head
  the once to his watching chamberlain
and the burning brands are thrust
   deep into the bosom of the stack.
The fire cracks and spits. Inside
  the flames, leaves curl and cat-haws pop.
    Yet from the shading beech a thrush
  is singing, a pearly chain of falling notes
          as if to purify the air.

    And then, like the sound of the tearing
 of some mighty tree by a hurricane
    from the rocky bonds of earth,
  my lady cries abroad from her nest,
    swathed in smoke and licked by tongues
  of fire: Alas the day that she became
    the famous flower of serving men!
And in my belly like a dancer turns
   the boy conceived in love alone, he
who as the dove foretold shall take
    the orb, the sceptre and the sword
  to rule the land in peace and plenitude.
   My lord, he leans from his saddle low
and plucks a sprig of hokey green to tuck
 into my hair. I pick a single leaf. I lift it
  to my lips. This shall be a sacrament
t o be held in a locket of gold against
   the dark winds of the world and for
  the love that might slumber through
    the heart’s long winter but shall rise
      exultant with the blooming of the may.


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My mum died ten years ago. It was the quietest of deaths – a pulse stopping at the end of years of exile in a dark, silent place so far removed from the places of laughter that she had shared with us across her long life. Death itself is neither dignified nor noble. These are judgements made by those who witness the passing. There is simply a moment that follows a moment before but is unfollowed. 

However, when the nurse called me over and I stood at the head of my mother’s bed and watched as the pulse beat still and then after a few seconds simply didn’t beat any more, although I have no faith, I had a sense of all confinement, all limitation falling away and even as I wept for everything that had been, I felt a peace which, to paraphrase Philippians 4:4 – 7, ‘transcends all understanding’. And I guess it did ‘garrison and stand guard’ over my heart in the days and weeks following. There was nothing of God in that release and protection: it was a function entirely of an overwhelming sense of the absolute rightness of that moment when the passage from life into death is managed.

I wrote this poem during the time of her long exile.











Each morning they organise your bones
into the wheelchair, stack you leaning
out of kilter. Thus I find you, wall-eyed,

feather pulse and mouth ajar. This is
a stillness you are learning as silence
silts up your blood. I name you: ‘Mum’.

I call, quietly at first, as if this were
only sleep and you might resent the passage
interrupted. But your shade is walking

a broken road on the far side of dreams.
I keep my coat on, lean in the doorway,
breathing in the alkalines and salts

that are your presence in this world.
Beyond, through narrow windows, rain
drifts like smoke. The trees shift

their high shoulders, hefting their leaves
like heroes. I can see the lift and fall
of their evergreen breath, the slow,

dispassionate pulse. Such senseless beauty,
propping up the sky as if there were no
tides turning or falling stars, no ashes to dust,

no time at all. You speak – a half-word,
cracked in the middle. Syllables drift
like fumes. Somewhere in that steam

of meaning, the filaments of memory:
the horn’s tip of a lover’s moon,
a song’s dust, the eye’s tail catching,

not quite catching, doorway phantoms,
window ghosts. Grief crosses my mind:
its hydrogen release – from local pain

to lachrymae rerum, all in one long
skidding step. It would be a simple thing
to self-heal, here against the lintel,

watching not the rise and fall of your
fish-breath, your insect pulse, but
the immortal trees beyond. Too easy;

but death looked in and turned away,
indifferent, and now it’s down to me,
the blood-bearer, to wish away your life

for you. The house ticks and hums.
A voice calls out, thin and querulous;
another coughs. I turn down your light.

There, against the window, dusk outside,
day by night you are becoming your shadow
cast against the shifting of the trees.


Sound file: Still Life


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St Enogat is a small, pretty town just a few miles from Dinard on Brittany’s Côte d’Émeraude. One quiet Sunday I sat in the shade of a persimmon tree and watched two elderly men preparing to play pétanque on an otherwise deserted terrain. They went about their business silently at first, moving slowly and deliberately in the manner of those for whom the activity is governed by unwritten but immutable protocols. Half way through the game, without varying pace or style, the blue-shirted man began to speak. This is what I may have overheard.

boules 2


There are the two men,
this square of ground,
the sun, the cypress tree.
The men unpack
their boules. The man
in the blue shirt
clacks a pair together.
The man in the
red shirt arcs
the coche into
the dust, steps back
and lights a cigarette.
The blue shirt
throws his three.
One hugs the coche
and two lie close.
The red shirt bowls.
His final boule
scatters the group.
The two advance.
They contemplate
the spread of boules
and coche, the disposition
of them all, then stoop
to gather and cast
the coche, the boules
again. Inside the
cypress shade the
blue shirt cups
his boule and lifts
it high. At the point
of release his fingers
tip it back, reverse
its spin. At the point
of its contact with
the coche he says:
“Your sister. Is
she well?” The red
shirt draws deep on
his cigarette.
“Quite well”, he says.
“She’s been home
three weeks now.
She’s walking. She
can cook. She walks
the dogs down by
the canal. She manages”.
The blue shirt listens,
two boules held
between his fingers.
The red shirt drops
his cigarette, grinds
it into the dust.
“Go on”, he says,
nodding to the splay
of boules and coche.
And from out of
the shade of
the cypress, the blue
shirt drops each boule
behind the coche,
completing a triangular
wall. “Once”, he says,
still stooping, his hands
on his knees. “There was
a time once”. The red
shirt lights a second
cigarette, shakes out
the match, steps up
to throw. “There’s always
a time once”, he says
and he looses a boule.
The blue shirt watches
the arc and fall, the
puff of dust where
it lands behind the
triangle. “Celine and I”,
he says. “On the beach
at St Enogart. Down
by the rocks”. The
red shirt straightens,
purses his lips. “Enough”,
he says. “Enough”.
“And then”, the
blue shirt says,
“you and I, we might
have been brothers”.
The red shirt works
the cigarette to the
corner of his mouth.
“Brothers enough without”,
he says.

2 boules

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I have a sleep disorder that – compounded currently by the side effects of medication – ensures that each and every night is fragmented into a sort of archipelago of the  5 stages of slumber varying from just stages 1 and 2 up to the full cycle, including REM. In between these sequences is inserted from time to time long periods of insomnia. Living as we do in relative rural isolation, this means that the sometimes comforting social sounds of nocturnal traffic, arrivals and departures and even the late-night carolling of a friendly drunk are denied us. Randy cats, foraging foxes and the haunted crooning of the barn owl only serve to underpin the sense of utter isolation and exposure that can be the principle characteristics of insomnia. This poem describes a joyful exception to that dilemma.

Nighttime Geese Clouds Moonlight Lake Flying Moon Tree 3d Wallpaper


Unable to sleep, I sit before
the heartless brilliance of the screen
with the real-world darkness

hovering, fearful but persistent,
at my back. It seems as if time
has packed her bags and left

for the coast and then beyond.
I take off my glasses, knuckle away
the mess of my tears. And then,

like importunate drunks through
a suddenly opened door, the geese
are overhead. Some crass dispute

as to the whereabouts of water
in the impossible night, their voices
skronking inside a collision of

cranking necks and wings. As they
tumble through the unseen clouds,
I laugh out loud and love them all

for their unconsidered vandalism,
neither thought nor theory troubling
the palate of their need.


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Socialist Poster During the Spanish Civil War

If I have ever adhered to any kind of faith it’s been to a belief based on hope against rational expectation that the capacity for redemption and salvation is a product of obdurate human desire and will alone. Once upon a time, that faith fuelled a conviction that the only political system within which we might grow towards our hitherto almost entirely unrealised potential was anarchism. Now the black flag is a poor, tattered thing and I oscillate between anger and sadness and sudden bursts of unwarranted optimism brought on when some event, local or beyond, seems to confirm the human spirit as more generous, self-sacrificial and loving than it is venal, selfish and full of hate.

There are very few certainties in my scheme of things. (In fact, to my general perception there is very little scheme of things at all!) But one judgement that time has substantiated for me again and again is the old truism that wherever power is concentrated beyond the moderation of those over whom it is wielded there will be corruption and abuse. But because I live in the ‘real world’ of legitimised greed, of souls mortgaged to consumerism, of institutionalised injustice, I no longer believe in some great political epiphany that, when the scales fall simultaneuously from our eyes, will have us shrugging off our chains in favour of the anarchist dream. But somehow, in the face of the cynical pragmatism and exhausted defeatism that has taken the place of informed ideology, I still on occasion turn around in absurd hope when I hear the old anarchist rallying cry: ‘Be realistic and demand the impossible!’

For a few years in the early ‘70s, during that final flaring of some kind of socialist sunrise, I gathered together in a little green notebook a collection of appropriate quotations. Most were drawn from the anarchist source books that were my serial purchases (from Camden Town’s Compendium Bookshop) at the time, but others popped up from here and there and got scribbled down lest, in those all-analogue days, they should be forgotten and their points of provenance lost. What struck me at the time of compiling them was how little both the nature of repression and aspiration have changed throughout history and, of course, that’s my reflection now. Cultural context isn’t the determinant of dissent and rebellion; it’s the human spirit under unendurable pressure that has the commoner twisting, turning and rising up.


To be governed is to be watched over, inspected, spied on, directed, legislated, regimented, closed in, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, assessed, evaluated, censored, commanded; all by creatures that have neither the right, nor wisdom, nor virtue… Government means to be subjected to tribute, trained, ransomed, exploited, monopolised, extorted, pressured, mystified, robbed; all in the name of public utility and the general good. Then, at the first sign of resistance or word of complaint, one is repressed, tined, despised, vexed, pursued, hustled, beaten up, garrotted, imprisoned, shot…sold, betrayed, and, to cap it all, ridiculed, mocked, outraged and dishonoured. That is government, that is its justice and its morality.

My good people, things cannot go well in England, nor ever shall, till everything be made common, and there are neither villains nor gentlemen, but we shall all be united together, and the lords shall be no greater masters than ourselves.
JOHN BALL (renegade priest & ideologist of the Peasants’ Revolt, 1381)

Commons to close and keep,
Poor folk for bread to cry and weep,
Towns pulled down to pasture sheep;
This is the new guise.

Envy waxeth wondrous strong,
The Rich doeth the poor wrong,
God of his mercy suffereth long
The devil his work to do.

The towns go down, the land decays,
Of corn fields, plain lays,
Great men maketh nowadays
A sheepcote in the church.
ANONYMOUS POEM, early 16th century

Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall yourn houseless heads, and unfed sides,
Your loop’d and window’d raggedness defend you
From such seasons as these? O I have ta’en
Too little care of this: take physic, Pomp,
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,
And show the Heavens more just.

Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves.

Listen, O Daughters, to my voice. Listen to the Words of Wisdom.
So shall you govern over all; let Moral Duty tune your tongue.
But be your hearts harder than the nether millstone…
Compel the poor to live upon a Crust of bread, by soft mild arts.
Smile when they frown, frown when they smile; and when a man looks pale
With Labour and abstinence, say he looks healthy and happy;
And when his children sicken, let them die; there are enough
Born, even too many, and our Earth will be overrun
Without these arts. If you would make the poor live with temper,
With pomp give every crust of bread you give; with gracious cunning
Magnify small gifts; reduce the man to want a gift, and then give with pomp.
Say he smiles if you hear him sigh. If pale, say he is ruddy.
Preach temperance: say he is overgorg’d and drowns his wit
In strong drink, tho’ you know that bread and water are all
He can afford. Flatter his wife, pity his children, till we can
Reduce all to our will, as spaniels are taught with art.
WILLIAM BLAKE, from Vala, or the Four Zoas.

Yes! To this thought I hold with firm persistence; the last result of wisdom stamps it true: he only earns his freedom and existence who daily conquers them anew.

All things are sold: the very light of heaven
Is venal; earth’s unsparing gifts of love,
The smallest and most despicable things
That lurk in the abysses of the deep,
All objects of our life, even the life itself,
And the poor pittance which the law allows
Of liberty, the fellowship of man,
Those duties which his heart of human love
Should urge him to perform instinctively,
Are bought and sold as in a public mart
Of undisguising selfishness, that sets
On each its price, the stamp-mark of her reign.
Even love is sold…

Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigues of supporting it.


God is our guide! from field, from wave,
From plough, from anvil, and from loom;
We come, our country’s rights to save,
And speak a tyrant faction’s doom:
We raise the watch-word liberty;
We will, we will, we will be free!

God is our guide! no swords we draw,
We kindle not war’s battle fires;
By reason, union, justice, law,
We claim the birth-right of our sires:
We raise the watch-word liberty;
We will, we will, we will be free!!!
GEORGE LOVELESS, one of the group of Dorchester labourers – known subsequently as the Tolpuddle Martyrs, after their village of origin – who were sentenced to seven years transportation for joining a union.

Freedom has a thousand charms to show
That slaves, howe’er contented, cannot know.

Overgrown military establishments are under any form of government inauspicious to liberty, and are to be regarded as particularly hostile to Republican liberty.


Mourn not the dead that in the cool earth lie –
Dust unto dust –
The calm, sweet earth that mothers all who die
As all men must;

Mourn not your captive comrades who must dwell –
Too strong to strive –
Within each steel-bond coffin of a cell,
Buried alive;

But rather mourn the apathetic throng –
The cowed and the meek –
Who see the world’s great anguish and its wrong
And dare not speak!
RALPH CHAPLIN, Industrial Workers of the World activist

The love of liberty is the love of others; the love of power is the love of ourselves.
WILLIAM HAZLITT, English essayist


Is that we are not perfect
Nor perfectable.

Is that the desire to lead
Will destroy ourselves and others.

Is that when we act alone
It is harder to harm.

Is that when we act collectively
We must not surrender our selves.

Is that land cannot be owned
Nor animals nor people.

Is that money is meaningless
When there is no property.

Is that we disavow marriage.
It is the union of Church and State.

Is that no human is sovereign
The one over the other.

Is that our children are
The common wealth.

Is that there is no god
Nor heaven nor hell.

Is that only we can be the creators
Of paradise on earth.
ANONYMOUS. (19th century Spanish anarchists called their beliefs The Idea).

THE INTERNATIONALE (first two verses)

Arise, ye prisoners of starvation!
Arise ye wretched of the earth,
For justice thunders condemnation,
A better world’s in birth.
No more tradition’s chains shall bind us,
Arise, ye slaves! no more in thrall!
The earth shall rise on new foundations,
We have been naught, we shall be all.


‘’Tis the final conflict
Let each stand in his place,
The Internationale
Unites the human race.

We want no condescending saviours,
To rule us from a judgement hall;
We workers ask not for their favours;
Let us consult for all.
To make the thief disgorge his booty
To free the spirit from its cell,
We must ourselves decide our duty,
We must decide and do it well.







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JACQUES PRÉVERT – 1900 : 1977

For a poet – for any kind of writer – English is a seductive language.  With a vocabulary that is rich in synonyms way beyond reasonable need, wrapped up in a mind-boggling and jaw-busting complexity of conjugational structure, it seems almost mean-spirited to resist its blandishments. Small wonder that Dylan Thomas’s capacity for intoxication above and beyond the call of duty afflicted his creative output every bit as much as his social life.  Interesting too, at the other end of the linguistic spectrum, that Samuel Beckett exerted so much energy in paring the English language back to the bone in a search for a barer, leaner form.  And small wonder, maybe, that, in the final analysis, his language of preference for writing was French.

Since schooldays I have been intrigued by the stark simplicity of the poetry of Jacques Prévert and attempting to translate pieces into English remains a fascinating exercise. My enormously enlightened French teacher Roger Gerhardt regularly set us translation assignments using the poems and lyrics of the likes of Prévert, Paul Fort, Anne Sylvestre and Georges Brassens. And many years on I posted several Prévert translations, along with other treatments of contemporary French poems, to my first blog, Dick Jones’ Patteran Pages. What strikes me each time I translate is the need to resist the temptation to substitute for some dry, laconic statement the kind of imagistic phrasing that a poet writing in English might feel impelled to use. All too often the direct, the pithy, the economic are anathema to the writer steeped in the cultural traditions of allusion, euphemism, equivocation and circumlocution.

If I have begun to respond to the need for absolute fidelity to the skeletal properties of Prévert’s verse, realisation has come from an unusual source – the blues. Much of his poetry has been set to music, particularly in the boulevardier genre. And there has long been a link between aspects of French chanson and the blues – albeit one more of spirit and atmosphere than of direct style.  There is something in the specificity of focus, the repetition of a repeated theme and the interposition of surreal or dreamlike imagery that creates an association between a poem like Déjeuner du Matin and a ruefully reflective blues like T-Bone Walker’s Mean Old World

Beyond this point all is mere speculation.  If there’s a PhD to be had in the pairing of the French verse of terse personal narrative and the blues, generously I’ll leave the option open to another to chase it up.  In the meantime, here’s my rendition of Jacques Prévert’s Déjeuner du Matin, followed by a set of shorter poems, and culminating in the chilling Despair Sits On A Bench.


He poured the coffee
Into the cup
He poured the milk
Into the cup of coffee
He put sugar
In the café au lait
With the teaspoon
He stirred it
He drank the café au lait
And he replaced the cup
Without speaking to me
He lit a cigarette
He blew smoke rings
He placed the ash
In the ashtray
Without speaking to me
Without looking at me
He got up
He placed his hat
On his head
He put on
His mackintosh
Because it was raining
And he went
Into the rain
Without a word
Without looking at me
And me I placed
My head in my hands
And I cried.


An orange on the table
Your dress upon the carpet
And you in my bed
Sweet present of the present
Freshness of the night
Warmth of my life.


Much water has passed beneath the bridge
and much blood too
But upon feet of love
there flows a great white stream
And in the gardens of the moon
where every day is my festival
this stream sings in its sleep
and this moon is my head
within which there turns a great blue sun
and the sun is your eyes.


White sheets in a cupboard
Red sheets on a bed
A child within the mother
The mother in her pain
The father in the corridor
The corridor in the house
The house in the town
The town within the night
The death within the cry.


Three matches, struck one by one in the night.
The first to see your face entire.
The second to see your eyes.
The last to see your mouth,
and then the darkness all around to remember
as I hold you in my arms.


Demons and marvels
Winds and tides
In the distance the sea has already vanished
Demons and marvels
Winds and tides
And you
Like seagrass touched gently by the wind
In your bed of sand you shift in dreams
Demons and marvels
Winds and tides
In the distance the sea has already vanished
But in your half-closed eyes
Two little waves remain
Demons and marvels
Winds and tides
Two little waves in which to drown.

Note: This poem was set to music by film composer Joseph Kosma (‘Les Regles Du Jeu’,
‘Les Grands Illusions’, ‘Les Enfants Du Paradis’), for the film ‘Les Visiteurs Du Soir’.
Kosma also knew Brecht, worked with his musical collaborator Hans Eisler and supplied music to Prevert’s ‘Les Feuilles Mortes’.


In a square on a bench
sits a man who calls out as you pass
He wears pince-nez an old grey suit
He smokes a little cheroot he is seated
and he calls out as you pass
Or he simply beckons
Best not to look
Best not to listen
Best to pass by
Make as if you haven’t seen him
As if you haven’t heard him
Best to pass by pick up your feet
If you glance at him
If you listen
He beckons and nothing and no one
Can stop you from seating yourself beside him
Then he looks at you and smiles
And your terrible suffering begins
And the man continues to smile
And you smile the same smile
And the more you smile the more you suffer
The more you suffer the more you smile
And you stay there
Frozen still
Smiling on the bench
Children play right next to you
Passers-by pass by
Birds fly up
Leaving one tree
For another
And you stay there
On the bench
And you know you know
That you will never play
Like the children
You know that you will never pass by
Like the passers-by
That you will never fly up
Leaving one tree for another
Like the birds.


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The enduring presence of old-school ska and the various revivalist outbreaks that occurred on both sides of the Atlantic alongside the ever-developing forms and sub-sets of its descendant genre reggae is a mighty tribute to the passion and ingenuity of its pioneers back in the early ’60s. Whilst attempting to capture something of the dancehall drive of the jump-bands of the ‘40s and the thick gumbo sound of ‘50s Louisiana R&B, those Jamaican musicians managed to synthesize an extraordinarily compelling combination of lyrical wit, melodic inventiveness and irresistible rhythmic pulse.

My first encounter with Jamaica’s urban folk music predates its incendiary Two-Tone revival in the UK by a good 25 years. For me the music will be forever associated with that succession of first and second generation West Indians who settled in the terraced and tower-blocked suburban sprawl of South-East London. In the mid-‘60s I was a student at Goldsmiths’ College, the teacher training wing of London University. The main building was situated on the busy trunk road that had the Elephant and Castle as the gateway to the inner city at one end and the long-absorbed villages of Lewisham, Greenwich, Deptford, Blackheath, Catford and the shrivelling edges of rural Kent at the other.

Behind and beyond the college countless bisecting roads named after forgotten Victorian burgermeisters and Boer War battlegrounds linked the territories, each one lined either with flat-faced terraced housing, narrow front doors opening onto the street, or, more respectably, semi-detached late 19th century two- and three-storey villas, now converted into self-contained apartments. A seedy pall of neglect hung over the region, as if decades of smoke and coal dust from the steam railways lingered still. There was no consistent sense of entrenched ownership, no evidence of a stable core of residents whose long inhabitation declared belonging, a vibrant and centred community. Absentee landlords rented out the flats and a ragged tide of stony-faced sub-letting landladies, embattled families, elderly couples who wanted no trouble and students a long way from home ebbed and flowed through the shabbily furnished rooms. Corner shops, unchanged in appearance (and in some cases apparently in stock) since the early years of the century, supplied baked beans, sliced white bread and rolling tobacco to the neighbourhoods. Grim, chemically-lit self-service laundrettes churned the garments and bedclothes of the populace day and night. In steamy cafes bus drivers, off-duty postmen and truanting schoolkids ordered bacon butties and sucked on Pepsi-Colas and pints of orange tea. Dark, sticky-floored pubs served up warm pints to solitary old men by day and rollicking undergraduates by night.

It was the second year of the Drama course. After 10 years of boarding school I was ready for my own place and, with my pal Dick Hughes, I paid the deposit on a flat in a squalid little terraced house along the steep gradient that linked New Cross Gate with Deptford. Dick and I had the top floor – two minute bedrooms and a tiny kitchen with a veteran and stoneware sink and one cold water tap. There was no bathroom and, bafflingly, no toilet. In our anxiety to embrace the bohemian lifestyle we’d missed the bit where Mr. Buddhu, our landlord, had explained that we would need to arrange access to the single backyard toilet with the multi-generational Indian family downstairs. Since they rarely answered the door on which we pounded after a night’s steady drinking at the New Cross House, this access was rarely available. We managed a couple of weeks of bladder and bowel control and baths in the ancient municipal facility behind the college. But having managed to ignore the scurrying sounds at night, we finally drew the line at sharing cheese sandwiches with rats so bold that, when discovered at breakfast one morning, they remained at the kitchen table until they had finished.

A larger flat was found in Tyrwhitt Road. It occupied the middle of three floors and although the toilet and bathroom were shared, they were on our floor, as was the gas meter. (This cooperative piece of equipment wasn’t fussy about coinage and would accept readily one of those old French francs with the hole in the middle. We dangled the coin on a piece of tough fishing twine into the slot and sharply withdrew it the moment we heard the gas ignite). Again, we each had our own room, but this time the galley was marginally larger and it had a hot water tap. What puzzled us was why the rent was the same as what we had paid for the Clifton Rise rat trap. This was clarified for us by the cheery Irish proprietor of the corner shop. It was because all the other tenants, and the neighbours on both sides too, were from the Carribean and the landlord, a Greek Cypriot called Christodoulu, was generous to his white tenants in their adversity. In order to take up the financial slack, he simply charged his West Indian clients higher rents.

The family upstairs of us was quietly respectable. Every Sunday they would emerge wearing black suits and straw hats with lace veils, and white gloves and they’d head off for the Jubilee Baptist Church in Peckham. The family downstairs were in glorious, shamless contrast. They were a young couple called Byron and Lucinda Godrich with two tiny children, a girl, Millie, & a boy, Manley. Byron had a portable stall selling records and sheet music and he worked three times a week, moving between Deptford, Greenwich and Lewisham markets. The remainder of the time he alternated between sinking deep into a broken-down sofa wreathed in smoke and dancing rubber-limbed on the threadbare carpet before the empty fireplace. Lucinda brewed black tea and stirred a permanently simmering pot of bully beef and rice with one child on her hip and the other clinging to her skirts.

Dick and I were made aware of their presence on the first night of our residence. Exhausted by the move (we’d transported all our possessions to and fro the mile-and-a-half lashed onto a single bicycle), we’d had a couple of beers and retired early. I was jerked out of a deep and dreamless sleep in the small hours by the sound of music. It wasn’t the usual dull, bass-heavy thump of unidentifiable music heard through walls; it was a masonry-shaking, pile driving immanence of sound driven by a lurching, rollocking rhythm with the emphasis on the offbeat. I sat up in bed transfixed. The immediate sensation was of being locked in the engine room of an ocean liner, a foot or two away from the driving pistons. But the secondary sensation on rising into wakelfulness was one of delight: what was this extraordinary noise that sounded so familiar and yet so exotic at the same time? It continued for about an hour, melody and tempo varying, but that loping beat a constant. And then suddenly it ceased, leaving in its wake the echo of rattling drums, bubbling bass, a guitar played on the upstroke, creaky, slightly off-key sax and brass and, riding on top, impassioned but largely incomprehensible lyrics.

The following day Byron, emerging from his flat to buy a paper, found me sitting on the stairs, my arms clasped around my knees, rocking back and forth like a child in pain, the skipping and churning having minutes before fired up again. Mistaking my hunched state for acute discomfort, he apologised profusely and turning back towards his door, he promised immediate silence. When hastily I put him right, he grinned, pushed a hand through his unruly hair and invited me in. I was introduced to the family, a cup of tea was brewed and we spent the rest of the morning (on a day dedicated to last-minute exam coaching at the college) going through stacked boxes of Trojan, Island and Blue Beat singles.

Over the next few months, driven by Byron Godriche’s messianic zeal, I received a crash course in state-of-the-art ska. Via the music from the likes of Jamaica Fats, Derrick Morgan, Cornell Campbell and Ezz Reco, I was able to make the clear connection between early ska and the tight-yet-loose swing beat of Louisiana R&B, the first point of distinct influence. Higgs and Wilson and Clancy Eccles introduced me to the greater emphasis on the vocal line. Early Jimmy Cliff brought in the contemporary influence of American chart pop styling, But most intoxicating of all was the surging pulse of the ska that was being recorded there and then, both in Kingston, Jamaica and in tiny studios all around South London, and an abiding love for The Skatalites, Toots and The Maytals, Prince Buster, Drumbago and The Blenders, Desmond Dekker and countless one-hit wonders was born. Although the incomprehensibility of most of the lyrics added to the mystery and dynamism of the music for me, Byron Insisted on translating everything and soon I was laughing with him (albeitt, as a rather unworldly middle class white boy, secretly shocked) at the open sexuality of his favourites – such tracks as Penny Reel and Papa, Do It Sweet, full of uninhibited bawdy joy. And I was deeply impressed and not a little intrigued by the strange melange of political satire and residual African iconography of other songs. It seemed that every area of human experience was covered by ska and all of it carried along on a storming, skanking beat.

Later, after I moved from Tyrwhitt Road to a flat in Lee Green, I used to delight in evening and night-time wandering up and down the roads leading off Lewisham High Street, moving through the merging pools of sound that spilled from one open window after another. Even more exciting was the brief time that my then girlfriend spent in a Goldsmiths’ hall of residence in Brixton (this locality having the highest density of West Indian population in London). I would drag her through the market, pausing at one record stall after another to part with the remnants of my student grant. In fact, a principal cause of our parting was, as I recollect, her always having to buy the drinks and cinema tickets!

By the time I started teaching, first at a primary school in New Cross and subsequently at a large and terrifying boys’ secondary school just off Albany Road, Deptford, ska had emerged from the ghetto. Records had charted and the first wave of skinheads had adopted the more obscure sounds as their signature music. Ska mutated into something altogether more accommodating to the host nation and my interest in its development waned as jangling folk-rock and feedback-happy psychedelia captured the hearts and souls of white middle class youth. The world changed very rapidly and my brief direct relationship with an emergent musical form that carried within it the evolving cultural identity and deep informing roots of an entire people was eclipsed by my own race’s preoccupation with a largely spurious and self-indulgent inner world. I had shared enormous shaggy spliffs with Byron and listened to early Bob Marley through a haze of half-sleep and laughter. But now serial smoking of ‘red leb’ & ‘pakki black’ (the casual racism entirely lost on us at the time) became the sacrament at the heart of the self-proclaimed ‘alternative culture’ and the instrumental functions of the drug as a filter through which to experience the music were transformed into something, in part at least, self-serving and fashionable.

It wasn’t until the sudden explosion of the post-punk Two Tone craze that I re-discovered ska. Music was still a vital force at the centre of my life – I was playing in a hard-working blues band and spending much too little time doing my bit at home. But I’d lost a sense of popular music as a defining element at the heart of a nascent culture. The parade of bands that swiftly followed in the wake of The Specials and Madness brought something of that back for me and, once again, I found myself shuffling to and fro, a white shade of my rubber-limbed black mentor, to the old classics and the new sounds that drew both reverently but innovatively from them.

It’s nearly 40 years since the founding of the Two-Tone label and, as I type, the sounds of The Maytals’ Funky Kingston give way to The Beat’s Stand Down, Margaret. Even in very advanced middle age, I can still ‘Do the Reggay’ as well as any other white fan of a quintessentially black musical form. However, much as I enjoy some of the more off-the-wall hip-hop, for me, a rather unworldly middle class white boy, the West Indian/British Afro-Caribbean nexus will always be best represented by the elemental loping rhythms of pure, mid-‘60s hard-skanking ska.

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