From the clover-field the guns have gone
And silver balloons floating fatuous defiance
Have wafted like war-clouds away.
1940, and the soft southern flank of London
Lying exposed and vulnerable
Shifts a triple decade in that leap of time
Which mind alone can muster
And I watch small boys capering
Where the shrapnel fell.
And beyond this field a rising muffled roar
Sends me floating down the ruffled years once more,
Down the frenzied fair approach
Wide-eyed and wishing for a chance
To win a cupped gold watch.
And the cymbal’s lash and hissing organ’s drone
Tug me on, Pied-Piper strong towards the throng
Through candy reek and rapturous rioting sound
To sleek cavorting mustangs whirling round.
Of a sultry Sunday through pine-sweet air
From the further end of that same lane
The sprightly strains of military brass
Bleat out, effuse from laurels, and diffuse
Through dappled birch glades
Slender cushioned firs,
And out to where the heath-end noses North.
The point, distillate of distance,
From where in haze or smoke or glare
St.Pauls would sulk and slither from my stare,
Though my brother always swore he saw it there.
But the virgin marsh meandering
In a million secret ways,
This I always saw;
This was the door through which I passed
Behind the conscious eye
To follow ways of wonder, mountains high.
Now above the cloud-grasping trees I see
A mean field or two (the church is lost)
Menaced by a flank of mammoth cranes
Which stoop to seize in savage saurian way
That meagre green where once we used to play.
From dream ashes, Thamesmead Town shall rise.
Descend the hill to Barton’s Green
Where ancient oak and elm were felled for our delight.
Long since gone the scrambling boughs
Yet heavy still with fragrant fresh shed sap.
And there through Turpin’s gorge
The banks which rose like cliffs have surely shrunk;
The rains have sped the sand away
And filled the sapling trunks.
Descending still, step into shrill urbanity;
Ten miles of trams, Embankment bound and back again,
All day and every day, and half into the night.
It was down this steep (half doped with sleep?)
Half mile to go,
That steel quit steel in centrifugal might,
Crowding sullen streets with sudden blows.
And deep breathed was the wonder all next day,
And deep grooved black, the run-away juggernaut way.
But deeper still the gash in that breached bay,
How incongruous those tangled tons in Mrs. Prentis’ sitting room!
Move from this memory a few steps more
To a small corner dwelling, unprepossessing,
Familiar as a fable or a family face,
A child-brain-branding furnace place
Sitting like a cup in the saucer mind,
Home of all homes is first home
Where all becoming begins.
Here, burnt deep, were first hopes, first fears,
First joys, first tears,
First fierce sun, silent snow,
Ivied summer-house, Christmas glow,
Autumn tea-times, gas lights that pop,
Lurking goblins at the dark stair top,
The clockwork train sweet smelling oil,
The old steam engine, puff and boil,
Piano songsters, gramophone dance
And father flings the Charleston prance.
The catalogue is endless;
How it unfolds and flows
This springtime life!
Can all this sight and sound be dead, time drowned?
I know it lives,
But not in this brick shell,
Nor in a thousand-billion neural cells,
But nestling in the moment which is felt but never dwells.
Ten thousand times or more
Have I entered by this door
Which stands and eyes me coldly as a foe;
How like a fickle place to spurn an old friend so!
I stay too long.
An oyster may be savoured only once;
I gaze on shells.
Manton Road mushroomed,
In that brief respite from war between the wars,
With places fit for heroes who were busy breeding more.
Manton Road is all pin-neat today
Where row-on-row of ‘thee up – two down’ pairs parade.
But I know only hut-land,
The legacy of war,
Which muddled through the victory years
A raw unhealing sore.
My first school-bound ramble
Led through shambles
Of dark brown shacks off dust blown tracks
Where bell-bind climbed, and cockerels crowed
And gold shock-headed sunflowers grew.
This for me with three-year sight,
Bathed in early dew-kissed light,
Was marvel-land, wonderland,
Haunted, vaunted danger land.
As when we passed some certain steps:
‘see up there, the old witch dwells;’
Uncharitable children whispering tell how
‘She will seize you if she can
And cook you in her boiling pan
Or freeze you with a wicked spell!
She was no doubt a goodly soul,
But frail and wizen, bearing woe.
Malicious children also cried that:
‘Steve is a German spy,
Poisoning sweets that we all eat’
(Though strangely none was known to die)
Sad about old Stevens who no doubt had his reasons
For wearing close cropped hair.
He would perhaps have been the wiser
Not to emulate the Kaiser.
The ditch has disappeared beneath propriety
Where once it rode majestically and openly,
Not slinking down concealed and tunnelled ways
But flaunting then a challenge to be jumped.
And I, the youngest, pigmy of the tribe,
Egged on by taunts,
Would catapult myself !
Alas, my spirit far outmatched my stride.
And here house hidden, hoed and turfed
The sandbank lurks shamefacedly,
Through I unmask its simple camouflage.
For this spot marks the scene of conflict,
Trails of strength with lads your friends picked,
Struggles to the death,
(Through you loved them well enough)
With the warm dust flying, and the panther in your breath.
Three hour student, one hour savage;
Cage a cub in class awhile
And then behold him ravage.
School is the world first met,
First isolation, mother-rift;
A towering walled colossus,
Of climbing stairs and corridors,
Of creaking desks and squeaking chalk and wood-block floors;
Roof capped with multi-columned domes,
More awful than a marbled mausoleum,
More splendid than the ancient piles of Rome.
Hands clenched on railings,
Eyes welled with grief,
And there below through bars,
My brother, set apart,
Older, much wiser, a man of the world,
Looking up and waving
Until a summoning bell scampers us apart.
First days are last days,
A beginning and an end,
A turning off to other doors,
A climbing up to higher floors.
Church Manorway now –
A monument in brick to early Edwardian exuberance;
But pierce time, pierce brickwork,
Blind the outer, beckon the inner,
And see a world of sand and plasticine,
Raffia and paint,
And Miss Parkinson, half sinner and half saint.
(I’ll come back and see you when I’m a sailor).
Teachers, morning bright, dais arrayed, statue proud,
Like Livingstone amidst the potted plants;
And the gas-lit benediction
‘Hands together, all eyes closed’
As the vestiges of light creep from the day;
Land seer’s steer,
A kind of horse with tree-high horns;
Our king and queen, with crowns and robes and thrones;
The kind man with a lantern knocking on a garden door,
Strangely sad and bearing brambles on his brow;
The stifling hush of armistice for war we never knew,
And empire day fiesta (half the world belongs to you!);
And the ringing and the singing,
And the maypole dancing May …..
…..But bricks crowd in demolishing the first sight and its day.
What is all this life that is lived?
A few shattered dreams,
Left motifs recurring,
Old familiar themes;
An LP jump-grooved and scratched,
Stylus well worn, the player far gone,
Then ‘phut’ –
A little smoke and silence.
Is it like that?
Like father, like son.
We are become scions of steel,
Sired by metal, of metal, for metal;
And like machines we think,
And like machines we die.
I am old-fashioned;
Metal veneer, but flesh underneath.
Forty years familiarity with gorgon gadgetry
Have bred contempt;
I’ll not be stirred to stone.
Mere music, this I seek,
Not its voice of breath and bone.
Continue up the hill, river-sight high
Past the churchyard trimmed and mown and spry,
No longer rank with centuries of death
But bulldozed clean to clarify its breath.
The child-mind cannot countenance death.
Yet in this tangled acre I would sometimes ponder
Moss-fed stone and rust shaled rails;
Are people really laid in rows like nails ?
Dad told us of a luckless lad
Caught by a farmer up his cherry trees
And made to eat the fruit until he burst.
The fruit fell early from that tree
And found a mouldering earth within this yard.
Is there then an end?
Is nothing left but bleached bones and cherry stones?
I remember window fixed at night
Looking at stars
Until their pin-point light dissolved into my eyes,
And I would think;
If I took flight towards that dust, and then beyond,
Where would it end?
When should I stop?
And then in panic awe
As when in dreams we fall towards a missing floor
I whispered, ‘nowhere, never’.
Simple child thoughts,
But ideas strangely crystallize and set.
Endlessness and I are still well met.
Is there then an end?
There is a continuity of course
From father down to son.
We see first a demigod,
Feared yet revered, loved and yet remote.
Then a man mellowed, full of frail humanity,
The living mirror-image of myself.
I am the last genetic term in a long genetic progression.
Hill-top to the house where Dad was born:
Substantial steps, solid door, sturdy bays.
Strange how I react to this effluvium,
This pungent aura of Victoriana.
Was it I after all who took the earlier role,
Same play earlier act, that’s all?
So that I, now in jaunty sailor-suit
Gaze transfixed and mute
At Aunt Lou, sprouting ostrich,
Home from the Antipodes
And Harry Dipple (who can tipple)
Sprawling on his knees
For his gold on cobbles
By the coach from where it spills,
Seeking still his fortune, though he seeks a second time.
So many tales, anecdotes, family jokes:
I wear them as I wear a cuff-worn coat.
How pervasive the past,
How solidly it roots into my soil.
St. Nicholas Church, how many winters weathered,
Where monks once fished for salmon from the Thames,
Connected underground by a maze of chalky caves
With a passage winding to the “Plume of Feathers”?
Ghosts of Plumstead Past lurk in these parts.
Outside the “Plume” a phantom host and groom
Hustle paunched Pickwickians to their punch and log-lit room;
And down the street at Bert Smith’s barber shop
Locals lost to mind meet over shaves and idly chat.
It’s like looking at a scene-shifter’s lapse.
I watch the shifting play with last act’s props;
Some glimpses gulp enough to span a life and then beyond.
Move on to where the ghosts are exorcised.
And here the air is heavy with cacophony and chlorine;
A revelry of children as they frisk like otter-cubs;
And the bakers at the corner with its warm wall iron stubs,
A bag of broken biscuits and a brisk run home.
Past the public library with he upstairs museum,
Its sharks teeth, stuffed owls and stoats with staring eyes,
Old prints of Plumstead,
Charts, maps and parchments,
Relics from the Abbey and the old gold coins.
Past what was the work-house
(Hard times, bad times)
The hospital they brought me in the sick times, the sad times…..
…..Thrump, thrump, thrump like an angry drum,
Volcano violent, swelling to erupt;
The ear can be a crazed thing, absurdly obtruding,
House size, hill size, mountain brooding.
I am dwarfed, a cowering timorous thing,
Beneath this all enveloping sting.
And the walls wave like curtains in the wind,
Like rock-anchored weeds in the sea,
Till I scream for a Mother’s hand to cool
But the fire will not rescind.
Pain and I were bed-mates in those times.
A bouquet of ales,
Cheap Dutch eggs and cut price sales,
Meat sold cheap on Saturdays, late,
To serve the sumptuous plate.
At this urban confluence
The stream thickens, the pulse quickens:
Crimson doors, a joy to pep in,
Gleaming, brassy, vast fire-engines;
Hollywood culture, flea-pit style;
Roasted pea-nuts, dream awhile.
But dreams repeat and cudgelled wits grow dim.
With eyes protruding, megrim splitting,
Seek a solid world;
And tram-stop waiting, black-night spitting,
Hearing vendors corner-crowing ‘classified!’
Feel a shadowed Europe slowly crucified.
In thirty years I come full circle;
Come to this same spot I never left.
Blood still splatters over placards plied;
It trickles wet,
The blood has never dried.
‘CZECH CRISIS’ August 1938.
‘CZECH CRISIS’ August 1968.
Time is illusory;
The calendar has changed,
But not man’s heart.
A school in double exposure,
Past positive, present negative,
Burnt bones, draped in brick and stone,
Memory’s chrysalis – a few hour’s flame, and gone.
Gone like Mac and Cox and Parr,
And Fanny Wheelan’s dancing hour,
And algebra from two ‘til four.
And high-jump on a hard wood floor.
They bore me up the spiral stairs,
My tibia awry,
And laid me in Mac’s study.
(On a battle-field to die).
Bones that snap can mend,
But burnt bones bear the blackened touch of death.
I see a staircase wind to fire-licked joists,
And silence like a stifling smoke ascends.
All endings grieve.
I cannot leave a grave
But what some part of me rebels
And shouts, ‘not so!’
Arouse this thing and clothe it. Let it go!’
The chrysalis, discarded like a glove
Distracts us from the butterfly above.
From the hillock of the station bridge:
Arsenal acres, score and score,
Sprawl between a prison wall and Thames.
Thoroughfares, full poplar grown,
Fade away to where the powder’s blown.
To where the British Navy
Blasts at proof-butts daily
As a hundred thousand ceilings crack and groan
Then the raging roaring forties:
And that summer afternoon
When skies turned black with swastikas
And smoke that fire-birds bring.
But smoke slowly settles
And sparrows once more sing.
The thunder dies, the storm subsides,
The devil takes his leave and rides
Bares his fangs,
And sows the seeds for bigger bangs.
The depredator leaves his mark;
Could moon-scape or morass look more depraved?
By some strange fate still centuries saved,
An island woodland, tangled and unpaved.
That at least is left.
I’ll take the train,
That dirty, green, electric, London train,
Of the crowds which daily slink in
To that tread-mill, that great ant-hill,
And then trundle out again.
I’ll take the train a single station hop,
And suck my memories dry until we stop.
Pulling out, motor slow, humming like a top
Through marshalling yards, silver scars,
Clattering over tracks,
As the ‘clink, clink, clink’ of shunting trucks
Reverberates down time……
……And it’s Christmas Eve at Grandpa Brown’s,
Where grandpa’s grandfather-clock chimes down
The final Eve-left magic hours
As mothers, uncles, cousins, dads and aunts
Make Yuletide celebrations in advance.
Cheroots and Digger shag incense the air,
And bottles chink,
And bright eyes wink;
And baking smells, and savoury smells,
And Christmas-coming-closer, dwells,
Then slowly climbs the stairs to where I lie.
Tortured with a wild expectancy,
I wait to catch a glimpse of Santa Claus.
And all the while the clinking trucks chime on without a pause,
Their clinking wafting softly into sleep.
The marsh, pollinated with cement,
Now gushes giant fertility in grotesque shapes of concrete
Which flower where the newt streams had their flow.
Here would I go, stealthily, net in hand
Where blossom strands would catch the Windrush and kiss it on its way.
In May-scented, care relented days.
A fly-over flashes by, (That’s new!),
And ‘one-two-two’, resolute,
Withstanding all the winds of change that blow,
Is eye-grasped; and quickly snatched away.
But let’s cheat, let the vision stay….
……Race up the steps and ring three times,
Exactly three; and mind the metre please.
That heavy foot-scrape standing by the door;
It hasn’t moved for forty years or more.
Grandma fresh descended from her four-poster bed
Comfy on the deer-skin (see the hole they shot it dead!);
Uncle Bill tells salty tales of ‘Cutty Sark’ and Tonga
As dad unscrews the bitter-ale,
His thirst is getting longer.
From the fretted, candelabrum-fitted, family photo-stand,
Mother’s bland ‘Brise d’Ete’ gets a warm and clamorous hand.
Cousins two play ‘La Revue’
And race to reach the end;
But Bob commands respect with his rendition of ‘Mazur’
Its wild infections rhythms make our feet tap loud and gay
Until that Magyar bow-sweep sweeps his music clean away;
Now Uncle Dick turns up a bit,
His fiddle seems to sing,
And plays with solemn soulfulness
A piece by Massenet.
The mood shifts, the evening mellows
To songs sung sweetly, sea-songs bellowed.
Solitary Grandfather C,
Lost with Thackeray ever since tea,
Lays his old tome aside
And military stride
Enters trumpeting ‘Steady, boys, steady!’
Dad on his knees like a monk at his vespers
(Reading both verses through bifocal lenses,
And turning the pages a bar or two early)
Sings ‘Old Father Thames’,
And we join in the chorus.
A choral ‘free-for-all’;
Where the bashful and brave
Weld their forces in unison,
Voices in tutti and voices off key;
Passion and glory,
The Indian Love Lyrics,
Love’s Old Sweet Song.
And all the while the ageless aspidistra sways its mime
To the faces in their places on the wall outstanding time.
The train’s pace eases as we glide past St.Michaels
An a host of angel memories take flight ,,
They stir the long stilled air of inner sight
As clustered pigeons fluster in a sound shocked square.
Redbrick and recent,
The building owns no past;
No brass to rub, no hallowed ghosts,
A little coloured glass at most.
Rubric and rhetoric,
And holy echoing words
That volley round the hollow vessel mind
But seldom stay;
For me, by gift, by grace,
Call it what you will,
The word was made substantial in this place.
The word takes flesh and dwells,
The flesh takes form and fills,
And filling all of being, overspills.
This is incarnation,
Sweet Christmas at the very heart of things,
And consciously beheld in sudden springs.
Primroses carpeting the chapel floor
In the candle stillness of a Maundy night.
And a sleep-rolled child mind,
Drained of formal parrot-prayer,
Wings to Gethsemane
And walks in the garden,
Seeking out a lone form
In sweat-grief, praying,
To stand by in silence to show someone cares.
At such times:
When we cease from striving,
Relax our straining,
End our reaching,
Let formulas be forsaken,
Turn from the ark to penetrate the dark,
Praying what we feel
That we may feel what we pray;
At such times,
And only at such times can we say:
Here is what I seek,
This is the way.
All living is a return;
Seed to soil, soil to seed,
A reaching back as we progress in topsy-turvy time,
Remembering this of that year,
Forgetting that of this year;
A stirring of roots,
A shedding of brown leaves.
This is Abbey Wood.
We used to call it Boom Town
And it hasn’t changed a lot.
Outside the Abbey Arms on Sundays
Marshmen meet and swig a pot.
The ‘Klondike swinging door saloon’ still swings,
But traps with straps and jingling bells have gone,
And men don’t seem to sing much any more.
You can see it all footbridge high
From where a once approaching loco’s steam
Breathed on me like a dragon till I screamed.
Over there, marsh-flung and river-hemmed
Lies Crossness, London’s sewer end.
Sordid you think? Not so.
Sun-lacquered mud-flats, reed-beds, rush-creeks,
Wear a simple beauty when they think they’re unobserved,
Which leaves one strangely moved and moist of cheek.
And ships seven-ocean bound,
And red-sheeted barges,
Can sail a summer’s afternoon too soon.
And grand-folk, were they here, would tell you so.
Up there the wildwoods,
Dean-hole pitted, bramble tangled,
Huddle round the ruined walls al green-growth wrapped;
Dreaming down the sleeping centuried gap
Between the dissolution and the restoration spade.
The stones of Lessness now are laid on lawns
Like reconstructed reptile bones earth drawn.
And further down,
Cradled in that bosom cleft of grass
‘Great Harry’ grew and proudly slid to Thames.
Hearts of Oak, hacked from these same slopes, made England great;
Our’s is an acorn fate,
And gnarled oaks have their end.
Is there then an end?
Can all this sight and sound of time be drowned
As Abbey Wood, nightly washed in sleep,
Oblivious of histories and of unearthed stone,
Little knows my coming
Nor the way or where of going,
Nor the inundating fates which flood us all.
The cherry drops unnoticed,
Only earth regards its fall.
But is there more?
I stay too long.
I shadow gaze,
As glow-worm lights wing softly in the dusk.
This double vision of all-seeing yet not-seeing,
Reality superimposed on wraith,
Now melts into the mist which levels all.
The Harrow holds a lantern to my steps;
I hurry on remembering only stars.
And all the while the ageless aspidistra sways its mime;
Well met are we, endlessness and I.