Thursday, 26 January 2012


   The February sun
Has dipped beneath a neighbour’s house.
A shadow like a frozen mouse
      Creeps out upon
      The garden lawn
   And Saturday is done.

   The crocus folds its arms
In prayer and hopes the cup will pass.
The moon is green as bottle glass;
      A leper-light
      Invades the night
   And hedgehogs squeak alarms.

   The bacon is all gone,
The ale is sour, the fodder worse,
And misty days are like a curse;
      The frost retreats
      In small defeats
   But damp is in the bone.

    And now the starveling mind
Must whistle in the dark until
A sparrow at the window sill
      Taps at the pane
      Of Spring again
   Where daily it has pined.

   What thoughts against the cold?
I count the many who survived
To light their candles and be shrived,
      But mourn for those
      Who in amaze
   This winter have grown old.

© February 1980

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

The Charnel House

Writing about Archbishop's Luwum's death in 'The Martyr' led me to ponder on death more generally and to this sonnet. It has a tangential relevance in 2012. There is public worry that we are running out of burial grounds! Perhaps as a result of the Victorian cult of the dead the idea has grown that a grave is forever, whereas in previous centuries it was very much a temporary thing. Most people would have been buried, shrouded rather than coffined, in a shallow grave; after a few years, when the flesh had decayed, the bones would be taken up, placed in a charnel house and the grave reused. Very sensible.


A charnel house is like a place of smiles,
Replete with ribs sequestered from their clay;
Relieved of motives they subsist in piles
As tidy as the dust or yesterday.

The ladies come in carriages to weep,
And schoolboys taught to venerate the dead;
But silent are the bones upon their heap,
Indifferent to a kiss or lowered head.

Death is no more than evening in the sky,
A flock of starlings in the winter trees.
We go our different journeys, take our ease,
Are ambushed in the twinkling of an eye:
And when the scuffled business has been done
The bones remain, impressive as the sun.

© January 1980

The Martyr

I mentioned the murdered Archbishop Luwum in a previous poem posted on this blog, 'Urbi et Orbi'. I was very impressed at the time not just by his bravery in face of a horrible death but also by his refusal to cease praying even with a gun pushed to his face. I was also rather tickled that the Anglican Church - I was still a nominal Protestant then - had produced a genuine martyr to join the countless thousands of Catholic and Orthodox martyrs. Hence I wrote this sonnet which really does not do justice to one who confessed Christ in exremis.


In memory of Archbishop Janani Luwum of Uganda, martyred at the hands of the dictator, Idi Amin, 17 February 1977.

The tyrant who is honoured on parade
Deputes his men to turn and keep an eye
That during his interminable tirade
No-one will lift his head and answer, “Why?”

The bodies of the just sprawl on the ground
Beaten or shot like so much captured game;
But though in death they hardly made a sound
Their cry escaped the barracks all the same.

And for the Ruler now there is no sleep,
Only the damage that a thought can do;
The people have their martyr and they weep,
And he has made the many from the few.
The tyrant orders smiles to lift the gloom,
But slowly counts each person in the room.

© January 1980

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Journal of a Tour in England

The news that the government proposes to build a high-speed rail link from London to Birmingham through the Chilterns prompted me to dig out these verses. For decades now, all governments have sworn their commitment to the environment whilst covering ever larger areas in concrete. Ours is an age of mega-cities so I would expect England to end up as one huge city fringed and interspersed with industrial farmland, parks and golf courses. I hate golf.
   Incidentally, Porton was/is the government's nerve gas research establishment, and Calder Hall was a predecessor of Sellafield nuclear power station.


Here is the Avon’s pleasant land
Where oak trees in the evening stand;
But Bristol makes a loud request
For tar and brick to line her nest.
   So we shall build a motorway,
   My boys, my boys,
   A motorway.

Here is a tidal estuary
Where dunlin poke and sip the sea;
But Liverpool has cast an eye
And thinks, “A bargain, why not try?”
   So we shall build a canning plant,
   My boys, my boys,
   A canning plant.

Here is the fruitful Surrey soil
Which answered “yes” to all our toil;
But London with a sullen frown
Self-righteously has claimed its own.
   So we shall build the new estates,
   My boys, my boys,
   The new estates.

Here is a silent, brooding plain
Which still retains a bloody stain;
But Salisbury with a smart salute
Requires the land for tank and boot.
   So we shall build a chain-link fence,
   My boys, my boys,
   A chain-link fence.

Here is an ancient country scene
Where starlings year by year have been;
But Porton with an acid hand
Wants all the people to be banned.
   So we shall build an entry point,
   My boys, my boys,
   An entry point.

And here are Wordsworth’s mighty lakes
Where statesemen farm and tend the brakes;
But Calder Hall is short of water
And like a baron gives no quarter.
   So we shall build a burly dam,
   My boys, my boys,
   A burly dam.

In a few places here and there
The natural sounds and scenes repair;
But Mr Smith is in his car
And on his way to where they are.
   And then we’ll heave the deadly axe,
   My boys, my boys,
   The deadly axe.

For England whose especial fame
Was the lush foliage of her name
Wants Mr Smith to have his due
And cares not what the dryads do.
   So say farewell to England,
   My boys, my boys,
   To England.

© March 1980