Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Roger Nowell, A Cornish Skipper

If you want to know what the life of a Cornish deep-sea fisherman is really like you only have to look at the 1993 BBC TV series 'The Skipper,' (it's on Youtube). Roger Nowell, the eponymous skipper, was one of Newlyn's characters and epitomised the hard, hand-to-mouth existence of many Cornish fishermen. And the dangers of the western sea are all too evident. In the series, Roger was rarely seen without a roll-up in hand or mouth; unfortunately, the consequence was an early death at 66.

i.m. 1944 – 2010

Rough, untutored, though canny as a gull,
Skilled at all net or engine work to keep
The boat steady although its plunging hull
Risks swamping in the freezing western deep;

Blunt, unsettled, pub-haunting when on shore,
At sea philosopher of the tall waves,
Yarning under the moon in the wind’s roar,
Cursing as trawls are cast and the spume raves;

Wasteful of home life, frugal wife and child,
An eye for high-price fish to fiddle from
The fishing log – a ploy since boats began;
Wary yet by the rocking waves beguiled:
A rag-tag stormy petrel, shunned by some,
By all else loved – a Newlyn fisherman!

© July 2014


Monday, 27 November 2017

Villanelle: Destruction

"Eheu" is taken from Horace's famous lines "Eheu, fugaces, Postume,Postume,/labuntur anni..." (Alas, Postumus, Postumus, the fleeting years slip by) [Odes Bk II, XIV]. Some critics say "eheu" is pronounced as three syllables, some as two, and some with a sort of dying fall on the second syllable making two and a half. For my purposes it's two, although the other pronunciations work well.


Eheu, such heartache, all that was is dead,
Lost to the past like wreckage on the tide;
Chastened, the wise man lives within his head.

Tremble of heartstrings, twined by board and bed,
Untuned to din when love and hate collide;
Alas, such heartache, all that was is dead.

A mate and spratling to be clothed and fed,
But crippling horror when that child’s eyes chide;
Chastened, a wise man lives within his head.

Smash up of home when each from each has fled
Implacable as seagulls on the glide;
Eheu, such heartache, all that was is dead.

Years upon years into the night have bled
And each is changed and to the truth has lied;
Chastened, the wise man lives within his head.

But oh to share again what kissing said,
And traipse, a prattling young one at my side;
Alas, such heartache, all that was is dead,
Chastened, a wise man lives within his head.
=============== © July 2014

Saturday, 21 October 2017

As Seen

This poem is in syllabics with a count of 8 syllables per line. The stanzas rhyme in pairs, ABCD, except the final stanza which has a single rhyme.


That robin on the topmost point
Of the luscious spreading maple,
Stark upright in the June-blue sky
With his warrior’s red-blaze breast,

Lazily mutters a disjoint
Song having discharged his staple
Task of feeding the shrilled “I, I
Of his young; stood down, he can rest.

Lower, crazy-active starlings
Tug cherries from the cherry tree;
Its serried leaves like drooping tongues
Pant in the swelling morning heat.

Frantically clinging to gnarlings
Of string-thin branches those birds glee
In fruit, hanging like drunks on rungs,
Wings clattering like rain in wheat.

Lower again, chink-voiced tom tits
Crowd into fresh forsythia
Like scraps on the wind; voracious
For greenfly they trapeze into

Every angle, living on wits,
Heads blue as the banked aubrietia
Below. Abrupt as loquacious
Panhandlers they flee on the hue.

What a chirograph of being:
Above, the sparrow hawk seeing,
Below, the dowdy wren fleeing;
All sustained by light agreeing.

© June 2014

Friday, 13 October 2017

After Rain

Thistles and nettles after rain
Glow with edenic bliss again

When nothing pricked and nothing stang –
The serpent slept and sucked its fang;

Now raindrops gleam and leafage shines
And light enliquors tines and spines,

The only blot, the slug aslide
The thistle’s rainwashed spring-green hide,

Ulcerous, oozing, a mucous clot,
Emballing to a muscled knot

When prodded in its striate back –
Pockmarked brown and slime-glossed black:

Who can deny, post-eden days,
Old Nick still slithers at his ways,

Saucing spine and sharping bristle
Of nettles and the skin-snag thistle?

© May 2014

Saturday, 23 September 2017

Samuel Johnson: Belated Anniversary of His Birth

Samuel Johnson was born on 18 Sept 1709 and it is well worthwhile remembering his anniversary. In June 1981 I wrote a poem, ‘On the Death-Mask of Samuel Johnson’. I posted it on my blogsite on 6 September 2012. There is a link here. I wrote the poem after being hugely impressed by Johnson’s poems and reading the recently-published mighty biography of Johnson by Walter Jackson Bate. Although I also remember giving up on ‘Rasselas’ after the first few chapters. My poem refers to a number of well-known biographical details of Johnson’s life. Below are the first five stanzas of the eight stanza poem. Those who read to the end will notice the imperfect rhyme in the last line. I was less sensitive to such things in those days; when I looked at the poem again in 2012 prior to posting I could not find an alternative which said what I wanted to say, hence the rhyme remains.



Silent in the toils of death
Sweet pugnacious Johnson lies,
No disturbance of a breath
Mars the thinking in his eyes.
Hard at work and hard at thought
Somewhere he makes headway with
Problems how a soul should live –
Once the teacher, now the taught.

Through the window in the street
Sooty sparrows feed and fight,
Citizens on business meet
To gull each other day and night.
Johnson and his commonsense,
Treating with the tragic muse,
Goes unnoticed by the queues
Wailing for their rightful pence.

Forms decay and mobs go out
Roaring that the streets are theirs,
Protest stumbles into rout,
Looters grab their fairer shares.
Ugly prophets, lithe of voice,
Put their callous point of view:
“Beat your neighbour – when you do
Make it plain you had no choice.”

Yet for all this public noise
Nothing is so altered that
Miseries give way to joys:
Every beggar has his hat,
Every child a bite of food,
But before a cheer can rise
Someone finds with angry cries
A violation of the good.

Johnson, Savage and the rest,
Walking London streets at night,
Talked till dawn about the best,
Argued Tory points of right;
Wary of what pundits bring
They agreed to drink a toast
When they might afford the cost,
“Gentlemen, God bless the King!”

Read the rest here.

Friday, 8 September 2017

A Kestrel

This poem is in syllabics. The syllable count is 11, 11, 9, 10. However, all contiguous vowels are elided, including dipthongs, and all vowels separated by the letters h and y. I think I'm right in saying (one can spend a lifetime analysing syllabic poems, even one's own) that where a vowel is involved in a double elision I dropped one of the elisions. That leaves four lines which are irregular, being one syllable short - including, embarrassingly, the first line. I knew that was the case when I wrote it and intended to regularise it before the poem was finished, but it became fixed in my mind and I could not find a satisfactory alternative. Hence, it remains. Rhyme is used in two places (at the end of stanzas five and sixteen) to indicate changes in the argument, and also at the end of the final stanza.


Yes, indeed, men are busy on this working
Day: the fractious racketing of company cars
      And thundering shudder of forty
   Foot lorries, carrying comestibles to querulous 

Shoppers, gush along the sweaty tarmac of the
Arterial road like packets of data in a 
      Processor; above, on a low-backed hill,
   The napped flint church of the Sacred Heart communes

With its incensed innards, justifying the
Boredom of sunny afternoons with the dozing
      Paperwork of baptisms and banns;
   Across the road on a scrub margin of the heath

Mayne’s travelling funfair, garishly assembling
For bank holiday, is deserted and closed, although
      Behind the dodgems a man and two
   Boys wrangle with the gearbox of a kiddie’s ride,

Forlornly striving to ensure that artifice
Somehow outflank reality. Come holiday, the biped 
      Thinker, unthinking, will crowd the rides, 
   Flung back and forth with the pointlessness of tides.

Walking the heath this mid-spring day the blustering
Wind is chilly, though a blue sky backdrops a flock of 
      Sheepy cumulus clouds, their undersides ragged
   And grubby with a tendency to leak like

The incontinent young. Resolved as trekkers they angle
The sky on a transhumance of immemorial
      Usage, chivvied by a huffy Zephyrus.
   Skirting an eight foot bank impenetrably grown

With cow parsley, thistles and hawthorns rankly
Finishing their flowering – goldfinch and ruddy
      Linnets, crackling like static, were bouncing
   In their musky shadow – swiftly a kestrel

Swept across my view, steel-grey and swathed in dun, dried-leaf camouflage;
Purposive it followed the bank when suddenly
      Swerving and rising to, what, thirty feet?
   It veered out over the couch-grass and hung starkly still,

Black against the wave-blue and cloud-grey sky, its wings like scythes.
Despite the fickleness of the gusting wind
      It held its station like a salmon at foot of
   A slumping waterfall, rocking, dipping,

But scarcely slipping from its chosen fulcrum.
Glib hunter, your beak a barbed agate, adept at tearing flesh,
      Your claws tucked up like babies’ fists, resting on
   Air like a taut sheet, sleek as a bullet, slam as a grenade!

Monday, 4 September 2017


Goldfinch are beautiful little birds with a beautiful non-stop chattery song. I posted another short poem, 'King Harry Redcap,' about them on 15 August 2015 here .


   What a window clatter!
      On wire and eave
      Goldfinch chatter –
Mummers in their livery.
Crimson casques and golden capes
Prank their jumbling oratory,
   Artless to deceive
   Like Philomel in drapes.

   Or sunk in bramble bushes,
      Noisy as water,
      Red-faced as gashes,
Greedily embezzling seed
Goldenly discussed on thistles,
Artisans of present need,
   They prattle laughter
   At the wind’s rude whistles.

© May 2014

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Robin and Leaf

Seen at 8.30 am on Monday 5 May 2014.

A day of rocking wind
   Beneath a May-blue sky;
A loud-voiced robin dinned
   The copse, haughtily high
On a maple’s green crown,
Its song, droplets thrown down.

Flung like a cork on seas
   The robin frankly shrilled,
The tree without surcease
   Quivered and the leaves thrilled
In shivers, flashing pale
Like flags thrashed in a gale.

At once, a leaf, wind-thrown,
   Enfurled that flame-chest rowd;
Unfussed it hurled its moan
   Like a corpse in a shroud
Stubborn to have its shout
Against the grave’s long drought.

Ah redbreast, shrilly brave,
   Would that your hothead song,
Warming the air’s cold nave
   Summer and autumn long,
Might soften winter snow
That the aconite glow.

© May 2014

A Tree Stump

Four little poems which simply record what I saw.



A lime tree felled, its three-foot stump
For days continued drawing sap
From blind-eyed roots which like a pump
Spread liquor on the stump’s blond lap.

Fermenting in the sun’s May heat
It bulked with sawdust like a gruel,
For sipping ants and spiders, meat,
Though flashing like a prism’d jewel.

Such doggedness and will to live!
May I, now dropping hair and teeth,
When lopped by time no less contrive
To dazzle with my final breath!

May 2014

ii. A Tree Stump (Afterthought)

Now weeks have passed that stump has set
Into a shelf of leather brown
Hardened by summer’s grin or frown
And the day’s whim, now parched, now wet.

The grain is glossy, crosscut by
A pattern from the chainsaw’s blades;
All’s polished into hard-gleam shades
As by the weather’s husbandry.

Tanned and toughened like a dried corse,
Aglint in noonday’s heavy sun,
Senseless it sleeps as the weeks run
Dumb to memory or remorse.

June 2014

iii. A Tree Stump (Again)

Two months later, passing that way
In the chill morn of a damp day,
Bemused I saw the stump had sprung
A whorl of leaves, all freshly slung:

Dew-dropped and dimpled as a hand,
Through the grey-walled bark, rough like sand,
Sea-water green they squeezed to life,
Toothsome as vegetables for the knife.

Truly, from the first Big Bang leap
A force in nature does not sleep;
So these frail leaves in the bark’s grist
Struggle to life and will not desist.

August 2014

iv. A Tree Stump (Final)

But in one month the tale was done,
The stump was grubbed; a shallow hole
Of dowdy chippings, shrunk in sun,
Is all that’s left, where cats now roll.

September 2014

© May-September 2014


Tuesday, 18 July 2017

The Paper Seller

This poem is self-evident and based on observation. It is interesting to compare it to a much earlier poem, "Going for the Paper," written during my Marxist phase in the 1970s and posted here on 23 November 2013. Here is a link. The earlier poem is grittier but more syllabic than iambic. It was published in "Tribune," the socialist weekly, as I recall.


   For years he kept a paper stall
   From dawn to noon, in heat and cold;
   The out-town station, rush hour-thronged,
   Knew him as stork-like, thin and tall.
   A decade gone, now bent and old,
He wanders lanes whey-faced, intense, untongued.

   In dirty T-shirt, flapping coat – 
   Bright sun, wet snow, it makes no odds -
   He rifles bins and, poignantly, 
   Retrieves old papers, then to tote
   Them homewards in thick soggy wads
Where window-piled they moulder yellowly.

   Unkempt of hair, with sockless shoes,
   Rifling gutters for mis-dropped cash,
   His neighbours keep a chill restraint;
   His house is dark, like a puce bruise,
   With shattered brick and crumbling sash
And wet rot bubbling under flaking paint.

   But once he bantered, doling change,
   Knowing a hundred folk by sight,
   His papers crisp in winter’s air;
   The station lights must now seem strange
   As, shunned, he shuffles day and night
Clutching pennies to pay his final fare.

© May 2014

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Villanelle: Rejection

This started out as a poem about a failed love, many years ago now, but transmuted into one about the devil - who exists and suffers (regardless of what the foolish recently-appointed Superior General of the Jesuits might say). However, perhaps there is something of the rejected human lover still lurking under the surface.


Rejection is a grief the devil knows,
Undone by slighting of his self-sure love,
Heart-hate devours like canker in the rose.

Thrown from high ramparts where he’d thunder prose,
Baffled by mildness of the lyric dove,
Rejection is a grief the devil knows.

Freezing in hell-ice, each untruthful pose
Grinds jealous teeth at what’s been left above,
Heart-hate devours like canker in the rose.

Regret is helpless; that he rashly chose
Allows no backstep, like a gaoler’s shove,
Rejection is a grief the devil knows.

Ah, smile of gladness in a face which glows!
Instead, crabbed torment in a too-tight glove,
Heart-hate devours like canker in the rose.

No more to bluster in his fairground shows,
Self-sure but undone by his slighting love,
Rejection is a grief the devil knows,
Heart-hate devours like canker in the rose.

© April 2014

Thursday, 8 June 2017

April Heavy Days

These April heavy days of thunderous warmth
Drape palls of fustian in the young-leafed trees;
Robins and blackbirds, vocal in their stealth,
Stalk verge and hedgerow in the heat-full breeze.

Like iodine swabs the thunderheads cohere,
The crows go silent in their startled strut,
Hushed heat throws blankets on the rattling weir
And big-eyed raindrops pox a mud-hard rut.

With a crack, like the blood welt from a whip,
Black-quarelled rain gallons the frothing earth,
The thick-fogged clouds, opaque as mine dust, rip
Thunder through the fir trees where jays take berth:

The down-swamp done, a lop-tongued iris lurches
Tall, and day’s heat steams in the world-fresh birches.

© April 2014


Wednesday, 7 June 2017


The earliest of these fourteen epigrams was written in March 2014 and the latest in May 2015. Regarding the second of the epigrams on Pope Francis (not my favourite person), Mr Justin Welby, who calls himself archbishop, on visiting the Pope in June 2014, and with the whole wealth of Christian art and symbol to choose from, presented him with a potted plant. And as regards the third, the Pope invited the Israeli and Palestinian presidents to the Vatican gardens in June 2014 to plant olive trees for peace; by July Israel and Hamas were at war.


   How odd
That we who daily defecate,
With airs and graces imprecate
   Our God.


   That such as I,
Coiled through with crabbish spite,
A latheman’s lacklust son,
Should prism the pure light
Of words, glossing each one,
   Splitting the sky!

World-eyed Agamemnon slept
Tomb-enwrapped in dust-deep years;
Hellene logos, Christian light
Chest-protuding warfare kept;
Muslim trumpets’ brawling jeers
Struck Byzantium’s ramparts down,
Danube’s wheatlands in their sight;
Waking, Homer’s gods made frown,
Mourning shrines and polis sacked:
Agamemnon’s death mask cracked.

   Moses, Buddha, Christ, Confucius,
Proclaim their teachings, firm as fact,
   Revelation’s not in doubting,
Salvation is to know and act.

   Sui generis their claims
Though not the myths of busy fools,
   Natural law, “thou shalt” and “not”,
Fruitfully nestles in their rules.

   Hence, unproven though some say,
Religion should be lived “as if”
   Things divine were true and not
“Because”, cannily liege and lief.


His going out is from the end of heaven, and his circuit even to the end thereof.” Psalm 18.

The universe is infinite
   Say some,
Expanding from a big bang point
   Say more,
So where’s the centre? Where are you?
   That’s where.

Where consciousness is self-aware
   Say some,
The universe itself is conscious
   Say more,
And self-awareness is the centre
   That’s where.


Though all exceptionalisms I believed,
Such as the American, were for the dogs,
In fact I grandly believed in personal
Exceptionalism but illness cured me.


Why strive to crowd your cave
With young, a girl, a son?
The grave takes all we have;
The young die, Death goes on.


Monday, 8 May 2017

A Mosquito Bite

Note: The first stanza and the final line of the last stanza are adapted from Longfellow’s translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy.


Three quarters through the journey of my life
I found myself within a forest dark,
The straight path lost like an abandoned knife.

Dislodging creepers, prodding crumbled bark,
I pondered fecund August’s many hordes
Of stiff-legged insects blatant at their work:

Some like the beetle, cuirassed and with swords,
Some like the spider with its hard-jawed bite,
Others like larvae dangling on their cords,

Mucously-deporting in the pool-bright
Sumps of sun. Querying the dusty gloom
I failed to notice a mosquito’s flight:

It settled slyly like a flake of loam
On my hand’s back and, slung between its legs,
Innocuously squatted down to groom.

Distracted by the pigeons’ cooing brags,
Moments later a needle-crafty sting
Alerted me the gnat was drilling dregs

From my itchy skin. I slapped – it tried to cling – 
I swept it off and wandered on. Next day
That bite had swollen to a hot red grin;

By day’s end it had wrapped a purple-grey
Wadding of throbbing flesh from nail to wrist,
Immobilising fingers as they lay

Enfeebled in my lap. Three days that fist, 
A heat-stuffed bladder gone obesely fat,
Was useless till the venom flushed and I could twist 

My joints once more. I thought: no insect that 
So suffered would survive: ichneumon wasps
Which paralyse their fated prey so that

Their larvae, hatched, may eat the living hosts
Are emblematic of the natural world,
Its blank-eyed deafness to the screams and gasps

Of plundered creatures. When compassion’s furled 
Like dandelions on a glooming day
And lions do not nestle down with curled

Wet lambs, where is the love which wipes away
All tears and fashions ploughshares out of swords?
That ground of being which insists this clay

Maintain existence like unnumbered gourds
Toppling helplessly on a barren slope,
Described but not explained by blindfold words –

Is it brute necessity devoid of hope, 
A surd, an aimless dream within a dream,
Or is it meaning’s meaning, truth not trope?

Monday, 24 April 2017

The Triumph of Islam

The first three stanzas of this poem (barbarously displayed, unfortunately) were published in the Summer 2017 issue of The Salisbury Review (www.salisburyreview.com). Flatteringly, an Italian translation of the full poem was published at www.vigiliaealexandrinae.blogspot.co.uk on 13 July 2017.


     “That England that was wont to conquer others
     Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.”
                                        (Richard II, 2:1, 65-6)
Sorrowful tramp of boots on sanded streets:
In winter’s grey, sad companies of men
Manhandle Churchill’s coffin with dull beats
Of drum and growling brass. Grown men and children
Sag heads and make their peace, and St Pauls greets
The last of England, mourned in fen and glen:
The state he served, those thin wan faces tell,
Has hollowed like the booming, death-march bell.

Mere thirty years from Pericles’ repose
Refulgent Athens died in Sparta’s fist.
In Ludgate Hill foxish lawyers at their windows
Watched Churchill pass and since have ticked their list
Of state-upturning statutes which in prose
Have sundered epic: mealy “one-world” grist
Which Albion’s beaches ramped with unjust laws
Bringing the millioned umma to these shores.

That stocky soldiery, those weeping folk,
That stark January day, in thirty years
Fast shrivelled to an untamed tribe bespoke
On sink estates of pierced lips and ears,
Their pride as great-strength oxen at the yoke
Neutered by those lawyers’ brats whose fears   
Of nation-love have brewed with other spawn
A curdled rainbow in a sullen dawn.

On Sundays Finsbury Park is loud with trade,
Hijab and djellaba command the scene,
A church where once the liturgy was prayed
Disgorges carpets of a Turkish sheen,
The mosques are brimming, that which kept the shade
Tide-like swamps suburbs with the muezzin’s keen;
Soon, time-old villages, deep-valleyed towns,
Will startle as that cold wave slaps and drowns.

The crop-rich fields and gorse-bedazzled moors
Enfold two thousand years of Christ-men’s cells,
Those chapels, caves, where what’s eternal pours
Through being, fruitful as baptismal shells:
All lost; a rotted people slamming doors
Against its past must pander to the yells
Of ghazis who in church and manor halls
Gouge mihrabs in those age-encrusted walls.

April 2014


Umma – the worldwide Muslim ‘community’.
Baptismal shells – there is a long history in the Church of the use of shells as scoops during baptism.
Ghazi – a Muslim warrior particularly one who fights against non-Muslims.
Mihrab – a prayer niche indicating the direction of Mecca.

© April 2014