Roman oil lamp

An awkward, graceless, hand made thing,
pot bellied, with a spout
and glazed in muddy brown.

It was a gift.
Who from, I can’t recall.
I kept it on my desk for years.

I’d pick it up sometimes
and feel the grittiness
that lay beneath the glaze,
marvel at the clumsy spout,
all caked with soot,
where once the flame had flickered.

I gave it away to one
whose life was shadowed then
and cold.
An amulet against the dark
two hundred decades old.

On reticence

A group of gap-year tourists climb someone’s holy mountain, then strip off and wee on it. A female journalist starts a campaign to have a woman on the new five pound note ( hardly a wild rebellious act) and is made the butt of obscene, misogynist abuse. The result of an international football match provokes floods of tears and hysteria from some of the fans. Novak Djokovic almost reduces one of the ball girls to tears because she’s late with a towel.

Let’s deal with our Novak first. He’s immensely rich, the height of a tall building, and he tears lumps off some kid who will be paid the princely sum of £160 for the whole Wimbledon fortnight.
This looks like self indulgent bullying to me. What bugs me even more is what he said when confronted with his loutish behaviour.
“ I’m definitely going to try to apologise to her, if I’ve done anything wrong.”
I’ve never seen so many conditionals in one sentence “ try” to apologise ? How hard is it Novak ? “ If I’ve done anything wrong.” – If ? You mean you don’t know ? You don’t realise you acted like a psychotic five year old ?

Not nice.

Nor was the weeping and wailing when England was defeated in the Womens’ World Cup. It was a football match, not the massacre of tourists on a Tunisian beach. Save your weeping and wailing for something like that.
“ Ah,” they say but it’s so emotional ! “ That’s not emotion,it’s self indulgent mawkishness. It’s wallowing in icky sentimentality.

And the crazies who threatened to rape the lady who wanted Jane Austen ( or some other uppity woman) on the five pound note ? They worry me, they really do. I never realised that misogyny could run so deep and so dirty..

And finally the mountain widdlers. They didn’t know it was a holy mountain, of course they didn’t. But maybe they should have. Maybe they should have recognised that there are bits of the world which don’t belong to them, but to someone else, and shown a bit more respect.How would would they feel if someone pissed on their front room carpet ?

Freedom of speech and action is a wonderful thing. Never have the boundaries been so relaxed. We should have those freedoms, certainly, but they bring with them a responsibility to use them with thought and consideration.

A bit more reticence, a bit of quiet restraint, could work wonders in our daily lives

College Green. 6.30pm. Urban fox

Bone white stone bleeds
shadow on the grass.The air dulls.
Outside the coffee shop, a girl
is stacking chairs. A scooter putters by.
The tourists have gone back to their hotels.

A shifting of the light. A slur
of movement, and he’s there,
trotting past the sundial.

No Reynard in a red coat.

Ash grey, sandy flanks
all smudged with mud,
his eyes ink black, cautious.

Rat-back snapper, chicken slasher,
worm chewer, sparrow splitter,
knocker down of bins,
lurking in the shadows
by the pub’s back door.

He stops there in the sunlight,
eyes me over.
Resolving I am neither threat
nor promise, trots away
down College Street and into Minster Yard.

Bedern. Midnight geese

A place of alleyways
and turnings back,
each blocked
with drifts of shadow
black as soot.

Moonlight streams between
tall cliffs of brick,
paints windows slick
with silver.

Caught in the city’s underglow
a dozen greylags flicker overhead,
no higher than the housetops.
They call into the night –
a husky, booming note
like a blown reed.

Love thirty – no thank you

I have decided that I don’t like tennis. I don’t mean the ” Plop ! Bounce ! Sorry!” tennis that I used to play on the municipal courts in the summer hols. That was fun, and we never bothered much about the score. I mean professional tennis, the ” Wapp! Argh ! Wallop ! Urgh !” kind of tennis that is wall to wall on tv at this time of year. How do I hate it ? Let me count the ways:

1.People treat it as though it’s actually important. It’s there – all the time. And when it’s over we get the post match interview, which dissects each forehand slash, each back hand flick. This discussion goes on for what seems hours. Tennis players have a special tone of voice – a dull, monotone delivery where every second word is ” I” as in ” I thought I played brilliantly today and I beat him because the training and my new manager who I selected have taught me how I can win …..” at this point old ladies fall asleep never to wake again, small birds fall stunned from the trees, and I realise I would have more fun pulling out my own teeth.

It’s not important. It’s just two millionaires trying to top up their bank accounts.

2. I hate the noises. The orgasmic roars. The petulant whispers to the umpire. It isn’t clever and it isn’t grown up, so just stop it this instant. I hate the cliche’d vocabulary of gesture- the fist pump of victory, the flinging down of the racket.

3.I hate the way the players look odd. They’re all so big – they have arms like legs and legs like race horses – all those flexing tendons. That’s just the women. And have you noticed that their eyes ( especially the men) are very close together ? And who is the very tall one ? The one whose head has its own weather ?

4. The story never changes. I hate that. All The Grand Slams are won by the same people over and over again. There’s always some plucky English girl who manages to get through to the second round- only to be hammered into the ground.But that’s part of the never-ending, never changing story.

5.The money has overtaken the game. A small band of enormously affluent athletes tramp across the globe, pitting their skills against each other in venue after venue.They’re not playing tennis because they enjoy it – they can’t, surely. Would you spend all your working life hitting a ball at your chum/opponent at the other end ?

They’re just going through the motions.

Thank goodness for cricket, I say. A wonderful game where nothing happens very slowly for five days.

River

From the rock, a miracle.
Water, the colour of sky,
cold as the caverns
it came from, glittering
into the morning world
and down the hill.

Wily as a cat, it twists
and splits round shingle banks.
Shape-shifter scooping deep
still pools for trout to laze in.

Gathers to itself the becks and burns,
the brooks, the runnels and the rivulets,
puts on muscle, hurls its berserker howl
against the valley walls then
cleaves a crack, one man might leap,
and bludgeons a way through.

A sheet of sliding amber takes
the evening light, transforming it
to gold, imparts a fine polish
to wet stones and fronds of weed.

Who would have thought it ?

I had resigned myself to seeing Ed Miliband and Alec Salmond walking, Alec twisting Ed’s arm up to his shoulder blades, into 10 Downing Street. And I was spared that awful prospect. The Great British Public, in an amazing exhibition of bloody mindedness, changed their minds, not at the last minute, but the very last second, and decided that the Tory party was the lesser of the two weevils.

Not only that,the GBP decided to sack Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage. Miliband had to go.He looked like a man who knows every trick of politics, but can’t have a conversation about the weather.
His minders gave him awful, pseudo- cool lines – ” I am primed for power !” he announced the other night.
And ” Hell yeh !” is a phrase which will live in infamy.

But it wasn’t just Miiband.It was all the other dead beats from the Gordon Brown era who weighed him down- Ed Balls, Miliband’s partner in crime in the good old days, bit the dust as well, as did Wee Douglas Alexander, who masterminded the whole sad campaign. They all got it monumentally wrong.

I’m sad about Nick Clegg. He has that earnest, eager to please look which makes you feel sorry for him.I know, he was damned to the lowest fires of hell for reneging on his promise over tuition fees. He was wrong,but I believe he’s a decent man.

I took most delight in the defeat of Nigel Farage. He is the very embodiment of Toad of Toad Hall – the loud clothes, the bouncy, out of control enthusiasm. Don’t let his loutish charm seduce you. His audience is the old, the embittered, the saloon bar philosophers who look back to a time when England Ruled the Waves. Thank goodness he’s resigned….except he’s left a window open so he can unresign if he wants to…that, and the fact that UKIP polled 5 million votes makes me frightened.

I am not a passionate Conservative, but I voted for our local Tory because….because you have to vote…it’s your duty and your obligation, and you should be grateful that you’ve got a say, however tiny, in what happens in our country. And the Tories ? Maybe they’re the least worst choice. That’s why I voted for them.

Why we should feel sorry for politicians

Democracy is a creaky old machine, but it’s the best worst choice.Don’t bother to vote- and you let the loonies in.I’ve just done my bit . A cross against the name of a decent man who cares about his constituents and who, for the next five years, will enjoy modest affluence and total anonymity.

We demand the impossible from our rulers. We want a Rolls-Royce health system, but we don’t want to the extra taxes it requires. We want a financial safety net for all those in poverty, but jib at the thought of means testing. Scotland appears to want independence and a hefty financial leg-up as well. We want the lolly, the cake- and we want to keep our sixpence too. We want our politicians to be as saintly as St Francis and as cunning as Machiavelli.

I’m sure most of them come into the trade with the highest intentions,but in the end, do they stand come up against the old conundrum – do the ends justify the means ? Do they stand up for what they believe in?Or do they bow their heads and become lobby fodder ? The campaign certainties of Red and Blue fade into a world of grey.

We need politicians who are prepared to compromise.I want politicians who will horse-trade, who will engage with the other parties.I want hard headed men and women who can balance their party loyalties with the needs of the whole country. I don’t want charisma – simple competence will do me fine.

And will I get it ? Look at the party leaders, all of them…..it makes you weep.

The canvas and the camera

NPG 4691; King Charles II attributed to Thomas Hawker

I was in London for a couple of days last week, and I managed to achieve a lifelong ambition. I went to the National Portrait Gallery. It’s a wonderful place, packed with paintings of the great and good. It’s fascinating ferret out the secret meanings and assumptions that lie beneath them. There’s a portrait of Sir Francis Drake which is grossly out of proportion – he’s 95% body and 5% head. In fact the painter wanted to show off the silk and lace clothes that he was wearing, and didn’t worry too much about his facial features. It’s quite possible that Sir Francis had a body double for the frills and furbelows and only came to sit for the headshot.

But there was one painting which really stood out from the rest. It was the portrait of Charles 11 at the top of this post.I know it reaches new depths of lo-finess – but I wanted you to have some idea of what he looks like.

The painting is about power, and the meaning is conveyed in two ways. First of all there’s the clothing- rich silks and brocades gleaming and glittering. I wonder if he could have walked around with all that stuff draped over his shoulder.

And then there’s the physical posture and the face. King Charles looks like a man of power. He’s sprawled in the throne of England, legs akimbo. He really owns the space. But it’s his face ( and that’s where the poor reproduction makes things tricky)- it’s his face which gives it all away.I’ve never seen such a powerful portrait of anger. His brows are drawn together, there’s a sneer reaching down to the corners of his mouth. He doesn’t want to be there at all- he wants to be founding the Royal Society or having it away with one of his mistresses. There is a terrific immediacy in this painting, a capturing of one moment in time.

Except it didn’t happen this way. The creation of the picture must have taken weeks. Day after day Charles made himself the puppet of the painter, putting his limbs into the right position.This portrait, like all portraits, is a fake. It has the pretence of immediacy, but it also has a depth that could only be captured over a period of time. The finished painting is an account of the relationship between Charles and his portraitist at the time it was created.

What about photographs, then ? Photographs have immediacy, right enough. They can capture a scene which existed for 1000th of a second. But they say little about the subject and everything about the photographer. Photographs capture a moment of light on skin, nothing less, and maybe nothing more.

I’m not saying that portraiture is in any way better than photography. I would claim that it has more depth. A painted portrait is an account of a relationship; a photograph captures a moment in time, where the subject is often caught unawares. Painters paint..yes.. and what do photographers do ? They shoot.