The Vigilance poems (2)


This part of the Vigilance story may sound a bit too good to be true, but actually, it is. You remember that I got talking to this old guy on board the 19th century Brixham trawler ? He told me that when he climbed the mainmast to check the boat out before he bought her, he found that the topmast had a lighning scar in it four feet long. ” I bought a new topmast,” he said.

Here’s the poem.

Vigilance BM76- Fishing

A sky of lead clamped down with greasy clouds,
A shifting sea, a slow uneasy swell,
A wind that hums mad tunes among the shrouds,
The tow-sail’s sullen tug, the seagull’s yell;
Stubborn, the winch clacks slowly, pawl by pawl.
The cable tightens, men crouch in the lee
And look for the promise of a bulging trawl.
The sky rips open like a rotten sail
And lightning leaps as fish do close to death.
Each rope and shroud sings out its idiot wail.
Black seas pound her, stifling each man’s breath.

She straggled home at dawn, a battered stray,
holds crammed with fish, her mainsail ripped away.

If you missed the first poem in this pair, then you can see it here:

The Vigilance Poems (1)


Years ago, when I lived on the Isle of Man, I would go fishing at the top end of Castletown harbour. You could get mackerel there sometimes, and sea trout , though to be honest, I didn’t catch much. One afternoon I was walking along the harbour wall when I noticed there was a new boat moored alongside. She was a two master, solidly built, with a lovely straight bow and a rounded cruiser stern. A tall chap in a boiler suit and sea boots was doing something nautical to two bits of rope.

We got talking. The boat was called ” Vigilance” and she was a Brixham trawler- one of the big, solid boats who cruised the fishing grounds of the North Sea in the 1890’s. The skipper ( who was also the crew) was taking her to Ireland where she would meet her new owner. He had put into Castletown to get supplies, he said, and would be off on the morning tide.

There was something about ” Vigilance” that has stuck in my mind ever since perhaps it was the pure beauty of her lines, or the name, or the fact she had survived so long. I ended up writing two poems about her- and you can read the first one here:

Framed in crook’d oak a century past
From trees whose rings were forged in George’s reign.
They felled a single pine for each tall mast
And tapered it with axe and adze and plane.
They planked her carvel style, boards edge to edge,
From lines snapped out on a tarpaulin floor,
Then stepped the mast with mallet, glue and wedge,
Bound all with iron, made every joint secure.
Steel wire for rigging, wood blocks and hempen rope,
A varnished wheel, a suit of canvas sails,
A galley stove, a brassbound telescope,
A counter stern made neat with polished rails.

Drum tight, sails set and button bright, she
slipped the harbour for the waiting sea.

As always, comments are always welcome.Oh- by the way- the photo is actually her, taken years later.



Late summer. Just outside Oxford.
The train came to a halt, panting
in the heat. A brassy silence.

Beyond the window, empty sidings,
abandoned freight trucks, rails corroded,
overgrown; and in between the points
a stand of silver birch had spread their shade.

a slanting of the light-
a shadow twitches and
there, ten yards away

a fox

Reynard in his red coat.
Unlikely as a unicorn stepped down
from some old coat of arms-
a creature forged from rust and sunlight-
sipping the diesel air, the tang of steel.

A breath of wind ruffles his thick pelt-
ink black eyes in the pale mask
stare unrelenting.A dark flame
burns there-
starless nights, the iron taste of blood…

The engine clears its throat.
Startled, he turns,
steps like a dancer over rails and rubbish,
fades into that green shadow underneath the trees.

Well ? What do you think ? If you haven’t read the first fox poem, you can find it here:

Comments always welcome.



Flung like an old rug
by the roadside.
A dead fox
big as a dog,
his thick pelt clotted with muck,
more brindled than chestnut. Only
his brush blazes in the gutter
like a dropped banner .
I have seen him and other redcoats
dragging, head down, over sodden moors,
or peering out from cover, black eyes aimed
and purposeful as musket muzzles.
They fight an older war, living
off the land, warm and stinking
in dugouts under ground, then
raid the city, treading shadows.
Bellydown by henruns
they plot murder, cast
a thoughtful look at local cats,
die quick, flung headlong in the gutter
by passing cars. Leave nothing but
a pelt of grubby fur, a broken grin
a spattered russet flag.

Walking to the sea


Cross the narrow railway track
where no trains run.
Walk the line of trodden grass
through gateways barred with shadow.
As the last light sinks
into ditches and hedge bottoms
follow the stream, gleaming like spilled ink,
thinning to a wet sheen as it trickles
through pebble beds and seaweed,
seeking a level.
Stand.Listen to the soft rush
as waves break
gently, like an old man breathing.
Lick the salt from your lips, feel
the sand ridged under your feet.

Somewhere a heron clatters its wings
and lifts into the grey dusk.

Train times


I’ve been doing a lot of travelling over the last week or two- once up to Scotland, and another trip down to Oxford- so I’ve spent hours on the train. No matter how many phones, tablets, books I take with me, I always end up just looking out of the window. It’s a privileged position- you get tiny glimpses of the way other people live- a split second of their existence is played out in front of you before the train moves on.

You also get an overview of the country. On the way up the east coast, the railway line follows the shore for miles on end. You look down on beaches, old fishing boats, tiny villages. Going down to Oxford, you move from the gloomy nuclear bunker which is Birmingham New Street to the genteel lanes of Leamington Spa and the dreaming spires ( yes- they do look as though they’re dreaming) of Oxford.

So I wrote a few notes and glued them together into some sort of a poem. It doesn’t particularly have a message, perhaps the tone is rather said, because both journeys had sadness at their core. It’s a bag of impressions, which I may keep…or maybe I’ll recycle them. Here it is. As ever, do tell me what you think.

Train Times


Idling past lock-ups and kebab joints,
corner shops and massage parlours, bright
with neon and graffiti-
“You’re dead Lorenzo”
A passing dog
pauses, lifts his leg to pee
against a post-
I blink-
Bright lego colours on a Twenties terrace-
suburban semis, all with fitted lawns
and baby Volvos
parked in every driveway.


A green river streaming
past the window-
branches, fence posts, hedges, hoardings
caught in the current and carried away.

A sky line waving like a banner,
tugging folds and wrinkles straight,
stretching the fields canvas-tight
for the paint speck sheep.


A bight out of the land, a crescent shore
of splintered shale and rocks
gnawed by the breakers, rank on rank,
and in a scratched out garden by the beach
a blaze of sunflowers.

Day dreaming on paper


Thanks to those readers who’ve commented on my recent post about “pair poems” and using music as a writing prompt.

“Pair poems” first. Pair poems are good when you have stuff left over. You’ve slogged away at writing something which is halfway decent. You’ve edited, cut and pasted, swapped some stuff round- and you have a poem, which might just past muster in the outside world. It might make a serious point with some panache. That’s good.

But you’ve got stuff left over. Remember ” Re-cycling” ? ( read it here if you haven’t)

You don’t just have phrases left over- you have ideas. Look at those paths not taken- they might give you another point of view- and one worth following up. You might just have another, complementary poem just busting to get written.

So write it. You have a matched pair, and the reader can have the fun of seeing two different reflections of the same idea , and will think you- the writer- a real clever clogs.

Music as a writing prompt. Any music will do. I’ve used Vivaldi, Tallis, Byrd- and I’ve also used Leadbelly, Eric Clapton and even the blessed St Mick.I discovered that Satie is really good as a starting point-” Gymnopedie” was particularly good- (I used to think that Gymnopedie was a presenter on the Today programme – sorry- British joke crept in there.)

Look- it doesn’t matter what you listen to- if it helps you daydream, then that’s the stuff to use.Because what is poetry if it’s not daydreaming on paper ?

Venice morning


This is the second poem based on Vivaldi’s music. Music really can be a terrific starting point, the ideal writing prompt.

One more thing before I post the poem. Sometimes I write poems in pairs ( as here)

Does anyone do the same ? Let me know.

Rocked in the slack
water between sleep and waking,
She stretches in the bed,
brushes one soft fallen lock
from her face,
breathes lavender and musk, and sweat.
Her eyelids tremble open.

A tide of sunlight spills across one wall-
painted cherubs in a net of gold-
and soaks the carpet strewn
with rumpled stockings, petticoats and lace.

Outside, the city re-invents itself
in slapping water, footsteps,
and the wash of passing boats. She slips

from the bed, steps silently,
dressed in light, to the window
where her lover waits, whispering his passion.
Breathing in his words, she shivers.

the morning sunshine prickles on her skin.

She turns back to the room,
grabs the filmy petticoats, the brocades
gathering them around her like a cloud
and is gone with him,
her footsteps fading in the busy street.

Venice Evening


Have you ever used music as a starting point for poetry ? Don’t use songs- you’ll get hung up on the words- try something instrumental. Music and poetry have rhythm and ambiguity in common, so you often find all sorts of unexpected pictures taking shape in your mind.

I’ve always liked Vivaldi’s Four Seasons- it was the first piece of classical music which really touched me. It’s very pictorial, almost blowsy in places, but I like its neatness and precision as well, and I used it as a writing prompt for two linked poems which tell a coherent ( I hope) story.

Here’s the first- the second will go up in a day or two.

An apricot light beyond the open windows,
the smell of perfume, rosin, sweat.
Heels click back and forth
on a wooden floor, chairs scrape.
The swaying cello sheds notes heavy
as the drops hanging in her ears,soft
as her powdered cheek.
Marsala in a Venice glass; starched petticoats
and clever fingers, sliding curtain rings.
And after
waking to feel her breath against my skin,
her tiny movements, like a sleeping cat.
And later
outside, black water laps the landing stage,
footsteps, quiet curses, the splash of oars.
Musicians going home, and she with them.
The pattering of rats behind the plaster.
A dog howls in the shadowed courtyard.
Beyond the window
Dawn pales like a bruise.

Late summer


Like a guest
reluctant to depart
the summer lingers.
Trees cling
to their brassy leaves.
Grass, overgrown,
is rank and sour.
Heavy, lethargic, dull.
we wait
for scouring gales
to strip the trees to skeletons,
remember enviously
the smell of burning leaves,
the creak of snow under foot,
the luxury of shivering.