I am old, I am old. I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.


I used to look forward to growing old. I had this glowing picture of me, with distinguished grey hair and a kindly twinkle in my eye, distributing Good Advice to my children and grand children, while my wife sits by the fire, knitting and stroking the cat, ( but not at the same time, obviously.) I would be looked up to, the family patriarch. My grandfather (only one, the other died years ago) was like that.

Well I got the distinguished hair. It’s a bit thin on top, but I have lovely silver sideboards. I look like the meeter – and-  greeter that the BBC wheels out  to meet  political bigwigs, who have come to have their noses tweaked by John Humphries. He looks like an ambassador. I could do that.

I’m a bit short on wisdom though. It’s not quite that. I have wisdom but….it’s irrelevant.  I can talk about the Elizabethan theatre, the history of my city of York, the wingspan of a Supermarine Spitfire ( 32’ 6”) if you’re interested, or the back catalogue of the Stones – but no-one is really interested any more. I do not understand the social media. Why do they all talk to each other in unintelligible abbreviations ? What’s wrong with the phone ?

Why do they have to take a picture of themselves every three minutes ? Do they doubt their very existence ?

I still use email. For special friends, I will write a letter. Remember ? That pen and ink stuff ? I can sometimes use Twitter, but it’s a matter of stab and see where you get to.

And all this is entirely irrelevant. It has always been the same. We old codgers have had our day because that’s  evolution, man. We’re irrelevant now, and extinct soon.

And we asked for it. Take one tiny aspect of daily life – fashion. Fashion is for the young and for elegant mature ladies. Not old guys. Beards are fine for hipsters, with tartan shirts and climbing boots. But any man over sixty should never grow a beard- you should have got that out of your system forty years ago. Look at Jeremy Corbyn ( difficult, I know, but do try) He looks (a) as though he’s forgotten to shave and (b) like Dr Shipman the Mad Medic. It’s a uniform – they all look the same.

Old geezers should never, under any circumstances, show their legs. Old male legs are indistinguishable from chicken legs in Sainsburys. And the shorts they  wear !  Great bags of canvas rippling in the breeze ! It just looks wrong, guys ! Get a pair of nice chinos and a summer jacket and you look like a film director.

And don’t wear replica football shirts either. You look like a wazzock. Stretched tight over a beer belly and balanced on skinny legs, you do not do yourself justice. And don’t wear sandals, don’t wear socks with sandals – just quit the whole sandal thing. Without, your feet look like lumps of  squashed haddock.And the toenails ! Chipped and splintered and discoloured like lumps of Roman rooftile.  And with socks ? No ! The horror ! The horror !

Mind you, I have come a fashion that is totally the fault of Young Dudes – and that is a too tight suit with shoes – but no socks ! Can you imagine what it’s like in there ? Slippery and reeking with footpong ! Is this likely to pull the birds ? Maybe -how should I know ?

No – it’s time to step back and let them get on with it. 

Every twenty four hours a day becomes history.

That’s profound, that is.

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” a tough reasonableness…..”


Well, he looks tough enough, doesn’t he ? Meet Andrew Marvell (1621-78) poet, politician and sometime private tutor. We’re going to look at some of his work in a moment, but let me fill in some of his biographical details.

He was the son of a clergyman ( also called Andrew Marvell) and was born in East Yorkshire. It’s a lovely area, rolling wolds leading to the coast. But it can be pretty bleak at times. East Yorkshiremen are a tough breed and young Andrew was no different.

After university, and the obligatory grand tour round Europe, he came back to England at the time of the Civil War. This was a long and bloody conflict between Parliament and King Charles 1, lasting nearly ten years. As in most civil conflicts, there were zealots at each end of the spectrum, but most people were simply unsure about who, if anyone to support.

For a while Andrew dallied with the Royalist side- he even considered becoming a Catholic- but in the end he chose to be private secretary to Sir Thomas Fairfax, one of the Parliamentarian generals.

Part of his duties was to act his private tutor to Fairfax’s daughter, Ann. The Fairfaxes had a house at Nun Appleton- a village outside York, and it was there that Marvell wrote ” Upon Nun Appleton House”- now you might think that he would write about the war- but he chose to write about the things which do not change, rather than the things that it do. It’s a poem about fields and woodlands, rivers and fishing. It’s a kind of oasis in the middle of all the fighting.

After the war – in which he had spent writing propaganda- he became a Member of Parliament for Hull. And he was a successful politician too.

His poems divide neatly into the public and the private.” A Horatian Ode” is a poem about Cromwell, but it’s no panegyric. Marvell writes in a finely shaded, allusive style, giving Charles 1 as much credit as Oliver Cromwell”

His private poetry is wild, fantastical and rude. ” To His Coy Mistress” is a seduction poem- immensely clever, not too crude, but crude enough to remind you what he’s writing about.

In ” Bermudas” he creates a lush, exotic jungle, a paradise for the Puritan exiles who come ashore.

But… damn ! I’ve run out of words ! I have this rule that no blog piece should be longer than 450 words…and I’m there already !

I’ll have to do a Part 2. Next time I want to tell you about his cleverest, most intriguing poem…… back, as they say, after the break.

Clever, frail and tortured


No- I haven’t forgotten the Five Desert Island Poets. So far we’ve had Fanthorpe, Smith and Donne.

Number Four is John Clare. Never heard of him ? Doesn’t matter. He was almost forgotten until he had a sudden and well deserved revival thirty years ago.

John Clare was a countryman, born in Northamptonshire in 1798. The son of a farm labourer he was used to bad weather and poor food. He went to school, though, and soon became an avid reader. His first job was as potboy at he local pub, then he was a gardener and finally worked in the fields like his father. He had started writing by this time, imitating his favourite poets.

He married in 1820 and fathered seven children.

His first major work was “ “The Shepherd”s Calendar” in 1827, and, though it’s regarded as a major poem now, it flopped then. He was forced to hawk it round he villages himself. The stress of providing for a family, his own physical frailty, his feeling of isolation from his peers all led him to drink and depression, and in 1837 ( after some poetic success) he voluntarily entered a private asylum, where he stayed until 1841. Then he escaped back home- it didn’t work out- and he was admitted to Northampton General Lunatic Asylum ,where he stayed until his death in 1864.

There you have the bare bones of his life. Before we get on to his poetry, let’s consider the kind of world Clare lived in, for it was a very different one from our own.

To start with, there were fewer people in the street. The population of the UK in the eighteenth century was around 13 million, against the 70 plus million today. If there were fewer people around, then your relationships with the ones that were there would be all the more intense. You bumped into the same people day after day for all your life. Most people lived and died within a ten mile circle.

The only mass medium was the newspaper- and they were so expensive that their audience was limited to the affluent.

Society was a layer cake of different social classes, and Clare was pretty near the bottom.

Outside the cities, there was a silence that we cannot imagine. No traffic noise. No radio or tv. No digital media.

Life had not really changed for the agricultural labourer for hundreds of years

Keep that in mind when we come to look at his poems.

Which we are not going to do now- because (a) I don’t want to load you down with a great heap of words and (b) I’m typing this in a very cold room and my finger ends are turning blue with cold SO keep this frail, clever, tortured man at the back of your mind until we come back to him- and his poetry- another time.

John Donne 1572-1631


Look at this man. Face like an axe blade, a sensualists’s mouth. What is he looking at, out of the frame ? A pretty woman ? Probably.

This is John Donne .
The shape-shifter. Born a Catholic in a time of persecution, he knew family members who had been hanged, drawn and quartered. Around the time this portrait was painted, he was toying with aetheism- which was also punishable by death. Later in his life he became an Anglican and ended up Dean of St Paul’s. He was The Man Who Loved Women ( “a great frequenter of plays..and ladies” said a contemporary.) His erotic poetry is so powerful, you have the feeling he’s just jumped out of bed to write it down, leaving the girl asleep under the covers.

When he did marry, he made an unfortunate choice- the niece of his master, Sir Thomas Egerton, who did not approve. Donne was put in prison until the marriage was proved valid. They were banished to to a village in Surrey, where he scratched a living as a lawyer, working at the kitchen table as a pack of children played around his feet.

Then he began a second career….this time as an Anglican priest. In 1615 he was made a Doctor of Divinity at Cambridge and by 1621, he was Dean of St Paul’s.

By this time, the libertine had turned into … a kind of mystic. The erotic passion of his early years had turned into something deeper. You could say that he began a love affair with God- full of joy and doubt, pleadings and exulations. His religious poetry still has the same passion and drive, intellectual toughness and theatricality- but he’s talking to, shouting at…God.

Remember that I said the two main subjects of poetry are sex and death ?

He did both, often at the same time.

Next time we’ll look at one of his sonnets. It’s tricky, contradictory, and hard to understand.

So be there.

Right ?

Who’s first on the desert island ?

UA Fanthorpe.

She didn’t like her first name, which was Ursula, and was hence always called “UA.” She taught English at Cheltenham College for 16 years and then left to be a secretary and receptionist at Bristol hospital. It was there that the patients, their anonymous suffering and  quiet lives, provoked her to write.

She writes about “ the permanently rickety, elaborate structures of living” which we all create to maintain our lives and relationships. Her style is modest ,deceptively  simple and shockingly powerful. She describes a life of out-patient appointments,visits to X-ray, family visits, and ultimately death- the last scene of all.

“…..there the actor lies

Alone, and in the long dim hours explores

Dissolving senses .”


“ Patient, she sat in a wheelchair

in an x-ray department waiting

for someone to do something to her”

Notice the ambiguity of “ patient”, the pause after “waiting” and the hopelessness of “someone” and “something.” And what about the simple language, which gives you just enough to see the picture, but leaves you, the reader, to create the emotion behind it.

But you would  be wrong to think that her work was relentlessly glum. She had a sharp sense of humour. She  inhabits other times and places, explores territory you think you’re familiar with, and gives it a twist, releasing something fresh and funny as she does so.

She describes Christ, frustrated at his dim disciples, trying to get them to understand what he means:

“I am tattooing God on their makeshift lives” he says, “ My Keystone Cops of disciples , always/ running absurdly away or lying.”

She conflates the Royal Family and the Archers:

“They’re loyal to their fans, they never stray.

Death changes the cast list, but not the play.”

And sometimes she writes something  so simple, so powerful, that creeps up on you and hits you in the solar plexus.

Have a look here.


This is one of her best. I challenge you to read it aloud without filling up

Step right this way, UA- the palm trees are over here.