I live in a city two thousand years old. If you live in York, the past is always looking over your shoulder.  In the seventies, a archeological team came across a stone tunnel. It was the drain for a Roman bath. I took this as the basis for the poem below:


Ten feet below the ground
they found a tunnel
arched and lined with stone,
the trapped air tainted
by twenty centuries of cold
and silence.

There lay in the dust
all the detritus of daily life –
gaming counters, pocket change
and jewels.

Chalcedony, carved with a crescent moon
and six stars for the dead.
Cornelian, grey and shifting,
uncertain as a drop of water,
and jasper, marble cold,
a scarlet bead of blood inscribed
with the figure of a man
helmeted and holding up his sword.

Resting in the exhibition case they split
the sunlight into rainbows,
make the six stars shine again,
give a bright edge to the soldier’s sword.


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I’m putting this up because I’ve been struggling with the writing of it for at least three months. Poetry and I have had a falling out. I’ve been unable to write anything worthwhile since the early summer – and what I have managed to produce has all the meaning and perception of babydrool.

I had this memory – it goes back ten, maybe fifteen years – when I was living on the Isle of Man. I started fishing because that’s what you do when you live on an island with rivers. Sometimes, in the summer, I’d go down to the harbour for mackerel- they used to come  in shoals, right up to the harbour wall. All you had to do was put a bit of silver foil on the end of your hook and they would throw themselves on it. And mackerel brought straight from the sea tastes like nothing you can ever imagine.

Then I found a little river which led down through some woods and into the top end of the harbour. There were pools there, and trout would wait in the shadows to take damsel flies, water bugs- anything with lots of legs and not much sense.

One summer afternoon I  was fishing a shady pool under a weir. I was using breadpaste and sugar…..and they were interested. There were four brown trout, head on to the stream, waiting for a toothsome morsel to float past, and I caught all of them. They weren’t stupid – it took me the whole afternoon. Thinking back to it, I must have been fishing for about six hours. Totally involved. In the zone. I’ve never forgotten that.

The poem came about because it struck me that writing poetry and trout fishing are comparable. You’re trying to catch something which is cautious, fleeting. You have to be immersed in what you’re doing. Does that make any kind of sense ? I hope so.

So- after all that preamble. Here’s the poem:


I used to fish that beck for trout
where it flowed thinly down a weir
to a dark pool beneath.

Below the fizzing damsel flies,
the shards of splintered sunlight
lay gravel beds and pebbles
casting amber shadows.

Trout lurked there, hovering,
winnowing the flow
for nymphs and water bugs.

One afternoon I took a round half dozn,
the line twitching between my fingers,
rod tip dipping to the water.

On this grey morning, frost
sheathes every blade of grass,
the brook runs sullen
under dirty ice.

All things are withered
and stilled
under a crust of cold.

The past, the future….and NOW!

I’m a museum piece. An old dinosaur.I was born at the end of World War 2. One advantage of having lived quite a long time and kept most of your braincells, is that you can get an overview of things. It struck me the other day that I’ve lived through three distinct phases- three periods of time which each had their specific focus.

For the first fifteen years of my life the focus was on the past. The war still exerted a massive influence over day to day life- sweets were rationed and Britain was victorious- and broke. You know the old black and white films they show in the afternoon ? Well life really was like that- lived in a world of shifting greys. Clothes were grey- and if they were really white, then they didn’t stay white long, because the air in every city was sooty from coal fires.

The cultural focus of the time was firmly on assimilating the war which had just finished.Films like “The Colditz Story” “ Reach for the Sky” and “ The Dam Busters” were meat and drink to a lad of ten. I couldn’t get enough of them. Cultural attitudes to women (especially in films) were dreadful. English women only came in two varieties – “Gorblimey Ducks ! Britain can take it ! “cheerful cockney, and the fraught, tense middle class wife of “ Brief Encounter.” Divorce did happen, but was never mentioned. No-one mentioned homosexuality. Ever.

You could say that it was a period dominated by social class and a constipated moral code- but you have to remember that there were other things to think about- recent memories which had to be worked through.

That started to change in the early 1960’s. The Cuban Missile Crisis jolted the world into realising that nothing could be the same again.

It was a sobering thought- but it was also an exciting one. Cultural changes thrived under the nuclear umbrella. Wilson’s “ white heat of technology speech” promised untold technological advances; there was more money around; BBC2 arrived, and colour tv. Britain even had a space program. No more black and white documentaries about knitting in the Hebrides. The Pill, in the mid 60’s, turned sexual morality around.

Paradoxically, a world which lived under the constant threat of extinction, looked to the future. New universities were founded and I was lucky to go to one of them. The first moon landing really did unite the world, if only for a short time; fashion and music exploded into colour and sound.

I don’t really know when this wave of optimism and joy began to break- some time in the mid seventies, I suppose. What had been new became cliche; money bought out optimism and gave us an inferior- and more expensive version..

Then the communication revolution picked up speed. By the way, read “ The Medium is the Message” by Marshall McLuhan” – it still has things to say.

My dad bought me a typewriter when I went to college. Then I switched to an electric typewriter- then an Amstrad Word Processor (76k on a disk-wow!) then I moved on to a Mac Classic ( worked like a dream for years and then served as a doorstop)- and after that, a series of Macs. Each one could do more than the one before. Each one arrived in the shop faster than the one before.

Now we have an iBook, an iPad, an iPod , an iPhone, and a Kindlefire. The late Steve Jobbs would be proud of me.

I have the world at my fingertips. No more nukes. An open, more liberal society. Hundreds of tv channels at the press of a finger.

And yet, because I’m a grizzly, awkward old codger, I am not happy.

Where are we looking ? We’re certainly not looking back at the past- and I think that’s a good thing- but we’re not looking to the future either. We’re stuck in the NOW.

Take Twitter.Ok- it’s a useful messaging system- but when I look at it unreeling, endlessly, in the present and fading now, there seems to be a lot playground bullying and general bad temper. Why are they so rude to each other ? I wonder. And I can’t help feeling that a lot of the anger is synthetic.

Look at television- every new programme is a cheaper version of every older programme. No surprises, ever- that might upset the ratings

I think that what I’m trying to say is that the MEDIA- all of them, have become more important than the meaning. The message is no longer important- the messenger rules. McLuhan was right all those years ago.

So there you are- three periods history, driven by different visions- the past, the future, and now.

Let me know what you think.