Category Archives: Poetry

Of Rifted Rocks and Ghoulish Green Men

Staffordshire Moorlands

The Staffordshire Moorlands are nothing if not a surprise. In the formative years of my exploration of the Peak District, I was astonished to discover that a sizeable portion of the gritstone uplands of Britain’s most popular national park, including the village of Flash, at 463 metres (1,519ft) above sea level the highest in Britain, lie within the administrative county of Staffordshire, more famous perhaps for pottery, Stoke City football team and the dolesome Alton Towers amusement park. More recently, as I find my time increasingly consumed by worldly concerns, it is among the nearby hills and dales of the Peak District that I find solace.

So with Hallowe’en fast approaching, the turning of the year echoed in the turning of the leaves to amber hues, I had hitched a lift from an old friend to the market town of Leek, from where I intended to make the long journey home to Manchester on foot.

Approaching the hamlet of Upper Hulme along Whitty Lane, the sky to the west began to cloud over grey and the fresh smell of cold air heralded light rain, which soon turned into a heavy downpour. Before long I found myself beneath the slim finger-like battlements of Hen Cloud – Cloud being a Staffordshire dialect word for hill – and sought to take shelter in a small wooden shed, which had been erected by the side of the road. These impressive towers of Carboniferous stone extending almost vertically into the leaden sky constitute the most southerly outcrop of the gnarled and contorted sandstone escarpments that are collectively known as the Roaches, their name being taken simply from the French word for rock.

By the tiny dwelling I was accosted by a man bedecked in dark green waterproofs, clasping a large and slightly threatening pair of binoculars. “Can I help you?” he ventured, and for a moment I wondered if, given recent seismic political movements in the country, the Countryside Rights of Way Act 2000 had overnight been repealed and I was trespassing on ‘his’ land. I subsequently noticed that I was standing beside a large and colourful banner proclaiming the work of the Staffordshire Wildlife Trust, which I had not previously noticed having been cocooned within the hood of my waterproof jacket in a vain attempt to keep out the driving rain.

Hen Cloud, Roaches, Staffordshire

The gentleman in question was not an irate gamekeeper but rather an enthusiastic volunteer named David who wanted to show me a pair of nesting Peregrine Falcons who had taken up residence some weeks earlier in the lofty fingers of Hen Cloud. “Do you see that central finger of rock, up there?” he pointed through the now stair-rod thick rain to the top of the aforementioned hill, “well, if you drop down on the crag about fifteen feet you can just see where the nest is.” I couldn’t see a thing and David offering the use of his steamed up binoculars made little difference, but for a good twenty minutes the pair of us stood there in the criminally torrential rain, two relatively sane, intelligent men, becoming increasingly saturated, trying to spot a pair of nesting birds of prey who probably had far better sense and were bunkered down within a protective crevice high up on the south face of Hen Cloud waiting for the storm to pass. In many ways I wanted to prolong this very British folly but I made my excuses to David, consulting both my watch and map, thankfully both contained within a waterproof casing, as to the next leg of my journey, and left him to his stewardship of the mighty Peregrines of Hen Cloud in the rain.


Don Whillans Hut

Nestled beneath the lower escarpment of the Roaches, half enclosed by the earthen-red rocks themselves, stands Rock Hall, formerly a summer house of the Roaches Estate, now owned by the British Mountaineering Council and given the epithet of the Don Whillans Memorial Hut. Don Whillans, a dour, stocky Salfordian with as much a taste for scrapping as for making breakthrough climbs on northern grit during the 1950’s with his buddy Joe Brown, is a bit of a hero of mine. Don, who grew up on the hard knocks streets of post-war Salford in Greater Manchester and quite literally punched above his weight when it came to breaking into the elitist world of British climbing, put up some of the landmark climbs on Peak District grit, most notably, at the Roaches. In his beautifully written biography of Whillans “The Villain” Jim Perrin describes how on 21 April 1951 Don had travelled to Leek by bus and having walked up to the climbing crags on the lower tier of the Roaches had watched as Joe Brown’s second had been unable – or unwilling – to follow the line of Joe’s ascent of Valkyrie buttress. Don had quickly volunteered to take up the slack, sprightly following Joe up the route that they later named as Matinee (grade HVS 5b) because of the crowd that had gathered to watch the spectacle. This was the first recorded climb of these luminaries who would go on to revolutionise traditional climbing. Just three years later Joe Brown and Don Whillans would have moved on from the gritstone crags of the Roaches, via the volcanic crags of Clogwyn Du’r Arddu in Snowdonia, to the lofty needles of the Alps, making the first ascent of the Petit Dru West Face, Chamonix in 1954.

Whillans went on to be a leading figure in the British mountaineering community of the 1960’s and 1970’s completing the first ascent of the Central Pillar of Freney on Mont Blanc with Chris Bonington and Ian Clough in 1961, the first ascent of the Central Torres del Paine, Patagonia again with Chris Bonington in 1963 and most famously the first ascent of the south face of Annapurna with Dougal Haston in 1970. Don Whillans sadly died in his sleep on 04 August 1985 – he was just 52 years old.

As I ascended the climbers’ steps at the rear of Valkyrie Crag to the second tier of the Roaches, the weather turned from inclement to tempestuous. The occluded Atlantic front which earlier that day had swept across the Western Approaches of the British Isles now slammed into the elevated ridge of the Roaches with all the malignant force of the wailing Banshee supposed to inhabit the moorland tarn known as Doxey Pool, beside which I now stood. Surmising that the Banshee’s curse had certainly come upon me by virtue of hail stones like shot pellets which now dug themselves into the saturated sandy ground around me with sufficient velocity to create tiny craters, I struggled manfully away from the accursed pool with as much speed as I could muster, soon arriving at the white washed ordnance survey triangulation pillar that marks the highest point along the ridge. I continued bravely northwards, losing some altitude through the swirling mists and biting hail, until I caught a glimpse of a sizeable object sheltered in the lee of a dry stone wall.

Being chilled thoroughly to the bone by precipitation as cold as a widow’s elbow, I considered the possibility that first stage hypothermia had set in and as a consequence I was hallucinating, when the object in question assumed the tangible form of an ice-cream van, its colourful logos enthusiastically advertising ice-cold drinks, various flavours of ice cream and cheerfully exhorting me to ‘have an ice day!’ Salvador Dali himself could not have conjured up such a surreal juxtaposition. I considered ordering a ‘ninety-nine’ but my fingers were too cold to open the pocket in my rucksack where I had stashed away some lose change. Thinking better of it I pushed on and as I followed what sometime earlier that day had been a path but now was most definitely a stream, towards Gradbach Wood, the hailstones ceased their torrent of abuse, and in their place came a relatively welcome fine British drizzle.


Lud’s Church

Amongst the mixed deciduous woodland of Back Forest on the north facing slopes of the Dane Valley, where larch, pine and hazel give way to a plantation of slender silver birch trees, is hidden a narrow chasm, sunk some twenty metres into the fractured millstone grit. My understanding of this curious feature is that it is post-glacial in origin, most probably having formed following the retreat of the ice caps at the end of the most recent glacial maximum, some twelve thousand years before present. It is essentially an expansion crack, as might appear as the result of settlement in the plasterwork of new buildings. In much the same way, as the weight of ice was removed from the land and isostatic uplift resulted in geomorphological instability, the rock has fractured, moving several metres into the Dane Valley, itself a product of glacial run-off waters, the line of fracture exploiting weaknesses in the Carboniferous rocks that may have existed for millions of years. This geomorphological phenomenon is known locally as Lud’s Church, the etymology of which is anything but certain.

The verdant chasm known as Lud’s Church

Myth’s and legends gather about Lud’s Church just as the emerald mosses, ferns, grasses and liverworts cling to the near vertical walls of the chasm. Being in shade for much of the year, the direct rays of the sun only penetrating the depths of the ravine during the season around midsummer when the midday sun is directly overhead, Lud’s Church provides the perfect habitat for woodland species that are able to exploit the dank, moist ledges, crevices, corners and fissures in the rock face on the cavern walls. Rock ledges are garlanded with Oak and Holly Ferns. Wood sorrel grows in abundance among Elegant Silk Moss (pseudotaxiphyllum elegens) and Crescent-cup Liverwort (lunularia cruciata) and where the dominant species allow, waxy green lichens such as Sticta Canariensis take a hold, punctuated by the occasional cluster of Cladonia coccifera or devil’s matchsticks.

Followers of the 14thCentury non-conformist preacher John Wycliffe, known as Lollards, were thought to have met at Lud’s Church for religious worship in order to avoid persecution. It is believed that following one such secret meeting a notable Lollard, Walter de Ludank was arrested here, the chasm thereafter taking his name.

A popular misconception holds that the term Lud’s Church is associated with the Luddite movement of the early 19thCentury. This is no the case. Luddites were textile workers, mainly in the north of England, who protested against the mechanisation of the textile industry by the deliberate vandalism of new weaving technologies such as stocking frames and power looms. Any similarity in name is purely coincidental. Despite these associations, and further legends that other notables employed the chasm as a refuge from authority, including Robin Hood, Friar Tuck and Bonnie Prince Charlie, is more likely that the name ‘Lud’ has a much older etymology and may be Celtic or pre-Christian in origin.

Sir John Rhys, the 19thCentury pioneer of Celtic philology, identified several characters from the collection of medieval Welsh folk tales known as the Mabinogion as potential Celtic deities. One such character is Nudd, whom Rhys believed to be cognate with the Roman-British deity Nodens, or Núadu in the Irish literature. It was Sir John’s belief that three specific characters from the Mabinogion could be linked to the deity of Nudd, these being Lludd Llaw Eraint (Silver Hand) father of Creiddylad who appears in the Arthurian tale of How Culhwch won Olwen, Lleu Llaw Gyffes (Skilful Hand) whom appears in the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogion and Lludd ap Beli, ruler of the Island of Britain and brother of Llefelys, the primary characters in the brief tale of Lludd & Llefelys. Rhys, partly influenced by the French historian Henri d’Arbois de Jubainville, went even further to suggest the existence of a pan-Celtic deity combining all of these characters known as Lugus (Hutton, 2013). It was this association that linked the name of Lud’s Church in Staffordshire with worship of the pagan god Nodens. In contemporary times Lud’s Church is still an important location for those practicing the Wiccan or neo-Pagan path of spirituality to which the presence of a votive coin log in the main chamber of the chasm attests. 


Gawain

Taking medieval linguistics as prima facie evidence, scholars generally agree that the Staffordshire Moorlands are the dialectal epicentre of a piece of late 14thCentury poetry written in Middle English, known to the British Library as manuscript Cotton Nero A. xbut more widely known as the tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. This surviving manuscript, which would easily fit in the palm of your hand, was held in a private collection in Yorkshire during the 16thand 17thCenturies. It was first edited and printed in the original Middle English in 1839 and most famously translated into modern English by JRR Tolkien and EV Gordon in 1925.

Thought to have been transcribed around 1390, the alliterative poem is without doubt one of the finest examples of medieval poetry in the English tongue and tells the story of a young, perhaps somewhat naïve knight of King Arthur’s court named Gawain whom is challenged to a rather gruesome duel by a most curious and unearthly creature.

The Story begins at Christmas time as the King’s courtiers are enjoying the commencement of a fortnight of feasting, when the festivities are disrupted by the arrival of a ghastly creature, half man half ogre who seemingly unchallenged rides into the court astride a green horse, himself dressed in garments of emerald green, his hair and skin the very same colour. The uninvited guest lays down a challenge before Arthur and his knights, that he will permit any such knight brave enough to take up the challenge to strike him at the neck with an axe, on the understanding that the very same knight will seek out the green ogre at the turning of the year to receive from him the very same blow. Thinking he cannot possibly lose this strange engagement, the young Gawain steps forward to accept the challenge and with a single swing of his axe cleanly smites the Green Knight’s neck, the severed head coming to rest at the feet of King Arthur himself. The assembled guests look on in horror as the beheaded Green Knight steadies himself, then grasping the bright green locks of hair, picks up his own head from the reed strewn floor and turning to Gawain, repeats the terms of the pledge, counselling Gawain to keep his word or be forever known as a coward. With all mouths agape the Green Knight mounts his green horse and, head in hand, gallops from the hall. Over the course of a year, Gwain is forced to overcome many obstacles and temptations before he ultimately finds his way to the Green Chapel, with which Lud’s Church is colloquially associated, to keep his ominous appointment with the ghoulish Green Knight, the outcome of which I will refrain from revealing.

God Speed by Edmund Blair Leighton, 1900

Naturally, doubt exists as to the validity of the transposition of a fictional story onto an actual geographic location, but standing within the richly abundant cascade of verdant plant life, everywhere alive with the whispered drip, drip of water, it is easy to see how the human imagination could transform the deep, narrow rock chasm into the cathedral nave of some long forgotten nature cult, or the great hall of some malign ogre or pagan god.

Emerging from the rank foliation of Lud’s hidden Church, blinking in the now brilliant sunlight of early afternoon, I saw ahead of me the outcrop known colloquially as Castle Rock, where I found a suitable prospect from which to view the valley below. Vaporous pennons of mist rose incrementally upward from the body of the forest, the saturated trees exhaling into the clearing sky, patches of blue breaking apart the sulphurous clouds. Having rested, I descended through the forest to Gradbach Mill, no longer a place of textile production but a beautifully situated youth hostel, alongside which, by means of a narrow stone bridge I crossed the ebullient waters of the River Dane, into Cheshire.

Macclesfield Forest

At Heild End Farm I crossed the A54 Buxton Road and wound my way passed a fine, though slightly dilapidated two storey barn, its slate roof still more or less intact, an ideal place to shelter from a storm or even spend a night, should one find oneself benighted on the moor, and dropped into the vale of Wildboarclough. By the time I reached the Crag Inn the weather had turned around again and the fresh smell of rain and the vanguard of descending, distended drops forced me to stop and adjust my clothing. The east slope of Shuttlingsloe is the steepest of the sharks-fin hill, known locally with much conviviality as the Cheshire Matterhorn, and I certainly felt the pull of gravity on my calf muscles as I laboured my way to the hills crazy-pathed summit.  Sticking my head above the outcrop of Chatsworth Gritstone on the south east edge of the hills summit plateau, I was met with a blast of cold, damp air a across the Cheshire Plain translucent sheets of rain swept inwards, propelled by cadaverously oppressive clouds. I elected not to linger and instead descended rapidly to the north and the relative shelter of the Sitka Spruce plantations of Macclesfield Forest, finding shelter beneath the interlaced branches of pine needles as swathes of sleet blew in form the west. 

To the north I took refuge from the inclement weather inside one of the jewels of the western Peak District. As the dates above the gabled entrance indicate, the Forest Chapel, or Saint Stephen’s Church as it was consecrated, was almost entirely re-built in 1834 following a fire, but stands on the site of a former chapel of ease constructed in 1673, the stone bearing this inscription having been preserved from the original building. To step inside the Forest Chapel is to step backwards in time to the austere non-conformist existence of the generations who have eked out a harsh living from the bleak Pennine moorlands since the Royal Forest of Macclesfield became common land in the 15thCentury. 

Saint Stephen’s Church, commonly known as the Forest Chapel

I sat for some time as rainwater from the stone-clad roof collected in the lead guttering and splish-splashed onto the paving outside, until ultimately the light in the chapel brightened and brief shafts of sunlight, at acute angles from the south transept windows, blessed the silent nave, and the rain stopped, like the silence that follows the prayers of four hundred years. Outside, a Highway’s sign proclaimed Charity Lane unsuitable for motor vehicles, the very sandstone bedrock having been exposed by years of runoff water from the surrounding hills. As I contoured the higher ridges, the forest below me exhaled again into the now blinding evening light, plumes of vapour rising effortlessly through the suddenly undisturbed forest. I had been walking for over ten hours and as I climbed the steep hard-set path towards Tegg’s Nose, the sacroiliac joints of my pelvis began to complain vociferously. Not wishing to chance a sustained injury, I staggered down the Old Buxton Road to Macclesfield Station from where with prospects of real ale and painkillers, I telephoned a friend and procured a bed for the night.


This article first appeared in The Great Outdoors magazine.

Stillman, Sappho, Swinburne and the Sapphic

One of my most treasured books, which I return to for reference more than any other book I possess, is The Poet’s Manual and Rhyming Dictionary, first published by the American academic and poet Frances Stillman in 1966. The dogeared copy on my bookshelves was purchased in 1991 upon it’s eighth re-print, since when it has influenced and informed my understanding and appreciation of poetry. An invaluable pre-internet resource for any aspiring poet, in addition to a complex and comprehensive rhyming dictionary her book contains seven chapters outlining the traditional structures, meters, rhymes and forms of poetry as appreciated towards the termination of the twentieth century, illustrated with excerpts from many well known poets and a modest scattering of her own verse. 

Although copies of her books can still be found in second hand bookshops and even on certain online book forums, sadly, Stillman herself seems to have slipped into obscurity. A brief obituary from the New York Times dated 5 February 1975 reads as follows:

“Dr. Frances Jennings Stillman, assistant professor of English at City College and a writer and translator, died Monday at New York Hospital of complications resulting from kidney failure. She was 65 years old. Dr. Stillman, who also had taught at Brooklyn and Hunter, Colleges, was the author of “The Poet’s Manual and Rhyming Dictionary.” She translated “Flemish Tapestries,” written by Roger D’Hulst, and “Oriental Love Poems,” among other works. For many years, she was an officer in the New York Chapter of the American Association of University Women. Dr. Stillman earned B.A. and M.A. degrees at the University of Michigan and a Ph.D. degree at the City University of New York.” 

It was Dr Stillman who, through her book, introduced me to the lyrical form known as the Sapphic, named after the enigmatic Greek poet who lived on the island of Lesbos during the sixth Century BC. 

The historical biography of the poet known as Sappho is fragmentary and speculative. She was believed to have been born on the island of Lesbos around 620 BC. During antiquity she was regarded as one of the finest lyrical poets of the time. Plato revered her as the tenth muse (in Greek mythology there were traditionally believed to be nine muses devoted to poetry, history, music, dance and astronomy, amongst other things). 

Sappho, as envisaged by Charles Mengin, 1877. In the care of Manchester City Art Gallery.

Many of Sappho’s poems have been lost, and much of those that survive do so in fragmentary form, but her influence upon modern poetry, particularly the Romantic movement of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, cannot be understated. Her poems have been translated by Sir Philip Sidney, Percy Shelley, George Gordon, Lord Byron, Alfred Tennyson and many others, including the nineteenth-century Greek poet Aléxandros Soútsos. The spontaneity, simplicity, and honesty of her verse strongly influenced the Romantic idea of the poet as a creature of feeling, one whose solitary song is overheard, as opposed to the classical didactic model of the poet as a cultural spokesperson.

As Dr Stillman teaches, the main building blocks of the sapphic are trochees and dactyls. The trochee is a metrical foot with one stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable, while the dactyl contains a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables. The first three lines of the sapphic contain two trochees, a dactyl, and then two more trochees. The shorter fourth, and final, line of the stanza is called an “Adonic” and is composed of one dactyl followed by a trochee. 

The following deconstruction uses a verse from a modern English translation of Sappho’s Anactoria poem.

The Sapphic form explained, after Stillman, 1966

The extant fragment of this poem explores Sappho’s longing for her lost love Anaktória, and her admiration of the female form. 

Some there are who say that the fairest thing seen 
on the black earth is an array of horsemen;
some, men marching; some would say ships; but I say
   she whom one loves best

is the loveliest. Light were the work to make this
plain to all, since she, who surpassed in beauty
all mortality, Helen, once forsaking
   her lordly husband,

fled away to Troy—land across the water. 
Not the thought of child nor beloved parents 
was remembered, after the Queen of Cyprus
   won her at first sight.

Since young brides have hearts that can be persuaded 
easily, light things, palpitant to passion
as am I, remembering Anaktória
   who has gone from me

and whose lovely walk and the shining pallor
of her face I would rather see before my 
eyes than Lydia’s chariots in all their glory
   armoured for battle

Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene 1864 Simeon Solomon 1840-1905 Purchased 1980 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T03063

The erotic homosexual content of many of her poems has won Sappho the accolade of being the first (first recorded at least) Lesbian, the very term being derived form her Aegean island home of Lesbos. Undoubtedly, it was the freely erotic components of her work that fascinated certain protagonists of the Romantic movement, who in their own somewhat chauvinist way were striving to break free of the cultural conventionality of  eighteenth and nineteenth century society. 

Perhaps the most accomplished Romantic exponent of the Sapphic form was Algernon Charles Swinburne. Very much a product of the English Victorian establishment, born to a wealthy family in the North East of England, educated at Eton and at Balliol College, Oxford, Swinburne none-the-less became a preeminent symbol of rebellion against the conservative values of his time. Greatly influenced by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and other member of the Pre-Raphaeltie Brotherhood, his poems were often explicitly sexual, perhaps designed specifically to shock the very establishment from which he came. Swinburne gained notoriety in 1865 with the publication of Poems and Ballads, a collection of poems which many critics of the time regarded as indecent. 

Algernon Charles Swinburne, 1862, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

The fragment below is taken from his poem Sapphics, written in the Sapphic meter as described above and undoubtedly in homage to the poet Sappho. 

All the night sleep came not upon my eyelids,
Shed not dew, nor shook nor unclosed a feather,
Yet with lips shut close and with eyes of iron
   Stood and beheld me.

Then to me so lying awake a vision
Came without sleep over the seas and touched me,
Softly touched mine eyelids and lips; and I too,
   Full of the vision,

Saw the white implacable Aphrodite,
Saw the hair unbound and the feet unsandalled
Shine as fire of sunset on western waters;
   Saw the reluctant

Feet, the straining plumes of the doves that drew her,
Looking always, looking with necks reverted,
Back to Lesbos, back to the hills whereunder
   Shone Mitylene;

Many years ago, inspired by Dr Stillman’s tutelage, I put pen to paper and came up with the poem below, which I called Castaway. It is based on the myth of Calypso, as told in Homer’s Odyssey, who detained the Greek hero Odysseus on the island of Ogygia during his long voyage home from the Trojan wars. 

Calypso & Odysseus by Sir William Russell Flint

Wreckage adrift on blue Aegean waters
Clinging the rope cut fingers burn and blister
Slowly cracking the salty sun bleached timbers
   bake in the sunlight

Came I to these islands by currents rolling
Red kelp and oyster shell over and over
Till bound in their shackles washed ashore on her
   shingle she found me

Almond Oil and Meadow sweet, fresh mint from the
Mountains, yellow Broom and Oak flower petals
Smoothed by her spidery fingers worked warm through
   my still dormant flesh

Lips part to tongue touching teeth with each whisper
Soft scent of apples her dark anaesthesia
Heady the night the breath of her warm body
   falls sleep over me

Daylight gold in her hair veils sweet soft hollows
Wine blushed lips taste the damp dew of the morning
Naked children of an absent god giggle
   at their honesty

Long shore pull drags the hissing shingle seaward
Roar of the deep wave beckons the shifting tide
Impudent voice of reason voice of motion
   still calling, calling


Frances Jennings Stillman obituary from the New York Times: accessed 6 August 2019
https://www.nytimes.com/1975/02/05/archives/dr-frances-stillman-dies-english-professor-at-city-65.html

The Hunt

I had that dream again, you know
the dream I often dream …

There I am, standing in the crowd,
Some way to my left I see
the stoney pillars of the Friend’s House,
to my right, pennants and banners,
a multitude of colours, gently waving in the breeze
a sea of motion,
the murmur of fifty thousand expectant voices
punctuated by cries of victory, of Liberty, Fraternity
Ahead the hustings pulled into position as Orator Hunt climbs the steps to the stand
waving his oversized white hat,
to the assembled multitude
He dun’t half think a lot of himself, says Mary
threading her arm through mine

Faces turn to the rear now
Far behind us red coats gather in ranks
their bayonets glinting in the mid-summer sun
The Riot Act read from an open window
falls on deaf ears
arrest warrants handed to the constable
pleas for assistance dispatched to the Yeomanry and the Hussars

Mary’s grip upon my arm tightens
as the crowd suddenly surges forward

Pounding, the rhythm of horse’s hooves
upon the desiccated earth send
a shock-wave of panic across St Peter’s Field
speakers silenced, placards discarded,
faces etched with fear,
“Universal Suffrage” trampled into the dust
trampled beneath a hundred thousand feet
running for their very lives,
weeping in desperation for her unborn child,
Sweet Mary running beside me, falls, and cannot regain her stance

Assistance is useless
I cannot stand with the weight of the crowd upon me
So close now, the yelping dogs
the pounding of hooves
closer and closer
their baying bloodlust an augury
of the knife white teeth
each blast of the horn,
each bark of the riders,
a portent of death
ever closer, their scornful breath
until the hounds teeth tear
until the rapiers are brought down upon Mary’s flesh
the incisive canines cutting, lacerating
until flesh is no more,
her bloodied dress; the bloodied muzzles of the dogs
still barking, barking, barking!

I wake!
Throw open the window to catch my breath
the sky
bright with every light in the universe
has thrown out a mantle of white
across the cold, crisp night.
The only motion the blinking lights of an aircraft
circling in descent
And the russet flash of a fox
half hidden in the shadowed coppice, he barks,
his mournful, wicked bark
for a moment our eyes meet
then he turns and is gone
the two of us only somewhat reassured
that tonight the hounds are silent
the privileged riders confined to barracks
and for now, the fox and I are free

Mary Heys, a mother of six from Oxford Road, Manchester was one of eighteen peaceful protestors killed by the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry Cavalry at St Peter’s Field, 16 August 1819. 

It is estimated that between sixty and eighty thousand people had gathered in St Peter’s Field, Manchester to hear the radical speaker Henry Hunt and to protest against the limited suffrage afforded to working people and the North of England in general at the time. In 1819, Lancashire, with a population of over one million, was represented by two members of parliament; whereas so called rotten boroughs such as Old Sarum in Wiltshire, with one voter, elected two MPs, as did Dunwich in Suffolk, which by the early 19th century had almost completely disappeared into the sea.

Manchester Heroes, Sept 1819 Credit: The Art Archive / Eileen Tweedy Ref: AA327714 BBC History Magazine

The Manchester and Salford Yeomanry were an amateur militia of local businessmen and their sons, described at the time by the Manchester Observer as “the fawning dependents of the great, who imagine they acquire considerable importance by wearing regimentals” and also as “younger members of the Tory party in arms.” Their sabre charge of the crowd at St Peter’s Field left eighteen dead and hundreds wounded.

Mary Heys was pregnant at the time of her death. 

This Quiet Morning

a poem in remembrance of the Manchester twenty-two

this quiet morning on the corner of Oldham Street 
a barista takes plastic cups of hot sweet tea
balanced on his Bakelite tray so carefully
to policemen who stand at ease, tired on their feet
 
shading their eyes from the bright May sunshine
fatigued, weary, unaccustomed to the sunlight
grateful for their cuppa having been up all night
together a fragile but united thin blue line
 
this quiet morning separated by circumstance 
friends exchange messages of love though miles apart
the old lady selling Ariana love hearts 
offers me a blessing, leaving nothing to chance
 
handing back the keys of her response vehicle 
a paramedic hugs her colleague so tightly
he feels his spine will break as if cinder toffee
the only sound between them the short-wave crackle
 
this quiet morning an invisible cotton shroud
has muted the routine hubbub of the city
united in this moment of grief, stepping deftly
through the disbelief and the silence of the crowd 
 
Shaun stood selling news on the corner of Deansgate
stabs his finger at the headline so bitterly
it ain’t the first time though is it our kid, says he
keep the change for a brew I say, God bless you mate
 
it is as though death has woken us from slumber
as cold and indiscriminate as death can be
we have remembered for this moment what truly
is of value, just what blessings we can number
 
this loss is the banal reality of war 
that tears away the very soul of our belief
we can forge no lasting weapon against this grief
but to embrace in the wake of deaths we abhor
 
this evil tide we will forever disavow
this quiet morning, although we bow our heads to cry 
we will not die when our brothers and sisters die
we shall avenge their deaths the one way we know how
 
by choosing to live

A Poem for Easter

Footprints, hieroglyphic lines
etched upon the frost infected ground
the sinuous coils of a signature
which may or may not be mine
steps trod once before and now and again 
of all that is, somnambulistic
trespass through the unsurveyed landscape 
of a history which may or may not be mine

Back upon the open country
the reiterative paths lead but to themselves 
and enclosed within this mortal suffocation 
we are lost
defined only be the tenor of our wanderings 
towards an indeterminate location
which may or may not be real

Low on the western fields the moon
in pallid countenance of guilt slips
with culpable silence towards the shadows of forever night
the protagonist of nocturnal gramarye 
radiates her final obeisance’s, perturbed 
by undisclosed celestial vicissitude
her chiaroscuro domain fading
blending into darkness with each retreating step
slowly descending
touching earth
dissolves in rivers of mist
which tumble and roll
over the obdurate marls of the western Cheshire Plain

Something not wholly perceived
punctuates the sentence streams of introspection 
a breath falls upon my naked frame 
no source, no breeze to stir the flesh 
from somewhere unknown
not before, nor beyond
breaks upon the presence of my thoughts
my insular view of secular scenes 
altering my senses to what in truth 
I had always known
but in reality could not confess 
the stream of consciousness

The eastern sky shows form
 
Imperceptible as the sweep of the hour’s hand 
a neap tide waxes
threads intertwine
twisting in ever changing arabesques 
monochrome textures weaving together
a tapestry in phosphorescent shades
 
Eos awakening
a promise
on this Easter morning

Warm Nile breezes across these dusty roads
a fragrance of fecundity to dried-out bones
I did not consider you 
not here
where you spoke to me as in a vision
as the wind whispers
to observe the distillation of truth
to chart the unfamiliar terrain 
between illusion and reality
to ever endure the disparity 
what we say – what we do
what we dream of doing, this is the dawn

 
the day remains as yet unclaimed
 
 
Transfigured in the still increasing glow of
embers smouldering with gentle absolution 
in the early hours
between the darkness and full light
the softness of a Levant morning permeates the solemn air
the stones and thorns of a garden
where a woman weeps
the beat of her lamentation filling these reflective hours
vacant with possibility
a moment that separates every act from its consequence 
every word from its meaning
every irredeemable effect from its cause 
the naked horror
of just another crucifixion
 
                                               –      from the resurrection 
 
 
Woman, why do you cry?

(for Seraphim)


I wrote this some years ago. Seems appropriate today.