20 October 2017


Memoir - Part 2
Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951)
Trudging along the lane, I must have looked like a tortoise or perhaps a giant hermit crab - with my home upon my back. There was everything I needed in that rucksack - sleeping bag, tent, gas burner, kettle, clothes, toiletries, books - everything. But back in those days there was no camera. I espoused a half-baked philosophy about living in the moment, not photographing it.

A thin drizzle drifted about me from the nearby Atlantic - or was it a sea mist? I marched onward, enjoying the weight upon my shoulders. I passed the tumbledown ruin of a squat stone cottage - perhaps a monument to the Irish potato famine.

No vehicles passed by. There was just the sound of my footsteps on the tarmac in the dank afternoon stillness.

As the drizzly mist slightly lifted I reached the brow of a hill and looked down upon Ireland's only fjord - Killary Harbour. It reaches inland like a grey Norwegian serpent. To my left, a hundred yards along  and nestled by the shoreline, there was a little wharf and a small cluster of buildings. I knew that one of them was the youth hostel though once it had simply been called Rosroe Cottage.

It was here that the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein worked on his treatise "On Certainty" in the summer of 1948. It seemed a strange choice  Crafting complex sentences, shaping intricate academic theories at a place where men gathered lobster pots and occasional dolphin pods sheltered from Atlantic storms. It was far away - on the very edge of Europe.

The bearded warden led me to the men's dormitory. It was spartan with bare floorboards and limewash walls. There were just four wooden bunks. It was mid-week and though it was the beginning of summer,the warden informed me that nobody else had reserved a bed for the night apart from two German females who were of course in the women's dormitory on the opposite side of the kitchen/communal area.

With rucksack propped against my bunk, I went for a stroll along the lapping shore. Returning to the little grey harbour I met the German girls sitting silently amidst jumbled lobster pots looking out to sea. They were sisters and one of them - the taller one - was a Philosophy student in Heidelberg. She spoke English with amazing fluency and it was she who first told me about the Wittgenstein connection. I can't remember her name any more but I can still picture her animated blue eyes.

She seemed almost obsessed by Wittgenstein and claimed to have read just about everything he had published. She was starry-eyed and could recite entire quotations but to tell you the truth I kept switching off. Clever linguistic gymnastics were never my cup of tea. The other, prettier sister remained quiet, in the shadows of her sibling's brilliance, occasionally fingering the ends of her blonde pigtails.

That evening as the wind picked up and rain began to lash the youth hostel's windows, we shared a simple meal together. I had bacon and soda bread. They had cabbage and a small bag of potatoes. After ten nights of camping, I felt I was sitting in the very lap of luxury and that simple meal was like a feast. We washed it down with enamel mugs of sweet tea as the kitchen's striplights flickered ominously.

"It must be the storm," I surmised.

Later, lying on my bunk in the men's dormitory, I read another chapter of "The Magus" by John Fowles while fantasising that one of the German sisters, preferably the quiet one, would come to join me but of course the door never opened and before too long I drifted off to sleep, listening to rain, happy that I wasn't again ensconced in my little orange tent on the edge of some lonely thicket.


19 October 2017


The tale that follows is true though forty three years have passed by and of course as years disappear under the bridge, memory has an increasing capacity to distort what really happened...
Killary Harbour, Ireland with the youth hostel on the right
There is a road in the far west of Ireland that wanders around squat hills and across ancient boglands all the way from County Mayo into the wild north of County Galway. In early June, back in 1974, that is where I was heading.

I stood on the outskirts of Westport with my thumb pointing hopefully at the billowing sky. After half an hour, an old black car pulled up. It may have been a Humber or perhaps an Austin. The driver was a Catholic priest called Father Stoker. He was bound for Galway City via Clifden where he had some church business to wrap up.

Father Stoker was well into his seventies with straggly white hair and stubbly whiskers to match. I noted his slightly bloodshot eyes and the golden signet ring on his left hand. We had twenty miles or more to travel together and Father Stoker, clearly a genial sort of fellow, was glad of my company for at least part of his car journey. He had a few tales to tell and he was keen to hear what I had seen and done since arriving in Ireland ten days before.

At the county border on the N59 there's a little settlement called Clog. I kid you not. It was just as we were leaving Clog that  Father Stoker asked where exactly he should drop me off. Studying my map, I explained I wanted the Lough Fee road just south of Derrynasligaun. He chuckled at my pronunciation.

"But that's in the middle of nowhere!" he declared. "Where are ye heading after that?"

"I'm going to the youth hostel at the head of Killary Harbour."

For some reason, the car suddenly decelerated. Father Stoker gripped the steering wheel tightly, staring straight ahead before building his speed back up. Ahead, a pair of crows were picking over the flattened carcass of a dead rabbit but they flew off as the old black car approached.

Father Stoker didn't speak another word until we reached the drop off point. I heaved my bulging rucksack from the back seat and leaned back into the car's upholstered interior to thank the old priest for the lift.

He grabbed my hand quite tightly and as he did so I noticed  a curious symbol engraved on his golden ring. Perhaps it was Celtic. His cheerful demeanour had changed. With his rheumy eyes locked upon me he whispered, "Mind how ye go young fellow. Mind how ye go!" And then he released his grip.

I waved as he drove off, leaving me at a blustery road junction far from anywhere.  A rusting sign swung from an old post - "Hostel 2", meaning I had two miles to march with my Famous Army Stores rucksack - all the way to Killary Harbour.


18 October 2017


Hardwick New Hall (Wikipedia picture)
For the past few days, I have not been feeling too well. Bunged up with cold and not able to breathe easily. Some might call it "man flu" which is in my view a dumb and rather sexist way of describing a genuine male ailment.

On Sunday, in spite off my poorliness, Shirley I drove out of  the city. After passing through Chesterfield, we arrived in the north-east Derbyshire parish of Ault Hucknall. We parked near the eastern gates to an old country estate.
After donning  our boots, we set off through the gates and along a lengthy driveway. The temperature was pleasant for October and sunshine was beginning to burn off the early morning cloudiness. Sheep observed us from the trees.

Shortly we arrived at the two old halls that sit in the heart of the Hardwick Estate. There's Hardwick Old Hall and Hardwick New Hall. The former building was constructed in the early sixteenth century and the latter much later in that same century.
The initials "E.S." can be seen on the parapet
As we approached Hardwick New Hall, up on the stone  parapets somebody's initials were dominant - "E.S.". Who could that be? It was Elizabeth Shrewsbury - otherwise known as Bess of Hardwick (1527-1608). It was she who ordered the construction of Hardwick New Hall and no expense was spared. After all, she had become the second richest woman in England after Elizabeth I. By 1590, she could afford whatever she wanted. The building is partly notable because of the amount of glass that was used in its large windows. At the time, no other residential building in the world had lavished so much space or money on glass windows.
Bess of Hardwick's coat of arms in stone on the roof of the new hall
Partly because of the admission fees demanded by The National Trust and English Heritage, on this occasion we did not venture inside The New Hall or the ruinous Old Hall. Instead we continued our ramble through the country estate and back to the car. Soon we were quaffing refreshing drinks in "The Elm Tree Inn" in the nearby village of Heath.
St Mary's, Sutton Scarsdale
After this I took Shirley a mile further north to see the shell of Sutton Scarsdale Hall. A  service was just finishing in the adjacent St Mary's Church so we went inside. The vicar, whose name was Roy, kindly gave us a mini guided tour of the building. What most impressed me was the ninth century Saxon tombstone embedded in the floor with its symbol of a primitive scythe. It was very kind of Roy to talk to us and nice to meet a man who has a passionate and intimate knowledge of his local history - in particular the church and its historical associations.

By the time I got home I was, as my mother would have probably said, jiggered. What with the cold and everything, I had almost overdone it. A sensible person would have been spending the day resting on the sofa with a warm lemon drink and a box of tissues. Perhaps next time we will pay the hefty admission fees required to enter Hardwick New Hall. I shall start saving.
Shirley in the woods at Hardwick

17 October 2017


Should a poem need explanation? Perhaps we really do "murder to dissect". After all, a poem isn't an extract from a washing machine manual. It isn't a financial statement. Some people think that poems are there to be decoded, translated, examined like specimens in a laboratory. I don't agree with or approve of such a mechanistic approach to poetry.

Nevertheless, I should like to reflect on yesterday's poem. And first of all I say thank you to Jennifer in Florence, South Carolina for attaching the curious word "liminal" to my first picture. It's not a word that is in everyday use. This is what a dictionary has to say about it:-
And yes. it was easy to see why Jennifer might have  seen the edge of the sea as such a place - a sort of limboland.

I thought of the lugworms as earthbound and of the seabirds as heavenly, soaring up into the blue. The human figures in the poem are therefore at a "boundary" between land sea and sky and perhaps also on the threshold of their own future with the past behind them.

There's a deliberate circularity in this poem as the end focus is again upon creatures that live at the edge. Like the shadowy human protagonists there is a connection between the worms in the sand and the birds. They also have a relationship.

Poems will often concern themselves with the very sound of words - echoes, half-rhymes, full rhymes and repetition. I wanted the personal pronoun "I" to stand alone in the fifth line - solitary upon the shore and in the ninth and tenth lines - "Along the margin/ Of that bay" I was consciously nodding to William Wordsworth and his "Daffodils".

Regarding the eleventh line, human life with all its baggage can be burdensome don't you think? We are forever "weighing" or assessing the "burdens" of memory, hope and conscience that we carry. In this we are dissimilar to  the lugworm and the seabird whose lives are more elemental, more driven by the moment. For them it is much easier and simpler to live in the liminal zone.

"Sky" in the second half of the poem chimes with "I" and "fly" in the first half.. "Shore" rhymes strongly with "soar" to seal the poem. There are plenty of "s" sounds to suggest the sound of the sea upon the sand and I like the image of those lugworm coils. I thought of "Spew their little coils" and "Pipe their little coils" but instead opted for "Leave" which has less anthropomorphic association. 

Sue said she never thought she would read a poem about lugworms. I am just pleased to have made a poem that contains lugworms. They are hidden from us in their burrows like the truth and the happiness we seek. There but not there in the liminal zone.

16 October 2017

14 October 2017


When I was an English teacher in what is now my distant past, I noticed that many modern poetry books aimed at schoolchildren contained eye-catching photo-illustrations. Of course the idea was that the pictures would enhance appreciation of the poems. There would hopefully be a certain synergy between the image and the word.

In an idle moment, I had the idea of turning this process on its head in order to help some of my classes into poetry writing. To explain further - I presented them with pictures and asked them to write poems that would "fit" with these images - as if we were compiling our own poetry anthology before sending it off to the publishers.

Many of the resulting poems were excellent. It was as though the images had reduced creative inhibitions. Teenagers who might habitually retort, "I hate poetry...it's boring" found themselves creating little pieces of Literature that would have not looked out of place in a genuine anthology.

Well after that preamble, I think I shall write another poem for this humble Yorkshire blog and for the appreciation of its illustrious visitors. And just like my pupils I shall allow an image to be my muse. All five images that accompany the post were taken last weekend. 

Which picture do you think I should go with and if you were writing it what might your poem be "about"? Perhaps it wouldn't be "about" anything. You might be able to supply me with a creative spark.

Picture 1
 Picture 2
 Picture 3
 Picture 4
 Picture 5

13 October 2017


St Mary's, Sheffield - now a community centre
I have joined a non-religious choir. So far I have been to four Thursday night sessions. Perhaps ironically, these practice sessions are held in an old church that is no longer used for worship. It is now more of a community centre with a warren of rooms and corridors inside.

The choir has around thirty members. Three quarters of these are women. Most people have been with the choir for years. I think they were a bit surprised when I turned up out of the blue after visiting their website. Who is that guy? Is he a copper?

The songs we have been working on are all new to me. However, I have enjoyed those moments when the different voices have gelled  together in delicious harmonies. It's a good feeling to be part of something like that and I am starting to get used to the new songs and how the choir leader Janet breaks up sopranos, altos, tenors and the bass section to which I have gravitated.

The choir often performs in public but I haven't reached that point yet even though they keep saying - "You've got a great voice!" and "Come along!" etcetera.

The simplest song I have been learning is "You Won't Be Fracking Long" which is sung to the tune of "The Laughing Policeman". Instinctively, I am anti-fracking and I am disgusted by the bullying tactics used by government and fracking companies to push approvals through. Fracking is in my view a desperate, environmentally unfriendly way to squeeze yet more fossil fuel energy from our much-abused planet. It is surely not the way forward and I send out a cheer to the anti-fracking protesters at Kirby Misterton, North Yorkshire who are currently engaged in a long-running anti-fracking protest that has seen several local people arrested.

Here's The Red Leicester Choir singing that same song...