Cold snap

4 December 2010 § 1 Comment

Winter’s come early to Sussex, with over 12″ of snow (which is a lot for us) and roads encased in thick sheets of ice. This morning, we joined the neighbours in clearing our street of the horrible stuff, in a truly communal effort that seemed more like play than work.

ICE COLD IN SUSSEX

All the neighbours turn out
To sweep heaps of glassy fragments
Into the gutters;
A sweet victory peal
In the rasp of shovels.

Red-faced, easing backs and shoulders
We survey the road –
Hard, dark, glistening
Like a newly-emerged dragonfly –
And smile at what we just did.

But tonight
Each shining droplet
Will spread out slender threads
That touch, fuse and slowly glaze
Our new-won freedom over;
And so, tomorrow,
We’ll smash our way out again
And long for Spring
To come and save us.

Back in business

22 November 2010 § 2 Comments

Yesterday, I rode a metric century (100km) – my first this year and my longest ride since the whole arthritis thing kicked off back in the spring. It was a local Reliability Trial; a classic-end-of-season cycling club event in which the aim is to complete the course as close to a set finishing-time as possible. I’d trained quite carefully and everything came right on the day. Having thought I may have to quit the sport a few months ago, it really feels as though things are back to normal. And not a moment too soon. This poem (bit of a long ‘un, I’m afraid) is dedicated to my good friend and ride partner Kev Smith.

TRIAL OF STRENGTH

Early. Quiet. Cold.
Firing up old instincts
I’d once feared dead.
We have the road
To ourselves; no sign
Of our 149 opponents.
We get the first hints
A mile from the hall:
Here they are, all
Parked up; late-model German estates
With vanity plates,
Antlered with roof-racks
Or the back seats down. On the roadside
Anonymous riders
Refitting wheels, shoving shoes on,
Slipping bidons into cages.
At the start, we gather
A curious brotherhood
In our ill-matched winter kit.
Best bikes and old hacks
Stand stacked three-deep
Against walls, propped on posts
As we make the most
Of the chance to chat, check
Equipment. No turning back
Once we’re over that line.
So we sign our names,
Roll down to the start,
With every heart
Tightened. And – go.
A hundred k ahead, so start slow
On the back of the bunch; sit in
And spin. First hill and we’re splitting
Into twos and threes. For some
You can tell there’s a long day to come.
Easy for the first ten
Or so, then
Hit our first real big one, and
In seconds the field’s flung to hell and gone.
Head down, drive on,
Spot a gap like a lift door
Just before it shuts: dive through
Straight up the middle, between two
Riders right on the limit.
Make it look easy. Just like old times
On these fierce, familiar climbs,
Putting clubmen to the sword,
Breezing by without a word
To ride alone to the summit,
Drink, draw breath, then plummet
Into the valley with fearless
Fury, carving through corners careless
Of speed and the laws of physics,
Held to earth by two hard, trusted slicks
And a deep belief it will never
Happen to me. Up again and over
The high point of the ride
Which I found cloaked in cloud
The day I chose to check
The route, but now the mists peel back
To flood the land with sun.
Here, halfway round, the real work is done
So settle down for the long haul home.
The wind that helped us out here has become
The enemy, cold and in our faces,
And the hot, hard chases turn to steady
Toil in the headwind
That slowly sucks the strength
From legs and lungs, wears down the will. At length
We cross the line, with just enough left in the tank
To get us home (at least, we think).

The cold and hills will not prevail.
We took the test. We did not fail.

Doing the groundwork

14 October 2010 § 2 Comments

SENSE OF URGENCY

On the headland
Two red Masseys stand
With engines stopped;
A moment’s silence
For a snatched tea-break;
Then, drill refilled,
And ring-roller singing,
Get another fifty acres of winter wheat seed
Snug and spaced precisely in the still-warm tilth.

Three fields away
A blue New Holland stays
Hard at it, disc harrows
Raising the dust.
No time to be lost
While the clay lies dry;
Just a single day of rain and they’ll all be struggling,
With bogged-down implements and clogged-up tyres.

Under the shaw
A green John Deere roars
As the heavy cultivator
Rips the tawny maize stubble
Into brown corduroy,
Releasing the scent
That rose up to greet us
When we first hitched our oxen and scratched at the soil:
The earth’s exhalation; the quick tang of life.

Reading the road

13 October 2010 § 3 Comments

One of my regular rides takes me through the parish of Chiddingly (in accordance with local custom, the ‘-ly’ is pronounced ‘lie’, not ‘lee’) which, like Rome, encompasses seven hills. My route crosses three of them in succession, and I’ve always liked the historical logic of their names that allows me to track my progress. From north to south, they run as follows:

ROAD TO WAR

Ride over Pick Hill,
Whose sandstone sides
Were first cratered for their ore
To arm the legions,
Its quiet woods scabbing over
Long centuries of plunder.

To Gun Hill
Where the ironmasters cast
Culverins and cannon
For Device Forts and men o’ war;
Our stolid breed of Sussex men
The muscle in Good King Hal’s arms race.

Then Thunders Hill
These days disturbed by little more
Than tractors, Sunday motorbikes
And neglected car exhausts –
Still echoing to the martial roar
Of the past along the road.

An unequal match

8 October 2010 § 2 Comments

Another ploughing-match poem…

NO CONTEST

Inching forward, earthworm-slow,
Eyes front, rigid as a guardsman
He opens up the ground.

From this first furrow all others follow;
With coulter, mouldboard, share and landside
The battle line is drawn.

At once, the Sussex clay
With a night and day of rain in it
Fights back;

Clogs and butters churning tyres
Sets front wheels slickly sliding
Plucks at the plough; leaks, collapses.

But in our annual fixture with the fields
We lead the land three thousand-nil
And this year will not break our streak.

Power on the land

7 October 2010 § 2 Comments

A poem inspired by the many vintage tractors I watched doing their stuff at a local ploughing match yesterday.

POWER ON THE LAND

I should hate them:
Raucous, oil-burning beasts
That condemned my quiet, beloved horses
To exile and extinction.
Yet my heart warms
To these homely stalwarts, still game
To plough and till the stubborn clay
Three generations on.
So simple I could drive one
In my sleep (and often did)
But with enduring rightness
Wrought in each casting and component
And the motive power of twenty teams
Compressed into a one-ton slab of steel.
After sixty years and more
They turn the earth
Beneath their wheels
And hand a man like me
The means to shape the world.

Out and about

4 October 2010 § 1 Comment

One of the things I’ve learned recently (and belatedly) is that you don’t have to go far or fast to have a proper bike ride. I did this little route yesterday with The Guv’nor, snatching the only half-hour of the day when it wasn’t raining; although it never takes me more than a couple of miles from home as the crow flies, it’s full of interest, both from a technical riding point of view, and in the sheer variety of things to see on the way. As backyards go, I guess it’s pretty good.

CLOSE TO HOME

It begins, like them all,
With a hill.
A well-known haul
Up from the town and the river
To the greensand ridge.

A straight mile, more or less,
Attention divided
Between fast-moving traffic
And cauliflower clouds
Heaped over the Downs.

Change down, toil up
A hundred-yard climb
Left rugged and rubbled by frosts
Then a long, cooling plunge
To the heart-in-mouth bridge

And charge for the stiff pull
Through a tunnel of trees;
Sandy banks brock-burrowed
Deep shadows harbouring
The shy deer.

Into the village: sharp left
At the Hare and Hounds
And light out for home
Slashing through esses
Past the Big House, the farm shop and stables

Then stoop like a falcon
Down Bird-in-Eye Hill
And into the final few furlongs
Of brick terraced houses
Parked cars, potholes, patched tarmac, impatience.

Four-and-a-half miles;
About twenty minutes (on a good day).
Not far, not fast,
But a little of everything
I look for in a ride.

Harvest home

1 October 2010 § 5 Comments

These days, I know as many names among
The churchyard stones as in the church. I knew
Their faces, voices, ways: when I was young
They were my world, and now there are so few
Familiar folk to shake hands at the door
Or catch up over coffee. So I sing
The well-loved harvest hymns, give thanks once more
And think on those now safely gathered in.

Parting words

10 September 2010 § 3 Comments

Last evening, we stood and watched a flock of house martins fuelling up for their migration to Africa for the winter. There must have been three or four hundred of these little annual visitors darting around the sky in pursuit of insects in a swirling, twittering cloud. It was a wonderful sight, but it was my nine-year-old daughter who really inspired this poem.

PARTING WORDS

They gather at dusk
To feast on insects
Lofted by summer’s failing warmth:
A Last Supper snatched
Before the big sky swallows them
And instinct fills their hearts
With longing for a glaring shore
Where winter cannot come.
My little one, her face upraised,
Following my finger, watching,
Calls out softly, ‘Goodbye – I’ll miss you.’
And I think on things that, once departed,
Will not come back again.

Harrowing times

9 September 2010 § 3 Comments

FIELD WORK

In the straight-six diesel’s steady grumble
And the dark scents stirred
From the crumbled clay rippling round the harrow tines
Summer softly leaves the land.
There is work to do before winter:
The gulls that crowd the stubble
And the birds in the fruit-bright hedge
Know it; I would no longer stand and watch
But put my hand to the plough
Turn this tired soil under
And await a kinder season.

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