A Sunday In January

I opened the bedroom window to throw out some tat.

The tat is the stuff and dregs of my pockets: dried skin (heel and finger), screwed up Co-Op receipts, mini Post-Its; the waste bin in the bathroom seemed too far away. The Velux window is hinged from the top, quite smart but weighty so I can sneak out stuff without it being seen. Two floors down the garden would be a desert of slate gravel speared by two dried and sickly palms, but for the unopened celandine and stonecrop greening out of winter slough. It belongs to The Downstairs, who aren’t above reminding us tenants of their ownership. It’s Sunday in its January grey when the day hardly wakes.

From left, a dark arrow, dark, quick, barely an armslength below, an absence of light, flint-arrowed wings, silvery trine low on its back. It must have been haunting under the eaves. It’s ushered away by a plump and purple pigeon, beyond the Victorian villa opposite. It? The Collins Bird Guide says, Do not hope for or pretend reliable identification of all birds of prey in the field — ever. And anyway, who ever sees a bird of prey from above?

I clomp into the living room and announce to wife and daughter, “I’ve just seen a peregrine and I’m going out to see it I can see it again.” No-one says anything.

I followed where I’d last seen it, around the old soap factory alongside the railway line, looking up when I could, assuming I was on a hopeless chase, but at least I was out of the house. Then there, after a hundred yards or so, it is: it’s blackness etched into the colourless sky, being mobbed by a gang of grey gulls, much bigger than — him (not it: too small for a her). And then, flap and glide, he was gone.

I went back home, completing a circuit, still finding tat in my pockets. No-one seemed surprised that I’d seen him. A few days later the snow came.

Peregrine IMG_5611

photo from What’s That Bird? / Hayman, Everett / RSPB


Made by Humans

TreeCreeper nr Cissbury Rings IMG_5643

“Between two hills, two villages, two trees, two friends/The barbed wire runs which neither argues nor explains”. W.H. Auden.

On a walk to Cissbury Rings on the Downs.

At first I thought it was already dead (to my shame I filmed it, buffeted by the wind). When I took it down I found it was still living, weak but warm and its heart still beating. Mad, it seems now, but I started to walk back to town holding it in cupped hands, as though, after a two hour walk I’d find a friendly animal rescue place . . . It died in my hand a short while later.

Even then — is this what death does to you? — when it momentarily started to flutter I thought it must have healed, wanted to be off, free, but, no, it was in its death throes. Something was free, but not the body. I walked up on to Cissbury, I didn’t want to leave it, I was still talking to it, as it got cold and stiff. I laid it down under a gorse copse, at the highest level of the hill. It had been tree creeper.

I didn’t take a photograph.



The Guru’s Funeral

I ain’t going.

I bought my ticket and booked a room. But I ain’t going. I got a map, from the library; you have to photocopy it, putting 10 pences and 2p bits into the  gurn of a  slot machine. I dried out my walking boots and put aside some books for the way. I even found that sloop of white cotton, like the one Jason handed out to the men who joined his crew. But I ain’t going. I don’t want to.

‘Ah’, says a late friend, whose body is laid out awaiting his own burial, ‘What does that mean?’

a sloop of white cotton


African Blood


‘Can I ask you a question? I was wondering about your ancestors; do you have any ancestors from the Mediterranean or The Middle East?’
‘Well . . .’
‘Ah, perhaps you’d like to be there now, in the Mediterranean?’ He was conspiratorial, trying to put me at ease, we both knew about the British weather.
‘I used to live there, the Mediterranean’, I said, not wanting to sound too eager to please.
‘North or South?’
‘Oh, I see.’

The Haemotologist was tall, slim, slightly stooped, as if from deference, rather than age, although he seemed near to sixty, with receding, crinkly hair and a trimmed, greying beard. Handsome face and eyes that looked like he enjoyed being intelligent and dapper and charming. Complexion of coffee colour; you’d say North African, with the clipped accent of the well-educated. He ran through the analysis of my blood at speed, noting where it was less than optimum. Quickly moving on to the next graph or table, always finding ways to reassure. My blood, with it’s laggardly white blood cells, who nonetheless, according to him, managed to get the job done, was universal amongst Africans, he said, wherever they are.

I could hardly keep up with the statistics he generously showed me on the computer screen as they scrolled by. Was it me, or did other patients understand these kind of things, well-versed by the medical pages of the Daily Mirror or Google? I dismissed the thought that all this  — he shared his gorgeously hand-written notes, too — was for the benefit of the young female medical student who sat demurely behind my left shoulder. Kidney, liver, bone marrow and creatures known as the scavengers were his only concessions to my vernacular ignorance. How did he learn all this?

But mostly I was thinking about the journey. Exiled from the Dardanelles, when we got away from the Greeks, us no better than Helots. From Italy to Libya, when the Mediterranean was one, undivided. There we must have stopped off for a while, took on provisions, tarried, we might have called it; the Balearics, leaving behind our cairns; then Morocco, last pleasures and civilisation before the grim Atlantic, with its mist and black rocks and fierce gales, then to the edge of the world, Totnes, our New Troy, so called. Brutus would have left me there; he had bigger fish to fry. And my ancestors? After that we moved only when we had to.

‘So you’re saying that if I were African, my blood would be normal?’
‘Yes, that’s right.’ He was gently ushering me out of his office.
‘Thank you’, was all I could think to add.
‘Don’t worry,’ he said, as I shook his hand. And I went off for another blood test.


A Small Walk

Caburn IMG_2934

I’d done it many times before, the same walk; got the train, gone to The Mound to get my bearings and set my sights on the goal, Mount Caburn, 480 foot up. But the last time, mid-winter, I’d given up, weary, perhaps bored, falling ill; I’d pulled back at the dew pond (the lowest point) and the pair of bald thorn trees; relieved to be defeated.

This day, a season later, coming on to the rise of Southerham I was confident I’d make it. But why was it all so small? I looked to the sky (cerulean, no less). Larks rose, singing; a handful of meadow pipits poked the ground. Gangs of jackdaws chacked and swooped, white-gold in the sunlight. The Downs were high as ever and as open. But small.

Something had happened and I don’t know what it is. Time, the angle of the earth, death.

At the Caburn, on the wooden bench that overlooks the Ouse I was joined by another: taller, younger with two dogs. We talked for a while; the mind, he explained, wants us to think it’s something floating above us (he stretched out his arm, making a span above his head) apart from the body; it’s our task to understand that it’s not. He went on with his pie, we talked about the closing of The Trevor Arms. Then I said my goodbyes to him and his dogs, heading back the way I came.

A small walk, that’s all.

a favorite bench

Seventeen Syllable Poetry

Things I Like, Number 4

List twenty things you enjoy doing (Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way: Task 3, Week 2)

Making my daughter’s bed.

The voice inside, the voice of my wife or it could be my mother stops. Time stops in this small room where there is no lack of space and no schedule to complete. There’s a smell, a scent: clean, flowery, warm; it’s the smell of the colour pink.

Then it begins: it’s like a dance when you don’t have to think about the steps. It’s like playing tai chi when you forget about your teacher. And if I drop Snowflake or Ginger or my hand doesn’t quite grip the duvet or the pillow doesn’t plump up there’s no swearing. This isn’t doing the laundry or vacuuming. The next move just comes.

I wouldn’t call it love, it’s not duty or an obligation. No-one — I mean my wife or my mother — will ever say well done, you’ve managed a chore. Not in my head or in my life. Even my tai chi teacher — since he seems to be here too — doesn’t remind me that housework is good for your energy. And my daughter doesn’t thank me either, there’s no need. I haven’t done anything. Besides, if I could find the words, I’d thank her.

But in the meantime, I’ll just make her bed.

Ella's rabbit IMG_2898

With appreciation to John Gray, who doesn’t like this kind of thing https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Gray_(philosopher)

Angels In Sussex

Notes from a walk.

Angels in Sussex IMG_2668

Start at the railway station, Pulborough. (Let the train go on to London, without you). This is off The Downs, off the chalk, in a dip, but the Downs stalk alongside. The way leads you over suburban metalled and gravelled paths, then red-green sand, wet meadow, sand again.

Copses where the beech trees have grown free of the serfdom of crop and cut, crop and cut. Pines trees tall and straight like retired officers (whose hearts are in the Highlands, but who look south, seaward). A dull regimented wood where the art of murder is declaimed by cages and barrels and the odds and sods of shooting. A pheasant clacks and belches erratically into the air, then slumps into cover, relieved.

Halt at a church. A high saddleback tower, three tiers of undecorated Norman windows. A yew is black with age. They say that one of the names on the war memorial (of those who didn’t come back from Flanders) is the same as one who fought with Charlemagne. This is a land of names, houses, manors.

The Big House, Petworth: Fuck — the ladies, officious, said I was too late, the exhibition’s closed.  They’re in charge. At The Angel, Angel Street, a local says, in parenthesis,  — oh dear, they are not very — a pause for words —  community-minded. I open Blake at: I have always found that Angels have the vanity to speak of themselves as the only wise.

I thought he meant them, the guardian angels of our culture. But the next day I got a phone call — you can come back another time, free. Perhaps he had me in mind, after all.