Category Archives: Travel

Rembrandt van Rijn

Johnnes W

Rembrandt is always big business in the Netherlands, and especially this year: it is the 350th anniversary of his death. Everywhere there are items of merchandise for sale with Rembrandt’s paintings and etchings. I treated myself to a folder and bought birthday presents for friends. One of those was a birthday calendar. The Dutch have a tradition of hanging these inside the toilet, on the door!

I was raised a Protestant and for much of my childhood we lived down the road from the church where my father was the organist. Rembrandt was beginning to make a name for himself as a portrait painter when he did the portrait of Johannes Wtenbogaert. He was the founder and leader of the Remonstrant Brotherhood and preached religious tolerance. The poem was published in my debut collection Another life.

 
Portrait of Johannes Wtenbogaert, Remonstrant Preacher, aged 76

He stands there and we wonder what he thinks.
His head, resting like a deserted swan
in a nest of fine lace pleats. Did he shrink
even once from God’s black skull cap plan?

In a corner, placed to catch the light,
the book we expect is his bible. No,
those pages curling away from top right
are not yet half full, and only we know

this preacher would live till nearly ninety.
Too tired to protest, he faces Rembrandt
who paints a life-like sketch where we can see
the frayed edge of the limp cloth in his hand.

 

Fishbones Dreaming

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Tomorrow it’s a year since the Irish poet Matthew Sweeney died. He was just 65 and died of motor neurone disease.

I took the photo in 2006 when I attended a week-long course with Matthew at the wonderful Almassera Vella in Spain. He was like a dog with a bone about adjectives, but otherwise warm and funny. I learned a great deal that week.

The poem Fishbones Dreaming features in Writing Poetry, a publication in the Teach Yourself series. It’s packed with ideas and good exercises. Matthew wrote it with the poet John Hartley Williams. They both lived in Berlin for a period and were friends. The friendship clearly shows in the bits of dialogue where they introduce the exercises.

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Fishbones Dreaming starts: Fishbones lay in the smelly bin. / He was a head, a backbone and a tail. / Soon the cats would be in for him.

The refrain is: He didn’t like to be this way. / He shuts his eyes and dreamed back.

The poem uses a gradual flashback technique, with the refrain dividing the stanzas: a stanza about being on plate, next to the green beans, a stanza about being in the freezer with lamb cutlets, about squirming in a net, and so on. Till he is darting through the sea, past crabs and jellyfish.

My poem below was written in response. It was published in my debut collection Another life.

 

Friday evening

He leaves work early,
walks past the pub,
unchaining habits,
dropping an old raincoat
into the Ribble.
Preston is still Preston,
magnificent failure.

If he can walk backwards
to the railway station,
he will catch himself
in the windows.
There is his 40th birthday,
never celebrated.
Here are the empty Sundays.
Swans, a football, his parents, baby sister.

 

The secret of flying

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I am delighted to introduce this month’s poet.  David Underdown and I met a few years ago on a residential writing workshop.

David Underdown (www.davidunderdown.co.uk) has recently come to live in Hebden Bridge. Though a Mancunian by birth most of his life has been spent in the West of Scotland, latterly on the Isle of Arran where he is an organiser of the McLellan Poetry Competition. His two collections, both from Cinnamon, are Time Lines (2011) and, in 2019, A Sense of North. David Constantine describes his poems as ‘watchful’: ‘he gives us a view from (in his own words) ‘a window / we did not know was there’, he makes ‘a halo round the ordinary’’.

 

The secret of flying


The breakthrough is to stop thinking
about aerodynamics. Concentrate
on the immeasurable pleasures
of floating above roofs
and the open mouths of chimney pots

stems of road budding
houses, the rumple of fields
and, beyond, the dark spot of a copse
or how the river feels
up into its tree-lined tributaries.

And later, after that first step
into space
the art of soaring on thermals
of passing over boundaries
a sense of north.

 

Against the tide

Down here the river has widened,
already flooding salt for half the day,
mud-bound for the rest.
The tides wipe clean
the mazy prints of wading birds.
Below the bridge there’s broken masonry,
the pier where the cobbles stop,
and then it’s willow herb and buddleia
all the way to the sea’s flat-line.

Easy to see why you linger
to watch the gulls circle,
catching the hum from the bypass.
If you could, you would turn
and find your way upstream again
past viaducts and fat meadows,
solid farmsteads set round by trees,
and feel, as the land draws in,
the younger waters quicken.

There, where the uplands open out
you would track each beck
up to its marshy watershed
to understand how it started,
the long journey to the sea
and what alternatives there nearly were.
But the tide is turning,
colder wind roughening the water,
staining it dark, draining it out.

 

Shrine

The narrow path is steep
with scents of pine and juniper that lead you on
to where a lintel at the cavern’s mouth
will make you stoop so low
as to leave the outer world behind.
Enter, and all falls away,
though you, a frail and used-up thing,
and hunched, are still in hope,
for once inside the roof is lofty, almost limitless.
From waves of ancient seas, stone lolls in tongues.
And there, within, no god, but a reminder
of what a god might be: a simple table,
faded cloth, gifts that some might misjudge poor,
small money, keepsakes, herbs as grateful prayers.

To be there for an hour, and still,
is more than some can stand, but do
and you’ll leave naked in yourself
as if unclothed of need, and shuffle out
to blink in new-found light
with sun upon your head.

 

Notes for a solitary walk

For M.W. 1951 – 2014

This morning you are walking for her,
a small thing you can do, on a day
of deep green shadows and granite glitter,
that, if she were here, she would love.

Today, as she is not here,
you will not go the usual way
across the burns through stands of birch
where the dog would flex at the scent of deer,

but further, up the glen where even in her lifetime
the last men were still mining the hill.
You will shin up that shoulder of Cioch na’ Oighe
to see the whole Clyde laid out,

just how, if she had ever had the chance,
she would have chosen to arrange it –
the named near hills and the unnamed hills of the horizons
and the spaces of water between.

You will walk south along your home’s spine
for her to count its line of rocky vertebrae
and marvel at the openness
of all these lands of the West.

You will talk to her of travelled roads
and also of oceans you might have crossed
if there had been time, until,
reaching the lip of Coire Lan,

you will leave the broad path and drop down
below Am Binnein to the White Water
that leads (with no time now to stop)
past home to the indifferent sea.

Father’s Day

Vader

 

My father died a few weeks after his 75th birthday in October, 1990.  He had a talent for music: singing in and conducting choirs, and playing the church organ for many years. Here is a picture of him as a young man: a somewhat anxious look, wanting to do a good job of transporting my mother and me safely.

The poem Prelude and Fugue was published in the anthology, Poems from the Readaround, Tarantula Press, 1995.
Prelude and Fugue

I enter and dare a glance at your effects –
straight rows of books in alphabetical order
the white board emptied
pens and pencils (four of each)
manuscript paper and a rubber
on the Yamaha
You were filling in the bass line

Music for a while shall all your cares beguile

You kept some organ pipes in the loft.
You were going to build one.
What happened to those when you moved
into the flat?

Sometimes I turned the pages for you
feet darting across the pedals
When I was twelve I left the choir
and gave up singing

Your black shoes scuffed at the side

The Catholics paid best you said
a bonus for weddings and funerals

Rehearsal for D-Day

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Today in Normandy there are several large-scale and almost 300 local ceremonies to commemorate the D-Day landings 75 years ago. A total of 156,000 Canadian, American and British soldiers landed on the five beaches Sword, Juno, Gold, Omaha and Utah.

Quite some years ago I saw an edition of the BBC TV series Coast. It was about the preparation for D-Day: it was very moving to see the black-and-white film of farms being emptied, civilians leaving their homes, lost tanks retrieved from the seabed. The programme also mentioned losses through mistakes.

The resulting poem Standing in for Utah is in sonnet form. The first stanza came quite easily, but I struggled to get the second stanza to fit the form. The sonnet typically has a volta, or “turn” after the first eight lines. I liked how I managed to include a physical turn in the second stanza! The poem was subsequently awarded the 2012 RedPage Sonnet Prize in an annual competition.

(Photo credit: Th G Koehler)

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Standing in for Utah
They were given six weeks to pack and leave.
Round and oblong tables stowed in a van:
Hannaford the Butchers. Empty farms grieve
for cows, sheep taken by women and men.
Forty-six square miles behind Slapton Sands,
gravel, dunes, the flooded marshes of Lyme Bay.
A cold, still, grey hinterland that stands
in for Utah, the rehearsal for D-day.
Three thousand people, animals, the year
before sent to live in another place.
Now American boys are sheltered here
and dodging live ammo with sudden grace.
How small, the blue Heritage Coast dots on the map.
Distant that April night when Start Bay was a trap.

Operation Tiger was the code name.
One Tank Landing Ship keeled over and sank
in just six minutes, the wheelhouse aflame.
That boat spewed burning gasoline from its flank.
German Schnellboote fired the torpedo.
Rusted-up lifeboat tackle abandoned;
never told how to use life belts, below
seven hundred and forty-nine men drowned.
This is my ship and I am going back,
Lieutenant John Doyle, skipper, who turned,
against orders. Picked up shapes limp and black;
clinging on to charred life rafts, men who’d burned.
Destiny is shaped by random things, often small:
wrong frequencies, second chances, the place where you fall.

Synchronicity

Cover Narrow Road

I am listening to the BBC Radio 3 programme Private Passions: today’s guest is the novelist Richard Flanagan. Only two nights ago, I started reading his novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North. The book was the winner of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. The title is borrowed from Basho and haiku by Basho and Issa start the different sections of the book. It is based on his father’s experience in a Japanese Prisoner of War camp. His father was a survivor of the Burma Death Railway.

Only two days ago I collected my first set of hearing aids and as I am typing this, Flanagan describes how he lost his hearing at the age of three and how he was thought to be “simple”. My hearing aids are brilliant: I feel more alert and it’s already helped me feeling more confident in social situations and meetings.

Richard Flanagan didn’t want to write The Narrow Road to the Deep North. He says It was a burden, a stone. A stone that grew. He also knew that, if he didn’t write the book, he would not be able to write another. He finished the book and emailed the manuscript to his publisher. Then he went to see his father who was 98 and ailing. That afternoon his father died.

Liberation Day

Bourdon

Bourdon bell, Waalsdorpervlakte

Even inside my caravan I could hear the dark sound of the Bourdon bell, just over a mile away in the dunes. The Waalsdorpervlakte is one of the major Second World War memorials in the Netherlands. On the evening of the 4th of May, there are formal gatherings everywhere in the Netherlands. The King and Queen will be on the main square in Amsterdam with other dignitaries, taking turns to lay wreaths.

However, there is something deeply moving about the gathering in the dunes. It is the location where around 250 people were executed during the war, many of whom had been active in the resistance. The area is part of a protected nature reserve, close to Scheveningen where those about to be killed were kept in prison (locally called the Oranjehotel), and close to the beach.

The first formal commemoration was here in May 1946 when there were just four wooden crosses. Later they were replaced with four bronze crosses. Local volunteers will have placed rows of flowers in the colours of the Dutch flag (red, white and blue) in front of those crosses. They also ring that large Bourdon bell and stop it just before 20:00. After two minutes’ silence and the national anthem, they start ringing the bell again. People can then walk past and leave a wreath, a bouquet, or just a single flower. The bell is rung until the last person has walked past and paid their respect. That may be close to midnight.

Liberation Day is celebrated annually on the 5th of May, with major celebrations every five years.

This poem will be included in my second collection, due out early autumn.

Here I am walking …

Here I am walking with a small horse.
I found it on the path to the supermarket
where it stood, eyes closed, by yellow gorse.

All this happened a long time ago,
before I was born, before the war,
and the rope in my hand smells of horse.

We can turn to the right, walk over
the dual carriageway, head for the dunes,
four bronze crosses to remember

the war dead and we’ll arrive,
place our feet on the beach
where it’ll soon be night.