Here in Scheveningen, the seaside district of The Hague, it’s a wet Sunday. Tomorrow it’ll be World Animal Day. Here is a short poem with wet animals, inspired by seeing the peregrine falcons at Norwich Cathedral. It’s from my pamphlet A Stolen Hour, published by Grey Hen Press.
I am the last stonemason. Green water spouts from the gargoyle to my left. I am hidden up here with the two peregrines, sodden on their cathedral nest.
My apprentice didn’t come today. Black sky, lightning and the distant rumbling of armies advancing, retreating. I count hours on my arthritic fingers.
Greetings on World Poetry Day! At the 30th General Conference of UNESCO in Paris, 1999, it was decided to mark 21 March as an annual celebration. Poetry has “the unique ability to capture the creative spirit of the human mind”.
I’ve chosen a poem with international connections, a lot of people, fruit – a festive gathering on a Dutch beach. It’s from my collection Nothing serious, nothing dangerous.
On the beach after My boat by Raymond Carver
Bill’s last words were always Have fun, so I will. He was a very good father, Bill, though he wasn’t my father. Liz will be there too. And Mary and Brian, the Como couple. Seville will be there, all the places I ever fell in love with. We’ll be on a beach, a wide sandy beach with small white shells, large white gulls and far off, in the distance, the red container ships, nothing dangerous, nothing serious.
At the flood line broken razor clams crackle under our feet. There is Dick, almost 80, and Miep, their cycles parked up against the metal wire by the marram grass dotted on the dunes. Esther, Peter, Theo, Ancilla on their e-bikes, they love this beach. Skewered fruit, Water Melon Men and the three Irish men I loved, and the others, the artist with one eye has come back from Hungary. Boats will be there, beached. We’re all beached. My UK friends have come by ship, a ship with starched officers, a ship from Southwold that I specially chartered.
I invited J S Bach, Schubert and anyone else whose names I am forgetting. I have been given dispensation – hey, that sounds medical, nothing dangerous, nothing serious, the friends who are no longer friends, what’s rejection, abandonment among true friends. Apples, oranges, enough grapes to count in the new year, fresh figs, plums, peaches, kiwi fruit for sleep, passion fruit. With all that fruit we are fit to count our blessings, our nine lives. Have fun. The tide’s out, and it is a long time before it’s coming back in.
I was evacuated within hours of being born: an un-exploded bomb from WW2 had just been found in the hospital grounds. My mother and I were despatched to the nearby town of Haarlem. After a bike ride my father found us there in an old people’s home.
May last year I posted about the small memorial on the Waalsdorpervlakte in the nearby dunes, how the sound of the bells reached me, sitting inside the caravan. You can read more here. This year there will only be one person ringing that large Bourdon bell tomorrow evening, and the wreath-laying ceremony by the monument on the Dam, Amsterdam will also be scaled down.
Liberation Day, the 5th of May, is celebrated on a large scale only every five years. This year, 75 years on, would have been a major event and a Public Holiday. Flags will be flown, for sure.
The poem Illness is from my pamphlet A Stolen Hour which was published in March this year by Grey Hen Press. Because my mother’s father owned an electrical shop, we had a small black-and-white television soon after they became available. You can see the house still has that balcony. I like how in the poem the personal and the public are combined.
I’m sure it’s May 1956. Grandfather still runs the electrical shop,
but his wife is in hospital. Next month German tourists
will park their cars in resorts on the Dutch coast.
I’m sure I can smell the smoke from the butcher’s next door,
but I’m ill in bed, can only see pink trees above the balcony.
I’m curled up, a sniffy nose and my ears blocked,
but I can’t turn my face away from the place in the dunes,
a pile of boots and shoes. There must have been butterflies.
These twenty men marched out of town, the execution.
I can see myself at the ink-stained desk, a grainy photo.
Then the photo starts moving, shakily, away from the light.
I’m ill again, but not in my bed in my bedroom, because my mother’s
mother is there in her best dress, lying still. Downstairs
the front room curtains have been drawn.
The Herring Eater is the centrepiece of a series of 23 inter-related sculptures by the American sculptor Tom Otterness. The tubes and round shapes are typical of his work: cartoon-like and humorous. However, these sculptures called Fairytales by the Sea are not from the children’s playground, but they remind us how these stories have a serious, even bleak, message. Here are Gulliver and creatures held down, tied down, or captive in cages. There is the hangman’s noose.
Scheveningen was one of the major ports for the Dutch herring fleet. To this day, most Dutch people love their raw herring with chopped onion served in a white bread roll. There is always a queue at the stall next door to my local supermarket. I am about to close the caravan for the winter. The poem was written earlier in the season.
When in Holland
When in Holland do as the Dutch do:
eat raw herring in a white roll with
optional small bits of onion.
Or, like the giant bronze statue
The Herring Eater, already weathered
out on the promenade, head backwards,
holding the fatty fish by its tail.
Next you need to hunt out smoked eel
in the supermarkets. They’re delicious
with a sauce of crème fraiche and jenever.
Flight KL1079 to Manchester arrived on time
and I let the fish go.
Panorama Mesdag is a cylindrical painting, more than 14 metres high and 120 metres in circumference. It’s a view of the sea, the dunes and Scheveningen village as it was in 1881. It’s the oldest 19th century panorama in the world in its original site.
Ever since getting my caravan in Holland, I’ve been visiting several times a year. When I am standing on the circular viewing platform in the centre, I know I’m just 14 metres away from the canvas. I know it’s all an illusion, but I can hear sea gulls, I get the salty tang, I see clouds pass by and the sun break through.
Painting the enormous canvas was a team effort: Hendrik Willem Mesdag with his wife Sientje and various able painters from the Hague. Other panoramas portray violent scenes (the battle at Waterloo, the Crucifixion of Christ). Here it’s visible silence, still asthe hourglass (Dante Gabriel Rossetti), the tranquility of everyday life. A few fishermen are messing about with their nets, the boats are beached, the cavalry are walking their horses on the sand, women are chatting in a doorway, a dog lies down quietly.
Before the camping closes and I lock up my caravan, I will go and stand on that viewing platform again and say my goodbyes to Panorama Mesdag. The poem is by my friend Keith Lander.
The Mesdag Panorama
—after a panoramic painting by Mesdag in The Hague
I’m on a school trip to The Hague
transfixed by the Mesdag Panorama,
especially the seascape stretching away
from the viewpoint on the man-made sandhill,
with fishing boats moored on the vast beach,
a troop of cavalry men in training,
and, joy of joys, a donkey ride.
When no one is looking I climb
over the railings onto the sandhill
and, without looking back, skip away
laughing and tumbling down the slope
towards the beach, the north sea breeze
in my hair, to run behind the military
and have endless rides on the donkeys.
Forty years later, a bored business man
with time to spare before an appointment,
I visit the Panorama and remember
I’ve been there before as a schoolboy.
As I stare at the seascape again I see
the boats on the beach, the military men
and a lost boy waving from the donkey ride.
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.