Paul passed away in the first week of May, 2019, having been diagnosed with brain cancer in 2018. He was a valued and talented member of the local writing scene. His short stories were often successful in competitions, and this poem, which was read at his funeral, is among his best. The music was exactly as prescribed. The weather was not!
A Guest at My Own Funeral
It’s comforting to think that one day I will be the cause,
Of smoked salmon vol-au-vents and cream cheese-filled celery,
Eaten from balanced paper plates, like a picnic, but indoors,
Washed down with fizzy German wine, in memory of me.
I want a storm of cold wind and lashing rain that day,
So people will sniff, blow and wipe at tear-like drops,
Keeping the smug survivors and “Free Feeders” away,
And contrasting in relief the damp quiet, when it stops.
All should come dressed in their uncomfortable best,
A fitting elegy, constricting collars and pinched toes,
The living shouldn’t be at ease with the dead not yet at rest,
Formality for photographs of the assembled in mourning pose.
I’m torn between floral abundance and more stylish restraint,
But, in the face of absence eternal, is less really more?
Will the scent of flowers still carry Summer’s memories faint,
On the un-breathed air, is that what the flowers are for?
Music, enter briskly to “The Imperial march” in a major key,
Contemplation to Vaughn-Williams “Lark Ascending”,
Ritual cathartic chanting of “Those in Peril on the Sea”,
And Bix Biederbeck’s jazz band for a defiant ending.
What will they say of me? Just the usual words to draw the line,
“Known him for ages”, he is dead now…and we are not,
Past tense will prevail, and no-one will ask if I’m feeling fine,
Euphemisms will abound, buckets kicked, clogs popped, a lot.
I don’t want my name recorded for the future curious in stone,
Memorials should be made of wood, so will with relevance decay,
Human, not geological time counts; nothing harder than bone,
Should mark my passing, “Was here, now gone away”.
Black & Blue & Geordie
Conjuring liquid crystal notes,
Out of the coal-bearing measure
From breath and brass
The boy Lead Cornet,
Blowing “Buddy Bolden”,
In the Bolden Colliery Band,
Practicing by the foot of the shaft
Waiting for the cage, after his shift,
Black in his soul,
But, his skin black only with coal,
Northern Jazz-man, George Swift,
Stole New Orleans’s treasure,
harvested from the Delta cotton fields,
Then played it back, as priceless solos,
Underneath unyielding South-Shields.
Meditation on a murmuration
Behold, one of the wonders of the world,
A serried swarm of starling-kind,
Summoned by the setting sun,
Perform an astounding Shadow-play,
Playing the shadow to puppets unseen,
A wave, a bell, now a hammerhead shark,
The luminous eventide Levels sky,
Swapped for the mulberry-paper screen,
By an algorithm each figure constrained,
Alignment, cohesion and separation,
Defining the mesmerising sight,
As one thousand-thousand teeming birds,
Sculpt the air with their synchronous flight.
Now new drama with swooping entry,
A sparrowhawk scythes the throng,
Each speckled actor improvising fear,
Effecting a decoy of bewildering form,
To foil the solitary predator’s aim,
Banking across the dying sun’s glow,
Becoming the very shape of confusion,
But the raptor closes, all the same,
Fixing now on her chosen prey,
The flock parts to give up one of its own,
At the burst of feathers that mark the kill,
A circle of stillness in the writhing flow,
Wrought by the surviving starlings’ will.
Now they sink to the waiting willows,
This avian winter spectacle done,
Across the wetlands night-time settles,
The watchers leave, one by one,
But why have we witnessed this display?
What is it that fascinates us so?
Why are we transfixed, without knowing?
What can it mean to us, even today?
Perhaps an echo of something unheard?
A call from another earlier twilight,
The senses remember what the mind forgets,
From four-score long centuries ago,
When we waited on the marshes with nets.
The Bodger’s Boy
1) The Heritage-walk
You can get a copy of the town heritage-walk pamphlet now from the station information kiosk, (unmanned since they closed the ticket office), or you can down-load it off the internet. Not that it’s a town that ever had much heritage, or not at least when I knew it.
Mind you, it didn’t have a Thai restaurant, Community drop-in centre, Housing-association, Museum or Mosque then either. So what is this heritage-walk then? Well apparently a short route connecting thoughtfully written plaques placed at sites of things of interest that have been lost. Or more accurately, things that were officially of so little interest when they existed, that nobody thought them worth preserving. In short, the locations where most people lived, worked, worshipped, drank, played and died. Only the buildings of the few wealthy individuals and powerful institutions remain, without plaques but still with walls, floors and roofs.
To be fair the actual “heritage”, buildings were universally shabby, dirty and chaotic.
Their charm being of the strictly retrospective variety. Most would also have been impractical to preserve, as generations of neglect and artful vandalism had made many of them structurally unsound. Often it was the occupants or their function that made them note-worthy anyway, not the actual architecture itself. So this is a new type of heritage, a communal collection of labelled ghosts. Reading the pamphlet, I made subliminal comparison with a parallel mental one of my own devising, engraved during my child-hood and youth. I noticed the authorised version had several errors, or at least miss-leading omissions.
The town itself is unique in the way in which everywhere is. It spread along a river valley over an un-feasibly long period of time, as the slopes on each bank soon become too steep to build cheaply on, (a pre-occupation with cheapness having always been something of a local obsession). The tops of the hills are, or at least were, largely left wooded which gave the whole surrounding area both much of its natural beauty and it’s rather shut-in atmosphere. During a timescale that almost exactly corresponds with my own life-time, this small insular unlovely old market town has been progressively transformed into a sought-after residential commuter community. The process has involved the clearing of many of the woods for housing development, the re-generation and pedestrianisation of the town centre, and a deliberate effort to re-invent or at least justify the town’s past, (hence the heritage). It has also involved a three-fold increase in population and, in common with much of the rest of the South East of England, the dispersal of much of the indigenous population, most of whom can no longer afford to live there.
My personal heritage trail of my home town began not with its buildings or even its streets, but with its smell. You could easily navigate through town with just your nose.
The top end of town grew from a single terrace of Victorian brick houses, (or cottages as estate agents call them, now the outside toilets have been demolished). It followed the Vale road, an ancient drove-way which, like many others in the Chilterns followed the natural water course, here through two miles of cow meadow. So every time it rained, all that end of town smelt heavily of cow dung. Heading south east, passing the Nashley garage, with its strong odour da-diesel, brought you to Wright’s wood-yard and the smell that dominated my entire early life, sawn unseasoned timber; especially hardwood, specifically Beech and Elm. This was the cologne of most adult male members of my family, who worked in the local wood-turning industry.
Continuing down what had now become Broadstreet, you briefly caught the pungent chemical whiff of the Suntts plastic works and the deeper fragrance of burnt cutting-oil from the forge and fabrication workshop at the bottom of Cameron road. And so-on, following the main thoroughfare, with each intersection and waypoint signposted by the distinctive bouquet of the trade, produce or industry of each location, finishing with the freshwater muddiness of the watercress beds of Moorside.
I now realise that this first layer of my trail-map must have been laid down in early infancy when my mother took me in the pram with my older brother and sister on her daily shopping trips. As a baby’s sense of smell is better than his eyesight, it was this that formed the first lasting impression of Chesham. This is perhaps the very definition of a home-town, somewhere you can recognise with your eyes shut.
More distinctive perhaps than the actual buildings of the town, were its institutions and the locations particular to each. When I say distinctive, they are in many ways typical, or at least representative of the life blood of many small communities. The first and most important of these was the town Fire Brigade, in which both my father and uncle Pete served as retainers. This august body was based at the un-lovely 1950s single story two-bay station along Bellingdon road, and more frequently at the classic Victorian Griffin public house opposite. Few events in the town’s calendar were complete without the attendance in some capacity of the Fire Brigade. Turning down Sunnyside Road and into Hiam Road you pass the neat corrugated-iron tabernacle of the world’s first Spiritualist Church, survivor of the dozens of non-conformist and non-aligned religious communities that once thrived in this unlikely setting. On the other side of the road is what is still Europe’s largest flag manufacturer. Going south-east down Broad Street, (the clue’s in the name), past the police station, or Cop-shop of my boyhood, and White-hill school, on the site of the burning of a Lollard martyr, you reach Broadway, the nominal centre of town. Curiously none of these sites apparently warranted a plaque.
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