VAD Hospital, Saffron Walden, 1915
The ancient oak on Freshwell Street
is jaundiced in the Autumn sun
as Clementina clips her way to work.
A window pane plays mirror to
the mid-blue of her uniform
and though she’s late, she stops stock-still and stares.
The red-cross on the armband,
the starched white of the hat,
black boots that pinch, the bag balm on her palms.
Pulled-in, pinned back, with pale-blue eyes
it takes the girl a breathless beat
to realise it’s her who’s staring back.
It’s Clem. Our Clem. The messy-haired
adventurer and story queen,
pied piper to her brothers, lost in June.
But no one’s called her Clem for months,
those summers seems an age ago.
They linger like a half-remembered tune.
The chance to go and do her bit
had won against her life at home
she’d kissed her mum and hugged the boys to bits.
But as she pitted guilt against
adventure with the VAD
she never stopped to think what it might do.
And now she knows: this woman here
will never lead a squawking gang
of children through the Essex water fields.
And as the thought occurs to her
it darts across the pale blue eyes,
she blinks the thing away and turns for work.
Here is the second of my poems for the Last Poppy Project about life in Essex during WW1.
I come from just up the road from Braintree. I didn’t know about Crittall’s before researching this piece. Many of the window frames that made post-war Art Deco buildings so distinctive were made there, in this sleepy Essex town.
The bit about the German captain knowing where he was due to the bell has been disproved, as St Michael’s Church never had a bell, but that was the myth and myths make better poems. For me, what was fascinating about Doris’s account of this raid was the fact that despite it being the closest she got to the actual war it paled in significance with the wait for her dad to get home. Much is made of the collective suffering and collective striving of war, but I was struck by this private and personal longing.
Zeppelin Attack, Braintree, 1916
Doris and her sister Maggie
shook awake by mum one night
as starlight shows a large dark shape
in deathly, whirring flight.
The oilcloth of the bedroom floor
is icy underneath their feet,
they struggle with the steamed-up sash
and peer out on the street.
As overhead a Kapitan
unsure above this foreign land
turns the zeppelin’s engines off
to better understand
exactly where his airship is
and as he does St Michael’s bell
tolls and tells this Kapitan
what Doris knows too well.
He’s cleared the patchwork Essex fields,
dirt farmyards and the gladed copse,
he’s reached the jostled terraces
and little shuttered shops,
the churches and the railway line
where sloes and dark, fat blackberries grow,
where thatched roof pubs and gothic schools
are all the young girls know.
He’s likely near enough to Crittall’s
where in peace time men annealed
those futuristic window frames
in toughened Essex steel;
where now their women heat and cool
the liquid fire for darker ends,
the grim, efficient work of war.
He gives the order, sends
a thousand screaming kilos down
upon the brisk Spring Essex night
a silent rip through country air
and then the sky turns white.
Memory’s a funny thing
and later, when she wrote it down
Doris was unable to
recall the burning town.
The oilcloth and the sash stayed with her
and the news the morning after
a tiny girl was crushed and killed
by chimney brick and rafter.
But mostly Doris thought about
her kind old dad away at war
the picture of him coming home
was what she chose to store.
So handsome in his postman’s blue
much better than the army green
he never smacked or chided them
or told them what he’d seen.
I was lucky enough to be interviewed by the great Janice Long on Wednesday night. I did a few poems, chose a few songs and talked. Mainly, I talked. You can listen to it here.
So I gone wrote a poem about Scottish Independence, or rather a satire on some of the English voices on the Better Together campaign. The Guardian commissioned it and you can see the video here..
Scotland, old boy, come on now
must we have another row?
We’re not so different, you and I -
Isle of Wight, Isle of Skye,
it’s all the same, a melting pot
from your wee dinghy to my massive yacht!
So come on, let’s be neighbourly.
I feel a deep affinity
for Scotland – have done all my life -
my family owns some land in Fife
well, most of Fife – and Moray -
I even plan to visit one day.
Scotland, darling, change the song
you’ve got the Englishman all wrong
we’re huge huge fans of what you do
haggis, sporrans – well done you!
Your Highland jigs, your heart disease,
your Orkney with its dearth of trees.
Your Russ Abbott – he’s on the money!
I’ll see you Jimmy! Yes, very funny.
Your ditties – Derek, Where’s the Troosers?
And Andy Murray – when he loses -
(Otherwise he’s just sort British, isn’t he?)
Good bless the Scotch for all their toil
and all their lovely offshore oil.
Scotland, Scotland, calm down dear
this Bolshy talk is spreading fear
you’ll have them brawling in the streets
park your kilt, we’ll fetch some neeps
I’ll send down for a blended scotch
just stick your sgian dubh in your sock
and tell me, why this lefty tripe
this share-it-out, Utopia hype?
Some will strive, but most will shirk
lovely thought but doesn’t work -
Ha! like your youth, dreadful mess
no, stick with us, we know best.
Scotland, Scotland cool your boots
easy there, here have some fruit
sorry, sorry, I forgot …
but really, stop this “fairness” rot.
Britain’s fairer by the day
now we make the scroungers pay
and charge them for their extra room.
We’ve added to the penal gloom
by banning books in county jails
and put up half the state for sale.
Britain’s back in business, thus
the oligarchs all come to us.
Scotland, sweetheart, don’t look blue
I’ll explain the thing to you.
An apprenticeship, er, union, what you will
takes patience, fortitude and skill
with each chap playing to his strengths
and we’ve gone to such tremendous lengths
to fit you in and fell your funk
and still you pitch up cross and drunk.
Look, just as I’m not made to plead
you were never meant to lead -
we let old Gordon have a go
and look what happened, yes, Och NO!
Scotland, pal, I have a dream
of rivers pure and pastures green
where my strapping, ruddy sons
are diligently waited on
by your pasty, ginger brats
and you and I can chew the fat
we’ll take a show in at the Fringe
my wine glass clinking your syringe
and laugh about this silly spat
now tell me that you don’t want that.
Oh, and small point, hate to mensh
saying it’s an awful wrench
but if you ever make the split
you’ll fail, and we’ll make sure of it.
I’ve been commissioned as part of the Last Poppy Project to write five poems about life in Essex during the First World War. I’d normally be wary about writing about WWI, after all hasn’t there already been some pretty good firsthand war poetry. But I was interested in painting pictures of life at home during that time, and I thought I might have something to bring to the table.
It’s been fascinating reading a variety of tiny tales of the home front. Often we don’t have many details and so I’ve been able to flesh out and imagine the gaps. I’ll post all five as and when they are ready, below is the first, a series of snapshots of the start of the war. War was declared just after a bank holiday weekends when many people in Essex (and indeed the country) were on their holidays.
August Bank Holiday, Essex, 1914
To Essex then, one hundred years ago
to sun-scorched, dusty fields and parched stream beds.
Where windfall codlings pock the russet earth,
September’s fruits come early, and to waste.
At Boreham Reverend Yonge mops cobs of sweat
and begs his guv’nor for a dose of rain
as horticultural ladies trim their blooms,
they nip and bud and dream of red rosettes.
Down Thaxted way, the labourers are striking
it’s coming up for forty wage-less days.
They roam the country lanes in search of scabs,
as Pankhurst comes, the red flag on her car.
The trains are packed from third right through to first,
the coastal steamers coat the blue sky white
as Britain leaves her heartlands for her shore.
From Romford, Dagenham and Tilbury
near forty-thousand, swap the clock for sand.
The boarding houses with their lists of rules
and their fearsome landladies bulge, although
it’s quieter than last year. They know why.
There’s something colder building in the air:
in Chelmsford they can talk of nothing else,
the newsagents are desperate for vendors,
the tittle-tattle’s milled right through the night.
Until on Tuesday, everybody knows.
In Southend hundreds gather at the Standard
to read the words they posted in the window.
The tiny wives, umbrellaed by their men.
We’re twenty-one today, we’ll make the Kaiser pay
The regulars demob down Mersea Road
while Reverend Yonge in Boreham writes in black:
Bella horrida bella… smite, hell, ruin.
Last week I made my debut as a garage MC. Don’t panic, this was not a conscious career move. This was Homework. Homework is the club I run with Joe Dunthorne, Ross Sutherland, Tim Clare and John Osborne (our 6th resident Chris Hicks ran away to Japan). We do six events a year at The Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club, and each month we have to produce new work to a theme. The theme this month was music and I hit upon the idea of us all writing a song. To mix it up Ross suggested we draw genres from a hat. We got our cruel audience to suggest genres. One man suggested Garage, and I just knew …
To say I’m not a fan would be putting it mildly. However, I do know a bit about garage. It was at its most popular when I was 17 and starting to go to clubs. Making the song was a bit of trip down memory lane and I realised that when I first started writing poems I was basically just writing to a garage beat. So whether I like it or not garage is in my artistic DNA. Brap. Ahem.
I thoroughly enjoyed making this and performing it for the Homework faithful. It was scary and difficult and made me think about how I go about creating, which is exactly what we want Homework to do. That said, I might find a way of doing a poem next month.
“Props” to Lora Stimson who did the vocal on the chorus bits. Lora and I were in a indie band called Dorian Grey when we were at college, during this period that I’ve written about. If you’d told us then…
If you want to come to Homework then all the events are on my ‘gigs‘ page. Or more info can be found here.
Below is the video of me performing the piece at Homework, below that is a recording in which I get the words right.
An Immodest Proposal
It is a melancholy spectacle, to those, who walk the streets of British towns, and indeed through parts of the countryside, which should by rights be reserved for the middle and upper-middle classes, to observe the benefit scrounger: these hulking boss-eyed yobs and their obese, tattooed women folk, dragging dangerous canines or potty-mouthed children down streets and through public parks that are maintained with the taxes of decent, hard-working people.
There are some who like to point the finger at this excrement: puce-faced mechanics and Audi-driving junior executives cough Cornflakes on their Daily Mails when faced with a photograph of yet another chain-smoking illiterate enjoying some treat or other. One can hardly blame his fellow countryman for this reaction, but when I see some rat-faced degenerate effing and blinding at her scrawny offspring outside a municipal building I can feel nothing but pity for her and these poor urchins who will, no doubt, grow-up to become thieves or reality-TV contestants. To see a fellow human being living so low, and seemingly with no point or purpose to their short, unhappy life, fills me with a deep grief. After witnessing such maudlin existences it is no surprise to hear that these citizens (for want of a better word) resort to defrauding the state.
But, of course, the sorry business cannot just be ignored. If we cannot be divided how can we be effectively ruled? So, we come to rely upon responsible news outlets, who bravely scour the rougher parts of these islands for ever more shocking abuses of our generous welfare system, to feed us regular tales of this deceit. While the brief moments of dead-eyed outrage these news stories provide the average Briton should not be dismissed as useless, they are, after-all a much needed distraction from the smallness of our everyday lives, I have come to realise that there might be a way to end this problem altogether.
The solution came to me today while reading about a young women called Josie Cunningham. Miss Cunningham has caused rage and disquiet in homes across the land for having a £4,800 breast enhancement operation (a “boob job”) free of charge (to her!) on the National Health Service. This “boob job” has led to some “glamour modelling” work and regular employment as a £1000-a-night prostitute. It was upon reading that final fact my idea struck. This woman is now a top tax-bracket earner! She has gone from scrounging off the state to paying almost £100,000 a year in tax, the cost of her boob job many, many times over.
My proposal is modest (and yet also immodest): BOOB JOBS FOR ALL WOMEN ON BENEFITS, whether they seek them or not! With one piece of legislation we can lift thousands of women out of wretched state dependence and bolster Britain’s flourishing sex industry. I challenge Mr Cameron to draft a white paper immediately. And if Mr Miliband could perhaps stand limply by the white paper and then apologise later he will do himself and his party much credit. Mr Farage has already expressed strong support for my idea. I didn’t bother with Clegg.
* It must be said I make this proposal with no personal motives – none of my immediate family would qualify for this measure and my own use of pornography and prostitutes remains, and will remain, indiscriminate and unthinking.
I’m delighted to have programmed part of Edinburgh International Book Festival’s programme for 2014. On Saturday 16th August the festival will be focusing on spoken word and I’ve put together seven events (plus two Unbound gigs yet tba). The day is produced by the brilliant Becky Fincham.
Babble On features performances from Hollie McNish, Martin Newell, Kevin Eldon, Hannah Jane Walker & Chris Thrope, Mark Grist, Tim Clare, Ross Sutherland and many more.
Babble On will show off the diversity of voices and quality and writing present in Britain’s Spoken Word scene. Have a look at our line-up here.
I’m really pleased to be included in Rebecca Goss’ heart poems project in aid of Children’s Heart Week. You can read my brand new poem “Oh England Heal My Hackneyed Heart” here.
The Children’s Heart Federation (CHF) is a registered charity. There are lots of ways you can help this charity raise important funds by organising your own event or taking part in some of the CHF events. There’s The Big Heart Bike Ride, The Dragon Boat Challenge or the slightly less strenuous Bring a Bear Day – to work or school. There are fundraising opportunities for all ages, things that you can get involved in independently or as a group. Find out more about fundraising for the CHF here.
A few weeks ago (on Easter Saturday in fact) I “officially” opened the newly refurbished kids section of Bungay Library. I was just going to go along and cut the ribbon (alas there was no ribbon!) but my wife said that was a cop out and they’d be expecting a poem (they weren’t). My wife can be pretty scary (she’s like a God to me, an angry and vengeful God) when she wants to be, so I relented and wrote this. Now you can read it, if you want. It’s my first, perhaps not my last, poem for kids and you’ll be pleased to hear it’s a polemic (get em while they’re young).
Boden and The Library
Most would say that Boden was
a naughty child and that’s because
he never did his daily chores -
he’d throw his dinner on the floor
or fill the sugar bowl with salt
then laugh and say: It’s not my fault
and let his sister take the blame;
the boy was keen on violent games
and scribbled words I shan’t repeat
upon his little brother’s sheets;
he spat and scratched the neighbour’s car
(a sleek and sporty Jaguar)
stuck stickers on remembrance wreaths;
and never ever brushed his teeth;
he terrorised the village fogeys
smeared their corgis with his bogeys;
let his baby cousin play
in the kittens’ litter tray;
and once he even did a wee
in his teacher’s cup of tea.
Boorish Boden, not quite eight
and seemingly stuffed full of hate.
The oik! You cry, The little yob
that sticky-fingered potty-gob!
Why, lock him in a dingy cell
and throw the key into a well!
But hold on there, calm down kid,
you only know the half of it
you see, a child is not born bad
a lot depends on mum and dad.
And Boden’s weren’t like yours or mine
they called him Boden – warning sign
and seemed to think that parenting
meant buying your kids the latest thing.
So Boden and his siblings dressed
in nothing but the very best
and passed their weekends in the mall -
their parents spent but that was all.
They never played or joked with them
or tickled them or spoke with them
they never showed them how to cook
or taught them songs or read them books.
Mum did nothing when at home
but fiddle with her massive phone
and Dad dreamed dreams of cars and sat
while telly made his son a brat.
And it could well have stayed that way
if Boden, walking home one day,
hadn’t stopped quite suddenly
outside his local library.
A Library! thought the little lout,
I’ll pop in here and muck about
I’ve heard about these boring dumps
they’re grey and dull and smell like trumps
where squares and swots all come to learn
but something tells me books will burn!
So with a wild and heinous grin
Boden boldly marched right in.
And there he stood with gaping jaw
because behind that library door
was not a room of swots and farts
but vibrant books with brilliant art
he reached for one intent to rip
but on it was a pirate ship
and pirates, well, we’re all agreed
are great, so he sat down to read.
And Boden on that little chair
was whisked away right out of there
to escapades with peg-legged swine
he could almost smell the brine
and hear the sea and feel the sand
running through his tiny hands.
For the first time in his spoilt life
he wasn’t bored, and that was nice.
And so he came back every day
and stories whisked him far away
on dragon backs, enchanted trains
on broomsticks, magic cars and planes
to desert islands, ancient forts
to dragons, Gruffalos and storks
to knights and fights in crumbling towers
and there he sat for hours and hours.
Then Boden, once so mean and cruel,
began to make new friends at school
no longer did he bite and kick
or muck around and play cruel tricks
and though his useless mum and dad
didn’t change he wasn’t sad
because the boy had been set free
by his local library.