You were a deep mid-winter baby, Harry,
Born in Vienna, the home of art and culture,
Just two years after Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch.
But there was nothing to worry about
In those early years before memory,
When your mum and dad held you in their arms,
In mid-winter afternoon twilight –
Until the Wall Street Crash and depression
Meant the resurgence of fascism,
Militarism, the Third Reich,
Lebensraum, and a Greater Germany,
With a visit to Vienna from Hitler
(The city-birth of his fascism),
After Anschluss in 1938;
It came upon a midnight clear,
That glorious song of old,
When angels bent down to the earth,
And changed machine guns into harps,
And turned leaden bullets into golden carols
That drifted across no man’s land,
And choirs of soldiers joined the angels
In a cease-fire of exultation,
While all the bloodied uniformed citizens
Of heaven above watched as silent knights,
As helmets and caps and whisky and schnapps
Were passed from frozen side to frozen side,
When a Tommy kicked a football up into the air,
And there it stayed, suspended high up in the sky,
Shining for ever in a continent’s memory;
A star of peace in a bleak midwinter’s century.
There, on the one hand, St. Pancras and Paris;
And there, on the other, Kings Cross:
Gateway to the LNER,
And night mails crossing the border,
And gateway to a world we have lost:
Pit heads and winding gear, tram-roads and collieries,
And curling smoke chimney stacks:
The world of the North,
The canvas telling the truth,
Up there in the Mining Art Gallery,
At Bishop Auckland:
A terrible beauty down there in the dark depths,
And a beautiful harmony up there in the streets
And homes and chapels and clubs and pubs:
The stippled mist-light of the pit village,
The twisted sinews in the eighteen inch seam,
Ears keening with the creak of each pit prop,
The mind tracking the echo of dripping water,
And the whisper of each rock –
Each little river has a tale which, if understood, cannot fail
To edify the Human heart; mine’s of Lovers who’d not part:
Both loved Nature, read her runes and worshipped countless harvest moons.
He, a Minchinhampton Man – she the lanes of Burleigh ran,
Eager, passionate, enthralled to embrace her Archibald.
The stream that gushes into town on Hazel Woods, as hail, crashed down.
High on that ridge where sheep are shorn, a tiny rivulet was born.
It seeped through soil and chiselled stone, caressing sea-spawned Cotswold bone.
A weave of light like soft silk shook became a dancing, babbling brook.
Through Gatcombe Park the waters curled, then through its stately gardens swirled
To trace a spiral as they whirled past Longfords Mill.
It started with a glance out of the bus,
A blood red disc of a sandstorm sun,
It was ten past ten.
The light numinous rather than luminous,
As we opened the door to leave Bisley church,
Emigrant-ghosts waiting for the Bristol cart,
And a six week voyage to New South Wales.
It was twenty to eleven.
We walked through deep, shadowed holloways,
Walking the Bisley Path,
High above the valley marshlands,
Through woodland shrouded in the strange glow
Of another world’s grey-green light,
The harbinger of Hurricane Ophelia,
The wind now shrieking through the creaking trees,
Leaves falling like some autumn snowstorm.
‘How do you prove you have a conscience?’
You came to me via a pdf,
Out of the blue,
Via a Facebook message,
On a hot afternoon in late July,
With names, occupations, addresses and ages –
A bit like a census, in a strange way:
Official, bald, and bureaucratic
In your modernity,
No telegrams today.
Eighteen conscientious objectors
Whose courage, principles and politics,
Whose ethics, morals and steadfastness
Enabled them to stand up against the crowd,
In those heated days before and after July 1916,
And before and after November 1918.
The paintings of badgers on the posts at Slad,
Are beguiling and deceptive in their art,
Seemingly comic and anthropomorphic,
Each one contributes to a tragic tale,
Summarised in that curt and cruel word: cull.
They look like Tommies facing execution,
Tied to their posts at dawn’s first red-streaked light:
What passing-bells for those who die for cattle?
‘Only the monstrous anger of the guns,
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle.’