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Showing posts from 2021

Strange, Stranger, Strangest

      Strange, Stranger, Strangest... Here's a strange story – on the face of it, nothing to do with Christmas, but in a strange way it is.   Maybe you know it already, but I didn't. (Bible – Judges 13 – if you're interested).   And this Rembrandt's a strange painting too – all the stranger, for disagreeing with the story as told above... but more of that later.     Manoah's Wife's Story   I never heard him come – in an instant, he was here The Stranger, with his message.   He declined our food and drink and refused to say his name. I would not understand   but knew and bowed my head. When I looked up again to try to learn some more   he was no longer there. I never heard him go The Stranger, with his message.     An unnamed infertile woman is visited by a stranger, also an unnamed person, who turns out to be one of those strange creatures identified as angels. A second strange encounter follows, this time including her husband (who does have a name) endi

And a Little Jade

    Qin Shi Huang Di 259 – 210 BC First Emperor of China (An Eighteenth Century portrait)   And a Little Jade                                    Qin Shi Huang Di aspiring to eternal life swallowed drops of Hydrargyrum with a little jade.   In the spheres of runaway silver he saw reflections of himself – more and more, with new worlds born under his almighty finger   until he grew tired of disintegration. Qin folded up the firmament. He gathered centrifugal planets to return them all to where they began   amalgamating wayward drops. He slowed the quick-willed silver globes with his omnipotence. When all the drops had coalesced   the imperial Qin, unaware of all he did not know lifted his drink to the setting sun and felt at one with the universe.   For Qin Shi Huang Di his journey to eternity began with drops of Mercury and a little jade.  

We were all together there in a foretime

    I find myself attracted to certain words, and here’s one.  Not a word often heard in modern speech, but perfectly proper and well-used since at least the sixteenth century. I came across it in Seamus Heaney’s Section 3 of Keeping Going in his phrase – We were all together there in a foretime. I imagined hearing in my mind’s ear his attractive rich voice rolling it out.   Foretime. Not just, or simply, the past, but a   foretime . (Interesting, that 'a'.  Not 'the', but 'a'). Fore , from before, so it is of course the past, but with a slightly different twist – an added dimension arising from the other words which use fore, as in forecast, foretell or even forehead, when it somehow also looks ahead, to the future… what lies before us? Foretime, Aftertime… be all that as it may, we’ve been here before, it affected us all then, it’s doing the same now and it’s threatening to overwhelm us in the future.   We were all together there in a for


  Departure     Here’s a poem about what’s not here, well not here any longer – distinctive life in a particular form, now gone.   And how, aware of this inevitability, I felt and what I would have liked to have done.     Departure Standing here, I scan the sky a silent sky – uncut, intact. They're gone, those screaming slicers leaving an occasional ordinary bird along with a local gull or two and earth-bound me, still here who had a need to wish them well – to say goodbye, adieu, safe flights to wherever it is they had to go. But it's too late, and I am left now wanting to describe to you to you yourself, no longer here, the presence of this absence and the silence that's been left.   The poetic convention is that when celebrating/commemorating a person’s memory, you  head the poem ‘i.m.’, followed by their initials. But although it is In Memoriam. somehow I didn’t want to put ‘i.m. S.W.’ up there under the title, I think this is because the poem is about absence – wha

I-Spy Wild Flowers

      On the Farm, Musical Instruments, The Sights of London, On a Train Journey, At the Seaside, Dogs… so many I-Spy books, covering so much of my childhood.   I wish I’d kept at least some of those little matching booklets with their distinctive triangular visual representation of what the eye might spy on the cover. Good Hunting, rendered into simple gobbldygook by shifting a few letters to create the impression of a secret code, was the motto/watchword, which linked with the idea of being a member of a tribe that was headed by Big Chief I-Spy, no less.   The News Chronicle and Bouverie Street where you sent your completed booklet to receive a special feather from the Big Chief all trigger memories, but powerful as the nostalgia is, that's not the theme of the poem that follows.    I-Spy Wild Flowers   The boxes are empty – with your bright little eye, what will you spy?   Some things are worth very little – Gound Ivy trails in the grass of the hedg

Samuel Holmyard

  Here’s an unremarkable picture, painted by an unremarkable amateur artist, of what seems to be an unremarkable moment in a provincial city. Undramatic it may be, but it documents a catastrophic occasion, at least for one unremarkable figure.   Samuel Holmyard taken for Execution   The time has come, Master Samuel for you to ride in an open cart from this old gate to Magdalen Road. A modest crowd awaits, faces framed in windows.  Others stand around in front of shops with thoughts of dinner, and your imminent end.   Soon you’ll have gone and they will turn, return to everyday life. Some may talk tonight of what they saw, or thought they saw, while shadow creeps across the city prison.  The children may be told of that which comes   to a forger, Master Samuel, who must leave for this last time the warm pink gate in an open cart pulled by one tired horse, past a modest crowd, a covered wagon, a curious shopper and two indifferent b

The Signpost

Here’s a signpost – originally distinctive, being unique and handmade, and now even more so, with the evidence of ageing.   … numbers, distances, which way? While all signposts are interesting in their duty to inform, their presentation of choices and their simple declarative presence, I find this one special. It’s not just that it has much to say in terms of where you actually are, in which direction you might choose to go, how far your destination is (down to quarter mile accuracy) and even if your chosen method of transport is suitable. It’s also special in the simple elegance of its design, with the arms’ supports and the bevelled edges of the main post rising to that unexpected point. But the specialness goes further.  My friend James Ravilious took me there just at this time of year, over twenty years ago.  It was then upright and brilliant white, with crisp black letters. He certainly thought it was special, photographing it lovingly, in May 1988 ( Chawleigh Week Cross –

The Willoughbys

  I'm much more aware now of all the birds in our garden.  Two in particular loom large, partly because they make a lot of noise and partly because, well, they're large. They started to assemble a precarious pile of twigs just below our bedroom window but I think were put off by my regular opening and closing of it, so they moved into a nearby shrub.   When I referred to their noise, it wasn’t just that repetitive coo-ing, but the clattering as an unwieldy bird emerges.   It alights a few yards away on the path where it walks awkwardly, as if in the wrong element, managing to look both aimless and purposeful at the same time. Then there’s two of them.   After a moment, they’re up on a branch, making a fuss. I’ve written before about anthropomorphism.   I can’t help but see this pair in terms of ourselves, with their behaviour so reminiscent of our own. And similarly all those other birds who live and have their being in the same place as we do – their various actions and re


  As March gives way to April, I feel a sadness. This is when the snowdrops – so eagerly awaited, so welcomed – shrink, fade and disappear.  The flowers, I mean. But the plants remain, growing and nurturing.     White dresses are for early days – the young and aspiring call for petals, petticoats, honeyed scents and pretty attractions.                         Soon enough and unseen, the task is accomplished. Enticements abandoned, let business begin.  Now is the time for real growth                         to develop what was not noticed – a green globe swelling increasingly gravid – the discarded’s forgotten. Old flowers                         turn yellow twist, dry into straw and withering, vanish.  Meanwhile a heavy pod grows like a bomb ready to drop                         new snowdrops.     Perhaps it’s because they’re the first flowers to appear, and those little green spears which thrust through everything nature throws at them – leaf litter, mud, snow, even an unwitting boote

Deflected Eyes

    Portrait of Sir Thomas Wyatt by Hans Holbein I’ve always found this drawing haunting.  Holbein used only chalks, pen and ink, with minimal work on everything except the face, especially the eyes.  Probably drawn between 1535 and 1537, it has astonishing vitality: I feel an immediacy, as if he were – or is – contemporaneous, and that it is me rather than Holbein, who faces him.   And as I watched I saw his eyes look past, past me, into the past – or was it yet to come about?  That glance will now outlast the face so soon to go.  We have not met but still askance he looks. Unblinking gaze, eye-witness of grave acts beyond my view I cannot see, nor find the words or phrase to tell.  His face is blank.  I must look through to see the man whose features show no signs of feelings – sadness, joy, relief or fear –  just cautious observation.  Through the lines the artist drew, his face and I draw near. The mouth and nose and beard I scrutinise, but first and last, I see deflected e

A Post Mortem Adventure

  Even at the best of times, this is a dying season – I mean a season for dying. Throw in Covid, which puts daily death rates into the regular news headlines, not to mention the fear of death propagated by a government to produce behavioural change – stay at home and keep clear of others so you don't kill your Gran – and death is presently looming large. More positively though, admiration for the NHS, with all its committed professionals, has never been more apparent. Death all around, with dedicated doctors desperately working to save lives... We go back to the Battle of Trafalgar, back to William Beatty, Surgeon on HMS Victory. Here he is, portrayed by Devis, not long after the battle - a clear-eyed, confident but humane young man in his thirties. The surgeon triaged each wounded man in turn, regardless of rank, as they were brought below decks. There were three categories: not needing immediate care, so leave; sufficiently seriously wounded, with the possibility of survival,

The Three Hares

  The Three Hares We continue on our way running, running, running around held together tip to tip so I can hear what she can hear as well as her. And the other follows me in front of her – we are joined up by our ears so we follow, lead and follow running, running, running around we continue on our way. Running, running, running around – no cause for worry – what's to come has already been. The future's past – watch us here – we're going nowhere – the last is first and first is last. Our present moment sees us still although we seem to race – running, running, running around we continue. On our way running, running, running around hearing your persistent questions – why do you keep on asking? We cannot tell you any more. May you share your senses and find soft silence at your centre which is so close, while you go on running, running, running around. The turning of the year, with the various thoughts about the past and the future that c