Friday, 29 September 2017

Of Mists and Mellow Fruitfulness.

 Mornings are chillier, as bronzy leaves collect in drifts at roadsides.  Dusk by late afternoon, the days are getting shorter, with a snap of frost in the air; largely denuded trees arch over the canal, spindly branches dripping rusted, burnt-brown flakes into the waters, where ducks drift through thin mizzles of grey rain.  Jays flit through thinning treetops, bees and butterflies are newly absent, flowerbeds thin out, their bursts of reds and yellows gradually replaced by spiders' webs.  The paths are strewn with sycamore seeds, conker shells and pine-cones.  From time to time a bonfire crackles and the smoke dissolves onto a horizon where drizzly mist blends with the pitch-black of coming night.  Autumn has embedded its self upon the Valley.

 Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, begins Keats' To Autumn, Close-bosom friend of the maturing sun / Conspiring with him how to load and bless / With fruit and vines that round the thatch-eves run;  There are no thatched eves in the surrounding area, and this bucolic 1819 evocation of the autumnal may seem more suited to the poet's native South, as indeed may his vision of the season as a subtle continuation of the summer, with its later flowers for the bees / until they think warm days will never ceasebut as we look around the valley amid the whinnying wind and hazel-shells, Keats' blending of the seasons, cold and warm meeting in uneasy beauty - barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day, And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue - is more recognizable. 
...full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn 
Hedge crickets sing; and now with treble soft
the red-breast whistles from a garden croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

Swallows are much in evidence locally.  All through the evening, they will twirl and pirouette above the river, or tip-toe on the telegraph wire, as if in preparation for their imminent flights to Africa.  Further down the Calder Valley, at Mixenden Reservoir, is where I first laid eyes on sand martins, a species of swallow that makes its home in sandy hills, etching out holes and swooping over shallow waters in search of invertebrates.  Skimming the surface on that murky evening, October wind slicing harshly through the air, they seemed balletic, their wings like sails, and were hard to capture in full view, as they looped and dived in and out of trees and hills.  Sand martins (Riparia riparia) are one of over eighty species in the swallow family, which is so well distributed that its representatives are found in every continent except Antarctica.  Plucky survivors, the birds will take food on the wing, will nest in cavities and nests abandoned by other birds.  Their associations combine the fortuitous - in the Bible, their habits of building homes in human residences is commended as an example of adaptability (in Welsh folklore, a swallow nesting in your home is a sign of good luck), and owing to its wide-ranging flight the animal is called "the bird of freedom" - with the foreboding - in Europe the creature often portends death owing to its sombre colors; in Greek mythology, dead children were said to re-visit their homes and families in the guise of swallows. However, perhaps the most touching tale of the swallow is the Danish legend depicting the crucified Christ being comforted by a swallow, which finds him dying on the cross.  
The ambiguity of these birds' depiction in art and folkore is summed up perhaps nowhere better than in Richard the 3rd:

True hope is swift, and flies with swallow's wings;
Kings it makes gods, and meaner creatures kings.

The frosty whites and gun-metal greys of autumn-flocking swallows paint a pastel-shaded melancholy upon cloudy skies, but they are not alone: bouncing across grass and buffeting through branches, corvids up their numbers in the autumn months: like fat black bullets they shun among the boughs of oak trees, roosting in large numbers.  Jackdaws join them, rooks also, sometimes even ravens - noisy, jagged congregations, sable-clad and synonymous with death and Gothic superstitions.  From their role in Celtic folklore as harbingers of war, to their sinister synonymity with the ghoulish tales of Edgar Allen Poe, the corvids are a family almost always tainted with the imagery of danger.  In Dickens' Barnaby Rudge, it is a raven that sits atop the shoulder of the central character, a plot device that directly inspired Poe's poem The Raven.  

 It is easy to see how artists, philosophers and the creators and developers of myths, beguiled or unnerved by the stark blackness of these birds, the eager greed with which they hunt and eat, and their jarring, often cacophonous calls - together with a strangely ghost-like habit when solitary - came to cast them as ill-omens, and in more modern times this tradition has continued.  Locally, the corvids have been significant in the work of  Ted Hughes.  Crow: From The Life and Songs of The Crow is one of the poet's bleakest works. Published in 1970, after the decade which saw the suicides of Hughes' first wife, lover, and the death of his four-year-old daughter, the collection frames the bird in settings much in keeping with its mythological representations, but brings it into a brutal, real-world focus, as God bled, but with man's blood.  Amid the mutual "disgust" of God and Man, it is the crow flying the black flag of himself which nails heaven and earth together, but only in so far as the joint of the two dimensions becomes gangrenous and stank - A horror beyond redemption. 

If Hughes' grim poem reflects the crow's mythological morbidity, Sylvia Plath had turned some years earlier to one of its relations  - Corvus frugilegus, better known as the rook - to construct a slightly different metaphor.  Her Black Rook in Rainy Weather is a quintessentially innocent bird, simply Arranging and rearranging its feathers in the rain. While Hughes was apt to see  - or re-impose - his own violent visions onto nature, perhaps rationalizing a once suppressed habit, resumed after the death of Plath, for trapping, shooting and otherwise killing wild animals by means of an all-encompassing idea of nature as "red in tooth and claw", Plath's poetry is more chaotic, more rooted in emotion, less structured and without the sense of purposive anthropomorphism present in her husband's.  Though relaying the neat image of the bird ordering its black feathers, she is keen to establish that I do not expect miracle / Or an accident. Plainly disavowing all suggestion of Creationist or spiritual design - this poet sees the heavenly and miraculous in earthly, everyday things: the light on a chair on in a kitchen, an incandescence in the most obtuse of objects.  The sight of such a bird, though, still grants a brief respite from fear of absolute neutrality as, in departure from its usual employment as a token of impending doom, the rook is suggestive of good luck: it is like-affirming, "stubborn" and reminds her that 

Miracles occur 
If you care to call those spasmodic 
Tricks of radiance miracles

But the autumn months are as well known for what appears on the ground beneath our feet, as they are for avian activity above us.  Every leaf speaks bliss to me, wrote Emily Bronte, falling from the autumn tree. Crossing the bridge over the Calder en-route to the railway station at Sowerby Bridge, one is confronted on either side by mounds of russet, rubicund and lemon-yellow leaves, a multi-hued miscellany of shapes and sizes. 

Of course, much of what is seen is crumbling, fading, the wrinkled leaves are often dully coloured, soggy and shriveling in drains or on dirty roadsides.  Let us be clear - autumn is in many ways a time of death, a time of loss - a time of ugliness.  The rotting, uneaten fruits that dangle from decrepit twigs, the sodden ferns now withering into matted, rain-pressed decay.  In Sonnet 73, Shakespeare is unequivocal, when the season lends its self to realizations of 

resigned acceptance of unhappy fate:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold 
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs, which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see'st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west;
Which by and by night doth take away,
Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.
 Yet there is much colour to be found even as we scan the twilight trajectories of desolation - as Virgil delightedly proclaimed in The Eclogues, telling of how Pigs return elate with acorn berries ... Autumn drops her varied fruits at our feet.

An understated flourish of late magnificence is currently on view - a free exhibition to add cheer to this end-of-year slide into dark nights and decrepitude.  

 It is a time of late blooms, of surreptitious animals such as hedgehogs snaffling through shadows, stocking up and biding time. Even the hardest of autumnal fruits, the conker - that spiky-shelled tough-nut, product of Aesculus hippocastanum, the Horse Chestnut - is a source of nutrition for mice, who nibble patiently and gnaw holes in the sides, and deer, whose digestive systems enable the breaking-down of the nut's alkaloid and glucoside toxins. 

Yet none can doubt that autumn presents us with a colder, at times harsh landscape, as storm clouds gather and, as Philip Larkin put it, the leaves suddenly lose strength:

 And now the leaves suddenly lose strength.
Decaying towers stand still, lurid, lanes-long,
And seen from landing windows, or the length
of gardens, rubricate afternoons. New strong
rain-bearing night-winds come: then
Leaves chase warm buses, speckle statued air,
Pile up in corners, fetch out vague broomed men
Through mists at morning.

And no matter where goes down
The sallow lapsing drift in fields
Or squares behind hoardings, all men hesitate
Separately, always, seeing another year gone - 
Frockcoated gentleman, farmer at his gate,
Villein with mattock, soldiers on their shields,
All silent, watching the winter coming on.

The autumn's swelling fruits, and mellow mists, the glow of berries on the roadside bushes and the gathering darkness of the evenings, emblemise the duality of this most contradictory of seasons - heralding the end of the Georgian calendar, the commencement of the Jewish year; the exile of sun-seeking birds, and the appearance of rutting deer, ground-dwelling creatures and fungi, sprouting from trees like the colourful stuff of fairytales; the decline of much natural scenery, and the emergence of a multitude of flowers.  



It is beautiful, it is painful.  It is the time when nature's powers are in manifest conjunction with Her cyclical mortality and the passing of time. Wild is the music of autumnal winds, wrote Wordsworth, amongst the faded woods.

Tuesday, 26 September 2017


Anyone passing through Sowerby or Hebden Bridge has a good chance of seeing the famous Muscovy Duck who, though apparently basing himself at Hebden, seems to have quite a habit of paddling, flying or swimming up and down the canal and taking stop-off visits at various points between the two towns. But he is not alone. In terms of Muscovies, the Hebden duck is certainly our most regular presence in the Valley, but I have sat and watched others of this interesting family taking in the views at different places, including as far afield as Littleborough.


Before moving to the Calder Valley, I had never laid eyes on a Muscovy, but nowadays it is more unusual to go a few days without a sighting!  Indeed, so far have the Muscovies become a part of my daily ornithological furniture that it was inevitable they should waddle their way into my poems.  But before I share my own meditations on the Muscovies, we ought to dwell for a moment on the philosophical musings they inspired in Australian writer Henry Lawson (1867 - 1922) who pronounces:

No frantic flaps of useless wings, no cackle, hiss, nor cluck,
She’s queen of all philosophers—the quaint Muscovy duck.

Many times I have watched the Muscovies, perplexed by their genetics, intrigued by their colours, delighted by their behavour and wobbly insouciance.  When working at Hebden Bridge Tourist Information, struggling with the cash sheets and defeated by the till, I would cast an eye outside onto the drizzled cobbles, and watch the plumpish duck relaxing in the rain, while I disintegrated under administrative anguish.  Which of us had the right idea?


About the size of two cats
you paddle puddles,
flap concertina wings,
plumply patrol the pigeoned pavements,
two sliced-cherry eyes pinned either side
of your clamp-beaked head, red-decorous
with a rubbery blotch
as though a big ball of aniseed
had melted and dripped down your forehead.

There's something in your sip
as you crane a rain-stroked neck
of the itinerant -
your constant search for morsels
as you peck the cobbled crannies
reminds me of my own continued need
to scrape and salvage, the bitter scavenge
of the human race, an endless reel of having to make do,
never knowing where or how the next means of survival
might be found.

Web-footed waddler, you wade a drizzled wharf,
tail-feathers wafting like a witch's broom
but as you saunter in the pluvial sludge of a Northern February
your fixed unblinking eye catches mine.
Beyond the glass we watch one another.
You peer into my artificial planet
where neccesities are parcelled up and labeled choices,
where a hungry dash from need to need dictates
unstable pyramids of greed,
where, water-born, we must seek shelter in dry other worlds
within a world - but you, unworried and unhurried,
have made an ease of your uncertainty,
looked daily desperation in the eye,
have faced the torturous paradox,
the many-mirrored image of existence
and jollily sloshed on
and if birds laughed
you'd chuckle in the moonlight,
at one with the world.


Rare Constants - Poetry of Canals

Yesterday's two screenings of my documentary A Humble Station? Branwell Bronte's Calder Valley Years were warmly received at Sowerby Bridge train station, where the film was played in the Jubilee Refreshment Rooms.


Named after a class of engine which was synonymous with Sowerby Bridge in the days of steam, the Jubilee, which features in the film, is owned by brothers Andrew and Chris Wright, and wears the history of the region's railways proudly.

Today's station is some distance from where the station stood in Branwell's time, when he worked as a clerk at the premises for the newly formed Manchester and Leeds Railway company, in post in time for the grand opening on 1st October 1840, an event at which the railway engine pioneer George Stephenson was present, and which is commemorated in the film.  The incredible impact of railways on British life is a major feature of the film, and being somebody who spends a good two thirds of my life either on board trains or waiting for them to arrive, I feel like railways are somehow in my blood, part and parcel of who I am.


The train this morning's like an otter
shimmying through shallows
inching into secrets beneath the reed-rich riverbank;

just gone seven, and the moon's a tin god, weakening
in mist that's peeling away to dandelion sky,
sun-threads woven into cloud

and I'm sitting on a train that's more a magic wardrobe,
spooling otter-like along this rivery morning, air moist
with threat of rain, fiant sprigs of it slowly scattergunned

like the spray of garden sprinklers; the window's open
to a panorama of new promises, and who knows what
lions, witches, and as yet uncovered loves

out among the woods and valleys, waiting.

Yet, A Humble Station actually begins beside the Rochdale Canal, this stretch of water being the thread which flows through the heart of the Calder Valley, and part of a network which of course made up the bulk of Britain's industrial transport system in the decades preceding the arrival of the railways.  It also runs directly beneath my own window, making the canal as ever present a feature in my life as railways.

 Barges, narrowboats, Sowerby Cruisers,
these shoe-shaped floating houses
balance on the water with a tilt to the towpath, moored.
Snugly, they always look asleep,
though one of them this morning's like a Viking skiff,
piled with logs, its wigwams of bunched twigs
ranked along the roof like totem poles,
skull-and-crossbones perched on deck.
Others nestle in still waters, smiling
at the ducklings scrambling by,
soaking in the sun of early spring
or sway like shrugs on balmy summer Sundays. 


The Rochdale Canal was constructed in the late Eighteenth Century, falling out of use by the later Twentieth, before its tunnel at Tuel Lane was re-opened as part of a project of regeneration in May 1996.  This juncture at Tuel Lane provides Sowerby Bridge with the deepest canal lock in the country - the reason I chose to name the company formed by myself and my filming partner Alan Wrigley for releasing the film Deep Lock Productions.  And rightly enough, a canal-boat scene is included in the film.

My neighbour George, who has lived on our road for seventy years, remembers barges transporting coal up and down the canal as late as the 1960's, and in Branwell's era, the early 1840's, it would have been a very busy stretch of water, full of boats carrying cargo between Lancashire and Yorkshire.   Families lived on the canal - the "bargees" with their unconventional lifestyles, a hard-drinking, gypsy-like trading people with whom Branwell was known to socialize, as described by Daphne du Maurier in her 1960 book The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte:

The canal ... was the chief means of transport for stores and material to be used in the construction of the railway. Every day barges traveled to and fro, anchoring for the night very often in the cul-de-sac, or 'basin, at Luddendenfoot, where the bargees would spend their evening at the Woodman, the Weaver's Arms, or the Anchor and Shuttle.  
These men fascinated Branwell. They were a law unto themselves, rowdy, rough, coarse, but of fine physique.   
Bargees - or 'boatees' as they were called - cared for nothing and no-one.   They were traveling gypsies, drinking, fighting, laughing.  Their way of life was crude, but it was free.  Branwell was at ease with them.  They did not know he was 'Parson's son' from Haworth. They did not ask who he was. They did not care ... he would feel anonymous, secure.  The knowledge, too, that his father would have disapproved, would have been horrified, even, would have been an added stimulant.

 Today, after several decades of disuse, when it lapsed into slimy decay, the Rochdale Canal is used widely by boaters and holiday makers. 


 At Sowerby Bridge, not far from the stretch of canal that paddles by beneath my balcony, the wharf bustles with bars, but is also a haven for wildlife, prompting much of my own poetry on the subject.  Herons are seen often, their stringy springs across the canalside canopies a kind of clumsy ballet, until one glimpses them in flight: gracious and ethereal, they appear more like birds of prey, yet are enigmatic, swift, and somehow gentle. 

More frequently, Canada Geese and smaller birds are seen -




...and, despite their man-made origins and industrial pasts,what fascinates me about today's canals is how they and the environments they engender have become havens for wildlife generally.

Rain subsides, rain falls, rain blends on a sky-like surface, 
fishes glittering below; ducks sail gently by.
Evening sun glows gently over the canal.

We are very lucky to live on this beautiful planet.

(Canal Haiku)


Autumn dusk; ducks huddle upon waters bounced on by a cavalcade of rain.  I stand and look over the locks and bridges, contemplate the complex network of canals stitched together to form the Aire and Calder Navigation, a watery web, linking my adopted town with the city of my birth.  Like tunnels burrowed by enterprising gangs of weasels, voles, or big, subsurface predators,
they split and sub-divide, a grid of burrowed waterscapes as if the veins of earth had somehow opened up.


A long distended network,
lines and joints complex
as an electrician's chart
this braided splay
of connected canals
is pinned together
at crucial points
just like the multi-stranded
sequences of blood
and twining
through us
like branches
of successful trees
somehow knowing how to work.

Usually solitary, often long, my canalside wanders have prompted poetry, much of it short, haiku-like thoughts inspired by unexpected or heartening sightings.

Like yellowy bubbles
ducklings bobble
along a sunshine-silked canal other times, I have seemingly taken to compare canals with musical instruments:


Under pale March sky,
frosted leaves scattered on the surface,
you're a twisting cylinder of silty brown,
muggy as old whisky bottles rimed with cobwebs. 

On days like these
when winter hasn't given up,
when morning winds are bolshy as loud families on trains,
when even the hardy horses in the fields seem hesitant, half-questioning
and headlines hiss wth rumours of deepending unease
you are laid low, unspectacular,
but there. 

Unerring continuity of water,
simple but enduring twinning
of human hand and elemental,
natural truth,
against the fractured clamour of a harsh and jarring world,
amid the shove and jumble of insoluble discord,
upon a weathered, tattered stave
you are the sound of an oboe -
gentle but determined,
curving but neat-outlined,
serious but flowing,

...while at other times I have found myself getting lost on metaphorical tangents conjured by the canals' diversities of wildlife:


Sleep-shaped whisper,
curling curve of water
slowly proving yourself
like a soft meandering adagio 

and yet 

you slide along with purpose,
your course is more deliberate
than the swerving flutter of the fish,
your strong but slumbering gradualism
places you at odds
with skittering pondskaters, zipping bugs,
grabbing gulls and ducks that waddle even as they swim,
this way and that they waver beneath the jumbled
flight paths of restless pigeons,
while you aim onwards, even at a different pace
to the patient but spurtingly-inclined brigades
of minky mustelids hidden in the nettled banks
and briar-twined brackets skirting round
your sandy flanks,
the sniper-like
and hungry knives,
that dip and forage at your weedy fringe.

 But my canal poems, and walks, extend beyond my native ground.  The Rochdale Canal flows over from Manchester, and sometimes it feels quite surreal to think that the same thin lane of water ambling by the brambled towpath below my window, winds back through the neon-glistened streets of Manchester's canal district, a hub of nighltlife. Once, on wandering through the tapestry of balconies and stairwells bathed in florescent lighting spilling from the adjacent clubs, I began composing the following poem in my head under the stars of a Mancunian summer night, the canal silently flowing at the edge of my eyeline like a neat glass avenue.


1. CORE 

Oh bashful echo of impoverished pasts,
of men slave-driven by the gods of gold,
of a streamside hunger juxtaposed
by a city's self-sustaining wealth
re-envisaged in the glossy polish of false dawns,
you are a candle,
pellucid streaky flame
slivering in solitary romance,
shelled in cobweb-soft liquidy
with a core of coal. 


Trickling through the city
below balconies and bridges
where neon-spangled dancefloors spill
onto the riverside courtyards,
subtle in its sub-street seam,
this canal is shy and bookish,
is the quiet type
watching revelry and romance.

I saunter by the water
in the shade of strobes,
in the background pulsating music
and the thrill of rings of dancers,
but this distance is comfortable
as I cut beneath the underpass,
thread Deansgate and trace
the network of an inner-city's hum
and throb.

I ask directions from a guy
crop-haired, polo-neck
the colour of clouds.
Like tiny suns his eyes are saying
what neither of us can.

Cities, of course, are part and parcel of the routes of most canals, and not just here in the North.  The canals of London have long played a part in the fictional mythologies of that city, from the death described by Dickens at the Regent's Canal in The Uncommercial Traveler, to the fateful canal at Walford, in Eastenders.  In Our Mutual Friend, Charles Dickens places one of the principal and most intriguing villains - Rogue Riderhood - as a lock-keeper somewhere adrift of the Limehouse Basin, while elsewhere in the novel, a murder is attempted by a lock.  An altogether more lighthearted character is to be found living on the canal in Dombey and Son, where Dickens tells us Captain Cuttle lived on the brink of  a little canal near the India Docks, where there was a swivel bridge which opened now and then to let some wandering monster of a ship come roaming up the street like a leviathan. 
"Opened now and then," presents an image of casual ease - yet anyone who has performed or witnessed the process behind the opening of Locks will know that this is far from the case.  It is physically hard work, requiring  skill, strength and patience.


Closer to home, the only thing to sour my own proximity to canals is the regular sight of fishermen, and no matter how often I see them wreaking their pointless savagery upon the unsuspecting inhabitants of the water, I shall never get used to or "accept" their disruptive presences. 
Of equal ugliness are the areas where the canalsides, and canals themselves, have been left to fester in squalor and refuse.  But such sights are part of canal life, and have crept into my poetry almost as often as the canals' more appealing scenery.

Under the watchful half-eye of a crescent moon -
fox-holes soiled up in winter's disrepair,
scraps of feather, bones decaying in the hedgerows -
the water's lit, a lunar aluminium,
and bottlenecks towards the bridge
where, flowing through the darkness,
it emerges to a bankside, draining out.

Boats bob, dog-dirt rots on paths.
Here's terminus, a hectare of hardening sludge
as February, March commingle, and the diminishing stretch
of canal's exhibited for all the sorry mud-and-garbage it's become.
Midge-infested, coffin-black, the mouth of muck is speckled with coke-cans.
Redundant limbs of old machinery clog up as broken glass and plastic bags
waste away, as if the whole inflated blotch, a muddy microcosm
were some big bin.

Canals offer a unique combination of the human and the natural, the traditional and the unexpected. Beauty and ugliness. The paths which wind along side their worlds of water also paint different pictures of plant and animal life, different vantage points from which to observe the world around us, their colours subtly shifting through the year.

I cannot quite imagine now living in a place untouched by canals.  Possibly, I shall live above or within viewing distance of one for the rest of my days. Dug into the natural landscape in order to further the advance of man upon an already fragile wild world, I should not like them. But canals are also emblematic of a mutually enriching symbiosis, whereby - when channeled with due care and with sufficient respect for and attention to the living world, human influence on the planet need not always be destructive; indeed, that it can help to feed a people and sustain communities, oil the wheels of trade and link different areas to one another across a bond of water. In today's age of pollution, overcrowding, and habitat destruction, canals provide thriving belts for wildlife, at a time when these are badly needed.  And there is something fundamentally calming about their presence, their slow-flowing progress, and the fact I know that, whatever trials and difficulties may await me in my daily life, and my observations of the wider planet, the canal will be waiting for me when I return home, its quiet, patient presence a source of comfort.


The canal, a pewter moonbeam ribboning the town, is silent:

a sleeping sheep, it radiates
a silvered calm, beaded by bobbing
boats of blue and bushy green.

The barges may as well be lily-pads,
the unobtrusive rectangle of water
one of many stitched into a twined bone-structure

rimming parks and pathways,
soft like settling snow - canals endure
seemingly unendingly and simple

a stark reciprocity of gains,
un-squeezed harvest of persistent peace,
a long rain-coloured corridor

no longer used for coal or sacks of grain,
but resurrected from the slimiest demise
by holiday-and-home-makers, their boats

like tubes of childhood sweets
bobblingly slotted along waters
self-evidently tinselling a round, echoic course.

Shy relations of aggressive seas,
genteel cousins of the rivers, 

unselfconscious and subdued, reassuringly straightforward: 
in a world of continual uncertainies
canals are rare constants.