Author Archives: Tim Lenton

Offshore

you lead me to pasture
across the soft sands where
I do not want to go

where the water is not still
where tides flow in and out
but the pathway is right

I see the pasture ahead,
the island shaped just for me
beyond the valley

yes, I am comforted:
I run towards the future

it is your island:
I will stay there
with you

Why don’t they do it in the Rosary?

I may have mentioned the Rosary cemetery. When I “took my exercise” there during the first lockdown, it was almost always deserted. Now, word seems to have got round, and I’m pretty sure it’s not because thousands of people are reading my posts. Perhaps people are getting so bored with their daily street walks or the overcrowded riverside gangways that they’re looking desperately for somewhere different that can still be described as “local”. Eventually they stumble on the Rosary. They strike lucky.

As we ease into spring, the Rosary is probably at its best. New blankets of crocuses appear every day, among many other spring flowers – snowdrops, primroses, daffodils. You know the sort of thing. Pretty irresistible.

However, unlike many others, I don’t think our appreciation of this phenomenon has suddenly arisen because our lives have slowed down, allowing us to appreciate nature more. Either you appreciate nature or you (inexplicably) don’t.

Most of us love nature, and we don’t go out of our way to ruin it. As I tiptoe between the graves, I try hard not to tread on any tiny shoots. I don’t think I’m alone in this. Nevertheless, there seem to be people who are so focused on themselves and their own convenience that they really don’t care about their surroundings.

I’m not talking about the highways department. I’m not talking about car drivers, or dog walkers, or climate change deniers, or anti-vaxxers or secret huggers, or elves and fairies.

I’m talking about ordinary people who could have an immediate impact on the environment by simply refraining from one activity that has a huge negative impact on city streets and country verges. I am referring, of course, to dropping litter.

Do you actually know anyone who drops litter? Nor me. But it happens on a huge scale, all the time. The Rosary seems to be an exception, and I wonder why. What sort of people don’t go there? People who regard cemeteries as gloomy and forbidding places? People who aren’t impressed by trees and flowers? I was going to say dog walkers, but that’s just me being prejudiced. Maybe it’s people who just don’t notice their surroundings, or are frightened by the whole concept of death, or by the invisible “big picture”.

Somebody left an embroidered notice on one of the seats in the Rosary. It reads: “Not to ruin the ending for you, but it will all turn out ok.”

It is this kind of optimism – some would say reality check – that makes us look round at what I like to call Creation, and want to enjoy it. You don’t have to call it Creation to enjoy it, but it seems to help.

Supreme

(for Mary Wilson)

Out in the snow
I hear Mary singing, 
keeping everything together as always –
multiplying by three,
then dividing
while misty men threw ice balls from on high –
so white, so dark

So long ago, too,
juggling in the far north, 
those cold, cold winters
like Fargo around the stage
in and out of fantasy
pursued by a bear

Where did our love go? 
Out in the snow, Mary,
your beautiful, tidal songs
your mouth like a river
your smile like a secret story…

You drag me back down that slippery slope
to somewhere I might have been

You were there all right, but was it me?
Was it really love?

I see the tracks 
between the graves
and a light in the sky

What really worries me about getting overwhelmed

Westray

During the first lockdown of my life, last year, everywhere seemed empty. When I took the car to the chemist’s to pick up a prescription, there was almost nothing on the road, and hardly anyone walking either. It was weird, and quite exhilarating. For a while.

This time round we know all about lockdowns. When I go out for my daily exercise (you know, the sort of thing we always did every day and need to keep doing, ho, ho), I can hardly move for other people doing the same thing. On the roads there is loads of traffic – all of it no doubt on essential business.

I read about people travelling vast distances to do trivial and ridiculous things and wonder why I don’t take my wife over to North Walsham – a distance of about 15 miles – to put flowers on her parents’ grave. Such an action would not precipitate any increase in coronavirus infection, but it might attract a fine from some over-zealous marshal or police officer “only doing their job”.

So my parents, buried only ten minutes’ walk from my home, get all the attention. Dead lucky.

Yes, our almost daily wanders to the cemetery, by the river and round the cathedral close are never lonely as a cloud, but packed with bursting bubbles of eager walkers, or runners, or cyclists. Fair enough. I can hardly complain about people doing the same things as I am, even if far too many of them have dogs.

Covid is worrying, of course. What really worries me, though, is the number of people who will flock to our coast and other beautiful spots when the virus eases its grip, and the law is relaxed. I have a feeling my usual favourite haunts will be overflowing with strangers who still can’t get on a plane to Tenerife and have to go somewhere.

There is a whole bloc of people who have to go somewhere. I call them the Restless Ones. They can’t stay home for more than a few days without feeling the urge to go on “holiday” – if only in a tent, or only for a day or two. They bundle all their children into a car and take them somewhere that used to be lovely.

Someone once said (I think it was Jerry Seinfeld) that there was no such thing as fun for all the family. They refuse to believe this.

The problem, I’m afraid, is not people going to beauty spots. The problem is the number of people going to beauty spots – people who would in the normal run of things be out of the country. This is a serious problem. What if air travel doesn’t resume for years? What if these people suddenly realise that the country they live in is full of undiscovered, stunning countryside and excellent restaurants?

I may be vaccinated and optimistic about our ability to cope with the virus, but I can’t help fearing that I am nevertheless going to be overwhelmed – not by illness but by other people.

Beyond

Bodies make strangers of us as we age:
we stoop, whisper, stumble and grow impatient quickly
but in our eyes the real soul lurks:
unexpected snowflakes of wit

Each one different, though:
in my aunt’s face – unseen for years –
suddenly my mother lives 

She is on the brink, almost emerging
in the straight voice,
the call to rearrange the world nearby,
forcing it to make sense

She sits by the sea, where it is too cold
and asks for more light,
yet she is not there to be comforted

as she could never be comforted
because the world can never be remade:
it is always fading away

And so this Cape Town evening slips into haze across the bay
and the mountain becomes invisible
like heaven, or regions beyond
age and beauty

Why can’t we be more like Golgafrincham?

The other day I happened on a TV documentary from 1957, shown by the ever-delightful Talking Pictures channel, which ran through what happened at Covent Garden from midnight till mid-morning the next day.

Sound enthralling? Surprisingly, it was. But what struck me most about it was the expertise of the workers. They knew exactly what they were doing, and how to do it….and at considerable speed.

I also watched an episode of Grand Designs in which a young man who had recovered from a brain tumour, and his wife, who had many medical problems including recurring skin cancer, took on the immense task of converting a massive barn into a superb house despite minimal finance and in the face of huge practical difficulties – many of them created by planning officials.

I wouldn’t have started the project , let alone finished it. If I had started, I would have given up at several points. But it was a triumph.

And these two programmes made me think about the B Ark. This was an invention of the brilliant Douglas Adams, who wrote The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The B Ark, a huge space vehicle whose residents chose to believe they were the cream of their planet, Golgafrincham, had been fired off to search for a new inhabitable planet.

In fact they were a collection of the most disposable inhabitants of Golgfrincham – marketing executives, PR consultants, telephone sanitisers, bureaucrats, politicians, planning officials and so on – who would really not be missed.

I have always seen myself as a B-Arker. I mean what use is a writer, journalist, poet…? Put me in Covent Garden and I would be lost. Ask me to build a house, and, although I am adequate at small DIY, I wouldn’t have a clue where to start – or the energy to do it.

Our society, unlike that on Golgafrincham, really has this all wrong. We praise and promote the academics, historians, professors and high-earning “elite” and fail to see how much more valuable are plumbers, electricians, nurses, care workers – even when the truth stares us in the face.

The Education Act of 1944 was supposed to put this right, creating schools which specialised in promoting practical skills – you know, the skills vital to our survival. What happened? Technical schools were looked down on, underinvested and seen as a home for people who weren’t good enough to make the academic grade.

One of my favourite comic strips, Dilbert, puts it very well in an encounter between Dilbert, an engineer, and a new employee, who says: “Hi. I’m very smart, but I don’t know how to do anything.” Dilbert replies: “Where did you get your PhD?” New employee: “I didn’t say I have a PhD.” Dilbert: “You kinda did.”

The current pandemic had thrown a spotlight on people who do really useful things, and do them very well. I would like to think that this realisation of who is really valuable to us all will result in a rethink about the structure of society, and where the big money goes.

But I bet it won’t.

I am not one of those who semi-amusingly use Facebook to blame the Tory government for absolutely everything that goes wrong. I am not a Socialist Worker, though I know one and like him very much. I do not pull down statues. But I would like to see change in the area of valuing the right people, and I think many other outwardly conservative people would like to see it too.

Walking through water

Walking through water
beneath the holy city,
she feels the weight of the past
wash against her shoulders

This is the way in, but
it is not obvious:
sand and shingle beneath her feet
remind her how close the desert is 

Immersed in sin
she strains on
toward the sacred garden
and the redeeming hill

reaching out to the sun,
those streets of burning gold

Hauntingly beautiful walk – so near and yet so far

I’ve just come back from the Rosary again. During the covid restrictions, I have become well acquainted with this hilly Norwich cemetery where my parents and grandparents are buried. It’s only just round the corner and makes an easily accessible walk, even at my age.

It’s also hauntingly beautiful, with ancient gravestones buried in brambles, a tangle of paths leading nowhere in particular and the resting place of city dignitaries gone by marked with quiet signposts.

As well as my parents and my father’s parents, it holds two uncles, three aunts, the church leader who ministered in a mission hut that stood on the site where I now live, and the pastor of Surrey Chapel, the church I attended in my youth.

It also holds many of those half-remembered men and women who worshipped in and ran that undenominational Chapel, which once loomed large over the space between Ber Street and Surrey Street but became dwarfed by the incongruous Norfolk Tower. It was then demolished, its striking structure in the proportions of the Old Testament Tabernacle giving way to a department store car park – another kind of tabernacle.

It rose again in a different form in the shadow of Anglia Square, and is now to be demolished again whenever a plan for the Square and the refurbishment of the area gets the go-ahead. Another incongruous tower? Almost certainly.

But what of the Rosary? It continues in its semi-wild state while being carefully tended by council workmen, one of whom we have got to know in the past months.

I have seen it in all kinds of weather. It is a place to relax in warmth of spring and summer; to explore gently in autumn and to set a brisk pace through in winter. I have seen a deer there, and magpies and jays are frequent, as are squirrels. There is the occasional cat, but happily no dogs: it is one of the few places you can walk without being pestered by “friendly” or noisy canines.

There are many stories here, a large number of them untold. There is the rail crash, the fairground accident and the premature death of two teenage lovers. Many other premature deaths too, but a surprising number of people who lived to a ripe old age – people who had never heard of coronavirus, or Spanish flu, or even a world war. So near, and yet so far.

The fourth man

The fourth  man
walks wisely out on to the hill
looking west for directions 

But being this far north
he remains lost in both space and time,
planets or stars hidden
behind the clouds and houses

Yes, there is a scarlet gash across the horizon, 
blood on black velvet:
it is the longest night

Blood can mean birth or death,
defeat or victory:
gifts make little difference

There is sickness in the air:
it begins to rain

It’s big, but is it beautiful?

I was playing rugby at school when this huge boy about twice my size came bearing down on me with the ball. I wasn’t sure whether to tackle him or not. It seemed a life or death question. In the end, I think I tried to trip him up, which is apparently illegal. But at least I survived.

I seem to remember that he continued irresistibly down the pitch, with much smaller boys parting like the Red Sea before him until he fell on the ball under the posts. Rugby was his game.

I was not keen on rugby. But as nearly all the boys preferred football, the school made us play rugby quite often. I think it was supposed to be character-forming. Or maybe they just didn’t like us.

The question of size in sport is interesting. It seems to me that over the course of my life, the more successful sportsmen seem to have got much bigger. I used to enjoy watching rugby, as opposed to playing it, and at the time wings and centres were normal-sized – sometimes even small – as opposed to the great hulking forwards.

That is not true now: everyone on the field is huge, and great emphasis is placed on aggressive physical behaviour. This, together with the fashion for random penalties at scrums and ridiculous rolling mauls – which are just legalised obstruction – has turned me off.

Football is much the same. Physicality is much praised, and free kicks are pretty random, even with VAR – particularly as VAR still depends on judgement of grey areas, and not black and white.

You might think that cricket , without much physical contact, would rise above the search for something bigger, and so would sports like tennis and golf. But this is not true.

Think the impressive Freddie Flintoff and Sir Ian Botham, but think even more about the weight of cricket bats, which has increased so that you only have to get a nick on the ball for it to go sailing over the boundary and score “the maximum”, however bad the shot. This gives rise indirectly to reverse sweeps and that shot where you paddle it over the wicketkeeper (and the rope). That’s not beautiful, and not the cricket I knew and loved – perhaps because I was a bowler.

Golf clubs and tennis rackets have also developed into tools of fearsome power, so that weight beats skill in many situations.

I hope I am not being sizeist. I have nothing against big people, but I don’t like the idea that being big immediately gives you an advantage. I’m sure the odd rule change could put things right, unless you indulge in basketball, which is beyond salvation. Meanwhile, I shall continue playing chess.