In our street there are parakeets
and banana trees,
Italian cars, a Sri Lankan shop.
Haven’t seen a Morris Minor
or a milkman
for a long time now

When the new neighbours move in,
if they ask about the grey house
I’m going to ask
if they believe in ghosts
and grab their arm
like the Ancient Mariner.


I challenged myself to end the “How To Write A Poem” course by writing something more substantial and serious, a sonnet about Brexit (!).  Not at all sure about this, but was slightly encouraged, thanks to the Internet, to learn that four people  (from Croydon to Colorado)  did claim to like it. So, for better or worse,  here it is!

The Awkward Squad

At last, after Europe’s History
Dissolved in hatred and the Holocaust
There came a dream of peace and unity,
Beating swords into Siemens dishwashers,
Lager, sparkling wine and the “Ode to Joy”.
A land of milk and honey, whose symbols
Became the Euro and that flag of stars,
And dream of a single Geography.

Something shifted. Are we waking now from
The dream: to dawn? Or dusk? Desperation?
A different dream, of dislocation?
Divorce, distortion and dissolution,
Darkness and dread and disaggregation,
Disunity and disintegration?

How (?) To Write A Poem


Here are a couple more of my contributions to that course:

Our street in June
Sunshine, puddles
Beer cans
Cats on the prowl
Craig and Helen washing their car.


Each night somebody
leaves empty Budweiser tins
and last night – a shawl.

Today a whisky
bottle. Empty. Someone’s life’s
unravelling fast.

and (we had to write something on the theme of tools):

From my father-in-law,
Godfrey Thomas, I inherited
this lovely Thomas Ellin,
“Footprint” brand,
nine-inch pipe wrench
(Sheffield, about nineteen hundred).

Not boring you, am I?
Oh good. And this Birmingham “Heart” brand
pair of pliers
(Wynn and Timmins,
early twentieth century).

They’re interesting, aren’t they?
And this beautiful “Swan”
brand brace,
Really useful sometimes.

And, look, did I
show you this genuine
Vintage vegetable mill?
Which I was lucky enough
to spot in
a charity shop?


In almost silence
Whale song could be deafening.
Grey sky, small noises.


Finally, in response to somebody else’s poem about a new puppy, I wrote something imagining  what the puppy was thinking:







The Wilmington Yew

I’m doing the FutureLearn course “How To Make A Poem” now, and having just returned from a restorative few days in Wilmington, I wrote this for the first assignment:

On the orchid-scattered, grassy Downs,
carved in the chalk,
supporting his two straight staffs,
lies the Long Man.
A pub’s named after him: The Giant’s Rest.

Nearby, perhaps unnoticed
among other trees,
and supported by many props and chains,
another ancient giant leans,
saying nothing,
dwarfing the church.

Doves mumble in the Priory ruins.

The huge yew: dangerous,
evergreen for sixteen hundred years.

Older than English.


Closely Observed

With acknowledgement to H.G. Wells

A new short story for the OU “Start Writing Fiction” course.  Well, I liked it anyway!

 No one would have believed, in the last quarter of the twentieth century, that suburban ticket collectors were being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than their own. But so it was; a real “War of the Worlds” was brewing. Cool and unsympathetic intellects scrutinised and studied the steady jobs which were about to be thrown into the whirlwind of privatisation, restructuring, new technology, short-term contracts and automation.

Already there had  been the new British Rail uniforms, even before privatisation, replacing the old outfits that had seemed permanently ingrained with soot, smoke and sweat. Some people had thought the new look too “Continental”, but Steve hadn’t objected. In any case, he still had his rather more traditional St John Ambulance uniform. Whichever uniform he wore, he liked to keep it smart, in the touching belief that it made him more attractive to women, though unfortunately he had never yet found one who did seem attracted to suburban ticket-collectors. And now he was starting to worry that he would be unlikely to find one who was attracted to redundant ex-ticket collectors.

The hundreds who passed him at the ticket barrier probably would have said that he looked smart but they scarcely noticed him really, whereas he prided himself on being observant, and watched them more carefully than they knew. Some had season tickets which he saw every day and which he probably knew better than their faces. Some bought a Single in the morning rush hour and an Off-peak to come back before the rush-hour in the afternoon, which was fine if they were sticking to the regulations; he took a quick look at those.   In the morning he was on the alert for the “Twirlies” or “Too Earlies”, who tried to get up to London with an Off-peak on the 9.28, even though they could probably afford the full fare. Sometimes they claimed that the train was bound to be late, so they would still be travelling off-peak after 9.30, so he ought to let them through to the platform. If you let them get away with that once, of course, they tried to make a habit of it. Maybe the proposed automatic ticket barriers could solve some of that, but what about the truants or beggars without any ticket who continually tried tricks like sneaking through with a crowd? Steve usually spotted them, though he knew they just tried it on at Bromley South instead, where standards were lax.

And then there was all the other stuff. People expected him to know the whole regional timetable by heart, and every slight deviation from it, instantly. And in the evening weary commuters wanted to moan because their morning train had been late. He was also supposed to react to miscellaneous incidents and emergencies, though he was disappointed to find that he actually got very few opportunities to use his St. John Ambulance training.

He didn’t much like the tea in the mess-room, or the company, or the regular visits from the pest control people, so at the end of his early shift he often stopped off at the little caff under the arches outside. Trish, the owner, was one of the few people who had known Steve for years, though today she had other things on her mind. She had enough doughnuts, but she was going to need some more muffins to get through the afternoon. There was milk in the fridge and change in the till. She was ready for the school-run Mums and the homeward commuters. But then she stopped and thought. Her parents had run this café before her for almost forty years. She had regulars who were the children of people Mum and Dad had served. But now… This letter from the Council. Consultation? Regeneration? Relocation? What did all that mean? Had “consultation” been that public meeting in the room at the pub months ago, where the new MP had been so friendly? Did “regeneration” mean demolishing the cafe? Her mind skittered away from even thinking about “relocation”. Things seemed to shiver, and not just because of the stopping train rattling overhead. She was used to that.

Afternoon, Trish. Tea and a doughnut please.”

“Oh. Hi Steve. Changing shift already?”

Automatically, Trish made Steve’s tea. Another train rumbled overhead, shaking the cups.

They say they’re going to make this place more vibrant.

Vibrant. Right.

He felt a sudden urge to hold her hand, but immediately suppressed that and settled down at a table with his warm sweet tea and the soft, sugary doughnut.

“Watch they don’t replace you with a coffee machine, Trish….”

   “Um… Mmmm…”

For once Trish, who knew that her customers liked some conversation, said nothing more.

 “Only joking love! They want to replace me with an automatic ticket barrier. The regular customers objected, on that consultation questionnaire. But the management won’t take any notice. Not unless they want to.”

The light seemed to flicker, and Steve was soon far gone in his own thoughts about redundant ticket-collectors. After a while he pulled himself together.

“Sorry, Trish. How are things with you?”

There was silence.

It could have been Steve’s big chance to use his St John training, and it might have helped, but now it was too late. Trish had collapsed behind the counter.

Oh my God, Trish… Trish…

But then, slowly, her face re-appeared, looking rather distant.

Trish. You OK? I thought you were gone for a minute! Don’t ever do that to me again.”

Mmm. OK, Steve. OK.” Sheepishly, she added: “I won’t.”

Strange, but from then onwards, things took more than one surprising turn for the better. And now, if you visit a small country pub in Kent you will find Steve or Trish behind the bar, and their children outside playing in the garden. A strange regeneration and relocation for Trish. And strangest of all, for Steve, is to hold Trish’s hand and to think that he has counted her among the dead.



Dean Pauline


This was my latest little exercise for the OU FutureLearn course on writing fiction. You had to take a character you knew, and then  twist them a bit (e.g. change their gender, age or abilities). I found it hard then to avoid stereotypes that might lead to controversy, and did not want to seem to be creating some sub-political caricature. However, in the end the writing took off by itself and it must look as if I was doing exactly that. Likewise, sorry, but the character seems to have acquired a sub-Anita Brookner or sub-Proustian aura which again I had not originally intended. Here she is anyway:

“As she savoured the Penguin biscuit with her morning coffee, a tiny ritual that she had enjoyed for many years now, Pauline tried again to think about retirement, but as usual she failed and went back to considering Penguin biscuits. They were surely a comfort-food, rather than gluttony per se, and she hoped she merited at least a little comfort in her life.
Even though her late mother had been a vicar’s daughter, you would never have guessed, when she was growing up in the London suburbs in the 1950s, that Pauline would become Rural Dean of Barchester. She had never dreamed of it herself. Now however, she seemed to have grown into the role as though she had been born to it; possibly she actually had been: the Anglican God moves in mysterious ways, Her wonders to perform.
Pauline’s eyes were a rather watery blue (long ago a certain somebody had said “cerulean“) and rather more recently, she had treated herself to tinted Varifocal spectacles for them: not really a vanity, as they were so much more convenient than forever looking for one’s reading glasses. The black frames went rather well with her now-silver hair, and as she was getting a little short-sighted, it definitely helped when driving Albert, her charming little car. Albert was likewise a necessity, for getting about the deanery, and not a vanity. Victoria, her Abyssinian cat (should one say “Ethiopian” now?), was of more uncertain status: the Bible was generally rather unforgiving about dogs, but gave no direct guidance about domestic cats (surprising when they had been so important to the Egyptians). She pretended that they were exempt from the Commandments about killing and stealing.
Pauline’s only less forgive-able (though hopefully still harmless) vice was that she sometimes couldn’t resist playing little theological tricks on the unwary, for example deliberately mixing up the order of the Commandments to see if they noticed.
Either they never did, or they were too polite to mention it.”

Sheriff Hawkins

You had to get up early to catch Sheriff Hawkins napping, especially on a clear morning in early summer like today. He knew they had to be out there some place, and today he was going to catch them.
He stood up in the stirrups and quickly scanned the South Texas prairie, then focussed more sharply on a disturbed patch of weeds to which his horse had been ambling. He bent over in the saddle and looked more carefully, then exhaled slowly. Yes. They had been had been there. Maybe yesterday.
Pontia occidentalis (Reakirt, 1866), commonly the Western White. He reached quietly for his butterfly net.


The blurry black and white TV news and the big broadsheet newspapers were reporting students from Prague to Paris to Peking protesting on the streets. Half a century ago. However Stephen, born and raised in the London suburbs, and no more radical than the average undergraduate of that time, did not protest too much, though Flower Power had a little to do with his ending up with an odd disjointed degree, half Philosophy and half Agricultural Sciences. Stephen did not either “turn on” or “drop out” and was not exactly exiled to “serve the people”. Across the world other young people ended up in much more surprising or worse places than he did, but Stephen did perhaps self-exile himself, to work as a farm labourer on a government experimental farm in the Welsh mountains, where the times were a-changing, though rather slowly (and after a while it was clear that not much was really changing in Prague, Paris or Peking either).

Stephen had convinced himself that his degree might lead to some kind of career, and was pleased to start it at this hands-on scientific establishment of Cwmyorwerth, as a farm labourer. He regarded it as work experience; the farm Director possibly saw it as giving the place a fraction more academic credibility, if even one of the labourers was a graduate. The pay was £14.80 a week; but Stephen and his young wife also got a modern three-bedroomed house, firewood, the occasional leg of lamb and milk direct from Morfydd the cow, who was named whimsically after Morfydd, daughter of Urien and twin sister of Owain, who loved Cynon son of Clydo, as is thought to have featured in an oral strand of the Welsh Arthurian poetry, unfortunately lost before it could be properly recorded and peer-reviewed following the modern revival of the Eisteddford (initiated by Iolo Morganwg at Primrose Hill in London in 1792).

The other human staff at Cwmyorwerth in those days were all male, almost all Welsh and could be divided into the scientific officers and the agricultural other ranks. Nominally, the science staff were in charge. Stephen usually worked with Dai. A soft-spoken, slightly weather-beaten character, Dai lived in a 1950s council house a few miles away, quite like the one belonging to the farm which Stephen and his wife had. Dai’s ambitions were not high, and he was only glad that, having been conscripted into the Royal Engineers as a teenager at the end of the War and trained for fighting in the Pacific, it all had ended before they embarked. But he still had a way with barbed wire, and was skilled at digging, sheltering from explosions and wriggling through confined spaces.

On Stephen’s first working day at Cwmyorwerth, possibly as some kind of initiation, he found himself shovelling bullshit with Dai.  After a while Dai politely explained that you had to go at it, not by digging down vertically, but horizontally, as that’s the way the strata were laid down, in this case by Pompidou, the huge, pale Charolais bull, who spent much of his time ruminating in that dark fortress-like bull-pen, like the labyrinth of the Minotaur, that half-breed offspring of a snow-white bull. The rest of the time Pompidou would be more energetic, out in the fields with the cows. Nobody ever dreamed that he could escape from the pen, though gradually the layers of bullshit and straw were building up, and he was quietly getting nearer and nearer to the top of the rails.

About once a week at lunch-time, as the half dozen assorted agricultural workers (but not the science staff) sat around in their tea-room with thermos flasks and sandwich boxes, Arwel, the silver-haired, and you might say silver-tongued, shepherd would be seated at the head of the table and tell a long story in Welsh (once a role for which men had been specially employed in the Mines). Every-one else was silent. Stephen hardly understood a word of it, but enjoyed the rhythms of the mid-Wales dialect, supposedly a very pure and powerful Welsh descended from the Bible Welsh which the local lead miners had once adopted through studying the Good Book for themselves.

And regularly, another kind of story was told, or rather printed, on something not far removed from blotting paper, which was crucial to ensure that the Ministry would continue supporting the farm. These Reports were in English, and not just any English, but modern prefabricated Scientific English and emanated from the modern prefabricated farm office (Yr Office), mostly written by the one English Scientific Officer, James, who was lodged in the Office much like Pompidou in his bullpen. James was accepted as necessary by the Welsh staff, indeed was secretly rather more accepted than the one member of staff who came from North, rather than mid-, Wales and whose accent and even whose pair of sheepdogs were considered slightly suspect and unnatural. The scientific prose in which James reliably turned out the Reports was never questioned. He usually managed to conclude that results were so far very encouraging, but that the research would need to go on for a good long time. As regards Pompidou, for example, he wrote in this vein:

OBJECT             To collect biometric and economic data comparing Welsh Black and Charolais X Welsh Black cattle under upland conditions in a high rainfall area.

METHOD          Cows were divided into two lots of twenty-five, balanced as evenly as possible for age, pedigree, conformation, calving dates and previous breeding performance….etc.

RECORDS                  Individual records of the performance of both the “pure” and crossbred calves were kept and their weights recorded at birth, weaning and at an intermediate date to show live-weight gain over the suckling period….etc

RESULTS          Mean Calf Weight (1 November)

Welsh Black Male          426.9                  Welsh Black Female       406.0

Charolais X Male          466.5                  Charolais X Female       414.7

 At first Pompidou was unaware that there was another bull on the farm: the (comparatively) bach or little Welsh Black, Will, for the two were generally kept well apart. They were well-matched: Will might be smaller, but he had his long, curved horns. Then one day he and some of the cows were unwisely walked past Pompidou’s pen. And then the giant Charolais wanted to get out. Out and at them; and up he surged, over the rails, like a tank crossing an obstacle in the Great War.   The stated aim of there being the two bulls was to compare them objectively as sires, not to pit them against each other in gladiatorial combat, but this was far more exciting. It passed into the local folk history and gave Arwel a wonderful tale to tell for many a year afterwards, though it may never have been written down, and now risks being lost or distorted like the story of Morfydd and Cynon.

As time went by, Stephen gradually became familiar with the upland areas of Cwmyorwerth: not quite Wordsworthian hills “inland far… apparelled in celestial light”, but rather soggy undulating square miles of green, beneath a wide blue sky where, like R S Thomas at Maesyronnen you might almost hear the epiphanic “wild, sweet singing of Rhiannon’s birds”. At least, when it wasn’t raining. Visiting botanists had tried to survey the varying plant associations of Molinia, Poa and Agrostis but, as James had to admit in his Reports: “The lack of identifiable points over such large areas made it difficult to define on the map the exact spot where each species occurred.”

Alun the cowman, who was something of a comedian, would sometimes strike a John Wayne pose up there and then drawl quietly: “I don’t like it. It’s too quiet”. Occasionally there were signs that the Forestry Commission tribe had been mending their fences on the frontier, but Stephen never saw them. At times he and Dai would do the same; Stephen would usually hold the stakes while Dai whacked them into the muddy ground. Stephen was now a stakeholder, even if not a scientist.

Posts and telegraph poles provided another long-running source of data and raison d’etre for the farm, in that experimental plots of them were said to have been planted on the mountain land to assess their hardiness. James’ Reports of this work, while perhaps not quite up to the exacting standards of Holzforschung, the International Journal of the Biology, Chemistry, Physics and Technology of Wood, were masterpieces of strategy and very nearly Celtic guile which promised to provide employment for a generation to come:

Comparing two types of preservatives: (a) creosote and (b) Tanalith U on (1) Scots pine and (2) birch posts; or split oak posts untreated, at an exposed site at an altitude of 1,700 feet. The posts were erected in a plot 30 by 32 feet in groups of four replicated four times. Each year the posts are tested by applying a 50lb pull to the top of each post. It is unlikely that any useful results will emerge for at least 15 years and it may be necessary to continue assessments for another 15 or 20 years before valid conclusions can be drawn concerning the relative merits of the species or preservatives.

In his years at the farm, Stephen never actually saw these experimental posts, which seemed to exist in a mist-shrouded scientific twilight and were not mentioned in reports after a few years had passed. But perhaps they are still there somewhere.

There were undoubtedly two thousand sheep and half a dozen sheepdogs. The Reports had titles like “Post Lambing Management of Wether Lambs on Improved Mountain Grazing” (Object: To apply different systems of management of ewes and wether lambs on improved hill grazing in order to reduce the time taken by the lambs to reach ‘finished’ condition.) Here too James usually managed to keep the Results interesting but provisional.

There were days in mid summer which began with a thick morning mist when the thistles which persistently interrupted the hillier fields had to be scythed by hand, using techniques millennia old. Sheep would drift in and out of view. The atmosphere was almost submarine. On other days hay had to be pitchforked, again using implements which had not changed for centuries; “a tumbling heavy summer task” and Stephen found like Emyr Humphreys in Unloading Hay that:

This inexperienced and soft hand of mine will harden

So I hope, in lifting each loose load with each tight grasp

I take upon this polished pole. This hay is not

so light and cloudy as perhaps it looks…

A century ago (1916), Thomas Hardy believed agricultural traditions would:

“… go onward the same,

though dynasties pass”

(In Time of The Breaking of Nations); on the other hand, just a few years later Edmund Blunden (in Forefathers) took the view that rural life would never be the same again:

“There is silence, there survives

Not a moment of your lives.”

The truth is probably somewhere in between, though perhaps at Cymyorwerth things have actually “gone onward the same” more than you might think.

After their family had left home Stephen and his wife were on holiday in mid Wales and revisited Cwmyorwerth. Pompidou’s old bull-pen was still there and the men’s tea-room, but the Office and James had gone. There was a new office, and a new language. Cwmyorwerth now makes a living as a “vibrant Upland Research Platform”, part of a unique Innovation and Diffusion Campus which is developing science-driven evidence-based interdisciplinary policies and value-added outputs that utilise current advances to place high specification products in the supply chain of the agri-food sector. The authors of the minutes of a recent official meeting felt it necessary to stress that: “while Cwmyorwerth has many farm-like characteristics, it should ultimately be considered a research facility.” … which might be taken as trying to deny while what actually happens there has many research-like characteristics, as before, the place is essentially still a Welsh hill farm.

Morfydd, Pompidou and Will, Dai, Alun and Arwel are long departed. Words like stakeholder, benchmark, footprint, greenhouse, catalyst and bullshit have taken on their new metaphorical meanings and, though a few of them are available in academic libraries here and there, who now reads those Annual Reports which James so carefully wrote? The Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food (1955-2002) itself has become the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and “Improving” or “reclaiming” the hill land no longer means waging chemical war on it with tractors and even helicopters to suppress “indigenous grasses” and “wild herbage”. Now it’s all about fostering “biodiversity havens” and “green tourism” — which is probably much cheaper and easier in any case.

And it must leave considerably more time to get on with some proper story-telling.

Switzerland and Swaziland

I was doing the University of Leeds FutureLearn course about “Causes of Human Disease”, which was very interesting and sometimes slightly disconcerting.  We had to do a short assignment comparing cancer or cardiovascular disease in two different countries.  I chose Swaziland and Switzerland.

I think I learned three things: 1) how terrible the AIDS epidemic has been in Swaziland, 2) that despite malnutrition having been a problem, Swaziland is now poised to join a great many other countries in having an epidemic of obesity and diabetes and 3) how good the IHME website (funded by Bill and Melinda Gates) is for making health comparisons between different countries.

This was my assignment:

Comparing environmental risk factors for cancer in Swaziland and Switzerland.

Swaziland is a tiny kingdom, isolated in the Drakensburg mountains in Southern Africa and with a quite traditional way of life. One of their mottoes is said to be “We are a mystery/riddle” (Wikipedia). Cancer is remarkably rare there, and quite uncommon as the cause of death. By contrast, in Switzerland, another small, mountainous and rather conservative country, cancer is among the major causes of death.

So what is Swaziland’s secret? Is it a “Shangri-La” whose life-style has made its people immune to cancer? The median age is 20 (Wikipedia). Do they have the secret of Eternal Youth? Unfortunately not of course; or only in a very negative sense.

In Swaziland the top four types of “premature” death in 2016 were communicable diseases, and none of them was cancer… yet. Especially in the early years of this century, HIV and TB (often both together) took a terrifying toll, and to be brutal, relatively few people there lived long enough for cancer to develop (the average life expectancy being about 50, one of the lowest in the world).   The top three factors behind death and disease in Swaziland are unsafe sex; malnutrition; and poor water quality, sanitation and hygiene.

It is quite possible that in the future, as the HIV epidemic declines in Swaziland, this will change and as the population ages, things like cardiovascular disease and cancer will increase. In fact, this may already be starting, and death and disease caused by smoking, high Body Mass Index and high plasma glucose levels are already increasing (just as in Switzerland) and Type II diabetes is on its way to becoming a major health problem, as in so many countries.

Meanwhile in Switzerland, life expectancy is high (about 82, the highest in the world) and cancer is a much more serious issue; four types (lung, breast, colo-rectal and pancreatic) were among the 10 leading types of “premature death” there (measured by healthy life-years lost) in 2016. This is typical of an ageing population in a developed country. Not one of the ten leading types of death and disease in Switzerland was a communicable disease. The top five factors behind them were: tobacco; dietary risks; high blood pressure; high BMI and drink or drugs.

It’s no longer a surprise that lung and colo-rectal cancer can be linked to smoking and diet, but it may be less well-known that 25% of pancreatic cancer has also been shown to be linked to smoking, while obesity and diabetes are also factors (Wolfgang et al 2013, “Recent progress in pancreatic cancer”)

To reduce these cancer risk factors and the impact on human health in both countries, education and action to discourage smoking and the marketing of unhealthy food are vital. Unfortunately of course the global smoking and food industries may have their ways to delay or oppose this, directly or indirectly.

(All data, unless otherwise stated, from IHME, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evalution at the University of Washington, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation).


P.S. (December 28)

Dr. Who has regenerated as a woman…

Just finished reading Robert Harris’ (excellent) “Conclave” with its surprising ending…

Maybe it’s all those phthalates??



October; Politics

The autumn Party Conferences were over, apparently without any big changes, though perhaps more happened behind the scenes than was reported.  More evidently, there seemed to be some funny politics happening at the World Health Organisation.  First the new Director General appointed our former Conservative MP for Battersea and ex- Treasury Minister of State Jane Ellison to be one of his two Deputy Directors.  This got almost no publicity whatsoever (she possibly felt well out of UK politics!).  Then he made Robert JanepicMugabe a WHO “Goodwill Ambassador”.  Tbis got a great deal of publicity and astonishment and the appointment was swiftly withdrawn.



Kurdistan and Catalonia both voted for independence in referenda.  You would think the Brexit example would have made them think twice.  David Cameron, what did you start?