Wednesday 19 August 2020


     Instead of writing my usual narrative, in this post I would like to stick to some poems I wrote a number of years ago and which contain reminiscences of childhood and family.  There are just three poems.   The first one, "Autobiography", is based on memories of my childhood home on the outskirts of Birmingham, England, and particularly features memories of an ancient church near my home.  Then follows "Family Album", with memories of my father's parents, who were the only grandparents I actually knew.  Finally comes "Family Saga" with my mother's tales of her own grandparents who lived in the Outer Hebrides, Scotland.

          When I was small I lived in a green land --
           Revisited, sparse enough, with bright red brick
           Springing between the calculated flowers.
           But in that seeking time it seemed to me
           Nothing but fields stretched out on either hand
           Until they reached the blue horizon's edge.

           For me the trees grew green, adventurous in Spring,
           Rich in the  Summer and in  Autumn, finally
           Intricate pattern of iron work, austere in Winter.
           For me the fields grew flowers.  Each new plant
           Was like the finding of a continent
           To me, conquistadora.  All my senses
           Greeted whatever lay before them, glad
          To recognize the texture of a mat
          (Thrusting my hands among the long-haired fleece)
           The rough and granular work of a pebbled wall,
           Digging out shards with broken nails and watching
           The glint of sun om granite, feeling
           Sunlight absorbed by stones sink down again
           Into my body, leaning full against them.
\          I felt things with my feet: the rich black squelch
           Of mud or macadam between my toes,
          The springy, sheep-bit turf, the leather arms
           Of  our much harassed armchairs, or the bed,
          Sharp with its pointed pebbles, of a stream
          So shallow it barely reached above my toes.
           Water I loved indeed to touch and handle:
          Black and perhaps unfathomable pools
          Lurking in gullies at the foot of hills,
         Sea, on the rare occasions when I saw it
          (Making me almost drunk with exaltation
         When the wave bucked beneath the boat) but most
          Of all the shallow little stream that ran
          Through fields and woodlands, breaking and curvetting,
          Surrounding tiny obstacles, then smoothing
          Itself to a small, sleek imitation of
          The long Atlantic swell, in little frets
          Caused by the pattern of its two inch bed.

         A wood and fields comprised my known world:
         A golf course lay beyond.  A small estate,
         Yet endlessly productive of delight.
         Of terror too.  Imagination helped.
        One day I found an egg beneath a hedge,
         In texture quite unlike the eggs that broke
         To form a clamorous nest of early birds,
         Their beaks still gaping for the endless worm
         That nest was safely tucked inside the hedge
         And some way further up, concealed from travelers
         Who did not so minutely scan as I
         The objects they encountered on their path.
         This egg was horny skinned and strangely hued
         With oily hues like dribbled gasoline.
         I thought of all that I had ever read
         Of snakes, their habits and of dragonets.
          The end of school meant anxious visiting
         With wary step  and timorous roving eye
          To look for alteration in the egg.
         A boy who found me hovering round the hedge
        Which marked their garden's limit took me in
         And showed his rabbits and his bicycle;
         I soon escaped to mark the spot again.
         I hardly know if I was frightened when
         My daily visit showed a broken shell,
         A vanished  occupant.  For weeks I went
         Another way, to shun the cockatrice.
         Another vision, scarcely less suspect,
         Came monthly rolling on down Manor Lane.
          There, at a turning near the school,
         The gypsies' never ending caravans
         With their full complement of men and boys
         And walking mothers wearing their old shoes
        Taken from garbage cans along the road,
         Superlatively down at heel but fine,
         Magnificent in dirt.  They always  wore
         Most curious wrappers, black with orange sprigs,
         Tying across the side with thin black tapes.
         I used to wonder where they got them from,
         For I never saw them anywhere for sale.
         They were disturbing but they never stopped.
         They seemed to breathe a different air from we;
         Dragons and snakes were closer than they were.
         And yet they never once disturbed my dreams.
         Strange as they were, they were no cause for fear.

          The passing pattern of my days assumed
           A patchwork glory.  Nothing was too small
           To be excluded from experience
           And nothing was so great it over-topped
           The rest of life and minimized its worth.
           We never had to go to church, yet still
            I felt a thrill on entering that place--
            Unforced and therefore stronger holy fear.
         The massive vaulting of the church, so huge
         I could not force my head back far enough
         To view the timber arches of the roof,
         Formed far too vast a box for my small heart
         Thudding between the hassocks and the pews.
         Eternity made strange the monuments
         And dusty marble wigs of antique men
         With all their sculptured virtues at their sides.
         Large things seem larger to a ten year old.

         That sentiment was strong indeed, and while
         I drifted down an aisle like some church mouse
         Or even, bold with dread, approached the Bird
         That held the Book in fierceness and in bronze;
         While this suffused my soul I dared not own
          Another feeling than magnetic dread.
         But when I found myself outside again,
         Alone with sounds and leaves and mossy stones
         And sorrowing angels drooping in their wings
         With testimonials to local names,
         I plucked up courage far enough to rout
         Amid the graveyard garbage for old flowers
        And fly with shrieks and scattered trophies from
        Indignant hobbling guardians of the tombs.

        I could not wish myself at any time
        Returned again to that remembered past
        For every joy brought compensating grief
        And anguishes to great to bear again.
        But while I lived in childhood I could yet
        Forget each grief the moment it was gone
        And meet the constant bully with surprise
        On each occasion. Joy I too forgot,
        Living the moment as it came.  One thing
        I could grudge at this hour and that is time:
       Continual leisure of the infant life
       To spend as long examining a leaf
       As it demanded and no moment less.
      And what prevents me now from watching leaves?
      I own no fewer seconds in the week.

                       FAMILY ALBUM

         All the life of his life,
         My grandfather, who is long dead,
         Worked in the Jewelers' Quarter.

         He had a big red nose and mild blue eyes
         And a silvery white moustache.

         To look at him in his overalls
         You would never think him aesthetic
         But he would buy pictures instead of meat

        When he was young with two little boys
        And a careful, brisk young wife.

        They stood in a group for their photograph:
        Grandfather wistful, Grandmother blurred
        From holding her restless sons.

        Only her hands stood out --
        Iron hands, imprisoning little boys.

       Her hands held tight and never let go,
       But Grandfather's hands hung open
       For experience to run through.

     Grandfather bought and sold and gave.
     Grandmother made, kept and mended.

     These were their patterns through life..

                                           FAMILY SAGA

          If I choose to go back further,
          I come to my  Great Grandmother.
          She was named Barbara Morrison --
         I am named Barbara  after her --
         And she was born on a croft.

        When she grew up she was pretty
        And she fell in love with a sailor --
       Most of the boys were sailors --
       But her family said No.
       They found her a rich, middle-aged husband.

        My Great Grandfather whom she married
        Was a very remarkable man.
         At the age of fifty he was the richest man
         With the widest whiskers on the whole of Bernera.
         He was also an Elder of the Kirk.
         But he didn't start out that way.

        Hear the tale of my Great Grandfather!

                       For thirty years he sat and thought --
                       Not all the time-- He worked a turn --
                       But when his work was over, he
                      Would think and let the cabbage burn.

                       The thought that occupied his mind
                       Was how to find the proper way --
                        And to finance the plan, when found --
                       To make his lobster fishing pay.

                       He sat and thought for thirty years --
                       For thirty years and then some more --
                       And finally the plan was born
                       When he was nearing thirty-four.

                      He shipped upon a cargo boat
                      Destined for Canada.
                      He flexed his muscles every night
                      And said a little prayer.

                      He prayed like Samson he might be
                      Great, tall and stout and strong
                      And likewise wise as Solomon
                      Without doing anyone wrong.

                       Upon arriving at the coast
                       He leaped upon the shore
                       And started chopping trees like mad --
                       No other could chop more.

                      They were well paid, Great Grandfather
                      And all the other men.
                      But while they squandered he would save
                      And earn some more again.

                      Before he had been many years
                      Upon that fortunate shore,
                      He'd saved five hundred pounds in gold
                      And sailed for home once more.

                      Once home he hired two men to dig
                      And with their help he made
                      A  most enormous lobster pond --
                      Like Aberdeen harbour, it is said.

                      He filled that pond with lobsters blue
                      From all the seas around
                      And when the other men sailed out
                      No lobsters could be found.

                     They all were with Great Grandfather
                      Who sold them -- at a price.
                      He was the richest man for miles
                      And got Barbara, which was nice.

                     Now this great man is dead and gone
                     But still the things he did remain.
                    He built that pond like Pyramids
                    To win an everlasting name.

                   Some time ago an engineer
                   Officially sent up from London
                   Came many miles to see this pond
                  And could not think how it was done.

                 Great Grandpa used his natural brains
                 To do what others could not do
                  And even now the Government
                  Is baffled by the things he knew.

     Barbara survived him. She bore two sons
     And adopted two children as well.
     She was made with a leaning to hope
     And a heart like the widow's cruse.
     Furthermore she had natural curls.

     For a matron these were improper
     But she tried to repress them in vain.
     Since her marriage had failed to depress her,
     Nothing could ever achieve it.
     She died in her sleep, smiling.













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