On the York train.

It was going to be a full train. The woman, anxious, thin, well to do, wanted to get her frail, elderly mother settled. The journey was a worry. Her mother was saying nothing, letting her daughter sort things out for her, clutching her glittery stick.
“Is anyone sitting here?”
The young man, who had been absorbed in the blue light of his ipad, glanced to one side.
“No you’re fine”.
The woman’s body sagged with relief. She turned back to her mother.
“You sit here then. I’m going to leave these bags with you. Is that all right?”
Her mother sank into the seat silently and allowed the luggage to be placed around her feet. She had the long angular bones of someone who had been beautiful in her youth, now transformed into the fragility of dry twigs by old age.
“I’ll come and find you at York.”
The daughter disappeared off down the carriage and her mother stared quietly at the back of the seat in front of her. Slowly the rush died down. A rather pompous middle aged lady appeared at the last minute, clutching her ticket.
“I think that’s my seat.”
She waved her ticket at the young man, sure that he was sitting in her seat.
He looked at her mildly.
“The way it works is this. I should be sitting in the other seat but I’ve let this lady sit there.”
The mother just watched, taking it all in, saying nothing. Her daughter appeared from nowhere.
“Is there a problem? You can sit in this seat over here instead. Is that all right?”
The pompous middle aged woman, mortified to have caused a fuss, quickly agreed that it was. Her self righteous wish to get what was due to her had vanished in a puff of embarrassment.
The elderly man sitting next to me had been watching. He was very smart, shirt, tie, jacket and neatly cut hair. He saw my book, wondered whether it was any good and wanted to talk. He was eighty six and he was a big reader. Dickens, Shakespeare, all sorts. He had lost his book in the cafe where he had had his breakfast but he wasn’t bothered because it was rubbish. He searched in his carrier bag and found his leather bookmark.
“I’ve still got this, see, I thought I’d lost that as well. That’s one good thing.”
We both agreed that this was, indeed, a good thing and talked about Dicken’s characterisation and how it made good television. He liked Solzhenityn too. I said that I hadn’t read much Russian literature but I probably should read Crime and Punishment before too long. He nodded.
“I read that. Miserable lot the Russians. Always worrying.”
After a few minutes silence while we both contemplated the poor, miserable people drinking their vodka in draughty shacks on the snowy Russian steppes he started to tell me about his travelling.
“My son says he never knows where I’m going to pop up next. I’ve been all over. I went on a cruise to Spain last year. Very nice. It’s not the same without my wife though. She’s in a nursing home. Had a bad stroke. It’s not the same on your own.”
It must be hard and I said so. Even so, his detailed knowledge of the Manchester transport system suggested that he didn’t let this stop him getting out and about. There was no need for pity.
The cheerful guard, who had announced at Malton that we were on the York train and if we wanted to go to Scarborough that was “tough” informed us that we were now approaching York. My companion listened to the long list of platforms and connections that followed with interest. The elderly lady began to unfold her legs from around the lugggage and picked up both bags with some difficulty and more determination. With a fixed look on her face she headed towards the door of the train. Soon afterwards her daughter appeared. She frowned at the empty seat.
“Has she gone?”
The young man grinned.
“Yes she has.”
The daughter sighed. It would be so much easier if her mother just did as she was told.
“Thanks for your help earlier on.”
“No problem.”

The Conquerer.

I am holding a horse chestnut tree
in the palm of my hand.
The ground under my feet
is strewn with potential,
laden with chances,
bursting with promise.

Small bundles of waiting life
have been thrown out into the cool air,
a gauntlet challenge to the future.
The tree has chosen fragments of its life force,
wrapped them in carefully inscribed skins of polished wood.
and sent them flying.

Only the strongest will survive.

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In Helmsley Walled Garden.

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In the cool damp of a mid ~September afternoon
The garden is using all its senses.

The scent of a thousand nameless flowers
creeps through the mist as the rain strokes the leaves.

A few hardy bees drain summer’s nectar
down to the last, elusive drop.

A garish shout of dahlias scorns the dwindling light,
flaunting themselves like blowsy matrons.

A fading sunflower turns its head,
searching for what remains of the sun.

A flock of Goldfinches chatter a path across the borders,
dipping and plundering.

Slowly the ragged tints of autumn are catching fire
among the soft pastels of a sumer that is loath to leave.

Only the seed heads keep their thoughts close, swaying smugly.
Tomorrow is their secret.

In Ampleforth Abbey.

Silence becomes something tangible,
something active,
something real.
The smallest sound cries out in pain
ricocheting off the walls,
demanding attention.

This is a vaulted store of mystery,
a repository of unspoken needs and requests
sent out into the empty air
by those who have come and gone.

Light falls softly on pale stone
shattering coloured glass into action.
The thin sound of a tiny bell
shivers in the air.

The long lines of hard pews
hold the memories of those who sat there,
believing or wondering.
The bored, shuffling, anxious faithful.

Unlit candles,
Empty lecterns
Silent choir stalls,
the veiled dome on the altar,
have time to spare.
They can wait.
Steadily the space breathes out,
heavy with longing.

I breathe in the smell of dust,
burning wax,
heavy fabrics,
old books.
The scent of history.

Solemn faces from the past
people the emptiness.
Questioning, watching, enduring.
I have no answers for them.

Suddenly the organ explodes into swirling cadences.
The walls vibrate, savouring the sound.
The empty space lifts up its head,
remembering,
and the unseen multitude around me
stand to sing.

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The Lost Child.

A princess danced on the beach today,
exulting under a clear blue sky.
She kicked off her slippers and flexed her toes
allowing her feet to fly.

Spinning and twirling she slipped away
down the lighted road across the sea,
scattering salt water up into the air
alone, alive and free.

Empty and sodden her slippers now rest.
The days of their pomp have passed.
They lie there and wait for the sound of her feet
on the day she returns at last.

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Short Story: A Summer Let.

Margaret Johnson says the last time our village had a summer as bad as this was in 1965. Robert Raymond says it was 1988 and I say it was 2002. I am right. I am right because that was the year that the storms brought a beautiful young man to live above the post office and I can still see him with the warm rain running off his cheeks, water drops sparkling on his eyebrows as he told me that he loved me. He didn’t mean it, but I believed him and that is what mattered.

I first saw him in late April, sprawled out with a book against an outcrop of grey rock at the foot of Pen-y-Ghent, just above Hull pot. He was thin as a whip with long legs and dark hair that was catching the late afternoon light. It was the kind of face that made you stop and stare and when he looked up from his reading he caught me doing just that. He threw down his glasses and looked back at me, smiling. He was used to stares.
“Have you read Kerouac?”
“Do I look like the kind of person who has read Kerouak?”
His smile widened.
“Perhaps.”
I sat down next to him and he put his glasses back on and started to read out loud. Half an hour later I was still sitting there and it didn’t seem strange at all.

After that first meeting I got into the habit of looking for his dark blue waterproof up on the hills. We walked together in the rain and I slowly found out about him. I found out about his love of blues music, the way that a muscle in the side of his face would twitch when he was listening and his very limited wardrobe. In return I told him about…… well not much really. I just liked to hear him talk. After a few weeks of chance meetings that were nothing of the kind I thought that I had got to know him. You never really know anybody else though. I learned that.

He touched me for the first time as we climbed up the steep pile of rocks close to the summit. I almost slipped on the damp surface, made slippery by fine drizzle and he stretched out a hand to stop me falling. After that things changed very quickly. Three days later we kissed for the first time and after that nothing was pretending to be random or casual any more. I threw myself at him like a wet puppy dog. By the beginning of June he was soaked.

That July was a helter skelter of laughter, promises and tightly held hands. He could make me laugh. Always. I don’t remember why now, only the laughter. Laughter in a quiet corner while the raindrops chased each other down the closed windows of an empty pub. Laughter as we made things up about complete strangers walking past. Laughter as we watched a sheep defiantly trying to butt its way through a dry stone wall. After watching that sheep a single, quiet “baaa” from him at an inappropriate moment was enough to convince anyone within earshot that I was completely brainless. In a way I suppose I was.

Quite ordinary things were made special because I was doing them with him and before long doing things with him became the only point. I only existed in his presence, a pale, bewildered moth revolving around his flickering point of light. I could see nothing else. It was a lot for him to live up to.

I remember one single day up in Swaledale, a flashbulb memory of the kind of perfect August day that can come out of nowhere up in the hills even in the middle of the worst of weather. We lay, cocooned at the edge of a field full of uncut hay and wild flowers, wrapped up in each other, while cloud shadows chased each other across the tops of the fells. The scent of damp leaves floated over our heads. It was a moment where everything else seemed far away. We were in our own safe place and nothing could touch us. We could be like this forever. I said so. Forever is a dangerous word. Once you use it it can’t be taken back.

It was from that moment that he started to run away. It took time of course. When someone runs away inside their head you can’t see them receding into the distance. You think that they are still there next to you. They are saying and doing all the right things, but this is an illusion. They are long gone, believe me, long gone before you even notice and it is too late to call them back. His summer lease was up. He asked for his deposit back with a single sentence in answer to my tearstained question.
“I suppose I said those things because I knew it was what you wanted to hear.”
By late September he was gone. He took away the best part of me. I have been told that I should hate him, but I can’t do that. It would be like hating myself.

Recording Britain at Sheffield Millennium Gallery, on tour from the V&A.

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Jeremy Deller and Alan Kane, Protest house, Cardiff, 2001, Copyright Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

‘There will be little point in saving England from the Nazis if we then deliver it to the jerry-builders and ‘development corporations’ Herbert Read.

Recording Britain was an art project which began in 1939. At a time of great change when everything was under threat both from war and internal social changes a group of artists were commissioned to paint “places and buildings of characteristic national interest”. 1500 watercolours were produced and the collection, now held by the V&A forms a highly selective and often quite romantic record of what the artists saw. There is something very moving about the way that it was the individual vision of a group of artists which was chosen as a means of documentation using the gentle and traditional medium of watercolour. It was both a small gesture of defiance and a message of hope for the future, a wistful celebration of what the country might be about to lose and a way of saying to the future this is who we were.

Sheffield’s Millennium gallery is currently hosting a touring exhibition from the V&A of some of the work which was produced. There is a lot of simple beauty to enjoy. A wonderful John Piper of a tithe barn at Great Coxwell in Berkshire bursts with drama and presence. Edward Walter’s pencil drawing of Fish Street in Shrewsbury has a magical sense of light and distance as the cathedral glows in sunlight behind the shadowed half timbered buildings. A watercolour of Stoke Bruerne in Northamptonshire by Stanley Bodmin shows the sweeping movement of the water as a narrow boat glides down the Grand Union Canal, the curve of a bridge echoing the current of the water. Sometimes the threat to this beauty is made explicit, as in a watercolour of the the potteries in Stoke on Trent by Alan Ian Ronald where the havoc being wreaked on this pastoral idyll is clearly visible, smoking chimneys providing a vision of hell.

What really made this exhibition fascinating for me, while I enjoyed the beauty of the early images, was the way that more recent work had been added alongside them. This moved the focus forward and allowed the exhibition to look beyond a freeze framed period in time and explore different ways of recording the zeitgeist of a country. Human feeling and human activity is at the forefront. Ingrid Pollard’s portrait of a black woman alone and isolated in hill country, a bizarre image by Tony Ray of a well to do couple having a fancy picnic in a field at Glyndebourne in 1947, surrounded by cows and sheep, and a very elegant work by Richard Long recording a six hour run from Dartmoor to Exmoor in 1957 as a simple, understated traced line from an ordnance survey map.

The most powerful of the modern images, for me, was Jeremy Deller and Alan Kane’s large imposing photograph, Protest House. It is a house with the whole of its frontage transformed into a shout of pain, a protest about a life which has gone very badly wrong. I spent a long time looking at it, there is a lot to digest. Words leap out at you, words like neglect, abuse, exclusion, apathy, humiliation, injustice,torment. The whole sad story has been laid bare in forensic detail over every available surface so that the world will finally be forced to listen to someone who feels that they have been “left to rot”. It is one of the most powerful pieces of outsider art that I have ever seen, a cry straight from the heart.

This is a very cleverly chosen and thought provoking selection of images and I enjoyed both the contrasts and the sheer beauty of the work on show very much.