Now Send Flesh

That coat of gentle, ginger suede,

Real warm, perhaps the sleeves too long,

No inside pockets, can’t belong

To this me, since such fabric’s frayed.

 

The leather’s bright as bought, except

A collar-line; the buttons tied,

All rethreaded, worn with pride;

I’ve thrown out others – this I’ve kept.

 

For weeks I’ve followed round my ghost

Counting when I wore that first,

When she gave that, bit lip, cursed,

To find her hand was still on most.

 

But this I purchased long ago

When I was first at leisure, rich,

And chose to rise to pleasure’s pitch

And wear the mirror’s happy glow.

 

I bought it yet before I knew

The name that now distends my fears.

I’m tied to something through the years

That has no will to say or do

 

Yet speaks, forgiving, soft and smooth,

The skin like skin I miss to touch.

Ask, ‘Do I miss her?’ ‘No, not much,

Except when breath my lungs would soothe.’

 

On every surface, every door,

Fingerprints and darkling hairs.

I find her when I walk upstairs,

She rests in blankets even more.

 

The pencil pot, the chopping board,

The tent, the grout for fixing tiles,

The dreams of treading sunny aisles,

And every single guitar chord.

 

I haven’t yet resolved this rage –

Am I to amputate my past

And lose the years I clung to, fast,

And blanken all my diary’s page?

 

Don’t give advice – don’t share your grief –

I know already that time heals,

That when a nerve is cut it feels

But later leaves its torture brief.

 

Can you imagine I want that?

A heart which soon will cease to care?

A place to hide?  Oh, how unfair

To know distraction or combat.

 

So either suffer every jab

And let no-body lift a share

Or betray, regret, then forswear

The once-bright future, paint it drab.

 

That jacket though is still as fresh,

And I still like it as I did,

And while I hated, cried and hid,

I petrified.  But now send flesh.

A View of Trees

The curtains and the curtain poles are down,

The grips that held them plaster over, pale

But just discernible.  Another leave

Now taken from a room and sight I need –

The branches, budding, of the roadside trees.

I’m realising this is my default –

To choose a room, then place the bed to look

Direct into the branches of a tree.

First ash, in my childhood home, then holly

In an arch, then sycamore, now common lime

And weeping horse-chestnut, struggling to leaf.

And it is not coincidence – my taste?

That next I’ve found a place that looks onto

A stately park with planes that wobble up,

Those hesitant trees that ponder problems

Then peer down to find they’ve out-grown their place!

So tall – they can’t be native!  Oddly-hued

By a passing decorator using up

His tins of remaindered household colours.

From Spain, half-bred Greek and American,

His disparate parents lend him several strengths,

But he hasn’t yet won my heart.  Ah, let

The morning tell him to me as I rise

And every day see buds a-breaking out,

Little moleskin fruits achieve their sphere.

Still remain a novelty – I know you’ll

Begin where someone sets you, wary tree,

Too quickly noticed growing in a waste

All spindly-shooting with those palmy spreads.

I’m growing generous in spending love

Now all my natural children are bound close

And coppiced into useful poles, ideas

And metaphors that show me how we are,

So now come time to welcome even planes –

A tree I had no feelings for before.

The Painter’s Eye

It’s late December – day-long dusks and clouds

And lovely open structures of the dying trees,

And railside wastelands earn another grey,

The brambles purple, old-man’s beard delights

With feather baubles long uneven swathes

Of drear embankment.  All the puddles full,

All the ditches dark, reflective, cold,

The lives of poplars stark, the pointed pales

Of fences cold as printed tractor marks

Now filled with scraps of sky and dainty crows.

We pass a field of horses, straw strewn out,

And dirty stable-coats upon their backs.

What entertainment can December bring

A horse?  What festive cheer a hungry bird –

Related in a theoretic way

To robins on a watercolour card.

But can I say it?  These are all my paint –

The pigments that I choose when I return

To dreams, to hopes, to quiet peaceful dreams.

The subtlety of every tree which owns

A unique pattern, never copied twice,

The varied textures of the water’s flat –

Despite the stillness of the air, the grey –

By reading printed painted books, a child,

By walking on the paths of lonely tracks,

I’ve won a little of the painter’s eye,

And with it surety of English truths.

So – I want you now to now my purposing –

The motivation I cannot express

As policy, or aim, or goal.  I guess –

I love to try, to leap, to run the course –

Another soul desires to comprehend –

I only want to know.

The Birds and the Boats

The ship is launched upon the lake,

Its sails set, now out of reach,

I ask, will it touch the beach,

Or twist, tumble, capsize and break?

 

The pond for model boats is dry,

The leaves of hurried sycamores

Clog the drains and dirty the floor.

This is no season to trust the sky.

 

No boys, no girls, no granddad’s knees,

No uncles, ice-creams, Labradors,

Just lonely dreamers seeking cause

To still believe their fantasies.

 

Somewhere between this keyboard and

A desk eight thousand miles away

Someone might be moved to say

‘I know his hopes, I understand.’

 

Then shall I have a call to trace?

If I’m appointed, will I be

Enthusiastic, wonderingly

In awe of purpose, torn through space?

 

The balsawood and cotton ships

That people loose in summertime

Are sent off, voiceless, bare, to mime

The exploration of long trips.

 

They bumped against the concrete rim,

A stranger sailing his own craft,

Gently lifted it out, laughed,

And walked, carried it back to him.

 

Perhaps he watched it, hunkered low,

Imagining himself shrunk small

Astride the deck’s slow rise and fall

Sailing where the sailors go.

 

But still in fact ashore – well still

A toy boat bears a beating heart.

I don’t know how to say this part,

But where mine’s gone, perhaps I will.

 

To hope seems too much certainty,

And simply to forget and do

The jobs today has found anew

Does not distract or settle me.

 

My heart is out upon the sea,

I sent it there, I bade it fly,

When back in distant evenings I

Would stand and watch the gulls wing free.

Short Children

‘Your children,’ said the Inspector, ‘Are too short.’

‘I beg your pardon?’

‘Too short.  Too many are not achieving the expected height for children of their age.  A child of eleven years old is expected to be a minimum height of 1.34m by the end of Primary School.’

Mr Briggs paused, to check that he had heard what he had thought he had heard.  ‘Some are a little short, it is true,’ he conceded.  ‘Others are taller, though.’

The Inspector shook his head.  ‘Indeed.  A regrettable lack of consistency is observable.’

‘We find that most are tall enough by the time they reach us here in Year Six.  To reach, for example, the books on the shelves.  Jake is exceptionally small – but others are always ready to help him.’  Mr Briggs looked fondly towards Jake’s chair – a real trier, despite all his problems.

‘Ah.  But will that always be the case?’  The Inspector exhaled frustratedly, and answered the teacher’s unasked clarification.  ‘Other people, Mr Briggs.  The children should not be taught to rely on others – they should learn to rely upon themselves.  Each man, I have heard it said, is an island.’

‘But surely allowances must be made?  Is it possible for all children to attain that height?  I myself am rather short.’  Mr Briggs was indeed a little man.  In fact, as soon as any of his children came across that fabulous fantasy, The Hobbit, hidden like a pearl of great worth in the tightly-packed, admittedly rather high bookshelves that lined the classroom, they could not fail to form a mental picture of Bilbo Baggins with his thumbs stuck into his waistband, his head a little balding, his shoes worn through, like their own teacher, whom they could observe minutely from registration to story time.

‘Mr Briggs you are woefully underinformed.  Of course it is possible for all children to attain such a height!  Research has proven it – repeatedly!  Within your borough there are schools who attain one hundred percent expected height – and many children surpass that height!’  The Inspector spoke fervently.  He was in fact over six foot and, although he didn’t like to mention it, the shortest of the inspectors in his office.  ‘Of course such growth is possible!  With the correct diet, the proper climate of aspirational escalation, suitable role models…’  He paused.  ‘There are courses of treatment, exercises, training for staff working with children of Exceptionally Low Height.  In this day and age it is inexcusable for you to be sending children out into the world with such disadvantages!’

Mr Briggs sat down in his story-telling chair.  ‘I suppose it is no use to remark that many of our children are very small when they join us – particularly small, I notice.  In fact, in the course of my career I do believe I have observed a general decline in the height of children joining the school.’

‘Do not attempt to hide behind statistics and trends, Mr Briggs.  It is precisely because of declining height that the targets were set in the first place!  I suppose you realise that it is your personal responsibility to ensure that all the children in your care achieve a height from which they can look down upon their infantile behaviours.  Remaining undergrown can seriously hinder a child in their mental, academic and moral development.  For example, teenage pregnancies are notably more common amongst those of less-than-average-height.’

Mr Briggs shrugged helplessly. ‘In all honesty I must say that it was to escape the worries of teenage pregnancies that I chose primary teaching.  I prefer the world of the innocently soiled to that of the soiled innocents.’

The Inspector paced the room.  He appeared to inspect the working wall, which held a flurry of neon post-its quizzing the habits of polar bears, but in fact he was preoccupied with his own train of thought.

‘What is particularly disappointing is that there is so little progress in height across the key stages.  The majority of your pupils simply make average progress during their time here.  Average progress!  What if everybody made average progress?’

‘What if, what if?’  Mr Briggs chuckled to himself at the horror of a world in which all made average progress.

‘But!  Many of your pupils fail to manage even that.  In fact, according to the data you have submitted, one child is even supposed to have had negative growth!  He is now shorter than last year!’

Mr Briggs raised a finger.  ‘He did, however, lose both his legs in a rather nasty car accident, and I think in his case a little compassion…’

‘Compassion, Mr Briggs?  What place has compassion in this discussion?  You cannot deny that this case is quite, quite awful.’

‘It is, Inspector.’

The Inspector began pacing again.  ‘It seems to me that what this school needs is a severe shake-up.  I am sure that you do not measure the children regularly.  Perhaps if you measured them more often you would be rewarded with more growth!  There is not even a height chart in here.  Why, at Highdene school, every class has a height chart that extends to three metres!  They provide a truly aspirational climate, and several of their children have gone on to join the Grenadier Guards.’

‘Really,’ said Mr Briggs.  ‘Well, this is not Highdene school.’

The Inspector now circuited the room, scowling at the miniature chairs that obstructed him.  He stopped by the window.  ‘Mr Briggs, I do not want you to gather the impression that I am any different from yourself.’  He smiled.  It was the smile you find semi-submerged in greedy African rivers.  ‘I simply want all kids to enjoy the world around them – to partake of every opportunity.  They should be able to look out of this window and see a world within their grasp.  See those apples on those trees.  They should be able pick them.  See those wires on those poles – every child wants to reach out for those wires and swing, swing into the future!  But what if these kids cannot stretch to take the book from the shelf, the can of baked beans from the supermarket aisle?’

‘I suppose you could always try lowering the shelves…’

‘Mr Briggs!  You miss the point entirely!  We must not allow ourselves to move the goalposts – to let standards slip!  You are advocating a world in which books and cans of baked beans roll about on the floor!  Where is the order?  Where is the aspiration?  Where is the opportunity, Mr Briggs, the opportunity?’

Mr Briggs too looked out of the window.  It was an autumn day and the weather had just changed.  A cold shower of rain was likely and the wind blew hard in the yew trees by the church gate.  His children had all long gone home, on differently sized legs.

‘There are children,’ he said slowly, ‘quite content to be short.’  He did not look at the Inspector, who was probably rather too shocked to respond in the small pause.  ‘In fact I try to teach each child to be happy whatever their height.  Some grow, some do not, but it is certain that the short ones enjoy opportunities – if you wish to talk about opportunities – that the larger will never have.  They can hide in smaller spaces when playing hide-and-seek – they can walk under low lintels without bumping their heads – and when they are older they can live in smaller, older houses, built for people of much smaller generations.  Small people feel a pride in their size – they associate with the underdog, not the victor.  I am not sure if smallness doesn’t breed compassion.  The smallest child in this class is not the naughtiest, nor the messiest, nor the rudest.  A child can be thoughtful, honest and wise and still stay small.’

The wind blew outside.

The Inspector perched on the edge of a table.  ‘I am concerned that you have simply taken this position to be obstructive and have created these strange justifications to reassure yourself.  You are an intelligent man, Mr Briggs, and I have read some of your research and its interesting findings, but you cannot base educational practice upon convictions.  We are not Victorians.  No, convictions are a weak foundation – proper educational research is what should direct you.  I am sure you have read the recent international study on height in Primary school pupils.  Scandinavian schools repeatedly achieve significantly greater standards year-on-year.  Our national average is the lowest in western Europe and far behind the US.  Even France have taller children and they have a woefully disorganised system with great variations in regional diet, to say nothing of their secularism and their short role models.  Why are we trailing the developed world?’  The Inspector’s faced darkened and his voice became hard and steely.  ‘Sometimes I wonder if it isn’t the teachers holding us back!’

Mr Briggs frowned.  ‘I must say that I find this desire to exceed very strange.  Why is “tall enough” never enough?  Why must we strain to make our children as tall as their peers, then taller than their peers, then taller than last-year’s children, then taller again?  When will we say that our children are tall enough?’

‘Don’t indulge in these flights of fancy!  Your task is to ensure that your pupils reach a national standard of height – a task which you have repeatedly failed to complete.  Pupils are leaving this school at all manner of heights!’

Mr Briggs could not deny that.  Why, every single child in his class had achieved a different height last year.  None had measured 1.34m at the end of the year, and no two had measured the same.  ‘Inspector, as you were inspecting earlier in the day, I am sure that you noticed other qualities which we do our best to encourage in the children at our school.  Did one perhaps open a door for you?  Did any proudly show you their drawings?  Were some bold and forthright in speaking to such a tall stranger in their midst?  Did you find some reflective, careful or kind?’

The Inspector snorted a kind of laugh.  ‘Can you bottle love, Mr Briggs, or standardise thoughtfulness?  Courage, kindness, self-awareness – who has written the standards for these?  As inspectors we stick to those things that can be empirically measured.  Either a child reaches the next centimetre, or he does not.  Next year we will be rolling out tests of weight for all children entering the school, together with a weighing at the end of Year One to ensure that all have been properly nourished.  We expect a dramatic result from this, as it has been scientifically proven that achievement in weight and height are inextricably linked.’

Mr Briggs riffled through the pages of a dictionary open on his desk.  ‘Ah yes,’ he said.  ‘Who does write these standards?  I imagine that whoever set the standard for height was themself tall.’

‘Without a doubt.  As a very minimum, all participants in the writing of educational policy are well-developed in height.  It is simply a fact of life – in fact, they have certainly used their height in attaining their positions in society.  Children cannot rise to the top and achieve their potential without basic height, no more than anyone in society can.  The government’s Every Child Metres scheme is grounded in broader social policy – that all children should be healthy, safe, enjoy and achieve, make a positive contribution and achieve economic well-being.’

Mr Briggs had had enough of this pompous claptrap.  ‘Who exactly decides what those positive contributions are, Inspector?  What is economic well-being?  Is it the warm feeling of well-being you have by being tall and wealthy?’  He began to get into the stride of his rant.  ‘A feeling of well-being can be misplaced.  There are always people to look down on us, and always people to look up at us – that is the way we are made.  These positive contributions!  To what are the contributions made?  Are they positive in terms of decision, participation, outlook?  Do we risk ruining our society if our children are not able to stand tall amongst the crowd of participating voters?  Or are your plans to standardise children any more than plans to stabilise society – to quash and sideline the questioning voices of the disadvantaged – the disadvantaged whose struggles have always been the catalyst for change?  Was there a minimum height requirement to join the French revolution, or to be one of the twelve disciples?  When will you call the short second-class citizens and mean what you whisper – you the inspectors, you the overdogs, you the tall?  I do not deny the benefits of height – I do not deny that every child should be well-nourished and exercised and should grow as tall as he or she can!  But I refuse to tell them how tall that is!  I refuse to let them think that they can fail at growing!  I do not think anyone can fail at growing.  I am a teacher because the best things I can teach are the ones that I do not understand – the ones that very few people understand – but perhaps some of my children, short or tall, understand one day in their hearts.  The world may judge them for their height, but I will not, and the world will change because these children will be the world, and they will not be scared to change!’

The Inspector narrowed his eyes.  ‘This is very dangerous.  I am surprised that you ever received sanction to teach vulnerable children.  You will not be working here much longer, Mr Briggs.’

Mr Briggs sat back in his chair.  ‘Inspector,’ he said, ‘It is already too late.  These children can never believe you now.  In fact I am sure that at least two of them will become teachers too.  And it gives me some satisfaction to say that they are amongst the shortest in my class.’

I wrote this in Autumn 2011, after a particularly frustrating RBWM meeting of Literacy Co-ordinators.

View from a Train Window in Autumn

A litter of yellow apples lie by

An access trackway, unregarded and

Ignored, for all the hundred pounds yet spent

On fruit from other garden fields, these fall

And tumble, bruise, sleep rotten by a path

That once in several months a gang tramp down

To mend, rewire, or tense the straightening cords

That rig steel pylons down the western line.

If only I had time and way to climb that fence

Or scale that wall and gather them – or you

Could ever give that hopeful seedling, now

A giving, breathing creature in our world

Appreciation’s gratitude of use,

To taste the fruit just once before it falls!

See all along the callous iron line –

Permanent way – the rails have taken part,

Assumed autumnal motley, blood and brown,

And ballast beds a thousand dry-stemmed weeds,

But heaps of darling brambles, glowing brass

Gloss-tip bold hips are all by-passed.

The jungles of sloes, elder, buddleia,

Are thick and scrawny, generous and gay.

Each waiting on a season – while the train

Diesels past, cold or wet or damp or dry –

And never can we tap those running rivers,

Wine-fountains.  Realm of black cat and magpie,

Occasionally trespassed by working gangs

Of hi-vis lads with flasks and sandwiches

And itineraries by which time those briars

Must be cut back – until next year again

They show their open palms in generous glee,

Unregarding the sudden slash and hack,

Intrusive but impermanent and weak.

The oak still juts out limbs, regardless, hard,

The rowans stretch and slip down th’ embankment.

The brambles claw and catch, proliferate,

And everywhere in autumn you saw hips

In spring is but a net of green thorned twigs

And early summer, clouds of fragrant scent

Unrivalled by the essences, in glass,

Sold in a full room by the door of a

Large department store.  Clear out such memory!

Rather see those nebulous banquets

Ubiquitous and unique, that colour

Our paths and commutes when we least expect.

Tall Children

‘Your children,’ said the inspector, ‘are too tall.’

‘I beg your pardon,’ said Mr Briggs.  ‘Too… tall?’

‘That’s what I said.  They are much taller than they are blonde.  How do you account for that?’

Mr Briggs tried to collect his wits.  What sort of response could he make to such a statement?  He edged forward in his seat to peer over at the spreadsheet the inspector was reading from and then sat back and rued ever supplying the man with his hard-won measurements.  It was very hard indeed to get some of the children to stand still long enough to measure them in the official manner, and now, having managed to get some sort of measurement out of them and then working hard to tabulate it, it was being fired back at him as though it was all… wrong?

The inspector pressed forward with his argument, a stubby finger wagging from a stained, monstrous cuff.  ‘Your children are tall but very few of them are strongly blonde – really showing a consistent colour.  How has your intervention as co-ordinator targeted this discrepancy?’

Mr Briggs fought back an urge to laugh at the man.  ‘Well, perhaps some of them jumped during measurements,’ he suggested in a frustrated ironical tone.  His colleague Mrs Green flashed him a warning glance – for his own sake, he knew.  But his sense of the ridiculous bridled and he wanted to speak.  ‘If the children were shorter, the discrepancy might disappear.  Perhaps we should remove their shoes.’

The inspector sat back, all geniality.  ‘No, no, no.  I am not at all suggesting that we should lower their performance in height, but for several years your children – apart from last year, of course – have been above the national average in height, but below the national average in blondeness.’

‘Let me be perfectly honest,’ said Mr Briggs.  ‘At a small, family school like ours we look at the children as individuals.  One of my tallest girls – in my class – a girl whom I have taught and seen grow over the course of the last three years – towers over her class mates.  Does it bring her happiness?  No – far from it.  Although there is value in great height, she is not yet of a character strong enough to live with the burden of being six inches taller than her best friend – buying uniform from secondary suppliers that are never the correct shade of red – her shoes immediately recognisable without even that strange knack for scent that children possess.  On top of this, would I wish her to be blonde?  Not at all.  Let her enjoy standing in the background until she values herself enough to step forward.  She may always dye her hair.’

‘Individual cases do not concern me, Mr Briggs.  I am interested in the performance of your school overall.’

The man could not have played better into his hands.

‘Individual cases concern me exclusively, Mr Inspector.  That is why I am a teacher and you are not.’

Tall Children was written Spring 2012.  After a visit from OFSTED.

View from a Train Window in May

The cream-white, soda-flush of hawthorn bloom

Extends in streaks and still-shot eruptions

To bring the hedgerows more than definition.

Punctuation, regular as breath,

In gasps, in pants, in drinking draughts of sky,

Until the rows we watch from the window

Of the chuckle-wheeled carriages, are made

New-coloured, like the newly-weds’ hallway,

Redecorated with a paint that seemed

Unexciting on the shelf, but cover

A whole wall and gloss it over green

And spring green, the new and living colour

Of an awakening land, and you will see

How white is more than simply white again.

Some of those hedges hold their purple clouds

Where lilacs pour their thick, re-shaping shock

Into the composition of our eyes

And unframed, unstructured pictures, unhung

And unlikely to be collected.

But this is Spring – this vision from the train –

This helpless rush at life and flowered trees

And never while you ride ignore the may.

Cufflink Villanelle

Now I can wear her gift upon my wrists,

The reassembled clock-pieces to link

Our lives, half out-of-time with what persists.

 

These first pair, shared and bought, began the lists

Of contracts of giving, presents for ink,

Now I can wear her gift upon my wrists.

 

The next two are stiff, worn in Cambridge mists,

And I lost one of our favourites – flat stones sink

Our lives, half out-of-time with what persists.

 

I hung rings in her hair – this sight persists

When I wish memory’s eye would wink.

No eye can wear her gift upon my wrists…

 

They only hold together with sharp twists,

Straining but secure, I thought, but now think

Our lives half out-of-time with what persists.

 

But hands that held are impotent, blank fists,

And the last dregs of gladness, those I drink

Now.  Can I wear her gift upon my wrists,

Our lives half out-of-time with what persists?

The Garden, Gone and Remaining

It’s dangerous, returning where

You left your living herbs to root.

A trip to re-taste friendship’s fruit

Was bittered by a chilly air.

 

The trees that stood between brick walls

That hid along the alleyway,

Perpendicular and grey

Behind the street thick with footfalls –

 

Those trees that softened up waste ground,

Beloved by none who owned them, no,

Beloved by one who knew them so,

Can no longer there be found.

 

Eight sycamores, wind-strewn and wild,

A faded, fallen apple, broke

Beneath the ivy’s unfair yoke,

And hazel and its hopeful child,

 

The ashes, birches, and tangled low

Odd-limbed gooseberries, all leaf

Their chance to fruit far too brief,

My chance to help them years ago.

 

If anybody knew or cared,

I did – who slept beneath the branch

And dreamt that plot my mind’s wide ranch

And ate the berries birds had shared.

 

Returning down that concrete path

Something airy worried me –

Then bare sky lay, no branch, no tree,

And sorrow mingled up with wrath.

 

For all these deeds and rights to build

What value has the love of soil?

For profit pulled from a rebar broil

Who counts the trees the clearers killed?

 

Small pain, oh yes, for all fall, trees.

What sentimental rot – what pose!

But gloved hands felled and counted those,

That last were climbed and held by these.

 

I know the width of limbs, the give

And sway of outstretched arms that reach,

From letting slower creatures teach

And show me how to be and live.

 

God speaks in rocks and fruits and trees,

So shouldn’t I be sad and cry

That disregarded saplings die

That I regarded, gave me ease?

 

From bed – this bed – beneath this spread

I’d wake and see them greet the day

Or sleeping, hear the wind at play

To test them, twitch them, shoulders spread,

 

Roots wild-set but gripping close,

Joying, fighting with the gale,

Ducking rain and flicking hail,

And then in sun, remain, repose.

 

I left a lot there in that ground,

A sage-bush brought and cropped and strong,

The trunk split-twisted, leaves grey and long,

Potatoes not yet dug or found.

 

Nothing’s lost.  I hope – it must be.

I know that God permits no waste,

And where our minds dash on in haste

He plays a longer game than we.

 

How many times a root re-springs,

How many times a spring re-flows,

Oh, every time you prune a rose

You prove the loveliness of dead things.