Craft Beers – a Return to Keg?

Crafty Return

Heard on the radio, earlier today:

it’s Mary Hopkin’s sixty-eighth birthday.

She was born just ten days before me,

half-way through the last century.

The mere thought of her hit song

“Those were the Days”, and I’m back there,

in the noise, the alcoholic haze.

 

Once upon a time there was a tavern,

where we used to raise a glass or two.

Remember how we laughed away the hours,

and dreamed of all the great things we would do.

Those were the days my friend;

we thought they’d never end. . .

 

Fine songs could be heard, on the jukebox;

they were great years for Pop and Rock.

The Fitzwilliam Arms, known as “The Fitz”;

just Keg Beer in those days, all bubbles and fizz.

 

And what do we have now, after all these years,

but a strange transformation, in the world of beers.

To an old veteran of the Campaign for Real Ale,

the new “Craft Beers” are beyond the pale.

 

We thought we’d seen the worst days of inflation,

but injection of gas has caused price escalation.

These illusory, revivified corpses of Keg

now cost the poor punter an arm and a leg.

 

It seems that these highly-praised, trendy new brews

are available only to the privileged few.

I’m surprised, myself, that I’m now one of those

cynics, decrying the Emperor’s New Clothes.

 

It’s not what the craft cognoscenti wish to hear,

but a simple question: what’s wrong with real beer?

When I first found out that the singer Mary Hopkin was born ten days before me, I had an idea for a poem that linked her hit song “Those Were the Days” with my first experiences of pub-going in my youth.  I then struggled, for weeks, to write the poem, but found it difficult to avoid it just being a facile comment on the passing of time.  It was only a few days ago, when I entered a local emporium of craft beers with a friend who is a lifelong lover of “real ale”, that I was able to solve the problem.  He surveyed the highly-priced craft beers on display, was not impressed, and walked out of the place, commenting “I don’t know – what’s wrong with real beer?”  I suddenly realised I could turn the poem into a commentary on craft beer, and that it would work much better that way.

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Lions and Tigers

Lions and Tigers

Lions and tigers adorn his walls;

prints of paintings, in wooden frames.

Lions and tigers; these are all

the pictures that adorn his walls.

 

Prints of paintings, in wooden frames,

by a wildlife artist, of deserved fame.

Lions and tigers; these are all

that hang, accusingly, on his walls.

 

The room is, surely, far too small

for the lions and tigers on the walls.

The psychiatrist stares, overwhelmed by all

the lions and tigers on the walls.

 

Some peel away; surely a sin.

Some reveal the ferocity within.

Lion roars, tiger jaws;

seize the prey, with lion paws.

Tear the heart out, with tiger claws.

 

The psychiatrist pauses;

takes a deep breath.

Prepares for a mauling;

prepares for a death.

I remember the first time I entered a living-room that had been recently re-decorated, and couldn’t help noticing that all the walls were covered by a number of framed prints of paintings of lions and tigers.  After sitting in the room for a while, I began to feel slightly uncomfortable, and realised it was the unsettling effect of the pictures of the ferocious wild animals; it was almost as if they were gazing at me, sizing me up as likely prey.  I was relaxing in the bath recently, reading a review of a highly-praised collection of poems all about wild animals, and the idea for the Lions and Tigers poem suddenly came into my mind.

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Sea Cat

Sea Cat

My first weeks at college, I was most puzzled that

everyone seemed to talk about a “sea cat”.

 

Weathered by abuse of sea and sky;

accustomed to pain; patch over one eye.

Hissing, spitting, a tendency to maul;

one leg torn off by a cannonball.

Steeped in the climate of tropical zones;

sailing under the skull and crossbones.

His liking for grog, aka rum,

was infectious; all just part of the fun.

 

This was the image I had in my head;

where my foolish fancies had led.

A pirate’s cat; an old sea hand,

straight from the pages of “Treasure Island”.

 

Sea Cat gave me the best three years of my life,

and the single most surreal moment of my life:

when I was told I was likely to be

the only one, that year, to get a first-class degree.

(This prediction proved erroneous, ultimately;

only one person did get a first-class degree,

but a student with more brainpower than me,

who went on to lecture in Sociology.)

 

Being a slow northerner, from Barnsley,

twenty-six years old, just starting a degree;

it took weeks before it finally dawned on me,

weeks to come to terms with my stupidity.

How was it I completely failed to see

that “Sea Cat” was derived from “CCAT”:

Cambridgeshire College of Arts and Technology?

Regular followers of this blog will probably be aware of the fact that I have previously posted a number of autobiographical poems about my student days in Cambridge, 1976-79.  This is the latest in the series.  The college I attended has undergone many metamorphoses since I was there, and is currently known as Anglia Ruskin University. 

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The Follower

The Follower

Flashback in time: the eighteen-year-old me,

muddling my way through my teens, in Barnsley.

Walking home, after a night at The Fitz;

five pints of Bitter, greasy fish and chips.

 

Darkness, silence; when it gets this late,

no-one’s around, save the odd reprobate.

I settle into a comfortable pace;

fifteen minutes from home, and I’m in no race.

 

Or am I? For I begin to hear

footsteps behind me; distant, but clear.

They sound mechanised, almost robotic;

relentless, implacable, metronomic.

At first, I ignore them; they’re in no hurry;

it’s just one person, so no need to worry.

 

But they soon get louder, resonant, echoing;

and, as they approach, something rises within.

Not fear, exactly, more that I resent

the arrogance these footsteps represent;

the assumption this unknown person makes,

that he will, effortlessly, overtake.

 

Stubborn defiance bristles within me:

so that’s what he thinks, well, well, let’s just see!

I increase my pace; put my foot on the pedal,

like an athlete, aspiring to grasp a medal.

 

It has no impact; the footsteps plough on, robotic,

relentless, implacable, metronomic.

Teeth clenched, veins pumping, I put on a burst.

Let’s see what you’re made of; come on, do your worst!

 

Still no impact; the footsteps keep coming, robotic,

relentless, implacable, metronomic.

My blood-pressure peaking, my pulse-beat raging;

the footsteps behind me, in sync, never-changing.

 

This is now getting crazy, it just isn’t on;

whoever’s behind is an automaton.

No more fooling around, I’m going flat-out;

I’ll leave him for dead, in my wake, there’s no doubt.

 

Still no impact; the footsteps still there, robotic,

relentless, implacable, metronomic.

I now think, what I’m doing is inane;

there’s no way this person’s involved in my game.

It’s purely fictitious, all in my head;

if I slow down, he’ll walk straight past, nothing said.

 

My pace is now frenzied; I’m virtually running.

I see red mists; hear a high-pitched humming.

Still no impact; the footsteps rhythm robotic,

relentless, implacable, metronomic.

 

He’s now at my shoulder, has finally arrived.

I stagger, exhausted; more dead than alive.

He strides past; I feel a chill blast of air.

Is he man or machine? I am now beyond care.

 

A tall, lanky figure, clad all in black;

he surges away, then glances back.

Unmistakeably local, the blunt dialect;

the words he uttered I still recollect.

Teeth bared in a leer; a grinning death’s head.

“I thought I’d never get past thee!” he said.

Like the poem The Working Men’s Club, which appeared in this blog a few weeks ago, The Follower is another memory from my dim, distant youth, in Barnsley, South Yorkshire.  Although it seems a fairly ludicrous incident, it made an impact upon me at the time, and I’ve always intended to try to write a poem about it.

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The Wasps

The Wasps

All it takes is one marauding wasp,

approaching me with menace,

as I sit in the sun in Cathedral Square;

and I’m straight back there, that morning,

over thirty years ago now.

 

That workday morning, in South London;

a dark, autumnal morning, in my first flat,

paid for by my first mortgage.

Six o’clock in the morning, as I get up,

and, bleary-eyed, enter the bathroom.

and that’s when the nightmare starts.

 

At first, I don’t really notice

the shimmering object, circling

the light bulb above me. Then I take

a proper look at it, and see it is a wasp.

A wasp! Buzzing around, just above

my head, in my tiny bathroom.

 

My phobia, my disabling fear of them,

immediately kicks in. There is no way

I can use the washbowl, or the toilet,

while the creature is there. I look again,

and see not one, but two – no, three wasps,

all circling around the light bulb.

Where are they coming from? I panic.

 

I run out of the bathroom;

the door slams shut behind me.

Ten minutes later, I peek through the door.

Five or six wasps – I’m losing count, now –

are busily buzzing around the bulb.

I abandon all hope of going to work,

and call a pest controller.

 

By the time he arrives, the wasps have

disappeared; dissolved into the daylight.

Exhaustive searching reveals no trace of a nest.

Where have they gone? How did they get in?

All my windows are continuously closed;

there is some malign mystery at work here.

 

The nightmare mutates, but continues.

After long days at work, I occasionally

nod-off on the sofa; only to be awoken

by a soft, subtle humming. A wasp

veers away from my ear. I jump

to my feet, wasp-killing spray in

my grasp: the wasp has disappeared.

 

I prepare my evening meal, in the kitchen.

The gleaming cutlery is augmented

by the golden glint of a wasp,

hovering over the food. I snatch

at the spray: the wasp has disappeared.

 

Every time I pursue them, they vanish

into thin air. I sense it is the end

for me and my first flat. As soon as I can,

I sell up, and move out, defeated.

 

One of many defeats in my life;

this one inflicted by a cadre

of stealthy, virtually silent insects,

from a non-existent nest.

 

Thirty years later, I am still haunted by it;

the horror of those sinister guerrilla attacks.

My phobia remains, more dominant

than ever, and, in response to a question

that may be posed: my windows

are still kept continuously closed.

I think I’ve inherited my wasp phobia from my mother; but I’m sure it wasn’t a deliberate act on her part.  I have a dim, distant memory of an innocent time when I was a toddler, playing in the garden, with lots of bees and wasps buzzing around – and I wasn’t at all bothered by them.  I remember my mother, looking terrified, peering out of the door of the house, shouting “Stewart! Come in! Come in the house! Now!”  When I looked at her, in bewilderment, she shouted “Wasps! Wasps! Come in! Now!”  It was only then that I realized that those golden little insects flying around me might pose some threat or danger.  As you will gather, when you read the poem above, I’ve suffered from the phobia ever since, and the nightmarish experiences in my first flat in London did nothing to help.

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Early Morning Booze

Morning Mums

Since my liberation from work,

thanks to early retirement, I enjoy looking out

from my bedroom window, onto the street below,

gazing at the Monday to Friday morning parade

of school kids, students, workers, and the mums,

escorting their young children to school.

 

Memories: of fearful schooldays,

of miserable, stress-filled days

in gloomy, depressing offices;

all long behind me, now. “Hallelujah!”

I inwardly cry, in exultation;

a little celebration of freedom, every morning.

 

But who’s this, in the midst of the mums?

A woman I’ve never seen before.

Along she comes; tottering on high heels,

swaying from side to side, swigging

from a can of super-strength lager.

A mop of messily-arranged red hair

strewn across the top of her head.

She wears a skimpy, black, halter-neck top,

befitting the crazy heat wave we’re suffering.

 

She stops, directly below my window;

bends down, to reach into her carrier-bag.

I can see an enigmatic tattoo

on her sun-reddened shoulders.

She straightens up, swigs from the can,

looks blearily around her for a moment,

then moves along again; tottering,

swaying, staggering. The mums walk

around her, not looking her in the eye;

keeping their children well away from her.

 

In some strange way, I envy her;

admire her bravery, her stupidity,

her ramshackle recklessness.

She is escaping from, or entering into,

some kind of personal Hell.

Whatever it was; whatever it is,

I can’t help but wish her well.

In my younger, wilder days, I was occasionally partial to swigging the odd can or two of super-strength lager, at any time of day.  It was a habit that I gradually learned – from hard-won experience – was deleterious to my health, and I eventually managed to stop it.  But I can’t help feeling a twinge of empathy now, when I come across somebody blatantly swigging strong lager early in the morning, and – as in the poem above – I start to wonder about  the circumstances surrounding it.

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Book of Days

Book of Days

Mid-morning, mid-summer, middle of a heat wave;

a welcome breeze flutters luscious leaves.

A morning one could cut out and save,

in the Book of Days: From Cradle to Grave.

I am retired; I can be completely at ease.

The day stretches ahead; I can do as I please.

 

How often, during my working years

  • those times when I grappled with stresses and fears
  • how often would I have fervently wished

for a day like today; a day just like this.

Why is it so hard to grasp that today

has no impediments that stand in my way?

Why can’t I seize a day just like this,

and live it, in sheer, unmitigated bliss?

I can remember that, in the first few years after I took early retirement eight years ago, it all seemed too good to be true.  Every time I walked past a school, or an office building, I would experience feelings of  exultation, joy, and relief.  “Those days are long behind me, thank God!”  I would think; “No more schooldays, no more wretched days of stress and strain in miserable office buildings”.  I found it hard to believe the days of freedom I now had, stretching ahead of me.  Those feelings seem to have faded now, over the last few years.  It seems as if I now take it all for granted; my days of retirement just slip by me, and I never seem to make the most of them.  I suppose it’s the perpetual human problem of trying to “seize the day”; but it was these thoughts – combined with the stultifying heat wave we are experiencing – that gave rise to the above poem.

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The Working Men’s Club

Working Men’s Club, Barnsley, 1968

I enter the W.M.C. under false pretences;

I am not a working man, for a start.

I am an eighteen-year-old schoolboy,

only here because my best friend’s dad is here.

 

My best friend is the same age as me,

but his head is full of intelligence,

ambition, French, Spanish and Latin.

My head is full of fuzziness,

The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,

and Jethro Tull on Top of the Pops.

 

He is just about to start

a languages degree at Bangor University;

I’ve had to re-sit my “O-Levels”.

Fast-forward four years, and he’s

living in Seville, teaching English;

I’m struggling to be Assistant Credit Controller

at F.M.C.(Meat) in Sheffield.

 

I hate the W.M.C. The gassy, fizzy beer,

the loud music, the Barnsley dialect,

which I don’t speak; my mum thinks

it’s “common”, and has brought me up

speaking “proper” English.

 

A lot of the men in here are miners,

or ex-miners. They are real men; hard men.

I am soft, and fuzzy at the edges.

We sit down next to my friend’s dad

and a few of his friends. I don’t know

these people; don’t know what to say.

 

With most people, alcohol liberates

the tongue. With me, it impedes it.

Knowing I will stutter if I speak, I decide

it is safer to sit in silence, and smile.

 

My friend’s dad is a Dracula-like figure;

unnaturally pale skin and glossy, black hair.

His glittering, dark gaze fixes upon me.

“Don’t say much, do you.” I sit and smile.

 

“What are you smiling about?

All he does is smile. Look at him!

Cheese! Say it! Cheese!”

 

I’ve never felt so alien. Never felt

such unease. I wish him death

from some deadly disease.

Leave me alone, I silently plead;

Leave me alone! Please!

 

“Here he goes again! Cheese!

Say it! C H E E S E!”

I seem to be going through a phase, at the moment, of recollecting moments from my early life, re-visiting them, mentally, and trying to write poems about them.  Working Men’s Clubs were fairly popular in South Yorkshire, at the time when I was going through my teenage years, and this poem recounts an episode that I found excruciatingly embarrassing at the time, but now, in hindsight, seems more amusing than anything else.

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Debussy’s Arabesque

Arabesque

Arabesque No.1, by Debussy,

stops me in my tracks, with its beauty;

stills me with its simplicity,

softens me with its fragility,

infects me with its poignancy.

And every time it does it to me,

my mother comes alive in my memory.

 

My mother, who played piano proficiently,

in spite of lack of opportunity.

Who became a dutiful housewife,

and devoted domestic slave, to her family.

Who spent her days toiling in the kitchen,

while we were dozing, or watching TV.

 

My mother, who sold her piano,

and never forgave herself for doing so.

Who loved flowers, and gardens, and trees.

Who loved Chopin, and paintings, and poetry.

My mother, who would have loved

Arabesque No.1, by Debussy.

The inspiration for this poem is simple enough to explain.  I listen to classical music most mornings, on BBC Radio3, and every time I hear a solo piano piece by Chopin, Debussy, Brahms, Schumann, or Grieg, memories of my mother automatically come into my mind.  Chopin was her particular favourite, and I don’t think she’d heard that much by Debussy; but I feel sure she would have loved his Arabesque Number One.

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Endless Rejection

Despondency

Classical Music, Philosophy,

Art, Science, History,

Literature and Biography

are all grist to my intellectual mill.

 

The problem is, the wheels of my mill

are dulled at the edge, and grind exceeding slow,

producing poems and prose

that no-one wants to know.

 

Week after week, anxious, tense;

week after week, steeped in suspense.

The vain hope my luck will change; this time I won’t fail.

Then the curt dismissal: the rejection email.

 

After so much failure, I cannot respond.

I just sink deeper in my slough of despond.

Readers of this blog over the last few years will be well aware of my struggles and frustrations with getting my poems published in magazines and journals.  Apparently it’s generally accepted that most poets submitting to literary journals will have around a 90% rejection rate.  The only reasonable way of looking at it, I suppose, is to adopt a stoical, philosophical attitude to the rejections, and to rejoice when you get the occasional acceptance.  The problem for me is I find it very difficult to adopt such an attitude, and I still tend to treat each rejection I get as a personal affront.  I was provoked into writing the above poem by the latest rejection, after having built up my hopes, yet again.  I suppose I shall recover, eventually.

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