Monthly Archives: June 2015

Night Train to Seville


I was a lethargic late-developer,
hiding away from life in books.
Books were my world; they contained the world.
I scoffed at travellers; their vain hopes to win,
from mere outward forms, secrets within
the human spirit, the recondite soul,
when there were books that really had it all:
the inherited wisdom of the ages,
secreted within their rustling pages.
This delusion dallied within me.
I remained blinkered, until that first
journey abroad: that night train to Seville.

Dover to Calais failed to rouse me.
Paris was a greasy, inedible steak;
a fetid Metro, reeking of garlic.
The pages of my books remained
inviolate; refusing, even, to flutter.
Then, that train. All the way down,
through France, Spain. The “couchette”;
cramped, confined, but bursting with
joi de vivre. The golden young couple
opposite me: pouting, teasing,
jousting, squeezing. Their kisses, their
laughter, permeating, long after . . .
The crowded corridors, teeming
with gypsies, bohemians, travelling
without a care. Pungent aromas,
suffusing the air. I clambered
over bodies, stopping to stare.
Could I live like these people?
Would I ever dare? The train stopping,
starting. Even more people aboard.
Shouting, singing; loud guitar chords.
Passports examined; the border crossing.
Climbing into bunks; turning, tossing.
The chill of the night; yet a warm inner glow.
Waking in the morning, to the overnight snow . . .

The winds of life blew through that train,
tearing the books from my grasp.
A lesson learned, one I hoped would last;
my life could never be the same again.
The world offered itself; so much to give.
I left the books where they were; started to live.

I recently finished reading “A Time of Gifts” by Patrick Leigh Fermor.  An all-time classic of British travel-writing, it recounts how the author set off on foot for Constantinople; walking across Europe, as an eighteen-year-old, in 1933.  As I was reading it, my mind occasionally drifted back to when I made my first-ever trip abroad.  At the time I was growing up – my teenage years in the 60’s – foreign travel was a relatively novel idea to most British working-class families.  The only holiday I was accustomed to was an annual trip to “the seaside” at Blackpool or Bridlington.  I was a bookish, lazy, lethargic individual, who valued routine, privacy, and home comforts – particularly my mother’s cooking.  I associated “travel” with disorder, unease, strange people, in uncomfortable surroundings, wanting you to eat unfamiliar – and usually unpleasant – food.  Why people were supposed to enjoy the whole experience was baffling to me.  Even more baffling was the question of why would anyone want to undergo the experience in a foreign country, where, in addition to the fore-mentioned problems, one had the even more disorienting experience of being in a place where you couldn’t understand a word of what anyone around you was talking about! 

Fortunately, my closest friend happened to be a lover of foreign languages and foreign travel, and one year – having just spent a year teaching English in Seville, he inveigled me to join him for a week’s holiday in the south of Spain.  I went along reluctantly, but, by the time I got off the “Night Train to Seville”, my naïve attitude was beginning to change, and I was finally getting an inkling of what travelling abroad was really all about.


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Beckett in Haiku


The sun rose, and shone,
having no alternative,
on the nothing new.

Sam sat out of it,
as though he were free,
and not captured in haiku.

The first two sentences of Samuel Beckett’s 1938 novel “Murphy” form one of the most resonant openings to any novel in 20th century fiction: “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.  Murphy sat out of it, as though he were free, in a mew in West Brompton.”

I recently read a charming novella: “The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman” by a Canadian writer, Denis Theriault.  The story is all about haikus, and the effect they have upon the main characters.  I learned quite a lot about haikus, as I was reading the novella, and the opening sentences of “Murphy” kept springing into my mind.  I realized that this was happening because those opening sentences – although they were written purely as prose – had exactly the same resonance as a haiku; or, to be exact, two consecutive haikus.  I decided to rewrite Beckett’s sentences, and cast them in the form of two connecting haikus, which required some slight, judicious editing, in order to satisfy the necessary syllabic structure.  I admit the resulting poem is a collaboration between Beckett and myself, and will probably be meaningless to anybody unfamiliar with haiku or “Murphy”; but, if it attracts more readers to “The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman” and/or “Murphy”, it will have served its purpose! 

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Are Pigeons Psychic?



Ungainly, waddling, portly creatures;
festooning windows with chalky shit.
Pests; irritating, spreading disease;
unloved, uncared for. So how is it
they accomplish something we can’t explain.
Something almost supernatural,
still escaping the overweening brain.
Something mysterious; beyond the rational.

It’s not done by smell,
or magnetism,
familiar landmark,
or by memory.
Frustrated, scientists
scratch heads and sigh.
It’s not invisible
patterns in the sky,
but, somehow, they do it:
homeward-bound they fly.

Some scientists are fanatics;
how they exult
at spurious trickery
they can debunk.
The whole claptrap
of Spiritualism,
exposed by their
cleansing scepticism.
To them, pigeons are
“loony tunes”,
dubious charlatans,
bending spoons.
I am no such fanatic;
let pigeons keep their secrets.
Nothing more tragic
than a world
bereft of magic.

“Pigeons” was inspired by an essay by Rupert Sheldrake I read recently, in that excellent periodical The Reader     Rupert Sheldrake is an eminent biologist and author, but he is still regarded with a degree of suspicion by some scientists for his theories of “Morphic Resonance” – too complex to go into here, you’ll be relieved to know.  The subject of the essay is unexplained animal ability, and he focuses mainly upon homing pigeons.  How do pigeons home?  How do animals navigate?  You might think that there are scientific explanations for these phenomena – but there aren’t!  Sheldrake argues that there are taboos in the scientific world against investigating such phenomena, because dogmatic materialists “. . . are afraid that if you allow for psychic phenomena then you allow the supernatural into science, and the whole edifice of science would crumble.”  Sheldrake believes that “. . . the psychic abilities of animals are normal not paranormal, natural not supernatural”.  He concludes: “. . . science is incomplete and we need to enlarge it, to enlarge the realm of what we call the natural.  That doesn’t mean we deny the spiritual realm, but we need an enlarged conception of the natural realm and an enlarged conception of the spiritual realm.”  I couldn’t agree more!


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