Tag Archives: Public Transport

The Poem I’ve Rewritten the Most


 “Airs! Airs! Look! Airs!”
The dumpy woman next to me
tugs my sleeve, insistent.
I must turn in my seat;
try to follow her gaze.

This is a nightmare journey:
trying to travel by train
in England, on a Sunday.
No trains, it transpires,
just this ancient, battered bus,
stuttering through towns, villages;
stopping, incessantly, stopping . . .
Now, it trundles through open countryside.

“Look! Look! Airs!”
What on earth is the woman . . .
Airs? Heirs? Where? . . .
I look. I stare.
Nothing. But wait . . . There!
Stock-still; next second
a pale brown streak
across the shimmering field.
Those ears! Quicksilver motion;
thrilling, so rare . . .

The woman’s eyes shine with delight.
My spirits lift, with sudden insight.

It was back in April 2013 that I completed what was to be the first version of a poem with the title “Airs”.  I went on to post the original version in this blog in February 2014.  Since then, it has undergone innumerable alterations, and I’ve never been completely happy with it; but I think this latest version is probably as near as I’ll come to being satisfied with it.

The genesis of the poem is quite simple.  I was sitting in a crowded bus, travelling through open countryside – it was supposed to be a train journey, but, due to the inefficiency of the train service on Sunday, I found myself on a slow, antiquated bus instead.  The woman sitting next to me suddenly tugged on my arm, and started repeatedly saying the word “Airs!” – that’s what it sounded like, to me, anyway.  It was only after a few minutes of concentrated gazing into the surrounding countryside, trying to follow what the woman was looking at, that I finally realized what she was actually saying – and it’s taken me over four years, trying to express it in a poem.


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The Limit




(The miserable schoolboy that was me):

 “How he envied the pensioners he would see,
occupied in their homely lives; independent, free.
If only he could, by some chance, heaven-sent,
live like them, he’d be forever happy and content.”

(Fifty Years Later):

Five years of retirement have now gone by.
So quickly, it seems; a blink of the eye.
The days are my own, to do as I please.
Why do I not feel blissfully free?
Am I not content with this modus vivendi,
that could now continue until I die?
Time to analyse, perhaps; to ask why.

Dusk melds into darkness, dawn into brightness.
No moment between delineates
these phenomena as separate states.
Minutes into hours, hours into days;
appears to happen in much the same way.
Weeks into months, months into years;
it is this that disturbs, promotes inner fears.
How to settle, how to take heed;
it all occurs at bewildering speed.
Sliding down a vertiginous slope;
an inexorable process, fears replace hope.
Fear of the moment you cannot contemplate:
the one certain moment that will delineate.
One certain moment that will occur,
and negate.

I have written a series of autobiographical poems about my schooldays, and how unhappy they were.  One of the recurring motifs was how I dreaded the long journey on the bus to school every morning.  I have vivid memories of looking, forlornly, out of the bus windows, and envying the housewives and pensioners I would see, who all seemed, to me, to be happily engaged in their daily domestic activities.  How fortunate these people were, I used to think.  Not only were they free of the necessity to go to school, but they didn’t even have to go to work any more!

Having taken early retirement, five years ago, I suppose I’ve been living the life I dreamed of, as that unhappy schoolboy.  So why am I not deliriously happy, day after day?  “The Limit” is my attempt at answering that question.

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Poems as Cryptic Puzzles


“Airs!  Airs!  Look!  Airs!”
The dumpy woman next to me tugs my sleeve,
insistent.  I must turn in my seat;
try to follow her gaze.

What is this, now!  This nightmare journey!
Should have been home hours ago.
But I should have known.  To travel by train
in England, on a Sunday, is, simply, inane.

No trains, it transpires, just this ancient,
battered bus; trundling through towns, villages.
Stopping, incessantly, stopping . . .
Now, it trundles through open countryside.

“Look!  Look!  Airs!”  What on earth is the woman . . .
Airs?  Heirs?  Ayers? . . .  I look.  I stare.
Nothing.  But wait . . . There!  Stock-still; next second
a pale brown streak across the shimmering field.
Those ears!  Quicksilver motion; thrilling, so rare . . .

I chide myself.  Her shabby clothing,
garish earrings . . . but I have no right
to rank myself above this woman,
whose eyes shine with delight.

And I shouldn’t be so jaded!
The world out there is rife
with teeming, leaping,
misunderstood . . . life.

“Airs” was  written, partly, as a result of my frustration at being unable to decipher some of the poems I’d been reading in the anthology “The Best British Poetry 2012”.  I am irritated by the fact that some modern British poets seem to think that a poem should present a puzzle, as fiendishly difficult to crack as the most enigmatic cryptic crossword.  A feature of “The Best British Poetry 2012” anthology is that each of the poems has an “Afterword” – written by the poet – in which the poet explains what he/she was trying to achieve.  After being baffled by a particular poem, I would turn to the Afterword, hoping for elucidation.  What I often found was that the poet was explaining references in the poem that had particular, personal resonance for him/her – but these references could have no meaning for the reader, coming to the poem for the first time!  One of the poets, in his Afterword, described how he refined the poem over a number of versions, and his feeling that the earlier versions “. . . gave too much of the game away”.  I felt like screaming at him “It’s supposed to be a poem, to be enjoyed, as a piece of literature, by the general reader; not a Cryptic Crossword!”

Anyway, to return to my poem “Airs”.  It started off as an attempt to create a poem as puzzling as some of those I’d just been reading in the anthology.  After showing it to a few friends, for feedback, however, I realized – from the response of total bafflement – that I’d made it a bit too cryptic.  The version you now see is, I think, much more accessible.  If anyone is still puzzled by what the “dumpy woman” is trying to communicate to me, I can tell you that the word is “Hares”.

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Bus Station Cafe

Never having learned to drive – due to a combination of factors, some accidental, some intentional on my part – I’ve been reliant upon public transport, in order to get to work and back, for most of my life.  As a result, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time hanging around at bus stops, train stations, and bus station cafes.

I can’t say that these experiences have been all that rewarding, creatively speaking.  In fact, I found them tediously dreary and soul-destroying, most of the time.  Just on the odd occasion, something would happen to spark my imagination, and a poem would eventually ensue.  Watching the manoeuvres of a particularly portly pigeon was the genesis for one poem; and sitting in the bus station café, listening to the drivers’ conversation, on a bleak winter’s day, was the inspiration for the following poem.


At the bus station cafe, the drivers stand,
or sit, wreathed in steam; a warm fug.
Drink hot, sweet tea, from a mug.
Forget boredom, complaints; all of that.

Sizzling pools of saturated fat,
to fry pink, succulent pig.
Hot bacon rolls, sausage sarnies, egg baps.
‘Heard ‘bout Jim?  Died.  Heart attack.’

These men and women; their everyday cares.
You sense the feelings; imprints in the air.
Heart attack, cancer; anytime, any season.
Can you predict?  Is there rhyme or reason?
Who knows what will kill us?  And what’s life for,
if you can’t eat what you like, and ask for more?

‘Jim!  Of all people!  He wasn’t even fat!’
So cold outside.  Forget it.  Forget all of that.
‘You gotta laugh, really.  It’s just a joke!’

The egg bap greets you with a playful spurt of yoke.
It drips from your jaws, as you bite into it.

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Down at the Bus Station

Like most people enthusiastic about writing poetry, I suppose, I spend a lot of time pondering on what to write about next.  Long stretches of time go by when no subjects seem to suggest themselves, and I start desperately hoping for “my muse” to come into action.  Occasionally, however, I undergo an experience that simply demands to be written about, and “Down at the Bus Station” was generated by one of those experiences.

All my working life I had problems simply getting to work and back every day.  These problems were largely self-inflicted, due to the fact that I – stupidly – never learned to drive, and could never seem to find work anywhere near to where I lived.  The very worst time happened, a few years ago, when the only way I could get to work was by getting up at 4.30 a.m. and walking a mile to the bus station to catch the six o’clock bus.  An hour-long journey on the bus was followed by a further twenty minute walk, before I finally arrived at work.  This routine was repeated, morning and evening, five days a week, during a freezing-cold winter.  The poem is, basically, a heartfelt lament that virtually wrote itself one of those bleak, wintry mornings, as I stood waiting for the bus in a virtually deserted bus station.

Down at the Bus Station:

It’s cold; so cold.  Black as the Ace of Spades.
I’m miserable as sin; in a pit of Hades.
Bereft of hope, shivering, yawning.
Down at the bus station; six in the morning.

The journey to work; a torment, a trial.
Time eked out, so slowly, mile after mile.
A daily dilemma; a journey too far.
I should have learned how to drive a car.
But there is no option; no other resort.
I must rely, for my sins, on public transport.

A small café-bar emits a dingy light.
Like all else here, an unappealing sight.
The woman there laughs; a hoarse, rasping sound.
My spirits sink further; seep into the ground.

Population sparse; a total of three.
Woman at café, a down and out, and me.
The tramp has a shaggy beard, greasy, matted hair.
His eyes roll and fix me with an insane glare.
Stillness, silence; who knows what happens next?
We are all figures in a Samuel Beckett text.

The hand you are given; the cards you play.
The forces that steer you, or stand in your way.
I fought my corner; I had my say.
I still ended up where I am, today.
Stripped of illusion; resigned to my fate.
My daily journey to a job I hate.
Bereft of hope; shivering, yawning.
Down at the bus station; six in the morning.

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Watching the schoolkids trudging dutifully back to school at the start of term last week stirred unpleasant memories for me.  I had passed the “Eleven-Plus” exam, which entitled me to attend a grammar school – and there was a grammar school conveniently located only a fifteen minute walk from my home.  My father (who was not a religious man) had attended this school himself, and would have been quite happy with me following his footsteps.  My mother, however, was a devout Roman Catholic, and wanted me to go to a Catholic-run school.   After a number of intense discussions on the matter, my mother eventually won the argument.  Unfortunately, to get to the school in question entailed a journey of an hour and a half – by bus and on foot – every morning and evening.  Even worse was the fact that the school was run by black-robed “brothers” who wielded strap and cane with sadistic vigour (this was before the abolition of “Corporal Punishment”) and, frankly, frightened me to death.

As you’ll have gathered, the eight years I spent at that school were far from happy ones.  A few years ago I found myself writing a whole series  – or “cycle” – of autobiographical poems, in which I was re-living my schooldays.  I won’t inflict the whole sequence upon you now; just one of the early sections, remembering the horrendous daily journey I used to have.

School Bus:

The sad schoolboy, on the bus each morning;
staring through the window, weary, yawning.
Dreading the long hour’s journey ahead;
wishing he were still tucked up, in bed.
He saw the driver get in; heard the engine start.
The sound synchronised with the sinking of his heart.

The journey, now started, he wanted to extend.
He fervently wished that it would never end.
Gazing blankly through the window all the while;
the bus juddering along, mile after mile.
Trying to fight his slowly mounting fear.
Grim realisation: the school was getting near.
This journey he endured for eight years; fated
to travel, each day, to a school that he hated.

How he envied the pensioners, the housewives he would see,
occupied in their homely lives; independent, free.
No need for them to face infamy, and shirk
the dreaded obligation, each day, to go to work.
No need to submit to the universal rule
to leave home, each morning, to suffer at school.
So fortunate, these people!  No need for them to roam.
They had lives of comfort, and quietude, at home.
If only he could, by some chance, heaven-sent,
live like them, he’d be forever happy and content!



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Urban Fox

In my previous post “Ted Hughes and my Pigeon”, I mentioned that the pigeon appeared while I was waiting for a bus at Huntingdon Bus Station.  The fact is, I spent an inordinate amount of time, during my working life, travelling to and from work by means of public transport.  I never got around to learning how to drive, and working at MOD bases hidden away in inaccessible countryside only exacerbated the problem.  My poem “Urban Fox” derives from a typical situation when I was getting up at 4.45 a.m. and walking a mile to the nearest bus station for the six o’clock bus.  The animal I encountered was more tangible and less mysterious than Ted Hughes’s “Thought-Fox”, but still made quite an impact upon me.

Urban Fox:


Dankness, darkness, all around.
Orange lights glimmer, scant is the sound.
Sleep-heavy eyes, mouth stiff from yawning.
I walk into town, this workday morning.


Leaves underfoot, turning to sludge.
Rain falling softly, onwards I trudge.
Mind locked in neutral, only dimly aware,
at the side of the pavement, the creature is there.


Walking straight past it, dull, robotic pace.
Only then registering its snout, eyes and face.
Thoughts slowly stirring, mired in a bog.
Something strange about it; this is no dog.


I stop and stare.  It is relaxed, at ease.
Familiar with the street, away from fields and trees.
Before this, the only foxes I had ever seen
were glimpsed, at distance, in vistas of green.


In the early-morning silence, we are alone.
Creatures of circumstance, far from home.
Driven by necessity, that omniscient power,
to wander the streets at this unearthly hour.


Our eyes meet briefly, fleeting survey.
Tail swishing jauntily, it goes on its way.
It would have mouths to feed, vital prey to snatch.
I must walk briskly; I have a bus to catch.

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