Tag Archives: Youth

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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The Old Man and the Ice

The Old Man and the Ice

It’s the confidence that counts, that you won’t slip or slide,

come a complete cropper, land on your backside.

It’s always a gamble, walking on ice;

almost as if you were rolling a dice.

It could be a game, a bit of good fun;

but you need the confidence that belongs to the young.


I still remember the old man, on our street.

A harsh winter’s day; snow turning to sleet;

the ice, covering both sides of the street,

a shining, shimmering, endless sheet.


I heard cries of fear, went to my window;

looked out, onto the street below.

The old man, who lived further down the street;

stuck, motionless, afraid to move his feet.

Crying out in panic, clinging to the wall;

convinced his next step would lead to a fall.

A frail old man, in freezing cold weather;

trapped, alone, at the end of his tether.


Across the street, ignoring his cries,

a group of teenage boys passed by.

With shouts of joy, whoops of merriment,

sliding effortlessly along they went.

The energy, the confidence, the ignorance of youth;

I witnessed an eternal, depressing truth.


A sobering scene, in vivid tableau;

I watched it all, from my window.

Today happens to be a gorgeous day of clear blue sky and sunshine, here in Peterborough, Cambridgeshire, England.  The enticing hints of Spring are somewhat deceptive, however,  as it remains surprisingly chilly, for the time of year.  Nothing like as chilly as it was a few weeks ago, when we had the last of three blasts of wintry weather directly from Siberia – nicknamed The Beast From the East.  It was the first appearance of “The Beast”, back in February, that inspired The Old Man and the Ice.  The actual incident described in the poem happened a couple of years ago.  It made an impact upon me, but I made no attempt to write about it, at that time, and it was only when the brutally cold weather returned in February that I was reminded of the incident.  I always find narrative poems like this quite difficult to do – compressing a lot of information into a brief format – but I hope I’ve finally managed to convey the essence of the situation.

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When Everywhere Closed Down on Sunday

Sad Sunday

School kids, teenagers, alive today,
can have no conception of the Sad Sunday.
Those Sundays in the sixties, my teenage years,
deepened my depression, fomented my fears.

Shops closed, libraries closed, cafes closed,
cinemas closed, theatres closed, pubs closed.
Everywhere closed, and everywhere around,
the unsettling silence of a gloomy ghost town.
No trains, no buses, nothing to do
but go to church, join the dwindling few
wriggling in discomfort, in an unforgiving pew.

I was miserable at school; in the bottom class.
I couldn’t please the teachers, could never pass
examinations; never learnt the trick.
I felt I should do better; knew I wasn’t thick,
for on my own, at home, purely out of choice,
I’d read Camus and Sartre, Beckett and Joyce.
And I knew what they meant, what they were saying:
no point to religion, no point in praying.
Existential Angst; just another way to say
what I was living through, every Sad Sunday.

Sisyphus’s boulder, every seven days
loomed nearer and nearer; became huge in my gaze.
Saturday night, it rolled down the hill;
Sunday morning, it settled into place.

I would read The Myth of Sisyphus,
think of next morning’s dreaded school bus.
In depths of despair, I’d let out a groan,
huddle under the sheets; start pushing the stone.

I was a teenager in the 1960’s, and I still vividly remember how every Sunday seemed like a day of doom and depression for me.  As I detail in the poem, just about every place of interest or entertainment seemed to be closed, and I was left with little to do except to brood on the impending horrors of starting back at school the next day.  Having somehow managed to pass the “Eleven-Plus” exam, I was attending a grammar school run by black-robed Roman Catholic brothers, who were strict disciplinarians – and I hated it.  These days, I have no sympathy at all for the minority of people who bemoan the fact that Sunday is no longer a “special” day, and, remembering those “Sad Sundays”, I can’t help thinking how lucky teenagers are today.


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Morning Ritual

Morning Ritual

Whey-faced, hollow-eyed,
the Penitent stumbles
into the kitchen; musters
faltering forces, begins
preparations for the ritual.

He wrenches his mind away
from endless recycling
of sins the previous day.

He sips chilled water,
through parched lips
into arid throat,
to wondrous effect.

He detects the first faint flickers,
the incipient signs
of salvation.

Penitent becomes Supplicant.
He intones a prayer;
focuses his belief
in the alchemy
of the ritual into each
methodical movement.

He sprinkles the first drops
of freshly-boiled,
purified water
onto coffee grounds;
watches as they
absorb the moisture,
begin to bubble into life.

He inhales
the hallowed,
holy fragrance.

The blackness of the brew
is befitting;
from darkness came light
in the beginning.

Sip by startling sip,
the black brew seeps
into his soul,
burns away
the bleakness,
bites into
the bitterness
of self-blame.

Sip by startling sip,
the black brew infuses
new spirit, scours away
suppurating sins
of the previous day.

Mesmerized by the miracle,
he mutters a prayer
of thanksgiving.

The journey from penitence
to salvation ends.
The ritual is complete.
The day begins.

I was a callow youth, living away from home for the first time, when I first started experimenting with coffee.  I remember I was on the verge of buying a percolator, which was quite a trendy appliance at the time, when an older, wiser female friend pointed me in the right direction.  “You don’t want to get a percolator” she said “They actually boil the coffee, which detracts from the flavour.  No, all you need to get is a simple jug with a filter; that’ll give you much better coffee.”  I followed her advice, and started to fall in love with the whole process of coffee-making.

Over the years, I’ve dabbled with different concoctions at breakfast-time, but I’ve ended up with a process of the ultimate simplicity: three spoons of ground coffee, into a coffee filter, in a cone placed on top of a pint mug.  Water is then poured from a kettle – just off the boil – directly onto the coffee, which drips directly into the mug.  Sheer heaven!  I can’t imagine life without my morning coffee ritual. 


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The Blue-Gold Can


Half-hidden, in shade, on this roasting day,
sitting at the foot of a hedge-covered wall.
Grey stubble, torn clothes; most revealing of all,
the familiar blue-gold can in his fist.

I see that he sees me, as I walk past:
vestige of a smile, obscured by grime.
Compelled to respond, I cannot resist:
I give him a jaunty “thumbs up” sign,
for, after all, I think it no crime.

And something within me rises
in sympathy; to be deliriously
drunk, in this solitary way.
The amber fluid, the blue-gold can,
rolling back the horizons of the day.

I remember those days, long gone by.
Days of carefree youth; let the world go to pot.
Get drunk, get high, reach out for ecstasy.
No thought of what might happen;
the damage and the rot.

This man, this vagrant; what, really, has he got?
Rebellion? Freedom? Integrity?
No home, no money, his liver shot;
and yet, somehow, I envy his lot.

I have mentioned my liking/weakness for alcohol before, in this blog.  As the years have gone by I have, reluctantly, been obliged to moderate my alcohol consumption.  Now, as I reach my mid-sixties, I am beginning to encounter problems with “hypertension”, and may be compelled to cut-down even more on my drinking.  In my late twenties and early thirties, however, I had a period when moderation was the last thing on my mind, and my favourite tipple of the time was a “super-strong” lager that came in a distinctive blue-gold can.  Whenever I see youngsters striding around, nonchalantly swigging from the same easily-identifiable blue-gold can, or more elderly vagrants, sipping the lager as they beg for hand-outs, I experience a rush of nostalgia.  It was one of these occurrences that generated the above poem. 

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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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Please God






Please God, save me from this!
Please God, I’ll do anything!
How often in your life have you said this?
What are you really saying?

An unhappy schoolboy; eight years of Hell
at Catholic grammar school. I remember so well
that daily bus journey, a mobile prison cell.
Sealed within its confines for an hour each way;
a dreaded entrance, blessed exit to each day.
Increasing terror, mounting desperation,
as the bus approached its termination.
Like Dostoevsky in front of the firing squad,
willing to do anything; promising God
a life of devotion, forsaking all doubt.
Only God could save me, show me the way out.

Please God, save me from this!
Please God, I’ll do anything!

Bitter irony in this fervent plea;
my heartfelt plea to God.
This desperate plea, to save me
from the very emissaries of God:
the sinister, black-robed “brothers”,
who did not spare the rod.

Please God, save me from this!
Please God, I’ll do anything!
How often in your life have you said this?
What does it mean? Are you praying?

It was thanks to the late lamented British writer/philosopher Colin Wilson that I first came across the story of Dostoevsky and the firing squad.  In one of his philosophical essays, Wilson recounted how the Russian writer, sentenced to death for anti-Tsarist activities, had been lined up in front of the firing squad, then reprieved at the last minute.  Wilson was using the story to illustrate his ideas about how we routinely undervalue our existence, allowing our “robot” to take over, and only being shaken out of our passive boredom by experiences like the one that happened to Dostoevsky.  In my case, it reminded me of an unhappy period in my youth when I had dreaded going to school, and would have given anything to escape it. 

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It happens on certain suburban side streets,
at a certain time of day – early afternoon,
or late lunchtime.  The sky is unbroken,
cerulean; the air is still.  It is quiet; so quiet.
I am the only visible human presence.
Somewhere, a bird timidly twitters; embarrassed
at breaking the uncanny silence.  I look
along the street, which is, suddenly, endless;
just a hazy vanishing point shimmers
in the distance.  And I am overcome
by the strangeness of it all.

How absurd, how accidental, for me to be
here; a stranger in a strange world.
And it is not unsettling, but benign, somehow,
that an infinitude of possibilities
must exist, here.  That, in one of these
anonymous houses, someone is scribbling
a literary masterwork, or composing
a concerto of unheralded beauty,
or cracking  the quantum code of the universe.
That the door to one of these houses will open,
and from it will emerge a woman whose eyes
meet mine, and our souls intertwine, as we
instantly divine our twinned destinies.

Then a van rumbles by.  The silence, the spell
Is broken.  Through the clear bay window
of the next house along I see a man,
sitting, motionless.  He is gazing, blankly,
at his television screen.

My favourite TV series, when I was growing up in the sixties, was definitely “The Avengers”.  I’m talking about the original Avengers, with Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg as special agents John Steed and Emma Peel.  The storylines were always exciting, but often bizarre, with surreal overtones.  The dialogue – particularly between the two main protagonists – was literate and laced with witty bon mots.  Emma Peel was, for me, the ultimate heroine – poised, cool, highly-intelligent, witty, as well as physically gorgeous, with raven-dark hair.  I instantly fell in love.

A recurrent scenario was for Steed and Emma to be isolated, solitary figures in a strangely deserted landscape – either in a rustic country village, or in the middle of a normally busy city.  Whenever this occurred, with strangely unsettling background music, I always found myself particularly enthralled.  There was an underlying sense of suspense and dislocation; the feeling that literally anything could happen. 

I occasionally find myself walking along quiet, suburban side-streets at a time of day – late-morning or early-afternoon – when the silence and lack of activity suddenly bring me to a halt.  I look around, realize that I am the only visible person around, and immediately I get the same sense of strangeness and underlying excitement that I used to feel watching “The Avengers” all those years ago.  This is, essentially, what I was trying to capture in my poem “Uncanny”.

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Old Man

I happen to live on a side street, which has bollards half-way along, prohibiting through traffic.  Due to the bollards, we get very few cars turning into, and out of, the street.  As a result, on warm summer evenings – like those we’ve been having in the recent heat wave – I can look out onto my street and see a parade of (mainly young) pedestrians, strolling around and lazing in the sun.  It was one such evening, a few days ago, that inspired the poem “Old Man”.

Coincidentally, I’d been reading a fascinating book – “The Death of Sigmund Freud: Fascism, Psychoanalysis and the Rise of Fundamentalism” by Mark Edmundson – which had mentioned the story of Oedipus’ Riddle.  When I came to write “Old Man”, I realised I could use an image from Oedipus’ Riddle to express exactly what I was trying to convey.

For anyone not acquainted with it, Oedipus’ Riddle goes as follows: What goes on four legs in the morning, on two legs at noon, and on three legs in the evening?  If you interpret morning, noon and night as metaphors for the times in a person’s life, then the answer is: A man, who crawls on all fours as a baby, walks on two legs as an adult, and walks with a cane in old age.


The heat wave continues; another evening, on my street.
Kids playing, girls displaying, exulting in the heat.
But sun so intense, constant, is not kind
to the elderly, the infirm of body or mind.
In the midst of this parade, this array of lissom limbs,
comes a reminder; symbol of more sombre things.
A strange figure, straight out of Sophocles’ pages.
Oedipus’ riddle; its comment on man’s ages.
Stooped, raddled; so stricken, no longer free.
Deviation from the riddle: walks on four legs, not three.
Hobbling, so slowly.  Gazing straight ahead.
Ignored by all; beyond their ken.  Good as dead.
He’s a neighbour, I’ve seen, ageing, through the years.
Now, he’s changed utterly, re-charging all my fears.
Stark contrast with his former self; so sad to see.
He’s only ten years – if that! – older than me.
I want to protest: I won’t end up like that.
I won’t let old age use me as a doormat!
An inner voice says: “Listen.  That sounds really lame.
Why lie to yourself?  You know that you’re just the same.
You can’t prevent it; you know you’ll go the same way.
Ageing, senses failing, decaying, day by day.
Fantasising, dreaming, wishing you were re-born.
Grudgingly accepting the gift of each new morn.
Re-living, re-inventing “golden days” of your youth . . .”
I shudder; recognise the inner voice of truth.

Back on the street; the old man no longer there,
denizens continue their lives, without a care.
An ice-cream van arrives.  Young couples preen and laze,
golden limbs enveloped in a shimmering haze.
Young boys play football, giggle and joke.
Appetising aromas of barbecue smoke . . .


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I Could Be Happy

The weather forcasters are currently forecasting snow for my part of the country, and it was the thought of snow – or, more specifically, hailstones – that reminded me of a poem I wrote a few years ago.  I was walking home, one day in May, when a shower of rain suddenly turned into hail.  I kept on walking, trying to ignore the hail, but the hailstones increased in size and velocity, and started “pinging” off the top of my head.  I ended up running the final stretch home, humming – for some unaccountable reason – an old pop song from my youth called “I Could Be Happy”.  I got home and switched the radio on – to hear none other than exactly the same song, immediately coming out of the speakers!  I stood, like a statue, listening until the song finished.  I remembered the name of the band that had the original hit: “Altered Images”, and that their lead singer was an attractive girl with a child-like voice.  I was then shocked by the rado presenter informing me that the song had been Number One in the pop charts on Christmas Day 1981.  I then started musing, sadly, about the ravages of time, and it was these thoughts, combined with the hailstones and the pop song, that inspired the following poem.


White dandruff flakes
float down, scratched
from ashen curls
of the grey sky-god.

Then, cascading
white pellets.
A rapid fusillade,
pinging, stinging.

I run for home,
for some reason singing
“I could be happy.
I could be happy.”

Hailstones in May.
I open the door.
There is no way
this is funny any more.

Huge wet blotches
on my clothes.
I could be happy.
I could be happy.

Switch on the radio,
what do I hear?
“I could be happy.
I could be happy.”

Infectious rhythms,
washing over me.
Girl-child jigging
in front of my eyes.

Recall so vivid,
could be yesterday.
D.J. says “From
1981, Christmas Day.”

Twenty five years
have gone by!
In twenty five years
I shall be eighty!

Tears drop huge wet
blotches on my clothes.
I could be happy.
I could be happy.

Red eyes in the mirror
stare at grey stubble.
I could be happy.
I could be happy.

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