Category Archives: ASSIGNMENTS

On the Centenary of The Battle of Arras

 

For William John Symons (1892-1953)

I

11 September 1940 – Furneux Pelham, Hertfordshire 

Eight at night, hot, sweaty, the rabbit

In the pot bubbling, the wireless crackling.

The news of bombs on London docks grabs

Your guts, mashes your mind, mood blackening.

A wave of shouting passes, and the slapping

Of hasty feet, of women and men,

With girls and boys who rush ahead of them.

 

‘They’re running to the schoolyard, come on Dad!’

Shouts Tony, full of steam, with tossing head.

You rush along with Doll, behind the lad ,

Past chink-free  cottages and musty garden sheds.

The whole world’s woken up and left their beds.

You crowd into the schoolyard on the hill,

The stars are black-out bright , your heartbeat still.

 

The breeze is warm, the trees’ leaves tremble near.

Towards the South an angry glow grows red

And lights the crane spikes of the docks.  You hear

The droning bombers’ engines overhead

And on your flesh, you feel the fear ahead.

The criss-cross beams of searchlights cast their net.

The flames flick through the far-off second sunset.

 

Weeks ago, you martialled East End children:

Your school was moving from the German bombs.

You herded them through Liverpool Street Station,

And counted them on board, one by one,

Their string-tied labels flapping cardboard tongues.

Tearful parents needed someone strong

To reassure that it was not for long.

 

You stand with their evacuated kids,

Who watch you now to see if you’re afraid

Of Jerry and his blitz. Your head forbids

The reeling-feeling dread of his invasion.

How can this all be happening once again?

You went to war, to end all wars, with friends

From Portsmouth twenty years ago. Back then

 

You didn’t fight to see them over here,

Buzzing, blitzing, bombing East End streets.

You didn’t hide in cellars, rank with fear,

To cower in shelters now while we repeat

The fight with Germans who you thought you beat.

So much for League of Nations, armistice.

Did we learn nothing, is it back to this?

 

‘Oh God, Bill,’ Dolly says, ‘What shall we do?’

‘We’ll carry on Love; I will teach my class,

You will fix the workers’ daily stew,

Tony will go to school – and this will pass.

We beat them once and we’ll complete the task

Again, you’ll see, no need to be alarmed.’

You hold their hands, look confident and calm.

 

To billets in the village, dark and drowsy,

The children stumble back along the lane.

‘What about our mums and dads, our houses?’

You tell them, ‘It’s all fine. Old Jerry’s aim

Was never any good – it’s still the same.’

‘You think all our bananas might be burning?’

‘I’m sure they’re not,’ you smile. Your stomach’s churning.

II

10 February 1906 – Portsmouth Dockyard

The champagne bottle bounces off the back

Of Dreadnought as she slips down to the sea.

It does not burst until the third hard crack,

The spume cascades down lapping plates of steel.

This ship shouts ‘Empire’, floating arrogantly,

Machine of mass destruction, steaming proud.

You stand with John, your dad, amongst the crowd.

 

His red eyes fill. You cheer and wave the flag.

He’s worked here for a year to build this beast,

A year of blood, sweat, toil and tears. Your dad

Came home for tea each day with tales to feast

Your ears on: welds, thick plates, huge guns; so pleased

The Royal Navy ruled the seas outright,

That none dare challenge our Great Britain’s might.

 

You’re working hard at school, you’re proving bright.

And John is proudly getting good reports

From teachers who can see the glowing light

Of promise in your eyes and give support

For you to leave the docks, the first cohort

At Portsmouth’s new college, where  you’ll strive

For  University in a few years’ time.

 

These teachers push you hard to give your all.

They inspire by what they do and what they say.

You grow in mind and stature in their mould.

Though short at five-foot-five, you can hold sway.

You rev yourself to make the getaway.

It’s clear you are a leader, and your dream

Of being a schoolmaster starts to gleam.

 

III

15 February 1915 – Luton, Bedfordshire

‘Your Country Needs You,’ so the posters say.

You wait in line to sign your name for war.

It’s one year on. So you know today

About the Western Front and what’s in store.

And yet you smile, you’re proud, you’re brave, you’re sure.

You all want to go and show the Huns

What happens when you anger British lions.

 

You are to join the Expeditionary Army

In France, this is the first time ever abroad

For you, a Portsmouth shipwright’s son, now tommy.

And what of trench-life truth will you be told

While training, bulling boots and getting cold?

Will early mornings, box-pinched beds, sharp creases

Help, when your mates get blown to pieces?

 

IV

29 November 1916 – Arras, France

Arras. The squeaking, creaking train pulls up.

It’s full of boys, young, single, just like you.

Fresh Royal Fusiliers are forming up,

Smooth-faced, feckless, reckless, hats askew.

Spotters fly, flimsy, over you.

The straight strips of stretchers line the track,

With smoking, blinkered boys who don’t grin back.

 

Sergeant Symons, a year on now from training,

You march the muddled men  to join the ranks

Of comrades underground in chalky, shaking

Caves and cellars under Arras. The dank

Dark throws the thud of boot on plank.

The light bulbs flicker SOS across

Graffiti signposts on the road to chaos.

 

A city underground. You share the stench

With rats and bats and lice and mice and men

English, Scots, Chinese, Canadian, French,

Welsh and Maoris digging to extend

The tunnels, through the chalk, beyond the trenches

To shield assaulting men from shells and guns

When they close in and bayonet the Huns.

 

You eat your scalding tins of bully beef,

You drain your rum  until you are not here.

You dream of strawberry jam and clotted cream.

You’re missing Martha’s bread and warm, flat beer.

Your mind makes green and placid fields appear.

Above, the weather worsens every day:

The snow and driving rain will melt the clay.

 

On last night’s raid, you saw a mud-drowned man.

He’d slipped off duck boards into sucking muck,

His face mud-masked. The filthy, clawing hands

And febrile fingers of a sitting duck.

The eyes glared through his death mask, terror-struck.

All this, illuminated by the flares,

Is the hell to which you climb, up white chalk stairs.

 

Rumours from the East of revolution:

The Russians might well pull out of the fight.

The Easter Rising cranks up more confusion.

A fresh offensive must be now in sight

With talk of improved tactics every night.

‘It’s coming, Sarge. It can’t be far away.’

‘Maybe, but we’ll be ready, lads,’ you say.

 

V

9 April 1917 – Outskirts of Arras, France

(1)

Five days the guns have fired

On Germans buried just ahead

To ‘soften them up’ and cut their wire.

 

Under Arras thousands wait

And listen to the shrieking shells

As they bombard without a break.

 

Even in this citadel

Below the earth the guns burst through

Your ears, your head, your every cell,

 

Reverberate and numb you to

A gaping statue, ghostly white,

Incapable of thought, but you

 

Must do the rounds by candlelight

And buck the boys up with good cheer,

Give a hand if they can’t write

 

Their letters home to sweethearts dear

And praying parents back in Blighty

Who could never dream what’s here.

 

You’ve been above, in thundering night,

To see, through periscopes, objectives

For the hurling, howling, headlong flight

 

Right through No Man’s Land, (perspective

Altered by the lenses), close-

Seeming, so that this directive

 

To attack may be, who knows,

Not quite as stupid as it seemed

To you, this morning, when disclosed.

That’s what you tell the lads at least,

As you explain to them the scheme.

 

(2)

Now your boys are huddled round,

Ready to ascend to hell,

Muttering prayers against the pound

 

Pound, pound, pound of shells,

Crumpled pictures close to hearts

In pockets, as they try to quell

 

The body-trembling terror darts

Which fly from head to toe. Mr

Lamb, thumbs up, starts

 

Up the steps, draws his pistol,

Shouts, and out into the ditch.

You slap the backs of boys resisting.

 

‘Go on lads! Let’s leave this pit

And get some fresh air in our lungs!’

Your wit: they shake and smile at it.

 

Mr Lamb will lead Wave One,

Wave Two (with you) will give them cover

With fatal fire from Lewis guns,

 

Wave One down, then Two will be over

In the Boche trench fair and square,

And… finish off survivors.

There won’t be much left living there,

Once you have poked round everywhere.

 

(3)

Five thirty and they fire the flares.

Wave One spring up with Lamb and dash.

The creeping barrage bucks the air.

 

No Man’s Land erupts in flashes.

Earthen fountains fly sky-high.

You and Wave Two dodge the crashes,

 

Slam against a crater’s side,

Spray the guns to shield Wave One,

Then up again for one last time.

 

Wave One fires. Lamb is down.

Wave Two stabbing Huns.

You hit the ground.  No-one around.

No sound… No sound.

No sound… No sound.

 

No sound .

VI

13 April 1917- Hotel Mont Dore, Bournemouth

Starched nurses butterfly-bob from bed

To bed, changing dressings, chatting, pushing

Men in chairs on parquet boards, heads

Bandaged, drinking cups of tea; shushing

Curtains, white, white, plumped-up cushions,

Surgical smells, rustling cotton sheets,

A vase of roses at your clean, dry feet.

 

The clipboard on the washstand  next to you:

Shrapnel – head and thigh (Removed Calais).

Your leg is strapped up tight, your head is too.

A smoothly-spun, white turban overlays

Your thud-throbbing brain and half your face.

Around you in regimental rows

Lie shrouded human shadows, trying to doze.

 

You send a card to John and Martha so

They know you’re here and safe, not far away

From Portsmouth. When they come they’ll want to know

What happened outside Arras just four days

Ago, to you, and others, young and brave.

But how much can you tell them? Can you bring

The dash back to your mind, or anything?

 

‘Oh Son, what have they done to you?’ she says.

‘It’s alright Mum, it could have been much worse.’

‘Much worse than this?’ she gasps, as she lays

Soft hands on yours and John shouts a curse

On Kaiser Bill, which gets a passing nurse

To say, ‘Enough of that for now, Sir. Please!’

And John, back in his place, looks ill at ease.

 

‘They came to get me Dad,’ you wince and strain.

‘My boys came back to get me from the hole.’

‘It’s OK Son, don’t tell it all again,’

Says John. ‘You need to rest, forget it all.’

But that is easier said than done, your soul

Is scarred forever with that memory.

You want to go back soon across the sea.

 

‘We got there really fast across the gap.

At first I thought we might all make it there,

But Mr Lamb, in front, fell fast, poor chap.

I had to take the lead, get up and tear

Across the bursting holes and wire snares

And take my men to cover from the shells.

My ears felt full of shrapnel, and I fell.’

 

Martha folds her face as you recount

The story of the boys and how they helped

You into shelter, life in doubt.

‘Thank God they got the pieces of the shell

Out from your head and leg,’ she gulps,

‘You’re not going anywhere, my lad.

You’re staying put right here with me and Dad.’

 

They leave you now to rest, and you lie back,

But all you want to know is what’s become

Of your platoon, and whether the attack

Succeeded. Did the enemy succumb?

How many made it through? – Anyone?

No-one knows, or no-one wants to say.

One day you’ll know it all, but not today.

 

VII

11 November 1918 – 4th Officer Cadet Battalion, Oxford

You’re going to be a ‘temporary gentleman’:

The public schoolboy’s dying fast in France.

Of course, they’ll never think of you as genuine;

‘Not one of us, you know.’ They’ll look askance.

But for the war you wouldn’t get a glance.

Tomorrow morning you will be commissioned,

Second Lieutenant Symons (with conditions).

 

‘Gentleman; I have historic news!

The armistice was signed this morning, early.

The end of fighting! Eleven o’clock it’s due!’

The company commander leads the hurly-burly ,

Tears, prayers, cheers. But this will surely

Scupper all your plans of going back

To give the fight in France another crack.

VIII

1940 – Furneux Pelham, Hertfordshire 

The war to end all wars did not. And so

You watch as London burns for months on end,

You see young men fall from the sky again.

But you keep cool, collected, even though

The scars you bear, the friends you left out there,

Must seem to count for nothing anymore.

Would you have made Headmaster without war?

Your wife, your son, your life all stem from there.

And now? 

. . . . . . . . . .  The echoes of those wars repeat:

Human bombs explode instead of shells,

Innocent civilians face the hell,

And soldiers, heads in hands, beg on our streets.

Much has changed today, and much…not yet

I hope you’re proud of us: we won’t forget

What friends are for

The lift said “Sixth Floor.” I walked along the corridor in the neon light which always reminded me of a Travelodge. I hadn’t been here for ages. I hoped Robert would be alone. It would be awkward otherwise. But let’s face it, it was going to be awkward anyway.

I got to his flat. I didn’t have the key any more so I would have to knock. I hoped he would be awake. Would he answer the door? I’d tail-gated into the foyer behind a neighbour so I hadn’t buzzed up. I knew he didn’t like surprises like that, but at least this way I would get to see him face to face. The worst that could happen would be him telling me to fuck off.

I knocked. Silence. Then the pat of feet inside. The spyglass in the door darkened. This was it. He knew it was me now. The door opened, the chain still on and visible in the gap. His face sagged, his eyes screwed up against the light from the corridor.

“Hi.” I said. “Can I come in?”

He shut the door. He hesitated, then undid the chain and opened it again. He was wearing Calvin Klein pyjamas and bare feet. The smell of lasagne reached me on the warm draft from inside the flat. Tonight’s dinner and always cooked from fresh.

He sighed. “Yes. You can come in I suppose… Let’s go in the living room.” He stepped aside to let me in.

I stopped just inside the door. “Surprised to see me?”

He shook his head. “Only you would turn up unannounced at this time of night, so not really, no.”

“Sorry… Is this a bad time?”

“If you mean is there anyone else here?… No.”

How did he always seem to know what I was thinking? He shut the door and we went along the hallway past his bedroom.

I saw we were not alone. “Wow! You’ve got a cat! Amazing!” I said, as I walked into the living room. Thank God the fire was on.

Robert looked down. “Yes he was Dave’s. I look after him now.”

The cat jumped onto the sofa next to me, tail up and sniffed my jeans pocket.

“I love cats.” I stroked the black velvet-soft head. “What’s his name?”

“Coriander… after his eyes. Black coffee?” he smiled for the first time.

“How did you guess?” I smiled back.

“How could I forget?” Robert went into the kitchen. We could hear him opening the fridge door and running the tap.

Coriander settled on the sofa and looked up. “So. How do you know Robert?” he asked.

“Long story. Let’s say we were friends once. Then more than friends for a bit. I haven’t seen him for ages.”

“Oh, so you’re another of his waifs and strays then.”

“You could say that, yes.” I looked into the acid-green eyes and smiled.

“And what are you after?” said Coriander.

I looked away and out of the window. Cheeky little bastard. “Nothing! I just came over for a catch up innit.”

“Yeah, right.”

I turned back. “I could ask you the same question Corry.”

“It’s Coriander.” The cat dug his claws skilfully into my thigh, just far enough to penetrate the denim and make contact with the flesh underneath. “What do you mean? Ask me what question?”

“What are you doing here? What are you after?” I did my arching- eyebrows thing.

Coriander detached a paw from the denim and licked it gently like a cowboy blowing smoke from the muzzle of a gun. “Honestly?… Dave was off his trolley all day and night, having random people round all the time. He brought me here one weekend when he went away. I’ve been here ever since. Robert likes me, it’s warm here, there’s food and water. He doesn’t bother me much”.

I looked down at my leaking trainers; the dirt on the bottoms of my jeans; the battered bag at my feet. The cat was eyeing me up, ears back, tail swishing.

“Oi! You can stop looking at me like that. You’re no better than I am you little fucker.” I said.

“Don’t think you’re going to be moving in here mate. Robert might have fallen for your crap in the past, but things are different now. He’s got me for a start.”

Shit. Was it that obvious? “We’ll see.” I pushed the cat off the sofa as Robert came back in with the coffee.

“I hope he isn’t bothering you. He can be a bit full-on sometimes.” he said.

“No, no. Coriander and me were getting on just fine weren’t we little fella?” I winked at the cat.

Coriander turned his back to me, sat on the carpet, and licked the other paw.

Robert sat down next to me. “Black coffee, with a little cold water in it…. I’ve missed you.”

“I missed you too man.” I did my looking-up-open-eyed thing. He always was a sucker for a pretty face. Especially mine.

Our lips brushed each other. My hand was on his thigh. The cat flap slammed shut behind Coriander as he went into the garden.

“Well that’s told us!” Robert said laughing.

“A bloke on the TV said that cats and dogs can sense all kinds of things around them. You know. Like ghosts and shit.”

“Yes, I’m sure that’s true. They know when there’s tension in the air that’s for certain.”

“Sorry. That’s probably me that’s upset him.”

“No don’t worry. He is a bit edgy, that’s all. Who can blame him after that upbringing?” He smiled again.

I drank some coffee. It was a treat to have the real stuff. Robert never used instant. In the distance a siren whooped.

“So… What have you been up to?” Robert said.

“Oh, same old same old.” I looked out of the window again, trying hard to hide my raw eyes. My cheeks felt damp when I put my hands up to cover my face.

“Come on love. I can see you’re not OK. What’s been going on?”

Right there – that was the reason I had come to him. After everything that had happened, and despite all my fears, he still cared about me. There wasn’t anyone else, family or friends who I could rely on like this. I knew I didn’t deserve it from him either. Why was I such a twat? I couldn’t let him see me crying now. I swallowed hard, trying to push it all back inside. But it wanted to come out and there was nothing I could do about it. This was not how I had planned the conversation.

He put his arm round my shoulders. “Oh sweetheart. It’s OK. It’s OK.”

Why was he so lovely? Why was he letting me back in? Come on. You’ve got him where you want him. Ask him! Ask him! ASK HIM!

No.

“Look… Sorry, “I said. “Maybe I should go. I don’t want to lay all this on you. After all this time. You must think I am such a piss-taker. I’ll go.” I picked up my courier bag and shifted forward on the sofa.

His arm tightened round me. “No, It’s OK. Stay where you are. Do you really think I am going to let you go back out there in that state?”

“Maybe you should. You’ve got Coriander now. You really don’t need me back in your life.”

“Maybe. But what are friends for? Stay the night, you look exhausted. Let’s talk about it all over breakfast tomorrow. Then we can decide what to do, OK?”

And that was it. As easy as that. The past was forgotten, he didn’t care about it. I wanted to tell him everything but he kept saying he just wanted to talk about the future.

I did want to tell him. Really, I did.

Brave Jay

The young lad Jay decides to go for good.
How painful, hopeless, has his world become?
A selfish, angry way to scream for some,
For others now must live the pain he couldn’t.

What could we have done to change his mind
How could we have missed the signs of danger?
Could we have stopped the dreadful plan of anger?
What else could we have done to make life shine?

Nothing now, for he would end it this time.
So Jay the lad became that day a man,
He made his dark choice and his dreadful plan.
His pain is finished now, no life to mime.

Still for you he loved and left, yet he gave
Remembrance that your boy, your man, was brave.

Assignment 2

Ok. I got there. Assignment 2  is in and the tutor feedback is in. I would say 6/10. Although I have asked not to be assessed: I just want to do it for fun and the challenge.

Her feedback is as ever very precise and direct. I like it.

Now we have to get on with dialogue. No option for poetry here. Looking forward to it. You can see Assignments 1and 2 in the menu.

Loving it.

Why?

Why did I love him? He’s broken my heart three times.

When will I ever learn, idiot, fool?

He is vulnerable but hides it by faces and mimes

Good looking, big-hearted underneath the cool.

Wants not to be tangled in the past of ice

More than a year he strings along a man,

Me, for whom he meant the world at a price.

Hiding his real love: another sham.

It was pretty one-way I paid for him to live,

For nothing much back from him but talk and bluff,

‘Love you’ he said, but there was none left to give.

A year later he finally braves it enough

To answer my question, (never to fess up straight).

Suggests we could be a three, let’s try and see

So we meet, us three, for a night to stay out late

Which becomes a nightmare due to drink and me.

I am now the devilish bastard whore

To be erased for taking advantage  of his pet.

Surprised? He did it to me before and more

Much worse, but the high past we are to forget.

I have to forget my stupid fool’s dream.

I have to forget the laughs and times we had.

I love him still, despite what’s happened I mean.

I delete all the pc images of him the lad,

I love him still, but soulmates, best friends won’t do.

In tears I watch the pixels drain from the screen.

He’s chosen who, we now know both, me and his new.

My love too will drain and so will the pain I’m in.

The Fixer

The butterfly most wants the open flower

Which brightens life with pretty petals sweet.

He flies in wonderland  from hour to hour,

He settles short to taste the nectar treat.

His friends call him The Fixer, helps them grow.

The blooms in need of air from beating wings

Which fan them, light them, teach them how to glow.

They flourish in the happy songs he sings.

His heart is too full up for loving Ginge.

His wings are dusty,  shaky, losing lift.

Dust –  which keeps him flying – wearing thin.

The hurt, the pain he never meant as gift.

So while he tends his petals’ wild cries

Still he loses loves worth more than life.

Blank Dream

In his dream he had lost short and long term memory. It was an ordinary day at home but he did not recognise anything around him. The walls, the rooms, the carpets, the pots and pans in the kitchen were things which he saw for the first time. He spent hours picking items up, examining them, trying to work out what they were about. Finally his neck muscles began to give way involuntarily and he felt he was drifting. He got into bed hoping he would wake up and remember.

Now he lay awake, the sheets wet with sweat. There was no light. There were no shadows, no flickering tree shapes on the walls, nothing. He stretched out his right hand in slow motion, the fingers loose. It came to rest on a flat surface at the same level as the bed and beside it.

On the table, under his palm, he felt a sharp-edged oblong box, the size of an oyster shell he thought. But it was not rough like a shell. He picked it up. It was smooth and tacky under his thumb and forefinger. He felt the surface move like a skin across the more rigid face below. He squeezed the narrow edges and felt resistance. He tried to pinch the wider faces together and they gave, then sprang back as he released his pincer hold.

Towards one end of the box there was a break in the skin and, below, a thin, linear gap which opened as he pressed his thumb on one side of it and made a dull click as he flicked at it. Moving his thumb across the gap he felt the top edge of the box tilt away from him. His thumb slid into the opened mouth and he felt a row of tubular teeth, regularly packed like piano keys, rigid but slightly spongy. He lifted the box to his nostrils and sniffed inside. The smell was comforting, mellow, warm, like a cake cooking. He opened the box a bit more and extracted one of the teeth. It was longer than he expected. A thin, dry, long cylinder. He licked it. The curved side seemed to suck saliva from his tongue and he had to peel the tube off it. As he licked the end of the tube, shreds like dried grass stuck to his tongue. They were bitter and woody when he bit, and a little minty.

This box and its contents felt and smelled familiar but he had no idea what it was. He must have put it there by the bed himself because he felt quite alone where he was. He couldn’t remember. He wanted so much to be dreaming.

First Vote

I never vote and tell me why should I?

They so don’t get the state that I’m in now,

No cash, no work, no voice, no fun, so how

Can I shout out and make them hear my side?

The selfish London bastards ought to try

And think like me and hate like me and doubt

Like me and stink like me and feel like nowt,

And see how they get on without a life.

I got a chance at last to shaft them all,

The last one of my life they tell me now

What’s going to piss them off the worst you reckon?

I went to vote with all my mates and scrawled

My cross inside the box for leave, for out,

For screw you Dave and you too Jezza. Cretins.

After Lunch

A dead fire of whitedusted stumps

Old friends on flimsy fading chairs

Messy meadow, down to bleached grass

Groyne wood bench for best sunset view

Wavy tamarisk bush bobbles.

Spitspattered sea, redwinged windmills

Skyline silhouettes of boxy ships

And Southend on the horizon.