Five Short Poems

 

I wrote a haiku this morning, while sitting in the garden next to the rhubarb. It then occurred to me to gather together the last few haiku I’ve written into one place. Here.

Shandy Hall -mentioned in an earlier post- was the home of the writer Laurence Sterne.

The ones about birds I wrote almost exactly two years ago. Without realising it -I was just cycling past- I had almost the same thought about curlews in exactly the same place a couple of days ago on August 12th, the date I originally posted it in 2014.

 

Rhubarb Leaves

rivers running down
from curly mountaintops through
shiny green valleys

 

Shandy Hall

imaginary
footprints through the grass leading
to the next chapter

 

Three Bird Haiku

1

A constellation:
seven starlings flying in
the shape of the Plough.

2

A heron standing
very still by the river.
Is it a model?

3

The days get shorter.
You feel a chill in the air:
the curlew is gone.

 

Copyright (c) Sackerson, 2016

 

 

Saeduni!

ساعدني!

A short story

 

It all happened a while back, when things weren’t going too well. Chris was ill and I was having all sorts of problems at work. Thankfully, all that is behind us now.

I vividly remember the first time it happened. I was in bed, trying to go to sleep after a particularly stressful day. I was just dozing off when I heard a loud bang. It was as if a giant metal tank had slipped its chains and fallen from a crane. I nearly jumped out of my skin. I sat up and looked around in the darkness. All I could hear was Chris’ gentle breathing. At least whatever it was hadn’t woken him up, I thought. He wasn’t having a good week. He’d just started a new course of medication. The side-effects were not good. He needed his sleep.

I climbed quietly out of bed and went to the window. Surely something must be going on out there, I thought. I pulled back one of the curtains and looked out. Of course, had there been any all-night engineering operations nearby I’d surely have known about it. As it was, I’d neither heard nor seen anything to suggest anything of the sort. I was tired. I told myself to think straight. It must have been a car accident. The street, though, looked empty under the yellow street lights: no broken glass, no twisted metal. I quietly opened the window. Cool air fell on my face. The town was more or less silent. A motorbike went by, a few streets away. I listened as the Doppler shift faded. If something calamitous had happened, there would be sounds of people shouting, sirens, that kind of thing. There was nothing. I closed the window and went back to bed.

I felt sure I’d heard a sound. Had I dreamt it? I didn’t think so. The moment before it happened I’d just decided to check that I’d set the alarm clock. I was working an early shift the next day. If I hadn’t dreamt it I must have imagined it. The trouble is, it sounded so real. You can’t imagine a sound that sounds real.

It started to happen every night. I stopped jumping out of bed to see what was going on. Whatever it was was obviously in my head. Should I be worried, I wondered? Loud bangs happening outside were bad enough. Heaven knows what damage loud bangs were doing inside my head.

Chris told me to go and see the doctor. I did as he suggested and the doctor reassured me: the bangs were not real. My brain was intact. He took my pulse and my blood pressure and declared them to be within acceptable limits. He said I had what he called Exploding Head Syndrome. He said it wasn’t serious. The sounds were a symptom of stress. I should try to relax more. He could prescribe medication but felt it would be more effective at this stage if I were to learn to meditate, to practise mindfulness. There were other options, he said, but that was all he could suggest for now, as my time was up. He gave me a leaflet about stress and a survey form. He told me the health centre would appreciate me filling in the form, as it would help them evaluate the quality of the service they provided.

Over the following weeks the bangs got worse. I started to call them explosions because the louder (or was it the closer?) they got, the more they sounded like explosions. I could hear more detail. Where at first there had been simply a loud, if resonant, report there was now more of a rich ‘boom!’ which took longer to fade away.

One night, after the predictable blast in my head, the loudest yet, I decided to get up and go to the bathroom. As I opened the door onto the landing I was aware of a flickering red light that filled the widening crack. I could feel intense heat on my face. Beyond the door was an open space, far bigger than the landing I knew to be there. Everything around me was on fire. The ground was strewn with rubble.

I might have dismissed the whole thing as a bad dream and willed myself to shut the door the way you sometimes can in a dream but I could see people beyond the flames. They were lying among the rubble, trying to pick themselves up and crying out in a language I couldn’t understand but which sounded, to me, like Arabic. They obviously needed help and I had to reach them. There was nothing else for it: I lunged forwards. If I moved quickly, I reasoned, I’d probably be okay. As I passed through the flames everything changed again. The flames vanished. I found myself standing outside the bathroom in the quiet darkness of the landing.

I went in and turned on the light, which bounced, harsh, off the tiles on the wall. I was breathing heavily. Remembering the advice on the leaflet, I made an effort to breathe more slowly. I felt safe in the bathroom and anyway the vision or whatever it was had faded. Perhaps, I reasoned, I’d been sleepwalking and dreaming at the same time. Strange things happen on the edge of sleep. I looked at my face in the mirror. I remember thinking I looked a little older than I used to look. I relieved myself. I opened the bathroom door and, gingerly, made my way back across the landing. There was no sign of what I’d encountered earlier.

I lay awake for several minutes, unable to go to sleep. I knew I had to go and take a look once more. I had to make sure, for both our sakes, that it was possible to step out of the room without having to face the fire. I got up again and opened the door. Quiet darkness. I turned on the landing light and left the door ajar.

 

Copyright (c) Sackerson, 2016

Shandy Hall

We’ve just got back from a visit to Shandy Hall. I sure I’ve written about it here before: it was the home of Laurence Sterne, the writer of Tristram Shandy. Sterne was the vicar of Coxwold and Shandy Hall, at that time, was the vicarage.

I find it an inspiring place. In addition to the house itself and the garden, there is an excellent second-hand bookshop which leans heavily (as Sterne himself did) towards the off-beat and the experimental. They also sell plants. We bought one or two (along with A William Burroughs Reader). I like the idea of bringing a bit of there back here. I suspect there is a bit of the primitive sympathetic magician lurking in all of us, whether we like it or not.

The Laurence Sterne Foundation also make imaginative use of the small exhibition space at the hall, staging exhibitions with a Shandean edge. The current exhibition, Paint Her To Your Own Mind, is based on a blank page in Tristram Shandy. Sterne invites his readers to fill it for themselves with an an idealized vision of female beauty:

To conceive this right, —call for pen and ink— here’s paper ready to your hand, —Sit down, Sir, paint her to your own mind—as like your mistress as you can —as unlike your wife as your conscience will let you—‘tis all one to me— please but your own fancy in it.

For the exhibition, 147 artists, writers and composers were invited to carry out Sterne’s instructions. It’s well worth a visit and runs until September 16th.

When we got home, I felt moved to write a haiku:

 

Shandy Hall

Imaginary
footsteps through the grass leading
to the next chapter

The Kraken Wakes

My legs are over half a century old and have taken a lot of punishment over the years, taking me up and down hills as fast as they possibly can. Recently they’ve started to complain a bit. I get out running for a few weeks then find I’ve developed a twinge. I then have to take it easy for a couple of weeks. I go out running again, just a little at first, build it up gradually then… Another twinge.

The trouble is,  not only do I need to keep fit but also I really enjoy running – especially off-road. I’ve been out fell running on and off for thirty-odd years. I’m no good at it, if being good means doing well in fell races. Although I’m a bit of a loner where running is concerned, I have entered them occasionally and always come near the back of the field. I wasn’t faster when I was younger and I don’t seem to have slowed down  that much with age. Moreover, focusing on training never improved my times by very much. However, there’s nothing quite like the exhilaration of arriving at the top of a hill under your own steam. At times it’s hard work but there are times, too, when running over a summit or along a ridge is like walking on air. I enjoy hill-walking but when I’m out walking, if I’m enjoying the walk, I’m invariably planning a return visit, with my fell shoes.

With all this in mind, I decided to  be kind to my joints and get a mountain bike. I ended up buying a Carrera Kraken. I’m having a great deal of fun with it both on the road and on the hills. Swaledale isn’t far from here. It’s famous for its Land Rover tracks, good paths and long ridges. My first expeditions into its hills have been cautious – I’ve ventured no further than eight miles so far. They’ve certainly lived up to expectations, though on one occasion I learned the hard way that cycling up steep, rough tracks into a strong headwind is nigh-on impossible (and certainly no fun).

I thought it would be good to film these exploits but, I quickly discovered there’s no need: there’s plenty of Youtube videos of mountain bike rides out there already. There’s probably a whole shed-load of hard drives somewhere devoted to storing them. This film was filmed a few years ago by mountain bikers in Swaledale, not far from the area I’ve been exploring. It certainly captures the fun that’s there to be had:

 

Music of Changes

I’m listening to Music of Changes by John Cage. I once traveled to Sheffield  to hear it played, along with Cage’s more famous 4’33”.

Cage composed it using the coin-tossing procedure usually used for the consultation of the I Ching, or Book of Changes. In other words, what happens next is randomly selected by the composer.

The idea of randomly generated music is intriguing. I am intrigued by the fact that although Cage stepped aside and applied an impersonal procedure to the process of composition, Music of Changes still sounds like a piece of mid-20th century avant-garde music – one might even say it “sounds like John Cage”.

I’m listening to Music of Changes by John Cage. I’m thinking too much. I’m reminded that Mozart wrote a minuet which one has to assemble with the help of a dice. Mozart allows you to choose sounds from the musical style he was familiar with and however the dice lands, the result sounds like a minuet. Cage allowed himself to choose from the musical building-blocks of his own era : individual notes on a piano, considered as sounds existing independently of their relationship to other notes.*

In randomizing aspects of the process of composition Cage, to use an over-used cliché, was trying to “think outside the box”. However, the box is like a set of Russian dolls. You start in the smallest box. When you think you’re thinking outside of it all you’ve done is step into the next biggest box. Think outside of that, and you find yourself in the next biggest and so on. Cage knew this better than  most: a year after he composed Music of Changes, he composed the silent piece, 4’33”. There are no notes to play. One merely has to listen. It can be played on any instrument and last any length of time. Hang on though. Have we burned the boxes or has the box just got even bigger? Do we perform it “on” an instrument? In a concert hall? To an audience? Perhaps I should perform it to myself, wherever I am, on anything. However, the box has just got bigger again. If I take anything and decide to make a sound with it, I’ve made a musical decision. Music, though, is as much about not making sound as it is about making sound (musicians have to “count rests” as well as “play notes”) so if I take something and decide not to make a sound with it that, too, is a musical decision. 4’33” puts me in a musical relationship with whatever I contemplate, be it a conventional musical instrument or not. Even if I attempt to contemplate nothing I have, in so doing, decided not to use my voice to make sounds. I am a musical instrument and cannot escape the decision not to use myself. I am in a musical relationship with myself at all times.

I’m listening to Music of Changes by John Cage. I’m not paying much attention to it as I’m writing this, wondering what to type next. I’m sure this is what he would have wanted.

 

 

 

*I’ve deliberately kept this description brief and straightforward: there is a more detailed description of how Cage composed the piece on Wikipedia.

 

 

 

 

 

On the Road

The other day I went on quite a long car journey and arrived back home late at night. The road I drove down, doing my best, in the dark, to concentrate on the white lines and cats-eyes unrolling in front of me, was a relatively new one to me. My routes are chosen partly by contingency and partly by what I want to feel as I travel. I have to admit the nostalgia suckers me and the route I took holds my interest more than the newer, faster, more uniform A1. Twilight enhances the effect: the fading of the sun changes the world from

WALL

colour to black and white, surely the medium of preference for the lost world I’m dreaming of. The A1 cuts a line North across England, to the East of the Pennines. Here and there, along its length, sections of older roads shadow it, often just beyond the  wooden fences and  the recently-planted trees that border the new road. These areas of so-called “soft estate”, designed to screen out the road from the outside evoke, from the inside, a half-imaginary distant past of continuous forest and wild land. However, I’ve taken to traveling on those old, straight roads beyond the fences. When I do so I always feel an elusive sense of a more recent past – of non-dualled “A roads” dotted with occasional lay-bys, garages, lorry parks and cafés.

LORRY

My first journeys were made in a succession of second hand Lada estate cars. These were great. The British motor-trade used to endlessly denegrate the Lada: they were cheap cars and I can only think they  knew that if everyone realised how good they were, more people would buy them. They were good, too, in an age when one could realistically fix one’s own car.  I used to change the plugs and the oil myself. Once, I corrected an electrical fault  by dismantling, fixing and rebuilding a relay.

Frequently in those days I found myself driving from where I lived in Halifax to my parents’ house in Wensleydale, usually with my children, who were very small then. The road out of Halifax climbs almost up to the level of the lowest South Pennine moors. You pass the forest-lined Ogden Reservoir on you left. On the moor above it, there used to be a pub, The Withins Inn. When we first moved to Yorkshire, we went there a lot. You could go for a walk on the moor and buy a pint of beer and a cheap lunch afterwards. It was a good morning out for hill-loving adults with small children. Last time I drove past it, it was  a private house. The moor beyond it is dotted with white wind turbines.

Whenever I drive that first leg of the journey -from Halifax to Keighley- I imagine the area I’m traveling through being used as a location for a film of Lord of the Rings. This is my Mordor. It’s a land of marginal-looking farmland divided by tumble-down, blackened stone walls. Wuthering Heights country lies just over the hill. It’s grim. At least, it feels that way, to me.

Beyond Keighley, the land softens a little. At Skipton, the gritstone gives way to limestone. The whole landscape seems lighter. I find it impossible to drive up Wharfedale to Kilnsey and beyond without wanting to stop, get out and walk on the hills. In fact, it strikes me now that to drive, to travel along lines from one places to another, is often associated, for me, with walking fantasies. Something in me wants to make the journey I’m making on foot and -where there are hills- along the hilltops. From  the comfortable interior of a car, all seems effortless. The windscreen can so easily become too like the screen of a silent film. You think you’re in a place – but you can’t smell it or hear it. Is it warm or is it cold? You can’t feel the breeze on your face. If it’s raining, the wipers brush the water aside. You’re hardly there at all. It comes home to you when you cycle the same route and you experience all the missing elements. You realize, too, how steep the hills are. It comes home to you, too, when things go wrong.

Once, I was driving through Wharfedale in the dark, with my two small children in the back (it was before the third was born).  Not far from where the road passes Kilnsey Crag, I found myself driving through a deep puddle. It came up to  the bottom of the door, and seemed, in the dark, to go on forever. It had never happened to me before: I did what I’d been told to do and came out safely the other side.

Then the car stopped. I tried to start it again, but nothing happened. I was sat, in the dark on a remote road with two (for now) sleeping children in the back. What does one do? It was before the days of mobile phones. After a few minutes, another car came came down the road. Sensing a problem, the driver stopped. He said he’d be coming back the same way in a few minutes and if I was still here, he’d tell the garage in Kettlewell. It was good of him but there was no need. A few minutes later the electrics dried out and the car started.

I think of this every time I pass Kilnsey Crag. I don’t drive past it very often these days but when I did, years ago, I’d often stop to watch rock climbers attempting the overhang. Something about the cliff captured my imagination. My father painted me a watercolour of it. It’s hanging on the wall over my left shoulder as I type.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There are Other Worlds…

I’m currently reading Cain’s Book by the Scottish Beat writer, Alexander Trocchi. I bought it second-hand a while ago and it’s been transgressively staring down at me ever since from where I wedged it in an untidy bookcase, daring me to read it. I’ve not got very far but I’m already finding it hard to put down. I thought I’d stop long enough to share this quote, though. It seemed to resonate uncannily with the present:

‘I had often said to Fay and Tom that there was no way out but that the acceptance of this could itself be a beginning. I talked of plague, of earthquake, of being no longer contemporary, of the death of tragedy which made the diarist more than ever necessary. I exhorted them to accept, to endure, to record. As a last act of blasphemy I exhorted them to be ready to pee on the flames.’

 

 

*

I watched  a TV programme the other day about life in Britain a century ago. It was entirely made of old black and white footage. Young men and women were enjoying themselves at the seaside, the year before the young men went off to fight in the First World War. It struck me that if I could step into the screen and join those young people with cheerful faces who were looking me in the eye through the camera, I’d meet a group of people whose ideas about foreigners might strike me as quaint. They would probably have read or known some of Kipling’s poetry (though some may have read  The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, and much in between). That Europe was full of foreigners with proud, separate identities and divided into isolated nation states would seem to most of them to be the way things should be.

As we all know and as the young people in the film were about to discover, ways were being developed of killing on an industrial scale. I needn’t list the technological developments -good and bad- since. Suffice to say, one hundred years on, the internet has shrunk the world to the size of a hand-held device.

My grandfather fought at the Somme. He lived to see my father grow up. My father lived to see me grow up. My children are adults now, too. When you realise you’ve lived half a century, you realise what a short period of time it is, in human terms. In other words, not a lot of human lifetime separates me from those young people at the seaside.

We have barely had time, then, to think about the connected, high-tech world we’ve invented, never mind come to understand the different ways we might live in it. I voted to remain in the EU but, just over a week ago, people in the UK voted to leave it. Lots of them were wary of immigration but it is surely the case, in the long run, that people will  increasingly move freely in a world where information, investment, ideas and commodities can also be moved easily. It’s already happening. If you ask me, it’s good, it’s enriching, it’s something to celebrate. I hope there will come a time -okay, it’s still a long way off- when the word ‘foreigner’ will be meaningless. In the unlikely event of some extra-terrestrial being stepping out of a flying saucer some time in the future, our descendants will have to re-invent it.