Late on in the Spring, We’ll see the house-martins come again – In stylish black-and-white, And darting back-and-forth about the lane. They’re patching up their daub-and-wattle nests, The ones they left behind – The Winter muck is jettisoned, The inside cleaned and freshly lined. Are these the very birds we saw last year, The self-same mums and dads ? Or are these now the chicks they hatched at home, Inheriting their pads ? Though ev’ry year, I swear, They build another house beneath the eaves, And often touching in a terrace, Neighbours watching out for thieves – And those would be the sparrows, Feckless squatters in these high-rise flats – A better prospect than the hedges, Safe from cuckoos, frost, and cats. Hoping to be laid-and-raised By hanging-out in hanging-domes, Before the grockles fly in for the season To their second homes.
Who is the Martin whose house these swallowets build ? The OED postulates that it is a contraction of Martinet, but that that in turn is a diminutive of Martin. Or it may be from a Latin term for a kingfisher. Or a bit of both – never underestimate the power of conflation.
Red kites are as red As golden eagles are golden, And seen against the sky, they’re just as black. But there’s no mistaking that forking tail And fingered wings on which they sail, As slowly they embolden, Advertising how they’re back.
Just when Milton Keynes was thriving, So they were released upon Our unsuspecting hills and country towns – From Chiltern ghosts to national fame, So barely flapping, barely tame, From Leighton Buzzard to Ducklington, From Salisbury Plain to the Sussex Downs.
They breached the M25, of course, And rode the tarmac thermals on, Lazily and low above the brownfields and the parks – Ev’ry year they’re getting closer To the busker, judge, and grocer, Hamstead Heath and Kensington, Beneath their ever-wider arcs.
These eagles of the suburbs Are circling over school-run traffic, Just above the High Street rooftops, watching us all day. The City has its peregrines, But those are rare and tiny things, But these commuters are so graphic, Newly neighbours here to stay.
Picking up the roadkill, Perching on the weathervane, Weaving litter into nests, and drinking from the overflows, Stealing produce from the barrows, Scattering the cockney sparrows – Maybe London once again Shall be a town of kites and crows.
Suburban woods are managed affairs, They’re planted, pruned and promenaded – Golden Autumns, verdant Junes, And countless Sunday afternoons. They’re so unlike the home of bears, These avenues and picnic glades – With squirrels aplenty, and walkers of dogs, With no trace of litter, or windfallen logs
But not these woods, these woods are damp, With only four diff’rent sorts of tree, And they grow too close, half-hidden in mosses, And crowd-out the path, or have fallen across it. These woods are wild, they’re stunted and rampant, They’re muddy and scrappy and forestry-free – Home to gnats and rabbits and crows, A bark-brown field where anarchy grows.
Sometimes terrace housing opens-out onto the street outside, But sometimes there’s a handkerchief of garden as a buffer zone. It always serves as shorthand, a barometer of homestead pride Where neighbours draw-up judgements by how much it’s overgrown – Some are full of crazy-paving, some are full of wilted heads, Some are full of pots and planters, scraps of lawn, or gnomes in white, Some contain abandoned sofas, others dandelion beds, And some attempt to grow a forest, blocking ev’ry shred of light.
You sneer at Dresden’s quaint rebuilding As oldè-world and fake – Covering up the brutal past, Denying us our wake. But would you rather the concrete of Coventry, Cancer choking its former bliss ? For sure, we’ll never forget the War In ugliness as ugly as this. The Luftwaffe came and finished the job That the Council already began, And one of the prettiest towns in England Was levelled in line with the Plan. I hear that Dresden has too many tourists, So why is there only one ? It seems we have a ration of beauty, But blandness will run and run. The perfect place to film your dystopian nightmares Or kitchen-sink soaps – Was ever a town more grey and rain-stained ?, As the concrete bullies and gropes. It’s called ‘brutalist’ for a reason – Cos it’s raw like a wound across the eyes. And meanwhile Dresden is putting on her ballgown – Enough masochism – let’s rise !
My neighbour wanted rid of her cherry laurel And asked to borrow my saw. She offered me all the wood for my fire In exchange for my muscle and jaw. And so we chopped and chatted all morning On what we joked was her ‘ranch’. She called it an invasive species As we tackled its largest branch – She certainly didn’t remember planting the thing, So out it went (Though she waited till all its blossom had dropped Which had lasted all through lent.) I’ve heard when burned it smells of cherries, But we scented almonds that day – She said, well that’s the cyanide, Remember, this laurel’s no bay. We made fair work of its lily-white wood Till we left its stump for bare, But we still got a slight furriness in our mouths, Despite our gloves and care. I offered her a seat by my fireside Watching her tree disappear, But she said I needed to season it first, So call her up in a year.
I’ve seen too many doors, And they’re nothing much, just doors – Just as expected. I open them, I close them, Or I pass them by unnoticed, Disconnected. I’ve turned too many knobs And I’ve knocked too many knockers In the gloom, Yet never thought about them Till I find I need a way To leave the room.
I’ve seen too many doors, Be they oaken, deal, or plywood, Or cold steel. I push them and I pull them, Or I sometimes have to slide them With a squeal. I’ve crossed so many thresholds And I’ve stepped on many stoops, Both front and aft, Yet never thought about them Till I find I need a way To stop the draught.
“Let’s count the pigeons !” That’s just what she said, As she pointed out a trio pecking pavement up ahead. One was grey and one was blue and one was sandy brown – “I bet we get to fifty by the other side of town !” So hand-in-hand, we kept the tally, Up the street and down the alley.
“Let’s count dandelions !” another time she said, As she pointed out a golden host within a council bed. Some were buds and some were clocks and some were full of roar – “I bet we find a hundred round behind the superstore !” So side-by-side, we kept on counting, Till we reached the rusty fountain.
“Look at all the wrigglers !” on a rainy day she said, As she pointed out the molluscs that had made us watch our tread. Some were black and some were brown and some were rusty nails – “I’ll count all the sluggies up, and you can count the snails !” So one-by-one, we kept the score, But I forget who had the more.
“Look at all the people !” on a sunny day she said, As she pointed to the crowds that loitered while the man was red. Some were old and some were young and some were inbetween – “I bet we see a dozen more before the beeps and green !” So back-to-back, against the crush, We totted up the lunchtime rush.
“Look at all the pigeons !” just the other day I said, As I pointed out a posse crowding round a crust of bread. Some were fat and some were thin…but none were worth her gaze – “Oh dad, you always say that when we meet on access days.” So that was that, no longer fun – Our number-taking days were done.
Defenders – nobody likes you – Nothing but bouncers, bunch of blockheads Stamping on the fuse of the strikers’ rockets Petty bullies, the whole ground spites you – Cheering for the brave centre forwards in attack, They’re hoping they can sparkle as they net one on the back.
Defenders – champions of ‘nope’, Flat-footed jobsworths, the crowd has made you deaf As they jeer and curse and hate you, more than any ref. Sneering killjoys, crushing our hope To keep the boring status quo – This is business, it ain’t a show.
Halfway between the Tube and the office, I pass them each morning, sat on a front-garden wall. I pass them on neither a side street or high street – They watch us commuters, but we barely see them at all.
On always the same wall (perhaps it’s their own wall) – With placards and Bibles, but no blood and brimstone, they sit. I guess they’re a couple, I guess they’re retired, But what do I know ?- we haven’t yet talked, I admit.
For I have no int’rest in what they are selling, Though they’re barely selling, and no-one is buying it seems. But better by far their quiet shop-window Than Loud-Hailer Preacher, who stands by the station and screams.