Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Dreaming of Herons

From the window of the train, I can see the outline of craggy hills, jumbling into mist as a starless sky melts into indigo dawn.  We are shuttling through the early morning, and there are few signs of life among the bare hills and leafless trees whose branches hang sadly over the ice-like lake like broken umbrellas, stroking chill, rain-braided waves of wind.  As I rest my head back against the chair, I gaze through glass speckled in the dew-like diamonds of raindrops, sunlight splinters through a fringe of cypresses ranged along the horizon like a sentry, and a long stretch of water is illuminated, dark banks fading into the black edges of a thick, foreboding forest. And gracefully poised on the riverbank, levering its thin, rod-like neck towards the water, a silvery, svelte heron pauses to reflect, as the sunlight gleams against its eye, shining like an amethyst as it jabs the surface of the water, knifing for prey.

As the train swerves around the curve of the river, I wonder what corner of the world I have found myself in on this silent, dark morning.  I recognize some of the landscape as my own Calder Valley environment; the long, sweeping battalions of trees recall something from Eastern Europe, or perhaps the Black Forest.  As my eyes slowly prize themselves open, and the real dawn filters through the window like a glass of spilt lemonade, I realize I must have been on board what poet Lotte Kramer calls the Dream Train:

This train never stops.
I'm a parcelled person
In its warm movement,
Assured of eventual stations.

 With the real world around me so tortured and confused, I have felt myself of late immersed in a dream life, and these nightly journeys seem to veer between the idyllic and the cursed.  But that they should feature sightings of imagined herons ought not to surprise me, given the prevalence of that bird in my current daily life and writing.  My ongoing writing project, hopefully to evolve into a book, has of late seen me journeying to see them and to learn about them from experts both here in Yorkshire and in Lancashire, and they are seen here in the valley in relatively high numbers, owing to the watery nature of much of our environment.

In my dream, the parts of the fantasy riverbank which seemed to merge most clearly into that of my real world surroundings was the edge of land where the heron gingerly fished - land which, in real life, following the willowy course of the Calder as it meanders past the rural fringe of Sowerby Bridge, the skeletal walls of the old wireworks, and the road which hurtles towards Halifax and motorway, plays stony host to clefts and dips of gorse, red campion, poppies, planes of buttercups and tiny blue blazes of forget-me-nots; wildflower banks, sandy lanes hung with cow parsley and tall,glistening grasses; hedgerows tunneled by tough shrews and quick, zig-zagging wrens and blackbirds.


Land which has been butchered and shrunk in order to accommodate an expansion of housing which has already had serious consequences for ecology: the removal of native trees, the destruction of natural habitats and the proven exacerbation of flooding problems during the great deluge of 2015.  This area, roughly known as the Milner Royd nature reserve, lies within walking distance of my home, and I have watched with horror as - my communications (and the protests of many local groups) brushed off by the town's Labour MP and the local Tory councillor - have been disregarded. Several sections of land and water have been protected for the benefit of wildlife, not least the herons who depend on the water for their diet and survival, but huge chunks have indeed been swallowed up for development - a triumph of Greed over Need.

It is rather fitting, I suppose, that one of the poems I discover on waking from my heron-themed slumbers, is another by Lotte Kramer - her 1980 poem Nine Herons on Reclaimed Land, in which Surprised by sun / That reddened through the morning frost they:

Stand as carved 
And motionless as this blue air. 


 Land falls from us, writes Lotte Kramer, In long, stiff tongues that grip the sky, closing her poem with a Pantheistic blending of human-heron prophecy, twinning both species in a shared predicament, where every breath is ominous of waiting sea.

As with poetry, visions can be distilled within a dream in lucid and coherent ways, offering us the chance to "see" details perhaps processed by the mind's eye in waking life, but shunted to the dusty cellars of peripheral visions and hushed afterthoughts.  The dream dictionaries I consult tell me that my heron dreams suggest a need for balance and serenity. Often, the world of dreams seems preferable to the Dystopia of reality, and it is in this hazy world of the transient and half-glimpsed where I have sometimes, unsuspectingly, been witness to the clarity of nature.


you slip,
a wirework whisper
of cold smoke

frozen in a gauze of ash,
you stitch yourself,
a stone-spun ghost,
unfurling from the loom
of dawn's grey rain
into my sleep-sunk vision,
eye me loudly
in thickening silence.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Something Sweet

Following my Jupiter explorations, I have been prompted by recent sightings to venture this week on a different, but no less inter-galactic, adventure. 

My father was a salesman, and throughout my childhood sold sweets to shops across West Yorkshire, sometimes taking me along, the back seat of the car stuffed with boxes of Mars Bars and jelly babies. The recipient of many prizes for selling more sweets than anybody else, my dad was always happiest when "on the road", and to have a father employed in such a fantastical job as traveling around flogging wine gums seemed at once magical and completely normal, as did the jumbles of Easter Eggs in our house from January or February, the gums and jellies accompanying the sandwiches in my school lunch box, and the bags and boxes of goodies he would bring home from the warehouse after trade fairs and advance deliveries of new lines.  A long time ago I wrote a poem about these "free samples", and despite receiving an affectionate response at readings, it has to date never found a home in publication.  But I have decided to publish the poem here, having spent much of the last week or so thinking back to those sweet-remembered days - all because of a flying saucer.

Oddly enough, flying saucers were never among my dad's swag, I knew them from school tuck shops - these being the days when it was not seen as remotely untoward for the education authorities to stuff their charges full of sugar - and playgrounds, but when several of them turned up among a bag of sweets behind the counter I was working at, it did not take me long to claim my share.  Immediately, the contrast of flimsy rice paper and tartaric tang stung me with nostalgia.  A few years ago, these strange sweets - which are like a cross between communion wafer and a sherbet fountain - were found to be Britain's favourite confectionary, and it is hard to believe that they have only been around since the 1950's - though less surprising when one thinks of the prominence in that decade for space-age comics and the emergence of space-related toys.  I remember them as perhaps the best example of that strange, indefinable line of childhood between innocent pleasure and otherworldly devilment: dodgy deals with sweets passing hands, the swapping of forbidden pleasures.

Luminescent eyelids
of sad cephalopods
drifting benthic depths,
silent and abyssal gems

like plasma-varnished stars
floating through space, sailing
through light-years of loneliness.

The secret ingredient of the flying saucer is, as described above, sherbet - a truly unique confection which always seemed like a dazzling treat in my childhood. In a classification all of its own, this strange, powdery substance, which I have no doubt floated down to earth from the recesses of some other solar system, is the stuff of dreams.

Crystalline cascade
of ice-spiced sugary snow,
acidic blizzard glimmering
in quartz clouds of cocaine-
coloured candy, cosmos
phosphorescent as a frost-flossed,
diamond-fibred, lustrous, white
exploding star.

 My father tells a story about how, on visits to the local dental surgery, the dentist would force him to watch a polo mint dissolving in fizzy water.  Only once the defenceless peppermint hoop completely wasted away would the older man turn to my father and break the silence.  "That," he would say menacingly, "is what people like you are doing to children's teeth."  To which my father would invariably respond that were it not for people like him, the dentist himself would be out of a job.  That was in the 1980's, when dentists still had time to talk to patients, and it is true that in the succeeding years the sight of confectionary has grown ever scarcer on the shop shelves, just like the existence of the shops themselves - local grocers, village stores, newsagents and even specialist sweet shops.  I still seek out the same old (vegetarian) favourites, and my childhood memories are, if the pun can be forgiven, all the sweeter for the presence of confectionary. Debates about the pros and cons of sugary sweets persist, but my own associations with them have been entirely positive, notwithstanding any negative press the industry may receive. It is also worth recalling that, for all the many sweets I no doubt gobbled, the same dentist often remarked that my own teeth were "the whitest teeth in Leeds."  There is clearly much to be said for a good session of tooth-brushing.


One day, they'll be onto us,
the Jelly Babies,

the dusty-skinned,
podgy blobbies,
fixed grins etched
into smirky,
sly-eyed faces,
peering over
from the back of the shelves.

One night, while we sleep,
naively oblivious,
they will creep at the gates,
hack at the doors,
wield jelly knives
and jelly pick-axes,
chubbily bumbling
into living rooms and kitchens,
upturning pans,
smashing clocks
and knocking pictures off the wall.

Lilliputian armies will advance,
massing on the valleys
and swelling into towns,
bloated bullies laughing manically
as they deface monuments,
slap down aldermen,
poke old ladies in the eyes

all the while waiting
for the great Jelly Baby in the sky
to drown us in a sea of sugar,
where we will sizzle, groan, inflate
and burst.
And all that will be found of us,
floating in the starchy, syrupy sea
will be our blackened, rotted teeth.


Often, on a Friday night,
my father brought free samples.

Bag upon bag,
tube after tube
of fizzbombs, blackjacks,
long and sticky strips of chewy tooth-rot,
sherbet dips, those candy necklaces
that made it feel like you were biting into stone,
candy cigarettes that minted up the mouth,
chocolates of every variety.

Best of all were the jellies -
sugar-speckled cola bottles,
vampire teeth, dusted jelly babies,
wine gums, jelly-reptiles,
strange multi-coloured snakes
oozing with syrupy juiciness,
slivery holograms and foam mushrooms,
jelly beans and jelly bears and jelly bugs,
miscellanies of jellies, pastels, lollies, liquorice,
a copious outpouring of confectionary,
an avalanche I thought would never end.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Visions of Jupiter

I was astonished to see the planet Jupiter in the night sky on May the 7th.  Since this unexpected, stunning event, which took place shortly before midnight, I have seen the world in a different context, and struggled to take seriously a great deal of petty everyday concerns.  In between firing off messages to friends, advising them to check the skies, and long spells of awestruck observation, I managed to salvage a few poor quality photographs, with Jupiter shining below the moon at 5 o'clock angle, and looking like a silver snowball in reflected lunar light.   Also periodically visible was a blurry seep of purplish red radiating like a beacon from its base. This made it look like a kind of sun, and the combination of its immense size and three hundred and sixty five million mile distance was phenomenal to contemplate. 

Over the ensuing days I found myself instinctively jotting down my reflections and have worked these writings into short poems.

gloss polished
ball of chalk

dancer in galactic
aspic, star-
sea voyager

cool marble
in slate black sky

a conflagration,
an eye.

Milk-white in my poems, Jupiter is actually composed of a blend of shades - white, brown, orange, yellow and red - but its appearance changes due to storms and winds which bring materials such as phosphorus, sulfur and hydrocarbons to merge into its toppermost, icy, ammonia crystal clouds.  Thus, my idea of a "film" of milk around the ball of Jupiter reflects the prominence of this cloudy colouring on the night I saw the planet. 

My descriptions of the planet as a ball, in keeping with its obvious spherical appearance, nonetheless give little idea of the actual appearance of the planet to the naked eye as it floated in the black, its shape approaching star-like, but with frazzled, arrowy points flickering as if burning.  My vision of it, then, took on a hallucinogenic tint, as I watched its spike-like blades jab the sky - and in my later writing, I began to focus on this strange confluence of sphericality and star-like quality.

Dome of frozen lemonade,
you radiate a calm
lunar anger,
singe star-glaciered vastness
in black-brightening brocades
of lucent silver blades,
cast astral tentacles
lambent as spiked candles
each glinting wick
simmers to a frizzl,
bangling black sky
in gilt-slit ice.

Later, the imagery of insects surfaced, as the irony of the planet's tiny size in Earth's night sky loomed in my mind.

Like an icy insect,
glass arrows
pincering charcoal sky,
dancing diamond,
you simmer
crackling aster,
burning bubble,
gas sparkling,
shardy as a slashed-up star.

And from insects, spiders soon followed:

Like a stiff white spider
bathing black in polar bones
you distantly ignite
a sky the shade of thick black coffee,
basking Bobby-Dazzler,
burning, spindled
gossamer gas,
you're a satin web,
a silver sinner,
scaffold of cold gems.

I am amazed to fins that Jupiter, not only the largest but the earliest discovered planet in the solar system, has had so little poetry written about it over the centuries, though it has of course been at the forefront of mythology.  The Classical Jupiter or Jove was the principal god of Ancient Rome, the Babylonians identified it with their patron deity Marmuk, while in later times the planet was associated with Thor, and the star gods of Central Asia.  I can easily see why such planets and cosmic sightings inspired myths, legends and religions in Ancient times, and continue to transfix and entrance today.  My own visions of Jupiter left me too overcome with dazed delight to embark on any latter-day myth-making, and my awed attempts at poetry seem less profound or astrologically astute, than the startled ramblings of a truly awe-struck man.

At five o'clock to the moon
you're a

scintillant microchip

jagged dazzler

frazzled superstar,

cause my heart to jump
in unadulterated wonder

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

The Small Bear Chronicles - 3: Small Bear

Part 1 - The Train to Barrow: http://simonzonenblickcaterpillarpoet.blogspot.co.uk/2017/04/the-small-bear-chronicles-1-train-to.html

Part 2: The Walney Channel: http://simonzonenblickcaterpillarpoet.blogspot.co.uk/2017/05/small-bear-chronicles-2-walney-channel.html

When Ayelet, Ron and I arrive in the town of Barrow-in-Furness, a few miles from where Ayelet lives in Roose, I am immediately conscious of its history - it is redolent in the buildings hewn from traditional sandstone, in the steel statues of the town's old magnates, its Gothic spires and its long, Victorian terraced streets.  Much of the town was planned to support its growing population in the 19th and early 20th Centuries, and this spirit of Edwardian industrialism seeps from its dock-side edges, dotted with the remnants of its shipbuilding past, its wealth of iron, and its hull-like fortress of submarine construction.  The town's former magnates are commemorated in statues, and greeting us as we drive up Duke Street we are greeted by an impressive panorama of history and natural beauty.


Barrow's public library, on its present site, was built in 1915, though as this fell during wartime the building was not officially opened until 1922.  This is somewhat coincidental, as I had learned before visiting the town that it was here in Barrow, in August 1914, that DH Lawrence first heard of the outbreak of the First World War.  He had been on a walking tour in Westmoreland, and in a letter to Cynthia Asquith the following January, Lawrence recalled:

Then we came down to Barrow in Furness, and saw that war was declared. And we all went mad. I can remember soldiers kissing on Barrow station, and a woman shouting defiantly to her sweetheart ‘When you get at ’em, Clem, let ’em have it’, as the train drew off.

As we approach the library, I wonder what Lawrence would have made of Barrow-in-Furness today, or indeed of the country's wobbling, uncertain state, more than a century after going mad that fateful August day.  I think of the Barrow lads raised among these streets of steel, marched off to oblivion by the decaying powers of a dying world, who would never see the building we are entering now, and who would die without knowing the powers and freedoms that it might have brought them.

I am struck by the spaciousness of the library, its elegant interior and the deluges of light which bathe the bookshelves in a soft, inviting glow. 

It is one of the friendliest libraries I have ever been in, and as the staff get us settled in and usher us to the portion of the building where the launch is to take place I a thrilled to see so many old friends sunbathing on the shelves.

Soon to be joined by several newer faces:

The library begins to fill up:

We are joined for the event by two wonderful supporting poets - Jennifer Copley:

and Neil Curry:

Newcastle-born Neil now lives in Ulverston, and his verse translations of Euripedes have been performed in many countries.  When we meet, I congratulate Neil on the success of his translations, and he modestly laughs it off.  "Its so long now since I did those translations," he tells me, sitting down as the audience start filtering in around us, "that it almost feels like living off immoral earnings."

Neil's latest poetry collection is Some Letters Never Sent (Enitharmon Editions), a fascinating trawl through imaginary correspondence.  For his reading today, he delivers an excerpt from his "letter" between Coleridge and Wordsworth, and as I listen I feel myself back on my train to Roose, the seamless hillscapes and meandering waters of Cumbria rolling past in dreamlike drifts, and when I follow Neil to speak I talk of my joy at visiting Coleridge and Wordsworth's world, and of my own love for the lost art of letter writing.  Of course, I observe, were the poets alive today, their communications might not be committed to paper at all, but transmitted via the wonders of the world-wide web, and I explain to the audience how so much of Small Bear and our plans for today's launch were propelled via email, text and mobile. 

Jennifer Copley's most recent collection is Vinegar and Brown Paper (Like This Press), and she has been the winner of various poetry prizes. Jennifer runs the Barrow Writers' Group, and her fairytale-themed collection Beans in Snow (Smokestack) was one of the books which I was glued to on my journey up to Cumbria.  Today, she reads from her collection Some Couples (Happenstance), a book which I am intrigued to find features a poem set in the railway station of my own home city, Leeds, but also the elegiac The Drowners, whose poignant violence occupies a timeless sphere, but which for  me seems to bleed in pre-Raphaelite colours.

You plunged into love as if it were a river.
The current was stronger than you thought.
It pushed you over and you cried out.

She was no swimmer but she jumped in immediately.
The water punched her with its fists
and dragged her down.

(from The Drowners)

I do not read any full poems myself, just reel through my observations of the area, and pay tribute to Ayelet, and also to Kim Moore - whose suggestion prompted Ayelet to contact Caterpillar Poetry in the first place. 

It was early in 2016 that I first heard from Ayelet, and very soon we established a correspondence based on sharing poetry and ideas for poetry - not unlike the characters in Neil Curry's poems.  The first poem of Ayelet's to truly blow me away was Toadstools, which I told her reminded me of Sylvia Plath, and which I invited her to read at my Blue Teapot event in celebration of Plath's poetry.  I was delighted when Ayelet chose to include Toadstools in Small Bear, its publication being one of my own proudest moments.

Drenched in velvet
with darkest mosses,
where the green white
hellebore grows witchy and wild,
under the shadows of fallen branches,
you’ll find them there;
hoodies – huddled together,
poisonous and up to no good.

One of the next poems to tug at me was Ayelet's Octoluneo, simply entitled Moon, whose sinister story seems to have woven its way out of a nocturnal cityscape of predators, pavements and looming dangers, blended with highly symbolic stars and snowdrops - like the deceptively bucolic narrative of one of Jennifer Copley's fairytale poems:


The wolf moon
leers down on pavements
dredged with hoar,
on a night lemon fresh
sharp as a cut,
when plaintive snowdrops
shine brighter than stars,
licks his lips at lone women
who shun suitors and cars.

Although her subject matter is sometimes serious, or presented in starkly minimalistic terms (She is known for her brevity, reads Ayelet's self-penned biographical note), there is a real flash of joi-de-vivre cutting through so much of this collection.  We gain a window on the love-lives of the gradually uninhibited, enjoy a grandmother's overdue realisation of the beauty in her life, and in the wryly titled One of Those, we meet an unnamed protagonist, who is

turning into one of those women
who carry bags of boiled sweets in their
handbags, proffering them to strangers
whom she got talking to.

But it is Ayelet's poem Bus Journey which brings the house down at Barrow Library.  A warm, smiling, happy swipe at social rigidity, a plea for simple civility, a Mexican wave of rare humanity in a world of seemingly intractable convention, cynicism, and stultifying negativity, Bus Journey laughs off the uptight-ness of a self-conscious and sceptical society in flourish of stunningly simple pleasure:


A girl stands up and offers
her seat to the pregnant woman
on the crowded bus.
And suddenly everyone
is getting up and giving their seats
to each other, a Mexican wave,
and everyone eases up and feels happy,
as if they were on holiday,
each passenger a brother or sister,
and screw the fact that they’ll be late
for work.

To our great delight, people have travelled from as far afield as London to enjoy Ayelet's launch, and to buy Small Bear, which - pending a July reprint - has now virtually sold out! I take several closing photographs, including a nice snap of Ayelet with Ron, who so selflessly put me up, and provided such good company on my tour of the area.
After the event has drawn to a close, we head through town, past the steel statue of Willie Horne - much larger than the replica Ron and I had seen in the museum, and walk towards Barrow railway station.  I stand on the platform where, a century ago, DH Lawrence watched the soldiers kissing goodbye to their sweethearts, and I wonder what became of them.

As my train pulls out of Barrow, and I watch its overhead lights and corrugated roofs peter out into suburbs, streets and terraced housing, and we sweep through twilight-silvered fields of Swarthmoor, Ulverston, Flookburgh and Kent's Bank, swinging back through Grange-over-Sands and spooling through the evening rain into Lancashire, I find myself reflecting on what an honour it has been to be accommodated by the wonderful Barrow Library, to have published Small Bear, and to have been associated with the poetry of Ayelet Mckenzie.

BLACK MAGIC, by Ayelet McKenzie

The creepy, crawly night
creeps in like a black widow spider,
devouring the day light as she goes.
Sensible flowers take fright
and close their petals, wait
for the delight of morning
when they can revel in the sun
and shine bright.
Be what they are supposed to be.

The rain replenishes,
and blends with the sun
to form a rainbow – a child-full union,
and one with insight:
arcing over the wilderness of the earth,
this planet that will not stay for ever.

Ayelet and Ron, Barrow Library.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Small Bear Chronicles - 2: The Walney Channel

Part 1: http://simonzonenblickcaterpillarpoet.blogspot.co.uk/2017/04/

It is a mild mid afternoon when I arrive at Roose station in Cumbria, to be met by Ayelet McKenzie, whose poetry collection Small Bear is about to be published by Caterpillar Poetry, and her friend Ron, who has kindly offered to put me up for the night, before we launch the book at Barrow Library. 
As Ron drives through the pleasant suburban streets of Roose, we talk about the book, and our plans for tomorrow's launch, before he drops Ayelet off at her place and continues driving me towards the area I am about to discover - and which Ron has volunteered to show me around, beginning with the Walney Channel and its environs, which I am to find redolent with wildlife, history, and poetry.

Our first port of call is the Barrow Dock Museum, overlooking the eastern sweep of the Walney Channel, whose sandy edges can be seen sloping down to water, gulls standing sentry amid muddy dunes and glistening shallows. They perch on railings or observe us quizzically as we stroll the steps to the building, in the shadow of the district's shipbuilding heritage.


Telling the story of Barrow through its steel and shipping industries, the museum is an impressive, multi-layered site comprising a walk-through display of Viking history - complete with ship - several sections of more recent times, and a large range of beautifully constructed maritime models - examples of Barrow-built boats from through the years, as well as life-size representations of the town's industrial past.

On the 23rd May, 1936, a Zepellin - the Hindenburg - flew over Barrow, an event which caused great alarm in the town and was captured on camera by local residents. 

In addition to the Hindenburg photograph, the museum contains many other sobering reminders of the district's wartime legacy.

But also replicas of vintage domesticity

... natural history  

...and sport

Willie Horne, immortalised in Barrow steel, apparently began his rugby playing career at Barrow, and later captained Lancashire, England and Great Britain.  My knowledge of rugby is extremely limited, but Ron tells me how "Willie had a sports shop in Barrow, he ran it with his daughter, and he sometimes tried to help others out with a free sports kit."  Ron tells me about his own experiences of working in industrial Barrow, and we both comment on the weird and wonderful appliances on display at the museum's exhibition of the 1950's home

As we wander through the remainder of the site, I am struck by old photographs

entranced by images of the local countryside

and am fairly sure I lay eyes on an old friend

I am very interested to learn that Barrow was once dubbed "The English Chicago," having ancestry in that US city, and when I find that this sobriquet was lent it more in honour of the alarmingly rapid growth of its industries in the early 20th Century, rather than in reference to any underworld skulduggery, I must confess to a degree of disappointment. 

Splayed beyond the museum's entrance, the Walney Chanel its self begins lethargically, a patchy, threadbare fray of puddles blotching a shore of dark, wet sand and chunky pebbles.  The sandy plateau stretches out into a desert of bumpy, rocky ridges, or is littered with the hulls of long-abandoned ships; but just further across the bay there are modern vessels, pleasure boats, and a sense of calm somewhere between seaside jollity and some picture-postcard riverside. 

In her poem Walney Channel, Cumbrian poet Kim Moore, who lives in Barrow, gives an acutely detailed and yet somehow otherworldly description of the channel which veers between sights that meet the naked eye, to the channel's sense of history, and a succession of dreamlike images and sounds.  When the tide is in, it leads to water she tells us, when the tide is out it leads to mud, and the beginning of the old road across the channel. 
Indeed, the channel is defined by crossings and the remnants of crossings, from the thin bridge with its rickety railings which Ron and I cross in order to walk the pier, to the bridge which spans its northern edges, built in 1908 for the benefit of shipyard workers crossing to and from the yards and factories, now dotted by traffic and stretching almost incongruously against a backdrop of sand and water like the body of some huge amphibious predator.

The bridge effectively replaced many of the older walkways and "crossings," which feature prominently in Kim's poem, echoing with footsteps of the shipyard workers who walked that channel years ago:

This was just 

a crossing, the only way, before the bridge
was built.  Each morning you'll hear

the shipyard calling men to work. 

As we follow the paths across the wooden walkways, an elderly woman comes our way, pushing a grandchild in a pram.  She tells us that she remembers the days before the railings which separate us from the twenty or thirty metre drop into the channel below.  "We used to play along here, running and jumping about - its a wonder we didn't end up falling over t'edge ... I wonder how many must have fallen and died in there ..." and such is the glint in her eye and the gleeful chuckle in her voice as she ponders these imagined fatal plunges that I almost expect her to add that "those were the days." With polite smiles, Ron and I move on, the grandma's jolly cackles simmering on the breeze behind us.

If you head out further along the channel, you are rewarded by bird life, and we watch an oystercatcher peck and delve amid the tide like a fluffy domino, black-and-white form propelled by two orangey legs.  The svelte, amber dagger of its beak spearing sandy shallows, the oystercatcher prods on oblivious to our presence, the rippling shimmer of the channel flowing by before it like an icy sky.  Kim Moore writes of barnacles and seaweed, and even when considering the bridges and human geography of the channel, she is impelled to do so via imagery which recalls the zoological:

Wait and watch the path appear
like the spine of some forgotten animal
turning in its sleep

 I had read Walney Channel before - it is the opening poem of Kim's super pamphlet If We Could Speak Like Wolves (smith/doorstop 2012) - but when I came to the channel myself, I saw and felt its shivering, briny, post-industrial power all the more deeply.  I could see the ghosts of shipyard workers filing over the bridge, the boot-marks of long-gone workers fading in the sands, the bones of primeval animals, could hear the sirens echoing against the wreckages of masts and prows. 

Further on, we are met by the imposing mass of Black Combe, rising nearly two thousand feet and formed four hundred and sixty million years ago. Like some glacial goddess of black ice, the Combe looms above the Irish sea in vast, dark beauty.  Its lower reaches heavy in Ordovician black, the Combe lightens near its peak to a heathy green or brownish tinge, depending on the angle of the light, and is visible across the district, the views from its summit stretching from the Irish coast, to as far as Wales and Scotland.  Wordsworth wrote that, from the Combe, the amplest range of unobstructed prospect may be seen that British ground commands, while his great celebrant Branwell Bronte, who lived and worked as a tutor at nearby Broughton-in-Furness, was moved to write a sonnet in honour of the fell.  This has special significance for me at present, my film on Branwell's Calder Valley Years just two months shy of its premiere, and as I tell Ron about Branwell's ill-fated time at Broughton, cut short due to the early signs of an alcoholism which would lead him towards ruin, I can see why the formidable entity, almost Volcanic - Cumbria poet Norman Nicholson called it the dynamited Combe - held such magnetism for the romantic Branwell. But his poem seems to hint at the struggles which would soon envelop his young, troubled life, an inward, brooding prophecy against the black clouds of the Combe:

BLACK COMBE, by Branwell Bronte:

Far off, and half revealed, 'mid shade and light,
Black Combe half smiles, half frowns; his mighty form
Scarce bending into peace, more to fight
A thousand years of struggle with a storm
Than bask one hour subdued by sunshine warm
To bright and breezeless rest; yet even his height
Towers not o'er this world's sympathies; he smiles -
While many a human heart to pleasure's wiles
Can bear to bend, and still forget to rise-
As though he, huge and heath-clad on our sight,
Again rejoices in his stormy skies.
Man loses vigour in unstable joys.
Thus tempests find Black Combe invincible,
While we are lost, who should know life so well!

Originally, the area of land known as "Barrow Island" was indeed an island between Barrow and Walney Island, whose sands and grasses beckon us from over the shore, waving in the wind.  Nowadays, Barrow Island conjoins with Barrow proper via the road that runs alongside the museum, and the land on which the huge submarine facility, Devonshire Dock Hall, is built.  But the whole environment feels island-like, as a sharp wind slices at us through the hilly, winding roads, speckled with gorse.  I had noticed the gorse on the train to Roose, burning by the tracks and increasing out among the fields and bases of the hills; now it seems to have colonized whole swathes of the terrain.  On the way to Walney Island, we drive past long, frazzled splashes of it - like crackling cascades of fire, its ochre blaze drapes the fields, dunes and heaps of heathland carpeting the sleeve of land which frays out into the glinting silver sea.

The gorse, in all its spiky beauty, reminds me of the Calder Valley, and I feel at home among its flowering drifts of gold, sweeping the land beneath a whistling moorland wind.  Soon, the sun is warm again, the air is calmer.  A gentle breeze is tickling through the reeds, as Ron and I point out the birds which swoosh and bobble through the grasses.  Some we identify, some we don't, just like the chirps and flutters that bounce about the air in joyous spring songs. 

Families are picnicking, cyclists spool by.  On a bench overlooking one of many silent, reedy ponds, a couple bird-watch, as horses and cows graze in the hazy sunlight of the late afternoon. 

Just beyond a fence, a lapwing wanders, tottering jerkily as it shakes its jazzy hair and dazzles in the sun, black plumage tinted green and sunset purple. 


I am reminded of the first time I laid eyes on lapwings, nearly ten years ago now, in the snowy farmlands of Penistone, South Yorkshire, watching them circle slowly above, listening to their weeping laments, the mournful song which earns the birds the nickname "peewit," and the poem I wrote about them.


Snowdrifter, you loop
a silver sky
slowly floating
over fields where frost
is crackling underfoot,
where iced-in streams
streak lunar-white
against dark earth,
hills grey-misted and a wind
so fresh it rattles bones with cold.

You slit the sky in batches,
billlowing like tides,
pour flat miaows,
a pale yet piercing sound,
threnody of notes sob-soft,
a long, sagging sadness.

But today on Walney, there is no frost underfoot, and the wind is a lazy wind, blowing the dust from the chalky roads as the occasional van or jeep sweeps past, so that the middle distance is blurred by a filmy, mist-like light.

As we walk along the beach, Ron points out sea cabbages and a tiny wildflower, deceptively dainty, peeping through the pebbles, which turns out, I'm sure, to be Silene uniflora (Sea Campion).

We are passed overhead by gliders, and as I look out to sea I watch kites billowing against blue sky. 

 Strolling over the sands,watching the kiss of the evening sun ignite the sea in ripples of glimmering silver, I realise that this is the first time I have ventured beyond the British mainland for nearly twenty years.
It feels good, here on Walney, to catch the soft warmth of the sunshine on my neck, to hear the rustle of the bumpy, chunky stones beneath our feet, and to head for the car as the sun is going down, knowing Barrow beckons - and with it, tomorrow, the launch of Ayelet McKenzie's Small Bear.