An unseasonal poem


Well, the whole New Year mythology pretty much leaves me cold: 1st January 2014 is the day after 31st December 2013 and the next day is 2nd January 2014. By the way, most computers seem to try very hard to impose the American date system, which is bafflingly illogical: a date consisting of day, month, year is a combination of three measurements of which the day is the most specific and the year the most general, so there are two logical ways of presenting it – day, month, year or year, month, day. We Brits do it the first way. Americans set it out as month, day, year – a bit like an address going Bristol Road, 97, Gloucester.

That rant over – on to the next one. Supermarkets have many advantages, but the busy crowds and the noise (including tinny music too loud) make me want to get out of most of them as soon as possible. Over the Christmas period the music is dominated by a few Christmas songs we’ve been hearing dozens of times in a few days and in the rare event the song seemed good to start with, it sounds horribly trite the twelfth time. It’s interrupted by an announcement that starts by wishing shoppers a happy/merry Christmas before immediately suggesting they buy a lot of stuff on special offer. I suspect I’m not the only one to mouth something not very polite – not because I lack a positive attitude towards Jesus Christ, pagan midwinter festivals, wine, whisky and Christmas pudding (this ignorant spellcheck objects to WHISKY, which is the only correct spelling for the Scottish or Welsh stuff, and wants to change it to whiskey, fine if I was talking about the Irish drink) but because I sniff an intention of equating happiness and goodwill with buying their products, specifically the ones they’d hoped to shift days earlier.

So – am I a Scrooge? Judge for yourself (but the final decision is mine: after all, I take full responsibility for myself).


Merry Christmas, shoppers!

As usual there are brilliant special offers

Why not try…

Why not cry

The tinny music’s loud enough to drown, don’t fear,

An inconvenient noise amid Christmas cheer.

I hope most of you had a happy Christmas


I’m not particularly joining in the Bah Humbug message (my search for Christmas Gloom images did not turn up a wide selection), though visiting the supermarket today to find tinny music blaring out a message of Christmas good cheer equates taking advantage of all those special offers did make me a bit humbuggish. I suppose the abstract noun is humbuggery.

What I wanted to point out, being rather honest and world-battered, is that a wish that everyone in a group of ten or more has a happy Christmas is unrealistic and I’ve always believed in making wishes and objectives practical if only just. So I recommend, to a group of ten people, “I hope nine of you have a happy Christmas.”

Now for a poem. This is a recent one of mine and I think I’ll leave it to you to see any common theme in the three parts.



He mentioned the eternal city, but the timetable is out of date,

Some of the stops have been washed away or closed;

The internet gives me pictures of it, but they’re disputed

Someone claims the mysterious hand is his

And has the ring to prove it. I have heard the music,

But perhaps it’s coming from next door’s TV;

The undeciphered symbols wrenched from the desert

May be accounts or a maker’s production numbers

Or simply random scribbles we’ve invested

With our own need for pattern. Going outside

I see the stars, step back and shut the door,

I read a pamphlet, get a cup of coffee

And grasp only in my sleep for a hidden city.


Up this tall, beautiful tree is a great bird’s nest

The bird is black, its talons crush skulls like paper

And in the nest, a single golden egg

Which you say contains all the wisdom ever thought

And I say would make me a lord if melted down.

We would both climb for it

But the trunk is too high, the branches insubstantial,

Buckling even under the weight of a squirrel

(So the old woman says) and we dare not do it and die

But you fear what the hatching from the egg would bring

That’s why you climbed and cried and fell and died.


Some say the drowned sailors are calling in the sea-wind,

And some, lost children, chattering in the foam;

Some hear the butchered whales’ song, but I

Just hear the wind, the beating of the waves,

Rasping of pebbles rounded over the years.

They say the lost creatures, whatever they are, will lead you out

Beckoning, alluring, to a death by drowning

But I see none of that, and so I follow.

Copyright Simon Banks 2013


Happy Christmas!

This had better be a purely unaligned post in a religious sense (maybe it’s about time I created a new non-poetry blog to argue about politics, religion and the English language and to make fun of trendy bureaucracy as an ex-insider, to replace the one dead of blogspot’s failure to help me when the old one ran off the rails).

So anyway, Happy Christmas.


and for a slightly more poetic and much more abstract rendition:


While for those who think it’s all a load of


Now for something completely different.


Have a good time. Love.


His Dark Refreshments


Here’s another old poem I haven’t posted before. This one is not very serious and it’s based on the experience of half-hearing an indistinct announcement on the public address system at a train station. Most of the announcements are rather indistinct and it’s easy to mishear. The language of these announcements is very stereotyped and stilted: for example, for example, passengers always “alight”, not “get off”. If you’ve got an imagination like mine, even if you guess it correctly, you toy with things you could have misheard it as. That’s what happens in this poem. There are references to Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials”.




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The next train to arrive on platform three

Will be the 9:07 to Liverpool Street

Cold snacks and light refreshments there will be

Available on this train


The next train to arrive on platform three

Will be the 9.07 to Liverpool Street

Hot slacks and slight refreshments there will be

Available on this train


The next train to arrive on platform three

Will be the seventh to a Liverpool tree

Hot snacks and dark refreshments there will be

Available down the drain


Provided by our dedicated staff

Of maddened macho bears, with great aplomb

And custard. In First Class there are installed

Facilities for gods to start a war


Or video conference while eating lunch.

The dragon next appearing on platform three

Will carry your liver up a poplar tree

Gold sacks and snide detachment there will be

Available in the rain. 

Now on the mystery lines: the last one was by William Blake and the clue “Innocent? Or experienced?” related to his “Songs of Innocence and Experience”.

Next one:

She dreams a little, and she feels the dark

Encroachment of that old catastrophe,

As a calm darkens among water-lights.

CLUE: Braveheart writing in the woods.



As I’m now being cautious about posting new poems because it may rule them out for competitions, I’m starting to go back to much earlier stuff I haven’t previously posted. This was an early long poem sparked off by the New Orleans floods. I think it has flaws, but also some very good lines. I suppose the theme was how easily familiar life, order and organisation could crumble.



At night

A pattern of lights

In ordered ranks and spangled liberty

And some are gliding silently

By day the veil’s off

Cars screech and jerk

A jumble of people bubbles out of doors

And eddies round the litter bins and beggars

In cavernous hall

Hypnotised army listens,

Watches a magician

Whose golden fingers weaving manycoloured

Threads of the painful sounds of boundless joy

Pull them to silence.

A couple find the world again,

Make coffee and even conversation.

Somewhere in one great block behind another

A window breaks and someone dies

And someone sends them off with hate

A man sits at a shimmering screen

On polished wood from a forest’s death

People come to him one by one

Young old proud lonely and holding hands

Then out the door in rows they troop

At even distance with even gait

Their mouths and eyes are all the same.

The good are gathered beneath a dome

To celebrate that they are loved

Outside a boy whistles and stops

A mad girl sings to a shower of rain

Dogs snarl, fight and the loser whines.


The day before the storm

Was one of scurrying

To finish jobs or pack the car

Voices spoke calm

But e-mails, like migrating birds,

Fell in their thousands on hard ground

And neighbours wandered round

The garden or the shopping mall.


The city walls of law and work

The bounds of land and logic break

And floating past the City Hall

Wash up in the Police HQ

Though government is standing tall

Water that is the base of life

Crushes a paper hat

That was a school, and then a house

Floats gently off like some child’s boat

To meet a bus and dance with it

Down a great busy thoroughfare

With bodies, billboards, toys and boats

With random inquisitive force

It breaks down doors or lets them stand

And pulls the love from lover’s hand

You want a sign?

Here’s one that says:

City Museum.

There is no law, the lines are down

To leaders of religion

A life’s exchanged for a loaf of bread

And starving dogs receive the dead.


Progress is a long rambling walk

In billowing mist from crumbling edge

Of desperate crag to gentler land

And after stumbles, stops for drinks

Arguments and a song or two

The mist clears and we find we stand

On ground that, as we watch it, cracks

From stinking heap of rubbish and lives

A jittery banjo edges out

Beginnings of a newborn tune.

Now the mystery quotes. The last one (come on!) was from Ariel’s Song in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” (“Storm coming? Brandish your weapons!”). Here’s another one that should be easy:

To see a world in a grain of sand

And Heaven in a wild flower

Hold infinity in the palm of your hand

And eternity in an hour.”

CLUE: Innocent? Or Experienced?

Why do bridges hate?

Bridges are a common and I suppose a rather obvious image in my poems, but here’s a new angle.




If we have eyes to see the stars, why burn them out?

If we taste wine, why retch?

If we are rooted in the soil, why tear and wither?

We say the stars are distant; we are not the soil.

Why do bridges hate?

Now a bit more poetry quizzing. The last quote was from Louis MacNeice (“Wipers”); the clue was rather obscure but I’d already used a pun on his name (MacUncle) in a clue on other lines of his.


Full fathom five thy father lies

Of his bones are coral made

Those are pearls that were his eyes;

Nothing of him that doth fade

But doth suffer a sea-change

Into something rich and strange

CLUE: Stormy weather? Brandish your weapons.

Easy, that one – isn’t it??

Book Review: The Hanging Garden, Ian Rankin


Ian Rankin

Ian Rankin has become one of my favourite authors for his dark, intelligent Edinburgh crime novels featuring the tough, conflicted, driven police detective Inspector Rebus. The earlier books are a little mannered, with the names chosen for characters (like Rebus, for example) forming a pattern, for example references to the Sherlock Holmes stories. The later ones are more naturalistic and perhaps emotionally deeper. “The Hanging Garden” is one of these. Two gangsters are fighting a war for territory, but each firmly denies starting it. Police see an opportunity to take one of them out of the game, but is someone else ready to step in? An apparently gentle old man may be an SS war criminal. Rebus’ daughter is seriously injured by a hit-and-run driver. The narrative weaves these themes together as Rebus struggles to find out the truth. Just a very good read if you don’t mind description of pain, worry and waste.

Now on poetry. My mystery lines last post but one were by Christina Rossetti (“Remember”). The clue (“Close to Arkhangelsk?”) was fairly obscure: Christina Rossetti’s brother, also a poet, was Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Gabriel was of course an archangel.

Here’s the next puzzle – another example where I couldn’t really quote just two or three lines because the whole is greater than the parts:




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But what to say of the road?

The monotony of its hardly

Visible camber, the mystery

Of its far invisible margins,

Will these be always with us,

The night being broken only

By lights that pass or meet us

From others in moving boxes?

Clue: His bagpipes were irredeemably heterosexual.


Unsung Sporting Hero

Our local TV programme has been running a series on “unsung sporting heroes”. So here’s my contribution. The others are all people like teachers of gymnastics. Mine is a Premiership footballer.

Gustav Options is an attacking midfielder who makes myriad chances for the strikers by his immaculate positioning. How many times have we heard a Match of the Day commentator say, in an excited voice, something like “He’s got Options to his left”? The quiet Belgian never seems to score, and indeed, rarely gets the ball, but his presence diverts and disorients defenders, contributing to goals.

Now what on earth is this doing in a blog mainly about poetry? Not much, to be honest, but I suspect a love of word-play is common among poets. We do strange things with words, things that may possibly even be illegal in some countries (check before you travel). We see multiple meanings in words. So someone who genuinely likes football and who, on listening to commentary, hears “Welbeck’s cross…Rooney’s shot” and thinks of Welbeck being annoyed and Rooney receiving a bullet may well be poet material.

Yesterday I posted some mystery lines for people to guess. They were

Remember me when I am gone away,
   Gone far away into the silent land;
   When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.

I forgot to give a clue. So here it is: CLOSE TO ARKHANGELSK?

Next time I'll add more mystery lines.

Book Review: Exit Ghost, Philip Roth


This is a short book and very readable. One reaction might be – Not another novel by an American Jewish writer about an American Jewish writer (possibly himself writing a book about an American Jewish writer)! Can’t these people get written about by Filipino Catholic cleaners?

But this one is different. It’s a study of old age and uncertain pasts. The main character is an old, frail writer, a big name but a failing body and mind. As one might expect with Roth (“Portnoy’s Complaint)”) he’s resolutely randy but medical treatment has probably finished the physical side for him. His predictably declining life is turned upside down by meeting a young couple. He becomes obsessed by the woman. Her old friend pursues him because he’s writing a book about one of the hero’s heroes, a writer of an older generation now largely forgotten. He will revive that author’s name – and allege a dark secret of incest. The hero angrily resists this; the young man can’t understand. The hero also meets a face from the past, the dead author’s former girlfriend, once beautiful, her beauty now wrecked, her mind wandering. She gives her account of the dead man. Nothing is certain, neither the long-gone nor what is happening now. The book contains long dialogues which appear to be imagined by the hero, of him talking with the young woman. These are fairly obviously at least partly imagined. But what about the other things he describes, including the threats in the post from what appears to be a deranged far-right activist?

A disturbing book, but meant to disturb – and not without hope or compassion.

Now to throw in more mystery lines and see if someone knows (or guesses) who wrote them. No googling please!

Remember me when I am gone away,
   Gone far away into the silent land;
   When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.


Book Review: Tom McCarthy – “C”

ImageApparently C is a programming language. That may be relevant. Tom McCarthy’s novel starts weirdly well with a doctor hitching a ride on a cart carrying copper wire in order to visit a woman in labour. The father turns out to be much more interested in the copper wire than in his impending offspring. The house is old, rambling and confusing in layout. This could go all sorts of ways, the reader thinks.

The book covers the entire life of the baby about to be born. Young Serge, born in the dying years of the 19th century in southern England, grows up in a strange household. His father is a deaf school headmaster and eccentric inventor fascinated by new means of communication. His mother hardly features at all (why?). His elder sister is a sadistic scientific genius who kills herself for reasons not very clear. Serge suffers from ill-health as a boy, shares his father’s fascination with radio, becomes an observer in a First World War fighting aircraft and is then a prisoner of war, returning to civilian life, experiencing spiritualism and drugs, only to die in Egypt soon after.

The strangeness of the main characters and of the world they’re in (instance the attitudes of the fliers to death and of British intelligence in Egypt to everyone else on the planet) are well conveyed. There are passages of description, especially in the Royal Flying Corps chapters, which are vivid and very well done indeed. But there is a hole in the book. I found until nearly the end that I did not care what happened to Serge. Why? Because he didn’t seem to care at all about what happened to anyone else or if he hmself lived. His sister’s death doesn’t seem to provoke any emotions at all. He was totally indifferent to deaths of fellow-flyers in training and in war. He shot up manned German observation balloons not to try to win the war or out of anger, but because it was fun and fascinating. Narrowly escaping being executed on the last day of the war, he feels cheated and has no thought for his comrade who was about to die and wanted to live. Frankly, he seems to be a bit of a monster.

My unease about the book is that I’m not sure Tom McCarthy realises what a wasteland is in his main character. There are suggestions that the book is a kind of prediction of how humanity was developing, but very few people today are emotionless and disconnected like that. The SS cultivated being above emotions of sympathy or revulsion at the suffering of people they corralled and killed, but even they generally cared about their comrades.

When Serge is angry at a spiritualist fake, and unmasks the deception, it seems strange. Where has that emotion, that anger at deceit, come from? It’s the first emotion he’s displayed. His relations with women seem just as blank-faced and emotionless.

His fever and delirium in his final days are well described. But whether there is any significance in where and how he dies, I just don’t know.


My lines for today are (rather a lot of lines, but it’s an example of the impact being from the whole, and the lines I’d most want to quote are well-separated by others).

O my Luve’s like a red, red rose,
That’s newly sprung in June:
O my Luve’s like the melodie,
That’s sweetly play’d in tune.

As fair art thou, my bonie lass,
So deep in luve am I;
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
Till a’ the seas gang dry.

Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi’ the sun;
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
While the sands o’ life shall run.

And fare-thee-weel, my only Luve!
And fare-thee-weel, a while!
And I will come again, my Luve,
Tho’ ’twere ten thousand mile!

Well, that really shouldn’t be difficult. Still, here’s a clue: