New Something

This was a piece I wrote for a Chelmsford writers’ group on the subject of “New Beginnings for the New Year” and with an allotment of 1,000 words.

New Year

 

New Beginnings for a New Year

New beginnings? Isn’t that a whatdoyoucallit? You can’t have old beginnings. I suppose you could say the beginning of the Hundred Years’ War is an old beginning now, but it was a new beginning when it began, which was the beginning of the Hundred Years’ War, I think. I mean, there’s only any point in saying anything if the opposite is possible. Like…what’s the opposite of two plus two is four? Four plus four is two? I was always better at English than Maths. Or is it two minus two is four? Or minus two plus minus two is minus four?

I suppose you could just about say that an old beginning is something that really is a beginning, but it’s been used before for other beginnings – like pawn to king four. Or pawn to queen four. Whereas WHITE: 1: RESIGNS would be original, I think. “It was a dark and a stormy night” would be an old beginning, then. Or if you started your novel with “In the beginning was the word”, which is a pretty silly statement because of course in the beginning of a story there’s a word, in this case “in”. Now that’s a point: if I remember rightly, copyright expires seventy-five years after the death of the author, but if the author of the Bible is God, is God dead? I believe theologians and philosophers are still arguing about it. The theologians say he is and the philosophers say he isn’t, if I recall rightly. In any case, even if he is dead, when did he die? That’s crucial if you’re quoting from the Bible without paying royalties.

I suppose someone must have thought this through because some gravestones have biblical quotes on. Mind you, I’m not sure who the action for breach of copyright would be against.

What about new endings? Well, obviously if a story or a football match or something is new, the ending will be new – except I suppose if it’s old hat it’s not new, like Manchester United scoring in surprisingly long injury time or a book ending with THE END just in case you were tempted to start reading it back to front in which case it would say DNE EHT. Esle gnihtemos yas dluow ti neht. Sorry, I got a bit carried away.

So let’s go back to the new beginning. I make that three hundred and ninety-five words, which isn’t bad considering. Four hundred and seven now. Four hundred and twelve.

There was a man in a Len Deighton spy story called Harvey Newbegin, an American. He was called Harvey Newbegin because he wasn’t. I don’t mean he was like The Man Who Never Was, except of course he was, because he was fictional whereas The Man Who Never Was was real. And Welsh, apparently. This Harvey Newbegin was an immigrant to the USA from some Baltic country, which explains why he chose to rename himself Harvey. Anyway, the hero pushed him under a bus, which made him Harvey Newend. I did mention that this wasn’t true, didn’t I? I mean it’s fiction, not that what I’m saying about Len Deighton’s book isn’t an accurate summary, though it’s years since I read it so it might not be.

Who said “In my end is my beginning?” Was it Eliot? Someone did say he was anal retentive, so that might be right.

Why do we want new beginnings for a new year anyway? The break-off point for the year is purely arbitrary. Up until the eighteenth century they began the new year in spring some time, not on 1st January at all, which plays havoc with dates, so for example if a Civil War battle was fought on 21st February 1645 according to accounts at the time, that’s actually 21st February 1644 to our way of thinking. No, 21st February 1646, I think. See? Chaos. What if the Royalists turned up on 21st February 1644 and the Parliamentarians on 21st February 1646? Could be a bit awkward for any Royalists commemorating their easy victory, but it would have kept the casualty figures down. That is, of course, if we were fixing the battle at a point on the map, which because of the earth’s rotation and the earth circling the sun, would be quite a long way in space from the same point on the map a year or two earlier, assuming no-one had moved the map. No – would it be at the same point in space because what goes round comes back? But then there’s the expansion of the universe to take into account, so that would mean the Parliamentarians turning up somewhere in deep space, which would be unfortunate, though how they’d get there I don’t know.

Did you know the rate of expansion of the universe is increasing? We’re all rushing apart faster and faster according to Stephen Hawking, which means that our feet are ageing slightly faster than our heads, which I’m not sure is true of me at all, though remembering when I last looked closely at my feet, maybe it is. But in Australia it’s the other way around. Old heads on young feet. With other bits in between.

Some people make resolutions at the New Year, but usually they aren’t new beginnings at all because they’re the same resolutions they made last year or the year before, like eating less or writing a novel. Or writing less and eating a novel. Personally I find Dickens indigestible.

Some people just go out, get drunk and sing badly. It’s usually not new beginnings in their songs, though, it’s bits in the middle or at the end that are new. Getting drunk is known as getting rat-arsed, though I don’t understand that at all. I have not observed that drunken people have small hairy arses, though some Welshmen have. And they had them before they got drunk. Not that I’m any kind of expert on Welsh backsides. Er…

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Book Review: Matt Haig, The Humans

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An alien from a vastly more advanced distant civilisation is turned into an exact outward copy of a leading human mathematician at Cambridge University, whom the aliens had neatly and coolly murdered because he was on the point of a mathematical discovery which would have revolutionised human civilisation and led to this violent, unpredictable, retarded species gaining powers far beyond what it could handle. His task is to impersonate the dead Professor while he deletes all records of his discovery, including people he may have told about it, starting with his wife and son.

Things start going wrong immediately: his knowledge of human culture is very incomplete, so he doesn’t understand why wandering naked down a motorway at night may lead to what seems a rather extreme response and a brief acquaintance with other people who claim to be aliens.

He deletes one academic colleague. Then something else goes wrong. He starts becoming fond of his supposed wife and child. The rest of the book works out his dilemma.

At least since Montesquieu wrote about imaginary Persians visiting Europe, perhaps since some Roman writings achieving seeing something of the Romans from the viewpoint of conquered tribes, people have used very different strangers as a way of seeing their own culture anew. Some of the best Science Fiction now does this with aliens. The puzzlement and investigations of Matt Haig’s Vonnadorian do help us see ourselves more clearly. This is particularly so because the Vonnadorian culture – maths based, with little individuality and with death having long been banished, is so different from ours. His hero’s problem is that he starts feeling as human as Vonnadorian – an experience some people who are classed as terrestrial aliens, immigrants or refugees may relate to.

The whole thing is very well done – well-written, well-plotted, oddly credible.

In a postscript Matt Haig confides that the roots of this story are in a period of his own life when he was subject to panic attacks and human society and world seemed about as odd to him as they do to his hero at the start.

This is just the best book I’ve read for a long time.

Two short poems about water

Or are they?

 

DEAD WATER

When the Sahara was green this was a river.
The statues of wonderful Alexandria
Stare in salt water.
Under the Black Sea are valleys,
Flooded settlements.
I have seen the lost rivers of live Mars.
Humans will end, and the Earth that made them.
I sense the rise of new rivers.

 

BEACH AT HIGH TIDE
The dogs on the narrow beach race or pad
The dog-walkers have their dogs to take them for walks
I wear binoculars round my neck
That also is a justification.

The new sun glints on wave-crests and shallow still water
The sound of the waves is old.

 

I think I’ll leave those for now without comment or explanation and come back to talk a bit about them.

Lands End

Book Review: Martin Pugh, “We Danced all Night”

“We Danced all Night – a Social History of Britain between the Wars” is readable and full of interesting information. We learn about diet, attitudes to crime (varying hugely between one working-class community and another), the changing position of women, sport and class (football had rapidly become a working-class sport, but cricket maintained a gulf between “gentlemen” (well-off amateurs) and “players” (professionals) – about motorists who regarded any government restrictions as unacceptable, the insecurity of rented accommodation, attitudes to Empire and monarchy – you name it.

One of the main messages is that living standards rose throughout the period. The effect of the Great Depression was not as great as we tend to believe, except in specific areas of heavy industry or mining such as the Welsh valleys or Tyneside.

Inevitably there are a few gaps. Martin Pugh mentions that Trade Union membership rose, but has nothing to say about the significance of the unions in the lives of industrial and transport workers, or about industrial disputes other than to note their numbers. Differences between North and South within England are stressed, with some reference to Scotland, but I could not have worked out from this book if the social history of Scotland or even more, Wales was different from that of England in this period in any way, except in the high unemployment in South-east Wales. Odd that, as Pugh is a Welsh surname.

On the political front, one of the main findings is just how conservative the newly-powerful Labour Party was. He has a bit of a thing about George Orwell and snipes at him in several places – not without justice at times, but he says Orwell was disabled as a social commentator by his left-wing views and upper-class origins. Left or right wing views do not disable you as a commentator. They give your comments an angle others should take into account. And Orwell’s origins were middle-class (in the British sense), not upper-class.

 

Well worth reading, though!

Book Review: Exit Ghost, Philip Roth

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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.

Well?

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.

POETRY QUICK QUIZ:

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:

NEEDS A FIREFIGHTER?

Eyes

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Looking for an image of an eye on the internet, I found they were either medical or female. Is no-one other than optometrists interested in men’s eyes?

Anyway, this poem was sparked by remembering an old photo of me when I was in my early 20s. It’s a poem about appearances – then and now. I’d never claim to be a sage!

EYES

When I was young, my eyes were wide like Blake’s,

Pools for some fabulous sea-snake,

But wind and sun and dust and age

Have narrowed them; suspicious sage,

I look out through these guarded slits

With ready, oiled, assembled wits.

Wonderful History

One more post on History before I get back to the poetry!

Last time I set out some common arguments against spending time on History:

History is boring.
Whenever someone says something is “boring”, they’re merely saying “this doesn’t interest ME”. So “I’m not interested in History because it’s boring” is not a powerful argument. However, it’s a shame many people have come away from school thinking History is boring. I’m not going to blame the teachers, though a few may lack passion for the subject. I’ll just point to how many well-watched TV programmes are about historical events (such as Hitler’s rise to power) or rework and fictionalise historical events (such as the Jack the Ripper murders) or use and convey historical understanding (such as family history programmes like the BBC’s “Who do you think you are?”).

That’s the past. It’s over now. I want to know about the future!

So how are you going to predict the future if you have no idea how things change over time?

Who needs/wants to know about a lot of dead kings/dead white males?

Apart from the point that people are not uninteresting because they’re dead (or white, or male, or royal even), History isn’t just about a long list of kings, queens or presidents. History basically is the study of whatever in the past we think is important – so take your pick. The history of the impact of the printing press or of the Black Death is not mainly about rulers.

It won’t help you get a job.

Unfortunately there’s some truth in this, more in some countries than others. But a good degree from a highly-rated university isn’t worthless because it’s in an unpopular subject – it’s just less saleable than some. What’s clear to me is that History can help you DO many jobs, and not just History Teacher.

Consider: History teaches you a huge amount about human motivation and the impact people’s actions have over time. It teaches you how major changes can occur almost unnoticed. It teaches you to ask of someone’s account or presentation not only “Is this factually true?” but “What is this person’s angle? What does he or she want others to believe?”. It teaches you how different other people, other societies, can be. Where historical facts are vastly numerous, as with most 20th century History, it teaches you how to select and marshal facts in a coherent argument. Where factual information is sparse, as with the 5th to 8th centuries AD in Western Europe, it teaches you how to read between the lines.

It’s propaganda.

Anything open to argument can be propaganda and it’s true that in totalitarian societies, history is written to support the rulers. Deeply patriotic or nationalistic historians write history that glosses over cruelties and injustices made by their beloved country and unduly stress its positive characteristics. A Catholic historian (to take just one example from the field of religion) is unlikely to argue that the papal claim to succession from St Peter is bogus even if he or she has come on evidence that might point that wayand an anticlerical atheist is quite likely to underestimate the church’s role in, shall we say, limiting the oppression of conquered peoples. But history is international and it gets harder and harder to wall out the voices undermining the propaganda. History teaches us to question propaganda.

It’s unfashionable/ not cool.

This is a bit like “it’s boring”. There’s no answer because it’s not really saying anything. If you thought History was important or interesting, but saw it was unfashionable, what should you do? If you always think unfashionable things are uninteresting or unimportant, what does that say about you?

In any case, while History in schools and at university has declined, there’s more and more History on TV.

It’s all very well, but it mustn’t crowd out Maths/English/foreign languages/computer skills/sport from the syllabus.

Well, yes, you can make a case for all subjects, but isn’t your main language advanced by using it to read and write about History, and isn’t the use of statistics to illustrate points in History practical Maths teaching? The same sort of argument applies to computers, though not to sport unless you count vigorous disputes between academics who don’t like one another.

History is bunk (Henry Ford).

If it weren’t for History, we’d have forgotten who Ford was. History is full of examples of the sort of hubris Ford displayed as soon as his attention shifted from making cars. History analyses what the effects of Ford’s business success and production methods were.

 

So the arguments FOR? I listed a few popular ones.

 

We should understand how our nation arose, the main events in its history and how its values developed and were demonstrated.

Well, yes, except nation, country and state are not the same. It makes sense for all citizens, whether born there or not, to know something of the origins of the place and society they live in. BUT with this sort of history there are two big risks – that the course of events that could have gone very differently is made to seem inevitable; and that the story of the nation or state is sanitised so the best is stressed and the worst is ignored or belittled. I’d also argue that British history for Britons (or American for Americans or Indian for Indians) is not enough: we should come to understand something about the history of a different place and people.

History helps create a sense of nationhood.

“Patriotic” history can do this, and understanding the roots of a national culture and identity is important. But if the AIM of history teaching is to promote a national identity, it becomes propaganda and inevitably lies if only by omission. For example, the “myth” of Dunkirk (not actually a myth, as it actually happened) is important to at least some people’s sense of Britishness – but how many people know the evacuation would have been far less successful without a French army fighting to hold off the Germans while the British evacuated? It wasn’t for nothing that Churchill sent back the Navy for one more night to get the French off too.

History repeats itself.

Up to a point it does. It is useful to be able to recognise in a situation something that has happened before. But as with any patterning and classification by our minds, we often get it wrong. It isn’t only generals who are always fighting the last war.  But maybe that’s a good example of how history does repeat itself. Over and over again we apply the lessons from the last big mistake too literally.

History demonstrates great trends which are eventually unavoidable.

Marxists think this and so do many religious people. Certainly you can see great trends in history, but are they really unavoidable?

History is value-free and non-ideological.

Nowadays historians generally hold back from passing moral judgements, but this is relatively new. Ideologies clearly do affect how historians write history, both in influencing judgements on the effectiveness or benefits of something and in influencing what we think is important. As History is the study of WHAT WE THINK IS IMPORTANT in the past, your values and structure of belief clearly must influence what you think noteworthy and what you stress. But falsify the facts and you’ll be rightly challenged.

Now what is missing from these arguments?

Well, understanding the complexity and variety of human motivation and mindsets. Understanding just how DIFFERENT humans can be from our own society (which is why the history of your own country is not enough). A sympathetic understanding: ultimately statistics and ruins can take you so far, but you need to apply your own human experience and get into the mind of someone very different in order to understand actions and cultures that seem very strange to us.

And that’s close to literature, even to poetry. History is a sort of science fiction, but based on truth.

 

Unpoetic History

Well, it can be poetry in a sense. But I thought having posted about historical subjects in my poems and subtler influences on my poems of having a History degree, I’d say a bit for History as a subject to study.

The arguments against it mostly go like this:

History is boring.

That’s the past. It’s over now. I want to know about the future!

Who needs/wants to know about a lot of dead kings/dead white males?

It won’t help you get a job.

It’s propaganda.

It’s unfashionable/ not cool.

It’s all very well, but it mustn’t crowd out Maths/English/foreign languages/computer skills/sport from the syllabus.

History is bunk (Henry Ford).

Now you may have noticed that some of these arguments are contradictory: for example, propaganda that’s boring is highly incompetent propaganda. It might also occur to you that since the future hasn’t happened yet, there is a major question about how to predict it or prepare for it (and if you can’t predict it, you’re at some disadvantage in preparing for it).

If it weren’t for History, broadly understood, we wouldn’t now know who Henry Ford was or that he said it was bunk.

Now here are SOME arguments used FOR History:

We should understand how our nation arose, the main events in its history and how its values developed and were demonstrated.

History helps create a sense of nationhood.

History repeats itself.

History demonstrates great trends which are eventually unavoidable.

History is value-free and non-ideological.

Now again you might notice some contradictions: the first two arguments, for example, make assumptions about values to be promoted, which runs against the last argument. The third and fourth points also appear to contradict one another, or at least to concentrate on different aspects.

I’m going to stop there and come back to this. In the meantime, you might want to comment on some of those points, for or against.

Normal poetic service will be resumed as soon as possible.

CLUE: I’ve actually NOT stated any of the arguments that are to me the most powerful in favour of History.

History seeps into poetry

Last time I blogged about writing poetry about historical events. I admitted to having a History degree and a continuing fascination with the subject. It’s fairly obvious to anyone who knows that Marston Moor was a battle in the English Civil War, that a poem titled “Marston Moor” is historical. I wrote another poem called “Marie Antoinette”, and that’s a bit of a giveaway too.

But there are more subtle influences, ways in which historical awareness affects what I write just as awareness of landscape does even if the poem is not about landscape.

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Trapped in the hills and hunted down

By hidden bog and avalanche

By haunting wind and wolf, survivors

Stumble beside a clattering stream

Down to the valley of their dream

 

Where cupping hands bring out bright gold

Trees offer fruit of no known tang

And vivid song as no bird sang

Wakens the travellers from the cold

 

They name the valley, import the skills

To mine the gold and lay the roads

Till someone heads for other hills.

 

When no dark ridge is left, the wise

Explore the forests of the mind

And stare in one another’s eyes

 

Now out of mist on broken lands

What new and treacherous hills will rise?

That’s from the poem “Explorers”. The explorers go through great dangers to find they know not what. They find wonderful things, destroy them over time and move on. I can’t see that I could have written that without awareness of European exploration of other continents – and of the influence of the American West and the impact of the West (in the sense of a borderland of promise and danger for the settlers) ending.

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STONE STEPS

 

They found some stone around this place:

The pale steps worn by constant feet

Are buried in the wiry grass

And no-one knows who walked on them.

 

One end is by the river bank;

No sign of other end is left.

Perhaps this curious find is best

Donated to the town museum,

 

But somehow it seems better still

To leave them where they worked and wore.

Maybe they’re still a bridge of sorts,

Though what to what no-one can guess.

Well, this is a mysterious poem and no doubt not really about what it appears to be about, but the starting point is the historian’s or archaeologist’s curiosity about some remnant or ruin.

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CITY

 

Something started here

For a reason: the river was fordable

The tracks of cattle drovers drew together

The lie of the land and the weather were right for spinning

A governor found the distance from his palace

Just right for horses. Growth has a beginning.

 

Those origins are hidden, bulldozed, built on

Reinterpreted in guide-book and in myth

Slums and fine houses grow and are destroyed

The stonework of the bridge lies underwater

The factory’s become a heritage centre

From crumpled streets the tanners and the whores

Have gone but left their memories for a while

In street-names till some government

Dedicated to the pure and nice renamed them after

Generals, or trees that once were said to grow there.

Old stinking alleys strangled for office blocks

Ghostly survive in sections of quiet close

Or shopping trolley dumps round parking lots.

 

The city forgets; flexes; reinterprets.

People are born and die, the language changes

Suburbs seep out. Some time the city will end

Inventiveness, sweat, tears, frescos swallowed up

Slipping into decline, houses left empty,

Grass in the streets, but here and there a core

Churning more slowly and uncertainly;

Or suddenly in a fire that by scorched shadows

Commemorates the impertinence of daily life.

Unpeopled, not quite dead, the city will still be seen

In humps and ditches against the flow of land

By rumour, legend and a blackened buckle.

That’s from “Six Strands”, my longest poem: I used another bit of the same poem to illustrate how being a long-distance walker had influenced my poetry. The strand here on the city is pretty much all history: an awareness of processes by which cities grow up, change and die, but leave remains that can be interpreted even if all memory of the city has been lost. The picture of decline, for example, owes something to what I know of the last years of the Roman empire in Britain.

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Dust in marble halls, dust of marble halls

Ground jewels, rose roots strike

Lustre withers, slow-burning amethyst escapes

A lost note cries in the dark and I cannot find it

 

Out of the deathborn mud, worms rise

That’s from “Estuary Shore” and the point here is the intense sense of time, time over such a long period that marble halls are turned to dust, but a sense of renewal and rebirth as well.

I might add some comments next time about History and why I think Ford was wrong (“History is bunk”) about this as well as most other things except how to make money from making cars. But that’ll do for now. Oh, and if that dratted (or mysterious, intriguing) formatting has appeared again – sorry. The controls that should remove it do not work. It appeared one day and will not leave.

Now that is an idea – a poem pretending to be a load of formatting instructions.