Incident

It’s not uncommon for trains on the main railway line along which I used to commute to be delayed “because of a fatality on the line”. This is usually a suicide. Mondays often seem to spark this off (presumably for people going to work or school after the weekend). Usually I’ve just been a badly delayed passenger, cursing inwardly at delays of maybe three hours in hot weather (another sparking factor, I think). Then I’ve known there was a personal tragedy behind it, a lost life and damaged lives, but couldn’t relate to something so distant and unknown.

 

About a year ago I was on a train that struck someone, a young woman I was told. It must have been a suicide because it was nowhere near any kind of crossing and the line at that point ran through fields with a road and a few buildings about a mile away. I felt no impact, but saw police and other emergency people coming down the side of the train peering under it.

 

A railway worker who was travelling on the train said this was the second time it had happened to that driver.

 

This poem builds on what I experienced and wondered about.

 

INCIDENT

 

She trudged a mile to the track

And waited for the stopping train

The passengers felt no impact

The paramedics came again.

 

Decanted, passengers wandered round

The platforms of a loveless stop

No music and no shroud

Heavy bags began to drop.

 

Returning to from whence we came

Normality solidified from air

The lost time was a shame

Gentleman marks the crossword square.

 

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2012

The hills

I live in a county that’s famously one of the flattest in England (not the flattest: that must be Cambridgeshire). I grew up in Hertfordshire, not known for its ruggedness. When I was about 16 we had a family holiday in the Lake District. I still remember my amazed joy at seeing waterfalls running down sheer cliffs. I was hooked.

 

I do a lot of hill-walking on holiday, including long-distance trails: every day you move on and every day you get up on the tops.

 

Coleridge said of Wordsworth that even if you read his poetry with no knowledge of where he lived or was raised, you could imagine bleak, open hill country from it. I don’t suppose my poetry is more of the hills than the valleys in nature, but images of hill country occur all the time. My poem “Watershed” describes the experience of struggling up a high pass on to the hilltops, crossing a watershed and discovering a valley on the other side. It’s partly a metaphor for other kinds of discovery, of course, but the specific description would ring bells for anyone who’d crossed a high watershed, as I have. When I don’t write about a type of scenery, but need a setting for the poem, I find it’s often moorland and mountainsides with small, fast-flowing rivers.

 

There is less distraction, less detail, in such scenery. It bears the marks of history clearly – a ruined watchtower, an ancient stone cross marking a track, signs of a cart-track leading to a farm that no longer exists. These things are built over or hidden faster in the lowlands. So up in the hills it’s easy to have a sense of history and of past inhabitants and visitors. I often write about that.

 

It’s also easier to see a long way and to perceive how the land is organised – hills, streams joining a river, the valley, the point at which a road or track can cross the river. I think my long poem “Six Strands” contains a number of examples of this kind of thinking.

 

The hills are harsh. They can kill by fall, by snow, by exposure. Often they’ve been disputed borderlands racked by raids. Life exists by impertinence.

 

Up in the hills, you’re more aware of the sky.

 

 

Well, among the multitude of possible interpretations of these obscure poems, these will do as well as any

and gain a modicum of credibility from originating with the writer.

 

So here goes with some more old poems.

 

TOMORROW

 

After a month of night, a reddish moon

Illuminates a new world, smoothes

The slivers of metal, softens the swathes

Of jagged concrete to

A pebble beach. The clumps of bodies become

A silvered sleeping army of dancing elves.

Nothing human moves,

But deep rats scrabble towards the surface

In the wounded rivers

Dragonfly larvae wait, and where the great trees stood

Fern spores survive. There will be

Another turn.

Tomorrow the relentless sun will rise.

 

This is a science fiction sort of poem. It imagines the world just after a great disaster, probably human-made, has wiped out humanity and most other life forms – but not all.  It has been dark for a month because of vapours and debris but now a degree of light is returning and we (whoever we are) can see what has happened. The surviving living things are stirring. “Tomorrow the relentless sun will rise” – evolution will continue and perhaps there will be another intelligent species to take our place (and bring disaster?). The rising of the sun is relentless – and whether that is a statement of hope or of despair, the poem does not say.

 

TOLLESBURY PIER

 

Through tussocked field, in winter waterlogged

Scrawled over with briar, the bank, like broken road

Between two towns now dead, reaches the shore.

 

Then as a gravelled hump, a fossil arm, breaks mud

Struggling with tide and frost; and then a scatter

Of blackened spars point out across the channel.

 

This thing was an ambition, a conversation

Of land with sea, England maybe with Holland,

A pier for fishing smack and pleasure party

Somewhere for a tired man to walk

The bank, to carry excited trains or vacant

 

Falling into a gradual decline

Hardly noticed thirty miles away

Then broken in war by men who knew it well

To stop an enemy blown up, and on the stump

Strong lights and anti-aircraft guns conducted

A different conversation of the worlds.

 

The waft-winged harrier now suddenly

Swivels for urgent pipits, a vagrant bunting

Flushed by a rushing dog whose reddening master

Stumbles angrily calling

 

The salt sea

Still laps the land

Lulls its lost senses, shifts the empty shells.

 

Tollesbury is a coastal village in Essex on the East coast of England. Today there are only a few clues which tell of the railway and pier. Now Tollesbury village is no longer on a railway, but then it was and the line extended out from the village over marshland to the pier. The original ideas was for the pier to be used by large ships from across the North Sea, but that never happened. Instead it was used by pleasure boats and fishing boats and by pedestrians on a day out. By the time of the Second World War the line had closed. The pier was then blown up to stop it being used by German raiders or invaders and on what was left anti-aircraft guns were positioned (“a different conversation of the worlds”). A few wooden stumps still indicate where the pier was and the raised bank used by the railway (“the bank, like broken road”) is still evident.

 

A harrier is a type of bird of prey sometimes found in such marshy coastal places (two species might occur here). Pipits and buntings are smaller birds which might be hunted by a harrier.

 

I used to write a lot of poems about particular places, but now I generally see this as too forced and wait for the places to work on me unconsciously. This is an exception. I’m attracted by the sense of history about the place and by it being a meeting-place of sea and land.

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2012

Tollesbury Pier

Tollesbury is a village on the Essex coast, not a great distance from where I live. Today it has a marina, the area is well-known for birds in autumn and winter and it’s the kind of place some people retire to. It’s set between arable fields and the seawalls and saltmarsh along the North Sea.

I’d often wondered about some remains of man-made features out on the marshes – a high raised bank bisecting the marsh, heading out towards the sea, and right by the sea, some signs of a structure like a bridge once having been there, with wooden posts sticking out of the water as if trying to reach the other side of the Blackwater estuary.

Then I found an information display had been put in. From the end of the 19th century the bank had carried a railway which ran from Tollesbury village (itself then connected to the rail network) out to a pier, with a station actually on the pier. The idea was that the pier would be extended far enough for big ships connecting England to Holland and Germany to dock, but this never happened. Instead fishing boats and small pleasure vessels used it. Day-trippers and fisherman also used the railway to the pier. The railway closed about 1920 but the pier continued in use till 1940, when it was seen as possibly useful to an invading German force and was blown up, with anti-aircraft guns being installed on the remaining bit: on the approaches to London from across the North Sea, these will have been used many times. Gradually what was left declined till now there is almost nothing left.

 

TOLLESBURY PIER

 

Through tussocked field, in winter waterlogged

Scrawled over with briar, the bank, like broken road

Between two towns now dead, reaches the shore.

 

Then as a gravelled hump, a fossil arm, breaks mud

Struggling with tide and frost; and then a scatter

Of blackened spars point out across the channel.

 

This thing was an ambition, a conversation

Of land with sea, England maybe with Holland,

A pier for fishing smack and pleasure party

Somewhere for a tired man to walk

The bank, to carry excited trains or vacant

 

Falling into a gradual decline

Hardly noticed thirty miles away

Then broken in war by men who knew it well

To stop an enemy blown up, and on the stump

Strong lights and anti-aircraft guns conducted

A different conversation of the worlds.

 

The waft-winged harrier now suddenly

Swivels for urgent pipits, a vagrant bunting

Flushed by a rushing dog whose reddening master

Stumbles angrily calling

 

The salt sea

Still laps the land

Lulls its lost senses, shifts the empty shells.