Saturday, 9 April 2016

End of last summer I was asked by my mate, Rob Penn, to dismantle an Ash at Llanvihangel Court. Lovely woodland there. The purpose was to make a film for Radio 4 to smash up on the BBC News 24 site (or something like that!); a promo option for his lovely book, The Man Who Made Things Out Of Trees. A story of how vital and integral the Ash is to humanity, only one tree in so many.

Rob is good at seeking out nice trees, and the one at Llanvihangel was early mature, a slight lean and not a lot of taper up to the crown. I reckon we laid a sixty foot stick down, and the other company there that day, Martin Fraser, with his Wood Mizer milled the cord there and then, and Bart Bagnell made some spoons and spatulas, and fashioned a sweet little Oak wedge for my grandfather's hatchet and brought that tool back to life.

I had been thinking about what it is to harvest trees, to cut by hand, and the connection I make with every tree I take. I wrote this little rhyme.

Making the bond

The cut that breaks the ring
that would have bound the year
takes a soul from air,
a prayer from earth
yellow and redden down of cool green flames
that curled out of the gold of their first change.

                   like a sting
            with the work.

A balancing.

Friday, 26 February 2016

Poetry Workshop mission in The Jungle.

Drawing together a crazy oscillation of feelings after visiting a refugee camp and creating a rational, cognitive response, I think, is something I am always going to struggle to achieve.

The first thing me and my two companions saw driving into The Jungle, was a tall and very beautiful black woman, mid-twenties, with a load of swagger. She was attracting the lewd attention of every man who passed her and the sexual charge was the last thing I was expecting. I have no idea what her gig was, but I assumed she was a refugee. My companions had been asked, well, told by female volunteers at the warehouse, to dress in nothing that would encourage the male refugees to make advances, and they moved around the camp easily enough. This first perspective, the behaviour of those men, was for me, a massive negative.

Leading a poetry workshop in the Theatre was manic. My fellow writers were early to mid-twenties, male, mostly Afghan, and were all over me straight away, touching my hair, hugging me, laughing. The theme of the workshop was 'journey', but they mostly wanted to write about love, the sky, and a better life, which I expected.

One participant, who I could tell was going to be really good, did one in the first five minutes and came back towards the end of the session with a lovely clutch of poems he had gathered from other people in the camp. This one stood out as a tight little haiku:
Four men on four chairs
Talk through life with lofty airs.
Four chairs left empty.

In just over an hour a lot of life experience and aspiration was laid down and then it all stopped. The lads gave me back all the pens and paper I had provided, grabbed a hacky-sacky and went into this really energetic game of mass piggy-in-the-middle! job done!

Moving about the camp is probably the most harrowing and evoking experience of my life. The main drags are stoned, and there is a basic level of sanitation; plumbed in water at set points, portaloos that hum of decomposing shit, and the reek of piss that has ensconced itself the latent smell of the earth. Shops, of the stores variety, and the coffee, all of them shanty. The school was awesome, the bookshop, the youth centre. The Ethiopian church with its gable-end mounted cross gave the sky line an unforgettable composure. Everything shanty, everything low, in a low, level expanse of industrial wasteland with a high fence against the highway, and banked up earth ringing the rest of the perimeter. Virtually out of eye sight. Activity everywhere, and a strange, gnawing sense of boredom and frustration, and exhaustion, dragging through your body as you walk through the madness of abandoned tents, or not, ripped open, clothes strewn about, food scat over the ground, faeces here and there, and the utter disillusion of traumatised people coming down on you like a sleep you really need to take.

People want solutions, or just a solution. I think it is ludicrous to expect that there can be a solution to a situation that is worsening. I believe individual European societies have to view themselves as a singular entity, as does the European Union as a whole. Society in terms of oneness, society as an individual with emotions and a psychology that can be affected by action. I believe how we treat refugees now will affect how we behave as a society in the future. How we respond to hardship or threat, or the opportunity of prospect or good. I believe that if we do not consider human beings to be composed of potential, to inherently veer towards kindness, and that we treat people appropriate to these factors, we are likely to damage ourselves.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Calais and ripples of The Jungle

My experience in Calais over the weekend was intense. I did not expect the miles and miles of opressive fencing around the tunnel and ferry port, and The Jungle itself. The visual affect is disturbing and feels unnatural, only you do not instantly recognise it as being unnatural.

The mood in the town is distrustful, raw and wounded. I have never before felt such an urgent need to covet my identity and purpose for being in a European country. Chatting with locals in a volunteer-friendly bar on Saturday night, I suddenly realised that one conversation with the wrong person, and the consequences might have had the potential to be harrowing. The police are not going to respond to a situation involving volunteers until it has gone too far, if they do at all.

Those French who are friendly to the volunteers want to talk, want to debate, they want a resolution. They want no borders. They are impassioned and sincere, inspiring and brave.

The atmosphere in the workshop and warehouse was positive, hopeful and exhausted. The emotional charge of people coming back from The Jungle and trying to get their head around the situation laces everything. The Jungle laces everything, it is all anybody there works for and thinks of. Thinking about being human.

After we wound things down in the workshop I went into the warehouse and a man about my age, very animated, very knowledgeable on the migration that is occuring, was describing how one refugee he spoke to mentioned seeing crocodiles in every country he passed through. The animation was captivating and he kept saying, "...but there are no crocodiles in any of the countries he crossed. There are no crocodiles in the countries he crossed".
Driving by Maidstone in the morning I realised the refugee must have been using the crocodile as a metaphor; a creature that can lie unseen in water and ambush its prey. The 'crocodiles' must be a type of person related to the water in the experiences of those migrating. The dark revelations keep coming and they floor you.

I was not brave enough this time round to venture into The Jungle, I felt I had not earned the right and that really, I had to go there with a purpose. I was happy enough building a floor for a shelter and imagining who might sleep on it and if they would try to imagine me smashing it all together for them!

A superb human being helped me finish my floor off. She told me she just goes into The Jungle to chill and chat with the people. I recognised in her someone with a handle on her emotions and a very real grasp on what is happening; someone to guide, someone to follow. I will never forget her name, and I really hope she is there this week end. So many amazing people. Amazing humans.

I took twenty four hours to reflect on my brief experience, then I booked my ticket for the tunnel this Friday. I am running a poetry workshop in the Jungle on Saturday at 2pm. The theme is journey.

After the intensity I regret I have taken so long to get over there and see for myself, think and feel for myself.

So far this is the only poetry:

Compassion is a bearing, a course to steer,
every degree a shearing away from fear.

Wednesday, 6 January 2016


A few years ago I started to really obsess about ash trees. They are freakishly human, and although there are similarities between all organisms on this gorgeous planet, trees are not so immediately obvious. You really have to make time to get to know trees, daft as it sounds, this is the way of it.

Ash is the kindest of all trees to humans. All the products that can be fashioned from ash to furnish us with comfort from utensils to eat from and with, to providing the means of building shelter; as part of a system, and so many other uses, elevate us from what would otherwise be a pestilent state of thuggery, rape, and burning!

More, much more, you can cut ash down and burn it immediately (good burning!). I am adamant ash has saved countless human lives by this one, vital property alone. This kindness, that is a human kindness, I believe we learned from this species of tree, so I struggle with the distinction between human and tree!

Hearing about Chalara Fraxinea, or ash die-back, those few years ago (we now have Emerald Ash Borer beetle on the way) set me into a bit of an emotional tizz! I wrote this hysterical poem, 'Yggdrasil', based on the Norse myth. Yggdrasil, is the Norse tree of life that connects heaven with earth. Three roots lead to worlds beneath the surface of the earth. The world ends when Yggdrasil burns. All good stuff. Tolkien particularly thought so!

I learnt an important lesson from my emotional tizz, and that is, you have to write emotion out of poems, otherwise, quite literally, they become an emotional...mess! funny old game the old poetry!

All around the same time I met my good mate, Rob Penn, in our local! Rob was about to start writing a book that ended up being called 'The Man Who Made Things Out Of Trees'. We talked about Yggdrasil and the durability of myth and how inspiring a tree the ash is. It was love! everywhich way!

Rob's book is all about one ash tree, the callow hill ash, me and my best mate, Oli, dismantled and felled for him, and Rob's subsequent journey turning his tree into as many life enhancing products as possible. A great and essential story.

Rob mentioned me and Oli, and my poem in his book, which I have to say was very exciting, but also alarming! so off I went and started writing all the emotion out of the first draft!


Drive of colour in the stem is human.

After the saw rips the dust out creamy
a blush-pink at cut arrives discreetly;
the pump of guilt, the physical sermon
filling the open space of reflection.

I am never too sure the work will pay
in term of posterity, not money.

Cutting through the myth into the omen,
along the grain old connections travel
sealing the mouth with the meek tact of leaves:
the silent language we learn with our eyes.

Too much stripping life down to survival.

Further than the horizon of our needs
the flesh-plush of trees in commuting skies.