The Shires

A blue bird showing off its undercarriage
En route between our oldest universities
Was observed slightly off-course above Woburn
In the leafy heart of our sleepiest county:
Two cyclists in tandem looked up at the same moment,
Like a busy footnote to its asterisk.

Once on the causeway outside Steventon
I had a vision of living in willing exile,
Of living the knowingly imperfect life
But with a boundless and joyous energy
Like Borodin played by the North Berkshire
Youth Orchestra in its early days.

A goose in the garden of the second-best pub
In Marsh Gibbon was busy doing its dirty toothpaste
And noisy, too, when a woman staggered out
Of the lounge bar into the deserted car-park
Saying: ‘I could never think of the child at my breast
As anything other than a penis with a mouth.’

The bird arrived. Nothing so stately-exciting
As Handel’s dusky queen that was unspooling
Perhaps too loudly from a scribbling student cell,
But looped between the trees, a flash of green:
And only the having chanced to look just there
Could tell you it had ever been away.

There was a young woman of Cheadle, who wore her heart
Upon her sleeve, bright chevron! Oh, the keen-eyed
Men of Cheadle, as in the jealous month
When the registration numbers of new estate cars
Change all over wealthy suburban Cheshire,
And they picked out her heart with a needle.

The very last cat to speak Cornish had a glass eye
And kept a corner shop, selling shoe-laces and bullseyes,
Brasso and Reckitt’s Blue. My great-aunt remembers
Buying postcards from him as a girl,
When George’s profile sped them for a penny.
Aching to talk, he died of pure loneliness.

They play bezique in Threlkeld and they play
For keeps in Shap. And all the shapely clouds
Roll through the streets like weeping chemistry
Or cows escaped. And tea is served in the lounge
Over a jig-saw puzzle of the Princess Elizabeth
Beneath wet panes, wet mountains and wet sky.

Once upon a time, in Derbyshire’s leaking basement
Where you lie back in boats and quant by walking the ceiling,
A strange girl in the dripping darkness attached
Her damp lips to mine fast, like a snail’s adherence
To cold stone in dusty nettles, and all unseeen
The bluejohn slid by me: yellows, greys and purples.

You will never forget the fish market at Barnstaple:
Wet gills, double bellies, gleaming scales,
Shells like spilt treasure. And the cream there thicker
Than a virgin’s dream, and Devon’s greatest poet
Born Gay, on Joy Street, taught by Robert Luck:
It is the paradise of all fat poets.

When the old woman entered the sea at Charmouth
And the great waves hung over her head like theatre curtains,
I thought of the sibyl who charmed the rocks to yield
Their grainy secrets till history bore down
Upon her and the liquid world was fixed
For ever in the era of the fossils.

At the end of your battered philosophical quest,
The purity of Durham rises like an exhalation,
Like the stench of sulphur in a barrel. Birds
Build in the walls of the cloisters, disappearing into holes
Like black-robed devotees. Inside it is quiet,
The oatmeal crimping distant in grey air.

I had a vision in the dead of night
Of all the kitchens of commuters’ Essex
Alight like the heads of snakes; and down them slid
The bored wives and daughters of the managers
Who were at the identical time arriving
On the ladders of their power and fatigue.

Armorial memorials reduced
To leper stone, forests to hedges, hedges
To sickled stumps where perch the songless birds
Of Gloucestershire, and vans require the roads
Before them in their headlights. No one speaks
In the time it takes to cross the greenest county.

Driving at evening down the A 34
Like a ski-run, the sun a deiphany,
The car-radio a percussive Russian insistence:
Pure pleasure, pure escape! Past Winchester,
Unseen its stalking scholars, past everything,
Driving through Hampshire, driving for the boats!

Alone between the Arrow and the Wye,
Wales to the west, keeping its rain and secrets,
I wandered in cider country, where the shade
Beneath the trees is golden red and noisy
With the jealous spite of wasps: Ariconium,
The poet Philips, his long hair combed out!

Hertfordshire is full of schoolmasters,
And archaeologists who are part-time poets.
Together they apportion past, present
And future among their imaginary admirers
In the form of examination papers, foul
Drafts, and labels of dubious information.

Herds of deer are moving through the trees
Of Huntingdonshire noisily and rather
Slowly. An idle hand sweeping the lyre
Brings tears to the eyes of the moderately rich.
They will dip their hands in their pockets, gently dip
But not too deep. You’ve got to keep money moving.

Old men coming up to bowl remember
Other old men who in their turn remembered
Things that were hardly worth remembering
Through long still nights in Ashford, Faversham,
Sevenoaks and Tunbridge Wells and Westerham
Where even now the fields still smell of beer.

All the oven doors of Lancashire
Swing open on the hour, revealing vast
Puddings. After tea, the lovers stroll,
Their hands in each other’s back trouser pockets,
Feeling the strange swell of the flexing buttock.
The sun sinks, and the Ribble runs to the sea.

Cheeks of angels, lips compressed, donate
To brass invisible impulsions of
Purely material breath: a county’s children
Gather to create an overture,
While brothers and fathers leaping over hedges
Wind horns to their alternative conclusion.

M1, M18, M180: the roads
With their bright and bowline intersections sweep
North to Scunthorpe. Go further if you will
To where the Trent meets the Humber and Lincolnshire ends.
There, at Alkborough, you may draw breath
And if Nicky’s at home she will give you a cup of something.

Middlesex is mostly roundabouts, the bright
Voice of five p.m., insistent infotainment:
Fingers gallop irritably on the steering-wheel;
The nails make little clicks. Down the line
Of fuming stationary Volvos boys bully with headlines
That tell the drivers all about the place they have come from.

Norfolk is somehow inverted: it’s all sky
With clouds as bulky as castrati or lines of Dryden
Sailing out above you, tinged with sunset.
Get as far as you can, but not too far,
Say to the Tuesday Market Place at King’s Lynn
Where all the conveyancing is done in verse.

Once half-lost here, when only a map of sounds
Or smells could lead us from a wood, we came
At evening to horse-brass and low-timbered beams
Where the world had evolved to its great public state
And the men and women of Northampton, being counted
And with amber drinks, found themselves to be happy.

Traitors’ county: from one end to the other
You can walk bright-eyed with never a second glance
From a stocky frowning people who move slowly
And mind their own business. For they have seen it all:
When the mist clears over Northumberland
It leaves squat towers, valleys scarred with lead.

There is one red door in one slightly curved
Street in one nameless market town
That contains behind it for a moment an image
Of the planet’s destiny: a girl stooping
To a hallway mirror, making her lips move
Into a theatrical kiss, a self kiss.

The kingfisher has long flown. Along the Cherwell
The biscuit of bridge and college wall is blank
Of its image, but with a passing presence
Like a photograph taken with an open shutter.
This, we reflect, is just the sense of our life,
Aware of something the very moment that we miss it.

Rutland is large enough for you and me
To stumble into as into a wood without being seen,
To tread its moss-starred carpet, enchanted
By the chipped china of the russulas,
Pink, grey, grey and green-grey, and red,
Peeping beneath the oaks, not far from Oakham.

Shropshire Blue, still made, the Lord be praised,
Tart veins that kept the Romans here and Housman
From the rope. The iron bridges lead you to it,
Farms knee-deep in cow. And if you stop off
In red-earthed Bridgnorth, that vigilant town,
Be sure your pint is not ungraced with cheese.

A thousand airy harps! We hardly dare
To let out breath, for our imagination
Responds to these full-throated sounds as though
To the ranks of the ever-delighting dead, our wise
Visionaries, and this is the county of dreams
And of the moon’s occult praesidium.

Staffordshire is where you almost came from,
Darkened beneath burnt clay, perpetual dusk.
It is the housewife’s dream, twinkling hearths
Bright with Zebo, scrubbed pumice steps
And, in the bathroom, a finger on the nozzle
And little lavender farts to begin the day.

I’ve had Leigh and buried St Edmunds,
Stowed Felix and Market and Upland,
I’ve been shut up in Boxton, found it painful in Akenham
And felt totally stupid in Assingham:
Carrying around one’s valuable despair like a fleece,
To live in Suffolk is to suffocate.

Flying in perfect formation above the sleeping
Cul-de-sacs of Surrey, you observe
The blocked pairing of houses, each with a garage,
Like epaulettes. What whisperings behind
The party walls! What eavesdropping, and what
Bad timing! Well done! Sorry, partner! Boom!

Chalk pie, a quality of sun like laughter,
Distance predicted in hoof-beats: everywhere here
Is vigilance as well as cruel amusement,
That tempered island quality called sardonic.
From Rye to Selsey Bill, something is on offer,
A glittering spread, the bottom drawer pulled out.

Driving to Wales I crossed a corner of Warwickshire
That seemed to be hardly space at all, the home
Of Dr Hall and his famous father-in-law
Or of magic woods where lovers were lost and found,
But simply the minutes that it took to tell
An unimportant story, now forgotten.

Once again the skies are open over the whole county:
From Clifton to Burton, from Grasmere to Brough,
The pubtalk steaming with anoraks and orange parkas.
But I can remember one solitary eye
Raging in silence in the dripping marsh,
Its dewy lashes spooning aphids from the air.

In Wiltshire they are sending extra-terrestrial
Signals: what will the Venusians think of us?
Four-footed creatures who like to move in circles?
Let’s hope they never noisily discover
That we are only half the men they thought us,
Stumbling at tangents from our glimpsed perfection.

Oh darling, come to Broadway: there we’ll take
Tea and scones and jam made from the plums
Of Pershore, perfect, pitless, palate-pleasing.
A stroll in the model street, a browse at Gavina’s.
Then it’s right foot down in the Volvo, plenty of Scotch
And the largest bed we can find at the Bull in Worcester.

The brown teapot is always warming here
For there will be a time when you must come home
Though you be unknown except to the flowered dead.
On the moors the diagonal smoke rises
Like a bitter smile, tight but welcoming:
Cousin country, extra places for tea.

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