Betsy Rowland

                                                Betsy Rowland

“Now Betsy Rowland, go play at ball.
Take yourself down to the churchyard wall.
The kitchen free for me to make bread,”
so her mithered mother, Annie, said.

So Betsy ran out the farmhouse gate,
met a woman, said she knew her fate.
Bronze bells she wore on her scarlet shawl,
stopped her at play by the churchyard wall.

“Drop a pin in yonder wishing well,
close by the church that has but one bell,
and if as it falls you see it shine,
your wish comes true sure as grapes make wine.

“Granted was mine, and yours will be, too.
Trust me,” she said, “your wish will come true.”
So Betsy obeyed and threw in her pin,
it shone in the well, her wish to win.

Rare as the horn of a unicorn,
fair as one born with hair gold as corn,
the green hill called Tirantallon Tor,
the long lost door to another shore.

Her wish to ride there on a black horse,
and so she did over grass and gorse.
She met her three brothers on the moors,
talking of hares, the great life out doors.

They watched her ride over grass and gorse.
Never seen before her splendid horse.
They returned to their own stable yard,
so to ride after her fast and hard.

Jack Rowland, the youngest of the three,
was left behind by an old oak tree.
His brothers, Giles and Ralph, far from call,
saw the woman in the scarlet shawl.

She walked out of the mist on the moor,
spoke to him of Tirantallon Tor,
said it was not here or anywhere,
but he’d find his sister Betsy there.

A green path he had not seen before,
told him to follow to find the tor.
It led him to rest in an old inn,
he supped his ale, made his tale begin.

Strong as Samson with his hair unshorn,
black as the sky when with thunder torn,
his horse rode out from the stable yard.
The wind whipped up, the rain fell hard.

He found Betsy riding round the tor,
told him she had found the long lost door.
He said: “This land’s not for us to see.
Listen now, you must come home with me.

“This is for dreams when we lie in bed.
Think of mother at home, making bread.
Here is for those who forever roam,
who seek no shelter and build no home.”

Betsy Rowland thought her brother wise.
A silver light shone in her dark eyes.
Together they rode over the moor,
sad they left behind Tirantallon Tor.

Was a merry meal they shared at home.
Betsy vowed she never more would roam.
Her brothers laughed, mother, father, too.
What she’d seen only Jack Rowland knew.

Ploughlands

                                          Ploughlands

A lark flew up from the ploughlands.
In ways of singing a fine tune,
that bird had it nailed,
so thought a pedlar,
halted to listen to its cries,
that any who tries to play true
on pipes or whistle
would have to bow his head humbly,
acknowledge he’d failed.

To hover over the ploughlands,
the lark kept ascending the air,
continued to rise,
watched by the pedlar,
who liked the swans on the water,
the horse that won at the races,
heather and thistle,
but none could compare with that bird
in his ears and eyes.

Unsure he would come here again,
this flat land had little shelter
from the wind and rain.
Few coins for his wares
he found from the farms and hamlets,
he was less poor than a pauper,
most men were richer,
still he felt a knight of the shires,
he did not complain.

The lark flew down to the ploughlands,
lost among furrows, ceased its cries,
of it was no sign.
The pedlar walked on,
with his heart warmed, his soul lifted,
headed for bed in a barn loft,
sleep until cock crow.
In life he knew who was master,
and who drew the line.

Broom’s Cross

                                 Broom’s Cross

Low, broken bench,
given to grey and green growth
of grass, nettle and moss,
sunk on the verge of Back Lane,
there I sat by Broom’s Cross.
Few know it is there,
no wonder the men from the council
do not come to repair.

Must have been summer,
anyway, I was younger,
and I thought, if I were a painter,
I’d draw it on paper,
paint it on canvas,
this flat land of crop fields,
bordered by ditches,
that stretched around me,
with lanes winding through,
and I would try to capture
what wind did to clouds
and to crows that over their nests,
high in the trees, a little way north,
in the grounds of the old hall,
cawed and flew.

And I strained my mind to imagine
horses slowly pulling a cart,
bearing a body in a coffin,
with mourners trudging behind,
in time with the creak of the wheels,
on a sad, silent journey,
from nearby village or farmhouse,
to burial at the old church of Sefton,
built in the name of Saint Helen,
a little further south,
with its black spire,
seen for miles in the flat land,
and its graves for pauper and gentry,
to rest at the short wooden cross,
hammered into the ground,
by my left shoulder.
And on the way there,
they would have passed by the plague stone,
bedded on the bend of a lane,
a boundary marker,
left behind by the Black Death
when it came to these parts,
for the death of the body,
and the breaking of hearts.
Coins disinfected in vinegar
were left as payment for food
and for goods by those who suffered,
on the large, rounded grey stone,
easy to pass by,
better to look up,
to see larks in the sky.

A dog coldly barked,
sniffed stones in the farmyard,
a long walk away north,
as I noticed the eastern horizon was bumpy,
compared to the flat fields around me,
and gave hints of the Pennines, Britain’s backbone.
And I am still there in my memory,
sat by Broom’s Cross,
trying to imagine the furrows in the field,
beyond the far edge of the lane,
stretched out before me,
were ploughed by ploughmen with horses,
not tractors, until I felt empty,
my mind strained, at a loss.

And I remembered when I was a schoolboy,
and I walked down Back Lane with a jam jar,
and paused to look at Broom’s Cross,
and I searched with a stick
for frogs and newts in the ditches,
and maybe the further back we go,
the closer we come to who we are.

We all deserve a real life,
so many are denied.
So many who are now dead,
never lived before they died.

Rest here, lay your coffin down,
face full the pain of loss.
Rip some grass blades from the ground,
to feed your horse by Broom’s Cross.

The White Bloom of the Black Thorn

                                        The White Bloom of the Black Thorn

The white bloom of the black thorn, she.
The small, sweet raspberry blossom, she.
More fair the shy, rare glance of her eye
than the world’s wealth to me.

My heart’s pulse, my secret oak leaf, she.
The flower of the fragrant apple, she.
Her tender kiss, to long for and miss,
strawberry sap to me.

Listen, lines that I quote,
a minstrel once wrote,
the harper in the hall was he.

World of white gull and grey wave,
I look back to and crave.
Wind from the west blows free.

White gull and grey wave,
a Celtic cry, pining and brave,
on the edge of the sky, tuned to a long lost key.

Utterly faraway, long ago, it was,
on a green island, on a grey, sparkling sea,
but the white bloom of the black thorn
still gleams in the sunshine and holds the cold rain to me.

Silk and Steel

                                         Silk and Steel

I came by myself
and I’ll leave on my own,
my songs are my wealth,
they’re the seeds I have sown.
It’s the way that I have
to tell how I feel,
and I play them on strings
of silk and of steel.

Snow now is flaking
from the white winter sky,
the year’s leavetaking,
time’s come for goodbye,
at least to the green leaf,
but not to the song,
plucked chimes in the frost air
the dark winter long.

Heard Martin Carthy
sing for all he was worth
songs from our history,
from the lands of our birth.
It’s the way that he has
to stir us to feel,
and he played them on strings
of silk and of steel.

Spiderman 33

                                       Spiderman 33

What a movie that was, Spiderman 33.
It was better than Star Trek 55.
I’m glad to see you agree,
made me feel good to be alive,
gave me hope that we would survive.
It was our kind of interstellar romance,
our kind of super hero mystery.
They’re finally free of those old comic books,
now they’ve gone for parallel history.

Your hair was blond then,
now you’ve dyed it brown,
I felt like the luckiest super villain,
riding round the town.
I had my Bat Mobile,
could not believe my life was real.
There were no secrets, nothing to conceal.

They closed down the old joint,
so we built another one,
with the help of some super hero friends,
now they’ve all come and gone,
but we still have our memories,
moving on the silver screen.
We found our Atlantis,
our fortress of solitude,
our bat cave of bat gadgets,
our light sabres to keep the cosmos clean.

Play that blues piano, Joker,
play it way down low.
Who needs the skills of Superman,
when we’re sat at our table,
and you touch your glass and glow?

Remember when time travel was just a theory
and we had yet to get to Mars?
Our grandchildren still laugh
when we say we drove round in cars.
When they speak of vacations,
they mean a flash out to the stars.

Remember when you wore your hair
like a black helmet,
and were glad you never got it wet,
and you told them in that fancy restaurant
that you’d just come off stage,
playing Brunhilda in Wagner’s Ring,
and that old man believed you,
maybe it was just his age,
and asked you, seriously, to sing,
but the waiter would not allow it,
much to my relief,
because I wanted to eat there again,
but I know you would have done it,
though your voice could out bray a mule,
you never minded looking like a fool.

What a movie that was, Spiderman 33.
Wonder when they’ll make the next one?
We evolve, grow, so we go, strive to be,
what was lost was never gone.

When Through The Bright October Leaves

                          When Through The Bright October Leaves

When through the bright October leaves,
the west wind trails a misty rain,
a tapestry the woodland weaves,
and jewel lamps are lit again.

A gentle, lacy snow may fall,
and patter on your windowpane,
love may still warm you like a shawl,
for what you pine you may yet gain.

Leaves of gold, of silver grey,
of yellow, bronze and copper red,
on straining branches fret and stray,
you need not grieve, though summer’s fled.

Now Robin Hood he loved a maid,
more fair than words from poet’s pen,
he met her in a woodland glade,
and led her to his robber’s den.

October Song For Socrates

                                         October Song For Socrates

So I went for a walk
in the wind and the weather,
a misty, windy walk,
in the month of October,
the earth acorn brown,
and the leaves they were turning,
a blue smoky gown
rose from twigs that were burning.

Now when wise Socrates
he went down to the market,
all worldly things to please
tempted him for to buy it,
and he was amazed
to find little he needed,
with joy he was dazed,
like a plant newly seeded.

Wheels were turned by his words.
Spring blue bells I remember,
and the nest building birds,
as light dims to November,
and I had to smile
at boys hunting for conkers,
their dream is a pile
of the fruit from the branches.

So down the road I strode
with no load on my shoulder,
to the bright woodland gold,
and the wind it blew colder.
When the mountains call,
my wings will fledge and feather,
and I’ll leave it all
for the wind and the weather.

Winter Wolf

                                    Winter Wolf

Ask me a question
and there’s nothing I’ll deny.
Whatever I admit to
could be more than half a lie.
There’s no true deception
for persons in a play,
all speaking speculation,
for truth is hid away.

I stood by a weir,
watching water over stones,
as love will stir the body
to the heart all through the bones.
A chance chain of circles
was dancing round a loop,
and when the light grew certain,
I saw my shadow stoop.

Why reason for truth
when too often life has lied?
Sad for every sailor drowned,
over waves the sea gulls cried.
Walls mirror reflections
of chances never took.
Voices call in the wind
the fields of barley shook.

When the winter wolf
has gone loping to his lair,
and there’s blossoming branches,
and the bird song fills the air,
if I should come out looking,
will you be waiting there,
smile with a skip in your step,
and the wind in your hair?

The Man Who Was Forced To Fly Solo

                           The Man Who Was Forced To Fly Solo

The future draws, forks out, fades, the past recedes,
under my feet a path grows concrete, complete
for me to tread on, see where it leads.
The present closes, a gate opens, made of black iron.
I pass through, to read a sign.
Zoological Gardens, it says, City of Liverpool.
Slowly, soundlessly, I step towards a man,
sat on a bench. He wears a bowler hat, moustache,
reads a newspaper, dated August, 1861.
I do not know what happened then,
I only know that time has gone.
Now, before me, an aviary gleams,
bold and complex, like a structure in dreams.
Further on, a hippopotamus enclosure widens.
So I pass through a zoo.
Somehow I know I am not here
to see the elephants, giraffes,
camels, parrots or baboons,
but to join the crowds on the central lawn,
to watch the start of a race, about to take place,
not one on the ground, but across the sky,
the partakers being the pilots of two air balloons.
Each man and woman I hazily pass by,
finely dressed, for an outing, wears a hat of some kind.
They seem aware of eachother, but not of me.
I do not mind, makes me feel curiously free.
I come to a halt, close to the anchored baskets
of the two air balloons,
watch them slowly lift from grassy ground,
gracefully to clouds, without sound,
heading east, Rainhill way, I hear someone say. One is called the Queen,
after Victoria, securely sat on Britain’s throne,
piloted by Henry Youens, assisted by George Luff,
and the other, Mars, piloted by Terence Jollife,
forced to fly solo, alone,
without the aid of his assistant, Ian Coxwell,
who still suffered pains in his neck, back,
shoulder and elbow after crashing
while ballooning in France.
Mars Terence Jollife called his air balloon
to mark that men would one day get up there,
among the stars.
“This is the first step,” he often told his fellow flyers.
The crowd is hushed. I continue to look up.
Only clouds shift by. Time ticks on.
Everyone wonders where the air balloons have gone.
Suddenly, the Queen lands on the finish site.
The news causes the crowd to clap.
Here and there, some cheer.
Smiles pass from face to face,
for Henry Youens and George Luff have won the race.
Long later,  the sun sinks,
like a dark cherry, about to burst, while unseen by watching eyes,
Terence Joliffe, fiddles around with ropes and wheels,
inside the basket of Mars, above the clouds,
continues to rise and rise,
fears he will perish in the cold void of space,
until, at last, he manages to manoeuvre his fall,
till he sees, far below, the lit gas lamps of Manchester,
glowing in the dark, like a scattering of pomegranate seeds
on folds of black cloth.
To his relief, he gains control enough to guide
his air balloon down, to land like a leaf
with a bump in a meadow near the village of Ashley.
In the dark of night, some men come with lamps
to help him rope down, deflate and pack his air balloon.
Stubbornly, alone, he walked country lanes two miles
to a railway station, to catch a train back to Liverpool.
One look at his pale, fallen face
told those he met what it meant to him that he had lost the race.
I blink, empty as the rough field I tread on.
The crowds and the air balloons gone.