Before We Fall

While you are in Middleton get some black bags

It was a text from my wife who was in work. How the hell did she know I was in Middleton?

I swear she has some kind of track and trace programme that the government should look into because it just blows their billion pound effort away.

I did as I was told. I got the black bags.

That’s the secret of a good marriage.

Then I called for a coffee in McDonald’s where I could hear a man complaining to himself in the booth next to mine.

Fucking sick of this now. Where’s your mask? Stand here. Stand there. We don’t do that. Put your mask back on. Sit here. There’s no ketchup. Wait there. If you can’t taste salt on your chips it’s a Coronavirus symptom bollocks.

The last line rose in volume as it neared its end. I couldn’t help smiling in private at his public fatigue.

I think a lot of us are losing the stamina for this now, and some are really struggling.

There was an elderly man in there, crying and apologising for being a nuisance. The prospect of another lockdown had filled him with dread, for he had only one family member to speak with who would have to isolate. This was the only place he could come for some human contact, and embarrassed by his tears he made to leave.

The woman who was seating the customers tried to reassure him:

“You’re not a nuisance at all. Sit down and I’ll get you a drink. Ignore what the government says, as long as you’ve got your gloves and your mask on you’re alright. You need to keep coming in every morning to see us.”

That was true, but if this place was forced to go delivery only again that option would no longer be open to him. It’s a trade off, catching Coronavirus v your mental health. Not everyone had the fortitude and the people around them to cope with this once again.

I left the restaurant and made my way home along a path that gradually rose away from the town centre in a steep climb. At the top of the hill, where the slope evened out, was a tree well on its way to its autumn transformation. I paused a while to both take it in and get my breath back.

There were still many leaves to fall, and those that had were stirring in a cool breeze.

Although it looked familiar, we’d not seen an autumn like this one before. But they will keep coming around and there’s a reassurance in that, even as they age us.

We are still here, all of us, doing the same old things, climbing hills, gasping for breath, and little by little shedding our leaves.

Not So Same Old, Same Old.

Blackpool 2020. I’ve been to this northern seaside town countless times since I was a child, but in 2020 even the familiar is different.

I was there with my son, James, last Saturday to watch a football match, staying overnight on the Friday. It was busy, but not pre-Covid busy.

As James was walking out on the beach, I walked along this promenade, keeping apace so I could keep an eye on him.

There was a car to my left, stopped at a red light, and a guy was shouting through a rolled down window “Hey mate, improve your social distancing!”

I looked around. Was he addressing me? It appeared he was.

“Improve your social distancing!”

Really?

There wasn’t anybody within at least fifty metres of me. James was about a mile out to sea. The lights turned to green and he drove off, shouting the same message to other pedestrians that he passed. He wasn’t anyone official, and he didn’t look like, you know, a loon. It seemed that he had made it his own personal mission to prevent the town having more Government measures imposed upon it.

Blackpool seafront is breezy at the best of times, if bearing rain a destroyer of plans, and this day was really windy, as is evidenced by these bending tulips. Or, as they are better known- ‘giant spoons’.

I was feeling my age.

While my son walked freely across the beach, I found numerous windbreak-walls to sit against while watching him.

Then, hood on, hat on, mood on, I joined him to walk beneath one of the old Victorian piers, the sea being out, spying the tower between the supports.

This caught my eye and so my camera. Emerged from the depths to breathe once again in light, like barnacle-encrusted cootie trees, shaped like a St.Andrew’s cross.

Halt-who goes there? A shoed adult, a barefoot child, and a gull. It wasn’t volcanic ash in the Cretaceous period forever preserving a passing sauropod, but I liked it.

If you squint, or maybe do that thing with your thumb and index finger to enlarge this photograph, you’ll see my lad out there-far enough away to give my wife a heart attack if she’d been there with us. I assured her by text that he remained in sight at all times. I didn’t tell her that I had binoculars.

The day wore on, the light grew dimmer, the wind grew colder. This gull was gliding effortlessly in,similar to how we freewheel on a bike, coasting in to find a place to settle for the night.

There were starlings, too, around the pier. If it was a murmuration, then they were murmuring above us, turning and wheeling perfectly in unison like a shoal of fish.

Twilight – a liminal time, and James was on the edge, as the tide rolled back in and my thoughts began to turn to that warm room back at the B&B.

Before the sea had started to return to shore, there’d been the odd person out there on the beach, hundreds and hundreds of yards out, walking alone and wearing face masks. Unless it was a way of keeping their face warm I just didn’t understand the thinking behind it. The guy in that car would have been proud of them. And still tell them to improve their social distancing, by megaphone.

Evening was coming on, autumn was coming on, exhaustion was coming on.

The sun sank into the sea, a final flash of fire engulfed in its repetitive end, and still the wheel on the pier turned, around and around, everywhere we looked – the same old cycles.

This gull seemed reluctant to leave, allowing me to come closer to observe it. One final photograph and then we sought the sanctuary of our room.

It’s a nostalgic place for many of us, Blackpool, with long memories of family and old friendships. Away from this attractive seafront though, I think it is quite a deprived town.

Whenever my wife has been here with us, a common question of hers is uttered with an expected regularity while observing the members of numerous Stag Nights and Hen Dos staggering out of the promenade pubs:

I wonder how many marriages are being wrecked tonight? How many babies being conceived?

All out of the hearing of the children, of course, for they see nothing but magic.

That’s her astute understanding of human behaviour, but that kind of stuff can’t go on this year, can it? Not in 2020, when we’re all social distancing.

The Change Of Things; The Way Of Things

He was aware of the season’s arrival, was conscious of the changes, but only in a rudimentary way.

For he didn’t know the names of the trees, nor of the birds, but he knew that those geese were preparing to leave, without him even knowing that they were geese.

They were obeying the same instinctive compulsion that they always did, long before anyone named them, and those birds didn’t even know that they were geese, either, for they just recognised each other, as they did in the times when other people, long gone, called them by different names, names now forever forgotten and lost.

But the days remain the same, the signs remain the same, it’s the language that rises and falls. It has always been our wont to label the landscape and creatures around us. Make things familiar and relatable.

He watched them go, taking to the skies, never knowing where they would alight, but trusting deeply in the way of things, and the day that they’d return.

On Poetry:Inspiration

City Jackdaw

For me, my poems serve as a diary. When I look at them I can remember where I was when I got the idea for each one, and what it was that acted as the initial inspiration. The opening poem in my book, Heading North, is called Midnight, July.

The title indicates the when, but not the where and why.

The words for this one came when I was sat in the back garden with a coffee. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and I was looking up at the stars and wondering whether we could be alone or was there life somewhere out there?

We writhe 

with a rage to know 

the unknowable,


blind to great masses

that dance in dark orbits. 

And a soft, summer wind 

on a night beneath stars 

is no balm.

While I was sat there, neck craned in the quiet of the…

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Two Cities Laid Low

A few posts back, I shared some photographs of a journey I made between two Northern cities, Leeds and Manchester, when the country was on the brink of lockdown. I had to make the return journey last week (essential travel allowed) and, with the UK now a month into lockdown, I took these photographs to share with you all to document these unprecedented days. I probably, hopefully, will never have the chance to see my city like this again.

This first one shows the seating arrangements in my local bus station, to enforce the social distancing. Only the opposite end seats were available, first come first served (though there weren’t many takers).  An unenthusiastic game of musical chairs.

Again, on the bus-alternate rows of seating available. The driver taking my fare said it was the most he’d taken all morning.

Manchester, message delivered.

Looking towards the usually notorious Piccadilly Gardens.

Market Street.

I saw neither tram nor cycle, just the odd jogger taking their allotted moment of exercise.

When a passing bus departed, the city fell into a strangely hushed tone.

St.Anne’s Square, scene of much mourning and festooned with flowers following the Arena bombing.

Deserted thoroughfares.

Many shop doors and windows wore similar sentiments from their owners. Some just a stark notice that no goods or money were left on the premises, in lieu of any opportunist thieves moving into the city.

Not a drinker in sight.

Moving now towards the train station.

The statue of Gandhi outside the Cathedral. The only figure caught in motion.

Ever since the lockdown the weather has been glorious. The place would have been swarming with shoppers and drinkers and more.

Looking towards the Football Museum, symbolic of the sport that has now been suspended.

I could take a photo in the middle of the road, with little fear of trams or vehicles.

Looking towards Angel Square from the rear.

Victoria Station. Could it be that I was the only commuter?

More social distancing, now musical urinals.

Sinks too.

There was only me and this railway worker.

Only for essential travel

The train I caught had originated in Liverpool, passed through Manchester and was bound for Edinburgh. I alighted in Leeds, the station there similar to the one in Manchester.

Leeds. Snippets of conversations that took place with the few people that I encountered I intend to print elsewhere.

Millennium Square. Manchester and Leeds-two northern cities laid low by an invisible foe.