christopher james

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Tag: Christopher James poet

The 65 men who sailed South with Scott

‘We are very near the end, but have not, and will not lose our good cheer.’ Captain Scott, March 1912.

I recently wrote a collection of 65 sonnets commemorating Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s final expedition to the Antarctic (The Terra Nova expedition, 1910-1913). The book is called The Penguin Diaries (published by Templar, 2017) and there is one sonnet for each man who sailed south with him, 59 of whom returned. During the writing process I found, surprisingly, that there was no single place I could find a complete set of biographies for these gallant and occasionally foolhardy gentlemen. I have therefore written and collected these brief biographies here. I would be glad to correct any inaccuracies. The evocative image below was taken on Scott’s birthday, June 1911 aboard the Terra Nova by Herbert Ponting; sledging flags are hung above the table and Captain Oates is pictured standing on the left.

Shore Parties

ROBERT FALCON SCOTT Captain, C.V.O., R.N. (The “Owner,” “The Boss”). Born in Devonport, England in 1868. Joined the Royal Navy in 1881 aged only 13, later serving as Torpedo Officer on HMS Vulcan. Previously led the Discovery expedition (1901-1904) where he set a new record for furthest south with Shackleton and Wilson. Married to the sculptor Kathleen Scott. Died aged 43 on his return from the South Pole in March 1912.

EDWARD R.G.R. EVANS  Lieut. R.N. (“Teddy”). Born in London, England in 1880. Second in command. Suffered from scurvy on return from the pole, saved by Lashly and Crean. Later served with distinction in the First World War as a destroyer captain and won further honours. Wrote South with Scott, his account of the expedition.

VICTOR L.A. CAMPBELL Lieut. R.N. (“The Wicked Mate”). Born in Brighton, England in 1875. Led the Northern Party, compelled to winter in an ice cave on Inexpressible Island. Led a miraculous journey on foot back to Cape Evans across 200 miles of unstable sea ice. Decorated during the First World War and died in Newfoundland, 1956.

HENRY R. BOWERS Lieut. Royal Indian Marines (“Birdie”). Born in Greenock, Scotland in 1883. Served in Burma and Ceylon as part of the Royal Indian Marine Service. Took part in the Winter Journey as well as the Polar Party. Highly practical, hardy and dependable. Died with Scott and Wilson in March 1912 on return from the pole.

LAWRENCE E.G. OATES Captain 6th Inniskilling Dragoons (“Titus,” “Soldier”). Born London, England in 1880. Educated at Eton and South Lynn School Eastbourne. Served in the Second Boer War; injured by a gunshot wound to the leg. Contributed £1,000 towards cost of the expedition. Expert with horses and ponies. Crippled with frostbite and in an effort to save his comrades, walked to his death in the snow with the words: ‘I am just going outside and may be some time.’

G. MURRAY LEVICK Surgeon R.N. Born in Newcastle upon Tyne, 1876. Worked as both as doctor and biologist; member of the Northern party; keen photographer and spent time observing the Adelie penguins, recording his findings in his book, Antarctic Penguins, controversial because of its account of their sexual proclivities. His notebook was discovered in 2013 outside the hut at Cape Evans.

EDWARD L. ATKINSON Surgeon R.N., Parasitologist (“Atch”). Born in the Windward Isles, in the West Indies, 1881. Educated at Snaresbrook and St Thomas’ Hospital London. Took charge of the base at Cape Evans in the absence of Scott and Campbell. Launched rescue attempts for both Northern Party and Scott’s Polar parties. Discovered Scott’s tent in November 1912. Later served on Western Front, fought at the Somme and received DSO. Died aged 47 and buried at sea.

Scientific Staff

EDWARD ADRIAN WILSONB.A., M.B. (Cantab.) Chief of the Scientific Staff, and Zoologist (“Uncle Bill”). Born Cheltenham, England, 1872. Artist, naturalist and member of the Discovery expedition (1901-1904). Led the Winter Journey to collect Emperor Penguin eggs. Member of the Polar party, reaching the pole on 18 January 1912, dying on the return journey. Scott’s closest friend and highly regarded by all.

GEORGE C. SIMPSON D.Sc., Meteorologist (“Sunny Jim.”) Born Derby, England, 1878. Educated at Owens College Manchester and University of Gottingen. Specialised in atmospheric electricity. Conducted balloon and weather experiments while on the Terra Nova expedition. Became Director of the Meteorological Office in 1920, knighted 1935 and died 1965.

T. GRIFFITH TAYLOR B.A., B.Sc., B.E., Geologist (“Grif”). Born Walthamstow, England, 1880. Emigrated to Serbia, then Australia as a child, returning to England to take up a scholarship at Cambridge. Led successful mapping and geological surveys as part of the Terra Nova expedition. Died aged 82 in Sydney.

EDWARD W. NELSON Biologist (“Marie,” “Bronte”). Born 1883 and specialised as an invertebrate zoologist; conducted tidal experiments at Cape Evans. Later fought in Gallipoli and on the Western Front during the First World War. Committed suicide by self-injection aged 39 in 1923.

FRANK DEBENHAM B.A., B.Sc., Geologist (“Deb.”). Born Bowral, Australia. Studied English, philosophy and geology at university. Took part in the Western Journey during the Terra Nova expedition. Entered Cambridge University on his return in 1913. Fought in France and Salonika during the First World War. Awarded OBE in 1919 and founded the Scott Polar Institute in 1920. Died Cambridge 1965.

CHARLES S. WRIGHT B.A., Physicist. Born Toronto 1887. Studied physics at University of Toronto. Initially rejected by Scott but walked from Cambridge with Griffith Taylor to petition for his place. Conducted experiments on ground radiation and ice formation while part of the Terra Nova expedition. Served in France during the First World War. Died in British Columbia, Canada aged 88 in 1975.

RAYMOND E. PRIESTLEY Geologist. Born Bredon’s Norton, England in 1886. Studied at University College, Bristol and served as a geologist on Shackleton’s Nimrod’s Expedition (1907-1909). Took part in the Western Party. Won the Military Cross in France during the First World War. Co-founded Scott Polar Institute with Frank Debenham and became a Fellow of Clare College. Died aged 87 in Cheltenham, Gloucester.

HERBERT G. PONTING F.R.G.S., Camera Artist. Born Salisbury, England in 1870, moved to California and worked in mining and fruit farming. Took up photography and travelled extensively in Asia, publishing in London periodicals. Professional photographer on the Terra Nova expedition. Published his photography in The Great White South and then produced The Great White Silence from his cine-footage. Died London 1935.

CECIL H. MEARES Chief Dog Handler on the Terra Nova expedition. Born County Kilkenny, Ireland. Travelled extensively, fought in the Russo-Japanese and Boer war. Chose dogs and white ponies for the expedition, following Scott’s orders. Returned north in winter 1912, declaring himself unavailable for work two months prior to departure. Joined Royal Flying Corps during First World War and later lived in Canada.

BERNARD C. DAY Motor Engineer. Born 1884 Leicestershire, England. Took part in Shackleton’s British Antarctic Expedition, 1907-1909. Later joined the Terra Nova expedition as a motor engineer, returning after the first year. Awarded the Polar Medal and settled in Australia.

APSLEY CHERRY-GARRARD B.A., Asst. Zoologist (“Cherry”). Born Bedford, England 1886. Educated Winchester College and Christ Church, Oxford. Joined Terra Nova expedition through friendship with Edward Wilson. Youngest member of the expedition, taking part in the Winter Journey, Polar Journey and Search Journey, spending three years in Antarctica. Wrote the acclaimed account The Worst Journey in the World. Died 1959 in London.

TRYGGVE GRAN Sub.-Lieut. Norwegian N.R., B.A., Ski Expert. Born Bergen, Norway in 1888 and educated in Switzerland. Took part in the Western Party and also part of the party that found Scott’s tent in November 1912. Used Scott’s skis to travel back to Cape Evans. Member of the Royal Flying Corps during First World War. Died in Grimstad, 1980 Norway aged 91.


W. LASHLY C. Stoker, R.N. Born 1867 in Hambledon, England. Worked on motor sledges as part of the shore party, then switched to man-hauling. Member of the Polar party, returning with Crean and Edward Evans, helping save the latter when he became ill with scurvy. Served in the Navy during First World War and later as a customs officer. Died 1940.

W.W. ARCHER Chief Steward, late R.N. Took over from Clissold as cook on the Terra Nova expedition after Clissold suffered a fall. After the Second World War he retired from the Royal Navy and set up a catering business in London.

THOMAS CLISSOLD Cook, late R.N. Previously served on HMS Harrier; took part in the depot laying journey in December 1911 – January 1912. Replaced by Archer as cook after a fall from an iceberg while posing for a photograph. Later settled in New Zealand.

EDGAR EVANS Petty Officer, R.N. Born in 1876 in Middleton, Rhossili, Wales. Educated at St Helen’s Boys’ School before joining the Royal Navy. Served with Scott on the HMS Majestic. Admired by Scott for his size and strength and for being ‘a giant worker’ he was chosen at the last minute to join the polar party. Died in 1912 returning from the pole after suffering a serious head injury sustained in a crevasse fall.

ROBERT FORDE Petty Officer, R.N. Born in Moviddy, Ireland in 1875. Joined Royal Navy in 1891 and volunteered to take part in the Terra Nova expedition aged 35. Involved in two depot laying expeditions and member of the Western Party. Left the expedition early in 1911 after suffering severe frost bite to his hand. Served in WWI on various ships and promoted to Chief Petty Officer. Retired to Cobh (Queenstown) Ireland and died 1959.

THOMAS CREAN Petty Officer, R.N. Born 1877 near Annascaul, County Kerry, Ireland.  Enlisted in Royal Navy aged 15 and took part in three major polar expeditions, including Discovery and Terra Nova expeditions with Scott and later Endurance with Ernest Shackleton. Renowned for his courage and fortitude he was a member of Scott’s last supporting party in 1911, returning with Lashly and ‘Teddy’ Evans. When Evans became incapacitated, he made a 35 mile solo trek across the ice back to Hut Point to get help. Returned to the navy, then retired in 1920 to Ireland, where he opened a pub called the South Pole Inn.

THOMAS S. WILLIAMSON Petty Officer, R.N. Born in Sunderland in 1877, joined Royal Navy and served on HMS Pactolus before joining the Discovery, then Terra Nova Expeditions. Survived a killer whale attack along with Ponting and Leese.

PATRICK KEOHANE Petty Officer, R.N. Born Courtmacsherry, County Cork, Ireland 1879. Served with Teddy Evans on HMS Talbot. Took part in the Southern Journey, turning back at head of the Beardmore Glacier at 85° 15’ South in December 1911. Member of the Search Party, finding the bodies of Scott, Wilson and Bowers in November 1912. Later joined coast guard, re-joined Navy during World War II and died Plymouth, England, 1950.

GEORGE P. ABBOTT Petty Officer, R.N. Previously served on HMS Talbot. Part of the Northern Party who wintered in Cape Adair and on Inexpressible Island. Served in the Royal Navy during the First World War and died 1923.

FRANK V. BROWNING Petty Officer, 2nd Class, R.N. Born Stockland, Devon 1882 and joined the Navy in 1900, aged 18. Served on HMS Talbot; member of the Northern Party, acting as cook. Known for his cheerfulness and resilience despite serious illness while on Inexpressible Island, only just making it back to Cape Evans. Served in First World War, retiring in 1922, dying of double pneumonia in 1930 aged just 48.

HARRY DICKASON Able Seaman, R.N. Born Bristol, England in 1885. Served on HSM Defiance before Terra Nova. Member of the Northern Party. Died 1943.

F.J. HOOPER Steward, late R.N. Born 1891, England. Originally a steward aboard Terra Nova, he later became a member of the shore party, and search party, discovering the bodies of Scott, Wilson and Bowers. Also part of the group involved in the second ascent of Mount Erebus. Died in England in 1955.

ANTON OMELCHENKO Groom. Born Bat’ki, Russia, 1883, Russia. Died in 1932 in the USSR.

DEMETRI GEROF Dog Driver. Born in Sakhalin, Siberia in 1888. Chosen by Mears when he went to Nikolayevesk to obtain the dogs for the expedition. Moved to England, then New Zealand after the expedition, before returning to Nikolayevesk to work as a gold miner, dying in 1932.

Ship’s Party

HARRY L. L. PENNELL Lieutenant, R.N. Born 1882, he spent most of the Terra Nova expedition in New Zealand, making only brief visits to Antarctica to bring supplies and remove crew members. Later served on HMS Queen Mary as Commander and died during the Battle of Jutland in May 1916.

HENRY E. DE P. RENNICK Lieutenant. R.N. Died while serving on the Hoguo, torpedoed by a German submarine in September 1914.

WILFRED M. BRUCE Lieutenant, R.N.R. Born in Scotland, he was the officer in charge of zoological work on the Terra Nova. He is also notable for being Captain Scott’s brother in law.

FRANCIS R. H. DRAKE Assistant Paymaster, R.N. (Retired), Secretary and Meteorologist in ship. No known relation to his more famous namesake.

DENNIS G. LILLIE M.A., Biologist in ship. Born 1884 and educated in Cambridge he was much admired aboard the Terra Nova, not only for his drawing skills of marine and bird life, but also for his accomplished caricatures. Served as military bacteriologist during the First World War. Suffered from poor mental health and was admitted to Bethlem Hospital, London in 1918.  He never fully recovered and died 1963.

JAMES R. DENNISTOUN In charge of mules in ship. Born 1883 in Canterbury, New Zealand. Educated at Malvern College, England. Found early fame as a climber before joining Terra Nova in 1912 for no pay, looking after Himalayan mules. Served in North Irish Horse during the First World War before joining the Royal Flying Corps as a bomb thrower. Died of wounds in August 1916 after being shot down over Germany.  A

ALFRED B. CHEETHAM R.N.R., Boatswain. Born Liverpool, 1867 and later based in Hull, England. Began a career in the Merchant Navy before making his first trip to Antarctica as part of the Discovery expedition, arriving on the relief ship, Morning. During the Terra Nova expedition, he volunteered to join the search for Scott but was turned down on account of his 13 children. He was later a member of Shackleton’s Nimrod and Endurance expeditions. Died in August 1918 when the SS Prunelle was torpedoed in the North Sea.

WILLIAM WILLIAMS Chief Engine Room Artificer, R.N., Engineer. After taking part in the British Antarctica Expedition he settled in the Bay of Islands, New Zealand, joining his brother, the Reverend Henry Williams.

WILLIAM A. HORTON Engine Room Artificer, 3rd Class, R.N., 2nd Engineer. Returned with the Terra Nova to Cardiff in 1913.

FRANCIS E. C. DAVIES Leading Shipwright, R.N. Carved the cross left in memory of those who lost their lives returning from the pole in 1912. Also played a significant role in saving Terra Nova during the storm on its journey south at the start of the expedition. Served in the navy during the First World War and continued in service until 1920. Settled in Plymouth, later returning his Polar Medal to the King.

FREDERICK PARSONS Petty Officer, R.N. Born in Allington, near Bridport, Dorset in 1870. Member of the ship’s company on the Terra Nova expedition not joining the shore party. Served on submarines during the First World War before starting a successful business repairing shoes in Plymouth. Died 1970 aged 91.

WILLIAM L. HEALD Late Petty Officer, R. N. Previously took part in the Discovery Expedition (1901-04) saving the life of Farrar who was suffering from scurvy. Heald Island, Antarctica is named after him.

ARTHUR S. BAILEY Petty Officer, 2nd Class, R.N. Serving in the Royal Navy when he was asked to join the British Antarctic Expedition, Arthur Samuel Bailey was a member of the shore party and later awarded a Polar Medal.

ALBERT BALSON Leading Seaman, R.N. Born Allington near Bridport 1885. Entered Royal Navy in 1900. Joined HMS Powerful in 1911, before transferring to Terra Nova at Lyttleton. Later took part in the Gallipoli landing during the First World War. Later worked as a salvage diver, employed for many years collecting gold from the ship, Laurentic. Also decorated for gallantry for diffusing a bomb in 1941 during air attacks in Portland Harbour. Died 1950 in Dorset, aged 65.

JOSEPH LEESE Able Seaman, R.N. Staffordshire born, he was later to recall the terrible storm that the Terra Nova encountered on its journey south. In Antarctica he was almost the victim of a killer whale attack when the creatures attempted to break up the ice he was standing on to reach the dogs. Settled in his home county after naval service.

JOHN HUGH MATHER Petty Officer, R.N.V.R. Born 1887, Stroud Green, London. Assisted with clerical work and taxonomy. After the Terra Nova adventure, became a naval commander during the First World War and took part in a successful campaign against the Bolsheviks in Arctic Russia. Died 1957 in Farnborough, England.

ROBERT OLIPHANT Able Seaman. Born Strathmiglo, Fife, Scotland, 1883, joining for the first part of the expedition. Died just after the First World War in 1919.

THOMAS F. MCLEOD Able Seaman. Born Glasgow, Scotland 1873, later moving to Stornoway as a child. Joined British Merchant navy aged 14. Later served with Shackleton on both the Endurance and Quest expeditions. Later emigrated to Kingston, Ontario in Canada where he was employed as a school caretaker and night-watchman. Died in 1960 aged 87.

MORTIMER MCCARTHY Able Seaman. Born Kinsale, Co. Cork, Ireland in 1878; served on Terra Nova during its three voyages to Antarctica from New Zealand between 1910 and 1913, later settling in New Zealand.

WILLIAM KNOWLES  Able Seaman. Born in Liverpool, 1877, later emigrating to Lyttleton, New Zealand. Took part in the second and third voyages of Terra Nova to Antarctica, helping to build the cross on Observation Hill. Served on HMS Philomel during the First World War and was killed in 1915 while part of a landing party near Alexandretta following an ambush by Turkish troops in 1915.

CHARLES WILLIAMS Able Seaman. Born in Lyttleton, New Zealand 1881. Joined the navy in 1900. Played a key role in saving the Terra Nova during the storm on its journey south in 1910, cutting a hole in the bulkhead to reach the pump. Served on ships during the First World War with Commander Edward Evans, distinguishing himself during the altercation between the German SMS G42 and HMS Broke. He returned to New Zealand and was lost at sea in 1919.

JAMES SKELTON Able Seaman. Settled in Cardiff, working on the docks after service in the Royal Navy during the First World War.

WILLIAM MCDONALD Able Seaman. There is a report in a New Zealand newspaper of a concert given for the departing crew of the Terra Nova, with the detail that Angus McDonald sang at the event.

JAMES PATON Able Seaman. Born Scotland 1869. Served on the Morning, a relief ship to the Discovery expedition. Later took part in Shackleton’s Nimrod and Aurora expeditions. Lost while travelling to South America in 1917 or 1918, possibly after hitting a mine.

ROBERT BRISSENDEN Leading Stoker, R.N. Drowned in August 1912 in Elslie Bay, while employed surveying Admiralty Bay. There was a suspicion of drink being involved in his death, although this was refuted by those with him the night he drowned.

EDWARD A. MCKENZIE Leading Stoker, R.N. One of five stokers on the Terra Nova during the expedition, McEnzie is now famous for the pair of Wolsey unshrinkable mittens he wore on the expedition and are now preserved for posterity.

WILLIAM BURTON Leading Stoker, R.N. Born 1888, died 1988 in his 100th year, making him the last member of the expedition to die. Returned to Antarctica later in life with McDonald and Mortimer.

BERNARD J. STONE Leading Stoker, R.N. Was awarded a Bronze Polar medal on 24 July 1913 by King George V.

ANGUS MCDONALD Fireman. Born West Calder, West Lothian in 1871. Notable for being one of three members of the expedition to return to Antarctica at the invitation of the Americans.

THOMAS MCGILLON  Fireman. Sailed with Shackleton on the Nimrod (1907-1909) surviving several near fatal accidents before joining the British Antarctic Expedition.

CHARLES LAMMASFireman. Born Bethnal Green, London, 1883, the son of a carpenter. Lived in Canterbury, New Zealand most of his life and died in Christchurch Hospital, New Zealand in 1941.

W.H. NEALE Steward and member of the ship’s party. On the Terra Nova, he was responsible for waking the crew, serving food as well as attending to the officers in the afterguard (or mess).


The Bee’s Knees


I found myself uttering this wonderful phrase the other day without having the least idea what it meant or where it came from. Research has proved inconclusive; some believe it relates to the fact that bees carry pollen back to the hive in little sacs in their legs (what a great evolutionary development; do you think we will eventually evolve built-in Sainsbury’s carrier bags?). Others say the phrase was part of a general trend of ‘flapper talk’ denoting something good. Eg. ‘The cat’s whiskers’, or ‘the dog’s proverbials’. Regardless, it immediately sounded like it needed to be the title of a song. So here it is! Thank you to Joe (and Roberta) for the fantastic Matisse-inspired bee image.

Playing The Fool

Thank you to everyone for their good wishes on the launch of the new collection, The Fool. We had a brilliant time on Saturday at the Derwent Poetry Festival and the warmest of welcomes from Alex McMillen and his team.

Matlock was at its most beautiful, resplendent in autumn colours; red, orange and gold leaves lined the pavements and leather clad bikers roamed the streets eating candyfloss and ice creams. I arrived just on time to run the poetry workshop having been stuck behind a traction engine being run by two ladies in oil spattered dungarees.


The workshop participants worked incredibly hard and came up with some extraordinary pieces – including poems about John Lennon on the Moon, JFK in a brewery and Mohammed Ali in old age. I joined in and wrote a poem about the Queen writing her autobiography in Siberia. See below.


At the reading itself we were treated to a feast of poetry and poets from England, Ireland, the US and beyond. Fiona from Ireland was particularly good with feisty poem about French food.

As it was so close to Remembrance Sunday, I closed my set with a poem from memory: Seigfried Sassoon’s Everyone Sang, which my ten year old daughter and I have been learning together. I was only saved from disaster by a kind poet in the front row who knew the words and was able to give me a prompt. Thank you, whoever you were.


She wears a cloak of bear-skin,
in her hand the pen of the old king.
The story must be told and this
is where she will tell it: Siberia
where the snow plains are as blank
as an empty page. At the door,
the Corgis’ coats are frozen hard.
The windows are jewelled with frost.
Outside, her footmen sip vodka
and watch for the ghost of the Tsar.
Her memory thaws, her hair darkens
and soon there is the scratch of a nib,
a line of trees and she is at Balmoral
at Christmas, walking with her father;
the smell of pine and tobacco.
Up ahead, in the trees is a stag
with his ancestral crown. The wind
blows through and she feels its hand
at her shoulder, turning the page.

The Mine

We descended in waistcoats
ties and spectacles, twisting
fountains pens nervously in the lift.
The light thinned to a single flame.
We edged down passageways
lined with sonnets and haikus,
dug out rhymes, fully intact,
laid them flat on conveyor belts.
We listened to the mine: the scratch
and murmurs of the ages;
the drip of ink from the roofs.
We broke into rooms of rock
supported only by fragile
pillars of words and saw the ghosts
of old poets sat at desks,
taking down what they heard.
The air was foul with damp.
Some poems we found glowing,
perfectly formed, there for the taking
glistening roundels chipped
straight out of the rock.
Others were in fragments,
cut off in a moment of brilliance.
There were occasional disasters.
Along the seam where we found
the epics, a roof fell in and six poets
were entombed in Ancient Greece.
Each day we emerged like newborns,
blinking in the light, clutching pages,
our faces blackened with print.


The James brothers on Tor

To the sandstone hills and crumbling churches of Somerset for a discursive, autumn ramble between Wells and Glastonbury. Five brothers have galloped from the corners of the kingdom to assemble in front of the mighty cathedral and spirits are running high. There are eight miles between here and the Tor that grows like a bunion on the foot of this ancient county.


Paul ushers us inside the cathedral for a whistle-stop tour of the sights – the impressive bishop’s chamber (rechristened the Council of Elrond for the day) where each James boy chooses a seat in the light filled room. I recite Adlestrop for the benefit of the echoing walls, while Joe plumps for Kubla Khan. We each choose a name from the list of a bishops from the last thousand years. I like the sound of Wolfhelm I while Oli becomes naturally ‘Oliver King.’ We’re just back in time to watch the 14th century astronomical clock go through its pantomime motions at the striking of the quarter hour and then we troop out, suitably impressed by this vast monument to the almighty. On the way, we stop at the Penniless Porch where alms were once distributed and where we all feel at home.

A quick photo for the file of evidence, a stop at the Greggs for a steak bake, cheese baguette and pink donut and we’re almost at the start of the route. A last snap of a bench ominously named in memory of one Doug James (a lost uncle?) and we’re off.

The extraordinary thing about this walk is that your destination is almost always visible. From the pleasant, grassy meadow we can see St Michael’s tower rising like a nipple on the bosom of the famous hill. Still, it seems an absurdly long way away.

With five brothers, and a wheelbarrow load of degrees between us, you would have thought that someone would have remembered to bring a map, but sadly that does not appear to be the case. Nor do we have a compass, however Paul produces something on his phone that serves both purposes and steers us roughly on course.


It’s a weekend of white skies and milky sunshine, but warmer than expected, and coats are tied around waists as we skirt the hedgerows and tramp through the nettles and brambles. We pose five jelly babies on a bridge symbolising our brothers’ reunion before taking turns to eat ourselves.


Giant rocks inscribed with mystical looking patterns serve as our way markers. Each is also etched with the distance left to the Tor on them, and they are a welcome sight to novice walkers; we greet each one with a cheer as we congratulate ourselves (or at least our phones) on our navigational prowess.


Snacks continue to be consumed, and soon we’re down to two Jammy Dodgers, which I try on behind my glasses for a comic effect. I find myself brushing crumbs out of my eyebrows for the remainder of the trip.


We roll forward between the hedgerows, moving ever closer to the tower which looms like Mordor in the distance. Looking back we see not only the cathedral receding behind us, but a quarried cliff face, where presumably the stone was acquired.


One of the most impressive stretches of the walk is Long Drove, a strange, two mile, perfectly straight stretch of road, with water ditches on both sides and cattle lowing in the fields. Half way across and it feels like a kind of purgatory, with no beginning and no end, the horizon stretching identically in each direction. We find a small thin plank that straddles a ditch and naturally take turns to play Robin Hood and Little John jousting with each other on the bridge, although no one, disappointingly, actually falls in.


Halfway along the road a small stunt plane appears overhead and entertains us with an impressive display of loop the loops and vertical climbs including one hair raising moment when his engine stalls then restarts mid manoeuvre. None of us fancies picking up pieces of pilot out of the cow dung and we move quickly on.


We soon arrive at Welcome to Glastonbury sign and the Tor rears into view. There is however, the unexpectedly steep and challenging Windmill Lane to be conquered first, a long slog that seems to go on forever. Pleasingly, at the crest of the hill, we find a newsagent, where we replenish supplies. We reflect how unlikely it would have been for Tenzing and Hilary to be greeted with similar reward.


The Tor itself does not disappoint, and we bunny hop up the spiral steps to the top where we are treated by truly awe inspiring views. Three Counties stretch out in the distance, an intricate patchwork of fields and lanes, and more hills in the distance. We are flecked with a fine rain and all around us swallows chase the wind, stitching their way through the air.


On the top there are several groups of people; a bearded man in hemp clothing with his infant son on his lap, his arms wrapped around him to keep him warm. There are couples sitting companionably side by side and several individuals perched on the grass edge, staring out in a faintly troubled way into the mid distance. Groups of folk from uncertain religious systems link arms and pray silently inside the roofless tower itself. That there is a power and aura to this mystical place is undeniable; it’s just hard to say what exactly. It is genuinely a God’s eye view of England and the silence is the most noticeable quality. We keep japes to a minimum, until we pass the goats grazing on the other side of the hill and pass down into Glastonbury’s streets, the crystal shops, the smell of incense and our waiting car.


The summer of Bruce

When it comes to Bruce, it’s all about the power and the glory, the hope and the dreams. These are the sort of words that come up when people ask you what the fuss is all about. It’s also about jangling rock and roll, wild soul singing, stinging guitar solos and drums that make you think the stadium is collapsing around your ears.

Bruce spent a significant portion of his summer touring the cities of Europe like a one man EU trade delegation, and if ever a continent needed cheering up, it’s Europe with its youth unemployment and economic woes. I was lucky enough to catch him twice (thanks to friends Mark and Stephen) and I was able to remind myself why I’ve played his records at all my life’s significant moments – after getting my GCSE results (Born to Run) before my driving test (Cadillac Ranch) arriving in my Student Room (Out in the Street) before I got married (The River) before my son was born (Walk like a Man). So it was good to catch up with the man himself.

Coventry was a rain swept experience with some frustrations as well as plenty of highlights. Events were a overshadowed further by the fact that it was the same day we heard James Gandolfi had died and fellow actor and Bruce Right Hand Man Steve Van Zandt wore a black bandana. Managing what should essentially be a party under this double rain cloud was a potentially difficult trick to pull off. Such melancholy fare as Seeds, Trapped and Long Walk Home, requested by the die hard fans down the front, while stirring stuff, confused some of the more casual fans and held up the show a little. ‘I’ve got no idea what’s going on, ‘ confessed one baffled Brummie near me, ‘I’ve only got the best of.’

Wrecking Ball and Death to my Hometown (whose anti banker vitriol and stomping power chimed with the crowd) brought the gig back on its feet and the entire Born to Run album that followed was hard to argue with. I’d never heard the full electric Thunder Road live, and it was a thing of awesome beauty. My voice started to shred as I sang along, but other voices around me carried it home as the rain poured down. We Are Alive was another winner – a superb piece of song writing telling the story of America in forgotten voices singing from beyond the grave. With some crowd pleasing Born in the USA selections (with the title track back at its bombastic best) as well as belting folk sing-alongs Shackled and Drawn Pay and Me My Money Down (where he impersonated the crowd’s collective ‘British ass’ inviting them to ‘shake me!’) the battle was eventually won.


In contrast, Bruce at Hard Rock Calling, on a hot summer night next to the Olympic Stadium was how the man is meant to be appreciated. Uninhibited by rain or bereavement, this was foot on the floor party central. Disposing of Badlands and Prove it All Night early on – in other circumstances the culmination of a show – Bruce laid on a feast of rock and roll. Johnny 99 was a soaring highlight, recast from the Nebraska album as a kind of Status Quo meets Woody Guthrie protest rocker. It’s hard to explain but the towering, electrified performance of one of his best songs was the gold standard for me.

Bruce‘s announcement: ‘You get the Born in the USA album start to finish’ was greeted with the kind of reception you would otherwise get in an office if the boss walked in and announced he was giving everyone the day off. While most Bruce fans, rarely play this one anymore, hearing I’m Goin’ Down and No Surrender live is to experience the kind of delirium you might only otherwise get if England won the World Cup and you won the lottery all on the same afternoon. Yes, Bruce is all about being over the top.

As the sun set over the silver Olympic Velodrome and the strings of Jungleland rang out, I remembered what all the fuss was about. Bruce is about the triumph, the joy and the glory, as well the courage to get back on your feet. He banishes fear and makes everything possible. Of course, like any drug, the effects wear off after a while, but then you are left with the enduring miracle of how a 63 year old man can lift the spirits of an entire continent. As Joe Strummer said, it’s ‘a public service announcement – with guitars!’

The Stones in Hyde Park – the glorious return

Forty four years on from the iconic 1969 Hyde Park gig, with hippies in the trees and out of tune guitars blazing, when Mick appeared, poetry in hand, in a cloud of woozy butterflies, the Stones return triumphant. Things are a little different this time. It’s not free for one. It’s the second of the Stones’ gigs in Hyde Park, a multi-million pound money spinner, tattooed with corporate sponsorship, and hospitality areas, but it’s still undeniably exciting.

Baby-boomers mix with young trendy Londoners; behind us a group of lads from Liverpool clamber on each other’s shoulders and try and guess the set list. It’s the hottest day of the year so far, the grass is parched yellow on the banks of the Serpentine, public school boys sell ten pound pizzas and crowds queue for hours for five pound pints of Heineken. There are a few concessions to a festival atmosphere – a funfair and mini carnival straight out of Rio de Janeiro; plus a fake Spanish/Cuban village where beer is dispensed, but really it’s all window dressing for the main event.


Beneath a stage half concealed by fake oaks and foliage, the band are a sensational force, matured to perfection showing off both their superb musicianship and unbeatable song writing chops. Start Me Up grinds into gear, like a giant machine lumbering back into life, burning off the rust, despite Keith repeating his odd, atonal intro from the week before. Perhaps he’s stubbornly making the point that it was intentional.

‘Do you like our set?‘ drawls Mick, ‘I think it should stay here in the park. Maybe with a tree house for Boris Johnson or something.’ As they charge into It’s only Rock and Roll (But I like it) with it’s Chuck Berry guitar he’s already up and preening, essaying those patented Jagger moves: the peacock strut, the leap in the air with the karate chop arm, the lip pout with seal clap. ‘Are you alwight?‘ he shouts, following by a Jackson-esque ‘Ow!’ For anyone playing Moves like Jagger bingo, they would have had a full house by the end of the second number.


The set is familiar to anyone who has seen their Glastonbury Performance and all the corner stones of their career are in place. With the exception of a jagged, Doom and Gloom, from the latest compilation Grrr, however there is little from the 90s or 00s, which is a shame for fans of their underrated, rough round the edges album A Bigger Bang. But that’s not really the point of this 50th birthday party celebration. The grinning keyboard player strikes the cowbell and signals the delirium that is Honky Tonk Women; Jagger sings it in his wildest country twangs – almost as an impression of himself, conscious perhaps of its place deep in our collective psyche. Its also a wonder to watch the intricate guitar work between Keef and Ronnie as they noodle between the chords (what Keith has called elsewhere ’the two of us twinkling felicitously together’).

Boris would have had a bird’s eye view of a valedictory performance from this fabled bad, so legendary in fact it’s odd even seeing them in the flesh. As a band they are ten times as tight as they were, without losing that loose, languid beat that gives every song that wonderful, drag. As someone near me said, ‘Charlie is so behind the beat it sounds like he’s playing different songs with a different band,’ but then that’s the Stones sound. He sits bolt upright on his stool, drumsticks held jazz style, still rake thin, his jaw set in concentration with a far away look in his eye – as if from where he is sitting he can see all the way back down the decades.


As ever, Mick is part ring master, part aerobics instructor, doing the lion share of the work, introducing the band – even coaxing a hello from a permanently shy Charlie. ‘He speaks!’ Jagger announces, delighted. His vocals sound great – elastic and rangy, and his falsetto on Some Girls Miss You is perfect. In facts it’s in these funkier, dance grooves that Jagger seems to feel most at home, as if he would be quite happy living in a world of late seventies New York disco. He works his way, Mr Ben-like, through at least ten different costumes from floaty purple shirts, natty gold jackets, to Grace Jones like fur gowns anchored to his skin tight, black bodysuit.

Street Fighting Man is barnstorming; close your eyes and it sounds just as good as it did on the classic Live Album ‘Get your Ya Ya’ Out.’ The only difference between then and now is Jagger‘s anachronistic announcement: ‘This is a request from the internet.’


Keith is happy to hang back, grinning and laughing good naturedly; romancing his guitar, his gold rings glinting in the sunlight. Now grey haired but with a blue headband and colourful clobber, he is pirate, magician and snake charmer rolled into one. With the neck of his guitar raised, he lets the open chords ring out. He steps forward for a couple of numbers of his own while Mick goes off to change his leotard, (‘so I can go and get my water and my Coke‘). Keith clearly enjoys himself, wheezing through ‘You Got the Silver,’ with Ronnie on slide, as well as the upbeat ’Happy’ from Exile on Main Street, which is a surprise high point of the set. His voice is weathered, but oozing with warmth and character; buoyed by soulful contributions of backing singer, Lisa.

Other songs accentuate the Stone‘s darker side; Paint it Black is wonderful, with its eastern flourishes – and images of Brian Jones flashed up on the screen alongside black and white live footage of the band. Gimme Shelter is also suitably menacing, with its iconic guitar intro and Mick clearly enjoying his high octane duet with the formidable Lisa: ‘Oh, storm is threatening, my very life today!’ Sympathy for the Devil, complete with sulphurous smoke, spouting lava and trees in flames is as demonic as ever and the crowd duly obliges with a chorus of train whistle whooping.


Mick Taylor ambles on for Midnight Rambler. The one time Stone whose first gig was that Hyde Park gig in ‘69 is now quite a few stones heavier and appears twice the size of toothpick-thin Mick Jagger. But his guitar playing is still as spectacular and the attack and nifty interplay with Mick’s harp makes this a welcome collaboration – and not just for nostalgic reasons.

On the whole, Charlie, Keith and Mick seem at ease throughout, having shaken off the distracted, angst ridden demeanour of yesterday. Ronnie seems more preoccupied, although his playing is outstanding, switching between pedal steel, acoustic and electric. Even now, there’s a sense he’s still on probation, having to prove his place in the band. Darryl Jones, the bass player who has supported them loyally since Bill Wyman jumped ship in the early nineties, is also given his own spotlight during Emotional Rescue – and more than proves his metal on the funky runs.


At the end, with a nod back to the white butterflies back in 1969, the crowd is showered in a confetti of red petals during a climatic Satisfaction. Then the four of them stand shoulder to shoulder, arm in arm, as amazed as we are perhaps, that they are still in such fine nick, still clinging to their rusting crowns, as the greatest rock and roll band in the world.

Far Away Friend

So here’s another song. I was trying to learn For My Father by Andy McKee,  the king of finger-style guitar playing. It’s a beautiful song and I set myself the goal of learning it by Father’s Day. I quickly discovered that this was a little like reading the complete works of Shakespeare by Tuesday. So instead I improvised in the distinctive ECDGAD tuning that McKee uses and came up with this song instead. It takes a while to find chord shapes that work, but when you find them, beautiful sounds are suddenly conjured from your fingertips without you realising quite how.


Of course none of this noodling is helping me write 69 poems about 1969, but then you can’t work all the time. Happy listening.

Billy’s Jig

Like buses, first no music at all, and now I’m posting tunes all the time on the blog (okay this is the second time). Billy’s Jig is something I wrote over the last four days while experimenting with an open C tuning (CGCGCE for all you guitarists out there). It’s for my grandfather who would have been 93 on 8th June.


Not all of it is a jig – just the bit in the middle – but ‘Billy’s Jig with Intro and Coda’ isn’t half so catchy. I would also like to dedicate it to my father, who is considerably younger and more sprightly and celebrating his birthday today. Happy birthday dad!

Yodeling on The South Downs

My pal Nick (currently suffering with a bad back – commiserations mate) turned me onto the prog rock madness that is Dutch band Focus and especially their barmy, riff-tastic song Hocus Pocus that helped yodeling make a return to the charts in the early 70s. They truly must be seen and heard to be believed. It’s Roy Rodgers meets Megadeth.

He was introduced to them in turn by his Uncle Barry, who took him for wild car rides across the South Downs with the music blaring from his Rover 90, complete with its odd inner opening doors.

I’ve composed this tribute to Nick, his bad back, Uncle Barry, the Rover 90 and the laughing Dutchmen. Surely there can’t be too many poems like this.


Uncle Barry, what visions I have of you,
still skimming the South Downs in your Rover 90,
your bonnet like a streak of grey cloud.

With me at your side, eyes as bright and wide
as your steel hubcaps, the doors opened inwards,
like something from Dan Dare.

On b-roads we flew into England’s horizon,
past fields of poppies and pools of light,
pub signs whirring like football rattles in our ears.

Under the dash you kept an eight track,
that blew Focus from road; we scared the cows
with Sylvia and Hocus Pocus.

We yodeled together like a sorcerer
and his apprentice, while the car filled with smoke
like a genie’s lamp as if we’d captured a cloud.

What hours and what sounds as we chased
the tail of the runaway kite, you the crimson king
of the chalk road, me the boy in your spell.

We snaked down ancient hills, blasting blues at the sky,
to Brighton, where I left you, going up and over
the Western Pier, wheels spinning into the heavens.