christopher james

Poems and prattle

Tag: cycling

Martha at The Tour

This was the day we took you on Tour,
when the world came to Finchingfield:
bunting on the windmill, the deli, the menu
in French outside the pub. We sat with you
by the blue house, me in my cap and red stripes,
your mum in blue, like Gallic impersonators.
Around us were the Lycra pilgrims from the clubs,
radios pressed to their ear while Napoleon waited
in the crowd in Ray-Bans, a copy of Paris Match
tucked under his arm. Then the Peleton swept
through us, streaming like a river of colour,
a streak of luminescence, then gone and England
becomes England again while you point up at
the plane that has left two wheels drifting in the sky .


Tour de France

The Poets Join the Tour

One of my great childhood memories is watching the Tour de France on Channel 4 with my elder brother. We’d sit inside while the blazed outside, eating Skips, listening to the pop-snyth perfection of its theme tune, watching the beautiful French countryside roll past and the rake thin cyclists climb hills in terrible agony, all accompanied by the nation’s ‘true poet laureate’ Phil Liggett.

Known for the unusual lyricism of his commentary, a chap called Doug Donaldson eventually compiled a book of poetry based on his quotes: ‘Dancing on the Pedals,’ after hearing the commentary: ‘He’s dancing on the pedals in a most immodest way.’ Here are a few more from the great man.

“Once you pull on that golden fleece, you become two men..”

“There’s no reason to rush into hell.”

“Its only a mountain, one of many you can see on this French Country morning, but for 171 young men it would be a place where they would dare to ask themselves the questions of greatness”

It all got me thinking about how the great poets would fare in the Tour de France, with the following results:  


The former Laureates make up an early breakaway pack

Robert Bridges at the head of the Peleton, a canvas satchel

of sardines and eggs bouncing softly behind his back.

Betjeman and Hughes have yet to reveal themselves

preferring to let their thin jackets flap in the streets of Dunkirk.

At the end of the first stage R.S.Thomas is the unlikely

wearer of the yellow jersey; less plausible still in that

he has yet to discard his duffel coat or red woollen tie.

He glares at the spectators lining the curbs of Gant.

The race is not without scandal; Manley Hopkins enlists

the support of some Jesuit priests who bundle his bicycle

into the back of their Citroen hatchback ply him with

altar wine and roll him out the other side of Tignes.

At stage four, the Liverpool poets are the last ones out

after a long evening on the Brie and Cavernet Sauvignon

while running an impromptu workshop on French rhyming slang.

The prospect of the Champange valleys of Joiny is enough

To revive them, although Elizabeth Barrett Browning

shines in the sprint, bolt upright in her bonnet and ruffles.

The journalists report her embroided cuffs and lupine eyes. 

In the support vehicle, Robert Browning throws her hankies

dipped in lavender and flasks of hot, Camomile tea,

Last in is Tony Harrison in a woollen jumper with holes

at each elbow; he doggedly steers an old Triumph Twenty

pressing down on one knee, his other hand steadying

a volume of Philip Gross laid open on the handlebars. 

Through the leafy woods that cool the scorched roads

from Chablis to Autun and the riders reach the hills.

Nonetheless, buoyed on by the wind, MacNeice makes

an attack pressing at the heels of William Carlos Williams,

who has been impressive from the start; then at the crossroads

at Gimont, Philip Larkin emerges like a sunbeam from a cloud

and cuts a line between them tucked into the wind. 

Up in the peaks, Motion and Muldoon battle for the Polka-Dot.

The stretch from Cognac to Angouleme is almost too much:

beautiful sections of unbending road, allowing liberal

sampling of the produce; in the woods of Plaisac, some

reported the ghost of Ern Malley up ahead in the heat haze.

By the Cheauvreuages Valley the favourites have made

themselves known, although Thomas Hardy squanders

an early stage lead by taking tea and cake in Bonneville.

As the leader enters Paris, a hush falls on the crowd like rain

on the Loire; then as the river mist recedes, he appears

grinning wide, John Betjeman on a Raleigh Sprinter, his arms

outstretched, riding naked down the Champs Elycees.