christopher james

Poems and prattle

Tag: History

How the Morris Saved England

When the last Spitfire was shot from the sky
and the defences at Dover overrun,
they sent for the Morris: the men
of Upton Snodbury, the mixed side
from Hinton in the Hedges; the dancing
squires of Oddington and Wheatly.
They came in their thousands, a carnival
of tatter-coats and top hats, bell-pads
and baldrics, wielding handkerchiefs;
they leapt to a cacophony of jigs.
At the head was the fool of Ducklington,
in a yellow frock and a mug of ale,
bearing his whiskers, flowers in his hat.
They swept through the invaders
breaking open the lines of tanks:
a cavalry of hobby horses; Midlanders,
with the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance
bewildering the commanders, bewitching
their artillery. Their gunners would not fire,
seeing the distant cousin of the Schuhplattler,
the mountain dances. They returned
to the beaches, decamped and put to sea
while the Morris folk lined the cliffs,
in blue breeches and white stockings,
their neckerchiefs flapping in the breeze.


Looking for Absalom

On little more than a family rumour, four of us pile into a jeep late afternoon and head off into the gold edged Norfolk countryside in search of a long lost relative.

A name on a scrap of paper, and a subsequent search of the records had revealed that my Great Great Grandfather Absalom (d. 1798) and Tabatha (some time after) – both good fire and brimstone Old Testament names – were agricultural workers in the small village of Wickmere, near Alysham, Norfolk.

Finding a village in East Anglia, without a map or phone is a little like collecting water without a container. For every helpful sign post, the next sign along has no mention of it whatsoever, as if it assumes you now have the general idea. You soon find yourself doubling back on yourself, driving into someone’s garden or heading towards Norwich, sometimes all three at the same time. We bump around the sharp, blind corners, churning up mud from the recent rains.


We know from a painting that we are looking a for a church with a round tower and so resort to navigating by sight. Eventually Roberta spots the church, some way away from the village itself. Like many other small, ancient villages in the area, presumably the people moved away from the church and its yard around the time of the plague. It transpires we are not the only ones who found the church difficult to locate, as reported on the Seven Church website:

‘To find Wickmere is something of a challenge. The nearer one gets, not only do the signposts become disconcertingly vague as to its whereabouts, but its splendidly named Regent Street nestles in a fold in the land.’

The road leads us to Wickmere church, described beautifully as one of the ‘high and lonely churches’ where we split up and search for our ancestral family name ‘Carr’ in the graveyard.

A shriek from my mother tells us she has found a Carr, in this case a Horace, perhaps a great uncle, and also an Elizabeth Carr, a Maria Carr, as well as a Henry and another Horace – the ubiquity of the name we suspect is due to the enduring popularity of local boy Horatio Nelson. The graves are covered in white and orange lichen, and are almost undecipherable, but we get the dates and a few words. These people’s lives feel frustratingly opaque and the record of their memory is fragile as the names fade from the stones. As the sinks lower on the horizon, we decide to continue our search for Absalom himself another day.


I am Absalom
father of the fields,
friend of birds,
master of the soil
This is my world:
the clouds above me,
the sea around us.
At dusk, the sky
is like a lid of gold;
old windmills
are thimbles
on the horizon.
Churches are
ships at anchor.
I think of the past,
of Tabatha at the hearth
of the sun burning
through the pine trees.
Jewels of light
are scattered
across the land
I think of the future –
my son, still
scratching the earth,
spinning in space,
in seventeen
ninety eight.


At Sea

Perhaps it’s the floods or the fact that it’s been the wettest winter for 250 years, but I’ve had water on the mind lately. I had a dream about our house floating out to sea, then encountering my younger selves at various stages of my life, and in various houses, rescuing them and bringing them aboard.


I sailed my house across the Atlantic,
a ship of brick, adrift in the doldrums.
From my deck of floorboards, I saw a sail
and met myself coming the other way
twenty years younger piloting my student digs,
the one in Norwich, without hot water
or TV. I was a worrier, still smoking,
typing on my grandfather’s old Amiga.
I was taking on water, had a shark
in the attic, did not know the trouble
I was in or how easily it could be solved.
I threw over a line, welcomed him
aboard, admiring his full head of hair.
Then we found my first house in Leeds:
no less seaworthy, water sloshing
from the inside against the bay window.
We took him in too, rescued from
a purgatory of ad sales, bad food
and Sundays in the launderette.
At night, we watched the ghosts
of other selves pass by, too far out to reach.
Then came my London flat, sitting high
in the water, the shop beneath still trading
in the deep selling fan-belts to mermaids.
I was the boy at the first floor window,
dressed in cords and a Beatles t-shirt.
I told him to use the sofa bed as a life-raft,
and save only our gold pocket watch.
We picked just him up, just as the block
went under, the four of us drifting on, beneath
a waxing moon, floating on the sea of selves.

The Discovery of Thin Air

A crate of sky, packed with light,
an equation flung into the air
they sent a dragonfly
sputtering above the ground.
A man in a bowler hat runs alongside,
the other rides a cushion of air
leaving the earth behind.
They are watched only by trees
dotted in the mist and the cloud,
drifting in effortless flight.

This is the birth of the modern
where, having tamed the land,
we learnt to harness the sky:
throw a bridle on the invisible,
and take off in a miracle
of spruce, hope and mathematics.
A low circle, a hard landing
and it’s all over, a Chinese kite
ditched in the grass, leaving
its mark on this field in winter,
while the bright half moon
gleams like the blade of a plough.