christopher james

Poems and prattle

Tag: literature

The Thirty-Nine Steps

It was only last year that I finally got around to reading John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps. I’d watched the celebrated Hitchcock film, but the book has a particularly stylish and exhilarating quality all of its own. The voice of the irrepressible, resourceful Richard Hannay, an engineer and intelligence officer recently arrived in London from Africa  is what gives its character, both cynical and scornful of authority. The pace is astonishing, with several things happening almost at once – there are chases, explosions and gun fights, but the central motif is travel.

The 39 steps

Buchan clearly has fun with the possibilities offered by motor cars and aeroplanes and along with trains, and chases on foot across Scottish moors, Hannay is always on the move. The plot, which revolves around a plan to precipitate a European war, is almost ancillary to the odd characters (including a milkman, hung over road worker and prospective parliamentarian) Hannay meets on the way. While it owes something of a debt to Conan-Doyle, it has inspired a thousand of copy-cat blockbusters and Hollywood films, particularly those which feature the archetype of the stylish, clever, maverick outsider, wayward, but ultimately committed to King and country. Ian Fleming, you suspect had a copy on his bedside table.

Anyway, all of this inspired the inevitable song! 

Live reading: 19 October 2014

Jazz-Poetry. One or both of these words may strike fear into your heart, however, if you’re intrigued, read on . . . I’m performing at the Rhyme and Rhythm Jazz-Poetry Club on Sunday 19 Oct at 6pm. Dugdale Centre, 39 London Road, Enfield, EN2 6DS.

I rehearsed with the band last Sunday and they are not only the most musically accomplished, but the nicest gentleman you are ever likely to meet. Some great tunes, hopefully won’t be spoiled by me reading some poetry with the music.  See you there!


The Cloud Collector

He keeps cirrus in the cellar,
stratocumulus stuffed like insulation in the loft.
Spare rooms billow with altostratus.
Outside, the sky is a cloudless blue.
He roams the hills with a Hoover and scoops
clouds from summits in butterfly nets,
bagging them on the quiet; he stitches
them into the lining of his jackets
presses them into the boot of his car.
Each summer, he rents a beach hut,
plain white, with yellow bunting hanging
above the door like a row of crows’ beaks.
He watches waves curl like rolling papers
and waits for the clouds to blow in from the sea.

 cromer collage

Winkleman’s Broadwater

Winkleman’s Broadwater
is an ale of rare perfection:
It opens with toffee and walnut
notes, crushed gooseberries
and limes; the hops come through
with the bitterness of beeswax.
Appearance is a jar of honey,
left in sunlight; an amber pool.
At Winkleman’s we mash
in a tun like a king’s bathtub.
Fermentation is our holy art,
where we bless the wort
with yeast in six silver vessels.
It is bottled in thrice blown
brown glass and ferried each day
to our dealers in the back
of our patent yellow Land Rovers.
Each morning here at Winkleman’s,
we abandon the brewery, dress
in striped Victorian bathing costumes,
and head down a ladder to the sea.
Lunch is a feast of shrimp, dressed crab,
crusty bread and two pints
of Broadwater for every employee.
In the afternoons we drift off
to the sound of Debussy, Chopin
and the gentle brass of the brew kettles.
Every evening is a special evening
at Winkleman’s, when we gather
beneath the glass roof to write
the tasting notes: our eulogies
to the grains, our elegies to the vines.


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 Levitating Farm

Running up the lane,
and I find a barn
suspended above the field:
no pillar or post,
just a lid of tin and moss,
an attic of timber
and hay; no mirrors,
no wire, no trick of the eye.
Then I see cows, peddling
the air, stirring it
with their hooves,
licking knats from the wind.
Across the yard, a tractor,
driverless, scoops
mist in its shovel,
shifts down the gears.
The farmhouse floats
like a balloon tethered
by invisible thread.
Inside the chairs
drift through the kitchen.
I catch my breath,
while the wind slowly juggles
six bales of hay.
A pitchfork and saw
edge towards me
like the cutlery of a giant.
Then I see the notice
of auction, and later
up by the church,
a single cauliflower
laid on a brown dirt grave.


The Dickens Impersonator

All that year, I wore dead men’s clothes:
Victorian trousers with a button fly;
white shirts that billowed like spinnakers.
At night I heard ghosts clink in the kitchen,
rummaging for whisky and cufflinks.
On buses I was like a time traveller,
my pocket-watch ticking like a heart on a string.
I overheated in matinees, left top hats
on top decks and watched the world through
a clouded monocle and a pair of pince-nez.
My overcoat belonged to an undertaker,
a monstrous blanket of darkness with pockets
as deep as graves. So I left it all in an attic
where my suit now waltzes with a scarlet gown.

Charles Dickens


Christopher James’ latest collection of poems: England Underwater is available now.

Walking the Line

Only when we made it to Gabon,
did we discover the Equator was real:
something you could see:
a length of yellow piping, a wire fence,
then schoolchildren holding hands.

It was a belt around the world,
a ball of wool unraveled by a kitten;
cotton spilt from a reel.
We walked the line of nothing
to the heart of the Congo,

where we found Dr Livington’s
boot laces knotted together
with Stanley’s tie; in Kenya, there were
football scarves held end to end
by some die-hards from Kisumu.

Once I saw it hold only by a thread:
the single strand of a spider’s web.
Over the Atlantic, it was a telegraph wire
almost invisible, then a fibre optic cable,
pulsing like an eel on the ocean floor .

In Equador, we lost track of it,
then picked it up at Mitad del Mundo
In Brazil at the Marco Zero, we watched
women hanging washing on the line: the flick
of a number ten shirt out in the middle.


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.