christopher james

Poems and prattle

Tag: suffolk

St Joseph and the Mumuration

I had seen miracles before
but not like this; these starlings in flight
like a cloud of dust; this dance of the heavens.
Staring up, the sky bulged; it billowed
with a hundred thousand of them.
They swooped and for a moment
became a single bird; a kestrel
stumbling, my staff struck rock.

I cowered in a hollow as the flock
swirled like the gas at the start of the universe.
Then one soared up, led the others to a cloud
where they sketched the face of a man
a print on a shroud, before finally roosting
Like a constellation fallen to Earth.

starlings suffolk

From England Underwater by Christopher James

The House in the Clouds

We woke to starlings at the window
pecking at the glass; a rainbow sprang
through one wall and out the other.
Clouds slipped through our bedroom,
and brushed against the sheets.
We let blue sky paint the doors
and left the leaves to carpet the floors;
that summer we nested in the air.

It was a house perched in branches,
as if flung there by a storm,
or borne on the shoulder of a giant.
Watchman of Suffolk, arrow to the stars
we spent days adrift in the mist,
the sun like a bail of hay in a field.
Come winter and our shadow
was like a giant’s against the snow.

Rain scudded against the roof; the wind
shook us like a die in the palm of a hand.
Each morning, we imagined the Witch
of the East, crushed beneath us:
the striped stockings, the ruby slippers.
It was the house that thought it was a bird.
We dreamt of the sea, the windmill our
a companion where X marked the spot.

House in the Clouds 2

What’s happened to all the scarecrows?

An alien with a large white head and purple jumpsuit flaps around a pole at the centre of a Suffolk field. High above, two plastic kestrels are pinned to the sky on wires. In the opposite field, futuristic silver blades flash and glisten in the sun as they spin in the wind. They are mounted on a kind of translucent plastic ball like a prop from an abandoned low budget science fiction film. Welcome then to the world of the 21st century scarecrow.  

While improvements in scarecrow technology might mean higher yields for hard-pressed farmers, it is rather a shame for those of us who have enjoyed the sight of the more traditional looking hay-man. The classic image of the vagabond in tails, top hat with the missing lid, turnip head and body stuffed with straw is now more myth than reality. Nowadays, you are hard pressed even to find something in human form.

Cycling through Essex into Suffolk I did a mini audit, where gadgets, for want of a better word, out-numbered scarecrows at least four to one. What scarecrows there were, were sorry looking creations; little more than a knotted bin bag with the suggestion of a head tied to a post. No flippy-floppy hat, no dungarees, no ghostly Christ-like figure just as likely to scare the local school children as much as the birds.

Scarecrows (or Tattie Bogles, Guys or Murmets depending on where you live) are part of the iconography of our countryside. They form part of the cultural as well as the agricultural landscape of rural Britain and are as much art installation as bird deterrent. Their value in preserving crops and seed has always been somewhat spurious – and in fact there is an argument that says that birds are more useful in fields (devouring insects and other pests) than out of then. They are a link to a more ancient time – when superstition gripped the land and determined a farmer’s fortune even more so that the wind and the rain or birds of the sky. They are mannequin, voodoo doll and false god, bundled up in a slightly tatty Paisley shirt.     

For most, scarecrows are object of fascination rather than affection. To me anyway, Jon Pertwee’s comic grotesque, Worzel Gummidge, was always more hide-behind-the-sofa TV than Dr Who. They are not to be approached, especially from behind for fear of springing into life; hovering on the edge of the animate, they are totally effective in enforcing the unwritten rule never to cross a farmer’s field.

While scarecrows may be disappearing from our countryside, they live on in poetry and song. Syd Barratt, the boy genius of British pop knew the slightly sinister nursery rhyme world the scarecrow inhabits, with his song from Piper at the Gates of Dawn: ‘His head did no thinking/His head didn’t move except when the wind cut up.’ Walter de la Mare brilliantly evokes the doomed man: ‘All winter though I bow my head/beneath driving rain.’ His scarecrow is reawakened by the turning of the season: ‘But when that child called Spring, and all/his host of children come/ . . ./ some rapture in my rags awakes.’   

Read my own poem, The Extraordinary Meditation of the Scarecrow, which suggests where scarecrows travel at night, in my first book The Invention of Butterfly.

Fame at last . . .

Take a look at the article in Suffolk Life magazine on the life and times of poet Christopher James. The fun begins on page 161. Enjoy and thanks to Caroline for the great interview.

Weird and wonderful wood

To the Weird and Wonderful Wood festival at Haughton Hall in deepest darkest Suffolk. A tribal gathering for all wood-ish folk, there were wood turners, instrument makers, carpenters, arts and craft people and lots of wigwams, it was a blissful day out – a sort of music festival without the music. Presumably it was only unable to call itself Woodstock for legal reasons.

The children soon got into the spirit of things; Noah, 4, and friend, made an impressive fish from water softened willow, with a little help from Dad.  He was keen to move into the scrap wood area where fathers, sons and daughters were busy hammering their thumbs and driving long splinters into their palms. Noah walked away with an impressive coat rack which he devised himself, with four nasty nails sticking out the other side. He also created a sort of modern art sculpture consisting of three blocks of wood secured with a single nail. He is still sleeping with this artefact.

The street performers are also coming back into season – a waitress on stilts wheeled a ten foot hostess trolley through the crowds, executing a death defying sprint down a steep hill; two identical  park wardens tut-tutted their way around the park pretending to look for heath and safety hazards, while alarmingly, two trees roamed about, which thoroughly terrified two year old Martha.

Perhaps most impressive were the crafts-men and -women demonstrating their skills; a long haired, giant of a man chopped and hewed a log with an axe before a crowd of transfixed onlookers. It was the most unusual form of entertainment, but entertaining none the less – we simply don’t see this work being done. Chairs appear in Ikea and we take them home. There was also the obvious truth that something created with love, care and attention by skilled folk is going to be a) more beautiful b) last much longer.

It was marvellous not only to be outside when it wasn’t raining, but to connect with a simpler way of life. The final memory was of those returning to the muddy field where we parked our cars trying to bundle giant wood sculptures and tables made from tree trunks, into their boots – only to find them too large. So just like a trip to Ikea after all.