The Clay Body

A clay body, or corp criadhach, is an ancient Scottish curse. Once placed in a stream, the clay would disintegrate and with it the body of the victim whom it mimicked. Only by finding and preserving the clay body could the sufferer forestall the spell.


Part of me loosens in a stream
where mountains tumble to the brook,
and the clear floodpath of a storm
encourages what’s left to break.

My body and the clay body
have each become the other’s muse,
rain-battered and anonymous.
Rheumatic, rhyming, our blood will dye

grey marsh-water. But the curse
pained me most when my family
patrolled its swollen mud-rivers.
My wife swam, breath-holding for a mile

with salmon and slim-finned trout.
She rose between dark-speckled parrs,
clothed in the river’s swill, and brought
three fish out. They were a fine prize

with angry markings on each head
but I was reminded by their dull
gaze, dashed by brick, that no clay doll
was tickled from the riverbed.


My daughter looked under the wheel
that drove the mill. Its rhythm
strung a harp with tendons and wool.
Workers there plucked a broken theme

but she walked the lake in winter,
dancing over an ice-skinned bruise
until she dropped through it to raise
a cursed doll from its delicate knit.

We waited three months for the thaw,
then she emerged: cold and caressed
by weeds and rushes. The miller saw
her waist-deep in a mirror, dressed

to her wrists in small reflections.
Three babies from a silted clan
huddled beneath the waterline.
Instead of names they had cautions

which they did not answer to. Tears
glistened on their cheeks like damp clay.
The miller came out of the trees
to help carry them across the bay,

along the cart road where they met
an upwind blowing out of tune
through birches. The full-bellied moon
made everything more animate,

swelling ghosts, reviving shadows
that puddled, adult-shaped, from small
wet feet. They glided through meadows,
nocturnal blooms, chaotic smells

cloying the world around their grace.
More than a family conjoined
by silhouette, their stumble gained
coherence as they ran on grass.

People stood in doorways in the town,
couples with children at their calves
brought lamps into the church. They shone
like candles in demure alcoves

dribbling red wax over white.
Emptiness blued the lead-lined glass.
Their brightness came from angles
carved as windows to another light,

flickering as I passed the wall
to where my daughter let the cold
take part of her. I pulled a shawl
around her shoulders and the child

she’d carried. When the crowd had gone,
we heard a nightingale sing out
over the beams and prayed our doubt
would let us have this as a sign

built from collective half-belief,
causality and long-drummed wars:
that those denied a chance to live
swim first among the rank of stars.


My son drowned in the salt marshes,
that’s all we know. A knife went through
the shape of him: its blood-rush drew
water from godless parishes

into his lungs while broken lips
blew at his side. I found a blade
washed up on the flats, dulled by scallops
and ropework. Brown traces of blood

painted its memory of his ribs.
One of the old trials was to swim
around the island, where birds swarm
until long-travelled blue robes

disturb their rest. They say he dived
among them for another lad
last year, was able to divide
water from itself, and would, if called

upon to prove it. That’s how drink
acquainted him with small-time men
who ran their errands when the moon
lit nothing and the sky was ink.

I taught him to follow the curves,
breathing between the sea and rain.
It’s the shape of the wave that moves,
collapses and appears again,

not the water itself. The trick
is passing through it like a thought
forgotten, moving without
end or origin. Every stroke

becomes a game, part of a dance
passed on and misremembered
through countless shifts of incidence,
renewing the shapes we’ve borrowed.

On warm nights, when the town is still,
we hear his crawl. Once, a wrecked fish
flew like a saint out of the wash,
showing my wife a barb-torn gill.

It was reclaimed into the black
beyond us, tide-tugged by moonlight,
and what remained was wrenched by lack
more permanent, deeper than night.


So every part of me belongs
to the river, and has always.
The world is a dream to the wise,
no more or less real than our songs.

Clay body, rivers, seas and lakes
vanish like bubbles in the gleam
of dawn before a sleeper wakes.
The dreamer, too, fades with the dream.



Look ye also while life lasts

The wonder of the world
The beauty and the power,
The shapes of things,
Their colours, lights and shades,
These I saw.
Look ye also while life lasts.

These lines are tucked away at the beginning of Benji Davies’ beautiful children’s book, The Storm Whale. At first I thought it might be a quotation from a crow’s nest reverie in Moby Dick. In actual fact, these wise words appear at the start of every book by another children’s author, Denys Watkins-Pitchford, or, to use his pseudonym, BB. BB’s father found it inscribed on a gravestone. Where that gravestone is, or whether it is still legible, who knows.

That puts me in mind of another gravestone inscription, a heavier memento mori my mother noticed in the churchyard at Zennor.

As you walk by pray cast an eye,
as you are now so once was I.
As I am now, ‘ere long you’ll be.
Therefore prepare to follow me.

So, forget this talk of ebooks. Weightier thoughts are etched in stone. Think on that, ye pantheists!

The inattentive life is not to be lived

Before he was sentenced to death by hemlock, Socrates rejected the court’s clemency because it was offered under the condition that he cease questioning the people of Athens. The philosopher responded that, ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’. Many have considered the implications of this and the force with which the unexamined life should be rejected. One translation has it that ‘the unexamined life is not to be lived’ which seems more reasonable*.

The circumstances of Socrates’ trial related in Plato’s Apology make the context of this remark clear. Socrates held a mirror up to Athenian society and the nobles and serious men of the day were not usually flattered. It is often interpreted as meaning we should critique our motives, those of our peers, and the conventions and power structures around us. I always felt fully signed up for the examined life (how could you not be?) but, in practice, it can be difficult to know where to begin. Before you can get started you need to examine what will be examined, how you will examine, how long for, in light of what? All very worthwhile things to consider, of course, that point to a way of being in the world.

Let us try a variation of Socrates’ maxim that has been said in countless ways through the ages: that the inattentive life is not to be lived. It’s possible to imagine that part of what Socrates means when he proposes an examined life is that we should live in full awareness of our experiences. We shouldn’t let thoughts, sensations, events just happen to us while we daydream or calculate or simply not see. To use the term associated with meditation, we should be mindful (although unfortunately, I am frequently not). Meditation is a route to self-knowledge, and perhaps a good way to satisfy the other, related, maxim expounded by Socrates, to ‘know thyself’. As zen master Keizan said, ‘To practise zazen is to throw light on yourself’.

Attentiveness touches the spirit of how Socrates lived his examined life. It’s the gentle pressure that unravels the thread in his hapless interlocutors’ arguments. The gadfly philosopher was reported to frequently sit as still and mute as a statue in the centre of the market, deep in thought and awareness of what he called his ‘daimon’, which seemed to be a kind of inner convening, perhaps like meditation, that guided the philosopher intuitively.

To live every moment of the day with full awareness and appreciation is an ideal to strive for and it’s not surprising or to be regretted that we often fall far short. But the reward for trying is life itself. If we are not attentive to the unfolding of our lives, then in what sense are we living? If the unexamined life is not worth living, the inattentive life is not lived.


*I learned this via Mitch Green’s Know Thyself MOOC, but can’t recall the name of the scholar who makes a case for ‘not to be lived’ rather than ‘not worth living’.

So long, Thomas Warton

As we’re about to leave Basingstoke after nearly seven happy years, it might be appropriate to mention Thomas Warton who was born on the site of Glebe Gardens, not far from here. Warton was poet laureate between 1785–1790. This sonnet is dedicated to the River Loddon, which, now culverted in places, is said to run below ground at the rear of our house.

To the River Loddon

Ah! what a weary race my feet have run
Since first I trod thy banks with alders crowned,
And thought my way was all thro’ fairy ground,
Beneath thy azure sky and golden sun;
Where first my muse to lisp her notes begun!
While pensive Memory traces back the round,
Which fills the varied interval between;
Much pleasure, more of sorrow, marks the scene.
Sweet native stream! those skies and suns so pure
No more return, to cheer my evening road!
Yet still one joy remains, that, not obscure,
Nor useless, all my vacant days have flowed,
From youth’s gay dawn to manhood’s prime mature;
Nor with the muse’s laurel unbestowed.

— Thomas Warton

I’ve run all over Basingstoke after work and on weekends. I’ll particularly miss jogging through Manydown Farm, where the fields begin, on summer evenings. My friends and I racked up some miles here. We ran the hills of Farleigh Wallop in the Basingstoke half marathon, so the first line at least rings true.

Warton’s long poem, ‘The Pleasures of Melancholy’, is an anthem for introverts and recluses. I quite like it.

These are delights unknown to minds profane,
And which alone the pensive soul can taste.

— Thomas Warton

How big is the observable universe?

In an attempt to understand my place in the cosmos, I wanted to create a pithy analogy that would sum up the vastness of everything in a concise image. Preliminary research went well. I learned that the observable universe has a volume of 4 x 1080 m3, Earth has a volume of 1.083 x 1021 m3, the Atlantic Ocean is 3.104 x 1017 m3 and, going the other way, a grain of sand is 1 x 10-13 m3*.

These numbers didn’t feel intuituve to me. I wanted to find out how equivalent Earth versus the universe is compared to a grain of sand, or a molecule, versus the sea. That might be sufficient if I had a real notion of how large Earth is… which I probably don’t. I bungled the maths and ended up with a variety of numbers that were all too big to understand. Giving up for now, I decided to read a translation of Nagarjuna’s ‘Examination of Conditions’ and failed to understand any of that either. I suppose I was looking to be humbled in a way that made me feel clever.

*All according to Wolfram Alpha.

How to live without a smartphone

Hire two boats for your friend’s stag do in Ibiza. Pilot them to a quiet cove. Watch your mates jump into the water and hastily take off your hat, sunglasses, shirt and shoes. Make sure your wallet isn’t in your pocket because you jumped into the pool with it yesterday and had to lay your Euros out on a table to dry overnight. Don’t think, live in the moment. Specifically, don’t think about sharks. Jump into the green Mediterranean, scene of Odysseus’ travails but with fewer deadly whirlpools now. Swim across to the shallow part of the cove where your friends are. Wonder what that weight is in your right pocket.

If you’ve followed these steps correctly, you should have magically converted your smartphone into an inert lump of plastic, metal and glass. Accept the laughter that is to come. Enjoy life off the grid for at least a few days, possibly longer. Ruminate on the freedom you now have in contrast to the freedom offered by ever present technology. Borrow your wife’s phone when you can.


St. Augustine on the poetry game

This is possibly one of the least profound purposes for quoting from Confessions of a Sinner but, nevertheless, it’s a reminder about what matters in the art:

In public we were cocksure, in private superstitious, and everywhere void and empty. On the one hand we would hunt for worthless popular distinctions, the applause of an audience, prizes for poetry, or quickly fading wreaths won in competition…

— St. Augustine

Disclaimer: I’ve just entered a large number of poems for The Bridport Prize.