No fire on Earth

The magic fireplace

Do you remember the old telephone numbers,

or the colours of stamps?

Does a tree remember its rings,

or the winds on its bark?

And do you remember voices and laughter?

Does the hillside remember the echoes?

And do you remember the way that we met?

Does the fireside ever forget

the blaze on the hearth?


So many names for foolishness

and some of them

mean fear or fire

or flame or love

or what you will.

Fire, or flame, or what you will, she said.

Noo he said, noooo,

and his voice was very fierce now.

It is called hotcockalorum.

From: Joseph Jacobs,

English Fairy Tales, 3rd edition


Burning yellow white-hot iron

seems to (and maybe does)

shine from within.

Molten glass

glows like liquid fire,


unlike iron,

when cooled

does not bear the sullen stain of disappointment.


She was so beautiful

that, as she moved,

she left a trail of light

against the liquid dark

and even when she was still

she was cradled in the warm black.

Bonfire night

Why should bonfire night remind me of a city

whose broad industrial edge touches the grass,

where men can lie in the sun,

freed from the pain of gain

for ever and ever,

and, reaching in,

draw a potato from the flame

with hard black skin;

the charcoal taste on the tongue.

The heart, leaning back on the dark

absorbing the heat of more than a million souls

kindled together, or

warming your hands

under a street light at night.

At a management seminar on leadership, a speaker discusses the fate of the unfortunate by comparing the more active British method with  more passive Japanese method for dealing with a fire in a tunnel.

Fire down below

Two forms of logic, but the test is death,

not truth and, noting that love is like a flame,

decide how to deal

with a fire in a tunnel

and men trapped within.

Either to blow the air this way or that,

or let it lie.

The first will quicken those on one side, or the other,

to love's white heat;

the second,

let the embers of their passion die.

The Book of Job

Some books have pictures scattered in the text,

though this has none. But look again,

for there within those close-wrought lines,

bright colours glint.

Such tales of woe, of God’s unchanging stand

and Job’s reward, so hardly won, with three friends mortified,

when all his servants, children, wives,

(always excepting three) did not survive.

But, by strange reverse,

the words and arguments are lost

and there within these afterthoughts,

sorrow and beauty find their surest place.

For who would care to bind sweet influence, once unloosed,

or fail to see God walking on the sand,

or banish trouble as the sparks fly up

from fires burning in that far off land.

All of the elements known as ‘precious metals’ are siderophiles, that is they are very soluble in liquid iron. In the differentiation of the earth they should have been sequestered into the molten core. Furthermore the platinum metals, including gold, are the most dense of all elements and might be expected to concentrate at the very centre of the core. It is one of the mysteries of nature that any of these elements is to be found in the earth’s crust, let alone at the surface.


The centre of this earth,

the fiery core,

glows red,

and at its apex, yellow-hot,

precious metals lie;

a sun turned inside-out.

But here and there

those molten plumes arose,

now cold in earth

and for them

men will die.

Exposure to the excruciating bite of the fire ant was among the rites of passage for young American Indians. Apparently these same ants are hosts to the immature male of a bizarre parasite, which, when ready to emerge, causes the ant to climb to the top of a grass stalk and extend its abdomen upwards. There the discarded shell retains its firm grip after the parasite bursts out to take part in its nuptial flight. The life cycle of the female is now known to involve much larger hosts, such as crickets.

Ordeal by fire and air

Young men, skin soft against the ant-mound,

feel fire that purges flesh

until eyes burn with understanding.

The fire-ant undergoes its own ordeal.

The chosen ones,

impregnated by the sacred seed,

gravid with the male child,

take their last supper,

and hear a voice that says,

"Get thee unto a high place

and there pray

with every fragment of your being!’

This they do;

the living ghosts ascend,

and, in ecstasy,

reach out to heaven.

Then, like Pentecost,

but in reverse,

the Prairie burns with tongues of dancing flame;

The Holly and the Ivy

Holly is poor,

but its love burns,

its crown,


Ivy is rich,

birds nest in its leaves,

its life ease,

its strength false.


cold as winter in summer,

the leaves and the berries so sharply defined.

The other;

warm as frost in sunlight,

where summer and winter lie close,


Light from distant stars passes through the intense light beaming out from our sun to reach us. It is one of the miracles of nature that the number of photons, the ‘particles’ of light that can occupy the same space and time without disturbing each other is apparently limitless, recalling the old conundrum, ‘How many angels can sit on a pin-head. Had this not been so, our wonderfully clear view of the Universe would be no more than a landscape in fog.


The star that we followed has not set,

but its light comes to us cold over the burning stream.

If you told me it truly,

that one kind of fire can pass through another,

I would never believe you.

And although it was always there,

and at night it is ours,

we often forgot to see it,

Many times it was indeed hidden by clouds

that were not of our own will.

Then we were soon lost,

but we carried a stone within us.

Sometimes it became a jewel that flashed fire,

at others, a pearl,

but often sullen as jet.

Yet there were times when the pull hurt

and we might have wished to be blindfold,

tied to the mast.

There were things we have not done

places we never knew

and kingdoms that might have been won.

But for us it is too late,

after the arrow has been released.

Does it know what the north-seeking pole seeks out?

Can nothing be gained or lost?

Are the lodestone and the lodestar

one and the same?

Glowing embers from the fire, transferred to a metal receptacle, warm the legs of the guests around dining tables in draughty Andalucian hacienda’s.

Flame dance

Gentlemen of Spain,


Who know the ancient stories

and explain

how the coals of passion burn

in the little metal urn

beneath the table’s flameproof skirt.

Lady of Spain,


who turns

like the sky against the night,

in your hand an orange star

that shines both near and far

and with threads of dark or light

weaves a cage around the heart.

Storks upon the roof,


reuniting at the nest,

where feeling fills and overflows

with the clatter of their bills.

Memories of Spain


of the Moor

whose tears fell

and have gone

but still remain.

Mr Fussell’s forge was ( most probably) in the village of Wick in South Gloucestershire. In the time before our cart-horses were replaced by the tractor, this was where they were shoed. The horses were called Judy and Joy. One day they were there, the next they had gone. No questions asked.

Mr Fussell the farrier

Coke-fired furnace;

air from the bellows hissing,

whispering his name out;



heat intensifies,

gaining a certain inwardness

and yellow-red the metal,

silent in the maelstrom; tong-gripped,

bested on the anvil,

hammered, bended, quenched and tempered.

The horse, looking on,

does not refuse its hoof,

and, wrist around it,

kind against his knee,

he finds his pen-knife,

any boy’s desire,

as though God said,

‘Let there be a penknife, doing its proper thing’

and this was it,

carving the waxy corn.

The shoe, heated again,

odour of sanctity confirmed,

embeds itself.

The hammer drives square-headed nails home,

missing the quick.

The Selby Seam was, reportedly, the richest coal seam ever discovered in the British Isles. It was said to be sufficient to serve our energy needs for hundreds of years. Oddly enough, after the initial report, very little has been heard about it.

The Selby Seam

Once in our time,

we come to the Selby Seam,

dipping and sloping down

from the unbroken grass

that leads out

under the sea.

So, under the green

waves and the fields

is the black core that says

‘Everything, until now,

was not real!’

This seam of the rich black

that is not rock,

but, like it, once lived,

is thirteen feet thick

and presents itself as a face

that we can munch and crunch

and feed all of our fires

and our fears fade.

Tears will not fall:

the dust, that will not form,

will never congeal them.

Men will not sweat,

rather, they will look up

and say

to the pit master,

who now appears,

once and for all,

as his true self.


why did you leave

only the best

till last.’

L’ Orage

The electric potential that builds between the base of a thundercloud and the ground does not discharge itself directly. Instead short exploratory runs, called leaders, track downwards, ionising the air and finding, or creating, tracks of least resistance and constantly branching and changing direction. When these tracks reach the ground, the paths that they have created serve as conduits for the powerful, visible, return strokes. Paradoxically because of the branching, lightning gives the impression of descending from the cloud to the earth, whilst, if fact, the visible flash travels upwards.

(i) Return stroke

Our calculations tell us,

(our rule of thumb)

that lightning should go straight;

not follow the crazed lines on a cracked plate

that someone has dropped.

But this force, which builds on a ground swell,

is called forth; enticed

by delicate tongues that probe and descend,

not bearing to think of the fearful return,

and seeking a goal they might rather not find.

Tongues of desire that go whispering past

and forming a question much better not asked

(ii) Summer lightning

Thunder rumbled in the hills.

Somewhere lightning flashed overhead;

warm rain fell

and the world was magnified by a drop on a window pane.

But I remained in my bed

safe and uneasy;

stirred by a storm,

remote as a spent dream.

(iii) Scherzo

Lightning is no joke!

If you carry an empty bucket, it will strike it.

If you shelter under an isolated tree,

it will seek you out.

And, it is because of this

(and things like it)

that fish school,

trees grow in woods

and people tend to move around in groups.

(iv) Sheet lightning

It is impossible to think

that lightning can advance on a broad front.

All that we know tells us it doesn’t behave that way,

the bolts that strike earth,

here passing aside.

But, for instance, on Jupiter

where tracks have been clearly shown,

the surface, if such exists,

lies deep beneath a dark shroud.

Those heaving pulses of light, that rise and fall

(like waves breaking on a dark shore)

and pull us this way and that,

must be the Gods at play

beneath a blanket of cloud.

War reporters, or perhaps their editors, have begun to use the term fire-fight to describe skirmishes in which our troops sustained losses, perhaps because it seems to convey a certain boyish bravery or bravado, despite the fact that there is little fighting in battle that does not involve guns.

The fire-fight

Let us just report

that all this took place

in a fire fight.

And that

makes it alright then?


Of course!

It does!

They were no more

than doing their bit.

Only don’t say

there was no fire there


the fire fighters arrived.

Soldier Rest

Yes he was a good man,

and a proud one too.

Proud of his regiment.

Proud of his men.

Yet we doubt he has ever told you this.

Our platoon was out.

Lines too extended,

two were on ahead.

When we found them,

one already dead;

the other might have lived

until this day we do not know,

had we brought him back.

We might have done it.

He was the boss.

He had to weigh the odds

play by the book,

that is what he would have said,

had he ever mentioned it

or talked it through with any one of us.

Instead he never did.

No choice,

leave no one back alive,

care for your men.

And that was it,

no choice

but friendly fire

He was wounded too, of course. You knew that.

Not then though, when

we got back to civvy street

he didn’t talk about it.

He was a good man,

We thought someone should know.

One of the best, as everyone agreed.

You had to wonder how he managed,

how he did it,

passing all those nights and days.

Cat’s cradle

Cats seek out warmth of body heat in prams.

on the first sibling, gardened out,

well wrapped,

face up

or down,

or sideways on.  

Considering what might have taken place

was there any chance?

The Internet says not,

Or even if there were

the cat was not to blame.

of course

with friends like these -

Later its habits changed.

The warming-oven of the kitchen range

attracted it

and this went on

until someone


in a random act of tidiness

( endemic in that farmhouse )

closed the door.

Adults, sensitive to children’s feelings

never said what happened,

No next morning

‘He’s alive and well!’

False memory syndrome

That night there was a heavy bomb-fall.

Did we sleep well through it?

That is not recalled.

but on our Sunday stroll

with Aunts and Uncles

twice as tall, who said

‘Just mind the edge now!’

walked the fields around the bomb-holes,

not too deep, but oddly conical and clean

and, while nobody remarked on this;

one was yellow

and one was blue

and one the colour of deep dug earth.

Would and might and this must be;

the pipe, the flute, the harp, the lute

and did these knights come

one, two, three?

and early learnt things,

false or true?

But now there’s no-one here to ask.

Auden.  Taller today we remember

Quotes from the folk song ‘The Flowers in the Valley.

Unexpected gift

The plane came down,

that’s what they said;

Crashing between the apple trees;

missing the Cox’s Orange Pippin,

skidding past the Blenheim and the Russet,

it rocked to rest against the Bull-nosed

ancient unloved British breed, sour,

neither cooker not dessert.

No fire.

The pilot lived;

an ace to pull that off,

meriting a hero’s medal. Top

Secret! Typhoon crashes on its test flight.

Hush now. Stop the news escaping.

Spies lurk everywhere round tree trunks,

careless talk costs.


Lucky man and lucky us!

A team of airmen billeted to clear it up,

sent in with comradery -

that ‘sociable familiarity and ease’

left, in their memory,

behind a set of soup plates.

Also left behind, a piece of ordnance;

so large and round and brassy,

with its detonator-cap undented in the grass.

We brought it home,

and possibly expecting early Guy Fawke’s night,

suffered disappointment.


(Ourselves too middle-classed to call him that)

crow-barred a hole and dropped it in,

we don’t know where,

but leaving a surprise for someone else,

just like those things that happen every day

in places far away.


Oh what is this that I have found,

that is so hard and large and round    

From After Blenheim, by Southey.

Golden Valley Paper Mill in the village of Bitton (South Gloucestershire) was said to have made the paper for the beautiful white five pound note, a very high denomination note for those days. This might explain why Queen Mary, known for her acquisitive, but otherwise benign, instincts, should have visited a small factory long past its prime.

A Royal Flush

Just take care beside the millpond

Men have drowned there.

The last thing they see,

before their lives are washed away

is the tall brick smoke stack

waving them down for the third time.

When the golden guinea

still weighted squire’s purse,

it was here that the white paper sheet

for the old five pound note, with its regal scroll,

was reamed out.

So what has become of them now,

and, if you had the good fortune

to find one under the floorboards,

how much might it be worth?

But paper-making ceased there soon

after the Dowager Queen came along.

They all lined the street.


She had an eye for the precious and rare;

she was known for that.

For her party piece she would say,

with a young maiden’s blush,

‘That is quite a delight to the eye.

I have one back home on a shelf,

but it doesn’t sit well on its own;

are you getting my drift?’

With a nod and a wink it is done

and, touching its cap,

the chimney recedes,

It has to get on;

Its fires creating beautiful things.

The perfection of an instant

The work of the great master painters is distinguished by its poetic qualities and in this respect, none has outranked Velazquez. His supreme paintings appear to tell a story, but the genius lies in the fact that the narrative can never be defined. No two people would agree on it, and each one would, in any case, make a different reading each time. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Vulcan’s Forge. The action seems to be taking place on the left, between Vulcan and Apollo, but the main focus is in the realistic depiction of the three assistants on the right, the two of greatest interest seemingly taking it all in their stride, as though they have seen something like this before.

Vulcan’s Forge

Oh My god, that’s torn it.

He’s found out!

It took a while.

Now he’ll be as tetchy as a bear with headache

for a month or more.

They do say that the man who makes the locks

should check his own!

At least this time he knows it wasn’t us,

Lets hope

it isn’t all the same again.

We had it up to here before.

Ground down by the extra workload

and all that Yes Sir!

No Sir! stuff,

until he found the right replacement.

Yes, he did and all,

only too well. You’d think.

Making the same mistake,

again. But then

good ones are hard to find,

and how

he’s had to learn his way about;

to settle in. Oh

yes, these days.

He did catch on though, right enough!

One who knows his craft

can get away with it.

I doubt

that you or I

have got the balls.

That’s what they say!

The flames of jealously and pain burn out,

but no fire on earth

smoulders like guilt.


The past that never was

and the future that will never be

fill the world with the orange glow of melancholy

because in morning and evening,

though the sun touches the earth

we know that he is as remote from us then

as now,

in the present

that never is.


My family lived at Greenway Farm, near Westbury on Trym,  close to Filton Aerodrome (Bristol NW) until just before my third birthday (June 1941) when we moved to Upland Farm in the hamlet of Beach (South Gloucestershire).  

Cat’s cradle and False Memory Syndrome were from events that happened at Greenway Farm. The vivid colours of the bomb holes are a still-present memory, but I have never tried to find out whether or not they could have been real.

My elder brother had what are now called ‘learning difficulties’.  It was part of the family lore that the cat loved to sleep in his pram. The possibility that these things might be related did not occur to me until at least 50 years  later.

Mr Fussell the farrier, Unexpected gift and A Royal Flush record events that happened after we moved to Upland Farm

My father was fond of quoting from poems learnt as a child, his favourite being Southey’s  ‘After Blenheim’.

The perfection of an instant is a line from  ‘The Wisdom of Solomon’



1 The magic fireplace

2 Hotcockalorum

3 Temperament

4 Firefly

5 Bonfire night

6 Fire down below

7 The Book of Job

8 Gold-rush

9 Ordeal by fire and air

10 The Holly and the Ivy

11 Lodestone

12 Flame dance

13 Mr Fussell the farrier

14 The Selby Seam

15 L’ Orage

16 (i) Return stroke

17 (ii) Summer lightning

18 (iii) Scherzo

19 (iv) Sheet lightning

20 The fire-fight

21 Soldier Rest

22 Cat’s cradle

23 False memory syndrome

24 Unexpected gift  

25 A Royal Flush

26 Vulcan’s Forge

27 Abendrot


Seeking a theme for a short poetry collection, and toying with the idea of a linked groups of poems representing earth, air, fire and water, confirmation that this might be a fruitful approach came in a cafe in the beautiful Italian mountain village of Vico d’Orcia where, in the ‘servicio’ at the back of the cafe was what appeared to be a short poem:-

In mano no avete un idrante

e in terra non c’e un incendo

Quindi fatella di dentro

In your hand you do not have a hydrant

and on the earth there is no fire,

therefore do it in front of you.