Plainsong

The wind howled over the moorland like the slow scrape of a bow across a detuned cello. Focused by the steep valley it raced through the barren peatland, collecting a wall of brackish mist that soaked the tiny figure clinging to the cold rail atop the dam. She stood there often, finding hidden melody in the scream of the rusty steel balustrades under the assault of the upland gale. Like everything else about this place, the cruel sound was the product of an ongoing tussle between man and nature. She gazed down the sheer face of the concrete dam into the black water of the loch, and found strange comfort in the tumult.

Every place had its own music, from remote wilderness to great metropolis. The song of the loch was a new composition, a raw punk thrash in the midst of a baroque dance suite. The loch was new, excavated in the 1960s to feed a hydroelectric power station. They’d taken the decision to abandon the tiny village to the waves, residents young and old evacuated to the surrounding hamlets. Progress, they said, but the song of the village faded quickly as the evacuation began. It ebbed to nothing before she had learned the words, leaving fragments of primitive melody that tumbled around her mind in the years that followed.

It was those scraps of half-remembered melody that drew her to this place time and time again. She had tried to join the dots herself, reimagining the tune in her own fashion, but each failed attempt galvanised her resolve to rediscover what had been lost. Every year she came to this place to search, standing on the dam and trying in vain to penetrate the cacophonous triptych of wind, water and the perpetual churn of turbines deep within the hillside. Last year things seemed different. Last year the roar of the loch seemed dimmer, quieter. Last year she felt the pull of home more strongly than ever before.

It had been a particularly long, hot summer and the surface of the water slowly shrank back from the intense gaze of the sun. The growing shoreline revealed concrete walls and stone gabions, a crude facsimile of the granite-walled tarns that dotted the surrounding hills. Concrete gave way to mud that in turn dried and cracked. Ominous grey forms were revealed by the shrinking surface, forms that gained stunning familiarity as the days passed. It was no Atlantis, but the long-gone shapes of the fallen church tower and the crumbling wreck of the village hall were unmistakable. Ghosts of a vanished past. The ghosts of her youth, of endless summers and the faint smell of pipesmoke. In the blazing heat of that summer the hardship of the intervening years had melted away. She spent many happy afternoons at the loch shore, mudlarking and humming the song of home that flooded her mind once again.

The rain soon came and the village was lost to sight once more, the lilting refrain replaced by the distant drums of rising water. There was soon no trace that the village had ever existed, but she kept up her vigil, hoping for the waters to shrink once more. Now she stood alone, one year later, sheltering from the elements in the shadow of a concrete watchtower. Its naive brutalism was a sharp contrast to the stonecutter’s handiwork that shaped the homesteads of her childhood, now lost in the black, forbidding deep. She used to mourn for the loss of the past, but she hadn’t felt the weight of grief since that last perfect summer. She now knew that the music of a place never truly dies, but sometimes it gets lost in the chaos.

She sang the song of the village softly as she turned away from the dam and walked into the setting sun.

Wedge Wood

I’ve been lucky enough recently to lend a hand with some woodland management at a small community woodland in Coventry. My brilliant friend Anna, who wrote the management plan for the wood, asked me if I’d like to write something for the noticeboard by the entrance. I fed some ideas in (mostly by pushing acorns up my nose) and this is what came out.

Some woodlands have always existed, ancient beyond memory and stuffed with old magic
They are the origin of a thousand stories, the muse for countless poetic thoughts
But all woods were young once; even the oldest magic had a beginning

The desire to plant trees lives within us all, oft suppressed by the strain of modern life
Yet sometimes delicate bubbles of inspiration reach the surface, faint echoes of our arboreal past
Once, in the bluest of moons, these echoes take root

Such a moon adorned the sky over Counden as the end of the century drew near
The need to plant trees grew in the hearts of the people, the old horse paddock a willing host
Ideas merged into hope that stirred into action; Wedge Wood was born

She was no pedigree but a much-loved mongrel, a motley selection of species and hues
Trees were planted with ardour, oak beside cherry whilst birch neighboured pine
Barely five acres, a modest new smudge of green on the city map

Years passed and the trees grew tall, engaged in an unending tussle for sunlight
Paths were found by fearless explorers, two-legged and four, as the community embraced the wood
A host of birds and beasts took up residence, bringing with them the seeds of a new enchantment

These seeds grow fast in the right conditions, but are stifled by boredom and neglect
Today unseen wood sprites work hard to nurture them, a volunteer army rich in lore and skill
Coppicing and thinning, laying and pleaching, each act of woodcraft providing kindling for the magic to spark

Wedge Wood is still young, yet already her pull is felt by those who cherish her
The runners and dog walkers, ramblers and amblers, painters and poets
For the worth of a woodland lies not in its size or age, but in the joy and awe it inspires

This woodland belongs to all who take solace beneath her shade

Dog with a Job

Dog with a job
Earning his keep
No time to stop
No time to sleep

Dog with a job
Works at the border
Sniffing for drugs
Maintaining order

Dog with a job
Works on a farm
Herding the sheep
Guarding the barn

Dog with a job
In a hi-viz vest
Rescues lost hikers
She’s simply the best

Dog with a job
Patient and kind
Warning the deaf
Guiding the blind

Dog with a job
Joined the police
Catches the bad guys
Who breach the peace

Cat with a job
Oh no. Oh god no
Why is the barn on fire?
Is that shit in the toaster?!
We should probably call an ambulance for that blind man, it looks like the car hit him quite hard
Cat fired from job

A bit of daftness inspired by my friend Griffin, the dog in the photo. Many thanks to Sarah for letting me use the picture (@sarah_hobbs_illustrates on IG) and to Michaela Collins (@mcscaninephotography on IG) who took the picture. Dedicated to the hard working dogs who make the world a better place – you’re all the goodest boys and girls.

Despair

Heartsick and weary I prowl the darkest holloways of my mind’s undulating terrain. A slow creep along the sunken lanes and hedgebanks marking long-forgot ways, the beauty and optimism of the celestial swathe concealed by somber murk. A hopeless search for reasons where only ghosts remain.

My thoughts are mired deep in mud and mulch, wet and cloying. My companions are the low beasts, eyeless and scuttling. A downward spiral, an oblique trajectory.

Endless paralysing black, until finally the slowest, most viscous of dawns.

Platypus

I’m different.

I’m a banjo in a string quartet.
Banana on a pizza.
I’m a fart in a rose garden.
A penguin in Ibiza.

I’m a squirrel with a law degree.
I eat my soup with chopsticks.
In the winter I wear hotpants.
I invite wasps to picnics.

I’m a claustrophobic hermit crab.
I’m forty-nine shades of grey.
I’m Savlon on your fish and chips.
I’m different, but that’s ok.

The lovely platypus sketch is by my talented friend Sarah. Check her out on instagram @ sarah_hobbs_illustrates

Berrow Beach, 1987

An old oak bench stood beyond the ruined pillbox, long forgotten and lost amid the marram. The old man sat there often, his regular perch a polished oval within the lichen-encrusted wood. Precious few ever noticed him, but that day I did. I saw him staring sadly across the bay, a faded photograph clutched tightly in his arthritic hands. I saw bright tears tracing a haphazard path down his weathered cheeks. I saw him silently talking to a companion unseen.

The tattered picture barely held together, glossy paper turned to fragile vellum by years of adoring study. The girl in the photo was beautiful, wide-eyed and happy. I asked him about her. They were in love, he said, long ago, before the bombs came. Nearly half a century past, and yet he still thought of her every day when he performed his lonely vigil. He never loved anyone as he had loved her. As he still loved her.

We exchanged the briefest of nods as he shuffled away. I took his place on the worn seat, continuing his solemn watch as I drifted into a reverie, mind filled with wistful notions of love, time and loss. Footprints in the undulating dunes were the only sign that the old man had ever been there, but the thoughts and feelings of that day still remain.

Warrior

Existing can be tough. Being a functioning human and getting through each day is a challenge, yet if you’re reading this you’ve succeeded. Every single day you’ve achieved a thousand tiny miracles that have made you the person that you are today. It’s one of those things that you’re programmed to take for granted, but it’s worth pausing to think about. You’ve made it, however much the odds were against you. However black some of those days and nights seemed, you’ve won.

You’ll win tomorrow too, whatever it brings.

Yellow Dog

A long drive west, chasing the sunset to the horizon. I blink back tears that blur my vision, red-faced and breathless. My heartbeat is ragged and broken, a chaotic oscillation on the cusp of ruin. I’ve driven this road many times, but this journey is different. I’ve left you behind.

The others thought that we were the perfect couple. Young. Beautiful. Fun. No, not fun. Not any more. I remember the beginning, the hand-holding, the way I could hear the rich timbre of love in your voice. The way our hearts and bones seemed locked together. I hid myself away from the slow dimming of the light, the fading of that fierce glow that once consumed us. You changed. We changed. The love went from your voice, replaced by cruel barbs amid a sea of disinterest. We exist, where once we lived. My hopes and dreams, once so real and tangible, now seem far-fetched and distant. I’m still in love with the idea of you, but it’s not enough. Not anymore.

Motorway gives way to minor road. Minor road gives way to the stony track to the coast. The yellow dog barks joyfully, his shiny eyes gazing at me in the rear view mirror. He’s excited by the sounds and smells of his favourite cove, but I like to think that he knows that things are changing. I park on the crunchy shingle, and we’re soon walking along the shoreline as the sun drips celestial fire on the darkening skyline. The dog bolts into the churning brine as I sink to my knees, overwhelmed. My fingers score the wet sand as my head sinks to my chest, body wracked with savage sobs. I never realised that freedom could hurt this much, or feel this beautiful.

Midsummer Musings

It’s been two weeks since the druids packed away their cloaks and stopped touching each other’s bottoms at Stonehenge, and the race downhill into the dark months has begun. It must seem like a strange thought process for any normal people reading this, but it’s one of the things that marks me out as being one of the mad folk. That and my bright orange scrotum.

I’m hyper-aware of time. I’ve written about it before and won’t bore you with the retelling, but I have two main trains of thought on the subject. Firstly, I obsess over the death of time and the passage of life into memory, and secondly I’m guilty of counting down the days until the veil of bleakness descends for another year. Cheerful eh? It’s not quite as grim as it sounds. I’ve recently made peace with my fears, but I’ve not quite managed to train my fecund mind to stop predicting catastrophe whenever the nights begin to draw in. Today is a great example of this; we’re currently experiencing an epic heatwave and I’ve spend the best part of the afternoon trying to work out whether I can hibernate between October and March. So far the planning hasn’t been hugely successful; I’m pinning my hopes on an injection of bear genes, however my pessimistic brain tells me that I’d probably be the subject of a terrible mixup and end up getting the skunk jab instead. They don’t even bloody hibernate.

I’ve had two awful winters and two average winters since I was diagnosed as an official mental. The awful ones are those where I descend into full on depression, where my brain switches to kamikaze autopilot and I float outside of myself like a grey balloon. In the average winters I retain control of my mental faculties and generally function well – I can get out of bed, dress myself, go to work etc. “But Tom, you handsome bugger, surely that’s a good winter?” I hear you ask. You’re right to ask; any time spent in control of one’s mind can only be a good thing, but it’s more complex than that. I can function, but I’m diminished. The best way to explain it is with a tedious car analogy – I’m like a modern car but my engine management light comes on and my engine switches to ‘limp home’ mode. Eco setting. Low battery. Clogged filter. Don’t get me wrong though, it’s a thousand times better than the alternative.

Maybe some of you reading this can recognise your own experiences in mine. Maybe your experiences are different but equally unhelpful. Either way, it’s clear that this tendency towards unhelpful thought processes holds us back, maybe even damages us. So what to do about it? I don’t have all the answers, but I want to share some things that have been helpful for me:

a. Train your mind to take joy in the small things. We’re forever bombarded by the big stuff and it takes a toll on us, but there’s much happiness to be found in the minutiae. When it all seems too much, narrow your world view and really focus on something. Ask yourself questions and try to work out the answer. I immerse myself in nature because I can find a million things to ponder, but you don’t need to go the full David Attenborough like me. Look around you. Take an interest in patterns. Try to figure out how things work. Dogs are weird aren’t they? What the fuck is electricity? Where do ducks come from, and what do they want from us? Is there a squidgier food than malt loaf?

b. Try to live in the moment, and don’t take the amazing things that you do every day for granted. This is a tough one as it’s often very hard to control how you feel, but it’s rewarding if you can. For example, yesterday I went to London to watch a magnificent set by one of my favourite ever bands. Yet I began today by stressing about distant winter instead of reflecting on a wonderful experience. We are constantly making incredible memories but are too often guilty of letting them go, like a balloon release that ends up choking a swan.

c. No matter what, never be afraid to talk. Talk constantly, talk loudly. Write things down and share them with the world. Let the people around you know who you are, let them see your humanity. Your brain might tell you to keep everything inside, but it’s truly never the answer. Those internal musings are often much easier to see as the lies that they are in the cold light of day, whereas they’re infinitely more convincing when you hold them in. Unpack the unhelpful thoughts from your mind, and make room to let the beauty in. Don’t be scared, and don’t be disheartened. Tell your story.

I’m still getting to know myself, but every day I learn new tactics that help me to better understand who I am. I’m a strange aubergine, but I’m learning to like me.

Ode to an Island

Awoken by birdsong on midsummer day,
The solstice dawn mere moments away,
We walk from our cabin to the eastern bay,
To watch the sun rise over Vrångö.

Our burning star ignites the sky,
The light reflected in your eyes,
That dance in my mind like fireflies,
Two hearts entwined on Vrångö.

The winding path to our wooden shack,
You make us coffee, bitter and black,
I load treats into my canvas sack,
For today we explore Vrångö.

This pristine rock, this perfect island,
With its forest, reedswamp and coastal sands,
Our secret retreat from the crowded mainland,
Our paradise, our Vrångö.

You take the lead along the stony path,
I follow behind through the coastal flats,
We pause to rest amid the cotton-grass,
My naturalist’s heart beats for Vrångö.

We skirt the rocks where the eider call,
Where oystercatcher feed and the seals enthral,
Sea holly and aster bloom on the jetty wall,
A magical place, this Vrångö.

Our route emerges by the western road,
Into a cheerful hamlet of wooden abodes,
A bustling hub where the fishing boats unload,
Although it’s never really busy on Vrångö.

I’ve seldom known peace like this before,
Since we first stepped on this granite shore,
An island I love with the one I adore,
Twin souls cast away on Vrångö.

I know I’ll never forget this place,
This perfect moment, your perfect face,
Footprints in the sand were the only trace,
That we left, of ourselves, on Vrångö.