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The Winter

This poem was commissioned for Christmas about a decade ago, for the Sunday Express by its then-editor Martin Townsend. He blithely said to me ,"Write us a nice long poem about Winter, Mart." It took me a good few days. Probably one of my best ever.


After western gales have done

Heaved the grey autumnal seas

Weakened an anaemic sun

Anaesthetised the bees

Drained the sap from all the trees

Substituted golds for greens

Covered summer's murder scenes

With a distant roll of drums

Winter comes, winter comes.

Like a surgeon to his rounds

Down a chilly corridor

Taciturn, he beats the bounds

Squeaky shoes upon the floor

Murmuring behind each screen

While the patient pale in bed

Strains to overhear what's said

Firmly then, but without fuss

Winter enters thus.

When the slate is clean at dawn

And at first, the frost seems light

Steaming off each sunlit lawn

Like a mistress taking flight

From a chamber not yet hers

Now the night draws in so early

And the north-east wind is surly

As the mask begins to slip

Winter cracks its whip.


Down the ginnels winter slips

Into country towns it knows

Paperboys blow fingertips

Stood on doorsteps, freezing toes

Kicking empty bottles over

Setting yappy terriers off

Then the cancerous buses cough

And it rains in panel pins

So a winter day begins

Under down-lands to the south

Where the chalkhill horses sleep

Trains speed from a tunnel mouth

Scattering crows and shaking sheep

On the windy downs, the dewponds

High above the Pilgrims Way

Keep their icy glaze all day

Neolithic farmers knew them;

Winter's wading through them.

Whistling near a lonely bandstand

Starching leaf-mould in the park

Greeting in an empty grandstand

Spectral sportsmen in the dark

But the boating pond is frozen

And the punts are put away

For some far-off summer day

In the brown and broken nettles

Winter settles, winter settles.

Yet, it makes its reparations

In the rose-gold frosty air

Smoky apple wood for perfume

Worn as if for some affair

Mulled in inglenooks with liquor

Dalliances suit the season

Need we look for any reason

Huddled by a crackling fire?

Winter kindles such desire

Even the imperious City

Peers out at the falling snow

While alarms shriek out a ditty

To deserted streets below:

“Wi-wi-wi-wi-we are waiting.

With our wilted mistletoe

Seasonal trading has been slow

Will no one invest in kisses?

What a waste of money this is.”

But the cabs will still be queueing

Passing Oxford Street's fantasia

And the chestnuts will be doing

In nostalgia's golden brazier

Time re-screens the past in sepia

For the wistful eyes of men

Did we not keep Christmas then

Better, in our long-lost youth?

Christmas of the past was cosy

Only winter knows that truth.

We forget the days more fraught

In the pub the world looks rosy

Filtered through a glass of port

Red as berries on the holly

It's the spirit we recall.

Christmas in the Baron's Hall

Loud with stories and charades

Winter lives on Christmas cards:

Coaching inns and horns hallooing

Horses, hounds, a stovepipe hat

Parcels, puddings, Bishop brewing

Was a Christmas ever that?

Crone in rags, her faggot bundle

Struggling in a snowy lane

Here such icons will remain

Hung in halls of old Decembers

Visions dancing in the embers.

How will winter wear its beauty?

Like the widow of an earl

Elegantly at her duty

Pale as a grieving girl

As the snowflakes fall at midnight

Cold confetti on her head

Ah, the year, the old year's dead

Underneath its snowy bier

Fields and farmland disappear

Sleep delicious, sleep profound

Swansdown swathes the woodland floor

Summer's somewhere underground

Sleeping depths un-plumbed before

While the spring remains in exile

Like a prince, long overseas

Not a whisper of a breeze

Nor a captain at the helm

Can return him to his realm

Daylight breaks on snowfall steady.

Silent swirling swarms of bees

Hide the huntsman, horse at ready

Waiting in a copse of trees

Flushed from cover comes the quarry

Muted horn, a creature calling

Trampled snow, the body falling

Winter goes in for the kill

Now the conquered land is still.

How does winter end its reign?

Like a guest who stays and stays

Leaves but then returns again

Without notice – and for days

Grudgingly, curmudgeonly,

In a harsh persistent wind

Chillblained feet and broken-skinned

Influenza on his breath

Winter dies a drawn-out death

But the earth will wake, the hedges

Turn to luminescent green

Wildfowl jostles in the sedges

While a buttery sun is seen

Warming up the frosty furrows

Watched in rolling early mist

Brandishing a bony fist

Winter glowers vainly back

Melting on the muddy track.


Pic by Felix Theollier


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