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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.









THE WINTER


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.


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Pic by Felix Theollier

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