A Soldier’s Memory

He lay stretched out on the narrow iron framed bed

Idly staring at the cracked and blotchy ceiling,

Its surface resembling a map of no man’s land,

A senseless wilderness of craters and barbed wire.

Unthinking, his mind was empty of all feeling

Other than a sense of utter futility,

A weariness that had seeped into his marrow

Like the water bleeding from the walls of the trench

Whose narrow confines had become his entire world,

A place of despair, stealing the light from his soul.


He lit a Woodbine, and watched the skeins of blue smoke

Drifting upwards to add their yellow residue

To the stains left by countless other cigarettes

Smoked by other soldiers in this room, on this bed.

Lifting his head to look round the squalid little room,

Taking in the broken chair with his brown tunic

Carelessly slung over the back, his revolver

Lying on the dirty floor where it had fallen.

Looking the other way he could see the nightstand

With its cracked ewer and basin, and the mirror,

On the wall behind, where the eyes of a stranger

Had blankly stared back at him from the mottled glass,

When he had laid out his razor and shaving brush.

Christ he was tired,

So God-almighty fucking tired.


He woke up with a start,

“Look sharp lads,” he shouted, at

“Get the fuck into the dugouts,”

Then remembered,

Realising the crump of exploding shells was

Just a door banging shut somewhere in the hotel.

“Shit,” he thought,

“I need a good fuck with a cheap whore,

A few sweet moments of blessed oblivion,

Anything to wipe out the memories of death,

Christ, something,

Anything to make me feel alive.”


He slept again, dreaming of that golden summer

In Oxford, in another world, before this hell,

Punting on the Isis, the laughing girls and boys,

Oh they were so innocent in that far off time,

Blissfully, carelessly unaware that their world

Was soon to end in a welter of mud and gore,

Men blown into smithereens, the beauty of limbs

Shattered by uncaring shells, or ripped to pieces

In a hail of bullets spewed out by faceless guns.


He remembered one particular girl, sister

Of his closest friend John, who died a year ago,

In his arms, murmuring through mangled lips, of England,

Of home and beauty, green meadows and waving corn,

His lifeblood seeping into the cold foreign soil

Of Flanders, just one of thousands to die that day,

June nineteen sixteen,

The first battle of the Somme,

Sacrificed on the altar of stupidity,

The folly of politicians, blinded by pride,

And fat generals still fighting yesterday’s wars,

Immune to the effects of hot metal on flesh,

Safe in the luxury of their plush headquarters.


Charlotte was her name, Charlie to her closest friends,

Eighteen years old when he first met her, three years ago

When he was invited to spend Christmas with John

And his family at their home in Gloucestershire,

A warm and friendly thatched cottage of Cotswold stone,

In a picture postcard village, beside a green,

Just across from the parish church, and country inn.

He remembered the very first time he saw her,

A heart shaped face framed by tumbling auburn tresses,

With a welcoming smile, and a mischievous laugh,

Vivacious and so full of life,

Stealing his heart.


They had made tender love many times that summer,

In his college rooms, lying naked on his bed,

Gloriously happy in the first flush of love,

Laughing with happiness, suspended in time,

Oblivious to the threatening clouds of war

Spreading their malevolent blight over Europe,

So soon to destroy for ever their innocence,

The beauty of youthful limbs trampled underfoot

Beneath the jackboots of anonymous armies,

Marching robot like across the ravaged landscape,

Of their dreams, the end of a golden age of hope.

Best of all were those afternoons when in a rowboat

They would escape to some secluded backwater

Where, lying in the long grass of the riverbank

He would enter into the mystery of her soul

In a joyful dance of mutual ecstasy,

Radiant with the light of consummated love.

And afterwards, laughing with delight, they would bathe

Naked, playing like children in the cool water,

Only returning home as last rays of the sun

Sent long shadows across the gently flowing stream.


The last time they spent together was in London,

The night before he embarked for France, and glory.

John was there too, with his current girl on his arm.

They went to the Savoy, dinner first, then dancing,

Resplendent in their uniforms, second lieutenants,

In the Gloucestershire Regiment, badges polished,

And boots shining, ready to serve King and Country.

He told Charlotte, better not to upset herself

By seeing them onto the train in the morning,

As he kissed away her tears after making love,

No need to make a fuss, much too embarrassing,

Besides, he said, it would be over by Christmas,

And when he returned they could think about marriage,

A summer wedding would be nice, with all the frills,

With a long honeymoon on the Riviera,

Antibes was particularly nice he’d been told,

Less crowded than Nice or Monaco in summer..


He was disturbed from his reverie by a knock,

For a moment forgetting where he was, drowsy,

Unwilling to wake and return to reality,

Better to dream of those far off halcyon days.

“Come in” he called, then remembering, “Entrée vous,

“La porte est pas verrouillé,” and he sat up,

Because one still had to preserve appearances,

Especially in front of servants, don’t you know.

The door opened to admit a mousy haired girl,

In a grubby dress, with a jug of hot water,

“Le dîner sera prêt dans vingt minutes,” she said,

And left, clumsily slamming the door behind her.

“Fuck you!” He thought, “Fuck me, fuck this whole goddam world,”

But then, chastened, he wearily rose from his bed,

And after scraping the week’s stubble from his face,

Dressed slowly and carefully in his uniform,

And after retrieving his revolver from the floor,

Followed her downstairs, every inch the officer.


Another time, another place, another bed,

White walls and ceiling, the muffled sounds of moaning,

And the sweet pungent smell of carbolic, and blood,

But remote, as if it was far away, like a dream.

He shook his head, trying to clear his clouded mind,

And then the screaming began, inescapable,

Burning through his brain in a shriek of agony.

“Shut up,” he thought, “shut the fuck up and let me sleep.”

And then, dimly, through the sharp blinding fog of pain

That was his body, he realised the screams were …

His, his agony, Christ! His pain. Shit, what the fuck!

And then he remembered, or didn’t remember;

All that he could recall was a shrill shrieking noise,

Shouted voices, and then a flash, and … nothingness,

Just silence and darkness, sweet comforting darkness.


“Wake up Major;” a voice out of the white darkness,

“It’s time to check your dressings, this might hurt a bit,

But be a brave soldier, it will soon be over,

And then you can go to sleep again. Sleep will help.”

He looked up into the whiteness, towards the voice,

And saw a vision of loveliness … an angel?

Was he dead? Was this heaven? But then, why the pain?

“What,” he croaked, “where am I? Water, I need water.”

And then a sharp prick in his arm, and oblivion.


Later, how much later? He didn’t know … hours, days?

Slowly he returned to consciousness, looked around,

And finally recognised the truth … where he was.

Hospital. Just another body on a bed,

Another piece of wreckage of this endless war.

And he cried, tears of self pity and hopelessness.

“Good morning Major,” that voice again, the angel!

This time he could see her, no angel, just a nurse.

“Well Major, your war is over now,” the voice said,

Kindly, concerned, soothing, but something else. What?

The voice sounded familiar, a voice from the past,

From the time before the horror, the blood, the pain.

Familiar, but different … older and wiser.

“It’s alright Major, you’re safe now, home in England,

They’re coming tomorrow to measure you for your …

“My what?” he cried like a child, alarmed, frightened.

“For your leg,” she said, “you’ll soon be up and walking,

Right as rain, a new man. You’ll be as good as new.”

“What happened?” He asked, I can’t remember a thing,

Just a shriek, and a flash, and then nothing, nothing.

“You were caught in a shell burst,” she replied gently,

“In the final push on the Somme. It’s all over,

The war is over and we are at peace at last.”


Weeks later he finally mastered his new leg

With the devoted care and help of his angel,

His Charlotte. She had followed him to war, signed up

As a nurse, and by some strange miracle of fate

She had been there beside him in his darkest hours.

You really couldn’t tell the difference … the leg …

Not much anyway when he was properly dressed.

He was alive, unlike too many of his friends,

And there was hope, a better future, no more war.


They were married early in the New Year, in church,

In Gloucestershire, surrounded by family and …

And also the ghosts of those who hadn’t survived.

He was resplendent in his full dress uniform,

The hard earned ribbons of sacrifice on his breast,

Among them the Military Cross , for bravery,

She in white, not the plain uniform of a nurse,

But floating down the aisle in a shimmer of silk,

Truly like an angel. No longer innocent,

They were older, and sadder, but also wiser,

And determined in their joy to make a future,

A better future in a brave new world of hope.


We know better now, and it took another war

Before Europe finally came to its senses.

But we will remember them and their sacrifice,

And pledge to constantly work for peace and concord,

For that will be their only fitting memorial.

The River — A Contemplation on Life and Love

People have many different ways to find peace

When living is just becoming too hard to bear,

For some it is in sleep, some have a special place,

Others seek the company of lighthearted friends,

Some settle down with a book, others meditate,

And many spoil themselves with a favourite food.

I have a special place where I like to escape

For a few days whenever it is possible,

Where there is such quietness and tranquility

That my mind is emptied of negative feelings

And I rediscover the lightness of being

That I had forgotten in the bustle of life.


I know I should really keep it a secret

For fear others might invade my sanctuary,

But that would be selfish and there is room for more.

The place itself is not at all remarkable,

Just a small island in France on the river Seine,

Twenty miles upstream of the city of Rouen

Where the river is broad, bordered by high chalk cliffs

Rising to a plateau of fields and small hamlets.

Another larger wooded island lies beyond

Screening the noise of the barges plying their trade,

Carrying all manner of cargoes between the

Inland factories and the great port of Le Havre.


I particularly like to sit in the grass

Beside the river in peaceful relaxation,

Sometimes doing nothing, letting my mind go blank,

Released from the grip of negative memories.

At others I meditate on the meaning of life,

Finding peace in solitary contemplation;

The only sound the gurgling of running water,

The song of birds in the trees and hum of insects,

And in the spring the croaking of the many frogs

Sitting on the lily pads at the river’s edge.

This is where I wish my last resting place to be,

My ashes scattered in this place of tranquillity.


One day while I was lost in such a reverie,

A new idea impressed itself on my mind,

An epiphany that the river could be seen

As an appropriate metaphor for all life.

It begins its life in quiet obscurity

In the quiet darkness of a small mountain tarn,

Or bursting from the rocks in merry abandon.

There is little indication in its early life

Of the majestic river that it will become

As it flows through alpine meadows decked with flowers,

Or rushes headlong through rocky gorges to plunge

Over precipices into deep crystal pools.


It is already home to many forms of life,

The only human witnesses to its childhood

Hill walkers and young children fishing for minnows

Or happily playing their games of innocence.

When it reaches the lowlands its strength increases,

As it gathers other streams to swell its waters.

Here it meanders between fields of green and gold,

Source of life and vitality to growing crops,

And refreshment to cattle grazing on its banks.

Still unpolluted by human activity,

It learns of ancient ways, unchanged over aeons,

The abundant knowledge of many centuries.


With early adulthood the scenery changes,

And fields give way to towns and the bustle of men.

In places the river runs between banks of stone,

Its life and vigour channeled to suit human need,

Roads run along its banks clamorous with the noise

Of lorries bringing the first of many cargoes

For the great barges moored alongside the long wharves

That will soon proliferate and then dominate

Its life, blotting out the sweet memories of youth.

Then come the factories spewing their toxic waste

To pollute and corrupt the former purity

Of the river, coating its clear waters with foam.


Middle age approaches fast and the world moves on

As the first suburbs of the great city appear

The river ignored by busy people intent

Upon their own concerns, their faces turned away,

Minds filled only with thoughts of family and trade.

But then a new song begins to float in the air,

The happy sound of carousers on pleasure boats,

Plying the river at the heart of the city,

And young swains trying to impress their lady loves

With their skill as boatsmen, and scullers and yachtsman

Practising for the many summer’s regattas

That will grace the river with gaiety and joy.


By the time it reaches me the river is old,

Running steadily towards its destination.

It is broad now, dotted with islands large and small,

The main channel still busy, but in the backwaters,

Home to ducks and many other small water fowl,

Ruled by the swans floating in all their majesty

On its limpid surface, quiet and peace has returned.

The river is still gaining wisdom, listening

To the whispered voices of the trees on its banks.

Soon now it will sense premonitions of its end,

As the taste of salt brings the message of its death,

And stories of wider shores and a greater life.


Throughout the long journey from its source to the sea,

The river will have experienced many things,

But in its diverse contacts with human beings,

An extra dimension to life will be revealed,

A motivating force that drives all our actions,

Even though we often deny its influence.

From the moment of conception to our last breath

We are all governed by love in all its aspects.

From the simple joyfulness of children at play,

Or the whispered words of young lovers on its banks,

To the love of money at the heart of commerce,

I realised that the river will see them all.


So as I lay there in peaceful contemplation,

My mind meandering lazily outside time,

New visions began to break on my consciousness,

Appearing and then disappearing like eddies,

Briefly disturbing the calm surface of my thoughts,

And I began to discern another river,

Intangible, but even more profoundly real,

Flowing invisibly and yet inexorably,

The dynamic heart of the entire universe,

And I perceived with a sense of awe and wonder,

That another river pervades all creation,

A majestic river of infinite power.


A force without a beginning or an ending,

The River of Life is the source of all being,

Its true nature is love and it knows no evil,

And though we might never give it a moment’s thought,

It is our origin and our destination,

The source and true meaning of our brief existence.

Though we may wilfully choose to disregard it,

And too often attempt to swim against its tide,

In our ignorance and pride resisting its call,

The benign power of love seeks to transform us,

And when at last our brief span on earth is ended,

We will become one with the mystery of love.

The Journey Begins

I was brought up in a house surrounded by books, and where reading and conversation were valued. From an early age until I had learned to read for myself my mother read to me every night, not only children’s stories by the best authors but also poetry.

Although I chose a career in science in that most esoteric of disciplines, Virology, I continued to read widely, but it wasn’t until I was in my sixties that I started to write. Initially I wrote poetry, usually in response to emotional trauma — I suffered severe depression at this time — but later I ventured into the world of the short story.

I hope that you will enjoy this very personal view of the world in poetry, prose and photographs of places that I love.

Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton