Approach – ©Andrew Barker 2012, reproduced with permission

So. Last night I was at the Holy Biscuit for their fifth birthday party and the launch of Now and Not Yet, a publication for advent (visit their site to find out more and to order a copy). The book has twenty-five entries – one for each day of December up to and including Christmas Day – most of which have a photograph and an accompanying piece of text which responds to or reflect on the image.

The entry for the first of December features Approach by Andrew Barker and this poem, which I was asked to write in response to the image.


I had not noticed the shadows before,
where there is no light there are no shadows.
Without the light. I had not realised
it was dark, that such a thing as light could be

I was surprised. To find I had a shape,
have edges. Definition. Shoulders.
And now, I see the rest, out there, is dark.
The light makes ‘there’ and splits it off from ‘here’.

I like the light. I do. I like the light.
I will stay here. Close, but not too close.
This shape I have. I’m not exactly proud.
I would rather have a different shape.

You could step closer, nearer to the light.
Be bolder, clearer: let yourself be bright.



Mutual friends

So. Sometimes, you have two friends whose only connection is that they know you (but not each other), but, from what you know of each of them individually, you are sure that if they met they would get on and be friends themselves. I have had that feeling about two particular people for a few years now and yesterday I found out they had made contact and did indeed get on.  Unfortunately for me, they have both been dead some three hundred years. Let me tell you about them.

Back in the nineteen eighties – before some of my readers were born (harrumph, harrumph) – I was studying archaeology. Somehow (and the details are hazy) I came across Sir Thomas Browne: a doctor in Norwich in the seventeenth century. Back in those days a doctor had broad interests, so Dr Browne wrote a pamphlet describing a collection of Anglo-Saxon funerary urns dug up in Norfolk in the 1650s. He was something of a thinker, so the pamphlet – Hydriotaphia (or Urn Burial (and I modernise the spelling)) – covered far more than just the discovery of the burial urns, becoming in the end a mediation on mortality. I even stole a phrase as the epigraph for my undergraduate dissertation.

time, which hath an art to make dust of all things, hath yet spared these minor monuments

A little later – again through the archaeology – I came across John Aubrey, a seventeenth century landowner (not a very successful one) and antiquarian (very good at that). Aubrey discovered the ‘Aubrey holes’ at Stonehenge and recorded the stone circle at Avebury.

Given their shared interests I wondered whether they had communicated at all. Had they known each other? The question remained unanswered for over twenty years, until this week, when I read Ruth Scurr’s splendid biographical venture John Aubrey My Own Life. In Aubrey’s own words:

I have carried some books from Oxford home with me: Thomas Browne’s Religio Medici, printed last year has opened my understanding. And I have Sir Kenelm Digby’s Observations on Religio Medici, printed this year, to keep my thoughts company. (p59)

So there had been a connection: but there was even better ahead:

My thoughts keep returning to Sir Thomas Browne’s book Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial, or a Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns lately found in Norfolk, which was first published in 1658. Sir Thomas is now augmenting his book, and I discussed it with him when I was last in London. (p207)

Bizarrely, my heart was warned by this three hundred year old piece of news. I felt relieved for Aubrey, who lived his life on a downward trajectory and was buried in an unmarked grave: there had been a connection, even a friendship. (Browne needed no such consolation: he had Dorothy, ten children, a knighthood and a flock of intellectual interests.)


The only question remaining is whether they would have enjoyed knowing me? Now there’s something it would take more than another twenty years to answer.

Oh, my brave boys!

So. Bonfire night and off to the firework display at the Blue Flames (a well-known local display) to celebrate the thwarting of the terrorist plot to blow up parliament. Lots of people, chips and beer. Twenty minutes after time (a well-known feature of the display) the floodlights dim and the first fireworks head up into the sky.

They have a firework canon or something that sends an arc of explosions into the dark. But my favourites are the silver-gold twists that corkscrew boldly from the earth, each one trying to climb higher, trying to escape. And each one fading and failing. Oh, my brave boys! The whole of art and history is there.

Some twenty years ago I wrote a poem about fireworks, after watching from a bedroom window with one of my children. It is not the best poem ever (I suppose that goes for all except one poem), in this case the front end is clunky), but it expresses that same futile beauty I sensed again tonight.


To you, these are bangs, terrifying and loud.

You want the window shut;

a glass shield to let you watch the flames.

I want the window open, to allow the fullness

of sight, sound and smell.

These are more than fireworks.

Brief flares,

Blinking reminders of temporality,

Sweet exclamations of our mortal course.

Green-gold attendants of darkness

Which tell, when read correctly,

That everything will pass away.

Joy flames briefly

Dying down to darkness.

All will pass: spark, fire, stone.

‘Take that thing away’

Campo SantoSo. In the HG Wells short story The Pearl of Love an Indian prince falls in love with a young woman who dies shortly after their wedding. He dedicates his life to building a monument to her. In old age, with the building nearly complete, he studies one of the vistas within the monument and finds it spoiled by her sarcophagus. ‘Take that thing away,’ he commands.

I was reminded of that story this morning in the shower, when I suddenly saw the resolution to the tangled and unworking plot of a story I am writing. I realised that the very beginning scene, which I had tweaked and tidied for ages, and was very much in love with, had to go. ‘Take that thing away,’ I commanded.

Of course, the position isn’t quite the same, as the beginning scene isn’t the core of the book: even though it had been there since the start. We have to learn though, that once we have started, the things that we began with may not make it to the end.

Perhaps it would be better if we treated them in the same way as builders treat the wooden formwork for concrete: it holds the drying concrete in place, but once that has set the formwork is struck and never seen again. Or again, maybe as the metalworker’s wax image which is vaporised as the molten bronze or silver is poured into the mould. In each case, what we start with is not the finished piece, but we need it in order to create it.

Let us all begin to use the harsh but powerful phrase: ‘take that thing away.’