writing

On Escaping from Nature

The birds are at it again,
arguing about Brexit
from their branches;

the smug song of a starling,
the crows’ cry
of blue murder,

and the inexpert chatter
of a so-called chaffinch.
Across the street,

a dog cocks its leg
against a lamppost
in protest against

the chronic neglect
of the National Health Service.
A leaf lies ignored

on the pavement
it slept on last night,
and dreams of home.

Further out,
in surrounding fields,
cows hold seminars

on the refugee crisis
and the pigs debate
what to do about Syria.

Goats stare bleakly
from desolate crags,
remembering Trump.

Soon it will be time
for the penguins to march
against global warming.

I do what I can
to keep nature at bay,
drown it out

with radio or TV,
find refuge
in the tranquillity of Twitter.

But it’s late now
and outside
I can hear the owls

calling parliament
into session
once more.

The Flowers of the Garage Forecourt

Budding lovers beware
of the Flowers of the Garage Forecourt;
they are not for courting.

Love will not blossom
with the Flowers of the Garage Forecourt,
these blundering bouquets

of cellophaned sadness:
the slip-road roses and tarmacked tulips,
petrol pump peonies

and crushed-dream chrysanthemums.
All those dahlias of desperation.
The I-forgot-you forget-me-nots.

Please know this, would-be customers
of the Flowers of the Garage Forecourt:
romance wilts with a lack of forethought.

In Search Of Lost Tomes

I had forgotten that —
for a long time — I went to bed early,
seduced by Proust,
who so often had le mot juste
about affairs of the heart
and the nature of art,
and all that stuff.

But life and things passed,
gave way to armchaired collapse
in front of a screen,
scrolling through memes,
watching videos of cats.

Until one evening,
when retrieving the remote,
I found you again, on the shelf,
as if stumbling upon a swan’s nest
amongst the reeds, hidden,
your pages like fresh linen.

Written to commemorate the death of Marcel Proust, 18th November 1922.

Thief

You caught me stealing
a glance at you.

Ordered me
to empty out my pockets.

I shook my booty
onto the table:

a swiped charge card,
a nose I’d pinched,

one poached egg,
a ruler (half-inched),

a gaze I’d shifted,
some spirits lifted,

and other
stolen moments.

You told me
to stop thieving

and start behaving.

Fat chance.

I would even nick myself
shaving.

Best seen, not heard

Writing poems which rhyme can be tricky and tough
for words often look like they’re from the same bough,
yet the end of each line sounds quite different, though,
and best hidden behind a hiccough or cough.

I wonder, did this bother Byron or Yeats?
Or Larkin or Wordsworth, Auden or Keats?
Were opportunities presented or simply just threats?
Could they think up their rhymes without caveats?

But what should it matter when all’s said and done
if you should read this as scone when I meant scone?
It’s hardly a crime for which you need to atone;
it would all be baloney to an abalone.

So perhaps I should not be quite so afeard.
Some poems are best seen rather than heard.

How Poets Write Poems

It starts with a window,
preferably of the Georgian hung sash variety,
for the Poet is nowhere without one.

There may be other things involved, too:
a laptop, or some paper and a pencil,
or a Remington Home Portable.

And a pipe, of course.

Equipped, the Poet sets his* face
to one of Ruminative Contemplation
to survey the world through the window.

The Poet stares. The Poet gazes.
The lips purse. The brow furrows.
The eyes narrow and then …

    a leaf floats down from a tree,
a snatch of birdsong is caught,
a postman rummages in his bag,

and the Poet is off!
The image, smell, sound
is plucked, examined, cross-examined,

until a memory is stirred …

    perhaps the pattern
on a childhood picnic blanket in a Dorset field

    or the trace of that first kiss
in a grimy bus shelter in Wolverhampton

    or the crumbling headstones
of a Cumbrian church graveyard in October

which, in turn, provokes
larger – far grander – thoughts
about Life and Death and Beauty

and Hope and Truth and Loss
and God and Loneliness and Self
and Terror and Forgiveness

and so it continues
until the day slips softly into darkness
and the people who have proper jobs,

in factories and in offices and in shops,
walk past, carrying their bags and lives home,
and glimpse the Poet, silhouetted with pipe,

through his Georgian hung sash window,
and think to themselves
that he really needs to get out more.

 Please note that Poets are available in all genders

Poem, revised draft

I had to write this poem again.
I left the first draft on the train
and now it doesn’t look the same.

The original was a paean to Love,
to Truth, to Beauty. It soared above
the everyday and all that stuff.

It would have healed estranged lovers’ rifts,
stilled the sands on which time shifts
and stopped the world before it drifts

further into quagmired crisis,
ended famine, toppled ISIS.
Employed ingenious literary devices.

I tried my hardest to recall
its words and rhymes, the rise and fall
of the carefully cadenced crawl

through the English language.
But it caused me pain and anguish
for there was little I could salvage.

It certainly didn’t end with a line like this.

The Importance of the Oxford Comma

Owing to ambiguities caused by its omission,
the Oxford comma became the subject of a petition
raised by serious serialists desperate to ensure
its use was to be mandated in lists of three or more.

Signatures flooded in from across all of society;
never had they expected to see such variety.
Who would have thought that those in favour
would have had such a diverse, democratic flavour?

There were the investment bankers,
the robbers and thieves,
as well as C-list celebrities,
the needy and mildly-diseased.

There were the footballers,
clowns and less mentally able,
alongside the poets,
unemployed and emotionally unstable.

There was Michael Gove,
a drug fiend and a trafficker of human organs,
and, of course, the sexual deviants,
Jeremy Clarkson and Piers Morgan.

Such was the range of names
that the list did constitute.
Oh, not to forget the Queen,
a well-known madam and a prostitute.

Exclamation Mark!

Mark was his name!
He would shout and proclaim!

Every sentence he wrote
would end just the same!

He would assert! He would blurt!
He would ejaculate and spurt!
Each line was a screamer!
A gasper! A slammer! A shrieker!
A literary loudspeaker!!!

Frankly, it all began to needle and nark!
Why did no one think to question Mark?

The Life of Trevor Bilston

The last known photograph of Trevor Bilston, taken just minutes before he spontaneously combusted.

Pele, Puskas, Best, Cruyff, Maradona, Messi, Bilston; the names of the beautiful game’s most beautiful exponents trip from the tongue with a reassuring readiness, this revered roll-call of night-time reveries, ever-presents across a hundred silverwared seasons of schoolboy dreams.

But there’s one name on that list which, for many, remains a riddle wrapped up in a mystery inside an enigma which has been inserted into a conundrum buried underneath a puzzle which, to its own surprise, has found itself wrapped up in a riddle totally different from the first riddle which I talked about at the beginning of this sentence.

For, had it not been for his premature death at the age of nineteen, from spontaneous combustion, Trevor Bilston would have been, perhaps, the greatest of them all.

Trevor Kicks Off

It was no surprise that Trevor was to grow up to ply his trade as a professional footballer. His mother, Winifred, guessed that would be his destiny before he had even emerged out of her metaphorical tunnel; for her womb seemed nothing more than a stadium in which the embryonic Trevor could hone his basic skills. The regular kicks were one thing but, as the months wore on, it felt as if Trevor’s repertoire of tricks was growing: headers, bicycle kicks, tackling, even throw-ins.  When he did finally enter the world, on 30 July 1945, swiftly followed by the afterbirth (also 30 July 1946), Winifred was to find that he had run the placenta-back ragged.

Trevor found himself born into a family large enough to field a few football teams itself. He was the twenty-ninth of thirty-two children that Winifred was to bear (although if truth be told, she actually only could bear three of them – Clarence, Cedric and Shaznay) and it was this busy, bustling environment which surely nurtured in him his strong competitive streak. He was to win his first Plimsbury Competitive Streak at the mere age of three, fighting off stiff competition from Archibald Proctor, the village blacksmith, and then won the race for the next six years before the necessities of schooling intervened.

Years later, much would be made of Trevor Bilston’s educated left foot and not without good reason. At the age of nine, it left the Bilston homestead of Bleakstone Hall, having received a junior scholarship to study music at the Sorbonne. Trevor’s right foot, along with the rest of him, became enrolled at local Plimsbury Grammar School, where he was to enjoy a solid if somewhat perfunctory education. His feet were not to be reunited for four years.

It was shortly after this pedal reconciliation that Trevor Bilston brought himself to the attention of local scouts. Plimsbury Grammar were drawn against public school, Cholmondeley College, in a regional cup competition. The Chummies, as they were known, were a formidable outfit with an impressive tradition, having seen no fewer than twelve pre-war England captains come through their ranks, including such amateur greats as Pongo Liddell and Walter S. Harbinger. But that day saw an unlikely narrow 1-0 victory for the Plimsbury team, powered by a masterful performance in the middle of the park from Bilston. It was a performance made all the more remarkable by the fact that Bilston did not touch the ball once during that game (in fact, he was only to touch a football once in the whole of his career). But such was the doggedness of his general play, forever cajoling, closing down, pressing and pressuring, combined with the occasional mild threat of thuggery, it was Bilston and Plimsbury who prevailed.

Standing next to the troop of boy scouts who were looking on that day was Jimmy O’Grady, world-weary, wizened wizard of the touchline, who waited for the game to finish before hurrying off to make an urgent phone call:

“Arthur, I think I’ve found the boy who’s going to put Dudley Albion on the map.”

Newbold’s Nestlings

When Arthur Newbold had stepped through the doors of Dudley Albion in 1959, he found a club in turmoil. Lying bottom of Bird’s Custard League Division Four and without a win for six years, Dudley Albion were at an all-time low. The players were inept, decrepit and disinterested, the backroom staff were disept, increpit and deinterested, and the fans de-ept, discrepit and ininterested. Even the famous Dainty Park, home to many memorable league and cup clashes down the decades (and, incidentally, the only football ground with a haberdashery on every corner) was in a state of disrepair. Attendances had dropped down into single figures and the legendary Bell End Bellow which had inspired so many stirring Dudley Albion performances over the years, had become reduced to a mere wisp of a wind-carried whisper.

But Newbold was not a man to be deterred by such surroundings and quickly set about restoring pride about the place, like a restorer restoring things to a state of restoration*. In the tactics he employed to do this, he was to live up to his name (new and bold, I mean, not the Arthur bit).

In particular, he invested in youth. The new squad that he assembled was to have the average age of just fourteen years old – and included players as young as seven. Indeed, some of the squad had been even younger before they signed for the club. Many of “Newbold’s Nestlings” were to go on to achieve recognition way beyond Dudley itself, stretching far into the neighbouring Sandwell area; exciting centre-wing-side-forward Owen Quincy-Jones, flamboyant custodian Kenny Chigwell, enigmatic engine-room stoker Len Pastry, overlapping substitute Billy Laces and, of course, libertarian left-back Bobby Birtles.

image1

Dudley Albion skipper Len Pastry stares at the goalpost whilst the game continues around him.

Perhaps Newbold’s master-stroke, though, was the signing of the mercurial flanksman, Leighton Buzzard, on a free transfer from the West Bromwich Building Society. At fifty-eight, many said that his career was on the wane but through a combination of Newbold’s tactical astuteness, Buzzard’s own innate ability to kick a football roughly in the direction he intended, and a series of brylcreem-related bonuses, these years were to prove the crowning moment of Leighton Buzzard’s career.

Results improved quickly and dramatically. Just fifteen games into Newbold’s tenure, Dudley Albion were able to carve out a draw at home to Cannock Ladies, followed by maximum points away to Stourbridge Academicals in a game which was to see Bobby Birtles stretchered off with a fractured perm.

But in May 1962 there was still one piece of the jigsaw missing. This was a matter of considerable frustration to Newbold, having invested several evenings in the puzzle (it was of Constable’s Haywain), ably assisted by his wife, Marjorie, and, as a consequence, he decided once more to focus on football. It was then that Jimmy O’Grady was to make the call that changed Arthur Newbold’s life – and, indeed, the life of a young, precocious talent called Trevor Bilston.

*Note: originally I was going to rewrite this sentence as it seemed there were too many variations on the word “restore” but in the end I retained the original wording because of its undeniable purpose and power.

Trevor Hits the Big Time

Although his potential was clear, Trevor Bilston didn’t walk straight into the Dudley Albion first team; he had to bide his time like any up-and-coming youngster. But in September 1963, he got his big chance, following a marmoset-related injury to doughty midfielder Wally Grout picked up on a team-building exercise at nearby Dudley Zoo. Local newspaper, The Dudley Echo, sent their football correspondent Bunny Beardsley to interview Bilston who goes on to describe how he learnt of his first-team call-up:

Well, obviously, I’ve gone out there and gone and done a training session with the lads and the gaffer, you know, obviously, the usual kind of thing and then I’ve gone and jogged off the pitch and gone and found my way back to the dressing room, having gone and lit my pipe on the way, obviously. But just as I’m obviously about to go inside, I’ve gone and seen the team sheet on the door, which has only gone and got my name on it! And I’ve gone in that dressing room and I’m obviously over the moon and I’ve gone and got myself changed as I’ve only got to go and see my nan and I’m already thirty minutes late, obviously.

Alongside the calm self-assurance that is on display in this early interview with Trevor Bilston, we can also see how quickly the sixteen year old has picked up the lexicography, semantics and syntax of the footballing world: the use of the present perfect tense, the repetition of key archetypal phraseologies such as “obviously” in order to reinforce a shared realism and explicit understanding between speaker and audience, the sequential structure based around a chronological narrative.

If his linguistic talents were up to scratch, the Dudley Albion faithful were soon to see his footballing talents were equally so. His debut was against high-flying Sandwell Town and, to everyone’s surprise, Dudley Albion were to run out 2-0 victors with Trevor Bilston taking centre-stage. Bunny Beardsley’s Dudley Echo match report highlights his key role:

The centre of the park saw a performance by 17 year old Trevor Bilston which was almost Joycean in its complexity, richness and diversity of thought. He strode around the centre-circle like a modern day Ulysses whom, upon returning from distant lands, surveys his homeland and says “I have come back although I never left. I was here even when I was not. And forever will I be so. For I am as old as the game itself , as old as the grass upon which I tread, as old as the country upon which I stand.” Curiously, Bilston didn’t touch the ball once during the ninety minutes but his presence alone seemed to subdue the Sandwellians; sometimes it is not the deed but the intent that provides the eternal triumph. The only shadow in an otherwise impeccable Dudley Albion performance was my half-time leek and potato soup. Very poor – 4 out of 10.

Further victories followed against Rowley Regis Rovers and Tipton Terriers and suddenly the Dudley Albion supporters began to dream of promotion, something they had only achieved once previously in 1916 (when, controversially, they were the only team to continue playing through the First World War and declared themselves champions in lieu of any recognisable competition). Buzzard and Quincy-Jones had begun to find the net with regularity, Chigwell, Birtles and Boot had formed an impenetrable back line, whilst Bilston provided the glamorous glaze to the pasty-faced Pastry in midfield.

Leighton Buzzard comes close to scoring for Dudley Albion versus Halesowen Meteors. Trevor Bilston (not pictured) was busy refilling his pipe during this goalmouth scramble.

Leighton Buzzard comes close to scoring for Dudley Albion versus Halesowen Meteors. Trevor Bilston (not pictured) was busy refilling his pipe during this goalmouth scramble.

Finally, on 21st April 1964, Dudley Albion had a date with destiny. A point at near neighbours, Smethwick Casuals, would see them secure a place in the the Bird’s Custard League Division Three for the first legitimate time in their history. The game was not going to plan, though, a goal down with three minutes to go and their dreams lay in tatters, like a ribbon emblazoned with the words “Dudley Albion FC”, which has been torn up into tattery shreds and left fluttering in the gloomy goalmouth of despair. But those tattered dreams had not banked upon the presence of Trevor Bilston. The Smethwick goalkeeper, Alec Diggle, had just collected the ball securely in his hands when he received a look of such psychotic malevolence from Bilston that he had little option other than roll the ball out to the ever-alert Leighton Buzzard who proceeded to toe-poke home the equalizer and, with it, promotion.

The final whistle blew shortly after and the twenty-six Dudley Albion supporters ran onto the pitch to greet their heroes and hold them triumphantly aloft upon their Black Country shoulders. The future for Dudley Albion looked bright; a young team full of promise and flair, one of the league’s most innovative managers and, in Trevor Bilston, a talismanic footballing genius.

Little did they know that, just nine months later, Bilston would be dead*.

*No longer alive.

The Spontaneous Combustion of Trevor Bilston

Promotion only served to raise the profile of Trevor Bilston further, who came to be a regular feature of the local and slightly-further-afield-than-local-but-still-pretty-local press – and not just for footballing reasons. Like any teenager in the 1960s, Bilston was intent upon having fun and became a stalwart of the Dudley and Sandwell popular music and nightclub scene, for a while becoming known as the “sixth Herman’s Hermit”. The newspapers became full of late night / early morning photos of the young star emerging from salubrious discotheques, a local beauty on each of his arms (he had two in total). He was romantically linked with Miss Wolverhampton, Miss Stourbridge, Miss Walsall and the slightly more aloof Ms Cannock, sometimes all in the same evening.

As the new football season ambled its way around the corner of summer boulevard and turned into autumn avenue, Bilston worked hard on his game for the challenges ahead. Despite his undoubted raw talent, some of the more vocal critics of his debut season had berated Bilston for the fact that he never seemed to touch the ball in the course of any game; there were suggestions he might be a flash in the pan, a one-trick wonder, a mere conjurer of cheap footballing tricks. On the training ground, he set about addressing these criticisms and added feints, side-swerves, step-overs, step-unders, shimmies, side-shimmies, side-steps and shimmy-side-step-feints to his armoury, which sat alongside his existing weapons of intimidation and a borderline psychotic thuggery.

But it was in a game against Willenhall Wanderers in January 1965 that he first introduced what was to become know as the “Bilston bluff”. When the ball broke loose in the middle of the pitch, Bilston and the experienced Willenhall midfielder Jack Mudgrove advanced towards it. Bilston, though, got to the ball first and unleashed a dummy of such great artifice and illusion that Mudgrove and, indeed, the rest of the Willenhall team had no idea where the ball had disappeared to for the next fifteen minutes. During that period, Dudley Albion racked up six goals without reply with Buzzard, Quincy-Jones and Preedy all adding their names to the scoresheet.

An early advertisement featuring Trevor Bilston, feeling confident in his shag choice with Miss Smethwick 1964.

An early advertisement featuring Trevor Bilston, feeling confident in his shag choice, with Miss Smethwick 1964.

Bilston’s off-the-pitch interests continued to grow and in February he signed a contract worth £1/19/11¾d a week to become the face of Prince Albert pipe tobacco. His pipe was a notable accompaniment on the pitch and Bilston himself favoured the Briar bulldog pipe, which had the durability to see him through ninety minutes of uninterrupted footballing action. Following Bilston’s premature death, aspiring young footballers everywhere were to take up the pipe in homage to their hero and it wasn’t until it was outlawed by Sir Tony Woodcock in 1986 that it came to lose its association with the game.

But few could have seen how the bowl of Trevor’s Bilston’s faithful Briar was to run dry so quickly.*

Dudley Albion were having another good season and looked set for their second successive promotion. It was 3rd April 1965 and the fixture was a tricky one, away to Tamworth Park Rangers, one of the footballing giants of the time. Bilston was putting in one of his archetypal performances – running, chasing, scrapping, snarling, shimmying, shammying, shillying, shallying, dillying, dallying. The game was poised perfectly at two goals a piece and one more goal would surely be enough to see Dudley Albion up.

In the final minute, Dudley Albion won a corner. Usually, this was an excuse for Trevor Bilston to refill his pipe, but to the crowd’s astonishment he decided to make a foray into his opponent’s penalty area. The Dudley Echo‘s Bunny Beardsley takes up the story:

Life’s perennial substitute, Billy Laces, slowly runs up to take the corner, with a Proustian nonchalance that belies the bench-warming of a thousand numb-filled hours, all remembrances of things now past for this, too, is his moment. The ball makes Euclidean arcs through the tattered Tamworth skies, awaiting the ending of the match and, perhaps, time itself. But how does a thing end? With a bang? With a whimper? Or with a Bilston? A Trevor Bilston. For he sees the ball spinning and turning, like the planet he is barely from and upon which he soon will be no longer, and it is aimed straight at him, a meteorite heading to an appointment with fate. It is a time for Reckoning, for the Truth, for the Great Reveal; no more the spherical avoidance, the global eschewal. The ball lands upon the forelock, the fire burns within him, and he bursts majestically into flames. He is the Footballing Phoenix, he gives his life so the game can continue, renewed, reborn. His team-mates look back from the leathered sphere, which nestles unassumingly in the back of the net, to Bilston No More, and they see his pipe and they see his ashes. But not ashes of tobacco. Ashes of Trevor.

The funeral took place five days later. All of the Dudley Albion players, staff and supporters turned out, as did the Bilston family (his siblings outnumbered the Dudley Albion contingent). Prayers were read, bells were rung, and life went on. Dudley Albion, after their season or two in the sunshine, soon returned to their customary level and it was many years before they won a game again; Arthur Newbold continued for two more years but he was a sad and broken man; Leighton Buzzard returned to the West Bromwich Building Society; Len Pastry retired to become a publican; Bobby Birtles was to have a surprise hit in 1968 with the Hungarian Eurovision Song Contest entry Po Po Po Po Po Po Pi Po.

A silent stillness swept around Tamworth the day Trevor Bilston spontaneously combusted and some say it remains there today. Emerge from the tunnel to the left and walk across the pitch towards the penalty spot and there you will find a plaque inlaid in the turf, which reads:

In Affectionate Remembrance
of
TREVOR BILSTON,
who died in Tamworth
on
3rd April 1965,
Deeply lamented by a large circle of sorrowing friends, acquaintances and staff at Prince Albert Pipe Tobacco, (available at all reputable tobacconists. Prince Albert gives you Pipe Appeal!)
R.I.P.
N.B.—The body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Dudley.

 *This is a metaphor. Please substitute the words “days” for “bowl”, “life” for “faithful Briar” and “end” for “run dry” if you struggle to understand my somewhat refined writing style.