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What is Left of England? – A poem from Richard Stephenson

What is Left of England?

What is left of England?
January 878. Chippenham, midwinter.
The king has fled.
The people have no king.
The people have no country.

What is left of England?
But a dream of what used to be.

February 878. Somerset Marshes, winter,
The king is hiding.
The people are lost,
And the Vikings hold the country.

What is left of England,
cannot be found.

What is left of England?
April 878. Athney, early spring.
The king is plotting.
The people are stirring.
But the Viking holds the country.

What is left of England?
But an idea of what could be.

Whitsuntide 878. Egburt’s Stone.
The king returns to the people.
The people return to the king.
But the Vikings hold the country
Will the country fight the Viking?

What is left of England?
A dream a hope a belief.

May 878. Edington. Spring.
The people fight for the king.
The king fights for the people.
The Vikings flee the country.

What remains of England,
Is stronger than the sword.

~

Richard Stephenson runs the Dreading Poetry Slam under the name The Legend that is Richard Stephenson.
He took up poetry shortly after moving to Reading towards the end of the 20th century.
He works in London as an engineer and important middle manager.

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Meadow with flares – a poem by Rodney Wood

MEADOW WITH FLARES

 

A cappuccino at the old coffee house,

Caffè Florian in St. Marks Square,

even if it’s extravagant but there are

three musicians playing light classical,

the kitchen is ten minute walk away,

the art and décor are an experience

and waiters are at peace and professional.

 

This past year it’s not been possible

to get away, unless you’re a celebrity,

so I’ve been pretending I’m on holiday

when really I’m walking to the end

of the garden to leave banana skins

and coffee grounds in the compost bin.

It’s cheap, I don’t need a passport

and no heavy suitcases to lug around.

 

With an easing of the rules it’s almost

a return to old times on the Great Western

seated with cell phones and masked bank robbers

passing new extensions, different clothes

on washing lines, air that carries a new sort

of promise and not mutations of the virus.

 

At Reading station I have a flat white,

walk over Christchurch Bridge to Caversham,

find a bench and eat a ham sandwich.

Swifts wheel over the rowing club roof,

a falcon sits like a Buddha on a sycamore

on the other bank, geese make some noise,

four young women put on jumpers and share

a picnic on a tartan cloth, some older

folk on collapsible chairs drink glasses

of wine, one man is under a banner that reads

‘World Record Sitting Attempt’, a girl passes

with black flares and a camera, while dogs

seem generally puzzled at all the action.

My almost Homeric journey over I join

my neighbours who have decided to meet

and share cups of coffee and conversation.

A radio plays ‘Do What You Can’ by Bon Jovi

while Shelly nods her red hair and explains

to me how in 2020 the song raised over

$6 million in a benefit for his home town.

Peter, from across the road, takes pictures

 

‘To remind me of the flesh and gold of life

because maybe I won’t get another chance.’

 

~

Rodney Wood currently lives in Farnborough. He worked in Reading in the ’70s, his son currently lives there and he is a regular attendee of the monthly open mics at South Street.

 

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Tasting blackberries – a poem from Carla Scarano D’Antonio

Tasting blackberries

‘The best ones grow in shadow’
Margaret Atwood, Blackberries

~

Cycling to Heather Farm
I see blackberries gleaming in the sun
black spots and red spots
among avid spines,
the biggest and ripest ones recede in the deepest undergrowth –
they will feed blackbirds and sparrows
or melt in the mud.

I have no plastic bag or bowl
so I gather them in my surgical face mask,
collect quite a few
gobble up some,
their wild taste bursts black under my fingers.
I feel satiated by the little sweetness,
treasure their blackness
that absorbs the late summer sun.

I make off with my bundle of pitch-dark garnets –
furtive as I go.
Back home I simmer them in a pan with lemon juice and sugar
seal the jam in jars
with the label Gratefulness.

~

Carla Scarano D’Antonio lives in Surrey with her family. She obtained her Master of Arts in Creative Writing at Lancaster University and has published her creative work in various magazines and reviews. Her short collection Negotiating Caponata was published in July 2020 by Dempsey & Windle. She completed her PhD degree on Margaret Atwood’s work at the University of Reading and graduated in April 2021. http://carlascarano.blogspot.com/ http://www.carlascaranod.co.uk/

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Gas Holder Four – a guest post from Zoë Andrews

We are on the edge, aren’t we? It’ll be gone soon. Slowly dismantled, one piece of Victorian iron and steel at a time. The peregrine falcons helped for a bit: as they nestled in for a while, it felt like they were silently protesting themselves. Those birds granted us one last summer.

Many won’t care, won’t mind. Some will think it an eyesore that’s ready to go. Some would say that progress is progress, that in a town like Reading we need housing and the only way to build is up. This might all be true, in its way, but I’ll miss the Victorian beacon of Newtown.

In the summer I was out and about with my partner taking photographs. We ventured around the old cemetery at the junction and then down onto Cumberland Road, where the sun was beating down onto the street and the light was lovely. We both snapped pictures of the gas holder and one passing resident said “make the most of that, it’ll be gone soon.” Whether you like it or not, Reading’s last gas holder is a piece of history. A piece of Newtown.

Gas holder four, as seen from Newtown’s Cumberland Road, summer 2021
Gas holder four, as seen from Newtown’s Cumberland Road, summer 2021

Nostalgia can be a lovely thing. It carries a silent currency, it makes us feel things. Never has that been more prevalent and powerful in society than it is right now. But nostalgia can also forever tether you to the past. It tethers you to a forgotten place that, in your minds eye, was better. But if you relived those days today, would you feel the same way?

What is it about looking back that makes us smile and makes us sad? Is it that we see our past selves as people with opportunities and pathways not yet closed off? That we look back and see friendships that thrived, not knowing that they would fall away? Or, at its most fragile, is it that we are reminded of the people we loved and who are no longer here, and that we miss them?

It’s powerful, nostalgia. It should come with a polite warning: be careful not to let this reminiscing   ruin your day, or how you feel about the present.

Gas holder four was the backdrop to many a summer bike ride with my dad and my sisters, bike rides that also gave my mum some well-earned peace and quiet. Sometimes my dad would do wheelies along the stretch of grass by Thames Valley Park. Sometimes my little sister would come flying off the back seat. And sometimes we’d ride with a boy called Darren whose garden backed onto ours, because he loved his bike and he didn’t have a dad.

We’d ride into Reading along the cycle path from Woodley, and to spot gas holder four was to know that we weren’t far from a pit stop at the Fisherman’s Cottage for a packet of Brannigan’s crisps and a bottle of Coke. Nostalgia, you see: it’s powerful stuff.

Reading had several gas holders, and gas holder four is the last one standing. It fuelled Newtown, kept the lights on and the space alive. Gas holder four is our last remaining relic of that particular piece of Victoriana. I’ve posted many photos of it over the years on Instagram. A recent comment on one of them called it “Reading’s majestic crown”. I love that.

Christopher Costelloe, previously director of the Victorian Society, has campaigned to preserve the gasometers. He said this, which I think sums it up wonderfully: “Gasometers, by their very size and structure, cannot help but become landmarks. [They] are singularly dramatic structures for all their emptiness.”

As I grew up, I zipped in and out of Woodley on the bus or by foot. I seldom used the canal as a walking route, until I got together with a boyfriend who happened to live on Coventry Road, in the heart of Newtown. That was the summer of 2006, and I spent a lot of it in his company. I remember sleeping so well, after a year where I’d barely slept at all.

I’d hear the hum of the railway tracks and it never bothered me, just as I doubt it bothers anybody in Newtown. I’d walk the canal into town and once again I’d see gas holder four as I slipped past New Town Primary School. I remember wondering why it didn’t move much anymore: I remembered its rusty hues as a child, but I hadn’t realised that it was decommissioned now.

Nostalgia has its limits. I’m definitely not here to say that things shouldn’t change and develop and move on: I understand that you can’t save everything. But wouldn’t it have been nice to have seen some vision, seen something that brings the past and the future together? Couldn’t we have tried harder: couldn’t a developer have made something brilliant out of it? Something that celebrated the now while holding on to our Victorian heritage: sustainable housing, for example, powered by green energy. The framework of the old holding up something made with the technology of the present.

I imagine it would cost too much, and no developer in this country would want to do it. But wouldn’t that have been nice.

It was beautiful and sunny this afternoon. I’m all too aware that the evenings are drawing in quickly, that it’s a matter of weeks before those clocks go back. I felt a real need to rush home from work, drop my bag off and rush straight back out to do a loop of Palmer Park, to catch the remaining warmth of the sun.

As I walked parallel to St Bartholomew’s Road I turned out of the park and decided that I’d take a route to the canal instead. I knew the time had come for gas holder four, and I half expected to see it missing a piece of its frame but to my surprise, it wasn’t. It was still intact, there for another sunset. I took one last photo.

Gas holder four, as seen from Kennet Side, October 2021
Gas holder four, as seen from Kennet Side, October 2021

It will be so strange to walk down Cumberland Road in the future and not have it there, staring back at me. I wonder if it will be like a phantom limb, that I’ll turn the corner of Cholmeley Road, down to the canal and still see it in my mind’s eye.

And I know what I’m like, and what I’ll do. I’ll tell others that it was there. I’ll walk with my niece one day in the heat of the summer sunshine and I’ll say “there used to be this massive gas holder over there, near where your mum used to live.” I’ll show her a picture, and she’ll probably ask me innocently what a gas holder is. And I’ll realise that I can’t even really explain that myself, not in any meaningful detail. But it won’t matter, because we’ll have nearly reached the Fisherman’s Cottage, where we’ll take a breather for a packet of crisps and a bottle of coke.

~

Zoë Andrews writes about music, popular culture, history & life in Reading. This post originally appeared on her blog Zoeonpop.