A continuing tale of life in the boonies

No. 311

Poets who matter: No. 18 Robert Herrick

ROCHESTER - The closing date for applications to be Rochester's next poet laureate is Jan. 9 - forms can still be downloaded from the city's website, but time is fast running out. Hurry, hurry!


They're shaking trees for poets yet,*

A laureate they've sworn to get,

Come, tumble down into their net,

And let them pin on the rosette.


They're shaking trees for poets still,

From Chestnut Hill to Gonic Mill,

And clear across to Boucherville,

Please show yourselves, they mean no ill.


O, poet up a tree, come down,

All be it you're of no renown,

This isn't such a picky town,

Tho' you be duff, they'll scarcely frown.


If you're a poet up a tree,

Don't cling on so tenaciously,

As long as all your verse is free

Of rhyme, you don't have to bother with scansion.


*Inspired by Flann O'Brien's Sweeney, the mad Irish king perched in a thorn tree, in "At Swim-Two-Birds", who will talk only in ancient verse, even when playing a hand of poker. He would not come down.


Yup, apply today. "Old time is still a-flying," as this week's poet who matters, Robert Herrick, reminds us in just one among hundreds of verses consumed with the ticking of the clock, and the need to get out there and do stuff while you still can.

Herrick's urging to live life to the hilt, a carpe diem approach, appealed very much to the youthful gangs of Easterhouse, in Glasgow, where I was a policeman more that quarter of a century ago. Not for them the constraints of the Greek, Epicurus, who, while all in favor of squeezing the maximum pleasure from life, counseled moderation to reduce the pain and mortification of overindulgence. To the Drummy, Toi and Aggro, that made no sense.

Why encourage someone to drink their fill, when reminding them of tomorrow's hangover? Furthermore, argued the lads, albeit tacitly, Epicurus was far too big on tranquility which, if you lived in a sprawling housing project of 40,000 people with no job prospects, was tantamount to boredom. As Herrick rued in Upon The Troublesome Times:


O Times most bad,

Without the scope

Of Hope

Of better to be had!


Boredom, once relieved by territorial warfare, was by 1981, being kept at bay in the rugged twin halls of the Easterhouse Project with ferocious, energy-sapping games of five-a-side football and pounding music. Then there were weekend outings to the Scottish Highlands and, of late, trips in the van on summer evenings to rock-climbing venues outside the city, with the aim of making adrenalin flow in beautiful settings such as the Whangie, with its view over the curlew-calling moors to Loch Lomond and the Arrochar Alps.

On one such evening in late August, I filled up the van with a dozen older teens drawn from all three gangs, and equipped with a rope, helmets, slings and carabiners, drove across Glasgow, up through Milngavie, and out to Craigmore Crags. A couple of the Aggro boys had been along the Aonach Eagach ridge in Glencoe, a Drummy member had been in the party that conquered Liathach, and Tommy Blythe from the Toi had even dawdled up a named rock route, albeit an easier one, on a spectacular mountain called Buchaille Etive Mor.

This was the first time they had been away in a mixed group, though, and I was a wee bit leery that if one lad couldn't do the climb on Craigmore Crags, members of another gang might lapse into derision. This would certainly lead to hostilities, and so we began with a chat at the base of the cliff about the temptations of triumphalism.

Craigmore is a basalt outcrop, averaging about 35 feet in height, on the upper western slope of a valley. Below the cliff, the land falls away gradually down to a river and then rises again steeply on the eastern side as the Campsie Fells. Above the crags of Craigmore, there is a handy line of trees for "top rope climbing" and beyond is a wide expanse of grassy field.

I rigged a sling round a Scots pine trunk over a route called Kit Kat, clipped in the rope, abseiled down to the group, and explained the drill. The first lad, with the safety rope tied into his harness, would climb the groove, and I would stand at the bottom and take in the rope's slack. When he got to the top, he would unbuckle his waist harness, and lower it and his end of the rope down the cliff for the next guy. Then he would walk along the field to where the cliff petered out, and come back round to join the group. That may sound complicated, but in practice, it should have been simple.

True, after each person scaled the route, they did lower the climbing belt down to the next in line. But, in the 25 minutes that had elapsed for a dozen gang members to ascend the cliff, not one had reappeared back at the bottom. I feared the worst, and expected, after free-climbing the rock wall and popping my head up over the edge, to see a donnybrook in progress. Instead, I beheld an unco sight.

Away across the field, small silhouettes showed the Toi, Drummy and Aggro seated in a circle deeply engrossed with something that it was hard to discern from the distance. They seemed to be eating, and Oberon's Feast flashed curiously into my mind:


Take first the feast: these dishes gone,

We'll see the fairy court anon.

A little mushroom table spread,

After short prayers, they set on bread;

A moon-parched grain of purest wheat,

With some small glittering grit to eat ...


What the heck? As I broke into a trot, two fellows [--] longhaired, oddly clad fellow [--] detached themselves from the circle and ran for the road. The gang members looked up vaguely and continued, it seemed, to munch on something.

"They two hippies," said Tommy Blythe, when I reached the group, "they showed us how tae find magic mushies. We told them how you were a polis, but, and they got scared. They warned us no tae eat ony mair than three, but ah've had 17." His face glowed with happiness.

I broke into a mutter:


If thou hast found an honeycomb,

Eat thou not all but taste on some:

For if thou eat'st it to excess

That sweetness turns to loathsomeness.


Even Herrick had his Epicurean limitations, but then he didn't exist in the bleakness of post-industrial, Thatcherite Scotland, where even the Campsies, bathed in the golden light of a western sun, were unable to soothe a bruised soul, it seems, as effectively as hallucinogenic mushrooms. Nonetheless, the governing law, the Misuse of Drugs Act of 1971, could offer no gleam of approval, and back we drove at once to Easterhouse (the sky flashing vivid colors for everyone but me) with the firm understanding that future climbing trips would focus on the Whangie, where heath grass and hare bells and bracken grew, but not psilocybe semilanceata.

Yet that troublesome fungus did help to extend the gangland peace in eastern Glasgow for a while. The Toi and the Drummy, apparently, found a few "mushies" on the edges of their former battle ground, and then a mother lode turned up the neighboring housing estate of Queenslie, very near where everyone had to go to sign on for unemployment benefit once a week. Thus, in the month or so before the first autumn frost, peace, goodwill and an unusual passion for botany, spread beyond the ganglands of Drummy, Toi and Aggro.


Fair mushie, how we weep to see

Ye haste away so soon ...


Take a hike, Herrick.


December 29/30, 2007


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