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Artist,writer,poet from Orkney

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Sheep Poetry

Here are a few sheep poems I wrote a while ago when I was working with sheep. Many solitary times in mud and on the hill mostly burying carcasses!

A better Grave

I always anticipate
Digging a better grave than last
I size it up
A generous rectangle
Of golden proportion
Then after a tussle with the top turf
(Those rashes are the worst)
Only one spade down
The rich black earth
Gives way to ochre
Then grey

The excavation becomes octagonal
Even curved
Ending up at best
A primitive

Dead sheep in the mud

 Dead sheep in the mud

Black kitehead of
Primal eyes
Goya horns
The devilish demeanour of that
Yow off her feet
Stick of leg scratching
The rooty rash-woven swatch of ground
Too much clay
Water logged
I slogged through
Sucking mud to reach
The half sunk
Dirt snorkelling shetland gimmer
Already wholly dead beside the feeder
Greying mould wretched dusty hay
Put away too soon
And fermented with such a
Sorcerer’s vengeance
With fronds of white
Another time they would have pointed
At the woman who put on a spell to turn it
‘See her at Seatter’
Whispering her away with
Their deathly eyes



After two days only
The flesh has gone grey
Something has eaten out
The innards
A leg-bone shows
Stripped it was
A rat
That burrowed up through
The Rib-cage

A neat tunnel reveals
The clever rodent route to the larder of
Rotting meat
Like a bloodied purse
In process of being secreted away
Lies the liver
And kidneys too
That even richer stench
Like silage almost sweet

But nothing
Can get the rotting stink of carcass
From my coat
My hands
My nostrils
Unguarded gasp
The putrid air
Spading in the collapsing wool
To garnish
A pudding of rot

I force down the bared skull
With the metal of the shovel
It makes me think the rats are not to blame
For the trenches in France
And the simple thing that is
And flesh
In all our war-ending wars.

The Queen Mother Dies

The Queen Mother Dies

'The Queen Mother died peacefully in her sleep'
And on trawls the line
Of nasal voices from another century
‘One parasite fewer’ says Davey from the grave

Yesterday I buried a sheep
A grand old white-haired lady
Who for days I expected to find dead
Lying in the doorway of the shed
Scooring from her rear
The noise of my feet
The merest flicker from her ear
That death rattle chest and wheeze
It’s all the same

The time they left me sitting
With the Herdman wife in the home
No family, just carers, cleaners even
Took their turn
Beside her cot in
A triple bedroom shared
She rose and groaned from the pillow
Just hoping she would not die
While I was there

The toothless yow I carried from the shed
An old companion
So many winters on the hill
Her blue eyes still
And head flopped down my back

The gases fizzed
As I pressed hard
The securing final
Clods of turf on top

The Black Diamond Jacob


The Jacob was still alive
Acceptable face of sheep the
Black diamond demonic head
Softened sometimes with panda eyes
Other times just plain wicked
But still the aesthetic choice of
Good lifers
Four black horns

A thousand shetlands on the hill
Subsidies on legs they would say
The horn is living you know
Not dead
Because I had to saw right through
Before the curled one at his cheek
Bored into the skull
He was a ram
And going to the slaughter anyway
But the colour of  blood is something else
Like port

Two straight spirals like ibis
Two curled like Mary Quant
Mute nose the
Stippled black plastic
Of a rather serious toy bear

This time she was still alive
Her one hind leg curving arcs into the earth
The tireless repititious failure
To lever her haunches upwards
Leg of mutton

So I
Heave her onto her feet
She collapses
I bring the barrow
And clasp my arms round her chest
Wishing it was easier
Breast bone 
A fin of cuttle fish
Rammed through the gently rusting bars
Of a bird cage
In a damp house

I drag her backwards, it’s a
Murder movie, hind legs skitting
Fore legs jolting with the dips
Expression of passive resignation.

She flops into the barrow sedan
Hind quarters  folded in after
And sits afloat
As if it is her place
To travel by barrow these days
Watching the rooks
To get her eyes.

Burying Curly

Burying Curly

I always started out
With good intentions.
Of doing the job properly.
Measuring up by eye
I learned later not
To dig the plot
Too far away

A long drag over bumps and rash
Clumps in sodden ground was
Hard work
Everytime I would start out
Saying this time
It will be a proper plot
A neat rectangle
Spaded out the
Black Butter smooth sides
Four across
Six along …or maybe eight
A comfortable fit
Dig dig
Turf to the side
For finishing off
Later on

A week to die

A week to die

There were big deep baas
Like an old smoker
From the far end of the shed
Corrugated sheeting resounding
She got propped up on a bale
The back legs would scramble a little
Balance then sag
Move her out of the warm skitter
Onto clean straw
With offerings of ewe nuts and hay
Vitamin injections and water
She sat like a foundered ship
Slowly leaking


This is lambing time and I wrote a number of poems about my times with sheep, lambs and their deaths.

Four lifeless lives
A smaller
Better grave
Less effort
The top turf came away
Neatly all in one
Like a coffin lid.
Dry soil a sandy blanket

The first one
Still like a stuffed toy
The bandaged stomach
And memory
Of the pained rhythmic
Groaning – I had to stitch
The intestines back inside
A cramped cavity

Like a Baghdad hospital
Precision fallout and
Amateurs with only a soaped
Stanley knife blade
Like me
Last of the out of date

The next
A bag of black jelly
Too pale hooves
Unformed and skewed tongue
No rigour mortis
A sign said Albert
Of still birth

Number three
First born triplet
Of incremental scraps of
Black and white bone and wool
Dropped by the shire wire
Corner of the field
Very dead

The last I picked up too late
A good sized black ram
The birds had stripped the innards
To Rack of lamb
And blood red spine
Bared against
It’s inside out
A thorough job
He made it to the freezer for a day
In case an orphan took the skin

Relaying the lid of well knit grassy weave
I tried a new technique
Feathering the edges
To make a better knit
Time heavy musings
Of ages of grave diggers

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Hooker in the hard world

What is it we fear? What is it they want us to fear? Is it poverty, failure, military weakness? If you have never bought the pension myth, think on those souls who put their present in hawk over fear of future material poverty and all the while impoverish their day to day family life and relationships. And then think on those who bind themselves to a 9 to 5 slavery of mortgage indenture that taints the bulk of their active life, for a time of distant ‘security’ when they must queue for a hip-replacement. For those who are already poor, it is a state of being which they can only hope will get better. If there are upsides to poverty, these might be found in a perverted kind of inclusion in communal lack.

I speak from relative comfort, but when you extrapolate the hypothetical fear of anything and boil it down to its constituent parts, that fear becomes manageable, but firstly, as with arachnophobia it needs examined. We need a snapshot of the fear presented from a distance at which we can poke and prod before we can take the horror in our hands and stoke it.

Having dodged and dived through these years of rampant capitalism, at times playing the capitalists at their own game in order to survive, I confess to having been a survival hooker, selling myself in their system.  In mitigation I can only hope that using their system and operating with their rules, I have done so in a more compassionate and fair way.  Still I have no admiration for that system that places market above humanity but can understand now, in a world that demanded my personal adaptation to Jackess of many trades, that the confidence to design a project or a business that might provide collective benefit beyond one’s own immediate needs, takes a lack of fear of ‘the market’ underpinned by the reality-check of failure.

My motivation for inventing businesses was to be absorbed and remain busy – my personal fear, was less of material poverty than being unused, un-busy, un-stretched and unemployed. When no jobs were forthcoming I had to invent my own. This took me right into uncharted territory that I would normally have shunned. The service economy in the tourism business always struck me as thinly disguised cultural prostitution, (sometimes not so thinly if you witness The Royal Mile in the summer).Discovering I could do this touristy stuff better than many competitors was a surprise, but it exploded the mystery of business and showed me that there could be huge potential for development if those that usually eschewed business applied their creative minds to it.

Fear is the ultimate and enduring tool of control – at its’ limit, the employment of physical hurt or violence to control individuals, from women in abusive relationships (yes I agree with Joan McAlpine) to whole populations: look this day at Syria. Both  the institutions of state and religion who have needed to consolidate their power employ psychological fear, the primitive fear of damnation or the complex conspiracy fear of terrorism and when they feel their controlled populations become restive with the established fear ‘givens’, they turn up the screws.

Every generation looks back on a more halcyon past and longs for it, and misses the obvious that the present they are living in will be transformed into the rose-coloured past of the next generation. Our survival instinct dilutes the bad memories and allows the rosier ones to prevail. The danger is we either forget the challenging parts of our past, or start to disbelieve they were ever that bad. The prize of building a better future is to refashion the best things from the past into a new configuration of the present calibrated by a realistic appreciation of our mistakes, our fallibility and our weaknesses.

Capitalism has duped us into thinking that money is God,that stuff will stave off unhappiness, and we must work on the hamster wheel of material accumulation to inoculate ourselves from lack. At both ends of the scale we are anaesthetised by alcohol, where those who fall through the net are numbed with addiction. ‘Schooling’ which we call education plays its part too, with the factory modelcorralling young people into prolonged infancy, in a siding of society with a fiction of education only serving to better prepare them to embrace the rampant money and acquisitive culture that we are told is the only option.

For young people, fear and pressure in equal measure filter up through the pervasive veil of sound-bite positive reinforcement – in the race for exam success, university places, and employability. Where in this crowded adjunct of supermarket-like education and policy documents is there room for the spark of individual addiction to knowledge? The link to education providing a better future life has been lost, in favour of acquisitive exam goods in a shopping trolley.

Profit prevails above sharing because that is the trickle down ethos of the one-party state of Capitalism and like a parent is the one that has the most influence in the end.

The real fear which we should plan for is the meddling by darker side of the imperialist state, which will be operating now in some former cold war control room stacked with umbrellas and bowler hats.

We need to have the confidence to believe that we can think our way to a better small society where we indeed have the potential to turn our collective minds to create a catalyst for bigger social change. We will not leave others behind, but will be the first domino, tipping a change of thought. Our society can become the focus of their hope, the possibility of a better reality for others.

Because things are the way they are is not how they will always be or how they should be. The first step is to free our minds to think that change is an inevitable part of our evolution and that we can shape that through personal agency. The vested interests of the status quo tell us we cant do this, that indeed we are na├»ve, idealistic, heart-led dreamers who don’t understand the ‘real’ hard world.

We should allow ourselves to believe that we can build the confidence to manage how we share out the poverty or the wealth. The new Scotland may be one or the other and at times both. But is it preferable to have your poverty imposed and regulated like Greece finds itself, or be a people who can at least have a say in how they manage their lack? The 10 years of imposed austerity in Greece leaves a generation without ideological hope. It has been removed from their collective psyche. Greece is being bureaucratically smashed. This was exactly what Thatcher did to Scottish youth in the 80s. For Scotland we should countenance failure but believe that there is the potential to turn the tanker of greed around and give the outmoded mores of sharing some room to breathe.

If we begin to think like this we may develop a society that expects the best in its population, not one that operates in expectation of the worst of human behaviour legislating to the level of the lowest common denominator. Much of the debate over the viability of the new Scotland relies on scare-mongering over our ability to manage ourselves, being too poor or too small. This doom-mongering comes from the traditional conservative business class who see the desire for independence as emotional rather than practical. They cling to their closed shop of business knowledge which they believe the rest of us do not understand.

But it is the very psyche of our people that is the untapped ingredient which is currently hobbled. Unfairness breeds resentment, anger and violence to the self or to external objects. Transparency that the pain is as fairly shared as are the gain is the kind of ‘fairness philosophy’ those under the yoke of global capitalist ethics are desperate for. The emotional wish for independence is no woolly soft option. Hope is key to the well being of humans, and achievable realistic goals as well as longer term dreams are what keep the human spirit moving on. The denial of that hope is a killer.

A population that can overcome its fear is one that can reinvigorate the engines of its collective potential. Perhaps our future will contain the germ of a world where the pursuit of the material is supplanted by the pursuit of knowledge, where it is normal to use what you need not what you think you can secrete away for yourself, that less is sometimes more and where profligacy, greed and competition play second fiddle to communal aid . What is needed is the creation of ‘busy-ness’ as something that replaces the old terms and models of business. A new place where social enterprise and capital will work for humans and the surplus created go to sustain communities through a different financial network of ethical and mutual banks and co-operative societies.
None of this is new, but when the pendulum is swinging there’s no harm in jumping on to give it a bit of a push. It may ironically be that the imposed policies of the Thatcher era that removed the expectation of employment from many and forced some of us out of our comfort zone into the wilderness of business, will in turn come back to bite the very politics that spawned the worst of the hard, real, uncompassionate world of greed economics.

All we have to fear is fear itself, so get that fear on the table, and give it a good interrogation with a stick. Give it a name, then dispense with it for good.