The Old Tunes

(Winner of the Petra Kenney Prize, 2004. Judge, Andrew Motion)


I left the east coast waves stacked up behind

The running line of dunes.

My great, or triple-great grandfathers’ tunes

Came reaching and breaching into my mind.

The sea lay long and deep over the dead

Settlements and the spent high-water marks.

To the inland side of this shallow bank

Of sand and marram-grass the pathway led

Beside enormous fields, beneath the lark-

Hung sky – or were they just some humdrum shanks  –

Towards the town. The air was high with heat,

The slack-pools on the warren

Floor and scrabbling plants gave out a foreign

Smell. The farms rehearsing for defeat

Were littered with the decomposing Fords

Of every generation, all the way

To 60s models with Farina fins,

Sans everything, and so completely gnawed

By rust and salty wind, their bodies lay

In flaky-thin and brown, untouchable skin,

And near them, in a scatter by the byre,

The differential gears

And teeth and body parts of earlier years,

Beyond all scavenging. Snagged on telephone wire

While rising on a sudden upward gust,

A piece of black and shining polythene

Was flapping like an outraged crow. Towards

The centre of the town the summer dust

Dispersed, a fairground shimmered on the Queens

Parade. The station’s destination board

Displayed a row of names that gradually lost

The endings of the right

Side of the map. The carriage, to my slight

Surprise, had filled with old boys from the coast

And round about, the greats and triple-greats,

With fiddle cases and melodeons,

And black-gapped mouths with pipe tobacco breath,

Hot suits of tweed in less than Sunday states

The stud-holed belt that let the window down

Was like the ones that held them at the girth.

Back and back they went, beyond the time

I’d any thoughts about –

Not exactly carbons fainting out

But more a run of ever-loosening rhymes

So that the furthest one had hardly any

Echoes of the nearest; faces freed

By distance. Someone bowed a simple line

And in a blink his sound was one of many

As the rest surrounded him, the reeds,

The button-keyed accordion, the fine-

Tuned dulcimer, the pipe-and-tabor, all

Taking up the strain

And passing round the notes again, again

Until they wore it, sea-like, to a ball.

They played a Schottisch and a Waltz Vienna.

One of them, a father of mine for sure,

Could perfect-pitch his fretless mandolin.

Beyond this sound I heard a drop and then a

Drone of perished bellows, and once more

Could sense the early players’ presence in

The backroom of a period. The sound

Went dim, and as the land

Passed flatly by – the cuts, the levels and

The drains – and as the elongated mounds

Came up to meet the track or else flew out

Across the ground, they could have been the beds

Of severed lines, or earth-made river walls

Without much purpose in this almost drought,

Or causeways going where a trade road led,

Or Roman agger-banks, or else the small

Remaining strides of marching boundary dyke

For kingdoms lost below

The counties. Here the train began to slow

And climb into another country. Clouds like

Coals were gathering on a rim of hills.

The plain behind us silvered into dream.

A city simmered close. A fairground scene

Of railtracks in the sky was soon distilled

To chemical plant which piped and wound and steamed

As if that other state had never been.