PTSD Poems


I developed PTSD between 2004 and 2009 in Iraq. During this period I was one of a small group who had acted as the BBC’s Baghdad Bureau Chief. We took it in turns to spend a month in charge of the bureau. At the BBC all deployments to high risk locations are always on a voluntary basis, but my times at the helm coincided with some particularly nasty events, including the bombing of the Askari Shrine at Samarra in 2006, and in 2008 the damaging of the bureau by a rocket fired by militiamen from Sadr City.

I might write more about these and other events, but in the meantime you can get a broad idea of my times there by following this link.


My PTSD was not brought on by a single event.

It was more the accumulation of 13 tours of duty, working long hours, with windows being rattled by explosions several times a day, and dealing with colleagues in London.

But it was the rocket strike on the bureau roof in May 2008 that prompted me to think I might have a serious problem, and to write my first poem since my student days.
I dealt with the actual incident well. The rocket fell short of its intended target - the Green Zone – and struck the bureau (which is central Baghdad).
It was a Friday, and my tour of duty ended on schedule the next day.

I travelled back to the UK, and on the Monday I walked in to Television Centre to hand my flak jacket back to our Safety Stores.
I don’t know what I expected, but I had not anticipated that my managers wouldn't talk to me about the incident.
I should emphasise that my team and I were extremely lucky to avoid injury or death in the attack, which made news around the world.
http://www.usatoday.com/news/world/iraq/2008-05-09-iraq-friday_N.htm

Since then, more BBC managers have been trained in trauma awareness to help them to support their teams.
But the lack of any follow up for me in London at that time proved to be extremely psychologically damaging.
I went away with my family to the Trossachs in Scotland feeling that no one cared whether I lived or died.

It’s a beautiful and peaceful area, and as I stood alone one morning looking at a loch, I saw a ripple line move along the surface of a lake towards me.
I could tell it was a blast of icy air making its way down the valley, an obvious parallel with sitting on the balcony of the Baghdad bureau listening to the incoming rocket.


The Gusts - Loch Lubnaig

I saw it coming.
First the wave it made along the surface
I saw it running
Along the water of the Loch
Scattering shining shards of light
Across the length of the water.

Then I heard it whispering.
In the waving branches
I heard it murmuring
In the pine trees that stood
Close by the side of the path
Casting their dark blue shadows.

Then I felt it coming.
But still it hadn’t reached me
I felt it, shivering,
Holding my breath in anticipation
Of the cold blast
That I couldn’t escape.

In my face the icy passing.
A slap-like blow In an instant leaving,
Leaping on down the valley
As my breath escaped
And the sun shone.


A few days later, I thought I should make the connection explicit by adding a second part.

Baghdad

I knew it was coming.
The Green Zone sirens
Blared their warning
Calling out across the ancient Tigris
Spreading gentle ripples of terror
Through the womb of history.

I felt it speeding.
Through the dusty orange air
I heard it roaring
Making its cartoon clichéd wail
As it rushed to meet its noisy rendezvous
With a haphazard crash site.


Then I felt it screaming.

But still it hadn’t reached me
I felt it, shivering,
Holding my breath in anticipation
Of the hot blast
That I couldn’t escape.


In my face the fiery passing.

A slap-like blow
In an instant leaving
Clouds of debris and smoke
As my choking breath escaped
And everything went black.



So as early as 2008 I was distressed, and in retrospect I was already suffering from PTSD. I made further trips to Baghdad, my last being in 2009, when on the prompting of my friend Jim Muir, President Talabani was kind enough to call me "a friend of the Iraqi people". But it wasn’t until January 2010 that it became unmanageable. I was thrown over the edge by listening to a witness at the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq War. His evidence made me so angry I stopped sleeping. In fact I had no more than two hours sleep a night for the next three months. When I did sleep, I had nightmares. These were not usually filled with images from Iraq, but they were all disturbing, sometimes violent, and always horrible. And I always knew what they were actually about.

A Dream About Iraq

Deer are being culled,
Their bodies piled on the northern heather,
Dumped on one another.
A new born fawn stumbling,

Shot through the leg, limping,
Bullet holes weeping,
Dark wide eyes staring.
I woke smelling blood.


And one day on the way to work I had a horrible flashback of my time in Iraq.

In 2007 147 people had been killed by a bomb attack on a market in the Baghdad neighbourhood of Sadriya.

It’s relatively close to the bureau, and we could hear screams from the roof.
It was an exhausting and extremely traumatic day, and it returned as I made my daily commute.
I didn’t remember it, I re-lived it.

Tube Journey

On the part of the Central Line that runs over ground
The rain pummelled the train trundling through the suburbs.
Wet commuters steamed steadily, misting carriage windows
And obscuring with greyness the greyness outside.

Then a mischievous passenger pulled her sleeve up
Into her palm, and swiped away at the droplets condensed
On the inside of the door in an extravagant swirl.
Once again a snatch of Middlesex scenery appeared through

A strange prism, and my stomach, lurching with the train,
Recognized the line of her sweeping arm’s contact with the glass:
It was outlining the course of the Tigris through Baghdad,
Perfect but for a slight tilt to the west at the top.

The map was exact: there was the Green Zone,
And that exaggerated westward bite enclosing
Karada-In; over there was Sadr City, and there Sadriya…
Sadriya where, in the market-place, bombers slaughtered

A hundred and fifty people.
Now I hear them scream;
Now I smell them burn.


Watch video of this poem here:


I had a wide range of symptoms, from panic attacks, unreasonable levels of anger, avoidance of anything to do with Iraq, and terrible feelings of isolation and loss.
Because of my lack of sleep I was often exhausted and impatient, and loud noises scared and angered me.
My memory was impaired, as was my appetite, and I lost around ten pounds in the first few months of 2010.

Despite this I was coping reasonably well at work. It was an interesting and challenging time, covering the most open UK election in living memory.

But I was not coping at home. I was difficult to live with, and communication with my wife had pretty much broken down entirely.

Eventually it was too much, and she told me she no longer loved me, and wanted me to move out.

I was very distressed, but was able to see that she was right in courageously recognising that our marriage was over.
It also gave me the impetus I needed to seek help, and for that I'm very grateful.

My lovely teenage son and daughter were tremendously supportive and have made it really easy for me to maintain contact with them ever since.
I moved to a shared house in a pleasant green part of west London.

In some nearby allotments, I saw two magpies bullying a fox cub on a beautiful late spring morning.

It made me feel terrible – my guilt, my sense of failure all contributed to the shame that pervades the poem.

The Fox and the Magpies

Warmth had finally come to May.
On the sparkling morning I walked by the allotments
Past the ivy draped old wire net fence
Making a make-do hedge to keep out the walkers-by.

And in a turned-over plot, among onions, I saw the young fox.
He was digging, then would stop, and run in a circle, and leap in the air
As carefree as a playing kitten and oblivious to me,
Only ten yards away, but separated from his exuberance and vulnerability.

And so he played, and rolled in the dug dry earth, and bathed in his cubness
As though the mesh fence-hedge was the gap between galaxies, and my world
Would never touch his, and his was his alone to do with as he pleased.
Then a harsh cackle broke in on our shared separateness.

Two magpies, brash and brazen in their assurance, had taken exception
To the fox-play, and if they saw me at all, they judged my outside hedge-fence
World would never impinge on their domain, as the fox had dared to do.
And so they stood, cock-sure and loud, their black and white plumage

Sometimes flashing bottle green when the sunlight caught the tail of their
City-slicker evening wear, and turned their commonplace feathers into
Kingfisher as they strutted about, assured and vicious as dinosaurs.
The fox carried on rolling in his own world, not caring for Jurassic bullies,

Intent instead on the mammal warmth the spring gave his game.
Enraged, the magpies advanced – not together, but one at a time, one to his tail,
The other to his head, hopping back as he turned to bite, cackling with manic cruelty,
Pecking now with a wild precision that evolved before fur and feathers,

Guided by a malicious intelligence that evolved before reason or love.
One at a time, while his attention was on the other, they advanced and pecked,
Hitting home, striking into the red-brown fur, snapping at now his ear, now his tail.
And so at last the fox – taught that the world has no place for any youthful joy –

Cowered in a clump of thistles, and then slunk away to the derisive laughter of his tormentors.
I watched fascinated and appalled from beyond the fence,
Unable to intervene, complicit in the harshness,
And guilty by association.


At this point, in this frame of mind, I realised that I needed to get some help.

I talked to my manager and was offered specialist psychological support and time off from work to focus on the treatment until I was ready to return.
After an assessment, I began my EMDR and CBT counselling.

It was extremely harrowing and difficult, and there were days when the world looked very black indeed.

After each session I felt exhausted, and would have to fight to stay awake on the tube on the way home in mid afternoon.
And sometimes I’d be overwhelmed by grief. But slowly I began to feel an improvement.

The Waves

The waves diminish slowly, a tide retreating from a brutal flood;
Where once I stood and felt their shocking cold slap on my chest,
And feared my feet would be swept from under me,
Now they splash playfully at my toes, their menace gone,

Snakes without fangs, or yet to learn the art of venom.
Only faint echoes of the overwhelming, unstoppable incoming rush
That swept on mercilessly, taking everything away with it, and leaving
Me gasping, drenched and naked, lashed by the double-edged luck of the survivor.


The therapy and counselling was helping. So too was my new girlfriend, Inge Schlaile, a beautiful Bavarian artist and journalist.
She was quick to acquaint me with the differences between the Bavarian dialect and Hochdeutsch, the formal language of Germany.
For me the most interesting was the lack of a word for love in Bavarian, using the phrase “I mog di” (I like you) instead.

I Mog Di
(To My Bavarian Lover)

Bavarians, it seems, have dropped Love:

“I mog di” is the best you can Hope for in Munich.
They have no native word for it;

Instead they ride off on a horse of passion,
And their Love needs no word.

So when I stood shouting into a wind
That didn’t hear, and couldn’t care,

My Bayerin said nothing, but held my hand.
Our touch transformed my separateness

Into one embrace, one heartbeat, one breath,
One life, one smell,

One unbroken bond more like Love
Than anything I’ve known.


From this it should be clear that things were beginning to look up for me.
The therapy was exhausting, and I had to take the whole of August off because of this – the first sick leave I had taken as a result of my PTSD.
Things steadily improved, and I spent part of that month in Munich, where Inge held an exhibition, and where I found an interesting story I wrote up for the BBC website.

It was a happy time for me in Munich, and I felt like I had moved on. I returned to work, and was busy at the UK political party conferences.
But I managed to squeeze in a very brief visit to the Oktoberfest in Munich, and to write a poem expressing this sense.

Leaf Ghost

On the side of this road
I trod this leaf into the slab
To rot and stain the pavement.
It left a skeletal imprint,

A faint delicate outline Of the leaf’s essence;
A phantom of the past summer,
A suggestion of its past life,
A leaf ghost of my past self.


But I wasn’t out of the woods yet, and my condition had a couple of nasty surprises in store for me.
Inge and I went to Copenhagen.
We had a good time, but I found the people remarkably unfriendly (probably just an indication of how I was feeling rather than a reflection on the Danes).
And during a visit to the beautiful Louisiana Gallery to the north of Copenhagen, some dark clouds began to gather, prompted in particular by a sculpture by Alfio Bonanno.

Broen Over Humlebaekken

The glorious autumn riot
Of leaves and lake reflections
Surrounds the gallery
In a Danish wood by the sea.

There are some sheds
Labelled as art,
Painted like Wendy houses
Or make-believe beach huts.

But the bridge stands out,
An architectural sculpture
That speaks to me directly
A true communication.

On the wooden bridge over
The Humlebaekken, two
Can start abreast
On the structure carved from

A fallen tree, sturdily hacked
With smooth insides, a bark-less
Rounded tree on the outsides,
The splayed branches welcoming.

But as you progress, it becomes
Narrower, until, after the pair of you
Have crossed the stream,
One has to go ahead of the other.

There’s no going all the way
Down this path arm-in-arm
Together. There has to be a
Parting and one must lead.

A law of nature, the way of
The Universe; no ducking or escaping
This path’s ending, no way to make
This journey together to the end.

My brave lover decides not to notice.
She clings closer to me sideways,
Squeezes in tighter, and eventually
Holds my hand tighter and tugs me

Along with her, close to her, touching her,
With no separation, no distance permitted,
No gap between us. But on this path
One of us has to go first.


And then the most surprising twist for me. Since I started going to Baghdad I have developed a slick routine for going through security checks.
This involved wearing a belt with a plastic buckle, keeping my change and phone in my bag, and other stuff designed to allow me to sail through.
At Copenhagen airport none of this cut any ice with the security staff.

They made me take off my shoes, my belt; empty my bag – the full works.
It took me back forcibly to the hell of Baghdad security, and the traumatic effort of getting through the airport and out of the country.

It also raised other issues that I’m not ready to share here at this stage.
But it also took be back to a particular incident, where a sergeant from the (former Soviet) Republic of Georgia refused me entry into the Green Zone.

I was alone, and he forced me to wait on perhaps the most dangerous corner in the world at that time for fifteen minutes until my security team collected me.
The images flooded back, not as memories but as re-experienced events, and by the time I was back in London I was deeply distressed.

The Distance Between Souls

We walk towards each other with closed faces
In isolated internal worlds
With secret, unarticulated sorrows,
Unvoiced joys and the insular

Passions of unshared lives.
At the atomic level it’s impossible
To touch; the forces of the universe
Physically repel us from one another.

We can hope for fleeting connections
Through love or art or intellect,
But I’m overwhelmed by the sadness
In the distance between souls.


However my therapist was very good and it was all stuff that had to come out. And I moved on.
I think it was at this time that I fully recognized that I wouldn’t be going back to Baghdad, and that my life and my career had changed forever.
Not an entirely bad thing, you might say, but you have to remember that for me Baghdad had become more normal than London, and it prompted nostalgia pangs.

The District Line

This is a District Line service to Upminster.
I stand aside to let a woman off the train
And a man pushes in front of me
And takes her seat.

Stand clear of the closing doors.
I stand holding on to the upright pole
Watching the roof of the Piccadilly Line
Train running alongside.

Please move down inside the carriage.
The Piccadilly passengers read their papers,
Crushed together just like us,
Running parallel, relatively motionless.

The next station is Sloane Square.
I jolt along, noticing the two attractive
Women in the carriage, but not
Making eye contact.

This is a Lake District Line service to Blencathra.
My mind has wandered along mountain paths
Away from the metropolitan cramp
Towards freedom and space.

The next station is Victoria Falls.
But I’ve left behind excitement
And had the last of my work adrenaline.
This is my reality.

The next station is Sierra Leone Square.
But I’m not getting off there,
I’m going to the end of this line,
Solidly packed in with the rest.


You can see video of this poem here:


Iraq had another bite at me.
I was incensed when I heard Carol Ann Duffy and some other poets had written Iraq "War Poems".
They had appeared in the Guardian Newspaper more than a year earlier, in July 2009.
But it was only during a weekend trip to Paris that I was able to articulate why it annoyed me so much.

Not Wilfred Owen

In a Parisian building
That might be a sports centre,
There’s what purports to be
Brancusi’s studio.

Someone has chosen
Which objects to show,
And neatly arranged them;
They look like they’re dusted every morning.

Told to behave, everything
Seems to be here:
The shapes in plaster,
The inspiring driftwood discoveries;

But it’s edited, selected,
And presented to us -
This is a committee’s view
Of the atelier, not the real thing.

Once poets crouched in trenches,
Winced at shell-bursts, and
Watched men’s faces
As they died in agony,

Devils sick of sin.
Now they watch television,
Electronically stimulating outrage,
their pity distilled vicariously,

Experience confused with viewing,
Visceral reality muddled with image.
They watch war on the news
And think that’s enough.


You can see video of this poem here:


This brings me to the end of 2010, when I wrote two more poems, after a lovely trip to Munich with Inge before Christmas.
The scenery was lovely, and the paintings of the best German Romantic artist (on display in Munich) were fresh in my mind.

Schliersee

Each pine tree is meticulously painted
By Caspar David Friedrich.
They march up the flanks of the Wendelstein
All the way to heaven.

The mirror calm Schliersee is very cold, but not yet freezing.
The lakeshore branches dip into the water,
And delicate beards of icicles drape to
The steel blue, welding one element to another.


We went up the Wendelstein cable car, and there I saw again Alpine Choughs – a bird I’d first seen when I was 14, and which I’ve loved ever since.

Alpendohlen – Wendelstein

These birds choose to live in rarefied air,
Where all around them mountain peaks
Can be distinguished from the banks of
Brilliant white cloud only by their angularity.

One, then a pair, then suddenly five
Wheel with trimmed jet black wings
Through the stinging sky around the roof of
The mountain-top church.

The meringue snow has
Spattered the walls with high impact:
The storm here was wild, and will be again.
But the joyous alpine choughs are oblivious:

With a world at wing-tip, they choose the summits.
At home in the high sky, they deign to touch the
Earth only at altitudes apt to blend with heaven.
Through the thin ice blasted air, where

Fragments of diamond and silver catch the sun
Before it can complete its corrupting downward passage,
They fly freely, spilling their wind as they call
And tumble, owning the vast blue canopy,

Comfortably immersed in their exclusive element,
Forced to ground only by empty stomachs.
Around my feet they’re keen to peck up the crumbs
I scatter from the broken biscuit in my bag,

They jostle amiably for position, denying their crowness:
Their blackness is velvet plumage; their
Red feet slip and skate on the summit’s ice; their
Yellow beaks and flashing friendly eyes

Disown any family connection to rook or magpie.
Up here, at the blur of alp and cloud, they touch
The imprisoning Earth rarely and lightly,
Their survival secondary to the exuberance

And the sheer glory of their lives.


You can see VIDEO of me reading this poem at Inge Schlaile's Sardenhaus exhibition in Munich here:


PTSD is a horribly lonely thing to have, and a recurring theme in these poems is isolation.
But there is hope, and I have shown that it is survivable.

My life is better now that it has been for many years.

I realised the extent to which I had changed when I returned to my home county, Lancashire, to cover a by-election in January 2011.
It was clear to me that my perspective has been changed forever.

Winter Hill from Saddleworth Moor

This brooding northern moor seems changed:
I thought I’d seen it from every angle,
In all weathers, all seasons.
Each corner of Lancashire is bound
By line of sight to its television transmitter

And as I grew from young child to young parent
It was a constant reference point.
Beyond the inner ring of hills
Limiting my home town, and my horizons,
Pointing to my future and my escape.

At sunrise I’d find it islanded in a pure sea of fog,
The mist-drowned valleys stranding the summit,
The back of a dinosaur emerging through
A primeval swamp of extinction
To an eternal ever-changing shadow-painted land.

My anxieties grew as my ambitions matured,
Taking me from this comfortable herbivore giant
To far more blood-thirsty monsters.
But now I find myself back in these moors
Looking once again towards Winter Hill.

And from this new vantage peer through gloom
To try to make sense of what I see,
To shuffle my mental map
To compensate for my change of angle.
From where I now stand, the familiar is very strange.

And now Alpine Choughs feature again.
These tough, good natured birds told me in Germany that I was better – and another encounter with them helped me realise why I was better.

Letting Go – Alpendohle, Mittelallalin

I stand on tortured twisted rocks
Two and a quarter miles above
The surface of the sea they were born in.

A cloud of ice crystals blasts my burning face.
I’m alone but for a happy flock of Alpine choughs;
Black as treacle, glossy as liquorice
They wheel and loop through the thin air,

Swirling round my head to make me dizzy,
Plunging from cliffs to make my heart skip.
But one of them stands with me

Yellow beak pointing defiantly into the Firn,
The wind that begs and bullies him to fly.
He fights the upward impulse stubbornly,
Perching on the edge of the world,

An arm’s length away from me,
He walks to stay still, always blown backwards
Until finally he relents, and releases himself;

Just by stretching out his wings
He’s pulled heavenwards instantly,
Riding every fluke, soaring in wildness,
Letting go, he embraces his thrilling element.


See video of this poem here:


Which takes me to the spring of 2011, when I found I was still capable of getting angry.

Responsibility
(To the Nomenklatura)

Don’t believe it involves chauffeur driven cars;
Please try not to confuse it with cascading
Emails of patronising ill-written bollocks;
Don’t suppose it means asking your PA

To pick up your dry-cleaning,
Or creating new layers of lackeydom,
Or paying yourself whatever you like;
Above all, don’t think it involves meetings.

Picture, instead, pacing around a hot and
Dusty office while you wonder
If the people you’ve sent out on a story
Will come back unharmed – or at all;

Imagine directing a cameraman in the pools of
Blood and urine left by a suicide bomber
(“Don’t bother with any close-ups –
We’ll never use the body parts”);

Think of telling him later that there
Just weren’t enough dead
To interest the teatime news;
And listening as he describes

A baby smeared over a pavement
And splashed on a wall;
Then looking him in the eye
And persuading him what we do matters.


Then I completed my recovery by attending a Hostile Environments Refresher course.

On it I mixed with people with more (and worse) experience than me.

It was harrowing, but I've emerged from the past year happier and stronger - and from this course proud to be a journalist again.

Hostile Environments Refresher Course
(A defence of my profession)

We needed refreshing:

We went through the regular ritual
Of proving ourselves worthy to witness;
We ran around Berkshire dressing fake wounds,
And talking our way through theatrical roadblocks.

We told our stories:

Of rockets and bombs and Stoic acceptance
Of the worst that could possibly happen;
The strength of teams that share horror
And the callous indifference of those who stay away.

We heard silently

About the Tsunami baby, one of thousands,
Dead for days, eaten by maggots, fought over by dogs;
About the good man who, with generator fuel
Cremated the corpse, and then wept.

We shared his guilt:

We go, we see, we report a cleaned-up fraction,
And then we leave, we go home, we live.
But the nearest many come to Justice
Is for us to tell their story, and care enough

To weep later.


You can see Video of me reading this poem at BBC Televison Centre here:


Inge and I travelled to Salzburg in Austria in the summer of 2011.
It's a beautiful city, surrounded by maountains.
But during our visit it rained constantly;
The locals call it "raining threads", and it means you can't see any of the lovely scenery.
I thought it was a good analogy for PTSD: when you're in a dark place, you can't see beyond it.
But the sun is out there, and you will come to it again.

Salzburg

This fabric of woven cloud
Makes the surrounding
Mountains purely theoretical

And even the unbroken threads of rain
Unravel the blanket greyness
Too slowly to lift the gloom.

The high blue Alpine skies
Where the white summit waves break
Sit beyond the range

Of sight or foresight:
You could be forgiven
For thinking it will last forever.


You can see Video of me reading this poem in Salzburg here:


By early 2012 I had come to terms with my new life, my new limits, and my condition.
PTSD is not something that entirely goes away; my experiences are part of my life, and they have changed me.
But where I used to have dark episodes that would leave me prostrated for weeks, now they can come and pass in half an hour.
Here’s my poetic take on it.
I hope it comforts anyone grappling with PTSD: you’re not alone, and things can get better – they certainly have for me.

A Lion Lives With Me

Normally he sleeps,
Under my desk,
Or in the wardrobe,
Or under the kitchen table.

There are times when
I hear him snoring, purring,
Or flicking his tail,
Just to remind me he’s there.

When he’s awake,
He’s very easily distracted
With music or films
Or a really good book.

There are times when
He behaves like a Tom Cat,
Pissing on the beds
And howling all night;

Then he keeps me awake,
Making me notice him,
Making me show him
The respect due to a lion.

And sometimes he becomes
A slavering Man-eater,
Who has to be faced-down
With a chair and whip.

He’s quite a smelly
Old lion, and I often wish
That I could get rid of him;
But he’s mine for life.

It's clear that I'm always going to have to deal with PTSD; but I can deal with it.
Some days are harder than others, and watching the news, for example, can be a challenge.
My partner, Inge put it very well one day after a painting session.
She complained that red paint never seems to dry completely.
Well for me, red means blood, and sadly, it never fully dries.


"Red Never Seems to Dry Completely"
(What the artist told me)

She paints like an otter swims:
Instinct, bold and lithe, guides her
Capture of elusive glinting expression.

Now in the heart of her canvas
An expansive splash of violence
Reveals to me an eternal truth

Even in baking Levantine sun,
Even on hot absorbent stone,
Red never seems to dry completely.


Watch video of this poem here:


At the end of 2012 I moved to Munich to look after my daughter Clara, who was born in August.
PTSD is still with me, though the improvement in my mental state since my diagnosis is enormous.
Working through the issues, through therapy and self-examination, is hard, even cruel... but worth it.

Winter in Munich

I

Whenever sleep is required, But resisted,
The baby is bundled
And pushed through the park.

Mistletoe explodes
In bare branches

Loudly proclaiming
Life will not be denied

Even as it quietly
Kills its host.

II

Snow changes everything.

Etched in dense lead white
Laden trees emphasise

Squirrel rust-red,
Crow black.

The path fell in last night’s blizzard.

III

A Blackbird alarm betrays fear:
It shouldn’t be this scared

Of man, of baby,
Of track-side bush;

Breath escapes with the flash
Of mottled grey

Sparrowhawk gripping,
Tearing life

From straining breast,
Escaping through

A final choked-off complaint
And hint of yellow beak.

IV

Up the hill
Wheels clog, lock

And sledge through surface whiteness
To thick woodland mud beneath.

The nascent thaw Is cruel:

A hard frost,
Then more snow,

Would be kinder.



In August 2013 I returned to work at New Broadcasting House, (NBH) the BBC’s HQ in London.
I was writing for radio news bulletins, and enjoyed the work, and the company of my colleagues.

Some days were a particular challenge.

I found myself re-experiencing scenes from my career on the day two men went on trial for the murder of Lee Rigby.
The first relates to filming in the Gaza Strip in 2002, the second to Baghdad in 2006.

NBH

Playful stones thrown
By small children
Bounce harmlessly
Off our backs.

Now bullets skip

In the ruins

Of the freshly

Flattened homes;

And a tree stands

Alone among the

Concrete Rubble,
Growing green.

* * * *

I'm running by the river
That watered Eden;

Its reeds whisper

Of Babylon.

A body is dragged up the
Stone embankment;

It leaves a wet

Brown stain behind;

It stares to heaven, looking

In vain for mercy,
A round hole drilled
In its forehead.

* * * *

Hour after hour I find
New ways to say
The soldier’s head
Was hacked off.



I left the BBC in the spring of 2014, after a few months short of 25 years service.
My leaving present to myself was a trip to Orkney, a magical and ancient landscape.


Hoy Beach Stone


White and smooth,

Pocketed flat and small.

The Kittiwakes squat

In sandstone cliffs,

Decaying red tenements

Rented by lonely puffins.

Skuas patrol sea-sky

And the heather beyond,

Guarding the rare,

Endangered silence.

I kiss the stone
And 
throw it out to sea.




Later in 2014 I wrote two other poems reflecting on experiences in Baghdad.