Much time had passed since I’d done any new exploring in London. Things had kept my fleeting lunchtime excursions to well-known routes, and the problem with the familiar is that it can become harder and harder to pay the proper attention to. In my work’s numbing environment my senses were being withdrawn from the world, becoming a bundle of lazy impressions. I had to get out of the dead air of the office and look again at the city in which I spent so much time. But there is something to be said for gazing dully at the Google satellite view of Tower Hamlets and Newham during the dead time after new year.

I realised that a riverside path ran all the way from near Pudding Mill Lane to – whatever DLR station I could get to in the time available. I sidled away from my desk when the opportunity arose and rattled up to the cavernous void of Pudding Mill Lane DLR station.

It always takes me a few minutes to find my direction in those parts of London where buildings are being thrown up from what on imperial maps would be considered “virgin territory”. But soon I was crossing the Bow Back River, which was a grey mirror to the sheer concrete of its banks, the sky, and the windows of the new apartment blocks. If you looked hard into the smooth surface of the river, or into the glass, you might be able to spot a flicker of a reflection of a buddleia or a coot.


The Bow Back (as marked on my elderly A to Z) is just one of a confusing tangle of rivers in these parts. I’ve never walked far along it but have done so enough to get a sense of morbidity from its right-angled sides, the untended faces or warehouses and the echo of my footsteps in the hard channel made for it. Nor did my route take me that way on that occasion either, though I must find the chance soon.

This time I was heading for the Three Mills River, which, perpendicular to this part of the Bow Back, headed south. I stepped down onto the towpath, leaving the fumes of Stratford High Street spiralling up onto the cloud. A slick of water running from the verge on my left passed under my feet, and on the right I could look out across the water to the vast construction site of East London. A few older buildings persist, the Victorian flourishes around their windows giving them a vulnerable air, as though peering through a fence at the spoil heaps and sky-scraping cranes that have occupied the land right up to the river’s edge.

The river itself was a narrow band between two shelves of silt. The concrete revetments were showing their stains and accumulated debris, and the waterfowl, seeing that the tide was out all along the Thames system, had gathered on the exposed riverbed. Most of the geese were in a reverie, necks doubled back on themselves. A few mallards drifted idly, and gulls paced backwards and forwards as if carrying the souls of the foremen who oversaw the work gangs last time this place was being transformed.

On a map, it looks as though the River Lea has become bewildered on its way down to the Thames, throwing out limbs among the roads and buildings to feel its way through. These meanders had been worked since mediaeval times, with mills and transport up and down their lengths. But in the 1930s a combination of neglect of the channels and high unemployment in the area prompted a major refurbishment, with thousands of men shoring up the banks and lining them with concrete. It’s a measure of the change since then that now in summer these waterways can be soup-thick with duckweed, a sign of still, stagnating water.

The long fence running – with splits and gaps, hawthorn trees and bramble knots – along the backs of the gardens to the left abruptly gave way to a park where a bearded jogger lurched heavily through the fittings of a playground. Industry (construction) ground on to my right, money being hammered into the silty topsoil. The birds continued to wait.

I followed the line of the river until, swinging right, I was among the Mills. The buildings string across the river either side of a broad stone-laid way. The facades are all lived-in, as they should be, being sixteenth to eighteenth century and built for work.

A TV studio owns part of the complex, and the rest has been converted into offices. Some have modern backs holding up the front – a very London version of the proverbial Wild West film set. This impression was reinforced when I looked back from the towpath heading south again, and saw the concrete and steel propping up the whole construction over the river channel. Heritage as an engineering project.

The tunnels under the buildings were open channels whose tongues – the low water – lolled sluggishly below me. There again the birds had gathered. Most faced the water, and most of these seemed to be asleep on the glistening mud. I watched them from the narrow strip of ground between the Three Mills River and the narrowboat-lined main stream of the River Lea.

As I watched, a kingfisher streaked out from somewhere in the tunnel. Its blue was spark-bright against the wintry backdrop. I turned to follow it, but it swerved along another channel, banking to show the orange breast.

I went my walking way, eyes settling again for the grey-green: grass underfoot, water on either side, buildings, sky. The island I was on narrowed and narrowed. Where it ended, water rolled by, its brown dullness scattered over by light that seemed carried by the wind.

There would have been an end to my walk, except for a bridge that looked exactly its age. It was a long, thin animal as interpreted by an Art Deco-influenced imagination. Born 1930s. Its hooves were deep in the water. I hurried over it, and down onto a series of duckboards at water level, where I could smell the river’s metallic tang, and look the moorhens in the eye. I like to be in proximity to the water, feel the unsteadiness of the boards. It’s close to being able to skim the smooth surface myself, kingfisher quick, with no fixed destination.

I like it less when I see the ramp ahead that will raise me from water level and lead me back among houses, on the route to Langdon Park, the DLR and the office afternoon.


Spiders in October

Autumn this year has been unexpectedly alive, a contrast with the sense of decay elsewhere. There’s still glimmer over the trees when the sun emerges, and even the rain has a lightness to it, a flow through the moist air and through the persisting flowers.

Red kites and kestrels are back again, after their late-summer moult, tracking along suburban streets and down the river. Either might have been interested in the mouse that explored the wet patio a few days ago, dipping and ducking among the plants between the flagstones. It was busy feeding up, because winter is still written into its genes no matter how mild, grey and damp – like an endless autumn – the coming one might be. I can tell the mouse’s refuge spots in the garden by the mounds of seedcases under stones and plank-ends.

My favourites among the autumn emergers are the orb-web spiders. In a mild autumn like this year’s, the summer peak of invertebrates only slowly fades away. Butterflies and bees are mostly gone now, but I still see froghoppers, parasitic wasps and dragonflies. Even into November grasshoppers can sound in the long grass beside Abingdon Road. The orb-webs take part in this activity, but it can be hard to see it happen.

I like the idea of their invisible industry. There’s a web strung between two traffic lights on one side of the road near my house, a reach of more than two metres. Each morning it is fresh, the main cables streaked with the colours of the cars and the morning light, the sticky threads harder to see. It’s a dawn mist of a trap, with the spider in the centre, all body and pattern. The legs seem almost afterthoughts as I look up at the creature. this spider has weight, testing the strength of its construction even before breakfast arrives.

It would have been a revelation to see that spider build, or rebuild, its web. I have missed that, but I do often see repair work in progress. For example, some of the most ambitious webs need an anchor on the ground, to ensure tension all the way from, say, the hazel tree to the hedge. This line is near invisible, but inferable from the silver angles in the rest of the web.

I try to avoid walking through these constructions, partly out of respect for the skills and effort put into them, and partly to prevent my being covered in thin wisps of tickly wreckage. But sometimes the foot precedes the eye, and I snap the anchor thread, leaving the web drifting slowly upward, curling on itself even when there’s no obvious wind.

The spider seems to hang on the sidelines, watching as its precise lines crumple and lose their definition against the colours of the leaves behind.

But it is only waiting for the damage to play itself out. Eventually it runs out onto the nearest structural thread, from a leaf or twig end, its body all shadow in the clear autumn sunlight. Its weight resets the web: it’s taut again, and a dew seems to run along its strands. The spider launches a new thread down to the grass. A breeze might mess up its calculations, but it isn’t long before one string hits the mark. Immediately the lines above the spider tighten further, as if a breath had been drawn in.

Some legs held in front of its body, others outstretched below, it spirals down the anchor cable to the bent grass blades. Then it climbs, so quickly I think I ought to hear the rattle of its limbs. The new thread is so finely measured that its builder’s weight bends it only a little.

Sometimes the spider goes to the centre of its restored web; sometimes it retreats to the shelter of a leaf. Stillness replaces the trembling of silk. There’s something about the solidity of the spider as it settles down that stops me thinking of the transience of the web and of the brief life of an invertebrate. I sometimes find myself thinking of the description of the walls of Uruk in Gilgamesh, especially Stephen Mitchell’s translation. See the intricate mechanics of the bent legs; see the amber tint of the spider’s shape, huge between the pen-lines of its web.

The spider’s permanence is in the annual recurrence of its season, those weeks in September and October when the webs appear on all sides. A year without them would be an alien one, untethered, drifting towards lifelessness.


First published in Oxford Magazine, Autumn 2017

Learning to Look


I have been watching this blackbird hours
and she has only moved as though
to ease some ache in her neck, or
shift where eggs chafe under her.

Time is lagging behind rain and wind.
My phone displays its limp progress.

Her feathers wear drizzle’s mild silver.
Her eyes still have their arc of black:

night under glass – and coming on here
just as the clouds try thinning.

The male sometimes arrives, feeds her,
goes to sing somewhere at the back of my head.

Other flights and other songs
occupy the wood. I think of leaves –
lime, oak, beech, sycamore, each a wall
of a songbird’s echo chamber.

For hours I’ve watched this female
and she has only moved as though
to ease some ache in her neck, or
shift where eggs chafe under her.

Blackbird continues as the wind does,
as time must do somewhere in the wood.

Her focus exceeds me. All I am
is hearing and looking.

When it’s dark I’ll go.

The Last Swifts in England
September 2016

It is after summer’s date but I have not
settled up. Walking is a meditation on heat.
The brooding air makes discipline
from my sweat and the glare
that beats on my skull like a stone. Scream. Scream. 

Two African birds are writing flight.
Here, their ink runs to the roofline.
It returns, cursive,
each letter finished in the next,
here, still here.
They must be the last ones left in England.

The dust of the Sahara blows
as high as the swift’s flight.
It crusts thicker on their eyes
as the desert widens.

Gone. A jet’s fingernail engraves
a pale Euclidean line along bare sky
from here to Heathrow. I try to look
down, keep my appointment. Swifts just go.

Their migration keeps seeming more impossible.
But flight’s a flame leaping over, trailing voice and sun
as Juno strings her data back from Jupiter.
She got there. The swifts do. They return,
or some do, to England or to Africa.

Who could kill a swift? Hawk strike in hunger
scatters light bones, inverts wings, shatters flight,
but you have to know the bird to do it.
Easier to take a pick to the wall,
rip out the chicks. Block up the nest hole.
Use pesticides. Keep the desert widening.

They are still alive
even out of sight – same arcs, same cries.
This year, this pair is the last
in England, in the visible air:

a dream of Doppler persistence,
a long scream not quite reaching
silence in the high-blown sand.

From “Tens”

“For far more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined it. Why do the poets of the present not speak of it? What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?”

Richard Feynman

Powers of 10 is a 1977 film made by Eames LLC “dealing with the relative size of things in the universe and the effect of adding another zero”. It begins one metre above a sleeping picnicer’s hand in a Chicago park. The frame first expands by one power of 10 every 10 seconds. Then it goes the other way, diminishing by one power of 10 every 10 seconds.



At this distance, we might read from his body heat
his ecology: cells on the verge of turning
dust. Microscopic life might thrive
but we can only speak of what we see:
the hand on the chest falls and rises
in a regular pattern, predictable.
Any conclusion is speculation
but at this scale each breath’s surge and drop
gives substance to his sleep.


She sleeps, he sleeps. The rug is warmed by the Sun.
What moves under it? Is the grass populous?
Mites and larvae, ants,
fine skin dustfall from joggers, children,
fast open-tops on the freeway.
From here, though, it is one clear square,
pristine, the figures in it letters
on plain parchment,
which may be read, with care,
for generations.


This park is a scab on unhealed ground.
Rip it out, to clean earth,
put in its place an eye
that can look up, and up, up,
so far park is forgotten.
Will it let us know what is out there,
what can be focused on,
what we can take?
In the park, look up. What is there?
Clouds where a plane disappears.



White-black city lines inscribe on screen
as the eye settles settles to focus, each angle
a point to rest on, painlessly at first,
then hawking on, another plane established.
There are people moving now along it.
Is there a volume of laws that dictates
their flow and action?
We are gods over these roofs and a/c units –
as far as vision goes. But the human still
narrates. It is in the architecture.