Tuesday, 20 October 2009

The balladeer

Shortly after moving to the North East from Lancashire in 1971 I became associated with the Tyneside Poets. My first experience of seeing one of my poems in print was in "Poetry North East", then the regular journal for this group. I don't suppose I then thought this would lead to nearly four decades of writing. Presently, I am concentrating on combining my love of folk music, folk tales and legends with my writing through writing a series of narrative poems based on traditional stories from around the UK. These are being regularly podcasted by "Folkcast", so I can be heard reading them at http://www.folkcast.co.uk/ betraying my Lancashire roots with the accent. The latest one concerns a story from Northumberland.


Not so very far from Rothbury town in Northumberland,
The canny folk of Simonside won’t stray abroad unplanned
Into the hills when night and mist might make the way unseen
Where just one mistaken step can be into a ravine.

Strangers indeed are well advised to stay away at night
And not to try and cross the moor even in full moon light
Yet being still late afternoon when a young man’s car broke down
He left his wheels to cross the hills to get to Rothbury town.

He should have been there by sunset, but then he lost his way
And all his self-belief faded with the last light of day,
A shepherd might have recognised a peak, a stream, a track,
But this young man could not make out a way forward or back.

So finally he felt it wise to find some sheltered place,
Until the dark had slipped away and the sun showed its face,
When suddenly, to his surprise, an unexpected light,
Faintly glimmered not far away, an answer to his plight.

“Perhaps it is some shepherd’s hut and I might shelter there.”
He said to himself with hope, dispelling bleak black despair.
At last he found the wooden shack roofed over with thick sods,
Within a little fire flickered: a palace for the gods!

On entering he found himself to be in there alone,
And either side of the modest fire stood a rough hewn stone,
By the side of one a pile of sticks lay upon strewn straw,
Lying next to the other two sturdy gateposts he saw.

Sitting himself on one stone, feeding sticks into the flames,
He thought he heard a strange sound, or was it wind playing games?
Then to his utter disbelief, terror and amazement,
An evil looking dwarf came in, all twisted, gnarled and bent.

Trousers and coat made of moleskins, his clogs were two lambs skulls,
Fur for his hat was from fox pups, killed in one of his culls.
Strode in without a greeting and sat on the other stone,
An evil glint in his eye chilled the young man to the bone.

The goblin stared and scowled and sneered, but never spoke a word,
While in his memory from childhood the wary young man heard
His gran telling of travellers being lost beneath moon and star
In the hills by Simonside must beware of the Duegar.

“Do nothing to offend him for he means mortals great harm,
There is no protection against him, no magic, no charm.
If he’s given the slightest cause into a rage he’ll fly,
The only way to hold him back is look him in the eye.”

“Thanks Gran.” He muttered to himself, “I’ll not provoke his ire.”
And reaching down he picked up sticks to feed the fading fire.
The Deugar gave a disdainful snort as effortlessly
He snatched up a thick gatepost and broke it over his knee.

Threw both pieces on the fire which surely stopped it dwindling,
Then looked up as if to say, “A child can snap thin kindling.
Now you pick up the other post, break it and show some pride!”
But the young man made no such move and never looked aside.

By and by the fire died down but the man maintained his stare,
The room grew darker and darker and oh so cold in there.
The Duegar continued scowling, a challenge in his eyes,
“Come and get the gatepost and feed the fire before it dies.

“For, if there’s total darkness you’ll not be able to see,
Then, completely blind, you will be alone in here with me.”
Although the words sounded clear and he heard all that was said,
The Duegar never spoke, it was all in the young man’s head.

So he kept his silent gaze, he would see that long night through,
The room became ever gloomier, yet the young man knew
That the dawn was approaching, it could not be far away,
And he certainly would be safe once came the light of day.

He began to feel so tired and his eyelids weighted with lead,
“There’s a straw bed in yon corner, go and rest your nodding head.”
The Duegar sounded solicitous, words sonorous and deep,
“Why not leave that hard stone chair and lie yourself down and sleep, sleep.”

He tried so hard to stay awake, but as the feint flames faded
His eyes seemed oh so heavy and his will to fight felt jaded.
Blearily, through narrow slits, he saw the Duegar start to smile,
An evil grin that betrayed a soul that was both bleak and vile.

There were only embers left and the fire was almost out,
The darkness was pressing in as shadows gathered about,
When through the door, from the distant east, came a pale grey light,
At once the Duegar, the hut and fire, vanished from his sight,

By dawn’s illumination he saw, and felt heartbeats miss,
The stone on which he perched was the peak of a precipice,
And he knew that had he tried to do what the Duegar willed
He’d have plummeted to rocks below and certainly killed.

Dave Alton