There go by the engines
The engines there go by
But they can’t put mine out
So they needn’t try
There they go again now
Racing from the hill
They’ve put out that fire
But mine is burning still
The memory was sparked off by the smell of a grass fire alongside the motorway. I saw the smoke first, smudging the spring-blue sky above the road ahead, I thought it might be mist or fog, but it was too dry and too late in the day for that. Then the sweet-acrid smell of a grass fire seeped into the car through the sun-roof – tilted open to compensate for the non-functioning electric windows. I love the car, it’s an environmental baddie, an old Rover Vitesse Turbo; it drives like a confident oil-baron and swallows a hundred miles of motorway without taking a breath, but it’s done nearly 200,000 miles and it’s disintegrating. If I was the sort of bloke who has the right sort of urge it could be a sparkling classic, but I’m not into oil and bolts, and anyway it’s time to get something greener – it’s in the zeitgeist now.
I wrote the poem above when I was about 12 years old. I was walking through the housing estate where I grew up and heard the sound of fire-engines. I scanned the horizon looking for the source of their urgency and saw the translucent layers of silver-grey smoke unfold from a distant hilltop. In my memory I see myself stop in the sunshine to look at the smoke and compose the poem in my head. I must have written it down somewhere later but I have no memory of the original manuscript. I just keep the poem in the back of my brain and pull it to the front occasionally, reciting it silently to myself whenever a fire-engine goes by or grass burns.
I didn’t get the smell from that day, although it is as much a part of the memory as the sound of the engines and the smudge of the smoke. The smell was patched in from a very different experience. Around about the time of the poem I used to hang around with a group of boys and very often, especially in the summer, we used to break through the boundary of the estate and go for long walks in an area of the nearby countryside. We used to call it St Dai’s, I don’t know why.
St Dai’s was an adventure playground with spikes. Along with the farmlands and fields of scary cows were areas containing ruined buildings littered with corrugated iron sheets and mounds of stones hiding grass-snakes and mice. My mate used to catch rabbits amongst the gorse with his pink-lipped ferrets. Sometimes he took a dog and a shotgun instead, he was only a year older than me but his incarnation was one of a wise elder. I used the shotgun only once. He handed it to me as we explored the gone-wild garden of an abandoned farmhouse.
“There,” he whispered, pointing at a robin twitching in an immature rowan tree. I pulled the trigger and the robin disappeared. The twelve-bore kickback jabbed at the top of my chest.
I grimaced and handed him the gun.
“I told you to hold it tight,” he said. “Against the shoulder.”
Maybe that was a defining moment in my psychological development, I don’t know, but I can’t kill any kind of animal now, directly or indirectly, even for food.
St Dai’s abutted onto some industrial sites and a small river ran dead and fluorescent red with pollution alongside them. They wouldn’t get away with it now, but then, rubbish from the factories spread out into the shrubs and the fields outside their perimeter fences. Once, amongst the detritus we found some pieces of dense foam rubber the size of a house brick. We discovered that if you put lighted matches to the corners of the bricks the rubber burned vigorously and dripped with tiny filthy fireballs of melting foam.
We threw the burning bricks hard into the air and laughed with delight as they curved over the bushes. The grass was dry after a warm summer so wherever a tiny fireball or a piece of foam landed it started a small fire. Of course we got carried away with it all and soon a huge area of St Dai’s was ablaze. We laughed all the way home, especially when we paused on the edge of the estate and watched the fire-engines as they zipped past us and towards the result of our madness. I sometimes wonder how many small creatures were obliterated by the cruel recklessness of us boys.
The smell of the burning grass stayed in my hair until my next bath but it stayed in my mind forever.