Archive for September, 2012


Catching the last train on any Sunday night,

when I was a student, before The Troubles,

they would be there. I would notice them

in noisy farewells clustered near the bar:

the men, red faced, shouting companionably

with the drink, the women calming kids –

the cardboard suitcases, the carrier bags.


Changing at Crewe, there would be more of them

to join us for the early Irish Mail –

refreshment bars and ill-lit platforms full

of bothered, now silent travellers.

One night – the Mail, as usual, delayed –

an old man, in a black overcoat,

gripping a scuffed doctor’s bag, its clasp

tarnished, turned to me, saying, in a soft

Dublin accent, ‘British Railways ought to be

bombed!’, and chuckled at what he must have thought

was our shared history and a past gone.


With them, waiting on the platforms or jostling

for seats, I felt close, whether real or imagined,

to centuries of unremitted wrongs

held so fresh in memories that it must seem

only yesterday the Black and Tans patrolled,

just a week since the potatoes failed,

a month since Cromwell’s hard-faced soldiery

massacred the innocents at Drogheda.


Leaving the train a few stops after Crewe,

I would think of their now unbroken way,

through a slate-black countryside, to embark

for somewhere they knew was home – and envy them

such modest certainty.




, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,



The groundsman was already burning leaves.


Each working day, I was paid to lead

other people’s children through the labyrinth

of language – received, standard. (For some,

it was the wrong one – language or labyrinth.

They had their own minotaurs at home,

on the streets). And each day, I would drive back

to smiles and books and weathered bricks and luck.


Watching the smoke drift, I was surprised

to be still there, trying to unload

the dice from some sense of duty –

and something not a little like love.




, , , , , , , ,



A sudden heavy shower of summer rain

slows the early evening motorway

to a blood red blur of brake lights.

In my mirror, I see two cars collide,

career across the lanes – and others stop,

receding out of sight into the downpour…


I am thirteen and a half and tall for my age –

the year of Hungary and Suez;

am sitting on the red leather back seat

of an almost straight-from-the-showroom

Morris Minor (in the inexorable green),

having dined at Heathrow’s new, five star

restaurant and sampled hors d’oeuvre

and tasted Riesling for the first time;

am being driven back to Golder’s Green

by Yvette, the car’s owner, a fashion designer

and childhood friend of the other passenger,

Angela, my aunt, a night club pianist,

briefly home from Johannesburg –

both daughters of Tzarist refugees,

both light years from the Pale,

bleached blondes, smoking Sobranie

Black Russian in ivory cigarette holders;

am listening to these nubile women,

our daughter’s age now, talk acidly

of their exes, wearily of their dads

when a four door car, overtaking,

somewhere on the Great West Road,

comes seemingly too close and Yvette

swerves sharply right, her bumper

striking its fender with a metallic thump…


Fifty and more years later I forget

the dénouement. Certainly, no one died.

I think of you, somewhere perhaps without rain,

watching the sun set, perhaps wondering where I am,

why I am late, while I drive homewards.


Note: this piece has been subsequently published in ‘A Jar of Sticklebacks’ –




, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,



The left, centre and right panels of the tryptch, ‘Garden of Earthly Delights’, by Hieronymous Bosch circa 1510


Paradise flocks. Christ is blessing Adam, Eve

and, looking our way, us. We know, we

know – but a dirty trick to make evil

interesting! Lords and ladies teem: nude

armies on sensual manoeuvres.

In the nightmare, penis becomes knife, vulva

a cracked, open egg on tree-like legs –

and a man, elbow on the cut-away edge,

is unmoved. Hells’ punishments become our

crimes: towns burn; refugees drown; a man

is crucified in a harp. Hell’s commandants

play sonatas – and someone watches

and is indifferent.




, , , , , , , , , , ,




Rhodes Memorial, Cape Town. © Sylvia Selzer 2009


‘Equal rights for all civilized men south of the Zambesi!’ Cecil Rhodes




Apparently, he loved the view from this spot –

the north east slopes of Table Mountain – indeed,

owned much of the foreground. The sycophants

of Cape Town built, with granite quarried

from the mountain itself, this monument –

with Doric columns and arcades (which he

so revered, apparently), bronze lions à la

Trafalgar Square and a pensive, almost

wistful, bust of Cecil, clergyman’s son,

diamond broker, chancer.





The wooden bench from which he so enjoyed

the view survives below the monument

and on which he might have preferred a brass plaque

but perhaps not. He bequeathed the mountainside

to the nation and so ensured its slopes

preserved. We brunched at the restaurant

among the pines. At the next table,

a Coloured waiter served an Asian man

and a Black woman Italian Tomato

Soup and Quiche of the Day.


The air was pellucid, alpine. Oddly,

a Marsh Harrier circled above us –

yet this was beautiful. The restaurant

suggested his wish had been achieved

though not, of course, quite as he intended!

Below were the airport, disused cooling towers,

the Guguletsu township and, out of sight,

beyond the mountains that bound the horizon,

his unrealised, longed for, imperial road

from the Cape to Cairo.





When we returned to our rented villa

in Newlands, Precious, our maid, was leaving

to catch her train for Guguletsu.

This was her first time at the villa

so she was nervous. She would be home before

nightfall but she must walk through the dark

in the morning, evading the tsotsis.

Her daughter had stayed on at school, planned

to go to Rhodes University, planned

to leave South Africa.


We could not assuage Precious’ fear. We thanked her

for looking after us. We became used

to the gratings on all of the windows.

We felt safe behind the garden’s high walls.

From the verandah, we watched the mist

pour down Table Mountain like dry ice –

and listened to a pair of Sugarbirds sing

in the Jacaranda. So nothing had changed

yet everything had changed.





Someone in black spray paint had, as it were,

crossed out Rudyard Kipling’s words on the plinth

beneath the bust: THE IMMENSE AND BROODING



SHALL BE HER SOUL. The same hand probably

had sprayed the plinth, at the foot of the steps,

with: ‘reject racist heroes’. It supports,

on a rearing bronze horse, a bronze horseman

looking for the future.


Note: the poem has subsequently been published at


, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,