Archive for June, 2013


The day after Thatcher was turned to ashes,

I crossed the channel by easyJet, noted

the busy shipping lanes, then saw England’s coast –

Dungeness and Romney Marsh, Dover’s cliffs –

and the North Downs towards Canterbury

becoming obscured by rain as we banked

for Gatwick. Once home, I caught up on the news.


She was fêted in Chelsea, reviled

in Barnsley. Her official biography

was due to be broadcast as the BBC’s

Book at Bedtime. And her policies,

as always, dividing and divisive.


At the High Table, New College, Oxford,

dining with Dawkins and his acolytes,

the Iron Lady with lips of Monroe

and the Emperor Caligula’s eyes –

an erstwhile chemist who once worked for

J. Lyons & Co on ice cream preservatives –

misunderstood the talk of the selfish gene,

the immortal gene, and thought she had learned

there is no such thing as society –

her version of Caligula’s horse –

from her intellectual, though, of course, not

her socially aspirational betters.


So undigested science was used

to justify greed and social mayhem.

How could a democracy be traduced

by an obsessed, bitter causer of havoc,

determined to redeem feudalism?

Her methods were Hitler’s – challenge the foe

with extremism and await concessions.


I remember the young sleeping in doorways,

students sharing textbooks, roads unmended,

civic dereliction; the overthrowing

of unelected union barons

for unaccountable press barons;

and always the scoundrel’s final refuge

Little England’s patriotism.

Her history will be written as

both tragedy and farce.




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From Woodside to the Pier Head by ferry

is a mile and a bit on waters

that smell always of mud and oil. Eastwards

is Overton Hill, the sandstone ridgeway –

westwards the Liverpool Bar Lightship,

Liverpool Bay and the Irish Sea,

and, far, far beyond, the widening

Atlantic skies where the weathers are made.


The Saxons named the river – a boundary

between kingdoms –  the Vikings the place,

with their numerous settlements on the heights.

Cotton and molasses and slavery

laid its Victorian foundations –

avenues, mansions, slums, alleyways –

a city of barbarism and grandeur.


My grandmother told her stories as

a litany of parables, wonders.

Each July 12th, the Green and the Orange

brawled murderously. Her father captained

a ‘coffin ship’ to Boston – her mother

took to drink. Johnny Flaws, a neighbour,

died in Arizona. Other neighbours

rushed from their houses for Armageddon –

others flitted late at night or early dawn.

The Cast Iron Shore at the Dingle was rust red

with residue from the scrapped, beached hulls.


Many decades ago, when the river

thronged with craft and was polluted, ships,

at midnight each New Year, would blow their horns,

for five minutes or more – a raggedy

wind ensemble of strangers wishing

strangers well. Now, in summer, the docks throng

with translucent, pink-tinged Moon Jellyfish.




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‘Civil government, so far as it is instituted for the security of property, is in reality instituted for the defence of the rich against the poor, or of those who have some property against those who have none at all.’ Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations.


I am contemplating, in the Walker Art Gallery,

Liverpool, the statue of William Huskisson, once

the city’s Tory MP and sometime President of the Board of Trade

but much better known as the world’s first railway fatality

at the opening of the line to fetch cotton quickly and cheaply

from the Mersey’s docks to the mills of South East Lancashire.

(He died at Eccles, where the cakes come from).

His widow paid for the sculpture. He holds a scroll

and is dressed as a Roman senator. He is a tad

more lithe than in later life – or death – and his thinning hair

has been carved to indicate maturity rather than age.

(The vandalised statue was removed from his mausoleum

in St James’ Cemetery). He was hit by Stevenson’s Rocket,

while ingratiating himself with Wellington, the Iron Duke

and old Etonian, famous for the observation

that  Waterloo ‘was won on the playing fields of Eton’.


The gallery is part of a vast piazza-type space

of splendidly grandiose late Victorian constructs –

civic society made manifest in stone – Museum,

Library, Assizes, St John’s Gardens, St Georges’ Hall,

St George’s Plateau, Lime Street Station, inspired by local,

civic pride, funded by the Atlantic slave trade’s proceeds.


More or less round the corner is Scotland Road – the centre

once of working class migrant diversity: Irish, Welsh,

Scottish, Italian, German, Polish, English – its MP

until 1929, an Irish Nationalist –

its male workforce pre-dominantly dockers.  Post war

the river began to empty. Citizens of Liverpool’s slums

were scattered through Cheshire to places where

manual labour was needed – for a time. There their off-spring languish.


On St George’s Plateau, in 1911, was announced

a national seamen’s strike, which became a national transport strike.

Churchill telegrammed the King that the end of Empire was nigh.

The Hussars entered stage right, opened fire.

Two strikers died, both Catholics: John Sutcliffe, a carter,

shot twice in the head, Michael Prendergast, a docker, twice in the chest.

Working class men killing working class men so public school boys

could play in safety and nouveau riche tycoons

make dynastic fortunes for their children.




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The graveyard had been a sand stone quarry

before Victorian memento mori

filled it. Here were held the obsequies

of gentry and skivvies, cotton kings

and seamen. In the ‘60s, it was unkempt,

the unfinished Anglican Cathedral,

in machine cut sand stone, pristine above it.


The bell ringing practice would start at 9.00

every Saturday morning – the heaviest

eight bell peal in the world.  It’s oh so English

chiming cacophony filled the houses

of Liverpool 8’s grand Victorian streets.

So there was never a chance of an

undisturbed lie-in and, anyway, that day,

in an emollient and yet enticing

late May, I was revising for an exam

on teleology or ontology,

epistemology, eschatology

or whatever. Fifty years on I forget –

but I do remember that the intense

silence, which usually accompanied

the end of the practice at noon, never

occurred. Instead, there was a murmur –

like pages turned or dried leaves rustled.

Curious, I went out. The cemetery

and the pavements above were filled with

excited children. There were scores of them.

‘Where are you from?’ I asked. ‘Why are you here?’

‘West Derby, Everton Heights, The Dingle –

for the monsters, the fairies, the spirits.’

They were excited but gentle, answering

my questions willingly – exploring

the cemetery with enthusiasm

and care. By twilight, they had all gone.

There was no mention in the local press

and none of the neighbours seemed aware.


Now the cemetery has been largely

landscaped – in effect, evacuated.

A natural spring in the east wall still

pours forth, rising in Edge Hill, emptying

into the river, running beneath

and cleansing the temples of mammon.





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A skyline as idiosyncratic

as Manhattan’s, Chicago’s – its totems

of wealth, faith and dominion – belies

the city’s cruelty: fortunes from famine,

despotism, slavery; licensing

of squalor, bigotry and despair.


In the park where the Orange Lodge drummed out

The Twelfth, a rape was immediate headlines –

white girl, black youths. In Toxteth – its decayed

squares and terraces built on molasses

and cotton, some street signs repainted green,

gold, red, the colours of Rastafari –

was daubed, ‘Vote ANC’.




NOTE: The poem was originally published on the site in April 2010.




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