Archive for November, 2013


I started this poem fifty years ago

yesterday – the day JFK was

assassinated. Untypically,

I cannot remember where I was

when I first heard the news. Wherever,

subsequently I tried out lines in my head

as I walked Liverpool’s windy streets.

Not a word of that first attempt survives.

Maybe I have become more skilled or, perhaps,

time has informed both content and style –

or, simply, made the past tractable.


On reflection, his murder was a very

modern, democratic even Tinsel Town

affair – dysfunctional shelf stacker

slays serially adulterous,

medicinal dependent president,

whose brains are captured on camera

leaving his shattered skull;

the assassin is shot – also on

camera – by a night club owner, dying

of cancer, in hock to the Cosa Nostra,

and who did it for ‘Jackie’, who returns

to Washington in her splattered pink suit

to ‘show them what they have done.’ Her pronouns

were significant, enigmatic,

accidental. Would he have been great?

Think Cuba, Nam, the Moon…




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…was built on downland beside the golf course

and below detached houses in their own grounds

to house Italians from North Africa

and then, post war, Germans for ‘re-education’,

and, finally, before demolition in

the late ‘50s, homeless British families.


A kestrel hovers above the cow parsley.

It stoops, as always unexpectedly,

then rises with a field mouse in its talons

and flies to an oak tree to feed and rest.

In the distance are the towers of Woking

and beyond, in haze, the metropolis.


Our granddaughter is oblivious,

scooting on the small, empty car park –

too young and innocent for epiphanies.




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The dying corporal was spread eagled

in his underpants, his executioners

and judges – a mob of fathers and sons –

dressed, as he had been, undercover,

in trainers, denims and a sweater.


Civil war, for almost a generation,

had burgeoned. Solutions receded. Rights

gained were matched by rights removed: all our freedoms

lessened so neighbours might vote, have jobs,

houses. Things did not make sense, only words.

‘Derry’ was a political statement.


Instant demagoguery occupied

newsprint and tv screen with the candour

of hatred and the clichés of righteousness –

“…these people…” Not to understand, only

to condemn, betrayed our humanity.


Technologies enhanced, determined

response: the Smith & Wesson, neglected

in the shoebox under the bed, replaced

by coded warnings to tv stations…

The night, which could be anywhere, was on fire.

Unseeing, the parade of errors

swaggered into the dark.




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The troopship, HMS Birkenhead, lately

from Simons Town and bound for Algoa Bay

and the Eighth Xhosa War, foundered in the night

at Danger Point near Gansbaai, Western Cape –

where tourists now have encounters with sharks.


Like the Titanic, more than sixty years

later, the wreck was a copybook tale

of lessons unlearned, derelictions of duty

and unstinting, unselfish courage.


The troops were mostly new recruits, workless

from impoverished farms in Wales and Scotland.

As the officers’ women and children

disembarked in the limited lifeboats,

the lads stood, as commanded, to attention

unwaveringly, then, as commanded,

they abandoned ship to swim the two miles

to the rocky shore. In the dark and thrashing

waters, Great White Sharks silently killed them.


Eight of the nine horses swam safely ashore

and bred a feral herd that grazed the plains

east of Gansbaai till late last century –

about the time, by chance, when Nelson Mandela,

a Xhosa prince, was freed.




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From the holiday cottage near the top

of Allt Goch Bach – Little Red Hill – west

and south is ancient woodland of ash, oak,

beech and holly. North, down the steep incline,

is Beaumaris – with its redundant castle,

gaol and quays, its narrow streets and low,

thick walled houses. East are the Menai Straits,

the A55 and the Carnedd range.


Some say the ‘red’ was the blood of the last

of the Druids – or the Royalists.  Now

the hill is covered with spacious ‘80s

bespoke bungalows for wealthy pensioners.

From here, there is a landscape of invasion:

Roman, Saxon, Viking, Plantagenet

(Norse, of course, by any other name) –

and, last, the so-called ‘English’ (residents

and tourists), accidental imperialists.

Inland, Welsh thrives. Here, it is seldom heard.


On Sundays, stray notes and chords from the town’s

brass band drift up – Italian opera,

a Methodist hymn. I cherish this place:

the hill; the town; the changing beauty,

shapes and colours of the tidal straits

and treeless mountains; the sense of being

always on the edge of history.

Where I live, over the mountains, far away,

is now a disunited kingdom – violent,

corrupt, gangrenous with injustice and greed.





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