Archive for September, 2016


I was a scholar at a grammar school

founded by Henry VIII after he had

dissolved the monasteries, stolen their land,

destroyed their hospitals, tortured the odd

abbot or two and trousered their cash and plate.

The school, a Victorian extension

of the original, was ‘in the shadow

of the cathedral’, as the head would say –

an Anglican canon, MA Oxon.

There was, in the Canon’s dismal study,

a portrait of the priapic monarch.

The reverend would order those he caned –

for smoking, chewing gum -‘Face the founder’.


When I was in the fourth form, we learned about

the Kings of Israel, ‘The Merchant of Venice,’

the Armada and quadratic equations.

The Virgin Queen, Portia and Jezebel

would glide through the algebra. Our form room

overlooked the cathedral’s coke store

and was level with steps visitors would take

to the monks’ dormitories now Sunday School.

Americans predominated, mostly

elderly or so it seemed. Sometimes

a pretty girl would stop and turn and she

and I would briefly see eye to eye

before our lives diverged forever.



Note: On September 16th 2016 the school celebrated the 475th anniversary of its founding.




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When I reach the half landing I will always

pause and at least glance through the long window

that frames garden, high wall, terraced roofs

and sky. I saw, one time, against roseate clouds

lit by the setting sun and billowing

in an easterly wind, dark like a line

of dancing letters, flock after flock

of black-headed gulls, crossing the compass

south east from the drowned meadows of the Dee

to the Mersey’s low tide mud flats north west.


For the last of the stragglers to pass,

it took long enough for a poem to catch,

for that slow, flickering, certain fire to take.

And I thought of caribou on the Tundra,

salmon in the Aleutians, swallows

over Timbuktu – and our loved ones,

their small migration north.




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‘The essential characteristic of a nation is that all its individuals must have many things in common – and must have forgotten many things as well.’ What is a Nation? Ernest Renan


Near the restaurant’s toilets, there was a large

framed print of a photograph of the beach

full of day trippers from Cape Town by train

one Christmas/New Year break in the ’50s –

when it was Slegs Blankes/Whites Only.

The restaurant’s customers were still white,

the staff black – by Toyota taxis daily

from the townships. On the beach, that windy

September day, African Penguins –

erstwhile ‘Jackass’ – were braying at the surf.

A Southern Whale and its young rose close

inshore and blew… From the bedroom window

of our three star guest house we could see,

in the moonlight, a young black man lay down

to sleep on the grassy bank near the sea’s edge.

In the morning he had gone. A submarine

sailed from the naval base, sounding its horn.

We watched a mist roiling slowly towards us

and the dark kelp bobbing.




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The party guests arrange themselves for a group

photo with the birthday girl at the centre.

She watches us position ourselves – some

on the sofa, some on the floor in front,

some standing behind – then runs to the tripod

and presses the remote… After the guests have gone,

she draws her first spiral – clockwise, perfect,

a spira mirabilis – then carries

her Pooh balloon around the room, requesting

Postman Pat… She hides under her special

blanket. ‘Where is she?’ we chorus. ‘Has she

gone to the river to feed the ducks?’ ‘No,’

she answers, muffled but unequivocal…

Next day, she goes to see the butterflies

in The Glasshouse – each larger than her hands splayed…

Later, she watches a pair of blue tits

begin to occupy the nesting box

on the sycamore though cold winds blow

and there are ten more weeks of winter…

Wonder jostles wonder. Nothing is mundane…

How robust she has become! How delicate still!




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San Lazzaro island was the city’s

leper colony until the Doge

gave the Armenians sanctuary, no doubt

to annoy the Turks. An antique engraved print

of the monastery, which occupies

the whole island, hangs on the wall above

the small table I use for my laptop.

The monks did the engraving and print.

Their library is Alexandrian in scope.


Gordon Lord Byron, escaping the

blandishments of Shelley’s sister-in-law,

took an apartment on the Grand Canal,

in the Palazzo Mocenigo-Nero,

with his attendants – including dog, fox,

wolf and monkey – for two hundred pounds

a year. As always bored and curious,

he visited San Lazzaro, learned

Armenian and helped with translations.


The second book of poetry I owned was

a hand-me-down, leather bound, well read,

complete works of Byron – my mother’s father’s.

He was dead of a heart attack years

before my birth: Welsh, from Swansea, bit of a

bully, a whisky drinker, a bibliophile,

a bombardier badly wounded at Mons,

a Post Office Telegram Manager,

a travelling classified ads salesman.


I have the other books that survived his

middle daughter’s arson of this auto-

didact’s library:  BP’s ‘The Matabele

Campaign 1896’, ‘The Greatest

Show on Earth,’ ‘The Makers of Florence’, Wilde’s

‘Salomé’, with the Beardsley graphics, a first edition,

‘The Story of Atlantis.’ Imperialist,

circus master, aesthete, voyeur, dreamer,

he died in a boarding house near Altrincham.


We caught the 15.10 vaporetto, watched

the white campanile with its onion

cupola draw near. The boat slowed, rolled

in the swell, engines into reverse

with a roar of gears. The tour encompassed

printing press (‘per souvenir’), church, library.

In one corridor, I smelt meat cooking, glanced

through an open window. In the kitchen yard

below, the monks were playing 5-a-side.




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