Archive for 2017

A SHROPSHIRE LAD…

…is the first book of poetry I owned –

a breast pocket sized hardback, slightly foxing.

It was my father’s: his name neatly

in capitals on the inside cover

in indelible pencil – a Londoner,

the son of immigrants. When I was ten

my mother gave it me. I liked the first line

‘From Clee to heaven the beacon burns’,

imagining it set to music.

 

Following his death on active service, the book

was sent back with all his other things.

I never knew him. He never saw me.

He died, an ocean away, three months

after my birth. He could be my grandson now.

He touched this book. I touch it, sniff it.

Old paper smells almost aromatic

like incense, always comforting, always

intriguing. Into my forties, I

thought of him every single day.

 

The book falls open automatically

at poems 35 and 36:

 

…On the idle hill of summer, 

Sleepy with the flow of streams,

Far I hear the steady drummer 

Drumming like a noise in dreams… 

 

…White in the moon the long road lies, 

The moon stands blank above;

White in the moon the long road lies 

That leads me from my love…

but this is the one I return to always:

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now

Is hung with bloom along the bough,

And stands about the woodland ride

Wearing white for Eastertide.

 

Now, of my three score years and ten,

Twenty will not come again,

And take from seventy springs a score,

It only leaves me fifty more.

 

And since to look at things in bloom

Fifty springs are little room,

About the woodlands I will go

To see the cherry hung with snow. 

 

 

 

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THE SORES OF WAR

‘…sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments…’ President Donald J. Trump

 

In a letter to the New York Times three years

before the war General Robert E. Lee

described slavery per se as ‘a moral

and political evil’ and, in the States,

‘a greater evil to the white man’

than the black. In 1857 Lee

had been his father-in-law’s executor.

George Custis had manumitted his slaves

on his death bed there and then but ‘no white man

was in the room’. Lee promised them freedom

in five years. Three escaped but were caught.

The plantation’s overseer refused

to whip them. The local constable agreed.

They were stripped and lashed many times –  the men

fifty, their sister twenty. ‘Lay it on well!’

the General ordered. After the war

Lee refused an invitation to join

senior officers from the Blue and the Gray

at the site of the Battle of Gettysburg

to mark key moments with granite monuments.

‘I think it wiser,’ he replied, ‘not to keep

open the sores of war.’

 

 

Note: The poem, with here the addition of an extra line, was first published on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter on 31.8.17.

 

 

 

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RIVA DEI SETTE MARTIRI, VENICE

If you stroll far enough, long enough eastwards

on Riva Degli Schiavoni (Shore

of the Slaves) – before it was a wide,

stone promenade it was sand and mud  –

stroll away from the crowds, past the Danieli,

the Arsenale, the vaporetto stops

and beyond, with San Georgio Majore

across the Bacino Di San Marco –

you come to the Shore of the Seven Martyrs,

where now private yachts and small cruise ships dock.

 

It was the Riva Dell’Imperio –

built by the Fascists in the ’30s –

when the German Kriegsmarine torpedo boats

moored there. The officers were partying

one July night – the carousing loud

through the blacked out canals – when a sentry

disappeared. A crowd of hundreds was forced

to watch the seven murders – men who were

already incarcerated – and children

forced to clean the blood from the stones. Later,

body unmarked, lungs full of sea water,

the sentry’s corpse washed up against the oak piles

that keep the city safe in the lagoon.

 

Nothing extraordinary here. There are

two other sites in Venice, many more

throughout Italy, with greater numbers –

like the bus exchange in Gubbio,

Piazza Dei Quaranta Martiri,

or Rome’s Adreatine massacre.

Nothing remarkable anywhere perhaps

given half a million Italian war dead

except mostly, despite the witnesses,

the crimes are unpunished.

 

 

 

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MOUNTAIN VIEW

Some time after midnight, when the bars have closed,

the hoots and laughter of revellers

on the stone-clad stairs wakes us. Much later

wind, billowing through the open corridors

of the steel framed building, shakes our door

intermittently like some errant soul.

In the shallow valley below the hotel

a cock crows above the gusts and the rattles.

 

***

 

In the morning a warm west wind blows

over the sea from what was Carthage.

The valley slopes gradually to a cove.

Before tourism this was wilderness –

only the tideless waves on the gritty beach.

Now there are a score or so of sun loungers,

two tavernas, two supermarkets and a bar –

and some smallholdings amongst the scrub.

 

***

 

On the other side of the valley are

two more resort hotels like this, open

from May to October. At night, they are lit

like cruise ships. Beyond is Mount Vasiliko –

wind turbines on its slopes and, at its summit,

a monitoring post. Mare Nostrum

is everybody’s – a dozen or more navies,

and thousands of desperate optimists.

 

***

 

From the terrace by the pool, we can see,

through mountainous clefts, Mount Ida’s peak.

At the summit is Timios Stavros,

the Holy Cross chapel. In a cave

on its slopes, Zeus was born. Swifts call above us –

ecumenical, celestial, their flight

calligraphic. Crete is shaped like a

scabbardfish, feinting between Europe

and Africa. I think of the empty,

wintry rooms – the patience of islanders

used to long absences.

 

 

 

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JEWISH TUNES

Cole Porter was an Episcopalian,

a farmer’s son, from Peru, Indiana,

whose ambition was to write ‘Jewish Tunes’.

My mother’s favourite song was ‘Begin

the Begine’, which Cole Porter composed,

the story goes, one evening at the piano

in The Ritz Bar of the Ritz Hotel, Paris.

The love song is in a minor key.

It personifies longing, wit, irony.

 

My mother and father met in the city

of Kano, Northern Nigeria.

‘When they begin the beguine,
It brings back the sound of music so tender,
It brings back the night of tropical splendour,
It brings back a memory evergreen!…

She and my father, Gentile and Jew,

danced to the music at their wedding

in Kano’s driest, dustiest month –

the month Heydrich’s Wannsee Conference

agreed The Final Solution in

less than ninety minutes.

 

 

 

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