Archive for April, 2017

A SHORT HISTORY

For a generation, like weather cocks,
their skeletons swung near the highway.
James Price and Thomas Brown had robbed the Mail.
Years turned. The Gowy flooded and the heath
flowered. Travellers noted the bones
hanging in chains by the Warrington road.
Justices ordered the gibbet removed,
the remains disposed of. In Price’s skull,
while Napoleon was crossing the Alps
or Telford building bridges or Hegel
defining Historical Necessity
or Goya painting Wellington’s portrait,
a robin made its nest.

 

 

Note: first published April 2009.

 

 

 

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FOLLOWING THE CHAIN

The photograph could have been taken anywhere

they forged the Royal Navy’s anchor chains –

Dudley, Newcastle, Ponypridd or here

in Saltney, Chester, reclaimed marshland

near the river. Wherever the Sea Lords chose

to give the contract the chain makers

and their families moved – like funfair folk

or circus people – if they were able.

 

There are thirteen men in the picture – a shift

about to go on judging by the spotless

faces, arms and hands. They are not burly men

though their biceps were developed hauling,

rolling, beating, linking the molten iron.

There is no fat on them – despite the buckets

of draught beer the employer provided

to hydrate them in the purging foundry.

 

They are pale, working in the dark except

for the furnace glare. They have been posed –

by some Edwardian photographer

keen to record the locality –

in their full length leather aprons, some with caps,

some bare headed, three with mufflers to wipe

the sweat from their eyes, four with waistcoats.

They are sons of blacksmiths, grandsons, village lads,

from the coast, from the hills, from the valleys.

 

The ones in front are on one knee, with sledge hammers

and tongs, a length of chain at their feet. Unused

to cameras, some look at the lens – like two

kneeling – or away like the one at the back

with his tash and his thumbs in his waistcoat.

He was Simeon Harris – my wife’s grandad.

 

After the Great War the contract moved. He stayed –

married by then to his best friend’s widow,

responsible for two sets of children –

and never worked again, living on the dole,

the rare rabbit snared on the Duke’s estates,

the very occasional shared salmon

lifted without licence from the river,

his wife’s pittance for cleaning the chapel,

soup from the workhouse for breaking stones.

 

The day before he died – his wife scolding him

for idling – he sat, on the back step,

smoking a roll-up, his muffler hiding

the cancerous lump on his neck. My wife,

then nine years old, sat close. He whispered to her,

‘I feel bad today, love’.

 

 

Note: first published 2016.

 

 

 

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LIVERPOOL, 3RD MAY 1941

This is one of the great public, civic

spaces of the world – the museum,

the library, the gallery, the court house,

Wellington’s column, the Steble fountain,

the Empire Theatre, Lime Street Station,

St George’s Hall,  St John’s Gardens, vistas

of the river, the Wirral, the Welsh hills…

 

During the worst raid of the Liverpool Blitz

the museum was set ablaze – a bomb,

one of so many, supposedly

for the docks, that razed history, neighbourhoods.

My grandmother, Liverpool Welsh – who took tea

with Buffalo Bill and was offered a place

in a music hall chorus line but refused,

being the eldest of thirteen, her Da

at sea and her Ma at the sherry –

described to me in detail many times

the natural history collection:

stuffed walruses, condors and Don Pedro,

a retired Barnum and Bailey elephant –

all immolated, and washed away.

 

While mummy, daddy, grandma see ‘Evita’,

she and I make our way to the museum,

holding hands. I talk about history,

public and personal – my father,

a stranger, a London Jew, in transit

that May Saturday, joining a line

of desperate buckets. She listens –

in my company a serious,

concerned seven year old – and asks if fires

can ever be put out. ‘Yes, always…

eventually,’ I say. We decide

to explore as many floors as we can

from the top – space, dinosaur poo, bugs

but have no time for masks and totems –

and pause, me for rest, her to draw,

before, leaving a moment for ice cream,

we walk in the dusk, past the statues,

up the incline to the theatre crowds.

 

 

Note: first published April 2017.

 

 

 

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THE RULES OF THE GAME

I had my first hair cut when I was three.

(I had been tricked, bamboozled, farfirt).

My grandpa took me to his barber’s –

redolent with banter and tobacco smoke –

near the junction of Cricklewood Lane

and Finchley Road. It was frequented

by his card playing cronies. I watched him

have his hair trimmed and some strands combed over.

I was invited to try the high chair

but, no sooner there, I was begowned

and the scissors flashed. ‘Fetch a policeman!’

he always claimed I called out. I imagine

a shop full of Jewish refugees laughed

uneasily at my accidental vits.

 

He smoked Craven A in an ebony

cigarette holder, drank tea from a glass

with a silver plated handle and snacked

on Rakusen’s matzos coated with

Colman’s French Mustard. When I was eight

he taught me to shuffle a deck of cards,

perfumed with nicotine, from hand to hand

then thumbs and forefingers like a croupier.

He taught me Gin Rummy where the twos

of any suit are also deuces and wild

like the jokers. We could choose whether aces

were high or low. I liked the black cards best.

 

When we were playing he would sometimes pause

to tell me stories: of Kiev; his escape

from Russia; my father; my grandmother.

We continued to play well into my teens.

There were questions I did not know how to ask

and ones then I simply did not know to ask.

I pass the tiny tales on like pieces

of a mosaic. ‘Remember’, he said,

‘for patience whichever way you shuffle

first the jokers remove!’

 

 

Note: first published 2016.

 

 

 

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‘EAST END GIRL DANCING THE LAMBETH WALK’: BILL BRANDT, 1939

He’s set it up, of course. Or, rather, framed it.
There’d be no feigning this young woman’s delight
in being ‘free and easy’ and doing
‘as you darn well pleasy’. She’s got her best blouse on,
with shoulder puffs, her sister’s shoes, which fit her now,
black ankle socks and shoulder length, unpermed hair
freshly washed – and waved, probably with Kirby grips.
Doin’ the walk, she lifts the hem of her skirt,
revealing her slip – and smiles coquettishly.

Beside her is a line, a queue almost of
female acolytes. (The only boy looks away).
They’re pre-pubescent, excited, nervous at what they see:
grown up clothes, shapely legs, unimaginable bust,
a sensuousness that, unwilled, will be theirs.

Down the street of terraced houses, symmetrical
as barracks, a woman strides, her back turned
on this miracle: a girl who knows
she will never grow old – ‘Any ev’ning,
any day…Doin’ the Lambeth Walk.’ Oi!

 

 

Note: first published April 2009.

 

 

 

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