They kept their medals in a brass box – Bill James,
wounded at Mons, where defeat was clutched
from the jaws of victory, and his stepsons, George and Tom,
gassed at Ypres, where victory followed defeat followed
victory followed defeat, nose to tail, like elephants.
The box was a 1914 Christmas ‘gift from the nation’,
inspired though not funded by Princess Mary
Saxe-Coburg und Gotha.
They died before I was old enough to ask. Anyway
they had volunteered – and theirs were reserved generations.
One night in ‘64, fifty years on, outside the Philharmonic pub
on Hope Street, a slightly oiled and tearful veteran approached.
‘You’re an educated man. Why did they give us a jigger of rum
every time we went over the top? Tell me that!’
‘You know why – now,’ I said, and he laughed.