Poetry

RETURN OF THE NATIVE

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The Conservative and Unionist Party

of Great Britain – aka The Tories,

from the Irish for ‘robbers’, ‘marauders’ –

is the longest surviving political

organisation in the known world.

It not only parks its tanks on its

opponents’ lawns, but commandeers

the greensward and the house it belongs to.

It reinvents itself by reversing

policies without embarrassment – viz.

welcoming East African Asian

refugees, hoping to send (mostly Muslim)

refugees to Rwanda; selling off

council houses under Margaret Thatcher,

homes that were built under Winston Churchill.

 

And Churchill is perhaps their greatest hero,

and an icon for all seasons – a romantic,

soldier, writer, painter, orator,

brick-layer, alcoholic, racist –

whose views and traits have been edited.

It was he who described Hindus as ‘foul’,

and Muslims as ‘warriors’, and predicted

that if the British ever left India

the Muslims would take over the Raj, and run it

as if the British had never gone home.

 

So what would he have made of a Hindu,

and a teetotaller, at the dispatch box,

albeit a babu, a Wykehamist,

an Oxford man, a multi-millionaire?

What would he, as the Home Secretary

overseeing the so-called Battle

for Stepney, the Siege of Sydney Street –

that shoot-out with Russian émigrés –

have made of the occupation of so much

of Belgravia by Russian oligarchs?

As one of the Council of Europe’s

begetters, and its human rights convention,

what would he have made of the Tories’

long suicide note called Brexit, and their

obsession with rigid inflatables

steering for Dover, with fascist scapegoats?

 

Perhaps nativism would triumph –

that, whatever your colour, as long as

you are born here, and speak the lingo

with more or less the right accent, and have

a hierarchy of people to despise,

then you are one of them?

 

 

AMONG THE TRUMPETS

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A committee of eight Hebrew scholars –

politically balanced between high church

and puritan – produced in Cambridge

University four hundred years ago,

what Tennyson called ‘the greatest poem’,

the King James’ version of The Book of Job.

They were not paid but promised possible

preferment – essential for some comfort

in the church and the groves of academe

of a country racked by civil strife.

 

Their contribution to the new monarch’s

pursuit of national unity

was ten books: from Chronicles – ‘These are the sons

of Israel…’ – to The Song of Solomon –

‘Let him kiss me with the kisses

of his mouth.’ The Book of Job was the sixth.

 

Imagine a committee of divines,

an octet of cloistered pedants producing

not a camel but a steed that ‘saith

among the trumpets, Ha, ha; and he

smelleth the battle afar off, the

thunder of the captains, and the shouting…’

 

 

 

Note: the poem was first published on the site in November 2015.

 

FIELD AND FOUNTAIN, MOOR AND MOUNTAIN

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The pandemic’s lockdown rules having been eased

we crossed the border into Wales to visit

our favourite country seat, on a late autumn’s

sunny day, cold and dry. The car park

was almost empty – and the main yard,

where the hay loft was and the saw pit,

entirely so except, this being

close to Christmas, Bing Crosby, disembodied,

singing ‘We Three Kings…’ Out in the gardens

two mothers and four infants cheerily

followed the Peter Rabbit Winter Trail,

running to find Lily Bobtail, Tommy Brock,

then Squirrel Nutkin. Rooks gathered in the limes,

and a magpie crossed the lake loud with mallards.

In one of the borders orange flowers

were still blooming – alstroemeria,

Lily of the Incas – and in another

an ornamental banana tree burgeoned,

testament to the earth’s slow burning.

 

The sky was filling with cumulus clouds

whiter than snow, drifting slowly from the north,

as we returned to the yard where Bing

was still singing of the Magi, a journey,

and a star. The late afternoon was full

of innocence and design, theology

and intimations, children, obligations.

We left, careful on the winding lanes,

wondering if Peter Rabbit had been found.

 

 

SOMEBODY DIED

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Once the death had been formally announced,

a member of the commentariat

remarked that the prospect of dying from cold

and hunger in one of the earth’s richest countries

had been rendered ‘insignificant’.

 

The Holocaust Memorial in Hyde Park,

London – one of the city’s eight ‘Royal Parks’ –

was turned into a garden of remembrance

for a rich old woman who died in her bed.

 

The Speaker of the House of Commons,

one of whose predecessors defied a king

and his torturers, declared the funeral

to be “the most important event

the world will ever see” – so putting

the Big Bang, the ability to make fire,

the invention of the wheel, Jesus Christ,

and the end of human life on earth,

for example, into their proper place.

 

***

 

Through medaeval mummery that hints at

the divine right of monarchs to rule

and nostalgia for the greed of empire,

politicians and pundits and priests –

who patronisingly tell us what we feel

and what we have felt for seventy years –

have bamboozled this divided nation.

Millions of children go hungry each day

yet we are taxed to fund a lavish,

three-ring circus of inanity,

where few are entitled, and many defer,

where all dissent is cancelled or shamed,

and new divisions appear like sudden

sinkholes in a busy, familiar street.

 

***

 

After a long day of 24/7

coverage of flags, martial music,

and gold brocade, of piped laments, drum beats,

and bells tolling, of mobile phones held aloft,

and superstitious symbolism sanctified,

I remembered her father’s funeral,

when I was nine. We had the day off school.

 

With my maternal grandmother, who was born

six years before Queen Victoria

took the title Empress of India,

I watched the procession live in black and white

on our new tv with its nine inch screen.

There were no daytime tv schedules then,

and very few cameras capable

of outside broadcasts, so the programme

must have been comparatively short,

but the Dead March from Handel’s ‘Saul’, the slow march

of the sailors pulling the gun carriage –

that had borne the dead king’s father’s coffin,

his grandfather’s, and his great grandmother’s –

their deliberate steps, sliding each foot

so slowly before returning it to earth,

like booted dancers in grey greatcoats,

seemed to last almost forever on that

cold February day, when I first learned

what we will do for death.

 

 

VICTORIA TOWER GARDENS

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A ripped Union flag is limp in a tree.

Adjacent to the Houses of Parliament –

a Gothic revival currently crumbling –

these pleasant tree-lined and lawned gardens were once

a sewerage works and riverside jetties.

 

From the embankment the silhouettes moving

to and fro on distant Westminster Bridge

are like figures in a shadow play.

Below on the narrow strand strewn with rubble

is commotion. Two Egyptian geese –

imported as ornamental wild fowl

during the Glorious Revolution –

are urging their brood of four goslings

upstream with warning calls, meanwhile mobbed

by two Grey-legged and two Canada geese.

 

Emily Pankhurst in stone declaims, beckons.

Rodin’s black bronze Burghers of Calais

seem bemused by royal whimsicality.

Close to the site of the planned but disputed

Holocaust Memorial a shape

in a sleeping bag lies near the lawn’s edge.

It moves as a group of language students pass.

Safer to try to sleep rough in loud daylight.

 

Buxton’s abolitionist memorial

is illustrated with Aesop’s fables.

The slave tells us how the boar and the lion

stop fighting, realising that only

the vulture will win.

 

THE TECHNOLOGY OF CONJUNCTIONS

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On October 15th 1851,

a Wednesday, in Hyde Park, London,

the Great Exhibition – official sponsor

Schweppes – closed. In Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace

of glass and wood and cast iron – incorporating

untouched the park’s trees, and itself perhaps

the chief exhibit – amid the palms and the lamps

and the rest of the world’s ingenuity,

the best of Britain’s design, engineering,

and manufacture had been displayed:

for example, Minton’s majolica

from Stoke, a papier maché piano

from Birmingham. Among the visitors

were Charles Dickens, Alfred Tennyson

and Lewis Carroll. Enclosing the park’s trees

had a cost. Sparrows flew as freely

as ever, despoiling all stands equally:

from Samuel Colt’s breech-loading revolvers

to Mathew Brady’s daguerreotypes.

Queen Victoria was concerned. ‘Sparrow Hawks,

Ma’am!’ advised the Duke of Wellington,

the veteran of diverse battlefields.

 

In London, three days later, the Saturday,

Herman Melville’s ‘Moby Dick or The Whale’

was published: that Odyssean tale

of an illimitable zealotry

and self-hatred, and of optimism.

‘I thought I would sail about a little

and see the watery part of the world.

It is a way I have to drive off the spleen…’

 

Is the closeness of significant events

zeitgeist, or merely haphazard happenstance –

human affairs, like leaves, falling where they may?

Making connections (as the Iron Duke did

and Schweppes), like the making of metaphors,

has made us even more successful than rats.

 

Here is a tale of the technology

of conjunctions: somewhere south of the Azores

the only sounds are the lap of the swell

on the clinkers, and the shearwaters mewing,

circling above…the harpoon readied…

the rope’s end lashed tight to the foot of the mast…

the men still, their breaths long, slow, pulses high…

waiting for the leviathan to rise

with its capitalist bounty – the oil

rendered from its blubber – the carcass

becoming noisome jetsam, brief pickings

for frenzies of seabirds…

 

 

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