Back in the golden age that stretched from when
squirrels could leap from the Severn to the Humber
without touching ground until saxophones and chiffon
rippling through garden parties and people saying
‘Might I prevail upon you for a gasper?’
dandling brandies in glasses big as balloons
there he would be on the terrace, ‘Care for a spin?’
So you tooled along in his Bentley drophead coupé
admiring the Cotswolds, and flowers arrived and one thing
led to another, you were engaged to be married.
But different things led to the skies filling
with bombs and sirens, to Nissen huts and blackout,
he went down in his Spitfire, or the Hood,
and centuries of ignorance went up in smoke,
and smoke curled out of death-camp chimneys.
And nothing has been learnt through the decades since
but more technology. Now we can kill the planet.
On the bit of it you still get wheeled round kids
droop jabbing text: GR8 CU 2NITE,
to go out clubbing, get smashed, then get laid.
BY THE RIVER WENSUM
Tars smudge your syllables as on the phone
you tell me that last week your father died
during your visit home, where he’d been ill.
Tracery of winter trees
along this stretch of river-path, an angler
motionless on the bank, as ever ducks –
though which of those we threw bread to when you came
here to England still survives, I wonder,
among these rippling past today?
Flashback: I’m nine again, pressed to the pane
staring out as rain pelts garden laurels,
pierced by such greenness and a blackbird singing.
That’s what goes. When any person dies
a whole world dies: first day at school, first kiss,
sunlight on the handlebars freewheeling,
certain jokes, and friendships,
that dingy street stunned into sudden beauty
by jazz flickering from a cellar grating –
the myriad disparate moments intermeshed,
configured to a singularity
no-one else can ever live in.
Here they come running now along the path,
a dozen children waving wooden swords,
‘We are samurai,’ they inform me.
A black dog hurtles in to bound among them,
and here is their teacher, as I suppose she is,
who tells them: ‘The little dog loves you because
he knows you love dogs,’ and ‘Run ahead to the tower,
there you can have your ultimate battle,
but we have only five minutes.’ The swords are clacking,
and some of them will never forget this moment.
This is how lives define themselves,
it is nothing to do with careers and examinations.
And I have learnt many things, yet know no more
of depths than when through streaming window-glass
I thrilled to thrumming rain.
I hope for your father that at last complete
the world he had become, which could not be
without him, brimmed into lucidity.
Turning for home as the low orange globes
of lamps come on, I stoop to look: through grass
still strewn with skeletons of autumn leaves
clusters of green blades thrust, stalks
paling to tips not swelled to buds yet, barely
divining their gold blaze as daffodils.
for my son Rory on his wedding
Remember that day at Yarmouth?
- I watched the cone in your grip
tilting, until splat!
on the pavement, your world
lost… But the man in the shop
gave you another ice-cream, free.
The seaside came back.
The next year, happiness
was a tree-house, high and dry
among greenery filtering
sunlight and bird-song,
a ladder up to it and
the steel pole to slide down
to the little train that circuited
the grounds, past water.
Then came the paper boats
we folded to race on the Witham,
more fragile vessels, some
were pecked ragged by swans.
All these were a long time ago
– longer for you than for me;
fhat is the way time goes,
contracting as we pass it.
Teaching us loss
that knows no remedy,
settings-out that never
come round full-circle,
and how soon, as for those boats,
in the shrugging welter.
And also this:
that the truest happiness
is when life finds some use for
the love we ache to give.
We cannot command it. Choosing
(as we must) may betray us.
Or, suddenly dancing
like snowflakes under a streetlamp,
it melts at the touch of earth.
Denied it, all we achieve
means only ashes,
the scald of tears.
All we can do is be ready.
A RIGHT ROYAL OUTING
The Tudor gable hood and full-length dress
cluttered with geometric patterns draw
stares as she hops on, brandishing her pass.
Standing-room only? That is not her style.
The cretin slumped to his mobile with dropped jaw
and jabbing thumb rebuffs her bawled demand:
‘Fuck off, grandma!’ ‘Off with his head!’ A whirl
of stumpy sceptre topped with a squat heart
swats him sprawling down the bus’s aisle.
Though this seat, ripped and stained, falls some way short
of the throne she’d lost when that appalling girl
sent her whole pack flying, and Wonderland
dissolved. Of course, when circumstances alter
one must adapt. The King, worn down by years
of coping with her, couldn’t cope with that,
sat tugging his forked beard, his old wits cracked:
‘But, my dear, where are our courtiers?’
She packed him off to a Home, with the Mad Hatter.
She signed on in the police force, eager
for the violence, but found she couldn’t stand
the deskwork, teamed-up with sex traffickers,
became a Madam, that got more respect:
punters trembled at ‘Off with their cocks!’
There’d been just one celeb-spot on the box,
in Grumpy Old Women, but the PC mob
squealed in outrage at her clamour for
executions. She lights a cigarette,
snuffing out sparks of protest with a glare,
alights at the stop outside the Queens Arms pub,
and stomps in yelling for a pint of lager.
It’s us against the Germans in the World Cup,
when the ref disallows Frank Lampard’s goal
her legs writhe furiously round the bar-stool’s legs:
‘Off with his head!’ of course. And when they score
their fourth, her hurled glass whistles through the air
to trash the screen. There’s uproar, the staff quail,
they’ll not shift her at closing-time. She jogs
round the pool table smashing balls non-stop:
‘It’s me,’ she crows, ‘who makes the rules in here.’
OFF THE BRINK
I hit the ground sprawling but, prepared for that,
bounce up unscathed and striding, feel the zing
and blood-surge that repays launch-off.
Down the open stretch below the summit,
stones scuttering from my boots, I’d known I’d veered
astray from where I’d left the path through forest
that wound me up, but known I’d intersect it
so pushed on to this brink near twice my height
above it, sat legs dangling, jumped.
In the afterglow the question flickers,
Should I be doing this, 800 metres
up, and no-one within sound or sight?
Through foliage blue shreds of sea,
alongside a luxuriance of bush
sluiced with gold. Then slowly taking in –
a rift not clambered coming up, stacked logs,
hints opening ahead – a colder thrill:
that this I’m on is not the path I thought it.
BLACK AND WHITE CHRISTMAS IN VERONA
I step out from the lift at the third floor,
turn left, thick carpeting beneath the case
I pull along ramifying corridor
hushes its wheels, in every recess
plumps a plush sofa, stands a vase of flowers.
My room-number at last. The train, long flight,
then taxi – I’ve been travelling many hours,
so quickly get to bed, switch off the light.
It had seemed a good idea to flee
England’s crassness at this time of year,
its grabbing materialism, gluttony
and stupefaction, and so I’ve come here.
At breakfast the next day it seems I am
the only guest except for two obese
Germans making raids for yet more ham,
salami, fruit, rolls, butter, yoghurts, cheese.
‘At what times do you serve your evening meal?’
‘Just now,’ the waiter replies, ‘we’re not.’ ‘But but,
surely this is a four-star hotel?’
‘Sì Signore, but the restaurant is shut
in the evenings, most staff are away
enjoying a break,’ he bobs down to retrieve
a dropped fork. ‘That’s what I’ve come for,’ I say.
Outside looks cloudy. It is Christmas Eve.
I walk up past the Roman amphitheatre
rearing its arched tiers, the monument’s
now the twenty-something-thousand seater
venue for summer musical events.
I dawdle around sight-seeing, the hours
fly in this grand and enchanting mix
of piazzas, loggias, palaces and towers,
I peer into courts, climb steps, my camera clicks;
I practise my Italian in a bar,
then settle in a dim-lit restaurant –
risotto, calamari, a guitar
softly twitters to a lilt of song.
Outside again, I’m buffeted by flurries
of thick snowflakes, O Noël, Noël!
A red-clad and white-bearded Santa scurries
past cursing. I reel into my warm hotel.
Christmas Day. The Germans have checked out.
The waiter smiles, ‘Today, signore, the few
restaurants open will, I have no doubt,
have been booked full for months.’ So what to do?
I eat a mighty breakfast, furtively
filch a fistful of bananas – they,
stuffed in my jacket as I leave my key,
are all the rest I’ll have to eat today.
No snow is falling, but beneath my feet
scrunches the white quilt laid by last night’s storm.
Shuttered shops, few people on the street.
Part half-believing, partly to get warm
I venture into churches. Services
enact themselves, glum and crepuscular;
priestly intonings, l’Agnello this,
Maria that, as if beamed down from far
intergalactic space. The gloomiest
of all is the Cathedral, frigid choir
and shuddering organ. Still, the soaring West
Front’s Romanesque’s worth turning to admire.
I cross the Adige by the arched stone bridge
the Romans built two thousand years ago;
the ancient parapet offers a ledge
to write my signature in fluffy snow.
Streets slope up to a commanding height
above the looping river; turning, I
look down on roofs, spires, bell-towers clad in white
spread beneath me under leaden sky.
But I’ve one more ecclesiastical
destination, lured there by its name,
San Tomaso Becket – once through all
Christendom our English martyr’s fame
glowed inspirational. Now as I near
his church I’m lifted by a surf of noise,
choruses crescendoing. So here
at last’s a place where worship can rejoice.
I tiptoe in to hover at the back –
but welcomes, hugs, handclasps draw me to
the heart of things. And every face is black
I realise, as I settle in a pew,
and all’s going on in English. People sway
and whirl in vivid garments in the aisles,
fervour buzzes when they sing or pray,
they turn to greet each other, flashing smiles.
The service over, I stay on to bask
in so much warmth and friendliness. I feel
sure if they knew my plight they would all ask
me back to share a family Christmas meal.
Edward, the priest, explains his congregation
are workers from Nigeria and Ghana.
Fruit cramming my pockets flicker the temptation:
‘Would you perhaps care for a banana?’
But no! – that’s what our English football thugs
lob to black players… Still, I wish I could,
as I depart accepting yet more hugs
have something to give back in gratitude.
Piazza dei Signori – and I nod
to Dante’s statue, sprinkled with fresh snow.
Who vivified pain wrought by his harsh God
while here in exile, centuries ago.