GRAND TOUR POETRY
ORPHEUS ON THE UNDERGROUND
The tube’s like an out-take from Hades.
A carriage-full of wraiths;
mere echoes of life,
whose dreams died as they
descended to the Piccadilly line.
Seated near the door
is a would-be lifeguard,
haunted by her holidays,
wedged between two
on her way to the department store
where she stands, trapped,
behind the perfume counter -
a million miles from the frothy freshness of
onto Australian beaches.
Standing, stiffly, is a guy whose football career
foundered at eighteen with a knee injury,
his legs destined to be tucked under
a City desk,
instead of charging down a
to spectators’ cheers.
A little further along the carriage,
with its straps like remaindered
hanging limply above the soul-scuffed floor,
a woman wears a camera
like a badge of office.
Is she a tourist?
Or do her clothes - sky-blue,
as if in mockery of where we are,
and topped with a cheekily scarlet scarf -
suggest a more artistic, theatrical life
behind the lens?
The train pulls into the station,
where the platform prisoners
clutch their mobiles
as if to signal to
their uninterested (indeed oblivious)
neighbours that they, the phone-wielders,
are not yet among the permanently dead,
but still have some link
to life above ground.
Escaping through the opening doors
we rush through the tunnels before us,
yearning for fresh air,
while a busker
promises a way out and upwards
as he sings of the streets of London.
Don’t walk up the escalators - run!
Yes! You’re almost there!
But remember, as the ancient
Orpheus fatally forgot,
you mustn’t, mustn’t look back…
She could almost be Raine Spencer’s ghost -
the mass of lacquered,
carefully sculpted hair
is what initially
draws my eyes from
the displays in Bond Street windows
to focus on this eighty-something
There’s nothing sparkly about her,
though she has the almost obligatory pearls
for a woman of her age and class.
Hanging from her stick-thin
yet immaculately-clad arm
(a tailored velvet jacket)
is a bag from some
expensive shop or other.
But who is this look,
this costly - in terms of
time and effort,
as much as cash -
At first her face seems
to offer no clues,
but then I wonder if its very blankness
suggests some possible answers.
Is the layer of make-up
a defence against age, as
Hamlet’s graveside speech
might suggest, and may
the taut mask she presents
be created not by botox,
but by her own rigid fixing of facial muscles:
a well-practised act
Might it, in any case,
represent not misplaced vanity,
but a shield against an
often hostile world?
Or, more engagingly
(though engagement is exactly
what it’s designed to rebuff)
a positive display of resistance -
a pre-emptive strike
against 21st century life?
If so, it has the opposite effect on me,
as it makes me wonder
what mind hides
behind the face,
what heart beats beneath
Unable to ask,
I imagine the life she might live:
the many-roomed flat
too big for her since
her husband died.
but somehow… well,
she didn’t like to dwell on it.
That’s not how she’d been brought up.
Her few friends have gone too,
her regular points of contact with the world
now reduced to her hairdresser
and her priest.
The England she knew -
the map an imperial red,
her elder brother dashing
in his pilot’s uniform before
being killed over Germany,
debutantes presented at Court,
tea dances and crooners -
She knows she no longer belongs,
that even in Mayfair she’s a
relic, a moving museum piece,
but she carries on.
would have wanted her to.
God’s part of the equation,
of course, what with suicide being a sin
and the hope of something better ahead
when she finally sighs her last,
but it’s for Mummy, really,
that she forces herself out of bed every morning,
running the bath and beginning
the same pointless but perfectly-groomed
routine - a dutiful observation of standards.
Yet now, for once, as she heads down
Bond Street towards Piccadilly
for afternoon tea at Fortnum’s
she notices a man
actually looking at her
with, she’s astonished to register,
a suggestion of sympathetic enquiry
in his eyes rather
than the usual disparaging stares
she always ignores, unblinking,
as she makes her way along the
few streets and squares that constitute
This recognition of her existence
gives her an unexpected and all-too-rare lift,
providing a sharper pleasure,
a warmer glow than
the brief, unspoken contact really warrants,
so, throwing habit to the winds
(and Mummy’s rules onto the back burner)
she makes both our days,
by turning her head, ever so slightly,
towards me and smiling.
A BAD HAIR DAY
Sitting at an inside restaurant window seat,
it being too cold for pavement café culture today,
I glance up from my coffee cup to see
a woman, in a doorway, staring at me.
There’s nothing inquisitive about her look,
no hint of interest, let alone flirtation,
nor is hers the pitiable attempt to make contact
of the professional beggar or the
Instead, it’s unsettlingly harsh,
striking a strange, discordant note
among the chic shops and designer pubs
that cluster in the picturesque alleys,
squares and mews of this part of London.
I look down, concentrating on the
coffee cup’s branding of Lavazza -
its contents dark and bitter, welcome,
warm; its name alone
enough to conjure up the conviviality
of a Roman bar or the astronomically-priced
elegance of a café on the Piazza San Marco.
Some time later, my mind back with a bump
in London, I get up to leave, only to see
through the window as I walk towards the door
that the woman is still there,
the direction and cold intensity
of her eyes unchanged.
Christ knows what this is about,
but then, I wonder, turning bemused irritation
into fantasy, perhaps she represents something
long before the Christian era -
a myth belonging to dark Aegean hillsides
somehow transported through time, over the Alps
and across the Channel to present-day England.
The thought proves prescient, for,
as I make my way out,
into the street,
from the corner of my eye
(like Perseus, I think it wiser to view her indirectly)
I see not just the stony set of her face
but that her shaggy grey-blonde hair
parts involuntarily in several places,
where little dark-scaled snakes,
embodiments of the poison
chilling her non-human veins,
emerge, writhing, their fangs bared
as they hiss impotently
against the clatter of my Chelsea boots’ heels
striking the pavement as I stride
beyond their reach: for
their mistress, the Medusa of Marylebone Lane,
is rooted to the spot - as stuck fast
in her doorway as a statue in its niche;
as if she, having stared too long at me,
caught her own reflection in the
restaurant window and,
in an inadvertently suicidal act,
has turned herself to stone.
I have hung on a cross for you.
I have written on the walls of Babylon
and on tablets of stone.
I have summoned stillness in the
midst of ocean storms
and spoken through
a voice of flame.
I have stood in Greek temples,
sculpted in bronze
and wielding a thunderbolt.
I have left a princely throne,
to show a path to enlightenment.
I have spoken through shamans
from the Steppes to the Great Plains.
I have manifested myself
in totem pole and tribal mask,
hieroglyphic and hallucination.
I have done all this for you,
yet your universal reaction,
from Acropolis to Amazon,
from cave to cathedral,
has been a terrified sacrifice -
the bodies of your enemies and
a bloodied self-flagellation:
your focus not on the
life I have given you,
but fear of what follows.
When will you learn
that, shining through
all I have ever asked,
and the sum of what
I have always offered
are exactly the same?
Nothing more complicated
nor less joyful than love.
ON THE BEACH
The South of France, mid 1950s.
A holiday afternoon.
The sand beneath his bare feet
as he carries his eldest child,
his boy, laughing on his shoulders,
from the cooling sea back to
the June heat of a Mediterranean beach
where his wife, in a straw hat and polka-dot dress
has prepared a picnic, with the twin girls
by her side, making sandcastles.
It was for moments like this that he’d struggled,
his army boots heavy with water,
out of the sea once before,
to be met, not by ice cream vans
but by bullet-spraying pill boxes,
which were themselves shattered into flame-filled ruins
by the heavy guns of the British fleet,
its vast warships providing a hail of
artillery shells to pummel the German positions
- just as their land-locked cousins had done
at the Somme and Passchendaele for his father,
nearly thirty years before.
For a brief moment the idea of his boy
facing a third German war clouds his thoughts,
but he quickly dismisses them to the same place
where he keeps memories of his best friend’s
chest exploding in blood and shrapnel
outside Caen, and his sergeant’s joke
cut short by a sniper’s bullet less than
a month before the longed-for peace.
Peace, he reminds himself,
is what he fought for
and he owes it to himself,
his lost comrades and his family
to enjoy it. To live not in the past,
but right now,
facing the future.
‘Come on, Darling!’ she shouts.
His heart full, he grins at her, takes the boy
from his shoulders then races him
up the beach, a joyful form of the freedom
won though his harder, darker arrival in
Normandy, in ’44.
Paris, 1961. Wallis, Duchess of Windsor, prepares to depart for America with her husband.
Seventy pieces, this time.
A few more than last, but she’s got a rival, now.
The Kennedy wife.
Presidents, as husbands, trump
especially one in exile for
And the woman speaks French, too.
Still, she thinks, as the pugs scamper
round her feet,
while she clips the heavily-jewelled bracelet
to her increasingly thin wrist,
she can rise to the challenge.
The cars are ready
on the gravel in front of the house.
The gates stand open
to the Bois de Boulogne.
It’s a longish drive ahead,
with David wittering inanely beside her,
but she can almost taste
the sea-salt in the air,
feel the deep carpets of their
suite on the Queen Mary.
The servants start carrying
the luggage down
to the hall.
All those cases
and hat boxes,
each monogrammed with their
and capped with a crown.
The one he gave up for her.
How she despised him for that.
Using its loss to imprison her
by his side forever.
For how can she throw him over,
So she says with him,
returning each year to
the States not as Queen,
but as Duchess.
A witty and wealthy has-been.
Travel breaks the monotony,
in a way,
and the sea is a refuge,
something she can, legitimately,
spend hours watching
- ‘For my health, David,
you know what the doctor said’ -
thus avoiding the eternal
need to keep the Duke
occupied, attended and amused.
Christ! She’d like to throw
all seventy pieces over the side
(well, sixty-eight. She’d keep the jewel boxes)
and him with them,
then start again.
A dream. Impossible.
It’s a life sentence.
For his life, anyway.
The man smokes like a chimney.
He’s bound to go first.
And when it’s her turn,
she’ll write in her will
that, all that royal precedence crap
instead of a coffin
she’ll be buried in
one of the trunks
the liner carries across
the Atlantic each year.
If she’s got to live in
this manner, she’ll die in it too,
passing over to
in a final display
of dry humour,
not in English oak
but Louis Vuitton.
THE PURPOSE OF YOUR VISIT?
Does the official look officious?
Will a smile be responded to?
Or will I seem to be trying too hard?
Why am I asking myself all these questions?
Wait and see.
‘The purpose of your visit?’
‘I’m here to promote a book.’
‘What’s it about?’
A hint of interest, here.
I’m making a change
from the businessmen.
And the students.
His eyes narrow.
A smartass, he thinks.
Ice seems to frost the
bullet-proof glass window,
behind which he sits.
‘Well, aspects of it…’
I speak quickly, aware of
how the lighthearted reply
ran smack into the window, then
slid to the floor.
‘It’s poetry. A lot of it’s
about travel, actually.’
Actually. How English.
He knows I am, of course,
from the passport, but he
seems to like the confirmation.
I kick myself for not wearing
a tie. Or a hat.
A hint of the Edwardian
would have underlined the point.
Rendered me harmless.
Got me through quicker.
Will I get through?
‘You enjoy travel?’
The ice has cracks in it.
‘Yes. Especially here.
So much to see!’
The ice breaks. Suddenly.
Looks ten years younger.
A person, not a uniform.
‘Glad to hear it. Have a good day.’
The passport is returned,
my arrival is allowed and,
fed by the interchange,
a new poem forms…
A E Housman, author of A Shropshire Lad, was Professor of Latin at London and then Cambridge Universities. A seemingly dry old stick, despite his wildly romantic poems about handsome athletic youths (surely a clue to his real personality for anyone who thought for two minutes about it), he had a very Edwardian penchant for holidays in Italy, where many an English gentleman made a beeline for sexually available Venetian gondoliers. I like to think Housman did, too.
The black boat rocks gently as Housman gets in -
the gondolier offers his hand.
A civilised start to an hour of sin,
once they’re both out of sight from the land.
Its comfier, true, at the station hotel,
but delicious to do it this way!
The waves join the rhythm with gusto as well,
while the boy gives him pleasure for pay.
He smiles at the thought of his students at home,
what they’d make of him here having fun -
an alien concept to his dusty tomes.
They’d assume he’d stay out of the sun.
But it’s warmth that he worships as well as young men,
with their muscles, white teeth and strong parts,
which is why he’s in Venice again and again
yet ignoring the city’s fine arts.
Yes, churches are holy and ancient and fine
while canals are simply sublime.
But the Professor’s on holiday, south of the Alps
and love conquers all every time.
At the end of the month he will pack up his case
and return by steam train, then the ferry.
But for now, in the sun, in this marvellous place
He’ll be damned if he doesn’t make merry!
LOOKING AT THE SEINE
I wrote this during a recent visit to Paris, having a glass of rosé on a boat/bar on the Seine. I was inspired by a hoarding on the opposite side of the river and the line of trees, in their full summer greenery, their backs towards it, facing me across the water. As I wrote it, the two nearest seats to me were, by a strange synchronicity, taken by a pair of Chinese men.
A line of trees, like stately Dowagers sitting out a dance.
Except that, rather than watching life take place before them,
as a new generation waltz and flirt,
their firm young faces touching,
these leafy ladies prefer - for historical reasons -
to turn their backs on Paris,
avoiding the outrages that a changing world has
flung across the pavements, cobbles and courtyards,
palaces and fashion houses behind them.
Instead, determinedly aloof,
they keep their well-bred gaze
on the fast-flowing,
yet comfortingly changeless,
their branches nod in sisterly agreement,
to see the waters of La France profonde
move so quickly, with such purpose,
towards the embrace of the sea.
So much more restful
the events behind them,
from German Occupation
to rioting students in ’68;
the decline in manners and
unrecognisable dress codes,
or the petrol fumes above which they
hold their highest branches,
rather as women
would lift their skirts while they crossed
the dung-spattered roads
before the first cars pushed
horses off the streets and
into the history books.
Yes, their rustling confirms,
this way they can ignore
that other stream - of men,
machines and all that goes
with an increasingly crazed dance
through the centuries.
True, this means they miss
out on the signs of change,
the portents of what is about
A little price to pay,
they believe, smiling as the
waves from a tourist
boat's wake wash
against the stone of
le port des Saints-Pères.
Meanwhile, behind them,
on the imposing stone facade
of a wing of the Louvre,
towering elegantly above
the Quai François Mitterand,
workmen have erected a huge
Presumably an advertisement of sort,
it is really more of a statement -
like the coat of arms on a banner,
announcing the power and prestige
of its bearer.
Showing a picture
of a futuristic-looking city,
it simply announces, in a
a very modern mix of English and French -
Fengxian: New City Shanghai Chine.
The river flows.
The world turns Eastwards.
TALKING TO THE KING
Many years before the innate decency of King George VI was publicised in The King’s Speech, (Colin Firth on film, Charles Edwards on stage), and the more recent Darkest Hour, (Ben Mendelsohn), I admired the late king’s personal qualities - not least his quiet determination to carry on during the most stressful and demanding of times.
His statue, designed by William McMillan, stands at the edge of Carlton Gardens, in St James’s, London, above some stone steps leading down to the Mall. It is now overshadowed by a more recent one, by Philip Jackson, of his wife, Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Mother), which was placed in front of his. Though well-crafted, its addition has altered the solitary nature of his statue’s location, which was one of its many attractions for me.
For, on a handful of occasions, long before Queen Elizabeth was added, I found it hugely helpful to go, at night - when the place was deserted - to sit on one of the two marble-topped stone benches behind the king’s statue, and tell my troubles to it. What I used to refer, to myself, as ‘going to have a talk with the King.’
Only the occasional passer-by
walking along the Mall,
hurrying to catch a late-night
train home from Victoria station.
Set apart, above the steps,
the location a reflection
of the living man’s modesty,
it’s just the King and me -
him a serene statue, in
me in a suit, my
backside cold on the marble bench
and stomach clenched with
Though the bench is behind him,
as if in attendance
with its double,
like a couple of pages
at his coronation,
the placing is perfect for a
sotto voce confidence.
I can clearly see the flowing cloak
(he’s a king, after all)
that covers his back, but
his elegant, almost-handsome face
is only partially visible from where I sit,
as is a surprisingly delicate hand,
resting on the hilt of the sword
which serves him as a symbol
and a prop at the same time.
Also on view, in the subdued light
of the lamps of Carlton Gardens,
is his left ear - as though,
to be on duty,
gazing at some formal function
or more exalted subject,
he’s letting me know he’s
to my troubles.
His ancestors ‘touched for
the King’s Evil’ - their hands
supposedly curing skin complaints.
He, more modern, and present only as
metal - yet also in spirit -
lends, instead, this ear,
to heal, in its own way,
a very different problem.
Each visit lasts half an hour,
yet - however fanciful the
thought behind it -
sharing with him has
the same effect as far longer
on the softer support
of a therapist’s couch,
or doling out my most
I speak. He listens.
An unburdening takes place,
and gratefully given.
Then I stand, make the
regulation slight bow
from the neck,
as is his due,
and go on my way,
not cured, but calmed,
more resolute and
greatly helped, by
talking to the King.
DARLING, CAN I BE HONEST?
“Darling, can I be honest?”
Of course you can, dear.
You must be.
You will be.
Though honest does not do justice
to the judgment that
is an integral part
of your inability
to spare me
a home truth.
This is inevitably delivered
when I least expect
and am in no position
to reply, let alone riposte -
as when I lie, sweaty and disadvantaged,
using the duvet as a fluffy shield
against the reprimand that
rattles past your perfect white teeth.
(Yes, mine are indeed far from pearly.
Thanks for reminding me, in that
very honest way).
Darling, can I be honest?
Oh, no. Silly me.
That might hurt your feelings.
OSCAR'S LAST ROOM
The Hotel d’Alsace, where Oscar Wilde died, penniless in November 1900, was, in his day, distinctly cheap and badly furnished - hence his well-known quip: ‘My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or the other of us has to go.’ Now a five star establishment simply called L’Hotel, one can hire the room where he lived at the end of his life and where his body was photographed on his deathbed. I stayed here not long after seeing Rupert Everett’s wonderful film (The Happy Prince) about Wilde’s last years, his exile in Italy and France and his death in this very room.
L’Hotel, Rue des Beaux Arts, Paris
Peacocks on the wall,
in a frieze of fin de siècle green.
How very apt.
The 19th century’s best-known dandy
would approve of the latest decor
of his final home.
His presence and his fame are remembered,
but not trumpeted.
A photograph or two of him in his prime,
a cutting of the death notice
from a newspaper.
A contemporary caricature,
to mock or reflect a grudging
admiration for its subject.
A framed bill on the wall,
reminder of a death
beyond his means.
And yet, let it be noted,
the manager not only wrote in
a beautiful hand, but the commercial necessity
of its message is expressed
in phrases of exquisite politeness
He was also one of the
mourners at the funeral
of his most famous customer,
who died, here,
in the room where I’m shown
how to adjust the air conditioning,
where to locate the safe
and how delightful is the
private terrace outside the
These seem to belong in a play,
but one with a lighter tone and happier ending
than that of Oscar Wilde’s last years.
His grave, in Père Lachaise,
was at risk of ruin. Not from
the hate its resident received in life,
but, in the sort of irony he loved to play with
during dinner parties, or express through
his characters on stage,
the damage here is done by love.
For the endless kisses,
the lipstick marks of affectionate greeting,
corroded Epstein’s stone sphinx tomb.
Ironic, yet appropriate, for
it was love that brought
him crashing down from Chelsea to
Reading, and led,
via a crumbling Neapolitan palazzo
and the Left Bank’s Hotel d’Alsace,
to this final resting place,
among 19th century worthies,
20th century singers and rock stars,
in Europe’s most famous cemetery.
Now, a glass box prevents the
lips from harming, yet records their
presence and accepts their simple yet
Those wishing to pay more intimate regards
to a fallen hero can, however,
for the price of a couple of hours with
an upmarket rent boy
(a measurement Oscar would have endorsed!)
check in at L’Hotel, in room 16,
and be the latest in a long line,
from the son of a Marquess to
to spend the night
in Oscar Wilde’s bedroom.
THE KAISER, 1928
In November 1918, at the end of the First World War, the German High Command, determined that their Emperor avoid the fate of Russia’s ex-Tsar and his family, arranged for him to be given political asylum in the Netherlands, where he was eventually joined by members of his family - and nearly 60 railway carriages full of furniture, jewellery and assorted works of art, which the new government of Germany allowed him to transport from several royal residences. Having been put up, at the Dutch government’s request, by a local aristocrat when he entered the country, the Kaiser went on to buy his own country house, Huis Doorn (literally, Doorn House) named after the local village, itself only a short drive from where he had been given his initial refuge. He lived here from 1920 until his death in 1941. He is buried in a small mausoleum to the side of the house, which is now a museum open to the public. I visited it in the summer of 2018.
The house, solid and impressive,
within its walled estate.
A rich man’s home, not an Emperor’s,
but then his reign seems far behind him -
ten years that form an unbridgeable chasm between past
glory and an enforced exile.
The sun warms his back
as he spends his customary hour
chopping wood - each log
held steady by a pair of gardeners.
The cracking sound each blow makes
reminds him of the gunfire he heard:
not on the Western Front, where he was
kept safe from any action on his
morale-boosting visits to the troops,
but of the pre-war manoeuvres,
when he celebrated 25 years on
a throne that seemed the strongest in Europe.
Now, he is reduced to the life of a country gentleman
and a routine like those of the English with whom,
his whole life (his mother an English Princess,
his grandmother Queen Victoria),
he has had the love-hate relationship of
a younger relative torn between wanting to belong
and a determination
(even at the cost of a continental war)
to prove his independence.
Enjoying this freedom at the discretion of the
Dutch, whose neutrality, fortunately for him,
he had respected, he is growing old,
hair and beard turning white,
the famous moustaches, once an assertion of aggression,
now unwaxed and in repose.
He lives this way, enjoys these grounds
while under other well-tended lawns
lie millions of those who manned his armies
or fought against them.
Tens of thousand more eke out
their ruined lives
with missing limbs, shattered jaws
or remnants of faces sliced apart by shrapnel.
Each morning as they look in bathroom mirrors
they see, with a fresh shudder, the legacy of
plans made by General Staffs, of furious telegrams,
dreams of glory and field-marshals who thought
in Napoleonic terms
of swift movement and cavalry charges,
while facing a reality of railway timetables and
staggeringly powerful artillery.
As Europe was reshaped under chandeliers
by comfortable men in mirrored Chancelleries,
surgeons did their best to sew and patch together
these sometime soldiers.
The world, the old man thinks,
as he hacks away at the last log,
doesn’t believe that he cares.
Yet each blow and the sound waves it sends
is not so much a proof of physical strength
in his one good arm
as a silent, personal, penance.
A reminder of the war
that scythed down a generation
and lost him the crown
that was his reason for living.
He never speaks of it in these terms to others,
but considers it his atonement.
For behind the bluster, the swagger of his youth,
and continuing to run, in old age,
beneath his surface refusal
- to himself as much as to his dinner guests,
his second wife, and remaining courtiers -
to accept responsibility for a war he blames
on Serbian anarchists, Britain - anyone but himself -
there has always been a self-doubt,
a weakness as undermining as his crippled arm.
And so he finishes for the day,
his conscience, for the moment, clean.
As the dead rest, oblivious,
yet remembered by memorial crosses
in almost every hamlet in Europe;
as the cripples shift, uncomfortably,
on their pavement begging spots,
and while the ‘well’ get on with their lives,
locking away their war, never to be spoken of,
- though screamed out in nightmares
their wives try to hug away -
here, sheltered behind the high brick walls,
Wilhelm II, ex-Emperor of Germany, ex-King of Prussia,
unblushingly known in his prime as the All-Highest,
walks back, at a soldier’s steady pace,
in a gentleman’s tweed suit,
to the waiting house, the liveried servants
and the daily pleasure of
a very English afternoon tea.
You fell asleep
on your back:
a sign of exhaustion -
a state that is
Yet your posture
was also one of
groggy and gentle generosity:
an invitation for me to
the lullaby of stroking
until the rhythm
took its effect
and I joined you
I soundlessly accepted the offer
until I slept -
enjoying your shape,
your barely perceptible
scent: a faint
perfume generated not by
a parfumier’s flowers,
but by the warmth of your skin.
- rush-hour on the underground
You sit across the aisle each day,
five different outfits through the week:
your eyes meet mine then look away -
I long to reach and touch your cheek.
The glimpse I get, through other’s legs,
is tantalising - far too short.
Your otherworldly beauty begs
the passion that I’ve always sought.
I gaze each morning as the rush
prevents what hopes I dream may be.
Is this no more than carriage crush?
If only you were meant for me!
(a Covent Garden restaurant popular with actors)
Koha: An Albanian word meaning 1)Time 2) Weather
Time here is measured by the emptying
glowing red as embers
in the candlelight.
Love affairs and
office politics discussed over
a bowl of olives,
lightened by laughter
in the retelling.
Everything that happens
less important, as
the bottle is passed
from friend to friend.
Naim’s dark, mysterious paintings on the wall -
splashes of colour, reds and yellows
breaking out of the blackness,
speaking of a different place,
The weather determines if
we sit outside,
or seek shelter indoors,
where, despite the heater that acts as a
sentry against the cold,
the real warmth is
provided by our bodies,
by the intensity of our friendships,
and the innate hospitality
of an Albanian welcome.
Who cares what the weather is like?
Who worries about the time?
We are with friends.
We are in Koha.
We are, for the moment,
Life is a battle.
Not necessarily set-piece Agincourts
(though they erupt now and then,
in a blizzard of metaphorical archery)
but in a succession of skirmishes:
spats at the office,
stroppy shop assistants,
and the jostler on the tube.
The difficulty is not in
but in being prepared to do so -
For it is not your overall strategy
that lets you down,
but each casual carelessness,
an absence of adrenaline
and the ignoring of those few signs
that an otherwise unhelpful
sends as a warning.
Just as peace can only be preserved
by a willingness to wage war,
so our safety now relies
on our awareness of
awfulness of the age.
As Hamlet said,
(though look what happened to him)
‘The readiness is all’.
ST JAMES'S SQUARE
The crack of leaves,
the smell of smoke,
the mist that forms at edge of eye;
the sense that winter won't be long,
the caw of rook - no happy song.
The overcoats of passers-by,
the clubmen snug with pots of tea
and toast with tangy anchovy...
the London Library's windows blaze
with light to mark the shortened days.
The summer's over, autumn's here;
the signals are the same each year -
and I come, scarfed, to smell and stare
at bonfires in St James's Square.
in memory of Charles Brown
He lies in the bed,
attached to tubes,
a lifetime and thousands of miles
away from when he was a young mechanic
under an Indian sun.
Transported by troopship
from the shores of home
and the Berkshire village
whose woods and fields
had been his farthest horizon,
he saw the Atlantic,
drank in Cape Town bars
and gained an Indian Ocean tan
before he reached the Raj.
Befuddled by drugs,
his body shrunk to the
skeletal shape of the
POWs he saw, appalled,
at the end of the war,
he tries to make sense
of his situation.
Tubes. Pipes. Machines.
Shouldn’t he be sorting them out?
Making them work?
Rather than lying in their coils,
like some figure from
the Greek myths,
whose re-telling by
his Classics master
made the stuffy schoolroom bearable
until the bell
to the hedgerows
and the bee-buzzed
The hospital room
recedes like morning mist,
to be replaced by the aerodrome
where he spent the last years
of the war.
Proud of his skill -
always able to get any plane,
whatever its state,
back into life and up in the air -
he somehow finds the strength
for this last challenge.
unlike those other times,
when he made it possible for
public schoolboys to rush,
per his ardour ad their astra,
he will, for once, be the one to fly.
And so it proves, as,
while those left behind
weep at his passing,
he, hearing nothing but the roar of engines,
soars - strong, keen
and with the broad-grinned joy of youth -
up into the heavens.