Merchant & Commander








Venice. Another Shakespeare town. Shares
with Denmark and Verona the Distinction of a title,
of place that draws in character and soul.

Coigns of theatre and surprise hiding dark
corners, alleys with secrets, doors that rarely
open or admit the truth – contriving scenes
of perfect unity for art, for sightlines on a stage.

So here we stop to think of who we are,
which scene we enter, which line upon our lips.
Do we leap into a boat to exit slow?
Or stand upon a bridge delivering, to rousing

clash of swords? We may wait beneath
a balcony for jealousy to come, or princess
to reveal through nimble tongue her heart.

Oh, place of missing argosies and clever girls –
of handkerchiefs and arch deceivers! Taste justice hidden
in the eaves, or carried over barely moving waters.

Love Among the Traintracks

In the crush hall we embrace. Between a brilliant
cutting in O-O [three tracks, 2 running trains –
a lengthy Goods and full length LMS Express,
11 coaches in correctly aged maroon!]
and a well stocked stall of boxed and pre-owned
Triangs, Hornbies, Backmans, we take our chance.

It’s a good show for layout lovers, which we are.
Not sure where it’s going – a main line terminus?
or maybe it’s a tunnel we are in? Twin tracks
curve to vanish beneath a castle on a hill
[hours in wire mesh, papier mache,
handcut walls, paint-matched, acrylic]

We’ll build our own together. We’ve walked
the dale where it all stood. I’ve made the plans,
Stacked crates of track, locos, trucks,
accessories. Track Double O P4
but narrow gauge – and featured, stone by stone,
in card, the line of cottages, now ruins,
stepped down the slope. No people now,
but windows, glazing emptiness within.
A gradient our locos will manage fine,
and frame-lit cameras will cover all the points.
Tools will grace the trackside. Ore will gather
to be loaded. Figures will stoop to tasks.
Sheep will safely graze. With training,
she will run the trains as well. Others build
amazing worlds where track would never run,
bring together treasuries of detail, with trawlers,
buses, whole harbours served by 0-4-0s,
Shunters, charabancs from Penge. We gaze
open-mouthed, will build our own as good. Will seal it
with another kiss in front of Pooley’s Trains.

PSS Lelia

The detail is just so. The scale OT. The sea
parts, pitches, rages. On another canvas it might
be mountains peaked with snow. Not now.
The ship, head down, is caught between
newsprint and imagination. Smoke streams
horizontal, assumes paddles flailing, driving
the vessel on and down. Steam shrieks believably
from the whistle at a funnel. The sky, much loved
friend of the romantic artist, pretends to be
the hustling ogre of the piece, while the noiseless
gale goes about its work, invisibly.

It’s a scene of deaths, engraved.
The steamer will take her share, and the
Lifeboat, with oars in disarray and ten
men visible, is posed to overturn, held on
this course by the treachery of a safety line.
And there, just parting from the grasping clouds,
is land. Almost unseen, beyond reach, North Wales.

Not quite like that. 1865 – our steamer
is Bahamas bound. A ruse – she’s really heading
for The South. She’s Lelia, new-built
in Toxteth, of revolutionary steel, and lighter
than an ironclad. We may envisage,
packed like ninepins in her holds, bullets,
rifles, bayonets.  Why? Plantation cotton lines
the pockets of the rich whose kingdoms
line the parks and boulevards of Merseyside.

Against the westerly she sails, and tempests
tear her anchors loose, smashing through
the decks. Helpless, and in the Mersey Bay,
she sinks. Liverpool’s Lifeboat arrives
too late. On both, most drown.
The Confederacy also fails. Everything is
unconnected and not. Fate makes
its accidental judgement and is partial.
Apparently, and in the run of luck, we win.

Nothing is forever. Lost in 50 feet
The inevitable occurs. She’s found. The Great
Orme, Llandudno’s persistent charm, stands
guard a century and more, then divers bring
her bell to land. Last heard above the storm,
its silence now is almost testament enough.
Technology is brought to life, her wreck
is scanned, and here she is in shades.
Poor doomed Lelia – boilers, a paddle,
ribs broken, the outline of her hull – remains.

Heritage time – she is declared,  protected.
Language musters at the rail, salutes
a role in civil war, in slavery and trade,
we knew, and did not know, we had.
Scattered in the silt and slime, or lost,
the tangled lines of pride and profit,
the missing voices of the guns,
the muted links in chains of hope and freedom.











The train pulls out of Vichy. All aboard,
we occupy our seats or spaces. A couple,
young and pretty, slide behind a table
A child, already there, shrinks into its corner.
The mother nods. There’s noiseless gratitude.
Others confer with mobiles silently, or mask
their faces with a stare.  Sun lifts above
the bands of gouache in the window.

A diesel underneath maintains its harmonies.
Steel hums, frames rattle like a kettle drum.
A florist‘s cemetery, squared with marble,
assembles, provides a coda, leaves us
all behind. Then Clermont appears, and movement
ends – we drain into the subway, applaud
the signs that show us where or what
we want to be. Doors close, are gone.

Trains do this everywhere, and ever since.
Whether Adlestrop or Hull on Humber,
they mark the journeys and the places –
humdrum and regular as clocks they
glide between platforms, empty, filled,
slip behind back yards and gardens,
outsmart castles and cathedrals – invisible
as cats, defying privacy and graces.
They are going places. With us, or without.

At other 7.18s the scene repeats,
forever, though we are no longer there.
The life that’s seen, that’s unobserved,
builds up its pixels in the unknown space
we, darkened, share. Rites, passageways,
classes, missed or made connections,
all are there. As wheels turn, tracks
open into journeys. Arrivals into ends.

The Summons

Bill summons me across the room.
The book is small, its leather dry and warm.
His finger finds the page – Psalm 23,
he says. King James’s own. We confirm
he’s First and Sixth, and note his metric
journey through the valley of the shades.
Here’s the man who’s credited with the
Union of the Crowns, brushing up
his lonely Greek, and hunting for
the rhymes, while trembling clerics
debate the testament that comes
to bear his name. And both survive.

The library Bill curates is Scotland’s first
to place forbidden fruit, free, before the
people’s eyes. Walls shine chapel white –
enclosing paths which open minds,
and books, encaged within, await release.
Bill moves amongst the shelves. He puts
before me writers that I’ve never heard,
whose voices, never known, speak
from an age of innocence rebound.

So here is Johnson, prefacing his way
through all those Shakespeares, restoring
and creating bubbles for the bard.

And here’s the register of borrowers
from 1763.
A slanting hand, in ink now brown
as blood, describes the books and borrowers,
their dates and classes. Written down
to make a worthwhile PhD, this
treasure house reveals a solemn truth –
that ministers and teachers borrow books
and read, while weavers take one out,
but get back to making for their ends.

Innerpeffray Library
August 2019