Lines near Westminster Bridge

Two men of bronze, in diagonal corners.
Between them, earth, bared of grass
from the late queen’s funeral crowd;
or a protest army; or tourists ebbing
towards white stone, scraped clean
of grime, or blood. Churchill: close to
the House he charmed with lisping growls,
a stubborn lurch with stick, and faltering
reputation bubbling. His back, hunched
as if Plantagenet unhorsed, is turned away.
And then Mandela: arms outstretched, smiling,
reaching for different futures from the possible.
His rainbow land retreats from promises.

Words, their stock in trade, unheard
against the hum and strain of traffic
snarled at lights. More statues strike
claims to gratitude, each gathering in
their places, the tyrannies enriched
and buried in our past. Ghandi, dhotied,
his bike-wheel specs focusing
on poverty and renunciation. India, unfettered,
makes way through butchery and murder.
Smuts, our boyhood nickname for a Smith
of any kind, conjoining empire and war.
And on through Empire’s fine etcetras.

And then behind the fence, protecting myths
from all us passers-by, two men in uniform
discuss the weather, to by-pass time.
White copper, and an Asian guy
from some private army, they laugh
and gossip, making up for history’s old
stones, and a new future in the sun.

London, September 2022

Who Pays the Ferryman?






Don’t all good things appear in threes?
Lists, Christian deities, oils to ease
the rusted bolt? In Rome they broke the mould,
abandoning the triumvirs to confer state power
twice – on Caesar, then Octavian. Much good
it did them, for a while. Better those old Greeks
with three great rivers in Epirus: the Styx
whose waters plunged the gates of hell;
grim Kokytos, river of Lamentation;
and Pyriphlegithon, which flowed Flaming Fire.
They met at Acheron, and hereabouts you paid
the ferryman his fare, and crossed the lake to death.

No worries then. Today we come as Greeks
on holiday from all of that. In Parga, twelve
licensed cabs run pleasure seekers to their heavens.
filling beaches, bays, and boat decks, slowly turning
in the sun like peanuts roasting. We shelter vainly
from its basting fire in books, conduct an aimless
quest for memories with our mobile phones.
Or we can cruise the mythic waters, and bathe
like starfish in its azure deeps. Pleasure cruisers
nip like sharks about our heads. At night we cross
into a dazy sleep of comfort, sacrificed with cheeses,
meats and fishes, taken there by cocktails,
wines and brandy – forgetting Charon’s charges,
his calls upon our cares and bank accounts.


In a score of churchyards everywhere, graves
marked by families and friends recall gratitude
in death, or for them, being gone. What lies
beneath are bones, the ungovernable corruption
of the flesh, wood fragments, nails, a chemist’s
stain in the eyeless earth, perhaps a rag of cloth.

Around this church, as far as maybe seen,
these saddened stones stoop with their age,
their messages of hope a whisper from unseen,
their function as a hold upon the living
long erased by other scores of deaths.

Today, the stones have lined the consecrated
ground to form a wall that makes a garden
for the dead. A corner holds small squares,
tin vases, jarred flowers dead and dying,
a card or two in deepest sympathy,
for burials of ash, where modern times
have quickly merged their owner’s solid
flesh with smoke and air. A road runs
past, which, widened to allow the traffic
of Edwardians and their servants, took out
square yards of land and burials. So we may
safely park, secure now in the world to come.

Church of St Mary the Virgin, Ketton


In Poland, refugees find welcome from their land,
their blackened homes are shells where lives once met
and grew together. Thousands have come.
This neighbour does not shell or bomb.
Their greeting Is an open door. Schools open
rooms and classes form, laughter heals the air.

In Britain, families stand by open doors as well.
They register their love and pledge their trust.
Ukrainians see hands that reach to touch
and gather in. But dodging missiles, rockets, are the
visas, declarations, and red tape designed to trap
the foreigner and his wily knives and i.e.ds.
Hundreds lose their way in online sink holes,
Or cannot find the documents they need.

In London, Government has sunk behind its
overweight P.M. His entourage of servants,
sycophants and hacks look forward to their
Covid fines, and breed inaction as the crowds
of victims clamour to come in. They seize
a yacht that Putin’s pal has hidden here,
amongst the other tainted wealth that spread
as party gifts, while families perish in their tents
and cellars, hungry, waiting, empty, cold.


The market fills the street between the trees –
on sale, a cornucopia of terror. Terroir, that is:
it is so easy for the ambling tourist to
mistake an i amongst the offered goods
that breathe their Frenchness in the summer air.

An active visit to the schoolrooms of the past.
Monsieur le professeur stands there, upon the board
in swirling chalks the words to learn, to speak
with accents, comme il faut. Vocabulaire.
And here they are, in deeply flavoured heaps,
on baskets, stalls and benches; beneath
canopies of cotton, rainbow plastics, drily
favoured leaves that shake on branches, labelled
from a classroom life everyday has made.
Pommes, artichaux, percil, les fashions a la mode.
I reach for euros, handle fruits, exchange.
Translate coins to action, and, so soon, to taste.

A woman shouting. It is an interruption, demonstration
or unwanted agit prop. Startled people
part as down our lines she goes, anger
from beyond her wall of words. I turn to face
a rustic chicken, thin, strangled in its
shrink-wrapped sac. And she returns, repeating
urgency that penetrates. Maxwell! Petit garcon
a tres ans! At last, I understand. Not anger,
desperation. We watching people look, avoid
each others’ eyes. A puzzled pity turns, shrugs
through our faces as she fades into the crowd,
and Maxwell calling. An awful thing, to lose
a child between the stalls, the busy roads,
the scruffy secret alleys of a stranger’s town.
There are no words, in any tongue, for that.

All to do is back to bags – filled vegetables,
meats and cheeses, and all their hidden names.
But suddenly she’s there – thin, calm and smiling,
chatting to some folk, and there, safe, is Maxwell –
revealed as blond, hair never cut, unknowing,
and English middle class. She had summoned up
her own school French to voice her rising panic,
and consuming fear. And I suppose that’s why we’ve come
abroad, to buy, and save for ours what’s dear.

Rabestans, August 2021