I asked her what was the tartan she wore, She smiled and told me Smith. I’d never considered that Clan before, But fair enough – the Smiths of yore, The Sassenachs of Aviemore, The flints in the monolith – The common Clan for the ev’ryman, The hammers and tongs of myth.
She asked me the tartan in which I deck, Buchanan, perhaps, or Brodie, or Beck ? I smiled, and told her Burberry Check.
It seems that the Gaelic word for smith is the origin of the Clan McGowan, but that even before surnames arose in the Highlands, some Scots had Anglisised their profession to ‘smith’.
I grew up with castles and churches and manors, Their architecture feels like home – While Indian temples and Chinese pagodas Were glorious aliens in stone. It all made sense that Kublai Khan Had not one dome in his Pleasure Dome
But when I saw the Great Ming Wall, It all felt too familiar – It looked like something the Romans might have built, Had they reached this far Rounded arches, crenellations, arrow loops – All quite bizarre.
The only telltale signs were in the watchtowers, And their roofs – Simple saddelbacks, slightly concave, They were hard-hill-hatted booths. Not like the four-square hips of the Romans – Projections providing proofs.
Except…on many of the towers we see, These structures are robbed away. And we’re left with familiarity That’s out-of-place, astray. Was it built-up piecemeal, really ? At this point, who can say ?
From what I can see in images, the watchtowers had roofs that were a mix of hard-hill and hanging-hill, the difference being that the latter had slightly overhanging eaves as in the image below.
To be clear, saddleback roofs (aka gable roofs) were not unknown to Romans, but not I think used atop their watchtowers.
Throughout the gothic city-states, Secure with many doors and gates, The greatest craftsmen in the land Were those who crafted locks – Protecting life and property Behind the password of a key – And yet, with just a twist of hand It frees our hearths and stocks.
Thus, whereupon the plague is rife, The locals dread their very life, And conjured up a chatelaine To rattle in the night – A mistress dark and grimly tall With sturdy boots and sweeping shawl, And ring-bound keys upon a chain To lock the dead up tight.
Never in a hurry, she, Yet striding on determinedly – She visits those who’s fever runs As fast as runs their sands. No lock can bar her solemn deeds, For she has just the key she needs To reach all lovers, reach all sons – Where’er the fever lands.
The doors unlock, and slowly swing Upon the rogue and saint and king, And in she stalks with silent ease, And stoppable by none. She takes the ring about her waist And cycles, never in a haste, Through all her heavy iron keys To find the very one.
And that she lifts and points toward Her victim, all the rest ignored And presses to his chest her shaft That bloodless passes through. The fingers of her left discern The bow upon the shank, and turn As smoothly as the masters’ craft Their workings, firm and true.
Her right she offers to he held By him, that fear may be dispelled – They say her bony, steady hands Are warmer than you’d think. And so his latches spring apart To free his soul and stop his heart – Her key withdraws from out his glands With just the faintest clink.
And with that, speaking not a word, And with no other neighbour stirred, The plague has been about its chores With not a jam or jolt. As through the busy, ailing towns She goes about her nightly rounds, Of dousing lights and shutting doors And drawing home the bolts.
Here’s rosemary – for memory, some say, But here I offer it up for aches, And for the colic, here’s caraway, And there, valerian for shakes. I have the wisest sage for the eyes, And columbine for fevered brows, And lavender, to drive off the flies, And camomile daisies to help you drowse. Some fennel to keep you regular, back there, And thyme to rid the worms, Here’s rue for you, but it scalds in the sun – take care, Use St John’s wort for the burns. And for the maidens, I’ve violet and pansy, To keep your flowerhead free from weeds. And if these fail, there’s purgative tansy – Restoring your bloom, not going to seed.
I know, I know, I’ve rhymed worms with burns. Not ideal, but sometimes you have to take a leaf from hip-hop’s lyric sheet and roll with ‘close enough’.
Vigilance Vance was a devil for the devils, Finding them all over, in angles and in bevels – He found them in his toolbox, he found them in his bed, As they hollered from his bushes and they whispered from his head. They dulled his steely razor, they sharpened all his wine, They loosened-up his laces, they tangled-up his twine. In ev’ry mouth of mutton and in ev’ry bite of apple, They would choke him at the harvest, they would tickle him at chapel.
Vigilance Vance was awash in filthy devils From the Westmorland Lakes to the Somerset Levels He found them in the woodshed, he found them in the dray, Teasing him and taunting him and tempting him astray. He always knew they watched him, he felt their beady eyes On the bulging of his biceps and the firmness of his thighs – Ev’rywhere he found them, ev’rywhere he’d grapple – Fairies in the garden, gargoyles in the chapel.
In March the Ladies have their day, In June, the Summer’s mid, And Mickel holds his mass, they say, In late September, come what may, Just as he always did. And then we get to Christmas… That well known day for paying rents, And hiring staff, and starting school, And other secular events That prove there’s nothing new, alas, In monetising Yule.
The trouble with the past Is that the past is pre-determined – So we know just how it goes Because it’s all already been. Now at the time they must have felt so free, Yet they’re confirming That the past is fixed forever, With no wiggle-room between.
Little did those little people know There’s just one way for things to go, And ev’ry time we play it back, The same old things are still on track. There’s just no way to keep hold of dinosaurs When dead is dead – There’s no way to replay the wars, Or Anne Boleyn to keep her head.
But wait – if there’s a script to act, We write it out together From a million potential drafts That could go either way. For just like us, they got to choose But once they chose, they chose forever. The past is post-determined – Once it’s set, it has to stay.
Guy Fawkes was a Cath’lic yeoman – Was he terrorist or hero ? Gave us fireworks – what a show man ! Even bigger than Shakespeare, oh ! So are Cath’rine wheels an omen, Making all the Papists fear ? Though why are all the candles Roman ? Or is that a nod to Nero ?
Now that the herd is in the barn, And now that the flock is in the fold, Then huddle close and I’ll spin you a yarn, The one my father told. And he was taught by his in turn, And he by his, the self-same airs That someday your own kids will learn When you tell them, and they tell theirs.
Sometimes, late at night, Out on the plains, or on the road, When the bats are in full flight To the singing of the toad, There can be heard the gallop Of a lonely charger wild, Through the ups of York and Salop And the downs of Kent and Fylde
There’s those who claim they’ve seen him, And they claim he rides a grey, A snow-white grey so gleaming That the very stars give way. A king, they say, with bow and crown, And horseshoes of cold steel – And ev’rywhere those hooves stomp down, The people come to heel.
Though some say he’s not invading Through our castles, towns and huts, But rather the land he’s raiding Is our throats, and veins, and guts – Riding, riding, ever onwards, There is no defence – Though some may call him Conquest, And others Pestilence.
But many will say No!, he rides a chestnut When he roams abroad, And he wears a shining breastplate, And he holds a tempered sword – And he is War, yet not invasion, But a people one upon another, Year-on-year, at any provocation, Brother killing brother.
But fighting is fighting, and always near To the likes of us who are called on to bleed, And arrow or sword, it’s the same old fear When facing down the next stampede. Or maybe a few who see this horseman Get to then escape to tell – Yet whether Mongol, Moor, or Norseman, All those roads lead straight to Hell.
Still, I have also heard it told by folks That the horse is jettest black, And gaunt enough that each rib pokes, With scarcely strength for saddle or pack – But its passenger can’t weigh much, at least, He’s spindly as his balancing scales – Clearly the lord of the Famine, not the feast As he measures out losses from frosts and gales.
Then others say his is the best-fed mount In any town it passes, Glossy like the fur-coat of a count Against their threadbare nags and asses. And the dirt where its hoofprints have trodden is barren now, The only thing growing is the drought – The fields are always so shy of the plough When Famine goes riding out.
Yet the final vision of our phantom knight Is the strangest of all they claim to have seen, When robed in black, or robed in white, On a pale steed – maybe dun, yet maybe green. Some say a skeleton, devoid of flesh, And what does he carry ? An hourglass of time ? A downturned torch, or a flail to thresh ? Or a sickle to scythe the stalks in their prime ?
And they give him a name, they call him Death. But surely all these versions are that – So death by what ? Perhaps from a poisoned breath, Or the slurry from the mines, or rancid fat ? Maybe our souls aren’t chaff to the miller, But the smoke in the lung and the acid on the stone – Pollution, that’s the next big killer – And surely worth a horseman all of its own.
So light all the candles and ring all the bells, To ward off the Silent Divider, And warn them in Wigan and Walsall and Wells Of the grizzled new face of the Rider. From Wetherby weavers to Tintagel Tin, From the tar-pits of Derby to Sunderland soot, So each time we breathe we invite the rogue in And his fingers leave shadows wherever they’re put.
Then listen, my children, listen for his hoofbeat, Listen as he slowly yet surely destroys By dogging the trudging of your own two feet In the choke and the grime and the constant noise. His other visions are horrors of our past, But it’s in our future that we all must die, And the fourth of the horsemen will take us at the last As he kicks up the dust as he’s riding by.
I suppose Pollution should cover the mass-deaths by human-caused tragedies, while Pestilence cover those from other living things while Famine has the natural disasters gig. This would mean that a plague of locusts is definitely one for Pestilence, while Famine would deal with meteor impacts. But don’t even get me started on green horses...