Crystal Palace – it’s a suburb,
Station, park, and football team,
And a memory to a time
When this nation still could dream.
Once a product of Empire,
A palace to capture its roar –
Now just a flat-topped hill
In the Republic of Elsinore.
Straddling boroughs, pumping fountains,
Soaring towers, glass for miles.
Flames across eight counties
And her spell no more beguiles.
“No more beguiles” – that sounds Victorian –
Half vers libre, half Tudor sonnet.
Flirting with jazz and television,
Yet still bedecked in her bustle and bonnet.
She was no Bauhaus, no mere function –
Cast iron crockets encrusted her shell –
For all her prefab industry,
She always wore her baubles well.
Ah, she’s gone now, like her dinosaurs,
She’s of her time and place,
Though her place of course is the one she named –
You cannot say she leaves no trace.
I see the poems popping up again
Upon the Underground –
Prosy, earnest, and ignored
By all except the very bored.
They’re forced to slum it on the crowded train –
At least they get around,
But free from glottal stops and grime,
And far too erudite to rhyme.
And yet, it does them good to mix where
Plain-speaking folk abound –
And tailor their delivery
To suit the Drain and Jubilee:
“Mind the gap please, mind the metaphors,
Next stop is Leicester Square,
Tyger tyger burning bright,
She walks in beauty like the night,
Change for Piccadilly, mind the doors,
Use Oyster for the cheapest fare,
Remember me when I am gone away,
The darling buds of May,
South Kensington for dinosaurs,
Beyond the spiral stair,
Beware the Jabberwock my son,
All trains to Bank from platform one.”
Oh London, my London ! Forever so fond,
Yet I heard of the rumours of places beyond –
For further than ring roads and suburban stations
Apparently lies there a wealth of far nations.
How greatly I dreamed of the boat and the train
And the tropical sun, now washed out by your rain.
For my riches are poorly, my cupboards are bare,
My travelling stalled upon your thoroughfare.
Oh London, my London ! You felt my distress.
And pitied my yearnings to quit your address.
For penned by your broadways, I longed to escape –
So you widened my cage from the Steppes to the Cape,
From Hong Kong to Lisbon, from Cairo to Cork,
From L.A. to Delhi, from Auckland to York.
With bright lights and glamours, and chiming Bow Bell,
You brought me the world, and their families as well !
Growing up in the boring countryside, I’ve always liked the idea of immigration – not for myself, far too lazy, but for the rest of the world to do the hard work of coming to me. Though I guess I am a kind-of immigrant into London, and this was written soon after my arrival as I was still marvelling. Looking back, it’s a bit dum-de-dum, but that pretty much summed-up my provincial output at the time. What my poems needed was a splash of colour, and London was just the place for that.
Oh People of Coventry, turn not away !
For not only Thomas should view this display.
Oh People of Coventry, look not in shame,
She canters so proudly, erect in her frame.
Oh People of Coventry, unshield your eyes !
She wants us to watch her, to join her, to rise.
Oh People of Coventry, protest exudes,
So cast off your shackles, your breeches, your prudes.
The story is based on a real woman – Godgifu, Countess of Mercia, who survived her husband Leofric and died soon before the Domesday survey of 1086 (which lists her former lands). The bareback ride doesn’t appear until the Flores Historiarum collected and retold by Roger of Wendover in the early HE 11200s (early 1200s AD), and Peeping Tom didn’t get a look-in until 11600-700s.
As for the poem, I wrote this so long ago that it feels almost as old as the legend. Strange I was trying to channel socialist values through a protest over lower taxes !
Highwaymen are looting on the roads beneath the Pyranees,
As abbots tend their gardens in the misty Marin breeze,
While knights are walled in cities with their castles, shields and shrines,
And farmers lie in fields while the sunshine grows the vines.
And the River Aude is rolling down
From mountain pass to coastal town,
And from the peaks we see for miles
The chequerboard of tiles.
If you want a Russian Thistle,
All you have to do is whistle –
In they tumble on the breeze.
An 1800s stowaway,
A foreign sprout who’s here to stay
Blowing ever West with ease.
Not a thistle, but as hairy,
From the steppes to claim the prairie,
Infiltrating cowboy lore.
Full of thorns and full of seeds,
These drifting immigrants are weeds
Just made to be a metaphor.
Shingle beaches, pebble-dashed,
Where armoured dunes are heaped and smashed
By hefting surf that tills and rolls
On up the beaches, spits and shoals,
Whatever flints that storm and time can prize
And toss like bowls –
All layered out by weight and size.
Gravels from the cliffs and beds
In blacks and greys, in blues and reds –
These bucket-breakers of the strand,
These castles that can never stand,
Upon a beach-head built by wave on wave
Of new-formed land,
Of nuggets dug from out the grave.
Pushing back against our soles,
The sucking wash between its holes –
This is no barefoot summer beach,
But haunt of limpet, kelp and leech.
Yet stones to scree to grains shall grow
Along this tidal reach
By silicates just going with the flow.
The Spanish have the Brava and Del Sol,
The French have the Vermeille and d’Azur,
The British have…the South, the East and West –
They’re simply places for the trains to roll.
They sound so innocent and amateur,
Before the marketeers have had them dressed.
They gave us the Jurassic, don’t forget.
What next ? The Coccolith Coast of Dover ?
The Devonian Coast of…I don’t know…Dundee ?
The Windfarm Coast of Wales – it could be yet,
The Yorkshire Bladderwracks – think it over,
The Seaside Coast of Seaton-by-the-Sea…
Siroccos blow across the Sahara,
North from the desert to the inland sea,
Where Mistrals meet them, off the Alps,
To buffet the coasts of France and Italy.
The Helm roars in from Winter Norway,
And the Bora from the Steppes out East,
But most of all, from gale to zephyr,
None can blow as often as the beast –
From out the West, with not a name but Westerly,
He comes, and comes, and rarely drops for long.
He’s blowing turbines, hats and weathervanes,
From Summer-teasing soft to stormy-strong –
Bringing the Atlantic in his clouds,
And laden schooners in his wake,
From Kerry landfall to the Humber,
He’s the one for whom the branches shake.
In truth, we rarely name our winds in Britain,
Save to tell us where they’ve been –
And Westerlies are born on ocean-blue,
In cloudy-grey, to keep our island green.