Did the Romans ever make it over Antoninus ? Did their legions hike the Highlands, past the cirsium and pinus ? Did they meet his high-king highness, In his fiery hair and golden torc ? And did they think this seaside caesar woaded-rogue or brutish-ork ? So did the Agricolan Fleet heave-to in Scapa Flow ? The orcas and the auks go by, but they don’t know.
Koala bears in woolly hats, Emus strutting in the snow Spruces march across the Outback – Let it go, Oz, let it go… I know you’re mostly immigrants From colder, Northern climes, But not all cult’ral heritage Will work in modern times. Ditch the chimney for a combi, Lose the furry robes and gloves, Let the gum replace the holly, Let the budgies play the doves. Embrace your new contrariness, Your world turned upside down – This Winter masquerade is not The only game in town. Santa chilling by the barbie, Kangaroos to haul the sleigh, Redback’s guarding Baby Jesus – Season’s greetings, and g’day.
The books call this an igneous province, As if a country of lava – They also call these rocks an intrusion, So more of an empire, rather. But due to the terraces up the plateau, They mostly call them traps – As if they’re prisoners to their nature, Till their lands collapse. Rocks push up from underneath By stealth or by explosion, To reinforce the battle With the forces of erosion. The books call these the flood basalts That roll across the shield Unstoppable, a stony horde That sweep the battlefield.
Out here, we see them all come by, All those that come this way, that is – The trails round here are sparsely-spread, And we are kind of hard to miss. There may be horses, may be camels, May be llamas – all depends – And dogs, who have to earn their keep As guards or hunters, or as friends. There’s a wall to offer shelter Since wind and tigers can’t be tamed – And then there are the soldiers, For even barren parts are claimed. So is it lonely ? Not as lonely As the eagles overhead – And all will come this way in time, There’s nowhere else to go instead.
The desert is a beach That has never known the sea, A desiccated ocean Where the bed has broken free, A long-abandoned ruin Where the rainclouds never play, A once-abundant jungle Where the trees have drained away. The heat above, the cold below, The sand will flood, the sand will flow, And the waves are high, but the tide is slow, And the haze is a shimmering spray.
Look, we get it, you’re still young and brash With passion and guile of a sort we remember From out of our youth, from cutting a dash, When the world was in Spring and our credit in cash, And watching you now, we still feel an ember From deep in our hearts that we thought were but ash.
For we are the empires who strutted before you, Who drank the same honeydew now on your lips – With vassals and tributes to praise and adore you, And patience and prudence to hassle and bore you, So manifest destiny festers and grips – And no wonder it finds you when none can ignore you.
We’ve all been there – we British and Roman, We Persian and Aztec, we Mongol and French – We each were as mighty, who answered to no man, From horseback and gunboat, with longsword and bowman, And bloodlust and mistrust we never could quench, And the cripple’ing burden of being the showman.
It never quite goes away, of course, As our never-set suns stop their beaming – The memories built up in temples and wars Which we cherish in secret, still keeping the scores. The dreams we’re still dreaming at twilight’s last gleaming, So some day shall all this be yours.
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.