Fish & Physics

Amazonian Guaperva Fish by Francis Willughby (at least, I think he did his own illustrations).

Fish & Physics

Gentle Francis Willughby,
To best of his ability
Has written us a thriller – see,
The History of Fish !
Illustrated lib’rally,
Meticulous and jibber-free –
No charlatan or fibber, he,
But honest, if not swish.
The Royal-dubbed Society
Have praised his work most high and free,
And published with propriety
His dense and hearty dish –
Examining their parity
And countless similarity,
To classify with clarity
Each finble, scule and gish.
His work will lead inex’rably
To Karl Linné’s complexity
And Darwin’s sexy theory
That the bishops try to squish –
Yet mocked in perpetuity,
His book an incongruity,
For lacking the acuity
Of Newton’s masterpiece –
His grandiose Principia,
That makes the heavens trippier
And gravity much nippier,
Is straining for release.
But things are tight financially,
With profits down substantially
And Newton sees his chances flee
Despite the Fellows’ wish –
They cannot foot the bill, you see,
The budget’s blown on Willughby –
But don’t show Frank hostility,
He’s not so queer a fish.

The Merchantman Shanty

detail from Moonlight over the Bosphorus by Edward Hoyer

The Merchantman Shanty

“Work songs were banned in the Royal Navy”
                                                                                    – Capt A. Bakalarka

I used to sail with the king, I sailed
On a Royal Naval brig,
But there they wouldn’t let me sing
Whene’er we raised the rig

     So we hauled away in silence so,
     We had to heave without a ho,
     We dare not hum a quick-quick-slow
     Or the cat would make us holler.

We mayn’t disturb his majesty
     With a too-rye-ay and a yo-ho-ho,
For only lubbers sing at sea
     So let all singing go.

I used to sail with the king, I sailed
On a Royal Naval sloop,
But I couldn’t let my whistle ring
Whene’er we swabbed the poop.

     So we scrubbed away in silence, see,
     We had to dumb without a dee,
     We dare not hum a do-re-mi,
     Or the cat would make us holler.

We mayn’t disturb his majesty
     With a too-rye-ay and a yo-ho-ho,
For only madmen sing at sea
     So keep your whistle’ing low.

I used to sail with the king, I sailed
On a Royal Naval barque,
But I must not pluck a single string
Till safely after dark.

     So we sailed away in silence, aye,
     We had to hew without a cry,
     Unless the roaring wind was high
     And the cat can’t hear us holler.

We mayn’t disturb his majesty
     With a too-rye-ay and a yo-ho-ho,
For only sirens sing at sea
     So take your singing below.

The lines in roman are sung by the shanty man, the lines in italics are sung by the crew.

The Wages of Sin

Manners & Customs of ye Englyshe in 1849 by Richard Doyle

The Wages of Sin

Thanks, Dick Turpin – what a guy !
Killed a few, but by-the-by.
Thank you Ripper, Jack the Flash –
Take the tour and rake the cash.
Thank you Crippen, bask in fame; –
Morse was made through your good name.
Thank you Shipman, take my breath –
Waxworks beckon, Doctor Death.



We’ve all heard of the sealed train
That carried the 36 between
Zürich and the Glasbahnhof,
In April 1917.
A couple of ferries and a new suit later,
Tornio station, platform 1,
To catch the sleeper to Petrograd –
And become the prodigal son.
Finnish metals all the way,
On over the swamps and rugged terrain
To the Finland Station and history,
Though no-one thought to note the train .
One is preserved – it may be the one,
But as likely not – we’ll never know.
Those locos were all faithful workers,
Too busy working to stop and crow.

But in the height of August,
Fleeing back the way he came –
Working his passage with a shovel,
Lenin stoked the movement’s flame.
293 – preserved in glass
The only loco we know he rode,
Not that we can blame the pistons
For their unexpected load.
American built, as the century turned,
A proud ten-wheeler, H2-Class,
A broad-gauge beauty, wood-fired boiler,
Black, without that bourgeois brass.
Does it matter ?  Holy relics ?
Lenin was also just a machine
That public anger drove to the station
In the red-heat of 1917.

Quarter Days

book of hours
detail of December from the Très Riches Heures by the Brothers Limbourg

Quarter Days

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.

Carol of the Robins

Carol of the Robins

They’re here all year are the robins,
The robins on their rounds,
Delivering their song.
But we barely see all the robins,
Barely hear their sounds
When they’re lost in the throng.
But come the Winter and come the cold,
And go the fairweather flocks –
But the robins are patient, the robins are bold,
As bright as the frost and as red as the fox.
With a whistle they come,
And they sing out the season
And snow cannot stop them from spreading their cheer.
They sing to each other,
They sing for no reason,
But we only hear them at this time of year.

They’re here all year are the robins,
The robins on their rounds,
Delivering their post.
We little think of the robins
Braving rain and hounds,
Till we need them the most –
Then comes the Winter and comes the cold
And on go the jumpers and socks,
And we need them to bring us the red and the gold
On the cards and the parcels they push through our box.
With a whistle they come,
And they bring us the season,
And snow cannot stop them from winging it here.
They come when it’s sunny,
They come when it’s freezing,
But we only see them at this time of year.

As I’ve discussed in another poem, robins are territorial and violent birds. However, they’re also a great source of pleasure to humans. So much so that Victorian postmen with their red waistcoats were nicknamed robin redbreasts and soon Christmas cards were featuring them in both human and allegorical avian form.

And when I suggest that the robins ‘sing for no reason’, I am aware fully aware of the many uses that their song serves, but there is increasing evidence that occassionally birds really might just sing for the fun of it.

Gingerbread Dickens

christmas cards

Gingerbread Dickens

All these Christmas cards, each year,
These Christmas cards of pristine snow,
With country squires and village geese,
And not a trace of elbow-grease,
With ev’ry lady all a-cheer,
And ev’ry urchin all a-glow,
And all the cosy world at peace,
Forever after, never cease…
Except, it never is – not here –
It never was, of course, we know –
But hey, let fantasy increase
Upon a harmless mantlepiece.


Statue of Anonymous by Miklós Ligeti


Statues – guardians of civic pride and retail,
And dressed in the city’s stones to match –
Though bronze is rather dark for showing detail –
A bright day is essential, and a good eye to catch.
Otherwise, they’re lumps of grey we walk by ev’ry day,
Dispatches from the past that we’ve forgotten –
Best they stay anonymous, it’s far more fun that way,
Than a boring Lord of Borough-on-the-Rotten.
Never read the base in any case, that’s all the past,
Let’s privately recast them as we like –
Look into each graven face and let our fancies race,
With this one Lady Shazza, and that one Pikey Mike.

I’ve never been one for remembering the worthies in lumps of dark, dull bronze whose features are more often lost in the overcast light.  The ancient world painted their statues, and indeed painted their churches, but we’re far too puriotan for that these days.  But if we are to have them, let’s make them allegorical (and not necessarily female)…

Although having said that, there are two adjacent works at Hyde Park Corner which undermine my argument – one being Francis Wood’s
Machine Gun Corps depiction of the Biblical David (despite the wielders of machine guns in the trenches being the very epitome of Goliath), appearing irrelevant and cliched when overshadowed by Charles Jagger & Lionel Pearson’s very literal Royal Artillery Monument (although in my defence, all of the supporting figures are suitably anonymous, including my favourite the Angel of Death).

History Never Changes

painted fore-edges by Cesare Vellecio

History Never Changes

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 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,
Just as we shall be, some day.

America, We Need to Talk

It’s Time to Build a Stronger America by James Flagg

America, We Need to Talk

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.