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,
Out delivering their song.
But we barely see all the robins,
We barely hear their sounds
When they’re lost within the throng.
But on-come the Winter and on-come the cold,
And out-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,
Out delivering their post.
We little think of the robins,
Or braving rain and hounds,
Till we need of them the most –
Then on-comes the Winter and on-comes the cold
And on-goes the jumpers and socks,
And we need them to bring us the red and the gold
With 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 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.

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.

The Root of All Evil

wood street plane
Photo of the London plane tree in Wood Street in the Square Mile (taken by Katie Wignall ?)

The Root of All Evil

“Since it was first hybridised in the 1660s, the London Plane has slowly taken over the world.”
                                                                           – The Manchester Gardener
Hybrid sap, mosaic bark,
Twisted bloom and swollen seed,
Bright amid the sooty dark,
This gnarlèd gothic breed.
He sprouts so slyly, this plant in the greenery –
One of the forest and part of the scenery –
No felling him, this mimic of maple, primordial cousin:
Hack off a limb, and this pollarding hydra will shoot out a dozen.

Spawned in the blooms of his immigrant parents,
A cuckoo inherent, a mongrel ill-born.
Wrought in the heart of Enlightenment steam,
From a fever-soaked dream on a dew-sodden morn.
With roots in the clay and his head in Orion,
A vigorous scion, a devil-blest spawn,
A chance aberration, a found’ry mutation,
With lacewood of iron and baubles of thorn.

Invading our cities while shedding his skin,
This cryptic chimera has crept his way in.
And none of his caste have succumbed to senescence, as yet…
Elixir of ever-youth pumps his capillary,
Sweeter than gin from an alley distillery,
Alchemised out of pea-soupers and coal-dust and sweat.
As if he were built out of ratchets and springs,
His ethic for work will be written in rings –
He’s still in his galvanised prime, through the dry-times and wet.

What hath we wrought ?, and what hath we mined ?,
That ought to lie buried or trampled behind –
But workshops of soil are shooting out hordes of his kind.
And what if we find that he just keeps on growing ?,
And fruiting and sowing, till all is entwined ?
Hammered and forged in the mill and pipette –
Who knows how engorged this goliath may get ?

It is uncertain if the first accidental hybrid occured in Spain or in Vauxhall Gardens in London (well, technically in Surrey, but close enough). Interestingly, for all the streets lined with them, I don’t think there are any woods with them growing wild. Infact, it would be fascinating to deliberately plant a patch of wasteland with nothing but London Planes and see how well they self-seed. Yes, I realise that they’re not strictly British natives, but then they’re really native to nowhere.

So Says Sam Hain

The Storyteller by ‘Dutch School’

So Says Sam Hain

Mischief Night, and the Devil is abroad –
He could be here.
For on this night, be you tenant or lord,
There’s something near.
Be it a ghost, or the ghost of a thought,
The underworld or the over-wrought,
It may be all, or it may be naught –
It’s getting dark, my dear.

Mischief Night, and the Devil is amock –
He could be nigh.
For on this night, as our worries flock,
His jinks run high.
A will-o’-the-wisp, or a whisp’ring breeze,
A chill in the air, or a banshee’s sneeze ?
A frost tonight or a deathly freeze ?
It’s getting cold – oh my…

Mischief Night, and the Devil is alive –
He could be me.
For on this night, the shenanigans thrive,
And fools run free.
Is that a ghoul, or a turnip’s head ?
A friendly fright, or the living dead ?
And the Devil just smiles and goes to bed –
It’s getting late, you see.

To the Future

grandad to us all
Bronze effigy of Edward the 3rd in Westminster Abbey

To the Future

My world was taught in your history class,
In half a chapter your teacher rushed through.
Somewhen between a turning point
And some other event which we never knew.
My world just probably made you bored,
Learning the dates of a notable few –
But not of my name – I never was found
In the textbooks on which you scribbled and drew.

Maybe then I was nobody special,
Somebody whom you can safely ignore.
Never improved a million lives –
Never brought hatred, hunger and war.
Maybe then I was nobody special,
Maybe achieved next to nothing at all.
But still I meant to a couple of dozen,
And for those the closest, an awful lot more.

You may then think that I was unknown,
Unrecorded in sadness and mirth.
Save for the parish’s register-book
Where my name’s still getting its three-entries’ worth.
Maybe you gotten my census or tax,
My causes of death and my weighting at birth.
But never be thinking that this is my lot,
All that I left from my time on this earth.

Never you think then that I didn’t count
Just cos you think I could never succeed.
Just cos you laugh at my primitive ways,
Never forget that we nobodies breed.
And if then I played in no big starring part,
But still my existence you so many need –
For there are yet hundreds, or thousand by now
In whose chain-genetics I mean much indeed.

It is claimed that anyone living in Britain today and whose family have been living here for several generations will lmost certainly be a direct descendent of King Edward the Third, who died in 1377.   Of course, if I’m, say, 24 generations down the line, that means I have over 830,000 great*21 grandparents, though quite a few of those will be dupliates.  Not that the poems about him, of course.

The Rigours of Indolence

there's a storm brewing
The Ball on Shipboard by James Tissot

The Rigours of Indolence

Ah, those aristos, who never worked a day,
Just sit back and wait for Papa to pass away.
While armies of servants and hard-working-clarsses
Would feed their fat faces and wipe their fat arses,
And loans would be brokered to fund wars of nations,
While riches would pour in from ex-slave plantations.

Ah, those aristos, who feasted on our sweat,
Those patrons of the arts, that lavish social set –
With artists and craftsmen and tailors and tours,
And houses and horses and operas and balls.
They almost were worth it, their style could defend it –
They didn’t deserve it, but knew how to spend it.

Usually I resist any attempt to rhyme ‘class’ with ‘arse’, but this poem was written in with a definite accent in ear.  ‘Papa’ of course should be pronounced with its stress on the second syllable.  This is an early poem, but I’ve started to preach a little less and let a little satire slip in.  The title incidentally comes from a line in Alan Bennett’s The Madness of George the Third.