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 peep 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 toiling 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,
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.