Not the lashless Stuart beauties
On the wall at Hampton Court,
Pouting pearly bosomed cuties,
Opaque of feeling, will and thought,
Neither do I dwell on status
Of the man, however regal
Or finely wrought his apparatus,
No; I speak of Anna Neagle.
Herbert Wilcox was director,
A film of nineteen thirty-four
Cedric Hardwicke Nell’s protector –
The king – and Nell of course his whore.
Well this got screened on BBC
When I was young, I’m guessing eight,
Or possibly on ITV:
Some latter nineteen-fifties date,
And I was quite captivated
By Nell Gwyn’s lively wit and charm,
By something emancipated:
The use of humour to disarm,
More usually a male gambit,
A bel esprit would be a bloke,
At least, such was my own ambit,
Women less prone to crack a joke.
‘I Love Lucy’, ‘I married Joan,’
These comic, fluffy, giddy wives
Or ‘My Wife’s Sister’ – Brit, homegrown –
Showed dizzy, silly, shallow lives.
But Nell’s modus operandi,
Merry, bawdy, liked a rumpus,
Eating jellied eels with brandy,
Did not lack a moral compass.
The Chelsea Pensioners owe her:
Veterans who, unsupported,
Penniless, were sinking lower,
Nell prevailed, so it’s reported,
Counselled Charles to make provision,
At least, this happens on the screen,
Nell is graced with social vision
And confidence to intervene.
Unlike his other concubines
She wasn’t always out for tin
Or title, which, sans doute, refines.
Affection was her mortal sin.
Neagle, then thirty, played eighteen
With youthful vigour, bounce and zest
Though typecast later as a queen
Or stylish ladies from up west.
And maybe I exaggerate
When I call it influential
And possibly I overstate
This minor film’s potential,
It held me, as a child engrossed
This is clear to me as a bell
I guess that what I wanted most
Was to be a woman like Nell,
Repartee coming thick and fast,
Not mean or spiteful but pleasant
That notion from my distant past
Has echoes still, in the present,
I count joie-de-vivre as a merit;
My style is more the minor key –
Maybe the genes I inherit –
But I so esteem vitality.
Yom ha Shoah in the Synagogue
When Passover is done and chametz back in the fridge –
A pizza – soft rolls in the bread bin,
A lemon and poppy seed muffin,
Jaffa biscuits in the tin,
Then we have Yom Ha Shoah, 27th Nisan
Which falls in April or, more rarely, May,
Decreed by David Ben-Gurion in 53:
It means Holocaust Day
There is a synagogue service with El Malei Rahamim
Candles, kaddish and always a guest
A speaker, his or her flashbacks
Persist and attest.
Year by year, speakers are more elderly,
Then, after them, ex-kindertransport or, worse,
Ghetto kids, Their frightful narratives,
With composure, they rehearse;
They are eighty now, they have done this before,
Deaths of their loved ones they enumerate
And they have acquired fluency,
Dryly they communicate.
And, while they still live, we need to hear their stories
Which make the very air acrid, a sour taste
Is in my mouth and maybe yours
When we imagine the waste.
The Shoah is now far behind in years but ever present
How much more so for those who lived it in their youth?
But their speeches don’t engage as in the past,
Piercing with truth.
Occasionally they seem too altruistic,
Resourceful and, by any standards, stoic,
Then I wonder if they self-censor,
Revealing only the heroic,
The descent into an unimaginable abyss
For the person who’s been dehumanized
Might inhibit the memory
Of one so traumatized.
I want the survivors to remember truly,
Otherwise living testimony would cease
And how then would they have perfect rest
Or come to their place in peace?
Cultiver Notre Jardin
As Candide counselled, I tend my garden,
About fifteen square metres, not big;
I think of it when I go to sleep
An inventory of every plant and twig,
In my whole life, I never gardened
But when I moved here, four years ago
It was such a small thing but my own
I learned to dig and plant, to prune and mow
The grass was virgin. There was a box tree
In a pot and just one strip of earth
I made more beds and planted lavender,
And snowdrops and crocuses for the spring rebirth.
Snow fell the day I moved in,
A long, late February day,
In the early darkness the new home
Glowed on a cardboard disarray,
The boxes of my stuff, pared down
To downsize from the semi-detatched,
I loved this new-build flat; the new-build garden
Was not least the reason I felt well-matched.
I bought ceanothus and caryopteris
For their cerulean flower and dark leaf
Rose bushes, York white, Lancaster red,
Continuing the fragrance motif,
Spring bulbs made a poor show,
Tulips keeling over in the beds
And tall, etiolated daffodils,
With prematurely brown and crispy heads;
My favourite, lilies of the valley
Notoriously difficult to rear
Are scant although I plant profusely
Yet every May a few of them appear.
After the spring equinox,
I adorn my garden with solar lights
Coloured bulbs sparkle amongst the jasmine
On the wooden trellis through summer nights.
In my first year I bought an olive tree
A metre high, now it reaches out
And up, leaves argentine green,
With biblical grace and Sicilian clout.
The olive tree is the jewel in the crown
And it thrives, its trunk thickens
It rises, it extends, endures winter
Then grows yet more when the earth quickens.
‘Tend our garden’ said Candide, how rightly,
The flourishing olive tree seems to suggest
That this is the best of all possible worlds,
Although we doubt that all is for the best.
Observing a Young Child
My little grandson reads aloud of Noah and the ark,
His murmur like a nightingale before the night grows dark,
The low voice of a tiny child, engaged and quite content
As lulling as the sea shore where the breaking waves are spent.
There’s a voice assumed by children when they cause their toys to speak,
They convert the dull quotidian with fantasy’s mystique,
Remembered phrases animate a rabbit or a bear
A triceratops eats sandwiches while perching on a chair..
I take a soporific pill to finish off my day
But I find it more hypnotic to observe a child at play,
While worldly sounds and motions exponentially increase
A child’s imagination is the vital heart of peace,
I feel my eyes grow heavy though I shall not let them close
So light my supervision, I need not interpose;
I speak no words, my hands are still, they do not reach or clasp,
The music of the spheres endures when worlds slip from our grasp.
Learning to Read with Dad
I’m reading from ‘Old Lob’
‘Tɘ hɘ’ I say ‘Tɘ hɘ’
And Dad will be displeased
And tell me that it’s ‘the.’
‘This is Old Lob’s dog Shep.’
What was I, maybe four?
My Mum had bought me ‘Snowdrop’
Which I liked a great deal more
In Woolworth’s up in Mare Street
And Snowdrop was Snow White,
She had the blackest hair.
I loved her at first sight.
I could read Snowdrop’s story,
A far less toilsome job
Than sitting next to Dad
And struggling with Old Lob:
An uninspiring farmer;
On his farm, a naughty chick
Both mischievous and foolish,
Would get up to every trick…
This chick whose name was Percy
Was a literary low
Resisting his cheap appeal
Disturbed my reading flow
And I kept saying: ‘Pairky’
Which Dad would then correct,
He did not see the nature
Of my stubborn disconnect.
Old Lob, Snowdrop, Pairky,
Each an effective tool
So I could read for pleasure
By the time I started school.
My favourite: Enid Blyton
Decent Darrell, snobbish Gwen,
Naughty Claudine – I read all
Between ages five and ten;
Dad said ‘Read the classics,
Get acquainted with Great Lit’
Addicted to adventures,
I avoided holy writ.
But when I hit fourteen,
Osborne, Sillitoe, John Braine –
The modern, angry authors –
Were a thrilling new terrain.
Then, the continentals:
The Outsider, La Nausée
And the Brits: Huxley, Lawrence,
Orwell, Forster, Le Carré
Graham Greene, my kind of angst,
Those sad men of the cloth;
Germans and Americans:
Thomas Mann and Philip Roth.
And, best of all, the Russians
From the century before
Pairky Pairkovich survives
The Napoleonic War.
But what of Dad and his books?
Freddie Forsyth, Howard Fast,
Neville Shute – they have stature,
But are they made to last?
Soon after the millennium,
Dad lost his mobility:
The spine, the hands, the legs.
Though mental agility
Was unimpaired, no longer
Could he turn a page,
We bought him audio books
But he did not quite engage;
He still liked to watch films,
Black and white classic pictures,
Robert Donat, Jack Hawkins,
Better than football fixtures.
Ronald Colman, James Mason,
‘Sergeant Yorke’: a dvd,
And quite a rarity.
These were his narratives:
Stories of love and war,
Of courage and virtue,
Upholding moral law,
Moments of redemption,
They serve who stand and wait
The Captain of the Gate.
The words are our dry bones
Like Ezekiel, we call
To printed page or ebook
The new app we install,
The books become flesh and blood.
We see our own reflection
And know that they are the life
They are the resurrection.
This book life, the young child learns,
Tɘ his. This. Step by step.
Tɘ his. This is Old Lob.
This is Old Lob’s dog Shep.
At eight years old, I get some sense
Of having lost my Dad’s esteem
Until that time, fair set I seem
To meet his fond, ambitious hopes.
I eat Wagon Wheels and Viscounts
Flavoured with orange or with mint;
Dad thinks I fail to take the hint
That my indistinct voice annoys,
That I excel only sometimes,
That I am no longer pretty,
And he thinks it is a pity
I read so much Enid Blyton.
I have good manners, try to please,
Make jokes and wear a cheerful face
Seeking to find some different place
To be estimable again.
I am sixteen, I meet some one,
I feel happy and desired
My affections are inspired
He is the desideratum.
He is articulate and loud,
Wears glasses and has curly hair,
I have not learned how to take care,
Then, like Keyzer Soze, he’s gone.
The laments of Dusty Springfield,
The shoeless bounce of Sandie Shaw
Remind me that he’ll come no more
And I must find some different place.
I learn to drink beer by the pint
My drink of preference is scotch,
Above all, I want him to watch
My reckless, raw unravelling.
I am twenty-four and married
A second baby on the way,
In gratitude, I learn to pray;
My wishes have been gratified.
It suits me to be a mother,
Though the marriage is not quite right
Birth and babies are a delight,
And I have reached a different place.
The poor young husband has been tied
Too soon to domesticity
Estranged by my felicity
He looks on, but is at a loss.
He and I are conscientious
Essentially, we are decent
Our troubles are only recent,
We last still a little longer.
Thirty-two, one of my best years
It’s two years since I remarried;
More babies – we haven’t tarried,
We have a fierce, needful rapport.
We are surrounded by children,
Games and soft toys are all around,
Outside, bats and balls on the ground
Where I tread with pregnant care.
The children are his, mine and ours
And the exes are in our lives:
Problematic former wives,
Encroach on a successor’s mind.
British forces capture Goose Green
I labour and next day at dawn,
In hospital, my son is born
And Pope John Paul is in our land.
I’m forty and my husband’s ill.
He’s sicker than we first supposed
For cancer has been diagnosed
The doctors do not mince their words.
Aggressive chemo therapy
And merciful palliation
But the illness’s duration
Is a little less than a year.
He dies early on a Monday,
His age no more than forty-one
A July day, a flaming sun,
But he is in a different place.
Now this big family goes on
With the heavy task of living
The loss is so unforgiving,
We never cease to hear his voice.
At forty-eight I am much changed
In widowhood, I learned to drive
And do what it takes to survive
Which means at last I have a car.
Another thing I have achieved,
And this not so surprisingly
Is getting another degree;
The love of learning drives me on.
I live amidst adult children
They have grown up so fine and strong
And, for me, lovers come along,
Good enough, each in his season.
Now I am in a different place
It is as if I found my voice
For this, I tend not to rejoice,
Passing men no longer look twice.
I have the habit of marriage,
Have taken yet another name,
But I have ceased to be aflame,
The flames are quenched, the ashes cold.
Work, friends, family, mine and his,
The whole domestic bag of tricks
It’s not too bad at fifty-six
Though something has been lately lost.
We go to classical concerts,
Often the highlight of my week,
But once, in the Pathétique
I weep silently and unseen.
The peaceful and suburban life
Is tinged with rue, the herb-of-grace,
And could there be a different place?
Or have my options now expired?
I dream of Dad who’s gone ahead,
The hour of my life grows late
In years, I have reached eight times eight;
In sleep alone, the clock goes back.
See how this poem’s a selfie!
I blog my blog and tweet my tweets,
And find that social media meets
My wordy and retiring needs.
Despite this, or because of it,
There is a particular man,
Strange, what with my being a Gran –
The heyday in the waning blood.
Now I am hexadecimal
A number eight is on my door
When squared it comes to sixty-four,
And all my places gather here.
Eight more years have now passed by
Three score years and ten and two
Vehigianu lazman hazeh.
Drums Along Green Lanes
Saturday afternoon, Green Lanes Palmers Green,
A slow monotonous drum beat
Diminishing the buzz of shoppers and cars
And striking my ears like a rumour of war.
A small procession ahead, with banners,
Red and yellow, suggests some cause
Which could chime with my leftish disposition
But the drum arouses an antique dread,
Maybe a collective unconscious memory
Of men-at-arms, men-at-drums
So sure of their superior strength
They announce their advance with a din.
My discomfort is slight yet palpable
But I am accoutred for jogging
Even drummers won’t mess with a jogger
My trainers are my sanctuary.
My age though is Will You Still Feed Me
A little old lady if I’m honest,
Therein also lies my immunity
And now the procession is before me.
The banners, emblazoned with pizzas,
Alert the public to the local Hut:
Delicious food and amazing deals
Are only a few clicks away.
Level now with the young man drumming,
I throw a glance at his djembe
Which responds to his percussive attentions
With a hawkish, martial thud.
A young girl, cheerful, Euro-Afro-Asian,
Smiling, puts a leaflet in my hand;
I read of the pizzas of Palmers Green
And hear her benison ‘Have a nice day.’
In 1910 my life was saved
And Halley’s Comet brushed the earth
Which passed right through the comet’s tail,
Though this did not foretell my birth;
And George the Fifth was now the king
While Asquith led from Downing Street,
And HG Wells and Bernard Shaw
Had literati at their feet.
The town of Tel Aviv was named
By pioneers who travelled far
From pogroms led by Cossacks
Who loved Nicholas, the Russian Tsar;
And this is how I come to hold
A faded passport in my hand,
My great-grandfather’s document,
Which freed him from his native land.
A stamp from Tulchin on one page,
For here was Yaakov’s residence,
Not near the Palace, I should add,
Owned by some ducal eminence.
A city in Podolia,
Two hundred miles south of Kiev
Was somewhat closer to the towns
Of Zhitomir and Kishinev,
The former being known to house
A Hebrew language printing press;
The Black Hundreds active there
Enjoyed some sinister success
They murdered Jews in Zhitomir
The police chose to avert their gaze
Like Kishinev, two years before,
The pogrom of the Easter days.
Yaakov then resolved to leave
With Chaya, his devoted wife,
Whose age that year was sixty-two;
Her name in English: ‘Eve,’ or ‘Life.’
Their daughter had a family,
Yaakov was her husband’s name.
Three generations sailed away,
To London’s thrumming docks they came:
This rough and ready sanctuary,
The city which I love and trust
And where my grandparents lie,
At peace amidst the English dust.
Then Malka was again with child
Her father now had passed away.
She wrote the number of the grave
In Edmonton where Yaakov lay
On the front page of her siddur
In Yiddish, using Hebrew script.
She was now forty. In due course
The well-known pains of labour gripped.
The child she bore was Yaakov too.
He was my father. Jacob. Jack;
A child of London, as am I,
To Russia we do not look back;
But when the revolution came
His grown-up sister Leah returned,
Inspired by the Soviets,
And how she died, we never learned,
In World War Two, she disappeared;
Among the ranks of those who died
Because they lived on Russian soil
When German forces occupied.
I firmly believe that document
Issued with the Tulchin stamp
Saved my father from the Nazis,
From the concentration camp,
He learned from newsreels of the Shoah,
Read of hideous events
But he survived and so I live,
How good, O Jacob, are thy tents!
Repeat These Words
It’s harder than ever to pray
God’s heard it so often before,
I don’t want to repeat myself,
I don’t want to repeat myself,
I’m afraid of being a bore
And some things I just cannot say.
It’s not easy getting to grips
With eternity and infinity,
I don’t want to repeat myself,
But rather to complete myself,
But how should I speak of divinity
If God doesn’t open my lips?
The words have endured wear and tear,
While I worship, petition and bless.
I don’t want to be insincere,
I wait for the meaning to reappear,
Sometimes I believe more, sometimes less,
And I’ve nothing, at times, to declare.
If my mouth will declare Your praise
The language may fashion the thought,
And the words of supplication
Determine the meditation
To which they gives support
Through each time-honoured ancient phrase.
At times, when my heart’s in my mouth
I’m in tune with a great cosmic beat
Then I don’t believe that I cheat myself
It’s all right to repeat myself,
It’s different each time I repeat,
With my right hand, yemini, to the south.
The Asked-For King
Anointed by Samuel, judge, seer and cleric,
Saul fell among prophets all speaking in tongues,
Impressionable, highly-strung and hysteric,
Saul prophesied too at the top of his lungs;
Prophets back then were obscure and elliptic
In trance-like states they shouted or muttered,
Unlike Samuel who, while being cryptic,
Was generally clear in such words as he uttered.
Now Samuel assembled the people and said:
‘Though God saved you from Egypt and slavery’s yoke,
By a fallible mortal you choose to be led,’
As if chilled at the thought, Samuel tightened his cloak.
He said ‘Lots will be drawn, tribe by tribe, clan by clan,
Then your king will be known by the lots, where they fall,’
Thus the search for the first king of Israel began
And the lot clearly fell to a Benjamite, Saul,
And up went the cry, ‘Where is Saul? He’s not here!’
He had fled from the noise, the acclaim of the crowd,
To hide among bags used for storing some gear
For it pained him to hear his own name called aloud.
They found him quite soon and the crowd was delighted,
Shouting ‘Long live the king!’ as if with one voice,
Even Samuel for once in his life grew excited,
Saying, ‘Look at the man who is truly God’s choice!’
Just a few made expressions of cynical doubt:
‘Can he save us in war? There’s not much he can do,
He lacks all authority, confidence, clout,’
Saul did not respond, but he heard and he knew.