Trollies in Kremenchuk

I curse the bloody things sometimes.

Last Monday at the Shopping Mall

I grabbed one but a wheel was jammed.

The next one veered off to the right

And the last trolley in the row

Simply collapsed before my eyes.

I went outside to the car park

And spotted a shiny model

In the far corner. Just the job,

I thought, and marched off to claim it.

Light and mobile, it was perfe...

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The Wrong America


We idolised Orson Welles and Lennie,

Walt Whitman and the Louisville Lip,

And got quite fond of little fat guys,

Perspiring and shooting from the hip,

Who yelled, in badly fitting shorts:

‘Honey, I gotta get a picture of that’.


Now, egged on by demented courts,

They seem to favour different sports:

The mean of mind and loud of voice

Would take away a woman’s ch...

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The Hill

They climbed up on the hill and saw

A view they had not known before.

The land was green, the sky was blue;

The waves lapped gently on the shore.

But then a darkened cloud approached

And from it boomed the thunder’s roar.


The rain poured down, the lightning flashed,

The storm’s infernal uproar crashed.

All neighbourhood was washed away;

By dawn, their best-laid plan...

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Drinking Culture

A pint at the National Gallery,

A vodka and lime at the Tate,

A large single malt at Parsifal,

In the interval while you wait.


Then off to a poetry reading,

Where you gulp down large helpings of booze;

Before ending up at a jazz club,

With slateloads of cocktails to choose.


Next morning there's consolation

That you know you've improved your mind,

Although yo...

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The Long Temptation


They sat on a park bench,

Routinely bored:

He unadventurous,

She unexplored.


‘Are we an item?’

She enquired, with some urgency.


‘I’m not sure,’ he said.

He was aimless, now retired.


‘Well, do you want to be?’

She asked, as if in an emergency.


‘If you like,” he replied.


But, by then, both had died.

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At the Front

Close now. I think. It’s hard to tell sometimes.

War takes away perspective with its taste

Of danger, its relentless jabs of fear.

Yes, we can see them. Just across the field,

Behind the trees but not quite out range.

Easy prey for our telescopic sights.

They’ll probably never know what hit them;

Two of them are down, the rest run away.


Bloody cowards, just like we wou...

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Le Plat Pays

That day, back in nineteen seventy-eight,

I had passed the exams. They did blood tests,

Heart monitor, followed by an X-ray.

I took the metro to get my eyes checked

In a leafy, windswept Brussels suburb,

Then queued in the grey, underground canteen

For lunch. For ever. The squat steaks oozed blood.

Afternoon: interview in broken French

With a bewildered man in Fisheries.


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Splendid Youth


The war is sucking up our splendid youth.

They’re racing to the front; they won’t come back.

Each town and village starts to empty out,

As friends and classmates go on the attack.

They’re fighting for our dignity and state

Of freedom and of happiness pursued,

But consequences, each one plainly knows,

Could be unmentionably vile and rude.

In these now quiet streets the ...

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I wonder if those who lay the mines down

Stay put and wait for victims to approach,

Or, with a surreptitious grin, retreat.

As for the victims, no imagining

The horror of their plight will bring them back.

The miner and mined have done their duty.

In moral terms, they seem so far apart:

One bad, one innocent. But consider.

They are both under orders not to think:


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Uplifting to see,
The Queen' s Jubilee.
The old songs were sung, 
The church bells were rung.
The poor and elites
Had parties in streets.
Come rain or come sun,
The people had fun;
They guzzled their cakes
And Cadbury's flakes, 
They'd caper and jig
Beside Peppa Pig,
Becoming, through play,
Like children, all day.

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Fancy Man

She’s gone to meet her fancy man.

They lie beneath his ceiling fan,

Which cools them down if things turn warm,

As they whip up the coming storm.


A fancy man’s love knows no bounds,

When measured in enjoyment’s sounds.

Sophistication boost his charms,

As she dissolves into his arms.


She’s aching for her fancy man;

He told her that his name was Stan.

She hasn’...

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A Hundred Days

A hundred days have passed since it began.

So anyone who came of age since then

Will know of nothing but this raging war,

Impardonably thrust into our lives.

Are all attempts to look beyond such days,

Anonymously scribbled on the wall,

A futile antidote to these cruel ways?

Or something sinister which may recall

A game which every canny person plays:

To test how far the ...

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Strange Feeling

Strange feeling, standing next to this felled tree,

A victim of a violent assault.

Not long ago, these leaves were vigorous

In the reflection of a sparkling sun.

Green dominated, but entertainments

Of all shapes and styles delighted this Earth.

Now brown and shrivelled, they slip existence,

As they accompany their own decline.

We know that feeling too. The lynched bodies,


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The look on Mum’s face told its own story;

Our dad’s weekly letter had failed to arrive.

In its place, as sombre as a scarecrow,

Was a black-bordered missive from the state.

When we left, it seemed like an adventure:

Hugs and backslaps and putting on a smile.

Then the train rides, through cold nights and long days.

I don’t know where we are. They all seem nice

But they spea...

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They’re performing a foxtrot in Davos,

The great and the good are crossing the floor;

While deep in Ukraine, with little to gain,

The dance is wilder than ever before.


The movers and shakers are out in force,

They move their careers and their buyback bids;

While near to Kyiv, with little to give,

Old jackets are shaken to feed the kids.


Designer shoppers and vegan...

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City Tour

Good afternoon, you’ve come from far and wide;

In Mariupol, I shall be your guide.

Do not believe the lying foreign press,

Who will pretend this place is one big mess.

Just look at the improvements we have made:

All that extra space, if a bit less shade.

(And any minor damage has been done

By outside agents who have cut and run).

You see that souvenir shop with its flags?


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A dead tree is sad, but it stands, present,

Benevolent, useful, still in the game.

It has nobility, even when charred

By flames, in the overheat of wartime.

Dead people though, perish in every sense;

Their limp remains plead for quick disposal.

All that’s left is once-removed: memories,

Letters, film of their pomp and garden games,

The sly maintenance of reputations.


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Glorious Mud

'Mud, Mud, Glorious Mud',

Was a very famous song:

Sung by the great Michael Flanders

And played by Donald Swann.

Both, alas, are now long gone.

But Flanders' daughter Stephanie

Is frequently heard on the BBC,

So the heritage of mud

Lives on!


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Many here will go to heaven,

Though some of us will go to hell.

These places stand on worlds apart,

But who does badly? Who does well?


We think that sinners should be sent

To purgatory down below,

But in a war all lines are blurred;

Good people may not even know


That they deserve an afterlife

Of peace and comfort and of joy,

While devils rise in our esteem


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Day 82


You wake again in dawn’s reluctant light;

The neighbour’s wife and youngster have both fled.

He shivers as he clings hold of his gun

And, unrefreshed, falls on his lonely bed.


War, looking back, can be a lucky break.

Men who once cleaned up a factory floor,

When it is over, build a better life;

At present, it’s a terrifying chore


Of trembling hands, impending...

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My Enemy

I felt a numbness after the event:

A single shot, and this was just a boy,

Barely out of school. He lay, open-mouthed,

And I thought of his family and friends,

His teenage passions, posters on the wall,

His portrait of pride, hanging in the hall.

Suddenly, my mates were surrounding me -

We had blown a hole in enemy lines -

Slapping my back, but I was now alone.

One may a...

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Anger Management

We should not yield to anger,

Nor trespass upon kindness.

There are other ways to staunch the boiling blood.

The sight of yesterday’s Victory parade,

With its wind-up, flat-pack military,

Its gross salutes and guns and strut,

Its little man made out of wax,

Talking for ages through his nut,

Made me grimace at the waste

And at the tragic, pointless load

Of fresh-dead b...

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I thought he would be giving us a wave,

But no. An old gent, looking quite cheesed off.

As an individual, he had good points,

But I don’t want his statue in this town.

He has too much baggage; I’m short on tact.

Anyway, we do not need more clutter.

These damned edifices are everywhere:

Footballers, dogs, forgotten men in wigs.

In some spots you can hardly move for them.


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I once passed a little village

Where locals met and chatted in the square;

Some, most withdrawn, played cards and smoked.

The place was poor but free from fear or care.


When required, the work was done;

Winters were hard but held a certain charm.

Then all too soon the tanks rolled in;

There was no time to ring out the alarm.


Now, though the buildings are long gone...

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Stop. Go back to your make-believe,

For what is real is hard to bear.

In normal times we take a stroll

And look around and sniff the air,

But now imagination rules,

No entertainment lives out there.


Three heroes in their sailor suits

Dance to the tunes of ‘On the Town’,

While outside bombs and missiles land

And innocence comes crashing down.


The burned-out s...

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Red Sky at Night

Not many shepherds live around these parts,

But down the road the buildings are ablaze.

In semi-darkness, citizens with pails

Run like hares towards the smoky haze.

I stop one in passing. ‘I’m Jan,’ he says.

His features throb with duty and despair;

His younger friend stands polishing a gun.

Our lives are here, but could be anywhere.

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I popped out to the shops to buy some bread;

When I returned my family were dead.

A missile had destroyed our neighbourhood;

From this time onwards, nothing will be good.

I cannot understand these men of war;

I cannot comprehend what this is for.

We had no quarrel with our former friends;

How can these means advance their twisted ends?

Were they at war, my children and my w...

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The Slowing of Spring

Spring sprung too soon this year,

And now has lost its puff.

Streams run dry; seaside views

Are not remotely rough.


On still midsummer calm

And spreads of withered pink,

The sun is beating down.

It’s April time, I think.


The damp has drained away;

The fields are like cement.

The skimpiest of rain

Is close to heaven-sent.


Tiles upon rooftops roast.


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Sir Harrison Birtwistle (1934-2022)

Sir Harrison Birtwistle (1934-2022)


The Last Night, live on BBC One;

At the Proms, twenty-seven years ago,

‘Panic’ had them spitting out their gin.

They expected Land of Hope and Glory,

England’s green and pleasant land – all that.

What they got was daring, discordant brilliance.

‘Disgusted’ of Somewhere went into overdrive.

The switchboard (in those days) was jammed


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Let us pray

I want there to be a God.

I want there to be someone

I can pray to in hard times

And feel the warmth of family.


But when I see all this death,

All this doom and destruction

And reach out for some solace,

Who is there to answer me?


Religious leaders bang on

And pass round the piled-high plate,

But can they stop the nightmare

And bring back sons and daughte...

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Tears come too frequently with age.

The old accentuate despair

And store up their disappointments,

Accepting, with its bitter taste,

The enormity of failure.

They learn to love the shorter days

And seek comfort in the darkness.

They hanker for secure times,

Now just beyond their memory,

When tears they wept were pure joy.

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'Grieving Ukrainian Mother' (As seen on TV)

The caption caught my eye with morning tea;

Tearful in woe, she loomed large on the screen.

The opened plastic bag revealed her son;

Her heartbreak and distress was hard to bear.

The brother held her in a sad caress;

Distraught, they parried questions from the press.


And I was torn. Should this not be discreet,

This tragedy, and not for public view?

Then someone else, ...

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When the rain stops, and the clouds part,

We venture out to take a look,

And for one brief moment wallow

In some space of blessed respite.

A shower has freshened up this place;

The violent mist has melted

Into compost’s damp aroma,

Birdsong breaks the tuneless silence.

The lives not lived, through their absence,

Remind us of the dry prelude,

Crackling in heat and nois...

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Paradise is a crust of bread

And a sip of running water.

Paradise is electric light,

A little warmth, an evening bath.

Paradise is to meet with friends,

To go outside, to sniff the air,

And smell no war, and see no dead,

No buildings razed, but peace instead.

This paradise is somewhere else.

It feels so near; it should be here.

For now, we plunge back in the fray...

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Staged Event

It wasn’t that complicated,

But it had to be authentic.

No point in actors playing dead.

Think about it! They’ll sneeze or twitch

As the cameras start rolling

And give the whole damn game away.

Luckily we had true patriots,

Prepared to sacrifice their lives,

Ready to jump in plastic bags

And take a bullet in the head.

Thousands were queueing round the block.


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First Trip To Kyiv, June 1996

An early morning flight from Vienna,

The plane stuffed with consultants in their suits;

Rugby scrums for visas on arrival.

Hotel post-Soviet, with quirky charm:

‘Three hundred dollars. You pay in cash. Now!’

On each floor women at desks dole out keys

And watch cartoons on cinema-sized screens.

No one can close the window in my room.

The metro staircase seems to reach Earth’...

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I didn’t have to do this job;

There were many things on offer,

But somehow I fell into it.

Most days it’s pretty routine:

Emptying the bins and the bags.

But yesterday, everything changed;

The cameras and microphones

Screamed indignation at the world,

While the crows and vultures circled

For a sniff of plastic-wrapped flesh.

Unfamiliar with our task,

We tidied up, ...

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In time of war, things fit to you tightly:

No bagginess, no slack, no loose surplus.

War exposes us as human beings,

And makes us face ourselves for what we are.

The carnival starts; you put on your mask

And chase the local girl. Later, waking,

You hear a distant cry from your old friend,

Pleading for your help through the gas and mud.

But you are too warm; she is beside yo...

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Hot Line

When my dad passed away,

I began to wish for

A number I could call,

To check he was all right.


‘All right’ is relative, of course,

But the purpose of this hot line

Would be to spread out and discuss,

To ask the unanswered questions,

To say the things we had not said,


And to speak to one that I knew,

Not the wizened, angry, lost soul

I had sat with that la...

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I have nowhere to go,

Yet so much I could say;

No one out there listens

As my words fly away.


I have nowhere to sleep,

To lie down undisturbed.

My nightmares will run deep;

My tender dreams are curbed.


I have nowhere to hide,

No place where I can run.

I’ll sit and contemplate

The cool, descending sun.


I have nowhere to grow;

To be the one ...

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Something New

Does anyone have something new to say,

Or have they spouted this same stuff before?

The pundit with the shoulder-shrugging way,

The smug contrarian, the golf club bore,

Seem to have drifted through the point of ripe:

A busted flush, well past their sell-by date.

So new kids brandish platitudes and tripe,

Passed on as humdrum tools of their estate.

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Each day will expire.

The sun will rise and set,

The midnight hour cross

A starless sky, and yet,

The stories will remain,

Embedded in the past,

Awaiting to be told,

Through memories which last.

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The President

The President roared, The President roared:

‘I have so much power, yet I am bored.’


The President thought, The President thought:

‘What can I do for today’s bit of sport?’


The President said, The President said:

‘Bring me that man and I’ll chop off his head.’


The President cried, The President cried:

‘Now I shed tears for the man who just died.’


The Pres...

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Shostakovich's Tenth

The listeners, engrossed, swim with the tide,

The echoing of terror in their ears.

The ‘Stalin’ scherzo shudders to a halt,

As fast as its great surge of sound begins.

It seems to fall and plunge down a ravine

And disappears, with one last act of will,

To ignominy and oblivion,

Inside the padlocked box of history.

All this took place in nineteen fifty-three:

The Coronati...

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Timepieces weigh us down;

Each moment is the present day.

The future has lost its fashion;

The past has gone, they say.


‘We must live for the now’,

Insist some greater minds than mine.

What’s over is cheap currency,

Like corked, rejected wine.


Time should be worthwhile, though,

Comprising memories and fear,

And one small universe of smiles

Which stretch f...

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Musée des Beaux Arts, March 2022

It’s hard to believe that Auden stood here

And stared while Europe teetered on the brink.

The tiny Icarus, unseen, ignored,

By locals who have better things to do,

Drops down beneath the weight of melted wings.

But this and other paintings have survived,

Unchanged through times of short-lived conflicts, plagues,

Achievements and disasters, rattling past

Beyond these walls. ...

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‘Sharpie’ Wilson

Liked his pint and his fag

And fancied a miner’s daughter.

More rugby league in that area, then.

He was called up for the war;

I wonder what he’s doing now?


‘Pint-size’ Gregor

Was the husband of a cousin.

Never a cross word;

Twenty years in car assembly.

He was called up for the war;

I wonder what he’s doing now?


‘Slowcoach’ Colin...

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It puts things into perspective:

Legions of the brave stand and fight

Death and destruction in Ukraine,

While this end whingers demonstrate

Against a simple covid jab

Or wearing a mask on a train.

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A pensioner may say,

On each St Crispin's day:

‘Now let sleeping dogs lie.’

But some old men do not forget;

An ancient jibe leaves them upset.

They nurse a grudge until they die.

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We talk about war crimes,

But all war is a crime.

No one should have to take up arms

And to try to kill his brother.


Health warnings flash across our screens.

The lifeless husks of battle rage

Or those dismembered by explosions

(‘You may find some of these images upsetting’);

They were just following orders.

But no one should follow orders.


To hell with the...

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