Pot Shots

Courtesy of lily-livered missiles

(Tactical? Strategic? Who on Earth cares?)

Ukrainians lose the rest of their lives,

While eating lunch or dinner in their flats.

My thoughts drift to twittish highland royals,

And double-barrelled toffs who hunt for stags,

Which bleed and stagger round for days on end

Before they die in bouts of howling pain.

It is all part of a continuum:


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Villanelle for a village cricketer

I’m batting at eternal number ten.

My mediocre talent falls apart;

Soon I’ll be walking back on nought again.


I’m in a team of skilled, well-coached young men,

Convincing me that cricket is an art.

I’m batting at eternal number ten.


I do not move my feet or sidestep when

A lethal bouncer flies towards my heart.

Soon I’ll be walking back on nought again.


I ...

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The Reunion Party

For me, Galton and Simpson were up there

With Pinter, Stoppard, and all the others.

‘The Reunion Party’ was their peak.

Nineteen sixty-five, when Tony Hancock

Struggled on through his final, fading depths.

Not seen for twenty years, his army mates,

Grown old, have changed, and not for the better.

Oh, disappointment, exasperation!

(‘Oh God, man. You’re not a squirrel; have a...

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Some people wilfully tread on spiders,

But I don’t.

Some squash ladybirds for fun:

That’s not my style.

Some laugh as they crush an ant:

I can’t do that.


You can see where this is going:

Some people are just different.

They are born that way;

Or do they become like that?

They can’t all be sadists;

Sometimes it’s just circumstances.


So, could I become t...

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Dumb Animals

When the old Soviet leaders

Went hunting for the day,

The animals were sedated

To make them easy prey.


Some decades in the future,

They send in droves to war

Minds numbed so much they do not know

What they are fighting for.


I guess there is a parallel;

It always has been thus.

Lemming and lamb go to their doom

With bare bones of a fuss.


While some...

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This indescribable Hell.

Go ahead, describe it:

You are bound to come up short.

Those nearby can’t do the job;

To them it’s still neighbourhood,

And photographs, as we know,

Will never do it justice.

Perhaps this is the way Hell

Gets away with its nonsense;

Its mammoth violation

Too vast to get a grip on,

So that no one even tries.

A brief sun bursts through the...

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It’s only anonymity

Which makes us go to war;

When soldiers meet up face to face

They wonder what it’s for.


They talk of friends and relatives,

About whom they all care;

Discuss the beauty of the world,

Which they delight to share.


They do not bow to nation states

Or military types,

Whose mission is to keep them down

By tapping on their stripes.



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When you are young,

You wonder what life is about;

When you are old,

You still do not know.

It’s only when you’re middle-aged

That you think you understand,

Because of tears you shed at funerals

And the trail of your footprints in the snow.

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The risk is there's nothing left but hate,

Or loathing and calls for revenge.

Should we prevail, one understands;

In battle, feelings are stripped down,

Until all that remains is raw,

Sensitive to the lightest touch

And far too easily provoked.

It’s simple, from many miles away,

To preach reconciliation

And call for offering of hands.

Less straightforward if family


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The Late Show

We used to sit out in the Maidan Square

Before the war, and chat into the night;

Our arguments continued well past twelve.

We called ourselves the late show, like TV.

But now there is a late show every day:

Late husbands, brought back home in body bags;

Late wives, uncovered by a fire crew;

Late children, each identified by toys,

Beneath the expendable wrecks of schools.


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For Sale

It’s rare to stumble across this:

Land left without a manicure,

Raw nature, standing untended

Or, at least, unchanged for a while,

Allowed to spread its arms and breathe,

To relax, far from the treadmill.

Behind the padlock on the gate,

A run-down, flaking, disused shed

Is masked by brambles, overgrown;

A rusty post clasped half-way up

By suffocating, unscythed grass.


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Tread softly, the poet said, on my dreams.

Ukraine: a girl with a hunger for life

Took a detour on her way to school

To pick some early snowdrops for the class,

And some as a present for the teacher.

Cowardice is not equal in a war:

If you run from fighting, you are punished,

But if you scarper after laying mines,

You are feted as a hero, adorned

With medals, as your unk...

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There is no way to sugar coat this pill;

The empty arm which dangles from the bricks

Defies all thoughts and prayers and commentary.

The old man howling for his missing wife,

His private grief invaded by the hacks,

Speaks words of simple, bitter dignity,

For viewing on the global carousel.

As leaders bring their unkept promises,

The numbers climb, as on election night.


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You get the feeling he would cross the road

To not to have to give you time of day,

Though in his flowered garden, taut, he dotes

On children, bouncing them upon his knee,

And will cherish every stricken insect

Like a father cradling his newly born.

In working hours, required stiffness

Does not prevent him cracking the odd joke.

He says it’s nothing personal (it is);

It ...

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Total War

It’s bizarre that Eurovision,

That riot of drivel and camp,

Became a combatant in war:

Builders bopped to the Ukraine song.

Politicians of every sort

Are decked out in blue and yellow.

Hollywood types, shocked in their awe,

Enlist and worship at the shrine.

Lottery winners in hard hats

View body bags through telescopes.

Pray silence for the giant screen.

The workin...

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The theatre of war

Is two steps from your chair.

You watch it on the screen,

You calculate the odds

While weighing up the form

And placing your next bet

On where the bombs will fall.

Those in the know predict

That Kyiv is odds-on.

The news comes through at six:

Bulls-eye! Time to collect,

For your holiday cruise.


But please, gamble responsibly!

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The Finer Things

Wars are the usual bag of tricks:

Fought by the same class of suckers,

Straight out of factory or school,

Uncomplaining and scared to death.

Heads crammed with patriotic guff,

They squirm in trenches at the front

And finish dead or short of limbs.

Those who survive, when they return

To a country fit for heroes,

Are told, in no uncertain terms,

To shut up and to know t...

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Sending Tanks

I understand but don’t rejoice;

Steps may be both sad and vital.

In Prague in sixty-eight they said

That no one argues with a tank.

How right they were, although one man,

Brave as hell at Tiananmen,

Stood firm and stopped some in their tracks.

Now ministers of every hue

Queue up to mount these phallic toys,

The pitiless monsters of hate,

Murder machines for far-flung ...

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Letter from Ukraine

Lone husbands shed tears at birthday greetings,

Texted by their wives, estranged in the West.

Today’s public face of chilly winter,

The old man shivers for the cameras.

Helpless, like a baby, he tries language,

But no one cares. The caravan has moved on

To the banter of fighters in the East,

Joshing weakly as they scoop up bodies.

Life stirs somehow beneath a bombed buildin...

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Should I listen to Tchaikovsky

At the opera or ballet?

Should I enjoy his symphonies,

In recordings by the Hallé?


The ‘Little Russian’ tests our taste;

Some say it denigrates Ukraine.

And what about the Eighteen-Twelve’s

Bombastic cannon-ball refrain?


Divide the artist from his art?

That’s not the point; this artist’s great.

It’s not his fault where he was b...

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A friend of mine once said these words to me:

‘All friends are just a waste of space.’

(I wondered why he was my friend!)

‘They’re unreliable, you see.

They let you down and disappoint

And put your nose right out of joint.

They claim to love, but in the end,

You can’t believe what’s etched upon their face.’


‘Their comradeship is no more than a front.

They all end up...

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Prayer for Ukraine

Does anyone here believe in God?

Surely, if you believe in God,

You believe, for all its faults, in peace,

And there’s precious little sign of that.


Men dressed in gaudy robes and giant hats,

With pots of incense which they wave about,

Will bless all sorts of fighting and atrocity.

Blessed are the warmakers now, it seems.


That said, we know God is out there somewh...

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Zero Sum

Think pointless wars in places like Ukraine,

Where ungrown men are daily bashed to bits.

The battle rages on through sun and rain

And morning's loss foretells a later gain.


Lines move or bend, but finish up the same,

As reinforcements make sure each piece fits.

The casualties have no time to explain

The part as zero-sum pawns in this game.


The dead, we claim, like...

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I chanced upon karaoke

Before I knew it in the West.

One evening in Yokohama,

As beer and saké flowed, we heard

‘My Way’, a classic of its kind,

Mauled by half-drunk salarymen.

Sumo-like bouncers were on hand,

But, in truth, there was no trouble.

As we left, ‘Fly me to the moon’

Was warbled gamely through the smoke.

Later, all staggered on to trains,

Or crashed in ...

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La France Profonde

Behind the crouching silence,

All human life is there.

The règlement de comptes,

The murderous affair.


The husband’s racked with jealousy,

The lover’s gripped by fear,

The old men play their dominos,

Now tragedy is near.


The policemen bow their heads

And lift the bodies up;

The wife flicks back her hair

And sips her coffee cup.


The lights blaze in...

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Last Man Standing


(On 3 January 2023, Russia announced that 89 of its soldiers had been killed in an attack on Makiivka, Donetsk. Ukraine claimed that the number of dead was 400.)


I once travelled home on a London train.

It was packed; people pressed against the doors.

As I squeezed aboard, I noticed a sign:

‘Capacity four hundred; eighty-nine

Seated, the rest standing.’ I looked along


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Living here in the free world,

We can get up every day,

Expressing our opinions

And saying, more or less, the things we want to say.

Inconvenient, no doubt, for some, at times,

Who cannot hide the truth or cover up their crimes.


While elsewhere it can be dangerous to even smile

Or raise an eyebrow, clench your teeth (or fist),

For showing disapproval puts you on a...

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These little parachutes of hope and love,

Which float beneath a scowling new year sky,

Will counteract, with luck, the force of hate,

The universal half-truth, and the lie.


Though we take pot-shots at the usual crowd,

And don’t look up above to see what’s there,

The parachutes may lead to better things

Than one more year of feeble, standard fare.

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new year

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