Poem: ‘Diary’

Clive James

As fifty thousand people in Warsaw
March for Walesa and for Solidarity,
They rate, beside the South Atlantic war,
The same space as a fun run staged for charity.
The Falklands dwarf even El Salvador,
Which ought to be a ludicrous disparity,
But clear-cut issues fought out to a finish
Have sex appeal no slaughter can diminish.

Port Stanley’s airstrip is the first thing hurt,
Bombed by a Vulcan and a pack of Harriers.
No skin and hair fly with the grass and dirt.
Unharmed back to Ascension and the carriers
Go all the planes. This war seems snugly girt,
Like some Grand Prix, with crash-proof safety barriers.
It would be fun to watch it on TV
Instead of that chap from the MOD.

You couldn’t call the way he talks laconic,
Which mainly means not to be too effusive.
What few words come from this guy are subsonic.
While waiting for the point you grow abusive.
And yet it adds up to a national tonic
For reasons which to my mind prove elusive,
Unless based on a firm belief that God
Speaks to one people and spares them the rod.

Indeed the other side is first to find
Even a sand-tray war costs full-sized lives.
Summoned by noise of a familiar kind
The Exterminating Angel now arrives.
Perhaps, although like Justice he is blind,
It riles him that the gauchos fight with knives:
At any rate, they are the ones he picks
To prove that punctured ships go down like bricks.

Their cruiser the Belgrano takes a hit
Opening up her side to the cold sea,
Which enters in and there’s an end of it.
Hundreds of sailors either can’t swim free
Or can but freeze, and prayers don’t help a bit
Nor raise the temperature by one degree.
The fire is just to burn those who don’t drown
As too full of young voices she goes down.

This is the finest hour of Mail and Star.
The Sun especially is cock-a-hoop,
Shouting commands as if at Trafalgar.
Swab out the trunnion cleats and calk that poop!
What terrifying warriors they are,
These slewed slop-slingers of the slipshod sloop
El Vino, which each lunchtime takes them south
Into the raging gales of the loud mouth.

A scrivener myself, I should not gripe.
The natural consequence of a free press
Must be that hacks are well paid to write tripe.
One normally feels more scorn than distress
At clichés ready set in slugs of type,
But this exceeds the usual heartlessness:
Faced with a raucous clamour so mind-bending
You wonder if free speech is worth defending.

The war dance falters. Foam dries on the lips
As word by drawn-out word the news comes through:
The Sheffield, one of our most modern ships,
A spanking, Sea Dart-armed type 42
Destroyer built to wipe out radar blips,
A Space Invaders expert’s dream come true,
Is hit. With what’s so far an untold cost
In lives. Has burned. Is given up for lost.

An Etendard released an Exocet
Which duly skimmed the waves as advertised.
Our tabloids wring what mileage they can get
Out of French perfidy, but undisguised
Is their amazement such a classy jet
Flown by these dagoes that they’ve patronised
Should leave the runway, let alone deliver
This thing so clever that it makes you shiver.

Imagination, if it slept before,
Is now awake and fully occupied
By what’s occurred and still might be in store.
With closed eyes you can see the way they died
The bulkheads hot as a reactor core,
The air the same to breathe as cyanide.
And now that the grim news has got us thinking,
Think of the Canberra broken-backed and sinking.

With all at risk there is a pause for thought,
But lest the nation’s troubled heart grow faint
El Vino without ever leaving port
Fires paper salvoes that confer the taint
Of Traitor on the doubtful. All those caught
Equivocating must dodge yellow paint
Which flies in dollops like wet chamois leathers
Whilst air-burst cardboard shells disgorge white feathers.

The full text of this poem is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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