Poem: ‘Diary’

Clive James

Foot plumps for Aslef but as if in spite
The TUC does not and the strike’s broken.
Foot’s coiffe should go a purer shade of white
Unless his fiery gesture was a token
To make him look a tough nut in a fight
For all those gritty doctrines he has spoken
On that day when they have to be renounced
And Arthur Scargill’s strike bid must be trounced.

But Arthur’s rhetoric is like his hair.
Though spurious, transparent and bombastic,
It’s legal and has some right to be there.
The threat it poses to the state is drastic
But one democracy’s equipped to bear.
He’s less fanatical than he’s fantastic.
That puff-ball pan’s so openly ambitious
Only a stocking mask could make it vicious.

Indeed his nimbus of elated strands
Bespeaks not just the patience of a saint
But holiness. It balances no hands.
The halo Giotto botched with thick gold paint
On Arthur’s a UFO that never lands,
A cap of gossamer you might find quaint
But can’t deny has something brave about it –
He’s sparing us the way he’d look without it.

In Knightsbridge a car bomb with up-to-date
Remote controls proves powerful competition
For horsemen wearing plumes and silver plate,
While up in Regent’s Park a similar mission
Is carried out with a success as great,
Ensuring, at the moment of ignition,
Musicians who have never hurt a soul
Are shown up in their true repressive role.

For what’s a bandsman, when all’s said and done,
If not a soldier of a certain sort?
What is a trombone but a type of gun?
What is a bandstand but a kind of fort?
Objectively, the difference is none:
These men were troops no matter what they thought,
And as for sleepy listening civilians –
They symbolise the acquiescent millions.

Who now unquestionably come awake
And wonder for a week stretched to nine days
If this is not more than the nerves can take.
The horses’ wounds bared to the public gaze
Cause many a grave thoughtful head to shake.
Dumb pain is real but how strange that it weighs
Thus heavily, when humans ask what mattered
So much it left them or their loved ones shattered.

Did Cromwell’s ruthlessness bring this to pass,
A woman crawling with a face of blood?
Did the Earl of Essex raise a storm of glass
When he set fire to houses of thatched mud?
A bugle boy for being armed with brass
Was pricked to die. What caused that? The Great Flood?
The grievous debt goes back to the beginning
That makes these men more sinned against than sinning.

The guilty live, the innocent lie dead:
The summer sun shines warmly on them all.
In Biarritz it shines on my bald head.
My scalp accepts the photons as they fall.
No Scargill I, I let my skull turn red,
Building my daughters a thick sand sea wall.
They crouch behind it, clinging to the notion
Somehow their father can control the ocean.

I can’t stop waves, or much else, reaching them.
Relieved they’re not in Belfast or Beirut
I’m flattered in a way some might condemn
To find their sense of beauty so acute.
Each shell’s looked at as if it were a gem,
Held to the ear and blown on like a flute.
By those too young to know the world is cruel
A cured sea-horse is treasured as a jewel.

The London papers bring the usual news –
Inflation’s down yet unemployment climbs.
But here the gulf’s laid out in greens and blues:
Lapis, fresh lettuce and the juice of limes.
Lulled by the heat one’s body cells refuse
To wait for the return of better times:
They take their holiday though deprivation
Should devastate the luckless British nation.

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

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