The Argument at Great Tew

Tom Paulin

‘… her measures are, how well
Each syllabe answered, and was formed, how fair;
These make the lines of life, and that’s her air. ’

Jonson

A Lob accent
pucking in the ferns
would put my back up:
lucky it’s not that
we’ve come for
this thick-necked
and völkisch weather,
though yesterday
in the fellows’ garden
his queasied voice
squeezed like verjuice
as he named the place
and his black gown
took the green shade
of dried ink.
I was chough, then,
to his raven,
an unequal match –
nothing to boast of –
between dark friends
who’ve started
to share the used rub
of each other’s fixed
and hardened edges.
Now the smell of box
and spicy bark
is a classic waftage
from a walled garden,
like a line whose accents
shadow plums and spondees,
or a patrician child
named among these lime-trees
for the word light.
Maybe the earth-saint
is hiding out
like a hedgepig
baked in clay
or a deep, sunned,
terracotta bowel-warmth
in a hanging wood …
let’s breathe, it could be said
and leave it there.
But these are dogfish days
and their tight nastiness
smells in what we say
or rasps between us.
I must go easy now
for there’s a bony kind
of righteousness
that breaks the song
of simply being friends.
The hardline is cheesewire,
too absolute for differing
or trusting that the other one
will love you in your faults.
‘I suppose,’ he says,
catching a question back
I thought he’d shied from,
‘that at the bitter end
one sticks for something,
but what that is – its names
or the essence you demand –
I’m never certain.
Decency, perhaps,
and open-mindedness …
that sounds so pious, though.’
‘And much too recent.
Surely decency
is just a late attempt
to marry kindness
with decorum?
It’s a far subtler thing
I love – some ancient
witty spirit, or a moist, black
sweetness that sounds innocent,
like hearing “simnel” spoken.
D’you never catch
that woody, ironic whisper
in their prose? – in yours
I should say …’
He frowns at this
and the shy brownness in him
slips out like a nightjar –
something wise, decayed maybe,
that flies on a quartz beam
and milks the cycles
of the Great Year.
‘Are you my patron now?
Please, Lord, not that!
I can’t say “our” or “us”
to you or anyone.
I go about – walk and chat –
and feel invisible,
as though some narrowed,
strict disgust is tracking me,
like an impossible choice
between that naval bullishness
and a harmless self-esteem
pricking in these pastures.
You know that story –
or poem is it? –
about the fighter crashing
near a spinster village?
It tells you straight
how that orchid privacy –
the fine asparagus mind
of some high civil servant –
must turn in the end
to liking blood
and foreigns dying,
though liking’s not the word –
more a crude jeering glee
that’s coarse and brutish
and so embarrassing.
At least, your potty nation’s
a presence waiting
for a shape it’s never had;
mine’s old lechery,
remembered fucks,
a petty little Reich
that wastes three million
then sends some more
to give their lives – their lives! –
for what? Goose Green?
Mount Tumbledown?
Wireless bloody Ridge?
Such ghastly, ghastly names –
plonked kelpers’ toytowns,
simply recent and just flat,
like that small
half-baked bit of concrete,
Northern Ireland,
that we and you, old cock,
are stuck with for the worse.’
‘Leave that ould cheeser
to one side,’ I say,
‘it’s where you’re at
that worries me these days.
Where are the priests
of this demesne? – the saints
who bring their ritual little cakes
of flour and fat, and raise
a thin taped smoke
to the one nation?
deus ignotus or ignorant
who knows? and yet we all
want familyness to bathe inside,
though now …’ ‘This winter-summer
I’ve had my fill
of that monstrosity …’
‘… now your country’s split
inside its mind,
and the question you must ask
is that harsh Russian one:
“what is to be done?”’

*

Two monkey-puzzles
on a square starry lawn …
roucouleroucoule;
a stone house, and again
the wavy, light – reflected
Sabbath cool of doves
that soothes him as he turns.
‘Dear boy, you really shouldn’t
put such a question here.
Only fanatics
of the what do that,
the sour neglecters of the why;
and yet, when all’s said,
you’ve got that simple viciousness
we’ve come to know too well.’
‘That’s your hard luck:
if I were you, the cause
would feel so very urgent.’
‘Quite so, quite so, I know
there is a cause – know that;
but some might say
it’s – well, too good to fight for?’
‘Others could answer
it must be the worse
if you don’t wear it.’
‘Oh, the good-old-cause,
it’s such a chalky little myth –
Tom Paine and mistletoe,
your druid Diggers.
How many feel it
in their blood and bones?
only Jimmy
and a few dons.
It’s sentimental, don’t you know?
and neither Hill, nor Thompson,
plodding Williams
or doggy Foot
can swing the people.
Whoever’s heard
of Despard, Plug,
or Captain Ludd? –
dumped in Burford Churchyard
bee thoi oll.
No, we must lie down
and let the Tebbit
knock us through the ground.
He’s got the goods, as Clive
would say – the wit, the guns,
the snarly charm,
a voice
that rasps and minges
like a Black & Decker …’
He stops to pull a stray
ear of grassy corn
from out the ditch.
‘Though on the other hand, perhaps
one should join something
(I hear Craig Raine
is canvassing for Kinnock now).
Some evenings in my rooms
a kind of mandrake silence
gets to me …
God, how quietly they take
what’s being done to them!’
‘Outside it’s wick, I know –
but the academy
how goes it there?’
‘C’est fou! c’est con!
completely fucked.
They’re doing it with texts
these days, and everything’s
a text – blank, dead,
unauthorised, unsigned.
No one must ever say
this good/this bad,
and if you dare – Christ!
you’re a fallow fellow
of All Souls, some ruling twit
with stacks of power
like heavy St John Stevas.’
‘Aye, that’s the cracked truth:
these platinum technicians,
they shred the Holy Word
and chew cement –
it’s Chairs they’re after,
for doesn’t argument reduce
to how you keep power
(if you’ve got it),
or how you take it
if you haven’t?
The rest’s just incense –
incense and costume.
That moral starlight,
it only fences, or half-hides,
the slippy gestures and the knives …
you’ll do a Wab, my dear,
and dither at the crunch –
you won’t attack! attack! attack!
Can’t you instead,
can’t you do what’s just?
Well can’t you?’
He pauses then
on this bush-hedged,
hidden road,
and I catch his settled sadness –
a stoic, swept,
half-bitter puzzlement
on calm, grey calm.
‘No, for I don’t believe
at all in justice –
there’s a temperament, I know,
that cries out to it
like a burning curse,
but for me it’s unapproachable,
the sun’s terror
just eating and being itself
out there on nothing.
No, in my view
there’s only judgment
and good temper.’
‘All that’s gone down the tubes;
it’s Ubu Skinhead now,
hoking spit
and grunting Basic English.
The good wine’s no more,
and what went down
with the Belgrano
were the last, shitty, pious shreds
of all that decent guff.’
‘You’re quite unbalanced,
quite unfair;
though what you say is – yes,
something to be reckoned with.
It could be that the hitman,
the terrorist,
the monetarist –
that each of them’s a function
of the gut hedonic calculus
which digits everything;
but, Christ, one mustn’t say so,
and for myself I just can’t bear
to know it.
No, one has to simply
draw a line
and never, never cross it.
If that should mean
submission and a slave-state,
well then, so be it.
I can’t – I won’t – let go
of my pale decency:
at times it strikes me,
you’ve never known it.’

That moral tone,
it touched me like a chain-saw
biting quiet
and drew a sharpness
through the air between us.
My old mate, he looked
both downcast and exasperated
until he smiled –
‘Good crack, you’d say.’
We walked on,
talking more gently
in the hazy day
about friendship, causes,
the Apostles, and betrayal.
If sometimes on that linden road
I saw his back – well,
I glanced away.