Noblesse Oblige

Blake Morrison

Quels bons bras, quelle belle heure me rendront
     cette région d’où viennent mes sommeils?

Rimbaud

This is the excitement that ends in pain.
Dark names stretch for you from their seedbed,
Bronze statesmen harangue the crowded squares.
All week you’ve driven round the capital
In a blacked-out Volvo, testing the way.
What is this new air, ideas run up flagpoles,
The people pressing to some grand conclusion,
Not to be restrained. It seems to lead
Straight to disaster, or to lunch with Lascelles.

It was his job to let the Empire die,
But it dug in. Telegrams came from islands
It was thought were long since sold, their morse
A sandpiper weeping over lost inlets
And strands, those Northern coastlines like the hand
Of a delegate pleading at the UN:
Send out your forces and deliver us
From pain. We were at one with the sheep
And cormorant until the soldiers came.

Those cadences cost him his job. After
The bad reviews, the bayings for blood,
And then the blood in the bay to meet them,
He resigned, seeking consolation in
Restaurants, where he’d amuse himself
In strategies with a wineglass and two forks
Or the global policing of a melon.
These led to a navy made of toothpicks
Cascading off Columbus’s earth.

Today, years on, the world does not remember.
He’s there in Bertorelli’s, as they said
He would be, at the same corner-table,
With neither greeting nor smile. His drink’s
Martini, since ‘it reminds me of Martinez,
You know, de Campos, the Spanish general,
Deposed for his leniency in Cuba.
I have become, you see, since my demise,
An expert in the scapegoats of Empire.

‘They sent you, I know, for what I can tell
Of the nation: j’ai seul la clef de cette parade.
Our leader dreams of bringing the Great back,
Her Jerusalem’s made of sterling,
Her voice rings like a grocery-till, softened
With the pity she’s hardened from the land.
Her grail’s religious: coming from the flatlands
She dreams of death on a high green hill.
Nothing can countermand the Iron Will.

‘And yet she’s tapped the English heartland’
(This, as the waiters he’s grown old among
Scurry to the portholed door, which swings and swings
Like an unfastened boom in a gale,
And the heaped promise of each silver dish
Is carried to the white-beached archipelagoes
Then returns with its skeletal remains:
Backbones, legbones, shoulderbones, brain –
And there are some still champing to be served)

‘We are an island in love with the idea
Of islands, of a marooned people,
Helpless as seal-pups, crying for their lives.
Our hearts go out to them, we are authors
Of a pastoral for the powerless,
Protectorate of all shepherds and kelpers,
Our Empire of Seaweed encircling the weak
On their windswept promontories of light.
So we succour and oppress, who might have slipped
From history unnoticed as the auk ...’

But he’s exhausted and drunk, the sentence
Unfinished as he motions you to leave.
Your driver is waiting in Charlotte Street,
Your journey back by tomorrow’s parade-route
Down Piccadilly, the Strand and Ludgate Hill.
Scarlet hangings have gone up on the houses,
The new vision will be met with in tunes
Whose stern injunction, culled from ancient hymn-books,
Is to ransom the captive and rejoice.

At the Church of St-Andrew-by-the-Wardrobe
You ask the car to wait. The Observer’s
Behind you, the God long since renounced
Is sulking still, and silent, but there are whispers
From the vestry, where the choir are arranging
Their cassocks and hair. It’s your image of trust –
The altar-stairs sloping through darkness.
Children filing to the East window who sing
To perfection what they cannot understand.

And your report? Forehead to penthouse window,
You have your last view of the nation,
The river of a darkening capital
And its diamond clusters of self-love.
You could write now of good misdirected
And innocence betrayed, but the deadline has come,
Only the foghorns wail like creatures from
Prehistory: Speak to us, who cannot see
Where we are going or know what is right.