The Ecumenical Movement
My first years were haunted by foreign names,
phrases like ‘apostolical succession’
and strange invasions of dressed-up prelates.
After a quick ordination, blessing
or what have you in the chapel, they’d go
out the back to take their photographs.
(I liked the geometry of our garden –
first, the square washing-line that wouldn’t spin,
then the two apple trees set in the lawn
forming a triangle with the pear outside
the circle of a fairy ring.) They’d stand
there more or less, say ‘cheese’ in their mitres,
copes and glasses, then troop inside for tea.
I was usually bored so I’d put on
a kind of cabaret – lick out the jam
from tarts, striptease, bring in a brimming pot,
sexually harass the better-looking men –
except when some Ukrainian Count was due
and I was sent to Margate with my Mum.
My father’s hobby was the marrying
of sect to sect, patching up old schisms
to make a whole and undivided church.
(He even asked Ian Paisley to join
in a wonderful stroke of naivety
or taking the piss – I’ve never quite known which.)
He held vast correspondences with priests,
archbishops, cures and archimandrites –
all of the smallest denominations.
The American ones gave him degrees,
the Russians magazines he couldn’t read,
the Italians titles. Due de Deauville
was the prettiest.
Our chapel was in the slope of the roof
with tatty repro-icons spaced around,
a pale oak-veneered altar touched by worm,
bottled holy water, rose oil chrysm
and souvenir crosses on the mantelpiece
above a small gas fire, and a huge loop
of light-cord trailing from a naked bulb.
My mother rarely liked my father’s friends.
One of them brought his ‘favourite choirboy’
to see the London sights. ‘We always sleep
in separate beds,’ he said defensively.
He sat there with his leg wagging
and left a little damp spot on the chair.
(We kept that seat solely for visitors
like a Siege Perilous. Eventually
we sold the dining-room set to knockers.)
Another, a most frequent visitor,
we heard had got married to a black girl
and was ashamed of her and kept her down
the basement of his Fulham house – her
and their two children. To his friends he was still
a hapless bachelor scrounging free meals.
(I spoilt that, though, by forging Christmas cards
to all those friends from him ‘and family’.)
The last I heard he was selling hair oil
through ads on the back of a literary mag.
One man decided to christen my Dad
Mar Rupertus – ‘Mar’, he said, was Persian
for Lord. (He called his cat Mar Pluto too.)
I always liked my father’s weird parcels –
strange stamps and seals and semi-papal bulls,
the family trees of those descended from
Avignon popes (all covered in gold leaf),
an altar-cloth depicting all Christ’s wounds
to be embroidered in red silken thread –
a sort of kit that came with a small bone
from St Eutychius. I have it still.
I hardly like to throw the thing away.
(How hard to deal with the small useless bits
that people leave behind them when they go!
I have a superstition about waste
and bunged a contraceptive pack and odd
cigars in handbags at some jumble sale
to give their purchasers a nice surprise.)
Sometimes it was like living on the edge
of a thriller. One Frenchman wrote about
his long campaign to convert Lucifer
and told us he was getting near his aim.
Next thing we read he’d been knocked down and killed
upon some Paris street. And Mum received
a shaky note from nice old Doctor Crowe –
it must have been the last he wrote – saying
he’d give me ‘lessons in magic’.
And there was the ‘autonic eye’ we kept
stashed in the coal cellar for years. Seemed much
the size and shape of a well-wrapped severed head,
I thought. (I used to read a lot of Poe.)
A bishop from South Africa had asked
if we would mind the thing, bribing us first
with a big box of grapes and a large tin
of chocolate fingers.
Thoughts after a Burglary
For my father
In a recent break-in, some tapes of mine
were stolen, one of which contained the last
and only record of my father’s voice.
He took me as a child to the sights
of London, obvious and minor, churches
of every sect, strange shops and restaurants,
tutoring me in feats of endurance –
eating the hottest Madras curries
at a tender age, swallowing a quart of pop
without taking my mouth off the bottle,
bagpipe impersonations in subways,
writing things on graffiti-proof tiling,
tearing tin cans in half and lobbing them
into the passing goods trains, and so on.
The memories are all blurred now, but there’s
just enough to leave me with a strange sense
of déjà vu in any part of London.
There were once-yearly parties too,
where he’d clown as Charlie Chaplin before
the little beasts from my snob school – walking
in suddenly, tripping over a raped
and ruptured Egyptian leather pouffe
with pictures of camels and pyramids
and people all turned sideways for the tourists,
he’d somersault (all sixteen stone of him) –
the laughter of the kids enough payment
as they sat, venomous in nylon frills.
In time, he lost his journalist’s job. He’d
lived in the shadow of his successful
father – self-made, writer of ripping yarns,
fifty years editor of The Wide World.
And we got poorer in a time when dole
was not the norm. Later – a short-term job –
educational précis took him to
London’s technical libraries. I went
with him in the holidays, quietly
reading odd manuals, dictionaries,
whatever was available, staring
in a trance at Adam ceilings, or out
through high windows at warehouses with doors
opening four storeys up, on to nothing.
Then followed years, a phrenetic period of
letter-writing for jobs, the sending of
curricula vitae, getting up at
dawn, endless endless letters, and, at night,
putting a slop-pail of vast and bloody lights
(bought for our cats dirt-cheap from a friendly
butcher who enjoyed Dad’s filthy jokes)
against the back-door to stop the burglars.
My father, a pensioner, at last, turned
cat-herd with some twelve furry apostles.
My parents moved out of London then,
while I was away at Art School. The thieves
my father dreaded really hit in the new place – not
clean like London ones – these scattered papers,
tore, destroyed, dumped books out in the rain
and took almost every little thing he owned –
his bits and bobs of militaria –
all the pomposity of the Army
vanishing into a thief’s pocket.
After a slow and gradual depression,
a month before my twenty-first birthday,
his heart gave out. Sensing something,
I had come home a day early. We found him lying
on the lavatory floor, a livid cut
where he had struck his face in falling,
in shirt and pullover a size too small.
The undertaker took him in a pushchair
like a baby.
Some cats outlasted him and I became
their gravedigger – a new role thrust on me.
The last, a lame, alcoholic she-cat
who’d lacerated his back
into a Grünewald Crucifixion, lingered for years,
and ran to meet me every time I sang
in imitation of my father’s voice.
The thieves contributed to rob me
of my ally, silencing him twice over.
What’s left? A strong enduring influence –
a part of my voice that’s his.
Trying Too Hard
The fruiterer’s son, just old enough to drive,
lined their chrome yellow Citroen with fur.
He stuck it neatly in there piece by piece.
I saw him at it at weekends, lying
half in, half out, high on the smell of glue.
And there was dear old ‘Twinkletoes’ who lived
just opposite our house in Creffield Road.
He exercised hard for a month – trying
to touch his toes and cycling in the air –
getting in training for some girl. For hours
before she came he moved the furniture,
subdued the cushions, music and the lights,
then gave himself an even closer shave.
We’ve all laughed ourselves sick at men like these.
Less obviously funny are the types
who fiddle with your fasteners hopelessly
like drunks at night getting a door undone,
who blow in your ear in January,
forgetting that all Nature’s doing the same,
who pay over-efficient attention
to your nipples as if they’re nuts and bolts
which once unscrewed will make you fall apart.
I question the sincerity of lust
that lacks an elementary competence.
Religion’s out and fornication’s in.
It’s fashionable to score. Men must oblige
and overdo us like their after-shave,
patching together their self-images –
a fur-lined car, a body kept in shape,
gnomes on the lawn, a woman in their beds.
Only their clumsiness hints at the truth.