Signs of the Times

Mark Ford

‘Today,’ wrote Thomas Carlyle
As the brown and barge-laden Thames rolled past
Cheyne Walk, ‘I am full of dyspepsia, but also
Of hope.’ On the Today
Show today a dyspeptic interviewer set brusquely about
A hopeful minister, and I ingested, along with the dyspepsia
And the hope, a story about a dubious collector
Of Regency soft toys and Apache
Bows, arrow-flints and tomahawks. Next
In line to be scalped was a corrupt
TV game-show host. Whither
The gentle, humane
Quizmaster-ship of Magnus Magnusson, or the calm and bespectacled
Bamber Gascoigne?
           Sweet day, so cool, so calm,
So bright, on which I don a shirt that cries out
For cufflinks, and sports
Embroidered initials on the right-hand cuff; on
Which I opened a desk-drawer and discovered
A dozen or so pairs of sun-, half-rim-, and reading-glasses
Beneath an essay in progress on the French
Revolution, and notes
Towards another on the Spanish Civil War. We
Were born in the forward-
Thinking Sixties, and grew up in various capital cities in Africa
And Asia – wherever, that is, the British Overseas Airways Corporation
(BOAC, for short) saw fit. In Lagos
The gardener earned a trifling bonus for each
Black mamba he destroyed
With his machete: they lurked mainly in the cool
Of the garage, curled behind the whitewall
Tyres of our sturdy Zephyr, deaf to the shouting and rifle-fire
Of the barracks adjacent, and military sirens tearing
Open the heavy heat.
           It took – or seemed
To take – no time at all for the venom to prove, point
By careful point, what it meant. I found
Myself sweating too, trying
To recall the serpentine journeys made by adventurers such as Mungo Park
And Richard Burton, and the weeping jungles
And empty deserts they traversed. Unsheathed, their bone-
Handled bush knives whispered
Like settling locusts or long-
Promised waterfalls. One sticky morning
John Hanning Speke awoke on a spur above Lake
Tanganyika with a ferocious headache,
Blind as an earthworm. The clear lake waters rippled
And sighed, then flared like a peacock’s tail beneath the whitening sky.