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How they floated in the clouds

  • 25 May 2020
Selected poems

Ah, how they floated in the clouds

Ah, how they floated in the clouds,

back before the first world war,

those decent heady phrases,

the common good, the living wage

and how they came across the seas,

those writers and professors,

to study what we’d done down here.

And how they loved our metaphor —

society as a living creature

healthy only as its parts.

Not everything was there, of course —

non-whites need not apply.

Fourteen years was all we had;

a bit more if we add

what colonies had wrought thus far —

eight-hour shifts and votes for women.

The pistol shots in Sarajevo

confused our weather too.

The high words we had seen up there

among our swells of cumulus

took sixty years to find again

and still a few elude us.


I have never read a novel in full. Ever!

                            Bernard Salt

Not even in his final year at school

did Bernard Salt, the columnist, ever

read, he’s proud to say, a novel fully

While some faked one or two, he faked the lot.

Who cares, he says, what Mr Darcy thinks?

Our columnist prefers the world of facts:

dictionaries, thesauruses and street

directories, atlases, non-fiction.

Not for him those other worlds we carry

in our heads a week, a month, a life,

those solid phantoms whom we find we’ve come

to care about, whose inner thoughts beguile,

whose arbitrary fates delight or sadden.

Two women whom I once knew well would not

be caught in café, tram or bus without

a novel in their handbag. And who’s to say

that prim and distant aunt you haven’t seen

for thirty years has not somehow become

a character from Dickens? Directories,

we know, may lie, even when they stare

from space. And who’s to say that facts are facts?

Facts are what we make of them; they need

interpretation. Not all novels,

I’ll admit, are good or worth the sweat.

The real world, like its ghostly counterparts,

may not always be convincing. Its streets

sometimes may evanesce and be in turn

replaced by other facts. It’s true I read

less fiction than I did back in my twenties. A novel

needs a long breath and a deep commitment.

But even so, just every now and then, I find

I have to leave this milieu of the given

and, while attending still to texts and emails,

silently step sideways into streets

and minds that Mr Salt will not concede.

It seems I need to know what Darcy thinks.


General Sir Magnus Markham

General Sir Magnus Markham.

Why’s his wife so done with talk?

All those slow, ascending dinners,

strategies with knife and fork?

Was it all those far deployments?

Or too long standing on high heels?

Why’s her