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POEMS

LONDON - MEMORIES OF GREY

 

Should I return to the place where I came from?

Go back to the dreary skies, the dusty streets, the smoke of old?

The sparrows left long time ago

Perhaps they knew what lay ahead

And a tiny robin now shivers alone on the bare winter trees,

Where once its family flocked in thousands

Easily spotted, baring its red breast for those who gaze.

Even the hill of primroses flowers no more.

 

And though I was raised in a fake gilded miniature palace

By parents who were not my own,

In the road of Prince Albert,

Overlooking Regent’s park with its mighty royal trees

Each one a slightly different shade of green

Which I climbed and fell from, scraping my boyish knees

Amidst the acorns and horse chestnuts littering the ground in autumn.

This was the place where I was born and lived and grew,

Where from the balcony I could view

The massive towers of the city scraping the sky in the distance,

Yet it never quite felt like home.

 

Sundays I would make my own

And crossed the thoroughfare alone

To visit all the foreign beasts who paced and climbed in iron cages

In the place they called the London Zoo.

There I stopped and stared at them and they stared back with empty eyes,

Glancing moments, as I stood transfixed in thought and sadness.

None of us were free.

 

But the weeks were long and fraught with danger.

I was called a Jesus killer each morning and evening

As I rode the buses with my olive skin, my crooked nose

And the stamp of Moses on my head.

Where all the faces of other youths were white and ruddy,

With hairless scalps and laced up boots, hiding the caps of steel

That hid beneath the polished leather.

I was the different one.

 

But soon I grew tired of the wicked words and violent slurs

And the fists and spittle that were thrown my way

And finally admitting “Yes, ‘twas I that killed the Christ”

I beckoned them forth to show their intentions

And I chose to fight them for their words.

This frail young child was growing strong

And mad.

They knew me then as the one who did not fear

Because I did not care.

The blood would flow and bones would break anyway, mine or theirs.

 

And as another decade turned, the hairstyles and the fashions changed

And coloured spikes became the rage,

In some perverted parody of the old Mohawks of the far far west.

Blackened lipstick, blackened eyes and chains of pins and plastic leather walked in,

When denim walked out,

Those punkish teens would hang out in the streets of Chelsea or Kentish Town

Screaming anarchy from the rooftops.

 

One time each week, come rain or shine or snow

I travelled east to the marshes of Hackney,

With sports bag in hand I rode inside those metal snakes

That screeched and rumbled underground in hellish darkened tunnels.

And once arrived would don my kit and studded boots,

Which sank into the muddy grass as I chased and jumped and swore and shoved

To take control of that sodden leather ball in homage to the national sport.

Sometimes a hero I would be, as with one shot from sound left foot,

I’d fire that ball so straight and true to split the last line of defence

And find its target hanging low between the wooden posts of victory,

That netted, nylon rope.

Fantasies of Wembley Stadium I would have,

When once in 1966 the national crowd had cause to roar.

 

I remember most, the sleet of winter, monstrous clouds hanging low each day

When icy winds chewed your ears and fingers - and the rain fell sideways.

For summer was gone in a moment.

A few short weeks when the smell of roses and daisies filled the air

And the people lay sweating on the grass after the innings,

With children scrambling in pursuit of soft ice cream

Dished out in scoops with chocolate flakes

From rusty vans with bells blasting out their nursery rhyme tunes.

But summer days passed by too fast and soon the winter came again.

The skeleton trees with skinny broken fingers

Pointing to the dark threatening sky as if to say “Beware”.

The freezing air would bite your bones

And every downpour stung your face like a thousand angry bees.

 

When night time fell, I spent my time wandering the streets

From Piccadilly, with its neon glare,

To Soho and to Leicester Square, where the prostitutes waited in the shadows

And all the theatres and playhouses stood, fronted by their flashing signs

Attracting tourists in their droves to see the actors prancing there

And to watch the trending shows.

 

Thousands of shops and eateries lined the roads

Of Oxford Street, Bond Street, Soho and all around,

Where trendy folk would gather and stroll with friends to spend a month’s wages

On the finest garments and expensive foods, sipping creamy coffee,

Although tea was the drink of the common folk.

 

All about the West End were the music pubs which I preferred

With rock & roll played out so loud, it burst your ears and made you shake.

I watched those men with old guitars which belted out their rebellious noise

And thought - one day that will be me

And soon enough indeed it was.

While the disco fans would pack the clubs with lightening floors and glitter balls

And sup on coloured cocktails from strangely crafted glasses

Dressed like birds of paradise performing contortionist dances to attract a mate

When full enough with alcohol they dared.

‘Twas the fad of the day.

 

The wealthy locals would dine out in the finest restaurants

Of Park Lane or Knightsbridge, Mayfair, Kensington and Sloane Square,

Where the best hotels were found, marbled floors and chandeliers

And casinos filled with the hanging smoke of posh cigars,

Where money was flung without a thought and dice were thrown and cards were dealt.

These were the places where lady Luck roamed.

 

The exclusive gentlemen’s clubs in St. James Street and all around

Reserved for lords and sirs and masons

Filled with these dusky grey old men

Inspecting and examining the financial dealings of the week

Coughing and huffing, their faces hidden behind huge newspapers

Whilst sipping whiskey from weighty crystal tumblers

Assessing the gossip of the day and pondering to themselves,

But never spoke.

 

But in the east, the gangsters ruled, the Krays were kings

Of the pubs and gambling houses and strip clubs.

With their cronies they governed with fists of iron and knuckles of brass

Extorting money from shops galore to pay for mock lavish lifestyles,

Justifying their murderous actions, claiming it was only their own whom they hurt.

 

This imposing city, streets paved with gold

And the grand majesty of ancient buildings that were hailed in all their splendour

By foreign eyes and proud patriots,

Who ignored the twisted history behind the now crumbling facades.

This was the London of textbook fantasy,

But ‘tis the grime and dirt and trashy streets with copycat houses and stale red roofs that I recall.

These memories are mine, I will not be denied them. There is no glory in stone.

 

And the men who called themselves cultured

With their darkened suits and bowler hats, black umbrellas and briefcases

Were far too dignified to throw even a penny to those that they called tramps.

The lost and forgotten people

Who had only the gloomy and foreboding alleyways to call their home

And the chewing gum spattered paving stone on which to lay their weary heads,

Making use of the discarded old newspapers and cardboard

As blankets during the freezing nights.

This magnificent and illustrious city

Was their hell.

 

And the influx of those from the other lands that came

With visions of fortune or fame

Found only the urine-soaked stairwells of flaky grey council blocks

Where hoods were worn and drugs dished out with a quick nod and a wink

And the exchange of a few crumpled notes.

 

By now the roads no longer felt the tread of a hoof.

They groaned and crumpled from the heaving weight of metal boxes.

All shapes and sizes wheeled their way across the blackened tar

Bellowing deafening noise and fumes of death

To silence and suffocate the nightingales in Berkeley Square.

We breathed without a thought, assuming we were still alive,

Yet never certain.

The bus lanes came and the overburdened arteries of London

Now became fully choked as three lanes were reduced to two

And if perchance you owned a car, half your weekly wage would go

To speeding fines or parking tickets,

The dreaded yellow lines became red and around in circles you would go

To find a place to rest your wheels,

But these places were hard to find

And the governments took you money.

 

Ten thousand pubs and ten thousand more

Supplied the ales and drinks galore

To numb the minds of all those who worked until their weary hands would bleed

And laboured ‘till their backs would break,

Becoming bended at the knee

As if bowing to their graves.

 

The greasy spoons at break of day

Were brim full of these working men

Who filled their stomachs with bacon, eggs, sausage, beans and toast,

Washed down with cups of strongest tea

Diluting the pints of bitter drunk the night before.

The “Full English” it was called and famed throughout the world.

These were the men who built the city,

Yet recognition never came their way.

 

In the great parliament houses all the politicians fought

Over who should speak and who say naught.

What rules and laws be passed or changed.

Empty promises of a brighter future

That still has not arrived.

 

This schizophrenic piece of land for filthy rich or filthy poor

Torn in half by the murky brown waters of the Thames

Where tugboats and barges came and went

Under bridges split by towers and lined with rusted iron ropes and girders.

 

And of all the markets, Camden reigned supreme

I preferred the old junkyard where I bought my first guitar

And became a man.

But now it’s all designer clothes you’ll find and pay in hundreds

Where once, everything was no more than “just a fiver mate”.

Covent Garden, much the same

Where rainbows of flowers were sold for pennies

Has now evolved into a place

That will quickly steal a hundred pounds from your pocket

Should you choose to stop and have a meal

Or buy a garment or an ornament

From any tiny shop that nestles there.

 

On every corner stands a pub with label of king or queen, prince or duke or duchess,

Streets and avenues and roads, too many to count, with saintly names.

Buildings in thousands with titles of royalty and stateliness,

Palaces of Kensington, Westminster, Buckingham and more,

Earls Court, Kings Cross, Tower Bridge, the Marble Arch, the great Cathedral of St Paul,

The Bank of England and Queen’s Chapel,

The noble dome of the Royal Albert Hall, the Royal Opera House and Royal Observatory.

A million things royal it seemed

And this imperial family would stamp its name on every piece of London ground,

Yet still the sick and elderly died of cold from lack of heat in winter.

Heavy, is the word I’d use

To describe this city, muddled and confused,

Where now the languages of all the world are spoken by people of all designs.

 

Oh, how the confidence has turned to despair

Empty people, soulless, hands in pockets, eyes downward turned.

Drained and bereft of hope, go about their daily drudgery,

And the imaginings that someday they would enjoy a better life

Have disappeared into the mist.

 

This city is now called cosmopolitan,

A microcosm of the whole planet,

Where you will find everything and everyone.

Every God and every culture have found a way

To reserve a small part of this grey vastness

As their own.

 

This prose is not a history, nor a description it be.

Merely thoughts in my mind of sights and sounds

That will never leave me.

‘Twould take a million words or more, a few short verses will not do

To tell a fuller story of this proud and wicked city.

The recollections of love and hate that now crawl through my brain,

Thoughts of childish laughter seem so distant now

And in their place a fear has grown.

I remain still and quietly watch from afar

And it seems to me from what I see,

This town once filled with hopes and dreams

Into a monster now has grown.

 

One day, I may return.

Who knows?

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