Poem: London Trio

These London Trio poems are:

London 1: Marylebone
London 2: The Thames
London 3: Pimlico, Soho and Hampstead

London 1: Marylebone

I woke up in a garden
in a wood
of chestnuts and beech
and London plane,
this last with sage in their leaves.

And there were silver grey
or even dull eau de nil
blotches on the pale bark
themselves like Valerie‘s
sample-pot emulsion patches on a wall.

They seemed half splash, half daub,
and all these colours were clear and vivid
against the white
of the back of the
late Victorian terrace
where young Procktor lived
and whose old house went up in flames.

The street carries his glamour
even now:
one sees Princess Margaret,
wooed and laughed-at,
herself striving and grand,
and all in a world of Minis
and Harper’s Queen,
knowing that artists
have a sort of ton.

Children haven’t yet started up
in the school playground over the wall
but the blackbird
sings on my side,
and pigeons, grey bombers,
thrash about the trees above my head,
doing their scrapping, flirting thing;
and now they shake a single bough
with renewed coupling.

I can hear my
inner nature writer,
a Mabey, say, or an Edward Thomas,
offering threnodies and love letters
to the shards of wildness
amongst the mosses and stray ferns
of tight curtilages
and grey-stepped areas
railed and dankly verdant
as a Dorset goyle.

But here, too,
Is my narcissist, stylish
Tyler Brule
laying down the law
from an eyrie nearby,
hawkish for weakness
winnowing the unaware –
the unalert –
or the merely appetitive,
the unhoned,
the undieted blobby,
who could care less
for the Metropolitan Police of style.

I turn and go through
to the front of the house,
where art deco glass
and artful pottery are tasters
for a wall of paintings:
the Nashes and Piper
are represented here,
and Craxton too,
and England seems
sunnily modern,
its drizzles burnishing
the scene;
its clouds a useful
dark sternness
as the country rested from wars
on Mediterranean shores
and Elizabeth David brought home
stories of
newly liberated
olive oil.

I was a Londoner of the 1950s,
a boy wandering the bus routes,
and the pavements,
learning scraps of history from Blue Plaques,
brushing shoulders with
two generations of
in gun metal statues
or on park benches
where they sat with
a trouser leg folded
up against a stump.

In all of London
no street is quite unknown
to this old geezer
who wandered everywhere
as a half-child,
in love with the sheer hub-hub
of the thing
and a ticket to a Bardot movie
in his hand.

Each ensemble
is familiar,
from seven story, deck access blocks
to near-penitential Peabody estates;
Nash terraces
and serried mansion blocks
and clerkish late Victorian streets
and cottages and villas
boasting gardens
and memories of mistresses;
and westerly streets,
where Gallico’s charwomen rented
and travelled by bus to posher parts,
and dreamed of Dior,
and now entitlement tractors
jostle for primacy.

In one mood
every flat shields a murderer
or a bankrupt
hovering in Sickert’s
menacing tedium
and magnificent
derelict eroticism.

And in another,
every window
gives a glimpse
of people
using London to make themselves
from scratch, or in renewal.

Strolling in Crawford Street
I see a garage ramp –
“No hooting please” –
says a sign
(once old and faded, now refreshed)
and the mind’s eye sees an ex-soldier
— it might be 1920 or 1950 —
down on his luck
on the edges of the motor trade
in Cromby and trilby,
both worn and shiny,
heroics forgotten
and not even retold, not now,
over generous halfs
in the Wellington and
and isn’t that cracked spirit
about to do a silly killing?
Balchin or Rattigan
pauses, sees the figure,
re-reads his Famous Murder Trials,
and considers
and plunders the man
for a story,
but gives him a belated fate
and soon the soldier
(at the end of his tether, and now of a noose)
is given a moment’s applause on stage
or smokey sympathy
in a cinema,
and audiences from, say,
Montagu Square,
clap or dab
and recognise how close they came
to other London worlds,
themselves not firmly anchored in luck.

London 2: The Thames

Two cranes will soon guard
Battersea Power Station
and though they’ll have been scrubbed up,
they’ll be every age they have ever been.

In mind’s eye
I see them as I always have:
rusting and defiant,
like tarred rigging,
or cobwebs in cable-knit,
made to
shift coal out of barges
towed by tugs called Reliant or Steadfast
to fuel boilers to light London
and to send waste heat in pipes
to council flats
where once fields and manor houses stood
and where Sir Thomas More
educated daughters.

This River Thames
is Whistler’s, and Turner’s,
and Manet’s and Monet’s,
and it is Ed Beale’s too,
who knew and painted it
man and boy
and inhabits the spirit of
the Horse’s Mouth.

The Thames is never tranquil
or pretty:
burly more like,
a boisterous, hurried adventure.

Moored in its world,
Penelope Fitzgerald,
a sort of wolverine –
a sensibility both sharp and mysterious –
raised daughters
in a sinking barge
which barely shrugged
itself on the rising tide
of swirling murkiness.

She put the girls in
a novel
(an exorcism or an explanation, some such)
and we see the kids –
somehow old-style
with chapped lips
and sagging ankle socks
and rose-hip cheeks —
on the low tide’s
soggy clay,
itself – I imagine – a little pink in heartless dawn
and – this I have seen – on fire in sunset.

And there beside the barge
when comfortably sagged on to the
there nestled
of de Morgan
Arts and Crafts
for the girls to worm out
and sell at
the World’s End –
in that early-Beatle Chelsea
where they were just ripe
to ape Quant girls.

Those wellingtoned-girls
may have skulked or sauntered
through housing estates
more purely working class then,
where they were known
and welcomed, or not –
I couldn’t say.

In the precious
unpressured days
hammocked between
Christmas and New Year,
having fridge-snarfed
faintly Levantine turkey
(left-overs in a borrowed flat)
I strode and jogged
from Vauxhall Bridge to Lots Road.

Am I falsely beatific?
Am I missing some tragic affair?
I see
the new glasshouses
rising across the river from Dolphin Square –
famously shiftless, yet bold in its way –
where I lived once
(and swam back stroke
in a marbled pool under a stone dolphin
in a house named after Nelson’s Rodney)
and contemplated a bus
Up West
where I might
inveigle dirty old men into
rowing on the Serpentine
or a cinema ticket,
more importuning than

These new shiny Southbank buildings
seem almost empty,
though I sometimes see trim young women
with dogs,
and the acres of glass and steel,
look fine and temporary.

And now the great brick-built engine houses
of Battersea and Lots
are being re-clothed,
their burliness shimmered up.
They’ll out-glitter
their cousin at Bankside,
where the young
have made a Mecca
out of the husks of megawatts,
and where I have worshipped
Strindberg’s seascapes and
allowed myself the dark
thrill of Joseph Beuys.

These new trolloped
were once the handsomest
of the Modernist ball,
and won’t yield in defiance.

They speak of solidity,
even surliness,
not like the confident
stepping-out of the Festival Hall,
so cheerful,
so post-war,
so un-Futurist in its
careless way.

One evening in the 80s,
Indian gypsy children,
glowing and dark
and smelling of bivouac,
love-bombed my kids
at a concert,
raucus and funky,
incensed and sweaty.

And in that hall 30 years later
I took a step-child to hear Jackie Leven
moan and holler
his inner Scott Walker
proudly re-channelling
his Anais Nin.

Along a bit
in a later, more assertive place,
where Lasdun insisted
concrete could be nature
not Nazi,
I took my boy to see
a day-long Stoppard,
and he –
willing but not over-eager
to please –
sat through The Coast Of Utopia –
or What Chekhov did next.

And later yet,
with my beautiful wife,
I saw The Invention of Love –
Stoppard’s last hurrah for pederasty,
a sort of proclamation
against the closing of doors.

And outside, on a sunny riverside,
forty years before,
Stoppard gave us Hamlet in 15 Minutes.

And between the two,
we had his Shakespeare in Love,
with boys in frocks
and girls in breeches
populating the upstream reaches
from Bankside to Hampton Court,
whilst ferryman
made timeless jokes.

It’s downstream
for docks and streets
which were
once replete in risk:
pepper was in the air,
and opium added forgetfulness
to the fog
and Chinamen and blacks
thronged amongst
and deck officers
in the image of Joseph Conrad.

That world was gone the day before
I ever went so far east,
but I visited a bit,
and scavenged ruined warehouses,
and now –
re-thinking those days –
I recall Joseph Cornell’s lonely walks
in New York
for riverside detritus
to treasure.

And by the Hudson and by the Thames,
alike walled-in by brick warehouses
now repurposed,
I went looking for Tristan Jones
and sort of found him once or twice,
an old salt
making everything around him
seem Melville,
as he shrugged own inside his
pea- jacket
resisting river winds,
and me.

Further down
in broader reaches,
I once kept freezing watch for Jones
on his ocean-sharpened trimaran
whilst he rested his one leg
and his grouches
and we were amongst Conrad’s
steamer lights
mingled with street neon
and headlights,
and all – to me, alone on deck –

one eerie summer afternoon,
I cruised
in a Clyde puffer.
We wheezed and sighed
across a boundless milky
estuarine ballroom
as smooth as Southend’s
Kursall ballroom floor
off our port beam.

We anchored in a muddy creek
and Nick Nice,
the full-on EOD man,
knew every explosive wreck
and many a stray doodlebug
and could recall Sir Galahad
parked in such a spot
in a nervous TNT quarantine.

We swung out
a leaky clinker dinghy
so I could sail
in a timid imitation
Gallico’s goose wanderer
and my heart nearly burst.

London 3: Pimlico, Soho and Hampstead


In a borrowed flat
in fabulous Longwood Gardens
the red-brick
socialist paradise –
a proper architect’s
decent dream –
fit for Parker Knoll
and G plan
and now all mixed up
with young bankers
and immigrants
some of them as old
as the few remnants
of its old,
working-class inhabitants.

It’s like the ships I used to doodle:
decks and taffrails
making a crescendo
to purposeful towers
and the commanding bridge
and its out-fliers.

The whole effect
Is Bristol shape
and purposeful
thrusting and friendly.

In this maisonette halfway between
Tatchbrook Market
and the sky
I have stared out,
south to the Thames
and west across
late Victorian terraces
toward Lot’s Road
and down to the children’s playground.

Up from the street
the scents of Britain waft
from the Levant and Arabia:
falafel and lemon,
sumac in stews,
and barbecued lamb and pork
untweaked by Ottolenghi.

And up from the playground
starling chatter and shrieks
from swings and roundabouts,
while mums and dads mobile the world.

Lovely Pimlico,
not quite seedy,
but permissive,
takes it all in its stride,
as it has ever since it ceased
to be
horticultural land
just down river from village Chelsea
where Carlyle built a
study high above
the pleasure garden’s ruckus.

This is so
not Chelsea
and still less South Kensington,
nor yet the sotted
clap and crabs of Soho
but rather
where the West End
and Mayfair and Belgravia,
lower their rents
and loosen their stays
and pretensions.

This is not the terra incognita
of impossible Cricklewood
nor the shoe-boxed groups
of not-quite mansion flats
in Maida Vale,
where I delivered groceries
from a two-tone
burgundy and silver
Walton, Hassell and Port van.


And here Jill Balcon,
a West End exile,
received Cecil Day Lewis
in her flat
as he ran from his wife
and from Rosamond Lehmann.

And here, and more primly,
but with her own passions
which you could probably have bottled
was Barbara Pym,
writing novels
and working in an institute for Africa
amongst typewriters and card indexes
in an age so near
and so far
when a hand cranked duplication machine
was a wonder to behold.

And here in the hinterlands
where she lives
the single creative woman –
modern but not free –
must calculate for herself
what her reputation
and her prospects
might become
if she makes this choice
or that,
as she
is bought drinks in pubs up West,
and beyond.

I mean, up West in Soho,
where art
explored chaos
and Hemingwayward writers
did their hard-bitten thing
and offered a scrappy dependency.

I see the better part
as taking the 38
back to Pimlico,
but spacious
and its own
declaration of independence.

The Sixties

Nearly 50 years ago,
I knew all the pubs
from the Coach and Horses
to the Flask
from Soho to Hampstead –
and even,
a little later,
Belcher’s terrifying Colony Room
on a Bacon-less afternoon
(never mind the scary El Vino’s) –
where all the hard-case
people of the arts and print
peripherals like me,
of my own age
or older
or younger
would talk
and hook up
and hone or mend dustups
and lend or borrow money.

A spit from Keats’ House –
in whose garden I had all but cried
and definitely inhaled,
as a schoolboy –
my adult education
had begun,
perhaps in 1965,
in the Magdala
Patrick Wymark
beamed and growled,
oiled and beatific,
and up the hill
I scrounged
£20 from Harry Craig
who was maybe just started
on writing Waterloo.

The oddest thing:
from Parliament Hill Fields
to Hampstead Ponds,
I met actors, film-makers
and writers
and their legman-researchers
hot from the
British Library,
and they were
or leathery,
supple or brittle,
surfing things
or going under,
and playing the London game
as best they might,
and I have
only years later
felt properly what I learned from them.

Especially I remember
a lovely quiet queer man,
slight and spry,
his hair frisky as Crisp’s,
and I somehow see a flowery shirt,
in an attic above Hampstead High Street,
writing thriller series for ITV,
plotting mahem
and quips
for bang-down-the-door cops.

He offered coffee,
and in an hour with him
I understood at last
or had a glimmering,
now become almost a stab,
of what creativity is really like,
and sweetness too.

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Publication date

13 July 2017


RDN's poems