Poem: For Ken, 7 April 2019

I wrote this a few days after the death of Ken Uprichard (and have changed it slightly since). His family and mine have been friends for decades. He was latterly Head of Conservation at the British Museum but never seemed remotely grand to me – rather he was a countryman loving London.

A poem for Ken, 7 April 2019
by Richard D North

(Version of 19 May 2019)

On Tuesday
I held your hand
and you held mine –
quite actively
on both sides.
On Saturday came news
you’d died.

So here’s Sunday –
celandines and lawnmowing
and an unruly holly branch
to lop out of the magnolia’s way.

For as long as I have memories
I imagine I will remember you
and sweetly too.
You were not a confiding man
and my confidences were too free
to be worth much.
We were close, off and on
and always companionable
but you had closer friends you’d had longer
even than our forty years.

Early on we sat on buses
behind papers
going to work,
and sometimes had drinks
often after work,
and even as pensioners.

Bunter, Charlie and you and me
sometimes assembled,
most lately at the India Club:
we weren’t bloke blokes
but were fond.

You were a countryman,
in Seamus Heaney style,
so to speak,
though you’d become a Londoner years ago
and cut your teeth
as a strip club scene-shifter
which made me proud.

I expect young Alfie, three,
saw more of you
and deeper in –
as you taught him bird noises
and names –
than you showed most others
in your seventy-odd years.

I sort of gathered that you and Cathy
weren’t exactly Montague and Capulet
but were chased out of Ulster
for crossing the divide between your tribes
which you represented rather well.
You were from the bowler-hat brigade
and she the middle child of seven in a rosary family.
You could fish away a silent afternoon,
smoking under a panama,
standing alone on Pembrokeshire’s Atlantic rocks.
Cathy, though a dab hand in a yacht
and tough when need be,
remembered her nuns’ warning about empty vessels
but loved to chatter anyway.

Your hand in mine on Tuesday
was as it always was:
good for slow carpentry
about the house where you died
and for infinite pains
in Great Russell Street.
Or in Oman
or St Petersburg.
You sparkled when I told you
a couple of years ago
I’d just seen through the glass
in a BM show
a golden Scythian pot
showing warriors
ministering to one another.
Ah yes, you’d said,
“I handled that in the Hermitage,
in maybe 1978.”

Those fingers were fine as any girl’s
and you could be just as fey.

I don’t remember you changing
over all those years,
not until cancer ate half your face,
and not altogether then.

Across your motorised bed on Tuesday,
Cathy and I each had a hand of yours,
and she and I gossiped,
because you couldn’t
and to include you in.
She spoke first of her children and of theirs
and then of how she’d been fussing
over you,
that very morning,
and that you’d said, quite clearly –
or was it Sister Morphine? –
“I’m going to throw you
through the window if you don’t shut-up”.
There was a bit of swearing
to make the thing just perfect.
And as that snippet sailed across your
stick-insect body,
you turned to me and almost laughed
and gave a lopsided grin
which was still in your gift.


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Publication date

19 May 2019

Categories

RDN's poems