Mixed memories of a Durham pit village childhood. First published in Linnet’s Wings magazine October 2011, and subsequently in the Bruce Harris anthology Raised Voices, (Tohunga/Lulu 2014), ISBN 978-1-291-95278-0
Helmet men, black-rimmed eyes, surprising smiles like rueful ghosts;
weekend Teds, blue black jackets, threat defined in hair and shoes;
Thubron’s sweet shop, joy jar universe, big brown counters scarred and scrubbed;
chimney smoke rows, static liners, toilets tacked behind like trailers;
heavy choke air, coke burnt remnants, in and out of throat and nostrils.
Outhouse boy lofts, seedy sanctuaries, surreptitious smokes and jokes;
smashed roof skylight panoramas, dares to clamber cracking tiles;
tyre swings tied on long thick nooses, mad dip views at crazy angles;
deserted truck yard, metal debris, rats like cats in darkened chassis;
neat dark gold-badged Grammar jackets, dangerous wearing after dark.
Old woman collapsing on winter pavement
in slow arc motion until the head cracks;
belisha beacons disturbed in winter,
deranged aliens' orange flashing;
flapping back yard smalls like flags,
a semaphore of collective panic.
Slag heap shadowing junior school yard, one more slumbering Aberfan;
red gold gorgeous film emporium, noisy Zorro matinees;
brown and red hung hairy corpses outside butcher’s blue white tiles;
chips in off white upturned witch hats, sour face salt and vinegar sticky.
Snail ascents on gun metal mornings,
pelting descents on dark afternoons;
bubble gum cards with countries' flags;
farthing chews and rough little fags;
midget gems and black gum treats,
epic days in orgies of time.
© Bruce Leonard Harris 2014
The Guatazuelan test went well, and would have been a popular hit
but for the whole of the country being knee deep in llama shit;
they decided they really needed a bomb, for the Indian tribes might rebel
and machetes and poisonous blow pipes could give their poor soldiers hell.
The Bogrovian was a moderate success, though they blew their old harbour to bits
which was less to do with the testers’ science than their intake of slivavich;
they felt that they really needed a bomb to react to a Russian attack
so that when a hundred had descended on them, they could at least lob one back.
The Muahu Islands nuclear test was generally viewed with favour
since it covered the beaches with so many fish it was seen as a labour saver;
they believed that they really needed a bomb because Australia is so much bigger
and an over-indulgence in Fosters might just press the nuclear trigger.
The Branzanian testing range was a little geographically loose
and turned the entire Serengeti into one lake of mango juice;
he decided he wanted a bomb to ensure that he could remain a dictator
and the whys, the whatevers and wheres could all perhaps be worked out later.
The burgeoning market was soon picked up by international entrepreneurs
who felt there were more big bucks to be made than were ever in tusks and firs;
Acme Nuclear Bigtime Limited could do you some excellent deals
with megatons delivered on trucks equipped with their very own wheels.
Armageddons R Us would happily provide a missile or maybe a rocket
at prices not overly damaging to the size of the national pocket
and all of these hairy leftie types who shouted and waved their banners
could be bludgeoned and carefully locked away until they learned better manners.
And finally the Biffin Island Council decided it would be quite nice
to save all those months of freezing cold fishing by blowing a hole in the ice;
their mushroom ascended to join all the others in the height of the stratosphere
and all their poisons intermingled and festered year after testing year
until the world woke up one day to see that the sun had gone
and at last, the end of the day really was; the final deal had been done.
No sound was left in the pitch dark cold except a loud deep guffaw
as a huge red man with a head of horns laughed til his ribs were sore.
© Bruce Leonard Harris 2008
We all thought that we had him made;
an urbane and reassuring man,
neatly but not flashily suited
who could quietly smile and nod like Daddy
but sometimes, when he really had to,
put his nicely polished foot down
and occasionally, even smack our bums
when we’re being extremely silly
even though it would really hurt him
more than it hurt us to do it.
But design faults must have crept in somewhere
in our messed and muddled lab
and, sure enough, it started going
drastically and badly wrong.
His cold steel eyes gleamed and widened
and coveted everything they saw,
whether it was his or ours.
The claws emerged from metal hands
equipped to probe in every pocket
and gather round the neck or groin.
His fertile, flashing android brain
bashed out games in little leaflets
which no-one understood but him
and when he’d clanked off with the cash
casino bound and brassily chuckling
we found remotes no longer worked;
he’d simply cut off all connections.
He played and lost, and lost again
and only now comes back to collect
what we’ve saved while he’s been gone.
What’s to do, how do we stop him,
out think that processor brain?
Something suitably sly and sneaky
like a ten ton metal mallet
smashed down on his iron head.
Strip down the constituent parts,
think it through and try again
except, this time, with an actual plan
which amounts to more than guess and God
and dreams of Daddy’s special smiles.
© Bruce Leonard Harris 2012
Clusters of yielding Midget Gems,
deep in the teeth, right side down;
easy jaws, rhythm and flavour,
blackcurrant bass drum backing,
bright colours orchestrating.
Paper cones of hard red peanuts
bawled and sold by shouting men
at football grounds. The afters stayed
like parasites in teeth and gums
for long tongue exercises.
Red cough candy, hard and sour,
gnashed down into managed chunks
for lingering deconstructions
and after life on the breath
like imprisoned ghosts.
Strong white mints for gasps and gurns;
cinder toffee, melted down;
liquorice, snaking over teeth;
jusodas, cold in orange icebergs;
gums and gums in rapt alliance.
Black Jack chews, four a penny;
watery pastilles, swallowed, gone;
repertoires of liquorice allsorts;
japey sherbet, jokes and messes;
Christmas chocolate bars soon gone.
It turned, of course, to pubs and pints
and biological investigations.
The weary baggage of naughtier fun
needing at least one more person
and sweetie-like negotiations.
© Bruce Leonard Harris 2014
Some ways never change in all peopled places
and so it is here; the lost drunken souls;
the girls and boys who bleed on the streets
losing their spring in an epic squandering;
the mindless and drifting
searching for long-forgotten destinations
with broken spirits and excesses of time;
the honey-potting tourist haunts
fed on like blowsy, leering old whores
girding their loins for a final debauch,
and mind-numbing wonders of human achievement
when rich inspiration meets time and talent.
But still the elusive, demanding character
irritating to nihilistic thinkers,
confounding to all striving artists,
is no illusion or brochure invention.
It’s alive in the smiles, the gestures and faces,
the amorous secrets, the talkers discovering
a leisure recently defeated by pressures,
a relief of intimacy untainted by menace.
Unmeasured journeys, times full of trifles,
relearning former fellowships of being,
man-making and nature for once in alliance
merging to enlighten the burden of life. © Bruce Leonard Harris 2014
Before, a quiet breath of excitement,
inner grins at approaching excess
like children tempted to anarchy.
Before, a pinkness of insecurity;
unsure blushes before private mirrors
and the menace of shame alive in the shadows. Closer, and on to combs and costumes;
the best there is, bravely exhibited,
ifs and buts of fun or courtship.
Closer, and whatever resources harvested,
valuables thought worth expending,
the fruits of hours for the thrills of minutes.
During, and into competitive revelry;
pleadings of smiles and battles of laughter,
gentle gymnastics in alcoves and corners.
During, the flowing canals of consumption
carrying travellers like bedding waves,
moving and mumbling below the beat.
Over, and leaving trophies and wounds;
flushing memories and arid regrets,
fruits of embrace and scars of collision.
Over to face deep pits and high skies;
Sherpa climbing, Icarus diving,
and ravaged monstered faces of morning.
© Bruce Leonard Harris 2016
Young Mark-Tony goes to Caesar and confides
‘Tone’, said Jule, ‘I’m yer actual bleeding Caesar,
He grabbed the soothsayer, and stabbed ‘im up the Khyber,
led ‘im by ‘is beard and threw ‘im in the Tiber
and marched off to the Capitol, where just a little later
all the yes-men voted to make ‘im their dictator
except yer actual Brutus, supposed to be his mucker
led a bunch of assassins, the treacherous little senator.
Mark-Tony made a speech, saying it’s not a joke, our
once great leader is now as stiff as a poker
and Brutus and his friends thought ‘oh my Gawd,
we’ll all soon be put to the bleeding sword,’
and scarpered off, but only to Philippi
when Mark-Tony and ‘is lads did ‘em in the eye.
But Mark-Tony screwed it up, just when he couldn’t fail,
getting stuck in a shagathon with the Queen of the Nile.
They had the ‘ole world right there in their grasp
but ‘e got beat and she gave herself an asp.
The moral of the story is if you’ve won the day
don’t bugger it all up just to ‘ave yer end away.
© Bruce Leonard Harris 2017
Underpass Paris; through its spare, garish tunnels
the people stream on in their tidings of business.
An artful Vivaldi from a busker so lost
in faithful playing that the world is excluded
and all of our bouncing walks are prouder,
all shoulders squared to the glorious grace notes.
The Red Priest is weaving a dance for the evening,
the music a summons let loose in the tunnels.
We divide between the striders and siders,
the first relentless, ready and set-faced
making intent and determined ways
to whatever purposes, in grim optimism,
balancing along the rhythm of life.
The second are players, dancers and chancers,
or beggars and dreamers, momentarily broken
by booze or substance, bad luck or cruelty.
Vivaldi’s Four Seasons pass gloriously by;
a year concertinaed to Parisian incident
and we’re all still here, still moving and trying,
even the dying, the flattened, the shamed.
Those with more yesterdays than tomorrows,
the lucky, the brave, the inward despairing,
we all march on in our communal metropolis
passing the shrill violin like a salute.
© Bruce Leonard Harris 2016
We should not serve You, we men of the world
who aspire in vain to a godly simplicity
and tempt too easily to action beyond prayer
when savages’ swords menace our gates.
King’s men seek only to keep their heads
and I have dug in dirt for Henry,
drunk in the rancid trough of service,
whored and warred and bled for Henry
in the bloody playground of his kingship.
He made me his ambassador to You
thinking You a customary conquest;
swift war, homage and final Treaty
in the traditional diplomatic manner.
Soon he will kneel before my grave,
his back bared for penitential scourging
and his lips will murmur Latin words
even as his mind dissembles.
‘Was it worth it, Thomas, worth all this
God’s children squabbling like rats in cellars?
Do you really believe your priests beyond men
and beyond the laws all men must live by
if we are not to blunder to Armageddon?’
And I will sigh for the thousandth time
and whisper to him yet again,
‘Sire, His greatest rival is Satan
and I would not place that crown upon you.’
Outside, his knights’ hooves are thundering
and I feel the duty which burns in their blood
like a long departed anxious childhood.
They have no pain to match my hair shirt,
no torture to equal my cancer of sin.
Lord, I will carry Your cross to face them
needing only enough strength in my limbs
to stand untrembling in the path of their anger.
I am roughly made to be saint and martyr
and suspect, even yet, sacrificial vanity,
but if even I can be a novice to glory
and stand in spaces where princes revile You
kings themselves might yet be your champions.
© Bruce Leonard Harris 2016
I have an awesome tale to tell, you citizens of quality
about a simple, common man who traded pots and pans
to make a proper living, true and honest as he could,
asking only just enough bread and beer to live
until one drunken night, taken in a tavern,
he woke up a soldier in a sick and desperate morning
to fight for the freedom he himself no longer had
and feel a vicious violence he himself had never felt.
Soon after, General Nosey summoned Britain’s men
to seek out and destroy the proud tyrant Bonaparte
and this peaceful pedlar man was compelled to be obedient
and to learn how to kill by instruction of the lash.
No fine plumes or feathers, no epaulettes or spurs,
but red coats and rifles, and worn rough-hewn boots
to trudge behind officers, sitting proudly on their horses,
and bed down in ditches while they rested in their tents.
We crossed a turbulent ocean with men packed in like cattle
and fetched up in a baking land they said was Portugal.
No quarter asked or given, we fought the French to Paris
and all was up for Boney, sent to an island prison,
until he broke away again, and summoned all his army
to take back all he’d lost and be Emperor once more,
and so the pedlar stood again on an unknown foreign field
and a universe of men and guns stretching to infinity.
And this is what they bring us to, the nobles and the kings,
a landscape of hell on earth, of guns and smoke and guts,
men forfeiting heads and limbs, men emasculated,
men watching their intestines spilling out upon the field.
Deafened with the blast and crash, the pedlar looks to see
a foot and calf hanging off, a stump now drenched in blood,
and suddenly, only darkness, and another hellish place
of screaming naked men having bleeding bits cut off.
‘Old soldier, ma’am, what’s lost his leg defending Blighty’s shores;
Old soldier, sir, now crippled in fighting for his country.
A ha’penny or farthing, ma’am, to buy myself a crust,
the smallest coin you have, sir, for a soldier on hard times.’
The victors of Waterloo are the broken beggars now
and on my aching soul, I beg a golden day
when the likes of me and mine might amount to something more
than fodder for the feuds of emperors and kings.
© Bruce Leonard Harris 2016