Elegy for Alfred Hubbard

Hubbard is dead, the old plumber:
who will mend our burst pipes now,
the tap that has dripped all the summer,
testing the sink's overflow?

No other like him. Young men with knowledge
of new techniques and theories from books
may better his work, straight from college,
but who will challenge his squint-eyed looks

in kitchen, bathroom, under floorboards,
rules of thumb which were often wrong;
seek as erringly stopcocks in cupboards,
or make a job last half as long?

He was a man who knew the ginnels
alleyways, streets — the whole district:
family secrets, minor annals,
time-honoured fictions fused to fact.

Seventy years of gossip muttered
under his cap, his tufty thatch,
so that his talk was slow and clotted,
hard to follow, and too much.

As though nothing fell, none vanished,
and time were the maze of Cheetham Hill,
in which the dead — with jobs unfinished
waited to hear him ring the bell.

For much he never got round to doing,
but meant to, when weather bucked up,
or worsened, or when his pipe was drawing,
or when he'd finished this cup.

I thought time, he forgot so often,
had forgotten him; but here's Death's pomp
over his house, and by the coffin
the son who will inherit his blowlamp,

tools, workshop, cart, and cornet
(pride of Cheetham Prize Brass Band),
and there's his mourning widow, Janet,
stood at the gate he'd promised to mend.

Soon he will make his final journey:
shaved and silent, strangely trim,
with never a pause to talk to any-
body: how arrow-like, for him!

In St Mark's Church, whose dismal tower
he pointed and painted when a lad,
they will sing his praises amidst flowers
while, somewhere, a cellar starts to flood,

and the housewife banging his front-door knocker
is not surprised to find him gone,
and runs for Thwaite, who's a better worker,
and sticks at a job until it's done.


Slumped in a prickly armchair 
on a humid summer night, 
I listened dully to dogs
barking with brainless pleasure 
far away and in this street 
under the Victory flags.

The bronze eagles with spread wings, 
flightless on walls and porches, 
reflected the light from stars, 
as my slow imaginings 
moved between foreign corpses 
and these Stars and Stripes of ours.

Sweaty, itching, impotent,
I scratched my shirtless shoulder 
and reached for another beer — 
like a listless President 
dreaming a new world order 
from idle thoughts and hot air.

Or like someone long inured 
to the crafted, public lies 
that lull the popular mind 
into easy disregard 
for the coarse realities 
of imperial command.

The Heroes were coming home —
but not to me in my chair 
dogged by barks and disarray; 
"Welcome!" the flags flapped, "Welcome! 
you fought for all we hold dear 
in the mighty USA."

The Summer House

The Danube glitters and toils 
just beyond the walnut trees. 
The Great Writer sits at ease 
among blooms and disciples.

A garden with an old man — 
younger men drinking his wine; 
his voice is slow and benign, 
the others pause to listen.

When he has nothing to say
he smiles, and sniffs a pink rose 
that straggles near his nose. 
Sometimes he closes one eye.

His wife, in her painting-smock, 
serves us hors d'oeuvres and tidbits. 
She bustles about, then sits 
to chatter and have a smoke.

How idyllic, how humane!
I think, testing the thought: —
for such scenes are dearly bought 
when foreign troops ring a town.

Betrayals, maybe, and lies 
earned them a peaceful old age; 
chewing lox I try to gauge 
the character of each face.

But I don't know the language, 
and they're all strangers to me. 
Everybody looks guilt-free, 
sunlit near the water's edge.

I included, it must be,
as I stare at the old man
like some homage-heavy fan 
silenced by proximity.

Calmed by thoughts that I too wear 
the double-dealer's false face, 
I begin to like the place, 
and move out from my corner.

With the interpreter's help 
I talk of Art in the West 
for a charming poet-guest 
who downs vodka at a gulp.