I’m doing some new things recently. New to me, anyway. But one of the things I’m doing I’ve done before and it still gladdens me every time I do it.

That Haile Sellassie lived here, you know.
That Haile Sellassie lived here, you know.

Bath on a Saturday morning, Walcot Street in the mist rising off the river flowing alongside it. OK, it’s changed. There are no coke stoves or dogs on a piece of strong, nobody claiming to be a carpenter because he can join two bits of ply at right angles (but interestingly, according to a conversation I overheard at the flea market, still not-really-antiques that can be spotted by the injudicious use of Posidrive screws). No Hat and Feathers, no Mad Carol, no Lucy in a jumpsuit, no car radios unexpectedly for sale, nor smoke billowing out of them when the vendor wired them up backwards on a 12 volt car battery or a whole host of other things that used to be. Luckily, no-one lighting a fire to keep themselves warm in the car park now where the cattle market used to be, either.

The past is another country. They do things differently there. But where would places like Bath be if they forgot their past? As the song from Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads told us, it’s the only thing to look forward to.

But some of it’s still there. I was there this Saturday. I was going to climb Beechen Cliff, but the mist was still down and there was no point, so I walked up past the Abbey. The first thing I saw was a 1930s print, some Boy’s Own illustrated tale of pilots, back in the days when aeroplanes were called that and had four wings and two propellers, when bounders wore bow ties and only sailors wore beards. £10 well-spent. I had promised myself I wasn’t buying anything, but then I remembered the time in Oxford on another Saturday morning when for another £10 I turned down the chance of buying what I’m pretty sure was an original artwork that illustrated a Biggles book. A chat and a little recollection of old times with the woman in a fur coat on the stall that chilly morning, two steps away from a jumper exactly like the one I’d had in mind and thought was going to be about £200 so I wasn’t having that this winter. Except someone else had worn it, apparently for about ten minutes, so that saved £190.

Just around the corner, back up on the street and I found a kettle. I’m not really a copper kettle sort of person, but I have this boat. OK, it isn’t in the water and the chances of it getting in the water look slimmer each week this year, but I can still go and sit inside it and drink tea. Or at least I could if I had a kettle. But I don’t want to get Alzheimer’s from some horrible aluminium thing and I don’t want a shiny brand new piece of German design (well ok, I do, a lot, but it wouldn’t look right on the boat) so I was stuck. Until I went into the charity shop and found it.

As it was. I think it’s 1950s.

A couple of minutes with some Brasso and rubber gloves and it polished up a treat and no error gorblimey guvnor. It looks great and fits right into the wooden boat vibe that goes on in a wooden boat, surprisingly.

A print, a jumper and a nice kettle, all for £30. But more than that, being part of it again, Bath on an autumn Saturday morning.

Not long after. It’ll do, I think.

Those who’ve read this stuff before will know I went to university here. I grew up  here (discuss, with reference to some laughably inappropriate partner choices which would have been more laughable if they’d happened to somebody else, I think), or at least, twelve miles away. When I was about eight my father used to take me to Bath early on Saturday mornings. I was so excited about this I used to try to sleep in my clothes because I had to get up so early. It never worked – I could never sleep like that. But we still went to Bath. The market I sat in is still there. I bought some cheese there this time, rather more than half my life away. I wrote a poem I was going to call that, but it got called something else instead. Wrongly, I think now. And there, as some people know, lies another tale, from and for another time.

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Walcot Nation

I lived in Bath a long time ago. In those days a lot of the buildings were black with 200 years of soot from coal fires but it was a bustling, busy place. It still is, but where once Walcot Street was full of combat jackets and patchouli oil, today it’s Range-Rover parking and shops selling bathroom taps for half a term’s student grant. There was a fabulous market there on Saturdays if you ever needed a cheap car radio, definitely not stolen, oh dear me no. You tested it by clipping a car battery to the cut power lead once the guy selling it had peeled back the insulation, and taping another lead to any speaker lying around the stall. Bath has changed. This poem is a little of how it was.

haile selassie house


I hear that song, still feel the heat of a western sun

Those years ago but now –  and it’s always now, in my head,

Always the time I first heard it aged seventeen

And my, those ten years just flew by, didn’t they?

That’s just when it was.

I can see the blurred flag flapping in slow motion

Snapping in the damp wind of my false memories

Of long haired men marching to the war we despised

But that was someone else’s war ten years before,

Something that was all in our minds

As we wandered up Walcot Street to the Hat & Feathers,

Leather jackets and silk scarves, the day of the festival

A sweat salt tang stayed on our lips

Our battle salve patchouli hazed our dreams

That blurred afternoon and back then we dared to dream

Not about BMWs and ISAs or chartered accountancy

Or a thrilling carer in actuarial statistics and dear God

If I’d only known that the loose connections, the loops

Of if-this-then-that in my head, the spurting synapses undammed

By dope and cursed by my teachers at a country school

Could have bought me half the grey stone town I grew up in

By now. Probably. But stop. But stop.

Never go down this road

Where half the streetlights aren’t working,

Lit only by the dipped beam of my memory

Coming from a car I haven’t had for twenty years

A faulty bulb flickering whenever I put the wipers on.

You know that if you take this track you’ll only get a hundred yards or so

Until a cold girl in a warm car, silhouetted against the trees

Lit like the backdrop of a play, so cold outside;

The girl in the sheepskin coat will say

‘What if there’s nothing there, the other side of the gate?’

The second it appears in the headlights.

Even then you felt her voice would hunt your dreams,

Sniffing you out while you sleep, wherever you hide at night.

But that flag, the flapping ripple of cloth,

And the hair blown across her forehead and somewhere

The taste of tears as well as the kiss still on her lips;

The army coats and the smell of goats when her bag got rained on;

The time she did, she really did tie red ribbons in her hair

And small golden bells. They looked golden anyway,

Borrowed from the mirror on her dresser,

Bought from a headshop one Saturday afternoon in Bath.

Can you believe those words, now?

This long since Princess Margaret and her happy dusted chums

Played with a restaurant and a farm to feed it, up on the Swindon road,

The way Peter Starstedt said it then, just for a laugh, ah ha ha.

Parsenn Sally. Later, in the eighties a waitress paused

When a customer pushed his napkin to the floor,

Measuring the length of her skirt as she stopped

Looked to the audience, fifty or so of us willing

To show the colour of our money,

Waiting to see the colour of her underwear,

A fiver on white, ten on black,

Wild bets on something awful like cerise

As she put a finger mocking to her lips, shook her head,

Bent her knees a little, just to tease, then flexed her leg,

Kicked the napkin under the nearest table

To a round of applause.

“Another bottle of fitou over here, if you would”

The appreciative click of credit cards on glass tables.

“And have one for you.”

Bath where Regency houses lured London workers with their siren song

Bath where water streamed down Royal Crescent walls,

The lead flashing long gone, during the war probably,

When patriotic householders bore the loss not just of sons

But irreplaceably the 1820s cast iron trellices, rococco awnings,

Gates and railings cropped and sawn and smelted to beat the Hun,

Our loss; as if cast iron Spitfires ever flew

Or steel swallows ever perched in Larkhall Mansions.

Scars from bomb splinters still pock the stonework near M&S,

The slashed birthmark of our time

Still there if you know where to look

Past the ghosts of open markets, joss-sticks and motorcycles

Cafes full of lean dogs and coke stoves,

Not a baby buggy in sight.  All of this emblazoned on our tattered flag.

All of this our banner as we marched

Under the stained pennants of our duvets towards now.

Come the revolution in Walcot Street.

Come the glorious day.

We didn’t see the bathroom showrooms coming.

We thought it would turn out ok.



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