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.
A WESTERN SUN
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.