Monday, 30 December 2013

Life After Wartime

Some things never change.
The garden bushes wag their beards
like arguing theologians while the orange fists
of passion fruit take cover in the leaves.
The sky aches with unmapped distances
and the sun hides nothing.
At dusk, it surrenders to the moon.

When there’s small-hours muttering in the street
remember it’s only someone deciding to go home or go on,
pushing the night for the last of the great good times
and into a shell-shocked morning after.

At least there’s coffee again.
It takes our minds off the radio,
the smooth-voiced reassurances,
the metaphors encrusted like barnacles
on every announcement, your almost
imperceptible jump at the sound
of a pamphlet shoved through the door.

Things never change.
People wear their silence like a caul.
To bring them luck against drowning.
They were parents. Or siblings. Or both.
They are the ones that nothing surprises,
the ones who no longer look up
when a jet comes roaring in above the city,
framed against the orange sky,

picking its way among the towers. 

Tom Phillips

As originally published in '100 Poets Against The War' (Salt, 2003), then 'Burning Omaha' (Firewater, 2003), Novy Vilag (Budapest, 2003), 'Recreation Ground' (Two Rivers Press, 2012), and Jeta e Re (Prishtina 2013). 'Recreation Ground' is available from Two Rivers Press:

Sunday, 29 December 2013

On putting away this year's diary

A year. Well, yes, of course, it’s an artificial construct – a convenient fiction for punctuating time – but then how else to locate what’s been done (or not done), what’s happened (or hasn’t)? On Wednesday, I will put my 2013 diary up on the shelf, alongside diaries from each of the last ten years or so. It contains no great insights, no confessions, no revelations. It’s just a diary with meetings, deadlines, reminders to send someone an email. I doubt that anyone, least of all me, will look at it again. On the face of it, in fact, it’s exactly the same as all the diaries from previous years that it’s destined to sit beside on the shelf. At this moment, however, as the last few days of 2013 tumble into place, I can’t help wishing that, for all the other pieces of writing, the photographs, the comments and conversations stored or alluded to elsewhere, there were other ways in which the events of this year could be preserved, could be revisitable. This isn’t, I hope, just sentiment, nostalgia for the all too recent past. Maybe, on one level, that’s what wanting to be in the writing game is about – turning the past into things, into objects, which can be repeatedly revisited, reviewed. I wonder, though, at the end of this year, whether it might not be about something else entirely. 

Saturday, 14 December 2013

From 'Boating with Enver Hoxha'

Lake Bled, Slovenia, August 2009

In the morning, Jani waved off us on what he insisted on calling our ‘boating adventure’. At the lakeside, a man who looked as if he’d completed a triathlon before breakfast took our money and pointed at a mahogany-brown dinghy. We had an hour. I slotted the oars into the rowlocks and dipped them into the water. My first attempt at a hefty pull moved us an inch. The triathlete put our money in his pocket. Out on the lake, other families deftly steered his boats through the lanes marked out for the Slovenian rowing team’s training sessions for the 2012 London Olympics. Another hefty pull got us away from the pontoon at least. A few more and we began to pick up speed, heading for open water where the only danger came from the gondoliers punting groups of tourists across the lake. Someone shouted from the ramparts of the fairy-tale castle, but I couldn’t make out what they said. Others called out from the rowing boats, the gondolas, the lido. Disjointed phrases skimmed across the surface of the water like dragonflies or pebbles. The mountains rose up against the sky like opera scenery. For a moment, it felt as if we were crossing Europe’s duck pond, cradled by alps, surrounded by tracts of territory which, as they stretched out in every direction, became Italy and Austria, Hungary, Serbia and Croatia. Further on again, those same tracts turned into France and Germany, Poland, Romania, Bosnia and Albania. Elsewhere, ferries crossed from Spain to Morocco, boats sailed across the Black Sea to Georgia and the Crimea, and, from Moscow, the Trans-Siberian Express left for Beijing and Vladivostok. When I inadvertently steered us into the boating equivalent of a snarl-up, and bows and oars clunked against each other, embarrassed apologies were exchanged in four different languages.
            At the island church, I shipped oars and we drifted beneath overhanging branches, pale green leaves reflected in the almost still water. Sam dropped his hat and I manoeuvred the boat so that we could rescue it. Sam thought this was so extraordinary that he rang his sister on his mobile phone. Lydia’s voice intermitted as the signal came and went. She asked to be handed over to her mum. Sarra talked her through how to wash a load of woollens. The signal died before I got a chance to speak.
            On the opposite side of the lake, I recognised what looked like a pair of insect eyes or concrete goggles: Tito’s villa amongst the trees. It had been one of the communist Yugoslav leader’s favourite haunts, and in 1946 he’d twice entertained his momentary ally, Enver Hoxha, in what the Albanian leader regarded as a grotesquely decadent lakeside palace. The second visit had proved particularly awkward. Calling in on his way to the Paris Peace Conference, where decisions about the division of post-war Europe taken at Potsdam and Yalta would be ratified, Hoxha had only brought one decent suit with him. According to his memoirs, he feared that Tito’s villa would be swarming with raven-haired Yugoslav beauties dressed in sexually alluring satin dresses. Hoxha’s worst fear, in fact, was that Tito would force him to take part in a photo shoot in which he would have to pose, draped with voluptuous young women, just like a bourgeois movie star. Not only would this be a propaganda disaster for the ascetic Stalinist, it might also leave his carefully chosen lounge suit smeared with lipstick and smelling of hairspray.
As it turned out, he was right to be anxious. His suit was in danger, but not from Tito’s ‘assistants’. Having lost his favourite hunting dog during the Patriotic War against the Nazis, the Yugoslav had acquired a replacement, and the shaggy-haired mutt enjoyed free rein at the presidential residence in Bled. It also suffered from appalling flatulence and let out ‘a great fart’ with such regularity that Tito had to instruct General Todorović, an ex-partisan who would eventually fall foul of the dictator’s mood-swings, to ‘kick the damn thing out’. Hoxha heaved a sigh of relief and thought that he might now get his chance to discuss the future of communist Europe. Tito wasn’t interested, however. Just as Jani had done with us, he insisted that the Albanian take a boat trip on the lake. To Hoxha’s horror, the dog came too, plunging into the water and swimming behind Tito’s launch with all its might. While the Yugoslav ignored the Albanian’s ever more specific questions about his policy towards the USSR, the dog paddled through the lake, leaving an explosive trail of bubbles. Eventually, it tired and dangled pathetically in the wake of the boat. Tito took pity on his pet, ordered the captain to slam the launch into reverse and whistled. The dog leapt up over the gunwale and vigorously shook itself. The Yugoslav bellowed with laughter, but the Albanian was appalled: his only suit was ruined.

‘Because in fact we did not discuss any weighty problems,’ Hoxha later wrote, ‘I remember almost nothing.’

Copyright Tom Phillips 2013 

Saturday, 7 December 2013


To be honest, this is probably an example of a 'source' poem in a very early draft: these rather disconnected, 'snapshot'-style pieces seem to emerge every now and then, destined to be dismantled and reconfigured at a later date, their individual parts becoming the starting point for other things. 

So here then let’s line them up.

Weather happens, through trees,
beyond this path's renovated balustrade
and bus station uncertainties.

It is beautiful.

At the cusp of this expanse,
everyone has some kind of idea.

The bay is a tumble of waves.

I’m waking up not far from Ovid.

The bars stay open.

Over there – and the missed boat – 
it is whoever I choose to overhear
will change how I see it.

“It’s windy,” he says, “perhaps.”

The clean church charges entry.

Footsteps along the beach
and at the great jagged point
we’re all here, in this, together.

Tom Phillips 2013

Friday, 6 December 2013

The government pronounces on the death of Nelson Mandela

At the corner, on the road,
we were there in, maybe, 1985.
First date, but you stuck with me.
‘No platform for racists’ on a banner.

Things changed, but not to do with us.
At the gate, some smart, smug type
in evening dress ... It was easy
to see which side we were on.
Traffic lights went green, amber, red.
The market at the end of a lane.

Blustering epitaphs sweep down.
In this end, the only possible conclusion:
the speeches which miss it,

the opportunistic empathy.

Tom Phillips 2013