Poetry Random Ramblings

Thoughts from Empire’s Home-Port Shore

Tarnishing and Rust

On empire’s home-port shore,
an old strength resisting.
Lucknow to Sierra Leone,
yellow fever to mutiny,
marble balm for victories’ loss.

A row of forgotten obelisks;
lists of salt-seasoned names,
of letters that shined like surf
fused in iron and brass,
to seal a collective sigh.

But stone flakes into shrapnel, 
the once hard edges of words,
soft and reddening. 
Metal breaks down and dissolves
into the reckoning earth.

First published in Poetry & All That Jazz (2021)

Portsmouth is full of monuments to half forgotten events. To battles and bravery and death and foundered ships. The vast majority were put up to commemorate those who died in the name of the British Empire. But like these crumbling, decaying statues, is it time for us to properly let go?

I have a book somewhere in my loft, or maybe at my mothers’ house, that I was given as a child. It is an account of the travels and death of Captain James Cook. I can remember reading it, at the age of about 6, and seeing him as being a bit of a hero. I’m old enough to remember the British Empire still being a source of national pride.

How we civilised India, gave them the railways, brought order from chaos to Africa, colonised Australia. When examples were given of how the Empire wasn’t exactly joyous for many of it’s subjects – Amritsar, maybe, or the Indian Mutiny (why do we still call it that? ), the answer would come back, ‘but the railways!, or something else along the same lines. As if Indians couldn’t have trains unless we massacred them first.

In a YouGov poll in 2016, 44% of Britons said they were proud of the British Empire. This says more about our education system than anything else. There’s also probably a few percentage points in there as a result of Brexit campaigning and certain politicians and sectors of the media using our history, (or a rosy tinted interpretation of it), to support their arguments of British / English exceptionalism.

The first large scale concentration camps, famines, mass torture and the estimated deaths of around 150 million people simply weren’t mentioned when I was at school in the 1970s & 80s – but I do remember being told about the railways, or the postal service, or democracy.

We certainly need to remember and educate people about many facets of our country’s expansionist history. With its’ interconnected trading and communication routes, the British Empire brought about the modern world of commerce. The way we live our lives is a direct result of this period of conquest by Britain, and to a lesser extent, other European powers.

But is it to be celebrated? And what of the edifice that Empire built and supported here? The hierarchical structures it strengthened and entrenched. Should our subservience be maintained?

I have always disliked the notion of being someone’s ‘subject’.

We were at a friends house for afternoon tea a couple of months ago. The question came up of what we thought about the royal family, and whether we should keep it. I answered with ambivalence. There are more important things to be focussing on, I think I said. I would’t be too bothered if it was scaled down like that of many other European royal families. Was I wrong?

One good thing that has come from Johnson’s premiership is that we can see the edifice for what it really is – I’m sure he is only doing what others have done previously, just more subtly and away from public view. It will be interesting to see what happens when Charles finally ascends to the throne. Will this be the catalyst for change?

Who knows. But Johnson’s plans to add another 30-50 supporters to the House of Lords to bolster his support should wake people up.

As for the British Empire? It’s easy for me to say this, as I know my chances of being offered an OBE or MBE or any other national medal with the word ‘Empire’ on it are beyond slim. I’ve done sod all to merit any kind of award from a grateful nation. But personally, I think I’d have to reject it if I were ever offered one.

I don’t think differently of anyone who chooses to accept an MBE or OBE. Everyone’s got their own reasons. I just think it’s incredibly anachronistic and something we should have moved away from a generation or so ago. And we do need to face up to the truth about our country’s past before we can properly move forwards.

Just look at the real legacy of James Cook – he was a man who rose from humble backgrounds, who was an exceptional navigator and by all accounts an enlightened captain and leader of his crew. But he also had orders from London to identify sites that could be claimed as British.

Just seventeen years later the First Fleet sailed from Portsmouth Harbour – with devastating consequences for many native Australian people. Hence the poem that ends this piece.

Incidentally, Tarnishing & Rust and 1787 /1788 are both from my sequence of poems about running around Portsmouth Island whilst training for marathons in 2010-2013. I’ll probably self-publish the sequence next year.

1787

We shoulder our chains over shingle and sand
Am I a man or am I a ghost?
This was our home, our once-promised land
No turning back now nowhere to turn
We shoulder our stories, our loves and our pain
Words were our roots, our feet in the ground
Our dreams are lost echoes, our light is devoured
Men cut the forests set them afloat
Chased on the wind the clouds of our lives
This turning of tides in the squint of an eye
Sails over the horizon a memory of land

1788

Sails over the horizon a memory of land
This turning of tides in the squint of an eye
Chased on the wind the clouds of our lives
Men cut the forests set them afloat
Our dreams are lost echoes, our light is devoured
Words were our roots, our feet in the ground
We shoulder our stories, our loves and our pain,
No turning back now nowhere to turn
The sky is so wide the water so calm
This was our home, our once promised land
Am I a man or am I a ghost?
We shoulder our chains over shingle and sand

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