Hell might have a Function Room like this,
Where gravy fights it out with Harpic:
A mock-Tudor Midland roadhouse,
Thirties-built to meet the passing trade
Long since diverted down the bypass,
It fell on hard times, then on harder ones
And kept on falling through false floors,
Down shafts of optimistic anaglypta,
Past the cheap and cheerful weddings,
Underbooked conventions, lingerie events
And charismatic preachers braving out
The years God turned his face away.
The old place stands in hawthorn scrub
Beside the nibbled Chase, its car-park
Dogged by doggers. It must long for arson.
What it gets are damaged veterans
And others of uncertain provenance,
Would-be Werwolfs, left behind
To serve the cause from bunkers dug
Beneath allotments their St George’s flags
Announce are Ingerland no more.
There will be those who speak, who bring
Fraternal greetings from ‘our Flemish friends’
And those who listen with a hope so long
Deferred it is immortal. What began
One pale late summer evening here
Will end when darkness brings instructions
To prepare for the eternal Soon,
The ur-time worshipped in the true
Theology where things are otherwise.
But in the meantime minutes must be taken,
Grist to the banal resentments,
Nudges, localized atrocities, as omens of
The greater cause, and let no one forget
That there are windows to be licked
And public discourse to be joined
Until, on average eighteen seconds in,
The call’s cut off at Radio Chase (‘It’s where
The middle of the Midlands is’) again.
These are the relatives you never see now
Since your parents’ generation died.
You do remember, yes, the awkwardness –
A funeral tea held somewhere like the Chase,
That might have even been the Chase,
A flyblown nowhere, birches, ponds,
With HGVs parked up in laybys full of rubbish
And a sense that give or take this could be
Any time since 1931.
And someone’s husband joining you outside
To smoke, assuming you’d agree
With his shy-smiling bigotry about
‘Our friends from the subcontinent.’
You can’t remember what you said. You can,
And it was nothing, while he stood his ground
There in the carpark, and if he sensed
That you were clenching with embarrassment
You couldn’t tell. He’d made his point,
While you declared you’d better make a start
And he advised what roads you should avoid,
And never blinked, while here in hindsight
You’re still blinking at the shame of it
When accident has brought you back
Down these unfashionable routes,
And then contrived the need to stop
And get a sandwich.
In Albion’s excluded middle.
The meeting is concluding on the far side
Of the corridor. The literature is all there
At the back beside the runes and ornamental
Daggers that make lovely gifts. To say it takes
All sorts may be a fallacy, but here they are
And here you are, again. The sandwich comes.
You watch them load their tat and nonsense
Back into the knacker’s van. You are confused
By a persistent disbelief that this
Can be the case, this levee of Poujadists
Dawdling by their cars till those with homes
To go to go there, and those with holes
Hole up to count the days till their black sun
Rises on this honest plain of Midland
Ash and spoil and their inheritance is saved
From everyone, including you.
Too bored to laugh, too tired to cry, you think
These people do not matter. Then they do.
Sean O’Brien is a multi-award-winning poet and critic who has published more than a dozen collections of poetry, essays and criticism. His latest collection ‘The Beautiful Librarians’ was published by Picador in 2015.