Norman Thomas di Giovanni

    Dosserby Francis Spencer

    'Police last night had not identified the vagrant whose body was found under a pile of fallen bricks in Lincoln's Inn Fields, London.'

    The Guardian, 13 October 1987

     

    I

    Even the boots weren't his,

    but slid to him - 'Wear me!'  -

    down the patent scree of charity

    heaped Dachau-sized in a dis-

    used church. Heart of the city,

    shod, he'd trod out over

    all the roads from Dover

    up to York, a mercenary

    who's not for hire, and long,

    long past surrender. New

    every morning is the dew

    that trickles down his strong

    and wholly beaten face,

    minding the wet earth with

    no thought at all but this

    undifferentiated place

    of bone-cold, pissed & grimy

    panic. Bad apple,

    he's the ill-windfall

    that sinless kids & shiny

    frightened mothers had bricked

    up out there in immemorial air,

    a feature of the playground rare-

    ly noticed save to kick

    a ball against or shun

    by some long detour of the mind.

    Don't catch his eye, or try'nd

    pretend the two of you are one,

    or that 'but for the grace

    of God ...', or that you've seen

    or haven't seen, or mean

    to change the ethos of the place

    one day by getting to the top,

    by charity, by writing verse,

    by legislation, prayer or, worse,

    by hosing 'em off like crap.

    Land's landowners do not

    own him: he's set up

    to mark the edge of what

    they've mortgaged, family plots,

    against the fear that their 'a lot'

    meant nothing, that it'd cave in

    like a sepulchre into its grave

    or like the whole town's squat,

    collapse, rot down into

    its Underground. At least

    it's warm down there, though the greasy

    air, an edible blue,

    has farted, coughed, had more

    goes round, and round and round,

    than the Circle Line. Scroungers,

    buskers, rich and poor,

    begging not to differ, do,

    going down the tube; the walls

    sing there so wishing well

    that pennies drop into

    his hat like autumn leaves

    in spring. Ghosts walk through him;

    out of work or window-shopping,

    passing the fast bucks, he's

    their shadow tricked out of exist-

    ence, one bad dream, a nightmare

    he wakes up to, shares

    with no ones in the mist

    of bottle-Green Park, Hyde

    & streets. Impenetrable porous

    stuff, this alcosaurus

    fossil who's survived

    the State of Welfare. Missed

    somehow by Smith & Bevan

    and untouched by their bland heaven

    on earth, their housing lists

    and innocent-proof benefits,

    he's walking in no fixed abode.

    Self-employed as his own commode,

    this wall-banger's never pissed

    nor sober either  -  head

    hung over, shoulders ridged,

    like the parapet of London Bridge  -

    the Thames flows out between his legs,

    a hose of golden daffodils!

    A gardener, if you ask him

    who he was, or sometime

    ancient mariner, a cul-

    inary maître de chef, surveyor,

    soldier, priest, or man

    of property, he also ran

    a builder's yard, 'bricklayers

    to the Queen'. Whatever,

    he'll spin any fib

    to ease a vicar from a quid.

    He's the great un-sung performer

    of our age, and all the stage

    a world he's worked out perfectly

    to tap the green complicity

    of the saints who've got it made.

    Dead to the world, he's friend,

    long-lost, to hostels, monks,

    to magistrates & café drunks,

    soup-servers without end,

    amen. Their raison d'être,

    he's our familiar spirit,

    a could-be me whose image fits,

    a mirror-lurker to our hate

    of self, injustice, belly

    weight, all that's intractable,

    that touches us & isn't bull,

    that turns grown legs to jelly

    at the thought of someone

    out there - in here - out there,

    falling through without the

    usual supports of an

    imaginable life. Mire is

    sacred: drawn mud-caked

    and sentimental, faked

    to a shadow of old chesnut fires

    in charcoal on a bathroom wall,

    you have been framed. Untouch-

    able, or as we'd say, 'touched

    in the head' and fumbling small

    change, the old school vag-

    rant warms his hands in flame

    on a brazier in Drury Lane.

    Not many left, these days.

    The new breed's shot away

    or on the run from being

    cared for. Not you, ay? Free

    as a turd on the King's high-way,

    three coats to the wind & hid

    in God's own beard. Enough

    to make out living rough's

    romantic, or some other glib

    unnecessary crap

    that doesn't touch on what

    shit stars made you a shit  -

    what kicked off all of THAT

    FUCKING  PANIC ... Being

    shit is easy, like 'genetic',

    and there's no help for it.

    Shit doesn't sink or swim;

    it stinks, gets stepped in,

    wiped, sniffed, squozen out

    (by its own choice, no doubt).

    A system can't hold in

    too much at once, it drops,

    shit flies, shit hits the fan

    (or bottle/road) when shit's a man

    and the wind blows all his props

    to hell, to shells he can't

    believe in or live out,

    except on paper, touted

    like this version planted

    on you  -  drugs Customs

    use to keep the undesirable

    alien. Well, that's my fable,

    whatsyername. I'll call you Samson

    for your knack with walls

    and for my ass's jaw,

    because you're stronger than the flawed

    pretenders up here on the ball,

    more generous too: you give

    the game away. It's love

    that scares the shite out of

    the cast up here, that is,

    if we, or you, would let it ...

    II

    Dark. Day centres night

    now to a wall outside the law

    where the fine can't touch the poor

    or vice versa. Too tight,

    too late for that. All suits,

    briefs, shoulder-padded

    business tarts, their value-added

    hearts in shares, en route

    to Cla'h'm, have clip-clopped home,

    poured out of Town down trains

    & tubes like guttering rain,

    & left the Sights (chic, smoke-blown,

    smeared) like sore eyes at a party.

    Emptied, dirt comes trickling in

    in overcoats with bits of string

    like hold-alls no one's held. Sly

    blind, unblinking in a dream

    of men as trees, clod-booted,

    dog-been, trailing roots

    from Chorley Wood to Watsitsname

    and better off unseen, they've been

    well camouflaged. Red-rimmed,

    mascara's over everything

    and only the eyes are clean  -

    eyes of the storm, of nothing,

    wind, of swirling suburbs,

    skirts, hair, ad-men's blurbs,

    of rubbish, wires, sharp railings

    against walls. Wall-eyed,

    the city shuts its lights,

    its breath exhaled: tonight

    my Samson's shuffling, high

    as week-old game, light-headed,

    one of nature's vacuums,

    to the park. There's room

    at Lincoln's Inn. Frightened

    out of sleep by Sam's

    blind feet and excremental mutterings,

    one of the tribe, a wandering

    shrew with frozen hams,

    smells business or a sort

    of warmth. 'You want it, eh?

    What have you got? Not gear.

    I don't do gear.' Sam caught

    the begging and the bruised

    evacuated lots that cracked

    beneath her voice, the paddywhacked

    shy, brittle girl so used

    to being used she's given up

    her ghost to flesh. His wolf-

    wise ancient eyes engulfed

    the fouled world of her make-up,

    hairpiece, rags, and looked

    into her sheer gift,

    the wide warm bath of it,

    he'd drift in to before. He took

    the woman's arm to stop

    himself from falling. 'S-s-slag.'

    Sam shivered, clutched his bag

    and every un-housed, un-fucked

    night he'd had in all

    his life, and shook her hand

    off his sleeve. 'Bitch.' Sam

    bedded her down by the wall.

    III

    Night squats across the Channel.

    Waters slop uneasily.

    Its dank legs stretch to Brittany

    & Cornwall as the god pulls

    down his trousers, holds

    Atlantic breath: the white moon

    heaves ... At sea, fly-blown

    old tankers pitch & roll

    and halliards in marinas start

    to jitter, nervously, like horses

    under starter's orders;

    whole washing lines of shirts

    are sucked up in the jet stream,

    coiling, sprung, a snake-

    wind snapping its tail awake

    as tins break in & out of dreams,

    spin chattering up deserted streets

    like a dog's electrified hare.

    Waves rise and pump, rear

    up, and crashing deep

    into the groins and shingles,

    roar, sigh, rush again,

    as inland, forests, dense

    brush dripping, flare in glee-

    ful bursts, roots tearing,

    tugging at the earth as if

    some vast, invisible mastiff

    had locked jaws on snaring

    wire, or a goddess tore

    her hair. The hungering beast

    ripped tops, whole chimney-breasts

    & trunks clean off. The deep roar

    deepened, swirling blood

    & planets, head over heels

    overhead, and bled black squeals

    and howlings as it split the wood-

    en clapboard, cladding, flimsy

    cloth of womanish caves

    asunder like a graveyard

    robbed and plundered by

    some Second Coming god. Towns

    & cities have no roofs

    that are remotely god-proof

    when god's in a real gown-

    ripping mood. God

    & London fucked that night

    to loose the stone-clad, fright-

    ened spirit out from its cod-

    dling fist. Once stiff, unmoving

    parts lay, thrashed about,

    or bent low down, devout

    in venal ecstasy. Nothing

    could withstand that unpent,

    so long-bottled force,

    that passion hurled at the source

    of its own unrepentant

    walls, though on the night

    that Samson burst his heart

    and tender hatred, shafts

    of inextinguishable light

    burned out in all his bones

    like fiercely molten gold.

    The last and inmost, oldest

    wall, the one he'd grown

    himself, for which he'd sown

    and sold unnumbered lives

    and solitary deaths, sighed

    in his depths and groaned

    through spitting, broken teeth:

    'I'm coming now, yer bastard,

    luv ...' The very last, hard

    shoulder of the storm beat

    down against the wall

    and shoved; the whole dark scrum

    of night swarmed, tumbling

    in behind, and rucked, mauled,

    foraged, locked: a million tons

    of muscle. Stones, cut centuries

    ago as if to stall time, try

    to hold by ancient discipline

    their own against the all

    black, thudding stream. But earth's

    a sod. It quakes, not worth

    its salt when half an ocean-fall

    of tears have soaked and soaked

    and soaked its bed. Unclenching

    the city's soiled fist inch

    by inch, the wall begins to float

    and waver like a dead man's cry,

    to rattle in the storm's sheer throat,

    till, finding the foundations out

    and bulging, belly-eyed,

    the nothing wind that's everything

    blew out its lungs and blasted:

    'Coming now, yer bastard,

    luv ...' The wall caves in.

    Un-zipped, its open flies lean

    outwards for a moment, hang

    jagged edges over the man

    who's broken through and seems

    as wholly incorporeal

    as wind over his fucked love's

    bag. One last great shove:

    enough. The wall is toppled.

    London screams and breaks

    on Samson's head.

    IV

    Who was the vagrant who

    flint-fisted felled the first

    wood here, whose common woe

    cursed clay and caves and blue

    winds wintering the water's edge?

    Whose fear of meal-mouthed forest

    sucked his skull's bone nakedness

    of dreams to dress the wet sedge,

    log on log, against

    the fog-haired river-god

    and elemental cold? The sodden

    nomad struck his fence

    and wasn't. Let others beg

    or perish, he's - a wall,

    our earliest enclosure, small

    holding of nothing, lagged

    to keep the wind out, wolves,

    eyes, rain, the darkness in. Mid-

    paradise the vagrant hid,

    shagged, holed up, hands resolved

    to prise apart tomorrow.

    Years & cities fled out

    from his finger ends to shut

    stone doors against the widow-

    ing past. Now busy men,

    not wielding whittled sticks

    or spears, bear little bits

    of paper, sneers, the mem-

    bership of clubs (whatever

    that means); churches, streets,

    parade grounds stiff with feet,

    flags, moving lights so clever

    that the sun himself seems dully

    unmechanical. All glitters,

    face on face, and flits the

    sharp-mooned water coolly,

    po-mo, smart, who cares?

    Dancing the off-sprung splinters

    of a glass, its broken mirrors

    wheel to catch in their

    elsewhere the image of

    the man, the vagrant huddled

    in his dream, his mud wall,

    flesh, his wind, his love.

    V

    The morning after: London's

    smashed. She's sprawling, a pub-

    brawler's mouth, a slack tub-

    ful of teeth, gold paving stones

    she's spat out with up-rooted

    molars, plane trees drubbed

    like little Adolf's doodlebugs,

    or daddy-long-legs booted

    all to hell. 'It's like the Blitz,'

    a dazed drunk said, kicking glass

    that's dived out of some classy

    banker's window. Bits

    of lives, of hoardings, indoor

    stuff, like panties, fluffy

    toys & photos, dandruff

    treatments, chests of drawers,

    lie strewn about or dangle

    in clean air for once,

    fair game for looting truants,

    eddying, marauder gangs

    loosed on the wind. 'An act

    of God', wrote suddenly broke

    bespoke insurance brokers

    on the claims of fat

    storekeepers and their 'names',

    too punch-drunk yet to launder

    their stripped assets. Wonder

    gripped the passengers of planes

    who'd flown home over homeless-

    ness and seen the ploughed

    trail of the storm through cloud,

    the gashed woods' flesh,

    cars crushed or twirled up

    high to nest in the springy

    whiplash of some wind-bent,

    crackling pylon. Clut-

    tered bricks and mortals clog

    the way through thoroughfares

    that aren't, as men go nowhere,

    gawping, stuck, like God's

    own kings of the road. Hard luck.

    The lawyer who's just walked out

    of his chambers, baulked at

    the night's work, has been struck

    by the violence of law & storm,

    the contraries of his own calling.

    His well-heeled feet are falling

    lightly, like a delicate faun,

    in trash. He looks out through

    the empty space where yesterday

    had been a wall, way, way

    thicker than rock. His eyes flew

    over the rubbled houses

    strewn beyond the park,

    the cardboard boxes, arks

    to the washed-up, rubbished scouses

    he'd passed every evening,

    both on their way home.

    'Well, each to their own,'

    he'd thought then, hardening

    and breezing on into

    his wife's soft bed, or the party

    he would have with arty

    friends, defending two

    contrary views in low

    professional tones. Doubts-

    in-law, conspiracies of out-

    casts, in-casts, legal cloaks

    and daggers in the back-

    yard of unreal estates,

    had long been fretting at the state

    of his mind. And now this lack

    of boundary, this shock of space.

    It was as if mere wind

    had unearthed everything

    and he was falling through its face,

    a slow, interminable fall,

    to crack a whole life open.

    An angry, broken

    cry sounds in the wall

    that was not there. A howling

    man, or woman, crawed

    beneath a ton or more

    of rock and medieval cowling.

    Arrested now, the man who was

    a lawyer then, crouched in

    the thick-ruck'd mud and splin-

    tered stone to prise the mass-

    ive granite blocks up on

    his smooth, white finger

    ends. He slips. No longer

    caring. Tries again.

    The bald sepulchral slabs

    lift off, grinding their neighbours

    into the dirt. Saviours,

    well intentioned, always have.

    He pauses, ears to the animal

    moan. Boots, a coat-tail,

    half a dress, trail

    from the clearing rubble.

    The man, now torn and bloodied,

    smeared in dirt, his hair

    wild, waving in the air,

    met Samson's face. It studied

    him from that dead place

    where it had gone. He studied

    it. The same, but flooded

    with some kind of peace

    that fluttered subtle bodies,

    fires & half-glimpsed lights

    all over the startled, sky-bright

    land. 'Get 'im off! Yer bloody

    jerk!' The woman's thick

    voice vomited into his face.

    'He's bloody dead!' A trace

    of Sam's last spittle licked

    across like a spider's web

    when the man was lifted from

    her lap. His body numb,

    cold, stiffening fast, his head

    stove in at the back, Sam lay

    and filled his eyes with sky ...  Beside

    themselves, the two stared wide,

    not at each other nor the splayed

    white midriff of the one

    who'd got away, but at

    some sudden nothing that

    was all, all 'done',

    dead, over, swept away,

    and yet had come from him,

    was his ... The woman screamed,

    once, then made off like a stray

    cat silently. The lawyer

    likewise disappeared

    into the city, cleared

    clean off. The broken mirror

    of his face is open to the

    world and all of it

    pours in. Meanwhile, back

    in solicitous bars, friends rumour

    that he's left his soft wife

    and his house, and taken

    to the bottle/road, the shakes,

    and an unruly life

    of vagrancy in your

    boots, or in mine.