We were bulldog British and still alive
with the future as bright as the widening sky
in the V of Churchill’s victory sign.
Heat in the heart, a lump in the throat,
hope like the sun
and all of us giddy and grateful and young
and we’d won, we’d won, we’d bloody well won.
* * *
A war that began and ended in rain.
Sprayed bullets of rain.
Rain that drum-rolled
on the church hall roof,
when nice Mr Chamberlain
went to the stage
and fell for the three card trick
then returned to his seat
empty handed and deceived.
“I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received.”
Empty handed and deceived.
Hard weather ahead. Storms to the east.
The curtains drawn.
A black, underground war.
We kept it dark.
We dug deep,
moved through tunnels and tubes.
We slept in a midnight garden,
in tin sheds
or crypts or bunkers
of railway sleepers and piled earth.
We dreamed with the worms
under a Braille of stars,
under the ploughed lawn …
Some nights — a blanket silent.
Some nights we woke in sweat
to a sound like a needle or drill coming near,
a nagging, gnawing mosquito drone in the air.
Doodlebugs. Rocketing dinosaur birds …
* * *
we’re dancing on paving stones
littered with shrapnel
we’re scaling the lampposts
and mounting the flagpoles
we’re hitching our skirts
and letting some steam off
heading up west
for a beer and a knees-up
we’re cheering and leering
and waving and leaning
from black-eyed windows
in bomb-struck houses
streaming from camouflaged
we’re picking through splinters
tripping through embers
we’re out in the terraces
down on the pavements
with teapots and doilies
on trestles and tables
we’re singing our hearts out
to tunes rattled out
on war torn Joannas
we’re pissing on Wagner
we’re whistling Elgar
we’re hearing the call
so we’re off to Trafalgar
to ride on the lions
clown in the fountains
we’re draped on the railings
at Buckingham Palace
we’re letting off rockets
and roman candles
it’s less like VE day
and more like a blitzkrieg
we’re off down the alleys
and into the side-streets
to fondle and fumble
with somebody’s missus
to smother a sailor
with lipsticky kisses
we’re blowing up condoms
we’re joining a conga
that’s half a mile long
and wiggles and wanders
and shillies and shallies
and keeps getting longer …
Till the barrel runs dry
and it’s almost dark,
for an English oak
on fire in the park.
And the spangle and spark
of a pearly king
in a drunken, one-man
And the dome of St Paul’s
picked out by torch
still golden and true
after years of hell …
* * *
Returning from war.
Returning to what?
One man is met.
One man is not.
One man is slapped on the back in the pub.
One man’s house is boarded up
One man’s wife takes him straight to bed.
One man’s dog comes running. Draws blood.
One man is kissed on the mouth and neck
and the curtains are drawn.
One man sits and stares at the wall.
One man’s wife has gone for a walk;
there’s a scribbled note,
there’s a tin of pilchards under a plate.
One man’s wife is flat on her back
with GI Joe doing press-ups on top.
In another man’s garden, the flowers and stones
read Welcome Home.
One man weeps in a room on his own.
One man is asked his name by his son.
* * *
The stars took the shape of a Swastika once
but the heavenly bodies are ordered back.
Now there’s a V sign, a spitfire, a Union Jack.
Last year there were Nazis at work
in the sewers and drains, a wolf in the wardrobe,
a storm-trooper under the bed. Last week
the cellar was Auschwitz, the attic was Belsen,
the bath tub was beached in the shallows at Dunkirk,
the barbed wire fence at the end of the lane
was the limit — the front-line.
Today there’s an apple, a smug looking egg teed up in a cup,
the promise of meat, a trout to be cooked.
Like Eden again. Britannia back on her throne.
But it’s quiet. It’s small …
We were saved, all saved for good, and utterly changed —
agreed. But there, at the time,
on the winning side of the finishing line,
in the glare of unconditional light,
in the litter of glory,
and after the beer and the flags
and triumphant dancing and mad, jubilant sex,
we stood for while, and waited, waited,
wondering what came next.
by Simon Armitage