The Ghosts of Century Past

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London, late December and it's struggling.

The stale crumbs of Christmas. Nothing flash.

Stifling cellar wine-bar close to Aldwych

Half a dozen grace his leaving bash.

"Off then, John?" He shakes his head and gestures.

"Upstairs. Need to get a breath of air."

Falling up the steps he overhears them.

"Only fifty. Seems a bit unfair."

"London," mutters John. "Conceited London.

Sucking all the talent that it can.

Charging for the privilege of audition

While it yawns: `Impress me little man.'

Overblown, dishonest, pushy London.

Price of houses shooting up each week.

Full of tart, dismissive self-importance.

Transport system, rubbish - an antique."

Shiny in the rain, The Strand at night time;

Down uncaring pavements, lurches John.

"Shut your bloody noise!" He yells at traffic.

London hoots its horns and carries on.

Down to Villiers Street towards the river

Colder gusts of wind assault his skin

Finds an empty bench on the Embankment.

Huddled in his coat he settles in.

In the freezing drizzle of the evening

As a crick-necked sleep of sorts descends

London's roaring ill-maintained Scalextric

Coughs and hacks bronchitic by the Thames

All the ships and launches on the river

Answer, engines muffled by the mist

Portholes perforations in the darkness

Winter grips the sleeper in its fist.

"That you John?" The voice concerned and kindly.

Someone peering. John wakes with a jerk.

Sits up straight, checks wallet, gets his bearings.

"Had a drink. Just found I'm out of work."

"Worse things happen, Cocker. Keep your chin up."

Older man of melancholy air.

Something in his manner so familiar...

John asks, "Have we met before somewhere?"

"Knew this town before you ever came here

Thought I'd walk you round to clear your head.

I'm the early spirit of the century.

You're my oppo. Don't you know you're dead?"

John, his headache gone, stands up astonished

"Oh, it's true..." The spirit told him softly.

"Best accept it. Pointless to resist."

Now the stranger beckons, John must follow.

Big Ben chimes eleven in the mist.

"Pig's ear of a century." The man said.

"Fierce debate on which year we should run.

Zeroists made claims for 1900

We began though, January '01.

Listened for the bells, held watch-night service

Knowing not how soon they'd toll again

When Victoria died a few weeks later.

Finishing a sixty-four-year reign."

Through the foggy streets they drift in silence.

Horse-drawn traffic clatters in the lanes.

Smell of horse-dung, malt and human sewage

From a mews, the sound of hammers, chains.

"Fourteen, I left school." The ghost informed him.

"`Oily Rag' - Mechanic was my trade.

Cars weren't often seen outside of cities.

Guv'nor trained me. Four bob I was paid."

"I became a chauffeur for a lawyer.

Had a younger sister. Suffragette.

One cold morning, picked her up from prison.

Starving. Close to death as she could get.

Nursed her back to health, a few months later,

Back they sent her to another cell.

That was what they called `The Cat and Mouse Act'.

Women won the vote by going through hell.

"Look at this John. Here's Victoria Station.

Full of ghosts who couldn't wait to go.

Nineteen-fourteen, didn't want to dawdle.

If they had, they might have missed the show.

Kit-bags, rifles, puttees, can you see them?

Most no more than saplings and as green.

Green is what we were boy. See this platform?

That's where I came back in 'seventeen.

"I was lucky. Leg-wound and some frostbite.

Nothing next to what the others got.

That's the kind of party we were going to.

If you wouldn't dance, they had you shot.

When the guns fell silent four years later

And the Spanish Flu had run its riot.

What was left of family ate in silence

Christmas of 'eighteen, was fairly quiet."

Through the eerie shadows on the platform

John walks on in silence with his guide

Under dripping arches, sooty girders

Past the groaning carriages they glide

Re-emerging to another London

Motorbuses, jazz, a smart cafe

"Twenties, when we danced away our sorrows

Drunk on modern gadgets as today.

"In the early years it shaped up handsome.

But it came to be a rougher ride.

'Twenty-nine, The Crash came washing slowly

Over 'Thirties doorsteps like the tide.

In The States they threw themselves off buildings.

Here we knuckled down, though we were poor.

Polio, diphtheria, and hunger.

Scratching like a mongrel at the door.

"Starving shipyard workers walked from Jarrow

Led here by a lady, their MP

What they wanted was an honest living.

What they got was codswallop, cakes and tea.

Only things that boomed were cars and houses

Ribboned out to Welwyn Garden, Slough.

People were concerned and they protested.

Pattern sound familiar to you now?

"In the guts of Europe, there was rumbling

Some of us had known that sound before

What the country needed was employment

What we ended up with was a war.

All the while, the present woos the future

All the while the future scorns the past

Politicians just refit the galleon.

Run the skull and crossbones up the mast.

"See that worried WAAF outside The Windmill

Walking with the Yank who's chomping gum?

He goes back to Washington with honours

She goes back to Maidstone as a mum.

Recognise the buildings in the background?

Only two or three of them still there.

Doodlebug removed them from the skyline

Strewed the pieces over Soho Square.

"Still hate London now John, d'you really?

Show me your half - now I've shown you mine.

Here's the house where you were born in 'Fifty

Same one as I died in, 'Forty-Nine.

Ration cards, austerity and winter.

Pre-fab towns and villages appeared.

Where the willow-herb sprang from the bombsites

And you children of the war were reared."

"What I can remember from my childhood."

John replied: "Is parquet corridors.

And the smell of stale milk at playtime.

And the brown linoleum on the floors.

And my testy, ancient, tweedy teachers.

Quick to wield the slipper and the cane

And the Izal in the outside toilets.

And the smell of coal fires on the rain.

"And the kitchen wireless in the morning

Then the skiffle slowly creeping through

And the way the music got our elders

Wringing hands and asking what to do.

Elvis, then The Shadows and the Beatles

Best of all their great heroic noise

Mums must watch a twangy gang of demons

Set alight their snake-hipped spotty boys.

"Of respective soundtracks to our ages

Yours was sentimental, ours was fun

If there was a generation battle.

We did not begin it, but we won.

Something nearly happened in the Sixties

Something quite intangible but strong

Which is why all other generations

Love to tell us where we all went wrong."

"Don't you think of anything but music?"

Asked the older man. "Or don't you care?"

"Now I do," said John. "But in that moment.

Life was only music, clothes and hair.

Slowly, in the Seventies the change came.

Party in its death, gone on too long.

Fighting on the dance floor, spiky strangers.

Someone changed the lyrics of the song."

On the spirits wandered up to Holborn

Eastwards past St Paul's towards The Bank

"Here," the younger said, "Was New Britannia

Waiting to assume the leader's rank.

In she swept like matron down a hallway

Tutting at the cobwebs and the dust

Promising a party for the patient

Answering refusals with: `We must!'

"Up the patient got and started dancing

Drink in hand and party hat on head:

When he asked her how she could afford it.

New Britannia laughed: `I sold your bed.

Sacked the nurses, porters and the cleaners

All the silly stuff you didn't need.'

Victory for common-sense she called it.

Thus began a dozen years of greed.

"Polarised the people of the country

Turned them to the right or rowed them out

Changed the social fabric so completely

Eight years on, the smell is still about.

Leaner, meaner London met the Nineties

Mobile phones, designer drugs, and dance

Stuck in cars and tapping at their laptops

Planning all their pleasures in advance.

"Underneath they fear for their position

Dread old age, ill-health, increasing crime

Fuelled by Personal Finance Page neuroses.

Now they've all got money but no time.

In the end I shan't be sad to leave it

Flush the whole caboodle down the bog

Put the sorry business all behind me

Give the New Millennium a snog."

"Jaded little fellow, aren't you Johnny.

Seems to me you had a bit more fun

Than the strife and tumult that I went through

So you'd never have to fire a gun.

Never know that men were flying above you

Trying to kill your family or your kid.

Probably as well you didn't have to

Not convinced you'd hack it if you did.

"Wish I'd had your problems as a youngster

`Lifestyle' do you call it? That's a laugh.

Men with arses hanging out of trousers.

It was quite the fashion in my half.

Hunger - that was `happening' in my young days.

Illness that was trendy. Want some more?

Class division, unemployment, slum homes.

And of course our biggest number, War."

In the silence following this onslaught

John looks back towards the Thames, contrite

Hears Big Ben strike seven... nine... eleven.

Watches all of London come alight.

Eastwards down the river out to Greenwich

Fireworks splash the sky above the Dome

"Think no more about," said his elder.

"Too late now. It's time that we were home."

"Just one thing," said John to his companion.

"What was that you mentioned earlier on?

Please repeat it for me, as I liked it."

But no answer came, his friend had gone.

All the while the present woos the future.

All the while the future scorns the past.

Politicians just refit the galleon.

Run the skull and crossbones up the mast.