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by David Betteridge

with designs by Walter Crane

Could you and I with fate conspire

remould the scheme of things entire

Nearer to the heart's desire,

What a magic shadow show.


Sleeping is hard, with the mind so troubled;

also hard is staying awake when fear exhausts us

and tests us on a sharp edge of waiting,

as we listen for the next whine and thump

of a bomb that may be the last we hear.

Will we ever see the sky again,

and enjoy the singing of birds?

Will we feel on our skin the freshness

of breeze and rain?

Will we walk this way or that

at our own sweet will,

unconcerned and unconstrained?

Will we ever get out of here?

Only with luck, and with the help

of others; till then we are trapped,

deprived of light and food, even

of clean air to breathe, and space

in which to move.

What can we do meanwhile

in this agony of heavy time

and long fear?

We can wait with hope, keeping safe

certain thoughts and words

that are precious, keeping them alive

and warm, using them in speech,

and, as here, in written form:

thoughts and words that would otherwise

be maimed or bled of meaning

or snuffed out: thoughts and words

inimical to war, and to the roots

of war.

And we can sing, marking the hours

and days like nights that we must spend

in this bombed basement

in our former town.

What shall we sing?

We shall sing songs in praise of skies

and birds, and all the things of Nature

that delight, and all the things of Culture,

too, that inform our building

of a just state, countering, both in self

and others, deadly hate.

Can such songs prefigure and sustain

the dreams that yet may visit us,

supposing we can snatch renewing sleep?

And can our dreams in turn prefigure

and sustain the way our lives proceed,

supposing we survive, shaping

first our championing of peace

and then its flourishing in deed?

Forward, from our species’ origin

in green savannahs, a long march

has stumbled, guided by a vision

of what might be, injured often,

but keeping going, even as it bled.

Listening hard, we hear its echoes -

Peace! Peace! it calls - and we view,

in History’s sad book, the glimmers

of the better times to which

that long march strived,

but never led.

Besieged, bewildernessed,

huddled here, being the latest victims

of the latest war, we are conscripted

at a stroke to join our predecessors

in their slog of hope

Peace! Peace! we call

from our virtual place of prominence

at the stumbling column’s head.

Singing, dreaming, holding fast to life

and to every attribute of life,

we have no choice but to beat back death

hourly, and with it, in our basement,

death’s accomplice, dread.


This is a war that none can win.

This is a war where sufferings for all begin.

A hostile word, or door or mind shut tight,

sets in train for years

a war-provoking fear-continued strife.

Attack, decry, pre-empt, avenge…

A politics of hate drags on,

with no sure end.

Who but a madman

in a wood-yard in the summer’s heat

starts a fire he cannot beat?

Who, when the killing fire begins to spread,

fans its flames,

and brings destruction on his head?

This is a war that leaves intact its rooted cause,

defying sense, debasing laws.

Image by Kingma Photos


Smoke from the burning of a town rose casually;

then, ribboning and twisting in an evening breeze,

appeared to write a message in the clouds.

A woman, one of a rout of refugees walked haphazardly,

intoning prayers or curses to the bomb-scarred ground.

Ash fell, a slow blizzard; heavy gunfire boomed.

Watching this latest programme

on the Bosnian war,

I felt hard questions form.

A close-up showed the woman’s pain.

Captions gave in English what she mouthed:

My daughter... Soldiers killed her…

Help me find her... Where?

She scrabbled in a field of new-turned soil

that marked an enemy troop’s advance.

First, she scrabbled with her hands

then, to save the breaking of her nails,

she used a stone, digging, searching, moving fast

from grave to shallow and perfunctory grave.

No. No, not here... not her...

At the seventh disinterment: Yes.

This is… This was... Now I can give you proper burial...

This way, that way, now the unchilded woman searched a second field,

a hillside slope beyond the carnage of the first.

Tracking in long shot, the camera stayed with her.

Sweeping, stooping, she gathered fist-sized boulders from the ground,

testing each in the cradle of her palm;

the best she piled to the point of spilling in a plastic pail.

Then, hidden by a tree above a winding road, she waited

till a lorry came, conveying children from the other side.

The lorry slowed to take a bend.

As at a fairground shy, with hideous energy, the woman aimed

her random vengeance at the children’s skulls.

The lorry put on speed, but not before some hits were made.

Other women ran to her, from somewhere that the filming did not show;

they took her pail, tipped out the boulders that remained,

and held her gently as she stormed and cried.

Together then, with children - some were orphans, some their own -

and with a troop of animals, like them displaced by war,

in straggling file they left the field.

Several donkeys carried loads in panniers.

To one of these, for later, different use,

with a length of washing line, the pail was tied.

Image by Ron Pichel, Wikimedia Commons


David Betteridge is the author of Slave Songs & Symphonies (Manifesto Press, 2016), and Granny Albyn’s Complaint (Smokestack Books, 2008), a collection of poems celebrating Glasgow and its radical traditions.

He is also the editor of A Rose Loupt Oot (Smokestack Books, 2011), a compilation of poems, songs, prose memoirs, photographs and cartoons about the 1971-2 Upper Clyde Shipbuilders (UCS) work-in on Clydeside.

With the designer Tom Malone, he has also produced a series of poetry pamphlets published by Rhizome Press, including Fig-Tree Book (2019), and Countervailing, which was shortlisted for the 2011 Callum Macdonald Award, and is an elegy for the crew of the Solway Harvester, a scallop dredger lost at sea in 2000. Lost & Won/Won & Lost (2014) takes as its subject matter the years running up to the Independence Referendum on 18 September, 2014.

Now retired, David Betteridge has taught in a variety of educational establishments, and worked as a teacher-trainer in Scotland, as well as overseas. With Andrew Wright and others, he has written several books on English Language teaching, including Games for Language Learning (Cambridge University Press, 1979, 1984, 2006).


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