I remember the blurred lilies
Of his tattoos
How the thorny gutturals of desert battles
And rubbled towns in Sicily
Washed more faintly each year
In the shallows of his white forearms.

He was not a good man.
His children could tell you –
The cuffs and slaps
And hours in the pub.
He spoke in sudden spats
Like dropping spanners through a drain –
Monte Casino was hard.
The Reichswald a bloody grind.

Only on Churchill did his tongue find itself awake –
His speeches was like a rash
Crackling up your back.
But granddad never fell entirely
For Winston’s imperial pageant –
The growling radio gallantry.

He had seen flesh pitched against steel.
All those generals had wielded him,
Fashioned him.
He has seen flesh triumph.
When he returned,
With shrapnel ticking in his chest,
It was as if he had walked from a fire,
Almost unscathed, yet changed –

A slogging tommy carrying something
Of the Leveller’s certainty
In his steady grey eyes.

He was not good
And his thick fingers were not made for graceful tunes.
He built no triumphal arches,
Or statues of the fallen.
No boulevards for generals to parade.

Instead, he bolted awkward girders
And built a once and forever thing
Patched and welded,
The riveted seams of a working man’s hope –

Hospitals, Schools, Welfare,
Wrought in clumsy, creaking dignity.

‘Flesh and Steel’ is included in Emergency Verse: Poetry in Defence of the Welfare State, published by Caparison in association with the Recusant. Selected and edited by Alan Morrison, the anthology includes poems by Michael Horovitz, Michael Rosen, Mario Petrucci, Sebastian Barker, Judith Kazantzis, Dr. Robert Ilson, Barry Tebb, Alexis Lykiard and many others. Its patron is Caroline Lucas MP.

Dearest reader! Our newsletter!

Sign up to our newsletter for the latest content, freebies, news and competition updates, right to your inbox. From the oldest literary periodical in the UK.

You can unsubscribe any time by clicking the link in the footer of any email you receive from us, or directly on info@thelondonmagazine.org. Find our privacy policies and terms of use at the bottom of our website.